23. King's Fortitude
The dawn came early to Gondor, and with the sun’s rise the Dwarf, the Elf, and the two Halflings parted company with the heir of Isildur. Aragorn had spent the night in a restless trance of worry and dismay, and he thought the light stabbing through the curtains of his room’s window far too bright and unexpected. Minas Tirith sluggishly rose to meet the day, sodden with the night’s deluge and weary with the news of their lord’s murder. Aragorn had had little energy when he escorted his friends to the city’s massive stables. The nightmare of last night was broken by the glare of the sun, but its strangeness had not changed, and the scene before him had seemed odd and unbelievable.
Still, he had shared with his comrades a stiff farewell. Gandalf at his side, he had borne the last moments of their companionship behind a cool mask that he hoped would hide his true melancholy. There was little time for fond reminiscing or a lengthy departure. To Haldir he had offered once again his thanks, his gratitude sincere despite his exhaustion, and the Lórien archer had assured him that they would not fail in protecting the Golden Wood. Stoic and calm, the Elf had quickly mounted Arod, who seemed at once relieved and annoyed to be again in the presence of his masters. Merry and Pippin he had warmly embraced. Both had repeatedly expressed their joy in joining him on this horrid adventure. Their words were bright and cheery, but their eyes expressed what was left unsaid: a perhaps vain request that Frodo and Sam be returned to them, that all would again be whole, that this last portion of their Fellowship not be broken. But Aragorn had only been able to hug them tightly and assure them that all would somehow be right in the end. It seemed enough for them. He wondered if it was enough for himself.
With the two Hobbits secured upon a pony, the ranger had then turned his attention to the stout Dwarf. Gimli’s eyes were hard with his new mission, but his ruddy face and rough voice strong with trust and respect. Scant words were shared, but Gimli’s forlorn gaze spoke volumes of the loss they had together weathered. Few things served to bind hearts so tightly as sorrow. Gimli had clasped him on the arm. "When we win this war, Aragorn, I would much like to meet again in Rivendell. I think I can better appreciate the beauty of the Lord Elrond’s provinces now!" His eyes grew dark and serious. "Yes, let us meet there once more so that we might celebrate our victories and mourn all we have lost."
Aragorn had promised. After, he had helped Gimli mount Arod. A few last smiles. Then they had galloped away, mud and straw splattered by the pounding horse feet. Guards escorted the small party along the way to the gate. The ranger stood at the mouth of the stables, watching until they had disappeared from his line of sight. He thought of twilight in Rohan, observing the departing Frodo as he all but disappeared into the shadows. He thought of morning in Rivendell, blankly gazing at the hem of Arwen’s white dress as it caressed the ground when she had left him. A slow separation. He thought of Legolas. Harsh and without warning, his dear brother had been ripped away. The pain of losing his friends, both suddenly and slowly, both viciously and sweetly, chewed at his heart.
Gandalf had clasped him on the shoulder. "Do not concern yourself, Aragorn. Each has his own part. They will do theirs, as you must do yours. Solitude is but a transient thing, after all. The threads of fate weave us all together."
He was glad for Gandalf’s comfort and wise words, but he found he was still nursing a sad mood hours later. He tried to shake it as he now approached the great meeting hall of the White Tower. Inside the double oak doors were all the advisors of Gondor, wise in experience and tenacious in purpose. They were Denethor’s most trusted allies. He must now earn their respect and use their strength to defend this kingdom. He could not allow personal matters to cloud his judgment.
The young king steeled himself, closing his eyes briefly and drawing a deep breath. Then he pushed open the doors. They creaked open, loudly and slowly, as if deliberately seeking to prolong the torturous hesitation.
The room became visible, and the conversation stopped. Morning light streamed through the great windows, casting a bright glow onto the long, polished table. Parchment and books were strewn across its flawless surface. Men of all ages and statures stood stiffly. Aragorn felt his innards clench as all eyes analyzed him. He could not blame them; they of course had the right to study their new liege. Yet their scrutinizing gazes unnerved him. Would they trust him? Could they detect his weaknesses? Aragorn prided himself on his nerve and resolution, but he could not defeat this confounded nervousness assailing him. The unbreakable silence endured.
