Siege of Dread

Chapter 5: Escape into Darkness

by Cassia and Siobhan

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Aragorn stepped back, balancing himself as he caught the orc’s scimitar with the edge of his sword.  The feeling of cold water encasing his foot and the splashing of his own steps startled him.  He hadn’t realized that they had been backed so far towards the edge of the lake that collected beneath the Bruinen’s water head.  Behind him the falls thundered, obscuring the sounds of battle and even his own cry of warning to Legolas as the elf was pushed back into the cold shoals of the mountain pool. 

With a sharp, quick move the ranger ran his opponent through, kicking the dying creature away from him.  He glanced towards the hills that surrounded them.  On their left, wargs bearing their foul riders surged over the top of the rise and raced into the valley.  Of the rangers or elves there was no sign.  It seemed the tidal wave of orcs and wargs was slowly pushing its way towards Rivendell.  Towards his home. 

Gaining the lake’s edge, a large warg rushed Legolas.  The elf sidestepped the brute, killing its rider with one fell stroke.  As the mount turned back to finish what its master had not, Aragorn ran the few steps that separated them, leaping onto the animal’s back and plunging his sword deep into the warg's side, piercing its heart.  The dark beast fell beneath him into the lake, its blood mingling with the sand and water at the pond’s edge. 

There was no way out of the bowl-shaped canyon they had been caught in and there was no hope of help on the horizon.  A rain of arrows hissed through the air near the two warriors. One of the projectiles nearly hit its mark as it grazed Aragorn’s left shoulder, searing a bloody line across his arm.  Surprised by the attack he fell from the warg, using the large body as a shield.  Warg riders did not usually use crossbows, but this pack seemed to be more coordinated in their attack and the creative genius behind it frightened the man.  Legolas was by his side in moments, steadying the ranger and pulling him safely behind the dead animal’s bulk.  The slight protection gave them a moment’s rest and the elf glanced around them wildly. 

“We are cut off.  There is no way of escape.”  Legolas words were rushed and hidden by the grey tongue, disguised from anyone who could hear. 

Tearing his gaze away from the waterfall, Aragorn pierced his friend with a hard stare.  He remembered this place all too well.  The last time they had encountered orcs at the Bruinen he had fallen from the heights and been sucked behind the waterfall.  He knew there was one way of escape, but he was not so sure that they would be able to reach it in time. 

“I know of a way,” Aragorn answered simply as Legolas crouched down next to him once more after releasing a volley of answering arrows.  They had seconds left before their position was converged upon from all sides. 

Without answering and without asking, Legolas simply nodded, ready to follow the human wherever he led them.  There were no questions between them by now, no place that the elf would not follow the man.  That was well, for they were out of alternatives. 

Aragorn stood to his feet and raced into the lake, the water dragging at his clothing and impeding his progress.  Arrows fell into the churning froth around them as Legolas easily ran after him.  The sounds of the heavy feet of wargs rushing into the lake filled the elf’s heart with dread and he dared not look back. 

Taking a deep breath, Aragorn plunged beneath the surface of the cold mountain pool and swam to the bottom of the lake.  Following the natural bowl carved into the rocks by the pounding water, he headed for the waterfall.  Without pause, Legolas followed his friend’s example and dove after him. 

Near the back of the basin the water was turbulent and swirled in a mad rush about them, pulling at their hair, grabbing their clothing and tugging at their sodden boots.  It threatened to never let them back up to the surface, pressing the two friends down against the jagged granite that lined the bottom of the pool. 

Spears and arrows sliced through the water all around them.  One lucky shot caught Legolas in the calf, cutting through the leg muscle and causing the elf to momentarily curl into himself, his cry cut short by the water that pressed them down.  Willing the pain away the elf pushed on, locating the dim outline of Aragorn in the churned-up lake. 

