My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Matter of Honor, A: 5. Clearing the Way
Morning in Rivendell dawned with its usual sublime perfection. Puffy white clouds ambled leisurely across the sky, cheery birdcalls echoed through the open window, and the gentlest of breezes stirred dust motes that drifted lazily above the ornately carved walnut bed in which Halbarad lay fidgeting.
It was not that the accommodations were inadequate, he conceded. Even the comfortable but spare warrior's quarters he was accustomed to could scarcely be called inadequate, but the room he found himself in this time was furnished for a king. From the massive gold mirror above the mantel to the exquisitely painted trim on the wardrobe, every textile, object, and piece of furniture in the room had been painstakingly wrought by craftsmen with patience, skill, and time far exceeding those of any mortal being. Decades of loom-work must have gone into the massive green draperies, and even the hem of the linen bed sheet bore intricately embroidered rose petals. Tracing the delicate stitches with his rough fingertips, Halbarad found himself oddly homesick for bare plank floorboards and threadbare homespun.
Finding himself unattended, he considered his predicament as he idly catalogued his awakening aches and pains. He had no intention of lying here until someone happened to wander by – given the size of the house, it could be days before anyone remembered where they'd put him, and he guessed by the stubble on his chin that at least one day had passed already since Elrohir Elrondion, traitorous lout, held him down while some vile spawn of Mordor shaved his beard off. Reminding himself to deal with Elrohir just as soon as he assured himself of Aragorn's well-being, he threw off the sheet. An instant later he threw it back on again -- it seemed it would have to be pressed into service as a robe until he found his clothes. Dragging the sheet along, he wrestled his way across an expanse of mattress as soft and plump as risen dough and swung his feet over the side. Just as his feet sunk into a mass of plush carpet, pain shot through his chest, doubling him over, and he lurched against the bedpost as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Clinging to the bed with one hand and the sheet with the other, he clenched his eyes shut and waited for it to pass. As the buzzing in his ears slowly subsided, it was replaced by the angry swish of robes, fast approaching.
"Master Dúnadan!" The robe-swishing abruptly ceased, and Halbarad found himself efficiently levered back onto the bed. "You are not to get up without Lord Elrond's permission," a crisp voice lectured, very close to his ear. "Do I make myself clear?"
The voice was vaguely familiar and sounded Elvish, but since it apparently did not belong to Elrond himself, Halbarad allowed himself the satisfaction of swatting the hand pinning his shoulder. "Where is Aragorn?" he demanded.
"He is being cared for. Lie still or you will aggravate your wounds." Forcing open an eyelid wide enough to shoot a glare at his captor, Halbarad groaned in recognition. His last encounter with this particular Elf had involved an enormous draught of foul-tasting potion and a sewing needle the size of a Dwarvish pickaxe. This time, the healer was unarmed, though he still presented an imposing figure, in a loose-jointed, wraithlike sort of way; looming over the bed like a winter-bare willow with coloring to match. The Elf pressed pale lips together in a thin line of distaste as he regarded his captive through narrowed eyes. Halbarad returned the sour look, trying to remember the name Elrohir had called him by during their unfortunate first encounter. Regrettably, his attention at the time had been somewhat more focused on the needle he was about to be skewered with than formal introductions, but he did recall that the healer's name had sounded like a piece of leather gear; something one might strap onto one's belt, or saddle. Sword belt, saddlebags... He grunted with satisfaction. That was it. The Elf's name was Saddlebags.
Saddlebags, taking his lack of continued resistance for acquiescence, released him and straightened to his considerable full height, tugging at the loose robes he must have disheveled in his rush to the bed. He cocked an eyebrow haughtily. "Now let that be a lesson to you."
Stuffy prig, Halbarad thought. "How long have I been here?"
Saddlebags sniffed and turned his back, fussing with something on the cluttered worktable. "Why are Men so endlessly preoccupied with counting out the minutes of their lives?"
"Probably because we don't have an endless supply of them," Halbarad shot back, wincing at the sound of liquid being poured into a vessel. He craned his neck to get a look -- he had no intention of allowing himself to be drugged into oblivion again. When Saddlebags finally turned around, though, Halbarad saw with dismay that it was not the the dreaded vial of potion he held in his hands, but something much, much worse. "No," Halbarad protested, scrambling backward until his spine pressed hard against the headboard. "Get that away from me."
Saddlebags rolled eggshell-pale eyes upward in a gesture of infinite weariness, then downward at the washbasin he held in his hands. "My dear Ranger," he sighed, "it is time for your bath."
