DISCLAIMER: Lord of the Rings is the property of the Tolkien estate, New Line Cinema, and Warner Brothers Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.

RATING: M (for violence, mentions of rape, dramatized scenes of war)

PERCHANCE TO DREAM

PART THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: NO MIGHTY CONQUEST

"Is he awake?" Aragorn's soft question was sufficient to draw his wife's attention. Arwen turned, rising immediately from a plush chair slightly aside from the bed. She walked briskly to him, and her eyes shone in worry. Aragorn hated seeing her this rattled and disturbed. She had borne fear under her stoic, calm mask for months, and he had not as yet grown acclimated to the tiny lines of concern about her eyes, or the thin press of her lips, or the swirl of fear and grief in her eyes. He missed her smile. He missed it terribly.

"Somewhat, my husband," Arwen responded. Her tone was hushed and tranquil, but Aragorn knew her so intimately as to detect the weaknesses that others always missed. She was afraid. In all the long years he had known her, rarely had he seen her frightened of anything. She possessed a soul that stood firm and bright in the face of the darkest shadows, endowed with her father's strength and her mother's determination. She did not idly express doubt. To see her now so shaken stabbed into Aragorn's heart a poisonous reminder of how desperate he had allowed this situation to become.

Aragorn glanced to the bed, looking over Arwen's shoulder. Faramir was unmoving upon it, swathed in thick blankets to combat the chill. The man seemed small and pale beneath the quilts. He was very still, and Aragorn found himself holding his breath expectantly as he watched intensely for the rise and fall of his steward's chest. Thankfully, it did so yet, though slow and labored. The roaring fire in the hearth bathed the bed in golden heat and set Faramir's lax face aglow. He seemed worriless, fearless mayhap. Between sleep and awareness. Despite the ghost of the horrible attack pricking at him, Aragorn still envied Faramir this respite. Peace was gone from him, and he did not know if he could ever reclaim it.

Éowyn sat beside the bed. Her slim shoulders stiffened as her husband moaned weakly. From this vantage, Aragorn could not see her face. Her hands were still red and chapped, though, as she stroked Faramir's limp fingers. The king's heart thudded painfully, and his chest constricted. Guilt pounded through him. As irrational as it was, he could not shake it aside. Legolas had stabbed Faramir, but the man's blood was not on the Elf's hands alone.

"You wish to speak with him," Arwen whispered, drawing his attention. Aragorn looked to his wife, struggling to compose himself. Arwen was apologetic, crestfallen. She was not questioning his intentions. He knew the glint in her deeply blue eyes. She was merely protecting her patient. "He is weak, Estel," she said in Sindarin, most likely for Éowyn's benefit. "He needs rest, and stress and fear will only make worse his condition."

He opened his mouth to contest her assertions, but he knew she was right. Faramir's condition was precarious, and slumber and proper care were essential to his recovery. The wound had been deep, and he had bled profusely. He needed sleep above all else, and filling his head with concerns and fears that would distract him would do him harm. Truthfully, Aragorn was not entirely sure why he had come to speak with his steward. He did not need Faramir's consent to believe in the timely information provided by the mysterious prisoner. In fact, he had decided to go through with their plan, to strike now when they could, and he had done so without Faramir's input. It did not, however, feel right for him to engage in this without his friend's knowledge. When all selfishness and anger disappeared, the fact of it was that this plot belonged to Faramir. It was product of the steward's cunning and intelligence. Aragorn could not simply assume a role not meant for him. He wanted Faramir's approval. He needed Faramir's strength.

But he did not have the opportunity to argue. A sound came from the bed. "Aragorn?" Faramir's eyes were opened to watery slits of weariness and pain, tiny creases of agony surrounding the darkened orbs. Sweat covered the man's brow, glistening in the meager light, and his damp hair clung to his flushed face. Dry lips were moistened before Faramir spoke again. "My King…"

The last of Aragorn's reservation dissipated in the blast of warm, nervous relief shooting through him. He made his way to the bed, stepping to the side opposite from Éowyn's now alert form. His knees found the floor, and his rough hands sought those of his friend. "I am here, Faramir," he declared quietly, struggling to steady his voice. He was tired of its incessant shaking. He drew a deep breath into his lungs, forcing himself to appear strong. He would not burden his wounded friend with his weakness. He would burden him no longer.

Faramir's fingers were clammy and sticky with sweat as they tightened about his liege's. The man was very ill, but his eyes feverish gaze gleamed madly with determination. It was obviously costing him a great deal of energy to maintain this tenuous grasp on the waking world, and Aragorn admired his friend's will. Seeing Faramir's pain troubled him terribly, but he would not succumb to his guilt or sadness. There was too much to be done and not enough time. "Legolas, my Lord…" Faramir rasped, those wild, desperate eyes fixated on Aragorn. "Legolas…"

The steward's breath failed him. "Hush, my friend," Aragorn admonished softly, tightening his grip on Faramir's shaking hand. Faramir's eyes closed and he licked his lips again, struggling to fill his heaving body with air. "I know."

And he did. Though Faramir could not speak it, Aragorn inexplicably knew his friend had shared in his revelation about Legolas. Somehow, Faramir had come to realize the nature of the Elf's destruction, the heart of his torture, the machinations of his prison. The king supposed he should have expected no less. Faramir had been seemingly aware of so much more than he since this nightmare had begun. The steward had perceived the hints of danger, the whispers of doom, that he had ignored. And even in great pain, it seemed, Faramir understood the complexities of this enigma in ways Aragorn could not begin to fathom. You are so much wiser than I, he thought sadly, fearfully. I do not know if I can do this without you.

"Something… has happened," Faramir whispered, drawing Aragorn's attention once more. The king focused his weary gaze upon his wounded friend. Faramir's eyes shone brightly with agitated interest. The man struggled to push himself up slightly in the bed, but his efforts earned him hurt, and he slumped downward in defeat with a short cry.

"Faramir!" Éowyn gasped, leaning forward to steady her husband. Her pale face tightened in anger, her blue eyes flashing madly at Aragorn. "He is not well enough for this!" she snapped shortly, laying her hand across Faramir's brow, which was wrinkled in agony. The woman turned an icy glare upon Aragorn. "You have done enough to see him hurt. He can aid you no more."

The words were quiet, but their softness did not mask their venomous accusation. They cut into Aragorn sharply, drawing warm blood from his heart, but in the icy pit growing about his spirit the heat was lost like a breath to a winter's wind. Never before had he heard such grief or despair in the lady's voice. Though aloof at times, Éowyn was never cruel. She spoke with only grace and control, and she did not seek to lay blame when action might be taken to right a sour situation. She was strong, detached so often from emotion, cool and composed when others floundered. Seeing her so stricken hurt him more than her hurtful words. Everywhere, it seemed, were the signs he had before chosen not to see. The signs that his kingdom was falling. That his friends were suffering. He looked away from her, unwilling to let her see how much she had hurt him. Surely she did not believe he had intentionally shirked his duties or that he had wished such misery upon her husband!

