The small company of rangers flew east, with Celador at their head, for Aragorn deferred to his intimate knowledge of Ithilien. But the race invigorated Aragorn, his heart aloft and his long legs and feet light upon the earth, like he had long yearned to stretch them for a pursuit. With them was Tellagor, who had softened to Aragorn, and exhibited a playful banter, calling back to his original skepticism about the man called Thorongil. And six others, too, ran with them, for they kept their company small, so that they could cover much ground.
With two prisoners, they knew that what orcs captured Lord Alcaron and Denethor could not move swiftly, so the company hoped to overtake them before they drew too close to Mordor; though, the orcs had several hours’ lead on the rangers. It was clear the orcs followed the road, for it would allow them a swift passage as they carried their prizes to their Lord. So Celador led the company upon the same path, east and south, until the lands grew grey and quiet, and shadows crept among the trees, ever darker the further they traveled.
Time seemed not to move, for the sky was dark and grey, always shrouded by a veil of cloud, and the company thought some sinister work of the enemy was already against them, set upon the land itself to hinder them, for they became winded and their legs heavy.
“The land is ill,” Aragorn said, breathing heavily. “I feel heavy of heart, and limb, more than I would on such a chase in any other place.”
“Indeed, there is a power over this land. Seldom do we travel far east, for a sleepless malice lies here, and it delays us, I fear,” Celador said.
The company halted for a moment and drank from their water and attempted to catch their breath. The air was thick and heavy, like a great dense forest after a hard rain, but they were in no such place where rain would quench the thirst of man, beast, or tree. Any such weather was a further stain upon the earth, a sickening that deepened, and they could see the brush and trees around them were bare and broken, falling or cracked and leaning.
“Let’s continue! We cannot delay further!” Celador shouted through deep breaths.
The company was weary, but they did not rest, and each man mustered what strength he had to continue the chase, and they ran with soft footfalls. As they came at last to the vale, the Morgulduin was on their right to the south, and it seemed all life faded from the earth, save fields of white flowers. The air was ill and the rangers of Gondor dared not go near the fields along the road. Then, in a bend of the road, the dead city loomed. Bathed in an unnatural glow, it was shrouded in a mist, and the sharp peaks of its walls and the great tower emerged above the pale mist, surrounded by the shadowy mountains behind. All were quiet, and fear gripped the men. Tellagor broke their silence as he spotted an orc camp, though it was empty, and a thin wisp of smoke drifted faintly above a dead fire.
“Hold!” Aragorn shouted as the rangers neared. “Celador, let me alone with the camp for a moment, and I will see what trail signs I may find there.”
Celador nodded, “I trust to your skill, for we have little knowledge of the land that lay ahead.”
Aragorn entered the camp on his own and held his hand above the smoldering wood and coals. They were warm, but steaming, for water had been tossed over them not long ago, and the ground was wet and muddy. Near the fire he found signs of a heavy bundle, which had been tossed upon the ground, and there it seemed to disturb the ground around it, and footprints, those of orcs and uruks, were around it. Here lay one of the prisoners. But, as he searched further, he dismayed, for no sign of the other prisoner could he find upon the ground.
At last he waved to the rangers and they came into the camp as well, and surrounded the fire where Aragorn stood. “Here lay one of the prisoners,” he said, pointing low to the ground. “However, I fear the worst, for I cannot find sign of another body or where it lay,” he said quietly. Then he thought a moment, rubbing his chin, “Perhaps, they further bound their prisoners here, and maybe Denethor or Lord Alcaron resisted, and was cast down, while the other remained standing.”
“I would certainly prefer this reading to the other,” Celador said grimly.
The sound of footsteps and rustling brush alerted them, and the rangers drew their weapons and Tellagor knocked an arrow. From the gathering dark came a small company of orcs, led by one who was clad in armor, with a red cloak, and the clasp upon his neck was an eye of flame, and he wielded a great ax in one hand. The other orcs surrounded him, and they seemed pleased with themselves, laughing cruelly. The orcs approached the camp, and the rangers closed their ranks, with the fire between them and the enemy.
“Men of Gondor,” the lead orc sneered. “Have you come to offer yourselves as further prizes for our master?”
“You come only to slow us,” Celador said. “There is no prize for your master here!”
The orc laughed and his bodyguards drew their weapons, but to the rangers’ surprise, from the surrounding bush came more orcs, and the company was swiftly surrounded. Aragorn and Celador stood together, and Tellagor let loose his arrow at an oncoming orc, as the others in their company clashed with enemies all around. But Aragorn saw that the lead orc did not engage, and his bodyguards stayed close to him.
