THE JOURNEY HOME
Morning of November 8, 3019
By 3 o'clock in the morning on November 8, Aldir had traveled ten miles west from Osgiliath. At this midway point in the journey, he had seen the glow of large campfires off into the distance away from the road and had reined in his horse and looked at the glowing brightness from the road. The silence of the night was punctured by a loud, mournful wail. "Hounds!" he thought. "Vardamir's escape must surely be found out by now and the Easterlings sent their accursed tracking hounds out to find him."
The orc draught raged like fire in his stomach, but he knew that its fiery potency contained healing powers and he was thankful to the Valar that chance had brought the draught to his friends and him. He hoisted the skin, holding the draught to his lips once more, and drank deeply. His left hand held to his wounded side, he could feel the warm stickiness of the blood that oozed through his tunic and cloak.
He thinks to himself, "Vardamir would be displeased, for though he is proud of his stitching of my side, his deft skills with the needle has not fully stanched the flow of blood." He knees his horse into a slow walk, and giving one last look at the burning fires, he turns his face westward to Minas Artano.
Six o'clock finds him nearing the end of his journey. "There is only one mile yet to Minas Artano," he thinks as he reins in his horse. "Friend, we must soon part company," he says as he leans forward and strokes the horse's neck, "for I cannot take you back with me into the city, lest they would know of my part in the deeds of last night."
Holding the reins in his left hand, he dismounts, and taking the skin of orc draught from the pommel of the saddle, he slings it over his right shoulder. He takes the saddlebags off, flinging them to the side of the road. Then he unfastens the cinch that holds the saddle to the back of the horse. "I rid you of this encumbrance, while I must needs take upon me the yoke of servitude once again. What you will do with your newfound freedom, I do not know, but take it and embrace it and never let freedom depart from you!"
He unfastens the bridle from the horse's head and throws it to the side of the road with the saddle and saddlebags. "Now go," he says to the horse. The black stallion looks at him for a moment as though sensing its course of direction. Its right ear twitches ever so slightly, and then the horse turns and stands quietly for a moment. The beast jerks its head up with a start and with a wild nickering sound, it bolts into a running leap and heads back up the road, back to the dark lands whence it came and whence its spirit is indelibly linked forever.
"There are many kinds of bondage," Aldir thinks, "and he has his and I have mine." He turns away from gazing at the horse that is rapidly running away and sets his face once again for Minas Artano.
The last part of his journey to the city gate seems a very long one to Aldir and the speed of his pace grows ever slower as he nears the city. "I am weary with a weariness that I have never known before, but it is not far now and the journey will soon be over."
Looking to the lights of the hill, he thinks over in his mind the ruse that he has planned to get back into the city. About three-fourths of a mile from the gates, he leaves the road and angles away from the main city and goes in the direction of Newburg. Here, away from the road, the ground is snow covered, mounding up to a foot or more deep. As he lifts his foot to move into the snow, his feet crunch through the top and downward until the top of the layer of snow is at mid-calf point on him. Each footstep through the barrier of snow seems heavier than the one before. As he trudges through the foot-deep snow, a few more snowflakes fall from the icy sky and dance before his face.
Protected by the cover of darkness and the absence of travelers on the road at this hour, Aldir walks for another mile and a quarter until he is a half mile from Newburg. "This should be far enough," he thinks as he walks through the snow back to the main road. "They will see me coming from the direction of Newburg and think me a man of the city who is returning late."
He turns then and walks back the remaining way to the gates of Minas Artano. He uncorks the draught skin and pours it over his shoulders, letting the malodorous liquid run down his clothing, then flings the skin away from him. He thinks to himself, "They will think me a drunk, returning from the taverns of Newburg."
He walks towards the gate, singing a bawdy tune in common speech and staggering in his gait. At the gate, he is challenged by two guards and he knows that there must be more in the towers of the gate. "State your business!"
Aldir slurs, "My business was wenching tonight, and a fine business it was. At least it was at first, until when I woke up, I found the wench had robbed me of all my silver."
The guards laugh at him. "That's what happens to you when you drink too much in the taverns! Phew! You reek of orc draught! You must frequent the lowest of taverns then!"
"Aye, I do," he says, "for I am not a wealthy man and I must take what I can get."
The guards laugh again. "And the wench you had tonight! What was she? Part orc to go with the draught?"
A foolish look upon his face, Aldir slurs, "Nay! She was a fine wench! A pure Rohirric one, fine, big, buxom and strapping she was, and big in the hips, but far more than a match for me I fear."
The guards laugh at him. "Go on, you drunken fool and learn to stay away from the rougher taverns."
"Thank you, my good man," Aldir says, and as he starts to walk through the gate, he staggers, then stumbles and almost falls. "You need to repair the road here," he slurs. His departure is met with hoots of derision from the guards.
He starts up the hill, keeping close to buildings and walls and turning east towards the gate to the second level of the city. "I must get rid of these clothes," he thinks, and seeing an alley to his left, he slips into it. He takes off his cloak and then he unfastens his sword belt and places it atop his cloak. "Now for the filthy, reeking orc tunic," he thinks, as he pulls it over his head. Tossing it towards some boxes scattered about back in the alley, Aldir is startled by the sound of a long, low hiss, and two angry yellow orbs glare back at him.
