All done. Remember... This is a draft. It is only a draft. All of the chapters you see here at this website look nothing like this any more. Somewhere, sometime, a final version of this will happen. It is not this here :)

At any rate, I want to thank dragonlady7, fliewatuet, and chathol-linn for their fine beta work that continues as I continue to edit this. You guys rock.

12. Before the Homeward Journey

When he woke up, the underground chamber was aglow as if sunbeams from some distant skylight filtered through the tunnels: all the jewels and silver and gold in the walls were aflame. Aragorn sat up suddenly, blinking and rubbing at his sleep-filled eyes. From his own feelings of stiffness and hunger, he understood he had slept the hours away. How many he could not say for time was indiscernible beneath the earth. Reproachful names for himself, learned in many taverns in the outposts of Eriador, leapt to his tongue and the words, "By Ilúvatar's light!" escaped from his lips. His audience with the king he had surely slept through, and he hoped his tryst-breaking had not engendered Thranduil's ill will.

Every muscle in his body burned, sore from hard travel and stiff from the night's long rest. If only he could return to bed. But he had slept long enough and movement, if he could bear it, alleviated soreness. As he stretched and padded across the chamber to the washbasin, stiff joints creaked and popped. In the washbasin he dispersed the cobwebs of sleep, splashing water upon his face and shaking it from his eyes. Then he approached the entrance of the chamber and there met an Elf-maiden robed in rich reds and blues, white jewels aglitter in her hair, a white star blazing upon her brow. Taken aback by her unlooked for presence, Aragorn said in surprise, "My Lady." In his mind none in Middle-earth could rival the beauty of Arwen, but in the ageless face of the lady standing before him glimmered the grace and loveliness of Mirkwood before the Shadow came, when the glory of the Elves suffused this entire forest and it was called Greenwood the Great.

"My apologies, I did not intend to startle you," said she in a voice deep and clearer than streams pouring down from the glaciers of the Hithaeglir. "I am Aearinn, niece to the king."

Aearinn, he thought. How is that name familiar to me? Then he remembered one of the Elves who had guided him to the dungeons speaking of his betrothal to the Lady Aearinn.

"We thought you would awaken soon and thus I came to you to see if you had any interest in joining the King Thranduil for a mid-day meal." Though phrased as a suggestion, it was undeniably a command.

"What is the time?" Aragorn inquired, wroth with himself for falling asleep against his own judgment and intentions. It was mid-day! The need for sleep had assailed him as never it should assault a Ranger.

"Fear not, for you have committed no infraction," said Aearinn soothingly. "You were worn out, but now you are rested. Come, now. The king is eager to speak with you."

Forthwith he followed Aearinn through the convoluted tunnels; sleep had rid him of the nausea from fatigue and he found he had a mind for food and drink. But not all strands of weariness had withdrawn; still a thin haze clouded his mind and a dull ache aggrieved his limbs.

While they walked, Aearinn spoke longingly of the days before the Shadow came to Dol Guldur and spread like a scorching wildfire across Greenwood the Great, transforming a place of beauty into a place of terror. "Yet here we remain," she sighed, concluding with a trace of bitterness, "And with our own powers and with the blood of our people we hold evil at bay, for no Rings of Power shield this realm from the Enemy."

"But should the Three Rings diminish, the power of Lórien and Imladris will fade, but yours will not," said Aragorn.

"You speak of the impossible," she said coldly, "of the defeat of the Shadow, which I cannot foresee. Yet in their message did Lórien call you Estel and I see you are of the race of kings from over the sea, and in you burns a light I have not seen in Men since the days of Elendil: the glory of Westernesse undimmed, of Elros and Eärendil and Elendil reborn."

To this Aragorn only said, "Few things are impossible if there is the will to do them." Even as the darkest hours approached it seemed better to reach too far rather than let go all hope and refuse to try. Of her reference to his lineage, he made no response. If the Wood-elves did not yet know of his heritage, those old enough to have looked upon Elendil and his sons had their suspicions. They were versed enough in lore to know Malbeth the Seer's prophecies.

"And more luck than we have had," Aearinn was saying, the completion of a thought that had passed by Aragorn. He blinked, pulling his mind away from Malbeth's words. He ought to pay more attention – it was a sign of his weariness that his thoughts wandered thence, like a swallow on the wind.

