The name “South Ithilien” was more a tradition than a reflection of the territory’s true geography. It held the shady woods and laughing streams that its northern namesake was known for, but only sporadically. For the most part it was composed of broad expanses of dry scrub. The Haradrim camp had found itself quite at home in the middle of it.
The true woods did not start until the slopes of Emyn Arnen.
As he rode through the valley between the Hills by the Water and the Mountains of Shadow, Aragorn scanned the foliage. The trees grew tall and thick, shading out most undergrowth. Every now and then, a fallen giant would create a gap in the canopy, allowing young trees and other plants to grow. In one such glade, the ranger found what he sought. It was a tall weed, broad, succulent leaves spiralling out from a single fleshy stem.
Slowing Rána from her gallop, he bent over and pulled it up from its root. It parted easily from the soft loam of the forest floor. Shaking away the excess dirt, he spurred the mare forward again. She ran with a smooth gait, and he found no trouble in keeping his balance, even with his hands occupied.
Breaking a leaf off in the midst of its stem, he allowed a drop of white sap to form. He then carefully transferred it to his face, rubbing thick juice into his skin. As it dried, its milky colour faded to a dusky-brown. He repeated the process with each leaf, then with lengths of the stem. When he was finished, the skin of his face, neck and arms matched those of the Haradrim.
He then slipped off his pack. Balancing it on Rána’s shoulders, he exchanged his tunic for one from its contents. Its colours were those of Captain Ezrie’s company and sewn on its sleeves were the marks of an errand rider. He had let the sun’s heat melt the wax seals a little and now refastened the scrolls. After smoothing away his fingerprints with an edge of his shirt, he placed both messages in a messenger’s dispatch pouch. He slung both it and his pack back over his shoulders and smiled to himself in satisfaction. He could now be confused with any one of a thousand riders in the service of Harad.
Settling back into to the saddle, he let his horse’s even pace lull him into a half-doze. He had ridden with Rohirrim for almost five years, and had learned form them how to nap on the road. The Riders of Mark could ride for days without pause if they had change of horse. He knew that in a little over two hours the road would begin to descend into the Morgul Vale, the change in Rána’s stride would wake him. For now he desperately needed rest.
He thought of Denethor, a man much like to him in many ways. Learned and valiant, a leader of men, but proud, so very proud. He had seen Aragorn as a rival from the moment the ranger had entered Ecthelion’s service. Thorongil, as he was then known, had not intended to garner favour, but events had progressed with a life of their own. With every word of advice and service given, he had risen in the eyes of the father and fallen in the eyes of the son. After that victory in Umbar, he had known that it was time to leave. Blood would have been spilled had he returned to the White City.
That had been six years ago. He very much doubted that the heir’s temper had improved much since.
With visions of angry aristocrats raging in his head, he drifted into a light sleep.
The day had lengthened into the early evening by the time he woke. A brake in the trees gave him a view of the sun falling towards the peak of Mount Mindolluin, over Minas Tirith.
To the East he caught a glimpse of another White City as it loomed above the trees. A single red light crowning its highest tower flickered ominously.
Instead of going to the Crossroads and following Imlad Morgul to the Tower of Dark Sorcery, he cut across country. Ezrie had told him of a shortcut used by many of his people. It was barely a trail at all really, hardly wide enough for a single rider. The going became slower as it narrowed, and he had to check the mare to a fast trot. At least the rougher pace and branches slapping his face helped rattle the remaining sleep from his senses.
The track wound through the woodland and skirted below the cliffs that plunged into the Vale, all too soon leading him to the clearing that surrounded the City of Sorcery. From there it preceded directly to the bridge beneath the Tower.
What he saw as he approached the edge of the trees caused his heart to stop. For a brief moment, he wished that he was still deep in slumber and that this was some unnatural dream.
He had seen the Fortress of the Ringwraiths before, it would be impossible not to after so many years in Gondor. Never had he been near this close. Upon further study, he decided that he never wanted to be again either.
The same hand built that Minas Tirith had crafted its sister. Tall white walls swept up to meet soaring towers. It was intended to project both power and beauty, like the prow of a proud ship of Westernese.
That had changed. A dark hand had taken every fair design and twisted it back on itself. The white walls, which once had gleamed in light of sun and moon, now glowed a sickly, translucent yellow, like a bone boiled until soft. They seemed to catch all light and reflect it back distorted. Even the blossoms that carpeted the clearing before him were perverted, each one matching the walls in colour and bearing a deadly needle at its heart.
By leaving the shelter of the wood, he seemed to cross some invisible boundary. The very air thickened so that all sounds sounded faint and distant. Rána immediately slowed to a reluctant walk. He barely had the heart to urge her on; he felt no more desire to pass below the menacing walls than she did.
But time was not on his side. The Sun had now sunk below the peaks of Ered Nimrais, her last rays transmuting the sparse clouds into molten gold. He had to be ready before the company transporting Denethor left at nightfall. To be ready he had to be on the other side of the pass. He gave the mare a solid kick. “Make haste, milady! The swifter your pace, the sooner our departure form this accursed place.” In response she returned to a fast trot, adding as many bumps and jolts as she could manage.
Together they advanced, going unchallenged beneath the city. But when they came to the bridge over the Morgul River, they found it guarded. A dozen Orcs were split between both ends, lounging on the stones and appearing bored.
As Aragorn approached, the largest of them slouched to his feet. He was not as tall as a man, but made up for it by being twice as broad across the shoulders. Ritual scars webbed around his silted yellow eyes. He leered, exhibiting a mouth containing enough teeth for three Men. “What your business, Man-flesh?” he snarled, his rendition of Common Tongue distorted almost beyond understanding. His scars danced as he spoke.
Aragorn found that he was at a loss for words. Normally he would not be in the least daunted by such a challenge. But then, normally he would not be in Imlad Morgul preparing to enter the Land of Shadow. He could feel his hands shaking as he gripped the rains.
I have slain better than you! he thought to summon courage. It helped somewhat and after a few repetitions he felt able to speak.
“I… I am a messenger,” he said, leaving a slight tremor in his voice for authenticity’s sake. The situation was probably enough to put the fear of Morgoth into most living beings anyway. “I bear dispatches from my Captain to the Dark Tower.”
“Stay time! More come when burning light gone. You go with us!” the Orc obviously found Aragorn’s pretence of fear greatly entertaining. He seemed to want to have the diversion for the entire journey.
“No!” the ranger did not have to feign emotion this time. “I cannot! My orders are to travel with utmost haste. If I terry my head is forfeit.” Maybe next time, he added silently.
The Orc leaped forward, shoving his face into Aragorn’s. Ranger and horse jumped back as one. He laughed and the others joined in if and when they got the joke. The sound was akin to two score cats being beaten to death with chain mail shirts. Still, they stepped aside, opening a path. “Run, Man-flesh!” the leader shouted as Aragorn shot by at a full gallop. “Next time eat you!”
When they were safely past the crossing, they both let out the breath they had been holding. Aragorn had been afraid that he would be forced to travel with the very company that he sought to ambush. Rána also had seemed concerned, but with becoming Orc food.
His relief was short lived. Looking ahead he saw the jagged crags of Ephel Duath and in a cut between them, the way to Mordor.
“Shell we go then, Lady?” he asked as they started up the pass. “Shadow and darkness await.”