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Unto the ending of the world: 2. The Crownless
March 15, 3019
Halbarad cursed as he looked towards Aragorn; his kinsman was barely holding his ground against the Wraith. He cursed again when he saw that the Nazgûl's beast blocked all from coming near. Should he join Legolas and Gimli in attempting to drive the beast away, or try to get around it? No time! Not that there were many others around who could come to Aragorn's aid; most of their company had been carried off by their panicked mounts. Only those who had been thrown as he had, and the few who had kept control of their horses, were anywhere near.
Somehow, the Elf and the Dwarf drove the beast back enough that the way past was clear, and in his haste to get to Aragorn's side, Halbarad as good as threw the standard at his son, not waiting to see if Halmir caught it.
He was not far behind the sons of Elrond, but still too far away. Faster! They were almost there...
The Nazgûl struck and Aragorn stumbled. Before the Nazgûl could attack again, Elladan and Elrohir were on him.
With the Wraith engaged, Halbarad risked a look around, and saw many of the Grey Company had returned. Some assisted the Elf and the Dwarf in slaying the Nazgûl's mount, others were now coming directly to their Chieftain's assistance. "Shield wall!" Halbarad ordered, and quickly knelt next to Aragorn, who was lying on his side, his hands clenched in pain. Wounded... but he lives...
Before Halbarad could look closely at Aragorn's wound, Elladan and Elrohir joined him. There was little he could do to aid them as they took care of Aragorn; likely he would only be in their way, so he merely gave Aragorn's arm a brief touch to signal his presence, and moved aside.
As Halbarad stood up to see how the battle was going, he found his men hard pressed by the Orcs and Easterlings who had resumed their attack with full ferocity. The Grey Company's defence was still holding, but they were cut off from the Gondorian troops. It could not be long before they were overwhelmed.
Halbarad tapped Elrohir's shoulder to get his attention. The other nodded, and joined him swiftly. "How is he?" Halbarad asked.
Elrohir sighed and answered, "Not good. He is conscious, but it is a gut wound, and made by a Morgul blade. We staunched the bleeding, but beyond that there is little we can do out here. Do you see any chance of reaching the city?"
Halbarad shook his head. "Not unless reinforcement comes. We cannot hold for long." As he spoke, he looked out across the field again, and saw that help was indeed on its way. Under the blue banner of Dol Amroth a company of cavalry was heading their way and ahead of them a whiteclad figure that could only be Gandalf.
Gandalf reached their position first, though the other riders were not far behind. The knights of Dol Amroth for the most part circled round to engage the enemy in battle, with a small group heading towards them. Gandalf went immediately to Aragorn, while Halbarad, who now took the standard back from Halmir, stepped forward to address the Prince of Dol Amroth. "Your arrival is timely, lord. We would not have held out much longer. I am Halbarad Dúnadan, Ranger of the North," he said. "My lord lies yonder, wounded."
"My knights will see you to the City and have you guided towards the Houses of Healing. We will speak later," the other replied.
Once the Grey Company had caught all the horses of those that had been unseated when the Nazgûl's beast landed, they and the knights of Dol Amroth started forming up to return to Minas Tirith. Halbarad left arranging the Grey Company's formation to Borlas, his lieutenant, and now stood waiting while Aragorn spoke with Gandalf.
He could only hope that Aragorn's wound was not mortal, that the sons of Elrond could still do something. If only he had been faster to Aragorn's side... together they might have held off the Wraith longer, at least until Elladan and Elrohir reached them.
It was not long before Aragorn noticed Halbarad, and gestured to him to stand within hearing. He moved nearer as Aragorn continued talking to Gandalf, "Sauron has the Ring. I saw it in the Orthanc palantír."
Halbarad repressed a gasp of shock, as Gandalf spoke, "I already feared it might be so. Are you certain you saw the truth, or was it a deception of the Enemy?"
Aragorn told Gandalf of having looked in the Stone at the Hornburg to challenge Sauron and draw his Eye away from Mordor to give the Ringbearer a chance to slip through his defences. "... And then again near Pelargir, to see where the Enemy's armies were. When I tried to see into Mordor, he noticed, caught... me, and showed me Frodo and the Ri..."
