3. Nor the Battle to the Strong
They stood side by side, star-eagle and swan-prince, as the funeral bier's heat licked at their skin. Imrahil had been a great fan of campfires since childhood, but this flame was wholly different: a sickly heat on an over-warm afternoon, with carrion-birds screeching as they wheeled about overhead and the stench of burned human flesh thick in the air all around them.
In all truth, it was all he could do to keep from retching. Veteran of many battles though he was, that last smell made his gut roil within him, and he wondered that the great captain Thorongil would seek such a barbaric end for his kinsman. Aye, he recognized the roguish captain. It had been long years since the Captain of the Dúnedain (for that was the only title Aragorn would accept, for now) had burned the Corsairs' fleet in their own harbor in that daring raid, but Imrahil had recognized him at once. Was this not the daring hero he had fawned after, once upon a time?
He was, yet at the same time he wasn't. The man who stood beside him now was strangely diminished; or not so strangely, given the heavy price they'd all paid for their current reprieve. Imrahil reached out to lay a hand on Aragorn's shoulder in solidarity but then thought better of it, letting it drop to his side. This man would be his king if they both survived the coming weeks, and long experience had taught him not to be too forward with such men.
Still, the silence hung heavily between them, until at last Imrahil felt his words dragged from his mouth quite against his will. "Your pardon, lord, but why did you choose this ending? We would have interred him in the Citadel. Close kin of yours deserves at least as much honor as we accorded Théoden king."
Aragorn laughed bitterly at that, not looking away from the bier. "I did not choose an ending so far from home for him, nor would I have. And your ministers of protocol would take issue with that comparison, evenwere I crowned. Halbarad is still a prince, and Théoden a crowned king himself" He sighed heavily and shook his head to himself. "But I have better reason than that. Halbarad is – he was a lord of the North. Better his ashes be carried away by the wind, so we may have some hope of his returning home."
Aragorn closed his eyes as though he was physically pained, and Imrahil guessed that he was. Fate had treated him well in this campaign, but not always, and Imrahil had tasted that cup of bitterness more than once. The bier burned low – Halbarad's body was long since consumed, and the great mounds of grasses it had rested on were nearly reduced to ash as well. Aragorn looked into the dying fire one last time before turning away, surveying the carnage that was Pelennor Fields.
A mumâk lay behind them, great chunks of flesh gone from his shoulder; Imrahil guessed wild dogs had come upon it in the night. Deep ruts scarred the ground from Mordor's heavy war-machines, and the spring grass was caked in blood and innards. A few yards beyond them lay a Southron boy's body, trampled by some animal. Not all the dead had even been collected, it seemed.
Further off, they both saw a great row, hundreds of Gondorian dead laid side by side awaiting burial – and that was but a fraction of the full cost. The lords had been taken away into the city, of course, and those bodies that had lost their hold on life in the Houses of Healing this last night would be kept in the city until this first wave of dead could be properly dealt with. And that was but a fraction of Gondor's fallen.
"I thought I had seen destruction after Helm's Deep," Aragorn said softly. "But this is on a scale all its own. We had fewer dead, I think, and mostly Orcs, and they were hidden away by the forest. Not laid bare like this." This time Imrahil did clap him on the shoulder, for he saw in Aragorn neither king nor hero but a fellow captain overcome with the full cost of reckless hate.
"I met with Húrin this morning," Aragorn continued after a pause. "I wished to know what quality of army we could muster to march for the Morannon, and how many of those men would be serving under new captains. I thought perhaps we might add some Southrons to our number – Orcs are Orcs, of course, and I would not trust even the Easterlings, but the men of Harad are at least Men of the West, in their fashion." He looked once more at the dead arrayed before him, this time letting his sight fall on the great heap of Easterlings. "He said that none had surrendered themselves. Not one. Have you ever heard such a thing?"
This time it was Imrahil's turn to have shock show plainly across his face. A fine pair of well-schooled lords they were! But he had spent the night pacing hospital corridors waiting for news of Elphir, who had been sorely wounded by an Easterling ax, and Aragorn had just laid his own kinsman to his final rest. Perhaps they were both entitled to frayed nerves today. And truthfully, Imrahil could not imagine any day when that particular piece of news would not have hit him hard. He had seen the great armies from the walls of Minas Tirith. He had fought in their midst. How could none of them have survived?
"I take it this is not the usual course of things, in Gondor's wars?" Aragorn asked.
"You know it is not," Imrahil answered him. "You fought among us. Have you ever known us to act so viciously?"
"I thought things may have changed," he replied. "Denethor's last deeds hardly speak of a commander given to half-measures. I feared I was out of my depths here. I was raised to believe there were some things you simply did not do, even in combat. You did not draw out a man's pain beyond necessity, nor did you strike down a man whose sword was not drawn. But how can you hold to such rules against such an enemy."
"We have similar standards here," Imrahil said. "Among them, that we take captives when we can and treat them well. Those men would not have been killed, had they given themselves up." Secretly, though, he was not so sure. Tempers had run high among his own men, and they were among the most principled in all Gondor. Would an Easterling have been spared if he had begged for mercy in all that bedlam? Would an Orc? And would Halbarad, would any of the rest have been spared, if they made similar supplication?
Stooping down, Aragorn grabbed a handful of grass and dirt. He ran his head over it, cracking the dried blood in a crackle that sent chills down Imrahil's spine. In a sudden fit of rage he hurled it into the dying fire.
Imrahil took Aragorn by the elbow and helped him to his feet. But what could he say? Words seemed wholly inadequate to their current state. Still, where minds were at a loss bodies must serve, and if some of the old rules no longer held sway, well, others still might be true. There was yet duty, and the guiding burden of command – and of fealty. For all that Imrahil had seen great battle before, this scene was beyond even his experience. His heart yearned to be away.
"Come," he said, guiding Aragorn around the ashes that had been Halbarad's bier toward where several of the Dúnedain waited for them. "We have kept your men waiting long enough. Will you and your men toast his memory at my house?"
Behind them, a wind caught the ashes in the wind, lifting them some feet over their heads before it let them fall again. Aragorn's shoulders sagged at the sight, but not for long. This time it was his men that caught his gaze, and so they strode around the bier. Was Aragorn truly called to them by a time-tested kinship, or was his new vigor a feigned purpose he had adopted for their sake? Imrahil could not say. Just now, though, he'd take either one.
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.