For seven days Aragorn and Halbarad trudged eastward as the mountains grew from a blue smudge on the horizon to grey, pointed teeth biting into the sky. To the near north, Dol Draug blocked their sight of the range behind it: the low ridges that guarded the way to Angmar.
They passed through the rocky terrain with the stealth befitting Rangers of the North. As they drew nearer to Dol Draug, they began to make the whistling signal that would alert the Rangers to their coming. But no answering call came. Anxiously, Aragorn scanned the slopes and the dark glades, but he saw not one sign of the others. Surely they have spotted us by now? The scouts should be watching. Unease prickled at the back of his neck.
At last they began to climb the lower slopes of Wolf’s Head. When the signal finally came, Aragorn jumped like a startled cat and grabbed his sword hilt. Halbarad seized his already-strung bow.
“Hold,” whispered Aragorn.
A shadow moved in the trees ahead. A figure shrouded in the dark green cloak and hood of a Ranger and armed with a spear stepped into their path. A gloved hand reached up to fling back the hood: Beleg stood before them, his smooth face lit with a serene smile, incongruous in that dark place. “Well met at last, my friends!”
“You have been slow enough about answering us,” said Halbarad angrily. His arm carrying the bow dropped to his side. “Where are the others?”
Beleg lifted a finger to his lips and murmured, “We will speak later. Follow me.” He turned abruptly to the right. He hoisted his spear on his shoulder and gave them one glance with his bright eyes before he slipped down a path below a shelf of rock, shadowed with dark, thick pine trees.
The questions died on their lips as Aragorn and Halbarad exchanged worried looks. Halbarad snorted and spoke low. “I do not like this place. Let’s hope that underground it seems safer and more friendly.” He hoisted his pack onto his broad back and passed through the trees behind Beleg. Aragorn strode quickly in his wake.
The afternoon was swiftly dimming into evening as they followed the narrow track, climbing up a series of switchbacks through the gloomy trees. The murky silence weighed on Aragorn like a bad dream. He trained his eyes on the slope below and stepped quietly, looking and listening for any sign of movement. His anxiety grew.
Full dark had fallen before Beleg bent and disappeared as if the rocky face had swallowed him. “Come,” he called to them. Stooping, they saw a low entrance into the side of the mountain. Inside Beleg had lit a torch, the only light in that dark cavern. Myriad passages bore into the rocky walls, some at foot-level, some above their heads, some reached by leaping half a man’s height down to a gravelly slope that ran to their left. Beleg again turned abruptly, but Aragorn called out. “Some bearings, Beleg. What is this place, and what has happened?”
“This is the main way into the Refuge, my friend,” said Beleg. “Most of the passages meander to nowhere, and an enemy dies of hunger and thirst before he can escape, or to a chasm where he will fall into the bowels of the earth. Our safety lies in our knowledge of the only real way. Follow me.”
He disappeared behind a lip of rock, the light casting its beam on the dark wall above. Aragorn and Halbarad followed the light, and found that the way climbed in wide curves toward the summit of the mountain. Every so often Beleg would turn into another passage, and soon Aragorn lost any sense of direction. Climber ever higher, they walked at least two miles by Aragorn’s estimate before the passage opened up—or so he judged from the cool air that suddenly freshened his face.
Beleg lit more torches to reveal a cavern fitted out with weapons and provisions, a huge hearth at the far wall. “Welcome to the Refuge of Wolf’s Head,” Beleg said with a brief bow. His eyes caught the glitter of the torches. “You can share the sleeping alcove over here where it’s warmest, or will be when I light the fire. I sleep at the guard post near the eastern passage.”
“And where does that lead?” Aragorn asked.
“To hidden doors on the eastern slope, just at the tip of the wolf’s snout. The doors open easily from within, but no one can open them from without. And the way down is steep and long.”
Uneasy, Aragorn looked around at the wide but low space, walls hung with shields, spears and hunting gear. Dried meats, barrels of foodstuffs, stacks of firewood and furs filled the storage alcoves lining the main hall. A stream splashed from the wall into a basin of water. The Refuge was equipped for two dozen men, by his rough guess, but no one else was there.
