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Unto the ending of the world: 17. Home
April 16 – 17, 3019
Nearly there. Home before dark. As he reached the last bend in the road before Caras Dirnen, Halbarad stopped to let Borlas and Gethron catch up, and to enjoy his first sight of the town.
All appeared normal until Halbarad blinked against the light of the sun low on the horizon. Blackened ruins, thin trails of smoke still curling slowly skyward. No... Please. No. He stared, too shocked to do anything. Even so, he must have tightened his hold on the reins, for he was jolted by his horse tossing its head and pulling at the reins in protest. As he loosened his grip, he could only think Dineth! Might she, their sons, have escaped? Were there any survivors?
Then, as he blinked again, the view changed once more, and he was simply looking at the long, dark shadows cast by the setting sun. An illusion...
No, foresight. But to what purpose? Prophecy? He already knew it was unlikely to end otherwise for the Dúnedain. Or was it a warning? Was there then aught he could do to stop this from happening, or might forewarning at least let some survive?
By now Borlas and Gethron had caught up, and Halbarad tried to hide how badly he had been shaken. Even so, Borlas gave him a searching look, though his second said nothing.
Gethron was not so reserved. "Are you well, Captain? You look as pale as if you have seen a ghost."
"Yes," Halbarad replied. "I am well." He could not speak of what he had seen, not when he was so uncertain of what it meant or even whether he could still trust his foresight.
While Gethron merely nodded in acceptance of his answer, Borlas' look was sceptical, but all his second said was, "Then we must be on our way. It is still twenty miles to Celonhad."
Halbarad waited until the two were gone from view before he nudged his horse to walk on. Whichever it had been, warning or prophecy, he needed to regain his composure and think on what he had seen. If... when Caras Dirnen came under attack, what could be done to defend it?
After the end of the North Kingdom, Aranarth had done his best with what he had on hand, but he had not built his town to withstand the full strength of Sauron's armies. And even had Aranarth had the full might and skill in building of Númenor at his disposal, mere walls would not do more than slow down the Enemy. Even Minas Tirith, which had been built to withstand that strength, had fallen, and not after a long siege, but simply by breaching the gate. No, it might be a long time before the Enemy could lay siege here, but the end, when it came, would be swift and bitter.
Riding past the first few houses, Halbarad tried to look at everything as if he saw it for the first time. He wondered how much of the town Aranarth would recognise. The Keep was still much as it had been in his ancestor's day, but the original wooden palisade around the town, though still called that, had long since been replaced by a wall of stone. The town itself had grown beyond that wall, and more people dwelt outside the walls than inside. Still, compared to what he had seen in Gondor, the capital of the Dúnedain was, like its occupants, but shabby and poor. No grand public buildings, tall statues or cheerful fountains adorned Caras Dirnen, yet in the North too, the Dúnedain had endured, and unlike Gondor, they had kept Elendil's line unbroken. Until now.
At least the Grey Company had already brought word of Aragorn's fall, for he could not have faced bringing that news yet again, especially here. Every time he had spoken those words, Aragorn is dead, his heart broke anew, but now he would have to set aside his own grief and deal with the people of Caras Dirnen. His people...
Passing under the gaze of the townspeople who had come to the Eastgate to watch, Halbarad felt the weight of their looks – scrutinising their new Chieftain; judging, weighing, doubting – pressing on him. It would be easier to face an Orc host than his people, given how he had become Chieftain. Then he remembered what Elladan had said; Aragorn would not have named him Chieftain if his kinsman had not believed he was up to the task. Even so, all he felt now was doubt, and he tried to shake off the fear that he would fail Aragorn's trust in him.
Halbarad took a deep breath. Enough! No more shying at shadow and illusion. All he could do was his best, and Aragorn had believed that would be enough. Yet Aragorn had also known, just as well as he did, how little chance they had in this war.
