Author's Note – I just don't have anything to say to excuse myself for being absent a whole year. I'm so sorry, I really can't apologize enough. Thank you to everyone who continues to read. Posting this chapter feels like reunited with old friends. This posting is not as long as I would have liked, or as long as I had planned, but I thought it was important to post an update to let you guys know that I'm working again on this lovely project! Much, much love to all of you who missed me. I missed you, too.

. . .

38. The Deep

It was Gimli's voice that woke her in the dark, not even the merest hint of the sun's light on the horizon. The darkness fought against her efforts to wake, pushing her eyelids closed again and tricking her back into sleep. The sky was so dark Aila wondered if the sun would rise again at all. Duke, his back pressed against Aila's torso, also resisted the Dwarf's calls for waking – he snuffled, and groaned, and shut his eyes willfully. But the merest mention of breakfast brought Duke fully onto his feet, eyes bright and keen. Gimli's laugh goaded Aila also fully into wakefulness.

Without the warmth of Duke, her process was easier, beginning to stretch aching muscles and adjusting her eyes to the darkness and to the new day. Legolas was absent, and she guessed that he had long ago left to stand a turn at watch. Only a carefully folded cloak tucked beneath her head told of his presence there at all. But Aila remembered that he had been there, she remembered their conversation, and remembered the bridging of the abyss that had been between them. She smiled, which further woke her. Thinking of Legolas restored her faith in the coming of the sun.

She followed Gimli back to the center of the camp, with Duke fretting attentively at their heels. Aila trotted along, shoving her things back into her small pack, and sharing hushed morning conversation with her friend. She could feel the tightness in her calves still and in her back, and at the corners of her eyes that indicated the remains of sleep. Her hands were too full to brush these aside.

Men of Rohan bustled around them, maintaining the hushed atmosphere of the early morning. Aila and Gimli tried to smile and laugh between them, a small attempt to diffuse the displeasure that they each fully expected: they were neither of them glad to spend another day ahorse. And though Gimli thought with excitement about the battle which would follow, that very same thought only grew a stone deep in Aila's stomach.

The trio arrived to find that Legolas and Éomer had already retrieved their respective horses and were preparing them for the day's ride. Legolas moved silently about this business, his hands moving steadily and with no excess of effort. But Aila saw that Éomer murmured to his horse with each careful stroke, and that his fingers lingered long with each touch to the horse's hide, as one might sooth a child. Both Man and Elf greeted the group as they neared. Éomer paused from his ministrations to ask after Aila's night and to bend down to scratch Duke between the ears. The dog's tail wagged voraciously at this; but Aila saw that as soon as Éomer's attentions were finished, the dog moved immediately to sit at Legolas' feet. She even thought that she caught a small smile on the Elf's face at this.

Éomer straightened again with a bright smile, and Aila recognized some mischief in his eyes. "Shall we exchange riding partners today, Legolas?" he asked, his dark eyes remaining on Aila.

Now Legolas looked fully up from Arod, and he paused for but a moment. The Elf frowned. "It is already so lucky, Lord Éomer, that I trust you with my friend the Dwarf." His tone was flat, though Aila hoped that she recognized even some small joke in it. Her lungs constricted nervously. "I should not be so forceful with my trust," said the Elf, "were I you."

Thankfully, Éomer only burst into laughter at this, robust and loud. It broke the hushed atmosphere of the Men around them. Aila laughed experimentally along with him, as Éomer went back to the business of readying his horse.

Gimli, however, did not choose to indulge this joke and grumbled, "It is not so easy that you can give me up, Éomer son of Éomund!"

And with laughter still rich in his voice, Éomer replied, "I thought not to, dear friend! But you must admit that we are the hairiest pair – we have all the beards and they have none!" He paused here to laugh unashamedly at his own joke and threw a wink to Aila. "I thought only to make our grouping a bit more equitable!"

After a moment's pause to consider such logic, the Dwarf also burst into a hearty guffaw and Aila, more comfortable now, whole-heartedly joined him. She even saw that Legolas' mouth turned into a small smile.

