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Behind him, Aragorn felt the others of the Fellowship stiffen. Legolas’ hands went to his knives, steel hissing as they cleared the leather sheaths. Gimli’s chain mail clinked as he swung the axe into fighting position. The Dwarf growled and Aragorn was glad, for it meant Gimli had overcome his fear enough to do battle. For all the use their knives and swords and battle-axes would be against such foes.
Aragorn said nothing, but old tales were running through his mind. His thoughts turned back to evenings spent in the Master of Rivendell’s study, the firelight flickering on Elrond’s elegant face as he told his sons tales of ancient days. A teenaged Aragorn would sip his cider while Elrohir and Elladan twirled their wineglasses idly as they listened, their smiling gaze on the intent boy. Elrond’s deep eyes would sparkle as the child listened and asked him questions about the legacy that he would someday inherit.
“What do you want of me?” Aragorn asked, though he thought he knew.
The hovering, insubstantial forms moved closer. The rest of the Company fell back, but Aragorn stood his ground. The one that had spoken before drifted down to stand before the Ranger, and as if some contact with the earth strengthened it, the figure firmed and naked bones took on the memory of flesh. Details could now be seen on the figure; faint splashes of color, a once noble, ravaged face, still proud even in death.
“You are the heir of Isildur. Of direct descent, unbroken, father to son?”
Aragorn inclined his head. “I am.”
A moan swept the assembled ghosts, the sound of a pain so deep that even as it horrified the Fellowship, it roused in them vast pity. This pain had known no salve, no lessening through the long years since these had passed from this life in such violence. “He has come,” they whispered. “At long last, the Heir has come.” Then their voices deepened, pleading and desperate. “Free us, lord. Free us.”
“Aragorn.” It was Boromir, his hand still on his useless sword. The Gondorian edged to the Ranger’s side, his face pale, his eyes on those who waited. “What are they talking about? How can you free them?”
“Quiet, Boromir.” Aragorn placed his hand on the soldier’s arm, and frowned as his touch encountered dried blood, small red flakes breaking free of slashed cloth and drifting to the ground. “What is this?”
Boromir shook his head, his eyes on their audience. “It is nothing. A cut, only. I … I lost myself in fear when I first saw them. When I was following Frodo and Sam. I drew my sword and … sought to attack them.” Boromir grimaced, color rising in his face. “I succeeded only in hacking up some innocent trees, and managing to cut myself.”
Aragorn gave him a twisted smile and Boromir summoned an answering scowl. The Ranger was glad to see that the man had regained enough control of himself to depreciate his panicked actions. Aragorn glanced behind him, checking on the location of all of the Company. The hobbits had Frodo on his feet, Sam’s sturdy shoulder under his arm. The Ring-bearer’s face was still white but color was returning to it. He seemed to take comfort from the others and they pressed close to him. Pippin’s arms were around Frodo’s waist and Merry was at his back, sword at the ready, bright blue eyes watching and weighing. Gimli and Legolas stood side by side, their expressions grim.
Aragorn straightened his back and stood proudly before all of the eyes, living and dead, which gazed upon him. Wise and noble was his mien, and he wore royalty like a mantle across his broad shoulders. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and through my veins flows the blood of Isildur.” Then he drew a deep breath and recited in a clear, ringing voice:
“Who shall call them from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”*
Boromir looked from the man and comrade in arms he thought he was beginning to know, then to the ghosts. “Isildur’s heir,” he murmured softly. “Then these…”
“Would be a contingent of the Oathbreakers, the Men of the Mountain who swore allegiance to Gondor in the beginning. When my forefather summoned them into battle against the Enemy, they refused. And so Isildur threw down their king and cursed them. Never would they find rest until their oath was fulfilled.”
The ghosts sighed, and the living saw that some of the dead wept. Their hearts were wrung in pity, and tears gathered in the eyes of more than one or two of them. To exist for ages in such shame and pain, denied peace, denied release, doomed to suffer until a curse was fulfilled ... it was unimaginable.
“How came you here?” Aragorn asked. “Why are you not with the other cursed ones in Erech?”
“We deserted,” the leader moaned. “When Isildur pronounced the curse upon us, we could not bear it and we fled. We ran, like cowards. We ran until we came to this little place, this woodland glade, and here we saw the great black standing stone before you. So like the one that Isildur brought from Númenor, upon which we swore our oaths to him. We stopped and decided to record our tale upon it, before scattering to the winds. But we…” the phantom stopped as another groan rose from his comrades. “We … we fought over what words were to be inscribed upon the stone, what justification for our desertion we could give. Angry words came to angry blows, and … we killed each other.”
“You what?” This from Boromir, who stared at them as if he could not believe his ears.
“We killed each other, to a man. For us, Isildur’s curse came true very quickly.” Shame was written on the fleshless faces, shame and regret and sorrow. “We have been here ever since, unable to travel very far from the place where we died. Unable to find peace. We have been imprisoned in this glade, to await the coming of the one man in all of Middle-earth who has the power to free us and send us to our rest.”
“So that explains the blighted trees and dying green things,” Legolas murmured, compassion on his fair face. “No life could flourish in a place of such sorrow and shame.”
“Why did you take Frodo?” Merry’s clear, high voice startled them all and drew their gazes to the tight circle of hobbits. Merry’s eyes were on the ghosts, wary but unafraid. Pippin had freed one hand to cling to his arm tightly, his eyes huge. “And Sam and Boromir?”