Surely she would not blame Legolas for what he had done.

Aragorn shuddered inwardly at the thought. He was not certain that he himself would not blame Legolas. Nothing about this was rational. Nothing.

"Nay, Éowyn," Faramir managed, his voice a hiss of his breath through clenched teeth. The woman looked to him, her lips pulled thin in a frown, but she did not stop him from pushing away her restraining hold upon him. The steward's face was locked into a tight grimace. "I must…"

Éowyn released a short, hot breath and looked away. A moment later she was standing, her dress swishing against the side of the bed, and she turned from them. The pain radiating from her slight form was nearly tangible for its blackening strength. Aragorn's heart throbbed as the waves of her misery slammed against him, but he would not topple. This was his chance to reclaim what he had lost, and he would be damned if he let that slip away.

"I see it, Aragorn. In your face. Tell me."

Faramir's prompting drew the king's wayward attention, and following that the words fled from his mouth. No longer did he hesitate, and the excitement that had crawled into his belly earlier returned to fuel his lips and tongue and heart. His voice was soft, but it thrummed with anticipation, reverberating with a pleasantly enticing hum in his chest. The vibration shook him to his core, and as he revealed all he had learned in the dungeon, the pain was dulled and the tantalizing taste of victory returned to his dry mouth.

When he was finished, Faramir did not speak. The steward's eyes were shut. Faramir breathed evenly, his head turned slightly to the side, and for a moment the king feared his friend had slipped into the comfort of oblivion. "Faramir?"

"The time has come." Slowly his eyelids parted, revealing the gray eyes beneath. The storm within them had calmed, the clouds parting to reveal a flicker of light. That light symbolized hope, freedom, and resilience. Restoration promised in the gleaming of the sun. The corners of Faramir's lips rose in a small smile. "Do you see?" He released a slow breath. "Finally… the time has come."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow, squeezing Faramir's hand between his own. "You believe?" he asked tentatively, hopefully.

Faramir's eyes closed again, and he swallowed. "I have faith," he said, "that we have found our way."

"Then I will go," the king declared. "I will vanquish our enemies."

Faramir nodded weakly, his eyes teary though not from fear or sadness. He managed to return the king's grasp. "I have faith," he repeated, his raspy voice made strong by conviction. "We have come now to the end. I see it, Aragorn… Our path. I see it. I dream it." A smile twisted the steward's dry lips, and his eyes glazed with a contented remembrance. "When the world was drowning in blood, I fell… And I saw our city. The banners that where once white and pure were covered in crimson, and the blood dripped like tears, like scarlet drops of rain upon our people from skies filled with the lightning and thunder of war. The streets were empty of life, crowded instead by the dead. The nightmare spread before me, and I feared that was our path." The words were soft, spoken without hesitation or fear. It seemed a strange thing to hear such a horrid description unveiled in a tranquil tone. "But it is not to be, for then I turned from this gruesome perversion, and I saw the truth. Our city, proud and whole again. Our nation, as strong now as it was in the glory of the Elder Days. Our people, safe and secure. Our friends… And the rain was no longer blood, but clear specks of crystal and gold, drifting from the boughs of a great, pale tree. The dead rose, shaking from them the pall of this nightmare. All had come to an end, and we were free."

Aragorn felt tears slip down his face. He swept his thumbs over Faramir's hands, holding tightly to his friend. His voice came as a timid whisper, a wavering hope. "This you have seen?"

"Yes," Faramir responded. "There is no reason to be afraid now."

They did not speak again for a long time. Aragorn felt weightless, lost in the waves of this silence, the echoes of Faramir's words pushing him about like the currents of the sea might a lost boat. He wanted to believe that the steward was right, that they were indeed near the end, but he was still afraid. He was still afraid that the nightmare he had had so many days past would prove true, and Faramir's twisting of that foul dream into a glorious triumph would never come to pass. He was afraid hope would betray them again, that to boast confidence now would be the final blow to them all. Still, beneath the swirling mesh of doubt, grief, and fear, the tiniest bit of faith had sparked to life, catching upon his heart like an ember blown onto cold, damp wood. It would burst into a blaze, given enough time to smolder and feast upon his anger. To feast upon this dream that Faramir had offered. And then, when the flames were warming him with strength and courage, he would defeat the nightmare he had once had.

For the moment, he doubted still. "And what of your plan?" he asked, his quiet voice resounding in the emptiness. "Surely we cannot still make use of it." Faramir did not respond. His eyes had closed, and Aragorn grew concerned. The king squeezed his friend's hand, unwilling to be left so unsatisfied and uncertain. "Faramir?" he prodded.

The steward drew a weak breath. Relief flooded through Aragorn, followed shortly by shame as he felt Éowyn's accusatory glare settle on the back of his head. "I am with you," Faramir murmured. "I… You must take my place, my king. Take the arrow and wound him."

Aragorn shook his head. He had predicted Faramir would adapt his plot as such, and the alteration did not please him. "You are not well enough to engage in this, my friend. You cannot possibly gaze through the palantír and do as we discussed."

But Faramir was adamant. He shook his head slightly, the corner of his mouth tipping in what Aragorn imagined was a reassuring, knowing smile. "You worry too much," he chastised softly.

He had not expected such a comment, and inexplicably it warmed his spirit and lightened the gravity pushing them down. He smiled. "A strange thing to hear from you," he commented. His rough fingers came to wipe away the wetness on his cheeks. "Were it not for your conscience, I doubt I would have lasted as king as long as I have. You, who meticulously minds every proposal I make to the council. You, who watches my words and actions even when I will not. You, who bears the drudgery of kingship while I bear the glory, who smoothes over the torn edges I create between myself and the advisers I despise. You worry enough for us both, my friend. You always have."

Faramir chuckled and coughed hoarsely. "If not me, my Lord, then who? I am steward. Such is my life." Aragorn grinned sadly. The camaraderie hardly sated his hunger for solace. As welcomed as it was, it could not make better this situation. It was an empty distraction, and they both knew it. "Fear not. Go. When the moment comes, we shall be ready."

"You are not well, Faramir!" Aragorn declared, a harsh note creeping into his voice. "You cannot–"

"I will," Faramir announced firmly, opening his eyes wider. "My body is weak, but my will is strong. He will not stand against it. Name the hour, Aragorn, and we will be ready. It is time we strike him. He dreamt, and he made it reality. We have dreamt, and now we must make it our reality." The king opened his mouth to protest further, but Faramir, as injured and sick as he was, would not have it. "Worry not for us. Go and fight him. We stand beside you."

