12. Until the Time Comes
The golden roof went up. The goblets clinked as the warriors, farmers, and horse-tamers congratulated each other. Through Dunlending raids, through famine, through strife, they had survived.
"To Eorl the Young!" one man exclaimed, leaping to stand on the table. "Praise his memory! And let's have a song!"
There was a roar of agreement to this. A bard sprang forward and began playing upon a slightly out of tune harp. No one minded. In fact, they sang along, for they all knew their great leader's life story by heart.
Loudest among all the voices was Brego, son of Eorl. He was king of the Rohirrim now. King. Not chief, not headman, but king. It felt good to be king.
It grew dark outside, the stars covered by a thick veil of clouds. The torches flickered and went out, leaving the guard around the newly-built Meduseld standing watch in utter darkness.
The song finally died out as more and more of its participants passed out from too much drink. The wild laughter and roars gradually became calmer, and more and more fell asleep.
"Father! Psst, Father!"
"Nrgghh. What is it, Son?" Brego asked, stirring. He didn't open his eyes. "Go to sleep."
"Father, the torches."
"What about 'em?"
"They've gone out."
"That's too bad. Go to sleep."
"Oh, what is it?" Brego snapped, opening his eyes and peeling his face off the table. It was dark. All the lights seemed to have gone out. Every last one of them. Brego felt like he was standing in darkest night. A night before there had ever been light.
"I think the door's open, Father."
"I can feel a draft."
Brego was a brave man, a fierce warrior, but he was not about to stand up and walk, in this utter darkness, to shut Meduseld's door. Let the guards take care of that.
"Go to sleep," Brego said.
"There's someone here," Baldor whispered.
That stirred Brego to action. He sat bolt upright, feeling the sensation himself. His hand went to his long dagger. "Wake up," he snarled, kicking those sitting around him.
"What? What is it?" they muttered.
"Torches are out, the door's open, and someone's in here!"
Quickly and quietly, the Sons of Eorl seized their weapons and made ready to face whatever horror had come among them.
Someone lit one of the torches, which shed light on a scene of spilled wine, toppled benches, snoring bodies, and general remnants of a night of merriment.
"There's no one here," someone said.
The man holding the torch waved it around a bit more, and there stood, in the center of the hall, an old man. He looked like he could've been either Rohirrim or Dunlending, or perhaps of Gondor. He was very old with wrinkled, parchment-like skin, and thin, white hair. He was dressed in rags and his eyes gleamed so brightly that he was probably mad.
"Grandfather," Brego said, standing up. "We've got enough food for you, but you needn't sneak in. We're warriors. There's no telling what could've happened."
The old man watched Brego with the bright, intense eyes, but didn't answer.
"Grandfather?" another man asked. "Are you well?"
No, he's not well, Brego thought. He's mad. He's completely and utterly mad. Can't you see that? It's obvious!
"Grandfather?" Baldor asked. He took a step toward the man and Brego seized hold of his son's shoulder to keep him from going further.
The old man's eyes went from face to face, settling briefly on Brego, and then longer on Baldor.
When the old man spoke at last, it was like the rustling of the last leaf of autumn, like the rustle of the winding cloth as the dead is lowered into the grave, like the last gasp of the dying.
"The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead. And the Dead keep it. Until the time comes. The way is shut."
And then, before the confused warriors, the old man dropped to the floor.
"He's dead," one of the men reported seconds later. "Not breathing."
"What did that mean?" Brego muttered.
"There are rumors of a path in these lands," one man said. "A path guarded by the living dead. Perhaps he spoke of that."
Baldor snorted. "A path of the living dead? That's madness."
"They say that no man can walk the path and live."
"And likely no one's ever tried. I'll do it."
"No," Brego hissed. "No! Be quiet, Son!"
But nothing could stop Baldor. It was as if the old man's madness had passed out of his dead body and infected the son of the king.
"I swear as I am grandson of Eorl the Young that I shall walk these so-called Paths of the Dead!" Baldor exclaimed.
Brego closed his eyes. An oath was an oath. It was utterly binding. He felt grief begin to well. It was as if he'd already lost his son.
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.