My Aragon Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 16. The Evenstar
And her soft answer, "No," as she turned her face away. "I am no longer angry, but it is best put aside and forgotten. I am sorry." And she gently withdrew her hand that he had held captive like a wild dove.
Now what should I do? Try again? Give up?
Turning restlessly, he propped himself up on his elbows, letting the light cover fall from his chest as he gazed out the window. Pale light touched the green curtain of the trees; summer's sweet breezes filled his room with the scent of roses. Rivendell. On such mornings the child Estel would be out of bed before dawn, embarking on great adventures in the woods above the House.
Only three days earlier, he had made his way down the steep path into the Hidden Valley, panting with the weariness and pain of his long run from the Orcs. After the first greetings on the threshold of the House, fending off his mother's anxious questions, he had gone to the bathhouse and eased his travel-worn body into a steamy, oil-scented bath. Even his wound felt better in the clinging heat of the water. He soaked in the luxurious warmth, drowsy with the late afternoon birdsong and the gentle hum of bees. For the first time in many months he felt safe. He could put aside his weapons and armor and cast off fears of a knife blade in the back.
The depth of his joy and relief to be again in the Valley surprised him. No doubt the Dúnedain are right. I am too Elvish, at least to be at home in the Angle.
As the tension ebbed from his body, sinewy and hardened from the rigors of the road, the longing that he had guarded against and denied for so long overpowered him.
She had not joined the welcoming party awaiting him. Even as he cast an eye into the distance, hoping to see her, he told himself that he no longer cared. He told himself he had moved beyond this infatuation, for so he had determined it must be. But even then the protest rang hollow, and that night her musical voice, warm body and glowing face filled his dreams.
At his first sight of her at the feast, he found that his bitter anger had gone, melted in the heat of longing. Is it thus that women unman men? All his jealous rage now seemed petty and foolish. He would beg her to take him to her again.
What use is begging? He groaned again and fell back onto the bed, letting his hand drift to the polished wooden floor. What a fool I am. I could not have done it worse, there in the Hall in front of everyone.
He had promised to join Elladan and Elrohir in wrestling that morning, and he had no time to spare to shed the aftereffects of too much wine. Action would suit him best, in any case—the best antidote for brooding. He leaped from the bed, dressed and strode through the House, still quiet in the early morning, and down the green terraces to the river for a long swim. The water cooled his body and his heart, and he let the vigor of his powerful strokes take over, till all he felt and saw was the sparkling water and the blue of the sky above when he lifted his face to the surface for a deep breath.
He arrived at the practice yard with damp hair and eager will. Elladan and Elrohir, already stripped, were grappling in the packed-earth ring. Breaking their hold, they burst out laughing. "We've been placing wagers," grinned Elladan. "If you would come or not."
"And miss an opportunity to throw you? Never." Aragorn scoffed as he threw off his clothes yet again.
The brothers, too, were in fine form, and he put all his strength and skill into the practice, his wounded arm well bandaged against any hurt. Running sweat and the exhilaration of the match set his blood racing in his veins. For an hour they battled, trading partners while the third sat out to throw comments at the two wrestlers. Last to compete were Elladan and Aragorn, who circled, grappled, circled, but no victor emerged.
"I call it a tie," Elrohir said at last. "Leave off."
Panting, the sweat pouring down his face, Aragorn was glad to comply. He passed a towel across his wet face and hair.
"Have you been growing, Estel?" asked Elrohir. "Is it possible for a Man of your age?"
Aragorn scowled at him. "No, I am done growing, thank you."
Elrohir approached him and poked him solidly in the chest. "Maybe not in height, but I think—oof!" Aragorn punched him in the belly.
Hanging his towel around his neck, Elladan considered Aragorn closely. "I think he is right. You may not be taller, but you have put on weight."
"And gotten hairier, judging from the whiskers you sprouted on the road. So wise to have trimmed them back, or I would have mistaken you for a shrubbery at dinner."
"Or a laundry heap," said Elladan. "That ragtag Ranger garb! I would never have known my little brother."
Aragorn lapsed into a wise silence as their mockery went on. After some time in the steam baths, the three of them took horses into the woods. His brothers spoke of their months in Mirkwood—the darkening terror in the south, the pressing shadows in the mountains. Somehow they managed to talk of these grave matters while keeping up the nonstop teasing, moving from beard and clothing to his haircut, his swordplay, his horsemanship, his "Elvishness," his names. "What, yet another? Anborn? That makes four, I think? Estel, Aragorn, Anborn." "That is only three." "You are forgetting the Dúnadan."
