The next leg of our journey was lost to me, as I spent it in shadow. I think that they placed me on Carfax, and the hobbits walked along with Beren. The lesser wraiths were all gone, and their master could pursue no faster than the feet of little folk. As long as they did not stop before daylight, we were as safe as we could be under the circumstances.
Whenever I opened my eyes, I saw the souls of my companions burning like fire in a glass. The hobbits were warm, small lights, like oil lanterns themselves; Frodo dimmed by the constricting influence of the Ring. Beren, he was a blaze of life, an immortal torch, as I was. As I should have been. But I was bleeding light.
The others could not see it, as they could not see the river in the sky that flowed from the west. Droplets of light dripped from me in a steady rain, absorbed wherever they touched the earth. I hoped they would beget life there when spring came. Even elves were not meant to wrestle with wraiths in so literal a fashion, or to wield their accursed blades.
I slept until we entered the forest and dawn brought with it a song.
"Trim grime triple fee
him thyme, heave and ho
triple promise, pleasant go!"
"What is that?" Frodo asked. "A spirit?"'
"It is Tom Bombadil," Beren said. "These woods are his home."
Carfax perked up, and we followed a thin spring that ran to a cottage in a clearing. The spring disappeared under the stone step at the door of the house, and the overall structure was overrun with nature; leaves and vines and nesting birds. They twittered and whistled to the tune of Bombadil, which seemed to come from everywhere at once.
"Welcome to the house and home
sweet as nettles, dark as snow
nevermore to romp and roam
but me and River's daughter
but me and River's daughter..."
The voice broke at this last refrain, and the whole wood seemed to sob. The birds went silent, and covered their faces with their wings. Something was wrong here, but I was barely conscious.
Beren brought us to a stop in the clearing before the cottage, careful not to step in the spring.
"Tom Bombadil!" He called. "Old Tom! My name is Beren the Abandoned. You knew my mother and my father, Belthil and Aldaron. They spoke highly of you and your wife." The silence stretched after his pronouncement. "We need your aid! Arwen Evenstar is here with me, and she is sorely wounded. We need your aid!"
The door to the cottage creaked open, and Beren brought me down to carry me inside. His arms felt like bands of fever, but I realized it was I who was cold. The hobbits followed cautiously, and Carfax nickered a goodbye before nibbling on nearby daffodils.
The inside of the cottage was larger than the outside, the living room as broad as a tavern, but with a wet, sagging roof and fists of grass punching up through the splintering floor. An old man was sitting beside a massive hearth and cauldron, but there was neither flame nor water. Not a single piece of iron was visible in the house, the cauldron and nearby tools being made of copper.
"Bombadil?" Beren's confidence was waning.
"And his river daughter..." The old man sang under his breath.
"Excuse me, sir," Sam piped up, "but could we trouble you for breakfast? We've been on our feet all night, running from ghosts and the like, and I am quite famished."
Beren looked at the hobbit incredulously, and even Frodo seemed embarrassed, but Bombadil sprung up, a new light in his eyes.
"Ho ho! Ha ha! They ask him for a meal,
what kind of host would he have been,
if he had missed the deal?"
The cottage came to life, chairs shifting, brooms sweeping, plates and cups and jugs clacking around to set a table. These objects were not moving on their own, the spirits of nature were nearly material in this house, and they all served at Tom's pleasure. The earth sputtered to life, so there was hot tea and what amounted to a green porridge. We had brought food from the Shire, and I still had travelling bread, but there would be no need of it. Fruit descended from vines on the walls, cherries and berries, dropping into the porridge. Sam was awed, and both hobbits thanked Tom profusely before tucking in.
I tried to speak, but my voice wouldn't come. Beren eyed me worriedly.
Bombadil was looking fondly on the hobbits, but he seemed to sense my distress, and came to look me over.
"Ah," he said.
"Ah?" Beren repeated.
"One foot in, and one foot out
you do them both together
and you shake them all about." The old man took me from Beren and laid me on a bed of moss that rose and thickened to accommodate me. Strangely, he was neither warm nor cold, I had a sense of being held by the earth itself.
"Can you help her?" Beren asked.
"A soul, a scroll, with nothing in it," he muttered. "To write anew, its hers to win it."
Beren sighed, and watched Bombadil place his hands over me, humming over my wounds both visible and invisible. I could feel the moment my heart regained its usual pace, and I gasped. My stranged sight came and went, and in its last moment I saw Bombadil as he was, a vast being that ran far into rock and root and soil beneath us, the old man was no more than a blossom at the end of a branch. The vastness of him frightened me, for he was neither elf or man or even maia, but something else, an elemental. And he was wounded.
