31. Storm Warnings
And so at length, as they came under the shadow of the Hornburg, Éomer, too, leapt down from the saddle and beckoned for Halbarad to join him. For although he was as certain of Halbarad as he had been of Aragorn now that he had had some time to observe him, and to observe especially that Legolas was easy about him—or as easy as ever the Elf was of late—he had still to look to his own people and to what would best serve them.
Thus as Halbarad drew abreast of him, the Third Marshal said, "I thank you for the pains you have taken on our behalf, to reassure me and the men of your good intentions. For my part, I am convinced, but the law still requires me to bring you before the king first, that he may judge you ere I bring you to Aragorn."
The Ranger nodded, seemingly imperturbable. "So be it, then. By happy chance, Legolas rode in your company, and he has told me that my lord is unscathed, which greatly eases my mind in light of this." And here, he gestured discreetly to the bloody field and broken gates. "And he has told me also a little of your first meeting," Halbarad continued, and turned then a wry smile upon the Third Marshal as keen, grey eyes looked Éomer up and down. "Long have I served in the North, and so long since learned of the need for compromises."
"Ah." Assured that they understood each other, Éomer continued more easily then, as they climbed the causeway up to the gates: "Your men will be taken to one of the barracks here, so that they may settle in and await your return. Please ask them to remain there until that time."
"As you wish," Halbarad replied. "And the horses?"
"You may rely upon the Rohirrim to care for them," Éomer said, and the other chuckled softly. And so it was arranged. When they reached the narrow courtyard behind the gates, Éomer sent his escort to stable all the horses and, once Halbarad had spoken with his men, delegated the task of housing their unexpected guests to a pair of guardsmen who stood watching nearby. Finally, he turned to Legolas and said, "Aragorn has joined the healers in the great hall. The king's chambers are upon the third level in the tower—you will know them for Háma has the watch this night." Laying a hand upon the Elf's good shoulder, he asked, "Will it offend princely dignity to play messenger among friends?"
For just a moment, a genuine smile ghosted across the Elf's face, ere he replied, "To be the bearer of good news is beneath no one." And with that, he was away in an instant, leaving Éomer with Halbarad. Well, the Third Marshal thought, as he gazed after the prince, so he does still feel a little beyond Gimli's death. Perhaps that is something, then. With a shake of his head, he glanced at Halbarad and nodded towards the keep.
"Follow me," he said, and the Ranger obeyed, falling silently in step with him.
Although the courtyards and lower levels of the keep were busy, filled with people hurrying about their business, as they mounted the stairs of the Hornburg, the halls emptied out, until they reached the quiet of the third level. As always, the Wardens of Edoras had taken up the task of guarding the king, and Háma greeted Éomer politely, though he stared a moment in surprised incomprehension at Halbarad before recovering himself. "A moment, my lord. And you, sir, how shall I call you?"
"This is Halbarad, Aragorn's kinsman from the North. He comes with a company of thirty," Éomer supplied. "I have also sent for Aragorn to join us." Háma raised a brow at that, but he nodded, and then disappeared within the king's chamber to announce the pair. A few minutes later, he emerged again, and held the door open for them.
"The king will see you."
"My thanks," said Éomer, and beckoned Halbarad to follow.
Théoden, divested of armor and clad in simple leathers and a green tunic bearing the livery of his house, rose to greet them, if slowly and rather stiffly, and Éomer tried to mask his concern. His uncle seemed more weary now than he had immediately after the battle, when he had conferred with Erkenbrand and his two Marshals. Éomer might have expected such, for true enough, the real exhaustion of war came only later, but if the Third Marshal suffered from the frantic, desperate pace of the past week, surely his uncle, only just returned to himself and a much older man, would feel that time the worse. Théoden caught his nephew's eye, seeming to perceive his anxiety, and held out a hand to him, which Éomer swiftly took. "I am told you have journeyed far to the Mark, Halbarad. Please sit, therefore. And you as well, Éomer. I need not then feel shame before the young to rest myself," the king said, and smiled. Halbarad chuckled softly at that, and made Théoden a bow ere he replied:
"Many thanks, sire." And when the three of them had seated themselves, Théoden continued:
"We had thought that when Tharbad was lost, in my grandfather's time, that there were no others to the west, save the Dunlendings. Then we heard of Imladris, and now you are come—the world is larger yet than we had thought," he said, ruefully. "But what brings you to us?"
"We received messages some four weeks ago that we should ride to Aragorn's assistance in the Mark, that he had need of us. I brought such men as were available to me."
"And whence came these messages?" the king asked.
"From Lothlórien, sire."
