Not exactly the story book ceremony I had always pictured; but it's done, at last. He is crowned King in the South, and once the Sceptre is found, King in the North... Halbarad stayed close behind his kinsman and monarch as their horses paced slowly up the steep streets of Minas Tirith. He watched for the telltale signs he'd learned to recognize in the weeks since that damned axe had fallen and left its insidious contamination. He might have to do battle to convince his liege-lord to rest on this, the most important day of his life to date, but that would be better than allowing the newly crowned King of Gondor to collapse in front of a huge crowd of admiring subjects. I'll give him another hour or so... Then if I must, I shall drag him by his scruffy neck...
The Coronation of Aragorn Elessar had been a rather haphazard affair. In early April, they had returned from the costly victory before Mordor's Gate and camped on the Pelennor with all Gondor watching from the half-crumbed walls, waiting for a certain Elf and Dwarf to complete their errand. Two nights later, the strange companions rode in, their horse in a lather, carrying no less than six flasks of Entish elixir, enough for two months of twice daily dosing. Elrohir and Radagast both suggested a full month of treatment before any other action, but Aragorn was being his usual stubborn self, insisting that the ceremony proceed with only a week's delay.
The date set, they began hurriedly working out details. Negotiations ensued between the lieutenant of the North, the Master of the Keys, the sons of Denethor, and the overly protective foster-brother of the King, who, as the last male survivor of the other branch of Eärendil's line, felt he had more than enough right to participate. It seemed there was no good answer for any question before them. The last King had been dead for a thousand years, and had vanished into Minas Morgul; the crown of the Sea-Kings had to be fetched from his predecessor, Eärnil the Second's, tomb, requiring yet more negotiation as to who would do the fetching and carrying. No one seemed suitable to actually place the heavy thing on Aragorn's head, yet the man's now nearly useless right arm prevented him from doing so himself. Halbarad thought that Radagast was a proper candidate, but the old wizard declined the honor, refusing to discuss why. As stubborn as old Gandalf, and even odder...
It was the young Prince of Dol Amroth who finally suggested the most reasonable solution. Both of the late Steward's sons would carry the crown from its black and silver casket and lift it onto Aragorn's head. Elrohir and Radagast would stand by, just in case. Hal had held his breath until the thing was done, and Aragorn able to stand tall and unassisted before the wildly cheering throng. No one had to know that he climbed onto Shadowfax's broad back using a step-stool, nor how much he was sweating beneath the silver-embroidered black tunic and pure white cloak. Let's just get through this and get him settled in the King's chambers... Even if the bed is carved of stone, it has to be more comfortable than that leaky, stinking tent...
Of course any actual settling had to wait for princes, lords, mayors, governors, captains, marshalls, dukes, counselors, and every rag-tag self-important individual in the entire realm of Gondor and beyond, it seemed to Halbarad, to have his audience with the new King. Aragorn would have doggedly endured all of it without even breaking his fast until the midnight bell rang, if he had consented to cease even then. Thank the stars for stubborn wizards after all, thought Hal, as Radagast suddenly took matters into his own hands, stepped forward, and with his growling voice, his walking stick and his smoldering brown eyes, swept the throne room clear of everyone but the King's closest kin and confidants.
"Time for your afternoon dose of elixir, my Lord," the Brown Wizard said to a feebly protesting Aragorn. The sons of Denethor, the Peredhel and the lieutenant of the North sighed in relief. Hal, Boromir and Faramir conspired together, and the waiting notables were instructed to return for their audiences upon the morrow, or the morrow after it.
Time moved swiftly after that, as days followed days and turned into weeks. Théoden King arrived to do homage and grieve over his many losses. His son's and his nephew's bodies had, by necessity, been buried already. The old King and his sister-daughter, with Erkenbrand, Elfhelm, Harmund and every remaining knight of the Mark had gathered, with Aragorn and the Stewards' sons in attendance, for a moving memorial before the broken Gate of Minas Tirith. Hal's heart had tugged within his chest at their wild and mournful music, and the sounding of all those horns. Then the Rohirrhim had mounted their horses and ridden north--all but the Lady, who remained in the Houses of Healing for a time, continuing her recovery; and Harmund stayed in the City to be her escort and guardian, at her uncle's request.
The effect of the Ents' potion took hold and Aragorn's condition stabilized, then improved. The King gradually took on all the duties of monarch, spending more and more hours each week in counsel and conference, learning the nuances of rule of a widely dispersed and ancient realm, steeped in tradition and protocol. Hal no longer felt the need to hover quite so closely at his kinsman's side, watching his every move, as Aragorn had grumbled, like a mother hen in charge of a barnyard full of peeping chicks. The lieutenant of the North finally had a chance to take in some of the remarkable sights surrounding him.
Minas Tirith was a shambles of pits, rubble and burned timbers, but also a stirred anthill of activity. Everywhere Hal looked, men were cheerfully tearing out ruins and building anew. The City rang with the sounds of industrious labor: the clanging of hammers, the buzz of saws, the hiss and roar of forges and furnaces, horses neighing, carts rattling over the pitted streets, men shouting. The Dwarf was everywhere at once, gleefully tapping rocks and conferring with engineers twice his height and with less than a tenth his knowledge. As April gave way to May, the City bloomed. Formal gardens regenerated and wildflowers sprouted in each crevice of broken stone. The Elf danced from garden to garden, a flock of horticulturalists in his wake, earnestly hanging on his every word of advice.
The Pelennor slowly turned from a tumbled black wasteland full of debris and bodies, back to a verdant patchwork of pastures, orchards and tilled fields. The roads were full of travelers, citizens returning to their homes and newcomers seeking new fortunes in the renewed City. Louder even than the hammers and rumbling carts were the sounds of laughter, the singing, the shouts of joy as families separated by war were reunited. More than a few voices were also raised in cries of grief and sadness; but as the days continued, mourning began to fade. The healing tincture of time began to soothe the sorrows of those who had lost so much.
Yet a few things dulled the luster of the days of the First Spring of the Fourth Age. It was, of course, never far from Halbarad's mind that his King and kinsman faced an inevitable crossroads, beyond which he would either emerge unalterably changed, or not at all. He tried not to think of it, though the evidence of Aragorn's ongoing illness could not be denied. Though he was significantly better since starting the Ents' potion again, Aragorn had not regained much of the weight he'd lost, and Hal knew him well enough to discern that he still suffered bouts of terrible pain. He no longer used the sling, but his right arm was weak, and Hal could see that his hand was much thinner. The Lieutenant didn't really know if his King could even hold his famous sword anymore. He came upon his friend once, by surprise, to find Aragorn in his private inner rooms, practicing drawing Andúril from his swordbelt with his left hand. The lieutenant had backed away, unseen, then made a noise to announce himself before approaching again. The sword was back in its gleaming sheath by then, and Hal made no mention of it. When Hal queried Elrohir about the wound, the Peredhel only shrugged, and said we will know when the time is right.
