TO WALK IN DARK PLACES
On the dawning of the fifth day, the travellers found a dense bramble patch under which to hide. As it was Aragorn’s turn to take first watch, Denethor settled onto the coarse ground to rest. Disciplined even in sleep, he lay flat on his back, legs straight, hands folded on his breast. To Aragorn he looked as though he had been laid out for a funeral.
Though if that were the case, someone needed to have words with the embalmers. The Son of the Steward desperately needed a wash, shave and change of clothes, not that the Son of Kings fared any better. Though they had not yet seen anything hunting them, it surprised Aragorn that his smell alone had not given them away. He wondered if he would ever become used to this covering of grime that warriors seemed to acquire.
Sitting cross-legged in the dirt, he set his mind to imagining a hot, soapy bath in Rivendell. He could not close his eyes for fear of drifting off, so the vision was less then perfect. Still, several hours passed swiftly in this contemplation.
Aragorn had moved on to a sun-warmed lake, when something hit his knee. He sprang to a crouch, his sword drawn before he had time to think. He did not understand how anything could have come this close. Part of his attention may have devoted itself to warm pools, but the rest had kept watch vigilantly. The low thicket roof tugged at his hair as he turned, searching.
He scanned the brush, finding nothing. Only then did he glance down to discover what had struck him. Denethor’s hand, as it turned out. The other man had stirred in his sleep, casting his arm out as though reaching for something. Aragorn sighed and sat back down, naked blade across his knees. He was not usually this tense. It seemed that days of icy silence had begun to erode his nerves. Closing his eyes for a moment, he concentrated on the rhythm of his heart. It beat quickly, but he took long, measured breaths to slow it.
He hoped that the rest of his watch would pass peacefully. Denethor, it seemed, had other plans. His movements had merely signalled the beginning of the dark vision that now gripped him. Once again, his lips moved, forming a name. Only this time, he had the strength to give it voice. The word was indistinct, but definitely audible.
Curious, Aragorn leaned closer. He felt a little guilty for eavesdropping, but not enough to stop him.
“Finduilas,” he heard.
Aragorn frowned. He wondered who she was, and why she was foremost in Denethor’s thoughts. The name sounded familiar, even aside from the historical reference to Turin’s Lady. It brought vague images of a heart shaped face and black hair. One of the Ladies in the White City’s court? he wondered. But I know most of them. From the Swan City then? He shook his head, he could not remember. With few exceptions, and one in particular, most ladies seemed as one to him.
He wondered what he should do to calm the other man. Soft words often ended nightmares, but he didn’t think that his voice would help. Glancing at the sun, Aragorn decided that his watch had ended anyway. He gently shook Denethor awake.
Waking was one of the rare times that Aragorn ever saw the Steward’s Son display obvious emotion. He watched as Denethor’s expression shifted from confusion to annoyance to resignation, before composing itself to a cool mask. “What news?” he asked, sitting up and stretching stiff muscles.
Aragorn shrugged. “Nothing,” he said, “Though I have not been out of this thicket. Perhaps one of us should look.”
A slight frown crossed Denethor’s face. “To move in daylight would risk being seen,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “But I suppose we must take that chance.” Without another word, he slipped into the branches, leaving Aragorn alone in their den.
The ranger had half risen, intending to go himself. Now he shook his head slightly and crawled over to his pack. Rations began to run low, but there would be enough. There would have to be. As he finished setting out Denethor’s morning share, a rustle of brush and a soft call marked the other man’s return.
“I saw no sign of life,” Denethor said before Aragorn had a chance to ask. As the Man of the North passed him food, he nodded a brief thanks before wolfing it down. “Thorongil,” he said after he had finished, “There are cliffs ahead. They look treacherous. Will we need to go around them?”
Aragorn was looking for a patch of ground that might be softer than the rest. He shook his head. “No, we must travel over them,” he said. “They are formed of a long spur that extends to the east out of the Mountains of Shadow. It would take days and our food runs low as it is.” Giving his search up as hopeless, he chose the place where the Steward’s Son had been sleeping minutes before. It seemed to hold the fewest sharp rocks. He laid down his folded cloak to take the edge off those that remained. “Let us speak of this in the mor… when I wake,” he said as he stretched out. Seeing how well Denethor liked that idea, he added, “I have crossed them before, and with no great difficulty.”
Denethor still didn’t look happy, but relented enough to let the ranger sleep. “As you wish. I will wake you at dusk.” His voice sounded colder than usual.
Aragorn sighed faintly, stabbed by a brief pang of guilt. Not that he had lied. He had crossed that pass before, only not at night and not with a drained companion. He felt sure that he could make it. If Denethor could not, the ranger would have to hoist him. Aragorn sighed again, thinking of the reaction that would get. Ah well, he thought, concerns for a later time.
Still, as he drifted off, his mind whirled with images of knots and ropes.