Gandalf met his eyes. The ancient dark orbs were filled with compassion and encouragement, but he did not rise from his seat at the table or speak. This trust was not his to extend.
"My Lord." Faramir appeared suddenly. The young man stepped from the head of the table and through the group of advisors. He seemed somewhat weary, his eyes outlined in darkness and his form a bit hunched from a night spent in restless mourning. However, his face was bright and his voice welcoming. "It is a fine morning to plan a battle, is it not?"
Whether the saying was made in jest or not, Aragorn found its audacity pleasant, like a warm, affable joke held between two old friends. He gave a small grin. "If the morning must be spent as such."
Faramir grasped his arm gently, as if sensing his anxiety. Aragorn typically would have thought such an action inappropriate, but said nothing, his relief overpowering his pride. Without Faramir’s acceptance, he was sure the others would never treat him as their leader. Certainly they would follow the actions of their previous lord’s son!
The young lord escorted Aragorn to the table. "The most recent reports indicate that a large army of Orcs has breached Mordor to Emyn Muil. Scouts have been tracking their approach. We know not right now if they have crossed the Anduin." Faramir shook his head, gazing down at an old map spread across the table. "Surely it is but a matter of time," he murmured sadly.
"All the more reason to act quickly," declared a man to the ranger’s right. He was relatively nondescript, burly and aged with a stony face far too lined with seriousness to jest or tolerate frivolity. Aragorn recognized him after a moment of thought. This was Brodderband, one of Denethor’s highest advisors. The man was a seasoned soldier and strong military strategist. He was an advantage that Aragorn could not afford to lose. "My Lord," Brodderband began, "we cannot dawdle. Lord Denethor was poisoned into indecision by confusion, treachery, and suspicion. Now our enemy is as clear as ever." The man jabbed a thick finger to the map, pointing towards the dark, eastern fortress of Barad-Dûr. "We must build a defense."
Aragorn nodded, agreeing completely with the man. "And the size of our forces?" he questioned, a hand at his chin.
Brodderband looked to another. This soldier was a bit younger, his square face framed by thick whiskers of blonde. Aragorn did not know his name, but found his gaze friendly enough given the severity of the situation. "Formidable, sir. We have roughly five thousand infantry and eight hundred archers."
The man was true to his words. Such a force was impressive, indeed. Yet Aragorn felt worried. He doubted that would be enough. Gandalf spoke before he could express his doubts, though. "I fear it may be insufficient," declared the ancient wizard. He shook his head seriously. "Even without the forces of Isengard to support him, Sauron will undoubtedly throw everything he has at us, bent at breaking the stronghold of Middle Earth’s defense. The force approaching I believe to number in the tens of thousands."
Aragorn held back a weary sigh. "I can confirm that, sir," spoke another man. He was garbed in chain mail and a Gondor surcoat. "Scouts have reported a massive army of Orcs stretching from north of Gondor to the Anduin."
"Surely the Nine will aid their Master in his black doing as well," Gandalf mused. The calm in his voice Aragorn found amazing considering the dangerous matter. "They alone are a force not to be trifled with."
"And the size of Mirkwood’s legions?" Aragorn asked.
"Assuming they come to aid," reminded Brodderband, his tone not without its suspicion.
The old advisor again deferred to the soldier. "We cannot be sure, sir. In the thousands. There are but a few scouts tracking their movements, as I have ordered most to keep watch upon Mordor."
Brodderband shook his head ruefully. "They arrive in a matter of hours. Certainty will have to wait. In the mean time, Lord, we must fortify the city."
Aragorn stood stiffly, his arms folded across his breast. He stared at the map blankly, the image burning into his mind, trying hard to sort through his thoughts. So much was unknown, and he was coming into command when time could not be wasted. The room was quiet as he contemplated, the men awaiting the decisions of their king, perhaps seeking to judge the orders, perhaps wondering if it was not already to late for the lost king of Gondor to save their nation. The ranger narrowed his eyes. "How long until the Orcs reach us?" he asked.
He did not look up as the soldier answered. "Difficult to say, Lord. This eve at the earliest. Midday tomorrow the latest perhaps, I would reckon."
"And they approach from the north?"
"All reports indicate."
