Still standing by Nath

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I. March 15 – Sunset

The Sun sinks slowly towards Mindolluin’s dark edge. The walls of Minas Tirith still stand out in the last red light of day.

Next to Halbarad, Aragorn nudges Roheryn to move closer. As he turns his head to look at his kinsman, Halbarad’s gaze is briefly caught by a flash of light from one of the gems on the standard.

“Well…” Aragorn says, then nods at the sight before them. “Minas Tirith still stands.”

“So it does,” Halbarad replies. “And so do we.” So do I, he does not say. Though when Biter stumbled and threw me, I thought I would not be. He’d remounted quickly after Aragorn slew the Easterling who’d tried to take advantage of his horse’s mishap, but even so it had taken him a few moments to regain his composure before continuing the battle.

“I believe you are wanted elsewhere,” Halbarad tells Aragorn and indicates Éomer and Imrahil who are waiting some distance away. “I’ll go see to the men.” Aragorn clasps his hand, then joins the other two.

Halbarad watches a while longer as the light fades further and then turns back to where the Grey Company have set up their camp.        

II. March 16 – Debate

When Halbarad wakes up he wonders for a moment where he is, but the stench of ashes and death that still hangs over the Pelennor reminds him. It is still dark, though the eastern sky is starting to lighten. He sits up and waves at Hunthor who is on sentry duty.

Yesterday morning I thought – nay, knew – that I would not see the end of the day, yet here I am. It seems churlish to complain about my foresight proving false, and I won’t, but it… it makes me feel uneasy as well. He shakes his head and notices someone approaching their encampment.

“Who goes there?” Hunthor calls out. Halbarad rises into a crouch, ready to draw his sword, but he relaxes his grip and stands up as soon as the reply to the sentry’s challenge comes.

Aragorn! But… wait, he … “Aragorn!” he calls.

“Did you only just return?” he asks once Aragorn is nearby.

Aragorn is too weary to even nod in confirmation and Halbarad quickly steps up to guide him into one of the tents that between Borlas and Prince Imrahil had – somehow – appeared in their camp the night before, to the cot that is waiting for him.

“Sleep,” he says, but Aragorn is already asleep before he even lies down. Halbarad sighs, shakes his head and tugs off his kinsman’s boots before pulling a blanket over him.

He considers going back to sleep himself, but knows sleep would elude him this close to dawn.

~*~

Outside, Halmir is waiting for him, and they wait for the sun to rise and light to return to the world once more.

“I’d enjoy this dawn more if it didn’t happen over Mordor,” Halmir says after a short while.

“Indeed,” Halbarad says. Yet it is only a few days ago that the Enemy’s Darkness broke. It feels like half a lifetime.

“What happens now?” Halmir says.

“That will be decided today, I think,” Halbarad replies. “And it would not surprise me if we see those mountains from much closer by soon.”

His son nods in somewhat reluctant agreement.

~*~

When Halbarad returns to the tent less than an hour later, Aragorn is already awake again. Halbarad shakes his head, but he knows they cannot yet afford to rest. Yesterday was hardly the last battle in this war.

Aragorn stifles a yawn as he joins Halbarad who’s sat down to make repairs to his gear. Halbarad looks him over critically.

“I know,” his kinsman says. “I need to look af…”

Halbarad interrupts him, grinning widely. “Would I dare to suggest such a thing?”

“Not?” Aragorn says. “That would be a new occurrence entirely. Nor do I believe you.”

“You are wise.” Halbarad attempts a solemn expression, but cannot maintain it long.

Aragorn sighs. “I hope I can be. We will need all wisdom to decide how to proceed.”

“I know, and I have every faith in you,” Halbarad says firmly, and adds, “Nor is that a joke.” They are both silent for some time, but eventually Halbarad asks Aragorn about Minas Tirith. “I have already heard of the fate of the Steward, and a summing up of the City’s situation, but what news of the Hobbits and the other wounded?”

Aragorn swiftly tells him, and as Halbarad smiles at the exchange of words between Aragorn and the Hobbit Meriadoc, he notices a small party approaching from Minas Tirith. Both men get up as they recognize Éomer and Imrahil, and not long after they gather to take counsel in the largest of the tents, along with Gandalf and the sons of Elrond.

III. March 18 – Departure

Seven thousand against that! Halbarad thinks as he looks east against the sun. He turns in the saddle to look at the army gathered to depart. The Grey Company is in the van, lined up behind Borlas and Halmir, except for Tarlanc and Faron who lie in a barrow near the walls of Minas Tirith. Halbarad has their stars in his pack to take home for Tarlanc’s son and Faron’s sister. If there is a going home from this. We buried them yesterday, but who will bury us?

Halbarad turns back to Aragorn who will soon give the signal to depart, and gathers his horse’s reins in anticipation. Halbarad’s thoughts reluctantly return to the likely outcome of their venture. We are but a distraction to draw the Enemy’s Eye away from his own land, and as long as the Hobbit succeeds in his quest, we will not fall in vain.

