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For what felt like unmeasured ages, Aragorn drifted helplessly on a current that pulled him inexorably away from life. Pain, fear, hopelessness... death awaiting. It was all he knew and all he had ever known and all that would ever be. There was no air... no light... no sound... only emptiness and a savage cold that cut through to his very marrow. He sank into achingly frigid black waters.
He struggled to move, to fight the current but strength eluded him. His limbs felt frozen, too heavy and stiff to move. He could not even find it in him to pray for help. Who would hear, in this desolate place?
The NazgŻl has won... I have failed. I have failed Gondor... Middle Earth... my men.
And Arwen... I have failed her...
Something like a sob wrenched itself from his throat.
"Aragorn! Can you hear me?" The plaintive cry broke through the oppressive silence, but it came from so very far away. Too far away to help him. He curled into himself. Despair consumed him; he had no strength left to fight it and he was alone, so alone...
But then someone touched his hand.
He flinched. In such an evil place, how could it possibly be a friend?
But the touch turned into a hand that gently took his and gripped it tight and then a voice called his name, a voice tangled with worry and tears and despair and Aragorn sobbed again as he felt warmth. He had so little strength left but whatever remnants of life force he still possessed he poured into grasping the hand that held his and he clung to it more tightly than he had ever held onto anything. He would not let it fade away and leave him to die alone in this icy Valar-forsaken sea. For die he surely would... but not alone. Not alone.
Again the voice came, closer this time, tinged with hope. "Heís alive! Aragorn? Aragorn!"
He opened his eyes. What a struggle, but they were open. Shadowy mist still blurred his sight, but through it he saw a familiar face lean down. "Aragorn, can you hear me?"
"Hal... Halbarad." Broken glass words scraping across his throat. Deep coughs suddenly tore through him.
The hand he was gripping tightened, hurting him, but it was a good pain. It was a pain that told him he was alive. But then he started to shake, his body racked with shudders he could not seem to stop. He moaned and shut his eyes. Darkness reached for him once more...
"Aragorn, open your eyes!"
He felt hands pulling at him, probing him. Stop... hurts...
Halbaradís voice was tight with fear. "Aragorn, did his blade find you? Where are you hurt?"
"N-no. He d-did n-not..."
Another anxious voice spoke. Denlad. "Halbarad, we must leave this place, and quickly. You managed to chase it off, but Eledh fears they are about to circle back around. Heís found our horses. Can you carry him?"
Aragorn felt arms sliding beneath his body, and he was lifted upward. Pain drove consciousness from him, and his spirit screamed within him as he fell back into the icy void.
Voices and words and sounds tumbled through his mind. Something jarred his shivering, aching body, over and over. "Stop," he cried, but no one heard him. He lifted his head and something tightened around him. He reached up and felt a strong arm across his chest.
"Easy, Aragorn," a voice said in his ear, gentle, soothing. "I have you. You will not fall."
Coherent thought dribbled slowly together. I am on a horse. Riding. Halbarad behind me, holding me... why is he holding me? Am I wounded? Nothing made sense, so he quit trying to figure things out, instead letting the pain and cold wash him into a semi-conscious stupor. If it had not been for the pain, he would have felt like he was floating somewhere outside himself. But the pain was too fierce and the shudders too constant to imagine that he was anywhere but on stone cold Arda.
Eventually the jolting rhythm slowed and he felt the arm across him loosen. He gasped as he started to fall, but many arms reached out and caught him before he could crash to the ground. He struggled to move his legs but they felt like dead things.
"No, Aragorn, do not try to walk. We have you. Do not struggle."
Hands gripped him; arms circled his waist and he did not fall, but it hurt. Oh Valar, how it hurt to move. They passed through a doorway, and light stabbed his eyes. He shut them, but not before glimpsing a candle on a table and a fire laid on a hearth. Sounds assaulted his ears... menís commanding voices, and a womanís startled cry. The hands... my men?... laid him gently on a cot and a blanket dropped across his body. He could barely feel its warmth, so chilled was he. Another hand smoothed his hair back from his forehead. He opened his eyes, squinting, and Halbaradís face swam into view.
