Ere I Say 'I Do...'
1. Ere I Say 'I Do...'
Dedication: For RiccoRagazza, because she knows html and I don't! Ricco, thanks for your help, this romance is for you.
The Angle: Reference gleaned from: "Of thegns and kings and rangers and things." March 30, 2001. Michael Martinez. www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/64660
With September come the first hints of Fall, as the nights lengthen and the trees exchange their verdure for scarlet, orange and brown. Only the pine-clad slopes of the mountains remain green, and yet the evergreens seem dull and weary beside their resplendent fellows. Though the day air for the most part remains warm, even in the north, 'til well into October, September nights grow swiftly chill, saturated with the scent of musty decay and damp soil. Gilraen, as she wandered the pathless countryside of the Angle, felt herself akin to the land: anticipation of change resonated deep within her, seeming to flow through her veins with the excited throbbing of her heart. No longer a child, yet not quite a mature woman by her people's standards, she yet felt herself poised on the summit of those two seasons of her life, and knew that soon she would fall out of her childhood altogether. I wait only for something some happening, though I know not what it be, she thought. But even as she thought it, her eyes strayed to her companion upon this short journeyto Arathorn, son of Arador, who walked at her side. The throb of dragonflies' wings and the voices of the mockingbirds accompanied them upon their path as they walked together. And Gilraen, who had grown adept at reading the silence that encompassed all speech and filled the space between words, was pleased by the aura of contentment that suffused their quiet companionship.
Emerging from the forest, they stood gazing out across the plain, and the sun kissed their faces with its warmth. In the distance, Bruinen's swift and playful waters could be heard, and as they paused at the foot of a low knoll, Arathorn stared westward, past the silvery line of the river, to where lay the wide lands of Eriador. Something like pain crossed his face, if only briefly, and the quality of that silence changed in a heartbeat. Gilraen gazed up at him with concern, seeking a reason for the sudden darkening of his mood. But for all her skill at interpreting what was left unsaid, she could discern nothing of his thoughts, save only that pain whose source was obvious. His arms folded across his chest served to partially disguise the way that he pressed the heel of his right hand against his side, just below his ribs. "Shall we stop here awhile?" she asked tactfully, and Arathorn gave a low laugh as he darted a look in her direction.
"You mean to say that I ought to rest ere we go further," he corrected, even as he carefully eased down to sit upon the grass. Wounded by an errant shot from an Orc-archer two months gone, Arathorn had barely survived the journey home, for the wound had festered. And though he now recovered as swiftly as one might expect of one of Elendil's line, Arathorn's endurance remained limited, and the injury still gave him pain.
"And though your words are wryly wrought, your actions confess that you know I am right," Gilraen replied, abandoning tact in favor of pragmatic assurance, and smiled impishly at him as she, too, lowered herself to sit at his side. "You were fortunate to return home this time; it would be ungrateful of you to worsen your case needlessly!" It was a deliberate bid to draw him away from whatever dark thoughts he harbored, and it seemed to work.
"'Ungrateful,' am I?" he chuckled. "Harsh words, Gilraen!"
"But not unjust," said she, and smiled sweetly.
"My lady of the froward tongue!" Arathorn laughed again, though an edge of tension remained in his voice. "A well-bred lass she seems but careful! for she will mince you no words!"
"My lord of the too-glib tongue!" Gilraen retorted, then was silent a moment, considering him. She had known Arathorn too long to assume the formal courtesies that usually governed conversations between the sexes, or to think that he expected her to do so. But nevertheless, searching for the key to his mood of late, she felt constrained to ask, "Does my forwardness displease you?"
"Would it avail me anything if I said it did?" he asked, quirking a dark brow.
"Then well for us both that it does not displease me," said he, with a smile to take the sting out of his words. "And you are right: I should rest." But even as he spoke, his glance strayed from her westward again, and Gilraen hid her uneasiness.
"Eriador will wait for you, my lord, as it always has," said she, in a light tone and laid a hand on his arm.
"And as it always will," he murmured under his breath, so softly that she almost did not catch it. He said nothing more and Gilraen, hearing those words, felt a quiver of fear in the pit of her stomach, recognizing the fatal premonition there entwined. But she could glean nothing further, for Arathorn had retreated behind that mute veil which she loathed and longed to tear asunder. Tell me! she wanted to plead with him, but would not, for she dared not risk their friendship, both rare and precious to her. For even among the close-knit community of the Dúnedain of the Angle, it was unusual, to say the least, for a man and a woman, both unwed, to take unsupervised walks together through the remote parts of the surrounding country. But Arathorn was her kinsman, however distant, and he had known her father long. More importantly to Gilraen, he was her friend, though they had to twist their language to force that word'mellon' in Sindarin, and in Westron 'metna'*to accommodate what propriety refused to admit.
Fortunately for the two of them, theirs was a long-standing relationship, for Arathorn and Dírhael knew each other well, and her brother had served as a Ranger until his untimely death. Gilraen had grown up knowing Arathorn, and their periodic unchaperoned wanderings were an unspoken, but firmly established, household tradition. The others in the town were accustomed to their outings, such that even now, when she stood upon the verge of womanhood, the whispers were few and scattered. It helped, of course, that Arathorn was also the son and heir of the Chieftain, and that Dírhael evinced utter trust in them both; and that Gilraen's reputation as a modest young woman with a precocious intellect was unsullied.
