The shire folk had their share of superstitions and lore but this particular tale was a curious one indeed. Most of lore and legends of the hobbits harkened back to years beyond the living memories of even the oldest residents of the shire, but this little piece of lore, well, it had only come about recently, just seventeen years ago in fact.
A number of individuals had claimed to have seen see a cloaked lady rider upon a grey horse roaming around the shadows of the Hobbiton at night. She started appearing around the time old Bilbo Baggins had mysteriously disappeared from his 111th birthday party. You might see her horse flicker past you on the road, or see them standing in a distant field staring at you. She'd be there one moment, and then, she'd be gone in one instant, one blink of an eye. Most folks suspected she was some kind of ghost. She had to be.
Bilbo Baggins had been a perfectly respectable hobbit in his younger days. He had done nothing unexpected or excitable. That had all changed when he went off on that strange adventure of his with the old conjurerer Gandalf. He had been gone for months. Everyone had thought he was dead until he just showed back up at Bag End the day that all of his possessions were to be auctioned off. He was queer and eccentric after that, always telling tales of his adventure to the strange lands beyond the shire full strange people and creatures. He had amassed quite a bit of wealth too on his travels, and he fascinated the young hobbit children with his stories, so most folk forgave him for his oddities. He must of angered some spirit in those strange lands he traveled to though, because he mysteriously disappeared into thin air at his 111th birthday party, never to be seen nor heard of again. The Grey Lady had started appearing around Hobbiton, particularly a lot around Bag End, soon after that.
She wasn't seen every night, but once every few months a new rumor would start about Grey Lady having been spotted in the vicinity of Bag End. Some even claimed to have seen her darting in or out if the residence itself. The hobbits thought she must have taken Bilbo because of something he had done on his travels, and then she haunted his home and poor cousin Frodo for vengeance.
Frodo Baggins, however, whenever asked about the Grey Lady, would deny her existence. Bilbo's heir would state he had never seen any such lady in the vicinity of his residence and that no ghosts haunted his hobbit hole. He must have been scared of the Grey Lady to deny her existence folks figured. Poor fellow!
A sharp, succinct knock echoed throughout Bag End. Frodo picked up the candle on the side table and looked out the window to figure out the identity of his late night visitor. A lady in a grey hood stood outside the door. He quickly opened it and ushered the woman inside.
"Areth, I wasn't expecting you! Is everything alright?" he asked, his blue eyes filling with concern.
The hood dropped from woman's head, revealing a youthful but pale and drawn face. "Frodo, we need to leave the shire now. I have fetched Sam already. He is preparing for the journey and you must too. Grab the ring and what few clothes or blankets you may need." She said in a brusque tone, her face set in grim determination.
The hobbits eyes widened and his frown deepened. "What? I don't understand!? What's going on?"
"There are black riders in the shire looking for the ring Frodo. I'm taking you to Bree where you will await Gandalf's instructions. Hurry now! Time is precious!"
The hobby nodded quickly and rushed back to his chamber to gather a few garments and blankets. By the time he returned to the front hall, his servant and friend Samwise Gamgee, had arrived and was waiting, laden with a huge back of sleeping packs, linens, food rations, and utensils on his back.
"Mr. Frodo, the lady ranger showed up at my door and said it was time for us to leave. When she warned that we might have to leave the shire soon, I didn't think it would so abruptly or in the middle of the night." The ranger next the hobbit scowled, tapping her foot anxiously and resting her hand on the hilt of the short sword that was strapped to her hip.
"Come we must go," she murmured to the two hobbits. She opened the door and made a sweeping gesture. Her foot continued its rhythmic tapping as the hobbits stepped from the comfort of the warm and bright hobbit hole into the dark night.
They stood in front of Bag End, and the ranger let out a low whistle. The note shimmered in the air and they stood quietly in the silence. As they waited, Frodo looked up anxiously into the dark ranger's pale face. She turned her gaze towards his and greeted him with a rare ghost of a smile, something that hinted of brighter and happier times in the woman's life.