"Aragorn, you must tell me... where are you injured?"
Aragornís tongue felt thick. He could only frown at Halbarad as he mumbled, "Cold... "
"Are you injured?" Halbarad repeated. "You must tell me! What did this evil thing do to you?"
Memories roared back and Aragornís heart raced. The room faded and he was back there, facing the terror. His breathing quickened. He fumbled for a sword that no longer hung at his side. "Cannot... cannot let him get to the men... to you..."
"Aragorn, it did not harm us. Whatever it was, it is gone and cannot hurt any of us." He took Aragornís face in both hands. "Aragorn, look at me. Look at me! It is gone."
He searched Halbaradís eyes, for assurance. For an anchor. The evil vision faded, replaced by the reality of a quiet room full of worried men. "Gone...?"
"Yes, Aragorn. Itís gone. You are safe now." One rough hand stroked Aragornís hair back, over and over as one might try to soothe a frightened child. "You are safe."
Aragorn let his eyes close. He could not stop shaking. "I-I tried not to..." He coughed, then kept coughing as though his very lungs would tear themselves to pieces. "... tried not to..."
"Shhh. Save your strength."
"... not t-to... listen... to h-his voice... b-but... "
Halbaradís hand gripped his. "Never mind the voice. It is gone and he is gone. You are safe, Aragorn."
Aragorn took a shuddering breath and swallowed. "He w-was... terrible."
"I know, my friend. I know."
Aragorn felt himself start to drift, but Halbaradís sharp cry called him back. He blinked, but his eyelids felt burdened with lead weights. "I-Iím s-sorry... so tired. So c-cold."
"Stay with me, Aragorn. You must tell me where youíre injured."
Aragorn shook his head weakly. His entire body seemed awash with pain. "I-I donít know. H-hurts to breathe." The blanket lifted, and then cloth ripped. Cool air brushed his skin and he cried out as Halbarad touched his chest.
He heard Halbaradís sharp intake of breath. "He hit you with the flat of his blade. It did not break the skin but the outline is plain as words on a page. Aragorn, what did this to you? What was that thing we fought?"
Aragorn shut his eyes tightly, as if that would do anything to dispel the horrific images that still burned in his mind. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering and ground out, "It was a NazgŻl."
"One of Sauronís wraiths!"
"They b-breathe out... p-poison. Surrounds them. L-lord Elrond called it... the B-black Breath."
"And that is what is wrong with you? This... this is the Black Breath?"
Aragorn tried to answer, but the shaking was getting worse, pulling the cold into a tight knot in the center of his being. Thought drifted, shattered...
"Aragorn, you must tell me! Did Lord Elrond tell you of a cure?"
Aragorn frowned, trying to pull his rapidly scattering thoughts together. He felt his hold on consciousness slipping away. The room swirled and a vision flickered... a strident cry from an Elven Lordís lips... athelas! But before he could voice the word, the light faded and he passed into the darkness of nightmares.
When next he swam back to consciousness, the cold and the pain were worse. He was dimly aware that someone was beside him, holding something to his lips. He couldnít stop himself from groaning.
Immediately a voice called out. Aragorn thought it was Denlad. "Heís waking!" Then the cup pressed more urgently against his mouth. "Aragorn, please. Try to drink."
He parted his lips and a foul-tasting liquid sloshed into his mouth and down his throat before he could swallow. He choked and the pain that knifed through him felt like a shaft of fire.
Somewhere in the pain came another voice, urgent and worried. "Aragorn?"
Halbarad. It was Halbarad. Halbarad, what is happening? Why am I trapped in this cold black sea? Why does it hurt so fiercely? If only he could open his eyes, maybe it would all prove to be some dreadful nightmare, but try as he might, his eyes would not open. He was sinking again into those deadly waters, and their hold was too strong. The world of Arda, where comfort and help waited, felt far away and impossible to reach. He heard another groan and was ashamed to realize it came from his own throat.
