30. To Dunharrow
I was woken way before dawn. I washed and dressed quickly. The maid-servant who had taken care of me during the last days brought me a tray with breakfast, porridge and hot golden tea. She also gave me a small bag of apples for the journey and a jar with athelas salve. When I asked her what the salve was for, she blushed, "The lady Éowyn sends the salve. She says it's for horse-sore… bums."
The girl blushed even harder.
I raised my eyebrows, kept silent and pocketed the jar.
It was so early in the morning that the palace of Meduseld and the city of Edoras were still eerily quiet. When I left the hall, dawn barely touched the eastern sky. The coming of the day was only noticeable in the way that the sky was not as dark as it had been, and that the stars were paler. Above the Snowbourne great swirls of mist drifted lazily. The mountains to the south loomed in dark sinister shadows. Only the bakeries were already busy with tell-tale columns of white and grey wood smoke rising from their chimneys and from somewhere down below I heard the rumbling noise of cart-wheels on cobbled stones. Probably a wagon on the way to the market place with fresh milk from the farms close to the city.
A stable boy had Mithril ready for me. The mare was restless in the company of the other, more ordinary horses. I walked up to her and the horse recognized me at once. A warm feeling of pride suffused me. I took her reins and whispered to her an explanation about the other horses in Sindarin. As if she had understood every word, the mare snorted softly and calmed down.
The horses of the rangers were smaller than Mithril; most of them were brown or dun, tough and sturdy, bred to manage almost any ground. Legolas had a Rohirric horse, though not a Meara. Aragorn was on Roheryn, his own horse, brought all the way from the stables of Rivendell by Elladan and Elrohir. But Elrond's sons were mounted on two great destriers, huge grey stallions trained for war; the last of their kind to be bred and trained in Imladris. Mithril was smaller than those two and more delicate in build, but she was the most beautiful horse of the group and without doubt the most intelligent and remarkable steed. She was a true Meara, a queen of horses, a true daughter to Shadowfax.
And I got to ride her because I was too inexperienced to get where I was to go as far as I needed to go on an ordinary horse.
No wonder that Éowyn was somewhat riled about this.
Just before I wanted to mount a slender figure dressed in the palest blue emerged from the shadows. It was Éowyn. She had covered her golden hair with an almost sheer silver blue shawl. She looked very beautiful, like a water-sprite, slender and pale and cool. And lonely. She looked very, very lonely and her eyes were dark with pain.
"I just wanted to say good-bye, Lothíriel. Fare thee well, and may the blessing of the One guard your ways." She embraced me swiftly and then she was gone before I could reply anything.
How many times had Éowyn said good-bye and never seen the ones again she had embraced and blessed that way?
I patted Mithril's neck and then asked her if I was allowed to mount her. She snorted again, producing a sound that was remarkably close to a chuckle. I was very proud of myself when I mounted with no difficulty. My ankle hurt as it was pressed into the stirrup, but I did not loose my balance and ended up hopping around on one leg to the amusement of all onlookers.
On Mithril's back I experienced the now almost familiar sense of vertigo, being so far above the ground but only for a short moment. Then I almost felt my centre of gravity drop low into my stomach and was suddenly much more comfortable on Mithril. But nevertheless I stroked the soft coat of her neck and asked her in my best Sindarin not to let me fall even if I was being very clumsy.
When I heard the sound of soft laughter behind me, I actually managed to turn in the saddle and look who laughed at me. It was one of the twins. I think it was Elrohir. There was a softer touch to the younger twin's eyes. The elf nudged his destrier forward. The horse stepped next to me and exchanged polite breaths with Mithril.
"A beautiful horse, my lady. And a beautiful accent – Glorfindel will be proud of you."
Glorfindel! I felt a smile grow on my face.
"Only Lothíriel, please," I replied. "And thank you! Mithril is a completely unearned reward for my incompetence as a rider. But the message I carry is important and needs a swift and sure delivery. Please, tell me, how is Glorfindel, and his niece, Gily, and the Lady Arwen and the Lord Elrond and…"
Elrohir raised his hand and smiled at me. "Stop, stop, not so fast, my – Lothíriel. Glorfindel sends his regards, as does his niece. They are both well as are our sister and our father. As well as possible in these times of darkness and war."
