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Unto the ending of the world: 21. Ashes
May 1, 3019
Elrond picked up a book from Aragorn's desk, then put it down again as he heard footsteps approach and stop. Arwen. He too had hesitated before he could bring himself to enter his son's chambers, but Elrond could only guess at what it cost his daughter to step across the threshold.
To his relief she did not hesitate to meet his embrace when she did come in, and he held her for several heartbeats before she stepped away and went into the bedchamber. His asking her for help sorting out Aragorn's possessions was just an excuse to bring them together so they might talk. Though Arwen had agreed to meet him here today, she was still reluctant to speak; and in all honesty, so was he.
Before today he had faltered every time before he could say anything. Elrond felt a brief stab of resentment that even in death Aragorn stood between him and his daughter, but put it aside as he recognised it. Aragorn had truly been as a third son to him, and he would not let himself be ruled by such pettiness. Yet he could not allow himself to be merely a grieving father. He had to consider his living children as well as the one lost to him. Elladan and Elrohir would not sail while there was still a battle to be fought, but Arwen... her at least, while the road to the Havens was yet open, he could protect from the bitter conflict that was coming.
Elrond turned back to the desk, and with a sigh picked up another book. There should be, if not comfort, at least distraction in these pages, and he leafed through a history of Arnor that he found himself holding. Yet his thoughts were on their situation rather than on the book in his hands.
It had been mere chance that he did not have Vilya on his hand when Sauron took the One, and he hesitated to think how close he had been to being laid bare to the Enemy. He no longer dared to use Vilya to protect Rivendell from Sauron's gaze, yet not all the defences of the Valley depended on his Ring; they were still not fully revealed. Even so, after the Ringwraiths had chased the Ringbearer almost to his doorstep, the Enemy had to know that he was one of the Keepers of the Three. Elrond wondered how Galadriel had fared; though Nenya's disposition was likely known to the Enemy, she might have had some warning from her Mirror. Alas that Gandalf's wisdom, or his luck, had failed him, and alas also for what might yet come of that failure. Elrond wished yet again that his sons would return soon; not only would they have news from Lothlórien, they should also be able to tell him more about Gandalf than Halbarad had.
There still was time before the Enemy could assail the North; yet while that delay gave them some chance to prepare, Elrond saw little hope for even a stand-off, let alone victory. The Enemy was not invincible – his defeat against the Last Alliance had come while the One Ring was in his possession – but they had not even a tithe of the numbers they had then, and thus no way to take the fight to Sauron. Wherever they stood, the end would be the same; and already some were calling to leave, to set sail and abandon Rivendell, and Middle-earth.
Elrond wished he could deny the draw of that path – to see Celebrían again, not see all his life's work shattered, not see the last of Elros' blood in the North destroyed; and yet to abandon the battle before the end, turn his back on those who could not flee West? He shook his head. He would not stop any Elves who wished to go from leaving, but his own decision must be delayed until his sons returned from Lothlórien; nor could he escape the feeling that his road West led through Mandos' Halls.
With a grimace, he made another attempt at finding distraction in the book he held. He found himself re-reading the same passage several times without comprehension, and he was about to put the book down when Arwen returned from the other chamber. Halting his movement, Elrond watched her surreptitiously as she too studied Aragorn's books. She took down several from the shelf next to the desk, stacking them, then picked up and opened the top one; Elrond recognised the copy of Aranarth's diary that Elladan had once in jest called the Chieftains' notebook; and indeed all Chieftains had added to what Aranarth had written. Arahael and Aranuir had started it, and it had quickly become a tradition.
"Halbarad might like this," Arwen said suddenly.
Halbarad? Oh, of course, Aragorn's notes. When Elrond did not respond, Arwen repeated her words, and he at last answered. "Yes, I think he might. Remember to have another copy made before you send it."