Nothing escaped their brotherly banter—except the subject of their sister. Her name did not pass their lips.
Aragorn did not see her that day, nor the next. She could be avoiding him, he reasoned, but he knew that the Yavannildi were already harvesting the early grain, and Arwen would be among them. "The Lady has great skill," he heard one of the cooks say as he entered the kitchen to beg a tart from one of his old childhood caretakers. "The grain will be especially fine this year."
He made no attempt to find her—not after that impetuous, half-drunken wooing in the Hall of Fire. He did not ask after her, and no one mentioned the incident. But they know, and I know they know, and they know I know they know—but, Elflike, we do not speak of it.
On the third day, as he finished his last cup of morning tea in company with his family, Elrond appeared at the door to Gilraen's parlor. "It's a beautiful morning," he said, after they had exchanged greetings. "Would you join me for a walk in the garden, Estel?"
Dírhael stirred, and Aragorn sensed his effort to keep back his muttered protest, "Aragorn." Gilraen and Ivorwen stifled their smiles. From the look in Elrond's eyes, Aragorn suspected he had chosen the name deliberately. Such invitations from Elrond were usually the prelude to a talk of serious matters, like the day he had at long last learned of his true name and identity. It was characteristic of Elrond to allow his foster son time to rest and heal before talking to him of dark and dangerous matters.
They strolled through the grassy alleys to Elrond's herb garden, where Aragorn had spent many hours learning all that the master of Rivendell could teach him about the healing plants: their names and cultivation; how to cull them and prepare medicines; how to use them to heal wounds, illness and grief.
"I had wished to continue your training this summer," Elrond said, as he examined a valerian plant. "But it is not wise to undertake Elven healing when you are still recovering."
"The wound is healing fast," Aragorn said. "It has not kept me from sword practice or wrestling."
Elrond smiled. "I know well your fortitude and determination, but there is more risk than you know. It takes much strength to travel the pathways, and I do not wish to take you there at such a time. I would caution you again to use the skill in only the limited way that I have already taught you."
"I have had no cause to use the skill at all," Aragorn said. "Rather, I've been the patient."
"I know, and it troubles me greatly. Tell me about the battle, about Brelach's death, everything from the first news you heard of the Orcs near the Angle."
They sat together on a bench in the garden. As well as he could, Aragorn described the events of that day: Beleg's sudden appearance, wounded and distraught, on the bank of the river; the pursuit of the Uruks; the attack; and the panic that had struck him like a black cloud.
"What do you make of it, father? Do you believe, as I do, that it was some evil power?" He strove to suppress a shudder as the dread again seized him. But he could not deceive Elrond's clear sight, and his foster father laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"It has passed," he said softly. "But I fear you are right. But what? I don't know. Orcs do not have such powers; something else must be at work. The Enemy has many servants and weapons that are unknown to us. And now we have this news from Thranduil that the Ringwraiths have returned to Dol Guldur. It seems we gained nothing but false hope when Sauron was driven out more than ten years ago. Gandalf always feared we moved too late to truly weaken the Enemy. And it seems he has been proved right—Sauron is secure in Barad-dûr and his servants have reoccupied the old lair. There are rumors of Orcs and Trolls rampaging at will to the south of Mirkwood, and now your tale of an Uruk raid west of the mountains. I have sent messengers seeking Gandalf, who has been gone too long. We must take counsel."
"Gandalf! I have never met him."
Elrond laughed. "You will. I fear he will be annoyed with me that I hid you even from him."
Then he will be at home in the Angle, I guess. Aragorn snorted, avoiding Elrond's eyes. "He was not the only one."
"So I have heard." Elrond showed not the least bit of discomfort. "That's of little consequence to him! I, on the other hand, can point out that he has been so preoccupied with Dwarves and dragons lately that the Heir of Isildur has escaped his notice." Elrond's eyes twinkled briefly, but soon lost their humor. "Events will force his attention, I think. From what I have heard, I believe that Beleg was also affected by the strange power. I asked Hallor to send him to me for healing. It may be that I can learn more from him. And I would like very much to see him—he, too, spent some of his young manhood here in the Valley, in company with your father."
"Yes, he told me about it."
Before he spoke again, Elrond looked into his eyes with the penetrating gaze that Aragorn knew so well. "You, however, appear to have recovered completely from the evil, whatever it may have been. That may be in part due to the strength of the pathways. I do not know. It will be many years before we can know the full extent of your power."
"What can I do to guard against the evil, should I encounter it again?"
