The Pale King

by Varda

'Stay close together! Watch out!'

Frodo ordered Sam, Merry and Pippin into a tight circle in the centre of the standing stones on top of Amon Sul. They had run blindly up the steps only to find they were cornered, in a ruined watchtower with gaping walls and broken and tumbled statues standing around like giant chessmen. A cold wind keened through the trees that struggled to gain a hold on the rocky crown of the old tower. Below were broken pavements and fallen masonry. The statues had been defaced by orcs and gazed now without eyes on the terrified hobbits.

As if in league with the evil that pursued them, the moon sailed behind a black continent of cloud and they strove to make shapes out in the inky dark.

His friends pressed close to him, Frodo felt icy cold with fear. All their flight, all the twists and turns, had led to this. Like cornered animals, with little hope, or none. The moments passed like ages, marked by their pounding heartbeats. The cloud thinned, a moon like a skull glared out of the sky and Frodo saw as if in the air itself a part of the darkness come alive and ascend the steps to a ruined archway overlooking the sheer fall to the ground below.

It was the Lord of The Nine, and behind him the shadowy figures of the others could be seen. But Frodo saw only him. He was only a black figure, but Frodo felt his gaze fix on him at once, ignoring the other hobbits. He advanced with great slow strides until he came within the stone circle, and his lieutenants followed, but unwilling to overtake their lord. Then he stretched out his mailed arm and drew his sword. It had a long notched blade which shone with a faint green light in the moon. The Lord of the Nine raised it before his hidden face in salute to Frodo then descended the steps with a dead, heavy step.

The hobbits shrank back in spite of themselves, although they had nowhere to go, unless they threw themselves off the watchtower to the stones below. They pushed together, their swords cold and heavy in their hands. Now all around them the hooded black shapes were closing in. Frodo could not move or think. Beside him he could hear Pippin whimpering with fear. The Lord of the Nine reached out his sword and pointed his mailed claw over Sam's shoulder at Frodo, and Sam, too terrified to think what else to do, struck his sword against the Nazgul's long blade with a cry.

'Get back you devil!'

A long arm swathed in the black grave clothes of the Nazgul swept Sam off his feet and threw him against a fallen statue. Pippin and Merry flung themselves against each other to shield Frodo but each was plucked off his feet and thrown to the hard flagsones. Frodo was alone.

The others drew back and the Lord of the Nine advanced, taking from its sheath a long thin knife with a black blade. Frodo suddenly had no strength in his hand and the sword just dropped from his fingers. He took a step back and caught his heel on the broken flags and fell before his enemy with a cry of fear....

With that same cry he came awake, gasping and weeping. He looked wildly about; all around him was the peaceful bedroom in Rivendell. Through the wide windows the sky was still dark, starlit, and the sound of the endless waterfalls of Rivendell crept into the room.

Frodo groaned. He covered his face with his hands. He was bathed with sweat and shaking. He glanced at the door; Sam was asleep in the room outside, above all he did not want to disturb him. He listened; he could just about hear Sam snoring gently. That alone made him shudder; he could hear noises through doors now, his hearing was so keen. Dismayed and frightened he swung his legs out of the bed and walked unsteadily to the window.

Over the Eastern peaks a grey light was growing, making the stars pale. Frodo sighed and shivered. It was cold. He wondered what he should do; since the Council he had been tormented nightly with dreams. At first it was not much, glimpses of the trail they had followed from Bree. Then over the last few nights it had gotten gradually more detailed and terrifying, as he recalled their journey up to Weathertop. Now he could no longer tell the dream from waking. He struggled to keep it from everyone, but he guessed that Sam knew, he had watched at his sickbed and knew better than Frodo himself each sign of weakness and illness of his master. He could see Frodo was not getting proper rest. And Gandalf, busy as he was with Elrond and the preparations for their approaching departure, had looked at him once or twice with his grey head cocked on one side as if listening to some unheard voice. But even Gandalf he could not tell. For what would he say? They were only dreams....or were they?

Frodo felt cold. He got back into bed and pulled the bedclothes up to his chin and dozed fitfully. When he woke up again it was light and Sam was bustling in with hot water.

