Nyáréonié: The Fall of the North
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The Ghosts of Men
Lomion was alone, except for the bodies. He did not know how many had died the night before; no one had counted the corpses yet, and besides, that was not what interested him now. He had come here, to the deserted graveyard on the western slopes of Bree-hill, hidden in the trees and out of sight of the town, to search for someone.
He walked slowly along the porch of the undertaker’s house. It was a cold building no matter the weather, facing the cemetery on the slopes above it with stolid acceptance. Crimson-clad trees ringed the area, separating it from the living town of Bree, and the grass and weeds growing between the graves were a yellow-golden colour. Graveyards are generally thought of as unpleasant places, but this one was particularly grim at the moment.
Lomion surveyed the bodies lying in disorderly heaps on the ground in front of the undertaker’s building. They had been carted here from the battlefield hastily – it had been a long time since Bree had suffered so many dead at once, and the folk seemed unsure of what to do with the corpses of the fallen. There were Orcs here – they would be burned – and Bree-folk as well, awaiting a proper burial once enough graves could be dug. But for now every hand was busy rebuilding what had been destroyed, healing the injured, and strengthening the town’s defences.
His gaze caught on a small broken shape half-concealed by the body of a Man. Stepping closer, he hunkered down and pushed away the larger body. Yes, this was he – a white-haired Hobbit, with the remains of an arrow embedded in his side. Lomion made no move to touch the body, merely looking at it silently.
Steps rang out on the stone path leading up from Bree. Voices floated on the air toward the kneeling Man, and he heard his name being called.
“Captain Lomion!” a deep man’s voice said, “Important message, sir!”
Lomion slid smoothly back to his feet and watched as two men approached him, half-running in their excitement. One was a short, barrel-chested Guardsman, though Lomion could not recall his name. The other was a stranger, his garments dusty and stained, his face lined with fatigue; he looked as though he had travelled long distances to come here.
“Yes?” Lomion asked, stepping away from the corpses, “What is it?”
The Guardsman bowed low and gestured to his companion. “This is Corrin Caldorn, sir. He’s come from Fornost with a message from the King. He says it’s important – insisted on seeing you immediately. I know you didn’t want to be disturbed, but I thought you would rather know.”
Lomion glanced over the newcomer with a considering eye. The messenger was tall and wispy, almost gangly, and his brown hair stuck out from his head in disordered clumps. He wore a ragged moustache and a dark tan, and there was a broadsword buckled to his belt. All of his clothes seemed to fit rather badly, and he had the general air of a wandering type about him. He had two names, making it obvious that he was not Dúnedain; rather, he belonged to the Enedrim, the middle people who had settled these lands long before the Númenorians had returned, and still comprised the greater part of the population.
Caldorn bowed slightly but said nothing.
“Very well,” Lomion nodded to the Guardsman, “Please, leave us. When I have spoken to Mr. Caldorn we will return to the East Tower – that is, if you will grace us with your company and partake in some refreshments among my men?” He asked, directing the question at Caldorn.
The messenger shook his head. “I dare not tarry,” he said, “Once I deliver my message and hear your answer, I will be on the road again. The King’s orders were quite specific.”
“As you wish,” Lomion replied, waving his hand at the Guardsman. The burly soldier bowed once more and left the two men to themselves, his footsteps fading away into silence. For a moment Lomion was in doubt as to what he should say – why had the King sent a messenger, to arrive now of all times? What did he know? It was said of Arvedui, the King of Arnor, that he could see things beyond the reach of human eyes. Had he seen the events of the past few days?
Lomion was saved from having to speak when Caldorn himself opened the conversation. The messenger’s voice was raspy and hoarse, and spoke quickly, as if he truly were in a hurry to be on his way as soon as possible.
“Allow me to express my condolences,” he said, “I was not expecting to find a battle when I arrived. It seems you have suffered great losses, and I am afraid I cannot bring much good news.”
“Great losses, yes,” Lomion agreed, “But we will manage. This is Bree, and Bree-folk do not give up, no matter the circumstances! The Witch-King’s plan failed, and he will never take Bree as long as people remain to defend it. This town defends the east of Arnor, and it will continue to do so – you can assure King Arvedui of that.”
“No doubt he will be glad to hear it,” Caldorn nodded complacently, “But the King asks more of Bree now. A few weeks ago great stirrings were noticed in the east, and our people who live in those lands fled west to Fornost, bearing tales of the ever-growing forces of the Witch-King. He has raised armies – where his followers come from is uncertain, though we suspect he has allied himself with the Dunlendings and the Orcs of the mountains. In any case, Bree is not the only place under attack. The Witch-King’s forces have marched entirely to the Weather Hills. There we have stopped and held them, but our number is less than theirs. I have been sent to request troops from Bree to strengthen the defence. We need more men if the kingdom is to be protected!”
Lomion’s brow creased in thought, and his gaze wandered over the bodies silent in the sun. He sighed once, deeply, and his expression was bitter when he answered.
“You see that we have little to give,” he said, “Many of my best men were killed last night, and what you see here is not the total number of dead. We do not even know how many we have lost! I cannot send a large force to the Weather Hills, or Bree will be left defenceless.”
“If the Weather Hills are not defended,” Caldorn replied, growing agitated, “Bree will be lost anyway. The kingdom must have all its strength! And it is the King himself who orders you. You must obey him, or you act as a traitor!”
Lomion’s lips twisted unwillingly and he jerked away from the tall man, taking a quick step backward.
“Captain!” Caldorn said angrily, his mild eyes flashing and wispy hair flying about his head, “You must do as the King orders!” He took a hasty step after Lomion.
It was this that Lomion had been waiting for. His hand flashed out quicker than the human eye could follow, striking three times, the throat, the chin, the nose. There was a crack, and blood poured from Caldorn’s nostrils; his eyes were frozen wide open in shock. For a moment he remained standing. Then he toppled silently, his limp body thudding to the ground among the still corpses. His eyes remained open.