Trouble overtook the strength in Elrond's clear eyes. "I wish I knew. The Enemy is on the move. We should fear the worst: these were no stray Uruks, but his servants on some errand in the North. Maybe even the Ringwraiths will return. Sauron lost a great weapon in the North when the dragon fell. He will seek to forge a new one. And he will not cease looking for the Heir of Isildur. The danger to your life will not pass, but rather will grow. Take care, my son. Be cautious, and think well before you bestow your trust."
"Do you fear treachery then?" asked Aragorn with surprise.
"If I knew, then I would take action," answered Elrond. "I do not believe that the panic, as you call it, came from any weakness of yours, and I told Hallor and Ingold so. Already I have placed in your hands the finest sword you can carry, short of the reforged Sword of Elendil."
"My great-grandmother gave me the weapon that I used to kill the Orcs that trailed me in the Wild." Aragorn drew from his belt the dagger that Saelind had given him.
Elrond ran one light finger across the gleaming black hilt. "It's been many years since I saw one of these. It eases my heart that you carry it. Keep it with you always. Brelach's death was grievous, but he died doing what he was bred to do: protecting you. This more I can do: I will give you another horse from my stables, and you must ride him only."
An image of himself in his Elven finery, as he had appeared to the Dúnedain, mounted on a fine Elven horse, came into Aragorn's mind. "That is a handsome and generous gift. But I would accept only if you agree to keep the horse in your stable. I am the Dúnadan now, and I find I journey mainly on my feet. And I don't wish to take favors that the others don't have. You can no longer protect me, father."
Elrond sighed. "All too well do I know that. But you will always be set apart from them, my son. It is your destiny. I fear you have many lonely years ahead of you, and that you will not have the comforts of a home or a family of your own for many years."
Aragorn wondered if this was Elrond's gentle way of telling him that Arwen was not for him. He opened his mouth to broach the subject, but thought better of it. He knew his foster father well enough to see that Elrond wished to remain silent—at least for now—on this difficult subject.
He bowed his head. "All the same, I will leave the Valley on my own two feet, and ride a horse of my own people when I am among them. But I will not forget your words of caution."
Another day passed by, and yet another, and still he did not see her. From the talk in the House, he guessed that the bountiful harvest demanded all her time. She did not appear even at meals with her father and brothers—at least, not when Aragorn joined them. He lingered in the place in the woods above the House where they had met—not out of any expectation that she would be there, but to daydream, to hope. Almost he made up his mind to go to her quarters and demand that she see him, but he blushed with shame when he remembered the last time he had done so.
Here, in the mossy dell with its gurgling stream, he had first seen her—her hair loose and wild about her shoulders, her slender arms bare. He did not know her name, and when she told him, "Arwen," he did not know she was Elrond's daughter. Newly returned from the wild, he had heard only that a party of Elves had lately come from Lórien, and that the lords and ladies would gather for a welcoming feast that night.
He took this enchantress for one of the maids-in-waiting. His heart, already swelling with joy and pride at the new name he had just learned was his, leaped at the sight of such loveliness…a reckless bliss seized him, and there, at the edge of the small waterfall, trickling over the rocks into a golden-green pool, he kissed her. Against his chest her lovely body quivered like a taut bowstring, and she threw her arms about his neck.
"Will I see you after the feast?" he had asked, and she laughed, surprise in her eyes. "You will see me at the feast. I am the guest of honor. Did you not know?"
Elrond's daughter. She is Elrond's daughter.
That night, the laughing girl—the untamed dryad of the mountains—became the Lady of Rivendell, all dignity and poise, as serene and stately as the Queen of the Valar.
That clinched it. Her endless variety of mood and beauty would hold him in thrall forever.
At last he shook off the memories and took the trail back to the House. Ducking his head to pass under the bowered way into the orchard, he looked up—and there she was, her graceful form wrapped in a worn apron, her braided hair bound up in an old cloth, her arms around a huge sheaf of straw, and a smudge of dirt on her cheek.
He nearly collided with her as she struggled with her burden, sudden color flooding her face.
"Lady Arwen, may I help?"
"Thank you—but no—that is—"
And he realized that she carried reeds for the Yavannildi to make baskets—work that no man, Elf or mortal, should touch. "Oh, I see. Forgive me."
She bowed her head, and made as if to pass by him.
"Arwen—wait—I want to speak to you."
She stopped, and half-turned toward him, her eyes cast down. "I will be at dinner tonight. There will be plenty of time then for conversation."
"You know what I mean."
