And the Echoes All Around
Author’s Note: To be read with this playing on repeat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKQwgpaLR6o
Brassica didn’t know what she’d expected the Fields of Fornost to be. The dream she’d had of the great battle was fading, bare scraps of memory clinging around the edges of her mind, like a tapestry torn away. Not that it would have been a good reference anyway, what she did remember of it seemed plainly absurd to her waking-mind, in the way that dreams do.
Her expectations entirely aside, the only word for the place was creepy. Brassica had shivered when they’d approached the Evendim Gate; when they’d passed beneath it, she’d felt as though someone had walked over her grave.
There were ruins. Somehow they seemed different from the ones that had studded Parth Aduial. Those had fallen from age and disrepair. These were plainly as old or older, but they’d been helped along in their destruction. Brassica suddenly realized that even centuries after the fact, this was what war looked like.
But it was more than just the ruins. Tendrils of steam rose, wraith-like, from the ground, as slowly, imperceptibly, warmth began to creep back into the world. The ground was almost barren. What wasn’t a faint road below the horses’ hooves was coarse, tough grey grass, or standing stones. Everything seemed dead. There was no thought of a live tree, and Brassica found herself missing the sound of wind in the boughs. The bone white trees did not creak in the absence of a breeze, the wind seeming to have died as they had passed through the gate.
There was no sound. The silence seemed to hit Brassica like a slap in the face when she realized that sound was what had been missing. There was no whisper of wind over the grass, no call of bird or animal waking to the morning, no sound other than the horses as they proceeded in single-file down the road. Brassica listened hard, desperate for some other sound, unsure why. They had set out before the dawn, and though the darkness was slowly receding, no sunlight seemed to be rising in its place. What moisture had been trapped by the coarse grasses of the downs had slowly begun to form a faint, hazy mist, obscuring anything towards the eastern horizon. Time seemed to have frozen around them, as they wound their way through the low, rounded hillocks, crowned by the standing stones, pale and ghostly in the grayness.
Brassica wondered if everyone felt it. She glanced up over her shoulder at Llythne, but the woman seemed abstracted. With a wry shrug, Brassica decided she probably had a much more preferable place for her mind to be at the moment. She tried to determine from the set of Celebarad’s shoulders as he rode ahead of her, whether he was disturbed at all by their surroundings. Brassica didn’t particularly bother trying to discern what Beldrieth felt–even had she been facing the elfess directly, she was fairly certain that Beldrieth would be as inscrutable as ever.
So it was surprising when the huntress pulled up her mount and trotted back to address her comrades. Far from inscrutable, she looked wary, and addressed them seriously. “There is something in the air. Some fell sensation. I do not like it, and less still do I like riding into it unawares. Slow your pace. Ride close together, and follow behind me. If I cry a warning, you’ll know it, but do not worry overmuch. Merely be cautious. We have taken a road through a shadowed place.”
This caused a lump so thick in Brassica’s throat that she couldn’t find her voice to tell Beldrieth to be careful, as the elfess urged her mount into a canter and then vanished into the mists ahead, leaving her charges halted on the road, chilled.
Absent of Beldrieth’s tacit leadership, Llythne seemed to rouse herself from her thoughts, and comported herself with a brusqueness that belied a faint anxiety. “Well, you heard her. Onward we go. Slowly, mind, but onward.”
After only a few minutes of their reduced pace, Brassica found herself wishing that Beldrieth had told them to gallop. She didn’t much care for galloping–it jostled her around frightfully and it was just so fast–but now she would have been glad of all possible haste.
At first they rode in silence. But this seemed to agitate Llythne, and eventually she spoke up, in a strange, stilted tone, as though reciting facts, or a passage from a book. Somehow her voice was not her own.
“When Arnor was fractured, and the three Kingdoms of the North rose, this was the seat of the great Kingdom of Arthedain. Amlaith, of the line of Isildur and Elendil, made his capital here. The line of the great kings held for over eleven-hundred years.”
