See here for playthrough report.
The day was waning fast and the West dark when they rode up at last from Deeping-coomb and came back to the Hornburg. There they were to lie and rest for a brief while and take counsel.
Merry slept until he was roused by Elladan and Elrohir. “The Moon is high,” said Elrohir. “All others are up and doing. Come, Master Sluggard, it is now near the middle watch of the night, and at that hour we eat, and then set out again, I hear.”
Merry got up and yawned. His few hours’ sleep had not been nearly enough; he was tired and rather dismal. He missed his friends, Frodo and Sam, and Pippin back home in the Shire, and felt that he was only a burden, while everybody was making plans for speed in a business that he did not fully understand. “Where is Aragorn?” he asked.
“In a high chamber of the Burg,” said Elladan. “He has neither rested nor slept, I think. He went thither some hours ago, saying that he must take thought, and only his kinsman, Halbarad, went with him; but some dark doubt or care sits on him.”
“Why have they come, this Company? Have you heard?” asked Merry. He had now dressed, and he flung his grey cloak about his shoulders; and the three passed out together towards the ruined gate of the Burg.
“They answered a summons, as you heard,” said Elladan. “Word came to Rivendell, they say, to our father: Aragorn has need of his kindred. Let the Dunedain ride to him in Rohan! But whence this message came they are now in doubt. Our mother’s mother sent it, I would guess.”
“Aye, Galadriel,” said Elrohir. “The Lady of the Golden Wood! She read many hearts and desires. Now why did not we wish for some of our own kinsfolk, brother.”
Elladan stood before the gate and turned his bright eyes away north and east, and his fair face was troubled. “I do not think that any would come,” he answered. “They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on our own lands, and I fear that before this time is ended, our most hallowed places would be brought under siege, even unto Imladris and Lorien.”
For a while the three companions walked together, speaking of this and that turn of the battle, and they went down from the broken gate, and passed the mounds of the fallen on the greensward beside the road, until they stood on Helm’s Dike and looked into the Coomb where the Rangers had assembled and sat, silent, in an ordered company, armed with spear and bow and sword. They were clad in cloaks of dark grey, and their hoods were cast now over helm and head. Their horses were strong and of proud bearing, but rough-haired; and two stood there without a rider, Aragorn’s own horse that they had brought from the North; Roheryn was his name. And there also was a white horse of noble bearing, and this was the steed of Glorfindel named Asfaloth, also brought down with them. There was no gleam of stone or gold, nor any fair thing in all their gear and harness: nor did their riders bear any badge or token, save only that each cloak was pinned upon the left shoulder by a brooch of silver shaped like a rayed star.
A pony had been found for Merry by the garrison that yet remained at the fortress, and the hobbit went and stood by his new mount: Stybba was his name. The sons of Elrond fetched their own horses and waited by Merry. Presently Glorfindel came out from the gate, and with him was Aragorn, and Halbarad bearing the great staff close-furled in black, and Legolas and Idraen and then Deorwine, who had been left in command of the Hornburg, came also. But Merry had eyes only for Aragorn, so startling was the change that he saw in him, as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.
“I am troubled in mind, my friends,” he said, standing by Merry’s pony. “I have heard strange words, and I see new perils far off. I have laboured long in thought, and now I fear that I must change my purpose. Tell me, Deorwine, you ride now to Edoras and then to Dunharrow, how long will it be ere you come there?”
“It is now midnight, but we shall not depart until the dawn,” said Deorwine. “Before the night of the third day from now we should come to the Hold. The Moon will then be one night past his full, and the muster that the king commanded will be held the day after. More speed we cannot make, if the strength of Rohan is to be gathered.”
Aragorn was silent for a moment. “Three days,” he murmured, “and the muster of Rohan will only be begun. But I see that it cannot now be hastened.” He looked up, and it seemed that he had made some decision; his face was less troubled. “Then I must take new counsel for myself and my kindred. We must ride our own road, and no longer in secret. For me the time of stealth has passed. I will ride east by the swiftest way, and I will take the Paths of the Dead.”
“The Paths of the Dead!” said Deorwine, and trembled. “Far be it from me to question your will my lord Aragorn. It is your doom, maybe, to tread strange paths that others dare not. This parting grieves me, and the strength of all Rohan is lessened by it. Farewell!”
“Farewell, lord!” said Aragorn. “May you ride unto great renown!”