“To draw the Heir to us,” the spirit responded. “We felt your presence, Lord Aragorn, but we could not travel so far to your camp. Then we discovered that we could draw one of your company to us through the evil he carried.” Frodo’s face whitened and his hand unconsciously sought the silver chain around his throat. Sam took his hand and clasped it firmly, and Frodo shuddered and leaned against him. “So we called him and he came, sleeping and unaware, and after him came the other and the heir of the Steward. And you followed.”
“I am here. What do you wish of me?”
“Release us,” they moaned hoarsely, “release us." The leader rose in the air and joined with the others, his voice merging with theirs. “Let us go to our rest. Long have we waited and sorrowed over our choice. Let us have peace at last.”
Aragorn gazed up at them and the Company saw such sadness on his face as to rend the heart. “You have suffered for your crimes, and I sorrow for you. But I cannot release you from your torment.”
A great hiss went through the pale host, a snarling sound of disappointed anger. As if their fury gave them strength, the ghosts gained substance and their death-blows manifested more strongly. Blood dripped from horrific wounds, evaporating into black smoke before hitting the ground. The image of flesh receded and bare bone shone palely through rotting shreds of cloth. Behind him, Aragorn heard Pippin make a sickened sound, and a moment later, Merry’s soft voice uttering reassurances too low for him to hear.
The foremost among them broke from the others and came again to drift before Aragorn, the death-wound he bore so vivid that the Ranger half-expected to smell the stink of ruptured bowels. “You cannot?” the ghost said. “You cannot? Think, Heir of Isildur, of where you stand. Think of those you captain. Here, in this place of our death, we have enough power to prevent you from leaving.”
At once the Fellowship drew together, placing the hobbits in the center of their circle. Frodo and Sam drew their swords, and Pippin also. Merry’s was already raised and ready. Boromir and Gimli and Legolas stepped before them, weapons unsheathed. Outward they faced, shoulder to shoulder, seeking to form a defensive shield. Legolas’ deadly bow was in his hands, but it was only half-raised. What harm could arrows do against those already dead?
Aragorn had taken one step back towards the others but he halted and raised his hand, palm outward. “Stop!” he ordered, and such was the command of his voice that the tightening circle of hostile wraiths obeyed.
“Speak, Aragorn son of Arathorn,” snarled the leader. “We are many, and this is our place. If you do not accede to our request, you will join us here, to wait for all eternity until Middle-earth is no more.”
Aragorn stared at the ghost and his stern face was cold. “You did not allow me to finish. I would release if you I could, for you have endured much, and cruelly. But it is not within my power to do so.”
“Not … not… What do you mean?” Aragorn looked at the specter calmly, pity on his face. Confusion and anger and suspicion chased across the dead features. “Did you not say that you are the heir of Isildur? If you have lied to us, it will go ill for you.”
Aragorn’s grey eyes flashed. “I do not lie. I am whom I have said. When I told you that it is not within my power to free you, that is exactly what I meant. My ancestor cursed you to wander until you fulfilled your oath, and that must take place before you may find peace. No will or act of mine may alter the outcome of that doom.”
For long moments, there was no sound in that ruined place. Then a great wail rose up from the dead, a cry of such agony that the living dropped their weapons and clapped their hands over their ears. Imprisoned in that scream was ages of unspeakable grief and torture, and it drilled through the Fellowship’s minds and hearts and turned their limbs to water. The hobbits cried out and fell to the ground, sprawling like limp rag dolls. Legolas’ bow faltered in his hands and he fell to his knees, stunned but not completely overwhelmed, not as affected as the mortals. Aragorn collapsed to his hands and knees, his face twisted in agony.
In a movement too quick for living eyes to follow, the assemblage of wraiths flew together and hovered over the hobbits. Pippin was sobbing in terror and Merry was struggling weakly beside him, his hands twitching as he sought to catch up his sword. Sam was unconscious, or at least unmoving, his eyes closed and his face slack. Frodo was shaking his friend’s shoulder weakly, barely able to move himself. Frodo looked up and saw what was above him, and Aragorn saw for an instant his terrified eyes, impossibly huge in his pale face. In a split second, as Aragorn watched, the ghosts merged into one tattered, seething mass and descended.
Decaying arms pushed the other hobbits away from the Ring-bearer, sending them tumbling. Merry fought to his feet and swung his sword at the wraith nearest his cousin, but the weapon passed through the apparition without contact. Off balance and still stunned, Merry swung completely around, narrowly missing Frodo’s head, and fell hard to the ground, his sword torn from his grasp.
Pippin threw himself on top of Frodo as ghostly arms sought to lift his cousin. Aragorn heard Frodo scream, a shrill shriek of utter terror. Pippin cried out too, but instead of releasing his cousin, he buried his head against Frodo’s chest and clung the tighter. Aragorn tried to move towards them but his limbs seemed frozen, heedless of his need. Faintly, he could hear Boromir gasping and a groaning wail from the Dwarf, but he could not turn his head to see them. Both of the halflings were being lifted, dragged upwards by the force of many fleshless arms. Long fingers like white twigs were clamped around Frodo’s arms, his shoulders and legs. As they hefted him from the ground, more sought to support him from underneath, carrying the two hobbits high into the air.
Merry somehow dragged himself to his feet and crouched, then leaped with all he had in him. For the briefest moment, his hands encircled Frodo’s ankle and Frodo cried out again, this time in pain. But Merry could not hold. One hand then the other slid free and the hobbit dropped back to earth. He landed awkwardly and lay still.
* TBC *
* “The Passing of the Grey Company,” The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien
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