Note: Excerpts from "The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon" from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; J.R.R. Tolkien. Excerpt from "The Song of Tinúviel" from "A Knife in the Dark"; The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter XXX: A Lunatic Quest
Weariness clawed at Aragorn's heart and set a blazing flame behind his eyes. Each leaden step sent echoes of pain into his viscera. Although he had water aplenty, having filled his skins in Limlight's shallows, his mouth was dry and his tongue felt raw against his palate. His very teeth ached.
The night was dissolving into an indifferently grey morning. Soon the air would begin to warm a little, but Aragorn doubted that the chill in his bones would dissipate. At first he had taken it to be a lingering effect of his cold fording, but as the hours wore on it had become obvious that something more insidious was at work; his exhausted body was no longer keeping itself properly heated. He used his right arm to draw his cloak more tightly to his body, but the ragged remains of the heavy wool did nothing to dissipate his discomfort.
Gollum was moving on ahead, now and then glancing back over his shoulder at his stumbling guide. Aragorn could read the malice in his eyes, and it filled him with a dread he had not felt before. The creature was not tamed, not cowed. The creature was waiting, watching, biding his time until another chance arose to dispatch his captor. And this time he would not fail. The Ranger could not walk on forever. Sooner or later he would have to stop, and sleep, and then—
Aragorn shook his head, trying to clear the fog of paranoia that was giving rise to these thoughts. Although it was reasonable to assume that Gollum meant him ill, this mounting terror bordered upon the irrational. He could do without sleep a little longer, and when at last he was forced to succumb he could take precautions to secure his captive. What worried him most was the certain knowledge that when at last he did attempt to rest he would sink into so deep a slumber that he would not be easily roused. In the wild the kind of sleep he needed was an invitation to disaster, and he was now beyond the point at which he could fight it.
For the moment all that he could do was continue to move. While he walked at least he would not sleep, and he had trod harder paths than this with less rest – though not, admittedly, in such dangerous company.
There was no sunrise that day, for the clouds were thick and low. The dull pale light rendered the rolling lands stark and brown with winter's dormancy. Aragorn tried to keep himself occupied by scanning the horizons for anything of note. When that failed, he attempted to let his mind slip away despite his slowly plodding feet, but he found that this slowed him almost to a crawl. Then he tried to sing something, anything– but neither tune nor words could he recall.
In silence he endured, numbly counting each heavy stride. He knew his steps were uneven, inefficient. He could feel the stoop of his shoulders and the pendulous weight of his head. Once he felt a tug upon his wrist as Gollum outstripped his pace and was obliged to halt. While his other senses dulled it seemed that every sound was amplified, intensified. He could hear the rustle of the grasses about his ankles, and the low whistling of the wind, and the slow, dogged beating of his own heart.
There was a curiously muted quality to existence here, in the empty lands where no men dwelt. The air he drew in through his nostrils grew warmer. The light upon his face dimmed. His pains faded, growing ever more distant as if he was wrapped in a shawl of numbness. The pressure behind his temples leeched slowly away. A gentle vacancy settled over his mind, and it seemed the very beating of his heart was slowed and hushed.
The next sensation of which he was aware was a sharp prodding prickle just below his left kneecap. With a harsh, snorting intake of air, Aragorn's body jerked back into the land of the living. His heart raced as he looked wildly about, taking in his surroundings with instinctive wariness.
He had stopped dead in his tracks. Gollum, forced to stop when he reached the end of his lead, had doubled back and was now squatting by the Ranger's boot. His head was cocked to one side like a brooding carrion-fowl, and his hands were extended before him. He had jabbed his bound fingertips against his captor's leg.
Aragorn frowned down at his prisoner. 'Get on with you,' he said, the stern caste he would have liked to take undercut somewhat by the hoarseness of his voice. 'We have many miles to walk, and…' But he could not finish the thought.
With a long, sly sidelong look, Gollum turned and began to lope forward again. Aragorn trundled after him, scrubbing his eyes with the back of his right hand. This had gone too far. He had drifted into the earliest stage of sleep while still on his feet. There was no hope of safe rest, no chance of respite here. Anxiety bit at his throat as he weighed the universally undesirable alternatives before him.
