"Gandalf!" Frodo cried, tears forming in his eyes.
Aragorn's ancestral sword lowered a fraction. "How can this be?"
"That is a tale for another time," the old man said. Old, but no longer bowed. His transformation went well beyond the color of his robes. The might that I had seen in him by bare flashes before was now revealed in full. "Suffice it to say that the Balrog is gone, and so was I, but now I am returned."
Kurkar got back to his feet, shifting closer to me with Aeglos at guard.
"Welcome back, Mithrandir," I said, "we were just discussing you."
"Oh, were you?" His bushy eyebrows wagged. "It seemed to me that you were discussing the Ring. A frightening prospect, given what use you have made of the one I entrusted to you."
"Narya saved me," I said. "Without her, Saruman would still hold Orthanc."
"Doesn't he, though? If we consider a name as a title, does it matter whether the one who bears it is a man or a woman, human or Elf, Master of Orthanc?"
"I am nothing like him."
"That remains to be seen." His staff settled firmly on the ground. "It grieves me to see you this way, as I'm sure it grieves Aragorn. It is not too late to turn back. All those rings, you need not wear them, or carry their wraiths on your shoulders. Such a terrible burden for any heart. You must give them up, my dear."
Kurkar stiffened at my side, but he needn't have worried.
"We exchanged oaths," I said. "I will not betray those men."
"Men? They are wraiths, Arwen. They are a crime against Eru's keeping, an unnatural extension of Man's allotted time on this earth."
"What of you, wizard?" Kurkar accused. "Have you not returned from the dead before our eyes? Who are you to speak of what is natural and what is not, you who are not a man yourself, but wear that shape like a costume in a play?"
Mithrandir ignored his accusations, his cool, calm eyes irrevocably gripping mine. "That thing beside you is wearing the body of your friend, Arwen. He stole it from us before we could give Beren proper grave rites."
Queasiness rose in my stomach, and I quashed it. "Beren waits in the Halls of Mandos. Whether his body was burned or given to the water or the sky he would still be waiting there. Instead, his remains have given Kurkar new life."
"Life? Arwen..." Mithrandir’s voice was rife with pity, "he's rotting."
What? I glanced at Kurkar, he seemed healthy enough, but Elves did not deteriorate as quickly as men, and the wraith's frozen essence slowed the process further. The stump where Beren lost his hand was blackened, however, and greenish-purple hues traveled up the arm. How had he been wielding Aeglos with one hand?
I could see the ghost of an appendage, had been seeing it since his return and forgotten the true flesh had been amputated. Kurkar did not inhabit Beren's body like a soul inhabits its own, he wore it like a suit that was coming apart at the seams. How had I not seen it?
"Who are you to speak of what is natural?" I echoed Kurkar's complaint, thoughts whirling. What had I done? What had I done? "Are you not a spirit as they are?"
"No," Mithrandir shook his hoary head, "not like them. I was sent here for a purpose, and when that purpose is done, I shall retire from the world. That is my allotted span. Saruman forgot his purpose and became corrupted like these Mortal men, doomed to die.
It is right that he was overthrown, but I fear the cost to you of that overthrowing. Fateful steps you have taken down the path of Shadow, Arwen, but it is not too late to turn back."
Not too late? Too late to embrace death, to accept my "allotted time?" I, an Elf who was promised to endure as long as the world, forced to choose early death to remain with the man I loved, or an early ship to the West to remain with my father when our "time" was finished.
I looked at Aragorn, the handsome planes of his face tightened by anguish. He was a man of duty, but I wasn't sure duty was what I wanted anymore. Neither choice appealed to me, as they had both been prescribed by forces outside of Middle Earth, they were not really choices at all.
"I gave my oath to them," I said, "and they to me. If I hadn't, the Ring would already be winging toward Sauron. And you would be too late, as you are too late now, Mithrandir, to be of any use. Speak, friend, and enter, but my decision has already been made."
Mithrandir bowed his head. "I see that now."
"Arwen!" The strain in Aragorn's voice was almost too much to bear. He said no more than my name, but in it I heard the strains of all that we had been to each other, of the days spent in Lothlorien, of the way he had looked at me in the gardens of Galadriel, of how, for the first time in three thousand years, I had felt truly wanted.
With one cry, all of it was gone.
"Frodo," I said, "come with me to Isengard. Your friend Sam is there, and he misses you dreadfully." I pressed my will fully upon him, and I felt the mind of the Hobbit, stretched thin by the temptations of the Ring, approach the edge of breaking.
"No," Mithrandir stepped between us. "Not that way, or you are farther gone down the path of Shadow than I feared. Go back to your tower, for it was hard won. Do what you will with your spoils. But the Ring goes ahead to Minis Tirith, and from there to its destruction, as you know it must."
