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In Aragorn's Safekeeping
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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20
Darkness

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the recognizable characters; I am only borrowing them for fun for a little while. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J and Marsha.

Author Note: Words in italics are elvish and are translated at the end of the chapter.


~~~

Rebecca watched in shock as Aragorn raced to the man and embraced him firmly, the joy in his voice obvious for all to hear. Since she had known him, never had she seen such an open display of emotion or affection. While he would smile or laugh there was still a certain amount of reserve in his bearing that did not match what Rebecca was observing now. She turned to Thomas, “I wonder who that man is?” she whispered, not wanting Théoden to overhear in case this was someone they should know from their ‘home’ in Rivendell.

“It’s his cousin, Halbarad,” Thomas explained quietly into her ear. “He’s Aragorn’s only living family member… by blood, I mean.”

Rebecca turned further around in the saddle, “The only one?” He nodded. “How sad,” she murmured, thinking of her family. Besides her mom, she had aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins. “No wonder he’s so glad to see him.”

“Aragorn told me that they are like brothers, they spent years together as Rangers after Aragorn left Rivendell as a young man.”

“I wonder who all the other men are.”

“Rangers, I suppose,” Thomas shrugged. “Do you think we should go and greet them?” he asked, noticing Legolas and Gimli had ridden forward. “I mean shouldn’t we know Halbarad?”

“I guess so,” Rebecca replied uncertainly.

Curious to meet Halbarad, Thomas decided to go ahead. Turning to Théoden he bowed slightly, “Excuse us, my lord,” and he nudged Baldor forward. Éomer glanced at them as they passed through the lines of the Rohirrim.

“Who are those men, Lady Rebecca?”

“Halbarad is Aragorn’s cousin and the rest appear to be some of his Rangers.”

“Rangers… they will be most useful if they fight anything like Aragorn.”

“I haven’t actually seen them fight, but I have heard they that do.” Thomas said, urging Baldor on, not wanting to continue a discussion with Éomer about the Rangers that neither he nor Rebecca knew anything about.

Thomas could feel eyes on them as soon as they moved beyond Éomer and he knew their every movement was being closely observed. He reined to a halt near Arod and slipped from the horse before helping Rebecca dismount. “How’s your back?” he asked as he heard her quickly stifled gasp.

“It’s been better. How’s your head?”

“Sore.”

“We make a good couple then,” she grinned.

Thomas smiled and led her around the horse, pausing uncertainly when he saw that Aragorn’s back was to them and again feeling the scrutiny of the men on horseback.

“Those must be Aragorn’s elven brothers,” Rebecca whispered, seeing two tall elves standing with Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and another man. Thomas nodded and then they both froze as two identical sets of sparkling light grey eyes fell on them. Aragorn turned and, seeing them, beckoned them forward.

Rebecca saw that the elven twins were a little taller than Aragorn and had long dark hair, some of which was pulled back in intricate braids to keep it out of their faces, though the braids were a different style than Legolas’s. They wore long grey cloaks that matched the ones the men on the horses were wearing, including a star brooch that fastened it closed.

Aragorn smiled down at Rebecca as she stopped next to him before he glanced at Thomas who cleared his throat nervously. “We didn’t know if… um we should come since maybe we should know these… people too. I thought Théoden or Éomer might think it strange if we didn’t since we are supposed to be from Rivendell…” Twin eyebrows shot up at that. “…after all…”

“Peace, Thomas,” Aragorn said. “It was well thought of and I would have you meet my family anyway.” Thomas visibly relaxed much to Aragorn’s amusement.

“Estel, what does he mean they are from Rivendell? I believe I would remember seeing them before,” one of the elves said with both curiosity and amusement in his voice.

“Lady Rebecca and Thomas are my wards, Elrohir, and as such the people of Rohan were told they were from Rivendell. It seemed the easiest explanation at the time as they are dressed in elvish clothing and carry elvish weapons.”

As Aragorn was speaking, Rebecca was studying the other man whom she assumed was Halbarad. He was a little shorter than Aragorn and his hair had some grey in it, but otherwise they looked very similar. She noticed that while he was standing perfectly still with his hand gripping the hilt of his sword, his bluish grey eyes were constantly moving as he looked at the area surrounding them. Rebecca’s attention was drawn back to the conversation when the other elf-lord spoke.

“Wards? Estel, how are they your wards? Where do they come from?” he asked sharply.

Rebecca, who had not quailed at Helm’s Deep, who had overcome her discomfort of both Legolas and Haldir, involuntarily took a step back under the fierce intensity of Elladan’s gaze. While Thomas did not physically move, he reacted by dropping his gaze to the ground.

“Elladan,” Aragorn chided, giving his brother a stern look, “it is enough for you to know that Thomas,” he reached over and clasped his shoulder briefly, “son of Morgan is my ward. And, Rebecca,” he placed his arm around her back to move her forward once again. She hissed in pain, “That hurts, Aragorn,” she whispered, glancing up at him from the corner of her eye. Aragorn quickly removed his arm, “Forgive me, Rebecca. Are you in much pain?”

“No, only if someone touches me.”

Aragorn’s lips twitched in amusement and he looked back at his brothers who were watching the interaction with expressions of confusion. “Lady Rebecca is also my ward. I will tell you the whole story when we have time, but that is not now. Thomas, Rebecca, now that you have met my brothers, I want you to meet my cousin, Halbarad son of Halhigal.”

“Well met, my lord,” Thomas said with a bow, Rebecca echoing his words and actions.

“Lady, Thomas,” Halbarad nodded as he looked them over. “I am no lord, the only lords here are Aragorn and Prince Legolas,” he said glancing at the twins before resuming his watch.

Legolas laughed quietly while Rebecca and Thomas just looked at him in confusion, glancing at Aragorn to see laughter in his eyes as well.

Shaking his head, Aragorn called to one of his Rangers, “Hinluin, will you bring Roheryn up for me?”

“Yes, my lord,” the young man rode to the back of the column.

“Lady Rebecca, I would ask your forgiveness for I obviously frightened you,” Elladan said, bowing slightly.

“Elladan often frightens young maidens,” Elrohir smiled at Rebecca.

Rebecca looked from one twin to the other wondering how she would ever be able to tell them apart since they were, in fact, identical in every way that she could see. Though from the slight smile on Elrohir’s face she thought maybe they would act a little differently.

“Of course, Lord Elladan,” she replied, briefly meeting his stern grey eyes before glancing away again.

“Rebecca, Halbarad brought my horse. Do you think you can handle Hasufel by yourself?” Aragorn asked.

“I think so… yes, of course.”

“I want you to ride close to Legolas, Thomas, or me; we have a long way yet to ride.”

Halbarad spoke up quietly, “I’ll also be nearby, my lord.”

Aragorn nodded, “You will find, Thomas and Rebecca, that Halbarad rarely leaves my side. It was difficult for him to let me leave on this journey without him. Thomas, go and help Rebecca adjust the stirrups on Hasufel so that we may depart.”

“All right, Aragorn… my lord,” he finished, thinking it best to call him that now in front of his Rangers, especially as his own cousin did.

“It is still Aragorn, Thomas, though I have not been able to persuade my cousin otherwise for many years.” Halbarad snorted.

Thomas nodded and he and Rebecca hurried off to prepare Hasufel for her to ride, followed more slowly by Legolas and Gimli. As they left, Aragorn looked at his brothers and Halbarad and spoke quietly so that none could overhear. “They are totally alone here and I care for them deeply.” He paused as Hinluin handed him the reins to Roheryn and he waited until the young man passed out of earshot before continuing. “I would ask that you,” Aragorn gave Elladan a very pointed look, “treat them at least with respect if not the kindness they deserve.”

Halbarad nodded, “Of course, my lord, and I’ll pass the word on to the men.” He moved off to get his horse.

Elladan stared at Aragorn for a long moment and then nodded once. “I will trust you on this, Estel, and treat them as you ask for your sake. However, I will tell you that I sense something about them that is not ‘right’ and it makes me uneasy.”

Aragorn smiled slightly as he gazed at his oldest brother. “Be at peace about them, Elladan. Both Gandalf and our grandparents know their true stories and are not concerned. We spent over a month in Lothlórien with Daeradar and Daernaneth; truly you need not worry about Rebecca and Thomas.”

