Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
--"The Passing of the Grey Company"; Ch II Book V, Return of the King
Nearing the end of the Second Age of Middle-Earth, the High King of the Realms in Exile sought an alliance with the King of the Mountain; in the darkest days of the war against Mordor, the Men of Dunharrow swore an oath to come to Gondor's aid in battle, yet they cowered within their mountains when finally called upon to fight. The High King, enraged by this act of betrayal, cursed them, pledging the host would never find peace nor rest till their oath stood fulfilled. In many years since, their spirits lingered in the shadows of Ered Nimrais, haunting any that ventured into those mountains that connected the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan.
Even so, there existed deep within the roots of the mountain Starkhorn a vast network of caverns that housed a lone dwarf woman largely unbothered by the land's troubled past. The stronghold accommodated its lone occupant quite comfortably. However, the better part of one year ago by the reckoning of Men, the tunnels were flooded with refugees from all corners of Middle-Earth, whose fears now reached far beyond mere shades of men wandering in Harrowdale.
The first signs of the cataclysm began as whispers of a sickness growing in the kingdom of Rohan; rumours spread of the dead awakening to roam the world and prey on the living. None knew precisely when or how this sickness came to be, yet within a few moons, reports of the dead roaming as far into the western lands as the village of Bree circulated. This new threat akin to the witchcraft and sorcery of the Elder Days ravaged the land and its people; the ensuing terror was unlike any the kingdoms of Middle-Earth had experienced in the Third Age of the world. Indeed, previous troubles with the undead were amounted to the occasional lone victim being dragged off into the darkness or strangled in the night, and even these stories were often brushed off as mere ghost tales to scare children into obedience. Those aware of the existence of wraiths, wights, ghosts, and shades knew they were at times dangerous but never on such a vast level. Lethal though they were, the undead had never before had the capacity to infect the living.
Deemed as foul sorcery, many began pointing to recent stirrings of the Dark Lord as the source of the disturbance. With the happenings of Dol Guldur and the revelation of the betrayal of the turncloak white wizard, Van Ark, it was now a widely-held belief that defeating the forces of Mordor may be the only way to end the epidemic permanently. However, this total defeat was only possible through one circumstance; in desperation, the search began anew and in earnest for the Ring of Power, despite the fact that the Ring had passed out of knowledge for thousands of years. Other campaigns were waged to identify a panacea, or at the very least an antidote, but even with the help of the elves and the remaining Istari, these efforts yielded no results.
And yet another glimmer of hope came out of the West. For the first time in ages, a stranger ventured out of the land of the Valar and into Middle-Earth. A Maia he was, and the People lauded him as a hero and a saviour. Quite unlike the Istari, this newcomer took not the form of an old man but instead of a youth with unkempt hair the color of a raven's wing and tattered robes of a faded orange and blue. When it was revealed he was not their champion but instead a shamed servant of the Valar sent into their lands because of his failures in assisting his superiors, he was dismissed to his own business. By chance it may seem, it was this Maia, whom the Peoples called Sam, that finally located the missing Ring of legend in a most unlikely place.
Though it had quietly resided in the Shire for some sixty odd years, the Ring now made the arduous journey, with four Hobbits and one Maia, to the elven realm of Rivendell. There the elf lord and a council of noble men and women from all corners of Arda deemed that the quest to destroy the One Ring now lay in the hands of nine companions, to mirror the nine Ringwraiths that hunted them on their journey, with the addition of a company of the finest and most skilled elven guards to protect the Fellowship against Firn i Guinar, the Dead That Live.
None doubted that the quest would be perilous and that failure was virtually imminent. Indeed, the trials that awaited the company in the following months did nothing to assuage these doubts. With their dwarven representative and all but one of their elven sentries either killed or turned, the Fellowship was waylaid far into the southern kingdoms of Men. Nearly a year after The Change, as it had come to be known, these unlikely companions became the newest nine citizens of Abel Township. Having lost their guard and their provisions, death was looming outside the iron gates of the stronghold. However, even within the confines of Abel, the struggle for food, water, and medicine was constant. Settled directly between two highly populated Mannish kingdoms, the Dead had eventually wandered into the already treacherous mountain passes. The remaining elf commander was sent back to Rivendell, where the Firstborn were beginning to take secret passages to the sea and out of Middle-Earth forever, to attempt to plea for aid for these refugees in the distant stronghold. In her absence, a system of runners was set in place to brave the peril of the outside world, hunting and gathering supplies for their fellow survivors.