The second shadow over the springtime was an obvious but mysterious falling out that seemed to have occurred between the brothers of the House of Hurin. Boromir and Faramir were at odds over something, and Hal couldn't guess what it was. At first he wondered if Faramir had succumbed to a fit of jealousy, for quite clearly something new had entered the elder brother's life: love. That Boromir of Gondor and Eowyn of Rohan were enamored of one another was visible to any who cared to look, and most everyone rejoiced. Harmund played chaperone and foster-brother, finding ways to be conveniently late when the Captain-General and the Lady-Knight of Rohan wished to have some moments together alone, and sometimes it was Faramir who conveniently detained him. Hal concluded that the generous and serious younger son of Denethor had not a jealous bone in his body. Whatever had come twixt the brothers, it had nothing to do with matters of the heart. The lieutenant of the North found himself growing rather fond of young Lord Faramir, and he vowed to watch for clues to the brothers' disagreement, and help repair the rift if he could.
Then there was the Ring-Bearer. The contentment of the surviving Fellowship was, Hal observed, disturbed by the ongoing melancholy of their friend, Frodo Baggins. The Halfling did his best to hide it, but he wasn't a particularly skilled actor, and was, quite frankly, a terrible liar. Frodo avoided every attempt to do him homage, and indeed avoided appearing in public at all. He spoke little, seldom smiled, and spent nearly every hour of every day, regardless of the weather, sitting at the out-thrusting corner of the wall of the Seventh Circle, composing what appeared to be a very long letter. The other Hobbits came and sat with him for a while each day, doing their best to nudge their kinsman to speak or smile, to little avail. The other members of the Company of what had once been Nine Walkers would also come and stay with him, to sit beside him in silence, or regale him with tales and song, depending on the visitor's mood and demeanor. Halbarad himself had made the attempt, to find that the only subject that would coax Frodo into speech was his plan to return to his homeland as soon as Aragorn's wedding took place.
And thus, Hal came to the final nagging shadow over the brilliant days. They had, fortunately, had word from the north--thank the stars for wizards, once again. Radagast's friends, the Eagles, had been recruited as messengers. They had flown back and forth from the City of Men to the Woodland Realm of the Elves, bearing words between Kings. The Lady Arwen was recovering swiftly, the writings said, and though a missive in her own hand was inexplicably not forthcoming, Thranduil's letters spoke of a journey to culminate in Gondor at Midsummer. Old Hurin of the Keys delighted in taking on the preparations for the royal wedding, suddenly finding himself surrounded by friends of the King and a horde of noblewomen who wished to pile their advice upon his stooping shoulders. Excitement grew in the City's streets, for not since the wedding of Denethor and Findulias had such a joyous occasion been seen—and this time, it was the King, not the Steward, and the Queen-to-be was an Elf-Lady, not merely a Princess of Dol Amroth.
But for all the lively joy that accompanied the wedding to come, one thing loomed large—and dead—over the proceedings: the White Tree. Hal saw Aragorn linger near the Fountain in the Courtyard of the Tree every single day, gazing up into the broken, bone-white branches with a puzzled frown on his face. The King would place the palm of his left hand upon the smooth trunk, lean close, as if he might hear a faint voice, and sigh deeply before he moved on to whatever royal task awaited him.
May was nearly over, and Midsummer would be fast upon them. Halbarad found himself watching his King and kinsman at his daily ritual by the Tree, when he felt a presence at his side. He turned to see Radagast standing a step behind, watching the scene with him. The Brown Wizard gazed at him quizzically.
"I have seen him here before," he said quietly. "Do you know what he seeks?"
Hal sighed. "Yes… The White Tree died when the last King was taken prisoner into Morgul. The tradition in the south-kingdom holds that the true line of the Kings can only flourish while the White Tree blossoms. Aragorn waits for a sign, that his kingship is true, and blessed by the Powers… I think he believes the Tree might revive…"
Radagast frowned. "That thing is dead, right to the very tip of its roots. It is naught but a hulk of ancient, brittle wood… It cannot revive…"
"Blessed Yavanna! Surely the wise men of Gondor would have planted others besides this one," Radagast said, aghast. "Had they no knowledge of forestry, or even simple botany? Why, there should be groves of scions of this Tree, which is itself a scion of Nimloth, the fair White Tree of Númenor, and that of the line of Telperion, the Eldest of Trees! Surely they must have done so…"
"I have no idea," Halbarad said sadly. "Any such lore of old Gondor was lost in the North long ago. Perhaps the Steward's sons know, or some City archivist or historian, but I would have thought that Aragorn would have already asked… Perhaps no one knows…"
Radagast frowned again, and Hal heard the old man mutter softly to himself. "Hmm… Telperion loved the cool nights, and Her Daughters flourished upon the shoulders of Taniquetil… So too, it was said, of Nimloth and her progeny, that bloomed in the mountainous regions of Númenor… Perhaps… Perhaps…"
Without another word, the Brown Wizard hurried forward. Hal followed quickly as the old man rushed to intercept the King. His entourage stood back, waiting in silence, for their monarch to finish his odd but by now familiar daily routine. But today's routine was about to be astonishingly interrupted; and every man present would never forget what he was about to witness.
"Sire, if I may," Radagast said as he approached the King. Aragorn had just turned away from the dead Tree and was about to return to the Citadel. He paused and looked, and Halbarad winced to see the pain in his friend's face. It isn't just the pain of waiting for a sign that won't come; that blasted wound is eating at him again… Radagast apparently noted it as well, for the old wizard took the King's elbow and steered him firmly away from the crowd of onlookers.
"My Lord, please, join me for a moment…" Radagast walked with Aragorn, clutching his arm tightly and pressing him forward toward the benches that lined the wall. He sat, and whether by the force of his grip or the intensity of his gaze, he made the King to sit beside him. Hal stood nearby. "I know what you seek, my friend," the wizard said. "And you won't find it here. If there is a sign to be found, it will be hidden up there…" The wizard waved his arm toward the mountains above them. "In some valley of those mountains, a slender tree grows: smooth-boled, silver, green leaves, fragrant white blossoms… Indeed, I feel certain that many such Trees are hidden away, having sprung from the fruits of yonder Dead Tree, and planted by your forebears… If the Kings of Gondor had any wisdom at all, they would have done so… It only remains to find one of them…"
Aragorn gazed at the old man with sudden longing and hope, yet his eyes were filled with grief. "But how am I to find it, Radagast? How am I to search every hidden valley of the White Mountains? There are hundreds of places the Kings of old might have planted a seed… I cannot search every crevice and pocket…"
Radagast smiled then, and even though Hal was not the intended recipient of that beaming expression, he could not help but feel the hope flow back into his heart.