The voice came louder, a note of desperation stretching it higher than Halbaradís usual deep rumble. "Aragorn, can you hear me?"
He managed to nod. A hand... Halbaradís... once again grasped his and he clung to it and somehow fought his way back to the surface.
"Aragorn, you must stay with me. You must listen to me! All the medicines and herbs I know to try are not helping. Do you know anything that will?"
Again, the sudden vision of his father, holding out a bundle of green leaves. But Aragorn was so weary, so tired. Forming words was too much...
It was Halbaradís voice, so broken, so choked with worry, that finally gave Aragorn strength. He could not bear hearing his friend in such sorrow. But it is so hard... so hard. Valar, help me...
His lips moved but he didnít have breath to say the words.
Halbarad leaned closer, so close his hair touched Aragornís lips as he turned his ear toward Aragornís face.
"Athelas," Aragorn finally whispered. Darkness clawed at him, but he was able to say it one more time. "Athelas...."
Long had he drifted on this barren sea, a sea forsaken even by Ulmo, but now his body washed up on a desolate rocky shore. He looked for help and saw his men coming but even as he cried out, his joy turned to horror as they chained his hands and feet and dragged him over the rocks and through a black gate.
They dropped him at the base of a tall, black tower. He tried to cry out, but his voice was trapped deep within his fear. He stared upward, pleading with his eyes, but Halbarad... no, not Halbarad... my friend...my kinsman...no... simply stared back at him, then jerked Narsilís hilt from his belt and tossed it contemptuously to the ground.
No! He wanted to scream his anguish but no sound came from his mouth. His men stepped back and they were no longer men but orcs and he turned his head toward the Tower and he saw a great eye, ringed in flames and unblinking... unblinking as it tried to pierce through to his innermost thoughts....
"No," he whispered and tried to close his eyes against it but still he saw it and it consumed him and the world was filled with the Eye and the Eye saw... saw who he was and all was lost... Sweet Eru, all is lost and I have failed....
"No," he groaned. "No..."
And then the eye inexplicably shattered.
Aragorn gasped and jerked his head to the side as fire and smoke rushed toward him but he felt only the softest breeze touch his cheek, a soothing zephyr that carried with it warmth and light and all the goodness of Arda on the first day of life. As the chains fell from his limbs, strength returned and he spun around to fully meet the wind, taking a deep breath, then another, and another, as fast as he could draw it into his lungs.
As the burning smoke of Mordor receded into nothing more than flickering firelight against his closed eyelids, he realized that he was waking up. For the first time since his fight with the NazgŻl, his eyes opened easily. He lay for a long moment without moving, simply measuring his breaths as he stared at a rough plastered ceiling overhead. It took many more minutes of watching that ceiling, of listening to his own breathing and the crackle of the fire and the small noise of the wind outside before he accepted that this was reality. That this room, this cot, this air he breathed was true and real and that the rest had been nightmare... hideous, terrifying, but of no more substance than smoke from a fire. He reached up and put a hand over his eyes as unbidden tears of relief flooded them. His bones still felt as though the snows of the North had settled into his very marrow, but the horrible shudders were gone, and the nightmare was gone, and he was alive.
He was alive.
He took a deep breath. Again the sweet fragrance of athelas caressed him and it seemed as though the breezes of all the summers of his youth filled his aching lungs.
"By the Valar, this little weed does work," Halbarad said, his voice full of wonder.
Aragorn lowered his hand and turned his head, wincing a little as the room briefly whirled around him. His voice was but a breath. "You found... athelas."
