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He was back in Mordor again. The sharp rocks kept shaking beneath his body, the air was heavy with sulfur and singed his lungs with every laborious breath. Behind him, the dying mountain roared its mindless rage into a blackened sky and the smoke made him double over as an endless coughing fit held him. He wiped the tears from his eyes, a dull pain in his chest. Where was Mr. Frodo…?
In a small, clear corner of his clouded mind he still knew that this was not Mordor. He knew that he was alone, chained with one wrist against the wall of a dark, foul place. Mr. Frodo was nowhere near (at least he supposed so, for he still didn’t have the slightest idea where on earth his abductors had brought him) and he lay in this unknown dungeon, guarded by his two watchdogs and that tall, frightening fellow with the eagle-like nose and the white hair.
He turned his head to the jar the Grinner had brought him earlier this day. He couldn’t reach it with the handcuffed arm, but he could at least make another attempt with his free hand. In a way he was happy that the candle had gone out hours ago, and that he could barely see anything in the near darkness of the room. His wounded fingers were not a pleasurable sight, not at all. The phalanxes of both his ring- and third finger were swollen to double size, making them look like tightly stuffed red sausages. He couldn’t flex them without a miserable whimper of agony, and the smallest touch against the inflamed flesh made his head spin and fill with a lazy, feverish fog. He crawled in the direction of the jar, the chained arm stretched in a painful angle, and then he touched the clay vessel.
It felt as if a white hot blade cut his fingers right to the bone. He fell flat on his face, grinding his teeth in helpless agony. He didn’t want to cry for help, he didn’t want that white-haired fellow to come into the room, to bow over him, to tell those two others to finally wring his neck. Far away he heard the jar tip over; cool water trickled over his throbbing hand and provided a fleeting abatement… but a desperate little voice in that clear corner of his mind whispered that there was nothing now left to quench his thirst, and that neither the Grinner nor the Whistler would answer his plea if he asked for more. With a flicker of weak surprise, he understood that he had lost all hope… here, after the end of the War, after the defeat of the Dark Lord, after a short, fallacious time of healing and newfound joy. Not Mordor, not Mount Doom… this was his darkest hour.
Sam closed his eyes, shivering from head to toe, and his hard-pressed conscience swam away once more, like a rudderless boat on a swift stream.
It was dark once more, but not the darkness of smoke and ashes. A cold, enormous mountain towered over him, huge caves and winding tunnels. The whole day the steps of the fellowship had echoed in the tomb that had once been a dwarvish marvel, and he floated from the depths of an unruly sleep into the eternal night of Khazad Dûm…
… as a warm hand closed around his shoulder, gently shaking him awake.
Sam’s eyes flew open and he tried to sit up, instinctively protecting his head with the good arm. The chain gave a noisy rattle, and then he heard a sharp, muffled curse. He sank back, but his body was caught by strong arms before it could meet the floor again, and he blinked through the haze of fever as a familiar face floated into his field of vision. He gave it the first name that came to his mind… the same name he had used when he first met that man, an eternity back in Bree.
He must have fainted again. When he slowly came back to himself, he was sitting against the wall, wrapped in something warm and clean. A torch was burning in an iron holder and the King of Gondor knelt beside him, grimly trying to loosen the chain from the wall.
Sam cleared his throat.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Aragorn,” he croaked. “I… I don’t know where the key is. I don’t think that the Grinner or the Whistler still have it – that old fellow has taken it when he came.”
“The Grinner and the Whistler?” Aragorn turned away from his laborious task and reached out to touch his brow. He accidentally grazed the injured hand and Sam gave a little shriek of pain. The King looked down at the swollen, reddened fingers, poorly wrapped in the dirty remnants of a bandage he himself had made three days ago. His lips formed a narrow, hard line.
“They were rather tough on you, weren’t they?” he said. His voice was a dark snarl in spite of his gentle touch. “And what was that about the old fellow?”
“He… he came yesterday,” Sam managed. “ The two Men – those who brought me here – they're afraid of him. They started speaking quiet like after he arrived, as if somebody had locked them inside of here with a wolf. They call him 'Sire’, but I haven't heard his name yet. I’m sorry.” He paused when a sudden chill washed over him and made his teeth chatter.
“Would you please stop apologizing, Samwise Gamgee?” Aragorn shot him a brief glance while he worked on the chain. “Did you get a chance to see him?”
“He's tall, and he stands straight as a spear,” Sam said, pulling the warm folds closer around him. For the first time he noticed that it was Aragorn’s cloak. “He's got long, white hair and a frightening voice… like someone who's used to giving orders and having them obeyed.”
Suddenly the hobbit tensed in alarm.
“Where… where are they? And how on earth did you get in here?” He turned his head towards the stanchions… and gaped in numb surprise. Even in his exhausted confusion he noticed a few remarkable details. The door to the next room stood open. A second torch was burning outside, but all he could see was two booted feet, neatly bound. The body belonging to those feet was obviously lying on the floor and it wasn't stirring.