The number of fallen runners continued to climb, but with no other options available to the citizens of Abel, their council’s only option was to simply make it as safe for their runners as possible.
Janine's private chambers were nestled directly at the center of network of caverns that comprised the settlement residents had come to know as Abel, a title which the woman resented as her dwarvish name for her home had been cast aside as too difficult to pronounce by those foreigners she had willingly, though begrudgingly, allowed into her abode.
Just as in the rest of the caverns, the ceiling was a high, vaulted dome with walls of polished rock and a grey, sandy floor. The firepit burned low in the corner farthest from the two hallways leading out of the council chamber, and an ovular, stone table dominated the majority of the space. It was adorned with two, identical, golden lanterns placed equidistant from each other that cast a dancing light onto the faces of the five council members. At the head of the table the dwarf lady sat as she cleared her throat and thanked her four guests for their presence.
"I shall begin by informing you all here that I have had some dealings with the White Council since The Change and that your quest has been known to me since the moment you first entered my halls nearly a fortnight ago." She noticed as a few of them shifted slightly in their seats but ultimately remained silent. "However, I understand your reasoning behind keeping your intentions secret and do not hold it against you. I feel that it is indeed my duty and the will of the Council that I should aid you in continuing your journey. We shall see what tidings the Commander brings with her when she returns from Rivendell, but for now I regrettably simply cannot spare the resources needed to reach Mordor."
"Nor would it be wise for we few to continue on without identifying a better method to deal with the Dead,” a voice from the opposite end of the table interjected. “We have already lost too many members of our company already."
"You words are true, princess."
"Eight is sufficient, if you please." The voice chided.
In spite of the bitter blood between their races, the elf and dwarf had formed quite the close bond since their meeting. Even so, the elf had never been shy about sharing her wisdom, and her newly-found friend was not lacking the pride and stubbornness of her kinsmen. The dwarf tipped her head forward in acknowledgment tersely and folded her arms across her chest. Eight had insisted, just as the Elf Lord in Rivendell had with certain members of the Fellowship, that the runners of Abel be designated by number to protect their identities should they ever find themselves being spied upon from the inside or taken by the enemies. As the daughter of the Elvenking in Mirkwood she no doubt felt more at ease only revealing her title to those very few people she trusted wholeheartedly.
"As I was saying,” the dwarf continued on, “I have a responsibility to these people I have taken in. Abel is struggling to survive as it is, and until we are met with more...stable circumstances, I am afraid I must ask that the Fellowship remain here for the time being. Now, I do not foresee any outside aid arriving for us in the near future. It seems at least for now that we are dependent on the success of our runners. Eight and Ten, your service to us is greatly appreciated. Master Yao, maintaining and organizing our current system has taken quite the burden off of myself. You have my thanks as well."
"I am happy to be of use to you in any way." The Maia beamed back at her and patted his side; since he had arrived in these lands, an armillary sphere stayed tied at his belt. The device was fashioned out of some foreign metal that even their dwarven host could not identify and a yellow-orange crystal it appeared had once matched his robes before they had become so weather-worn. Not even Ten could puzzle out how the device worked, but it seemed that Sam had it under some kind of enchantment allowing him to track people of his choosing, a feat not so easily accomplished by the eyes of the guards stationed at Abel's gates. This technique had thus far been a fairly accurate indicator for instances when runners had gone grey on the outside; any form of information was precious at Abel, even when the news was grim.
"Finally, lady ranger, Maxine, you have become a vital piece of this establishment. An actual healer trained in the elf magic has been of more use to all of us that I can even form into words." She paused as the Dúnadan touched her forehead with the tips of her fingers and motioned her hand toward the dwarf in a gesture acknowledging the kindness of her words.
“It is no form of magic that I am trained in,” she corrected, “But I thank you all the same. I am always at your service should you need it.”
"Though your arrival here has indeed brought many improvements to our little operation, I believe we can all agree that we still have many strides to take in improving the safety of our runners."
"Indeed," Eight added. "The death toll so far has been...unfortunate to say the least."
Out of all of them, the elf had been the most vocal about her disapproval of the current system. She had been fully willing to risk her own immortality to hunt and gather for the survivors. Even when Ten had offered his skills and his familiarity with the land, she had remained content. As Abel became more desperate, however, and Four was finally drafted in as a runner, she began openly vocalizing concern for the halfling’s safety. When Five, the Ringbearer, was put out on the field several days later, the elleth pitched something of a unholy fit, demanding Five’s runner title be removed. Maxine had been quick to remind her that not only did the Ring have a will of its own but that it has also seen much more perilous circumstances in the past, and with time, Five had proven to be one of the best runners they had. Four had even become quite proficient with a bow of late. Still, the only way Janine had found to placate the elf was to assure her that the hobbits would never be sent out without Eight's close supervision.