Aragorn shook his head. "They will form a great band, bent at the edges, and swing down." He swept his fingers at the map. "Like the curve of a bow. They expect us to fortify the city, to build our defense around it." He traced the figure on the map. "Then the line will shrink and become a circle, surrounding us and trapping us in Minas Tirith. The battle will become a siege, and we will fall." He looked up. "They clearly have the numbers to do such."
The others considered the prospect grimly. Then Faramir nodded. "You are right, my Lord," he declared. He met Aragorn’s gaze. "What do you suggest?"
"We must form our own band north of Minas Tirith," Aragorn quickly declared, excited with the idea in spite of himself. He gestured on the map. "Here, upon these fields. These are the lands we must defend." He looked around the group. "We cannot allow the army to reach Minas Tirith. The city is far too large to evacuate, and should we permit their approach, we will be left trapped in our own territory."
"You believe our best option is to face Mordor out on open ground?" asked one of the older advisors incredulously. "There are no fortifications on that field! No protection! The land has no advantage!" The man scowled sourly, clearly unimpressed with his new king’s reasoning.
But Aragorn was not about to be defeated. "Indeed it does not. No advantage for us, and no advantage for them."
"It will be difficult to hold, my Lord," Brodderband announced softly. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and gazed at the map. "Difficult, but not impossible. There are some highlands near the basin of the Anduin. If we reinforce such spots, we may have a chance." The man spoke with growing enthusiasm, as if he was beginning to understand. "Yes. We might have a chance indeed!"
The objector gave an exaggerated sigh. "This is ludicrous!" he snapped.
"Hold your tongue," snapped Brodderband tightly. He turned to Aragorn. "I shall make all necessary preparations."
Aragorn nodded firmly. "Keep a small force behind to protect Minas Tirith should we fail," he added, praying vehemently that it would not come to that. Brodderband nodded and gave a stiff salute before exiting the great hall, his retinue in tow. He barked a few orders to his men, his voice becoming distant as he marched down the corridor. Aragorn released a small sigh of relief that his plan had been trusted.
He turned to the son of Denethor. "What say you, Faramir? Has this plan merit?"
Faramir’s eyes were distant a moment, his young face taut with thought and clear anxiety. Then he narrowed his gaze, as if settling on the action. "It is as good as any, my King. What do you ask of me?"
"Ride to the site," Aragorn said, clasping the younger man on his shoulder. "Scout the land and see for yourself if we can defend it."
Faramir nodded, although a bit hesitantly. Aragorn wondered how often his own father might have levied such an important task upon him. "And you, my Lord?"
He felt his weariness then. The prospect of what he must do now pushed away energy borne from his plan. "I will wait for the Elves to arrive. Then I will join you with good news of their aid, I hope."
"May I offer a suggestion, my Liege?" Aragorn turned to face the soldier from before. His chain mail glinted brightly in the sun. His face seemed too youthful for his occupation. Aragorn felt suddenly guilty for asking such a dangerous thing as fighting from this boy. Yet he only nodded, praying his face did not show his exhaustion or guilt. "Summon the forces of Rohan. If Isengard has truly been defeated, perhaps they will be willing to come now to our aid."
It seemed too late an hour to consider it. Never would Rohan reach them in time. Still, he could not brush the idea aside. It might later prove to be a mistake. There came a deep voice behind him. "Allow me to see to that, son of Arathorn," offered Gandalf, rising from his seat in one slow, fluid motion. The white of his robe gleamed. "I believe I can carry a message quite a bit faster than a man upon a horse."
Aragorn did not question how, trusting Gandalf absolutely. "Very well then."
"Shall we call for an evacuation, sir?" Faramir asked softly.
"If you think you can do so without inciting panic, then by all means. I hope it shall not come to our defeat, but the precaution is necessary." Faramir nodded. "Send word to the gate guards. Escort Mirkwood’s commander here immediately."
"Of course, Lord," Faramir said quickly. Then he bowed quickly and was off. Many of the others followed him, talking lowly, rushing about duties. Aragorn thought he heard the objector from before talking harshly about him and his strategy. He chose not to discipline the man for his insubordination. This matter of leadership was still an alien thing to him, and he did not forget that it must as well be an awkward matter for them. There was as well too much to concern him, and he could not waste time over one act of dissension.