Hot on the heels of worry came anger. He was a dour-handed warrior, a man of many skills and great endurance. Most hardy of his race he was accounted, and yet he could not keep himself awake while he walked. It was unacceptable.
He blinked several times in rapid succession to clear the fog from his eyes. Biting down upon the soft flesh inside the corner of his mouth, he quickened his pace. Swollen feet and aching legs protested this, but he pushed onward into the pain. His course had been too gentle, if it had lulled him to the very cusp of slumber. He could not safely rest here, and he did not trust himself to doze warily as he normally would in hostile climes. Therefore he had to move onward in the vain hope that he would find somewhere he might secure his prisoner and conceal them both from prying eyes.
In the meantime, he had to do something to keep himself alert. He tried once more to recall some song with which to occupy himself. The standard fare eluded him, for his weary mind could not wrap itself around the complex modes and melodies of Elvish songs, nor settle upon more than a three-word phrase of any old ballad of Men. But his thoughts strayed northward, to the house of Elrond in the fair valley of Rivendell, where by the hearth in the great Hall of Fire he had passed more than one merry evening in the company of a sensible old traveller whose store of lusty, simple songs was endless. Groping about in the mire of his addled memory, he hauled out a fragment of verse.
'"The Man in the Moon," ' he muttered; ' "himself… himself came down one night… one night to…" ' He cleared his throat and tried desperately to remember. If he could remember just a little of it then the tune would come back to him, and if he could light upon the melody then the rest would follow. ' "The Man in the Moon had a silver spoon…"'
That wasn't it, either. There were two songs, he remembered: one about the raucous goings-on at a peculiar little inn, and another that Bilbo had written later, in what he referred to as his retirement. The spoon belonged to the first song, with a drunken cat and a small dog and a manic heifer. The second song was more lyrical, filled with almost Elvish imagery but still retaining a particular hobbity charm.
'Silver slippers?' Aragorn tried, but that wasn't quite right. The verse was on the very tip of his tongue, and yet he seemed unable to find the words. ' "The Man in the Moon had silver… silver… and his beard was of silver thread. With…"'
It was pointless trying to go on, he thought petulantly. He wanted to remember just what it was that the Man in the Moon had. It rhymed with moon, of that much he was certain, but it was a strange hobbit-word and it was dodging him like – well, really, not unlike his captive had for so many years.
That comparison made him cross. It was like a cruel riddle: always seeking, never finding; always hunting, never catching; always roaming, never resting; always fighting, never winning; always pressing forward, never gaining any ground.
'Noon,' he muttered. 'Swoon, boon, loon, dune, hewn, croon, festoon…'
Gollum had halted in his tracks and was staring at his captor in disbelief. Aragorn brushed past him, forcing the creature to trot to keep up.
'Rune,' he tried wrathfully; 'harpoon, shoon, buffoon…'
That was it. He remembered now. With a satisfied smirk, he launched into the song, quickening his pace to match the tempo.
The Man in the Moon had silver shoon,
and his beard was of silver thread;
With opals crowned and pearls all bound
about his girdlestead.
In his mantle grey he walked one day
across a shining floor,
And with crystal key in secrecy
he opened an ivory door.
Once he had started it was easy to go on. The words tripped out one after another, and though his throat ached from the exertion he continued to sing.
On a filigree stair of glimmering hair
then lightly down he went,
And merry was he at last to be free
on a mad adventure bent.
In diamonds white he had lost delight;
he was tired of his minaret
Of tall moonstone that towered alone
on a lunar mountain set.
He would dare any peril for ruby and beryl
to broider his pale attire,
For new diadems of lustrous gems,
emerald and sapphire.
He was lonely too with nothing to do
but stare at the world of gold
And heark to the hum that would distantly come
as gaily round it rolled…
As he sang Aragorn felt his weariness lifting a little. The rich colours rendered so prettily in song lent lustre to the dull landscape before him, and although the hero's yearning for rich victuals and wine struck something of an uncomfortable chord with his own empty stomach, he felt his lungs filling with clean air with each line. The image of the absent-minded moon-lord tumbling in fishers' nets was an amusing one, filled with hobbit-like whimsy, and he recognized the line about 'the windy Bay of Bel' as coming from his own tales of far-off lands.
