A/N: Many thanks to my beta's four: Inzilbeth, Suzll, Everleigh and Estelcontar. All characters and Arda itself, as well as the title to this story, belong to Professor Tolkien. I merely take them out to play now and then. Title taken from the passage that includes: "And Aragorn said to Halbarad, 'What is that that you bear, kinsman?' For he saw that instead of a spear he bore a tall staff, as it were a standard, but it was close-furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs." The Passing of the Grey Company, ROTK.
He gripped the furled black fabric as though he feared some evil claw borne on the wind would rip it away. The ship shuddered against the Anduin’s waters as the rowers battled against the current. The southerly wind helped their progress, but it also seemed to play with the ship, tossing it up only to drop it again, as though it were naught but a toy in the hands of a careless and capricious child. Or mayhap it was Ossë himself who whipped the water into white-capped waves. The ship tilted left, then swooped level again, and a young Dúnadan, face pale and pinched, staggered to the railing. With a barely stifled moan, he mastered his stomach, though it looked as if all might be lost the next time the ship lurched.
Halbarad watched him with no little sympathy. Valar knew his own innards were not pleased with all this constant, random movement. He swallowed hard and looked away. His own nausea was not entirely due to seasickness. Their journey through the Paths of the Dead and then the frantic ride from Erech, with the Dead of Dunharrow racing behind, had shaken him to the core. If it had not been for Aragorn’s grim and fearless will, he might have tumbled witless from his horse long before they reached Pelargir, so great had been his terror. That his hands still shook even now shamed him. Oh to be as steadfast as his cousin!
He took a deep breath as he rested his forehead against the staff. Now was the only time afforded to him to rest, and he knew he should take advantage. Another deep breath, and he finally shut away the memory of that ghostly horror, replacing it with one that, along with Aragorn’s example of steadfast resolve, had steadied him throughout this long, hard journey. ‘Twas a vision far more peaceful: a farm… his farm… tucked away in a green valley far to the north. On the day before he had left upon this journey, he had walked his lands and looked one last time at mist-shrouded hills that melted into the blue sky distance.
… The grass was soft beneath his feet as he strolled by the trees. He ran one hand along the stone wall he had built himself to keep the wilds away from the tamed land, remembering the placing of each and every stone. One here that he placed on top because it bore the ancient imprint of a perfect seashell; one there that glittered when the light struck it just so. The wall was straight and strong, built to last the ages. He stopped and leaned against it. The sun warmed his shoulders, and a gentle breeze carried the aroma of warm soil, sweet buttercups and, even this far from the cottage, his favorite scent of all: fresh-baked bread...
“You need to eat,” a soft voice beckoned from his right. The vision shattered as he opened his eyes to meet a bright grey gaze. “Here.” Elladan pressed a small piece of bread into his hand.
Halbarad looked at it for a moment, then shook his head. He would not eat this day. “Save it.” For those who will need it in the days ahead… but those words he did not say.
Turning from the sudden knowing sorrow in Elladan’s eyes, he checked the leather lacings on the banner. He had unfurled it, once, in the dark of night when only the phantom gaze of unseen eyes could behold its symbols. But upon claiming the ships, he had rolled it safely around its staff once more, lest the wind shred it before it waved again at the coming of the King to his city.
Elladan watched him tug each knot. “They will hold.”
“Aye. Until the appointed time.”
Elladan nodded. He gave Halbarad’s shoulder a squeeze, then left him to his thoughts of home.
… there came his grandchildren, running toward him, shouting in their race up the hill. He smiled at their antics. Then his heart leapt as he espied their beautiful grandmother hurrying after them. Miriel, his wife, laughing as the wind whipped her hair, still as black as the day he had fallen in love with her so many years before. Her eyes shone with love as she called his name…
He blinked, then immediately bowed his head. “My Liege.”
A smile briefly played across Aragorn’s face. “You need not call me that yet, cousin.”
“I shall call you my king before this day is out.” He tightened his grip on the staff, then turned a pleading gaze toward Aragorn. “I would that you would let me call you that now, ere I…”
Aragorn looked away, but not before Halbarad caught grief’s shadow momentarily darkening his eyes. “No, Halbarad. Not yet.” He put his hand over Halbarad’s where it still gripped the staff. He looked like he might say more, but in the end, he simply nodded once before rising to succor the Ranger bent over the railing, who had at last lost his miserable battle to seasickness.
“Ever the healer, even now,” Halbarad whispered. He looked up at the sky. The south wind had driven storm and rain away northward. Blue sky broke above, and sunlight played on the water.
