Autumn, T.A. 1940
The twilight of a southern May glowed with more than stars: Osgiliath had its lamps lit, a spiral of light that faltered on the east bank, but on the west, the lanterns shone warmly through their colored paper sheaths.
Further west, from out the shadow of Mindolluin, could be seen a light gleaming – the Tower of Ecthelion was the Evenstar to the Dome's vast host, all alight for Varda and the friendship of two kingdoms, renewed in the vows of Arvedui of Arnor and Fíriel of Gondor.
They met upon the bridge, before the Court of the Kings, and joined hands and lands, while all the people and the soldiers had cheered.
But to the east, in the gathering gloam, the Ephel Dúath stood stark witnesses, as the sun, wavering in its own heat, gave way to the night.
In the hills north of Annúminas, the shepherds' dogs pricked their ears to hear the faint ringing of the city's bells – honoring the marriage of their prince. In that high, airy place of stone and fountains, the city of the sunset towers, people would sing the marriage hymns, but later light a candle in the window to a whispered incantation: little lights and pale echos of the bonfires and song that would spring from the hilltops this night, calling for Yavanna's fruitful blessings on the union of lands and peoples.
But Yavanna's gifts need long nurturing, and under shadow of the North, fruitfulness could turn to devastation, proliferation could lay waste – three kingdoms out of one was no good gift. And in the Night that followed sunset, in the darkness, ills mushroomed, weeds took root and spread.
And so someone, some worthy child, would offer the first flame to the Night, that he trouble them not, and toss the ransom coins for luck – for Arvedui and Fíriel, and all Elendil's children:
“Honor to the Night, but pass, O pass us by...!”
Winter, T.A. 1974
Far to the north, the Hithaeglir loomed over great, empty wastes. Snow lay in unbroken, pristine drifts – endless white beneath the endless, exposed night.
Somewhere in the darkness, a voice cried out – piercing as the wind, echoing in the stillness. As if the very night itself had cried out.
And on the icy fields, a small sled slid to a halt, tilting precariously upon a runner, and, as its driver jerked, it tipped too far and spilled him free. For a time, the man lay in the snow, and the wind frosted his clothes. But at length, he flailed about, as if waking suddenly, and clambered clumsily forward on all fours, sinking hands and feet into the snow 'til he found the sled again, and by touch found the snowshoes tied to them. Dragging them free, he managed, with shaking hands, and many a moan lost to the wind, to tie them fast to his boots; then, like a drunkard, he lurched to his feet.
It was dark beneath the clouds, and the wind was ruthless, but he set forth at a clomping, staggering run, and left his dying sled dog to its fate without a backwards glance.
Behind him, the Night cried out again, and then fell silent, save for the wind.
In the days of Arvedui's ascendency, all the northern marches of Rhudaur were abandoned, empty of even the herders who ventured there in the greener days of summer.
Not a living soul could be found there in winter – save in the little ring of outposts dug into the low hillocks just north of Rhudaur's old border, hidden from the air and unfriendly eyes – Arthedain's sleepless watch on Angmar ever since the last war. “Keepers of the Kingdom,” men would say, which had always been a way of saying that such men would keep the kingdom more readily than their own lives, when Angmar marched again to war.
Five hundred years, however, would dull even elven sensibilities, and what had once been a perilous post in enemy territory had dwindled in horror, though not in boredom. The border watch was a thankless task: tedious in summer, misery in winter, and a good place to send those one might wish to forget.
Even the watchers would happily have forgotten themselves, could they but wish themselves away. Hiril's breath steamed as, two cups of hot tea in hand, he carefully negotiated the icy rungs up to the watcher's flet, as the scouts called such, cursing the ladder. When he was near enough the top to manage it, he banged on the trap 'til the watcher hauled it open.
Breath frosting on the air, Hiril wobbled out, squinting in the light, and greeted the watchman with a sardonic: “Good morn on Grey Hill!”
“Not yet,” Alondir, the laconic commander of their post, replied. Ignoring the swiftly-cooling tea offered him, he instead beckoned Hiril to join him at the rail. “Look north – what see you?”
Eyes already narrowed to watering slits against the icy wind, he answered: “Tírion on Túna! Sir, I cannot – ”
Alondir took the cups from him, swift and impatient, and set them aside on the little board. “Cover your eyes and look.”
