Title: Where few dare to go
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or anything that has to do with the Lord of the Rings. It belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien, his heirs and license holders. I make no money with this story.
Summary: After Aragorn leaves Minas Tirith and defeats the Corsairs at Umbar, he left the service of the Steward, crossed the Great River Anduin at Pelargir and was last seen facing Mordor. This is what could have happened.
A/N: Written for the Teitho Contest "Wanderlust".
Black and dark the mountains rose mightily in front him, and as Aragorn tilted his head backwards, he was not able to see the peaks of them. Mist clung to the rocks and boulders that had rolled down to the ground ages ago; it swivelled around the grey tree trunks and covered the ground. No grass grew here and what had once been lively and colourful had died long ago. The trees were ill and thin, most of them dead and decaying.
No animal lived here, no insects flew; the air was filled with nothing but cold wind and whispering dangers. The darkness never left this place, as if it had been born here, and when one looked closer at the shadows, one thought to see the darkness come alive.
No, this place was silent, it was dead, it was evil.
Aragorn tightened his cloak around his shoulders, and resumed his slow march across this barren wasteland. For weeks he was now travelling in this region of Arda, never looking back or to the side, only forwards, out of fear that his heart would stray and his feet would disobey him. He needed to go on, there was no other way, and to stop or to turn would be his sure death.
Ai, he thought, what devilry has brought me to this place, that not even my worst nightmares have shown me? But he received no answer, and all he heard was the whisper of the sand and pebbles that he churned while he walked; his feet left no trace on the stony ground, and once his tall frame had passed, nothing remembered of his presence.
For hours he marched, his head bend low and his shoulders, once proud and strong, hunched as if a great weight was pressing down on them. The sun travelled across the sky, but Anor's light did not reach the ground, as white and grey clouds barred the light. The world was a misty grey, a shadow in itself.
When night came, Aragorn crouched down under some low hanging stones that formed an outcropping in the mountain's side, and he wrapped himself in his filthy cloak, shivering in the chill. But he did not dare light a fire, as the smoke and the light could attract the enemy.
Oh aye, the enemy lived here, everywhere. Behind the dead trees and the dry bushes, under the stones and rocks, in caves and crevices. This was the enemies' land, forbidden territory, a place that few dared to go willingly, but that Aragorn had to traverse.
This was as close to Mordor as he wished to go, although he knew that his path would lead him ever closer to Mordor, if he wished it or not. Shivering in a sudden gust of icy wind, Aragorn drew his cloak tighter around his shoulders, and sighed wearily.
So long since I left the green fields of South Ithilien, and the gurgling streams and flowery meadows, he thought wistfully. For how long have my tired feet carried me across this deserted plains, I wonder? For indeed, it cannot be that long, as I still have water from the last stream I crossed in my flask.
A few days, a week? Ah, this land gnaws not only at my body, but my mind as well, and I wish to leave it. But alas, I cannot, for I have no other way to go, and turn I must to the North and walk through this land, ere I can leave it. Alas!
Indeed, it had been short over a week since he had seen the hills of Emyn Arnen in the distance, and had then followed the untrodden paths into the shadows of the Ephel Duath. Since then, his way had led him steadily northwards, parallel to the Harad Road, and he knew that The Crossing and therewith the path to Minas Morgul was not far.
Minas Morgul or Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, as it was once called. Old and ancient books described the city as beautiful and shining with the moonlight, but now the place was dark and evil prowled along its walls. Still, Aragorn felt a strange longing in his heart when he thought of the city, for few men had laid eyes on the Tower since he was taken by the enemy, and he wished to do so.
I wonder, he thought while he tried to ignore the chill that crawled along his body and settled in his bones, if the valley looks the way told in tale and song. And I wonder, if I will live long enough to tell someone that I have been here and seen it.
And with that, he fell into an uneasy sleep, his mind not truly resting and his senses alert for any danger that might find him. But the land was quiet and nothing stirred; the dead trees bent under the shadow and the moon was hidden by dark clouds.
Morning in this land came silent; no birds greeted the day, no animals skittered hither and thither, and no flowers opened their colourful blossoms to drink in the sun. Indeed, in this far away land, the day was as dim as the evening, and all there existed shone in a brown twilight.
Tired and weary, Aragorn climbed out of his nightly hiding place, and tightened his tattered cloak around his shoulders. The morning was cold, the sky grey, and the rays of the sun were blocked by the clouds; mist clung to the ground, and Aragorn could not even see his boots, so thick was it.
Shivering, he set out, his feet carrying him northwards. Northwards…for many days now he followed that direction, his gaze and heart focused on that which lay there. It had been knowledge, then memory, and now it was but a dream. Thin and fragile it was, blurry and hazy, a figment out of another world, a world full of light and life, fresh air and colours, sounds and smells that were fair and sweet.
