Nyáréonié: The Fall of the North
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The Princess, the Pauper, and the Pawn
Minuscule drops of rain pattered against the window of the room in the west wing. It was a tall window of frosty glass, one of the many for which Menechenneth, the Palace of a Thousand Windows, had been named. Fog rolled over the stone houses of the city, veiling the familiar landscape except for a few of the tallest spires that peeked out of the grey sea. But the mist did not prevent Indithel from watching the party of riders that had arrived in the front courtyard.
She leaned her forehead against the glass, breathing softly. A few seconds later, to her annoyance, she could no longer see through the window, now misted over by her breath. Pouting slightly, she wiped the condensed moisture away and tried to get a clearer look at the new arrivals.
“Some one’s come, Ravenna,” she said to her companion.
The elderly lady seated in a fluffy armchair facing away from the window grunted noncommittally. Her hands did not stop their flurry of motion; she was embroidering a white veil. The design was unclear as yet, but it might have been an unfinished representation of the Tree and Stars.
“I wonder who it is?” Indithel prattered on, “Confound this fog! Why must the weather always work against me? I’m the King’s daughter, doesn’t it know that?”
“Really, dearest,” Ravenna replied without looking up from her stitching, “You can hardly expect the weather to obey a mortal, no matter whose daughter she is.”
Indithel frowned sceptically, but she was too absorbed in her observations to protest. She watched as the small group dismounted and began to walk towards the great doors of Menechenneth.
“Oh, look!” she gasped suddenly, “It’s him!”
Ravenna paused her work for the first time and looked up, staring with unseeing eyes at the fire crackling in the hearth before her.
“Falathor?” she asked, “Lomion?”
“No, no!” Indithel said, blithely ignoring the hopeful tone in the older woman’s voice, “Neither of your fine sons is here – it’s Thorondil! You know, Father’s friend – the handsome one.” She giggled softly at her own daring in calling an Elf handsome. But it was true, after all. She twirled away from the window, satisfied at the circle her feathery black hair inscribed about her at the sudden movement. Then she skipped the few steps to Ravenna’s chair and hung indolently over the back of it, planting a kiss on the older woman’s cheek.
“I wonder what he’s come for?” she said, “Something exciting must be happening! Aren’t you curious?”
“Not particularly,” Ravenna said, “I’m sure it’s bad news.”
“Oh, come, don’t be so pessimistic!” Indithel said, “You’re much too melancholy, sitting here and sewing all day. What about a little fun? Let’s go down and see why they’ve come!”
Ravenna put down her embroidery and looked up in amusement at her foster daughter. Indithel’s mother, the Queen, had died when the girl was a mere babe, and Ravenna had taken the child into her own care. She herself had been one of Fíriel’s ladies-in-waiting, and had come with her mistress to Arnor when the marriage that cemented the alliance between the North and South Kingdoms had been tied. Shortly after their arrival, she had married a wild-spirited noble of King Araphant’s court, and had borne him two sons over the years. Neither of her own children, however, had become as dear to her heart as Indithel. The two were inseparable despite the difference in their ages.
“You know what your father will say if he finds out,” she remonstrated her adopted daughter gently.
“Yes,” Indithel said, “He’ll say I’m his most precious jewel, the most beautiful blossom in his court, just like he always does. Please, Ravenna? The day is so dull.”
Ravenna threw up her hands in defeat. There was no point in arguing – Indithel would do as she pleased no matter what Ravenna had to say for or against it. The girl was incorrigible. Besides, she wouldn’t mind knowing what news Thorondil had brought – perhaps the Elf knew something about the whereabouts of her ever-absent sons, who took far too little time to visit their mother than she would have preferred.
“All right,” she said, “But you have to be quiet this time, or some one will notice the peephole in the end. Last time that fat noble from Annuminas heard your uncouth giggling and almost found us. Luckily he had drunk enough wine to decide his ears were playing tricks on him! But really, you must be more careful.”
“But his trouser buttons were undone …” Indithel laughed, “And he didn’t even notice!” Judging by her incredulous expression, one would have thought this was the funniest thing in the world.
