Chapter Seven: He is Come

*****

Gondor.

For the first time in his life, Aragorn looked upon it. From far away and far above, he was free to survey it as he wished.

It was his homeland by rights, and his gaze touched every mile of it. It lay open and seemingly welcoming, as if all the leagues before him awaited some great destiny. As the sun lowered towards the snow-dusted mountains and ridges and caught up in the mist that rolled up out of the great river and through the valleys, the sky and earth both tinted red.

He shivered suddenly. He was no prophet but he knew of the land's destiny because it was also his own. These fields would bleed. Men would pay for the endurance of evil.

Soon.

The crimson shrouded hills held him rooted, the wind whispering promises that must be kept. Only with blood could the land be appeased of the wrong that was done by one who had long ago ruled it. His own ancestor. His own bloodline. The realm, and that wrong, ran in his veins. This was the place where all of his footsteps across the earth inevitably led him. He did not want this place, these people, to be his.

But they were, and standing here, he could not deny it, and what he wanted mattered little.

He wanted Arwen. And peace. And the right to live a quiet life loving her. Strange how quickly his heart's desire had changed. Before he'd arrived in Rivendell, all he'd ever wanted was to be left alone to wonder the earth, and to provide for other people the kind of peace he now knew he wished for himself. And for her.

He looked to Minas Tirith.

It was a proud city, was his first thought. Stern and imposing there at the base of the mountains, as if it held those peaks aloft upon its strong shoulders. Though it was called the White City, this evening it too seemed to blaze with a threatening hue, as if the white stone walls soaked in the bloody sky.

Even the great Tower of Ecthelion, which the lore told to be a glittering silver spike that soared above the kingdom with banners snapping in the winds from the mountains, seemed awash in bloody light.

Aragorn wondered if his eyes were cheated or if the Tower did in fact resemble a great sword that had pierced the sun and loosed a torrent of blood from sky.

He saw horsemen riding across the plains toward the city, imagined he heard a faint note of a trumpet welcoming them home. The horses seemed to stretch their necks further and pound the ground with renewed vigor as they approached, and the riders raised their hands to the Tower Guard in greeting as they passed into the walls of the stone city.

He could just barely see them, an unheralded spectator from afar. Would he ever know joy of coming home to such a place? Would they welcome him there? It was strange for him to imagine living in a city at all. He was more accustomed to sleeping in the wild than in a tower of stone.

"You are aging before my eyes," her soft voice sounded behind him, and he didn't turn right away, but waited for Arwen to come to him.

She didn't touch him, though she would have liked to, because she sensed his thoughts were his own and she did not wish to intrude. She looked out over the land and waited for him to say what he would.

Aragorn glanced at her, and felt his heart suspend when he saw the red wash of light on her face. Fear, like the bloody spear that soared above the city, drove into his chest. She would know the violence, and the terror, and the death, and she would be hurt by it. It would not be only men to pay the price of Isildur.

He looked away to gain his composure, and when he glanced back at her again, either the sun had shifted or his mind had, for the light upon her was not so sinister.

"That is my city," he told her, and there was no arrogance in his tone. In fact, it was regret she heard there.

"It is a beautiful city. A noble city. But it will be more so when you reclaim the throne there," she said with sureness.

He pressed his lips together. Her unwavering confidence disconcerted him.

"I asked you when we first met which name you feared more. Mine, or your own. I think I have my answer now. You stand fast as the trumpets of Mordor blow in your ears, but you are terrified of who you are," she sighed softly. "I don't understand."

"Yes, Lady, you do understand," Aragorn disagreed. "I am a coward in this matter."

Her voice was sharp, sure. "You are no coward, Estel. It is not the time to seize your destiny. When it is, you will know it. The world will know it. You will be King, and that will be your realm. And you will lead men to such glory as to last to the ending of the world. Under your banner, men will come to rule the Earth."

"And what good shall come of men ruling the earth," Aragorn murmured, "when there are those so much wiser and more honorable?"

"Men can be both wise and honorable, Aragorn. You have never dared to look or hope for that though," was her answer, and he recognized that it was the truth. She moved closer to him and put her arm around his waist. His own arm moved instinctively about her shoulders as she took her place at his side, arrow fit to bow. "We shall live there together, someday. We will be wed at the foot of those mountains in the great city. I shall bear your heirs there, and we shall watch them grow strong and proud. You will be loved, Aragorn, and loved well. By your people. By your armies. But never more than by me."

"You move me, Lady," he said very softly, leaning to rest his head against hers as they looked down at the city. The bloody light was slipping from the walls, and the pure white was beginning to shine through again. White for peace. White for hope. Only the tip of Ecthelion still glowed red, as if great drops of blood clung to the end of a blade.

"You must realize Arwen, there is much that could happen between this time and that," Aragorn protested, not sure what moved him to break the peace between them. In the end, he decided it was the terror of wanting her words to be true that made him try to reject them. It would be too grave a blow to be denied her foretelling. He dared not hope in it too much, some superstitious fear warned he would wish it away.