Aragorn looks at Halbarad, nods – it is time – and Halbarad puts aside the thought of the trap they are riding into, and raises the standard high. As soon as the Gondorian trumpeters take up the signal, he nudges Biter to fall in behind Aragorn at the front of the column.

IV. March 23 – Morning

Not yet today, Halbarad thinks, but we are drawing ever nearer the end of this mad foray. He glances up at the sky. He doesn’t see the Ringwraiths that yesterday Legolas said had started to follow them, but his heart tells him they are there.

The army is about to break camp and set out, and at the edges of the camp the heralds proclaim the coming of the King Elessar to these lands. In the brooding silence that lies heavy over what Halbarad supposes is still Ithilien and not yet the Noman-lands before the Dagorlad, the trumpets sound shrill, jarring, and the voices of the heralds are smothered by the heavy air.

I would almost welcome another attempt at ambush, Halbarad thinks as he pats Biter’s flanks and checks his horse’s legs, easily avoiding a half-hearted nip at his shoulder. Even the horses are disheartened. He still doesn’t quite turn his back on Biter as he puts first the saddle blanket, then the saddle on the horse’s back, but Biter stands patiently, belying his name.

“He’s quiet enough now, but sometimes I wonder that you don’t just feed him raw meat,” Halmir says from the other side of the horse. “Save him the trouble of collecting it himself.”

Halbarad laughs. “I’d rather have him hungry enough to chomp down on Orcs.”

“Even if the price is him trying to eat you for breakfast every second day?” Halmir asks as he stands next to Halbarad.

“Even then,” Halbarad confirms. He waits. There’s something on your mind, but you’ll say it the sooner if I don’t push…

Halmir takes a deep breath. “Father, does Uncle Aragorn truly expect to prevail against Mordor with so few?”

Though Halbarad says nothing, Halmir nods. “I see,” his son says softly. “Then why? What reason to do this when we know there is no chance of success? Would it not have been better for us to remain in Minas Tirith, and repel the Enemy’s next attack there? We can hold out there.”

“The gate is broken,” Halbarad reminds him.

“Still,” Halmir says. “It makes more sense than this.” He lowers his voice even further. “And that makes me think that there is more to this than I know.”

“It is not for me to speak of,” Halbarad says equally softly. If I could tell you…

“Then I will not pry further,” Halmir says. “Just, if there is… if we both make it through…” He falls silent.

Alas, it is likely enough that neither of us will. Halbarad steps forward and draws his son into an embrace. Halmir returns his grip, and they stand together until Halbarad is pushed off-balance by Biter.

“Jealous beast,” he mutters as Halmir laughs.

V. March 25 – The Black Gate

[which in the description, and some of the actual wording, owes much to RotK, V.10 The Black Gate Opens, and VI.4 The Field of Cormallen]

The armies of the West are in place before the Morannon, and Halbarad tries not to dwell on how pathetically few they are against… that. The Nazgûl are circling over the Towers of the Teeth on their flying beasts. The threat is as yet only implied, but it is there. Not just death, but darkness about to crash down over Middle-earth and swallow it.

Halbarad knows why they’re here; this battle – their deaths – will be no more than a ruse to distract the Enemy from the real danger. And that is why I do not fear the end we’re facing here. But if the Hobbit fails… All that is fair and good and noble will fail and be lost with him. That, I do fear. He glances at Aragorn and their eyes meet briefly. He dares not even consider what would befall Isildur’s Heir in such a world. Far better to die here today, even though we will not know whether our sacrifice made any difference.

He banishes his gloomy thoughts as Aragorn has the signal given for the Captains to ride towards the Black Gate. The banner is not yet unfolded as he takes up his place beside his lord. Around them Gandalf, the sons of Elrond, Éomer of Rohan, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Legolas and Gimli and even the Hobbit Pippin Took. The Grey Company is in the vanguard, and as Halbarad watches Halmir take up his position he almost wishes that his son had been among those who turned back two days ago.

At last they move forward, and dismount when they reach their position. Upon a nod from Aragorn Halbarad unfurls the banner, while trumpeters sound out their challenge to the Dark Lord and the heralds call him out.

Silence.

Then, a great drumroll shatters the silence.

Horns bray.

The Black Gate opens.

Out rides the Enemy’s embassy.

In front, a man, all in black like one of the Wraiths, yet no wraith he. Halbarad knows this is the one who is known as the Mouth of Sauron. The horse the Mouth rides is black, its head a gruesome mask, flame in its eyes and nostrils. Biter paws at the ground in challenge, but quietens at a mere touch of Halbarad’s hand to his neck. You’ll get your pound of flesh today, even if you can’t have this one, Halbarad promises him as the Mouth speaks to answer the challenge that has been declared.

