Title says it all.
The sound of the Elven-tongue echoed for some reason strangely to Aragorn's ears, not exactly having the familiar rolling chiming he expected; nevertheless it had a soothing effect on him. Who was talking to him anyway? Aragorn willed himself to open his eyes, but everything was a blur before him. He blinked a few times to focus on the person that had wrapped his arms around him, offering him his body warmth, He finally discerned long, raven-black strands crowning an obscure face.
"A... Ada?" Aragorn asked, still in a daze, even though somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that it couldn't be him. Elrond was many miles away in Rivendell, that much was straight in his mind.
"No, it is me... Ceranos," corrected the Elf, switching into the Common Tongue. "Try not to move, if you can help it." Strider's wounds had been superficial, that was true, but they were still many and, even worse, infected with poison from the razors of the Orc's whip. Ceranos had spent hours trying to bring down the Man's fever and tending the wounds with whatever limited healing skills he had. He wetted the sweat-beaded face with water from his gourd and used his own blanket as bandages, tying the long ribbons in place using pieces of the cord that held his hair into a braid. Then, he cradled Strider's shoulders and head close to him, thus making sure that his friend wouldn't make any unnecessary movements, dearly hoping that the Man's body was strong enough to fight back. He had also found out quickly enough that Aragorn responded much better to the Elven-tongue in his delirious dreams, so he suffered himself to speak the fair language, despite the fact that he felt uncomfortable because of his accent. It was during those delirious fits that Ceranos had also found out the Man's true name. He let it slip once by accident only a minute ago, but he wouldn't make the same mistake twice without letting Aragorn explain himself for the secrecy first. He intended to continue addressing him as Strider, hoping that the Man hadn't noticed.
It didn't seem that Aragorn had. He merely blinked some more, until in the end his sight cleared completely. Indeed, above him hovered the face of his fellow traveller, smiling at him, his helmet removed and his fine, jet-black hair loose, covering his shoulders like a cloak. Aragorn was surprised momentarily at this, because now his friend looked truly like an Elf more than ever, his armour being the only thing that would remind anyone to which race Ceranos's heart really belonged. He smiled, his eyes brightening with recognition.
"Welcome back, Strider," said the Firstborn, clearly relieved and happy to see him awaken.
"I thought they had killed you," replied Aragorn, equally relieved, his hand reaching for the Elf's face to make sure that he wasn't imagining things.
"Me? No," grinned Ceranos. "It will take more than mere fire to kill me."
"You heard me, then."
Ceranos nodded the affirmative. "And I thank you for warning me. But what you did in the first place was foolish, I am sorry to say. I know you meant well, Strider," he said, before Aragorn started his objections, "but what good would you do to me if I lived, knowing that someone else died in my place? Especially someone that I happen to consider a friend?"
"Something tells me that you were prepared to accept that kind of fate for yourself," replied the Ranger with a smirk.
"I never said that!" exclaimed Ceranos defensively.
"You did not deny it either."
The Elf never answered, thus proving Aragorn's point.
"What happened back there anyway?" asked the Ranger then.
"You shouldn't concern yourself with that for the present, you have been through enough."
"I need to know," pleaded Aragorn. "Were you in the room when the Orcs came in?"
"I was," answered Ceranos simply.
"But I looked everywhere for you! I could not see you anywhere!"
Seeing that there was no way out of this, Ceranos started telling his story, intending to keep it as short as possible.
"When I saw you retreating from the door, I meant to get out and drag you into the room with me. Just then I saw the Orcs coming, so there was no other choice for me but to stay put and see what the fiends would do next. I heard them near the door and then their shouting when you, from what I gathered back then, attacked them. When I understood that they wanted to come in, I threw both lightening rods into the well and hid myself under the bodies of some Dwarves, face down."
"You hid where?!" exclaimed Aragorn in disbelief. "If the Orcs had put their mind to search the bodies they would have certainly found you!"
"But they never did, because none of them even considered the possibility that I could be there. You never thought of that hiding place either," remarked Ceranos with a grin. "Yet I have to admit that I was helped unexpectedly by their superstition as well. I didn't know that the Orcs were afraid of Durin's Bane! Yes, that is what killed those unfortunate souls and apparently the fiends knew about it. Anyway, good hiding place or no, I stayed there until they set the room in flames."
"That long? But how did you...?" started Aragorn again.
"I am getting to that part!" said Ceranos with a patient smile. "I am sure you noticed the large well in the centre of the room. If you threw a torch there, you would probably be able to notice some holes in the wall, holes that a keen eye would see form a ladder that goes all the way down to the bottom of the well. I went down there before the fire burnt the entire place and, as I was still climbing down, I found what I was looking for."
"And what would that be?"
