1. To Walk a Dark Land
Gildor Inglorion gazed at the scene before him, trying not to let the fetid fumes that surrounded him make him sick to his stomach. An entire Age had passed since last he had looked upon these lands, and only the knowledge that the evil that had so corrupted them had been vanquished made him even consider continuing on his quest. He looked around what had once been an otherwise unpleasant marshland but now was a stinking and corpse-filled swamp, trying to find landmarks revisited far too many times in waking nightmares that would tell him where…
Would it even make a difference? On this side of the sea, it was difficult to know whether those who had fallen in the desperate side note to the horrific battle before the Black Gates of Mordor an Age ago had made it to Bannoth, or whether they had been trapped here by the evil that the Dark Lord had wielded. But the locals had not begun calling this place the "Dead Marshes" for nothing: far too many were painfully aware that the dead did not rest easily here, where they had fallen, where they had been left – abandoned – because retrieving them had been impractical at the time and impossible later.
No doubt, proximity to Mordor and the Dark Lord had condemned the fallen mortals to a half-life that was unimaginable; it was generally accepted that they had become wraiths, plaguing and haunting anyone foolish or unlucky enough to venture forth into their noisome graveyard. The idea that there were Firstborn numbering among those trapped here, however, was almost too painful to contemplate; but the time had come to find out for certain. Sauron was no more, and his power no longer extended over anyone in this dreadful place. Surely those who had given this dark and wet land its frightening name had been freed when the Ring went into the fire and all of Sauron's control slipped away.
Gildor checked his bearings and then wielded his long walking stick, gleaned from a much younger forest far to the north in Rhovanion, carefully prodding at what looked to be solid ground ahead of him before moving a foot forward and putting weight on it. Even before the Dagorlad, these marshes had been dangerous places where what looked to be solid could give out beneath an unwary foot all too easily, trapping a victim in treacherous sands that would swallow a man alive and leave nary a trace of his passing. For so many to have been lured into fighting a battle here had been yet another abominable mistake in a campaign punctuated by far too many such errors, a situation made worse only by the fact that those who had fallen here had perhaps been trapped here ever since.
Step by step, setting a slow and careful pace and keeping his eyes alternately on the ground ahead of him and the landmarks that surrounded him, Gildor moved forward. He was driven by a need to know, both for his own peace of mind as well as that of others. There had to be some way to discover the truth so he could tell those who had lost loved ones so long ago that their fathers and brothers and husbands and sons had indeed moved on and were waiting for them on the other shore. He had promised himself that he would bring word of their fate from this place, one way or the other; and he'd rather report that what had been a cursed place had, through the fall of the Dark Lord himself, been cleansed once and for all.
And, ultimately, no matter what, he would send a report to the new King in Gondor on his findings and recommendations.
Faerlin, his wife, had not been happy to hear of his self-appointed task. "We have lost enough of our people to that place, beloved," she had complained to him many times on the way back from Minas Tirith, where they had watched a new King take the daughter of Elrond Half-elven to wife. Faerlin's joy at the emancipation of all the Free Peoples of Ennor still wasn't enough to allow her to at least condone his actions. "You need not add your name to that list."
"I know this," he'd told her, "but the time has come to see if even this evil has begun to fade, as so many others have now. Would you not like to know if Belchalad's faer is trapped still, or if he even now perhaps awaits our arrival in the Blessed Lands after his release from Bannoth? I know I want to know if my father and brother are…"
"I understand, even if I do not approve. It is just that I fear for you, treading that evil-saturated land." Even the mention of their son, lost somewhere in the fighting in these damp environs, wasn't enough to convince her. She clung to him, and he had felt her shivers of apprehension at the thought that he, too, could get irretrievably lost here.
But this was a task that Gildor knew needed doing, and it needed to be done by one who was familiar with the place to begin with. An Age ago, he had staggered away from the fens and ponds and reeds, accompanied by those very few who had survived the slaughter with him; before that, he had watched so many loved ones fall. He still occasionally suffered the nightmares of remembering this landscape all too clearly. Who else would care enough to want to see what remained here? Who else would even know where to look?
And so he had left Faerlin waiting for his return with the rest of their band on the banks of the Anduin, camped in a beautiful copse of aged willows and cottonwoods, while he undertook the journey that took him north and then east, towards mountains that until only lately had been feared and reviled. But no more dark clouds and threatening thunder punctuated the days he walked toward them; indeed, the summer sun shone warmly down on him. So warm it was, in fact, that he considered removing his tunic and wearing only a vest for modesty's sake until he walked too close to a cloud of marsh midges.
Frodo had been very descriptive when questioned about his passage through these lands, and Gildor's persistence in questioning the Ringbearer now kept him moving forward with some confidence, even after the sun dropped below the horizon and the only light was that cast by the full moon. In moonlight, the air over the marsh gained a sickly, blue hue, cold and cruel and malevolent. The land itself seemed to ooze a lure intended to lead him forward, further away from solid, dependable land and deeper into the control of whatever remained behind after all the blood had soaked into the ground over three thousand years ago.
