Chapter LXXXII: Toils to Come
It was apple-blossom time in the valley. The orchards were frosted with a delicate lace of white and palest pink. The warm June air was redolent with the fertile fragrance that promised bounty yet unrealized. In Rivendell's kitchen beds the early plants were rich with their fruits, and every day the tables were laden with fresh young vegetables, berries and greens. There were flowers in abundance, from the carefully cultivated roses in the pleasure-gardens to the wild heartsease in the pastures. Birds sang joyously, flitting from nest to branch or hopping through the emerald grasses or tending their nestlings. The spring lambs were large enough now to wander a little way from their mothers, and they could be seen frolicking together on the upper slopes. Green and supple, the new shoots of Elven wheat swayed in the gentle winds. Everywhere there was beauty and the grace of new life and plenty.
On a level place where the grass was worn to scraggly tufts amid swaths of bare, dark earth, two pairs of high boots danced deftly through the dust. Now one advanced while the other sprang back. Now both circled slowly, heels never touching the soil. Now they would freeze in strained poses, locked and firmly grounded as their owners leaned into one another's strength. Such a halt would swiftly be followed by the wail of steel on steel as two blades scraped one another in their parting. Beneath the Sun's proud caress, Glorfindel the Bright and Aragorn son of Arathorn were sparring.
The overweighted drill swords swung through the air with the ease of a pair of cane wands, wielded with a skill that only the long-practiced and truly gifted could exert. Glorfindel had the advantage of speed and a nimbleness that even this scion of the Line of Lúthien could not match, but Aragorn's reach was the longer. They knew one another well, and it was difficult for one to outwit the other. This was well, for swift victory was not the objective. The longer the bout lasted, the greater the exertion: muscles worked with prolonged vigour, hearts hammered more fiercely, and keen eyes were forced to maintain full alertness without surcease. Agility and endurance were the goals, and in these the dark-haired combatant was deporting himself brilliantly.
Scant weeks before, the briefest of skirmishes had left Aragorn exhausted and utterly wrung out, head and extremities all ready for the kindly release of lying back in the grass beyond the low fence of the practice-yard. Even ten days ago he had found it difficult to sustain more than twenty minutes' uninterrupted exercise. Today he had been in perpetual motion for nearly two hours by the angle of the Sun, though not all in active duelling. Glorfindel had devised a regimen not dissimilar to the one they had used in Aragorn's adolescence, when his skills were green and his limbs untempered. The skills, at least, had been undiminished by disuse and starvation. The limbs, though stripped of every shred of his ever-sparse expendable flesh, still had most of their hard, lean muscle. It was the fortitude of his body that had to be regained.
Plentiful, wholesome food and restful nights had contributed as much to that as the training, but it was on the field that Aragorn's progress had been measured. His lungs had cleared well, thanks to Master Elrond's ministrations and regular dosing with his ill-tasting tincture. Now Aragorn never coughed and was seldom caught short of breath even after the most rigorous sessions with his heavy blade. His ankle still pained him at the end of a long day, but it was sound and strong again; more than equal to the supple steps of swordplay. As for his other hurts, most were only fading memories. The thickest scars upon his back tugged sometimes in extremes of motion, but they did so without pain. The sinews of his ravaged forearm were not yet supple enough for his liking, and it was the dull deep agony in these that kept Aragorn awake on the nights after especially grueling bouts. Yet neither his grip nor his might were affected, and for that he was thankful.
'Mind upon your blade!' Glorfindel called out, feinting to the left before lunging right. Aragorn just managed to turn his wrist in time to parry the blow before it could clip him on the hip. The Elf-lord's tone was lightly ribbing: the teasing of a peer designed as much to distract as to instruct. 'Do you grow bored of our match?'
'I grow bored of your inability to best me,' retorted Aragorn. 'I had expected one of your reputation and experience to be able to dispatch a single bony man.'