Here, all was dead, and those beings that still drew breath and lived, Aragorn tried to avoid. They were evil and would not hesitate to torture him, before they killed him. And after his death, they would most likely humiliate his body, or eat what was left of him.
Another shiver crawled down Aragorn's spine, and he forced his feet to walk faster, wishing to leave this place as fast and as far behind as possible. No indeed, the Ephel Duath were no place to stay too long.
The day passed slowly, as they all did in this place, although the night came early here so close to the Nameless Land, where not even the sun wished to be seen. Around midday, Aragorn rested for a while, eating from his provisions, but even his hunger had left him here and he ate little.
Using the rest he forced himself to take, despite his wish to walk on, he examined his weapons and gear. His sword was still sharp, as he had not been forced to use it since crossing the Anduin, a small miracle in itself. His daggers and knives were well cared for, but he sharpened them nevertheless, more to give his hands something to do than for any other reason.
The other contents in his small pack, some food, water, herbs, bandages, spare clothing and rope, looked fine, although he knew that he would need to find some water and food soon; he had seen no river or stream and had found no food since he had left Emyn Arnen behind him.
Sighing and replacing the items, his only connection to another world, back into his worn pack, Aragorn got to his feet and shouldered his gear. It was time to move on.
The landscape that he walked through looked like nothing he had ever seen before, not even when he had been to Harad or Rhun. The ground was broken and uneven, covered in pebbles, stones and rocks of all sizes and forms. Dense thickets grew here, wastes of brambles and dry bushes.
From time to time, he saw places where the earth was blackened from recent fires, and then he would scan the ground for tracks of orcs or other fell creatures, but he never found anything, for the ground was hard and gravel thrown; no prints would stay visible on this ground, and what had been there had long been blown away by the cold wind that blew in the nights. Still, that did not stop Aragorn from making sure that he would not run blindly into danger.
Danger, he thought wryly, I have felt enough here to last my lifetime. For, nearly every night he lay his tired body down to rest, he could hear drums in the distance, dark and heavy sounds that carried far and shook the earth. And always he would lay awake in fear and anguish and listen to the sounds, praying that it was not a sign that he had been found and that the enemy was going to get him. And sometimes, when he lay on some rocks with his face and ear on the stone, he could even hear the drums come out of the ground, from deep down in the mountains, as if something evil lived down there, awake only at night. It was a disquieting thought, and whenever that happened, Aragorn would pack his things and leave that place ere the dim light of the morning send the drums to sleep again.
Aye indeed, this land was benighted, and never again would it be fair or green. And even should Sauron the deceiver be overthrown one day, this scar on the surface of Middle-Earth would never fade.
The day progressed, and the land he came through changed little. He walked through shrouded hollows and dark pits, passed black bushes with thorny twigs that would reach for him if he did not pay attention, and when the night darkened the sky, he found a tangled knot of thorns to sleep under.
Aragorn took a swig out of his water flask and then closed it carefully, making sure that he spilled not the tiniest drop. Crossing his arms across his chest, he lay on his back and stared through the thorns into the night sky and his thoughts wandered.
He saw far away countries, green rolling hills and wide meadows full of blossoming flowers; he could almost smell the sweet scent of the daffodils and buttercups. He saw clear rivers that sparkled in the sunshine, gurgling merrily while washing over stones and rocks, the silver fishes in the water fighting the current to return to their places of birth. Colourful butterflies flew around his head as he stood in the middle of a field full of violet blossoming clover, and bees and other insects buzzed around him. The wind was warm on his face, soothing and calming.
But then the dreamy vision left him, and he felt the sharp stones poke into his back, making already sore muscles even sorer, and when the cold and harsh wind made him shudder, Aragorn gazed at the cloud covered sky.
No stars shimmered there, and no light could be seen except a dull red glowing that hang over the Ephel Duath, like the glowing of an everlasting fire in the distance. It made the night eerie, and not for the first time since he had come here, Aragorn wished for the darkness of night to take away the sight of this land from his eyes, and engulf him in complete blackness, so that he would be able to sleep…and forget.
Or, he thought wistfully, at least give me some stars to see, some silver twinkling light that reminds me of the night sky at home, the vast deep blueness of it, dotted with silver flickering beacons of light. Give me Gil-Estel, or the Remmirath. Show me the Sickle of the Valar, the seven stars that Varda set in the sky to remember all of the downfall of Morgoth. Aye indeed, Aragorn thought, the Valacirca was something that he wished he could see here, for it would give him new hope.
But alas, the sky stayed dark and grey, and no starlight reached the land. And so he closed his eyes tiredly and fell into a slight slumber, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, which was laying across his chest, as it did every night.