"It is MINE!" Though I spoke, it was with a voice that was not my own, rather the rumblings of some ancient creature, scaled and full of fire. My spirit and my will leaped forward to clash with his, and I became ethereal, a thing of shadow and flame, an image of the warring powers of my rings.
These were not the dueling songs of Arwen and Saruman, indeed, I had learned from that experience. Here was a raw clash of dissonance, of hunger and ragged frustration, of the hubris of new power.
Mithrandir stabbed his staff into the soil and my assault split around him, veering to either side of my erstwhile companions, who hunched behind the wizard. The ash tree on his left blackened and withered, and the elm on his right burst into riotous flame.
Face tight with concentration, Mithrandir put forth a single pure note, suffused with an emotion it was difficult to recognize. He did not set himself as my enemy, and even as he struck back at me I felt only his forgiveness and his sorrow.
There was a sound like ruined glass as Narya cried out in her despair. The Red Ring of Fire could not withstand the injustice of the use to which I had put her, pitting her against her old keeper, and a gold red tracery erupted around my hand, burning and burning. The ring fell from my finger, and I fell to my knees, cradling a horrid claw.
What's happened? What's happened!" Aragorn was looking about wildly. "I have to help her!"
"She is still here," Mithrandir said, seeing me through the veil of the Rings of Men, "but you cannot help her. She is the only one who can help herself; but we must be on our way, for the Shadow looms ever closer, and the night is full of watchers."
Aragorn tried to come forward, even though he could not see me he heard my harsh breathing, but Kurkar stepped in his path bearing Aeglos like a staff mounted with a captured star. For a moment I thought that two ancient weapons, once brothers in a battle against Sauron, would be ranged against each other, and I did not know which of the two would prove victorious.
Aragorn son of Arathorn, King of Men, or Kurkar, King of Wraiths, who was now coming into the full remembrance of his living power. Again Mithrandir intervened.
"No more room for squabbles," he said. "Come now, Aragorn, or do not come at all."
They hurried away, and it was minutes or hours that I stared at my left hand, which had been striped by an uncanny flame that had devoured whole strips of flesh while leaving neighboring regions untouched.
Kurkar bent to retrieve Narya, which was quiescent, and he lifted me into Glower's saddle. The nightmare had cantered away at the appearance of Mithrandir, but returned when she was called. She sensed my injury and rode gently afterward.
Our return to Isengard was far slower than the chase of the Company had been. I treated my hand with a poultice from the herbs that grew in the area and sent Maedhros and Maglor on scouting missions for ingredients I thought were close.
I tried to care for the self-inflicted wound on my right forearm as well, but as with the preparation of the poultice, I had to rely on Kurkar. His own knowledge of herb lore was not insignificant, but now that I had seen the signs of decay in Beren's body it was impossible to ignore them.
"I want you out of him," I said.
"I am no use to you as a mere shadow, my Queen."
"Even so, I cannot bear to see him like this any longer. I need to care for Beren as I should have done before."
Kurkar was holding something back, and I bid him share it. "I have been considering a better solution to my need, and my brother's need, for bodies. The dead are so inelegant. You may find my thoughts unpalatable, however."
"What is it?" The idea of having eight walking corpses as my vanguard was not appealing.
"The Uruk-Hai you liberated are young and strong and malleable. It is possible I could take up residence in one of them while they still lived."
"You mean, give them your rings?" That would be a sure way to my own demise. I did not delude myself that Kurkar and I were true boon companions. He had said it himself, that if killing me brought him closer to ressurection he would have done so. If I no longer wore his ring, what interest would he have in obeying me?
"No, that would be an error. If one of the Uruk-Hai wore one of our rings, they would be increased by it, made hard against possession. Slowly, the ring would begin the transference of their souls, and eventually, there would be two wraiths warring for supremacy within a single object.
It is a war I would win, of course, but not a productive one. Because you are an immortal, the Rings of Men do not have the same cost for you as they did for us. You are increased by them, as I am increased. While being bound to you, I am still free to act independently, an ideal balance that would be destroyed if you were to pass me on."
I thought I followed. He could only possess the weak of spirit, or those with no spirit at all, like a corpse. An unsettling thought nonetheless, and a circumstance that never would have occurred while the Rings Wraiths wore their own rings and were made substantial thereby.
"Let me think on it," I said, but I already knew I would agree. I needed him out of Beren's body, I was disgusted at myself for allowing such a travesty to go on for as long as it had, for not seeing the situation for what it was.
Besides, my love for Uruk-Hai was extremely limited. There were hundreds of them, perhaps possession could be a means of punishment that would make an example of those who refused to accept me as their master. Those that I'd already killed had given me no compunction, so why should this?
A new urgency drove us to Isengard. I slept in the saddle and endured the dreams.
