The grey light of dawn fell over the land and glinted dully on a few lonely trees now crowned in wreathes of gold and red. A mist clung to the ground, and the birds were singing in a subdued manner, as if reluctant to break the silence. Danhúr, commander of the Sarn Ford guard stalked to the edge of the copse, the bluish vapours of the night swirling about his legs in a sinister manner, as if clutching at him with transluscent fingers. 'Why do I choose that word, sinister?' he wondered, and his mouth tightened in an unfulfilled grimace. The newborn day was yet cool and damp, though not chill, for autumn had only just begun. All the land lay sleeping still, seeming peaceful, and yet the Ranger's heart was troubled. 'The land may sleep, but I feel something deadly in this slumber….'
"Like a nightmare approaching," a soft voice spoke behind him, and seeming so privy to his own thoughts, Danhúr for a moment suffered a confusion of dream and reality. But it was only Cirallan, the youngest and newest member of the guard who stood there, peering out at the countryside from the depths of his hood. Danhúr, meanwhile, silently berated himself for such an inexcusable lapse, for no Ranger ought to become so distracted as to permit someone to approach him unnoticed. That he was the commander only made his criticism the harsher, but he let no sign of it show.
"Indeed?" he asked, looking closely at Cirallan's eager young face which, shadowed by the hood, betrayed now signs of anxiety.
"Yes, sir. All this night I have lain uneasy, and my dreams were filled with darkness," the other replied, casting back his hood and breathing deeply as he stared out at the bright smudge on the horizon. 'Tis no red dawn, yet I am restless… as I have not been since I arrived, sir." As he had come as a messenger and had only joined the guard five months ago, one might be inclined to dismiss such a premonition. But in that time, Danhúr had come to recognize in Cirallan a keen insight, and a sensitive nature; and he'd as sharp a sense of judgment as anyone could wish in men twice his age. Doubtless it was these qualities that had attracted the lord Aragorn's attention, for Cirallan had made the journey south at his lord's behest. He had been sent to Danhúr as a runner in the event of trouble, though what sort of trouble had not been specified. Danhúr had questioned Cirallan closely on that matter, but the youngster could not tell what he did not know, which implied to Danhúr that Aragorn himself was in the dark. Perhaps it was mere precaution, given the evils of the waning Third Age, and surely Cirallan would learn much from a stint at Sarn Ford, which was the southern (and largely ignored, at least by the hobbits) entrance to the Shire. Here the Rangers congregated most densely, for aside from the Brandywine Bridge, there was no easy way across the river without a boat, and Danhúr had had the command of the company of fourteen for seventeen years, ever since Aragorn had ordered the watch doubled on the Shire.
That sudden diversion of manpower had never been explained, and Danhúr wondered fleetingly whether it might not have some connection to his uneasiness this morning, but though he sensed that this was true, he could glean nothing further from the sudden insight. Glancing at his young companion, Danhúr watched as Cirallan frowned at the haze-obscured horizon, and strove in his turn with the uneasiness that filled his heart. "One can well nigh smell it…." he said softly, as if speaking to himself.
"Fear, sir," Cirallan said and lowered his eyes, embarrassed by the slip, but Danhúr ignored it. Instead he laid a heavy hand on the other's shoulder and nodded, and smiled inwardly when the lad relaxed at his acceptance. Cirallan still felt he had to prove himself to his new commander and company, though Danhúr had no doubt that he would. That Aragorn trusted him enough to send him as an envoy to the Sarn Ford guard was testimony enough as to his worth. 'And Cirallan feels it strongly, too, this brooding malevolance that lies across the land. Something is afoot, though I know not what,' Danhúr thought. He squeezed the lad's shoulder, then released him.