"You don't have to, young man. I have many friends who will be happy to search for you." And with that, Radagast stood and stepped out into the open courtyard between the wall and the Fountain.
As they watched, transfixed, the old man raised his arms, his knobby wooden walking stick clutched in one hand, and gazed up to the sky. Suddenly, a stream of amazing sounds flowed from the wizard's bearded lips: shrieks, whistles, piping calls, warbles, caws, croaks, trills, hoots and honks. A few minutes passed in silence, as Radagast continued to look upward, searching. Then they came: birds, of every description and kind, in answer to his voice. Hawks, falcons, ravens, buntings, owls, geese, ptarmigan, larks, nuthatches, wrens, chickadees, doves, swifts, swallows, thrushes, sparrows, orioles, warblers, waxwings, and buzzing like tiny iridescent living jewels, a flock of hummingbirds. All about his head they flew, calling and crying, singing and peeping. The jaws of the men watching dropped open as he smiled and spoke to the winged kelvar in their own tongues, and they responded with an eagerness that was apparent to all. Finally, the huge and varied flock circled one more time, then with a flurry of wingbeats and calls, they all took off toward the White Mountains. In less than a minute, the skies, which had been thick with flapping wings, were clear and flawlessly blue again.
Aragorn had risen to his feet, and he strode forward toward Radagast, an enormous smile on his face.
"What just happened…! Did you do what I think you did?"
The Brown Wizard beamed at him. "I sent my friends to search for you, sire… Who better? We need but wait… I suspect it will not be long. Several of them knew exactly what you were looking for. I believe that a competition has been sparked among them, for who shall return first with the news and the most accurate description of the location…"
The competition was won, later that very afternoon, by a pair of ordinary ptarmigan, still mottled with half of their wintry plumage, their legs feathered all in white and their heads, shoulders and wings striped in plain brown. The female held a silvery twig with a long, smooth, dark green leaf in her beak, and the male cooed and burbled softly, explaining where the tree was growing, and how a party of land-borne creatures might best find it. Aragorn declared on the spot that the mountain ptarmigan were to be a protected creature in all of Gondor from that day forth. Faramir found a basket of grain and a basin of water for the birds. Radagast promised that the pair would return in the morning to guide them, and as evening fell the birds flew off to roost in thickets of fir trees on the shoulders of Mindolluin.
The party of searchers set out in the morning, leaving the City from one of the postern gates high in the Sixth Circle that led directly into the mountains. Despite a mild feverishness, the King could not be stopped from accompanying them. As promised, the ptarmigan flew ahead, waiting for the men to catch up, drawing them forward and up. Steep cliffs rose above them, and as they climbed higher, they found that snow still clung to the heights. Finally, as the shadows lay long over their path, Radagast cried out and pointed. Upon a rocky crest surrounded on all sides by banks of lingering snow, a small tree grew, reaching upward toward the light. Its narrow trunk was silvery grey, its bark was smooth, and upon its tapering branches were long green leaves and dozens of white blossoms. But as they began to tramp through the snow to reach it, Aragorn stopped. He stared for a moment, then his head tipped back, and he laughed. The sound of it rang upon the mountainsides.
Six feet up from its roots, the Tree was broken. It had but one large branch, twisting up to the left; the right side of the tree had been sheared off. A black, burned scar marked where it had been struck, undoubtedly by lightning. And yet the Tree was thriving, and the blossoms filled the air of the narrow vale with sweet fragrance.
"Perfect, wouldn't you say, Hal?" Aragorn laughed as his lieutenant came to his side.
"Magnificent," Halbarad said. "That tree is as strong and healthy as an ox. Looks like it will live for another thousand years…"
Gently, they lifted the Tree from its stony perch, and its roots loosened with ease and without injury. They bore it solemnly down through the valleys and back to the City, the pair of ptarmigan accompanying them for their entire journey. Finally as the men reached the City walls, Radagast turned and waved, and with a flash of white and brown, the birds flew off.
With great reverence, the dead Tree was removed and laid in Rath Dinen among the honored of Gondor. The new Tree was planted beside the fountain. The White Tree of Gondor grew tall and stately, though the scarred mark was always visible and its uneven silhouette apparent even from afar. But the Tree flourished, and did indeed live for more than a thousand years, and when it came time for a new Tree to take its place, the people of Minas Tirith mourned the loss of their unique symbol. For in days to come, the emblem of the House of Elessar Erhanchion* was a splendid, crooked White Tree.
* * *
Legolas was, as Elrohir expected, first to spot the traveling party riding toward them.
The King had commanded that a group journey northward to meet their long-anticipated guests, due to arrive in Minas Tirith any day now. They had set out at the end of the first week of June. Just as Elrohir had warned, they'd left their escort of Citadel Guards far behind in their eagerness to hasten the reunion of brother with sister, son with father. We'll just have to intercept them on our way back south…
"There!" the Wood Elf cried. "There they are—quite a larger company than I expected… And look at the banners! Father hasn't raised those since the Battle of the Five Armies… But then again, it has been that long since he rode outside the borders of our lands…"
He pointed toward what to Elrohir appeared as a distant smudge on the horizon. The Peredhel knew his vision was far better than an Mortal's, but he had to admit he could never hope to rival his companion's keen sight.
"Banners, eh? I'll have to trust you on that," he said dryly. "Can you see my sister among the riders?"
"I believe so… I see a dark-haired woman, her cloak and hood drawn about her… Is her horse light grey?"
"Yes..." Elrohir didn't like the sounds of the description. He'd been worried for weeks, ever since the first message came from Thranduil, and nothing directly from Arwen. She is ashamed, and afraid… She fears what Aragorn will think, of her changed appearance… I can feel her doubt…
"They've seen us," Legolas said. "That's the signal, that dipping of the topmost banner…"
Elrohir could only just begin to make out that the smudge was a group of riders; he could not pick out individual banners. But it mattered not. He would soon enfold his beloved sister in his arms. He would soon be stroking her beautiful hair, and be gazing into her lovely, penetrating eyes. He would reassure her that her betrothed had not changed in his feelings for her—indeed, his love for her was truer than ever.
The Peredhel gazed forward at the smudge that was now clearly a large party of Elves riding together. His heart caught in his throat. There she is… He could see her clearly now, her lithe figure unmistakable to him despite the drapes of cloak and hood. He saw her raise her head; the left half of her face was hidden behind a fold of the dark hood, but her eyes pierced him from afar.
Arwen… He swallowed hard. It was up to him to tell her the changes this horrible war had wrought upon her betrothed… and what changes were yet to come. Estel had not asked this of him—he had volunteered.
"She—and you—deserve no less, my brother," he had said to Aragorn before their departure.
