42. Foresight and Farsight
Foresight and Far-Sight
Halbarad shivered as the Company rode through the narrow ravine that led to the mountain the Rohirrim named Dwimorberg—the Haunted Mountain. Tall irregular stones lined the road, looming above them like frowning sentinels. As like to the standing stones of the Barrow-Downs as anything I've seen, he thought. The morning sun had risen, but no light filtered to them in the deep cleft, and the seeping walls of rock on either side captured the night's chill and held it imprisoned. This vale would be cold even at noon on Mid-Summer's Day.
At last they stood before the Door. The back of the lieutenant's neck prickled as his eyes roamed over the scrawled symbols. He could not read them; he doubted Aragorn could, either. But the symbols felt like a warning, and the place was unmistakable. This was most certainly the entrance to the Paths of the Dead. A noisome odor flowed out from it. Just behind him and to his right, the Elf of Mirkwood sat with Gimli behind him.
"My blood runs chill," the Dwarf muttered to no one in particular.
As Hal looked into the black cavern, a brief flash came to his inner eye, of a great and terrible shadow falling from a darkened sky to a field littered with the debris of battle and streaming with smoke. He was filled with the sense that before him stood a foe that no man could defeat. As the vision receded, he swallowed the lump in his throat.
"This is an evil door, and my death lies beyond it…"
Aragorn sat just before him and on his left, astride Shadowfax. The Dúnedain Chieftain muttered over his shoulder. "All our deaths lie beyond this door, save for those two among us whose fate might be otherwise. The question truly is, how far beyond this door does Death wait for each one of us?"
"I suspect I am supposed to find that a comforting thought..." Halbarad grunted. "I will follow whither you lead, Aragorn, but will the horses?"
"They must, for we shall require all speed if and when we come through this dark passage." He dismounted, and taking the bridle in his hand, he strode forward. Shadowfax hung his great head and snorted, but did not hesitate to follow his new human companion.
They all dismounted, and the Dúnedain led their reluctant but stalwart horses through the black doorway, followed by the Peredhel and Legolas. Halbarad looked back. Gimli stood alone, grimacing up at the arched doorway, chewing on his lower lip and muttering to himself. The man paused in the shadows, waiting just inside the cavern. Then the Dwarf shook himself and snarled, and limped into the darkness to follow the rest, and the lieutenant of the Northern Rangers hurried to catch up to his Chieftain.
* * *
Elrohir looked over his shoulder for the third time, back up the dark slope toward the grim mountain men named Blackroot under which the Grey Company had just traveled. An entire day had passed in the tunnel, and evening was upon them. He had fallen back and was now last in line astride his sleek grey stallion. Legolas, the Dwarf clinging to him, rode just ahead. His stepbrother upon shining Shadowfax and Halbarad upon his wooly-coated mount rode at the fore. Aragorn gave the order to ride with all speed, and the Company began to move.
The thronging Dead were visible to the Peredhel as filmy shades riding on shadowy mounts, their faces haggard, their tunics and cloaks in tatters, their mail rusty. The son of Elrond and grandson of Eärendil had no fear of the ghosts of mortal men. But nevertheless, his heart was now gripped by a vise of horror. He had come through the Paths of the Dead alive, but was forever changed.
The Grey Company had paced slowly through the long, damp tunnel that led beneath the peaks of the White Mountains. Elrohir had watched with a thrill of pride as Aragorn had commanded the shades of the Dead to follow him. I must remember every detail for Arwen… A sharp pang of sorrow struck then, as he thought how cruelly Elladan had been deprived of the right to witness their brother Estel rise to greatness and claim his own. The images of 'Adan's tortured body and battered face came to his mind, and grief washed over him.
The Company had continued through the black passageway, leading their horses slowly through darkness—for when the Dead gathered, their torches had blown out and no one, not even Master Gimli, could relight them. Elrohir could sense the Dwarf's fear, and his determination to conceal it. He and Legolas had purposefully slowed their pace, the Wood Elf walking just ahead of his small friend, and the Peredhel walking behind. He felt responsible for the little Nawag—nay, I should call him properly, the noble Khâzad who saved my life—thumping along on the splint he had reinforced early that morning. I'll give him points for stubbornness… Gimli did not let out as much as a grunt. At least the fracture in his ankle was in the outer, less important bone—though undoubtedly it was still very painful.
