Tales of the North
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Nor to the Northlands: 1. Nor to the Northlands
Will you carry the standard for me tomorrow? A simple question, and a simple answer. Yes.
It's probably tomorrow now, he thinks as he looks out into the night, though the Enemy's gloom will confuse even a Ranger's sense of time. And if it is tomorrow already, that makes it the last day I… No, he tells himself. Don't dwell on it. It will go as it will. Perhaps I should try and get some sleep. Yet he doesn't stir from his place at the ship's railing. It's quiet here, more so than below decks. There's always something creaking or shifting or making some kind of noise on a ship, he has found, but out here there is also the soft whisper of the water below. That at least is a familiar sound, and one he finds comfort in.
Halbarad thinks back to how they ended up aboard these Corsair ships. It is grimly amusing that the ships taken from the Dark One's followers are now taking them another step closer to restoring the kingship in Gondor and Arnor. Not that that outcome is guaranteed; there is still the small matter of succouring Minas Tirith and having the Steward acknowledge Aragorn's claim. The other matter, the Ring that even now has to be moving closer and closer to Mount Doom... Though for years he was as good as certain that the One Ring had been found again, it was only at the Hornburg that Aragorn felt free to confirm to him that his long-ago guess was right; even so, his blood ran cold at learning the purpose of the Quest. If the hobbit fails, it hardly matters whether Minas Tirith stands or any of us here live or die.
The battle at Pelargir had been hard, and until Aragorn called on the Army of the Dead, the outcome uncertain. As Halbarad entered the fray, he wondered if this was where the doom that he had foreseen at the Door of the Dead would overtake him, but he had felt no further warning, and quickly put the thought aside. There is no certainty in battle, and events would run as they would.
And that brings him back to why he is out here gazing into the dark, rather than asleep in his berth. Unlike at Pelargir, now he does know that he will not see the end of the day.
Though he is accustomed to foresight, he still seeks a reason for this particular sight. He knows he is mortal, that he will die, and that it is not unlikely that death will find him sooner rather than later, in Gondor or elsewhere. At least his resolve in crossing that threshold broke the spell of fear that threatened to fall even over the Grey Company, and encouraged the others to follow him on the dark road that Aragorn led them on.
Aragorn tells himself he ought to try to sleep. The hour is late and in the morning they will reach Minas Tirith. Finally he has shaken off the terrible weariness from the struggle for the palantír. As hard as the ride from Erech was, his weariness now feels better than the bleak exhaustion from confronting the Enemy and bending the palantír to his will at the Hornburg.
Yet he is still too restless to sleep – not surprising on the eve of battle, and knowing the day can easily go against them – and he goes up to the ship's deck. Some fresh air should clear his head.
Apart from the helmsman and a night watchman, the deck is empty. At least the others are all asleep, he thinks. No, wait, there… A Ranger is standing, almost perfectly still, at the railing near the prow. As he shifts against the movement of the ship, Aragorn sees that it is Halbarad.
He makes his way across the deck to join his kinsman. Halbarad looks up to acknowledge his arrival, though he does not speak. Aragorn hesitates. No battle is ever certain, and while they might all be dead by the next sunset – and even if they are victorious, Frodo is still out there. As long as the Quest hangs in the balance, anything they do here matters only in keeping the Enemy's attention away from his own lands – there is a difference between going into battle with merely the normal risks of war to confront, and doing so under a doom of foresight.
He turns to speak. Even knowing the answer, he knows also that this has to be said – or, at least, that he needs to say it. "Halbarad, you need not take the field. You are under no obligation to..."
"No obligation, no; other than friendship or fealty. Aragorn, I have been a Ranger for most of my life. I never thought to die of old age." Halbarad does not mention the small twist of fear he feels when he dwells on knowing that ... Yet he will not – cannot – let fear for himself rule his actions. He never has done.
"But to go into battle, and be certain that..." Aragorn starts to say.
Shaking his head, Halbarad replies, "Nay, Estel, fate cannot be cheated. Were I to keep back from the battle, no doubt I would stumble over a pebble and break my neck in the fall, or some such dire fate. All the vision said was that I would die after passing that damnable door, and since I have not become an Elf overnight, that is hardly a revelation." He smiles wryly.