The human’s fingers bumped into the rough, hard wall of granite that formed the cliff at the back of the pond and Aragorn surfaced quickly, placing his feet beneath him and wedging them into a natural ledge of the rock face.  He hugged the cliff, looking behind him for Legolas.  The elf appeared a second later and the ranger grabbed the back of his tunic, hauling him up into a standing position and holding him against the rock until the prince got his feet underneath him.  Legolas winced, but otherwise ignored his injury for the present.  From this vantage point they were behind the waterfall, barely hidden from the sight of their pursuers by the gallons of water that fell ceaselessly from the top of the cliff. 

“This is your plan!?” Legolas yelled over the roar of the falls.  He glanced through the curtain of water and could see the wargs swimming out after them, their black shapes distorted and wavering when viewed through the liquid veil. 

Shaking his head, Aragorn moved around the elf.  Positioning himself on Legolas’ right, he inched closer and spoke loudly into the prince’s ear.  “No, there is more!” 

When Legolas glared at him, Aragorn only nodded.  He had no time to explain as the head of a warg pressed through the watery curtain, snapping and growling. 

“Take a deep breath!” was the only yelled explanation the ranger gave as he wrapped his arms around Legolas’ waist and pulled them both off the ledge.  Falling back down into the dark lake, Aragorn hugged the elf against his chest.  His back scraped against the cliff wall but he felt the current changing almost instantly and he ducked his head down, remembering the last trip he had into this subterranean river.  One hand instinctively came up, wrapping around Legolas’ head and pressing the elf into the curve of his own body as they were sucked through the underground tunnel.  Their speed increased until they were barreling down the passageway.  The force of the rushing water threw them from side to side as they raced down the channel. 

Despite the shouted instruction, Legolas had not had time to take a deep breath, or any breath before their sudden plunge.  Just when he was sure that his lungs would give out, the elf felt Aragorn pulling his head up, tipping his chin back and he gulped in lungfuls of dank, musty air. 

Aragorn had braced his feet against the sides of the passageway as soon as they were free of the tunnel and into the cavern.  The current still threatened to pull them back deeper, farther in, but he held on tightly.  The water level was significantly lower than it had been the last time he was here, making the current in the underground cistern much swifter and harder to manage as the stream was sucked back into another underground tunnel that higher water levels had rendered barely noticeable on his last visit.   Dried deposits of minerals from the evaporated water crunched and slipped treacherously under the ranger’s fingers as he scrabbled to keep himself and his friend out of the hands of the current. 

“Legolas, I need you to get to the edge and pull yourself out.  There is a ledge on either side of you.  Hurry, I cannot hold on much longer.”  The ranger ground out the commands as he strained to hold the weight of them both from tumbling into the darkness. 

The pitch black of the cave had frozen Legolas in place.  For a moment he was not even sure where they were or if they were truly alive, but his friend’s words shook him out of his stupor and he clambered out of the water more stiffly and numbly than he normally would have.  The water was cold, icy cold, the last of the winter run-off, and while the chill did not directly affect him so much, his wounds and the shock of his surroundings took its toll. 

Breathing heavily, Aragorn flopped down next to the elf and lay quietly for several minutes on the cold, rock shelf.  There was not enough room to stand up here; there was barely enough room for them both.  The elf’s labored breaths caught the ranger’s attention and he crawled closer to his friend. 

“Easy, Legolas.  I’ve been here before. It is well, we will be safe.”  He rested his hand gently on the prince’s shoulder, his fingers softly tracing the elf’s body as he found his friend in the dark. 

“Before?”  The whispered question caused the man to smile slightly and he nodded, knowing the elf could probably see him now perfectly well as their eyes adjusted to the tiny bits of light that seeped in through the crack in the cliff face. 

“Shhhh...” Aragorn pressed his fingers to Legolas’ lips as the light was momentarily blocked from sight.  A warg had pressed its flattened snout against the rock wall, searching for the two warriors they had lost.  Its growl filled the cavern.  It knew the elf and ranger had passed this way, but was at a loss to figure out how.  There was no chance of the creatures' massive bodies getting sucked into the underground channel.  The two smaller beings had barely made it in themselves without receiving scratches and gouges from the rocks that lined the walls.  “They hunt us still,” the ranger barely whispered as he pointed towards the fissure in the wall. 

