This is the disclaimer. I do not own anything from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they are the property of JRR Tolkien and J K Rowling, this writing is purely for pleasure and I get no money out of this whatsoever, now that is out of the way on with the story!

Chapter 22

The residents of Edoras were roused shortly after dawn by the blaring of horns at the gates. Swift as the wind, the news spread through the city, bringing with it a palpable sense of relief, for while the people were grateful to Éowyn, and respected their regent immensely, the security of the King, and his Riders being present buoyed their spirits tremendously.

The Golden Hall, and its residents had been alerted earlier, the news being brought to them as soon as the Riders had become visible in the half-light that presaged the dawn, so, unlike the residents in the main city, they stood at the entrance to the hall, few traces of weariness and fatigue visible on their faces as the waited to greet the King.

And so it was, in the pale light of dawn that Éomer, King of Rohan, returned to the Golden Hall, as the first rays of the sun set the roof alight in a cascade of gold. Éowyn stepped forward, a slight smile cracking her stony visage as she saw her brother, though it was a smile touched with sorrow and bitterness as she welcomed her brother home to a kingdom on the brink of war. The siblings' eyes were suspiciously bright as they embraced, but standing further back, Aragorn could see Éomer's gaze harden as his eyes swept the terrace and the man took note of all those who were absent, as well as the sudden shaft of surprise when he noticed their party.

The ceremony was swift, almost rushed, and within bare minutes Éomer was crowned King and took his seat in the Golden Hall, Éowyn moving to stand beside his side. The regal image lasted just long enough for the common people to leave the hall, and for the doors to shut before Aragorn saw Éomer slump slightly in his throne, his eyes betraying the weariness of the days he'd spent with little rest, even as Éowyn crisply ordered for food to be brought and Éomer sent the order for his men to head to their barracks, to eat and catch a few, precious hours of sleep. Mounted patrols would be sent out by midday, but at this moment the whole company needed the rest if they were to be an effective fighting force.

Those tasks attended to, Éomer turned to his sister, casting a quizzical look at the remainder of the Fellowship, who were still standing a way back from the throne, talking quietly though Merry and Pippin were trying unsuccessfully to hide yawns and Elion was leaning rather heavily against the ranger, his drooping eyelids mute testimony to the earliness of the hour, even as Aragorn gently supported him with a hand on his shoulder.

Catching the glance, and seeing Éomer begin to frame a query Éowyn began to speak, realising that the Edoras Éomer had been banished from was a very different Edoras to the one he had returned to. "Brother, I present to you Lord Aragorn, son of Arathorn and his son Elion, Lord Boromir son of Denethor, Legolas of the Woodland Realm, Gimli son of Gloin, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took."

Aragorn saw Éomer's slight start at the titles and Boromir's name in particular, and the sharp glance he threw at Elion before a slightly rueful smile touched his lips even as Éowyn continued to speak, deftly recounting the events that had passed since Éomer's banishment. The king listened intently to his sister's tale, and while he managed to keep his face mostly impassive Aragorn clearly saw the flash of rage as Éowyn recounted Wormtongue's actions, and he saw the sorrow the rose in his eyes as Éomer realised just how many loyal friends and comrades had been lost in the uprising.

The tale took over an hour to tell, Éowyn going into great depth with the orders she had sent to the people and what actions had been taken for everyone in the Hall was well aware that Rohan was at war and that it would be a hard war to fight, making good information absolutely crucial if they were to come out of it alive and victorious, and breakfast had both been served and eaten by the time it was completed.

Finally, when it was done Éomer turned to the Fellowship, gratitude in his eyes, "I thank you for the aid you have given Rohan, it was most welcome."

Aragorn bowed his head in acknowledgement, seeing the others around him follow suit, "We were happy to render our aid," he replied simply and he saw Éomer nod at his words.

"Though I confess I am curious to what brings Isildur's Heir, the Steward's Heir, an elf lord and a dwarf lord to Rohan?" Éomer's expression was slightly sly as he spoke, "I had not expected to meet you in the plains, nor here in Edoras."

