Preface:  First of all, they're not mine and all the usual disclaimer stuff.  Secondly, I want to thank my ex-roommate for all her assistance and worldly Tolkien knowledge and Chathol-lin for a terrific editing job.  You guys rock.  Thirdly, this is not a final draft.  It is a fairly polished draft, but as I can never be totally happy with anything I write, ever, there will be more polishing yet.  A final final final draft will probably go up at or at some point in some distant future.  

"If a man must walk in sight of the Black Gate, or tread the deadly flowers of the Morgul Vale, then perils he will have. I, too, despaired at last, and I began my homeward journey. And then, by fortune, I came suddenly on what I sought: the marks of soft feet beside a muddy pool."

(The Fellowship of the Ring)

A breeze, brisk and fresh, swept down from the Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains, and stirred the still air. Alone and uneasy, facing the strange and empty night on the vast plain of Anórien between the Ered Nimrais and Anduin, Aragorn sharpened his blades on a smooth stone. He was clad poorly, in raiment of dark green and brown, a stained and travel-worn cloak and high boots of cracked and supple leather caked with mud. The only things of value in his possession – other than the sword, assorted knives, and bow and arrows -- were a corset of mail underneath the weather-beaten tunic and on his left index finger the ring of Barahir, two serpents eating one another's tails, their eyes fashioned of glittering emeralds.

For untold weeks he and Gandalf the Gray had traveled in a meandering, southerly course from Western Mirkwood, a hopeless quest through the whole length of Wilderland, searching for traces of Gollum. And then several weeks ago in his despair, the wizard forsook the chase, saying he suspected another way to confirm his fears that the ring of power in the Shire was indeed the long-lost One. To Minas Tirith he went in haste, leaving Aragorn alone to continue their formidable and hopeless quest. Aragorn had not heard a word from Gandalf since they parted company, but from a group of Gondorean soldiers headed to maintain the garrisons at Cair Andros, he heard of a slinking shadow, a skulking creature of little more substance than a wisp of dark smoke. It was headed east, towards Mordor, but the soldiers admitted that had been months ago. Gandalf had suspicions that Gollum had ventured to the Black Land, for all evil was drawn there as moths to flame. What hope had they now? If Gollum had indeed entered Mordor, he would not have gone undetected. And if captured, Aragorn had no more hope in secrecy. In the cruel dungeons of Barad-Dûr, the Valar only knew what he screamed to his captors. Aragorn sighed and sheathed his blades.

Wisps of cloud dimmed the moonlight, which offered no comfort in this ghastly night, too grim and bleak for forthrightness. Forty years ago, Aragorn had fought underneath the proud banners of Gondor; in those years the plains of the South were not locked in such deep cold, even in the dead of winter. The shadow creeping from Mordor had driven the land into a bitter winter. Frost, like shimmering white jewels, clung to the long grass and ornamented scattered clumps of trees, and the sharp air pricked flesh and lungs. Wrapping his cloak about his shoulders, Aragorn lay down in a hollow cut into the rolling plains, hidden from the sight of all, friend and foe, by a rounded stone outcropping. As soon as he stretched out upon the ground, sleep overtook him.

* * *

Morning brought forth a brilliant sun, ringlets of golden light reaching towards the Ered Nimrais; the snowcapped peaks glinted silver and white, blinding the eyes. A stiff wind blustered above timberline, and snow billowed like the sails of ship from the mountaintops and swirled into thin will-o-wisps of clouds. Like the silver-white spray of windblown snow shimmering in sunlight, hope leapt up within Aragorn's breast, driving into retreat the forlorn shadow enveloping him in the bitter night. But even the mightiest gales of the most tempestuous storms did not blow away the burden of time. Every day he vacillated upon his course was one more day for Sauron to build his army upon the Plains of Gorgoroth, and if indeed the Dark Lord had extracted the location of the Ring from Gollum, one more day for him to send his servants after the Ring.

