18. Chapter 18: Aegnor
I left him two days ago, in Rohan…
Mithrandir's words echoed inside my mind as if in an empty cave, and all thoughts were erased, my spirit blank and forlorn. I advanced towards him, my hesitant steps matching his own, staggering more than walking, one uncertain foot before the other. The shadows of the room had swallowed the light. When he was before me my tongue rested forgotten in my mouth, all my words forever left behind. For a moment it seemed he was about to speak; then he shook his head like a skittish horse, and turning he walked away, his pace measured now, towards the garden. I followed.
The voice of the trees had not changed, a divine indifference to all that was not enclosed within the garden's walls, a satisfied humming beneath the brilliant sky.
We were right we did not care it did not come…
The stone whispered of deliverance unexpected, unsought for. But as we came they fell silent, for they could guess our thoughts, and the pain suspended on our words unsaid was like a moving darkness, and it throbbed.
"Why didn't you come back?"
He spoke before he turned, and when he faced me, waiting for his answer, his eyes blazed. Legolas! Alive and safe, and there, in the middle of that war a knife of agony and relief sunk into my throat. My answer hung between us as my eyes searched his face, reading on it the weariness of a long path, but a spirit untamed. As I looked at him he did the same, he learnt me again after this long absence; and learning he sought for the difference that divided us now, for a change that would tell him what had come to pass, in what fire I had been tempered into something new.
I could not lie. I would not. Mine was this burden to carry, mine the fault and the stain. I looked into his eyes, and told the truth.
"I could not leave Ithilien."
"And the Man…the Captain?"
Hesitation. Words that fall, drops of water on the rock. Answers to give. Sun that scorches, Sun that burns.
"You have seen your answer in that room."
His cry I did not expect, it cut through me like a white-hot iron. Legolas screamed, rage and frustration and despair in a call which had no words, only pain. His hands clenched into fists, his face a mask of grief deeply engraved. It hurt me even as it hurt him, and my heart beat a mournful drum, my fingers burnt; yearning to touch him, to soothe him, to say that it was but a dreadful dream. But I remained still, my choice, my guilt a leaden cape chaining me to the Earth.
The cry died, the words that followed it sinking deeper than it had.
"Were those years so easily forgot?"
In the encircling darkness of that hour, times of brightness and peace, and joy undimmed shone in my memory, jewels in the sand of years past. I tried to answer, I tried to explain, I tried to say how it had been living divided in two until the choice had come. But my voice was no longer there, my words died on my lips even as they reached them. I looked at him, to his face shaded in the light of the stars, and I knew not what filled my eyes.
He looked at me, and he must see the truth, the impossible fracture, the clean break that had cloven my heart. He shook his head, again and again as if he could not, he would not believe. In the closed darkness of my pouch my fingertips found the jewel leaf, and I offered it to him. It shone softly upon my palm, beauty cold and untouched. He did not take it.
"Of what I gave you this is but the least part; and I can take back none of it. Nor would I."
There was a brilliance of tears in his eyes, like stars polished by a sudden rain; his voice was firm when he said: "I wish you happiness, Mìriel."
He had seldom waited for me to answer, even in the days of our happiness before the war. Now, without looking back, he left me. I stood motionless watching him go, his slender figure small against the stone portal. I remained behind, and when he had gone for a long moment all was silence, the night of the victory a soundless thing beneath a sky twinkling with silver and black.
Inside me, a dragon devouring my heart bite by bite.
I fell sitting on the ground, my grief a physical pain, a spear thrust into my chest. Like a burning wind it swept the plains of my mind, different and unlike the fear and despair that had seized me because of Faramir, for Legolas I knew as deeply as myself, and for long years our spirits had sung together, their chords attuned. Imagining his sorrow at my betrayal had been a wound that had long pained me before feigning to heal; but witnessing it was a destruction I had not foreseen.
For months and years I had believed I had lived two lives, I had believed that I had severed my spirit, split myself into desires so far and different that one should perish for the other to live. But to hope that such a fracture may heal is vain. Finding Legolas here, finding him at the end and the beginning of all that was, reminded me of a brightness too strong for my maimed spirit to suffer. I did not regret a step of the road I had taken. And yet it hurt.