"A small corridor that I knew would take me to the halls again. You see, Dwarves need easy access to the inside of the wells they build to cleanse them occasionally from any mould and also to examine if the water is clear. This was one such corridor, through which I ended up to the hall on your and the Orcs' right; from there I watched the Orcs cheering and taking you away. I wish I could say that I attacked them at that very moment, but I knew that they would kill you before I reached you, making my rescue attempt meaningless. So I waited for the opportune moment to strike. I didn't have to wait for very long, for soon there were only three Orcs to deal with and two of them departed quickly enough as well. The third went inside the destroyed room, obviously to look around one last time. Little did he know that what he had been looking for would grab him from behind, pin him against the blackened wall and hold a hatchet against his throat. By him I learned where they took you."
"He actually told you?" asked Aragorn in wonder.
"You would be surprised how talkative one can become to stay alive just a few moments longer," pointed out Ceranos grimly, something that made Aragorn shudder and think that he was glad he was on the Elf's side.
"What happened next?" he asked to distract himself from such thoughts.
"Well, I have already told you there are more paths than meets the eye. I used several corridors and secret doors as shortcuts to arrive at the Orc's lair and enter inside without being noticed, long before the other two Orcs that were left behind arrived in fact. You were not able to see me, but I was up at the highest levels of the tunnels in which the Dwarves used to mine, watching the Orcs and you from there. Then it was just a matter of preparing my attack. I wish I had gotten ready sooner to avoid this," he said, his eyes falling on the ugly welts that marred the Man's skin.
"The rumbling sound was you then. I thought you took advantage of their confusion," said Aragorn, more in an attempt to distract Ceranos from his self-blaming.
"Aye, it was. I figured that, since they were so afraid of Durin's Bane, it would be a nice touch. It is quite interesting to see how the grinding of an axe against a rock can sound as it echoes through the tunnels."
"And the fire-balls?"
"Which?" answered the Firstborn puzzled, but then his face lit up with realisation. "Oh, you mean the detonation orbs - that is how we call them. It is the mines here, Strider. There is plenty of sulphur and other flammable ingredients to make quite a powerful mixture that the Dwarves use to break any rocky walls that pickaxes cannot. After making a considerable number of them and lighting them, I catapulted them against the Orcs. When the Orcs tried to escape, I pulled an emergency lever to close the doors as I slid down a ladder into the lair. There is no need to tell you what ensued. I am afraid my ribs protested at such a fierce fight and I could hardly walk after I had dealt with the fiends."
"So that is why you were limping. I thought you had hurt your leg."
"I would be considered pathetic if I hurt myself twice in so short a time, don't you think?" joked Ceranos with a roll of his eyes. "Anyway, now you know everything that there is to know."
"Certainly not. You 'forgot' to say that you took care of me. For that, I thank you."
"I was only returning a favour. Not to mention that my healing abilities can hardly be considered good enough to heal anybody. You did it on your own," said Ceranos modestly.
"I hope you do not mind if I do not share your opinion on this," replied Aragorn smiling. He looked around for a minute and then added: "We should be moving on, I suppose."
"Aye, we should," agreed Ceranos. He dug out from Aragorn's pack another shirt for the Man to wear and then he helped his comrade to stand up. But when Aragorn tried to stand on his own he felt light-headed, and he would have certainly fallen if it weren't for Ceranos catching him swiftly.
"Lean on me," suggested the Elf, already placing the Man's arm across his broad shoulders without waiting for an answer.
"Your ribs..." said Aragorn weakly when he noticed to his dismay that, besides him, Ceranos had to carry all their belongings as well.
"Your back and arms are in no condition to carry anything. Besides, my ribs don't feel so bad anymore. They have almost healed," the Firstborn assured the Ranger. Aragorn was almost certain that his friend was exaggerating about the state of his chest, but he didn't seem to have much energy to waste it on argument. And so, as soon as Ceranos re-opened the doors, the two friends took up their journey in the darkness of Moria, hoping that they would get out soon.
The Man and the Elf had been walking for quite some time when Aragorn noticed Ceranos's eyes flashing with joy. It seemed that the Firstborn had recognised the place that he and Aragorn were treading for what it was, the hall that was leading to the upper halls; and now he was plotting his next course of action. The Ranger hoped now that Ceranos would try and find any moving slabs to save themselves some walking, for he didn't feel like he could take another step.
Aragorn couldn't tell really but, as a matter of fact, Ceranos was very aware of this. Even though his young friend's system managed to fight the poison in the end, he realised that Strider was still very weak, too weak to exert himself like this. And he understood perfectly well that what the Man needed now was Elrond's care. He had heard of Elrond Half-elven's skill as a healer, it was quite well known actually even among the Dwarves. So Ceranos knew that, if anyone could really help Aragorn, it would be him. Now he had one more reason to try to lead them both outside the Mines of Moria.
