My Aragorn Stories
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Arwen in the Afternoon: 1. Arwen in the Afternoon
"I plan to leave by the end of the week," said the Chieftain.
Aragorn and Halbarad stood on the walls of the Dúnedain Keep, looking out to the green land of the Angle beyond. On the high ramparts a sweet breeze blew, easing the heat of the August day.
Aragorn's hair, the ends still damp from his morning swim, shone in the sun.
Strong body, long-waisted, lithe with a swordsman's grace, sleek with river water, rising naked from the blue stream.
Halbarad dragged his eyes away from the beloved face, and closed his lips over the curse that threatened to escape. "So soon?"
Aragorn shrugged, his keen eyes gazing into the cloudy east. "No reason to linger."
Lips firm in the freshly trimmed darkness of his beard, profile noble as a bird of prey.
"But you've only just arrived."
The corner of Aragorn's mouth lifted in a half smile. "Have you forgotten how to count the days, Halbarad? I've been here a month. A long time by my usual custom."
He rested his hands on the stone sill and leaned forward to gaze into the dark river below.
Strong hands to mold willing flesh into desire….
Halbarad wrenched his thoughts away from the long-dead past, and pushed aside his longing. "It has been good to have you here."
For the past two years, since his return from Gondor, Aragorn had passed most of his days wandering the wilds of Eriador. He came to the Rangers' stronghold only for brief stays, even in the harsh winter. And he had been gone for nearly twenty-five years before turning up one day, wholly unexpected, looking somehow bigger and certainly older, but just as quiet as he had always been.
And just as beautiful.
He said little of the years spent in Gondor, but Halbarad saw the new scar on the hard muscle of his right side, and knew by its color and size that one had almost killed him. He knew too that the sword hanging at Aragorn's side, just as it always had, was no longer the weapon of a young and untried warrior, but had been wet with the blood of many Men and Orcs.
"You should spend more time here. The people barely know you. They expect to see you."
"Why, when they have you?" Smiling, Aragorn turned at last to face him. "As capable as you are? We have settled what little business came before the captains, the harvest promises to be good, and your children grow. Now I may return to my duty."
"Is not your duty here?"
Incandescent laughter lit up Aragorn's stern face as he chuckled. "Are we not Rangers? You, too, are often gone. And you know, better than most, my vow to hunt the servants of Sauron in any land where they may be found. This time I mean to travel into the far east, to Rhûn and beyond."
Halbarad drew a deep breath. Now is as good a time as any to bring it up. "You know that I support you in all you do. But before you go, there is one duty you have quite neglected."
Aragorn grew still, and turned away again. When he spoke, his voice was cool with the distance that had wounded Halbarad's heart these past years. The distance that once was not there, so long ago, when they had loved each other. "I know what you will say."
"Then you should act on it. Aragorn, you must marry."
"There is yet time."
"You are fifty-two years old."
"My father did not marry till the age of fifty-six."
"Your father was not the sole bearer of the line of Isildur. He had a father and a sister."
Aragorn looked at him, and his eyes were dark. "Nor am I now the sole bearer of the royal line. You, too, are the great-grandson of Argonui. If I fail, you and your sons will be the Heirs of Isildur."
Halbarad snorted in disgust. "Fail! How can you fail to marry? It is simple enough."
A shadow of sadness crossed Aragorn's face before he hooded his feelings in a stern set of his mouth. "For you, maybe. Have more children, Halbarad. The Dúnedain need you."
Anger surged from Halbarad's belly into his head in a burst of heat. He didn't know whether he would punch Aragorn in the face, or grab him in a passionate embrace.
As if it has ever been so easy. As if I could love my wife as I love you.
The good woman deserved love, but all he felt was affection and gratitude for her good nature and her forbearance. He sometimes wondered if she had guessed the truth. He doubted she had heard gossip. They had been so very careful.
Aragorn clasped his shoulder and for the first time looked directly into his eyes. "I envy you, Halbarad, to have a loving wife and a small son. Be thankful for what you have. Such a fate is not for me."
Two days later, Halbarad climbed again to the high ramparts and watched the tall, straight figure of his Chieftain make his way out of the gates of the Keep and disappear into the far distance.
