My sincere thanks to Docmon, who provided the beta edits for this story. Docmon, you are incomparable in your patience, your assistance, and your encouragement. Also, many thanks to Dreamflower who, upon reading the finished version of the story, noted a parallel that I just had to include. Many thanks again!
The Counsels of Men
Sunrise was a welcome sight, particularly to those who had spent many days beneath the gloom of a murky twilight. As the morning sun edged above the Ephel Duath, a western wind swept the remaining clouds from its path and cleared the skies above Gondor. Brushed by rosy hues, the walls of Minas Tirith glowed, and the snow upon Mindolluin's peak glistened. High above the Citadel, the blue and white banner of Dol Amroth waved its defiance against Mordor, and as though drawn by the swan-banner, seabirds circled the Tower of Ecthelion, calling out to one another.
Standing an arrow's flight from the City-gate, Aragorn watched the sunrise with both gratitude and grief. The morning might almost be pleasant, he decided, were it not for the corpses strewn about the Pelennor.
A quiet sigh escaped him and he brought his eyes down from the heights to gaze upon the evidence of yesterday's battle. Behind him, Minas Tirith rose like a great white monument over a sea of death. Workers had labored hard throughout the night, and thanks to their efforts, the dead immediately surrounding the City had been either burned or removed. But further afield, flies and scavengers were beginning to gather in droves. Mangled beasts and broken bodies lay in heaps, and the mist drifting in from the Anduin brought with it the stench of burnt flesh. The smell would only worsen as the day went on, for none in the City had strength or will enough to drag away the carcasses of the fallen mûmakil. They would have to be burned where they lay, and Aragorn's jaw clenched at the thought. Years ago under a different name and a different Steward, he had been forced to assist in such a chore. The memories were not pleasant.
But today was a day destined to have few pleasant memories. The hard-won victory of the Pelennor Fields continued to tax Minas Tirith. The City's resources were spent and her defenders worn. Many of those defenders would never wield a sword again. Aragorn knew this better than most, for he had labored long into the night tending to those who languished in the Houses of Healing. Some he had saved. Others he had not. When he could labor no more, he had retreated to the Pelennor for a few hours of restless sleep, but those stolen hours were not nearly enough to banish the throb of exhaustion that nestled just behind his eyes. Nor were they enough to banish the memory of those who had fallen.
His eyes drifted to the tents just outside the City-gate where the Gray Company gathered. The Rangers had managed to find and remove their dead from the Pelennor, and there was now a tent erected for their benefit. Or rather, for the benefit of those who mourned them. Little good it would do the dead themselves, and Aragorn closed his eyes. It was certainly not the first time he had lost friends and kin, but this felt different. They approached a day of reckoning when all their labors and choices would be judged. Either they would be found wanting and succumb to darkness, or their boldness would prove wise and Sauron would fall forever. To lose a dear kinsman so near the end of their struggle felt like a betrayal. It was as if fate had cheapened their efforts by denying so faithful a man the opportunity to see the outcome. And when that man was Halbarad—
Aragorn gritted his teeth and turned his thoughts elsewhere. He would mourn later. For now, he would conserve his strength against the greater battle yet to come.
He turned his eyes back to the blue skies, looking for hope in the western wind. But nearer at hand, his ears caught the sound of approaching feet. Reflexes honed over decades drew his hand to his sword, but then he recognized the soft murmur of voices and relaxed. The company of friends was a welcome distraction, and with a soft smile tugging his lips, he turned to greet Legolas and Gimli.
Sometime during the night, the two had found an opportunity to wash away the gore of battle. Gimli's beard lay clean and newly plaited upon his chest, while the blade of his axe had an oiled gleam to it. Legolas had braided his hair away from his face and somehow scavenged a fresh tunic. Both looked utterly out of place upon the bloodied Pelennor, and Aragorn's smile grew. "A fair morning," he called.