"Oh, yes, there will be deeds both great and terrible, deeds of the smallest and the mightiest, and all of our hearts will break and mend and break again before the end. There will be many hard choices. But this, for me, is not one of them. Though I was forewarned it would be my greatest trial, I would be with you for as long as I am given and suffer the consequences. It is an easy decision, far more than I had hoped it would be. Harder times and choices lay ahead for both of us. There is much to endure. But the victory at the end of the road will be all the sweeter. And the love will abide through all."

Aragorn turned away from Minas Tirith and faced Arwen, holding her face between his hands. Her eyes, luminous and full of promises, did not leave his.

"They have given me the name that means hope, Arwen. But I take all of mine from you. From this day and onward, I do all things in your name, and I shall never stop trying to prove myself worthy of you."

"The only evidence of your worth I ever needed is in your eyes, Estel. In your heart. In my heart. You are worthy."

Aragorn leaned to kiss her, not at all confident he could end it with that. She responded in kind, rising against him, inviting him to take what he would, challenging him to give her back as much.

He knew he must end it, and soon, and he stepped away from her. He could not though, could not leave her be, though his mind screamed vaguely around his rushing blood to do just that. He reached for her again, uncertain of where it would stop, or if it would.

He never got the chance to test his restraint, for there came the shriek of an arrow an instant before white pain grazed the wrist he stretched toward her. Another arrow screamed through the air in its wake and planted itself at the toe of his boot, as if to prevent him from taking a step forward.

He reacted with blind reflex, pushing Arwen behind him and drawing his sword in one motion, expecting to meet a party of Southrons or Easterlings, and hoping the arrow that had grazed him had not been dipped in poison.

Instead, he was greeted by a sight perhaps more fearsome. Legolas was coming forward, another arrow at the ready, and murder in his eyes, leaving Aragorn little doubt that he'd seen his embrace with Arwen.

And that he was not best pleased by it.

"Legolas!" Aragorn growled as the elf kept coming straight at him, dangerous rage twisting his face, "you might have hit her instead of me! You might have killed one of us."

"I intend to kill one of you. But it will not be with a single stroke. If I had wanted you dead so quickly, you would not be bending words with me at present, Ranger. No, your death will come slowly, but it begins now."

"Legolas, stop it! Put your bow down!" Arwen snapped and moved in front of Aragorn.

"Step aside, Arwen, and I shall make him beg for death for laying a hand upon you!" Legolas snarled in a way that despite himself made Aragorn a little uneasy.

"You great fool! Did you not see that my hands were upon him as well?" Arwen shouted, but Legolas continued coming forward as if he didn't hear her, and Aragorn glanced backwards at the cliff behind him and wondered which way might be the easiest death.

Aragorn gently pushed Arwen aside and started forward, holding up a hand and noting with irritation that blood dripped from the wrist Legolas had grazed with his arrow. "Legolas, if you will listen for a moment there is an explanation that perhaps you are entitled to hear and…"

Aragorn broke off on a yelp as Legolas released his arrow and it plowed into the ground at the side of Aragorn's foot, pinning his boot to the shale and pinching the slightest bit of skin as it did so.

"Curse you!" Aragorn hissed as he gripped the shaft and ripped it from both leather and his own hide, hopping on one foot as that wound began flowing with blood too. "Put the bow down!"

Legolas let another arrow sail, meeting his eyes with defiance. This one aimed for his other foot and Aragorn quickly leapt backwards, feeling as if he were being forced to dance for the elf. Anger began flowing through him, and soon he felt his face go hot and red with it as he was pushed past patience.

Legolas reached back to pluck another arrow, and taking the only chance he had, Aragorn rushed him, leaping across rock and hitting the elf somewhere around the middle. Both went sprawling hard and rolling in a tangle of wildly flying fists and knees across stone.

The next moments were a blur. Faced with what seemed a thousand years of pent-up elf rage, Aragorn could do little but try to block the worst of the blows, kicks, and if the sharp pinch on his shoulder was what he thought it was, bites, and give a little back in return.

Legolas' fury was greater though, and at last he pinned Aragorn and put both hands about his throat until Aragorn felt his eyes bulge and his vision blur as the blood trapped itself against his temples. He thought his face might rip apart at the seams.

All the while Legolas was growling, "you seem to have forgotten you are mortal, putting your hands on an elf-maiden. And not just any elf-maiden, but the daughter of Elrond, who has put his trust and hope into you, who has loved you as a son! You do not deserve such an easy death but for the unending life of me I cannot find the will to release you!"

Aragorn's vision was wavering now, but he could still see the furious face above him. He knew the expression upon it well--it was that of a hunter close to the kill

And then, suddenly, Legolas' face went from one of wrath to one of shock when a small rock was hurled with considerable force at his forehead. It plowed into the wide space just between his eyes and then bounced away.

It might have been a boulder for the elf's reaction. His head snapped backwards and his body followed, reeling as he toppled off of Aragorn, collapsing at his foe's side and staring at the sky as one who has been stunned.