Ravenna shook her head and stood up. She was tall and unbowed by age; her grey braid hung to her waist as thick as when it had still been red. She wore an austere black dress belted by a silver girdle, and her eyes too were more silver than grey.
“Hurry up then!” she said, taking Indithel’s hand, “We have to get there before the delegation if we want to hear everything!”
Indithel grinned in excitement. The two women held up their trailing skirts and peered stealthily into the corridor to make sure no one was in sight before they began to sweep quickly along the halls. The King’s audience chamber was some distance away from their room, and Ravenna began to worry that they wouldn’t arrive in time. She had become quite caught up in the game, and was in truth curious about what had brought the Elves to Fornost from Lindon. They were forced to stop once when Indithel insisted on checking her appearance in a mirror hanging on the wall. Ravenna sighed in exasperation and tugged the princess along hurriedly.
“But what if Thorondil sees me?” Indithel cried.
“You look fine,” Ravenna replied, “Besides, don’t count on an Elf Lord falling madly in love with you – you know how rare that is.”
Indithel made no comment, for they had arrived at the small door around the corner from Arvedui’s audience room. It was actually a servant’s nook, a place from which to serve refreshments discreetly, but Ravenna had discovered its other virtue years ago. The two women flurried inside and shut the door gently behind them. The room was deserted at the moment, but the giant cupboard stood in its usual place on the far wall. Wasting no time, Ravenna and Indithel piled inside, leaving the door opened a crack to let in some light (also, as Ravenna well knew, it is never wise to shut oneself into a cupboard completely). Indithel pried the loose board from the back and peered through.
“There’s Father!” she whispered.
The two women made themselves comfortable and leaned close to the tiny square peephole in the stone wall. Ravenna had no idea how the gap had come to be there, or how by some fortune the board in front of it had loosened, but it suited her purposes quite well. The small window gave a tolerable view of the chamber beyond.
Arvedui’s audience chamber was also the throne room. It was smaller and less imposing than its equivalent in Gondor, though elegant and beautiful in its own way. The room was circular, patterned with white and green marble. There were three tall windows on the north wall, reaching entirely from the floor to the ceiling, and bowing out like a balcony. This formed a smaller half-circle, raised slightly above the level of the rest of the room. On the dais stood the throne of Arnor, starkly outlined in the light falling through the windows. The throne bore no gold or jewels – it was carved of black wood in a fanciful shape, adorned with curves and twists that the eye could not follow. Allegedly it had been brought to Middle Earth on the ships of the Faithful when they had escaped from Númenor, and had belonged to Elendil himself. Every King of Arnor since the first had sat that throne and governed the kingdom from this room.
At the moment, however, the King was not on his throne. He was seated on the steps leading down from the dais, slightly to the left of the mighty chair, with his elbows resting against his knees and head bowed.
The great door opposite the throne opened, and five figures filed in. There was no announcement of the personages, no herald or trumpets; apparently this meeting was strictly off the record.
Ravenna leaned closer, surprise and curiosity warring in her. Two of the visitors she knew – Thorondil and his companion Galion. But the other three strangers were much odder. There was a Hobbit – a Hobbit with a sword. Since when did the Little People go to war? This one had obviously seen some rough times. A ragged red scar marred his throat, and even from her restricted viewpoint she could tell that it was fresh. At his side walked either a very short Elf or a very noble Hobbit, she could not quite decide which. And following behind them came a little girl-creature in shocking rags, with some kind of silver necklace around her neck. Ravenna could not make out clearly what it was. What was the child doing here? She could not be more than ten years old … but as the five visitors walked closer to their hideaway, Ravenna realized that the girl was not a child at all. She looked at least as old as Indithel, except that she was unnaturally short. A shudder crawled down Ravenna’s spine. The girl could only be a half-breed.
She jerked out of her reverie as the King leaped up to greet his audience. Arvedui practically ran the length of the room and caught the leading Elf in a brotherly embrace.
“Thorondil!” he cried, “Mae govannen! You have come! Blessed be the Elves! You have no idea how glad I am to see you, friend!