"Wake the others. The watches shall be shortened today: whatever it is that haunts us, it shall not find us wanting as adversaries." Cirallan bowed then hurried to do his bidding, leaving Danhúr to contemplate anew the northeastern horizon which stretched out before him, the sun occasionally breaking through the mist to show green-gold against the grass of the plain. In that direction lay Bree, and indeed on a clear day a man could see the Bree-hill rising up above the land. Turning slowly southwards, he marked the remains of the old Tharbad-Shire road, and further still the Baranduin wound its way through Harlindon, past the southernmost reaches of the Blue mountains which showed dark and indistinct against the morning sky. To the west, one could see across the flatlands to the hazy outlines of the Tower Hills, behind which the Mithlond nestled at the tip of the Gulf of Lhûn. Completing his compass, he turned due north, to the dark-edged heights of the Old Forest that wrapped itself in a mystery so deep it needed no cloak of fog to repel the unwary. The air seemed to shimmer, giving the world a fragile appearance that morning, which impression did nothing to enhearten Danhúr. Awhile longer he stood, contemplating the malaise that lay over this part of Eriador, and then turned slowly back toward the Ford.
Back at the camp, which lay in a shallow trough behind some boulders, and beneath a few isolated trees, Cirallan stood looking down at the knot of sleeping men, in particular at the two closest to him. Tanfalan and Beledar slept restlessly, and in fact, their stirring had wakened him earlier that morning from his own dark dreams. Now they writhed as if in the grasp of some terror, and as he stooped to touch Tanfalan's arm, they woke in tandem with a start. Indeed, such was Tanfalan's alarm that his left hand grasped the hilt of a dagger before he recognized his comrade and breathed out a sigh of relief. "Give you good morrow. Danhúr wishes us all awake when he returns," said Cirallan, nevertheless stepping back a bit from his friend for safety's sake.
"A good morrow, is it?" Beledar shook his head and reached over to jostle another of the Rangers, and so the alarm spread as sleeping men roused at a word or touch from a companion, and soon all were awake. "The very air seems tense!"
"What did you dream?" asked Cirallan.
Beledar grimaced, but Tanfalan spoke up in his place. "Tis difficult to say. All was pitch black, yet I felt something moving in darkness…seeking me ever." Cirallan caught his breath, for the words described his own nightmares; indeed, it seemed that every man had fared alike to judge by the murmurs of agreement. "I thought when you woke me that the dream had ended, yet for all that the sun shines, there is some shadow she cannot dispel, one more real than any nightmare's casting," said Tanfalan, shaking his head.
"So it is," another voice spoke from the low ridge, and Gairon, of the first watch, stood there, gazing down at them with a somber mien. "We first became aware of this shadow as the night waned, some three hours past moonset. What this present gloom portends, I know not, but I like it not at all."
By the time Danhúr returned, it was clear that some evil had troubled all of them, whether in dreams or in waking life, and that all were convinced it would come only closer. Danhúr gave the orders about the shorter shifts, and sent out some men to scout all around the area before the ford, for though it was mostly flat there were dips and troughs, such as they used for shelter and cover, and a clever enemy would know to hide in them. "But, do not approach too closely, or engage it except in defense of your lives. If it comes this way at all, it will try to cross into the Shire, and we will have need of your help here," he told them, looking each man in the face before dismissing them to their duties. The first watch went to rest, and Cirallan joined Beledar and Talfaran upon the eastern bank of the Baranduin, where they concealed themselves among the rocks and brush that littered the area. The sun rose higher now into the sky, and after a while, the mists began to dissipate, showing the land empty all about. A few birds circled high in the sky, and here and there a darning needle darted, gleaming in the light.
Yet for all that, the Rangers felt their unease grow, and Cirallan fought the urge to shift about restlessly. His companions, trained by many long and harrowing watches, sat still with their eyes focused on the Tharbad road, moving only to survey the countryside. It was near the end of that first stint that Danhúr appeared and called Cirallan to him. With a glance at his companions, who with a nod signalled that they had heard, the young man broke from cover and followed Danhúr a short distance downstream. When they were far enough that even a Ranger could not hear them, the commander looked Cirallan up and down and said, "At swiftest, how long would you need to make the journey to Bree?"
"Perhaps two days it might take me. Without a horse, I doubt I could go more quickly than that, sir." Cirallan replied, and frowned. Danhúr was silent for a time, and then he nodded.
"Well, we shall see. At least we know that Aragorn is there, and that he knows your face, and that he trusts you. Tis better than sending to Halbarad in the Angle, or to Fornost."
