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An Oath Fulfilled, by Rhymer

Author: rhymer23
Title: An Oath Fulfilled
Rating: PG
Theme: January Potluck: March of Power (March 2013)
Elements: March 8th: Aragorn takes the 'Paths of the Dead' at daybreak; he reaches Erech at midnight.
Author's Notes: Perhaps this isn't technically quite a "gap-filler." Rather it is an alternative viewpoint on the events we see unfold in the novel.
Summary: Lost in the darkness, the Dead have waited three thousand years for the Heir of Isildur to come to them, and now he is come. He is come.
Word Count: 2230



Once I was…

I cannot remember. Time is an everlasting, unendurable present. A day is an eternity, and eternity is but a day. Outside, in the valley, men are born and die; are born and die, are born and die, while we remain forever unchanged. Sometimes it happens so fast, their lives flickering past us like moonlight caught in the branches of a storm-tossed tree. Sometimes an unendurable lifetime seems to pass between each of their living breaths.

Once I was…

What was I?

I was not always like this. I had a wife, but I cannot remember her face. I had children, and I know that I loved them. I remember only snatches: a carved wooden goblet, cupped in a woman's hands; a bronze sword; snow on the mountain peaks; fat dripping from goat meat on a spit above a fire. I cannot remember the taste of that goat; all taste is ashes now. I know that the sun once lit those mountain peaks, but I cannot remember the sunlight. All I know is shadow.

I had a name, I think, but I do not remember it. I could talk to others, and make my will known to them. I could talk of love and friendship; of hatred and laughter and loyalty. I am not alone here, for there is a host of us below the mountain, but we are all locked in the same solitude. We flock together, but we cannot make ourselves understood. We cannot share memories. We cannot trade hope. Together we exist, but each of us alone.

Once I was…

I remember that we sang, although I cannot remember the songs. I remember that we danced, although I cannot remember the dancing. I remember that we touched, living flesh to living flesh, but I cannot remember what it felt like. I have just enough memory for memory to be a torment, but not enough for it to be a comfort.

Only one clear memory remains from that past before time ended. I remember my king on his carved stone throne. I remember his flame-specked ring. I remember going on my knees before him, and pledging my life to his. I swore an oath to obey him in all things.

I did not break my oath.

They call us the oath-breakers. Oh, yes, I remember that. The stern, tall king from beyond the sea cursed us as oath-breakers, and condemned us to remain in living death until his heir had need of us. He was cruel, that king. He was worse than cruel. He spoke of future and an ending, but there has never been a future for us. Until his heir comes to summon us, he said. Better to have said, "until stars blaze under the mountain and men walk on water," which we used to say of a thing that is impossible. A kinder man would have given us no hope, rather than a shred of hope that never comes.

He stole my past. He teased me with a future, but there is no future, only this.

I broke no oaths. I swore to obey my king, and I obeyed him. I fought when he told me to fight, and I laid down my sword when he told me to do so. For that fidelity, I am condemned. My wife and children swore no oaths, and they died and have gone from me. As a warrior, I pledged my sword. I still pay the price.

There will be no ending.

Once – yesterday, a hundred years ago, ten thousand, or perhaps but a moment ago – a man drew nigh to us. Clad in mail and jewels, he was, and he shouted in words that I could not understand. Was he summoning us? Was he the one? I moved towards him like a moth drawn to a campfire. "Who are you?" I tried to speak, but it was dead leaves stirring in the darkness. Other dead-leaf whispers sounded all around me. The others were there, too. We wreathed around each other, and wreathed around him, but I could not understand the others, and he could not understand us.

He died, I think.

Others come now; or maybe this, too, is memory, and it all happened so long ago. There are horses, and tall men wrapped in cloaks like shadows. They bear bright flames in their hands, the light striking as keenly as a sword blade. Some of them are beautiful, although until I saw them, I had forgotten that word. Their leader speaks, words I cannot understand.