In the lightless passageway Elrohir could only just discern the slightly darker shade of the Dwarf's broad back in front of him, and the dimmest outline of the opening ahead. He marveled, for the Dúnedain moved without hesitation in what to them was utter blackness—but no marvel, really. They follow Aragorn. They follow their hope, their King… His will draws the Living and the Dead through Darkness or Light… And Aragorn strode at the head of them, without a break in his firm stride, with no pause, his voice calling them onward.
It was at that moment that dread had struck the Peredhel. A piercing stab, as if a sword of ice had impaled his chest, had brought him up short. Elrohir had stood gasping, his heart laboring, for a long moment. Gimli had paused, sensing the sudden absence of his quiet footfalls. The Dwarf turned.
"Elrohir? Are you there, friend?"
Elrohir replied in a choked voice. "Yes… Go on…"
He stumbled on, a pace behind the Dwarf, his head awhirl with confusion. A storm of images assailed him, of a blaze of fire, of fluttering leaves of gold glimpsed through thick smoke. The face of his Daerada came to his inner eye, and though it seemed impossible, he knew with the same clarity that he had felt in Helm's Deep when his twin was killed that Celeborn's fëa had been suddenly and violently ripped from this world. What disaster has struck Lothlorien? How can he, who has stood fast through so many Ages of Arda, be so suddenly gone? And what of his mother's mother—what of Galadriel?
The darkness that had enveloped Elrohir was a darkness of spirit, and no light of Sun or Star or lantern could dispel it. His very soul was clutched with terror—and his fear was not only for his kin in the Golden Wood. Somehow, he was certain that the danger to the scattered remnants of the Eldar would only intensify in days to come. Ada…and Arwen…
The Company had emerged south of the White Mountains, and now, with one last look northward—beyond the faint ghosts of men, beyond the damp tunnel, beyond the peaks, beyond the plains of Rohan—his thoughts reached toward his remaining family, far away. Would whatever calamity that had befallen the Galadhrim sweep farther north? He glanced forward to where his stepbrother rode. I must not share this knowledge with Estel; he carries too great a burden already. Ah! Elbereth Gilthoniel, keep Imladris and all who dwell there safe…
* * *
Halbarad rode just behind and to the left of his chieftain. The banner of Arwen was tucked tightly beneath his arm. He heard his kinsman mutter to Shadowfax.
"Soon, soon, my friend… Hold back your pace for now," Aragorn whispered as the great horse strained to gallop full out.
The lieutenant of the Dúnedain studied the sloping valley in which they had emerged while the fading light held. Behind them rose a wall of sharp, snow-capped peaks. Great ridges capped with tumbled stones stretched out on either side of their path. A splashing stream gurgled in a deep trench to their right. Here and there, lights twinkled: villages, farms, and many miles away below and to the west upon a hilltop, a larger cluster of lights shone above a walled fortress.
Aragorn spoke again. "We ride through the head of the Morthond Vale, and this is the stream of that name," he said. "Below us is the Hill of Erech. The folk here avoid the upper slopes of the valley, for the Dead congregate there, it is said." He glanced back, and Halbarad saw a gleam in his kinsman's eye. "And speaking of the Dead, they are following…"
Aragorn pulled up on the reins and sat tall upon Shadowfax. He flung back his cloak to reveal the beryl set upon the eagle-brooch. A green light glittered at his throat.
*"Friends, forget your weariness!" he cried. "Ride now, ride! We must come to the Stone of Erech ere this day passes, and long still is the way."*
He flicked the reins against the great horse's neck, and Shadowfax turned as smoothly as flowing quicksilver. With a flash, the Horse-King galloped forward with the King of Men upon his back, and without a backward glance the Company rode swiftly after him.
Halbarad heard bells ringing in the valley as they passed farmstead and hamlet. Lights blinked out, and shutters and doors slammed. Men fled from them, and he heard cries of fear, that the King of the Dead was upon them. The road was steep and rocky, and hours of difficult riding went by. Their horses were stumbling with fatigue, and their riders were weary when at last they came to the great black stone set upon the hillside.
