51. Fates Convergent
I. March 13, Shire Reckoning. Northern Eregion
Haldir leapt down from the branches of the pine and dropped to the ground soundlessly, landing upon a thick mat of needles between a few remnant patches of snow. He bowed, graceful despite the bindings with their darkening stain that encircled the upper half of his right arm.
Galadriel's golden hair was caked with ash, and her dirt and soot-smeared face was lined with weariness and grief, but her brilliant blue eyes snapped to her remaining ranking officer's wounded arm.
"You are bleeding again, Haldir…"
"It is of little consequence, my Lady…"
"Tend to it, Captain," she said. "You are too important to lose. What did you see?"
He frowned and hesitated; his Lady's eyes pierced him.
"Do not force me to read your thoughts, Captain," she said curtly. "I must preserve my strength. What did you see?"
"All is not as we feared," Haldir said. "We are pursued, but by a relatively small force, of yrch only…"
"Define 'relatively small'…"
"I estimate six hundred Orc soldiers and two dozen Wargs."
Haldir shook his head. "I did not see nor sense the thing, Lady… Perhaps It retreats once again, to hide in the deep places beneath the Pass…"
Galadriel turned and gazed south and east, encompassing with a swift glance all the survivors of the realm that she and Celeborn had ruled. All told, no more than two hundred Galadhrim had escaped the onslaught of Moria and the devastation of the Balrog. Despite the wall of Mountains that now stood between her and Lothlorien, the once crystalline skies to the East hung with the reek of smoke.
Beyond sight of her eyes the Golden Wood was now black and lifeless, every grove torched, Calas Galadhon a cluttered mound of cinders and rubble, the fair hillock of Cerin Amroth with its shapely encircling trees trampled and burned. It was there upon those sacred slopes that her lover for three Ages, Celeborn, had fallen, daring to face the Dark Maia that was embodied as the Balrog of Moria. And like the Noldo Princes of the Elder Days before him, and like thousands of the Elvish warriors under his command who had already been slain, he could not withstand the heat of the Dark Fire unleashed upon him.
Hands had grasped her and dragged her from the place of her husband's agonizing death; but they could not drag her from the sight that haunted her memories, of his tall figure engulfed in flames, nor quiet the sound of his screams that echoed within her soul.
North they had fled, gathering any living Elves to them, their journey obscured by the smoke and the chaos. So few, they had eluded the Orc throngs intent on destroying and trampling every last living tree in Lorien. Across the high alpine ridges between the East Gate of Moria of old and the northern reaches of their forest, up the Dimrill Stair, over the Pass, down the Redhorn Gate they had come, stumbling and limping, weeping and shuddering with anguish.
Galadriel had ordered their path, as least expected: toward the stronghold of their attackers and not away. But in truth, what choice did they have? The hordes of Moria had been reinforced by a massive invasion from across Anduin, from Dol Guldur. Lothlorien had been caught in the point of a great tongs, with one pincer driven by the Balrog and the other by one of the Uliari. East was hemmed in with foes; south was of no avail, for who would aid them, in the realms of Men? West was yet blocked to her and any who were with her.
She had thought to lead her folk into secret exile in the cold, distant Grey Mountains. Thus, if the Balrog Itself pursued them, or if a great force of Orcs came upon their heels, the retreat of Lothlorien would risk no harm to other remnants of the Eldar. But no such force, her Captain reported, trailed after them. She shivered as she considered the most likely explanation, that the conquerors of Lothlorien had crossed Anduin and were even now attacking Thranduil and his people… Were all the remaining kingdoms of the Elves of Endorë to be wiped out? Would none but scattered individuals remain, to fade into obscurity, separate and alone?
She thought then of her daughter, and her daughter's husband, and of the hidden land where her grandchildren had been born. The image of her beautiful granddaughter came to her, awaiting news of her betrothed, who yet walked free on his quest far to the south. There had been no time, nor any safe place in which to halt and attempt far-speech with her son-in-law and fellow Ring-Bearer. Indeed, she feared to attempt it, with the Dark Maia awakened and on the prowl. The Balrog's red-hot mind searched for hers, she knew. She dared not open her thoughts, and risk exposing Elrond Earendilion and all his folk to the creature's awareness. Galadriel the Golden-haired of Far Sight traveled in blindness for the first time since she had placed the Ring of Adamant upon her finger so many centuries ago.
Yet even without Sight, she was the leader of her people now. A decision was required. She must choose their path, must see to their safety.
"We will go to Imladris," she said as she turned her back for the last time on what had been her most beloved dwelling place in all of Arda, East or West of the Great Sea.