"It is indeed," Legolas called back, his bright eyes darting skyward. "It has been too long since we were afforded a sunrise, and my heart rejoices that you are able to see it. Mithrandir told us that you labored long in the Houses of Healing."
"There was much to be done there," Aragorn said.
"And doubtless much more yet to be done," Gimli said, casting a critical eye over Aragorn as the pair reached him.
"Doubtless," Aragorn agreed heavily, "but it will have to be done by others. I fear Mordor will not allow a long respite."
"True," Legolas said. "And to that end, we would beg a boon of you."
Aragorn frowned, hearing a strange note in the elf's voice. "Name it."
"Gimli and I ask leave to go up into the City and find these Houses in which you labored. We would see Merry and Pippin again, if that is permissible."
Still suspicious, Aragorn nodded. "Of course. But you have no need to ask for leave in this. The City is open to you."
"Given our initial reception in Rohan, we were uncertain if we should walk so boldly into Minas Tirith," Gimli explained. "And as we came in your company, we thought it best to seek your counsel ere we unwittingly embroiled ourselves in Gondor's politics."
"Dwarves and elves have not been seen here for many years," Aragorn said, "but much of the lore is still remembered. Many are taught concerning the old alliances when Gil-galad and Durin joined Elendil against Mordor. It may be that your coming will be seen as a sign of hope. No," he concluded with a shake of his head, "I foresee no trouble if you go up into the City. In fact, I would ask a boon of you in return. I wish to meet with the captains this morning, but I do not desire to enter Minas Tirith myself. The time for that is not yet come. Rather, I would have us gather on the Pelennor. Elladan and Elrohir returned earlier this morning, but Eomer and Prince Imrahil are both within the City. If you could fetch them here, I would be grateful."
"Mithrandir told us of your desire to convene a war council," Legolas said, "and we can certainly seek Eomer and Prince Imrahil. Eomer we know, but I am unfamiliar with the prince."
"You have probably heard his name in passing," Aragorn said. "Imrahil is the Prince of Dol Amroth, and he is charged with the defense of Minas Tirith until the new Steward recovers. I suspect that you, Legolas, will know him if you see him. His home lies near the harbors where the elves once maintained a haven, and his lineage is—distinctive."
"Then you may find him while I find Eomer," Gimli said to Legolas, who nodded his agreement.
"My thanks," Aragorn said. "I will await your return."
"You may wait long," Legolas said, and once again, there was a strange note in his voice. "We wish to visit with Merry and Pippin at length."
"There will almost certainly be a chance to do so after the war council," Aragorn said.
"There will also be a chance to do so during the war council," Legolas countered.
Aragorn frowned. "If Pippin wishes to join us and if he obtains the leave of his captain, he is welcome. But Merry should not yet travel so far."
Gimli sighed. "What the elf is trying—and failing—to tell you is that we do not plan to attend your council." He shot the elf an exasperated look. "I told you that I should be the one to explain this!"
"You do not plan to attend?" Aragorn echoed slowly, thinking that he had somehow misheard.
Gimli glanced at Legolas, who returned his look with a blank expression. "You claimed that you should be the one to explain this," the elf said, canting his head toward Aragorn.
Aragorn rubbed his brow, fighting off feelings of anger and betrayal. "Perhaps you might share with me the reasons behind your proposed absence," he said before Legolas and Gimli could distract one another.
With a grumble of annoyance, Gimli turned back to Aragorn. "These are not our lands, Aragorn, nor will they ever be. These are the lands of men, and your war council should reflect that."
Aragorn's eyes narrowed. "These may not be your lands, but this is certainly your fight. As the sole representatives of your people, your voices should be heard."
"Our voices are heard," Gimli said, and now his eyes darkened. "They are heard in the north." Gimli turned again to Legolas, gesturing for him to speak. "Tell him."
