Between Darkness and Dawn

Chapter 21: Time Grows Short

by Cassia and Siobhan

First > Previous > Next

Aragorn shuddered involuntarily, resting his head against the elf’s chest.  His breathing was labored and fast.  The world spun around him anytime he opened his eyes now.  Legolas’ hand on his forehead calmed him a little and he concentrated on listening to the prince’s voice as the elf spoke quietly.


“Aragorn, there is no way out of here.  The grate above is locked from the outside.”  Legolas leaned over the hatch in the floor and gazed down at the still rising lava, flinching slightly as the mountain shook from yet another blast.


“At least we won’t freeze,” the elf continued, chuckling softly to himself at the irony.  “The lava will keep us warm.”  He scooted them both back as far away from the grate as he could, pressing back against the opposite wall.  The smell bothered him.  The scent of burning earth was distressing.  The voice of the mountain was warning him to get as far away as possible, but he was unable to comply.


Aragorn stilled in his friend’s arms and relaxed.  The day had been far too much for his body to handle.


“You’ll see to it that they are freed, won’t you?” the human asked quietly.


“What?”  Legolas glanced down at the man huddled against him.


“The antidote,” Aragorn explained simply.  “Make it for them, Legolas.  Promise me you will.  If I can’t...”


“You will.” The firmness in the elf’s reply quickly cut off any argument to the contrary.  They hadn’t come this far to die in a wretched access hold, eight despicable feet from freedom.  “I cannot do it without you, mellon-nín.  You are the healer, not I.  Besides, once it’s made, there has to be someone I can test it on.”


The jibe brought a small laugh from the ranger, who settled more fully against his friend.


“Fine, I’ll be your test subject then.”  Closing his eyes Aragorn gave into his weariness and rested, knowing he was safe in his friend’s arms.


Glancing back at the circle above their heads, Legolas could tell that morning was just dawning.  The shades of night were fleeing, replaced by the soft blue hues of a new day.  A shadow darted overhead, blocking the sky momentarily.  A clear piercing cry followed seconds later and the elf’s heart leapt with joy as he realized that it was not the call of a fell beast.  The great eagles were circling Angmar; it could be the call of no other creature.  He had no idea what brought them thither; perhaps they had been drawn by the strange disturbance and fissures of steam rising from the long dormant mountain.  Whatever the cause, the elf did not care.  The important thing was that maybe, just maybe, there was still hope.


Another blast shook the mountaintop and Legolas curled protectively around Aragorn as the stone walls about them trembled one more time before stilling into an unnatural calm.


His attention was drawn to the grate in the floor as the top of the lava brushed the bottom of the mesh hatch and settled.  Glancing skyward once more, Legolas wondered how soon anyone would come looking for them... or if they would think to look at all.


The Witch King realized that he had lost control over the volcano as the mountain shook, trembling beneath his feet.  Gas from the cooling lava in the lower vents was building and the pressure was increasing as more magma flowed into the core of the volcano, creating bubbles in the superheated rock.  It wouldn’t be long before the volcano would find an outlet and the Wraith knew exactly where the weak spot in the mountain’s wall was located.  It was time to leave Angmar and he was positive that this time he would be unable to return.


Rushing to the picture window in his study, the Ringwraith picked up the chair in front of the desk and threw it through the glass pane.  The winter-cold winds of morning whistled through the broken portal, tearing at his clothes and bringing the scent of burning rock closer.  His dark heart seized.  True, nothing on this earth could kill him, but there were still things that even he feared.


High above the Wraith’s chambers, his winged mount was fighting its own battles.  The iridescent, scaled monster leapt to the front of the cavern just as the build-up within the mountain peaked.  A rumbling, shuddering explosion at the back of the grotto gave the creature only seconds to escape as the volcano found a weak spot in its walls.


Molten rock and ash blew out of the cave entrance as the beast leapt from the lip of the grotto and rushed skyward.  Pyroclastic debris shot into the air, trailing in its wake and showering the plateau with heated rocks.  The great winged beast screamed in rage and frustration, wheeling in a tight circle and gliding back past the face of the mountain.  Its heated chambers were a pool of molten lava.  Streams of the thick rock poured out the opening.


Below in the outer courts, the slaves were running from the castle entrance, heading for the safety of the woods.  A lone orc limped hurriedly along with them.  Of the other orcs there was no trace.  Doubtless, their dark living quarters near the base of the thermal system had been one of the first areas flooded and apparently something had prevented them from escaping.


In its primitive brain, the Wraith’s dragon rationalized that the humans had some responsibility in the mountain’s destruction and dove for the fleeing servants, intending to visit its wrath on the people.


