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Unto the ending of the world: 6. Loss
March 16, 3019
He knew not to follow the voice that called him, whispering his name at the edge of his hearing, trying to lure him into the cold grey mists that were ever nearer, ever denser. He knew it was the voice of Sauron, and that if he gave it heed, he would be enslaved by the Morgul spell, even if the shards did not take him. His fear of that fate only seemed to strengthen the pull of the mists. Before, Elladan and Elrohir had helped to keep him from that place, and he knew well that he must not give in, that he should not follow that voice.
Yet he was nearly spent, and it would be so easy to give up, go down that grey, silent path and stop fighting, stop resisting. No, he thought, gathering what strength remained him to challenge that call. I. Will. Not. And for a short, blessed time the voice was silent.
Once more he had found the will to resist, but he wondered how much longer he would be able to hold out. It helped that he was not alone, and even if that too took strength he no longer had to spare, he concentrated on the presence of his foster-brothers at the edge of his awareness.
Over the course of the afternoon, Aragorn had been sinking ever deeper into unconsciousness. He barely stirred now, except for an occasional twitch or grimace of pain. Halbarad was about to ask Elrohir how long Aragorn still had, when the peredhel leant forward to put one hand on Aragorn's brow, holding the other over his heart. Elrohir was trying to sense where the shards of the Morgul blade were, Halbarad realised, and he felt a chill run through him at the thought that Aragorn might yet be lost to that vile spell.
Awareness... How could he even be aware? He knew he was unconscious, so what was it that now sustained thought and even sensation? His soul? He somehow knew his body still experienced intense pain, but he no longer felt it. Yet he was still aware of Elladan and Elrohir, and he did still also feel Halbarad's hand holding his. He wondered that such awareness of touch remained him. No, it was not awareness of touch, it was awareness of Halbarad. And how it would embarrass his outwardly gruff, dour – and oh so beloved – kinsman to know that he knew of that tender gesture, he thought with a flicker of amusement. Then again, no, Halbarad would not be embarrassed, and he wished that his kinsman could know that he knew.
Elrohir's presence within his mind now, and a gentle touch of his foster-brother's hand on his brow. He tried to respond, but was uncertain whether his brother could still hear him.
Elrond's son did not stir until the sun had disappeared beyond Mindolluin and the room slowly started to darken. Watching Elrohir's hand on Aragorn's brow softly smoothing back his hair, Halbarad held his breath as the peredhel finally spoke. "It cannot be long. He is weakening fast, and I doubt he will last much beyond the fading of this day's light."
"The shards?" Halbarad asked. Even if he dreaded the answer, he had to know. "Will he escape the Morgul spell?" As Elrohir did not answer immediately, Halbarad's fear rose. No... "Elrohir?" he prompted. At the mention of his name, the other looked up, meeting his gaze.
"Yes, he will," Elrohir replied at last, relief clear in his voice, "The shards move faster than I would have held possible, but that fate at least should be spared him."
Halbarad looked away as his sense of loss, mingled with his own bitter-tinged relief that Aragorn would not be made a wraith, nearly overcame him. No one else spoke, though Legolas got up to light some lamps, pausing to lightly touch Aragorn's arm before he sat down again. The room was silent but for the sound of Aragorn's laboured breathing. Halbarad found himself counting every breath.
Outside, the pale sunset sky darkened into dusk, Eärendil's light bright just above the dark bulk of the mountain. All the while, Halbarad sat holding Aragorn's hand, even if he knew his kinsman would not be aware of it. It was all he could do now, to wait, and watch as Aragorn's last strength faded.
Slowly, the world became darker, colder, smaller, his awareness drawing inwards ever more.
Then, suddenly, for one moment, there was nothing but white-hot agony, and he shuddered as the pain shot through him; had he still been able to, he would have screamed.
He was, nothing more.
A Darkness, grasping, clawing, tearing. A stern Voice, summoning him to the Halls of Mandos. Both pulling at him.
A third presence, a brightness, the Dark pushed away from him, and another voice. Go! Go now! Look West. Follow the Summons. Sauron shall NOT take you!
Had this been Aragorn's last breath? No, yet another... he still lived. Then Halbarad felt a shudder go through Aragorn, and a sigh of breath, exhaled.
