1. On the Ruins of Angmar
He had parted from Gandalf at Sarn Ford a month and a half ago, and at their meeting the wizard had told him the One Ring was in the possession of Frodo Baggins. The hobbit would be leaving the Shire in early September. In Bree, Gandalf would meet him, and from there they would make for Rivendell. Peril loomed, but as Gandalf seemed to have the situation in hand, Aragorn had gone on a journey to the northern lands of Eriador, to the ghost town of Fornost and the North Downs. Some Rangers were stationed at the outpost near the town and others on the borderlands overlooking Angmar, but the Realm had been silent for a thousand years and the outposts were thinly manned. Yet times were changing. The Enemy’s old lands might be of use to him. Thus it seemed wise to increase the size of the Dúnedain force there, though few men could be spared. Hence Aragorn had led a small force here, and in the Fornost camp received the messages from the outpost on the border warning of activity in Angmar.
He had left Halbarad in command at Fornost. Halbarad had been dismayed and insistent that he go and not Aragorn. Investigating the fears of frightened Rangers at a lonely outpost in a realm that had been quiet for a thousand years was beneath Aragorn’s duties. But Aragorn remained steadfast. If ever he told the secret of the Ring to anyone, it would be Halbarad. And though he longed to unburden his heart and his cares to a friend, now was not the time to reveal those dark secrets to anyone who did not already know. As Roheryn slowly treaded up the rough, winding pass, Aragorn recalled with sadness the look of wild frustration in Halbarad’s face as he had ridden off.
“Let me go with you, or let me go in your stead!” Halbarad had said in dismay as Aragorn rode for the Ettenmoors from the bridge near Fornost.
“It’s nothing, Halbarad,” Aragorn said.
“If it is nothing, why must you go? If it really is nothing, send another, for ‘nothing’ does not concern you.”
‘Nothing’ in fact did concern him. Aragorn had heard rumor of Riders robed in black abroad. That was a knife of terror through his heart. Had Sauron at last sent his fell servants, the Nazgûl, after the Ring? Were they here in Eriador? If they had passed through the Gap of Rohan or crossed the Mountains, they might very well return to their ancient realm, the seat from which the Witch-king’s forces had decimated Arnor.
None of this he could tell Halbarad, nothing of the Ring or of Ringwraiths. He wished he could.
“Halbarad...” he said.
Halbarad had taken hold of Roheryn’s bridle. “And if it is something so dangerous that you cannot even tell me what, then it is my task, for we cannot afford to lose you.” A wild look of dismay and anger lit his gray eyes. “I know you are riding into some danger!” he cried. “I know you. You have that fey look about you.”
Aragorn had tugged his rein, pulling the stallion’s head away. “I have been riding into danger for more years than you have walked this earth, Halbarad. I can take care of myself.” Then he had turned his spur to Halbarad and galloped away for the rugged borderlands.
He did not want to be here any more than Halbarad wanted him to be here, and would have gladly sent Halbarad on this cold ride had it not been imperative he lead the mission himself.
A three days’ ride from Fornost had brought them to the fort, a relic of the Kingdom of Rhudaur built upon a shelf about a thousand feet below the summit just at timberline. At the summit of the peak was a watchtower, built by the Men of Rhudaur to spy upon their enemies, looking out upon the Mountains of Angmar. The Rangers in the encampment had reported very little that was of use to Aragorn. They had found orc-tracks, but that was not unusual here, for everyone knew orcs lurked in caves and caverns in the high passes of the mountains. Yet nonetheless an atmosphere of terror pervaded the camp. Terror amongst Rangers was strange and unsettling.
It was to that watchtower that Aragorn and his two companions rode. He had wanted to have a look round, and the tower commanded a view of Angmar to the north, the tumbled defiles and ridges of the Ettenmoors to the Southwest, and the Hithaeglir to the East. Mayhap they could espy some sign of Angmar’s rousing from the tower. So with him he had taken two Rangers, Glaerdon and Anorhílad, and ridden up the narrow pass, a series of sharp switchbacks lanced into the sheer flanks of the mountain. Aragorn had known Glaerdon for years, a valiant soldier, fearless to the point of recklessness, and the most stalwart of allies, so long as he avoided inns with women and alcohol. Anorhílad was a young Ranger, a skillful swordsman but somewhat green.
Riding behind him, the two conversed in low and nervous voices, as though that fearful speaking too loud would draw enemies to them.
“Do you not wish right now you were in front of the fire at The Prancing Pony in Bree, nursing a pint of warm ale?” Glaerdon asked.
“Well, I rather like The Lonely Wanderer in Tharbad. Have you ever had the pleasure of their roast lamb?” replied Anorhílad.
“I cannot say that I have spent much time in Tharbad,” admitted Glaerdon. “How does their ale compare to that of The Pony?”
“It is better.”
“Than old Butterbur’s ale? I cannot imagine.” Glaerdon glared crossly at Anorhílad. “Well, Any ale would be most welcome now.”
They had at last come to the summit. Wind screamed in Aragorn’s ears, drowning out the voices of his companions. He wondered what foes could hear them. Even in the middle of June, snow had not yet melted from the high peak, and it billowed and swirled in huge, angry clouds. Beneath him, he felt Roheryn’s muscles grow taught, his neck stiffen, his mouth become hard and set. Often wind made horses nervous, but Roheryn was levelheaded and rarely was he fazed by the wildest wind or the fiercest storm. It was strange he should dance like a hot-tempered racehorse.
At the base of the tower, they drew their horses to a halt. Glaerdon’s young horse, Nightshade, spooked at some invisible foe, plowing into Roheryn’s hindquarters. Roheryn pinned his ears and half-passed thither, but knew better than to throw a kick.
“Ale would definitely be most welcome now,” laughed Glaerdon.
Here Aragorn bid Glaerdon to follow him up the stairs and Anorhílad to stand watch with the horses at the foot of the battered watchtower. Up the carven stairs they went, and there stood shivering in the biting wind that numbed their faces and made their eyes water. They pulled their cloaks about their shoulders, leaning over the stone battlements. The watchtower overlooked the inhospitable mountains of Angmar to the North, the desolate realm of the Witch-King, Lord of the Ringwraiths, and to the Northwest, the remote snow-capped Mount Gundabad, the northernmost peak of the Misty Mountains rearing above the serrated teeth of the high country surrounding them.
