The Angle: Genverse Arc
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Til Death Do Us Part : 1. Til Death Do Us Part
It was quiet on the prow for the gulls sang not, and were but forlorn glimmers of white wheeling high against a darkened sky. Water rushed and foamed about the keel, seeming to bray defiance at the murk, but though the wind blew in their sails, all aboard were subdued. It was a watchful silence, heavy with a fearful anticipation that Halbarad understood only too well, having often endured it himself. Before any other battle, he would have moved from man to man, encouraging each in turn, comforting where necessary, lending what aid he could that they might fight the harder when the blows began. But not today. Today, he leaned against the railing at the prow of the ship, and stared out at the banks of Anduin as they passed, and his thoughts drifted as if upon the southern wind that bore them now towards Minas Tirith. Through some trick of his mind, the mail felt heavy upon his shoulders today, and the weight of the sword at his belt threatened to cause a list if he moved, and the Ranger smiled slightly to himself. Doubtless such illusions were simply a reflection of the knowledge that this was the last watch for him. The last battle. Soon he would never need wear such a costume again, and there was a sense of relief to be gleaned from that certainty, though that part of Halbarad which was merely mortal quailed. His eyes strayed to the standard that he had laid in, carefully furled still, with the rest of his gear. Soon it would be stained with the blood of Gondor's enemies and also that of its defenders, but such was the way of war. And I have always known that this must be.
Even among the Dúnedain, foresight was not always reliable, and Halbarad was not gifted with its full measure, as Aragorn was. Nevertheless, he had learned to trust such premonitions as were granted him. And long ago, when his friendship with Aragorn had scarcely begun, it had come to him that his friend would outlive him. The circumstances of his death had remained ever hidden from him, save only that in the face of prior perils he had always known his time had not yet come. But now that sense of having been spared was gone, vanished like a wight in the noon-day sun from the moment that he had first heard Aragorn speak of the Paths of the Dead. Halbarad had meant to keep the knowledge to himself, but his tongue had betrayed him upon the threshold of the Door. As it ever has! he thought, and smiled again, though this time with a fond nostalgia. The poetic soul of his people had passed him by, and when he had been young, he had often been frustrated by his inability to speak with the grace and wit of others, feeling as a crow among a nest of nightingales. It was a young Aragorn who had freed him from that sense of failure, and inspired him to verse, even. A lifetime ago, that was; a generation, as Men now speak of such things, he realized, feeling suddenly old indeed.
But we were young once, and as feckless as the rest of Mankind at that age, he reminded himself. It had been their first journey together, and nearly their first misadventure. Lured from their camp by the wights on the Barrow Downs, they had become separated and fallen under the spell of the fell creatures. It had been Halbarad, desperately seeking his companion, who had pierced the spell with (in his opinion) an ill-made rhyme, allowing Aragorn to find him. We should have died that night! Halbarad, looking back upon that journey, shuddered to think of the mistakes they had made. Yet somehow, they had survived, and their paths afterwards had become harder, and lonelier, and certainly more perilous. Aragorn ought to have died many times over; and but that I lived still, I would have spent those years in mortal terror for him. Fortune will not allow us to escape for so long without exacting a price, and better that I pay it than that he should. Minas Tirith will need him, but my services are at an end.
Some might have resented the grim tribute levied by fate, but not he. Halbarad found a definite comfort in its inevitability, though he would have been hard-pressed to explain it to anyone. There was a poetry to it, he decided, and it was a verse he could speak without stumbling, for it was lived rather than sung. Though he had never sought to restrain Aragorn's wanderings, he had always felt a certain melancholic yearning to accompany his friend upon those lonely journeys. At the same time, he knew full well that such paths were not his to walk, that his place was in the North for as long as Aragorn should need him there. And indeed, he had kept his post faithfully until the summons had come. But now the wheel of fate had turned fully at last: the tale of his life was spun out and the last thread pulled taut, ready for the shears. Finally, after long years of watching Aragorn go hence from him upon paths he could not tread, the time had come for him to depart whither his friend could not go. Not yet at least, he thought with quiet contentment, as he stared out at the blurred shapes and subdued colors of Gondor-beneath-the-Shadows.