"Dwimordene," Théoden murmured, and glanced at Éomer, who nodded confirmation. "Long have we mistrusted that name, but of late it has been a source of good fortune for us, it seems." With a bemused shake of his head, the king set that matter aside and asked, "Did the message tell you, then, to come to Helm's Deep?"
"Nay, sire. It said only that we should ride to Rohan—'twas chance led us here. Three days ago, we crossed the Fords of Isen," replied Halbarad, and paused a moment ere he continued, his voice hardening a little. "There we saw much that was grievous—fallen Riders with their horses, wargs, Dunlendings, and orcs in Saruman's livery, and the ground still stained with their blood—and so we followed the path of the rout back to Helm's Deep. I had thought it possible Aragorn might be here, and that we were called to aid him against Isengard, but that even were it not so, we might help those who fought here and send to Edoras for relief and also for news. For surely if my lord were in the Mark, someone at Edoras could tell us of him."
"And fortune has conspired that either route would have led you to him," Théoden said and sighed. "Alas, we have not yet tended to the Fords, and that our sons lie among their enemies, exposed to the carrion birds, is a bitter memory. Alas for my Théodred!" Éomer bowed his head, for he, too, had found it hard to hear such news, though he had known of it, of course. But it was a bitter memory, one he preferred not to think on overmuch, unless it were to fuel his rage. When he had spoken with Elfhelm earlier that evening, the other had made the tale somewhat more bearable.
"We would have taken Théodred with us, but he refused us," the Second Marshal had told him. "'Let me lie here', he said, 'to keep the Fords til Éomer comes.'" Éomer had known a moment of shame, then, that he had not been in Edoras to receive his cousin's final command, but fortunately, had quickly dismissed it as a burden he need not carry. I had my duty as well, and all know it now. And had I not ridden north, I should not have met Legolas or Aragorn or Gimli. But I have, and so I will bring your father to you as well, Théodred, when this war is done. We shall together sing you to your final sleep, and your spirit shall rest the better for it!
At that moment, a knock sounded, drawing Éomer back to the present—Háma, warning them of new, but expected, arrivals. The door opened then to admit Legolas, and behind him, Aragorn.
Halbarad rose immediately and moved to greet his lord even as the Elf stepped aside. Even knowing that Halbarad was in some degree kin to Aragorn, given the man's manner of speech, Éomer had rather expected Aragorn to receive him as a lord receives his lieutenant. So it was with bemused surprise that he watched as Aragorn, without a word, caught Halbarad up in a fierce embrace, one returned with equal intensity by Halbarad after the manner of dear friends long parted. Or brothers, Éomer thought suddenly, and felt it as a certainty. Whatever they may be to each other, they are this at least, he thought, and felt again a swift pang of loss for the cousin who had been as his brother.
"Mae govannen," Aragorn murmured, drawing back at last. "Well met in Riddermark. If the king will permit," he added, glancing quickly at Théoden, who gestured for the two to take a seat, even as Legolas wandered over to the slit of a window that overlooked the ramparts.
"I do. Every little makes a muster, as we say in the Mark, and we have need of all men of good faith that may be found in these days," Théoden replied, and Halbarad inclined his head in thanks. "But come, I would hear more of this tale, for it is strange to me that the Witch of Dwimordene should intervene now in Men's affairs. How did it come about?" he asked, and Éomer, too, found himself leaning forward to listen, curious.
"The lady Galadriel sent her tidings north with Gwaihir, to Imladris. Gwaihir is the lord of the great eagles, who see many things and have ever been ready to do the bidding of the Wise," Halbarad explained, seeing that the name meant naught to the Éorlingas. "From Imladris to the Angle came word that as many of the Grey Company as could should ride to Rohan, for our lord required our assistance, though in what way, we did not know, save that we guessed he must have need of swords."
"I have often thought of you on the long journey south, my friend, and it is true, as Théoden King says, that we need every man who will wield a blade, and more need of those who know how to do so. But I had no particular need in mind, save that I would rather face Mordor in your company than in any other's, nor did I send for you." Aragorn shook his head and shrugged minutely. "The lady sees many things, though; she may have foreseen a need for you here that is still to come."
"The more strange is this tale to us, then," Halbarad replied, grimly. "For indeed, we thought it strange when we heard it, for we have no need to ride to war—war is upon our borders, and the Dúnedain have gathered. I have had to strip the Breeland for men, and the word is out in the Wild—return home as swiftly as you may. For Imladris is now surrounded. The High Pass is blocked with snow, of course, but orcs encroach upon the valley's ridges—the Misty Mountains are aswarm in the north. And the trolls have come down from the Ettenmoors to plague the land. I had sent a small company of Rangers to aid in the defense of Imladris, and though they may hold out for long with Elrond's people, in truth, I do not look to see them again beneath the sun." A stunned silence greeted this news, and it was some time ere Aragorn shook off the spell and asked in a low, urgent voice:
"And the Angle?"