The land of Angmar was bleak and lifeless but for a thin plume of smoke rising from a knife-edge ridge, dissolving into the pale sky. Aragorn considered the feasibility of riding across that desolate country to investigate the smoke, but it was many leagues away. A two or three day ride at least. Well, he would warn Híron, the leader of the garrison stationed here, of the smoke and bid him to keep close vigilance on it. The smoke could very well be nothing – a forest fire, a lightning strike.
“What do you suppose that smoke is?” inquired Glaerdon, echoing Aragorn’s thoughts.
“I do not know,” Aragorn said. “It is many leagues away. I do not think it necessary to ride out to it, not today. We can tell Híron to watch it.”
The moment they turned from the battlements, a cry rose from Anorhílad down below. “Aragorn! Glaerdon! Orcs are coming! Help!”
Drawing his bow, Aragorn bounded down the stairs, Glaerdon and his sword at his heels. There at the foot of the watchtower, Anorhílad, astride his chestnut gelding Bara, held the reins of Roheryn and Nightshade in one hand and his sword in the other. Round and round he turned Bara on his haunches, fending off a dozen orcs. They drove him back towards the precipice, a sharp cornice leaping into the air and the ground a thousand feet below the lip of the cliff.
In quick succession Aragorn let loose four arrows. All but one struck and slew orcs. With savage snarls the creatures turned their attention to the Rangers leaping down the stairs. But Aragorn and Glaerdon held the tactical advantage of higher ground. Glaerdon hewed down orcs with his sword, and Aragorn, standing behind him, fired arrows into the melee. Soon they had slain all but three. The three still living tried to flee into the broken rocks, but Anorhílad and Bara blocked their path. Swift and deadly blows of Anorhílad’s sword brought two down, cleaving open their helms. The remaining orc receive an arrow in the back from Aragorn, and it fell. An eerie, uneasy silence but for the wind whistling through the ruined tower befell the summit, like the lull after a storm.
Aragorn’s heart still pounded, sending the hot blood of battle coursing through his limbs. He sprang down the last few stairs, saying breathlessly, “I saw no signs of orcs up here. Anorhílad, whence did they come?”
Anorhílad pointed his sword at a tumble of giant boulders some yards to their right. “There,” he said. “They leapt out from behind those rocks.”
Unsheathing his sword, Aragorn jogged over to the boulders, a jumbled pile of massive rocks gnawed by the relentless wind into twisted sculptures. His two companions stood at his back. Cautious, he climbed over the rocks and there in a hollow on the other side, he found the sand furrowed and churned by the heavy boots of orcs. He squatted upon the ground, sifting through the sand and gazing down a path of trampled earth plunging down the northern face of the peak. There must be another pass up this mountain, then, a secret one unknown to Rangers.
A ferocious gust of wind roared across the peak, flinging sand into Aragorn’s face. He shielded his eyes with his forearm, but nevertheless felt the sting of sand in his right eye. In this wretched wind one could hear nothing – an entire army could stalk a man and he would be unaware until it was too late.
Half-blinded, he scrambled over the rocks to rejoin his two kinsmen on the other side. Tears, from the wind and from the dust, leaked from his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. Neither clothing nor armor could deflect the wind – it chilled him to the very bone. Anorhílad and Glaerdon were huddled against the rock on the other side. Their hood were drawn over their heads, but doing little good; their eyes were red, their faces cast down.
“What did you see?” shouted Anorhílad above the wind.
“Nothing more than tracks,” answered Aragorn. “And another pass on the north face. I fear it will do us no good to only be watching the route on the southern face.”
“Is that all?” asked Glaerdon.
“Then let us be off this confounded mountain. The wind has worsened since we came up here. By Ilúvatar, this is miserable.”
Down the pass they rode, keeping the horses to a slow jog. The footing was treacherous, sharp rocks and deep ruts that would lame a horse if he descended the hill too swiftly and heedlessly.
They arrived at the fort and reined in their nervous horses in front of two broken pillars, the gateway of the parapet that had once surrounded the fort. From here, they could still see all round them: the forlorn Mountains of Angmar, the tangled cliff country of the Ettenmoors, the kingly Misty Mountains. But the view did not command their attention for long. The ruins stood empty.
Astounded, they stared into the gate at the empty, overgrown space between the outer wall and the keep that might have been a courtyard. When they had left in the morning, two-dozen Rangers had manned this place. It was too quiet – even if they hid from some foe, the fort should not feel as if it had been untouched since the wars with Angmar thousands of years ago.
"Something went awry here," said Anorhílad, his voice shaking. “Something happened while we were at the tower.”
Aragorn said calmly. "We shall ride into the fort and see if we can discover what happened here." He sensed the terror Anorhílad voiced, as if fear itself blew in the wind, and he closed his heart to it.
"This place is still as a tomb," Glaerdon observed. “There are no tracks but ours about the gate. Whatever happened has happened. I think it is safe.”
The horses would have disagreed, for when Aragorn urged Roheryn through the gate, he stiffened his jaw against the bit and backed up. Never had the stallion balked at anything! Aragorn lightly spurred him, and he unwillingly stepped forward beneath the wind-ravaged columns. How much control Aragorn had over the horse, he did not know. Roheryn held his head high; his back felt stiffer than a board; and he had the bit in his teeth.
The others rode in behind him. Then they fanned out amongst the ruins, Aragorn riding in a straight line towards the keep, Glaerdon riding to his left in a slow, elevated trot for his roan gelding refused to walk, and Anorhílad riding to the right at a slow walk. The scent of death burned their nostrils. The ground was torn with tracks of orcs and men running hither and thither, as if a battle had taken place. A few weapons, both from orcs and from their people, were strewn about. But no bodies did they see. Aragorn had seen enough that few things surprised him, but this unnerved and baffled him so he could do little more than gaze blankly around the ruins.
