"Have you ever seen a ghost, Ealdfæder?"
The wind whistled in the stone chimney, and a swarm of sparks rose from the fire. The boy sat on the bare floor by his grandfather's chair.
On the other side of the room, the old woman looked up from her weaving. "Be still, you will frighten him."
As if he had not heard, the old man said, "Once, many years before you were born."
The wooden beater slammed loudly against the frame of the loom. "Fine. He sleeps on your side of the bed, Thorstan," the woman muttered into her weaving. Young Elfwine had been sent to stay with them until his mother recovered from childbirth, so they were sleeping three to a bed.
"Where did you see it, Ealdfæder?" Though the boy's eyes gleamed like steel in the firelight, he huddled closer to his grandfather's knee.
"My troop was patrolling in the Westfold as the year drew to a close. The Great War had ended, but many servants of the Enemy still roamed our land, hiding by day and slaying and burning by night."
An angry snort came from across the room, followed by the shudder of the loom.
"A few were traitors, men who had sold themselves to the Dark Lord, but most were orcs from the Land of Shadow. Did I ever see one? I saw enough of them to last me until the end of my days, Elfwine! Those creatures were as cunning as a man but as vicious as a blooded wolf. They had the eyes of a cat, and Bema help you if you had to fight them at night! Oft the horses would smell their stench long before we could see them." The old man stared into the fire, rubbing his hand along a jagged scar on his jaw. "Yes, I saw enough of them. And they enough of that sword." He nodded toward the great sword that still hung in readiness near the door. "But about your ghosts, let me tell you the tale."
"My troop rode west toward the River Isen, watching for sign of the enemy and stopping at every shepherd's hut and farmstead. Folk were ill at ease; in the last few days, sheep and horses had gone missing after dark. Thieves, we thought, or even wolves, but we kept a wary eye. The farther we got from the garrison at Helm's Deep, the greater the fear. As often as not, we were greeted by snapping dogs and farmers waving spears. On the third day since we had left Helm's Deep, we reached a large farmstead near the Fords of Isen. I heard not a growl or shout of challenge as we trotted into the courtyard. Our horses whinnied and shook their heads uneasily; they smelled the blood and knew before we did. For the farmfolk were dead, not even the children were spared. The farmwife was heavy with child, and the orcs…" The old man glanced at the boy. "It was an evil sight."
"We stayed long enough to let the horses drink, then we set out in pursuit. There was no time to bury the dead. The trail was already half a day old, but their tracks led us straight to the Fords of Isen. Our leader, old Grimbeorn, halted the troop on the eastern bank of the river. The early winter night approached, and in the failing light, we could just see the island where Prince Theodred's standard still fluttered above the great mound. Less than a year before, he and his men had fallen in battle on that very island, and the sight of their grave did not cheer me!"
The old woman rose from the loom and pulled a coverlet from the bed in the corner. "Here, Elfwine, you will catch a fever, sitting on the bare floor like that," she said as she drew it around the boy's shoulders. Then she pulled a chair close to the fire and sat down.
"Were you afraid, Ealdfæder?"
"Afraid, yet also angry. The younger members of the troop were nearly mad with rage, but Grimbeorn told us to calm down and keep quiet. He guessed—and, as it turned out, he was right—that the orcs had taken cover in Prince Theodred's barrow at daybreak. They are creatures of darkness and cannot long endure the sunlight.
"Night was falling, and we were only twelve in number, too few and already weary from the chase. We knew not the strength of our foes, yet there was no time to send to Helm's Deep for aid.
"Grimbeorn hid us in the woods on either side of the road. Soon, the orcs would crawl from their lair in the burial mound. After they had crossed the ford and climbed up the bank, we would fall upon them. The surprise of our attack and the light of the moon would be our only allies. My horse and I waited, hidden in a thicket, as the grey shadows deepened into black." The old man reached for the iron poker and turned the logs in the fireplace.
"What happened next?" the old woman asked. A basket of tangled fleece rested by her feet, and she drew the long wool combs back and forth in a steady rhythm, the sharp tines gleaming like spearpoints.