"Your concerns are noted, but I promise that I rather like our pairings as they are. Your beards are well suited to one another," Legolas said, as their laughter lingered. "And I admit that I much prefer Aila's face to either of yours."

Gimli grumbled again, but this time in good nature. It was Éomer that said jovially, and with another wink, "Aye, but does she prefer yours?"

Aila saw the small smile on Legolas' face melted away within the breadth of a second. His eyes drew to Éomer sharply, and there was a tense moment. "Well," said Aila, scrambling to diffuse whatever had just erupted, "Elves at least smell better than Men or Dwarves, so I think that I will stay with Legolas." She tried to laugh along with her own joke again, to return their good-humored air, but Legolas only returned to his attentions to Arod. Gimli's eyes seemed to be everywhere but Man or Elf, and even Éomer's smile lessened.

"So then I am defeated," said Éomer more quietly than before, and he returned a too-broad smile to Aila. "I shall have to try a cleverer trick on the morrow!"

And so it happened that their last pleasant moment in a decidedly unpleasant day had descended to awkwardness.

. . .

The air quickly grew hot and thick, though it was still quite early in the morning. The sun did indeed rise, if a bit lethargically, and wavered behind a wispy set of cirrus clouds. Black thunder-clouds hurried quickly on the heels of the slow-moving sun and threatened to overtake it altogether. The sky fought a tenuous battle between morning and darkness.

Aila kept her arms wound tightly around Legolas, today far less cavalier with her riding abilities than the day before. Arod was gentler to her today, and Aila wondered how much of that was due to Legolas no longer being angry with her. He even tried speaking to her several times but it was hard to hear his voice over the thundering of the horses around him and Aila could only ever respond with an apologetic squeeze. She spent considerable energy keeping her head down, and therefore had much less dust in her nose and mouth as the day before. Occasionally, she did allow herself a peek around the Elf's shoulder at the Riders in front, and beyond them there was a growing mass of darkness which billowed north-west of them, leaping out from the foot of the Misty Mountains. Darkness behind and darkness before, yet the Men of Rohan rode on.

It was probably around noon that Aila saw Gandalf working his way backward in the mass of Riders towards them, where they rode near to the mass' center. Shadowfax moved swiftly and surely in the running stream of horses, and though she had seen him some fifty yards off not a moment before, suddenly he was galloping easily beside Legolas and herself.

"You have the keen eyes of your fair kindred, Legolas," Gandalf said by way of greeting, and though he did not shout his voice cut easily through the thunder of horses. Aila was so amazed by this alone that she nearly forgot to attend to his words. "And they can tell a sparrow from a finch a league off. Tell me, can you see anything away yonder towards Isengard?" The darkness sitting there, Aila assumed, was more than thunder-clouds.

Legolas turned to gaze into the darkening mass that was roiling before them, and he held one long hand over his eyes to focus his vision. Arod continued on beneath him though the Elf had dropped the reins. "Many miles lie between," he said after a minute or so of gazing. "I can see darkness. There are shapes moving in it, great shapes far away upon the bank of the river; but what they are, I cannot tell. It is not mist or cloud that defeats my eyes: there is a veiling shadow that some power lays upon the land, and it marches slowly downstream. It is as if the twilight under endless tress were flowing downwards from the hills."

And even as Legolas said this, Aila found that Gandalf looked directly to her. His eyes were full of meaning, though of particularly what she could not guess. With so little idea of the appropriate response, Aila merely nodded to the Wizard. He seemed, however, to take this nod well – which led Aila to wonder if perhaps she should have nodded – and he wore a satisfied look. Legolas, who had felt Aila's movement at his shoulder and saw the Wizard's subsequent pleasure, seemed to understand the situation better than Aila and his spine stiffened in disapproval. Aila, alone, remained oblivious to the meaning which had passed in that moment.

