In the Wild
1. In the Wild
The hobbits looked at [Aragorn], and saw with surprise that his face was drawn as if with pain, and his hands clenched the arms of his chair. The room was very quiet and still, and the light seemed to have grown dim. For a while he sat with unseeing eyes as if walking in distant memory or listening to sounds in the Night far away.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk. 1 Ch. 10
"I doubt we'll make it over the High Pass tomorrow. Those clouds over the mountains look as if they've settled in for days of snow."
Aragorn dropped the load of deadfall wood in his arms to the ground and scraped up a grin he didn't feel. "Why then, Mallor, we'll turn north and seek Beorn's hospitality until the weather breaks. You'll grow so fat on honeycakes that Ranathil won't know you when we return."
Mallor barely grunted in acknowledgement of the weak jest. Stars above, the man was a grim companion! Aragorn reminded himself again that a broken arm wouldn't make one merry, but Mallor's relentless gloom was beginning to grind down his patience. After all, the older Ranger was returning to his family weeks earlier than anticipated, while Aragorn – who'd been looking forward eagerly to his first journey to Esgaroth and the Iron Hills – now had to forego the expedition and accompany his injured comrade home.
He understood why he'd been the Ranger chosen to turn back with Mallor; Aragorn was the youngest and greenest of the company and could most easily be spared. And if Mallor had been a more congenial traveller, Aragorn might have managed to restrain his bitterness. Yet all Mallor did, it seemed, was predict bad weather and mischances upon the road, or find fault with Aragorn's woodcraft.
Setting his mouth firmly closed, Aragorn began building up their small fire. He was relieved to have reached the open lands between the forest and the Anduin again. Ten years after the Necromancer had been driven out of Mirkwood, the forest was less sinister than it had been, yet it was still unwise to linger longer than necessary under the trees.
Tomorrow they would ford the river and start over the High Pass, bringing the end of their long road home nearly within reach. Aragorn was glad; bidding Mallor farewell could not come too soon for him.
* * *
Aragorn walked the boards of Laketown, staring in wonder at every fresh sight – the squat wooden homes and warehouses, the fishing boats and river barges, the men, elves, and dwarves thronging the docks around the marketplace, really a wide expanse of open water near the center of the town.
He knew he dreamed because Arwen walked beside him. Since he had left Rivendell her likeness often appeared in his dreams, as silent as yet somehow less remote than the ethereal vision he had mistaken for the legendary Tinuviel. She smiled as they watched a barge crew unload crates marked with the runes of Dale-made toys, to the delight of a crowd of shouting children.
The sharp autumn sunlight was suddenly muted. Aragorn looked up in bemusement as the sky grew dull with lead-coloured clouds and heavy snow began to fall. In an instant the lake froze over, and a north wind whipped up to scour its surface with driven pellets of ice.
He turned to grasp Arwen's hand, but she had disappeared behind a whirling curtain of snow, and so had all of the crowded streets and waterways. Aragorn was alone at the centre of an opaque white circle only a few feet in diameter; drifts were already piling at his feet. He called out, but all he heard in response was the howling of the wind.
A touch on his shoulder brought Aragorn swimming up from the frigid depths of his dream. He opened his eyes and stared up at Mallor's face, hastily rearranging his senses into the waking world. The howls still continued. "Wargs," the other Ranger said grimly.
"Closer than they should be. Worse, they're between us and the river."
Untangling himself from his blanket, Aragorn dove into his leather jerkin and shrugged the quiver that lay within arm's reach on over it. "Should we make for the Carrock?"
"We'd never outrun them over that distance." Mallor rolled his own blanket into a tight bundle and stuffed it into his pack as he spoke. "Best to head back to the forest. We can wait them out in the treetops until dawn." By now the few loose items in the tiny camp were secured in packs or strapped to backs and belts. Without further words the two Rangers set out east along the same road they had followed out of Mirkwood that afternoon.
Aragorn hung back to let Mallor set the pace. Despite his bound-up broken arm, the older man kept up a long-ranging stride. They loped steadily through the river meadows for what seemed like hours, yet when Aragorn glanced at the waning moon it had barely moved past the bright line of the Swordsman's belt. Howls still pursued them, but had come no closer.
Mallor dropped back and let Aragorn lead in his turn. They ran and walked and ran again. The next time Aragorn looked, the moon had sunk just below the tip of Menelvagor's sword. An indistinct dark mass was blotting out the stars on the horizon ahead of them – Mirkwood. The Rangers changed lead again.