As the skirmish around them grew, Aragorn’s desperation and a smoldering rage grew, knowing that the orcs simply delayed their pursuit, while Denethor and Lord Alcaron were carried closer to the tower. An orc flew at he and Celador, wildly, but Celador stepped forward and cut him down, and Aragorn seemed to wake from his thoughts. With Narsil in-hand he strode toward the lead orc and his bodyguards, leaving the rangers to handle the others.
“You will not delay us further!” Aragorn called. “Step forward, or do the Captains of Mordor fear men so greatly that they would hide behind bodyguards?”
The orc bristled, and his bodyguards looked back at him to see whether they would fight, or if their leader would answer Aragorn’s challenge. The Morgul orcs’ deference and fear turned quickly, as their leader spoke, “Ha! Murzag fears no man. Who are you to challenge me? Kill him!”
The bodyguards shifted to sinister laughs and stepped toward Aragorn, though he could tell that their sneers and confidence was a mask for their fear. He could waste no further time, and Aragorn met the two of them quickly, parrying their blows until he stepped through them, cutting one and then the other, until they fell to their knees. Narsil became drenched in their black blood, and they fell and there was nothing between him and Murzag, who quaked at the sight of Aragorn’s ferocity. But, the orc captain still laughed, though his voice wavered.
“Hm, it seems you shall die by my hand, after all,” Murzag said, hefting the ax in both hands.
With a great cry, he strode forward and swung the ax, but Aragorn stepped back, and its blade buried into the earth. Murzag lifted it quickly again, and with another swing, the two blades flew by and Aragorn stepped back again. Aragorn held Narsil in one hand, and looking at the broken blade, knew he could not parry a blow from the great ax, nor could he strike a blow from such a distance as the ax could reach.
As Murzag swung the ax again, Aragorn ducked and rolled, and with a quick swipe, cut at the orc’s legs, and Murzag staggered. The orc propped himself up on the ax for a moment, and Aragorn climbed to his feet and turned, running swiftly back toward the orc captain. But, Murzag could not be felled by such a blow, and he stood and with both arms, swung the ax over his head and down in a reckless fury but Aragorn stepped aside as the ax buried into the ground with a thud. In one powerful motion, Aragorn brought Narsil down upon the shaft of the ax and cut it in two. Murzag staggered backwards and dropped the ax handle.
But the orc captain came at Aragorn again, screaming with rage. Aragorn stood ready and when Murzag reached for him and came with his full weight to tackle him, Aragorn struck and Murzag stumbled and fell to his knees. No more threats or laughs could the orc muster, and Aragorn put an end to Murzag swiftly, and looked back to the camp and the rangers there with Celador. Two of their company had fallen, though all orcs lay dead around them. Celador bent over one of his slain brethren, his heart heavy and his face darkened. Tellagor stood beside him.
“Celador, we cannot delay further!” Aragorn said, urging him onward. But the weight of the vale and the power of Mordor was upon them, and Celador stood slowly, and nodded silently. “Come! The last leg is upon us! We must hurry and rescue Denethor and Alcaron, or we shall not leave this valley alive!” Aragorn attempted to alight some fire within the rangers, and few seemed to respond, but they carried on nonetheless.
As they ran forward along the Morgul road, the beaten path gave way to white stone, darkened by feet and years and the decay of Mordor. The city stood far on the other end, for the bridge spanned a wide stretch of the Morgulduin and a stinking marsh that surrounded the city. There, Aragorn and the company halted, for at last they had reached their quarry, though the small band of orcs remaining did not hurry to their master. They stood together upon the bridge, and a man, bound and a hood thrown over his head, sat among them. Aragorn dismayed, for he saw only one prisoner, and as the two companies faced one another, a hooded figure, like that of the Black Numenorean who led their ambush near the Cross-roads, stepped forward.
“Thorongil. I commend your spirit, for there are few in Gondor who would have flown so far into the Vale to rescue a companion, much less one who doubts you so,” the hooded man said in a voice that was fell and seemed to echo among the stones and hills around them as if some spell lay on his words.
“Who are you? What have you done with Denethor and Lord Alcaron! Give them over at once, or you shall fall where you now stand,” Aragorn said defiantly.
“Why, Denethor sits here, in front of you,” the robed figure motioned toward the man sitting on the stone, his head covered by a dark cloth, hands bound behind his back.