The company rode all day, with hardly a break, and it seemed to Aila that they literally flew before the gathering clouds that chased them. The sunset was drawn and hazy behind the gathered wisps of cloud, and though those same clouds should have reflected a bright myriad of colors in a glorious sunset, they only deadened the last rays of the setting sun.

And as those last rays were fading away, there rose up a shout from among the Rohirrim: A rider! they called. A rider moving towards them!

The shout was taken up and passed along the group until all the Riders were bristling with this exciting new information. Aila's hands tightened around Legolas and she said to him, "We should ride to the front." She looked to Éomer, who had heard her. "We should ride to the front with your uncle the king." He needed no further word of urging; Éomer rallied his horse forward, sprinting and weaving through the Riders, as Legolas and Aragorn urged their own seats forward to follow the Marshal.

By the time their three horses had gained the front of the company, settling into stride alongside Théoden and Gandalf, the unknown rider was nearly upon them. They slowed, and ultimately reared their horses back and halted, as the bedraggled rider did the same. The Rohirrim gathered round, spears bristling and armor clanking, to hear what this newcomer had to say.

He was a weary man, this Rider, and clearly of the Rohirrim. He did not so much dismount from his horse as fall from it, allowing gravity to do the lion's share of his work. Dirty fingers, trembling with exhaustion, removed his dented helm and let it fall clanging to the ground. Blood smeared his face still, dried where it had fallen from his comrades' wounds. The horse stamped his feet experimentally, to return the circulation to them after a hard ride, and the cloven shield of the Rider clattered pathetically at the horse's rear. The Rider was bent forward, hardly able to stand, and he clung heavily still to the reins to support himself.

Finally, after much gasping, he asked, "Is Éomer here? You came at last, but too late, and with too little strength. Things have gone evilly since Théodred fell." He paused again to catch his breath. Aila heard only the breath of horses in the dawning silence. "We were driven back yesterday over the Isen with great loss; many perished at the crossing. All Isengard must be emptied; we were overmastered." Another gasp. "The shield-wall is broken," he said dismally, shaking his head. His dirty blonde hair shook out cakes of mud as it moved. "Erkenbrand of Westfold has drawn off those men he could gather towards his fortress in Helm's Deep. The rest are scattered. Oh," he cried suddenly, "where is Éomer?" Aila realized that this Man was so exhausted that he could not recognize their faces. "Tell him there is no hope ahead! He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard come there!"

And Théoden, who had sat close-mouthed and grim as the Man spoke, now urged his horse forward, proclaiming fiercely, "Come, stand before me, Ceorl" – for he knew the man. "I am here. This last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle."

The Man's face now lit with joy and disbelief. "Westu Théoden hál!" he cried, falling to one knee and crossing his fist over his heart. It took him a minute or so to stand up again. "Command me, lord!" he said in his quavering voice, though it was easy to hear the renewed passion in it. "And pardon me! I thought –"

"You thought I remained in Meduseld, like an old tree under winter snow," said the king. "And so it was when you rode to war. But a west wind has shaken the bough!"

Gandalf, whose sharp blue eyes had watched carefully, now stared to the north to Isengard, and then west to the settling sun. He said then, "Ride, Théoden. Ride to Helm's Deep! Go not forth to the Fords of Isen, and do not tarry in the plain! I must leave you now for a while. Shadowfax must bear me now on swift errand." And, in a flurry of motion, Shadowfax flew round so that the Wizard was near to Aragorn and Éomer. "Keep well the Lord of the Mark, till I return!" he commanded. "Await me at Helm's Gate! Farewell!" And then, a flash of silver, a breath over grass: Shadowfax had already born the Wizard away out of sight.

The company of Riders buzzed at this sudden change of events – a lone Rider come to tell them that their destination was not the Isen, but Helm's Deep! And Gandalf, the White Wizard, one moment with them and the next gone!

"What does that mean?" asked one of the guard to Háma, in reference to the latter.

"That Gandalf Greyhame has need of haste," replied the door-man without hesitation or doubt. "Ever he goes and comes unlooked-for."