So passed his days, and he grew more tired and weary, and not only his body suffered in this land, but his spirit as well. He walked under gaunt and leggy trees, rested under gnarled bushes, and tore his clothing at long thorns.
For two days he marched through an area with high bushes, and they had yellow flowers that emitted a sweet smell, and when the gloaming came the blossoms glowered faintly. Their scent filled the air, but despite their strange beauty and lovely smell, Aragorn could not shake the feeling that they were nothing but deadly traps for all those that fell to their charm. And so he did not sleep those two nights, fearing that he might become their next victim in his slumber, when his senses were not alert enough to warn him against the blossoms' treachery.
He walked on, his feet stumbling over hidden rocks, his hands steadying his sometimes swaying body against dead trees, his cloak not enough to shelter him from the cold that lingered in the air. The sun veiled its face, and the constant gloom dulled Aragorn's senses.
And then, one day when there was no mist and no sound at all that indicated that there was life in this land so close to the Dark Country, Aragorn crossed the road that spread between the once fair Osgiliath and Minas Morgul. The road was littered with gravel and grime, but there were no signs that someone or something had passed this way aforetime. It almost looked to his tired eyes as if this road had been built and then forgotten, to whither and waste, just like this country did.
Aragorn lifted his head, the cold wind that came from the East tangling in his dark hair, and his grey eyes became alert and his gaze sharp. A great quietness seemed to come over him, and for long minutes he looked into the East, and then into the West. And then his shoulders straightened, his face became firm, and after a deep breath he turned his face away from the West, and walked away from the shallow light that could be seen there. No, his way lay to the East. For now.
Crunching dead leaves under his feet, and feeling small pebbles roll hither and thither under his steps, Aragorn determinedly made his way through the Morgul Vale, or the Imlad Morgul as the elves call it, the valley of black magic.
Around midday he saw the first signs of the Morgulduin which flowed through the valley and then poured into the Anduin. The sky was darker here, and the closer he came to the heart of the valley, the light dimmed, and the chill in the air increased. He tightened his cloak around his shoulders, but the coldness did not lessen, but grew and grew.
And then, suddenly, when he turned around some black rocks that were higher than he himself, he saw it. Aragorn stopped in his tracks so suddenly as if someone had slapped him, and a small gasp escaped his lips. His eyes grew wide and although he did not know it, he paled and took a step back into the shadows of the rocks.
Minas Morgul lay before him, at the head of the Imlad Morgul. He could see the Morgulduin meander through the valley, and the bridge that crossed it. The banks were flat and shadowy, although there was nothing that could create the shadows despite the city itself.
White flowers grew there, beautiful in colour and luminous they were. But when Aragorn looked closer, he saw that they had a horrible, twisted shape that confused the eye, almost like a nightmare come to life. And they did not have the sweet scent of other flowers, but they stank like rotten flesh, and the air was filled with a sickening stench.
And above that all, built on the peaks of a huge flat rock, stood the Tower of Sorcery, the home of the Nazgul and the herald of death. The topmost course of the tower revolved slowly and the walls shone with a faint light.
The road that lead to the huge black gates of the city were lined with grotesque looking statues, and these also stood on the higher walls of the Dead City. The glowing of the Morgulduin mingled with the luminescence of the city, but there was not more light here, but instead the shimmer of the Tower seemed to have imprisoned all fair light, and replaced it with a sickly glow.
Lo! Aragorn thought. Behold the Tower of the Rising Moon, for this was once the fair Minas Ithil, the city of Kings. For so it was, as Isildur himself had built it, after his flight from Numenor to Pelargir with his brother Anarion. Minas Ithil, the strong and fair city of Isildur, the equivalent to Minas Anor. But alas, Sauron had taken the city, and Isildur had fled, to never return; for although he rebuilt the city, the darkness was ever present and no-one who dwelled there found peace.
And now, Aragorn thought darkly, an even greater evil resides there, for the Nazgul took the city, and so it turned to be called Minas Morgul, and no living soul ever returned to this place willingly. The dark servants of Sauron were terrible to behold, and whom their sight alone did not kill, their screech would freeze the heart, to never melt and beat again.
Alas, he thought bitterly, why have I come here? To see what once was? To quell that longing in my heart and to feel the bite of the lethal teeth of Sauron? To see if I can stand the presence of the darkness? My heart flickers in fear and my courage wanes! Alas!
But despite Aragorn's feeling of fear and unease, he took a deep breath and descended into the evilly glowing valley. So far he had come, and he wished not to turn away ere he had come a bit closer to Minas Morgul.
Slowly and carefully he descended into the valley, ever watchful not to tread on the white flowers, for he had heard the they were as deadly as a blade and killed as swift as an arrow. When he reached the flat banks, the stench of decay and rotten flesh grew so intense that he thought he would have to heave, and in great haste he ripped a piece of cloth from his already tattered cloak and bound it before his nose and mouth.