And then he rises. And then I see him. He shouts aloud, and I understand him. I understand him. "Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"

I understand him. The first words I have understood in… in three thousand years, I think, wondering, and I know that it is true. There are tiny cracks in the everlasting present. I see the past – three thousand years ago – and I see, I glimpse, I hope, I dream…

No, it is too soon to hope for a future. I draw nigh unto him; I cannot do otherwise. The others are here, too. "Who are you?" I whisper. "Are you the one?" Until his heir comes to summon us. Until stars blaze under the mountain and…

Those shadow cloaks are held in place, every one of them, by a silver star, blazing in the torchlight.

"Are you…?" I whisper. "Are you the one…?" All around me, I hear the dead-leaf whispers of the others, but for the first time ever, I hear snatches of their words. "Is he…?" We turn to each other. "Can this be…?" The words surge together, and become a cold wind. The torches blow out, but we need no light. Light was taken from us so long ago.

He moves forward, and we follow him. Time passes. It grinds slowly at first, but I marvel that I can sense it passing. An hour, I think, then two hours, then a third. The others press closely around me. We whisper questions, one to each other. I cannot remember my name, and I do not know the others, but we speak, and we are understood. We have no answers, though. "Hope." I do not know who first spoke that word aloud. Hope can be a dreadful thing; I know that now. As we whisper it, the dwarf at their rear stumbles with terror.

Then, far above us, there are stars. I begin to see glimpses of those who have shared my existence for so many endless years. I see a pale banner, and a hand, and a sword. I see a tangle of hair, untouched by any wind. I see a mouth and an eye and a glimpse of a shield. I think there is a horse below me, although I cannot remember its name.

Around us and before us, men are screaming. They have fled from me so many times before, but never before have I understood their words. I have wanted to. Often I have longed to. Now I hear them shouting in terror of the King of the Dead. I see my king, a pale crown above a mist-wrought cloak. He rides closest to the one who called us, and his eyes are blazing.

At length we reach the Stone of Erech, where our king swore an oath to the cruel king from the sea. He broke it later, of course. It was not for us to judge the decisions of our king, merely to obey them, but if we could have judged, we would have understood. The sea king looked likely to lose. The Great Lord Sauron was mighty indeed, and would enslave our women and children if we raised our swords against him, in service of a cause that was lost. Our king let himself be forsworn because of his care for his people.

At that mighty, dreadful stone, the one who leads us steps forward, and blows upon a silver horn. It is a summons, I think, but it is too late for the summoning; the moment we saw him, we were his. "Oathbreakers," he cries, "why have ye come?"

I do not know. I know only that I had no choice. I know only that while I follow him, I remember things and hear things and understand things that have been forgotten for so very long. But I cannot bear to think what the ending might be. I cannot utter that hope.

My king was always a braver man than me. "To fulfil our oath and have peace," he says.

The living lord does not condemn us. He does not mock us and deny us and tell us that peace is beyond our grasp. Instead he tells us where we are needed, and tells us his will. "I will hold that oath fulfilled," he says, and he declares himself the one we have lingered for, the heir of Isildur, that cruel sea king of old.

He rides, and I follow. My king rides ahead of me, but I barely notice him. All I wish to see is the Heir of Isildur, who has given a promise of hope. Hope is the most beautiful, terrible thing in the world. A moment ago, I could not bring myself to grasp it. Now I am terrified to let it go.

With every hour that passes, the host around me takes shape. We can understand each other now, but we have been locked in silence for three thousand years, and what can we say to each other? Gradually, I see colour emerging from the shadow. My robe is dark green, I think. My horse is brown. My king's cloak is red. Silver flashes on my horse's harness. But ahead of me, the living men are fading into shadow, with their grey cloaks and their dark hair. It is as if we are becoming more real, and they are fading away. I cannot let them fade away entirely! I urge my horse forward, and almost overtake them, but the Sea King's Heir raises his hand, and commands me to fall back.

I could hate him, I think. It was cruel beyond measure, what his ancestor did to us. He summons us now only because he is in desperate need. We are just a tool to him, and he cares nothing about the dreadful half-life we have endured. When he speaks, we must obey. I chose to pledge my sword to my king, but I have no choice in this. If I want to have an ending, I must obey his will.