Gandalf interrupted, "Frodo. Was he alive?"
"He may have been; I could not be sure..." Aragorn closed his eyes briefly and continued, "I wonder when he was taken, and the fate of Samwise."
"The latter at least I can give you an answer to," the wizard replied sadly, "For Faramir, Captain of Ithilien, reported to the Steward that during a skirmish with a troop of Haradrim they came upon two Halflings. One, so I was told, vanished into thin air when they tried to capture him. The other they caught, but he attempted to run and was killed by an archer."
Aragorn remained silent, clearly grieved at the hobbit's fate. Halbarad's thoughts went back to the Hornburg where he had stood by Aragorn with the standard as his kinsman challenged Sauron through the palantír. Even like that, with the Enemy's attention fully on Aragorn, it had been almost beyond him to bear the Dark Lord's presence. And yet Aragorn had dared to face him again. Halbarad could not begin to imagine what that would be like when the Enemy held the One. That second encounter, and what Aragorn had learned in it, at least explained his grim mood during their journey to Pelargir. At the time Halbarad had put it down to weariness from the confrontation at the Hornburg and the long ride.
Then Aragorn spoke again, asking the question that was also in Halbarad's mind, "And thus, the Enemy has his Ring again, and I must ask you, Gandalf, what now?"
Gandalf looked away, avoiding Aragorn's sharp glance. "The only answer I have to that question is 'I do not know'."
Aragorn laughed bitterly. "I never thought I would live long enough to hear you say that."
Halbarad did not hear what Gandalf had to say in reply, as Borlas walked up to him to report that the Company was ready to move. Some of the Rangers came up to carry the litter on which Aragorn lay, while Elladan and Elrohir stood guard on either side. Halbarad mounted his horse, taking position behind the litter, and raised the standard to signal to the front of the column that they were ready to depart.
Just before they reached the Gate, Elladan dropped back to pass on Aragorn's command that the standard should be furled again before they entered the City. As Halbarad finished tying the final knot, Imrahil came riding back to them. He nodded almost imperceptibly as he noted what Halbarad was doing, then said that Mithrandir should guide them towards the Houses of Healing, as he himself was needed on the battlefield.
Once they reached the Sixth Circle of the City, Elladan and Elrohir carried Aragorn to the Houses of Healing. Halbarad led the rest of the Grey Company to the stables. He asked Borlas to see to his horse and find lodging for the men, before hastening to the Houses of Healing himself. He found Elrohir as the peredhel came out of one of the rooms to talk urgently to a healer. As soon as Elrohir saw Halbarad, the son of Elrond came up to him.
"Halbarad," Elrohir began, "I have grievous news." At these words, Halbarad started towards the door of the room, but Elrohir put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Nay, wait. Aragorn lives yet, but his wound is mortal, and some of the shards of the Morgul knife that are still in the wound are too deeply embedded to get them out. I have asked the herb-master of these Houses to bring me athelas against the Black Breath and to slow down the Morgul spell on the knife, but beyond that there is not much we can do for him."
Halbarad bowed his head in grief. "This is an evil day."
"That it is." Elrohir sighed. "Wait here for now. I will let you in when you can talk to him," he continued. Halbarad nodded and sat down on a low bench as Elrohir, briefly putting a hand on his shoulder, went inside again.
Halbarad sat, head in hands, trying to clear his mind, but his thoughts kept returning to the moment he had seen Aragorn stumble and go down against the Ringwraith. He should have been at his Chieftain's side, even if all he could have done was to take the fatal blow for him.
It was about half an hour before the sons of Elrond left, Elrohir holding the door open to let him in. Halbarad hesitated before walking in, looking at Aragorn who was lying propped up on many pillows, eyes closed, and looking wan even in the late afternoon sunshine that filled the room with light.
Aragorn opened his eyes and looked up. "Halbarad," he spoke as they clasped hands, "There are things we must do."
"Should you not rest?" Halbarad said, sitting down on the chair next to the bed.
