The chief obstacles to an easy conquest of Rohan by Saruman were Théodred and Éomer: they were vigorous men, devoted to the King, and high in his affections, as his only son and his sister-son; and they did all that they could to thwart the influence over him that Gríma gained when the King’s health began to fail. This occurred early in the year 3014, when Théoden was sixty-six; his malady may thus have been due to natural causes, though the Rohirrim commonly lived till near or beyond their eightieth year. But it may well have been induced or increased by subtle poisons, administered by Gríma. In any case Théoden’s sense of weakness and dependence on Gríma was largely due to the cunning and skill of this evil counsellor’s suggestions. It was his policy to bring his chief opponents into discredit with Théoden, and if possible to get rid of them. It proved impossible to set them at odds with one another: Théoden before his “sickness” had been much loved by all his kind and people, and the loyalty of Théodred and Éomer remained steadfast, even in his apparent dotage, Éomer also was not an ambitious man, and his love and respect for Théodred (thirteen years older than he) was only second to his love of his foster-father. Éomer was the son of Théoden’s sister Théodwyn, and of Éomund of Eastfold, chief Marshal of the Mark. Éomund was slain by Orcs in 3002, and Théodwyn died soon after; their children Éomer and Éowyn were then taken to live in King Théoden’s house, together with Théodred, the King’s only child. Gríma therefore tried to play them one against the other in the mind of Théoden, representing Éomer as ever eager to increase his own authority and to act without consulting the King or his Heir. In this he had some success, which bore fruit when Saruman at last succeeded in achieving the death of Théodred.
It was clearly seen in Rohan, when the true accounts of the battles at the Fords were known, that Saruman had given special orders that Théodred should at all costs be slain. At the first battle all his fiercest warriors were engaged in reckless assaults upon Théodred and his guard, disregarding other events of the battle, which might otherwise have resulted in a much more damaging defeat for the Rohirrim. When Théodred was at last slain, Saruman’s commander (no doubt under orders) seemed satisfied for the time being, and Saruman made the mistake, fatal as it proved, of not immediately throwing in more forces and proceeding at once to a massive invasion of Westfold; though the valor of Grimbold and Elfhelm contributed to his delay, which proved disastrous for him. The above account perhaps underestimates their importance.
The Ents are here left out of account, as they were by all save Gandalf. But unless Gandalf could have brought about the rising of the Ents several days earlier (as was plainly not possible), it would not have saved Rohan. The Ents might have destroyed Isengard, and even captured Saruman (if after victory he had not himself followed his army). The Ents and Huorns, with the aid of such Riders of the East-mark as had not yet been engaged, might have destroyed the forces of Saruman in Rohan, but the Mark would have been in ruins, and leaderless. Even if the Red Arrow, when it was brought to Théoden by an errand-rider from Gondor as a token of the need of Minas Tirith, had found any one with authority to receive it, the call from Gondor would not have been heeded – or at most a few companies of weary men would have reached Minas Tirith, too late except to perish with it.
If the invasion of Westfold had begun five days earlier, there can be little doubt that the reinforcements from Edoras would never have come near Helm’s Deep, but would have been surrounded and overwhelmed in the open plain; if indeed Edoras had not itself been attacked and captured before the arrival of Gandalf. The first battle of the Fords of Isen, in which Théodred was slain, was fought on the 25th of February; Gandalf reached Edoras seven days later, on the 2nd of March (February had 30 days).
The Isen came down swiftly from its sources above Isengard, but in the flat land of the Gap it became slow until it turned west; then it flowed on through country falling by long slopes down into the low-lying coast-lands of furthest Gondor and the Enedwaith, and it became deep and rapid. Just above this westward bend were the Fords of Isen. There the river was broad and shallow, passing in two arms about a large eyot, over a stony shelf covered with stones and pebbles brought down from the north. Only here, south of Isengard, was it possible for large forces, especially those heavily armed or mounted, to cross the river. Saruman thus had this advantage: he could send his troops down either side of the Isen and attack the Fords, if they were held against him, from both sides. Any force of his east of Isen could, if necessary, retreat upon Isengard. On the other hand, Théodred might send men across the Fords, either in sufficient strength to engage Saruman’s troops or to defend the western bridgehead; but if they were worsted, they would have no retreat except back over the Fords with the enemy at their heels, and possibly also awaiting them on the eastern bank. South and west along the Isen they had no way home, unless they were provisioned for a long journey into Western Gondor.
Beyond the Gap the land between Isen and Adorn was nominally part of the realm of Rohan; but though Folcwine had reclaimed it, driving out the Dunlendings that had occupied it, the people that remained were largely of mixed blood, and their loyalty to Edoras was weak: the slaying of their lord, Freca, by King Helm Hammerhand in 2754 was still remembered. Indeed at this time they were more disposed to side with Saruman, and many of their warriors had joined Saruman’s forces. In any case there was no way into their land from the west except for bold swimmers. The region between Isen and Adorn was declared to be a part of the realm of Eorl at the time of the Oath of Cirion and Eorl.