"That's good," I said, thinking back to the bright days at Rivendell when I had first felt at home in this world and happy with it. "Maybe it will all be over soon, and the light will return to Middle-earth."
"That is our hope," Elrohir answered. "But look, there comes Aragorn and the Lady Éowyn. We will be on our way now."
Éowyn had changed into the clothes of a warrior-rider of the Rohirrim and her sword was sheathed at her side. In her hands she held the traditional goblet of farewell, a simple golden goblet filled with wine and blessings. A stirrup-cup.
Aragorn took the goblet from her, drank and gently returned it to her hands. Her hands were shaking and I had the feeling that she wanted to plead with him to stay and not choose the dark path under the Dwimorberg. But she did not plead. And she did not cry.
At least not there and then.
We raised our hands in a gesture of farewell and then turned the horses away from the palace of Meduseld. Aragorn and Halbarad took the lead of the company. After them followed the Dúnedain. At the end of the company Legolas rode next to Elladan with Gimli behind him and Elrohir rode at my side.
The streets of Edoras were grey and empty, most of the houses still dark. From the bakeries and some guesthouses the muffled noise of various preparations for the day issued. The only other sound was the hooves of the horses on the cobbled stone of the pavement. Soon the terrace where Éowyn bade us good-bye was obscured by the roofs of the houses. A few minutes later we reached the great gates of the city. They were opened for us at once, but no one called out a blessing or a farewell to us. Instead the gates were closed behind us at once.
We rode around the south-eastern edge of Edoras and then turned on a muddy road towards the mountains. It was still gloomy because the morning sun was not yet high enough in the sky to shine beyond the dark peak of the Haunted Mountain.
After a short ride we came to a crossroads. A path branched off the road and led away into the mountains. Along its sides tall slabs of granite were placed, creating an alley of standing stones leading up into the mountains. This was our way.
The atmosphere of the path was dismal and disturbing. In the dim grey light of the morning the standing stones seemed to watch our steps like guards – silent and grim. The horses snorted and flicked their tails restlessly. The men were quiet; only now and then they talked among themselves in low voices.
The alley of standing stones ended in a dark wood of black fir trees. Firs have never been my favourite kind of trees. And these were so dark they seemed to swallow the light of the morning sun that was finally high enough in the sky to peek even into this shadowy valley.
Not even Legolas seemed to like this forest, barely sparing a glance to look at the trees, concentrating solely on guiding his horse through their oppressive shadows.
The forest opened on a small grassy dell. The path led right across the hollow into the shadows of the mountain. At the centre of the hollow, right in the middle of the path, there was a single standing stone, like a memorial. A memorial of doom.
The horses snorted uneasily as we approached the stone. They shifted on their hooves trying to retrace their steps and get away from the stone and its gloomy shadow. Only Mithril and the twin's horses kept their calm. The others finally had to dismount and lead their horses around the stone.
Behind the stone the path led into a narrow glen, more a ravine really than a glen that ended after only a few hundred yards in front of a sheer face of black rock into which a square opening had been hewn.
The Black Door of the Dwimorberg.
We halted and dismounted.
My knees were wobbly. Not from weakness or from riding, but from a sudden, bone-chilling, reasonless fear. I kept close to the twins and Legolas, one hand entangled in Mithril's mane, taking comfort in the closeness of her strength.
"This is it," Aragorn said. "The paths of the dead. Here we must enter."
Halbarad shuddered, "This is an evil door. And death awaits us behind it. We may enter nevertheless, but I fear the horses will not go."
"But they have to," Aragorn said. "When we emerge on the other side of the mountains we are in need of haste, and many leagues lie between the Stone of Erech and the battle plains near the Black Land."
In the end the elves moved from horse to horse, talking to them in their elvish language, calming them and blessing them as only the firstborn can. Then Aragorn and Halbarad entered the darkness, leading their horses behind them. The other Dúnedain followed, their horses – while reluctant – following calmly. Legolas, the twins and I brought up the rear again. My heart was beating quickly and my stomach felt cramped when I walked into the darkness, but the elves seemed pretty much unfazed and Mithril nuzzled me, apparently wanting to cheer me up.
We were already a few feet into the tunnel when Gimli came running after us. The dwarf was very pale. For once even he felt threatened by the darkness and the closeness of the mountain pressing in on us.