Aragorn carefully hid a grimace as Éomer announced his ancestry in the Hall, though, thankfully there were no servants present to in the Hall at that moment, and Éowyn was the only one present who was not already aware of his status. He had accepted that it was likely he was the one who would take back the throne in Minas Tirith, but he cared little for the pomp that surrounded the title. His duty was to Middle Earth, and his people, to love and protect them and he would do so gladly with all his heart, for he would not fail them.

Aragorn knew that a few of the members of both the Gondorian and Rohirrim rulers were aware that Isildur's line had remained unbroken, and that those few knew of the lineage, but it was a closely guarded secret and therefore he wasn't surprised at the look of shock that graced Éowyn's face as she realised who her brother was referring to. While he knew she had put together the pieces surrounding Boromir's identity, and quickly realised that despite that, Aragorn was the leader of the group and therefore deduced he held a position of high importance she had never made the connection, probably because the survival of the King's line had not been shared with her.

"War," Aragorn replied bluntly, "Saruman has betrayed us and the Great Eye is moving, but Saruman is more prepared and will strike before The Eye can muster the troops required for a full assault on the men of Middle Earth, though that is only a matter of time. We came to offer what aid we could, having come from a council at Rivendell, to help to destroy the threat Saruman poses, for the hammer will strike at Rohan first and Men cannot fight a war on two fronts, if we are to have any hope of victory we must be united, for alone we will fall."

"Any aid you can give us, we accept most thankfully, though I would like to hear more of your journey and the council." Éomer replied with a short bow of his head, casting a slightly concerned glance at the child who was still leaning against Aragorn's side.

He had not forgotten the condition they had found the child in and he was pleased to see the boy had survived, for it had pained him to see a child so wounded and he would wish on no parent the grief of losing their child. However he was inwardly berating himself for not realising the identities of the two men, or Boromir at least. Aragorn he had never met, but he had met Boromir, and fought beside him, though admittedly he had been naught but a young lad at the time, while he was still learning the warrior's craft. He could only blame his fatigue at the time, and the fact that the chance of the Steward's son being in Rohan in such a small party, was so extraordinarily slim even without counting Isildur's Heir, that he had not been looking for it.

There was a moment of silence then Aragorn saw the resolve harden in Éomer's face, despite the weariness that was written large in his features. "Send for the Captains." He commanded briskly to a servant, and only minutes had passed before the twenty men were assembled in the hall, a little more vitality in their limbs than there had been when they had arrived at dawn.

"Send out scouts," he commanded crisply, "I want precise numbers for the villages that have been evacuated, how many have been torched and I want that information back before nightfall." Turning to the next man, he continued to issue instructions, "Set up patrols, groups of fifty. No warg pack is to get so far into our territory again."

"I want a full inventory of the armoury, the supplies and the men. How many injured, how many need new mounts and new equipment, how many are ready to ride and I need that by nightfall."

"Send Riders out to the East and South Ridings, I need every man they can muster in Edoras in two days."

"Aldred, take a company of 600 and guard the approach from Edoras to the Hornburg, make it as safe as possible for the people to evacuate."

Now Éomer paused, and swept his eyes across the gathered Riders, "We are at war." He told them, his voice grave, "Saruman has betrayed our country and his creatures run amok. We must take back Rohan and I need every man and beast ready to fight. We have two days."

The assembled Captains bowed their heads in acknowledgement of the orders before swiftly departing, discussions quickly springing up amongst them as logistics and schedules were quickly hashed out, but even as they were leaving Éomer had already turned to a waiting servant who scurried off, returning moments later with armfuls of maps.