Perhaps a quarter of an hour passed, and still Halbarad stood in silent contemplation, when a quiet footfall and the creak of wooden planking announced the presence of another. Hearing it, he glanced over his shoulder just as Aragorn came to lean beside him, and Halbarad caught his breath. For gone was the grim and travel-worn Ranger with whom he had set out; in his place stood a king, stern and commanding, and a light was in his eyes that even Halbarad had seldom seen kindled. His friend was clad in mail, and beneath the grey cloak of Lórien was girt Andúril in its elven-sheath. Upon his breast lay the eagle-form of the Elessar, which seemed to glow faintly green in spite of the dimmed sky. But over all, he bore the Elendilmir upon his brow, silver-white against raven dark locks, and that jewel glittered unmistakably, alive with an almost unearthly radiance, making him seem more Elf than Man. Or perhaps it was simply that Aragorn had at last cast aside all disguise, and allowednay, daredothers to see him as he truly was. Now his friend and lord turned and caught Halbarad's eyes with his own, and for all their brightness, there seemed to be a question in them .
"It suits you, my lord," Halbarad said softly, and the corners of Aragorn's mouth twitched in what might have been a smile.
"Title I have, and hear it often enough. From you, though, I would hear no greater title than my name, Halbarad," Aragorn replied, and smiled in fact this time.
"Then I have long waited for this day, Estel my friend," he responded obediently. "And glad am I to have seen its dawning, though I would fain see you wear a crown in peace than watch you set forth to battle." Almost instantly, he regretted the words. Aragorn looked away, but not before he saw those quicksilver eyes harden. Ever the crow! Halbarad grimaced, berating himself inwardly. "Aragorn, I meant not"
"I know you did not," the other replied quickly. "And I came not to argue with you, nor to plead with you. How could I?" And now Aragorn met his friend's gaze again, pinning Halbarad under his regard. The light of those keen eyes lanced him, but now it was as the moon upon the sea: soft and sad, touched with a grace rooted in the depths of the world. "For I, too, have long known that death would come between us."
"You knew?!" Halbarad gasped, astonished. Aragorn nodded mutely. "Why, then?"
"Foresight is never certain, and," here the other paused and gave a low, somewhat rueful laugh, "I hoped I was wrong. The years passed, and always we returned from our journeys to keep tryst, though whether by chance or our own foresight it mattered not. And though the feeling never left me that one day you would come no more from the far countries, I would not believe it or speak of it. But how shall I argue with my heart now, and in the face of your certainty?"
"I never meant to deceive," Halbarad said slowly, seeking the right words to explain the matter. And since his thoughts were upon youthful adventures, he asked, "You and I do you recall that night on the Downs, when I thought we were lost indeed? "
"Of course," Aragorn replied. "You saved us both that night. If you had not found your tongue, and broken the wights' spell with that verse of yours, we would not have seen the dawn."
"I had never been so frightened as when I realized you were gone, and I knew not whither. But afterwards, when we went back together to our fire, I knew that I could never lose you again. That it was fated so. And," Halbarad smiled gently, "I was glad." His voice in the dusky light sounded hushed, as if the air conspired to keep his words between them alone. The waters of Anduin swirled below them, muddy and dull without the sun to pierce their depths, and smoke lay heavy in the sky above, resisting the wind. Between the gloom of air and water hovered Minas Tirith, and the fields upon which their long friendship would be broken. And yet, they spoke no more, knowing full well that soon it would be too late for speech. But such was the nature of the love that they held for each other that it had long since ceased to need wordsinadept and clumsy at the pinchto make itself felt. Many long watches they had borne together in silence, but for a few words sufficient to their purposes. In fact, they needed that stillness which they found in each other's company, for it was the stillness of peace rather than of oppression, and it arose from the presence of one well-loved, rather than from the mere absence of others.
So now they stood upon the prow and watched Minas Tirith loom beneath the darkling sky, and they cherished a last silence before the din of war.
