My dearest Maethor,
Do you know how much I have missed you, and how the memories of our time together in Imladris have made the months and years here easier to bear? You will probably be angry at me for not summoning you sooner, but I know you have duties – important duties – and little time for nursemaiding a sick mortal. And now I am sorry I waited, for I will not live long enough to see you again, even if you did drop everything and rush here. So don't rush, Maethor. Don't come. I will not be here. I am dying.
And don't blame the people here for anything. When I first fell ill, far too many were ill already, many of whom eventually died. There was no one to send. By the time some had begun to recover, it was fairly clear that I would not be one of their number. As I lay here now, feeling my strength run from me like water down a hill, I think perhaps it is better this way. You should remember me as I was: young, alive, healthy, happy. You should not see what has become of me.
My mind walks the paths and corridors of Imladris constantly now, I hum the day-songs often, and those who take care of me look at me as if I were slightly crazy. It is hard for them to understand how much those songs came to mean for me, and I have tried to explain it – I really have. Every night, when I am finally alone in the dark, I sing the hymns to Elbereth, and I consign my son and you and the Els and Erestor into her care. I even sing for Elrond now, despite everything, in hopes that she will give him the strength to endure what is to come; and I suppose you may tell him so, if you wish. You will not have to tell Aragorn, Erestor or the Els anything, for I have written them myself.
It is important to me, now that my time is so short, that you know that I don't regret coming home to stay. I was needed here, and I have done all I could for my people and to help Aragorn any way I could. Now, in return, these people take care of me as best they can. I shall not burden them for many more days, however. The time has come for me to set down my Gift and go forth in search of Arathorn, and I don't know how much longer it will be before I do so. I am very tired, and the darkness around us grows too deep. I will be glad to go to my rest.
But I find I wish I could see you, hear you teasing me as you used to all those years ago, or feel your fingers in my hair after stealing away my hairpins. I wish many things were different. But most of all, I wish you could hold me when I close my eyes for the last time. You have guarded my heart for all these years, keeping it safe until I could give it back to Arathorn. You have been a generous, loving friend, far better than I deserve. I can only hope that I have been half as good a friend to you.
And so, my gwaedh-vellon, this is farewell. May the stars you love so well watch over you and keep you safe, and may your lady-wife truly appreciate the treasure she has in you when she welcomes you home after you sail. I shall carry my love for you beyond the circles of the world, and Arathorn will just have to understand that there is a piece of my heart that will always belong to you alone.
Please give my greetings and farewells to all in Imladris.
Goodbye, my dearest, dearest friend.
Gilraen put down the quill, grateful that this was the last of the four letters to be written. The one intended for Aragorn had been finished two days earlier, and sent along with the regular posting reports from the local Rangers. Yesterday's efforts had been directed at one letter to the Els, and another intended for Erestor. Now that her concentration to say goodbye to those who meant the most to her was released, her need to cough overwhelmed her, making her pant and ache desperately when it finally eased, while tears of pain flowed freely.
Summoning what felt like the very end of her strength, she folded the paper shot through with colored threads – the last of her supply from that happy Mettarë in Imladris – and handed it to Niniel. "This letter, the two I wrote yesterday, and my book of poetry - all of them must go to one of the sons of Elrond. They will pass through here sometime before Mettarë, as they always do. Promise me you will not fail to deliver them."
"I will see to it, my Lady. Never fear." Niniel took the folded paper from her and slipped it into the pocket of her skirt. "Do you have any more writing to do?"
"No." Gilraen's hand shook as it put the quill back into the little bottle of ink her young caregiver was holding and then fell back limply. "No, that was the last of it. I am done now."
Niniel busied herself in removing the little table from over her that Gilraen used at mealtimes. "That is just as well, for you tire yourself with all this writing. Wasted energy, I say…"
Gilraen frowned as she watched the young woman stoop to stir the fire. Niniel's mother had raised her only daughter to simply be a wife and mother, never teaching the young woman the value of reading or writing. It was a mindset that she had striven to overcome in the years since her return, but one that was deeply engrained now. Her efforts were considered evidence of an Elvish taint and barely tolerated. "Niniel? Would you bring me my box, please?"
With a look of indulgence, Niniel fetched the wooden box Gilraen requested and set it on the edge of the bed, well within reach. Gilraen worked the latch and lifted the lid, then reached within and with a grunt of exertion brought out the thick bundle of documents that she kept bound in a silk ribbon. She didn't have to look at them to know what they were – or remember each and every word written in them.
The letters from Imladris that had reached her over the years had been treasures that she had read and re-read hundreds of times, keeping memories and friendships alive despite time and distance. Each and every letter detailed and touched on a life that had once touched hers: from Aurin's sharing of recipes to Erestor's dissertations on the stories that had so fascinated Glorfindel from the Lays of Beleriand, which he'd insisted she keep and discuss with him; from Tadiel's well-intentioned gossip to Maeniel's wry musings.
Included in that bundle were letters Glorfindel had written back to her in answer to hers. They exchanged news at least three times a year, and each one of his messages bore a subtle mental caress from afar despite being superficially filled with nothing more than accountings of what had happened in his life since they last communicated. He never said the words openly – and in her answers, she had not either – but both knew of the emotions behind the words as if they had been spoken.
At the very bottom of the bundle were three letters from Elrond, the latest having arrived only a month before she had fallen ill. The Master of Imladris – at least in his letters – was once again the person she had known for half a century: kind, compassionate and very apologetic. In each of the three missives, he begged for another chance to speak to her in person and make plain his remorse for the ugly, hurtful things he had said to her when his mind had been unhinged with fresh grief. Each letter urged her to relent in her anger with him at least enough to return home to the safety and security of Imladris.
