Between Darkness and Dawn

Chapter 16: End of our Rope

by Cassia and Siobhan

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We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside
Somewhere we live inside...

Dreaming about providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we've been living with our eyes half open
Maybe we're bent and broken

We want more than this world's got to offer
We want more than the wars of our fathers
And everything inside, screams for second life...

-- Switchfoot

Legolas recovered slowly.  When the paralysis finally released him, he went through an excruciating phase of uncontrollable trembling.  Aragorn held him through the shaking fits, smoothing his hair and whispering to him in soothing tones. 

By the time Yrin brought them both their supper that evening, Legolas’ trembling had subsided, but the elf was weak, exhausted and in quite a lot of pain. Yrinvan placed their food on the floor before them, and then glanced quickly at the door before sliding a small jar out of the sleeve of his robe.  “Here,” he whispered, sliding it to Aragorn.  “For your friend.  It’s a cream that will help with the itching.”  He glanced towards Legolas who was leaning against the wall.
The elf was rubbing one of his arms with small, distressed movements.  His body was tense.  He wanted to claw his skin off, but restrained himself, knowing that scratching the bites would only make them worse.
Aragorn accepted the jar and quickly tucked it away and out of sight behind him in case anyone should disturb them.  “Thank you,” he whispered.
Yrin nodded, his eyes lowered.  He did not want, nor deserve the ranger’s gratitude.
“The Master is going away for a few days,” Yrin confided in them quietly.  “You will not be disturbed while he is gone, but he does not allow me to give you any antidote during this time either.”
Aragorn nodded.  He would manage.  He had no choice.  Sharing Yrin’s dose last night would help him through at least a little.
“Yrin, is he taking the spiders back to Dol Guldur?” Legolas’ quiet voice asked from the corner.  The silent agony in his tone made Aragorn give his friend a compassionate look.  He knew it was killing Legolas to know that he was being used against his father and his people in any way.

The slave shook his head.  “I do not believe so.  He... he indicated that he means to give them much more training before he considers them ready.”

Legolas shuddered.

“You mean he intends to let those disgusting creatures feed on Legolas again?” Aragorn hissed harshly.

Yrin nodded slowly.  “I fear so.”  He wanted to lie to them, to make it easier somehow, but false hope was pointless.  “Perhaps... perhaps many times,” he admitted reluctantly.

Legolas dropped his head to his chest, looking away.  He tried not to show how much that idea terrified him.

Aragorn was not fooled.  “Yrin, I can’t let that happen.”

“You don’t have a choice, Strider.” Yrin shook his head.  “The Master is not done with you yet either.  I wish...” his voice trailed away.  He met Aragorn’s gaze first, and then Legolas’.  His eyes were sincere.  “I wish I could help you.  I truly do.  But there is no way I can, and no way that you can help your friend, or yourself.  You see?  Hope is something we do not have here.”

“Yrin,” Aragorn’s voice was equally quiet and sincere.  “There is always hope.  What would you do if you were I, and Legolas was Ahnna?”

The slave sighed.  He reached into his pocket.  He knew what he would do if he and Ahnna were in their situation.

“There... there is one way I can help you.”  Yrin held up a corked bottle.  It was not antidote, although the vial was similar.  “We call this death water,” he said quietly.  “This is the only mercy the Master ever lets me dispense.  It is quick and painless.  You could go together.”

Yrin knew that the Nazgûl would kill him for giving his prisoners a way out before he was done with them, but the Master didn’t have to know it was his fault they died.  The Wraith was going to be away... he could shift the blame to the orcs.  He would find a way.  It was the only kindness he could offer the two friends, but it was offered sincerely.

Aragorn swallowed hard as he realized what Yrin was offering them.  He looked to Legolas.  The elf gave his head a slight shake, indicating the same thing that Aragorn’s heart was already telling him.

“No, Yrin,” he refused.  “We appreciate the offer... but no.”

The headservant looked saddened, but tucked the bottle back into his pocket.  “As you wish.  I should warn you though, things will only become worse when the Master returns.  If you change your mind, let me know.”


Unfortunately, Yrin was right.  A few days of reprieve were followed by renewed interest in both prisoners.  Sometimes they were together, more often they were apart.  It came to a point where neither discussed anymore what happened to them when they were taken out of the cell.  The small room had quixotically become their refuge.  There they were together.  There they drew strength from one another as their world grew progressively darker.

Aragorn was weakening fast.  Legolas feared for him more every day.  The ranger was constantly ill.  He almost did not remember anymore how it felt to be well.

His resistance was crumbling slowly, but it was not fast enough to suit the Witch-king.  The Wraith pressed him very hard, sensing that the man was nearing the edge of his strength. The Nazgûl’s patience was wearing thin.  Almost without enjoyment, he delivered a few more frustrated lashes from his nightmare rod to his hapless prisoner.  The body at his feet jerked and moaned in pain, but was otherwise incapable of responding.

