Aragorn, Arwen and the Palantiri - Chapter 3 of 4. - Fear in the darkness

Arwen's mind walked in darkness. A pain thudded her head and went to cry out but she found she could not. Her mouth was full of a foul tasting cloth and the flavour made her retch with nausea. She tried to sit up but a cold hand slammed into her face and pushed her head hard against a wooden surface. She opened her eyes and after a painful attempt at focusing she saw she was in a wain and guarded by at least twenty large men some of whom were looking at her and smirking frighteningly. Legolas she could see was unconscious and lying at her feet, his hands tied behind his back and a similar filthy cloth bound around his face and in his mouth to stop him from screaming. He was bleeding profusely from his right arm which had an ugly wound and she hoped it was not deep. Darkness swallowed her again and she fell back into dreams to the sound of her captors leering at her and suggesting indecent thoughts to one another. When she woke again she found that they had gone through the hidden mountain tunnels known only to evil creatures and emerged beside the mountain passes that separated them from Northern Fangorn, she remembered nothing of being strapped on a black horse before a goblin man and riding far beneath the shadows of the Misty Mountains. She wondered how long she had been asleep if sleep it could be called, for it would have taken many hours to get that far.

How they had managed to come this far without being seen was beyond her present wits to contemplate. Then she thought with an unpleasant jolt, Aragorn would not realise she was missing until then end of the battle and would assume they had gone through the plains of Dunland. She had seen squat black horsemen riding in that direction and she knew he would follow those divertive tracks. She and Legolas were alone in another wain. A small fire was lit nearby and her captors were sitting around it chewing some unclean raw meat. She stretched out her leg and pushed Legolas' shoulder lightly with her foot. She wanted him to wake; she felt so afraid and wanted to escape. He stirred and his eyes flickered open and widened to see her so. Arwen was sure she did not look her best, she could see dried blood in the corner of her vision and knew that her forehead was torn. She saw Legolas try to free himself and one of the men saw him too.

"Stop struggling!" the elf was struck with a club that made him double over. "And you my sweet little lady can keep your feet to yourself!" a swarthy man bellowed, his rotting teeth and revolting breath close to her face. She proudly tried to hold up her head against this nauseating sight but pain filled her thoughts and she grimaced, the man laughed,

"Ah my pretty, don't frown or I'll come closer and cheer you up." his companions howled and Arwen receded, for one terrible moment she feared he would try to embrace her. Legolas looked on in horror at her plight and tried all the harder to help her but it was no good. For an instant there was silence as the evil man seemed to consider the situation but in the end he left them and returned to his meal and cackling laughter called to them. Arwen breathed in relief and worked on freeing her bonds which were only singly knotted and thinly tied but were made of some durable material that cut into her flesh as she twisted her hands. They had been stripped of their weapons of course but Legolas had a hidden, sheathed blade concealed within his cloak and he endeavoured to reach it quickly with his strapped hands. He was unable to reach it without alerting their sentinels and he slumped back down to try and find another method of escape. They were shielded from view from the distant road by huge holly trees with spiked leaves and dark veined branches. The wain they were in was outside the ring of smouldering fires that the groups of guards sat around but the elves were close by and even if they untied their knots there would be little they could do without being seen. Arwen spied a beaten track that ran through the rocks, if they could get away from the wain they could conceal themselves beneath the stony crags of the mountain slopes. Arwen tried rubbing her cords against the protruding point of a notched nail in the wooden boards of the cart. She felt the first strands of the rope give way but stifled an exclamation of pain when the nail worked loose and gouged flesh from her wrists. Blood ran down her arms and Legolas looked on at her with sympathy before attempting to squirm his way free. Unfortunately their guards ate their fill and came back to them and darkness took the Evenstar again.

