28. The Dead Watch the Road that Leads to the Sea
Legolas sat cross-legged alongside the hunched shape of Gimli beneath his blanket, listening to the night. From time to time voices murmured around him, Aragorn's softly among them. The few small fires the Grey Company had lit only deepened the surrounding darkness, so that even he felt rather than saw the Stone of Erech at the edge of their encampment, a looming presence of – menace? No, not even that, he thought – of such age that the fears and passions of these Men and even of Elves were of utter indifference to it.
The Dúnedain look on it with awe, for they say that it came out of Númenor itself; and yet we huddle at its foot, for better the Stone than what lurks beyond it! To him, the army of shadow which stretched down the hill on all sides was a thing of wonder and utter strangeness, rather than of terror; but Legolas had been enough among mortals in recent months to sense, to smell, the fear coming off these most fearless of Men.
He heard beasts shifting unhappily from hoof to hoof, the Rangers attempting to soothe their mounts in gentle tones which yet betrayed an uneasy edge. Were it not for the one who leads us, I think even this Grey Company would break and flee! he reflected. All those long hours under the mountain; and that darkness. Blacker than any night, blacker even than Moria... As their march went on, and on, he had felt it pressing ever heavier upon him, weighing on his chest, taking his breath, sapping his limbs. Gimli asked me after we reached here, as we were rubbing Arod down and he thought none other could hear, whether I truly did not fear this Army of the Dead, and I could answer truly that the shades of Men did not frighten me; well for my pride that he asked no more about that endless journey into dark. Never was I gladder to feel the wind on my face than when we at last breathed the air of Morthond Vale!
One shadow detached itself from the little group on the far side of the nearest fire and approached silently. Legolas shifted a little further from Gimli's sleeping form, making room.
The other folded himself compactly down at the Elf's side, knees drawn up to his chest. For an instant the fire crackled and flared, showing a face where bone-deep weariness met stony determination.
Legolas nodded. "Aye. I am certain for a time he feigned it, not wanting me to see how these chill shades trouble him. But now he snores." At that very moment the Dwarf obliged with a great shuddering snort, and neither Man nor Elf could suppress a muted chuckle.
"It is well," Aragorn sighed. "Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that I will need all the tireless endurance that Dúnadan or Elf or hardy Dwarf can muster." They sat in silence a long moment: the fire hissed; harness chinked as one or other of the horses moved.
"Legolas..." The Elf waited. "You know whither we go, at first light?"
"You spoke, to the dead host, of Pelargir upon Anduin. It is but a name, to me. Pelargir: where, I would guess, the Seeing-stone of Orthanc showed you some great peril bearing on our quest, and which only the Armies of the Dead will rout."
"Keen are yet the eyes of the Elves," Aragorn said dryly. "Great peril indeed; for in the palantir, as you surmise, I saw black ships of Umbar. The fleet of the Haradrim, ready to Sauron's bidding; be that to sail on Minas Tirith, or simply to starve her of her reinforcements from the Southlands and thus to doom her by default. Whichever it be, we must thwart it, or all is lost before ever we reach the White City."
"A great black fleet..." Legolas tailed off in a whisper.
"Legolas..." Aragorn faced him squarely, and the Elf heard the tautness in his voice. "Pelargir is a great harbour, but it lies not on the coast; it is some leagues upriver from the mouths of broad Anduin. If all falls out as we think, we will not come to the Sea."
"The Sea..." Legolas let out one long, ragged breath. "And if it were otherwise; if you knew that we rode to the very shores of the ocean, would you still ask it of me?"
In the faint firelight, the grim lines etching Aragorn's face showed for an instant every day of his fourscore years; but he did not flinch.
"Yes." He waited.
"Good. Because for you and for all I yet hope for Middle-earth, I would still go."
Aragorn reached to grasp the Elf's shoulder wordlessly. With a spitting sound the firelight flared again, and Legolas thought he saw something glitter on the Heir of Isildur's cheek. Leather creaked and Aragorn grunted softly as he uncoiled his long legs and rose to his feet.
"Hannon le, mellon nin . Rest now, if rest you can. We ride at dawn."
Legolas stretched out near Gimli, wrapping his borrowed cloak about him as if he could shut out thought with the cold of the night. The sky above was utterly, unfathomably black; does even Elbereth desert us? Unable to find solace in the stars, he tried to drift into waking dream, but could not escape Galadriel's words, beating ominously in his head:
"If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more."
Shifting uneasily on the hard ground, he tried instead to force his conscious mind to dwell on some source of comfort. But thoughts of the Greenwood slid treacherously from memories of clean breeze and starlight to hearing in his mind's ear the screeches of Orcs, and smelling the stench of hideous burning; trying to remember inconsequential things only led him from foolish Hobbit jokes to images of Sam and Frodo on a death march into a hopeless grey wasteland. One face above all he longed to conjure up for solace, but dreaded what imagination might twist it to; who knows what black armies might have stood between her and the White City? Yet somehow, he found, his dark fears could not withstand the memory of a familiar head thrown back in delight, hair streaming away in the wind while a throaty laugh poured out the promise of joy. In peril and in peace, indeed. And may we endure to see what lies beyond the darkness!
He lay listening to Gimli breathe, remembering, and waited for the dawn.
Chronologically speaking, this chapter should come halfway through Chapter 26; the night when the Grey Company camps at the Stone of Erech is March 8th, at the end of the day on which Rowanna finds her mother.
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