The Firstborn's thoughts were suddenly cut off, when the ranger stumbled and almost dragged both of them on the ground.
"Clumsy..." murmured Aragorn, embarrassed.
But Ceranos eyed him with a raised eyebrow.
"This is the third time that you have said that, and it is the third time that I don't believe it," he remarked. Aragorn's state must have been a terrible one however, for the Elf's hard gaze softened, forgetting all signs of annoyance.
"Just hold on a little while longer," he soothed. "We will soon be at the upper halls. We will not even have to walk all the way there, I promise you."
All that Aragorn managed to do was nod weakly his understanding and grit his teeth in an attempt to will himself once more to walk, always resting part of his weight on his companion. Ceranos still held the Dunadan's arm over his broad shoulders, his other arm wrapped around his hurt comrade's waist in an attempt to ease his walking as much as possible; and meanwhile looking for the signs that would show him the way to the elevator, his Elf-vision aiding him without the need of any lightening rods (he wasn't able to hold any light, not in the manner he was burdened). He actually smiled when he found what he was looking for. He walked into the room on their left and quickly found the stony slab to carry them both upwards closer to the western exit.
Aragorn had barely registered the motion of their lift as soon as Ceranos activated it. He then felt the Elf dragging him a little farther away from the elevator once it had stopped at its destination; then carefully lowering him on the ground, stomach downwards to protect the injured back from any further harm. The moment that his fatigued body had the chance to lie down, Aragorn's muscles had relaxed and he had closed his eyes, surrendering himself to a deep, healing sleep. He didn't even feel Ceranos placing over him a winter cloak that the Elf happened to have with him in his pack.
As soon as Aragorn opened his eyes, he realised that the numbing pain that he had suffered so far on his back had subsided, and now the only thing to be felt was a stinging sensation that fortunately didn't discomfort any of his movements. He propped himself up to his elbow and his eyes quickly found the powerful form of Ceranos, sitting cross-legged nearby and keeping vigil, the axe ready at hand.
"You were awake all night?" the Man asked in wonder.
"After all the things that happened, one cannot be too careful," replied Ceranos. "How is your back?"
"Better. Your ribs?"
"Healed at last. I can breathe normally now."
"I can see that," noted Aragorn teasingly, his gaze falling on the lit pipe lingering in the Elf's mouth.
"It hastens my healing," explained Ceranos with a joking grin. "I certainly feel a lot better now."
"Of course!" said Aragorn with a laugh, now trying to lift himself on his feet and hoping that his body wouldn't fail him this time. To his relief, it didn't, so now Aragorn was able to walk about once more on his own. He handed the winter cloak back to its rightful owner, nodding in gratitude.
"How many miles till we reach the exit, now that we are in the upper halls?" he asked, while Ceranos was folding his cloak and placing it back in his pack.
"Not many. We will certainly be able to reach it today. Aye, it is day. Look how the sunlight shines through that window up there!"
"That is the best news I have heard in a long while," said Aragorn, looking up to where the Elf pointed. "I have grown weary of this place." The Man instantly bit his lower lip when he realised that he had spoken ill of the place in front of someone who would only praise it, but he was too late. "My apologies..." he started, but Ceranos raised his hand to silence him.
"You should not apologise for something that is true," said the Firstborn kindly, "for I have grown tired of it myself. So the sooner we find the exit, the better for both of us." And with that, he settled his pack on his back, while he was about to carry Aragorn's belongings also in his hand. However, the Ranger stopped him, assuring him that he was strong enough to carry it on his own. It took some convincing, but Ceranos complied in the end; and the two companions put one last effort for the Western Gate of Moria.
Aragorn winced again inwardly. The cuts were getting aggravated as they walked, something that he didn't mind all that much at first, but the pain was getting worse as time passed. However, he had no intention of showing that to Ceranos. Once they got out of the Mines of Khazad-dum, he would be able to tend to his wounds properly. The mere thought that the exit was close was powerful enough to give him the strength of will to continue on. So, bearing the pain in silence, he kept following the Elf through the tunnels and abandoned levels of mines, even though he felt at times Ceranos eyeing him closely, obviously suspecting something was wrong.
Still, it didn't seem like Aragorn was the only thing occupying Ceranos's mind now. The Ranger noticed how the Elf looked around warily at the shadows, his hand lying tensely on one of his hatchets. He was clearly sensing something, and the Man didn't have to guess what he was sensing /exactly/; he also felt the unfriendly eyes on his back, making him shudder.
"I am surprised they did not attack yet," he murmured in a hardly audible tone.
"Considering that they must have found out by now that besides the Trolls we killed a whole patrol as well, I am surprised that they even think of attacking," answered Ceranos in the same low voice. "They are probably holding back till we seem tired and vulnerable enough."
"And if we have reached the gate by then?"