Legolas stilled his movements and crouched down, dimming his light considerably so that the cave dropped into inky blackness once more.  Within seconds the warg had moved away, pressed back by the thundering water that sheeted over the rocks high above.  For many long minutes both elf and human remained completely still, barely breathing.  The light filtered through the crevice unblocked and it seemed that their pursuers had given up the chase. 

This then was your brilliant idea?”  Legolas turned back to glower at the ranger, his frown masked from the man who had garnered it by the darkness of the cavern.  Slight sounds of mirth startled the elf and he shifted, easing himself around, and smacked Aragorn upside the head lightly.  “It’s not funny.” 

“Well, in a way it is.  Remember when I said I would get you back for that stunt in Cirith Ungol?”  The ranger left the question hanging between them. 

Legolas’ soft laugh brought a smile to Aragorn’s face.  “Then we are even.  Let us not make a habit of this.” 

“Oh my friend, it is far too late for that.”  Aragorn eased himself back off the ledge and into the water.  Legolas’ firm grip on his upper arm stopped him. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I think they are gone.”  Aragorn glanced towards the front of the cave, wedging his feet against the sides of the rough, watery tunnel to hold himself in place. “I’m going to go check.” 

“You are going to go check?” Legolas’ tone was incredulous as he repeated the simple statement, “Alone?” 

Pulling himself back out of the water with a sigh, the ranger stared hard at the outline of his friend.  He could just make out the elf’s features.  “Legolas, I’ve done this before...” 

“Over fifteen years ago, my friend!”  The elf glanced back into the water. 

“Well we can’t stay here and they can’t stay out there.  If they are gone I’ll come back to the crevice and tell you, but if they are not it would be foolish of us both to go out there.”  Worry for his friends and family still out there fighting the invaders would not allow Aragorn to remain trapped here for long. 

The logic in the human’s plan couldn’t be argued but the elf fought the desire to do so anyway.  “Then be quick.”  Legolas released his friend and watched anxiously as the ranger took several deep breaths and slid back into the water, disappearing from sight.  

Breathing slowly Legolas worked to calm his heart and still the fears that swirled through his thoughts.  It wasn’t the first time he had been in a cavern, and by now he was almost positive it wouldn’t be the last.  He was almost getting used to it... almost.  But he did not like Aragorn going back through that tunnel alone.  It worried him. 

It seemed like it took longer than it should have to reach the channel’s opening.  Fighting against the current was much more difficult than he remembered.  Finally, Aragorn planted his feet firmly on the edge of the tunnel and pushed upward, breaking the water with a rush.  He gulped in the air, keeping himself pressed hard against the cliff wall.  Straining to hear any sound he remained motionless for a few moments, hidden by the curtain of the falls. 

“I’m going to take a look and see if they have moved on.  I’ll be right back,” Aragorn whispered into the crevice beside him, knowing the elf on the other side of the rocks could easily hear him. 

Taking another deep breath, the ranger pushed off the natural shelf, diving down into the rushing water and allowing the motion of the falls to push him out into the bowl of the lake. 

Surfacing a few feet from the churning water that now fell behind him, Aragorn gasped for air and shoved the hair out of his eyes.  Glancing quickly towards the far shore on his left he noted that the forests were silent.  The shore that had been filled with orcs and wargs a few minutes ago was empty of all life; even the dead had been removed.  That struck him oddly as he had not been aware that the wargs would drag their own fallen away and hide their carcasses from the enemy.  Orcs certainly did not usually take such care. 

Moving his arms back and forth slowly through the water in rhythmic strokes, the ranger turned in a semi-circle, barely keeping his head above the surface.  As he shifted to look to his right, a dark shape exploded from the water, catching him off guard.  The orcs and their mounts had had enough time to work their way to the opposite side of the lake.  When the human had been spotted surfacing in the bowl beneath the falls, the lead orcs had quietly sent their four-legged companions back into the water.  The thundering of the waterfalls behind him had masked the wargs' approach until it was too late. 

