here to return to Part I.
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Part II: The Arrows of the King

Pent Malbeth i Diriel:
Erin ennor pelia gwathand,
nan annûn rovail môr rimmol.
I vinas gîr. Nan serch erain
manadh anglenna. I echui
I Firn. I lû Gwedwerwaith tôl:
Ne Gond Erech adylithar;
Lastathar romru ath emyn.
Man gerel rom? Man estol hain
E thinnu thind, i 'waith ú-rîn?
I chîl pen amman gwestanner.
O Forven telitha. Baur horth(ol).
Athratha Fen nadh Raid i Firn.

In the brown light of dawn, Aragorn had turned south and come to the yawning black door at the root of the Haunted Mountain, from which the minds of Rohan’s folk had recoiled all the years they had lived in its shadow.  One by one his gray-cloaked companions passed under the rune-scrawled archway into the mountain, heedless of the gloom and malice that seeped from its stones.  Now ageless elves trod the Paths of the Dead, their footfalls barely louder than those of the shades that followed.  The slogging hoofbeats of their horses rattled and echoed in the chill, heavy air.  A mortal man doggedly led them forward by the wan light of a single torch, and Legolas carried another at the back of the column.  Last of all trudged a single, stubborn dwarf.

Gimli almost longed for an elf’s heart himself, and he did not doubt he would be addled before their nightmare journey was over.  He resigned himself to staring straight ahead, keeping his eyes upon elf-friend and the horse that walked beside him, both glimmering redly in the torchlight like the unsettled dreams he had carried with him since Moria.  There was room for horse and elf to walk abreast, yet in the barren stone womb of the Dwimorberg it seemed as if the walls were pressed inwards against the very sides of Gimli’s helm.  For once, the elves could not complain he was breathing too loudly; the sound was not coming from the dwarf.  Whispers swirled around them, rose and fell like wet leaves hissing in a dying fire.  There was no scent at all in this forsaken place save a sick dread that worked its way into one’s bones.  Torchlight flickered fitfully on dull stone or wood or metal; restless eyes slid away from surfaces too quickly to know what they were.  The proud horses of the Riddermark were like ghosts themselves, noses rising and falling only a foot or two above the floor, each one moving at a plodding walk.  At every shoulder, a tall elf walked steadily, one hand placed against the animal’s cheek.  The dwarf was the only one among the company whose will was bent solely on the task of keeping his own feet moving.

Keep breathing, that’s the key!   It’s one thing the dead don’t do very well, for all that racket they’re making.

Legolas walked at the rear of the company with Arod, and kept glancing back.  Sometimes he was checking on Gimli, and that was bad enough.  The dwarf had a silly notion the elf would start leading him along like their poor horses, dragging him by his beard.  Gimli was glad that Legolas had a torch in his other hand.  But sometimes the elf seemed simply curious, like a young child finding a dead bird in the snow, probing its frozen outstretched wing with a fingertip.  Whenever he looked over his shoulder, there were lights reflected in the elf’s shining eyes that were pale and cold, not torchlight.

When the black breath blows and death’s shadow grows...

“Stop doing that,”  Gimli muttered under his breath.

Legolas looked past the dwarf’s shoulder and told him gently, “They are not getting any closer.”  

Gimli bristled at the kindness in his voice.  “If I wanted to know that, Master Elf, I could see it for myself easily enough!”

The elf tucked a smile away, checking his stride.  “Walk next to me, Gimli.  When we come out the other side, I do not think there will be much time for fellowship for many days to come.”

Where will wants not, a way opens...

The other elves kept moving, and did not seem to notice that their torchbearer had dropped behind.  Gimli forced his feet to quicken and fell in beside the elf, trudging three steps for his every two.  Somewhere at the front of the company, Aragorn was picking up the pace.  The dead man’s horse that had claimed him did not seem to notice the wraiths or walls anymore than the elves did, and pushed forward eagerly in a place where no animal should be.

No living man am I...

Had Aragorn really come back to them at Helm’s Deep, or was he also a ghost?  Had Théodred?  Was Arwen at the Havens, or was Legolas?  Gimli felt dizzy.  His thoughts were starting to flicker along with the torches.

Time does not stand still, though the Sun be lost....

“He never did take a bath,”  Gimli grumbled to the elf, clutching his axe more tightly.  “I am beginning to think you have a point after all.”

“Help me dip him when we get to Gilrain,”  Legolas whispered.

Dead faces in the water...

Even Legolas’ voice was beginning to pall.  Elves were too pale, and the dwarf was sick of whispering.   He did not answer.  Gimli stared grimly at the firelight glinting off the helm of the elf ahead of them, and imagined the ring of his boots was a hammer at the forge.  That was better.

Yet the whispering was getting louder, and the echoes seemed to come from all around them, for the walls had opened out leaving them in a wide shapeless chamber that was more disorienting than the tunnel at their backs.  The roof was low, and they could not see what lay around them.  There was another abrupt halt.  Gimli peered forward, trying to see what was happening up at the front of the column.

Your king hath passed through...

Aragorn had turned off to the left bearing his feeble torch while the elves waited.  Its flame was now strangely motionless even when he moved, rising straight and thin as a candle’s.  At length the light of it fell on a rough-hewn wall, a great stone door, and the figure of a man fallen before the threshold.  His mail and helm glittered gold in the torchlight, and white bone winked between gaps in his armor.  Aragorn stooped, and the whispering of the dead grew louder.  Gimli saw shadows beginning to drift around him, and tried to block out the sight of them by squinting.  Shades seemed to be leaning over the man as he crouched down.

