The sight of her dear, familiar nessamelda tree brought a smile to Arwen's face. Impulsively she slipped from her horse's back, tossing the reins to Elrohir as he paused to look back at her. "I'm going to walk across the valley. Take care of Isfin for me please, brother." He caught the reins, laughed and continued on after Elladan who was smiling indulgently as everybody always did at her whims.
She climbed her tree settling contentedly into the nest of boughs she'd woven for herself back when both she and the tree were very young for a good long look over the valley of Rivendell. Lorien was fair but Imladris was home. It was good to be back though truly she hadn't been away very long this time, a mere twenty winters or perhaps a little more.
When she'd looked her fill she descended and started down the winding path to the little rushing river that bisected the valley fed by the cascading falls of a dozen mountain streams. The bridges were all farther downstream near the house but she knew a place where the river ran shallow and it was possible to cross dry-shod on rocks. All her favorite places were along this path; her tree; her bathing pool formed by a back eddy of the river; and on the other side of the little ford her dancing lawn.
It was a perfect circle of green sward ringed by dark hemlocks and pale birch trees. A bird hidden in the boughs sang, its voice blending with that of the waters. Arwen danced to the music, light hearted and light footed with the joy of homecoming. The bird flew away, she laughed and started to follow and was checked by an unexpected cry:
She whirled, heart in mouth, to see a man standing in the shadow of the trees. He took a step forward into the sunlight one hand extended as if to stay her, "Tinuviel." She saw at once he was a Man not an Elf but the light in his eye and the shape of his face proclaimed him one of the Line of Isildur and her remote kin. There was nothing to be afraid of, no reason at all for her heart to pound so.
She produced a smile, "Beren?"
"Would that I were," he answered, eyes shining. "But alas, I am merely Estel."
"And I am but Arwen." He smiled and her heart gave a great leap, catching her breath in her throat. What was the matter with her?
"Welcome home, Lady! They are making great preparations for your reception up at the house."
"And yet I find you here?" she wondered.
His smile became a wry grin. "I was given a choice between weaving garlands with the maidens and playing accompaniment for Lindhir as he practiced his song of welcome."
She laughed, a little breathlessly. "And so you ran away? I would have done the same." she held out her hand to him he bent and kissed it.
Many men had done as much but none had sent a tingle racing up her arm or caused the blood to rise warmly in her cheeks as it did now. She felt giddy and bewildered. She wanted to laugh and sing for joy and to cry as she had never cried in all her long years. She wanted to stand here forever with this man's hand in hers staring into his eyes. And she wanted to run far, far away and never see him again. What was wrong with her?
Arwen climbed the steps to the terrace outside her rooms alone but with a hand still warm from his clasp telling herself she was just glad to be home and pleased to meet so handsome and charming a kinsman nothing more - nothing to be frightened about. Entering her rooms she dropped her cloak on a chair and bent to inspect herself in the mirror. She had rather more color than usual but her hair was a mess.
Reaching up she began to undo the braids only to have her hands unexpectedly slapped aside. "You're making it worse, let me."
"Ellian!" joyfully Arwen turned to embrace her friend.
"You have kept us all waiting a half hour at least." Ellian teased. "But a few moments more won't matter. We might as well fix your hair and change your dress too while we're about it. You've been climbing trees haven't you?"
"Only the one," Arwen answered.
She sat on the stool before the dressing table and watched in the mirror as Ellian unbraided and combed out her hair with practiced skill. They might almost have been sisters for they had the same coloring; soft black hair, eyes the deep blue of a summer night's sky, complexions like the white petals of the niphredil blossom. Ellian was, perhaps, not so beautiful. Or maybe it was just a different kind of beauty. For she was Mortal, a princess of the Dunedain, descended through many generations from Elros Half-Elven, twin brother to Elrond of Rivendell.
"I met a Man in the valley." Arwen said suddenly, "a kinsman of yours by the look of him. He called himself Estel."
In the mirror she saw Ellian nod recognition. "That must have been Aragorn, my nephew."
"Why have I never seen him before?" Arwen asked.
Her friend laughed, "Because he wasn't born yet of course! You've been away a full two and twenty years. Aragorn is but twenty."
Was he so young then? "He is very beautiful." Arwen said and immediately wanted to bite her tongue, as if she'd given something away.
Happily Ellian didn't see anything significant in the comment. "You think so do you?" she laughed. "Wait until you see my Belecthor, tall as his father and fair as his mother!"