Arwen nodded in agreement, and Elrond finally closed and put down the book he still had in his hands. It was time to speak. It will be mercy to send her away from here, away from… "Arwen, I can no longer shield Rivendell from the gaze of the Enemy, and I would have you leave while the Havens can still be reached. If you depart on the morrow, there will be a ship waiting to take you West."
"No." She did not say more, nor could he read her gaze.
Elrond continued his plea, "Arwen, please. In the end, Rivendell will fall, and it would ease me to know that you at least are dwelling in safety."
"Safety? Think you that matters to me? I made my choice."
"He is dead."
"And I will follow him. Mine is the choice of Lúthien."
"Arwen, you are not her, and your fate need not be hers." You have another choice.
"No, indeed, nor can it be, for Mandos' heart will not soften a second time, and my Beren will not be returned to me." She took a deep breath and took his hands in hers. A shiver ran down Elrond's back as he looked at her face. "Fear not, Father, I will not leave without bidding thee farewell."
"There is solace to be found in memory, and in the West there may be healing for even this grief. Let him live on in memory everlasting. I beseech you, think about this." He closed his eyes as he realised how empty his words sounded even to himself. Arwen snorted and pulled her hands away. He heard her steps as she crossed the floor, leaving him alone. She will leave you one way or another.
"Memory everlasting? The green hills of Tol Eressëa would be less welcome to me than the ashy waste of Gorgoroth. There is nothing in the West for me, Father, nothing but grief and regret everlasting."
"Arwen..." he attempted to speak again, opening his eyes, but she interrupted him from the window where she now stood looking out.
"Do not seek to dissuade me, Father. It was your Quest and your conditions that sent Estel to his death!"
He flinched at her anger, her words cutting deeply, but his own ire rose as he replied. "Is that what you believe, my daughter? That I sent him to his death? Deliberately? One whom I love as my own, who grew up in my house, who called me father? Knowingly dooming Middle-earth at the same time?"
"Father, no!" For a moment, Arwen stared at him in shock, then rushed towards him. "I did not mean..."
Returning his daughter's embrace and murmuring soft words of comfort almost without thinking, Elrond still could not let go of her words. Surely she but spoke in grief, and yet… He wondered, as he had done too often since learning that the Enemy had regained the One, not about his motivations, but about his actions. Had he done enough over the years to prepare Aragorn for his purpose, or was there yet more he could have done? Had he asked too much of his son? Could anyone have succeeded with the odds of the Quest against him? Though not by design, had he in fact sent Aragorn on a journey that had been doomed to fail from the beginning?
At the time they decided to send off the Ringbearer with only eight companions, all had thought it the best course, and the risk worth taking, even Gandalf. Aragorn too had known that the Quest was a gamble, and a desperate one at that; yet Elrond knew that had the Quest been successful, his son would have counted his life a small price to pay for bringing down Sauron. Could the Council have done aught else, aught that might have given them a better chance?
Elrond recalled what he had told his son so long ago, what foresight had shown him. A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin. Aragorn had seen much the same himself. Bitter were now the dregs of foresight, and Elrond feared that he had not yet reached the bottom of that draught.
They stood for a long time, neither speaking nor moving, until Arwen stepped away and with a wan smile suggested that it might be better if they continued their work another time. Elrond watched as she left, and with a sigh sat down at Aragorn's desk. Was there any argument that could yet persuade Arwen to go West? Or was he wrong to try to make her leave? Should he accept her Choice, even now?
Oh, Father… Arwen set down the books she had brought with her on a side table, then quickly went back to close the door. She leant against the wall letting out a shuddering breath before she walked back to the table; it was easier to consider the books she had chosen as remembrances than to face her thoughts again.
The first book had been the easiest choice. At times over the last few years Bilbo had spent some effort studying Adûnaic; he would like the book of Númenorean poetry she had set apart for him as a remembrance of his friend. She briefly bowed her head in pity; the old Hobbit mourned not only for Estel, but he was also berating himself in guilt and grief over poor Frodo. She should give this to him soon; it might distract him a little.