We crossed a black plain of scorched and tortured rock, and the sun hung low and heavy above us, carmine and yellow blazing without warmth. There was no heat at all, not my body, not Glower, though her hooves beat out a stiff staccato on the ground. We were moving faster, faster than I'd thought, and yet achieving no visible progress across the endless plain.
The sun was bearing down on us, and it was not a sun, but an eye grown so huge that it would swallow the world.
A black gash opened at the center of that burning sphere, and I tried to raise Narya in my defense but there was only pain left where the Ring of Elves had been.
She could not protect me any longer. Faster and faster we galloped, for Glower had no loyalty for the Eye, but speed was immaterial. One could not outrun the sun.
I tried to summon the old names to my lips, my ancestors, heroes all, and the Valar before them, but no names would come. There was a vast emptiness inside of me where the names had been, and I wept to know it.
But all was not lost, Kurkar, no, Beren, the true Beren, whole and healed, was standing on a great finger of basalt, his arms outstretched as if to catch the Eye. Though he was unmoving, we did not pass him, as if he had been built on the same scale as the moon and the sun, so that for all we ran it only allowed us a different perspective on the same object.
Beren stood as a talisman between me and the Eye, and though his back was turned I could see his face, and his own eye, the eye that had been lost to the poison of the Nazgul was restored, not as a thing of the flesh, but as a gem like that Feanor had used to capture the light of the Trees of Valinor.
His expression was of one at peace, and I knew that he loved me.
The shriek of a Hell-Hawk brought me back to the world.
(There are Orcs coming, and Uruk-Hai) Maglor spoke in my mind.
Glower had slowed to a trot, and Kurkar was jogging along beside us. The force I'd been warned of was barely a blotch on the horizon. I straightened up and held us to a walk. My left hand was so crabbed I couldn't use it to hold the reins.
It was suppurating, the burn lines almost artful, scabbed and leaking fluid beneath a meager poultice. Dawn was at our backs, and my vision of the Eye faded into the obscurity of dreams.
(Perhaps two hundred, a mixed band.)
Maglor relayed this information with no particular emotion, no doubt the wraiths regularly saw and commanded far larger coalitions of monsters, but I had not yet earned the familiarity.
(Are they ours?) I asked.
(I do not know. But they come from the West, Isengard.)
The meeting was inevitable. Two hundred seemed like far too small a number to describe the mass of brown and greenish flesh that swiftly encircled us. It was easy to tell the Orcs from the Uruk-Hai, who made up about half their number, because in addition to being shorter and less stout, the Orcs feared both the sun and the Hawks that circled above us.
A leader came forward, his body sprayed with ritualized scars.
"I am Grak," he said, "I served father Saruman. They say you killed him, a weak woman. Now I kill you." So this had been one of the troops that were out raiding when I took Orthanc.
Kurkar stepped forward, but I stopped him with a thought.
(Allow me. When I am finished with him, leave Beren and try to take his body as your own.)
Kurkar gave way, and I carefully dismounted.
"When I defeat you, say that your warriors will serve me as they served Saruman."
"Hah." Grak spit. "I say nothing."
He had a too-thick blade that tapered into a forward-facing spike, a crude design peculiar to Mordor, and adopted by Saruman. He came at me almost as soon as I had my feet down from Glower, and I ducked under his arm when he telegraphed his swing, then kicked him in the back of his leg.
Grak stumbled, but there was a cunning to it, for the stumble turned into a slash as he turned. I kicked the flat of the blade with the toe of my slippers and the blade made a sound like a tuning fork as it spun up out of his hand. Then I struck him with my left, which was a mistake.
The pain, which had receded to a dull throb while my focus was elsewhere, erupted volcanically, blinding me with its intensity even as I caught the scream in my teeth and wrestled it down. Grak was stunned, but not for long, and he laughed as he picked up his weapon.
"Little woman hurt? Now hurt more."
I couldn't react, couldn't think. My hand. My hand.
Beren's body fell flat on the ground, but his shadow stretched until it touched the Uruk-Hai, so that for a moment Grak had two shadows on opposite sides, and then one was drawn up inside of him.
He made a choking sound, grabbing at his head, our duel forgotten. I tried to recover myself, watching the drama play out without me.
It went on for half a minute or so, long enough for the small army of half-men to grow restless and mutter among themselves about who would be leader after Grak, but Kurkar straightened up a moment later, wearing the Uruk-Hai with ease.
He collected Aeglos and raised it. "I have seen a vision! This witch will lead us to blood and fortunes!"
He knelt to me, and there was a great deal more muttering at that, and another warrior stepped forward preparing to make a challenge. He yelled angrily, but it turned to a scream when a Hell-Hawk, descending silently, wrenched him up.
Then the second Hawk seized his legs, and together they tore him in half so that the entrails splattered the crowd. Until that moment, it had not been clear to them exactly whose side the Ring Wraiths were on, but now there was an understanding.
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.