They maintained their camp for another day, and then decided to travel on. Aragorn explained that they did not wish the hobbits who lived in the Shire to find them. Amaril was surprised by this desire for secrecy, for it seemed a quiet and peaceful country. “They have long lived in peace here, untouched and untroubled by the wide world. They do not know what perils lies without their borders, nor are they aware of those that protect them, and I would have it kept that way,” he explained. “That a people may live in the freedom and peace that these Shire-folk have long enjoyed is thanks enough; we would not have anything troublesome come to them.”
“Yet you speak of Gandalf’s business in the Shire as if it were perilous,” she replied, immediately spotting an inconsistency. Aragorn laughed lightly, for he was glad to see the poison that sapped her strength had not dulled her wits.
“That is a peril that they brought upon themselves, and yet as you can see, we are trying to save them from it. Them and the rest of the world. Now come, we must go.” He helped her to her feet and supported her, for she could not walk. Nor, to her shame, could she sit on Sadhros, and had to ride before Aragorn on Roheryn.
Elladan and Elrohir stayed with them. Aragorn led them along secret paths, and they did not ride far. They made their next camp amongst a stand of trees. Aragorn sat her up among the roots of a particularly large and gnarled tree while they established themselves. The remains of a fire were there – Elves going to the Havens had already passed this way – and she found that oddly reassuring. She sat still, dozing lightly in the warm spring air, and wondered if maybe Master Elrond had been right to try and persuade her to forgo this quest. It was foolery, really, to venture into the Wild knowing you’d only become sick. She was lucky that the last leg of the journey passed through such fair country, guarded so zealously by the Dúnedain. She was also lucky they’d found Elladan and Elrohir. It would be terrible indeed if she and Aragorn had been alone in the Wild right now. Aragorn could not hope to defend her from the onslaught of wolves. He could barely defend himself. Elrond’s own sons were hard-pressed against the beasts, and who knows what other dangers lurked in the still country between the Shire and Rivendell.
She fell asleep there, in the sunshine filtering through the leaves of the trees, and dreamed of her home in the mountains by the Inland Sea. At first it was a gentle dream. She was a child again, laughing and chasing her brother across a high alpine meadow. Then they rolled down a hill and suddenly she was 16 years old, and she, Amlach and Imlach were hunkered in snowstorm, fleeing a Rhûnic army camp, Imlach carrying his brother’s limp and bleeding body over his shoulders. They had at first thought to leave him, as a message to the Easterlings that the Harachin would not suffer to be made into thralls, but they realized that Mador’s body would be dismembered and desecrated if they left it, and so to their own peril they decided to bring him home.
Amlach was leading; she was bringing up the rear, Mador’s blood still warm and sticky on her hands. They found their horses and rode back to the village wehre Imlach and Mador had lived. It was deserted, the people gone, the houses and goat pens and stables empty. They knew Mador had been taken alive, they knew he might be broken and made into a thrall, and so they had fled, before he could bring the wrath of Rhûn onto them. Fled into the cold winter, with nothing but what they could carry, fresh falling snow covering their northward tracks. Amaril guessed that they’d gone to her village, deep in the hidden shaded vales on the mountains, where her father would welcome them with pity and kindness, and the people there would open their doors and hearts to their friends and kinsman, and let them stay until their homes could be built anew. But that was in the future. Now they must find tools, and bury Mador, for thrall that he was they had given him a warrior’s death.
They found the spade in Imlach’s mother’s house, along with Mador’s sword that had been recovered somehow from the ambush he’d been taken in. It was as if Haleth had known from the outset that her son would not return alive, and she’d left the message loud and clear. So they took Mador’s body to the fringe of the empty village, where the burial mounds were, and there, in frozen earth beside his father, they interred Imlach’s brother. He lay with his eyes closed and sword in hand, a warrior to the end, and on his face was a soft and bitter smile. The Easterlings had captured and broken him, but the triumph was his, for they had got no use of him. Imlach made a song about it, and they sang it over the new grave. Then they spent the night in the empty village, in Imlach’s deserted house, and left the next morning. They were greeted as heroes when they returned to the main village, but though Amlach argued passionately Hador sent no men to the emptied town, and forbid his children to ever return. Amaril could still see the fury and fear in the Chieftain’s eyes as he commanded his son to turn his face from the south, and the rage and defiance in Amlach’s face that mirrored her own.