"I don't think they intend to let us live to tell the tale," hinted the Elf. "But that is not what worries me most. Your back is still in bad shape. You know this."
"Nevertheless you cannot fight them all on your own," argued Aragorn.
"I wish I could. The cuts will not heal unless they are tended; and they will certainly not improve with your battle against the Orcs."
"I will manage," said Aragorn with a small reassuring smile. Ceranos looked into the stormy grey eyes, noting the fiery determination reflected there, and nodded his acknowledgment. With no other word, they kept walking into the dark, the sunbeams that passed through the cracks above being their only light. And as they walked on, the Dwarven structures became more numerous once again, meaning that they were approaching more halls - the ones that led to the gate.
"We are close," remarked Aragorn with joy.
"Yes," answered Ceranos, his senses now more tense than ever. "They know it too. They have moved closer."
"You can hear them?"
It was then that his hand reached for Aragorn's and held it. Surprised, the Ranger turned to look at Ceranos, who only motioned his eyes downwards, showing thus two things: his hatchet and Aragorn's sword. "On my signal," was all that he mouthed.
Aragorn nodded slightly and, letting go of Ceranos's hand, he gripped the handle of his weapon. The seconds seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly as they waited still, looking at the shadows that closed around them threateningly. One by one, the Man forced all his senses to become as alert as possible. Nothing could be seen however, and no noise was heard either. In fact, such silence reigned in the halls now that the only thing that Aragorn could hear was his deep breathing as he tried to calm it down and his heart beating loudly and forcefully against his chest. A thin film of sweat broke out on his face, and even beads had started sliding down his brow. He felt his mouth dry and unconsciously wetted his lips with his tongue, as this waiting started weighing heavily on him. His fingers fidgeted involuntarily, his body ready to act quickly in the prospect of battle.
Aragorn's hair stood up when he sensed Ceranos beside him just as tense. When he turned, he saw the fair creature as still as a statue, his teeth gritting and his blue-green eyes penetrating in expectation at anyone or anything that would come close to him. But it was the face as a whole that made the Man almost exclaim in wondering shock. Whatever Elven traits he had recognised on his companion before seemed to have withdrawn and been replaced by a hardened, expressionless mask, something that was only emphasized by the helmet Ceranos was wearing. No, Ceranos didn't feel Elven anymore at that moment. Whatever creature it was that stood now next to him could only be described as something frozen, distant, void... and even frightening. Then the Man saw the blades of his comrade's hatchets glimmering in the semi-dark. It seemed that they were both shining in welcome to the Orc-blood that would be shed soon. Ceranos seemed to welcome such a notion anyway.
Still they waited for a few moments, both holding their breath. And then a snarl sounding at their left broke the spell of that silence.
"Now!" screamed Ceranos.
The first Orcs to charge were unfortunate enough to encounter the Elf and the Man's weapons, which were instantly in their hands; yet that didn't slow down the attack in the slightest. Wielding their scimitars, the Orcs tried to get their hands on those insolent intruders, regardless the cost.
Standing back to back, the two warriors faced their attackers, Aragorn cutting down his opponents one after the other, the Elf slashing every Orc that dared challenge him, his hatchets almost invisible at the speed by which they swirled about his hands and his body. Yet both of them knew that they couldn't win this battle. More Orcs took the place of every hewed one, growling and shrieking their hatred at both tark and Elf. The two friends understood that they had to move towards the exit, hoping that they would last till they managed to get out.
"This way!" cried Ceranos at the Ranger. And they both started fighting their way stubbornly to the direction of the gate, bodies of Orcs falling to their right and left. Aragorn fought on fiercely, when at that moment he saw more Orcs standing in formation a little ahead. He shuddered involuntarily, for he understood what was happening. They were going exactly where the Orcs wanted them to!
"Ceranos..." he started, running his sword through another Orc's chest.
"I know! Hold on!" interrupted the Elf, his hatchets beheading another attacker.
"Just do what I say!" snapped Ceranos. In a flash, one of his hatchets had flown to meet the face of another Orc that was ready to hew Aragorn. "Trust me and keep fighting!"
The Ranger grabbed with one hand the hatchet from the Orc, passing it swiftly to his friend, and then fought on, watching the Orcs coming closer to view and dearly hoping that Ceranos knew what he was doing; for it seemed to Aragorn that his comrade was crazed by battle frenzy. Indeed the Elf's handsome face was now heavily distorted in wrath and kept shouting at the top of his lungs while his hatchets killed off two, sometimes even three Orcs in a row.
Yet no matter how many Orcs were dismayed, even more of them pressed the two friends by circling around them, almost surrounding them.