Stifling a sigh – even on Grey Hill, one ought not to try one's commander overly – Hiril did as he was told, dashed the ice from his lashes, and swiftly pulled the dark gauze band down over his eyes. Then he turned back to the blinding fields of thick, gleaming snow. To east, the mountains were a darkness illumined by shafts of sunlight. To west lay a wasteland of white beneath a pale winter's sky, and to the north – to the north, there was grey...
“Clouds lowering,” he muttered, unhappily. “We should have snow today, and... what is that?” Alondir said nothing, just waited, as Hiril narrowed his eyes still further, staring north. “Something moves on the ice,” he murmured, at last.
“Bear?” Alondir asked, sharply.
“Nay, I think – I think it is a man. A scout perhaps, but...” Hiril shook his head in wonderment. “He goes afoot! And alone.”
That was puzzling, and it raised the hairs on his neck, for though Hiril had been on the Angmar watch not two years, he knew full well men did not go alone in this bitter weather. In such snow as they had, this deep in winter, most often the watchers took the dogs and their sleds – 'twas faster and surer and could carry more firewood against need. Why anyone would walk abroad like this...
Alondir grunted, then ordered: “Tell Baragil to harness the dogs and take his herbs. You and Tilgon stand ready, and send Calion to keep watch here.”
“I mistrust this morning's tidings,” Alondir explained, then gave him a sharp look. “Now, Hiril!”
And since in Grey Hill, there were worse things than even cold to fear, Hiril, without another word, turned and scurried down the ladder to do his commander's bidding.
It was a man. With Calion on watch, that left only Tilgon, Hiril and Alondir to crowd 'round the narrow entry to Grey Hill as Baragil returned with the stranger. Hiril and Tilgon hastily pulled their hats and hoods on to go and unharness the dogs, while the commander helped Baragil bring the man in.
"Looks like one of ours." Tilgon spoke low under his breath. Like Hiril, he was young, but new to the post the past year, and his eyes were anxious above the scarf that covered most of his face.
"Could be a trader who winters with the Lossoth," Hiril opined.
"Then why is he not with them?"
"Could be something happened to the tribe."
"Such as?" Tilgon demanded.
"Many things." Hiril shrugged. "This land is not kind, and the Forodwaith is worse still, they say. Mayhap someone is injured, or the year was seal-poor," he reasoned. "I hear that in a bad season, the Lossoth will send the women and children, a few each, to neighboring tribes with a portion of the season's take in seal and whatever else they've caught and killed – the 'barter tithe,' they call it – and beg to winter with them. Why would they not send Dúnedain to Dúnedain?"
“But he is coming here,” Tilgon said urgently. “The Lossoth would send him to First Hill outpost, surely.”
So much for speculation, then! Hiril sighed, but hurriedly tossed the ganglines onto the sled. The dogs milled about him, ears down, and whining softly as they awaited release to such warmth as the outpost offered. Thalandir, their chief, even lifted himself to lay his forepaws on Hiril's chest, licking at his face pleadingly. “Aiya, easy lad,” Hiril murmured, but he waved them in, and watched wagging tails disappear into Grey Hill.
"Well, we shall have our answers soon enough, once the poor fellow revives," he told his comrade, and clapped him on the shoulder. "So help me stow the sled in the spring shed and then we can go hear the news!"
The news however was not swift forthcoming. The stranger lay insensible, swaddled close as a babe in a pile of furs, dreaming uneasily. From time to time, he would murmur or call out, shivering and twitching in his sleep, and Baragil, who served as healer among their little company's number, frowned over him.
"He suffers from fever, though he has no wounds to cause such. If he has been in the open wind for long, then it may be nothing. Men sick of cold will often burn when they are out of the weather at last. It passes," Hiril overheard him telling Alondir, who nodded knowingly.
"Said he aught to you when you came upon him? He is one of our men, no doubt, but how came he to our doorstep like this?" the commander asked, staring at their guest with a keen eye.
"He said little of any sense. He raved about the night coming. I could not make him understand me, or tell me his name." Baragil spread his hands, helplessly. "Let him rest, sir. He will speak when he is able."