Lunging, the evil creature tried to catch the ranger in its gaping maw, but the water impeded its usually swift reflexes.  The warg’s teeth grazed Aragorn’s arm as he ducked under the water.  The ranger jerked backwards, tearing his coat from the warg’s fangs.  He rolled onto his back, pulled his knees in tight and pushed away from the creature.  His booted feet thudded hard against the beast’s bony chest and sent him shooting blindly towards the wall of the lake.  The sharp kick surprised the warg, but did not move the large animal.  It was just enough to throw the creature off, however, and had he been the only warg in the lake, Aragorn might have escaped unscathed. 

As it was, several wargs on the shore had been watching.  The floating human looked to them like a fun game.  They had grown bored waiting on the shore and the excitement of a new chase overwhelmed them. Rushing in they joined their packmates, attempting to catch the small, dark shape that swam past them underwater. 

Aragorn had little breath left when the next warg attack came.  He was struggling for the surface when a large paw curved down toward him, slicing easily through the water.  The unretractable claws of the warg glistened darkly for a brief moment before he felt the hot, searing pain of their jagged edges raking along his leg.  The swipe pushed the ranger farther down into the depths and he lost what air he had in his lungs as he cried out under the renewed attack. 

When he looked back up towards the surface of the water, his wavering vision made out five large, dark bodies circling overhead.  He was out of time and out of air.  The water rippled and churned around the wargs and Aragorn started as one of the animals thrust its head into the lake and glanced about for the ranger, its feral, black eyes tracking him.  The beast snarled, revealing rows of yellow-stained, sharp teeth set at all angles as though they had grown in incorrectly. 

Diving straight down despite his screaming lungs, Aragorn brushed the bottom of the lake.  The water was more turbulent here, this close to the falls, and black spots hedged the edges of his vision as his lungs cried out desperately for air.  His shoulder and leg throbbed mercilessly as he somersaulted under the water. Aiming himself for the back of the waterfall, he pushed up with all his strength. His head broke the surface of the water for one second before his pursuers found him.  Dragging in half a lungful of clean air he was slammed back down as the wargs shouldered in, eager for an easy kill.  The press of the foul bodies shoved the ranger back all the way into the subterranean tunnel and, before he had time to register what exactly had happened, he was sucked underneath once more. 

The water raged around Aragorn, shoving him this way and that. His head smacked sharply against a rock that protruded from the side of the channel.  Unprepared, he had no time to position himself correctly so that he could stay in the center of the passage and without enough air he was beginning to lose consciousness.  It suddenly seemed so silly to keep fighting it all.  His body went limp as he surrendered himself to the mercies of the underground stream. 

Softly glowing light brightened above him and he found it odd that there was light in this tunnel.  He had been here before, although it suddenly felt like a lifetime ago.  There shouldn’t be any light here, he was almost sure.  Staring up into the dim glow, Aragorn reached out towards it and was surprised when it grabbed hold of him.  If the light wanted him it could have him, and with that thought the ranger let go, drifting into unconsciousness. 

Legolas heard when the wargs had converged outside the rift in the rock wall.  He had been watching anxiously for the ranger to return ever since the animals outside had quieted. The silence that had fallen was deafening to the elf.  A black shape under the water exited the underground tunnel and raced towards his position.  It was Aragorn, but the ranger had not made any move to surface and an icy cold shaft of fear shot through the prince’s heart. 

Plunging his arm down into the water, Legolas grabbed Aragorn’s overcoat and stopped the human.  The ranger didn’t move or help the elf as Legolas pulled him out of the cold water and dragged him up onto the shelf where the elf knelt. 

“Aragorn?”  Legolas leaned over the ranger, pulling him into his lap and gently tapping the side of the human’s face. “Aragorn!?”  With mounting fear, the prince realized his friend was not breathing.  Lowering the man back onto the rock, he quickly rolled the ranger onto his side, forcefully pounding on Aragorn’s back to dislodge the obstruction in his airway. 

With a choked sputter, the ranger spit out a mouthful of water and automatically drew in a deep breath.  The air caught in his throat and he coughed, convulsing in the elf’s grip. 