“And I you,” laughed the Thorondil, “I would not stay peacefully at home beneath the trees of Lindon when Arnor is in need. May the West hold fast even as our friendship!”
Beside Ravenna, Indithel sighed exaggeratedly.
“He speaks so well,” she whispered.
“You’re disgusting,” Ravenna whispered back, “Is there a single man in Middle Earth you have not cast your eyes upon?”
“Oh, please,” Indithel rolled her eyes, “I was only joking.”
Ravenna declined to argue, turning back instead to the conversation flowing in the throne room.
“This time perhaps even the friendship of Elves and Men will not be enough,” Arvedui was saying, “I fear my kingdom is lost, Thorondil, and nothing I do can prevent it.”
“Alas!” replied Thorondil, “I can bring you but little aid, and no good news. I have with me messengers from Bree. They tell of dire deeds in the kingdom, such that my heart nearly fails. But let us not despair! There may yet be hope and a way to victory to be found. Here is the Halfling, Trotter of Bree. I met him on the road here, and know his disturbing tale. But let him tell it himself!”
The kingdom lost? Dire deeds? Ravenna bit her lip. This was no mere visit. Had things really slipped that far? And why had she not noticed? She cursed herself silently for not paying attention to the affairs of the city. Once she had kept close watch on the happenings in Arnor, but after her husband had died she had quietly faded out of public life and busied herself only with Indithel. Perhaps it was time she returned to the outside world.
The Hobbit with the sword stepped forward uncomfortably, tilting his head back to look up at the tall King. Unsurprisingly, he seemed somewhat awed by the noble company and elegant surroundings. Ravenna suspected he was a mere peasant, and had probably never been this far from his hometown before. Still, she was eager to hear what he would say.
As the Hobbit began to speak, however, he was forestalled by Arvedui. The king had glanced at the other two strangers accompanying Thorondil and Galion. As soon as he had seen the half-breed girl, however, he had turned pale and gasped in surprise.
“No!” Arvedui cried, stumbling backwards and making a gesture with his hands as if warding off an attacking evil.
The girl’s eyes bugged out in surprise, making her look even more starved and unnatural. She stared at Arvedui without comprehension, as if she could not believe her eyes. Ravenna wondered why. She would have thought a half-breed would be used to such reactions by now.
“You!” Arvedui howled, pointing an accusing finger at the girl, “Get out!”
Without a word, but with tears shining in her eyes, the half-breed turned and fled from the room.
The Hobbit started after her, then hesitated. He glanced back at Arvedui, then at the little Elf, who seemed to be his friend. But only for an instant; then he, too, turned his back on the King and ran out of the room after his companion. His light feet made no sound on the stone floor.
“This is like a story,” Indithel whispered, “How exciting! Do you think they’re in love?”
“What?” Ravenna asked absently.
“The Little People …” Indithel began. Ravenna cut her off with a warning gesture.
Arvedui stood still as a statue, covering his face with both finely moulded hands. Indithel made a motion as if she wanted to run to him, which was of course impossible, since there was a stone wall between them. The remaining travellers, however, did not let the incident escape their notice either.
“Arvedui!” cried Thorondil, “What evil fit is this?”
The Man did not answer, merely stood there with his face hidden. Then slowly he lowered his hands. His face was grim and grey as stone. It was as if he had aged twenty years in a few seconds, and burdens weighed on him beyond that which men may bear.
“It is the end …” he murmured, “After all that has been done, the end has come, and all is vanity.”
“What are you talking about?” said the Elf. He sounded angry, unwonted for one of his kind, “Will you give up before the battle is fought? What do you see in the maiden’s face that saps your strength and steals your courage?”
“Nothing,” said Arvedui, shaking himself, “It is nothing. I was only reminded of a bad dream, that is all. But now what about this news from Bree? I sent a messenger there days ago, but he has not returned.”
“Ask rather Bronweg of Lindon,” Thorondil replied, “He knows the tale better than I, and has the skill to tell it properly as well.”