The lieutenant of the Grey Company spoke to his Captain as he trotted near, his voice low.
"Half a minute," he said. "Let's give them a proper show… and make certain you don't tumble from your seat," he whispered. To his relief, Aragorn nodded. Halbarad could read the grim lines and ashen color of his friend's face. His kinsman was battling more than weariness. He dismounted stiffly and planted the standard near the gleaming sphere that loomed above their heads; then he stepped to Shadowfax's flank. He looked up, and as if he were nothing more than Aragorn's squire, held out his hand. Aragorn frowned down.
"Lean on my shoulder, and place your foot in my hand," Hal whispered. "I'll ease you down…"
Aragorn sniffed, but did as he was told, which was signal enough to Halbarad how much pain his friend was enduring. The lieutenant eased his Chieftain to the ground while Shadowfax held perfectly still. Aragorn leaned on the horse as he planted his feet, swaying slightly before he stepped away.
Halbarad watched as Elrohir approached, swinging his pack from his shoulders as he came.
"Later," Aragorn grumbled to his stepbrother. "Duty first—then you can have at me…"
The Peredhel said nothing as he withdrew a small silver horn from his pack. It was a beautiful thing, curved and shapely. The lip of the horn was slightly scalloped, as though it were made of silver petals overlapping, like a budding flower. Elrohir handed it to Aragorn with a bow.
Aragorn studied the object with curiosity for a moment, then brought the horn to his lips and blew a clear and brilliant note into the night. The wind answered with echoes of horns blowing in the distance. Then he handed the horn back to his stepbrother, and stood near the Stone.
Halbarad unfurled the standard. The sable banner fell open, and it snapped and fluttered in the wind. In the darkness the design was but a faint outline—at least to the eyes of the living men in that Company. But Legolas smiled and nodded, and Elrohir drew in a sharp breath followed by a long sigh as it was displayed. A murmur of many thousands of voices came down the slope.
Standing proudly beneath his beloved's handiwork, Aragorn cried out.
*"Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away. "To fulfil our oath and have peace."
Then Aragorn said, "The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever. For I am Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor."*
In the silence that followed, Halbarad locked his eyes onto Elrohir's. The Peredhel appeared to stare without seeing him for several seconds; then he blinked, and finally he nodded with a tilt of his dark head toward Aragorn. Together they stepped forward and stood on either side of the Heir of Isildur.
"Lovely speech," Halbarad muttered. "Now—do we have to wrestle you to the ground, or will you finally take some rest?"
Aragorn took in a breath for a retort; but Halbarad was already gripping his left arm. "Not another word. The Dead have been summoned, they're here, and you're not moving for at least six hours…"
"Five," Aragorn growled.
"We'll see about that," his lieutenant snorted. They steered him to the far side of the Stone, where Indor had pitched a tent and lit a fire. The rest of the Company settled down for what remained of the night, though few slept much with the icy breath of the hordes of the Dead streaming down upon them.
*Quoted verbatim from ROTK
* * *
Aragorn suppressed a groan as he lowered himself to the low cot inside the tent. Hal helped him ease his right arm from his leather jerkin and tunic while Elrohir spread out his tools on a nearby chair. The glint of silver in the Peredhel's opened pack caught the lieutenant's eye.
"Where did you get that horn? It looks like it belongs in Lord Elrond's collection of ancient artifacts…"
Aragorn grunted. "Maybe he stole it from Rivendell's museum…"
Strangely, the Peredhel ignored their quips and went about the business of healing as if he had not heard. He handed Aragorn a stoppered flask. "Two sips…" he muttered.
Aragorn caught Halbarad's eye over the top of the flask. The men both frowned and glanced toward the Peredhel. Their companion appeared distracted and yet full of tension; his dark grey eyes were wide, and his jaw was clenched.
Aragorn watched as Elrohir took the flask, shook it gently and scowled before stowing it. I wonder how much of that Entish potion remains… The ameliorative impact of Fangorn's gift upon his deep-seated infection had been significant. But we have to make it last… We need weeks, or months, more likely… And when the potion ran out? He felt a shudder down his back. No time to think about that now...