Visibly relieved, Elladan smiled at his brother for the first time, “If they are not concerned than I shall trust in their wisdom.”

Laughing quietly, Elrohir, put his arm around Aragorn’s shoulder, “I, for one, am looking forward to seeing you in this type of fatherly role, Estel.” In a mercurial shift of mood he sobered quickly as he looked down at his brother. “It grieves me that ones so young are without kin and it was right for you to take them into your keeping. Though, I, like Elladan have concerns, I will trust your judgment.”

Nodding to his brothers, Aragorn moved to mount Roheryn, “When you hear the full story you will understand,” he said quietly as he mounted. Aragorn glanced at Halbarad as his brothers went to retrieve their horses. “It will be good to have you riding at my side again, Cousin.”

“It’s been strange to ride alone again.”

“What is that?” Aragorn pointed to a long pole attached along the side of Halbarad’s horse.

“Lady Arwen sent it to you; she said you would know what it is.”

“Oh.” Aragorn looked at it for a moment and then met Halbarad’s eyes. “Yes, I do. Would you keep it for me for now?”

“Of course, I’ve carried if for you for hundreds of miles attached to the side of my saddle interfering with my stirrups and my saddlebags. Why would I mind?”

Aragorn chuckled. “Thank you, I knew you would not.” He looked at Rebecca as she approached noticing that while she looked a little uneasy, she sat well balanced in the saddle and gripped the reins well. “How does it feel?” he inquired.

“Scary,” she said with a yawn. “It’s a long way down.”

“You will do well.”

“Easy for you to say,” she said, giving him an irritated glare. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Never?” Halbarad looked at her with concern.

Rebecca shook her head, “Not by myself.”

“She usually rides with me or Aragorn,” Thomas said.

“Yes, but I have let you handle Hasufel many times as we rode. You will do well,” Aragorn looked at her steadily until she nodded.

“I’m sure I will, but I’m blaming you if I fall off.”

Quiet chuckles and grins broke out among the Rangers and Rebecca bit her lip nervously as she glanced at Aragorn, but he just gave her a small smile. She reminded herself that she would need to be more cautious with what she said in front of his men.

Urging their horses forward they headed to where Théoden, Éomer, and their men had been patiently waiting.

“Théoden King, Lord Éomer, these are my brothers the Lords Elladan and Elrohir, and my cousin, Halbarad,” Aragorn said.

“Welcome to Rohan, my lords,” Théoden nodded to the three.

“Thank you, Théoden King,” Elladan replied with a bow, followed by Elrohir and Halbarad.

Elrohir looked at Merry with a smile. “Master Merry, it is good to see you once again. It appears that many tales must be told since last we met.”

“Just a few, Lord Elrohir,” Merry smiled wanly, “I’ve about had my fill of adventure for a good long while.”

As they continued to talk, Éomer sidled his horse over next to Rebecca. “You’re riding alone?” he asked quietly, his voice full of concern.

“Yes. The Rangers brought Aragorn his horse and he thought I should ride Hasufel,” she patted the horse’s neck.

“But you have no experience,” he protested.

“I’ll be fine,” she yawned and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, “if I can stay awake that is.” Rebecca smiled at Éomer. “Really, I’ll be all right.”

“I fear for your safety.”

“Everyone else does too,” she gestured around them.

“Yes, of course they do,” Éomer said. “Well, I’ll be nearby if you need help.”

Rebecca giggled. “I have already been told to stay close to,” she held up her hand and ticked them off on her fingers one by one, “Aragorn, Legolas, Thomas, or Halbarad… I guess I can add you to the list…” she wiggled her thumb, “… I have one finger left.” She smiled again.

Éomer grinned and shook his head, “I see you are well taken care of then, Lady Rebecca. But I will be here nonetheless.” He bowed slightly and rode off to take his place beside his king as they prepared to complete their interrupted ride to Helm’s Deep.

---------

As they rode up the causeway into the courtyard of Helm’s Deep at mid-morning, Rebecca was totally and utterly exhausted. Glancing around her she saw that she was not alone, that Thomas and all of the Rohirrim looked to be in the same state she was in… while Merry and Gimli were both asleep leaning against Théoden and Legolas, respectively. Only the Rangers seemed alert as they gazed around the fortress curiously.

Reining to a halt, Rebecca carefully dismounted, wincing as she landed and wishing once again that Hasufel was not such a tall horse. She leaned against him for a moment to catch her breath and then looked up uncertainly at her packs, bedroll, and quiver which Aragorn had always taken care of. Looking around she saw that he was talking with Théoden and Éomer. Well, if she could reach the things and if he hadn’t tied them too tightly she would just do it herself. Wrapping Hasufel’s reins around her arm, Rebecca stood on her tiptoes and worked to unfasten the leather ties holding her bedroll in place. Reaching and stretching caused her pain, but she ignored it except for a few small gasps. Finally freeing the bedroll she stepped back and looked at it with a frown and a sigh wondering if it was worth the pain or if she should just ask someone for help.

“Are you well, lady? Do you need help?”

Startled, Rebecca looked up into the guarded, yet not unkind, eyes of Halbarad. In the light of day she could more clearly see his resemblance to Aragorn and also the subtle differences. “Oh, I guess I could use some help,” she said. “I can’t quite reach…” Even as she spoke, Halbarad began removing both Aragorn’s and her things from the horse and setting them on the ground. As he started to place her quiver and bow down she said, “I’ll take that.” He looked at her intently as he handed it to her and then silently continued unpacking the horse. “Thanks,” she said as he finished.

He nodded and then asked, “Is that your bow?”

“Yes,” she said, caressing the bow with her hand, “it was given to me in Lothlórien.”

“Can you use it?” His piecing gaze suddenly reminded her just how closely he was related to Aragorn.

“It wouldn’t do much good to just carry it, would it?” She hurried on at his frown, “Yes, I can use it.”

“And she uses it very well, Cousin.” Rebecca turned around and gave Aragorn a smile before dropping her gaze on seeing Elladan and Elrohir standing behind him. Aragorn took Hasufel’s reins from her and gave them to a passing Ranger who led the horse away. “I told you that you would do well riding, Rebecca.”

“It was an interesting experience,” she replied, glancing at Thomas, Legolas, and Gimli as they approached. “I almost fell off once, but only because I was almost asleep.”

Aragorn gave her a small smile, “That is why I am sending you and Thomas off to get some rest. We will be riding out again late this afternoon.”

“Is there a reason that we keep riding at night?” she asked.

“Time is pressing us. I have some things I must see to with Halbarad and I want you two to go and eat and then rest. Thomas, I have asked my brothers to remove those stitches in your arm and to check your other wounds.” Thomas glanced quickly at the elves, but they just gazed back at him impassively. “They are better healers than I am.” Thomas nodded. Aragorn turned to Rebecca who looked at him with wide, frightened eyes. Ignoring her unspoken pleas, he said, “Make sure you remove that bandage before you sleep.” He smiled inwardly at her sigh of relief.

Trailing after the others, Rebecca and Thomas walked hand in hand into the Keep quietly discussing how much better the place looked after only two days. There were many women and children around who seemed to be helping with the wounded who lined the hallways. They ate a quick meal standing or leaning against the walls outside the room where they had slept before. None of them particularly felt like sitting down after a long night on horseback. Thomas and Rebecca listened as the three elves talked of things they had no knowledge of; their homes in Mirkwood and Imladris, or events from years past, or people that they knew. Rebecca noticed that Elrohir was indeed more light-hearted than his brother, but she could also see that Elladan did have a softer side as well. It just hadn’t been directed at them.

Finishing her food, Rebecca bent down to gather her things frowning at the pain it caused and wondering how long it would take before it would heal. Straightening, she found the twins studying her intently, but she quickly looked at Thomas. “I’m going to bed now. Good-night or good-morning... or good sleep,” she smiled. Thomas took her hand and drew her into a gentle embrace, kissing her longingly, “I wish we could have some time alone,” he murmured.

Elrohir’s eyebrows shot up, “You are not brother and sister as I had assumed,” he said.

Legolas and Gimli laughed as Thomas and Rebecca broke apart looking guilty and both of them turned crimson. “No, Elrohir, they are definitely not brother and sister,” Legolas said. “Go and rest Lady Rebecca.” Rebecca nodded and entered the room, still blushing.