Aragorn carried a torch at the front and Elladan had lit another torch to light the rear. It was not a lot of light. Somehow it was darker than Moria had been. Where in Moria there had always been a strange kind of diffusive reddish glow all around us, here there was only cold blackness that not even dwarvish eyes could penetrate.
I walked next to Elrohir, my heart almost painful with fear, even though I knew – or at least thought I knew – that everything would be alright and that no ghost of the dead would harm us. When I stumbled for the third time, gasping with fright, Elrohir gripped my hand and from then on supported me through the darkness. At once the blackness did not seem quite as black as before and my fear of the ghosts dwelling here diminished.
Suddenly Aragorn halted and shone his torch to the side of the wide tunnel. In the light of his torch I could see the gleaming gold and silver of metal. When we got closer, I saw that it was a skeleton still clad in rich armour, though the helm had tumbled from the skull. The dead warrior lay in front of a door made of stone. The door was shut, but the bony fingers of the skeleton were still clawed into the cracks of the door.
I drew back with a muffled scream.
Aragorn said something in a low voice to Halbarad and then turned away from the skeleton.
Who had that warrior been?
Why had he come to this dark place?
Why had he not turned back when he could not open the door?
An icy shiver ran down my spine when Elrohir and I walked past the skeleton. Perhaps I did not really want to know the answers to my questions.
I was glad of the comforting touch of the elf's hand and of the hot breath of Mithril at my neck. Just imagining to be caught in this place all alone, in a darkness so complete that without torches you would literally see not the hand before your eyes…
As we walked on, the darkness behind us seemed to fill with whispering voices and invisible movement. My heart started to race again and though I wanted desperately to turn and see who pursued us, I did not dare, and somewhere deep inside I knew that if I did turn to look back, blackness would cloud my eyes never to lift again. So I kept staring ahead, trying to concentrate on Elrohir's calm touch and the soft snuffling breath of my horse behind me.
Suddenly Aragorn stopped again. I almost jumped out of my skin when he called out into the surrounding darkness in a clear and commanding voice, "Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden in the Accursed Years! For we want them not! Your oath I ask! Speed I ask! Let us pass and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"
All at once the whispering and the moving behind us and around us stopped.
Icy gusts swept up from the depths of darkness around us. The torches flickered and died. The horses neighed loudly with fear and even Mithril tossed her head and snorted nervously.
"Keep calm, Lothíriel," Elrohir's voice came out of the darkness next to me. "It is not far to the other side from here. The summons has been spoken. They will not harm us now."
The torches could not be lit again and the torches that had been kept in reserve would not catch fire.
After a few moments of failing attempts to kindle a flame, Elladan called to Aragorn from the back. "Just keep going, Estel. It is not far to the other side and this darkness is vile."
"Then let's go at once," Aragorn replied. "Keep close together and walk as quickly as possible."
It was like stumbling through the darkness of a madhouse at a fun-fair. The blackness was impenetrable around us; not even elvish eyes could see through this absolute, eternal gloom.
So we hurried along, holding on to hands and reins as best we could and ran from the darkness as fast as our feet could carry us.
Then, just as suddenly as the darkness had come, it was gone.
We emerged through another gateway into the grey twilight of a deep mountain gorge.
At the side of the path a small rill ran down from the mountains and far above us I could see a wedge of dark blue sky. I gasped with relief and when I finally relinquished Elrohir's hand, my fingers were stiff and painful from holding on so tightly.
It was already late in the evening, but all of us wanted to get away from the Haunted Mountain as fast as possible, so we mounted again and rode on down the steeply sloping road. Elrohir rode before me, but behind me followed Legolas and after him Elladan. The small hairs at the back of my neck prickled uncomfortably as if someone else followed us and watched me with cold, cold eyes. But when I turned around, I could only see the black gate yawning bleakly in the face of the mountain.
Legolas caught my look and turned back for a moment himself.
"The dead are following," he called out in a soft voice. "I see shapes of Men and horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud and spears, many spears, like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following."
"Yes," That was the cool voice of Elladan. "The Dead ride behind. They have been summoned."
The Dead ride behind… I shivered.
I did not look back again.
Finally we emerged from the ravine. We were on a plateau above wide, sloping highlands. The rivulet that accompanied us down from the mountain was joined here by two other small mountain rills. Turning into a cold mountain river the stream rushed down the hills, splashing down and down over many rocky falls.
