Title: Where once was light

By: Imaginigma

Rating: K+

Genre: Drama, Action, AU

Disclaimer: I own nothing in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings, be it book or movie; I make no money with this story.

Summary: Aragorn, having captured the creature Gollum in the Dead Marshes, journeys to Mirkwood to deliver Gollum into the custody of the elves. On his way, he comes to some surprising revelations. When something unsuspected happens, can Legolas help his friend before it is too late?

Thanks: To W. E. Henley (1849-1903) for the inspiration that made this story possible. I hope he tolerates my little alteration to his lines. ;-)

A/N 1: Written for the Teitho Challenge "What we are thankful for". 1st place winner.

A/N 2: Due to some minor computer/internet problems, some of the text was repeititive. This is the edited version. The content has not changed. Thanks to all those who pointed it out to me!

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever 'Valar' may be
For my unconquerable soul!"

"It hurts us, it burns us. Take it away, take it away. It freezes, it bites! Nasty elvses made it, it hurts us!" Gollum tugged at the fine rope that was wrapped around his thin neck. For hours on end the creature had been lamenting about the elvish rope he was bound with, and his level of voice had reached unimaginable volumes.

Aragorn sighed inwardly. For months he had been journeying in the company of Gollum, and the nearer they came to their destination, the thinner his composure became. Only this morning, when Gollum had clung to a tree with his thin fingers, unwilling to go any further, Aragorn had gripped him by his scrawny neck and hauled him away from the tree trunk roughly. It had hurt Gollum, but by now, Aragorn was beyond caring.

His hunt for Gollum had brought him to the very confines of Mordor and after he had faced many perils and had been on the doorstep of death more times than he was able to count, his weary heart had not been able to take any more, and he had broken his word to Gandalf and abandoned his search for Gollum.

But then, unexpectedly, while he had been on his way home and forced to cross the Dead Marshes, he had found a trace of Gollum. One day, already tired and hungry, he had seen the soft imprints of bare feet in the mud near a pool of dark water. Aragorn had managed to capture Gollum two days later, and since then they were hurrying to the North. Mirkwood was the only place that was suitable to guard the creature, and the Wood elves had agreed to imprison and guard him.

For days Aragorn had made his way through the treacherous Dead Marshes, had felt hunger and pain in the Emyn Muil, had nearly drowned as he had crossed the Anduin, and had frozen on the open plains that stretched between The Wold and the fair woods of Lothlorien. In his need and desperation to reach Mirkwood and had Gollum over to the elves, he had not dared to stop for rest and supplies in Lorien, but circled the Golden Wood and instead stayed close to the great river Anduin, although not far enough to see or smell it.

Now, almost a week away from Lorien, Aragorn was nearing the shores of the Anduin again. He did not truly know why he sought out the river, but somehow the gurgling water soothed his frayed nerves and aching heart.

And, Aragorn thought as he took a look at Gollum who was walking in front of him, that creature is in need of food as well. For the whole past week, Gollum had not truly eaten, as he rejected the food of the elves and all food that Aragorn presented to him. The only food that Gollum ate, were fish and worms, and as they had crossed no streams and the earth was dry, the creature had found little food.

The wind picked up and Aragorn wrinkled his nose in disgust as the stench of Gollum drifted towards him. The creature was stinking, and not even the swim through the Anduin had been able to wash away the green slime and the stench that enveloped Gollum. Even after months of travelling with Gollum, the stench still made Aragorn sick to the stomach.

Once more, he wished for nothing more then to finally be rid of the creature and be a free man again. With pain in his heart the thought of the warm fires and cosy beds in Mirkwood, of the fresh bread and fine wine, of fair singing and a good nights sleep.

In these dark days, it did not take much to make his heart content.

The day became darker as night settled over the grounds. The sun sank down behind the distant horizon, and the shadows grew longer and deeper. It was time to set up camp and rest for the night. Usually, Aragorn preferred travelling at night and rest during the hours of day, as he was not sure if he was pursued by orc from Mordor or the Hithaeglir. But, even the thought of travelling in the dark wassuicidalwith his prisoner.

Gollum may be submissive the most time, but as soon as night settled, he became upset and agitated. Then he would pull at the elvish rope that bound him, would writhe on the ground or scream so loud that it would be heard for leagues. More than once Aragorn had been forced to gag him, so that his voice would not alert the goblins and orcs that lived near the Misty Mountains.

