Part of the Undying Friendship Series

Rating: PG

Summary: What gave Aragorn such strength of will to go boldly into the Paths of the Dead, seemingly fearless in the face of such evil – even when the lights go out? Bookverse.

Written for the Teitho Dark Places Challenge and the TTT Prompt #21: Silent

BETA: nautika (hugs)


Then Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dúnedain and their horses followed him.

JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King


Darkest Before Dawn

By Nieriel Raina

Aragorn stared hard at the terrible door. Dark places. His life's journey had been full of so many of them, it did not surprise him they continued to haunt him. Only by travelling this way – by defeating Sauron – could he ever hope the darkness would diminish, allowing the light to shine freely, rather than being suffocated by the shadows, as was the weak light of his torch flickering in the gloom under the murky trees and cliffs of the Haunted Mountain.

He would not stop now, no matter how much his heart quailed. Not even ghosts would deny him passage to the battles ahead, or the chance of victory. He had promises to keep, oaths to redeem. So instead of a gaping hole in the Mountain, he pictured a path up a green hill under gold leaves, leading to his beloved. Such a path he had once travelled long ago, when he had placed his ring on Arwen's hand and plighted his troth with her. His fear fled.

"This is an evil door," said Halbarad, "and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless; but no horse will enter."(1)

Halbarad's words moved him deeply, for the thought of losing his friend and kin in battle turned his heart to stone, but he allowed no trace of any emotion to cross his features. If his men and the horses were to pass this way, he must show such strength as he had never done before. He steeled himself.

"But we must go in, and therefore the horses must go too," said Aragorn. "For if ever we come through this darkness, many leagues lie beyond, and every hour that is lost there will bring the triumph of Sauron nearer. Follow me!"(2) And so he entered the cavernous mouth of stone – a torch in one hand, Roheryn's reins in the other – resolute the way would lead to triumph.

On he walked, determined on the broad path. His men followed behind with their horses. He could hear their occasional gasps, and the whispers from silenced voices that murmured around them whenever they hesitated. He paid the whispers no heed, aware that the Dead also followed them in the dark. Whenever fear tickled his nape, he pictured long, pale fingers tracing a path along his neck and down his back, and the thought of her touch warmed him and broke the chill of dread.

Long they walked, until the passage opened up into a large cavern. Something glittered as the weak light of his torch flickered over it, and Aragorn halted the Company and moved to get a better look at what it could be. He felt Elladan come up beside him, and his brother took his torch so he could kneel to get a better look at the remains of a mighty man, his bones still dressed in fine mail.

A mystery that intrigued him lay before him. Boney fingers still pried at a crack in the wall, while a notched and broken sword lay nearby. Something within him longed to know why this man had tried to pass, to unravel this riddle. He did not touch anything, but he looked hard at the wall, seeking some clue as to what had driven this ancient warrior to die trying to breach the door. This man should have died old and been buried with his kin.

Something brushed his leg, and he glanced down to see Elladan's boot. He looked up and met his brother's eyes. He found a touch of amusement in them, but also a slight rebuke. He had not come to unravel mysterious tales from years past. He rose and sighed, placing a hand briefly on Elladan's arm in gratitude.

"Hither shall the flowers of simbelmynë come never unto world's end," he murmured. "Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!

"For that is not my errand!" he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. "Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden in the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"(3)

Silence, followed by a chill blast of wind, was the only answer. The torches flickered out, and all attempts to relight them failed. They were left to complete the road in utter darkness. Strangely, Aragorn smiled, howbeit grimly, for he had learned long ago, it was always darkest just before the dawn. The gloom just emphasized to him that his darkest hours loomed nigh. Defeat was not an option; dawn would come!

He took only a moment to get his bearings and continued the march in blackness so thick, he could see naught, not even his hand before his face. After a time, Aragorn glanced over his shoulder. In the heavy dark something shimmered. Legolas' faint elven glow did not pierce the murky gloom, but it was there. Always through the dark places, even the depths of night before dawn, a light would shine, however faint, such as the stars that glittered in the heavens before the sun rose. It had always been thus over the course of his life, though during the bleak times, it seemed not so.

As they marched on along the dark path through the eerie silence, Aragorn let his thoughts travel over the years of his life. His first memories were of a dark night. Aragorn remembered little, but what he did was vivid.