“That is but one prisoner,” Celador spoke. “Yet, two you stole from Ithilien!”
The robed figure laughed and it shook the spirits of the Men of Gondor, “Celador, Captain of Ithilien. You who brought this treachery into your home. Though, you would have fallen at Cair Andros were it not for him.”
Celador looked at Aragorn, whose face was red and his eyes glared at the robed figure, attempting to pierce the dark veil that seemed to shroud his identity. Celador could not make sense of the words, and he shook his head, “Speak not your poisoned counsels. I have no interest in your lies!”
“Lies? Ha! Who among us has deceived those he has called his friends?” The robed man continued to spin his web, and the words landed in the hearts of the men around Aragorn, and they looked to one another with confusion and despair.
“Enough! Where now is Lord Alcaron, if Denethor sits there? If he has been delivered to your master already, then I have no need to hear your words any longer,” Aragorn said.
The robed figure laughed again, and lifted his hood, and lo! as if some spell had lifted from him, his face was revealed, though it seemed to fade before them at the same time. For the shock landed upon Aragorn most of all, for he saw the face of Alcaron, which he had seen first in Pelargir, and now, the face became worn and older, and his blue eyes were sharp, and upon his face were many reddened scars.
“Alcaron?!” Aragorn gasped. The rangers stumbled back in fear as the veil was lifted from Alcaron’s disguise, and his long deception revealed, for they had flown in pursuit of him, a captive among the enemy, and this was now a great blow to their spirit.
“Ulchor is my right name, Thorongil. Now, what right name shall I call you?” Ulchor spoke in a gravelly voice, no longer the lordly tone that Aragorn knew from Alcaron.
Aragorn hesitated to speak, but his mind was now a storm, reaching back through his memory, and alarmed at every step he had taken since he arrived in Pelargir. A great despair fell on him, but he held it at bay with a rage like he had never felt. He gripped the hilt of Narsil at his side and the urge to strike was overwhelming, for he wished to make amends, but at once he knew regret and sorrow, for he also wished to silence Ulchor before he could reveal more, though how the enemy knew the truth, Aragorn could not tell.
“I can understand your hesitation. For I would wish to know more as well, though, also to silence my enemy before he could sow more dissent,” Ulchor said, pacing the bridge. “But, your coming put an end to my long plan, one of many years, almost uncountable. I knew there was little chance to capture you, such a mighty man in battle, as has been proven. So, now here you stand, before the gates of Minas Morgul, and I have delivered you, at least, and the son of Ecthelion.”
“You have delivered nothing yet!” Aragorn shouted.
Ulchor laughed quietly, “Oh, you still do not realize your situation.”
“Enough!” Aragorn drew Narsil and in response, Ulchor stood ready, and yet another truth was revealed, for he was no inexperienced lord, but a cunning warrior, and he held a long knife in his hand.
The orcs around Denethor dared not move as Aragorn and Ulchor clashed upon the bridge. A great storm arose around them, and a wind howled, its chill holding Celador and his rangers in their place. What courage they had was dashed, and even Celador stood now stricken dumb, and his limbs were heavy, and his feet like immovable stones, for his heart ran cold, and he knew not which course to take.
Aragorn and Ulchor danced around one another, and Aragorn realized that he stood against a worthy foe, and he fought against Ulchor, but also himself, for he could not let rage blind him. But Ulchor’s words he could not drive from his mind, and they preyed upon his heart. For the words were true: Aragorn had deceived those close to him, those who looked to him for guidance, strength, and honor.
With many blows, Aragorn drove Ulchor back, and the servant of Mordor fell against the stone wall that lined the bridge, though at the last moment, Ulchor lifted his blade to hold back the last blow from Narsil. The man’s gaze was hateful and yet he sneered, enjoying the chaos and destruction he had sowed. Aragorn reached with his left hand, but Ulchor drew a blade concealed, a shorter knife that he thrust forward. Aragorn panicked and his left hand sought to catch Ulchor’s arm, but it was late, and the blade pierced Aragorn’s leg, though at last he caught Ulchor’s wrist, and held it back so that the wound was not deep.
“Like all good servants of Gondor, you shall die in the shadow,” Ulchor said. “And your friends will know at the end that you drove them to ruin.”
Aragorn shook his head, and his eyes watered, and he grit his teeth and with all the strength he could master, he at last overpowered Ulchor and twisted his wrist so that the knife fell to the stone and Ulchor winced in pain. He drove a knee into Ulchor’s body and with himself now free from Ulchor’s parry, Aragorn swiped Narsil down, cutting across his body, and with his shoulder, knocked Ulchor from the bridge. With a scream, Ulchor tumbled over the wall and fell through a thick cloud of mist that concealed the land below, but Aragorn heard his body hit the ground in a thud, and the mist enclosed again, and he heard no more.