'Morning, Mr Frodo! Bit misty this morning..' Frodo gazed listlessly at him and he put down the bowl and came over and looked at him.

'Begging your pardon, Mr Frodo, but are you feeling quite well? You don't look anyways rested...'

Frod shook himself and cursed; above all Sam must not know, or the others...

'No, Sam. I mean, yes, I'm fine. I just did not sleep too well, that is all.' He stirred himself to get up as briskly as possible and wash and they went in search of breakfast. Merry and Pippin were in the courtyard, arguing over the packing.

'You two! Will you get that packing finished!' shouted Sam in exasperation. Merry and Pippin just grinned and waved back at him.

'They just think it is one big picnic!' grumbled Sam. At that moment they saw Elrond and Gandalf walking towards them. Elrond was looking regal but sombre and Gandalf was leaning on his staff as they talked. When they came up to the hobbits Gandalf said;

'Elrond thinks it is a good idea for you to look at some maps before you set out. Come with us!'

The hobbits followed up a winding staircase that led from the music gallery up to the very top of the tower of Rivendell. Here, all along one side of the building was a long terrace, partly open to the sky. From it was a breathtaking view of the valley and the peaks. Sam and Frodo gasped in spite of themselves and hurried to the rail to look down. Even the courtyard of Rivendell seemed far away below.

'Behold the Observatory of Rivendell!' said Elrond, for such it was. All around were tables strewn with maps and instruments for measuring and drawing. The walls were lined with cabinets of more maps, and on the ceiling was painted a representation of the constellations. On a great marble stand were instruments which could magnify the heavens, made of glass and brass and gold. The secret of glass was known to both dwarves and Elves but neither would say who had discovered it first. And these instruments were made by both Elves and dwarves. Their casings were finely wrought, with dwarvish runes on the flat brass mountings, but along the barrel were the leaf and star designs so beloved of the Elves. The room was empty when they entered and had the look of disuse.

'This is wonderful!' exclaimed Frodo, forgetting his fears of the night. Gandalf laid his hat down and peered at the map of the heavens spread out on the largest table and said;

'This is where Elvish astronomers studied the skies and laboured to give us these maps. Many years of observation and study went into the making of these....'

'Few study here now.' Elrond broke in sadly. 'Bilbo used to come up here to work on his own maps, but he is getting too old for the stairs now and no-one now has the time or the heart to study the kingdoms of the night.'

Elrond touched the great map. 'This was our great work. Soon all this will be forgotten, for none live who know it all and few study it any more. The arts of war have overtaken the arts of peace.'

'But it is beautiful!' exclaimed Frodo, forgetting his fears. The great map was drawn on honey coloured vellum, picked out in inks of blue and red and black. It felt smooth and dense to the touch. Frodo ran his hand over it. He noticed his hand was white like horn pared very thin to let the light through. It was as if the light shone through his hand. He took it away quickly, but Gandalf saw the gesture.

'We must forget the stars for a while' said Elrond, carrying bundle of scrolls over to the table. He unrolled them and Frodo saw the lands of Middle Earth spread out before him. Elrond and Gandalf leaned over the maps and began to discuss their route. Frodo and Sam paid what attention they could, but after a while Frodo noticed his attention being drawn to the far East of the map, to Mordor. It was picked out in black and red, with runes of avoidance over and below it, but still he felt his flesh crawl. A mist seemed to come before his eyes. Again he felt as he did in the dreams, in some land that was always there now for him behind the bright day, waiting to claim him back. He felt dizzy and grasped the table for support. 'Frodo!' said Sam, noticing at once that his master was not well. Frodo pulled himself up.

'No! no, I'm fine, just a bit weak still.' Gandalf said to Elrond. 'Perhaps that is enough for today...'Elrond nodded and rolled up the map again.

'I have given orders that you may come here at any time, Frodo...'

Frodo thanked Elrond but was glad to escape the chamber of the stars, however beautiful. As he was hurrying down the stairs Gandalf called after him.

'Frodo?' Frodo turned, knowing what Gandalf would say.

'I'm fine, really....'

Gandalf came up to him.