Legolas, Glorfindel and Idraen mounted. Aragorn sprang upon Roheryn. Then Halbarad lifted a great horn, and the blast of it echoed in Helm’s Deep; and with that they leapt away, riding down the Coomb like thunder, while all the men that were left on Dike or Burg stared in amaze.
And the Grey Company passed swiftly over the plain.
As they rode, the sons of Elrond went in silence alongside Aragorn, one on either side until finally Elrohir could stand the quiet no longer.
“Come!” said he at last. “Speak and be comforted, and shake off the shadow! What has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?”
“A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,” answered Aragorn. “I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends.”
The twins said nothing, but their mood was shaken so surely that it was written plain upon their faces. Merry, who rode just behind with Legolas and Glorfindel, shuddered as his memory was brought back to what he saw in the Seeing Stone.
Seeing the concern freely shown on the faces of the twins, Aragorn gave a weary smile and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights.”Worry not, my friends, I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely.”
He drew a deep breath. “It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me, but in other guise than you see me here. If that will aid him, then I have done ill. But I do not think so. To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not for a certainty till now. Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for l showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.”
“But surely” spoke Elladan, “he will now strike more swiftly and with greater force.”
“The hasty stroke goes oft astray,” said Aragorn. “We must press our Enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move. See my friends, when I had mastered the Stone, I learned many things. A grave peril I saw coming unlooked-for upon Gondor from the South that will draw off great strength from the defence of Minas Tirith. If it is not countered swiftly, I deem that the City will be lost ere ten days be gone.”
“Then lost it must be,” said Elrohir. “For what help is there to send thither, and how could it come there in time?”
“I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself,” said Aragorn. “But there is only one way through the mountains that will bring me to the coastlands before all is lost. That is the Paths of the Dead. That way I must go, since there are none living to help me.”
“Perhaps I may offer some counsel at this time,” said Glorfindel.
“Speak friend,” Aragorn replied. “Dark indeed would be our days if your counsel was ever refused.”
“The way through the Dwimorberg is long and dark, and fraught with not a little peril, and the people of Minas Tirith will need all help and counsel we can afford it. Therefore allow me to go to them, to offer them hope of the help to come, both from yourself and the Rohirrim.”
Aragorn considered as they rode, but it was not long before he spoke. “Sore would be our parting Laurefindil, for I do greatly cherish your aid, though wisdom there are in your words. And the White City would be greatly aided by your counsel and your sword. Ride with us to Dunharrow, and from there on to Minas Tirith. Elladan, Elrohir; you twain are to go with Glorfindel to the White City. Together as a party from Rivendell, the Steward Denethor would have more cause to accept you, for even in the City of the Guard counsel from Imladris is not lightly cast aside.”
And on the next day in the mid-afternoon they came to Edoras; and there they halted only briefly until the heat of the day had passed, ere they passed up the valley, and so came to Dunharrow as Tilion was nearing his summit in his journey through the night sky.
The Lady Eowyn greeted them and was glad of their coming; for no mightier men had she seen than the Dunedain, save only Glorfindel and the fair sons of Elrond; but on Aragorn most of all her eyes rested. And when they sat at supper with her, they talked together, and she heard of all that had passed since Theoden rode away, concerning which only hasty tidings had yet reached her; and when she heard of the battle in Helm’s Deep and the great slaughter of their foes, and of the charge of Theoden and his knights and the shattering of the Dunlanding household, then her eyes shone. But as the tale unfolded to tell of his fall and demise, and of the taking up of Eomer to the kingship of Rohan, the eyes of Eowyn were filled with tears for one whom she held as dear as her father.
But at last she gathered her words and said: “Lords, you are weary and shall now go to your beds with such ease as can be contrived in haste. But tomorrow fairer housing shall be found for you.”
But Aragorn said: “Nay, lady, be not troubled for us! If we may lie here tonight and break our fast tomorrow, it will be enough. For I ride on an errand most urgent, and with the first light of morning we must go.”
She smiled on him and said: “Then it was kindly done, lord, to ride so many miles out of your way to bring tidings to Eowyn, and to speak with her in her exile.”
“Indeed no man would count such a journey wasted,” said Aragorn; “and yet, lady, I could not have come hither, if it were not that the road which I must take leads me to Dunharrow for tomorrow I shall ride by the Paths of the Dead.”
Then she stared at him as one that is stricken, and her face blanched, and they said no more, and they ate in silence; but her eyes were ever upon Aragorn, and the others saw that she was in great torment of mind. At length they arose, and took their leave of the Lady, and thanked her for her care, and went to their rest.