"I will rest soon enough," Aragorn replied, then sighed as Halbarad flinched and looked away. He went on, "I have not the time, Halbarad. Too much needs doing..."
Despite the urgency he had just declared, Aragorn remained silent, trying to gather his thoughts. It had surprised him that the icy taint of the Morgul spell masked the worst of the pain from the wound itself. He knew that could not last; he had seen enough men die of gut wounds to know how bad it would become ere the end. At least for now it gave him some respite to set his affairs in order, though the thought of the Enemy's touch on him made him feel sick. And even once the pain became worse, he dared not take the poppy draught Elrohir had offered him; he would need a clear mind to do what needed to be done, and to be able to resist the Morgul spell.
He looked at his kinsman, who sat unmoving with head bent low, and sighed. "Halbarad, please... do not blame yourself. Had you reached me any quicker, you would only have died with me. This enemy was beyond both our strengths."
"Perhaps so, yet even my fall might have given you time until Elladan and Elrohir reached you."
Aragorn shook his head. "Halbarad..."
Halbarad met his gaze. "You are the Heir of Isildur, Aragorn. I am not." Aragorn was the first to look away. He knew Halbarad was right; had they stood together, it would have been Halbarad's duty to protect him at all cost.
"Will you bring me Andúril?"
Halbarad nodded and stood up to get the sword from the corner where it had been set, and placed it next to him on the bed. Aragorn put his hand on the hilt and, drawing a deep breath, spoke, "Kinsman, friend, brother in all but blood, though the line of the Kings will end with me, I would ask you, as my closest kin within the line of Isildur, will you take on the Chieftainship of the Dúnedain of the North after me?"
Halbarad briefly bent his head in thought. Then, meeting Aragorn's gaze, he knelt and, laying his hand next to Aragorn's on the hilt of Andúril, replied, "I will, my King."
Aragorn sighed, "Alas, that title is not mine..."
"Today I bore the standard of the High King of Arnor and Gondor into battle for you. At least let me acknowledge you as such this once, my lord." Halbarad sounded almost stern, and Aragorn found he could not say him nay.
"Then, Halbarad, son of Halladan, I thank you," Aragorn replied, as he released his grip on Andúril. Before Halbarad could rise, he continued, "I... Halbarad, I want you to have Andúril. Use it well."
Halbarad remained silent, only nodding. Aragorn closed his eyes, remembering when he had first touched the shards of Narsil, and the awe he had felt at holding the sword that had brought down the Enemy. His memories leapt to seeing Narsil reforged and holding Andúril in his hand for the first time. How high his hopes had been; to finally achieve what he had striven for all these many years, to... He was drawn out of his thoughts by Halbarad's concerned voice speaking his name.
"I was but lost in memory," Aragorn said softly. "Do you remember your first sight of Narsil?"
Halbarad replied with a hint of a smile on his lips, "Yes, and the callow youth who bore it."
Aragorn smiled in return. "As I recall, you were not much better yourself."
"True..." Halbarad admitted, then looked away. Aragorn sighed and reached out to briefly put his hand on the other's arm.
"The palantír, that too is yours, but my counsel is not to use it while the Enemy holds the One Ring, except at the direst need. It would be wise to have it kept safe at Rivendell. The Sceptre is to remain in Elrond's keeping." Aragorn thought quickly. What should he do with the Elendilmir?
"Then, the Star of Elendil," Aragorn said, "I do not know what to do. It is a symbol of Arnor that was and as such it should perhaps be buried with me. But it has also been worn by all Chieftains... I will leave it up to your judgement."
"I will see to it," Halbarad replied.
Aragorn continued, "Return North as fast as you can. Elladan and Elrohir have said they will try to reach Lothlórien first and only journey to Rivendell from there. So if I may ask it of you, I would ask that you be the one to bring the news to Rivendell."
Halbarad sighed. "That is a heavy burden you place on me, but yes, I will do it."
"Thank you," Aragorn said.
