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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

Glorfindel stood before the NazgŻl, arms raised, in one hand his great sword and in the other a fiery torch. With his legs braced and his head thrown back, flames reflecting on his golden hair, it almost seemed as though he were alight with the power of the Maiar.

"By the Valar," Halbarad breathed. Aragorn could say nothing, for fear seemed to have frozen his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He felt his knees weaken, and he was only vaguely aware that Halbarad had slipped his arm around him.

"Aragorn?" Halbarad said, taking a step backward and pulling Aragorn with him.

Aragorn shook his head, trying to brace his legs as he fought off the filmy darkness that threatened to drop like a veil across his sight. Another staggering step backward, and finally he felt his mind clear. "Stop," he croaked. "This is far enough."

"Are you sure?"

He nodded. He pulled away from Halbarad and switched Elladanís sword to his left hand so he could dry the cold sweat from his right hand. Taking a firm grip once again on his sword, he watched Glorfindel face the wraith. He felt Halbaradís hand again on his arm, gripping it so tightly that Aragorn winced. He glanced at Halbarad and knew from his cousinís transfixed, terrified gaze that he likely was holding to Aragorn more for his own comfort than to help Aragorn.

Glorfindel took a step forward, then another, and as he circled the wraith, his face came into view and Aragorn saw wrath burning in the Elf lordís eyes. Glorfindel then started to chant and as his voice raised, Aragorn recognized the ancient hymn.

"O Elbereth Star-kindler

from heaven gazing afar

to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!

O look towards me, Everwhite!"(1)

The NazgŻl responded to the holy words with a ranting litany of fell words in the Dark Tongue, then swung his black sword downward. Sparks flew as Glorfindel raised his blade to meet it. Glorfindel then jumped back and circled, and the wraith circled as well. To Aragornís wide-staring eyes, it seemed almost as though Glorfindel was leading the wraith in some otherworldly dance. As Glorfindel continued to circle, the wraith feinted and jabbed, but the wraithís blade never came near him. Finally, Aragorn could again see Glorfindelís face, and he heard Halbaradís shaky chuckle.

"Bless me if that Elf is not enjoying this," Halbarad said.

Indeed, Glorfindel had a slight smile on his face, a look that seemed to say that he had done this before and was somehow both slightly amused and mildly annoyed to have to do it again. He kept circling until again his back was to Aragorn, and then suddenly, as though weary of playing games, he thrust the flame toward the NazgŻl. It let out a shriek that drove through Aragornís skull with all the pain of a orc pike. He bit back a scream and grabbed his ears, falling away from Halbaradís grasp to land hard on his knees. The sound went on and on and Aragorn thought he would shatter from its intensity but finally it cut off and when he dared open his eyes, Glorfindel stood alone, his sword lowered and the flaming brand guttering on the ground before him. The wraith was nowhere in sight. Aragorn pulled his hands from his ears and looked around him as a man emerging from a horrendous nightmare.

"It has fled," Halbarad said wonderingly. He reached down and pulled Aragorn to his feet. Aragorn could not help but see the way Halbaradís hands shook, but Halbaradís voice was firm. "I can feel it. It is gone. Glorfindel vanquished it."

Now that the overwhelming terror was fading, all Aragorn felt at that moment was his skull vibrating from those horrendous screeches. He pulled at his ears, opening his mouth to make them pop, trying anything to rid himself of the feeling that his ears were stuffed with wool. "He nearly deafened me."

Halbarad nodded as he tugged on his own earlobe. "Yes, that was certainly some howl he let loose."

Aragorn gave up on his ears and looked around at the dark street. "He does seem to have fled," he said cautiously, but he still felt... something. A menace still hovered, faint like a whiff of far away smoke or the sour smell of rain-soaked ash from some great blaze now extinguished.

"What is wrong?" Halbarad asked when he noticed Aragorn still held his sword at the ready.

"IĖ" he started, then stopped. "I do not know, other than to say that I do not think the NazgŻl is completely gone."

"You still feel it?"

Aragorn rubbed his chest, which still ached like a broken bone in winter. But was it simply an old ache or indication that the NazgŻl still lingered? It was impossible to tell. Weariness dragged at his limbs and he longed to find rest, but dare not hope for that, not yet. "I do not think we should let down our guard."

"Glorfindel might argue," Halbarad said, and indeed, Glorfindel walked toward them with the nonchalant air of one who has merely shooed away a stray dog.

But as he drew near, his eyes still glinted with such a deadly light that Aragorn had the sudden unlikely urge to fall back to his knees and cower out of the way. But Glorfindel smiled, putting his fist on his chest and bowing deeply. "My apologies for the noise," he said.

Halbarad threw back his head and laughed, a great ringing sound of relief mingled with joy, and Aragorn, despite his unease, found himself able to manage a grim smile. "We will try to overlook it," he said.

