1. Winter's Chill
She'd seen this coming for months, and yet managed to ignore it completely. Now it overwhelmed her thoughts until she could consider nothing else.
Seeing the frustrated pain on Estel's face as he worked his shoulder after shrugging into the heavy, formal robe for his court appearance greeting the newest ambassador from Harad, Arwen knew with a disturbing jolt that his time was growing short indeed. Her husband's hair and beard were a beautiful silver that she had so many times compared to the gleam of finest mithril; now that hue was nothing but a unavoidable reminder of what was to come all too soon, for the both of them.
Arwen closed the casement window against the breeze coming off the mountain behind them. As much as she craved fresh air, the late autumns and winters here in Minas Tirith were harsher than she liked. What's more, the cold tended to bother Estel much more now than it ever had, making his joints ache and his movements painful, and she was starting to grow protective. Watchful. Resigned.
She had not changed so very much. Her hair was as dark and silken as it had been the day that she had put her hand in Estel's in Lothlórien and made her choice to accept the Gift of Ilúvatar in the end. Her limbs moved smoothly, without pain or hitch in warm weather or cold. Her skin was still smooth and soft; her voice still musical. And yet, Time had not left her completely untouched. Her waist was noticeably thicker, courtesy of the children she had carried and then borne, her breasts a little emptier and pendant from no longer being providers of nourishment for those same children. Her mother had not changed in that way after carrying twins and then her; it was an undeniable sign of her new nature as a Mortal, her choice made manifest. She was no longer of the Eldar.
Estel had never once made mention of these changes, but she noted them each at least once in a while – sometimes in frustration, sometimes with anguish. Now, in light of her husband's visible diminishment, those signals became poignant reminders that the life of the Edain was a finite one for her too, and that the two of them had been luckier than most in the number of years they had been given together. Still, finite was finite, and nothing would stop the march of days towards an end that she feared and dreaded, but didn't regret in the least.
Not for the first time, she remembered the many arguments her father had thrown up at her when she'd announced her choice and intentions to him, all those years ago. Ada, I do not regret this, only that Estel and I did not have longer together. Even now, the many reasons her father had given her to renounce her choice and follow him West when the time came were as empty of substance as the late autumn breeze was empty of warmth. Of what use was an unending life in a land filled with peace if it did not include love? And there was so much love around her now!
Eldarion and his wife had just gifted the realm and their family with a second child, this one a son to be called Giladan. His daughter, Amariel, was a delightful three-year-old who had both her grandparents wrapped around her little finger, as well as had charmed the entire Citadel Guard staff. Although none of them thought she knew, Arwen had many times seen one of the Guards that stood sentinel around the White Tree help lift the little scamp into its lower branches. No doubt Giladan would receive the same privileges, when his time came. A previous generation of Guards had performed the same service for that one's father and his sisters years before. The Telcontar line was secure indeed, fruitful and beloved of their people.
Then there were her daughters: Míriel, Alfirín and Eirien. Míriel had demanded to be trained as an Ithilien Ranger after never being content with normal "woman's" activities, and had eventually married one of those she had trained with. They lived in Emyn Arnen, not far from the halls built by Faramir for Éowyn, with their three sons and little daughter. Alfirín had been quietly courted and then claimed by the son of Halboron, Steward of Arnor, and she dwelt in Annúnimas with her husband and son. The youngest, Eirien, had followed in Estel's footsteps and become a healer, to the point of asking to remove to train under her uncles in Imladris. Capable, dedicated and quite independent, Eirien had returned to Minas Tirith several years earlier, but had as yet managed to steer clear of the young noblemen in the court.
There was also the love that came from the descendents of Estel's beloved hobbit comrades from the Quest. With the incorporation of The Shire into the greater Gondor and Arnor, a small enclave of hobbits had slowly evolved in both the White City as well as Annúnimas. Frodo Took was the current ambassador to Gondor from that area, and the great-grandson of Peregrin Took had inherited all of his ancestor's mischievous tendencies and deep loyalties. What was more, there were frequent messages and a good deal of traveling between the White City and The Shire that kept Estel informed on the comings and goings of the families of those he so treasured. The nobles of the court sometimes grumbled at the "infestation" of hobbits, but her husband would hear none of it. Those merry little folk reminded him of the simpler life he had led long before his destiny had brought him to Gondor again.
"Are you coming?" Estel's voice broke into her reveries.
Arwen shook herself mentally and smiled at him as she turned away from the window that she had closed overlooking the courtyard and the White Tree below. "I am ready. Do you need help with that?" she asked, pointing at Anduril in its scabbard, hanging on their bedchamber wall.
Estel eyed the sword for a moment. "Do you really think I need it? After all, this is but a welcoming ceremony for an ambassador…"
"An ambassador from a realm that has caused your people considerable difficulties over the years," she reminded him. "It would not be amiss to remind the man that you are not merely a complacent scholar, but also a warrior leader of renown."
"Then yes, I would appreciate your help," Estel said with a sigh, reaching for the sword and hissing as the move pained him again. "My right shoulder is not a contented comrade this day."
"I shall have Eirien bring you a balm for it this evening." Arwen took the heavy sword and sword-belt from him and held it about his waist from the rear until she knew he had it buckled securely. She stepped back and then in front of him, gazing at him with a soft smile. "Much better."
He was an impressive sight, dressed in his formal robes. The Elendilmir gleamed in the circlet Estel had chosen to wear this day instead of the great heavy crown of Elendil. That, she knew, now made his neck ache desperately if he had to wear it for any length of time. The hilt of Anduril glowed with its own light, the gem mounted at the very end a deep blue sapphire that had come from a land long since disappeared beneath the waves. The Elessar-stone held Estel's cloak this day, as it did every time he dressed formally, but the light in its emerald depths seemed diminished, as if it too were growing tired.
It was yet another in an apparently unending list of signs that the end of their time together drew uncomfortably, inexorably nigh.
"Then we should go," he told her as he extended his elbow. "We do not wish to be late."
"They will wait for us," she reminded him, but still placed her hand into the crook of his arm.
Yes, their time was growing short. But they had accomplished so very much in those short years. A unified and peaceful kingdom had been established, diplomacy and occasional wars had settled most of the grievances from old enemy lands that had once sworn allegiance to the Dark Lord Sauron, and their family had grown and multiplied.
Beneath her hand, she could feel him limping ever so slightly. That fall when his horse had been killed from beneath him during the campaign in Khand years ago was now bothering him when the winds grew cold. That, and the way so many of his movements now came at the cost of some pain was yet another sign that Estel's days were numbered, and that number was clearly dwindling. A fleeting frown creased her brow as she silently loosed a curse-word into her thoughts that would have had her father cringing and her mother scolding her for hours had they heard. Could she notice nothing else this day but signs of darker days and painful partings to come?
It wasn't fair. Aragorn was a good, fair and wise King. His lands had prospered under his guidance for these past one hundred twenty years. Eldarion was wise too, trained in the art of war by Glorfindel himself and in diplomacy by Estel and Faramir combined. He had led men to victory in war, and had brought several extremely difficult diplomatic missions to successful conclusions. But he was not his father and did not pretend to be. He would be King – no doubt, a good one – but he would not be Elessar.
And once Elessar was no more, there would be nothing left in this world for her. As her father once promised her, she would be alone until the long days of her life were completely spent after Estel left her to step beyond the circles of the world.
As they walked across the courtyard, past the White Tree, towards the great hall where the latest ambassador from Harad awaited them, an errant breeze lifted Arwen's hair and trailed icy fingers across her shoulders and neck, making her shiver. The sunlight was bright, but there was no warmth to it.
Winter was coming all too soon.