Aragorn's men no longer disagreed with his decision. They saw the immense pain that he bore engraven in his face and he became more fell with every mile their horses strode. Tracks they had seen leading off northwards across the plains and far in the distance the keenest of eyes could have seen a black blur as it rode with terrifying urgency. These were not the captives. Evil men had swept through the region and attempted to lead the following party away from the hills. They and their horses were fresh and eager whereas the hard men of Gondor were weary from fighting and many had cuts and bruises. In this way they followed the tramplings made by several horsemen. Nobody noticed the two slender bodies that were hidden within crevices in the rocks, their owners unable to cry out or make any alerting movement. Indefatigably Aragorn led his men forwards, stopping little and not sparing the horses. He was troubled greatly in mind and conscious all the time of a terrible feelings of guilt, undying love and fear beyond anything he felt before even in the days of shadow. It was his darkest hour, he cursed himself bitterly for allowing his wife to come and the thought of her in torment made him almost yell with exasperation. His friends worried about him and often Faramir tried to soothe his mind by suggesting he look in the palantir for them.

"If it were not for that accursed gem my wife would not be missing at the hands of death!" he cried in anger, his men were taken aback at his emotion but did not blame him so, full well they knew the esteem he felt for Lady Evenstar and they loved him for his humane qualities. They also loved their queen, she was kind and generous and more than a few held affection for her more than they would if Aragorn had chosen another. A few were slightly envious of Aragorn's luck in finding himself such a wife but they were glad of the reverence he held her in.

"I am sorry Faramir," Aragorn continued, he faltered, " you are not to blame but understand that if anything happens to my beloved Evenstar then my life will die with her."

Faramir was moved to pity his friend and king deeply.

"Legolas will care for her." said Gimli, "He is gone too and I hope we shall find him alive again."

"I am sure we shall, he is a great friend and I value him highly," said Aragorn, "but not if we tarry here, we must make all the haste we can to the crossing of Tharbad. Then we must follow the road to Bree and from thence to Fornost. It is the fastest route."

"Do you know for sure that is where they are headed?" Faramir asked tentatively, "Is it certain that is where the palantir is?"

"I do not know for certain," Aragorn was frustrated, "Nothing is for certain! Arwen and Legolas could be dead for all we know. My wife is out there, Faramir, and I must get her back. I have to!" Aragorn turned, brushing tears furiously from his eyes and sat alone at the edge of the rocks looking as if to dash himself on them. His friends looked on at him in sympathy but Gimli went to sit beside him, knowing that his company would be needed. They passed their meal swiftly and when all was ready Aragorn leapt upon his horse and commanded his men to follow with as much swiftness as they could contrive.

They rode on and on and as the sun was sinking in the sky a new peril came upon them. The sky was painted cerise and marbled with golden hues that paraded across the skies and infused the streaked clouds with a bronzed tone. The shallow plains were flooded with light and the few dwellings afar could be seen only as shining pinpricks as the windows reflected the evening sunlight. The air grew humid and thick with the sense of foreboding and shadows could be seen enclosing the company and slinking forward from the gorse. A vicious growling like the rumbling of thunder sent hairs bristling up the backs of their necks.

"Wargs!" the cry went up about the army and a hunting pack came upon them. Sixteen large wolves with dripping fangs and slashing claws leapt on the men and vied for their flesh. Swords were drawn and with a zeal that surpassed many battles before, the men slit the wolves necks. Flaming torches were thrust down their throats and their foul skin shrivelled and scored with ugly red welts. This delay was little heeded and they cantered away with haste until the horses could not endure the lethargy. Several horses had fallen in the wolf attack so their riders were forced to encumber others as they were borne by the larger steeds with less pace. Several miles northwards they found skeletons, covered in rotting flesh torn by carrion fowl. There were signs of a struggle and each body was examined avidly but they were all of stout men, no signs of the elves could be seen.

"How do you read this Faramir?" Aragorn asked, "These are not the men who attacked us."

"I think only that the men with the captives met some resistance from the people here but managed to slay them as they stood. Had they been detained longer we may have found that which we seek. What about yourself?" Faramir asked wary of Aragorn's recently acquired short temper which had only arisen because of worry for Legolas and Arwen.

"I interpret it no differently but it brings me little hope and it only serves to heighten my fears." the king answered, no longer angry.