Saruman’s attack was not unforeseen, but it came sooner than was expected. Théodred’s scouts had warned him of a mustering of troops before the Gates of Isengard, mainly (as it seemed) on the west side of Isen. He therefore manned the approaches, east and west, to the Fords with the sturdy men on foot from the levies of Westfold. Leaving three companies of Riders, together with horse-herds and spare mounts, on the east bank, he himself passed over with the main strength of his cavalry: eight companies and a company of archers, intending to overthrow Saruman’s army before it was fully prepared.
But Saruman had not revealed his intentions nor the full strength of his forces. They were already on the march when Théodred set out. Some twenty miles north of the Fords he countered their vanguard and scattered it with loss. But when he rode on to attack the main host, the resistance stiffened. The enemy was in fact in positions prepared for the event, behind trenches manned by pikemen, and Théodred in the leading éored was brought to a stand and almost surrounded, for new forces hastening from Isengard were now outflanking him upon the west.
He was extricated by the onset of the companies coming up behind him; but as he looked eastward he was dismayed. It had been a dim and misty morning, but the mists were now rolling back through the Gap on a breeze from the west, and away east of the river he descried other forces now hasting towards the Fords, though their strength could not be guessed. He at once ordered a retreat. This the Riders, well trained in the maneuver, managed in good order and with little further loss; but the enemy was not shaken off or long outdistanced, for the retreat was often delayed, when the rearguard under Grimbold was obliged to turn at bay and drive back the most eager of their pursuers.
When Théodred gained the Fords the day was waning. He set Grimbold in command of the garrison of the west bank, stiffened with fifty dismounted Riders. The rest of his Riders and all the horses he at once sent across the river, save his own company: with these on foot he manned the eyot, to cover the retreat of Grimbold if he was driven back. This was barely done when disaster came. Saruman’s eastern force came down with unexpected speed; it was much smaller than the western force, but more dangerous. In its van were some Dunlending horsemen and a great pack of the dreadful Orcish wolf-riders, feared by horses. They were very swift and skilled in avoiding ordered men in close array, being used mostly to destroy isolated groups or to hunt down fugitives; but at need they would pass with reckless ferocity through any gaps in companies of horsemen, slashing at the bellies of the horses. Behind them came two battalions of the fierce Uruks, heavily armed but trained to move at great speed for many miles. The horsemen and wolf-riders fell on the horse-herds and picketed horses and slew or dispersed them. The garrison of the east bank, surprised by the sudden assault of the massed Uruks, was swept away, and the Riders that had just crossed from the west were caught still in disarray, and though they fought desperately they were driven from the Fords along the line of the Isen with the Uruks in pursuit.
As soon as the enemy had gained possession of the eastern end of the Fords, there appeared a company of men or Orc-men (evidently dispatched for the purpose), ferocious, mail-clad, and armed with axes. They hastened to the eyot and assailed it from both sides. At the same time, Grimbold on the west bank was attacked by Saruman’s forces on that side of the Isen. As he looked eastward, dismayed by the sounds of battle and the hideous Orc-cries of victory, he saw the axe-men driving Théodred’s men from the shores of the eyot towards the low knoll in its centre, and he heard Théodred’s great voice crying, “To me, Eorlingas!” At once Grimbold, taking a few men that stood near him, ran back to the eyot. So fierce was his onset from the rear of the attackers that Grimbold, a man of great strength and stature, clove his way through, till with two others he reached Théodred standing at bay on the knoll. Too late. As he came to his side Théodred fell, hewn down by a great Orc-man. Grimbold slew him and stood over the body of Théodred, thinking him dead; and there he would himself soon have died, but for the coming of Elfhelm.
Elfhelm had been riding in haste along the horse-road from Edoras, leading four companies in answer to Théodred’s summons; he was expecting battle, but not yet for some days. But near the junction of the horse-road with the road down from the Deeping, his outriders on the right flank reported that two wolf-riders had been seen abroad on the fields. Sensing that things were amiss, he did not turn aside to Helm’s Deep for the night – as he had intended – but rode with all speed towards the Fords. The horse-road turned north-west after its meeting with the Deeping-road, but again bent sharply west when level with the Fords, which it approached by a straight path of some two miles long. Elfhelm thus heard and saw nothing of the fighting between the retreating garrison and the Uruks south of the Fords. The sun had sunk and light was failing when he drew near the last bend in the road, and there encountered some horses running wild and a few fugitives who told him of the disaster. Though his men and horses were now weary, he rode as fast as he could along the straight, and as he came in sight of the east bank he ordered his companies to charge.