So bent on revenge was the monstrous flying mount that it had blocked all else from its periphery senses.  A black dart fell from above it, crying a warning as a second swift shadow chased across the sky on an intercept course with the foul beast.


Sharp talons snagged the beast’s long neck, diverting its attention.  With a pained cry, the mount twisted mid-flight, snapping at the diving eagle and altering its course.  It beat the air with huge, leathery wings trying to gain altitude and follow its attacker.  From below, the second eagle inverted its flight and raked the creature’s exposed belly, jerking the large reptile down with it a few feet before releasing the snarling, hissing mount.


Slower than its enemies, the Wraith’s mount snapped and lunged at the eagles that flew in circles around it, snagging its wings, its tail  or any unexposed part of the creature’s body that they could.  Their attack was incessant and intense as they kept the beast distracted.


The humans had reached the safety of the woods that bracketed the front steppes of the castle and were fleeing into the protective cover, out of the monster’s range.


Gwaihir, king of the eagles, did not stop to consider that this was not their fight.  The eagles hated the fell beasts of Mordor, considering them an aberration to the sky.  He and his companion had literally just happened to be in the area when they saw the smoke in the sky.  Had it not been for the presence of the fell beast about to attack the people below, they probably would have continued on their way after sating their curiosity.


Gwaihir dropped down on top of the Wraith’s steed, slamming the creature’s snakelike head with his body.  The impact drove the beast downward, spiraling out of control.  It twisted its neck with lightening speed, snapping at the eagle that dipped just out of reach.  Its ire was peaked and the creature loosed an ear-splitting shriek as it caught the upward rise of wind that traveled up the mountain’s expanse.  Regaining its momentum, the dark beast increased its speed chasing the eagles higher and swiftly gaining on its enemies.  In moments it would overtake the great eagles and deal with them blow for blow.  It had had enough.






Far below in Angmar, the Witch King balanced on the ledge of the window he had just shattered.  Behind him, lava oozed slowly into the study, crawling up the legs of his desk and covering his work with its liquid rock, destroying everything that he had spent so many years recording.


The chest that held the spiders from Dol Guldur was buried beneath the brightly glowing liquid rock as the lava fanned out into the room.  The Wraith howled in frustration.  That batch had nearly been ready for release.  All his work had been for nothing and his anger mounted.  He knew this had something to do with that blasted elf and ranger.  His one satisfaction was that at least no one else would escape this destruction either.  Even if the prisoners and slaves escaped the destruction of the mountain, they would simply die in the wilds from his poison.


Anything that could burn was now on fire, the flames adding to the heat and glow of the lava.   The molten rock touched the edges of the wall below where he stood, splashing lazily up towards the broken sill.  In moments it would overspill the confines of his study and he would need to be far away.


Glancing upward, the Wraith caught sight of his winged mount battling the great eagles near the lowest pinnacle.  The beast nearly had those meddling birds in his grasp.  Their kind had been a thorn of contention in his master’s plans before.  For a moment he considered allowing his beast to have its way with them, but he was out of time.


Lava licked the edges of the shelf just behind where he was precariously balanced and the mountain had begun to shudder once more.  It was building up for one final eruption...


One he didn’t plan on watching.


Calling the black creature to him, the Wraith leapt from the sill, plummeting towards the ground.


Breaking off his attack, the winged creature twisted around.  It stopped its forward motion, alerted by the Wraith’s piercing call.  He saw the black, tattered form of his master dive from the window sill as lava spilled over the edge, following the Nazgûl towards the base of the mountain.


Folding its huge wings against its back, the monstrous beast dove straight towards the falling black shape.  Passing the Wraith up by meters, the mount unfolded its wings, bringing its descent to a sharp halt.  The Nazgûl landed squarely between its shoulders, barely causing the creature to dip as it skimmed the valley floor before angling vertically over the tree line and disappearing with a heart-stopping scream.  Fear that dragged in the wake of the Nazgûl spread across the woods and edged everything in an unnatural darkness as the Wraith fled south towards Dol Guldur.


The fell beast was happy about one thing.  With their home here destroyed, it would mean heading south again.


Tinald crouched down with the rest of the slaves, covering his ears as the Witch King’s angry cry shuddered through his heart, freezing him in place.  Behind them, the mountain convulsed, sending a black plume of dust and ashes into the air.  The side of the mountain where the library window had been blew outward, providing another vent for the volcano as the eruption found another weak point.  Lava poured from the newly formed opening in undulating orange waves that quickly cooled to black at the edges, only to be covered over again with more glowing orange.


