The half-moon was waning towards darkness, the light side retreating before the advancing shadow. Gradually, the moon was obscured by heavy clouds that stirred restlessly across the darkening sky, driven by a high wind. As the light was slowly extinguished, the forests descended into shadow, and the westward slopes of the Misty Mountains faded to gray in the deepening night.
A lone figure moved through the forest, walking with purpose, near-invisible in the twilit woods. Though the terrain surrounding the mountains was treacherous in the fading light, he moved without hesitation or fear. As he emerged from the tree cover, he halted and ran his gaze over his surroundings, all senses attuned to any hint of danger. Satisfied that his path was clear, Aragorn continued on his way, moving ever northward.
It had been many days since he'd seen another human being. At the moment, however, he had neither want nor need of company. He moved in near silence; the only sound was that of the wind in the trees as it set the branches to murmuring and sent stray leaves tumbling through the air. As Aragorn drew nearer to the mountains, the forest thinned around him, and the ground grew steeper, more precarious.
A low, sullen rumble of distant thunder caught his attention. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw the storm that had been chasing him all evening. A chill breeze blew into his face, ruffling his hair as he squinted back at the towering clouds, lit from within by brief flashes of white light. This storm is most determined in its pursuit, he thought wryly. It had been at his back all day, growing swiftly nearer once the sun fell. He'd hoped it might change direction and pass him by, but it seemed not.
No matter. Reaching back, he pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. I have traveled far enough for one day.
Turning his gaze to the mountains, Aragorn saw a shadowed spot not far up from where he stood. It might be a shallow cave...something to keep the rain off, at any rate. He headed towards it, moving easily over the rocky ground with his long stride. As he left the forest behind, the wind began to tug at his cloak with increasing urgency. The air had grown cold and damp with the promise of rain. Stones crunched and slid under his boots as he ascended the shallow slope towards his destination.
As it turned out, it wasn't even a cave, just an overhang of rock that jutted sharply from the mountainside. Two men would have been crowded standing beneath it; but it would provide sufficient shelter for one.
Settling back against the rock wall, Aragorn drew his well-worn traveling cloak around himself. All at once, a feeling of heavy exhaustion overtook him; he hadn't realized how tired he was until he'd stopped moving. He had pushed himself hard all day; indeed for many days...perhaps harder than was wise. Ever since his journey started, he had barely paused to eat, let alone sleep.
Reluctantly, he conceded there was a hidden motive behind his self-imposed forced march. It was largely a means of distraction, to keep from thinking overmuch about his destination. Or, rather, on what awaited him there.
Shifting his weight, he tugged his hood lower down on his face and exhaled heavily. Gazing down at the ground, Aragorn thought back to his meeting with Gandalf. How long ago had he last seen the wizard, riding hard to the south towards Isengard? Perhaps a week, maybe more. The memory of their meeting, though, remained in his mind with perfect clarity. Aragorn had hardly been able to think of anything else since; it was like a thorn in his mind, giving him no peace.
The Ring of Power has been found.
One event, one truth, and his life was changed forever. Gandalf's parting words echoed through his memory: You must go to Bree, and meet the hobbits at the Prancing Pony. Aragorn had only nodded at these instructions, so stunned he was barely able to comprehend what he'd just heard. If I am delayed, do not wait, but take them to Rivendell with all speed. Then the wizard had ridden forth again, leaving him alone to face a future he'd never anticipated.
In his long life, Aragorn had overcome many dangers, encountered terrors of which most men never dreamed. But the thought of what he now faced was enough to chill his very soul.
The Ring of Sauron himself, he thought, his expression darkening. Who is this halfling who carries it now? Can he be trusted? Aragorn had respect enough for the Shire-folk, more so than most men, in truth. But still, the idea of one of them entrusted with such an overwhelming evil made his stomach clench. Even the strongest of Men could not resist the call of the Ring. May all the powers of good help us if this hobbit's strength fails.
And besides the Ring itself, there were dangers enough in Bree for unwary hobbits. What would happen if they were waylaid, and the deadly object taken by some unknowing bandit? Aragorn shook his head. Gandalf was an old friend and ally, and Aragorn had never questioned his judgment. But this seemed...if not foolishness, at least a lapse in the wizard's renowned wisdom.
But a deeper fear lurked beneath the surface of his mind. Even if all went well, and he met them without incident, what would happen when he himself was faced with the Ring? If Isildur himself could not stand against it, how then shall his descendant fare...?
Impatient with his own brooding, he forced the unwanted thoughts from his mind. There was little point in agonizing over what lay ahead. After all, he could do nothing until he arrived, and Bree was still many days' journey away. Certainly, he'd make no more progress tonight.
He sighed. As always, when he drew closer to Rivendell, his thoughts turned to Arwen. Was she asleep now, or did she lie awake, thinking of him? He knew that somehow, the bond between them was not weakened by distance; some hint of her presence always travelled with him, no matter where he roamed. The thought warmed his heart, and he allowed himself a private smile at the memory of her.
Aragorn looked up briefly as the wind grew stronger, and a few drops of rain spattered against the dusty ground. His eyes grew heavy as sleep called to him. The voice of the wind was soothing, and he was weary, both in body and mind. He closed his eyes. I will rest only a moment, he thought, stifling a yawn.
That was his last thought as the sound of the wind grew faint, and the waking world faded away.
At first, he could see nothing. Then, the darkness slowly lightened to a hazy gray. There was a sound: a soft, rhythmic thud, repetitive, constant. As his vision cleared, Aragorn recognized the noise as the sound of footsteps. Then he realized that they were his own.
He was walking down the center of a long corridor, his footsteps quiet against the polished stone floor. All along his left, the wall was lined with high, narrow windows, their glass panels streaked with rain. From outside came the whispering of the wind, and the faint patter of falling raindrops. Then, from a distance, he heard another sound; that of a woman, crying.
His pace quickened. The corridor bent sharply to the right, and as he turned the corner, he saw her, crouched against the wall as if trying to hide. She appeared to be a serving girl; her ragged garments might once have been white, but had faded to a dirty gray. Her face was turned away from him, and her unkempt brown hair hung limply across her shoulders as she wiped her tears with a tattered rag. As she turned her head and caught sight of him, she gasped aloud and stumbled to her feet. Her wide, frightened eyes were red-rimmed, as if she'd been crying for some time. She retreated fearfully at his approach.
Aragorn stopped in place and began to assure her he meant no harm. But before he could speak, the woman shook her head frantically and said, in a choked voice, "You should not be here."