It was the turn of the Isengarders to be surprised. They heard the thunder of hooves, and saw coming like black shadows against the darkening East a great host (as it seemed) with Elfhelm at its head, and beside him a white standard borne as a guide to those that followed. Few stood their ground. Most fled northwards, pursued by two of Elfhelm’s companies. The others he dismounted to guard the east bank, but at once with the men of his own company rushed to the eyot. The axemen were now caught between the surviving defenders and the onslaught of Elfhelm, with both banks still held by the Rohirrim. They fought on, but before the end were slain to a man. Elfhelm himself, however, sprang up towards the knoll; and there he found Grimbold fighting two great axemen for possession of Théodred’s body. One Elfhelm at once slew, and the other fell before Grimbold.
They stooped then to lift the body, and found that Théodred still breathed; but he lived only long enough to speak his last words, “Let me lie here – to keep the Fords till Éomer comes!” Night fell. A harsh horn sounded, and then all was silent. The attack on the west bank ceased, and the enemy there faded away into the dark. The Rohirrim held the Fords of Isen; but their losses were heavy, not least in horses; the King’s son was dead, and they were leaderless, and did not know what might yet befall.
When, after a cold and sleepless night, the grey light returned, there was no sign of the Isengarders, save those many that they left dead upon the field. Wolves were howling far off, waiting for the living men to depart. Many men, scattered by the sudden assault of the Isengarders, began to return; some still mounted, some leading horses recaptured. Later in the morning, most of Théodred’s Riders that had been driven south down the river by a battalion of black Uruks came back battle-worn but in good order. They had a like tale to tell. They came to a stand on a low hill and prepared to defend. Though they had drawn off part of the attacking force of Isengard, retreat south unprovisioned was in the end hopeless. The Uruks had resisted any attempt to burst eastwards, and were driving them towards the now hostile country of the Dunlendish “west-march.” But as the Riders prepared to resist their assault, though it was now full night, a horn was sounded; and soon they discovered that the enemy had gone. They had too few horses to attempt any pursuit, or even to act as scouts, so far as that would have availed by night. After some time they began cautiously to advance north again, but met no opposition. They thought that the Uruks had gone back to reinforce their hold on the Fords, and expected there to meet in battle again, and they wondered much to find the Rohirrim in command. It was not till later that they discovered whither the Uruks had gone.
So ended the First Battle of the Fords of Isen. Of the Second Battle no such clear accounts were ever made, owing to the much greater events that immediately followed. Erkenbrand of Westfold assumed command of the West-mark when news of the fall of Théodred reached him in the Hornburg on the next day. He sent errand-riders to Edoras to announce this and to bear to Théoden his son’s last words, adding his own prayer that Éomer should be sent at once with all help that could be spared: “Let the defense of Edoras be made here in the West,” he said, “and not wait till it is itself besieged.”
The messages did not reach Edoras until about noon on February the 27th. But Gríma used the curtness of this advice to further his policy of delay. Gandalf came there early in the morning of March the 2nd: it was thus, as Gríma said, not then fully five days since news of Théodred’s death had reached the King. It was not until his defeat by Gandalf that any action was taken. The reinforcements with Éomer and the King himself set out in the afternoon of March the 2nd, but that night the Second Battle of the Fords was fought and lost, and the invasion of Rohan began.
Erkenbrand did not at once himself proceed to the battlefield. All was in confusion. He did not know what forces he could muster in haste; nor could he yet estimate the losses that Théodred’s troops had actually suffered. He judged rightly that invasion was imminent, but that Saruman would not dare to pass on eastward to attack Edoras while the fortress of the Hornburg was unreduced, if it was manned and well stored. With this business and the gathering of such men of Westfold as he could, he was occupied for three days. The command in the field he gave to Grimbold, until he could come himself; but he assumed no command over Elfhelm and his Riders, who belonged to the Muster of Edoras. The two commanders were, however, friends and both loyal and wise men, and there was no dissension between them; the ordering of their forces was a compromise between their differing opinions. Elfhelm held that the Fords were no longer important, but rather a snare to entrap men better placed elsewhere, since Saruman could clearly send forces down either side of the Isen as suited his purpose and his immediate purpose would undoubtedly be to overrun Westfold and invest the Hornburg before any effective help could come from Edoras. His army, or most of it, would therefore come down the east side of the Isen; for though by that way, over rougher ground without roads, their approach would be slower, they would not have to force the passage of the Fords. Elfhelm therefore advised that the Fords should be abandoned; all the available men on foot should be assembled on the east side, and placed in a position to hold up the advance of the enemy: a long line of rising ground running from west to east some few miles north of the Fords; but the cavalry should be withdrawn eastward to a point from which, when the advancing enemy was engaged with the defense, a charge with the greatest impact could be delivered on their flank and drive them into the river. “Let Isen be their snare and not ours!”