“You are a fool to fight me so long,” the Nazgûl informed him in an impatient voice.

Aragorn, curled on the floor, did not answer.  “You are a fool to keep trying,” he thought bitterly.  “Just kill me now and get this over with.  Isn’t that what you really want?”  He was too weak and in too much pain to speak the words aloud.

The Wraith stooped and jerked the human’s head up by the hair.  He was breaking the man’s body, but his spirit refused to yield.

Aragorn shuddered as the Nazgûl’s evil cloud intensified around them.

The Witch-king looked deep into his prisoner’s heart, carefully weighing the information he had already discovered about this man.  Every creature has its weak point.  The trick was finding what it was, and when to make use of the flaw.  He knew that Legolas’ weaknesses lay in two places: his lack of self-preservation and his devotion to those dear to him.  He had learned that about the elf a long time ago, but what about this man?  Where were the cracks in his armor?  He wagered that they were similar to the elf’s vulnerabilities, yet not quite the same.  Everyone was different and had to be handled accordingly.  What did the ranger really fear?

Aragorn struggled weakly with the painful grip on his hair.  He squirmed against the odd sensation of being searched and mentally violated.  The Nazgûl wasn’t forcing his way into his head, but he was curling sly around the edges of the man’s consciousness as if reading any thoughts that the Dúnadan was not strong enough to shield.

“You think you are strong enough to resist me?  You are not.  I see inside you, ranger.  You are weak,” the Nazgûl purred softly.

The words hit home more than Aragorn wanted to admit.  He was weak, weak and helpless.

“Yes...” the Ringwraith hissed.  He knew he was on the right course now.  “You are weak.  It is in your blood, your soul... I feel it.  That hidden corruption you don’t want anyone else to know about.  The darkness you think you can hide from those mighty friends of yours... but someday they’ll see through you, Ranger.  You can’t hide what you are forever and, because of you, those you care for will suffer.”  He echoed Aragorn’s own deepest fears with cruel insight.

Aragorn’s heart raced.  What was the Nazgûl saying, what did he mean?  It smote him hard that the evil creature could strike so accurately at his most vulnerable fears.

The Nazgûl pulled the ranger to his feet.  Holding the human’s back against him, the evil being looked over Aragorn’s shoulder, pressing the side of his hood against the side of the human’s face.

Aragorn tried desperately to pull away from the evil presence, but the Nazgûl held him tightly in a steel grip.  He rubbed the side of his cloak-shrouded head against the ranger’s cheek, enjoying the shivers that ran through the body he held against him.  “Yes...” the Witch-king hissed the word again.  “I feel it in you as I feel it in myself.  You see, we are two of a kind, you and I.  You fool yourself because you choose the company of the elves, but you can never change what you are: mortal, corruptible.”

In the darkness of the room Aragorn was aware of the eerie flashing of the Nazgûl’s ring.  It burned against his flesh where the Witch-king’s hands on his chest held him pinned.

“I had a choice to make once, and so will you.”  The Wraith continued to purr the dark, evil words in his captive’s ear, filling him with fear and despair.  “I know you hate me, ranger, but you also know I am powerful beyond the puny limits of our race.  I can see your future and I tell you: you will be faced with my choice and you will fall as I have fallen.  You will find your true calling at my Master’s bidding, to the ruin and destruction of all you now hold dear.  You are simply too weak to overcome your own mortality, your own... weakness.”

Aragorn tried to close his ears against the painful, destructive words, but they cut like daggers of fire.  The Wraith was lying to him, he had to be.  The evil one couldn’t see his future without knowing his true past... could he?  He was lying!  Yet lingering doubt gnawed the ranger’s stomach as the evil words pressed deeply into all his most deeply seated insecurities.

“I do not lie,” the Wraith said sharply, one gloved hand tightening on the side of the ranger’s jaw.

Aragorn tensed and started at the way the Witch-king had apparently read his thoughts.  Valar, was he getting that easy to read?  What did that mean for the rest of the Wraith’s words?  How deep was he really seeing?

The Wraith turned Aragorn’s head sharply in his hand, forcing the man to stare into the black emptiness of his hood.  In the void two gleaming red embers burned faintly, like malevolent eyes.

“It is already happening, do you not see it?” the Nazgûl said, enjoying the tense fear and anguish flowing from his prisoner.  “You already serve my Master, whether you acknowledge it or not.  An army of orcs could not storm Lasgalen by force, nor could they have obtained for me a gift as costly as the one you delivered.  You brought the Prince of Mirkwood right into my hands and, through what I have taken from him, his people will fall.  He will die here because of you.  They all will.”