"I have in mind for you to go to Bree tomorrow, and bring a message to the lord Aragorn. If this sense of menace has not abated, I would ask him whether he has heard any news, or has any counsel. And if we discover its cause, well then, he will need to know of it in any event. Will you take this charge on yourself?" Danhúr asked, looking directly into the other's eyes.
Cirallan, for his part, was troubled, and though he accepted (for how could he refuse?), he said quickly, "But I would not leave you here, to face this thing, whatever it may be, alone."
"Hardly alone, lad. But I understand: you do not wish to leave for fear of deserting your friends and your place. You have a noble heart, Cirallan, as I would expect, but good will alone, alas! does not suffice to defeat all threats. And I think that one man, more or less, will make little difference in this case." When Cirallan hung his head, Danhúr laughed, though not unkindly, and laid hands on his shoulders, as a father to his son, and said, "Be not ashamed that I give this task to you. For the lord Aragorn sent you to me as his eyes and ears; in returning you to him, I merely return what is his in the first place. Sometimes, lad, it takes more courage to do what is needed than to stand and fight. Think you that Ohtar and his companion did not curse their fate even as they submitted to it?"
"I am certain of it, yet… I never thought to be in such a position. More, it is not clear to me that we are at all similar. Unless something has come to you, sir…?" Cirallan raised his eyes and scrutinized his commander's closed face.
"Nay, lad. Nothing that the morning did not already disclose. I do but my own duty, to plan for all contingencies that I can foresee. Now, return to the others. Your watch ends soon."
Away north of Bree, Aragorn son of Arathorn crouched under cover, listening, but even his quick ears detected nothing. That troubled him, for the Bree-lands were home to many creatures, both good and evil. His own people, who kept watch some ten miles from the Buckland Bridge, reported that they had been busier than usual hunting spies that no hobbit could face, and so were spread quite thinly in the north. And yet today, the land was still for miles about, as if every living creature were holding its breath, awaiting some terrible revelation. From the south there was no recent news, and had not been for many days. But a month ago, Danhúr had sent word to Farondir of the Buckland Guard that his patrols had begun to encounter creatures in the night, though not so many as the northern patrols did. That information fit with what Aragorn had observed in his latest journey, down to the Gap of Rohan and back again, crossing Bruinen to reach the Angle, and thence to Bree by way of the Last Bridge. In the Westfold, rumour had trickled in from the east of a wind of terror that wailed in the night as it moved west, leeching one's very blood of warmth as it went. From the north came stories of Orcs in Rhovanion, and when he had passed through the Angle, Halbarad had told of trolls that ranged south from the Ettenmoors, daring even the boundaries of of Elrond's domain. Everywhere, it seemed, there were dark tales of new terrors, though to a Ranger's ears, often they were simply new descriptions of old enemies long forgotten by most other folk.
Now Aragorn pondered the possibility that these apparently disparate events might have some common cause, and wondered anew at the unease that troubled the hearts of folk in the Bree-lands. As he did so, his eyes were drawn south to the great East Road. He knew that Gandalf planned to take Frodo from the Shire this week, and that if all went as planned, the wizard would leave the Road just past the old dike-wall. There Aragorn would meet the travelers and accompany them to Rivendell. But as of yet, there was no sign of the wizard, and the week drew on towards its close. Intuition stirred, insisting that there existed some pattern, some logical connection in all of this, and that the departure of the Ring was the last clue that would ravel the knot. But for all the strength of that conviction, that intuition could not articulate itself to him, and until it could, he had no choice but to wait. Bree was under watch, as was the Brandywine Bridge, and Sarn Ford. He considered briefly sending the Buckland company south to the Ford, for the hobbits at least had gates and wardens on the bridge. In the end, however, though doubt nagged gently at him, he decided against it. If there were truly something determined to enter the Shire, he could not trust that a group of hobbits would be able to stand against it. 'Nor can I guarantee that my own people can stand against a determined enemy,' the voice of doubt whispered, but though he acknowledged it, Aragorn's mind was made up. All evidence pointed to unusual enemy movement in this area, not in the south, and that made sense enough. Buckland was the obvious route into the Shire, whereas Sarn Ford did not even appear on some maps. 'And at least at Sarn Ford, I have Danhúr to reply upon, and Cirallan as messenger,' he reminded himself. 'We could do far worse than that, and at the first sign of trouble, they will send north.' If there were evil in the land, a Ranger would discover it eventually. But for now, he could do nothing but watch patiently and hope that a resolution was at hand.
