Aragorn had not been lying when he told Denethor that he could not carry him. It had taken nearly an hour to drag the larger man under the shelter of an overhanging cliff. Then he had gone back over their path and removed all traces of his struggle. By the time he had finished, the sun had already crawled above the darkness surrounding Barad-dûr.
All he wanted to do was rest, but he knew that if he indulged in sleep now, no army of Mordor could wake him. One of them needed to keep watch and Denethor had just slept through half a mile of rough terrain. The ranger had few options. He let out a long, weary sigh and slumped against the cliff.
It felt good just to sit for a moment. Not letting himself think on either what had just happened or what he would do next. He allowed his mind to wander. It strayed, as it usually did, to the fair woods of home. In all his years of wandering, there was not a day that he had failed to remember them.
Or her. A reflection of her face lingered in his thoughts. Even after almost thirty years, he could see her clearly, grey eyes full of wisdom and mirth. He smiled. The knowledge that the Lady usually directed her amusement at him did not taint the memory. Indeed, it gave him strength in his darkest hours. One day, she would be proud of him.
His will renewed, he returned to the present. Glancing down, he saw that the man of Gondor still slept. Dreams now troubled him; his limbs twitched and his eyes rolled behind their lids. His lips moved as if in speech, but no sound escaped them. Aragorn laid a hand on the other’s brow; the flesh felt cool and clammy under his touch.
The ranger shook Denethor’s shoulder, calling his name, but there was no response. He had slipped from an exhausted slumber back into the realm of shadows. Aragorn swore. I should have been watching more carefully, he thought.
After several further attempts to rouse the other man failed, the ranger gave up. Denethor had fallen beyond his reach. He stood up, donning his pack as he rose, and walked away.
Not far to the South, he found the place he sought, a great block of stone, at least five times his height and almost as wide. Uncounted years before, it had split from the rock above, tumbling down the mountainside, finally coming to rest against the cliff. Dense thorn trees surrounded its base, which had partly buried itself in the earth. Behind these, Aragorn could see only darkness.
He approached cautiously, sword in one hand and a stone in the other. When he was about five yards away, he could make out the shape of a small cave, its entrance partly hidden behind the brush. Triangular in shape, it rested between rock and cliff, barely large enough for a man to enter.
Switching his sword to his left hand, the ranger flung the stone into the cave. He braced himself and waited for the exodus of any creature that might be living there. His ears strained to catch any hint of movement from within. The only sound he heard was the clatter of his own missile ricocheting through the darkness. “Out, Slugs!” he shouted, using the little Black Speech that he knew. He hoped speaking from the back of his throat made his voice sufficiently Orcish. To this also, there was no response. The cave stood mutely empty.
Feeling both relieved and slightly foolish, he pitched his pack into the darkness.
Fear hastened his return. The full light of day lit the plains, though the smog once again shrouded the sun. For once, he welcomed the vapours. They at least partially hid him from airborne spies as he dragged his companion.
Denethor no longer moved. Whatever demons troubled him had pulled him below the cares of the waking world.
As he dragged the dead weight through the thorn trees, they latched onto both garments and flesh. They felt like living creatures trying to drag them down. Still, the ranger hesitated to hew a path through them. He had little desire to make their hiding place more evident.
The inside of the cave smelled stale and musty. At no place did the roof allow him to stand, but the walls did widen a little after the tight opening. Shadows hid the far edge, but he remembered the cave extending back no more than a half dozen paces. At least it appeared uninhabited, and the ground felt rough but dry.
Aragorn carefully laid his burden down. Loose rocks rattled as they settled under the new weight.
He enacted revenge on the trees by chopping firewood, but even that was painful. He took care only to cut branches that could not be easily seen, or reached for that matter. By the time he finished, thorns had scratched every inch of his exposed flesh.
Soon, a small fire crackled and the scent of athelas filled the air. Aragorn’s last leaves swirled in the boiling water, dyeing it grey. He kept his body against the narrow entrance, trapping the fire’s light and smoke within.
Denethor lay between ranger and the flames. Already the herb had lightened his sleep a little. Once again, he stirred. His lips repeated the same movement, as though he said the same word over again, or called the same name. Aragorn wondered whose it could be. Ecthelion perhaps? No, somehow he couldn’t imagine the proud man of Gondor praying for his father.
“Denethor?” he asked tentatively. No, that wasn’t the right way to do it. He leaned closer, saying the name again, this time with a note of command. “Denethor!”
The Steward’s son showed no sign that he heard that command or any of the many that followed.
Aragorn sighed, this had sounded so easy when Gandalf had described it. Sitting back on his heels, he considered what the wizard had told him of curing Black Breath. He had found a quiet place, steeped the leaves of the athelas plant and called the injured back. He thought he had done what he was supposed to. Why hadn’t it worked?
It probably only takes more time, he reasoned. Gandalf was not very specific; perhaps he did not know himself.
But waiting did not seem to be of any help either. Nor did commanding, shouting or pleading.
“Morgoth take you!” he snarled after another half hour of futility. “Why won’t you come back? Granted, you do not have much to return to at this time, a wounded rival in a dingy cave. But what of Gondor? What of your Lord Father? I have gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that you return to them.”
Aragorn slammed his fist into the rock. The gesture did nothing but cause his wounds to bleed further. His mood did not improve.
“I should leave you here,” he told his companion. “My lingering could mean death for us both. I at least have someone worth living for. I intend to see her again.”
A single word formed on Denethor’s lips, given voice by a faint breath.