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Chapter 23 : An Honorable Charge
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Hermione had worked furiously to move the baskets of food into the caves. It looked like so little; she did not know how the people of Rohan had planned to withstand any sort of siege with that amount of provisions. At the moment, she was crouched in a corner of the keep’s side room dressed in her Elven-made clothing, trying vainly to recall the incantation to replicate the apple that sat on the floor in front of her.
“Provendus....No, that isn’t right….Creati….No, wrong word entirely, what is it?” she muttered to herself as she moved her wand in a circle around the apple. She could recall the wand movement, but the spell itself continued to elude her memory. She had only read up on the theory once in her third year at Hogwarts, curious about the magic that sixth and seventh years would learn. Pressing her hands against her eyes, Hermione tried to picture the page of that book. She could recall the book – Advanced Transfiguration Theory – she could recall the topic – Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration – and she could even recall the illustration demonstrating the exact wand movement. Even the page number – page 261 – stood out clearly in her memory, but it was as though someone had taken her memory of the text and blurred the exact spot where the incantation was mentioned. So great was her concentration that she was totally unaware of her surroundings.
“Provendilate! No, that didn’t work, I know it has a Provend in it somewhere, but I can’t remember – oh!” she started. Gimli and Legolas had come to stand next to her. “Don’t scare me like that, I have a wand in my hand!”
“We didn’t want to break your concentration, lass,” Gimli said.
“What is it you are trying to do, exactly?” Legolas queried, frowning at the apple on the floor.
“Trying to replicate this apple – trying to remember the incantation, actually. You see, Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration states that you can’t make food out of thin air, but you can multiply it if you have some,” she said quickly.
“I see,” the Elf said unconvincingly.
“My point is, I’m trying to make more food because we need more than what was brought if we are to outlast a siege,” she said. “If only I could remember the incantation!” She prodded the apple dejectedly. Her eidetic memory seldom failed her, but when it did, the answer was usually close at hand in the Hogwarts library.
Legolas held out his hand and said, “Perhaps it will come to you in time. For now, Gimli and I bring good news.”
“What good news could you possibly bring, seeing as we’ve been shut in here with armies likely on the way?” Hermione took the proffered hand and pulled herself up. As she stooped to retrieve the apple, she noticed a third pair of rather familiar boots a short distance behind Legolas and Gimli.
It can’t be. Hardly daring to believe it, she slowly stood, her eyes not leaving the boots. After a moment of hesitation she glanced upward – right into a pair of keen grey eyes.
“Aragorn!” she cried. Replication spells momentarily forgotten, she ran to him and flung her arms around him. “Thank goodness you’re alive, I thought you were dead and that it was all my fault for telling Théoden to go to Helm’s Deep and when Gimli came back saying – ”
The Ranger smiled slightly and pulled away, placing his hands on her shoulders. “It is not your fault. You made the right choice; I am sure that Gandalf would have given Théoden the same advice had he been in the same situation. And I am alive.” He stood back and addressed the three of them. “We must see the King. I have grave news. Where is he?”
“He is in the main chamber, meeting with his advisors,” Hermione said.
Aragorn looked quizzically at her. “You are not among them?”
“I have no experience in strategizing for battles,” she shrugged. “My primary aim is to keep his people safe, but I cannot do that by telling him how I think they must stand and fight.”
Aragorn turned and strode to the closed doors at the opposite end of the room, with Hermione, Legolas, and Gimli following in his wake. Wordlessly he shoved the doors open. Back straight, he approached Théoden, who sat in front of green banners hung on the opposite wall, his captains gathered around him.
“You have no time, Théoden,” he said. “Saruman has sent an army; I have seen them with my own eyes. A great host of fierce brutes with only one purpose in mind: the destruction of you and your people.”
The King stood and paced. “What did you see?”
“It is just how I have told you. Saruman has emptied Isengard, and is sending his force this way.”
Aragorn took a deep breath before murmuring, “Ten thousand strong, at least. They will be here by nightfall.”