His eye fell on a neat pile on a bench beside the now-burning hearth: a folded, stained cloak, a bow and quiver, a belt and pouch, and, atop all, a lute. Aragorn had last seen that very instrument in Malbeth’s hands when he would carefully polish and oil before playing its soft music in the lonely nights around the Rangers’ small fire. “Malbeth’s lute?” Fear iced his heart. “Where is he?”
Halbarad had seen it too. With a sharp exclamation of dismay he picked it up and smoothed his rough hands across the wood. “Where are the others?” His harsh, sharp voice hit Aragorn’s ears in sudden dread. “Where is Malbeth? Where is Damrod?”
Beleg turned toward them, his face half in shadow. “I am here alone. They are dead. Damrod was killed, oh, some time ago now. Malbeth was killed last week.”
“Dead!” Halbarad’s cry was tight and hoarse. “Killed! How?”
Aragorn could only stare in pain at Beleg’s smooth, beardless face, which suddenly disgusted him. How can he find the time and the will to shave, here, amid this death?
“Orcs killed Damrod in the mountains weeks ago. You wouldn’t have heard about it on your journey. Goenor found him and brought the news. He went to Thurnost to tell them and get more men. We found signs of the enemy, you know, and troops on horse are to be dispatched, at least that’s what I counseled. I feel sure that Hallor will agree. As for Malbeth, I don’t know, I found him dead, an arrow in his back, near the summit where he had gone to spy the lands below.”
“And no sign of who had done it?” Halbarad cried. “No enemy about? How can that be?”
“I have seen smoke in the old fortress and fires at night,” Beleg said, a shadow of pain passing across his face, but his voice was emotionless. “It’s as if Angband were reborn. But no creatures on two legs. Not yet, anyway. But I know the enemy is here. I feel him.”
“There must have been tracks, something to show how Malbeth died,” Aragorn said. “What did you find?”
Beleg poked at the fire. “I did not look. There’s more danger than you know.” He stood up. “Daeron’s gone to the Enemy.”
Halbarad cursed. Aragorn could only stare at his father’s old friend. “I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it, young one,” said Beleg. “The man is a vile traitor, eaten up with hate and envy. I always knew it.”
But you said no such thing. Aragorn stifled the words on the tip of his tongue. “Does Hallor know of this?”
“He must by now. I expect reinforcements any day. Now you are here, at least.”
“You speak as if you’re in a dream, or scarce believe your own words,” Aragorn said, watching the man’s face with concern and dread. He noticed a dark cloth knotted around Beleg’s wrist. “Are you wounded yourself?”
“This?” Beleg lifted his left arm, bound in a soiled bandage. “I was bitten. A lone wolf. I killed him with my knife.”
“Let me see it.” Aragorn strode forward, reaching his hands toward Beleg’s bound arm.
Anger flared in Beleg’s eyes, and he snatched his arm back. “Don’t touch it. I tended it myself. It’s healing.”
“What foolishness to refuse my help.”
“Perhaps, but I do so all the same.” The fierce light began to die in his eyes. “Don’t think me ungrateful or foolish. I’m very glad you’re here at last. These days have been hard. When I am so alone, I think of Ariel and the bitterness of her death is as it was the day I lost her, and our son died.” For a moment he looked as if he would say more, but then he turned abruptly back to the hearth. “There is food. Let’s eat, and then we can talk. We must make a plan.”
They ate hard bread and hot soup at the rough table set before the fire. Silence ruled the meal. Beleg only stared at his dish, while Halbarad and Aragorn exchanged worried looks from time to time. Then, the food gone at last, Halbarad pulled out his pipe and weed and began to smoke.
A small smile softened the dull bitterness of Beleg’s face. “You have taken up your father’s ways, I see.”
Halbarad grunted. “And you? You still shun the Ranger’s best friend?”
“No one can have lived in Rivendell and adopt such an uncouth habit.”