At Sarn Ford, the day wore on, and still nothing untoward happened. Watch followed watch, and men replaced each other while the sun moved serenely along its appointed path, and the tension mounted. Everything was preternaturally silent, as if the animals that inhabited the plains had taken to flight, clearing out the land as if in preparation for some great disaster. By evening, everyone was on edge, and there was less talk than usual even for a group of Rangers about the fire. The scouts had come in and been replaced; and the sun went down in a blood-red blaze, its light quickly extinguished. When the moon rose, it was pale and its light seemed somehow pallid, almost sickly. A lone owl let out a long, mournful cry and streaked overhead, disappearing into the night. So unexpected was its flight, after so long and silent a day that all eyes instantly fixed on it, tracking the winged shadow's progress across the sky, and Cirallan felt his heart pounding in his chest.
'Would that this wait would end!' he thought, reading in the faces of his companions the strain of the day. Though he had the off-watch, he did not rest. Indeed, no one did: all were gathered together before the ford, determined, it seemed, to greet whatever enemy lurked beyond the edge of the fire-lit circle with open eyes. The night deepened, and still there was no sign of any living thing, yet slowly the feeling crept over Cirallan that something walked in the darkness. In spite of himself, he found himself shifting, as if he sat on an anthill. Once, Cirallan glanced up and saw Danhúr's eyes on him. The commander's gaze pierced him, and he felt the question in those dark eyes, but said nothing to answer it. There was nothing he could say, and yet the feeling grew, and with it an unreasoning terror. Indeed, as the pale moon set just after midnight, so strong was his conviction that their enemy awaited him that he rose to his feet, and began to walk slowly away from the ford. He heard Tanfalan call after him, puzzled, and then Danhúr spoke his name sharply, but he could scarcely understand them, seemingly deaef before that throbbing compulsion that moved him steadily towards the darkness outside of that lighted circle.
For they were there: out there in that night something deeper than shadow moved, drawing nearer, and a muted sound of thunder reached him over the blood roaring in his ears. Behind him, dimly, came the ring of steel on leather, and Danhúr calling orders to the others, but Cirallan could not move to save his life. A solid wedge of horror swept towards them, and a high, feral cry was heard, as of a soul in agony, and he blanched at the sound, staggering back a pace as a dark wind flew past him. He only just managed to draw his sword and slash blindly at something—a cloak? A rider? Perhaps only a horse?—before he was thrown aside like a moth in a storm. Something hard cracked him across the head, and his weapon was wrenched out of his hand with such force that he cried out in pain as he fell. He lay stunned a moment, tasting blood in his mouth, and all his senses seemed awhirl with confusion. His right arm was numb; he could barely close his fingers into a fist, and cold seemed to spread out from his shoulder. Yet as he lay, the pain seemed to clear his head somewhat. Cirallan could hear the screams behind him, but as he staggered to his feet, a strange calm descended upon him, seeming to slip between his terror and his reason, allowing him to see clearly at last.
Raising his eyes, he saw in the firelight nine horsemen, swathed all in deepest midnight black, and from them spread terror like ripples in a pond, reaching out to engulf and drown the unfortunate. Cirallan was young among his people, but he knew suddenly that the last time mortal eyes had seen these creatures, Gondor had still had a king. "Nine for mortal men," he murmured, and his voice was grim and filled with loathing, though he swayed with the effort of standing. Before the Riders stood the remnants of the guard: Danhúr, and two others at his back, swords abandoned in favor of flaming brands, though Danhúr still gripped the hilts of his weapon in one hand. Tanfalan was there, and Gairon. All about them lay the crumpled forms of their comrades, and the light of the fire reflected with obscene beauty off spreading pools of blood. The lead Nazgûl raised his left hand, and at that moment, Danhúr looked beyond them to where Cirallan stood and their eyes met. Go! The thought crossed the distance between them, almost palpable in its fierceness, and then Danhúr cried out and raising his sword, hurled it point first into the face of the foremost rider. It shattered with a sun-bright flash, but then the last of the guard charged forward into the midst of the enemy. Cirallan blanched whiter than snow, and turned and sped north as fast as he could run, feeling the bile rise in his throat at the thought of what his commander and friends had just suffered.
