The Choice Is Yours

A questioned burned upon the mind of Aragorn as he watched Jonathan dart down another dark turn of the hallway in this city of shadows and ill fate. The Englishman had shouted something of a plan, but had yet to inform his two companions of just what it was he had in mind. Aragorn was very curios therefore, understandably so, as creatures that made having some sort of idea of what to do about this situation essential were following them. It was these creatures that kept Aragorn from unburdening himself, however. It was very difficult to ask questions when you were fighting continually.

Legolas fought at his side, and together they managed to keep an eye on which way their companion was leading them while at the same time having to hold the forces of darkness at bay. The Elf had taken to using his blades after Jonathan and asked him to 'easy up' on the arrows and save them for later. It was a good thing, too, for his bow would do no good against the foe that burst from the wall in the instant of Aragorn's wonderings. It clambered from the fallen bricks, throwing itself at the Elf without tact or care. Legolas was knocked back momentarily, but managed to use his ready weapons to slice the fragile head right from the mummy's body. The dismembered part fell to the floor with a hiss, only to be trampled by another creature that was racing forward, shoving the body into a clattering pile to the right. The newcomer had a vile expression on its face, as if it cared for its fallen brethren.

"Have you come to test your anger against my steel?" Legolas growled, slicing at an outstretched arm. The hand flew into the air, and as the creature scrambled to catch it, the Elf threw a kick that knocked it onto its back. The creature hurled its severed hand angrily.

Legolas dodged, and a groan ahead of them suggested that it hadn't gone without hitting a target. Aragorn looked over his shoulder. Rubbing the back of his head, Jonathan yelled, "Don't ask them bloody questions!"

"Yes," the Elf readily agreed, jerking away as Aragorn cut down another one of them. "Jonathan? Now would be a good time to act upon your plan!"

"Almost there, my good fellows," the Englishman replied, sounding a little less that certain. "Almost there."

Aragorn chose not to comment at this time, but much more of this and he was going to have to think of something himself. What that would be, he did not know, for these creatures seemed unstoppable. Even those that were cut down seemed to crawl after them; hands dragging towards the direction even without eyes to direct them, and half-mummies that groaned with every pull. Aragorn had knocked one of their heads loose and sent it spinning, yet still it came, head backwards, intent on their demise.

And suddenly Jonathan screeched, "JUMP!" Aragorn felt a hand urging him by the shoulder, and though he had scarcely enough time to turn and understand his surroundings, he did as Jonathan bid. He nearly lost his momentum when he realized just why they had jumped.

The ground left Aragorn's feet, trailing down a sudden drop that was untold depths down. The trio came crashing onto a landing below and Aragorn fell flat on his stomach, hands outstretched to keep his face from hitting the stone. Beside him Jonathan was struggling to keep his own balance, stumbling precariously near the edge of the narrow walkway. Legolas alone landed on sure feet, and he aided Jonathan in regaining his footing. Jerking his head to the side to see whether or not they had been followed, Aragorn threw his gaze upwards and saw a single creature flailing on the edge above them.

And suddenly it went flying. Two others slammed into its back, sending it into the air with no hope of recovery. The trio watched as it sailed over them, then down into the pits below. The two others were grabbing at each other for balance, even as they collapsed and slid from the landing above. The next one that followed was smart and jumped, landing on Aragorn as he tried to stand. Legolas grabbed it by the shoulders and gave a harsh tug, hurling it over the side. Only Jonathan's arms around his waist kept him from falling in after it. Another creature jumped, aiming at Jonathan to take him down into the pits below, but the Englishman sidestepped just in time to let it fall over the edge on its own.

Rubbing his chest as if it pained him, he let out an expansive breath and reached out a hand to aid the Ranger to his feet. "I say, right good show, but I've had enough. I hope that's all of them."

"It would be best to not leave that to chance," Legolas replied, looking up.

Aragorn followed his gaze and saw a hand with no body attached, its fingers tapping along the edge of the floor above as if it were considering its options. "Let us hope that is what is left of our friends. Lead the way, Jonathan."

"Right," the Englishman breathed, scratching his head and looking around. Just when Aragorn was about to ask what he had in mind, if anything, he leapt across the void to a stone bridge that lead into a darkened hall. Legolas leapt after him, and Aragorn followed smoothly. Pointing towards the darkness ahead of them, Jonathan smiled and said, "Um, Elf eyes might be better at taking us through there, since I haven't got a bloody idea where it leads to anyway. What do you say, partner?"

