7. Carry a Torch
Elladan lifted his newly lit torch high in the cold grey morning, standing beside Aragorn. They were at the Dark Door opening onto the tunnel of Paths of the Dead. The Paths were a fell road, beset with haunting spirits. But they were the fastest way from the hills of Dunharrow to nigh the coasts of Gondor and the towns in peril at the mouths of the river Anduin. From the Dark Door, there was a constant exhalation of air carrying a dry smell of the grave, mingled stone, dust, and rancid ill-dried hide, a hint of foulness unknown within.
Aragorn murmured only to Elladan as he lit the second torch. “These wights betrayed their alliance with my ancestors. I can command them, when the moment comes, at the Stone of Erech. It is a long path from where we stand to the Stone. You have the lore of both Elves and Dúnedain. Can you ward us against their malice until then?”
“I must march hindmost, then. I shall do all I can,” said Elladan, equally private. Everyone was at the limits of their courage as it was, and neither of the two wished to alarm their company further. He turned from the brother of his fosterage, in whom he saw the makings of a great liege, to the brother who was of his blood. All that he said was, “Elrohir, will you lead my horse on this path? I am walking last, with one of the torches.” He scarcely looked at Elrohir as he spoke to him.
Elrohir, stricken by the gravity of the hour, only nodded and gestured to Elladan’s horse. Starfoot trotted over to Elrohir and grew calmer beside Elrohir’s mare, Forty-Three, the least perturbed of all the steeds.
Elladan watched the rest of the Grey Company enter the Paths of the Dead, one by one. First went Aragorn, and others of the Dúnedain followed his fearlessness. Elladan saw their friend Halbarad taken by foreseeing at that dark gate, speaking words of his death, and Elladan shivered, knowing they were true. Then came Elrohir. His face could not be seen beneath his hood and helm, but Elladan read the way his twin moved. Despite the dismay in Elrohir’s shoulders and his long pause before the gateway into horror, he strengthened himself and led both his horse and Elladan’s inside, calming the fearful animals with horseman’s touches. After his passing, Elladan paid little heed to the rest, for the one who had his heart had gone within. He followed.
As they went on the dark path underground, the company fell into a different order. Some marchers quailed and fell back. Others found a touch more courage, or longed to be behind brave Aragorn, and went forward. Elladan stood aside so that Legolas could pass him in the darkness. He heard dwarf-boots following, and held the torch higher to light Gimli’s way. Peering ahead, saw Elrohir secure in the middle of the march. He was glad that Elrohir was protected as might be. He had tried to shield Elrohir from his own shadow by keeping his distance ever since the Ring had called to him a second time. He had striven to take Elrohir’s counsel to put his dismay at that aside. But his self-judgement had scarcely been able to accept their willing incest, and the weight of this new guilt was too much for him.
Whatever Elrohir said to him, he had not been able to forgive himself.
Once Elladan had marched beyond the sight of the grey light from the entryway, the rancid air grew still. Despite this, Elladan’s torch guttered low, as if the lifeless air was stifling the flame instead of feeding it. There was an echo that made it sound as if more footsteps were following behind them in the darkness. Listening to that echo, Elladan sensed the Dead, and he tightened his mouth and raised the torch high.
Elladan had encountered the wights of mortal souls before, when he had journeyed across the Barrow-Downs between Rivendell and Lindon. They had little power of body. Terror and despair were their weapons, blasting men’s minds with a draining fear of death and entrapment, something beyond thought. Looking ahead, curious to see what the Elf among them felt, it seemed that Legolas sensed them not at all. Managing his horse Arod, restive with an honest beast’s urge to run held back, took all his attention. Elladan himself half-heard muttering whispers behind him, and saw glimpses of grey and white at the edge of his vision. Once or twice, he started as if someone had touched him from behind. Elladan turned himself to chanting words of warding, exerting his will to bar the Grey Company from the evil souls following.
Much time passed as they marched. Although Elladan took sips from a water-skin, his throat grew raw. He ceased briefly so that he might rest his voice. As the wights were between the dead and the living, so he was between two kinds, elves and mortals. Like the ghosts, he was of liminal kind, in-between, he thought. And like the company of the Dead, cursed traitors, he felt himself cursed as well. The idea that the many curses laid on the Eldar in Middle-Earth might be the source of his desire for Elrohir had helped him reconcile himself to their shared lusts. There was no use fighting or seeking to evade such a fate, and such dooms were apt to be laden with irony. He smiled grimly to think that his incest with Elrohir had brought him the greatest joy of his life.
On a sudden, panic seized him, terrible fear. He nearly dropped his torch, choking on sudden bile, so great was his terror. Horror welled as a thousand malicious wills focused on him. Elladan knew too late the Dead saw his mind clear, through his own duality and the charms he had chanted against them. They read his thoughts; they knew his sinful desire; they saw that he was part mortal, yet linked to what they had worshipped Sauron to gain, the immortal life of the Eldar. As they turned him inside-out, their hate, terrible loathing honed on themselves for an Age of the world, flooded him.