Glorfindel straightened and now, with nothing more dangerous than the joy of the Eldar shining in his blue eyes, said, "I do think Balrogs are quieter, on the whole."

Halbarad chuckled, but Aragorn looked past Glorfindel, trying to probe the shadows. "I do not feel the threat is completely gone. There may still be orcs about, although thankfully none were near while you fought the NazgŻl. We need to find my brothers and the rest of my men. Lord Glorfindel, I do not propose to wrest command from you after so freely granting it, but I would like for you and several others to follow the NazgŻl, to verify that he is indeed leaving these realms."

"Of course," Glorfindel nodded, all humor gone. He melted into the night as only the Noldor seemed able, and Aragorn followed him, Halbarad on his heels. They had gone a mere thirty paces when Halbarad let out a cry even as a whooshing noise†split the heavy night air. Part of Aragornís mind recognized the sound and categorized it as an orc arrow even as he ducked for the deeper shadows. Another hiss cut through the night and he heard a grunt behind him, then something slammed into Aragornís back and he was borne violently to the ground. All the air in his lungs abruptly vanished. Stunned, he lay silent and still, trying to decide if he had just been felled by an arrow. As sense returned, he realized he was unharmed, but a heavy weight had his legs pinned. He pushed himself up and twisted, looking behind him.

"No," he choked. "No, no, no."

Halbarad lay across his legs, an arrow sticking in obscene defiance from his upper back. Aragorn wrenched his legs out from under his friend and scrambled on hands and knees to Halbaradís side. "Halbarad!" he cried, heedless of the danger of drawing more orc arrows. He felt the side of Halbaradís neck and felt weak as the thrum of life pulsed against his fingers. "Hang on, my friend. Hang on. This is not your time." Valar help us, this is not... cannot be... your time!

Trying to stay low, he scooted around behind Halbaradís head and slid his hands under Halbaradís arms, tugging him deeper into the shadows. He was barely aware of Glorfindel flashing past, a grim shadow in the night. He heard the sickening squelch of blade cutting flesh and the dull thump of a body hitting the ground and prayed it was the orc that tasted death and not Glorfindel.

"Halbarad, can you hear me?" he said softly as he gently rolled Halbarad onto his side. He ran shaking hands over the front of Halbaradís body. The arrow had not passed entirely through him, a small blessing but welcome. "Halbarad!"

Halbarad let out a soft groan. A tremor shook him. "I hope you killed it, Strider," he ground out from between clenched teeth.

"It will shoot no more arrows from the darkness," Glorfindel said grimly as he dropped to a crouch beside them. He brought with him a torch. "The orcs seem finally to be gone, so I deemed it safe to risk a light. How is he?"

"ĎHeí is right here, Glorfindel," Halbarad growled, "And he feels like a firedrake is chewing on his back."

"Ever the cranky one when he is under the weather, is he not, Estel?"

Aragorn did not answer, for fear seemed to have a choke hold on his voice. Halbaradís hair had fallen across his face. Aragorn pushed it back, frowning. Even in the warm glow of the torchís light, the grey pallor of Halbaradís skin alarmed him. Halbarad groaned suddenly as he shook with a spasm of pain, and it seemed to Aragorn that he could feel Halbaradís pain in his own body. He swallowed hard, suddenly afraid he might be sick. He took a deep breath, fighting for the calm control of a healer, trying to push past the shock of this sudden devastating change in their fortunes. Forget that it is Halbarad. Forget that it is your sworn brother, your kinsman. Your friend. Concentrate only on the injury. A semblance of calm came over him finally and he felt gently around the arrow shaft. "The arrow seems perilously close to his spine."

"You two seem to forget I am right here," Halbarad gasped, his voice weakening. "Quit talking about me and talk to me."

"My apologies, my old friend," Aragorn murmured. "Can you move your legs and arms?"

He grunted in pain, but was able to move all four limbs. Still, Aragornís anxiety was hardly eased. A wrong move and it looked to him as though the arrow could shift and cut through his spine. It may have even punctured Halbaradís lung. Aragorn had no way of knowing, and if it had passed through a lung... well, that indeed was beyond his skill.

Aragorn turned to Glorfindel. "The arrow does not seem to have affected his spine," he whispered. "But I fear it is so close. Too close. I cannot try to remove it Ė I have not the skill, nor is there anyone between here and Imladris who does, even my brothers. But do we dare move him? Which is the greater risk?"

Glorfindel gave no answer, and the worry that haunted his eyes did Aragornís state of mind little good.

