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Loyalty, Honor and a Willing Heart

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Loyalty, Honor and a Willing Heart

There were a few moments of time that stood out sharply in the Ranger's mind: like the moment when Lord Elrond, a man he'd grown up seeing and caring for like a father, had told him the truth of his lineage, both the good and the bad; his mother's last goodbye, once she was sure he was ready to go through life on his own (though he himself had never been fully sure of that); the moment Arwen Undómiel, the love of his life, offered her life to him in a promise of marriage; or the conversation he and Frodo Baggins had had in Amon Hen...

His name was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, from the line of Isildur. In his veins ran the blood of Kings, of those meant to rule Gondor and Arnor... and also the blood of the one who'd betrayed his brothers in arms and chosen to keep a cursed object when it should have been destroyed. It was that part that Aragorn hated and feared in equal measure; the failure of his ancestor, his weakness... which might at any moment become Aragorn's own.

It was one of the reasons why he'd offered his own life so readily for the quest to destroy the Ring. He didn't believe himself strong enough to carry it, but once someone else had been chosen to bear that burden, how could he do anything but try his best to help in any way he could? Even if it meant his life in the end, it would be a good way to go (It would certainly hurt having to leave Arwen before ever being able to call her his wife, but at least then she would go West with her family, she wouldn't be alone).

It'd been a hard journey, making it to Parth Galen, and the Ranger well knew it was far from finished. They were supposed to be resting; more stressed out than he would have preferred, with the thought of orcs and other dark creatures just across the river from them, and the suspicion that at least one member of the Fellowship was slowly falling victim to the dark whispers of the One Ring. If they couldn't trust the members of their own company, who then were they supposed to trust? Theirs was already a hard mission, and it would only get worse the closer they got to Mordor and to achieving their purpose.

Tensions had been running high ever since their leaving Lothlórien; probably even before, though after the brief respite they'd found in the Golden Woods, it was all the more evident. And then to find Frodo and Boromir both missing at the same time... Aragorn would admit (if only to himself) that he'd feared the worst. He knew the Gondorian to be a good man, yet he also knew that the Ring had been tempting him from the very first day, during Elrond's Council in Rivendell.

The Ranger considered it almost a miracle when, a while later, he found the Ringbearer sitting on the edge of the ruins of what had once been Amon Hen, staring blankly into the distance. He approached slowly, keeping a distance from the ruins and the hobbit, so as not to alarm him when he was finally noticed.

"I know you're there, Strider." Frodo called after a minute or so.

Even though they'd all since learnt his real name, the hobbits seemed to prefer calling him by the one he'd initially given to them, back in Bree, that of Strider.

"Frodo?" He finally called, approaching the Ringbearer slowly. "Is everything alright? You were missed, and with everything going on..."

"Sometimes I wonder if anyone worries about me anymore, or just this cursed thing I carry..." The hobbit muttered under his breath, shaking his head almost right away. "I suppose that's not fair really... I'm just having a bad day."

"Did anything go wrong?" Aragorn asked, growing more and more strung up by the second. "Did someone... Boromir...?"

"What do you know about the events that preceded the Battle of Five Armies?" Frodo surprised him with the unexpected question. "After the death of Smaug, but before the war?"

"You mean what they call the Arkenstone debacle?" Strider asked, he was sure he could hear Frodo snort, but focused on giving a proper answer. "Not much. Nothing more than rumors in any case. I know that nowadays the stone is embedded at the very top of an obelisk that was built in the middle point between Erebor and Dale. I've heard also that before it was believed to be some kind of symbol of the King Under the Mountain, and that Bilbo Baggins used it somehow to convince Thorin Oakenshield to parley with humans and elves, so they would be ready for the enemies that even then were marching their way." He made a pause as he considered some things. "Not much is said about it, really. Though there are other... well, other versions of the story, one might say."

"Does one of those versions have one of my uncles trying to kill the other?" Frodo inquired.

"Well..." Aragorn hated admitting the fact, though he had heard something like that. "Nothing official is known, nothing more than gossip."

"That's to be expected." Frodo nodded. "After all, from the ones present that day, most either didn't really hear or did not care; and of those that did on both accounts... King Bard Dragon-Slayer is long since dead, King Thranduil and Lord Dáin would keep the matter private out of respect for those involved, and the remaining members of the Company hate talking about those dark events, even among themselves."

"How do you know what happened then?" The Ranger inquired.