As Ulchor fell, the orcs guarding Denethor fled down the bridge, toward the city, and the rangers did not bother to hinder them. Whatever spell or fear held Celador in place lifted, and he ran to Denethor and cut his bonds, and lifted the hood from his head. The son of Ecthelion blinked and cowered at the sudden lifting of his hood, and he looked around in alarm, but suddenly comforted by the sight of his kin. Denethor carried a dark wound on his head, dried blood in his hair and upon the side of his face. His eyes were cloudy and he spoke little, and what words he could muster were not altogether clear.
“You are safe now, my lord,” Celador said to him, as he and another ranger lifted Denethor to his feet and held him up.
“I fear… You may have to carry me,” he stammered, putting his hand to his forehead as it throbbed with a dull pain.
“We shall get you back at once,” Celador said.
Aragorn sheathed Narsil and sat with his back to the wall of the bridge, and Tellagor came to him and they bandaged the wound as best they could for the time being. The ranger helped Aragorn to his feet, though there was no celebration in Tellagor’s eyes. Aragorn could not hold his gaze, and looked down shamefully, but they did not speak. At last, Aragorn walked up beside Celador and Denethor, and the son of the Steward saw Thorongil before him.
“Thank you, Thorongil…” he muttered. “I misjudged…”
“Come, Denethor, we must away quickly,” Aragorn began to say, but he stopped suddenly.
Down the bridge, the men had not noticed the coming of a rider. Slowly he advanced, and all about him darkness deepened, and the mist rose from the land below, and began to engulf the bridge at his coming. At last the company heard the slow clopping of hoofs upon the stone, and they looked up to see the wall of mist and at its head, the dark rider. A powerful cold gripped the men and fear pierced their bones and captured their will.
Aragorn alone contained the will to withstand the terror, and he drew Narsil once more, and it seemed to him, for a moment, the rider halted. But he continued and none of the other rangers could bear the sight of the rider as his shadow grew. Within each man, unspoken fears and doubts echoed in their minds, and they heard a piercing cry in their mind like the cold memory of a past nightmare. They stumbled back, and Celador could barely hold Denethor up, and they both staggered back from the rider, stumbling and nearly falling to the ground.
“Go back!” Aragorn at last shouted, holding Narsil in both hands up at his shoulder. “Your agents are laid low, and lest you wish to lie among them, go back!”
The rider approached still, and a shrill cry suddenly came from him, and he raised one hand robed in black, and the rangers behind Aragorn cried aloud and began to flee. Celador and Tellagor held Denethor together, and they both began to depart. The cry shook Aragorn, and he winced and bent his head downward, though the cry could not drive him away. The rider approached, and Aragorn stood alone upon the bridge.
To himself, quietly, he spoke, “Die in the shadow.” Repeating the words of the treacherous Ulchor, he despaired, and his arms felt heavy, and Narsil faltered in his hands.
Suddenly, behind him, Aragorn heard a deep voice speak words of enchantment in an elvish tongue, and a great wind erupted. A great flash of light engulfed him, and he shielded his eyes, but saw then the shadow give way, and the wind and light cleanse the bridge of the thick mist before him. The Morgul rider’s steed reared and panicked, and the rider was thrown to the ground. In an instant, the wind and light vanished, and the darkness of the vale returned. But, the rider, now dehorsed and crawling upon the ground, his hold over the others was now broken.
Aragorn turned to see an old man in grey, and a faded blue hat approaching him, staff in-hand. He could not smile, but relief washed over Aragorn, and he almost fell to the ground as exhaustion took him. The old man came up to him at once, bypassing the rangers who looked up at the man in stunned silence, for their terror had gone. The old man knelt over Aragorn and held him gently, whispering words of comfort under his breath, and suddenly Aragorn felt warmth in his blood and strength in his body once more. His eyes searching, he looked into the old, kindly face looking down at him.
“Gandalf?” Aragorn stammered.
“It is I, my young friend! Let us speak later, for we must flee this place at once,” Gandalf said.
He helped Aragorn to his feet, and they walked back to Celador and the others. They silently and instinctively deferred to Gandalf, sensing that here was a figure of great power, one that they knew little of, but could tell that he was no enemy. “Come, Men of Gondor, we must go, quickly! Here, Denethor, have a draught of this,” he said, as he knelt beside Denethor and lifted a small flask to his lips, and Denethor drank a mouthful of an invigorating liquid.