'You are less bony by the day!' laughed Glorfindel. 'Your hose fit once more: soon you shall be as plump as Master Baggins, and shall have to be provided with an entirely new wardrobe.'
Now it was Aragorn who lunged smoothly, and Glorfindel who was forced into a quick parry and riposte. Their blades sang together, and they each leapt back to circle afresh. Beneath the soft soles of his new boots, high-shafted and supple as doeskin, Aragorn felt the ridges and divots of earth driven about by deft feet. The Noldorin cordwainder had done well. The boots were sturdy, watertight, and after only a week's breaking-in already as familiar and trusted as his old pair had been. They ought to last him through two or three years of hard wear, provided he did not have the misfortune to soak and then freeze them as he had their predecessors.
From the corner of his eye, Aragorn caught a long, smooth movement beyond the rails. Knowing better than to turn his head from the battle, he bent his efforts on forcing Glorfindel into a leftward rotation. For a moment he was surprised when the Elf-lord obliged with only the smallest of promptings, but then Aragorn saw why and grinned. Glorfindel hoped to distract him: Arwen had come up along the edge of the yard and stood watching.
She was clad in summer blue, and there was a basket upon her hip. That was all that Aragorn permitted himself to notice, for his attention was required for more immediate matters. He deflected Glorfindel's blade and ducked under his sword-arm, weaving to the left and necessitating a readjustment of the Elf-lord's position. With a back-footed pivot Glorfindel swung, and the swords met again. Using the momentum of the blow, Aragorn flung off the hostile blade and took fresh footing. His heart hammered with the thrill of combat, and his eyes were bright. In his hand the heavy sword was limber and obedient, equal even to Glorfindel's agility if his feet were not. Now he took a series of swift thrusts as if fighting with a far lighter weapon. This surprised his opponent, and Glorfindel adjusted his style rapidly to compensate. Too rapidly, indeed, as Aragorn had hoped. He drove the Elf-lord back two paces, three, four.
The loss of ground was of no real import here, where the earth was all but level and there were no true stakes. It was the effect any retreat had upon a warrior's mind that Aragorn sought to prompt, however unconsciously, and as Glorfindel's perfect stance faltered fractionally he saw that he had done it. Now he swung mightily, left then right then left again. There was a sharp twinge in his right ankle, but it held. Under this onslaught Glorfindel parried skillfully, but he was still marginally off-balance.
That tiny margin was all that Aragorn required. He took a half-step back, sword-arm upraised and ready but not yet moving to strike. The stance left his off side enticingly bare, and in the last heartbeat of his discomposure the Elf-lord forgot suspicion and swung for it. There was a soft clong as the flat of Aragorn's blade struck the inside of Glorfindel's wrist. His iron grip mitigated most of the body's reflex to release the tendons, but not all: in the tiny fraction of time that his hold upon the hilts wobbled, the tip of the Ranger's sword caught the pommel of his and the blade was flung away. It arced through the air and clattered to earth in a cloud of dust. Glorfindel was left derobed, far removed from his weapon, and just a little bewildered by the suddenness of it all.
Aragorn levelled his blade so that its blunt tip sat just below the Elf's sternal notch. He raised his eyebrows. 'Do you yield?' he asked graciously.
'I yield,' Glorfindel conceded. As the sword was lowered he grinned. 'You could not have done that with a real sword, Dúnadan.'
'No,' Aragorn agreed. His chest was heaving deeply with the exertions of the hour, but his words were unstinted. He had indeed regained his old stamina, it seemed. 'The tip would have sunk into your hand instead, which would have been as effective for me but far the worse for you. How fortunate, then, that we were not using real swords.'
Glorfindel reached up to rake the leather thong from his hair. As the golden tresses came loose he tossed his head so that they flew, and he laughed deep and merrily. 'Bested by a saucy mortal!' he said, coming to clap his opponent on the shoulder. 'I should never have taught you all that I know, had I expected you to use it against me.'