Aearinn continued, "For countless years my uncle has sought to drive out the Shadow and take back Lasgalen, but the Enemy strengthens and ever we draw back to this stronghold. You encountered the spiders in our territory. We cannot even protect our own borders anymore!"

"But Sauron has does not have his full strength yet. Men and Elves resisted him once."

"But when he reaches his full strength, then there will be but two choices, death or servitude."

"There is no telling that he will be victorious," said Aragorn. "No one can portend the future."

"Well," she replied, "if a Dúnadan more like Elendil than any who have come since his death arrives at our gates, then why not? I suppose few things indeed are completely beyond the realm of possibility."

Just then Aragorn and Aearinn turned a corner and there they entered the great dining hall. A large and ornately decorated room built around a massive oak table stretched from one end of the room to the other. Assorted food and wine upon silver and gold platters and goblets studded with bright gems lay spread across the wide table. Thranduil and five or six others of his household awaited their coming. Upon their entrance, the king rose, smiling; blessed he seemed, a king crowned with many winters and yet hale as a warrior in his prime.

"Color is returning to your cheeks," said Thranduil. "And the dark clouds are lifting from your eyes. Do not trouble yourself with grief for missing dinner. You needed rest more than food and I am glad for it."

Nothing more was said of the Shadow or of Aragorn's lineage, for at heart the Mirkwood Elves were a mirthful people despite their peril, and in the darkest times they took pleasure in a good meal and songs and storytelling. In silence Aragorn listened to their songs and stories, the lilting Elf-voices music in his ears. He had little to say, for the shadow across his heart and ache in his bones that sleep had not dispersed subdued merrymaking and buoyancy. His head felt light and his back and legs sore, as if he had fallen from a horse.

An Elf said to him, "What of you, Estel? Surely you have been on a great quest-"

Thranduil held up a hand, saying resolutely, "We shall not speak of such dark things here."

Having no desire to tell his story lest the horrors return to his mind, Aragorn was relieved by the king's decree. Instead he regaled the Elves with a lighthearted tale of how his kinsman Halbarad became so drunk in a tavern in Bree that he could not even ride and how he had to pony Halbarad's horse back to the Dúnedain camp some ten miles from the village. He remembered how Halbarad, gesturing emphatically with his finger, had slurred with certitude, "The only ones not drunk are me, and Halbarad, and Aragorn."

Though the Elves laughed at the tale, it brought Aragorn no solace from melancholy. The perils since then had been many, but it seemed the Shadow had weighed less perniciously upon the land and upon Aragorn's troubled heart. He hungered for the company of his fellow Rangers, the cleansing winds from the West, the sheer precipices and sweeping downs near the western slopes of the Hithaeglir, the glittering terraces and tranquility of Rivendell, and more than all Arwen. Yet his sorrow he buried beneath a severe and proud countenance, as he always had; his gray eyes remained bright as the first stars in a cloudless night.

The food, a rack of venison and hordes of glowing fruit, was of the highest quality, befitting a royal hall. After a serving, Aragorn found that he could eat very little of it; nausea stirred in his stomach, and he tacitly sipped on drink and ate only sparingly. The wine did not make him feel so ill. Cool and fragrant, it coursed through his veins and wearied limbs. As the wine took its effect, soothing sore muscles and bestowing him an airy disposition, he leaned back in his seat, listening to his hosts unhindered by shadows and pain. He breathed easier and the fog of sorrow diffused.

After the meal, the Elves dispersed and Thranduil took Aragorn aside. Aragorn rose and his head swam and vision wavered – the long, hard miles must have thinned his blood, for the alcohol had gone to his head quicker than he had anticipated. He steadied himself, inhaling deeply, ere he followed the king to his chambers. The king glanced at him over his shoulder, commenting, "Was wine of the Elven vineyards more potent than you thought? Well, it will heal the wounds of the heart as athelas heals the wounds of the flesh."

"Or salve them momentarily," replied Aragorn. "But I am quite sober," he added, a gentle distortion of the truth but his mind was clear nonetheless.