Arvedui, Thorondil, and Galion all looked at the stunted Elf expectantly. Bronweg, as was apparently his name, bowed to the King and flourished his cloak slightly. If he had not been so short, Ravenna decided, Indithel would probably have gone into fits about this Bronweg; he had a fair face and a dangerous air, and his diminutive stature did not make him look ridiculous.
“I am honoured,” Bronweg said, and without further ado began to speak smoothly.
Ravenna listened, holding her breath. The tale unfolded before her: the burning streets of Bree, the screaming faces of Orcs, the wild ride through the Barrow-Downs and … and … her sons?
She was crushed suddenly when Indithel threw her arms about her. The young woman hugged her adoptive mother desperately, and Ravenna could feel her shaking.
“Ravenna!” Indithel whispered, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Ravenna patted the girl’s head vaguely. Falathor had been in Bree … Lomion …
“It’s not true!” Indithel said, “It can’t be true! Not Lomion!”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Ravenna said, “I know my son, Indithel, perhaps better than anyone else. He is not like other men: nobler, wiser, more dangerous and … more vulnerable to certain things. I do not know why he would obey the Witch-King, but if he has done so, he is the worst enemy Arnor could gain.”
“But …” Indithel said, “What about Falathor? He … he went to Bree? To talk to Lomion? What if they … what if they …?”
But Ravenna could not answer that.
Trotter panted, trying to keep up with Anna’s flying feet along the many halls of the castle. He almost lost sight of her several times, only barely glimpsing her hair streaming out behind her as she disappeared around a corner. She did not seem to have any idea where she was going, but that did not prevent her from running as if all her worst nightmares pursued her. Corridors and rooms flashed by, beautiful and mysterious, half-glimpsed through the corners of his eyes. He would gladly have stopped to admire his surroundings, or wandered around the castle for hours, but one thought burned in his mind and would not let him stop: if he lost Anna now, he would never find her again.
He rounded a corner into a long corridor. The floor was not carpeted, and he slid wildly on the smooth floor. The air smelled like food; he supposed fleetingly that they were near the kitchens. Far ahead of him, Anna tore open a door on the right hand side of the wall and dashed through. A strangled yelp echoed along the hall. Trotter grimaced. Hopefully she hadn’t fallen down a stairway or anything …
A second later, he leaped through the door himself. His foot struck air and he tumbled forward, but luckily his fall was short; the ground was only a few inches below. Still, he landed unpleasantly and lay for a minute coughing and trying to catch his breath.
“Well, that was brilliant,” Anna said next to him, “After you see me fall, you decide to jump blindly yourself. You could’ve been killed. What if this had been a bottomless pit?”
“Then we’d still be falling,” Trotter said, sitting up and scowling at her.
Gradually he became aware that they were outside, sitting on some kind of gravel path. The foggy night air swirled around them. The area seemed to be a garden – hedges stretched away in front of them, bordered by grass and bare earth where flowers would grow in spring.
Anna leaped up and began pacing angrily back and forth.
“I don’t believe it!” she said, “The King himself! The great, wise, oh-so-mighty King of Arnor! He couldn’t even bear to look at me!” She stopped pacing suddenly and faced him. “Do I really look that bad?” she demanded.
Trotter looked her up at down. Her hair was uncombed and disorderly. The edges of her cloak were ragged and her once-white (presumably) shirt had turned a dull grey. Her trousers were too short and had loose strings hanging from the cuffs, and holes gaped in her shoes. The only inspiring thing about the whole picture was the Starflower necklace hanging from her neck.
“No,” Trotter lied, “You look fine.”
Anna deflated. “You’re lying, aren’t you?” she asked wearily.
“Er …” Trotter said, “I’d rather not answer that. Anyway, I think you look fine.” He smiled encouragingly, but Anna only glared at him with folded arms. She resumed pacing, bristling like an offended cat in a cage.
“Always the same!” she muttered to herself, “Whenever they see me they act like that! Well, what’s wrong with me anyhow? Are they any better? So what if I’m a homeless pauper … could they smuggle a sword past a load of guards into a gaol cell? Could they have it out with a barrow-wight?”