"Where is your wife?" I asked. All who knew of Tom knew that he lived in the wood with a beautiful nymph, and the two of them were like king and queen. The cottage, and Tom himself, did not look as if he was cared for by a queen.
"Ah." Bombadil said. "But me and River's daughter..."
I tried to recall the woman's name, I should have known it, did know it, but the sound of it fled from my tongue.
Beren knelt beside me, "Are you alright?"
"I think so," I said. Something had changed inside me, there were canvas patches where there should have been solid wood, but the strain on my spirit was a concern for another moment. "It's Tom who needs our help."
I sat up. "What happened, Tom?"
"White wanderer," he muttered, "no longer wanders white."
"Mithrandir?" Beren asked.
I shook my head. "Mithrandir is Grey. Do you mean Saruman?"
The face of Tom Bombadil blackened like the sky above a conflagration, his eyes flashed with menace, and the floor of the cottage trembled.
"Saruman. He came to me, this Saruman. Cloak of white disguised the Shadow's arts. Pretty words and songs. We laughed and danced and drank and danced told stories of times gone by. Sarumon. This Sarumon." Bombadil strode out of the cabin without explanation, slamming the door behind him.
Frodo and Sam were watching us with wide eyes and porridge on their lips.
"It's quite good," Sam said, and Frodo shrugged.
There wasn't much left but that we join them for breakfast. As soon as I stood I knew I would go no further that day. Bombadil had bandaged my soul, but I was far from healed. If we began the journey again, I would lose half my heart on the road. We would be safe in the house of Tom Bombadil, at least for a while, and we could discover what had happened to his wife.
The rest of the day was spent in that cottage waiting for its master's return. The hobbits were pleased to be there, even in its dilapidated state the cottage was comfortable and kind, welcoming and warm. There was a basin that seemed to draw from the stream running under the house, and the water it held was sweeter than any wine. It soothed my pains, and I dozed on the bed of moss while Beren minded the hobbits and checked after Carfax. They little folk were like children in more ways than their size. They seemed to forget their fear completely when the moment did not call for it, and they were curious of everything. Beren named all the flora of the household for them, and told stories quite impressively. They responded with tales of their own, humble tales of hobbit home, and I realized that neither of them understood that the Shire was gone. Surely, many hobbits had escaped after the Black Rider began his executions, but that place would never be the same. They were innocent, these hobbits, perhaps that was why they could survive so close to the Ring without being consumed by it.
Sam liked to talk, he was very comfortable with Beren, though he would only call me Lady and not Arwen. Frodo was wary of me, no doubt remembering the moment when I had almost stolen his burden from him. He did not talk like Sam, but held himself apart, somehow fragile. Maybe the Ring had influenced him more than we thought.
I dozed, and when Tom returned, he was more bedraggled than before. We all shared the table and he broke us each a palm of honeycomb.
"Hundred year brandy!" Sam swore. "This is incredible!"
"Don't eat it all," Beren said, tasting his and squishing the comb closed around the remaining honey.
It had not been produced by normal bees. The golden gel melted over my tongue and tingled in my skin. Bombadil's magic was in this.
"The River's daughter, he sang her sweet words, and she forgot her name. The woods forgot her name. I went to see her father, but he forgot her name." His fingernails were like bark, and he held his hands out helplessly. "The worlds are changing, but nothing changes, for me and River's daughter." A thick sob escaped his chest like a startled bird.
"Saruman took her," I said.
Bombadil did not respond.
"Is there anything we can do to help you?"
"A broken wing, the mountain asks for help."
"We are taking these hobbits to Rivendell," I said. "But when that is done, maybe I can try to find your wife. It is the least I could do for what you have done for me."
"I will go as well." Beren said. "My parents told me stories of you both, and of this place, this theft is not something that can be left to stand. But why did he do it? Saruman is among the Wise."
Bombadil pointed at Frodo, whose hands went to his chest protectively.
"One Ring to rule them all, unwise to find them, one fool to claim them all, in ignorance, to wind them."
"Saruman has been corrupted," I said.
"Everything burns," this stark statement, from Bombadil's mouth, was all the starker.
"What's burning?" Beren asked.
"Everything," Bombadil said. "He digs up the old fires. Fires that should be sleeping. They dream dry days out of smoke and withered roots."
"This honey is amazing," Sam said quietly, and Frodo smiled sadly.
"Do you think this Saruman wants the Ring as well?"
"Yes," I said, "either for himself or for the Dark Lord. We don't know how far he's fallen."
"But why would he come for your wife, Mr. Tom?" Sam asked.
The ancient shifted in his seat, settling like loose rocks at the bottom of a hill.