Frodo had known Areth for close to seventeen years. The ranger had appeared on his doorstep with Gandalf one night about a week after Bilbo had left for Rivendell. Gandalf had said the northern rangers, the northern men who had guarded the shire from the outside world for centuries, had sent her to guard Frodo and his ring while Gandalf was away trying to find answers about the ring's origins. She patrolled the borders of the shire, the roads to Hobbiton, and would stop in a night or two every few months to check in on Frodo.
Over the years the hobbit had developed a friendship with the grim Dúnedain ranger. Sam, having accidentally walked in upon one her secret night visits once, had come to befriend her as well. She had always been extraordinarily vague about her own life only telling Frodo and Sam of her grandmother who she visited occasionally and of her training to become a ranger. The hobbits liked the ranger. She seemed grim, serious, and quiet, but revealed a gentle, caring side and a sarcastic wit to those who got to know her. She had become a friend to both hobbits over the years.
A figure emerged quietly from the shadows, a horse as grey as the lady ranger's cloak that blended into the shadows itself. "Mithdae," she murmured affectionately, her smile widening as she rubbed the horse's snout. She pulled her hood back over her head and turned towards the hobbits. "Come close so I can lift you on, Fordo and Sam."
Frodo came forward first. She stopped him momentarily and quietly asked "The ring?" The hobbit reached down beneath his clothing and showed her the ring attached to a chain around his neck before securing it back underneath his shirt.
"Do we really have all have to ride on that big horse?" Sam asked. He looked suspiciously at snorting grey stallion and inched away. "Are you sure he can even hold all of us?"
Mithdae snorted and stamped as if he were insulted by the hobbit's doubts. The grey ranger snickered and stroked her steed's nose. Her silver grey eyes flashed dangerously from under hood . "Mithdae is an elvish horse, Sam. He was bred to be strong and he and I were trained together when we were young. He is swift and our quickest way out of the Shire. We have no time to tarry." She heaved Frodo up on to the stallions back, then turned and extended a hand towards the red headed hobbit. He bit his his lip and sighed, then stepped forward and took her hand. She pulled him into her arms and placed him upon the horse's back behind Frodo. Then the grey lady grabbed Mithdae's main, pulling herself up in front of the two hobbits.
"Run swiftly to Bree, my friend," she whispered in her steed's ear. Mithdae snorted, flicked his ears in response, and then galloped off into the night.
The rhythmic pounding of Mithdae's gate had put both hobbits to sleep. The ranger stayed alert, brushing a strand of her dark away from her eyes. Moonlight dappled the dark forest road ahead. No sound reached her ears but the whisper of the wind that rustled through the trees. All seemed peaceful, but appearances could be deceiving.
Areth had never seen nor sensed such evil in her life. They wore cloaks of black, screeched in unearthly howls, and the very air around them turned frigid and dark. She had set fires across the the roads hoping to keep them from crossing into the shire but that would only hold them back for so long. She was only one ranger. One black rider she may have been able to take on, but four would surely over power her. She was in over her head. She sought out they grey wizard for help.
She walked into the Prancing Pony in Bree, her grey hood pulled over her head. She nodded to the tavern master and looked around, spotting the grey sorcerer tucked away at a table in the corner smoking his pipe. She walked past the rowdy crowd of Bree folk to slide in the seat across from him.
"Thank you for coming Gandalf."
"Your message was urgent Areth. What is it?"
"I strongly believe that the ring Frodo possesses is the One Ring."
A grim shadow darkened the wizard's face. He pulled his pipe from his mouth and leaned forward. For sixteen long years Gandalf had been traveling about Middle Earth trying to confirm that the ring that Bilbo Baggins had found was indeed the One Ring. Areth, a Dunedein ranger, had watched over Bag End, Bilbo's heir, and the ring for sixteen years. Never in all her time guarding the place and interacting with the hobbit had she said anything like that.
"What makes you say this?"