Just when it seemed that the Orcs that had been waiting by would attack as well, Aragorn felt Ceranos grabbing him and pushing him to the right to a narrow bridge that, apparently, the Elf had known about and had waited for the opportune moment to dash in the direction of before they were completely surrounded. Ceranos wasn't gentle in his touch, that was for certain, and Aragorn hissed in pain. The Man turned to protest despite their situation, when he saw an Orkish scimitar ready to land in his friend's back.
If Ceranos was swift while he was fighting with his weapons, the flowing motion that he displayed now could only be compared to lightening; for before Aragorn could even blink, he had whirled around and had hit the Orc squarely on his jaw with his pack, pushing him against the rest of their would-be murderers. Without a word, he again prodded Aragorn onwards and, after a few long strides, they had crossed to the other side. The Orcs hesitated for a moment, but they started following too, one by one.
Aragorn was about to start running again, when he noticed that Ceranos had crouched down with his pack.
"What are you doing?" he cried to him incredulously.
Ceranos didn't answer, but he quickly took out a small bundle (the only one that was left from his attack against the Orcs that held Aragorn), and the remaining lightening rod.
"No time for flints..." he murmured more to himself than to the Ranger. He struck the lightening rod on the ground and instantly a flame broke out which he used to light the small bundle. Without losing any time, he flung it against the Orcs, making sure that his aim was good. The moment that it struck amongst the foul beasts, it went off, destroying both the bridge and the Orcs that were on it alike. The rest were left stuck on the other end, shouting words of hate at both the Man and the Elf.
Ceranos turned towards Aragorn, who stood agape at the scene that unfolded before him for many long moments; then a smile shone on their features as they finally felt that they were out of danger. They started walking away, when to their dismay more Orcs stepped out of the shadows in front of them, snarling and growling, their scimitars already in their claws.
"I do not know what you said, but I utterly agree," said Aragorn in answer to Ceranos's low swearing. He swiftly set himself to fight again, but he was stopped.
"No, we run!" cried the Elf, dragging his comrade away.
And run they did, before the Orcs could lay their hands on them. They ran as fast as their feet could carry them to the only way that was open to them: a flight of stairs that led to a single room. They quickly turned the handles and threw themselves inside, only to find that they had entered a cemetery. Indeed the place was filled with great stone boxes, holding inside the bodies of Dwarves that had long since passed to the Waiting Halls of Mandos. Hearing the Orcs coming up as well, they hardly lost any time. With a few mighty heaves, they pushed one such heavy stone box to hold the doors in place.
They had barely made it in time when they felt the Orcs trying to push the doors open. Three times the fiends tried to break in and at each time both Aragorn and Ceranos felt their hearts jumping out of their places. In the end though, everything grew quiet once more.
The two friends let out a breath they hadn't realised they had been holding, and then sat down to rest their backs against their improvised barrier, closing their eyes. However they opened them again in an instant for they saw something that neither of them liked at all.
There was no other exit. If there ever was one, it was now buried amid the rubble of a collapsed wall.
Aragorn and Ceranos's predicament seemed now darker than ever. They had looked everywhere for any possible way out of the room, but there was none to be found. To make matters worse, the Orcs had started their attempt to break in again and both friends could hear the heavy clank and low creaking of the doors, as armour and wood slammed together. In the end, Aragorn sat on the floor, resting his head on his hands, resembling at that moment the embodiment of desperation.
"We are trapped," he murmured. "I suppose it is in our fate to die by their claws."
Ceranos didn't speak immediately. He stared at the doors for several heartbeats, watching how they slowly yielded to the strength of the numerous Orcs that kept pushing them forcefully.
"There is no need to make it any easier for them," he finally remarked. With eyes flashing with resolution, he slowly stepped close to the doors, wielding his axe.
"What are you doing?" exclaimed Aragorn in disbelief.
"The first Orc to enter will find out," answered Ceranos, setting himself in a fighting position. He had been taught well from his foster family that one should keep fighting even with his last dying breath, and he was ready to do exactly that.
Aragorn looked at Ceranos as the Elf's legs planted firmly on the ground and his hands gripped the handle of his weapon tightly. The Man was still wondering at him when he felt something brush by him swiftly. He looked up to catch a glimpse of the thrush as it was still flying away, but it wasn't that that made him smile however. It was rather where the thrush flew through.
He quickly stood up and placed his hand on Ceranos's shoulder to show him the small hole over the rubble. Ceranos looked up and grinned broadly, understanding what was in Aragorn's mind. Helping the Man up to the top of the rubble, they both went close to the hole. It wasn't a very big one: a man's fist could barely go through. The wall itself wasn't very thick though, and both friends felt that behind that crack on the wall lay their only means of escape.
"Can you widen it?" Aragorn asked, while trying to disregard for the time being the crashing noise the Orcs were making against the doors.
"I have been digging through walls for seven centuries, Strider, and this one certainly will not prove difficult," answered Ceranos, opening his pack. "Although..."