When the light of day was come into the sky but the sun was not yet risen above the high ridges in the East, Aragorn made ready to depart. Glorfindel and the sons of Elrond had set off as soon as they had taken their meal, for time was against them and they desired to cover several leagues yet before the rising of the sun.
Aragorn’s company was all mounted, and he was about to leap into the saddle, when the Lady Eowyn came to bid them farewell. She was clad as a Rider and girt with a sword. In her hand she bore a cup, and she set it to her lips and drank a little, wishing them good speed; and then she gave the cup to Aragorn, and he drank, and he said: “Farewell, Lady of Rohan! I drink to the fortunes of your House, and of you, and of all your people. Say to your brother: beyond the shadows we may meet again!”
Then to Legolas and Merry, who now rode with the wood-elf as his pony would not be able to keep pace with the horses of the Dunedain, as they sat nearby it seemed to them that she wept, and in one so stern and proud that seemed the more grievous. But she said: “Aragorn, wilt thou go?”
“I will,” he said.
“Then I ask, wilt thou not let me ride with this company?”
“I will not, lady,” he said. “For that I could not grant without leave of the king, your brother; and he will not return until tomorrow. But I count now every hour, indeed every minute. Farewell!”
Then she fell on her knees, saying: “I beg thee!”
“Nay, lady,” he said, and taking her by the hand he raised her. Then he kissed her hand, and sprang into the saddle, and rode away, and did not look back; and only those who knew him well and were near to him saw the pain that he bore.
But Eowyn stood still as a figure carven in stone, her hands clenched at her sides, and she watched them until they passed into the shadows under the black Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain, in which was the Gate of the Dead. When they were lost to view, she turned, stumbling as one that is blind, and went back to her lodging.
The light was still grey as they rode, for the sun had not yet climbed over the black ridges of the Haunted Mountain before them. A dread fell on them, even as they passed between the lines of ancient stones and so came to the Dimholt. There under the gloom of black trees that not even Legolas could long endure they found a hollow place opening at the mountain’s root, and right in their path stood a single mighty stone like a finger of doom.
There Idraen, who had been named Chief Warden of Arnor in Aragorn’s absence such was her skill at arms and woodcraft, pulled from her satchel a map of vellum. Drawn before the close of the Second Age and preserved through the years in Imladris by the skill of the loremasters that yet remained in that place, it showed the inner passages and streets and roads that lay beneath the Dwimorberg and the valleys and passes that led to and from that fell place. And many of the pathways that were began on the map lay yet unfinished, for visitors to those that dwelt therein were scarce in number and only permitted on certain routes through that city. And studying that map awhile, she indicated to her Chief by which means they might come with the greatest swiftness to the entrance of the Paths of the Dead.
But the horses would not pass the threatening stone, until the riders dismounted and led them about. And so they came at last deep into the glen; and there stood a sheer wall of rock, and in the wall the Dark Door gaped before them like the mouth of night. Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read, and fear flowed from it like a grey vapour.
The company halted, and there was not a heart among them that did not quail, unless it were the heart of Legolas of the Elves, for whom the ghosts of Men have no terror.
“This is an evil door,” said Halbarad, “and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless; but no horse will enter.”
“But we must go in, and therefore the horses must go too,” said Aragorn. “For if ever we come through this darkness, many leagues lie beyond, and every hour that is lost there will bring the triumph of Sauron nearer. Follow me!”
Then Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Duunedain and their horses followed him. And indeed the love that the horses of the Rangers bore for their riders was so great that they were willing to face even the terror of the Door, if their masters’ hearts were steady as they walked beside them. But Arod, the horse of Rohan, refused the way, and he stood sweating and trembling in a fear that was grievous to see. Then Legolas laid his hands on his eyes and sang some words that went soft in the gloom, until he suffered himself to be led, and Legolas passed in. And there stood Meriadoc son of Saradoc all alone.
His knees shook, and he was dismayed with himself. “Well this is a strange thing indeed,” he said. “A Brandybuck of Brandy Hall is afraid of going underground! Imagine if Pippin heard of it, he’d pass out from laughter!” And with his mind flying back to the rolling green country of Buckland, he screwed up his courage and he plunged in. But it seemed to him that he dragged his feet like lead over the threshold; and at once a blindness came upon him, and Merry felt a shadow of the Barrow Downs pass over his mind and then it was gone, replaced by an altogether deeper and older darkness, but still Merry pressed on.