Lomion drew his dagger from its sheath at his belt, and bent over the dead messenger. With a few quick strokes, he cut into the man’s face, until it was an unrecognisable mask of blood. Satisfied with his work, he wiped the blade on Caldorn’s cloak and returned it to its sheath. He looked around carefully and examined his hands to make sure no trace of the deed remained. Then he turned his back on the dead and started down the path to Bree.
Let the corpse lie there among the others. No one would ever find it – what was one body more or less?
A few minutes later, he rounded the shoulder of the hill and Bree came into sight, spread out innocently before him. Little was visible of the attack – the few burned houses did not stand out among the others, and not much other damage had been done, except to human lives. Bree was intact, and it was in his hands now. Would it be enough? He had made an agreement, and fulfilled it – but not all of it. One thing remained for him to do. And if he failed … if he failed, he would simply have to act sooner than he had planned. They thought they had him trapped, they thought he was their servant – but Lomion was no one’s servant, as would become clear sooner or later.
He barely heard the greetings called to him by citizens and Guardsmen as he strode the streets eastward. When he reached the East Tower, he returned the guards’ salutes silently and stepped into the cool stone building. His quarters, a Captain’s quarters, were further upwards, and his feet climbed the familiar stairs without guidance as he pondered the best course of action.
With a gush of relief he would never have admitted to, Lomion stepped into his room and closed the door behind him. The chamber was quiet and mostly bare; only an empty table and a small collection of swords hung on the wall relieved the starkness of the stone. There was no window here, though one did adorn the wall of the bedroom, which opened from the only other door in the chamber.
Lomion leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He realized in surprise that he was tired. He felt strained – he had made a mistake, and things were getting complicated.
“Fatigue is a weakness.”
The voice, blade-sharp, dry and emotionless, sliced through the silence. Lomion jerked and snapped his eyes open. He found himself facing a tall figure, clothed in shadow, staring at him with a faceless gaze.
His shoulders thudded against the door behind him and he realized that he had backed away involuntarily. Angrily, he straightened, disgusted that he had allowed the Black Rider to influence him so. Where had it come from? The door to the other room was opened – it must have been in the bedchamber. The air suddenly seemed colder, and Lomion repressed an urge to shudder.
Nazgul – he knew the name, though he knew nothing else about them except that they were the Witch-King’s most terrible servants. How many there were, where they had come from, what they were all remained a mystery … but they radiated fear like a sun does heat, and even he felt icy fingers clutching his spine as he faced the one before him now. He pushed away the feeling, and tried to speak calmly.
“What do you want?” he asked, half-angrily and half-uncertainly, “How dare you come inside the walls! If someone sees you …”
“Then they will die. Do you have it?” the Black Rider hissed.
Lomion swallowed. “No,” he said, “I don’t.” He glared defiantly at the Nazgul, but the creature said nothing, and in the end he was forced to continue.
“The girl took it with her. They have escaped from the town. I sent riders out after them – they will be caught, and you will have your trinket. But we had an agreement. I have fulfilled half of it. Bree will obey the Witch-King’s will, and the King of Arnor will have no help from his own kingdom. We have cut his legs out from under him, and he will never even suspect it. The other half of my task will be completed directly. But I was promised something in return.”
“Do you demand payment?” the Nazgul said, and there was dry laughter in the words, “What do you desire, human? Wealth? Rank? Women?”
“I was promised a Ring of Power.”
The Nazgul threw back its head and for one heart-stopping moment, Lomion thought it would shriek and the guards would come running, to find their Captain consorting with the worst of the Enemy’s minions. But it merely stood there. The room seemed to grow dark and vague; the walls receded into shadow. Lomion found he could barely see. The air was thick and grey, and only the Black Rider seemed clear, so terribly clear. He found his hearing sharpened – his own breath rushed in his ears, and a strange roaring sound filled the room, though he could not hear any breathing from the Rider. It stepped close to him, a black pillar in the grey world.
“Do you know what it is you ask for?” the Nazgul said, and Lomion gasped in surprise. The voice was no longer thin and inhuman – it was the voice of a man, cold and cruel, hard as bones, but human nonetheless. The Rider bent towards him, and he glimpsed into the depths of its cavernous hood. He looked away quickly, trying to erase the image of white flesh and hollow eyes. It wasn’t real … it was a trick the creature was playing on him.
“Rings of Power are perilous for mortal men,” the Nazgul said, lifting its gauntleted hand. Lomion saw in horror that on one metal-coated finger a ring glowed. It was a twisted band of silver and iron, shaped like two claw-like hands clutching at each other. At the centre, in the grasp of the hands, rested a black stone with an odd metallic sheen – in the shape of a tormented human figure. He knew instantly that this was the source of the Rider’s power. This was a Ring of Power.
The sight of it filled him with apprehension. He had learned of them, these mysterious objects of power, so tiny, so rare, from a wandering wizard years ago. The old man had described them as terrible and beautiful, made with skill but twisted by deceit. Lomion realized now that he had never fully understood… never understood exactly what kind of power a Ring of Power might bestow.
He wanted to howl.
“Everything has its price,” the Rider whispered in its iron voice, “Perhaps you do not want a Ring after all… great gifts can be heavy burdens. But it is too late now. You desired power. You have been given it, and you belong to the Dark Lord.”