It did not help much, but it was better than nothing, and so Aragorn walked along the river's edge towards the Dead City. He did not dare walk on the road, for the enemy was always watchful; the road gleamed white despite the gloomy sky, and surely every person travelling on it would be seen. But here, close to the river, the shadows lived and wavered, and Aragorn was but a dark speck in a sea of blackness.
So he walked for some long minutes, his eyes darting to and fro, and his hackles raised with every step he took. The Morgulduin smelled almost as sickening as the white flowers, and Aragorn began to feel light headed and his stomach became queasy. But still he went on, almost eager now to see more of the city, to come closer.
Why, he thought? For I will see nothing but stone. And should I see some living thing, then it will be my bane, for it will surely see me too and kill me. Or worse. So why does every beat of my heart, despite the fear, urge me to go on? Have I not seen enough of this devilry? I could turn now and go away, and still have more to tell than I have ever thought possible. So…why walk on to certain death, when life and love awaits me elsewhere?
But lo! Aragorn could not turn, no, his feet carried him onwards, almost drawn to the shimmering tower, that seemed to shine in pale light. Nay, he was unable to stop, and so he came closer and closer to the city. His fear grew, and he regretted ever laying eyes on the Tower of Sorcery!
And then suddenly, a screech filled the still and stale air, and it was so terrible as it echoed from the rock walls, that Aragorn felt his blood freeze in his veins, and all strength left him. With a gasp he sank through his knees and fell hard to the ground, slumping to the side and crushing some of the white flowers under his body.
But he did not notice the intense stench that assaulted his nose, nor the sharp rocks that scraped his hands and forearms. All he was aware of was the horrible screech that came from the city, and his eyes sought frantically the walls of Minas Morgul. Higher and higher up his gaze travelled, and there he beheld the dark figure.
He could not see it clearly, for it seemed shrouded in blackness, a compact mass of evil and darkness. But Aragorn had no doubt that this being was one of the Nine. One of the most deadly servants of Sauron and one of the most loyal.
Lo and behold, the creature seemed to swell and grow and another ear splitting scream raced across the valley. It echoed from the mountains, it filled the air and made Aragorn wish to be deaf. His body began to shake in tremors, his breathing quickened and such an intense coldness settled in his limbs that he feared to freeze to death.
Unmoving, he watched how the Nazgul rose into the sky, circled around the tower, and then descended again into the city, veiled by the high walls. Stillness settled once more over the Imlad Morgul and nothing stirred.
The shock of the Nazgul only slowly released its hold on Aragorn, but when he finally scrambled to his feet, he took a long look at Minas Morgul in its full terrible glory. Night had come without him noticing, and the red glow from the East now filled the valley, the light of the Tower contrasting starkly against it.
But no longer was it the silver moonlight that lit the marble halls in Minas Ithil, but it was a corpse light that shone out of the windows of Minas Morgul. With a shudder, Aragorn turned and averted his eyes from it, his feet obeying his commands once more, so as if the screech of Sauron's servant had broken the spell.
Aragorn drew his cloak around his shivering body, for the coldness had not left him yet, and he felt nauseated and weak. Slowly, he dragged himself across the banks, and with every step he took, his feet became heavier, and his eyes tired. Oh, he was so tired. So tired…
Was here no place to lay down and rest for a while? To sleep? He walked a few more steps, and then, without so much as a forewarning, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground once more. Unconsciously closing his eyes, he felt nothing but stillness and serenity. His head bowed, his dark hair fell into his face, and he felt a great wave of tiredness wash over his senses. So tired…
And so he lay down on the flat bank of the Morgulduin, his eyes closed in his pale face, and his head resting on the white flowers, that smelled like rotten flesh and death. Sleep came to him, and his body wished for nothing more than to rest, to sleep and forget.
But…no. No, he could not sleep. He should not be so tired, he should not lay down. He must not lay down here! Nay, he thought with a surge of panic. I must not, for I will never wake, and if I do it will be in the Halls of Mandos. Get up, Aragorn, get up!
He struggled and fought, and his body did not heed his commands. It was tired, the scent of the white flowers drugging him, telling his body that it needed rest and that this was the perfect place to lay down and sleep.
Aye, he thought wryly, an internal sleep it would be, for I do not know if my spirit would find the way to the Halls, if I died here. Get up, Aragorn and move, and leave this place! Make haste, and do not look back and never return, for the next time the smell of the flowers will be even more inviting. Get up and go!
And so, he forced his tired and complaining body to get up and move, but his body fought him every step of the way. His limbs ached although he was not hurt, his back screamed in pain, although he had not been harmed, and his sword was suddenly so heavy at his side, that he thought it would drag him down into the dust.
