The hobbits tended to live in little cottages under hills, oddly like barrow mounds, with round doors and grassy roofs pierced by angular chimneys. Carfax stopped to sniff the air, and I picked out the shape of a corpse among the grasses beside the lane. In death, they looked like children.
Beren turned over the body to reveal a wretched face, frozen in pain. A middle aged hobbit in plain but comfortable dress. There was a bloodless hole in the vest over his heart, the edges blackened as if by fire. I knelt to examine the wound, and as soon as I touched the skin I knew what had transpired there.
"A shadow passed by this way," Beren said, watching the road.
"It was hunting," I agreed, and flung myself atop of Carfax. "Follow me as best you can!"
I urged the horse forward and she sprang into a gallop, her hooves as light as the day before we found this tragedy. That hobbit had been killed by a wraith blade, tool of the Nazgul, which meant that Frodo and his ring were in mortal peril. How many of the Nine had ridden upon an unprotected Shire? There were more little folk along the path as we raced to Bag End, Bilbo's old home left to Frodo in his absence. Doors and cottages were shattered, smoldering like untended hearths, and Carfax leapt over an overturned wagon that had spilled produce into the dirt. The center of the Shire was a great standing stone, and it was blackened as if it were a corrupted wound.
Beren was well behind me, vanished among the the hills and rows, when I came in sight of Bag End. It was not burning or broken, at least, but a black rider held still before its gate as if waiting for an invitation. The Nazgul were nothing in daylight but a black cloak upon a blacker steed, horses that were bred in a condition of drugged nightmare so that they could stand the touch of the wraiths. Carfax snorted and danced to a stop some paces from the abomination, and the dark horse didn't deign to notice her.
The wraith held a sword in one waxy hand, and a dagger in the other rested on his lap. It was the dagger that was the more dangerous of the two. Its bite, even a small one, was enough to devour the life of a mortal in twisted agony. There was nothing more painful than having one's soul cursed and remade as a slave to the Dark One.
"Elf girl, you are too laaaaate." The voice of the wraith was the sound of water spilled from a kettle into a campfire, hot steam and the diminishing of the light.
"You stand at a barred gate," I said. "Frodo lives."
"Death is a process." The wraith made no motions, but its dark steed knew its mind and rounded on me with deliberate slowness. "You are welcome to watch, princcccessss." There was nothing under its hood but a pale, cereous grave mask.
"Where are your companions?" I asked.
"Too weak, but they grow stronger. It was a days labor to kill the Shire, one by one by one. The little folk struggled so. They ssstill ssssstruggle."
Did that mean the other Ring Wraiths were not yet able to manifest to do the bidding of Sauron? The rider before me could be none other than the Witch King of Angmar, called their Black Captain, the foremost of the Nine, for he showed no fear of riding alone in the daylight. I breathed deeply of the evening air to maintain my composure? Evening already? Surely the sun was moving in haste. When night came, would he still be barred entry to Bag End? A quick glance to the hobbit hole revealed it to be locked and shuttered, at least Frodo knew he was in danger, though little good such means would do when the Witch King was ready.
"Why do you tarry, Captain?" In my mind I reviewed what knowledge I had of the wraiths, their weaknesses, what might be done against them with voice and will alone. It was a waiting game for the rider as well, and he seemed willing to play.
"The Grey Wanderer," it was a wonder that steam did not issue from the hood with those words. "He warded this place against us, but it cannot hold."
So Mithrandir's suspicions had led to some action, at least. He had not left Bilbo defenseless for fifty years, even if the Shire was defenseless. The nature of the ring was still uncertain. There was only one wraith here to capture it, and Sauron was known to collect all rings of power, lesser and greater. It could even be one of the seven dwarf rings, having been discovered in the company of dwarves and used primarily since to amass wealth for its owner. That was precisely what the dwarf rings were said to have done. Word of a ring in the Shire could have easily spread when Bilbo used it to escape his own going away party some years before. What would the old hobbit say if he knew his antics had likely cost the lives and souls of every hobbit in Hobbiton? No, it did not have to be the One Ring in that quaint house under a hill, but the idea that it could be gnawed at my belly.
"What is so important," I asked, "to draw you here alone? You are vulnerable in the light."
An arrow whistled its arc from down the hill, and impacted harmlessly in the Witch King's shoulder. He scarcely stirred, but I felt a spike of spiritual power travel down to the tip of his sword and twitch.
Beren had arrived, arranged himself beside a chimney from a cottage on a lower mound, and fired the shot. Another arrow was already leaving his bow when the twitch of a distant blade caused the string to snap. The wraith received the second arrow in his abdomen without comment, his horse turning so they could gaze down at Beren.