After stripping off his tunic, hauberk, and shirt, Thomas sank to the floor with a weary sigh leaning his head back against the wall as he waited for the twins to finish tending to Gimli. “Legolas,” he asked, opening one eye and looking up at his friend, “where are we going next? Back to Edoras?”

Legolas crouched down beside him, “I know not, mellon nín, I believe that is one of the things Aragorn is trying to decide.”

Thomas touched his bandaged face gingerly. “Do you think I should get another helm? I’m not sure I could wear one right now, but… well, I’ll probably need one wherever we go.”

“I will find one as you rest.”

“Aren’t you going to sleep?”

“I slept the other night,” Legolas smiled.

“Must be nice,” Thomas yawned.

“It just is. I will leave you with Lords Elladan and Elrohir and return after you have rested.”

Thomas turned weary, wary eyes on Elladan and Elrohir as Legolas strode away, but saw only compassion in their faces.

“I will remove his stitches, Elladan, if you will check his face and hands.”

Nodding, Elladan picked up Thomas’s right hand while Elrohir moved to his left side and took off the bandage on his upper arm.

“This was a severe wound, Thomas,” Elrohir remarked as he pulled out a small knife and cleaned it thoroughly. Before he started cutting the stitches, the elf placed his hand on the wound and closed his eyes briefly. Thomas felt a warm tingling sensation and as Elrohir started cutting and pulling the stitches there was no pain.

“What did you do?” Thomas whispered.

“It is a healing gift that some elves possess,” Elrohir explained. “Mine is slightly different than my brother’s or my father’s.”

Thomas stared at him. “Lady Galadriel healed Rebecca’s wrist like that,” he remembered.

“Daernaneth’s gift is… unique,” Elrohir shared a look with his brother that Thomas couldn’t read. He finished removing the stitches and lightly wrapped it. “Keep this on for another few days to protect it.”

Thomas sighed quietly as he looked at his hands and wrists with the numerous cuts and stitches. He flexed his right hand gingerly hoping he would be able to wield a sword when the time came.

“Is something amiss, Thomas?” Elladan inquired, looking at him with concern in his unfathomable star-flecked grey eyes.

“No… not really. But I’m worried about gripping my sword with my hand like this. I was having a hard time just holding the reins with the way my hands were bandaged,” he admitted, glancing away.

Elladan nodded as he resumed checking the stitches on Thomas’s face. “I will make sure it is done to your satisfaction. Your face is healing properly; Estel has done well.” He placed his hands lightly over the wound and spoke quietly under his breath and again Thomas felt warmth flood through him. Elladan took his hands and repeated the procedure. “That will hasten the closing of the wounds and lessen the scarring.” He quickly re-bandaged Thomas’s face before turning to his hands. After several attempts Elladan found a way to cover all of the cuts and still give Thomas the flexibility he required.

“You must make sure,” Elladan grabbed his forearm and hauled him to his feet. Thomas pulled his sword and tested his grip and decided that the new bandaging would work well even though his hands were still sore and tender. “Thank you, Lord Elladan, Lord Elrohir, this feels much better,” he said giving the elves a grateful smile as he sheathed his sword.

“You are most welcome,” Elrohir replied gazing at the young man with his head tilted questioningly. “What is causing Rebecca’s back pain?”

Thomas looked at Elrohir for a moment as he leaned wearily against the wall, but could think of no reason not to tell them. “Her back was very badly bruised during the battle the other night.”

“She fought in the battle?” Elladan asked, his tone registering his disbelief.

“Yes, Lord Elladan, she did and when she ran out of arrows, she came in here and helped with the wounded,” Thomas replied, struggling not to yawn.

“Rebecca’s very good with a bow,” Gimli spoke up from where he had been dozing on the floor.

“Thomas! Why are you not sleeping?” Aragorn’s unaccountably harsh voice caught all of them off guard and the four of them turned to see an ashen faced Aragorn approaching with Halbarad hovering at his elbow and Legolas trailing behind.

“I was... um… talking to your brothers about Rebecca. I’ll go right now,” Thomas nodded to Aragorn and tried to move away.

Aragorn grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. “Knowing my brothers, they were probably seeking information that I told them I would give them later,” he said, glaring at his brothers. “How do you fare?”

“Good. Lord Elladan even adjusted my bandages so that my hand can grip things better,” he paused uncertainly, glancing between Aragorn and Halbarad. “Are you all right? You look a little...” his voice trailed off and he finally shrugged.

“Yes, Estel, what has happened?” Elrohir asked, his voice full of concern.

“I used the palantir and it was more… difficult than I had anticipated.”

“The palantir! But Gandalf said that it shouldn’t…” Thomas stopped in confusion and at the look on Aragorn’s face.

“I know what Gandalf said, Thomas, but the palantir is mine by birthright and I judged that it should be used,” Aragorn said sternly. “I give heed to his counsel, but there are times when a man has to follow his own heart and counsel.” Thomas nodded, though he continued to watch Aragorn uncertainly.

“What did you see?” Legolas asked.

Aragorn took a long weary breath and rubbed his hand across his eyes. “Sauron. I showed him the re-forged sword and revealed to him that the heir of Isildur yet lives. I was able to wrench the power of the palantir to my will and that will frighten him more than all else. Yet I want to keep his eyes off of his borders, we must do all we can to open a path for Frodo and Sam.”

“It may cause him to strike out against Gondor,” Elladan said moving around behind Aragorn and laying his hands on his brother’s shoulders and singing softly under his breath.

“Thank you, Elladan. Yes, it may,” he conceded. “But if he strikes before he is fully ready his plans may go astray and that may help us.” Aragorn straightened up slightly, already starting to feel refreshed from Elladan’s ministrations.

“Adar sent me with this word for you, Estel,” Elrohir said. “Remember the words of Malbeth the Seer that he spoke in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost:

Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching winds of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grew 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.+

Aragorn looked at his brother long and hard and then nodded, “I have been considering that. It is good to hear his counsel on taking such a perilous road.”

“Do I want to know what the Paths of the Dead are?” Thomas asked looking from Aragorn to Elrohir.

“Probably not,” Aragorn gave him a very small smile. A smile Thomas remembered later as it was the last smile he saw from Aragorn for a very long time. “It is, as the name suggests, a haunted place where it is said the ghosts of men dwell who gave an oath to Isildur to fight against Sauron in the Last Alliance. They broke their word and Isildur cursed them never to rest until they fulfilled their oath. As his heir I have the right to call them to me, but…” he sighed and stared at the floor for a moment before looking back up at Thomas and the others, “… having the right and actually going to such an evil place are two different things. Yet I fear we have no other choice, we must have the help if we are going to prevail in this war.” He nodded abruptly, his decision made. “That is our path, then, though it will not be an easy one.”

“When has your path ever been easy?” Elladan asked, patting him on the shoulder as he stepped away.

“Get some rest now, Thomas,” Aragorn pushed him towards Gimli, “and take the dwarf with you.” He watched Thomas help Gimli into the room they were all sharing before turning to his brothers. “I know we are pressed for time, but I do want to tell you about Rebecca and Thomas before we leave,” he said as he headed back down the corridor aiming for the small room where he had tended to Thomas and Rebecca several days previously.

“We did discover they are not related,” Elrohir said with a mischievous grin.

“Oh?”

“A kiss they shared was a little too intimate for a brother and a sister,” he explained.

Aragorn shook his head as he chuckled quietly, “I imagine so, though I am surprised they kissed in front of you at all. They are usually much more discreet.”

As they sat around the table, Aragorn looked at Halbarad and his brothers and took a deep breath. “No one in Rohan knows the truth about Rebecca and Thomas; Gandalf did not think it wise. Many of the Lothlórien elves know as well as everyone in the Fellowship, they were there when we found them.” Aragorn rubbed his hand across his face and through his hair, realizing this was going to be more difficult than he had thought. “I know this will sound strange,” he and Legolas exchanged glances, “but I want you to just listen and then ask me and Legolas questions when I am finished.”

Halbarad and the twins nodded though their expressions showed confusion and concern.

