Author’s Note: The words in italics are direct quotes from the Return of the King, specifically RK-V-10 and RK-VI-4.
It was the 18th of March, a scant three days since the defeat of Sauron’s armies on the Fields of the Pelennor. A short three days, and the Hosts of the West were already on the move, marching towards the Black Gates of Mordor to challenge the power and might of Sauron the Accursed, the loyal lieutenant of Morgoth himself, the scourge of the Third Age of Middle-earth, the Dark Lord. A sparse three days of rest and recovery, but in these demanding days there was no time for further recuperation. The throw was now in the hands of the Captains of the West, and it was their fate to play that hand to its bitter end.
As Aragorn had recognized several weeks ago, and Gandalf surmised somewhat later, the Eye of Sauron had to be drawn out of Mordor, and Sauron had to be forced to concentrate his energies on the small but challenging forces of the Men of the West, the men of Gondor and Rohan, allies of old, and the Sons of Elrond, who came specifically to Minas Tirith to aid their brother in his quest to reclaim the crown of Gondor. With them also were Legolas of the Wood Elves, and Gimli of the Dwarves of the North, and Pippin the Hobbit of The Shire, now marching with the Dúnedain. A paltry group of fighters, hardly resembling the gathered troops of the Last Alliance, or the forces of Elves and Men at the end of the First Age, before the Gates of Angband. Sauron’s vision had to be focused on them, pitifully few in number as they were, and on the danger they offered to his plans, to give Frodo as much time as possible to achieve his quest. Gandalf and the others already knew, as Legolas had recognized much earlier, that there would be no more help coming from the Elves, Men, and Dwarves in their lands to the North, for the battle they were fighting here, perhaps the greatest battle of the Third Age, was not the only encounter of the War of the Ring: Sauron had long pondered his plans, and had forces ready to attack the Elves in Mirkwood, and the Dwarves and Men of the Lonely Mountain. Even as the assembled troops leaving Gondor readied for the attack to come, war was already being waged in those distant lands.
Riding at the head of the army of the Men of the West, Aragorn reflected upon the consequences of the role that he and his followers would play in the battle for the future of Arda. His early military training came from having been raised as a son by by Elrond, herald of Gil-Galad at the Battle of the Last Alliance, now the leader of Imladris and bearer of Vilya, the Ring of Air. In addition, Elrond had become a great healer, teaching that to the youngster as well. Aragorn would remember always Elrond’s great happiness when Estel manifested Eru’s gift of healing. Thinking about his upbringing, the early recognition of his powers as a healer, and the gift of healing by touch, Aragorn appreciated more than ever the gift of Ilúvatar that allowed him to touch the souls of others, and heal them. Elrond had trained Estel to finesse his healing gifts and achieve what only the greatest of healers could do: reach into the abyss of death, pain, and suffering, and recall those wandering there to health and life. To aid that, Elrond had taught Aragorn to use his greatest healing tool -- the rare plant, Athelas,*, known as Kingsfoil in Gondor. When used by the true High King, the herb could work against the Black Breath. Aragorn recalled the words of the old Loremasters: “Come Athelas! Come Athelas! Life to the dying in the King’s hand lying,” and scolded himself for forgetting to take some with him. “Athelas!” he thought. “Athelas! I will need some, I am sure. And I did not have time to collect some for my saddle bags before now.” So thinking, Aragorn began his journey out of Minas Tirith, to carry out the plan agreed upon by Gandalf and all the Captains of the West, dismayed only a little by his failure to bring some Kingsfoil with him. He would spend the night with the Men of West on the Fields of the Pelennor, before the mustering of the troops for the journey to Mordor on the morrow. Perhaps he could take a short walk and find some Athelas there, but as rare as it was, his odds of success were not great.
As he rode his horse through the ruined Gate of Gondor, Legolas and Gimli on another horse at his side, a young boy sprang suddenly out from the rubble surrounding the destroyed Gate, his boots skittering on the upturned blocks of broken wall. “My King,” he cried in his child’s high, timorous voice. “My King!” he repeated. Aragorn halted, as did Legolas and Gimli, and they looked at the boy, standing in front of them, trembling, with his hands on a small, leather bag. “It is Athelas, sir. It is Athelas, and I thought that you might need some more for your healing, after the battle to come. I gathered this for you myself, and wanted you to have it.”