Knocking on the door startled him awake. He curled around a soft, stuffed horse, sticking the hoof into his mouth as he listened. He heard the rustle of his Mama's skirt as she moved to answer the thuds. Familiar, soft voices whispered brokenly, followed by a wail that frightened him. He sat up, his toy clutched in his arms. From his bed he could see through the doorway to the other room of their home. His Mama had let in his Papa's two strange friends: 'Eldan' and 'Elror' - they looked so much alike, Aragorn interchanged their names. But the usual smiling faces were tired and sad.

His Mama sank to her knees, weeping. Aragorn gripped his horsey more tightly to himself. His eyes darted between the adults, and tears began to roll down his cheeks. It frightened him to see his Mama so sad. She was strong. She rarely cried, not even when she burned her finger while cooking his porridge! She was the one who always held those who were hurting, wiping their tears.

But now, Mama rocked herself on the floor, her arms around her middle. Eldan and Elror knelt beside her, one offering a small cloth as he'd seen her do for others. But she kept rocking herself as if she did not see them, murmuring to herself: "Too soon, my love. It's too soon…."

The light during those following weeks of his mother's grief had come by way of a new home and family. He barely remembered Arathorn: only flashes of a laughing, beloved face. But he was loved greatly in Imladris, and the memories of his childhood there still brought smiles to his lips. Elladan and Elrohir became his brothers, and their father, his father.

Elrohir even now walked nearby; Aragorn could see the faint glow on the other side of Roheryn when the horse lowered his head. Elladan brought up the rear of the Company, but Aragorn could sense his comforting presence. Behind, he could also hear Legolas singing softly to Arod, urging him on. Aragorn smiled anew. The wood-elf's kindness never wavered.

"Enter, Estel," Elrond's voice carried through the open door to the little boy lingering curiously just beyond it. "I know you wish to say hello."

"Yes, Ada," he said, peeking into his father's study. He hesitated when his eyes fell on the visitor seated across from his father's desk. He'd wished to meet the wood-elf he'd heard so much about, but actually meeting the son of the Elvenking made him pause fearfully. Wood-elves were strange and mysterious, he'd been told. Dangerous even!

But the golden-haired elf that turned to him had a smile and kind eyes touched with a bit of sadness that reassured him. This one looked much like his brothers, only with yellow hair. Estel advanced with more confidence then, stopping just before the chair where the Elvenking's son sat. "My name's Estel, and I'm almost five."

Bright grey eyes twinkled as the stranger answered, "I am called Legolas, and I am much older than five years". The last was said with a wink, and Estel giggled. "It is an honor to meet you, little one. I have heard much about you."

Estel frowned a bit at that. He'd heard much about Legolas from his brothers, but what could Ell'dan and Elor'ir have told the wood-elf? "Did they tattle on me?"

Legolas snorted. "Not exactly. They have told me how much they enjoy playing with you, and that you know a lot of fun games. You will have to teach me some."

Estel felt thrilled to have a new playmate. "All right! Come on!" And he grabbed the wood-elf by the hand and began to drag him from the chair.

"I believe we will have to finish our discussion, later, Lord Elrond," Legolas called as he was pulled from the room.

Elrond's laughter followed them. "It will be good for you, Thranduilion!"

Aragorn chuckled to himself as he remembered. As little Estel, he had pestered the archer with questions about the dark wood beyond the Misty Mountains, which Legolas called home. Kindhearted, Legolas answered every one with patience, even entering into the childish games as he had said he would. That meeting established a life long friendship that endured no matter the years that passed between meetings.

He suspected it was their friendship that spurred Legolas to agree to accompany the Ring-bearer on the Quest. He was not without stars in the darkest of nights.

It seemed they walked forever in the dark, pressing on, the silence broken only by hooves clattering over the stone floor, soft thuds of booted feet, and the occasional whisper of reassurance to a mount. Once, the eerie quiet was shattered when a rock skittering along the path, knocked by dragging hoof, causing one of the horses to whinny loudly; then the monotony returned.

Aragorn returned to his thoughts, blocking out the heaviness of the dark and the chill of what followed them.

While his childhood had been mostly carefree, his adult life had been filled with years of trials and dark days. Those times shaped him and formed him into the man he was today. He would not regret any hardship if it brought him victory.

"I need a favor of you, my friend."