In Thranduil's chambers, a cave aflame in blazing jewels gleaming in torchlight, they settled in two ornately carved chairs. The king spoke gravely. "I did not have you reveal your story at the meal, for I would not cast a shadow upon a felicitous occasion. But I must know. From where did you come? You said you captured your prisoner in the Dead Marshes, but you were in some evil place before that."

"I care not to tell too much of it, my lord," said Aragorn, "but if you must know I searched for the creature in the very confines of Mordor, at the gates of Minas Morgul and the Morannon." He shuddered. "As close to the Black Land as I ever wish to be. Far closer." Alas, it was his fate to venture forth to it again some day, bearing the standard of Elendil and Narsil reforged, if he should survive unto that day, but of this he said nothing to Thranduil.

Thranduil's piercing blue eyes searched Aragorn's gray ones. His jaw clenched as if Aragorn's words afflicted some mortal wound, distress marked upon his fair brow. "Some great need must have driven you to the terrible feet of the Ephel Dúath. You are brave, as befits the race of Westernesse, but no man is brave enough to go there unless he has no other choice."

"What is it you ask of me?" said Aragorn, his voice soft but his gaze fierce, the look of an eagle poised to defend his secrets to his last breath. "There are things I cannot yet reveal."

"And what would you deny a king in his hall?" asked Thranduil mildly, "That Sauron was not vanquished by the Last Alliance and once again draws all evil to him in his fortress on Gorgoroth? That the Northern line of Númenorean kings was not broken, though the Dúnedain of the North were scattered and divided by wars within and without?" Here his gaze was drawn to the ring of Barahir, the emeralds sparkling in the torchlight. "That the One Ring has been found? I have some suspicions of where, though these I keep to myself lest less savory ears hear them."

Some time ago, in what seemed like another age, Gandalf told Aragorn of Bilbo Baggins' adventures in the Wood-elves' kingdom, the tale of how the halfling had concealed himself with a magic ring he had pilfered from Gollum and freed Thorin Oakenshield and his Dwarves from Thranduil's dungeons. Aragorn's heart leapt to his throat and his stomach turned – no clear misgivings about Thranduil delved his thought, yet all the same it alarmed him to learn those other than himself, Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Celeborn knew of the Ring; its whereabouts, and of his kingly lineage.

Noting the unease paling Aragorn's face and the stiffening of his shoulders, Thranduil said, "Fear not, for there are secrets I do not reveal even to those closest to me. Nor will I press you for it. You have been through too much already and I have not the desire to compel you to reveal what you hold close to your heart. While our relations with Imladris might indeed be strained at times, the free peoples of Middle-earth cannot stand against one another while a greater peril threatens all." The Elven-king clasped Aragorn's forearm. "The foster-son of Master Elrond will be given all due deference in my realm. There are but few to whom the Lord of Imladris would bestow such a privilege, few indeed, Aragorn. I fought alongside Elrond, I saw the despair in his eyes when Isildur refused to cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom. It was he who stood with him in Sammath Naur, you know. And in all the years hence he has sought to repair the fell deeds of that day."

"You understand if I confirm nothing," said Aragorn.

"Indeed," said Thranduil. "But take your rest here, at least for the two days you swore to me. The members of my own household do not know what I know and so it shall remain. To you I give leave to decide who hears what and when. This whole business is your duty, not mine or even Elrond's."

"Your goodwill means a great deal and eases my heart," acknowledged Aragorn with a bow. At once he rose and took his leave, and for several hours he explored the intricate tunnels and corridors of the underground kingdom, walking off the evanescence of the wine dizzying thought and the stiffness afflicting his limbs. The Elves were convivial and polite enough. And when he passed, he heard astounded whispers in the long, dark corridors that never had they seen one so like Eärendil or the exiled kings of old; it was as if Beren or Elendil had arisen from the dead and walked once more upon the shores of Middle-Earth, and the wonder shining in the eyes of the Elves could not be masked by their immutable faces.

Three days after his arrival in Thranduil's fortress, Aragorn sat upon his cot, reading an ancient manuscript he had found in Mirkwood's archives recounting the War of Wrath. He should have sought a more hopeful tale, for a few more hours would see him setting out for his homelands. Though beset by constant war, at the hearth of Thranduil's underground palace there was a peace Aragorn loathed to depart and once more face the tribulations of the wild. The road was long, the High Pass a dangerous, narrow path overlooking a valley hundreds of feet below. He did not eagerly look forward to it. In his heart, he loved calm and quiet, but his fate lay not in tranquility.