Aragorn sighed. He did not respond to Faramir's assertions, for truly he was torn. He knew his duty, but his heart was tethered to this place and his friends. His family. He was king, certainly, and a king's responsibility above all others was to his people. Within a matter of hours Holis would stampede into Minas Tirith, and his nation would be open to the sundering of his violent ambitions. If they did not act now, they would lose whatever advantage they had secured. And it had come to him. Legolas was gone. Faramir was gone. The brunt of this disaster had finally fallen solely to him. Stripped of his friends, he would have to face this alone, and he would have to act the part he had before shunned. He was king. If he did not fight for his people, nobody would.

There was nobody left.

You cannot stand beside me now. I have forfeited the many hours in which you did to grieving, and now I must face this alone. He wondered idly if it was not meant to be this way. This was his test. He had conquered his share of obstacles in his life, rising above endless difficulties and seemingly insurmountable odds, but he had always done so with his friends and allies at his side. Gandalf, Legolas, Frodo, Faramir, Elrond and his sons… Arwen. There was no one now to aid him. This was not to say that he was utterly handicapped by solitude. The ones he loved remained with him still, but it was becoming increasingly clear to him that this was a battle he alone was meant to fight. Holis had not come for Gondor or for revenge or for Legolas, though Aragorn did not doubt such prizes were alluring to him. He had come to defeat Gondor's king, to destroy the hope of men and proclaim himself the best, brightest, and strongest. He had come to win and at any cost. He was a man of ambitions, and all ambitions ultimately led to the same objective: personal gain. Mayhap the emperor's convoluted plot was borne from a practical need. If that informant in the dungeon was correct, Harad could have never hoped to win an open war with Gondor. Subterfuge and deceit were, perhaps, its only means of victory, as Harad probably did not have an army large enough to contend with that of Gondor. Yet so much of it was excessive, just as Holis had said. Excessive and targeted at Aragorn's weaknesses. All that had happened to Legolas was testament. He had provoked Aragorn into this fight, cornering him like hunters did a wounded wolf. He had wanted a worthy adversary, an opponent to best and perhaps make real his ascension into divinity. Was Aragorn simply a means through which Holis could prove to himself his superiority? A challenge?

Legolas had been, in some perverted, disgusting way. And Faramir had been, too. Legolas had been a conquest of will. Faramir had been a conquest of intelligence. And Aragorn would be Holis' conquest of strength.

Is that what this is? Anger coursed through him, hot and hurtful. A fabricated quest for aggrandizing himself? For perpetuating the worth of his own existence? For validating these hollow ambitions with lofty ends? He narrowed his eyes, and his hands clenched tighter about Faramir's. He had taken Legolas and destroyed him, mind and body. He had defeated Faramir, twisting the keen steward into trading facts for fiction. And now he had stripped Aragorn of his friends and nation, leaving him to failure. He wished to dominate the king as he had the prince and the steward. If you wish for a fight, for a challenge, then I shall give you one!

"Aragorn?"

Faramir's worried whisper drew him from his thoughts, and when he looked again to his friend, he felt nothing aside from cold resolution. He would question no more. "When first light strikes the White Tower on the morrow, I will let loose our weapon. And you must let loose our vision."

The steward said nothing to this, nodding only and opening his eyes wider. Aragorn was tempted to ask in the quiet moment that followed what Faramir intended to show Holis to entice the emperor to ignore the Gateway. However, it was probably best that he remained oblivious. Should he be captured, ignorance of the nature of the illusion would prevent him from unwittingly or unwillingly betraying their cause.

Aragorn shook his head to clear it. Sacrifices needed to be made, for nothing of any value came without its risk, without its price. Faramir was right; Holis would come for Legolas. If indeed this war of his was little more than a personal test, he would not stand to have his victory torn from him. Given the proper incentive, he would come.

Faramir groaned softly, turning his head to the side. Sweat bathed his pale face, and his eyes had closed to slits. At the sound of her husband's pain, Éowyn was at his side instantly. Her face was stern and angry, but her eyes glimmered with weak hope. Surely she had not understood much of the conversation they had just shared as she had not been privy to the steward's plan. But even she, so hurt and traumatized by Faramir's condition, could not deny the allure of the promise made between the two men. Even she was not blind to what this meant. "Please, he has had enough. He must rest."

Éowyn was right. Faramir was slipping into unawareness, fever bathing his face in a terrible flush. Aragorn watched his friend a moment more, wishing it had not come to this but knowing deep inside that it could not have ended in any other way. He squeezed Faramir's hands tightly between his own. "When again we meet," he began softly, "all will be well. The wind will be clean, and our standards will again fly high and proud. When again we meet, it will be over." He rose and leaned over the bed. He took Faramir's face in his hands. "I swear to you, I will make this right. I will amend the mistakes I have made. I will stop him, this I swear. I will not let our city fall." He pressed his lips to Faramir's brow. "Or our people fail."

Then he turned away. Éowyn stood behind him, her eyes watery and her face white. Aragorn lowered his eyes as he grasped the woman's thin arms. He kissed her cheek tenderly before pulling her slight frame into his arms. She was stiffly a moment before she succumbed to the warmth of his embrace and hugged him as well. "Thank you," he whispered.

She rested her head against his shoulder, her face contorted into a weeping grimace. "End this, Aragorn," she pleaded, her calm tone twisted with desperation. "Please, end this."

He squeezed her against him. "I will," he swore. And he meant it. Whole-heartedly and unabashedly. For the first time in months, he believed with all his heart. "I will."


Though the night was dark and heavy, Minas Tirith was alive and bustling. In the great courtyard outside the Citadel, a grand mass of men had gathered at the call of their king. They stood, packed into the large area, and a low hum of conversation buzzed in the silence of the late hours. This was, after all, a strange and exciting occurrence. This was the first time since the siege had begun that their leader was addressing them. Though the soldiers knew not what was about to be proposed, they were wise and alert enough to realize their liege was about to finally take action. That Elessar, the man who had restored their kingdom, had returned to them.

Aragorn himself stood just inside the Citadel, his steely eyes gazing out to hundreds of soldiers awaiting his appearance. Around him the candles seated in their metal sconces flickered, bathing the foyer in a golden illumination. The light glinted off of his plate mail, the metal shining brightly even in the blackness of night. A white tree was engraved into its breast, its curling limbs spreading over his torso like fingers seeking to wrap about his heart and protect him. The seven stars crowned the top of the branches. He swept a gloved hand over the smooth metal. How had he ever forgotten the strength in those simple symbols?

There was a grunt of greeting beside him. He did not need to turn to identify the newcomer. Aragorn heaved a gentle sigh, his hand dropped instinctively to rest upon the hilt of Andúril upon his hip. "Are you ready, Master Dwarf?"

Another grunt, this one deeper and a bit longer. They stood in silence for a moment before Gimli spoke. "You are certain of this?" he asked softly.

