March 11 – 15, 3019
Three days since the Grey Company had left Erech; or was it? In the gloom that had come from the east – the previous morning – it was too easy to lose track of time, and all that could be seen of the land was featureless and murky. Yet the river they just forded had to be the Gilrain, and that meant that they were near Linhir.
Aragorn wished he could press on immediately towards Pelargir, but both horses and men could not go on without some rest. As soon as they reached a good place, about fifteen miles from the river, he signalled a halt and dismounted, leaving Halbarad to arrange setting up their camp.
Ignoring Halbarad's questioning glance, Aragorn took his pack and walked off to look for a sheltered spot near the camp. He looked around to make certain he was unobserved, then sat down and quickly set up the palantír. He had to know the Enemy's movements. As he looked in the Stone, he was prepared for a struggle, but despite his weariness after the long ride, the Stone obeyed his will with little effort. Perhaps at the Hornburg he had broken the Enemy's hold on the Stone, or perhaps Sauron's mind was otherwise occupied.
First, Minas Tirith; relieved at seeing that the city was as yet unassailed, Aragorn looked further north towards Rohan. He wondered whether the Stone would let him see as far as Rivendell, but dismissed that thought quickly. Then Ithilien, searching for the Enemy's armies; and finally, Mordor itself. As soon as he moved near to Gorgoroth, he felt another presence, and a will grasping at him before he could withdraw his gaze.
Had he entered a trap? Aragorn gathered his will to keep control of the Stone, as he had done in the Hornburg, when the other spoke to him, and bade him watch. Warily, ready to cover the Stone immediately if he was attacked, he waited, and saw, as from a distance, a hobbit lying on a stone floor. Foreboding struck him as the view shifted, and he could see it was Frodo. Next, he was shown a hand silhouetted against red flames; as the flames faded, he saw the hand had but four fingers, and on one of those a ring of bright, burning gold. The other spoke again, "Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul," each word a hammer-stroke at his mind. He tore his gaze away from the palantír and quickly drew his cloak over it to block it.
With shaking hands, he put the palantír back in its bag. The Quest had failed. Sauron had the Ring. Frodo was captured, or dead.
He sat, frozen, trying to gather his thoughts. What would be the Enemy's first move? Lothlórien? Rivendell? No, he would move in the South first, that had been his plan all along. Rivendell would be last to fall, and Lothlórien was still too strong. Minas Tirith would be first. If that was Sauron's move, what should be his own? Gondor was lost. What good could it do to go to the White City now, perhaps only to fall in hopeless defence of that which was already doomed? He should return home, and return fast, and spread the word before the Eye of Sauron turned there. There might still be a chance that the North could hold out, and Sauron be held at bay, if all who could wield a blade rallied there. He almost rose to give the command to ride back west, but stopped, a deeper despair gripping his heart. All was lost. Returning North was as hopeless a course as continuing on the one that had been set at the Council of Elrond. There had never been much hope that they could hold off the Enemy by force of arms, anywhere, yet to abandon Gondor now... truly, there were no good choices to be made, but at the least he would not slink off in defeat before the battle even began.
The choice made, Aragorn desperately wanted to press on, yet he knew that even the hardy Dúnedain of the Grey Company would need more rest after riding for almost three days from Erech than the scant hour they had already had. It was at least another day to Pelargir. So he waited, while his thoughts sought for hope amidst despair.
In the end it was another day and a night before they reached the Anduin. With nowhere left to run, the Haradrim who had fled before them, and before the Dead, turned to make a stand on the quays. Now. This was the moment the Host of the Dead had been summoned for, and Aragorn raised Andúril high as he called on them. He watched in grim satisfaction as the Dead swept across the quays and the ships. Soon, the ships were taken, and the Dead released into the night.
