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Interlude: 3. Chapter Three
“This is what I wanted to do when I greeted you, back there in the Hall,” said Aragorn after a long minute, his voice muffled in her hair.
“This is what I wanted to do,” she replied, and kissed him, long and slow.
“Oh…” he said unsteadily, when they parted. She watched his eyes flutter open, dazed with desire. Then, “May we sit? If you kiss me like that again I fear my legs will not hold me up.”
She laughed for what felt like the first time in a very long while, and let him pull her down on the moss beside him, to lean against a wide tree trunk. “Tell me the news my brothers brought,” she said, and he did. The laughter died in her throat.
A Ranger settlement in the Angle had been attacked by a large company of Orcs, and had suffered grievous losses before Elrohir’s patrol had arrived to drive the enemy away – by chance only, having travelled faster than anticipated on their way back to Imladris with messages from Cirdan of the Havens.
“The inhabitants were taken almost completely by surprise,” said Aragorn grimly. Arwen could well imagine – Orc bands rarely fought by day unless they were themselves attacked…and they never raided fortified settlements. At least, they have not until recently, she thought with a shiver.
“My brothers will have told you that this is the third such report we have had in as many months,” she said, and he nodded.
“The Enemy is moving everywhere, it seems,” he said.
“And these latest attacks seem to speak of greater confidence…or greater discipline…” She spoke slowly, wishing she did not have to make the observation but knowing it was true.
”Aye, that is the heart of it,” Aragorn said bleakly. “The Dark Lord is gaining strength, and his hold on his servants grows. If he becomes strong enough bring all together in some sort of coordinated attack…”
All he would need for that would be the Ring. Aragorn did not have to say it aloud – Arwen felt suffocating fear seep cold into her veins. She struggled to keep her voice level, neutral.
“If he does so, we will just have to counter it.”
Aragorn’s lip twisted in a not-quite-smile. “Yes…but just now it is like trying to play a game of chess without knowing how many pieces there are…and I cannot see the board clearly…” He shook his head in frustration, and she felt a pang at how tired he looked.
“I am sure we will know more after my father’s Council, three days hence.” She lifted a hand to his face, tracing the bones in cheek and jaw with her thumb, wishing fiercely that there was more she could do or say to comfort him. But thankfully her touch seemed to be enough, for now; he closed his eyes and leaned into it, turning his lips briefly into her palm. Then he let out a long breath, reaching up and tangling his fingers with hers, and she could feel him making a determined effort to shrug off dark thoughts.
“Why were you so angry with Lindir, in the Hall earlier?”
She looked at him in surprise; he quirked an eyebrow at her. “I could tell from the doorway. You looked…very much like your father, all of a sudden.”
“Yes. Beauty like a knife’s edge…with a sheen of power over it, like frost in winter.”
“Oh!” I ought not to be flattered…I am not proud of how I reacted to Lindir’s jabs. “It is hardly worthy of mention. Lindir was being patronizing about Bilbo’s poem – teasing him about Elves being unable to tell the difference between a man and a hobbit, since both are mortal. ’To sheep, other sheep no doubt appear different…’” she mimicked the other Elf’s indolent drawl.
Aragorn snorted. “Coming from Lindir, there is naught new in that.”
“I know.” She studied their intertwined hands. “Bilbo did not seem to mind – and it was certainly nothing I have not heard before, from Lindir and others who take it upon themselves to disapprove. I do not know why I bothered to be so wroth with him this time.” She frowned. “It was certainly not my intention to be so obvious about it – but as you tell it, the whole Hall must have known.”
“I think not,” Aragorn said. “I only noticed because I am very…aware…of you, always.” She raised her head to meet his eyes. Yes, she thought, and you see me more clearly than anyone – even without the othersight of the Elves. How is that possible? She did not know – but she felt a familiar stab of gratitude, so keen it was almost painful. Their gaze held, lengthened – and then his eyes darkened, and he turned away.
“Estel – what is it?” she prodded when he remained silent. He hunched his shoulders up, letting go of her hand and curling his arms around his drawn-up knees.
“It grieves me to think that associating with me leaves you open to insult from your own people. Added to everything else…it is unfair.”
Ai, added to everything else – the certainty of my own death, the prospect of leaving my people and my home, thus breaking my parents’ hearts, and cleaving irrevocably to a lover I fear I must only be parted from forever at the end…on top of all that, a few snide remarks seem little enough to bear! she thought but did not say. They had had variations on this conversation many times before.
“It is somewhat arrogant of you to assume it is my association with you that makes certain Elves think less of me, Estel,” she said. “After all, I have been open in my respect for all kinds of mortals since long before we ever met.”
He shook his head. “Do not play that card with me, Evenstar. Truly you have been a friend to many mortals – but no one would grudge you that, if you had not chosen to be so much more than a friend to me!” Surprised at the depth of bitterness in his voice, she looked at him keenly.
“Estel, who has been at you?” She exhaled in frustration. “When will they realize that it is my choice and mine alone – you are not to blame for it.”
“Nay, no one has been at me, as you put it.” A little humour crept into his tone, but it was soon gone. “It is more what they do not say… even those who profess to understand, or at least not to condemn. They change the subject, or turn silent in my presence, and I can tell that they grieve. How can I fault them? And your father – behaves normally to me in all respects…but it is as if there is a wall between us, and sometimes I find him looking at you, or at us and – Arwen, it is as if he is bleeding from some invisible wound.”
