Who are you to mistrust his orders? ask the voices in his head. Who are you to doubt his judgment, Heir of Isildur? They are questions that Aragorn cannot answer.
Théoden had listened when the Ranger stopped him from killing Grima, before the King understood why Aragorn had come to his lands. But when Aragorn joined Gandalf in urging Théoden to ride out and meet the foe, Théoden refused. "I would not bring further death to my people...I will not risk open war," he had insisted.
And when Aragorn pressed, Théoden reminded him of which of them had earned his crown.
Aragorn has known other Kings and Ruling Stewards, has been a chieftain, has commanded men in battle. But he has never stood alone at the head of a kingdom, with the hand of an Enemy reaching to crush his people. He has avoided that doom for many years, believing, perhaps, that if he did not become the King of prophecy, then perhaps the coming struggle might be averted as well.
"Helm's Deep! They flee to the mountains when they should stand and fight," Gimli declares. "Who will defend them, if not their King?"
Aragorn raises his voice in defense of Théoden: "He is only doing what he thinks is best for his people. Helm's Deep has saved them in the past."
It will not save them now, but the King cannot know that; he has no reason to trust the word of a Ranger. So the Ranger follows the King to the ravine where his people have gone to seek refuge. When he nearly loses his life in a struggle to protect the people of Rohan as they march, Aragorn wonders how he can keep his promise to Gandalf to make the defenses hold.
"No army has ever breached the deeping wall or set foot inside the Hornburg," Théoden declares proudly to his people. "They will break upon this fortress like water upon rock. Within these walls, we will outlast them."
"They do not come to destroy Rohan's crops or villages!" Aragorn proclaims. "They come to destroy its people, down to the last child!"
The King whirls upon him, a towering figure who seems taller than his frame, reminding Aragorn of Ecthelion...no, not of Ecthelion, but of his son, Denethor, who had stared at Thorongil with such fury in his eyes.
"What would you have me do?" Théoden hisses, jerking Aragorn from Gondor to Rohan, from the past to the present. "Look at my men. Their courage hangs by a thread. If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end as to be worthy of remembrance!"
"Send out riders, my lord; you must call for aid," Aragorn insists. "Gondor will answer."
"Gondor!" The word is spat in loathing. Théoden might be referring to the land, or her people, or her Steward. Gondor will see it done, says Boromir in memory, glancing at Aragorn from the corner of his eye, his message clear: I speak for Gondor, not you, Ranger.
Yet now Théoden questions Aragorn. "Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell? Where was Gondor when our enemies closed in around us?" Aragorn has no answers, and sees that the King of Rohan did not expect any. In leaving Gondor to her fate, the son of Arathorn has abandoned the Riddermark as well.
"No, my lord Aragorn," says Théoden heavily. The name and title mock their subject, taunting him with other paths that he might have chosen.
There is nothing more that he can suggest, no words of wisdom that he can impart to this King rising to meet his doom. Aragorn stands among boys holding rusted swords and old men stringing rotting bows. In Elvish, Legolas warns him that they are all going to die. He seems to suggest that Aragorn should flee this war which is not his own...to survive, for Gondor.
But this has become Aragorn's war. This battle is the culmination of his own choices. "Then I shall die as one of them!" Heads turn as he pushes through the throng, aware of Gimli behind him holding Legolas back.
The Rohirrim hear despair in his words, though Aragorn thinks he will not meet so simple an end. This war of darkness will soon swallow Gondor. And then Théoden's fate -- to lead a doomed army of Men sworn to him against the might of a much greater enemy -- may become Aragorn's own.
That fate cannot be changed even by the unexpected arrival of Elves, sent by the man who raised Aragorn, then refused to let him wed his daughter. The Evenstar pendant, saved by Legolas when Aragorn fell from the cliff, will likely fall once more into the filthy hands of an orc.
All through the night they battle -- the King within the fortress, Aragorn outside it -- though there is no safety anywhere and no respite for either of them. Men and Elves lie dead together.
Near dawn, the Uruk-hai surround the fortress. "It is over," Théoden pronounces with defeat in his eyes. This man, this King had lost his wife to childbirth; had raised his sister's orphaned children; had lost his son and heir in one of the first great battles of this war. That he has refused despair thus far has earned him Aragorn's admiration.
Aragorn understands that this is his fight and his redemption; that the kingdom of Rohan might be Théoden's, but these are his Men to save, for his future and the future of Gondor. Boromir's vambraces bite through his torn shirt into his skin, reminding him of a promise he will never fulfill if he dies at the Hornburg.
"You said this fortress would never fall while your men defend it," he shouts. "They still defend it! They have died defending it!"
Théoden's bleak eyes rise to meet his. "So much death. What can Men do against such reckless hate?"
"Ride out with me," Aragorn replies. "Ride out and meet them...for Rohan, for your people."
He thinks, at first, that it will not be enough, that the King does not see him as an equal no matter his prowess in battle. Yet Théoden holds his gaze. "Yes," he nods slowly. "Let this be the hour when we draw swords together." And as he summons wrath and ruin, a fire begins to burn in his eyes, and the sun rises.
Later it will be said that Éomer and the Ents of Fangorn Forest saved Rohan. Yet King Elessar will never forget the lessons of kingship he learned there from Théoden, King of the Mark.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.