"I removed a great part of the women and all of the children to the west—they make for Mithlond, by way of Fornost, with an escort of Rangers to guide them and such men as could be spared from defending the rivers."
At that, Aragorn nodded. "You have done well, my friend," he said, relief evident , though he grimaced slightly, too. "Long have we feared such a day might come. Now it has, we shall have to hope that plans laid long ago shall suffice us. So the lady sent word to Imladris, and then Gwaihir carried it to you. Was that all that she said?"
"Nay, she sent a warning, also, and I fear that it is more ill news, for all of us," said Halbarad, and looked now to Théoden and Éomer once more, including them ere he spoke again: "The lady said: He feels Its workings. He is moving. The enemy will see Minas Tirith first. Look to the river way."
"'The river way'? Cair Andros?" Éomer hazarded, thinking of the myriad orcs that fought their way past the isle's patrols to raid horse herds as far as the Eastfold, and glanced at his uncle.
"Nay," Théoden replied, grimly and with certainty. "The Corsairs. When my father served Ecthelion, ever were the Corsairs a matter for concern. Lately, they have been testing Gondor—the lord Boromir and the Steward's emissaries have spoken much of them, when such business was still discussed in Edoras, that is. If the Corsairs were to strike, much of the strength of the southern fiefs would be drawn off from Minas Tirith's defenses."
"How long could Minas Tirith stand alone?" Halbarad asked.
"I do not know. Not long, I deem," Théoden said heavily. "When the lord Boromir would speak of such matters, it was ever in a round about way—I think he did not know, or else knew too well but did not wish to speak of Gondor's weakness in too stark terms."
"It was the same when I was in Gondor," Aragorn said, abandoning the chair he had just taken to pace as he spoke. "In council, Ecthelion and Denethor were ever cautious not to say too much. But when we conferred in private, it was clear enough that they feared the end of the city should the Enemy attack on two fronts. One could see it in the number of men they desired, in their analyses of defense works. Ever they assumed that when the war came at last, Sauron would seek to overwhelm them; thus whatever Minas Tirith's strength to endure a siege otherwise, it would count as naught. Thus this game of words—the city is strong, even in its final strength, and yet all planning belies that judgment."
"Doom is nigh at hand," Éomer murmured, and Boromir's stern (and worried) face flashed in his memory. Frowning, he asked: "Then is Minas Tirith to fall, and with it all the House of Húrin?"
"It is not Minas Tirith alone that stands in peril, but all those who oppose the Dark Lord," Aragorn replied.
"True, but surely in this instance, we may say that the rhyme speaks of Gondor especially?" Éomer countered.
"Prophecy is ever difficult to unravel," Halbarad interjected then, glancing from Éomer to Aragorn and then back again. "Let us say that it seems clear that the lady warns that Minas Tirith shall see her enemies ere she sees her friends. But if the Corsairs come first, then it must be ahead of another. It seems to me that what is needed is an army sufficient to take a field held against us, then."
As all eyes turned to Théoden, the king sighed unhappily and shook his head. "Éowyn's early call shall give us a larger muster than we might otherwise have commanded, yet even did we have ten thousand spears, it might not suffice if Gondor's straits were desperate. The bulk of the Westfold's levy was scattered or lost in the battles at Isen and here at Helm's Deep; Edoras and the men of nearby vales, too, have suffered heavy losses. And I must have some care for my own people. I do not believe that we shall have enough to give us the victory."
"And there is still the other matter to consider," Legolas said, speaking for the first time, and Éomer blinked at the sudden, intense and—or so he thought—angry look that Aragorn turned on the Elf.
"Speak more plainly, Legolas," he said, and though it seemed a mild enough invitation, the Third Marshal heard the sharp edge to it.
"The river way may point to many things, but it is not the whole of the message. The Dark Lord feels the workings of Isildur's Bane, and so moves. Perhaps he oversteps himself in his eagerness or alarm, but perhaps he has learned somewhat that may aid him, in which case, our peril may be greater than we are willing to acknowledge," the Prince of Mirkwood replied, turning from his survey of the fields below. Raising a pale brow at his friend, he said: "I do not doubt that the same thought had occurred to you, Aragorn, and to others here. The which being so, let it at least be said. And if Sauron has learned something to his advantage, then doom may well be nigh for us all."