With a last look at Legolas, Aragorn plunged into the story of how they had found Rebecca and Thomas. He gave his brothers and cousin detailed descriptions about their clothing, hair, injuries, and their total lack of knowledge of anything to do with Middle-earth. He described what they had told the Fellowship of their world and how he and the others had realized they came from another place entirely. How in Lothlórien he had decided to make them his wards since they truly had no one else. Aragorn finished by quickly telling them all of the things that had happened since then, including Rebecca saving him and Éomer during the battle and Thomas saving Gimli.

Stunned silence hung in the room as Aragorn finished. Legolas gave him a small smile as he closely watched his brothers and Halbarad try and process all that had been said.

“Why?” Halbarad finally asked.

“Why are they here?”

Halbarad nodded.

“I know not and neither do Gandalf or Galadriel. They do believe the Valar have some purpose in sending them.”

“Rebecca did save your life, Aragorn,” Legolas pointed out.

“Yes, and Éomer’s and Thomas saved Gimli’s,” Aragorn acknowledged. “That could be their sole purpose. Or it may be that Rebecca is here because she was needed to save one of the wounded men of Rohan. Or perhaps it could be as simple as the fact that one or both of them can, at times, make any one of us smile or laugh, even in the midst of this horror. Though they can also be quite vexing as well,” He and Legolas smiled briefly. “Gandalf, Legolas, and I have had this discussion many times and we have no answers. I do not pretend to understand the ways of the Valar and the things they choose to do.”

“I understand now why they do not feel ‘right’ to me,” Elladan said as he gazed thoughtfully at his brother. “There was no sign of how they got to our world?”

Aragorn shook his head.

“Will they be able to go back home?” Elrohir asked with a look of concern.

“There is no answer to that question, Elrohir,” Legolas replied, “We do not know how they got here. It is another question that Aragorn, Gandalf, and I have pondered.”

“So they may be your wards for some time,” Elladan said.

Aragorn shrugged, “Yes, though it will depend on how the war ends,” he said wryly. He paused to wait for more questions, but none were forthcoming. “I cannot believe none of you have any more questions about them.”

Elladan reached out and grasped Aragorn’s hand that was lying on the table. “Estel, muindor nín, I have known you for eighty-six years and never have I known you to lie. I am absolutely intrigued by these two young people and their purpose here. Any questions and thoughts I have right now are directed at finding out more about them and their world.”

Aragorn stared at his serious older brother for a moment and then glanced at Elrohir who said quietly, “I agree with Elladan, Estel. My heart aches for the pain these two young ones must feel so far from their homes and families.”

“It has been difficult for them,” Legolas said. “They are fortunate they have had each other.”

Aragorn turned his eyes to Halbarad, who he knew as a man would have the hardest time accepting this story. Halbarad just returned his gaze steadily and shrugged his shoulders. “I believe you, my lord. If anyone else had told such a tale, I wouldn’t have. But it being you, Legolas, Gandalf, and such, I believe it.”

“Just remember, then that sometimes they say things that sound a little different or they act a little different than what you would expect from young ones from our world,” Aragorn glanced at Legolas who nodded with a small smile. “Now then, I do not think we will be able to wait for Théoden and his men, we will need to leave sooner.”

“When?” Halbarad asked.

Aragorn hesitated, thinking of the horses and the men that needed rest as opposed to their very real need to quickly move on. “Four hours. That should get us to Dunharrow not too long after nightfall and we can leave before dawn. We have to make it through and to Erech before midnight tomorrow.”

“I’ll tell the men,” Halbarad said as he stood and stretched.

“After you tell them I want you to get some sleep.” Aragorn stopped his protests by saying, “I am going to rest as soon as I talk to Théoden and Merry.”

Halbarad nodded stiffly and left the room grumbling under his breath.

“You are leaving Merry behind?” Legolas asked.

“Yes, there is no choice,” Aragorn replied as he stood. “I believe that Théoden will be willing to take him to Edoras and keep him safe.” He paused. “Will you find some more arrows for Rebecca?” Aragorn frowned slightly, “I fear she will need them.”

“I will find some.”

Aragorn nodded his thanks and left the room in search of Théoden and Merry. He found them sitting in the central hall of the Keep talking quietly and they looked up at his approach. “Théoden King,” he inclined his head. “Merry,” he placed his hand affectionately on the hobbit’s shoulder for a moment. “May I have a word with you?”

“Sit.” Théoden gestured to the bench next to Merry and Aragorn slowly sat down, thinking once again how best to put into words what he had come to say. Aragorn nodded at Éomer as he joined them with a grin, plunking down a mug of ale and a plate of food and started wolfing it down.

“Théoden, I wanted to let you know that my plans have changed and that I will be leading my Rangers on a different path to Minas Tirith.” Aragorn watched Théoden’s eyes narrow slightly and saw Éomer pause in his eating to stare intently at him. “I fear that because you must muster your men from all of your lands, it would delay my arrival in time to thwart the dangers I see coming up the Anduin.”

“How will you go, then?” Théoden asked sharply. “There is only one way to get to Minas Tirith from here.”

Aragorn hesitated briefly. “There is another way that I may take, Théoden King. One that is mine by birthright and though it presents its own dangers it will take us to Pelargir by the quickest route. We shall go to Dunharrow and then through the Paths of the Dead.” He placed his hand comfortingly on Merry’s shoulder at his sharp indrawn breath before looking up to meet the unbelieving eyes of Théoden and Éomer.

“You will throw your life away on such a foolish venture?” Théoden asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I do not believe it to be foolish. You know who I am and the dead in that mountain swore an oath to my forefather, Isildur. They cannot rest until they have fulfilled that oath, they will answer to me and let us pass.” Aragorn looked stern and resolute.

“Will you take all of your company with you?” asked Éomer.

“Yes, though I did want to ask if Merry could ride with you to Edoras and be kept in a place of safety.” Merry made a noise of protest and Aragorn looked down at him in sorrow. “I am sorry, Merry, but we will ride hard and fast across southern Gondor and you cannot ride one of our horses. Besides, I heard that you have sworn allegiance to Théoden King, did you not?” Merry nodded miserably. “Then it is best you stay with him.” Aragorn looked at Théoden questioningly and the king nodded his assent.

“I had hoped to draw swords with you again, my brother,” Éomer said, his face a blank mask. “You and I could have beaten back the foes of Mordor and now my heart quails at the thought of riding into this battle without you at my side.”

“Éomer, we shall meet on that battlefield and crush the enemy between us. As I said the other night, do not give into despair. The enemy shall not prevail in this fight. This is my destiny - as yours is to lead your men to attack from the western side of the city, I must fight from the river. We shall see each other again,” Aragorn stood and clapped him bracingly on the back.

Éomer looked up at him searchingly for a moment and then gave him a small grin, “May it be so and if you do not show up, know that I’ll hunt you down.” He stood and clasped Aragorn’s hand and forearm in a warrior’s handshake. “Be well, Aragorn.”

“And you, Éomer.” Aragorn turned to Théoden, “Excuse me, my lord, but I will go and rest now.” The king nodded in dismissal, clearly displeased by the whole idea. Aragorn crouched down by the hobbit, “Merry, the others are sleeping already, but I know they will say good-bye to you before we leave.”

Merry sniffed and kept his head bowed, “All right, Aragorn,” he said in a very low voice. “And I do understand. I just hate to be left behind as if I were a discarded shoe.”

“I know, Merry.” Aragorn rubbed his back soothingly. “You know that I do not feel that way about you, and that I only leave you because I care for you and would not see you hurt.”

Merry nodded and looked at Aragorn with a weak smile, “Go and rest. I know you won’t get much later; you need to take it while you can.”

“I shall take your advice, master hobbit, and, if my eyes do not deceive me, I believe you should rest as well,” Aragorn said as he once again laid his hand on the hobbit’s shoulder before silently leaving the hall.

--------

Rebecca groaned. This feeling was becoming all too familiar. Someone wanted her to wake up and she knew she had just gone to sleep. Only the voice was different this time, though it was just as insistent.

“Come, Rebecca, it is time to leave and you must wake up.”

“Go away, Aragorn.”

“Do you want us to leave without you?”

“No, no, I’m up, I’m up.” She sat up grimacing at the pain her quick movement had caused. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do,” she complained, reaching around to rub her back.