"Is he new?" Asked the Witch King of Angmar.
"He is." I said, and raised one hand toward the falling sun. "But I remember that two great lanterns once lifted our world into eternal light, until Morgoth the Shameful broke them in a fit of envy." The energy of the sun drew around my fingertips into a white gold skein, a precious bauble that I offered to the Witch King as a gift. His mount eased backwards.
"It is our place as the first children to remember such things," I said, "and the place of the shadow to flee from them."
The wraith lifted his sword in a respectful salute. "The field is yours, Evenstar, but night beckons." He wheeled, and a horrid shriek issued from his mount as they sped down the path and the arrow shafts fell from him, disintegrating. Mortal weapons cannot pierce the Nazgul and survive. Beren bounded to me when the threat was gone and the power outlining my hand faded to nothing.
"That was incredible," Beren said.
"It is but an echo of what our forbears could do." I sighed. "And he knew my name, that is a bad omen. What else does the Shadow know?"
"We can ask the hobbits." Beren grinned at me. Young elves were insufferable.
The round door of Bag End opened before us as I set Carfax to grazing in the yard. The hobbits had been watching us through cracks in the jamb. The face that greeted us was wide and soft to the point of obesity, and there was a vacancy to his expression that suggested the spiritual purity of a child. He gaped at me, making a clicking noise deep in his throat that could not grow into a word.
"Come away from the door Sam, let them in."
The hobbit, Sam, scuttled away into a side hall. Beren and I stooped to enter the hobbit hole. It was cozy for a hobbit, cramped for an elf, over furnished and over stuffed with pillows and shelves of knick knacks that were doubtless meaningful in the context of Hobbiton but as strange to me as the mind of the Dark Lord. Sam beckoned us into a sitting room where a fire was banked in a small hearth, mostly coals burning gloomily through their last hours.
The other hobbit, Frodo, was sitting in a too large chair stuffed with goose down. His face was hidden, as his gaze was directed entirely on the object in his hand, more brass than gold. A ring of power.
"We have to go from here," I said. "The Nazgul will return in full power when night comes."
"Uh..." Sam said, "did you hear her, master?"
"I heard her," Frodo's voice was low and strained. "I know we have to go." But he didn't rise, or so much as take his eyes from the ring, which was hung on a chain that draped across his fingers.
"Put it away," I said.
"I...I don't think I can. When the rider was out there, I could hear him in my mind. He wanted me to wear the ring and bring it out to him. And the ring wanted that too, I'm sure of it." His gaze lifted, and I saw his eyes were moist blue pools, quite striking, and so wide they gave him an aspect of panic. "Where is Gandalf," he asked, "I need him."
"You'll be alright," Sam said, almost as distraught as his master. How odd to think that even beings as lowly as hobbits would have servants.
"Gandalf is away," I said, "researching that ring. But my doubts are fading every moment."
Beren clapped Sam on the shoulder, causing him to jump out of his slippers. "Why don't you help me get you both packed for the journey?"
"J...j...journey?" Sam gasped, overwhelmed by the leonine glory of my companion.
"Yes, I'm sure you know where everything is." Beren led him away. "Your friend needs you now to do this."
When Frodo and I were alone I knelt before him. There were tears forming in his eyes.
"I'm trying," he said, "I'm really trying."
"It's alright," I said, "may I help you put it back around your neck?"
He nooded, and I took it by the chain to lift it from his hand. As I did so, the ring seemed to jump of its own accord, and I felt it brush against my knuckles.
A spark lifted from the hearth and hung in midair. I did not look, but I was aware of it as keenly as I became aware of everything. Beren and Sam, in the larder, were as clear to me as Frodo. An eye had been opened, and not a mortal eye. What I was experiencing was a spiritual sense beyond all reckoning. The power of it. How could a hobbit be asked to carry this? Frodo's spirit was a grey white smudge in a too broad seat. Why didn't I take it to Rivendell myself? Surely it would be safer resting against my heart than his.
My wrist stung, and the ring was flung from it into the coals of the hearth. I was standing, though I did not remember doing so, and Beren had struck me with his bow staff. I reacted without thinking, grabbing the staff and spinning with my whole body to twist it out of his hand, and completing the maneuver with a heel kick to his stomach. Beren was flung back into a wall, cracking the plaster and destroying a tea set on a small table there. Sound returned to me. Frodo was moaning and Sam was weeping. All I had been hearing when time stopped was a sound like a mountain laughing, its belly full of fire. Of course, time had not stopped at all. That had only been my impression.
"I'm sorry," I said.
Beren rose without looking at me. Sam helped his master, and together they used an iron to retrieve the ring from the coals. I saw it glow with elvish script around the rim, but I did not need to read those words. I knew them by heart already.
