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When Thumper caught up with us, he showed no sign of having woken in the middle of night to hurry out of town. Both he and his nag were alert and unfatigued. He surveyed us all with a knowing smile.

"Did some work back there, eh?"

"Pardon?" I said.

"How did you know we were leaving?" Beren asked suspiciously.

"I don't sleep much, and knowing what was about in town, I kept an eye on you." Thumper pulled his horse alongside mine, and Carfax tossed her head imperiously at the newcomer. "You handled them fine, but there are worse things on the road than Bill Ferny and his louts."

"That there are," Beren said under his breath. He was the only one not riding, but his stride was effortless and he kept slightly ahead.

"I won't turn you away," I said, "though I am surprised to see you."

"A ranger goes where he's needed."

We road the rest of the night and into the morning without issue, eventually picking a site to rest and cook breakfast when we were sure there was no further pursuit from Bree. Thumper was useful enough. Though Beren persisted in being cold to him, I didn't share his misgivings. A few times when I saw him in the corner of my eye, I thought I saw another, taller and darker, in his place. It was my wounded mind playing tricks or nothing at all.

The hobbits fared better after being sufficiently fuelled, and we travelled the rest of the day without a significant break, reaching Weathertop as the sun was dying in the west. Weathertop was the remnant of a fortification that had once commanded the region. From the motte on which it was built one could survey the flat plains and scattered trees on all sides. It was eminently defensible. There was no keep here, but a few ragged half walls and standing stones, barely an echo of what once had been. Crumbled and broken rocks had been piled in places, as if some giant child had sought to clean the floor of their room. There were also signs of campfires going back generations, for rangers and travellers alike often used this mound as a stopping gap between destinations.

We made camp, and the little folk complained of their backs and their bottoms and their stomachs. I had the impression that life in the Shire did not well prepare one for the rigors of travel. Thumper grew withdrawn, and declared that he would scout the area, though there were few hidden zones to choose from around Weathertop. I took it as a break from Beren's dark looks. In the house of Elrond, I had often been chided for my passions and their expression, but Beren made me seem as disinterested as a sage by comparison. When I had dismounted and given Carfax the necessary attentions for the evening, weariness overcame me. When the sun was warm overhead my discomfort had been minimal, but now that night was driving down the sky I felt the feather soft hands of wraiths against my skin again.

I began to shiver.

"Arwen?" Beren brought me hot tea and a blanket, always solicitous.

"Thank you." I sipped the tea. "I'm not totally recovered yet, but there is nothing gravely wrong with me."

"Rivendell grows nearer every day." He sat with me a while, and I appreciated his company. I'd not had many friends in my life, though I knew all the elves in Rivendell. Perhaps I had held myself remote, or been held remote because of my parentage. My father had named me Evenstar, a fatalistic prophecy that our line would end with me. We were a cursed line, in some ways, half elven. The curse is not in any weakness of the blood, but it is said that elves only love once truly in our endless lifetimes, and that is why the love of a mortal is so tragic. When they pass on, the elf who loved them is left to mourn forever.

Beren put his hand over mine, and I was so surprised that I did not move at all. He took this as acceptance, and the touch lingered, a pale warmth at the edges of me.

A hunting horn blew, shattering my reverie. Beren rose and found his bow, but it was easy to guess the culprit. Three short notes, and Thumper was ascending the motte again. He had caught a weasel.

"You shouldn't have done that," Beren said.

"There's no one for leagues around us." Thumper began skinning the animal and preparing its flesh in the middle of camp. It was a ritual that should have turned my stomach. Instead, the sight of entrails caused me to salivate. I turned away. Thumper seemed to sense my ambivalence, and it pleased him. The hobbits came to watch the show.

"My mam skins rabbits from the downs like that," Sam said, "but I haven't seen it done to a weasel."

"One animal is much the same as the next," Frodo said. His hand often strayed to the place on his chest where the Ring hung beneath a paltry barrier of fabric. When I looked at him, I heard whispers, as quiet as if they had been spoken in another room. I could neither comprehend them or deny their existence.

The weasel's limbs were soon spitted and roasting over the fire, grease and fat caught in a small pan that Thumper kept for no other purpose. The smell of it was intoxicating, so I walked to the furthest edge of Weathertop and nestled beneath a tilted monolith, pushing away all thought of fresh meat. Beren had insisted on first watch, and soon I felt myself drowsing. I wouldn't wake until Beren shook my shoulder hours later.

"Riders are upon us," he spoke into my ear. "Enemies."