“And what advice do you have on this matter, young sorceress?” Théoden asked.
Hermione closed her eyes. Ten thousand? They might be behind the thick stone walls of a fortress, but she hated to think what an army with the advantages of brute strength and sheer numbers would be able to do. What advice could she possibly give? As she had told Aragorn moments earlier, she had no experience in directing battles; she was terrible at chess (a fact, she thought with a pang, that Ron always rubbed in), and had always followed her gut instinct when dueling or fighting against Orcs.
“I cannot offer good advice on this matter,” she said softly. “I can fight, but strategizing is beyond my abilities. Those who have no fighting experience should be kept safe. The rest…” She sighed heavily before continuing, “You need as many fighters as possible.”
“My army is gone, fled with Éomer,” Theoden said. He stood abruptly. “Let them come.”
As Théoden strode out of the room, green cloak flared behind him, Hermione and her companions hurried to follow. They trailed him to the causeway that led from the outside to the main gate as he called out orders to his people. Standing alone just outside the immense gate, the King glanced back at the four companions before he turned to look out over the land which, inevitably, would be covered by Saruman’s minions after sunset. “I have ordered every man and lad who is strong enough to bear arms to be ready by nightfall,” he said. “We will fight.”
“You cannot do this alone; send for reinforcements,” Aragorn said. “Send riders – others must come to your aid!”
Théoden whirled around. “Who will come? No one cares for Rohan, not the Elves, not the Dwarves.”
“Gondor – ”
“Hah! Gondor, you say? Lord Aragorn, Gondor has not come to our aid in our time of need. We are well and truly alone. But we can outlast them here in this fortress. No army has ever breached these walls. We can rebuild our homes and lives, but in here, we will keep the people safe.”
“Then that is all that matters,” Hermione said. “But King Théoden, I must warn you – Saruman is cunning, and he is likely to have some extra tricks up his sleeve, weapons that you may not have seen before. When I freed you from his spell, I saw briefly into his thoughts. What exactly he has planned I can’t say, but I can assure you that he will attack in new ways.”
The King stepped away from Aragorn, whose sleeve he had seized earlier in his outburst. “And what will you have me do?”
“Let me fight,” Hermione said. “I know it is not traditional for women to go to war, but I have skills in archery that Legolas can attest to, and I fought my way out of Moria alongside those you see here. I have skills in magic that could be useful. And – ” she hesitated, knowing that she must not reveal that she was from the future. “And I can assure you, I have knowledge about these things myself, though I would never use them to harm others. I will know deadly new weapons by sight.” This was true enough; she had had a fascination with all aspects of history from the time she was a little girl, and could distinctly recall reading about weaponry from all ages. Using magic she could counteract many of the weapons Saruman’s army might bring to the fray. Freezing Charms would take care of most things, and the Reductor Curse could easily blast large objects like catapults into worthless scraps.
Théoden considered her for a moment. But after a long moment….
“What?” Hermione cried. “Do you tell me no because I am a woman, as you do to your niece?”
“Careful, Hermione!” Aragorn warned.
“Do not test me,” Théoden said. “I tell you nay because of this. All our men will be engaged in battle; I need you to lead the women and children and keep them safe. Now, come. You need to get them all into the caves, and we must close the gate.”
Hermione related her annoyance to Éowyn only minutes later. Together they were now moving the last of the provisions and bedding into the caves, making sure that they were equally shared among the families who were now seated on the floor of the cave. A few lucky ones had managed to find smaller rooms off the main chamber, where tired grandparents were now resting. Mothers held their small children close, trying to allay their children’s fears despite the distress clearly written on their own faces. A few youngsters had curiously set off to explore the caves under the close supervision of a few women. The young boys and girls who were old enough to understand the situation, however, remained silent, instinctively huddled close to their parents.
All too soon, a few of Théoden’s guards entered the caves. A few fathers bid farewell to their weeping families as they rose to follow the guards to the armory. But Hermione could clearly see that this would not be enough; the guards approached many of the mothers, pulling away their boys, some of whom were scarcely older than Hogwarts first years. Several of the wizened old men were roused from rest and stumbled over to where the group of younger men and even younger boys waited.