Aragorn snorted. “I think not, Beleg. My father didn’t smoke pipeweed, but I’ve tried it myself, on occasion. I feel the comfort.”
Beleg shrugged. “What does it matter? We have little, do we not? And less and less to come.” He bowed his head, as if weighed down by an impossible grief.
“Come, my friend,” Aragorn said. “Speak to us. We, too, are grieving for our friends. Let’s avenge them, and find the truth about Daeron.”
Beleg raised his haunted eyes to Aragorn’s face. “What can you know, you who are so young? For us, who have lived to see so many die, the lights go out in our lives, one by one.”
Halbarad slapped his hard hand against the table. “You sound like a wailing woman and no man.”
Beleg shrugged as if with no hope. “There was a time, when I was young like you, that everything seemed so full of promise. Even the stirring of the Shadow seemed only cause for joy, so reckless was I in my young pride.”
Halbarad growled, and Aragorn caught his eye and silenced him with a little shake of his head. “Let him speak.”
“It would relieve my heart,” Beleg said. Aragorn had never seen such sadness on his Elven-fair face. “I find myself haunted with memories in these days, as hasn’t happened in a long time. I can’t shake it. Maybe if I journey into the past….” His low voice faded, and he shuddered.
Halbarad muttered something incomprehensible, but Aragorn knew from the uneasy curiosity in his eyes that he, too, wanted to hear Beleg’s words.
Beleg lifted his head. “Arathorn and I—we were unstoppable in those days. No Man, Orc or even Elf could withstand our swords when we fought side by side. We traveled across Wilderland, through the vales of the River, hunting down the Enemy. And the old ones of the Dúnedain said that of all the heirs of Isildur that they had known, Arathorn showed the greatest ability—a man who had it in him to restore the kingship of the Númenoreans, as Elrond says we must, or perish forever.”
“Tell me about him, and your friendship,” Aragorn said, a strange feeling fluttering in his breast.
“It seems like a tale of old now,” Beleg murmured. “The greatest of our deeds was the battle at Dol Guldur that winter before we returned to Thurnost. It happened like this: for some years we lived with the Elves at Thranduil’s court, though we spent more time abroad with the scouts than in the halls of feasting. We kept the Forest Road safe and guarded caravans going west from Dale. We went to Gundabad to spy out the Orcs, and tried to find a way to bring down the dragon. I called Arathorn Túrin’s heir then—he would slay Smaug as Turambar slew Glaurung. And he would laugh, and say surely I was his Beleg.”
Sighing, he stared into the gloom of the cavern. “We’d grown up hearing tales of Sauron’s return—that Gandalf had entered Dol Guldur and found out the Dark Lord indeed was there. That happened before we were born, but Argonui had not forgotten it, nor that Gandalf reported Sauron was looking for the Heir of Isildur. So Arathorn and I made it our business to do our part. We scoured Mirkwood. But it took much urging to get Thranduil to agree to attack Dol Guldur itself. Wise king, more than we knew. He spoke harshly of the other Elven realms and of the wizards, I remember. But we don’t know the councils of the Wise, and if Thranduil did, he did not say.”
Beleg gazed at Aragorn. “You know, when I saw you as a man for the first time I thought you could have been Arathorn’s twin, so much do you look like your father.”
“You thought I was my father,” said Aragorn. “You called me by his name.”
“Did I? Yes, I remember now. But now I do not see it that way. You are yourself, your own man, not just Arathorn’s son, as worthy as that is. Well, let me go on with my tale.
“At last, in Mirkwood, we convinced the king to send a troop of warriors to ravage the forest around the stronghold, testing their defenses. We went with the king’s son, Legolas, and thirty other hardened warriors. All spring and summer we lived in hideouts at the periphery of that terrible tower, killing by ambush and stealth as Thranduil’s Elves do. By then Arathorn and I had learned their methods well. We killed many Orcs, and we spied them hunting us, but they never found us.
“In the end we launched an assault on an outpost, and they sent more Orcs to strengthen their post. That was when we saw the Man. Dúnadan, he appeared—a Black Númenorean he must have been. He was clearly a Man of great power, and drove the Orcs into even greater depths of savagery and blind courage. We lost some of our best warriors, but our archers’ aim was also deadly.