A heavy silence fell, and Éomer found himself glancing between Legolas and Aragorn, sensing an omission, though he could hardly guess what it might be. Whatever it was, it seemed clear enough to him that it was a matter of some dispute between the two: the Elf's green gaze was unbearable as ever as he stared at Aragorn, and Éomer found himself glad he was not its object. But Aragorn seemed unmoved and his eyes had that darkling cast to them that the Third Marshal had seen upon the ramparts of Edoras, ere the battle began. Suppressing the impulse to shiver, he nevertheless felt the hair on his neck stand up, and looked away from the contest, troubled. And so he found himself watching Halbarad, who also seemed to sense that something was amiss. But whether the Ranger had read something more than that, Éomer could not tell, and after a moment more, Aragorn looked away.
"You speak rightly, of course," he replied. "Nevertheless, it does but lend us urgency to think so. That falls short of finding the means to salvage something of Minas Tirith."
"I fear I see no choice but to trust to chance," Éomer said, reluctantly, after casting about for some better answer and finding none. "Even if Minas Tirith rallies Gondor, those levies may not be sufficient for the Mark to deliver her; if the Enemy strikes ere Denethor can even call for aid, then it is certain that we cannot save the city. But surely that does not relieve us of the obligation that Eorl laid upon his descendents, to aid Gondor in time of need."
"Nay it does not; we shall ride for Minas Tirith, that is certain," Théoden confirmed. "If we can do no more than die with the men of that city, then that we must do and hope the while that others unlooked for may join us, and tip the scale."
"If I may," Halbarad said, then, "I have still some other news. I had thought I would speak of it privately, but it may have more bearing on this matter than I had believed." At Théoden's nod, he turned once more to Aragorn and said:
"Master Elrond also sent counsel—no less dark than the lady's, I deemed, and the need less clear until now," Halbarad replied. "For he bid me say to Aragorn: The hour draws nigh—let Estel remember the Paths of the Dead."
The Paths of the Dead. Shock momentarily robbed Éomer of his speech. "Dark words, indeed," Aragorn replied, yet his tone was thoughtful as well. Éomer felt a chill pierce him as he realized the other was seriously considering this folly, and unable to contain himself, burst out:
"None who go that way may live! The Paths are guarded by the Dead, and they do not suffer the living to pass. You cannot think to take them!"
"Were it not for Elrond, I would not think of them at all," Aragorn said slowly, ere he glanced up at Éomer. "I know well the peril of that road. And yet, perhaps the hour is come at last, and perhaps as Halbarad suggests, the two messages together shed light upon each other. 'Look to the river way'—rather than indicate the Corsairs, might it not suggest the way to salvation? The Paths of the Dead lead to the road that runs from Morthond to Pelargir on Anduin, after all, and a great number of men who can be marshaled."
"They may lead to it, but who shall tread their ways beneath the Dwimorberg? None but the Dead."
"Gondor needs help—"
"And she shall not get it from there. The shades are accursed—they help no one," Éomer insisted.
"And yet we are bidden look to the Paths of the Dead. What other choice do we have?" Aragorn asked, levelly.
"Peace, Éomer," Théoden murmured, laying a hand upon his nephew's shoulder, restraining him from answering. Brown eyes fixed then upon grey ones, as Aragorn met Théoden's searching gaze. At length and without taking his eyes from the Ranger, the king asked softly: "Are you certain of this, Aragorn?" And for a wonder, given the gravity that had held them all since Edoras, Aragorn looked upon the king and smiled—gently, nearly ruefully, and something like tenderness shone in his eyes as he answered:
"I am certain that I must try." Éomer bit his tongue at that, feeling his uncle's grip tighten further. A moment longer, Théoden gazed back in silence, but then he, too, smiled and nodded, as if in understanding. And it was with an air of decision that he replied:
"As you will it, then, and I thank Ælric for his services and release him."
"My thanks, Théoden King."
"What of Gondor?" Éomer demanded, still unwilling to accept this turn of affairs. "Would not her needs be better served if you took this warning to Minas Tirith? As you say, we know not whether the city is invested yet, and if it is not, then Denethor may have time yet to summon the southern fiefs."
"I would send a rider, but I think he would have a better chance of being heard if he were an errand rider from the Mark, who could say also that the Muster will come," Aragorn replied, with a slight grimace. "It would ease confusion and so perhaps spare an hour's explanation."
"The Steward may still ask questions—it is not as if the Mark has had dealings with the folk of the Golden Woods," Éomer countered.
"Then I shall go." At that, all eyes turned towards Legolas. "An Elf may speak for an Elf and need no explanation. And if you give me a token, sire, then I can say also that Rohan comes. As a messenger for the lady, I may say that the warning was well received in Rohan."