'Sam tells me you are not sleeping. You will be too tired to start on the day appointed for the departure of the Company if you do not get rest. you...'

'It is he!' said Frodo suddenly, cutting across Gandalf.

'who?'

'The Lord of the Nine!'

'But he was swept away in the river, for the time at least.'answered Gandalf.

'No, not in person. I see him in dreams, as he was on the road from Bree. As he was at...Weathertop. Oh Gandalf, will I ever be rid of him?' Frodo could not keep the fear and despair out of his voice. Gandalf looked around. Sam was some distance behind and could not hear. He drew Frodo aside to a bench running alongside an open gallery overlooking the waterfall. The sound of water drowned out their speech to anyone but each other.

'Tell me all that has happened' he said, then listened without interrupting while Frodo recounted the dreams, getting nearer and nearer each night to the final attack.

'What does it mean?' he asked Gandalf in a shaky voice.

'I thought I was well again....' and in fact nothing could dim the joy Frodo had felt when he had woken up in the bed in Rivendell, with the bright October sun streaming into the room and Sam beside him. He could not let go of that sense of being safe and well again.

'Frodo' said Gandalf as gently as he could.

'You were wounded by a Morghul knife. Lord Elrond did his best to cure your wound but it was a haunted and cursed weapon. Neither he nor I know for sure all the harm it might have done.' He saw Frodo's shoulders sag with dejection. 'I think, for what comfort it might bring you, that the wound is still healing, and this is his last attempt to retain you in the dark world you entered when you put on the Ring, and which you nearly never left.'

Frodo did not answer, and they sat together in silence, hearing the constant music of the waterfall outside in the valley. Then Sam came up and they went back downstairs.

Frodo slept well that night, and the next. He began to think that the terrible dreams might have ended. He felt refreshed and his vigour returned. He spent days in the Observatory, sometimes joined by Gandalf or Aragorn. Pippin came in for a while but got bored and wandered off. Merry stayed and seriously studied the maps under Frodo's guidance. Even when they were not studying the maps Frodo liked to sit looking out at the view. He even came up at night to look at the vivid and dramatic panoply of stars visible from the star chamber. A sense of peace returned to him. Then Elrond announced that the messengers he had sent out had returned and he set the day for their departure. Frodo felt a sudden fear like a pain in his heart, and in his wounded shoulder, but he shrugged it off. At once there was much to do and discuss, and Frodo went to bed tired.

The last thing he remembered before dropping off to sleep was the moon looking in the window of his room, a half moon like a great wasted skull, like the one on Weathertop...

The fall had jarred him and driven the breath out of him. He lay for a second on the rain slick flagstones unable to move, unable even to crawl to safety. Above him towered the Lord of the Nine, grasping in his ghostly mailed hand the long black bladed knife. A whisper which Frodo felt only he heard hissed over the sound of the wind, and suddenly Frodo found the energy to crawl away.

But he could not go far; all around were fallen statues and archways tipped onto the ground. Frodo felt himself fetch up against something; it was the prostrate statue of a king of old, his hands reaching down as if in benediction, but now only to trap Frodo as his enemy approached.

The other Nazgul held back, but formed a circle. Their leader loomed up over Frodo, the knife in his hand. He was still speaking but Frodo was too terrified to make out the words. It was a chant or spell of some sort. The shrouded arm with the knife leaned forward and just as back in the Shire when the Horse followed them along the road Frodo felt an irrestible urge to put on the Ring. There seemed no other way out, he was trapped, about to die, only the Ring could save him, it was madness not to use it. Frodo put his fingers in his pocket and drew out the Ring.

At once a sigh went round the Nazgul and they started forward in spite of themselves. Their leader slowly turned round and they quailed and fell back. Frodo poised the Ring on the tip of his finger and looked up. Deep in the creatures's hooded eyes he could detect a tiny flicker of light like a flame on a dangerous marsh. Then Frodo, against all that Gandalf or Aragorn or anyone had said, placed the Ring on his finger.