"My uncles told me." The hobbit said. "Uncle Thorin, to be more specific. Two days before my adoption was finalized. While their marriage was only legal in dwarrow society, Uncle Thorin wanted to be a part of my family, he wanted to be able to adopt me, like Uncle Bilbo adopted Kili. And before doing that, he wanted me to know exactly what I was getting into. So they told me the story, and when the moment came it was Uncle Thorin who told that part. I know how much he hated even remembering it..." He took a deep breath and then said it. "Remembering that he once tried to kill his One over a bloody stone..."

Aragorn was speechless. Truth be told, he hadn't known the eldest royal couple of Erebor for long (no more than a few weeks), but having seen the two men together he couldn't imagine one of them so much as raising a hand against the other.

"Uncle Thorin had dragon-sickness." Frodo explained. "Gold-fever, some call it too. He was obsessed over the treasure inside Erebor, and over finding the Arkenstone, so much he would allow for the Company to do nothing except look for it. And when Bard Dragon-Slayer arrived, looking for help for himself and the survivors from the destruction Smaug had wrought in Lake-Town, my dwarven uncle refused to give them anything. It probably didn't help that Thranduil was right there too, with a host of elves behind them, but still." He shook his head. "Uncle Bilbo tried to make him see reason, but Uncle Thorin was too far gone. As it turned out, there was no need to be looking for the Arkenstone anymore, my hobbit uncle found it the very first day. He was going to give it to the King, until he realized it wouldn't help the situation any. And so he decided to do something else with it; he handed it to Bard and Thranduil, so they could use it as a bargaining chip, to force the King's hand... Uncle Bilbo was too noble not to admit what he'd done when Uncle Thorin doubted the honesty of Bard's claims regarding the stone, and then my dwarven uncle snapped. He yelled at my hobbit uncle, nearly strangled him and came quite close to throwing him off the wall they were standing at in that moment."

"Then why...?" The Ranger wasn't even sure how to finish the question in his mind.

"Why Uncle Bilbo stayed and married him?" The Ring-bearer finished for him.

Strider just nodded quietly.

"Because they love each other." Frodo said as if it were obvious. "They are each other's one and only love. They always have been." He sighed. "A great many things happened after that. Between the arrival of the enemy armies, the battle itself, what happened at Ravenhill... Uncle Thorin came so close to dying, and when he thought he would soon breathe his last, all he wanted was to beg Uncle Bilbo for forgiveness. It was a miracle he survived, and they weren't about to ignore a second chance." He made a pause before adding. "Also, I know how insane this sounds but, I don't think Uncle Thorin would have been able to kill Uncle Bilbo. Even as mad as he was, as lost in the dragon-sickness... I do believe that, in the end, love would have won. And I think that Uncle Bilbo believes that too, and that's why he stayed."

For a few seconds not a world was said, and then Frodo seemed to remember something.

"But that wasn't really the point I was trying to make." He said. "The point was the gold-fever. Even back then Uncle Thorin was deeply in love with Uncle Bilbo, and I've told you what he nearly did, over nothing more than a bloody stone... the look I saw in Boromir's eyes earlier today, it's the same as the one I imagine Uncle Bilbo had to see in his One."

"Boromir!" The Ranger was in full alert right away.

"It's alright." The Ringbearer waved his tension off. "I still have the Ring and Boromir didn't hurt me. He managed to fight off the dark influence of the Ring just in time... and yet, he's fallen, truly fallen, once now. He knows it could very well happen again and..." He hesitated a moment before adding. "I don't want that, not for him, and not for anyone else in the Fellowship. I knew what I was getting into when I chose to take the Ring... mostly. But the mere idea of the others: Gimli, Legolas, Pippin, Merry, Sam... you... seeing in any of your eyes that darkness." He shook, a half-sob escaping his mouth. "I can handle the dark whispers the Ring might direct my way, but I don't think I'm strong enough to see that kind of darkness in the eyes of people I care so much for. And if something were to happen to any of you because of a dark influence... I couldn't take it."

"You're strong Frodo." Aragorn tried to reassure him. "Stronger than you know."

"I know just how strong I am Strider." Frodo whispered. "And just what I'm capable of."

In two beats of one heart, Isildur's heir came to the painful realization of what exactly his small friend meant with those words.

"You're leaving..." He breathed out.

"It's what needs to be done." The Ringbearer said. "For the good of the Quest, of Middle Earth... but especially, for the good of everyone in this Fellowship." He let out a sigh. "Lets be honest Strider, we both know there's no way the nine of us would have ever been able to get into Mordor without getting caught... this needs to be done."