Grimbold on the other hand was not willing to abandon the Fords. This was in part due to the tradition of Westfold in which he and Erkenbrand had been bred; but was not without some reason. “We do not know,” he said, “what force Saruman has still at his command. But if it is indeed his purpose to ravage Westfold and drive its defenders into Helm’s Deep and there contain them, then it must be very great. He is unlikely to display it all at once. As soon as he guesses or discovers how we have disposed our defense, he will certainly send great strength at all speed down the road from Isengard, and crossing the undefended Fords come in our rear, if we are all gathered northwards.”
In ancient days the southern and eastern bounds of the North Kingdom had been the Greyflood; the western bounds of the South Kingdom was the Isen. To the land between (the Enedwaith or “middle region”) few Númenóreans had ever come, and none had settled there. In the days of the Kings it was in the charge of the realm of Gondor (although it belonged to neither kingdom), but it was of little concern to them, except for the patrolling and upkeep of the great Royal Road. This went all the way from Osgiliath and Minas Tirith to Fornost in the far North, crossed the Fords of Isen and passed through Enedwaith, keeping to the higher land in the centre and north-east until it had to descend to the west lands about the lower Greyflood, which it crossed on a raised causeway leading to a great bridge at Tharbad. In those days the region was little peopled. In the marshlands of the mouths of Greyflood and Isen lived a few tribes of “Wild Men,” fishers and fowlers, but akin in race and speech to the Drúedain of the woods of Anórien. No mention is made of any connection between the “numerous but barbarous fisherfolk … between the mouths of the Gwathló and the Angren” and the Drúedain, though the latter are said to have dwelt (and to have survived there into the Third Age) in the promontory of Andrast, south of the mouths of Isen. In the foothills of the western side of the Misty Mountains lived the remnants of the people that the Rohirrim later called the Dunlendings: a sullen folk, akin to the ancient inhabitants of the White Mountain valleys whom Isildur cursed. They had little love of Gondor, but though hardy and bold enough, were too few and too much in awe of the might of the Kings to trouble them, or to turn their eyes away from the East, whence all their chief perils came. The Dunlendings suffered, like all the peoples of Arnor and Gondor, in the Great Plague of the years 1636-7 of the Third Age, but less than most, since they dwelt apart and had few dealings with other men. When the days of the Kings ended (1975-2050) and the waning of Gondor began, they ceased in fact to be subjects of Gondor; the Royal Road was unkept in Enedwaith, and the Bridge of Tharbad becoming ruinous was replaced only by a dangerous ford. The bounds of Gondor were the Isen, and the Gap of Calenardhon (as it was then called). The Gap was watched by the fortresses of Aglarond (the Hornburg) and Angrenost (Isengard), and the Fords of Isen, the only easy entrance to Gondor, were ever guarded against any incursion from the “Wild Lands.”
But during the Watchful Peace (from 2063 to 2460) the people of Calenardhon dwindled: the more vigorous, year by year, went eastward to hold the line of the Anduin; those that remained became rustic and far removed from the concerns of Minas Tirith. The garrisons of the forts were not renewed, and were left to the care of local hereditary chieftains whose subjects were of more and more mixed blood. For the Dunlendings drifted steadily and unchecked over the Isen. Thus it was, when the attacks on Gondor from the East were renewed, and Orcs and Easterlings overran Calenardhon and besieged the forts, which would not have long held out. Then the Rohirrim came, and after the victory of Eorl on the Field of Celebrant in the year 2510 his numerous and warlike people with great wealth of horses swept into Calenardhon, driving out or destroying the eastern invaders. Cirion the Steward gave them possession of Calenardhon, which was thenceforth called the Riddermark, or in Gondor Rochand (later Rohan). The Rohirrim at once began the settlement of this region, though during the reign of Eorl their eastern bounds along the Emyn Muil and Anduin were still under attack. But under Brego and Aldor the Dunlendings were rooted out again and driven away beyond the Isen, and the Fords of Isen were guarded. Thus the Rohirrim earned the hatred of the Dunlendings, which was not appeased until the return of the King, then far off in the future. Whenever the Rohirrim were weak or in trouble the Dunlendings renewed their attacks.
No alliance of peoples was ever more faithfully kept on both sides than the alliance of Gondor and Rohan under the Oath of Cirion and Eorl; nor were any guardians of the wide grassy plains of Rohan more suited to their land than the Riders of the Mark. Nonetheless, there was a grave weakness in their situation, as was most clearly shown in the days of the War of the Ring when it came near to causing the ruin of Rohan and of Gondor. This was due to many things. Above all, the eyes of Gondor had ever been eastward, whence all their perils came; the enmity of the “wild” Dunlendings seemed of small account to the Stewards. Another point was that the Stewards retained under their own rule the Tower of Orthanc and the Ring of Isengard (Angrenost); the keys of Orthanc were taken to Minas Tirith, the Tower was shut, and the Ring of Isengard remained manned only by an hereditary Gondorian chieftain and his small people, to whom were joined the old hereditary guards of Aglarond. The fortress there was repaired with the aid of masons of Gondor and then committed to the Rohirrim, by whom it was called Glæmscrafu (caves of radiance, with the same meaning as Aglarond), but the fortress Súthburg, and after King Helm’s day the Hornburg. From it the guards of the Fords were supplied. For the most part, their settled dwellings were about the feet of the White Mountains and in the glens and valleys of the south. To the northern bounds of the Westfold they went seldom and only at need, regarding the eaves of Fangorn (the Entwood) and the frowning walls of Isengard with dread. They meddled little with the “Lord of Isengard” and his secret folk, whom they believed to be dealers in dark magic. And to Isengard the emissaries from Minas Tirith came ever more seldom, until they ceased; it seemed that amidst their cares the Stewards had forgotten the Tower, though they held the keys.