At his stepbrother's muttered request, Aragorn rolled onto his side, his left arm curled beneath his head and his right shoulder bared. He felt Elrohir's cool palm flat against the thick purple wound. The Peredhel healer grunted softly, a sound of approval, Aragorn surmised. He knew his own flesh; the putrid knot deeper within remained, but had diminished greatly since the morning after the battle of the Hornburg. Elrohir slid the tips of his fingers beneath Aragorn's right arm and gently probed the inflamed glands hidden there. The Heir of Isildur managed not to flinch—just barely.
"Good," the Peredhel muttered. "You are improving. With sufficient rest, and taking care to avoid straining your shoulder…"
Aragorn pushed himself up using his left arm. "Of course," he scoffed. "Rest and inactivity! Practical advice during wartime..." He sat up and frowned with concern at Elrohir as he slid his arm back into his sleeve. He reached out and grasped his stepbrother's wrist.
"I miss 'Adan, too," he said gently. "Though no other can know your grief, toro-nin…"
Elrohir gazed at him with haunted eyes. He opened his mouth to speak; a sigh escaped from his lips. He dropped his eyes and nodded.
The lieutenant, thinking to distract him from his sorrow, pointed to the Peredhel's pack. "Tell us of that horn, Elrohir—where did you get it?" Halbarad's lips twitched. "Or should we assume we were right, and you did steal it from your father's museum display?"
The Half-Elf blinked for a moment, then he finally laughed. "Nay, I did not steal it. It was—is—a gift, and not for me. It is for you, Estel…" He reached into his pack and withdrew the silver object again. It shone in the lamplight, and they could see the fine workmanship of it, more like a sculpture than a musical instrument.
"This is from the House of the Golden Flower," he said softly. "Glorfindel said that their finest horns were of solid gold… This would have been but one of the lesser instruments, used by a junior officer, or a foot soldier…" He looked up. The men stared at the priceless and ancient object in awe. "He wished for you to have it, as you come into your own."
Aragorn held the silver horn with reverence, turning it to and fro so that it shimmered in the light. "How can something so fine and fragile have survived for so long?" he said in a hushed tone. "How indeed, could Glorfindel still possess such a thing, after his deadly battle amidst the pinnacles of the Echoriath?"
Elrohir smiled faintly. "It came into his possession fairly recently. Apparently, it was hidden under a pile of bones in the very same Troll's den where Mithrandir, Thorin and his illustrious Company of thirteen Dwarves and one timid Hobbit found those other treasures from Gondolin of old: Glamdring, Orchrist and the dagger the old Perian named Sting. Once Glorfindel heard that tale, he could hardly wait to explore the wretched midden himself... And he returned with this. Of course, it was battered and scratched, and had to be carefully restored. He kept it in his rooms in Imladris, and on the eve of our departure he gave it to us."
Aragorn held it out to his stepbrother. "Keep it safe for me a while longer…" He eyed the Peredhel. "And if you wish to speak, of anything, at any time, I am here to listen, and let none prevent you from coming to my side. But for now I will take the advice of you both, and attempt a few hours of sleep—but not too many," he said to Halbarad with a scolding frown. "Wake me one hour before dawn, and have the Company ready for travel. Too many miles lie between us and our journey's end to waste more time in sleep."