Aragorn did not know how long it took him to reach the black rocks from whence he had first gazed upon Minas Morgul, and he could later not tell how he had managed to leave it, but leaving he did, and he did not look back. Not once.
The darkness of the night replaced the brownish gloom, and greyness settled on the lands. With aching limbs and as cold as in the fiercest winter, Aragorn walked as far as he could, and when exhaustion and pain became too great, he rolled under a dead bush and fell into an uneasy slumber from which he did not wake for many hours.
Nightmares plagued him; he saw horrible twisted things, living beings that should rightly be dead, he saw faces, pale and white, the bones shining through the sickly yellow skin. Voices came to him, soothing and gentle at first, but then harsh and cruel, yelling at him, screaming with a rage and passion that made him shiver and flinch.
And then, he saw the black Nazgul and the nightmares became even more horrible, for an icy dead hand seemed to wrap itself around his heart and squeeze it so tightly, that even in his sleeping state, he thought his heart would stop to beat.
For, indeed, his sleep was rather another form of being awake, for all he saw and heard and felt was so real that when morning came and he woke from the nightmares, Aragorn felt as tired as the night before.
His limbs ached and his head pounded rhythmically, but he got to his feet, and when he stopped swaying, he shouldered his pack and stumbled onwards, into the general direction of the North.
Nothing held him here anymore, and the strange longing in his heart to see the city of Isildur had been satisfied; where it had been, now only the wish to leave existed, and the thought that –perhaps- he would not tell of his presence here. Oh no, because he had no wish to relive all that had happened; the nightmares that were sure to haunt him for the rest of his life were enough to deal with.
And so Aragorn marched through the lands that lay so close to the Ephel Duath that the red shadow of the fires on the other side of the 800 mile long mountains range never disappeared, and the harsh and cold wind from the plains of Gorgoroth assaulted the lands at night.
For three days he travelled northwards, leaving the Valley of the Wraiths behind him, but not shaking the feeling of coldness and dread out of his body. For, no matter how hard he pushed himself, how long he walked before he gave his body permission to surrender to his exhaustion or how many miles he put between himself and the valley, the chill in his bones stayed and the darkness that had settled in his mind did not vanish.
More than once during those days, Aragorn found himself walking through terrain he had not noticed entering, or heard sounds in the distance that were far too close to his liking. It almost was as if his mind was still lingering in the darkness that possessed the valley, and it was only slow to emerge from the haze and the dull that had befallen it.
Another day passed, and Aragorn's eyes beheld trees of such twisted growth that he wondered whether the Valar had ever laid eyes on this lands, and if they had, whether their bright spirits had despaired, so that they clouded the sky to be never forced to see it again.
The trunks of the trees were thin and gangly, but the boughs were large and twisted, the branches gripping each other, intertwining, twisting, catching and winding around each other. No bird's nest graced these trees or ever had, and Aragorn wondered for a moment whether there had ever grown leaves on the branches.
When the night settled over the land on the fourth day after he had left the Imlad Morgul behind, Aragorn found shelter between some dark rocks that formed some sort of overhang in the mountain's side, and after a quick look around, he settled down onto the cold ground, drew his knees towards his chest and wrapped his arms around them to keep warm.
It was futile however, the cold night wind sneaked under his cloak and tunic, and the rocks seemed to throw the gusts back at him, making him more miserable than he already was. Darkness fell greyish, the red glow from the mountains dipping the area into an evil twilight, and nothing stirred and all was silent.
Ah, Aragorn thought, what would I not give to see some green here. Or some blue. But alas, all is dark and cheerless. The shadow has claimed these once fair lands, and what once was fair and green has turned to dust and ashes, as we all will, should the darkness not be stopped and the evil overcome. Alas, this cannot be done by one man alone, and I fear not even the united strength of all Arda would be able to fight this and prevail.
And so Aragorn sat in the darkness, waiting for morning to come; for in this lands, he did not wish to sleep, and now that the nightmares assaulted him every night, he did not even dare to fall into a slumber.
It became colder as the night progressed, and Aragorn shivered and trembled miserably, wistfully looking at all the dry and dead branches that he could see lying on the ground; a nice warm fire would be more welcome to him now, than all the gold and jewels that Smaug had once collected in his lair under Erebor.
Midnight came and went, and in the quiet hours before dawn, Aragorn suddenly sat upright and his hand flew to his sword. There were voices…harsh and cruel and at the same time soft and barely above a whisper.
Keen grey eyes scanned the landscape, trying to penetrate the darkness in the shadows and the blackness of the crevices and fissures that riddled the mountain range. But there was nothing…nothing stirred or moved, there was no glow of fire or any other sound than the voices. For a long time Aragorn peered into the darkness, but the voices did not vanish, and although they did not become louder either, Aragorn felt as if someone was watching him.