“While I am sorry for the pain it caused, it was effective.” He smiled inwardly at her scowl. “However before you put your hauberk and tunic on, I am going to have my brothers tend to your back,” he said as he moved toward the door.

“Please, Aragorn,” She grabbed his hand to pull him back. “I’m fine, really. They don’t need to see me. They… they scare me,” she whispered.

Aragorn crouched down in front of her. “Rebecca, you are not fine. You are still in tremendous pain. We will be riding hard for the next five or six days at least.” Rebecca’s eyes widened as she wondered where they were going. “This is something they can heal so that you have no more pain… similar to what Lady Galadriel did with your wrist.” His eyes softened as he gazed at her. “You will not have to remove your shirt.” Rebecca sighed deeply in relief. “Now as to your fear all I can do is remind you that they are my brothers. Also, I have told them and Halbarad the truth about you and Thomas.” Aragorn moved to the door again. “I will return shortly.”

Rebecca stared at the door for a moment and then slowly stood. She packed her few things before sitting again and pulling her boots on. She thought about Aragorn’s words, not about the healing because if they could stop the pain that would be wonderful. But about Elladan and Elrohir being Aragorn’s brothers. Every elf she had met had been kind and trustworthy, though many of them had also been intimidating at first, especially Haldir. However, none had scared her like Elladan had and she wondered why. As she thought about it, she realized it might be because Aragorn had talked about him in such glowing terms that she had pictured him in her mind a certain way and the way he acted when they met was definitely not how she pictured him. Rebecca was so caught up in her thoughts that she did not hear the door open.

“Rebecca?” Aragorn’s amused voice startled her.

“What!” She looked up in alarm to see him and his brothers standing there. “Do you never knock?” she asked irritably trying desperately to hide her embarrassment.

“I did, I thought you were trying to avoid us.” Aragorn took her hand and pulled her gently to her feet. “We do not have much time.”

“What do I have to do?” she asked, looking at Aragorn uncertainly. He shook his head and motioned to his brothers as he stepped back and leaned against the wall.

“Take my hand, Lady Rebecca.” She looked up into the surprisingly kind grey eyes of one of the elf-lords and glanced at the other to see the same expression there. Rebecca took the long slender hand marveling at its softness.

“Are you Lord Elladan or Lord Elrohir?” she whispered.

“Elrohir,” he whispered back with a grin.

“Lady Rebecca,” Elladan said, “I am going to move my hands over your back and either speak or sing depending on what I sense.”

Rebecca nodded and she felt Elladan’s hands moving lightly over her back much as Aragorn’s hands had done two days before. Suddenly he began singing softly as his hands continued to move and Elrohir joined him. It was beautiful music, though not the soothing uplifting music that Brethil and her friends had played for her in Lothlórien. It was a strong commanding song that imparted strength and healing to her back and body. An intense heat spread across her back and she started to stagger, but was held up by Elrohir’s firm grip. The singing slowly changed and became lighter and more refreshing. As the heat slowly faded away Rebecca realized that all of her pain was gone. She moved her shoulders up and down and grinned at Elladan and then at Elrohir. “Hannon le.”

“You are most welcome,” Elladan said with a soft smile. “I would not see you in pain if I could relieve it.”

Aragorn pushed off the wall, “Rebecca, finish dressing and meet us in the courtyard. Thomas has food for you.”

Rebecca was reaching for her hauberk as they left the room.

--------

Riding to Dunharrow was more of the same mind-numbing riding across the plains that the last few days had been. Long stretches of cantering was followed by short periods of walking the horses to rest them. The small company of riders did not stop anywhere along the way to rest themselves.

Rebecca carried her strung bow in her left hand at Legolas’s urging though she wasn’t sure why as there was no way she could use it from a moving horse. If they stopped maybe she could shoot from atop Hasufel; though it would be difficult surrounded as she was by all of these men… elves… males. Rebecca let her mind drift back to their departure from Helm’s Deep. It had been hard to tell Merry good-bye again and many tears had been shed. But it was the good-bye with Éomer that had her puzzled. He had always been friendly and kind to her and today was no exception. Yet there was something… something in his eyes maybe that confused her as he kissed her hand and wished her farewell. She shook her head and sighed softly as they cantered on, setting those thoughts aside for now to think about at another time.

They rode up the steep path to Dunharrow just after dark and Éowyn met them as they dismounted. “Lord Aragorn, why have you come to Dunharrow? The muster is to be held at Edoras.”

“The site of the muster has been changed and it will be held here in two days, Lady Éowyn. However, I and my men will not be here, my road leads me another way. We shall rest here this night and leave before dawn by way of the Paths of the Dead.”

“The Paths of the Dead?” Éowyn exclaimed, looking at him in horror. “But no one who goes that way is ever seen again.”

“Some may venture that way and I am in haste. Our path takes us there,” Aragorn said looking down at her sternly.

Rebecca looked up when Éowyn said Paths of the Dead so loudly. She had not heard anyone mention where they were going past Dunharrow and she had assumed it was to Minas Tirith. She turned to Halbarad who was helping her again as Thomas was having a difficult time controlling Baldor who had become extremely agitated, as had several of the horses, as they approached the mountains.

“Halbarad, where are we going? What are the Paths of the Dead?” she whispered. “It doesn’t sound like a place I want to go.”

Halbarad stopped unsaddling Hasufel and looked down at her. “No one does.”

“Then why are we?”

“Lord Aragorn is in a hurry.”

“So… it’s just a shortcut.”

“No, lady, not just a… shortcut,” he paused, frowning.

“And, what else?” she asked after a moment.

“We need more men.”

“So, are there more Rangers on the other side of this path? Villages to get more men or what?” Rebecca was getting frustrated by his lack of details.

Halbarad shook his head, “The dead themselves will be Lord Aragorn’s army. At least we hope so,” he muttered.

“You mean ghosts? And what do you mean you hope? You don’t know for sure?”

“No, there is only an old prophecy to guide us.”

“But dead people, Halbarad, and ghosts,” Rebecca shuddered. “Why do we risk it?” She glanced around, but Aragorn was still talking with Éowyn.

“I told you why, lady.”

“Yes, I know,” she said impatiently, “but what happens if… if it doesn’t work. We just go through, right? And come out on the other side?” she asked nervously, her voice trembling slightly.

He shook his head as he slowly answered, “No, either the dead come with us or we don’t come out.”

All the color drained from Rebecca’s face and she grabbed Hasufel’s neck to steady herself. “But that’s crazy,” she hissed. “At least at Helm’s Deep we had a chance.”

Halbarad just looked at her quite calmly, seemingly unfazed by her outburst. “I will follow my Lord Aragorn… my king wherever he leads. I trust him completely.”

Taken aback by his softly spoken words and determined voice, Rebecca dropped her gaze to the ground and took several deep breaths to compose herself. Raising her eyes to meet his again she found he was staring off into the distance. “I’m sorry, Halbarad,” she whispered. His keen eyes snapped back to hers. “I do trust Aragorn… I trust him with my life, too and if this is the way he says we need to go…” she shrugged helplessly. “But I’m scared.”

“All of us will be scared, lady.”

“And yet we will go on anyway… just like we’ve been doing,” she sighed. “You would think I’d be used to it by now.”

Halbarad gave her an unreadable look, “I’m not and I’m a little older than you are.”

“How old are you?” Rebecca asked curiously.

“Ninety-one and you?”

“Ninety-one! Oh, sorry, I always forget you guys are… Dúnedain and look so much younger than you are. I’m sixteen… though I’ve aged years since I’ve been here.”

He chuckled. “Are you going to be all right?”

“Yes, I think so…”

“Good.” Halbarad turned to finish unsaddling Hasufel while Rebecca picked up her packs and left to find Thomas. She found him and the others standing over a small fire watching something cook and talking quietly.

“Something hot to eat! What is it?” she whispered to Thomas as she squeezed in between him and Gimli.

Thomas shrugged, “Some kind of stew Lord Elrohir made.”

“Oh, it’s not for us then, huh?” she lowered her voice even further, mindful of elvish hearing.

“The food is for all to share, Lady Rebecca,” Elrohir said with a twinkle in his eyes as he looked at her from across the fire.

Rebecca sighed, but smiled as she responded. “Thanks, it’s been awhile since I’ve had something hot to eat.” She leaned wearily against Thomas and he put his arms around her, drawing her close. She laid her head against his chest and wrapped her arms around him with a contented sigh and stared into the flames.