"Tell her…" Aragorn's voice was hoarse. "Tell her that I will not hold her to her vow, should she have doubts about her betrothal to a man who… who is maimed…"
Elrohir had leapt across the room at that, and gripped his foster-brother's arm. "And have you doubts, Estel? Do you regret your vow to her?" he hissed angrily.
"N..no, of course not," Aragorn had whispered. His eyes glittered, and he clamped them shut. "I love her… I care not a whit for her appearance… It is her spirit, her essence that I love, and with all my heart…"
Elrohir had released him then. "Her fealty and her love for you is as strong—I swear it…"
Now, as the riders approached and the distance between them shortened rapidly, Elrohir recalled his last meeting with the King and tried to hold his heartbeat steady. Such heartfelt words… such passionate declarations… were any of them true? How could his sister and his foster-brother truly know what their hearts could bear? They had never bargained for this. Death, and separation beyond the confines of Arda—that they had considered. But life, altered and lessened—had they thought on what that would mean? Had they considered the long years, each morning a reminder of what the other had suffered, every awakening a remembrance of what they could never regain? How can they know if they are strong enough for it… If their love can endure despite such sorrow?
Then the distance was yards, then feet—then they were upon them. Elrohir forgot all his doubts and his worries as he flung himself from the saddle and raced to his sister's side, and she slid down from her mount and into his waiting arms.
"Arwen! Arwen, my Arwen…"
Later, they made camp on the banks of Anduin, under the trees. Elrohir and his sister had spent their voices down to husky whispers putting all fears and doubts aside, in talking about everything, and weeping together for their lost loved ones. He had presented Aragorn's first wedding gift: a deep blue mantle embroidered with stars of silver and gold, patterned, he said, after a cloak he had seen Denethor's late wife wear. And she in her turn had revealed her gift to her betrothed: the Sceptre of Annuminas, its rod stained black from the fire, but its silver knob undimmed.
Leaving her asleep beneath the cloak, he stood near his horse, checking his saddle bags, when he felt someone approach. He turned to find Thranduil gazing at him from out of the darkness, his eyes as green and bright as his son's.
"I have but one question, Elrondion," the Wood Elf King said, and Elrohir heard a note of raw challenge in his voice. "Do you have any doubt, of this Mortal? Is there the slightest chance that he might turn away from her?"
"I have no doubt of him, my Lord," Elrohir said. "My foster-brother Aragorn's destiny and my sister's are linked for all time. A few…physical alterations will not change their hearts."
"You had better be correct, Elrondion. For if he rejects her, be he King of every fleeting realm of men or in Endorë or no, he will answer to me."
Elrohir said nothing more, but bowed low to the last King of the Elder Race in Middle Earth. As he raised his head he saw Legolas watching from nearby; and the Prince was not quite successful in hiding his grin as he approached.
"It appears that your lovely sister has made yet another conquest of the heart," Legolas breathed in the Peredhel's ear. "I hope Aragorn will be on his best behavior, or the Lady Arwen's newest champion just might do something rash…"
* * *
The wedding of Aragorn and Arwen was perfectly attuned to the beginning of the Fourth Age—and just like the music written for the occasion. The bridegroom and the bride were exquisitely beautiful to behold—as long as they faced one another, and one approached them from the Queen's right side, and the King's left. No one could see any flaw in their figures or their features, and their smiling gaze upon one another's face brought tears of joy to every eye that beheld them.
But like the Age itself, and the sweet, heartbreaking music, beneath the beauty lay almost unbearable grief. Approach the King and Queen from her left and his right, and the price of their long struggle to unite in love was all too apparent. Her flawless face was marred by a twisted swath of shiny red and purple scar that began upon her cheek and extended to her temple, destroying the lovely line of her dark hair. And his right arm, swathed once again in a white sling, had visibly wasted below his elbow, yet appeared thick and swollen above. He held himself stiffly, and the pain he bore was etched upon his handsome face.
The ceremony was public, and brief. Though he had demurred at the King's request to place the crown on his head, this time Radagast agreed to preside over the ceremony that joined them in marriage. Even Frodo could not refuse Aragorn's plea that he stand beside Elrohir, Halbarad, Thranduil, Gimli, and the sons of Denethor for the exchange of their vows—thus, all races and peoples bore witness for them. After the required declarations and the ceremonial sounding of the City's many bells, the couple retired immediately to the Citadel and the privacy of the royal chambers. The word of their King's dreadful wound and impending alteration had spread in the City, and his new subjects rallied about him. No one even commented when the royal couple was absent from their own wedding feast. However, the harsh truth that the King spent his wedding night simply holding his Queen in both arms while they whispered tenderly to one another and wept, was known only by his beloved.
For it was clear that the time of which the Peredhel had spoken had come at last. On the morning after the wedding, Aragorn called Halbarad, Boromir and Faramir to his private sitting room to inform them that he would now turn over the rule of the realm to them, until and if he recovered from the surgery to be carried out the very next day.
"And so that brings us to a necessary decision," he said, as he turned toward the sons of Denethor. Halbarad looked up in surprise, for he finally guessed the source of the brothers' disagreement.
"Boromir, for many weeks you have shared with me your desire to abdicate your inheritance as the Heir to the Steward," Aragorn continued.
Boromir nodded, and looked at his brother with a wry grin. "And I would have announced it publicly long ago, but for the stubbornness of my brother," he said.
"But Bori, you can't just say such a thing and make it so," Faramir said hotly. "We've been over this a hundred times. There just isn't any precedent for abdication…"
"Pah! Precedent! What care we for precedent? A new Age has come, and the world has changed! There may be no precedent, but we can still reason it out! Let us first consider logic. You know, Fari, that you are far more capable of being Steward than I. You were born for it. Father knew it, and so do you… Don't protest, let me speak!" He held up his hand to stop his brother's sputtering. "And if that were not so, consider my health. The wound I received nearly killed me, and has sapped my strength greatly. I have discovered that there is but one palliative for me: free, clean air, and wide, open spaces. I sicken indoors and within these stone walls. I need to be where I can breathe… where every street corner does not remind me of the deed I was forced to do… of the darkness I passed through…"
"But Bori," Faramir whispered faintly. "It just doesn't feel right, to deprive you of your birthright…"
"Yet, if I recall his words aright," Aragorn said softly, "Gandalf… Mithrandir was trying to tell you the very same thing, Faramir… Remember? He said you should not refuse what comes to you…"
"Nay," Hal said. "He said 'you should graciously accept' what comes to you, for you have inherited your father's wisdom and your mother's generous spirit…"
"I wish I had been there," Boromir whispered hoarsely. "Ah, Mithrandir, how we shall all miss you…" Then the elder rose and crossed to where his younger brother sat. He wrapped one arm about Faramir's shoulders and grinned, as though they were youths not yet of age, and the older was challenging his younger, more sober yet ultimately just as courageous brother to do something deliciously fun, and forbidden by their Father. "Listen to your friends, brother. Come on, Fari! You can do it! I know you want to, deep inside… Come on, you know you can…!"