But then the Man in the Moon came to the town, and Aragorn remembered another conversation that Bilbo had worked into his song. He was under the spell of the poetry now, and he could not but continue, yet it was with mounting bitterness that he sang now.
Not a hearth was made, not a breakfast made,
and dawn was cold and damp.
There were ashes for fire, and for grass the mire,
for the sun a smoking lamp
In a dim back-street. Not a man did he meed,
no voice was raised in song;
There were snores instead, for all folk were abed
and still would slumber long.
He knocked as he passed on doors locked fast,
and called and cried in vain,
Till he came to an inn that had light within,
and tapped on a window-pane.
A drowsy cook gave a surly look,
and 'What do you want?' said he.
'I want fire and gold and songs of old
and red wine flowing free!'
'You won't get them here," said the cook with a leer,
'but you may come inside.
Silver I lack and silk to my back—
maybe I'll let you bide'.
A silver gift the latch to lift,
a pearl to pass the door;
For a seat by the cook in the ingle-nook
it cost him twenty more.
For hunger or drouth naught passed his mouth
till he gave both crown and cloak:
And all that he got, in an earthen pot
broken and black with smoke,
Was porridge cold and two days old
to eat with a wooden spoon.
For puddings of Yule with plums, poor fool,
he arrived so much too soon:
An unwary guest on a lunatic quest
from the Mountains of the Moon.
The song was gone, and in its wake was bitterness. Dear Bilbo had meant no harm, certainly, when he wove those sentiments into his song, but just at present it was a hard thing to think on such things. Hard was the road that wound north to Mirkwood, and at its end there was little reward. His prize, his recompense for these hardships would be to return to his daily life in the West, where his kind was reviled by those they struggled to protect. Long and lonely was this road, but just as lonely was the next one. So it would continue, year after year until he was stooped with age and too old to go on – or else until he met his death by some mischance, or some unforeseeable change brought to a head the long war he had fought almost from boyhood.
Or perhaps, a change not so unforeseeable. Aragorn's eyes fell upon Gollum, ambling awkwardly beside him. Swiftly he knelt, so swiftly that his captive had no time to react. He dug his fingers into Gollum's shoulder and jostled him.
'What do you know?' he demanded.
The prisoner hissed, whimpering deep in his throat. His eyes at once malicious and frightened, uncomprehending, stared out from their sunken sockets.
'What do you know? Why were you taken prisoner? What did they ask you? How did you escape?'
The questions tripped out one over the other, a cascade of demands bordering upon the unreasonable. But Aragorn was weary beyond reason, and he had to learn something, anything, that might make all this suffering worthwhile.
'What did they want to know? What did Sauron's minions ask you?'
At the sound of the Dark Lord's name, Gollum quailed. He cast himself upon the ground, beating the sod with one foot while his arms twisted and contorted in an attempt to hide his head. 'Wicked orcses, hateful manses,' he moaned shrilly. 'Beats us, hurts us precious. Poor, pretty handses, gollum.'
'Tell me!' Aragorn snapped, desperation gnawing upon his last ravelled nerves. 'What did they want to know? What have you told them? What do you have to tell them?'
'Hurts us, precious. Hurts us!'
'I'll hurt you, you stinking wretch!' Aragorn cried, tightening his hold and shaking Gollum so that the creature's head bobbed. 'Tell me what I want to know: how did you escape the Dark Tower? How did you get out of Mordor alive?'
Gollum snapped with his teeth, writhing and wailing incoherently. Warily Aragorn drew back his hand, and as the moment of madness passed he stared in horror at the spectacle before him. Remorse and disgust wrenched his bowels. He knew well the horrors to which a prisoner might be put by even the lesser servants of the Enemy, far from the walls of Barad-dûr and without the ingenious tools of torture hoarded up within. What this craven thing had suffered there he could never know, but well could he imagine. The horror of it lay black upon Gollum's heart, and there was nothing to be gained from forcing him to relive that nightmare. Foam was showing at his cadaverous mouth, and his legs twitched and scrabbled fruitlessly against the ground.