II. March 13, S.R., The Vale of Anduin
Streaming forward like a vast flood of black and iron, the conquering armies of Moria sped northward toward the High Pass of the Mountains of Mist. Behind, driving them like frightened cattle to slaughter, strode Durin's Bane.
The Balrog was mightily pleased with the unfolding of events since he had emerged from the peak of Zirak-Zigil. The Woodland Realm of the Elf-Witch and her consort had fallen to his armies—and to the unleashing of his fiery power. His blinding rage at having been stopped at the Bridge was put to good use as rank after rank of Elf-soldiers shriveled and died in the heat of his deadly breath. The encircling barrier of Elvish sorcery that had long protected them from his Orcs melted before his fury.
In the aftermath, when nothing remained of the groves but black, smoking hulks and twisted bodies of slain warriors, his anger cooled to a simmering boil. This had been satisfying, but insufficient. He wanted more. Orders were shouted, and his servants scurried away to do his bidding. They brought him a living Elf Captain, and before his immortal flesh had been shredded and burned, the Balrog learned from him the hidden location of the other stronghold of Elvish sorcery west of the Great River and near to the Mountains. And when they were finished on this side of Anduin, they would cross and lay waste to the realm of the Wood Elves—that is, if anything was left once Dol Guldur was done with it.
The Balrog could not take his vengeance directly upon the Being he hated most in all of Endorë, for he was aware that the Maia who had thwarted him upon the Bridge of Khâzad-dum was now beyond his reach.
No matter, the Balrog sneered to himself as he drove his troops before him. Taking revenge upon the Old Fool's friends will have to suffice…
III. March 14, SR. Mirkwood the Great.
The old man, the sleeves of his reddish-brown robe rolled to just below his elbows and his unruly grey hair momentarily controlled in a thick plait tied behind his neck, leaned on his walking stick. He placed both his knobbed hands upon the cross-brace as he listened to the peregrine perched upon the branch just above his head. The sleek grey bird was very excited—too excited. She was hardly making sense. The bird's usually piercing voice was tense and rushed as she tried to deliver her message.
He reached up with one hand and made a shushing sound with pursed lips. Pshhh, pshhh… The falcon's pressured voice slowed and ceased, and cautiously, she stepped forward onto his outstretched wrist.
"That's right," he whispered. "Take a breath, my friend… Now, start again, and slowly this time…"
Bit by bit the tale emerged. He was used to the manner of birds and the stories they told—often long and tangled, weaving up and down, side to side, in and out of the present and the past, like nests built upon old nests, of vines and sticks and thread and odd bits of hair and scraps of shiny stuff. This tale was no different, though it seemed to him that the peregrine felt the need to convey something of dire importance much more quickly than was her wont.
Apparently the falcon had been recruited for her speed, the fifth bird in a line of swift birds of various sorts, bearing the tale from West of the River, of war and fire and death. The old man had already smelled the heavy pall of smoke hanging over the southern reaches of Mirkwood, and of constant movement and the din of battle beneath the tangled branches of the great dark woodland where he had long made his home. The icy presence of the Nazgûl he knew commanded in the sinister old stronghold to the south was clearly on the move. And another, unfamiliar and mighty force—red-hot, not freezing cold—lurked westward, on the edges of his inner awareness.
This least powerful, drabbest and most oft overlooked Wizard was, of all of the Istari, the most attuned to sudden alterations in the interwoven web of living beings in Endorë. Most keenly that of the kelvar and olvar, of course, for they were his special charges. But none of his fellow travelers from over the Sea suspected how acutely he could detect shifts in the living matrix of the Speaking Children of Eru, of all races and forms, as well. Several days ago he had been suddenly startled, gasping, from sleep by the shocking inner knowledge that thousands of lives had just ended, abruptly and violently. And, he was quite certain, those lives had been of the Eldar Race.
Centuries ago he had abandoned his old dwelling place in the South of Mirkwood, Rhosgobel, as too near to the deadly Tower of Dol Guldur and the poisonous murk that hovered about it for leagues in all directions. His newer house and gardens were situated quite close to the realm of the Beornings, and thus near the crossing of the River at the Great Road. He listened intently as the falcon's story wound to its dismal and alarming conclusion.
So—the survivors of Lothlorien flee north… to Rivendell, undoubtedly… And though the Elves might not know it, screened as they were by a range of mountains between them, the enormous invading force sweeping up from their conquest of the Golden Wood appeared to have chosen the very same destination. But very little could be hidden from the denizens of the skies. The birds of Middle Earth saw, and knew, and brought the desperate tale to him, for he was their Istar, their advisor and their friend.
