"They had no warning." Éowyn said plaintively to her uncle, as she rose from where she knelt beside the two hungry children. The brother and sister sat side by side before one of the long tables set out in rows within the Golden Hall, bent over their bread and bowls of warm, though watery soup, scooping in the food eagerly as if they could not eat fast enough.
"They were unarmed." She continued. "Now the Wild Men are moving through the Westfold, burning as they go." She sighed unhappily. "Rick, cot and tree."
The warm Golden Hall was awash with the flickering yellow light of torches, and great fires, the air sifting with the smell of wood smoke, and lingering yet with the wane hint of death. Legolas stood, his back to one of the carven pillars, his eyes watching the king's reaction to the maiden's words.
Théoden sat, slumped wearily in his throne, his face falling into his hand as his niece spoke. Gandalf sat on a stool beside the king, the seat Wormtongue had once taken, and had left unoccupied when he had gone, taking his vile, noxious words with him. And his venomous sister Greta too was gone, no longer lurking like a poisonous little spider in the shadows of the corners, waiting to strike another hapless victim.
At a table beside Legolas, sat Aragorn and Gimli, the Man thoughtfully fingering his pipe as Gimli busily continued to shovel the remains of his own dinner into his hungry mouth. At the lady Éowyn's chilling words, Legolas dropped his eyes, and traded a sober glance with Aragorn. Most assuredly, the Wild Men were doing this at the bidding of Saruman, and at the ranger's glance, Legolas could see that he had guessed the same.
"Where is Mama?" The small girl Freda pleaded, turning her questioning gaze upward as Éowyn drew open the blanket in her hands, folding it over the child's shoulders. But Éowyn only uttered a sooth hush in answer to the child's beseeching inquiry.
"This is but a taste of the terror that Saruman will unleash." Gandalf murmured gravely, gesturing to the children as he sat beside Théoden's throne. The king was an image of discouragement, with his head drooped wearily into his hand as he silently listened. "All the more potent now for he is driven by fear of Sauron.
"Ride out and meet him head on." The White Wizard said in a low, entreating voice. Théoden lifted his head, his face slowly turning toward Gandalf as the wizard placed a gentle hand upon the carved wooden arm of the throne. "Draw him away from your women and children." Gandalf implored.
Théoden fixed his weary gaze upon the wizard as Gandalf finished in a fierce whisper, "You must fight."
"You have two thousand good men riding north as we speak." Aragorn's calm, even voice lifted and echoed through the hall. "Éomer is loyal to you. His men will return and fight for their king."
"They will be three hundred leagues from here by now." Théoden exclaimed, in a sudden flare of emotion, bursting from his throne, and descending the steps as he began to stride about, frustration in his stance. "Éomer cannot help us."
He turned toward Gandalf as the wizard descended the steps, and stated, "I know what it is you want of me. But I will not bring further death to my people." Sternly, he finished, "I will not risk open war."
"Open war is upon you." Aragorn asserted, his voice grave, and his sober eyes fixed upon the king. "Whether you would risk it or not."
Éowyn turned and glanced at Aragorn as he spoke, a somber, soulful look filling her eyes as her glance found his.
"When last I looked," Théoden breathed, his voice low, though Legolas could hear abrasive irritation in his tone, "Théoden, not Aragorn, was king of Rohan."
Legolas glanced at Aragorn, awaiting his reaction to the king's sharp retort but saw none.
The blood of kings flowed in Aragorn's veins, unbroken since the days of Isildur, son of Elendil. But Théoden was right, harsh though his words may have been. Rohan was not Aragorn's domain. And Aragorn, Legolas knew, would honor Théoden's rule, and stay within his bounds.
"Then what is the king's decision?" Gandalf asked his voice soft, though it was weighted heavily with earnest expectancy.
Théoden turned then, and glanced back at the wizard, his jaw contracting beneath his beard, his thoughts working over the difficulty of the choice in his mind.
Legolas could clearly see the weight of the burden of his kingship upon Théoden at that moment. Many lives rested upon his choice, and the knowledge of this settled visibly, almost like a physical weight, upon Théoden's clearly troubled mind.
"By order of the king, the city must empty! We make for the refuge of Helm's Deep." Háma called out. He had done so several times already, and would do so again, repeating Théoden's orders many times over, ensuring that all the people of Edoras knew of the king's edict.
A cold wind brushed over the great hilltop, catching at his thick green cloak as he moved along. "Do not burden yourselves with treasures. Take only what provisions you need."