Suddenly Nightshade sprang sideways with violent force, nearly unseating his rider. Roheryn cantered in place and tried to buck while Bara leapt away wildly over stone and brush for a half a furlong before Anorhílad took hold of the reins and pulled him in a tight circle. The horses uttered deep snorts, staring in terror at a broken ring of standing stones. Aragorn, Glaerdon, and Anorhílad looked about the ruins, the stone walls and ancient, decaying towers, the remnants of what had once been the splendor of Valandil’s kingdom.
Aragorn felt cold sweat on his hands soaking into his riding gloves. “Glaerdon, come with me,” he said, leaping off his horse and handing the reins to Anorhílad. Glaerdon did the same, and together they drew their swords and approached the standing stones. Behind the stones were the defiled and mutilated bodies of their comrades reeking of rotting flesh.
“What in the name of Ilúvatar happened here?” hissed Glaerdon, shuddering and looking wildly at the pale sky. The blood had drained from his cheeks.
“I clearly know as little as you,” answered Aragorn, breathing into his cusped hands to escape the stench of decomposing flesh. Steeling himself against nausea, he approached the bodies, half-averting his eyes, for it took more willpower than even he had to stare at them straight on. At any rate, he counted twenty-two, all who had remained in the camp. They were mutilated beyond recognition and beyond determining cause of death – be it orc weapons or something else.
Glaerdon struggled for breath and was approaching the edge of panic. Never had Aragorn believed him capable of utter terror – he had always seemed more immune to fear than even himself. “You have a stronger stomach than I,” said Glaerdon, feigning lightness.
“I have no choice. I had to see if all were here. If there were less than twenty-two, some might yet live. But alas.” He shuddered and swallowed bitter nausea. “There is some greater evil at work here. Orcs alone could not do this.” He withdrew from the bodies and wandered around the standing stones, sword upraised, but it looked like any other skirmish with orcs but for the casualties of their people. Had any orcs fallen? Not a single body of a fallen orc did he see. That too was disconcerting. But the bleak ruins and the howling wind provided no answers, no solace. After a moment of consideration, he sighed, “There is naught we can do here.”
They jogged to where Anorhílad anxiously waited with the horses. Never had any man looked so relieved to see them as Anorhílad, who was having difficulty controlling three restless horses. As they mounted Roheryn and Nightshade, Anorhílad saw fear and grief in the eyes of his kinsmen and asked, “What is it? What happened?”
“Our comrades were all slain,” said Glaerdon.
“All? Are there none left alive?”
Aragorn shook his head. An oppressed feeling had risen in his breast; his heart had yet to become hardened enough to not flinch in pain when he received word of his people dying. He turned Roheryn on his haunches and rode towards the gate. The moment he passed beneath the shattered columns, a chilling shriek rent the air asunder. Terrified, Roheryn reared, flinging his body skywards and then whirling around on his hindquarters. Aragorn felt his balance thrown to the side and grasped at the stallion’s neck. The horse’s swift bound sideways unseated him, hurling him into the ground. His ribs cracked against a sharp rock, knocking the breath from his lungs. There he lay winded and dazed. As Roheryn had reared and bolted, Bara cracked his back in a series of huge bucks, throwing Anorhílad into a thicket. Nightshade had spooked and bolted after the other two, but did not lose his rider.
“Aragorn!” cried Anorhílad, crawling upon hands and knees. “Are you injured?”
Aragorn raised himself upon his elbow, overcome with the terror of being unable to breathe; once he caught his breath again he should be unscathed but for bruises on his side and arm, mayhap a cracked rib or two. He waved to Anorhílad, but could not speak.
His comrade, tremulous and panic-stricken, grasped his shoulder. “I do not know where Glaerdon is. His horse bolted with ours. What is wrong? Are you hurt?” Anorhílad was filled with a sudden terror that Glaerdon would be thrown and killed by his horse’s wild flight down the mountain, that Aragorn had broken his back or punctured his lung or suffered some fatal injury, and then he would be alone on this forsaken peak, with the dead and his foes.
“Just had the breath knocked out of me,” Aragorn at length managed to gasp. “Give me a couple seconds.”
He did not have a couple seconds. A robed figure lurking amongst the ruins sprang upon them, swinging a notched blade at Anorhílad’s head. But Anorhílad sighted the attack in time to raise his sword and block the blow. Their foe was in raiment of black. Where the face should have been was black space, darker than the deepest chasm under the Misty Mountains. The Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, the cursed kings of men enslaved to Sauron by the Nine Rings, had returned to their ancient realm. Steel could not long stand against them. The finest sword in Middle-earth could not slay them.
Anorhílad parried the Nazgûl’s sword. He wove, feinted, and swung, and seemed to barely deflect the blows. Nevertheless, he drove the fell thing backwards. The song of steel rose above the whistling wind. In the end, Anorhílad would surely lose. Aragorn would not wait here and watch him die, not while he had strength left. There was no time to catch his breath now. He unbuckled his leather pouch with flint and tinder. At the movement, pain lanced his side and a yellow haze filled his vision. His hand leapt to his right side, clutching his ribs. He felt welded against the rock, the fire in his side pinning him to the ground; he could not draw his legs beneath him and rise. Fighting pain, dizziness, and paralyses of body and mind, he struck the flint with curved steel, fumbling in his fear but nonetheless creating a spark, which he set upon a gnarled branch. If he did not get up, he would die. Wielding his flaming brand in one hand and his sword in the other, he struggled to his feet beside Anorhílad. At the sight of the fire the Nazgûl shrieked and drew back. The Rangers drove it to the edge of the ruins. As it slipped like a shadow over the edge of the battlements, the panicked scream of a horse shattered their eardrums. Of all sounds, the screams of dying and mortally terrified horses were the cries of a battle Aragorn never became accustomed to. He used his flaming stick to alight another, gave it to Anorhílad, and raced towards the cry, limping over rocks and broken ruins.
