Amaril maintained her pace until the Sun had followed them over the pass. Then Aragorn noticed she was slowing down some. At first he thought little of it, for they were moving through a particularly nasty stretch of the road, with many turns to choose from. Amaril chose the correct ones without hesitation though, and as she gradually slowed Aragorn began to suspect that she was perhaps tiring. She had killed a troll and then dismounted and fought a Nazgûl in single combat. She had a right to exhaustion, though all the subtle hints he made about taking a break fell on deaf ears as she continued to jog down the treacherous pass. But as the day wore on her pace slackened further, and Aragorn was about to step in and force a halt when she stumbled and fell, sliding on her back a bit before catching herself on a friendly tree root. She made as if to get up but then sat back again, panting and shaking violently. Both he and Gandalf were at her side in a heartbeat. She was curled up, shivering and gasping for air. “I’m cold,” she whispered, staring ahead without seeing them, “I feel so cold.”
“Imlach,” Aragorn said gently, giving her a shake. She responded by curling up tighter. He gave her another shake and in a whisper tried her real name. “Amaril?”
“I’m cold,” she whimpered again. Lips set in a grim line her rolled her over. She was pale and sweaty, and a fever as hot as the one he’d found her with in Mirkwood was burning in her. “I’m so cold,” she shivered, her teeth chattering slightly.
Gandalf laid a hand on her brow and shook his head. “When did this start?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered softly, “I was fine – just tired. And then my eyes blurred and I got cold.” Her breathing was fast and shallow and she was paler than ever.
“She needs to get warm,” Aragorn said. “If I’m not mistaken there’s a cave nearby. We can tend her there.”
“No,” Amaril whispered, shaking her head. “No, there is evil in the caves.”
“We are less than a day from Rivendell,” Gandalf persuaded. “Elrond’s power is enough that much that is evil here will not molest the wary.”
“Amaril listen to me,” Aragorn broke in, taking her by the hand, “we have little choice. You can’t like go on this. We’ve run much of the day away, all three of this are tired, and we’ve come much farther than Gandalf or I had planned on. There is no shame in resting here.” She shook her head.
“No, no caves,” she repeated, still shaking. “I can walk further, to where it’s safer, where we don’t need a cave. Please,” she begged, “please.”
“Alright,” Aragorn relented, meeting Gandalf’s skeptical eyes. Both were fairly certain of what the outcome would be. “Can you stand?” She nodded and slowly got to her feet, blinked, pulled her cloak about her and took a slow step, and then another. She’d made it about five steps before she stumbled again. This time Aragorn caught her. “That’s enough,” he said. “Your fever is a greater danger to you now than anything in those caves. You fought very bravely in the storm. Do not let your courage fail now.” She nodded, leaning against him for her strength was rapidly failing. Aragorn took the nod for her consent and gathered her up, leading her back up to where a safe resting place beckoned.
They lit a fire in the dry cave and laid her beside it. She was shivering again, and only semi-conscious. Aragorn and Gandalf heaped her in blankets, washed the blood of Orcs and Trolls from her hands and face, set some water to boil and in silent agreement Gandalf stayed with her, keeping her awake while Aragorn sought out the plants Indis had listed for him. The blood of the fell things she’d killed in the pass had left shallow burns wherever the spatters had touched, and Gandalf set about treating them as best he could. He’d never seen the blood of an Orc or Troll leave such marks before. “Your body rejects evil as strongly as your spirit, young warrior,” he commented.
“It burns,” she moaned softly. “From the inside, it burns.” Gandalf did his best to comfort her but she continued to thrash and moan until Aragorn returned with handfuls of plants.
“There’s something fell in this fever,” he reported as Aragorn hastily crushed the herbs into the boiling water. The Ranger nodded, intent on his work.
“I felt it too. Black Breath perhaps?”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, but I perceive there is more to it than that. There was a foul poison in that wound, much worse than Indis guessed, for she is very sensitive to all that is evil. The blood of the Troll burned her skin, and this venom is tearing her from within. Already she complains of burning inside. Imagine how it will be for her when the night falls.”
“So you think it’s still the wound?”
“Did I not just say so?”
“She fevered so quickly though!”
“Elrond could answer that riddle better than I. All I can say for certain is that the source of this fever is the same as the last one.” Aragorn frowned, nodding as he sniffed at the concoction. It smelled ready. He gave it a taste. It was quite bitter, to the point where he spat it out.
“Pah! Do Elves have a sense of taste?”
“It is ready then?” Gandalf asked, eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Oh yes, it’s ready. It’s most certainly ready. I can’t believe she actually drinks this stuff.” He knelt beside Amaril, coaxing her to sit up and drink the medicine. She recognized the taste and grimaced but did not resist.