The elf looked away, his expression grim. "I stood upon the outer wall of these fields at daybreak," he said softly, "and I looked toward our homes. Even through the ash and dust of yesterday's battle, I could see smoke rising from Mirkwood. The darkness of Dol Guldur has never been greater. The trees burn, and in my heart, I feel the struggle of my people. And beyond those flames, further north, there is a thick haze about the lands surrounding Dale. War marches hard, and I have no doubt but what Gimli's people are besieged by Rhûn. Those are our war councils, Aragorn. Those are our battles. That is where our people are heard."
"But you are not with your people," Aragorn said. "You are here in the south. This is where your voices are heard."
"But our hearts lie with our people, as do the hearts of Merry and Pippin," Gimli said. "We are all strangers in a land of men, and as strangers, we can find understanding together that we cannot find elsewhere."
"Moreover, we must confirm for ourselves that both hobbits are hale," Legolas added with a hint of mirth. "For as Gimli told Mithrandir, they cost us great pains in the race across Rohan, and we cannot allow such pains to be wasted."
Aragorn folded his arms, still feeling betrayed and not yet willing to allow a lighter tone. "If your hearts are truly bound to the northern lands, then why do you tarry here? Why have you not returned to your people?"
"At what point should we have returned?" Gimli asked, suddenly indignant. "At the Fellowship's breaking, with Merry and Pippin in the hands of the orcs? At Helm's Deep, surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy? At Dunharrow, with darkness veiling all and Mordor's forces poised to sweep through these lands?"
"The choice to return was offered in Lothlórien," Aragorn felt constrained to point out.
Legolas and Gimli exchanged a look that Aragorn could not readily interpret. "There was no real choice in Lothlórien," Gimli said after a moment. "We were bound to the Quest."
"And it seems you have been similarly bound ever since, so I must ask if there ever was a choice?" Aragorn challenged. "And if not, then perhaps you are as bound to these lands as any that you might meet in the City. Perhaps fate has worked its will, and perhaps your voices are meant to be heard here!"
"If you wish to call it fate, then call it fate, for thus are we all here," Legolas said, and his voice took on a wistful tone. "But whatever you choose to name it and however we might be bound, a victory over Mordor will be hollow for us. For years beyond count, elves and dwarves have fought against first Morgoth and then Sauron, and for years beyond count, we have sacrificed too much. Even should we triumph, our people are too few and our strength too diminished for us to recover. For better or worse, our time in Middle-earth is at an end, and for better or worse, this is our last great battle. Your time now approaches, Aragorn. The time of men. And as this is a realm of men, it seems wise to let them fashion their own beginning."
"Or their own ending," Gimli added, smoothing down his beard. "But in either case, you do not need us."
"Do Merry and Pippin need you?" Aragorn challenged.
Gimli shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. But we need them. Hobbits see a hope in the future that both the dwarves and the elves now lack. I would remind myself of that hope, even if I cannot quite believe it." He paused and looked closely at Aragorn. "Have we an understanding?"
They did not. Aragorn knew what Gimli was attempting to say, but it was not something that Aragorn wished to hear. For this was no longer a debate regarding attendance at a war council. He was well aware that elves and dwarves had little time left in Middle-earth. That realization had occurred early in life when he and Elrond first came to grief over Arwen, and he had never forgotten the fate that awaited his foster family. Yet somewhere along the Fellowship's journey, he had ceased to associate this fate with Legolas and Gimli. Both had proven themselves to be stalwart companions, brave and undaunted no matter the danger, but more importantly, both had proven themselves to be loyal friends. To think of them now in terms of their fading people felt like a breach of faith. "Let us suppose that you are right," Aragorn said slowly, the words leaving a foul taste in his mouth. "Let us suppose that the elves and dwarves are fading. Does that not lend necessity to the council? Should you not have a voice in your fading? If men can fashion their own beginning or ending, should you not also choose the manner of your end?"
