“Can I swim?” Aragorn asked blankly. “Denethor, the land could not get any drier.” He stared worriedly into the other man’s face. The numerous bruises did not especially concern him, nor did the bloody abrasion across his face, or even the broken nose. It was his eyes that frightened him.
Once they had been full of life, taking in the world around them, able to pierce the very hearts of men with a keen glance. Of that fire, only the barest spark remained. The grey-green gaze could only just meet his own, as though they were looking at each other from separate worlds.
“A Elbereth,” the ranger sighed; “What have they done too you?”
Denethor did not answer, seeming to slide deeper into whatever held him. He kept his eyes fixed on the other’s face as though it were his last hope.
Aragorn could not understand what had happened. The Steward’s son had always been strong, a fearsome opponent in both battle and argument. He had never been seen to bend knee to anyone save his lord and father, and sometimes not even to him.
The ranger did not hold the childish faith that a strong man could remain unbroken. He well knew that given enough time, even his own soul could be destroyed. Still, they had not held Denethor for more than a handful of days. He would not believe that even a Nazgûl could have broken this man so quickly.
Besides, Aragorn thought; why would the Nazgûl bother torment him if they planned to bring him before the Dark Lord in Barad-dûr?
Nazgûl. There was something that Gandalf had told him about Nazgûl. He frowned, trying to recall the old man’s words. “They have knives, Blades of Dark Sorcery, if one should pierce mortal flesh, it would consume the very soul of that man.” That sounded about right.
He searched Denethor’s body for injuries. He had not been captured easily, bruises discoloured his skin and several cuts still bled. Yet he could find no wound deeper than a jagged slash across his forearm. Nor could he discover any signs of torture. His flesh was unmarred by lash or burn, and other than his nose, no bones had been broken.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked in exasperation.
At first, Denethor looked as though he could not quite comprehend the question. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to gather the last of his strength. When he spoke, his words were a mere hint of form in an exhalation. The ranger leaned closer and heard: “Black Breath.”
Aragorn cursed himself for a fool. It had been over twenty years since he had last seen the Grey Wanderer, but still, he should have better remembered the wizard’s words. When he had declared his intention to journey into shadow, his friend had pronounced a long list of things to be weary of. The evils of the Nazgûl had featured prominently in it. At the time, Aragorn he felt Gandalf was being something of a mother hen and had wished he wouldn’t worry so, but over the years he had come to value his words. Never more so than at this moment, for along with a warning, the wizard had given him a cure.
“When the black breath blows
And death’s shadow grows
And all lights pass,
Come athelas! Come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king’s hand lying!”
He delved into his pack, quickly procuring several sheets of wax concealed in the lining. Inside the wax were several long, narrow leaves, looking somewhat withered, but in good condition considering their age. Carefully peeling back the protective coating, he removed three of the precious leaves. He smelt them carefully. Being preserved for several years had done little for them, but they still seemed to hold most of their virtues.
In other circumstances, he would have boiled the leaves to release their greatest powers, but now he could risk neither the light nor the time.
Helping Denethor sit up a little, he propped his pack under his head and shoulders. It was not very comfortable perhaps, but the ranger had little time for anything else. He took another look at the other man’s face and grimaced. “Like as not, I should set that nose while you are still drugged,” he muttered. Placing both hands on the broken bone, he drew a deep breath then twisted sharply.
That brought Denethor back to Middle-earth for an instant. Eyes flew open and hands gripped wrists, pulling them away from his injured face. Then the moment passed, and he slipped back into a daze, ignoring the blood that now flowed freely.
Aragorn gently disengaged his arms from the now lax grasp, replacing them with a soft cloth. “Hold this to your nose,” he said softly. “It will slow the bleeding.” When Denethor did not comply, he moved his hand for him. At the same time, he slipped the wad of athelas into the other’s mouth. “And chew on that,” he added. “Do not worry, I will return shortly.”
Leaving the steward’s son to recover his strength, he surveyed the situation. Most of the Orcs were already at the bottom of the ravine, having fallen either with the bridge of in the fight. He spent the next few minutes wrestling the remaining corpses over the edge. Let them think it an accident, he prayed as he gave the last one a final shove.
Peering after it, he could make out vague shapes at the bottom. Boulders and bodies littered the ground, but he could see no sign of either dark horse or rider. There did lie a sizeable pile of rubble that could have easily covered them. Aragorn said another prayer asking for them both to be under it, and then returned to his feet.
His rope still hung against the cliff face, ending just above his head. He eyed it speculatively, wondering how best to get it back. Finally, gripping it firmly in newly wrapped hands, he jumped, throwing his weight against it as if ringing a bell. Of course, when he had last hauled on a bell pull, he remembered there being a certain amount of slack given, not this sudden shock through his back and shoulders. And the rope attached to a bell doesn’t usually break after several pulls, which this one did.
The ranger found himself sprawled on his back with the remains of the line in a tangled coil on top of him. For a moment he stared in dazed confusion at the stars above him. Then he heard a low chuckle behind him. “And just what about our predicament do you find so amusing, Son of Ecthelion?” he asked, not expecting to like the answer.
He didn’t. “The look on your face, Son of No Man,” Denethor answered, voice still weak, but now holding a life brought by laughter. “I wish that I had the poet’s gift so that I might immortalize it in song. I would name the piece ‘The Fall of Thorongil.'” He laughed again.
“At least now you are well enough to have found your sense of humour,” Aragorn grumbled as he rolled to his feet, discreetly rubbing the portion of his anatomy most bruised. “There is some grace in that.” He saw that the other man had also risen and now leaned tiredly on a discarded sword. Bundling the rope together, the ranger thrust it at him. “Why do you not put some of your new-found vigour to a useful purpose and coil this?”
As Aragorn repacked, Denethor did just that, knelling to conserve his strength. The last things to be placed in the ranger’s bundle were the severed pieces of rope, now neatly tied.
He gave the road one last look, making sure that there were no more signs of their visit. “Do you plan to keep that?” he asked the Denethor, indicating the Orcish blade that he now bore.
The other man nodded. “Travelling with you, I imagine that I will need it.” The steward’s son levered himself back to his feet, ignoring the ranger’s proffered hand.
Free and together, they continued down the road, heading South and further into Mordor.