Aragorn had brought torches from Dunharrow, and now he went ahead bearing one aloft; and Legolas with another went at the rear, and Merry, stumbling behind, strove to overtake him. He could see nothing but the dim flame of the torches; but if the company halted, there seemed an endless whisper of voices all about him, a murmur of words in no tongue that he had ever heard before.
Nothing assailed the company nor withstood their passage, and yet steadily fear grew on the Halfling as he went on: most of all because he knew now that there could be no turning back; all the paths behind were thronged by an unseen host that followed in the dark.
So time unreckoned passed, until their path came to a sheer wall, unmarked by rune or symbol, and there was no means by which they could pass. Therefore Idraen took her map and by the light of Aragorn’s torch they both studied its ways awhile. The remainder of the company stood still where they were, saying nothing except to whisper words of comfort to their loyal mounts.
It seemed to Merry what had started as a simple confusion that would be quickly resolved by the two Dunedain had grown into a matter more complex than realised. For as he stood but a little ways off from them, their whispers rose and fell as they traced out the route they had supposed the Company had taken and there was debate over whether they had missed one point of divergence or two. And indeed great care was needed in this matter, for to lose one’s bearings under the Dwimorberg was to lose all hope of seeing the bright sun or starlit sky again.
Legolas stood at the tail of the Company, watching as a rearguard lest anything come on them unawares. He had entrusted the torch given him to Amarthiul, a young ranger whose watch extended over the haunts of Rhuduar. He stood behind the elf with the brand, lest the brightness of the flames dim the sight of Legolas in that dark place. Amarthiul stood with the elf because he was familiar with the unquieted spirits of the north, and had faced the horrors that had been unleashed upon the peoples of Arnor. He both feared and pitied the dead who yet wandered the circles of the world more than most, for he knew that though some lingered willingly at first none do so for long, and their sundering from the gift of Iluvatar becomes swiftly a torment as their very being stretches out further and further beyond its natural span.
Others were constrained unwillingly, their fëar held to this world by some power malevolent and great in strength. Their torment was such that they serve no master but strike out at all who come near, for such is their fear and pain that they are blinded to reasoning and hold all of Arda as accursed and accountable for the calamity that had befallen them.
It was those wretched to whose service Amarthiul had dedicated himself. For to corrupt the nature of those unwilling is among the foulest deed that can be enacted upon another, and such actions Amarthiul would seek to remedy if at all able. In the depths of Eriador, and the dark places of Angmar he kept a secret vigil would often sojourn in those fell places, hunting sorcerers and necromancers who would join spirits to them, or seeking out relics and talismans to which they had been bound. And wherever he could, the wretched and the wronged were loosed from the confines of Arda.
It was no short time before the map was secreted away, and wordless Aragorn and Idraen turned and doubled back on the way they had come and silent the Company followed. Some distance down the passage Aragorn turned right and entered through a doorway hitherto unnoticed by they who passed, too narrow for more than one horse to pass through at a time and so in single file they entered that doorway. And the space beyond seemed to Merry to be filled with a deeper darkness than any they had yet breathed, and he trembled.
The hobbit drew his cloak closer about him, as though the mere presence of it might ward off the fear that had dogged his every step along that deadly road. He was last in the party, save Legolas and Amarthiul only to protect the rear of the Company. In spite of this knowledge, the hobbit felt as though a whole host followed after, crowding behind and filling the space behind Legolas so absolutely the air around them was being pushed along as well. Their horses too seemed to feel it, for whenever their pace slackened the horses would press onward, eyes wide and breath shallow. But whenever Merry turned he saw naught but those twain who kept the rearguard.
Next to the halfling strode a tall man with hood drawn, and a softly glowing pipe in his hand that he periodically drew on, sending a ribbon of smoke twisting behind them into the darkness. And just before it disappeared beyond the light of Amarthiul’s brand, the vapour dissipated as though a being unseen passed through it.
“I might say ‘Fear not, little halfling,’ and pat your shoulder,” a deep voice came from beneath the hood. “But I know you have been through as many terrors as I and need no lesson on the virtue of courage. We have heard tell of your journey Meriadoc, passing through the Barrow Downs of Cardolan and escaping the grasp of the Black Riders themselves. There are few in this Company who can claim feats so extraordinary.”
Merry looked up into the hood and saw a wry smile. “You have me at a disadvantage, for awhile you know my name I know not yours. And surely these spirits are different, are they not? The feel to them is more dark, and yet strangely less black.”
The ranger allowed a small chuckle to escape, one that was quickly smothered in the closeness of that dread place. “I am called Thurindir, and you speak truer that you know Master Hobbit. How much do you know of the Paths of the Dead and the damned of the Dwimorberg?”