Aragorn was not entirely sure of what it was to which the stout warrior was referring, as there were many matters, many decisions, that warranted uncertainty. When he had met with Gimli a few hours ago, he had explained to the other what he thought about Legolas' condition, what he had learned from the prisoner, and what he had decided to do. Gimli's emotions had ranged from anger to grief to fear, but the most potent and pressing had been fury. Fury that they had again been played the fools by Holis' seemingly endless gall. Fury that Legolas' malady was so cruelly based upon a simple illusion. Gimli had a great heart, and he exuded strength and courage no matter the darkness about him. Still, he was not so willing to blindly trust that fate would restore to them their "dream", as Faramir had proposed. So much of this plan was predicated on the initial timing. Assuming that all went well, and when the sun lit the White Tower Aragorn managed to hit Holis with their special arrow and Faramir at that exact moment managed to send to him their "bait" (laughable, considering the steward's condition!), they could only hope the emperor would believe this vision to be truth. They could only believe that the man would abandon reinforcing the Gateway to attack the Citadel. And, even if all of these events happened in their favor, they still could only pray that the army would return!

If the army was still alive. And if it could return at all.

"Yes," he answered. "Quite."

Gimli was not the only one not entirely convinced. "My Liege," Irehadde said from Aragorn's right, "I must protest." The Dúnadan's dark eyes glittered with doubt and anger as he stared out into the courtyard. The large man's form was stiff, his shoulders squared with taut pride, but his gaze was laden with obvious concern. He lowered his voice. "I must speak frankly. I know not the true substance of this plan you and the steward have concocted. It seems a frivolous venture, one that accomplishes little aside from toying mindlessly with our enemy. I will dishonor you with no falsehood, my Lord; I do not trust Lord Faramir. He seems a melancholic creature, too fettered by thought to ever see past an enigma to its ends." Aragorn raised his chin slightly. He was annoyed by the comment, though he did not know why. The loss of love between Irehadde and Faramir was no secret, and the two often made their dislike for each other blatantly obvious. "However, I do trust you, my King, and I believe in your judgment. If you see worth in this act, then worth there must be."

These words were heartening, at least. Then Irehadde turned and grasped Aragorn by his shoulders. The Dúnadan's dark eyes locked upon Aragorn's. "But I must say that you partaking in this venture is folly! Another can do this, my Lord! Another can leave the protection of the Citadel and risk himself as you propose! You cannot be lost!"

Irehadde's words were not without logic, but Aragorn could not heed his concerns. He no longer had that latitude. "There is no one else," he declared evenly. No one else. He has seen to it. And now I will face him.

His adviser said nothing more. The king had made up his mind, and the Dúnadan was not so brazen or foolhardy to argue with him. Darkly he narrowed his eyes and looked out into the courtyard. Gimli grunted once more, shaking his head. The butt of his axe was braced on the floor, and he leaned onto the top. Aragorn could tell his friend was weary, though he knew Gimli would never openly admit to his fatigue. "The lads are waiting, Aragorn," the small creature declared. Then he looked up.

Aragorn met his gaze. He wanted to smile, but his taut lips could not form the gesture. Instead, he drew a deep breath and stepped out in to the night.

The shadows swept down to greet him, immediately sucking him deeply into their embraces, rendering him helpless to their whims. His eyes struggled to adjust, for the skies were clouded and the night was awfully dark. He felt lost in it for a brief moment, his heart pounding madly in his chest. The crowd hushed at his appearance. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were suddenly upon him, some wide with surprise, with fear or dread. Others were narrowed into an angry glare, frustrated and disappointed. Most were simply interested, and tied into this was an undeniable sense of hope. It hung over the crowd of guards and soldiers, this tenuous faith. No matter how they thought of him, seeing him rise again bolstered their resolve.

Aragorn smiled ruefully. "Behold your king," he called, his voice clear but trembling slightly. He sighed, his breath forming a puff of vapor before his lips, his tension leaving his body. "Your king," he muttered disdainfully, looking down. He paused then, and the silence of the crowd slammed into him. He shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment against the storm of emotion within him. He did not know what he wished to say. He did not know if there was anything he could say that might restore to them their faith in him. "I have not acted it of late. I have not protected you, led you, as I should have. I have not been your king. There is no excuse I can make for my actions. There is no…" His voice cracked under his teary shame. He jabbed his teeth into his lower lip. "… punishment fitting for such a transgression. There is nothing I can do to erase the past or make better the course of the war to this point. What is done is done, and we cannot change it.

"But I stand before you now, repentant and restored. I stand before you now, unafraid and unwavering. I stand at this moment, looking behind me at the path I have walked. I see the mistakes I have made. I see them! And I know them for their ugliness. The ruts and holes and twists in this road… I know each in lurid detail because it was I who failed to avoid them! And it was my ignorance that permitted my heart such callous control over my feet. These things I can no longer deny. It has come to me now, in this dark hour, a greater truth. These things I can no longer deny because I must not! Guilt would bind my hands and take the words from my lips and the thought from my mind, and I would wallow in this as our enemies press tighter about our gates! They would chain us to the past and slaughter us as we struggled! We cannot allow that to occur! We must forget the path we have walked, and remember that which still lies before us!"

The silence was deafening, and Aragorn's words resounded in the courtyard. Snow was beginning to fall, quietly descending upon the soldiers present. It seemed almost misplaced given the gravity of the situation. "We must because the front moves ever closer. Within a matter of hours, the enemy will surge into our city." A dismayed murmur arose then, many of the warriors present glancing at one another. Perhaps they had not known how desperate the situation was becoming. Perhaps they had simply chosen not to see it. Whatever the case, hearing those heavy, solemn words from their king removed any possibility that such a conclusion was borne from fear and pessimism. It denied them any ability to refute inevitable defeat.

Aragorn released a slow breath and looked out over what remained of his forces. "They will come. They will surmount the Gateway and open its walls, and they will flood through our streets like water rushing down a mountain. They will cut through what remains of our defenses, and the only thing that will stop them will be the last gate, the final blockade. That wall–" Aragorn pointed to the other end of the courtyard, where the high walls of the seventh gate were just visible. "–will be all that stands between them and us. We must defend it. We must! They will come here, violently, viciously, and we will be the last of their challenge! We must defend our home!"

Silence. Aragorn gritted his teeth. "They consider us a mighty conquest. They deem us merely another obstacle in a path towards ultimate domination. We cannot allow them that victory! They have stripped us of our friends, of our allies, of our very strength, but we will not be so easily defeated! We cannot be! We are not their trophy! We are not their victims!" Aragorn raised his head and his voice. His words came quickly, and as they rumbled in his chest and roared from his lips, a new sense of courage and purpose grew within him. "Stand with me, my friends, and I will lead us to the end of this road. And it will not carry us to destruction or oppression! That is not our fate! We will not bow to cruelty or terror! We will not be their mighty conquest!" His hand fell to his side, his fingers grasping the cold metal of Andúril's hilt. His sword came free from its sheath with an echoing ring, and he held the gleaming blade high above him. "This is not our time to hide in the shadows and submit to the rape of our nation! We are no weaklings! We are no cowards! Stand with me and hold them back! Stand with me and defend our keep!"