With a grunt the Elf nodded and held his blades in the defensive. Aragorn could hear no sounds of pursuit, but that did not mean they were out of danger yet. It was a slow endeavor, for they dared not alert the forces of the dark priest to their coming by making haste. Both Jonathan and Aragorn grasped the Elf's shirt for guidance as they were bathed in black that seemed it would not end.

But end it did. It did not take long for the sounds to filter into the Ranger's hearing, though Legolas would have heard it much earlier and known where to follow that they find the source. A dark chant echoed along the hall, undead voices lifted in some sort of black tone of reverence. The Priest of Osiris drowned them back, filling the air with rich, commanding words that were sharp to the ear. Light broke the darkness around a corner, and when they crept into it they saw they were on a landing overlooking a great room filled with pillars, dust and decay. In the center lay a pool, and beyond that their target. Evelyn was chained to an altar and beside her lay a figure wrapped in tattered cloth. Imhotep stood above her, his fingers caressing the black bound book that he was reading from. Flames made shadows dance around the room. It was an unwholesome sight.

And then suddenly Imhotep's voice stopped. The dead priests that Aragorn could now see surrounding the altar on their knees ended their chants and waited, heads bowed to the sand below. The dread priest shut the black Book of the Dead, locked it and set it down before him. Leaning both hands on the altar, he brought his gaze up into the shadowy space where they were hiding. His eyes were both amused and angered as he spoke words in his black tongue, then nudged Evy to translate.

Evelyn followed his gaze, seeking them in the darkness, murmuring, "Oh dear," as she did so. "Jonathan? Aragorn? Legolas? Are you three there? He says he knows you are. He isn't very happy, though I can tell you I'm really rather relieved and quite afraid at the moment as well."

The three exchanged worried glances. "We should not give away our number," Legolas whispered, using scarcely more than a breath.

Evy gasped and Aragorn darted his gaze down. The Priest of Osiris had a black dagger at her throat, and by the look of it seemed to be pressing it into her flesh just enough to get his point across. The Ranger looked at his friends. "I will go. You two stay here."

Legolas looked ready to argue, but was silenced by Aragorn's resolve. Shaking his head, Jonathan echoed the Elf's thoughts. "Maybe, maybe it should be me, you know? I understand the language, and she's my sister after all."

The Ranger drew his sword up. "You, my friend, will be needed to show the way back into Cairo. Evelyn will be tired after this ordeal, and will need your support. I will see what it is the creature wants."

"You will not be without cover," Legolas said, drawing his bow and notching an arrow. Be careful, mellon nín." Jonathan started wrapping a ripped up cloth around the shaft, just above the tip of the arrow.

"One wrong move from old Immy down there, and I'll light this on fire. We'll see how our friend takes to getting burned, shall we?" The Englishman gave a wan grin.

Aragorn nodded his appreciation, then turned and descended the stairs. Imhotep watched his every move, sparing only a few glances towards the top where Legolas and Jonathan were waiting. Slinking his hand beneath the chains binding Evy to the altar, he jerked roughly, pulling her free. Evelyn gasped loudly at being thrust into a sitting position so suddenly. Her eyes fell on him and she shook her head softly. "Oh Aragorn, no."

"What does he want, Evelyn?" he asked, never taking his eyes from the mummy's.

She spoke timidly, and Imhotep responded in an even, commanding tone. Evy bit her bottom lip a moment, then turned to translate. "He said he would treat with you."

"I am listening."

Evelyn gave his response to the dark being at her side. Imhotep lifted his chin and responded at length. His hands toyed with the chains that led up to Evy's wrists, and his eyes bore into Aragorn as if he were daring him to interrupt with some sort of attempt to rescue her. Quite suddenly Evelyn looked very ill. She hesitated to repeat whatever it was that the priest had told her until he barked a threat, jerking on her chain. Evy turned towards Aragorn once more. "He said he would trade my life for yours. He would use you to awaken…awaken her," she nodded towards the figure on the altar, "and he would let me go free. Don't do it, Aragorn. I couldn't ask that of you. He will destroy everything regardless."

He needed to stall for time, but could think of few ways to do it that would cause the creature to attack. And then a question came to him. Perhaps there was no reason, other than that the creature was toying with them, but it would buy him seconds to plan. "Why use me? Why should he care to make such a bargain, when the sacrifice of either of us could awaken the woman?"