That wasn't a reaction he'd expected. "What do you mean?" He looked around, suddenly realizing he had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there. "What is this place?" The serving girl was wringing her skirts in her hands as she continued to back away, clearly terrified by his presence. He went on, keeping his voice gentle, "What frightens you so, my lady?"
She only shook her head again and insisted, more urgently, "You should not be here!" Then she flinched away and covered her ears with a scream as a deafening noise shook the structure to its very foundations...Aragorn whirled in place at the sound, and...
...he woke to an earsplitting clap of thunder. Briefly, he was startled and disoriented, but needed only a moment to regain his bearings. His back was cold and sore from the pressure of the rough stone behind him. As he looked around, Aragorn was surprised to see that the storm had risen to full fury. I should not have slept, he reprimanded himself. He stood up with a grunt of effort and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders.
Glancing up, he saw torrential rain pouring down all around him, surrounding him in rippling curtains of water. Through the downpour, he could see long tendrils of lightning snaking their way across the sky. All the while, thunderclaps sounded in tones so loud and deep that the sound seemed to penetrate his very bones. An ominous clattering came from overhead as a shower of stones rattled their way down the mountainside, skipping past him and splashing into the puddles near his feet.
Another blast of lightning struck the peak high over his head. The whole mountain seemed to shake, and down came another shower of stones, larger ones this time. And yet another, the bolts following each other in quick succession, as if directed by some conscious will.
Aragorn felt disquieted by the consistency of the strikes. Of course, it could simply be happenstance. Who knew why lightning chose to strike where it did? But it almost seemed as if some hostile force had pursued him to this place; and, now that he was trapped, sought to destroy him. There are places in this world, he remembered darkly, that have their own will, and no love for Men... Aragorn realized that he now had two choices. He could either head out into the wrath of the storm, or remain here and risk having the whole mountain come down on him.
Squinting past the rain, he could see the forest spread out beneath him, its inky black mass thrown briefly into stark highlights by a glare of lightning. Aragorn glanced up sharply as the slope shook again, harder this time. Whether by intent or not, this mountain will yet be the death of me. Better to seek shelter in the forest. He pulled his hood down over his face and drew his cloak around him, preparing to make a dash for it.
Suddenly, his vision went white and he was deafened by a staggering clap of thunder. The bolt had come screaming out of the sky and detonated right above the overhang, fragmenting it. Senses reeling from the assault, Aragorn barely dove clear in time, as the whole thing came crashing down where he'd been standing seconds before.
In the few seconds it took him to struggle to his feet, he was already soaked head-to-toe by the downpour. Disoriented, Aragorn fought to stay upright, ears ringing from the noise as multicolored bursts danced before his light-blinded eyes. His boots slipped on the rain-drenched stones, and he almost stumbled. Before he could get his balance, a falling rock struck his shin from behind, pitching him forward.
He hit the ground with a loud grunt as the wind was knocked out of him. He got his arms under him and tried to rise, but was struck in the small of the back by another stone. Struggling to get up, he was pelted by another, and another--his leg was pinned under them, his ankle painfully trapped under the increasing weight--he jerked his head around and looked back, saw a whirling stone heading straight for--
A sudden crack, a sharp pain, and everything went black.
Slowly, the world came into focus, and Aragorn realized he was walking. He was in a long corridor, lined with windows along one side. Through them, he could see the storm, raging against the windows as if seeking to shatter the glass and burst inside. He was struck by a strange sense of familiarity, and stopped. Lost in thought, he mused, "I have seen this place..."
He turned to look in one of the windows. The glass was not a solid pane, but broken up into uneven, angular shards, held together by narrow strips of black iron. His own face looked back at him, broken into pieces as if reflected in a shattered mirror.
From somewhere in the distance came the sound of a woman's sobs. Instinctively, he turned and headed for the sounds of distress. Rounding a corner, he saw a woman in a tattered dress, wiping away tears. He didn't recognize her, but some memory nagged at him, that he'd seen this all somewhere before.
She jumped to her feet as he approached, and began to back away. Then she spoke, shaking her head as if to deny his presence. "You should not be here."
"I know," Aragorn replied immediately, without thinking. Then a slow suspicion crept over him. "This has happened before..."
However, she only repeated, "You should not be here!" Then she gathered up her skirts and bolted away.
"Wait!" he called, and ran after her. But she seemed not to hear, and fled as if all the forces of Mordor were at her heels. The downward-sloping corridor gradually darkened until it grew entirely black, and the woman vanished into the darkness. Without fully knowing why, Aragorn continued after her, reaching out a hand to feel his way through the pitch-black hall.
Without warning, he emerged into the light, and stood blinking. He was in a new corridor, much wider and higher than the previous one. It curved away before and behind him, as if it were part of a large circle. Set into the wall to his left was a series of columns, each made of some light-colored stone, standing one after each other along the inner curve of the hallway. The two nearest columns had a gap between them, wide enough for a man to stand inside.
Cautiously, Aragorn moved towards the gap, and peered around the pillar's width into the inner chamber. As he moved to step into the space, a cold, prickling sensation made the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Quickly, he drew back, and strained to look around the wide column to see inside.
The circular chamber had a high, domed ceiling and a floor of flat stones, unevenly laid and rough-edged. Surrounding the circle were the tall columns, each one bearing a guttering torch that threw a smoky, sullen light upon the scene. In between each pillar was a narrow alcove. And within every alcove was a statue, each man-sized and carved in extraordinary detail.
Aragorn didn't recognize the figures, but for some unnamed reason, the sight of them chilled his blood. The carved faces of the stone men were contorted as if in great pain, or terrible loss. Quickly, Aragorn averted his gaze, and turned his attention to the center of the chamber.
In the midpoint of the floor was a large, ornate throne. It might once have been overlaid with gold, but was now dull and tarnished. The floor around it was stained an unwholesome reddish-brown. On either side stood tall iron braziers, filled with glowing coals. And upon the throne itself was a man.
He sat slumped as if weighted down by some heavy burden, his face hidden by the hood of a tattered black cloak that hung forward over his shoulders. His garments were also black, and looked like they'd been made of rich fabric, but had faded through wear and neglect. The clothes hung loosely on him, showing jutting bone at the elbows and shoulders, as if the man was slowly wasting away.
Low mumblings came from beneath the shadowing hood, and a fist clutched tightly at something that hung from a chain around the figure's neck. The man's hand twitched restlessly as he fumbled with it, as if constantly needing reassurance that it was still there. His other hand clenched the throne's arm so tightly that the tendons stood out through his skin in sharp relief. And still the mutterings continued, a restless dialogue directed only at himself, or at no one at all.