Denethor seemed to recover his wits in a moment, and he stood without aid and could see clearly. Gandalf looked back, and turned to them, calling them to flee. The company ran with renewed vigor, for the presence of Gandalf was like a wind at their backs. They followed the road as it snaked back west, and as they ran, Gandalf looked back as he alone felt some presence pursuing them. But none overtook them, as they fled and even Denethor could match the rangers’ pace, strengthened by Gandalf’s draught.
As they began to leave the vale behind, Gandalf beckoned them to halt, and they came to a great grove of trees off the road. Gandalf whistled pleasantly, and to their amazement, several horses trotted out of the trees to greet them. There were enough for the remaining company, if two carried two men, each. They all mounted and Denethor sat behind Celador, for though he could make the flight from the bridge, the draught’s magic had waned, and he was again weak and in need of aid.
They rode swiftly and made for the Cross-roads. There, they were met by soldiers from Aragorn and Glamren’s host, who were set as watchmen. When the company rode in from the east, the watchmen hailed them, and called Gandalf’s name, for he had met them on his flight eastward, and called them to watch for his return. They rode more slowly, now, and in the company of their brethren, the rangers slowly calmed as they moved toward their homeland.
Into camp they rode, and all the men in the host who saw them cheered and called their names, for they were overjoyed at the return of Thorongil, Celador, and Denethor, their Lord. And they cried aloud, “Mithrandir!” for Gandalf was a beacon of hope for them, after a time of waiting and despair after the rangers set out to rescue Denethor. But, there were also hushed whispers, as many noticed that Alcaron was not among them, and they knew not the truth of what happened, and they wondered aloud whether the lord had fallen, or if the company had failed to rescue him.
Aragorn, Gandalf, and Glamren sat together in the large tent within their camp. Glamren had wished to know all about the rescue, yet Gandalf was hesitant to reveal much that Aragorn wished to say. So Aragorn spoke softly, and carefully, for he was weary, and more than the physical toll, the emotions which ran through his mind made him uneasy. As he relayed the confrontation with Ulchor, and told Glamren of the deception, Gandalf cleared his throat and took a pause from his long pipe.
“Yes, as Thorongil said, it appears Alcaron was no lord at all, but a servant of the Enemy, who somehow fooled all in Gondor, even Ecthelion,” he said.
Aragorn looked at him and Gandalf’s eyes darted to his quickly, then back up again as if he was in thought. Aragorn continued, “He said his trial was long, almost an uncountable number of years. Was there ever a true Lord Alcaron?”
Glamren, who was overwhelmed with the news, shrugged his shoulders, “I would not know, for such things are above my station. Afterall, if he was to have strove for many years toward the destruction of Gondor, then perhaps he has done so since I was a child, or more.”
“He seemed quite aged, though, not diminished in strength,” Aragorn said.
“Yes, yes,” Gandalf muttered. “There are many men in the service of our Enemy, and their origins are many. Though, this Ulchor is unlikely a Haradrim, but instead, must be an Easterling of some kind.”
At that, a guard stepped through the flap, begging the pardon of his captains for the disturbance, but he announced that Celador was outside, and Aragorn bid the guard to let him pass. Celador entered and it was apparent that he was quite weary, for he had seen to Denethor’s care since they arrived in the camp.
“Denethor will be alright. He suffered a blow to the head, likely upon his capture, when he was betrayed by Alcaron,” Celador sighed.
“Good. He will should be well enough to travel to Minas Tirith on the morrow,” Gandalf said. “Now, I believe we must all rest and—”
“Forgive me, Mithrandir,” Celador interrupted. “I wish to know more of this Ulchor, and the words he spoke. For he seemed to know of Thorongil, and it has weighed on my mind what part I may have played since I met Thorongil in Ithilien, who carried Ulchor’s message.”
Gandalf sighed and shook his head, for though he was kind and gentle, he often became short tempered around those who pried when they should have patience. “What do you wish to know, Celador?”
“Ulchor spoke ill of Thorongil, and of Gondor, and it was clear he had been at work for long in our land, but for what purpose? I met Thorongil in Ithilien and he carried a message from Alcaron, then, that warned of an attack upon Cair Andros,” Celador spoke, trying to walk through the past events in his memory.
“For what purpose we may never know,” Gandalf admitted. “Though it seems Ulchor was positioned well for an agent of the Enemy, with access to high lords and even the Steward, himself.”