I would not take this thing, if I found it lying by the highway...

Aragorn lifted something that flashed white and silver from the side of the dead man: a small horn.  Then he straightened and turned, staring unflinchingly back the way they had come.  

“Let us pass, and then follow!”  he said in a fierce voice.  The murmurs of the dead died away, but the oppressive silence that followed was almost worse than the whispers.  “I summon you to the Stone of Erech!”

The perishing is more likely, and will be a lot easier anyway...

A blast of cold air swept through the chamber, devouring the torches.  Neither spark nor heat remained in them.  The host began to move forward again; evidently Aragorn did not deem it worth trying to relight them.

Oft hope is born, when all is forlorn...

Breathing.  That was the key.

The way grew narrow, and narrower still, to judge by the echoes.  Finally the horses’ tails swished against the walls.  Gimli held his axe before him, but sometimes it would catch stone with a grating clang.   He could still hear the light footfalls of Legolas up ahead of him, and that was a kindness, for the elf could make no sound if he chose.  But they could no longer walk together.  At first they had shared in whispers their hopes and fears for the Wood and Mountain, for both guessed war was already on the borders of their native land.  Nevertheless, their conversation soon trailed away into unresolved silence.  To Gimli, each word was an effort as much as every step, and he had not the will to spare for both.

Besides, the dead were listening.

But when the hooves of the horses had dwindled to a faint murmur some distance ahead, and it seemed as if the mountain’s weight was squeezing the walls together into a mere crack to cut him off from the rest of the company, the stumbling dwarf saw a glimmer.  Soon he was certain it was not merely the groping fancy of his eyes, but the pale hair of the elf who walked before him.  The dim light grew.  The tunnel opened.  A rivulet of water dripping from stones collected and began to run beside them.  They passed under another archway and came out into the living air of a deep-cloven ravine.  The fading light of sunset tinged the sheer crests of the cliffs, and to the dwarf’s numb wonderment there was a sky overhead, and a few stars already twinkling in its cold blue waters.  In that moment he could almost have waxed lyrical on the subject of Elbereth, but pride and friendship were rough bunkmates, and Legolas was watching him again as if to make sure he’d retained his faculties.

Gimli snorted and looked around them.  “Now where in Middle Earth are we?”  

Aragorn’s voice answered from the shadows nearby.  “Morthond, which is Blackroot, and I need not tell you why.”  Astride Brego, he waited by the tunnel’s mouth in the shallows of the stream itself, for there was not room for two to pass on the narrow rocky strip that hugged its bank.  Water rushed and gurgled around the horse’s legs, hissing.  The man’s face was drawn and stern but undaunted; little else would trouble him ever again after wrestling with the horror of the palantír.  “Rouse the horses, my friends.  There’s many leagues yet to Erech, and we must be there before the sun rises.”  

“Remind me again why we have a wild man from the north as our guide,”  Gimli grumbled.

Legolas, like the other elves, was singing quietly to soothe the horses awake.  Their voices more than anything else helped banish the dread of the place from which they’d come.  But not entirely.  The dwarf did not turn to find out what, if anything, had followed them.  

“Come, Gimli,”  said Legolas, holding out his arm.  Arod’s tail swished, and the horse’s head was held high; there was no trace of weariness on any of the animals or hint that they remembered where they had been.  Gimli heaved aboard, and the elf leapt up behind him; the rest of the company had already travelled some distance down the bank of the watercourse.  For a brief time Aragorn rode behind them, with the shades of the Oathbreakers pressing hard on his heels.

The dusk deepened.  The walls of the ravine abruptly peeled back, and the Morthond Stream plunged with a crash over a stony shelf beside the track.  From there it fell by terraces down into a wide grassy valley.  Far below was the humble ruddy glow of distant lamps and hearth-fires.  Gimli’s spirits rose at the smell of wood-smoke.  Somewhere in the fir-clad slope on their left hand, faint above the rush of the falls, came the ordinary peals of a squalling infant, some cottager’s child fretting over nothing worse than dinner.  But there was no time for the company to seek news or a hearty meal.

They began to pass huts built on stilts down by the river, and now and then a local putting stores away or bringing in wood for the night’s fire.  But no friendly hails greeted them, only cries of fear.  Burdens were tossed aside, and men and women and children lunged for the cover of their homes or the forest at their backs; doors were slammed shut; dogs howled or cowered or broke their chains and bolted.  Rumor of the ride of the sinister host swept through the Morthond Vale at the speed of sturdy mountain-bred horses, as the inhabitants fled or took refuge in the wooded slopes and canyons on either side of the river.  The last dun tints of sunset had not yet faded from the sky, but Aragorn’s company was already passing many homesteads where all lights had been extinguished, a few of them abandoned with doors still swinging.  The King of the Dead, came the cries from woods and rocky copses.  The King of the Dead is come!  Aragorn’s return could have brought no greater fear had he taken the ring from Frodo’s hand.