Aragorn looked up sharply as a woman's scream sounded from somewhere out of sight. The man on the throne startled and sat bolt upright, both hands gripping the throne as he demanded, "Who's there?" Aragorn glanced back at the seated man, and saw what hung upon the chain, the object the strange figure had clenched in such a frantic, desperate grip.
A plain, unmarked gold ring.
Aragorn drew in his breath at the sight. But before he could react, a pair of armored men dragged a struggling woman into sight. It was the serving girl he'd encountered earlier. She fought to free herself, demanding, "Let me go! I've done nothing! Let me go!"But as she was dragged before the throne, the sight of the dark figure seemed to fill her with terror. Quaking visibly, she slowly sank to her knees, sagging in the grip of the guards as they bowed deeply before their master.
The black-cloaked man shifted in his throne. His posture suggested he was annoyed at being disturbed, and his fist closed tightly around the ring. "Well?" he snapped, his voice a harsh rasp. "Why do you disturb me?" Aragorn didn't recognize the voice, though some part of his mind swore it was familiar.
"My liege," one of the guards reported, "This woman is a spy."
"No!" She shook her head in frantic denial. Aragorn couldn't see her face, but could tell by her voice that she was crying. "Please, my lord, I'm not...!"
"A spy?" Slowly, every movement laden with menace, the man rose from his throne. This caused the guards to drop their prisoner and hastily step away. She went sprawling to the ground, then looked up and scrambled fearfully away across the stone floor.
The dark man drew forth a rusted, rough-edged sword from the scabbard that hung at his side. "Why must I be plagued by spies and cutthroats? Would you all seek to steal that which is precious to me?" The woman cringed as he ranted, "It belongs to me! It is mine! No one shall take it from me! NO ONE!" He raised his sword above his head, and the woman screamed and covered her head in a futile gesture...
"No!" Aragorn shouted and ran forward between the columns, hand flung out in protest. But the instant his feet touched the floor, they froze to the spot, and his entire body went rigid. He couldn't move, couldn't take another step, and his voice died in his suddenly-clenched throat.
The figures in the center of the chamber seemed neither to hear nor see him. The woman continued to scream as the sword came down. Aragorn struggled to free himself from whatever unseen force gripped him, but to no avail. A rush of freezing cold was spreading up his feet, up his legs. He could barely move his head to glance down. With a sickening jolt of horror, he saw he was turning to stone, the transformation racing up his body as he watched, helpless to stop it. The woman's scream was cut off sharply with a ripping sound and a splatter of liquid. Aragorn couldn't so much as cry out as he became another statue looking out over the chamber in horrified denial, his vision going gray-white as everything went...
...cold, frozen through, solid through the bone...
...he couldn't move, couldn't see, he was...
Slowly, gradually, Aragorn became aware of water soaking through his clothes, felt his body shivering. The rocky ground beneath him was digging painfully into his stomach. He could hear the rain, feel the cold wind across his face. His head throbbed, and he vaguely recalled being struck by a rock, and blacking out. Spitting dirty water out of his mouth, he coughed deeply, then groaned aloud and opened his eyes. Droplets of water scattered from his eyelashes as blinked repeatedly, trying to bring the world into focus.
He was lying sprawled face-down at the base of the mountain. The storm had subsided to a halfhearted drizzle, and the wind blew in intermittent bursts. Aragorn's hair was plastered damply across the side of his face, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He struggled to get up, causing several stones to tumble off his back and shoulders. His legs had gone completely numb, and as he looked back, he saw they were buried under a mound of rubble.
Aragorn tried to pull himself free, without much success. His legs had lost all feeling, both from the weight of the rocks and the numbing cold. This is why I dreamt of turning to stone, he realized, making a wry face at his own expense. It was not far from the truth. Still, though his body ached from multiple cuts and bruises, he was reasonably certain nothing was broken. Otherwise it would have hurt much more.
With a loud grunt of effort, he wrenched one leg free, then the other, causing a mini-avalanche of his own as the rocks tumbled free. He pushed his traveling cloak out of the way as he swung around and sat up, leaning forward to massage some life back into his calves. His clothes were completely soaked, and clung to him damply; he was drenched to the skin and beginning to shiver badly. Aragorn realized that he was in imminent danger of freezing to death if he didn't start moving. There was no way of knowing how much time had passed while he'd lain unconscious, locked in his dream.
The dream. The memory of it came creeping back, with a dark suspicion that it had been more than mere fantasy. Angered by such thoughts, he pushed them from his mind. Concern yourself with the waking world. Or you may not live to have another nightmare.
He stumbled to his feet, swaying unsteadily as the feeling returned to his legs, an uncomfortable pins-and-needles sensation that almost made him yearn nostalgically for the numbness. The movement didn't help his aching head much, either. He glanced over his shoulder at the forest, then turned to face it. He needed to seek whatever shelter the trees could provide, and build a fire to warm himself before the cold and damp killed him.
Pushing back his cloak and hood--it was useless anyway, being as sopping wet as the rest of his clothes--he started forward. Aragorn strode away as quickly as he was able, resisting the urge to shout back in defiance at the mountain that had failed to destroy him. From the distance came a last mumble of thunder, like a parting threat.
He was cold...
Where am I? How did I get here?
He shouldn't be this cold. He couldn't move, he could barely see. What has happened to me? Something was wrong...he wasn't supposed to be like this...
Through a gray-white haze of obscured vision, Aragorn could see a hooded man seated wearily on a battered throne. Once again, the man was clutching the ring around his neck, rubbing it repetitively between thumb and forefinger. He snapped at the soldier standing at attention beside him, "Who sent that filthy spy into my fortress?"
The guard glanced nervously down at the puddle of blood congealing on the floor, already long-stained with the blood of countless other victims. "My lord, we believe she was from Gondor..."
"Gondor." The man spat the word with an impatient gesture. "Why do my own people fight against me?"
There was an uncomfortable silence, until the soldier seemed to realize this wasn't a rhetorical question. He swallowed, then proceeded carefully, "Their leader continues to urge his--your people," he quickly corrected. "--to defiance."
The other man gave a single, barked laugh. "The self-declared 'Steward' of Minas Tirith? He is nothing to me. Nothing." He looked away and smiled cruelly at some private enjoyment, the expression barely visible beneath the shadowing hood. "He'll learn some respect when I take my city, slaughter what remains of his army, and hang his still-living body from the outer walls! And his stripling brother will hang beside him!"
