Horses were approaching fast, heedless of the darkness. Six horses, maybe seven. I was out of my bed before I heard Aragorn's voice bellow over the pounding of hoofbeats, ordering the watch to open the gate. Pausing only long enough to pull the shutters closed and get a sword in my hand, I ran for the door. Long experience told me the urgency in Aragorn's voice was not driven by pursuit – no Ranger would lead danger to his front doorstep – but the raw desperation in it sent a chill down my spine, as for the first time in my life I felt the panic of a mother protecting her children. If something planned on coming through that gate behind Aragorn, it would have to come through me as well.
Out in the courtyard, they were dragging two wounded men from horses. A chill ran through me - even in the darkness I knew the broad shape of those slumped shoulders, the languid wave of the hair on that bowed head. Dark shapes rushed past me, carrying torches and shouting orders. A few converged on the wounded while others surged forward to defend the gate, until Brandol called them back with a gruff "It's over."
Three of them carried Halbarad into the house, moving in discordant unison like some great, multi-limbed insect. On their heels followed another group carrying my husband's father. As I turned to follow them, a hand caught my shoulder. It was one of the sons of Elrond; in the dark I could not tell which one. "The time for swords is over," he said, and moved to pry mine from my clenched fingers. "There will be no pursuit."
I stared at him. "The time for swords is never over," I replied, and went to help the other women fetch bandages and water.
I found Halbarad pale, damp, and cool in the warm light of the fire, unmoving even at my gentle touch. A filthy, blood-soaked shirt lay beside him on the floor, and a sodden bandage bound his midsection. Aragorn sliced through it and peeled it away, revealing blood, flesh, and bone. "The blade nicked his liver," he said tersely, accepting a wad of clean fabric to dress the wound. "He has lost a lot of blood."
"Will he live?" I asked, my thoughts flying to my sleeping son, just five years of age, and my hand just as reflexively pressied against my belly, still flat but bearing the tiny seed of a new life. Halbarad did not even know yet about the baby, and I ached to imagine he never would. Among our people there were many fatherless children, and I had been one of them. More than anything, I had yearned to see my children laughing in their father's arms, knowing the warmth of his smile, the joy of his laughter, the security of his embrace. I wanted to imbue them with the lightness of spirit that lurked beneath his gruff and common-sense exterior, a lightness that could be crushed forever by the truth that waited in Aragorn's next words. "He will live," he answered, but I heard a hesitation, some uncharacteristic faltering of conviction in the normally confident voice, and looked to the peredhil beside him for confirmation. Only when the other nodded gravely did I give Halbarad's hand a last squeeze and go to comfort his mother. Already I knew, without being told, that she had received a different answer than I. All the bustling hands and urgent consultations centered on Halbarad, while nearby his father lay untended but for a light covering loosely draped over his scalp. What I saw when I lifted it explained why. No man could survive such a wound. As for the hunched, frail creature sitting beside him, silent and beyond comfort, I barely recognized her as my mother-in-law. Even more than the sight of Halbarad's father's head laid wide open, the sight of his mother diminished and silent terrified me. Sharp-tongued and stubborn Nelaer, as fiery and indomitable as Mount Doom, had never admitted defeat in all the years I had known her. Yet here she was, helpless to do anything but watch her husband's life drain away, knowing that no hands on Arda, mortal or immortal, now had the power to stop it. It seemed wrong to be listening as she held his hand, murmuring words meant for one who could no longer hear them, to intrude on the last moments of a husband and wife, yet I could not bring myself to leave her to face alone that bitter moment that approached as inexorably as the dawn.
Dawn and death both came, though dawn was slightly swifter. Wan sunlight had barely breached the treetops when at last, the lengthy pauses that had been gradually lengthening between spates of slow, stuttering breaths ended with one final, shuddering gasp. As the silence of death fell over the room, Nelaer sobbed once and bent to place a kiss on her husband's forehead. I could not help but wonder if Meneliel, at her side throughout the long night, secretly envied her those last hours with her husband, even as she comforted her, for such bitterness as Nelaer now suffered was a rare gift to a woman of the Dúnedain. Her husband would be laid to rest in the burial field just on the other side of the pasture, while Meneliel's had been left in a hastily dug grave somewhere in the wild. I wondered how it would be for Halbarad. Should he survive this wound and go back out into the wild, where would his grave lie someday – here with me, or in some bleak place in the waste?
A small voice behind me tore me from my dark speculation. "Mama?"
In an instant I crossed the room and scooped up my nightshirted son. Quickly, before he could see too much, I planted him on my hip and carried him into the kitchen, away from the sight of blood and death. "Shhh," I murmured, setting him down in a chair and smoothing the sleep-mussed hair from his face. "Everything is all right."