"Remind me not to use my pack as a means of defence next time," replied the Firstborn, revealing his pickaxe out of his bag. Its handle had broken in two and a mere splinter was the only thing that kept both ends together.
The Man would have actually smiled at the face Ceranos made because of his ruined tool, but the racket of the continuous crashing that rung throughout the room didn't give him that chance.
"Let us hope there will be a next time," he said darkly. "Now hurry!"
Ceranos didn't have to be told twice. Holding the pickaxe with both hands, he hit the wall swiftly and surely at several weak points. He didn't let himself be disturbed by a frightening sound of a wooden board snapping from the doors or the happy shrieks of the Orcs as they were finally managing to break in; and soon a bright light rushed through the large hole that now stood before Man and Elf.
"No time to make it any bigger I am afraid," said Ceranos, looking momentarily back at the quickly yielding doors, then back to Aragorn. "We will have to squeeze through, head-first. Go!"
Aragorn wouldn't have it, wishing his friend to pass safely through first, but Ceranos grabbed him and shoved him through the hole. He quickly got out too, and they both welcomed the beams that now fell on them from a bright sun in a blue sky. But neither of them had the time to cry joyfully, for they both saw instantly that the rock they were standing on was the only thing standing between them and a waterfall. They were still trying to figure out what to do next when they heard above the roaring echo of the waterfall an even louder crashing sound. Aragorn looked through the hole to see to his dismay the doors finally breaking. He looked down at the foam that rose from the water as it fell violently down and then turned to Ceranos, who was glued against the rock wall, not daring to look down himself.
"We have only one choice and that is to jump!" shouted Aragorn at his friend. "Get ready on the count of three!"
"Strider?" shouted the Elf, grabbing the Man's shoulder, his eyes locking to Aragorn's stormy-grey ones.
"There is something I should tell you!"
"Now?!" cried the Ranger incredulously; but the Elf's eyes made him understand what was the problem. "You cannot swim!"
"At all! I cannot even paddle!" admitted Ceranos.
"What kind of an Elf does not know how to swim?" cried Aragorn again, still not believing what he was hearing.
"One that was raised by Dwarves, do we really have to discuss this now?" retorted Ceranos, clearly frustrated.
"All right, calm down! We will have to think of something else."
"We will?" asked the Elf gladly.
"Yes. And I have thought of it already!"
"Hold on to me tightly!"
"What?!" cried Ceranos, trying to figure what was his companion saying. It was then that the Man's fingers grabbed his armour, dragging him along on his own leap down the waterfall. "ARAGORN!!!" he screamed, feeling himself falling while Aragorn was still holding him.
Even during their fall Aragorn had registered Ceranos screaming his name, but he didn't have the luxury to wonder at it at the particular moment. He took a deep breath and quickly extended his arms and body in a diving position, hoping that Ceranos had the sense to do that as well. He hit the water and, without losing any time, his eyes searched for the Elf's form. He quickly found what he was looking for and he almost panicked to notice that Ceranos was sinking fast, clearly stunned after the impact with the water. The Ranger swam behind him, then wrapped his arms around Ceranos's body and quickly swam upwards to the surface of the water before he became too desperate for air. He dragged Ceranos to the riverbed and, using all the strength he had, he pulled himself and his friend out off the water. The Elf's closed eyes made Aragorn immediately act by quickly rolling his comrade on his stomach, removing his helmet, and pressing with both hands down the Ceranos's back to force the water out of his lungs. Ceranos responded instantly, coughing out violently all the water that he had unwillingly swallowed.
"Do not fight it, just cough," said Aragorn encouragingly.
Ceranos couldn't help but comply. Soon he was once more breathing in precious air, his whole form trembling, since the fierceness of the coughs proved too much for his body to handle.
"Are you all right?" the DÃºnadan asked softly in concern, his hand gently stroking the Elf's back in the hopes of soothing the tremors away.
"I am... now," whispered Ceranos after some effort and then turned to face Aragorn, his hand trying to move the wet hair off his face. "You know, Strider... this is not the best way... to keep a friendship..."
"You still consider me a friend then?" asked Aragorn, smiling a bit.
"Aye, I do..." answered the Elf with a grin, lifting himself to a sitting position as his strength was slowly returning. "A half-crazed one, but a friend nonetheless..." he added, wringing the water out of his hair.
"I am glad," said the Man, his smile broadening. Aragorn's face darkened though when he remembered what happened while they were falling.
"Ceranos... How did you find out my real name?"
The Elf blushed guiltily. He was hoping that Aragorn wouldn't pursue the matter, but the Man's look clearly showed that he wouldn't get away that easily this time.
"I heard you say it," he murmured, "after I attacked the Orcs that had captured you." And with a few brief words, he explained to his friend about the poison that had invaded his body and the fevered dreams it caused.