The ghosts’ varied mumblings on the edge of reason coalesced in a voice like a void at the back of his mind. You lust for him, for your own brother! was the condemnation of that death-corrupt concourse. It seemed more terrible than the judgement of Mandos. Having entered Elladan’s mind, the Dead rifled his memories. Hot glimpses of the passion he had shared with Elrohir flickered through his mind, distorted by being summoned for evil’s mockery, still dear to him.
The ghost-speech fragmented into a score of mad voices. Catamite… squanderer… even we, even we counted that evil… would have bled you on the altars of Sauron… Every thought of the Dead burning into his brain was underlined by a sense of triumph that one had come among them more wicked and vile than they. Elladan tried to say his warding words again, but his voice failed in his bile-burned throat. All the defiance he could muster was to keep the torch aloft and to put one foot in front of the other.
From the company of ghosts, one dead mind cursed him sharply.
You should despair as we do, to be mired in such a black desire.
“It is not like that,” thought Elladan. “I have foregone my brother to keep him from evil.” He was still stumbling forwards.
Another blast of loathing struck him. The deeds you have done already are too much.
“Who are you to judge?” he thought. The answer surfaced in his own mind as he remembered the grasping hunger he had felt twice for the One Ring, and the laughter of the Dead rang hollow in his skull.
We judge what we recognize, said the clear wight-voice. The sins of mortals are unchanged, though the lines of mounds grow long, though the lines of kings fail, though others die, die, die...
Fighting for reason, Elladan picked out that the one voice had the malice of all of them behind it. That voice was far more distinct, as if the speaking soul had had less time in the dark tunnels to forget the fair speech of living mortals. “You who bespeak me. Who are you? What was your fate?”
You will see. The ghostly voices multiplied again, babbling. See...wait...behind the door...come to us.
“Join you?” thought Elladan, blank with terror.
The clear voice dominated again. Become a shade as us. Suffer with us. It is the only fate for you, damned and cursed, so hungry for kind you lust after your kinsman.
“The only fate…” There was a terrible compulsion to the idea. Could it be true? Eternity in the darkness, an end to the sins of the flesh, maybe even an end to the fear that had hounded him for all his days, that of having his desire found out. He stood still.
The Dead waited around him, moaning, too many of them to allow the clear voice to focus on him. They cursed him with a hundred ill names, and his spirit bowed in agreement. Did they not say the same that he had thought of himself for long? The more despair he felt, the more the Dead invaded him, and they plunged down into his greatest fear; that he would be unloved, alone, forsaken for his desire.
The wights did their work of fear too well, for once. The terror that claimed Elladan made his blood run hot, set him ready to fight. It was a fear he had faced many a long night, and then endured every time he and Elrohir rode forth. For being unloved and losing Elrohir were the same thing to him. His mind burned with wordless denial, and his limbs were freed – shaking, not walking, but freed.
To join the Dead, he knew then, was to give up on the endless struggle of honourable life against forbidden love. True evil was at the heart of that, the void-core hopelessness of the Dead, who had given up before their own challenge and so gained their curse. He might never be truly good, thought Elladan, but he could always strive towards it. Nor did he know if he was still loved by Elrohir, after all his own coldness, but he knew how he felt himself.
Even after the battles and terrors that were to come, Elladan remembered the next steps he took as his most difficult deed in all that war. Walking tremulously, he sent his thought back into the haunted darkness. “Yes. I am stained with the sin all speaking folk hold ill, and many a lie I have told. My curse, my perversion, my wrongs, I claim them all. To love the one I should not is my fate. But I am no oathbreaker. Long have I sworn vengeance for my kin’s sake. Aragorn aided my brother and me. Now I am sworn to aid him, by the promise I made at the gate of your dark path.” He lifted his torch high, and began his chanting again, hoarse and defiant.
They all tramped on until the path and airs opened around them, into a wider chamber of stone. As the company clustered in the increased space, Elladan looked around at his fellow marchers. No-one else seemed as wracked as he was; perhaps the Dead had focused their will of horror against him. He breathed in relief. It was better far that he should suffer than Aragorn, all their hope, or Elrohir, all his heart.
There was a mutter among their company as, in the gloom around them, gold gleamed at one side. Aragorn stepped close to examine the gleam's source, then looked to Elladan, asking wordlessly for his aid. Elladan saw that Aragorn stood by a fallen body, sunk to bones inside dry armour. He stepped up and took Aragorn’s torch as Aragorn knelt to examine the body. He still felt the multiplicity of the Dead, and one shade hovered close at his back. You asked who I was. Baldor son of Brego. Look on me now! I vowed to walk these Paths of the Dead. I walk them without cease. In the corpse’s fingers clawing the door, and the broken sword beside it, Elladan saw the madness that had twisted the corpse and recoiled. Then he braced his mind against horror with the twin bulwarks of duty to Aragorn and love for Elrohir.
Aragorn spoke to the whispering darkness behind, loud and clear. “Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden in the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!”