The Ranger did not contradict him, he couldn't have, he knew Frodo was right, much as he might hate to admit it. And yet, there was something he needed to do, before letting the Ring-bearer be on his way.

"You know I would have gone with you to the end, right?" He asked the hobbit quietly. "Into the very fires of Mordor."

"I know." Frodo nodded slowly. "Please watch over the others. Especially Sam, and Gimli, they will not understand."

The man nodded, he would do his very best to protect the others.

Frodo got on his feet then, beginning his trek downhill, in the direction he'd come from; but before he could disappear behind the trees, he looked over his shoulder.

"Aragorn," It was the first time he used the man's name. "Thank you."

The Ranger couldn't fully comprehend what the hobbit might be thanking him for. It's not like he'd done much, not really; and in the end the Ring-bearer still had to go on alone... it was in that moment that Aragorn promised himself that even if he couldn't go with Frodo to Mount Doom, he would do all he could to make sure the quest succeeded in the end. It was his promise to himself and, in a way, to Frodo, his uncles and the rest of the Fellowship as well.

xXx

Much had happened since that day and the conversation the Ranger had had with the valiant hobbit. From a battle right there in Parth Galen, Pippin's and Merry's abduction, Boromir's death; through valleys and hills, into Edoras and the Golden Halls of Meduseld, where they'd freed a King from a cursed laid on him by one he'd considered ally and friend; to the fortress of Helm's Deep, where in one night the old alliance between men and elves was resurrected and one of the worst battles of the Third Age was fought, the likes of which hadn't been since since the Battle of Five Armies, at Erebor's gates; to Isengard, where a living forest and its shepherds, the Ents, had laid waste to the treachery caused by Saruman; across the Paths of the Dead, summoning an army long cursed, to end at the Fields of Pelennor, where a battle even worse than the one at Helm's Deep was fought, and won (if only barely).

It was Mid-march already, but a few days from Ostara and Spring was slowly but surely erasing the last remains of winter. With the epic battle that had taken place just the day before it was not really surprising that most people would choose to rest for as long as they could... especially those who understood better than others that it wasn't over just yet.

The remaining members of the Fellowship (except Merry who was still in the Houses of Healing, and Pippin who was with him) had agreed to gather together in the throne room of Minas Tirith with Éomer and what leader might survive of the soldiers of Gondor to decide what to do next. As he waited, Aragorn could only contemplate the long blade in his hands, the same he'd just fought a battle with, and which had allowed him to call upon an army none but the heir of Isildur could have demanded the loyalty of; and as hesitant as he'd been about it (both the army and his own title) he'd done it, all of it, and there was no going back anymore.

He could still remember his own words, as he stood before the king of the dead. It was the first time he'd called himself Heir of Isildur, without immediately thinking of what he saw as a terrible weakness implied simply by bearing that title. And it was until that morning in March, having just saved the White City, and released the army of the dead (though he agreed with Gimli they would have been very useful in future battles, he'd given them his word); it wasn't the first time he held the sword, since it'd been reforged during the time the Fellowship spent in Rivendell preparing for the beginning of the Quest... but never before had it felt so heavy; never before had he held it and through it felt all the weight of his line, his responsibility, all of it.

The Ranger wondered how others did it. Like Thorin, or the previous and current Kings of the new Dale (whom he'd met only once): Bard Dragon-Slayer and Báin Black-Arrow, how had they gone from being a wanderers, warriors, or even normal men, to Kings?

Eventually Aragorn's brooding thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of his friends and companions, and so the War meeting began.

"Frodo has passed beyond my sight." Gandalf informed them. "The darkness is deepening."

"If Sauron had the Ring, we would know it." Aragorn said, sure of it.

"If Sauron had the Ring, all of Arda would know it." Legolas punctuated.

"It's only a matter of time." The White Wizard was being oddly pessimistic. "He has suffered a defeat, yes, but behind the walls of Mordor our enemy is regrouping."

"Let him stay there." Gimli grunted, even as he smoked. "Let him rot! Why should we care?

"Because ten thousand Orcs now stand between Frodo and Mount Doom." Gandalf sighed."I've sent him to his death."

That certainly made Gimli change his tune, though only Legolas could hear the quiet words he whispered in khuzdul; the elf did not actually know the words, but from constant use of the very words he knew it was what he called Frodo, an endearment of some kind.

"No." The Heir of Isildur refused to give up. "There is still hope for Frodo. He needs time and safe passage across the Plains of Gorgoroth. We can give him that."