"I did not mean to find out," concluded the Elf after his narrative. "I understood that you had your reasons to keep it a secret and I intended to respect that. I had no right in knowing anyway, since we met only four days ago. It would be foolish if you had confided in me from the start, knowing nothing about me and my character."
Aragorn gazed at the guilt-ridden Ceranos for many moments as the Firstborn fumbled his hands nervously, his eyes locked stubbornly on the ground. Finally deciding that Ceranos was telling the truth, he cupped with one hand his friend's chin, thus prodding him to look up at him.
"You did nothing wrong," Aragorn assured him kindly. "I only wish you could have found out because I had told you about my true identity, not because of some mere accident. And yet, I do not regret you knowing. It has been only four days, as you say, but I would gladly tell you now my real name had you asked it."
Ceranos's lips did tug to a small smile, but his eyes still were filled with guilt and they tried to avert the Man's gaze. So the Ranger extended his hand to prove his point.
"I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's heir and the heir to the throne of Gondor."
Looking from the corner of his eye, Ceranos took the Man's hand in his meekly.
"Glad to meet you," he said in a soft tone. He had heard of Isildur as a name of old in a time long forgotten, when the shadow known as Sauron was still plotting to cover the lands of Middle-earth in darkness and war ensued to stop the great evil from spreading. Other than that, the name mattered little to Ceranos, except for the fact that Aragorn now chose to confide it in him as something very important; and that honoured him greatly.
"Are you feeling better now?" asked Aragorn smiling, placing a playful fist on his companion.
"Actually," answered Ceranos with a slight grin, all feelings of remorse fading at last. "I will feel a lot better once we start moving again. And after I do this."
He rose on his feet and turned to the direction of the waterfall and the Mines of Moria, aiming his next words at the Orcs that he knew lingered there.
"Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul, rakhas!"**
"What did you say?" said Aragorn curiously when Ceranos turned back once more.
"I will tell you as we walk," answered the Elf, grabbing his pack. "Let us go."
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Ceranos had asked Aragorn if he could escort him to the borders of Rivendell, an offer that the Man had welcomed happily. Aragorn was concerned at first that Ceranos wouldn't arrive in time for the festivities in Nogrod, but the Elf had assured him that he preferred to see him reach his home safely. Besides, his way wasn't so difficult anymore. There were lots of main roads that led straight to the Blue Mountains. So they both walked onwards to Rivendell, the terrors of the Mines of Moria soon to be remembered as a bad dream. The only thing that reminded them of their adventure was Aragorn's injured back.
Oddly enough however, neither of them seemed to have regretted their journey through the darkness of Khazad-dum; for even though it was a journey that could have cost both their lives, it was also one in which they had met each other. That somehow made up for the hardships and fears they had to go through during those particular four days. That was also the reason that both their hearts were heavy on the day that they had reached the border of Imladris, the realm that sheltered the Last Homely House, ruled by Elrond Half-elven, Aragorn's foster father. Aragorn looked at the now familiar trees near which he had ridden along with Elladan and Elrohir so long before, and then at Ceranos. He didn't wish to say goodbye, not yet.
"Let us sit here for a while," he suggested, sitting down on the fallen trunk of a tree and beckoning Ceranos to sit beside him.
The Firstborn sat down too; but neither of them spoke for many long moments, for neither of them knew what they were supposed to say to ease their parting. It was finally Ceranos who broke the silence.
"I am glad to have met you, you know," he said. He couldn't bring himself to look his friend in the eyes, knowing that this would only make things more difficult for him. "We were a good team, considering all the trouble we had to face."
"I was about to say what a dreadful team we are for the same reasons," exclaimed Aragorn, causing both of them to laugh a bit. But Ceranos grew serious once more.
"There is something I want you to have," he blurted out, his hand quickly searching his pack and digging out his pipe. "Here."
Aragorn's eyes opened wide in surprise.
"This is yours! You smoke your pipe-weed with it every night!" he exclaimed.
"Nevertheless I want you to take it."
"Ceranos, I do not smoke. How can you hand your pipe to somebody you know will never use it?"
"You don't have to smoke, you can put it in a corner of your room," argued the Elf. "It can still serve as a reminder of our adventure and our meeting. Please accept it."
Aragorn remained silent for a few minutes, clearly indecisive; then finally reached for the pipe.
"Thank you. I only wish I could give you something back in return."
"There is something you can do for me," murmured Ceranos, finally locking his gaze on the Ranger.
"Then say it. You know you only have to name it."
Ceranos swallowed hard, clearly concerned about something and his mind in turmoil. In the end, he took a great breath and sighed.
"Don't watch me go."
Aragorn was certainly taken aback by that kind of request.
"What? Why?" he faltered.
