1. Night and Fog
Very well, then, I will tell you. It was long ago, and I have not told the tale for many years; but you have come far, you say, from a foreign land, and you seem to know some of the story already. Come here, then, come close, so I can speak low - I don't want to wake little Aedig or Aldred, this is no tale for such young ears. The children like ghost stories; yet these were not ghosts, but something much more terrible. Though it was not till much later, not until the tales came back northwards of the battle for Mundburg on the field they called Pelennor, that I knew what it was I had seen; and how they came to be gathered where I happened upon them, I never did find out.
Three score years ago it was; the year before the War of the Ring, in high summer, long hot days when the grasses burned and the crickets were too weary to sing. Things were already bad in the Eastemnet, by then; there were raids from the East more and more often, and word had come from the Marshals that all who could should leave their steadings and bring their flocks and their herds closer towards Edoras, where they could better be guarded. But Father did not want to go, after all the labour he and my mother had put into the farmstead. They were arguing about it that afternoon, and that was why I'd decided to go fishing in Anduin. I'd walked all the way to the river, and baited my long lines with worms, and settled down on the riverbank in the shade to wait for a bite, while the long afternoon wore away. Then, you see, I must have dozed off.
I awoke with a start. For a moment I couldn't think where I was; then I remembered. But as I opened my eyes, I could see stars twinkling through the gaps in the trees overhead - I'd slept the afternoon and all the evening away, and it was dark! I knew I was going to be in trouble - but I had no idea what trouble...
At first I didn't know what had roused me - then it came again; a faint splashing sound, too regular to be the gulps of a fish surfacing to snap at gnats. I rolled over in my leafy bed and looked out over the river. It could only have been an hour or two after sunset, for the moon was not yet up; but at the height of summer it is never truly black, and I had my night-eyes. Mist lay over the water in the deep blue twilight, and the night-breeze in the trees was like the rattling of dry bones. For a moment I saw no movement; then the sound came again, and I caught its source. A great raft was making its way out into the current from the far shore.
I frowned, trying to clear my head of the fog of sleep. Why on earth would any sane man be trying to bring cargo across Anduin at dead of night? As the strange craft drew closer I began to make out the dark shapes upon it; a figure at each corner, poling steadily aslant the current. And in the centre of the raft? For a moment I could make nothing of the dark mass; then came a faint snort and a shifting of hooves, and I saw. Horses. Black horses! A number I could not yet make out, but at least a half dozen - and surely stallions, from their size. What power on Middle-earth could make six stallions stand crowded together on a raft, bobbing across the Anduin, in deathly quiet? I remembered the rumours that had been passed around for a fair few years, of the Eastfold's finest black studs and breeding mares being raided and carried off East - and suddenly I was not sure I wanted to know the answer.
The raft kept coming. Just then, all about me there came a dry, whispering, rustling sound; just the trees, I thought, moving in the breeze. Except that the sound came not from above me, but from the ground beneath my feet...
Then I saw the crawling things.
Something shifted in the corner of my eye; I looked down and gave a start. The earth itself appeared to be moving. Then I realised; no, not the earth, but the creatures that live in it and on it - worms, spiders, beetles. The ground was alive with wriggling creatures. I sat up in a hurry, tucked my hands under my armpits, shook a centipede off my boot. A bird's panicked call echoed over my head, there was a great frantic beating of wings, and a whole flock rose from its roost in the trees somewhere above me and was gone into the night. There were sharp rustles in the undergrowth and I caught my breath - but it was only a pair of rabbits, flicking their white scuts at me as they leapt past me and were gone. Animals, birds, even the creeping things of the ground; all were fleeing, and all in the same direction.
Have you ever seen fire on the plains in summer? Only then had I ever seen the like, when flame sweeps across the grasslands chasing beast and bird before it. But there was no fire on those damp river-banks. What were they running from?