In his three days in the company of the Elves, it seemed he had slept a great deal and was nonetheless pained and worn. Patience he must commandeer. Only three days had passed. He had suffered hardships and perils that would tear asunder the hearts of most mortal men save a few and those long dead. It was a wonder that he was alive and no surprise that the full bloom of vigor and health had yet to return. He drew in a long breath, attentive to the wheezing sound in his lungs. No, not yet recovered, but he should be hale enough to travel.

As he turned a page, he perceived a radiant glow steeping the small chamber, and he raised his eyes from the sheet. There stood Aearinn. "Estel," she said. "There is someone to see you, if you will receive him." And she stepped aside and another figure joined her in the arching doorway, cloaked in gray, old yet not withered, strong as an ancient oak tree, and wielding a carven staff.

Aragorn dropped the book and leapt to his feet, grinning joyously, mirth enlivening his features like a ray of sun bursting through gray clouds. For a fleeting moment, elation vanquished the weight of sorrows from his shoulders and chest. "Gandalf!" he cried. "Oh, how it eases my heart to see you!"

"As it does mine," said the old gray wizard with a smile, clasping Aragorn's shoulder in conviviality. The hand was gnarled but he had a warrior's strong grip. "Often in these dark days I feared you had been lost. You can imagine my joy when I heard you had passed through the Western eaves of Lórien and my surprise when I was told you had captured Gollum. I had little hope for that."

"So did I. It was purely by chance that I found him – he had deceived even my tracking skills. I still do not know how he came to the place wherein I found him. The wretched footpad is cunning and wily." Recalling how the Lórien Elves, taken by pity, had loosened Gollum's bonds, he looked to Aearinn, his gray eyes lit with fiery intensity. The Elf-maiden held his gaze with her keen glance. "Never take your eyes off him, pitiable though he might seem. His mind remains sharp as a blacksmith's nail."

"The creature shall never stray from our watch," said Aearinn smoothly. Bowing to Gandalf, she turned away and in a queenly manner, strode down the corridor, a light brighter than all lights in Mirkwood, driving off fell thoughts as a fire frightens Nazgûl.

"The niece of the king is fair indeed," Gandalf murmured.

Together they walked the shimmering corridors until they found a room, a quiet chamber with several carven benches, shelves of manuscripts, and like all other rooms in these halls, fancifully decorated with flamboyant tapestries and shining white gems in casements of silver and gold. Here they settled on a bench. Gandalf said, "I don't suppose you have any pipe-weed left."

"I ran out somewhere in the Wilderland between the Gladden Fields and here." Aragorn had forced his mind away from pipe-weed – after he had smoked the last batch in the endless stretches of Wilderland, he had no hopes of seeing it again until his return to Eriador.

"Well," Gandalf said with a smile, "I might have some Longbottom leaf from the South Farthing. How does that sound to you?"

"Like a gift from the Valar." Aragorn answered with a lightness he had not felt for months.

They enjoyed a quiet moment of repose, smoking pipe-weed. Hope was rekindled. The despair he had felt while hauling Gollum across the Wilderland for endless days, the despair over his fruitless quest and uncertain destiny that seemed most likely to end in death and failure dissipated with the tendrils of smoke rising from his pipe.

Finally Gandalf said, "It greaves me to see you so heartsick and weary and ill."

"I have been worse off. There is nothing wrong with me that a few more days of rest cannot mend."

The wizard studied him with skepticism. "Perhaps I should not have forsaken the chase and left you to go to Mordor alone. For that was where you had been, was it not?"

Aragorn nodded. "I searched for Gollum in the Morgul Vale and at the Morannon, but I do not think your presence would have made the journey easier. It was in the Dead Marshes where I found him and from there I made the greatest of haste to Mirkwood." He sighed. "I cannot say which was worse; breathing the foul air at the confines of Mordor and battling the fell shadow that encases Minas Morgul or driving that ruinous creature ahead of me for too many days to count."