"How?" The dwarf's tone was full of disbelief, yet all who knew him knew Gimli would do almost anything if it meant helping Frodo, his little prince, his littlest cousin.

"Draw out Sauron's armies." Aragorn stated brazenly. "Empty his lands. Then we gather our full strength and march on the Black Gate."

More than one person reacted in shock at that; Gimli being the most visible as he almost chocked on the smoke from his pipe.

"We cannot achieve victory through strength of arms." Éomer, the (unofficial) King of Rohan (though he'd been named officially as heir before the passing of his uncle), stated.

"Not for ourselves." The Ranger wasn't as delusional as to believe that. "But we can give Frodo his chance if we keep Sauron's Eye fixed upon us. Keep him blind to all else that moves."

"A diversion." Legolas murmured in understanding.

"Certainty of death. Small chance of success." Gimli enlisted in a deadpan tone. "What are we waiting for?"

As if on answer to his question they could all hear a long note from a horn coming from the outside right then.

"What...?" The Gondorian man, who'd remained silent through the whole conversation (either too shocked or too intimidated to contribute anything), looked as shocked as everyone else.

"That sounds like no horn I've ever heard before." Éomer stated, uneasy.

"That's because what you heard wasn't any one horn..." Legolas began, looking oddly pleased.

"But two." Gimli finished for him.

Not a single word more was said by either of them, instead elf and dwarf seemed to move in sync as they practically bolted from their places and out of the room, closely followed by the rest of their friends.

Aragorn stopped so abruptly upon reaching the courtyard the Éomer and the Gondorian man came quite close to crashing against his back. Yet, right as the Rohirric was about to complain about not giving a warning, his own eyes laid on what was before him, and he couldn't help but understand the deep shock the others were in. Because right then before them stood three armies, of three separate races, and neither of them had been there the day before.

Elves, dwarves and men, the three armies stood together, a thousand strong each, aside from a smaller group that stood ahead of them, formed by thirty-something men, almost half a dozen or so elves and a couple of dwarves.

"What is this?" The Southern Ranger finally blurted out.

The group standing at the vanguard turned to look at each other briefly before one of the dwarves stepped forward, standing straight and proud.

"I am Kili, son of Vili, sister-son of Thorin, King of Erebor." He announced proudly, pushing back the hood of his cloak to reveal himself. "With me stands my wife..."

"Tauriel, daughter of Dirhael, Queen of Erebor." The auburn-haired elleth introduced herself as she pushed back her own hood. "And..."

"Halbarad, son of Dathon." One of the men introduced himself next. "Lord of Dale, Ranger of the North and currently acting captain for the Dúnedain."

"Behind us stand a legion of each of the armies of Erebor, Mirkwood and Dale." Kili began talking again. "Gathered together to honor the Treaty of Rhovanion, and, of course, to help make sure my littlest cousin's Quest succeeds."

"Cousin?" Éomer asked, completely lost.

There were three new armies standing right in front of them, four if they were to count the thirty rangers from the north separate from the men of Dale; and he still couldn't wrap his head around what exactly was going on. Rhovanion was leagues away, what could possibly have brought armies of such kingdoms (or fractions of said armies), especially dwarven and elven kingdoms, to fight on the other side of Middle-Earth?

"Frodo Baggins is the nephew of Bilbo Baggins, Royal Consort of Erebor." Tauriel explained. "As such he's our prince... and a dear friend. We're here to help him and his quest in any way we possibly can." She made a pause. "I know our numbers aren't many, but after getting the news that an army of Easterlings was marching in the direction of Erebor and Dale, this was all that could be spared at this time. Though I can assure you, each warrior in this army is brave, experienced and more than ready to lay down their lives if necessary to see this Quest fulfilled."

"Who else is here?" Gimli asked, being one of the first to notice that the elves standing with the vanguard were dressed too differently from those of the army itself to be a part of the same army.

"We're not Dúnedain ourselves." One of the two younger males elves began.

"But we shall stand by them all the same." A second voice, almost identical in tenor to the first, added in the same tone.

"Elladan, Elrohir..." Aragorn breathed out. "My brothers..."

"And not just us." They said in sync.

It was then that everyone truly paid attention to the other male elf with them and realized that he was not just any elf but...

"Lord Elrond..." Gimli and Legolas spoke at the same time.

"Adar (Father)..." The Ranger breathed out, not even noticing the word that had just crossed his lips; it'd been so long since he last (dared) call the elven lord by such a title.

