Aragorn sat on the edge of a well and peering inside, a foul smell blew up from whatever water remained below. He shielded his face in the crook of his arm and turned away. His water skin empty, he continued on without drink. The well appeared to him in the large chamber as a sign of hope, but as it had been ever since he entered Moria, hope was dashed as quickly as it rose up. But, the journey thus far had strengthened him nonetheless, and the thirst had not yet overpowered him.
On he traveled, through many roads of Moria, and dark passageways led into branching paths, and he chose as best he could. Though, he thought he traveled the same roads more than once, and the lack of light or passage of time made the journey almost impossible to track in his mind. As he continued in one direction or another, the pain in his shoulder was dull and his left arm remained stiff as he held it tight to his body.
Down yet another dark path, Aragorn heard and felt vibrations in the cavern, and a low rumble shaking the stone around him. He felt the wall with his right hand and pulled it away, wet with a slimy water that seemed to cling to the wall. The air became thicker as he moved forward, moisture mixing with the cold air. Along with the rumble of an underground waterway, he heard the soft drops of water hitting the stone floor. It soon fell onto his head and body, and a debate entered his mind whether he should turn away from the weeping tunnel.
He could not turn back, for Aragorn was not even sure in which direction he traveled. Despair was not on him yet, and at least the water and air felt fresh and cool. His boot suddenly splashed into a stream that crossed his path, no more than ankle deep. A strange pale light from a source he could not find, lit the passage ahead and he saw there many fingers of a greater waterway running left to right as the passage slanted in that direction. They cut across the tunnel and for an immeasurable span of time, slowly cut into the stone floor.
His thirst tight in his throat, he took the risk and knelt down to cup the cold water in his hand. The cool water was refreshing, but carried in it a strange taste, but he did not think as he drank more from the running stream. A rumble overhead stopped him, and he looked up as the tunnel shook once more. The vibration nearly knocked him over, but he stood and heard the crumbling of stone in the dark. Loud cracks and crashes filled the tunnel and a wind from where he came hit him, along with a cloud of dust and dirt. Water poured in along the floor up to his feet, and he backed across the small stream.
The rumbling ceased and the trickle of water and the falling of a few pebbles came from the dark, and he guessed the tunnel behind him collapsed. It forced his hand, and he continued forward, past the tiny streams and even crossing a wider, ankle-deep rush of water. Aragorn had not traveled far before noticing a hole cut into the rock. Stones that were long ago cut into rectangular shapes were lying on the floor, removed deliberately from the wall, creating an opening. Some of the stones were even stacked like stairs into the hole.
Aragorn looked inside and felt the cave wall and floor, noticing that it was merely tall enough for him to stand, bent over at the waist, a little more than half his height. He shrugged his one good shoulder and climbed into the tunnel, and almost crawling, he followed it forward, and it slightly angled upward. The floor was smooth, but he could still find footing along the way, and he felt his hand on the wall as he went. The journey through the tunnel forced him to use his left arm, as well, which sent sharp stabs of pain through his arm and chest. He pushed the pain to the back of his mind and continued, scraping and sliding along in the cramped space.
The pain in his shoulder at last forced him to pause for a moment. He sat sideways in the tunnel, catching his breath. The small space began to wear on him, for his limbs were long and his back bent almost in half. A pain rose also in his neck, but these were more annoyances than genuine ailments. He grumbled and rubbed his shoulder, his left arm lying in his lap. But, suddenly, he heard movement in the tunnel. A light grew behind him, the dancing of red flame along the stone. The footfalls were of an irregular pace and one seemed to fall heavier than the other. He heard the clattering of armor, and slowly, the breathing and grumbling of an orc voice.
There was little he could do in the small space as a squat goblin appeared behind him, carrying a torch. The sight of Aragorn’s large limbs curled up in the tunnel stopped the creature in its tracks. It both cried out in alarm and anger, an awkward squeal that the goblin tried to mask with an angry growl. It drew a small curved knife and sprang forward.
Aragorn tried to reach for the goblin before the knife struck. The blade cut across his arm as he reached, but Aragorn, in his fury, struck the Goblin in the head, and clutched its arm that held the blade. In the small space, Aragorn could think of little to do but strike with his fists, until he suddenly remembered the only weapon he still carried. The space was small, but the broken blade measured little more than a foot in length.