'I had to end the match,' Aragorn said, striding to the bucket of clean water that sat upon the stile. He bent to the dipper and drank: now that he was no longer in motion his thirst was fearsome. 'A few minutes more, and I would have been prostrate with exhaustion.'
'I doubt that.' Glorfindel stooped to recover his blade and came near. Aragorn offered him the dipper, and he took it. Quaffing eagerly of the cool fluid, the Elf-lord looked back over his shoulder and swept an artful gesture of salutation with the empty vessel. 'What did you think of the match, my Lady?'
Arwen tilted her chin, her smile radiant and playful. 'I think you were showing off, my Lord, and that our bold Chieftain was overeager to make a quick end of it. Had he not caught you preening, you might have taken him.'
She rounded the perimeter of the yard, her gait swaying a little to keep the basket firm upon her hip that her right hand might stay free. Aragorn leaned his drill sword against the fence and caught up one of the cloths draped over the top rail. He blotted the sweat from brow and neck, and felt a small burst of pride when Glorfindel moved to do the same. It was no small achievement for a mortal to make one of the Firstborn perspire. His attention turned almost at once upon Arwen as she drew near with her gentle smile and her shining eyes.
'It was a splendid bout, from all I saw,' she assured them both. Then to Aragorn she said; 'There was no need to end it on my account.'
'On your account?' Now it was he who laughed: a low but earnest chuckle that pleased her more than she let her lips show. 'Nay, Lady! I have been trying to best him for the last forty minutes without success.' He cleared the stile with ease and stood before her, holding out his hands for her burden. 'May I carry it for you?'
'Gracious, no!' Arwen laughed, pivoting to move the basket further from his reach. 'They have only just dried, and the pair of you are dripping.'
Glorfindel laughed softly at this, still blotting at his brow. Aragorn's eyes were drawn to the basket. It had been spread with a linen napkin to prevent the contents from snagging on the woven willow boughs, for it was piled high with hanks of silk dyed that deep and fathomless black that only the Elven masters of the craft could achieve. There was in that black a perfect absence of colour: no trace of darkest brown, or blue, or purple. It was the black so sought-after and coveted by the clothiers of Men, but unlike theirs it did not fade with the years and the sunlight. The coils of sable silk shimmered with the sheen of moonlight upon polished ebony. What Arwen might need with such a quantity of black thread Aragorn could not imagine, but it was beautiful.
'I have no wish to undo the Sun's good work,' he said, not quite glibly. Delight flashed in her eyes to see him lighthearted instead of sombre, for although his heart healed a little each day he was still weighted with cares and foul memories. When not labouring to regain his strength he sat most often in solemn contemplation. 'I would ask leave to walk with you to the house, if Glorfindel will consent to tend my blade today.'
'Go on!' laughed the Elf-lord. 'Let me not stand betwixt the champion and his beloved. But tomorrow, Dúnadan, have a care! I shall not be so easily drawn out again.'
'I would not expect it,' Aragorn agreed. He reached across the fence to clasp hands with his one-time instructor, meeting his eyes with great earnest. 'I thank you. It was a heartening match, and not for the victory alone.'
Glorfindel nodded, but said no more. In his eyes Aragorn could see that he too was gladdened. Neither of them had looked for such improvement so quickly, and his returning might was a relief to them both.
Aragorn swept a little bow to Arwen, who fell into step beside him. He did not offer his arm, for his arming cote was damp with perspiration and he had resumed blotting at the back of his neck. His hair had grown out of its close-clipped neatness, back into the shaggy grey-streaked mane that was its accustomed appearance in the Wild. When he returned to his labours he would once again be the same old Strider, and if his visage was yet a little more careworn, yet a little grimmer than in years past, he doubted any of the denizens of Bree-land or the farms upon the borders of the Shire would see it.