He did not see him again for eleven years.
Third Age Year 2994
When Rangers returned from the Misty Mountains bearing a tale of a party of Dwarves found brutally slaughtered and stripped of all their clothing and gear, Halbarad made up his mind that a visit to Rivendell, seeking counsel with Elrond, could no longer be put off.
"We buried them as best we could, not knowing the custom of the Dwarves," said Rodnor, the returning captain.
"You did well, captain," said Halbarad. "I will consider what further measures to take. Dismissed."
Rodnor saluted and strode from the chamber without a further word. Frowning, Halbarad packed his pipe with weed and lit it, drawing heavily on the fragrant smoke. Holding the bowl of the pipe in one rough hand, he paced back and forth and pondered the problem at hand.
Murder of travelers through the mountains was nothing new. But with this slaughter came tales of uncommon activity among the Orcs. For months now the tales had come back of their hoarse singing in the night—always the harbinger of greater danger.
He had not been to Rivendell to take counsel with Elrond for a number of years. It was past time to visit again, and he could think of no reason why he should not go.
So he packed his bags and saddled his horse and made his way to the location of the Hidden Valley, where for a solid day he wandered in the vicinity of the path, seemingly lost. Then, rounding a clump of trees, he saw white stones set in the mossy earth that hadn't been there before. Shaking off the unpleasant tingle that slithered up his spine, he turned his mount down the steep path, knowing that within the hour, a welcoming party would appear as if by magic—it is magic—knowing who he was and why he was there.
He never felt at ease in Rivendell, but his discomfort turned to pain at the flood of memories of Aragorn that always gripped him in the Valley. Here, Aragorn had grown to that young manhood of grace and strength. Here, he had been taught the Elven arts of love that welcomed the easy giving of pleasure without sin.
Halbarad remembered that first kiss as if it had been yesterday. Shock and delight hit him in one ball of frenzy before he pulled away and hissed, "What are you doing?"
Dismay shadowed Aragorn's face. "Don't you like it?"
And Halbarad's world turned upside down as he answered, "Yes. Yes."
The best times had been journeying together in the Wild, just the two of them. Then they did not have to sneak and hide from the grim judgment of the doughty Dúnedain and their harsh moral code. Back home, what had been full of joy became a difficult game of clandestine caresses and regret.
Then Aragorn had left to become Thorongil, and Halbarad tried to forget. A man of great discipline, he did this pretty well—at least when he was awake. At night, his dreams told a different story.
Steeling himself against the flood of memories and furtive desires, Halbarad let his horse choose his pace as he wound down the long, twisting road into the Valley. The very air was softer and warmer, as if the Valley were in a different season than cold early spring. Already flowers grew, and the trees seemed to have kept their leaves all winter.
Elrond was as ever courteous, grave and wise, his eyes shining like stars. Glorfindel glowed like soft moonlight. After hearing Halbarad's tale, Elrond and his councilors determined to send a messenger to the Lonely Mountain and to the Blue Mountains in the West, seeking the kin of the murdered Dwarves. It was all they could do.
His business done, with great relief Halbarad went to visit Gilraen. She, at least, had changed. Ever beautiful, ever gracious, yet each time he came, there was more silver on her dark head and new fine lines around her grey eyes, so like her son's.
With joy she served him wine and cakes on the terrace outside her elegant rooms.
"You are in high spirits today, lady," he said as he accepted another small cake.
She settled into her cushioned chair, setting her goblet of wine on a low table. "Why, naturally, Halbarad, with the good news we have just received. Do you not know?"
"Elrond did not mention anything special."
"Elves!" she said, with a subtle roll of her eyes. "Everything is a secret."
Except what should be. He smiled. "Enlighten me, lady."
"My son is to return soon. We received word from Gandalf. It's about time—it's been eleven years."
"Excellent news." Halbarad slapped his hand on his thigh and grinned. "But I must say I never count on Aragorn until I see him. Last time he stayed away for nearly twenty-five years."
Gilraen grimaced. "Let it not be so long ever again."