As evening fell Radagast straightened and squinted, gazing south into the hovering smoke. He was weak, and insignificant—everyone said it was so, especially his fellow travelers—and he had never felt weaker or more insignificant than this evening. The great and dangerous events that now unfolded all around him could hardly be said to concern his true mission here, which he had always understood quite differently from the others. What could one such as he truly do to change the course of such momentous events?
After a long moment of hesitation, Radagast lifted the peregrine upward until she was level with his warm brown eyes. He studied the falcon, assessing her strength for yet more flight. She was already preening, and her yellow eyes were keen and bright as she turned her slate-grey head to stare at him. She is ready…
From his lips came a stream of sharp whistles and piercing shrieks. The bird responded with flicks of her tail and jerking of her wings. She tensed, grasping his wrist tightly—then in less than the blink of an eye she was gone. He looked up, shading his brows to watch as her dark form sped quickly out of sight.
The peregrine was the swiftest creature in all Arda, east of the Sea. But for what he must now do, more than speed was required. He needed strength and courage and ferocity. I need an Eagle…
His hand dropped as he looked down. An Eagle might well come, and might be convinced to help him, as one had helped his colleague not so long ago… He frowned, for his own dismal error had led to that colleague's harrowing predicament and the need for an Eagle's assistance... He shook his head and sighed.
I am not made for this, for great deeds, for war… He had come to serve his Mistress, on behalf of those creatures who could not speak for themselves, who had suffered as greatly as any in Middle Earth. It was not his place to set himself up against great Evil, against terrible Powers far beyond him. Yet, you promised…
He had promised, rashly, in a moment of intense clarity—of union from afar between the mind and soul of another in a manner he had almost forgotten was possible. You said you would do what you could… The Brown Wizard was quite simply incapable of deceit, or disloyalty. He made promises rarely, and very cautiously—and he always fulfilled them.
And then… He had no illusions about his own strength, courage or ferocity, which were, he knew, rather pale. He could not fight. He could not face a demon of Darkness and Fire, or endure horrors so that others would not. But what he could do was put his own considerable skills to use: of healing, and giving comfort, of listening, and giving counsel. He would do what he did best, and then he would fulfill the rest of his promise. He could do no less.
IV. March 20, SR. Minas Tirith
Boromir eyed the Healer, Master Turin, with deep skepticism.
"Then you cannot be entirely certain that a sliver of the blade does not remain within my side…"
"Not entirely certain, sire," Turin said carefully. "One can never be entirely certain about such things. I am nearly certain, however…"
Boromir slammed his fist on the table. "'Nearly' is not good enough!" he shouted hoarsely. "Why am I not improving, if a fragment of that accursed monster's knife is not still lodged within me?"
Turin frowned. "Sire, in my opinion you are doing far better than you would if a sliver of a Morgul blade remained…"
"You call this doing better? Turin, I have grown worse…"
"True enough, in one sense, but not as bad as I would expect…
"Enough dilly-dallying—speak the truth!"
"Sire, there could easily be other explanations…"
"The infection, of course…"
"…which you have drained, not once, but twice, and led me to believe was nearly gone…"
"It is nearly gone, Lord Boromir. That does not mean that one can recover rapidly from such a thing," the Master Healer said as he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Remember that you were also injured before the Wraith's attack…"
"Pah! A puny little knife wound…"
"…not so 'puny,' as I recall. And a poisoned arrow pierced you, a few months ago…"
"…a wound from which I had totally recovered, thanks to Elvish healers, and to the Lord Aragorn," Boromir snarled.
Turin paused before going on. "There is also the very real and serious emotional impact upon your body's ability to heal, sire…"
Boromir's voice was low and his face flushed with anger. "Are you trying to tell me that my father's death is preventing my flesh from knitting back together?"
The Healer stared solemnly at his patient. "Nay, my Lord," he said quietly. "I am saying that the manner of your father's death could well be interfering with your healing…and not only of the wound in your flank." Turin took a step toward Boromir's chair. "Did you, perhaps, have a opportunity to speak to your brother about your experience, before he departed with the armies?"
"…or with your friend, the Lord Elessar…"
Turin took another hesitant step forward. "Sire, I know this must be horribly difficult…"
"Leave me, Master Turin," Boromir said coldly with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I wish to be alone." The acting Steward turned his pale, drawn face toward the window and pointedly looked out toward the gardens, and the Healer withdrew in silence.
Boromir gazed upon the unfurling spring buds and blossoms on the beautifully manicured trees and shrubs without seeing them. He clenched both fists and sat stiffly as he tried to contain his rage, aimed entirely at himself.
