Even the stars were dimmer in the Land of Shadow. A foul vapour filled the air suppressing their light. Only the brightest of Elbereth’s jewels could be seen, weakly flickering though the gloom. Eärendil the Mariner was hidden behind the Fence of mountains. The waning moon had yet to rise.
The glow that illuminated Aragorn’s way came from Mount Doom. The light of its fires caught in the haze, turning the sky into an ocean of burning blood.
The ranger had little need of it. He had scouted this side of the pass some years previous, committing the terrain to memory.
The road snaked it way south along a cliff face, the sheer wall of the mountain rising on his right and diving to his left. Occasionally, a small ridge jutted out, and the way was hewn though a narrow canyon. More like tunnels than passes, they forced the traveler to stumble briefly through utter darkness before emerging again into the light of the Mountain.
In one such place, a narrow path had originally worked its way around the obstruction, but when the road was widened, it had been carved straight through. There were now two paths, the outer one now somewhat overgrown with coarse bracken.
He dismounted and led Rána along the cliff edge. When he came to a place hidden from view of the main road, he loosely tied her rains to a bush. Striping off his cloths, he fashioned a crude mannequin by stuffing them with dead ferns. He also filled a spare hood, creating a head. After lashing the whole process into place with twine, he stepped back to survey the results. Close up, it looked to be an escaped scarecrow on a rather surprised horse. He hoped that from a distance, it would more closely resemble a Haradrim messenger crouched low in his saddle. At any rate, it would be hard to distinguish any clear details in this gloom.
He hastily donned a set of dark garments form his pack and hurried down the path. Where the two ways rejoined, there was a high stone bridge above deep crevasse. Five could walk abreast over it, but years had worn it thin and some of the stones had cracked. As he picked his way through broken cobles, he passed under a tall crag that over shadowed the crossing from the far side.
He smiled to himself as he looked up.
The rock face on the south side of the ravine loomed above him. From below, the overhang seemed insurmountable. Climbing without pause straight to the pinnacle, the rock was smooth and almost free of handholds. Now and then, a jagged fang of rock protruded slightly from the face. An expert climber could perhaps have made the ascent unaided, but Aragorn had little knowledge of that art.
Instead, he gathered his rope. After tying a bowstring knot, finished with a simple knot for safety, he ran the other end of the rope through the loop he had just made. He held the new loop in his right hand, with the coil of remaining line in his left.
Now if only he could remember how to use it.
This was another skill he had learned of the Rohirrim, it came as naturally to them as breathing and riding. It had taken him years to learn it properly, and he had not made use of it in many years. After a few tentative swings, he picked up speed until the rope was singing through the air over his head. The closest outcropping was perhaps a dozen yards distant, above him to his left. He took a moment to shift his weight, then aimed carefully and released. The rope sped away, disappearing into the darkness above him as its length uncoiled from his grip.
It was a clean miss.
He re-coiled the rope tried again with renewed concentration. This time the lariat grazed the edge of his target, before slithering back down.
The ranger sighed; he could ill afford such an error. By now, company would have left Minas Morgul, and he had to have ascended before they reached the bridge.
The third attempt was successful. He tested it with his weight, but the rope was looped securely around his chosen escarpment. A basic harness around his upper body was all he had time for. He did not rightly have time for any safety concerns at all, but more than one life would be lost should he fall.
Without being able to use his feet for more than balance on the sheer face, his arms were forced to bear him upwards. He was glad for the daily ritual of sword practice that he had kept since early childhood. “Wrists of steel,” his master had said on many occasions. “If you have wrists of steel you can accomplish any deed.” Somehow, Aragorn doubted that this was what the old Elf had had in mind. Or perhaps not, one could never really tell with Elves.
There was a slight ledge behind the point where his rope was attached. He rested there for a brief moment, rubbing his burning arms with raw hands. As it happened, looking down, even for a brief moment, was not a wise idea. The road he had just come from seemed very narrow and far away. Below it, the cliff dropped for at least another two-hundred yards before it was lost in shadows. He quickly averted his gaze, turning his attention to the climb ahead. That seemed far less daunting. The summit rose above him at perhaps half the distance that he had already traveled.
As he loosened the line, he saw that the sharp edges of the rock had begun the fray it. Thus far, only a few strands were separated, so he did not trouble to retie his knots at the other end.
This time he caught his target, on the first throw. The rope fitted snugly to a projection up and to the north, right below the peak of the main crag. The second climb was far less difficult, for the distance was shorter and the grade much shallower. He still supported most of his weight with his arms, but could occasionally lessen the strain in his back and shoulders by finding footholds.
When he crested the ridge, the ranger could see Eärendil shining brightly over the White City. Again, he felt the familiar light calling to him. He wished he had a ship of stars like his ancestor. At least it would ease the strain of long voyages and painstaking climbs. A chill wind out of the north-west dried the sweat from his face. Beneath the cloying scent of the Morgul flowers and the tang of Harad fires, he could taste a trace of pine needles. He had not seen a pine tree in six years. It smelled like home. “Soon,” he told the distant Mariner. “Soon I will again walk in you grace, among your people.” He had been too long away.
He sighed and turned back to the business at hand. Leaving the lariat where it hung he coiled the remainder rope neatly out of sight. He doubted that anyone below could possible see it, but it was better to be safe. The rest of his route inclined gently enough that he could scramble up with ease. Here he sat almost directly over the centre of the bridge; the drop from his perch to the gully bottom was near upon three score yards. He could see the entire length of the road leading to the pass, save only the places where it passed through a gap in a ridge. He even caught sight of Rána, waiting tolerantly for he master far below.
Then he saw them.
Not half a mile up the road. A group of Orcs heavily armed and two dozen strong. They surrounded a pale figure, who stumbled weakly along with the unyielding pull of his lead.
And behind them rode a Nazgûl.