There he saw Nightshade sprawled upon the ground near a dry wash and Glaerdon struggling to free himself from beneath the gelding’s bulk. Aragorn’s heart all but stopped. The horse in his panicked flight must have stumbled. A second Ringwraith skulked towards them. Nightshade thrashed, but had suffered some mortal wound and could not rise. With a sudden shove Glaerdon pulled himself free just as the Nazgûl assaulted him. Steel rang, but Glaerdon, wounded from his horse landing atop him, could not move quick enough to parry the Nazgûl’s thrust. The blade embedded in his upper arm. He fell back with a cry.
Shouting, “Elendil!” a name momentarily capturing the Ringwraith’s attention, Aragorn charged. The Ringwraith turned its attention from its victim, who lay half-dead at its feet, to the two Rangers wielding flaming brands of wood bearing down upon it. Then it raised its sword. Aragorn and Anorhílad heard the hissing of its venomous breath.
“Get back!" Aragorn cried. Anorhílad, who had easily overtaken him, gave a cry and dropped his sword, stumbled to his knees. Aragorn felt his courage faltering, his heart laboring. But he must stand not succumb terror, the chief weapon of the Nazgûl. He must not succumb to pain either, or they would all die. “Get back! Back!” His blade met the Nazgûl’s. He feinted left and set aflame its black robes. It screamed and retreated, fleeing into the shadows of dusk
Breathing hard and assailed by sharp pangs in the side, Aragorn collapsed to his knees next to his fallen kinsman. Glaerdon lay on his back with a wild look in his eyes. Beside him lay a long, thin knife gleaming coldly in the gray light of the cloudy day.
“What has happened?” asked Glaerdon. “What was that?”
“A Nazgûl,” said Aragorn. “But they are gone now. I do not feel their presence here anymore.”
“A Nazgûl! There have been no Nazgûl here for thousands of years!”
“Apparently there are now.”
“Aragorn!” cried Glaerdon suddenly, convulsing in terror. With his uninjured hand he grasped Aragorn’s forearm so tightly that he squeezed off the veins. “There is a mist rolling across the world.”
“Lie still,” Aragorn said, placating, gently freeing his arm. “The blade only pierced your arm. I know you have been wounded before. This is but shock. It ought to pass in a few minutes.” He lifted up the thin knife. To his astonishment, the blade seemed to melt, and then it vanished in a wisp of smoke. He almost dropped the hilt. “A Morgul blade,” he said in a low voice. “Only in ancient tales have I heard of such weapons.”
“Glaerdon,” said Anorhílad, who had risen from where he had fallen and joined them. “I am sorry, Aragorn,” he cried. “My courage failed me.”
“It was the Black Breath,” said Aragorn. “Few can stand it. My heart nearly faltered as well.”
Glaerdon was in the throes of panic, chattering and breathing abnormally fast and strenuously. “You know, I’ve been wounded before. This is not shock.”
“What is wrong with him?” said Anorhílad.
Aragorn was at a loss. Some poison from the Enemy’s weapon, perhaps.
In horror Anorhílad looked upon the pale face and bloodshot eyes of Glaerdon. He touched his companion’s right arm and swiftly withdrew his hand, as if he had been burned. Wondering what had shocked Anorhílad so, Aragorn caressed the right hand, and found it cold as ice to the touch. All he knew from lore was that the weapons of Minas Morgul were deadly, but he recalled no tales explaining what they did.
“I have never seen such a wound!” cried Anorhílad.
Aragorn shook his head. Neither had he. “He was wounded by a blade from Minas Morgul, but beyond that, I don’t know what will happen. We cannot linger for long; otherwise the Ringwraiths will return. Come, gather what you can from Nightshade’s saddlebags.” He examined the wound, a bloodless, narrow stab wound, which glowed a faint white around the edges, while Anorhílad collected provisions and pots and pans from the saddlebags of the dead horse. Aragorn was bewildered; he had bled more from scratching himself on bramble, yet no stab wound in his experience had ever caused a limb to go lifeless. For now, the only thing to do was to treat it like any other wound, but not here lest their foes return in greater numbers. Halbarad, we should have heeded your advice, he thought. “We shall make for Rivendell,” he said. “If we can get there, Lord Elrond will know what to do.”
“If our horses return to us. Or return to Fornost. I think Halbarad will send out riders to search for us in the event our horses make it to Fornost. Otherwise, how are we to make it to Rivendell?”
“I do not know. I hope our horses have not strayed far.” With great effort he got to his feet. It hurt a great deal to move.
“For your sake, too,” said Anorhílad as he began untying gear from Nightshade’s saddlebags. “I saw you fall. How injured are you?”
“Not very. I think I might have cracked a rib or two.”
“Not very? How is that not very? I have known men who had broken ribs puncture lungs or liver!”
“I will be fine in a few weeks, Anorhílad. Glaerdon might not. Finish untying those saddlebags,” Aragorn snapped. At Anorhílad’s hurt look, he instantly rued his harsh words. In a kinder tone, he added, “It would hurt more than it does if my ribs were more than merely fractured.”
In silence Aragorn and Anorhílad distributed the gear amongst themselves and then, supporting Glaerdon between them, trudged down the mountain. The miles of lugging a wounded man down a steep incline were endless and exhausting. After a few miles even Aragorn walked with a pronounced limp, for at every step pain lanced his entire right side from the shoulder to the hip. Glaerdon moaned and his eyes became glazed over.
“We have to rest,” said Anorhílad. “I do not think you nor he can go much further.”
“I want to get down this accursed mountain,” Aragorn replied, between labored breaths. “We are too exposed here. What protection have we from the eyes of the Enemy upon these stony slopes?”
“But it is two more miles to the valley.”
“Then it is two more miles. We are not stopping up here.”
Down they went until the land eased into a softer slope and greenery grew about their feet and the trees did not seem so forlorn and wasted by wind and ash. Still, it seemed desolate and grief-stricken. A small rill bubbled along at the feet of the mountain and the foliage proffered some protection. In the shadow of a mighty cliff wall, they halted beside the stream. Glaerdon they laid out upon a bed of leaves, but he seemed to not notice. A fever burned; his forehead was hot to the touch, while his left arm felt colder than that of a corpse.
“How cold it is!” Glaerdon wheezed. “I don’t want to remember it like this.”