What nonsense—that a thing both necessary and merciful might hamper healing! I was not harmed by my actions on behalf of Father—I had to do it! There—I've said it—I had no choice…
And then it was as if he could hear his father's cold voice in his ear…
Then explain: where has your strength gone, Captain-General? Why do you linger in this House for the feeble and infirm when you are—for the time being—the sole ruler of this City? You should be leading the people of Minas Tirith, not confined to a sickbed! Shameful enough that you are incapable of riding with the Captains of the West in the final thrust against the Enemy. Will you also allow others to perform every small duty remaining to you? Or will you prove to them that you are not a weakling, an invalid, a useless drag on your brother, your liege-lord, your countrymen?
Gritting his teeth with determination, he pushed himself up, his muscles taut and trembling. Against the wall of his chamber leaned two canes. He flung himself forward, only just catching himself before he crashed into the wall, next to the canes. Rigid with pain and panting, he managed somehow to grasp a cane in each hand and stand.
Slowly, the highest ranking officer and lord remaining in Minas Tirith made his way to the door, dragging himself across the floor, step by agonizing step. His profound bodily weakness was more than most men could possibly have mastered—but Boromir son of Denethor was not most men. The door was closed, and that simple fact nearly defeated him. But with no one to witness his struggle, he leaned against the frame, pinning one of the canes between his leg and the wood, reached out with a shaking hand and lifted the latch. The door opened outward, else he might at last have been thwarted. But Boromir kicked the base of it and continued into the hall, his hands clenched tightly upon the handles of the canes.
Master Turin's back was turned, but by the sudden look of alarm and shocked gasp from his Chief Assistant standing in front of him, the Healer knew what his most stubborn patient was up to in the hallway behind him. He glanced sharply at Lady Ivreniril and grasped her wrist to halt her from leaping forward.
"Let him be, Lady," he muttered, interrupting her as she drew in a breath to speak. "Another Wraith does not lie in wait for him in the gardens. After what he has been through, a tumble to the floor will be nothing in comparison to further confinement in that room of his, alone with the true demons that yet assail him…"
Boromir passed a glazed window on his way to the outer hall. By what the Captain-General felt was a cruel trick of the light, his visage was reflected clearly in the glass. He could not avoid seeing how ravaged his face appeared, how hollow his cheeks, how sunken his eyes. A barely healed slice crossed his cheek, pulling the outer corner of his eyelid downward as it puckered into scar. His color was pasty-white, and the life seemed to have gone out of his thick hair and beard. Streaks of grey now marred the rich dark color. He looked old, frail and sickly. He moved as quickly as he could away from the telltale reflection and reached the open, arched door that led to the gardens.
The morning light was bright on the eastern-facing terrace. He blinked a few times until his sight was accustomed to it. It was a lovely place, a pleasant place—and an unfamiliar one. Boromir had not ventured here before, save to watch the forces of the West march to war, two days ago. Then, the terrace had been crowded with onlookers. Today, it was empty—almost.
The Lady of Rohan sat alone upon a stone bench, gazing outward over the wall. Her right arm remained still and apparently lifeless in a white sling; but her left arm, he noted, now hung at her side, though still bound in bandages. He saw that on the seat of the bench beside her sat a leather-bound book. Her slender fingers lay draped upon its cover.
He glanced beyond her and saw Merry walking away toward the opposite side of the garden and the other entrance. He frowned, bemused, for by the Halfling's side walked the demure gold-haired assistant healer, with whom he had flirted shamelessly on the road when the fiefdom's troops marched into the City. Strange, he thought. Our Merry is either taller than I remember or sweet little Mareyn is shorter than I recall… The two figures were within just a few inches of one another's height, though the short-statured woman from Rohan was a bit taller than the Perian.
Boromir was still watching the pair moving away with curiosity when he realized that the Lady of Rohan had glanced toward him. He flushed with sudden shame as he felt her eyes upon him before her head turned again and she looked away. He closed his eyes as he wished that he had not left his rooms after all. She is a warrior and a Rider of the Mark… What will one such as she think of this weakling? His face burned as he considered that this woman had done what he could not—she had slain the Nazgûl who had named himself Gothmog the Terrible, the monster who had maimed him, and forced him to murder his own father.
His self-reproaching thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her voice—lower and more self-assured than any woman's speech he had yet heard, save that of the Lady of the Golden Wood.
"Lord Boromir," she said. "I am told by a mutual friend that we have much in common." She had risen from the bench and now stood six feet away. Her eyes blazed at him.
Fearless indeed, he thought. Or no—perhaps cold-blooded would be more accurate…Those brilliant blue eyes are afire, but ice runs in this beautiful lady's veins…
"Is that so, Lady Eowyn?" he said with a polite bow of his head. "What friend, I wonder, and what might it be that you and I share?" That is, besides the obvious horror we both survived when our loved ones did not? he mused. His arms were beginning to tremble again. He knew that he needed to sit, and soon, or he would tumble to the ground. And he had no desire to humiliate himself in such a fashion in front of this Knight of Rohan. Her assessing glance flicked down and up very quickly—or had he just imagined it?