Only Gandalf remained. The wizard stood at his rear, his staff tall upon the marbled floor. A strange sense of fear coiled in Aragorn’s stomach as he suddenly considered a notion that had not previously come to him. "Gandalf," he said softly, drawing the ancient Istar’s attention. He turned to face his friend. Sunlight cast him aglow with shining power. "What do you know of Saruman’s intentions? Is it possible he as well will appear and oppose us?"
The wizard’s dark eyes grew distant as he considered. "It is more than possible," he answered after a moment. Aragorn held his breath as Gandalf centered his gaze upon him. "He is cunning and vile. I do not know if he still pursues the Ring, but…" The wizard paused, as if listening to voices only he could hear. The man watched him intently. "He is near, I believe. His madness has become consuming." Aragorn’s dread grew burdensome. How could they as well contend with a corrupted wizard as powerful as Saruman? Gandalf smiled then, that same comforting grin that assured all was well, that forces greater than the power of any one man governed life. "Worry not, Aragorn. Saruman is my mistake and shall therefore be my concern. I will destroy him, if need be."
This pledge heartened him. Gandalf did not exaggerate or lie. He did not make silly the truth for the sake of luxury. He cleared his mind, taking a deep breath. He would only concern himself with what concerned him.
"Now, come and take some breakfast," Gandalf
said. "The day will be hot and long indeed."
Three hours passed. Aragorn spent that time in the middle of the strangest flurry of activity. Where before he had been much the loner, whose opinion was valued by a scant few, he was suddenly the center of all attention. Every order passed through him. Actions required his approval. Incidents needed his discretion. He found it at once tiring and exciting. It also troubled him somewhat. The attention was intimidating, and he did not know if he had it within him to be what these people needed. Hope.
It was nearly noon, and Aragorn felt stiff and hot. The sun was high, spilling light and warmth into the castle. Even the shadows of the great tower were heated, the cool dankness warded away by the day. For the first time that day, he was completely alone, and the silence of the hall seemed louder than all of the requests, questions, and comments made that morning. His head was buzzing with a dull ache that he tried pointedly to ignore. The great meeting hall was still aside from the steady clopping of his boots against the marble as he paced. The banners of Gondor hung in the windows, vibrant in the brightness of the sun. They seemed to watch him in pity as he walked. Was he perhaps the first king they had ever seen so rattled? The thought did not please him.
As the minutes ticked away, he found the source of his anxiety shifted. He counted himself a man of patience, but he found this time he could hardly bear this torturous wait. Time dragged by so slowly, and it would not be long before the Elves of Mirkwood arrived in Gondor. And then what? he wondered. His stomach knotted in an intense nervousness, and he pivoted, digging his heel into the floor. What can I say to them? How can I explain what has happened? He had pondered the matter in this endless and queer silence for what seemed like forever, and to no avail, for he could conjure no excuse or fathom no explanation. His fear the night before that these forces had come to condemn him for Legolas’ fall grew into a pressing terror. He tried to rationalize this unbearable shame. Legolas had not been his to protect. His dear friend was more than a capable warrior, and a powerful Elf at that. He had not been Aragorn’s charge! But this line of reasoning only plunged him deeper into a murky well of guilt and sorrow. He felt horrible for trying to rid himself of the blame, like he was besmirching their friendship. For that vow made so many years ago his heart bled! He had been the one to break it, to leave Legolas in his hour of need. He could never cleanse his hands of this blood.
Aragorn closed his eyes as his head pounded. How sick, this fate! How wretched and wrong! He had assumed his birthright. He had found strength and purpose. And Legolas? Does he live yet? I fear I will never know! Death in the coming battle would not be remedy enough!
Perhaps it was irrational to toil over this matter. The Elves surely sought to aid him. The Last Alliance would be forged again, as strong this day as it was thousands of years ago. They did not come to charge him with their prince’s murder. Aragorn rubbed his brow wearily. Though I deserve their wrath. I deserve their penance for leaving Legolas to the shadow! It was a sorry state, he realized. How could he stand the guilt levied against him by Mirkwood when he could not even tolerate his own?