"I just had a bath last night," Halbarad explained helpfully – another ordeal for which those two warg's sons he used to call friends would receive their due recompense as soon as he had the leisure to dispense it.
"Last night?" Saddlebags sniffed again. "Hardly. Two nights have passed since you were brought here."
"Morgoth's balls," Halbarad muttered. No wonder he felt so stiff. He looked up after a moment to see Saddlebags still holding the washbasin. "Why would I need a bath?" he argued. "I have done nothing since I arrived but lie in bed!"
"What a remarkable talent you must have," Saddlebags commented. "I would have expected the production of such an impressive odor to require a great deal more effort."
"Odor!" Halbarad bellowed. "What odor? I smell as sweet as meadow grass!"
"Indeed, you smell nothing like it."
Mindful of his role as pampered houseguest, Halbarad was trying very hard not to disgrace the noble Dúnedain race, offend his host, and incidentally prove that everything his mother-in-law had ever said about him was true, but he was not going to sit here and be insulted. "Now, see here. I have not been this clean since my wedding day!"
"That does not surprise me at all," Saddlebags said dryly, advancing on him.
Halbarad pulled the sheet tight against his chest and glowered. "Where are my clothes?"
"The...garments," Saddlebags said, managing to spit out the word out as if it were a piece of hair he'd found in his soup, "you were wearing when you were brought here have likely been burned. Suitable attire will be provided when Lord Elrond deems you fit to leave your bed."
"I'm fit to leave my bed now," Halbarad said. "I need to see Aragorn."
The Elf was unpersuaded. "What you are in need of is a bath."
"No, I am not," Halbarad countered firmly. He considered his options. Escape was unlikely. Not only did Saddlebags block his route to the door, but he wasn't sure he could even make it that far on his own two feet. Catching a glint of his sword hilt out of the corner of his eye, he sized up the Elf. A Man was no match for an Elvish warrior in his prime, but Saddlebags' fingers were slender and fragile, the skin smooth and unmarred by calluses or scars. They were healer's hands; hands that had not held a weapon in centuries, maybe millennia. In fact, Saddlebags looked like he probably hadn't held a weapon since -- well, probably since the Last Alliance, Halbarad concluded despondently -- where spindly old Saddlebags had undoubtedly slain more orcs than Halbarad had seen in his lifetime. He was doomed.
The Elf standing over him smiled dangerously. "Yes, you are."
"That will be all, Saerbellas." Halbarad looked up to see Elrond at the door, wearing a simple blue robe and an expression of amused forebearance. "If you would be so kind, go to the kitchen and ask for some breakfast to be brought up for Halbarad. I am sure his long rest has left him hungry." Without waiting for Saddlebags to reply, Elrond smoothly relieved the healer of his washbasin and, to Halbarad's immense relief, set it down on the table. Shooting a last contemptuous glare at Halbarad, Saddlebags spun around and disappeared in a rustle of robes. Only with the healer safely gone did Halbarad sink back onto the bed and release a long-held breath. Elrond, arms crossed, nodded patiently and regarded him with a benign expression. "It pleases me to see you feeling better, Halbarad, but I must ask you to refrain from tormenting the staff."
Halbarad was struck, for one inexplicable instant, by the impression that Lord of Imladris was teasing him. He immediately dismissed the notion as symptom of whatever was blurring his vision. "I meant no offense, Lord Elrond," he said. "Please tell me -- is Aragorn all right?"
"It was a near thing," Elrond answered, reaching for Halbarad's wrist, "but he will be all right in time."
Halbarad considered the implications of the statement as Elrond settled in for what was obviously going to be an examination. The terse reply had left volumes unspoken, but if Elrond said Aragorn would be all right, he would. Still, he could not be blamed for wanting to see for himself. "I would like to see him."
"Yes, of course. Perhaps tomorrow." Elrond turned back the sheet and gently pried Halbarad's protective arm away from his midsection. "Try to relax, Halbarad. The pain will be less." As Elrond began probing his ribcage, Halbarad found himself sinking back into the pillows, relaxed as an old dog lying in the sun. "Your breathing is still shallow," Elrond said, rousing him from a light doze. "Are you still in pain?"
He was not, Halbarad realized unexpectedly. Elrond merely smiled at his quizzical expression and held a finger in front of his face. Motioning for Halbarad to track it with his eyes, he waved it slowly back and forth. "Are you experiencing any dizziness or blurred vision?"