Once the road widened and bent southeast, Aragorn resumed his position at the front of the elven-host, setting a grueling pace.  Gimli and Legolas rode beside him again, and that was to the dwarf’s liking; he wanted no more wights breathing at his back.  But Aragorn was silent, bent on his own inner struggle, stretching the horses as much as he dared, lest he miss the midnight tryst.  Far into the night they rode.

As it drew near the appointed hour, Legolas suddenly gave a cry and pointed with his left hand towards the mountains.  The clouds were few and high this night, but through those veils that rested on the mountain-peaks there came a sudden red flicker.  As they watched it grew brighter and brighter.  The keen-eyed elf could see it was not one flame, but many, travelling westward like a slow-moving bolt of lightning along the top of the range whose toes they were skirting, flashing from peak to peak.  It was coming straight towards them, and it was coming from the direction Minas Tirith.

“A dragon?”  Gimli exclaimed, the heart within him going suddenly cold.  

“The beacon-fires of Anórien,”  replied Aragorn, his ragged words torn away on the wind.  “Lord Denethor calls for aid.  We are summoned!”

“Then has the siege begun?”  asked the dwarf.

Aragorn began to pull away from them; Brego had caught his rider’s fey mood.  “Not yet,”  his answer came drifting back.  “But war comes, and the Steward calls for all free folk to gather in Gondor’s chief stronghold, where they may fight together with stout walls at their backs.  Yet neither we nor Rohan can reach the city before the lands around her are held against us!”

Aftrewards he pressed them harder still, and the leagues of the mountain road were fleeting beneath the feet of the steeds of Rohan, any of whom might have rivalled Shadowfax under the guiding will of such riders.  Finally, at midnight, they came at last to the bleak hill with the Black Stone set upon it.  The elven-host halted in a half-circle at the foot of the mound, for this was man’s business.  Even Legolas and Gimli stayed below, watching anxiously as Aragorn scaled the round hill, step by labored step.  His bent figure was silhouetted against the full moon.  They could see him stand and straighten by the huge sphere of rock set into the earth at the hill’s crest.  He turned and looked both north and east.  Then he drew the silver horn and blew one haunting note.  

Figures Gimli had been trying not to see rushed between and through the elf-host like a wind-blown skirl of leaves and swept around the lonely figure who awaited them.  The air around the man was suddenly full of moving shadows, not just empty darkness.  He raised his hand.

Oathbreakers, why have ye come?

Dim and cold came a chorus of voices that made Gimli wish his axe were still in his hands and not strapped across his back.  To fulfill our oath and have peace.

The hour is come, for I am Elessar Isildur’s heir, to whom the oath was sworn.  And when the lands from Erech to Pelargir are cleansed of Sauron’s servants, the oath shall be fulfilled and ye shall have peace.  Follow.

He did not seem a living man who spoke, although his voice rang out clear over their rustling murmur.  In answer to his command came the braying of many horns, faint and discordant, ill notes jarring even to dwarf-ears used to the scrape of metal on stone and the clamor of the forge.  The elves shifted in their saddles, the first sign of unease they had shown on this eerie journey.

Aragorn strode quickly back down the hill and did not speak.   He slung himself into the saddle.  Brego leapt forward again and resumed the race eastward.  The elves followed, and the dead pursued.  So he became King of the Dead for a while, who was not yet king of the living.  

All that day they crossed the uplands of Lamedon under a pale grey sky.  Light winter clouds clustered on the mountaintops which flanked both sides of the lonely road.  A few outlying peaks rose high to the south, separated by a narrow neck of land from the spine of peaks that now lay between them and Rohan on their left.  Rocky meads of yellowed grass spread out all around them.  There were sheep bleating on the hills, but they saw no trace of men.  

At the end of the long and wearisome day they came to an ordered hamlet on the bank of a river, but they found it utterly deserted.  Its inhabitants had gone away to war, or else forsaken their homes at the tidings that the King of the Dead had come forth.  Cats skulked in doorways and between the houses, watching the host pass by.  An inn’s sign creaked in a wind no one could feel.  The Galadrim observed closely the humble half-timbered houses, thatched roofs, and winter-nipped vines of roses climbing walls and porches.  Even the ordinary sight of a wagon abandoned in the middle of the street, leaning on a broken wheel, was a strange curiosity for them.  All was silent.  The footfalls of their steeds thudded on the dusty road.  

Aragorn called a rest when they reached the stone bridge on the far side of town, and they turned off into the fallow fields to pitch camp and take a much-needed rest.  The elves did not feel the oppressive pall of the dead, but Aragorn was wise enough to know the leader of the company needed a clear head and all his powers for the trial to come.  Also there were the horses: elves could fire their spirits, but not give them strength beyond their mortal frames.  The hardy dwarf could have made do, but was just as happy that the leader of the host was mortal after all.

Sometime during the night, Gimli was roused out of a prodigious snore by a sharp cry.  As he reached for his axe, he blearily realized it had come from Legolas.


The Mirkwood elf was not the only one yammering; many of the Galadrim were speaking in dismayed murmurs to one another.

“What is it?”  Gimli muttered, making his way towards Aragorn by the reek of his pipe.  He found the man sitting a little apart from the rest of the company, drying out before a small fire.  Gimli and Legolas had made good on their pact at at the bridge, and the dwarf approached him cautiously.  “Where is that squeaking elf?”  