… sunlight glimmered in her eyes as he reached for her. He touched her soft cheek, cupped her face along her jaw as he buried his fingers in the tangled locks of dark hair. He kissed her, and the children as one let out a groan of disgust. “Ew, they’re kissing!” little Halchur cried. He was Halboron’s youngest, only seven, and quite adamant that kissing was a horror second only to an orc invasion. “If you’re going to be kissing, we’ll go find mushrooms by ourselves!”
“Let them go,” she whispered.
“Let it go!” a voice called, and Halbarad lifted his eyes to the black sail unrolling above his head. It bellied with the wind, adding more speed to that plied by the bent backs of the rowers. The ship immediately surged forward. Its prow dug through the choppy waves, and a brackish spray of mingled river and sea crashed over the rails to run along the deck to the scuppers. Several men, including Aragorn, had to grab at the rails or lose their footing.
Halbarad stayed where he was, but he lifted the base of the staff from the deck to rest it atop his boot. He brushed droplets from the dark cloth. He hoped whatever dye Arwen used would hold up to a possible drenching. He looked beyond the bowsprit, to the river’s bend. Harlond lay just beyond, and upon its shores, battle and triumph, a crown and throne.
He rose, and Aragorn saw his movement and inclined his head. Halbarad hurried to the bow, where he climbed over the rail to stand on the base of the bowsprit. He would not hang the standard from the rigging, for, upon landing, he would need to quickly move it to carry before Aragorn onto the field of battle. For now, he simply thrust the base of the pole into the loops of rope he had fashioned into a temporary stanchion.
He waited, then, letting his mind drift one last time to the Northlands, to his grandchildren and his wife as they’d been on that bright shining day. From that moment through battle and night he had come, and around the river’s turn waited the assault that surely would keep his loved ones safe forever from the Shadow. All that was good and light would endure, the darkness wiped away.
“The darkness seems to have lifted from your heart even as the clouds have lifted to let in Anor’s bright light,” Aragorn murmured beside him. He stood balanced on the railing, one hand gripping the lines, as steady and relaxed as if he had lived his entire life at sea. The other hand he placed on Halbarad’s shoulder. “What fills your mind, kinsman, for I do not think the glow in your eyes was put there by thoughts of battling orcs. It is far too gentle, that look, lest you plan on kissing them.”
“My thoughts are of my farm. The children.” He laughed softly at Aragorn’s raised eyebrow. His cheeks colored. “And yes, I'll admit it. Miriel has been much on my mind.”
A soft chuckle. “A fair distraction if there ever was one.”
“No less so for me than the Lady Arwen must be for you.”
“Aye. They lend us strength, even from afar.”
They fell silent as the trees lining the river slipped behind them. A great winged bird with long trailing legs flew up from the banks, and for a moment, Halbarad watched it, ignoring the clamor of the men readying themselves and the horses. He let himself believe, just for a moment, that the war was over and Aragorn king of a realm where peace lay warm and comforting on lands here and to the north.
“It is nearly time,” Aragorn murmured, and the daydream ended. Aragorn jumped lightly back to the deck, where Denlad held Roheryn’s bridle and where Eledh waited with Halbarad’s mare and his own. Aragorn mounted, and behind him on their own steeds Halbarad saw Elladan and Elrohir, Legolas with Gimli, and beyond them those of the Grey Company who traveled on this ship. Fell and stern the gazes that met his, and strong the hands that gripped sword and pike, bridle and bow. Denlad, Eledh, Galadh and all the rest, their long days together come down to this last grim hour.
He saw Denlad’s eyes widen as his gaze shifted past Halbarad’s shoulder, and so he turned and beheld it: the great white city of Minas Tirith, rising above the trees as the Harlond hove into view. Bannered white towers soared proudly above the tiered walls. He marveled at the majesty of the place, the immense timelessness of it, as though it had been birthed from the plains round about it at the very same moment as the mountains against which it stood. As many times as Aragorn had told him of the beauty of this place, he found his imagination had done it a sore injustice. Truly this was the city of great Kings.
His reverie was shattered, though, by the clamor of battle, the sounding of trumpets and clash of weapons, the screams of men and beast. His heart lurched. Watchers on those far ramparts would see them, would see the ships approaching. They would behold the black sails, and their hearts would fail them.
He looked quickly back to Aragorn, who pulled his sword and lifted it. “Now, Halbarad. Now!”
Halbarad’s hands shook anew as his blood stirred itself for battle. He yanked at the leather straps, and as each one fell away, there settled a quiet assurance deep in his soul, a tranquility at odds with the pounding of his heart. All that had been foretold—the coming of the King, the falling of the Shadow—would come to pass. This great white city would not fall, and long leagues to the north, in the far green hills where he knew he would walk no more, his family and all the Northland would endure, prosperous and at peace.
The ship started to turn, and he smiled as he loosed the last binding.
The banner unfurled.
“…behold! Upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned toward the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.
Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor…” The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien.