The Return of the King (Page 15)
‘But he wields great dominion, nonetheless,’ said Gimli; ‘and now he will strike more swiftly.’
‘The hasty stroke goes oft astray,’ said Aragorn. ‘We must press our Enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move. See my friends, when I had mastered the Stone, I learned many things. A grave peril I saw coming unlooked-for upon Gondor from the South that will draw off great strength from the defence of Minas Tirith. If it is not countered swiftly, I deem that the City will be lost ere ten days be gone.’
‘Then lost it must be,’ said Gimli. ‘For what help is there to send thither, and how could it come there in time?’
‘I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself,’ said Aragorn. ‘But there is only one way through the mountains that will bring me to the coastlands before all is lost. That is the Paths of the Dead.’
‘The Paths of the Dead!’ said Gimli. ‘It is a fell name; and little to the liking to the Men of Rohan, as I saw. Can the living use such a road and not perish? And even if you pass that way, what will so few avail to counter the strokes of Mordor?’
‘The living have never used that road since the coming of the Rohirrim,’ said Aragorn, ‘for it is closed to them. But in this dark hour the heir of Isildur may use it, if he dare. Listen! This is the word that the sons of Elrond bring to me from their father in Rivendell, wisest in lore: Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead.’
‘And what may be the words of the seer?’ said Legolas.
‘Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost,’ said Aragorn:
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings 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 grey 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.
‘Dark ways, doubtless,’ said Gimli, ‘but no darker than these staves are to me.’
‘If you would understand them better, then I bid you come with me,’ said Aragorn; ‘for that way I now shall take. But I do not go gladly; only need drives me. Therefore, only of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and great fear, and maybe worse.’
‘I will go with you even on the Paths of the Dead, and to whatever end they may lead,’ said Gimli.
‘I also will come,’ said Legolas, ‘for I do not fear the Dead.’
‘I hope that the forgotten people will not have forgotten how to fight,’ said Gimli; ‘for otherwise I see not why we should trouble them.’
‘That we shall know if ever we come to Erech,’ said Aragorn. ‘But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfil it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Númenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
‘Then Isildur said to their king: “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.” And they fled before the wrath of Isildur, and did not dare to go forth to war on Sauron’s part; and they hid themselves in secret places in the mountains and had no dealings with other men, but slowly dwindled in the barren hills. And the terror of the Sleepless Dead lies about the Hill of Erech and all places where that people lingered. But that way I must go, since there are none living to help me.’
He stood up. ‘Come!’ he cried, and drew his sword, and it flashed in the twilit hall of the Burg. ‘To the Stone of Erech! I seek the Paths of the Dead. Come with me who will!’
Legolas and Gimli made no answer, but they rose and followed Aragorn from the hall. On the green there waited, still and silent, the hooded Rangers. Legolas and Gimli mounted. Aragorn sprang upon Roheryn. Then Halbarad lifted a great horn, and the blast of it echoed in Helm’s Deep: and with that they leapt away, riding down the Coomb like thunder, while all the men that were left on Dike or Burg stared in amaze.
And while Théoden went by slow paths in the hills, the Grey Company passed swiftly over the plain, and on the next day in the afternoon they came to Edoras; and there they halted only briefly, ere they passed up the valley, and so came to Dunharrow as darkness fell.
The Lady Éowyn greeted them and was glad of their coming; for no mightier men had she seen than the Dúnedain and the fair sons of Elrond; but on Aragorn most of all her eyes rested. And when they sat at supper with her, they talked together, and she heard of all that had passed since Théoden rode away, concerning which only hasty tidings had yet reached her; and when she heard of the battle in Helm’s Deep and the great slaughter of their foes, and of the charge of Théoden and his knights, then her eyes shone.
But at last she said: ‘Lords, you are weary and shall now go to your beds with such ease as can be contrived in haste. But tomorrow fairer housing shall be found for you.’
But Aragorn said: ‘Nay, lady, be not troubled for us! If we may lie here tonight and break our fast tomorrow, it will be enough. For I ride on an errand most urgent, and with the first light of morning we must go.’
She smiled on him and said: ‘Then it was kindly done, lord, to ride so many miles out of your way to bring tidings to Éowyn, and to speak with her in her exile.’
‘Indeed no man would count such a journey wasted,’ said Aragorn; ‘and yet, lady, I could not have come hither, if it were not that the road which I must take leads me to Dunharrow.’
And she answered as one that likes not what is said: ‘Then, lord, you are astray; for out of Harrowdale no road runs east or south; and you had best return as you came.’
‘Nay, lady,’ said he, ‘I am not astray; for I walked in this land ere you were born to grace it. There is a road out of this valley, and that road I shall take. Tomorrow I shall ride by the Paths of the Dead.’