Aragorn jerked his head violently away from the Wraith, unwilling to let the creature see the absolute horror and devastation that those words wrought inside of him.  They were indeed his own worst fears, cruelly shoved in his face and ground in with evil certainty.  His heart burned in anguish.  He had no strength left to repel the Nazgûl’s lies, especially when they sounded far too much like the horrible truth.

“No,” the ranger breathed the word in pain-filled denial, yet even as he said it, his conviction wavered.  Two days ago he had had to watch helplessly as the Wraith let his spiders feed on Legolas yet again.  It was a terrifying sight.  Worse, it proved that the Nazgûl had already achieved his objective with them.  The two friends had been chained side by side, but the spiders completely ignored the human.  They had been well taught to desire only the Prince’s blood.  Once they were full grown and set free in Mirkwood... the ranger could not finish that thought.

“No.” The word was a painful half-sob now, as the human tried to cling to the hope that had always kept him going.  He forced himself to believe that this dark future the Wraith painted for him did not have to be true.

“Yes,” the Nazgûl countered firmly.  He shoved Aragorn into the arms of several waiting orcs.  “You do not believe me?  Then I think the time has come to clarify matters.  I have what I need from your friend.  You are the one I am interested in, Ranger, remember that.  Everything and everyone else is expendable to me now.”

The Wraith had his orcs take Aragorn to a room where a deep recess dissected the middle of the floor.  The ceiling overhead was not finished and thick beams crisscrossed the rafters.  The human was pushed to the back of the room and a heavy iron grate was lowered from between the rafters above, sliding into the grove in the floor and trapping the ranger.

The orcs left but the Nazgûl, on the opposite side of the grate, remained.

Aragorn waited uneasily in his new cage, not sure what the Wraith intended to do with him this time.


“Yrinvan?” Legolas was standing at the door of the cell, peering out of the small, barred window.  His voice caught the servant as the man walked past. 

Yrin stopped.  “Legolas, I can’t give you any word.  I told you I did not know what the Master was doing with Strider today,” he said wearily.  He did not want to talk to the elf right now.  This morning he had finally passed on Retzhrak’s request to the Nazgûl, who had, unfortunately, promised to grant it when it served his purposes.

“I know,” Legolas replied.  “I just...” his voice trailed off and he switched subjects.  “How is Ahnna?”

Yrin closed his eyes and turned to face Legolas.  “She is well,” he said quietly.  There was silence for a moment.  Yrin balled his fists. “Look, I am grateful, what more do you want from me?  I offered you the only way out that I know, all right?” his voice was a tense hiss.  “I never promised Strider anything I haven’t given him!”

Legolas’ eyes regarded the human calmly.  “I never said you did.”

The slave looked away.  He was not in a good mood.  His conscience was eating at him and he did not like discovering that he still had one to worry about.

“Yrin, the Nazgûl is killing him,” Legolas said quietly.  “Soon it will be too late.  You have seen that I spoke the truth, he is a healer.  If you help us, we can help you.  I know it is hard, I know it is terrifying.  I do not blame you for not wanting to heed what I say.  But you have to believe that I speak the truth when I tell you that your hope is dying before your eyes.  If you do not choose to take hold of it soon, you will never have another chance.”

“We never have had a chance,” Yrin hissed somewhat bitterly.  He shook his head and stalked away.  Part of him wanted to grab onto what Legolas said, but he didn’t see how he could.  “I won’t risk my wife and children for a hopeless dream.”

“You do have a chance, and you do have a choice.  You were meant for more than this existence you have accepted.  It’s in your hands, Yrin.  Your future, your children’s future,” Legolas called after him.  “Do you want this place to swallow their lives too?  Do you want to have to look into their eyes some day and tell them it was just too dangerous to give them a dream?”

Yrinvan tensed but did not stop.  His steps rang hollowly in the stone hall.  Hollow.  Like his heart felt.  At the end of the passage he heard noises behind him and turned back.  There were orcs at the door of the cell.  There was a brief scuffle before they dragged Legolas out into the hall with them, his hands bound before him.  The elf resisted and they clubbed him between the shoulders, driving the fair being to his knees and kicking him in the stomach before hauling him away.

Yrin let his breath out slowly.  He hated this.  He hated it with a passion that he found surprising.  His heart had been numbed, but Legolas and Strider had been poking it painfully back to life.  Life here had always been horrible, but there was comfort to be had in simply accepting that there was no alternative.  Now... now he was filled with doubt.

He reached the lower levels almost without realizing he was there.  “Papa!” a small ball of curly, dark tangles threw itself into his arms.

“Mahdi!” Yrin swung his little daughter up into his arms.  “What are you doing here?  You should be with the other young ones.  Come, I will take you back.”

The child snuggled compliantly in his arms, playing with the neck of his tunic.  “I lost a tooth, Papa.  I will be big soon,” she said wisely, pointing to a little gap in her thin, almost translucent teeth.