A gust of cold wind blew down the mountain, and with it came another voice…whispering into his ear, caressing his cheek and playing his with hair. Cold sweat appeared on Aragorn's brow, and his hand which gripped his sword shook slightly.
There were voices on the wind…the wind was talking to him in a way. Or it carried something with it…dead and not so. An eerie chill filled the night, and Aragorn had to forcibly suppress the urge to flee. To just get up and run and run until his feet would no longer carry him.
Folly it would be and he knew that, for in the darkness he would not be able to see his way, and the rocks would trip him and make him fall, or the hollows would invite him, and then he would surely be lost. A broken leg or even a sprained ankle would cost him his life in this evil place, and so all he could do was stare into the darkness and try to ignore the voices that played with him.
Of death they spoke, of rotting carcasses and dust and earth; of battles that were long over and fights that had killed many, of pain and fear and suffering they spoke, but Aragorn bit his lip and clenched his jaw, and forced his body to stay where he was.
Elbereth, he thought, how I wish to hear other voices, fair and lovely, and not so cruel and harsh as these. I want to hear voices lifted in song and lay, voices that tell me of the heroes of old and that sing the lay of realms long forgotten and drowned in the sea.
Oh Eru, take away these horrid voices, and give me the happy twittering of birds, or the murmur of a clear spring river, or the buzzing of summer insects or even the sound of softly falling snow in a quiet wintry forest.
But alas, his wish went unheard, and the voices assaulted him until morning broke gloomy and grey, and with it another day of hard travelling and suffering. But Aragorn did not mind, but welcomed the new day, for the voices left him and with them the coldness in his body receded to the point where it was no longer painful, but merely a nuisance.
He travelled through the day, ignoring the pain in his back or the slight trembling of his body, and instead strode out even wider, proving himself that he was not yet beaten, that he could still go on and that he was stronger than this land.
Around midday, Aragorn rested in the shadow of some high bushes, the gnarled roots of the plants having ripped open the dry earth in numerous places. Aragorn sighed wearily and for a few minutes he let his head hang so that his dark hair hid his tired face.
Hunger he had none, although he had not eaten much since he had left Minas Morgul, but he knew that he needed to eat if he ever wanted to leave this cursed land behind. So, he opened his pack and took out some dried food. He was just to eat it, when a sound reached his ears.
At first, he thought it was the wind again, the bodiless voices returning to torment him, but it could not be, as there was no wind. Alert at once, Aragorn drove his tiredness and the haziness of his mind away, reached for his sword and crouched down on his heels near the next rock formation.
From here he had a better view, and indeed, he did not have to wait long. The voices, harsh and cruel, grew louder and louder, and then, to his horror, four huge and ugly orcs appeared from behind some rocks. They were armed with spears and clubs, clothed in leather and armour, their feet iron shod.
A patrol, Aragorn thought darkly, and wondered why he had not sensed their presence or at laest seen some of their signs. If orcs patrolled this area, surely there had been signs…But alas, this thought did nothing to encourage him, as it only showed him how truly weary and inattentive this land had made him. Or, he thought darkly, this land itself is so evil and full of dangers, that the orcs only pose a little disturbance in the evilness of it.
The orcs came closer to his position, speaking in their foul language, a mixture of Westron and the black speech itself, and Aragorn could not understand all that they were saying, but what he understood was enough to let his hackles rise.
They were indeed a patrol, and they were talking about their latest catch; a Haradrim, who had been left by his company for some reason, after having finished their business at the Black Gate.
Praying inwardly that these orcs would not see him and simply move on, Aragorn shifted his weight nervously. It was not that he could not manage four orcs, but he knew that he was tired and exhausted, the little sleep and the lack of decent food and enough water weakening his body.
But alas, it was not to be, for just as he though that the orcs would indeed pass by his hiding spot, one of the orcs lifted his hand, stopped his companions and then raised his ugly head to sniff the air.
Its yellow serpent like eyes glimmered in anticipation and the orc murmured something to its companions, who nodded and then slowly began to circle the area. Aragorn knew that they had smelled him; orcs could smell human flesh like carrion beetles could smell the dead. He was caught and he knew it.
Cursing softly under his breath, Aragorn ducked lower behind the rocks; did the orcs know where precisely he hid? Had they seen him, or only smelled that he was near? If these foul beasts knew where he was hiding, then his chances of survival were slim, but if they did not know, then perhaps he could surprise them, and take out one or two before he would have to fight the other two.
Aragorn quickly scanned the area; the bushes and dead trees would be a hindrance in the coming fight, as well as the gnarled roots and the rocks. But, he thought wryly, they will not only hinder me but them as well.