'Each day you grow stronger, my love,' Arwen said, pride in his accomplishments softened by a wistful note. 'Far too soon you shall wish to take your leave.'
'Sooner than that, vanimelda,' said Aragorn softly. They had reached the ivy trellis that admitted walkers to the gardens, and he stopped beneath it that he might gaze down into her eyes. 'I have told no one else, but this morning I spoke long with our father. He made an examination and we are agreed: I am well enough now that there is no need for me to tarry longer. I depart in two days' time.'
'Two days!' Though in volume it was scarcely a low exhalation, in tone it was a cry of dismay. Arwen's brows knit together and she shook her head. 'You have scarcely regained your health. Your strength is returning, but you are still not wholly restored. Though you are better fed now than you were, your ribs still stand out too sharply and your—'
'Peace,' Aragorn said, laying a hand upon her shoulder. She quieted at once, but her misgivings still showed starkly in her eyes. 'All that is so, and we have discussed it. I will go mounted instead of afoot, and I will keep to patrols near the habitations of Men where I can readily resupply. I will have no true hardships to endure: it will be a gentle summer. I promise you that.'
'How can you promise?' she asked. Her tone was neither plaintive nor bitter, but only steady and knowing. 'When the first danger arises or your men have need upon some hard front, you will go without thought for your safety, much less your health. If one of your Rangers is hungry, you will give him of your own portion even if you have scarce enough for yourself. You will be the good Captain you have always been, whatever your present intentions for the summer.'
He could deny none of this, but Aragorn still wished to comfort her. She would read any attempt to dissemble, were he callous enough to wish it, and she would worry all the more for it. Throughout his recovery she had been the paragon of patience and good faith. It was her right to feel some trepidation at last, after laying it by so long for his sake.
'I can promise that Halbarad will not permit me to go without,' he said. 'He shall be just as dismayed as anyone else by my deterioration, and he is better at nagging even than Erestor. Besides, do you think Gandalf will let me long out of his sight once he learns I am abroad at last?'
The wizard had departed five days before, having learned all he could from Celebrimbor's annals. He intended to make a journey into the empty lands south of the Road, where first the watchers of Sauron would appear in their fanning search. Aragorn was unsure of the prudence of waiting until Yuletide to confront Bilbo's nephew with the truth, but he would never presume to question Gandalf's wisdom even in his own heart. He had his reasons for waiting, though he had not seen fit to share them. Aragorn intended to respect that.
Arwen laughed a little, shallowly and not without a note of anxiety. With her free hand she reached to touch the side of his face, where the worst of the hollows were now filled in with a slim layer of healthy flesh. The looking-glass had told him that the shadows were all but gone from beneath his eyes, and the worst of his hardships erased from his countenance. Still he knew she could see them, in his heart and in her memory as well as in the minute traces that remained. Small wonder she was loath to see him once again into the Wild.
'I suppose he will not,' she allowed softly. 'Have you fixed upon a time for your next journey home?'
'Before the harvest furloughs,' Aragorn said. 'That too was discussed this morning. I shall owe Glorfindel a rematch: I doubt he will be happy about today's outcome once the first flush of pride in my endurance fades from his eyes.'
'It was a naughty trick, using his own distraction against him,' said Arwen in tender amusement. 'He does not like to be bested by his students, even though it is a testament to the strength of his teachings. The first time Elladan defeated him in an equal match, Glorfindel saw to it that he did not manage it again for twenty months.'
'So I have been told,' said Aragorn, rueful on Elladan's behalf. His twin still trotted out the tale at whiles, when a severe ribbing was called for. He turned in towards the house and held out a questioning hand. 'Shall we retire within, my Lady?'
Arwen inclined her head, smiling softly. He could see the trepidation in her eyes; the desire to plead with him to stay. She would refuse to gratify it, as he refused to gratify his own like longing. Never had the Lady Undómiel made any attempt by word or deed to draw him from his duty. Always she stood behind him, fair and valiant, taking pride in his dedication to his labours and the quiet strength with which he bore them. For that, Aragorn was most deeply grateful.