Aragorn paced to the trouble and sank into a chair. A goblet of wine before him remained as untouched as the plate of food the servants had sometime before offered. His pipe as well sat idly upon the table. The ranger bowed his head, rubbing his aching eyes and trying to compose himself. The pain within at Legolas’ capture became piercing, and he felt his throat constrict. He had not as yet properly grieved for his dearest friend, and as much as he tried to deny or justify it, he knew perfectly well the reason. He wanted to believe Legolas was still alive. He wanted to have that faith. It was some measure of fortitude. He knew it was unlikely and even unwanted, for if Legolas lived still, it agonized Aragorn to imagine how the Elf must suffer. The idea of never knowing for certain terrified him. He would not abandon hope. He would not mourn.
Aragorn lifted his head. Sweat collected at his temples and the back of his neck. He thought he felt a cool breeze and heard a happy laugh, but the air was still and hot. The quiet screamed.
The door thundered and opened, startling him. He rose shakily to his feet and cursed himself for his sloppy appearance and movements. He was a king. He must act it.
A few pages stepped through first. One stopped at the mouth of the hall and announced, "Prince Vardaithil of Mirkwood, first son of Thranduil, requests an audience, oh Lord."
The formality of it only aggravated him. Yet he swallowed his seething anger and calmed his riled nerves. "Send him in."
The other page quickly did as he was told. Aragorn clasped his hands at the small of his back and stood erect. He held his breath and weathered these last painful moments.
Finally the page returned. Behind him walked a procession of a few Elves, garbed in chain mail and the colors of the House of Oropher. They seemed sad and wooden, eyes ahead and averted. The exuded a cold air of wariness and distrust. Aragorn stiffened. Behind them appeared an Elf of regal stature wearing golden plate and bearing the mark of the royal family. Aragorn recognized him vaguely. Once or twice had Legolas introduced him to his eldest brother, the crown prince. Vardaithil was an imposing Elf, with strong eyes and jaw. Few Elves served to intimidate Aragorn where they did most men. Thranduil and his eldest son were two. The royal family of Mirkwood, as Legolas had explained and he himself had witnessed, was losing its power. It was hard to believe when one saw the great aura of strength that Vardaithil exuded.
The tall Elf regarded him with chilly eyes, and Aragorn knew immediately that Vardaithil held him in no esteem. If the prince would not publicly admit his suspicion of Aragorn’s involvement in Legolas’ fall, his gaze would still alert all to it. "Elessar," spoke the Elf quietly.
Aragorn brushed aside his emotions. He must not let his anger or fear control his words. "Lord Vardaithil," he said simply, holding the other’s gaze.
"I will dispense with the formalities," Vardaithil began. His voice was as hard as his glare. "You know as well as I that my family holds no love for you. At Lady Galadriel’s behest I have come to aid you in this fight, and for her sake will I defer my men to your command. I shall warn but once, though. Do not abuse what I have offered, for you already scorned my father’s House."
Aragorn felt his temper slip. He ground his teeth. He did not like at all this threat. It was laced with all the unspoken accusations. Still, he did not wish to start a quarrel with Vardaithil. Mirkwood’s support was simply too vital to their success. "I will not," he declared slowly, coolly. "I ask only that you stand beside us when the time comes, and that you point your swords and arrows at our common foe."
Vardaithil nodded. "Simple enough. I trust you and your advisors have a plan for battle."
"I would like a briefing of it as soon as possible."
"Of course." The conversation was curt and cold. In a way it was worse than what Aragorn expected. Dismissal of the subject of Legolas seemed so much crueler, as if he was unworthy of its discussion. But he continued on, unwilling to show weakness before Vardaithil. He did not want to admit his guilt. "Please, all Gondor can offer is at your disposal. I have instructed my captains to fulfill your requests. Rooms have been set as-"
Vardaithil turned suddenly, interrupting him. "That is all," he snapped sourly. Aragorn was surprised, and then he smoldered in fury. He had never before truly had occasion to speak with Vardaithil. Could the Elf prince truly be so close-minded? When the other reached the door, he paused momentarily and spoke without turning again to face the ranger. "Lady Evenstar traveled with me from Lothlórien. She awaits you outside."
