Title: Too Few Winters

Author: Shireling

Rating: PG

Genre: Book Verse. Drama /Angst

Summary: Can the consequences of desperate act ever be redeemed? The battle for Helm's Deep changes a young man's life

Chapter 1

He heard the screams, even as he ran, trying desperately to pull his mother along with him; screams and yells and fear, the sound of flames roaring through the thatched dwellings of the small hamlet, the panicked bellows and bleats of frightened animals suddenly cut short, the splintering of wood. He heard it all above the pounding in his ears. He was burdened by the heavy sack on his back and his legs felt leaden as he forced himself onwards. He stumbled and the sack dropped to the ground, his mother's hand slipping from his grasp. He thought he heard his father's voice cry out in the distance in pain or anguish and he wanted to go back, to help him defend their home. But he didn't. He staggered to his feet pulling his mother with him but she was too exhausted to run any further. 'Go' she told him, tears spilling down her cheeks. She hugged him briefly, tightly, desperately and then she pushed him away 'Go, my son. Go'. He wanted to stay, to protect her. But he didn't. He saw the grief and the resignation in her eyes and he did as she bid him.

He stumbled onwards; he left his mother, he left his pack, he left his past. He stumbled on blinded by grief and anger and tears. He ran until he could run no further, he walked on, pushing himself with blind stubborn resilience and when the guards on Helm's Dike let him through their cordon he collapsed on the greensward beyond sure he would never take another step. But the grim-faced riders allowed him and the other refugees only a few moments to catch their breaths before herding them up the ramp through the great stone-arched gateway into the safety of the Hornburg.

The mighty Keep sheltered the refugees; the farmers, the shepherds, the herdsmen, the women and the children and the infirm. Not for nothing was it valued by the people of the Mark as a refuge, safe and impenetrable behind the Dike and the Deeping Wall. Lieutenant Gamling, a venerable Rider under Lord Erkenbrand's command was ordering the women and children into the caves, directing the placement of supplies and men. The boy heeded not the comings and goings; he sat by the wall in a sheltered nook and watched the gate for a glimpse of his mother or father. But he knew in his heart that they would never come again and at dusk when King Théoden rode into the gate with Lord Èomer and three strangers at his side and a large troop following he knew the truth of it.

He was not allowed the luxury of time for grieving. Though slim and pale he was tall for his thirteen years and a Rider mistook him for older, sending him, not to the caves where he belonged, but to the armoury to be kitted out for battle. The chainmail tabard they settled over his shoulders was so very heavy that it nearly drove him to his knees and the rusty helm plonked on his head caused even the grim-faced armourer to crack a grin as it slipped forward over his eyes; another man lifted the helm and stuffed the crown with rags before replacing it on the boy's head. He couldn't lift the first sword they handed him but they found him a smaller lighter blade and sent him to the smithy to get the edge sharpened.

With the preparations complete the atmosphere of tension within the Keep thickened. He sat huddled with the other makeshift soldiers and waited. Bowls of warm porridge were handed round and he thought he shouldn't be able to eat but he was young and he was hungry and he had not eaten since the day before and he wolfed down the warming offering. With the bowl empty he suddenly thought of his mother's cooking and that this, as a last meal, was a meagre offering. 'A last meal!' he heard the whispers and he knew they would not last the night; not even the tall northern stranger nor his companions could convince him of that, despite there attempts to engender the light of hope into the cloying darkness.

As the sounds of the approaching hordes drew nearer the sounds in the Keep were silenced. The women and the children were exiled deep within the sheltering caverns beneath the mountain. The defenders, the warriors and the makeshift soldiers, were directed to their stations with hand signals and whispers and within the Keep only those setting up the wards and the dressing stations were at work, filling caldrons, stoking fires and tearing linens into bandages.

The boy was directed to a spot on the wall above the main gate. He had no bow but he propped his newly sharpened blade against the wall and ran back and forth fetching arrows for the archers. He was supposed to help carry the injured to safety but he had not the strength to help lift them and the walking wounded did not need his aid. All night he scurried, dodging arrows and doing his best to be a help rather than a hindrance; when their own arrows were spent he went from body to body pulling the enemies' arrows from comrades who had breathed their last and handing them to their own archers. At one point one of the strangers, the tall fair elf, took a bundle of black fletched arrows from his hand, he saw the Elf's look of revulsion turn to pity as their eyes met, he felt the Elf's hand on his shoulder briefly offering comfort before his attention was drawn away and the boy went back to his onerous task.

