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Unto the ending of the world: 9. Ride
March 19 – 25, 3019
Halbarad was awake well before dawn, his sleep disturbed as much by his wanting to leave Gondor behind as by thoughts of what lay before them. He wondered if he should let the sentry get some extra sleep and take over the end of his watch, but refrained from rising. There was no need for the men to know he was not sleeping well. Once it was light enough, before giving the order to ride, he studied the maps Elrohir had from Angbor while the Rangers broke their fast. He could eat nothing.
The Grey Company rode fast all day, covering much distance, their speed leaving little opportunity for talk, even if any had been so inclined. They travelled west along minor roads that occasionally went through rougher terrain near the foothills of the White Mountains, but mostly the road took them through a gently rolling countryside of villages and small towns surrounded by ordered fields and meadows. It was disconcerting after the destruction of Minas Tirith and the dangerous flight on the mountain track to find themselves in a land seemingly at peace.
They saw very few people along their way, and the few that were outside watched them warily as they rode past, not even calling out to ask for news. Remembering the enemy troops they had chased in front of them further south on the ride towards Pelargir, Halbarad was not surprised at that caution. Though there were no signs of battle to be seen here, people must have heard of events in the south, and obvious strangers would rouse suspicion.
When they stopped that night, Borlas warned that the speed they were setting was too much to keep up until Erech. Halbarad looked at him in surprise. He was pleased at the distance the Grey Company covered and at how the horses were holding up against the pace that was set, even the animal that was shared by Legolas and Gimli. He would have preferred to go faster yet, but there was still a long journey ahead, and it would not do to push the horses too hard. The time for speed was after their passage of the White Mountains.
"The horses are sound, are they not?" Halbarad tersely replied.
"Yes, Captain," Borlas said, "But speed and little known ways serve us poorly. There is a risk abandoning the great road where we can more easily replace a lame horse or get news…"
"This is our route. It saves us many leagues. The maps of this area are from Lord Angbor and I doubt not but that the Gondorians have accurate maps of their own countryside." Borlas seemed about to respond, but instead bowed his head in acknowledgement and went to see to setting up the camp.
Only as he sat down on the grass to eat, dismissing Borlas' concerns as he tried to ignore his irritation at his lieutenant, did Halbarad realise how weary he was. He welcomed it, for it meant there was a chance that he would not lie awake half the night, thoughts churning, as he had the previous nights.
A hesitant hand on his shoulder.
"Father? Are you all right?"
He replied as Halmir sat down beside him. "I am fine. Nothing a good night's sleep will not help with." As he had hoped, Halmir let himself be easily convinced that he was indeed doing well enough, and his son left him to his own company again after a short time.
The second day was much the same, continuing their swift passage of Gondor. That evening it was not Halmir who asked him how he was, but Elladan. The peredhel proved less easy to dismiss. "Elladan, can you not leave me be? I said I am well," Halbarad snapped as the other persisted.
"I heard you," Elladan said calmly. "You are pushing the men as hard as you push yourself. Too hard. They too are grieving, and are weary."
"We need to get back home as fast as possible."
"And you are trying to go faster than that. It will do you no good to ride the horses into the ground or drive your men beyond exhaustion."
Halbarad could not push away his own doubts as he considered Elladan's words. Was he setting too hard a pace? There had been no complaints, and the horses were holding up. Yet Elladan would not have spoken if he had not thought it so, and Borlas had also expressed his doubts about their pace. But they had to leave this place, and swiftly. "The men can take it. So can the horses."
Elladan looked at him keenly. "Is there aught you cannot take? It is only four days since Aragorn died, and claiming you are doing well under that fact will not make it so. I see you flinch and try to hide it every time his name is mentioned or there is something that reminds you of him."
"And what else have you seen?" Halbarad asked, coolly meeting Elladan's gaze.
"Grief outpaces the fastest horse and exhaustion cannot keep it at bay forever."
Halbarad knew the other was right. If he was honest with himself, he could only admit that he was not doing all that well. Yet he could not give in to his grief either. It was too overwhelming. To remain in this place, in these thoughts, would crush him. "Curse it, what else can I do, Elladan?"
