Chapter 1: Foresight
"Will you carry the standard for me tomorrow?" Aragorn had asked that afternoon.
"Yes, of course. Have I not taken care of it this far already?"
Much later that day, listening to the water far below him and looking out into the darkness – and under the Enemy's gloom it seemed even darker than it should be – Halbarad thought back to how they had ended up aboard these Corsair ships. He found it grimly amusing that the ships taken from the Dark One's followers were now taking them another step closer to restoring the kingship in Gondor and Arnor. Not that that outcome was guaranteed; there was still the small matter of succouring Minas Tirith and having the Steward acknowledge Aragorn's claim. The other matter, the Ring that even now had to be moving closer and closer to Mount Doom, he could barely bring himself to think about. Though he had been as good as certain for years about the One Ring having been found again, it had only been at the Hornburg that Aragorn had felt free to confirm to him that his long-ago guess had been right; even so, his blood had run cold at learning the purpose of the Quest. If the hobbit failed, it would hardly matter whether their own mission failed or succeeded.
The battle at Pelargir had been hard, and until Aragorn had called on the Army of the Dead, the outcome had been in the balance. As Halbarad joined the fray, he had briefly wondered whether this was where the doom that he had foreseen at the Door of the Dead would overtake him, but he had felt no further warning, and quickly put the thought aside. There was never any certainty in battle and events would run as they would. And that brought him to why he was out here gazing into the dark, rather than asleep in his bunk. Unlike at Pelargir, now he did know that he would not see the end of the next day.
He was accustomed to occasional flashes of foresight, though they were rarely strong enough to compel him to speak. Yet he also wondered what the point of it had been. He knew well enough that he was mortal, that he would die, and that with the danger they were heading into, it was not unlikely that it would be soon. At least his resolve in crossing that threshold had been enough to avert the spell of fear that had threatened to fall even over the Grey Company, and had encouraged the others to follow him on the dark road that Aragorn led them on.
Halbarad was drawn from his thoughts as Aragorn joined him, and they stood together in silence watching the almost unseen water of Anduin as it flowed past their ship. He waited for Aragorn to speak. There had been little opportunity for them to talk since he had spoken his fateful words at the Door of the Dead, as during the ride to Pelargir they had either been in the saddle, or too weary to do more than sleep. It was obvious now that his kinsman wanted to say something, but it was equally obvious that he did not know how to begin.
Finally, Aragorn turned to meet his gaze. "Halbarad, you need not take the field. You are under no obligation to..."
"No obligation, no; other than friendship or fealty. Aragorn, I have been a Ranger for most of my life. I never expected to die of old age." Halbarad did not mention the small twist of fear he felt when he let his mind dwell on knowing that at some point during the next day... Yet he would not – could not – take the risk that anything might happen to Aragorn because he was not there, because he let fear for himself rule his actions.
"But to go into battle, and be certain that..." Aragorn started to say.
Shaking his head, Halbarad replied, "Friend, fate cannot be cheated. Were I to keep back from the battle tomorrow, no doubt I would stumble over a pebble and break my neck in the fall. All the prophecy said was that I would die after passing that damnable door, and since I have not become an Elf overnight, that is hardly a revelation." He paused briefly, then smiled wryly as he placed a hand on Aragorn's shoulder and went on, "But no, I know, as do you, that tomorrow I will die. I do not seek death, yet that is what has to be."
He did not speak the knowledge that suddenly came to him. Aragorn would be victorious, would be King, and all that they had hoped for, all that they had worked for, would come true. That also had to be. And that he had not seen before. Another foresight, and this one blessing rather than curse.
He also did not speak of his grief at the thought of his wife and youngest son, who would wait torn between hope and fear until the news of his fall came to them. Yet, as so often, Aragorn knew what was on his mind, for his friend now put an arm around his shoulders and said softly, "I will see that Dineth is looked after. Does Haldan still want to be a Ranger?"
"Thank you. And yes, he still wants to be like his uncle Aragorn; he should be ready to start his training this year." Halbarad smiled as he returned Aragorn's gesture, though he had to blink hard to keep back his tears.
With a shake of his head, Halbarad pulled himself together. He realised that they would end up crying on each other's shoulder if they talked much longer. These were not thoughts to take into battle, and he had no intention of being so distracted on the morrow that he would fall sooner than he had to. "I suppose I ought to at least attempt sleep," he said finally, though he did not move.