Tendrils of mist trailed around Anna’s head as she ranted on about “them” and their many shortcomings. Wispy vines curled about her feet and a grey ring floated by her head.
Trotter blinked. A ring?
“… and just because they’re tall, the oversized giants! Shorter is better anyway, and I …”
“Anna?” Trotter asked cautiously, interrupting the tirade, “Does fog usually come in rings?”
“What?” she snapped, glaring at him.
“That,” he said, pointing as another ring floated by. It was followed seconds later by a perfectly shaped miniature ship. Trotter rubbed his eyes, but the ship remained, sailing innocently around Anna’s head. She watched it, looking rather disturbed. A second later, it turned its prow and sailed away into the hedges.
Trotter got up and began to stalk the ship cautiously. It did not move too quickly; in fact, it almost seemed to be waiting for him to catch up. Deeper and deeper into the maze of hedges he followed it, each step crunching on the gravel path. Finally, he stopped.
“What is it?” Anna asked. She had followed him silently, forgetting her rampage for the moment.
“Look!” he said, pointing into the fog ahead.
He could just make out a stone bench standing alone in a small circle of greenery. The ship had flown airily until it reached the centre of the circle, then dissolved as if it had never been. This, however, no longer held Trotter’s interest. There was a man sitting on the bench, all alone in the mist. He was dressed, apparently, all in grey, making it difficult to distinguish him from the fog, and there was a big pointy hat perched on his head. A long pipe stuck from his mouth, puffs of smoke emerging from it at intervals.
Trotter was far too curious about the mysterious smoker to leave the matter be, and besides, he reflected, anyone who was acquainted with the noble art of smoking couldn’t be a foe. He walked boldly toward the old man – for he was undoubtedly old – and was about to greet him when the smoker removed the pipe-stem from his mouth and turned his head.
“Well!” he said, “How do you do! This is a pleasant surprise, I must say – a Hobbit!”
“Good evening!” Trotter replied, somewhat surprised, “Are you well acquainted with Hobbits, Master? I must say I was surprised myself to see you smoking – I had thought only my people were in the habit of practicing the art.”
“I know something of the Halflings, yes,” the old man said, “I have visited that delightful little colony of theirs – the Shire, they call it. Quite charming. That’s where I picked up the pipe too. An excellent way to pass the time, if I don’t say so myself.” He blew another smoke-ship out of his mouth; this one had wings instead of sails.
“You’ve been to the Shire!” Trotter exclaimed, “I didn’t think Men ever went there – they seem to think we Hobbits are extraordinarily dull. But who are you, Master?”
“My name is Gandalf,” the old man said, “I am a Wizard by profession, though I dabble in other areas now and then, one might say.”
“Gandalf!” Trotter and Anna said together.
“Gandalf is real?” Anna continued, “I thought he was just a story!”
“Not quite,” Gandalf smiled, puffing on his pipe.
“Do you really make such wonderful fireworks? And magic?” Trotter asked, looking at the Wizard as if he expected Gandalf to begin juggling fire on the spot.
“I have little time for magic these days,” Gandalf said, “Certain other matters occupy my time. Things are going rather badly for Arnor, if you must know, and I am doing what I can to help. But I am only an old Wizard, and my fireworks don’t do much good against the Witch-King.” His eyes twinkled mysteriously as he spoke, as if at some private joke. “The Black Captain has become bold. He has had his eye on Arnor for years – centuries, in fact – and now he thinks the time has come for him to take it. The King is in a bit of a tight spot – he needs all the help he can get.”
“Then is the outlook truly so dark?” Trotter cried. He couldn’t imagine Arnor without a king, or the land without Arnor.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Gandalf said, “It’s hard to tell. The Witch-lord certainly seems to be growing stronger by the day, and Arnor, unfortunately, is short on allies. On the other hand, you never know what might crop up. Sometimes the smallest person can make a difference.”
