There's quite an interesting story behind the origins of this fic which all started with this chapter. Back when I first saw The Two Towers in the cinema I had not yet read the book, so when Aragorn fell off that cliff during the fight with the Wargs and got washed up on the shore I was convinced that he was going to be found by someone unfriendly. Seriously, that shot as the horse first comes into frame? I was convinced that it was an orc for a split second. I duly noted down the plot bunny and later wrote an early draft of the battle near Rauros-falls to explain how Aragorn came to be where he was. I had no idea where the story would go from there, and for years it remained yet another idea in my notebook, but then a few years on I had a nagging 'What if?' in my mind and finally went back to my old notes.
All credit goes to Tolkien for Arwen's dialogue and any recognizable lines. Thank you for all of the reviews asking after this - it might take me a while to update but I get there eventually. This chapter ended up getting very long so hopefully it was worth the (extremely long) wait!
It was the evening of Midsummer. A sweet fragrance was upon the air as Aragorn walked slowly beneath the fading trees of Lothlórien. He went unshod and clad in elven-mail to the hill of Cerin Amroth. There waiting for him was his beloved.
A fair light shone about her, and it was as if Lúthien herself had come again from the songs of Elder Days. Dark hair fell upon pale shoulders, and she wore a mantle of silver and blue; about her brows was bound a wreath of gems like stars. She smiled as Aragorn approached her. There upon the hill of Cerin Amroth he took her in his arms and they kissed upon the undying grass.
Far above a Shadow dwelt in the east. At first naught but a distant cloud, it slowly grew and blended with the Twilight in the west. Soon it threatened to cover the fair glades of Lothlórien. The elanor and niphredil about their feet grew dim and seemed to wither.
Arwen's face was grave as she beheld the darkness. Yet even as the elven-light in her eyes was dimmed she pulled away from Aragorn and touched a hand tenderly to his face. "Dark is the Shadow," she said, "and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it."
And then it seemed that the Twilight suddenly broke, and darkness fell upon the land of Lórien. A series of fell shrieks rent the air. The sound struck terror into Aragorn's heart. He turned and caught sight of winged shadows descending from the skies.
The Enemy had found him.
Aragorn awoke. He was lying on his back on the cold ground. He was not in Lothlórien. He did not know where he was.
Above him the sky had grown dim. Cold air was blowing on his face. He did not know how long he remained lying still upon his back, listening to the rhythm of nightly noises. His head ached fiercely. He could still hear Arwen's voice echoing in his thoughts. He shut his eyes again and tried to separate his memory from dream-shadows.
He remembered a great battle and the smell of wood smoke. Why had he been fighting all by himself? Where were the others? He had run a long way through the forest as orcs yelled and crashed through the trees behind him; and then just as suddenly he had found himself alone. He was standing at the very edge of Rauros-falls. But he had been unable to escape his pursuers: they soon came at him from all sides, but rather than slay him they had tried only to lay hold of him. His last memory was of a ringing clash of weapons, and then the great foam and rushing waters closing in on him from every side as he had leapt from the cliff's edge. Darkness had followed.
"But whereabouts am I now?" he thought to himself. "And how did I come to be here, wherever here may be? Why is it that I am still alive?"
He felt cold and sick, so rather than attempt to move his aching head he simply remained still and listened intently to the world about him. He could hear a great rushing of water not far away. He must be near a river or some other watercourse. The faint sound of a crackling fire carried upon the breeze. Slowly he became aware of many voices round about speaking in an abominable tongue. By instinct he turned and looked for his sword. It was not there. He attempted to move and found that he could not. His hands were bound behind him with cruel cords, as were his legs and ankles.
His eyes flew open.
"Of course," Aragorn thought. "There were dozens of orcs attempting to seize me. But I eluded them, did I not?"
His question was soon answered as he felt the cold touch of a blade at his throat. Someone must have become aware of his waking.
"So, you are finally awake?" said a voice. The dark face of an orc loomed over him and gave a sneer, revealing a set of fangs. He had a black knife with a long jagged blade in his hand. "Perhaps now we won't have to lug you every step of the way! You gave us quite a merry chase back there, but the River did not claim you as we had first thought."