“At the height of the battle Arathorn and I crept around their left flank to draw this Man into combat. I remember his face: a chillingly beautiful face, with glittering eyes and the high brow of a Númenorean king. To see that in the face of your enemy—it hit me at the heart. But what happened, I only know from what Arathorn told me later. He said the Man attacked him first, disarmed him, and was about to dispatch him with his knife, but I threw myself between them.
“I took the blade meant for Arathorn. We both would have died there, if Legolas had not come to our aid. I lost consciousness, but no one could understand why. The wound was to my side, but it did not pierce the gut, and the healer could find no reason for my faint. He feared it was poisoned, but it was not. But this wound ended our sojourn in Mirkwood. Arathorn and I returned to Thurnost, and it was months before I could go Rangering again. And ever since I have been plagued from time to time with terrible dreams.”
Aragorn watched Beleg’s strained face with concern. “Didn’t you go to Rivendell to seek healing from Elrond?”
Beleg seemed to be staring at some unseen thing before him, then shook himself and turned his bright eyes to Aragorn’s face. “I meant to, but something always happened to keep me away. You know what the next years brought.” He paused and clenched his hands together. “As soon as we returned to Thurnost, Arathorn fell in love with Gilraen. I was barely on my feet when the fight with Daeron happened. After that, we left Thurnost for a while, till things cooled down. Then the wedding happened, and within months Arador died at the hands of the Trolls in the coldfells, south of here. I was there on that terrible day too. ” He shuddered and passed his hand across his eyes. “Then you were born, and I married Ariel just a month later. Then Arathorn himself was killed as we rode with the sons of Elrond. And Gilraen fled with the Heir of Isildur, and we were no longer on speaking terms with Rivendell. As you know.”
Even in the dim evening light Aragorn could see his face was drained of all color. “Get some rest, Beleg. We are here now, and you can rest with no fear. Halbarad and I will watch tonight.”
Beleg stared at him, then opened his mouth as if to speak. But instead the lids of his eyes dropped over his bright eyes, and he turned silently away.
Aragorn waited until Beleg’s graceful form had disappeared into the dark of the cavern, and all sounds of movement had vanished. And then he met Halbarad’s eyes and said in a low voice, “Something is very wrong here.”
Halbarad grimaced. “Every instinct tells me we should flee. This place is not safe, and Beleg is mad. I don’t believe a thing he’s told us. We have only his word.”
“It’s clear he cannot judge for himself. He wanders in the past and seems blind to the present. We must lead him, Halbarad.”
“Is it the arts of the Enemy? Is the very air poisoned?”
“I know no more than you. All I know is that we can only trust each other. In the morning, we must leave, and drag him with us, if necessary. Perhaps it’s the shock of the solitude and the deaths of Malbeth and Damrod.” Aragorn passed a hand through his tangled hair. “I can scarce believe it, not that we don’t face such deaths every day. But they were our own age.”
“I knew them since boyhood,” said Halbarad with a catch in his throat.
Aragorn clasped his shoulder. “Forgive me, this is harder for you.”
“But how can we be sure? Maybe they aren’t dead. Maybe Daeron is no traitor. Maybe Beleg himself is a phantom, a thing of the wights.”
“Do you feel the presence of the Enemy in him?”
“No. That’s for you with your uncanny Elvish healing.”
“I see great trouble, but no evil.” Aragorn bowed his head a while in thought. “But I wish most of all that Beleg would allow me to examine his wound.”
They settled down to the side of the hearth. Halbarad took first watch. When he woke Aragorn for his turn, he said only, “Nothing,” before he rolled into his cloak and went to sleep.
Aragorn paced noiselessly back and forth before the hearth, where he could see all three doorways leading from the hall. The silence and the dark seemed to suck all hope out of him, as fear crawled in his belly. Beleg’s tale had unsettled him, bringing back all the terrors of his own dark dreams. He shivered as the wings of blackness seemed to reach for him out of the past. He wished himself far away from all of it, tales of death, the danger and the expectations, the call of destiny. He wished he had never heard the name Aragorn, that he was again Estel of Rivendell, fighting Orcs beside his foster brothers. At least then he knew how to judge his enemies.