But Aragorn must be unflagging. If Gollum had penetrated the fences of Mordor and been captured, he was no less of a threat, for the Ring called to him – this both Aragorn and Gandalf and probably Sauron knew – and the creature in his lust could lead Sauron to it. And if he remained free, then Aragorn's quest remained the same, finding and capturing Gollum before the Enemy. Gollum's capture he and Gandalf had sought hereafter 3008, and the creature had eluded them. Aragorn heaved a great sigh, rising to his feet. His odds would be better playing a game of dice at the Prancing Pony in Bree, hundreds of leagues away at the borders of the Shire.

"If indeed the wretched creature were captured by the Enemy and if indeed he escaped from their clutches," Aragorn said aloud to desolate Anórien, finding little solace in the sound of his own clear voice in the cold silence. His words mocked him, for the odds seemed wellnigh impossible to beat. "Then what road would he have taken?"

A powerful garrison of orcs, men, and other vassals of Sauron zealously guarded the Black Gate, the Morannon. Its stone ramparts were impervious and sleepless orcs and trolls kept a watchful vigilance from the ramparts and the two great watchtowers on the black cliffs flanking the Morannon; any strange movement upon the cliffs they would perceive and slay. And then, the two mountain ranges of Mordor collided in a deep defile from which there was neither escape nor shelter, the Pass of Cirith Gorgor. It would be folly to cross in or out of Mordor that way, a road leading the unwary to inevitable death, either upon the Dagorlad or on Cirith Gorgor. Gollum, though the Ring had twisted his mind and murdered his soul, was not foolish (or courageous for that matter), thus it made little sense to Aragorn that Gollum had risked passage through the Morannon. Another way, then. What other path led to the heart of Mordor?

"The Pass of Cirith Ungol," Aragorn breathed. The pass ascended the cliffs above Minas Morgul, a treacherous series of stairs, steep and deadly, carved into the toothed rocks. And in the crags and crevasses at the summit of Ephel Dúath lurked an evil older than Sauron himself, as old as Morgoth and the Valar. Orcs feared it too and few patrolled those ancient tunnels. A malevolent path of ancient betrayal, a path that surely would attract a creature such as Gollum, in whose veins treachery ran deep.

Cirith Ungol was no straightforward road. Aragorn feared approaching Minas Morgul, the city of the Ringwraiths. Once a prized city of Gondor's erstwhile province of Ithilien – Minas Ithil – it had fallen into the hands of the Nazgûl in the year 2002, its defenses failing after two years of siege. It was now the vicinage of the Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, a dismal place of grief and despair. A whiff of apprehension clouded Aragorn's heart as he looked to the East, his gray eyes settling upon the austere Ephel Dúath, framed by a fallow red haze, the ash rising from Mordor lingering close to the craggy peaks. There his road lay, to the very confines of the Black Land, beneath the angry red and gray sky and remorseless black rock. The east road was the one road he did not desire to tread, the one road the Men of Gondor did not speak of, the winds they did not look to for tidings.

Anduin he intended to ford approximately ten miles south of Cair Andros, thereby avoiding the fort, Minas Tirith, and the ruined fortress of Osgiliath. Another day, a day he did not foresee through the gloom veiling his foresight, he would once again ride into the White City. Now was not the time for the heir of Isildur to venture to Minas Tirith. In any event, the West Road could be perilous, for Aragorn had heard that orcs and Haradrim used it on occasion; and even men of Gondor, none too amiable towards strangers in these dark days, posed a threat. Though the wild had its own hazards, it seemed the safer road.

* * *

Aragorn crossed Anórien uneventfully. He met one merchant crossing the plain in his wagon, but other than glowering with suspicion through bristling eyebrows and a dwarf-like beard, the merchant gave no hurt to him and offered Aragorn extra food and a skin of water in exchange for one of the many knives Aragorn carried.

"Alas, it is a foreboding sign of these ill times when Gondorean merchants trade food for weapons in their own lands," Aragorn said mournfully after thanking the merchant for his kindness, mere propriety of course since the man could not be said to have acted out of kindness, but even in the darkest times propriety and law must prevail.