So as the morning grew colder, the men of Grey Hill outpost gladly took turns helping Baragil care for his patient, doing little chores for him: braving the weather outside to scoop more snow for tea or soup water, boiling it, helping him grind portions of their precious herb stock for the stranger. Gladly, for the sake of one helpless, but also for themselves, for the little less boredom they suffered. And Baragil kept a steady flow of clean bandages, warm from the hearth, tucked about the man, while Alondir stationed himself by the pallet and mended his gear. The morning passed, and as the brief northern day marked its brightest hour, their guest grew more quiet for a time, but then his restlessness returned renewed, and more violent.
He cried out in terror of the night, calling to his friends, or his brothers perhaps, in the habit of men gravely ill, though Hiril's ears were not the only ones to prick when he called to Therion. Alondir frowned at mention of the commander of First Hill outpost. Huddled in their corner, the dogs listened, their eyes bright and fur ruffed, whimpering softly from time to time, despite Hiril's and Tilgon's soothing. Even Thalandir, who would suffer no other hound to lead in harness, seemed anxious.
Some hours later, Calion came down from the watcher's flet, and Hiril took his turn at that chill station, feeling obscurely relieved to leave their guest to his dreams.
It had been but a little while since the sun had risen, yet already, it was evening, to see the sky tell it. To north, that hazy mass of clouds hung still, advancing ever nearer Grey Hill, while above it, Yavanna's Crown danced greenly, playing about the crests of the mountains of Angmar.
One more season, Hiril thought, longingly. Come summer, replacements would arrive for him and for Calion; they two would stay 'til the cusp of autumn, then depart to kinder posts with the horses for the winter. No one lasted long on the Angmar watch, and the kings of Arthedain and Cardolan before them had wisely refused to keep men on it overlong. One winter was training, the second torment, as men said, and no one was ever forced to serve a third.
Hiril certainly would be happy to leave the chill and solitude of the Angmar watch. He had thought himself indifferent to snow, for the hills north of Annúminas were cold indeed come winter, but he had not imagined such a wasteland as this. Had he, he might have thought twice when his captain had offered him a choice: Grey Hill to pay off the price of dower and a second chance, or marry the girl. But he hadn't, and so he had chosen Grey Hill. Not that Hiril thought so ill of Aline – she'd certainly shown him a good night – but he'd met her once in a tavern in Annúminas's lower circles and was not looking for a wife yet.
To some degree, it was the tale of every man here – no one wanted the Angmar watch, not for itself. It paid well and was over swiftly, but it was the sort of posting to humble all but a few. None volunteered for it but those with an eye to its stipend, and the captains each year sent a few miscreants to round out its meager ranks – not because they had done aught especially irredeemable, but because someone had to do it, and whoever it was might as well deserve it. Let him buy back a place in the sun with a turn in the winter's shade, as it were.
And so here they were, the skew and piebalds in the ranks of Arnor's defenders. Of Grey Hill's five, Calion had a lass at home he meant to marry and few means, while Tilgon dreamed of 'prenticing his younger brothers to some trade beyond farming or soldiering. Baragil was older, his children grown, and might have hoped to serve his last years in some gentler posting, physicking those lads who spent too long in the taverns. He had a steady hand, certainly, but a weakness for dice and much debt.
As for Alondir – the commander was a mystery to the younger men. His family was from Tharbad, which made him more Cardolanese than Arthadan, but he had left home young and served in Fornost for a few years. Afterward, he had been sent to the Bree garrison for a time before claiming the Grey Hill post. That had been four years ago by his own admission, and he looked to stay on after Calion and Hiril left.
“Why, sir?” Calion had once asked. Alondir had lifted a brow, and said merely:
“Because there are worse things than cold and a little solitude.” But he would say no more, and no one had the temerity to press him, though Tilgon later had remembered himself of a Breeland cousin's tale of men in the Bree garrison patrolling about the downs, where Tyrn Gorthad lay.
“There were some men who claimed to go into the barrows – to look for wights, though I think they were not supposed to. But some did, at least, and came not out – and others, who went in after them, they fell ill afterward. That was four years ago, too. Cousin Brendan said some men, who had made a game of such ventures, were sent home in disgrace.”
Baragil, though, had shaken his head. “'Tis not that,” he had said, with certainty. And to their skeptical looks, had pointed out that the captains used the Angmar watch to punish the rank and file, not erring officers: “If they will send the likes of us here, to a place like this, then they want a firm hand over us – one they can trust to keep us in order.”