"The friend is, of course, young Meriadoc… and as for the other, I admit I would rather speak of almost anything else in all the world," she said without a trace of warmth in her voice. But her eyes softened slightly. "Will you sit beside me, sire? Perhaps we can speak of other, more pleasant things… And besides, I have need of a rest, for the return of my strength eludes me still…"
He nodded, waiting for her to proceed before him to the bench. I did not imagine it. She can see how weak I am. She is a King's sister-daughter and schooled enough in politics and grace to not allow me to fall flat on my face… As he came near he saw that she could barely clasp the book with her stiff fingers to pull it toward her. Ah, then… she hides her own sort of weakness…
With a groan he could not entirely suppress, Boromir collapsed onto the bench at her side. His flank wound constantly throbbed, but his excursion on the canes had brought the return of a sharper pain to the 'puny little knife wound' in the back of his left shoulder. When he had drawn the Elven bow in the Courtyard, he knew he had torn that hole open, and in all likelihood had destroyed his ability to steady such a weapon ever again. This small secret knowledge was, in some ways, the most devastating to him—for he had always prided himself on this one way in which he emulated his father the Steward's many skills. Fari inherited Ada's fierce intelligence, and his wisdom, passed from the Steward Turgon, as well as his farsightedness… Skill at archery was all I truly had of him, and even in that I was never as great as he…
They sat, side by side, a few feet separating them on the cool bench, in silence, each frowning and focused inward. The Steward's Heir was hardly aware of the woman near him, so filled was he with the memory of his father's dying face and the sensation of the blade thrusting into his flesh. And the Lady relived yet again the sight of her beloved brother's arm dangling in the jaws of a monster while she was frozen in place, incapable of movement. Was there something else I could have done? they each asked themselves. If only I had been stronger, acted more swiftly, had anticipated the worst…
And yet their very proximity to one another slowly turned their inwardly focused thoughts outward. His features are so like that other dark-haired Lord, she thought. He is nearly as noble and high, and just as courageous, I deem—but this man has known stark failure, and the same fell creature stole kith and kin from him as from me… And Boromir felt her sitting near him as a man who has survived a bleak winter senses the approach of spring. She is so strong, so brave, and yet so lonely in her loveliness… What sort of woman is she? What drives her, what lies in her heart? Neither spoke, but both gradually became more aware of the other, close enough to touch. Speech was not yet necessary. The Heir of the Steward of Gondor and the granddaughter of Morwen Steelsheen simply sat in the morning sunlight and took comfort in a silence that made no demands upon them for the moment, and both were content.
Merry sighed as he watched them from the arched doorway on the northern end of the garden. "I don't think they've said ten words to one another…"
"It is going to take time, Master Meriadoc," Mareyn said softly. "Your Lady Eowyn's spirit was as torn asunder as was her brother's flesh, and our Lord Boromir was forced to do something no man should be called to do…"
"I suppose you're right." He turned to her and looked up slightly. "You're very wise, Mareyn. I would appreciate it if you'd call me Merry," he said. "No one but my father, Saradoc, calls me Meriadoc—and only when he's angry with me… Well, I guess Legolas never seemed to get used to using our nicknames, but he's an Elf, and they are strange creatures…"
Mareyn smiled at him with a look of amazement. "I think I shall never tire of hearing your traveling tales! Your adventures were simply astonishing… All right, Merry it is… but you should know that at home, my family's name for me sounds very like yours. They've always shortened my name to 'Mary,' and that's what I have always preferred. So it might be a bit confusing…"
Merry took the assistant healer's hand and looped it over his right elbow, tucking it just above the band of the sling as he steered her back into the building. "It might be confusing to others, but it will never be confusing to us! We'll always know exactly who we mean when one of us addresses the other… Now, Mary, let's leave those two alone for a good long while. Time might not heal everything…"
"…but it certainly is worth a try," she said, as she squeezed his arm lightly.
They leaned toward one another instinctively, and their shoulders bumped together. Suddenly their comfortable smiles faltered as their eyes met, in a moment that was over in a few heartbeats but seemed to linger forever. The Perian swallowed a strange lump that had caught in his dry throat, and the young lady's breath had become inexplicably short. Then Mareyn's grip on Merry's arm loosened and her hand slid off and away. The hobbit stepped back a pace and bowed slightly, gesturing for his companion to go ahead of him. Their dissimilar faces had flushed an identical shade of pink as they entered the House.
Upon the stone bench, Eowyn sighed and broke the long silence. She turned her head toward Boromir.
