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Unto the ending of the world: 4. Stand
March 16, 3019
"I am concerned about Gandalf," Elladan said, and Halbarad nodded in distracted agreement as they entered the Houses of Healing.
"Can he still be trusted?" Halbarad asked.
"Yes, for now. But he is in danger if he keeps using... " Elladan's reply trailed off.
The Ranger standing guard outside the sickroom opened the door for them, and Halbarad followed Elladan in. During the time they had been away, Legolas and Gimli had come and they were at Aragorn's side. Elrohir was sitting on the other side of the bed, face grim. Halbarad quietly greeted the Elf and the Dwarf, then walked over to stand beside Elrohir. Elladan came to the other side of the bed, eyes fixed on Aragorn's face.
Halbarad looked at Aragorn, who was now lying almost flat, the pillows he had been propped up on before removed. It seemed to him that, though Aragorn could no longer respond to those around him, he still felt great pain, for he was restless, at times seemingly on the verge of waking, eyes fluttering and hands clenched tight.
"It is not just the pain," Elrohir said before Halbarad could ask, "He is also fighting the Morgul spell. The Enemy is attacking him directly through the shards. I did not know that he could do so, but now that he has the Ring..."
"How long has this been going on?" Elladan interrupted.
"Since shortly after you left," Elrohir replied. "At first, Aragorn could easily withstand the attacks, but they are wearing down the strength of his will to resist." He paused, then added, "I fear he cannot hold out if we do not come to his aid and oppose the Enemy directly. Elladan, he needs more help to fend off these attacks than athelas alone can give. We must do something."
Elladan nodded and motioned for Elrohir to join him. While the two conferred in a low whisper, Halbarad sat down in Elrohir's chair and put his hand over Aragorn's, aware of the futility of the gesture as he made it. He looked at his kinsman and sighed, intensely worried by Elrohir's words, and frustrated by the knowledge that this was one battle where he could do nothing to help Aragorn. He did not doubt that what the twins were about to do would be dangerous to them, and even if he only understood in part, he was deeply thankful for it.
Elrohir stepped forward to kneel beside the bed, so that his face was level with Aragorn's. Elladan sat down on the edge of the bed, with one hand on Elrohir's shoulder. Their bright eyes focused on Aragorn. It was not long before Halbarad sensed their effort as a pressure at the edge of his mind. Slowly, the brothers' intervention took effect, and he felt Aragorn's clenched hand relax slightly.
As Aragorn became less restless, Halbarad saw some of the tension disappear from the faces of Elrond's sons. Elrohir looked up briefly to give him a reassuring nod, and Halbarad breathed a sigh of relief. Legolas was looking intently at Elladan and Elrohir. Halbarad wondered how much the Elf was able to sense of the ongoing confrontation, and if it was more than he himself perceived.
Elrohir briefly swayed as he stood up, and paused leaning on the bed, steadied by Elladan's hand. As his brother sat down in an empty chair, Elladan took some time to tell him, Legolas and Gimli what had been discussed in the meeting with the Steward and the captains of Gondor. He touched briefly on Gandalf's odd behaviour, though without mentioning that the wizard held Narya, Halbarad noticed. Elladan did go into some detail on the immediate plans for the defence of the City, and the evacuation plans should the Gate be breached.
Later that night, as he woke up after dozing uneasily for some time, Halbarad wondered about what lay ahead. He was only just beginning to feel the weight of the responsibility he had taken on, though he felt wretched for already considering the future while Aragorn still drew breath. What would happen to the Dúnedain? Would anything he could do as Chieftain make any difference in the end? First, though, he would have to survive the siege of Minas Tirith, and there was little use in looking too far ahead before then.
Halbarad thought back to what Aragorn had said years ago, when he started his hunt for the creature Gollum, that it seemed fit that Isildur's heir should repair Isildur's fault. Was that all there was to this? Perhaps... and yet, the Enemy had always pursued Isildur's descendants with undying hatred, both for Isildur's taking the fruit of Nimloth and for his taking the Ring. Now, Sauron had his Ring again, and the Tree standing in the Court of the Fountain was long dead. All that remained for the Enemy to complete his vengeance was for Isildur's direct line to come to an end, Halbarad thought in bitter grief.
Would even that satisfy Sauron? Or would he turn his attention to others of Isildur's blood, to hunt down and destroy his descendants root and branch like the White Tree? Halbarad glanced at his own hand lying atop Aragorn's. What would befall him? Would his sons, his wife, attract the Dark One's notice? He had been a Ranger for most of his life and it had been a long time since he had felt much fear of death, but at that thought Halbarad quailed, in part for himself, but mostly for his family. Yet he also knew that Sauron's Eye being on him, on them, would be unavoidable once he stepped forward to lead his people.
