1. Dusk and Dawn
Quiet footsteps sounded on the damp earth behind the cloaked soldier, and she stretched her hand back without turning. The Chieftain approached and clasped her hand, and then she did look down, and the lump at the back of her throat tightened. "My dear," Aragorn whispered, and she knew not whether he spoke to her or to the dead man.
After a silence, one of them said, "Did you see him fall?"
"But I felt it."
Aragorn sank to the ground and reached out with his free hand, hovering helplessly over the bloody jerkin and the shattered collarbone beneath before brushing gently across the cold forehead. She abruptly dropped beside him, bumping him slightly, and he shifted reflexively to brace her. She wound up leaning against him, and, confronted with the unexpected warmth of his shoulder, began to cry.
Aragorn did not try to speak again, but his thoughts spiraled back as they would, through years and years of stealth and skirmish, desperation, calculation and stubborn hope that marked the lives of those who fought in his name. Through all his memories of his home in the North, and the men and women whom he loved, two faces stood out: two captains, two tireless administrators, two fast friends.
As through a window, Aragorn watched himself step into a dim circle of firelight nigh seventy years past, disturbing the watch of a shy sixteen-year-old recruit on the Rhudaur circuit. The boy had been startled, then embarrassed by Aragorn's Elf-silent approach, and it had taken weeks of good-natured teasing by another young ranger before he had opened to Aragorn's chagrined overtures of friendship. The other, a lanky, long-faced girl of eighteen, had no such inhibitions. "My name is Gudrun daughter of Garil, Carthil's son," she told him, "and your lineage is obvious to anyone with two good eyes. You had better learn to slouch a little."
The woman in his arms -- the same woman, now grizzled and scarred, who had stood at his back, sword drawn, unnumbered times, and stood without him and held the line when he was far away, and fallen in love with the shy sixteen-year-old and married him -- shifted and wiped her eyes with her cloak, which was not her cloak, Aragorn now saw. They stood up together, slowly, and pulled apart, Gudrun settling one hand on her pommel, as always, and the other across her body.
Or not quite across.
"Gudrun?" She turned, and the Chieftain's sharp eyes flicked again to the hand that rested low on her abdomen, before coming back to her face. Gudrun smiled. Not the familiar wolf-grin of old, but a small, bittersweet turn of the lips; an answer to the question.
"Truly? After all these years?" He breathed heavily as she nodded. "Gudrun, you rode to battle!"
"I know. We left the Shire unguarded. But he told me I had to come with him -- be with him -- this time."
"He knew he rode to his death. He did not know that I carried life."
Aragorn shook his head, but a smile seemed to be brimming up inside him, past the grief, past the weariness that clung to him like chainmail. "My dear," he said, and this time the words were all for her. Beyond the gloom the sun sank down, and intuitively both glanced west. "I must go back," he said, apology in his voice. "This night will be a long one, and after that..." He sighed.
Gudrun actually laughed aloud. "Do you doubt, my lord?" Something like a sparkle appeared in her eyes. "Halbarad knew the answer when he fell."
Aragorn clasped her shoulder, and leaned in to kiss her brow. "Aurë entulava!*," he said to her, smiling now in his turn. They turned to the man on the ground and saluted him, then turned again toward the city and began to walk. "I do believe it."
*"And each time that he slew Húrin cried: 'Aurë entulava! Day shall come again!'" -- "Of the Fifth Battle"; The Silmarillion