"Why is Granna crying?" he asked, twisting in his seat to see into the main room. "What's wrong with Granda and Ada?"
"Ada is hurt but he is going to be all right," I said. "Granna is crying because Granda has died." Alagos looked at me uncomprehendingly for a moment. "Granda is dead," I said more simply.
He absorbed this information for a moment. "Like Spike?"
"Yes, like Spike." The kitten, named for his wild shock of black fur, had run afoul of a fox a few months earlier and crawled home, dying. Halbarad had hurried to take it behind the barn and put it out of its misery before Alagos could see it. Then, once he had cleaned it up, he helped Alagos bury it with funeral honors worthy of Elendil.
My son's lip began to tremble. "I don't want Granda to be dead."
"I don't, either," I said, and I rocked him as we both cried. When he was finished I wiped his nose, made him some bread with jam, and took him with me to the henhouse to distract him while they removed my father-in-law's body. By the time I led him back into the house and put away the eggs, bright sunlight was streaming through the open shutters, belying the scent of death still hanging on the air. Meneliel had taken Nelaer back to her cottage so she would not have to see the men and Elrond's sons carrying shovels to the far field. Aragorn sat alone with Halbarad in the main room. His face was darkened by grief and by bruises that I had not seen by firelight, and as I studied him it seemed to me the years of his absence had fallen more heavily on him than us. He seemed older than his years, burdened not yet by mortal decay but by some great and terrible weight that I sensed would not be lifted from him for many long years. "He is breathing easily, Eirien," he reassured me as I knelt beside him with Alagos in my arms. "He just needs rest now." With my own eyes I could see it was true. Halbarad's face was pale, but the rise and fall of his chest was regular, and the bandage around his midsection was spotted with no blood.
"Is Ada going to die like Granda?" asked Alagos.
"No, sweetling," I answered. "Ada is going to be fine."
"Granda died," he insisted.
"Granda was hurt much worse. Ada is going to be fine. He is very tired, though, and we must be very quiet and let him rest."
"Ada, wake up!" he demanded, and the tears started to well up in his eyes again.
Aragorn reached over and lifted him into his own lap. "Your ada fought very bravely and needs to sleep a while, little Ranger. Would you like to help me clean his sword?"
As willful as his father, Alagos struggled to break free. "No!" he shrieked. "Ada!"
I reached to take him from Aragorn. "It is too much for him now. I'll take him outside."
I rose to my bare feet, realizing I was still in my nightgown, covered only by a shawl someone had draped over my shoulders during the long night vigil. Alagos was still sobbing, and as I tried to lead him from the room his wails turned to shrieks of terror. "No!" he screamed again. 'No! No! No! Ada! Ada! Ada!" To calm his throes of terror, I wrapped my arms close around his heaving little chest as I carried him toward the door.
"Eirien." Aragorn's measured voice caught me in my tracks. My heart leapt as he beckoned me with a glance at his patient. In two steps I was back at his side. "I think that did the trick," he said with a smile.
Halbarad's eyelids were flickering, struggling to open. His eyes wandered at first, as if he were unsure of where he was, but finally his vision cleared and his gaze came to rest on my face. "Now there's a sight for sore eyes," he whispered. I took his hand in mine and nodded, not trusting to speech.
"Ada!" screamed Alagos joyfully, and only Aragorn's quick reflexes stopped him from launching himself onto his father's battered chest.
"Hoy there, Captain," Halbarad said, putting all the strength he had into it. "What's all the yelling about?"
"Granda is dead," Alagos announced, and I winced. I had hoped to spare Halbarad this knowledge until he was stronger, but he looked up at me sharply and I nodded.
"Where?" he rasped, and I knew he wanted to know if his father's body been left behind.
"He was still alive when we arrived last night," Aragorn said, "but he died soon after. He did not suffer."
Halbarad's eyes closed briefly, then he opened them and smiled at Alagos. "Did you think I would die like Granda?"
Alagos nodded somberly, his lashes still holding a few last tears. "I don't want you to die, Ada."
Halbarad smiled. "I don't want to die either, Captain. I promise I won't die for a long, long, time." It was a foolish promise for a Dúnadan to make, though I knew Halbarad had long believed his destiny to be intertwined with Aragorn's. I hoped that he would live to see Aragorn crowned in Minas Tirith, as he had always desperately wished. He looked at me, smiling because he knew I disapproved of his ill-considered promise. "I promise you, too, beloved."
I squeezed his hand. "I'll hold you to that, Ranger."