The man scowled, dark gray eyes narrowing as though he thought Aragorn a madman, then he cracked the whip at his lumbering draught horse. Aragorn watched the wagon trundle towards the Drúadan Forest and Ered Nimrais, a speck against the splendid mountain range. Ominous clouds hovered above the peaks. Snow fell in the mountains and in Minas Tirith, constructed on the knees of Mindolluin, the foothills of the Ered Nimrais. Was Minas Tirith the merchant's destination, a perilous journey from here; unless one took the long way around? The road led through the broken fort of Osgiliath, the deserted city on the riverbanks. Once a thriving port, the principal city of Gondor, ere civil war and plague in the early Third Age ravaged and destroyed its great dome, its magnificent bridge and stonework, and its people fled to Minas Tirith and Ithilien. Now its ruins were a haggard bulwark, holding Sauron's murderous forces to Anduin's eastern shore.

Another week found Aragorn standing upon the steep banks of swift-flowing Anduin, iron-gray basalt tilted at various cants, burnished by flood and wind, pitching into thin white strips of sandy beach. The river, bluish-gray in hue, running deep and fast, boiling with treacherous white water, spanned a furlong. Not even he could swim that current. Kneeling upon the top of the basalt cliffs, he frowned upon the river, for there ought to be a trestle bridge spanning the breadth of the frigid waters. Had his quick memory gone amiss? Serving as a captain in Gondor's army forty years ago, he marshaled an assault upon a troop of orcs and routed them across the Anduin, across a narrow bridge several leagues to the south of Cair Andros. Here he had hoped to find the bridge, an assailable hope for it had been forty years and someone could have very well smote the bridge and fed its ruins to the river.

Not even an anchor or rope did Aragorn see, no evidence that a bridge once straddled this section of the river. He did not yet rue his choice to cross here. Downstream he turned, thinking he had misjudged the bridge's position. Fighting thick brush studded with thorns and low branches grabbing at his weather-worn cloak and hair, Aragorn glimpsed through the foliage a bridge traversing Anduin's daunting width, a flimsy wooden trestle barely sturdy enough to support his weight. A fraying rope anchored the bridge to the sturdy trunk of an ancient birch.

Some creature had trampled a path to the bridge, ripping up the brush, tearing soil, and flaying open the net of low branches. Aragorn squatted down upon the makeshift path, examining the tracks. A number of bipedal creatures wearing heavy, iron boots had passed this way in a great hurry. Orcs. Inhaling sharply, Aragorn drew his sword and sprang to his feet. The company of approximately a dozen orcs had milled around here for some time – the ground around the riverbank was torn up for a wide swath in concentric circles and droplets of dark red blood flecked the leaves of trees and a clump of ferns. They had scuffled, no uncommon thing for orcs, who would kill each other as joyously as they would kill a Man or Elf. Then they had bolted down the path leaving a trail of destruction through brush and bough, clear enough for a blind man to trace. Their tracks were not more than a day old. Anxious that they might be nearby, perhaps bivouacked for the night or returning from their errand, Aragorn stretched out upon the ground, ear pressed to the earth, listening for the sounds of heavy boots pummeling the ground. He heard nothing.

Wary even though the only sounds in his ears were the twittering of the thrush, the whisper of the wind through the trees, and the deep, resounding roar of the river, he rose and approached the bridge, stepping lightly, sword raised. He glanced over his shoulder towards the vacant woods and entertained the fleeting thought of pursuing the party of orcs. Not this time. His quarry lay to the East, across the roiling river.

The bridge itself looked more treacherous upon closer observation than it did from afar, two ancient ropes stretched across the water, bound together by rotting wood and rusting nails, supported by gaunt wooden trestles, sagging wearily in the middle where the river ran deepest. Unfortunately, unless one had a boat, it was the only crossing within miles. Aragorn glumly sat down on the bank, resting his sword across his knees.