The men erupted into a loud, enthusiastic cheer.

"We are no mighty conquest!"

Like waves the roar of agreement spread over group. It resounded off of the walls, rushing over them in a blast of euphoric energy. Aragorn stood before them, his sword held aloft as the snow drifted downward. He had been afraid, afraid that he would not be able to gain again their support. They were exhausted, wearied in mind and body, and he could barely expect much more from them. Still, he could never hope to accomplish his mission without them. He needed these loyal men, however few, to defend the Citadel. When Holis came, he would do so with whatever forces he possessed. There was less ground here, and it was familiar. Though only a few hundred troops remained, it would have to be enough. Perhaps their high morale would be their greatest weapon.

It would have to be because it was all they had left.

The king lowered his blade, and the soldiers continued to salute him. Then, once the cheering quieted, the sound of barked orders rose over the din. The lieutenants and captains were beginning to delegate their men to the defense. Aragorn felt a great, nearly debilitating pulse of relief roll over his tired body, and for a moment he worried he might simply collapse. This was the first step. It felt wonderful to act again, to make a decision and feel the excitement of movement. To know his people were again behind him.

To know they were strong.

He came back to himself, and he slid Andúril back into its sheath. He turned, his cloak fluttering behind him, and stepped back into the light and warmth of the crowded entrance. There he was met with a mess of men, many cheering him with renewed vigor and trust, seeking to take his hand or receive but a brief look. The adoration they had for him felt precious and powerful, and he basked in it for this short moment. He had missed this. He had nearly sacrificed everything for the sake of his rage. He had been such a fool!

He broke through the throng of people and found Gimli waiting where he had left him. The stout warrior still leaned upon his axe, but his eyes had softened. They said nothing for a long moment as the entrance bustled with activity all around them, the two friends seemingly oblivious to the chaos of this late night. Then the corners of Gimli's mouth twisted into a bushy smirk. "A mighty conquest?" he said in jest. Aragorn blushed and chuckled. "Kingly words."

The ranger smiled. "Would you expect any less?"

"From you? Nay. You have always excelled at rallying men behind you. It was your calling." They were quiet then, knowing both the meaning of this moment. The gravity of its implications weighed down upon them, testing the stoic strength they often displayed for the sake of those they commanded. They would part now, the two that remained of the lords and warriors and leaders who had before gathered. The war had come home. "And so we stand," Gimli finally said. His eyes were guarded, but Aragorn knew him well enough to see past the courage and resilience to the hidden storm of emotions. Anger. Fear. Doubt. Grief. So much of this misery they had weathered together. To separate now seemed impossible. After all, even through the darkest hours of the War of the Ring, they had been together. The man, the Elf, and the Dwarf. There was no path one had walked without the others. There was no trial one had faced alone. That had been a journey they had taken together, from the beauty of Rivendell to the horror of the Black Gate, and Aragorn had not anticipated at the time the depth of the bonds between the three of them would grow during their quest. Each step towards their destinies had brought them closer together.

But Gimli was not meant to walk this road with him. The Dwarf lord was meant for a different task. Holis believing their hoax would mean little if the Dwarves could not open the Gateway. "You will know when?" Aragorn asked softly. "And you are certain you can find your way?"

"Aye," Gimli answered. He grinned humorlessly. "You need not worry about us. We are Dwarves. We can certainly navigate a few dark tunnels."

An awkward silence returned, uncomfortable and tense. Neither wanted to acknowledge any finality in the moment. This was merely another night, another task, another battle. It would not be the end. Gimli grasped his arm firmly, the Dwarf's gloved hand resting upon the king's bracer. "Be safe, Aragorn," he said softly. "Losing the Elf was hard enough. I could not bear to lose you as well." For a moment, tears appeared to glitter in the Dwarf's small, dark eyes. Then he blinked, and the shining wetness was gone.

Aragorn laid a comforting hand on the stout creature's shoulder. "Do not fear, friend Gimli. I have no intention of letting this monster defeat me." He struggled to find his calm. "May the Valar go with you."

"The Valar?" Gimli repeated incredulously. He huffed, making a show of his annoyance as he pulled from the king's grasp. "Only if they are willing to crawl through the slop of your city!" Then he turned, rushing off through the crowd to face his own fate. "Where is the glory in that?" he grumbled as he quickly stalked away. "Only Dwarves would be assigned such a foul task as to pick through refuse and muddy water while an honorable battle rages about them! I know not why I do this. Truly, I do not! The Elf would never even fathom of dirtying himself so…" Aragorn watched him go until he could no longer pick the rusty red hair and short stature from the mesh of the crowd. A slow smile came to Aragorn's lips. For Legolas, Gimli. I know you will do this for him.

"My King?" Aragorn turned at the call to find Beregond waiting behind him. The man appeared terribly exhausted, his face pale and slack, his eyes outlined in darkness. His shoulders slumped slightly with surely some measure of depression in addition to his fatigue. Aragorn's heart twisted at seeing the man's guilt so openly displayed in his dismayed expression. To again see his ward greatly wounded had bothered Beregond greatly. There had been nothing the Captain of the White Guard could have done to prevent Faramir's injury, but guilt, a familiar monster to Aragorn, was not so subservient to logic as they wished. When Aragorn settled his gaze upon the other's face, Beregond lifted his chin and donned a mask of stoicism. "Your orders, my Lord?"

Those words prompted Aragorn to act, remembering again that there was not much time. "The Citadel must be protected. Station whatever archers remain upon the gate and in the towers about the courtyard. Have the infantry form lines parallel to the entry path; as the Haradrim enter, we will strike them from each side. That will create a bottleneck situation, one they will not easily be able to surpass. Hopefully we will diminish their numbers."

"Yes, sir."

"Blockade the main entrances. Tables, chairs, anything that could fill those hallways!"

"You believe they will breach the seventh gate," Beregond said softly, skeptically. Aragorn did not answer immediately, clenching his jaw. The man sighed, his eyes closing briefly. Fear fractured his face as he shook his head. "Sweet Eru…"

Aragorn continued, turning and picking his way through the crowd assembled. "Take the women and wounded into the Tower, as far as possible from the invasion point. Fill the corridors with furniture and debris. You must slow them by any means necessary. Fall back only when a position proves indefensible."

Beregond had not yet recovered from his shock, and Aragorn was losing his patience. He could not be certain from the other's blank expression and glazed, hopeless stare that the captain had heard his orders. He grasped the man's shoulders and shook him sharply. "Do you understand me, Beregond? You must not abandon this post!" For a moment the captain was still. Then he seemed to break free from his daze and focus gain on his king. Aragorn swallowed his relief, holding the man's gaze firmly. "This is not the end. We will not fight in vain."

Beregond nodded, regaining his calm, and Aragorn released him. The man straightened his beaten form, the lines of his jaw firmly clenched into grim determination. "As you say, my King, so it shall be done. They will not take this place!"