All changed when the Deeping Wall was breached by a blast of fire and thunder. The enemy poured through the sundered stone and the battle was joined in Helm's gate, the enemy battling to scale the stairs of the Deeping Wall and the rear gate beyond the stream.

No longer were arrows needed. Great siege ladders were hauled up against the mighty walls of the refuge and the hordes of the enemy were upon them. The boy retrieved his sword but at the first sight of the hideous beasts his courage failed him and he cowered against the wall whimpering in fear. He lost track of how long the battle raged around him but eventually even his fear could not keep him still and he was drawn back into the fight. He was too small and too weak to take on the brutes but he harassed them, hacking at their legs and ankles and distracting the beasts enough that his comrades could engage them.

And then he heard the King's order to retreat. He felt his arm grabbed in a tight lock, felt himself being pulled to his feet and he thought his death had come. In a desperate attempt to free himself from his captor he swung his blade around and upwards registering surprise when it sank to the hilt into the belly of his assailant. The hand on his arm jerked as the body toppled, knocking the boy over and landing atop him. Only then did he catch a glimpse of his attackers face. He was dead, the life had already fled and his one eye, though open, would see again no more. Old Althred had fought beside him all night, an aged war battered veteran who had known renown in King Thengel's Éored. Now he lay atop him, his very life blood a sickening accusation of gut wrenching regret. Paralysed by the weight of his guilt the boy lay trapped, waiting for one of the rampaging Orcs to end the life he no longer deserved. The battle swirled above him but he paid it no heed, he welcomed death and he thought it had found him when an iron-clad boot struck his temple.

oooOOOooo

It was the arrival of Gandalf and Lord Erkenbrand and his troop that turned the tide, Saruman's army fled in terror into the new forest that had miraculously appeared below the Dike where they were consumed. Helm's Deep was saved but at great cost. After taking much needed rest, King Théoden accompanied by Lord Èomer and the three strangers and a small troop set out for Isengard, leaving the ordering of Helm's Deep in Lord Erkenbrand's capable hands. Soon the sad task of seeing to the death rites of the fallen was begun. Separate mounds were made each for the men of the Eastfold and Westfold and one too for the men of enemies armies, the Hillfolk and the Dunlendings who had been recruited and deceived by Saruman. The bodies of the fallen Orcs were piled beyond the Deeping Dike close to the trees. Once the dead had been honoured, Lord Erkenbrand, under orders from the King, mustered the remaining troops and horses back to Edoras, leaving Gamling and a small garrison to guard the women and children and wounded in the Keep. There were many willing to nurse those within the makeshift wards but still many more Riders and make-believe soldiers succumbed to their wounds and were buried with honour in the Deeping Coomb.

Nearly two weeks after the battle of Helm's Deep word came to Gamling of the allies' victory of the Pelennor Fields and so began the process of evacuating the people back to Edoras where there were better facilities for helping the refugees and the wounded. It was a slow process but within weeks the Hornburg was once again the base for only a small garrison of hardy Riders who split their time and energies between patrolling the Westfold and beginning the repairs to the shattered gates of the Hornburg.

The Riders of the Mark were known to be brave and canny men, not taken with foolish gossip or superstition but it soon came to the attention of Lieutenant Gamling that a spirit of mistrust and disharmony was spreading through the garrison. Men whispered of belongings pilfered, of missing candles and rations, of missing items replaced. A thorough search of the building elicited no evidence of unaccounted strangers nor yet any evidence of the missing items. Stranger still was the occasional appearance in the mess-hall of meat for the pot; rabbits and game-birds and fish and once even a small doe. None of the Riders claimed knowledge of these gifts and the mystery grew. Soon other odd occurrences came to light, torn clothing disappeared only to be found repaired and tended but the oddest of all was the appearance on the walls of the battlements above the gate of small posies of mountain wildflowers.