"If a dozen orcs can cross it," he said. "Then surely I can." And he had no choice unless he prolonged his journey for many more days than he had the time to waste.

With a grim countenance, he sheathed the sword and stepped upon the rickety bridge, gripping the rough, frayed ropes, which cut into his hands. The bridge swayed but it held. He eased over the bridge one pained step after another, wincing at the creaking of the wood and whining of the ropes under his weight. He did not tarry long on any slat, for small splinters of wood cracked beneath him, a disconcerting noise stopping his heart with each pop. This should be a duty for an Elf, lighter and nimbler than any Man.

In spite of its groaning, the bridge held Aragorn. Gnawing doubt and anxiety relented as the opposite bank, a tumble of rocks rolling into the gray water, reached out invitingly towards him, an easy jump from the bridge. He sprang, the rocking ropes shortening his leap and he landed upon slippery rock, slipping and stumbling to his knees on the hard stone. Ere he scrambled to his feet, he heard the rattle of swords and helms, the stomp of heavy boots, and the harsh guttural cries, the foul speech, of orcs in the woods. On his side of the river. He dropped flat upon his stomach, pressed against the rock, holding his breath. With silent deliberation, he drew his sword from its scabbard. The orcs clattered towards him, hacking down brush and trees. Aragorn rose to his hands and knees and crawled up the bank. Above the rim of the riverbank he peered. A troop of six or seven orcs shuffled through the woods, hewing boughs with their blades, uttering vile curses against the sun and one another. The gentle breeze carried their fetid scent to Aragorn, the stench of carrion rotting in the baking sun.

Focusing his mind upon the smooth and solid hilt of the sword, an Elven blade he used until the elves reforged the Shards of Narsil, he crouched and abided, seconds trickling past like hours. The orcs stomped out of the trees, snarling in the rank language of Mordor.

Aragorn leapt out from behind the bank, crying "Elendil!" His first blow caught the lead orc in the neck and the creature fell dead with strangled howl. His second blow slashed open the breast of another orc, and it too contorted its face in agony and died. By then, the other four had drawn their axes and notched scimitars and sprang upon him. His blade came down upon the helm of another, shattering it and cleaving the orc's head in two. The remaining three huddled together, brandishing their scimitars, in fear of this strange enemy, a wayworn traveler with courage and skills with a blade. Sword thrust forward, Aragorn strode towards them, a gleam in his gray eyes. One orc growled, baring hideous, jagged teeth, and lunged for him, only to die when Aragorn knocked its scimitar aside and plunged his sword through its breast. Its two terrified companions fled, running past Aragorn and leaping upon the bridge, clinging to the cables as it swayed violently hither and thither. Grim and silent, Aragorn watched them stagger across the trestles, and when they had reached the midpoint, he raised his sword and hewed one of the cables. With an ear-splitting whine, it snapped and the bridge shuddered. Eyes wild with fear, the orcs looked back at him and rushed for the western shore, tripping over broken slats and one another. Aragorn hacked the second cable, and with a tremendous groan, the bridge slithered into the water, to and fro, like a giant serpent. Shrieking, the two orcs attempted to scramble towards the opposite bank, but their weight and the grip of the churlish rapids sprung the rope from the birch tree, and bridge and orcs went spinning downstream, bouncing upon the waves until they went over a drop and down into a hole of churning water, forced to their deaths by the tumultuous river.

Wiping sweat off his brow, Aragorn examined the woods for unusual movement; they were empty but for the lark and the thrush. Soon this bank would be overrun with orcs. He worried more would emerge from the trees, searching for their fallen comrades and the bridge, perhaps overbearing hordes of them, more than one Man had a hope of fighting on his own. Aragorn drew his cloak over his head. He picked up a fast pace, and he vanished into the woods. Darkness pursued him – he ran for his life, though he knew not what foe followed him or if a foe followed him at all. His fear was nameless, the breath of this evil place that grew more noxious as he left the lands of the living behind him and neared the head of the Morgul Vale.