"Why is that lord?" Faramir asked,

"It proves the cruelty of these men. There were willing to slay weaponless people without remorse so unless Ranklathe holds some more evil purpose for the elves then they are dead. If it be so then I shall die for I desire no half life without my Evenstar to lift my darkest dreams." Aragorn believed in his heart that Arwen and Legolas were alive and it was the only thing that spurred him during that sleepless tunnel of melancholy.

All the men were worried now, most of them knew Legolas well for he had dwelt in the city long and several of his close friends were wracked with frustration, they also mourned the presence of Arwen with just as much feeling. Stumbling with weariness they rested for the night beside the crossing. It had been four days since Arwen and Legolas were taken and Aragorn was losing all hope.

At length the wain turned from the mountain side and towards the river. Arwen had lost count of the days they had been travelling. The pain in her head grew worse and she feared some poison was at work. Legolas' strength was growing and he had succeeded in loosing his binds twice now. He had slain three of the guards before he was hit from behind with a shield and he was now forced into submission and bound with thick metal wires that eluded even his ability to break free though his wrists bled with the attempts he made. His blade had been found and taken and it saddened the prince greatly to see his ancestral knife wrought so many years ago now being broken and discarded in the middle of the wilds. Arwen could see no hope, even now as they turned towards the river and into the open ground. Legolas' wound seeped with a venomous fluid and Arwen knew her hair was matted with blood and she found staying conscious difficult. The guards had refrained from mishandling her, fearing in their hearts that the wrath of Legolas might allow him to overcome his knots and prove ruinous. It would not do for their master to realise their failure for want of some depraved entertainment. When they moved into the exposed area they shrouded the elves with rough woollen blankets. Arwen realised that this voyage had been planned to the last detail, these men had been sent with a purpose. The enemy knew of their travels and had sent these men to enslave her, why they had taken Legolas as well she could not fathom. All she could guess was that orders had been to take all the elves, it might be that her image in the palantir had not been clear and the foe only knew it was en elf that he had seen. She had been hurled back to back with Legolas in the wain and they had been rid of the rags which had made her feel so sick before. She had actually vomited when they removed her gag, the cloth was oily and encrusted inches thick with dried blood and all manner of sordid filth. She could not believe what she had had in her mouth. Legolas was also repulsed when he saw what had been forced down his throat but was prevented from attending Arwen by a savage kick. Arwen was struck and given nothing to dispel the sour taste in her mouth.

"Do not worry, my lady," said Legolas in his own tongue, "Aragorn will find us, they will come for us." At the mention of Aragorn, Arwen began to weep silently. Legolas felt her distress and his hand found hers and clasped it tightly, they did not let go until they were thrown again into the bottom of a leaking boat leaving the wain behind on the bank. They were crossing the Gwathlo or Greyflood as it was known and north eastward was Rivendell, the rushing of the river impaired their hearing and cold water splashed their faces keeping them from slipping back into an exhausted sleep. The boat rocked precariously and at every moment Legolas expected to feel the boat sink and water fill his lungs. All Arwen's thoughts were with her husband. Whether he survived the battle, whether he would find her, whether he had yet forgiven himself.

He had not. As a hunter keen on a scent he sprang forward and followed the road towards Bree over the land called Cardolan. In his wrath they made excellent time and the men thanked the Rohirrim for providing them with such sturdy, enduring horses. Few dwellings could be seen on the hard bare ground but away in the distance there were scant farms with wide, tilled fields. Little grew without the constant supervision and aid from farmers, they were forced to tend their crops every day for want of more fertile land. It was not until they came within fifty miles of the Brandywine river and the road forked did they find inhabitants. It took several days to cross Cardolan and their encampments were ever open and vulnerable to attack. Thankfully their run of assaults lessened for a while and it was only the few roaming beasts that offered them any contestation. Gimli was silent and Faramir wondered at the change in the dwarf but he supposed he was worried for Legolas. Aragorn spoke to no-one except to give orders for the night or when raiding orcs came upon them and were beaten off with an unmatched fury. He was rent by an unending pain and nothing could console him in his torture, the palantir lay untouched at the bottom of his pack. Every time he looked at his gear fresh grief washed over him as he remembered Arwen's words when she prepared it.