"I do hope you won't mind if I leave that last line out," she commented, then spoke with the dread priest. He responded with a cunning smile and amused words.

Evelyn looked back at Aragorn. "He said the dead whisper you have the blood of Elves in you. He also says time is running our. He wants you to make a choice, or he'll kill us all."

"I don't know who is worse, Éomer. You or the blasted Elf."

Ardeth had lost track of how many times Boromir had said something derisive towards their so-called host. Around noon of this very day that the Rohirrim warriors, escorting Ardeth and Pippin to the North, sighted a party of strange companions heading into the country of the horses. From this meeting Lord Éomer received the truth of the matter of who Ardeth and his small companion were, and the two weary members of the broken Fellowship were reunited with the remaining few of their party. Now it was evening and they were no closer to a solution as to what should be done now. The camp of Men waited as their leader argued heatedly with the auburn-headed Lord of Gondor tried to commission the aid of the Rohirrim to see them catch up with Frodo and Sam. The Elf was against this, keeping true to his counsel of each retreating to his own kind to prepare for war.

Éomer would not commit to either choice. He had revealed his banished state, illustrating that it would be difficult for him to warn a kingdom of war when said country did not welcome him with open arms. It was his plan to go and confront the source of his ire directly. Éomer wanted to go to the place called Isengard, where he would confront the power that held sway over the King of Rohan. It was Gondor that should come to the aid of Rohan, if there be any friendship between them. Haldir argued with this heatedly. He claimed against such odds Éomer would be throwing his own life and the lives of his men away for nothing.

As for the two strangers to this world, Rick and Ardeth did not intrude upon the fight. They remained apart from the group, with the Hobbits and the Dwarf. O'Connell said that whatever they chose, he and the rest of them would make their own fate if needed. He wasn't sure which way to go now that everyone was accounted for, assuming the Ringbearer and his friend were safe on their way to Mordor, but he was not willing to stand aside and do nothing as the people of these countries went to war for their very existence.

Ardeth felt much the same way. His heart yearned for the desert sands, but he could see some part of him bidding farewell to that way of life. Not that he would ever forget. No, he would always remember the ways of his people. Yet to go on living would require that he accept that which he could not change and embrace something new, or else lose completely the meaning of his life; first and foremost to be a warrior for God, a Med-Jai through and through, even if he could not protect his own. But who would it be that he would offer his aid to? Should they side with Boromir and seek the Ringbearer, or failing that end up on the frontlines of the battle in Minas Tirith? Or should he offer his sword to Éomer and conquer this dark wizard that was controlling the horse country? Or would Haldir accept their aid for the sake of the Elves? The Med-Jai pondered these things silently. He could see in Rick's eyes that he was doing the same.

The Dwarf chewed on the end of a pipe in his mouth, glaring out across the horizon. He grunted and looked up at O'Connell. "I say we slip away quietly and leave these sophisticated folk to their amusements." That statement was not without a degree of cynicism. "The war will be done and over, and we'll be licking the boots of Sauron before they get around to making a choice."

"But where would we slip off? That's the question. I wouldn't mind finding a nice little place to settle down and find a girl, but I think the Orcs have the same idea and they're a lot bigger than we are." O'Connell smirked.

Gimli chuckled and pointed his pipe. "I'd suggest you settle down with my kin, but I'm not sure there's a single, self-respecting Dwarven lass that would have anything to do with you. No offense, of course."

The American made a face, then waved off the Dwarf's words. "That's life for you. Rejected by women of other species than my own. I've come a long way from the ruggedly handsome, irresistible ladies' man I was." He painted a mocking modest expression across his features, then turned his eyes on Ardeth. "What about you?"

"I am not sure the Dwarven women would find me any more suitable," the Med-Jai replied with a soft smile. "But I will try anything once." That got a much needed laugh out of his two companions. Which brought to his attention that there were only two companions there. Ardeth glanced around, then pointed off towards a nearby patch of forest. "I believe our Hobbit friends have decided to take your advice, Gimli, and slip away unseen."

Over beneath the trees they saw the Hobbits kicking rocks and talking as they edged deeper and deeper into the woods. A low rumble came from behind Gimli's lips. "They're going into Fangorn," he growled. "There's no telling what dangers they may find in there."