There was a soft rattle of arrows as Legolas sat down by the dwarf, but he did not speak; he simply drew a knife that flashed in the dim firelight and pointed upwards.  

Gimli squinted, following the gleam of red along the blade to the moon hovering over the mountains.  It took him a moment to grasp what the elf was pointing out to him.   The moon’s face was a dull rust, though it was one night past the full.  Yet even as he watched it was fading to the color of dried blood.  There were no stars in that part of the sky.

“It started an hour ago,”  Aragorn said grimly.  “Legolas, what do you make of it?”

“A fume blown on an ill wind from the east,”  the elf sighed.  “Mordor is coming between us and the very stars.  And the cloud is getting thicker.  There will be no sunrise.”  

There was a faint red glow on the man’s face as he blew into his tobacco.  “Sauron has answered my challenge,”  he mused, face shut as it had been since they set out from Dunharrow.  “We have little time, my friends.”

“And some seventy leagues before us!”  Gimli growled.  “Can the horses reach Pelargir ahead of that fleet you saw?  And running blind?”

The Ranger shook his head, evidently considering his options.  Smoke ringed his head, and behind him, the last wide open patch of sky was growing smaller.  Another star winked out.

Yet Legolas’ voice was steady and sure.  “My people can guide them, Aragorn, if there is any light left at all.”  

The man shifted around with a creak of leather.  The horses were moving restlessly in the middle of the bivouac.  They had encamped in a circle with the elves ringing the horses, to keep them together and protected, and to set a wall between them and the horror of the flitting shades.  Other than the champ of teeth or hooves and the occasional snort, there was no other sound; the slow-moving Ciril flowed mutely beside them, and the elves had stopped talking, returning to whatever manner of rest they needed.   A few open eyes gleamed, reflecting the embers of Aragorn’s fading fire.  Elves never closed their eyes for long save in death.

Gimli found himself missing the hobbits again.  He’d caught Pippin more than once daring the others to dribble water in Legolas’ eyes when the elf dozed, but the other hobbits were not Tooks, and the experiment had gone untried.  The dwarf sighed and rose to his feet, knowing that brooding was a man’s job, and that his was to rest or ride until he had more orcs to cleave.

Abruptly Aragorn began to laugh.

Gimli straightened, not liking this at all.  “Aragorn?”

The Ranger took another draw from his pipe.  “Look east,”  he said conversationally.

The dwarf peered, about to complain he could not tell east from upside down in such darkness, then discovered his meaning.  Gimli, too, began to chuckle.  “Well, well.  Sauron has left a lamp burning for us, hasn’t he now?”  

It was true.  Close to them the great walls of the White Mountains of Gondor reared up; only the faintest hint of gray still glimmered on their snowy heights now that the moon was eclipsed.  The tops of some were lost within the creeping haze.  But there were gaps between their shoulders, and the eastern sky was not altogether black, although it was a solid ceiling.  Far, far in the distance came a dim red glow, which could only hint at the unimaginable fires that must be leaping from Orodruin, the fiery mountain in the heart of the land of shadow.

“The forges of the Dark Lord burn the fiercer,”  said Aragorn, “as his doubt grows.  The more he seeks to drown us in darkness, the brighter that flame will become.  His fears will light the road before us when all other lights go out.”

Radathar aen i pheriannath ennas ven dîn,”  Legolas prayed under his breath.  

Aragorn blew another thin ribbon of smoke, gray eyes soft.  “Frodo and Sam will find a way, Legolas.”

Gimli’s spirits fell as he glared towards that distant but awful glimmer of the mountain they knew was the root of all their hopes and fears, the destination of the hobbits’ desperate errand.  “I wish we could do aught for them.”  

Aragorn smiled.  “We are, my friends, though you do not know it.  Where do you think the foe has kept the vast armies he is gathering against us?  All across the northern plains of Mordor, between the Black Gate and Orodruin.  They stood exactly between the Ringbearer and his goal.  But the host that remains there is much diminished, for our victory at Rohan and my little chat with him have given the Dark Lord reason to strike us swiftly.  If we can take Pelargir and confound his plans further, he will empty his land against us.  We shall have cleared the path for Frodo and Sam far more than we could by defending them with axe, bow, and sword.”

Gimli turned back, leaning on his axe and staring down at the man with a mixture of awe, horror, and respect.  “Even though we may well lose your precious city, and like as not ourselves in the process.”

Aragorn’s eyes flashed.  “I did not defend Helm’s Deep only to abandon Minas Tirith, Gimli, and I gave Boromir my word that the White City will not fall.”  

Legolas himself drew a sharp breath.  “You guessed this was needed.  That is why you let Frodo go alone.”

Aragorn tapped out his pipe on a stone.  “In part.  But I had no sure means to draw Sauron’s attention until the palantír came into my hands.”  

“Your luck again,”  Gimli marvelled.  The dwarf shifted his feet.  “Which is all well and fine, but even the elves are going to start calling you King of the Dead if you go another night without sleep.”

The Ranger threw his cloak from his shoulders and stretched himself over it, turning on his side to face the last untroubled patch of stars and the north.  “Then I suppose I had better sleep, before one of you takes it into your minds to hit me over the head with a rock,” he grumbled good-naturedly.  “Legolas, have Timdaur rouse us two hours before dawn.”

“Such dawn as there may be.”  He rose to his feet but did not go far, keeping watch over those who needed more rest than elves.