"Slow down. You will not drive out your grief for Aragorn by exhausting yourself. It will matter little if you arrive in the North a day or a week later than you have in mind," the peredhel said, "And remember you were near enough the Nazgûl that you may have caught a touch of the Black Breath yourself. If so, you have not completely shaken that off yet, and the last few days have been hard."
"Near enough the Nazgûl? Near enough would have been if I had been in time," Halbarad snapped before he could stop himself. He had been so intent on Aragorn that he had hardly realised that he was running towards a Nazgûl – he had barely even felt the dread through his fear for his kinsman.
"Are you saying Aragorn's death was my fault, then?" Elladan asked.
"No, of course not," Halbarad replied, startled by the peredhel's question.
"But Elrohir and I were ahead of you, and we were not in time either. Halbarad, I doubt there was anything any of us could have done that would have made a difference."
"I know, but it is hard..." Halbarad bowed his head before Elladan's piercing gaze. "And then to sit there watching him die like that..." He shook his head as he looked at Elladan again.
Elrond's son nodded. "I know." They sat in silence for some time.
There was so much else tied up with the loss of Aragorn as well, Halbarad thought. Foremost in his heart was of course losing his kinsman, his friend of well over sixty years. But he, and the Dúnedain, had also lost their lord, Isildur's Heir, the last of the line of the Kings, their hope of returning their people to their former state. And then knowing that the Ring was back in Sauron's hand, that all the West faced utter ruin and destruction, that no matter what he did, it would make little difference to how it would end. He sighed gloomily. "And now I am Chieftain..."
In the gathering dusk, he could still discern Elladan's sharp glance. "Do you think Aragorn chose you as his heir merely because you are his nearest kin in the line of Isildur, for friendship's sake, or because you happened to be at hand? Had he not thought you capable of the task, he would have named someone else to lead the Dúnedain, and sent you home carrying that message. You know that well enough."
Halbarad remained silent for some time. "Yes," he finally acknowledged Elladan's words, "I do know that." After another while, as Elladan rose, he spoke again, "Elladan. Thank you." The peredhel briefly put a hand on his shoulder as he walked off.
As the company set off an hour after sunrise, Halbarad realised just how hard a pace he had set the previous days. He had not expected to see the great road until noon at the earliest, and now they were already nearing it. Though he was pleased – and proud – that the Grey Company could keep up such speed even now, he resolved to be more careful of his men from there on. They should not encounter any trouble on the road until Dunland, and he doubted the Dunlendings would risk waylaying a sizable armed company. Still, it would not do to be unprepared or over-fatigued.
They reached Ethring by the middle of the afternoon, and Halbarad called a halt. Angbor had asked him to deliver some dispatches to the town garrison's captain, and the stop was also an opportunity to replenish their supplies and gather recent news of the road ahead. The town was soon left behind again, and they rode on for several more hours before stopping for the night. One rumour that Halbarad heard in Ethring, and later shared with Legolas, Gimli and the sons of Elrond, was that a rider in white on a grey horse had passed by the town in a great hurry two days before. It must have been Gandalf, and Halbarad questioned again what the wizard was up to. Where was he headed? Was he trying to reach the North ahead of them? Halbarad wearily shook his head, dismissing Gandalf from his thoughts for the time being, though he doubted he had seen the last of him.
After an uneventful continuation of their journey, the Grey Company reached the Hill of Erech late in the afternoon of the second day out of Ethring. There would be little point in riding on until dark, since it was unlikely they would find a better place to halt further up the Morthond Vale. Once their camp had been set at the foot of the hill, Halbarad went up to the top alone. As he looked out across the land, his thoughts went back to unfurling the standard for the Oathbreakers to behold when Aragorn had summoned them to Pelargir. That had been at night and with the fear of the Dead on the Hill. Now, though the late afternoon shadows lay heavy on the eastern side of the Stone, there was no longer even a hint of the dread that had surrounded the place.
The Stone was said to have been brought here from Númenor by Isildur, and Halbarad wondered at that as the story made little sense to him. Why, in the panic of the escape from the island, would Isildur have taken aboard such freight? Still – whether or not the Stone came from Númenor – at least some good had been accomplished here by the last of Isildur's heirs. Even if it had been for naught in the end, the lifting of the darkness that had hung over this place had been a good thing. Halbarad stood looking out into the falling dusk for a while before returning to the camp; best to be back before anyone came looking for him, he thought.