Éomer stood, his weariness clear in his face, and moved over to the table where the maps had been laid out. A slight frown touched Aragorn's face as he noted that the Rider's hands were trembling slightly. It was obvious the Éomer was pushing his physical endurance to the limit, unlike his men he had yet to sleep, and he knew that it would only hurt Rohan in the long run if Éomer attempted to function for too long in such a state, for he would eventually collapse, and it was far better to sleep now, while the threat was still comparatively low, rather than on the eve of battle. He was about to speak when Éowyn beat him to it.

"Sit down Éomer," she told him bluntly, "You're worn out. You've pulled your usual trick of riding for days without sleep." Her tone was matter of fact, and the half exasperated, half guilty look Éomer sent her, told them this was a relatively usual occurrence. He opened his mouth to protest, but Éowyn held up her hand, and started to speak in a voice of tempered steel, though the words were still quiet.

Sensing this was a private discussion between the two siblings, and one that Aragorn was certain Éomer would not want them overhearing, Aragorn subtly motioned for the fellowship to move back a few paces, giving the two Rohirrim a little more privacy, and quietly starting a conversation, though he kept half an eye on the Éowyn and Éomer, ready to rejoin them when it seemed that the conversation had returned to subjects that were less personal for the two of them.

No more than five minutes later Éomer nodded before turning towards them, "The Council will be gathered at the 12th bell, until then I extend the hospitality of the Hall to you." Turning to his sister he continued to speak, "Notify me when the first reports come in."

Éowyn rolled her eyes, "Yes brother," she replied, though she was smiling. Éomer smiled in return before he nodded at them and left the room, heading for his quarters.

Gandalf sucked in a deep breath, revelling in the taste of the sweet air of Valinor. It had been so long since he had been here, when he was still Olórin, student of Nienna, back when the world was still young and the evil in Sauron had not yet broken onto the shores of Middle Earth. Though he knew it had not been a peaceful time, for Middle Earth had been formed in the wars between the Valar, and their lost brother Melkor, for him at least it had been a simpler time.

He had studied, and learnt his craft under the gentle tutelage of Nienna, and it was his home. He had left reluctantly, and at Manwë, his King's orders for a task he had feared, though in the ages he had wandered across Middle Earth, giving counsel and watching as one by one his brothers fell, and deepening his compassion as he watched the lives of men. Lives that were so short and fleeting, but still managed to shine, and burn brightly, doing through sheer determination what the wisest had deemed impossible. He should have learnt to accept that by now, yet even after the ages both men and hobbits never had ceased to surprise him.

At that thought he couldn't help but laugh, a sound freer than he had ever managed to utter in Middle Earth. He was home again.

But it did not take long for his laughter to fade, and the smile in his eyes to dim and fade away. He was home again, but not home as he would have wished. He should have come home when Sauron was finally defeated, when his task was done and he could leave Middle Earth to Men to care for and rule, instead he had failed in his task, and fallen at the hands of his brother, who was just another in a long line of Maia who had been seduced by Melkor and his puppet Sauron. He had come home, not on the ships in his body, but with his spirit carried by Mandor's grace first to the Halls, and then to Valinor.

Sorrow bit at his heart as he thought of the friends he had left back on Middle Earth, of the Halflings he had brought into this war and the great burden that Frodo was carrying, with none but Sam to support him as he trekked towards Mordor, with nothing but hope to spurn him onwards, and a slim hope at that. Could he have tried harder, done things differently? To his shame he knew he could have, he knew that he had had the opportunity to end Saruman, and to continue to fight against Sauron, but in the critical moment he had hesitated, and that hesitation meant that the fallen Maia was free to continue to terrorise the people of Middle Earth, and that the battle for Men would not just be hard, the odds would be near impossible.

He was broken out of his thoughts by a gentle voice behind him. "Olórin."

Recognising Manwë's voice he hurriedly turned, sinking to one knee in front of his king, bowing his head. "Forgive me my liege."

"Rise Olórin and look at me," Manwë commanded gently, and though Gandalf felt he did not deserve to look upon his king, he was loathe to disobey a direct order, so pushing down the shame that was in his heart he slowly raised his head to look at the Vala. He opened his mouth to continue to apologise but Manwë held up a hand and instantly Gandalf clamped his mouth shut.