"The time has come, Estel, ion nín (my son)..." Elrond replied, having heard perfectly the word pronounced by his foster-son.

"Time?" The Heir of Isildur did not understand.

For all answer the banner (white on green, bearing the white three of Gondor and so obviously handmade to the eyes that cared to see) moved aside, revealing the last elf in the group. The only non-male elf, in a mint-green dress, looking so beautiful all who looked at her were left absolutely breathless.

"Arwen..." Aragorn gasped.

He couldn't believe what he was seeing, really couldn't. He hadn't seen her since the Fellowship had left Rivendell; a few months that felt like hundreds of years at times. Though he'd felt her, inside him, a number of times, especially after he'd fallen off that cliff, near Helm's Deep, when he'd almost believed himself lost. But to see her there in that moment, right in front of him, so close and so... real.

He took her hands in his, holding her tightly, trying to convey through touch and look all that he was feeling right then. He wished he could do more, yet knew it wouldn't be proper; and if there was one thing he would never do, is hurt his beloved Arwen in anyway, or besmirch her honor. Still, just holding her hands, and losing himself in her deep blue-grey eyes, even if just for one moment, was enough to make him feel better than he had in so long...

"Why...?" He had so many questions, yet couldn't find the right way to ask them. "How...?"

"It's been decided that the time for a last stand has come." Arwen declared, for him and for all of those watching them. "It began in Erebor and extended from there. None from the main royal line in Dale could take the place as leader of their own legion, but Prince Halbarad has as much right to lead them. And with King Kili, Queen Tauriel and their respective armies..." She smiled. "When they passed by Rivendell Ada (Dad) decided the time had come to make a stand against Sauron, once and for all. So here we are." She raised a hand to Aragorn's lips before he could voice any complaint. "I am not here to do battle. Though it was decided that healers would be as useful as warriors at this point. I am here as a healer, as is Lady Sigrid II (second daughter of Princess Tilda and Prince-Consort Ori) from Dale and Erebor; between the two of us we have all the healing knowledge from our three races, we shall do all we can for the ill and wounded."

Everyone nodded, feeling thankful already (and confused about the 'three races' comment... few outside Rhovanion were used to there being couples and families with mixed-races).

"If you are here who is ruling in Erebor?" Gimli asked suddenly, confused.

"Our Uncles hold the throne again, and Mother of course is there to help them." Kili said calmly. "Fili is too young still to be Acting King, but quite ready to deal with some responsibilities being Crown Prince, and Dáin has promised to take some of his best Warriors and provide back-up for the Lonely Mountain as well."

"Father?" Legolas asked quietly.

"King Thranduil shall stand with the rest of the army in Mirkwood, to honor the alliance with Dale and Erebor." Tauriel told her old friend kindly. "He gave me the temporary charge of Captain of Mirkwood so the elves would follow me this far. They shall follow you now."

"Captain of the Guard is your rightful rank, Tauriel." Legolas told him quietly but authoritatively. "Even if now you're also a Queen... I'd rather you continue leading the elves, as I shall stand with the Fellowship in the battle to come."

As one the Mirkwood elves all bowed their heads in acknowledgement of the order. As shocking as it might have been at first, sixty years was a long time, and they all had since grown used to Tauriel's change in status and titles. Some were quite sure that once the stress from the events and battle had passed, Thranduil would have received her back, had she asked, but by then Tauriel was already building herself a new home in the new mountain, with her match, and later on their children, no one could begrudge her that.

"So..." Kili began, sounding half-eager, half-anxious (though only those who really knew him noticed it). "What's the plan then?"

The others explained it then. Éomer, the Gondorian Captain and a handful of others who'd approached when noticing the new warriors in their midst and who were close enough to listen to everything kept waiting for one of the new leaders to blow a gasket at the absolutely insane plan being shared... it never happened.

"Alright." Kili nodded after sharing nods with his two companions and turning back to the remaining members of the Fellowship. "We'll march with you."

"Alright?!" Éomer blurted out. "Alright, that's all you have to say to their insane plan?"

"It's really no more insane than thirteen dwarves and a hobbit (Gandalf did not count as he kept leaving them) marching from one corner of Middle-Earth to another, looking to recover the old Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor from the claws of the last Great Dragon." Kili drawled. "We managed that... I'm sure we can manage this."

No one commented that not everyone had survived that quest, and Kili certainly wasn't crazy enough to believe they would all come out unscathed from what was to come... but he knew as well as Aragorn, Tauriel and a few others did that no matter how insane it seemed, a stand against Sauron needed to be done: for themselves, for Frodo, and for all of Arda.