He pounded the throne's arm with a wolflike snarl. "How dare they? How dare they?! Liars, usurpers, defiling what's rightfully mine..." The soldier backed away, then fled in terror. Oblivious to the other's departure, his master raged on, "I'll destroy them all, every last one of them, man, woman, child. I'll rend their city to the ground...!"
The lunatic rantings continued, heard only by the ring of statues standing silent in the torchlit chamber. If the mad king noticed that a new statue had been added to the voiceless ranks, he gave no sign of it. This one stood as if caught in mid-step, one hand reaching out in thwarted protest, face frozen in horrified denial. And it heard every word that was spoken, saw everything that happened, and was helpless to stop it.
Aragorn fought to break free of the spell that imprisoned him, but every effort was in vain. He was solid stone, unable to move, unable to so much as breathe...helpless, imprisoned, frozen to the core...
He awoke with a start, head throbbing with relentless waves of pain. It took an effort of will to sit up, to clear his mind and focus on the world around him.
It had happened again, he realized angrily. Drawing his cloak about him, Aragorn moved closer to the campfire, barely able to feel its warmth. Despite his best efforts, he was blacking out, falling into the dream-world against his will. I cannot allow that, he thought, tossing more wood on the fire. Every time I sleep may be my last.
He'd lain too long in the wind and rain, pinned beneath the fallen stones. His body's warmth had fallen dangerously low. He had to keep warm, and stay awake, if he hoped to survive the night. Fortunately, the storm itself seemed to have moved on, having satisfied its urge for destruction. The remaining clouds stirred in ragged wisps high above, occasionally parting to reveal the star-strewn sky, and the half moon, gazing impassively down at the forest below. But the wind was still damp and cold, and every gust of it chilled his weary, aching body afresh.
Aragorn took a deep, shuddering breath, then slowly let it out again, wrapping his arms around himself as he fought to still his constant shivering. Almost despite himself, he found his mind wandering back to the dream. Do not think on it, you will sleep again, he warned himself. But his thoughts seemed irresistibly drawn to it. It was so vivid, so real, as if he stepped into another world each time he closed his eyes. Another world, he mused silently. Where the Ring of Power has been claimed by Men, and is wielded by a nameless madman...
Aloud, he wondered, "Do I dream of a past that never was?" He looked up at the sky, and finished softly, "Or a future that may yet be?"
No doubt his own misgivings about the finding of Isildur's Bane, and his imminent rendezvous with its yet-unknown bearer, had caused him to dream such things. Did he fear that whoever now possessed the Ring would claim it for his own? But Gandalf had said the Ring was in the custody of a hobbit. The dark figure that haunted his nightmares was certainly not one of the Shire-folk.
Was it one of the Nine, then, the great kings who had fallen through Sauron's treachery and their own greed? He did seem almost wraithlike in appearance: the hooded black cloak, the withered body. But then why did the tyrant-king possess the Great Ring, not one of the lesser ones?
Frowning, Aragorn recalled another detail that puzzled him. My own people fight against me, the man had ranted. The Steward...his brother will hang beside him... But the current Steward of Minas Tirith, the aged Denethor, had no living brothers. Perhaps in the dream-world, the title had since passed to Denethor's eldest son.
So it did take place in the future, then. What did that mean? Why did it matter? Aragorn had a strange certainty that his dream was a riddle, one that it was vitally important he solve.
He shifted position again, vaguely aware that his shivering was growing worse. They are mine to rule, he said...how dare they defy me...it belongs to me, it came to me, it's mine...
His head snapped up again as he gasped aloud. The fire had grown lower; it was almost out. Furious with himself for drifting off again, Aragorn snatched up more branches and threw them into the flames. That was the last of the firewood; he'd need to gather more. But as he tried to stand, he was overcome with vertigo and listed sideways, falling heavily to the ground. The dull, relentless ache in his head was overpowering; he was blacking out again, his sight growing dim.
No. Stay awake. Aragorn tried to sit up, and shook his head violently, breathing hard. The woods were blurring around him, the tree trunks changing to towering columns of stone. Do not sleep.
He was losing feeling in his arms and legs, growing cold. "Do not sleep!"As he spoke, he stumbled to his feet, swaying unsteadily. As his eyes began to close again, he heard something, a distant noise on the periphery of his hearing. It sounded muffled, as if his ears were stopped. It was the sound of booted feet on stone. More guards were approaching.
He saw them move into his view. A pair of soldiers was dragging a pair of prisoners, hands manacled before them, heavy chains around their ankles, while more guards marched in step behind them. No. This is the dream, it's not real. I must awaken, I will die if I sleep again...
Forcing his eyes open, he saw the campfire, burning lower and lower. Aragorn took an unsteady step towards the fire, then stopped. I can't move...
He blinked again, saw the prisoners roughly shoved to their knees. It was getting harder and harder to think. I must break free...or I will...
...they will die...I must free myself from this spell, I must save them...
The captured pair still maintained an air of proud defiance, even bound and on their knees. Their long, fair hair hung down their backs as they gazed silently at their captor. The guards handed the dark king several weapons; bows and daggers of elven make. He examined them briefly, then irritably flung them aside. "Am I to have no rest tonight?" he muttered.
One of the guards began, drawing himself up proudly, "My lord, we have captured..."
"I know who you have captured." He turned his attention to the prisoners. "Well? Nothing to say?" They made no reply, their attitude suggesting he was beneath their notice. He gave a low, contemptuous laugh at their silence, then waved offhandedly at the guards. "Teach these elves some respect."
Aragorn could only watch as he nearest elf to him was brutally kicked in the back, collapsing to the floor. As he fell, his face turned towards where Aragorn stood imprisoned by the stone-spell.
Haldir! he recognized with shock.
The second prisoner whirled to face the guard, his expression fierce. "Leave him alone!"
Harsh, grating laughter answered his protest. "Legolas," the hooded man observed, drawing the word out in a long, slow hiss. "So, it is true. The elves of Mirkwood and Lothlórien have joined forces against me."
Legolas turned his defiant glare to him as he slowly rose to his feet, concluding in a dangerous whisper, "A pity your alliance will prove to be in vain."
Haldir painfully struggled up to his knees, under the concerned gaze of his companion. He coughed deeply, then doubled over as if the act caused him agonizing pain; his ribs might have been broken by the guard's kick. Then he gasped for breath, spat something that sounded like blood, and spoke in a thick, hoarse voice: "You cannot kill us all."