But appearances deceive: a peaceful surface may hide depths untold and unguessed, and beneath the ground fire may burn! Gilraen thought, feeling her own passions smolder gently within her. None, not even her father, or Ivorwen, her mother, knew where lay her heart, for she was discreet, fearing to reveal herself too soon. I was fifteen when I knew I loved himthat I would love him as more than friend or cousin. Strange, how in the midst of grief one relearns joy! For her brother, Tirandar, had been slain that year by the Wargs in the high passes, and Arathorn (as was too often his duty) had come to tell the family the grim tidings. Gilraen closed her eyes a moment, feeling the familiar pain of that loss as she recalled the shattering event once more. I opened the door, and I knew from the moment I saw Arathorn's face what he would say. I froze, and stood as if stricken, for I thought it would kill me to hear him say those words. But Arathorn had not spoken immediately, seeming unable to force himself to say anything at all, let alone speak of Tirandar. And whether he moved first or she did, she knew not, nor did she care, for she remembered only the fierce embrace they had shared, both of them holding each other as if they might fall out of the world entirely without the other's support. She had wept in his arms, and felt his tears splash hot against the back of her neck as he let loose his grief at last. For just a moment, Arathorn was as vulnerable as I, and I could hear the keen of his soul mingled with mine just for a few moments, I felt that resonance, saw through to your depths, and I knew I knew then. So very beautiful you are, Arathorn, inside and out, though perhaps you do not know it yet!
In the ordeal that had followed, as Tirandar's family had endured the grim ritual of that final leave-taking, Gilraen had not thought overmuch on what had passed between them. Indeed, she had sought to forget that brief moment of revelation, deeming such speculations unseemly while mourning lasted. For his part, Arathorn had retreated swiftly back behind the barriers that he kept between himself and the world. Even as he had released her from his embrace, she had 'heard' those gates spring back into place. Tears were a luxury for one who roamed the wilds, and the son of a chieftain learns swiftly the high price of his station. In the days that had followed, as the people of the Angle had grieved for another loss, he had given no sign that anything unusual had occurred, and his grief, though palpable, had seemed a quiet one. But in spite of such reserve on his part, she had thought she had discerned in his silence a new and troubled awareness of her, and once in a while, she would catch him watching her with unwonted intensity, as if seeking her measure. And although she had tried to thrust him from her thoughts, she had felt haunted by her memories, and by his piercing, probing regard.
Thus in the end, she had surrendered to the urgency of her feelings, and begun to reflect carefully upon her long friendship with Arathorn, subjecting her emotions to the hard test of her own judgment. And though Gilraen was no coward, once sifted, her own fervor frightened her, and it had required all of her strength to make herself accept what her heart knew too well: I love him! In some fashion, I have always loved him, and I always will. Odd, to be so certain so young, and about so great a matter, but there it is! Whether he loves me in return and in kind will never change any of this. But, oh, how she hoped that he might! It was one thing to think, now, while both were unwed, that should Arathorn give his heart to another, then she would bear the disappointment graciously and stoically; it would be another to endure that hopelessness in reality, and Gilraen was wise enough to recognize her dilemma. Though he never spoke of that day, his eyes and the subtle cues of body language gave her enough cause to suspect that he might love her, or learn to love her. But alas, such minor clues were not enough to warrant a frank inquiry. Particularly now that Arathorn was here, and with her almost daily as he had never been before, she found herself debating the question that had tormented lovers for time out of mind, whether Elvish or mortal: How shall I discover what he feels unless I ask? Yet how to ask such a question? And would my asking put him off? Forward I am when the moment is right, but how much shall I dare, evenor rather, especiallywith him? Will there ever be a 'right' moment? And so the circle turned round .
"Gilraen?" Arathorn's voice shook her out of her musings, and she blinked as she realized he had spoken to her without her having heard him. Indeed, he now regarded her with a slightly bemused look, as if trying to discern what lay behind her distraction.
"My lord?" she responded quickly, trying to settle her startlement, hoping that she did not blush too noticeably.
"'My lord' she says! I ask as one concerned, not as my father's son, whether you are well yourself. For all your humor, you seem distant today," replied he, and Gilraen fingered the ends of one long strand of her hair in a habitual, nervous gesture.
"Distant perhaps I am, but no more than you ever are, Arathorn," said she, and felt his eyes on her as she side-stepped his unspoken question.
"My lady has a quick wit," he said softly. "I ought to have asked: what think you when you wander down your own paths of late?" And there ended any hope of avoiding the dilemma. Do I dare lie to him? He would know, I think, if I did, and a dismissal is tantamount to a lie as well, she thought. But I want him to ask, surely, for then I may ask my question as well! Except that if I do, then I may not hear what I wish to hear, and then what shall I do? That was the ignoble splinter that lived in her, grown powerful upon the fear that had washed over her in an instant. To which her pride replied: Fool! Ask, and then you will know. Better the swift cut that kills cleanly than death drawn out!