Inside the walls, there were enough people by the side of the road watching his arrival to make him feel even more self-conscious, and he wished he had taken one of the paths outside the Palisade to get home. He hesitated as he came past the road that led up to the Keep. Should he go there first? There might be messages he needed to know about, and he could put the horse in the Keep stables now, rather than in the morning. No, he was weary and if he went to the Keep, he would be there all evening. If Bregor had anything urgent for him, the seneschal would not hesitate to send for him at home, nor did Halbarad want to let Dineth wait.
"Halbarad! Lord Halbarad!" someone called out as he rode past.
"Gorlim," he replied curtly, letting his horse walk on.
"My lord, I need a word..."
"Not now. Come to the Keep tomorrow if you must." Whatever it was, it would hardly be important, not from Gorlim. Aragorn had always given short shrift to the man's incessant complaints and demands, and Halbarad was not about to change that.
Finally, Halbarad reached the Westgate. Though it was not far from there, it still seemed too long until he reached the path to his house. After the horror in his vision, the sight of Dineth waiting for him in the doorway nearly took his breath away from sheer relief. He was home, and for one moment, there was only Dineth; no War, no Ring, no foresight. She watched in silence as he dismounted and went round the corner to lead his horse to the lean-to that served as occasional stabling space. He quickly took care of the animal, and then walked back towards the door.
Dineth had gone inside, but as soon as he stepped across the threshold, she was waiting for his embrace, clinging tightly in return. "Will you be home long?"
"A few days at most."
"Halmir already told me there is trouble near Bree," Dineth hesitated, and then went ahead in a rush. "I thought... oh, Haleg, when the Grey Company rode in without you, I thought you were dead. Did you have to go to Rivendell first?"
He looked down. He had not thought of what she would think when his men rode in without him. "I promised Aragorn I would."
She nodded, but said nothing.
"Where are the boys?" he asked after some time.
"Halmir is over at Mairen's with Lossiel, and Haldan has gone hunting. You may need to talk to him, he is upset about..." She fell silent, looking at him closely.
"About Aragorn? I will see if there is anything I can say."
Dineth raised her hand to draw her fingers across his cheek along the edge of his beard. "And you? How are you..."
He sighed and leant his head into her hand. "Better than at first." Facing Arwen had nearly undone him again, and his vision had shaken him badly, yet it was true.
They stood together silently a little longer, until Dineth spoke again. "Go take off your mail and empty your pack and I will get you a bite to eat. You look too weary to stand on your feet."
She did not break off their embrace, and Halbarad found he was loath to do so too, though he was indeed weary. He let his hands slide slightly down her back; just one kiss and then he would follow her suggestion. Food and rest were both more than welcome.
As Dineth raised her head for their lips to meet, the door opened and Haldan burst in. "Mother, is father back yet? There is a strange horse outs... oh... Father! You are back! Is that Andúril?" Haldan immediately reached for the sword, which was on the table with the rest of Halbarad's gear.
"Haldan!" Halbarad snapped. "I taught you better than to touch another man's sword without his permission," he continued sternly as his son quickly withdrew his hand.
"I am sorry. I did not think." After a short silence, Haldan continued, "Father, will you show me Andúril?" and when Halbarad said nothing, "Please?"
Halbarad relented and drew Andúril far enough to display the device of stars and Moon and Sun in full. Haldan looked at it for a long time, his initial expression of awe quickly turning to grief. As he put his arm around Haldan's shoulders and pulled him close, Halbarad was surprised that Haldan not only let him, but even forgot his awkward seventeen-year-old pride enough to return the embrace and lean his head on his father's shoulder. After a short while, Haldan looked at him with a wan smile, which Halbarad returned.
"Did you have any luck hunting?"
"Snared a rabbit."
"Better than nothing. Did you remember to dress it?"
"Of course, and I collected what greens I could find as well," Haldan replied.
