Author's note: big thanks and kiss to Dawn Felagund, for beta reading and help.
x X x
There is always hope.
While I stand on the walls and observe the black tide as it slowly, unstoppably rolls towards us, I repeat the words that I was told earlier. The man I met on the stairs vanished even before I had a chance to ask him for his name. Then, I felt as if a part of his determination and firmness had passed onto me; while he stood next to me, I felt as if everything was really possible.
But now I'm scared; it is not easy to find hope as I perceive thousands and thousands of uruks approach and mercilessly prepare to attack. Compared to them, there is only a handful of us. How can we withstand them all?
I look around myself. I see fear in eyes of the men. Surely, hey see it in mine, too, no matter how much I try to hide it. I have never been in a battle. My father taught me to wield a sword and a bow, but those were only exercises. I have never really fought. I am not a soldier.
"What is your name?" The question came from the man on my right. In the faint torchlight I see that he is old; he must be at least sixty. He is one-eyed. I wonder what happened to him, although I am not sure if I really want to know.
"Haleth, son of Hama", I answer, trying to make my voice firm. Then I turn my head to the plain in front of us again. The black tide gets closer and closer; we can see their shapes and hear the rumble of their heavy steps. It is frightening, but it holds my gaze even against my will.
"How old are you?"
"Fourteen", I answer. I am not the youngest here; far from it. I've seen even younger boys, they can be barely twelve. They wear armour that are too large for them, and the weapons look unnatural in their small hands. But tonight, we have no choice. We all have to fight. "What is your name?" I return the question. I don't know why it is important to me to learn his name. I've never seen him before, and probably I never will again, even if we both survive this night. I only know that it is important. Because tonight, he is my comrade. And more than that. Tonight, we are all brothers.
"Deorlaf", the old man answers and we shake hands. His grip is surprisingly strong.
I regret that I didn't ask the man on the stairs for his name. And I don't know if I'll get a second chance.
"Do you have a family?" asks Deorlaf.
I did. Until recently, I had a home. I had everything.
"My parents were killed three weeks ago, in an attack of the orcs on our village", I tell him. Memory of them awakes pain. "I have two younger sisters. They are in the caves."
I am here for them; we are all here to fight for those we love. I hope I'll see them again. Few hours ago, when we parted in the caves, there was fear in their eyes. In that moment, I would've given everything to protect them, to save them. As I left, the younger cried, and the older just stared at me with her eyes full of dread. She didn't know if she'd ever see me again.
I don't know if I'll see them either. And I want to see them. I don't want to die.
What will happen to them if I die?
Before Deorlaf has a chance to say anything else, the uruks stop. They are close enough that we can hear their howls full of hatred. The ground shakes from the hammering of their spears. As far as I can reach with my gaze, I can see their torches. There are so many of them, many times more than us. Can there be hope at all?
I am frightened.
x X x
There is always hope. So say the tales, too.
As a child, I loved to listen to heroic tales of old, about battles and valiant deeds, about brave warriors and great victories. Tonight I realize that all the tales are a lie.
No tale speaks of a ground slippery with blood, of muscles that collapse because of effort, of a hand so exhausted that it can no longer draw a bow. No tale says how hard it is to wield a sword, how hard it is to wear the armour, how the sweat pours into your eyes and burns. In stories, there are no choking smells of blood, fear and sweat. In stories, there is no crowd and horror in which a man wades over dead bodies whose eyes are still open and gazes pointed at the sky, at the distance... at me. They are dead, I know they are dead, and I know that it's only a body, that it is dead, that it doesn't feel anything anymore, and yet I shiver every time I accidentally step on someone's arm or leg, for I think that it hurts him.
Only a body? Only in stories, the dead are just a word.
But here, the dead are people. The dead are someone's husband, father, son, brother, grandson. Someone will wait for them, but they won't return. Dead is the man who stood next to me; only a moment ago he was alive, and now he is a stabbed, broken body. Some of the killed I have known. Some of them, I have not. But it doesn't matter; they were all my brothers.
In stories, there is no fear, there is no pain.
There is always hope.
But in the tide of death that tramples us, step by step, one by one, unstoppably, it is hard to see a hope. Death is everywhere around us. Even if I survive, I don't know how I'll ever be free of this night. How will I ever be able to close my eyes without seeing blood and dead bodies? Without feeling the warm blood of my dead comrade which squirted my face?
The stories are not real. Death is.
Night goes on. I'm still alive.
x X x
There is always hope.
But as we pull back to Hornburg, just a few of us left, it gets harder and harder to believe it. Fear now mingles with despair.
I'd like to run away, I'd like to grab my little sisters and escape to safety with them, somewhere far away. I don't want to die! And the closer the end seems, the stronger the uruks' noose tightens, the more desperately I want to live. I am only fourteen, and my sisters are even younger. We have never harmed anyone. I don't want to die...
Do the others feel the same? Or am I the only coward? I don't know. I can't read the faces around me. There is just no time for that. The dance of death goes on: swords clashing, arrows whizzing, the howling of the enemy, their heavy footsteps, the screams of the wounded and the death-rattle of dying, bones cracking under strikes of uruks' heavy hammers – it all merges into an nauseating mixture that fills ears and mind, chokes, cuts even deeper than fear.
Night goes on. I don't know how I'm still alive. How am I among the handful of us that pull back? Probably by pure luck, by some miracle. Can luck help me one more time? Can I somehow survive this hell? I want that!
There is always hope.
Or is it self-deceit?
I want my little sisters to be saved. I don't give up, I fight for them. For all those in the caves. I must find the strength.
An uruk is in front of me and I try to block the stroke of his sword. He is too strong, and I am thrown to the ground. My whole arm and shoulder hurt from the force of his stroke. I can't lift a sword for defence. Paralyzed, I wait for his new stroke. The end.
But it is not the end; another man moves to fill my place and fights. And he kills the uruk. It is not the end. I jump to my feet, for the fight goes on. I am still alive.
We run to Hornburg, we are surrounded. The uruks break in. There is no way out. Is there hope? I don't know. Maybe just a fool's hope. I want to hope.
x X x
The sun rises. The horn of Helm Hammerhand echoes in the Deep. The King leads the men in a charge. Eomer and his riders are here.
Can it be true? Or is it just a deception, just our desperate wish? After we all looked death in the face, can we hope that it is not only a dream?
And then I realize it's not a dream. In spite of all the uruks, in spite of all odds, the course of battle slowly turns in our favour. There is always hope. I'll remember that.
And now that it is all over, now that I hold my sisters, it is still hard to believe that we are saved.
I saw again the man who had told me those words. When was that? Only last night? It feels as if days have passed. I found out his name. Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Heir to the throne of Gondor.
But I do not need his name to remember him; I will never forget him. It was the echo of his words that helped me through this night, although there were moments when I had ceased to believe. But still, no matter how lost, how hopeless everything seemed, tonight I realized one more thing: as long as a man has the strength for one more breath, he does not surrender.
One day, this war will be over. Someday soon, we'll go back to our farm and I'll take care of my little sisters. It is never hopeless. There is always hope.