The hot grip of Aragorn’s anger shattered in cold surprise. For a moment, the words meant nothing, failing to produce any sort of logical sense in his head. Then he doubted their truth. But before he could question the Elf prince, the doors again opened. Vardaithil smoothly exited, and Arwen entered.
Aragorn stood, paralyzed by his shock. He had never fathomed that this might happen. Perhaps the day had become dream.
The sun streamed around her, bringing to life her pale skin and dark tresses. Eyes blue and deep sought his, glistening with unshed tears. She wore a simple riding gown of deep lavender that swished as she stepped. She seemed more fantasy than reality, as if through those doors she arrived from another world that was distant and locked to him.
As she neared, he remained still, afraid that any sudden movement or word might disrupt the dream and chase it away. She offered him a small grin, her lips full and inviting. He snapped from his daze then, and his body suddenly screamed for her embrace, for her kiss. Yet he remained still and felt his limbs shake in restraint. He could not divulge in such pleasures before his subordinates. How improper for a king!
It seemed a silly thing to think, but it was all his jumbled mind could manage. "What are you doing here?" he gasped in a soft, surprised whisper.
Arwen smiled again, obviously pleased that he was so enamored at her entrance. "I came to aid you, my Lord. My place is at your side," declared the daughter of Elrond. Her voice was a melody. Though the air was still, he could smell her perfume. Deeply he inhaled. Oh, he had missed these sweet things!
A deep voice came from behind then, drawing his attention. "She insisted, Estel." Glorfindel gave him a grave nod. The Elf lord stood tall and powerful behind Arwen. This was as Aragorn most often encountered him, forever protecting the children of Elrond. He knew much of Glorfindel’s fame as a warrior and Elf. Still, he had never intimidated Aragorn. He held a calm air of respect, both offering and expecting. "It much grieves me that these black times had come upon us. Yet I am greatly pleased to see you assume your birthright." The Elf lord offered a small smile, all but imperceptible on his long face.
Something inside the ranger pulsed with pride. Compliments from Glorfindel were not easily won. The storm of emotions within him grew stronger, and drawing a slow, deep breath was all he could to remain calm. "I thank you, Lord," said Aragorn, "and I appreciate your appearance."
Glorfindel nodded. "Certainly," the Elf lord declared. "It is my duty, both to protect Middle Earth and Elrond Peredhil’s kin." He stepped closer and lowered his voice. "I know much has happened to threaten both your health and your heart, and I am greatly relieved to find that that has not stolen your resolve. The road appears uncertain and dark, and it perhaps bends in ways none can foresee. I will walk it with you, son of Arathorn. Tell me what I might do to aid you."
The words were like a warm embrace to his heart. He suddenly became infinitely glad that Glorfindel had mysteriously appeared in Gondor. "You are too kind," he managed.
"I shall leave you alone, then," Glorfindel announced with a gentle, knowing grin, "for private moments will no doubt become few and far in between." He bowed slightly before turning. He left the hall on steady footfalls. The group of Elves and men outside seemed wary of each other, but that tension all but dissipated when the mighty warrior passed through them. Aragorn marveled at Glorfindel’s equanimity.
The ranger gave a curt nod to one of the guards at the portal, and the man shut the massive oak doors with a heavy clank.
Aragorn felt his heart rush as he returned his gaze to Arwen. She stepped closer and offered her hands to him. He took them, her skin soft and smooth. His large, calloused fingers cupped her slender palms. His touch seemed unworthy to him. "I thought you were a dream," he breathed. "For so long have I wished to see you again!"
Her hand came to caress the side of his face. "Estel…" she breathed. Restraint snapped, and she fell into his arms. He tightly held her, running his hands through the thickness of her dark tresses. Her essence filled him, warmer than the sun, sweeter than the summer breeze. Tears burned his eyes as she buried her head into his shoulder. "I was so worried." Her grip upon him tightened. "I was so worried!"
"Still your tears," he said softly as she pulled away. With the pad of his thumb, he wiped away the bright tears upon her checks. "I am safe." He laid her hand upon his heart, as if proving to her that he was alive and well and that her fears were unwarranted. "I am whole. I am strong in your gaze!"
Those words chased a bit of her despair from her face. "Then I am all the more happy that I have come," she said softly, taking his hand.