The next morning they were off as soon as it was light enough to ride. Halbarad had some hope that they would make it through the Paths of the Dead that day, even if he doubted that they would reach Edoras. At first they made good speed, but around noon Beleg's horse pulled up lame, and after slowing down to little more than a walk for the rest of the day they had to make their camp on the southern side of the mountains.
The following day, the horse seemed sound again, though Halbarad reckoned it was just as well that they would not be riding at speed. Even so, there was yet more delay as they had to search for the entrance to the cliff-edged road that led towards the Paths. It was difficult to find the place, for it was well-hidden among the sheer sides of the mountains, and they had only been here in the dark before. In the end it was found by Gimli and Legolas.
The road was narrow and steep, and the Company had to ride in file. The cliffs were high enough that despite it being a bright and sunny morning, little daylight reached the road. After some time they reached the gateway to the Paths. Halbarad called a halt to light the torches they had carried from Ethring, and they went on their way again, now on foot, leading their horses through the darkness of the road under the mountains.
The path felt empty to Halbarad. Not that he particularly missed the fear of the Dead that had hung over this road before, but their absence seemed almost as tangible to him as their presence had been. After what he knew to be no more than hours, but what in the near-darkness under the mountains could as easily have been days, they came to the Dark Door that led out of the Paths of the Dead into the dreary Dimholt wood.
Halbarad caught the looks the men cast in his direction, and he knew they remembered the words he had spoken when they first went through this door. Elrohir walked beside him, watching him as well, so he turned to him as he spoke. "Foresight... What is it worth?" He paused and with a wry smile met Elrohir's eyes. "I was certain I was going to my death when I passed this door. I had seen it. And yet, for Aragorn, I went on." He sighed and led his horse through the Door into Rohan.
When all the Grey Company had come through and were mounted again, he led the way down the steep path through the Dimholt, towards Dunharrow. Though it was cloudy and grey on this side of the mountains, judging by the light it was still only mid-afternoon, and Halbarad reckoned they should be able to ride on to Edoras that day.
The first people they saw ran away in fear of the Dead from the Mountain, but soon they were met and challenged by a group of Riders out of Dunharrow.
"Halt, strangers! If you not be wights out of the Dwimorberg, then declare yourselves and your purpose," one of the Rohirrim called out.
"We are no wights, but living men even as you. The curse of the Dead is broken." Halbarad replied. The leader of the Riders came forward to better look at them. As he did so, Halbarad recognised him. "Herulf! We should at least be known to you," he said as he let his horse step forward slightly.
"You are indeed known to me, Halbarad of the Dúnedain. The curse broken, you say? And you come to us on southern horses. I would guess you have a tale to tell," the man of Rohan spoke as he looked at the Ranger.
"That we have," Halbarad said, "Though it is not one I will tell gladly. But tell me how the Rohirrim have fared."
Herulf looked down briefly before he replied. "That too is not a tale to lighten the heart, and it will have to wait until we come to Dunharrow."
The Grey Company now followed behind the Riders through the last of the dark Dimholt, until they reached the Firienfeld and the Hold of Dunharrow. Once they were inside the Hold, all dismounted, and Halbarad walked over to Herulf. "If possible, I would ride on as soon as we have spoken to the Lord of Dunharrow, for our goal for the day is Edoras, and it is better to arrive in daylight," he said.
"Then your horses shall be looked after, and refreshment will be brought for your men," the Rohir said. "Dunharrow is lordless, for alas, our lord Dúnhere is among those who have not returned from Gondor. I command here until the Queen decides who is to rule the Hold."
Halbarad bowed his head at hearing of the fall of the Lord of Dunharrow. He did not doubt that he would hear of many more losses among the Rohirrim. Then Halbarad realized what Herulf had said. "The Queen?" he asked.
"Queen Éowyn, as the last of the House of Eorl, now rules Rohan." Herulf said. "I will tell you some of how the Rohirrim have fared in coming to the aid of Gondor, but it is a long story, and one which you should for the most part hear in Edoras. First, though, I would hear your tale, for I would know how it is that the curse of the Dead is broken, and I also note the absence of the Lord Aragorn from your Company."
"He has fallen," Halbarad said tersely.
"Fallen? Among all the other tidings of the war, that is grievous news, for he was a valiant man, and a friend of Rohan," Herulf replied. "Where did he meet his end?"