"The Dead Marshes," pondered Gandalf, taking a thoughtful pull on his pipe. "So it is as we suspected, then. He was going to Mordor."

"He was headed away from Mordor. I think he was captured by the Enemy, Gandalf, tortured in the dungeons of Barad-dûr, and released upon some evil errand. Perhaps to lead Sauron's servants to the Ring."

"Did he tell you this?"

"No. I received naught from him but the marks of his teeth." Here Aragorn rolled his left sleeve back to his elbow, baring the healing lesions in his forearm. New flesh crept over the angry red scars and crusted scabs. Gandalf's bushy brows drew together in consternation as he took Aragorn's hand in his and searched the wound with deftly probing fingers. "It no longer bothers me," Aragorn assured him, withdrawing his hand and pulling down his sleeve. "In any case, the creature cried and trembled at the vaguest allusion to Sauron or to Barad-dûr. He became quite insensible when I would mention Mordor. I do not know what he told Sauron, but I am afraid that the Enemy will release his darkest servants to hunt for the Ring: the Nine. Alas, I did not capture Gollum sooner."

"At least he can no longer lead Sauron's spies to the Ring. You think Sauron will send forth the Ringwraiths?"

Aragorn turned his gaze away from his old friend, touching his brow to ward off the stark image of Minas Morgul's grinning gate and the cold, tomblike dread billowing from its ramparts. "It is a possibility," he said.

"You have the foresight of your race," insisted Gandalf. "What did you see?"

"I make no predictions, for I cannot say if it was foresight or my eyes playing tricks on me. I was fairly delirious at the time as I had been afflicted by poisons from the flowers growing near the gate and the steam from the Morgulduin."

He then told Gandalf an abridged version of his journey from the Dead Marshes to Mirkwood, and the wizard listened to the tale in silence, only grunting in uneasiness and muttering, "So the spies of the Enemy have come to Loeg Ningloron" when Aragorn spoke of the wight in the Gladden Fields. To Gandalf only would Aragorn tell this tale -- he felt he must – but with bitterness he recalled his journey and had no desire to impart it to anyone else. After he finished with the arrival of Legolas, he tacitly eased the conversation away from his tribulations, saying, "Did your visit to Minas Tirith prove fruitful? The Ithilien Rangers told me you had entered the gates of the White City, and the Lord Faramir had ridden there at great haste from Ithilien so he might meet you."

"Yes, I saw Faramir," said Gandalf. "And the Lord Denethor as well."

"How did that go?" asked Aragorn. "Has his fondness for you grown since those days when I served his father?"

"Denethor is not a man who forgets old grudges, but I cannot complain for he nevertheless allowed me to search amongst the hoarded scrolls and books. He said, 'Unless unless you have more skill even than Saruman, who has studied here long, you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this city.'[i] But there lie many scrolls in tongues few in these days can read, save for the Wise. Since the days of kings, I think only Saruman and myself have discovered that trove. Anyway, I found a scroll written by Isildur himself concerning the Ring. And the words of Isildur revealed another way in which I might confirm my suspicions that the ring in Bilbo Baggins' care is the One."

Aragorn raised his eyebrows. "What is that?"

"Isildur described the Ring as a plain, gold band, yet engraved on it is an inscription written in the runes of the Black Language of Mordor that only fire can reveal. 'One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them; One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness, bind them.'"

"Ah, how it portends hope," said Aragorn dryly.

Gandalf continued, "I intend on questioning Gollum here and perhaps with kindness and other tricks of interrogation get out of him what you in your harshness did not-"

"I was harsh because I had to be," Aragorn snapped. "I did what I had to do to bring him and me safely here. There was no other way."

"That is understandable," said Gandalf with a disarming smile. "I am not rebuking you. Then to the Shire I must fly, for whatever Gollum says, the words of Isildur will help cast aside all our doubts. How long shall you be here?"

"It was my plan to leave today and make for Rivendell and from there set out for Fornost to reconnoiter with my kinsmen."

"You are in no shape to travel!" At Aragorn's querulous look, the piercing glance of kings, the wizard added, "You think I cannot hear the strain in your breathing or see the pain and stiffness in your movement? You are resilient, for you have resisted dangers that would stop of the hearts of most, but you still need time to recover. Rest here a few more days. Recuperate from illness and weariness. You do not want to fall ill on the High Pass, do you?"