Halbarad nodded. He held up a small steaming bowl and waved a hand over it so the fragrance drifted across Aragornís face. Then, like a river released from a dam, Halbaradís words tumbled out, one coming on the heels of another. "I wasnít sure what to do... all you were able to say was athelas and we had Morgothís own time finding any... your pack had gotten trampled and destroyed in the fight, and Denlad had no athelas in his, nor did any of us. But Eledh found some, still untouched by frost, in a thicket not far from here. But none of us knew what to do, whether to crush the leaves and feed them to you or make a poultice and then Denlad thought maybe to make a tea... he had seen you do that... and somehow spoon it into you but I was afraid you would choke. But you were sinking, fading so fast, crying out...." He stopped and swallowed. "I knew we had no more time. So we made the tea and thank the Valar, as the fragrance came up, you took one whiff and color came back to your face and then another and you were blinking and waking up. ĎTis a good thing, for I think we were that close to losing you." He suddenly stopped again and shut his eyes for a moment. He shook his head hard and looked away. "Too close," he said hoarsely.
Aragorn saw in the shadows below Halbaradís eyes and the careworn lines of fatigue along his mouth just what price Halbarad had paid in worry over him. He felt too weak to speak, so he simply held his hand out. Halbarad took it and Aragorn gave his hand a feeble squeeze, hoping it was enough to convey his thanks. A look passed between them that held all their long years of hard times and good, of friendship and soldiering and trust. Halbarad said nothing, but Aragorn saw in Halbaradís dark eyes all he needed. He understands. I long to say more, but for now, it is enough.
Aragorn let his tired gaze travel around the dim room. There was not much to see: a small table, three chairs, a fireplace. A gray-striped cat drowsing on the stone hearth. As far as he could tell, he lay on a simple cot, a brown homespun wool blanket covering him. Beside the door, a small diamond-paned window let in weak sunlight, but it made poor inroads against the gloom. He watched dust motes swirl lazily and realized he had no idea if it was morning, noon or evening, nor how many days had passed while he languished in the nether world of nightmares. "How long?" His voice was more a croak, like a rusted hinge long unused.
"Two days, nearly." Halbarad set the steaming bowl aside and grabbed up a cup and poured water into it. He moved to sit beside Aragorn on the edge of the cot and, tucking a hand under Aragornís head, lifted it enough to let him drink. Fine wine had never tasted so good.
"Thank you," he whispered.
I have been lost to the world for two entire days. Not as long as the lifetime it had felt, but to have lost that much time was still disturbing, especially when the bulk of those hours had been filled with nightmares such as he had neverĖ
He stopped his thoughts from turning down those troubling paths. There was no profit to be gained in remembering what were merely conjured-up imaginings, however real they felt. Instead, he continued looking at the room. A doorway led to another room where he saw the end of a bed. Across the room where he lay, a ladder disappeared up into a hole in the ceiling, presumably to an attic room of some sort. Aside from Halbarad, the house seemed empty. He wondered what place this was that his men...
Alarm flooded him and he struggled to sit up. Might as well have tried to leap from Mount Gundabad to Gondor; he barely managed to lift his head, and even that small movement left him gasping. But he had to know. "The men... Halbarad, the men... what of our men?"
Halbard slid a hand behind Aragornís head and reached again for a cup of water. "Calm down. We are all fine. All but you."
"I... " His voice rasped and he coughed and the room dimmed and swirled in a sickening kaleidoscope of lightheadedness.
"Drink." Halbarad lifted his head and held a cup to his lips. "You need water."
He drank a few sips of water. The dark spots that bloomed before his eyes faded. "I thought I could fight it, but... I placed you all... in greater danger than I should have." He stopped to catch his breath. Valar, but when did mere speech become such a test of endurance? "I failed. I am sorry... "
Halbarad shook his head vigorously as he lowered Aragornís head back onto the pillow. "No," he said. "Do not be sorry. You did not fail, my friend."
"We... I... should have ordered the men... you... to run."
"Shh, quiet yourself. None of us knew what we were about to faceĖwhat you were about to face. And we all knew the time for running was long past, or nothing would be left of our people along the Hoarwell."
"But he ... it... the wraith is still out there. I was not strong enough..." Another long pause while he tried to catch his breath. "I had not the strength to defeat him."
