Aragorn awoke alone in the dark. He had no memory of where he was or what he might be doing there. Every muscle in his body ached from sleeping on cold stones. Rubbing his eyes, he noticed that his injured hands were swathed in strips of cloth. The fabric felt familiar, rather like that of his best shirt in fact. He wondered vaguely who had tended to them. He certainly couldn’t remember doing it. It must have been Denethor, he decided sleepily.
The events of the last few days came rushing back to him: Rána, Mordor, the Nazgûl and Denethor. But where was the man?
Aragorn did not recall exactly when he had dozed off, but he felt sure that the Man of Gondor had been there. He certainly was not now. Though the cave was now utterly black, Aragorn knew that he was alone. The ranger could hear the sound of his own breathing echoing off the cramped walls. If he held his breath, it was as silent as a crypt.
In the midst of wondering where the other man had gone, a horrible thought struck him. What if he were dead?
Aragorn sat up abruptly and began to grope about the cave. He could hear his heart pounding over the rustling gravel. His hand brushed across the edge of a piece of cloth. Denethor? He carefully felt out its shape. No, just my pack, he thought; the cave is empty.
He sighed and leaned against the wall, counting under his breath. The ranger decided to give the other man the count of six hundreds to get back. Otherwise, Aragorn would go looking for him. Though how he would find a lone man, garbed in grey, in the dark, was a mystery. At four hundred and sixty-eight, a rock clattered just outside the cave. A moment later, he heard the sound of something attempting to move quietly through the thorn trees.
The ranger’s sword hissed softly as he drew it. Before he could ready himself, a familiar voice asked “Thorongil?”
“Aye,” he answered, sheathing his blade. Stones rustled at the entrance, and Aragorn rose to meet the other man. “Where were you?” he asked.
“Discovering where we are,” Denethor explained shortly. He still used the Orcish blade as a cane. Aragorn could hear the clink of metal on rock every time the Steward’s son shifted his weight. He almost asked how Denethor felt. “Are you ready to continue?” he said.
“I am,” replied the Man of Gondor in a tone that implied he knew exactly what the question meant. “And you?”
The ranger stretched, testing for injuries. Everything still ached but nothing felt broken. He nodded, then, realizing that the other man could not see him, said “In a moment, yes.” Finding his pack, he shoved any loose possessions back in. He wrapped the pot in a shirt, so that it would not rattle. “What did you see out there?” he asked, sliding on the pack.
Denethor grunted. “Very little,” he said. “Night has fallen and there are no stars.”
Once again, they struck out to the south. Moving as quietly as they could, they said nothing beyond what was necessary. Even though Aragorn knew the way, their pace was painfully slow. Denethor now walked unaided, but he had not regained his former strength.
They stopped just before moonrise. Denethor had found Aragorn’s provisions while he slept, but the ranger had not eaten since the day before. “We will need to ration this,” he said as he passed the Man of Gondor a small portion of bread, meat and cheese. “It will be seven more nights before we leave this land.”
“No hunting,” agreed Denethor. “I have heard that the Dark Lands corrupt all that live in them.”
Aragorn shuddered, remembering some of the twisted creatures that he had encountered on his last visit. “We will have enough to last without hunting.”
They ate in silence for a moment. “What of water?” the Steward’s son asked suddenly. “We have yet to find a stream.”
“There is one not a league ahead,” said the ranger confidently, mentally adding, I think. It had after all been over five years since he had last seen it. He sighed inwardly as he watched the moon rise behind a thin layer of cloud and smoke. I hate this place, he thought. I spent too long here last time and I wished nothing better than to never see it again.
Fortunately, the stream turned out to run exactly where Aragorn had said it would. It babbled and splashed down the rocks with a cheerfulness that seemed entirely out of place. Neither of them had seen anything so appealing in days. They drank their fill and replenished their water skins.
“Can we expect more of these?” Denethor asked, glimmering droplets falling from his hair.
“Every few leagues,” said the ranger, tucking the swollen skins into his pack. “And the water is all as good as this. The streams are tainted near the Morgul Vale, but we are safely past that.” He rose and started walking.
“You seem well acquainted with this area,” The Man of Gondor said softly as he followed.
Aragorn, thinking of where best to hide for the day, shrugged. “I should be,” he responded casually. “I spent close to a year spying out the Dark Lands.”
Denethor stopped dead in his tracks. “Why?” he asked sharply.
Aragorn turned, studying the other man’s features through the gloom. Denethor had schooled his face to a cool mask and darkness hid any trace of emotion. The Northerner considered how he should answer, deciding on unadorned truth. “Many reasons,” he said, cautious now. “For the most part, I wanted to learn what I could of the land and its occupants. I observed construction, troop movements, settlements.” He smiled wryly. “I also discovered several sites that could be used for an ambush, for which I am now grateful.”
“As am I,” murmured the Steward’s son, his voice so soft that Aragorn barely heard it. He was not sure that he was supposed to. Before he could begin to think of a response, Denethor spoke again. “You say that you spent many moons skulking in this cursed darkness.” His voice now sounded harsh. “To what end? Whom was this information for? We certainly saw no part of it in the White City.”
Aragorn felt a pang of guilt. His knowledge of the devices of Mordor would probably have been of great help to the West. “I would have sent word to you on my return,” he said, not liking how he his voice sounded. He should not need to defend his actions. He would have sent the information earlier if he could have. “I had not sure means to deliver it to you, save returning myself,” he added, “And I was travelling in the opposite direction.” In truth, he had learned what he could on the request of Gandalf, but he was not about to mention that. Denethor and the Grey Wizard had never been friends.
The Man of Gondor shook his head derisively. Clearly, he could see no reason that Aragorn would not put the City before all else. Denethor opened his mouth to retort, but paused, thinking better of it. “This is neither the time nor the place for such decision,” he said. “Let us first escape this cursed place.” He gestured for the ranger to lead the way, and they continued their journey. But his words left no doubt that he would continue the debate at a later time.
Aragorn did not look forward to it.