"He will come back in his own time, as usual, my lady, no doubt with more great deeds to his name. We will all of us be overjoyed to see him. But I must add that there is some discontent among the elder Rangers when his name is spoken, and this time he will not leave again without doing his duty."
Surprise lifted her fine brows. "What duty does he shirk?"
"I speak of marriage and securing an heir for the line."
Gilraen stared at him, her eyes clouding. She opened her mouth and shut it. She looked at her feet, where her white cat lay curled on a fold of her gown, and reached down to lift the cat into her lap. She buried her slender hands in the luxuriant fur, and, thus armed, spoke with her eyes fixed on the cat's golden collar. "Is there a lady?"
"None of Aragorn's choosing," said Halbarad, puzzled by the sharp amusement that flashed across her face and then vanished like a gleam of the sun behind clouds. "But there are several daughters of high blood of marrying age, any of whom will suit."
"Ah." She busied herself with petting the cat.
"He must have a son. Our future requires it."
Gilraen continued to stroke the cat. Silence settled in, except for the loud purrs that reached even Halbarad's ears.
Perplexed that the prospect of grandchildren made her so uneasy, Halbarad changed the subject. "And you, lady? Will you return to the Dúnedain, as your father wishes?"
"I think not, at least not yet." She looked up at him then and smiled. "I have been in Rivendell too long and cannot find it in me to go."
Halbarad well understood that. Why rejoin the outside world with its sweat, blood and toil, when this enchanted valley welcomed her? "True enough, lady. I myself fear to stay too long, lest I stay forever."
"And be heard of never more among mortal Men, as the tales say," she laughed. She picked up her goblet and raised it. "Let us drink to this perilous world."
Halbarad raised his wine to his lips, but before he had taken more than a sip, a rich musical voice called out from the garden below. "Lady Gilraen!"
Gilraen rose, the cat leaping from her lap with a protesting mew, and curtseyed. "Lady Undómiel, good afternoon. Please join us and meet my son's kinsman."
There among the lilies and roses stood a lovely young woman, dressed in pearly grey, her long dark braids escaping from a cap netted with opals. She returned Gilraen's curtsey and with the grace of flowing water lifted her skirts and mounted the stairs to Gilraen's terrace. Beneath the hem of her soft dress Halbarad saw a flash of two bare white feet of beguiling daintiness.
"I cannot stay," she said, "but I do want so much to make Lord Halbarad's acquaintance."
Halbarad had flattered himself that he had grown accustomed to the astonishing beauty of the Elves, but now he realized he was staring, open-mouthed, like a child. Struggling to regain his dignity, he bowed. "At your service, lady."
She held out her hand, a fine silver chain slipping over her impossibly beautiful wrist. "I am Arwen, Elrond's daughter."
Her fingers were silky soft, but warm and vibrant with life under the light touch of Halbarad's lips. "It is my honor, lady. But I was not aware Elrond had a daughter, and one of such beauty, too."
She laughed, a delightful trill of joy. "You are most gallant, sir, like your kinsman. I have lately returned from Lothlórien, where I made my home for many years. But now I have returned, at my father's request, to his house."
Her eyes, full of light, astonished him with their forthright offer of friendship. Halbarad bowed again, wondering what his Rangers would think to see him struck dumb by a lady's beauty.
"Do you bring news of the Dúnadan?" she asked.
Gilraen cleared her throat and whispered, "She means my son."
Arwen laughed again, and blushed the color of the rosy dawn. "Pardon me, yes, I mean the Lord Aragorn."
Out of the corner of his eye Halbarad saw Gilraen shaking her head and making gestures to catch Arwen's attention, but he pretended not to notice. "I fear not, lady. He is yet abroad on his great journey. But Lady Gilraen has just told me that he is expected to return soon."
"Yes, I thought you might have come to bring us word of his arrival. I so look forward to seeing"—her eyes flickered briefly in Gilraen's direction—"uh, my foster brother again. May it be soon! Will you be at the high day feast, my lord?"
"Oh, certainly, my lady," he stammered.
After another exchange of courtesies, Arwen made her excuses and left as she had come, flowing down the stairway into the roses.