His guard seized him by his bound arms and hauled Aragorn roughly onto his knees. His head was still aching fiercely as he attempted to stay upright. He struggled a little, quite uselessly. For the first time he saw the great host of orcs sat or stood about him.
"Ha! Look here lads!" his guard cried. "The filthy tark has woken up! I told you he wasn't dead!"
A chorus of cries met these words; some of the orcs clashed their weapons against their chests in jubilation. Aragorn measured their numbers with unease. There were many more than he remembered gathered here; and yet he knew that he had slain a large number of their company upon Amon Lhaw. There was certainly no chance of his escaping such a host unseen.
The others gave way as a large black orc approached and bent down before their prisoner. He wore a broad-bladed sword at his side and a satisfied smirk. It was all that Aragorn could do to keep his anger restrained as the orc captain seized him about the chin with a gloved hand.
"So you are alive then?" the orc growled as he studied him, turning Aragorn's face this way and that. Dried blood plastered the ranger's nose and mouth, and his face was very pale. His shirt was torn at the shoulder where it had been cut by a blade earlier. "I guess you are made of hardier stuff than most. A shame for my lads; they were looking forward to feasting on man-flesh for a change. All they have eaten lately is slimy fish and stale bread."
The orc released his grip. Aragorn glared at him heatedly. If his hands were free he would never have allowed himself to suffer such a terrible touch, but he was bound fast and could barely move. The orc captain stood up again and gestured towards Aragorn's guard.
"Bind his arms as well!" he ordered. "I do not want the tark escaping twice. We are to bring him back alive and unspoiled. We've already wasted enough time here. We will rest another hour and then go on again. He still looks dead upon his feet to me."
And the orc captain turned away and returned to the nearby campfire to bark orders at the others. It was clear they had chosen a new leader after Aragorn had slain Lurtz upon Amon Lhaw, or perhaps this new leader had appointed himself: there was much angry grumbling amongst the company at his words. Aragorn's guard muttered and snarled to himself as he took up another piece of rope and tied it about the ranger's arms. He soon passed into a long angry speech in his own tongue as he pulled the knots so tightly that Aragorn was forced to bite back a cry. Obviously they were not prepared to take any chances.
As the orcs got ready to march again Aragorn watched them intently, looking pale but grim and defiant. His head still ached and he was reminded of the pain in his shoulder by the cruel cords biting into his arms. It was not long before his guard moved away and settled down nearby, knife in hand.
For the first time since he had awoken Aragorn was left alone with his own thoughts. From their speech it did not sound as though these orcs had come across the rest of the Company. At least his plan seemed to have worked. He hoped that the others were safely away from this place and on their way towards Mordor.
But how had he survived such a fall? As he leapt from the edge of Rauros he had resigned himself to death; now he found himself very much alive and facing a fate worse still. He remembered the dark and troubled dream which had preceded his waking. Arwen's words still echoed in his memory.
Aragorn knew that the grace of the Valar had protected him from death on this occasion, but as he knelt there, bound hand and foot and surrounded by orcs, he could not foresee the reason why.
Aragorn quickly learnt what had happened the next morning as he listened to the snatched conversation of those around him.
It seemed that after he had plunged from the edge of Rauros-falls the orcs he had been fighting instead began to turn upon each other. Those from Moria had been very angry, for they had traveled many leagues to avenge their kin. The larger orcs had slain most before the others were cowed. Those still remaining quickly chose a new captain, a large black orc named Uglúk. He had led the company through the eastern Emyn Muil and down to the banks of the Anduin. These orcs knew they could not return to their master without a prize, regardless of whether that prize was alive or dead.
They had not been searching long before they came by chance upon Aragorn. He had been washed up upon the river bank and seemed at first glance to be dead. Uglúk soon noticed that he was still breathing and ordered him to be bound fast and his weapons to be taken away. Uglúk still wore Andúril in its sheath at his belt, and Aragorn vowed to himself that he would slay the foul creature at any cost in order to reclaim it.