“Of what are you speaking?” asked Aragorn.
“Why not recall better times? When we journeyed to the roof of The Prancing Pony to drink a flagon of cheap wine Halbarad had purchased for a single piece of silver, and we were smoking and regaling one another with old tales. There were some singers below in the courtyard, who had come from afar and had a unique sense of pitch. For several hours, we drank and talked, and I think Híron threw water off the roof at unsuspecting passerby. Alas, for poor Híron!”
“Be still,” said Aragorn softly. “Try to rest now.”
Anorhílad started a fire, and they boiled water in a pot over the lapping flames. In Glaerdon’s supplies they found several long leaves of athelas and yarrow. It was barely enough, but nonetheless it was welcome, for Aragorn was too sore and Anorhílad too fearful to search the grim landscape for herbs. The pungent fragrance of athelas filled their nostrils and cleared their minds of the dreary fog of weariness. Even inhaling the fumes steaming from the boiling water soothed the stabbing pain in Aragorn’s side. They bathed Glaerdon’s wound in the athelas-steeped water. The herb lowered the fever, stemming the delirium and the fevered sheen seemed to leave his cheeks. He fell into a peaceful sleep.
“You should use some of that on yourself,” said Anorhílad. “You will be hurting come morning.”
“There is none to spare,” replied Aragorn. “And my wounds are hardly mortal. Do you want first watch? I am afraid that I am not going to be much good if I do not rest for a little while.” Often sleep was the finest of healers in the long run, though he knew he would feel worse after a few hours of it.
“Of course. Alas, I do not think I shall sleep anyway.” Anorhílad drew his knees up, gazing over the fire at the black forest and star-studded sky stretching between the peaks rearing white-capped heads, pale in the moonlight, on all sides of the long vale. “I cannot help but reproach myself for forsaking you when we charged that Ringwraith,” he said after several minutes of silence but for Glaerdon’s labored breaths, the chirruping of crickets in the woods, the sighing of wind in the trees.
Aragorn, lying upon his back with his eyes closed, said, “You fought bravely. Stop being foolish.”
“But I fell cravenly before the Nazgûl.”
“I told you, terror is their weapon. You are not the first nor will you be the last of any race, mortal or immortal, to be paralyzed with fear when facing one.”
“How did you fight it?” asked Anorhílad.
“I do not know,” Aragorn sighed. “But do not fret over it. You did not falter when that Nazgûl attacked us as I was on the ground unable to defend myself at that moment. Had you hesitated a second, I should be dead. But you held it off until I recovered enough to fight. You were courageous when you had to be.”
Several minutes crawled slowly past. The burning in his side seared him with every breath and yet the pain tired him, and he thought perhaps sleep might claim him. To his dismay Anorhílad murmured, “What do you suppose happened at the fort?”
Reliving the terror would do no good, not when danger still loomed, but Aragorn did not have the heart to tell the fearful young Ranger to bite his tongue and let him sleep. “I do not know,” he said sadly. “Some coordinated attack of the Nazgûl and the orcs, I imagine.”
“How did you know to chase it with fire?”
“That was not the first time I had encountered Ringwraiths.”
Anorhílad, collecting his thoughts, made no response for a moment. Then he said nervously, “Where? Here?”
“No, near Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. I have traveled well beyond the borders of Eriador.”
That said, Aragorn curled up on his left side and dozed.
In the late hours of the night, Anorhílad wakened him, shaking his shoulder and whispering his name in a fearful voice. At once Aragorn stirred and sat up, wincing in pain and glancing to the sky to note the position of the moon and constellations. He had slept for several hours.
“I heard something in the woods,” hissed Anorhílad. His blade was drawn, gleaming red in the dying embers of the fire. Unmoving, Glaerdon’s face shone with the sweat of the fever that must have returned in the night. Anorhílad said, “I have tried to keep the fever at bay with the athelas. I do not know what else to do. He has been speaking strangely. But hark, something is moving in the woods.”
Indeed, Aragorn heard rustling in the trees, the sound of something large shuffling about. He unsheathed his sword and drew close to the fire. Whatever hunted them, he did not think it a Nazgûl, for sense of evil, the deathly chill of cold and blind terror that the Ringwraiths inspired, had not assailed him. A warg mayhap, or some other strange beast devised by the Enemy. His heartbeats seemed audible. He breathed shallowly. Just then, two huge looming shapes emerged from the woods: four legged with long manes, long faces, and bright, curious eyes.
“Hunted indeed,” Aragorn laughed. Relief shook him like a great torrent. “By our own horses! Roheryn, Bara, come.”
“Some luck at last,” sighed Anorhílad as the two horses calmly walked towards their masters, whickering and nosing them for treats, as if they should be deserved for coming back after running off.
The sight of his horse had never lightened Aragorn’s heart as profoundly as it did at that moment. He stroked Roheryn’s warm neck, burying his cheek in the thick, black mane and breathing in the musky horse-smell. The fear of running out of provisions in the wild with a mortally wounded man vanished, for both Roheryn and Bara had full saddlebags strapped firmly to the cantles of their saddles. And Glaerdon they could sling across the back of a horse. With the coming of the horses, hope returned. They might make it to Rivendell yet.
* * *
By the first light of dawn, Aragorn bathed his ribs with athelas from his saddlebags – he was sparing with it and feared using it, for it seemed all that kept Glaerdon alive. It had to last until Rivendell. But as Anorhílad had foreseen, injuries had stiffened overnight and the pain made him loathe moving. Hence he shored off the worst of it with athelas and then carefully repackaged the remaining leaves. After a brief meal, they set off down the old, overgrown cart road by which they had come. Progress was faster than it had been. One rode while the other led his horse with Glaerdon slumping half-unconscious in the saddle, and they switched off every few hours. For most of the day, steady application of athelas to the wound ostensibly staved off the poisons. While the athelas lasted, hope remained. Anxious and determined, they pushed through the night as late as Aragorn and Glaerdon could stand before their hurts exhausted them too much to go further.