"That is precisely the reason I have called you all to this council today.” The dwarf women affirmed. “Ten, could you please summarize briefly for us the communication system you have setup for your fellow runners?"
"Right, well, this was a method we were using in Gondor before I made my journey north into the elf havens. Essentially this system relies on the use of horn blasts to signal certain events to those at a distance. The guards at the gates let the runners know when they are in danger or when they wish for us to turn back to Abel. Sam tracks our position and lets them know which signals to send out, and we follow them in order to complete our assignments."
With its proximity to the epicenter of the initial outbreak, Gondor had been one of the first kingdoms hit by the plague, and as the eldest son of the Steward, Ten had played a key role in arming Minas Tirith against the new threat. Envoys from the White City had made contact with a few of Abel’s runners before and had encouraged them to consider making the journey south into Gondor. With news that the outlying settlement of Osgiliath had been destroyed practically overnight, some members of Abel Township were keen to take this offer, but even Ten had advised against it. In his mind, it was only a matter of time before someone within the city itself was infected and would neglect to say anything out of fright. From then, Minas Tirith would be in chaos trapped within their white stone walls. Even though it meant competing with the neighboring fortress for precious supplies, Janine saw the logic in his concerns.
"Yet this horn system has some issues, does it not?"
"It does. Horn blasts can only relay so much information to those on the outside. The noise also attracts the Dead, making it more difficult for us to enter the gates when we return."
"So would we be agreed that improvements could be made in this area?" She took the silence that followed to mean they were all in agreement. "We are then left with the question of how to better our circumstances. Would any of you care to offer some guidance?"
The long, heavy silence continued for several minutes until Sam finally offered his voice.
"Have any among you travelled far south into the deserts of Harad?" he asked, lifting his gaze from the table sheepishly.
The ranger answered in the affirmative. "I ventured to those lands where the stars are strange many long years ago. I could not have been more than twenty at the time." The hint of nostalgia in her tone was not lost on her fellows.
"Eru save you!” Eight exclaimed in equal parts shock and amusement. “Just a babe wandering into those forsaken, inhospitable, dusty, dry deserts. And the jungles in Far Harad! Ai, Elbereth! It is a wonder you are still here with us today."
"I had my share of struggles, no doubt. There is some bitter business there with the Mûmakil trade, but my memories of that time are fond ones for the majority."
"Even so," the elleth cast her eyes back to Sam, "Why is it that you ask of Harad?"
"Precisely because of the Oliphaunt hunting our lady Dúnadan just mentioned, the Haradrim have developed entire language of just whistling that they use to communicate with one another in the dense jungles."
Maxine nodded. "Yes, I knew it well. Though time has perhaps lessened my memory of it."
Eight caught his meaning and began to shake her head. "We of the Woodland Realm use a similar technique whilst hunting at times. It is effective for basic communication, but learning an entire language would take time we absolutely do not have. I doubt it would in any way be more effective than our current system, and it would not alleviate the issue of the noise that is attracting the Dead and who-knows-what-else to our gates."
"What we really need is a device akin to the palantíri." All eyes turned to Ten, who had broken his long, contemplative silence. "The smaller ones, of course. Perhaps something the runners can carry with them outside. Portable, discreet. They could speak with an operator back at the base without drawing so much attention from our enemies."
"An actual palantír would be far too risky. I would not allow anyone at Abel to use one of them if we happened upon one, not even myself." Eight gestured emphatically in a manner that suggested that this line of action was no longer up for debate.
"Many pardons, hiríl nin, but the palantíri are mine by birthright and my property with which to designate consent to use." Though calm, the Dúnadan's voice was laced with a silent threat, daring her elven counterpart to disparage her claim.
"But crafted by my people."
"As an heirloom passed to MINE." she asserted, anger now creeping into her tone. "Even still, I agree that we would not be able to use actual palantíri. They would be much too dangerous and difficult to acquire. That level of skill at crafting is something these lands have not seen since the Elder Days. It would not be easy to replicate."
