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Dark is the path: 1. Dark is the path
June 15, 3019 - Edoras
Halbarad shivered. It was early enough that there was no one outside yet except a few guards, and they merely nodded a greeting, used by now to his early rising habit. The sun had barely risen and the morning was unseasonably cold and foggy, but that was not what chilled him to the bone.
He glanced south towards the dark bulk of the mountains, towards the Door that led to the Paths of the Dead. It was less than half a day's ride away, and even with the Dead gone, it was too close. He would scarcely describe himself as given to fancies, but he could not keep his thoughts off it, and that worried him almost as much as the Door itself, and as much as doom of destiny foreseen, though not yet fallen.
While Elladan and Elrohir had ridden off north towards Lothlórien, he had accompanied the two Rangers who were going on to the Angle as far as Tharbad, so that he could gather some news of the North to bring back to Aragorn. What he had heard from the Rangers at Tharbad – brigands around the Shire and Bree and incursions of Orcs and trolls from the Misty Mountains; darker things stirring near Angmar – worried him; but those were normal concerns, unlike this jumping at shadows. He had been torn about not accompanying the messengers to take charge. The captains were dealing with matters well enough without him there, though, and Aragorn had asked him to bide in Minas Tirith a while longer. Now that Arwen had arrived here in Edoras, he understood why, and though he longed to be home, the North would have to wait.
After his return from Tharbad, until the previous day and the arrival of the twins with Arwen and her escort, there had been little to do except wait. Halbarad had spent the time sparring with some of the Riders and improving his command of Rohirric, for he had no more than a smattering of the language. It had not been enough to keep his thoughts off that damnable door.
The fog turned his hair to damp tendrils that were starting to drip, and it truly was unpleasantly clammy, but at least out here there were no walls to press down on him with the weight of mountains, worse than his long-ago foray into Moria. This morning when he woke up, the shadows in the room had reached to grab him, and the icy draft that played along the halls was the touch of bony fingers seeking to correct the oversight that had him yet breathing.
At least, after pacing about for some time, he no longer felt as if night was about to fall again and drown him in darkness; he had come out here hoping to calm his thoughts, and it seemed to be working. Even so, he was still too tense to sit down, so he stood staring out into the grey distance, the view of Rohan's wide grasslands obscured by the fog that hung thickly over the land, when he was startled by a light footstep behind him. Too light for one of the Rohirrim; an Elf then, come outside for some fresh air. An Elf, his darker thoughts supplied,...or a ghost?
A soft laugh. That sounded like no ghost... The Dead had been silent, except when their leader spoke to Aragorn, and had they laughed, he doubted the sound would have been as merry and bright as this.
"The Men of the Mark may name us wights, but I had expected better from Elessar's standardbearer, Halbarad Dúnadan," a woman spoke in Sindarin.
Halbarad turned around to find the Lady Galadriel standing behind him. Somewhat embarrassed at letting his guard down far enough that any could approach so close unnoticed, annoyed at the upbraiding, and surprised that she remembered his name, he hesitated before he spoke. "Lady, I did not mean..." He stopped immediately at her raised hand.
She laughed again. "I know you did not, and I apologise for seeking amusement at your expense. It is not so many years ago that you came to Lothlórien with my grandsons, nor am I unaware of the Grey Company's swift response to my summons to come to your kinsman's aid."
At first he merely nodded in acknowledgement, then looked at her sharply as the full meaning of her words struck him. "It was you then!" He had been on his way to Fornost when a sense came over him that he was needed in Rivendell. When he arrived there, a message had been given to him. Aragorn has need of his kindred. Let the Dúnedain ride to him in Rohan! Luckily, the Grey Company had been in the Angle, preparing to follow him to Fornost, and he had been able to gather them swiftly, so that they could set off without delay.
Galadriel only inclined her head briefly in response, and as she spoke, Halbarad knew that had been all the confirmation he would get from her. "That is not why I approached you, though," she said. "I sensed your turmoil and would know what troubles you."
What troubles me? There was little point in trying to dissemble to the Lady of the Golden Wood; he might as well tell her, even if she could not ease his mind. Perhaps he should have talked it over with Aragorn, but in Minas Tirith it had seemed a silly thing to fret about, and easily shrugged off; it was only since he had arrived in Edoras, with the Paths of the Dead so much nearer, that it had come to haunt him.