The thick molten rock covered the steppes and layered over the lower entrances to the castle itself.  The slow moving tide eased to a stop some distance from the edges of the forest, hissing and venting steam in the cool winter air.  It was a miracle that the woods had not caught fire from the falling cinders and heated rock.  The refugees counted themselves lucky, at least for the time being.  Within moments, the upper layers of lava had cooled, deceptively daring the humans to walk across the newly laid valley floor.


Edging farther away, Tinald began seeking Yrin.  He was worried that his friend hadn’t made it out and he had yet to find him in the mass of people that milled uncertainly beneath the ruined mountain.  Their summer homes were not but an hour north of this position.  In the growing seasons the Wraith permitted part of the populace to move into the tiny vacant town to till the ground for winter stock.  They could easily reach those dwellings before the day was through, but there was much that still needed accomplishing.  Everyone was in chaos, families had to find one another, explanations had to be made... and none of them dared go anywhere without the antidote.


The former slaves stared at the ruined mountain in disbelieving shock.  Their whole way of life had just gone up in flames and smoke.  Everything they had known was buried under molten rock...


A loud cheer burst spontaneously from the stunned humans after that realization fully penetrated their minds.  Whatever happened now, they would never have to see the inside of those hated halls again.


Pressing his way through a knot of slaves, Tinald found Yrin quietly consoling some of the less jubilant amongst the newly freed people.  Approaching quickly, Tinald waited until the former headslave was done and then stepped closer.


Looking over the ragtag collection of humans moving about the meadow, Yrin glanced down at his friend, questioning him wordlessly.


“Everyone made it out.  We lost no one, except that I can’t find the elf or the ranger.  I locked the orcs on the fifth level; they could not escape.”  Tinald watched Yrin, carefully gauging his response.  He hated the orcs - it was no secret.  But intentionally sealing them in to their death had been harder than he had thought.  Only moments ago they had been alive and now because of his actions they were not.  The young man tried hard not to think about how their end had come but focused rather on the freedom the slaves would now have to roam the woods of Angmar freely, without fear and retribution.  Without the shadow of the Witch King and his servants dogging their every move.


Tinald rubbed his shoulder.  They weren’t entirely free.  Perhaps they were all walking dead men right now, but it was better than living and dying under the shadow.


“You did well Tinald.  We knew it had to be done.  We wouldn’t have been able to escape if they were left free,”  Yrin consoled the smaller man.  He glanced quickly at Rhzaq.  The orc was nervous, shifting quickly from one foot to the other and constantly looking over his shoulder towards the destroyed mountain.


“Where are they?” The dark creature asked hoarsely.  He had not heard the previous conversation. “Where are the others?”


“They didn’t make it out, Rhzaq.”  Yrin turned the orc around and pointed to a group of men who were attempting to construct a fire ring.  The younger boys had been sent into the immediate forests for wood and kindling.


“Can you help the others get fires going so we don’t freeze out here?”  he asked kindly as he gave the orc a push towards the far side of the group.


With an enthusiastic nod, Rhzaq shuffled off, his temporary worries forgotten in the need of the moment.  It wouldn’t be long before the crippled orc would not even remember that his kinsmen were gone.  They had never been true kin to him anyway.  They had always treated the smaller creature as a freak, a mistake. In a strange twist of fate, the humans had accepted the slow-witted orc when his own kind rejected him.  The humans saw in him simply another slave, twisted and wounded by the master’s cruel hand.  He would be safe in their company for the remainder of his years, and they knew that they were safe in his.


When Yrin focused his attention back on Tinald, he noticed the man had stepped back out onto the plateau and was glancing upward, one hand shading his eyes from the bright morning sun.


“Yrin...” Tinald didn’t turn to see if his friend had heard him.  “Yrin?  You don’t think... you don’t think he’ll be back, do you?”  Tinald tried to keep the apprehension in his voice in check.  But they had all lived too long under the dark shadow of their cruel master to not know what his retribution was like.


Yrin glanced skyward, his eyes squinting against the rising sun.  There was no lingering shadow of fear and the wound to his shoulder no longer throbbed as it did in the presence of the evil one.  The Wraith was gone for now.  Would he return?  Yrin didn’t know.  He hoped not.  After all, there was nothing for the Nazgûl to return *to* now.  The fortress was destroyed and the slaves...


Yrinvan looked around at the refugees moving aimlessly around him.  Some were squinting and looking around in awe as if they had never seen the sun before.  Maybe they hadn’t.  Grim reality niggled at the back of Yrin’s mind, tainting the elation of freedom.  The slaves were all as good as dead without their former Master’s potion.