"I would ask a boon of you, my Lord," she said in a soft, plaintive voice.
The sadness in her eyes contrasting with her great beauty slid through the cracks in his heart and tugged gently. The Lord of Minas Tirith was moved by great pity for her obvious anguish—and an overwhelming desire to see this young woman smile. He searched her eyes.
"Name it, Lady…"
Her eyes fell onto the book at her side, and a single tear slid down her cheek. "I came outdoors to read… to read my grandmother's book… But my arm… both my arms are too weak to hold it… I can't even… I…" Her voice ended in a choked whisper.
"Shall I read it to you, Lady?"
"Would you, sire?" she said hoarsely.
Boromir picked up the old book. Opening it, he smiled slightly and nodded, thanking his old tutors for insisting that the heir to the Steward of Gondor must be fluent in the language of the realm's most important ally. In his deep baritone, he began to read the ancient tale of Eldar and Edain that a pure-blooded Númenorean woman had translated into the tongue of her new home: Rohirric.
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering…
V. March 23, SR. The Northern Border of Ithilien.
Halbarad stuck his head through the flap of his commander's tent and looked out. Where has he got to now?… When he wished for Elrohir to stay out of the way, it seemed, the Peredhel stuck to Aragorn like a burr; and when he needed him, his Lord's step-brother was nowhere to be found. He glanced at the sentries and the limp standard, fluttering intermittently in the sullen breeze, and wondered whether to send another out in search of Elrond's son… But no, Indor was more than reliable. He would find the Peredhel, soon enough.
The lieutenant's gaze swept over the darkened, nearly silent hillside. Uncounted tents huddled together in the night, some clustered on the wide ledge, some pitched precariously on the slope above. No one, he noted, had placed their tents below the ledge, on the side that peeked out upon the southern border of the oozing fen. Even here, on the high, sheltered side of the ledge, the stench of ancient decay flitted in and out on the night breeze. A few lanterns flickered here and there, but the armies had received their orders and obeyed: no campfires, no torches, and keep quiet.
The Host of the West had been marching for six days, and according to Aragorn, had just one day left before their final encampment. Halbarad himself had not come this way before—between the parched Mountains of Ash and the noisome expanse of the Dead Marshes. Yet he knew, as did every Dúnedain, from North or South, that beyond the Marshes lay the cracked desert plain of the Dagorlad, and between two outstretched arms of the mountains, the Black Gate itself would appear on their right. He felt a shudder crawl down his spine.
A faint sound came from behind the flap, like a moan of pain. Halbarad turned and ducked inside. Where is that Elf! As his eyes adjusted to the greater gloom inside the tent he rushed to his kinsman's side. He had left Aragorn lying on the cot, curled on his left side, his face clamped in a grimace and sweat beading on his brow. Hal had insisted on a look at the shoulder wound—the first glimpse that Aragorn had allowed anyone in days.
His eyes had flown open at the sight of it. Where a shiny, healed swath of scar had been, three dark red lumps bulged outward as if emerging from the bone itself. The overlying skin was stretched tightly, threatening to burst open. Halbarad had laid a hand on the growths and felt their heat. As he withdrew his hand he felt something on his fingertips—sticky, and grainy, like wet sand. Only this sand was black. He'd sped from the tent and sent Indor off to fetch the Elvish healer immediately.
But now his closest friend, his Captain and his King was sitting up, his head in his hands. Aragorn was gasping rapidly, and trembling.
"I've sent for Elrohir," Halbarad whispered as he knelt at his side. "He's coming, he'll help you…"
"N..no!… Not Elrohir, not him!… He cannot… I don't want him here…" Aragorn shuddered and a groan escaped from him.
"Don't be a fool! I can see you're in agony again. Elrohir is the only one who can do a thing to help, you know that…"
"Please, don't bring him here, Hal… He'll see, he'll know… And I don't think I can bear to tell him," he whispered though his hands.
Halbarad leaned closer. "What on earth are you saying, Aragorn? Tell him what? What's going on?"
Aragorn's hands fell to his lap. Hal's jaw fell open at the sight. In all the years they had known one another, through all the sorrows and horrors they had seen and experienced, he had never seen such a look of pure anguish on his friend and kinsman's face before.
"I fell asleep…a dream… a nightmare…" His hands shook violently.
Halbarad swallowed hard as he gripped his kinsman's shoulder.
"Was it foresight? What did you see, Aragorn?"
"… I… I saw…"
The flap was tossed back as Elrohir stumbled into the tent, Indor on his heels. The Peredhel dropped to his knees at the side of his step-brother and reached out to grasp both his hands.
"I know what you saw… I saw it too…" he said in a hoarse whisper.