Then Aranarth's diary… She opened it on the page with the map of the Angle. There was a list of notes written in the margin in Argonui's tiny, neat hand, followed by one by Estel, 'Ancient Hobbit holes near Caras Dirnen! ' She was certain he would have told Bilbo, and wondered what the Hobbit had said. Perhaps she should ask when she gave him the other book. She would also have to see to having a copy made before she could send this book to Halbarad. In truth, it was a paltry gift, but there was naught that would do Halbarad's friendship – or his steadfast service to his Chieftain – justice.
She truly hoped Halbarad would not take the gift amiss, that he would not think she was attempting to apologise further for her angry words to him. It had taken so long before he had approved wholly of the betrothal, and of her. Estel had told her how glad his kinsman had been for him when he first heard of it, yet when he had learned of her father's conditions... Though Estel had not told her much beyond that, she knew there had been harsh words spoken even between these two. In time, though, Halbarad had become her staunchest ally in the Angle, as well as a dear friend. Putting down the book, she remembered his long-ago gruff avowal to her that, since he was unable to dissuade either her or his love-struck fool kinsman from their course, he had better make sure that Aragorn won his kingdoms. Apart from her brothers, she would have entrusted the standard she had made for Estel to no other.
The standard… the standard that had become Estel's shroud. For all her pride in her skill and the care with which she had woven her blessing into the cloth, that was all that her work, and her love, had come to; ashes on the wind, as fleeting as breath, as fleeting as Mortal life.
Arwen's breath caught as she looked at the copy of the Lay of Leithian that she had made for Estel. Yet more of her work. Slowly, reluctantly, she picked it up and walked to the balcony.
She could not bear to open the book, instead clutching it in her hands as she gazed into the distance. She had spoken with such certainty to reject the West. It was not true that Elvenhome held nothing for her – her mother was there, yet she could not desert Estel even for Celebrían's sake. You are the one who should go West, Father. You will find your heart's desire there. I will not.
All too easily she could see herself, drifting through endless days, living only in her memories, an unfaded ghost amidst the bliss of Elvenhome, remembering to eat only because food was placed in front of her, remembering to speak only because she was spoken to. Already all that remained her was memory.
And though Elvish memory be almost as vivid as the living day, yet it was still no more than an image. Memory would never be the times they had sat together in the Hall of Fire talking, walked along the waterfalls or rode in the valley's forests, few as the opportunities for any of these had been. Memory would never be his voice, the light in his eyes, the way his smile lit up his whole face when their eyes met. Memory could not be him, his hands, his lips, his embrace.
Memory would never be enough, for it was not Estel. She had wanted – still wanted – all of him, body and soul both, as much as he had desired all of her, and she would rather be with him in the Halls of Waiting and beyond than have naught but memory in Elvenhome. Had Estel asked it, she thought, she would have wedded him in defiance of her father's wishes, as was her right. Yet, for given word and for the love he bore his foster-father, he had never asked.
Even so, though they were not truly bonded – how could they be, when they had never lain together? – all the years of their betrothal she had felt him in her mind, always knowing where he was and whether he was well, and he had also felt her presence.
She abruptly turned and went back inside. For all her awareness of Estel, she had not even felt his dea… No, had she been able to admit it to herself, she could have... had known that Estel was dead even before Halbarad confirmed it. Had her unwillingness, her fear to face the truth, denied her love a last comforting touch, no matter how fleeting, as he lay dying? He had cried out to her in pain and despair, and she had not responded, had told herself that it was her imagination, that he was well; he had to be.
Arwen had not tried to find him in thought after that day, even before she had heard of his death. Slowly, expecting to find only cold and emptiness, she now reached for the place where he had been. She almost stumbled as she felt… it was barely more than an echo, so faint was his presence, but he was there. Had he then not yet left the Circles of the World? Was he waiting for her? Estel, Estel! But whether he heard, she could not tell.
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