"I know you would never let anyone hurt me..." but he had and it was gnawing at him from within. Days passed in misery and the whole company was subdued as they rode, eager to avenge their queen and friend yet having few chances to do so. They passed with anxiety into the lost realm of Arnor.

The blackened blurs they had vainly pursued had vanished without a trace. Nobody knew whence they had gone but Aragorn soon began to suspect that they had not the captives with them and were sent as a diversion. They must have strewn themselves from the road and scattered into the wilderness. He finally realised the folly of taking this way and cursed himself vehemently, for he understood now he had played straight into his enemies hands; it was with heavy heart he broke the news to Gimli and Faramir.

"So what does that mean? We have taken the wrong road? What are we to do now?"

"I do not know Faramir," said Aragorn grimly, "I have no answers. I am at a loss."

"Aragorn," Gimli said sternly, "search for them with the palantir! Do it for Arwen! Would you have her lost because you will not look? That is foolishness!"

The king looked up and the depth of suffering in his eyes was dreadful to behold. Gimli was frantic with worry about Legolas, they were close friends and great love did they share between them. It was unheard of before to see friends of kindreds that were so estranged but the rift between dwarves and elves was of no consequence to these two companions. Without further word but with some thought he went to his pack and drew from it the glittering orb. Many of the men had never seen it before but they had all heard of it. Legends from Gondor concerned the seeing stones and they were revered greatly, a gift from the Eldar to the Faithful of Westernesse before Númenor had been engulfed by the sea. Gasps from the surrounding men whispered like a summer breeze in the night air and they barely restrained themselves from drawing nearer for a better look. There was little privacy outdoors and little time to erect a tent but he carried it to the edge of the trees and fixed his gaze on the ignited glimmer in the centre.

Aragorn cared not that they watched him, he leant forward and became lost in the swirling mists the drew before his stare. He focused on Arwen and felt the barrier between them, put up by that force of mind he had not yet beaten. He could not afford to be as exhausted as his last struggle had left him so he cleared his thoughts and concentrated on her again. He channelled his anger, his frustration, his pain and his love into his emotions and used it to his benefit. The battle of wills became lesser and he was able to see them. Alive! With a burst of joy he cried out but was filled with concern when he saw the blood gleaming on her face, Legolas seemed to be trying to comfort her and Aragorn was filled with worry when he saw the wound the elf had sustained. He tried to get a picture of their surroundings and with surprise he saw they were lying in the old watchtower of Amon Sul, without blanket or cloak in the cold. They were huddled in a heap on the stone paved floor surrounded by evil men whose gaze never ceased. This stirred memories of Frodo's wound there and the grievous fight with the Ringwraiths. Every moment his eyes laid on Arwen raised his spirits for she seemed very much alive. He counted the guards and found seventeen but even as he memorised their location his foe regained his strength and Aragorn did not have the power to contest him again.

The men watching had seen strange things. He had grown ever more grave as he looked deeper and pain flashed over his face. They wanted to help him but what could they do? Then when he cried out in what seemed like distress their angst for their king whom they loved was great and Gimli hung his head, believing his friend and queen to be dead. When Aragorn withdrew from the stone he fell backwards with weariness and it was some time before he could tell Faramir and the others what he had seen. There were cries of joy when they realised the captives were alive and the choice to change course was decided upon. Aragorn was drained of energy yet he insisted that they ride immediately to Amon Sul and hopefully catch them before they departed.

Arwen had tried to escape, she was now weakened through lack of food so there was no chance it would happen again. She had been caught while she was trying to help free Legolas from his wires and brutally hit. They had disposed of her corslet and she was unprotected against them. Her guards had reduced her food and she was surviving barely on scraps of blackened bread. Legolas had tried to give her his but they were watched without cease and Arwen did not feel she could take another beating. Besides, Legolas had even less to eat for the guards were impatient for revenge of the sentries he had slain and were eager to see him suffer. He was cut and bruised from the occasional random hits he was forced to sustain, so was Arwen, she could taste the metallic tang of blood in her mouth and was never free from the blinding agony that ensnared her. They were transferred again to a sort of wain. This one was fashioned of metal and large enough for all the guards to ride in. Legolas always rolled over to place himself between her and the evil men though Arwen did not seem to care about anything any more. Her will was failing and something was passing in her mind though Legolas could not imagine what. Arwen was afraid, the lack of food was wrenching her with pain and the ache in her gut was tormenting her mind. There was little time for speech but the men did not understand elven tongue when Legolas used it. They hated the sound however and it was dangerous to try.