"Sauron will suspect a trap." Gandalf stated, doubtful. "He will not take the bait."

"Oh, I think he will." Aragorn said, a plan already in mind.

"You're planning on issuing a challenge as a way to call his attention." Halbarad guessed.

"He hated Isildur, and even now he hates all who might belong to his line." Aragorn said simply. "He's wanted to kill me for many years now, being that I'm the only direct descendant left, he won't be able to pass this chance."

"That's not exactly true..." Tauriel murmured quietly.

That called everyone's attention instantly, though most turned to look at Halbarad, who at some point had been said to be his cousin.

"Not me." The Lord stated. "I may be a Dúnedain, but I'm not from that line."

"I meant me." Tauriel clarified. "My father, Dirhael, was the son of Arahael..."

"The second Chieftain of the Dúnedain..." Several of the rangers mumbled among themselves.

"My mother was Tawar, a she-elf from Lindon, which makes me Peredhel, like Lord Elrond and his kin." Tauriel explained in few words her family history. "After my father passed, and with the Dúnedain going back to their nomad ways, Naneth (Mother) decided I needed to have stability growing up, so we went to live in Greenwood. She was related to Queen Valadhiel. Legolas and I are actually distant cousins."

Aragorn nodded, even as he fought to grasp what had just been revealed to him. He had blood kin from his father's side, even if it was distant.

"I agree with Tauriel." Kili nodded, then allowed a mischievous smirk to appear on his face. "How do you think the Dark Lord would react if he were to see not only the last Heir of Isildur, but a lady of the same line, and the rest of the leaders of some of the most important Kingdoms of Middle-Earth ready to stand against him?"

"He would never allow for that to happen." Gandalf stated.

"Exactly." Aragorn and Kili nodded at the same time.

"He would have to take us seriously." Tauriel offered her two cents. "Come at us with all he's got, the full strength of his army, until Mordor is empty..."

"Which would give my littlest cousin the perfect chance." Kili added for good measure.

"Alright!" Gimli called loudly. "Lets do this!"

It was decided then. The combined armies of Gondor, Rohan, Erebor, Mirkwood, Dale as well a number of the best warriors from the Dúnedain tribe and Rivendell would be marching on the Black Gates, the time had come for the war against Sauron to end.

xXx

Many words were exchanged among the members of the multi-race army as they marched on their ways to Morannon, before the Black Gates of Mordor; especially between the leaders of said army, and the other remaining members of the Fellowship, and also of the old Company (of the Quest for Erebor) who marched with them.

They spoke of the many dwarven corpses the Fellowship had found deep in the Mines of Moria, including Balin in his tomb, and Ori, still holding his records, a Royal Scribe to the end... That part in particular had drawn a sharp breath from one dwarf, even as his One moved to offer what support he could.

"Nori..." Dwalin whispered quietly.

"It's ok, I'm ok." Nori lied, though he knew they all could tell. "I'm sure he's happy now, back with Tilda, where he belongs... we all know he never got over the death of his One. Much as we all knew from the very beginning they wouldn't get long. Fifty years was much too short a time, for all of us, but especially for them."

"Aye." Dwalin agreed. "The lass was such a bright jewel, at times I forgot she was human, that we would lose her so fast..." He shook his head. "You know that's why he chose to join Balin and Óin in Moria in the end, he could no longer be in Dale or Erebor, not without her... even the children weren't enough to get him out of his depression for long..."

"The kids..." Nori moaned. "How am I supposed to explain to them that Ori is gone? Sigrid is barely of-age, Blator not even that!"

"Sigrid is more woman than dwarrowdam, and an adult in her own right." His One reminded him. "And even if we can consider Blator quite young still at 31... he's not alone. He still has his older sisters, and he has you, and me of course, not to consider his uncle, cousins and everyone else in our insane extended family. If the lad ever needs someone, we'll be there. Just like Dori and you were there for Ori when your own parents passed."

It took some effort, but eventually Nori nodded. It was probably a good thing that no one had considered asking for news when they were still in Minas Tirith... at the same time, Nori thought that at least Aska wouldn't be surprised, she'd always been quite intuitive, and on the very day when Ori had left he'd heard the words she'd whispered to the wind, thinking no one could hear her. She'd said goodbye to her father, in the most archaic of manners, in Ancient khuzdul, a goodbye that wasn't meant for a relative going away for a while, but a permanent separation; she'd known even back then that she'd never see her father again.