Aragorn stood up and tousled Alagos's head. "I had better go check on the horses. Do you happen to know a big strong lad who can help me?"
Alagos looked worriedly at his father, but Halbarad pasted on a hearty smile and managed to wave him off without grunting in pain. "Go on, Captain. Maybe Elladan will let you ride his favorite horse."
"I don't want to ride a horse," Alagos said defiantly.
Aragorn looked at him thoughtfully. "Very well, then. What would you like?"
"I want a puppy," Alagos answered. "My kitten died and Brandol's dog is having puppies."
Aragorn winced apologetically in my direction, realizing he had walked right into a trap. He dodged it easily. "You'll have to take that up with your mama and ada, little Ranger."
With the native instinct children have for weakness, Alagos turned to my supine husband. "Ada, can I have a puppy?"
Halbarad chuckled, an act that he surely regretted. "Yes," he gasped when he had got his breath again. "Now go on, get out of here and leave me in peace."
Once we were alone his smile faded and he fell into silence for a while, grieving for his father, and I held him quietly, happy for the warmth of his body, the sound of his breathing. I badly wanted to tell him of the baby, to bring joy into this joyless day, but I held my tongue. Both Halbarad's grief as a son and his joy as a father required their full due, and should not be mingled in memory lest neither be clearly recalled. Later, though, after he fell asleep, I lifted his hand from the blanket and placed it against the flat of my belly. "Behold your ada, little one," I whispered.
They are gone now, both of them; father and son. I see that as I scan the column of approaching riders. This time, there is no urgency in their step, as when they departed; they trudge slowly, bearing every step of their journey on their sore feet. Since the news came from Rivendell that the One Ring has been destroyed, and Sauron with it, we have waited for this day with joy leavened with uncertainty. Now, in an instant, my slowly gnawing worry turns to heartbreak. At the head of the column rides my son Húrin, wearing two swords. My turn has come at last. My knees weaken and Meneliel grips me by the arm. "Steady, girl."
Falathren, my daughter, races ahead with her hair flying behind her, seizing her brother in a crushing embrace the instant his boots touch the ground. Others rush forward as well, men and women and children, with voices rising in joy and excitement, but I cannot seem to move. I think that in my heart I knew all along, but I could not bear to lose the last kernel of hope. The loss of it crushes me now, and I understand finally how Nelaer seemed so small and diminished in her grief. A snatch of his voice drifts across my memory, and suddenly I crave him so desperately I do not think I can take another breath.
A silence has fallen over the chattering crowd, and I realize they are looking at me. Pity is in their eyes; pity at my grief; or am I right to imagine it is mixed with resentment? Truly my grief must be an unwelcome guest at this gathering of joy. Even Brandol looks guilty, and with bitterness I see that he is as exuberant as the rest. Of course he is. For him, Halbarad has been dead for two months or more. The grief of the Grey Company has been steadily fading, while the promise of this joyous reunion has sustained them through the journey home and trials so bitter I can scarce imagine them. They will miss Halbarad, honor him, drink a toast to his courage and get on with the business of living. It is the way of life.
Húrin approaches me with tears in his eyes. Neither of us can speak, so I simply pull him into my arms and hold him as he cries silent tears. Finally he pulls away and straightens. "I am sorry, Mother."
I look at him, wondering when my baby grew into this tall, lean warrior. "You have nothing to be sorry for, child."
He glances down at his hip and unstraps his father's sword. As Halbarad's only surviving son, it will go to him, but custom demands that it first be presented to me, the widow. I take the hilt in my hands one last time now, this weapon I have lived with for as long as I lived with its owner. How many times did I scold him for leaving it lying on the bed or the kitchen table? I see that the grip is badly gouged, and one end of the hand guard is broken off. I draw the blade and find it snapped off near the tip. My stomach lurches as I imagine the final moments of my husband's life; draining away not peacefully in the arms of his loved ones but broken and bleeding on a muddy battlefield. "King Elessar offered to repair it," Húrin says, somewhat uncertainly. "I told him it will be kept in our family just as it is."
King Elessar. So Halbarad's dream has come true, after all. "You did right," I say, sheathing it and handing it back to him. "The time for swords is over." I look to Brandol and smile. It is indeed, finally over. He has earned the joy of this day and he will have it. We will all have it. I resolve for the sake of my husband's love of this people that as I once held back my joy to give grief its due, so now I will do the same for joy.
Later, Húrin presents me with another gift -- a drawing he made of Minas Tirith with the banners of the King flying high on the ramparts. He explains to me that he wanted me to see what it was his father died for, but I need no drawing for that. As I look at my son, I already know.