As he looked at the boy, Aragorn remembered his name…Bergil, it was…and it was this boy who ran who knows how far through Minas Tirith, searching for someone who kept some Athelas in his cupboard - the Athelas that Aragorn needed to heal Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry. Aragorn remembered Bergil breathlessly running up to him in the Houses of Healing, as he knelt beside the bed of Faramir, bringing to him six leaves of Athelas, wrapped in a cloth, and he remembered the tears that Bergil shed, as he saw Faramir lying unconscious on his bed. But the gift of Eru Ilúvatar was strong in Aragorn, and though it wearied him more than most other Mortals could endure, he recalled Faramir from the pain of wounds, the black pit of despair and loss, and the emptiness of rejection. Aragorn remembered the joy of Beregond and his son Bergil, as Faramir awakened, and Faramir recognized him as his King. Yes -- this was Bergil, standing before him again, with Athelas in his hands, exactly what Aragorn had forgotten. Was this chance that brought Bergil to this place, or did Bergil heed a call from some unknown source? Did Galadriel see Aragorn’s need, or the Valar? Whatever the answer, Aragorn was surprised and thankful for Bergil’s loving gift. Reaching down to the outstretched hand of the boy, Aragorn grasped the small leather pouch, and tucked it into his saddle bags. “I thank you, Bergil, again. I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your care for others. This will help me in my need, I am sure. You are a brave lad to climb down to the destroyed gates, and a smart lad to gather for me exactly what I may need in the field. Stay safe and healthy, and return to your duty.” With the foresight of the Dúnedain, Aragorn suddenly had a piercing vision of Beregond returning to Minas Tirith, injured, but alive. “Do not fear, Bergil,” added Aragorn, as he looked again on the anxious boy. “Your father will return to you…and may the blessings of the Valar be upon you.” Spurring his horse, Aragorn, along with Legolas, and Gimli, resumed his ride to the waiting forces in the Pelennor Fields before them. An awe-struck Bergil watched them ride out, and Bergil thought that he saw his father in the distance, among the tall men of Minas Tirith, with the Halfling Pippin at his side, before he returned to the Houses of Healing.
And so it was, that seven days later, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the Host of the West found themselves before the Black Gates of Mordor. Perhaps to observe the niceties of war, perhaps to gain as much time for Frodo as possible, a small force of the Men of the West moved forward to parley with Sauron before the Black Gate. Along with Gandalf and Aragorn were Elladan and Elrohir, Legolas and Gimli, Pippin the Hobbit, Éomer of Rohan, and Imrahil, the Prince of Dol Amroth. When Aragorn was still a young Estel in the House of Elrond, his brothers had vowed that they would stand ever by their much younger brother’s side to support and defend him in what they realized would be the ultimate battle of the Third Age of Middle-earth, and true to their Elvish loyalty, Elladan and Elrohir stood with Aragorn before the Gates of Mordor.
Surrounded by a few mounted soldiers, Gandalf, Aragorn, and his fellow captains awaited the appearance of Sauron’s herald. Intently watching the talk between Gandalf and the Lieutenant of Mordor, Pippin could not help but cry out when that evil Messenger revealed Frodo’s mithril coat, the cloak that Galadriel had made for Frodo, and Frodo’s sword. But Gandalf seemed unmoved: “Where is this prisoner?” he asked Sauron’s servant. Momentarily speechless, the Mouth of Sauron finally replied that Sauron did not have to give any surety about the fate of Frodo. But the brief moment that Sauron’s messenger was at a loss for words was all that Gandalf and Aragorn needed to see. Seizing the three objects from the Messenger of Sauron, Gandalf rejected the terms of surrender offered to them by Sauron and thus committed the Men of the West to battle before the Gates of Mordor.
The Mouth of Sauron cringed in terror at the strong words of Gandalf and the stern and fearless gaze of Aragorn and the other Captains of the West, then abruptly turned with his guards and beat a craven, hasty retreat towards the safety of the Black Gate. Gandalf and the others turned and rode back to their small but proud host of warriors, where Aragorn gave thought to the disposition of his forces in the face of the onslaught that all knew would shortly be upon them. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Men of the West recognized that sooner or later, they would be overwhelmed by the forces of darkness. Only one thin thread of hope remained, slender as it was: it seemed clear that Sauron did not have the One Ring, for if he had had the Ring, he would not have bandied words with Gandalf at the Black Gate. With the Ring on his finger, and with his lust for power and dominance, Sauron would surely have already carried the day. If Sauron did not have the Ring, then who did? It was the weakest, most frail link in a whole chain-of-events, but perhaps Frodo was still alive and had the Ring. Even now, as the Hosts of the West prepared for the final battle-without-hope before the Gates of Mordor, Frodo could accomplish his task, and cast his burden into the fiery depths of Mount Doom. If that was indeed the case, then the warriors of the West could buy Frodo some time at the probable cost of their lives. With their sacrifice upon the slag heaps and wastelands north of the Black Gate, perhaps Frodo could achieve his quest, and the threat of the One Ring could be ended forever. The survivors of Middle-earth could live out their lives without the threat of Sauron hanging over their heads, the darkness would lift, and life unblemished could thrive once more upon the lands of the West. The last stand of the Men of the West would influence the fate of Arda.