His pack and its contents were long gone. Doubtless it had been lost in the wash of the river. He had no idea what had become of his elven knife. The gash in his shoulder had been treated swiftly in orc-fashion and gave him little trouble, and yet Aragorn often stumbled as he marched. When he did so cruel hands were always at the ready to haul him back to his feet and drive him onwards. At other times when they stopped to rest Uglúk thrust a flask between his teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain vanished for a time and they soon went on again.
Amongst this company were also orcs under the command of Mordor. A short crook-legged creature called Grishnákh fancied himself as a trusted messenger of the Great Eye. He argued that they should take Aragorn at once to Lugbúrz. Though orc-speech sounded at all times full of hate and anger, it seemed plain that something like a quarrel began at these words. Some of Grishnákh's followers drew their swords. Three fell with cloven head before Uglúk managed to restore order. Grishnákh simply stepped aside and vanished into the shadows. No doubt he thought it best to bide his time instead.
Sunlight did not stop their endless advance. Aragorn reckoned the number of days that passed only by the rising and setting of the sun, as evil dreams overtook him in the blinding day as well as the darkness of another night. Yet as they journeyed on Aragorn soon found himself in familiar country. He had traveled through this region many times during his time amongst the Rohirrim and recognized the swell of the land even as it lay shrouded in darkness.
They were following the course of the Entwash.
He guessed that the orcs must have been very anxious to opt for this route rather than marching straight across the plains of Rohan. Their journey would take much longer following the meandering route of this river, but it would stop them from being left vulnerable to attack by the Rohirrim out on the windswept plains. Obviously Uglúk did not fancy their chances in open country. They had nearly lost their prisoner once and they were not prepared to risk him again.
On the second day heavy clouds above threatened rain. As evening began to descend it became dark very quickly. Unable to keep up the pace of his captors Aragorn stumbled and fell onto his knees; and as he did so the Evenstar on its chain was revealed about his neck. The white pendant glinted keenly in the moonlight as he was hauled back onto his feet. A shiver of excitement ran through the host at this sight. To Uglúk's annoyance their pace slowed and they soon came to a stop altogether.
"A piece of elvish glass!" said one, his eyes fixed upon the jewel hanging around Aragorn's neck. "Pilfered from some hidden stash of treasure I'll reckon. Why else would he have it?"
"It's some elvish weapon I've heard," said another. "That's why we were to catch him. It's wanted for the war."
"Why don't we find out?" said Grishnákh. There was a pale light gleaming in his eyes.
"Enough!" Uglúk growled. "We'll be having none of that! The prisoner is not to be searched or plundered. Those are my orders. I care not what you maggot-folk of Mordor have been told."
"There is no harm in taking a look," said Grishnákh. Cold fingers suddenly grasped at Aragorn's shirt, pawing at the pendant on its silver chain about his neck. "We shall find out his secrets soon enough."
Aragorn felt a flush of revulsion. Immediately he kicked out at Grishnákh and caused the orc to stumble backwards. As he did so one of the large Northerners drew his sword and rushed at him. Aragorn turned and caught the sword with his bound hands, using this momentum to drive the orc's blade into the belly of another. This second orc gave a shriek and fell down dead. Aragorn and his opponent were thrown onto the stony floor.
Aragorn heard the surprise and panic around him and quickly took advantage of it. He struck out at his opponent and then wrenched the sword free from the dead orc's belly. He rose unsteadily to his feet, the bloodied sword in his hands. He found himself surrounded on all sides; and yet it was clear that he was prepared for a fierce fight as the Evenstar hung from his neck for all to see.
"Enough!" shouted Uglúk.
But it was plain that anger had consumed them. The orcs from Mordor wished to avenge their slain kin and sprung at Aragorn from all sides. One matched him blow for blow before falling with a gaping hole in its belly. Yet another was brought down with a hard blow to its side. Aragorn fought them off as best he could with his borrowed sword but with his hands still bound it was a hopeless task.