Halbarad stared after her, until, recollecting himself, he sat down and picked up his wine. Gilraen was again petting the cat, her eyes cast down, a small smile on her face. "Don't worry, I expect she's used to men making fools of themselves around her."
"Was I that bad?"
"Well, you did look like a boy caught stealing sweetmeats from the kitchen. But what else can you do when you meet a woman in the likeness of Lúthien? So it is said, you know."
"No, I didn't," Halbarad snorted. "I never heard of her before."
"I believe that is about to change," said Gilraen.
"Will Beren come next?"
But Gilraen only smiled and continued to pet the cat.
The next day, Halbarad wandered in the garden, thinking about trying to make his escape from Rivendell before the week's end. He would await Aragorn in the Angle. He knew what happened at these feasts. Delicious food, wine, singing and poetry—and then, the pairing off. Although Aragorn had warned him, he fled in embarrassment the first time he saw it. He did not know which shocked him the most: the joy with which an Elf-woman welcomed a lover, the ease with which an Elf-man kissed another man beneath the bower, or the intensity of his wish to join them.
Even worse, no one talked about it. They seemed amused by Halbarad's discomfort at behavior that he considered fit for only the most riotous brothel in Bree. But here he saw the dignified Eldar celebrating the pleasures of the body much as they would sip fine wine.
The first time he saw it, once he had summoned up sufficient courage, he expressed his shock to Gilraen. "I have never become quite used to it, either," she said. "But consider, Halbarad: they fear no pox, nor unwanted children, and with immortal life they do not fret about the legitimacy of an heir." Halbarad had to admit these truths cast matters in a different light. In the Angle, a woman had to bear her lord's children and no other's, while the love of a man for another man was a crime punishable by exile or hanging.
The truth was, Halbarad admitted to himself, he was full of envy and desire for this enchanted life. Thus the pain and panic of a visit. Thinking of Arwen's candid eyes, he shuddered to wonder if she would invite him to her bed. He shuddered even more to wonder if Lord Glorfindel would invite him.
That had happened once before, when Halbarad entered the Rivendell bathhouse, anticipating a long soak in the hot springs, to find Glorfindel already there, stark naked and glistening like a god. Halbarad turned him down—out of cowardice or virtue, he did not know.
Walking among the roses where Arwen had recently passed on her light feet, he searched his mind for a possible excuse to flee the Hidden Valley. Engrossed in his thoughts, he hardly heard the bell ring. But when Gilraen's voice called out his name, he looked up to see her waving from her terrace.
"He's here!" she called.
"Who?" asked Halbarad stupidly.
"Estel! My son!" Gilraen fled into the House.
Joy flooded Halbarad's heart, quickly followed by dismay. Now he would have to stay.
When he reached the porch, Aragorn was already there, surrounded by his foster family, Gilraen in his arms, weeping. Elrond managed to look dignified and happy together. Voices of welcome blended into a happy tune.
"Halbarad!" Aragorn disentangled one arm from his mother's embrace and reached for Halbarad's hand.
His face was brown and craggy, and an outlandish belt of colored and intricately worked leather girded his lean waist. He wore a sleeveless jacket trimmed with the tufted fur of some exotic beast. Halbarad grinned in joy and crushed Aragorn's hand in his own.
Behind him Halbarad heard the sound of the door opening and closing, and the soft patter of bare feet. The whole room fell silent. Coughing, Elrond visibly stiffened. Halbarad turned around.
Arwen stood there, her gaze locked with Aragorn's. She moved silently across the room, her eyes shining, and offered her hand. He wrapped his two strong hands around her small one and raised it to his lips, his eyes warm with feeling.
Everybody started talking at once.
Halbarad decided that the only way to deal with the situation was to pretend he did not notice. That seemed to be the prevailing opinion in the House of Elrond, in any case, where awkwardness cooled the air whenever Aragorn and Arwen shared the room. Even Gilraen only shook her head when he asked her, casually, how long they had known each other.
After that first evening Aragorn himself disappeared, presumably into Arwen's bed.