With a shake of his head, Halbarad tried to clear his mind of these dark speculations. No amount of planning and preparation would be enough to counter the full force of the Enemy's attack, once Sauron turned his attention north. All Halbarad could do was to be as ready as possible, and hope it would be enough to at least delay Sauron's victory over the West. And maybe, just maybe, a way would be found to defeat or hold back Sauron, even if he himself would not live to see it.
Looking up, he noticed that it was close to dawn. Elladan and Elrohir still kept their vigil, but had relaxed somewhat after Elrohir had indicated earlier that the worst of the danger from the Enemy's attack was past. Gimli was asleep, and Legolas was sitting quietly. The Elf looked up as he noticed Halbarad's glance, but said nothing.
Halbarad stood up and walked to the window. As he looked out, there was a sharp knock on the door, followed immediately by Gandalf coming in. Halbarad nodded a curt welcome at the wizard, hoping the other was not set on continuing their conversation from the night before. However, Gandalf merely walked over to the bed, and stood there for a long time, his eyes fixed on Aragorn. The peredhil did not even glance at the wizard, but kept their eyes on their foster-brother, and Halbarad knew that even if the worst was over, there was still danger to be guarded against.
As Halbarad watched Gandalf, seeing the wizard's slumped shoulders and the sadness in his eyes, he felt pity for the other's grief touch him. Then he thought of how Gandalf had acted after the council and he did not know what to believe. How could he know that the wizard was not more disturbed about the ruin of his plans than grieving for the life of one mortal, no matter how dear to him. And how much did that grief mean anyway, from one who was not only immortal, but had, from what Aragorn had said, also returned from what had seemed to be his death? How could an Istar truly care about mere mortals, whose lives must seem so pitifully brief? Or was his feeling genuine, but no more than the fondness a man might have for a favourite dog or a good horse? Halbarad shook his head. Even leaving aside his suspicions about Gandalf's behaviour the previous night, he found these questions impossible to answer.
Gandalf now sighed and briefly put his hand on Aragorn's brow, before he turned to softly speak with Legolas and Gimli for some time. With a last look at Aragorn, the wizard quickly left.
After a short silence, Legolas spoke, "Elladan, Halbarad, I do not discern anything as alarming as what you described. As far as I can tell, Mithrandir's manner is normal, though he is deeply grieved over Aragorn and the hobbits."
Elladan nodded thoughtfully, though it was clear to Halbarad from the look the peredhel gave him that he was unconvinced by Legolas' observation.
It had still been dark when Pippin put on the livery of the Guard of the Tower, and he tried to stifle a yawn as he entered the Steward's chambers. Hours yet to go before breakfast. This really was no life for a hobbit.
He had slept little last night, and yesterday had been a long and tiring day. Then Pippin suddenly felt ashamed about his complaints. At least he knew there would be breakfast this morning. He could not believe Frodo was dead, but he doubted his cousin would be well-looked after.
Poor Frodo, he thought, wondering what would be worse; for Frodo to be dead, or in the hands of the Enemy. And Sam, and now Strider too... Pippin sighed sadly.
Denethor had not looked up from the maps and papers on his desk when Pippin had come in, just murmured a greeting, but now he looked at the hobbit sharply. Pippin started to apologise for disturbing him, but the Steward cut him short, dismissing him. "Go, Master Took; I have no need of your services today. You may stay with your friend if that is what you wish."
Pippin hurried from the Citadel to the Houses of Healing. He slowed down as he reached the building, unwilling to face seeing Strider – he supposed he should say Aragorn now – so badly wounded, dying, he knew, but then he made himself go in.
Inside, he saw that Legolas and Gimli were already there, and to his surprise the sons of Elrond, whom he had last seen in Rivendell. On the other side of the bed sat a tall, grim-faced man, his hand on Aragorn's arm. He looked enough like Strider that he had to be close kin.
Pippin greeted Legolas and Gimli first, then hesitantly turned towards the bed. The hobbit gasped as he saw how bad Aragorn looked, his eyes closed, his face ashen and drawn with pain.
"Poor Strider," he whispered, and felt his eyes moisten with tears.
At the sound of Pippin's voice, the stranger looked at him and spoke, "You are the Thain's son, Peregrin Took, are you not?" Pippin nodded. "Master Peregrin, I am Halbarad, son of Halladan, Aragorn's kinsman," the other introduced himself.
