Aragorn lay in the blackness, but sleep would not come to him, not in this place. For an hour, or so he judged, he made himself lie still for his body's sake; then he rose and, stepping softly among the sleeping forms of the Company, made his way over to Merry, who was on guard.
'I cannot sleep,' he murmured, crouching down beside the hobbit, 'and yet I need less of it than you; the extra rest will do you good. Lie down; I will watch, and wake Gimli in his turn.'
Merry nodded, and clasped Aragorn's hand briefly. 'Thank you, Strider,' he whispered. 'Whether it's night or day outside this darkness does wear one out. Well, it does me, at least! I hope we shan't be much longer under this mountain.'
Aragorn heard the quaver in Merry's voice, and squeezed the hobbit's hand in understanding. 'So do I,' he answered. 'Now go—sleep while you may.' Even his keen eyes could barely make out Merry's small form as he slipped away to wrap himself in his blanket, over by Pippin. Aragorn drew his cloak close and straightened up, leaning back against the cold stone of the wall as he looked out into the darkness, listening for any sound other than the breathing of his companions.
Presently one of the shadowy figures nearest Aragorn stirred, and rose, and Boromir came to stand beside him.
'I have had little sleep,' he said in a low voice, 'and I shall get no more, for my dreams are filled with evil things. There is no true rest to be had in this forsaken place.'
'No,' agreed Aragorn. 'It is a comfortless realm.'
Boromir shook himself then, as if to rid himself of the last dread of some nightmare before he spoke again. 'You have been here before, Aragorn—or so you said, before we entered the Mines.'
Aragon inclined his head. 'Yes.'
'Will you not tell me, at least, of your former journey?'
'I have no wish to recall it. Have I not told you already, Boromir, that my memory of Moria is evil?'
'And yet where two share the burden of a memory, the horror may grow less.'
'Or it may be doubled.' The words came out more sharply than Aragorn had intended, and in the quiet it seemed that the harsh whisper rebounded from the stone. Yet no one woke, nor even stirred; the two Men could have been standing apart in a world of their own.
Boromir stiffened; beneath the heavy darkness that enshrouded them all Aragorn could tell nothing of the expression on his face, but when Boromir spoke the prideful anger was clear in his voice. 'If you doubt my courage, Aragorn, I would have you say so plainly—not cast your judgement in hints and whispers.'
Aragorn stood there in silence for a while, fingering the hilt of Andúril at his side. 'I meant no judgement upon you, truly,' he said, at last. 'For me there is no comfort that may be found in the telling of the tale; it was a journey of both necessity and terror, and I failed in my task, losing thereby one whom I loved as a brother.'
He sighed, and sat down upon the floor, stretching his long legs in front of him and letting his head fall back, closing his eyes for a moment and allowing the memories that he had striven to push away to return. 'Sit beside me, Boromir, and I will tell you of it if you wish, for it is heavy in my thoughts and in my heart.'
Boromir lowered himself to the ground next to Aragorn, saying nothing. There was a rustle, and Sam muttered something in his sleep.
'It was long years ago,' Aragorn began, 'before ever the Dwarves set out to reclaim Moria, and I had ridden out with the sons of Elrond, escort of the Lady Arwen as she travelled to Lothlórien. With us also was Himbarad, younger brother of Halbarad; my kinsman, both valiant and fair.
'We had seen the Lady Arwen safe, and were returning, when orcs came upon us unexpected as we slept. They were many, and the dark night gave them the advantage; for there was no moon, and with stealth they overpowered Elladan as he was on watch.
'We withstood them as we could, and fought them off with fire and steel. But then the stars began to fade in the face of the coming dawn, and they fled its light, taking with them Himbarad whom they had seized. Elladan was grievously hurt, for there was poison on the orc-blade that had pierced him, and the wound was deep; it took all my skill, and Elrohir's, to bring him back from the brink of death. He was too weak to be moved, and so I left him in his brother's care when I set out in pursuit.'
Aragorn paused, and his smile was bitter and grim. 'They had two days' start, but I was mounted, and my horse was swift. By the light of a thin moon I saw them enter Moria by the eastern way. I followed them, though I was forced to leave my horse behind; I slew the single guard, and so passed through the Dimrill Gate.'
'And what did you find within?' Boromir asked, soft and intent, when Aragorn had remained silent for a time.
'Darkness, and the flames of torches,' answered Aragorn, 'and the sound of orcs carousing after the manner of their kind; the mighty hall rang with the echoes of their noise. In my dreams I hear them sometimes still. And yet more terrible were the cries of Himbarad.' He drew a ragged breath. 'I will say nothing of the cruel sport the orcs had with him. But I came too late to save him.
'When at last the orcs departed for sleep I crept out from my hiding place. They had set no watch on their prisoner, abandoning him upon the cold stones in the darkness. I lit a torch, and took Himbarad in my arms, but I know not whether he saw the light nor whether he recognised my face, for his next breath was his last.'
Aragorn shook his head; his face was grey and drawn with pain. 'I bore his body away from Moria, and with the help of the sons of Elrond I buried him with what ceremony we could muster, and there in the Wild Himbarad lies still, far from his home and his kin.'
Boromir put his hand on Aragorn's shoulder, a quick firm pressure of sympathy. 'That is a tale of grief indeed,' he said, 'and I do not wonder that the memory of it haunts you.'
For a time neither of them spoke. At last Boromir muttered, 'If we come through this cursed place with no loss as great as that or greater, we may then count ourselves fortunate.'
'We will be fortunate indeed, in that chance,' Aragorn said.
An hour wore on unheralded by light of sun or moon or shifting star, and still the two Men sat there, each wrapped in their own thoughts as in a dark cloak. Then they heard movement, and saw the pale light appear at the end of Gandalf's staff; dim though it was it made both Aragorn and Boromir blink. The wizard looked down at them for a moment, perhaps guessing something of their talk and of their thoughts, for there was compassion in his face.
'Get the others up,' he said. 'It is time we were moving on.'
All my thanks to my husband and to Luke for the cheerleading and the beta 3