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Forty Leagues and Two

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Six days' hard ride, a battle fought, and a company grown into an army brought through a wall of terror, and now all that was left to Aragorn was waiting in the dark. The swish and creak of oars, and groan of ships set up river with no wind surrounded him. As the fleet crept ever northward, the voices of men were subdued under the oarmasters' low counts, and even Gimli and Legolas kept uncannily silent.

Aragorn leaned on the rail near the bow, staring forward, but in truth watching neither the dim flicker of torchlight on water, nor the reflection of flame on the bellies of the clouds. Ahead of them, Minas Tirth was burning. Had he Legolas' far-seeing eyes, Aragorn would know more, perhaps, how much of the city still held, if any could after such a siege, yet he did not ask what the elf saw. The dawn would reveal all, for good or ill.

On a ship some furlongs to their stern, a man began to sing, not a rower's song, nor a reefer's, but closer to a dirge. The melody travelled where the words did not, but Aragorn had heard them before, on that voyage to Umbar forty years since. It was the tale of a man of Ethir struck by love for a woman of the sea, a woman with weeds in her hair and fingers cold as death. A verse ended, and another man picked up the tale, and after they passed it between them, one voice young and quavering, and the other like wind-polished oak.

Aragorn turned back towards their ship, thinking to have made out their sails in the dark, but could see only the distant flicker of torchlight. The gathering south wind had carried the song up the river with it, and he had seen nothing but a shadow.

As he turned back to the city, Aragorn himself began to sing, his voice low and clear over the water.