 

Silently, we woke the hobbits and gathered the ponies and Carfax. Thumper hid behind a dolmen stone, peeking out to watch the figures approaching under starlight. Weathertop had only one road sufficient for horses, and the newcomers crowded it. We could have climbed down the opposite side and gotten away on foot, but they would catch us, or at least catch the hobbits, soon after. At least here we had a defensible position.

"How many are there?" I asked.

"Seven," Beren said, stringing his bow. "Should be no trouble for you."

Maybe not. I considered taking out the Nazgul blade, but discarded the thought as a note of madness. It could not be used against the living without risking their souls. My hands would have to serve if it came to that.

When the riders were fully exposed and on the switchback rise to reach the plateau, Beren began loosing arrows. In a matter of seconds he made it seem as if the ramparts were lined with archers all firing at will. It was dark, but his eyes were sharp and his aim true. Perhaps he had not studied the Water Dance of Imladris or the Wind Walk of Lothlorien, but he had devoted himself to the art of the bow. A man shouted in pain, and a horse tripped from the ledge, rolling to its death and that of its rider. The others spurred their mounts into as close to a gallop as they could on the rocky rise. They might have all fallen to Beren's bow if Thumper had not taken the opportunity to tackle him to the ground.

Beren was tall, with the flexible strength of a young ash, whereas Thumper proved to be a brute, chopping him down in a single violent rush. The two of them wrestled for a moment, and I would have gone to Beren's aid if not for the hobbit's cries behind me.

The Witch King of Angmar had slithered invisibly up the cliff where the hobbits huddled with the mounts. Blacker than the black of night was his cloak, with one hand grey like moonlight and the other a shape of grey shadows, he lifted Frodo bodily by one arm, holding him frozen like a captured rabbit.

Carfax skittered away, and the ponies bolted.

"FRODO!" Sam, whether out of prescience or foolishness, had gotten his hands on one of the grave blades. It was the largest of them, the king's blade, and he swung it awkwardly, nearly impaling his friend.

I ran to them, felt the strength in my legs, the fluid motion of my body, and released myself to the Dance. Flying through the air like a corkscrew, I landed a Triple Moon Kick in the wraith's side, bouncing off of him back to my feet. There were no bones to crunch under the assault, just a heavy darkness.

The Witch King and Frodo both nearly went over the cliff, but the hobbit was freed to scramble away and the enemy was hissing in anger from the grass. Sam fell on his bottom in surprise.

"You cannot help them, princessss," the wraith said. "You cannot even help yourself." He rose more like a marionette than a living thing, a form suspended by evil powers. The pale wax face regarded me with something like sadness.

"Where is my dagger, child? Do you keep it close?" He drew his sword, not cursed as the dagger was, but more than sharp enough to do the job. I was so focused on him and I, the contest between the two of us, that I did not realize what he meant to do. I was prepared to defend myself, but he slipped to the side and thrust the sword into Frodo's stomach.

Sam yelled in surprise and anger, striking out wildly with the barrow blade, and knocking the other sword as it withdrew from Frodo, widening the wound. The wraith king laughed at the hobbit's antics, and at me as I attacked him. Even with a sword he was no match, and I rolled him over my shoulder, tossed him over the verge of the cliff. He went laughing, cloak billowing like black wings, and fell. Of course, he could not die.

I took the Barrow sword from Sam's lifeless fingers as he moaned in anguish over his fallen friend. Frodo lived, but it was a near thing, and I did not have time to examine the wound.

Beren's face was battered and bloody, but he had overcome Thumper in time for the five remaining riders to ascend and surround him. They had swords and knives and axes, a motley crew of mercenaries with no loyalty among them but for gold. One was cloaked, and an arrow was drooping from his chest like a forgotten decoration. Another wraith.

"Kill him," the thing commanded.

Beren released Thumper and rose with a dagger in his hand as the men tightened their circle. I took the sword from Sam and whistled for Carfax, who cantered near enough that I could leap onto his back. Together, we pressed into the circle, cutting the weapon from the hand of one of the men as we did so. Another turned to us, and I turned aside his thrust, responding with one of my own. The Barrow blade easily parted his leathers front and back. Beren dodged an axe chop and rolled away from the other combatants. Among the mounts and the dead man, it became impossible to maneuver, so I slid from Carfax's back and withdrew with Beren to the fire. He lifted from it a burning brand, and held it before him with the knife in readiness. The remaining mercenaries hesitated, but the wraith had his knife poised against any who might have chosen to flee, and Thumper was on his feet again. He had Beren's bow, and wore a savage grin.

"Give up your weapons. We only want the Ring. From the sound of it, the bearer will be dead soon anyway."