Aragorn nodded in agreement, but did not step away from the ship's railing either.
Aragorn parried the first attack of the Easterling facing him. His arm went up and Andúril blocked his opponent's stroke again. Behind him were Elladan and Elrohir, and Halbarad with the standard.
Then, from the corner of his eye, as he swung at his foe and knew Andúril had struck true, he saw an enemy axeman come past him. No time to react, as another took the place of the man he had just killed; he would have to trust to those behind him to guard his back.
Just as he was about to engage his new enemy, Elrohir sprang to his side, dispatching the man in one blow, with some of the men of the Grey Company also coming to the fore. Elrohir grabbed his arm and urgently pushed him to fall back to the centre of their group.
Aragorn looked over his shoulder and saw Hunthor holding the standard and Elladan tending to one on the ground, Halmir next to him. Halbarad!
He rushed to kneel at Halbarad's side, seeing at once that the wound was mortal. The Easterling had struck with enough force to shatter the rings of Halbarad's hauberk and had cut deeply into his left side – trying to strike at the standard, Aragorn realised – yet Halbarad had still managed to strike a reciprocal death blow at his opponent before he went down. Elladan had stopped the flow of blood as much as he could, but from his kinsman's waxen pallor Aragorn knew it had been to no avail.
Halbarad opened his eyes as Aragorn sat at his side, and a faint smile touched the dying man's lips as their eyes met. Halbarad's hand sought his, and helplessly, he grasped it.
A barely to be heard whisper. "The standard did not touch the ground, my King."
All he could say was a soft "Farewell, friend," and watch as the light faded from Halbarad's eyes.
Chapter 2: Foresight - reversed
Experimenting with point of view. I really thought I was done with this story after the first chapter. Some Rangers had different ideas about that...
Aragorn told himself he ought to sleep. The hour was late and the next day would be demanding. The next morning they would at last reach Minas Tirith. At least he had shaken off the terrible fatigue from the struggle for the palantír. Even if the ride from Erech had been hard, that had been a much healthier kind of weariness than the bleak exhaustion from confronting the Enemy and bending the palantír to his will. As he found he was still too restless for sleep, he went up to the ship's deck. Some fresh air would undoubtedly clear his head and allow him to rest.
At least all others had found sleep, he thought, seeing that except for a few members of the crew the deck was empty. No, wait, there was one other Ranger on deck, standing at the railing near the prow. Halbarad. They had not yet had time to truly talk to each other since Halbarad's words at the Door of the Dead, though as soon as the words were said, Aragorn had recognised them as a true foretelling.
Aragorn made his way across the deck to stand next to his kinsman. Halbarad was deep in thought, but looked up to acknowledge his arrival, though he did not speak. Aragorn hesitated. No battle was ever certain, and while they might all be dead by the next sunset – and even if they were victorious, Frodo was still out there; as long as the Quest hung in the balance, anything they did here was ultimately irrelevant, except to keep the Enemy's attention away from his own lands – it did make a difference whether one went into battle with merely the normal risks of war to confront, or under a doom of prophecy.
He turned towards Halbarad. Even though he knew what the answer would be, he knew also that this had to be said. "Halbarad, you need not take the field. You are under no obligation to..."
"No obligation, no; other than friendship or fealty. Aragorn, I have been a Ranger for most of my life. I never expected to die of old age."
As he winced at his friend's attempt at levity, Aragorn also acknowledged Halbarad's unshakeable loyalty and courage. Even as he started to speak again, he realised that he could do no other than accept what he knew was unavoidable. "But to go into battle, and be certain that..."
Halbarad shook his head. "Friend, fate cannot be cheated. Were I to keep back from the battle tomorrow, no doubt I would stumble over a pebble and break my neck in the fall. All the prophecy said was that I would die after passing that damnable door, and since I have not become an Elf overnight, that is hardly a revelation." He paused briefly, then smiled wryly as he placed a hand on Aragorn's shoulder and went on, "But no, I know, as do you, that tomorrow I will die. I do not seek death, yet that is what has to be."
Aragorn lowered his head in defeat. Yes, he did know, and to argue any longer would be an insult to Halbarad's sacrifice. He looked up again, blinking back tears. Halbarad was deep in thought now, and Aragorn knew he was thinking of his family. He took a deep breath to steady himself as he put an arm around Halbarad's shoulder. "I will see that Dineth is looked after. Does Haldan still want to be a Ranger?"