Gamling set extra watches but no sign of the mystery benefactor was discovered. They searched the Hornburg from basement to tower and sent man up into the narrows and into the caverns but to no avail. When, after many weeks, King Èomer and Lord Erkenbrand made a brief visit to the fortress, Gamling mentioned the mystery to his superiors and yet another search revealed nothing, though the Lords concluded that, whoever was responsible for the mystery, they posed no obvious threat to the men nor to the safety of the garrison.

Several months of rebuilding and reordering passed before a Royal entourage again came to Helm's Deep. King Elessar was accompanied by a great host; all the remaining members of the Fellowship plus a great company of noble elves. The Elves and the Hobbits and the King's troop camped on the green open plain between the Dike and the Deeping Wall, where all evidence of the great battle had been erased except for the rends in the stonework of the Keep and the Wall. Only Aragorn and his comrades Legolas and Gimli were housed within the Keep. Late into the evening in the camaraderie of the Hall they learned from the Riders of the benign spirit who haunted the ancient tower. Much mystified by the strange tale, Gimli and Legolas agreed to help to try to solve the puzzle, for they had already agreed between themselves that Gimli would show his Elven friend the glories of the Glittering Caves before they travelled together to explore the mysteries of Fangorn. Long after Aragorn had retired for the night the Elf and Dwarf stayed in the mess-hall with the Riders and over several tankards of ale heard again every story the men could tell them of the spirit who walked the halls and walls of the Hornburg. The men brought forth evidence of their stories and there was much speculation and discussion of the matter.

In daylight, Legolas and Gimli made their own search but when no sign of the spirit came to light they fell back to their original plan. They lit oil lamps and made their way from the Hornburg through into the Glittering Caves. As the light from their lamps struck the bejewelled walls, colours and flashes of brilliant light danced and magnified around them, the opalescent columns and ropes of sculpted stone dazzled their senses. Not even the human detritus left behind by the sheltering refugees from the siege could mar the magnificent beauty. Gimli fairly bounced with excitement and even Legolas, who felt the oppressive weight of the mountains above them, marvelled at the sight.

As they moved ever deeper into the caverns the sandy floor muffled their footsteps and only the soft 'plink' of water dripping from twisted spikes of stone into hidden pools disturbed the silence. They strayed far beyond the limits of the Burg until at last they came to a narrow crack in the rock that led out into the sunshine high in the mountain above the Narrows. Legolas relished the sun and breeze after the darkness of the caverns but Gimli was eager to continue their explorations. The reason for his eagerness became apparent when they retraced their steps. In a side cavern close to the exit Gimli placed his lantern on the floor and pointed a few feet ahead where Legolas spied a jumble of footprints in the sandy floor.

"It appears our spirit has mortal feet!" the Elf commented, examining the depressions and confirming they were fresh and that they were neither his own nor those of the Dwarf.

"Aye, but he moves lightly, if I read these signs correctly. He or she wears small though sturdy boots."

"You think our phantom is female?"

"Well, we know the phantom sews a neat enough stitch from the evidence the Riders showed us."

"True, but many soldiers and Riders learn to mend their own kit for when they are out on patrol. Elves too."

The friends tried to follow the trail of footprint; some led out into the mountain and others deeper into the maze of smaller caverns but they lost the trail when the sandy floor gave way to shallow pools and rocky slabs.

"It is a good hiding place for someone who wishes to evade detection and doesn't mind the dark," Legolas commented with a shudder.

"My guess is that these caverns could go on for miles and there could be many other entrances up into the mountains, especially for someone fit and agile and small enough to get through tight spaces," Gimli explained.

"Look here, Gimli, candle wax! Our friend does indeed need light. . .it explains the missing candles and lamp-oil. . .There is no doubt in my mind that the phantom is a mortal. Though why anyone would wish to perpetrate such a mystery is beyond my understanding."

"You forget that some of us are at home under the mountains, Princeling!" Gimli muttered. " But should we continue our search for him?"

"No. You said yourself that these caverns are extensive. Let us return to the Keep and apprise Gamling of our findings. He can decide what to do next."

Legolas and Gimli took Gamling and Aragorn into their confidence and explained their discoveries within the caverns. At first Gamling was angry at the revelations and at the thought that his garrison had been so deceived but as they discussed the matter further he began to agree with the Elf's sentiments.

