This must be the end of all things for me, this height, this depth, this place. It presses down on me, shrinks me, and stifles me. I am used to roaming wide plains and tangled forests that are large enough to be lost in, that are empty enough for me to be alone, to have no counsel to take but my own. I am a ranger. I am a hunter. I am a tracker. I am the one the free peoples rely upon to warn them of incursions, to battle creatures lurking in the darkness, to spring forth and surprise them before they surprise me. I am used to feeling room to move, to breathe, to plan, to live another day. But this fortress feels different, suffocating, like a trap sprung, and I am like fish in a barrel, just like all these old men and beardless boys around me.
I have never been afraid of a fight, but this will be a slaughter. We are lost before we have begun. I know it. I can see it before my eyes, like waking nightmares. My every instinct tells me I am not safe, that flight is the only way I can fight another day. I am a man without a country; I should not be here, I should be outside these walls. I want to wander like the wolves, and howl at their faraway moon. I want to run away from this place, run away from this fate. But fate has always followed me, like a curse or a blessing, and none can escape her ways. She weaves the descent of the starlight, and the silver stroke that claims every soul in the end, no matter how far he may run, like the rivers that weave through the worlds and carry the boats of slain warriors to the field of bones, bleached snow-white as the hair of Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlorien.
Théoden the King knows wrath and ruin hang heavily over his last stronghold. His face is ashen, his eyes distant as the ages of the earth. He knows this is the end of all he has known, all he has fought for from the depths of his warrior soul, his steady-beating heart craving salvation for those under his power. He would readily sacrifice himself if he could win it; that is why the crown fits him so well. He would ransom his life’s blood for the honor of his bond, and even on the edge of doom he would put on a brave face to steel the wills of those under his command. Yet even as his old armor is strapped upon him, he feels bound by shackles, I know he does. His legs shake within them, oh, that most honorable of kings! Why did such times come slithering like a serpent under his noble reign?
But he shall fight on still, unto the dread of the dawn, for his people, or what people he has left, the scattered warriors, too old or too young, the huddled women and frightened children. A massacre looms crimson on the horizon. It is going to rain, but I doubt there will be anyone to hear it pattering upon us, washing the blood away. Yet he will go up to the parapets to command his thralls once more, to wave the proud flag of the wild horse over his battlements for the last time. Even if it is for the sake of old memories, for the sake of all that once was and may never be again, I will stand beside him, and we will make an end for the bards to sing about. I fear they will prove a melancholy strain.
Legolas knows there is death upon this place. His Elvish senses are keen as his skill with the bow, swift as his arrows that cleave the air. He is a free spirit, ethereal like the halo of the moon, wild like the ferns of the forest. He is an undying one, unless an arrow or blade takes him in his youth. His jokes have died on his tongue often enough these past days, facing the abyss. We have quarreled, just as brothers would do, for though not of my blood we could not be closer. He does not wish to stay, but he stays for me, just as I stay for Théoden. If I did not, the free-flowing waters would curse me when my face reflected in them, or would poison me when I bent to drink from them. This is the curse and blessing of friendship, this the border, the brink, the chasm. We cannot explain it, but we live it. We all stay for each other in the face of death, though each of us must face death alone.
I have spent too many years among the Elves, though I am not from them. The Northern Kingdom of my ancestors was destroyed long ago, and Gondor is but a shell of its former glories. I remember Boromir’s dimming eyes, and my vow to save his beloved, beleaguered city. The poor man…how could I say anything else to him? He had fallen so low, and yet I could hardly blame him for the desperation of his zeal. At least he had a home to fight for, even to steal for. And what was I but a wanderer, an exile too uncertain of my own worth to claim the sword of my ancestors, the crown of their kings? The sword has been shattered, and the shards cut my dead friend’s finger. How can I dare to grasp them up again and not bleed, to reforge them and not be burned?