"Well done. Go give your mother a hand with cooking it." Dineth had used the rabbit as an excuse to let him speak to Haldan, and Halbarad could hear her rummaging about in the kitchen.
While Haldan went to the kitchen to assist Dineth, Halbarad gathered his gear and went into the bedroom. It was high time to sort his pack and take off his mail; he had barely spent time out of it since they had ridden south, and he suddenly felt the weight of every single ring.
After they had eaten, though both Dineth and Haldan had much they wanted to ask, Halbarad found he was so weary that he excused himself before long, not even waiting for Halmir to come home. That night he woke up once, alarmed by the weight on his arm that kept him trapped, until he realised he was in his own bed, and that Dineth was sleeping pressed closely against him. He must have been wearier than he had thought, as he had not even woken up when she came to bed. While he considered whether to free his arm and risk waking her, and whether she would mind if he did, he already drifted off again.
In the morning, as Halbarad went outside to get firewood, Halmir followed him, and then stood fidgeting until Halbarad asked him what was on his mind. "Father, I spoke with Lossiel last night, and we want to announce our betrothal soon, to wed in two months time."
"Two months? Why such a rush?" Halbarad raised an eyebrow as he looked at his son, attempting a teasing tone to hide his concern, and repressing a shudder at the thought of his grandfather who had fallen to an Orc blade before he had even known that his betrothed was with child. Halmir met his gaze without blushing, looking almost indignant even.
Not a 'Ranger's troth' then, Halbarad thought in relief. While a child born from a betrothal had much the same inheritance rights as one born within marriage, it would make a difference when that child was born to the Chieftain's heir. It would not do to draw too much attention to his own ancestry, not with what they were facing, nor would it be good to have the legitimacy of his heir's heir in question, even if Halbarad doubted Sauron's victory would leave much to inherit.
"Father, I am not dumb; I know there will be war. And Lossë's mother has already given us her blessing..." Halmir waited.
"And you have mine as well. You will have to speak to your mother yourself," Halbarad replied as he clasped Halmir's hand in congratulation. It was no great surprise, and despite everything else, he was more than pleased at the news. The two had been courting for close to two years by now, and Lossiel was a Ranger's daughter and aware of the long separations that came with marrying a Ranger.
To his relief Halbarad attracted much less attention on his way to the Keep than he had the day before. After taking the horse to the stables, he walked on to the inner bailey. He had barely entered the courtyard when Bregor, the Keep's seneschal, found him.
"Welcome, my lord. Is there anything you need?"
Halbarad took a deep breath before he replied. Uneasy as he was at the idea, as Chieftain he should use Aragorn's office. "For now, only the key to the Chieftain's office, and could you send a man to help carry some things in about an hour?"
"Very well, my lord. I will see to it," Bregor replied.
As he headed up the stairs, Halbarad wondered how long before being addressed as 'my lord' would not make him want to look over his shoulder for Aragorn. 'Captain' was not nearly as hard; he had held captaincies long enough that being called that did not feel out of place.
Halbarad first went through the reports and messages on his own desk, laying aside the ones that required an answer. There were not nearly as many messages as he had feared, although he did not find the hoped-for news from Bree or Fornost either. By the time he had read everything and made a few notes for the items that required an answer, the man he had asked Bregor to send up arrived, bringing the key to Aragorn's office with him. Most of Halbarad's old duties would now fall to Borlas, so there were only a few crates of papers and books to move, and they were done quickly.
The Chieftain's office... Halbarad grimaced as he sat down at Aragorn's desk. The last time he had been in here had been the previous year, just before Aragorn had left for Bree. Bree... Before he considered what to do about Bree, he should make a start at sorting Aragorn's papers. Luckily, over the years they had used this room often enough for Ranger business that he knew already what was in here. For now, that left Aragorn's personal papers, and after a slight hesitation he unlocked the drawer that held them. Most was private correspondence, either to be returned to the people involved or to be destroyed, and he sorted the letters accordingly.