"Yes, I am troubled." Halbarad looked down, trying to find a good place to start. "Not so long ago, I knew I was about to meet my death; at least, I thought I knew, and I had made my peace with that." Galadriel looked as if she wanted to interrupt, but he went on before she could do so. "Not in the way that any Ranger knows that his next battle may be his last. I..." He paused to gather his thoughts again, "I am occasionally foresighted; and before this, my sight has always been true."
Galadriel nodded, but said nothing.
"As we stood at the entrance to the Paths of the Dead, I knew that if I stepped across that threshold I would be going to my death. Later, I knew that we would win the day before Minas Tirith and that I would not live to see the next evening. And yet here I stand." Halbarad stopped, looking away before he continued. "Do not get me wrong; I have seen the Black Gate come down and the Enemy defeated, I have seen Aragorn crowned, I know that I will have a long hope fulfilled and stand in the Hall of Feasts in Minas Tirith, in Merethrond, to witness my King's wedding... these are joy beyond words." Even in his preoccupation with the Door of the Dead, that remained true; and to know he would come home to the Angle, and hold Dineth in his arms again... He sighed as he went on. "Yet I am still troubled that my sight was wrong, even if only for myself. And now the place where I foresaw my death is nearby, and it is overwhelming me."
Galadriel held his gaze as he finished speaking, stopping him from glancing south, and finally said, "I see."
"Perhaps I should not bother you with this," Halbarad said as the silence lengthened again. "It is only foolishness to worry about, and naught to trouble others with."
"Nay," the Lady replied. "Had I wished not to be bothered, I would not have asked. But you say your sight has always been true. That is rare, especially among Men, but not entirely unknown. Thus I would ask, were you certain this was a true seeing?"
"A true seeing? Yes," Halbarad said immediately, looking down again as he thought back to the moment that the Grey Company stood before the Dark Door. "There was nothing in it that I would question. It felt true."
He looked up to meet Galadriel's gaze.
"If you will let me?" she asked. "Show me."
"Not that I doubt you can do this without my letting you," he replied, "But how...?"
"That is true to some degree," she admitted, "But it is easier, if you like, to enter a house through the door as an invited guest than to break through a wall; nor can a mind that is fully closed be forced to open against the will. Try to think of yourself as open, that should... ah, yes, thank you. Have you had no training?"
"Some," he replied. "Aragorn made certain that I was taught how to close my thoughts, given how much I knew of the secrets of those who stood against the Enemy." Had he been taken alive and made to reveal what he knew... Even now he still could feel his dread these many years ago when he realised why Gandalf had wanted Gollum found.
Galadriel said nothing, and he knew she was looking into his thoughts again. It was disconcerting to stand there under her gaze, and he wondered what she saw as she went through his mind. Did she see his memories, relive them in some way, or was it like reading a book? Just then she had compared entering his thoughts to entering a house, so perhaps it was like walking into a room and looking at something to study it? From the times he'd practised closing his mind with Elrohir, he knew that speaking in mind was not that different from talking out loud.
"I deem that if what you saw at the Door of the Dead was indeed foresight, it was so distorted that it would be nigh impossible to unravel what was true and what was not," Galadriel said, drawing him from his thoughts. "It is also true that foresight is never set in stone. Wittingly or unwittingly, one can always turn aside from what is foreseen, though other paths may be hard to find, or their end worse than what was first seen. As it was, you stood in an evil place, and were heading towards battle and uncertainty. It is hardly to be wondered at that your thoughts turned to death and darkness. Yet that is not all that was at play," Galadriel said, and stopped. Halbarad looked at her expectantly until she went on, "I would look back further, to the Hornburg."
That was surprising. "The Hornburg?" he asked.
"Yes. Did you not there stand by your kinsman as he confronted the Enemy in the palantír?"
"I did," he confirmed, bewildered by the direction her thoughts were taking. "But I did not myself look in the Stone."
"Nor would you have needed to," she said, "Both you and Aragorn have an ability to speak mind to mind that is greater than is common among Men. And for all, even those with little ability, or without training in the use of what skill they have, when there is both urgency and affinity, barriers between minds may be lowered. So, as you stood by Aragorn, you shared in what he experienced, and – as he fought the Enemy in thought – you were exposed to Sauron's attacks against him."
Halbarad looked away, repressing a shudder. He had not tried to see anything of the confrontation between Aragorn and the Enemy for fear that he might distract Aragorn. Even so, he had felt Sauron's attempts to overwhelm his kinsman; the icy dread of the Enemy's presence had almost been more than he could bear, surpassed only by his fear for Aragorn. Had Sauron been victorious...