With the departure of the Dead, the many from Lebennin and the Ethir who had been stirred by their passage and that of the Grey Company dared come to Pelargir. By what had to be morning, though the day was barely brighter than the night, the ships were fully manned and the fleet was ready to depart. At first, rowing against the flow of the river, their progress was slow. By night a wind from the Sea arose and allowed the fleet to raise sails, giving them the speed Aragorn had craved.
The wind brought rain, but also drove back the oppressing darkness. By midmorning the weather was dry and bright, and Aragorn stood at the prow of the ship, his spirits lifted at last by the fresh breeze and the morning sun, eagerly awaiting the first view of Minas Tirith. Was that the Sun glistening on the Tower of Ecthelion already?
Finally, the ships neared the Harlond, and Aragorn gave the command to have his standard displayed. With the bright sunlight gleaming on the Seven Stars and the Crown, he held on to the hope that they could win the day, and the Enemy be defeated. When he looked away from Arwen's standard, that hope fled again. While the Enemy held the One Ring, even if they were victorious this day, in the end it would be for naught, and the only outcome death and defeat, whether sooner or later.
Aragorn looked over to where Legolas and Gimli were standing waiting for the ship to reach the quay. He should have spoken to them of the Quest's failure. It would have been a relief to share the burden of his knowledge, with them, with Halbarad, with his brothers. As members of the Fellowship it was their right to know, but now it would have to wait until they made the City. And maybe they would find Gandalf there too. He desperately needed to talk to him; the wizard might still see some hidden chance of bringing down Sauron.
At first, the surprise of their arrival was with them, and the Haradrim near the Harlond, who had already been in the field since dawn, fell back before the fresh troops from the ships, so that they made some progress towards the City. Then, around noon, a wave of Orcs from Minas Morgul that had been held in reserve poured into the Pelennor.
It was not long before the van of the Dúnedain was near to being cut off from the main force off the ships. Just as Aragorn realised their danger, and gave the order to fall back towards their troops, the line of Orcs and Easterlings that had been pressing them withdrew abruptly. The light of the sun was obscured and a shadow moved over the land as down from the sky swept a monstrous winged creature, upon its back the black-cloaked shape of one of the Nazgûl. The Dúnedain of the North and the southern troops with them were driven back by the ferocious creature and fear of the Nazgûl, their horses throwing them or running off.
Aragorn managed to keep Roheryn from bolting, but the horse was so panicked by the presence of the Nazgûl that he had no other choice than to dismount and face the Ringwraith on foot. The Nazgûl descended from the creature's back and began to walk towards him.
A cold, numbing fear crept up on Aragorn as the Nazgûl halted. The sounds of battle around him seemed to fade into silence. He felt the unseen eyes under the shadowed hood gazing at him. He saw himself in chains before the throne of the Dark Lord and a promise of unending pain and torture. The vision changed, and he was raised up as King of Kings, glorious ruler of all Men, never to die or grow old, his bride at his side, and the whole world his, if only he would choose now to submit to Sauron willingly. As the vision was held in front of him, an answer was demanded, and he replied to Sauron's temptation – Your offer is empty, Lord of Lies. I am not Ar-Pharazôn, and the heir of Isildur will not do Sauron's bidding, neither for empty promise nor for threat. He raised Andúril in challenge.
The Nazgûl hissed in frustration and anger as the spell broke, and drew his sword. As he drew closer, the numb sense of fear came over Aragorn again. The Black Breath... It was affecting him, he knew, slowing him down. He had to resist, or he would be helpless against his opponent. At the thought that the Enemy might try to capture him now that temptation had failed, a different, sharper fear grew in his mind. It took much of his will to do so, but as the Nazgûl swung his blade, Aragorn parried the strike.
They exchanged several more blows, until Aragorn made a slight misstep on the uneven ground. It was no more than a moment's distraction, and it should not have given an opponent an opening, but it was enough to allow the other to strike with the long knife in his left hand. Aragorn tried to block him, but the Ringwraith was too fast as he lunged and struck low. As the Nazgûl's blade pierced his mail, Andúril's strike went wide and Aragorn staggered back and stumbled to the ground.