* * * * * * * * *
“This is such a charming place,” Aragorn said as he watched sunset stain the smoke the murky red of dried blood. He sat breaking his fast and looking at the sky through a brief gap in the brambles. When his companion did not respond, he rose, brushing the last crumbs from his hands. “Let us go then.”
The last light had left the sky when they emerged from their hiding place. Denethor gazed up at the dark hills that loomed before them. “Where is this pass?” he asked.
Aragorn pointed to the south. “Just there,” he said. “But we will have to start into the hills east of here, once we come to a dry streambed.”
It turned out that they had slept only a few furlongs from the place they sought. The path of an old stream disappeared into the hills. Aragorn could not yet make out the mouth of the ravine, but he knew it was there, somewhere. A wind from the north had carried ash and other debris from Orodruin and now it collected in the shallow bed. The companions had to stay atop the bank to avoid leaving a trail. At the foot of the cliffs lay great grey drifts, looking almost like snow in the dim light. They were lower at the dark mouth of the ravine, but the ash still piled more than ankle deep.
Denethor surveyed it, brows slightly furrowed. “We will leave a trail,” he said.
“I know,” Aragorn answered. “It cannot be helped. The ash has many different layers. Smoothing over our tracks would only disturb it further.”
The other man nodded in understanding. The tracks of two men could mean many things, there were many who lived in the Lands of Shadow. An obviously covered trail could have far fewer explanations. “What did you do when last you passed this way?” Denethor asked after a moment of thought.
The Ranger shrugged. “I simply walked through it,” he said. “A fortnight’s worth of wind can obliterate any mark.” Smiling wryly, he added, “At the time, I did not have the Servants of Shadow pursuing me.”
Denethor did not return the smile, but continued to stare at the ground. He kicked the edge of a drift with his toe, stirring up a small grey cloud. “Does this extend very far back into the ravine?” he asked.
“Not really,” said Aragorn. “The stream follows a fault in the rock; it cuts back into the cliffs at a sharp angle.” He gestured to the south-west. “This outward wall prevents most drifts from forming.”
“It does not seem that we have much choice,” said Denethor. He sprang over the streambed, stumbling as he landed. Recovering, he continued to talk as if nothing had happened. “It seems less deep on this side.” Walking carefully to create as little disturbance as possible, he started up the middle of the channel.
Aragorn followed. The bare rock of the bank proved sound footing, and he landed lightly. He wondered at Denethor’s misstep. It would seem that the Man of Gondor had not recovered as much strength as he thought he had. The Northerner sighed faintly, yet another thing to watch. Putting that concern aside, he concentrated on putting his feet precisely in the other man’s footsteps. Despite his care, disturbed ash soon filled the air, making breathing difficult. Aragorn sincerely regretted having tied his Haradrim scarf onto Rána’s straw decoy. Cursing between coughs, he tore a strip off the edge of his shirt and tied it across his nose and mouth. Denethor fared rather better, walking first and keeping ahead of the dust.
Fortunately, the ash only spread about a thirty yards from the cliffs and they were soon through it. Once around the corner, they found themselves on bare rock again. Aragorn sighed, untying his mask and vainly trying to shake it clean. “Perhaps when that mess settles, it will do something to obscure our trail.” Hearing no answer, he glanced at Denethor. His companion leaned against the far wall, resting and looking up into the night. Aragorn glanced up as well. The rough rock rose steeply, quickly disappearing into the darkness. Though the walls eventually gave way to the sky, he could see no star. Neither could he see anything worth staring at. “Denethor?” he asked after a moment.
The other man started. “What?” he asked sharply. Before Aragorn could say anything, the Man of Gondor seemed to come back to himself. As if there had been no break in conversation, he said, “We must hope that they still do not know exactly in which direction we escaped.” He pushed away from the wall. “Still, we had better leave this place.”
Aragorn nodded in agreement and led the way. “The way to the path lies not far ahead,” he said. Easily wide enough for two men to walk abreast at the entrance, the ravine narrowed as it ran back into the hills. After perhaps a furlong, the ranger had to take off his pack and twist sideways to pass a tight point. “Here,” he said when he was through. “This is a good place to climb.” He set down his pack and glanced around. A little wider here, and if he remembered rightly, the walls did not rise as high. Yes, he thought, this is the place.
The broad shouldered Denethor had a little more trouble squeezing in. He only made it due to recently lost weight. “Climb?” he asked dubiously, again looking up.
Aragorn nodded. “Yes,” he added, realizing that the gloom obscured his gesture. “In a manner of speaking.” He hesitated before asking, “Denethor?”
“How much do you know of climbing?”
Aragorn heard a faint sigh in the darkness. “Very little,” Denethor admitted grudgingly.
Perfect, the Ranger of the North thought bleakly. This is going to be a joy.