“This can’t be happening,” Hermione whispered to her friend. She cast her gaze around to make sure they were well out of earshot of anyone before continuing. “You and I are perfectly capable of fighting, and yet we must remain down here while they take those who are either too old or too young!”
Éowyn folded a blanket with slightly more force than necessary, but otherwise gave no sign of her own displeasure. “Lord Aragorn said that it is a noble charge.”
“He just said that to make us feel better,” Hermione scoffed. After Théoden had announced his decision regarding her duties during the impending battle, Hermione’s male companions had avoided her gaze. Gimli had simply become deaf to her complaints. Legolas had listened with a grave expression, but had offered no support for her position. When Hermione had turned to Aragorn, the Ranger became stern, likewise telling her that it was an honorable responsibility. Despite her protests, her pleas to engage in combat, even her offers to merely bring water to weary fighters, he had declined to so much as ask Théoden to change his mind. Hermione did not dare approach the King herself, knowing that he was already greatly distressed.
So here she was, hidden away in the caves among the women and children and provisions. She felt the wands that were stowed away in her jerkin, hers and Ron’s. Worried that she might accidentally use it as an arrow, she had removed Ron’s wand from her quiver and placed it with hers. On top of everything, she could not even remember the spell to replicate their limited supplies, and she had no idea when she would be able to rescue Ron….
A wave of fear washed over her as she remembered why they had gone to Théoden in the first place. She had intended to free him from Saruman’s spell in order to acquire some sort of help in rescuing Ron and the Hobbits, but now they were fleeing from the armies of the very Istar she had wanted to fight! Hermione did not want to think what might happen if the armies managed to break through the fortress. Saruman was cunning, and the Rohirrim were severely outnumbered, and if they managed to get through the men, Éowyn’s sword and Hermione’s arrows and spells would only hold back so many. If only she knew spells to protect large areas against attack! She was half glad that she had not really researched those, unlike the replication spell, or recalling the incantation would bother her endlessly as she waited and waited…
“Hermione?” Éowyn’s voice seemed to come from far away.
Pulling herself out of her reverie, Hermione turned to her companion. “Sorry, I was just thinking. I’m so frustrated with men here, and,” she dropped her voice, “I’m a little scared of what might happen. We came to your uncle looking for help in rescuing our friends, and now I don’t even know if we will be able to do that.”
Éowyn sighed, her shoulders sagging. “We must have faith.” She took up a basket carrying spare blankets, and Hermione followed suit. The villagers murmured their thanks as they wended their way through the cave in grim silence.
Time seemed to both stretch and compress in the cave, where the fading of daylight could not be used to gauge how many hours had passed. Time enough, perhaps, to make sure that the old men and young boys they had taken from the caves to be armed with the limited amount of weapons and armor that were stored in Helm’s Deep. Distantly, Hermione heard the sound of a horn followed by the creak of the opening gate. It was too much to hope that reinforcements had arrived, that Éowyn’s brother had somehow known his people were in danger and turned around in time to counter Saruman’s attack. Indeed, Hermione could not hear the telltale clatter of horse hoofs between the sounds of the gate opening and closing.
They waited for ages – or was it only a few hours? – before they heard it. A soft but persistent thumping, as though a great heart was pounding at a distance within the earth. The air itself seemed to thicken with the tension and terror. As Hermione watched, mothers stood to retrieve their children from their play, clutching them close. Even the youngest did not protest, seeming to understand that now was not the time for tears. All eyes in the cave were open wide as if to somehow, improbably catch sight of the enemy that they could only hear distantly, not see.
The pounding beat grew louder, closer, mingled with the occasional soft growling that could only be thunder heralding a nighttime storm. To Hermione’s left, Éowyn had reached under a pile of blankets and laid a hand on her sword. Hermione could understand how her friend felt; her own hands itched to wield her bow and arrows. She could not imagine what this would be like on a regular basis, always waiting and never in on the action. Unlike Éowyn, she had experienced battle, and knew what it was like. Terrible as she felt fighting and killing Orcs, she knew that she could stand that far better than not knowing what was taking place. She would rather be up on the parapet with Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn.