And now they come, rolling in with the rain, the creatures with eyes red like burning coals, their language course, dark, jarring to my ears. I have spent years fighting them, this race bred to lay waste to man. Yet rarely have I bothered to wonder if they think or feel or fear. I have assumed they simply exist, like savage beasts exist, hideous and sharp-toothed, and we must kill them or be killed by them. Yet I wonder now if they ever fear death as we men do. I wonder what their thoughts are, as they march towards us. Do they wonder what we are thinking too? Is there nothing within them that questions this mission they have been set forth upon? What is at the pit of their own hatred of us? Is it mindless or has it been stoked by the hatred, the lies, the will of others?
There was a boy, Haleth, Son of Hama, who spoke to me before the fray. His face was wan from sleeplessness, his eyes pools of despair, his hair long, dirty and unkempt. He looked to me for hope, though I keep none for myself. He had a sword in his hands he had never swung before, one he was in truth too small to swing. I took it up in my own hands, imagined it to be the shattered one, and swung it in grand circles, showing more confidence than I felt. That is the nature of martial skill; it becomes deep-seated in our guts, our instincts, the underbelly of our darkened memory even when we do not know why we are doing it anymore. But the boy is given courage, for a moment at least, for there is always hope. Yes, always hope…even though I wept over his dead body by the oozing light of the morning. I kissed his forehead, and sheathed his sword, and spoke the words of blessing over him, that his soul might wing its way to the hall of his fathers.
The Elves come forth to aid us. I know it must be the work of Elrond, out of love for his daughter Arwen, out of love for me. Haldir is among them, princely as ever, serene in his eyes, nimble in his movements. I used to practice with him in the art of the blade and the bow. He is guardian of the northern borders, fierce in his defense of Elvish realms, yet a quiet soul, like a lake with waters that dip down into the heart of the earth and conceal treasures that lie there in the most sacred of secrecy. In my youth, I used to enjoy trying to make him react, to bring out just a hint of fire behind those timeless eyes. He rarely gratified me. Legolas was so much easier to provoke, but Haldir earned my greater respect through his restraint. I had missed him, missed his unshakable presence, but seeing him here, now, leading a battle formation, fills me with a mix of relief and horror. I do not want him to die.
Despite my misgivings, I tell him he is welcome and embrace him. It is yet another round of our little game, testing to see if my humanity can rouse his Elvish indignation. But wonder of wonders, he hesitates, then hugs me in return. Does he know something I do not? Do his Elvish senses tell him this may be our end game? But there is no time to ponder; the Elves are readying their bows with as much grace as minstrels prepare their harps. The enchanted blades slide along their scabbards, coming forth to be baptized by the heavy rain. The battle horns pierce the gloom and break the heart beating high, covered like a shield by the evenstar. I touch the jewel that feels like a distant icy star, covered by clouds, just as the memory of her kisses are growing cold in my memory. Give me but one more dream of her…
But the only dream I may have as the battle swirls around me is the dream of death, stealing quietly through the din, like the last breath a soldier takes before he falls. I hear different languages flying about me, like wind, like darts, like death. I have grown up with these majestic tongues, delicate, musical, and sometimes deadly in their earnestness. These Elves are proud beings, and their greetings and battle orders alike roll off the tongue like primordial poetry. I understand them, though hardly any of these soldiers of Rohan do. To them, these enchanted creatures are more like shards of myth than reality. But I have learned that they are very real indeed; you can learn to love them, and they to love you in return, and a man might find enough similarities with them to make up for our differences.
Are the Orcs like that, then? Just ugly where the Elves are beautiful, and their pride twisted into hatred when all else had been stripped away until they willingly served their own oppressors? Is it that no one believes in their reality, but only their myth, and so they are lost in their own darkness? What has Sauron done to them, what has Saruman taught them? Will I ever know as my sword cleaves through their bodies and their blood sprays upon me and they twitch in their final agony on the ground? Will I ever know the final thoughts that run through their minds, will I ever know if they have souls that could have been saved but for the things they were taught to be? But today, as with every other day I have known, it is kill or be killed; they will show us no mercy, and none will shown to them by men or elves. I wonder…do they even know what mercy means, for surely they have never given it, nor has it ever been extended to them?