Still holding Aragorn's hand, he bowed his head, waiting against reason; yet he knew it was over. Aragorn was dead.
After a few minutes, Halbarad looked up, meeting Elrohir's intense gaze. Elrohir seemed deep in thought at first, but then stood up and again laid his hand on Aragorn's brow. "Thus passes Aragorn, son of Arathorn," he said, then added softly, "The Enemy did not take him, even at the last."
Halbarad nodded in gratitude at the reassurance that Aragorn had indeed escaped the Morgul spell. He now stood up as well, looking around as he did so. Pippin stood staring in wide-eyed distress. Legolas stood next to him, head bowed, a hand on the hobbit's shoulder. Elladan and Elrohir were standing close to each other, heads together, letting their tears flow freely. Gimli appeared stoic, except for the gleam of tears in his eyes.
It was some time before Elladan came over to Halbarad and said, "If we may, Elrohir and I would take care of our brother's body."
Not trusting himself to speak without breaking down, Halbarad nodded his agreement. He closed his eyes against his tears, and took several deep breaths to collect himself, as Elrohir spoke next. "You should send someone to notify the Grey Company. They must be told."
"I shall go myself," Halbarad replied. He did not want to leave Aragorn's side, but the men should hear it from him.
"And I will send a messenger to the Steward of Gondor to inform him of the passing of the Heir of Elendil," Elladan said.
As he left the Houses of Healing, Halbarad found he was grateful for the chance to be alone for a few minutes while he walked to where the Rangers were lodged, but it was only a short distance, and he reached the house all too soon. Some called out a greeting when he crossed the threshold, but all fell silent when they saw his grim expression. He looked around, meeting the eyes of each man briefly, then took a deep breath and spoke. "Aragorn is dead."
More than a few of the Rangers wept, others turning away to gaze into unseen distances. While Halbarad waited to give them time to regain their composure, Halmir immediately came over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Halbarad drew his son into a brief embrace, before calling the Company to attention, telling them to prepare to come with him to the Houses of Healing.
It was a grim and silent group that walked back towards the Houses. Upon their arrival they were directed to a large chamber near the back of the main building.
At first, Halbarad remained with the Grey Company. He would give others the time they needed. Elladan was standing with Legolas and Gimli by the bier on which Aragorn lay. Elrohir was talking to Pippin in one of the corners of the chamber. When Elladan and the other two moved away, the men went over in twos and threes to give their lord his final honours. Halbarad waited yet.
With the arrival of the Steward of Gondor and his son, Elladan went over to speak to them. Aware that he ought to do so as well, Halbarad headed across the room to join them, first going to stand at the bier. The Elendilmir was on Aragorn's brow, and the cloth that had been placed over his body was the King's standard, he noted with approval. Not only was it right that something made by Arwen would accompany Aragorn to his final rest, but he also would go with the honours due him as Elendil's Heir. That careful attention to detail was Elladan's doing, Halbarad doubted not.
Looking at how the pale light of the Elendilmir softened the harsh lines of pain in Aragorn's face, Halbarad tried to tell himself that now Aragorn was at peace, his suffering over. Yet those words were but platitudes; empty, meaningless. Aragorn had given his life over to his fate, withholding nothing in pursuit of a victory beyond hope, and still he had fallen. What peace could there be in that? He had been prepared, trained, honed for this single purpose, to bring about the defeat of Sauron. What peace then was there in knowing that the Enemy had won and all had been for naught? But what good were such thoughts of destiny or fate or high purpose? All that mattered now was that his kinsman, his friend, lay here dead. With a sigh and a shake of his head, Halbarad let his hand linger on Aragorn's arm before he turned away to join Elladan and Denethor.
The Steward was just saying to Elladan that he would send servants from the Houses of Healing to the Hallows with the order to have a pyre built. "A pyre?" Halbarad asked.
Denethor replied, "There is no time to prepare a tomb. Would you see the body of your lord dishonoured and displayed as a trophy by the Enemy when he takes the City?"
Elladan added, "Or perhaps still worse, with a Morgul wound..."