It was useless to interrogate him here, beneath the open sky where the most pertinent questions could not be asked. He would scarcely cooperate with one whom he saw—and rightly so—as an adversary and a jailor, and no answer he might give would alter what must be done. Aragorn sat back on his heels, silent and ashamed of his garish display of senselessness, and waited for the fit to pass.
At last Gollum lapsed into convulsive whimpers, and from thence to shallow hiccoughs. Aragorn removed the bung from his water-bottle and held it out.
'Here. Drink and we will be on our way,' he said. 'There are many leagues yet to travel, and I will not sleep yet.'
Gollum sat up, scowling blackly at his captor. Yet he took the water and swallowed it, and handed back the vessel without undue aggression. When Aragorn rose, he did so also, and onward they went. But the Ranger did not try to sing again.
Night fell swiftly across the overcast sky. In the darkness the struggle for wakefulness grew harder. The cold that had worn at his will all day now sank to Aragorn's very marrow. He shivered as he moved, hugging his ribs in a pathetic attempt to warm himself. His jaw ached now from clenching, and his back was a web of prickling pains. Gollum wandered somewhere left of him, now and again tugging on the rope as his pace outstripped that of his escort. Bereft of any other distraction, Aragorn was counting his paces again. He was well past the numbers known to a Man of average education, but in what he reckoned to be almost three hours he had not yet lost his place in the litany.
When a distant glow showed itself on the eastern horizon, he thought at first that it must be the dawn. His eyes, so accustomed to the darkness that he could make out the faint outline of a stone or bush along his path, detected a faint rosy tint away to his right. He turned his face towards it in the numb hope that sunrise might rouse him from his unhappy stupor, but the light vanished. Sighing softly, he turned his face northward once more.
The light returned, a dim redness in his peripheral field. Again he turned his head and again it disappeared. Puzzled and uneasy, Aragorn turned his course a little to his right and moved toward the light.
It grew stronger in the space of perhaps ten minutes; strong enough that he could see it straight on. It was indeed a redness, but it was not upon the horizon as one would expect of the dawn. It hovered in the air, as if a lamp set amid roiling clouds was shining mutely down upon the earth. Aragorn rubbed his eyes, blinking to clear his sight, but the glow remained, faint but unmistakable, in the distance.
Want of sleep, he knew, gave rise to strange imaginings. Yet this, he deemed, was no creation of his faltering intellect. Bewildered, he scrabbled for some reasonable explanation for what he was seeing. Redness in the air, in the clouds, under the clouds, a reflection, a reflection on the underside of the low, heavy haze that had rendered the day so bleak and hollow. Fire.
Fear thrummed in the Ranger's breast. It was a fire, and a large one. He could not see the flame itself, which meant that it was at least five miles away. A fire that cast an echo that could be seen for five miles was a blazing inferno indeed. And who would light such a fire in the wilderness? He was many leagues north of the most remote holdings of Rohan; no man of the Riddermark would set a bonfire here. Seldom enough did Men set fires large enough to light up the sky at several miles' distance, save in signal: that was orc-work.
The dreadful realization that the pursuit he had feared was now near at hand set a tremor in Aragorn's knees. If there were orcs on the west side of Anduin, there was only one thing they might be seeking in this empty territory: the tark and his captive. As he had seen no sign of them until this night, they were evidently gaining—and he could not keep up his present pace much longer, let alone quicken it. Somewhere to the north and east lay the haven of Lothlórien, but there was no surety that he could reach it in time, or even that he could find it. The Golden Wood was a hidden realm, with charms woven about it that made it difficult for even the knowing traveller to find. He had stumbled upon it once long ago, either through happy mischance or some will beyond his own, but he did not know the road. Nor indeed could he be sure of finding succour there, with his unpleasant prisoner in tow and a band of foes upon his heels. Let a man beware who brought evil to the realm of the Galadhrim, for evil was not welcome in that hallowed land.