No, the Nazgûl would not be back because his last, cruelest stroke would be to simply let his former thralls die the slow and agonizing death he had intended for them from the beginning.  Yrin was sure this is what the Witch King would be thinking.  He knew the dark one’s ways too well.


Shaking off his thoughts and looking back at his friend, Yrin shook his head.  “No, Tinald, I don’t think he’ll be back.”


Tinald could read the conflicting emotions that those words summoned behind his friend’s eyes and nodded slowly, not sure what to say.  He looked away, towards the sky again.  It was beautiful to see the whole sky like this, and not just the portions one could view out a barred window or through the top of a tunnel shaft.


Tinald frowned and squinted as something atop the mountain caught his gaze.  He ventured a little further forward, shading his eyes with his hand for a better look.


“Yrin, do you see that?”


The head servant walked up behind his friend and matched the smaller man’s gaze.  High above, near the base of the lower peaks of Angmar, the great eagles were circling and diving.  One of the largest birds he had ever seen appeared to light upon the mountain momentarily.  It seemed they were trying to pick up, or move, something.  A few minutes later a high keening cry was taken up by the eagles as they tried to get the attention of the humans on the valley floor.


“I think they have something up there.”  Tinald continued quietly.  “You don’t imagine...”


“I think we should get up there and find out what those eagles are circling before it’s too late.”  Yrin raced across the plateau, trailing Tinald in his wake.  The smaller servant called back quick instructions to the men now assembling camp, letting them know where they were headed.  They circumvented the cooling lava as much as possible, not yet trusting its deceptively solid appearance.  The gasses being released into the air made their eyes sting and their throats constrict.


Yrin took a moment to pull his shirt up over his nose and mouth, and Tinald followed suit.  If the lava had completely encircled the mountain, they would have been out of luck.  As it was however, the lava had only broken through in some areas, and the winding staircase up to the heights that the two servants sought, was still mostly intact.


The back stairs up Angmar’s heights were tedious and slippery this time of year and the damage done to them by the upset within the mountain was not helping matters.  The higher up they climbed, the more slick the carved steps became.  The freezing night temperatures iced the stairs solid, but when the sun rose, they became a rivulet of snow water cascading down the side of the mountain and collecting in pools at the base of the cliff.  In the summer, the steps were completely concealed by a waterfall for the better part of the spring months, providing the population of Angmar with clean fresh water for the warmer seasons ahead.


There were few entrances or exits into the mountain.  The access path they were on now was used infrequently and only in dire emergencies.  The stairs had been crafted eons ago by the first men who had been conscripted to build the mountain castle.  A means of accessing the natural caverns and grottos that had been converted by the earliest inhabitants, the stairs led to two small shafts, one that emptied out into the mountain near the Witch King’s study and the other which dropped into the ventilation shafts above the laboratory.


The vertical passages into the mountains had been sealed shut with a series of grates to which Yrin still held the keys.  As the head servant in his master’s house he knew of all the back routes and hidden passageways that had been dug through the mountain, and he knew their purposes.  The intention for some he hoped to one day forget altogether.


However, if anyone had survived and found their way into the access hatches, they would need to find them and soon.

Tulu mín!”  Legolas’ voice felt small and ineffective in his own ears as he tried to catch the attention of anyone outside.  He could not see the eagles’ battle with the mount from where they were trapped.  All he could see was that the great birds had disappeared from his line of vision.


Tulu mín!  Ammen mellyn!”  He hoped that if the eagles were still within earshot, that calling to them in Elvish would garner him more attention.  The plan seemed to work, because a few moments later a shadow passed over the two friends as one of the great eagles soared by overhead.


“Who calls out to Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles?  Speak!  Make yourself known!”

Legolas felt relieved.  “Gwaihir, glad am I to see you!  I am Legolas, son of King Thranduil of the woodland realm.  We met in Imladris some years ago, and again after that, when you were with Gandalf the Grey.  I am with Estel Elrondion, we need your help!”


“I remember you Thranduilion, hold fast.  We shall get you out,” Gwaihir assured.


Aragorn flinched slightly as the eagles repeatedly attempted to break the grate, diving and scratching at it with their powerful talons and beaks.  Snow fell into the shaft, dusting him and Legolas with a fine, white powder.  The elf held the human close, leaning over his friend and shielding Aragorn’s head against his chest as he tried to protect them both from the falling debris and the cold winds stirred up by the powerful wings of the birds above them.