"You have reminded me this very hour, my friend," the Elf replied, ruthlessly cutting off Aragorn's protest, "that if I would rest a little, wounds might heal more swiftly. Granted, a swift journey to Minas Tirith is not rest, yet neither is it battle, and if any can reach the city ahead of the storm, I can, for there are no faster horsemen in Middle-earth than Elves. And then if fortune is so kind, I shall rest awhile, I promise." Turning then to Théoden, Legolas said, "Give me leave, Théoden King, to bear also a message from you, and I shall see it delivered if it is in any way possible."
The King of the Mark grunted at that, considering the Elf who stood now before him. At length, he sighed, and murmured, "Much do I owe, indeed." With a shake of his head, Théoden rose and reached to lay his hands upon Legolas' shoulders, as he said, "You have served the Mark well, though you are not of our people, nor had we any claim upon you. I may rely upon you to serve us well again in this, then, and perhaps," and here the king smiled slightly, "repay some of my debt to you, Legolas of Mirkwood, who drew me back from Wormtongue's spell."
"Sire?" the Prince of Mirkwood asked.
"Take this," said Théoden, and removed a ring from his finger—an emerald set in a heavy gold band into which the stallion of the Mark had been etched. "Give it to Éowyn when you come to Dunharrow, and tell her that she is to show you the mearas who came with us to that city. You may have whichever of them pleases you best—Éowyn will instruct you in how to approach them—and we shall see how fast an Elf can ride."
Business concluded, the gathering dispersed—Halbarad and Aragorn to go and find the barracks where the Grey Company was housed, with Legolas trailing in their wake, though the Prince of Mirkwood wore a thoughtful look, and seemed to have his own concerns to think over. That left Éomer alone with Théoden, and he frowned worriedly as the king sank back into his chair. "Every little makes the Muster, and there goes one—and thirty-one with him—that would greatly help us in a line. That seemed to me ill done, Uncle, to allow Aragorn to pursue this mad errand," he said.
Théoden sighed, then. "Admittedly, it is a dark way that he seeks, and there is little hope there. But not none, or so I deem."
"What hope can there be?"
"The same hope one might have put in the stories of Ents, ere they came to Edoras," Théoden replied, and smiled slightly at Éomer's puzzled look. "It is a tale seldom told, but perhaps it may ease your mind somewhat, my son. Listen: just ere Meduseld was finished, Baldor went riding with his father in the vales about Dunharrow. It was then they came upon the Door, and they found it not unguarded. An aged and withered man sat upon the threshold, and so still did he sit, and so grey was he with years untold that they thought him one of the Púkel stones. They were surprised, therefore, when he spoke to them: 'The way is shut.' And Baldor, looking more closely, saw that he breathed, but only barely.
"'Why do you speak so? And who holds the way against us?' Brego asked.
"'These paths were made by the Dead, and the Dead keep them,' said he. 'The hour is not come when a man of living flesh may go upon them. The way is shut.' And so saying, he died and fell in the dust at their very feet," Théoden said, and then paused a moment, while Éomer digested this tale. "I know not, Éomer, whether that hour is come that the old man foretold so long ago. Yet it may be that the hour that the Elf-lord spoke of is that very same hour when one of living flesh may walk the Paths of the Dead. If that is so, and Aragorn believes it is so and that it is his duty to dare the Door, then I may not hinder him."
"And if he has not read the signs aright?" Éomer asked.
"Then he shall die, even as shall we. Much must be risked in war," Théoden said, and reached then to take his sister-son's hands in his again. "Yet there are some things too dear to us to let go. The art of ruling, especially in time of war, is to learn which they are, and then to hold fast to them. Aragorn must do this—I feel it in him, and he would go whether I will or no. If I care aught for honor, if there is aught of generosity in me, I may not make him an oathbreaker for the sake of a task that any man could fulfill. And in truth, the Mark has but a small claim upon him, and that he gave us at utmost necessity. A necessity," and here Théoden's voice faltered a little, "that should not have been, had I but seen sooner the truth of Wormtongue. Alas, my blindness has cost us dearly, and may now also cost Gondor!"
"We all of us failed," Éomer said then, bowing his head, for the truth tasted bitter upon his tongue. "If only one of us had had the courage to act against Wormtongue openly, the court would have risen and you would have seen, then, Uncle, what we saw but would not voice, save in craven whispers. Rightly did Háma speak when he named us all traitors."