Fresh howls broke out to the south and circled behind the two running men in a chain of signals. They redoubled their pace. An answering howl, louder and closer than any previous had been, rose from the woods in front of them. Mallor stopped short and Aragorn, mesmerized by fatigue and the rhythm of his stride, nearly ran into him. "They've cut us off from the wood," Mallor panted.
A few large boulders and standing stones were spaced along the Old Road from the ford to the forest, ancient way markers or memorials – no Ranger knew which. One of them loomed against the skyline a few yards away, and without words the Rangers sprinted toward it. "Get your flint out," Mallor gasped as they set their backs against the cold stone. Aragorn dug through his pack for the little bundle wrapped in oiled leather as Mallor recklessly ripped through his own pack's contents for tinder.
The flint dropped to the ground from Aragorn's numb hands and he spent endless moments fumbling for it in the grey half-light from the moon and stars. Meanwhile the howls swept in another arc around them – the wargs were tightening their noose. Finally his fingers brushed the flint and he gasped with relief. Mallor snatched it from him and, holding it in his immobilized hand, began striking sparks against a tiny haystack of lint and twigs. "Pull up that thornbush," he grunted.
The bush seemed spindly and weak, but had rooted itself at the base of the marker stone with great stubbornness. Dead leaves rattled as Aragorn scrabbled at the earth, trying to uproot it. Hands scratched and bleeding, he tore the bush loose at last and turned to see Mallor blowing on a firefly-sized seed of flame, cupping his free hand around it.
"Break it into pieces – long ones if you can. Then give them here," the other Ranger barked. Ripping the boughs off took time, for the wood was still green. Thrusting the first one at Mallor, Aragorn kept tearing at the bush as he watched Mallor hold the tip of the bough in the spark of fire. It took a long moment for the live wood to catch. When it finally did, a cloud of smoke made both of them cough and choke.
As soon as the flame had taken strong hold of the wood Mallor was on his feet, sweeping the branch out before him in a wide arc. All around them, low points of sickly green light sprang out of the darkness – the wargs had slunk close in silence.
"Get behind me," Mallor ordered. "I'll use the fire to keep them off while you shoot."
Swiftly Aragorn unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. Mallor whirled the blazing branch in wide circles, making the flames flare up. "You'll taste this fire before you set your teeth in us!" The wargs leapt backwards, yelping at the sudden glare.
To save his night vision, Aragorn looked away from the sweeping arc of fire and focused on the darkness beyond. He searched the night for a possible shot and found the opal reflections of warg eyes made fine targets. Sighting carefully between the two closest points of light, Aragorn let fly and was rewarded with a squeal as the arrow hit home. In the darkness he couldn't tell whether it had been a kill, but it seemed he had at least disabled one of their hunters.
"What do we do when the fire dies out?" Aragorn shouted.
"Worry about it then. For now, empty your arrows into them!"
There were fifteen arrows in Aragorn's quiver. When all had been loosed, he'd struck thirteen wargs, judging by the snarls he heard. The thorn bush had been stripped apart and burnt as torches until only one branch remained. It was impossible to count the wargs accurately as they wove in and out about each other and around the stone, but there were still more beasts out there – between five and ten, Aragorn guessed.
As he squinted into the darkness, it seemed as if their shadowy forms were becoming slightly more visible. Aragorn glanced at the eastern sky and saw that it was deep blue now rather than black; dawn was not far away. Like most of Sauron's creatures, he had learned, wargs loathed sunlight. If the two Rangers could keep them off for only a few more minutes, they would slink back into the darkness of the wood before full day came.
Mallor dropped the last charred branch and fell back beside Aragorn. "Draw my sword for me." Awkwardly Aragorn drew the blade from the shoulder brace it had been riding in since Mallor broke his arm, and held it out for the older Ranger to take in his free left hand. "Set your back against the stone, and we'll win through!" Mallor shouted, ferocious battle-joy in his voice.
At first it seemed that they would not have to stand and fight. The wargs made no move to attack, but only circled at a distance and whined nervously as the predawn twilight grew stronger in the eastern sky.