Aragorn managed a small smile. "Good. I expect no less from you."

"Yes, sir!" With that, Beregond bowed stiffly and then left to begin preparations for their final resistance. Guilt gnawed at Aragorn briefly. Was it right for him to offer hope through exaggerations, optimism, and likely lies? Who had vested him with such a power? The ability to give faith as easily as he had taken it away… The strength of such trust was dizzying. Perhaps a king and a god were not so separate. Both could create and destroy. Both could manipulate and mold. Both hid behind the hands and bodies and blood of those that served them.

King against king, god against god. Eventually the armies would fall away, the land would fade, and the countries would disappear. That time would come. Of that Aragorn was certain. And when it did, Aragorn would alone face his nemesis. Good and evil, dark and light. Man and monster. It would be decided then.

The king turned then and began to walk from the area. Again, though, he made it not a few steps before an interruption. A few of the black-clad Citadel Guards stepped out of his way, and he came before Irehadde. For a moment the two men simply stared at each other. Aragorn had known the Dúnadan soldier for a great many years. Irehadde, as gruff and forbidding as he was, was one of the few men left alive who had known his father, Arathorn. Truthfully, Aragorn cared little for the man's demeanor. He was quite conceited and all too eager to prove himself the better of any Gondorian. But beneath this arrogance was a loyal heart that sought what was right and good. He was true to his vows and strong in battle. He had come from Arnor with Elladan and Elrohir during the War of the Ring, and when the Ring had been destroyed, he had decided to stay in Gondor and serve his new king as he had Arathorn in years past. Though Irehadde often made mundane matters difficult with his haughty refusal to submit to another's orders, Aragorn was glad for his presence.

At that moment, though, he dreaded facing another round of the man's disparaging arguments. Thus he was quite surprised at Irehadde's softened expression and quiet words. "You are right, my Lord," he murmured, his steady gaze never leaving the eyes of his king. "You are right. We must strike now. We must."

Aragorn breathed heavily through his nose, relieved. "Will you stand and defend this Citadel?" he asked.

"No," Irehadde declared. His tone was low. "But I will stand beside you." He released a long breath, the yellow light of the candles glinting in his eyes. "You are my charge. I will come with you."

To say he was not surprised by the proposition would not have been entirely true. He supposed he should have anticipated that at least one of his lords and advisers would wish to accompany him upon learning of his plans to attack Holis personally. Of those that remained, for Irehadde to volunteer himself was most plausible. He was a Dúnadan, not a Gondorian. He held a greater duty to Aragorn than he would ever hold to Minas Tirith. In the past, he had had no qualms with reminding those with whom he worked about that fact. He would certainly risk his life protecting his kin before he ever sacrificed himself for this country. Still, Aragorn was reluctant to agree. This was something he needed to face alone. This was something he wished to face alone.

"I will protect you," Irehadde declared, stepping closer to his liege.

Somehow that simple statement was enough to convince Aragorn of the value in Irehadde's idea. He nodded, feeling a bit of his fear and unease dissipating. "We leave within the hour," he announced.

"I will be ready," responded the man sternly.

Aragorn nodded. Ready? I doubt that is possible. But he decided to think no more on this. There was too much to do to waste time on reservations.


An hour. Time had never escaped him so quickly. It had carelessly slipped from his fingers, grasping him and pulling him forward though he dug his feet into the ground. He did not want these moments to leave him. He did not want to face the path to which he was being dragged. His will wavered, though he repeated inside his head and heart that he had made this decision. Such a thing could not be reversed. Still, this resolution was good in theory but quite problematic to implement and maintain. This was not a decision beyond reversal. Many times as those torturous seconds had marched pompously away from him had he festered in misgivings. Perhaps this was not the best course. Perhaps this plan would not avail them. Perhaps he would better serve his nation by remaining in the Citadel to lead the defense.

But he knew this was not so. There was no turning back. This was right.

He had muddled through his final preparations. He had directed a bit of the evacuation efforts, helping to move the wounded to a safer location more interior. Then he had seen Legolas. The Elf had appeared to be resting comfortably under Ioreth's care, his face lax and his body limp in the restraints. Tears had threatened the king as he had knelt at his friend's side, his hands wrapped about the Legolas' cold, limp fingers. Elvish prayers had fled his lips momentarily, and he spent a great many moments silent. So many times in the past when the shadows had threatened had he stood in Legolas' presence, drawing comfort from the Elf's constant strength and silent power. Legolas, who never wavered, never showed his fear, never doubted himself or his friends. Legolas, his brother, the one who had always seen him for exactly what he was and loved him for that and that alone. Legolas was gone, and Aragorn missed him so terribly that his chest ached and throat burned. He had been gone before Emyn Nimîr or Cair Andros. That heinous poison had been stealing the Elf piece by piece for days, weeks, before they had even perceived the smallest hints of this nightmare.

No. Legolas had been fading ever since he had stood upon the shores of the Anduin and heard the crying gulls. Inexplicably, as he had sat there in the roar of the quiet holding his dear friend's hand, his mind drifted to thoughts best left avoided. The Undying Lands. The sea-longing. Legolas was young for an Elf, and he loved life with such a keen passion that only an acute suffering could rival that sensation and rip him from this world. Though he masked it well, Aragorn knew Legolas endured much for the sake of his mortal friends. It was not so severe to hinder him now, but the man was well aware that this was only the beginning. It would get worse with every day, every year, Legolas lingered. Inevitably he would be forced to leave.

It seemed a silly thing to consider something so utterly distant and seemingly irrelevant at that juncture, but Aragorn had not been able to help himself. He was tired and quite distraught, and his mind had wandered. As long as he had walked this earth he had done so with Legolas at his side. One day, that would end, and there was little he could do to stop or delay that. There was nothing so distinctly Elvish, so fundamentally true of their kind, as this final journey. They were not created to suffer, and they were not meant to remain in Middle Earth. Valinor called to them as clearly as the sea beckons its birds. It was as much a part of them as flesh or spirit, and it could not be denied. Not by mere men. Such a truth could never be altered.

Should Legolas somehow survive this, the agony and violation he had endured would surely drive him from this place. He would succumb to the calling within him. The sea would take him. The thought had driven despair deep into Aragorn's heart. Only with a great deal of will had he been able to wrench himself from his friend's bedside. He could not be fettered by these thoughts. He had kissed Legolas' brow, promised the Elf that all would be well, and then taken his leave. Had he remained longer, all the strength he had conjured to engage in this attack would have been crushed.

After that, he had returned to the meeting room to acquire their weapon. Nobody had entered the area since he and Gimli had rushed from it all those hours ago. The arrow had innocently remained upon the table, hidden in the blue swatch. He had wasted no time in taking it and placing it in his quiver. It was no longer worth his reverence or excitement. Those silly emotions had seemed proper and satisfying earlier. Now they were only shallow fancies that failed to make easier this burden. The arrow had felt heavy upon his person, weighted with a dark and dangerous purpose. No longer did it symbolize solely retribution and selfish gratification. Aragorn was not so strong as to completely disregard these feelings, but grander than them now was a calm, grim understanding. This plan was no longer simply about vengeance. He had climbed above that enough to realize such a goal would never award him with victory. Perhaps he might succeed, but it would be tainted. And in the end, he would only prove Holis correct: rage would be his weakness as well as his strength. In truth, that would be no triumph at all.