On the day of the feast, stomping about his well-fitted guest room in a rage, Halbarad decided he would leave first thing in the morning. The feast itself was now about as inviting as a den of Orcs, but he could not miss it without causing a scene. He grimly endured the wines, cheeses, fragrant breads, juicy meats, elegant salads, brandies and sweets as best as he could. With glum determination he stalked into the Hall of Fire to suffer through a night of song and poetry.
Aragorn was not even there, and neither was Elrond. In her father's absence Arwen presided over the evening's festivities with the dignity and grace of a queen. Halbarad stared at her with hatred, unable even to smile when she acknowledged him as the guest of honor.
She held her arms out to ask for the attention of all in the Hall. "We have a new pantomime for you tonight, prepared for your enjoyment by Lady Irissë, who plays the leading part. It tells the tale of Melian and Thingol in a somewhat different manner from the stories of old." She bowed her head, a mischievous smile on her lovely lips. "I ask pardon from my illustrious ancestors for this irreverence."
Halbarad retreated to the back wall while the center of the hall was cleared of chairs and tables and the guests ringed the empty space. Silence fell, and a lone flute played.
Into the hall danced Melian, her dark locks flowing behind her, a scanty gown draped across her shapely form. Three maidens pranced behind her, feathers perched atop their sleek heads, wings fluttering from their slim arms and yellow beaks tied over their noses. They leaped and whirled, twittering like larks in the springtime, as they built a bower of soft covers for their lady to rest. At last Melian laid herself to sleep, the birds roosting behind her with their heads tucked under one wing.
Thingol entered. Halbarad recognized Glorfindel, his luxuriant golden tresses hidden by a silver wig. He wore a long grey cloak and looked very stately and important. Upon seeing Melian stretched on her bed, he raised his arms in ecstasy. Then he withdrew a small vial from his pouch and seemed to cackle to himself. He knelt over Melian and mimed letting drops fall from the vial onto her eyelids. He rubbed his hands and retreated to the corner, waiting for his love to awake. Alas, a donkey (played by Elrohir wearing a cloth pony's head with a genuine horse's tale pinned to the back of his jerkin) trotted onto the scene and woke Melian from her enchanted sleep. The lady covered the donkey's nose with kisses, while Thingol beat his chest in woe.
The course of true love ne'er did run smooth, Halbarad quoted to himself as he crept out of the Hall. Thingol appeared to wink at him as he passed. What a disgusting travesty.
As he stomped down the passage toward his guest room, he saw two figures in the shadows: Elrond and Aragorn, deep in a conversation that neither appeared to be enjoying.
Halbarad cursed and fled.
The next day, at mid-afternoon, the light golden and mellow, Halbarad prowled around the garden. He walked to the edge of the woods, where the tended flower beds gave way to wild iris and stands of birch and oak. At last, some solitude. With a sigh of relief, he let some of the tension out of his shoulders.
But it was not to be. Voices laughed softly in the trees around him, and soon burst into song.
Tis sweet, my love, to dance together
Soft green the grass, we float like a feather!
So why go a-roaming?
Come back to the valley!
Sweeter still to lie together
Wind in the treetop, dew in the heather.
Come back from your roaming!
Come here to the valley!
Growling, Halbarad stalked back to the scalloped flower beds through a maze of hedges. But when he walked through an archway in the green, he saw just what he was trying to avoid.
Aragorn and Arwen, standing together, her head on his shoulder, her hair streaming to her feet like an ebony waterfall. A silvery shawl trailed from her arm, resting on Aragorn's waist.
Arwen broke away from her lover, her face flickering between welcome and uncertainty. Aragorn murmured in her ear; she threw the shawl over her head and hurried away, avoiding Halbarad's glance.
Aragorn folded his arms across his chest and watched Halbarad as he slowly paced toward his Chieftain.
"So," he said, trying not to snarl, "are you going to tell me what is going on? Or must I continue looking like a fool?"
Aragorn looked him in the eyes. "Where do you want me to start?"
"At the beginning. That's usually the place to start, isn't it?" The anger in his voice dismayed even him.
"That was many years ago. I've loved her since before I left Rivendell and my childhood behind. But my love was not returned."
"Yes. Do you wonder why I did not tell you? How could I, when we—"
"You don't have to say it."
"No, it's high time I spoke. I mean to marry Arwen."