The goblin struggled wildly and its blade fell to the stone floor between them and Aragorn held it back from leaping onto him. Its teeth gnashed and it flopped trying to free itself from Aragorn’s strong grip, or bite the grasping hand. With his free hand, though it was the left that ached, Aragorn reached to his side, contorting his body, and finding the hilt with his fingers. He pulled with the searing pain in his shoulder and his fingers gripped tightly. The blade flashed in the firelight, the torch lying on the tunnel floor. The goblin shrieked and Aragorn was able to plunge the blade into its chest as they both collapsed in a heap together. The goblin faded and Aragorn’s breaths heaved in the silence.
Breaking the silence, the rumbling returned, but this time stronger and louder than before. The tunnel shook and Aragorn managed to return the broken blade to its sheath. He began to crawl as best he could, but suddenly, the tunnel broke all around him, and a powerful rush of water filled the space, hitting him with force, and tossing him about. The tunnel walls broke and he felt weightless in the torrent. The water drowned the torchlight and Aragorn was plunged into a cold darkness. The water rushed through tunnels and broke through passageways and he tumbled blindly, pulled along until he crashed against stone and lost all reckoning of time or place.
Aragorn’s arm reached above the surface of the water and gripped a small fingerhold on an embankment of rocks. He pulled himself onto the flat stone that sloped beneath the water. Coughing and spitting up water, he laid on his side until he could breathe clearly again; he rolled onto his back and drew long, deep breaths until his head was spinning. The sudden rush of water deposited him in a large, natural chamber beneath the mountain. A strange light filled the cave, and it reflected off the water, which ran in one direction.
Looking around the cave, Aragorn saw that he sat upon a large domed rock that fell into the water all around him. It sloped upwards behind him and more steeply dropped into the water than where he now sat. Several feet away was another great rock rising from the water, as if he sat on the head of a great carved statue lying on its side, and the shoulder and body rose above the surface. There was enough of the glimmering light to see around the chamber, but Aragorn stayed put, resting his arms on his knees and his head on his crossed arms.
It was then that he felt the sharp pain of the goblin’s knife once more, and he lifted his head and saw his arm cut from the forearm almost to his elbow. He felt around in his belt and pouches and found a small, wet remnant of Athelas, barely enough to heal, but at least enough to hold back any further rot. He filled the cut with the soft mix and hoped it would stay well enough. Slowly, the herb numbed the pain and Aragorn stood and looked around the cave.
With water all around, he saw no escape, other than to follow the flow that led to his left and beneath the cave wall. Though the idea froze him, for he could drown with no chance of finding air beneath the mountain. He felt lost and alone, for even a goblin could not chance its way down into the cave and underground lake. As he began to sit again, to think, a small glimmer caught his eye. He crawled up the domed rock and lying on his stomach, peered beneath the water’s surface on the other side, where light danced on the cave wall. Beneath the waters he could see a shimmering, like gold and silver.
Whether it was another chamber, or simply ancient dwarven goods fallen to the foundations of the mountain, he could not know. But he took a deep breath and jumped from the rock, splashing beneath the water and swimming his way down to it. Treasure, indeed, as he swam not more than several feet before he could reach out and scoop gold from the bottom, a cloud of sand and pebbles kicked up by his hand. He returned to the surface to catch his breath, and dove once more.
The second time, he saw that the gold shimmered further away, and brighter than that below him. The cave wall did not reach the floor of the lake, and with a strong kick he swam to it and beneath it. On the other side was a large pool, shimmering in a blue and green light. Gold and silver seemed to fill the bottom, and there were chests and jars, stones and weapons all about. He pushed to the surface and with a deep exhale, broke through the water, the sound echoing in a smaller chamber. Looking down beneath the water he realized the silver shimmering below was mithril, the legendary jewel of Khazad-dum that made the dwarven realm prosperous.
Aragorn swam across the surface and the water became shallow enough to stand, and then he walked out on stone steps beneath the water that led to a wide floor. Veins of mithril climbed up the wall and he ran his hand over them. Light peered in through a passageway with no door entering the chamber. It was clear to him now that he stood in some ancient treasury, or armory, cut by perhaps Durin himself. Perhaps it was a room ready to be a mine, but used for storage until they could properly cut the mithril from stone.
