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Unto the ending of the world

Chapter Text

March 11 – 15, 3019

Three days since we left Erech; or is it? In the gloom that had come from the east yesterday morning? it was too easy to lose track of time, and all Aragorn could see 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. He 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, Aragorn signalled a halt and dismounted. Leaving Halbarad to arrange setting up their camp, and ignoring his kinsman’s questioning glance, Aragorn took his pack and walked off to find 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 he had truly broken the Enemy's hold on the Stone at the Hornburg, or perhaps Sauron's mind was otherwise occupied.

First, Minas Tirith; relieved to see that the city was as yet unassailed, Aragorn looked further north, towards Rohan. He wondered whether the Stone might 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. Foreboding gripped him. Warily, ready to cover the Stone immediately if he was attacked, he waited, and saw, as if looking down from a great height, a hobbit lying on a stone floor; then the view shifted and he could recognise the prone figure. Frodo! Next, 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.

Aragorn 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 has failed. Sauron had the Ring. Frodo was captured, or dead.

He sat, frozen, trying to gather his thoughts. What will be the Enemy's first move? Lothlórien? Rivendell? No, he will move in the South first; that has been his plan all along. Rivendell will be last to fall, and Lothlórien is still too strong. Minas Tirith will be first. And if that is Sauron's move, what should be mine? Continue on my path? But what good can it do to go to the White City now, perhaps only to fall in hopeless defence of that which is already doomed? Gondor is lost. I should return home, and return fast, and spread the word before the Eye of Sauron turns there. Can the North hold out, and Sauron held at bay, if all who can wield a blade rally there? He almost rose to give the command to ride back west, but stopped, a deeper despair gripping his heart. All is lost. Returning North is as hopeless as continuing on the course we set at the Council of Elrond. There was never much hope that we could hold off the Enemy by force of arms, anywhere, yet to abandon Gondor now... truly, there are no good choices to be made, but I will not slink off in defeat before the battle even begins.

~*~

The choice made, Aragorn desperately wanted to press on, yet 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 to enter 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 order to Halbarad to raise the standard. With the bright sunlight gleaming on the Seven Stars and the Crown, Aragorn 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 waited 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. I need to talk to him; Gandalf will know if there remains any chance to bring down Sauron now.

~*~

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 in danger of 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 scattered before the attack, their horses throwing them or running off in fear of the Nazgûl and the creature on which it rode. Aragorn managed to keep Roheryn from bolting, but even so, as the Nazgûl descended from the creature's back and began to walk towards him, the horse was so panicked that he had no other choice than to dismount and face the Ringwraith on foot.

A cold, numb fear crept up on Aragorn as the Nazgûl halted some steps away from him. The sounds of battle around them 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 the promise of torment unending. 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 before him, an answer was demanded. He raised Andúril in challenge. 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.

The Nazgûl hissed in frustration and anger as the spell broke, and drew his sword. As he drew closer, the cold 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, yet 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 fell to the ground.