Long leagues to the North and unaware as yet of the shadow creeping into its very heart lay the city of Fornost. The city rose from the foot of the North Downs; in fact, it was partly inside the Downs themselves. The castle of the King, called the Thousand Windows, was cloven out of the living rock of the southern cliff of the downs, and many of its halls and chambers led into the stone. At the west side of the city, upon an outcropping of stone rising out of the cliff-side like a giant boulder, stood a tall tower of white wrought with silver, crowned with a roof of gold that flashed in the sun. It was called Minas Hen, the Tower of Seeing, for it was here that the palantír of Fornost, once of Amon Sûl, was kept. Here the King, looking into the Seeing Stone, bent his mind to the affairs of his realm, of the world, and of the dark powers. Much he saw and used it well, and yet there was much that was veiled to him and unforeseen. He had spent many long hours there, striving to uncover the devices of the Witch-King – and yet the Enemy evaded him.
Here he stood now, Arvedui of the Dúnedain, before the eastward-looking window with the palantír in his hands. The stone was not large, though it was surprisingly heavy; it was dark, but a fire burned in its depths. The Man bent his head over it, intent on the swirling shapes within, his face frozen with concentration. He stayed so for long moments without moving, before finally sighing and placing the palantír upon a table under the window. With tired eyes, he turned his back to the East.
"It is no use, Gandalf," he said, "It is clouded."
The room was spacious, though unfurnished, encompassing the full width and breadth of the tower. Its walls were white and hung with tapestries in blue and green depicting maps of Arnor and Lhûn, Gondor and Mirkwood, the Misty Mountains and Rivendell. The ceiling rose high to the golden roof, and light streamed in the eight windows that were spaced evenly around the tower, fanning out into all directions.
In the sunlight of the southern window stood an old man clad all in grey, leaning upon a staff. He turned to look at Arvedui, and though his face was deeply marked by age and a long grey beard trailed from his chin, his eyes were strong and keen, full of wisdom and flecked by humour.
"I cannot see even to Bree," Arvedui said to his companion, "A shadow has fallen between. Nor can I reach Gondor; the Stone will not turn there. I am afraid we are alone, Gandalf. I cannot call to the South Kingdom for help."
"I do not like this strange darkness," replied the Grey Pilgrim, for so he was called by those who knew something of his nature and task, "My heart warns of a new evil. Something has strengthened the Witch-king’s power, if he can turn a palantír from the control of its rightful master." He sighed and turned back to look out the window. "He has won some invisible battle or gained an ally, and we have lost more ground. Things cannot continue like this – you must take action of some sort."
Arvedui walked slowly beside the wall, trailing his hand along the map of Arnor, his footfalls soft on the white floor, until he stood by Gandalf.
"We cannot hold out alone,” he said, softly but urgently, “The Witch-king’s forces stand at the Weather Hills, and we are barely keeping them there. You are a Wizard, Gandalf. Can you not help me?" Arvedui’s jaw was clenched, and it was obvious that he asked this against his will and it took much effort for him to do so. But his companion only shook his head.
"I am doing what is within my power," he said, "I may not do more, as you well know." Then he seemed to brighten, as if at some merry thought. "All is not lost," he said, "Send messengers to Gondor, Arvedui, messengers on foot or by horse. You may yet have the help you need, and on time too."
The King seemed to consider this idea, though his expression did not change. He had few options left and those that remained were doubtful and perilous. His kingdom was in a situation worse than any it had faced in its long history. And though Arnor had survived many dangers in the past, a shadow of despair was on him, for he felt strangely that no matter what he could do his kingdom would be lost; and he remembered the words of the seer with apprehension.
A choice will come to the Dúnedain, and if they take the one that seems less hopeful, then your son will change his name and become king of a great realm. If not, then much sorrow and many lives of men shall pass, until the Dúnedain arise and are united again.
Malbeth had spoken thus to his father when he was born. He had been named Arvedui, meaning the last in Arthedain, because he would be the last king … unless he took the right choice. But what was right? All choices seemed equally hopeless at the moment – how was he supposed to choose the least hopeful one? And what if the seer was wrong, and choosing the darkest path would lead to the worst defeat?
Discarding these thoughts angrily, he answered Gandalf’s suggestion:
"As usual, your words hold wisdom," he said resolutely, "I will send riders through Bree and on to Rivendell on their path to Gondor. Perhaps Elrond Half-elven can lend us aid as well."
Gandalf shook his head slightly without noticing. He seemed to be reconsidering his own advice, and Arvedui wondered, not for the first time, what thoughts were passing through the Wizard’s mind.
"I do not recommend the road to Rivendell," Gandalf said slowly, "Something about the strange unwillingness of the palantír to show you this path disturbs me. I fear if you send a message by that route it will never arrive."
"We have no other option," Arvedui replied, and his voice was decided, "The Northern route is barred by the Witch-king. We have no ships to send across the sea. There is only one other way - through the land of the Halflings and across the great plains of Minhiriath and Enedwaith. It will take even riders at least two months to reach Gondor, and then we must wait for Eärnil to send help. The might of Gondor will be useless if all is already wasteland when they arrive. My messengers are good men, Gandalf; they will find the way, and swiftly."
The Wizard continued to gaze out the window at the quiet lands spreading out before Fornost, reaching southward to the fuzzy line of the horizon.
"Winter is coming," he said, "The Witch-king’s strength waxes. Something must be done." Then he turned to the King, "Send out your riders, and let us pray they may bring help in time."
For several hours after leaving the Road, Trotter and Anna had gotten on at a good pace. The sun shone warmer than was usual for early October, and for a while Trotter felt his strength and spirits reviving. They rode over a bare country of low hills, treeless and pathless, and grass, brittle though still green, crunched beneath their horse’s hooves. The sky was blue and clear, unmarred by clouds, and a light breeze ruffled their hair and brought with it the smells of autumn. Trotter thought much upon the last day, but spoke nothing of what was in his mind. Anna too was sunk into a deep silence, and so their journey was a wordless one.
By late afternoon, with shadows already growing long about them, they had left behind the flatter land to the north and had reached the foot of the Downs. The wind had begun to blow with more strength, but despite its chill Trotter caught himself nodding off more than once. On one occasion he nearly fell off the horse’s back, and this finally brought Anna out of her silence.