Slowly a smile grew on Faramir's face. "Oh, very well…You're right, I admit that I have always secretly desired exactly this… and I believe you are right that Father thought so too, at least at the end…" Boromir cheered. "But don't think you've entirely pulled the wool over my eyes, dear brother—for I also know that this arrangement frees you to carry out your not so secret desire of the heart: to marry the charming Lady-Knight of the Mark, and move to Rohan with her!"
"I cannot outwit you, brother!" Boromir laughed. "It is true, I greatly desire to do so… If the King will allow it, of course…"
"The King will allow it," Aragorn smiled. "This King… However, more than one monarch is involved in this affair… Has Theoden-King given his consent?"
Boromir flushed. "He has… many weeks ago… We were waiting, to make any sort of announcement, until this matter was settled. Eowyn was willing, of course, to remain in Minas Tirith, if things had worked out differently, but she prefers the flowers in the valleys of the White Mountains above Edoras, as beautiful, according to her, as Ithilien… And spring comes to the high mountains in July!"
A few more minutes of cheerful discussion passed between the four men, and then the mood returned to the somber. It was decided that Faramir would immediately be sworn in by Hurin of the Keys as the new Steward, and that he and the King's second-in-command, Halbarad Dúnedan, would divide the duties of rule and command between them while their monarch recovered.
Halbarad lingered when Faramir and Boromir took their leave. He stood beside his Captain, his kinsman, his King and his best friend and placed his hands upon his shoulders. The right shoulder felt hot to the touch, even through several layers of his clothing.
"Remember what Gandalf said to you, too, gwador-nin…"
"I know," he said hoarsely. Then the King laughed softly. "And that makes me think of grandchildren, Hal…"
The other man chuckled. "I've been wondering about that… Do you suppose, when all of this is behind us, that you might spare your new Steward for a diplomatic journey, say, to somewhere far to the North? Where he might come into contact with, say, a certain very lovely and spirited young woman in need of a husband…"
"Might that young woman's name be Faeleth, perhaps? And her father a doddering old Ranger with the incredible luck to have a Mumakil wander by at just the right moment…"
"Sounds like a wonderful idea. He'd make a fine son-in-law…"
"I never pictured us as matchmakers, Aragorn…"
"I never pictured much of any of this, Hal… Yet here we are…"
Halbarad carefully pulled his friend into his arms and slowly tightened his grip on him. "You get better now, you hear me?" he whispered. "I…don't know what I'd do if…"
"I'll get better… I promise…" the King whispered, as he embraced him. Then Aragorn let up his hold on Halbarad, and stepped back and away as Arwen appeared at the doorway.
"Allow me to have my husband to myself for this day, Hal," she said; and the lieutenant made certain that no one, however important and for whatever the cause, interrupted the King and Queen.
On the following morning, Elrohir and Radagast came to the royal chambers to accompany Aragorn to the Houses of Healing.
"It is time, young man," the old wizard said.
"I am ready," said the King.
* * *
Merry was feeling uncommonly cheerful as he wandered through the streets of the Sixth Circle. He had just left the house that he shared with Frodo, Pippin, Legolas and Gimli. Pip was already up and gone. Legolas had apparently not slept in his quarters overnight, according to a grumpy and obviously hung over Gimli, who was in the kitchen, steeping himself a very strong cup of tea. Frodo had, as usual, not yet emerged from his room. But even Frodo's unshakable sadness wasn't enough to disturb Meriadoc today. He had to find Pippin, and he figured he knew exactly where to search for him.
Pip would most likely be found in Meneldil's workshop, which was up and running at full capacity again, indeed, was busier than it ever had been before. To his cousin's shocked surprise, young Peregrin Took, the son of a landed gentlehobbit and not one to eagerly seek out a hard day's work, was as persistent and skilled at his tasks in the workshop as, well, as Sam Gamgee had been a devoted and talented gardener. Pippin had spoken about his work there in a quite extraordinary manner.
"It is as if I'm supposed to be doing this," he'd said earnestly. "I simply can't imagine doing anything else." Merry had at first been taken aback; he wasn't at all used to his cousin's new serious side, an aspect that had appeared during the long weeks they had been apart. Slowly, as the spring turned into summer, Merry had grown accustomed to the change in Pip. He admitted to himself that he rather admired him for his diligence and his newfound sense of purpose. And he realized he'd heard someone else speak about their work in almost the same way, using very similar phrases.
"I feel as though I am supposed to be here, now, doing this sort of work, Merry," Mareyn had said to him just a few weeks earlier. "No matter how difficult it is, no matter how it pulls at my heartstrings, I know this is where I belong."
The hobbit's admiration for the young healer-apprentice from western Anorien had also been growing during that spring and summer in Minas Tirith. He found himself wanting to spend more and more time with her, and discovered that she wanted to spend her every free moment with him, too. They had talked and talked, learning everything there was to know about one another's family, and the histories and traditions of their two very different lands. He had told her everything about his travels and adventures, and had confided his deepest yearnings and fears in her, and she in him. They had taken long walks, and found themselves far from their respective quarters long after dark. Gradually they had become so comfortable, that it seemed perfectly natural that their fingers would twine together, or that his hand would come to rest on the small of her back as they passed through a doorway. They skirted around and around the obvious, until last night, when suddenly everything was perfectly clear.
And so, Merry was determined to find Pippin. He had some news to share that could not wait, not another hour, certainly not another whole day.
Just as he'd expected, Merry came through the always-open door to Master Meneldil's workshop and found Pippin at work. The hobbit was sitting on a low stool, his feet balanced on a horizontal wheel below him. Without looking down, as if by reflex, he kicked the wheel in a steady rhythm, keeping it spinning at a nearly constant speed. The wheel was affixed to an axle, and the axle to another smaller wheel, this one with teeth, that meshed into yet another toothed wheel that turned much more rapidly, whirling and spinning a cylinder. Pip leaned forward over this entire contraption, his attention not on the wheels and posts, but fully on that spinning cylinder, to which he held a rounded piece of wood. The cylinder, Merry observed, must have been a sort of file, for it was carving away at the piece of wood in Pippin's hands in a smooth, gradual fashion, shaping it and turning it into something entirely different. Merry stood back in silence and watched as his cousin continued, shaping and turning, smoothing and carving, until he was done. The wheels stopped spinning, and Pip leaned back, blowing the fine sawdust away with a puff of his breath.
"Whatever are you making?" Merry said.