Along with the letters, there were several bundles of paper that had been tied together. The first one held details of the lands held by Aragorn, and Halbarad put it back in the drawer; he would look at it later. He tried to recall who now minded Aragorn's lands. Upon Gilraen's return to the Angle she had declared that, as her son had as yet no wife, it fell to her to manage his holdings within the Angle and the tenant farms on them. After her death, there had been a reeve, but Halbarad could not remember who held that office. No doubt Bregor would know.
The next bundle held the letters and notes he himself had written when Aragorn had been in Gondor as Thorongil, all carefully worded to not betray either Aragorn's identity or their origin, but enough to keep him at least somewhat informed of what went on in the North. With a sad smile, Halbarad folded them again and returned them to the drawer, touched that Aragorn had kept them.
There was only one bundle left and Halbarad recognised the paper as Rivendell-made. Arwen's letters. He unfolded one just enough to recognise her handwriting, then wrapped the letters again. He had delivered more than a few of these himself, and he would return them to her the next time he visited Rivendell – if she were still alive then, he thought in sorrow as he returned the bundle to the drawer and relocked it.
But would Arwen even wish to see him? Halbarad had tried to tell himself she only spoke from grief when she questioned that he had not fallen beside Aragorn. Yet the reproach cut too close to his own doubts to put it aside easily. Could he have done more? Kept control of his horse; run faster?
No, no matter what Arwen might think, he had done all within his power. It had not been enough, but he could have done naught more. Nor did Arwen have much of a right to rebuke others, when she had not even felt that Aragorn had died. Her perception might well have been clouded by the Enemy's regaining the One Ring, or even by that accursed Morgul wound disturbing their bond, but still... she had not known.
He sighed and shook his head. He should not judge her for words spoken in grief, or for something that was beyond his ken. Aragorn had spoken to him about his bond with Arwen, trying to explain, and though Halbarad thought he had some grasp of what it could and could not do, he was no loremaster.
Halbarad stood up and walked over to the map table, more to allow him to pace while he thought than from any need to closely study the map of the area around Bree. As yet he did not even know for certain where the brigands who had broken through at Tharbad had gone, and until he did, all his plans were tentative.
That there was no news from either Tharbad or Bree meant he would have to leave Caras Dirnen even sooner than he had thought. Messengers could be delayed, but what if one had been waylaid by the brigands? Then there was Daeron's messenger to Fornost. It had been too soon to expect him back at Tharbad, but the Grey Company should perhaps have encountered him along the Greenway. Halbarad paced the length of the room in frustration. He hoped he had not made a mistake by not dealing with the brigands before coming home. He still had to see to Aragorn's house, and no doubt other things would come up that now escaped him, but all would have to wait until after Bree. What could not wait was sending messages to the members of the Council to formally announce his accession to the Chieftainship. He would have to write the letters today, and let the messengers ride out in the morning.
He returned to the desk, first starting to lean against the side out of long habit, then as he caught himself doing so, Halbarad moved to the chair, just as there was a commotion outside, and the door opened. Bregor stepped in with an apologetic gesture, but was immediately pushed aside by the one behind him.
"Lord Mallor," Halbarad said, not attempting to hide his irritation.
"You are quick to make yourself comfortable in here," the lord of Celonhad replied as he looked around the room appraisingly.
Mallor smirked at his glare, as Halbarad cursed at himself for reacting in exactly the way the other intended. He would do well to not let Mallor get to him any further. Folding his arms across his chest, Halbarad waited for Mallor to continue. He should not be surprised to see him here already; it was only twenty miles to Celonhad, and Borlas would have mentioned his return to Caras Dirnen. Given how impulsive Mallor could be, it was perhaps more surprising that he had not been here sooner.
"First, I should of course say that I commiserate with your loss," Mallor said, continuing before Halbarad had time to respond, "The position you find yourself in now must be a shock to you. Undoubtedly you intend to call a Council within the next few days? It will be no trouble to take care of sending for all Councillors for you."