"When we first considered sending Maia to Arda, you begged to be excused, saying that you did not have the strength to face Sauron and you feared him. It was all the more reason for you to go. Tell me Olórin, are you still frightened? Do you believe you lack the strength to go against Sauron?"

There was a pause before Gandalf answered, but eventually he found the words he wanted, "Yes my lord," he admitted, "Sauron still frightens me and I know I lack the strength to go against Sauron in a simple test of arms. I have not the power to face him head on and win." Here he paused for a moment before he drew breath to continue, "But I have also learnt that there are more ways to fight against his darkness and destruction than weapons alone. Hope, and faith, love and loyalty can turn the tide and give you the strength to continue, to try when all seems lost and sometimes the smallest person can change the course of a battle, the course of a war."

Nervously, he looked up, to meet Manwë's eyes and was shocked, when, instead of the censure he had been expecting he saw pride.

"You have grown wiser Olórin," the Vala noted, "And I am glad that you have learnt and taught in your time in Middle Earth, but your time there is not yet over."

Gandalf didn't say anything, knowing better than to interrupt his lord, though his confusion was plain in his face. He had been killed, he had died at Saruman's hand so how could he go back to Middle Earth now when his body was surely rotting in the cell in Orthanc? And why would they send him back? He had failed in his task, and that failed would undoubtedly result in more pain for those opposing the evil of Sauron and Saruman.

"Failed you did as the Grey," Manwë told him, and Gandalf bowed his head in shame, though there was no reproach in Manwë's voice, "But the fault came at the end and born out of compassion, the same fault that saw the release of our brother and that is a fault the you will live with. But sometimes it is only through failure that you can advance."

Puzzled and unsure as to where Manwë was heading he raised his head once more as his King continued to speak. "For it was only through failure as the Grey that you may take up the mantle of the White, that your brother forsake when he fell. Therefore you will go back. Your task is not yet done, and it is on Arda you must dwell until it is complete."

Fear and sadness struck Gandalf's heart, for although he had failed, his years on Middle Earth had been long and hard, and more than once he had desired rest and it pained him to know that he would have to leave his home so soon after he had returned, to face a creature that he still feared. But at the same time there was also a powerful sense of relief. He could try and correct his mistakes, to ensure that Saruman did not cause further grief, and to aid his friends and those he had brought into the war. It would not destroy the guilt that his failure had caused, but it would go a long way to mitigating it.

He bowed, sinking down onto one knee, "As my King commands," he replied.

A slight smile graced the Vala's features. "You will soon return to Arda Olórin," he said, "But first you must go to Nienna and her gardens, for you have forgotten much you once knew, and you must relearn it before you face Sauron again." Gandalf merely nodded his acceptance of the command. It would be the easiest command his Lord had ever given him, for he loved learning and lore, and some of his fondest memories were of the years he had spent in the gardens under her gentle tutelage.

"Is there anything you wish to ask before you return Olórin?" Manwë asked, a slightly knowing tone in his voice.

Gandalf paused for a moment marshalling his thoughts. There was much he wished to ask but he knew that most of those questions had no answer or they were such that the Vala would not know the answer for the future was still to be made, and even the most powerful could only see possibilities, not certainties, and he knew his Lord well enough to know that he would not tell him more than he had already. Manwë had taught him that while words had their own power, it was experience that was the greatest teacher, and as such he gave little guidance when it came to tasks but Gandalf did not bear a grudge, for he knew he had become far wiser, and a better advisor by failing, and then learning from his own mistakes and it had never brought him to the sin of arrogance.

However he had the feeling that Manwë wanted him to ask a specific question or about a specific topic and he paused, wracking his mind before several memories flew into his mind with a sudden clarity, and he knew what his lord wished him to ask. "I wish to ask about the child we call Elion my Lord," he said quietly.