She stood there, silent, for a moment, raising her grave eyes to his face over the golden mass of straw. "Please, just let it be. It is best forgotten."
"I don't think so."
She pressed her lips together and turned her head away. "It will only make things worse. Must you insist on this?"
"I ask it of your generosity."
Uncertainty darkened her eyes, but she did not turn away. "All right then. But first I must be rid of my burden. Can you wait for me here?"
He paced restlessly as he waited, his heart thumping. She returned soon, the smudge of dirt and the apron gone. She wore a simple grey dress, her only ornament the single white gem that always nestled at her throat. Her braids flowed down her back, caught up in a silver band.
She stopped before him, seemingly now calm, queenly. "What do you wish to say?"
His chance finally before him, he struggled for words. How foolish and petty his unworthy suspicions now seemed, how wrong his dismissal of her as heartless and cold! He tried to read her eyes, to judge her feelings, but her eyes showed only grave consideration.
"I was wrong—I know that now," he said haltingly. "I presumed—I insulted you—forgive me, it was said in the heat of anger."
Her eyes flashed. "Anger—what cause had you?" She looked away, took a breath, and spoke again in a calmer tone. "I accept your apology, Lord Aragorn. And I too want to apologize. I never should have invited you into my bed. It was a mistake—one that has cost you more than me, and for that I am heartily sorry."
"I will never be sorry."
She looked away from him, her cheeks faintly flushed. "It does not matter now."
"It matters to me."
"You are a very determined man, Dúnadan, and too quick in your feelings. With time, they will pass."
"They will not pass. I love you."
Two spots appeared on her cheeks. "You are not hearing me. It is over. I am truly sorry for any pain I have caused."
"I did think you loved me too."
She looked away again. "And you think that you own me because we lay together."
"I am ashamed of what I said." He studied her face, trying to read the emotions flitting across it. "Do you think that bedding you is all I want? I will love you all the same, always."
"I'm sorry. What else can I say?"
"Is there someone else, then?"
"No!" she cried. "Do you think every woman belongs to some man? Is it like that for your people? Then I pity them. I have chosen to live as a woman alone, with no husband or children, or even a longtime lover. I offered you friendship and pleasure, but that is not enough for you. And so I realized my mistake."
His words died in his throat. But he murmured, "I thought we had more than that."
She was silent.
"I don't presume to ask you for marriage, nor to again share your bed, but to talk to you sometimes. To know that when I come here, I will see you, and you will be happy that I am with you."
"I am always happy to talk to you as my father's foster son," she said, "but that is all."
He reached for her hand. She snatched it away. "Please," she said angrily. "You are a child."
"I think," he said deliberately, "you know better than that."
A slow flush spread over her cheeks, and he knew that she remembered as well as he. But she repeated, "A child, twenty years old."
Amusement lit her eyes. "I cannot play at love with you. It will pass, and perhaps then we may be friends."
"It will not pass."
"Lord Aragorn," she said, looking him in the eyes, "we live in different worlds. Your place is not here, but with the Dúnedain, your destiny."
"Destiny!" The word tasted like poison on his tongue. "How many times must I hear that? It is only a dressed-up word to say I must do my duty. May I not choose for myself?"
"Few may do that with honor," she said. "I will tell you something. I, too, have a destiny—a warning that came to my mother in a dream. Then she was taken by Orcs, and I only just avoided a like fate. So my father, fearing, seeks to protect me. This is why you did not hear my name till a year ago, and why I live in Lothlórien under the guardianship of my grandparents. There is no safer place in Middle-earth. Soon I will return there, and it will be many years till I leave again." She looked down at her hands before meeting his eyes again. "Even if we were to love each other, it has no future."
"How coolly you say that," he said bitterly. "I cannot."
"I did not say it was easy," she said softly. "But time will take away the pain."
"Time! What do you know of time? What would you lose to let me be with you? It would only be for a little while, for I will die, and you will pass to the West."
She looked like he had struck her.
"Forgive me." He caught her hands and drew them to his lips and kissed each one. She tried to pull them away, but he tightened his grasp, and he felt her yielding. He drew her closer. "Arwen."
She came into his arms then, laying her face against his chest. "Estel." He breathed in the scent of her, and whispered her name again, and kissed her hair. But just as he bent to kiss her lips, she broke away, and he saw tears in her eyes.
She hid her face in her hands briefly before she turned again to face him. "We will not speak of this again. Please do me this courtesy."
"For now. But I will come to you again, and you will give me a different answer."