In reality, Imlach had gone back to the abandoned settlement, for the way had not been forbidden him, and at his mother’s behest obeyed the Harachin tradition of laying cut flowers on graves. Hos mother loved flowering plants, and often dried and preserved the best bloosms of summer. Of these she selected her favorites, and bid her son to lay these dried flowers on the graves of both his father and brother. Amaril had followed in secret, and well she did, for a raiding party came just as Imlach laid the wizened blooms down, and he would’ve fought them to his own death, so black was his grief and fury. It was only because of her pleas and counsels that they got out alive, though she too spoiled for a fight, and of the 80 armed and armored men in that raid 40 would never return. Imlach himself had been wounded, and it was her father’s fury that he’d gone alone where it was dangerous to go, and that she, the Sun-child, the brightest jewel in all his treasury, had gone into such foolsih peril with him, that made him set her bride-price so high. That was the reality.
In the dream though, they did not meet a raiding party at Mador’s grave, but Mador’s ghost himself, asking why she had destroyed him and not the evil that had caused him so much torment. “The evil broke me, it burned me,” he howled, “just as it is breaking you, tearing you from within. Why not destroy yourself as you have destroyed me?”
“You asked for death,” she replied, “you know as well as I we could not save you, that the Rhûn would only follow you.”
“And does darkness not follow you?” the ghost demanded. “I asked for death to save those I loved. You gave it to me, and my brother and the rest of our people honor you among the brave and wise for it. Why not show your wisdom and turn the blade on yourself?”
“I seek the Western Sea,” she said, trembling as the cold lifeless hands of Mador reached to her. “I seek the grace that none may share the suffering you and I endured. When the grace is won I will die.”
“You seek the Western Sea and the lands around it for purity and peace,” the ghost spat, “but there will be none, for you bring your darkness with you. Turn onto your blade, Amaril. You suffer much for something you can not and will not find.” She backed away then, terrified, both of the cold ghost, the truth he spoke, and the fact that the real Mador had never spoken thus to her or anyone else for that matter. She backed away, backed away, and then her eyes snapped open. She was still nestled among the roots of the tree, though a blanket was over her now, it was late evening, and the fire crackled. Elladan gave her something to drink. She wasn’t sure what it was. It tasted like some sort of vegetable soup that had been seasoned with Elrond’s herbs.
“Your sleep seems to bring you little ease, Anorwen,” he said as she drank.
“These fevers leave me with restless dreams,” she replied, trying to shake the nightmare.
“So we have noticed. But you did not wake screaming this time.”
“It was not that sort of nightmare.” It had been a long time since she’d dreamed of Mador, but she did not recall those nightmares ever being so vivid, or accusatory. Usually in her dreams she just saw his heart’s blood spurting as her sword struck true, and the bitter, secretive smile of gratitude and pain one his face as his life flowed away from him. His last words had been “You’ve picked a good woman, brother. Keep her well,” and they had been spoken earnestly, without trace of bitterness or jest. She’d always felt terrible for his death, though none held her in blame for it, and though she’d been saddened she’d never felt guilty until now.