Aragorn and Halbarad joined them as they began to eat and just as they were finishing, Aragorn glanced at Rebecca. “Éowyn has a spare cot in her tent for you to sleep on tonight.”

Rebecca opened her mouth to protest and tell him that she didn’t want to stay with Éowyn, that she would rather sleep in the open with her friends, but she shut it when she saw the stern, shadowed look on his face. “All right, Aragorn. Where’s her tent?”

“Gather your things, I will take you,” he stood abruptly and Rebecca grabbed her pack and bedroll and with a quiet good-night to everyone followed Aragorn out of the circle of firelight. She struggled to keep up with his long strides as he strode rapidly away without looking back and she wondered what was bothering him as it was not like him to be so unaware of her. Assuming it was concern over the path they were taking made her even more nervous about what the next day would bring.

Reaching a small tent, Aragorn finally looked back and saw Rebecca far behind him and he shook his head in exasperation, realizing that he had been so caught up in his thoughts about his earlier discussions with Éowyn that he had not been paying attention to Rebecca. “Forgive me, Rebecca,” he said quietly when she reached him.

“It’s all right,” she paused briefly, looking up at him with a concerned expression. “Are you worried about tomorrow?”

Startled by the question, he placed his hands gently on her shoulders, “No, I am not. I have several other things on my mind this evening, though,” his eyes strayed to the tent beside them and then back to her. “Sleep well,” he said kissing her brow gently as he nudged her towards the tent.

“You too, Aragorn,” she said with a furrowed brow as she watched him walk away, bewildered by his actions. Sighing, she turned to the tent and called out, “Éowyn?”

Éowyn held the flap open and Rebecca squeezed past her into the dim candlelit tent. She set her pack on the empty cot to the left before turning to look at Éowyn. “Thanks for letting me share your tent.” She tried her best to sound sincere.

Éowyn stared at her and then said, “But you’d rather be with your friends, wouldn’t you?” Rebecca turned pink as she nodded. “Then why are you here?”

Sitting down on the cot with a weary sigh that turned into a yawn, Rebecca started to remove her boots before she answered. “I didn’t want to argue with Aragorn.” She looked over at Éowyn who was sitting on the cot opposite her. “He seemed… upset about something.” Rebecca saw Éowyn flinch slightly as she said that and wondered why. “But it will be nice to sleep on a cot for one more night.”

“Lord Aragorn’s upset with me.”

“You? Why?” Rebecca couldn’t imagine what Éowyn could possibly have done that would cause Aragorn to be so distracted.

“I pleaded with him to take me with you.” Éowyn stared at the ground, absently pushing her long golden hair behind her ears as she spoke.

“You did what?” Rebecca stared at her in disbelief. “Why would you do that?” she whispered.

Éowyn’s head came up and her eyes were blazing fire as she glared at Rebecca. “I want to fight,” she hissed. “I hate being left behind as if I’m useless and weak. I’ve trained all my life and now when I’m needed they ride off without me,” she said, her voice full of pain and bitterness.

Rebecca shook her head and tried to reason with her. “But Éowyn, it’s… it’s horrible. The blood and death and just the sounds are… I can’t even describe how awful it was at Helm’s Deep.” Rebecca pulled her feet up on the cot and wrapped her arms around her knees as she spoke; the images from the battle flooded her mind once again. “It’s not something you want to experience if you can possibly avoid it,” she said gazing at Éowyn with tear-filled eyes which she rapidly blinked away.

Éowyn looked at her for a long moment and then shrugged. “I’d still go with you if Lord Aragorn would permit it.”

“Do you want to die? We might never leave this place we go tomorrow.” Rebecca couldn’t bring herself to say Paths of the Dead.

Staring at the ground, Éowyn whispered, “No, Rebecca, not really. I just don’t want to be alone if… if my uncle and my brother die in this battle ahead. I don’t know if you can understand that…”

“I can,” Rebecca interrupted. “I used to feel that way, too. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to Thomas or Aragorn,” she paused when she saw Éowyn nod and a glimmer of understanding started to come to Rebecca. “But,” she continued softly, “I don’t want to die, even if… something horrible happens to those I love.” She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. “And it can, Éowyn. Did you see Thomas?” Éowyn shook her head as she gazed intently at Rebecca. “An orc slashed him here,” she dragged a finger along the side of her face, “and it broke his helm and he came very close to dying. One of your men saved him. The man standing next to me was killed. It could just as easily have been me.”

“You get to go with the men and you are younger than I am,” she said bitterly.

“Yes, but my path is different than yours. I’m Aragorn’s ward and my place is with him. I can’t explain it to you any more than that.”

Éowyn shook her head in frustration, “After all you say and as horrible as it sounds, Rebecca, my heart still would ride with you and Lord Aragorn tomorrow.”

Knowing she had no business asking, Rebecca did so anyway. “Do you have feelings for Aragorn?”

First looking shocked and then embarrassed, Éowyn slowly nodded. “I do, I think I love him.”

“Love? How can you love someone you barely know?” Rebecca asked in surprise, now understanding what was bothering Aragorn.

“What do you know about love?” Éowyn said angrily. “You’re too young to understand.”

“I may be young, but I know it takes time to get to know someone.” Rebecca shook her head, fingering the chain of the pendant Thomas had given her in Lothlórien. “Éowyn, it just surprised me, it’s between you and Aragorn.”

Éowyn dropped her head. “I know,” she whispered, “and he doesn’t see me that way so it matters not. Forgive me for responding that way,” she sighed. “I think it would be best if we slept now, you look exhausted.”

“I am exhausted,” Rebecca admitted. She stood and shook out her bedroll and slipped out of her hauberk before lying down to sleep. “Good night, Éowyn.”

“Good night.”

-------

In spite of Rebecca’s wishes to sleep well, Aragorn did not. He joined the others at the fire until Thomas and Halbarad slept and then he slipped away into the night. He sat leaning back against a rock overlooking the valley smoking his pipe and lost in thought.

Éowyn’s declarations of love had not really surprised him; he had seen the looks she had given him in Edoras. The problem, besides the fact that he did not return her affection, was that he could not tell her that he was already betrothed. Only Legolas, Halbarad, and his brothers knew of his betrothal to Arwen and he was not going to reveal that to a relative stranger before he told some of his close friends. Aragorn thought longingly of Arwen for a moment, hoping that tomorrow would not be the end of both his life, but also of their brothers. Losing all three of them would surely cause both Arwen and Elrond to fade from grief. Aragorn shook his head knowing that he could not let himself dwell on those thoughts. He knew he was making the only decision that gave them a chance of success, yet so many lives were at stake on something so unknown. It was not like a battle where he knew beforehand that some of his men would die; this was something that could claim all their lives.

Aragorn refilled his pipe as he gazed up at the star of Eärendil overhead, gauging the time from its passage across the night sky. “What took you so long?” he asked Elladan as the elf settled cross-legged onto the grass beside him. “I expected you some time ago.”

“We were waiting for your pipe to go out,” Elrohir said as he stretched out on Aragorn’s other side, leaning back on his elbows. “But I see that we misjudged it.”

Elladan glared at his twin briefly. “We knew you needed some time alone, Estel. Your heart is burdened by more than just the path we take in the morning.”

Aragorn nodded, “Yes, it is,” he admitted, still staring up at the night sky.

Elrohir sat up and laid a gentle hand on Aragorn’s shoulder and looked at him with compassion. “It will ease your burden to share it,” he said softly.

Glancing between his brothers, Aragorn knocked the last of the pipe-weed from his pipe as he pondered his next words and how his brothers would take them. The twins waited with typical elvish patience for his response. Finally, Aragorn spoke and his voice was low and hesitant for he knew this would hurt his brothers no matter how well-intentioned he meant them. “I want you both to stay here tomorrow and then either return to Rivendell or go to Minas Tirith with Théoden.” His brothers sported identical looks of mixed shock, hurt, and anger. “I just, I do not…”

“How can you ask such a thing?” Elladan asked his grey eyes almost black in his fury.

“Because I would not see you…”

Elladan cut him off. “Hurt? You are worried about Elrohir and I being injured?” he scoffed. “He and I have been fighting orcs for thousands of years. You have seen us fight, you have fought alongside us, you need not fear for us.”