Pippin looked up, startled. "Merry! When did you get here?"
"A while ago… I was watching. It was very interesting… What are you making?"
Pippin offered his little wooden sculpture. Once Merry held it, he saw at once what it was.
"Why… It looks like a hand…"
"Yes… But I can't quite master the separation of the fingers… Meneldil says that isn't important, what's important is the separation of the thumb… But as you see, I haven't really got that right yet, either…"
"Pip, this is amazing," Merry said in a hushed voice, as he turned the sculpted piece this way and that. "It's… it's a left hand… Pip? Is this what I think it is?"
The young hobbit flushed deeply. "Don't tell him, please. I haven't got it right, and this would just be for show, you know… It's just an idea I've been toying with, and this is just for practice, to get used to the carving machine. I've got all sorts of ideas, you know… Real ones—things that might truly help… not just Frodo, but lots of other men have lost limbs… Strider, too, of course… Meneldil says my ideas do have some merit, and he's promised to help me develop them into models and things…" He frowned at the carved hand as Merry returned it to him. "Now, this thing doesn't actually help him in any way, other than for looks… Meneldil's the expert. He recommends much more functional items…" He pointed to a rack of various sizes of hooks and finely made tools, that appeared perfectly ordinary, until one noticed that they were all affixed to leather cups—smooth, hollow cups that would slip over the stump of someone who had lost a hand. "But he doesn't know Frodo. Our cousin is, after all, a Baggins…. And thus, rather given to vanity… At least he used to be…"
"Yes…" Merry sighed. "I'm not certain what he's given to, these days, other than silence, and sadness…" Then the hobbit brightened and came forward, curling his hand around Pippin's arm and tugging gently. "But that's not what I came here to talk to you about, Pip… Can you take a moment, to speak? Outside?"
They found a corner of one of the gardens of the Houses and sat down on a low bench, out of the way of the bustle of folk moving in and out of the many buildings. Their heads bent toward one another as they spoke quietly. Then Pippin suddenly jumped up and clapped his hands.
"Merry! That's wonderful news! Oh, Merry, my dear… I knew it, I could see it written all over your face… and hers too… When? Have you set a date?"
"Sit down, sit down!" Merry scolded. "Listen to you: 'set a date' indeed! There are more than a few barriers to this, you know…"
Pippin grinned as he sat beside his cousin again. "Oh, piffle—barriers! What are 'barriers' to the Perian who helped slay the Nazgul? What could possibly stop the Hobbit who should, by all logic, have stayed behind in Rohan… or at Isengard, with his friends the Ents… or, for that matter, in Rivendell—but was too determined to be left out of the adventure?"
Merry laughed. "Yes, and don't forget Crickhollow… or the Old Forest!"
Pippin rolled his eyes. "I'd just as soon forget the Old Forest, thank you very much!" He leaned close and slung his arm over Merry's shoulder, though he had to reach quite a bit higher to do so than he had in days past. "Merry, nothing should stand between you and Mareyn fulfilling your hearts' desire. Why, we've just witnessed a royal wedding that is a testament to that… And besides! Minas Tirith seems a hotbed of romance these days… There's old Bori, and your Lady Eowyn, of course… and one can't help but notice all the long looks and intense conversations between two of the chief Healers in these very Houses… There's a barrier for you, but they seem quite capable of overcoming it…"
Merry looked at him with curiosity. "I knew all about Eowyn and Boromir, but who else? I'm not over here enmeshed in the intrigue of the Healing Houses every day, so you'd best fill me in…"
Pippin leaned close, and whispered into his cousin's ear. Merry's eyes widened for a moment, then he smiled and nodded. "Ah, of course! Why, that might just work out really well, for everyone, given all the circumstances and changes…"
"I think so too… It's clearly not common knowledge, yet. I suspect the parties involved wish to speak to their kin privately, you know… before more rumors get out…"
Merry snorted. "Well, they'd better hurry! With you hanging about the Houses and gossiping, their secret won't be safe for long…"
Pippin's wide grin had suddenly faded to a sad smile. "Neither of us ever thought anything like this could happen, did we?"
"No… if by that you mean that we might leave the Shire, and not wish to return… No, I never thought it could possibly happen…"
"But I can't really imagine going back to my old life," Pippin whispered. "No one back at home could ever understand what we've been through, all that we've seen… And besides, it would seem so… small, and pointless… Devoid of any real meaning, or purpose…"
Merry gazed at him solemnly. "You've changed, cousin…"
"So have you," Pippin replied. Then he sighed. "How on earth are we going to tell poor Frodo?"
"I have no idea…" Merry whispered.
* * *
Elrohir watched as the Hobbit climbed the wide stairway that led to the Citadel. Frodo was, as usual, alone, and he held a leather folder in his one hand, sheets of paper bursting from its edges. He was apparently on his way to an audience with the King, which was exactly where the Peredhel intended to go. Ah, well… I shall wait my turn for the Small Master to finish speaking to his friend…
Frodo had made no secret of his wish to depart from Minas Tirith and return to his homeland, and soon. Yet such a long journey, even now, in the peace of the Fourth Age, was not a small undertaking, and had its hazards. Many others lingered in the City, planning their own departures, and Estel, Elrohir knew, had been quietly but firmly persuading the Hobbit to delay his leave-taking until arrangements for proper escort could be made. It seemed that such a time was near, for Thranduil and his company made ready for their departure, and Legolas would be with them. Gimli's homeward trek would take him in the same direction, and he had announced his intention to travel with the Elves. Radagast, of course, dwelt in Mirkwood the Great, and though he kept his plans to himself, the Peredhel saw how of late he spent nearly all of his time patiently teaching a number of the apprentice healers of the Houses, and indeed, met often with Master Turin himself, as if he were about to leave the Healers behind for good. Elrohir had even overheard plans for the Steward Faramir to acquaint himself with the North Kingdom in the company of the King's kinsman and soon-to-be-appointed Steward of Arnor, Lieutenant Halbarad. All these folk were to leave Minas Tirith very soon, within a fortnight. It seemed logical that the Hobbit—or rather, the Hobbits—would depart with them, for they could reasonably choose any route north and westward. In late summer the Vale of Anduin and then over the High Pass was just as likely a route as west through the Gap of Rohan and hence north through Eregion.
