TO WALK IN DARK PLACES
The flickering light of the candle cast wild shadows on the cliffs. Though the light shone only faintly, it seemed to blaze after the total darkness. Aragorn hoped that no night spy would fly over. He had lit the thing out of necessity. He could think of no other way to show Denethor the complex knots. Fortunately, the Steward’s son had an excellent memory. He only needed to observe a task once in order to learn it.
Aragorn finished tying a harness around his body and asked, “Do you understand?” The other man nodded, and he continued. “If I fall, will you remember the route I described?” This time, Denethor simply favoured him with an annoyed glance. They had already reviewed this several times. Aragorn could tell that his companion did not like being fussed over. Now I know how Gandalf must have felt, the ranger mused. Aloud he said, “That is it then, just…” He hesitated, not sure how to put this. “Denethor, if I fall, I may not be able to try again. If they find me here…” his voice trailed off.
Denethor understood. “They will not take you alive,” he promised.
The ranger nodded, relieved. He ducked his head and laid the rest of the rope around his neck. He slipped his arm through as well, letting the coil rest snugly at his side. He removed his boots and socks and tucked them in his pack, before setting it in a corner, out of the way. A small sigh escaped his lips. He felt a little nervous, but ready.
A few paces up the ravine, the walls narrowed again. There they stood a little under an arm span apart. Aragorn looked up, but could not make out many details. If memory served him, the rift rose straight here, neither widening nor narrowing. Glancing back, he saw Denethor standing in a pool of light, watching him intently. The Steward’s Son nodded an acknowledgement before blowing out the candle.
Finding no other reason to delay, he stretched out both arms and braced them against the walls. He then placed a bare foot against the rock, about four hand spans from the ground. Supporting his weight on his other three limbs, he repeated his action with his other foot, lifting this one a little higher. Moving thus, he slowly, meticulously made his way upwards.
After only a few yards, his arms started to ache. The souls of his feet and his freshly healed palms and felt hot and raw. The rock here took a different formation than that further north. It had a rough, grainy texture, rather than the jagged edges of the other cliff. After three score yards, he could feel his muscles trembling. At full strength, a short climb like this would have presented little problem, but now he had to concentrate on each movement. He had fallen into a pattern. Thinking with each move: Brace both feet and a hand, move the other hand up. Do not look down. Brace both hands and a foot, move the other foot up. Do not flinch each time you let go. Brace both feet and a hand, move the other hand up. You have to keep going. He wrapped his mind tightly in that mantra, blocking the pain.
A break in the pattern startled him awake. Moving his left hand, he found not rough rock, but empty space. Fortunately, he noticed this before he rested any weight there. A little further down, his fingers found the top of the cliff. The right edge rose only a little higher, and he soon had a good grip on both. He paused there for a moment, mustering his remaining strength. Taking a deep breath, he swung across the rift. His left hand let go of the rock and stretched as far over the other edge as it could. After a brief struggle, he managed to get both forearms on top of the cliff. The sheer ravine offered little purchase, and his feet kept slipping. The only sounds were skin scrabbling against stone and his own ragged breathing. Concentrating on one final move, he twisted sideways, throwing his leg over the edge as well. He rolled over and was safe.
Aragorn lay on his back, panting. He gazed at the sky, mind dazed, trying to catch up with what he had just done. Clouds filled the skies, offering no break for guiding stars. He knew the moon now did not rise until almost dawn. After what felt like too little rest, he rolled to his knees.
The night clung so tightly about him that he had grope his way through it. Finding the ravine, he edged as close to it as he dared. The rope still hung in a neat coil over his shoulder, securely attached to him by the harness. Leaning forward, he unslung the line and let it drop. He heard a faint slap as it hit the bottom, then felt three sharp tugs a moment later. Pulling arm over arm, he brought the rope back up. He wished that he had had more time to rest his arms, but at least his small pack did not overly strain them. Though it did seem heavier than when he had last lifted it.
Denethor’s boots explained that mystery. He felt them tied to the outside when he undid the rope. After he dropped the line back down, he took the time to replace his own boots, drink and feel out a safer place. By the time he felt another tug, he had securely wedged himself in a shallow gully. He took in all the slack, wrapping the extra rope around him.
He maintained this tension as Denethor climbed, steadily drawing the line towards him. Progress seemed painfully slow, and the climber frequently paused to rest. Waiting was making a mess of Aragorn’s nerves. His mind kept repeating images of Denethor plunging to his death, taking the ranger with him. He imagined the line suddenly going taut, and yanking out of his hands. It would pull him up and out of his shelter, dragging him across the rough stone. Then the edge. And nothing.
He shifted his feet, bracing them more firmly, keeping his senses alert. He realized that he was chewing his lip and stopped. This proved fortunate. When Denethor did fall, he had a firm grip on the rope. He managed to keep hold but lurched forward, slamming his chin into his knees.