Yet he could not remain here, staring helplessly at his impending doom. The orcs had built a fire, which meant that they were not moving this night, at least. It was a small enough advantage, but he had to press it. Twitching the rope, he rousted his prisoner. 'Quickly,' he breathed. 'There is no time to waste.'
Awkwardly, painfully, he broke into an ungraceful canter. Muttering something doubtless unpleasant, Gollum ambled after him. After only a few minutes Aragorn's side ached and he was obliged to slow to a walk. The moment the pain faded he ran on again. So he went on, now striding, now trotting, as the night wore on.
Morning's grey light found the Ranger struggling to keep pace. He was far beyond exhaustion now, so far that he could no longer keep his back straight. His shoulders were stooped and his spine rounded forward. He could make no pretence of running now, and he alternated between an unsteady stumbling gait and brief moments of stillness when he gripped the aching scar that bisected his right thigh. His breathing was laboured and his thoughts were muddled, and the distant roar of the river was a torment upon his ringing ears.
It took far longer than it should have for him to recognize the sound of rushing water as something inappropriate to his perceived location. Even once he drew that conclusion, he covered another half-mile of uneven terrain before he realized the source of the incongruity. Disoriented perhaps by the lack of sleep, or washed further downstream than he would have thought by Limlight's frigid waters, he had deviated eastward. From atop a rise in the land, he could see away to his right the tangled undergrowth and bare, lonely trees of the vale of Anduin.
Too far gone with weariness to feel any emotion, he was spared both dismay at his loss of direction and terror at the knowledge that he was almost within sight of Dol Guldur. He stood, staring eastward towards the river, with no thought in his mind but a bewildered wonderment. In Gondor there was a children's story about a traveller lost in a wood. No matter what path he took, it twisted and wound and circled back to the same clearing. That was how he felt at this moment: as if all his wandering since crossing the Great River had been fruitless. For here he stood, almost within sight of her banks again, too stupid with fatigue to imagine moving back westward.
Gollum, taking full advantage of the halt, was curled in a ball by Aragorn's boot already snoring faintly. The sound roused the Ranger briefly from his reverie, and he looked down at his captive. His weary legs needed no further invitation to give out from under him, and he sank gently to his knees. Numbly he knelt, his right hand playing absently in the dead grass. The wind was blowing from the north, and it seemed to creep along his scalp amid the trails of grimy hair. Aragorn wanted to scratch at his head to ease the discomfort, but the effort of raising his arm was too much. He plucked at the ground instead, finger and thumb closing on a withered stem of clover. He crushed the blackened head and let the wasted stalk fall to the earth.
In the corner of his eye he saw a leaf dancing in the wind. It looped upward, borne upon the breeze, and rose as if to sail far above him. At the apex of its ascent it stopped, hovering for the briefest of instants in mid-air. Then it fell to earth, landing not far from his crooked knees. Transfixed, Aragorn reached out for the leaf where it fluttered amid the dying grass. It seemed so bright and golden against the brown earth, and as he picked it up he smiled like one inebriated beyond sensibility. He twirled it in his hand, admiring the delicate veins, and he drew it into his lap.
There was a scent as of flowers and spices and spring. It was the scent of happiness, of contentment, of safety. Aragorn's eyes closed and he felt himself drifting off towards the sweet oblivion of slumber. In the darkness behind his eyelids he saw a maiden clad all in white, and light of stars was in her hair, and in her raiment glimmering…
And then recognition came to him and he returned to the waking world with a start. The leaf was still clasped in his hand, and Gollum was slumbering insensibly by his boot. The spell was broken, and Aragorn saw that the leaf was dry and dead, its veins a scaffold on which its fragile fibres clung wasted and tenuous. Yet the golden hue was unmistakeable and the scent still lingered on the edge of memory. He looked up, north and westward, and though he could not see the woods he knew they were at hand.
It took his last shreds of will, but Aragorn hauled himself to his feet. When he stopped swaying he nudged at Gollum with the toe of his left boot. The creature awoke with a snort, glaring blackly at him, but Aragorn did not care. Heavily, inelegantly, limping a little, he started forward again. He was not at all sure of his welcome, but he had no other hope. Clutching the dead mallorn-leaf, he hobbled on.