"But we will no more of failure in this matter," Théoden replied, determinedly. "Whatever we may be, you spoke rightly today, that our obligation remains ever the same, and nothing hinders us from accomplishing it." So saying, he reached with one hand to tap Éomer under the chin, prompting him to look up. The old man cocked his head slightly, eyes flicking intently over Éomer's face, and the Third Marshal blinked, amused and somewhat puzzled as Théoden's long fingers tipped his head a bit this way and then that, and then stretched to trace the lines of his face from brow to chin. But when the king spoke it was with a great tenderness: "The past years, it seems I have looked without seeing so often. You are not your father, nor indeed was your father only his reckless rage—I see now that that was a phantasm created by Wormtongue, and that the Marshal you are become tells of the sire renewed and bettered in his son. Still, I have missed much and I would know more of the man I see now. For in truth, it was but a stripling lad I sent to Aldburg."
"Gladly would I stay, and tell you of those years," said Éomer, surprised but pleasantly so. Nevertheless, he frowned worriedly and asked, "But are you not in pain, Uncle? Should you not rest?"
"'Tis not the body alone that needs rest. The pain is not so bad after so many years of feeling nothing. And it will keep me awake to hear you," Théoden replied, with a gleam of humor in his eyes. "Come, stay a time, for I doubt me we shall have any other before we ride east."
Éomer shook his head at Théoden's neat dismissal of his concerns, but he felt a smile spread over his face nonetheless, and despite all that had occurred, despite all the ill news, it was as if something had broken within him—yet it was not the shattering shock he had endured when his sister had come to see him as Gríma's betrothed; rather, it was as if something vital had been loosed once more. Would Éowyn could be here as well to hear him now! he thought. For her pains, she ought to have this time. But perhaps later... I will give her that time if I can. And so it was with a much lighter heart that he asked:
"Well, then, where should I begin?"
It was simple to find the Rangers, for rumor spread quickly, and Aragorn and Halbarad were soon directed to the proper barracks. The men came to their feet as soon as the pair entered, and then gathered round, eager see their Chieftain and curious as to why they had been called. Aragorn gave them the news and ended with the order to be ready to ride by dawn the next day.
And then came the hard task. A captain has a duty to his men, and the Rangers were a close-knit brotherhood, despite the lonely ways they often trod, which made duty personal in a way that it was not elsewhere in Middle-earth. Thus Aragorn knew intimately the men and their families, and to listen to them speak of their fears for wives and sisters and children, brothers and fathers and cousins, was no matter of mere hearsay, for he knew also those same wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, cousins and children. Nor had he any easy reassurance for them, although he could at least be grateful that none expected such of him. Nevertheless, glad though he was to see them, and know that these at least were safe (for a little while), he felt exhausted by the time he was able to excuse himself and withdraw from their company for the night.
He was not surprised, therefore, that Halbarad followed him out, nor could he bring himself to tell the other to go back, to rest after a long journey. And so instead, he gestured for his lieutenant to accompany him, and made for the gates, which had been shut against the night. But rather than pause there, he passed them by and went instead to a little postern gate that stood at an angle to them. There was but a single, aged guard there, and after a few moments' scrutiny by lantern light, he bowed to Aragorn. "My lord," he said. "Can I help you?"
"I had hoped to get beyond the walls for a brief time without troubling the gate guard," Aragorn replied. "I shall not be gone long, nor shall I go very far."
"Certainly, my lord. It's safe enough now, I suppose. Even during the siege, we had but the bar across the door," said he, and hastened to lift it.
"My thanks, master... ?"
"'Gamling', my lord. Sir," the old man said politely, drawing the door open, and he waved the pair through.
The door opened onto a little rock-strewn ridge that ran about the watchtower to the causeway. With a sigh, Aragorn leaned back against the tower wall, staring up at the stars and the young, pale moon beyond the ramparts. Halbarad kicked at a stray arrowhead, then settled himself upon one of the rocks, facing his friend. He rooted about in his belt pouch, and a moment later, grunted as he produced a pipe and a bag.
"Here," he said, when he had finished tamping the weed into the bowl, and tossed the bag to Aragorn. "With so many home from Bree and the Shire, pipeweed is plentiful, at least."
"A crumb of comfort, as the hobbits say." When Aragorn had helped himself, Halbarad lit his pipe, and then passed the match—frugality came naturally as breathing after more than fifty years on the Road. For a time, they smoked in silence, and Aragorn could feel Halbarad's eyes upon him. At length, the other said:
"Elrond asked me to give you his blessing, as a father to his son." He paused, while Aragorn sought for something to say in return, but in the end, he simply nodded. Halbarad sighed softly. "I wish I had had better news for you," he said.