“Then why does he stay?” Tilgon had asked, baffled. Baragil had merely shrugged and said nothing. Even he, who as a rule rubbed along far more easily with Alondir than anyone else did, whether by virtue of age or of calling or of some other reason altogether, was not privy to the commander's secrets. Likely no one would be, before his longed-for spring and release came.
Thinking of that much-anticipated day did Hiril no good today, though. Winter was not half-done yet, and if the immense storm advancing toward them were a sign of the season, then they would be waiting for spring well into summer! Truly, the clouds seemed to slide down Angmar's forbidding slopes and seep out over the plains, as if a giant had spilled his inkwell...
Hiril stiffened suddenly. For as the sliver of sun threw its last low rays outward, they slipped beneath the clouds, illuminating their bellies, and the snow beneath gleamed briefly dazzling – save where a shadow lay, as if the darkness of the clouds had seeped onto the earth below in a great and spreading stain.... Hiril felt his heart clench in his breast, and he stooped, yanking the trap open.
"Commander!" he called down into the outpost, and in a twinkling, heard the scuff and creak of Alondir on the rails.
"What is it?" he demanded as he emerged onto the flet. Hiril simply pointed to the dark mass. Alondir stared a moment, then abruptly turned and snapped: "Down below – ready the dogs!"
Hiril gaped, but then glanced from Alondir's stormy face to the storm gathering and nearly fell over himself (and the ladder) to obey. The others looked up at his arrival, but he spared no word, just grabbed the harnesses and, cursing cold-stiffened fingers, began fitting Thalandir out in one.
"Tilgon, help him," Alondir ordered as he followed Hiril down. "Calion, supplies – as much as the dogs can carry with a driver."
Alondir, however, paid Calion no heed. Instead, he strode over to where their guest lay
whimpering and tossing in his sleep; after staring a moment, he stooped, grabbed a mug of tea warming near the fire, and then, to the horror of his men, yanked the blankets down to dash the liquid over him.
"Commander!" Baragil protested, and for a moment, all labor ceased. Alondir rounded on them fiercely, and cowed, Calion, Hiril and Tilgon hurriedly went back to their tasks, though with an eye still to the corner where the commander knelt and grabbed a handful of shirt, jerked their guest upright and shoved him against the wall. The man cried out, and eyelids fluttered revealing dazed, grey eyes. Alondir shook his head and began slapping him lightly. And to Baragil's efforts to shield the other, he snarled:
"Either he wakes and speaks, or we may all lie down beside him and sleep our last!" Then: "Wake, man – you are a messenger of Arthedain! Speak, then – what news for Grey Hill? What walks in this storm tonight?"
The poor fellow had the look of a rabbit in a fox's lair, and he was trembling violently now, but at mention of “night,” he blanched and, as if the name were a talisman, words spilled forth in a panicky babbling: "The n-night is c-come! It's come d-down. D-down down from the m-mountain, it has c-come down..."
"When?” demanded Alondir. “This morning? What comes?"
"The night... the night... O V-valar, the b-blackness!" Their visitor was sobbing now, and after a moment Baragil, grimacing, discreetly brushed at his tears. "The dogs – all h-howling, biting – all mad, all m-madness!” Beast-like, he shook his head, the violent sloughing of an agitated horse, and Alondir, with a noise of frustration, caught his chin and held him.
“What came down?” he asked again, as he might a very small, very slow child. White-eyed, the messenger stared, and Hiril found his stomach cramping a bit to hear the other's panting fear. The commander growled softly. “Curse you, what came down?”
“H-him. D-down w-with the s-storm...” came the faint response at last. “He c-came... the darkness... Ai Valar! 'Tis him and he s-saw me!”
At that, Alondir sucked in a breath. His grip slackened, and he sank back on his haunches – the whole outpost, indeed, seemed to forget to breathe at these words. For to those who manned the northernmost ring of Arthedain's posts, He was one man – and none living.
“H-he s-saw... he saw, he saw,” the poor man moaned, rocking a little, trembling hands lifted in warding. “Ai, Valar, he s-sees... honor to him! Honor to him let me be!”
It was Baragil who broke the stunned, leaden silence. “We must get word to Arthedain, to the Weather Hills – to Imladris if we can.”