Yet the western frontier and the line of the Isen was naturally commanded by Isengard, and this had evidently been well understood by the Kings of Gondor. The Isen flowed down from its sources along the eastern wall of the Ring, and as it went on southwards it was still a young river that offered no great obstacle to invaders, though its waters were still very swift and strangely cold. But the Great Gate of Angrenost opened west of Isen, and if the fortress were well manned, enemies from the westlands must be in great strength if they thought to pass on into Westfold. Moreover, Angrenost was less than half the distance of Aglarond from the Fords, to which a wide horse-road ran from the Gates, for most of the way over level ground. The dread that haunted the great Tower, and fear of the glooms of Fangorn that lay behind, might protect it for a while, but if it were unmanned and neglected, as it was in the latter days of the Stewards, that protection would not long avail.
So it proved. In the reign of King Déor (2699 to 2718) the Rohirrim found that to keep a watch on the Fords was not enough. Since neither Rohan nor Gondor gave heed to this far corner of the realm, it was not known until later what had happened there. The line of the Gondorian chieftains of Angrenost had failed, and the command of the fortress passed into the hands of a family of the people. These, as has been said, were already long before of mixed blood, and they were now more friendly disposed to the Dunlendings than to the “wild Northmen” who had usurped the land; with Minas Tirith far away, they no longer had any concern. After the death of King Aldor, who had driven out the last of the Dunlendings and even raided their lands in Enedwaith by way of reprisal, the Dunlendings unmarked by Rohan but with the connivance of Isengard began to filter into northern Westfold again, making settlements in the mountain glens west and east of Isengard and even in the southern eaves of Fangorn. In the reign of Déor they became openly hostile, raiding the herds and studs of the Rohirrim in Westfold. It was soon clear to the Rohirrim that these raiders had mot crossed the Isen either by the Fords or at any point far south of Isengard, for the Fords were guarded. Attacks were often made on the garrison of the west bank, but these were not pressed: they were in fact only made to distract the attention of the Rohirrim from the north. Déor therefore led an expedition northwards, and was met by a host of Dunlendings. These he overcame; but he was dismayed to find that Isengard was also hostile. Thinking that he had relieved Isengard of a Dunlendish siege, he sent messengers to its Gates with words of good will, but the Gates were shut upon them and the only answer they got was by bowshot. As was later known, the Dunlendings, having been admitted as friends, had seized the Ring of Isengard, slaying the few survivors of its ancient guards who were not (as were most) willing to merge with the Dunlendish fold. Déor sent word at once to the Steward in Minas Tirith (at that time, in the year 2710, Egalmoth), but he was unable to send help, and the Dunlendings remained in occupation of Isengard until, reduced by the great famine after the Long Winter (2758-9), they were starved out and capitulated to Fréaláf (afterwards first King of the Second Line). But Déor had no power to storm or besiege Isengard, and for many years the Rohirrim had to keep a strong force of Riders in the north of Westfold; this was maintained until the great invasions of 2758.
It can thus be readily understood that when Saruman offered to take command of Isengard and repair it and reorder it as part of the defenses of the West, he was welcomed both by King Fréaláf and by Beren the Steward. So when Saruman took up his abode in Isengard, and Beren gave to him the keys of Orthanc, the Rohirrim returned to their policy of guarding the Fords of Isen, as the most vulnerable point in their western frontier.
There can be little doubt that Saruman made his offer in good faith, or at least with good will towards the defense of the West, so long as he himself remained the chief person in that defense, and the head of its council. He was wise, and perceived clearly that Isengard with its position and its great strength, natural and by craft, was of utmost importance. The line of the Isen, between the pincers of Isengard and the Hornburg, was a bulwark against invasion from the East (whether incited and guided by Sauron, or otherwise), either aiming at encircling Gondor or at invading Eriador. But in the end he turned to evil and became an enemy; and yet the Rohirrim, though they had warnings of his growing malice toward them, continued to put their main strength in the west at the Fords, until Saruman in open war showed them that the Fords were small protection without Isengard and still less against it.