Perhaps, Aragorn thought as he scanned the area for a suitable resting place, the darkness of night reminds him of Mordor. A shudder went down his spine as he thought of the dark mountains, the sickening stench and the bare lands that bordered the black land. In his search for Gollum, Aragorn had been near the Ephel Duath and the Morannon, and it was no memory he cherished. Even now, weeks after that horrible experience, his heart beat faster in fear and his hands became sweaty. Mordor was no place one whished to see, be it human, elf or…creature.

The moon rose high in the nearly cloudless sky, and the pale light touched the lands below. As darkness completely blanketed the earth, Aragorn's keen eyes finally found what he had been looking for: a few rocks surrounded by dry bushes and shrubbery. It was at least partly sheltered from the wind, and the rocks would hide them from prying eyes.

Tightening his grip on the leash that held Gollum captive, Aragorn tugged at the rope. "We will rest here. Come."

But Gollum was not very obedient that night, and he simply kept crawling along on all fours, mumbling under his breath. Exasperated, Aragorn pulled at the rope one more time, his voice angered, "Gollum, stop now, or you will regret it!"

And this time, the creature complied. Gollum crawled back to where Aragorn stood, then looked at the place that would be their resting place for the night. Immediately, he fell back on his back, stretched his arms wide to the side and began to writhe on the ground.

"No, it sees us, it hurts us. We hate it, nassty shivery light. It spies on us, yess." Gollum opened his big eyes and gazed at the moon for a moment, then resumed his writhing. "Spiess on us, preciouss. We hate it!"

Aragorn sighed. He was tired and weary. For weeks he had not been able to sleep properly, and the last week had been the worst of all. Gollum had been more agitated than before, and Aragorn had been forced to keep his vigilance up all time. He had not slept during the last week, not once feeling safe enough to close his eyes in more than a slight slumber, one ear always on Gollum.

Furthermore, he was hungry and his body ached. He had not come out of the Dead Marshes and the Emyn Muil unscathed, the bite wound that he had received from Gollum upon his capture still burned and bleed from time to time.

The night was cold and a fine mist was crawling up the plains form the river, and Aragorn shivered slightly. Despite his many travels and his high level of endurance, his body had long reached its limits, and his mind was growing weary as well.

He had once heard a saying: When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on. Aragorn had tied many knots in the last months. And now, as he watched Gollum writhe on the ground, hissing and wailing, his patience wore thin.

With a strong pull on the rope, he ordered Gollum with a stern voice, "Get up now, or I will make you. And you know that I make no idle threats!" Gollum stopped wriggling and eyed Aragorn out of big yellow eyes. He seemed to ponder the words for a moment, but then he got to his hands and feet and trotted over to the rocks and bushes.

Aragorn sighed again, and slowly followed the creature. Tying the rope to a rock and sitting down as far away from Gollum as possible, Aragorn opened his pack and took out some food and a blanket. As he had no time or energy for hunting, his meal consisted of some roots, nuts and fruits he had collected during their relentless march across the lands. For weeks he had not eaten properly, let alone something that was warm, and his stomach longed for a soup or some cooked vegetables or deer stew. And some pipe weed, Aragorn mused wryly.

But alas, with Gollum and in these bare lands, hunting was no possibility. It took time and effort, and Aragorn had to spare neither. Therefore, he ate some of the roots and drank some water, before he took out the healing herbs he still had in his possession.

With nothing but the light of the moon, he unwrapped the bandage from his right hand and examined the bite wound. The flesh was red and inflamed, hot to the touch and it still bled, although only a bit. Every movement of the hand or wrist caused pain to race up and down his arm, and with every passing day Aragorn feared more that the wound would never heal.

Setting his yaw, he moved his fingers, then his wrist and then he made a fist and clenched and unclenched his hand. It hurt, Valar it hurt. But there was nothing he could do than numb the pain, clean the wound and wrap it again in some bandages. So, he took some of the pain reducing herbs, chewed them and then smeared the past on the wound. It stung and burned, but Aragorn rubbed the paste into the wound with a determined face until the pain subsided and then vanished. Then, he wrapped the wound in the same bandages he had used before; he had no others.

While he put away the herbs, food and water, Aragorn could hear Gollum whisper under his breath. He could not make out all the words, but he guessed that Gollum was mumbling the same that he had been mumbling since he had found him in the Dead Marshes.

Gollum was missing his 'precious'. Every night and day the creature was longing to see the One Ring. His mind had been corrupted by the ring and every waking hour and even in sleep Gollum wanted him. To Aragorn it seemed as if the creature needed the ring to survive, as much as he needed air to breathe.