 

I threw the sword. It was not well balanced for the maneuver, and certainly, Thumper would have dodged had he been expecting it, but he was focused on holding an Elven longbow at the ready, which is no mean feat. The Barrow blade went end over end and took him in the chest. It wasn't a killing blow, but it stuck in his breastbone, hanging and wobbling in a ridiculous fashion, and caused him to discharge the arrow harmlessly.

"Ithilien!" Beren cried, using his ancestry as his battlecry. I followed suit.

"Galadhrim!" We both charged forward, he with knife and burning brand, myself armed only with the Dance. Thumper's two companions were caught by indecision, faced on one side with the fury of elves and the other with a wraith's blade. Their hesitation allowed us to come upon Thumper while he was still recovering, grasping at the long blade that jutted from his chest. Beren bashed him over the head with the brand, and I kicked off his shoulder to land nimbly of the back of a riderless horse. It was a short jaunt then to catch the next bandit unawares, avoiding his axe and unseating him with a heel to his throat. That decided it for the last of them, who spurred his own mount around the Black Rider as well he could. But the wraith was not so easily deterred.

With a flick of his wrist the knife spun away. It was unusually curved, and it cut a circuit in the air, slashing the shoulder of the fleeing man before returning to its master's hand. The bandit barely noticed the cut, so clean it was and so intent he was upon his freedom. He would die from corruption before he saw another moonrise.

The nightmare the wraith rode upon screamed horribly, and at the sound all the other horses bolted. One of our ponies was so spooked it leapt to its death from the cliff while Carfax and its partner looked on.

"What sorcery is this?" Beren said, and I wondered much the same. No ancient king of the west should have been able to use a blade like that.

"How little you know," the wraith's voice was nothing like the sibilant whispers of the Witch King, it was deep and resonant like the depths of a cavern. "Elves live so long and learn so little, That has always been the way."

"Back!" Beren shouted, pressing forward and brandishing his flame. "Back into the shadow!"

The nightmare reared and retreated a step, having like its master a terror of open flame, but in the same moment the curved knife flew again and marred the smooth planes of Beren's face. He screamed when the cursed blade marked him, but did not relent. I turned back to rip the barrow blade from Thumper and charged under the nightmare, intent on gutting it. A hoof lashed out, catching my shoulder and sending me rolling to the ground. The wraith was being forced back down the trail by Beren, struggling to keep his balance.

"My name is Khamul," he intoned, "and you may call me second to the Witch King of Angmar, but truly I am first, for I remember my mortal name where the others have forgotten. It is Khamul the Black that kills you." He drew his sword with the intent of riding Beren down, but from where I lay I called upon my forbears and the Valar and the immemorial light of lanterns gone. There was an instant of resistance, as if a sheer veil had been hung between my soul and the energy I had known all my life, but the veil tore and warmth surged from my chest and into my hands. The Barrow blade flashed in passing, but the power was not meant for it. Beren's torch, meager and yet brave, erupted in a triumphant halo of silver and gold, and he thrust it forward into the hidden face of our enemy.

Khamul, for all his boasting, was turned away, and the wraith upon his nightmare galloped down from Weathertop and into the deeps of night. The light faded against his flight, and the torch became a smoldering stick again. Beren dropped it to come to me.

"Are you all right?" I was in no danger, though I was sorely bruised and would likely lose the use of my shoulder for a time. Beren, in contrast, wore half a mask of black blood.

I brought him to the fire and probed his wound with my fingers. The slash was deep enough to have scored the bone of his cheek, and it hung open in a wicked crescent on the side of his face. A strange pain filled me at beauty so marred, for even the healing arts of elves could not prevent such a scar.

"It's alright," Beren said, "I hardly feel it."

"You hardly feel it because that was a cursed blade. This could kill you without proper care."

"See to the hobbits," Beren smiled. "I will staunch this."

Sam was beside himself when I approached, and he nearly struck me. His eyes were wild with fear, and he clung to Frodo most unhelpfully.

"Frodo lives," I said. "But you must let me tend him if he is to remain alive."

Sam relented, half blinded by tears, and I bent to examine the hobbit's wounds. The Witch King had struck true, piercing the gut, and Sam's fumbling parry had torn the abdomen further. Frodo needed surgery. Short of that, even the power of Galadriel of Lothlorien would have been hard pressed to heal him by will and word alone.

"Fetch me the mediciner kit," I told Sam, more to get him moving and away than to have the tools. Between the hand of Angmar and the blow of a hoof my right arm was stiff and useless. I could not perform a surgery with one hand. Still, I cleansed the wound as best I could while Frodo moaned and tossed in pain.

