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Nothing more was said between them that evening, and the next morning, after a restless night of soul-searching, doubts and dark dreams, Aragorn still felt he could not possibly go to Rivendell, not for the sole reason of saving himself for a destiny that lately even in his most wildly optimistic, most confident moods seemed infinitely unreachable. He could not justify sequestering himself away in the name of protecting himself for the future, not when so many lives were at stake in the here and now, lives that depended on his care, on his marshaling of forces. Gondor may need him someday, and Ilúvatar willing, he prayed he would be able to meet the challenge of kingship, but Windydale needed him now, and needed him more. It was as simple as that.
But even so, come the dawn, his harsh treatment of Halbarad continued to plague his conscience, and he found himself unable to comfortably meet Halbarad’s gaze. So in the midst of the clamor of breaking camp, he concentrated on loading his gear onto Bronadui and tried to block out both Halbarad and the litany of self recrimination that droned relentlessly in his mind.
He briefly shut his eyes, but he knew he could not avoid him forever. He reluctantly turned.
"Let me look at your arm," Halbarad said quietly.
Aragorn started to speak, but found no words, so he stood silently as Halbarad peeled back his tunic in order to loosen the bandages. Aragorn winced, for as Halbarad had warned, the arm felt more stiff and sore than ever this morning. And as Halbarad unwrapped the last winding, he winced again. Two of the deeper cuts had angry red edges.
"Bit of infection," Halbarad said. He looked at Aragorn’s eyes and felt his forehead. "No fever, at least." A sly smile played about his mouth. "Some of my horse balm would–"
"I have salve... made from lavender and comfrey... in my pack," Aragorn said quickly, moving to his horse. "It will work well enough." As sore as his arm was, horse balm would likely send him sobbing to his knees, a performance he would not care for any of his men to see. Bad enough they had already bore witness to his hissing and squirming after the first go round with that ooze of Mordor.
Halbarad chuckled and took the healing salve from Aragorn. "Mine would work with more speed."
"Yours would cause my arm to fall off."
Halbarad studied him for a long moment, then lifted a shoulder in a rueful shrug. "I suppose it is best that you stay with me, so I can keep after this arm of yours. You’d likely ignore it or stuff it full of the wrong weeds and let it fall off from rot by the time you reached Rivendell."
Aragorn let out a soft laugh, the weight of guilt lifted by all that Halbarad left unspoken. He nodded toward the cave entrance, where Bilfen and Kenevir had ridden out an hour earlier. "I gave Bilfen a report for Lord Elrond. I wanted to send Galadh with them, but Kenevir glared at me like I had insulted him, and Bilfen put his foot down and insisted Windydale needed Galadh more. I did not like it, but I let them go alone as long as they agreed to swing back to the north, and not toward Windydale."
"They made it this far, evading the orcs. They will likely make it to Rivendell without harm."
"I hope so. Bilfen said they would go to what's left of Bracken’s Ferry. He wants to say his farewells and I cannot fault him that. It should be safe enough, since there is nothing left there to interest orcs. Then they will take the boat across, for Eledh said the ferry survived, and hope to find a patrol. But if they do not, with care, they should reach Rivendell in three days."
"Let us pray they find a patrol, then."
"A patrol of Elves would certainly help," Aragorn sighed. "But we dare not wait. Windydale may be under attack even as we stand here fiddling with salves and bandages."
"There. That should do," Halbarad said, tying the last knot in a fresh bandage. He tucked the salve back in Aragorn’s pack while Aragorn adjusted his shirt. "Let me know if you feel fever coming on."
Aragorn shot him a look. "Lest you forget, I am a healer. I can take care of myself."
"I would not ‘stuff it with the wrong weeds’."
"Mumbling fool. Go mount your horse," Aragorn finally growled, although he gave Halbarad a faint smile as he swung atop Bronadui. He gathered the reins, looking at the rest of the men. "Let us ride to Windydale, and let your every move be marked by caution as never before!"