One ring to rule them all
One ring to find them
One ring to bring them all
and in the darkness
"I don't understand," I said, "Mithrandir should have known what it was at once. But it's as if the story of Bilbo Baggins was completed before the story of the Dark Lord was even imagined."
"It's gotten worse," Frodo hung the Ring around his neck and tucked it under his vest. "Every year the pull grows stronger."
"The Shadow rises," Beren said. "and a wraith waits upon us like a footman. I'm not surprised the Ring grows bold. It might have hidden itself from Mithrandir before, but now it has no need."
"You're right," I walked to a window and unshuttered it, revealing the oncoming gloom. "I think the Ring chose to press its will upon me, hoping I would take it up. It took no such chance with the Grey Wanderer."
"Sir," Sam said, "Lady...should I still be packing?"
"Yes," Beren went with him to collect supplies. Time was running short. I took an iron poker from the fire and handed it to Frodo, who took it gingerly.
"The wraiths do not care for iron. It will not kill them, but at least it may keep the lesser ones at bay."
"You must be prepared. You will see the faces of the Shire set against you tonight, a new and horrid rendering."
"H..horrid? What are you saying?"
"Those that die on the edge of a Nazgul blade rise again as wraiths under their command. Your friends are lost. "
Frodo lost his grip on the poker, and he stumbled back. I did not move to help him, afraid of coming into contact with the Ring again.
"It is a terrible burden you have been bequeathed," I said. "The councils of the Wise have failed you in this, but I will not. I swear to you that I shall see you safely to Rivendell, and you will be reunited with your uncle there."
Frodo scarcely seemed to hear me, but he did pick up the poker again, holding it tightly about the middle with both hands.
Outside, there was a scream, the nightmare that carried the Witch King was calling to the lesser evils.
"Do you have a lantern?" I asked, and Frodo brought me a round old fat one filled with oil. I took my paring knife, the only blade I carried, and began to etch the glass with elvish script.
Manwe. Varda. Yavanna.
"What is that?" Frodo asked.
"Names far older than Sauron. The Valar, who ruled here once, and now dwell in the eternal west."
It was spare minutes more before we mounted the hobbits atop Carfax, who bore them with equanimity, and faced the darkness. Sam held up the lantern with one arm, his other around Frodo's waist. The light passed through the old names and gave us some small protection from the encroaching night. The stars had risen, and the moon was swollen as if in lust.
The Dark Captain was waiting down the road toward the center of town, and he saluted me. Greyish shapes gathered around the edges of things, nearly strong enough to become real. There were dozens of them, their whispers melding with the churring of insects.
"They're calling my name," Sam said, leaning to far over the saddle, "my mam is calling my name."
"Close your ears," Frodo said. "We can't listen to them."
"Take them," I commanded, "I will delay the Rider, and come after you."
Beren looked doubtful, but he moved to follow my orders. I brought forth my own bow, unstrung as it was, but graven with the names and signs of my foremothers.
Celebrian. Elwing. Nimloth. Luthien. Melian of the Maia. I recited these as I walked down the path and unlocked the useless gate to Bag End. There was no sun any longer for me to draw upon, no water and no fire, so I called upon the air and the starlight streaming in it. I called upon the silver fire that was my birthright, my grandmother had carried a silmaril into the sky. The bow staff was no sword, but it was light in my hand and thrummed with power.
The wraith charged, his mount bursting into a gallop, his longsword arcing overhead. He meant to ride me down, and I danced a spiral around the beast and the blade, bringing all the force of my body into a single stroke against the side of one ankle of the nightmare. There was a crack, and the horse went down in a sliding heap. Beren took off at a jog, leading Carfax with the hobbits, as the Nazgul rose to face me.
"That was ill done," he rasped, and casually sliced the throat of his lamed mount. The still forming wraiths took this as their cue to follow the Ring, but the Witch King of Angmar wanted me. "When I ride again, princessss, I will tie your ghost to the cantle so you learn better manners."
I held my staff out in the style of an exhibition challenge, and he took my meaning, though the Nazgul had likely never seen anyone training in the manner of Rivendell. He circled away from the dying beast, the wax shroud of his hands all that was visible of his person. His sword waved menacingly, but I knew it was the dagger he wanted to take me with.
He slashed, and I turned the blow aside, keeping my feet moving and space between us. Blocking directly would result in my staff being chopped to pieces, so I had to rely entirely on my agility and superior training. His attacks were straightforward, almost brutish, he had been dead for an age, and much of the skill he'd had in life had decayed. If the Dark Lord rose and took up his Ring, than this wraith would rise in glory also, but I was fortunate in that I did not have to meet his full strength.