“Only that valiant men grow quiet at its mention, and that the stout-hearted fear its mention.”
“That reputation is well-earned I fear, for non yet who have walked these paths have seen again the light of the sun. But I would say take heart, for we go in the company of Isildur’s Heir, to whom the spirits of this mountain are beholden. It is to Erech that we are making for, to the place of summoning where the dead shall be held to account.
“For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Númenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
“Then Isildur said to their king: ‘Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.’ And they fled before the wrath of Isildur, and did not dare to go forth to war on Sauron’s part; and they hid themselves in secret places in the mountains and had no dealings with other men, but slowly dwindled in the barren hills. And the terror of the Sleepless Dead lies about the Hill of Erech and all places where that people lingered. But we go to summon them to fulfil that oath, that at the last they may hold true to their word and gain the peace they have been denied by the curse they have brought down upon themselves. Tighten your belt my friend, for time is short and we may not rest until our task is accomplished.”
Silent now they went, all thought of conversation driven out of their mind by the urgency of their errand as the fear of that place seemed to chill their very blood. Merry shivered and looked behind him to Legolas and Amarthiul, both of whom seemed to be far less disturbed by the host that seemed to throng behind them. The hobbit took heart from this, supposing that until such a time as they lost their nerve, he himself need not succumb and be overcome by fear.
Almost in that very moment, as though some hidden hand reached out to offer him comfort, the pipesmoke of Thurindir once again made itself known to Merry as the ranger sent another ribbon winding into the darkness. And unbidden the hobbit’s thoughts turned to home, to the Shire. To his mind came memories of Brandy Hall so clear and vivid it were almost as though he were translated there. He thought of his cousins near and far, Frodo and Pippin, and time spent with them in the far green hill country of Buckland. Merry could almost hear the gurgling of the Brandywine, taste the mushrooms they’d liberated from Bamfurlong and smell the celebratory Longbottom Leaf they would share.
The smoke from Thurindir’s pipe tickled Merry’s nose once again, and the hobbit found he could not place it, being not rich enough to come from the dark earths of the Southfarthing, nor yet sweet enough to belong to the strains grown in Tookland. Instead there was a nutty bitterness that seemed to linger in the air after the visible smoke had dissipated. “What strain of pipe weed is it that you have there?”
Thurindir looked down at the curious hobbit. “If you mean the galenas plant, the leaves of which I have here in my pipe, then I’m afraid I must disappoint you for I do not know what it’s particular kind is. This was harvested in the wild, in the hill-country of Breeland, though I know you folk have taken to cultivating its type in your gardens and fields.”
Merry glanced about as one about to share some great secret. “We have, though it is an art we have only begun to scratch the surface of for we have not practised it for more than a few generations. It was Tobold Hornblower, of Longbottom in the Southfarthing, who first grew the true pipe-weed in his gardens, about the year 1070 according to our reckoning.”
“Making it about the year 2670 by our calendars?”
“I believe so, but I haven’t quite gotten my head around your way of reckoning time just yet. Is the date of some significance?”
Thurindir shook his head. “Not to the wider world, but it was around that time my father came into this world.”
Taken aback Merry looked again at the face of his companion, and saw there the years graven into his face and his beard stained with silver, but in the ranger’s ringed eyes Merry saw a dark fire that would not be easily quenched. Thurindir noticed the look, and again a chuckle escaped his lips. “Aye, I am old. Old even among the reckoning of our folk, the Dunedain descended from those escaped from Akallabêth, that is the downfallen Westernesse. This shall be my last adventure I fear, one way or another, for though our lives have been granted a longer span, they are still such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
It was then Merry saw a sight that he ever afterwards feared to recall. The road was wide, as far as he could judge, but now the company came suddenly into a great empty space, and there were no longer any walls upon either side. The dread was so heavy on him that he could hardly walk and all talk faded away into nothingness. Away to the left the hobbit saw something glittering in the gloom as Aragorn’s torch drew near. Then Aragorn halted and went to look what it might be.
Nonetheless he drew near, and saw Aragorn kneeling, while Legolas held aloft both torches. Before him were the bones of a mighty man. He had been clad in mail, and still his harness lay there whole; for the cavern’s air was as dry as dust, and his hauberk was gilded. His belt was of gold and garnets, and rich with gold was the helm upon his bony head face downward on the floor. He had fallen near the far wall of the cave, as now could be seen, and before him stood a stony door closed fast: his finger-bones were still clawing at the cracks. A notched and broken sword lay by him, as if he had hewn at the rock in his last despair.