His words are proud, mocking, but when it comes to a battle of wills and he meets Aragorn’s gaze, he is the one to look away.

Then the Mouth turns to Gandalf, and when Halbarad sees the things the Mouth has to show them, his breath nearly fails him. Frodo has failed. The grip of his hand on the standard tightens. He looks at Aragorn, who is pale, his stance tense, and at the peredhil, whose faces are identical, stony and emotionless; but their hands are on their swords. Pippin breaks the silence, and Halbarad’s heart goes out to him.

Halbarad glances around as Gandalf steps forward to hear the Mouth’s terms. The Captains of the West stand and wait, prepared for whatever follows. The ramparts of Mordor are empty, silent.

Then Gandalf has had enough, and reveals his power, taking the tokens that have been shown before.

The Mouth’s arrogance turns to fear and he retreats at a gallop.

Even before he reaches the gates, more horns blow, and the hordes of Mordor pour out.

Halbarad is one of the first to remount, but he doesn’t turn until Aragorn does. They make it back to the two hills on which the troops of the West are arranged, but before long they are wholly surrounded. The horses are led away towards the centre of their position, and Halbarad wonders if any of them will manage to break free and save themselves. There is little advantage in fighting mounted, and…

Aragorn, I must stay near him, is Halbarad’s last thought before the Enemy’s troops are upon them. Somehow, he does, and he holds on to the standard. The battle is relentless and Halbarad loses track of time and of how many he slays. Occasionally he catches a glimpse of a grey cloak or a star brooch on one of the men around them. Some of his men at least are still with them. We can’t last much longer, and Aragorn is as weary as I am. But we’re still standing…

Then, Gandalf raises his arms and cries out: “The Eagles are coming!”

The battle halts as the Eagles swoop down on the Nazgûl who have been overhead all day.

The Nazgûl turn and flee into Mordor. Halbarad feels their shadow lift off his heart, and he takes a deep breath, just as the host that had been pressing them halts, hesitates, falters.

“Stand, Men of the West! Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom,” Gandalf calls out.

The earth shakes as he speaks. A great darkness, shot through by lightning, rises into the sky over the Dark Land, and all about them is cast into ruin. The Towers of the Teeth come down and so does the Black Gate. Halbarad can only stare at the destruction.

“The realm of Sauron is ended!” Gandalf says. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.”

~*~

That evening, the battle over at last, the sun slowly sinks into the west. Halbarad stands looking out over the battlefield towards the ruin of the Black Gate. It still seems unreal. Not that we won, for had the battle lasted much longer we would have been overrun and none of us left alive to witness the fall of the Enemy.

And Halmir made it through too – not unscathed, but he too is still standing; even Biter made it. Others of the Grey Company were not as lucky; Borlas and three more will not return north.

After a while Aragorn joins him, and Halbarad gives him a critical look.

“Yes, I should be resting,” the other says with a wry smile, “but Frodo and Sam needed my care, and so did many others.”

“I know,” Halbarad replies, returning an equally wry smile. Aragorn will rest; even if he ignores Halbarad, Elrohir and Elladan will see to it that he does.

VI. May 2 – Minas Tirith

When Halbarad wakes up and slowly opens his eyes, he is briefly disoriented by the softness of his bed, the light pouring in through large windows of leaded glass, the unfamiliar sounds coming in through one open window.

He stretches and gets up, walks over to the open window to look down over Minas Tirith. From here, he can’t quite see the space in front of the still-broken gate where they stood yesterday. It is real though, he thinks. The Enemy is brought down, and Aragorn is King. He looks further across the Pelennor. Much work has been done in the time that they rode to Mordor and back, though the wounds of battle are still clearly visible upon the ground. He shakes his head. And more remains to be done, here and elsewhere, but not today; not yet…

He takes a deep breath of the warm air of this southern spring and turns back to get dressed. He finishes doing so just as there is a knock on the door and a servant asks whether he is ready for his breakfast to be brought in.

Later that day, as he returns to the Citadel from a walk in the city’s lower levels – and a visit to Biter in his stable on the sixth level – one of the guards approaches him with the message that the King wants to see him.

He waits outside massive carved doors as some court functionary goes in to announce his arrival. When the man returns to let him in, Aragorn has followed him to the door. Inside, Aragorn immediately embraces him, and leads him to a corner near a window where they sit down.

“At Cormallen I asked you to stay in the south a while longer,” Aragorn says, and Halbarad nods. “Now, that is still true, but Éomer and the Rohirrim will return to the Mark in a week. With them will go the sons of Elrond, and two Rangers who are going North. Will you ride to Tharbad with them and bring news of Eriador back for me?”

“Of course,” Halbarad says. “Your Majesty,” he adds, and Aragorn’s answering smile wavers between smug and pained.  

 


Chapter End Notes:

This is a collection of fluff that I originally wrote on LJ - now slightly cleaned up. The narrative continues in the next part of the Different Roads series: Dark is the Path.



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