Urgency had beat through his heart as he made his way around the Citadel, and he had been terribly aware of time disappearing. Still, he had been unable to push his weary body into much more than a lethargic walk. All around him the Citadel had been rushing to prepare its defense. Tables and chairs, polished and pretty, were hauled unceremoniously from rooms, their shining surfaces becoming scraped and nicked as they banged into door frames and walls. These were used to fill the corridors, creating growing walls of debris that would slow the invaders. While the guards constructed these barricades, other servants helped the wounded move back to the inner areas of the structure. A steady stream of limping, panicked people had pushed through the congested corridors. Most had been solemn, accepting the frightful fact that this would be their last stand. The hallways had been filled with a hum of sound: shouting, scuffling, sobbing. Their world was coming to an end.

Aragorn had not been pleased with any of it, but it was beyond his ability to control. As he had walked those halls, trapped in a sort of forlorn daze, he found he could not remember a time when his home, when his nation, had been at peace. What sounds had echoed through these grand halls mere months ago? The maid's idle chatter? Laughter? Music? When the shadow had been gone, where had the light touched? Had there been a sense of contentment, of security? Even if they might win this fight, as unlikely as that seemed, pushing back the blackness seemed an impossible task. If they did so, would the world be uncovered as it was? Idealistic prattle. It could never be the same. This would scar his people forever. Like a festering wound morphing into a ragged scar, this moment would always mar them.

These dark thoughts were churning in his head as he reached the grand entrance to the Citadel. His feet carried him down the stairs swiftly, and the reverberating thud of his boots against the polished stone snapped him from his bitter reverie. He chastised himself. Enough of this! I need concentration now more than ever before. I cannot fail! Mentally he checked his equipment again, though it was foolish to bother. His sword. His bow and quiver. He knew from the familiar weight upon his back and hip that he was ready. He saw the open doors ahead, the light in the antechamber rendering the outside into a swirling abyss of impenetrable blackness and snow. He paused on the last step, drawing a sudden, deep breath. Once he stepped from those doors, he was committed. He could not turn back. Fear unleashed itself in a wild pang in his belly, and the cold wind rendered him static while the world blurred with motion all around him.

Now, in this most important of moments, he faltered.

"Estel?"

That soft, melodic voice drew his attention, and he looked down. Arwen stood there. Her large, blue eyes were watching him intently, worriedly. She had donned a heavy robe to cover her gown, and Aragorn noticed that quite a chill had seeped into the Citadel. Her pale face was placid, but he knew her so well. She was afraid. "You should not be here," he said softly. He stepped closer to her, laying hands upon her shoulders. "It is not safe."

"It is but a small risk," she answered.

They did not speak again. Gray eyes locked upon blue, a storm and the sea, chaos and calm. She glanced over his attire once, but Aragorn was quite certain she had perceived long ago his intentions. "You leave," she whispered. Though she masked it well, he heard the terror and sorrow in her tone. "You leave to face him."

He took her hands in his own, and lifted them against his chest. "I must," he responded. "It is my duty, the road I must walk."

He knew she would not argue with him. She was not so selfish, so untrusting, as to doubt his words. If this task was important to him, then surely it was important to the survival of Gondor. Even still, she suffered a great dilemma, a war of emotions within her. She knew as well that this was his test, that it had come to this inexplicably and no one was left to help carry this burden. She knew he was king, and as king, he would give his life for his country. That was his ultimate duty. But she was his wife, and she loved him without end, beyond any duty or station or destiny. He knew this quandary, because he suffered it as well. They would be parted now. As king, he would fight their enemies. As queen, she would protect their people. Love had little weight given those steep and undeniable responsibilities, and that left them both torn and yearning.

Such was the weight of leadership.

Yet knowing that fact did not make the hurt less or the grief insignificant.

Arwen bowed her head, the thick locks of her dark hair framing her beautiful face like sable curtains. "I know," she declared with a sigh. "But I do not wish it."

He did not sully the moment or belittle her feelings with a shallow commentary on the unfairness of life. She knew such things better than most. She had spent many years waiting, and when time had finally permitted her to choose, she had sacrificed everything for the sake of love. She understood well the cruelties of fate. She was stronger than him in most regards, and her strength in the face of matters unjust and hurtful was well beyond anything he could ever dream of emulating.

There was nothing to say to make this better or to change the way of things, so neither tried. Instead Aragorn drew her into his arms. He sighed, closing his eyes. "I am so frightened, my love." He squeezed her tightly. No matter how he tried, he could not keep from his mind the distressing thought that this would be the last time he held her. "I am afraid it will not be enough, that it is already too late, that I can do no good now–"

"And you would be a fool not to have those fears," Arwen reminded softly. She pulled back from his embrace, her soft, long fingers coming to cup his bearded face. "It is what makes you strong. They remind you of the price of failure, and that will tie you truer to victory than any ambition or dream. They keep you human. He boasts no such power." Aragorn sighed, resting his forehead upon hers. "And that is why you will defeat him."

The words heartened him. She was so strong, so pure, that often he felt low and inadequate in her presence. Often he had wondered what made him so fortunate as to be the one she loved. He did not deserve her faith, not after all the damage he had done these weeks past. But he was grateful for it all the same. War would come, ravage what it would, destroy and leave only desolation, but she would still love him. She would always believe in him.

He had forgotten what that felt like, too.

He leaned back to look into her eyes. "He will come here, Arwen," he whispered. "He will come inside our home. We cannot keep him out. You must take refuge. He cannot find you."

"He will not," she assured firmly. "Do not worry for me."

"And he must not find Legolas," Aragorn continued, his grip on her shoulders tight as though to press his panic into her. "He… he lusts after our friend. He will come here searching for Legolas, and what he might do to him horrifies me. Please, you must hide him. Take him someplace Holis cannot easily reach."

Arwen smiled grimly. "I will protect him, Estel. That monster will never touch him again."

It was too demanding to believe blindly in her promises, so he did not try. The thought of both Arwen and Legolas at Holis' mercy, subject to his cruel and sadistic whims, terrified him. Instead he swept her into his arms again, feasting his senses upon her and praying these lingering sensations would be enough to carry him through the darkness. Then he kissed her, passionately, powerfully. He never wanted to let her go, knowing this black world meant her harm, but he also knew that he must.

"I love you," he whispered, pouring his heart into the simple words.

She held to him tightly, wrapping her arms about his body. "I know. I love you, too."

He left then, because if he lingered longer, he would never be able to go.