* * *
Gimli was relieved that neither the Wood Elf or the Peredhel mentioned what they both had undoubtedly noted: his disgraceful behavior during the long, dreadful march of the Paths of the Dead. He was the only one who had been so terrified, the only one who stumbled and shook when the frail wraiths of those Aragorn called the Oathbreakers had gathered about them in the black tunnel. When their torches had flickered and died, he had felt his own courage snuffed out with them. That was the worst moment: when blackness fell like a smothering shroud, suffocating him… It had taken all his strength not to scream, to control his hands that wished to tear away the imaginary cobwebs that seemed to cling to his face, and to still his legs that itched with the urge to run, despite the pain in his left ankle…
He felt stronger now that they were above ground. He could breath again, and his shameful trembling had ceased. He glanced ahead to where Elrohir rode, grateful for how the Peredhel had silently refused to allow the Dwarf to be last in line in the darkness. And that Legolas seemed entirely immune to the Dead's cold presence was a comfort to him as he rode behind his friend. He shifted his right hand as it wrapped about the Elf's slim waist, almost, but not quite, tightening his grip. His ankle throbbed less now that he was not bearing weight. At least we are no longer on foot. The Dwarf snorted. By Mahal, listen to me, thankful to have emerged from below ground, thankful to be atop a horse, grateful to have an Elf so near! Bless my beard, I must have a care, or no kin of mine will know me when I return…
The thronging host stayed put overnight at Aragorn's command, and followed before dawn when the Grey Company left the Stone of Erech. The Man was pressing onward through the rolling vales and foothills of the southern White Mountains, intent on a punishing pace. Gimli had barely spoken to the Dúnadan since the aftermath of Helm's Deep, for Halbarad and Elrohir were guarding him like a pair of snarling dragons. But the Dwarf had gotten a good look at Aragorn in the light of morning, and the sight had immediately brought to mind the Lady's Mirror. He cares nothing for the cost to himself… He suddenly realized that the grim, piercing fire that he'd seen on the Man's face in those visions had not been recklessness. It had been pain.
"Move closer," he grunted to Legolas.
Legolas tossed a look over his shoulder, his brow raised in a silent question. Gimli merely glared in response. A fleeting smile came and went on the Elf's face. He whispered into the steed's ear, and soon they found themselves just behind Halbarad, and within a few yards of the only other remaining member of their Fellowship within hundreds of miles.
"Close enough?" Legolas whispered with a grin.
"Aye, and make sure you stay here…"
On they rode, with but brief halts for the sake of the horses, through the long day and into the night. They met no one willing to face them; the inhabitants of the villages and farms fled before them.
"The King of the Dead has come!" they cried as they hid, closed up within their houses or ran away in terror of the horde of grey shades and the dour men who rode in their vanguard.
Their second day was long gone when Aragorn called a halt. They camped upon the banks of the river Ciril in the now deserted town of Calembel, not bothering, this time, to pitch tents. Another too-short night passed, and before first light he pressed them onward through the more tumbled country of the Ringlo Vale. As that day wore on, the brown gloom increased as they rode beneath the smoke of Mordor; by noon it was dark as twilight.
On the third night they came to Linhir upon the banks of the river Gilrain, finding the men of Gondor engaged in a battle with an invading force of Umbarians. Foe and friend alike fled before the coming of the Dead. Only the doughty Lord of Lamedon, Angbor, stayed at Aragorn's call, and he bade the man come with all force he could muster in their wake.
"For by the next sunset we will reach Pelargir," Aragorn said, "…and the main fleet of the Corsair invaders. There, the Heir of Isildur will have need of you and every man who can bear arms."
In the middle of the night, they made their final camp, the Grey Company and their steeds alike housing within empty stables. Gimli watched as Aragorn and Halbarad walked together toward an abandoned guardhouse upon a hilltop. The lieutenant carried the now furled standard, and Aragorn had slung his pack over his left shoulder. Elrohir followed, glancing about and behind in his role as guardian. The Peredhel stationed himself outside as the two men went inside and closed the door behind them. The Dwarf waited for several minutes, then he rose and took a few steps toward them.
"Let them be," Legolas muttered.
Gimli halted and looked back. "This is not the same as the other time. He goes to gaze into that Stone, to gather news…"
"He wishes for privacy, nonetheless."
The Dwarf turned and limped back to where the Elf sat upon the ground. His face was knotted in a scowl.
"They are welcome, but we are not? Since the appearance of the Dúnedain, Aragorn confides in us not at all!" Gimli growled. "Has he forgotten us?"
Legolas frowned. "I think not. But they are his folk—his kin. You said it yourself, upon the Deeping Coomb. They know him, and he they—better than we do, or at least longer…"
Gimli's scowl softened and he dropped his eyes. His chest heaved with a great sigh. "I know what you say is true… Yet the Fellowship still counts for something, does it not?"
"It does," Legolas said. "And trust was ever the basis of that Fellowship. Be patient, my friend."
With a harrumph, Gimli joined Legolas on the ground, stretching his left leg out with a groan. The Elf looked at him with amusement.