He had no time to search the weapons and armor below the water, and the gold did him no good. The light out in the passage filled him with hope, yet a strange feeling began growing in his stomach and on the back of his neck. He was indeed cold and wet, but he did not shiver from the cold, but an odd fear of something he could not see.
He gave one last look around in the chamber and walked out into the passageway and found it led to a shaft, which sloped upwards, for what seemed like an impossible distance. An old, makeshift ladder stood there, and Aragorn could see the stone broken overhead in other passageways that led off the main one. There was wood scaffolding built into the stone in places, also, but they did not appear sound. He hesitated at the foot of the ladder, unsure of it, before stepping onto it and testing its strength. Slowly, he climbed a few rungs, and shifted his weight around, judging the ladder to be at least adequate.
But some invisible force held him still. He could not climb; could not force his limbs to move further. His heart raced and he leaned his head on the ladder. To his left, in a black cleft in the stone, something moved. Aragorn could not yet see it, his eyes closed, but long tentacled legs, like those of a spider, spread from the cleft, silently stretching in the air and groping the stone floor. The black limbs were hard and had a rough outer appearance like bark on a tree. Four stretched out, but then their ends seemed to split once more into thin fingers. They crawled across the stone floor and wrapped around the base of the ladder. One groped along the shaft wall, into the corner, bending with the stone and following the wall, still.
The fingers reached up and tickled Aragorn’s boots, but it was the slight touch of his arm that alerted him. He gasped and looked up. The sight of the black arm reaching for his face filled him with fear; he tried to move but the fingers on his boots wrapped tightly and he fell backward, off the ladder and onto the stone. The groping arms did not move in haste, but rather they slowly slid down the stone toward him, and he saw them coming for him to his left. In a panic, he drew the ancient blade, and the mere presence of it seemed to send a shiver through the fingers curled around his foot and ankle. They shook, and Aragorn sat up and cut at the black trunk.
The blade rang but did not pierce the surface. However, the touch of the blade made the arm quiver, and the fingers became limp and he swung the blade at them once more and they let go. There was no sound of distress, but suddenly the nameless creature, of which Aragorn could only see these groping limbs, quivered and the arms waved, the fingers swaying and coming back together as one large tentacle. Aragorn leapt for the ladder again, put his sword away and frantically climbed.
He heard the arms below him gripping the ladder, so tightly the wood began to creak and crack. Climbing rapidly, he leapt and reached overhead to a beam in the scaffold, leaving the ladder and pulling himself up. The ladder below cracked and splintered. It suddenly pulled away and the black arms twisted around it and broke it in pieces. Another ladder went from the scaffold frame up further, and Aragorn began climbing again.
Unable to measure the distance, and his fear and determination outweighing the pain and the weariness in his body, he climbed many ladders. At last, he heard the roaring of a falls and saw above him clear moonlight and stars peeking out beneath clouds. He reached the last ladder and nearly threw himself over the rim of the shaft. The roaring all around him was deafening as he found himself lying on a flat rock surface in the middle of the Dimrill Stair. Great waterfalls fell on either side of him, and he was not a far distance above Mirrormere.
Collapsing on the ground, he breathed heavily and began weeping, not of sadness but relief. All senses returned to his body, which felt beaten and stiff. The world spun around him and his mind became cloudy. His ears rang from the sound of the falls. Many months before, he felt betrayed and suddenly alone, but no loneliness was there greater than the darkness of Moria. Like Durin, he sought proof of his lineage and destiny in the stars. Yet, the earth could not declare him king of Gondor, and as Elrond himself said, such a distinction he had not yet earned.
Whether he sought confirmation or punishment in Moria, he returned alive. Though, he felt no closer to his father, the great kings of Men, or any great rulers that walked above and below Middle-earth. His mother was right, he could find no answers alone. His fingers found the hilt of the ancient blade at his side. In the greatest moments of terror and danger, it somehow shone, he knew it and saw it, though he could not explain it. Even amid utter darkness, he found not all lights extinguished.