The cheerless dawn at Erech had been their last. The brown gloom deepened as they pushed eastward under the heavy sky. Sometimes a gray rain would come tapping down on the heath and hard-packed road, sending up little puffs of dust. This was a wild, rolling country, its ample folds and uplands a delight for idle travellers, but now adding miles to their journey. To the left, snow-capped mountains marched slowly past, laced here and there with white streams falling down to cross their path. The long road looped across foothills speckled with the first flowers of spring, a tumbled profusion of sweet-smelling heather, and fields fenced off by ancient hedges of braided hawthorn, last year’s berries dark and glistening. But no birds sang. The wind came in spare, staccato gusts. Some of the elves could feel the distant tug of the sea, since all the lands they crossed sloped down to it, but even that was only a dull ache rather than tempting music. The horses were always wanting to go too slowly, or too quickly for their strength to sustain, and could not make up their minds to hold to any one speed. They jostled and bumped against each other, and arrows rattled.

During most of the dreary day they saw no sign of men save hedgerows, but when the sun was westering somewhere behind them, Timdaur pointed to a low drift of haze sliding down a valley not far off. “Smoke,” he warned.

Aragorn acknowledged this with a tight nod. “We may have to fight our way through. Alert your folk!”

The grim elf nodded and dropped back to order his company. Smoke and fire. Those words passed swiftly down the column. Elves fanned out into a double line, with space between horses for bows to lean, and every hand had an arrow nocked to string. Keenly now they rode forward. Ears strained to catch the first sounds of battle echoing in the hills.

Leagues fell behind. Faster they galloped, and suddenly the Dead were among them, spilling forward with fell cries and deadly purpose. Greater they had grown since darkness claimed the sky, and now they could be seen plainly as the shapes of men running or riding, black tattered cloaks streaming behind, arms a sickly white as if swords and spears were fashioned of ice and bone.

But Aragorn recalled them, snapping out, “Hold! At my command, and not before!”

A hungry whine beat the air, but the Dead fell back, eyes burning.

Gimli clung to Legolas’ cloak and grumbled in his ear. “Now I begrudge you, friend, for I have no room to swing!”

“Shall I get down and run beside you?” inquired the elf. “Then you’ll have room for your axe, and I can catch you if you fall off!”

Gimli snorted. “Not likely. Look! We are nearly there. Give me the lay of the land; I can see nothing in this accursed mirk.”

“It is the vale of the Ringló, and—” Legolas paused as Arod cleared the crest of the hill. His bow-arm went limp. “and there is no need for axes,” he amended with a sigh.

“Ethring,” said Aragorn, grieving.

It had been a grassy vale like so many they had passed. A prosperous settlement of cottages and farmhouses were flung wide across gentle slopes, tumbling down towards yet another river that cut the vale in two. Now fields were burned to bare earth, as were sheepfolds, homesteads, and the little town clustered on both sides of the bridge. All that remained was charred wood and stone foundations, blackened soil. There was no sign of life or foes. Somberly, the company crossed the area of devastation, ashes swirling around their horses’ legs. The Dead spread out across the blackened vale, circling, alighting, and whirling off again like a great flock of birds. Nor were they the only dead.

Passing the reins to Gimli, Legolas slid from the saddle and knelt by a prone shape lying on its side in the ditch. The body was so badly burned that he could not tell whether it was a man or woman, young or old, but when he turned it over, there was faint movement under eyelids sealed shut. An infant was clutched to the person’s chest, mostly shielded by the arms of the one who held it, but the child was dead.

An elf did not quail at the sight of ten thousand Uruk-hai nor a legion of the empty shades of men, but this was beyond him. He stared at his fair hand resting on the ground beside blackened skin and an infant’s white face.

“Legolas, we cannot tarry,” Timdaur said sternly, reining over to the side of the road.

The Mirkwood elf saw there was nothing to be done. And yet he hesitated.

The wolves of Isengard will return. Leave the dead.

The words of Théoden had been wise, but their wisdom had broken on the shores of friendship, and Legolas might have defied the king that day had he not been numbed by the impossible fact of a friend’s death. Now he twisted around to snap, “You would leave them, then, for birds and dogs? There are no onodrim to bury them! Or perhaps this is not your concern, since they are only men?”

The captain observed this outburst impassively. “Stay if you must, son of Thranduil, but it is for men we ride.” He turned his horse’s head and spurred back to the head of the company.

Gimli coaxed Arod over to the fuming elf. “Come on, lad,” he said gruffly. “He’s right. Aragorn’s got the living to worry about.”

With a sigh, Legolas drew a long knife and passed it cleanly through the throat of the dying villager. He climbed into the saddle behind Gimli. Quietly they crossed the bridge. Wooden boards boomed like hollow logs underfoot, startlingly loud. Trailing behind, Gimli and Legolas emerged last of all from the former outskirts of the village, and jogged up the dusty slope on the far side.

Aragorn rode back along the line a short time later, looking for them. “Something?” he asked, coming alongside the pair and raising an eyebrow when he saw which one held the reins. “What happened?”

Legolas was mute; he might as well have been one more ghost at the back of the column.

“Nothing a few targets won’t mend, Aragorn,” the dwarf explained.

“Ah.” When no other answer was forthcoming, the man issued a sharp command. “Legolas, pedo enni.