Her eyes turned dark, but she raised her chin, and said in a calm, clear voice, "Farewell, Lord Aragorn."
And she turned and moved swiftly down the path to the house. To his amazement, she stumbled briefly over a gnarled root, and then, abandoning all dignity, fled through the trees.
All that night, he debated with himself: should he leave it, or try again? For all her rejection, he knew, now, she was not indifferent. She cannot deny this love. She must not. The next morning, he strode to the wing of the House where her private quarters lay. A golden-haired Elf-woman, whom he knew as one of the maids-in-waiting who had come with her mistress from Lórien, opened the door to his knock. Behind her glimmered the green-gold light of an airy room with many windows looking out to the gardens.
Her polite, remote eyes traveled over his face. "Good morning, Lord Dúnadan. How may I help you?"
"Please ask the Lady Arwen if I may see her."
Her look guarded and doubtful, she inclined her head in a bow and did not invite him in. "Please wait here, my lord."
Standing awkwardly in the hallway, he watched as she passed behind a woven cloth that he knew from his visits to this room—a year ago now—covered the entrance to Arwen's bedroom. The tapestry depicted the lavish wedding ceremony of Arwen's parents, Elrond and Celebrían, the daughter of Galadriel and Celeborn of Lórien. Its sunny happiness seemed to mock him—or promise? His eyes could see nothing else; his heart battered against his ribs. She does care, I know it. I felt her in my arms. I want only to love her. I would do nothing to take her away from her chosen life.
After a brief agony of waiting, he saw the maid return. "The lady cannot see you, my lord. She begs you to do as she has asked."
"I wish for only a few minutes."
She stepped into the doorway and stood like a statue of stone, unmovable. "I must ask you to leave, my lord."
He stared at her impassive face for a moment, and then, abandoning all hope, left without a word.
In the woods above the House, a ledge thrust out from the steep valley walls. He—no, Estel—had discovered it once on a climb, and kept it as a secret place where he could be alone. He went there now.
The solitude, the far skies, the song of the mountain thrush called out to him, and he poured all his young man's vigor into a fast ascent. The exertion cooled his mind even as it heated his body. Far to the north and south stretched the world outside of the narrow length of the valley, a deep gash in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Below him, the foamy river curled between its rocky banks, overhung with the lush green that, in Rivendell, colored the chill of winter as well as the summer warmth.
He thought back to the half-grown boy who had first come to this place: Estel used to gaze into the far horizon where the distant mountains blued the edges of the earth, and wonder what waited in the wide open future, full of possibility. That boy had imagined sailing with Eärendil to new lands across the sea; or taking up the sword of Túrin to slay the dragon Glaurung; or commanding the ships of Elendil on the flight from drowned Númenor to Middle-earth. He had imagined searching for his lost father, who was not dead after all, but the prisoner of an evil lord, who fell to the sword of Estel the Valiant. How proud and happy his father was!
Later, as he grew, he imagined loving a beautiful woman, who took on many faces before the fair Arwen Undómiel usurped all others. In this very spot he had seen the two mated eagles glorying in their windborne love.
Estel's dreams were long gone. Aragorn's future was constricted to a predetermined path, alone, without the love he desired. The dead father was dead indeed, leaving a son with no memories. The Heir of Isildur had once seemed a grand title, but now it seemed of little worth. "Destiny" was a prison.
I will never see her again. What chance did he have of meeting her in Lórien? Not even Elves dared enter the Golden Wood without the express leave of its lord and lady. How could a Man, even the foster son of Elrond, hope to cross its borders? Should he go to him and say, "Master Elrond, please help me gain entry to Lórien so that I may woo your daughter"? His vow to come to her again was empty boasting. I might as well dare the Girdle of Melian.
Beren had stumbled through mists and nearly died, the tales said. But Beren did not know he would find Lúthien. He did not know the love he would lose if he did not come there. A bitter laugh escaped him. I as Beren! His passion had addled his wits. But truly she is as beautiful as Lúthien. Who was Aragorn son of Arathorn to Elrond's daughter? He was a fool to think of it.
Almost he wished for the old anger and resentment that he had once battled. Under it a futile hope had lurked. He had mistaken her feelings—she felt only a sister's fondness for a brother, perhaps, or a woman's delight in a man's body. She regretted only the pain that she had caused.
A kind of grim desolation bolstered his bleakness. If duty was all he had, then he would give it all he had indeed.
I am Estel no longer. Hope is left behind. I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and I wield a deadly blade. Death will claim me soon enough, but I will not go without leaving my mark.
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