As Gandalf and Pippin ride toward Minas Tirith, Aragorn, Théoden, and the Riders of Rohan return from Isengard. Aragorn cryptically explains to Gimli, Legolas, and Merry that he must proceed to Minas Tirith by a darker, as yet undetermined route. On the way to Rohan, the group encounters thirty Dúnedain of the North—Rangers and friends of Aragorn, including Elrond’s two sons, Elladan and Elrohir. The Dúnedain are gruff but proud, clad almost entirely in gray. They have received a mysterious message requesting that they come to Aragorn’s aid. Théoden welcomes the Dúnedain to his company, and Elrohir conveys a message to Aragorn from Rivendell: “If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.” After a time, the group reaches Helm’s Deep, the refuge of the Riders of Rohan. Théoden asks Merry to ride with him for the rest of the journey. Merry is delighted, as he feels out of place among the Riders and wishes to be useful. He offers Théoden his sword in service of Rohan, and the king gladly accepts.
As Théoden prepares the group to resume the journey, the group suddenly realizes that Aragorn is missing. He reappears exhausted and sorrowful. Aragorn knows that the Riders will not arrive at Minas Tirith in time. He has decided to take the Dúnedain with him to Minas Tirith via a terrifying road—the Paths of the Dead. It is said that no living man may travel the Paths, but Aragorn says that the proper heir of Elendil may safely pass. Meanwhile, Théoden and the Riders take a slower, safer path east through the mountains to Edoras.
Aragorn informs Legolas and Gimli that he has consulted the palantír, the Stone of Orthanc that Saruman used to communicate with Sauron. Aragorn has confronted Sauron through the palantír and claims he has successfully subdued the stone’s power to his own will. In doing so, however, Aragorn has alerted Sauron to his existence as Isildur’s heir to the throne of Gondor. Gimli guesses Sauron will now release his forces sooner because he knows Isildur’s long-awaited heir exists. Aragorn, however, hopes such a hasty move may weaken the Enemy’s attack.
Aragorn explains the history of the Paths of the Dead, citing a legendary song. In the early days of Gondor, Isildur set a great black stone upon the hill of Erech. Upon this stone, the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur. When Sauron returned and waged war on Gondor, Isildur called upon his allies for aid. The Men of the Mountains broke their oath, as they had begun to worship Sauron. Isildur condemned the Men never to rest until their oath was fulfilled. According to the verse, the Sleepless Dead, or Oathbreakers, must fulfill their oath to Isildur’s heir when he returns to call them from the Stone of Erech. Rallying the Rangers, Aragorn rides through the plains of Rohan and reaches Dunharrow by morning. Théoden has not yet arrived, but his daughter, Éowyn, begs Aragorn to avoid the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn refuses.
Outside Dunharrow lies the entrance to the Paths of the Dead, which run beneath the mountain. Spurred only by the strength of Aragorn’s will, the Company enters the dark path. Gimli is nearly paralyzed with fear, as he can hear the whispering voices of an unseen host following the Company in the dark. At a clearing, Aragorn turns and speaks to the Dead, summoning them to follow him to the Stone of Erech.
After creeping in the darkness for what seems like ages, the Company emerges from the Paths and rides quickly through the mountain fields with the Men, horses, and banners of the Dead following behind. The inhabitants of the surrounding countryside flee in fear, calling Aragorn the “King of the Dead.” Arriving at the large, black Stone of Erech, the legion of the Dead—the Oathbreakers—announce their allegiance to Aragorn. Aragorn unfurls a black flag and pronounces himself the heir of Isildur’s kingdom. The Company rides on to the Great River, Anduin.