His hopes not to encounter anything other-worldly were crushed when the first little light twinkled into existence in the distance off to his left. Frodo had warned him that he himself had seen that the dead rested uneasily here, that they lit sickly-glowing candles in the night in hopes of luring the living to join them in their watery graves. His heart sank further when another little light blinked into being, and then another, and another. Fog began rising from the ponds to the side of the solid ground, and the flickers reflected against it with an eerie glow, making him shiver from something other than the cold. His ears tickled with the barest perception of sighs and moans floating in the dank air.
A tendril of cloying fog thickened in front of Gildor, and then began to slowly coalesce into an approximation of a human form. Tall, slender, girded in armor so begrimed and corroded that it was impossible to tell if it was of Mortal crafting or Elven, the figure seemed to be waiting – waiting for him – with a long, dripping sword in one hand and a short and squat candle in the other. A finger of cold ran down Gildor's spine as he felt the very atmosphere around him congeal, and a wave of despair and malice begin to swirl about him. Surrounded by palpable desperation, the little lights that flickered seemed welcome invitations; and the candle born by the one who faced him even more so.
It took strength to combat the pervasive wave of debilitation that attempted to overwhelm his mind and heart. Gildor whispered a soft plea to Elbereth, the Star-Kindler, to light his way, and the negative emotions abated as quickly as they had arisen when no sustaining strength from Mordor was forthcoming. No doubt, few mortals would have been able to persevere against such an attempt, especially when the Dark Lord was at his full power. That Frodo and Sam had traversed this place with their wits and faer intact was exposed as an even greater miracle than many wished to acknowledge.
But Gildor was Firstborn, and he reminded himself that the Edhil had nothing to fear from the dead. "Mae govannen," Gildor offered to the shade in a voice disciplined to calm and confidence. "Well met, friend."
The figure lifted the squat candle it held in the hand not occupied with the sword, and in the unwholesome light, Gildor could see that the hair of this… person… was drenched and clung to a skull only barely covered with translucent and peeling skin that showed all too clearly the bone beneath. Sad and tattered remnants of what could have been braiding to keep that hair from a warrior's face dangled limply against the soggy mess beneath. Eyes that flickered with the same kind of sick light as cast by the candle peered at him intently from sunken sockets, while lips that were thin and pinched moved soundlessly.
"Why do you linger here in such a state, my friend? Know you not that the Dark Lord is vanquished?" Gildor asked quietly, planting his walking stick carefully on firm ground and leaning on it with deceptive casualness. "You are no longer trapped here."
Those few soft words made the wraith hesitate, and then slowly blink. When the corrupt eyelids again lifted, the anemic light that had dwelled in their depths had been replaced by something wild and desperate, and yet hopeful. "Free?" The word whispered on the wind and played in the air like a butterfly around a flower.
"Free," Gildor repeated, nodding. "Go now, tell the others. Your time of imprisonment is over, and you may seek your rest in the place set aside for you by the One who Sang us all into being."
The shade dropped the candle, which sputtered and then went out as it rolled into a pool of slime-ringed water. Gildor found himself unable to look away as, slowly at first and then faster as moments passed, the corruption started to drop away from the phantom in front of him. As if standing beneath the pound of a waterfall, the grime and corrosion fell from the figure, revealing a suit of fine and well-crafted Númenorean armor. Skin regained the semblance of substance, making it far easier to discern the features of the man's face. The dampness flowed from the hair, and the braids remade themselves and hung with pride.
The hand with the sword in it raised, and the wraith contemplated it for a moment as if only now aware that it had been holding the weapon all this time, and then slid it into fine, tooled scabbard. "Free," was whispered again. "At last."
A breeze that barely lifted Gildor's hair scattered the fog to the four directions, and with it the simulacrum of a mortal warrior. And from the other side of the pool where other fog-enshrouded figures carrying lights hovered, the sound of whispers slowly replaced the sound of moans. From all around him, Gildor could hear the word "free," repeated over and over and over again. One by one, the candles dropped and gutted, some with the sound of stones plopping into water, others with a gentle hiss of a drenched wick.
Gildor turned this way and that, marveling at the way the fog from surrounding areas would return to fill in where liberated faer had vanished, with new lights first kindling to replace those that had fallen, only to slowly fall themselves as the word was passed. Time passed, whether slowly or quickly, he had no way of knowing, as the lights had blinked out and the sickly fog that had covered the grasses and open waters blew away in the gentle breeze of freedom.
Eventually, only one small patch of fog remained, and only one small light reflected back against a barely discernable form of a warrior. Gildor frowned; had this one not believed the news that nothing more held them here? He waited, but the patch seemed not to want to move.
Curious, he made his circuitous way around ponds where no signs of fallen dead could be seen lurking in the waters any longer, until at last he approached the bit of fog. The wraith within lifted his candle as if it were a weapon or a shield; for it seemed prepared to defend itself against whatever threat Gildor posed to it. The glow within the deep-set eyes seemed brighter, more determined.