And with that thought, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a second and send a quick prayer to Iluvatar, before he rose to his feet and left his cover. Immediately, one of the orcs saw him, and with a guttural scream of delight he alerted the other three.
Aragorn lifted his sword in a salute like gesture, and before the orc could comprehend what was happening, Aragorn attacked. His stroke was swift and strong, killing the first orc instantly. But Aragorn had no time to dwell on that small victory, for the second orc, who had been closest to his now dead companion, rushed towards him.
A huge wooden club was swung in Aragorn's direction, but he ducked, slashed and parried with his broadsword. The weapon trembled in his hands and when the orc brought the club down on Aragorn's sword block once more, the shock of the hit raced up Aragorn's arms and a fiery pain exploded in his shoulders.
With a grunt of pain, Aragorn loosened the block, took a step back and in a quick motion he swung his sword in a deadly arch and killed the orc. Panting, he had only the slip of a second to step away from the dead orc, before the third and fourth of the beasts reached him.
They jeered and howled, cursing him in their foul language, spit and slobber dropping from their mouths. The orcs did not attack him, but they circled him, their yellow eyes glimmering in anticipation of the kill, and their arms lifting their weapons to intimidate him.
Aragorn eyed them warily, his sword held protectively in front of his body, and he followed every of their moves to make sure that none of them managed to get behind him. The harsh language of the beasts grated on his ears, and already he felt his head pound and throb in the first stage of a severe headache.
Sweat stood on his brow, although the fight had only just begun and he was used to go much longer without feeling as tired and exhausted as he now already did. Swallowing thickly and trying to get his raspy breathing under control, Aragorn took a few steps backwards. To his right some dead trees hampered his movement, and to his left the ground was strewn with loose gravel and smaller rocks. To fight on top of that unsteady ground would be difficult, and his balance would be endangered.
So deep in thought was he, that Aragorn barely had time to evade the rusty spear that one of the orcs stabbed in his direction. Aragorn stumbled backwards, parrying the thrust with his sword and dealing one blow of his own.
This seemed to enrage the orcs, and they shrieked angrily, before they rushed at him, spear and metal plated club raised high. Aragorn blocked the first blows, retreating from the furious orcs as best he could; his feet slipped on the pebbles and the gravel as he had feared, and it was hard for him to keep his balance and at the same time fight two opponents.
Then suddenly, the orc with the rusty spear managed to get under his defences, and a sharp pain erupted in Aragorn side, blood colouring his shirt and tunic instantly. But the pain served to clear his tired mind, and with a yell of rage on his own, Aragorn spun around and severed the head of the orc with one clean stroke from the body. Dark hot blood splattered over the ground and onto Aragorn's face and hands, making his hold onto his sword slippery.
But Aragorn had no time to re-grip his weapon, as the last orc howled horribly, and then let his club crash down on Aragorn sword, nearly causing Aragorn to let go of the weapon. With a grunt of pain and annoyance, Aragorn lifted his sword and attacked.
This had to end; he felt tired and exhausted, the sweat was trickling into his eyes and made them burn, his shoulders and arms ached from the strain and his side was on fire. No, he had to end it now, on his own terms, or he would not leave this place alive, of that he was certain.
Aragorn ducked another thrust, and then swung his blade to the side, nicking the orc's leg and opening a cut which oozed dark blood. But the orc only growled, lifted his club and attacked once more. Aragorn side stepped, ducked, blocked, parried and dealt blows of his own, but the orc was strong and agile for his kind; he blocked most of Aragorn's attacks and his own were swift and powerful.
Panting, Aragorn tried to spot a weakness in his opponents defences, and when he finally saw one, he took a deep breath and charged forwards. With a mighty thrust he brought his sword down on the orc, who was forced to lift his metal plated club above his head to block the blow. But that was what Aragorn had hoped for; with a grunt of pain and forced strength, Aragorn twisted his body to the side, rammed his knee into the orc's abdomen, and when the foul beast doubled over, he ruthlessly plunged his blade deep into the orc's back.
The creature gasped and rattled, clutching at his chest; dark blood spurted from its mouth, and the yellow eyes stared at Aragorn in shock and disbelief. With a last gurgle, the orc fell forwards onto the ground, and then lay there motionless while a pool of its own blood began to collect under the body.
Aragorn raised a shaky hand and wiped the sweat off his brow, before he stumbled away from the corpse. His whole body shook and his arms and shoulders ached from the strain he had forced them through. Without a glance back, he sheathed his weapon, grime and blood still tainting the blade, pressed a hand on the wound in his side, and made his way northwards, not even going back to get his pack and minimal provisions.