“Easy, Strider. Breathe slowly.”  Legolas lightened his grip on the man’s shoulder as Aragorn’s consciousness began to return. 

“Where...?”  His memory was slow to return. It was dark around him and the sensation of not knowing whether or not his eyes were truly opened was disorienting. 

A snuffling sound came from the front of the cave and Legolas instantly dimmed his glow, curling around Aragorn’s body and covering the man’s mouth with his hand. “Shhh... they have not left,” the elf whispered in the ranger’s ear. 

Aragorn stilled in Legolas’ grip, glancing towards the direction from which the sounds of scratching and growling was coming.  Clarity fell into his mind like the blade of a knife and he stiffened, waiting until the warg slipped away from the crevice. 

“They know we are in here.” Aragorn barely spoke, knowing the elf could hear him no matter how soft he was. 

“Really?”  Legolas voice held the frosty hint of sarcasm as he moved back and let the ranger stretch out.  “I had not realized.” 

Glaring at the elf, Aragorn pushed the prince away from him and sat up slowly.  “Yes, really.”  The answer was as sarcastic as the question.  “We won’t be able to go back that way.” The human glanced at the fissure in the rock as the minimal sunlight that forced its way in was again blocked by the massive head of a warg. 

“What did you see?”  Legolas ignored the creature outside the cavern walls. 

“The orcs have moved to the far side of the lake.  They are pushing towards Rivendell, Legolas.”  The ranger took a deep breath before continuing.  His fear was mounting and he was unsure as to their next move. 

“This is good...” Legolas stopped speaking when Aragorn glanced at him again. They both flinched as the sounds of claws on the rock face echoed in the chamber they occupied. 

“It would be, for us, if they had all moved on.”  The ranger’s eyes reflected the soft glow that the elf cast as he glanced towards the front of the cavern once more.  “There is a small contingent that has remained behind.  Either to keep us in here until their objective is complete or to take us with them when we exit the tunnel.  They do not seem willing to leave without seeing us dead.” 

It was silent in the cave save for the breathing of the two occupants and the muted pounding of rushing water outside. 

“Were you hurt?” Legolas' soft question seemed loud in the unnatural quiet. 

Aragorn glanced at his torn leggings and gingerly fingered the raised welts across his shoulder and back that the warg claws had left.  “Not really.  Just scratches mostly and those were washed clean by the water.” 

Legolas shifted closer, “Are you certain?” 

“You’re the one with the arrow wound,” Aragorn reminded his friend, smiling slightly in the dark. 

“A scratch.” Legolas shrugged. 

“Right.” Aragorn drew the word out sarcastically, knowing full well the elf would never admit to being hurt.  He stared at his friend blankly, waiting the prince out. 

In moments Legolas could take it no longer and with a small laugh he shoved the human lightly. “We have bigger problems to worry about.” 

“Like why the wargs and orcs are headed to Rivendell,” Aragorn replied softly. 

“I was thinking more along the lines of finding a way out of here.”  The elf’s counter answer lightened the mood for a moment.  But the solemn look that spread over the ranger’s face chilled his heart. 

“I think I know where we are.” Aragorn shifted past Legolas and gripped the edges of the tunnel that led deeper into the mountain, gazing hard down the darkened, watery passageway.  His thoughts were distracted as he spoke softly to the elf.  The last time he had been in here, he had been in no shape to think of anything, but now... 

“My father used to tell us tales of the old times when dwarves inhabited the mountains near Imladris, before father built here of course.”  The ranger turned an impish smile on the elf as he sat on the ledge of rock and dangled his feet into the cold water.  “That was before the orcs came and drove them into the Misty Mountains, to join the others in the Dwarrowdelf.  

“He said in the time before the elves dwelt here, the Dwarves had hewn huge living spaces into the very mountains, much like what we saw in Moria.  And that they used the Bruinen as their source of water, routing the river into deep caverns in the mountains where it would collect in pools for their use.  That way they would never have to leave their homes.” 

“Rock dwellers,” Legolas whispered under his breath.  How an entire race of free peoples could chose to live underground and never want to come out was beyond his understanding. 