"Oh, but I need not kill you all, Haldir o Lórien," their captor whispered with a rasping chuckle. He drew his sword, its ragged edge still stained from the murder of the serving girl. "Right now...I need only kill you."
Legolas struggled futilely against his bonds, as the guards roughly gripped his shoulders, keeping him down. "Traitor!" he raged. "You betrayed my people! You betrayed your own! You betrayed us all!"
No, Legolas, don't defy him, he'll kill you... Aragorn fought with all his strength, willing his body to move, but his thoughts had no effect on the statue he'd become. He might as well have tried to mentally move an object from across the room. Forcing down his seething frustration, he tried to think of any possible way out.
Use your mind, he urged himself. You can still see, and hear, and know who you are. Then he couldn't truly be stone, not entirely. So perhaps the statue-spell was just some form of illusion, only as real as he allowed it to be.
He would've taken a deep breath, if he could have done so, as he drew upon all the strength of his will. I am alive. I can move. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he felt a faint warmth return to his body, and allowed himself the barest hope...
But then his concentration was shattered as he saw his friend backhanded across the face by a clenched fist. Legolas' head snapped violently to one side. His assailant snarled, "How dare you speak to me of treachery?" The dark man seized the elf by the front of his tunic, hauling him up and shaking him violently. All the guards backed away, watching the scene in silence as their master ranted, "You were always against me! All of you, from the beginning! You wanted it for yourselves!"
With that, he released his grip, and Legolas fell, his knees impacting the floor with a sharp crack. He toppled over sideways, and his head struck the ground just as hard. For an agonizing moment, he lay absolutely motionless. Then, weakly, he tried to rise. Haldir moved closer to him, as if trying to shield him from another assault. The hooded man was visibly quivering with fury. "Do you think I couldn't hear you, whispering against me? All of you, plotting, scheming..."
He cut himself off as if his supply of words had run out, and stood for several seconds, breathing hard. Then, he continued in a deceptively calm tone: "But it was meant for men, not elves. It was meant for me. And I have claimed it for my own."
Shakily, Legolas managed to get back to his knees, a trickle of blood running down his chin. He looked his captor full in the face, with a gaze that strangely mingled hatred and pity. Gasping with pain, his voice barely audible, he whispered, "It...claimed you...long ago."
The man seemed startled by that, and actually took a step back. Aragorn took advantage of this to renew his concentration. He focused all his thought inward, and once again felt warmth suffusing the coldness deep inside him. Faintly, he felt his heart begin to beat, felt his body stir beneath the imprisoning skin of stone. Almost... He tried to flex his arm, still frozen in its outstretched position. There was a slight movement, and faint cracks began to appear in the stone along the back of his wrist, in the crook of his elbow. Tiny chips of rock began to fall away from him. Almost...!
But whatever effect Legolas' words had had on their captor, it didn't last long. The man gave a disdainful laugh, then observed, "We shall see." He began to walk around the bound pair, his long strides carrying him behind them. His black cloak swirled as he turned to look down on them; now his back was to Aragorn. "The question is, old friend...shall I kill you outright for your insolence? Or shall I first allow you to watch your companion die?"
It was Haldir who replied stiffly, staring straight ahead, refusing to give him so much as a glance. "We," --here he coughed again-- "do not fear you."
"No?" The dark lord shook his head. "Pity." With that, he raised his sword, gripped the hilt in both hands, and plunged it down into Haldir's back.
"NO!" Legolas' cry of dismay mingled with Aragorn's own as he finally broke free, stone shattering all around him. He toppled over, landing hard in a pile of scattering stone chips, freed from the spell a moment too late. Seeming not to notice, the dark man wrenched his sword free from Haldir's spine, gazing impassively down at the jerking, blood-drenched corpse. Legolas staggered to his feet, eyes flashing dark fire, his own pain forgotten in his overwhelming rage.
Sprawled awkwardly on the floor, Aragorn reflexively drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with air. He didn't waste time rejoicing over his freedom, but clambered to his feet and shakily drew his sword.
The guards lunged forward as Legolas flung himself at his captor. The man effortlessly sidestepped the attack and seized him by the throat with one hand. Aragorn stumbled forward, forcing his legs to move, each step a major effort of will. He was almost there...the hooded man still had his back to Aragorn, he couldn't see him...
For a moment, the mad king held Legolas at arms' length, the elf's manacled hands gripping his arm, their gazes locked in silence. Then, without another word, he drew back his sword and thrust it forward.
Aragorn froze in place, eyes wide with shock and despair. Legolas made no sound, but his face twisted in agony as his eyes squeezed shut. Then his body went limp in his captor's grasp, and the man released his grip, letting him drop lifelessly to the ground.
Aragorn's shout reverberated throughout the chamber. Suddenly, the soldiers seemed to become aware of him, and whirled as one to face the intruder. Their master did not react, but stood looking down at the bodies of the slain elves, seeming unaware of the trespasser as the guards rushed to confront him.
Effortlessly, Aragorn parried the clumsy thrust of the first guard, and brought his sword around to finish him with one stroke. The others entered the fray, ignoring their comrade's death. But they showed no more skill than the first, and were swiftly defeated.
Without hesitation, Aragorn strode forward. The other man still hadn't moved from the spot, but slowly lowered his sword, watching the blood run down its edge and drip into the sickening puddle spreading across the floor.
Aragorn blinked, and for an instant saw...
...a dark forest, a campfire down to glowing embers, almost out...
Bewildered, he stopped in place. What had he just seen? Shaking his head as if to clear it, he walked forward again...
...he was walking away from the campfire, through the trees, into the darkness...
He paused once more, then set his jaw and moved on. Whatever these visions were, he would pay them no heed. This man...this monster...had just murdered two of his friends in cold blood. Aragorn had to stop him...nothing else mattered but to stop him, destroy him, so he could never kill again...
He was almost upon him now, but still the other man didn't turn, didn't hear him...Aragorn reached out with his free hand, grabbed the cloaked man by the shoulder, whirled him around, and saw the face beneath the hood.
His own face.
It was drawn and haggard, with mad, staring eyes. He seemed half-wraith already, with pale, tightly drawn skin and ragged, graying hair straggling from beneath the tattered hood. The red-rimmed eyes went wide in shocked recognition. He stumbled away with a guttural, near-feral sound of denial, clutching at his chest as if to protect his precious treasure.