"There is no time. If Gollum told Sauron all he knows of the Ring-"

"You do not know what he might have uttered, or if he lied, or if he knows where the Shire lies. For all we know, Gollum might not wish for Sauron to obtain the Ring anymore than we do. Let me attempt to charm him out of his secrets before you take flight to Eriador. If you refuse, I shall talk Thranduil into issuing an edict barring you from leaving these halls for a week."

Aragorn laughed mirthlessly and said, "I do not think that is an idle threat." Gandalf had done nothing more than voice Aragorn's own misgivings about setting out so soon and facing peril anew when weariness still lay heavy upon him. And he did not doubt that Gandalf would convince Thranduil to issue an edict should Aragorn resist the wizard's request. "I will agree to remain until I am feeling somewhat better."

"Good," said Gandalf. "Then to the dungeons I must go and see what our prisoner has to say for himself."

"You can go alone," Aragorn said. "I have had enough of him and hope to never look upon him again."

And so Gandalf went into the deepest caves of Thranduil's fortress and underwent long and weary speech with Gollum. In the meantime Aragorn benefited from the hospitality of the Elves and recovered from his hurts of body and spirit. For protracted hours he listened to the Elves' sweet music and their tales of Beleriand, sad and forlorn stories of woe and defeat, and yet in the end justice prevailed against the shadow. They told joyful tales, too, of courtship, parties, sometimes both, and of thrilling journeys and forays and victories in battle. Thranduil's books of lore were many, and Thranduil himself had fought in the Battle of the Last Alliance and had much to say of Elendil and Isildur and Gil-galad. Of course, not all of his tales showed them in the finest light, for Thranduil's father Oropher had led his battalion of Silvan Elves to slaughter upon Orodruin's fire-blasted flanks, a premature assault without backup from Gil-galad and Elendil. Most had perished, including Oropher, and Thranduil had been forced to lead the haggard remnant of his company back to Mirkwood, losing many upon Dagorlad and in the Dead Marshes. There were other tales, buried amongst Thranduil's oft-read scrolls, recitations of the civil wars between Noldor and Sindar Elves and the Dwarves and the Fall of Númenor and the wars with Morgoth and Sauron in Beleriand. Some of these Aragorn perused, but he was wearied of mayhem and death; he had faced enough of it to feel little need to read about it.

As strength returned, his desire to begin his journey home grew more pervasive, but he opted to wait for Gandalf to finish his business with Gollum and then travel west in the Istari's company. Their roads lay together for many miles, at least until Rivendell before they parted, Gandalf to Hobbiton and Aragorn to Fornost. And so he reined in patience as though it were a hot-tempered horse and for four days waited out Gandalf's interrogation. Between his protracted sessions with Gollum, Gandalf wandered Thranduil's halls with Aragorn, enjoying the pleasurable company of the Elves. During this time – merely four days, but time was ephemeral here – Legolas and his posse returned with glum reports to his father of Sauron's minions brazenly crossing the Old Forest Road. The Beornings stemmed their incursions as best they could, but the Shadow grew bold.

"They will know of your passing, Aragorn," Thranduil said to Aragorn over supper on the fourth day, after Legolas had come to him that morning bearing the ill news.

"It surprises me not," said Aragorn. "They might very well have been watching me since the Emyn Muil. I spent my entire journey in cold dread that Enemy spies tailed me and it remains astounding that I was not beset by legions of orcs and other fell beasts."

"I daresay we might be. If they have been following you, they know you came here. And Mithrandir, too. Alas, we must set a watch. Once word reaches Sauron or even the Nazgûl in Dol Guldur that you have brought their spy here, there is no telling what they might do."

Aragorn sighed. "I cannot say," he replied dubiously. While Gollum was no spy, Aragorn still believed the Enemy had released him as a hound, an unwitting agent leading the Ringwraiths or whomever Sauron sent after the Ring to its location. Different reasons than Thranduil suspected, but it mattered not. A careful watch was a wise idea all the same.