The other frowned at this. "Wormtongue, were he here, would not find it hard to explain."

"True enough," assented Háma, though with a sharp frown. "But for myself, I will wait until I see Gandalf again."

Doubtfully, the first replied, "Maybe you will wait long."

Aila, hearing this, turned sharply to them and frowned, once more feeling the need to defend her champion. "A Wizard returns when he is needed most," she said cryptically, bringing every eye within hearing distance to her. She looked hard and long at the guard who had spoken distrustfully of Gandalf. "It will not be overlong."

And with a keen sense of timing, Legolas urged Arod forward. The stallion quickly left the others far behind.

. . .

Deep night followed dark day, hurrying after the host of Rohirrim as they finally reached the lands of the Westfold. The land here was hillier than Rohan, though the well-bred Rohirric horses had little difficulty navigating the rocky landscape in the dark. It took Aila some time and straining of her eyes to realize that they were descending quickly now into a wide bank between two risen fields of mountains. She had seen enough John Wayne films to know that this was prime territory for ambush, and she noted that scouts rode ahead of them, at the rear, and also at the wings to give warning to the main host. They proceeded unmolested into the night, however, and they cut a swift line through the green valley.

"This is called the Westfold Vale," said Legolas to her quietly, and she was surprised that she could now hear his soft voice. The land was grassy and it dampened the sound of so many galloping horses. "This whole region has also been called Helm's Deep – named after a Man of legend, who kept his fastness here. It is said that the fortress here was built with the hands of giants."

Aila leaned her head heavily against his shoulder, exhausted. "I should be more impressed were it built by mere Men." She felt Legolas' laugh rather than heard it.

He replied, "I think that were its true history more well known, you would be more satisfied."

She had been anxiously staring into the blackness of the night for any sign of attack or danger, and Aila was drawn and tired from the effort. Now she trusted to Legolas' sharp sight and closed her eyes, resting as well as she could on the back of Arod.

Their host hurried on toward the Hornburg – their refuge in the Deep. It was only when Aila had relaxed that their progress began to become harried by wolf-riders at their flanks, or the scouts of some army that hurried also on their tail. Aila resumed her tiresome vigil, but they remained harassed and haunted. Shouts of warning pricked at the edges of her hearing throughout the small hours of the night; and with each raised voice, each launched attack against them, their ride became more desperate. If Aila had thought their horses could not have moved more quickly, she was routinely proved wrong.

Dawn, beautiful and welcome, finally broke over the crest of the eastern mountain range and it lit their path ahead of them – and Aila could finally spy their quarry. The nameless mountain ranges bordering the Vale smashed into one another with violence some miles ahead of them. Their peaks intertwined, thrusting grasping fingers into the lightening sky. And at the very base of this brutal crest sat the ancient, thick walls of the Hornburg. Against the mountains, its walls seemed disappointingly low-slung and miniscule, but as they neared its stony seat Aila saw that its walls similarly rose to an imposing and daunting specter.

A sentinel's shout challenged them as they neared its Gate.

"The Lord of the Mark rides to Helm's Gate," Éomer replied to the challenge, and Aila could hear the exhaustion in his voice, pulling at the edges of his words and sharpening his rounded vowels. It seemed their desperate ride had worn even the most experienced of horsemen. "I, Éomer, son of Éomund, speak."

Éomer was well known throughout Rohan and the Westfold Vale as a fierce warrior, and so dampened and ragged cheers rose up from behind the walls. "This is good tidings beyond hope!" replied the sentinel. He turned to wave instructions to the Men in the keep below. "Hasten! We welcome you with grateful arms!"

The Gate was lifted and the Riders of Rohan began to flood onto the grassy field within. They were greeted by several hundred Men of Helm's Deep, outfitted thickly with war attire; it was apparent that they had been expecting a less friendly host than the one they had received. They would indeed receive their foe shortly, but now they would face them with friends at their side. And so these Men of the Westfold looked on with joy at the incoming host of Rohirrim, and the Rohirrim saw with equal joy that Erkenbrand had left a large number of Men to hold the Hornburg. The Westfold leader himself, they were told, was still afield.