But was it killing Mador she felt guilty for or the darkness his ghost said she brought? Did it matter? Did darkness not breed in all the hearts of Men, rejected by some and rejected by others? The Men of Rhûn had given themselves to evil long ago. There was darkness in Aragorn, darkness that he had rejected and yet come to terms with, and that made him wise. There was darkness in Halbarad too, and like Aragorn he rejected the evil that he knew was in him, but unlike Aragorn he’d not yet come to peace with it. Some of the Men in Bree, like Ferny and the spy had given themselves over to the darkness, others probably didn’t even know there was darkness in them. Bilbo the Hobbit had a strange sort of shadow behind him; he’d not come to terms with his darkness so much as left it behind him some where. The Elves, on the other hand, were filled with light. There was shadow and sorrow in their past, but not in their being. The same was true for Gandalf the Wizard. But she, Amaril, what sort of evil did she bring? There was evil in her, no doubt, and the evil of the neutrality her people had maintained, and the poison that burned in her blood was a foulness that did not belong in these fair lands. What sort of darkness would follow her, and would it be fairer indeed if she cast herself on her blade, as Turambar did in ages past? Was the dream a warning that she would fail indeed? She knew that she herself would not profit from whatever grace Aragorn and the Elves gave her, that whatever she won for the Harachin would now be at the cost of her own life, but that was a price she was willing to pay. But if she were to die in vain, and all that was good in her people fall into the thralldom of Rhûn, all because of the evil that ran in her…that was more than she could bear.
Elladan’s light hand reached over to brush a hair from her face saying softly, “No, this dream has made you more sad than afraid I think.” He showed her his fingers, and they were wet with tears. Amaril cast her face down, wiping her face on the blanket and struggling for control. “I will not ask what sorrows and fears you carry, for I do not think you wish to share them now. I will say only this: should you ever wish to share, any one of us would be willing to listen. You have taken many rough turns in your short life, Amaril, and it might be better for you now if you set some of your shadows aside.” She nodded, wishing it would be so easy. Looking past Elladan’s shoulder she saw Aragorn sitting, smoking his pipe, watching, and listening. He caught her eye and moved closer, beckoning to Elrohir who stood watch.
“You told me once that you would keep the darkness from me,” she said, looking into the Elf’s bright eyes. He nodded. “Do you remember what I told you?”
“Your darkness is from within, you said. I remember.”
“This is part of that darkness. I will tell you now of how I killed a friend, and the dream I had, and then you may judge me as you will.” So she told them the whole wretched tale, both the reality and the dream. It was wearisome to talk so much, but she only faltered once, at the part where they decided to kill Mador, and Aragorn reached out and gripped her shoulder, lending her the strength to continue. It was full dark when she finished, and the three men about her were silent for a while. The effort of telling the tale had left her exhausted, but oddly enough Elladan was right. She did feel better for sharing this piece of darkness with her friends.
“You did well to tell me this,” Aragorn said without reproach, “though I would rather have heard it sooner.”
“I did not think to tell you,” she answered honestly, “nor anyone. The tale is no great secret; all my people know of it and those closest to me know I took no joy and found no honor in it.”
“How did your people judge you?” he asked, his Wizard-eyes boring into hers.
“They held me blameless,” she answered again honestly, though nervously now. Would she indeed lose all she’d struggled for? Perhaps she should not have shared this deed with them. There were other dark tales she could tell, tales of grief and fear, though this was perhaps the darkest, darker even then the horrors she’d faced in Dol Guldur. “The elders agreed that we chose the only course open to us. Neither of us could have stopped Mador from being taken; neither of us could have reached him any faster than we did. They honored us for it, for we gave Mador a noble death, and spared Imlach the burden of kin-slaying, but I for one find it a bitter honor to have.”
“Such honors often are,” Aragorn said with such sympathy she started. Had he too been forced to kill a friend? His gaze on her remained steady, and in his face she saw his lines of care deepen slightly, as he too lapsed into memories of sorrow and shadow. He seemed to age before her, and for a brief moment he truly looked to be a man of more than 80 years, but then he shook his head briefly as if to clear it, and when their eyes met again Aragorn the Ranger was back. “Your people may have forgiven you, if they found anything in this to forgive at all, but that does not mean you have forgiven yourself, Amaril, and it may be that you never will.”
“So how do you judge me then? Will this change what Elrond and the Mirkwood King and the Lord and Lady of Lorien have offered?” she asked, feeling more than a little anxious now.