Halbarad stood and watched as the Heir of Isildur and his step-brother clung to one another, gasping with choked sobs. The lieutenant glanced at Indor; the man's eyes were wide with terror as he stared at his Commander. And well he should be terrified, so am I… What horrible thing have they seen? Has the Enemy regained his treasure? Have the Hobbits been taken? Is it over? Has the end come at last?
The brothers clutched one another for what seemed to Halbarad like hours. Finally, Elrohir's grip on Aragorn loosened and he sat back upon his heels. The Peredhel's hand lay upon his brother's neck, and Estel rested his fingers upon his brother's forearm.
"She is alive…"
"Then there is hope—there must be hope…"
"But what was that thing…"
"I have seen it once before, in Moria…"
Hal stepped forward to catch the whispered fragments. "Tell me—tell us, Aragorn… What have you seen, what has happened?"
His Commander's face suddenly twisted with grief and he turned away with a choked cry. Elrohir's eyes overran with tears.
"Imladris," he said hoarsely. "Under attack… Orcs… Flames everywhere… A creature of Shadow and Fire… And… and my sister…"
"My beloved Arwen…!"
Elrohir shuddered and seemed to steel himself. His shimmering eyes met Halbarad's. "She is alive, but injured… and in terrible pain …"
The lieutenant stretched out his hand toward his kinsman. But even as he did so Aragorn turned forward, and with a dreadful shiver his grief-stricken face solidified into a grim mask. The tears ceased, and the muscles in his jaw tightened. His voice was low, and filled with an entirely different emotion—rage.
"Now I understand the look on Gandalf's face, that night… before we parted…" he said harshly. "He knew. He knew—and he said nothing!"
"You cannot be certain of that, Estel…"
Aragorn's piercing gaze fell on his step-brother. "I know him. I am certain. He knew, and he did nothing to stop it!"" His mouth curled in a snarl as he hissed. "And if I ever see him again…"
Elrohir raised himself to one knee and clutched Aragorn's wrist. "…you'll do what, exactly?" he said fiercely. "Recall where he is. Think on this: under what circumstances are you likely to see Mithrandir again? And if that fate befalls you, what point is your anger then?" The Peredhel shook his step-brother's arm vigorously. "Snap out of this foul mood, now! It does no one good—not you, not Arwen, not the thousands who depend on you for leadership!" He turned toward the two men staring in shocked silence. "Indor—get me water, a basin of cool and another, piping hot… Halbarad, don't just stand there gawking; help me get your Commander out of that tunic…" He glared at Aragorn, who had begun to protest. "No more delay, Estel, no more excuses! Four days since the last drop of the Ent-draught, and long past time I should inspect your shoulder."
As Halbarad and Elrohir moved closer and stood near him, Aragorn shuddered once more. He reached up and grasped Elrohir's arm.
"She is alive, isn't she, El?"
Elrohir nodded. "I promise you, I would know if she were not..."
"Then there is hope left," Aragorn sighed.
"As much hope as there has ever been, brother. And even if there is none for you, or for my sister… or for me… yet hope may survive for someone, somewhere… It is for Hope itself that we must carry on…"
VI. March 23, S.R., Gorgoroth.
Sam Gamgee watched his Master in amazement. Where did he find the strength, the sheer determination? He himself had regained something of his former endurance, but quite clearly Mr. Frodo was now the stronger of the two of them.
Sam was on guard, wearing Narya, the silver scarf folded and tucked into his belt for the moment. His task required nothing but vigilance and the strangely accurate sight granted to him by Gandalf's Gift despite the perpetual gloom of this shrouded desert. And as he looked up the road built of crushed rock and down, back and forth, he saw nothing else moving. An enormous irregular block of grey-black stone loomed above them and to their right—the Mathom House, the last of the five landmarks his Master had picked out from the hillsides of the Morgai.
They had, after all, been forced to do just what the wizard had predicted—seek out the road in order to find water. The three water skins and the small flask had given up their final drops of moisture that morning—or whatever time it had been. The Mountain grew closer and closer, but clearly wasn't close enough. Without water, in the acrid, smoky air of Gorgoroth, their thirst grew ever greater as they crawled and flitted from one broken feature to another. Sam felt his muscles start to wobble, and his head ached as time with nothing to drink stretched on. After hours of struggling, Frodo insisted that they veer north.