“Who… which of them…”
“Not the doubtable master your abductors are afraid of,” Aragorn stated thoughtfully. “He is too young and his hair is brown. Thankfully, I found the key that enabled me to pass through the stanchions in his pockets, or we would have had much more trouble. I can’t tell you if he is the Grinner or the Whistler, though; he didn't have the chance to say anything.”
“Did you kill him?” Sam whispered.
“No, I did not, my friend,” the King retorted dryly. “I am tired of being in the dark, so he had better answer some questions as soon as he’s awake again.”
“Well, I'll say 'aye' to that,” Sam agreed wholeheartedly. “I’m tired of being in the dark, too.” Aragorn gave a barking laugh that changed into a short, strained groan. Suddenly, he stumbled backwards and the chain that he had ripped from the wall lashed over the floor like a rusty iron snake.
“Finally.” Sam was lifted, first to his feet and then into the King's arms. “And, Sam, don’t try to be heroic now by telling me you’re capable of walking, for I can assure you that this is not the case. As soon as we are out of here, you won’t leave the Houses of Healing for at least a week.”
“Whatever you say,” Sam answered with the weak attempt of a smile. “But where are the two others?” He was carried over the threshold of his dungeon and had a chance to see the face of the man lying on the ground. It was the Grinner. “The Whistler must still be somewhere, and his master, too.”
“Of course they are,” Aragorn replied, taking a long, sturdy spear from the wall. He left the room, closed the door and barricaded it from outside by jamming the spear between the walls. “I have been playing Hide and Seek with them for the better part of two hours and I have done my very best to put them off the scent. I don't suppose you have any idea where you are, my friend… but these are the tunnels beneath Osgiliath, the ancient Citadel of the Stars, and your abductors are not the only ones who know them well.”
“Osgiliath?” Sam gasped. “So they’ve locked me away right under your nose! But… but I thought you’d never been to Gondor before you became King!”
“Not as Aragorn.” The former ranger smiled grimly. “When Ecthelion, the grandfather of Faramir and Boromir still ruled the realm of men, I stood in his service for a certain span of time.”*
“That’s an eye opener, and no mistake! --- What did you call yourself?” Sam shook his head in wonder, regretting the movement at once; it felt as if his brain swashed from the left side of his skull to the right and back. It nearly made him want to throw up. Aragorn looked down at him and his hard gaze softened visibly.
“Some day I’ll tell you more,” he said gently. ”You’ve already heard too many of my names to keep them straight in your mind, and the last thing you need right now is another one. First let me take you out of here, and then we will turn to new names, old tales, unknown enemies and everything else.”
Sam’s cheek sank against Aragorn’s chest, and for a few peaceful moments there was nothing else than the quick, regular steps of the man who had come to find him. Sam didn’t waste any further thought for the overwhelming fact that the King of Gondor had left behind wife, realm, subjects and duty to run to his rescue. Shame, embarrassment and sheer disbelief would certainly come later (and the imagination of everything the Gaffer might have to say to the whole matter). Right at that moment, he was simply thankful.
And then Aragorn stopped.
Sam raised his head to stare into the dim, gray light of the tunnel. Brightness trickled in through small cracks in the ceiling, but it was the pale, silvery light of the moon.
“Shsh.” A big warm hand was briefly pressed on his lips. “ I fear we’re getting some company.”
“Y-you mean they… they’re coming back?” Sam was shocked by the tone of trembling desperation in his own voice. "The… the Whistler and the…”
“… the old fellow, indeed.” Aragorn retorted with a sigh, speaking in a soft murmur. “It was obviously not as easy to pull the wool over his eyes as I thought. Whoever he may be, he’s a cunning old fox; I was sure I had bought us much more time.”
“Perhaps these are your men,” Sam whispered hopefully.
“That is hardly possible, my friend.” The King turned around, walking back the way they had come. “I didn’t bring any warriors with me.”
“You’ve come alone?” Now Sam could feel the panic drawing close, an icy waterfall of fear that made it difficult for him to breathe. “But… but why…”
“Because your abductors insisted that I should.” Aragorn’s steps grew faster and, to his dismay, Sam understood that he was doomed to return to the place he had hoped never to see again. “I didn’t want to put you into danger.”
Sam’s teeth started to chatter again and he swallowed. “And now you've put yourself in danger instead,” he groaned while Aragorn removed the spear from where he had rammed it between the walls to block the door. “Inside of this lousy hole we’ll sit like two wounded badgers in a trap!”
To his surprise Aragorn gave him a smile as flashing and frightening as a drawn blade. "Badgers are very dangerous creatures, Sam,” he said. “A clever hound thinks twice before he dares to enter a wounded one's burrow.”