“I judge you as your people judged you, and the wise would do the same, for you told your tale honestly and well. We are not of your people, Amaril, and we will not second guess their judgements in matters such as these.” She sighed with relief.
“Indeed, it seems you are more kind to your thralls than we were to ours in ages past,” Elrohir murmured, being well-versed in lore.
“And my dream? The darkness that follows me, what of it?”
“As I read it you feel some guilt for Mador, for even though your elders declared you innocent you know in your heart you killed a good man in cold blood, and you also know that, the bitter circumstances and forgiveness of your kindred aside, this was an evil thing to do. But you were caught in a bind, with no good choices, for to leave Mador to his suffering and betrayal would have been a blacker sin, and so would have bringing him back among you, where he could be the informant the Easterlings wanted him to be. You killed him yes, but, as I’m sure your elders have told you, you saved many lives in the taking of his. As for the rest, we’ll have to ponder it a while. But you are tired, and you must gather what strength you have for the days ahead,” and laying a sympathetic hand on her shoulder gently pushed her back against the tree. “This is a friendly tree, and you are still among friendly folk. Rest now, and fear not the dark tonight.” She nodded, closing her eyes, and he began to sing gently in Elvish. Elladan and Elrohir joined in, forming a chorus so lovely that she forgot her anxiety and pain and fell into a quiet and relaxed sleep.
“Was she followed out of Rhûn, do you think?” Elrohir asked after she was deeply asleep.
“I do not know,” Aragorn replied. “She wasn’t sure if the Easterlings she met in Rhovanion were trackers or a patrol of some kind. Now, the Nazgûl she met in Dol Guldur did follow her to High Pass, and tried to take her there, and we believe that his is the Ringwraith that was once a Rhûnic king. It is possible that he had a special hate for the Harachin. For all their purported neutrality Amaril’s people are ferocious fighters and though they’ve refused alliances they’ve made a courageous stand against the Shadow for many long years now.”
“That could be what follows her,” Elladan said thoughtfully.
“I do not think Sauron is interested enough in one young woman to allow his best soldiers to ride openly again.”
“Yet the one did.”
“Yes, and he lost his horse and cloak for it. Nay brother,” Elrohir said, “if we see Wraiths here it will be for another reason.” He gave Aragorn a significant glance.
“The Dark Lord does not know I walk this Middle Earth.”
“You flatter yourself,” the Elf grinned. Aragorn gave him a hard stare. What did the Elf know of this business? Not that it mattered. The secret was as safe with these two brothers as it was with him and Gandalf, but since Aragorn was not going to let anyone in on the matter without Gandalf’s express permission he made no reply.
“Then it is a different darkness she precedes,” Elladan spoke again, completely ignoring the exchange between his brother and the Man. “Much of that dream is her own guilt, and her fear of failing too, I believe. But the forces of Sauron are moving, and the Darkness is gathering. She comes on the winds of storm, and much that is good and beautiful will be lost ere evil can be defeated again.”
“She will not fail,” Aragorn said after a moment of thought, “not unless she gives in to despair. She is too strong, and her oath drives her onward.”
“She is already giving in,” Elrohir said sadly, “if she can dream such a dream.”
“Nay, not yet,” Aragorn said. “You do not know the hearts of Men, son of Elrond, nor do you know Amaril’s courage. If she understands that she has a choice, she will choose to continue.”
“If she is under oath she does not have much choice,” Elladan snorted.
“But she does,” Aragorn mildly replied. “The oaths of Men are not so binding as the oaths of Elves. Our lives are not governed by fate. In making that oath she denied herself a choice, but the choice can still be made. No matter how potent the vow, she can choose to break away from it.”
“Just as she may break away from the world. You Men are given strange gifts, Estel.” Elladan shook his head in wonder.
“Indeed, and few of us use them wisely.”
“You will tell Amaril of her choice in the morning then?” Elrohir asked.
“Indeed I shall.”
“And if she chooses to fall on her sword?”
“I will not be the one to stop her.” The twins looked at each other thoughtfully.