The morning was young yet; the cool breath left by the night had not yet given way to the heat of the day, but the city was already a bustle of activity as its citizens scrambled to load wagons and carts with only the barest of necessities, food and clothing, and with those too old or feeble to make the arduous journey on foot.
Legolas' heart twisted pityingly within him as he strode beside Gimli, his bow and other gear within his hand, following behind Aragorn and Gandalf as the four made their way down to the stables. He could see the fear in the faces of the people of Edoras, the old, the young, even the soldiers. And especially in the faces of mothers who clutched their little children all the more closely to them, children who were too young to know the danger they were in, and could not understand the commotion.
His eyes lighted briefly on one young mother who clutched a basket of provisions in one arm, and a small boy in her other. The boy was a beautiful child in spite of the dirt smeared onto his fair, chubby cheeks. There was no fear in his eyes. For in the child's infant mind, there was no need to be afraid. His mother held him. That was all he needed to know.
Lalaith. Legolas thought warmly. Lalaith would be a good mother someday. When all this was past, and the threats of Sauron and Saruman, and the One Ring were no more.
He glanced down once again, as he had times uncounted, at the ring upon his finger, and his hand strayed to his chest where he could feel the necklace that he kept for Lalaith, beneath his tunic. He could sense her vaguely, as he touched it. She was alive and safe, and happy. But that was not surprising, for she was with Merry and Pippin. The two young Hobbits could keep her laughing with their antics for days, if they had a mind to. A thread of a smile touched his lips.
But then his smile slowly faded as he remembered his encounter with Greta, the touch of her hand upon his shoulder and neck, like the cold strangling coil of a snake, leaving him feeling somehow-, dirty. Putting a hand to his shoulder, he brushed it swiftly, nervously, as if trying to fling away an unwanted spider that had crawled there, and Gimli glanced at him, noticing.
"'T'weren't your fault, lad." He insisted with a growl, somehow guessing his friend's thoughts. "Never think it was. We saw what happened."
Casting his eyes on the Dwarf, Legolas gave a grin, and a short nod of thanks. "I'll try to remember that."
"Try?" Gimli humphed. "I'll make you remember it if I have to pound it into your head with the flat of my axe!" The Dwarf brandished his axe threateningly, to which Legolas only chuckled.
"Though-," Gimli said with a pause, as if thinking better of it, "the flat of my axe could find better use pounding some sense into the king's head!"
"Watch your words, Gimli." Aragorn mildly warned him over his shoulder, but Gimli hardly seemed to hear.
"Helm's Deep!" He grunted, his voice taking on a disgusted tone as the four continued down the path. "They flee to the mountains when they should stand and fight. Who will defend them, if not their king?"
"He's only doing what he thinks is best for his people." Aragorn returned, as they entered the stables, the scent of warm hay washing around them. "Helm's Deep has saved them in the past."
"There is no way out of that ravine." Gandalf murmured as he and Aragorn continued on to the pen of Shadowfax. "Théoden is walking into a trap. He thinks he's leading them to safety." The door creaked softly as Aragorn drew it open for Gandalf, and the wizard stepped inside. "What they will get, is a massacre." He said in a low voice.
"Théoden has a strong will, but I fear for him." Gandalf added gravely. "I fear for the survival of Rohan." Gandalf fixed his eyes upon Aragorn, speaking slowly, his words taking on a heavy tone. "He will need you before the end, Aragorn. The people of Rohan will need you." He drew closer to Aragorn, his eyes fixed upon the Man's face. "The defenses have to hold."
"They will hold." Came Aragorn's calm reply.
With this assurance, Gandalf turned away toward Shadowfax, stroking the smooth white neck of the horse. "The Grey Pilgrim." He muttered, almost to himself with a shallow smile. "That's what they used to call me." His eyes again grew grave as he turned back to the Man. "Three hundred lives of Men I've walked this earth, and now I have no time."
Without speaking, but with a smile of encouragement, Aragorn stepped aside, drawing the gate with him, and giving Shadowfax room to pass.
"With luck, my search will not be in vain." Gandalf's voice had grown stronger as he lifted himself up unaided, onto the silver horse's back. "Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east."
Aragorn nodded at this, and spoke softly, "Go."
As an arrow loosed from a string, Shadowfax sprang forward, bearing Gandalf upon his back, his hooves making a hollow clatter upon the straw strewn floor of the stable. Legolas with Gimli, drew to the side as the great silver horse bore Gandalf past them, and even as Legolas turned to mark their passing, Shadowfax and Gandalf were gone; a flash of silver beyond the wide doors, already pounding down the slope of the mound, and away through the gates, as a swift wind over the dried yellow grasses of Rohan.