Looking towards Gollum, Aragorn saw that the creature had curled in upon itself, as far under the dead bushes as it could, the back facing towards the moon. Gollum trembled and moved, and Aragorn was not sure whether he was asleep or not, but he did not truly care; he would find no sleep this way or the other.

Suddenly, a wail could be heard from Gollum, "Precious, my precious. We want it, we need it. Yess, curse the thief –sss-. We need it, preciouss –Gollum, Gollum." And then, to Aragorn's uttermost surprise, Gollum began to weep. His shoulders shook and the whole thin body trembled as sobs coursed through him.

"Precious, we looove it. We need it, preciousss!" Gollum placed his face in his hands and wailed miserably, crying and weeping over the loss of his precious.

Aragorn could not move. In silence he sat there, wrapped in his blanket, and watched the misery that was Gollum weep and cry. And in that moment, all the hate, anger and disgust that he held for Gollum vanished, and his heart was filled with passion and pity.

What had Gollum been through to get to this point? Gandalf had told him once that Gollum's real name was Trahald in the northern tongue and Smeagol in the common tongue. Once, many years ago, Smeagol had been a Hobbit of the Stoors of Dunland, and had been loved by his family and friends. But then, one day, the ring had found Smeagol and his life had changed. Smeagol became Gollum, and the ring poisoned his mind.

And now that Aragorn saw Gollum weep and cry, he wondered what the creature had had to endure all those long years that he had dwelled in the darkness of the Misty Mountains, exiled from his family, alone and abandoned forever.

Had Smeagol regretted taking the ring? Had be even cursed the ring and tried to get rid of it? Had he missed his family and friends, life itself? And then later, when Bilbo had stolen the ring from Gollum in the depth of the Hithaeglir, had Smeagol not been glad then, while Gollum had longed to get it back?

No, Aragorn doubted that. Although Gollum and Smeagol seemed to be two different persons, they thought alike and both craved for the ring. And what had led Gollum to enter Mordor, as Aragorn presumed he had? Had he tried to be near Sauron, the master and rightful owner of the ring? Had he perhaps thought that Sauron could lead him to the ring? And if Gollum had been taken prisoner by Sauron and tortured in Barad Dur, what horrors had he gone through? How much had he suffered before the Dark Lord released him again?

Aragorn did not know, but he felt that Gollum had suffered greatly under the Eye and that the orcs had not been nice to him. No one that entered Barad Dur left it alive, and that Gollum still lived was a miracle. Of course, Sauron had only released him because he hoped that Gollum would lead him to the ring, but no one could be sure about that. After all, Gollum did not know where the ring was, otherwise he would have tried to steal it back already.

Another pitiful wail came from Gollum, and Aragorn shivered slightly. No longer did he feel hatred for Gollum, but sympathy. No longer able to watch the suffering of the former Hobbit, Aragorn wrapped the blanket tighter about his shoulders and gazed out into the night.

During the journey from Mordor to the North, he had lost a lot of weight, and he felt the wind and the cold of the night more than he would have done before. Another sob shook Gollum's body, and Aragorn heard him mutter about his precious.

No being should suffer like that, he thought. And then his thoughts wandered to The Shire and the Hobbits that lived there. They were a merry folk, full of laughter and life. They enjoyed the sunshine and the stars, a good beer, food and pipe weed. They were friendly and loved everything that grew. They were such an innocent folk, that Aragorn sometimes wondered what would happen to them should there be war with Sauron. It was a horrid thought.

Without his conscious thought, his grey eyes returned to Gollum once more. How long had it taken to turn a merry and funny Hobbit into such a miserably and despicable creature that Gollum was now? For how long had Smeagol tried to fight the power of the ring? Had he tried at all, or thought that the ring was a great gift until it was too late for him to turn back?

Aragorn did not know, but he felt that the fight between the ring and Smeagol had scarred the creature, and it was a scar that would never vanish. Suddenly, Aragorn knew that should the ring be destroyed, Gollum would die, too. His fate was bound to the One Ring, and where the ring went, Gollum would follow, even into the burning fires of Mount Doom.

Letting his gaze travel back to the lands before him, Aragorn listened to the wail of Gollum, until the poor creature finally fell asleep. But even after that, he sat still on the cold ground, gazing at the myriads of tiny stars that twinkled so high above him. They used to fill him with strength and soothe his mind, but not that night. This night, his thoughts dwelled on the past and the many things that had led him and Gollum to his very place.

The next morning dawned misty and cold, the sky laden with heavy rain clouds. The grass was wet with dew and the spider webs that hung in the trees and bushes were covered in tiny water droplets. With tired eyes and a stiff body, Aragorn woke Gollum, and they set out again towards the North.