"Are you sure we should not send in a large party to search the caverns and flush out this interloper, Master Elf?"

"I do not think it wise, Gamling. The caverns are large and he must surely know his way about them well enough now to evade such a search," Legolas explained.

"I must agree with the Elf. Even with their expertise at reading rock and stone, a company of Dwarves could have difficulty finding him." Gimli affirmed.

"And consider also what we know of him by his actions," Aragorn offered. "He has deliberately exiled himself from the company of others, purposely hiding his whereabouts."

"And yet he repeatedly comes back into our midst!"

"True but apart from his taking of oil and candles he has committed no serious transgression against you. Indeed, it appears he now tries to give back more than he takes."

"And what of the flowers that he leaves on the battlements? How do you explain that?"

"A gesture of remembrance, perhaps, or grief or regret," Aragorn offered.

"So how do you counsel I should proceed?" Gamling asked. "This situation cannot be allowed to continue."

After a brief private discussion with Aragorn, Legolas replied, "Leave it with me for now, Gamling."

"What are you up to now, Princeling?" Gimli asked his Elven friend as they left Gamling's office.

"Worry not, my friend. I understand Gamling has a tankard of ale with your name on it. Go drink and be merry while I go and seek some peace under the stars."

"You wish to be alone?"

"I do not wish to keep you from ale and good company. . .tomorrow we ride for Fangorn and you will not have the opportunity to carouse for many days," he teased his friend, eliciting a grumbled 'humph' from the Dwarf.

oooOOOooo

In the aftermath of the battle it had been no easy task to untangle the dreadful confusion of the dead and injured. Battle weary warriors first picked amongst the bodies to find any who still clung to life. Back and forth with trestles and barrows they retrieved the injured and carried them into the Keep to be attended to by the healers and wise women.

The boy was found late in the sweep as the search moved from the Coomb to the wall and up onto the topmost levels of the battlements. Only when they lifted off the carcass of a headless Orc and the body of the elderly Rider did they realise that the blood-soaked body beneath still clung precariously to life.

In the healing halls the widow given charge of his care could not believe he still lived given the amount of blood upon him. But as they carefully pealed off his chainmail tunic no dreadful life threatening wounds were revealed. Indeed as they cut off the remainder of his gory apparel the only shocking revelation was that they were dealing with a boy only one step along the path to adulthood and not a man full grown. 'Too few winters, indeed!' the good widow exclaimed as she tenderly bathed his bruised and battered torso. For the injury to his head she could do little, his face so bruised and swollen that even his mother would have had difficulty recognising him. He slept through her ministrations, nor did stir when the Ranger healer from the north looked in upon him and laid a healing hand upon his brow.

Over a matter of days the boy slowly came to his senses, though he wished he had not, for every memory and feeling of the battle was imprinted on his mind and gave him no peace. No one within the Burg recognised or claimed him as kin and he refused to give his name or to answer any of their questions. They watched him closely, not sure if his silence was physical or emotional and when he tried to escape the healers care he was stopped by the weakness of his own limbs. The scolded him for his restlessness and moved him to a more open ward where they could monitor him more closely.

He evaded the accusation of his dreams by feigning sleep. In the darkness he sometimes heard the healers discussing him and wondering as to his story, commenting on his bravery, commending his valour, speculating on how many of the enemy he had dispatched. He wanted to put them right but he was too afraid. They called him brave but he wasn't; he knew the truth of it, he was a coward and a murderer. He didn't deserve their care or their time, he wanted to vanish and allow them to focus their attentions on the real warriors, those who deserved it.

His opportunity came when the first of the wagons arrived to begin the evacuation of the refugees and the wounded back to Edoras. Amidst the confusion he slipped away and hid in one of the storerooms. No one realised he was missing; the healer saw his empty bed and thought him on his way to Edoras. As the Keep slowly emptied he moved from hiding place to hiding place, living on what he could scrounge from the kitchen and the stores when no one was looking. Eventually he discovered the passageway into the caverns and from then his life of secrecy became easier. Many stores and belongings were left behind in the caverns; blankets and lanterns, dry-goods and clothes, utensils and baskets, tools and kindling and straw pallets.