"My head feels foggy, but I think it is from the potion that Saddle – Saerbellas made me drink."
Elrond sat down in the chair and peered into his eyes. "There was a great deal of debris embedded in your skin – dirt, gravel, splinters. You were dragged some distance along the bridge deck. It was necessary to sedate you while cleaning your wounds, but Saerbellas may have given you a bit too much medicine. He is not accustomed to treating Men."
Halbarad snorted. "I doubt it was an accident. I think he just likes me better unconscious."
Elrond's slight smile conceded the point. "It has been said that Saerbellas's bedside manner is better suited to his beloved orchids."
"Naturally; they can't talk back. They probably smell better than a Dúnadan, too." Halbarad caught himself grinning and realized with belated horror that he was bantering with the Lord of Imladris as if he were a drinking companion at the Prancing Pony. He lowered his gaze as a flush spread down his neck. "Forgive my impertinence, Lord Elrond."
Elrond chuckled. "Halbarad, if you do not stop apologizing, I will order Saerbellas to come back and finish what he started. We are kin, are we not? Let us not stand on ceremony. I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude." Halbarad looked up to see Elrond smiling at his look of surprise. "I would like to thank you."
"For bringing my son home," Elrond said.
"My lord?" A woman in a long blue gown stood in the doorway, carrying a covered tray. "Here is the food you sent for."
Elrond rose and took a robe from the wardrobe. "Thank you, Tiriel. Leave the tray on the table, please, and we shall see if Halbarad is up to walking a bit."
With the robe protecting his dignity and Elrond's discreet but firm grip safeguarding his balance, Halbarad managed to limp to the table in a relatively upright position. As he turned to ease himself into the chair Elrond held for him, he caught sight, for the first time, of the painting hanging above the bed. Elrond caught him as his knees gave out.
"Halbarad?" Elrond steered him into the chair. "Halbarad! What is wrong? Are you in pain?"
"No," he whispered. "The painting."
Elrond's head swung around to follow Halbarad's fixed stare. "The painting? It is the city of Minas Tirith."
Elrond was eyeing him intently. "Have you been there?"
"No, never." The tower was unmistakable, though. He would know it anywhere.
Elrond's eyes narrowed. "But you have seen it before?" Halbarad still transfixed on the painting, nodded mutely, and Elrond moved to block his view, forcing him to redirect his gaze. "In a vision?"
Halbarad hesitated. "A dream," he said finally.
So many years ago… "The night Aragorn came back from Gondor." He'd been huddled, miserable, by a tiny fire at a camp in a hollow west of Weathertop. His hood had been pulled over his head to block the incessant drizzle as he half-heartedly stirred a stewpot of three-day-old mutton. As gloomy dusk descended, Aragorn had managed to walk right up behind him and snap a twig in his ear, launching him into a dive across the rain-soaked ground. As he bounded to his feet, flinging back his hood and brandishing his sword, Aragorn had nearly collapsed in fits of laughter. He pursued with one mock thrust, to which Aragorn had raised his hands in gleeful surrender, then they'd embraced, slapped each other on the back, traded insults about Aragorn's sense of humor and Halbarad's diminishing hearing, and sat down to break open a cask of Butterbur's beer that Halbarad was bringing back from Bree. Aragorn had drained his tankard in one long, blissful draught and pronounced it a finer brew than anything to be found in the east. He begged some pipeweed then, and sat smoking and spinning tales as the last glow of twilight faded in the west. The rain ended, the stars came out, and Halbarad settled back against his pack in drowsy contentment as Aragorn told of the thunderous pounding of a hundred mounted horsemen galloping across a plain, the splendor of a white city clinging to the side of a mountain, the glory of valiant sea battles and the loneliness of far treeless places so quiet a man might hear his own heart thumping within his chest. It was very late when the two Rangers, drowsy and bloated with Butterbur's brew, slid beneath their blankets. But when Aragorn's tales followed Halbarad into sleep, it was not the sunlit, peaceful city of Aragorn's tales that Halbarad dreamed of, but a city drowning in terror, awash in blood. Even now a shiver rippled through him at the memory. He felt the weight of a blanket on his shoulders, and looked up at Elrond. "Thank you," he said.
"Halbarad," Elrond said, "tell me what you have seen."
Halbarad hesitated, feeling foolish. What was one dream to a being who had seen the rise and fall of entire kingdoms? "My lord, it is you who are gifted with foresight, or so it is said."