He opened the door to the dungeon. In the unruly light of the torches, the Grinner lay on the floor, unmoving and still obviously unconscious. Aragorn stepped over him and sat Sam down, wrapping him in his cloak once more. Sam felt the stanchions behind his back and was thankful that Aragorn had somehow understood his fervid reluctance to go near the wall and chain again. He reached out with his good hand and touched the King’s leg.
“Couldn't you go and get yourself hid before they arrive?” he asked, gasping for air though a tightening throat. “Seems a terrible waste to lose a brand new King because of a silly hobbit.” He tried to smile but failed miserably.
Aragorn bowed down and laid a firm hand on Sam’s shoulder. For a moment the coldness in Sam’s limbs was replaced by warmth and peace, and strength streamed through the palm and into his flesh, easing the burden on his heart.
"I suppose we can blame any silliness on the part of this particular hobbit to the fever,” he said. ”And no, Sam. I won’t leave. We will get through this together, and tomorrow we’ll be back in the White City. Do you trust me?”
There was only one answer to that.
“Of course I do,” Sam whispered.
The very next moment, rapid footsteps and an angrily risen voice could be heard from outside. Aragorn turned with a flowing movement and suddenly Andúril was in his hand and flashed in the firelight. The door opened, revealing the tall, white-haired, old man, his face a mask of malicious triumph. Sam felt the shielding body of Aragorn grow rigid, but when he spoke, his voice was calm and as cold as ice.
“The Prince of Lebennin!” he said. “I wondered who could commit such a damnable treason. This is truly the shameful downfall of a noble house.”
“Don’t you speak to me about nobility!” the old man snapped. “You slunk into the realm of Gondor, hiding behind the back of a disreputable wizard and making common cause with strange folk! You have spent the better part of your life crawling through the forests of the North like a wild beast, walking about in rags and sleeping in the mud, and you – you! - dare to claim a Kingdom as ancient as Númenor? You have stolen the throne from the steward!”
“You speak nonsense,” the King retorted brusquely. “Denethor lost every right to keep his lordship when he fell into madness and abandoned his own people at the moment of their greatest danger. He tried to burn his own son alive… and I see that his was not the only case of insanity in Minas Tirith.”
The Prince gave a hissing sound that sounded to Sam like a furious cat and came on toward them. He stopped abruptly when the blade of Andúril drew a flaming circle in the air in front of his face.
“One step closer, ” Aragorn said in a velvet-soft whisper, “and you will die. Perhaps it would be better for you and your family if I put an end to this matter now, before it is made public and your evil deeds are revealed.”
From the corner of his eye, Sam caught a movement directly in front of the King… but not from the Prince nor from the Whistler (who was probably still waiting in the tunnel behind his master). The man lying on the floor reached out for Aragorn’s foot – so cautiously and inconspicuously that Sam had to look twice to realize what it was he saw. Both of the Grinner’s hands were free, and so were his legs, and in his left he held a thin, shimmering dagger. Their eyes met and Sam opened his mouth – but what came out was not the warning shout he intended, but a high, thin squawk.
Aragorn heard it, nonetheless, and it saved his life. He looked down and stepped back just in time to see the vicious blade miss his belly. He flicked his sword toward the prostrate man and the Grinner’s arm was slashed open from shoulder to wrist. But the Grinner's blow had not missed its target completely. The knife dug deeply into the hard muscles just beneath the King’s knee. Sam heard his sharp intake of breath and saw blood run down the soft leather boots.
Aragorn managed to yank the dagger free and tossed it aside. It slithered away into the darkness past the Grinner who lay crouched on the floor, whimpering and holding his bloodied arm. A sharp, warning gesture from Andúril kept the Prince from coming closer, but, far from appearing dismayed, the other man grinned as if in triumph. Suddenly, Aragorn's wounded leg buckled beneath him. The injury had been minor, at least to a skilled warrior like Aragorn, but there was something more than steel at work on the King. Unable to keep himself upright and handicapped by his long sword, Aragorn sank to the floor, but still he shielded Sam’s body from his enemies.
The Prince laughed and stepped aside, letting the Whistler past him.
“Kill him,” he said. “I might never be able to restore the glory of the stewards, but at least I can end the life of the Usurper. Kill him – now!”
Sam finally found his voice again.
“Don’t you dare, you devil!” he screamed. The world was spinning around him in a crazy, crimson whirl. “Don’t you dare touch him!”
The Prince peered over the King’s shoulder, still keeping a careful distance from Andúril’s blade. He grinned.
“Ah - and here we have the ranger’s little appendage,” he hissed. “I was already wondering where it had got to. Kill the man and then cut the halfing’s throat. We will be rid of them both.”
The Whistler drew a long knife out of his belt and Sam closed his eyes, waiting for the end to come.
*According to the Tale of the Years Aragorn served from 2957 – 2980 both Thengel of Rohan and Ecthelion of Gondor. During that time he called himself Thorongil.
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