"With all due respect." Éomer called quietly as he approached the group. "What makes you say that your friends would have met after death? If I understood correctly, they weren't from the same race... I thought each race had a separate fate after death."

For several seconds no one answered, though a number of people turned to look at each other, as if trying to decide who should explain that part.

"That's true for the most part." Tauriel chose to be the one in the end. "There's only one exception that we know of. There are vows, a set of wedding vows, to be precise. They create a bond that goes beyond anything, it goes beyond the marriage contracts some races use, and even the basic rituals those that truly love each other are willing to perform. It's a bond of the souls, so tight that even death cannot separate them. When, eventually, both have passed, one will follow the other in the afterlife."

"Is that true?" Éomer couldn't wrap his head around the concept. "Such vows cannot be common, I don't think. Then how...?"

"They're an ancient tradition from Valinor." Gandalf stated. "Few bonds have ever formed using those vows on this side of the Belegaer Sea. However, due to how tight the bonds formed by those vows are, they are perfect for interspecies-couples. It's been used by couples in ancient times like Melian the Maia and Elu Thingol, Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren Erchamion, possibly even Idril and Tuor... and in more recent times, Thorin Oakenshield and Bilbo Baggins, Kili son of Vili and Tauriel daughter of Dirhael, Lady Tilda of Dale and Ori Royal Scribe of Erebor..."

And, Valar willing, one day Aragorn and Arwen just might join that list.

xXx

It took several days, but shortly after Spring fully hit the land, the army arrived to the Morannon, where they camped for a night before taking the battle to the Black Gates. It wasn't easy, and more than one soldier was filled with dark thoughts of hopelessness and despair. Even though they'd all been volunteers, and had marched on that battle knowing fully well what could happen, it wasn't easy to stand where they were.

In the end, it was Aragorn who broke the uneasy silence, moving forward in his horse and finally fully embracing his heritage. As he stood flanked by a prince of Dale (and his own cousin and Herald), the King and Queen of Erebor, the prince of Mirkwood, the Lords of Imladris, the (unofficial) King of Rohan, the White Wizard and what remained of their Fellowship.

"Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth!" He could loudly. "Let justice be done upon him!"

At first it seemed like nothing would happen, and then the gates opened. Not much, just enough for one armored horse and its rider: a horrible, disgusting-looking creature covered in equally dark armor, too-wide mouth full of yellow teeth.

"My master, Sauron the Great, bids thee welcome." He rasped out in a very self-important tone. "Is there any in this rout with authority to treat with me?"

Kili bristled, but his wife, astride the same horse as him, placed a pacifying hand on his arm.

"We do not come to treat with Sauron, faithless and accursed." Gandalf stated strongly. "Tell your master this: The armies of Mordor must disband. He is to depart these lands, never to return."

"Old Greybeard." The Mouth of Sauron sneered. "I have a token I was bidden to show thee..."

When the mithril coat was pulled out the reaction was instantaneous, cries for Frodo came out of the mouths of the two hobbits ridding with Gandalf and Éomer, followed by vicious cursing in Westron, Sindarin and Khuzdul from almost everyone else present; and no matter how much Gandalf repeated for them to quiet down, it was useless.

"The Halfling was dear to thee, I see." The dark messenger smirked. "Know that he suffered greatly at the hands of his host. Who would've thought one so small could endure so much pain? And he did, Gandalf. He did."

Aragorn bristled with the almost imperious need to do something to avenge Frodo, eve as he refused to believe it was all lost. After all, the messenger had only mentioned one hobbit, not two, and it was like Legolas had said back in Minas Tirith... if Sauron had the Ring all of Arda would know it already, the Dark Lord wouldn't have waited to make it known.

The Mouth of Sauron turned his attention on him then, and the to-be King of Gondor was almost sure he would be mocked at any moment... except what came next wasn't that at all. No, instead it was the fall of the dead messenger, victim of several arrows and at least two throwing knives.

"Our prince is half of nothing." Gimli hissed at the dead messenger. "No hobbit is."

Merry and Pippin just smiled thankfully at the dwarf, even as Pippin kept tight hold over the mithril shirt the Mouth of Sauron had thrown at Gandalf.

"I guess that concludes the negotiations." Legolas drawled, smirking at his dwarven friend.