Elrond put on a wry smile. "As I am sure you have realized by now, Halbarad, foresight is a curse as much as a gift. I have foreseen a great many things, both joyful and grievous. Some of them will come to pass, and some will not. Even I cannot clearly see what lies ahead." He stood and went to look at the painting. "A great shadow lies over Minas Tirith. You have seen this, have you not?"
The shiver began crawling across Halbarad's flesh again, and Elrond turned back to him as if sensing it. Sitting down, he took Halbarad's shoulders in his hands. "Tell me about your dream, Halbarad. It cannot harm you here."
Halbarad took a deep breath, summoning the will to relive a vision of horror he had spent decades trying to forget. "I am with a company of Dúnedain, on a vast plain of battle," he began, stopping to clear his throat before continuing. "Before us is a towering city. That city," he added, with a nod at the painting. "The sky is roiling with smoke, and in the distance is a mountain spitting fire. Great siege engines are pounding the city walls, and armies of Men are battling orcs by the thousands. Orcs spill across the plain like maggots on a carcass. We meet them in a battle such as I have never imagined. I am carrying the standard of the King, and they are drawn to it like moths to a flame. I cut down orc after orc, but they are relentless in their assault, and we are too few. There is only option -- I raise the standard, like bait on a hook, and lead them away from Aragorn. It works. They follow me like hounds for a rabbit. But in drawing them away, I have opened a gap. They rush toward me with scimitars raised. I am surrounded."
Halbarad shivered under the blanket, realizing he was drenched in cold sweat. Elrond's voice was steady. "What else do you see?"
Halbarad shook his head. "Nothing."
Elrond put a glass of amber liquid in front of him. "Drink this."
Halbarad downed it without asking what it was. Fire burned in his gullet, and the smell of smoke and death slowly faded from his nostrils. He looked up at Elrond. "I know that if I go to the city, I will not see the days of the king."
"But you will go to the city regardless," Elrond said. Halbarad nodded. "You are a brave man."
Halbarad shook his head. "Is it bravery to seek death in battle, with honor, in service to my lord and my people, or is it vanity? I am a Man, and death is nothing but my fate. It will find me whether I seek it or not. If the quick hot death of battle is not my fate, then old age will claim me inch by inch. How much bravery does it take to make that choice? Among men, only our ancestor, Tar-Minyatur, can truly be called brave, by willingly embracing death when immortality was his for the taking. If such a choice were put before me, to escape the bitter gift of Men and instead live on in health and wisdom, I do not know if I would find the same courage."
Elrond sat quietly for a moment. "Nor I," he said finally.
Halbarad cringed. "Forgive me --"
Elrond caught his hand before he could bury his face in it, laughing lightly. "No apologies, Halbarad. If you fail to heed my warning, you will truly see the wrath of an Elf Lord."
There was a long silence, softened only by the birdcalls drifting through the open window and the faraway rush of flowing water. Finally Elrond spoke. "Does Aragorn know of this dream?"
"No!" Eru, no. No one knew – not his men, or his wife, or the sons of Elrond, and certainly not Aragorn. He had never been sure, until this very hour, that the dream had not been merely the product of a large quantity of ale at a very late hour. Until now. He caught Elrond's arm as he rose. "Promise me you won't tell Aragorn," he said. "There must be nothing holding him back, when his time comes. His way must be clear."
Elrond stood unmoving for a long moment. "I promise, Master Dúnadan," he said finally. "His way will be clear." He went to the bed and reached across it to remove the painting of Minas Tirith from the wall. "Perhaps we should find another painting for your room. This one fights the draperies, do you not think?" With a slight smile, he turned to leave. "Enjoy your breakfast. I will inform your friend Dudo that you are awake. He has been asking for you."
"May I see Aragorn later?"
"Tomorrow, Halbarad." Elrond turned and shot him a stern look. "Now do promise to stay out of trouble, or I will order Saerbellas to put you to sleep until midsummer."
Halbarad forced a begrudging nod, but Elrond lingered near the door expectantly, showing no intention of leaving until he received an explicit acknowledgement. "I will stay out of trouble," Halbarad finally agreed.
Elrond smiled. "Thank you, Halbarad." Turning the painting sideways to maneuver it through the doorway, he disappeared silently into the hall.
Halbarad watched the open doorway until he was sure Elrond was out of earshot. "Just as long as you keep old Saddlebags away from me," he mumbled as he turned to his breakfast.