"Danger, huh?" Rick murmured, dusting his hands off on his pants. "Sounds like fun. Coming?"

The Dwarf waved him off, looking as though he would rather remain where he sat and listen to the arguing for eternity rather than enter into Fangorn Forest. As O'Connell stood up, so did Ardeth, however. He felt the need to be moving, as he guessed was his American counterpart. So caught up in the heat of their bickering, none of the Rohirrim noticed as they strayed off towards the forest.

Trees loomed overhead, obscuring much of the night sky as they crept into the very beginnings of Fangorn. There seemed to be a quiet, yet deadly whispering of possibilities that could only be perceived by a wary warrior treading with careful attention on his surroundings. There was danger here, yes. But was this danger of an evil source, or something else? They had spoken of the white wizard, wandering and felling the unwary traveler that came too near to these premises.

Side by side, Ardeth and Rick followed the echo of the Hobbits' voices, which filled their ears with small talk and laughter. The Med-Jai had much the same idea in mind. Now that these two strangers with a strange kinship were alone, he felt freer to speak what was on his mind. O'Connell did not seem in a hurry to find the Hobbits and return to camp right away, so Ardeth spoke up. "What do you think we should do?" he asked, though he recognized now he already had a decision mind. Would O'Connell make the same one?

The American ran his fingers through his hair and kicked a stone from his path. He shrugged a little, seeming to war with the choices this world presented him. "Hell," he said finally, looking up at Ardeth, "I don't know. Back home I would probably be on my way to somewhere else right about now, away from the trouble. But I guess at heart I must be a sucker."

"A sucker?" Ardeth repeated, raising an eyebrow.

O'Connell laughed, nodding his head. "'Cause I don't feel like running away just yet. I don't know where the hell we are, really. I don't know if what they said was true, if I'm really some sort of descendant of this place. But I feel like I should keep going right now."

"Keep fighting?"

He nodded. "That's what I do best, after all." He gave the gun at his hip a fond pat, then looked ahead of them.

Ardeth turned his eyes on the crude path they walked, beginning to notice something. It was quiet. No more voices trailed back to lead them towards their companions. The Med-Jai knocked O'Connell's arm with his elbow, then motioned towards the expanse of forest before them. When it dawned on Rick what he was hinting at, the ex-Legionnaire cursed. He looked ready to call out to them, but Ardeth stalled him with a hand to his arm. "Wait. The Dwarf said there would be danger."

"Well, we came looking for fun," Rick muttered, glancing around with a flat look on his face. He pointed off into the trees towards a change in the shadows. It was barely visible, an aura of light that was nearly smothered completely by the dark, but the trained eye could see the difference. "Looks like something to follow."

Agreeing silently, the Med-Jai took stride with his companion. They trailed after the light and as they walked, it grew in intensity, shining beyond the trees as beams of moonlight by the time they drew near to its source. There seemed to be a sound, too, that Ardeth could faintly discern. It was as if the forest itself breathed long, deep exhales that sent vibrations into the very ground. And then that exhale was given voice. Whispering, yet astonishingly loud, a voice said in dubious tones that lingered on each word, "They do not seem dangerous to me, but how small are Orcs! And they carry with them the power to murder whole forests."

"We're quite a little bit smaller than Orcs, if you please," replied Merry in a startled voice. "And I promise we don't have the power to murder a sapling, much less a forest such as this one!"

"Sounds like trouble," O'Connell breathed, putting his hand on his blade.

Together he and Ardeth steeled themselves, then rushed through the brush as a voice laughed, "Have no worries, my friend. These two are no Orcs."

Light, pure and white, filled the Med-Jai's eyes. He blinked, and held his hand over his eyes. Tentatively, he peered through his fingers and saw that those before him had all frozen, staring at he and the American. Merry and Pippin were together, standing protectively beside one another. Near them sat a figure that gave off the strong light they had followed. He was perched upon a large boulder, watching them with intense blue eyes. Eyes that Ardeth recognized. Stunned, he opened his mouth to speak, but a great creaking coming from the direction of the Hobbits caught his attention. Distracted by a great motion, both Ardeth and Rick turned towards the sound.

There above the two Hobbits, at first unseen because it blended so well within its surroundings, a form that had been crouching to inspect the two little strangers was now raising to full height. Two golden eyes were fixed upon the newest intruders, and as this strange being slowly twisted its bark-covered head to the side, its expression grew stern. It was alarming to see.