Sitting on the grass, motionless and still. Watching me they might have believed I was made of stone. My body immobile, my mind strained, I strived to scatter this cloud, pushing the edge of this darkness away, looking for a light to shine even now. The battle won. Faramir saved…
But what should have been my safety revealed itself to be my doom. For as I remembered his cool forehead when the fever had given up its fight, as I remembered the triumph of his heart as it slowed down, so I remembered the frailty of his body in my arms beneath the dome of the Halls of the Dead, and I knew that this victory was vain. The hunter of his death, the end of mortal days, would not lose his traces. If I had lain down this poisoned veil, if I had locked my pain for Legolas in the most secret chambers of my heart, still this shadow would come back; and I should live to see Faramir die beside me day by day, to see the flame of his strength consumed, until no spell nor skill, nor plead of rock and maiden could save him from the paths that Mankind shall take alone, to places where the Eldar cannot follow.
In that day he would abandon his life; and I would remain behind, and all my promises become unfulfilled. In the winter of his days I would remain by his side; until bitterness would unman him, and love turn to pity and despair. For not mine was the choice to relinquish immortal life, and whatever happiness Time would concede me now, it would devour; if happiness I could hope for when the burden of my betrayal, of my unforgotten love weighed upon my heart. The fear that long had tormented my mind came closer, and its cold breath was upon my neck, for now I knew, and my eyes had seen the weakness and the strength of Men. In this hour laid bare by grief from such certainty I could no longer hide.
The voice of the trees, a call I would not answer again. But in their whisper came the memory of a wisdom that High Elves had possessed, and in the mists of my mind the remembrance of a song long since heard stirred.
Words and music came back to me, and the sound unfolded with ancient wisdom. And through the music he spoke to me, Aegnor prince of the Noldor that had been born before the Sun was made, Aegnor who found love in the shape of a mortal maiden. Aegnor whom not unlike me had not the choice to forge his fate. Aegnor who had known that for the immortal grief of the Eldar to watch the waning of those they love is sorrow that cannot be healed. Aegnor who denied himself happiness, however brief, who scorned the mindless abandon of the Children of Men. Aegnor, who had lived too briefly to keep himself from loving, and yet too long not to see what of his love should come.
Aegnor who would have merited the light I deserved not.
The night was long, the voice of the trees a song that could not lull me to sleep. I watched the sun rise into bloodied morning, the white stone turning to scarlet spark. Then the music of the trees died down, and the maiden that had sat alone against the darkness acknowledged her defeat.
Then I rose, and my decision was taken.
A smile that was the pale promise of laughter spread on his lips as I entered the room, and when I sat by him his hand, still weak, tentatively sought mine. I took it, caressing its creases, feeling the shade of his strength that would one day return. Learning it, remembering it, for the eternity that would come after this moment when he would no longer be.
"You were not here…"
"I had to leave. As I will have to do now."
"What requires your presence? I wish I were stronger. Certainly the city – "
"The city needs her Steward, even if they say that a King has ridden to the gates. But of this I no longer concern myself."
Doubt flickered in his eyes, the frail grip of his hand on mine tightened.
"I do not understand your words, Mìriel."
"Yet you do, and all too well. I am returning to the woods, Faramir."
Meaningless words, words without weight. A denial as his eyes demanded to know the truth. The truth that so dearly is paid for.
"I will bear your memory with me through the ages of Arda until this world withers. But this life with you I cannot share."
"Surely you speak in haste. You will take time to think of this, Mìriel? Surely you were glad…"
Looking at me, waiting for my response. Too much gladness, too much light. All has a price. Pain had given me the courage to do this, to cut the last tie. I should have done it before; and of this bitter end my lord Gelmir had spoken. But it did not matter now. It was too late. My voice itself had become stone.
"My days shall not wane as yours do, my life shall not end with yours. Of these hopes we cherish now there would remain then but ashes and faded regrets."
"If it is old age that frightens you, maiden, know that short are the days of the youth of Men, but not blind their eyes. I would not keep you."