"That will not be necessary. I will not convene the Council until after I return from Fornost and Bree."
"Bree? You think you can just come in here, toss around your orders and head off into the Wild again? The Council tolerated it from Aragorn, but you will not..."
"Enough!" Halbarad cut him short. "From the reports I saw, it would seem that nothing in the Angle requires my immediate attention. I would assume that is correct?" Mallor said nothing in response, and Halbarad continued, "And as for 'will not,' you are forgetting yourself. The Council has no authority over matters of defence, and I will handle what needs to be done as I see fit." He held Mallor's gaze until the other looked away. "Now, is there anything else you came to see me about, Councillor?"
"No, there is not," Mallor replied, leaving a long silence before a rather grudging, "My lord."
Halbarad closed the door behind Mallor, resisting the urge to slam it, and walked over to the window, to stare out into the noon light over Caras Dirnen. He hoped he had not been too heavy-handed. Mallor was the worst of the Council, with little interest in anything other than what would benefit himself. Unfortunately, Mallor was also a mostly male-line descendant of Aranarth, and while he was not as near the royal line as Halbarad, if he intended a challenge he might find some support. Halbarad did not like leaving the members of the Council to simmer for weeks, especially while they had yet to renew their oaths of fealty, but it could not be helped. The situation around Bree was too important to leave unattended any longer.
Who to include in the Bree raid? He would take none from the Grey Company, they had more than earned their rest; nor from the eastern companies, as they could not be spared from their own area. He should be able to find the numbers he wanted from the western companies, but he was glad also of the archers Glorfindel had agreed to send to Fornost. He was drawn out of his thoughts by a knock on the door.
"Captain?" He recognised Hunthor's voice.
"Come in," he called. "Hunthor, what is it?"
"Captain, have you decided yet who will go to Bree?"
"Not yet," nor am I likely to if there are more interruptions, he added in thought.
"I want to go. I volunteer."
"Thank you for the offer, but you do not need to give up your leave."
"Why not? I want to go. Or are you keeping me away from Bree because I have kin there?"
"You have been posted to the Bree-land in the past, have you not?"
"Yes sir, but the captain would not even let me visit my kin then."
"And if he had, what would you have said? 'Hello, do you remember your great-aunt Rowan who ran off with a Ranger eighty-five years ago? I am her grandson.' Hunthor, I underst..."
"How can you understand? You belong here! You are Dúnadan!"
"So are you," Halbarad said resolutely. "Nor did I single you out; none of the Grey Company will be taking part. You have all more than earned your leave."
Hunthor remained silent for a long time. "Oh. I did not know, Captain."
Halbarad shook his head pensively once Hunthor had left. He had not known Rowan Appledore, but he did know Hunthor's father, her son. Though Thalion was obviously not wholly of Dúnedain descent, shorter and stockier than most, and with the brown eyes of Bree, he did not age fast and so far appeared to be long-lived. Hunthor was taller than Thalion, but had always been sensitive about his relative lack of height. Halbarad had never heard him speak like this, though; if anything, he had been too aware of his Dúnedain blood. The young man's recent touchiness, as well as the underlying dissatisfaction it revealed, was worrying.
He had hesitated before including Hunthor in the Grey Company three years ago. Though he had been recommended by both Aragorn and his company's captain, Halbarad had also considered that Hunthor had not done well in his initial posting to Bree. The young man had found it impossible to swallow his pride and accept that to the Bree-landers the Dúnedain blood he held so high meant nothing, and that being a Ranger meant only that he was a vagabond, distrusted or feared, at best tolerated. No Ranger liked it, but it was the reality of their duty, and they learned to live with it; even so, it was bound to be especially hard on one who knew he had kin in the village.