"That’s it, we are stopping now," she said, and he could hear the tiredness in her voice mirroring his own, "Even if you think you can go on, I freely admit that I can’t. At the first possible site, I’m getting off this horse and sleeping where I fall. You’ll probably be asleep before you hit the ground, judging by the looks of you."
Trotter reined in Dapple and turned to look at Anna. Her hair was in a disarray, and she had dark circles under her eyes, but they widened when she saw his face. Quickly she laid her palm against his forehead.
"And you’re burning like a Dwarven forge," she said, "There was something on that arrow, and I only hope it isn’t too nasty. But that settles it. We’re stopping right here. You said yourself they wouldn’t follow us here, so it’s safe enough . . ."
"No," Trotter interrupted, shaking his head. He immediately regretted it, as a wave of dizziness washed over him. "We have to get inside the Downs first."
Both he and Anna looked up at the hills looming before them. Two hills stood there, one on the left and one on the right. They were grey and bare, and the waning sunlight did not seem to touch them. At the base of each stood a broken stone, weathered and cracked. The stones leaned inward towards each other, as if they had once been part of an ancient gate, the entrance to Tyrn Gorthad. They looked grim and bleak, their long black shadows stretching out upon the ground like dark fingers. Trotter felt his heart sinking along with the late sun. But he said nothing, only urged Dapple on and through the forbidding hills. The horse snorted nervously and flicked her ears, and Trotter could feel Anna’s hands tightening on his waist. So they passed into Tyrn Gorthad, of which legends spoke only in hushed whispers.
There was no immediate change as they entered the Downs; the sun still shone, and the sky remained blue. And yet Trotter had a strange feeling, as if they were being watched. Oddly, it did not feel like a hostile gaze, only a silent waiting. Trotter shivered. He was probably having fever-dreams. Next he’d be seeing things that weren’t there …
They passed through the first two hills, and now the downs rose all about them, cold and grey. Trotter wavered on the edge of sleep; his skin burned and his mouth was dry, but he was not yet willing to stop. They rode on for some time, bearing westwards, over ridges and small hills, keeping to the valleys between the downs and avoiding the heights from which they might be seen from afar. The shadows grew longer and deeper, and began to merge together as the sky faded to twilight. It grew chill, though the wind died down.
Finally, Trotter stopped. They stood on the northeast side of a large down. There was a small depression on the side of the hill, which sloped gently down. It was a mere dent on the broad back of the ridge, but some flat rocks stood there and even a few late flowers bloomed around them, spare and thin in the cold soil. It seemed like a good omen. Here they dismounted and, hungry but too tired to care, huddled close together for warmth and fell almost instantly into a dreamless sleep.
Trotter awoke suddenly, unsure what had disturbed his sleep. He opened his eyes to find a black shape leaning over him. With a cry, he sprang to his feet, drawing Morchaint and facing the stranger, who had retreated a step to avoid the sword. Anna, awoken by his cry, gasped in surprise and stumbled to her feet to stand at his side.
"Make no sound!" whispered the stranger in an urgent tone, "I have been watching you for some time. You are being followed; the pursuit is upon your tail. You must leave this place now."
The sky was clear, and by moon and starlight Trotter could see the person he was now facing.
The stranger was taller than either he or Anna, but still smaller than a Man. His hair was long, reaching to his shoulders, and seemed to be brown from what Trotter could tell. He was slight in build, with an Elvish air about him; in fact Trotter would have taken him for an Elf, but for his height. He carried a longbow nearly as large as himself upon his back, and a quiver of arrows at his hip. Starlight glimmered in his eyes, and he seemed young, though Trotter could not have guessed at his age.
"Who are you?" he asked, understandably suspicious, "And what interest do you have in us?"
The stranger seemed merely amused by his distrust.
"I am called Bronweg," he said with a mocking bow, "Or Bronweg the Elfit, if you must know, and I have no interest in you whatsoever, save that I dislike seeing a horseless, gibbering Hobbit with an unarmed girl being pursued by a party of mounted soldiers. I thought I might even out the odds a little."
Trotter glanced around him; true enough, Dapple had disappeared. Had the horse merely wandered away, or had someone removed it? This Bronweg could easily have led the animal away, destroying their chances for a quick escape. In any case, they now had only their own feet to carry them.
"And how do you plan to do that?" Anna asked sceptically, "Even out the odds, I mean?"
Bronweg’s eyes turned to Anna.
"Well, well, what’s this?" he said, "A Hobbit, a Man, or a Dwarf? Hardly a lady, by the looks of you. What are you running from? Eloping, perhaps? Did your father forbid you to marry this fine specimen of a Hobbit? Or was it the other way around, and you were the unworthy party?"
Trotter could feel the anger coming off Anna in hot waves, but he paid no attention. He was looking intently at a medium-sized down whose one side broke off into a steep cliff leaning over a smaller hill next to it. It was the space between the cliff and the hill that interested him. There was a dark crack there, and he was sure he had seen movement at its mouth.
Trotter’s mind raced. If their purpose had been guessed, they could easily have been overtaken by now; they had slept quite a while, and judging by the position of the stars, it was three hours or so from dawn. They no longer had a horse, and though his head felt clearer and he was more rested than at any time since that fateful battle in Bree - only the night before? It seemed much longer ago - he stood no chance against a party of pursuers. There was no one here to help them, even had they not been fugitives; no one except Bronweg the Elfit. Making his decision quickly, he turned his attention back to his companions.
"Elfit?" Anna was saying, her voice loaded with all the contempt she could muster, which turned out to be a surprising amount, "What, not good enough to be an Elf? Did they send you away wandering, you poor rejected…"
"If you can truly help us," Trotter said, interrupting hastily, "Do so now, before we are found."