Aragorn stood frozen in place, as unable to move as if he'd been turned into a statue once again. He could only stare at this apparition as it bared its teeth and snarled, "You."
The two men faced each other in silence, their poses unconscious mirrors of each other. All around them, the torches that lined the chamber suddenly flared up in unison. Then they dimmed low, and the periphery of the chamber was plunged into darkness. The bodies of the murdered elves and the slain guards faded away, and the two enemies were left standing in a circular island of murky red light, surrounded by impenetrable darkness.
The false Aragorn flung back his hood, revealing a rusted, battered crown atop matted hair, and spoke. "You...don't belong here." The voice was very like his own, but harsh and rasping as if from illness, or over-use. And Aragorn realized why he hadn't recognized it before now...he was hearing it from outside himself, as it would sound to another person. "You should not be here."
"No." Aragorn slowly raised his sword and pointed it at his counterpart. "You should not be here. Whatever you are, whatever foul craft has spawned you...you should not exist."
The other gave a grating chuckle. "But I do exist. Or rather..." At this, he fingered the ring that hung on his chest, and smiled mirthlessly. "I will, in due time."
"No!" Aragorn snapped, taking a step forward, an action that caused the other to raise his own sword reflexively. "I will never become like you!"
This declaration was answered with a scornful laugh. "Are you certain? How arrogant you are." He smirked, and concluded, "And how like Isildur."
"What? What do you mean?"
"See for yourself," he retorted, pointing back towards the alcove from which Aragorn had first emerged. "Gaze upon the truth, if you have the courage."
Cautiously, suspecting a trick, Aragorn turned his gaze away from his adversary. He saw the statue that stood to the left of the empty alcove where he'd been imprisoned. The image was of a young man clad in armor, tall and proud of stance. But his face was contorted in agony, as if consumed by guilt, or loss, or both. His hand reached out as if grasping at something, something that would forever be denied him. And carved into the stone base at his feet were letters, spelling out his name...
"It cannot be!" Aragorn whispered in protest, eyes going wide in shock.
His enemy laughed again, the sound echoing throughout the spacious chamber. "Yes, it can, and it is." His face twisted in a leering grin. "Behold Isildur the corruptible, the weak-willed, who failed in the greatest of tasks." He gestured widely with his sword. "See now the strength of Men, the glorious line of Numenor!"
All around, the torches flared bright again, illuminating the statues with a blood-colored glare, their carved lines marked out deep, harsh shadow. Aragorn saw that each one was named as a descendent of Isildur, marking the passing of his line through the ages. But each one looked defeated, despairing, as if consumed by guilt and the weight of unbearable failure. And the last, on the other side of the empty alcove... "No!"
"Yes, Aragorn, son of Arathorn," the other mocked, face twisting in fiendish glee. "Did you think our father would not have his place here? All of them failed! And Arathorn left behind a son who would one day plunge all the world into darkness!"
Slowly, Aragorn turned to face his adversary. Both hands clenched the sword-hilt in a death grip, and there was murder in his eyes. "You...are not fit to speak his name, you..."
"Fool!" the other snarled, "I am you! You cannot deny me!" He raised his own sword in a defensive stance and sneered, "Come, then. Come!"
With a battle-roar of rage, Aragorn charged forward, swinging his sword wide. His thrust was parried, and the blades clanged together, echoing throughout the chamber. Again he swung, and again, the men circling each other as they fought, each seeking some opening, some advantage. But they were too evenly matched; every attack was blocked, every defense countered. Finally, Aragorn's opponent stumbled back from him, and the two stood apart, breathing hard and eyeing each other warily.
"Heh. Heh heh." The wraithlike Aragorn laughed deep in his throat, and shook his head in mock sorrow. "Why do you waste your efforts? You cannot hope to win. I possess a power you do not."
With that, he groped for the Ring that hung against his chest, and clenched his fist around it. He stood tall and faced Aragorn, eyes burning with madness. "Can you even comprehend all that I have accomplished?" he asked, his voice rapturous. "All the armies of this world were united under my banner. I routed the forces of Mordor, and Sauron himself was utterly destroyed."
Aragorn listened in silence, his expression torn between skepticism and longing, his gaze irresistibly drawn to the Ring. The other's voice sounded very much like his own, now. "All peoples united in peace, the threat of Mordor ended for all time...isn't that what you've always wanted? Why deny the power to accomplish what you've always dreamed? Among Men, only you have the strength, the right, to wield the Great Ring."
At that, Aragorn's eyes narrowed, and he raised his sword again. "You mean the weakness to be consumed by it." The other scowled as Aragorn went on, "And the destructive pride to bring all things to ruin."
"It was their fault!" his shadow-self raged, lunging forward as Aragorn barely deflected the blade. "I knew what was best for them. But they envied me, and plotted my downfall."
In a blind fury, he attacked again, and again. Madness and rage gave him a strength that was more than human, and Aragorn was forced further and further back. "They brought it on themselves! They deserved to die, all of them!" Struggling to defend himself from this barrage, Aragorn lost his footing and stumbled backwards...he twisted as he fell, and the side of his head smacked against the hard floor.
His mind reeled as his vision blurred; he tried to stand, but could not. His head pounded with blinding waves of pain, but that didn't make sense, he hadn't fallen that hard...he shook his head to clear it, and saw his adversary striding towards him, his black cloak rippling behind him...
Aragorn blinked, and for a moment, saw a hazy image of dark woods surrounding him, and felt his hand clench on the leaf-litter of a forest floor as he struggled to rise...
Then his world imploded in pain as his enemy drove his booted foot directly into his stomach. He doubled over with a deep gasp. Distantly, he heard the other's grating laugh, and the skittering sound of metal against stone as his own sword was kicked away. The evil parody of his own voice came to him, echoing and distorted: "You're far too easily distracted." At that, Aragorn felt the other's hand grip his shoulder. "Too long have you imprisoned me, thwarted my ambitions. It seems only fitting that I return the favor."
Then he was dragged bodily across the tiles, his aching body painfully jostled by the rough edges of the stones. But at the same time, he felt himself similarly dragged across a forest floor, and heard distant voices at the edge of his hearing. He felt cold, exhausted, drained...every inch of his body throbbed, as if he'd been walking for days...he could barely focus, barely think...What is...happening to me...
Then the other lifted him to his feet, effortlessly, as if he weighed nothing. Aragorn's vision cleared, and in an instant, he saw where he was, and what his enemy was trying to do.
