Aldamir's Journey

by Frodo Baggins

Chapter 32: The Paths of the Dead

As Aldamir walked under the grim doorway and into the cold darkness beyond it, he felt suddenly icy cold, as if a chill wind had penetrated his garments. But there was no wind in the Paths of the Dead; only a dead, dank stillness. Yet it was as if the very walls emitted a cold vapor. Fearán trembled.

The torches carried by some of the Dunedáin cast but little light about in the blackness. They flickered uncertainly, as if something was trying to swallow their tentative flames and they didn’t know how to resist. In their wavering beams of light, glimpses could be caught of tall, rough walls of rock, coated with the dust and spiderwebs of long, dead years. Sometimes runes of a language long forgotten, or symbols too old to decipher could be seen etched in the walls.

All about them Aldamir heard whispers; murmurs of dead voices whose life had long passed. The whispers curled about him like wisps of grey vapor, almost as if they were seeking to bind him like so many ropes. Sometimes in the darkness he saw strange grey shapes, like cold mist, flitting about, and knew that they were the Dead themselves. The unclear shapes followed the company, and their number slowly grew as they went on into the darkness.

After a while his eyes became accustomed to the blackness, and he could see strange things scattered about in the Paths. Goblets, belts, daggers, and jewely of old make lay about, encrusted with jewels and gems and dimmed with dust. Here and there a blade lay, old and rusted, or perhaps an axe, its edge nocked and broken from battles that none could remember. Even old, torn, rusted armour and chain mail lay in places, dented and damaged. Aldamir shivered. The place was full of death; the walls oozed it and the whispers spoke of it. These weapons had slain in days of old, spilt blood and taken lives, wielded by masters who had broken their oath and were now doomed to be without peace in their own death, until their oath was fulfilled.

Silence reigned, broken only by the soft tread of their leather-clad feet, the deadened thud of horses’ hooves, and the sound of their fearful, shallow breathing.....

Aldamir lost track of the time they had wandered in the Paths, following Aragorn ever onwards. With every step he took he felt that he was sinking further and further away from light and life, into a crushing blackness. The darkness seemed to settle around them with a deadly satisfaction, as if it knew that it was only a matter of time before it could consume them. None spoke as they walked, but the deadly whispers about them continued and grew in terror.

When they had traveled through the cold darkness for what seemed countless silent hours, though none knew for sure how long they had walked, they came to a great open space and could no longer see walls on either side. They paused for a moment. Dread was heavy upon them all as they stood there; but Aragorn seemed to feel no fear.

Off the pathway, in a black corner, lay something that glittered in the torchlight. Aragorn went to it, and in the glow of his torch they saw the bones of a mighty man, still clad in the gilded mail he had perished in. A golden helmet was still upon his bony head as he lay sprawled on the dusty ground, and about his waist was girt a belt encrusted with red gems. His sword lay notched and shattered by his side, and they could see a forbidding stone door above him. It was scratched and marked where he had hewed at it in despair. Aldamir gazed at the door with dread, and wondered what lay beyond it. Secrets, which perhaps none would uncover as long as the world lasted....

Aragorn did not touch the dead warrior, but sighed as he gazed down upon the bones. “Hither shall the flowers of simbelmynë never come 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, and turning, spoke to the whispering shadows behind them. 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!”

His voice rang out in the darkness, and the whispering ceased. There was no answer save for the utter and dreadful silence, perhaps more terrifying than the whispers before. Then a sudden chill wind blew through the great chamber, and the torches went out and could not be lighted again. In darkness they must go on, followed by something terrible behind them; and they pressed on.

Aldamir did not know how many more hours he stumbled through the darkness, feeling always that he was pursued by some dreadful horror which groped to catch him. It was as if he could feel cold fingers reaching out for him, grasping for his cloak or his shoulder, but always they fell too short and he struggled onwards. His dread and fear grew as the hours passed; he felt that soon he must either fall dead of the darkness’s poison or be swallowed by the grey shadows pursuing him. He stumbled, and felt as though he were drowning in darkness; it forced itself down his throat, choking him as he sought to keep his grasp upon life.........

