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Interlude: 1. Chapter One
Arwen glanced to her left, wondering what her father thought of Bilbo's subject matter - but he was sitting impassively, listening to verses being made about his father...who had sailed away in a ship of mithril, never to see his sons again. She felt her mind shy away from the all-too-familiar resonances of that thought.
She wanted nothing more than to lose herself in the poem, in the firelight and the music that filled the Hall - but found she could not. I feel - stretched too tightly, she thought. Like a weaving that has been badly laid out upon the loom, some threads too loose and some too taut, catching in unexpected places.
She knew she was not the only one so unsettled. The evening's merriment had a forced edge to it; she could feel the effort many of her people were making to be lighthearted. All at Imladris had known when Elrond called down the river on the servants of the Enemy, and they had felt it when Frodo entered the valley - felt the terrible presence of the thing he carried.
Arwen could feel it still, like a cloth soaked in water lying heavy and dark on her mind. She had tended Nazgul-wounded Men and Elves before, and had thought she was prepared to help her father care for Frodo - but the power that held the hobbit in its icy grip was like nothing she had ever seen or felt. Everything in her had recoiled from it so strongly that it had taken all of her self-command just to be able to touch Frodo and do what was needed to assist in his healing, without giving in to the fear and revulsion that swirled ceaselessly through her mind.
It had taken three nights and days for her father to find and extract the last fragment of the Morgul blade...three nights and days in a room that felt dark even though it was lit with many candles, and smelled suffocatingly of illness and sweat and evil. Elrond had restricted Frodo's care to the three of them – himself, Arwen and Aragorn, who had insisted on being present in spite of his own utter exhaustion. “He was in my charge,” he had said quietly, “I promised I would see him safe. And he does not know where he is. A familiar face will lessen his fear.” And indeed, even her father had had to concede that, in the rare moments when Frodo had regained consciousness, Aragorn's voice and hands seemed to calm him when nothing else would.
That I can well understand, she thought with sudden longing, wishing he was present now to steady her with a discreet touch and that almost imperceptible smile he reserved for public encounters. Bilbo says this poem is partly his - why has he not come to hear it spoken? What can Elrohir and Elladan have to say that takes this long to impart?
Her brothers had arrived home with news that had allowed them only time to embrace her briefly and fiercely in greeting before they closeted themselves with her father and Aragorn. Elrond had emerged for the evening meal - but the others were still nowhere to be seen, and her father had refused to discuss their conversation where others might hear, saying it was a time for celebration of Frodo's recovery, not for worry over new dangers. Which was hardly calculated to settle my mind, she thought exasperatedly. Estel will tell me what has happened - if he ever makes an appearance.
Feeling fretful and impatient with herself for it, she tried once more to focus on Bilbo's poem. By the end of the second verse she knew the answer to the riddle he had posed the company. She wondered if anyone else had noticed the reference. On his breast an emerald, indeed! That cannot have come from Bilbo's imagination, as creative as he is... She was certain that the hobbit knew nothing of the great green stone that had come to Arwen from Celebrian, who had herself been given it by her mother. He could not know, either, that Arwen had left the stone with Galadriel in Lorien again, to be given in turn to her mortal lover when the time came for him to take up his inheritance, and the name that had been foretold for him. I did not know that Estel himself even knew of it... They had never spoken of it. He, she thought, because he was not yet sure of himself or of his path, even with prophecy and the foresight of his fathers to guide him...and she because she did not want him to think that becoming King and Elfstone was a condition of her love for him.
My father insulted both Estel and me with that pronouncement! She had always known that Aragorn had great things to do, and that they could not be together until he had accomplished them. For that matter, there had been - and were - yet things *she* had to do as Arwen of Imladris. Perhaps not so great, but no less important – to me, at least. They had always known there was a war coming, one that would touch all of Middle Earth. I would never even have considered running off to be a Ranger's wife at such a time - as appealing as the prospect has occasionally sounded, she thought wistfully. We both of us knew how it must be - we did not need my father to remind Aragorn of the well-nigh impossible task before him, and dangle me as reward only if he proved his worth! If - no, *when* he becomes King of Gondor and Arnor, it will be because he was meant to be so - because no one else could reunite the West - not because he had to do it to secure my hand in marriage.