A deadly cry pierced the night, and he plunged blindly into the darkness, expecting at any moment to hear iron-shod hoofs pounding after him in dogged pursuit, and to feel the bite of steel. Instead, he heard splashing as one by one the Riders crossed the ford and disappeared into the Shire. Unbelievably, he was being allowed to escape, but he had no time to rejoice in his fortune. Indeed, that strange calm had abandonned him, and tears flowed freely down his cheeks as he ran, licked away by the wind that stirred suddenly. His legs felt weak and watery, and he stumbled several times, falling to his knees only to claw his way back to his feet. He had no clear notion of where he would end, having but one thought in his mind, and it burned as brightly as flame: Go north! Northwards lay Bree, and the East Road, and there Aragorn waited. He knew not what had happened to the scouts who had seemingly vanished into the night, but even were they alive, they did not know what had occurred at Sarn Ford. He clung to the knowledge that he alone could tell that Sarn Ford was open, and that already the Nine were in the Shire.
Hours he ran, and heeded not to stealth, which was as well for it seemed he found every stone and hole the land had to offer. His knees were cut and sore by dawn, and for all that he had run through the night, cold assailed him. The rising sun did nothing to drive the chill from his marrow, nor to clear the fog from his vision, though he felt a measure of strength and calm return to him as the sun cleared the horizon. He managed a fair pace, though with much effort, until midday, when his spirits began to flag again. Still he pushed forward, afraid to halt lest he never begin again. He could not understand what was happening to him, for the Nine Servants of Sauron were but little known to him outside of ancient myth and lore, and few in Middle Earth knew what wounds the Ringwraiths dealt to the spirits of those whom they touched. Cirallan knew only that as the afternoon grew full, every step was a torment of ice and fire: ice from his arm and side, flame from muscles protesting their abuse. He was scarcely aware of the evening, and missed entirely the moment when the sun set, lost in a waking nightmare of dreer confusion. Weaving through the darkness, he passed through the land, and if any living creature crossed his path, it fled before him, seeking to escape the horror that surrounded him. At last, as the moon set, his steps faltered, and his legs gave out from under him. Cirallan collapsed, curling about himself, shivering uncontrollably, beyond exhaustion and even despair. He did not sleep—his mind simply withdrew as far as it could from the pain and confusion, and heeded not his surroundings—and so he did not dream, only chanted deep within his soul the command that drove him: Go north to Bree!
When the sun rose again, he rose with it, and continued on, a ghost in the dawnlight doggedly fulfilling its mortal directive.
Gildor Inglorion was troubled at heart as he made his way across the Baranduin, following a path that would've leeched the color from a hobbit's face. He called to the rope, and at his tug, it came, and he coiled it up carefully and replaced it in his pack. He had sent his messengers north, but premonition had touched on him yesterday when he had met Frodo. Having left the hobbits behind, he now followed another prompting, and went out himself into the wide lands of Eriador. The waxing moon rode low in the sky, but he needed not its light, sure-footed as a cat in the dark. Yet he knew not what he sought, only that he was called south. He had come perhaps ten miles that evening when he stopped abruptly and stood stiff and still, listening. For he had caught a sound on the night breeze, a moan or a sob that seemed to him human, and he considered his course. Turning back toward Baranduin, he moved now more cautiously, searching for the source of the noise. Finally, as he crested a small rise, he beheld a huddled figure lying out of sight at the base of the southward slope. With a cry, the Elf leapt down and came to crouch beside it, striking a match for light.
Before him lay a Man, young enough even in the short years of mortals, he judged, and Gildor caught his breath at the veil of darkness, visible to elvish eyes, that shrouded him. Carefully, he began to examine him, feeling for broken bones, but he quickly found that the only significant injury was to his sword arm, which was lifelessly cold, and the Elf shivered, knowing he had found the locus of the evil power that was suffocating the man. He had not yet determined whether he might be able to save him, when the lad roused to his touch. Grasping the Elf's forearm in a one-handed grip whose strength belied his desperate condition, he raised feverish eyes to Gildor and gasped "Nazgûl… Nazgûl crossed Sarn Ford!" Gildor stiffened, realizing at last that this must be one of the Rangers who had kept watch on the vulnerable crossing. 'So that is how they entered! And what has become of the others I dare not guess, though my heart misgives me.'