"You're talking nonsense, Aragorn. You know such things are not done."
"Once they were, in another Age, and I mean to make it happen again. Halbarad, we are betrothed."
Halbarad laughed bitterly. "Oh, that must be what everyone is so happy about, why Elrond turns to stone when you are together, and what your mother refuses to tell me."
A spasm of pain crossed Aragorn's face. "It's difficult enough. I have no right to expect your support. But for the sake of our friendship, listen to me now. I met her again in Lórien, after I left Gondor thirteen years ago, on my way back to the North. I made up my mind to try again, and if she still spurned me, I would take a wife in the Angle. I knew we could not be lovers again, you and I, much as I might wish it."
Halbarad hid his face in his hands. "You are only making it worse."
"Do I not speak the truth?" Aragorn said furiously. "A man must marry and have children. Would you be unfaithful to your wife?"
"Is that why you have kept apart from me? At least you could have let me know how you felt."
"That would have made things worse. I have some honor, though you may not believe it. How futile to yearn after the past, or some present that cannot be."
"And so you choose, as a Man, to wed a high lady of the Elves? Much more likely," snorted Halbarad bitterly.
Aragorn paced restlessly. "She is willing to leave her people and live with me, renouncing the life of the Elves to be my wife and the mother of my children. I think you know what that means. No wonder that Elrond dislikes it; it would be strange if he did not. I can hardly bear it myself. This is how it is: Either I will achieve the kingship that Elrond says is my destiny, or the direct line of the Heirs of Isildur will end with me. Arwen will not be my wife under any other conditions; Elrond and I agree on that. Indeed, Halbarad, the world around us darkens so much that I believe the coming war will pose the same question: either the Dúnedain will reestablish their lordship in Middle-earth, or we will pass into legend. If we fail, I do not expect I will survive; and what is left of our people will disappear into the shadows. But no matter what happens, I will cause pain to the one I called father as a child. Either I fail him, or I take his daughter from him. Halbarad, she will die for me."
"Is that why you keep it a secret then?"
"Even from me?"
"There were two reasons for my silence," Aragorn said in a low voice. "If it were not for her—you are her only rival in my heart."
Halbarad groaned in anguish. "Do you think that makes it better? You have no rival in my heart. But I've done what a man should, I've married and had children, though I too would die for you."
Aragorn pulled him into a hard embrace and pressed his lips to his mouth. Shaking with desire, Halbarad began to pull at his clothes. Duty and virtue paled to insignificance in his heart trembling with love and passion.
"Not now," hissed Aragorn.
A musical laugh sounded from the trees, and Arwen stepped forward, the shawl slipping from her shoulders. Irissë followed her, wearing rather more clothes than the last time Halbarad had seen her, her eyes alight with merriment.
"Oh, yes, now," said Arwen.
Golden light flickered through the room. Cushions of silk and soft wool and fur rugs lay scattered across the burnished wooden floor. Bottles of wine, bowls of fruits and nuts lay about in abundance, and a sweet fragrance of lilacs faintly scented the air. Four naked bodies entwined, came together, parted, in an entrancing dream.
The red-orange glow of the setting sun colored the far wall when the two Elf-women stirred from their blissful reverie of sex-satiated Elvish dreams. Arwen sighed deeply at the sight of the two Men, flat out asleep. She touched Aragorn's face and got no response.
"No," she moaned.
"What's wrong with them?" Irissë asked.
"They are sleeping. It's what happens to mortals. I found out early on that there's nothing to do but to wait for him to wake up. When he sleeps like that, it means he needs to."
"You mean we can't wake them at all?" Irissë looked at the two Men with regret.
"Oh, we could. But they would be very unhappy about it. And I only know one way to wake Estel up so that he is completely alert in an instant. I never tried it, but I know it would work. And he would never forgive me."
"What is it?"
"Rattle a sword in his ear. He's a man of war, so he has learned to be ready to fight that fast. But really it would not be a very kind thing to do."
"No," Irissë agreed.
"Don't worry," Arwen said. "When they wake up, they'll both be as good as new, maybe in an hour or two. Meanwhile, we have each other." And she turned to her friend with an inviting smile.
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