“I was hoping I’d seen the last of that junk,” she murmured as he let her lie down again.
“I was hoping so too,” Aragorn honestly replied.
“May I sleep now?” she asked, looking at Gandalf.
“I thought this stuff kept you up,” Aragorn couldn’t resist teasing her, now that she seemed to be coming back to herself.
“Not this time,” she replied with a slow smile. “May I?”
“Go right ahead,” Gandalf replied. She turned onto her side and in a matter of moments was senseless to the waking world.
“That wraith was after something,” Aragorn said after a while, “and I think it was her.”
“Really? I was afraid it might have been you.”
“Nay, if you were watching you would have seen it had no interest in me. I was only in the way. It wanted Amaril.” Gandalf lit his pipe and blew a smoke ring and regarded the girl, and inscrutable look in his eye.
“I was fighting Orcs, but now that you mention it I think you are right. There was recognition in her screams, as well as when she spoke to it. I wonder what it could possibly want with her.”
“Perhaps he was an evil king who hunted her people once, or perhaps it wants vengeance on the Troll.”
“I’d rather suspect the former. But that answers one riddle.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ever watched her sleep? She mutters to the night about darkness behind her.”
“Yes, I did notice that, and she says other things too, but darkness she speaks of in the daylight too. I always thought she was dreaming about her quest.”
“So did I at first, but it seemed deeper than that. No, Aragorn, she felt its presence long before we ever did. Perhaps she thought we could feel it, or thought it was her imagination, but her sleep betrayed the truth. She has a keen sense of evil to go with her sense of direction.”
“No wonder she chose the path so well,” Aragorn commented, sitting back. “You heard her singing, didn’t you, while she fought?”
“Ah yes, a lively little tune, though I didn’t catch all of it. Utter rejection of all that is evil, and a rejection of fear as well, to a point.”
“I would not accuse someone who could stand against a Nazgûl as she did of cowardice.”
“Nor do I. Foolishness perhaps, but even that would be a stretch. She uses her strengths with too much skill to be called a fool,” the Grey Wizard said. “Naïve would be a better word. She does not quite appreciate the danger she has placed herself in. Nonetheless, she saved both of us up there and got us all out of the dangerous areas with due haste. It is to our fortune that the fever struck when it did and not before.” Aragorn nodded, too tired to think of an appropriate response. Naïve was probably the more gentle term to use in Amaril’s case. If she were a young Ranger under his command he would have blasted her thoroughly by now. In the lull Amaril turned with a slight whimper in her sleep. Gandalf sighed sadly. “She feels the evil in that poison. This is a foul business. She will be in agony when she wakes.”
Amaril slept through the evening and night, and she was indeed in agony when she woke the next morning. Aragorn gave her another draught of Indis’s brew, and it seemed to fortify her to the point where she was willing to try walking. He took her pack, or what was left of it, for much had been left behind in the raid the previous night. She said nothing to this. She did resist when he made a half-hearted offer to take her weapons, and he didn’t press the matter. They took a gentle pace, but even so Amaril tired quickly, and the fever began to spike. This time not even the broth had much effect, and as she shivered and shook Gandalf and Aragorn realized that time itself had become her enemy. “We have to get you to Master Elrond before night falls,” Aragorn said, wrapping her in a blanket, “and while we’re all but in Imladris we’re not going to reach the Last Homely House if we keep this pace.”
“I’ll try to go faster,” she offered. Gandalf chuckled slightly.
“Nay Imlach, that is not what our Strider has in mind.”
“No,” Amaril said as she realized what was going to happen.
“It’s no longer a matter of consent,” Aragorn replied.
“No,” she repeated, backing away from him, but the resistance only made her dizzy and in moments Aragorn had her on his back. Gandalf took the rest of their slimming supply of gear.
“Lead the way, Master Gandalf,” the Ranger said with false cheer as they set out again. He felt Amaril’s shaking with sobs of shame, and though her warm wet tears began soaking into his back but he paid no heed. Twice she asked to walk and twice he refused, for he knew she’d not last an hour on her feet, and that was an hour he would not spare her. Her pride was not a priority. Then she went still, and he began to worry.
Their mood was grim as they passed through Elrond’s beautiful valley. It was spring and the flowers bloomed with sweet fragrance in the afternoon air. He heard Elves singing in the distance as they trod along the Road, making their weary way to the Last Homely House. They were not far along when up the road at a full gallop came a pair of riders with dark hair flying. One horse was chestnut, the other gray and neither wore saddle or bridle. As they came closer Aragorn recognized one rider as Ormal and the other as Saeros, both young Elves of Elrond’s house. “Hail Mithrandir! Hail Dúnadan!” they cried drawing to a halt.