The door near the end of the hall was habitually kept shut, though the polished doorknob turned easily in Elrond's hand and the well-oiled hinges opened without a creak. The dim, shuttered room smelled of dust and emptiness, and the faint tap of the picture frame against the bare stone floor produced the hollow echo of an unlived-in room. The rugs had been long ago been rolled up and stored away; the mattress and upholstered pieces were draped with serviceable but plain dust-covers.
The faintest layer of dust coated the dresser and desk; a maid must have cleaned in here recently. Elrond picked up a small wooden box from the dresser top, cradling it gently in his hands to protect the ancient, fragile wood. Its maker had lacked the experience to properly select a hardy grade of wood and to preserve it against decay; and now, nearly three thousand years after it was made as a birthday present for a beloved little sister, it was crumbling with age. Elrond fingered the intricate carvings carefully, smiling at stray gouges and grooves that were not quite straight – the work was a testament to love, not artistry. Even at a young age, the box's maker had shown more aptitude for hunting and warfare than fine craftsmanship. Elrond opened the box to find it empty. Once, precious treasures had been secreted within, to be shared only with trusted confidantes - a bright yellow bird feather, a seashell, a gold ring with a tiny pink stone. But like the red velvet lining that had crumbled to dust centuries ago, they were all gone.
Elrond put the box back on the dresser and turned back to face the painting of Minas Tirith. It was a startlingly accurate rendition, considering that its painter, Arahad, had died without ever seeing the city. The work had long been kept in the room set aside for the fosterlings, as a symbol of the hope and destiny of the Dúnedain, and of Rivendell's commitment to the fulfillment of that destiny. Elrond did not know whether to curse or thank the lapse in foresight that had kept him blind, until too late, to the sacrifice that would ultimately be asked of him in the service of that commitment. Now, there were no more choices, merely promises to keep. He forced his hands to close once more around the gilded frame, to hoist it to shoulder height, and to hang it on an empty hook above the bed. Then he opened the shutters and let the fresh air in.
He arrived at Aragorn's room to find his foster-son resting comfortably, but not in bed – the Dúnadan was napping on the balcony, comfortably ensconced on a well-cushioned bench with his face turned to the sun. Wondering which of his sons had been brow-beaten into helping Aragorn escape the confines of his bedroom, Elrond lightly brushed a hand across the bristled cheek. Satisfied at the warmth he felt there, he turned to face the sun-dappled valley and leaned against the balustrade. Breathing the refreshing scent of freshly-turned earth wafting up from the gardens, he willed himself to relax. For now, all was quiet in Imladris; all was well. Yet Halbarad's vision was true. Elrond, too, had foreseen fire in the sky and a vast tide of orcs swarming beneath the towers of Minas Tirith. If Gondor fell, so would Middle Earth, and then all his trials would be for naught; all his sacrifices would be in vain. Nothing would have been saved -- not Gil-galad, not Elendil or Isildur, not Celebrían, not Arwen, not even Imladris. And most agonizing of all was the knowledge that this time, he would be a mere bystander. The fate of Middle Earth would be in other hands.
Behind him, he heard the rustling of a blanket, but he curbed his urge to turn around. The six feet separating him from the Man might as well be six leagues. How had it come to this? Over the years, each of his decisions had been correct; his words, wise; his intentions, compassionate. But now, his words came back to him, unbidden: A shadow lies between us, he had said. And so it had.
If there was one shadow in Arda he was resolved and empowered to dispel, it was this one; but for that, he must cast away the mantle of lofty authority with which he had smothered a young man's resistance. No Elf lord must he be now; not even a father, but simply – he smiled at the irony – a man.
"Has it always been so beautiful?"
Elrond released a sigh of thanks at the quiet question. Aragorn would meet him halfway, then. Allowing his gaze to roam the verdant woodland spread out before him, he leaned more heavily against the railing, still half-wary of chasing the man back into awkward silence. "Beauty is everywhere in Arda, Aragorn. The cruel peak of Caradhras is beautiful, the pathless waste your friend Halbarad loves so much is beautiful, and the stormy sea that took Arvedui was beautiful. Imladris has always been beautiful. It was Celebrían who made it art."
Elrond sensed Aragorn's surprise; never before had he spoken so casually and openly of Celebrían. Aragorn well knew that her departure was a wound barely closed, and Elrond had carefully guarded the affairs of his own heart from scrutiny, even as he had passed judgment on Aragorn's. "I wish I had known her," Aragorn said finally.
Elrond turned then, facing the Man, who had managed to fight off the enveloping pillows enough to achieve a sitting position. "She brought hope and happiness and new life into this house," he said. "She was the source of my strength and my joy; a joy that I hope will be yours someday. No man has ever been more deserving of it."