Aware that he was not alone in his thoughts, Halbarad pushed the memory away. He had not spoken to anyone of that horrible night. Had it not been for Aragorn, he doubted he would have been able to face... Of course, had it not been for Aragorn, he would not have been almost face to face with... He shook his head.
"To face the Enemy and resist, even at one remove, is no mean feat," Galadriel said softly, and surprisingly gently. "I do not doubt that the Enemy was aware of your presence, but his attention was wholly on the one who had so boldly challenged him. Yet, though Aragorn bore the brunt of Sauron's attack, you were not left unscathed. And it may have been your love for your kinsman that brought you to face Sauron, but you stood by your own strength, even if you were tested severely."
That, Halbarad knew was true as well, but even with the Enemy gone, it was not an avenue of thought he cared to pursue. "And you think that what I saw at the Door of the Dead is linked to that?" he asked instead. "But how? What connection do you see?"
"Did what you feel when you approached the Door remind you of aught else?" she asked in return.
Reluctantly, Halbarad made himself relive the journey through the Dimholt to the Door. Even the Elf Legolas, who was used to Mirkwood's gloomy depths, had shown unease at that dark wood. The Rangers' ill ease could be easily read from their faces, and both Elrond's sons rode with hand on sword, ready to draw against threat unseen. Halbarad knew he had not fared any better, and though Aragorn looked composed, the set of his shoulders showed he too was on edge. Merely approaching the stone that stood to guard the final approach to the Door had distressed their horses enough that they would not go on unless led. The Door itself had been black as night, and though to the eye the air appeared clear, fear had hung around it as dense as the fog they stood in now. Halbarad looked up sharply to meet the Lady's glance. "Fear!" he almost exclaimed. "The fear... it was the same as what I felt at the Hornburg."
"Similar, not the same," Galadriel corrected him. "The forebears of those who became the Dead lived in these mountains and the valleys below them for years uncounted. It may be that they came west with the ancestors of the Edain, and are, like the Men of Dunland and Bree, akin of old to the Haladin, or they may have been among the first of the Easterling peoples. Be that how it may, during the Dark Years they worshipped Sauron, and it was only fear of the might of the Men of Númenor that brought them to Erech to swear to Elendil's son. Yet when they broke that oath, their arts could not free them from the service they had bound themselves to."
"So the evil that lay upon the Paths was not caused by Isildur's curse?" He had wondered about that on the road after Erech, but had not yet had opportunity to pursue it further.
"No, the Paths and the lands around them were a place of ill renown long before the Dead were cursed." Galadriel looked south for a moment, then turned to him again. "The influence of the Dead alone would not be enough to affect your foresight so, but together with facing Sauron no more than a day before, it was enough."
Halbarad thought about it. He could see that the two would have worked to strengthen each other, though he did not quite see how, but then he recalled the Rangers who had survived the attack of the Nazgûl on Sarn Ford, and some of the men in Minas Tirith after the battle for the city. "Then this was like to the effect of the Black Breath that was the weapon of the Nazgûl?" he asked.
"Yes, and no," she replied, "At least in turning your thoughts towards death, though not in the despair that comes with the Black Breath, and I also doubt that the Nazgûl would have affected foresight."
Halbarad nodded. And yet... "But there was some good purpose to my seeing, and to my speaking. Had I remained silent, I wonder if even Aragorn would have been able to break the spell of fear that hung over us all in that dark place." He had not known himself what he would say until his vision compelled him to speak. "How can it have been a false vision if good came from it?"
"The answer to that is outside my ken, I fear," Galadriel replied. "But while we must talk more on this, as there are still some things I mean to ask you, for now I would leave you to ponder what we talked about."
After Galadriel left, Halbarad stood looking out into the grey foggy morn a while longer. His mood was no longer so grim, but he was indeed left with much to think on. He still did not know whether his vision had been truth or illusion, or both mingled, but at least he knew that there had been a cause for it, and he ought to be able to leave behind this haunting.
As he at last turned to go back to Meduseld's hall, he noticed a small patch of alfirin – simbelmynë, evermind, as the Rohirrim called it – in the grass nearby, and he smiled as he considered the connection with death and remembrance that this small flower held in Rohan. It was an odd thought to take comfort from, if that was what it was, but he was Mortal, and would thus one day die, and in that sense his words at the Door had been true. He had said something very much like it to Aragorn on the journey from Pelargir to Minas Tirith, but then it had been no more than a bitter-flavoured attempt at jest; now, the bitterness was gone. The jest would not be to many people's taste even so, but it would do well enough for him.
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