The top layer of lava had cooled, pooling out around the edges of the grate and melting the snow at the bottom of the tiny grotto.  It had slowed for the moment, but not given up, threatening a cataclysmic battle between fire and ice that would take no notice of the two hapless beings trapped in its path. 


Despite the lava attempting to eat its way up from below, the air here atop the mountain was biting cold.  The wind drove painful needles into Aragorn’s skin wherever it could reach him around Legolas’ protective hold.


The floor below them was warm now as the stone began to conduct the magma’s heat.  Legolas pressed the human close to the warm rock floor, trying to preserve his friend’s body-heat.  However, it was more than the chill about them that was causing Aragorn’s uncontrollable shivering.


Darkness swirled in uneven patches before the ranger’s eyes.  A warm chill lay like a blanket across his body, a foggy disassociation from reality that let him see the end was nigh without inspiring much alarm.


“It’s been too long.”  He whispered softly against Legolas’ tunic.


Choosing to ignore the quiet statement, the prince held more tightly to Aragorn and called up to the eagles circling above them.


“Gwaihir!” His voice caught on the winds and drifted up to the great bird.  One wheeled away from the pack and dove for the mountain alighting easily on the craggy ledge.


Leaning down, the eagle pierced through the gloom of the passage and fixed his gaze on the two beings huddled at the bottom.


“Great one, we need help and swiftly.”  The prince called up.


“We cannot break the lock, Thranduilion.” Gwaihir answered solemnly.


“I know.”  Legolas cupped Aragorn’s head against him, trying not to feel ill at the dark nausea he felt every time he touched Estel.  “Elrond’s son fares poorly and will not survive without aid.  Tell me, what can you see?  Have any of the others escaped the mountain?”


“I see many people moving in the mountain meadows not far from here,” Gwaihir reported after a moment.


Legolas was relieved to hear that the slaves seemed to have survived.  “Gwaihir, please find the one they call Yrinvan and bring him here to us.”  He hoped against hope that the servant would have found some antidote in the Wraith’s lab as he had said he was going to attempt to do before they left him for the lower levels.  At the very least Yrin should be able to get them out of here.


With a sharp cry, the eagle vaulted skyward and swept down the face of the mountain, calling out to his kinsmen.  The great birds broke off their circling flight and followed their leader towards the staircase and the two humans who were stumbling up the slippery causeway.


Yrin ducked, barely avoiding being knocked back as Gwaihir dove down over his position, calling out to the human.


Tinald grabbed his friend, righting them and fighting to keep his precarious balance on the stairway.


“Yrin, I think that bird just spoke to you!” Tinald pressed close to the taller servant and glanced upwards as the eagles turned for another pass.


“What?”  Tinald’s observations made no sense to Yrin.  But the smaller man was unable to respond as Gwaihir swooped low, grasping the headservant by his shoulders and hefting him aloft.


Yrinvan’s heart dropped into his stomach.  The only experience he had had with winged creatures this large was with the Nazgul’s Mount, and that was not a pleasant association.  The human fully considered himself a dead man now.


“Yrin!” Tinald screamed after his friend in horror.


Gwaihir’s sharp ears did not miss the call.  He had merely wanted to talk to the human about where he could find the person he sought, but perhaps his quest had been easier than he thought.


“Are you Yrinvan?”  The eagle questioned his quarry as he flew higher up the mountain.  He was forced to tighten his hold as the frightened human fought him.  “Stop moving so I do not hurt you or drop you.”  The bird commanded, “I take you to the Prince of Mirkwood.  He has need of your help.”


The words stunned the human and he relaxed, holding onto the large talons that encircled his shoulders.  A small cry from behind him caused Yrin to turn slightly in Gwaihir’s grip.  He could barely see a second eagle following them with Tinald held tightly in his grasp.


In moments, Gwaihir dropped back down toward the mountain.  Yrin cringed and closed his eyes as the ground rushed up at him.  Seconds later the great bird released his hold and the servant fell free, touching down onto the uppermost ledge near the staircase.


Stumbling forward, Yrin fell onto his knees against the grate fixed above the access hatch.  He finally understood what the eagles had been trying to tell them.  Pressing his face closer to the opening he glanced down at the blue eyes that watched him carefully.


“Yrin?”  Legolas called up to the human.


“You are alive!”  Yrin pushed back in surprise, fumbling with the overlarge pockets of his outer coat as he searched for the keys.


Tinald dropped down next to him, flattening himself against the cliff face as the eagles swept upwards once more.


“What?...” The smaller servant quieted as he watched Yrin working over the lock on the hatch. “Are they there?”  Tinald questioned, overcoming his initial fears as he helped the other pull the heavy grate back and rest it on the ground.