The day went by quickly, and around the noon hour the two travellers reached the outskirts of the Gladden Fields. The water from the Gladden river had turned the surrounding area into muddy plains with only some dry places, and the marshland made walking difficult and exhausting.

After splashing through the marshland for some time, Aragorn and Gollum finally reached the site where the Gladden emptied into the Anduin, and here they rested for some time. Gollum had been quiet since they had reached the Gladden Fields, but his head had swivelled from there to here and his mouth had twitched and moved in silent talk.

Aragorn, on the other hand, had been less attentive to his surroundings. Orcs seldom came here as there was no game to find in the marshes, and the sweet smell of the many irises that grew here disgusted them.

Furthermore, every step that Aragorn took wearied his body, and his legs burned from the strain he forced them through. More than once he sunk knee deep into the mud, and only with great effort was he able to free himself. His boots were water sodden as was his cloak, and his leggings and tunic were wet with mud and sweat, too.

The constant pulling of Gollum on the rope had made his wrist turn red and burn, despite the elvish rope that he used to hold Gollum prisoner. Aragorn had ordered Gollum to walk slower and to stop pulling at the rope, but neither his anger nor his threats had had any impact on the creature, and so Aragorn had given up before his throat could have become sore as well.

But now, near the Anduin and the Gladden, his feet simply would not carry him any further, and his body longed for some rest. Wearily, Aragorn bound the rope that held Gollum around a dead tree trunk, and then sank down on a rock.

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and let his tiredness overtake him for some minutes. The river gurgled behind him and the wind howled through the dry bushes and dead trees that had once grown here.

How much longer, Aragorn thought, until I reach Mirkwood? He knew that Legolas would be there, as the Wood Elf rarely left his home when Aragorn was not in Eriador. Once in Mirkwood and with Gollum in custody, he would spend some time with his life long friend, and perhaps that time could make him forget and replenish the strength of body and mind that he had lost during his hunt for Gollum. And who knew? Mayhap the elves of Lorien had seen him nevertheless and send word of his coming, and Legolas was already waiting for him on the edge of the forest?

Sighing and straightening up, Aragorn winced as his back and shoulders protested against that movement. Months of travelling, hunger and little sleep were taking their toll upon his body. Suddenly, he heard the crunching of earth and stones under bare feet, and only a moment later Gollum reached his side.

The creature crouched down before him on the ground and looked up at him with big yellow eyes. A long fingered hand stretched towards the hem of his cloak and Gollum tugged at it repeatedly.

"We need to go. We cannot stay here, it hurts uss, yess preciouss. Yellow face sees uss, water is evil. It was here, it calls uss – Gollum, Gollum."

Aragorn freed his cloak from Gollum's grasp and gazed at the 'yellow face'. The sun was hidden behind heavy clouds, so why was Gollum afraid of it? Gollum hated all living beings, as well as the sun and the moon, but until now he had never feared the sun on cloudy days. No, something was not as it seemed.

Frowning, Aragorn countered, "No, we will rest for a bit longer. Go and find something to eat."

But Gollum would not go. Instead, he inched towards Aragorn, nearly touching his knees. "No, need to go. Wicked man cannot hear it. Stupid man, filthy dumb man cannot hear it call us, preciouss –Gollum, Gollum."

And with that, Gollum reached out and grabbed the cloak that Aragorn wore and pulled so fiercely that Aragorn almost slid from the rock. Growling, Aragorn yanked the cloak free and then gave Gollum a hard shove, sending him tumbling to the ground.

"We will rest, and do not do that again!"

Aragorn stood to his feet, swaying slightly, and as Gollum made no move to leave, he unsheathed his sword and held it threateningly towards the creature. Instantly, Gollum screeched, clambered to hands and feet, and wormed away towards the river bank, where he crouched down, staring into the muddy water.

But the muttering did not stop, and Aragorn could make out words such as 'birthday', 'it came to me' and 'preciouss was here, yess'. For a moment Aragorn asked himself whether it was not better to go on, but when he swayed again, he sat down quickly.

His body was tired, and as there were still some hours of daylight left, a few minutes of rest could not hurt. Sighing once more and sheathing his blade, he let his gaze travel over the marshes and the river.

So here it happened, Aragorn thought. Here Isildur was slain and the ring lost to the river. And here the ring found Smeagol, and Gollum came to life. The lands looked barren and desolated, it was a hopeless place. The many irises that grew here in abundance could not hide the fact that the Gladden Fields were a lonesome place full of darkness and despair, on the contrary, the beauty of the flowers only emphasized this feeling.

