Elrond received his nephew and foster son in his library, a large hall walled by open colonnades supporting galleries overlooking the lower terraces and gardens. The candles in their twining, many branched holders had been lit washing the leather bindings of the books with gold and reflecting in the polished wood of benches and reading desk.
The Master of Rivendell sat in his high backed chair and studied Estel - Aragorn - with a measuring eye. Tall as the Kings of Men of Old with the strong, clear cut features of his House unmarked as yet by time or care… so young, so very young. The eyes that met and held Elrond's gaze were grey as the twilight sky outside and shot with the silvery Elven light that was the visible sign of the Mortal Half-elven. Aragorn's expression was guarded, Elrond thought he knew why and spoke quickly to set his nephew's mind at rest:
"Aragorn, you know already something of the burden you are heir to. For ten centuries the Dunedain of the North, led by the Heirs of Isildur, have fought in secret against the Lord of Mordor, defending the free peoples of the North from enemies they do not even know they have. But soon the time for secrecy will be past." Aragorn's head lifted eyes narrowing, his interest caught. "Nearly a thousand years ago Arvedui, the Last King, was given the chance to reunite the Realms of the Dunedain and overthrow the Dark Lord-"
"It was not his fault that he failed." Arvedui's many times great grandson broke in defensively.
"I did not say that it was." Elrond replied, his face tightening with remembered grief - and anger. "His rights were denied, his claim discarded, and he and his people fell into shadow."
"But from the shadows we have continued the fight." Aragorn reminded him.
"Indeed you have, but at great cost. Gondor too has paid the price of her pride and folly. Her strength dwindles, if not her courage. And perhaps adversity has taught her wisdom." Elrond certainly hoped so. "Your peoples suffer as the Dark Lord's power grows. They need their King; The Heir of Isildur, Elendil's son of Arnor and Gondor. They need you, Aragorn." His nephew's eyes widened at that and Elrond saw him swallow. "Why do you think we named you 'Hope', Estel my son?" he asked with unwonted gentleness. "You are the last hope of your people; either you reunite the Realms of the Dunedain and throw down the Dark Lord forever, or the world of Men and all of Middle Earth falls into Darkness unending. It is a great burden but one I believe you have the strength to bear."
"I hope you are right, Father." Aragorn said huskily then stood silent coming to terms with his destiny.
Elrond watched as initial fear and uncertainty gave way to determination, as he had expected they would. And then to an intense excitement he did not understand at all. "Aragorn -" he began and was cut off by a sudden rush of words from his nephew:
"I was glad when you sent for me, Uncle, for there is a matter I have long wanted to discuss with you but my courage failed me." His eyes lifted to Elrond's burning silver bright. "I love your daughter Arwen and she loves me. I know she is far above my worth but if, as you say, I will have a throne to offer her - the High Kingdom itself -"
"Aragorn - Estel!" Elrond managed to stem the flood. His nephew fell silent, watching him with half-fearful hope. Elrond was shaken as he had seldom been in all his centuries of life. Aragorn was not the first Heir of Isildur to confess a passion for Arwen. In fact they had fallen in love with her with almost monotonous regularity over the generations. But none of his predecessors had claimed she returned his love or spoken of marriage. Forcing back a sudden, terrible fear Elrond managed to speak calmly. "As to your worth, you are my own brother's child, however many generations removed, so I can hardly complain of your birth." He smiled thinly. "And as I have had the training of you I cannot justly complain of your breeding either. But you are mortal, Aragorn, and Arwen is not. That presents - difficulties."
"I know." his nephew agreed steadily, adding with a defiant lift of the chin. "There are precedents."
Elrond could not restrain a pained smile despite his distress. "Were there not neither you, nor I, nor my daughter would exist," the son of Earendil, son of Tuor and Idril, and of Elwing daughter of Dior, son of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel. "You do not know what you ask of me, son."
Aragorn sensed something of his Uncle's agony, even if he did not yet understand its cause. "It is Arwen I will ask, she who will decide," he said quietly.
"As is her right." Elrond agreed, "but not now. You are only twenty, Aragorn, too young to offer marriage or even to pledge yourself to any woman. And your education is not completed. It is time you left Rivendell and learned the ways of the Wild."
"I know." Aragorn admitted. "But I thought it only right you should know my intentions - and my hopes."
Aragorn left his Uncle's presence still half dazed, his impossible love suddenly become possible. In later years a foolish legend would arise that he had been brought up in ignorance of his true name and heritage. That was nonsense of course, he'd always known perfectly well who and what he was: Aragorn son of Arathorn descended in direct line, father to son, from Isildur, heir of Elendil the Tall High King of the Realms in Exile. Born of the blood of Elros Half-Elven first King of Numenor and twin brother to Elrond of Rivendell, through whom Aragorn could claim descent not only from the great Heroes of Old but from Kings of the High Elves and even one of the Holy Ainur who'd existed before time began. There was no nobler lineage among either Men or Elves.
But for all his high birth he had hitherto held himself unworthy of the hand of Arwen Undomiel. How could he ask the daughter of Elrond to share the rough and dangerous life of a Ranger chief? But the High King of the West could give her the sort of life she was accustomed to - that she deserved. Elrond was right, Aragorn had no real idea what he was asking, or of the choice Arwen would have to make. He knew nothing of the Doom of the Half-elven and death was far from his thoughts as he stood on the terrace under the stars remembering the prophecy and wondering how to make it come true.
