Disclaimer: This story is written in Tolkien's magical world, which is not mine and never will be. It is written purely for fun and no money is made from it.

Summary: A recounting of the events during and after Aragorn's struggle with Sauron in the Stone of Orthanc. How Aragorn came to the decision to take the Paths of the Dead.

My thanks to Sphinx who read through this for me and made many helpful suggestions. I hope you enjoy it.

Walking Into Darkness

He was alone. He would risk no other in this, allow none he cared for to be in his company for this greatest of challenges. But for all his protestations Halbarad waited beyond the heavy door, a sturdy, silent presence, utterly reliable and strangely comforting. For even his foster- brothers had no knowledge of what he planned. And did they know they would never permit this, for no more would the Elves of Middle Earth enter into any such congress with the Great Enemy, be it in defiance or otherwise. They had been hurt too long, too deeply, to understand the need he had to do this thing, nor accept the necessity as it existed at this moment. And the love and care they held for him would constrain them to turn him from his course no matter what they believed. No, he was glad to be alone; but so afraid, now the hour was upon him.

It lay before him, one of the Palantíri of the kings of old, of his kin. He, of all Men living, had no need to fear this thing, only what it had become; a tool of Sauron and an Istar turned from the light into darkness. The strongest had fallen to its temptation. Who was he to stand against it? The only heir to a lost line of kings, great and powerful and yet victims of the same peril that threatened to consume this world anew.

Only with great effort did Aragorn force himself to cast off his doubts and approach the pedestal where he had placed the Seeing Stone, legacy of an age long departed. Darkly it waited, cloaked in an aura of mysterious promise. It was his birthright, his ultimate trial, and so easily it could become the means of his downfall. This thing, possessed wholly by his enemy, was his to wrest back, and too, his chance to unbalance that same enemy and win an opportunity of respite for the beleaguered Free Peoples who yet fought against the Great Darkness.

Fingers whose shaking was stilled only through a concerted effort of will reached out to touch the smooth surface. It seemed so cold, so dead, so innocent, but he was not fooled. Between his outstretched hands lay a deadly weapon of the Dark Lord, and already he could sense its evil questing outwards, searching for him with fell purpose. He snatched his hand away, trembling with sudden fear, and felt a cold sweat envelope him, the moisture beading on his brow. So easy it would be to turn now and back away from this test, to deny the urgings of his heart that had brought him here this night. But Aragorn was not such a coward as that, and he understood too well how much depended on him at this moment. The ringbearer was lost somewhere in the wilderness with no more strength than that which his faithful servant could offer him, alone in truth when it came to the burden he carried, and the Eye was seeking him. And it would find him before long unless it could be given another target, and one that had the weight to turn its gaze from the true threat. Only he could fill that role. Only he had the presence to distract that dreadful concentration, for he also was a threat and that which he carried would be enough to cause the Enemy dismay such as he had not known in many an age. Narsil re-forged in the hands of Isildur's Heir would strike fear into the very heart of Mordor. If he could keep hold of his soul through what was to come.

Shadows swirled in his mind, dark images dredged up from the deep places of his nightmares. Beneath his fingers the stone remained chill, but in the depths a fire was burning, and it was hunting him. Dark mists coalesced into ghostly forms, tendrils of shadow snaked out towards him, and behind them at last he saw the Eye. Tiny it was, at first, growing steadily larger and brighter until it filled the whole of his vision with its awful glare. Behind it he sensed a presence, black and fiery as the Balrog, tall and slender as a man, yet lacking physical form still, as shadowy as the night with eyes of flame. He felt that terrible gaze settle upon him, was confronted with the full force of the hatred Sauron held for his race and all things living, but greater by far than this was the contempt. No words did he hear but an echo of dark laughter, as if his enemy perceived only another mortal ripe for his dominion, another poor slave to be turned to his will. For he had not yet revealed himself as he was and the presence that assailed him did not yet realise its peril. And Aragorn knew that at last the choice was before him; to unveil his identity and claim his title or fall into the darkness waiting to devour him.