"We heard the faint sound of splashing and then we saw them—dark shapes wading from the island toward the river bank, cursing as they slipped on the wet stones. 'They are too many,' someone whispered in the darkness. The orcs lumbered up the steep bank, then Grimbeorn shouted, 'Forth!' and I urged my horse forward.
"As Grimbeorn had ordered, we formed our horses in a broken line across the road. The distance was too short to bring the horses to a gallop, so our small troop charged forward at a trot. At the sound of hoofbeats, some of the orcs were seized by terror and tried to flee. We cut them down as they ran past. Two at least I killed, and maybe a third. Then the rest of the orcs drew steel and rushed forward with a shout; they must have seen at once how few we were in number.
"'Drive them toward the river! They must not get past us!' old Grimbeorn called out.
"We will die behind a wall of their bodies, I said to myself. Just like in the old songs. At first, the enemy fell back before our charge, but quickly they flanked us and attacked from both sides. Soon, we would be surrounded and cut off from escape. I buried my sword in the neck of an orc then jumped as another grabbed my leg and tried to pull me from the saddle. I drew back the sword and brought the pommel down on his face. I glimpsed my friend Aldhelm striking about him with his sword, yelling as if he had lost his mind, while old Grimbeorn silently cut down anything that came within the reach of a spear.
"My heart sank when I saw a grey horse gallop past without a rider, for I knew we were now one fewer. An orc clutched at my horse's bridle and tried to pull us away from the line; I swung my sword at his arm and missed, nearly falling from the saddle. Then, as I watched in amazement, a man strode up behind the orc and drove a sword right through his back. By moonlight, I could not see the stranger's face, but he was tall and broad in the shoulders. Yes, even taller than your father, Elfwine.
"'To Rohan!' the man shouted in the Common Speech. He yanked the great sword out of the orc and, turning, struck off the head of another. I would swear I saw the flash of white teeth and that he was laughing as he fought. He carried a small round shield, and he swatted the orcs aside as if they were horseflies."
The boy laughed. "But who was he, Ealdfæder?"
"I did not know, Elfwine, and indeed I did not care. As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And his helm was after the fashion of Gondor, so I knew that he came from the land of our ally. Though many had been slain, a crowd of orcs still pressed against our horses, and we were sorely beset.
"'Get back here, you fool!' Grimbeorn shouted as the stranger shoved and hacked his way into the ranks of the enemy. The man of Gondor was quickly surrounded, and I shouted a warning as a spear stabbed at his back. The blow would have skewered a wild boar, but he did not even turn around. Good armor, I thought. When a heavy sword landed on his neck, he pushed it away and kept fighting. Very good armor, I thought as I raised my shield to fend off a spear.
"The enemy's jeering yells had given way to uneasy mutters. They slowly backed away from the stranger until they were well out of sword reach. Several orcs leapt down the bank and splashed into the shallow ford. I could see their dark shapes against the glittering water. When they reached the shadow of Prince Theodred's mound, I heard the bright clash of steel, followed soon after by screaming. The orcs have little love for each other so I deemed that a quarrel had just ended in bloodshed.
"The stranger shouted at the orcs in the language of Gondor. I do not know that tongue, but words were not needed to understand this speech. Then he slung his round shield over his shoulder as if he were done. A spear sailed out of the crowd and glanced off his helm. He picked up the weapon from the road and, with a laugh, threw it at the orcs. 'A berserker,' Aldhelm muttered beside me.
"As the enemy edged away from the stranger, our horses once more had room to move. At Grimbeorn's command, we raised swords and rode forward. To our surprise, the orcs did not retreat into the ford. Instead, they attacked, trying to break through the line of riders.
"I had cut down two of them when a heavy blow struck my shoulder. Stunned, I dropped my sword and caught at the mane to keep from falling. An orc had driven a spear into my arm. Seeing the gap in our line, the others ran past and fled down the road.