Late in the night, Aragorn dreamt of leading Gondor's armies into battle as Thorongil, except it was not Umbar he faced but Sauron himself in his fortress on the Gorgoroth Plain. To the charred slopes of Orodruin they marched bravely and were routed by hundreds of thousands of orcs pouring like a great flood from the Black Land. They fled, but there was no place to run and therefore they made a final stand, proudly facing death in the barren land. The wind itself reeked of decay. Charred and bloodied corpses covered the ground.

Aragorn opened his eyes. Gems embedded in the cavern walls gleamed softly in the dark. He breathed in the fragrant scent of Elvish incense, surprised for he half-expected the stench of death and the poisons from Mordor scorching his lungs. His heart was pounding. Gandalf was calling his name. When Aragorn propped himself up on an elbow, he saw the bearded figure of the wizard standing in the doorway. He blinked, groggy, orienting himself in the present and dismissing the battle and smoke and fire as a dream and nothing more.

"I am sorry to wake you," said Gandalf.

"Do not be," said Aragorn, wiping sweat from his brow, wincing as he heard his shoulder pop. "It was a nightmare and I am glad to be rid of it."

"Well, I got all I could from Gollum. Early tomorrow morning I shall set out for Eriador and I imagine you will be joining me. You look half-asleep now but otherwise you seem much improved."

"Yes. Our roads lie together anyway and it would be wiser to cross the High Pass together."

"Go back to sleep. In the morning then I shall relate to you what he told me ere we set off."

Like a wraith Gandalf withdrew from the entrance, and Aragorn, too bleary to insist upon hearing Gandalf's tale at this moment, fell back into the nest of blankets. His senses ought to be sharper; waking up suddenly with all faculties alert had saved his life countless times in the wild. It irked him that cobwebs of sleep tangled his thoughts. The wild should cure him of that. Eagerly he looked to departing with Gandalf, at dawn's first light. Nestled in the warm, Elven blankets, his last night upon a soft mattress cocooned in silken quilts until Rivendell many miles hence, he drifted again into sleep.

While darkness still clung to the forest and dawn was but a pale light in the east, Gandalf again came to Aragorn's chamber. "The creature is pitiable," said Gandalf. "His sniveling and groveling and babble grates on the nerves of the most patient. But my speech with him was not without profit."

"What did he tell you?" asked Aragorn while he repacked his gear, rolling blankets into his pack and sheathing sword, knives, and bow. "And what did you do to convince him to speak with you?"

"I spoke kindly to him and expressed my dissatisfaction with the way you had treated him," said Gandalf, his eyes a-twinkle. "He became friendly enough after that. "

"It gladdens my heart that I did not treat the wretch harshly for nothing."

Gandalf curiously fingered the hilt of the Númenorean sword. "The poor creature," he said. "He craves for the Ring in every fiber of his being, though I do not think he is wholly evil. At times I caught glimpses of some small corner of his heart that has not yet been corrupted. He may do some good yet."

"The Elvish wine has gone to your head, old friend," Aragorn said cynically. "There is naught left in him but villainy and hate. The Ring has consumed him entirely. I hope he remains here, where he can do no harm, until the end of time."

"Sometimes even the evil, intending to be evil, will do good," said Gandalf.

This was an old debate, for Gandalf had a strange faith in Gollum that Aragorn had never shared before he met the creature, and he shared even less of it now. He stared skeptically at the wizard, confounded by the riddle, and unsheathed the sword to sharpen it. "Come, Gandalf. Enough with the riddles. Let me hear what Gollum told you."

"He told me the tale of how he found the Ring. It is the continuation of Isildur's story, for Gollum found the Ring in the Gladden Fields where Isildur perished."

"The Gladden Fields," mused Aragorn. "At last one riddle is explained to me." Gandalf drew his bushy brows together and looked at him questioningly. Aragorn said, "In Loeg Ningloron he seemed more dissolute than at any other time, craven and appalling as if he had looked upon Morgoth himself."

"What did he say?"

"I did not pay much attention, but among other things he said something about his birthday."

"Ahhhh..." murmured Gandalf.

"What?" pressed Aragorn.

"He believed, or convinced himself, that the Ring was a birthday present. You see, his companion, a creature of his kin named Déagol, found the Ring while they were fishing. Gollum, or Sméagol as he was then called, said that Déagol ought to have given him the Ring because it was his birthday. Déagol refused, for the thing too entranced him, so Sméagol murdered him and took the Ring. Forthwith he was banished from the settlement."