Trotter had the strange feeling that the old Wizard was speaking to him in particular. But what difference could he make? He could hardly lead an army against the Witch-King or advise the King on matters of war. And now that he had arrived in Fornost, he didn’t quite know what to do next. Where should he go? Back to Bree? To the Shire? Or perhaps he could stay in Fornost – but what for? He realized for the first time that he had no purpose to guide him, and no place to bind him.
“So what comes next?” Anna asked. She had obviously been thinking upon the same lines as he. “Is this the end of Arnor? Not that I care, particularly … but the Witch-King isn’t exactly my type of fellow either. I’d rather not live under his regime, if at all possible.”
“Your question, like most of its kind, is unanswerable for the moment,” Gandalf said, standing and poking at his hat to make it stand up more perkily, “But you may have your answer yet. Arvedui will call a council, I am sure – leaders are famous for their councils. It should be quite informative. But for now I suggest we go back inside. It’s rather chilly, and my hat is getting damp.” Sure enough, the hat had resisted all attempts to cheer it up and was drooping sadly on the Wizard’s head.
Trotter walked at Gandalf’s side back to the palace. The Wizard was humming a tune quite unconcernedly, as if he had not been discussing the fall of the kingdom and the triumph of evil mere moments ago. When they stepped inside the castle, a liveried servant greeted them. He was panting breathlessly and looked as if he had been searching for them for some time.
“The King … sends his apologies …” he said, “He was slightly ill … or had an evil vision … I don’t remember which.”
Trotter and Anna glanced at each other.
“A likely story,” Anna muttered. Then she raised her voice, “No matter. Tell the King I accept his apology.”
The servant nodded. “I will lead you to the rooms the King has graciously lent you,” he said, recovered by now and speaking smoothly. He turned to Gandalf. “Master Wizard, if I saw you I was to tell you that the King wishes to speak to you in his antechamber.”
“Well, it seems you have indeed seen me,” Gandalf said, “So you might as well tell me now.”
The servant blinked. “Er … The King wishes to speak to you in his antechamber.”
“Really?” Gandalf said, looking faintly surprised, “How very interesting. I will go directly.” And with a swirl of his grey cloak, he strode away down the corridor.
The servant sighed. “It’s not easy being a servant sometimes,” he said sadly. Then he bowed to Trotter and Anna. “If you will follow me?”
Naturally, they did.
Trotter found Bronweg sitting upon the stone windowsill, apparently lost in thought. They were sharing a room, while Anna had her own chamber. She had not been able to make up her mind if she should be pleased at the courtesy or offended at being separated from her companions, but had settled on grudging acquiescence in the end. As soon as Trotter stepped inside, his gaze was drawn to the Elfit, curled up into a flexible ball by the window.
“I told the King everything,” Bronweg said as Trotter tiptoed past. The Hobbit started; almost he had thought Bronweg was asleep.
“There’s to be a council in a few weeks, and you and I are both to be there,” the Elfit continued, undisturbed. The moonlight illuminated his face, shining fitfully through the thinning mist, and with the shadows shrouding his body he looked eerily like a disembodied, floating head. The corners of his mouth were curled slightly as if he were smiling at some inner thought. “They’re going to discuss what’s to be done. It could be interesting.”
Trotter wondered if Bronweg was being sarcastic; it was hard to tell sometimes, and his friend’s moods were changeable, as he had begun to learn.
“Quite right!” he answered cheerfully, “At least matters will be taken care of! Thank you for doing my part, so to speak. But I had to go after Anna.”
“Yes, yes, Anna,” Bronweg said, cocking his head and looking at Trotter, “Very upset, is she, the little lady?”
“Not at all,” Trotter replied, “In fact, we were wondering what to do when this business is all finished. I thought the Shire might be a good place to start. You’re welcome to come with us, of course; I’m sure Anna wouldn’t mind either.”
Bronweg looked extremely surprised, and even more sceptical. He jumped down from the windowsill. Hobbit and Elfit stood side by side in the moonlight streaming through the window, their shadows stretching across the room like two ancient colossi carved by the empire-builders of old.
“Do you really believe that?” Bronweg asked incredulously. Trotter nodded.
“I was rather convinced she hated me,” the Elfit added lightly.