A splashing reached Aragorn' ears, and he looked at Gollum. The creature sat hunched near the river, one hand held above the stream and water running down the fingers to drip into the water. But Gollum was not trying to catch some fish, no, he was staring into the river, almost mesmerized.

Almost timidly, he stretched out his hand and touched the water, and then he flung his hand back as if burned, murmuring, "My preciouss, bed of my preciouss is now empty. Want it back, need it back."

Aragorn had not thought it possible, but he gazed in astonishment as a single tear rolled down Gollum's ugly face and mingled with the water of the river. In that moment, Gollum looked more like a Hobbit than ever, and Aragorn felt a pang of guilt in his heart. So strong was it, that he averted his eyes and gazed out at the river instead.

Isildur, he thought. Had it not been for his ancestor, Gollum would have never found the ring, he would have never claimed it and his life would not have turned into such a sad tale. So many years ago, when Isildur, son of Elendil, had not destroyed the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, he had not only doomed mankind and all of Middle-Earth to a life in darkness and despair, but he had also doomed Smeagol to a miserable life.

Due to Isildur's weak heart, the ring had been lost in the current of the river, waiting and sleeping until it found a new host. Not for the first time in his life Aragorn asked himself, why Isildur had not destroyed the ring, or why Elrond had not simply killed Isildur and thrown the ring into the fire. So many lives could have been saved by that.

But alas, what had happened had happened, and the future was still unwritten, the pages of the book of time still empty, and not event he Valar could tell what the future would bring. Maybe Gandalf was right, and without Gollum, the ring would have never passed to Bilbo, and therewith into the hands of those that tried to defeat Sauron. Of course, they were not yet sure if the ring that Bilbo had found was truly the One Ring, but all signs indicated that it was.

A single crow crossed the sky, and Aragorn knew that it was time to leave. He had tarried to long as it was. The marshes were treacherous at night, and he wanted to leave them before darkness settled over the lands. Getting up, he took a steadying breath as his head started to spin, and made his way over to where Gollum still crouched near the stream.

Towering over the creature, he gave a soft pull at the rope, and Gollum turned his huge eyes to look at him. "Wicked man cannot hear it call uss. Wicked man does not know how it hurts uss –Gollum, Gollum."

And with that, Gollum sniffed and began to walk away, into the direction Aragorn and he had been travelling for months –Northwards.

For long hours they walked in silence, stomping through the mud and crossing tiny rivers that all emptied into the Gladden or the Anduin. With the stillness of the air around them and the tiring task of pulling his feet out of mud puddles without falling or sinking too deep, Aragorn could not help but think about Gollum's last words.

Indeed, he did not know how it was to be possessed by such evil, and he hoped that he would never find out. What must it feel like to not be the owner of ones own thoughts, to be corrupted by a power so strong that it could turn a mortal immortal for hundreds of years? What kind of feeling was it to never be alone in ones body and mind, to hear the ring whisper and talk to one?

The thought alone was terrible. During his months with Gollum, Aragorn had found out that Gollum loved and hated the ring. Oh, he loved the ring, needed it and when it called to him he would answer, but another part of the creature hated the ring for what it had done to him. Smeagol hated the ring and its power with a passion; he wished to have never found the ring, he hated his loneliness and what the ring forced him to do and to endure. But although Gollum knew that the ring was no good for him and that he should turn from him and not heed the calling, he could not. And that was what he hated, too. Smeagol hated his weakness and his longing for the ring; but as it seemed, the side in the creature that loved the ring was stronger than the side that hated it. As long as Smeagol needed Gollum, he would need the ring.

Stumbling over a protruding root, Aragorn cursed softly under his breath. Valar he was tired, and he wished for some rest and sleep. But night was still some hours away and he would not rest ere they had cleared the marshes. Gollum crawled through the marshes in front of him, unperturbed by the mud and the water.

From time to time, Gollum would pick a worm out of the earth and eat it, and every time he did, Aragorn turned his head away. Not even the pity he held for Gollum could stop his stomach from getting sick.

Just as Gollum let another worm wriggle from his lips before he sucked it through his thin lips, another thought came unbidden to Aragorn' mind.

What if, one day, I am tempted by the ring and I fail the test? What if I claim the ring as mine, and it fills my being and possesses my spirit? Will I turn into a being such as Gollum over time? Not able to age and die, always hungering for the ring? What would my family and friends do? Would they kill me? Would they save we from such a fate, or would pity stay their bows and swords and so doom Middle-Earth?