"When did they come?" he asked instead, placing a hand over the other's heart. It beat weakly, and too fast, and Gildor frowned.
"Night… on the twenty-second… nine of them. W-Where is Aragorn? I must tell him!"
"Rest easy, my friend, he shall know of this," Gildor replied, sensing the other's strength failing. "What is your name?"
"Cirallan. Danhúr is dead… they are all dead there," the boy's voice broke at last, growing weaker, almost listless. "Is it night?"
"Dawn comes," the Elf assured him, though it was several hours before sunrise. He cradled Cirallan in his arms like a babe, feeling his pulse weaken til at last, with a sigh, the Ranger slumped in his arms. Gildor held him a minute longer, to be certain, then sighed and stood. He would carry the message north to Aragorn before he went west, but first, he must see to this brave lad. 'The great testing begins, for Men,' he thought, gazing east. 'This will be my final part in it, I guess. Then I, like Cirallan, will go to the doom appointed me.'
The sun was setting in the west, fair and splendid, but it brought little comfort to Aragorn as he reviewed the events of the past several days. The new week had already begun, was in fact ending its third day, and only hard-won discipline kept fear at bay. Gildor's people, hurrying east as swiftly as only Elves could go, had reached him in Bree the night of the twenty-sixth, and their news had been confirmed the very next morning, when a Nazgûl had ridden through Westgate, having come south down the Greenway. Harry the gatekeeper had been pale as a ghost after their brief conversation, and Aragorn, watching from the shadows of a nearby alleyway, had not liked the way the man looked after the Ringwraith. Harry had looked as a beast cowed by a cruel master, and the Ranger had marked him in his mind before moving on. Knowing that the Nazgûl had breached the Shire, he had hurried westward, to the hedge that lay along the northern side of the road, just past the dike-wall. He knew that the Nine had not entered through Buckland: he had not let the Road out of his sight, except for the few brief hours of sleep that he would snatch in the middle of the day, when Sauron's creatures were least likely to travel abroad. If anything had slipped by him, one of his people would have found it. That meant they had to have crossed at Tharbad and made for the Ford, and Aragorn was wracked with uncertainty and guilt. No news had come north other than that of the Elves, who had been at Woody End when they had met Frodo Baggins. Granted it might take a few days to travel between Bree and Sarn Ford, but a week? Though no word was in one way a good sign, he knew in his heart that every passing day lessened the hope that any of his people had survived.
Rather than wait for time to wear away all hope, he would have gone himself to the Ford, but as it had become increasingly apparent that something was badly amiss—Frodo had begun his journey without Gandalf, and Aragorn had yet to see any sign either of the wizard (though the appointed time had come and gone) or hobbits—he knew that it was now his duty to bring Frodo safely to Rivendell. How he would accomplish that feat was a problem to which he had devoted much thought, for Frodo knew him not at all and would hardly trust a stranger's offer of assistance in a supposedly secret task. In the mean time, he had sent two men south on Monday afternoon, two days ago, but at best they would have arrived at Sarn Ford that very morning, condemning him to his silent watch and (thus far) fruitless scheming as to how to gain the trust of a wary and frightened hobbit. That he could do no more was a sore trial, but Aragorn had the patience of an experienced hunter, and refused to allow fear to disturb his plans overmuch. He had faced many horrors in his life, and would see many more, and he had learned that in times such as these, faith was all he could rely upon. Faith in Gandalf's good opinion of Frodo, faith in his own people, faith that he had done all that a man could do in his position, and faith that when the time came, he would find some way, however improbable, to win Frodo's trust.
Just then, he heard from nearby a clear voice rise in imitation of a bird, but not even a bird would produce so sweet a note. Aragorn rose and stepped warily out from cover to find himself staring at an Elf on the south side of the road. The Elf raised a hand in greeting and swiftly crossed to meet him with a courteous bow. "Aragorn Dúnadan, well met, and quite timely."