Legolas stared straight ahead, over the dwarf’s helm. “Firn dâd e menig ernediaid. Ah in enith i nengin ú-istam.

Mellyn istar enith dîn. Ah i goth geritha rîn, ir geveditha chethyl a bing vín.

Aen,” Legolas replied uneasily. He could not be certain, after all, whether he had found a villager or some man of Umbar with a spark of pity. “I wonder,” he added, “whether Helm’s Deep has faced any more assaults. The thought of those good folk coming to grief after all our labor burns my heart. I wish we could have left them a larger garrison.”

Aragorn looked keenly at his friend. “We must hope,” he said gently. “But Treebeard promised the ents would keep watch.”

Legolas nodded and said no more.

“If you two have finished gossiping,” Gimli interrupted, “Shall we catch up with the leaders? I’ll not have these elves cheating me of kills if we come across anything worth hewing.”

“I owe you an apology.”

Legolas came to the captain of the Galadhrim in the late evening, when Aragorn had called a brief hold for the sake of the horses. A cool fog was flowing down the mountains in stealthy tendrils that were dun-colored, not silver, touched by the distant glare of Mordor. The company and their steeds were black shadows that moved in the mist. Soft whispers drifted back and forth as the elves spoke among themselves. Timdaur, seated by the edge of the road, was examining his arrows one by one before light grew too dim for the exercise.

Legolas propped his cheek against the curving tip of his bow, watching the other elf’s neat movements. “I am sorry. My heart was wroth against the senselessness of what we saw.” His speech was calm and steady now, though it still leapt with the passionate rhythm that was native to the north. “And yet I have seen more of death than many in your company.”

The captain finished sighting along a shaft, set it aside, and looked up. He inspected the younger elf with the same meticulous scrutiny. Legolas’ eyes were clear and bright again, but there was a thoughtfulness in them which Timdaur had not noted before. “The apology I accept. But you forget that sorrows have come to Lórien too.”

Legolas glanced in the direction of the dwarf. Gimli and Aragorn sat a little apart from the elves and horses, sharing the peculiar comraderie of the pipe. “I do not forget the Balrog, nor all the loss laid at its feet before Mithrandir threw it down.”

“I do not speak of Amroth and Nimrodel.” The captain gestured, inviting him to take a seat upon the gray heather. “But I am wary of saying too much, lest I rob you of your father’s gift.”

Legolas dropped beside him with his bow across his knees, moving with thoughtless grace. “What gift is that?”

“To be what we were.” Timdaur lowered his voice, although the dwarf and man were clearly out of earshot. “By the grace of Galadriel, Lothlórien remains a mirror of Elder Days. But your father has grasped something older, the starlit time before the sun and moon. Though accounted a lesser race— do not bristle, Legolas— the Wood-elves he rules are a joyous, simple people, a last remnant of the elves who sang in the dark before our longfathers began the westward journey to wisdom and sorrow. The world has passed them by. And that is something to wonder at, for the shadow that lies on our borders lies even more heavily on yours.”

Legolas spoke without pride or shame, passing a fingertip down his bowstring. “We do not have the might to challenge Dol Guldur.”

“Exactly.” Timdaur dropped his arrows back into his quiver with a patter like hard rain. “You keep far to the north, where some trees still grow unmarred. Many of us marvelled when one of the Woodland Realm ventured forth after so long, and was chosen to represent elves among the Nine who set out from Rivendell.”

Legolas tried to discern his meaning, but this elf was skilled in saying nothing but the bald words themselves. “It was my choice,” he said firmly. “I had hunted with Aragorn before, when he tracked a foul creature across our borders. When he proposed to go to Mordor, I stepped forward. Whatever you may think of us, the Silvan elves shall not stand idle when such perils threaten the world.”

The Grey-elf eyed him shrewdly. There was a pause during which Timdaur seemed to be debating whether to say any more. “Has your father told you of the Last Alliance, Legolas?”

The archer’s fair face grew suddenly troubled. “No, and he will not. I know only that we fought with honor against the Enemy, and that my grandsire met a brave end before the gates of Mordor. The Wood-elves sing no songs of those days.”

“I thought this might be so.” Timdaur seemed to be choosing his words with extra care. “For in you I see no trace of horror from that day when all your father’s household perished. Nor do you remember the faces of those who lie under the Dead Marshes, where I lost my king.”

“You were there?” Legolas’ expression grew suddenly keen.

“I was.” The captain shook his head. “I was there, Thranduilion, and I can name a great many who did not return.”

“Tell me,” Legolas asked earnestly. “For my heart bodes I will follow Aragorn to the Black Gate. I would know of my people’s deeds of valour, if I am to fight where they fell long ago.”

“No.” The Grey-elf faced him sternly. “Your father raised you Silvan, not Sindar, to spare you from old griefs. Hold fast to your beech-groves and the merry laughter of the Wood-elves. That undaunted spirit will serve you better than knowledge in these dark days. And have a care, firvellon. Aragorn is of a noble line surpassing other mortals, fostered by Lord Elrond and favored by the Lady herself. It is not strange to love such a man. But do not grow too fond of humbler folk, whose lives are brief. It is better to regard them only as we do the fleeting deer, not the everlasting stars.”

Legolas stared at him. “You speak of Haleth fíriel.