He was answered as Yrin leaned into the hole and extended his hand down.  “Can you reach my hand?  We’ll get you out.”


Legolas hesitated as he shifted Aragorn into a standing position.  The jostling woke the ranger and he glanced dully about them.


“Legolas?”  He questioned softly, holding tightly to his friend to keep the nausea at bay.


“Yrin, did you find any antidote?”  The elf glanced back up at the human hopefully.


“What is it?” Tinald questioned from above, trying to see in around his friend.  “Yrin?”


“Tinald, be quiet for a moment.  Let me speak.”  Yrin glanced back at the smaller servant, shushing him with a slight motion before refocusing on the elf and ranger.


“I did.” He answered hesitantly, his fingers finding the small vial in the pocket of his vest.  “But there was only one dose.  It is all we have left.  I do not know if any more has survived.  The castle is destroyed.”


“I know.”  Legolas spoke evenly and softly, hoping the man would be able to follow his logic.  “Strider has not had enough antidote for far too long.  He will not survive much longer and we need him to recreate enough of the medicine for everyone else.  I won’t use it all.  We’ll need some of it as a sample...” His voice trailed off as he saw the worry lining the servant’s face.  “When was the last time you were given any antidote Yrin?”


The truth was Yrin had been sharing his antidote with Aragorn too often.  He knew that and could feel the effects, although he hid them well.  Sitting up, Yrinvan pushed back from the grate and glanced at Tinald.  The servant had knelt next to him and overheard the entire conversation.  Yrin’s eyes questioned his friend wordlessly.


“We knew it would come to this,” Tinald spoke softly thinking only Yrin could hear him.  “You trusted them enough to risk all our lives and you were right.  If we die, then we all die free and that will be enough.”


The two servants sat quietly for a few moments as unspoken words drifted between them.  Tinald arched an eyebrow and shrugged glancing back at the shaft.  “Give him the vial, Yrin.”


Nodding once, Yrinvan leaned back to the edge of the passage and handed the small glass bottle down to the elf.


Legolas’ heart had tightened when Yrin’s head disappeared from the narrow square of daylight above them.  He knew he was asking a lot of the humans, facing the fate that they were.  Several anxious moments dragged by before Yrin’s head appeared above them once more.  With a grateful sigh, Legolas accepted the antidote and quickly popped the tiny cork.  Tipping Aragorn’s head back he poured part of the contents into the ranger’s mouth.


“Not all of it, Strider.  We’ll need some if we are to recreate it successfully.  I just need you more coherent my friend.”  He smiled slightly as he braced the man against the wall, hoping the medicine would take effect soon.  Stopping the vial once more, he slid it into an interior pocket of his tunic and focused his attention on the ranger.


“Will he make it?”  Yrin called down.  He was slowly lowering a looped off length of rope that the eagles had deposited for him on the ledge.  The great birds circled high overhead, watching what happened on the peak.  From time to time, one would drop down to the plateau to assist the humans there as the servants began to set up camp and take stock of what and who had survived.


Legolas crouched down slightly in front of the ranger, trying to see into the human’s eyes.  Aragorn stepped back a pace and took in a deep breath.  His head pounded and he still felt ill but the thrumming waves of pain had ceased and his heartbeat had slowed back to its normal pace, giving him a bit of respite.  Weary, red-rimmed grey eyes opened and locked onto the elf’s curious gaze.


“Do you feel any better?”  Legolas asked softly.


With a small nod, Aragorn glanced up towards the top of the shaft.  “It won’t last long though.  We need to find out if we can get into the lab still.  We need to make more soon, Legolas.”


Overhearing the slightly slurred words, Yrin leaned farther in and spoke to the two as he eased the rope down into the elf’s hands.  “I’ve sent Tinald on ahead to check the vent shaft for the laboratory and see if we can access the room.  It is high enough up, so perhaps the lava has not reached it.”  He smiled and nodded in affirmation as Legolas tightened the loop of rope around Aragorn’s chest and boosted the man partway up the passage.


In seconds, Yrin had hoisted the ranger out of the duct and tossed the rope back down to Legolas.


It was easier to pull the elf out of the vertical bore, as the prince helped by climbing most of the way out himself.  He gripped the edge of the hatch and eased out onto the snow covered ground as the servant kicked the grating back over the hole.


Aragorn was seated on the rocky outcropping, resting against a large boulder that decorated the ledge.  He smiled weakly at the elf before glancing into the meadow far below.  The eagles, seeing that no more help was needed on the heights, had joined the humans on the plateau, scavenging all that could be rescued or reused.