"On the Pelennor," Halbarad answered him.
"Alas, then he shared his doom with many of the Rohirrim, for Théoden King fell there, as did Éomer King after him, and a great number of our host with them." Herulf bowed his head in sorrow.
It saddened Halbarad to hear of the death of King Théoden, but even more to hear of that of Éomer, as he had taken a liking to the young man from their brief acquaintance. "Then Rohan's losses have been grievous indeed," he said.
"That they have," agreed Herulf, "But let us speak no more of them now, and tell me how it is that the Paths of the Dead are free of the curse."
Halbarad briefly related the tale of their journey under the mountains and Aragorn's summoning of the Dead at Erech, ending with the ride to Pelargir and the release of the Dead from their oath. "Expect to see the Paths being used now, for with the fall of Minas Tirith, the road through Anórien has been cut off, and they are the quickest and the safest road between Rohan and Gondor. At first I doubt many will dare take them, but there will at least be errand-riders, and perhaps after that even some traders," he concluded.
Herulf nodded. "I will keep it in mind, and have word sent out to those who dwell near there, so that they know they need not fear. Now, for your journey towards Edoras, I will have Frána, my lieutenant, accompany you, for strangers are welcomed in Rohan even less than before."
The Grey Company soon followed Frána down the steep road from Dunharrow to Harrowdale at the bottom of the valley. Halbarad noted that it was already late in the afternoon and asked how long it would be until they reached Edoras. Their guide reckoned it would be no more than three hours. The road took them quickly north, until they could see the end of the valley, and on a high hill the roof of Meduseld's great hall bright in the last rays of the sun.
Halbarad wondered how they would be received there. After the great losses Rohan had suffered in their response to Gondor's call, the Rohirrim were probably not inclined to any new alliances, even if no great demands would be made. Luckily, the one thing he truly needed would be unhindered passage to the Paths of the Dead and through them to Gondor.
It was not long until they reached the foot of the hill, and Frána spoke to the guards at the gate. Though Halbarad knew only a few words of the speech of Rohan, and he could overhear little more from the softly-spoken exchange than 'Gondor' and 'Paths of the Dead,' it was not so difficult to guess what was being said. After some minutes of talking, the gate was opened. Most of the Grey Company stayed behind with their horses, while Halbarad, with Borlas and Halmir, as well as the sons of Elrond and Legolas and Gimli, followed Frána up the paved path that led towards the top of the hill and the hall of Meduseld.
Before entering the hall, Halbarad tried to set aside his previous impression of the Lady Éowyn, which had not been favourable. The way she had attempted to throw herself at Aragorn spoke of a wilful, impetuous child, incapable of ruling even herself, rather than of one who could lead Rohan in these hard times. Yet Théoden had had enough trust in her to place her in charge of the refugees in Dunharrow and thereby of what could have been Rohan's last defence.
Following Frána past the guards at the doors, they entered the dimly-lit Great Hall of Meduseld. Halbarad looked fleetingly at the many pillars holding up the roof and the half-seen woven cloths along the walls. As they approached the dais at the end of the long hall, Éowyn, after a brief nod of recognition, welcomed them in Rohirric, and Halbarad haltingly replied in that same language. The Queen looked at him sharply as he named himself Chieftain, but went on without further question to repeat her welcome in Westron, adding, "You have had a hard journey from Minas Tirith. Long are the miles that separate us from there, and I expect you are weary and would rest after you have eaten. The morrow will be soon enough for the news you bring."
"Yet the news will not look better in daylight, though we welcome your hospitality, for the journey has been hard indeed," Halbarad replied.
"Then a guest-house will be prepared for you and your men, and a meal will be set there. In the morning we will take counsel," Éowyn said.
As they were led from the hall to the guest-house, Halbarad wondered about Éowyn's apparent lack of curiosity about events in Gondor, and their rapid dismissal from the hall. Even if what remained of the Muster of Rohan had already returned with news of the fall of Minas Tirith, surely the Queen would want any further tidings as soon as possible?
In the guest-house, they rejoined the men of the Grey Company, and it was not long before a meal was brought to them. Once they had eaten, Halbarad sat talking for a while in a side room with Legolas, Gimli and the sons of Elrond to prepare for the next morning's council and to consider how they would proceed after Rohan.