She struggled against the old resentment, mixed as always with guilt and grief at the knowledge of what had prompted her father to act so. He does not want to lose me. He has lost so many loved ones - his brother, my mother…his parents, although the poems and stories never tell that part of Earendil’s tale...
Applause for the end of Bilbo's poem brought her out of her introspection. They were debating the hobbit's riddle, and she smiled secretly, warmed by the small knowledge of Aragorn's contribution. She hoped he knew that she had meant her gift not as a reminder of his destiny so much as a token of love and hope - something of herself that he might carry with him into the darkness. But for all the Elfstone is a thing of power, it is no Silmaril to repel the Shadow, more's the pity...and I hope he does not expect me to do as Elwing did, and turn into a bird to fly to his rescue!
Fleeting amusement was dispelled by a familiar voice rising above the applause. Oh dear - what is Lindir up to now, she thought with exasperation and some dread.
"It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals," Lindir was saying to Bilbo. He was speaking seriously but Arwen could feel the undercurrent of mockery in his words, and knew that others nearby could also. It was the sort of Elvish superiority she most despised in her own people, and he was taking very few pains to hide it.
"Nonsense, Lindir," the hobbit replied cheerfully. "If you can't distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They're as different as peas and apples."
Arwen sent a mental nudge in Lindir's direction. Stop baiting poor Bilbo! He blithely ignored her. His next comment about mortals and sheep was only a knife's edge away from being truly insulting.
Lindir! This time her mental tone made his eyes snap to hers. I said, that is enough. You have had your joke - stop patronizing him.
Lindir's eyebrow went up. She fought to master her annoyance, aware that her father and others around her were registering it. Bilbo was graciously declining to argue the point any further. He takes no offence - why should I? She wondered at the strength of her reaction. Valar, I am in a black mood tonight, she reflected ruefully. I should not have come to the Hall.
Lindir bowed with perfect politeness to Bilbo as the hobbit announced his intention to retire - only Lindir could make a courtly bow seem like a further mockery! she thought with renewed resentment. When the Elf turned back towards her, his expression was carefully neutral.
"I am sorry if I offended, my lady," he said. "It is only as I said - mortals have not been my study. As a rule, I do not find them interesting enough. But no doubt you are more...sensitive...to such matters than I." His tone was deferential, but she felt the sneer that underlay it nonetheless - and, all at once, it was just too much.
"And why should that be, Lindir?" She put a whipcrack of anger behind the words, and was satisfied to see him blanch a little. Yes - you are surprised, are you not? I have let too many other such comments pass.
Will he actually come out and say it? she wondered. I know perfectly well that he and his friends think I am lessened by my love for Estel...that I am already well on the road to becoming a stupid and uninteresting mortal!
She watched his eyes flick towards her father for support, and come up against Elrond’s impassive gaze...a gaze which somehow still managed to remind Lindir and everyone else present that the Lord of Imladris was himself the son of a mortal man...one who had spoken for the cause of Elves and Men before the Valar themselves, no less. Oh Lindir...were you not listening to the poem you have been criticizing? Arwen thought gleefully.
She let a little pause establish that there would be no help from Elrond, and that Lindir dared not answer her question. Then she continued, with just enough reprimand in her tone to make her authority clear.
"I fail to see how finding mortals interesting has anything to do with treating them as honoured guests of our hall." She held his eye, waiting, until he muttered an apology through an insincere smile. I ought not to be enjoying this as much as I am! It was, she realized, a relief to have something concrete to fight against, however small and petty. Still - it is unfair of me to be taking my mood out on such a one as Lindir. He is only a hypocrite, and a weak one at that.
"It is Bilbo who deserves the apology," she said, and would have followed it with something conciliating - but the words were never spoken, because at that moment Aragorn walked through the doorway into the Hall of Fire.
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