Legolas pursed his lips at that, his brow furrowing, but Gimli leaned upon his axe, his eyes suddenly weary. "We have chosen already. It was a choice made over the course of centuries, but it was a choice, nonetheless. The dwarves delved too deeply and were scattered, left to live out our days in Exile. The elves withdrew from the mortal world and wandered the memories of dreams, yearning for days that will never come again. And so our end approaches. It will either come to us through Rhûn and Dol Guldur, or it will come through the grinding march of days. But it will come, regardless. We made that choice long ago."
"But there are still choices before you! Still deeds to be done! Correct me if I err, Gimli, but did you not insist upon accompanying us up the steps of Orthanc because there should be a representative from the dwarves?" Aragorn asked.
"So I did," Gimli agreed, "for Saruman's betrayal violated the trust of all Free Peoples. It was only fitting that a representative from each race witness his judgment. But unless you are planning to violate the trust of all Free Peoples, we need not witness your council."
Aragorn frowned, feeling as though the conversation was slipping beyond his grasp. "I do not ask that you witness the council but rather that you lend us your wisdom. Elladan and Elrohir have agreed to attend for that reason."
"Elladan and Elrohir have a personal interest in the welfare of this land," Legolas said, "for unless I miss my mark, their sister's fate is bound up in it. Moreover, they have claim upon the future of men for a part of them belongs to your people. And if you truly wish for the counsel of the elves," he added, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, "then Elladan and Elrohir together might be considered one elf, for they are peredhil."
Only a wood-elf would entertain that line of reasoning. "Even if your addled wits believe that combining Elladan and Elrohir constitutes one elf," Aragorn said coolly, "of a certainty, it does not constitute one dwarf! And as our next journey may be to the Morannon itself, I do not wish to commit you without your consent."
"If it is our consent you need, Aragorn, then you have it," Gimli said, waving his hand as though in dismissal. "We followed you out of Khazad-dûm. We followed you across the plains of Rohan. We followed you onto the Paths of the Dead. And we will follow you to the Gates of Mordor, if that is where your path lies."
"But you do not need us to follow you to your war council," Legolas said. "At Isengard, we did not follow Gandalf and Theoden to speak with Fangorn, and it is likewise now. We will lend you what aid we can, of course, but the defense of these lands is best left to your own debates. And while you debate, Gimli and I will visit others who are not men and join with them for a brief time. For in truth, a brief time is all we have left ere we vanish from these lands forever."
And here Legolas voiced what felt like a second breach of faith, for now included in these fading races were hobbits. It was odd to think of them thus. Only a handful of hobbits had ever found their way into the great tales, yet hobbits had always been there, sturdy and steadfast. Now they were to be the deciding factor in this last struggle only to fade away once that struggle ended. Aragorn had known this when the Fellowship set out from Rivendell, but it now rose again as a grim reminder of what his friends faced. And it seemed to him that he should mourn for more than just the deaths of the previous day.
No, Aragorn could not gainsay Legolas and Gimli in this. Whether present by fate or by choice, they were not beholden to the men with whom they traveled. "Go, then," he said quietly, surrendering his will to the inevitable. "And give my regards to Merry and Pippin. I will visit them when I can."
"We will send Eomer and Imrahil to you when we find them," Gimli promised.
"And we will return ourselves this evening," Legolas added.
"I will want your counsel, then, if you are willing to give it," Aragorn said.
"You will have it," Gimli said, and he and Legolas turned away.
Aragorn kept his eyes upon them until they were granted entry into Minas Tirith. Both still looked utterly out of place upon the bloodied Pelennor, but the thought no longer brought a smile to Aragorn's face. As the two passed through the twisted remains of the City-gate, Aragorn distracted himself by wondering if Gimli's people had the skill to forge the gate anew. Or perhaps that, too, was lost. Perhaps nothing could be returned to what it was.
Alone upon a field of ruin, Aragorn turned his eyes away from the City and looked to the sky, resuming his search for hope in the western wind. But like many who had fought upon the Pelennor, the wind had begun to fade.