In the end Grimbold manned the western end of the Fords with the greater part of his foot-soldiers; there they were in a strong position in the earth-forts that guarded the approaches. He remained with the rest of his men, including what remained to him of Théodred’s cavalry, on the east bank. The eyot he left bare. It is told that he set up on stakes all about the eyot the heads of the axemen that had been slain there, but above the hasty mound of Théodred in the middle was set his banner. “That will be defense enough,” he said. Elfhelm however withdrew his Riders and took up his position on the line where he had wished the main defense to stand; his purpose was to descry as soon as could be any attack coming down on the east of the river and to disperse it before it could reach the Fords.
All went ill, as most likely it would have done in any case: Saruman’s strength was too great. He began his attack by day, and before noon of March the 2nd, a strong force of his best fighters, coming down by the Road from Isengard, attacked the forts on the west of the Fords. This force was in fact only a small part of those that he had in hand, no more than he deemed sufficient to dispose of the weakened defense. But the garrison of the Fords, though greatly outnumbered, resisted stubbornly. At length, however, when both the forts were heavily engaged, a troop of Uruks forced the passage between them and began to cross the Fords. Grimbold, trusting in Elfhelm to hold off attack on the east side, came across with all the men he had left and flung them back – for a while. But the enemy commander then threw in a battalion that had not been committed, and broke the defenses. Grimbold was obliged to withdraw across the Isen. It was then near sunset. He had suffered much loss, but had inflicted far heavier losses on the enemy (mostly Orcs), and he still held the east bank strongly. The enemy did not attempt to cross the Fords and fight their way up the steep slopes to dislodge him; not yet.
Elfhelm had been unable to take part in this action. In the dusk he withdrew his companies and retired towards Grimbold’s camp, setting his men in groups at some distance from it to act as a screen against attack from north and east. From southwards they expected no evil, and hoped for succor. After the retreat across the Fords errand-riders had been dispatched at once to Erkenbrand and to Edoras telling of their plight. Fearing, indeed knowing, that greater evil would befall them ere long, unless help beyond hope reached them swiftly, the defenders prepared to do what they could to hold up Saruman’s advance before they were overwhelmed. This, it is said, was Grimbold’s resolve. Elfhelm would not desert him, but had he himself been in command, he would have abandoned the Fords under cover of night and withdrawn southwards to meet Erkenbrand and swell the forces still available for the defense of the Deeping-coomb and the Hornburg. The greater part stood to arms, only a few at a time attempting to snatch such brief rest and sleep as they could. Grimbold and Elfhelm were sleepless, awaiting the dawn and dreading what it might bring.
They did not have to wait so long. It was not yet midnight when points of red light were seen coming from the north and already drawing near on the west of the river. It was the vanguard of the whole remaining forces of Saruman that he was now committing to battle for the conquest of Westfold. This was the great host that Meriadoc saw leaving Isengard, as he related afterwards to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli: “I saw the enemy go: endless lines of marching Orcs; and troops of them mounted on great wolves. And there were battalions of Men, too. Many of them carried torches, and in the flare I could see their faces…. They took an hour to pass out of the gates. Some went off down the highway to the Fords, and some turned away and went eastward. A bridge has been built down there, about a mile away, where the river runs in a very deep channel.” They came on at great speed, and suddenly all the host burst into flame, as it seemed. Hundreds of torches were kindled from those borne by the leaders of troops, and gathering into their stream, the forces already manning the west bank, they swept over the Fords like a river of fire with a great clamor of hate. A great company of bowmen might have made them rue the light of their torches, but Grimbold had only a handful of archers. He could not hold the east bank, and withdrew from it, forming a great shield-wall about his camp. Soon it was surrounded, and the attackers cast torches among them, and some they sent high over the heads of the shield-wall, hoping to kindle fires among the stores and terrify such horses as Grimbold still had. But the shield-wall held. Then, since the Orcs were of less avail in such fighting because of their stature, fierce companies of the Dunlendish hillmen were thrown against it. But for all their hatred, the Dunlendings were still afraid of the Rohirrim if they met face-to-face, and they were also less skilled in warfare and less well armed. They were without body-armor, having only among them a few hauberks gained by theft or in loot. The Rohirrim had the advantage in being supplied by the metal-workers of Gondor. In Isengard as yet only the heavy and clumsy mail of the Orcs was made by them for their own uses. The shield-wall still held.
In vain Grimbold looked for help to come from Elfhelm. None came. At last then he determined to carry out if he could the plan that he had already made, if he should find himself in just such a desperate position. He had at length recognized the wisdom of Elfhelm, and understood that though his men might fight on till all were slain, and would if he ordered it, such valor would not help Erkenbrand: any man that could break out and escape southwards would be more useful, though he might seem inglorious.