Returning the bow, Aragorn replied, "Gildor Inglorion, it is long since we have spoken, though I thank you for the messengers you sent. What brings you to this place?"
"I have yet one more message for you that you will grieve to hear, but hear it you must." The Elf paused a moment, "I would that we might make a swift journey southwards some distance, but I fear that neither of us can afford the time. Have you had any contact with your folk, Aragorn?"
"Nay, if you mean with any beyond those who watch the East Road. From Sarn Ford there is no word."
"I thought it would be so, though there was always a very small chance that another might have escaped," the Elf sighed. "I bear a message from one Cirallan of the Sarn Ford company. Very young, I thought him."
"He is young. Or he was. That is what you will tell me next, is it not?" Aragorn replied grimly.
"There are some wounds that no power in this world can heal. He told me what had befallen at the ford, and I promised to bring the news to you," Gildor said. "Late at night on the twenty-second the enemy came there, all nine together, where your people awaited them. I think they could not have stood long against the Witch-king of Angmar, but stand they did, for as long as it took the Riders to defeat them. Cirallan was the only one to escape the slaughter at the Ford, at least insofar as he knew. He was overcome by the Black Breath, for it seems he struck one of the creatures. There was nothing I could do for him, not after so many days." There followed a long moment of silence between them, which Aragorn at last broke.
"I could wish the message more comforting, but I cannot say it was unexpected. I thank you for it nonetheless."
"'Twas no chance that I met Frodo Baggins in the woods, for it led me to Cirallan, and thence to you. And you need not fear: I and mine have seen to the fallen, so do not divert your own people to their care. You are needed here, whereas we are called away from this place."
"You seek the havens at last, Gildor?"
"Yes. This age is no longer for us, I fear. But I will say this, ere I shake the dust of Middle Earth from my feet: this war, once launched in earnest, will end swiftly, either in victory or defeat. And Frodo Baggins will come to you. Therefore gird yourself, Dunadan, and have faith!" With that, Gildor turned and went swiftly away, soon disappearing into the distance. Aragorn watched him go, then gazed south for long minutes before returning to cover, mourning his folk in silence, and mourning also that he could give but little in acknowledgement of their sacrifice. Little at this time, at least, though perhaps much in the end, if only he could get Frodo safely to Elrond. Later, much later, he would remember the terrible days of waiting, caught between grief and fear, and would marvel at how close to failure they had come before ever the fellowship was formed. Now, though, he caught the sound of approaching hoofs, a steady clip-clop of steeds with a stride too short and a step too light to be horses proper. That was a hopeful sign, but for the moment, he only drew a deep breath, and—heeding Gildor's words—returned to his stealthy vigil, patiently awaiting the arrival of the travelers. Words flowed back and forth between them, somewhat indistinct in the distance, though one voice caught his attention with its music. 'So Old Tom Bombadil has guests,' he thought, and a glimmer of anticipation shone in his heart.
After some time, he heard the hoofs pause somewhere nearby, and Tom bid his guests farewell. Aragorn marked the inn name, as the others pleaded with Bombadil to stay but to no avail. As Iarwain rode away, the others spoke in low voices amongst themselves, anxious, plainly, but trying to put a good face on their fears—and Aragorn knew now that they were indeed out of the Shire, which made it almost certain that among them was the hobbit he sought. A voice spoke up then: a light voice, one now bent to sound stern and cautionary, but he heard the underlying fear in it as it spoke to others yet unseen: "It may be all we could wish, but it is outside the Shire all the same. Don't make yourselves too much at home! Please remember, all of you, that the name of Baggins must not be mentioned. I am Mr. Underhill, if any name must be given." Baggins! Aragorn caught his breath; if long experience as Gandalf's confidant had not taught him to expect it, he would hardly have believed the coincidence. It remained now only for him to see these hobbits face to face to satisfy himself of their intentions, and then… . The travelers fell silent at that moment, and the hobbits' ponies resumed their staid march towards Bree, as Aragorn quickly pulled on his own pack and followed, unnoticed, behind. The first move had gone to the Enemy, but the next, he vowed, would be his, for the vengeance of those who had fallen and the good of Middle-earth.