But how can I refuse him? He brings me so much. The nearer I am to him, the more the shadows fall away. Trumpets sound, and I remember music. I remember my children: two sons, and a little girl. My wife's skin was so soft as she lay beneath the furs. I remember the taste of meat, and starlight on the mountains.

I do not notice how long we ride, but it is not because time has stopped for me. No, it is because I am lost in memories of the new-remembered past. I smile, and all around me my comrades are smiling too.

When the cursed dead are smiling, it is the most terrible thing of all. We reach the sea, and our enemies flee before us. With sword and spear, we fight the battle we might have fought three thousand years ago, had our king chosen differently. None can withstand us. Even the river is no barrier, and we surge across the water, and cast our enemies down. I laugh, but not because I revel in killing, and not because the dead are cruel. I laugh because now, at last, something feels real to me.

When stars blaze under the mountains, and men walk on water...

Afterwards we withdraw to the river bank, and all laughter has faded away. The sea king was cruel, and this is his heir. He promised to grant us peace, but a promise is an oath, and oaths, as we know, can be broken.

He waits. Is this his punishment to us: repaying a broken oath with a broken oath? I hate him for this power he has over us. I hate him.

"Hear now the words of the Heir of Isildur!" he shouts. "Your oath is fulfilled. Go back and trouble not the valleys ever again! Depart and be at rest!"

It is done. It is done. I have a past and a present and a future. I have an ending.

My king moves forward and breaks his spear, but I barely see it. Instead, I look into the grey eyes of the Heir of Isildur, and know that I do not hate him. He has given us more than he had to give. He could have bidden us merely to depart and cease to be, but he has granted us rest.

Rest.

The world fades away from me, but as the present fades, the past shines as brightly as sunlight. I remember life and I remember love. I remember my wife's face, and I know her name. I know my own name, and as the present fades away into the shadows, I speak it aloud.

I know who I am, and this is my ending.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamflower02
Jan. 27th, 2014 01:45 pm (UTC)
Oh my! This is so beautiful and sad--and yet hopeful as well.
rhymer23
Jan. 27th, 2014 07:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It pretty much wrote itself. I just sat down, and an hour later, the story was complete. I have no idea what this character's name is, but he definitely had a story that he wanted told! :-)
shirebound
Jan. 27th, 2014 09:57 pm (UTC)
Oh my, this gave me chills. What a fascinating point of view!

There are tiny cracks in the everlasting present. I see the past – three thousand years ago – and I see, I glimpse, I hope, I dream…

Wow.
rhymer23
Jan. 28th, 2014 09:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It took me a while to psych myself up to write it, since it was a rather daunting point of view to attempt, but in the end, it just wrote itself. :-)
hours_gone_by
Jan. 27th, 2014 11:59 pm (UTC)
The transition from bleakness to hope, echoed by the return of color to the ghosts, is wonderfully done!
rhymer23
Jan. 28th, 2014 09:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I started it without any clear idea of how it was going to evolve or how it would end, but the viewpoint character just took over the story, and it ended up writing itself.
lindahoyland
Jan. 28th, 2014 02:43 am (UTC)
What an amazing story.You really brought this long dead character alive. I must admit I'd never really thought about who the oathbreakers were.

I'll never think of them in the same way again.

Very well written!
rhymer23
Jan. 28th, 2014 10:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I hadn't really thought that much about them before, but I've been musing quite a bit about the Paths of the Dead lately, and suddenly my viewpoint character was there in my head, desperate for me to tell his story. It was a daunting one to start, but once I'd written the first line, the entire story just wrote itself.
blslarner
Jan. 29th, 2014 01:41 am (UTC)
I, too, have the dead remembering their names as they find themselves fulfilling the oath broken so long ago! Well, well done!
rhymer23
Jan. 29th, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
I noticed that. I was interested to see that we'd both written the viewpoint of one of the Dead, and made some similar choices. Great minds think alike! :-)
paranoidangel42
Feb. 2nd, 2014 12:36 pm (UTC)
I like this - it's an interesting perspective from the point of view of the Dead.
rhymer23
Feb. 2nd, 2014 05:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It was a certainly interesting to write this viewpoint. Once I started writing, the character took over, and the story pretty much wrote itself. Glad you liked it!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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