The Way is Shut

by Daughter of Kings

The way is shut. The old man’s words came into his mind as he stared at the great black opening and the stone arch that surrounded it. The man had been incredibly ancient, indeed he had seemed a part of the stone of the mountain until he spoke, but though he died even as the echoes of his words faded, he had lived long enough to speak them. The way is shut… until the time comes.

He turned away from the door and looked back toward the northeast, toward Edoras. Toward the pale stone and honey-colored wood of Meduseld, the Golden Hall that his father had built. And past it toward the paler gold of the long grass of the plain of Calenardhon. The outer peaks of the White Mountains obscured the view, but he could see it in his mind’s eye. Love and pride swelled in his chest; love for his father, his family, his people. Today he would keep his vow. Today he would save them. He lit the torch that he had brought, and turned back toward the Door.

It was made by those who are Dead… A small shudder of fear coursed through him. He shrugged his shoulders once, reminding himself of the weight of his armor, and stepped resolutely into the Mountain. The inky darkness wrapped itself around him at once; a heavy, silent, almost fluid darkness that robbed him of all senses. It reminded him of the darkness of his dreams.

They had begun when he was but a child, in the days after Eorl had been brought home on a wain and laid to rest in the mound before the gates of Edoras. He stood on a high place and watched Orcs and Easterlings marching westward over the plain - black armies in black armor, marching, marching, until they covered the land like a shroud - while overhead clouds boiled up from Mordor and blotted out the sky, and the blackness rolled over him, and smothered him, and woke him, shivering in a cold sweat.

The way is shut. The darkness pressed in on him and his footsteps thudded heavily in his ears. He reached for a memory of galloping over the plain in the light of a summer sunrise, a cool breeze rippling through the mane of his steed; but darkness overcame the sun, and the wind was stilled, and the memory fluttered away, beyond the light of his torch and down the path. In the silent darkness, he began to hear whispers.

He had heard whispers in his dreams, too. Those had begun later, at some point after the first time he and his father had come to the Door in the Mountain. The dreams began the same, but with the darkness came the whispers. At first they had been only murmurs, rasping at the edge of his hearing. Eventually, he had begun to distinguish voices amongst the murmurs, words amongst the rasping:
…we swore an oath…
…allegience to Gondor…
…summoned, we will follow…

The voices knew. They understood. They had felt the weight of the blackness rolling over them as it rolled over him. They understood his despair, for it was their own. They knew of his oath, of Eorl’s oath to Cirion; they had made oaths of their own. They knew of the evil that would flow out of the East, of the death and the loss it would bring. And when summoned, they would come forth to battle it.

It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it... He walked the Paths of the Dead now, and he felt the terror of it, the monstrous dread of that oppressive black hall. It was a familiar terror. The Dead had come to him, had walked in the blackness of his dreams. …until the time comes… Now he had come to the Dead, and he walked in the blackness of their domain while he yet lived. For the blackness was indeed their domain. They had taken it, and mastered it, and made it their own. He would walk among them, and in so doing he would master his own darkness, dispel the nightmares. And when the Power rose again in the East, he would summon the Dead to him and lead them into battle. He would defeat the darkness and save his people.

The present darkness pressed him ever more closely. His steps slowed until he had to push against the very air to progress along the path. His shoulders slumped as the weight of his armor dragged at him. His heart beat wildly, pounding in his ears, and the whispers rasped ever more insistantly at him, until he could no longer hear his own footsteps. Then, just as he reached the brink of surrendering to his terror, the torchlight fell upon a door in the stone wall. Hope surged through him and he lunged at the door. The whispers retreated. The weight of the darkness lifted. In his heart he knew that everything he sought lay just beyond that door. Putting his shoulder to the door, he pushed hard against it in anticipation.

The way is shut. The door did not budge.

It was disconcerting, to be balked in this way after coming so far. He pushed against the door again, and yet again. The door refused to give way. He grew angry, and beat upon it, and growled at it until he was out of breath. The whispers rasped angrily with him. He leaned against the door, wiped sweat from his brow with his sleeve.

The way is shut, the old man’s voice insisted in his head. He refused to listen. Holding the torch close, he examined the door inch by inch. He found no sign of a lock or catch. The whispers murmured around him, but offered no advice. He examined the door a second time, to the same end.

“This I vow, that I will tread the Paths of the Dead!” While it was true that he had been drinking, toasting his father’s success in raising the Golden Hall, the drink had not put the words in his mouth. They had already been in his head; the mead merely loosened his tongue. And in the days that followed, when his head was clear, he felt no inclination to renounce the vow, though his family and friends had all tried to persuade him to do so. Once set in his course, he would stay true to the end. Even now, standing before the unyielding stone door, it did not occur to him to turn aside or turn back. The means to defeat the Enemy, to ensure lasting peace and prosperity for his people, lay beyond that door. He would reach it or die in the attempt, and he would consider no alternatives.

The way is shut. His attempts to batter down the door were hampered by the torch. There were no brackets in the walls to hold it, no cracks to wedge it in, therefore he was obliged to carry it, and had not the use of both hands at the same time. When it finally guttered out, he was relieved, for a moment. Then the darkness closed on him like a trap, and terror flooded his veins.

It was made by those who are Dead. The whispers surrounded him now, and their voices drowned out the voice in his head. They spoke to him, but not as they had in his dreams. No longer did they speak of allegience, of being called or answering the summons, but rather of broken vows and treachery. They spoke not of mastering the darkness, but of surrendering to it, even worshipping it. They invited him to join them.

“Never!” he screamed at them. Only his tongue felt like wood in his dry mouth, and the incoherent noise that issued forth was more of a despairing wail than a defiant roar. Drawing his sword, he tried to wedge the blade into the tiny crevice around the door. After several unsuccessful tries, the tip stuck and as he put force on it, the blade snapped in twain. He cried out again in miserable frustration. On his knees, he chipped at the stone with the broken blade until he no longer had the strength to lift his arm.

The way is shut. The whispers had long since faded away, and the voice in his head sounded mournful. He lay prostrate on the floor, the fingertips of his gauntlets rubbed nearly through from clawing at the door in his last strength. Too exhausted even to be terrified any longer, he gave a deep sigh, and consigned his last breath to the darkness.