At high noon the following day, they stopped for a hurried meal and to refill their canteens in a clear, swift stream. To their dismay, Aragorn and Anorhílad found that Glaerdon’s fever had returned with renewed ferocity. His eyes no longer focused upon theirs, but had a glazed, far-off look. His forehead burned to touch and his right arm remained ice-cold. His skin was sallow, his cheeks sunken.
He was delirious, muttering words in a language that was neither Westron nor Sindarin. Aragorn thought it the Black Language of Mordor, but as he had never heard it spoken by any Man, he could not be sure. What evil did this wound wrought, bringing the words of that evil language to Glaerdon’s tongue, a language not known outside Mordor and certainly not known by the Dúnedain?
For a moment Glaerdon came to, crying in Westron, “The pale king! I can see him now!” Then he stumbled upon his own tongue and fell into the strange language, the speech of Mordor and dark places. Bewildered, Aragorn and Anorhílad looked to one another for hope and reassurance and found none. The athelas had little effect. The fulsome poisons were overcoming it. Though Aragorn had been trained by the Elves in the arts of healing, this wound was beyond him – Elvish herbal lore and athelas failed to stave it off as a small siege fails before the walls of a great city.
“What can we do?” said Anorhílad in despair.
“Press on for Rivendell whilst doing what we can here,” said Aragorn grimly. They lifted Glaerdon into Bara’s saddle, and Aragorn mounted Roheryn. They rode on without halting through the trails that twisted through the high country of the Ettenmoors, rough and wild, tangled with rocks, grim cliffs, and grasping weeds.
As twilight bathed the wild mountains in pale light, Glaerdon faded into the realm of consciousness for a little while. “I cannot really see you,” he said faintly. “You’re all misty. Everything is misty. Except for him. He is clear, as though he were of this world.”
“What?” said Aragorn. “Who is ‘he?’”
But Glaerdon merely gave a cry, trembling, and his mind fled into his frightful delirium that worsened with each passing hour. That was his last moment of lucidity. The hue of his skin was paler than that of a corpse. But still they were several days out from Rivendell. Neither Aragorn nor Anorhílad knew well the Ettenmoors between Mount Gram and Rivendell. The country was steep and treacherous, delved and cut with sheer cliffs, stony slopes, deep canyons. Thus it took time to find paths the horses could negotiate. Every hour they lost backtracking when their trail plunged over a cliff or down a path too steep and rocky for the horses filled them with anxiety.
Finally they came upon the Hoardale, a stream pouring from the Hithaeglir, cutting through the Ettenmoors for many leagues until it came to the Last Bridge and spilled into the River Mitheithel. Aragorn, who had been leading Roheryn, mounted behind Glaerdon to cross the stream. The horses’ hooves slid on the brim, they plashed through the silver spray and surged up the bank on the southern shore. Now they had entered the Coldfells, a range of sharp tors and fins, of wildly contorted formations and towers, of exposed ridges at the feet of the Hithaeglir. Trolls roamed these lands, thus they deemed it wise to forego nighttime travel.
Sometime in the night, after they had threaded their way through the first leagues of the Coldfells, a thin wailing cry pierced the air. The Nazgûl. But it was distant. Aragorn sat up, sword unsheathed. Dread crept across his heart. Beside him, Anorhílad trembled in terror and Glaerdon moaned, writhing about and calling in the Black Language. Roheryn and Bara reared up. But only that one cry did they here, and the fell chill in the air of the Black Breath never assailed them. In the dead of night, to ameliorate their fears, they quietly whispered old tales of Beren and Elendil, of Tuor, Túrin and Isildur and all of their ancestors who seemed from the ancient stories far braver than they felt.
The remote presence of the Ringwraith had sent Glaerdon plummeting, for by morning he was much worse off than he had been in the night. The faint light of vague recognition that shone in his eyes when he had looked upon Aragorn and Anorhílad was gone – he had a vacant stare gazing through them as though they were invisible to him. Foam bubbled at the corners of his mouth, his skin had a translucent sheen to it that Aragorn had never seen before in anyone, living or dead. When he and Anorhílad attempted to place Glaerdon on Bara’s back, the gelding skittered away in a fearful sidepass. Aragorn went to the horse’s head, whispering Sindarin in a soothing voice, but it did little to quiet him, and he rose in a half-rear in protest of his burden.
“Roheryn will carry him,” said Aragorn, stroking the stallion’s velvety muzzle. Roheryn’s head rose in alarm when Anorhílad heaved Glaerdon into the saddle and he took a step back, but he did not spook, buck, nor rear. As Aragorn led him through the tangled path, he noted the horse ever had an ear turned back towards his rider and held his head high. And so long as Roheryn bore Glaerdon, Bara was loth to go near the bay stallion.
“Do you want to ride?” asked Anorhílad as the late afternoon shadows lengthened, forming strange shapes upon the uneven ground and cliff walls. “You can get on Bara if you like and I can lead Roheryn.”
“I do not mind my own feet,” said Aragorn.
“Well, how is the side and shoulder?”
“Sore, but walking keeps it looser,” Aragorn answered. Pain afflicted him more than he let on, but he saw no sense in alarming Anorhílad further. A few days’ rest would mend it.
He looked to the sun sitting in a broken, flaming circle upon the high ridge to the west. Roheryn shifted his weight and then Glaerdon moaned some strange incantation and slid off the saddle, falling into sagebrush. Startled as if he had never lost a rider before, Roheryn leapt forward in a cloud of dust and then swung round at the ends of the reins, pulling back in fear. “Easy, whoa,” Aragorn said while Anorhílad sprang from the back of his gelding and rushed to Glaerdon’s side. Roheryn circled trotting, bucking, snorting deeply, looking wildly to where Glaerdon had fallen as though some terrible beast lay in wait in the bush.
“There is something strange at work here,” Aragorn said. It was not like his horse to act as addled as a racehorse that had never set foot beyond track or stable.
“Aragorn!” cried Anorhílad. “Come hither and look!”
“What is it?” asked Aragorn, too engaged with regaining control of his horse and dodging flailing hooves to look.
“Aragorn!” repeated Anorhílad, distraught.