Thus it was that in Minas Tirith's most desperate hour, unheralded and unlooked for, Aragorn son of Arathorn, the Heir of Isildur, made landfall upon the quays and burst upon the enemies of Gondor like a storm. With his coming, the host of Mordor was swept away, and the banner of the kings flew once again, borne into the fray by Halbarad son of Hirthon. Of the Battle of Pelennor fields, song and story would later tell much, for it was a great victory, though it came at a high cost. But none knew better than Aragorn the price in blood and tears .
In the dying light of the evening a tall, cloaked figure moved among the carnage of the field. No gem adorned his raiment: the grey cloak of Lórien veiled him from the curiosity of others as Aragorn traced a slow path back towards Harlond. There nestled the silent ships, their masts now divested of any standard, looking as trees laid bare by the winter. Beneath his feet, the grass gleamed a sickly red that owed nothing to the sunset's scarlet colors. At length, he paused, and knelt upon that blood-slick field, and had there been anyone there to see it, he wept, though silently and briefly for he had but little time to mourn. Halbarad lay where he had fallen, and about him lay a half dozen Southron warriors who had fallen with him. Aragorn sighed, remembering the last few moments ere he had broken through to Éomer's line. Though the tide had turned with the coming of reinforcements out of the south, still there had been hard fighting, especially against the Haradrim, in whose veins flowed the blood of Númenór betrayed. A fresh company of Southron warriors had flung themselves into the foremost ranks with such ferocity that even the Dúnedain had been unable to check their advance entirely. A knot of the red- and black-garbed Men had found their way through to the standard, where had stood only Halbarad, Elladan and Elrohir. Yet even the Haradrim could not prevail against three such determined defenders, and it had seemed they might yet cut their way through to safety. But it was not to be. Halbarad had been borne back off balance by two enemies, and before he could regain himself, one of the Haradrim had come up with a knife and dealt him a fatal wound. Even dying, Halbarad had refused to surrender, and he had laid his enemy down beside him in that mortal sleep, leaving Elrohir to dispatch the other.
Now Aragorn stared down at his friend's unmoving form and felt his loss keenly. A dark strand of blood-matted hair had fallen across Halbarad's face, and Aragorn reached out and gently smoothed it aside. Halbarad seemed asleep, for his eyes were closed and his lips slightly parted, as if awaiting a kiss; and his expression in his final repose bore no trace of the pain he must have suffered. But his face was cold beneath his fingers, bloodlessly pale, and bereft of the lively humour that should have animated it. Aragorn closed his eyes and sought once more Halbarad's face in his memory, recalling the indomitable and steadfast spirit that had once dwelt behind it. And yet now that soul was sundered from its mortal form, and it made its final journey alone upon paths which Aragorn could not now follow. Would that it were not so, Halbarad! Short indeed are the days, as Elrond foretold, for there was never time enough for such friendship as ours. I would have you still at my side, to see the fruits of your labors and mine, dear friend. Alas for the cruelty of fortune!
"He died well," a voice said in the gathering dusk, and Aragorn wearily glanced over his shoulder at the wizard who stood behind him. Gandalf gazed back at him with compassion, but there was steel also in his eyes, and Aragorn knew he could not stay long upon the field, that other tasks called him. Still, he lingered on his knees a moment longer. "Come my friend," Gandalf spoke softly in the darkness. "There is nothing more that you can do here, for he is beyond even the realm of the world now, and I doubt not that he has found rich reward for his loyalty and sacrifice. But there are others who need you, and whom you may yet save."
"And yet all such others will never be Halbarad," Aragorn sighed as he rose.
"Of course not," the wizard said, and laid a hand upon his arm and squeezed. "But the need remains. And I would beg you to come quicklycome nowfor the sake of three in especial. Eowyn, Faramir, and Merry lie under the shadow, and I fear there is no one to recall them, if you will not."
"I will come, then," Aragorn replied quietly. A moment he stood in silence, gazing down upon Halbarad one last time. "Farewell my friend!" he murmured softly and raised his eyes to the dim stars that had begun to appear in the sky. The Heron sparkled upon the horizon, following the Evening Star in a chase begun in the deep past, hunter and hunted ever faithful in their course. And beyond them . "Safe voyage!" Then he turned and went with Gandalf up into the city.
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