"The black riders have come to the shire. I have seen four of them around the borders. I could handle one perhaps Gandalf, but not four. I, alone, can no longer keep him and the ring safe."
"I must go consult with others on this. Bring Frodo and his friend that knows you, Sam, here to Bree. Wait with them here Prancing Pony until I return with further instructions. I will notify Aragorn, the Chieftain of your people, and request for your fellow rangers to watch the road from Bree to Hobbiton. You should be safe enough until I arrive."
"It will be done."
"Is their anything you wish for me to tell him?"
"You can tell him I am fine and will try to see him once Frodo and the ring are safe."
The grey wizard nodded to the grey ranger. They stood and Gandalf reached out and placed a hand on Areth's shoulder. "Good luck and may your journey be safe."
"May your journey be safe as well, and... thank you, for truly having faith in me and trusting me with this."
Gandalf gave Areth a small smile. "You are a skilled ranger and dedicated to your task, and I think you would find more have faith in you then your think." With that, the wizard made his way out of the tavern. The ranger looked around the noisy room and pondered his last words for a moment. A small smile crossed her face before her indifferent mask fell back into place. Then she too headed out the door to fetch Mithdae and head back into the shire.
Mithdae carried the ranger and the two hobbits down the road at a quick pace. Areth started to dare to believe that their journey would be safe. Yet, something fowl was in the air. The air was growing cold, the wind was picking up, and an unsettling screeching could be heard in the distance, growing louder at an alarming rate. The noise roused the two hobbits to consciencness. They jolted awake and looked around in alarm.
"What is it Miss Areth?" Sam called out over the rising wind. Areth turned her gaze over her shoulder to see two black riders in the distance charging towards them. Her heart pounded in dread. She shivered. Mithdae could not possibly outrun the riders. They were coming up too fast. The grey stallion had been running for too long. She would have to stop to face them and hope that the hobbits truly did have a talent hiding and traveling unnoticed. She closed her eyes tightly, said a prayer to Valar, and yanked on Mithdae's mane.
The horse struggled for an instant but then came to a halt. Areth leapt down from his back and the quickly pulled the hobbits off as well.
"What is happening!?" Frodo cried. Areth handed both hobbits their packs along with two blades. She slapped the stallion's behind and he galloped into to the darkness of the trees.
"Take these and run into the forest as fast as you can. Find a place to hide and stay there until the screaming and darkness have receded. Then head towards Bree with haste. Stay off the roads. Do not look back."
Frodo looked at his friend with wide eyes and shook his head. "We cannot leave you behind!"
"DO NOT BE A FOOL! GO NOW!" the ranger shouted sharply at the hobbits as she busily flicked her flint to light the torch she had kept in her pack. In her desperation for her hobbit friends to get away, she grew careless and let mask of indifference fall, fear flooding her blue eyes. Frodo's eyes widened in shock. Never before had the ranger shown any signs of fear.
"Come now Mr. Frodo, we cannot get caught!" Sam urged, tugging his master towards the forest. Frodo cast Areth a look of gratitude and regret before turning and running with Sam into the darkness.
The ranger managed to light her torch and ran it along the brush on and along side of the road. Orange flames leapt to life and lit the forest with brilliance as the two wraiths approached. Areth ran to the side of road, pulled her bow from her back, and snatched an arrow from her quiver. She caught the tip of it on a flame so it too burned bright. She notched the smoldering projectile on her bow and drew the weapon taut, taking aim as the black riders reached her. Their two steeds, panicked by the blaze blocking the road, reared back into the air. Taking advantage of the wraiths' momentary distraction, Areth let loose the flaming arrow. It planted itself squarely in the neck of one wraith, catching its black robe on fire. It screeched in panic and fell of its horse. It ran away, limbs flailing, into the the darkened forest. Its horse took flight down the road from whence it came.