They traveled south cautiously but swiftly, following the river as much as possible, but thanks to another round of heavy rains and fog that descended on them by mid-day, they were slowed to the point where, as night fell upon them, they were forced to find a secure camp before they reached their destination. After rejecting several sites as either too open or too cloistered, they settled on a small sloping hill that backed up to a stony cliff on its west and the river on its east. The approach from the south was too open for Aragorn’s liking, but compared to the possibilities they had rejected up to this point, it seemed a veritable fortress. Still, they would have to keep double watch. None of them would see much in the way of sleep this night.
Halbarad paced up and down the river, rubbing the base of his left thumb absently with his right. "I don’t like any of this, Aragorn. I feel...." But his words died away and he shook his head.
"Should we move on?"
Halbarad studied the bluff and the river and the hillside and finally shook his head. "No. The horses are tired and there’s no guarantee we would be better situated even if we press on. Night could fall before we found a safer camp than this."
"That was my fear as well. This is no more to my liking than yours," Aragorn admitted, "but I doubt we would find better. Should they approach with more numbers than we can handle, we have escape routes to the south and north, and we could, if needs must, abandon the horses and take to the river, although I pray it will not come to that. We’ll post one guard up on the top of the bluff, one here below." He shivered as a light breeze wafted across the river. The rain had cleared away but left a heavy dampness in the air that seemed to seep into all his joints. He hugged himself, pulling his cloak tighter around him and wondered if it was just the chilly evening air that made the skin on his neck tighten. "It’s gotten to the point where every cool wind has me reaching for my sword."
"I feel nothing more than the normal night air. For now, at least. I’ll head up the cliff for first watch."
Aragorn nodded, then squeezed Halbarad’s shoulder reassuringly and walked back to where Denlad was setting up a fire. "Keep it small, just enough to cook some food. No sense advertising our presence any more than we have to. Galadh, you have first watch with Halbarad–set up at the top of that rise."
Denlad frowned as he watched Galadh hurry off. "Maybe we should make cold camp. This wind has a coldness to it that I do not think a fire can touch. I don’t like the feel of it."
Aragorn studied the river and the road south for a long time before slowly answering. "I do not question your instincts, but still... I do not feel the close presence of evil. I think now, before it gets too dark, the risk of a fire is small and the benefits of a hot meal great. But still, make haste." He smiled. "Now is not the night for a slow-roasted goose and all the trimmings."
Denlad smiled but his eyes remained worried. "It yet lies afar off, but I feel the brush of evil, Aragorn. There is a foreboding in the air, an unease that stirs fear into my heart, though I am trying my best to ignore it."
Aragorn nodded. "I do not think it is entirely your imagination. We will rest lightly tonight."
This time, at least, they were not caught by surprise.
Aragorn had fallen into a light doze, having been relieved of an uneventful watch by Denlad, and now, before consciously recognizing the reason why he was jerked so suddenly from his sleep, Aragorn’s hand had drawn his sword, and he was on his feet. Then he heard Denlad’s harsh cry ring through the night and knew what had awakened him.
"They’re coming! Awake! They’re coming!"
Halbarad and Galadh rose, blades ready, only seconds behind Aragorn as Denlad thundered into the camp. "They’re coming from the west northwest, at least twenty orcs, I guess, less than a half-league away. We must have slipped past them despite the weather, and now they come from behind," he gasped. "And, Aragorn, I felt that same presence of wickedness, heavier than ever."
"As I feel it even now," Eledh growled as he rejoined them from his picket post on the south edge of their camp.
"Twenty, you say?" Aragorn asked.
"Perhaps twenty-five," Denlad gasped, still winded from his pell-mell descent from the cliff. He glanced up at the clear sky. "Even with the moonlight, it is hard to say with any certainty."
Aragorn nodded, a grim smile playing about his lips. "We can surely handle a mere twenty-five orcs. This thing shall end tonight." He glanced around the campsite. "Eledh, build up the fire, quickly, then hide yourself with your bow ready. And all of you, wad up your blankets to look like someone is sleeping in them. We will go up the hill, and when they attack the empty camp, we will catch them by surprise." He looked at each one of them, gauging their resolve and finding their returning gazes fierce and gratifyingly firm. "Take care not to let them separate any one of you from the rest. I’ll not lose any one of you tonight."