"It was the ghosts of memory, then," said Aragorn softly. "He said that name: Déagol."

"He wandered for a time," continued Gandalf, "and eventually crawled into the caves of the Misty Mountains, where for five hundred years, the Ring consumed his spirit. Then it left him and Bilbo Baggins stumbled across it. More can be said later, but now I am almost certain that the Ring he possessed, the Ring now in Bilbo's keeping, is the One."

"You were always more or less certain. Hence asking us to guard the borders of the Shire."

"Now I am beyond a shadow of a doubt. But there is one more test."

"The fire." Aragorn sighed and drew a coarse whetstone against the sword. Sparks leapt from the blade. "Did he reveal anything more?"

"You were right. He went to Mordor and was caught and questioned in Barad-dûr. But he did not reveal to the Enemy the location of the Ring. For one, I do not think he even knows where the Shire is-"

"Surely he told them something. I cannot imagine they would have released him otherwise."

Gandalf waved him silent. "And for two, he lied about it. He said it was in the Gladden Fields. Which is a sensible lie since his people were akin to the hobbits and inhabited Loeg Ningloron."

Aragorn smiled gravely. "Then Gollum has inadvertently given us more time."

Aragorn and Gandalf broke their fast with Thranduil, Aearinn, and a few others of their royal household. Only Legolas did not join them. He had ridden off again towards the Old Forest Road on an expedition to route goblins creeping northwards from Dol Guldur and to investigate a new evil in the forest, a dense cloud of unseen terror, under which even the greatest Elf-lords quailed. When he heard of Legolas' mission, Aragorn said to Gandalf and Thranduil, "I am afraid the Nazgûl in Dol Guldur no longer regard the road as a boundary and venture so far as your borders."

"I am inclined to agree," said Gandalf. "The Shadow is brazen these days and it does not surprise me that even Ringwraiths come north. But I do not think they will hamper our journey west, Aragorn."

"We do not have Laurelindórinan's white ring protecting our borders," stated Thranduil angrily, "but still they fear to come further north than the Road." There was a moment of somber silence, and then Thranduil added, "Let us not speak of such things here." Breakfast was of eggs and fresh fruit and fried meats, and with the aid of food, a gay disposition, tinged with sadness on its edges, returned to the beleaguered king and his guests and company.

Then all rose from the long table and walked to the gates of the fortress. A fair morning dew clung to bough and twig, the forest sprinkled with glistening silver jewels. Dawn's rays lanced through the glimmering forest. The Forest River, flowing beneath the great stone bridge and into the fortress itself, sang a thrilling chime, a voice wreathed in laughter. From the Ered Mithrin to the north, a fragrant, cleansing breeze riffled through the leaves, as if Mirkwood itself sighed in nostalgic memory of the golden days of Oropher's and Thranduil's reigns in Greenwood the Great.

Aragorn knelt upon one knee before Thranduil, bowing his head to the Elvenking. As he stood, the king whispered in his ear, "Perhaps there will come a day when I shall bow down on one knee to you. Imladris brings Middle-earth hope indeed. A si i-Dhúath ú-orthor."[ii]

At length the Elves withdrew into their gates rimmed with jewels, and Aragorn and Gandalf turned to the West, setting upon their road. Though the dense and relentless forest barricaded the Hithaeglir from sight, Aragorn felt the presence of the mountains, and beyond their high peaks awashed in splendor, there lay the shining light of Rivendell, a beacon of hope guiding him from darkness ever as a lighthouse guides home a ship from stormy seas. His eyes were fixed on the west. It seemed he stood upon the boundaries of a time when the great powers would tear one another asunder and the world would change, like Isildur in the months before the Last Alliance or Elendil in the days before Númenor had sunk into the waves. Fog concealed his road from him, a threatening precipice of hairpin turns and perils that would test his fortitude and will and demand he bring forth all the valiance of his ancestors, yet he knew his destination.

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[i] The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Ch. 2.

[ii] Sindarin: "The Shadow does not hold sway yet." The Fellowship of the Ring,New Line Cinema, 2001.