“I know,” she said, her throat suddenly tight. “But he will not speak of it to me either. Tonight – just for a moment – I thought, perhaps, he might…but I was wrong.” She swallowed hard, staring blindly at her fingers, twisted together in her lap. After a moment she felt Aragorn’s touch on her hair.
“I am sorry,” he whispered. That brought her back up to face him, eyes flashing.
“Do not you apologize,” she said fiercely, “unless you are sorry you fell in love with me, or sorry that I chose to love you in return.”
He gazed back at her, his face stark with longing in the moonlight. “Never. May the Valar forgive me, but I cannot be sorry for that.” Then he kissed her, hard and hungrily at first, but as she wove a hand into his hair and matched him passion for passion, it transmuted into something calmer and less desperate. Warmth bloomed under his touch, and the aching tenderness of his mouth on hers seemed to loosen everything inside her that had been wound too tightly for so long. The relief of it, of having him close, brought tears to her eyes. With a shuddering gasp, she realized that she was crying. Aragorn gathered her against him and held her without a word.
“I am sorry,” she muttered in her turn, brokenly into the crook of his neck. “I do not know what mood is on me tonight…I am tired, truly that is all. It has been – dificult, these past few days.”
“I know,” he said. “The Shadow grows ever darker – and now it has come even into Imladris. I would I had not brought this burden to you, love.”
At that, Arwen felt a small exasperated laugh bubble up. “Oh Estel, will you blame yourself for everything tonight?” She took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders and pushing her hair back from her face. “You had no other choice, as you well know…and better in any case that it should come here, among Elves, who are stronger against its power, than stay out in the world where it might do its Master’s work too well. We will bear the burden lightly enough, you will see,” she promised. Let that be my stand against the Shadow, since I am not to ride to war with my brothers and my lover.
“I have no doubt of it,” said Aragorn. “Not with you here to make it so.” He caught her hand and brought it to his lips. “You are a shining light, Arwen Undomiel. No one – not even Elrond – does more to keep the heart of Imladris strong.”
The compliment and the admiration in his voice and eyes sent another rush of warmth singing through her body. “I do not feel very strong, just at present,” she admitted. And to no one but him would I ever say such a thing.
“Nonetheless, you are.” He smiled suddenly, and she felt it as the sun coming from behind a cloud. “What a Queen you will make, if I ever manage to win us a realm! Gondor has never yet seen your like.”
Nor yours, my love… “That does not surprise me,” she replied drily, to cover the sudden giddy happiness that was coursing through her veins. “According to the histories I have read, the role of the Queen of Gondor seems hitherto to have consisted of, first, being a useful pawn in the game of strategic alliances, and after that, dutifully bearing children to assure the survival of the royal bloodline.”
“Ah, said Aragorn, looking at her seriously. “You have uncovered my true motive in courting you. An alliance with the Elves will greatly strengthen Gondor’s political position. And of course the blood of Numenor, which grows weaker with each generation, would benefit from being joined again with the line of Earendil. It will be a very suitable match.”
"Will it!” He was very convincing, except for the laughter she could see dancing deep down in his eyes. It made her want to sing. Instead she asked archly,
“Do the men and women of Gondor never marry for love, then?”
“Sometimes.” He stretched his legs out and leaned back against the tree trunk. “But among the powerful, such things are usually arranged with everything but love in mind.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “It is a very strange custom. I cannot fathom sharing a life with someone based on such an arrangement.”
“Nor can I,” he said offhandedly, avoiding her eyes. “But then, you know, I had an odd upbringing.”
“Odd?!” She sputtered. Exaggeratedly indignant, she poked him in the side, and as he jerked away, she tickled him – or tried to. Curse this elven-mail! I fear I am having very little effect…
“Oh yes,” he got out. “Very odd indeed…got all sorts of eccentric ideas in my head.” He was laughing breathlessly, and so was she. How long it has been since we could be playful together like this, she thought fleetingly. Then she started to overbalance, and he caught both her wrists and held her against his drawn-up knees.
“I do not want that sort of marriage,” he said, all at once serious again.
“I am glad,” she said. “I do not think I could be that sort of wife – or Queen.”
“Thank the Valar for that.”
“What sort do you want, then?” she asked. He let go of her wrists and dropped his eyes, suddenly diffident. They had never spoken so before, she realized, looking at his bent head. They had never discussed the shape their lives would take if the promise of his destiny were fulfilled. Can it be that we are afraid to hope, after all? she wondered.
He raised his head and faced her again, and she felt the full force of his longing, of dreams long and deeply held, so precious that he hardly dared speak of them, even to her.
“One who will share in everything with me,” he said roughly. “One who will be as my right hand upon the throne and in all things…who will help me build a kingdom and a life. A mother for my children - for I find I do wish to have them, and not just for dynasty’s sake… a friend and counsellor as well as lover, always…” His mouth quirked up in self-deprecation. “I do not ask for much, do I?”
And so it seems, beloved, that our dreams are the same. She swallowed hard and smiled tremulously, slipping her arms around his neck. “I believe I could try to be that sort of wife,” she said.
He closed his eyes, letting his forehead fall forward to touch hers. “I only hope I shall be given the chance to be worthy of you.”
“Idiot,” she said tartly. “You already are.” He laughed shakily and pulled her close once more. She burrowed into his body, loving the feeling of his arms around her. In the end, all the dreams come down to this, she thought. I simply want to be with him. Even if the moments are few and far between, and every heartbeat means one moment less.
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