Trotter snorted. “Anna is a gentle soul,” he said, “Almost too gentle for the world. She hates no one, and loves much. You just have to open your eyes and see it. As perhaps you will, if you come with us.”
“I will come with you,” Bronweg said, “But I doubt we will be going to the Shire. Things are not as simple as they seem, as I found out some hours ago. Soon you may hear things that will change your mind and your plans; or perhaps some one else will change them for you. In any case, I renew my offer of my services and company on whatever road you choose.”
Trotter shook his head firmly. “You may come with us on only one condition,” he said, “Not because of your services or your honour, but out of friendship. I count you as a friend, Bronweg, and would not give you any other title!”
Bronweg seemed to have no answer to this. He stood still in the half-light, half-dark, eyes shining, tensed and frozen like some hunting animal. Then he reached out one arm and clasped Trotter’s hand.
“Then let us be friends,” he said with sudden laughter in his voice, “’Til the end of days!”
Their two giant shadows met and clasped hands like twin wanderers meeting on a lonely path and recognizing in each other a kindred spirit. Then the Hobbit and the Elfit swore a troth of ever-lasting friendship, unwitnessed and unsung, but no less binding and no less heartfelt than that of ancient Elf-Lords in the distant past of the world. There they forged an alliance of good-will and loyalty and, though small its partakers, yet it was as a glimmer of light in the falling darkness. For the Witch-king knows no love and no brotherhood, and all such things are a bane to him and a thorn in his foot.
“Bronweg,” Trotter asked as they stood there with palms still clasped, “Why did you choose to come with us?”
The Elfit merely smiled.
“Some day I will tell you,” he said.
Long leagues to the south, a lone rider galloped on the East Road. The stars burned brightly overhead, but the rider’s face was concealed in his cloak. He paid no attention to the road, trusting his horse to find a smooth path. His mind was elsewhere.
Lomion had tried to make for Tharbad at first. They wouldn’t expect that, and perhaps there he could find out the truth about what Falathor had told him. There was no point in staying in Bree anymore; it did not interest him. Besides, he was in danger there, and it wasn’t worth risking his life simply to cater to the wishes of the Witch-King. Tharbad … the town lay a good hundred leagues from Bree, on the banks of the Greyflood. Carn Dûm’s power was weaker there. He had hoped they would not find him, or perhaps forget about him altogether. But that hope had been disappointed.
Barely two leagues from Bree, the Black Rider had found him. Lomion still shuddered at the memory …
… “You cannot hide from the Dark Lord,” the Nazgul said. Out here in the dusky wilderness it was even more terrifying, drawing strength from the shadowed lands where Men had no power. “You cannot flee.”
“I am not hiding!” Lomion said angrily. He could hardly control his terrified horse, panicked by the presence of the black creature, dancing on the twilight ground. “I do not fear Him!”
“You have not fulfilled the bargain,” the Rider said, “Bree is not in our power. We do not have the necklace. You have failed.”
“The bargain is void!” Lomion said, “I demand no payment. I renounce my part in your games. We part ways here, demon!”
“You cannot renounce the bargain,” said the Rider, “Or have you forgotten?”
It raised its metal fist, and the Ring shone silver-black on its finger. Lomion found his gaze drawn irresistibly to that flaming circle. He closed his eyes, but the Ring remained in his mind, a wheel of dark fire. He felt it pulling at him, pulling at his … soul. He had sold his soul to the Dark Lord. And still he desired the Ring.
“You have broken the agreement and you will pay for it now,” the Black Rider said, “But the Witch-King is not unjust. Serve him well, and you will have a reward yet, human, a reward greater than your wildest dreams and darker than your deepest nightmares. Is it not what you wish?”
“What do you know of what I wish?” Lomion said bitterly, staring at the ground.
“The Black Lord knows. He will give you the child.”
Lomion’s head jerked up. “The child?” he blurted out, “How did you …” He didn’t bother to finish the question. What didn’t the Witch-King know?