He turned back to Halbarad, noticing he was starting to shiver. He quickly pulled off his coat and laid it over him, careful to avoid the arrow. He looked again at the wicked shaft, wondering if the point was poisoned, wondering what to do, wondering how on Arda he could find the courage he needed to deal with this when fear for Halbarad so consumed him he could barely think straight. He sat back on his haunches and laid a hand on Halbaradís forehead. Whether it was the coat that warmed him or Aragornís touch, the shivering lessened. "Easy, my friend. We will solve this," he said, wishing he knew how.

He looked around, although for what, he did not know. He spied another arrow, one that was fired and missed its target, laying on the ground some distance away. He scrambled to his feet and retrieved it. He touched the tip lightly with a finger. "No poison," he said. "And likely the one in Halbarad is the same Ė their flights match. We can be thankful for that small favor, and the fact that as long as the arrow is in place, it is keeping bleeding to a minimum." He tapped the shaft against the palm of his hand. He had said he had not the skill... but if there were no other choice....

Perhaps. It would test his knowledge to its limit, and test the skills of his hands to their utmost, but he might be able....

He swallowed. He would need steady hands... two steady hands. He flexed his left hand, and then slowly raised his arm, holding his hand out. After only a moment, the arm trembled and pain started shooting down its length. His hand involuntarily twitched.

It was no good.

Fighting tears, he dropped his arm. Glorfindel looked at him questioningly, but he merely shook his head. It would be far too great a risk.

He took a deep, steady breath. Since he dare not remove the arrow himself, there was only one option. He shut his eyes, praying it was the right decision. "We must get him..." He stopped and corrected himself and looked at Halbarad, whose pain-filled eyes looked back at his with such unshakeable trust that an empty hollow yawned in Aragornís gut. He did not know that he could live up to that trust. "I am sorry. We must get you to Rivendell, somehow. I think only Lord Elrond has the skills you need. We will find a wagonĖ"

"No," Glorfindel immediately said. "A wagon would be too slow and jostle him too much. And you would be forced to go†all the way to the†Last Bridge to cross.†That would add days to your travel."

"But what other choice have we?† He cannot rideĖ "

Glorfindel raised his hand to silence Aragorn.† "Hear me out. Even cutting across the river here, using the ferry, and into the Wilds by the hidden trails, any ordinary horse would take two days, but Asfaloth is Elven-trained and nearly as strong as the Meara. He can take you there by dawn, even riding double, as long as you yourself have the strength to bear Halbarad."

Aragorn could not say for certain that he had such endurance, but he set his jaw. "I will find the strength."

Glorfindel nodded. "Asfaloth knows the way, and he knows you. And even at speed, he will know to set his gait so that Halbarad will not be jarred, and we will bind the arrow so that it cannot move. All I need do is tell Asfaloth to bear you and Halbarad swiftly and safely to your fatherís house." Without waiting for an answer, he let out a low, quavering whistle, calling to his mount.

Aragorn looked at Halbarad. "Do you think you can do this thing?"

"I have... little choice," Halbarad whispered. He shut his eyes, then added, "I trust you. You will get me to Rivendell."

Aragorn blinked away a sudden burning in his eyes and turned to Glorfindel. "Thank you, my friend. It is a gift beyond price. I will leave things here under your charge." Aragorn could not hold back a bitter smile. "Perhaps I would be wiser to leave the Dķnedain under your leadership than ever take it back upon myself. You have done far better than I."

"I will do as you ask, but believe me when I tell you I will be more than relieved to turn things back over to your charge. You are a fine chieftain, Estel." He reached out and touched Aragornís shoulder. "Do not lose sight of your worth."

Aragorn could not speak for a moment, then he cleared his throat even as he busied himself tearing long strips from Halbaradís tunic in order to bind the arrow more tightly against any movement. "I will not. Tell my brothers what has happened. They may want to follow, and that will be up to your discretion, but I dare not wait for them. Bronadui is not the horse Asfaloth is, but he will live up to his name and bear you as far as you ask him. Take as many of my men as you see fit and see to it that the NazgŻl is truly gone. "

"As you wish, Lord Aragorn."

Aragorn smiled fleetingly. Not "Estel" this time, but "Lord Aragorn." The Elf lord was anything but subtle. He was sure Glorfindel meant it as an encouragement, but any thought of his chieftaincy simply wearied him.

Asfaloth clattered up to them, a pale shape in the night, flowing with the soft music of the bells on his headstall. Glorfindel leaped to his feet to whisper into his ear. The magnificent horse nodded his head as though in agreement and pawed the ground once. He then turned his great liquid eyes toward Aragorn and nudged his shoulder gently.

"It will be as you say, Aragorn, son of Arathorn," Glorfindel said. Aragorn kept himself from wincing at the Elf lordís continued heavy-handed measures of encouragement. "Asfaloth is ready for you, as you can see. Let us get you and Halbarad aboard and on your way. Give Asfaloth his head and fear neither badger holes nor orcs nor wraiths. He will bear you to Lord Elrond without fail."