Aragorn had already earned the trust and love of his followers, and the familial love of his brothers Elladan and Elrohir remained strong and unbreakable. Aragorn’s comrades-in-arms, Legolas and Gimli, had long ago decided they would stand with Aragorn to the bitter end against all the forces of evil; no deeds of the Enemy would change that now. Even young Pippin from The Shire had pledged his help to the Steward of Gondor, and his sense of duty to his vow, and his love for the Fellowship, gave him the strength to stand before the hideous forces of Mordor; he who had, until just over one year ago, wandered the paths of The Shire, innocent in his merry-making and unaware of the larger world beyond the Baranduin.
Speaking soft words of encouragement, Aragorn told Éomer and the Prince of Dol Amroth of his plans for the defense of the West. In light of their relative shortage of horses, and the presence of so many men on foot, it was obvious that the first wave of the assault must be held back at all costs from a defensive position. Beyond that, if they could somehow manage to master the first bitter assault, the Captains could reconsider their plans. Gandalf, his mind focused on the fate of Frodo and Sam, appeared beyond worry about battle tactics; his heart, long serving in the gardens of Nienna, and loyal to the leadership of Manwë and Varda, seemed wholly given over to the fate of his beloved Hobbits.
Dividing his forces in two, Aragorn asked Imrahil and Éomer to take the hill to the East, while he, his brothers Elladan and Elrohir, Legolas and Gimli, would stand with the Men of Gondor, Pippin and Beregond amongst them. It was the Dúnedain who would take the first assault of the fiends of Mordor in the defense of the West; it was the children of the children who had long fought against Sauron’s wiles that would bear the brunt of Sauron’s wrath. Barely given enough time to assemble their warriors, the hosts of Mordor, in a long-thought, calculated plan of attack, soon fell upon the beleaguered hills of the Men of the West. Aragorn took his place alongside his brothers, with Legolas and Gimli, and they stood in the forefront of the Men of Gondor. Pippin too was standing nearby, readying his heart for his moment of truth.
Aragorn had arranged the Dúnedain around the summit of his own hill, a slag heap. Standing alone atop it, Gandalf watched the battle. The Sons of Elrond, Legolas, and Gimli fought the surging swarm of Orcs and troll beasts, Variags and men from Rhûn and Khand. Embattled on the front lines of the shield wall surrounding the hill on which his standard had been planted, Aragorn glanced over to the other hill, a short distance away, and saw the standards of Dol Amroth and Rohan fluttering in the wind, as if in defiance of the hordes of Orcs and Trolls surrounding them. Beside him, his brothers Elladan and Elrohir fought on with fury unabated, savagely swiping at any Orcs that came near. Aragorn wielded Narsil reforged with deadly skill, as Elendil did of old, and his even more distant forebears in long years ago beyond count. and Legolas and Gimli were both scattered among the Dunedain, fighting off what seemed like inevitable defeat. But at least they had gained time: time in which Frodo could perchance fulfill his doom and destroy The Ring. Aragorn did not know where Frodo might be or even if he was alive, but fought on against the gathering dark tide waiting to envelop them completely. Against the utter despair of final defeat, the Men of the West stood strong, seemingly bereft of hope, but they had vowed they would fight on to fulfill their duty to their Lord, and so they did. More important, perhaps, they fought for what they believed to be the right.
Whether alive or dead, Frodo’s fate did not slow the onslaught of the attacking Orcs, no -- only the answer of cold steel, and barbed arrows made a difference now -- and Aragorn fought on. The clang of club upon shield, the clashing of swords, the shouts of Men and enraged orcs…these were the sounds of the battle before the Black Gate.
To his own surprise, Aragorn shouted ‘Aurë entuluva!’ just as Húrin, the elder brother of Aragorn’s distant ancestor Huor, did at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, and Aragorn gained strength as he did so. Soon the brothers Elladan and Elrohir took up his shout, as did Legolas and Gimli, and the host of the Dúnedain around them were soon singing the words as well. Imrahil heard him on the next hill and took up the shout. Soon all the Men of West were singing as one: “Aurë entuluva!, The Day shall come again!” Even the Rohirrim, unfamiliar with the Elvish language, took up the chant, and the ground beneath their feet resonated with the sound of their singing. Soon a mighty roar, the shouting of the Men of the West caused the orcs to pause in their merciless assault, remembering that call from days of old. Aragorn’s eyes blazed with an intensity that came from the glory of his forefathers long ago, that itself could stay the forces of Mordor. Like a bright star shining in the night piercing the gloom, his glance brought fear into the hearts of his dark enemies and joy to his friends. To an elf such as Legolas who had seen Aragorn earlier on their journey in the grasslands of Rohan with a flickering flame on his brow, Aragorn’s entire being was illuminated with a shining light, a white mantle of brilliance that seemed to come from the far-away West itself. Such was the grace of the Valar. Like Galadriel, Aragorn had passed the test.