Then a thin howl rose from the direction of the forest, more eerie than any they had yet heard. Aragorn shuddered; it seemed almost as though there were meaning in that fell cry. He tried to shake off that foolish fancy, but it gained strength as Mallor nudged him. "Look, the beasts are returning!" And they were – now the wargs were slipping sidelong in a tightening circle, nearer than they had dared approach all night.
"This isn't right," Mallor muttered. "These foul things should be fleeing the sunlight by now." For the first time Aragorn saw stark fear in the other's eyes.
The wargs narrowed their circle even more, snarling and snapping a bare spear-length away. Mallor whispered, "Stay to my right. Don't leave a gap between us and the stone, whatever happens." Aragorn nodded, his mouth too dry for speech. Another hollow cry echoed in the east. At that signal, the remaining wargs finally ceased their weaving and sprang forward directly at the Rangers.
In the blur of stinking fur and hot blood that followed Aragorn lost all reckoning of time. No room for the elegant swordplay the Elves had taught him now – he hacked and slashed at any warg limb within reach. Beside him Mallor fought more deliberately, hampered by the need to use his left hand, but held his own.
Gradually Aragorn realized that no more wargs were leaping at them. He straightened slowly, stretching wooden arms, then leaned on his blade – coated with black warg blood – while he looked around and took stock of their situation. His own blood marked his forearms and legs where the beasts had slid in below his guard and slashed with razor teeth. Mallor had a deep bite in one calf muscle, but no worse than that. They blinked in the sunrise's strengthening light and grinned at each other, giddy with the taste of survival that Aragorn had already learned was sweeter than miruvor.
And then a great howl rose from the south, hoarse with rage and frustration. At least one of their pursuers had not given up the hunt with the coming of daylight. The two Rangers looked at each other, no longer smiling, then Mallor jerked his thumb to the east. "We'll have to make for the forest after all. Come on!"
This time Aragorn stayed at Mallor's right side, letting the older man lean on him and take some of the weight off his bitten leg. Despite the awkward position the two Rangers made good speed at first. But they had already endured much that day, and little by little their pace slowed until they were moving only at a fast walk. Fear still drove them forward without halting, until the shadowed fringes of Mirkwood were within sight.
A furious howl showed that their pursuers had seen how close to cover the Rangers were. Aragorn risked a glance over his shoulder and for the first time saw wargs hunting in full sunlight. At the head of the pack – only a hundred yards behind them now – raced a massive beast, taller than any warg Aragorn had ever heard of, at least the size of a pony.
The Rangers broke into a desperate shuffling run once more and, at last, burst into the dubious shelter of Mirkwood. Though the sun had risen, once they were more than a few dozen paces within the forest it was as dim as a moonless night.
At the first tall black oak, Mallor stopped and fell to one knee. Aragorn gingerly propped a foot on Mallor's good shoulder, and as the older man rose with a grunt, the young Ranger scrabbled desperately for holds, managing to lunge just far enough to grip the lowest branch and heave himself over it. He fought to gain his balance, and then reached down to pull Mallor after him. Their hands met, and Aragorn was gathering strength to draw up his companion when he was torn away by a force so strong that the young Ranger's grasp offered no resistance at all. Mallor simply disappeared into the darkness below the tree.
Bone cracked and Mallor screamed, a high-pitched cry that ended abruptly. More unspeakable noises followed. Aragorn closed his eyes and clung to the tree with numb fingers. His mouth twitched and he realized that his face was wet with tears. Scraping his hands on the rough bark, he inched higher up, but the sounds of feasting still followed him.
A rough voice snarled from the deep shadows under the tree. "Manflesh is sweet, but flesh of the Dunedain is best!" The beast coughed out a thick, choking sound, half bark and half hideous laugh. "You smell familiar, cub; perhaps I feasted on your sire. Shall you taste the same, I wonder?"
Aragorn opened his eyes and looked down. As it stared back up at him, the warg's eyes shone a poisonous green in the dimness of the forest – but there was nothing here for its gaze to reflect; that corpselight glow came from within. An icy spearpoint of fear touched the back of Aragorn's neck, making the hair on his arms rise. And still more eyes appeared each moment, dancing around the base of the tree like evil stars, as more wargs joined their great chieftain.
* * *
All that day – as far as Aragorn could tell, with no sun to reckon the time by – the great warg sat beneath the tree and waited. Aragorn hummed Elvish lays, trying to drown out the snapping and snarling as the lesser wargs fought over what was left of Mallor, and traced the maze of crevices in the bark to ward off sleep.
