And the One All In Grey with kind eyes had walked with him throughout, open-handed, offering a long peace. It was the white in those eyes, perhaps, that had stayed his reaching for it.
Now that One walked further from him at nights, watching without speaking. There was light now to break the dark stretches, and ah, how he ached! From wounds and from weariness and from the very weakness that made a glass of water heavy in his hand. Once he had held steel without a tremble; now his arm felt feather-light, insubstantial as the morning sunlight streaming through the window.
And he remembered more, remembered beyond the long darkness, remembered Darkness of a different kind: days and months and years of standing the Long Watch, on the Road and restless, waiting for a Daybreak that might not come. There had been the call, and the ride, and then the Door: My death lies beyond it.
Things grew hazy after that way-sign. There had been a battle and a banner, and then he would grow pale and sweat and tremble, head throbbing with shards of memory that sent a fire through wasted, wounded flesh all over again.
"Don't, don't," the healers said. "Let it go."
But he could not. It had marked him too well, that day upon Pelennor, pierced him through and through, got inside him and gone to ground, and he knew there would be no letting go for 'twas not in his grasp, but he was in its grip, and there was only one who could pluck him free.
But the One All In Grey walked further from him, and his hands were closed.
There comes a day, though, when the breeze blows through the Houses, smelling of rosemary, and the air is rife with news of homecoming. "He" is coming home. The rumors that had leaked past his door to tell of the outside world—a world where men and women waited eagerly for a return—at last take on a meaning, pierce his solitude, and quicken a listless heart.
The day trails by in a long, warm light, and he waits, venturing out, even, into the gardens, though he cannot say whether pride or legs pain him more, for the cane he must use or for the sore shakiness of his steps. But he sits and he listens to the bells toll and the bees hum and watches the river drift by far below until at last, as the light is finally dying, a soft step warns of someone coming.
A hand touches his shoulder briefly, as the other sits beside him on the low-backed bench. Hands meet and press—firmly, weakly, as hard as they can. And that is all. It is enough for a time. Evening falls softly, and someone is singing in the garden back by the Herb Master's window. He knows the song, surprises himself by humming along under his breath.
"You went very far from us, Halbarad," says his companion, when the singer leaves, and he falls silent, too.
"'Tis good to have you back."
And ah, there is the sharp point in it all! He stares at the evening star winking upon the horizon, and thinks of the white in the One's eyes, of the yellow-bright silence of his world since the light came back, and his head aches a little as thought touches once more on the thing in him that holds him still.
"I have the feeling that I should not be here," he says finally.
"But you are here."
"I know. 'Tis strange."
The garden is very still for a long while after that. The bells toll twice—the hour is halfway gone. Yet they sit through the next sounding as well, as more stars flicker to life. At length, Aragorn speaks again, his voice oddly distant:
"We could see no stars before the Gates. There was some question whether the sun would even come up that morning, or whether we would miss her if she did not. We were going to die, after all."
And Yes, yes, that is how it is! he thinks, and knows that Aragorn said it for that very reason. And why should it strike so hard, when there have been other such days when he knew very well he should not have walked home again? How many of them? He has forgotten, or else they have all come together as "Pelennor" in his mind and perhaps that is why the word pains him so.
"Everything seems like paper," he says softly. "Thin—as if I could put a wall out by touching it. As if I could wake any moment, and this would be a dream."
"You are not well, Hal."
"Neither are you."
"True enough. None of us are. We'll learn our sickness a little, day by day, 'til we tire of measuring it. And one day we shall be surprised all over again that we are still here, but that day, it will be a sweet surprise. So—" and Aragorn rises, helping him to his feet, steadying him "—are you with me?"
And there is that in his voice that recalls a man to duty—not the duty of any oath, but the duty all men owe to their fellows who are in need. Halbarad sighs, but then he reaches to clasp the other's arm, solid and warm beneath his hand.
"When have I not been?" he asks.
"Never," comes the quick, certain reply. They stand there a moment, and in the near darkness, Halbarad watches the slow smile spread over Aragorn's face—over his king's face, and an answering, weary joy seizes him so hard and suddenly that his knees buckle as it surges through him like storm surf.
But Aragorn is there, with a shoulder for him to lean on, and quick, quiet-voiced concern that gives way to a sort of laughing wonderment eventually, as Halbarad tries to wave him off, gasping, "I'm fine, I'm fine!"
"Are you laughing at me or with me, here?"
There is no need of an answer to that, as Aragorn walks him back to the Houses and into the care of the rather bewildered, dumbfounded healers.
"Tomorrow," Aragorn promises, and bids him good-night.
That night, Halbarad dreams of a world clear as glass, shining with the light of all the heavens. He knows it, has always known it, can name all the pathways he has walked in his long life. They are alight now, blazing trails, no longer shadowed ways. And as he comes to the crossroads at the heart of the old kingdom, he feels another near him, feels the cool of white eyes. He is there, waiting for him—the One All In Grey, patient as ever he must be as he watches the Westerly Way.
But this time, there is no question, not even one unasked. His way lies elsewhere, as he turns towards the mountains.
Yet he is not abandoned. The One All In Grey does not follow, yet there is another—still in grey, but with a star upon his brow, and the sea in his eyes, who speaks to him in a well-loved voice, saying:
Author's Notes: Written for the B2MEM prompt, "H - like a hale Halbarad." Like there was any way I wouldn't be writing for this one!
My death lies beyond it: '"This is an evil door," said Halbarad, "and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless..."' —"The Passing of the Grey Company," RotK, 64.
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.