“In part. But your travel with the Fellowship has made you strange to us.” He glanced pointedly towards Arod, cropping the grass nearby: one of two horses in the company that bore a saddle.

“Did you send her away because of this?” Legolas asked warily.

Timdaur frowned. “Indeed not. I spoke truth. Think you she would have passed through the Haunted Mountain any way except strapped over a horse’s back, and perhaps half-mad when we came out the other side? And Haldir had given her leave to part the company and mingle with her own kind. I took that as a command, whether or not she willed it.”

Legolas laughed unexpectedly, remembering her habit of climbing everything. He wondered what men would say when they found her sleeping in the rafters of the king’s hall. For a moment he forgot the gloom all around them. “You will not so easily shake her from your trees, Timdaur. As dwarves crave gold, she craves golden leaves.”

At that moment, Aragorn’s summons rang out in the darkness, cutting through quiet conversations. “Si noro lim, Galadhrim.

Both elves rose to their feet. But Legolas held back to inquire, “Why did you have her in your company at all?”

The other elf shrugged as he turned away. “Haldir claimed her. He said any mortal who could slip past him once must be under his eyes ever afterwards. As for Lord Celeborn, I do not know why he accepted her fealty, but she has caused no harm so far.”

“So far?” echoed Legolas.

“Come,” said Timdaur, moving rapidly towards his mount. “We ride on.”

Steadily the Gray Company lapped up the leagues between Erech and Pelargir, abandoned by living men. The long road bent southeast and came down out of the hills, angling towards the mouths of Anduin, the great river which flowed south past Minas Tirith and Pelargir on its way to the sea. Come nightfall, the journey grew darker and more perilous. It would have been easier for Gimli and Aragorn to walk through Mirkwood blindfolded. The Elves, however, whose forebears had arisen long ago in the cold world before sun and moon, needed no more than starlight to see. That luxury they did not have, but the red fires of Orodruin lit up the eastern sky, and that sufficed.

The company began to pass settlements more often. Thankfully, these showed no further signs of war, save that most of the people had left for Minas Tirith or the great stronghold of Dol Amroth on the southern coast. The few inhabitants who had refused to abandon their homes waited stoically behind barricaded doors with lights shuttered or extinguished. As the shadow host drew near, vague horror crept over their hearts, and they cowered in the darkness, bereft of reason and hope. But when the elves swept past their doors, many heard enchanting music that would come to them in dreams for the rest of their lives.

The elves were singing in the moonless night.

A! Tollen gûr na Balannor
Nu goll dhúath e nathron dhonn
Onethelais panna i nôr
Gelaidh gelaid go linnod an
Nestad. Ai nae ú-amdir dâr.

O! Come is death to Valinor
Under shadowy cloak of the dark weaver.
Yavanna fills the place
of the Trees of Light with a chant
Of healing. Ah alas, no hope remains.

Harnannin athan nestad bân
Telperion a Laurelin.
Edhil ennas awarthar Dhûn
Farol i viriath coren
E galad vedui o Aman.

Wounded beyond all healing
Are Telperion and Laurelin.
Elves there depart the west
Seeking the jewels that held
The last light of Aman.

I aear dholl. Saer tîn vanadh.
Aphadar ‘lîn e-fast i chîn
Finarfin. Athradar athrad
Chelegnen. Sí falas thrúnen.
I ithil eria. Romru cân.

The sea is dark. Bitter is their fate.
They follow the gleam of the hair of the children
Of Finarfin. They cross the icy
Passage. Here is the eastern shore.
The moon rises. Trumpets ring out.

At the river Gilrain they came at last upon the enemy, contesting the fords with the brave folk of Lamedon. Their plight was great. Mariners from Umbar had stolen upriver in boats and swarmed ashore on both sides, driving the defenders to the fords and hemming them in, until they had no place left to stand but the shoals themselves. A black tar had been cast upon the waters. Now the river steamed and flared with billowing fire, and the reeds along the banks put forth a thick dark smoke that shrouded even the light of the flames. Yet this proved the enemy’s undoing, for it served to cloak the Gray Company’s arrival.

Through the smoke burst Aragorn, escorted by a silent shower of arrows. Some burned as they came raining down. Water flew like sparks from the horses’ legs, part of it ablaze, part merely giving back the light of the flames. Legolas and Gimli, hard on his heels, shot past him and clove their way through to the far side of the river. There they leapt down and held the bank side by side, challenging any who tried to flee. Timdaur and his company spread out, racing to encircle the attackers as they had done to Lamedon’s folk. In the smoke the elves’ numbers were hidden, and their pure, fearless voices put terror into the men of the south, who had not met their kind before.

There was a madness upon Aragorn as he drove into the fray. Eighty-three leagues and three days he had ridden with almost no rest, with darkness before him and shadows of the Dead at his back. Hundreds of miles more had he walked alone or with few comrades, dreading and looking ahead to Gondor’s final days. Now the storm was unleashed. With every stroke that brought him closer to his own people, he fought more savagely. It was as if he were trying to tear the darkness from the sky or win back lives from the ashes of Ethring. The men of Lamedon took up his war-cry of Elendil and roused themselves from despair, not knowing what or who had come among them. They rallied around the war-horse and turned upon their foes. Again and again Aragorn’s weapon came crashing down, felling those who did not shrink from him in dismay. The dwarf and elf had good sport on the bank.