He camped in a small sandy floored cavern, half way between the Keep and the exit into the mountain. He used his lantern and candles only to navigate his way about the caverns. He welcomed the cocooning darkness of his secret hideaway. Out in the mountain he also set up a small campsite in a sheltered alcove and only there did he dare light a fire to cook his meagre rations and heat water. He slept mainly by day in the welcoming blackness of the cavern, emerging at dusk to warm himself a meal and wash in the frigid waters that fed the Deeping stream. As a shepherd's son he was used to spending days and nights alone in the hills and for the most part his solitude did not discomfort him. He welcomed the isolation, for alone there was only himself to condemn his shameful past. He would not allow himself the weakness of tears nor the relief of grieving for his lost family or his home or for the brave Rider whose life he had stolen. Sometimes when his thoughts were very dark his head would pound, the pain radiating from his temple until it circled his head in a crushing band of agony, making him sick and dizzy. He had nothing to ease the pain and could only lie on his pallet in the dark until sleep would free him from its grip.

He found several ways to slip into the Hornburg unnoticed, though his usual point of egress was the passageway from the caverns into the Keep. The door was not bolted and he devised a way to release the latch from cavern side. Usually he came in the dead of night but if he was desperate for company, for the sound of men's voices, he would enter earlier and secrete himself behind one of the many banners lining the walls of the great hall. There he could listen to the telling of tales and the singing and he could pretend that he was not alone. When the men finally dispersed to their rest he would scavenge the leftover food and ale and warm himself by the dying fire. He didn't want to add theft to his many crimes so he began leaving small gifts and offerings to the men of the Keep. He hunted with a slingshot and with snares and fishing line and as spring turned to summer game became more plentiful and when summer flowers bloomed in the high mountain vales he collected posies to place on the battlements where the old man had fallen.

He overheard the men talking about him and puzzling over his presence and several times he heard Gamling ordering his Riders to search the caverns for the 'phantom' but the men were noisy and announced their presence long before they neared his secluded hideaway and he had ample time to slip away into the mountains and they never found trace of him.

And then one day when Helm's Deep played host to a mighty gathering he heard two strange voices whispering within the caverns. The strangers moved on unnaturally quiet feet and they were close by before he had an opportunity to flee into the mountains. He huddled down in his cave, barely daring to breath for fear of giving himself away. He heard their voices draw closer as the light of their lanterns reflected off the jewelled walls but their search stopped short of his hideaway and their light did not penetrate into the cave he called home. For a long time after they went away he didn't dare to move, afraid they would come back and find him and only slowly did his anxiety and fear of discovery leave him. When he finally dared to leave his dark cavern he ventured into the waning light of day. He made no attempt that night to approach the Hornburg, too many men and elves still camped behind safety of the Dike. He ate a cold meal, not daring a fire. The earlier alarm had left him strangely exhausted and barely had the moon risen above the mountain peaks before he made his way by secret paths back to the security of the caverns. On silent feet a shadowed figure wreathed in the Elven cloth of Lórien followed him at a distance.

Before he had time to settle himself within his sanctuary and dowse his candle the ethereal creature was before him; the apparition held no candle or lantern of his own but a feint light shone about him adding to his ghostly appearance. The boy scrambled backward in terror, clutching his skinning knife to his chest. The figure spoke to him but he could not discern the words. In his panic he knocked over his candle, plunging the caverns into darkness, highlighting the glow from the figure before him. A click of a flint and two lanterns flickered to life bringing light into the darkness.

"Peace, I mean you no harm!" the being spoke and now the boy recognised him as an Elf. "My name is Legolas, will you not give me your name?" he urged kindly but the boy only cowered and gave no reply.

The Elf continued to speak softly to him and the boy relaxed slightly but every time the Elf edged closer to him the boy's grip on the knife tightened. Legolas continued his one-sided dialogue, quietly but firmly urging the boy's trust and when he finally held his hand out for the knife the boy handed it over without a murmur. But that moment of small surrender was more than the boy's tightly wound resilience could stand and he collapsed, abandoning himself into the Elf's custody.

oooOOOooo