At once he was plunged into their ghost world. At once he could see perfectly, only it was all bone white or shimmering grey, no colours or brightness at all, just barren shades of ashes. But towering above Frodo was a sight that blotted out all others; the Lord was now revealed to Frodo. He was a king, with a man's face. His mantle and hood were fallen back and on his his head was a high steel crown with spikes like to tall towers. His hair, grey white, hung over his shoulders like graveclothes. His skin was shining pale, like one long dead and shut in a railed tomb to decay. He was regarding Frodo with disdain but also pity. In his face was the stamp of cruel power, but also the signs, small but eternal, of the man he had been, ready to laugh and be merciful, until he was taken and sucked dry by the Ring.

Behind their King the other Nazgul were likewise revealed. All wore silver crowns, some of fantastical shapes, surmounting helmets adorned with the heads of beasts and birds, wolves and rams horns tightly coiled about their heads and trailing long gossamer cloaks. Each face was different, each that of a man once human and humane. But now a green light glowed in their eyes, of lust for the Ring and for its power. They were still saying or chanting words to Frodo, and now he had the Ring on his finger he could make out what they were saying...

'We were once as you are now..

As we are now you shall be....'

And the Ring called to them. Having forced him to put it own, it pulled and twisted towards the hand of its former master. Frodo felt it like a live thing on his hand. The Lord of the Nine reached out his white hand of only bones for it, nodding imperiously with his tall crown. Frodo looked up at him in horror. Nothing, not even the Lord of The Nazgul, could make Frodo give away the Ring. He pulled his hand back and the Ring with it.

The Lord of the Nazgul recoiled as if struck. Then his stiff corpse's face contorted with rage and he raised the knife and Frodo closed his eyes for a half-second as he saw the blade descend. Then the Wraith plunged it into Frodo's shoulder.

Frodo screamed, the sound torn out of him. Icy fire shot through him, pain like he had never known, never having been struck in anger before in his life. Now his enemy, The Lord of the Nine, held him transfixed for long seconds with his witches' knife, allowing its poison to do its work. Over his own cries Frodo heard the Nazgul whisper to him in his cold ghostly voice;

'I will take you to Mordor'

Then dimly, as if at the end of a long, long, dark tunnel Frodo heard shouts and knew Aragorn's voice. But it was as if in another world. But suddenly, violently, the knife was wrenched away from Frodo's shoulder.

He cried out because it felt as if all his life force was following after the cursed blade. Unable to raise himself up or speak, he saw shining in the grey gloom the Ring, still on his finger. With great effort Frodo reached up and drew it off with his other hand. Then he laid his head back and thought he must die.

But with the Ring removed sight and sound came back to him. The air was full of battle and he realised that the Nazgul were falling back before Aragorn's fierce onslaught. But Frodo did not care. All he saw was the ghost king. Someone took his hand, and he opened his eyes; it was Sam.

'Oh Sam!' he gasped. Sam was looking at him in horror and pity, his eyes full of tears. Neither could speak. Then Frodo tried to sit up. He shouted at Sam.

'Where is the pale king?' Before him still were those dead eyes with their cold cruel glow.

'Where is he?'

'Where is who?' cried Sam in despair. Frodo opened his eyes. He was in his bed in Rivendell. It was still night, but there was a candle beside Frodo's bedside and in through the window a misshapen moon flooded the polished floor with silver light. He gasped and looked about in terror. All he saw was the peaceful room, and Sam beside him, his arms wrapped around him as he tried to calm him. He clutched Sam's arm and looked at him.

'What happened?'

'Well Mr.Frodo I was wakened up by your, well begging your pardon but you were screaming. Something about a king, and it was either wake you or let you wake the house so I had to wake you up, hoping you don't mind' Sam's matter-of-fact voice brought Frodo near to tears. But he could not speak.

Frodo's clothes were soaked with sweat. He was still breathing in shallow gasps. Sam helped him out of bed and he went over to the balcony and leaned against it, drawing in deep breaths of the night air. Above he saw the constellations as they were drawn on Elrond's great map by Elves of long ago. Sam stood beside him.

'Who is he?' Sam asked. Frodo turned to him.

'Who?'

'this pale king or whatever' said Sam hesitantly. Frodo looked away.

'Nothing, it was just a dream....'