Yet a darker, sad air came between them. Aragorn’s heart seemed to become stiff. The initial and overwhelming joy faded quickly to a stark fear. "Yet you must not stay."
In her dark eyes came a glint of unrelenting determination. "I will if I so choose it," she declared rather resolutely. He opened his mouth to further argue, but she was quick to interrupt him. "Estel, I cannot be again left behind, no matter the danger. This is my place. This is what I must do for you and for myself."
There was much he wanted to say, but he found he could not speak past the knot of his throat. She continued. As she spoke, he saw Elrond’s stubbornness in her eyes and jaw. It was a feature neither of her brothers had inherited. "The fate of so much rests on this final battle. I would betray myself if I did not do all I could to help you."
The relief was so strong that it overpowered his fear. The battle could easily turn disastrous. To see Arwen hurt or trapped terrified him. He doubted that his heart could battle such an enemy. Yet souls had been rejoined, souls that were weaker part. Fortitude borne from love. He could not dream of ever sending her away from him again.
They kissed then, passionately. He tasted her tears, her strength. She fell into his arms, breathing deeply. "My heart grew dull and heavy without you," she whispered. "I could not bear to be away from you. Not now."
Not now. In his time of need, she had come. She would be his strength now as she always had.
The two stood in the streams of light. A
cool breeze wafted through the great hall, relieving the heat if only for a moment.
It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was high overhead. Aragorn squinted as the brightness assaulted his eyes. Blearily he looked ahead where the high banners of Gondor adorned the field. They were still, limp without the wind to pull them into a flying rainbow, and Aragorn thought they seemed most depressed. Gusts whipped at his hair, though, as Hasufel flew across the plain. The great horse’s feet thundered against the ground, kicking up grass and sod.
Aragorn held tight to the saddle. Forever had seemed to pass since he had last ridden a horse, and Hasufel had been more than happy to see him. He had missed the horse as well, for he was an impressive and powerful animal, a kindred spirit if a horse could be such a thing. The animal seemed to sense his urgency and poured more speed into his gallop. The encampment was not far now, and Aragorn almost wished there was more distance yet. Here in the wind, on the open plain, there seemed to be little concern. The day was bright, if not a bit hot. The sky overhead was a deep blue that was unmarred by wisp of cloud. This was a day he would likely spend in game, tracking or hunting, in Mirkwood and Rivendell. How he longed to be there now, where cares were a foreign matter! Maybe he could turn Hasufel around and flee into freedom…
He shook his head slowly as he pulled his mount to a stop near the small assembly of men. Such carefree days were a thing of the past, and he could not indulge in silly fantasies. He drew in tight the reins of Hasufel, pulling the horse to a stop.
Faramir neared him, leaving a few men in mid-conversation. The young man was dressed in a simple surcoat that was dampened with sweat. Beads of moisture lined his brow. He pushed locks of sandy brown hair behind his ears. "My Lord," he began. One of the soldiers grabbed Hasufel’s reins from his king, and Aragorn dismounted. Faramir regarded him with tired eyes. "The heat surely will not aid us."
Aragorn scrubbed his hand over his face. Faramir was right. To expect men to don heavy armor and fight in such conditions… Yet there was little to be done about it. "We can only hope the dark forces reach us in twilight or that tomorrow will see a cooler day."
They began to walk. "The latest reports from our scouts indicate that they will not breach our borders until nightfall," Faramir explained. There was relief in his tone.
"Good enough," Aragorn commented. He stopped, gazing across the field. Golden grass tinged by green stood still, like troops at their post, diligently watching the northern skies. Aragorn looked to the horizon. He winced, imagining thousands of black demons pouring from the blue haze. The thought chilled him, and he nearly shuddered. "These are the fields, then?"
Faramir shifted his weight. "Yes," he answered. "The high ground is not as advantageous as we would like, but there is an incline from the river basin. If their forces are as numerous as we believe, it should slow them." The young man gestured ahead. Down a small hill was a stone wall that rose about twelve feet from the ground. It was old, dilapidated and crumbling in some places, weathered by time and the elements. "This parapet marks the northern border of Gondor. If we station as many archers as possible here, we might be able to thin their forces as they advance. We should reinforce this wall and place the men as far as possible along it."