I exhaled a deep sigh of relief. I was glad to be out of the confining walls of the ravine. For my part I had enough of mountains for some time to come. And of dark caves.
"Where in all the long-beard's names are we?" Gimli asked, looking around in consternation.
In Gondor, I thought. We are in Gondor. South of the White Mountains, the Ered Nimrais. But it was Elladan who answered Gimli's question, "We have descended from the uprising of the river Morthond, it flows into the Bay of Belfalas. In the Common Tongue the river's name is Blackroot, and now you know the reason why it has been given that name."
Gimli shuddered. "A knowledge I could have done without."
I silently agreed with him.
But before we could talk anymore, Aragorn called out to us, "Friends, forget your weariness for a while yet! Ride now, ride! We must reach the Stone of Erech before this day is over and it is still a long way to go!"
He spurred his horse into a gallop and neighing a challenge his mount leapt and sped away into the twilight.
I sighed. I was heartily tired. But I bent forwards and stroked Mithril's neck softly. "Celeg, celeg, meleth-nîn," I whispered to my horse. "Fast, fast, my love!"
And Mithril, a true Meara, with a strength superior even to the great destriers of Elrond's sons, raced into the dusk, following Aragorn in close pursuit.
The landscape flew by in a blur of rich fields and grassy meadows, now and again the lights of farms of small villages blinked in the distance. But there was no one abroad. Later I learned that the inhabitants of the houses and villages we passed during that evening had felt the coldness of the Dead following behind us. Filled with fear and dread they closed their doors and barricaded their windows. And for many years afterwards the Night of the Hunting Dead was remembered in Gondor with candles placed in windows and blessings said over doors and windows to ward off that wild hunt.
But soon we left the softer farmlands behind us. The lands around the Stone of Erech are desolate and empty. The legends of the damned dead of the mountains and their meeting place at the stone cast a shadow across the hills and on this place. No one wanted to live there, either then or in the later ages of the world.
The Stone of Erech is a perfect globe of black obsidian – or a similar jewel. It is blacker than the night but luminous as glass. The globe, although it was half-way buried in the ground of the hill's summit, was still higher than Aragorn – who is one of the tallest men I know.
We rode up to the stone and dismounted.
I looked at the stone and felt again that ominous prickling at the back of my neck. I held on the reins of Mithril with a tight grip. This was a strange place. Perhaps not as terrible as the way through the Haunted Mountain, but still strange and uncanny. There seemed to be an aura of power in the air around the stone, and although its surface was clear as glass, it did not reflect the surrounding hills, or the close shadows of the mountains, or the silver pinpricks of the stars in the sky above it. It was completely black.
Elrohir gave the reins of his horse to his brother and walked up to Aragorn. From below his grey cloak he produced a small silver horn. He bowed to Aragorn and offered him the horn.
Aragorn inclined his head in a grave, gracious gesture of thank you.
He lifted the horn to his lips and blew.
A bright clarion of a sound emerged.
And all around us and indeed from far below the ground echoes of horn calls sprang up.
Then silence fell again.
But Aragorn went to stand close to the Stone of Erech and he called out in a voice that was clear and dark and carried far through the hills all around.
"Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
Out of the darkness a voice replied to him, and it was a low voice, a clipped voice, that sounded dire and dead, "To fulfil our oath and have peace!"
Aragorn stood very tall and his eyes blazed silver as the stars above him. For the first time I realized that he was truly related to Elrond and his sons. The beauty of the elves and the majesty of the kings of men were indeed mingled in him. All at once a feeling of awe swept through me, awe that I had been allowed to meet this man, this King of Kings.
Aragorn replied to the dead voice and he used the words that Tolkien had given in the book,
"The hour is come at last.
Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me.
And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever.
For I am Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor."
At that Halbarad unfurled the great standard they had brought with them, but the banner remained black and any device on it was hidden in the darkness.
Not yet, I thought as a cold shiver ran down my back, not yet. But soon…
And then a feeling of excitement swept through me and made my stomach lurch.
The summoning fulfilled at last, we made camp for the night. Elrohir helped me unsaddling Mithril and taking care of her hooves. When I finally crawled into my sleeping bag, I was too tired to feel afraid of the waiting ghosts all around us.
I slept like a log. And probably snored.
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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.