"Whoa!" Rick hissed, jumping back and raising his blade. As if it would do any good. This being stood as tall as a tree. It was a tree, as near as Ardeth could see. A glance at O'Connell revealed those blue eyes widened and rattled in a way Ardeth had never seen. The Med-Jai knew exactly what his friend must have been feeling. Rick stammered, "Do you see...?"

"Yes," Ardeth breathed, swallowing as he turned his eyes on the tree.

"Do you know what to...?"

He shook his head. "No."

Rick nodded once, subdued. "Okay."

"Have a care. Do nothing rash," intervened the man robed in white, also rising to full height. Whether or not he was speaking to the tree or the two companions, he did not know.

Confirming that it was, in fact, sentient and more than capable of speaking, the tree boomed, "Long years has it been since the woods of Fangorn have been so invaded without retort. Hrrrrr, who is it you have invited here, Gandalf?"

Rick's head whipped in the direction of their long lost companion. "My God, it is you. Talking trees and resurrections, now I've seen it all. What's going on here?"

Smiling a quiet, amused smile, Gandalf gathered his staff to him and approached earnestly. "There is much going on, both here and elsewhere. Much that requires our attention. And you have not seen all, my friends. But you shall."

The ex-Legionnaire sheathed his blade. "Why does that not sound comforting?"

"Very little in this life is," Gandalf replied gravely. He put his hand on Rick's shoulder. "But hope stretches a long way past comfort."

"Question. Is that tree going to ah, let me put this delicately, without giving it any ideas..."

The tree rumbled and creaked, balling what looked like a hand into a fist. "Tree?"

The wizard glanced at Rick. "I would advise you against calling him that. Treebeard, my friend. These are the ones I spoke of. They are here to help. They can be trusted."

Treebeard seemed to relax at that. "As you say, Master Gandalf. I will gather the Ents, hrrarroom."

"I have one more favor to beg of you, Treebeard," Gandalf called, just as the creature began towards the darkness of the woods. Ardeth watch it turn back, still amazed by what he was seeing. The way Treebeard moved was lumbering, slow, but eerie. The Med-Jai had little doubt this creature could be as lethal as his imposing figure suggested. Gandalf was motioning to the Hobbits when Ardeth turned his attention back. "These two are not going to go where we go. I would have them kept out of the dire trouble that awaits us."

Merry shook his head, not understanding. "Not go with you? Gandalf..."

Raising his hand, Gandalf silenced the halfling. His eyes were still upon Treebeard. "Would you see them to safety?"

The Ent tilted its head in thought. At length, it deliberated uncertainly, but agreed just when Ardeth thought it had forgotten it had been asked. "I will do as you ask. I will keep them out of harm's way, if I can."

Pippin shook his head, taking a step nearer to Gandalf. "We want to go with you!" he called, but before he could say another word, he was swept up in a large, brown hand. His cousin was likewise taken up into the air, struggling and protesting.

Gandalf waved and watched, calling, "Do not worry, my young friends. Adventure still awaits you!"

"But Gandalf!" Merry cried, and then they were gone. Heavy footsteps crashed further and further away from them, bearing the Hobbits towards the unknown.

Rick looked after them. "Remind me never to disagree with you," he said to Gandalf, turning back with a grin. "How did you manage to survive that fall?"

The wizard inclined his head once with a look that held wisdom and promised more. "I will reveal all, have no fear. But I have returned with understanding of your coming, Rick O'Connell. And to you I must now offer this choice. Will you stay for the sake of Middle-Earth, risk remaining here forever, to bring glory to the blood of your line? Or would you choose the next moment to leave us and return to your own time. I make no guarantee that either life would suit you. The choice is yours."

I did it! I did it! I said that I would do it, and indeed I did. I thought that I would rue it; I doubted I'd do it. But now I must admit it, that succeed I did.

Hehehe. Yes, my friends. You'll shoot me. But I'm ending it here. Why? Because I feel the possibilities are enough that leaving the question of what happened next would be more effective. That way we imagine, what if Rick chooses to stay in Middle-Earth? What if Aragorn gives himself for Evy? What if Obi-Wan Kenobi drops from the sky and saves them all? ;-) I know it seems like a cop out, but I was torn as to what to do. This way we all decide what happens next.

THANK YOU! Everyone for their thoughts and interest in this story. :-D