The ranger drew, lit, and notched another arrow. The remaining dark rider had regained control of its horse. It spotted Areth aiming her arrow, and drew its sword. It seemed to float down from its horse and approached her at a mockingly slow pace. Areth let loose her flaming arrow but the wraith leaned to the side and dodged it. So close was her enemy, Areth had no choice but to tuck her bow away and draw out her sword. She flexed her fingers around the hilt, ready to face her foe.
"Tell me where the halflings are and I will make your death quick ranger!" The rider hissed her.
"Over my dead body!" The ranger snarled in return.
"Then prepare do die a very slow and painful death!" The rider hissed again. It took a step forward and raised its blade. The sword whistled through the air towards the ranger. The clang of mental on metal rang throughout the woods as her blade met the wraith's. Her arms shook as she tried to parry off the blow. The wraith's blade slipped and then swung at her again. Areth blocked a succession of blows successfully, but she was very clearly on the defensive. While she could handle a blade well enough, she had never excelled at that type of combat like she had with archery. In her previous encounters with the black riders, she had always managed to stay hidden in the shadows at a distance and deflect them with flaming arrows. This wraith was clearly different. It had been the only one to dodge her lit arrow. It seemed more knowledgeable, more powerful than the others.
Sweat ran down the ranger's back as she deflected the barrage of attacks from the wraith. Her muscles burned and the clashing of the metal rang in her ears. The blaze that burned across the rode cast a hellish orange light across the fighting pair. The smell of ash and smoke filled the air. Areth panted harshly as her energy began to wane. Then, her balance betrayed her and she stumbled to the ground.
"Now you will learn what happens to those who stand in the way of the Witch King of Angmar!" The wrath hissed, raising its blade over the fallen ranger. Areth stared back at the wraith with with fearless defiance and spat at its feet. She reached for her blade and moved to block the Witch King's downward thrust. It was not fast enough however.
A burning agony greater than anything she had ever known burst in her shoulder. She turned her gaze to see the black rider's blade wedged into her skin. She tried to contain her pain but her lips betrayed her. She let at an agonized screech and her body spasmed involuntarily in response to the pain. The Witch King picked up her blade which now lay useless at her side. "I will quite enjoy the irony of you dying by your own weapon ranger, " it hissed menacingly. It moved to finish the job when a angry whiny came from the darkness. Mithdae charged at the Witch King, pushing it off its feet and into the flames dancing across the road. The rider's black robes caught aflame. It dropped the blade and charged at the helpless ranger but the grey stallion reared at it again. The witch king screeched in rage but gave up, running away into the darkness.
Mithdae turned and nudged his mistress with his snout. Areth reached over with a shaky, sweaty hand and yanked the blade from her shoulder with a grunt. Her eyes widened in horror as the blade turned to dust and blew away in the wind. She had been stabbed by a morgul-blade.
Remembering what she had been taught about healing and medicine, she clung to her horse's flank as she pulled herself up shaky legs. She frantically felt around her pack strapped to the stallion's hind-quarters. She ripped out the pack of athelas leaves stowed away in her pack. She tore it open and bit a portion of a leaf off. She chewed it frantically, then spit the paste back into her hands. She clawed at the clock and tunic covering her wound. They tore away to reveal a festering black cut. She rubbed the paste in as well as she could and then attempted to pull herself astride Mithdae. When her legs gave way and she stumbled, the loyal stallion dropped to his knees and nudged her up. She managed to raise herself up enough to fling a leg over the horse's flank and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. He rose off the ground and flicked his ears, waiting for direction from his mistress.
Areth fought to keep awake as the pain tore through her and darkness clouded vision and mind. "Go home," she whispered weakly. She shook and sweated profusely as she tried to sing elvish healing songs to keep the darkness at bay. The horse neighed and reared. It then broke into a hard gallop and rushed into the darkness, heading east.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Disclaimer: I do not own any characters, settings, or events of Middle Earth.
*Dialogue in bold text is Sindarin Elvish.*
*Dialogue in bold text is Sindarin Elvish.*
Chapter End Notes:
AN: More to come! Please leave a review!