"Oh!" suddenly Arwen remembered and twisted around on her stool pulling her hair out of Ellian's hands. "Oh how could I forget, Arador is dead - and Belegorn too! Your father and husband both at once." She looked up at Ellian, eyes filling. "I am so sorry! I wanted to come back to be with you but Grandfather wouldn't allow it. He said it was too dangerous."
"Celeborn was right." Ellian replied with a brisk hug. "The passes weren't at all safe and none of us want you risking your mother's fate." She turned Arwen firmly back to face the mirror and resumed work on her hair. "You would have been most welcome but truly there was little you could have done." She hesitated a moment before continuing; "You heard about Arathorn as well?"
She had not. "What? Oh no, not him too!"
Ellian nodded, "Only a few years later. Aragorn is his son. He was just two at the time."
Tears slid silently down Arwen's cheeks. She'd heard such news before, all too many times. It had always grieved her but never frightened her before nor did she understand why it should now. The fear loomed beyond the edge of her thought too great and monstrous to be faced.
"Arwen!" dismayed Ellian stopped combing to put her arms around her friend. "I didn't mean to spoil your homecoming. Our lives are always brief, you know that." she held Arwen closer, rocking her as Celebrian, her mother, had done long, long ago when she was a child. "It is not how much time we have but how we use it that counts." Ellian crooned. "My father and husband and brother used theirs well. They will be remembered. And they left sons to follow them. That is our kind of immortality."
Drying her eyes Arwen looked at her friend and realized something else: "You've changed."
Ellian smiled, and it was like Celebrian's remembered smile, that of a mother not a maiden. "Of course I have. I've taken a husband and lost him, run a holding and raised two children. I've grown up." She gave Arwen another hug. "But don't worry my Beruthiel is just of an age to make a playmate for you. She's eager to meet you."
Arwen turned again to face the mirror filled with a sorrow beyond tears, she had lost her friend. That too had happened before. The daughters of the House of Isildur had been her playmates and companions as long as she could remember. For a few years they'd be close as sisters but then the Mortal girl would change, chose a new life and move on leaving Arwen behind. Odd… she'd never thought of it like that before. Suddenly it seemed to her as if she were a flower floating on the still surface of her bathing pool while the river of Imladris rushed by carrying Ellian, and all the girls before her, to new places and new lives. It was a strange, sad thought as if she was missing something, for the first time in her nearly three thousand years of life Arwen Undomiel found herself wondering what it would be like to leave her father's house; to live somewhere else with someone else.
Estel had a tree too, a large and ancient beech growing on the riverbank a mile or so above the House. Arwen sat beside him on a crude platform slung between three branches and overhanging the water. Its creaking, uneven surface softened by layers of worn and weather faded rugs, both munching on apples as the setting sun shone through the river cleft tinting the whole valley gold.
"Berya, Meleth and I built it when I was eight," Aragorn explained. "Then the others came and we let them in on the secret."
"And you would steal apples and come here to eat them," Arwen finished. She pitched her core into the river below and looked at him. "Why not just ask for the apples?"
"Where's the sport in that?" He grinned, tossing away his own core. "Besides, they might have said no. Grownups often did."
Arwen thought back. "Not to me."
"That I do believe," Estel said, amused. He took another bite of his apple and when he'd swallowed continued; "Our mothers and especially Grandmother were far less indulgent than the Elves. And I don't doubt Uncle is far stricter with his fosterlings than he ever was with his daughter."
Arwen frowned. "That doesn't seem fair."
He shook his head. "When I was young I would have agreed with you. But Uncle is right. We Isildurioni are destined for hard lives. We need a hard discipline."
Arwen's heart contracted painfully. She hated to be reminded of the difference between them and of the hardships and dangers Estel would endure as a Ranger.
He must have seen it in her face for his tone quickly turned light again. "Besides there was only one of you - and you can't have been as naughty a child as the five of us were!"
"What did you do?" she asked, fascinated.
He laughed. "What didn't we do; knocked hands and noses off statues, built cities out of the books in Uncle's library, daubed the frescoes with watercolors, tracked river mud through every room, kept kestrels in the summer tower and put pike in the lily pool, climbed the pergolas and dug holes in the garden!"
"And I missed it," Arwen mourned. "If only I'd come home sooner!" Never had she been so painfully aware of the inexorable passage of time. Already she had lost twenty years of his life. At best he had no more than a hundred eighty or ninety more and then - her mind shied desperately away from completing the thought.
"We'd have made your life a misery," he was saying. "Frogs in your bed, birds' eggs down your back, honey in your hair. You'd have hated the lot of us.