"Call me Pippin," the hobbit said. "Your cousin, Stri... Aragorn, we would never have come as far as we did, the Fellowship I mean, without him. We would not have made it to Rivendell, even. The Ringwraiths would have got us at Weathe..." Pippin fell silent. After a few minutes of awkward silence, Pippin looked at Halbarad again, then took a deep breath and asked, "How did you know my name? Did Aragorn mention me?"
Halbarad looked at Pippin with a faint smile and replied, "Yes, he did, but I also recognised you. You have the look of your father about you."
"You know my father?" Pippin was confused now; he was certain his father would have mentioned knowing any Big People.
"No, but I have seen him."
The hobbit could not contain his curiosity. "You have been in the Shire?"
Halbarad nodded. "The Rangers have spent many years protecting its borders after it became known to the Wise that the Enemy was looking for Bilbo and his Ring."
"I wonder how they are doing at home," Pippin said, somewhat wistfully.
"When I left the North a month ago, the Shire was still safe, though Bree is having to deal with raids by brigands," Halbarad said. "It will be some time yet before the War comes north."
"I do not know when I can go home; I think I have to stay in Gondor now that I am a Guard of the Tower. But it is good to know there is no trouble in the Shire yet," the hobbit replied. Pippin sighed, suddenly wondering how Merry was getting on in Rohan, and if he would ever see him or the Shire again.
Twice the great ram of the Enemy had swung, and the Gate of Minas Tirith had trembled on its supports, yet it had held.
Gandalf sat waiting upon Shadowfax. Behind him were arrayed the knights of Dol Amroth, most on foot, with a small group on horseback. Archers were spread out behind the first group of defenders and on the walls near the Gate.
Then, on the other side of the Gate the fell voice of the Nazgûl cried out, and all except Gandalf cowered in fear, though none moved from their post.
Again, the ram struck, and this time, the Gate shattered, its broken doors falling to the ground. All that could be seen on the other side was a cloud of darkness. Still the knights of Dol Amroth held steady, until part of that darkness deepened and came towards them. They scattered, unable to withstand the terror emanating from the approaching shadow.
From the darkness filling the archway emerged a rider cloaked in black, on a black horse.
Shadowfax stood still as a rock. Gandalf waited. He felt power as well as terror coming from the Ringwraith, and he realised this would be a hard confrontation. His hand strayed to rub at Narya, but he stopped himself. He had already been too careless about using it after he had learned that Sauron held the One, and he had also used it extensively in the days before to strengthen the hearts and minds of those within Minas Tirith. Though he had scoffed at Elladan's warning, in his heart the wizard knew his counsel was good. He should be careful when using the Ring. Still, just once more should not be too dangerous. And he would really need all strength available to him now...
Shadowfax snorted, and Gandalf was brought back from his thoughts by the sound. The Nazgûl's horse had moved forward several steps and he had not even noticed. He could feel subtle lines of power probing at him. Suddenly, he realised what had been happening and he quickly took Narya from his finger, stuffing it in a pouch on his belt.
The Nazgûl laughed mockingly. "Grey fool! Do you yield already? Or do you believe you can take me on without that elvish bauble on your finger?"
Gandalf said nothing. Though he appeared outwardly calm, his thoughts were racing, and he felt doubt stir within him. Could he still match one of the Nazgûl without the support of Narya? He had known before that the Wraiths would be much stronger were Sauron to regain the One, yet he had not expected the strength he had already felt from his opponent. Enough of these doubts. His own strength should be sufficient for this, even as much lessened as he felt now. Gandalf wondered briefly whether Sauron might even be able to make him into a Ringwraith if he now kept using Narya; though the Dark Lord had never held the Three, they were still under the dominion of the One and he who wielded it. He dare not risk using Narya again, not this close to one who could reach through it and use it as a weapon against him.
He took a deep breath, then caught the Nazgûl's unseen eye and held the creature's gaze. The other held steady, and Gandalf felt the pressure on his own mind grow. He pushed back against the Nazgûl's attack, and for some time they each sought for weaknesses in their opponent's defence, until some balance was found and they merely looked at each other.
"The Lord Sauron is willing to make you an offer," the Ringwraith spoke. "He is prepared to spare the city of Minas Tirith from the full weight of his rightful wrath, and its inhabitants, including the leaders you have deceived into following you in your war against Sauron the Great, shall be free to depart unharmed."
"One assumes there are conditions to your master's offer?" Gandalf asked quietly.
From the movement of the Ringwraith's cloak, it was clear he nodded in reply. "In return for my Lord's generosity and mercy to those you misled into following you, all that he wants from you, as proof of your good faith, is the surrender to me of the one known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, before his death."