While I was not trained for war, my people practiced an art that was as much choreographic as martial. With my hands, and with a variety of props, I had accumulated lifetimes of muscle memory in the deadly Water Dance of Imladris.
I smashed his sword hand when he overcommitted to a thrust, and flakes of wax fell from his knuckles, revealing umbra underneath. In his half real state he was only able to wield physical weapons by means of the arcane concoction that covered him. Any weapon that pierced this "flesh" would rust away to dust; but with my staff, marked with old names, I was able to bludgeon him again and again.
His frustration grew, as did his mistakes, and soon his fingers were no longer solid enough to hold the sword. It fell from his grip, but I was overly satisfied by the moment, and he sprang upon me with his Nazgul blade. The terrible cold of it felt like a pinch in my side. I whirled away, it was only a scratch, but from those weapons a scratch could spell doom.
I spun my staff up, and knocked the dagger free. He howled, but with his broken hand gripped my weapon before I could pull it away. His fingers were rotted through with darkness where I had struck them, and that darkness flashed against the names engraved on wood. The remaining wax peeled away until he had no hand at all, only a shadowy impression, and that burned through the center of my bow with a sound like drying, crunching leaves.
I dove for his dagger. My bow was rotting outward from the center, and would soon be gone. The dagger felt strange, as if it sought to reject me, and before I could rise again his hands were upon me, both waxen and uncovered. The wax was firm and cold, like the hand of a corpse, but the other was worse. It had no strength to hold me, and yet its fingers pierced my flesh like needles.
I screamed and thrust the Nazgul blade over my shoulder into his arm. The Witch King's cry mingled with my own, and he fell away.
I ran. Beren and the others were far ahead of me, but I knew the way they had gone and I ran with everything I had. My feet carried me effortlessly, but my shoulder ached where the wraith had sunk his fingers into my skin, and the chill of it was a growing weight in my body.
I knew the Black Captain would not catch me. No beast raised outside the hell of Angmar would allow him to ride it, and he was slow on his own, being trapped in a state without vitality. But the hobbits were in danger, I could see the lantern light bobbing ahead of me, and the shapes that crowded around it.
With a burst of speed I reached the circle of shadows, hoping to slip through before they knew me. They were more solid than I'd thought. The dead of the shire reached for me with frozen hands, and I was forced back.
Beren maintained his jogging pace, but Sam and Frodo were free to look behind.
"Lady!" Sam cried, as one of the dead leapt at me, attempting to seize my throat. All the running, and I had not realized the Nazgul blade was still in my hand. I slashed the face of the leaping shadow and it dissolved into mist with a moan. Mortal blades would have been useless, but the dagger of a Nazgul was glyphed and corrupted so that it attacked the very soul of its victims. It was the same blade that had made them wraiths, and it could unmake them.
The shades sensed this, and rather than flee their potential destruction they all but forgot their quarry and fell upon me in mass, wishing either for my oblivion or theirs. Both would satisfy. Beren, young as he was, knew no art that would overcome such spirits, but he stopped jogging, took the iron from Frodo, and came to my aid. I was so quickly surrounded that I didn't see him. The iron was enough to disturb them, push them back, but cause no real harm. They ignored Beren, and I felt their forms pressing against me from all directions.
I stabbed and slashed frantically, experiencing a horrible encroaching cold that turned me sluggish and dull witted. I fought on as an automaton, dispelling them, accepting wounds that would leave no mark upon my flesh, but mar my spirit evermore.
"Arwen! Arwen!" Beren's voice was a distant roar. The circle of lantern light fell over me, but there was no heat. Carfax was snorting and striking out at darkness with his sharp hooves. He could not harm the darkness. One by one, I returned the wraiths to rest. Or to the void. In truth, I do not know where hobbits go when they die. I was still trying to expunge them when I found myself on my back in the road, and Beren struggling to pry the dagger from my hand. I had tried to kill him. Frodo was looking down on my with that pale face and those too large eyes, wider then ever and half in shade for the way Sam held the lantern against his chest in fear.
They all looked like wraiths to me. My cut throbbed, as did my shoulder, and the rest of my body a kind of tidal numbness. The sky looked strange to me then, no longer dark, but filled by a river of liquid cobwebs, and souls glistening along the lines.
Beren held me.
"Rivendell," I said, "you must take them to Rivendell."
"You will not die of this," he promised me.
"I don't think that I can live of it." I wasn't sure if I spoke, Beren watched me with worry and confusion. Had my lips moved?
Determination furrowed his brow. "We go to Bombadil," he said.
Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.
I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.
While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.
I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.