Aragorn shuddered, but not from the cold or the wind. Gollum's fate would not be his own. Should it come to that, he would defeat the call of the ring. At least, he hoped he would.

Night came quickly in the marshes, and with the last light of Arnor Aragorn and Gollum left the Gladden Fields, crossed the Gladden and felt the hard earth under their feet. Gollum seemed happy to leave the marshes behind, and when Aragorn called for a halt, he hummed and sat down under some dead bushes without protest.

In this cloudy night, not even the moon bothered Gollum, and he slept peacefully and without any murmuring until the pale light of morning graced the lands.

After a quick breakfast, they set out again. Aragorn was eager to reach Mirkwood, and now that the marshlands lay behind them, he set a faster pace. In a few days they would reach the Old Ford, cross the Anduin and after a few more days, enter Mirkwood. And after that, it would only be a few more days and he would be rid of Gollum. It was a thing to look forward to.

The day passed uneventfully. Gollum trudged obediently in front of him, and although he had taken to mumble under his breath and throw strange glances over his shoulder at Aragorn, nothing more than that happened. And, Aragorn thought, Gollum used to do that a lot for most of the time.

They made good progress, and in the minutes before the sun set and the night awoke, Aragorn decided that he had come further than even he had planned. But then, it happened.

In the gloaming, Aragorn overlooked a sharp rock that was half in and half out of the ground, and before he could stop it, he stumbled and crashed to the ground. The air left his lungs in a whoosh, and he was so stunned for a moment, that we was unable to breathe. His chest hurt where he had landed on other sharp rocks, and his head pounded painfully. He had scratched the palms of his hands on the pebbles and stones and his already injured wrist send a bolt of fire through his arm.

While Aragorn tried to fill his lungs with air, he suddenly felt a weight on his back that pressed him to the ground. Still unable to take a breath, he heard Gollum's voice from above.

"Wicked man fell, now filthy wicked man will die. Hurt uss, precious, he did- Gollum, Gollum." And with that, Gollum grabbed Aragorn' hair and slammed his head to the ground with such a force that red dots appeared before Aragorn's eyes.

But Gollum's attack had broken the spell, and before the creature could slam in head to the ground once more, Aragorn took a deep breath and pushed himself off the ground. Gollum screamed and tightened his hold on Aragorn' hair, wrapping his other arm around Aragorn's throat to strangle him.

The new lack of air made his head swim and Aragorn sank back to the ground. Gollum jumped atop his back, laughing and hissing and not once releasing his hold on Aragorn's throat.

Anger burned in Aragorn, and he twisted and turned and with one great turn he rolled over onto his back, forcing Gollum to release him. Taking advantage of that, Aragorn punched Gollum in the face, so that the creature fell off of him, but Gollum was too agitated to give up.

With a snarl he attacked. He jumped on Aragorn's chest and wrapped his long and strong fingers around Aragorn's unprotected neck. Then, he squeezed and tightened his hold even more, his eyes big and glimmering evilly.

"Wicked man. Filthy man, curse him –Gollum. Made uss walk, made uss talk, made uss hurt –Gollum, Gollum."

Aragorn was desperate. Never had he thought that this slim creature possessed such a strength. He twisted and tried to wriggle out from under Gollum, but the creature just tightened his hold, chocking the life out of him.

Red and black spots danced in his vision, and all sounds seemed to become softer. The smirking face of Gollum atop him swam before his eyes, and Aragorn knew that his little lack of attention would cost him dearly.

Summoning all strength that he had left, Aragorn reached up and hit Gollum in the face and the chest, he tried to pry the long fingers from his neck, but nothing worked. His strength left him like water flowed from a broken bottle, and the spots before his eyes increased in number.

His legs became numb and his arms fell weakly to his side. His eyelids fluttered, and when he looked at Gollum's face that was now only inches from his own, he saw the satisfied gleam in the yellow orbs. It was over.

Then, suddenly, his failing hearing caught the sound of…thundering hooves! A horse was running towards them, and Aragorn could see Gollum lift his head and stare into the night. Fear shone in his eyes, and in that fleeting moment new hope burned in Aragorn's chest.

A whooshing resounded through the night, and then a yellow feathered arrow imbedded itself into the ground only inches away from where Gollum and Aragorn lay on the ground. Gollum screamed and released his hold on Aragorn. "Nasty Elvses! No!"

He jumped from Aragorn's chest and tried to run, but it seemed he had forgotten the rope that bound him to Aragorn, and so he was flopped onto his back as he rope tightened. He pulled and screeched, but the rope did not give. Fear stood in his eyes, and he wailed miserably.