Alondir nodded. “Pull the sled from the shed and bring it about,” he ordered, as he laid their guest, who moaned and mumbled breathlessly, “Honor to him... honor to him...”, gently down once more.
“Aye, sir,” Baragil replied, but then hesitated. A sharp rebuke was already half past Alondir's lips, when the healer asked quietly, “And who shall take this news to Arthedain?”
Who indeed? Though the king's decree said no more than five should be left to man the outposts in the winter, to help each other and for company, that was four more than could drive a fully laden sled, and cavalry would not return 'til spring. For even when Cardolan made these posts, no one truly believed even Angmar would dare make a winter campaign – not from the highlands, Hiril thought bleakly.
Alondir fell silent, but only a moment, ere he stood and faced Baragil. "You shall," he answered. "If aught happens on the ice, then a healer will be needed – you may save yourself and the dogs long enough to pass the message." Turning to the rest of the condemned, he said simply: “Time is short.”
Chastened, the three of them returned to their tasks, though to Hiril it was as if his hands worked by another's will, as if he but watched them go through well-practiced moves, so numb did he feel. Baragil meanwhile silently wrapped himself in layers of fur and scarves. He hesitated, though, over his satchel of medicines, but Alondir reached, took it down from its peg, and firmly pressed it into his hands.
At length, the dogs were ready, and the ganglines secured; the sled had been brought and loaded with as much as could be spared and more of firewood and food. “It is a long way, and to hunt is hard labor, and long,” Alondir reasoned. “Best to make all speed, and fear less to feed the dogs well.”
For we shall not need it, Hiril added silently, and knew the others did as well. He gave the harness a final tug, and impulsively slipped his arms about Thalandir, burying his face in his thick fur. Thalandir whined nervously, clearly eager to be away.
“Be your name,” Hiril murmured then, ere retreating to the entryway.
It was a very somber, subdued farewell, as Baragil raised a hand to them, then took to the sled, ordering the dogs forward. The wind moaned, and by the lantern light, the first flurries of snow could be seen swirling. Alondir, however, did not let them look too long.
“Bar the door, and wedge it with whatever gear we have left. Tilgon, close the hatch and pull the ladder to the watcher's flet,” the commander ordered. And when the younger men simply looked at him, he sighed. “Lads, if it be Angmar in that storm, then to meet him where he has strength is foolishness! If he comes for us, we make him dig us out!”
“But sir, we've not much for barricades,” Hiril heard himself protest. Alondir looked at him a long moment, but then answered:
“We use whatever we have.”
“But – ” Hiril fell silent at the sound of steel slithering out of its sheath. Alondir pointed at the door with his dagger.
“Bar the door,” he repeated, and then indicated the ladder to the flet. “Calion – the hatch. And then you, Hiril,” he growled, “can stand the watch while the rest of you eat and see to our guest. Now do as I’ve said!”
There was no further talk after that. Men's packs, and the ladder, and the spare dog tack was piled against the door – in pretense of a barricade. Supper was eaten in silence, save for the stranger’s whimpered pleas to the night. The wind picked up, and they could hear it pulling at the hatch overhead ‘til at last snow lay thick enough upon it to hold it fast and hide it from the airs.
No one spoke. No one slept. The Kingdom's Keepers, they, standing to that duty allotted them – and yet they knew it was a lie. For they were dead men – dying for little dreams and petty failings too minor to earn even a quick, honest flogging elsewhere. Hiril found he could not look anyone too closely in the face. Supper lay like an ice crag in his stomach, while his mind had fixed on the memory of his grandfather, who had loved to play with him, singing a child's rhyme to a young and foolish boy:
Tell all the wild and fearful things
That walk the night and terrors bring
But honor first their cruel king
Lest on you, with eyes unseen,
he look and breathe his shadowing:
For blacker than the night can sing
where breath he breathes, death he brings.
Tell all the wild and fearful things... all the wild and fearful things... where breath he breathes, death he brings. That singsong chant was an unloved refrain that gave form to the dread that gripped like cold.