"I would not leave. I would accompany you even to the threshold of death, and beating on its gates demand to be admitted. But it would be in vain. Remember me now, and then forget. Find a mortal love that you shall not be parted from."
"There is no mortal love I desire. Nor I will."
"Men shall say that the One was unkind to them, that their Gifts are harsh, and hard to accept. And yet so soon they forget. So soon they heal."
If he had spoken, if he had pleaded, perhaps my strength would have abandoned me, and the ice of my words would have melted in bitter tears. Then I would have tried to cheat fate, and procrastinating the payment of my debt to later days tried to reconcile myself to the city of stone that was in his blood, to the loyalty of iron that lay in his bones, until I should lose myself, and become like the trees in the garden, tamed and changed by the Tower of Guard. All, all, if his words had released me from what I knew needed be done, but whose weight crushed me.
But Faramir did not plead, Faramir did not speak. For Mithrandir had educated him in the lore of the Eldar, and he believed that honour lies in carrying out what for us has been lain in song. He looked at me, and I wished he could see the turmoil behind the blind mirror that my eyes were; I wished he could understand, and forgive. But I said nothing. He nodded once, slowly, and closed his eyes.
In songs and stories, farewells are long, and beautiful words are uttered, words to console, words to diminish the pain. But we were no minstrels, we were no poets. Too much had Faramir lost already to marvel at this. He brought my hand to his lips, and against its skin he whispered: "The joys of my life have been brief, and swiftly consumed, as lightning that makes day of the night, but too soon is gone. And yet the taste I will keep of this shall be sweet." Relinquishing my hand, he looked at me, and in the blue of his eyes sadness had fallen again. "That we should come so far, to part so lightly, Mìriel."
"Perhaps the sages of my people were right. Perhaps no gift is more precious than a sweet goodbye."
I looked at him, his soft mouth, the line of his cheeks, his hair falling upon the pillow in disorderly waves. I looked at him, and knew that the retribution would be fair. No balm for the wounds I had inflicted, and whose burn I should feel in myself. Atonement would be long, and even the green of my land would not soothe it and make it kind.
One last time I bent over him, one last time I let my lips touch his. A remembrance to last until the the bottomless count of eternity should end.
And then I straightened and walked away without looking back, closing the door behind me, feeling only now what it truly is for a heart to break. My spirit crumbled, my strength failed, and without tears I cried, until I knew no longer which pain I was mourning, or why.
The streets of the city were crowded, the people of Gondor had abandoned this nest, they basked in unexpected Sun. This morning of relief was precious to them, the life in their hearts sang loud. Bow and sack over my shoulder, I made my way among them without haste, level by level until I came to the last. Here soldiers were assembled, counting weapons, shoeing horses. Warriors survive but to fight another day.
The gate was open. I had almost reached it, its shadow upon me, before me the empty plain, when a voice called me back.
I turned. His face different and bright without the helm, the scratches of the battle bandaged and ready to become scars of honour, one of my archers beckoned to me, the merriness of his gestures betraying his youth, his joy. Too broad was his smile to be disappointed, and I went to him.
"Will you need new arrows for the battle, lady? You have but to ask."
"I have fought my battle, soldier. I shan't fight another."
"Will you remain behind to defend the city, then?"
"Why? Will the army leave?"
"You did not hear then?"
Eyes wide with surprise, enthusiasm at being the one to tell.
"Aragorn son of Arathorn has mustered most of the able Men. We ride to the Black Gate. Will you come, lady?"
I considered his face, and for his innocence, for his light too soon to be quenched I grieved. Riding to Mordor was riding to death, and what purpose such a waste would serve in the Dùnadan's mind, I could not guess. But even as I opened my mouth to speak the immensity of the days that stretched before me had I left the city came to me, its dreariness, its shallowness, immensity of pain unendurable until all should become but long-drawn burden where even Eldarin memories would fade.
And with it came the remembrance of the end of the song, a tale too sad to be often sung; and the destiny of the prince of the High Elves and mine embraced, a new design and a new atonement showed themselves.
His choice had been wise, but Aegnor grieved. The flame of his sorrow a cutting edge to his sword, he rode to battle. Nor did he come back.