The night had been overcast and dark, but now the waxing moon began to glimmer through drifting cloud. A wind was moving from the East: the forerunner of the great storm that when day came would pass over Rohan and burst over Helm’s Deep the next night. Grimbold was aware suddenly that most of the torches had been extinguished and the fury of the assault had abated. It seems that Grimbold’s valiant defense had not been altogether unavailing. It had been unexpected, and Saruman’s commander was late: he had been delayed for some hours, whereas it was intended that he should sweep over the Fords, scatter the weak defenses, and without waiting to pursue them hasten to the road and proceed then south to join in the assault on the Deeping. He was now in doubt. He awaited, maybe, some signal from the other army that had been sent down the east side of the Isen. He therefore at once mounted those riders for whom horses were available, not many more than half an éored, and placed them under the command of Dúnhere; a valiant captain, nephew of Erkenbrand and Lord of Harrowdale. By courage and skill in arms he survived the disaster of the Fords, but fell in the Battle of the Pelennor, to the great grief of Westfold. The shield-wall was opened on the east side and the Riders passed through, driving back their assailants on that side; then dividing and wheeling round, they charged the enemy to the north and south of the camp. The sudden maneuver was for a space successful. The enemy was confused and dismayed; many thought at first that a large force of Riders had come from the east. Grimbold himself remained on foot with a rearguard of picked men, already chosen; and covered for the moment by these and the Riders under Dúnhere, the remainder retreated with what speed they could. But Saruman’s commander soon perceived that the shield-wall was broken and the defenders in flight. Fortunately the moon was overtaken by cloud and all was dark again, and he was in haste. He did not allow his troops to press the pursuit of the fugitives far into the darkness, now that the Fords were captured. He gathered his force as best he could and made for the road southward. So it was that the greater part of Grimbold’s men survived. They were scattered in the night, but, as he had ordered, they made their ways away from the Road, east of the great turn where it bent west towards the Isen. They were relieved but amazed to encounter no enemies, not knowing that part of the great army out of Isengard had already some hours before passed southward down the east side of the Isen, and that Isengard was now guarded by little but its own strength of wall and gate.
It was for this reason that no help had come from Elfhelm. More than half of Saruman’s force had actually been sent down east of Isen. They came on more slowly than the western division, for the land was rougher and without roads; and they bore no lights. But before them, swift and silent, went several troops of the dreaded wolf-riders. Before Elfhelm had any warning of the approach of enemies on his side of the river the wolf-riders were between him and Grimbold’s camp; and they were also attempting to surround each of his small groups of Riders. It was dark and all his force was in disarray. He gathered all that he could into a close body of horsemen, but he was obliged to retreat eastward. He could not reach Grimbold, though he knew that he was in straits and had been about to come to his aid when attacked by the wolf-riders. But he also guessed rightly that the wolf-riders were only the forerunners of a force far too great for him to oppose that would make for the southward road. The night was wearing away; he could only await the dawn.
What followed is less clear, since only Gandalf had full knowledge of it. He received news of the disaster only in the late afternoon of March the 3rd. The news was brought by the Rider named Ceorl, who, returning from the Fords, fell in with Gandalf, Théoden and Éomer as they rode west with reinforcements from Edoras. The King was then at a point not far east of the junction of the Road with the branch going to the Hornburg. From there it was about ninety miles in a direct line to Isengard; and Gandalf must have ridden there with the greatest speed that Shadowfax could command. He reached Isengard in the early darkness, and left again in no more than twenty minutes. Gandalf must have made contact with Treebeard, and knew that the patience of the Ents was at an end; and he had also read the meaning of Legolas’ words: Isengard was veiled in an impenetrable shadow, the Ents had already surrounded it. Both on the outward journey, when his direct route would take him close to the Fords, and on his return south to find Erkenbrand, he must have met Grimbold and Elfhelm. They were convinced that he was acting for the King, not only by his appearance on Shadowfax, but also by his knowledge of the name of the errand-rider, Ceorl, and the message that he brought; and they took as orders the advice that he gave.
When Gandalf came with Théoden and Éomer to the Fords of Isen after the Battle of the Hornburg he explained to them: “Some men I sent [southward] with Grimbold of Westfold to join Erkenbrand. Some I set to make this burial. They have now followed your marshal, Elfhelm. I sent him with many Riders to Edoras.”
Marshal of the Mark (or Riddermark) was the highest military rank and the title of the King’s lieutenants (originally three), commanders of the royal forces of fully equipped and trained Riders. The First Marshal’s ward was the capital, Edoras, and the adjacent King’s Lands (including Harrowdale). He commanded the Riders of the Muster of Edoras, drawn from this ward, and from some parts of the West-mark and East-mark for which Edoras was the most convenient place of assembly. These were terms only used with reference to military organization. Their boundary was the Snowbourn River to its junction with the Entwash, and thence north along the Entwash. The Second and Third Marshals were assigned commands according to the needs of the time. In the beginning of the year 3019 the threat from Saruman was the most urgent, and the Second marshal, the King’s son Théodred, had command over the West-mark with his base at Helm’s Deep; the Third Marshal, the King’s nephew Éomer, had as his ward the East-mark with his base at his home, Aldburg in the Folde. Here Eorl had his house; it passed, after Brego son of Eorl removed to Edoras, into the hands of Eofor, third son of Brego, from whom Éomund, father of Éomer, claimed descent. The Folde was part of the King’s Lands, but Aldburg remained the most convenient base for the Muster of the East-mark.