Llythne’s voice seemed loud in the quiet–perhaps it was loud, unrestrained in her nervousness, or perhaps it was merely a whisper, and the silence around them was just that deep. The now-rising breeze caught her words and carried them to the standing stones, where they echoed peculiarly, and seemed to reach farther into the dimness than they might have.
“They wrought great peace and harmony for the Kingdom of Arthedain. They gave lands to the hobbits who came to settle by the river, and pledged to them their guardianship. The elves named the city ‘Fornost Erain’ and the hobbits named it ‘Kings Norbury’, the fortress in the north. The peoples of this region now know it as ‘Deadman’s Dike’. But not all have forgotten.”
It was then that Brassica first thought she saw a flicker of light in the mists. It was a strange, pearlescent sheen, like a glint on the edge of her vision. She stared hard into the dimness, wondering how long it could possibly be before the sun would rise and dispel the darkness and the mist. But there was nothing. She bit her lip and looked up at Celebarad, riding close beside them, one hand loosely cradling the reins, the other steadily stroking the neck of his restive sorrel. Brassica would never quite have been able to imagine her friend looking truly grim, but he did manage a close approximation of “grave”, and his blue eyes were fixed on the road ahead. So Brassica kept her gaze sweeping from side to side, trying to catch another glimpse of the strange lights.
“When the armies of Angmar came, the city fell. They came with great engines of war, and sorcery, and it is said, even now, that the staunchest of the Dunedain were driven mad, and turned against the city from within. The Dunedain fled, and the King Arvedui, the last of his line, went far into the north, where his ship foundered, and he was lost.”
The lights were like nothing Brassica had seen before, and she didn’t know what to say about them, though inside her she had the growing sensation that they were worth crying a warning about. There were three–now four, and they had appeared on either side of the winding whisper of the road. The air seemed chill, and with a damp, clamminess that Brassica couldn’t tell from mist or a shock of a cold sweat.
Now Llythne’s voice did rise, and Brassica wasn’t sure what had compelled the woman to speak of the history of the place, when they were beset on all sides by such eerieness, and when they walked a field that she now knew to be a burial ground, and the hills around them the barrows raised over fallen lords. If she’d had room in her heart to be afraid of anything else, she would have been afraid of what seemed to be happening to the woman.
“I am Dunadan,” Llythne called, almost in a singsong tone, and Brassica shuddered violently in her seat. “The scattered armies of the North have not fallen, they have not faded. We dwell still in the North, and the Kingdom will come again…”
“Ai! Daro! Lin ialla gorthrim!” And this startled cry from Celebarad drew their party up short, as one of the lights blinked into existence on the road directly before them. And Brassica knew it for what it was–a shade, a strange floating shadow–if a shadow could be ghostly blue and translucent, and lit somehow from within with a queer, shimmering light. And if a shadow could be independent of anything to cast it, especially the figure of a man–twisted and shriveled and clad in pale armour, broken and decaying off his withered body, and crowned by a skull-like face, with two bright lights for eyes.
And now there were more. Dozens more. Hundreds more. Brassica could not have counted to save her life at the moment. The ghostly blue lights wavered into figures, glistening in the mist, and they hung around the frightened trio like wisps of silk.
The painted mare was uneasy, and though she did not quite spook, she began shift her weight and her feet danced nervously. Brassica gasped as the mare swayed towards the shades, and then terror seemed to choke all the air from her lungs.
It was a new and different terror. Deeper than the fear she’d felt of the goblins. More prescient than the fear she’d felt at the hands of the tomb-robbers–the wraiths seemed to radiate pure dread. Brassica felt as though she were about to die. Then in response to some imperceptible signal, the shades began to advance around them, drawing tighter, a coldness like knives piercing the air as they neared. “Sometimes,” Brassica reflected, as she buried her face in the mane of the painted mare, secured in the saddle in front of Llythne, the Burglar from Ost Forod, “this all seems like it was such a terrible idea.”
“Shades of Fornost Erain, be ye still!” rang Beldrieth’s voice from the misty darkness, bright and clear above the whisper of wind and rustling of the tall, pale grasses that stirred on the hills and barrows all around.