The rumbling grew, and still no one spoke or moved. Hermione could now hear the distinct clank of armor as the army drew closer to Helm’s Deep. Despite the sword belted at her side and the wand hidden in her jerkin, she trembled involuntarily. Be brave, she told herself fiercely. It was irrational to fear the Uruk-Hai at this point, not when the stone walls stood between the Rohirrim and the army. And even then, the men of Rohan stood between the army and this hiding place.…
A small, soft whimper came from Hermione’s right. Turning, she saw a small girl with her knees drawn up to her chin, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Noticing Hermione looking at her, the girl cast her red-gold hair in front of her face and tried to surreptitiously brush the tears aside, but her small, trembling limbs gave her away. She could not be more than six or seven years old, but she seemed to be alone.
“It will be all right,” Hermione said quietly.
The girl raised her head and looked at Hermione, eyes wide. “I’m scared,” she said in a wavering voice.
“You’re safe down here,” the young witch replied. “Where is your mother?”
Tears welled up in the grey eyes once more, and the girl gulped back a sob.
“Oh…” Hermione trailed off awkwardly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“My brother is up there,” the little girl said. “He said he’d keep me safe, he promised Father and then Mother, but he’s gone!”
Hermione tried to inject confidence that she did not feel into her words as she said, “You must believe that he will be fine. Come, sit by me, and I’ll keep you safe for now.”
The girl inched forward hesitantly and seated herself a few feet away from Hermione as if scared to come any closer.
“What is your name?”
“Mer – Merewyn,” she replied, gazing with wide eyes. “And you’re Hermione. You helped the King.”
Hermione smiled gently. “I guess that’s true, but it was only my duty.”
They sat in silence for a minute or two, listening to the sound of the approaching Uruks with bated breath. Quite suddenly, the sound of the marching stopped with a resounding crash.
The women and children looked up to the roof of the cave in the ensuing tense silence. Even the youngest children had stopped fussing, knowing that the time had come…
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Merewyn instinctively launched herself into Hermione’s lap, shaking. All around the cave, the infants responded to the sound of the ensuing battle by crying out. The terror in the air was palpable, and it was all Hermione could do to speak in a consoling voice as she stroked the small girl’s hair.
“It’s all right, Merewyn, I’m here. Don’t worry…” She looked to her left and saw Éowyn, hands clenched around the hilt of her sword, face starkly pale, staring at nothing. The pounding above them ceased quite suddenly, followed by a brief, unnerving silence. Then the sounds of thousands upon thousands of armor-shod feet running filled the air.
How can they stand it? Hermione thought. How could any person, man or woman, stand to merely listen to the sounds of the melee above, not knowing what was truly happening?
She closed her eyes and rocked Merewyn gently, humming an old lullaby that her mother had sung whenever Hermione had run to her parents’ bedroom, frightened of nighttime thunderstorms. Images rose in her mind of the battle above: the Uruks, spears held aloft, an unending sea of armor and weaponry that spilled far beyond the reaches of sight; Aragorn, his sword out, giving orders; Legolas, his bow grimly drawn, with Gimli at his side. The soldiers of the Rohirrim, most too old or too young to wield a weapon, fighting a desperate battle against such terrible odds…
How long she sat like this, in a trancelike state, Hermione did not know. The next thing she knew she was jolted back to reality by the sound of an explosion, followed by rumbles that could only be pieces of the wall falling to earth. Cries of alarm rose from all around the cave, tearing at Hermione’s spirit.