An icy shiver of revulsion ran down Gandalf's back at that demand. He had seen Sauron's dungeons in Dol Guldur, and what was done to those in them. Not at any cost would he even consider agreeing to such a bargain; and the Enemy did know that, of course. With a flash of contempt, he thought that it was just as well that Denethor was not there, for he felt certain that the Steward would not hesitate to hand over Aragorn to the Enemy if he believed it would save his precious City.
"I do not bargain with lives."
"You would rather see thousands die, for the sake of one who is already as good as mine anyway, old fool? Is this how you value those you claim to guide, that you will let so many die for nothing, when you can easily save them by accepting the Great Lord's offer?"
"Were you truly certain that he is already yours, your master would not seek this bargain," Gandalf replied. "Nor do I believe that the Master of Treachery would honour such an agreement."
The Nazgûl laughed again. "You want surety? First meet the Great Lord's demand, and then, as a sign of his good will, he will withdraw his armies from these Gates. Or reject Sauron's mercy, and watch as all within these walls die, and know that not only is their blood on your hands, but that they will all curse your name as they die." The Ringwraith paused. "Or perhaps, old man, you feel that the price is not right? Perhaps there is something you want more than the safety of this city? Ah yes, of course..." A cold hiss, and the Nazgûl continued speaking. "Maybe instead you would rather have the one who brought the One Ring to its Master returned to you in exchange?"
Gandalf flinched as he thought of what Frodo must be enduring in his imprisonment, if he indeed lived, and the Enemy was not just toying with him. He knew that, just as there was nothing he could do to save Aragorn from death, there was nothing he could do for Frodo. Then he felt his anger rise, burning as fiercely as Narya. One thing he could, and would do, was to avenge Aragorn and silence this foul wraith.
He spoke, signalling Shadowfax to take some steps forward. "Enough! You will not gain what you want. Go back to the abyss that awaits you."
The Ringwraith raised his hand, and a darkness came from it, quickly spreading towards Gandalf.
Swiftly, Gandalf raised his hand against the darkness that started to surround him. A light sprang from his palm, making the Nazgûl hiss in pain when it struck him. The black horse tried to back away, as fearful of the light as its rider.
The Nazgûl pulled hard on his steed's reins, driving it forward at the same time, causing the horse to rear up. He cried out a word of power and drew his sword. Flames danced along the blade as he raised it high.
Gandalf drew Glamdring in answer, the sword glowing with a pale light. Shadowfax fearlessly moved forward towards their foe, halting at a touch from the wizard.
They were now within reach of each other, and both waited warily for a move, or a mistake, to be made. The black steed pranced nervously in place, fighting against the Ringwraith's heavy hand controlling it. They had moved closer to the broken gate, and one of the black's hooves slipped as it stepped on a piece of rubble. Seeing an opening, Gandalf urged Shadowfax forward, and swung at his opponent. The Nazgûl parried Glamdring's strike, but was driven off balance and had to withdraw a few paces. He quickly recovered and now pressed his own attack forward, darkness starting to spread around them once more. Gandalf barely countered the strike of the Wraith's fiery blade, almost unseated by Shadowfax's sideways scramble to avoid the black horse's teeth biting at his neck. The wizard was not sure if he wished more for Narya or for stirrups at that moment.
In the darkness that now surrounded them, Glamdring's pale light shone weakly. The Nazgûl drove his horse hard at Shadowfax's side, no doubt hoping to unbalance the grey horse further, but Shadowfax easily sidestepped the attack.
Gandalf raised his left hand and a light shone from it, at first as pale and soft as Glamdring's muted glow. Then the wizard poured his anger over his friends' fates into it, and the light quickly brightened into a searing white flame, driving away the darkness.
Trying to avoid the light, the Wraith recoiled, yanking his horse away. The animal backed up, stumbling again on the gate rubble. Shadowfax needed no command and lunged forwards to take advantage of this weakness. Gandalf let the horse's momentum add force to his swing. The Nazgûl parried wildly, but was unable to block the blow, and Glamdring struck the dark robes, casting them to the ground. The wizard almost followed them down, for there was no resistance to the sword, and Gandalf felt a stab of fear that somehow the wraith had eluded his blow. Dark and light alike vanished, replaced by the ordinary light of day.
Gandalf half fell, half slid from Shadowfax's back, exhausted to the edge of collapse, barely able to keep hold of his sword. He walked forward to examine the crumpled cloth lying in the dust before the Gate.
The robes were empty. He had defeated the Ringwraith. Glamdring slipped from his fingers and clattered to the ground.
Gandalf sighed and put on Narya again. Now that Sauron could no longer use the Nazgûl to manipulate him through the Ring, it would be safe again to wear, and he needed the strength.
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