He remained silent for a long time now, as his thoughts turned to Arwen. "Take the Elessar back to Arwen, and... tell her..." He faltered, finding he did not know what to say. All that mattered between them had already been said long ago, and no words that he could send her would make her grief any lighter to bear. He sighed and spoke again, "Just tell her I love her unto the ending of the world... and beyond."
He turned his face away until he had regained some of his composure, by which time the sunlight had left the room. Immediately, the frozen numbness of the Morgul spell became worse. As Aragorn shivered at the sudden cold and clenched his hand in pain over the bandages covering his wound, Halbarad asked whether he should call the sons of Elrond again.
"Not just yet," Aragorn said, "but find Halmir and Borlas, and bring writing materials. We must have things in writing and witnessed, or the Council of the Angle will fight you at every turn..."
"Not that some of them will not do so anyway," Halbarad dourly replied.
Halbarad's gloomy tone, as much as the accuracy of his observation, caused Aragorn to first laugh and then wince in pain. "Ow, Halbarad! All too true, but you still have to work with them," he replied. "Now go and get that parchment and ink."
Once Halbarad had left, Aragorn closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift. In truth, the Council would be the least of what Halbarad would face in the dark times to come, and it was only too likely that he could do no more than lead the Dúnedain to their final doom. Even so, they would still have to take care of all the legalities in the transfer of the Chieftainship. There was also the Steward of Gondor to be spoken with, if he could cling to consciousness long enough.
He thought how his choices had gone amiss; what if he had ridden North once he knew Sauron held the Ring? But no, to go on had been the right course, and the only one he could have taken in honour, even if it had only led him to his death. His mistake had been made earlier; he should have followed Frodo at the breaking of the Fellowship. Had he not said in Bree, "If by life or death I can save you, I will..."? He would have been able to guide the hobbit safely through Ithilien, and if it had come to falling in Frodo's defence, he at least might have given him a chance to evade capture. Then, even in dying, there would still have been hope that the Ring might yet be destroyed and the Enemy brought down. Now, there was only failure; he had failed to protect Frodo, he had failed to break the siege of Minas Tirith, he had failed the North, he had... no, he could not even face the thought.
Looking back to the Council of Elrond, he tried to find anything that could have been decided differently. All choices other than attempting to destroy the One had their own flaws; at least this could have come to a good end. It should have done so. Gandalf had known their danger, so had Elrond, yet they had still believed this to be the right course. How easily the plans of the Wise had come undone.
Halbarad's return with Halmir and Borlas drew Aragorn out of his thoughts, and they set to work on the scrolls he dictated, one detailing the succession in the North and the division of the heirlooms of Arnor, the other ceding Arvedui's claim on the throne of Gondor, and confirming the position of the Stewards. Once the scrolls were written, copied and signed, Halmir and Borlas withdrew again.
By now it had grown dark outside, and feeling the cold from the Morgul spell deepening yet further with the coming of night, Aragorn asked Halbarad to call in the sons of Elrond, and after that to send a messenger to Denethor to request his presence. The icy cold lessened slightly and some feeling returned to his side after Elladan and Elrohir had bathed his wound in water with athelas, yet he also noted the worried glances the two cast at each other. A sharp stab of fear ran through him at the thought that one of the shards of the knife that remained in the wound would find his heart ere he died, and that he would become a wraith, his soul en-slaved to the Enemy.
"So. Thorongil has returned... and after yet another famous victory over the Corsairs of Umbar as well," Denethor commented as he stood in the doorway.
"Enough, Denethor," Aragorn said sternly. "The One Ring. What did Mithrandir tell you?"
"That foolish plan to send the Ring into Mordor in the hands of a Halfling? I know of it," Denethor replied.
"The Quest failed." Aragorn flinched as a flare of pain shot through him. Not yet. Not in front of Denethor. Just a little longer. He drew a deep breath and continued speaking. "The Enemy has the One."
"The fool's plan failed then, and the worse fools those who went along with it."
"And your counsel? Use it?"
"No. It should have been kept safe and hidden in a strong place, here, or even in Imladris, not handed to the Enemy like this."