"The raven is wanting a ring, a ring
the queen she is wanting a king
the king he is wanting to sing, to sing
dark tiding do both of them bring
dark tidings do both or them bring."
We spent two more days in the house of Tom Bombadil, and he seemed to forget some of his sorrows for our company. It was a good time for the hobbits, who ate and drank and sang with a creature that was older than any elf that did not dwell in the West. Beren was very solicitous of me, waiting on me like a servant, and tending my wounds. The cut on my arm we treated with athelas, King's Root, which Tom was more than happy to provide. It had been a shallow slice, and we cleaned the wound to be certain that not even a sliver of the Nazgul blade had been left behind. As for the weapon itself, I kept it wrapped in leather and cloth in Carfax's saddlebags. Tom would not have it in his house. I considered breaking the blade and burying it under a standing stone, there were old places that could at least have neutralized its black influence. Something held me back. If nothing else, I wanted my father to see the blade and know what was loose in the world.
The pain in my shoulder was worse. The imprint of the wraith's hand was a purple burn beneath my skin. It would require time to heal, normally an easy consideration for an elf, but for once in my life I did not have centuries to spend in contemplation. This business with the Ring had an urgency to it that I had never experienced, not even with Aragorn. The days we spent with Tom Bombadil were too long, no doubt the Witch King of Angmar had caught up to us, and gathered more darkness to him. But he was not welcome in this wood. On the road, we would have to fight to stay ahead of him again.
Tom bid us farewell, making certain all of our packs and bellies were full before we went. I was as well as I could be under the circumstances, and I let the hobbits ride. We needed to keep ahead of the Witch King, assuming he lay in wait for us, and in any case I felt being on my feet would be better for my recovery.
It was morning on the fifth day of our journey and we had come scarcely fifty miles from the Shire. The Old Wood gave way to the Barrow Downs that lay between us and the town of Bree.
It was an unnatural landscape, those little hills topped with graven stones, the names long obscured by weathering. No one tended the downs, and yet the wood had refused to overtake them, so they became a barrier between the wood and civilization. With the day strong I felt no menace in the place, and the hobbits seemed pleased by the appearance of the stones, for they had never seen the like. Beren took to singing.
Bury my bones under mountain stones
Bury me under the river
Bury me where you won't hear the groans
Of my neighbors disturbing your dreams
"What was that?" Frodo asked when Beren had finished.
"Just thinking aloud." Beren winked at him.
"Save me from being a thought in your head," Sam shivered, and ensconced himself more solidly in his coat.
We crossed halfway across the Downs, a point where the little hills and their markers appeared to stretch forever, for the land was low and the horizon hidden by their uneven spacing. This region would flood terribly when the rains came. A heavy mist rolled up from the south, smoothing over the land like icing on the indulgent confections of hobbits.
We slowed our pace, for the road was scarcely a road and our compasses turned and turned. Elves have an innate sense of direction, but that too was deadened by the blanketing fog.
"Is this the work of Angmar?" Beren asked.
"I don't know," I said, but the mark on my shoulder burned.
Carfax knickered and came to a stop of his own accord. There was clinking and shuffling among the hills, and the tread of heavy feet.
"Frodo," Sam said shrilly, "Frodo!"
"I see them, Sam."
Tall figures parted the shifting wall of the mist. They wore grave shrouds eaten to threads by time, and armor that had once been of the finest quality, but was rusted and pitted now to the appearance almost of the sickly flesh it concealed. I saw their starved lips in the twilight dimness. Pale kings and princes too, death pale were they all. Beren brought forth his bow and had an arrow ready, but did not fire. There were twelve of these creatures in sight, and more shuffling in the fog.
But none of them was the Witch King of Angmar.
"Let us pass," I said. "We have no quarrel with the Barrow Downs."
The tallest and most decrepit of them stepped forward, the bones of his fingers resting on the ornate hilt of a sword that showed no sign of time's awful work. His voice started as a rattle in his chest that caused Sam to whimper and press himself into Frodo's back.
"Angmar commands your lives be ended here," he said. "He demands the Ring."
"Light the lantern, Sam," Beren said.
"Angmar has no claim on my life, or the lives of my companions," I projected my voice like a performer, hiding my own fear. "Let us pass, and I will allow you to return peaceably to your Barrows. Challenge us, and we will scatter you."
A frigid, clacking, laughter rose out of the mists and the gathered dead.
"There is no peace for us," said the fallen king, drawing his keen blade with surprising swiftness and tossing it on the grass before me.
Beren had nearly released his arrow, but now he relaxed the string and looked to me for guidance.
"You say he has no claim," the barrow king said, "and yet you carry his mark on your body as surely as a lover might carry a child."