"'Give chase!' Grimbeorn shouted and wheeled his horse about. The rest of the troop galloped after him. The orcs were scattering as they ran; the hunt would be bloody but short. I knew that the troop would later come back to find me; I had only to wait. After the hoofbeats had faded, I was left alone at the ford."
The old woman looked up from the wool combs. "What had happened to the stranger from Gondor?"
"He was nowhere in sight, and I feared he had been wounded or slain. I did not know his name so I called out, 'My lord! Where are you?' in the Common Speech as I rode along the edge of the ford. When no one answered, I guessed he had ridden off with the troop. One of our number had fallen in the fight, leaving a horse with an empty saddle.
"Around me, the road was strewn with dead and dying orcs. The black outline of the burial mound rose above the gleaming river, though the shadows of night now hid Prince Theodred's banner. I felt a sudden dread of this place and wanted nothing more than to leave it. Bleeding and nearly sick with pain, I slid to the ground before I could swoon. I carried a spare pair of socks in the saddle bags, and I stuffed them under the sleeve of my mail to staunch the wound. Leaning against my horse, I walked slowly down the road, away from the ford.
"When my horse suddenly whinnied and picked up her ears, I stopped walking and listened. There was a soft rustling in the thickets beside the road. I had just gotten my foot in the stirrup when the enemy broke from the cover of the trees. Weak from the loss of blood, I could not pull myself into the saddle. Clawed hands seized me and dragged me to the ground.
"'Forward! Go!' I called to the horse, for I saw no need for her to die. She trotted away, but she did not travel far; every so often, I heard her frightened whinnying. An orc knelt on my back and shoved my face into the road while another bound my hands.
"My captors tied a length of rope around my neck then seized my arms and hauled me to my feet. I slid to my knees, too weak to stand unaided, and knelt in the road while they argued in their harsh tongue. These six orcs had hidden in the woods when the battle was joined; they were less brave or perhaps more clever than their comrades. I know not what they said for their speech was like the screeching of crows, yet I could guess why they argued. Wounded and alone, I had been easy prey, but I doubt that they wished to carry me.
"One of them leaned over me and grasped the rope around my neck. 'Call your horse. Bring her over here,' he ordered. My horse was watching, her pale face peering out between the branches of the thickets. The orc gave the rope a sharp tug when I remained silent. I had seen their work and knew that I faced a death of slow torment, but Bema help me, they would not eat my horse for supper!
"'Gah, fool!' the orc spat out as he struck me in the face. He stared at me for a moment then drew a small knife. Indeed I had no wish to die, but I thought that the sooner this was over the better.
"The others stood watching in a circle, as eager as hounds. I imagined that I saw the faintest gleam of steel behind them, but I felt very light-headed so I deemed that my eyes played me false. Then something heavy struck me, and I fell forward on the road. Orcs were shouting and screaming around me; I knew not who was fighting so I tried to crawl away. I did not get very far before I fainted.
"I awoke to the touch of cold hands on my face. 'Steady. You are safe among friends,' someone told me in the Common Speech. The words were strangely formed so I guessed that this was the man of Gondor. Cold water dripped from his clothing and hair. He must have crossed the ford on foot, I thought. His hands are still chilled. I shivered; the stranger had stripped off my tunic and armor so he could tend to my wound.
"'Where is she?' I asked; my teeth were chattering so I could scarcely speak.
"'Who?' The man of Gondor stood up and dripped more water on me. His boots made squelching sounds as he walked.
"'He means the horse,' another man replied then leaned over me and added in our language, 'She is unharmed. She was wise enough to stay in the thicket.'
"'You came late to this battle, Marshal,' the man of Gondor said.
"The other man stood with the moon behind him so his face was in shadow, yet I could see the long, white crest on his helm. At that time, Lord Erkenbrand was marshal of the Westfold. 'Marshal Erkenbrand?' I whispered, but they did not seem to hear me.
"The horsehair crest swayed as the man shook his head. 'I would have been here sooner, Captain-General, but I had to rid my hall of some unwanted guests. These creatures give me no rest.'
