The wind from the Northwest had increased in strength, dispersing the smog. It lightened Aragorn’s heart; he had quickly tired of the stench that wafted from below. Now the quarter moon was rising from the shadows of a distant arm of hills. It cast a pale light on their path, replacing the reflected glow of Orodruin that had faded with the haze.
He heard a soft curse as Denethor tripped on the edge of a paving stone. A hand grabbed his sleeve as the other man involuntarily steadied himself. Aragorn did not move, expecting the hold to be removed immediately. But the Steward’s son did not let go. Instead, he increased his grip, supporting some of his weight of on the ranger’s shoulder.
Without a word, Aragorn guided Denethor’s arm over his shoulders. He slipped his own arm around the other’s waist, accepting the burden. Thus joined, they resumed their journey.
More weight settled on him as they walked. He hoped that the Steward’s son remembered that although the ranger had a few inches more height, he was much lighter in build. And that he too felt weary. He had not slept in two days.
He could smell the sweet savour of athelas on the other’s ragged breath. Chewing the herb had given Denethor a burst of energy, but that had worn off quickly. His strength had begun to fail again.
“We may rest in a little while,” said the ranger, “just as soon as we escape the road.”
“I can walk as far as you,” Denethor said stiffly.
Aragorn sighed. I should have known better than to say anything, he thought. Well, he will not pull me into a quarrel, not this time. I don’t have the energy. Despite this resolution, his mind filled with a thousand sharp retorts. Using no small amount of restraint, he said only “Good, I cannot go much further either.”
Even that should have been enough to provoke a response, but Denethor said nothing. His silence worried Aragorn more than anything that had yet happened.
That silence stretched until they finally halted, and even then it was not broken deliberately. They sat in a small gully, a few furlongs from the southern edge of the road. Rock walls rose around them, obscuring the view in all directions save directly above and to the East. The moon was now perhaps three hand spans above the horizon. Smoke stained its face a murky red, but Aragorn could still make out its features.
“I wonder how my horse fares,” the ranger mused, thinking of what he had called her.
“Your horse?” Denethor asked, speaking a little louder than necessary.
Aragorn started, he had not realized that he had spoken aloud. Keeping his voice low, he explained. “Yes, my horse, Rána. Last I saw, she was bolting back over the pass. She was a fine steed; I hope that she fares well.”
Denethor snorted. “Perhaps you could make clear why your horse runs out of Mordor, while we walk in.” His voice still quivered, but it had recovered some of its customary pride. “No offence to your ‘fine steed,’ but I would prefer that our positions were reversed.”
Aragorn leaned back against the rock. “As would I, until such time as the remaining Nazgûl smell you and capture us both. I might pass under their gates, being unknown to them, but you would not. We would not make the river, not with both of us on a single horse.” He felt stone digging into his back. Shifting slightly, he tried to find a comfortable position. “As it is,” he continued; “they will follow her, and we shall be able to travel in safety.” At the other’s incredulous expression, he added “It is better than going back through the Morgul Vale. I know of a pass not far distant. If we journey by night, we should escape unnoticed.”
Denethor was silent for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said at last. “We will walk, though your plan is not without flaws.”
“It was the best I could do under the circumstances,” the ranger answered, not apologetically. “If you would rather be freed in some other manner, then go out there and get yourself captured again. Only this time, do not expect my help.” The words you seek, he thought, are ‘thank you.’ And an ‘I am forever in your debt for saving me, O Resourceful One’ would not feel entirely out of place either. Then he glanced at his companion and decided that those words actually would sound a little odd.
Denethor met his gaze and held it, some of the old fire now in his eyes. “I did not ‘get myself captured,'” he growled. “I was betrayed.”
Aragorn blinked in surprise, breaking eye connect. “Betrayed? By who?”
“I do not know.” He seemed to casually examine his wrists, now scarred by the harsh ropes that had bound him. Every muscle was trembling, not with fatigue, but with ire. “It must have been one of my men. Only the rangers of Ithilien know of that path.” He shook his head. “When I find that spawn of Darkness, I will stake his head above the Gate of my City as a warning.”
Aragorn smiled. It cheered him that the other man had regained some of his customary spirit. “I imagine your father might object to such a decoration,” he said mildly.
That earned him another sharp look. “And you know my father better than I do?” asked the son of Ecthelion.
To prevent another old argument from flaring up, Aragorn got to his feet. “Since you seem well enough to argue, you can probably find the strength to walk.”
Denethor rose slowly, balancing against the cliff face. When Aragorn moved to support him, he hesitated. His expression said that he would rather be dragged over hot coals than accept the ranger’s help.
“I cannot carry you if you fall,” Aragorn said softly.
Denethor sighed faintly. A small sound, almost imperceptible, but the escaped breath carried with it a great load of emotion. He stepped forward and restored his arm to its place across Aragorn’s shoulders.
Once again, they set out towards the South, their pace now slowed by rough terrain and lack of light.
Aragorn struggled to find a path through the tangle of boulders and pits that littered the plateau. With every step, his burden grew heavier.
The first light of morn had just crept into the sky when Denethor collapsed.