"But luckily we have a wanderer out of the West that may have knowledge of such magic." the dwarf woman pointed out as she cast her eyes towards the Maia in their midst. "What say you, Master Yao? That trinket of yours you use to track our runners cannot be the only trick about you."
"I am not sure. I...I make no promises as to my success or how easy it will be. It may be of better fortune to ask Three instead."
"Decidedly not." Janine scoffed; she had not excluded Three from this council by mistake. He had become useful enough as a runner, but the only thing he could consistently be relied upon for was eccentricity. The four hobbits had first encountered the outlandish man in the Old Forest. No one knew who or what he was or where exactly he came from with his mismatched attire of bright blues and yellows, but upon further interaction, he appeared to be the only person in all of Arda they had yet encountered who was impervious to the dark magic of the Ring. Some unknown power had no doubt been bestowed upon this outsider. They had left him to his mysterious business in the forest many months ago, but only three days after the Fellowship's arrival at Abel, he had seemingly just materialized at their doorstep offering his services. Since then, he had mostly taken to singing songs of merriment in the wee hours of the morning while others were still trying to sleep off the previous night’s ale, which had resulted in some quite unfavorable opinions of his character.
"Alright, well. I can – I will try. I am...well, I suppose was a servant to Aulë. He never quite had favourable comments as to my mastery of the crafts, though."
"If you could even manage to grace us with an idea. Anything is better than our current situation. Perhaps take a day to ponder it and return with some suggestions." Janine scratched at the underside of her chin with a tattooed hand, the silver chains and blue jewels that had been elaborately braided into her charcoal-colored beard and hair jingling softly in the process. "Is there ought which you need? May we be of any help to you?"
"Actually...yes, that! Your jewelry!" The Maia bounced in his seat a little, evidently excited by his sudden inspiration.
"Well, this seems to have been productive.” The ranger began before she was cut off. “May we – "
"My jewelry?" The dwarf asked skeptically.
"Those blue gems in your jewelry," Sam motioned with a hand, "Would you happen to have any more like them?"
"Some." She said slowly.
"I will need them, if I may, as well as your talent with handiwork."
"That can certainly be arranged."
"It is our best option for the time being," Eight conceded. "But be quick about it."
"Shall we reconvene at a later time, then?" Maxine asked with a slightly pained look in her expression, squinting her eyes and gritting her teeth a bit. "I'm afraid we've busied ourselves her for some time and I must get back to my patients." she began to rise from the table when....
"Gene! GENE!" a panicked call echoed in the dimly-lit hallway that led to the "Quad", the four largest caverns in the stronghold that housed the majority of the survivors.
The five of the council's heads snapped in the direction of the interruption simultaneously. With the swiftness of the elves on her side, Eight was the first of them to reach the stack of crates piled high in the hall and happen upon the source of the disturbance.
Behind the wooden supply crates, Eugene lay seizing violently and kicked up the sandy floor. Jack was knelt by his side, clutching as his hand and turning his head away from the resultant debris.
"Spies!" Sara spat, wrenching Jack by the shoulder to face her. "Eavesdroppers!"
"Please," he pleaded. "Please. I know not what is happening to him. Help him, I beg of you."
"Step aside, the both of you." Maxine interjected, clearing them away and kneeling by the hobbit's now unconscious form. "I need more light, and I need my bag. I've left it on my bedroll. One of you, fetch it for me."
The crowd that had gathered around remained motionless despite her command, taking in the scene in alarm and confusion. Noticing the lack of movement in her periphery, the ranger looked up briefly and pointed at Sam.
"You! Go now!"
"Uh...right, right of course. On my way." He scurried off into the passageway.
"Jack, what happened?" she pulled back Eugene's eyelid, surveying her charge as Janine placed one of her lanterns by the fallen Hobbit's side.
"We were just...well, we were...Valar, I don't know. He was fine. He was standing up, and all of a sudden he started one of his fits. Then he fell back. I think he may have knocked his head, but it happened so quickly that I couldn't...." Tears welled in his eyes. "Will he be alright?"
Maxine ignored his inquiry, intent on assessing the fallen halfling's vitals.
"My lady?" Jack pressed again, more urgently.
"Yes, yes. I believe he will. Though I will need to take a closer look at him to be entirely certain."
"It was one of the Ulaer, was it not?" All eyes flicked in the direction of the elf. "Your shoulder was troubling you right before the commotion from these two. That was why you were favoring it so."
"O man pedich?" What are you saying?
" Ulaer?" Ten inquired.
"Ammen aphadar aen!" We are being followed!