"There's got to be a road in that direction," he had said. "When we came down from the Morgai I steered us to the right of the main way coming down from the Pass, and we've crossed nothing larger than a footpath. The main road must still be to the left of us…"
And so it had been, wide enough for ten Orcs to march side by side, or for wheeled carts to fly over its dusty surface. It was curbed and bordered by ditches—though for what reason a road through the desert would need ditches, Sam couldn't guess. He knew that rain had recently fallen—at least he remembered Mr. Frodo telling him about rain, the rain that had chased the spiders away. He couldn't picture it in his own mind, and had no direct recall of the smell or the taste of it, or the feel of water on his skin, which was so dry and caked with dust that it hurt. But even if rain did fall, likely as not it was the first in hundreds of years and will be the last in hundreds more…
They had followed the line of the ditch, scrambling as they had through all the last days as they made their slow way across Mordor: Frodo in the lead, with the glimmering silver scarf fastened to his wrist, and Sam, invisible with the Red Ring on his finger, rope tied round his waist and affixed to the scarf that served as a shining beacon to shuffle after. Their path along the tumbled, excavated border of the ditch was even more difficult than over the open plain. For there, Frodo could weave from side to side, picking out a bit smoother way as he guided them from one hiding place to another. Here, he dared not vary the route for fear of missing or failing to recognize an Orc well.
Finally they found one, and by good fortune it was on their side of the road. Its sides were built up several feet, and a dry-stacked wall of rock encircled the opening. A few rough steps led up to it from the surface of the road. The Hobbits leaned over the edge and looked down into the black hole. They could see nothing, of course, but could smell brackish, oily water, and feel slightly cooler air rising from below.
Sam stood by while Frodo lowered each one of their water skins slowly into the well, and hauled them back up, one by one. He even sent one of the skins down a second time, unsatisfied at how it had only partially filled. The entire process took nearly an hour, for the hole was very deep, and Sam's fear grew stronger every moment that ticked by.
But the cause of Sam's anxiety was not the dreadful fact that they were smack dab in the middle of the Enemy's land, exposed to any eyes—or Eye—that might want to spy on them; nor the grim truth that thousands of Orcs surrounded them, and any one of them might appear at any second and skewer them or take them prisoner. It wasn't even the horrible realization that the worst part of their truly horrible journey was yet to come—the climb up the broken, smoldering sides of the Mountain that towered over them, waiting for a river of molten fire to sweep down and incinerate them. No; he was afraid for his Master. And, he had to admit to himself, he was increasingly afraid of his Master.
He ceased searching for wandering Orcs for a moment and focused his peculiarly keen sight—and his heightened hearing—on Frodo. His Master was whispering as he lowered the next water bottle, hand over hand, into the deep well.
He's talking to It again. Or answering when It speaks to him. Ever since Frodo had returned out of the dim darkness looking for him and confessed that he'd listened to the Ring's urging and had almost abandoned him, Sam was aware that his Master was falling increasingly under the thing's influence. Frodo hardly spoke to him anymore, unless it was absolutely necessary; and yet his whispered voice was rarely still. With Narya on his finger, Sam could make out snatches of his speech, and it worried him deeply.
Frodo seemed locked in an argument with himself, about the route they should take from here. Part of him, to Sam's horror, whispered a plan to bypass the Mountain and go instead to Barad-dûr, to try to rescue the wizard. Another part seemed to understand that such a plan was as foolhardy as leaping from a precipice, and that the true way required scaling the Mountain and finding the Crack of Doom. But that more sensible part seemed to be weakening, and the other grew stronger and more insistent. Perhaps the most frightening was the word Sam heard his Master use with ever increasing frequency: Precious.
He had never met the creature Gollum in life, but Sam had nearly memorized old Mr. Bilbo's tale. That's what the old villain called It: his Precious… And he was under Its sway, head to toe… What's happening to you, Master? Fight it, you must fight it!
Frodo had completed his task. He stoppered the bottles and climbed down from the wall around the well. As he came forward Sam slipped the Red Ring off his finger so his Master could see him. Wordlessly, Frodo nodded and handed Sam one of the bottles. He swung his pack from his shoulders and placed the others inside before hoisting it up again. Sam watched with a sickening feeling of helplessness. He shouldn't be the one bearing all that extra weight; that should fall to me, I'm the servant, and he's the Master… But Sam knew he did not yet have the strength to do so.
In silence they affixed the scarf and rope once again. Frodo's eyes did not rise to meet his companion's. He merely nodded, and pointed—the Mathom House. Sam slid Narya onto his hand and vanished, and on they went, scrambling down and away from the side of the road.
The shuffling of their feet on the ashen, stony ground muffled any whispered mutterings that his Master might be saying. Still, Sam frowned at him worriedly. Now, the voices inside his own head were the cause for his anxiety.
There might come a time, Sam, when I fail—when I can't do what I came to do. Then you'll have to do it instead of me…
Sam blinked away the hot tears that had, astonishingly, appeared in his eyes despite the extreme dryness of his throat. Don't ask me to do it, Master, don't ask me… Please don't ask me…