The memory of Beleg’s glittering eyes would not leave him. Damn the man, couldn’t he pull himself together? As it was, he must be thrust aside, for all the good he could do the Rangers. He slapped his forehead in disgust at himself. What kind of man am I? My father’s sworn brother—he is no enemy, but in need of help.
Eventually chill light began to drift from the air shafts above. Shaking the weariness from his eyes, Aragorn bent over the water basin and dashed the chill water into his face, running wet hands through his shaggy hair.
Halbarad still slept. Aragorn nudged him with his foot. “Wake up. It’s a new day.”
Halbarad’s lids opened, and no sleep showed in weary, troubled eyes. “As if I have slept. Well, dozed on and off. Has something happened?”
“Nothing. Let’s hope Beleg got more rest than the two of us. We’ve got to eat quickly and move on at once. I’ll wake him.”
He strode the short way to the eastern chamber and called, “Good morning, my friend!” But there was no answer. He lifted the cloth covering the entrance to Beleg’s alcove—and froze. It was empty: no bedroll, no gear, the sleeping shelf bare and stark in the dim morning light that drifted from above.
“Halbarad!” he called.
The sound of firm, quick footfalls told Aragorn that Halbarad had caught the tension in his voice. In an instant they stood together, staring at the bare space.
“Did you hear anything last night?” Halbarad asked.
“Not a thing.”
“He was a phantom, sent to lead us astray. A madman, lost in his own dreams.”
“He is a man in deep trouble, and we must find him. He’s taken everything.” Aragorn gestured at the empty chest that lay, open-mouthed, at the foot of the sleeping shelf. A cold fury, born of fear and dismay, gripped his heart. “He can’t have walked right by us when he left. We must search the eastern passages.”
Halbarad cursed under his breath. “We don’t know all the paths. I don’t know how many entrances there are to this place. Not even my father knows.”
“A way in may have been discovered,” Aragorn snapped. “We are no longer safe. Let’s separate—you look for clues here.”
Halbarad nodded and bent to search the alcove as Aragorn strode away to light a torch. There were three doorways in the eastern wall. The first led to a storage room; venturing through the second, Aragorn soon found stale, fetid air, and turned back. “Has he vanished into the air, as if by dark arts?” Aragorn muttered to himself.
He heard Halbarad’s voice calling his name and saw his dark shape standing in the doorway, shadowed against the dim light of the main hall. “I’ve found nothing in the hall,” Halbarad said.
“This is a path to nowhere,” Aragorn said as he reached his companion. “There remains only one passage. Let’s gather our packs and go.”
Holding aloft the torch, Aragorn moved into the dark tunnel, Halbarad close behind. The small passageway soon opened up into a broad, smooth road wide enough for four men to walk abreast. They had marched a mile, steadily downward, when Aragorn saw a shaft of light ahead. There, on the rocky floor, was a footprint, as if it were meant to be found. “Look.”
“I see. How thoughtful of him to leave a trace,” Halbarad said bitterly. “This passage here leads East toward the ruined fortress, toward the most dangerous lands.”
“What choice do we have?”
Halbarad shrugged. “None. We would be lost in the dark going back to the main entrance in any case. But I am going first.”
Aragorn opened his mouth to object, but Halbarad fixed him with a fierce stare. “I’m not letting you put yourself on the front line.”
Aragorn laughed bitterly. “Lead on, my captain! Your troops will follow.”
Halbarad shouldered his pack. “Unless he is a wight, Beleg is either insane or abducted. What else could it be?”
“Whatever it is, I hate the very feel of this place. And—”
“His tale of dark dreams. Too like the ones that have plagued me since my disgrace at the Orc hunt.”
Halbarad rolled his eyes. “‘Disgrace’! How you talk! Only in the eyes of fools. All I know is that Beleg is going to answer some tough questions from me, I don’t care that he’s my father’s right-hand man and three times our age.”