Grim nods acknowledged him, and then they melted into the shadows, and waited.
They came, a black swarming shadow in the night, and with the desire for revenge burning in their veins, the Rangers shouted their war cry and charged down the hill at them, taking the offense for the first time in this forsaken chase. In the first moments of battle, three orcs lost their lives to Eledh’s swift arrows, another to Denlad’s slashing sword. Halbarad stabbed the life from a fifth, and then Aragorn was fighting with his own orc and the battlefield became a blur of dark, foul-smelling bodies and screams of dying orcs and grunts of men pushed to the limits of their strength, and over it all, the hovering malice that by now had become almost expected, almost familiar.
Aragorn hacked with his sword and rammed with his elbows and kicked with his feet as he fended off one orc, then another and another and still another. For every one that he slew, it seemed that three took its place. As he slammed the hilt of his blade against the jaw of another and watched him fall, the brief yet alarming thought that surely there were more than twenty-five orcs briefly twisted Aragorn’s gut. But no matter. They were engaged and they would prevail and a grim smile played across his lips. Adrenalin surged through his veins and his wounded left arm was forgotten as a part of him exulted in the fight. His blood sang in battle as it did at no other time, and he knew that afterward, if he lived, he would be exhausted and sore of heart and sickened by the charnel but in this moment he gave himself to the warrior spirit of his ancestors and he fought with the strength of Arathorn his father and all those who had gone before him.
And he fought for the dead of Bracken’s Ferry.
He jumped back to avoid the black splatter of orc blood as one of the foul creature’s bodies fell one way and his head the other. Aragorn swung around, seeking the next brute that dared to challenge his blade, but no other orc came near him; those that remained were engaged by the other Rangers.
He ran forward to help Halbarad, but suddenly a dread stronger than any they had yet experienced stopped him in his tracks. Fear again tightened its clammy fist on his gut and he actually stumbled under the onslaught. It seemed almost a physical presence, like some wholly unnatural mist, so heavily did it fall upon the hillside. Where before there had been only hints and vague shadows, Aragorn now knew that whatever evil being carried such wickedness was coming forth at last.
But from where?
Casting a quick glance at his men as they fought nearer to the fire, he noticed not only the fierce concentration of men fighting for their lives but also apprehensive glances at the black night beyond the orcs. They, too, felt the increasing oppression and watched warily for the advent of something far more terrible than orcs. He saw in their eyes the same terror that gnawed at the edges of his own heart.
Aragorn looked desperately around him, trying to see into the shadows cast by the nearly full moon. The bluff seemed barren, the river dark and empty, the current gleaming undisturbed in the moonlight. He turned and looked down the hill, at the scattered rocks and shrubs that studded the southern approach to their camp. One dark contour, about seventy feet away, shifted slightly, but froze as soon as Aragorn directed his gaze toward it.
There! I can feel its cold vapor even from here.
Aragorn felt his eyes stretching wide as he tried with little effect to see what manner of creature lurked there. There was a darker shadow within the blackness cast by the rocks, a shadow that seemed to pull all light into it. There was no sheen, no reflecting glint that might reveal something of its nature. Just a formless black hole in the lesser darkness around it. Aragorn swallowed against a suddenly bone-dry throat. He tightened his sweating grip on his sword’s hilt.
He did not want to go near it.
He had to.
He took a step. Stopped.
His breath quickened, but he forced each foot forward as he walked slowly toward the shadow, away from his men and their battle, ignoring his own orders not to allow themselves to become separated. His Rangers were winning against the ever-shrinking band of orcs, but this shadow... he knew he could not let whatever evil lurked within that blackness find his men, or any more of the people they strove to protect. And with that resolve, he found the courage he needed. With a swift prayer to the Valar, he raised the sword before him, holding it with both hands.