“We know,” the Nazgul said, “You will have the child, if you serve Him. I will give you your orders; you will report to me. Glory awaits you, Shadowed Star. Do as the Dark Lord orders. Follow me.”
He did not want to. But he did anyway.
Lomion had followed the Nazgul here, back to the East. Now he rode like the wind to complete his first assignment, by the order of the Witch-King.
He slowed the horse to a trot. He was close, and he did not want to miss the spot. There would be a fire; even though it would make the party more easily visible, they would deem it worth the risk to have a weapon that the Enemy feared at hand. The trees loomed on either side, and he watched carefully for a gap in the leafy row.
Sure enough, there it was. A few yards ahead a faint orange light glimmered through the trees – a campfire. He directed his horse easily towards the spot. There was no need to hesitate; everything had been planned out.
The five Men leaped to their feet with weapons in hand as he appeared in the circle of firelight. They did not lower their bows and swords when they recognized him as one of their own kind. One could not be too mistrustful in these lands.
Lomion pulled back his hood and held out his empty hands. He looked around quickly at the small hollow: it was surrounded by bushes and the light of the fire was mostly concealed by the rising ground. Only onto the Road did a few rays spill. Whether the five travellers were aware of this or not, he did not know and did not particularly care. They were all Dúnedain, he could tell, middle-aged, seasoned men.
“Who are you and what do you want here?” one of them asked, glancing Lomion over with shrewd eyes.
“My name is Vanwafea,” Lomion said with an inner twinge of grim amusement*, “I am carrying a message from Rivendell. I was told that I might meet a company of Westmen on the Road if I rode quickly enough. Five men, from Fornost on the King’s orders. Am I right in assuming I have found them?”
“You are,” the man said, lowering his bow slightly, “I am Laurendur, the leader of this company. You are from Rivendell? Have you been looking for us? If so, why?
“Yes, I sought your party, and almost I thought I would come too late. I am to warn you of an ambush. There is a band of Orcs and a Black Rider lying in wait further upon this Road.”
Laurendur’s eyes widened. “A Black Rider?” was his not unexpected question. Lomion nodded, and saw with satisfaction that the man lowered his bow completely now and glanced at his companions. This was far too easy; he had only to keep them talking, and all would fall into place. Within a few minutes the camp would be surrounded, and these men were far too occupied with him for the moment to pay close attention to the shadowy trees and bushes outside the firelight.
“Yes,” Lomion nodded, “The Rider leads a large force. You will not be able to fight them.”
“Then the Witch-lord has learned of our errand,” one of the other men said, “Laurendur, his minions may be on our trail at this very minute. We must hide our camp.”
“A wise suggestion,” Lomion agreed readily, “I must say I’m not in a hurry to have a run-in with a horde of Orcs myself. Put out the fire first, if you want to remain hidden!”
Laurendur nodded and gestured to the man who had spoken. The Dúnedan quickly sheathed his sword and hurried to the fire. With quick, efficient movements, he threw a large heap of earth upon the coals and began stamping on it. Too quickly, as it turned out. The light snuffed out like a candle, and Lomion whistled ear-splittingly. For a moment he was blinded by the suddenly dark night; furthermore, so were the five messengers. The Rhudaurians waiting in the bushes around the camp, however, were not, having had their eyes closed against the light until Lomion’s signal.
A volley of arrows hissed through the air, and without so much as a cry, every one of the King’s messengers fell dead to the ground.
Lomion’s eyes adjusted quickly, and he dismounted, calling to his men. Thirty tall warriors of the realm of Rhudaur appeared out of the bushes silently.
“Search the camp!” Lomion said, “Take what you wish for your own. Then burn the rest.” He did not want any part in the looting of the corpses himself. It was below his dignity even now, when he was no longer a respect soldier, or a well-paid traitor.
“What about the bodies?” a heavily bearded soldier asked.
Lomion shrugged. “Cut off their heads,” he said, “And tie them to a horse. Let it bring our own message back to the sender.”
The Rhudaurian bowed. “As you say, captain,” he said.
Lomion grimaced. They called him captain – but he had become a pawn.
* Vanwafea: Lost soul