But how long the Hobbits—and how many—would be gone from the south was not at all clear. The older of Frodo's cousins had made the startling announcement of his betrothal to the delightful—and suitably short-statured—Mareyn, of Anorien, with a date set for the wedding in the following summer. Apparently her father had initially protested, but been utterly charmed by the Perian when he journeyed to her family's farm to ask his consent in person. It undoubtedly did not hurt his chances with the bride-to-be's kin that he had been knighted by both Rohan and Gondor, and was now a landowner and a minor lord. That Meriadoc planned to return from the Shire very soon and settle in the south was quite obvious. What young Peregrin's plans were was not so clear. Elrohir had gotten to know the Perian apprentice-healer over the last few months. He was, of course, incredibly young and full of youth's exuberance. How long his dedication to his newly found purpose would last remained to be seen. He certainly might grow homesick, one so young, and could come to regret his decision to remove himself from his own folk. Perhaps a few years… Yet even that might present many benefits, for the Perian, and for the Shire. Pippin could take the time to grow up fully, to 'come of age,' as his people said, and learn some valuable skills. If he then chose to return to his home, it would be advantageous for everyone involved—except, perhaps, his cousin left behind.
Elrohir sighed softly as he respectfully followed Frodo at a distance through the halls to the royal presentation chambers. It seemed to him that these three Pheriannath were doomed, one way or another, to loss and separation, no matter what course they chose. As am I… as was I…
The Peredhel waited in the silent hall while the Perian had his audience with the King, and the Queen—for he happened to know that Arwen was at her husband's side today. The foster-brothers had so arranged it, for the topic Elrohir came to discuss concerned her as much as him.
A quarter hour passed slowly. Elrohir closed his eyes, expecting as he did so that, as had been the case since the morning after the battle at Helm's Deep, he would see in his mind's eye the battered and tortured body of his twin. The image had been with him in each dream, at every awakening, whenever he closed his eyes, even for a moment, and whenever he let his inner guard down. But today, a different face came first to his mind—a far more pleasant, beautiful face, one turned toward him with joy, tears sparkling, flushed with emotion.
A broken heart is an open heart… He had heard Mithrandir's words, spoken through the voice of Aiwendil, but had hardened himself against them. For, he told himself, was it not a sort of betrayal of those taken from him to heal from grief, to allow his torn and broken heart to be filled with anything other than anguish? And yet… Without being aware of it, he had slowly turned away from mourning. One face, once voice had gently led him from the shadows of night toward the day. And now, the choice that had been before him all his life took on a new light. He had always thought he knew what choice he would make; he had never doubted it… But now, everything was different.
The chamber door opened, and Estel appeared, his left hand on the knob, the missing half of his upper body hidden from view for the moment. The King had a smile on his face, and Elrohir the Healer noted at once the return of a bright intensity to his gaze, how color bloomed upon his cheeks, and that he had regained his lost weight. From this angle, his foster-brother looked at the pinnacle of health and at the mature peak of his manhood.
"El?" he said. "Would you join us, please?"
Elrohir rose from the bench and entered the chamber. The room was lined with tall, deep-silled windows that faced east and south, and the glazed panels were open to allow the summer breeze to filter in. Much more pleasant and spacious than the similar chamber used by the Stewards, the room had been scrubbed clean, and glowed for the first time in a millennia. In a glance, Elrohir saw the influence of his sister. Faint shadows on the wall and surrounding the windows were all that remained of the heavy formal tapestries and drapes that had previously hung there, fading and gathering dust for so many centuries. For now, the room's only décor were tall vases filled with brightly colored blossoms in each corner and the light that streamed in. The Peredhel nodded approvingly, imagining how this room and the rest of the Citadel would appear in a year, after Arwen of Imladris had her brilliant way with it.
Arwen herself sat in a pool of sunlight, dressed in a gown of green trimmed with touches of gold—in homage, her brother surmised, to Yavanna Kelemenari, beloved by their grandmother. As she turned her beaming smile upon him, he was thrilled to see how in just a month after her hesitant, anxious arrival in Minas Tirith, all trace of uncertainty had vanished from her beautiful yet scarred face.
That she was entirely confident of her husband's love—and he of hers—was displayed in the way that neither of them seemed to feel the slightest self-consciousness about their changed bodies. The new Queen no longer hid behind a fold of a veil or the drape of a hood, but allowed her scar to show without a trace of embarrassment. And the recovered King had ordered his garments altered, not to hide his deformity, but to accommodate to it. His pure blue tunic had no sleeve, nor even a shoulder upon the right, but was stitched to fit smoothly over the curve of his upper torso, following his ribcage from the base of his neck to his waist. He already appeared so accustomed to his loss, and so much healthier for the removal of the source of his pain and sickness that one hardly noticed he was anything less than completely whole.
All this Elrohir saw in a fleeting glance. And at the same time he was aware of the stark contrast of the Perian seated before them. Frodo's garments seemed chosen to match his mood: dark and somber. Where the King and Queen radiated lightness of spirit, contentment in their long-awaited union and eagerness for their future together, the Ring-Bearer looked subdued, his countenance clouded with doubt that his future would be anything other than burdensome. Yet even Frodo's mood could not dampen the joy Elrohir read on the faces of two of those he loved most. The Peredhel smiled at his sister and his foster-brother, now his brother-in-law, realizing as he did so that his own mood was now more like to theirs than to the Perian's.
"My Lord… my Lady," he said with a deep bow and an impish grin.
The King and Queen seemed fairly amused by his formal greeting; Frodo glanced up briefly and nodded, but did not smile.
"My dear brother will undoubtedly be able to answer your question, Frodo," Arwen said with a nod toward the Hobbit.
Elrohir took a seat in a chair next to Frodo, and looked at the Ring-Bearer expectantly. Frodo frowned as he shuffled through the sheaf of papers he had spread upon his lap.
"I will answer any question you ask, Master Frodo," Elrohir said, wondering what sort of query the hobbit might have for him, of all people.
Frodo looked up. "Yes… Well, you see I have been attempting to rewrite Bilbo's tale, that he set down in the Red Book, for, of course, that was lost in Rivendell, in the fire…" He cleared his throat nervously as he searched in his papers for the sheet in question. "Ah, yes… Here it is… " Frodo looked up and he met Elrohir's eyes. "Can you tell me, when Bilbo and Gandalf came back through Rivendell… Imladris, I mean… following the Battle of the Five Armies, what season of the year was it? I know, or rather I recall Bilbo telling me that it was midsummer when they arrived on their way to the Lonely Mountain, but I cannot for the life of me remember when they came back through. Can you recall, Elrohir?" Frodo stared at the paper, as though the words written there might hold the key to some crucial mystery, one vital to uncover. "I do so wish to get the details right, you see…with the original Red Book being lost now, and no one left who is able to recount the tale from their own memories…"
Elrohir's gazed flickered to Aragorn's for an instant, then returned to Frodo. He smiled gently and replied. "Why of course, Frodo, I remember it well… They arrived once more at Midsummer, even as they had on your uncle's first visit to Imladris. I remember thinking how clever they were, to manage to time their traveling so as to arrive at the sweetest season in the valley, and to coincide with a very pleasant festival, not once, but twice…"
Frodo's smile was polite. "Thank you, Elrohir, I truly appreciate it… I know it must seem silly of me, to be doing this…" He pointed to the jumble of papers, and his momentary slightly brighter face immediately clouded over. "But it is important to me, to make certain that he doesn't just fade off, you see, into obscurity…"
Arwen leaned forward from her chair and reached out her hand toward the Ring-Bearer. "You need not worry, Frodo. I for one shall never forget your kinsman. He was a dear friend, and I miss him very much…"
Frodo's face flushed as he glanced at her. "My Lady, I am sorry, what a foolish thing to say, of course you will not forget him… You have no idea how grateful I am to you, for what you did for him that day…"
"Hush, my dear Frodo," she said quietly. "You've thanked me often enough. I did what anyone would have done, what he would have done for me had the circumstances been reversed…"
"Nevertheless I am truly grateful… and sorry…" Frodo's voice faded into a mumble, and he began shuffling his papers once again.