“Legolas...” Aragorn growled playfully as he lowered himself back into this channel.  “Look, I think this is one of those passages.  The lip of this tunnel is smooth, not like the one we entered.  It’s not natural...” 

His explanation was cut off as Legolas reached out and grabbed his arm, trying to pull the ranger back out of the water.  He pressed himself flat on the ledge and glared over at the human. 

“You are not suggesting that we go deeper into the mountain?”  The elf’s eyes were huge as the thought sank into his awareness.  “You do not know for certain that we won’t just be lost in darkness in the core of the earth." 

It was hard not to smile, as Aragorn glanced up at his friend. He knew the fears the elf had about being in caves and darkness – a fact he still found a bit annoying as Mirkwood’s castle was built partly underground.  Gently taking Legolas’ hand from his shoulder the ranger simply nodded, answering his friend’s question. 

“We have to get back to Rivendell, Legolas.  We have to get back to my brothers and warn them.  All the warriors are out on the passes defending the valley, but those orcs and wargs will be at Imladris before the sun passes.  We must stop them.”  The ranger locked eyes with his friend, imploring the elf to trust him once more. “Legolas, it’s our only chance.” 

The sounds of snuffling made the elf jump once more and turn towards the front of the cavern.  Aragorn was right; their pursuers had not given up and if they had not given up by now, it was unlikely that they were going to do so. 

With a sigh of defeat, the elf slid off the ledge and braced himself in the swift channel. “Then may the Valar direct our way.  I will, as always, go with you, my friend.”  The ranger had turned so he was facing the elf as the prince positioned himself behind the human.  “Though you do test my limits, human!”  The taunt was in jest and Aragorn knew it, laughing slightly as he turned back towards the darkened waterway. 

“There is room to breathe in the channel, as the water does not fill it completely and it looks to be much larger than the one we first entered.”  Aragorn allowed the current to pull him closer to the dark gaping maw of the tunnel. 

Legolas’ hand tightened on his shoulder. “Then let us see if your father’s stories were correct.  We have no time to waste.” 

With a quick nod Aragorn released his hold on the rocky walls on either side and shot into the smoothly hewn water channel.  The force of the torrent pulled him quickly under and he found himself unable to maneuver in the slick passageway.  Here, in the dwarf-carved aqueduct, there were no handholds and it was easier to be scraped and jostled against the hard walls. 

The tunnel turned upward slightly, slowing their pace, and he was able to surface and catch his breath before the channel flowed east once more, picking up speed as it angled downward toward the center of the mountain's depths. 

There would be no swimming back through this channel.  For good or ill, they were now committed to the path they had chosen. 

Legolas had barely gotten over his fear of being miles beneath the surface when the water in the channel picked up speed and they shot through the wide passageway heading back downwards once more. It was impossible to see where Aragorn was, but the elf was sure the human had not slipped behind him.  Slowly uncurling his body, he straightened his legs out and tucked his head between his outstretched arms, increasing his speed.  In seconds his fingertips brushed the coarseness of rough, wet leather and he relaxed, pulling himself back into a ball and raising his head just above the level of the water. 

They were slowing once more. 

The tunnel broadened a little as the water grew shallower and less forceful.  Scrambling to get their feet back under them again and gasping for air, the two friends waded through the waist-high water in inky blackness illumed only by Legolas’ faint radiance. 

After nearly an hour of sloshing through cramped, darkened twists and turns in the icy water, Legolas bumped Aragorn softly from behind, causing the ranger to turn and look at him over his shoulder. 

“You take me to the most interesting places, mellon-nín,” the elf remarked sarcastically. 

Aragorn, far more affected by the water’s chill than the elf was, grimaced and gave Legolas a soft shove in return.  “Keep talking, we could use some more hot air in here.” 

Legolas snorted but resisted the urge to dunk the human.  He knew that Aragorn would suffer more from this experience than he did and did not wish his friend to become ill. 

Neither of them knew when or where this waterway would end so they proceeded with caution as they followed their dark, dank path deeper and deeper under the mountains. 

There was nothing else they could do.

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