He had no rope to tie himself to the tree, and his seat could not last forever. Already he was wavering in his perch, unbalanced by fatigue, and thirst was a torment in his throat. Only one choice was left to him now: to remain in precarious safety until he fell and was torn apart like Mallor, or to gamble everything on a sudden attack. But what strategem could give him any chance against the huge warg and its pack? One idea surfaced in his sluggish mind – to make them think that he was weakening even more quickly.
Aragorn began to feign more exhaustion than he felt, weaving from side to side and catching himself at the last minute before falling. He babbled nonsense to himself, trying to appear pathetically feeble. The great warg seemed to believe his pretense; it began to pace in circles around the tree, taunting him with foul jibes, and jumping to claw and scrape as far up the trunk as it could reach.
It was time. Aragorn waited until the warg reached the opposite side of the tree in its impatient circuit, slid his legs over the branch he sat on, and let himself fall.
He managed to land mostly upright with his sword halfway out of its sheath, but that made no difference, as the warg was immediately upon him. Its breath hot and stinking in his face, it knocked him over backward. As its teeth met in his right shoulder and its jaw tensed to tear his muscles apart, Aragorn drew the dagger from his left boot and plunged it into the warg's neck. Elven-tempered steel pierced through thick fur and skin at once. A steaming gush of blood soaked Aragorn's chest, and the warg's immense body fell limp on top of him, its teeth still locked in his shoulder.
Aragorn could see nothing but dark fur looming over him. He kicked out, desperately trying to throw the dead weight off before the other wargs descended on him, worrying his arms and legs like terriers with a rat. For panicked minutes he thrashed, defenseless beneath the leaden bulk that pressed down on him, yet nothing attacked him. At last he understood that there were no other wargs near by; he guessed they had fled in confusion when their chieftain was killed.
He gathered his strength and tried again to rise. The massive pile of fur and bone shifted a few inches, and then his shoulder was seared with hot pain as the warg's teeth grated in the wound. Aragorn sank back onto the earth. A moment, he thought, just a moment to rest...
* * *
When next he woke the shadows under the trees were deepening again. It was impossible to tell what time it might be outside the forest; but hours at least must have gone by.
Unsure if he was awake or dreaming with eyes open, as the Elves did – though surely no Elf could dream anything this twisted and dark – Aragorn lay pressed between stinking warg fur and rotted leaves, staring with feverish eyes at the ragged spider webs that roped the surrounding trees. Black moths flickered past, their velvet wings brushing his face and hands like shrouds.
What faint, sickly green light there was gradually faded. True night fell in Mirkwood, black as the inside of a king's barrow. Aragorn could hear the mutter of an approaching thunderstorm, but no breath of wind stirred the trees above him. The rain began, huge heavy drops interrupted by the leaves, and every part of his body that wasn't crushed beneath the warg's weight was soon sodden and shivering. He lay with his mouth open, trying to catch the sporadic raindrops on his dry tongue.
A brief flash of brightness penetrated the forest canopy. The following thunder rumbled, closer this time, and a sudden gust of wind pushed the trees sideways. In an instant the air grew piercingly cold. Aragorn's breath formed a mist before his face, and he shuddered violently as mingled rainwater and sweat turned to ice over his skin. The sensation of being watched bored through his skull – someone, or something, was near. He thrashed about, twisting his head, trying to detect the threat he could perceive but not see.
Slowly, three tall figures coalesced under the trees. Aragorn could not see them directly; they were perceptible only at the edge of his vision as holes in the night, even blacker than the shadows surrounding them, shaped vaguely like cloaked and hooded men. Terror flowed before them, and frost crackled in the air as the shadows drew forth pale blades that gleamed like shards of ice.
Fear and horror gave Aragorn the fleeting strength to rip his swordarm free of the warg's mouth. Something tore in his right shoulder and a bolt of iron pain shot through his chest, but he set his teeth and with his left hand pulled his knife out of the dead warg. Real or fever dream, whatever these things wanted with him, at least they should not say he offered no resistance in the end. He thrust the warg's dead weight away, and trembling in every limb, managed to lever himself afoot with his sword and stand facing the black wraiths.
They made no move towards him, but stood silently with blades upraised. Were they watching him struggle? It was impossible to tell, for nothing like eyes could be discerned in the depths of shadow that veiled the creatures.