It would not be easy he knew. His kingdom of Arnor was long fallen and the Lords of Gondor had denied the claim of the Heir of Isildur not once but twice. And if he thought of the High Kingship more as a means to win the hand of the woman he loved than as the great and solemn burden it was perhaps that was just as well. For if at the age of twenty he had seriously contemplated just how much depended on his single life, his will and his wisdom he might well have been too paralyzed with terror to ever so much as leave his chamber. As it was the optimism of youth and the added incentive of love gave him confidence. He knew he would find a way to achieve his dream and was eager to begin at once, now, that very night. He left the terrace and headed for his own quarters.
Elrond was still in the library, standing on a balcony under the stars, when he sensed movement behind him and turned.
Ellemir stood there, tall and grave. "Matters are more serious than we thought," she said.
"I know," he replied heavily. "Estel told me."
Her winged brows drew together in a frown. "I thought we agreed I would speak to Arwen first."
"It was he who raised the subject," Elrond answered. "I called him here to tell him of his destiny."
Ellemir's frown deepened, shading from annoyance into concern. "How did he take it?"
"Well enough." Elrond grimaced. "Until he was distracted by the prospect of a throne to offer Arwen that is."
"Distracted," Ellemir gave a small snort of amusement and walked past Elrond to sit on the stone bench set against the railing. "What else can we expect? He is young and in love - and he can scarcely ask Arwen Undomiel to share the life of a mere Chief of Rangers."
Elrond gestured dismissively. "That is not the true obstacle."
"No." Ellemir agreed, quietly. "Elrond, Arwen spoke to me of the choice of the Half-Elven." His face went grey. He steadied himself against the railing with a shaking hand, suddenly looking every one of his six thousand years old. "She bid me say she has decided nothing – yet," Ellemir continued quickly. "Aragorn will not be in a position to offer her marriage for many years. Their feelings may change -"
"Do not seek to comfort me with false hopes!" Elrond interrupted her harshly. There was a short silence between them. "I have foreseen and feared this from the day she was born with Luthien's face."
Another, longer silence was broken at last by Ellemir: "First we take your sons and now your daughter too. I am sorry, Elrond."
He sat down heavily on the bench beside her. "It is their choice to make. Just as once, long ago, it was mine."
"And you chose to be of Elven kind though you'd been raised as a Man among Men," she slanted a curious sidelong look at him. "Why?"
Elrond smiled wryly. A very personal question and one only Ellemir would have dared to ask - in this Age of the World at least. "I wanted to see my parents again." And Earendil and Elwing were in Aman where no Mortal Man might come.
Her keen eyes softened but her tone was dry; "You've been in no hurry."
"One of the advantages of immortality," he answered just as drily, "there is always plenty of time." Leaning back he looked up at his father's star, sailing high overhead. "I have had work to do here. They understand."
"I hope Celebrian will," Ellemir said bleakly. "I know the pain of losing a child. But at least I can look forward to finding Arathorn again beyond the Circles of the World. She - and you - will not have even that comfort."
Elrond bowed his head but it was not until she saw a drop sparkling like a jewel on his sleeve that she realized he was weeping. She reached for his hand and he gripped hers tightly. They sat so, beneath the rays of the star who was father to one and ancestor to the other, and together they wept for the bootless tragedy of the Half-Elven.
"Arwen." She looked up from the book she was failing to read and dropped it unheeded to the floor, flying across the room and into his arms. They closed welcomingly around her but his voice sounded a little startled. "Sweetheart, what is it?"
"I missed you," she said into his shoulder.
"After a mere two hours?" his voice quivered with amusement - and something else. "You're going to have to learn to endure longer separations than that, Dearling."
"I know," she pulled reluctantly away and saw for the first time that he was dressed in the dark green cloth and leathers of a Ranger. "Estel, no! You said we had time yet -"
He put a finger to her lips, cutting her off. "We do now. And I'm not going to waste any more of it." She stared up at him bewildered as he continued earnestly; "I should have gone weeks ago, I've been delaying – selfishly - because I wanted to spend as much time with you as I could before saying good-bye."
She started to protest and he silenced her again, this time with a kiss. Her head was spinning by the time they broke apart and it took a moment for what he was saying to register.
"- I knew it was hopeless, how could I ask you to leave Rivendell for a battered old villa surrounded by an armed camp?"
"I don't care about any of that!" she interrupted fiercely.
"I do." He said firmly. "Now my uncle tells me I can offer you a throne, the High Kingdom itself, but it will take time. Prophecies don't come true by themselves they must be worked at. It will mean many years apart but with more than a few stolen weeks together at the end of them. Will you wait, Arwen?"
Looking up at him Arwen realized she'd been foolish - again. It had never occurred to her that Estel might have his own ideas about their future together, that maybe all the choices weren't in her hands.
"Of course I'll wait, as long as I must." She wasn't the one who was going to grow old and die! Her voice shook a little as she pleaded; "Try not to make it too long."
His delighted, and yes relieved, smile lit up the room. "I will return when I may, expect me at no time and any time." Another long kiss and he was gone with less sound than the breeze rustling leaves across the terrace steps.
Arwen sank bonelessly back into her chair. Ellemir was right, she did need to think long and seriously about what life with Estel would be like and to prepare herself for it.