Aragorn glanced at Elrohir, but his body was turned away and his head was bowed. “It is not the fighting I am worrying about, Elladan, Elrohir,” he reached over and grabbed Elrohir’s shoulder. “You know that. But these paths we tread…” Elrohir gracefully spun around and looked carefully at Aragorn as he softly continued. “We do not know what will happen. Think what it will do to Arwen and Adar if all three of us die.” Aragorn saw dawning comprehension in both elves eyes, but it was Elrohir who spoke, his voice soft and slightly musical.

“Do you not think we considered that before we came?”

“This is different, Elro…”

“Cease, Estel,” Elladan said, holding up his hand. “We knew this path was a possibility, we discussed it with Adar. I have fought by your side all your life; I am not leaving you now as you approach your rightful place on the throne of Gondor.”

“I know your heart is in the right place, but this is one of those times, muindor nín, that you have to trust that your very much older brothers know best,” Elrohir said as he smiled gently.

Aragorn bowed his head in acceptance as he muttered, “That prophecy better hold true.”

-------


“Easy, Baldor, easy,” Thomas spoke soothingly to the horse as he readied it in the pre-dawn darkness. He could only assume that the return of Baldor’s agitation was caused by a combination of the nervousness of the men and the proximity to the haunted mountains. Whatever the cause, Baldor was more restless than at any point since Éomer had given him the horse and now it was a struggle just to saddle it.

“Do you want some help?” A friendly-sounding voice asked and Thomas glanced over to see one of the Rangers standing nearby.

“Much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m going to need it.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Here, take the saddle,” Thomas thrust it into the Ranger’s hands, “and I’ll hold his head and talk to him. Maybe he’ll hold still for a minute.” The Ranger nodded and Thomas took both sides of the bridle and held Baldor’s head steady as he continued to talk quietly to the restless horse. The Ranger gently laid the saddle on the horse’s back and tightened the girth strap before stepping back. “Good boy,” Thomas said stroking Baldor’s neck wondering how he was going to be able to ride him. “Thank you,” he said turning to look more closely at the Ranger. He had what Thomas was coming to realize was the typical Dúnedain look - tall, dark hair and some shade of grey eyes; sometimes with a hint of blue or green, but more often not. “My name is Thomas,” he bowed slightly.

“Yes, I know. You’re Lord Aragorn’s ward. I’m Hinluin and you don’t need to bow to me,” he grinned. “Though I suppose I should bow to you,” he did so, “since you’re the chieftain’s ward.”

Thomas shook his head, “I wish you wouldn’t, I get tired of the bowing.” He looked closely at Hinluin, trying to guess his age, “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two, I’m the youngest of the Rangers here. How old are you?”

“I’m almost eighteen,” Thomas yanked on Baldor’s reins and patted its neck to settle the horse again. “It’s nice to finally meet someone a little closer to my own age,” he smiled.

“The next youngest Ranger here is thirty-nine.” Hinluin’s eyes suddenly strayed to two approaching Rangers and he straightened slightly and gave Thomas a worried glance. “It’s my brother and one of the captains,” he whispered. Thomas eyed them curiously.

“Lord Thomas,” they both bowed to him politely as he stared at them in shock.

“It’s just Thomas,” he finally said.

“No,” the older looking Ranger said, “as Lord Aragorn’s ward you will be treated with all the respect of that rank,” he glanced meaningfully at Hinluin who dropped his gaze to the ground.

Thomas saw the look, “Hinluin helped me saddle my horse and it has been wonderful for me to speak with someone of my own age.”

The Rangers nodded; somewhat reluctantly Thomas thought and then introduced themselves. “I’m Captain Caladithil and this is Hinhael, Hinluin’s older brother.”

“Thomas!” Legolas call as he rode up on Arod. “Aragorn is seeking you.”

“I’m coming.” He glanced back at the Rangers, “It was nice to meet you Captain Caladithil, Hinhael, and I hope to see you again, Hinluin,” he grinned. Thomas pulled gently on Baldor’s reins as he began to walk alongside Legolas. “What does Aragorn want?” he asked, glancing up at the elf.

“I know not,” though Legolas looked troubled.

“Are you worried about where we are going today, Legolas?”

Legolas shook his head, “The ghosts of men hold no fear for me. I am concerned, however for my friends,” he smiled gently down at Thomas, “and their fears. Especially those who fear the darkness.”

Thomas stopped dead in his tracks and Baldor almost bowled him over. “Darkness? It’s a cave then, Legolas?” he whispered in horror. “Not only ghosts, but the blackness of caves?” Thomas buried his head in his hands, “Of course it is… why didn’t I realize it?” he moaned.

Legolas slipped off Arod and laid an arm around Thomas’s shoulder. “Would it have made a difference, Thomas, except to lengthen your agony?” Thomas shook his head. “Then you must face it now as you did in Moria.” Thomas nodded miserably. Legolas left him for a moment and ran his hands over Baldor speaking softly in elvish and the horse settled immediately. “Can you continue?”

Thomas took a deep breath and looked Legolas in the eye, “Yes, I shouldn’t keep Aragorn waiting any longer.”

At his approach, Aragorn looked Thomas over in concern, but Legolas shook his head slightly and so he made no comment. “Thomas, I want you to ride near Legolas today in case that horse of yours acts up. We cannot afford to lose any of our horses; we will need them all when we reach the other side.”

“All right,” Thomas said quietly. “Where will Rebecca be?”

“I have asked her to stay near Halbarad, but as usual, he will be riding close to me.”

Thomas nodded. “Then she will be well protected. When are we leaving?”

“In a couple of minutes, are you ready?”

“Yes.” Thomas turned back to Baldor while Aragorn looked at Legolas in confusion.

“He will be fine, mellon nín. Do not dwell on him this day; fear does strange things to even the bravest of men.”

“I should have realized, I had forgotten about Moria.”

“You knew?”
Legolas looked at him in surprise.

“I do have eyes and ears, mellon nín… even if mine are not elvish ones.” Aragorn patted his shoulder as he moved to mount Roheryn.

--------

The grey company passed quietly along the steep, rocky trails that led to the door into the mountain. Everyone was bundled tightly into their cloaks against the light misty rain that surrounded them adding to the eerie atmosphere and further unsettling both people and horses. Several hours after sunrise they reached a dark opening that led directly into the mountain and Aragorn reined Roheryn to a halt. He turned in his saddle and addressed the others, his low voice sounding loud in the unnatural quiet of the canyon.

“We must walk from here, but take care not to lose your horse,” his glance falling sternly on the youngest members of his company, Hinluin, Rebecca, and Thomas. “We will have need of them later. May the Valar protect us.” He dismounted and he and his brothers kindled fire for several torches while Legolas walked around soothing the restless horses.

Thomas shifted nervously on the balls of his feet as he tightened his grip on the bridle right up under Baldor’s mouth. He searched ahead for Rebecca and saw her standing with Halbarad. A slight noise caught his attention and Thomas looked down to see Gimli looking pale and frightened and muttering what Thomas assumed were dwarvish curses under his breath. “Gimli, are you all right?” The dwarf ignored him and Thomas glanced at Legolas as the elf returned, but he just shook his head at Thomas’s questioning look.

Gimli did not move when Aragorn led the way into the tunnel and Thomas wanted to wait for him, but Legolas pushed him firmly along. “Lord Elrohir,” he nodded to the elf standing alongside the trail as they passed, “will be the rear guard and will not leave Gimli behind.” Legolas smiled briefly, “The dwarf would not want us to wait and his pride will be injured if we mention it.”

They had passed inside the tunnel without Thomas noticing and all of a sudden he was overwhelmed by the darkness surrounding them and he drew in a sharp breath. The darkness pressed in on him from every side and he could barely see the light from the torch Elladan carried.

“Breath, Thomas,” Legolas said quietly and Thomas slowly exhaled and focused his eyes on the horse ahead of him.

---------

Aragorn strode steadily along the path with his sword drawn and Elladan at his side holding a torch to light their way. The further in they walked, the heavier the darkness felt and he started to become aware of faint whispers tickling the edges of his consciousness. He could sense no real evil intent as of yet, more a curiosity of what could bring such a large company into this place where only the dead lingered. He leaned toward Elladan, “What do you sense?”