"The stranger gave a short laugh. 'A good night's work. Though this rider of yours seems a little worse for the wear.' He found my tunic and draped it over me like a blanket. 'Do you know him?'
"'No,' the other replied. 'Though I knew old Grimbeorn by sight; he rode with Elfhelm's eored.'
"The man of Gondor looked closely in my face. 'The ground must be cold. He has not stopped shaking. He will perish from cold before they return.'
"'We can wrap him in my cloak,' the other man said as he unfastened a brooch at his throat.
"They spread the cloth on the ground and lifted me onto it. The moonlight glittered on threads of gold embroidery. As they tucked the heavy cloak around me, I could smell the damp scent of mold and earth and rottenness, and my heart froze within me."
The boy sat up, and his eyes were round. "That man was Prince Theodred!"
The old woman shook a wool comb at her husband. "This is a fine tale to tell your young grandson. Look at how you have frightened him!"
As if he had not heard, the old man said, "Yes, he had left his mound to walk among living men."
"Why would Prince Theodred be any more likely to walk about than other dead folk?" the old woman asked sharply.
"They say that, as he lay dying, he asked to be buried where he had fallen. Let me lie here – to keep the Fords till Eomer comes. Those were his last words. He had sworn that he would defend that place, and Bema holds us to such vows." The old man reached down and rested a hand on the boy's fair hair. "I know not why Boromir of Gondor was there—for that is who I guessed he was. Perhaps the bonds of friendship endure beyond the grave, for it was plain that this was the meeting of old comrades.
"I could not have been the guest of two more kindly dead men, but I was nearly mad with fear. They saw that I was still shaking and decided to build a fire.
"'This task is as troublesome as ever,' Prince Theodred muttered as he tried to strike a spark. 'No, Boromir, you had best stand back,' he said after Lord Boromir had dripped water on the tinder. They fed the blaze with fallen branches until the flames shot up as tall as a man. While they carried me closer to the fire, I shut my eyes and feigned a swoon, though I doubt that I fooled them.
"They sat down to wait with me until my troop returned. The light of the fire flickered across their faces. I had seen the prince at Helm's Deep the winter before he died, and save for the whiteness of his skin, he looked much unchanged. Lord Boromir was as fair and keen as a hawk, and he had the dark hair of his people. I would have thought him a living man if not for the rivulets of water that dripped from his clothing and hair.
"Their gear was all splattered with blood, so Prince Theodred pulled out a piece of cloth and started cleaning his sword. Frowning, Lord Boromir held up his round shield and began to check it for dents and cracks. 'A plague on these oysters!' he cursed loudly. 'They are ever growing on the wood of my shield.' He picked up a rock and began scraping it against the shield.
"'Oysters? What are they?' Prince Theodred asked.
"Lord Boromir tossed him what looked like a small, white stone. 'A sea creature,' he said. 'They are much like snails and are very good eating, once you learn to like their taste. In Gondor, we wash them down with strong ale.'
"'Good eating?' the prince replied. 'I will take your word on this, though I would not turn down that cup of strong ale.' He drew the cloth along the blade of the sword as he spoke. 'Sometimes it surprises me, the things that I miss.'
"Boromir the Tall stared into the fire. 'No, this is not like I thought it would be.'
"'What did you think?' Prince Theodred asked.
"The man of Gondor just laughed. 'That we would never die.'
"The fire settled with a thud, and a stream of sparks rose toward the moon. The prince stood and stretched his back with a sigh. 'I should not complain to you of all people, but this river dampness settles in my bones.'
"'You are just getting old,' Lord Boromir said with a sad shake of his head.
"Prince Theodred gave a snort of laughter as he walked over to the fire. Sinking onto his heels, he reached a bare hand into the coals and stacked the burning branches. When he saw that I was watching, too terrified to speak, he quickly pulled his hand from the flames. 'You need not be afraid,' he told me in our tongue, 'You will come to no harm. We may be the waking dead, but we are no servants of evil.'