Gandalf's voice was laced with an emotion Aragorn could not quite put his finger on. He shifted on the stone bench he shared with the wizard in the heart of his mother's garden in Imladris. "Whatever you need, be it in my power, it is yours." He worried at the deep lines around his friend's eyes. Gandalf's face had grown more deeply furrowed over the years he had known the wizard, but these lines were recent and spoke of many sleepless nights.

"There are things I am not yet at liberty to explain to you, for I do not understand them all myself. I must ask that you trust me." The wizard drew on his pipe, slowly releasing the smoke into an elaborate ring.

For a moment the smoke seemed to flash, like a golden ring surrounded by flames. He blinked, but all that remained was a drifting smoke ring. For some reason, the image shook him to his core.

The wizard chewed on his pipe stem a moment, then turned to look at him. "The Shadow in the East grows. My heart warns me that evil is on the move." He paused, his demeanor changing as he lifted an amused brow. "Amazing creatures – Hobbits; so unaware of the world around them, yet at times endlessly curious."

"You would have me set a guard on the Shire?" Aragorn asked with a small smile. He shared Gandalf's fondness for the Halflings.

"Indeed," the wizard smiled a moment, then sobered, his solemn mien returning. "But I do not want them aware that they are being guarded."

"And just what are we guarding them against?"

Gandalf turned to look out into the night. "I do not know…yet."

'Black riders…' He shivered, knowing now the danger Gandalf had sensed – a threat that still hunted him…and Frodo.

Roheryn pressed his muzzle into Aragorn's hand, and he jerked at the startling touch. Roheryn snorted in protest, and Aragorn rubbed the horse's nose in reassurance. All the horses were uneasy, as were the men. He could hear even Gimli muttering to himself. The fear in the air was palatable. The Mountain pressed down on them, and the ghostly silence began to undo even him. Fear and terror closed in on all sides as the magnitude of what he faced bore down on him.

He would call on the souls of the Dead to fight for him. War awaited him in Minas Tirith; he had a destiny to fulfill. He could not fail either the people of Minas Tirith or his fellow Dúnedain. He could not face a life without his beloved; he must succeed!

He straightened to his full height and breathed deeply, banishing his fear.

Warmth filled him as the tinkling sound of water broke the stillness. The blackness that had lasted so long became grey. The light grew as if a faint twilight lingered, and he could make out another gateway, high-arched and broad. He stepped under it. A small rill ran out with them before leaping over the rocks beside a steep road through sheer cliffs – so high it appeared to be night with stars glinting in the breaks above. He nodded to the light.

Turning to his men, he lifted his hand, signaling them to mount. He settled onto Roheryn's back and urged him into a steady walk. Behind him his men rode in file, as the light wavered to the deep blue of dusk. Fear still pursued them.

Then a light and musical voice spoke softly.

"The Dead are following," said Legolas. "I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following."

"Yes, the dead ride behind. They have been summoned," said Elladan. (4)

Aragorn sensed his men quail at the words, but he rode tall and straight through the blue-grey light. Always the dawn follows the darkest night. Not yet, for though the Mountain now lay behind him, the worst blackness lay ahead. But light would pierce the Shadows. Dawn would come.

I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, Isildur's heir of Gondor, the Elessar. The Dead heed my summons. I will not fail!


But when the dawn came, cold and pale, Aragorn rose at once, and he led the Company forth upon the journey of greatest haste and weariness that any among them had known, save he alone, and only his will held them to go on.

JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King


Author's Note:

I have based Aragorn's remembering the death of Arathorn on the fact I have a single clear memory from the age of two. I hope it's not too farfetched he would remember so much of that night.

There are many parts of this story that may sound very familiar as I wrote it with my book open. I have tried to keep the retelling to a minimum, endeavoring to fill in the gaps while leaving canon intact. But as always, I take some creative license.

Direct quotes:

1) "This is an evil door," said Halbarad, :and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless; but no horse will enter."

- - JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King p. 769

2) "But we must go in, and therefore the horses must go too," said Aragorn. "For if ever we come through this darkness, many leagues lie beyond, and every hour that is lost there will bring the triumph of Sauron nearer. Follow me!"

- - JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King p. 769

3) "Hither shall the flowers of simbelmynë come never unto world's end," he murmured. "Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!

"For that is not my errand!" he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. "Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden in the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"(3)

- - JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King p. 770

4) "The Dead are following," said Legolas. "I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following."

"Yes, the dead ride behind. They have been summoned," said Elladan. (4)

- - JRR Tolkien, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King p. 771