Aragorn did not touch him, but after gazing silently for a while he rose and sighed. “Hither shall the flowers of simbelmyne come never unto world’s end,” he murmured. “Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!
For that is not my errand!” he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. “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!”
There was no answer, unless it were an utter silence more dreadful than the whispers before; and then a chill blast came in which the torches flickered and went out, and could not be rekindled. Of the time that followed, one hour or many, Merry remembered little. The others pressed on, but he was ever hindmost, pursued by a groping horror that seemed always just about to seize him; and a rumour came after him like the shadow-sound of many feet. He stumbled on until he was crawling like a beast on the ground and felt that he could endure no more: he must either find an ending and escape or run back in madness to meet the following fear.
Suddenly he heard the tinkle of water, a sound hard and clear as a stone falling into a dream of dark shadow. Light grew, and lo! the company passed through another gateway, high-arched and broad, and a rill ran out beside them; and beyond, going steeply down, was a road between sheer cliffs, knife-edged against the sky far above. So deep and narrow was that chasm that the sky was dark, and in it small stars glinted. Yet as Merry after learned it was still two hours ere sunset of the day on which they had set out from Dunharrow; though for all that he could then tell it might have been twilight in some later year, or in some other world.
The Company now mounted again, and Merry once again rode with Legolas. They rode in file, and evening came on and a deep blue dusk; and still fear pursued them. Legolas turning to speak to Merry looked back and the Hobbit saw before his face the glitter in the Elf’s bright eyes. They were last of the Company, but not the last of those that took the downward road.
“The Dead are following,” said Legolas. “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. They have been summoned.”
The Company came at last out of the ravine, as suddenly as it they had issued from a crack in a wall; and there lay the uplands of a great vale before them, and the stream beside them went down with a cold voice over many falls.
“Where in all Middle-earth are we?” said Merry; and Idraen, who rode just before them, answered: “We have descended from the uprising of the Morthond, the long chill river that flows at last to the sea that washes the walls of Dol Amroth. You will not need to ask hereafter how comes its name: Blackroot men call it.”
The Morthond Vale made a great bay that beat up against the sheer southern faces of the mountains. Its steep slopes were grass-grown; but all was grey in that hour, for the sun had gone, and far below lights twinkled in the homes of Men. The vale was rich and many folk dwelt there.
Then without turning Aragorn cried aloud so that all could hear: “Friends, forget your weariness! Ride now, ride! We must come to the Stone of Erech ere this day passes, and long still is the way.” So without looking back they rode the mountain-fields, until they came to a bridge over the growing torrent and found a road that went down into the land.
Lights went out in house and hamlet as they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran wild like hunted deer. Ever there rose the same cry in the gathering night: “The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come upon us!”
Bells were ringing far below, and all men fled before the face of Aragorn; but the Grey Company in their haste rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. And thus, just ere midnight, and in a darkness as black as the caverns in the mountains, they came at last to the Hill of Erech.
Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. Unearthly it looked, as though it had fallen from the sky, as some believed; but those who remembered still the lore of Westernesse told that it had been brought out of the ruin of Númenor and there set by Isildur at his landing. None of the people of the valley dared to approach it, nor would they dwell near; for they said that it was a trysting-place of the Shadow- men, and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.
To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Amarthiul gave to Aragorn a silver horn taken out from Amunimas, and he blew upon it and it seemed to those that stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains.
But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice: “Oathbreakers, why have ye come?”
And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away: “To fulfil our oath and have peace.”
Then Aragorn said: “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.”
And with that he bade Halbarad unfurl the great standard which he had brought; and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness. Then there was silence, and not a whisper nor a sigh was heard again all the long night. The Company camped beside the Stone, but they slept little, because of the dread of the Shadows that hedged them round.
But when the dawn came, cold and pale, Aragorn rose at once, and he led the Company forth upon the journey of greatest haste and weariness that any among them had known, save he alone, and only his will held them to go on. No other mortal Men could have endured it, none but the Dunedain of the North, and with them Legolas of the Elves and Meriadoc of the Shire, such was their love for he whom they followed.
They passed Tarlang’s Neck and came into Lamedon; and the Shadow Host pressed behind and fear went on before them, until they came to Calembel upon Ciril, and the sun went down like blood behind Pinnath Gelin away in the West behind them. The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumour of the coming of the King of the Dead. But the next day there came no dawn, and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.