And suddenly they were still. Brassica could hardly believe it. Her breath, though she hardly dared breathe, hung in steamy puffs in the air, and the tears she hadn’t realized she was crying left icy trails down her cheeks. The elfess had approached from behind their small party, though Brassica had thought Beldrieth was scouting the path ahead. She passed between their horses now, idly brushing a hand on the neck of Llythne’s mare, to quiet it, and shaking her head at Celebarad, who had his mount in hand, but whose fingers still twitched towards his sword. Her tall bay stallion was as implacable as his rider, her bow and blade were undrawn, and the cloak that billowed behind her in the softness of the wind seemed to shift in colour as she stopped before the shade who had appeared on the road ahead of them.
“Faithless,” she addressed the shades who gathered around them, scorn poisoning her voice, “Still you stir in these blackened ruins? The Witch King loves you not, though you laid the ruin of Arthedain before him. You are bound by the oaths you foreswore, you who drew to Sauron’s banners, and lifted blade against the sons of Elendil.”
At the mention of the name of Elendil, a great cry rose from the shades, a horrible, moaning, rasping noise, and Brassica choked on a sob. She felt Llythne’s hand grasp her shoulder, and glanced up at the woman mounted behind her. Llythne’s face was pale, but grave, and Brassica couldn’t tell if the gleam in her eyes was anger or fear.
“BE STILL!” Beldrieth cried again, in a terrible voice that echoed and rang off the standing grey stones around them. “I know what has drawn you here, wretched half-things. A child of ancient Numeanor walks your fields again, and still you think yourselves bold enough to rise against her. As long as a drop of the blood of the Sons of Erain stirs still in the Men of this Earth, you shall know no rest. Yea, you see the woman of our company by the light of the Seven Stars, she must burn pale and bright in your eyes. But from none save Elendil’s heir shall you have absolution. Your armies were routed on this field in the Second Age, and now by the names of Cirdan the Shipwright and Lord Glorfindel, prince of my people, I cast you back again! Haunt our steps no more!”
With a noise that was, unimaginably, more dreadful than the first, a great wind rose around them. It brought with it, for only a moment, the stench of death and fire and battle, the fall of Arthedain, and then the shades were gone, melted away into the gray dawn light. Their wails were only a memory on the breath of the breeze, and Brassica felt warmth return to her face and fingers again.
And now the true dawn came. At first it crept, rosy and innocent, as though it did not know it had been looked for only moments ago, but then, as though ashamed, it grew golden and bright, and the mist of the field burned away. With the light, sound returned. The wind swelled again, and rustled in the pale grasses. The trees creaked and swayed. Even a few hesitant bars of birdsong were tested by a few hesitant birds. Life had returned with the new day.
“Do not quail before the dead,” Beldrieth instructed, not unkindly, once the terror that had gripped her charges had begun to subside. “They hold sway in this world no longer, they rely on you to give it to them. It is your fear and your sadness that calls to them, for they are empty, desolate things. Pity them, if there is strength in your heart for that, or know that they remain because they have done great wrongs, and remind them, for it is their weakness.”
Then she turned, rather sternly, on Llythne, who seemed to have been snapped from her strange reverie, and looked plainly bewildered by what had happened. “And if you have even one scrap of wisdom–to know this place for what it is, and to know truly what you are–do not take this road again unless you have steeled your mind. This is not the place for idle wanderings of thought.”
“Are you all right?” Brassica asked, for the woman seemed a little shaken.
“I think I am,” Llythne answered slowly, then shivered, even though the morning was rapidly bringing with it the blush of summer warmth. She even seemed slightly embarrassed. “I don’t know when I’ve ever felt quite so strange as I did just then.”
Brassica sympathized with this, and said so, “Oh, I felt awful. Ghosts! That’s what they were, Beldrieth, right? I never thought I’d see such a thing, by my father’s furry feet!”
It was odd, though, the memory of her terror was already fading into nothingness, like her dreams of Fornost. The idea of it though, gave her shivers of something strange, almost like excitement. For a moment, a strange, terrible moment, she had glimpsed some fragment of the echo of battle. And now that the horror had faded, what remained beneath was the queer sensation of being summoned forth. To what, she didn’t know.