Aragorn nodded, his hands suddenly sweating. He had never actually ridden Asfaloth, and expert horseman though he was, the idea of riding an unfamiliar steed under such dire circumstances gave him a flutter in his belly. But there was nothing for it; it had to be done. He started to reach for Halbarad, but Glorfindel stayed his hand.

"Wait," he said, and knelt beside Halbarad. He bent low over him, and Aragorn could see his hand moving to Halbaradís back. He murmured something too low for Aragorn to hear, but immediately it seemed as though Halbaradís labored breathing eased. Glorfindel pulled a small bottle from a hidden pocket and held it to Halbaradís lips. That at least Aragorn recognized: miruvor, an Elven drink that gives strength to wearied limbs and refreshing to tired spirits. He realized he could do with some himself, and as if Glorfindel read his mind Ė a highly likely event, he thought wryly Ė Glorfindel straightened and held the bottle toward him. "Take a small sip."

Aragorn did, and the colorless and tasteless liquid warmed him and some of his weariness dropped away. "Thank you," he said and handed the flask back. "Halbarad, you will have to ride behind me. Can you hold on, do you think?"

Halbarad responded by trying to raise his arm, but he gasped and the arm dropped. "I-I donít think I can."

"Then we will put you behind Aragorn and tie you to him and you will lean on his strength," Glorfindel said.

Halbarad unexpectedly laughed.

"What amuses you, my friend?" Glorfindel asked, exchanging a puzzled look with Aragorn.

Halbarad kept his gaze on Aragorn. "I was... was supposed to tie you across a horse to... to take you to Rivendell."

"So you were," Aragorn said, but he could not bring himself to smile. He was barely able to speak.

"I have no idea what you two are talking about, but best you be going," Glorfindel said, then muttered under his breath, "The minds of Men are as murky as the Bruinen after a hard rain."

Halbarad laughed again, but his smile turned to a grimace as they knelt and eased him to a sitting position. Aragorn kept his hand on the back of Halbaradís neck, trying to keep any movement from jostling the arrow. But despite his care, Halbarad turned even more pale. "Can you make it?" Aragorn asked. "Did you feel the arrow move?"

"No, it seems to be holding steady." Halbarad took several breaths. "Give me a moment."

They waited and when he finally nodded, eased him to his feet. "Steady, Halbarad," Aragorn murmured. He left Glorfindel to support Halbarad alone and sprang into the saddle. As he pulled himself up, he felt a sudden tearing pain in the wound on his left arm, but he ignored it as he settled himself and reached for Halbarad.

With Asfaloth standing as steady as the Argonath, Glorfindel guided Halbarad to the horse and between Aragornís pulling hand and the Elf lordís lifting arms, Halbarad slung himself behind Aragorn. Aragorn felt him sag against him, heard Halbaradís gasping breath and felt his rapidly beating heart even through his vest and tunic. "Halbarad? Is the arrowĖ"

Halbaradís answer was barely above a breath. "It has not... not moved. You bound it well."

He clung to Aragornís waist, resting his head against Aragornís back, but his grip seemed perilously weak. Aragorn reached down to grasp Halbaradís arm, wishing he had the Elven skill of imparting strength through thought. "Hang on, Halbarad," he murmured, knowing the words were nothing but platitudes. Still, Halbaradís arm seemed to strengthen as it tightened slightly around his waist.

"Thank you," Halbarad breathed.

"Do not die on me and that will be all the thanks I need."

A movement of Halbaradís head told Aragorn that his friend had nodded. Amazingly, he almost fancied he could feel Halbarad smiling against his back. Perhaps I took too big a swallow of the miruvor.

Glorfindel fished out a coil of grey elven rope and shook it loose. "Lift your arms, Aragorn." Aragorn complied, wincing at another sharp twinge in the splinter wounds on his upper left arm.

Glorfindel swiftly tied a length around Halbaradís and Aragornís waists, then again around their chests, binding them securely to one another while avoiding placing the rope anywhere near the arrow. Halbarad remained silent throughout, although Aragorn could feel him trembling. Glorfindel tied a sure knot, then laid one hand on Aragornís knee and another on Halbaradís. "May the Valar give you swift passage, Estel Elrondion, and lend strength and grace to you, Halbarad Dķnadan. I will see you both at Rivendell and we will sing songs in the Hall of Fire and remember not the fear of this night but the victory."

With that benediction, he slapped Asfolathís haunch. "Ride as swiftly and smoothly as the wind, Asfaloth!"

_____

(1) Translated from J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Two Towers, "The Choices of Master Samwise".† I have taken a bit of license with the invocation of Sam's, borrowing it to use for Glorfindel's situation.† Here is how it appears in the book:

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel

o menel palan-diriel,

le nallon sŪ di'nguruthos!

A tŪro nin, Fanuilos!"





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