At length Roheryn quieted once Aragorn drove him about twenty paces from Glaerdon. From there, he refused to go a step closer. Giving up, Aragorn bid the stallion to stand and hurried to Anorhílad’s side, kneeling over Glaerdon. Horror knifed him and he stared at his wounded kinsman, baffled. Glaerdon’s eyes were like pale, white pools, the pupils faded, the gray irises all but gone. The translucence of his pasty skin had an ephemeral quality to it, strange and sinister, as if he was fading into a netherworld before their very eyes. No longer did a fever burn his skin – when Aragorn laid a hand across his forehead, the flesh was cold against his palm. He was so cold he ought to be dead. But strangely enough a faint pulse fluttered beneath Aragorn's fingers.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Anorhílad, who thought Aragorn’s understanding of Elves gave him some special authority on healing.
Aragorn shook his head, absently pushing away an errant lock of hair. His face was grim, the cares he carried greater than ever, the gray eyes weary and bewildered. He was at a loss. All of his wisdom and knowledge failed him. They could go no further, for neither horse risked approaching Glaerdon now. They balked and shied away, as fearful of Glaerdon as they had been of the Nazgûl. Their refusal to go even near the fallen Ranger dashed any hopes Aragorn and Anorhílad had of reaching Rivendell in time.
“What if one of us rides for Rivendell and brings aid here?” suggested Anorhílad, pacing back and forth.
Aragorn sat with his back against a tree, his knees drawn up to his chin. “Across this country? You would never get there fast enough. And trolls, orcs, and Ilúvatar only knows what else roams the Coldfells. I do not think it wise to separate.”
Without halting his pacing, Anorhílad said, “Would the horses stand to let one of us ride double with him? Well, Bara won't, but Roheryn is the more valiant of the two.”
“There are few things Roheryn fears, but I cannot get him near.”
“Then is there nothing you can do?”
“I have done everything in my power.”
“But you grew up with the Elves! You know Elvish medicine,” said Anorhílad wildly.
“Do not speak so loudly,” said Aragorn, firmly but not without empathy. Panic and despair gripped his heart as well, for it troubled him to watch his kinsman die, knowing naught could be done for it. Yet he saw little purpose in wild pacing and ranting. This was the cost of war. “We do not know what lurks in these fell shadows. At any rate, I am not an Elf.”
“But you are of the line of Elendil. Lore has it the heirs of Elendil share the blood of Lord Elrond.”
“Distantly. Through Eärendil. But Elrond is Half-Elven and immortal, the Eldest of our race. He has skills and power that I do not. Though Glaerdon might even be beyond his aid.”
“Well, what can we do? Stay here and watch him die?”
The answer seemed yes, but Aragorn could not bring himself to say it. “We will do what we can. Heat some more athelas. It seemed to help.”
“How long do you suppose it will take Halbarad to send out riders looking for us?” Anorhílad said as though he had not heard Aragorn’s suggestion about athelas.
“If we are three minutes late,” said Aragorn wearily. “But we are well off-course. Any Ranger ought to be able to track us, but by the time they find us we might as well have gone to Rivendell on foot. Heat athelas. We might bide our time with it.”
Anorhílad did so, and Aragorn soaked a cloth in the warm water steeping in the sweet fragrance. But the cloth drew out none of the poison or the chill. Glaerdon’s face remained cold as ice, his eyes unseeing, his lips now and then uttering hissing words in that strange fell tongue. For several hours they waited and watched, as dusk cast the towers and canyons of the Coldfells in shadow. Glaerdon seemed to meld with the shadows, fading into the darkness. Like the Ringwraiths. The unease Aragorn had felt when the Ringwraiths were near returned, and he noticed the horses growing restless. Bara tossed head and circled, and Roheryn pawed at the dust.
Alarmed, Aragorn bent over Glaerdon, laying the back of his hand against his cheek, which was colder than before. His pulse was faint, his breath shallow. His haunted, pupil-less eyes sent chills down Aragorn’s back. Aragorn had seen enough death to know when there was no more hope, when there was no coming back. Glaerdon he knew had fallen beyond the reach of hope, even if Gil-galad himself should rise from the dead and ride up.
“Anorhílad, remaining here is perilous,” he at length said. The words he uttered, what he was about to do, felt like a sword plunging through his breast. The cost of war shall make beggars of us all, he thought. Their lives were salvageable yet, while the dying man’s was not and his presence drew their foes to them.
“How are we to move Glaerdon?” asked Anorhílad.
“We are not.”
Anorhílad gave him a look of wordless horror.
Grasping Anorhílad’s shoulder, Aragorn said sorrowfully, “He is gone. He is dying. There really is nothing more we can do and there is nothing even Elrond can do. Of this I am sure. We ought to save ourselves now.”
“We cannot leave him!” Anorhílad cried.
“We have no choice. I am afraid Glaerdon will draw the enemy to us. I have not my full strength and that leaves you standing more or less alone. Do you wish to stand alone against the Nazgûl?”
“Do we not defend him unto his last breath?” whispered Anorhílad, his voice faltering.
“There is renown and valor in such tales, if any live to tell them,” said Aragorn. “But I would rather live than sacrifice my life for a dying man. Should we survive the night here, we still cannot save him.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have seen enough fall in battle to know when life has fled. And so have you.” Once more he stooped over Glaerdon, brushing his forehead, unwilling to extinguish that final sputtering ember of hope even as Glaerdon’s skin was of a hue more akin to a barrow-wight than any living man and his breathing was nigh undetectable. Glaerdon uttered a thin, wheedling cry, a sound like the weakened screech of a Nazgûl, and Aragorn took a sharp breath and swift backwards step. His eyes burned and itched as tears threatened. He knew what he must do. Blinking and rubbing at his eyes, he said sternly, “We cannot linger. Get on your horse, swiftly ere it becomes too dark to travel.”
“Aragorn, it is wrong to abandon him to the wild whilst he still lives. He is not yet dead. There are trolls roaming these hills, and how can you be sure the Ringwraiths have gone?”