The shout of a distant voice could just be heard, drawing Yrin’s attention.  It was Tinald.  He rounded a corner just beyond the edge of the outcropping upon which they were standing.  The pathway seemed to drop off into thin air, but in actuality it wrapped around the mountain out of sight, following a second set of stairs up to the vent shaft opening above the laboratory.


Tinald’s investigation of the Nazgûl’s lab had revealed that the room was indeed still intact.


“The far wall is nearly collapsed from the press of lava but it seems to have stopped and is stable for now.  Many things lie broken, but it appears usable.”  Tinald finished his assessment as he led the trio higher up the mountain to another hatch.  From this one, small wisps of warm air drifted out.  The lava may have cooled but the warmth generated by it was still dissipating.


Aragorn was doing a bit better by the time they reached the second hatch but Legolas would not allow him to spend any extra strength and insisted on helping him up the stairs.  Worry had set in the prince’s heart now that they were so close to creating more of the antidote.  Would Aragorn be well enough to figure out how it was made?  The wood-elf feared he would be of no help, as his knowledge of the healing arts had ever been rudimentary at best.  If they couldn’t do it... if all these people were doomed to die... if Estel died...


Legolas shook his head, denying those thoughts and clearing his mind.  There was no time for that type of thinking.  They had come this far; there had to be a way to make it all end up right.


“Legolas, are you all right?”  Aragorn gently placed his hand on the elf’s chest.


Tinald scurried down the shaft, calling up for Yrin and leaving the two friends to converse quietly for a moment.


“It will work out, Estel.”  Legolas tried to reassure the ranger.  “We need to get you inside quickly and see what damage the lab has taken.  The faster we begin, the sooner you will be well.”


The slight worry that hedged the elf’s eyes was not lost on his companion.  With a small smile, Aragorn conceded and eased stiffly down into the shaft, crawling through the confined vents towards the sound of the servants’ voices inside the lab.  Behind him, he could hear Legolas as the elf followed.  When he slowed imperceptibly, the prince’s hand gently grasped his boot, encouraging him to continue.


The air in the lab was heavy and broken glass crunched underfoot.  Shelves of vials had been thrown down and smashed, their contents staining the rubble-strewn floor like orc blood. The lava that had crushed in one wall had stopped short of breaking through the stones and now lay hardened on the other side.  The noxious gasses released from the eruption, combined with the acidic smell of whatever had been in the broken vials, were enough to make anyone feel choked.  Tiny rivulets of the molten rock had seeped through the cracks and pooled on the ground, looking as though they were simply part of the wall itself.  They shimmered slightly with the heat they gave off.


Aragorn had to lean against the wall to support himself as he fought to breathe in the foul air.  It was going to be hard to work in here, but they had no choice.


Legolas supported his friend, his own eyes watering slightly.  “Is there any way to get more air in here?”


Yrinvan, breathing through his shirt sleeve, shook his head.  “I’m afraid not.  Here,” he retrieved an empty sack from the corner of the room.  “Put this over your nose and mouth.”


Legolas easily tore the sack in two along its seams.  He tied the make-shift mask around the lower portion of Aragorn’s face first, and then secured his own.  It was a flimsy barrier at best, but at least it was better than nothing.


Aragorn stiffened when the cloth went over his face and for a brief moment a small flare of panic hedged his eyes.  Legolas saw this and stopped moving immediately.


“Estel?” he questioned quietly, his voice slightly muffled behind his own mask.


Aragorn shook his head and attempted a weak smile behind his protective covering.  It was going to be a while before he could have anything put over his face and not remember what had been done to him here.  “It’s nothing, don’t worry,” the ranger assured.


Tinald and Yrinvan had already secured their own masks and were now busy at one end of the room, clearing a table and searching out what undamaged supplies remained to be found.


Aragorn closed his eyes a moment.  He had to push aside the dark memories of how often he had been tortured in this room.  The feeling of evil was strong in here, as strong as, or stronger than, the noxious air.  It made his knees feel weak, as if the very strength were being slowly sapped out of him.


He hated being in this place again.  It held too many dark memories.  Glancing slowly around, he stopped moving as his gaze landed on a table a few feet away from him.  Legolas bumped into the ranger when Aragorn jolted quickly to a stop.  He gently grabbed the man’s shoulders and tried to look around the human to see what had captured his friend’s attention.  Just to their right, shoved up against the broken wall, was the table that held that Nazgûl’s torture devices.  The gag that Aragorn had been forced to endure, lay in a jumbled pile of leather along with several other devices of a similar nature and a spare bridle.