Yet the skirmish was over too soon for Gimli’s liking. The Dead’s coming tipped the scales. Awaiting Aragorn’s word, they did not cross, but formed a cold wall of menace upon the western bank, a wave frozen in the instant before it broke. Their pallid mail and swords were dim in the dark, giving back no warmth or light from the flames; only their red eyes burned. But they did not need to be seen to work their spell. Friend and foe alike gave up the battle, hurled weapons down and ran, struggling wildly for the opposite shore.

Soon all that could be heard was the occasional twang of a bowstring and the slam of Gimli’s axe, the moans of the dying, the hissing of reeds, and the plash of water over cobbles and the bodies of men. The elves began to form up behind Aragorn again, knowing his urgency: even for the wounded, they could not turn aside.

One man alone barred their way on a horse that trembled. His sword was bent, blood trickled from his helm to his grizzled beard, and his silver-edged blue cloak was torn and stained with soot. Dread was in his eyes. But he did not yield. Doggedly the rider spurred his way into Aragorn’s path and challenged him at swordpoint. “Who claims the fords of Gilrain?” he demanded hoarsely. “Ghosts or wights, this land is Gondor’s, and not yours! Name yourselves, or some of you will not leave the river. So says Angbor, Lord of Lamedon.”

Bows bent in answer.

Aragorn was gulping air that burned throat and lungs, and for a moment the two men faced off sword to sword, one wrestling with terror, the other with the fading embers of battle’s fury. Smoke drifted around them, flickering a dull orange like the eastern sky. Then, slowly, the ranger withdrew his weapon and sheathed it. “Daro,” he said harshly, commanding the elves to back down their bows. Finally he raised his hands, palms forward. “Aragorn son of Arathorn am I, Dúnadan out of the north, Isildur’s Heir. But I make no claim now. My business is with Gondor’s enemies, whom we have travelled long leagues to fight.”

There was too little light to see what impression these words made upon the lord, but his sword wavered. “Rumor of your riding came to us,” he muttered. “But also ‘King of the Dead,’ who leads wraiths like those which are the talons of the Dark Tower. Proof of one I see.” He risked an uneasy glance at the western shore.

“They are the Oathbreakers. Their tale is still told in Lamedon, is it not?”

“It is told,” the man allowed. He looked upon Aragorn as one in anguish, afraid to use a rope to escape a burning tower lest it prove too slender for his weight.

The ranger held out a hand, gray eyes steady. On the shore behind him, Legolas stood in defiance of his last command with an arrow nocked, answering Gimli’s glance with a terse nod that reaffirmed an old vow: He will die before his stroke falls. Aragorn, however, paid no heed to the bloody point hovering near his heart. His soft-spoken manner reasserted itself: earnest, gentle, but unyielding. “My company and I have an errand in Pelargir, which will soon fall if we cannot bring aid. It would grieve me if we had to force our way past you.”

Angbor’s eye was drawn to the White Tree that glimmered on the vambrace covering his wrist. Then the lord caught sight of the ranger’s ancient ring, its elvish silver untouched by the grime of battle. His fingers loosened. The sword fell, ringing out as it struck the stones below. His mount shied violently, but he held his seat and reached out across the gap to clasp Aragorn’s hand. “The Ring of Barahir,” he said, voice hushed. “Command me, lord.”

Aragorn closed his left hand over Angbor’s right, smiling. “I see there are still loremasters in Lamedon. But why are you so far from your hold? And where is Prince Imrahil?”

Pride touched the battered warrior’s face. “My liege has taken the Knights of the Swan to Minas Tirith. The White City will be safe if all else fails.” The conviction behind his words was absolute. More grimly, he added, “As for Edhellond, it burns.”

That name drew keen glances from the waiting Galadhrim. Edhellond had been an elf-haven long ago, as its name signified, but it had been a thousand years since their last king had leapt from the ship and perished. None had sailed since.

“Edhellond is taken?” Aragorn asked sharply.

“It was given.” Angbor sagged when he released the ranger’s hand. Fatigue and horror were starting to take their toll. It was just as well for him that Timdaur had come over, unnoticed, to soothe his frightened horse while they spoke.

“I had neither men nor walls to defend it,” Angbor went on, “so I led my people to Dol Amroth and left my best archers with the garrison. The rest I led forth to add to the defense of Pelargir, but the enemy moves swiftly, and we are cut off.”

“The fords are cleared,” Timdaur stated.

Angbor flinched at the strange voice. Blinking, the lord peered around himself, suddenly realizing what manner of folk had come to his aid.

“Very good,” said Aragorn. Explanations would have to wait. “Angbor, we will clear a way. Rest, tend your wounded, then gather what men you can and follow. At Pelargir the Heir of Isildur will have need of you.”

“My lord.” The weary warrior saluted him, and edged his horse to one side.

Aragorn waited for Timdaur to remount and Legolas and Gimli to rejoin them. Then Brego leapt forward and cleared the flames dying in the shallows. The host surged ahead. Angbor did not move. He sat dumb and dazed while elves and shadows parted ranks and flowed around him.

Long after the sound of galloping hooves had faded into the dusk, the lord stirred. “Aragorn,” he repeated. Then he drew a horn from his hip and blew a long note, summoning his scattered men.


To Be Continued...