His arms snapped out and he grabbed the columns on either side of him, planting his feet against the floor, bracing himself with all his strength as his enemy tried to force him back into the empty alcove. But his wraithlike counterpart had an uncanny strength in his wasted frame, and seized Aragorn's throat in an iron grip with one hand, constricting his windpipe till he could barely breathe.
"That's right, Elessar," he mocked, glancing over Aragorn's shoulder to where the stone-spell waited to claim him once more. "This is where you belong. Take your place! Complete the circle! Let the line of kings end with you!"
Aragorn's feet skidded on the stone chips scattered on the floor before the alcove. His sweaty hands lost their grip on the columns, and he barely grabbed them again in time. He could feel the icy cold sensation creeping up his spine, across his back. Dark spots whirled before his eyes, his muscles aching from the strain, lungs crying out for air. He saw the other's face, his own face, twisted in an insane leer of triumph...Aragorn went slack as if in surrender; his head lolled back, and the grip on his throat lessened, just enough...
...then, he clenched every muscle in his body and slammed his head forward, impacting the other's face with his own forehead. He heard the crunch of bone and his enemy's sharp grunt of pain as the bridge of his nose snapped. The other man raised a hand to his face, staggering back with a stunned expression and letting his victim drop to the floor.
Quickly, Aragorn scrambled away. Fragments of stone slipped and scattered beneath his feet as he ran to retrieve his sword. Snatching it up, he gripped it tightly in both hands. Chest heaving with each breath, body dripping with sweat and face spattered with blood, he slowly turned to face his shadow-self.
The other man wavered, almost fell, then spat blood and roughly wiped his mouth with one hand. Glancing down at the blood coating his palm, he began to laugh. The sound was not even remotely human. "You cannot defeat me," he rasped, twisting his lip in a sneer beneath the crimson flow. "Deep in your soul, you know that I am your true self. And the closer you come to the Ring, the closer you come to me. You can sense me, lurking at the back of your mind, waiting to take your place in the light."
Then he stood tall, and fixed Aragorn with his mad, piercing stare. "I am your anger, your pride, your bloodlust...the part of you that trusts no one, least of all yourself."
He took a step forward. "I am with you always, till the end of your days. In every sleepless night, in every darkened room, as close as your own shadow." He pointed his rusted, bloodstained sword towards Aragorn's heart, the tip swaying in uncertain arcs as his arm trembled. "I wait only for one mistake, one moment of weakness, when your own darkness will consume you...when you will become me."
Aragorn's glare mingled hatred with exasperation. "Are you never silent?"
This response seemed to confuse him, and by time he recovered his outrage, Aragorn was already upon him. Neither man spoke now as their duel grew more fierce, more intense. They battled across the chamber, Aragorn's eyes blazing with righteous fury, his nightmare counterpart's with a crazed, desperate rage.
With an animal scream, the dark king swung his blade in a wide horizontal arc that connected with Aragorn's upper arm, sending up a spurt of blood. Aragorn yelled with pain and brought his sword around towards his enemy's unprotected neck. The other barely blocked this motion in time, but it gave Aragorn the opening he needed. He thrust his knee up sharply into his enemy's midsection, cracking his ribs. He doubled over at the blow, and Aragorn brought his sword hilt up, knocking the other sharply under the jaw. He stumbled backwards, lost his footing, and fell heavily to the ground.
Aragorn stood for a moment, laboring to catch his breath. He shook his hair back from his face, and raised a hand to stanch the wound on his arm, still bleeding freely. His enemy was down on all fours, grasping at his midsection and wheezing in pain. His head hung low, forehead almost touching the floor, and a steady flow of blood ran from his nose and mouth, staining the gray stone with a spreading crimson pool.
Slowly, unsteadily, Aragorn approached his fallen foe. He stood over him, gazing down in silence. Eventually, the other turned his head to look up at him. Fear and hatred chased each other across his sweating, bloodstreaked face. Painfully, he wrenched out between breaths, "You...cannot...kill me."
Aragorn's face was completely impassive. "Are you certain?" He gave a humorless half-grin. "How arrogant you are."
The fallen one's expression contorted in agony as he clutched more tightly at his ribs. "We are...one," he hissed through gritted teeth. "Destroy me...you destroy yourself."
Aragorn considered this. Finally, he replied, his voice a dangerous whisper, "If it will spare this world from your reign...then so be it."
He gripped his sword tightly in both hands. Then, slowly, he raised it over his head. The other tried to protest, but choked, gagged, spat more blood, then shook his head in frantic denial...Aragorn held the sword high, then...
He heard a voice; faint, distant. He blinked and shook his head, standing frozen in place with blade held high, every muscle tensed for the killing blow.
Can you hear me? Please, hear my voice, return to me...
The voice was clearer now, and stronger. It was a woman's, and he recognized it, he remembered...
Suddenly, his shadow was thrown before him in sharp relief as a white light blazed into existence behind him. His fallen foe's eyes went wide with horror, staring at something Aragorn couldn't see; then he cried out in despair and covered his face, rolling over on his side as if to shield himself. Aragorn whirled around, and was blinded by a pure white radiance. He shielded his eyes and squinted into it. He could make out a figure within the light...it was familiar, it was...
"Arwen?" he whispered.
He could see her more clearly now, standing within the light, her outline indistinct in its brilliance. "Aragorn," she called softly. She smiled as their eyes met, but then her face grew worried, almost fearful. "You must leave this place."
He took a step towards her, blinking in the light. Behind him, his enemy crawled painfully away, moaning as if in mortal agony. "What...what do you mean?"
She replied, "You should not be here."
You should not be here. The words he'd heard over and over again since he arrived. No, he realized, as comprehension slowly dawned. Not since I arrived. Since...
...since my dream began.
Aloud, he said to Arwen, "This isn't real."
She shook her head. "You are deep within your mind. Far too deep, in a place you should never have had to see." Then the elf-maiden turned her gaze to his fallen adversary. To Aragorn's astonishment, he saw her eyes begin to fill with tears. "No man should have to face his own shadow made flesh."
Aragorn glanced back at his counterpart. He was curled up with his back to them, both fists clenched against his eyes like a child hiding from some nocturnal terror. When he finally spoke, it was in a thick, choked voice that was almost a sob. "Don't look at me."
With a mixture of revulsion and pity, Aragorn realized he was speaking to Arwen, not him. "Don't look at me," he begged again. "I...you must not see me like this..."
So, Aragorn realized. Even consumed by Sauron's evil, I am still myself enough to hate what I have become. His expression grew stricken with guilt and shame, and he found that he could no more meet Arwen's gaze than his shadow-self could. That she should look upon me, transformed into this...how can she believe in me now?