Both Anna and Bronweg stared at him for a second. Bronweg recovered first, turning business-like as if never a mocking word had come from his mouth.
"Very well," he said, "There is one place where Men will not follow you, and if they did, it could be held long by few against many. I can take you there, and lend you the services of my bow."
Trotter had no idea what Bronweg was referring to, but he decided to act as if he did, and nodded shortly.
"Then we must run!" cried the Elfit, "They are upon us!"
Even as he spoke, the thunder of hooves broke out, echoing slightly between the hills. Glancing towards the crack between the two downs off to the east, Trotter saw five men on horses emerge in single file, galloping with torches in their hands. Then he was running in the footsteps of Bronweg down the side of the hill, pulling Anna with him. Their footsteps pounding on the earth echoed the sound of hooves behind.
In the dark Trotter could not see their route. He followed blindly behind the grey flitting form of Bronweg, Anna at his side. The ground, which had at first sloped beneath them, now began to rise again. They were climbing onto another down. Trotter repressed his doubts; there was nothing to do but trust the strange being who called himself an Elfit. The slope grew steeper, and his feet began to slip. Anna fell once, but he pulled her to her feet. He could hear her panting breaths next to him.
Suddenly the ground evened out beneath them. They had reached the crown of the hill. Trotter skidded to a halt. In the dim starlight, he could see a large mound rising in front of him. There was a dark, crooked doorway in it, and he could not see inside. Bronweg stood by the doorway, waiting for them.
"A barrow?" Anna panted, "That’s your wonderful place of safety? Are you mad? Evil spirits, Barrow-wights live inside - creatures of the Witch-king!"
Bronweg only looked at her calmly.
"What fear hold the ghosts of Men for such as us?" he said, and turning from them, vanished into the dark doorway.
"We can’t trust him!" Anna said to Trotter, her eyes wide, "He could be in league with them, leading us into a trap . . . Who knows what or who he is? Why would he just appear and help us? He wouldn’t fear the Barrow-wights if he was on their side!"
Trotter’s stomach churned. She could be right of course, but … Trotter glanced behind him. The riders were halfway up the hillside. In a few seconds they would be captured if they did not move now. One of the Men shouted up to them from the back of his horse.
"Halt!" he called, "Stop, in the name of Bree and the King!"
"Anna," Trotter said urgently, "If you don’t trust him, at least trust me. There is no other choice."
She looked at him for a moment, then nodded, grim lines marring her smooth face. Together, they stepped into the dark.
True dark lived within the barrow, a pitch black that the eye could not penetrate. Trotter stumbled on the rough floor as he stepped forward. His footfalls were muffled; the ground was of stone, but thick with dust and dirt. He had a feeling of space around him, as if he were in a large room. The air was stale despite the open doorway. He walked blindly into the darkness, hands stretched out before him.
"Anna?" he called doubtfully, "Bronweg?"
"I am right in front of you," Bronweg’s voice answered from next to Trotter. "If you turn around, you will see the doorway. There is a little light."
Trotter turned, and sure enough, there was the door they had come through, a slightly lighter patch dotted by a few stars.
"I suggest you draw your sword," Bronweg said beside him, "It might come in handy, as weapons tend to in times of combat."
"Where’s Anna?" Trotter asked, pulling Morchaint from behind his shoulder. Bronweg had his longbow in his hands and an arrow knocked; Trotter could see the faint gleam of starlight on the arrowhead, if nothing else.
"I’m here by the door," Anna said. Her voice came from the right-hand side of the doorway. Trotter squinted into the dark and thought he could make out an Anna-shaped shadow roughly where her voice had come from.
Before he could say anything else, the clatter of horses rounded the top of the hill and man-shapes holding flames appeared in the square patch that was the doorway. Their pursuers had arrived; Trotter could now see them clearly by the light of the torches they carried. Five Men, none of which were familiar to him, but all moving like soldiers. He guessed they were Guardsmen.
They had dismounted and drawn their swords. Quickly and quietly they placed their torches into the ground around the entrance so as to cast as much light as possible through the doorway. Trotter could see the floor around the door now, and Morchaint in his hand, though the walls and Anna remained shrouded in darkness.
The Bree-Men took up positions around the doorway, two on each side, while the fifth, who seemed to be the leader, stepped forward. He had resheathed his sword and now held out both empty hands in token of parley.
"I wish to speak with you," he said. Trotter could see his face by the torch-light. He was young, but his face was fair and stern, and he did not waver as he began to talk. He seemed strangely familiar. Trotter was sure he had never seen him before, and yet something tugged at his memory. He wished he could see the young man’s face more clearly; the flickering shadows playing on his skin shrouded his features.
"I am Falathor of the Guard of Bree," he said, "And I want to speak to the Hobbit called Tolman Marchbank."
Trotter hesitated for a minute, watching the solemn young man with his pale face shadowed by the firelight. Then he lowered Morchaint and stepped forward so the Man could see him by the torches’ illumination. He felt Bronweg moving silently behind him, keeping in the shadows and keeping his arrow knocked and aimed at Falathor, but gave no sign that he was aware of it.
"I was called that, once," he said to the Guardsman, "But now my name is Trotter, and I need no other."
"As you wish … Trotter," Falathor said, "I must inform you that you are accused by the Captain of Bree of treachery, attempted murder, and robbery. I have been sent with orders to kill you and to take the girl called Anna Applethorn back to Bree to face charges. However," he continued, "I dislike the spilling of blood, especially when it is unnecessary. If you will give yourself up without a fight I will not kill you, but take you as well to Bree and speak on your behalf. In this matter I give you my word of honour."
Trotter could not help it; he laughed. The sound of his voice fell heavily in the dead air around them, like iron bells clanging a bitter midnight hour. Falathor’s face darkened. Apparently he was not used to being laughed at. Although Trotter still did not recognize him, he had the feeling Falathor was a rather dangerous and extraordinary person in his own way … and he probably didn’t consort with Hobbits too much.