Yes…it is a slaughter, but not to the last man. The nation of Rohan will endure this night. But the Elvish soldiers have paid the price for them. Yes, down to the last archer. Perhaps the greatest treasures in Haldir’s now-silent heart were his dreams of the sea, which he loved so dearly, yet dreaded so darkly, for it meant the fall of Lothlorien and the end of the world as he knew it. He did not even have to listen in shells to hear the ocean’s roll as I did when I was young. He could envision the look of the azure water with his second sight. He was such a fickle lover of his lady the ocean, who beckoned to him though he would not come. Now I shall always listen in the shells every time I come upon them, not for the sound of the waves, but for the thump of his heartbeat.
When he took his final stand, I cried out to him in his own language, that he might warn his archers as we retreated to the keep, before they were cut off from all succor. But it was too late. As always, he would be the last to try and leave, though none could escape the net closing around them. The orcs set upon them on either side, slashing through Elvish chainmail. He slew as many as he could with his blade singing, until the enemy blade thrust itself through his body. I saw him stagger forward, struggle to remain upright, and I thought I might die of sorrow, for I could not reach him. I saw him meet my gaze for a moment, then felt my heart shatter as he gazed vacantly at his slain archers lying in a circle around him. I had never before seen him visibly shocked, and it shook me to the core. Ah yes, this immortal one should be shocked…he was so unaccustomed to seeing death. In this, we men are more immune, more grimly stoic than he was, that fair warrior innocent.
And I saw that innocent receive his death-wound as yet another blade sliced through his back. He did not even try to defend himself, did not even try to escape. He would die with his kinsmen, die as his race was dying, leaving, fading, giving over their last glimmer, like the fading of the first day of creation, too beautiful to last forever. I am finally able to break through to him, rush to his side. I catch him as he falls into my arms. There is a flickering spark of life left in his eyes, even as the blood trickles down his mouth. It speaks to me.
Is this the way of you mortals? Is this the thing you most fear? We have tasted it now, though we are unused to it…I am unused to it…you see? it is a terror to face it alone…oh, Estel, teach me how…stay with me…
I stay, my hand placed over his heart. I will not leave him until his spirit leaves him. The blood is soaking through his clothes, staining my hands as I cradle him, but even though his breathing weakens he does not struggle as I have seen men do. He is not even bitter, simply resolved to submit to that which must be. I wonder what he thinks of now…I wonder whom he misses most, for I can see the loss dawning in him, the loss men have long learned to fear. But then that serenity comes back to him, that strange Elvish knowing, melancholy and resigned, and he places his hand over mine, and whispers in his language what he sees spilling forth from the future.
U i vethid…Na I onnad…This is not the end…this is the beginning…Aragorn, King of Men…
Days have passed now since his eyes emptied of light, and I grieve for all that has been lost, all that I am losing, all that I am being called to do, yet that I may fail to fulfill. I even grieve for death itself. Surely it must be saddened to rob the life in face of such gallant opposition. Yet death has touched me as well, slaying my old life, and seeming to grant me the terrifying gift of a new one. Aragorn. King. The words, jumbled together, running over and over again in my mind, make me tremble.
I see in Lady Eowyn’s eyes the color of the ocean, and it knows the depths of my soul. She comes to me as I sit alone on the steps of her uncle’s royal mead hall. In her hands there is a shell, gray on the outside, but containing the colors of the rainbow within. It holds fresh water in it for me to drink, to cool my cracked lips, and I oblige her by raising it to my mouth. I drink to the victorious dead, and imagine the gray ships bearing souls over the many colors of the horizon where they are ever bound to the circles of the worlds, and yet become more than memory.
“Ves hael,” she whispers in her people’s ancient tongue. “Be well.”
The sun sets red against the mountains, and I take her smooth white hand, like the petals of the first blossoms of spring, and bring it to my lips In gratitude. It is sweeter to me than the water, as is the rose blooming in her cheeks. There are crystal tears melting from the blue of her compassionate gaze, and the sea could not have been more mesmerizing. I thought I heard its waves tumultuous against the shores of her golden hair, like the sunlit sand, and her footsteps along the corridors lull me to sleep. They do not bring dreams of the ethereal lingering of elves, but of the hearty survival of men. Our future. Our world.
This is not the end, no, this is the beginning…Aragorn, King of Men…