He heard noises behind him as of many shadowy feet, falling deadened upon the rocks; a ghost of the tread of long-ago armies. When he dared to look backwards, he saw things that resembled a thick, grey mist; an army of unclear shadows following them, bent on a single purpose.....

Then suddenly he heard the tinkle of living, running water, cutting with sharp clearness through the heavy, suffocating darkness, and he lifted his head swiftly. Lo! Ahead of him he saw a light in the darkness, and once again he could see the shapes of the Rangers stumbling onwards ahead of him. Looking to his side, he saw Lindir, deathly pale, looking with wild, hopeful eyes toward the growing light.

And then they came to another gateway, high, arched, and broad, and going through it they passed out of the Paths of the Dead, and they looked at each other with wonder that they were alive. Aldamir gazed upwards into a clear, dark sky, be-jeweled with small sparkling lights, and breathed deeply of the pure, sweet, crisp air. Beside the gate a wild, small mountain-river flowed down over the rocks and cast itself over the edge, and beyond them a narrow, winding road led steeply downwards through a deep ravine.

The company remounted, refreshed and with a new sense of life, and they rode down the pathway between sheer, towering cliffs. Turning in his saddle, Aldamir looked back, and now he could see clearly the shadow-army following them. Many misty shapes were coming after them, bearing banners which were like shreds of grey mist and spears which were like winter-branches encrusted with frost.

“The Dead are following,” he murmured, more to himself than anyone else. “They are coming... they have been summoned...”

Chapter 33:
The Stone of Erech

As the company, pursued by the shadow-army of the Dead, rode suddenly out of the steep-sided ravine they had followed down the mountain, they came upon a great, wide, rich valley. They stood on the uplands of this valley, gazing down upon it; beside them the stream which had followed them cast itself over the edge and rushed down with a cold, laughing voice.

“Where in Middle-earth are we?” Aldamir heard Gimli inquire behind him.

Elladan 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.”

Aldamir gazed down at the valley. It was a wide and expansive; its steep slopes were covered with long, waving grass, but all seemed grey then, for the sun was gone. Lights twinkled like small glowing eyes in all the houses and villages, small lamps to ward off the coming darkness.

Without turning, Aragorn called to his company. “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.”

Without a glance backwards, they spurred their horses and rode down into the valley like the west wind with the Dead in their wake. As they rode through it, screams and shouts went up; folk fled before them as they came, crying out that the King of the Dead was upon them. Lights went out as they swept past; shivering with fear, folk cowered in their houses, hiding their faces from the grey terror. But the company spared them not a glance; ever onwards they rode, never slacking their pace.

Soon they left the valley behind them and rode far into the night, never pausing, while the wind whipped through their hair and left their throats dry and aching for water. Still onwards they went, hooves pounding insistently beneath them, mingling with the pounding of their hearts, until the horses were stumbling with exhaustion and their riders swayed wearily in their saddle.

At last they came to the Stone of Erech where it stood upon a great, silent hill; a hill which none dared to approach because of the rumours and tales of it being a meeting place for the Dead. Night still lay upon the land, and the inky, complete darkness pressed upon them, black as a cave. On the top of that hill lay a great stone, black as the night and round as a globe. It was as tall as a man, and lay half-embedded in the ground, where it had lain for centuries. It was weird and unearthly, smooth and round as it was, and some said that it had fallen from the sky. Others, who still remembered the lore of the West, said that Isildur had brought it from the burning ruins of Numenor and placed it there.

The company, still mounted, gathered in a half-circle around the Stone. The gleam of their torches was partially reflected in the Stone’s surface, casting a forbidding red glow on its cold stony blackness. Aldamir gazed at it in wonder.