The slight smile on Manwë's face became more pronounced. "You wish to know whether the boy was sent by us, and if he is a young Maia, and what role he is to play in the coming storm and why he bears a token of my sister's."

"Yes my lord," Gandalf replied.

"The time of the elves is nearly over, and with it the time of the Istari. You were needed to guide men and elves against Sauron and whether these days see him fall or Middle Earth fall to his sword, neither elves or Istari will have a place in Middle Earth afterwards, for your tasks will be done and it will be time for you to return to Valinor. It is nearly time for Men to lead in Middle Earth."

Here Manwë paused, and regaled him with a slightly amused look, though it was not condescending, "But you wonder what relevance this has to your query do you not?" It was a question that was not meant to be answered as the Vala continued, "Arda was sung into being and the very land resonates with the magic which formed it. It was the elves that held the magic in Middle Earth, vessels and conducts for the magic that thrums in every inch of the ground, but they are coming home, and magic must be given to Men for the lands to prosper."

Comprehension was growing in Gandalf's eyes as Manwë continued, though the Maia stayed respectfully silent. "The child was sent by us to Middle Earth, as one of the Faithfull's line for he already knows sorrow, war and fear, but also hope and joy. He knows both the evil in magic and the good, and will be able to use and teach its use wisely. He is both needed and needs. His role in the brewing storm is his own to choose, though no matter what path he takes he will be Hope in the Darkness and a Light when all others fail."

When it appeared Manwë was not about to speak again Gandalf dared to ask again, "And the token?"

Gandalf struggled to interpret the look Manwë gave him, though at least he thought it was not a look of chastisement or displeasure.

"The beams of a single candle shine far in the darkest night, but the panes of a lantern are needed to block out the wind. A father's love is a strong frame, but against a strong gale, a frame can need greater strength least the panes fall out. A strength that will be needed ere morning comes."

Gandalf felt a shiver go down his spine at the last words. The Valar were strong in the sight, the gift that several of the elves and dunedain possessed being a mere fraction of the abilities of the Valar, though even the Valar could not tell which of the myriad possibilities they saw would come to pass, for the future was shaped by both destiny and choice, and choice was powerful. But despite all he knew about the Gift of Sight, the last words sounded ominously like prophecy, and he feared what would befall the child, for such words to be spoken by his King.

"Helm's Deep." Aragorn's fingers tapped the map in front of him for emphasis as he looked at the gathered council, though to call it a council was perhaps being generous, for aside from the fellowship, Éomer and Éowyn there were only two others, both Marshalls who had been banished alongside Éomer, the members who had remained in Edoras having fallen defending the Hall against the uprising.

"Saruman wants Rohan, and while the Deep remains Rohan will not be broken. Therefore he will strike there, and strike hard because if the Deep falls he will have struck a devastating blow." It went unsaid that if Helm's Deep fell, Rohan would almost certainly fall with it, for the Deep was their greatest fortress, and if it fell, the towns and cities would stand little chance of holding, not to mention its loss would be absolutely devastating for the people, for not only would the hundreds sheltering there be slaughtered, there would be no secure refuge left where they could flee.

One of the Marshalls scoffed in derision, "The Deeping Wall has never been breached, and no enemy has set foot inside the Hornburg, so why should this be of concern my Lord?" The last two words were spoken with barely concealed distaste, and out of the corner of his eye Aragorn saw Éomer wince slightly, the two Marshalls were unaware of his heritage and he preferred it that way however Éomer knew, and was aware the Marshall's words could be taken as a great insult if Aragorn so choose.

For his part Aragorn shrugged it off, years treading the wilds and bearing the fearful and scornful gazes of the villagers who knew nothing of how he worked to protect them rendering him immune to insults. However the assumption the man was making was not only false, but also dangerous.

"And how many have tried?" At the man's silent scowl Aragorn continued, "That number alone should indicate that an attack there is not only possible but likely, making discussion of its defence warranted, but this time we fight against Saruman and he is not one to be trifled with. He was wise once, and for all that he has fallen into the darkness he has lost none of his intelligence or his power, to underestimate him would be costly, if not deadly."