"Lady Undomiel something is amiss other than what passes, what is it?" she did not answer, "Arwen!" The use of her name jerked her from black thoughts.

"There is something you must know," she said. But the guard returned and the darkness claimed her again. They were carried further north, the weather grew colder at night and the barren slopes of the Weather hills rising ever on the left offered little protection from the biting wind. They stopped only to change horses every so often, the guards slept in turns and others took their place. Arwen was frozen, her hands felt like ice and Legolas had the heart to speak no longer. He was without cover and his very soul was chilled. Snow lay on the ground, the wind blew unforgivingly and the wain moved faster over icy roads. Both the elves were sapped of strength and their endurance was worn down, Arwen wished only for deliverance from this misery but the days dragged so every hour was an eternity. They did not notice when they were taken from the cart the next morning and dragged by men clad in white on wooden flets many miles to the city of the snowmen. They did not see the snow capped peaks rising in the distance, they did not see the beautiful white houses that glistened in the sun, they did not see the men crossing frozen lakes with bones strapped to their feet. They did not see the snowy city of Fornost where they were to be next imprisoned.

Aragorn galloped through the Chetwood and circled the Midgewater aggravated by the biting flies and bothersome insects that inhabited it. The water was covered in algae with enveloped the entire pond with a silken green cloth. Decaying reeks fumed the air and the carcass of a fox was discovered, smothered with swarms of flies and maggots. They fed off its flesh and endeavoured to devour its very being, the once so sleek coat of red was now stained with ooze and its chest was ripped open revealing the putrid innards. Deciding to turn Northwards they rode with the Weather hills on their right. Camping at the base of the slopes the men needed to rest and recover their strength. It was more chill than in Gondor and many members of the host were finding their extra equipment handy. The flies of Midgewater had left them with itchy red bites and they were reflecting gladly on the fact they had not been asked to go through it. The weather hills were bleak and rugged. In sun they were starkly beautiful but under waning moon they were imposing, threatening, a silhouette against the starlit sky. Thin layers of frost draped over the ground sparkling deceptively on the stalks of grass and making the rocks underfoot slippery. Aragorn had a spark of hope embedded in him now that he knew Arwen was alive and he wanted to see her again as soon as possible. He sent scouts out to Weathertop to see if any trace of the elves could be found, they returned near midnight.

"There were marks of a fire, lord, and footsteps leading away. There were also tracks of wains going past the Weather hills by the East route but I fear they may have left a while ago." said Eradran.

"Thank you, that is all," replied Aragorn, "get some rest for tomorrow we will take the West route to Fornost and hopefully it shall prove the swifter." He dismissed his scouts and withdrew to his tent. He lay in the shelter alone and sleepily reached out for his wife beneath the coverlet. Her warm body was not there and it reminded him painfully that this quest had become a mission to recover that which was most precious to him. He buried his face in his blanket and fell into sorrow. They were several hours from Fornost and they left early in the afternoon because Aragorn could not wait any longer, he took no food and impatience fired his soul. It was clear that Faramir and Gimli had had little sleep either and they rode at his side as they raced along the beaten tracks. Fornost, the city of snow came into view late in the day as a dazzling colony of white houses and frozen ground. The horses were shivering with cold and they were reluctant to enter the city.

"They will not last Aragorn." said Faramir, "we must send them away or lose them to the cold."

"I know, but we may need them later though. Leave them with several men who do not mind lingering and must wait further back for our return," said Aragorn.

Faramir did as he was bidden and the troops whose lot it was to remain were given the elvish cloaks of concealment alike the Lothlorien ones that Arwen had packed. They provided a measure of camouflage in the hard, bare landscape and they hoped they would protect them from the eyes of the enemy. The horses could not be hidden that easily and were forced to stable beneath the overhang of a large rock face. It was with heavy hearts that the reduced company entered through the iridescent gates of the city.