"What are you going on about?" Ten asked, clearly resentful off Eight's use of Sindarin. As Gondorian nobility, he had learned the language in his youth, but it was of a specific dialect with some notable phonological variations. That combined with lack of practice over the years made the short exchange difficult for him to grasp.
"Nazgûl. There is a Ringwraith circling the mountains." The ranger sighed heavily, her face grim. "Those that have felt the bite of their blades know when one of the Nine are close. It makes the wound ache something awful. Unfortunately for our friend here, a fragment of the blade he was stabbed with broke off in his shoulder. The Lord of Rivendell was able to retrieve it before it pierced his heart, but the effects of his injury were severe, to say the least. These wicked injuries have difficulty healing in the first place, and I fear that his will never fully heal." As she spoke, she pulled back Eugene's vest and tunic to reveal a gruesome, jagged, black scar on his chest.
"You as well then?" The dwarf woman asked, folding her arms again. "Have had dealings with these vile creatures, I mean."
"I have – had an encounter with the Witch King in times past, yes."
"Encounters." Eight said, emphasizing the plural and hinting at a deeper knowledge of these events.
"That is quite enough, hiríl nin, we have no need to regale them with tales of our eventful and unfortunate escapades. The important aspect here is that we now have one of them on our trail. Lady Janine, I believe you would agree that no runners can be sent out of the gates with such an enemy right on our doorstep."
"It is true, regrettably. We will have to wait until we are certain the beast has moved on. I’ll have Seven inform everyone. Someone should speak with Five,” she hesitated, “Speak at Five as well to make sure the Ring is safe.” The Ringbearer had garnered somewhat of a reputation for being exceptionally quiet and unsociable.
"Here we are!" Sam shouted as he returned triumphantly with the requested items.
"Help me move this into the council chamber. Carefully now." Maxine scolded, "Place him near the fire if you will."
Once Eugene had been sat near the fire, the ranger pulled a small metal pot from her bag. Filling it with water, she placed it near the fire to boil then picked out a pouch of herbs. Taking a stem of deep green leaves and tiny white flowers, she broke it into small pieces and placed it into the palm of her hand. Muttering a few words and the blowing gently on the bundle, she tossed it into the pot. The sweet and calming smell of the athelas quickly filled the room.
"There we are. Now," she turned to Jack leveling an accusatory glare. "Explain yourself."
The hobbit ran a hand through his curly bronze locks. "We have an um...excellent, superb, tremendous explanation if you will just give me a moment to gather my wits."
"You have no wits to gather. We are waiting, Master Hobbit,” Janine prodded. “Do continue."
Jack shrugged and developed a sudden, intense interest in the floor.
"We're of right mind to put you out of the gates and let you fend for yourself." The Lady of Abel continued. It was a commonly accepted notion that, as she had not-so-gently pointed out on several occasions, Jack was not one of Abel's best nor brightest and posed more of a danger trying to help than he did simply out of the way; instead of running with his compatriots, he was given leave to assist Sam along with Eugene, who was unable to run due to his injury. Though, 'help' was widely recognized as Sam minding them both like a nanny and preventing them from starting any more disasters. There were several times, including the incident at Weathertop, where Jack had put their lives at risk out of sheer obliviousness, and his choice weapon, good old frying pan W.G., was not exactly stealthy or efficient against anything other than crawlers, being that he could not exactly reach the heads of most shamblers.
“Secret council indeed.” Eight pivoted towards the hallway, hearing a newcomer approaching before any of the rest of them. “Janine, you may as well have sent out invitations to everyone in the camp.”
"My lords, my ladies. I am so sorry to interrupt," Four announced as she jogged into the room and glanced briefly as Eugene. "Oh, dear me, is he alright? Anyway, my apologies, but there has been a bit of a scuffle at the Quad. One of the nice lads that guards the gates? The quiet one with the scar on his right ear? The one that always looks a bit sad, like a mistreated pup? Right, well, I don't quite remember his name, but he seems to have come down with a fever, and some are afraid he may have caught The Grey. I tried to talk them out of it, but there's kind of been a bit of a mob started, so if you could please come fix it. They are making a scene, and we might not be far away from all out bloodshed. And, I mean, we all remember how that struggle in Bree turned out with the man and the other man and the axe and the...entrails."
"Yes, thank you, that is enough descriptive details. Let us see an end to it now." Maxine did not have the gift of foresight as some of her distant elven kin, but she nonetheless saw a very long night in her immediate future.