In the last letter, however, he had worried about her wellbeing after hearing news of illness sweeping through The Angle, and had offered to take in and protect all the Dúnedain villagers in the approaching dark, especially if she wouldn't agree to leave her people otherwise. The Rangers could know that their families and children were well-protected as they performed their duties, not to mention enjoy the benefits of the Elven craftsmen for their needs, healers for their ills, and the possibility of education for their children. There was an abandoned settlement on the far eastern end of the valley which he would gladly make available to them so that they could keep their own ways while still enjoying his protection…
Evidently, he must have recently written something similar to Aragorn, for her son had made mention of the offer in his last visit. It hadn't taken much to see in Aragorn's sour expression exactly what he thought of the idea: "They would never agree to living in the keeping of another Lord, Nana. Not now." She had agreed. The Dúnedain were far too proud and independent to seek refuge with the Elves.
Besides which, the Els had informed her that Aragorn diligently kept his distance from Imladris as much as possible now, visiting only at times of real need. She was well aware that travel between the Angle and Imladris had in recent years slowed to a mere trickle, mostly just the Els going back and forth, keeping their promise to her never to remain estranged from their father for too long again. They told her that communications between Aragorn and Elrond were rare, and Aragorn remained so respectful yet distant when he did write or visit that it was obvious that he was content with affairs as they stood. That being the case, she was certain Aragorn would not wish to be obliged to deal with his foster-father just to be able to visit with her.
That last visit with Aragorn had been a difficult one anyway, as much because she was still quite ill as because she knew it would be the last time she saw him. He had insisted on fussing over her, preparing various herbal teas that had helped for a short time but never really restored to her the strength to battle the fever and the cough. She had tried to warn him, to prepare him for what was to come; and he had argued carefully with her, pleading with her to stay, to be a part of his victory. Her answer to that had been the same as what she had told Elrond years before: "Onen i Estel edain. U-chebin esten anim." Just days before, she had received a note from him, asking how she was progressing. Her answer had been the even more final farewell letter that was now wending its way to him.
In the end, she had never responded to Elrond's letters at all, however; and the excuse she had given herself was that she had never known how to respond. Even now, over twenty years later, the memory of what he'd said during his lapse in judgment still ached enough to bring on the tears. Knowing that Elrond deeply regretted his actions helped a little and made her feel guilty for not at least letting him know that she appreciated the apologies even if she still hadn't forgiven him entirely. But it just wasn't enough to convince her to make the effort to reopen a dialogue with him. It had been easier to put his letters at the bottom of her bundle, to take the coward's path and simply not respond. And now… It was too late to worry about it, except…
"Niniel." She finally got her caregiver's attention again and held out the bundle with a hand that shook with the effort. "Put these in the fire."
The shock on the young woman's face was plain. "You want to burn your letters, my lady?"
"They were private messages for my eyes, and nobody else's. When I am gone, I wish for no one else to read them," Gilraen said with tired determination. "I want to watch them burn."
It hurt to let go of them – to put their fate in someone else's hands, knowing they would be destroyed – and she watched with eyes not quite blurred with tears as Niniel did as she asked. Pushed repeatedly with a poker into the heart of the fire, the silk ribbon flared quickly and dropped away, and the loosened bundle spread across the tops of the logs. The flames licked at and darkened the edges of the papers and parchments, and then curled each sheet inwards as they devoured the words, the thoughts, the wishes, the memories, all that had been, and all that could never be again. "Stir the fire again," she directed with a pointing finger that shook. "I want nothing left of them."
It took longer than she had thought it would, but finally the letters were nothing but blackened flakes of ash shifting down over and through the still-burning logs and metal grating into the grey mess beneath it all. Gilraen blinked away tears as the last vestiges of the beautiful and dreamlike half of her life lived in the company of grace and elegance and timeless peace fell away and was lost forever.
"You need your rest, my lady. Do you want your tea?"
She started and then nodded, drawn suddenly back into the present from her musings. "Yes, that would be nice."
Patiently she waited, and then opened her lips obediently so that she could sip at the hot liquid from the heavy stoneware mug. The brew warmed her all the way from the back of her throat to her stomach, but one sip was plenty. Once more she had to bear with a lengthy coughing fit that felt as if it were tearing her ribs apart.
She waved a hand to motion Niniel and the tea away. "Enough," she wheezed when she finally had her enough of her breath back to try to speak. "I think I'll sleep now."
With eyes closed, Gilraen put up with the bustling and the plumping of the pillow that had been a gift from Arnadion, Niniel's husband, at the birth of their firstborn son a year earlier. "Sleep well, my lady. I shall see you in the morning." Gilraen waited, endured the blankets on her bed being pulled up tight and tucked in as if she were a small child, and listened for the puffs of breath that, with the sudden surge in darkness, told her that the candles had been extinguished for the evening. She soon heard the sound of the door of her hut closing securely, and sighed in relief.
At last, she was alone – and it was time.
It was so easy, far easier than she had thought it would be. Just a little concentration, a little determination, made her heart beat more and more slowly, made her feel heavier and heavier. She was so tired. Behind her eyes, a dim, white glow began to form, and movement in that cloud of light caught at her faltering attention. She concentrated more, and the movement slowly gained a face. A voice, one she had not heard for far too long, spoke as if from a distance, "My star! At last!"
"Arathorn!" she breathed, and, suddenly freed from the weight of sickness and sorrow, she flew upwards toward him and knew herself surrounded by a love that had never dimmed, as well as light and joy beyond all imagining.