Aragorn drew a deep breath and gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Such are the fortunes of war, and Imladris has always stood at the eye of a storm that has waited an age to burst upon it."
"And as you well know, foresight consoles no one," Halbarad replied.
"Yet it may save some," Aragorn said pointedly, as gave the other a searching look. "Did your mother and sister go west?"
"Dírlas did—her eldest daughter is carrying her first grandchild. I persuaded her she ought to be with Telian."
"And your mother?"
"She would not leave," Halbarad replied, sounding resigned. "Many of the elderly would not be moved—they would rather die in their home if it comes to that. That I understand well enough, but I wish she had gone nonetheless. As it is, I am safer here than she is there."
"I am sorry, Halbarad, to take you from her." It was scarcely said than Aragorn regretted it. For Halbarad stiffened at that, and no long friendship was needed to read insult in that sudden tension.
"That was hardly your doing, as well you know, but had it been, the moreso would my place be here," Halbarad replied, angrily, and Aragorn winced. For a fulminating moment, his cousin said nothing, only glared. But then, abruptly, Halbarad sighed, waving a hand to dismiss the matter, as he bowed his head and said, in a much softer voice, "Forgive me, you are weary—more weary than I, and I, too, have misspoken my share the past few days."
"Nay, for the rebuke was well deserved," Aragorn replied, quietly. "All men err, but that was unworthy of me at twenty-five. Weariness can excuse only so much."
"Fortuntely, where excuses fail, there is still forgiveness," Halbarad said. But then he glanced up at his friend again, with worried eyes, and asked, "Since we speak of quarrels among friends, what is it between you and the Prince of Mirkwood?"
Halbarad snorted. "Clearly," he replied, and then leaned forward to tap Aragorn's knee, as he said, with a certain familiar asperity: "Will you at least sit? Thank you. Now tell me what the matter is, for it is clear to me that whatever it is, it greatly troubles you."
Aragorn drew in a mouthful of smoke, letting it out slowly to gain some time in which to think. Too close to the mark, as ever, Halbarad, he thought. For how shall I explain only a part of this tale? He did not wish to tell him the whole truth—of the Song and the Darkness—yet would Halbarad know if he told him a half-truth? If there were any Man who might catch him in an omission, his cousin would be the one to do so. And to call me out on it, he thought, which was in truth the greater risk.
But Halbarad clearly would not be refused in this matter, and in fact, he deserved an answer—not for naught had they bound themselves as brothers so long ago, and beyond that, he was Aragorn's lieutenant, and had a right to expect an answer to such questions as touched upon his captain's ability to command. And so, he replied, "We lost Gimli during the siege of Edoras. It would have been a harsh enough blow, but against all expectation, he and Legolas had grown quite close. For Elf and Dwarf, they were brother dear to each other, and such love is double-edged and often dangerous when loss strikes."
"Say on," Halbarad urged, when he paused.
"There is little else to say—you and I have both seen this before. Of course, I never thought to see an Elf care so for a Dwarf, but—!" Aragorn shrugged and drew on his pipe a bit, ere he continued, "Legolas takes it hard to lose a friend to a death beyond hope of reunion. I should fear for him for that reason alone, yet he is wounded, too, and seems to care little for himself since Edoras, though he swears he has no wish to grieve to death."
"Do you believe him?" Halbarad asked after a moment.
"I believe that he believes his own words, but we all know who walk the Wild what a thin line of difference it is between honoring the dead and making another the means of one's own self-consumption," Aragorn replied, and grimaced as he shook his head. "You know how the tale goes from there."
"Alas, yes," Halbarad sighed, and a silvery stream of smoke filled the air between them. "And what of the others?" he asked at length. "I have eyes, and I note that Gandalf is gone, that Boromir, who searched the banks of the Bruinen with us for the Nazgûl, is no longer in your company, and I see no hobbits, either. What has happened on this journey?"
"It is a long tale, Halbarad," said Aragorn, wearily.
"Then tell me the principle parts of it, so that I shall not make a liar of you to Gamling. The Bearer?"
"He and his servant crossed Anduin some days ago."
"Slain on Parth Galen."
"The other hobbits?"
"They wait for us in Dunharrow."
"And Gandalf?" Halbarad asked, and Aragorn did not miss the brief hesitation, nor the note of dread that hardened the other's voice.