The Westfoldians helped their comrades from horses, and led them to a field infirmary so that those wounded in the night's ambushes could be tended to. Horses were taken to stable and Men, Rohirric and Westfoldian alike, went about the business of eating and resting. A large number of sentries remained on the walls and there was a look in each set of eyes that shared the knowledge of the army bearing down on them.

. . .

There were about a dozen Westfoldian women who had come to serve in the makeshift infirmary, set deep within the Citadel. These women watched Aila with observant, knowing eyes, though Aila quickly found that none of them spoke the Common Tongue save the matron of their small group. They were excessively kind to her. Aila spent most of that day asleep on one of the hospital pallets, exhausted from the full day of riding through the Vale and enemy attacks.

When she woke again, it was early evening, and the hospital area was quiet and nearly abandoned. Only two nurses remained, tending to the Riders who had been injured crossing the Vale. They murmured rhythmically in the Rohirric tongue. Aila rose as quietly as she could from the straw mattress, finding Duke curled up on the floor beside her. He woke when he felt her movement, and together they went in search of their companions.

Aila spotted Legolas and Gimli at once, as she stepped outside of the Citadel. They would have been difficult to miss, standing atop the wall in stark relief: Legolas' blond hair flashing in the weak light of the setting sun, striking an odd tall figure beside Gimli's squat frame.

Gimli stood leaning against the breastwork on the wall as Aila joined them, and Legolas sat above on a merlon. The Elf's fingers were playing along the string of his bow, and he peered out into the darkening field beyond the wall.

"This is more to my liking," said Gimli cheerfully, stamping on the stones and grinning at Aila. His heavy boots gave a nearly metallic clang against the even heavier stone. "Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones. I felt them in my feet as we came up from the dike. Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place that armies would break upon like water!"

"I do not doubt it," replied Legolas. "But you are a Dwarf, and Dwarves are strange folk. I do not like this place, and I do not think that I shall ever find to like it any more. But you, at least, comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe. I wish there were more of your king among us. But even more would I give for a hundred good archers of Mirkwood. We shall need them." His look to Aila then was sorrowful, and Aila wondered if he still had the same sentiment he had expressed when they had left Edoras: that he was frightened for her, but glad to have her near.

"It is dark for archery," replied Gimli with a dismissive wave of his hand. He had a keen glint in his eyes. "Indeed, it is time for sleep. Sleep! I feel the need of it, as never I thought any Dwarf could. Riding is tiring work."

"Did neither of you sleep today?" cried Aila, feeling immediately guilty for her long rest.

Legolas replied only with the shake of his head, as Gimli said, "Aye, but a little. It is always an uneasy rest on the eve of battle, with a foe bearing down upon you. And yet my axe is restless in my hand. Give me a row of orc-necks and room to swing, and all weariness will fall from me!"

"You shall not wait long now," said Legolas, gesturing to the dark. "Our enemy draws near. Look."

Aila and Gimli both moved then to strain their eyes over the parapet wall, even Duke lifted himself to place his front paws on a crenel and gaze out to the battlefield. The Doberman's profile in the darkness was so intense that it nearly distracted Aila from her mounting fear.

She could see nothing for a long time, hearing only the slamming of her own heart against her rib cage. Thud thump, thud thump, each heartbeat built painfully upon the last. Perhaps Legolas heard also, because his hand moved to envelope hers where it rested on the merlon beside him. His fingers squeezed hers.

And then, like fireflies in the night, Aila saw the telltale flickers. Torches blinked into existence far afield, just cresting into their sight. Her heart ceased its thudding just a moment too long, and Legolas' fingers squeezed tighter. The lights in the darkness multiplied and multiplied, and they drew nearer and nearer even as Aila willed them out of existence. Gimli called out to the other sentries, and the word was quickly spread.

The enemy had come.