"Still a bit tender, I see…"
The Dwarf sniffed. "Some of us take more than a few days to knit a broken bone…"
Legolas reached for his pack. "Lie back, and rest your ankle upon this…" He placed his pack near Gimli's left foot. "It might help to raise it up for a while…"
Gimli grunted and leaned back with his foot balanced on top of the Elf's pack. He wrapped his cloak over himself, and in no time his droning snore was heard. Legolas sang softly to himself while he kept watch. Less than an hour passed, and the Elf reached out and shook his companion. Gimli snorted and woke.
"I thought you would like to be awakened. Our friend returns."
Aragorn walked toward them, Halbarad and Elrohir trailing just behind him. Gimli blinked sleep away and peered at the Dúnadan in shock. His face was full of grief, and his eyes were hollow. The Dwarf and the Elf glanced at one another with apprehension as they rose at his approach.
"Has something happened, Aragorn?" Legolas said.
"Aye, friend, tell us you news, which must be dire indeed by the way you look…" Gimli added, his gruff voice full of concern.
Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment before speaking. "The news is grievous, though not entirely unforeseen to me." His voice was hoarse and low. "I looked again into the Stone of Orthanc, as I did upon the plains of Rohan…"
"So we guessed," Gimli said. "What in Arda did you see that has caused you such distress?"
Aragorn swallowed, as though bitter bile was rising in his throat. "I confirmed that the Corsair fleet has entered the mouth of Anduin. That the Umbarians will arrive in Pelargir tomorrow—nay, later this very day—is no longer in doubt… But this was nothing unexpected." He paused before going on. "I was about to cover the Stone and store it away in my pack, when a flash, as of lightning in a storm, came from its dark depths. I grasped it again, and focused upon it…" He released a sigh. "I have seen a glimpse of one of our far-flung companions, my friends, and though I did not watch long enough to learn his ultimate fate, I have no doubt it will go ill for him…"
"Who?" Gimli demanded. "Who did you see?"
"The Bearer—is he safe?" Legolas whispered.
"I did not see the Bearer, or his faithful companion," Aragorn replied. "But I saw him who was to be their guide on their perilous journey… I saw Gandalf…" His voice dropped low and his eyes closed again as he went on. The others held their breath as he explained what he had witnessed, and what he guessed of the meaning of the dreadful scene. Legolas squeezed his eyes shut tightly, and Gimli bowed his head.
"The battle continues, even now," Aragorn said softly. "It can have but one of two outcomes, for him, both too awful to contemplate… But we can only hope that our small friends have taken full advantage of his actions and are even now making their way undetected through the encircling wall of Mordor."
They were silent as the full realization of the news sank in. Legolas looked up at last.
"Aragorn, you said this was not entirely unforeseen… How…?"
The raw anguish on the Man's face was painful to behold. "In our last conversation together, before we left Lothlorien, I guessed he might be planning something like this, though I confess even I did not imagine it would be so… so terrible…" He sighed again, and a shudder passed through him. "We oft shared our deep worry that a way through for Frodo was unclear to either of us… Yet always he assured me that he knew, in his heart, that the Hobbits would get through, even if he could not foresee precisely how…"
Another shudder went through him; then Aragorn schooled his countenance, and the grief was replaced by a look of grim determination.
"Now it is our turn to do our part. What Gandalf attempts from close at hand, we must do from afar. We must draw the Enemy's Eye away from his true peril." He gazed at his friends. "To Pelargir and beyond: where oaths shall be fulfilled and promises kept…"
* * *
As he rode through the fields of Lebennin, Elrohir heard the muffled clang of bright metal from over his shoulder. He had not had heart to explain in full the ancient horn's recent history to Estel: that Arwen had stood by, flushed with joy, as Glorfindel gave it to Elladan; that the Elf-Lord of Gondolin had chosen 'Adan knowing his twin's more musical nature; and that he had forced himself to retrieve it from his brother's pack after Helm's Deep. He would not speak—to Aragorn, or anyone—of how he wept as he rinsed Elladan's blood off the silver.
And the image of Celeborn's face contorted in agony… This knowledge he would hold close, and whatever else came to him by sight or foresight. He was Elessar's stepbrother, Arwen Undomiel's brother, and Elrond Eärendilion's son. The burden would be his alone, until the time came to lay it down.