Legolas unconsciously licked his bruised lips when he caught sight of the offensive contraptions.  Gently pushing the man aside, the elf strode over and swiped the pile of torture devices off the tabletop, sending them flying into the wall.  The gag bounced off the hard stone and fell against a broken edge, sinking quickly into the still cooling lava.  Bright flares of orange molten rock swallowed the gag, covering it immediately with a deceptively cool dark exterior.  The prince watched as the metal on the bridle melted into the lava, disappearing from sight.  The elf’s anger cooled with the magma that hissed on the ground, barely touching the tip of his boot.  A small thrill of satisfaction coursed through him as he realized the offensive contraptions would ever again harm any living being.


Aragorn’s shaky hand on his arm brought the elf back to the present.  He was watching the lava that now covered the torture devices.  Legolas gently turned the man back and led them both away, joining the servants in the far corner of the room.  Yrin was watching them carefully.  He hadn’t given much thought to the room or its contents.  He had been here so many times he was used to seeing the Nazgûl’s collection.  The reaction from the two former captives caught at his heart, reminding him that the old way was over and there was no more torment to fear.


“Yrin, can we take all this outside, do it there?” Aragorn asked.  His voice muffled by the cloth over his mouth.  He still did not like this room.


Yrinvan set a large iron caldron back on its thick-pronged feet over an un-kindled fire-ring.  “Perhaps,” he nodded slowly, also wishing to be out of this foul place.  “But... I don’t know if we’d be able to control the environment enough.”


“What?” Aragorn did not understand.


Yrinvan wished he could explain more clearly.  “I assisted the Mast-” he caught himself.  That evil being was his master no longer.  “I assisted the Wraith in the preparation of the antidote on several occasions.  I wasn’t there the whole time; he never allowed anyone in the whole time, lest they know how it was done.  But in the final stages, he needed someone to keep the fire at exactly the right temperature while he added the last ingredient.  He was very particular about the temperature of the room and the fire itself.  We lost more than one slave because they let a draft in or did not tend the fire exactly as he wished.”


Aragorn nodded slowly.  So, it was temperature sensitive when it was being made.  That was not a good sign.  This was going to be a very complicated potion to recreate.  “When you were here, Yrin, what did you see?  What did he do?”


Yrinvan was thoughtful for a moment, trying to recall everything exactly.  “I remember that the room was very warm and I had to be careful to allow no air in the door with me that would disturb the temperature.  He had some kind of red-brown tincture that he must have mixed up beforehand sitting on the table.  He would put it into the cauldron with whatever else was already in there, while I kept the fire evenly stoked.  Then he would soak a piece of cloth in whatever is in that canister,” Yrin indicated the one he meant, which was thankfully not broken. “And dip it into the potion.  If the cloth turned brown, then he removed the potion from the fire and let it cool.  All was well.  If it turned black... then he had to start over again and I was subjected to the mercies of the orcs for my failure.” Yrin’s gaze did not waver.  “I was lucky.  The master did not think he could replace me as easily as some of the others.”


Aragorn’s eyes flashed with silent compassion and understanding.  He could not imagine having lived under the Nazgûl for as many years as Yrin had suffered.  “Do you think you could bring the fire to the correct temperature again when it is needed?” he asked quietly.


Yrin nodded with a mirthless smile.  “I am certain I can.  There is a small spoke built into the fire pit that glows dully when the temperature is right.  I learned very quickly how to take my bearing off of that.”


“Good,” Aragorn smiled weakly behind his protective mask.  He knew they were all looking to him to create the antidote.  Any possible help was appreciated. “You give me hope that we may accomplish this yet.”


“Can we not take this outside then?” Legolas inquired with concern as he walked beside his friend to the table.  Aragorn held the elf’s arm for support and orientation.  His own illness combined with the fumes made the human incredibly dizzy.


“No,” Aragorn shook his head.  “Not if temperature is a concern.  We could never control it right out there in the cold wind.  There are too many variables and this is going to be hard enough as it is.  We will simply have to work fast.”


Legolas understood.  “Very well, tell me what to do mellon-nín, and I will help you any way I can.”


“All right,” Aragorn assessed the situation, forcing his mind to work through the haze crowding his mental functions.  “We have the lichen from the caves, and I think I know how that should go into the base.  Legolas, I’ll need what’s left of the antidote to examine, some clean, empty vials and a mortar and pestle.  Yrin, Tinald, look around through what is left undamaged.  I’m going to need some charcoal powder, flaxseed and white oak bark if there is any.”


Estel prayed to the Valar that he could do this and do it right.  Their time was growing painfully short.