"If you must know," she replied, gathering her courage and stepping firmly down upon her anxieties. "If you would truly know, Arathorn it is you who are in my thoughts, and have been for long." Never had words come harder to her, nor had she ever needed such temerity to look him in the face! For his part, Arathorn at first seemed nonplussed, as if he were unable to fathom immediately what she had just said. And then his brow knit as he exhaled sharply, gazing with bewilderment at her. But there was also a seriousness in those grey eyes that gave her cause to hope, if only faintly.
"I am in your thoughts meaning what, Gilraen?" he asked, and there was a queer note in his voice, a hint of something she could not immediately recognize.
"Meaning, my lord if you must have it plainly put," she replied, drawing her confession out in the hope that he might come suddenly to understanding and spare her the need to explain. But he was silent, waiting, and so, trying unobtrusively to swallow her fears, she continued in as deliberate a voice as she could muster, "I love you, Arathorn. I always have, and I always shall, come what may. I ask now only what you feel. If your heart inclines to another, then so be it! But that will not stop mine from wanting." The blood burned in her face as she finished, and Gilraen hung her head, unable to bear the weight of his stare any longer. "You must think me a foolish girl!" she murmured.
"Nay, not foolish!" he replied, and warm fingers caught her chin and gently constrained her to raise her head and look at him. "Not foolish, but I do wonder at you, Gilraen. Nay, I marvel at you, to have the courage to ask! And what a question you have set me to answer!" He paused, searching her face, and continued, "Are you certain of yourself, Gilraen?"
"Aye, I am," she replied. It was all she could manage with dignity, and he nodded slowly, seeming to relax slightly.
"Then hear me: you are Dírhael's daughter, and for that alone I would love you. Indeed, I do love you. Wait!" he cautioned, seeing how hope came suddenly to her. "There is more. I do love you, and not only as the daughter of a dearly loved friend, who is a friend herself. But I would not have said anything, but that you ask now after my heart. For by that same love that I bear you, I would not cause you pain. Would you be 'wed to absence' as they say? You deserve a better husband than I can be to you."
"But I would have no other, Arathorn, if only you do love me!" Gilraen responded. "Do you?"
"Have I not said it?" he asked.
"Then why deny what you feel? Will you not tell me that? Or shall I think that it is merely affection, and no"
Arathorn cut her off abruptly with a hard, almost bruising kiss on the mouth. Shock held her immobile for a moment, but then, as he ran his fingers lightly down her spine, she felt herself relax into his embrace, eyes closing of their own volition. Heat, centered deeply within her, radiated outward, suffusing her with a heady warmth as his kiss deepened. Her hand upon his chest, she could feel his heart racing in time with hers, and the edges of his desire touched upon her own like lightning. At last, he drew back slightly, and Gilraen opened her eyes to see Arathorn grimace, and she glanced down to where he pressed a hand to his side. "Arathorn, are you?" she began, but he waved the question aside.
"Just a twinge," he assured her, drawing a deep, steadying breath. His eyes, when he glanced back at her, were dark, a smoky grey with dilated pupils. "Think not that I love you not deeply, or that I would have another," said he softly. "But Valar help me, you are young, Gilraen, for such sorrow as I can bring you!"
"Then are we all!" she retorted. "I never thought that love was safe, for have I not lost Tirandar? Have I not seen too many wives and sisters and daughters mourn when the tidings came? Indeed, I know what you fear: you look to Eriador, and see there only endings, yet what of that?" Gilraen asked, though even as she spoke she felt a pang, as of loss foreordained. "Even were it your own death you saw there, foresight is often wayward. I love you now, and I am not afraid, Arathorn!"
"Are you not?" he murmured, and there was a world of tenderness in his eyes as he stroked her cheek, continuing back to run his fingers through her unbound hair. "Then your courage is greater than mine!"
"What would you, then, my lord?" Gilraen asked, in her last bid. "Shall I pity you, then, that your heart quails?"
"Nay, for that is a gift I would hate to deserve," he responded, and a slight smile curved his lips. "Rather, since I cannot dissuade you, I would have you say me yes, when I ask for your hand. For I would wed thee, Gilraen daughter of Dírhael if thou wilt have me." He held out his hand, and waited there for her response.
And Gilraen, unhesitating, placed her hand in his, and whispered, "I will!"
As is elsewhere told, Arathorn son of Arador took to wife Gilraen Dírhael's daughter, to the amazement of many and his lasting joy. Short was their tale, but in later years, it would be remembered as one of the great loves of the Third Age: less famous, perhaps, than that of Elessar and Arwen Undómiel, yet no less true. For Gilraen kept her promise: through hardship, darkness and loss, she loved Arathorn son of Arador to the end of her days.
*Author's Note: Yes, mellon is Sindarin (we all knew that, right?). No, there isn't an authentic Westron word for friendship, I was just making that up. The idea I was trying to convey was that those words applied only between members of the same sex (in my imagination) and so a friendship between a man and a woman would be both socially and linguistically outré.
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