Aragorn sighed and said nothing. He had neither the strength nor the will to argue this point. Denethor waited for him to speak, but when he remained silent, asked what the claim in the standard Aragorn had raised was based on.
"Descent from Elendil through Isildur in unbroken line father to son," Aragorn replied, meeting the Steward's gaze.
Denethor laughed derisively. "Even were you able to prove that, I am not the Steward of the House of Isildur, and that claim has been rejected before."
"I would have claimed the throne as the Heir of Elendil, not just Isildur. But perhaps, lord Steward, should you want to step down to descendants of Anárion, Castamir's heirs in Umbar may be willing to oblige you."
"Would have?" Denethor interrupted, "I do not understand."
"The line of Elendil ends with me," Aragorn replied, as he held out the prepared scroll. When Denethor did not hold out his hand, Aragorn said, "My wound is mortal." Denethor took the scroll and quickly read it.
"Truly, if this is what following Mithrandir's counsel has brought you to, then at least he brings ruin to all he involves himself with."
Aragorn wearied of Denethor's pettiness. "All opposed to Sauron must stand together. Look north."
"To Eriador? What good will a few Rangers and a fading remnant of the Elves do Gondor?"
Denethor appeared surprised at the admission, "Then why should Gondor act as the shield of the North? Or do you think to have our strength spent solely to protect the ruins of Arnor?"
"No, Steward. Gondor will fall." Aragorn paused to ensure he would speak evenly. "The North has resources: iron, grain. It can take refugees. Use it. Make something of the West survive the coming nightfall. It is your only hope."
He met Denethor's gaze, hoping the Steward would accept what little he could offer. Denethor looked back at him, and Aragorn winced inwardly. He had known there would be no deathbed reconciliation between them, though he had hoped Denethor would see reason, or at least expediency. He did not speak, but held Denethor's gaze until the other lowered his eyes.
"I will consider this," Denethor said curtly, before he turned and left.
The door had barely closed behind Denethor than Aragorn sagged into the pillows behind him, exhausted. He looked up when Halbarad came in again, closely followed by the sons of Elrond.
"I... That went badly," he said shaking his head, then fell silent, clenching his teeth as the pain from the wound almost overwhelmed him.
Halbarad quickly moved to his side, anguish clear in his eyes, then turned to speak to Elrohir. "Can you not do something against his pain?"
"No," Aragorn said as insistently as he could, before Elrohir could answer. "I must not... I must be able to resist the Enemy. No poppy."
Elrohir nodded in reluctant acceptance of his words, as, after a further moment of hesitation, did Halbarad.
After some minutes Aragorn continued, "Halbarad, if North and South are divided, both will fall the sooner... Try to work... with the Steward... with Gondor."
As Halbarad put a hand on his shoulder and said he would, Aragorn lay in silence for some time, too tired to speak, struggling both against the pain and the frozen touch of the Morgul spell that were pulling him down into the dark. How had Frodo withstood that shard for weeks, when he could scarcely hold off the evil of the spell after not even a day? Part of it was of course that now Sauron held the Ring. Frodo's wound had been but slight, while he himself would die from his even without the Morgul spell, and it had already weakened him much. He opened his eyes and tried to speak, but his words turned into a hiss of pain and he felt Halbarad's hand on his shoulder tighten in an attempt to lend some comfort.
He had to withstand the Morgul spell, or... As he lost the thread of his thoughts he realised that he had briefly lost consciousness. Not that much time left then, and the wound would most likely claim him before the Morgul shards reached his heart. The bitter irony of having to hope that the wound the Nazgûl had dealt him would kill him quickly, so that his soul would not be lost to the spell on the shards of the Nazgûl's blade, did not escape him.
Again, he blacked out, and he did not know how long it had been now.
He thought of Arwen and the message she had sent with the standard. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. "Would that I could see thee one last time, Undómiel," he whispered – or was it but a thought? – as he felt himself slide into unconsciousness once more.
Halbarad could barely make out Aragorn's words, except for the final 'Undómiel'. He closed his eyes in pain at the longing and despair in Aragorn's voice.
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