Now he was outside, briskly walking through the dark, sweeping night. The snow was coming down quite heavily; already a blanket of white had covered the dead grass and stone. It was not untouched, marred by the falling of many feet. As the king reached the seventh gate, the number of footsteps decreased. The pandemonium of the Citadel faded away, the noise growing faint as he stepped through the gate without hesitation. This was his decision. He gave no more thought to it.

Irehadde was waiting on the other side of the gate. Though the night was terribly dark, Aragorn could see the other had donned plate mail. His sword was strapped to his side, but only the silver tip of the scabbard poked out from beneath his cloak. He seemed tense and angry. "The Gateway has fallen."

Aragorn stopped still. His heart ceased to beat.

"They have entered Minas Tirith."

Time had forsaken them, punishing him for his lassitude. His body tingled, a cold wind slicing into him. Those words rumbled through his stricken mind, echoing painfully in his skull. The Gateway has fallen. The Gateway has fallen!

They are inside the city!

Then he released a slow breath. Regardless of whether or not they were ready, their plan had been set into motion.

"Let us go, then. We do not have much time."

Irehadde said nothing to this. His form, outlined in shadow, was taut with rage and violence. He seemed a wraith doused in stars, the snow settling upon his armor. Aragorn nodded to him once before turning and continuing to walk. He narrowed his eyes. Despite the lateness of the night, the city was very much alive. He could hear the sounds of distant battle, shouting, swords clanking, men crying. Louder than this was the flurry of activity outside the Houses of Healing. Those capable of walking and withstanding the cold were being slowly moved inside the Citadel. Many were too injured in the recent battles to be moved, and, as such, soldiers were setting to heightening the defense about the building. Servants were rushing about under the dim light of the street lanterns, the ladies lifting their skirts so as to not drag them through the snow as they carried rolls of linens, quilts, and baskets of herbs and vials. It was a desperate situation.

Aragorn looked only a moment before shrugging deeper into his cloak and continuing on his way. The sight was distressing, and it was a situation in which he had no want to become involved. Irehadde was beside him, clinking softly as he stepped. "The city is in chaos," he murmured disdainfully. The king was irked by the irate grumble, but he said nothing.

"King Elessar! King Elessar!"

The excited, breathless call stopped him, and he pivoted to look back at the golden blur that was the Houses. Two figures were running towards them. One was a lanky young man, sporting chain mail and leather studded plate. On his breast blazed the blue swan of Dol Amroth. Behind him ran a young girl, and she was not dressed for the weather, sporting only a red gown with the sleeves rolled backward and secured at her elbows. Her dark hair flew behind her. As they neared, Aragorn recognized them immediately as Amrothos and Lothíriel, Imrahil's youngest son and daughter.

The young man reached him and drew to a short stop. His face was flushed from his sprint, his rushed breath forming short puffs of vapor before his lips. His wide eyes regarded his king. "My Lord," he said, swallowing and struggling to catch his breath. "You go to attack them."

Aragorn nodded. "Please, sir!" Lothíriel was beside him now. She appeared to have abandoned something midtask to run out, most likely to chase her brother. "You must stop him! He is not well enough!"

Amrothos spoke again before Aragorn could even begin to form words. "Let me come with you," he implored, a pleading tone in his voice and a fiery light in his eyes. Aragorn found it slightly strange. He had known this boy as a quiet lad, standing silently at his father's side, somewhat shy. The king was surprised to see him now demanding that he be allowed to partake in this attack with all the gusto of a hardened warrior. He would not have expected it from Imrahil's youngest son.

He had also not expected Amrothos to take an arrow meant for him. Amrothos had strength, vibrant life, and great courage. He would become a fine lord.

Still, he was only a boy, and this was no training exercise or game. "This is dangerous, Amrothos," he said softly. "It is no place for–"

"Please, my King," Amrothos said. The young man dropped to one knee, bowing his head respectfully. "I – I know I should not put this upon you. I have greatly overstepped my bounds, Sire, and I am sorry. But, please, you must allow me to help you. My brother is dead, and my father may be lost." Aragorn stiffened. "If I do nothing, I disgrace the purpose for which they have sacrificed. I cannot fail them, my Lord. If I am to die, I want to die fighting."

He was tempted to send the boy back inside. He was tempted to save this life, to shield it from the horrors of war and allow it some innocence yet. But he knew he could not. This boy had been made a man, for he spoke a man's words, carried a man's sorrows, and welcomed a man's duties. He had no right to demand Amrothos stand aside when he himself would have done no differently if the roles were reversed. And he could not very well deny the lad his wish when he had already once given up his life for his king.

"There is no need," Aragorn said softly, "to kneel before me." Amrothos lifted his head and met the king's gaze, and he rose stiffly as though surprised. He swallowed uncomfortably. "Come, if you wish. I shall be honored to have your help, but I can make no guarantee we will succeed or that we will even survive."

"And I do not ask for one," Amrothos said firmly. Then he hastily and nervously added, "My King."

Aragorn nodded slowly. Then he stepped to Lothíriel. She shook her head, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. But she lifted her chin before her king, strong and pale, like a flower in a driving rain. The king pulled from his shoulders his cloak, and this he wrapped around the girl's shivering frame. He smiled. "Go to the Citadel," he said softly, "to the Queen. She will need your help. Be strong." He did not say more, but she understood what had been left unspoken. I will protect him.

Lothíriel nodded, drawing Aragorn's cloak tighter about himself. She curtsied and turned to her brother. She as well cast propriety aside and drew Amrothos into a tight hug. A few whispered words were shared between them before they parted. Lothíriel did not leave, though. She stood, her white fingers grasping the fabric about her, tall and proud, unwavering as the wind whipped around her. The snow swirled and twisted, but she did not move, waiting for them to continue.

Aragorn glanced to Irehadde. The Dúnadan did not at all seem pleased to have Amrothos joining them, but he wisely chose not to broach the matter. Instead he merely turned, squinting as he looked down the winding, dark street. He began to walk again.

Amrothos came to stand beside Aragorn. "Thank you, my Lord. I will not disappoint you."

The king nodded. "I know," he responded softly, and his voice was nearly ripped away by the wind. The lad had heard him though, for his face flushed with pride. Aragorn clasped him on the shoulder once before following Irehadde.

The three companions trudged into the darkness ahead of them. They were unlikely, but such was the way of things. Race, age… these barriers mattered little to the bonds of fellowship. They walked, lowering their eyes against the snow, trusting their feet to carry them through the storm. The path might wind, hidden in snow and shadow, but invariably it would lead them to war.

Feet were heavy, but hearts were free enough to weather the gales and endure the night. Come morning, one way or another, everything would change. They would stand or fall. They would win or lose. They would live or die. Somehow these eventualities mattered little. Chance. Fate. Paths splitting before them. They could see nothing, and they were afraid. Only one thing was unequivocally true.

No matter the road beneath their feet, walking at all was a far better thing than standing still.