Denethor's words had not made Halbarad think beyond Aragorn's head on a pike over the Gate of Minas Tirith, but Elladan clearly feared even worse than that. Halbarad felt sick at the thought of what the Necromancer could do still. Fire at least would be clean. "A pyre it shall be then. Have your servants see to it, lord Steward," he answered Denethor.
Leaving Elladan to arrange further details with the Steward, Halbarad returned to the bier. He stood by Aragorn's side head bowed, his hand on his kinsman's arm. Elrohir joined him, not speaking, but placing a hand on his shoulder as they stood there together.
After some time, a messenger came from the Hallows to announce that all was in readiness. Halbarad left Elrohir at the bier and joined Elladan in arranging the order of the procession that was to take Aragorn to the Hallows. Halmir, Borlas, Beleg and Hunthor would be the pall-bearers. As they were about to take their places, Legolas walked up to them and spoke with Halmir and Beleg. Beleg nodded at his words and came over to Halbarad.
"Captain, would you mind if I yield my place to Legolas? The Fellowship should also be represented," Beleg asked. Halbarad gave his agreement and the Ranger returned to take his place with the other men.
In silence, Halbarad led the Grey Company as they bore Aragorn from the Houses of Healing through Fen Hollen. Behind them followed the sons of Elrond, Gimli, Pippin, and Denethor and his son. When they reached the Hallows, the Rangers placed their lord's body on the pyre that had been set in the square outside the House of the Kings and took position in a guard of honour.
Halbarad was about to step forward, when to his surprise Denethor, carrying a wrapped object, joined him and the sons of Elrond. What was the Steward up to? he wondered. Surely the man would not cause a scene? Not here. Not now. He cast a glance at Elladan, who indicated his approval of Denethor's action, and waited to see what had earned the peredhel's agreement. As they reached the pyre, Halbarad halted with the others, then took another step forward, so that he stood next to Aragorn. He closed his eyes briefly, attempting to collect himself. He started to reach for the Elendilmir, then stopped and first took off his Ranger star, pinning it on Aragorn's cloak. Only then, after another short pause to steady his hands, did he take the jewel from Aragorn's brow and put it on his own.
He would rather have let the Elendilmir remain with Aragorn. Had the decision been solely personal, Halbarad thought, he would have done so, but the jewel was not only a symbol of Arnor and its Kings, but also of the Chieftain's authority, and he knew he could not afford to do as he wished.
Looking away from Aragorn, Halbarad first glanced at the Rangers standing grimly, silently in place. He then looked around the square and at the great dome of the House of the Kings that towered over it. All those who lay there, surrounded by cold marble, were Aragorn's ancestors, and his own as well, yet he felt very little at that thought.
In the North, even in Annúminas, there had never been such an extravagance of splendour around the tombs of the Kings, and the Chieftains – except those that had fallen in the Wild, and were buried like any Ranger, hastily and often anonymously in whatever resting place could be found – lay in simple mounds in the Angle, alongside their people. And now, for the last of the line of the Kings, there would not even be a grave.
Halbarad reluctantly stepped back from the pyre, making place for Denethor. The Steward did not move forward immediately, but first unwrapped the bundle he had carried with him. Halbarad suppressed a gasp as he realised what it was that Denethor held in his hands, and he saw a stir go through the other onlookers as well.
The Steward's face was impassive as he stepped forward. After a brief look at Aragorn, he made a slight bow and placed the winged crown of Gondor on the pyre at Aragorn's side. He then stepped back again and spoke in Quenya, "Sië terquanta ná vanda Arandurion Ondórëo."
Thus indeed is the oath of the Stewards of Gondor fulfilled. Could you not have found it in your heart to acknowledge him while he still lived? Halbarad thought in bitterness, as he turned to Elladan to take the torch the other held. He stepped forward again, his resentment of the Steward out of mind as soon as he turned to the pyre. A deep breath, and a last look at Aragorn's face, as he thrust the torch in the pyre before his tears could overwhelm him.
Not until he stood with the Grey Company again, watching the flames rise high to claim Aragorn's body, did Halbarad allow himself the tears he had been holding back since the moment his kinsman had died. Tomorrow, he would be what he now had to be, be Chieftain to his people, but now, here under the stars, he could only grieve for his friend.
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