Yet, despite his initial doubts, Halbarad had not regretted accepting Hunthor into the Company. Hunthor was not suited for a captaincy, that had been obvious from the beginning, but he was a good fighter and an excellent scout, and got along well with his comrades. What worried Halbarad now was that Hunthor, despite all that, could think that he did not belong among the Dúnedain. That Halbarad could do little about, though perhaps he should see if Halmir had any insights to offer, since his son and Hunthor were fairly close in friendship.
Bregor peeked in to announce that Master Gorlim was downstairs, demanding to see him. "I could say you are busy, if you like," he suggested.
"Thank you, but I did tell him I would see him today," Halbarad replied. He should let Gorlim have his say this once, even if it was impossible to take the man seriously. "Oh, and Bregor, I need to talk to you. See me after Gorlim leaves, perhaps?"
It was hard to keep his attention on Gorlim's complaint, which, as far as Halbarad could make out, had to do with Gorlim's neighbours letting their drainpipe run out into his wife's herb garden, ruining her plants. He idly wondered why Gorlim's parents had chosen such an ill-fated name for their son. It was hardly Gorlim's fault, but in one so generally unlikable such a detail became one more, if admittedly rather petty, point of annoyance.
While his thoughts kept wanting to stray to Bree and to the problem of Hunthor, Halbarad made himself listen, until he finally cut in to interrupt the other's flow of words. "Master Gorlim, why do you bring this to me? Surely the mayor or the town elders could have dealt with it?"
"I have been to the mayor," Gorlim stated sourly. "She said I have no claim and that everyone has had trouble with drainage with the bad weather."
"In that case I do not see why you are pursuing this further." As he spoke, Halbarad inwardly sighed for giving Gorlim an opening to go on.
Not one to miss a chance, Gorlim took a deep breath, no doubt preparing to explain the details of his case even more minutely, when there was a knock on the door and Bregor looked in with a worried look on his face. "My lord, I apologise for disturbing you, but something very important has come up. Could I have your attention?"
Halbarad hid a sigh of relief that Bregor had caught his hint to interrupt if it took too long to have Gorlim out the door again. He had always got along well with the canny ex-Ranger, who saw more with his one remaining eye than many others with two, and he did in fact have some things to discuss with him.
"Of course, Bregor," he replied, then turned to Gorlim again. "As you can see, other matters demand my time. I suggest you accept the mayor's verdict."
Gorlim gave an indignant snort, but wisely said nothing as he left.
"My lord?" Bregor stood waiting patiently.
"Bregor, sit down." Halbarad waited while the seneschal did so. "How long have we known each other?"
"Close to fifty years, my lord, including the time I served as your lieutenant in the Bree company."
"Then could you bring yourself to occasionally use my name rather than my title?" Title had its place, but Bregor's uncharacteristic formality would become annoying soon if he persisted in it.
"Yes, my l... Halbarad," Bregor replied, looking relieved himself.
"How has the news of Aragorn's fall been received?"
Bregor looked away for some time before he answered, "Grief and shock in about equal parts. I think many cannot yet quite believe it, even if it is three days since we heard. I find it hard myself." He shook his head in disbelief before continuing, "It is good that you are here now. The people need to see that someone they trust is in charge. But there will be many questions and concerns for you to deal with."
"I expected as much. That makes it even worse that I must leave for Fornost tomorrow."
"Fornost? There is trouble there?"
"Brigands around Bree and the Shire."
Bregor nodded. "I see. Not something you can let go."
"In the meantime, when I return I want a list of all places where the Palisade can be scaled." While the town wall was in good repair, over the years people had built close to it and trees grew near it. Walls might not be enough to stop the Enemy, but it should not be made easy for him either.
Bregor gave him a sharp look at that instruction. "You expect an attack?"
"Not for a long time. Be circumspect, the last thing we need is rumours of imminent attack from a survey of the walls. If there is anything that needs Ranger attention before I get back, send for Borlas."