"Thank you. And yes, he still wants to be like his uncle Aragorn; he should be ready to start his training this year." Halbarad smiled now as he embraced Aragorn in return. Aragorn could only smile too, even if a bit wanly. It had been a long-standing source of amusement between them that, while Halmir had wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, Haldan had always insisted that he wanted to be like his 'uncle'. The argument that his father was a Ranger too had never made much of an impression on the lad.
Halbarad shook his head and turned towards the railing again. "I suppose I ought to at least attempt sleep," he said finally. Though Aragorn nodded in agreement, neither of them made a move to leave for a long time.
Somehow Halbarad had managed to find sleep the previous night; this morning he had woken up early, feeling strangely refreshed after too few hours of rest. Though he still had the awareness that he would die this day, he felt almost cheerful now. He managed to maintain his mood at least outwardly as he joined the other Rangers. He was still the Captain of the Grey Company, and his men looked to him for guidance. They all knew that they would reach the Harlond this morning and that battle was upon them.
At breakfast he had sat next to Halmir, trying not to remind himself that this was his farewell to his son, even if perhaps Halmir did not realise it. However, from the occasional silences in their conversation that were just that bit too long, he suspected that Halmir did know.
Aragorn had not come to the ship's mess for breakfast until late, and as he met his kinsman's gaze, Halbarad knew that Aragorn was not fooled by the smile he gave him. They spoke briefly, but only to plan the first stage of the battle. Everything else had already been said.
From the moment they left the ships, they were in the thick of the battle, and the day was a blur of cut, thrust, parry, dodge, lunge, cut, stab, parry in which Halbarad found that there was no time to think of fear or foresight, no time for anything but the moment. At first the standard was an encumbrance, but soon enough it seemed as if he had never fought any other way, even if he was still aware of its weight and bulk. He stayed as close to Aragorn as he could, well aware of his duty as standard-bearer. Elladan and Elrohir were constantly near them, and he caught occasional glimpses of the other Rangers around them as they fought their way across the Pelennor.
Halbarad soon realised that the standard made him as much a target as Aragorn, who was also attracting disproportionate attention from their opponents. Even for those who did not know who Aragorn was – and not all would recognise the meaning of the standard – he was at the front of their group, and the Elendilmir bright on his brow marked him as someone important. Aragorn was more than holding his own though, and he knew he did not have to worry about him.
Another enemy. Curse it, an axe, he thought as he sidestepped the Easterling's first swing. Now he really would have preferred a shield, rather than the standard. Doubly cursed, he is aiming at the standard, he realised as the other hewed at him again. While the Easterling did carry a shield, each of his attempts to strike at the standard left him briefly open, and Halbarad tried to make use of these short moments. Every time the Easterling was too quick and blocked him. Elladan was also trying to eliminate their opponent, but this one was truly a skilled fighter, and the half-Elf could not dispatch him quickly either. Another swing from that axe, and as he pulled the standard out of harm's way, suddenly a flare of pain in his side, and he knew his doom had found him.
It hurt. It hurt worse than any wound he had ever taken. Yet he still stood, even if not for long. As he pushed the standard towards the Ranger behind him – Hunthor, he registered distractedly – and clutched his left hand at his side, slick and warm with blood, he saw the triumphant look in the Easterling's eyes, and lunged forward with his sword. He might be done for, but he would not go alone. Avenged, he thought as he saw the other go down at the same time that he felt himself start to fall.
Someone caught him before he hit the ground, and he realised it was Halmir, as his son gently eased him down. Elladan was there too, and he felt the peredhel press something to his side. Why was he so cold? His son… where? He felt a hand softly stroke his forehead, and forced his eyes to focus. Ah, there was Halmir… and he let his eyes flutter shut, content to let go. It was so cold.
No, not yet.
Aragorn. At his side.
He opened his eyes again, and smiled at Aragorn as he met his gaze. His hand. He... Aragorn had taken his hand. He could barely feel the touch any more, except for the warmth enveloping his cold fingers.
"The standard did not touch the ground, my King." There. He had said it. He would not see his friend crowned, but at least he was first to call him King.
He kept his eyes on Aragorn for as long as he could. It was growing dark. And colder still. Aragorn said something, but he could not hear him. It no longer mattered. It could wait until they met again, he thought, still smiling as the world faded away.