"Do you then doubt my word?" Falathor asked softly.
"Oh, I don’t doubt you," Trotter replied, "It’s the one whose orders you are following I am suspicious of, and justly so, if I don’t say so myself! I am no traitor: the charges are false. The Man who opened the East Gate remains at liberty, and I’m afraid that is bad news for Bree."
Falathor frowned. Trotter could see that this answer did not please him, unsurprisingly, but the Man did not reply rashly. He seemed to weigh his words carefully before he spoke.
"You seem awfully certain of yourself. What are you implying, Hobbit? Lomionelen the Captain of the Guard and of Bree has testified that you are guilty of treachery. His rank and regard are not undeserved – are you suggesting that he has made a mistake, or that he is lying? And who then is the traitor if, as you say, you are not he?"
It seemed to be getting lighter in the barrow, or perhaps his eyes had adjusted to the dark, for he could now see Anna pressed against the wall next to the door. She was staring at him and Bronweg with narrowed eyes, her head cocked slightly to the side.
"Most likely he is both mistaken and lying," said Trotter bitterly, "But the main emphasis would be on lying. If you want to know the truth, I will tell you – but I’m warning you, it will not be to your liking! "
“Tell me then. I will hear you out.”
Trotter doubted that, but he answered anyway. “Lomion is the traitor,” he said, “He opened the Gate, and wishes me dead because Anna and I are the only witnesses.” He did not have a chance to continue. Falathor’s reaction was even more violent than he would have expected; the Man shouted a denial and drew his sword. He seemed to be on the brink of rushing into the barrow, though there was no way he could see inside or guess what might be awaiting him there.
"You lie!" Falathor cried, "And for those words I will kill you, and still the tongue that spoke these foul accusations! Lomion is no traitor!"
For an instant, a voice whispered in Trotter’s mind – almost he thought he knew why this Man seemed so familiar to him. But he had no time to contemplate the idea. Falathor’s blade gleamed with red fire, and he leaped forward into the doorway, sword raised high. Trotter braced himself to dodge, his weight on his toes.
Then all was frozen by Anna’s shriek.
"The Wight!" she cried, pointing beyond Trotter, "The Barrow-wight!"
Trotter suddenly became aware that the barrow was indeed lighter and he could see quite clearly. A pale green light seemed to be coming out of the walls and floor and even himself, mixing with the darkness like a witch’s brew. Falathor stood frozen in the doorway, attack forgotten, staring at something behind Trotter. With an unpleasant sense of foreboding, Trotter slowly turned to look behind him.
The barrow was large, and circular in form. There was a smaller circle in the middle separated by a surrounding ring of black pillars rising up to the roof. Within this smaller circle lay piles of gold and silver, goblets and jewels and coins, swords and shields and much fine armour, all glimmering with cold beauty in the strange light. And in the middle of the cursed treasure was a bier of stone, black and engraved with many strange symbols. Upon this bier the body of the fallen warrior should have rested; but, to his horror, Trotter saw that the warrior was not resting at all, was in fact standing upon the bier staring down at them all.
It was a terrible creature. Tall and thin as a skeleton, but clothed still in grey skin, black rags, and faded bits of armour, it glared down at them with hollow eyes devoid of consciousness. A silver helm teetered on its skeletal head. Jewelled rings encrusted its withered hands and hung upon its sunken breast, and it held a sword that burned with green fire. But the sword was not its most terrible weapon, for it now began to chant in a low, moaning voice that seemed to come both out of the itself and out of the stone walls around.
It was a heartless song, cold and unhappy, with a creaking tone that chilled Trotter’s bones. It rose and fell like the howling wind on a dead winter’s night, and to his horror Trotter realized he could make out words, terrible cruel words that sang of a miserable existence and desired only misery for others as well. Then it became clear to him that the song was not merely a song, but a spell of coldness and waking death:
“Cold is day and cold is night
Dark as death and never light
Their bodies lie on beds of gold
Maiden fair or warrior bold
Let them lie in deathless sleep
While starlight dies and dark grows deep
Till the dark lord lifts his hand
O’er dead sea and withered land.”
A chill crept over Trotter, as if he lay in icy black water. All the warmth seemed to seep out of him; he could not move, and his mind felt thick and sluggish. Darkness gathered on the edge of his sight. It seemed very difficult to remain awake, and the depths of sleep called to him with low voices promising rest, oblivion, slumber beyond knowledge. He was being pulled into the dark water, and the light was fading, fading . . . In desperation, he tried to call out, to reach the dwindling light, and a voice shone through the darkness like a ray of sunlight:
“A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!”
Suddenly, the spell broke like a snapped cord, and he started as if waking from a deep sleep. It was Bronweg who had spoken, in the tongue of the Elves, the name of the queen of the Stars, which is stronger than any black magic.
With a shriek, the barrow-wight leaped from its ancient bier, stalking with long legs through the piles of gold and silver heaped around its bed. Just as quickly, Bronweg loosed his arrow, and it flew straight and true to strike the barrow-wight in the heart.
But the dark spirits beneath the ground do not truly live, and have no flesh to strike. So though the wight screamed and clawed at the arrow in its breast, it was not subdued. Pale eyes glowing, it lunged forward, sword whistling through the dead air. Trotter threw himself to the ground with a cry to avoid the stroke, sure that one touch of that cold jade blade would still his heart forever.
The wight raised its sword once more, but its downward stroke was stopped with a ringing clang by the blade of Falathor. The barrow-wight fell back and faced the Man who had leaped into its barrow and attacked it so fearlessly. Falathor stood tall, and his blade burned with red fire in opposition to the cold green steel in the hand of the dark spirit.