My hand rose involuntarily to my shoulder, which may as well have been a block of ice.
"You have his blade with you also. Do you deny it?"
The other wights all drew what weapons they had, some of them useless wrecks and others as bright as the day they were forged. One by one these blades thumped on the soft ground.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Angmar came here to issue his demand," the king rattled, "and we listened. But he is not as he once was. We are bound by his sorcerous words, and yet his mark is upon you. His sorcery. And you carry a Nazgul blade. The blood of wraiths spills from your hands in torrents, while a Ring of Power sits calmly behind you. You say you don't understand. Nor do I. But I feel the sorceries of Angmar swirling about you in confusion. And I wonder."
"What do you wonder?" I said.
"Can you kill us?" The wight fell to his knees, and the others watched him with a yellow glow of hunger in their eyeless sockets.
I was frozen in place, and even Beren allowed his arrow to slip to the ground. Oddly, it was Frodo who spoke.
"He means the knife," he said simply.
Beren fetched it from the saddlebags and unwrapped it for me. When I took it up, its glyph laden hilt was as heavy as an executioner's blade.
"Why do you ask this of me?"
"Do you think this is an existence we chose?" The wight said.
"I don't know you."
"But we know you, first born. We have waited, age on age. Hungering. Dreaming. Unable to die. Waking and sleeping and dragging travellers down under the earth to slake our thirst. As we will do to you if you do not release us."
I took up the knife and plunged it into his chest. The cursed blade crunched through ancient bones and pierced the withered coin purse of his heart. The wight grabbed my wrist in shock, gasped once, and the yellow light faded from his eyes.
A murmurous haunt rose from the vocal cavities of the other revenants, and they fell to their knees, pleading as supplicants for me to give them the same release. My hand tingled where it held the knife, which had grown yet heavier as the fallen king slumped to the ground.
"You don't have to do this." Beren said.
"I do," I said, and moved to the next of them.
Sam had managed to get the lantern lit, and he gazed into the wicking flame to avoid the sight of what I was doing. Frodo watched though, wearing a pensive face, as one wight followed another into final death.
"Should we bury them?" He asked finally, as more bodies shambled out of the fog.
"Some of them have been buried since the first age of the sun," Beren said. "Better to let their remains rest in the sunlight until the earth takes them whole."
When it was over the mists lifted, and aftenoon had turned to evening into night. My arm was numb to the elbow, and when the last of the wights gave up their tortured spirits to the Nazgul blade the hilt slipped from my fingers and I could not lift it up again.
Beren wrapped it in a shroud and replaced it in Carfax's saddlebags. The horse shifted unhappily to receive the burden, and I had the sense that she knew what it was.
"It's colder," Beren said. "Are you alright?"
Whatever healing I had undergone in the house of Tom Bombadil had saved my life, but the canvas that bound my wounded soul was wearing thin, and we were scarcely out of the Old Wood.
"I'll be well," I said, "when we reach Rivendell."
"I don't feel right here," Sam said. "I'm not even hungry."
I laughed, and the others looked at me with worry when I was finished. "He's right," I said, "let's go on."
There was hardly a space to walk among my victims, the beneficiaries of my brutal liberation. After I tried and failed to find a path Beren took me by my shoulders and led me back to Carfax and helped me up with the hobbits. She snorted a bit at the weight, but all of us together were less than a fat man in armor, so it was more the awkwardness of having one back for three riders.
Beren gave her a bit of salted fruit and sang her gentle whispers until she calmed. It was for the best; I could barely stay upright and had to rely on the hobbits to keep me seated. Sam turned dark red, fumbling to help me and hold the lantern as he sat the rear, not on the saddle at all.
"I'm sorry, m'lady," he said. "I should walk."
"No," Beren said. "I want to be out of the Downs before the night is half done."
We deferred to him, and he led us around the site of my slaughter after collecting the blade of the king and the other wights of distinction. There were glyphs on some of them, and their ability to survive the years and the flooding barrows hinted of powerful magics. I didn't begrudge him taking the time to gather them. I would have done it myself if I were in better condition. Objects of that kind were more than valuable, though each was likely worth the livelihood of a bustling market town in gold, they were also history, and it is the place of elves to remember.
The mark on my shoulder alternated between hot and cold until I could scarcely tell between them, and in some moments I imagined it was not Sam riding behind me, but the Witch King of Angmar, breath a rattle in his chest. The sky was a river of souls flying west.
We stopped for the night a few hours ride from the massacre, at the edge of the Downs. The hobbits had been sharing rations atop Carfax, but I had taken nothing, so Beren made me tea. Scarcely had I tasted it than I fell asleep beside his small fire, wrapped in blankets and still as one dead.
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.