In a moment, the serene source of the dispute appeared above, looking down at them both with a marked lack of concern and what some might have called amusement.

"Curse it, Arwen! You know I hate it when you do that!" Legolas hissed, rubbing the large red spot on his forehead tenderly.

"And you know I only do it when you are being unreasonable!" Arwen returned calmly. "You would have killed him, you fool, without giving him the chance to speak!"

"No, I wouldn't have." Legolas snapped and gave Aragorn a side-long glare without picking up his head, which was returned in similar fashion. "I wouldn't deny your father that pleasure."

They lay there for another moment, regaining their breath and staring up at the darkening sky and the maiden who watched them with a cross between scorn and pity.

At last, she said without preamble, "Legolas, I love Aragorn and he loves me. I know it sounds folly, but it is not. Nothing has ever made more sense to me…"

And so Arwen explained to Legolas what she should have told him from the first, so that just such a scene as had occurred could have been prevented.

Legolas lay in stony silence. He looked mutinous still, and furious, his eyes roving from one to the other.

At last, Arwen sighed wearily. "Can you not understand? It is something I have always known, and was sure of when I first saw him Legolas. It is my choice, and a simple one it is. It gives me more joy than you know. More joy than I have ever felt before. It is right and it is good and it is not something that is open for disagreement."

Legolas glared past them, into the dusk. Finally, he gathered his feet, standing over Aragorn, but finding that he was not able to bring himself to look at the man. "You would diminish her and take her for your own. Why would I expect less of a man? You would take her life from her to have her at your side and leave her after your death to despair. You do not understand love as I understand it, Ranger. And I pity both you and the Lady for it."

With that he stalked to the cave, and left Aragorn there, pondering the truth that was undeniable in his words.

"I should speak to him," Aragorn said at last, and he could not look her in the eye.

"No, let me," Arwen said softly and left Aragorn there on the rock as she went after her friend.

***

"Fool!" She accused Legolas quietly as she rushed into the cave and seemingly filled it, like a cold, bitter wind.

"You do not even know him, Arwen!" Legolas charged her. "What would your father say to such behavior!"

"My Father would be more ashamed of how you have acted just now than of anything I have done!"

"I am not the one putting myself in needless danger, Arwen! I am not the one who proposes to waste my life and turn my back upon my people!" Legolas accused, fury and fear for her decision twining in him until he could not separate one from the other. The Evenstar was decisive, and he knew already there was no force that could reverse her decision now, and that made him feel as if he was failing her, her father, and her people.

"Can you not understand that one can never waste a life in loving?" Arwen murmured softly, and tears rose up in her eyes and glittered, even in the shadows of the cave. "Can you not understand that for ages, I have felt so alone in this world and that now that I understand what it means, what it really means to love and to have the love of this man? That I cannot bear the thought of losing him, of being so alone again? And that even though I know I must lose him, I would rather have the time he will be given than all the rest until the ending of the world?"

Her tears undid him; they always did. And if they were still young elves, he might have accused her of taking advantage of this weakness of his, but just now, he recognized that she had fear and fury of her own, that this man who she thought she loved would one day, or any day, die. It was unfair and cruel, and already beyond her control. The fight fell from him and his shoulders relaxed. His fists unclenched.

"You were never alone, Arwen, and you never would have been so long as I drew breath," Legolas told her at last, softly and without pride. "You won't be," he corrected.

She came forward to him then, and placed a hand against his heated cheek, felt the last anger drain from him as she did so. She gathered what thoughts he gave her with his eyes, words that would have been too hard for his hurt feelings and the old scar upon his pride.

This is why you did not want to agree to a marriage with me. You knew of Him.

She spoke aloud. "Yes, dear friend. For though I love you deeply, I have always been destined for another and he is come."

I would have loved you through the ages, Arwen.

As I will love you through my life, Legolas. But it was never this kind of love between us, and until you know it, until you feel what it is I speak of now, you will not understand. But I promise that when you are touched by the destiny of your heart, you will know it, and all will be made clear of you.

He is but a man, Arwen. He does not love as you do. He can not.

This one does, mellon nin. This one does. His heart is greater than any I have known.

His body will fail, his mind will break, his heart will cease. He is young and noble now, but he will grow old and weak, and the years will wear on him like water upon stone. Is he worthy of your love, Arwen, and of your life?

"He is worthy," she whispered and dropped her hand from Legolas' face. "And you will come to love him too Legolas. Galadriel put a shadow upon you to journey to Rivendell because she understood that you play some role in Estel's future as well and it was time that your paths cross. You will journey a common road in the time to come."

"Nay, I will not love him, for I will not risk what you risk in doing so. It is folly to love a mortal, Arwen. And it pains me beyond measure that you have so quickly given over to this foolishness, that you willingly offer yourself torment."

"Time shall tell us who is right," Arwen said serenely, and though he had not ever met the Lady of Light, he imagined the warm knowing that filled Arwen's eyes might be familiar if he did ever stand before Galadriel. And it made him very uneasy when he contemplated the mortal sitting beyond the cave entrance.

*

To be continued…