As he turned to fend off another blow a large black orc struck out with his sword and caught him in the neck with a glancing blow. Aragorn cried out and stumbled onto his knees. Another came forward and struck a blow at his head. Aragorn swept up his own sword and caught this blow, but as he did so the force of it rang down the crude blade and into his injured shoulder. Aragorn gave back as the blade fell ringing from his hands. His opponent kicked him to the ground and he fell hard upon his back.
He could hear Uglúk yelling as the attacking orc lifted its blade and intended to drive it through him like a spear. That probably saved his life as Aragorn swiftly snatched up his own blade and thrust it deep into his opponent's neck. The orc gave a strangled cry and then fell to the ground and lay still. The weight of its corpse pulled the sword from his hands, and Aragorn collapsed again as the others converged upon him with their weapons at the ready.
"Stop!" Uglúk shouted. "That's enough. Put up your weapons now! We are to bring him back alive!"
The others reluctantly stepped aside as Uglúk came forward. Aragorn lay still upon his back next to this slain orc, his breathing difficult. About half a dozen bodies littered the ground around him. At least he had made them pay dearly. They would not attempt to touch the Evenstar again. The next moment he was roughly pulled onto his knees and held fast by two of the larger orcs under Uglúk's command.
"Throw the dead into the water," shouted Uglúk. "I do not want to leave a trail leading any of those filthy horse-boys right to us. There is to be no looting and no harm come to the prisoner, do you hear? Attempt to disobey those orders and you will soon find yourself relieved of your heads!"
As his orders were swiftly carried out Uglúk turned back and fixed Aragorn with a murderous gaze. He regarded the blood which now ran down his neck and stained his elven cloak.
"Bind his eyes," Uglúk growled.
Despite this defeat Aragorn gave the orc captain a queer smile as a black cloth was bound about his eyes. It was not long before the orcs had completed their task and they moved on again. As he marched Aragorn stumbled blindly and fell upon his knees. At once his enemies leapt forward with their long arms stretched out to seize him. The ranger did not struggle, but silently suffered their touch as they jeered and hauled him back to his feet.
At that moment his only comfort was that he had kept his promise to Frodo.
That night they made camp in a marshy landscape heavy with the promise of rain. As they came to a stop Aragorn was shoved ungraciously to the ground by one of his guards. His hands were bound in front of him, but he was still unable to catch himself and cried out in pain as he fell hard upon his arm and side.
The guard who had shoved him removed his blindfold and then gave the ranger a swift kick before turning away. He soon joined a number of orcs who took up crude axes and began to hack at the trees for firewood. It was hard to get a flame to catch in this landscape, but these creatures were skilled in its use and soon had a roaring campfire burning in their midst.
Mist drifted among the thickets of willow trees which dotted the surrounding slopes. The thick smell of wood smoke hung in the air and clung to the ground of the hollow where they had made camp. Aragorn watched as more faggots were piled upon the flames, the glow of the fire revealing the multitude of figures moving about in the darkness. Orcs had no use for a clean-burning fire, and as the wind changed direction a plume of black smoke drifted across the camp. Aragorn's eyes stung from the sight of it. Soon his eyes were red and tears swam in his vision. He raised his bound hands and wiped angrily at his face.
Despite the heat of the fire Aragorn felt keenly the wind's chill that evening. They had traveled long and hard for many days and he was growing steadily weaker; and yet he knew that something was wrong. The terrible orc-draught that they forced him to drink could only sustain him for so long. Despite his exhaustion he had managed to snatch only a few precious hours of sleep, and many times he had woken up in a cold sweat and shivering violently. Sleeping and waking seemed to blend into one long nightmarish struggle.
He was not left alone for long. From the direction of the fire came Uglúk, his sword clanking at his belt. Aragorn looked up at him with a glassy expression. Seizing him roughly Uglúk's groping fingers held him in an iron grip.
"There is a fever in your eyes," Uglúk said. "There is but a scratch on your neck. Where else are you wounded?"
Aragorn met his gaze steadily but gave no answer. Uglúk growled and withdrew a knife from his belt. He held it at the ranger's throat, leaning in threateningly close and said again: "Where is your wound?"
Aragorn swallowed lightly against the blade. He made no reaction as he felt fresh blood trickle in a thin line at his throat.