 

"Beren! Can you help me?" He had wrapped his face with a cloth mask that was swiftly soaking in red, but he came to see the challenge ahead of us. One look was enough for him to know it was hopeless.

"Let me get you light," he said, and went about creating another torch with a rag and lamp oil. The lamp itself, I insisted Sam hold aloft, and all of this succeeded largely in casting more lurid shadows across the ruin of Frodo's abdomen. I had cut away his vest and shirt and undershirt to get a clear view, but it was his eyes that told the tale, rolling back into his head as he croaked and gagged.

Had daylight been in full force, I might have commanded the flow of blood to slow enough to stave off his doom. Elven arts compassed the domains of healing and cultivation, but I was too weak, and the darkness too strong. When I tried to call upon the light as I had done to banish the wraith, nothing came. Even if both my hands had been mine to command, they were numb. All we had was needle and thread and a few herbs to treat fever.

"Master," Sam whispered, "oh, master. I wish that we had never heard of Bilbo's ring."

At his words, my awareness of the Ring increased tenfold. He could not protect or claim it, and it was hot with power, more power than I could hope to eke from sunlight. But I knew that temptation for what it was. I knew it, and yet...

"Beren," I said, "I need you to be the surgeon, and I will direct you."

"This is beyond my skill," he said.

"My hands will not obey me, but you will." I took the torch from him. "Wash with water, then take my directions. It is this or death."

He nodded grimly, lathing quickly and taking up the needle. We crowded our heads over the little body that was already growing still, and I told him how to find the source of the bleed. There was so much blood, he could not do so immediately but after some sopping, the main injury could be seen. Skin and muscle were of no consequence. Frodo's intestine had been pierced.

Beren worked with all his skill, which though little for an elf would have been praiseworthy in a mortal. Under my tutelage, he was able to seal the breach, but when it was done I knew it would not be enough. The wound was foul, and we could not clean it properly alone on Weathertop. If Beren finished the job he would be sealing a deadly sickness inside of Frodo, one that would surely claim his life before we reached Rivendell. Long minutes passed in the work, and all the while the Ring throbbed with eagerness and knowing.

There was no other way.

"Beren," I said. "When I am finished, you may have to cut it off of me."

"What?" He was too absorbed in his impossible labor to guess my meaning. Nor did he react when I lifted the chain from around Frodo's neck and brought the Ring onto my finger.

First came the sound, the roaring of an ocean of fire that drowned out all else. It swept over me, and ripped the flesh from my bones, consumed Beren and Frodo and Sam until they were only caricatures of light and shade. But these images were truer than any a mortal eye could show.

Beren's youth and pride and vigor were as plain to me as if they had been written upon his skin. He was a bright pillar, the full resplendence of an elf soul that had not yet begun to fade. And yet there was the slash across his face. It was worse than I had guessed, tendrils of shadow spreading already to his neck and into his eyes. No wonder he had not seen me reach for the Ring, the Shadow had not wanted him to see. He was immortal, and even the curse of the Nazgul would not be enough to kill him before we came again to the house of Elrond. He could be healed, but it would leave him forever changed.

And Frodo! What a ridiculous, pitiful thing. How had this small creature with his spirit thin like a mist, managed to resist the Ring for so long? And how foolish we were to think we could have saved him without the power of the One. The coming rot in his belly was as obvious to me as if it had already killed him.

I was no longer cold or hurting. I pushed away Beren's fumbling hands and reached inside the gaping wound to touch the sickness directly. Then, in the true language of the first people, I commanded it to leave.

It did.

"Seal the gap," I told Beren, and from his expression I realized he could not see me. I was ethereal, more spirit than flesh, so I willed myself to become solid again and Sam fell back, dropping the lantern and cracking the glass that was marked with holy names. Oil spilled and burned against the grass, but that fire was nothing to the fire all around me. I stood, walking to the scene of our earlier conflict. The men that could flee had done so, but Thumper was still there and he was groggily coming to himself. I knelt beside him, and with a quick chop from the side of my hand, crushed his wind pipe. He gurgled like an animal.

I sensed two points of darkness in the surrounding night, The Witch King and Khamul, neither banished or destroyed. They watched and waited. Briefly, I considered taking Carfax to hunt them down. Not even a nightmare could outrun so swift a steed, and I could burn them both from Middle Earth with a Word, even claim their rings so they could never rise again. With the power I now possessed, the wraiths were nothing to me.

I lifted my hand to gaze upon the Ring. Though it was not set with a gem as the others had been, it was more magnificent than all of them to my new sight.

"How right that they fear you," I murmured. "You precious thing."

Then something struck me on the head and all went dark.

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About the author

WilliamMyrl

Bio: 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.

Eat Fresh.

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