19. King's Man (Halbarad)
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers;
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
"Dúnedain of the North!"
As if to summon the very mountains, Aragorn, mounted on his great horse, swept out his bright sword, calling the thirty horsemen to attention. Weary as he was, he looked like the king he was soon to be. Proud and sure, Halbarad reined his horse beside his captain, holding the standard of Elendil yet furled.
"Here at the Hornburg of Rohan we few are gathered," Aragorn's voice rang out, "when once the knights of Arnor riding with Elendil and Gil-galad numbered in the thousands. Yet we have the hope of a victory far greater than that won by the Last Alliance. I speak of the hope that Elrond revealed to you before you rode South.
"My comrades, know this: a force of corsairs threatens Gondor. Minas Tirith will fall before ten days are gone. We alone can save the White City, but only by passing through great peril. I go now on a path appointed, the Paths of the Dead, to summon the oathbreakers, who must fight against Sauron at the bidding of the Heir of Isildur to win the peace of the grave.
"No dishonor will fall on you if you go with the forces of the Rohirrim. For I have revealed myself to Sauron as Elessar, Elendil's Heir, and shown him the sword reforged, Andúril, the Flame of the West. My purpose is to draw his Eye away from the peril that will destroy him. At the fields of the Pelennor I will raise the banner of Elendil before the gates of the White City. And if the West fails, the wrath of Sauron will fall hardest on me and on all who are with me. Therefore I command no man to follow me. Will you come, men of the North?"
Halbarad drew his sword and saluted his captain. "Aragorn!" he shouted, and around him the Grey Company raised the call, their spears glinting in the bright noon.
Aragorn bowed his head, acknowledging their allegiance, and held aloft his sword, alight with the very fires of heaven. The green stone shone on his breast, and despite his pallor men could see his grim resolve. Halbarad raised a great horn, and its blast echoed against the rocky walls. Aragorn turned his proud bay stallion, Roheryn, and with a cry, "Elendil!", he led the force out of the valley of Helm's Deep.
They rode hard that day, stopping only to water and rest their mounts. The night was old before at last they halted for a hot meal and a few hours' sleep.
After seeing to the men and the horses, Halbarad sought out his captain. Aragorn was sitting alone at a smaller fire away from the cook pots. Silent, he stared into the blaze. Andúril in its jeweled sheath lay across his knees, his hands resting upon it.
Halbarad knelt at his side. "All are well, men and horses," he said.
Aragorn nodded. "I will speak to the men when I have eaten."
He searched Aragorn's face with a critical eye. "You look a little better."
The chieftain's brief smile did not reach his eyes. "The weariness is slow to pass."
Halbarad nodded. He knew what Aragorn did not say: The dread of his confrontation with the Dark Lord through the palantír yet haunted him. He would never forget it.
The lieutenant sat down beside his chieftain, leaning his arms and chin on one raised knee. "So here we are at last, in the war we always knew was coming. It's a long time since that young man who had just learned his name wandered into the Angle, isn't it, my friend?"
He was rewarded with a genuine smile. "Indeed," Aragorn said. "And where would that Elven princeling have been without you?"
They both chuckled, remembering the Dúnedain's harsh judgment of the young Estel as their chieftain.
"Well," Halbarad said. There was so much to say, but so little need to say it—all the years of fighting and friendship hovered between them. "Soon you will have all your hope."
"Or all hope's end," Aragorn murmured. "As Arwen said. And if we succeed—then, Halbarad, I'll need you all the more—you, who I trust most to tell me when I'm wrong."
"Yes, I've always been good at that. The first of the duties of the king's man."
They fell then into the easy silence of intimacy, remembering the cold, rainy nights as Rangers in the wild; quarrels both personal and political; laughter; too few nights of too much ale and pipeweed at the inn in Bree; the many times one had saved the life of the other.
Above, the stars blazed bright and cold in a clear sky, and the glow of the fire lit their warrior's faces.
After, Aragorn thought of that night as his farewell to his best friend and chief lieutenant. When Halbarad died at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the life had fled from his eyes before any man could say goodbye, even his own sons. Only then did the king's man lose hold of the banner of Elendil.
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