Arwen woke to the quiet calling of her name. Her breath froze in mists before her face and her dress was sodden and froze her numb skin. She was bitterly cold and when she woke she saw she was swathed in a cloak of white fur though it did little to lessen the constant chill. Legolas was attired similarly and sat by her side. The snowmen were talking quickly to each other in the common tongue,

"What are you going to do with us?" asked Legolas warily. The men looked at him and the lady and answered.

"You will be held here until you are called for." they replied indifferently.

"By whom?" asked the elf.

"That is not for you to know!" a harsh voice rang the air as one of the swarthy men entered. It was plain the snowmen were afraid of him and they cowered against the ice covered doorframe, ice crystals hung downwards off it and they were eerily beautiful.

"You will find out soon enough though and then you will wish you had never asked!" his voice was deep and growling. The ends of his ungloved fingers were tinged black and flesh rotted off his very bones. His eyes were hard and his nose hooked; with sallow complexion and greased lank hair he contrasted heavily with the cold, frosted beauty of the snow people. The snow people were pale skinned and white blonde hair hung in ropes from their dark woollen caps. Their eyes were strange, grey flecked with white and their raiment was of light coloured skins that were strapped together with leather bands and lined with animal fur. Furred mittens covered their hands and on their feet they wore shoes with wide netted lattices that stopped them sinking ankle deep into the snow. Arwen realised she was not tied up, she suspected the swart eyed creature did not know this when she caught the snowmen looking at her fearfully. She inclined her head to them and sat still, her hands hidden. She hoped the man would leave but he stood against the wall and watched them. He was clad in black soiled clothes, a ragged cloak hung to his knees and his heavy boots were filled with snow from numerous holes in the leather. His coal black eyes were glistening with malice and he did not take them from the captives. A messenger in red and black came to the door and spoke in whispers with the snowmen, they came forward and said,

"You are called for, you must come with us."

"Get up!" the coarse voice of the man in black ra

They had not the strength left to struggle and there were enough evil men coming in to lift them and take them by force. They were placed on a wheelless cart and dragged by hounds for some miles. Arwen felt too leaden to move and she was astounded by the scenery that flashed by, she had never been this far north and it was eerily beautiful. They passed a crater on their right and Arwen shuddered when she saw it for she knew now where they were going. It was the crater she had seen in the palantir and in the centre stood a finger of grey stone emanating waves of dread to those who passed it. It was an ancient landmark and had stood there since the dawn of time and etched on it were markings of peace and power. Only recently when evil had fallen on Fornost had it become a place of fear. Nobody went there any more and it was amidst a desolate wasteland littered with corpses. Something was dwelling in that crater, something that knew the taste of human flesh, something filled with hatred and vice. Arwen shivered uncontrollably until they passed it and came upon a broken gate. Surrounded by fields of grinding ice in dark blue water it was reached only by a slender path which glistened faintly. It marked the entrance to a place of sorcery and few who passed over it ever came out.