“Yet, no true destruction came to Gondor because of his treachery,” Celador said.
“Aye, it seems we have thwarted his plan before it could ripen,” Gandalf said. “May it be that Thorongil’s coming ended Ulchor’s machinations; and perhaps, would you have not delayed him in Ithilien as you did, things might have occurred so that his plans did not go as far as they did.” Gandalf hoped the words would chastise Celador, and end his line of questioning, but the ranger persisted.
“Forgive me,” Celador said, bowing his head. “But, it was my duty, and Thorongil was a stranger to me then,” he looked at Aragorn, who felt his burning gaze. It was not one of anger, but merely a pleading suspicion, and as Aragorn sat next to Glamren, he could bear it no longer, and stood.
“Celador,” he began. But, Gandalf clutched his arm in warning, and Aragorn looked down at the wise old man, and sighed, and gently touched his hand and Gandalf released him. “There is that which you do not know, still; and though you are no stranger to me now, I fear that I am still a stranger to you, and purposefully so.”
“What? Speak plainly,” Celador said, at once saddened and angered.
“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Dunedain am I, and heir of Isildur.”
Celador was silent, and his face was pale, and Glamren also looked up at Aragorn in shock. Gandalf sat quietly, looking between the men, reading their hearts, and waiting to see where they would go. But, Celador still said nothing.
“I was sent to Gondor by Elrond Half-elven, lord of Rivendell. For that is the truth, as I spoke it to you before. But, the reason I have kept to myself, for he wished that I learn much of Gondor, and of the hearts of men from whom I have been long estranged.”
“Heir of Isildur?” Celador muttered. “No lore master am I, but even I know the name. For it was he who was once King, though the line of Anarion carried on in Gondor. What is the meaning of your coming to Gondor? To claim the throne that was once your kin’s?”
“No!” Aragorn cried. “No such thing do I wish, and it was not the intent of Elrond, nor myself to do such while I served the Steward. But, such knowledge among the high-born lords of Gondor would make them suspicious, or set them against me.”
“I could blame them not,” Celador said defiantly. “You have kept yourself from me, Tiror, from Glamren, and yet you speak of suspicion? Such doubt should be warranted!”
“Indeed,” Aragorn pleaded. “I beg your forgiveness, and though I may not earn your trust again, let Gandalf bear witness to my purpose, and the true intentions of my heart.”
Gandalf put away his pipe after knocking it on the arm of his chair, and stood, clearing his throat and looking quite agitated. “What Aragorn speaks is true, Celador. Though you may rightly not trust his word, now, and for that matter may have no reason to trust mine! But, what we now discuss here is a minor squabble that needs not be set right at this moment. For now, Celador, you must make do with what Aragorn has told you. But, know this, that knowledge of an heir of Isildur present in Gondor would do greater harm to the realm you so dearly love. Carry this grudge, if you must, but do not carry it openly, lest you bring further doubt and ruin to Gondor.”
Celador looked at the old man and knew he could not challenge him. He was pacified by the presence and power of Gandalf, though there still burned in him anger and distrust of all those around him. Celador at last bowed his head, “What is to be our plan?”
Gandalf clasped his hands behind his back, “I see no reason to stay out here any further, for it seems clear that the counsel to do so was Ulchor’s, and no doubt, part of his designs. We will return to Minas Tirith in the morning, for Denethor could do better in the Houses of Healing.”
“Then I will bow to your wisdom, Mithrandir,” Celador said, and he bowed his head once more, looked at Aragorn and Glamren, and departed the tent.
At once the tent became less tense, and it was clear that Celador’s anger could not be so easily brushed aside, though he would not openly challenge the strange power of Gandalf. Aragorn sat down once more, and put his hand to his head. Glamren then stood and turned to him, “If there is no further need of me, my Lord, I shall be going,” he said coldly, a practiced formality.
The tone further dismayed Aragorn, and he wordlessly nodded, and Glamren bowed and went, and only Aragorn and Gandalf remained. For a while Gandalf paced, and then at last sat beside Aragorn and put a hand to his shoulder. “Do not put so much burden upon yourself, Aragorn. These men are honorable, and proud, and this necessary deception has wounded them. But there is much that they owe to you, and I think that may yet sway their hearts.”
“I am filled with regret, though I know Elrond’s wisdom is right in this matter. As the days wore on, I became even more doubtful of my choice, and wished no longer to hide the truth from these men, whom I have called friends,” Aragorn said.