With a soft crunching sound, the raft beached a little way upstream of me. Its crew muttered to one another in a harsh, guttural speech I did not recognise, and three began to lead the black stallions up the bank - five, six, seven beasts in all. The fourth crewman staggered after with his arms full of some burden - all I could make out was dark cloth - and men and horses came to a halt, the boatmen seeming to huddle together a little, peering into the gloom as though waiting for something. My skin began to prickle faintly as though a thousand tiny needles were being stuck in it. I felt hot, then very, very cold. When I looked down at my arms, there were goosebumps on them, and I could feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. What good sense I had screamed at me to flee, to crawl on my belly like the worms if I must; but even if I'd had a hope of escaping unseen and unheard, it was too late. My limbs were lead, I could move not a muscle; I could only huddle into my hollow and pray to be made invisible.
Something was coming.
Fog; pale heavy fog, drifting along a few inches from the ground, coiling around bushes and tree-roots like a deadly smoke. River-mist, I insisted to myself, it's just mist rising from the river; but the strange fog was drifting down the river-bank from above and behind me, filling the air with a sickly-sweet stench as though something very, very old was slowly rotting, and wreathing into strange shapes that almost looked alive...
Then I was jamming my knuckles into my mouth to keep from screaming, and paid no heed to the icy sweat drenching the hair at the back of my neck; I would have given anything to look away, but my eyes wouldn't obey me, and I had to see.
As the tendrils of mist drifted and spiralled around the dark bundle which the shaking boatman had placed on the ground before him, the black cloth began to unfurl as though lifted by unseen hands, billowed into the darkness, and I swear to you, it took shape.
Seven shapes; seven towering forms of waking nightmare before which the four raftmen cowered. And I? I knew there was nothing but fog inside those hoods, there was no life there, for fog surely could not be alive, and yet.. something moved within. Something made sleeves lift and cloak-skirts brush the damp ground, and - hoods? heads? I knew not - moved together as though speaking; I knew it was impossible, and yet I saw, and rather than try to explain it my mind froze up like a rabbit caught in sudden lamplight, and I could only stare in horror.
From the depths of one black shape, somehow, a voice came; a horrible, grating, rusty sound. The raftmen leapt to do its bidding, bringing the great black stallions around one by one. Even through my terror I was puzzled - how could a bodiless robe mount a horse, much less ride it? But each of the hooded shapes was soon in the saddle - for saddles, I saw, there were - and something in the sleeves must have held the reins, for they began to move off, up through the woods to the top of the bank.
Suddenly one dark mass turned in the saddle... sniffing, testing the air as a beast scents its prey, and I felt its eyeless gaze sweep over me from the black emptiness of the hood, and all I could think was oh no, oh please... Away in the woods something hooted. The horses shifted restlessly. I moved not a muscle. Slowly, slowly, the horror turned away from me once more and the black riders melted away among the trees.
It was a long, long time before the hammering of my heart quieted enough to hear the soft splashing of the raft once more. Forcing my rigid neck to turn towards the water, I saw the craft heading back towards the eastern shore, riding higher and quicker across the current without its cargo. At last the shadows swallowed it up, and I heard my own breath heave out of my lungs. I was shaking as though I had the ague. Then my stomach heaved, and I was violently sick into the leaves at my feet.
Not until the sky in the east was as pale as a duck's-egg did I dare crawl up the bank and begin to make my way unsteadily home. Oh, yes, I was in terrible trouble, for I couldn't breathe a word of what I'd seen. Even if anyone would have believed me, I could not have spoken of it. Only when all those dreadful days were over - the War of the Ring won, and the King Elessar crowned in Mundburg - did I tell anyone. For after the War was won, those.. things .. were gone. They say there was an Elf-lord among the Nine Walkers who shot one of them, and of course it was our own White Lady who slew their chief there on the Pelennor; and after the great black towers of Mordor fell, the Dark Lord himself was destroyed and all his works and servants with him. All vanished like night and fog at the coming of the dawn. Let us hope such darkness may never fall again.
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.