“You look as if you’ve been fighting,” Ormal commented, dismounting and joyfully greeting his friends. Saeros followed his friend with a polite bow to Gandalf and then circled about them, seeking a closer look at the sleeping Amaril.
“Who is this wilted elanor?” he asked, lightly brushing lank gold hair from the girl’s face.
“Her name is Amaril. She is a mighty warrior who by chance travels West with us. Two nights ago Orcs attacked us in the High Pass. She fought back to back with us, and sang as she killed, but by high noon the next day she’d begun to fever, and so we seek the arts of Elrond,”Aragorn explained, hoping to impress his haste on the garroulous young Elves.
“She fares poorly,” Saeros murmured, running a light hand along her cheek. “Here, you’re tired. Allow me.” He gently pulled her from Aragorn’s back and held her in his arms. She lay still, limp as ragged doll, and if she was aware of anythign around her she gave no sign. “There’s something fell in this sickness,” he said, sadly shaking his head much as Gandalf had the previous day. Ormal came over to have a look.
“That happens to Atani,” he commented. “It is in their nature to be sickly, right Estel?”
“Only as much as it is in the nature of young Elves to be silly,” the Man replied, wondering how he dared call anything one thousand years old “young”. The Elves laughed at that and quickly sobered when Amaril groaned.
“What are these burns?” Ormal asked, suddenly turning serious as he noticed the red marks on Amaril’s hands and face.
“Those would be from the blood of the Troll she slayed, and probably a few Orcs as well.”
“Troll blood smells but it does not burn!” Saeros exclaimed.
“Well apparently it does now,” Ormal snapped lightly back. “I’ll run ahead and tell Elrond she’s coming,” the young Elf continued. “Saeros can put her on his horse. You’re not far away.”
“She’s gotten worse since this morning,” Aragorn said, checking her fever. “Maybe you should just take her.” Time was all but out for her. He could see death in her face.
“Nay Aragorn, if she wakes with only Elves for company she will panic,” the Wizard interrupted. “She is poorly educated,” he explained to the slightly offended looking Elves, “and has little trust for even her own kind.”
“Like many in Middle Earth,” Saeros sighed. “Well go on Ormal. No point in making the child wait longer.” Ormal took one last look at the girl and leapt to his horse’s back, galloping down the road.
“Were you out for a ride?” Aragorn asked, helping the Elf load Amaril onto his horse.
“No, actually, we’d word you were approaching and Lord Elrond thought you might need assistance. I do not think he was expecting this though – there, she won’t fall, don’t worry. Come, let us walk.”
As they walked Aragorn told the inquisitive Elf of their journey, omitting only the salient details of Amaril’s origins. Gandalf kept his eye on their sick companion, occasionally muttering under his breath and touching one of her cold hands. “This is grim tidings indeed,” Saeros murmured. “We’d rumors that at least three of the Nine had ventured forth again, but we hoped that it was just trouble in the East again.”
“That rumor is true. Sauron has sent his Lieutenants to Dol Guldur and is reaching further westward. Amaril found this out for us,” Gandalf said, clutching the girl’s hand as she stirred on the animal’s back.
“Then I am glad I live on this side of the Hithaeglir,” Saeros said with a shudder.
“It takes more than just the Hithaeglir that keeps these lands safe,” Aragorn snorted. Enough of his own blood had been spilled to prove that. “And should the Nine ride again we of the Dúnedain will not be able stop them.”
“That is why Elrond Peredhel guards this pass,” Saeros answered. “The Old Forest Road leads right through here, and to the south is Lorien, and Saruman the White holds Isengard. Still, even for all Master Elrond’s power I should not like to face even one of these wraiths and it troubles me that that Rider should choose the road to Imladris. He would not have been able to pass the leaguer of this valley – he must know that.”
“Well,” Gandalf spoke impatiently, not removing his gaze from Amaril, “either Elrond’s power is weakening, the Nazgûl are getting stronger, or that wraith’s purpose had nothing to do with this valley.”
“The power of Imladris fades, but not that much!” Saeros exclaimed. “We can withstand them, and they know it.”
“Then we were being pursued for some reason,” Gandalf replied, giving Aragorn a long sidelong glance.
“I do not dispute, but I still ask why.”
“What are you talking about?” the Elf demanded, suddenly feeling left out and more than a little put out by it.
“Amaril passed through Mirkwood by ways of Dol Guldur,” Aragorn replied as if that was explanation enough.
“You already mentioned that.”
“She met a Ringwraith there, and though she escaped it seems he finds her interesting.”
“I see. Might I ask why?”
“That was my question,” Aragorn answered. “Gandalf?”
“You know my guess. I wish to speak to Elrond before I say anything else.” Saeros made a couple attempts to tease an answer out of the Wizard, and then a few more at Aragorn, but both lines of attack proved fruitless and he let the matter rest.