"Come out!" he called, his voice harsh as he threw every ounce of authority he could into his shout. "Skulk not in dark corners but come out and face your doom!"
The shadow moved into the moonlight.
Aragorn froze, his heart nearly failing him as he gazed into a faceless apparition of darkness, shaped like a man, but seeming far taller, helmed in black and robed in a dark cloak that covered him from his head nearly to his feet. Moonlight glinted a cold silvery blue on the dark metal of his gauntlets and sword. A voice whispered, whether aloud or within Aragorn’s own mind, he could not tell. The words were foreign, harsh on his ears and cruel in his heart, and although he could not delve their meaning, their origin was as clear as their evil intent: they could only be the fell words of Mordor.
Aragorn set his stance firmer, and a single word from a nearly forgotten conversation with Elrond... the lesson he had tried but could not remember... cut cruelly through his mind:
He had no more time than for that one dismaying thought before the Nazgűl rushed forward and brought down his sword. Aragorn desperately threw his blade upward and to the side, instinct alone guiding his clumsy parry. The shock of their colliding blades rattled Aragorn’s hands and numbed his arms. Pain flared through the forgotten splinter wounds of his left arm. He barely retained his grip on his sword. With no hope to bring it back to bear, he simply ducked as the Nazgűl’s back stroke whistled a hair’s breadth past his head.
He jumped backward, scrambling up the hill across the rocky ground, as much to get away from the frigid miasma that seemed to flow from the Nazgűl as to avoid the black sword. And he knew he had to draw the Nazgűl as far away from his men as he could. He grimly banished any thought about the danger such a move placed on his own life. Standing in the breach in order to spare his men was nothing particularly new to him, nor anything worth ascribing glory. When such an act became necessary, he did it and prayed to come out, if not whole, than at least alive. It was as simple as that.
But never before had it been so terrifying.
He felt grim satisfaction as the Nazgűl followed him. And then, banishing all thought of Halbarad and the others, Aragorn narrowed his focus to the wraith before him. The noise of the Rangers’ battle with the orcs faded as he tried fiercely to concentrate only on where the dark lord would bring his sword to bear next.
As if sensing the strength of Aragorn’s concentration, the taunts of the Nazgűl grew louder. Words in a barbarous language he barely recognized battered not his ears so much as his very mind with an ever-rising chorus of evil. Aragorn staggered back a step at the onslaught, momentarily overwhelmed. He resisted the urge to uselessly throw his hands over his ears and plead for the voice to stop Elbereth help me make it stop and instead shook his head and stepped forward, raising in his mind a stern refrain of his own.
Do not listen to him! Do not think! Attack!
Their swords rang against each other in a harsh cacophony, a sickening parody of bells tolling death and despair and Aragorn again had to shake his head to stop the overwhelming flood of hopelessness. He blocked the parry, then another and somehow another but his arm was growing heavy and cold and it took every last measure of skill he possessed to match sword stroke for sword stroke. He found himself too often simply ducking or jumping backwards or sideways, twisting and spinning in a desperate dance to avoid the death promised by the Nazgűl’s swinging blade.
Do not listen... do not think...
He kept his eyes away from the black shadow where the Nazgűl’s face should be. To look there filled him with terror sufficient to melt the strength from his legs. As it was, his heart hammered in near panic, as though it were trying to escape this menace by bursting from his chest. He saw an opening and thrust his blade but the Nazgűl swiftly turned and Aragorn’s sword bit only frigid, empty air. Off balance, he had to throw himself hard to the ground as the Nazgűl countered with a lunging swipe of his own. Winded from landing on jagged stones, Aragorn staggered back to his feet. The voice pressed harder on his mind, taunting, laughing... nearly impossible to ignore.
Do... not... listen...