She cursed her lapse in memory. Of course, gunpowder had been discovered by Chinese wizards in what she knew as the eighth century, but she now remembered Sam’s mournful descriptions of Gandalf’s fireworks. How could she have forgotten? She should have known, should have told Théoden about this possibility, for she could have easily neutralized the threat posed by explosives by simply using a Freezing Charm! In her mind’s eye she recreated the scene that could have just taken place. Were Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli among the victims of this unexpected weapon? She would never be able to rest if she knew that she had in some way caused the death of any of her friends, never mind the fact that she grew restless whenever she thought about how she might have been the reason they had had to abandon Ron and the Hobbits to Saruman’s mercy…
Merewyn had fallen asleep and had not been awakened by the sudden noise. Hermione gently laid the little girl’s head on her rolled-up Lórien cloak as she turned to Éowyn, who still maintained her erect, alert posture from earlier. Their eyes met. Was it imagination, or did Hermione detect a hint of accusation in her companion’s gaze? She turned away, brushing away the sudden wetness that lined her bottom lashes.
Not for the first time, she questioned the counsel she had given the King. She was used to concrete answers, to simple textbook references, but now she only had her instincts. But what if those instincts were wrong and she would be to blame for the deaths of many?
The fighting continued for hours without any clear sign of what might be happening. Then suddenly, the sound of many men’s voices filtered through the entrance to the cave. Straining her ears, Hermione could hear cries of, “Retreat!” echoing faintly. She heard the doors boom distantly shut, the panicked sounds of voices as the men undoubtedly tried to secure them. A pounding sound followed – a battering ram.
She could take it no longer. Between not knowing what was happening and the blame-filled glances that fell her way, she was no longer able to stand being in the cave.
“I will come back,” she said softly to Merewyn, giving her a gentle hug. “Stay with the Lady Éowyn for now.” Hermione put on her cloak and guided the child over to her companion before turning to dash out of the cave.
“Hermione, what – ”
“I will come back, Éowyn. But I’m a Gryffindor…” She could not very well expect the other woman to understand this statement, but there was no time to explain. The Sorting Hat had, despite her studiousness, placed her in the House of the lionhearted. And even though the King had ordered her to remain hidden in the caves – well, hadn’t she been defying rules and regulations since she was a first year?
As she reached the entrance to the cave, she heard a great clamor as the Uruks outside continued to assail the door. Men had fled from the danger, from the Uruks that had undoubtedly managed to break through the thick outer walls. There were not many – far fewer, indeed, than had gone to battle initially…
Over the sea of helmets Hermione caught a glimpse of pale hair. “Legolas!” she called, waving her arm.
The Elf spotted her, his expression grim. Next to him stood Aragorn, who likewise caught her gaze.
“Aragorn!” came Théoden’s call. The King was near the entrance to the hall, and had not yet spotted Hermione. Legolas and Aragorn exchanged a quick glance, and with the merest jerk of his head, Aragorn indicated that the Elf should speak to her.
“What happened, Legolas?” she asked as he approached. Gimli appeared just behind him.
“Hermione, you should be with the women and children,” Legolas chastised.
“I don’t have time for your lecture! I’ve never sat behind closed doors while a battle went on, did you expect me to do it this time, when so many lives are at stake because of what I told Théoden?”
“Just tell her, Legolas,” Gimli said.
The Elf sighed. “The Lady Galadriel sent a number of Elven warriors, skilled with the bow and the knife, led by Haldir. They helped the fight, certainly, but alas…” he trailed off.
Hermione glanced up, and sure enough there were no skilled fighters of the Galadhrim present any longer.
“Saruman’s wizardry allowed the Uruks to breach the wall with fire. Many were lost in the fight, and the gate was broken.” His words were punctuated by the booming, ominous pounding of the battering ram upon the door to the keep.
“And now they’re here,” Gimli finished grimly.
Hermione hung her head. We’re finished. And it’s my fault…
“I must see Théoden,” she murmured. “I have to apologize…”
Ignoring the glance exchanged by Legolas and Gimli, she pushed through the crowd to find Aragorn arguing with Théoden. The light of hope was gone from the King’s face, despair painted across every feature. The situation could hardly even be described as an argument; rather Aragorn was vehemently trying to convey the urgency of the situation to the listless Théoden. He sent the man named Gamling to tell the women and children to make for the mountains through the caves before turning to face the King.