"It is my left arm," he said.
Aragorn did not wish to make things easy for his captors, but at that moment he was keenly aware of the Evenstar hanging about his neck. Uglúk seemed satisfied with this answer and caught the ranger by his bound hands, pulling him close and roughly pushing up his sleeve. Aragorn hissed with pain at this action. Uglúk ignored him and used his knife to cut away the crude bandage which was bound above the crook of the ranger's elbow. It was soaked through with blood, the wound itself angry and inflamed: the result of Gollum's frenzied attack upon Amon Lhaw.
"Now then," said Uglúk. "What's this?" The orc's cruel fingers bruised his arm, but Aragorn did not say anything. Uglúk measured him for a moment and then dug his fingers into the wound. Aragorn bit back a cry as the wound was torn open and blood began to run down his arm. "I asked you a question," Uglúk growled again. His eyes glinted menacingly in the light of the nearby fire. "What is this wound? I must know if I am to treat it."
Aragorn stared past him into the flames of the campfire.
"If you must know," he said, turning his eyes back towards Uglúk, "I set a match to myself before I took up my sword and slaughtered half of your camp."
Uglúk was not expecting such an answer. He remained silent for a moment as he pressed his fingers into the wound again. Eventually the orc gave a grunt and nodded.
"This is an ugly wound," he said. "If you had kept quiet about it any longer it would have killed you." He gave a smile and revealed a set of jagged teeth. "And we would not want that now, would we?"
Aragorn did not answer. Secretly he had suspected the danger which this wound presented. He did not like to admit it even to himself, but death seemed preferable to what awaited him at the end of his journey. The small hope he had cradled died as Uglúk put away his knife and removed a small wooden box from the pouch at his belt instead.
Soon another orc loomed out of the darkness and gave a shout.
"What are you doing, Uglúk?" sneered an evil voice. "You're not meant to play with the prisoner."
As he moved into the light of the fire Aragorn recognized Grishnákh's hunched figure. He kept one gnarled hand upon the sword at his belt as he regarded them both with suspicion.
"He is wounded," growled Uglúk. He removed the lid from the wooden box. "The fever will set in further if I don't clean this." He turned and gave Grishnákh a hard look. "Or do you want him to die now after we have went to so much trouble to catch him alive?"
Grishnákh gave a grunt.
"I suppose not," he said. "But you may kill the tark yourself if you are too rough. Be careful with him." Grishnákh met the ranger's eyes as Uglúk worked, and the hand he kept on his sword tightened a little. The orcs carried no water with them, but Uglúk simply took some dark stuff from the wooden box and smeared it on Aragorn's wound. He was not gentle in his task. Aragorn did his best to disguise his pain as Uglúk worked.
Grishnákh kept watch as Uglúk cleaned the wound, looking ready to spring into action at the first sign of trouble. None presented itself. Once Uglúk had finished his task he calmly returned the lid to the wooden box.
"There," Uglúk said, "that should help keep you alive a little longer. Or at least until we reach our destination."
Aragorn sensed Grishnákh's unease at these words. He looked first at one orc and then at the other as Uglúk returned the wooden box to his belt.
"May I ask," Aragorn said, choosing his words carefully, "where you have decided to take me yet?"
Both were taken off-guard by this question. Neither answered at once. Uglúk simply growled his displeasure and dragged Aragorn up by his hair.
"You will find out when we arrive," he snarled. "And I would suggest that you still your insolent tongue until then." He leered at the ranger with a wicked grin. "Otherwise, I shall not hesitate to cut it out."
Uglúk released Aragorn's hair and turned away, but not before barking orders at the others to watch him more closely. He shot Grishnákh a suspicious look as he departed to oversee the rotation of the night watch. Grishnákh remained behind a fleeting moment before he too disappeared again into the shadows. Meanwhile Aragorn drew a deep breath and stared into the campfire as it quietly crackled before him. He had no idea where he was being taken, but he felt a sudden chill run through him even as the flames danced hungrily before his eyes.
Either the fires of Isengard or Mordor awaited him.