Aragorn's sword and dagger shook as he raised them in defiance. He remembered Arwen's eyes, and wondered if his death would cause her any faint regret. He thought of the stars far above the trees of Mirkwood and the thunderstorm, shining still though he could not see them. His hands steadied and he shouted hoarsely, "By Elbereth and the Evenstar, you shall not take me easily!"
The invocation seemed to anger the cloaked phantoms. All three advanced slowly upon him with a thin cold hiss. Aragorn lifted his sword higher and prepared to sell his life as dearly as he could.
Another crack of lightning ripped through the sky, close enough to outline every leaf in sharp brightness. Thunder boomed like the crash of a battering ram, followed immediately by a second stroke of lightning so brilliant that Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again his vision was filled with flame – the tree above him was burning, split by the lightning and blazing like a giant torch. Another burst of thunder deafened him, and the forest dissolved into a white blur.
* * *
He was lapped in warmth instead of icy cold through all his limbs, and he could feel sun and the brush of wind on his face. Still Aragorn lay motionless, not daring to open his eyes. Only when he heard the liquid notes of Elvish speech nearby did he feel sure that he was no longer in peril.
He sat up slowly, pushing away a light blanket that lay over him, and discovered that he was on a small flet set high in the boughs of a beech tree. Mellow sunlight washed through the bronzed leaves still clinging to the boughs. Four Elves squatting on the far side of the platform turned to look at him as their sibilant conversation suddenly ended.
"It is a fine morning," Aragorn said, after a glance at the sky.
They stared at him without answering, and he began to fear that they did not understand Sindarin; but finally one addressed him haltingly in that tongue, marked with the lilt of a native speaker of Silvan Elvish. "Welcome, Ranger. Do you feel somewhat stronger? You were fortunate indeed, to survive wargs and the Ulairi both."
Aragorn blinked. "Ulairi?"
"The black things," the elf whispered, with an anxious glance southwards over her shoulder. "The Deceiver's creatures. They came back to Dol Guldur at the turn of the season."
"Then I owe you my life, and my thanks for driving them off. May I ask who they are due to? And how did you come to find me?"
"I am Mevenneth, one of Thranduil's foresters, and these are my companions. The lightning drew us, to see whether we should let the wildfire burn out or try to douse it. You were alone when we found you; the rain had nearly put out the fire, and the Ulairi had fled leaving only their traces." She paused, regarding him with interest. "You speak Sindarin after the fashion of those from Imladris. Are you the Ranger called Estel?"
"I was," Aragorn answered, "but now I am Aragorn again, as my father named me." His heritage was still new enough to him that he felt a momentary flash of pride; but it was muted again immediately by the thought of Mallor. He would have to be the one to tell Ranathil that her husband was not coming home again, even as a corpse.
Mevenneth indicated Aragorn's savaged shoulder, now bound in a clean cloth. "We have done what we could for your wound, but none of us is a healer. You should come with us to Thranduil's halls and let others care for it."
Aragorn shook his head. "I must return over the Misty Mountains as soon as I can. My companion – his family will be waiting to hear of his fate."
"Ah." Mevenneth nodded. "We found some burnt bones in the clearing. There were not many, but we took them up and buried them close to here. If you wish, I will show you the place before you depart."
* * *
The next sunrise found Aragorn at the western edge of Mirkwood once more.
Before vanishing into the canopy of the trees, the Elves had led Aragorn to the Old Road. They had refilled his quiver with their own arrows, and given him cram and dried fruit to round out his small store of provisions – for somehow, through all of this, his pack had stayed on. Lashed to it now were Mallor's sword and belt knife, all that remained to bring home in remembrance of the Ranger.
It was time to be going. Mevenneth had promised him fair skies for crossing the mountains if he hastened, and he knew Elvish weather-wisdom too well to doubt her. He settled his pack more firmly on his back and stepped out from the shadow of the wood, eyes fixed on the road before him.
According to the Tale of Years, in the year 2951 Aragorn went out into the Wild, after confessing his love of Arwen, and Sauron sent three of the Nazgul to occupy his old fortress of Dol Guldur. And since Tolkien hinted (as is seen in the quotation at the head of the story) that Aragorn has encountered the wraiths at least once, I decided to combine the two events & see what happened.
Many thanks to M Sebasky and Azalais for perceptive beta reading.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.