"First, we should decide on how open to be about the One Ring," Legolas said.
"The less said, the better," was Elrohir's immediate reaction, "We should perhaps not even tell the Queen, unless she already knows."
"No, I think she should know. Besides, if we do not tell her, no doubt there are those in Gondor who will, once they can send messengers to their ally again," Elladan now said. "Such a revelation, and the lack of trust it shows, would do much to sour any agreement we may reach with Rohan tomorrow. We cannot afford that."
"But there is nothing to be gained from revealing too widely that Sauron has his Ring again," Elrohir objected.
"There is very little to be gained from further secrecy either," Halbarad said. "I see no harm in telling the Queen of Rohan. It should be up to her then how much she will tell her advisors." Elrohir still looked sceptical, but said nothing. Halbarad went on, "In any case, I will need to tell the Council once I return to the Angle. Even with Aragorn's death, tidings of war in the South and skirmishes near Bree and the Misty Mountains alone will not be enough for them to realise the seriousness of our position in the North."
"Would you really have all that much trouble from the Council were you to keep quiet about the Ring?" Elrohir asked. "Aragorn never..."
"Aragorn had me backing him up," Halbarad replied sharply, "And even so, there was more than enough grumbling over being kept in the dark about reasons for actions taken, both in the Council and among the Rangers. I doubt I will get that support from Borlas, and I would rather have the Council working with me than constantly having to fight them."
Now Elladan gave him a searching look, asking, "Halbarad, how long have you known about the Ring?"
"Truly known?" Halbarad asked in return, then continued at Elladan's nod, "Since the Hornburg, but I was as good as certain for years."
"How did you find out? I trust Aragorn was not careless?" Elrohir interrupted.
"Hardly," Halbarad replied indignantly. "He only said something once, obliquely, and there were none but myself and Gandalf present. Afterward, he would not even confirm whether or not I had guessed aright. And before you ask, I kept quiet about my suspicions."
Gimli now spoke, "Silence no longer serves a purpose. We should be open about the One Ring where needed, and I at least will tell King Dáin all when I get back home."
Legolas agreed, "I will inform my father, and leave it to him to decide whether or not to speak more openly."
Just as Halbarad was about to respond, there was a knock on the door, and the head of Merry Brandybuck peeking round the door as it opened. "I thought I would see if there was anything you need," Merry said.
Gimli replied, smiling, "No, master hobbit, we are well looked after, though there are some leftovers I am certain a hobbit would welcome."
Merry smiled fleetingly in reply as he came into the room. "The last few weeks have been tight on food, so I am sure I can relieve you of what remains of your meal."
As Gimli replied, "Tight on food? But surely Dunharrow has been well-provisioned?" Halbarad expected Merry to make a joke about Big People not appreciating hobbit appetites. To his surprise, the hobbit said nothing. Gimli went on, asking if Merry knew why the Lady Éowyn had been so quick to have them out of the Hall of Meduseld.
"I would not speak ill of my Lady," the hobbit replied, looking ill at ease, "And for me to tell you now would be seen as such by some. No, it is best if you wait until the morning to hear in full what happened to the Rohirrim after the Muster rode from Edoras." Gimli looked annoyed at Merry's refusal to tell them, but left it at that.
Merry then turned to Legolas and asked him what had befallen them after they set out for the Paths of the Dead. Halbarad only half listened as the Elf told Merry all that had happened. He was relieved the hobbit had asked Legolas and not him. And at least, with Pippin safely in Gondor, Merry would have some good news about one of his kin. After the elf finished his tale, Merry sat quietly for some time, neither speaking nor moving.
"Trust Pippin to be taken to safety by Gandalf only to end up in a city under siege," Merry finally said, with a forced-sounding little laugh. As Halbarad glanced at him, he noticed tears trickling down the hobbit's face.
As Merry continued talking with Legolas and Gimli, Halbarad sat back pondering the evening's events. Obviously, Éowyn's position was not yet secure, and he wondered what lay behind that. Was it merely that her rule was still new and that Rohan had not had a ruling Queen before, or was there still something else? Merry's initial slip-up about Dunharrow, followed by his refusal to speak, indicated the latter, especially when Halbarad added that Herulf had been unwilling to give details of the ride of the Rohirrim.
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