At the man's grudging nod, and satisfied that his point had been made Aragorn turned back to the others, as Éomer spoke.

"The Hornburg is strong Lord Aragorn, what devilry of Saruman's do you suspect that leads you to advocate such caution? His Uruk-hai are strong, but I do not believe their numbers alone or their strength would be sufficient to bring down the Deeping Wall and breach our defences."

"Magic," Aragorn answered bluntly, "I may not know the extent of his powers, but I know he can summon the power of storms, and I have seen the destructive power Gandalf the Grey can wield if he needs to."

Here Legolas spoke, "Saruman is the greatest of the Istari sent to Middle Earth in terms of pure power and his library in Isenguard rivals the collections in Rivendell and Mirkwood, and he has dabbled deeply into the blackest of arts in his attempts to first understand it, and then to gain more power. He knows the history of Rohan well, if not better than many here, having been alive and at Isenguard for most of it. He knows the strength of the Deep, and he is no fool. If there is a way to use magic to breach the walls he will have found it for he would not attack if he did not believe he could not win it."

There was silence for a moment before Aragorn spoke up again.

"Helm's Deep is a trap." He spoke bluntly, "There is no way out of the ravine once it has been entered, but it would be impossible to avoid a battle there due to its strategic nature and the people already sheltering there." He paused for a moment, "But though it may be a trap, we can decide who that trap is for. The force attacking the fortress is just as trapped as the defenders during the battle."

A gleam of understanding had entered Éomer's eyes and a slight smile touched the King's face. "They would be pinned there against the walls, a perfect target for a secondary force to attack them from the rear, and then they would be forced to defend on both fronts."

"A hammer and anvil." Legolas said softly, "Saruman's forces trapped in the middle."

Éomer's face was serious, though there was a hopeful glint in his eyes as he considered Aragorn's words, "If I split the Riders, send 1000, including the best archers to the Deep and keep the rest as reserves up in the mountains, ready to charge we could deal a devastating blow,"

"Not only that," Boromir added, "But if you keep the second force of 1000 away from the Deep, until Saruman's forces reached there you could mount raids on the marching column, for your Riders are far more agile and far faster than the Uruk-hai, particularly when they are marching. Hit and run raids could cost them dearly while being relatively safe for the Riders, and any reduction in their numbers would aid us when battle is joined at the Deep."

"But what of the people in Edoras?" One of the Marshall's raised the issue, "Do we leave them here unprotected or should we evacuate them to the Deep regardless of the battle?"

The question hung in the air, no matter which course they took it would be a risk, if they left Edoras unprotected Saruman could change targets and come for the city, and if that occurred they would not be able to evacuate the people in time and neither would they be able to stop the Uruk-hai advance. They would be slaughtered, from the eldest to the smallest babe, for Saruman had already shown he wanted to wipe Rohan out, but if they evacuated the city and Helm's Deep fell they would be slaughtered.

"Is there no other way for them leave the Deep once battle is joined?" Aragorn asked into the heavy silence.

"There is one passage in the caves, it leads into the mountains." Éowyn answered him, a frown on her face.

"Then there is a chance the people could flee if the fortress was overwhelmed, it is a better chance than they would have if Saruman were to attack Edoras."

There was silence for a few minutes and glances were exchanged before Éomer came to a decision.

"Give the order that the people are to evacuate to Helm's Deep and ready the men. The evacuation will begin at dawn and the thousand that will defend will ride with the people. The remainder will wait for the forces from the East and South to join us and then we will ride out towards Isenguard to intercept any attacking force."

It was a gamble and everyone in the Hall knew it, the knowledge was written in their grim expressions and shadowed eyes. But war was a gamble, particularly ones against a stronger opponent, risks had to be taken.

The right risks were the ones that didn't leave you dead.