“So much death,” Théoden said wearily. “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
Aragorn paused for only a moment before saying, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them.”
It would be a charge to the death, Hermione knew. She had to take responsibility for her actions. Suddenly Harry’s reckless decisions to rush out and face danger seemed to make more sense in her mind – perhaps he often felt responsible for the situation, as she did now. I am no hero. I am not seeking glory, but I must do my best to make things right. Before her more rational half could suppress her welling emotion, she drew her wand and called out, “Ride for your people, King Théoden. I will go with you; I take responsibility for the decision to go here, and will protect as many as I can using my spells.”
Théoden seemed too tired to order her back to the caves, but nonetheless, determination began to creep back into his features. “For my people.”
“Yes,” Hermione nodded.
“For Rohan. Yes!” he cried, turning to face the window high above. “As the sun rises, we shall draw swords together for a final, glorious charge! Let the horn of Helm Hammerhand sound one last time!”
Determination and courage visibly rippled through the room, taking hold of the battle-weary soldiers as they began to cheer. Gimli darted away as fast as an arrow, weaving through the sea of armored legs as he went to blow the battle horn.
Horses were brought for Théoden, Aragorn, and Legolas, but Hermione’s could not be found quickly enough.
“Théoden,” she pleaded, “let me ride into battle. Please, I can no longer stand by while it is taking place!”
The King regarded her sternly. “I ordered you to stay in the caves.”
“I know! I know, but please, I cannot remain here! I need to help!” The wand in her hand emitted sparks, echoing her distress.
“Very well,” Théoden said, eyeing the wand warily. “But there are no more horses to be had.”
“Come, Hermione, sit behind me,” Legolas said. “Gimli is not riding into battle, and it would gladden him to know that some good came of it.” Théoden nodded his assent and Hermione took Legolas’s extended hand, hoisting herself behind him. Legolas and Aragorn led their horses to flank the King’s, swords drawn and pointed at the trembling door.
“You do know, young sorceress, that there may be no returning from this charge,” came Théoden’s voice from her right.
“I know,” she said quietly, not facing him.
“I want you to know that I would have made the same decision. I would have come here in the end – your word just saved me from making the difficult decision myself. So do not be hard on yourself.”
Hermione smiled faintly. Hadn’t she been trying to tell Harry much the same thing after Sirius had died? Whatever happened now, at least she now more fully understood him. “Thank you, King Théoden.” Quite suddenly, a laugh overtook her.
“What is it?” Legolas asked, twisting his head to frown back at her.
“I’ve just remembered it – the food replication spell! It’s Provendify! Funny how I remember that right now, when it may no longer be useful.” Legolas shook his head and turned back to face the door, which had begun to splinter.
“And now,” Théoden cried, raising his voice, “now for wrath! Now for ruin! And the red dawn!”
The soldiers cheered as the doors gave in. Lifting her wand as the horses began to canter forward, and not caring to think about whether or not it would work, Hermione shouted, “Salvicludio!”
A pale golden light emanated from the tip of her wand, creating a large shield that traveled before the Rohirrim and momentarily dazed the Uruks that did manage to break through. It was all Hermione could do to hold on to Legolas as he fluidly attacked the oncoming Uruks with his knife. As they all rode out into the red light of the dawn, she could not help but lift her eyes to the distant hilltop.
And there – her tired eyes could barely make it out against the bright light, but she was sure she was not dreaming – there was an old man upon the back of a white horse, standing quite alone framed against the rising sun. Her heart sank. Had Saruman himself at last come to finish them? And what of Ron and the Hobbits?
But then as she stared, she realized that it was not Saruman. The eyes were not cold and dark, but rather light and alive with warmth. The sudden arrival of a troop of Rohirric soldiers cast away the last of her doubt. She recognized Éomer’s armor among them, the horse’s tail flowing down from the crest of his helmet. And though she did not know how, though it was the impossible, she knew…
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