“There was no malice in your actions,” Gandalf said. “There is greater danger in the truth were it to be revealed now. There is a long history of strife in Gondor, around claimants to the throne, whether rightful or not. Many of the high lords are well-learned in Gondor’s long history, and thus your coming as your true self would be ruinous if it plunged this land into internal divisions. Ecthelion is a bulwark of the West, as it stands, now. And though the Enemy is strengthened with time, we can ill afford cracks within Gondor’s walls.”
“You speak wisely, my friend. Though this is not a burden I wish to bear, nor do I wish to lay it upon others, and I fear I have done so now,” Aragorn said.
Gandalf waved his hand, “It is a burden you are destined to bear, and here you learn that many tests are before you, and men must weigh words and deeds. Your companions have much to weigh, and I dare say that there is more to be said for Thorongil than this deception.”
“If not, then Ulchor may yet succeed,” Aragorn said.
“We shall decide such things when the time comes, not in the depth of night when doubt shrouds all thoughts,” Gandalf said. Aragorn nodded, and Gandalf rose slowly, and stretched. “Well, my friend. Get some rest, for I think we shall have more to do tomorrow, and much to discuss. I will leave you now.”
“Thank you, Gandalf,” Aragorn said, and the old man smiled and picked up his hat and staff, he walked through the tent flap. At last, alone, Aragorn covered his face with his hands and bent over in his chair. His hands and heart trembled, and he wept.
When Aragorn emerged from his tent at the coming of the sun, the camp was already humming with activity as men moved to and fro, breaking down their tents, dousing fires, and saddling horses. Aragorn saw down the busy line of tents, a column of rangers, with Celador at their head. Their numbers were fewer than when they arrived, but the company remained stout. As they walked by Aragorn’s central tent, Celador came up to him with his hands on his hips, he sighed and looked at the ground between them.
His eyes met Aragorn’s at last and he spoke, “Farewell, Thorongil. My company and I must return to our duties, as you and your host return to Minas Tirith.”
“Thank you for coming to our aid,” Aragorn said, his voice softly wavering.
“Wounds heal with time, Aragorn,” Celador said quietly, and Aragorn’s face was mixed with sorrow and fear, “And mine have not yet fully healed. But, I do not forget the actions of Thorongil upon the beach of Cair Andros, nor upon its walls. And much have you done since. No word of the truth will I speak openly, though I do not promise to hold this truth from Tiror, whom I dearly love, and in whom I confide. Should we meet again, then we shall do so as friends, truthfully.”
Aragorn put his hand to his heart and bowed his head low, and looking up his eyes were wet and clear, “You honor me, Celador. I was sent to learn the hearts of men, and no greater beacon have I seen than yours.”
“News travels to us in Ithilien, and I shall continue to hear of the deeds of Thorongil in Gondor. I pray that you serve well,” Celador said.
“May the Valar preserve you,” Aragorn said.
“Farewell, Thorongil,” Celador reached out his hand and Aragorn took it in his and smiled, and a faint smile came upon Celador’s face, and he departed.
Aragorn watched the ranger company leave, reaching the borders of the camp they turned north and faded into the trees. He stood alone in the morning sun, and looked at the bright sky to the west, taking in a deep breath to steady his heart. He turned and saw Gandalf sitting quietly upon a fallen tree, and he smiled and nodded to Aragorn, who smiled back, and went into his tent to gather his things.
It was only a few hours for the camp to break down and for the column to march west toward Osgiliath. Aragorn, Gandalf, Denethor, and Glamren rode together at the head, and they were greeted with great cheers in Osgiliath upon their return. Denethor was still weak, and his head throbbed, but Gandalf gave him a draught before they reached Osgiliath, so that he may look stronger as they rode through the city. At the Causeway forts, the company split off, with Glamren leading them and he was still shaken, cold and formal with Aragorn, and he led the company to bivouac on the Pelennor, within the walls.
Late in the afternoon, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Denethor came at last to the Gate of Gondor. It was open to them, and men and women cheered the return of their lord, and they tossed flowers at the feet of their horses as they rode up the stone streets from one level to the next. At the citadel, Denethor refused aid, and insisted upon having counsel with his father rather than go to the Houses of Healing. So, the three entered a private chamber with Ecthelion, and the Steward heard all.
“Grave news is this,” Ecthelion said, after Aragorn and the others finished the tale. “I can search my memory for Alcaron, and though I have known him, and he has been in my court for some time, there is a cloud over anything further.”