"For the King!" he cried, "Forward, Guardsmen!"
With these words, and followed by his four men crying the battle-calls of Bree and Arnor, he strode forward to finish the creature of the barrow.
But the barrow-wight had one more trick to play; its deadliest one and most cruel. As the five Men closed in on it, it raised its gaunt hand, and Trotter almost thought he could see a smile flicker over the haggard face. With a shout, he bounded to his feet and ran toward the skeletal creature.
"No!" he cried, "Falathor! Stop!"
He hurled himself in front of Falathor and thrust Morchaint out before him, crying out as he did so with words he could never remember afterwards.
A pale light flashed from the upraised hand of the wight like the rising of a sickly sun. It reached out into all directions, intangible tentacles, but just as deadly for being untouchable. The rays of poison turned from the dark blade of Morchaint, but the Men standing around him had no such protection. Trotter closed his eyes in horror, for despite the now painful brightness of the light, he could see too much of what the spell of the barrow-wight was capable of for his comfort. A strangled shout from one of the Men came to his ears, and he trembled in pity and disgust.
"Dameor!" cried Falathor in horror, calling to his stricken comrade. Trotter grabbed at the young Man’s arm to hold him back, for Falathor had tried to rush forward to the aid of his companion.
Bronweg suddenly appeared at Trotter’s side, his eyes wide and desperate.
"Come on!" he screamed, "It’s too late! Come on!" He turned toward the door, pulling Trotter and Falathor with him. A horrible ringing filled Trotter’s head as he stumbled after the Elfit and the Man. Casting one last glance behind him, he followed his companions and fled into the night.
Trotter tore down the side of the hill with only one thought on his mind: to escape the horror of what he had seen. The darkness around him was clean and pure, and he sought to bury himself in it and win forgetfulness of unclean light and unnatural dark. The cool night air was like a draught of wine, and the calm starlight as sweet as sunrise on the morning after a nightmare. He ran until his lungs ached and his shoulder burned like fire. Blood trickled down his neck; the wound had broken open again. But he could not stop until exhaustion stilled his legs for him.
Finally, he fell to the ground unable to move further and lay there like one dead. The earth was reassuring under him, and the grass seemed soft as a downy feather bed. He closed his eyes and breathed in the cool air. Gradually his panting breaths slowed and he lay without movement on the foot of a down where he had fallen, half-dreaming, wishing only for a forgetful sleep and a far distant awakening in a land where shadows and evil were but dreams to be laughed at in the merry sunshine.
It seemed to him as he lay there that he heard a sweet voice singing without words. It was a song of water; a song of rivers and lakes, of rain falling softly on trees, of the great sea roaring against the rocks. Tiny mountain streams leaped merrily down high rocks, joining with lily-covered rivers to tumble into still, deep lakes clear as glass. He could hear each drip, the voice of every drop of water, each with its own note, an innumerable orchestra of tiny bells . . .
Long he lay there in half-consciousness and fever dreams, and the night passed around him, but no living being disturbed him.
Much later, it seemed to him, Trotter opened his eyes and stared up at the sky above him. It was streaked with rose and orange; dawn had come. He lay upon the grass, covered in dew and thirstier than he had ever been in his life. Slowly, stiffly, he struggled to his feet and looked around him.
He was surrounded by hills, none of which looked familiar. There was no sign of the large down with the mound on top, nor of the hollow where he and Anna had slept. Anna, Bronweg, and Falathor were nowhere in sight. The other four men had not come out of the barrow; Trotter did not like to think what had happened to them. He had wished them no ill, and even the sight of their misinformed leader would have pleased him at that moment. He took an uncertain step forward and began to call out his companions’ names.
His voice broke the silence in vain. No answer came. Trotter began to wander, paying no particular attention to where he was going, calling for the others until his voice grew hoarse. Only hills and grass stretched out around him, as if Men and Hobbits and Dwarves and Orcs did not exist, and the world was an empty place of endless skies and open lands. The sun began to rise higher. He was hungry and terribly thirsty, and loneliness began to grow on him as well. Once more he called:
This time, though, he thought he heard a faint answer coming from his left. Hope lightening his footsteps, he began to hurry towards the sound, calling as he walked. Like some ancient wanderer or a first-awakened Elf-lord he went, searching for his kindred in a strange new world. His footsteps were silent, and his tread light; like a mild wind he passed over the hills. Then he rounded a low ridge and came to the end of the Downs.
Bronweg stood there, at the base of the last westward hill, and with him was Falathor. The Man sat upon the ground, motionless, his head in his hands. He did not seem to be a threat now; though he still wore his sword, Bronweg paid no more attention to him than if he had been a boulder. Off to his right, Trotter saw the beginning of a forest; the Old Forest it was called, for it had been there before the Men and the Elves. He hurried towards Bronweg, and the Elfit came to meet him on light feet.
In the sunlight Trotter could see that the Bronweg’s hair was indeed brown, tinged with green and gold like the forest itself on a spring morning when the sun rises over the treetops. He was clad in brown and green like a Wood-elf and looked a great deal better than Trotter himself. His eyes were the deep blue of the evening sky, and shone like two stars as he spoke.
"Trotter!" he said, "So you too are alive. I am glad of it. I should have gone mad with only this Man for company; he will not stop moaning about folly and guilt and other such idiocies and refuses to even spar with me to pass the time."
Trotter looked at Falathor curiously, but said nothing to the Man, who seemed too absorbed in his own thoughts too notice anything. Something else weighed urgently on his mind.
"Where is Anna?" he asked.
Bronweg shook his head. "If you have not seen her, I do not know,” he said, “I sent her running out of the barrow ahead of me, but I have not seen her since. I … there was some madness upon me last night. I thought of nothing but flight." He looked troubled, "That was an evil which should not have been stirring. A shadow is growing on the land, and the dark things awaken that should sleep beyond all knowledge."