The peaks of the North Downs rose into weathered heights before them. They were home to the lofty eyries of mountain eagles which shrieked from the towering summits. A black building blotted the hillside, magnificently colossal it had turrets stretching far into the sky and primordial intricate etchings from the second floors upwards. Fir trees at the side were submerged in deep drifts of snow that piled themselves far up the smooth cliff faces. Arwen looked over this bleak vista and gasped with wonder, the sky was filled with dancing streams of colour. Forest green and rose pink they curved in an endless ribbon of flame that issued across the sky in faintly glowing curves. Legolas gazed in awe at these burning spears that skimmed across the first stars that were sparkling like diamonds amid the darkening sky. Arwen's eyes filled with tears of astonishment which froze as they fell down her cheeks and glazed her face. Their reverie was rudely disturbed when the men propelled them forward with a kick in the backs of their knees that made them stumble. The structure looked as if its foundations were those of the very mountain side, it was as old as the hills and rose with the bones of the earth. The entrance was an arched door with a barred gate in front that without a key could be only thrust open from the inside. Inside a cavernous hall stretched out, designs of great beauty were traced into the highly polished floor and half melted candles stood in their dripping sconces. Here and there stood men dressed in red, hooded and cloaked in the shadowy recesses they were scarce to be seen but their malevolent presence was enough to know that this was a place of trepidation. Dark and dank had this beautiful hall become and deadly was the stench that filled the air with a foul fume. A stairway led up from where they stood, immeasurably long and they were made to climb it. Every aching limb was made to work as they ascended, it was a cruel torture and there seemed to be no end. Every time one of the elves paused to gather enough breath for another step they earned a rap across the neck with a stinging rod. Time stopped as they laboured on and it was many hundred steps before they reached the top. They entered yet another hall, though this one was smaller and less ornate. Twirling columns ringed the walls and a single support stood in the centre and leaning against it was a man. A mortal who cast fear into the hearts of their guards. They were bade to leave and they did so gladly, leaving their captives behind to stand sentry at the doors. The room was walled with dark stone veined with white ore and the high, arched, glassless windows allowed a freezing, wind to enter and it whipped around them. A niche in the wall held an effigy, crudely hewn of some unknown material it was vaguely recognisable as a figure. Its hands held lit candles, melted and dripping with yellow wax, its mouth was snarling and hideously black eyes stared from beneath a gravelled brow, at its feet was the palantir. It was the ancient spirit stone of Lithnuxe and it was formidable in its legend. The horrific bodiless spirit of a Maiar with evil purpose had been imprisoned there for years uncounted and the stone was left as a memorial to those who believed the evil had been vanquished forever. It was the only ornament in the room.

"I hope you found your journey comfortable." a mellifluous voice said. It belonged to a tall thin man of pale, withered complexion and small ebony eyes. He had a pointed chin with an inverted triangle of black, similar triangles were painted at the corners of his eyes. He had the look of one who had been wrung hollow. He was clad in blood red robes which swished around his ankles as he walked and he carried with him a rod of jet. It was this rod that held their gaze for it was glowing with an unearthly light. It was slender and at the end was a delicate orb from which protruded a spike. This point was surrounded by a flaming tongue and smokes of varied hue eddied within the shining barb. The man eyed them malevolently, Legolas was wondering what hidden power he held for no living mortal would choose to take on two fully grown elves if he had no weapon. This human looked slight but as Legolas had learned in the War of the Ring, appearances could be deceptive. His query was answered when the rod was thrust forth and some concealed energy pushed him and Arwen against the wall. It held them there, pain coursing through their veins and the voice spoke again.

"Ranklathe wished to see you," it said, "He knows that an elf gave news of his whereabouts and sent an army after him, he gave orders for any elves to be taken so he could be sure he would punish them. Now two elves he has in his keeping." They did not answer, Arwen was sensing guilt. It was her fault that Legolas was being put through this, she had to stop his pain. He knew what she would do she would sacrifice herself, he read her will and with all his force he stilled her. She was aware of him striving to stop her and she knew that he did not blame her, this was lost on the man. He did not realise what was happening. He released them and they sank to the floor gasping for air, Arwen could not go on like this.

"All the ragtag band of followers you were with shall be killed. Their blood will be on your hands should you not give notice of where they are and what their purpose might be." the elves stayed silent, they would never expose the army that was coming for any pain they would be given. "So you decide to choose a more undesirable method? We have ways of making you talk, ways of immense cruelty you would never imagine," the evil voice continued.

Poison from her wound was distressing her enough, she could not bear this odious human to add to her anguish. Unbidden came to her the picture of her beloved Aragorn as he slept then a vision of him dying in the snow, his throat cut and it angered her to within an inch of her being.

The man turned as if to leave but a voice, deep and powerful came from the stone behind his frail image.

"Kill them both."

With a feline grace the elves sprang from where they stood as a stream of flame from the rod shot towards them. It melted part of the door, welding it closed. Arwen was incensed, she tore at the man, scratching and rending at his face with a surprising vigour for one so weak. Yet she was weary with sorrow and toil and lack of food. She was struck in the stomach with a blow that knocked the breath from her body, she fell to the floor clawing her wounds in agony.