A horror fell upon him then that paralysed his will and froze his mind. Silently he fought it, though no movement did he make, but the enemy was strong and he was rocked by a great storm. Even as he strove to resist he felt himself slipping, succumbing to a will greater than his own; that had taken Saruman before him and was even now marching across Middle Earth bringing war to fair places and turning hope into dust. In an instant he was caught, tossed before the tempest, and the shrieking of a great wind seemed to fill his ears until he was aware of almost nothing else. Night fell upon his sight, a heavy curtain shrouding his eyes, and in his blindness he felt the first stirrings of panic. Bereft of his own senses to guide him he was adrift in a place of another's choosing, and he knew not which way to turn. Only the touch of the stone beneath his hand told him he had not left the tower room, nor lost himself entirely in this deception.

A strange calm descended. Soft whispers licked against the edges of his mind, sweet promises of rest, of freedom, of a life unfettered by the needs of others. All this as a gift if he would but surrender his autonomy, betray his friends, his family, and march with the army of Mordor as it took the war to the farthest reaches of the land. And so seductive were the whispers that for a moment this seemed only a small thing to ask of him in exchange for offering up his dreams. Yet for no more than a moment did he consider Sauron's lies. It was not for nothing had he been named, and his strength was great among Men and Elves. In him, through a line unbroken from father to son, was the blood of ancient kings, the same who had broken the might of Barad-dùr in the Second Age and laid waste to the Black Land, and he would not give up so easily.

The laughter swelled, a breaking tide of evil washing over him, but it did not pull him under. As an icy cold invaded his limbs, creeping ever closer to his heart, he took one shuddering step forward. Instead of falling back he advanced, challenging his enemy to confront the very core of his being, to see into the secret places of his soul. Thrusting caution aside he stripped himself of the mask he had worn for so many years, laying bare the man beneath, the man he had feared since the day he had discovered him. He was the Heir of Isildur, of Elendil, and this he embraced, shielding himself with his birthright, an armour bright enough to repulse even this darkness. And in the moment he finally accepted all that he was he was free. Free to exert the power at his disposal, the power that was his heritage. The trappings of the world-weary ranger vanished and in their place was the raiment of kings, a silver circlet on a noble brow and royal robes falling from proud shoulders.

His hand closed around the hilt of his sword, the sword that had cut the ring from the hand of the Dark Lord so long ago. Andùril it was called now, Flame of the West, and the might of the ancient West wielded it again. Silver it shone, the Elven runes inscribed along its bright length glowing with the grace of their makers, and he lifted it high before him in sight of the Eye. The presence that opposed him wavered in sudden fear and he felt a flash of triumph. Sauron was not yet beyond fear, not yet strong enough that the sight of this blade, whole once more, could not strike him with dread. Here revealed before him was the weapon that had maimed him, that had stolen his body and cast him into the half-life of the spirit. And Aragorn knew he had won.

Such a struggle it had been; a battle that had wearied him almost past endurance. And still his enemy was not beaten. The threat he felt as a backlash ripping through his limbs. Now forewarned Sauron would marshal his forces against this new foe. A demand battered against his defences, a demand for the Ruling Ring, and he forced himself to suppress the hope that flared in him that even now he did not know the identity of the one who bore it lest that knowledge be drawn from him and doom the ringbearer. Fury he felt at his defiance, fury so great that even in his victory he quailed before it, and suddenly his mind was swamped with images. A host he saw bearing down on Gondor from the South, an army beyond the might of that city to counter. For Sauron knew not where he was and believed him already in the seat of his ancestors and prepared to come for him. In torment and blood he saw his end, taken to the Dark Tower and stripped of his humanity, screaming and begging for mercy that would never be granted. So real was the vision he could hear his own voice, rising in agony and calling out for the kindness of death that was withheld from him.

Shaking and sickened Aragorn pulled back, fighting to end the contact before it destroyed him. He needed to see no more to understand that great though his triumph had been, the war was only just beginning, and he was needed now as never before. Gondor stood on the brink of collapse, and if not him, then no one could save it. But already the darkness was receding from the stone it could no longer claim as its own. With a final effort he snatched his hand away, snapping the connection that had bound him into communion with his enemy, and the shadows that had obscured his sight melted away. Swaying now, deprived of his strength, he stumbled backwards even as the pedestal rocked and the Palantir clattered to the stone floor. It did not break, but rolled a short distance and came to rest, dark and sightless once more. Then at last his legs gave out and he slumped to his knees, head bowed in weary sorrow. He had done what he had to do but no euphoria gave vigour to his body and he remained as he was, seeing nothing, hearing nothing but the echo of a distant battle, and when the door opened he did not look up.

TBC . . . .