“Indeed, it seems there was some sorcery of the Enemy at work here,” Gandalf spoke. “I do not believe Ulchor to be a sorcerer himself, but I seem to understand that it was some magic upon him, and surrounding him, that concealed his nature. Perhaps there was more to his words and counsel than mere deception. But, with him now gone, we shall not know further truth of him.”
“Father, this plot troubles me greatly, for have I not spoken of those who come from without to sow doubt and destruction from within?” Denethor said angrily, feeling he had been vindicated by Ulchor’s betrayal.
“Ulchor may have come to Gondor from without, yes, but he concealed himself so well within its court, that men of learned history such as yourself could not detect or recall his coming, and saw nothing of suspicion about Alcaron or his past,” Gandalf replied. “Your suspicions continue to be vigilant, but also misguided, Denethor. For you look for enemies where there are none, yet Ulchor’s treachery does not warrant condemnation of all who seek to aid Gondor.”
“Perhaps,” said Denethor. “But, what lesson are we to learn from Ulchor, if not to more closely look at our friends and allies, even if they appear above reproach?”
“The lesson you should have learned, is that the Enemy is only growing stronger, and even the very wise can fall prey to His treachery,” Gandalf said.
“Indeed, it seems so,” Denethor said, sending a barb across the table to Gandalf, where it landed and Gandalf narrowed his eyes and they seemed suddenly aflame.
Ecthelion sighed, “Enough. Ulchor is defeated, but we must make sure that his works are no more. Denethor, my son, you must first regain your strength and go to the healers, for you are no good to me if a bludgeon has clouded your mind. The plot that you and Thorongil saw within Minas Tirith is now clear, for it was a part of Ulchor’s treachery, and though we have driven out those who served him, and he is felled, we must be sure that no other pieces remain untouched.”
“Yes, father,” Denethor said begrudgingly.
“Mithrandir, I wish that you had been here sooner, but in your stead a strong ally have we in Thorongil, and I see that you two are known companions even before he came hither,” said Ecthelion.
“Yes, my lord,” Aragorn spoke. “But, I have known Gandalf for little more than a year, for we met not long before my coming here.”
“Saruman the Wise has aided us, and his counsel has been a strength. He withdrew to Orthanc the year that I arose as Steward. I would have you carry a message to him, Thorongil, and inform him of Ulchor’s deceits. Perhaps in his wisdom, we may find the truth of the magic from which Ulchor drew to deceive us, for that greatly troubles me as a potential weakness in the future.”
Gandalf looked uneasy, and he looked at Aragorn with a subtle glance, “My lord, Saruman’s knowledge is deep, indeed. Allow me to accompany Thorongil to Orthanc, for I, too, would seek Saruman’s counsel on many things that have been on my mind.”
“I do not command you, Mithrandir,” Ecthelion readily admitted. “If you wish to travel with Thorongil, then you shall. But, I do not send Thorongil from my service. You must still stand with Gondor, and all her allies, Captain,” he said to Aragorn.
“Aye, my lord. I shall,” Aragorn answered.
“Then let us break, and go our ways. Denethor and I shall probe our records here, for there is much lore in Minas Tirith that even I do not know. Perhaps, in our efforts, we may yet find links to Ulchor, and his name Alcaron, in the past.”
“A wise course,” Gandalf said. And Denethor looked at him suspiciously, but the wizard dismissed his gaze, for even Denethor could not yet match the subtlety and wit of Gandalf; however, the son of the Steward was not blind to things that moved between words, and his mind was sharpening, and there began to grow a rift.
As Gandalf and Aragorn rode back through the Gate of Gondor, and Aragorn looked up at the great walls, much was on his mind. Gandalf could read him, and he knew that Aragorn still thought of his actions in Gondor, and the great danger that he had encountered in just a short time here. “Your time here is not ending, Aragorn. Thorongil has much business, still, in Gondor, and perhaps even elsewhere.”
“I fear that this plot has started me on the wrong path, here,” Aragorn said.
“Quite the contrary, actually. I see this may have earned suspicion from some, particularly Denethor, who seems to be growing in not only suspicion, but wisdom. But, you have gained such allies, and reputation, that great deeds you may yet accomplish here, still.”
“I hope you are right, my friend,” Aragorn said, and he could not help but smile at Gandalf.
They rode together northwards, through the Rammas, and upon the road that Aragorn had previously taken toward the Druadan, though that was not their path now. For they rode north swiftly, and safely, as the road took them beyond the realm of Gondor, and at last, into Rohan.