Aragorn gasped and coughed as he filled his starving lungs with air. His chest hurt and his head pounded fiercely. Sitting up and letting his head hang between his knees, he tried to calm his ragged breathing. The spots before his eyes vanished, but the burning sensation around his neck did not, and would not for a long time. Already bruises formed on the soft skin and the imprints of Gollum's fingers could be seen even in the dark of the night.

Aragorn felt someone kneel down by his side, and then the touch of a well known hand on his shoulder. "Strider, are you all right?" The voice was edged with worry, but all Aragorn could do in that moment was nod, as his breathing was still unsteady.

He heard Legolas, for it was his best friend that had come to his rescue, unsheathe his dagger and reach for his arm. And only then did Aragorn notice the pulling on the rope and the blood that flowed from his wrist were the rope had cut into the skin.

Legolas was just about to cut the rope, when Aragorn withdrew his arm and croaked, "No, Legolas. No." Seeing the seriousness of his friend, Legolas frowned and looked at Gollum, who had stopped pulling at the rope and had instead resorted to wail and whine, writhing on the ground once more.

Now that his breathing was somewhat steadier, Aragorn tenderly touched his bruised neck, flinching when he felt the scraped skin. Seeing his friend's pain, Legolas quickly scooted nearer and gently lifted Aragorn's chin to take a look at the injury. After some moments, Legolas let go of Aragorn's chin, and eyed his friend over.

His bright blue eyes turned a shade darker as he took in the bruised and battered form of his friend. Aragorn had always been thin, but now he resembled a sapling more than a tree. His clothing was torn and mud splattered, numerous scratches and bruises littered his arms and hands. Legolas did not even want to think about the hidden injuries.

Locking his blue eyes with the stormy grey ones of his friend, Legolas said softly in Sindarin, "Oh Estel, I am so sorry." He reached out and placed his hand lightly on Aragorn's cheek. Aragorn closed his eyes wearily and let his head hang once more. With the arrival of his friend, his worries seemed to decrease, but all the tiredness and aches that he had suppressed and ignored for so long sprang to life, fuelled by Legolas's worried gaze.

As softly as Legolas, he asked, "What has brought you here in my hour of need, mellon nin?" He could hear the smile that flittered over Legolas's face as he answered, "Your journey across the plains of Rhovanion has not gone unnoticed. It is not only the enemy who has winged friends in the sky and under the sun." Legolas paused for a moment, and then added, "And furthermore, our sentries that keep an eye on Dol Guldur have seen you cross the Loeg Ningloron and informed my patrol that you were near, having a creature with you that was unknown to them. So I decided it would be better to meet you halfway and not wait for you entering Mirkwood; as it seems, I was right in doing so."

With his last sentence, he withdrew his hand form Aragorn's face and looked at Gollum with hate filled eyes. Aragorn lifted his head and followed his friend's gaze. Gollum had stilled his movements, but his lips were still moving and he muttered under his breath about nasty elves and wicked men.

Legolas tightened his grip on the dagger, and his voice was harsh, "I should have killed him when I had the chance. He does not deserve to live."

He made as if to get to his feet to let deeds follow his words, but Aragorn reached out quickly and laid a hand on his forearm, effectively staying his motions.

Legolas looked at him sharply, as in his eyes, this creature had tried to murder his best friend. Aragorn's voice was soft as he said, „No, Legolas. No."

But Legolas shook his arm free and gestured at Gollum, "He has tried to kill you, Strider. He is a murderer and deserves death."

Aragorn gazed at Gollum and then took a deep breath. Yes, he thought, Gollum deserves death, but not because of the reasons you have, my friend. He deserves death to be free at last, as he has suffered enough in his life. But when he answered, he voiced nothing of this,

„Maybe he deserves death, but Gandalf wants to question him and I promised to bring him to Mirkwood alive." And with that, Aragorn scrambled to his weary feet and walked slowly towards Gollum.

The creature backed away from him and mumbled under his breath. When Aragorn was only a yard away from him, Gollum cried out pitifully, „It was not uss, it was not uss! Please, don't kill uss. We promise to be good, yess, we promise!"

But Aragorn did not heed his words, he knew that Gollum would again try to kill him, should the creature get the chance. So, he just stared down at Gollum for some moments, and then said calmly, "If you try that again, Gollum, I will leave you in the wild, bound to a rock, so that the sun and the moon can see you, and all I will leave you to eat will be elvish bread and elvish water to drink. And then the orcs can come and take you back to Mordor, to be questioned again by Him."