"It is an old Dwarven belief," replied the Elf, his cheeks flushing. Ach, he should have kept his mouth shut! Aragorn was a Man, he wouldn't understand! But it was too late; Ceranos had already intrigued him too much.
"And?" asked Aragorn, trying to see where his friend was getting with this. It was still a wonder to him how Ceranos could slip from bravery to shyness so quickly.
"And," continued the Elf, plucking up courage, "one should not watch the other go, because it means they will never see each other again."
"It seems to me that not only Orcs are superstitious," Aragorn teased mildly, and yet realising what the Elf really asked of him: that they should meet again. Deeply touched, he placed his arm over Ceranos's shoulders and placed a playful fist on his friend's chin, making his comrade smile.
"We will see each other again. I am afraid my destiny lies elsewhere for the time being; but I will come to the Blue Mountains and visit you at the first chance."
"Is that a promise?" asked Ceranos, his eyes shining hopefully.
"It is a promise."
Smiling broadly, the Firstborn held Aragorn in a warm embrace, an embrace that the Ranger quickly returned. Both remained like this for several moments, saying in this way their last goodbye.
"Stay safe," murmured Ceranos.
"You too, my friend," replied Aragorn in the same soft tone.
They had just released each other, when the Ranger's ears pricked up to a familiar sound. He quickly stood up and walked a few steps toward the wood, straining to listen carefully, to hear the jingling of bells and a neigh again.
"That can only be Asfaloth," said Aragorn with a smile more to himself than to Ceranos. "Oi! Over here!" he cried joyfully.
"You have to meet Glorfindel at least," he continued, his words aimed to Ceranos this time. "He is one of the best warriors Rivendell could possibly have! You know he actually fought against a..." His voice trailed off when he turned and realised that he was alone. Ceranos was gone; and there was no sign of him, though Aragorn looked everywhere.
"You made sure that I would not watch you go," he murmured in regret. He would certainly miss that strange Elf he had come to consider a friend.
He was still looking at the direction he guessed Ceranos had taken when Glorfindel appeared on Asfaloth.
"Ai! I knew I heard that voice well! It is good to see you here, Estel!" said the great warrior cheerfully, addressing Aragorn with the name Elrond had given him long ago.
"It is good to see you too, Glorfindel. What news of my home?"
"I can tell you, but you will not like what I will say. Lady Galadriel informed Elrond by a travelling pigeon that you were venturing towards home despite her warnings. Needless to say that Elrond got concerned about your safety. He was ready to send warriors to retrieve you if you were even one day late from the average time that takes one to travel from Lothlorien to Rivendell. Fortunately you made it just in time."
"He should worry more about Elladan, he is the one with the broken leg!" retorted Aragorn teasingly; but at the mention of Elladan's name he grew serious again. "How is he?"
"He fares well, considering he is confined in his bed. But come, you will see for yourself once we get back to the Last Homely House. Gather your things, Asfaloth can carry us both."
Aragorn did that, being careful not to discomfort his back, which was still throbbing at times. But Glorfindel wasn't blind. He quickly saw the stiff manner in which the Man walked, so he quickly dismounted and went close to him.
"So... do you wish to explain what happened?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I came across trouble," confessed the Man shyly.
"That much I can understand. Let me see."
Aragorn showed him his injured arms and back, something that made the Elf-lord sigh.
"The welts are ugly, but perhaps Elrond can treat them properly and make certain no scars are left. You were saying something about Elladan, /erneth?/*" he said, tussling Aragorn's hair in a teasing manner. Aragorn only rolled his eyes, but that didn't stop Glorfindel from laughing. He helped the Ranger on the horse and, as soon as he was up too, he whispered to the steed to start cantering home.
"Comfortable enough, Estel?" asked Glorfindel, as they rode on.
"/Ai/, yes," said Aragorn sleepily. The rocking motion of the horse was quickly lulling him to sleep. "I only wish you could have met Ceranos," he added, his memories drifting back to his strange companion.
"A friend I met. He helped me... when I was captured by the Orcs," answered the Man, doing his best to stay awake.
Glorfindel actually smiled.
"It seems to me that you have a very interesting story to tell. I would very much like to hear it; and I am sure Elrond and the twins will love to hear it also... even though Elrond will probably lecture you again about not being careful. You can tell us all about it at dinner at home, after you have taken a refreshing bath."
"Home," echoed the Man in a sigh, his heart warming at the prospect of finally returning to Rivendell, for now he wished nothing more than to see the people he considered his family again. He would probably see Arwen there, too. Resting his head on the Elf's back, he finally gave in to sleep, the image of the beautiful maiden still lingering in his mind's eye.
*/Sedho, Aragorn./: Hold still, Aragorn. (Sindarin)
**/Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul, rakhas!/: I spit on your grave, Orks! (Khuzdul)
*/erneth/: young one (Sindarin)