"Not you." she denied, looking into eyes that sometimes seemed grey, sometimes blue, but always with that elusive spark of starfire shimmering in their depths, "never you." The evening breeze down from the mountains caught up her long hair, blowing it forward around her face so the soft ends tickled his.
"I suppose you would have gotten over it," he conceded huskily, "Eventually, when I was an old, old man." His breath came ragged, as if he'd been running.
She was having trouble breathing too, drowning in those eyes. Slowly, almost without the will of either, they leaned closer. "I've already lost too much time," she whispered, to herself rather than him. Then their lips touched and there were no more words.
Arwen climbed the steps to her terrace and entered her darkened chambers. She bent to light a lamp and a voice said out of the shadows; "I will thank you not to break my grandson's heart, Arwen Undomiel."
Her hand jerked, almost knocking over the lamp, and she spun to see a tall woman sitting on her bed. "Ellemir!" Arwen put a hand to her throat to still her pounding pulse. "What are you talking about? I'm not breaking anyone's heart!"
The Lady of the Dunedain rose, moving forward into the light. She had a distinct look of Arwen's father, the same grey eyes under winged brows. And she was beautiful, but grim with the hard experience of many long years. She looked stern, almost angry and Arwen had to work hard not to quail before her.
"One does not cure a young man's infatuation by paying attention to him!" Ellemir snapped. "And you know it as well as I, what is the matter with you, Arwen? You handled Arathorn and Halbarad beautifully."
"That was different." Arwen husked. It had to be - because if it wasn't then Estel's feelings would change. He'd grow away from her just as Ellian had. Tears filled her eyes and spilled over. Break his heart? He who would break hers!
"Arwen?" Ellemir touched a tear, sparkling in the lamplight, her own face softening with swift pity and dismay. "It seems it is not just Aragorn I should have been worrying about. Can you have you fallen in love with my grandson?"
"Is that so impossible?" Arwen asked a little bitterly, turning away with her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
"Of course not," Ellemir said calmly to her back. "I fell in love with his grandfather didn't I? and I assure you I had no intention of doing any such thing." her lips quirked in a rueful, reminiscent smile. "I was all set to be a second Lady Haleth, a maiden warrior-queen, living only for her people." She gave a short laugh. "The truth was I'd been my own mistress since I was eighteen. I liked my independence and meant to keep it." She shrugged, "Then Arador came and upset all my plans. Of course if he hadn't there would have been no Aragorn and we wouldn't be having this conversation."
No Aragorn. No Estel. Ellemir had finally put into words the fear Arwen had been fighting all these weeks and dragged it into the light where it had to be faced. "He's going to die!" she burst out in passionate terror, "In battle like Arador and Arathorn or of old age. He'll die and I'll never see him again as long as the world lasts!"
"Such is the fate of Men." Ellemir agreed eyeing her closely.
"If Estel dies I want to die too!" Arwen cried frantically.
"Which would solve nothing." the Woman's tone was crisply unsympathetic, bracing. "You are an Elf, Arwen. Living or dead, you are bound to the Circles of the World while we Men are doomed to pass beyond them."
"I am Half-Elven," Arwen contradicted in a hushed, almost frightened whisper. "I can choose to become Mortal if I will." The idea was scarcely less terrifying then the thought of losing Estel.
Ellemir caught her breath, truly shaken. "Is it as serious as that between you?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Arwen, this is your life we are talking about. More than your life, the destiny of your soul," she continued sternly. "It is not a decision to be made lightly or in a moment of passion. If you choose a Mortal life it is your father you will not see again as long as the World lasts, and your mother and your grandparents. You will break their hearts, Arwen, can you to do that to them?"
"Father," she whispered miserably, then; "Ellemir, what am I going to do?"
"You are going to be calm," was the firm, reassuring answer. "You will take your time and think carefully about what you want to do." The Lady smiled grimly. "I promise you, Aragorn is not going to die for many years yet."
Arwen subsided onto the bed, trembling in the aftermath of her emotional outburst. "Take time. Think. Yes, I will do that." She felt calmer already. She was not accustomed to making hard choices or decisions of any kind, it comforted her to think this one could be put off for a time.
"Remember," Ellemir said softly, "all choices bring with them regrets, and that is as true for Elves as it is for Men. Arwen, do you want to tell your father or shall I?" Arwen looked up at her in surprise. "Your decision affects him as well. He should be told and given a chance to prepare himself."
Elrond's daughter looked down at her tightly clasped hands. "I am a coward. You tell him. But say I haven't decided anything yet." She took a deep breath. "When I do decide, I will tell him myself."