"I do not know what it was," Trotter said, shuddering, "But it took the lives of four men with one blow." He looked once more at Falathor, who had not said a word. "What ails him?" he asked of the Man, "Does he still wish my death? Or does he mourn his fallen comrades? I pity him and hope he will follow us no more, whatever his part in all this is."
Bronweg shrugged. "He is a Man," said the Elfit, "They are strange beings." But if he was going to say more, he did not get the chance. Once more the pounding of horses’ hooves came to Trotter’s ears, and he turned to stare in the direction of the sound.
For the first time in days a smile lit up his face, and he nearly laughed with joy.
Around the ridge, down which he himself had walked only a few minutes ago, rode Anna upon the back of Dapple, and five other horses galloped behind her. The morning sun fell upon her face, softening its sharp lines and painting her pale skin a delicate rose. Her untamed golden hair streamed out behind her, a banner of colour above the horse’s grey mane, and there was a wondering smile upon her face. The jewel about her neck gleamed in the morning light. She looked like a Man-child from the depths of time, when the Second People were first awakening, and the world was still wide and wild with great plains and tall mountains and endless forests unmarred by the hand of evil.
Trotter did not take his eyes from Anna, or he might have seen the strange expression on Bronweg’s face as the Elfit watched her ride towards them. It was not a look Trotter would have expected to find there, though he knew little as yet of Bronweg and his moods.
Then Anna had reached them and, leaping off Nori, caught Trotter in an embrace like a girl greeting her long-lost brother.
"I thought you had been left behind in the barrow! I wanted to look for you but then I couldn’t find the right hill, but I did find the horses, so we can finally eat something because I’m starving, aren’t you?"
Trotter laughed under the onslaught of words, but the mention of food did not sound at all unwelcome either.
"I was worried about you too," he said, "We were afraid you wouldn’t come back. I called for you, but you must have been too far to hear me."
"We?" Anna said, glancing at Bronweg with suspicious eyes, "So is the Elfit with us now? So much for ‘we have nothing to fear from the ghosts of men’! You will have to do better than that, Elfit, if you wish to be sung about in the legends of the real Elves. Next time you want to help someone, try not leading them into a den infested with dark creatures. We could’ve done better on our own."
Bronweg snorted, undaunted. "Much better, as captives of the great Man over there. You’re lucky to be free, not to mention alive, which you would not be without my unlooked-for and unthanked-for help. You wouldn’t have gotten very far at all … although you did run pretty far last night. Frightened, little lady?"
"No more than the great Elfit warrior with his great long bow," Anna retorted, "I noticed it didn’t hinder you in turning tail and fleeing like a panicked sow.”
"Can we stop arguing and eat something," Trotter groaned, "And then maybe talk about what we’re going to do next?"
Anna grinned and whistled, a sharp, musical sound like the cry of a little bird. One of the horses neighed and trotted over to her side.
"Anna, you’re a marvel!" Trotter said, as she pulled a waterskin, a loaf of bread, and some cheese and meat out of the horse’s saddlebag. She looked at him and frowned.
"You’re bleeding again," she said, "We’d better not have any more adventures like last night or you’ll fall apart. Let me bind that up for you. I think there’s someone’s extra shirt around here somewhere. You’re going to have a nasty scar, in any case."
Trotter acquiesced gladly, and after Anna had wound a bandage around his neck they sat down in the grass for their first meal in far too long for a Hobbit to go without food. Trotter offered some waybread to Falathor, but the Man only shook his head mutely. Trotter racked his brains, but he could not begin to guess what was wrong with Falathor. Why wouldn’t he speak? Or attack them or … something? The Big People often acted strangely, in his opinion, but he still could not make sense of this withdrawn silence.
By the time they had finished, the sun stood at nine o’clock in the morning sky, and Trotter’s thoughts began to turn to their path from there. When he brought up the subject, it was Anna who voiced her opinion first, and her answer was not uncharacteristic.
"Let’s leave this cursed place," she said, "Leave the Elfit to his wandering and the Men to their wars. There is the Shire, or the Eryn Vorn, or the wide plains. Why stay here where the powers of darkness gather? Where even those who call themselves the light and the good are hunting you? They call you a traitor, unjustly. They hate me for what I am without asking who I am. We owe them nothing."
But Trotter was shaking his head.
"The Witch-king is growing stronger," he said, "And if he wins Arnor he will not be content to stop there. No place is safe from him, and the only protection is to resist. And even if I were to die thankless, my name black in the eyes of my own people, I would consider it worth it to strike a blow against the Witch-king, who is the beginning and the end of all distrust and hatred. There is one thing we can do now." He waved his hand toward the North, where the King’s city lay somewhere in the distance.
"We must go to Fornost, to warn the King of the events at Bree and the treachery in Arnor," he said, then turned to his friend, "You, too, are a part of it, Anna. You carry the Starflower, whatever it is, around your neck, and Lomion desires it and hates you because of it. I am sure you have some part to play yet, despite your feelings."
Anna looked as if she wished to argue, but was forestalled by Bronweg.
"I would like to go with you," he said seriously, ignoring Anna’s murderous glance, "I offered you my help and led you into grave danger in doing so. Almost we were all killed because of me. I do not know exactly why you are fleeing or what your plans are, but I believe you are innocent of this crime of treachery. I ask to go with you, if you would have me as your companion." He looked at Trotter, not Anna, when he asked this, and the Hobbit realized with surprise that he had somehow become the leader.
He opened his mouth to answer, unsure himself what he was going to say, but stopped when a long shadow fell across their seated council. Looking up, he saw Falathor standing there, towering above them, a terrible look on his face and his sword in his hand. Before Trotter could react, the Man knelt on the ground in front of him, placing the sword upon the grass with its hilt towards Trotter.
"Forgive me," he said.
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