"You told me once that I did not understand what I asked of you," Aragorn said quietly, dropping his gaze in a hesitant way that made Elrond wince. "You were right to say it. I was young. Now I do know, with every breath I take, what it is I ask. And so now I must ask you a different question, and I will abide by whatever answer you give. What would you have me do?"
Elrond approached the bench, and when Aragorn did not flinch, he sat down beside him. Leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, he clasped his hands together loosely. "Tell me, Aragorn – what is the purpose of art?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Elrond saw Aragorn's jerk up in surprise. Such discussions were a relic of another time, so long ago that to Aragorn it must seem as if a lifetime had passed since those happier times. Elrond waited, not realizing until Aragorn finally answered that he had been holding his breath. "Art mimics the beauty of creation," Aragorn said finally. "It preserves a beautiful scene or memorializes an historic event for those who come after."
"Just so," Elrond answered. "And yet even Elves, whose memories will outlast any memorial or painting, love art as much as you mortals. Aragorn, the Firstborn have no fear of death, yet we weary of it nonetheless. We tire of seeing every beautiful thing around us decay and die – Men, hobbits, animals, trees, flowers – every living thing around us passes away before our eyes. Even the stones of this house crack and crumble beneath the weight of years. Someday maybe even the mountains around us may fall, and yet we Elves endure, untouched by the forces of decay at work around us. What is art to us, then? We are powerless to save that which is transitory, or protect it from ravages of time. But as much as you, we would remember all that is destined to be lost - a perfect leaf, a sunset, a mountain, a spring foal, a rose. How can things we love pass from our sight and be lost forever? It is a mystery beyond the understanding of any but Ilúvatar."
"The gift of Ilúvatar," Aragorn said quietly.
"Yes. It is yours, and it could have been mine; but I rejected it for the life of the Firstborn. For a long time, it was inconceivable to me that anyone could choose otherwise."
Aragorn's face was tight; his gaze fixed woodenly ahead. "Your brother did."
"Yes. He did." Elrond looked down at hands that would have been dust ages ago if he had made the same choice. "I thought him reckless, and short-sighted. And selfish."
"If you thought Elros selfish, you must think worse of me."
"I can call no one selfish, Estel. I had hoped my greatest sacrifices were behind me, and I desperately wished to save those I love from pain and sorrow beyond my comprehension. But that which I love is mine to hold in trust only, not to build walls around to keep the world out. My brother laid his life down willingly, while I clung to my own all these long years. But look; today his legacy is greater than my own. His line has produced great kingdoms, great rulers, great victories, great tragedies, and a great race of Men that survives to this day; a race that may yet inherit Middle Earth, if we pass the test that is to come. And in all those thousands of years, as generations of his descendants have multiplied across Middle Earth, I have produced nothing but three children and this small refuge."
"You are a great leader of Men and Elves!" Aragorn protested. "Your name and deeds are revered throughout Arda."
"Aragorn, a dark time is coming when the fate of Middle Earth will be decided for all ages, and should the Enemy not prevail, the heirs of Middle Earth will be your people, not mine. When we are gone, the memory of our deeds will be quick to fade. And yet it seems I am given another chance, through my daughter, to share in my brother's legacy. In accepting this gift, Arwen will inherit that great legacy, and with it a future beyond my understanding. She will also know the gift of great happiness, at least for at time. That she will also know great sorrow does not diminish it. That too, is a mystery, but it is her choice, and I would not take it away from her. Or from you."
Elrond looked at the man in whose eyes he had long seen more than an echo of his brother's strength and resolve. "Time grows short. Soon we will be called to our final test, and will be parted forever, no matter what the outcome. In the little time that remains, I would have no shadow stand between us."
"It will be as you wish," Aragorn said.
Elrond took one battle-scarred hand, the one that was not swathed in bulky splints and bandages, between his own. The rough fingers were bare; the ring that was the birthright of Elendil's heir now graced a far fairer hand. "This morning I wrote a letter to Arwen, asking her to return home."
Aragorn stiffened, stunned into silence. When finally he found his tongue, his voice was but a whisper. "Thank you, Adar."
Elrond wrapped his other hand around Aragorn's unruly mane and pulled him into an embrace as he had not done for many, many years. "If I must be parted from my children, at least let it not be yet. Let us waste no more time grieving." Releasing Aragorn from the embrace, he leaned back against the bench and caught sight of a grey-robed figure standing on a higher balcony, watching.
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