Aragorn’s mind held only one thought: Hold on! Whether he meant it for himself or the climber, he could not be sure.
The line started to slip through his hands, tearing at the new flesh. He tried to grip harder, but could not seem to hold it tightly enough. The loops around his chest tightened, squeezing his ribs and lungs. Every breath took a great effort.
Aragorn had just started to wonder how he was supposed to pull the other man up, when the line went slack. He has fallen, was his first thought. But tugging the line lightly, he found a weight still on the other end. Denethor had recovered and resumed his climb.
Only a few minutes later, Aragorn began to hear laboured breathing. Shortly after that, though it seemed an age to the ranger, he heard the scuffle and thud that marked the end of Denethor’s ascent.
Aragorn wanted to spring forward and greet the other man, but he could not. Sitting still after such a strenuous climb had cramped every one of his muscles. They had all locked in place and refused to move. He had to flex each limb carefully before he moved it. Even than, any large movement caused a stab of pain.
Eventually, he managed to crawl over to the ravine’s edge. As Aragorn had, Denethor lay on his back, panting. Just then, Mount Doom gave forth a great burst of flame in the distance. The faint light only lingered for a moment, but it proved long enough for Aragorn to see his companion.
Denethor seemed in reasonably good health, considering. His shirt had torn, leaving a shoulder exposed and bleeding. His face held a grey tint, and his dark eyes stared up, wide and blank. The harness had slipped and now dug into his skin. Denethor tried to pull it loose, but his hands shook too violently to hold anything. He saw Aragorn, and their eyes met for an instant before darkness descended again.
Aragorn untied the knots, freeing the other man, and then sat next to him. “I do not think that we will have to pass anything worse than that,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. As he spoke, he untangled himself and started to re-coil the rope. “We will need to walk for a few more days, but after that lies safety.” And a six hundred foot pass, he recalled but did not mention.
Denethor’s breathing had slowed by now, and he managed a grunt. Aragorn felt that it was an appreciative sort of grunt, but he couldn’t really tell. He finished coiling and stowed the rope in his pack. Passing Denethor his boots, he said, “I think that we can rest here for a while. It seems a good spot for a quiet meal.”
The Man of Gondor coughed before croaking, “Water.”
After taking a drink himself, Aragorn gave the skin to the other man. “Save some for your shoulder,” he said and started to dig through his pack for food. On finding it, he also uncovered the remains of the shirt they had shredded for bandages.
“Thank you,” Denethor said, returning what remained of the water.
Aragorn quickly bathed and bandaged the wound, then passed out midnight rations. They sat together on the rock, eating in silence. When they finished, they stayed and rested for a time. Aragorn relaxed, he could no longer feel the tension that had existed between them. Without thinking, he asked, “Who is Finduilas?”
Denethor started. “What?” he said, sounding almost guilty.
“Finduilas,” Aragorn repeated, “Who is she?” When he heard no response, he continued. “You say her name in your sleep and it seems familiar, but I do not recall her.”
For a moment, the ranger did not think the other man would respond. At length, Denethor said, “Lady Finduilas, eldest child of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth. I wed her not two years after you left.”
Now Aragorn remembered. “Yes,” he said, “She came to the City but once, on the occasion of your sister’s wedding. She seemed small and delicate, with pale green eyes. Her brother travelled with her.” He smiled at the memory. “What a wild one he was.”
“Imrahil has matured since then,” Denethor said gravely, but his voice held a note of amusement.
“I hope so,” said Aragorn, laughing softly. “He is a supposed to be a knight and heir of the Swan City. So you are married, congratulations! Any children?”
“Aye, a son. He will have known eighteen moons in a few days.” Denethor said. “When I left, he could run a little and say a few words.”
Aragorn peered at his companion, trying to make out his expression through the gloom. He had never heard him talk thus. The Steward’s Son had always spoken with pride, but ever for himself or his City, never for another. The darkness proved too complete and the ranger could not tell Denethor’s thoughts. “What is his name?” he asked.
He could just see a smile tug at the normally harsh features. “Boromir,” said Denethor. “They will call him the Second when he rules the White City.”
“Oh,” was all the Son of Kings could think to say. Not wishing to return to the chill that had marked their journey thus far, Aragorn searched his mind for something else to talk about. Silence followed. “Boromir son of Denethor,” he said at last; “A good name, very traditional.” If not particularly original, he added silently.
“Yes,” said Denethor. “It is.” From his voice, it seemed that the ranger’s discomfort had not escaped him. “I wished to name him Pelendur, but my Lady Wife would not have it.”
Aragorn winced. The last Steward named Pelendur had lived almost a thousand years before. History remembered him most for rejecting a claim on the Throne of Gondor made by Arvedui, a king form the North. The message behind that choice could hardly be called subtle.