Aragorn sat talking with Elrohir as Halbarad entered the Hornburg's hall. Elrohir spotted Halbarad before Aragorn did, and Aragorn only looked up as the peredhel waved Halbarad over. The smile Aragorn greeted him with was wearier than Halbarad would have liked.
"Sit down, Halbarad, and take some rest," Aragorn said as Elrohir rose and gestured that Halbarad should take his place. "I truly am glad you are come, even if the call that brought you here was not mine."
"Then who spoke on your behalf? Gandalf?" Halbarad asked once he was seated. Rest? The chance would be a fine thing for either of us.
"Nay," Aragorn said after some thought. "You heard the call around the time the Fellowship left Lothlórien?" He waited for Halbarad's confirmation before he went on. "From what little he has said of what befell him after Moria, I doubt Gandalf would have had the chance. No, I rather think it came from the Lady Galadriel."
"Of course," Halbarad said softly, "That would..."
Aragorn interrupted him. "But as you are here, by whatever means, I would take counsel with you."
"Of course," Halbarad repeated, "Though I was surprised to find you. I would have expected you to go with the hobbits on their road." He smiled at Aragorn's look. "Do not worry. I will not speak further of it, but even so, the time for secrecy is passing fast."
Aragorn said nothing, but turned away to stare into the distance for a long time, his gaze falling almost due East, Halbarad realised with a shiver that had naught to do with the chill in the hall. Finally, he seemed to reach a decision, and he looked back at Halbarad. "Yes, time is passing, both faster and slower than I would like. And the time for dissembling between friends is indeed over. I too do not yet name openly what you refer to, but I will say that your long-ago guess was right."
Halbarad looked down. He had lived with the almost certainty for close to twenty years, yet confirmation still came as a shock. "I would perhaps have preferred to be wrong," he said wrily.
"Perhaps," Aragorn said. "Yet our danger is also our chance, and our hope."
"Then why are you here, and not there?"
"It was a hard choice, and all my paths seemed equally dark." Aragorn shook his head. "Even so, this course may yet turn out for the best."
Halbarad gave him a questioning glance.
"Our hope for their quest lies in stealth," Aragorn said. "My presence would have drawn too much attention to them."
"You are likely right," Halbarad admitted. "That also sounds as if you have given some thought to our own road."
Aragorn nodded, but said nothing.
"I see," said Halbarad. "So, while the Gap of Rohan is important for the North's defense against the Enemy, I doubt you expect the main battles of this War to be fought before the Hornburg." He waited, but Aragorn remained silent. "Well?"
"Well what?" Aragorn started, then at Halbarad's exasperated look said, "Oh, very well, this is not the time for such games. You are right. I do have a plan." He lowered his voice even further, so that Halbarad had to lean over to hear him. "The time for secrecy is indeed passing, and the Enemy's eye should be drawn away from his own land. The Orthanc palantír..."
Halbarad listened with rising apprehension as Aragorn spoke of his plan to confront the Enemy in the palantír to draw Sauron's attention away from the approaching hobbits.
"That is your plan? Dangle yourself as bait in front of the Enemy before dashing off to Gondor?" Halbarad looked down as he passed a hand across his forehead, then met Aragorn's gaze again. "It is either madness or exceedingly bold, but I cannot think of aught better. One thing though, what about Denethor?"
"What about De...?" Now it was Aragorn's turn to be struck dumb.
"Yes, Denethor. Surely you do not expect him to welcome you to Minas Tirith with open arms?"
Aragorn's expression was unreadable even for Halbarad. "No," he finally said. "That I do not."
"That is a pity. I would enjoy heroically battling our way to Minas Tirith, miraculously arriving in the nick of time to save the city from certain doom, and finding the Steward so overcome with gratitude that he would instantly fall to his knees to do homage to his King."
"There is no need for sarcasm," Aragorn said sharply.
"Perhaps not," Halbarad replied. "It fits better than blind optimism, though."
"Not optimism, nor blind," Aragorn answered. "But what may or may not happen when we arrive in Minas Tirith matters little compared to..." He did not finish his sentence, merely glancing east briefly before he fell silent.
Halbarad sighed. "You are right. I am sorry."
"No matter," Aragorn said. "I am well aware that it is unlikely that Denethor will do aught other than seek to deny my claim, both for Gondor's rejection of Arvedui and for our previous acquaintance. Yet there is nothing I can do about it now, other than hope for the best. Perhaps when we come to Minas Tirith, circumstances will..."
Halbarad knew better than to point out the obvious. Even if Frodo succeeded, and Sauron was brought down, if Denethor denied Aragorn Gondor's crown, Elrond would not allow him Arwen's hand, though he be crowned King in Arnor. Alas, Aragorn was right, there was naught he could do, except hope.
"But there is one thing I can do," Aragorn said, drawing Halbarad from his thoughts. "If I am to use the palantír, it must be today. And I would ask you to stand by me in the task."
"As you wish," Halbarad said immediately. "But should you not rather ask one of Elrond's sons to aid you? Or do you fear they would try to dissuade you?"
"No, though they might argue the wisdom of it, but they are too well-known to the Enemy, and for them to stand beside me as I challenge Sauron would fully reveal Rivendell's part in protecting Isildur's heirs. Nor do I ask you to join me in the confrontation itself. You have some training in closing your thoughts, and I doubt he knows you; thus he will likely ignore you, concentrating his effort on me."
"And that is a good thing?" Halbarad asked. He suppressed the chill that ran through him.
"It is necessary," said Aragorn. "If I am to break the Enemy's hold on the palantír, he must engage me. And you said yourself that the time for secrecy is past. Go and get Arwen's standard and join me in the eastward high chamber, if you be willing."
Aragorn was about to say more, but Halbarad raised a hand to stop him. "No need to ask again. I am with you in this." He did not speak aloud his thoughts. I am with you, though the thought of confronting the Enemy chills my very blood. And yet, as he stood and looked at Aragorn who seemed to have sunk back into brooding thought, Halbarad could not suppress his fierce joy at another thought. At last, my friend, the years of hiding in the shadows are over.