Gollum's eyes widened and he hid his face in his big hands, whimpering, "No, no, he seess all. Through skin and flesh and bone. He hurts uss, precious. We will be good, we wants not to go back, no. Preciouss, preciouss…"

Aragorn gave Gollum another long look, then turned and walked back to Legolas. His whole body hurt and his throat was itchy and burned like fire. Furthermore, now both of his wrists were injured, and he could barely use his hands.

Legolas watched with a heavy heart as his friend returned to where he had quietly waited. He had heard every word, and for a short moment he wondered where Strider had gone, and who the man was that now stood before him. But then, Aragorn sighed and the thought vanished like mist in sunshine.

Legolas could tell that Aragorn was tired to the bone and that he had probably not slept in weeks. He was pale and his eyes dulled; he looked barely alive. Without looking at Legolas, Aragorn sat down in the grass, as far away from Gollum as the rope allowed, and began to unwrap the rope from his cut wrists.

Kneeling down beside his friend, the elf gently batted the man's hand away and began to loosen the rope around the wrist. The skin was cut deeply and blood ran down the wrist, arm and hand. Legolas rebound the rope around his own wrist and then cleaned the wound with water from his flask.

He carried no herbs as he had left the palace in great haste, but he guessed that he could leave the injury thus tended until morning and bright daylight. Then, Legolas tended to the other wrist and the bruised neck. During all that time, neither of them spoke, but it was a comfortable silence.

When all injuries had been tended to, Legolas wrapped his own cloak around Aragorn's shoulders, and it was a testament to the ranger's weariness that he took it without protesting. Settling down beside his friend, Legolas gazed at Gollum. The creature had not so much as twitched, but Legolas still felt the evil that enveloped the creature.

"He is not as bad as you think, Legolas."

The softly spoken words caught the elf unprepared, and he quickly looked back at his friend. Aragorn's grey eyes were locked on Gollum, and as he spoke, there was a flicker in them that Legolas had never seen before.

"He has endured much, and his life is a sad one."

"Aragorn, you ... you pity him." Legolas could not help it, but his voice sounded surprised.

To his astonishment, a sad smile crossed Aragorn's care worn face. "Yes, I do, mellon nin."

"By the Valar, why Aragorn?"

It took a moment before Aragorn answered, and his voice was even softer as he finally did, „Because his fate is bound to mine. He is what I could be."

Legolas gaped at his life long friend. What was he talking about? But then, realization hit him, and his eyes softened. Of course, his friend thought about Isildur, and the way the ring had presumably found its way into Gollum's hands. But the last statement was too much for him.

"Aragorn, this will not be your fate. Should it come to it, you will pass the test, and you know it well."

"How can you be so sure? When even a Hobbit, one of the most careless races of this Middle-Earth, who desires nothing but some ale or pipe weed, can be corrupted by the ring, how can a human pass the test?"

Legolas reached out and placed a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder, "You will pass, because you have something to fight for. Family, friends and love. And you will not be alone, mellon nin." He gave the shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and then said softly, "Get some sleep, Aragorn. I will take the watch tonight."

Aragorn took a deep breath before he answered, „I think he never had a chance, Legolas. The ring found Smeagol and took possession of him. And since that day, he has only existed, but not lived. All he did, every single day, was serve the ring. And even now, he needs it and it poisons his thoughts."

A shudder went through Aragorn body, and his eyes became darker. Legolas watched his friend's face worriedly. He did not know what Aragorn had been through, but he could clearly see that he was exhausted and in need of comfort. Therefore, he scooted closer to the man and wrapped his free arm around Aragorn's middle, letting his friend rest against his shoulder.

For a moment it seemed as if Aragorn would not heed the unspoken invitation, but then he leaned back against Legolas, tightened the cloak around his shoulders and closed his eyes. Stillness settled over the lands, and for long minutes the only sound that could be heard was the occasional soft murmur from Gollum.

Just as Legolas had thought that Aragorn had fallen asleep, the man spoke softly, „Legolas?"


"I am glad you found me."

"And I am very thankful that I found you." And in his thoughts he added, 'Although you are far from well, physically as well as emotionally, my friend.'

It was silent for another minute, but then Aragorn whispered, "I am very thankful, too, Legolas. And I thank the Valar every single day that I still possess it."

Curious, Legolas asked softly, "What is it you are so thankful for?"

"Free will Legolas, free will." Aragorn answered, "The greatest gift of the Valar," and then fell into a deep sleep until the next morning, secure in the arms of his best friend.

The End.