Aragorn knew without a doubt one of the knives had to be Gimli's. The archers were obvious enough, their bows still in hand: Legolas, Elladan, King Kili... though it was the origin of the other throwing knife that surprised him: Queen Tauriel. Then again, in hindsight, it probably should have been no surprise; with her position it would have been a bit hard to draw and fire a bow, knives were easier, and he was almost sure he heard her whisper something under her breath about having years of practice...

"I do not believe it." The Ranger stated eventually, turning to face his companions. "I will not."

"I agree." Kili stated. "We know Frodo... most of us at least. He's not the kind to be taken down easily... much as Uncle Bilbo really. He's still in there, still fighting..."

"And he still needs his chance to finish this." His wife added for good measure.

Everyone nodded, morale rising just enough for them to focus again.

And then it happened, the Eye turned its gaze fully in their direction, as the Black Gates opened fully and an army the likes of which none of them had ever seen, not even in Pelennor, began marching out. The leaders hurried back to their forces.

"Hold your ground!" Aragorn called loudly the moment he noticed the uneasiness in the warriors behind him. "Hold your ground."

The soldiers turned to stare at him as he spoke, even some of the elves and dwarves, there was so much fear and uncertainty written on their faces... and Aragorn wanted to wipe it all away, if only he could think of the right way to do such a thing... And then he remembered something, a conversation that had taken place what felt like so long ago, on a cooling evening, in Rivendell:

It had been late November, winter just beginning to settle in the land. The Fellowship had been formed for a while and that day had been spent in the exact same way as every other since: with the experienced warriors practicing their abilities and at the same time doing their best to teach the hobbits to defend themselves.

They'd mostly finished for the day. Merry and Pippin were sitting next to each other, their focus more on their joking than on following Boromir's instruction on how to keep their blades sharp. Sam himself was paying attention, though the doubtful looks he kept throwing at his own blade showed how much he didn't like it. Frodo was the only one completely at ease, methodically working on the knife one of his uncles had given him, to replace the one lost in Amon Sûl; he also had a short sword, Bilbo's legendary Sting (the Bane of Spiders, according to some stories), but that one was elven and thus did not require much maintenance at all.

The Dúnadan was still watching them when he noticed from the corner of his eye as the former King of Erebor, and one of Frodo's uncles: Thorin Oakenshield, approached.

"You fear for them." The dwarf said upon joining Aragorn on the viewing deck. "You doubt them, their right to be on this Quest."

"Wouldn't you?" Aragorn asked quietly. "Just look at them."

"I am." Thorin assured him. "And while I can see and understand where your fear comes from, I disagree with your doubts."

"Would you take them on a quest such as this?" The Ranger turned fully to him, trying to understand what was going through the dwarf's mind.

"I already have." Oakenshield told him quietly. "My own nephews weren't much older than Merry and Pippin when they joined our own quest, over sixty years ago... same as Ori. And while at least Fili and Kili had some training in battle, Ori had been so sheltered by his eldest brother Dori that he had no experience. And what could I tell you about Bilbo? He hadn't the slightest idea of the world beyond the Shire's borders and the pages of his books!" He shook his head. "And yet, they proved themselves, just like I knew they would."

"And how did you know they would?"

"Because they had the only things that truly mattered in the end: Loyalty, Honor and a Willing Heart... who could ever ask for more than that?"

Aragorn remembered those words in that moment, and as he did, he suddenly knew what to say:

"Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, and of all Kingdoms far in the north and the east, my brothers and sisters in arms." He called, loud enough to be heard by all. "I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of all races fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the World comes crashing down. But it is not this day. This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Free Peoples of Middle Earth!"

Speech finished Aragorn jumped off his horse, sending it away from the battle to begin, same did his friends, as they all got ready for the battle to begin.

"That was some speech, little brother." Elladan commented with a smile.

"Very inspiring, if I do say so myself." Elrohir agreed with a nod.

"Do you really believe in what you just said?" His foster-father asked, probably not because he had any doubts himself, he just wanted to know what Aragorn was really thinking.

"Honestly? I do." Aragorn answered with the barest hint of a smile. "I know it sounds impossible. And I realize this battle won't be won without a heavy price being paid... but I honestly believe we can and will win." He turned his eyes to the northeast before adding. "It's like King Thorin once said, we have everything that's really needed: Loyalty..."

"Honor and a Willing Heart." Kili, Tauriel, Gimli, Legolas, Halbarad finished in chorus.

Aragorn smiled, unsheathing his word and turning to the coming enemies:

"For Frodo..." The murmur was taken and repeated throughout the army like the quietest, yet strongest of battle cries.

And so, the greatest battle for the Freedom of Middle Earth began...