In the days of Théoden there was no man appointed to the office of First Marshal. He came to the throne as a young man (at the age of thirty-two), vigorous and of martial spirit, and a great horseman. If war came, he would himself command the Muster of Edoras; but his kingdom was at peace for many years, and he rode with his knights and his Muster only on exercises and in displays; though the shadow of Mordor reawakened grew ever greater from his childhood to his old age. In this peace the Riders and other armed men of the garrison of Edoras were governed by an officer of the rank of marshal (in the years 3012-19 this was Elfhelm). When Théoden became, as it seemed, prematurely old, this situation continued, and there was no effective central command: a state of affairs encouraged by his counsellor Gríma. The King, becoming decrepit and seldom leaving his house, fell into the habit of issuing orders to Háma, Captain of his Household, to Elfhelm, and even to the Marshals of the Mark, by the mouth of Gríma Wormtongue. This was resented, but the orders were obeyed, within Edoras. As far as fighting was concerned, when the war with Saruman began, Théodred assumed general command without orders. He summoned a muster of Edoras, and drew away a large part of its Riders, under Elfhelm, to strengthen the Muster of Westfold and help it to resist the invasion.
In times of war or unquiet, each Marshal of the Mark had under his immediate orders, as part of his “household” (that is, quartered under arms at his residence) an éored ready for battle which he could use in an emergency at his own discretion. This was what Éomer had in fact done when he pursued the Orcs, captors of Meriadoc and Peregrin, who had come down into Rohan from the Emyn Muil; but the charge against him, urged by Gríma, was that the King had in this case forbidden him to take any of the still uncommitted forces of the East-mark from Edoras, which was insufficiently defended; that he knew of the disaster of the Fords of Isen and the death of Théodred before he pursued the Orcs into the remote Wold; and that he had also against general orders allowed strangers to go free, and had even lent them horses.
After the fall of Théodred, command in the West-mark (again without orders from Edoras) was assumed by Erkenbrand, Lord of Deeping-coomb and of much other land in Westfold. He had in youth been, as most lords, an officer in the King’s Riders, but he was so no longer. He was, however, the chief lord in the West-mark, and since its people were in peril it was his right and duty to gather all those among them able to bear arms to resist invasion. He thus took command also of the Riders of the Western Muster; but Elfhelm remained in independent command of the Riders of the Muster of Edoras that Théodred had summoned to his assistance.
After the healing of Théoden by Gandalf, the situation changed. The King again took command in person, Éomer was reinstated, and became virtually first Marshal, ready to take command if the King fell or his strength failed; but the title was not used, and in the presence of the King in arms he could only advise and not issue orders. The part he actually played was thus much the same as that of Aragorn: a redoubtable champion among the champions of the King. Those who did not know of the events at court naturally assumed that the reinforcements sent west were under Éomer’s command as the only remaining Marshal of the Mark.
When the Full Muster was made in Harrowdale, Théoden called a council of the marshals and captains at once, and before he took a meal; although it is not described in any account, because Merry was not present. When the “line of journey” and order of battle considered as far as possible determined, Éomer remained in this position, riding with the King (as commander of the leading éored, the King’s Company) and acting as his chief counsellor. Elfhelm became a Marshal of the Mark, leading the first éored of the Muster of the East-mark. Grimbold had the function, but not the title, of the Third Marshal, and commanded the Muster of the West-mark. Grimbold was a lesser marshal of the Riders of West-mark in Théodred’s command, and as given this position, as a man of valor in both the battles at the Fords, because Erkenbrand was an older man, and the King felt the need of one of dignity and authority to leave behind in command of such forces as could be spared for the defense of Rohan. Grimbold fell in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and Elfhelm became the lieutenant of Éomer as King; he was left in command of all the Rohirrim in Gondor when Éomer went to the Black Gate, and he routed the hostile army that had invaded Anórien. He is named as one of the chief witnesses of Aragorn’s coronation.
It is recorded that after Théoden’s funeral, when Éomer reordered his realm, Erkenbrand was made Marshal of the West-mark, and Elfhelm Marshal of the East-mark, and these titles were maintained, instead of Second and Third Marshal, neither having precedence over the other. In time of war a special appointment was made to the office of Underking: its holder either ruled the realm in the King’s absence with the army, or took command in the field if, for any reason, the King remained at home. In peace the office was only filled when the King, because of sickness or old age, deputed his authority; the holder was then naturally the Heir to the throne, if he was a man of sufficient age. But in war the Council was unwilling that an old King should send his Heir to battle beyond the realm unless he had at least one other son.