Time crawled past. The stranger's restlessness became a pitiable huddling: words gave way to a low moan of terror that seemed to trickle out with his breath, while he himself curled into a trembling knot of human limbs beneath the furs and did not move. Hiril felt his own breathing grow thin as well, felt the earthy walls bending close, pressing on his senses like the dusty weight of his own airless grave. And all the while the silence in the outpost grew louder, and louder, unbearably – !
Tell all the wild and fearful things...
Outside, the wind moaned, and of a sudden, the door rattled – as if something heavy had fallen against it. Something – to Hiril, it seemed a dog or a wolf or mayhap a bear – snarled and grunted, and there was a tremendous clatter and cracking from without.
Calion, now on “watch” by the door, started violently at the sound, but then as the noise continued, he squeezed his eyes shut, standing stiff as his sword, balled fists jammed under each arm. Overhead, the hatch shivered and there sounded a heavy thud!, as if something had leapt down upon it. Every man within flinched.
Yet nothing happened. Nothing, save that it seemed to Hiril that he heard then a hissing, and yet more creaking, and a sickening cold seemed to seep in from above. Calion blanched. Beside Hiril, Tilgon put a hand over his mouth and bent over to put his head between his knees. Hiril, heart racing, managed to swallow past the scream lodged in his throat, and even lifted a hand to touch Tilgon’s back. He slid his palm up ‘til he found a shoulder, and then dug his fingers in and gripped like a sailor in a storm. From his seat upon the stranger’s pallet, Alondir simply bowed his head as he unsheathed his sword and laid it across his knees.
Again that shivery hiss and chill, and wood creaked. Heart hammering in his chest, Hiril shut his eyes, and like the boy he had been, he mouthed the words of that old rhyme like a talisman against what haunted the night above them:
Tell all the wild and fearful things, that walk the night and terrors bring, but honor first their cruel king – honor first their cruel king, honor to you, cruel king!
Yet pass, O pass us by!
The hearth fire burned low and the shatter-sounds after a time ceased. Alondir followed Calion on the watch. The long hours of a northern winter’s night bled slowly away. They heard nothing more, unless it were the wind. And like a man waking well after long sickness, Hiril became aware, eventually, that he was breathing easier. Slowly, he lifted his head, and stared about at the fort – at the fire pit; at the men, still as if sleeping, hunched over or huddled up; at their pile of gear – as if seeing it again after a long absence.
Beside him, Tilgon stirred and then jerked, blinking as sleep fell from him – and then he winced, shrinking a little from Hiril's grip on his shoulder. In answer, Hiril pulled his hand free, wincing as he flexed his fingers, and he gave Tilgon a slightly sheepish smile. Then, surprised by that even, he looked to his commander. Alondir, who had lifted his head, raised a brow at him, but then gestured for him to rise and attend to the fire.
Hiril obeyed, if stiffly, crouching to tease the flames a bit before adding larger logs, and when they were burning well, he set their snow-filled kettle to warm over them. Then, since of the lot of them Calion was the best cook, he went to where the man slept, sharing the pallet with their guest, and laid a hand on his arm.
Calion’s eyes flew open, and he, too, stiffened, but then relaxed when he saw that it was only Hiril, who jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the hearth. For a moment, Calion just stared, bewildered, but then realizing the night had passed, he nodded, and thus, with silent looks and gestures, the members of the Grey Hill guard went about the morning’s tasks, such as they were when no one stood watch above, and no one dared try the door yet.
But evidently, the night’s terror had faded – it was as if it had passed with the storm. Indeed, Hiril wondered at the change, for though he feared still, it did not freeze him as it had. So even when Alondir took the ladder and set it in its brace, clearly bent on trying the hatch, he did not flinch, but simply gripped his sword and stood ready, in case help should be needed.
The commander reached up and undid the bolt-lock. The hatch fell open and cold wafted in on a snowy tumble, but nothing howled or snapped. No one cried out. Alondir sent more snow down to them, enough to clear a place for him to stand, then pulled himself out onto the flet. Below, Calion, Tilgon, and Hiril stood anxiously gazing up, waiting on news. Finally:
“Nothing. The shed is down, but the storm has passed south, and covered all in a new white coat.”