Craggy precipices enshrouded with clouds emerged into the sky. It was so cold it would seem the very air would crack like ice. Pine trees laden with snow stood solemnly in broken lines around the base of the monolithic hills, their shadows clawing with ghostly fingers further and further over the ground. Howling wolves echoed their mournful calls around the hills and filled the ice burdened land with resonant growls. This cold world was drained of colour as the sun set and nestled into the mountain sides were little clusters of houses, hardly to be seen beneath the snow, the first gentle spots of snow were falling as they stood like downy plumes of pallid feathers. Aragorn and his men stared at this bleak wilderness with wonder. They beheld the same lights in the sky as the elves had and many stood as men awestruck in the face of such phenomenal beauty. Aragorn stared at this sight with astonishment and as the lilac threads of ethereal light flitted past he gasped for breath and blinked away frozen tears that clung to his eyelashes.

Snowmen looked on them with dread, tall proud fighters from the south were never seen unless in times of great unrest. A swart goblin man on guard came up to them and wordlessly attempted to smite Aragorn with a hacking dagger. The man fell headless and Anduril was wiped clean on the snow. His small band of supporters scattered in dismay and the King summoned his men to his side, the second division on horseback, of the army would arrive in a few hours. They had ridden from Minas Tirith, Aragorn had thought it wise if both sections arrived at Fornost at around the same time, were there any fights to be fought. He strode over to a group of the larger and bolder snowmen and demanded he know where any captives would be taken. The first remained sullenly silent so Gimli threatened to hew him off his legs. This prompted the second man to speak,

"They are gone, they were taken before the Kalut but this morn." his words were thick and difficult to understand.

"Who is the Kalut?" Aragorn's fell tone was full of wrath and the man answered,

"He is the head priest sir, of Ranklathe, he holds the sceptre of Lithnuxe and it was he who freed the evil from its prison." His voice though in the common speech was marked by a soft nasal twang.

"You will take us to him," said Aragorn and commanded his men to follow.

"We must not!" the snowmen refused, "Ranklathe will kill us all, do not make us walk into death!"

"Either walk into death with us who hope to defeat it or await it here, for it will come to you and you will beg for mercy when it does." said the King and his men looked on him with new eyes.

"No man can defeat Death." said the ice person haughtily.

"That I know, but we can defeat the one who brings it, will you aid us willingly or no?" Aragorn was growing tired of this banter and wished to make as much haste as possible. He had no other way to find the captives and would not let this chance go.

"We will not, what right have you to demand this?" the man was little less than Aragorn's height and stood his ground firmly. Faramir and Gimli grabbed Aragorn's arms as he strode forward with clenched fists, ready to vent his annoyance on the snow man who spoke to him so disrespectfully. He was barely restrained and insisted all the more fervently for their aid. They were a gentle people at heart and afraid to awaken the anger of Ranklathe yet Aragorn was adamant and he sent his men at the snowperson's tentative instruction to raid the rancid holes of the foul goblin men until they recovered enough sleds and hounds to pull them across the ice fields. The men were sceptical about this form of travel, the boned carts seemed perilous and they did not trust the ice men in their cold white houses. The cold was biting as they slid across the grinding ice. Mountains of white glistened from the water and they were both beautiful and terrible. Aragorn was fearful of treachery among the snowmen, they may have forgotten their ancient alliance to the Dunedain but unwilling as they were they did not lead them astray. Nevertheless they skated gracefully over the land, they saw as Arwen had the crater of impiety and the stone that cast shadows over the most unquailing heart. The falling snow shrouded them in a blanket of white and they could barely pierce the billowing pale cloaks. They crossed the ice in streams and made their way over the ridge to behold the tower and castle embedded in the mountain side. This was the dwelling of Ranklathe and the priests of Kalut. Eight guards marked the doors but were slain quickly before more appeared. Shouts from a window high above carried down to them in the still air. Aragorn heard screams of pain in a voice that he recognised,

"Arwen!" he said in barely more than a whisper, "and Legolas!"

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