As the hosts of Mordor surged forward, Beregond was felled by a mighty troll, and overcome…the great troll-chief that smote him down bent over him, reaching out a clutching claw; for these fell creatures would bite the throats of those that they threw down. Pippin, in a desperate effort to save his friend, bravely stabbed upward with his small sword of Westernesse, and pierced the vitals of the huge troll chieftain, who then fell dead upon him, overcoming the hobbit with weight and stench. The black tide seemed about ready to overwhelm all of the Men of the West.
Then came Gandalf's voice above the din, himself bathed in white light. “The Eagles are coming!” Had Radagast sent them? Had they heard of the battle in the South? Galadriel? The Valar themselves? Whatever the reason, they were here. His shout was taken up by all, and even as the Eagles began swooping out of the high airs, the Nazgûl suddenly turned and fled back to Mordor.
A sudden, desperate call from Sauron, an order to return to Mount Doom, compelled the Nazgûl to flee the field, and left Sauron’s forces without leadership. Suddenly bereft of the will of Sauron, his forces hesitated, witless, and the hearts of the soldiers of Gondor, the knights of Dol Amroth, the Riders of Rohan, and Elf, and Dwarf and Hobbit were lifted and lightened, and the embattled Men of the West became the attackers. Aragorn glanced up again, as over the roar of the battle, in a blood-red sky, he saw a sight to behold that would forever be seared in his memory. Looking up with him, the Men of the West saw a vision of a great tower falling, and a hand reaching out to them threateningly, but lacking any power.
“Stand, Men of the West! Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom.” As Gandalf shouted, all living things standing on the field stopped. In a moment that seemed to last forever, timeless, they watched. The Towers of Teeth slowly began to tremble and then with increasing speed fell. The entranceway into Mordor crashed down, the gates into the Black Land were torn asunder, and then the hordes of Mordor ran witless through the blasted heath of the Dagorlad. Just as suddenly, in the distance, a great roar went up, and the earth shook as a thick cloud of fire and fume from an erupting Orodruin forced its way upward into the air above the foul land of Sauron. This indeed was the hour of doom.
As he began shouting orders to his men, echoed by his brothers and all the Captains there assembled, Aragorn saw a great Eagle land before Gandalf. As he marshalled his forces, Aragorn saw Gandalf leap upon the back of Gwaihir, and together, along with Landroval and Meneldur, they lifted up into the sky, flying southwards towards Mordor at a speed outflying the Nazgûl. A thought occurred to Aragorn as his troops began to surge from their shieldwalls and attack the fleeing enemy, “Frodo. Yes – that must be it. All this could happen only because Frodo fulfilled his task, and destroyed the Ring. Perhaps Frodo and Sam are indeed alive, and in dire need of rescue. Would be to the Valar that it was so!” The battle raged on, but its intensity was lessened. Aragorn shouted to his lieutenants to love mercy, as they hunted their prey on the plains before the Morannon…the fleeing Orcs, the desperate men of Rhûn and Khand, the vanquished foe now reeling from the loss of Sauron’s power and will.
A little time later, still in the midst of organizing the battle around him, Aragorn thought that Frodo and Sam might be in need of succor if they were indeed alive, and Gandalf could rescue them from the ruin of Mordor. There would be many other wounded as well, and Aragorn had not forgotten to plan for such an event; included among the Host were healers from Gondor who could also wield a sword, until the need for their healing skills was at hand. Hastily calling out to one his men, Aragorn ordered that a tent be pitched nearby, to aid in the healing of the wounded, and, he hoped, the healing of Frodo and Sam. It was inconceivable to him that they were uninjured, having seen the tumult of the skies and felt the rumbling of the earth, as Orodruin erupted into flame, and belched forth ruinous lava and ash. Gandalf must get there in time. Of all upon the field of battle, Aragorn knew in his heart that it was Frodo and Sam who had fought the greatest battle of all. “I must be ready,” Aragorn thought, as he began to turn his mind to his role as a healer. Meanwhile, the battle still raged.
Standing alongside his brothers Elladan and Elrohir, Aragorn saw Imrahil and Éomer approach him from the adjacent hill. Nearby stood Gimli and Legolas, but Pippin was nowhere to be seen, nor was Beregond, his comrade-in-arms. “Éomer! Imrahil! It does my heart good to see you alive! How fare your men?” shouted Aragorn above the din of the surrounding fight. Taking quick counsel, they devised a battle plan, and quickly began to reorganize their forces. The battle raged on into the afternoon, and still there were forces of Sauron to subdue.