For nearly an hour he stumbled onwards, his head bent and dark hair falling into his face, his mind but a dizzy haze and his vision blurred, before his legs finally gave out and he crumpled to the ground in a heap.
And there he lay, his breath wheezing in his lungs, sweat on his brow and blood darkening his clothing. But Aragorn did not feel the pain from his injury or his bone deep exhaustion any longer, for his mind had shut down and a black void had gripped and swallowed him whole. For many hours he did not move, dead to all who would have looked upon him, and the brown twilight of day faded into the tenebrous light of night.
When consciousness returned to him slowly, as if his body fought willingly to remain in the darkness of oblivion instead of returning to the world of the living, the first thing Aragorn became aware of was pain. Not the hot burning pain that one might feel after being injured by an arrow, or the fiery pain of a sword wound, no, what he felt was rather a bone chilling, all consuming coldness that rippled through his body, that gnawed at his skin and made his muscles tremble and ache.
A moan of agony left his dry lips, and Aragorn unconsciously rolled onto his side, wrapping his arms around his body in a weak attempt to stave of the waves of pain that assaulted him. A gust of cold wind caught in his hair, and with it it brought the smell of sand, blood and sweat. Another moan escaped him, but when the pain in his body did not subside, Aragorn timidly opened his eyes.
Darkness surrounded him, but it was not the tenebrous light of night, but the faint red and brown light of dawn. Dawn, he thought tiredly, how I wish to see another dawn. To see the red and orange sparkle that Anor graces the world with, that paints the white clouds in a blue sky in pink and lilac, and that revives the green and yellows of meadows and forests. The dawn that makes the dew on the grass shimmer as if made out of white pearls, or the dawn that reflects on the pristine snow covers that engulfe Caradrhas.
Oh Eru, I wish to leave this dark land, and see the verdure of the plantsin Ithilien, or the sparkling rivers and the blossoming flowers on the banks. I want to walk through fields filled with high growing grass, to lift my hands to let them touch my palm, feel the warm wind on my face and the sun on my back.
To see the dark leaved bays of The Angle again, or the scarlet-berried Rowans that grow on the mountain slopes and hills at the foot of the Misty Mountains, the hardy firs of the Highlands and in the Vales of the Anduin, or the magnificent Mellyrn in Lothlorien.
I want to go home.
And with that, Aragorn clenched his teeth against the pain and sickness in his body, stemmed his scraped hands against the rocky ground, and slowly got to his feet. He swayed, but after a deep breath, he took an unsteady step, then one more, and another. And so he slowly walked northwards again while the gloomy dawn broke over the lands.
Aragorn walked, stumbled, fell and stood up again, and his feet carried him far that day. On and on he went, without his mind noticing where he was going or alert to danger. He was caught in pain and coldness, thirst and dizziness, but his determination lend him the strength to go on, through the day and the night, and never did he look up or back. The only thought on his mind was to finally go home.
The night passed and when the next morning came, Aragorn's strength was sapped. Without so much as a sound, his knees gave way beneath him, and he fell to the ground, his face hitting the earth with a thud. The wound the orc had dealt him was agonizing, the blood that oozed from the wound a strange colour; the rusty blade had poisoned his blood, and he knew that with his no supplies or strength he would not be able to heal himself. And Aragorn closed his eyes in defeat, knowing that he would not be able to go any further.
But lo! Something was strange…at first, his muddled mind could not tell him what it was that alerted him. But then, very slowly, Aragorn felt a new sensation. Where hard rocks and dusty sand should be under his head, soft and tickling…grass caressed his cheek!
Tiredly, Aragorn opened his eyes, and to his great suspire he saw not the dark mountains before him, or the black and barren land, but green grass and high tress. And then Aragorn thought that he must have passed from the world, and that he would greet Namo in his fabled Halls soon, but nothing happened.
For some long minutes he lay there, taking in the waking forest before his eyes, and then, with great effort, he lifted his head, and above he saw the dark night sky lightening in pink and orange, the last silver stars fading in a colourful sunrise.
And his heart filled with gratitude and bliss, that at last, Eru had granted him to leave the lands of the shadow and had guided him to the foothills of the still green Ithilien before he left this world.
Aragorn closed his eyes once more, and drifted off to sweet oblivion, the warm morning breeze ruffling his hair and the first golden rays of the sun on his face.
And so it came that Aragorn never heard the silent approach of a patrol of Ithilien Rangers, clad in green and brown, who looked upon him, thinking him dead. And neither saw he their surprised faces upon finding him alive, nor heard their whispers of wonder that someone had survived the poisonous and dangerous lands so close to the Ephel Duath. And they cleaned his wounds and bandaged them, gave him water and herbs, and carried him to one of their camps to rest and heal.
And that he did, ere he turned his gaze northwards once more, and finally found his way home.