"The night grew colder as I lay on the ground, wrapped in the mouldering cloak, and listened to them talk. I could hear the sound of scraping as Lord Boromir pried the oysters from his shield and flung the shells away. Prince Theodred told him about the battle at the ford—the first battle, when he and his men were slain. He paced back and forth as he spoke, often stopping to point at different places in the ford. The man of Gondor asked many questions; but in the end, he simply said, 'You were badly outnumbered, my friend.' And then they spoke of other things.
"After a time, the faint sound of hooves echoed in the night. 'Now I must go to ground, like a fox to his den,' Prince Theodred said. 'Old Grimbeorn would know my face, and I fear the surprise would kill him.'
"'And I will go with you,' Lord Boromir replied. 'I deem these men might notice when I did not dry out by the fire.'
"The prince dropped to one knee beside me. 'We will watch from the ford until we see that your comrades have found you. Keep the cloak; I do not need it.' In the firelight, I could see the jagged rents in his armor. 'Ride to good fortune,' he said as he rose to leave.
"'I thank you, my lord,' I managed to whisper.
"As they walked toward the ford, I heard Prince Theodred saying, 'Elfhelm had placed his archers behind those trees over there. So when the orcs came pouring into the ford…' His voice trailed off, and I heard Lord Boromir laugh.
"Spears at ready, my troop galloped to the bonfire. Old Grimbeorn ordered two men to stand watch; then he swung down from the saddle and hurried to kneel beside me. He pushed aside the cloak to look at my wounds. Once he saw that I had not been gravely hurt, he stared at the gold-embroidered cloth. He lifted a corner of the cloak then quickly dropped it.
"'That stranger must have found it in the barrow,' Grimbeorn told the others. 'The need was great, so Prince Theodred will not begrudge us the loan.' Working very swiftly, they took away the musty cloak and wrapped me in some blankets.
"The horses needed to rest, so we camped there for the night. When Grimbeorn asked me what had happened, I told him that Prince Theodred and Boromir of Gondor had rescued me from a band of orcs, and then they had sat around the fire cleaning their armor and telling tales.
"'Oyster shells?' old Grimbeorn said not unkindly, 'Well, this is a desolate place, and I do not doubt there are ghosts here.' Then he felt my skull for bumps and gave me a drink of brandy.
"He guessed that the stranger had bound up my wound and built the fire, but the man of Gondor was nowhere to be found. 'We did not get to thank him, or even learn his name,' Grimbeorn said with some annoyance.
"In the morning, they dug a grave for the fallen member of our troop. He was buried on the island in the river; there he could rest with Prince Theodred's men. They left the prince's cloak at the foot of the burial mound.
"I sat against a tree and watched as the rest of the troop stowed their gear on the horses. My arm hurt, and I was feeling very downcast. What a weird tale I had told to old Grimbeorn! Those ghosts must have been conjured by a blow to my head, and I hoped that my friends did not think me a fool.
"Aldhelm was walking past the embers of the fire when he suddenly stopped and reached down to the ground. 'What is this?' he asked as he held up what looked like a small, white stone.
"'Oyster shells,' Grimbeorn said. Frowning, he stared at Prince Theodred's barrow.
"When the horses were ready, I was handed up to another rider, for I was too weak to stay in the saddle. My own horse, heavily laden with gear and supplies, would follow closely behind. Then we started our journey back to Helm's Deep. I spent two months in the care of the healers, forbidden to do aught save sleep and play chess. In the spring, after I had returned to the troop, we rode out to the Fords of Isen. It was sunset when we waded to the island and climbed to the top of Prince Theodred's barrow. We carried with us a small keg of ale; the drink was a bit flat, but it was still plenty strong. We raised our cups to lasting friendship and drank to comrades who were gone. A drink of good, strong ale was poured onto the grass for the prince."
The boy frowned and reached up to touch his grandfather's sleeve. "But, Ealdfæder, you forgot Lord Boromir!"
"No, we would not soon forget him, for we knew we owed him our lives. He had no grassy mound or earthen grave, so I emptied a cup of ale into the river. For it is said that the waters of the Isen flow at last to the sea."