Yrin smiled and nodded, but his heart ached.  Mahdi was too young to be losing her baby teeth already.  Her hair was thinning and her skin was too rough and dry for a child her age.

Her jumper was sliding off one pale little shoulder and Yrin straightened it, his thumb lingering painfully across the dark scar under his hands.  The black wound on her shoulder was red around the edges and irritated.  The children of Angmar were introduced to the drug early, almost as soon as they were weaned.  Mahdi had received her mark only a few months before the elf and the ranger were brought here.  Her body was not handling the treatment well.  Her health had been steadily declining.  It happened sometimes.  Not all the young ones could handle the poison, or the harsh cure.  Too many died before they had seen but a handful of seasons.

Yrin held Mahdi closely.  Was he taking her future away from her without even a struggle?  He didn’t know.  He simply didn’t know.


Aragorn moved forward, gripping the thick, iron lattice tightly when he saw the orcs drag Legolas into the other half of the room where the Witch-king waited.

The Nazgûl didn’t say a word, but forced the elf to stand on a chair, his hands bound before him.  He had his orcs place a noose around the prince’s neck.  The other end of the rope was pulled taut and securely fastened around one of the exposed ceiling beams above them.  The elf had to rise up on his toes a little to keep the cord from digging too painfully into his throat.

Legolas stared straight ahead as the orcs yanked the rope around his neck tight.  He flinched, but did not move.  His gaze darted sideways towards the spot where Aragorn was pressed against the gate that separated them.  He did not know what was happening.  The orcs had dragged him from their cell without preamble and brought him here.  The situation he was finding himself in made him increasingly uneasy.

Aragorn did not understand either, but his heart raced as the orcs put the rope over his friend’s head.  There were few non-fatal reasons for such actions.  He had to believe the Nazgûl didn’t want to kill Legolas yet, but at the same time horrible uncertainty gripped him.  The Wraith had made it very clear that he was willing to count some people as expendable if it suited his goals.

“A long time ago, my Master had several difficult prisoners, not unlike the two of you.  One of them was a man.” The Wraith’s low voice was grating.  He ran his fingers through Legolas’ hair, the sharp joints on his gloves catching and snagging lightly.  “One of them was elven royalty, although he was a king, not just a prince.  One by one their companions were killed in front of them.”

Aragorn’ felt short of breath as he realized the Nazgûl was speaking of Beren and Finrod Felagund.

“Foolishly, they thought they could protect one another,” the Witch-king continued.  “They thought they were strong.  The elf was, but the man was weak.  The elf was the one that died.”

Glaring directly at Aragorn, the Wraith deliberately kicked the chair out from under Legolas’ feet.

Legolas’ hands flew to his neck.  His wrists were bound but he could still move his fingers and he twisted them desperately into the cord that snapped tight around his throat.  Tugging hard at the noose in a desperate attempt to stave off strangling, he choked painfully.  The elf was strong and his fierce hold on the rope kept the noose from cutting off all his air as he dangled.  He tried to climb up the rope, but the orcs grabbed at his legs and tugged him sharply downward whenever he tried.  The pressure this placed upon the cord around his neck was unbearable.  He didn’t dare move his fingers out of the noose now and so there was no escape.  The elf twisted painfully at the end of the rope, holding himself but a few inches away from death.  The orcs reached for his arms to put an end to that, but the Nazgûl stopped them.

“No, let him struggle.  He cannot fight it forever.  Eventually his struggles will still and the breath will leave his body...” the Wraith wasn’t even looking at the dangling elf.  He was watching Aragorn the whole time.

“Save him if you can, Ranger.  The gate is not locked.  Lift it if you are strong enough and I will let you take him down.  Otherwise... you can watch him die.”  The Nazgûl taunted the human with his own weakness.

Aragorn was already throwing himself against the heavy grate with everything his injured body possessed.  It groaned against its grooves in the stone walls, but he could not make it budge.

The man was shaking, whether from fear or exertion he did not know.  He jammed his good shoulder against the unforgiving bars, pushing hard.  Nothing.  The gate was far too heavy for any human to lift.  Yet Aragorn would not give up.  He tugged at the rough iron lattice until his hands bled.

Legolas wasn’t moving much anymore, trying to conserve his strength.  He found he was unable to grip the rope any higher.  He could not leverage himself upward; all he could do was try to keep it from completely choking him.  With each passing moment, that was becoming more difficult.  He could hold on for a long time, but not forever.  He caught Aragorn’s eyes for a moment and shook his head as much as he could.  He was trying to tell the ranger that he knew it was hopeless and to conserve his strength.  Legolas did not blame his friend for his fate.

“No!” Aragorn nearly screamed.  He shook the bars between them desperately, making the iron clink and rattle.

The prince’s lips were turning blue.  Slowly his hands began to go slack against the ropes as his body settled down harder into the noose.