"Do not linger here. You are free," Gildor told him gently. "The Dark Lord and his powers hold you here no longer. Be at peace, my friend, and find your rest in that place which the One has set aside for you." He gestured back at a marsh that no longer sported an unnatural fog except directly in front of him. "Look about you. All of your comrades in arms have found peace. It is time for you to do so as well."
The phantom slowly shook its head. Thin lips twitched, and then there was a soft sigh: "My fault."
"Fault and blame no longer matter," Gildor assured him. "The battle is long finished, and there is no reason to remain. Only Sauron bears any responsibility for what happened here."
"I led them."
Gildor blinked. "You are not Isildur," he stated firmly. "I fought with Isildur before the Black Gates; and I know with certainty that you are not he…"
"I am Hador, son of Lathron, Captain of Gondor." The burning eyes seemed to beg for understanding, and Gildor searched his memories of that horrific, desperate time.
"Elendil's Captain!" The words escaped him before he could think. In the end, as the events of the battle were deconstructed in the weeks and months afterwards, the defeat in the marshes had been laid at this man's feet for not heeding Gil-Galad's command, chasing off after a company of orcs and dragging a huge contingent of men and Elves into a trap cleverly laid in waiting for them. The move had weakened the forces of the Alliance greatly, but not lethally. The siege had eventually been won, but at a terrible loss.
So many had refused to follow the orders of Gil-Galad, who truly had known what he was about. The error of Hador of Gondor was no more or less critical than that of Oropher of Eryn Galen. Both mistakes had cost grievously.
Gildor gazed at the specter, understanding at last. Yes, Hador was still held here, not by the power of Sauron's evil, but by his own sense of responsibility and guilt. If he was to be freed, that would have to be addressed directly. "Yes, your fault," Gildor said softly. It would do no good to lie about what was clearly truth. "But your time of penance is at an end. The One would never leave you alone here to suffer when all about you have been freed at last. It is the fate of warriors to die in battle. If you are forgiven by the One – the only one capable of dealing out such a fate – would it not be a worse mistake to refuse that mercy?"
The shade of Hador finally seemed to hear him and, as had so many of the other wraiths before him, first blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the light which had poisoned his gaze had been extinguished. Once more Gildor watched a phantom undergo the transformation from corrupt, half-decomposed fright to a vision of what had once been a valiant warrior. Hador, like so many of his people, was tall and fair; clearly the blood of Tar-Minyatur, brother to Elrond Peredhel, flowed through this one's veins, just as it did through the veins of the new High King of Gondor.
"Be at peace, Hador, son of Lathron. The evil of your time and mine is finally vanquished. Go forth and find the rest that all who battle on behalf of all that is good in this world earn in the end. But before you go…" Gildor's hand went out in entreaty. "Answer me this question: do any of my kin wander these dark lands with you?"
Eyes that were clear and far-seeing gazed at him. "Your kin?"
"My pardon. You have given me your name, and I have yet to give you mine." Gildor bowed. "I am Gildor Inglorion, of the house of Finrod Felagund."
"You speak of the Elves, then?"
The phantom's head shook slowly. "Their bodies may have lain with ours, but they did not rise with the fog to walk with us or bear candles. Always I have envied them their escape." Hador pressed his hand to his heart and bowed a salute. "Gildor Inglorion, of the house of Finrod, thank you for bringing news of our freedom to us. We have been here so long, caught between worlds, that we had forgotten how to test the limits of our confinement. Without your compassion, we would have continued here, in these dark lands."
"Thank you," Gildor said in relief, returning the bow and salute. "May we meet again when the world ends, and stand together at the final battle."
Hador bowed again, and then a breeze brushed Gildor's cheek and scattered all evidence of his presence to the skies.
"They are safe in Bannoth," Gildor sighed, leaning heavily on his walking stick. A quick glance up into the sky revealed that Ithil had nearly completed his journey across the heavens, and even now the eastern horizon lightened as the sun began her long climb. No wonder he felt as if he had labored long and hard! But even at that, his feet felt almost light as he began to retrace his steps. "All are free now. The land is cleansed."
How long would the name Dead Marshes remain, now that the reason for the name was gone, he wondered. He shrugged and reached into the small bundle he carried with him for the bladder of wine to take one sustaining swallow. That would not be his problem to solve; he and his people would be accompanying Elrond to the Havens just a few years hence, and it would be the task of the mortals left behind here to find a new name for this place.
For now, he would bring forward a vision of his Faerlin's face, and aim his steps back toward the copse where she was waiting for him. Perhaps knowing that Belchalad even now awaited release from Bannoth would give her a measure of peace. Gildor certainly hoped so.
The sooner his feet brought him out of these dark lands, the better. For too long, his memories and nightmares had been caught here, as tightly held as that which had trapped Hador and the others; with any luck at all, the glances he took now at a land as unwelcoming to Elf as to Mortal would be his last ones.
Bannoth - Mandos, where elven souls rest before being rehoused
edhil - elves
faer - (both singular & plural) spirit/s, soul/s
mae govannen - lit. "well met" - a greeting
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.