His parries grew slower. Breath rasped against his dry throat as his lungs dragged in ever-colder air. It took both hands on his sword now to force the Nazgűl’s blade away. His chest burned; his legs dragged. His left arm felt afire, but at the same time he was getting cold, so very cold. The only warmth he felt stemmed from his own blood flowing down from re-opened wounds. He stumbled, caught himself, lifted his sword... and the blade met the Nazgűl’s at an awkward angle and shattered into smoking shards that fell around him. For a timeless moment, Aragorn stared helplessly at his foe, knowing his death was now certain. But as the Nazgűl raised his sword, Aragorn dropped to the ground and the blow that would have severed his head from his neck missed.
The Nazgűl uttered an angry growl. Cold lanced deeper, into Aragorn’s very heart. The Enemy’s voice swelled... filled his mind... buffeted him... hammered away at his courage...
I cannot... it’s too much... I cannot...
But one more time, he found the strength to move, to roll clear as the blade whistled down past his head. He flinched at the loud clang as the Nazgűl’s steel cracked open a rock inches from where he lay.
Aragorn shuddered as another wave of glacial air swept over him. The blackness battering his soul was unbearable. Icy fingers clawed through his mind and suddenly Aragorn knew this wraith meant not to kill him but to bend his very spirit to his will. To Sauron’s will. In a flash, Aragorn saw himself defeated, in chains, thrown at the feet of Sauron.
He knew he could never let that happen. He risked precious breath to growl, "No! You will not have me!"
The Nazgűl laughed, and Aragorn’s soul shrank from such a hissing travesty of mirth, for the noise seemed to have been born in the depths of Mt. Doom itself. Aragorn rolled to his left, his hand landing on a stout limb. He clasped it and thrust it upward and blocked another slash of the evil blade, but the force of it knocked the branch from his hand.
Cannot breathe... the very air is poison... I cannot... cannot last...
But he had to. His Rangers were fighting their own battles. No one could help him, nor could he let the Nazgűl defeat him and go after his men.
Another roll, another dodge... another staggering climb to his feet, and then hope! A remnant of his broken sword lay within reach. He put out a hand toward it.
The Nazgűl slammed Aragorn hard across the chest with the flat of his blade, seeming almost to toy with him as he threw Aragorn off balance. Aragorn’s foot turned on a stone and with a cry, he slammed onto his back, strength a fading memory. His chest burned from the icy touch of the Nazgűl’s blade and he had nothing left in him. No breath. No strength.
The cold... Valar, it hurts...
Blackness edged closer, blinding his eyes with its foul mist, filling his ears with its dizzying roar.
All became shadow save the Nazgűl. Aragorn stared upward at the faceless wraith, caught like prey in the hypnotic spell of a wolf’s gaze. Sorrow pierced through his terror as the Nazgűl raised the sword for the killing stroke.
He has won. I have failed...
A sudden blinding flash of fire stunned him, and he threw up his hands to shield his face, but the heat rushed past him, toward the Nazgűl. A wailing shriek rent the air and suddenly Aragorn found himself struggling against an even greater surge of chilling malice, a physical wave of fury and unbearable hatred so great it crushed him against the ground. For a moment he felt he could not possibly fight against it, but with a groan that seemed torn from the depths of his soul, he pushed against it and rolled over. He forced himself to his hands and knees. But he could not find the strength to stand. He stayed where he was, head hanging, drawing wheezing breaths into his tortured lungs. Waiting for the death blow to finally come. This time there could be no escape.
Another flash of light and a wave of heat and he flinched, but instead of death, the blackness deafening his ears retreated enough for him to hear a bellowing voice.
"Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!"(1)
Aragorn tried to make sense of it. Those were Beren’s words... Beren as he faced Carcharoth, the great beast, in long ages past... but how could Beren be here?
The voice boomed again. "You will not have your way this day, not while the arm of Halbarad is strong and the fire of my wrath burns!" Fire flashed once more and there was a terrible shrieking.
Hope surged for a moment, but the mist covering Aragorn’s vision would not clear. The darkness and malice and terror were too strong. Darkness... blackness... black breath...
Terror consumed him and he collapsed to the ground, and all light and knowledge fled.
(1)"Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!" page 181, The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1977.
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