Aragorn watched him with a pained look of pity. He hid it instantly when the Hobbit looked up and spoke.
"Well, then," he said with the sound of forced cheer in his voice. "I've nearly finished Bilbo's part of all this, and as I've mentioned, Strider, I've got quite a good start on the rest. Now that I know the date of our departure, I promise to work diligently. I do hope to finish it and leave the original with you. I'm certain your City has excellent scribes, and you can see to it that a copy is sent on back to the Shire some day…"
"The original will be a treasure of my household and the archives of Gondor," Aragorn said. "And I hope to do much better than to have a copy merely sent to the Shire, my friend. My realm is in the North as well as in the South, you know. The King shall indeed travel to survey all his lands in the not too distant future." He smiled. "Perhaps Strider shall come calling at the Shire with a delivery for you…"
Frodo stood and bowed. "Thank you, my Lord. That would be very thoughtful of you… I should be going, sire…"
Aragorn rose from his chair then, and Elrohir marveled to see the King at once transformed back to the earnest youth, Estel—or to the stern but pure-hearted Ranger who first encountered the future Ring-Bearer in the common room of an inn in Bree. For he stepped forward and sank to one knee before the flustered, frowning Hobbit, and placed his hand upon Frodo's shoulder.
"Frodo… I ask you again… Will you not consider staying with us, in Minas Tirith? All your friends are here, or shall be, soon enough… Those who know you best, and know all your history—and your kinsman, Bilbo's—are all right here, my friend…"
But the Hobbit was already shaking his head. "No… No, I don't belong here, Strider. I… I want to go home…"
"I can certainly understand that," Aragorn said gently. "Who wouldn't wish to go home, after a long and perilous year, as you've had? And yet, I cannot help wondering what home will be like for you, my friend. I fear you may be terribly lonely there. And you have been changed by your journey, and you shall undoubtedly find the Shire changed, if only in the way it seems to you…"
Frodo seemed to stiffen at his words, and his frown only deepened. "Please, Aragorn… The Shire is my home. There are things I must do..." His voice had an edge close to anger. "Do not ask me again. I'm not staying here. I'm going home."
Aragorn released his grip on the hobbit's shoulder and sat back on his heels. He inclined his head. "Very well, I shall not ask again, I promise. But you must also make a promise to me, Frodo…"
The Ring-Bearer looked up into the King's eyes, and Elrohir thought that he had not seen so bleak an expression on anyone's face since the grief he had read upon his father's face when they stood as a family upon the quay at the Havens, watching the ship take their mother away from them. The Peredhel's heart ached—for the memory, and for the Perian and his sorrow.
"Yes?" Frodo said in a hoarse whisper. "What more would you ask of me?"
"I ask no more of you than this: Promise that if you are ever tempted to bring an end your sorrow … If the thought comes to you that your life is no longer worth living," he said gravely, "that you stay your hand, and instead, send a message to your King… For your King would come, Frodo. I would come to you, no matter when you call for me. I would come… For my debt to you can never be repaid…"
Arwen came forward as well, and crouching low beside them, she spoke softly. "As is my husband's debt to you, Frodo, so is mine… And so I ask not a promise from you, but that you take this…" She lifted a silver chain with a white gem from around her neck, and unclasped it, and handed it to the Hobbit. "Take this, and when your heart is heavy and you are in need of solace, you may find that this gem provides a bit of warmth and comfort…"
Frodo took the necklace and bowed his head. Then without another word he gathered his writings into the leather folder, tucked it beneath his arm and left the chamber. The King and Queen returned to their chairs and watched him go.
"Of all the sorrows of this dreadful war," Arwen sighed, "…of all the losses suffered and wounds endured, my heart tells me that his wound is the most grievous…"
"Indeed," Aragorn said. "He sacrificed the most, accomplished the most for the benefit of all, and has healed the least… Were it not for him, all hope would have been lost—yet he takes no comfort in his victory… I fear his grief will consume him…"
"It has already begun to do so," Elrohir said sadly. "And yet there is little to be done, by anyone but the Ring-Bearer himself… He must choose to take the path toward healing. No other can make that choice for him…"
Aragorn looked up at his foster-brother at those words; a slight smile found its way back to grace the King's face. "Spoken as one who truly knows the wisdom of his words…"
Elrohir found his face flushing, and the smile within him could no longer be contained. "True enough, Toro-nin…" He rose, and dropped to one knee before the King and Queen, and reached out a hand to each of them. They gazed on their brother with gladness.
"I can see by the looks on your faces that the happy surprise I had hoped to reveal to you has already been spoiled…"
Arwen laughed. "You failed to account for the curiosity and gossip of the inhabitants of a large City, my brother…"
"And especially a City that contains among its inhabitants a handful of Hobbits," Aragorn chuckled.
Elrohir sniffed. "And one Hobbit in particular who enjoys spying within the walls of the Houses of Healing… " Then all trace of teasing or humor vanished from the Peredhel's voice, and he spoke in hushed, earnest tones. "Then the joyful truth is already known. My broken heart has indeed been opened, allowing love to flourish within it. Therefore, I have come to beg both of your blessings twice. For the one, that I give my heart and vows to the Lady Ivreniril, Master Turin's Chief Herbalist and the dearest, finest woman I have ever met… and for the second, that I follow my beloved sister in her destiny, and choose to be of mortal race, and remain here, with my love and with both of you, until the end of my life…"
"It is not you that requires blessings from us, Elrohir," Aragorn said. "For we are thrice blessed: to see you turn toward healing and joy… To see you find your heart's other half… and to have you by our side…"
"Oh, El," Arwen said through her tears of joy, as she came forward into his arms. "Are you certain? To be parted from Elladan like this… I am so very happy, to have you with us, but are you sure?"
"I have never been more sure of anything in my life," he said as he embraced her. "I belong here… with my sister, with my brother, and with my true love."
* Erhanchion: "One-Armed"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.