For a moment, there was silence, broken only by the ragged breaths of the fallen man. Instinctively, Arwen reached out to him in compassion. Then she checked herself, and slowly lowered her hand, eyes downcast in sorrow. "I cannot help you," she whispered sadly. Whether she spoke to him, or to herself, was unclear.
But then, she smiled gently and raised her face to her beloved, eyes shining with confidence and hope. "Even in your darkest nature, there is still good in you." She took a step forward. "And it will be the good that triumphs, I swear it." Then Arwen glanced back over her shoulder, as if at something he couldn't see. "But you must leave now."
"I don't understand. How did you find me? I..." He thought back, trying to remember; it seemed like a lifetime had passed since he last saw daylight. "I was days away from Rivendell."
"A hunting party found your campfire at first light, two days ago," she said urgently. "They tracked your path, and found you fallen." Her tone became fearful at the memory: "You were so cold, so pale, they thought you were dead..."
Then she appeared to calm herself, and continued: "Your mortal body was near death, and your mind fled within itself. You were found in time, and will heal, but must return of your own will." She held out a hand to him, her white garments flickering with a cool white flame. "Please. Come with me."
Aragorn hesitated, and looked back. The other man lay silent and motionless, as still as death. "And what of him? Is he..." His voice caught in his throat, and he looked away sharply. "Is this to be my destiny?"
"No!" The word was almost a gasp, and Arwen shook her head insistently, taking another step towards him. "This is what you fear you may become. Nothing more! It..." she glanced down at the other Aragorn, then quickly looked away. "It is only a vision, a shadow, given shape by your deepest fears."
He wanted to be convinced, wanted desperately to believe her. She went on, confident and reassuring, "This place belongs to the world of nightmare, and a future that will never be." She held out her hand again. "We will see to that together. Come."
Aragorn hesitated a moment longer, then nodded and allowed himself a brief smile. Then he lowered his sword, and stepped forward.
Something moved behind him.
Arwen's eyes went wide with horror. "No...!"
...and Aragorn felt a searing agony as a knife was buried to the hilt in his back.
For a moment, he stood motionless, his expression struggling between pain and chagrin. Then his sword clattered to the floor as he fell heavily to his knees. Reaching back, he grasped at the knife-hilt, already slick with his own blood, feeling the sticky warmth pouring over his hand. Struggling to pull the blade free, each attempt a blinding pain, he looked back over his shoulder. His gaze met that of his shadow-self, lying half-curled on the floor.
The other's blood-smeared face twisted in a mocking leer; then he gave a faint shrug. "What...did you...expect?" At that, his face slackened, his head thudded heavily to the floor, and his eyes closed. He did not move again.
Aragorn toppled forward, striking the cold stone floor. He fought to rise, but could not. Weakness was overtaking him, his life draining away in the dream-world just as in the waking one. Distantly, he heard Arwen calling to him, pleading with him to come to her. His eyes closed of their own accord, and he forced them back open. Everything was going white, and he knew was dying, it was over...Arwen's voice was fading...
No. He would not die here, not like this. He would not be defeated.
With a loud gasp, he forced himself up on his elbows, almost slipping in the spreading pool of his own blood. He raised his head and stared directly into the radiant light. He could barely make her out against the brilliance, but could still see her hand, desperately reaching for him...
He raised his arm...he reached out for her...
...he took her hand...
...he could feel her grasp in return, and he held on tight...he would not let go...
...he would never let go...
The world spun away, and went out.
All was dark, and cold.
The moon had set, and the stars faded away in the hour before dawn. Then, slowly, the eastern sky began to lighten. The Misty Mountains emerged as a black, jagged outline against the soft light. Then the highest peaks were set ablaze with gold as the sun broke through.
The forested valley lay silent, a thick blanket of deep green spread out beneath the mountains. Faintly, a few birdcalls sounded, then gradually grew into full song as the morning came. The shapes of the trees grew more distinct, and soon the entire valley could be seen clearly, each leaf glimmering with dew in the bright sunshine.
Silently, a shadow moved beneath the trees.
The leaves were set to whispering by a soft breeze, then grew quiet again as it faded away. The air was cool and clammy in the pale light; but the sky was clear, and the day would be a warm one. Aragorn halted his steps, and gazed out over the valley.
He could see the river Mitheithel in the far distance, shining like a band of liquid gold as the sun climbed over the mountains behind him. The forests were broken up with grassland, patches of light green intermingling with the dark. All around him, the wind whispered in the trees, and the birds called noisily to one another. Aragorn took a deep breath, then slowly let it out again.
Once again, he owed a debt to the elves of Rivendell. He was still weary from his ordeal, but would recover in due time. His few lingering aches did not trouble him unduly. All that was left of his injuries were a slight swelling where he'd been struck by the rock, and some scattered bruises and cuts from his fall and the rock-slide.
And then there was a small, ragged wound on his lower back, just below the ribs, as if he'd been stabbed.
It was only a dream...
It had all taken place within his mind. Arwen had said so; it was the only explanation that made sense. The enemy he'd defeated was a lie, a phantom from the depths of his mind. Every claim he'd made was an utter falsehood. He did not exist; he would never exist.
Aragorn lowered his eyes as his hand strayed back towards the wound. Did you sense how great my danger was, Evenstar? he mused. And when you told me I would defeat my darkest nature, did you truly believe it?
Do I truly believe it?
Aragorn glanced up as movement caught his attention. A flock of birds was soaring overhead, heading east. He turned to follow their passage until they disappeared from sight, and stood for a moment gazing back at the horizon. A line of thunderclouds hung low in the sky behind the far-off peaks. It seemed as though the storm had retreated temporarily, biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to arise once again.
The words of his shadow-self echoed through his mind. I am with you always, till the end of your days. But Aragorn kept his steady, defiant gaze on the distant clouds. "Then so be it," he said. "Trouble my sleep, haunt my darkest hours till the day I lay down my life."
He lowered his eyes again. "But I vow that you will never be more than a nightmare, and forever will I keep you locked within my soul." He sighed softly, an his final words were quiet, almost a whisper:
"Valar protect this world if I do not."
At that, he said nothing more, but turned his face to the west. Adjusting his pack, he shrugged his cloak back from his shoulders as the air grew warmer. Walking forth with renewed confidence, Aragorn resumed his journey towards Bree; to the Ring, four hobbits, and his own unwritten future.
He did not look back.