"Aragorn, you are wrong." His voice thickened with emotion. "You... you only... among us are strong enough to have fought the Black Breath for so long without falling. The NazgŻl may yet roam, but your actions have given us time. He is in disarray, his orcs vanquished. And had you not kept his attention from us, the Black Breath would have been the death of every last one of us. Feel no shame, for truly, you saved us all."
Aragorn looked away. Halbarad had it wrong. He had failed them. So many of the decisions he had made in the last weeks had been wrong. Too often he depended on a strength that he did not possess, on intelligence that was wanting. If he had but given the matter the least thought, he would have known that the evil presence they had felt could only have come from a NazgŻl, and he would have sent for help from Imladris, from all of Eriador, from every corner of Middle Earth. But instead, he foolishly believed it was an evil he could handle by himself with a mere four Rangers. It had cost Mallor his life, and that the rest of the men had so far survived he could only ascribe to the grace of Valar. But he was too tired to argue all that to Halbarad, so he turned his face toward the wall and shut his eyes, hoping that Halbarad would drop the matter and think he had fallen asleep.
But Halbarad would not leave him alone. "Aragorn, look at me."
For a moment, Aragorn refused, but then he supposed that was childish. He turned his head and reluctantly looked at his friend, and was a little taken aback to see the frown darkening Halbaradís brow.
Aragorn blinked. "I am notĖ"
"Yes, you are. Aragorn, you are by far the worst liar on Arda and I can see self-pity writ large across your face."
"It is not self pity," Aragorn growled. He started coughing again but he struggled on. "But realization... that... I am not fitĖ"
He couldnít finish his thought for coughing, so Halbarad waited for the spell to pass and in the silence while Aragorn struggled to catch his breath, finished it for him. "Ėto be chieftain, to marry Arwen, to fulfill your destiny and rule Gondor and Arnor and save Middle-earth from all evil, bad weather, bad manners, and spoiled vegetables," Halbarad said, ticking them off on his fingers and ignoring what Aragorn hoped was a withering glare. "Have I missed anything? No, I could not possibly have, because I have heard you recite the litany of all you are not worthy of a hundred times and a hundred times I have beaten the self pity out of you with my words, tempting though it is at times to use my fists instead." He leaned closer, the bantering light in his eyes giving way to pleading. He grasped Aragornís hand again and squeezed as though he could drive the words into Aragorn with the intensity of his grip. "Aragorn, heed my words. You are the bravest man I know. Braver than any in Eriador, braver than any in all of Arda, and Elven-wise beyond any man alive. You are brave enough, wise enough... more than enough... to meet your destiny. Have faith in yourself. Have faith in the strength Ilķvatar gave you; yea in the strength of your line, for there remains much strength still in the blood of Isildur. In your blood, for the purity of Elrosí line has not diminished, either in Isildur or in you. It remains pure, unfaded and undimmed."
Aragorn knew how he should answer, that he should nod and smile and thank Halbarad but he felt too... fragile. As fragile as a glass sword and equally useless. Halbaradís eyes filled with a despair that Aragorn knew was a mere reflection of what was in his own eyes. "I am sorry," he whispered.
Halbarad smiled sadly. "And as usual, I am pushing too hard, too soon. But I will not give up on you, nor will I allow you to give up on yourself. Not as long as I have breath."
He said it with such a forbidding look that Aragorn could not help but think of similar stern gazes Lord Elrond had laid on him as a child. He suddenly laughed and shook his head, immediately regretting it as the room spun. He groaned, bracing his hand against his forehead as he shut his eyes and rode out the wild disorientation. "The Valar only know why I put up with you," he finally muttered.
"Because you know you need setting straight now and then, and I am the only Ranger feebleminded enough not to be intimidated by you and all those fancy names you haul around. Now come, breathe," Halbarad said. He moved the steaming bowl closer.
Aragorn sighed and breathed in the fresh aroma of athelas as it sweetened the air. He shut his eyes, letting the fragrance ease the tightness in his chest and the turmoil in his heart. Perhaps Halbarad was right... but that was something only time would reveal. But for now, sleep beckoned, and he heeded its quiet call.
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