Aragorn nodded his agreement. Those old stones may yet defend their nation. "How soon can you be ready?" he asked the younger man.
"I can have our men at these posts by nightfall," Faramir responded. He turned to look at his king, his young face glowing. "What of the Elves?"
Both pain and joy welled up inside him. He had insisted that his lady go to her room and rest after her long journey. Arwen had claimed to be neither tired nor hungry, but he could not allow her to be in such a dangerous area. He by no means ever thought her weak, but vulnerable certainly. She had given up her immortality for him. He would not allow her to give up her life.
"They have agreed to aid us, though with resentment enough to worry me." Faramir looked puzzled but compassionate. The guilt swirled within Aragorn, but he brushed it aside. He clasped Faramir on the arm. The young man had quickly become a confidant and friend to the ranger, and for that he was grateful. He wondered somewhat sadly if he might have once shared such a relationship with Boromir. How much might be different had Boromir never taken the Ring? "It is a long and grievous tale, my friend, and there is not the time for it."
Faramir nodded and looked away, squinting as he scanned the horizon. "It is well that they will help us, though. The Last Alliance is stronger than any other." He sighed softly. "It is strong because of you."
He could not find the words to thank Faramir for all the young man had done for him. These last words brought warmth and hope to his heart. His strength as king truly came from those that respected and loved him!
There came the thunder of horses behind them, and they both turned. A soldier appeared, riding a gray gelding. He spoke, slightly winded. "Sir, I’ve met with two Elves who’ve come from the east. They ask to speak with you."
Aragorn’s brow furrowed a bit. "Scouts from Lord Vardaithil?" he asked.
"They did not say, Lord, but one bears the insignia of Mirkwood."
"Send them forth, then," ordered Aragorn. "They might bear important information regarding the enemy." The soldier gave a stiff salute and kicked his horse back in the direction he came, running down the plain towards the east.
Aragorn glanced around. But two men lingered, one holding the reins of Hasufel, the other grasping those of Faramir’s chestnut mare. The horses grazed on the grasses, and the men seemed tired in the heat. The ranger took a deep breath and looked to the stone wall. They would need a scaffold upon which archers might stand, and the ground behind the ramparts was too littered with stone and debris for men to comfortably hold it. There was much work to do.
He stepped forward, leaving Faramir standing and watching. He jogged down the slight hill and reached the wall. Breathing heavily, he placed both his palms against it. The stone was warm and old beneath his fingers, gritty with dirt. It seemed strong enough to support the weight of the archers and to protect the soldiers from the assault. The ranger glanced left and right. The wall seemed to stretch on infinitely. He was not much of a strategist, for his training and skills as a ranger benefited one little in a massive battle. Still, he could not deny the concerns blossoming inside him. They would need to form quite a long line of men and Elves, stretching the distance of the Orcs that would attack. It was a dangerous prospect, for their army would be spread thin. In any section fell through during the attack, the Orcs could easily punch a hole through their line and attack from behind. The ends of the army as well faced a perilous job of protecting the flank.
Yes, much would depend upon this wall. They would have to whittle down the Orcs as they charged, or Aragorn doubted they would stand much a chance. The plan reminded him of the one he concocted at Helm’s Deep. And it did not work well then! He quickly brushed that thought aside. He had to have faith in his own plan.
To the left was a gap in the wall, and Aragorn stepped to it. It was about five feet across; they would need to somehow patch this. He passed through it, wanting to inspect the ground and the wall on the other side.
There was a flash of white metal in the sun.
Aragorn stopped short, his heart leaping and drawing a shocked breath, as the razor sharp tip of a gleaming sword came to rest at the soft flesh of his throat. For a moment there was no sound. A powerful tension emanated from his right. There came a soft breathing, ragged with rage.
"He is ruined," came a hiss. "He is ruined, and so am I! So I shall ruin you." Aragorn grimaced as the sword nicked into the flesh of his neck. The sting was minor, but the fear surmounted his calm and he jabbed his teeth into his tongue. He knew that voice. More terrifying, he knew he would not be able to avoid the killing blow. He found it within himself to glance to his left, struggling to remain perfectly still.
"The Last Alliance falls for the sin you have committed against my family!"
The sun bled hot fury.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.