Elladan sweated as he felt the Dead cease their muttering and curl their icy thoughts around the words of Aragorn. They gained potency as their doom came on them. The sense of them grew stronger. Elladan gripped his torch and gazed at Elrohir to endure that horrible instant, before he alone heard the moan of the concourse of ghosts: We will answer.
And at that, a cold blast blew out the twin torches, plunging them all into the dark of the Dead.
After a few attempts at striking flints in the dark, Elladan whispered to Aragorn, “I do not think they will abide the fire more. Can we march without it?”
“If it means the Dead will follow. We shall not tarry. No torches,” Aragorn called, to the company, “but we move on.” There was a restless shuffle at that; not a one of them liked the idea. They set themselves to it for Aragorn’s sake.
Elladan still walked behind the Dúnedain, resolute against the darkness. He was exhilarated that he had faced such an evil and not been claimed by it – even that such evil was not barred from good service and honour. The Dead were behind and about him, but they let his mind alone, now. Elladan murmured a hymn to Elbereth, the first song he and Elrohir had been taught together. When he fell silent, he heard not the half-sounds of the Dead, but Elrohir continuing to reassure the horses with wordless clicks of his tongue. At that brief, humble sound, he walked sure in the darkness, as if his torch had not been extinguished at all.
It seemed soon after that when they came upon a new sound; the rilling of water. Soon a murmur ran through the line of Dúnedain, for the westwards gate of the tunnel opened ahead of them. The dim light of it was as beautiful as a star to them, and they hastened forth.
Weirdly, Elladan felt panic again. He flinched as the white shades edged his vision, dim faces and shadow-spears. The voice of the prince of Rohan moaned to his mind, They say, the others say, this lord will free us. How do we know he will keep his word? Not bind us to him to serve him more?
Elladan felt a terrible pity, perceiving that just as the Dead had poured their own hatred of themselves into him, it was their own awful fear that maddened those who ventured past their gates. “Traitors think that all betray. Aragorn, the lord Aragorn, is true,” Elladan whispered, facing the blackness. “You gave me many foul names, yet I do not break my oath to him. Are you better than me or no?” The darkness was silent. “Your fate and mine will stand at the Stone of Erech. It has been foreseen. Come!” He turned without another word and went on. The rhythm on the edge of sound came again, that of the ghostly host following him. Elladan did not turn back more, nor did he stop shaking until he saw the open sky above him.
Outside, the path opened into a narrow ravine. The harrowed company were collecting themselves in various ways, some men laughing to free their nerves, one passing around a flask. Legolas seemed anxious at last, looking about for Gimli, who staggered out even after Elladan. Seeing Gimli’s stricken face, Elladan wondered if he had been the only one the Dead had addressed. They mounted and rode in file again. Elladan kept his place at the last, between the living Grey Company and the dead grey shades.
Riding with Gimli, Legolas spoke. “The Dead are following. I see shapes of men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.”
Elladan smiled. “Yes, the Dead ride behind. They have been summoned.” Both the Elf and Dwarf heard the note of grim satisfaction in Elladan’s voice, and he saw them troubled. He took the rest of the ride through the ravine to calm himself, but it was difficult with the howling fear of the Dead themselves intense at his back.
Once they came to the Morthond Vale, they thundered through the new-fallen night to the Stone of Erech. There, before Aragorn spoke the words of fate, Elladan watched with hope as Elrohir handed the heir of Isildur a silver horn. It was fitting that the better of the twain aided him at that moment, thought Elladan, but he too might be as his brother, doing fair deeds despite his own deeper flaws.
Aragorn sounded the horn, then addressed the Dead that surrounded them. “Oathbreakers, why have ye come?”
The voice of the Dead replied. To fulfil our oath and have peace.
Elladan saw all save Aragorn struck with fear as they too heard the voice of the Dead at last. Then he listened as Aragorn called the Dead to his service, promising them peace and departure. Listening, Elladan looked ever on Elrohir, and accepted his own fate beside the Stone of Erech.
* 9 ½ - 10 ½ hours journey, from an hour after dawn on a late winter day to 2 hours after dusk. For the sake of this story I’m assuming they ran across the corpse of Baldor about 7 ½ - 8 hours into it.
* Elvish versus mortal ghosts = There are differences between elvish ghosts and mortal ghosts in Tolkien’s writing. I refer to elvish ghosts as “spirits” and mortal ghosts as “souls.” This story deals entirely with mortal ghosts.
* Look on me now! = This is Baldor, a prince of Rohan who vowed he would “tread the Paths of the Dead.” The Tale of Years, ROTK.
* It has been forseen = The prophecy of Marvedui the Seer, cited in ROTK.
* Keep your hoards and your secrets… = This line of dialogue is directly lifted from “The Passing of the Grey Company” in ROTK. So are the lines, “The Dead are following...” (Legolas), “Yes, the Dead ride behind…” (Elladan) “Oathbreakers, why have ye come?” (Aragorn), and “To fulfil our oath and have peace” (The Dead).
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.