"Lost in Moria," he answered, and wished indeed that he had not to say it. A profound silence ensued as his cousin digested the unwelcome revelation. Aragorn, meanwhile, closed his eyes, and resting his elbows upon his knees, bowed his head. And then abruptly, he shivered, as Legolas' accusing voice sounded in memory: Valar, the darkness sits so heavy on you that I am only shocked by my blindness! Drawing a deep breath, he rose and looked up at the walls of the Hornburg, watching as torchlight flickered between merlons as guards paced their rounds, and he wondered whether the Prince of Mirkwood was among them, seeking comfort in the high places of the world. Take care, my friend, for better blind than heartless, he thought, as he went then and wordlessly laid an arm about Halbarad's shoulders, easing down beside him.
After a few moments, his friend stirred, sighing as he emptied his pipe. "Should we tell the men?" he asked.
"Tomorrow," Aragorn replied. "Let them have such peace as this night can bring, and face the ill-tidings rested." They sat together awhile longer, and then on unspoken agreement, rose and made their way back to the postern door. Gamling admitted them, and the two made their way back to the barracks. Although free now to go whither they would, since Théoden had welcomed the Grey Company, most of the men were asleep there, enjoying the rare coincidence of the end of a long journey and no need to stand watch. As they stood in the doorway, watching them a moment, Halbarad said in a low voice:
"There is one other thing, ere I seek my bed. Wait a moment." So saying, his friend crept to the corner where he had stowed his gear. When he had untied the flap, he reached within and soon came up with an oilskin-wrapped, somewhat bulky parcel that had a messenger's tube attached to it. Returning, he handed them to Aragorn. "It seems you are much sought after among Elves," Halbarad said, with a faint smile. "Gwaihir brought this round his neck from Lothlórien."
"Nay, from Arwen," Halbarad replied. Surprised, Aragorn glanced down at the parcel once more, turning it in his hands. It feels like cloth... Curious and with an odd shiver of premonition, he opened the messenger tube and shook the letter out, moving to stand by one of the braziers set nigh to the barracks. Unrolling it, he read:
Once, after we were betrothed, I was told that the wife of the Chieftain had but one gift for the groom on their wedding day.
Long has been the secret labor, and the gift is untimely—too late for we two, too early for all others. Yet I send this now, for I believe that fortune may yet render such measures meaningless.
Fare you well, beloved. Let the stars extinguish themselves, I shall not forsake thee.
"What is it?" Halbarad asked softly, and Aragorn glanced up to find his friend watching him with some concern. And for an instant, he hesitated caught between the desire to speak and the habit of silence where his heart was concerned. True, he had but recently wished for Halbarad's presence especially, that he might speak a little of desire, but he had not intended to say aught of what had passed in Lothlórien. And yet... 'I made my choice long ago, and when we promised, then was I your wife in spirit even if not in name.' So you spoke that night, my love, Aragorn thought, lowering his eyes to stare at the last line of the letter in his hand, and also of the need for joy if we are to live at all.
That decided him. And so without a word, he passed the message to Halbarad, who took it and began to read it even as Aragorn untied the string holding the oilskin in place. For although he suspected he knew what it was that lay concealed within, he felt a sudden and overwhelming desire to see nonetheless, to have something a little more tangible than memory of what he would have to begin thinking of as his wedding night.
Meanwhile, Halbarad had come to the end of the letter, to judge by the incredulous note in his voice as he asked, "Aragorn? Does the lady mean to say—?"
"Aye. Look," Aragorn replied. Cradling a mass of sable cloth in one arm, he lifted a corner for Halbarad to see. From amid the folds, silver tracery appeared, brilliant in the ruddy light that spilled over it, fire and water seeming to mingle in those lines that were outshone only where a jewel winked brightly above the half-hidden tips of stylized leaves.
And as Halbarad stared, Aragorn murmured, "So do I bind myself to thee, for as long as my life shall endure. Let the seas rise, let the earth change, let the stars extinguish themselves, I shall not forsake thee. So say I, Aragorn, son of Arathorn."
"'Let me lie here', he said, 'to keep the Fords until Éomer comes.'"— "The Battles of the Fords of Isen", Unfinished Tales, 375.
"[W]e have no need to ride to war—war is upon our border"—cf. "The Passing of the Grey Company", RoTK, 58.
The hour draws nigh—let Estel remember the Paths of the Dead, and several of Éomer's lines about them, and Théoden's tale of Baldor—"The Passing of the Grey Company" and "The Muster of Rohan", RoTK.
"Much must be risked in war"—"The Siege of Gondor", RotK, 109.
Once, after we were betrothed, I was told that the wife of the Chieftain had but one gift for the groom on their wedding day. —"Standards".
"Let the stars extinguish themselves, I shall not forsake thee."—Yes, I shamelessly recycle my own stuff. This is the Dúnadan marriage vow from A Reason To Celebrate, given in fuller form by Aragorn in the last sentence.
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