Elrohir drew forth a silver horn and gave it to Aragorn, who, lifting it to his lips, blew a great blast upon it. The note echoed and came back to them, seemed to Aldamir to come from under the earth.

A soft rustling came to his ears; he looked about and saw the ghostly army assembling by the stone. They stood tall, grey, and silent, staring at Aragorn. A chill wind like a deathly breath blew over Aldamir; he felt cold, and shivered slightly.

Aragorn dismounted and stood by the Stone of Erech. “Oathbreakers, why have ye come?”

Aldamir saw the chieftan of the Dead answer him; the great, cold voice sounded as if it came from the stone of the mountains; from some vast cavern far away.

“To fulfil our Oath and have peace.”

“The hour is come at last,” Aragorn answered him. “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 forever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.”

In a low voice he spoke to Halbarad, who stood at his side. The Ranger unfurled the standard he had carried throughout the journey, and Aldamir saw that it was a wide, rippling black banner, but as yet, in the night’s darkness, he could see no sign upon it. It seemed but a solid piece of the darkness as yet.

Silence fell, utter and complete.

Aldamir did not know how long he stood there, gazing at the great black standard, the black sphere of the Stone, and grey, swaying army of the Dead, thinking and wondering......

The Company camped that night by the Stone, but few slept, and if they did it was but little. The fear of the Dead hung over them all, like a oppressing dark fog, depriving them of real rest.

Aldamir did not sleep, tired as he was. Throughout the night he stood silent at the edge of the hill, his back to the Stone, gazing out into the night. He watched the solid dark mountains slowly outline themselves against the sky as it grew slightly lighter. Streaks appeared in the cloudy sky, barely distinguishable at first and then slowly growing lighter.

His thoughts that night were of Lórien, and Uruviel, lying somewhere behind him as he went forward on this long, dark journey of which none could foresee the end. His heart filled with intense longing as he thought of the tall, stately mallorns, standing like peaceful sentinels in the Golden Wood, stars twinkling above them like so many heavenly lamps. He thought to of Uruviel, walking among the trees, her hair floating behind her in a golden cloud. So long... it had been so long since he had looked into her eyes, and his heart wrenched to think of the sadness that must fill them now.

Would he ever return? It was a thought that preyed upon him often these days, troubling his sleeping and waking hours. When he had left the mallorns to fight at Helm’s Deep, he had not foreseen this.... yet who could foresee what would happen during the next hour in these times?....

When dawn finally came completely to the Hill of Erech, chilly cold with long streaks of pale light, Aragorn rose at once and summoned the company. They saddled their mounts, and he led them forth on a long journey of which none could have guessed the end of. They were weary as they rode, and it was only Aragorn’s strength which urged the Rangers on. No other race of Men could have endured the journey that entailed; none but the Dúnedain of the North and the Elves and Dwarf who rode with them.

For a day they rode hard, and rested that night. Rising early the next day, they pressed onwards, the Dead following ever like a mist driven before the wind.

But when they passed through Tarlang’ Neck and onto the uplands of Lamedon, a region of Gondor on the slopes of the White Mountains, the ghostly army swept up behind them and was suddenly on all sides of them. They sought to pass the company, but Aragorn forbid them, and at his command they fell back. Aldamir marveled. Even the hosts of the Dead obeyed him; here indeed was Isildur’s heir!

Still they rode on through Lamedon, and late that day they came to Ciril and the town of Calembel. It had been a mighty city once, rich from the river-trade, but now it was quiet and empty, for most of the men had gone to the wars. And when Aragorn came to the city with his company, those left in it fled to the hills, shrieking that the King of the Dead was upon them. They crossed the fords of the Ciril, and rested that night on the opposite bank from the city.

Aldamir threw himself to the ground and sought to sleep. He was weary, and the wounds he received in the battle of Helm’s Deep were taking their toll. They no longer bled, and they were healing, but the stress of riding so far and so hard with the wounds was beginning to wear on him. Now, as darkness fell once again upon the weary company, he closed his eyes and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.