“Unrest…concern…”
he narrowed his eyes in thought, “many questions… but no real anger.”

“I sense much the same,”
he nodded, glancing around as they entered a large chamber that had only one exit on the far side which they took without stopping to explore the room.

---------

Walking close to Halbarad, Rebecca kept a firm grip on Hasufel, determined not to lose hold of him and let Aragorn down. She was close enough to Elladan and the torch that the darkness did not bother her; it was much brighter than Moria. She had not seen any ghosts either, though she was starting to hear some strange noises that made her shiver. Rebecca looked ahead when Aragorn and Elladan spoke quietly, but otherwise kept her eyes focused on the ground at her feet. She wished Thomas was closer, but she knew how Baldor had been acting and it was probably best if Legolas was with him. Still, they could at least be walking nearby. Rebecca glanced back but she could not see them in the gloom.

“Are you well, lady?” Halbarad asked in a low voice.

“I’m fine. Do you know how long this will take?”

“No one does.”

“Oh, right,” remembering too late that no one had ever done this before. They fell into silence again.

--------

Thomas could now hear the low murmurings of the voices of the dead and between that and the darkness his hands started to shake. Baldor reacted by dancing nervously sideways and Legolas was there instantly, taking the reins and calming the horse. “He will be fine now, Thomas,” Legolas said, pressing the reins back into his hands as other members of the company passed. “And so will you, mellon nín.” Legolas leaned down and stared directly into Thomas’s eyes.

“I can’t do this, Legolas,” he pleaded, trying to shrug off Legolas’s hand on his shoulder.

“And where will you go?” the elf asked softly.

Thomas stilled and looked around him as he realized that there was no choice but to go forward. He swallowed hard. “I-I still… can you help me, Legolas?” he whispered.

“I will do what I can.” Legolas glanced behind them. “Lord Elrohir is coming; I think it would help you to walk in the light, would it not?”

Thomas nodded and took several deep breaths, and Legolas sang softly in elvish while they waited for Elrohir and Gimli to approach. Thomas fell in alongside Elrohir without a word, missing the meaningful glances the elves exchanged. He trudged along with his head down, desperately trying to think of other things. Pushing the noise of the dead into the background as best he could, he decided to recall all of the wonderful times he had spent with Rebecca in Lothlórien. His breathing slowly returned to normal as the minutes turned into hours.

--------

By the time the company reached a huge open chamber the whispering of the dead had become louder and more strident, causing Aragorn and Elladan to exchange uneasy glances.

“There is a growing sense of anger, Estel. I think it is time.”

Aragorn nodded grimly, “I sense it too. This chamber was obviously a gathering place of some type; it will serve our purpose well.” He brought the company to a halt and the men and horses shifted uneasily under the onslaught of voices and even the glimpses of ghosts that were starting to appear.

Holding his sword aloft, Aragorn called out in a clear, strong voice. “I am Isildur’s heir and I summon you to the stone at Erech that you may fulfill the oath you swore long ago.” The voices that had grown quiet while he spoke now rose up again even louder than before.

Aragorn turned and hurried out the other side of the chamber.

“I sense confusion now, Estel, not anger.”

“There is also…”
Aragorn looked at his brother for a moment with a puzzled frown, “Do you sense hope?”

Elladan nodded, “Some, as if there may finally be a chance for them to find peace after thousands of years of wandering and unrest.”

“We must hurry to reach Erech before midnight.”


They pushed on relentlessly, taking no breaks to rest or eat; as they had no clear way of knowing how much time had passed, how much longer the tunnel was, and once outside the tunnel how far it was to Erech.

-------

Rebecca found herself wishing she had earplugs of some kind to block out the noise. She settled for pulling her hood up and tying it tightly around her head, but it had little effect and it did nothing to stop the wisps of ghosts that she now caught glimpses of from the corners of her eyes. She sighed wearily as they marched along hoping they would soon come to the end of the tunnel so they could ride again. At that thought Rebecca laughed inwardly to herself knowing that just the day before she had been dreading spending more time in the saddle.

The passageway narrowed to where only one horse could walk at a time and the company slowed to a crawl. “Follow Lord Elladan,” Halbarad directed Rebecca and she did so, stepping carefully on the rock-strewn path. The passageway twisted and turned for a long way and then suddenly Rebecca found herself walking on grass under a star-filled sky. “Aragorn!” she cried when she saw him, “We made it through!”

“Yes, Rebecca, we are through this part of our path. Stand over there with Halbarad and eat something. We will ride on as soon as everyone is out.”

Rebecca sobered quickly and moved aside and started rummaging through her pack for some dried meat and bread. Chewing her supper she watched for Thomas and Legolas to emerge. Her expression grew more and more concerned when they did not appear.

“Lady?” Halbarad looked at her with a question in his eyes.

“Thomas and Legolas should have come out by now. They were only a few men behind us,” she explained. “I hope they are all right.”

“We would know if they were not.”

“True…” Rebecca was not convinced.

Finally, Rebecca saw Gimli emerge followed quickly by Legolas who looked back and said something, laughing quietly as Thomas walked out. Elrohir followed Thomas and after glancing around moved to join his brothers, handing his torch to Thomas as he passed.

“Everyone is out, Elrohir?” Aragorn watched Thomas with concern as the young man walked to Rebecca.

“Yes, Thomas and I were the last.”

“Good…” Aragorn hesitated a moment and then nodded. “We need to ride then,” he glanced at the stars. “We have about five hours until midnight. Halbarad?” Aragorn looked over at his cousin.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Give the men five minutes and then we ride.” Halbarad nodded and walked swiftly away. Aragorn turned to Roheryn and checked his girth strap and bridle before grabbing some dried meat from his pack. He ate one and tucked a piece in a pocket of his leather coat for later. He mounted and saw his men… and Rebecca quickly follow his lead. Aragorn watched her maneuver Hasufel over alongside Halbarad to where he was talking to some of the men and was pleased, knowing he could trust his cousin to watch over her for him.

“We must ride swiftly now,” Aragorn called and the company headed off across the rolling green tree-dotted foothills on the southern side of the White Mountains. They could hear the dead following, but it was no more than a faint whisper now that they had left the enclosed tunnels behind.

They rode hard up and down the hills and across the dales of this part of Gondor, crossing streams and passing through small stands of evergreen trees. As midnight approached they reached the strange round black rock of Erech that was said to have been left by the men of Númenor. Aragorn jumped from his horse, tossing the reins to Elladan and strode swiftly to Halbarad. “I need this now, Cousin,” he said, pointing to the pole strapped to the horse. Halbarad dismounted and the two of them untied it. Aragorn hurried toward the stone and Halbarad started to follow, but looked back at Rebecca uncertainly.

“Go with your king,” she said softly. “I’ve got the horses and Gimli, Legolas, and Thomas are coming,” she pointed with her head to where they were approaching.

Halbarad nodded once and hurried after Aragorn staying as close to him as was possible. Standing in front of the stone, Aragorn unfurled the black banner Arwen had made and planted the pole in the ground near his left foot. In the darkness nothing could be seen on the banner by the mortals, but a stirring could be heard among the dead. Aragorn unsheathed Andúril and lifted it high for all to see. “Oath breakers, why have you answered my summons?”

Something swirled and stirred in the mist-like substance that now surrounded the company and one slightly more distinct figure stepped forth. “To fulfill our oath, Heir of Isildur, that we may find rest at last.”

“Do you speak for all here?” Aragorn demanded.

“I do, my king,” the ghostly figure bowed low. “I was their king in life and in death they still answer to me.”

“Then I say that to be released from your oath, you must fight for me until these lands are cleansed of my enemies,” Aragorn said, his face proud and voice stern. “Only then will I release you so that your spirits may find rest and be released from this world.”

“It shall be done as you command, my king,” the ghost king bowed again.

“Remove yourselves now beyond those trees so my men can sleep. We leave at dawn for Pelargir.”

~~~

+From Return of the King copyright 1955 by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, page 764

Reviewers: Many thanks to everyone who is reading this story and especially to those who reviewed. I appreciate the encouragement.

Elvish Translations:

Mellon nín – my friend
Hannon le – I thank thee
Daeradar – grandfather
Daernaneth - grandmother


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