Tilgon sighed, and the three younger men exchanged relieved smiles, before their commander returned. He resealed the hatch and climbed down, leaping the last few feet. Seeing their lightened expressions, he frowned, admonishing:
“This is no good news, lads. If Angmar passed us in the night, 'tis because he would not stop for trifles – we five could no more ransom Arnor for a day than a fly could pay for a king's release even for an hour! He means to take Arthedain – that is all his intent.” He paused, then, expression grim. “Five hundred years we've waited for this – and thought to wait forever. But Cardolan is gone, and Arthedain is weak, and winter, as much as Angmar, lies between Arnor and Gondor now. He'll be deep in our lands ere we can press back.”
At that, Tilgon ducked his head, and Hiril and Calion lowered their eyes somewhat, shifting uncomfortably.
“What shall we do then, commander?” Calion asked.
“We hold as we are. We dig our way out, look to the shed – stand watch, and come spring spread word among the forts and prepare to march back to Arthedain on foot if need be.” Alondir looked gravely upon them all before he sighed, seeming to relent a little. “At least we may say that Angmar was denied the life of any man here, and that is something. Tilgon, Calion, you will help me dig us out while Hiril stands watch. After breakfast, though.”
So he said, and smiled – wryly at first, and then more broadly at their surprise, 'til Calion at length broke and ducked his head, chuckling. Alondir gave a short laugh, too, and clapped him on the shoulder, releasing them finally to their relief. They had been spared – and yet the prospect of some task to do made that lease on their little lives feel more worthwhile. For uselessness, at least, need not last. One could feel relief to be spared one duty to be useful again one day, without fault.
As Tilgon and Calion fell to finding their bowls amid the gear that had been shoved against the door, Hiril went to wake their guest, who surely must need to eat something after so terrible a journey from First Hill. Mayhap they would hear his tale today, and learn a little more of what had happened to the north. They could at least have all events heard, and ready to tell to others who might yet receive them come spring.
Though we should not press him, Hiril thought. The poor man has surely earned some respite after Alondir's ungentle questioning last night. 'Twould be ill indeed to overthrow the mind of one who has suffered so with demands.
But in fact, he need not have worried. When he laid a hand on the man and shook gently, the other did not move. And when Hiril took his hand, cold fingers lay stiff and unmoving in his grip. With an oath, he hauled on the fellow’s shoulder, shaking him, aware of the sudden cessation of low talk behind him, of all eyes turning toward him.
“Sir!” he called, but Alondir was there already, and Hiril quickly ceded his place. Alondir leaned over the man, brushing hair out of his face, then pressed fingers to his throat…
“Hand me his cloak,” he ordered after a moment, and held out his hand without looking back to see who obeyed. When Tilgon gave it over, Alondir shook it out and laid over the man, drawing the hood over his face.
“Bless your coming and your going, wayfarer,” he murmured, and then bowed his head.
“But there was no mark on him!” Calion protested.
“There never is,” Alondir murmured, seeming pained of a sudden. “I misspoke. The Witch-king breathed upon our friend, and where his shadow falls, there death must strike. For he never forfeits his tithe.”
There was a little silence, then Tilgon spoke, murmuring softly, voice thick and his gaze far away – looking homeward no doubt to his brothers and the farm: “He collects even from the flies...”
And if from the flies, then surely he would not hesitate to take his tribute and more from the larger prize...
“Arthedain is gone,” Calion said hoarsely.
“That's enough,” Alondir said sharply.
“But, sir – ”
“Enough, I said,” their commander snapped, and Tilgon flinched at his force. “We stand our watch, as the king commanded. And you bite your tongue ere you let slip a word that gives aught more to Him. He wants your coin, he wants your character – let him take them this time, you do not barter such with him, not even if you call it prayer! You cede nothing – you stand your watch, for that, gentlemen, is how you keep the kingdom. You came here for every reason save that one, but curse you, you shall keep it now. For come spring, we may be Arthedain. Understood?”
So much for the promise of use in spring or any comfort! A hangdog mutter of “Yes, sir!” passed among them, ere with far less appetite, they turned to fill their bowls. The Standing Silence seemed long as years to Hiril, who imagined the towers of Annúminas falling beneath the tide of orcs like the lost cities of Númenor had collapsed beneath the waves.
We may be Arthedain, he thought. We may be Arthedain. Even so – how do you keep a kingdom that's beneath the waves or the earth?
He did not know, and feared to learn, and despite Alondir's command, he could not help but pray: Honor to the worst of fates, but pass, pass us by!