"It is only a cat," he thinks as the creature darts by him, its white coat visible through the gloom of the alley. A thought flashes through his mind, and he thinks of Queen Beruthiel, the strange queen of Gondor long ago whose husband banished her and set her adrift on a ship; and her ten cats, one white, nine black, who were said to spy on the people of Gondor. "That was only a legend," he thinks.
His hand goes to the bandage wrapped around his middle and he feels the warm, sticky blood as it oozes through the bandage. "Little good the bandage does me now," he thinks. He reaches down and pulls first one boot and then the other, his feet wincing as they meet the cold of the cobblestones. He unclasps the orc breeches and pulls them down, tossing them into the alley and wonders as he does so if the flying object will unleash nine more cats, this time black in color.
He is relieved when he hears only a hollow sound when the breeches strike an empty box. He quickly puts his boots back on and bends down and picks up his sword belt with the sheathed sword and dagger attached. He fastens it about his waist. Then he takes his cloak, putting it over his head and shoulders and fastening the clasp about the neck. He thinks, "If another guard challenges my way up the hill to night, when he smells the reek of the draught and sees that I wear naught but my pelt under my cloak, he will think that truly I am a drunk, besotted and returning from a tavern."
He turns out of the alley and walks head on into a large uruk guard, the shadows of his glaring face visible from the torch in his left hand. The guard steps back and looks Aldir up and down, moving his torch near his face so he can get a closer view. "What are you, slave man or free?" the uruk growls.
Aldir bows now. "I am a slave, master. My pardon for bumping into you."
"Slave," the uruk snarls, "I thought so, now that I see you reeking of draught and the pale skin of your bare legs glowing like an accursed star in the night. Too long in the taverns of Newburg?" he asks as he brings his face and his fetid breath up close to Aldir.
Aldir replies, "Yes, and tonight I was crowned the King of Newburg by all the wenches in the tavern."
"Drunken fool!" the orc says, and slaps him across the head, knocking him sprawling sideways across the cold cobblestones. "Naked paleskin scum!" the orcs says as he spits on one of Aldir's bare legs. Stepping over him, the guard walks on down the hill.
Aldir crawls to his hands and knees, his head still spinning from the blow. "Only two more levels to go, and unless I encounter any guards brighter than the one I encountered so far," he looks back over his shoulders down the hill, "I should be able to live to tell the tale."
At last he reaches the third level where Frodo's townhouse lies. Listening to every sound in the cold night air, Aldir makes his way along the wall until he reaches the little used gate to which he and Vardamir came two nights before. "Perhaps the hinges will not make such a noise when the door is opened this time," he thinks, but when he tries the door, it resists him firmly. "It is locked?" he thinks, a sudden feeling of impending doom coming upon him. "And I do not have the skill of Vardamir to pick it, nor even a wire to make the effort."
He leans forward, reaching his arms up and putting them on the door and resting his head upon his hands. "Lilandra," he groans to himself. For the first time, he gives into despair. "Is all hope lost now, so close to home?"
He feels now after enduring all that he had that he might never see Lilandra again. "Manwe and Varda give me wisdom," he implores as he walks up the length of the darkness of the high wall that encircles Frodo's hall.
His hands search the sides of the wall and he finds no gaps in the chunks of mortar to allow him even a foothold or a hand hold. He thinks, "All hope is gone and I can never get over the wall." Then he continues the walk along the wall, feeling with his fingers for breaks in the rock. A cold icicle hanging from a treeless branch grazes his face.
"Varda, you have answered my prayer!" he says as he reaches out and finds a large trunk of a tree growing alongside the wall. His right hand reaches out for the leafless branch as he puts his foot into the fork of the tree. He throws his body forward and grabs another branch with his left hand and pulls himself slowly up the tree. Climbing is difficult in places because some of the branches are slippery and covered with ice. Halfway up the tree, he stops to rest, his hands holding on to upper limbs and his feet resting on the branch below.
The branch that supports him begins to creak with his weight and he quickly pulls himself higher. Making his way to near the top of the tree, he feels with his hands in the darkness and touches the top of the wall. His hands search out to see if another tree grows along the wall on the other side, but finding none, he considers the drop below him of ten feet. He inches his way along the top of the wall until he crouches upon its ledge.
Using the branches for balance, he turns until he faces the tree. Holding to a branch and the edge of the wall, he slowly extends his leg, his foot bracing against the wall. Then quickly moving his other hand to the wall, he holds on tightly and eases the other leg down over the abyss until he hangs suspended, holding on to the ledge with both hands. "Here I go," he thinks. "I just hope I do not wake up in the arms of Mandos."
Then he lets himself drop, and he lands crouching on the frozen ground. He gets to his feet and walks gingerly towards the hall, limping a bit. He comes to the window of the room that he and his wife share and he raps softly upon the shutters.
"Lilandra?" he whispers as he looks to the east and sees the faint traces of the winter dawn just beginning to touch the sky. "I'm back."
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