“What I fear is that he doesn’t know the answers, but holds the secret unbeknownst. I cannot forget that last dream I had at the grave of my father’s death, my father falling as he called out Beleg’s name. Yet another thing that Beleg cannot remember. He never speaks of what happened there.”
The dark path led straight and smooth till it began to close in on all sides. Soon they had to crawl on their bellies, and Halbarad let out a curse.
“This is the end. It’s all rock. Wait, it’s moving.” And bright light opened up before them as Halbarad thrust out the small doors. Below lay the gap in the mountains leading to the land of Angmar, the Ettenmoors stretching to the south.
They scrambled out and gasped in dismay. The way down to the plain below was so steep that they could not walk it upright. They slid, crawled, and climbed their way down. But there, sure enough, a clear trail of booted footprints continued. “Has he forgotten all his Ranger ways?” snarled Halbarad. “Or is this a trap?”
“Either way, we must press on.”
For two days they followed the tracks, which sometimes disappeared, only to be found again after close scouting. Then, as the second day darkened into night, the light of a camp fire glowed not far away. They crept up to the fire noiselessly, arms in hand. And there was Beleg, sitting cross-legged, his shoulders bowed, staring into the small, dancing flames.
Aragorn called his name.
The man turned his face, weary but yet still beautiful, dark shadows ringing his eyes, and his carefully bare chin showing that despite all, he was shaving his beard. Beleg lifted his hand and beckoned them to the fire. “Welcome. I am glad you have found me. I don’t know where I am.”
His voice trembled, and fever flushed his face lit by the fire. Aragorn crouched at his side and gazed into the glittering eyes. Beleg met his eyes straight on, but he spoke no more.
“Are you ill? Why did you flee like that?”
Beleg shuddered. “I don’t know. I thought I was tracking Daeron. What happened? Have you found him?”
“No, we have been looking for you,” Aragorn snapped. “You left the Refuge without a word in the middle of the night. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Beleg said again. “I don’t remember that.”
Aragorn cast his eyes up to Halbarad, who stood silent and still above them, looking down. “Keep watch while I tend him.”
Halbarad nodded and begin to slowly pace the perimeter, peering into the gloomy, darkening woods, his bow at the ready.
“Lie down, Beleg. I am going to look at that arm, however much you deny me.”
Surprisingly, Beleg acquiesced without a word and allowed Aragorn to examine him. Fearing that he would find a festering wound, Aragorn stripped off Beleg’s tunic and shirt from his left side and carefully unwound the band of cloth from his lower arm and wrist.
He exclaimed in surprise. The wound was clean and dry, the skin around it whole and healthy, with no swelling or redness in the flesh.
“Well, my friend, you seem to be a very lucky man,” Aragorn said with a smile. “It is healing.”
“I told you so,” Beleg murmured. “Why would I lie?”
“Then the fever comes from something else. Do you have another wound you haven’t mentioned?”
Beleg shook his head.
Aragorn examined him, but could not find any other possible source of infection. “It is a sickness from the air, I guess. You must sweat it out. Sleep now, and Halbarad and I will watch.”
Beleg soon lapsed into a deep slumber. He burned, but did not toss with the frets of fever. Once the sick man had settled down, Aragorn rose and went to Halbarad who guarded the perimeter. “I will watch now. You should sleep over there, away from him and the contagion.”
“What about you?”
“When it comes my turn to sleep, I’ll settle in at his side, so that he’ll wake me if he stirs.”
Halbarad gritted his teeth. “You’re determined to destroy yourself, aren’t you?”
Aragorn grasped his shoulder. “It’s not as bad as you think. The healing power gives me some protection, I believe.”
“You are certainly testing it.”
But Beleg’s sleep was serene and rested, and Aragorn was not awakened. At one point in the night he laid his hand across the sick man’s brow, and found it cool and dry. Relief descended on him and made him aware of how tired he was. Sometimes healing seemed to be more exhausting than battle. He slept deeply, dreaming of Arwen.