“He will not last the night,” said Aragorn. “But I should like to be living come the morrow. Argue no more! We will ride thither for Rivendell and from there send a message to Halbarad so he does not panic and send out a party to find us.” Rivendell was far closer than Fornost, an easier ride given he was wounded and wearied with grief. Also he must warn Elrond of the Nazgûl roaming in Eriador and ask him to pass word of it to Gandalf should Elrond encounter the wizard before Aragorn did.
Far off where the labyrinthine Coldfells thrust upward against the towering mountains, the shriek of a Ringwraith sliced through the still air. The two Rangers shuddered and their horses danced and reared.
"You cannot leave him for the Nazgûl!" cried Anorhílad. "Not while the breath of life remains. You cannot do that!"
"I was not going to leave him for our enemies," said Aragorn sadly. He was glad it was dark; otherwise his companion would have seen the tears welling in his eyes. "I think this wound is some device of theirs and for some reason it draws them to him. They can be foiled yet."
"What in the name of Ilúvatar are you talking about? You are making as little sense as Glaerdon!"
"Silence!" Aragorn commanded. "Get on your horse and ride straightway south. Roheryn and I shall catch up to you. Noro hi![i]"
"What?" Anorhílad’s voice trembled. "What are you going to do? You are not going to do what I am thinking, are you?"
Aragorn made no response. He was feeling ill.
"You cannot!" cried Anorhílad.
"Go now," said Aragorn. The foreboding sense of evil had returned: the Ringwraith drawing nearer. Roheryn in his anxiety pawed at the ground as though tunneling to Erebor.
Anorhílad opened his mouth to protest. But his words died in his throat, strangled by the strange air of authority Aragorn had about him. It was not Aragorn son of Arathorn who stood before him; for an instant he saw Elendil and Eärendil, a stark image of Faithful, the great kings from over the sea who had fled the deadly gales of Númenor. He turned away from his fallen companion and mounted his horse. With a glance over his shoulder, he dug his spurs into Bara's sides and the gelding sprang away.
As the clatter of Bara's hooves over rocks grew remote, Aragorn drew his sword and stood over Glaerdon, sweating and shaking in every limb. Only thrice before had he done such a thing and never had he wanted to do it again. His heart thudded, his cheeks felt flushed. He knelt over Glaerdon, caressing his icy forehead, gazing sorrowfully into the unseeing, pale eyes. "You would have wanted this, my brother," Aragorn whispered. "Better this be your fate. Goheno nin.[ii]" Rising again, he lifted the sword, gauged where it ought to fall, and then he squeezed his eyes shut and in a swift movement plunged the sword into Glaerdon's heart. It crunched through flesh and bone. Like the shoulder wound, it strangely bled less than a shallow knife-wound.
Overcome with dizziness, Aragorn staggered to his knees, dropping the sword, retching violently into the brambles and sharpened stones until his stomach had nothing left to lose. It felt as though he had driven the sword through his own breast. Shakily rising, he took his reins and leaned wearily against Roheryn's shoulder. Once Lord Elrond had bidden him to never let his heart harden, but in moments as woeful as this, he wished for it.
Then Aragorn swung his leg over the saddle, and with a final backward glance towards Glaerdon’s resting place, he turned his rein to the moonlight and galloped away to the south. He resolved to not let the tears in his eyes escape down his cheeks. How he hated the sacrifices of war, the ceaseless death and despair at every turn, but his fate was not in peace; his doom, his final hour should he not perish before then, was to be before the gates of Mordor.
Anorhílad and Bara stood solemnly upon a rocky promontory, the moonlight casting them in a ghostly light; the shanks of the bit, the stirrups, the silver ornamentations on the saddle and bridle, the sword, all glittering silver. Bara whinnied to Roheryn as the bay stallion and his heartsick rider loped up the slope, bounding over drop-offs and dykes.
For two days Aragorn and Anorhílad threaded through the sharp fins and stony slopes of the Coldfells, until at last the hard country softened into gentler slopes and they could make greater speed. At length they cantered over a rise. In the valley below, they looked upon Rivendell in its fair vale, its lattices, spires, and filigreed bridges shining white in the sun. The East-West Road ran straightway west, a gash through the cliffs and promontories, and a lone rider on a white horse stood near the bridge, a sentinel with his eye fixed upon the north. At once he saw Aragorn and Anorhílad cantering over the final downs as they dropped into the valley wherein Rivendell lay, and he gave a joyous cry and rode out to meet them. It was Lindir, an Elf of Elrond’s household.
"Aragorn!” exclaimed Lindir, reining his mare in alongside them. "This is rather unexpected. The Lady Arwen will be pleased indeed!” He paused and looked the Rangers over. “What has happened? You both look wretched!”
"We have to send riders out to Fornost and tell Halbarad there to pull our people back from the northernmost outposts," said Aragorn.
"And warn any Ranger patrolling the Ettenmoors within sight of Angmar to avoid travel at night and keep fires lit," Aragorn continued, too sore with grief to give a better account.
"Can you not say why? What befell them?" Lindir looked ready to knock someone off his horse for information.
"They were killed," said Anorhílad softly.
Anorhílad swallowed his words and looked to Aragorn, who fixed his gaze upon Roheryn's ears. After a moment Aragorn said harshly, "Nazgûl. That is all there is to tell of it now. Just do as I say, Lindir. Send out riders to Fornost and warn them to withdraw from Angmar forthwith. I must have counsel with Elrond now." Then he booted Roheryn into a brisk canter and rode alone into Rivendell.
Perplexed, for he had never seen Aragorn behave so strangely, Lindir exclaimed, "Ringwraiths! By the light of Manwë! There must be more to tell of it than that." He cast a querulous glance to Anorhílad, who merely shook his head with ineffable sadness.
Never did Lindir, Halbarad, or anyone else learn the full story of what happened on that ruined mountaintop. Once Aragorn told Lord Elrond details of Glaerdon's passing into shadow, but even then he refrained from telling the whole tale. It was like an old wound that never closed, and he could never bring himself to speak of it.
[i] Sindarin: "Run now!" Translation found at http://members.cox.net/taramiluiel/sindarin_phrases.htm
[ii] Sindarin: "Forgive me." Ibid.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.