Aragorn lowers his head in defeat. He knows the truth of Halbarad's words, and to argue longer would be an insult to Halbarad's great heart. He looks up again, blinking back tears. Halbarad is deep in thought now. Aragorn takes a deep breath to steady himself as he puts an arm around Halbarad's shoulder. "I will see that Dineth is looked after."
Halbarad looks towards the north, far beyond where Aragorn knows Minas Tirith lies. "Tell her… Tell her… I…" He halts, then goes on, "...you will know what to say. I have not the words."
Aragorn can only tighten his grip on Halbarad's shoulder. They stand thus without speaking for some time, until Aragorn feels some of the tension leaving his kinsman.
"Haldan should be ready to start his training this year," Halbarad suddenly says. "He'll make a fine Ranger one day."
"Like his brother," Aragorn replies. And their father. But that does not need to be said. From the small smile that briefly plays around Halbarad's lips, he knows it was heard anyway.
Finally, Halbarad shakes his head and turns towards the railing again. "I suppose I ought to at least attempt sleep," he says.
Aragorn nods in agreement, but it is a long time before either of them moves to leave.
Somehow Halbarad has found sleep; he wakes up early, strangely refreshed despite too few hours of rest. Though he still has the awareness that he will die this day, he feels almost cheerful now. He manages to maintain that mood at least outwardly as he joins his men who have gathered to eat a cold breakfast on the ship's deck. For all that they are descendants of seafaring Númenor, Rangers are more used to forest and plain than to the cramped cabins the ship provides.
Halmir sits down next to him on one of the crates stowed on deck. They sit together in silence for some time, until Halbarad realises it is getting light as it has not done for days. The Enemy's Darkness is breaking. He stands up and as Halmir follows suit, turns towards the light, welcoming the sun on his face.
Halbarad clasps Halmir's arm in what is as much his farewell to his son as their customary good luck gesture before battle. He walks over to Aragorn, who is standing with Elladan and Elrohir, looking ahead, to Minas Tirith. They speak briefly, but only to plan the first stage of the battle.
At a gesture from Aragorn, as soon as they see the quays at Harlond in the distance, Halbarad unfurls the standard for the first time in sunlight.
From the moment they leave the ships, they are in the thick of the battle, and it is only rarely that Halbarad catches a glimpse of either the city they are trying to reach or the enemies massed against them. Mostly his sight moves no further than the man he is up against – and Aragorn; he is hard to keep up with, even for him, but he would be a poor standard-bearer if he did not stay near his captain.
Aragorn sees the banner of Rohan in the distance, and makes for it, around him the Dúnedain, Legolas and Gimli, and his brothers. Behind them, men pour from the ships to follow, some mounted, like Angbor of Lamedon and his knights, but many more on foot. Long the battle is, and hard; even after they join forces with the Rohirrim. Yet always, Halbarad and his brothers are close by.
He sees not what causes it, but suddenly Halbarad's horse stumbles as his kinsman engages a mounted Easterling. A parry becomes a twist to stay in the saddle, and the Easterling takes the opening. His blade arches down, just as Halbarad recovers his balance. He takes the blow on his shoulder. As Aragorn urges Roheryn forward to come to Halbarad's aid, the Easterling lunges forward, and attempts another strike. Halbarad is slow to counter – too slow – and just before Aragorn drives his horse into the Easterling's, the blade slashes across Halbarad's unprotected throat.
The end is – mercifully – swift. A parry, a hit, another strike, a sudden pain and a spray of blood. In vain, he gasps for air. As his sight fades, he looks beyond, to a final vision, blessing rather than curse of doom. All that they hope for, all that they have fought for will come true; the Enemy will be brought down and Aragorn will be King.
This is somewhere between a revision of Foresight, the first story I wrote about Halbarad's death, and a new story. I've both revised and cut the original text, and made changes to reflect that going by the book the Grey Company were on horseback on the Pelennor. It also better matches the vignette I wrote for last year's B2MeM, Aftermath, which can be found here, in chapter 4 of the collection.
The title is taken from Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, p. 139 (1999, Harper Collins edition)
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