"I will," Bregor replied, then asked, "Is Borlas to remain your lieutenant, then?"
Halbarad nodded. "Still unconfirmed, but yes."
"Solid man. Good choice," Bregor said.
"Can you send out messengers tomorrow morning for the members of the Council?"
"Of course. Is there anything else at the moment?"
"No, or wait... send someone over to tell my wife I have to leave on the morrow. I will bring you the letters for the Councillors when I am done here."
There were no further interruptions after Bregor left, and Halbarad quickly wrote the letters before heading down to the stables to choose a horse. On the whole, the day had gone fairly well, though Aragorn's absence had been almost tangible, and he was still unsure whether he had handled Mallor correctly; but there the real test would not come until the Council met.
Dineth was sitting at the small desk in their sitting-room when he came in. She only briefly looked up before returning her attention to the papers in front of her and writing down some numbers on a slate.
"Accounts?" Halbarad asked as she stood up and embraced him.
Dineth rubbed at a smear of ink on her chin as she answered. "Yes. The rents on your farms are due next month."
Halbarad nodded. The farms had been settled on his grandmother by Argonui upon his mother's birth, and had passed to him through her. He had always been glad of the bit of income they provided, and was just as glad to leave the accounting to Dineth. He shook his head in annoyance as he remembered that he should have asked Bregor who managed Aragorn's holdings.
"What is it?" Dineth asked, then went on after he explained. "No need to ask Bregor. One Master Enerdhil, down in Ringlanthir. Why, have you found anything untoward?" she asked, a small smile on her lips. She knew well how much he disliked paperwork.
"No, but I should at least look for it."
"Perhaps I should go over his accounts," she offered. "Then, based on that, you can decide whether or not to keep him on. Now, if you do not mind, I want to finish the accounts. I will give you a hand with your pack after."
Halbarad nodded and went to the bedroom to start on his pack. As he folded his cloak and placed it on a chair for the morning, he glanced at the plain cloakpin he now used. It had been an impulse to let his star go with Aragorn; not that he regretted it, but not all Rangers would accept it if he went starless. Even at the pyre, among the men of the Grey Company, his gesture had caused a few raised eyebrows. Later that night, as they made ready to leave Minas Tirith, he had found Aragorn's own star brooch, carefully stowed in his kinsman's pack. Apart from the heirlooms, it had been the only one of Aragorn's possessions he had taken with him.
He shook his head and turned to open the chest he had put the star in. As he was about to place it with his cloak, he hesitated and put it in his pack instead. He would not wear it, not yet, but he would feel better for having it with him.
A short time later, as Dineth brought him a few dried apples from the cellar, she asked if he had some idea how long he would be gone.
"No telling how long it will take," he replied. "A few weeks, at least."
"Haleg?" The tension in Dineth's voice made him look up from the socks he had put aside to mend before putting them in his pack. "How bad is this? It is even worse than losing Aragorn, is it not?"
Looking at her anxious expression, Halbarad wished he did not have to leave again so soon. "Yes," he admitted, as he held her close.
"With Minas Tirith taken by the Enemy, it will be only a matter of time before he turns his attention to the North." It would be just as bad to leave her to fret and guess as to tell her the truth. Still, he should not yet tell her of the Ring, not when it might be weeks before he could speak to the Council. Even Halmir and Borlas, who had witnessed Aragorn's will, did not know. While Halbarad trusted Dineth to be careful, it would not be fair to her to tell her something so dire without her being able to speak to anyone of it.
"I hope not yet this year, or even the next. Gondor will resist long, as will Rohan."
"Unless he comes straight for us, and leaves Gondor for later," Dineth said, drawing even closer.
"Not yet. Rohan still protects the Gap, and the mountain passes do not allow a quick assault in numbers." He hoped he was right.
"Then," Dineth said, "If that is so, perhaps two years, and then what? Siege? Flight?"
He sighed. "I do not know."
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