They rounded a low rock wall, headed for the herb-gardens that drew up to the kitchen stoop. But from further along the house there came a cry of greeting, and they saw a small figure perched on a bench beneath the honeysuckle arbour. Aragorn and Arwen exchanged a fond smile, and changed their course to approach Bilbo Baggins where he sat in the sunshine.
'Good afternoon, my dear friend,' Aragorn said as they drew near.
'Good afternoon to you!' Bilbo replied with an emphatic little nod of the head. In a more courtly way, he turned to Arwen. 'And to you, dear Lady. I hope you'll forgive an old hobbit for neglecting to stand in greeting, but these days it costs me such an effort to climb up here that I'm reluctant to get down before I mean it.'
There were benches of hobbit size in the garden, as well as chairs and a little table, but Aragorn knew he favoured the arbour, beneath which there was room only for the one long seat.
'You need never stand on my account,' said Arwen with the sweetest of smiles. 'How are you enjoying the afternoon?'
'It's marvellous!' Bilbo sighed happily. 'I do love Rivendell in June: it's the merriest time of the year.'
'So I have always thought,' Aragorn agreed.
'Have you been at your swordplay again?' asked Bilbo. 'You look as though you have. I suppose that means I can't expect another serenade today.'
At this their smiles broadened, and Aragorn and Arwen traded a look that was both gratified and somewhat abashed. They had reprised their performance of The Disaffection of Turgon and Aredhel for Bilbo on the evening after the festivities, and he had declared it a tremendous success. They had even gone so far as to sing it in the Hall of Fire, where the acoustics were most favourable. Since then Aragorn had spent more than a few quiet hours in Bilbo's cheery company, and he was much the better for it.
'Not tonight, nor for some time to come, I fear,' the Ranger said with a regretful little shrug. Elrond knew, and Arwen had been told: now he could disseminate news of his decision as he saw fit, and Bilbo was a worthy third recipient. 'I shall be departing the day after tomorrow.'
'What? No!' Bilbo exclaimed. 'No, that's absurd. You're not well yet, and anyhow you must stay for the Midsummer celebrations. Why, it will be… let me see now… thirty-seven? Yes, thirty-seven years of betrothal for the two of you, and you ought to spend the time together!'
Aragorn looked at Arwen, and she gave him a tiny, wistful pursing of the lips before resuming her serene smile beneath saddened eyes. The length of their betrothal was no matter for celebration, though the words of that night lived on in treasured memory. Nor had they passed a Midsummer together since that most glorious season in Lothlórien. It was not meant to be this year, either: a delay of a fortnight would be no more than self-indulgent now.
'I am quite well, I promise,' Aragorn said. 'And I must rejoin my people. I have been too long away, and I miss their company as much as I missed yours all my many months abroad.'
'Well, yes, of course,' said Bilbo, looking from the Man to the Lady and back again. 'But I mean to say…' He sighed and shook his head. 'I suppose you do look much the better for your rest, and whatever exercises Glorfindel has been putting you through. Still, I did hope!'
'So did I, Master Baggins;' said Arwen, truth and solemnity behind the gentle words. 'But it is not to be; not this year. Though I shall be sad to see him go, I will rest easier at night knowing that he defends the peaceful places and all those who dwell within them. I would not keep him from such guardianship even if I thought I could.'
'No…' Bilbo considered her expression and sighed again, more heavily this time. 'That's the trouble, isn't it? In order to make sure the people you love are kept safe, you've got to let someone else you love go off into danger.'
'I hope there shall be little danger where I am going,' said Aragorn, almost believing it himself. He was going so that he might set the watch and light the lamps, not because the enemy was at the gates. 'And I hope I shall have the opportunity to return soon. I have promised Master Elrond to return at summer's end so that he can bear witness to my full recovery. I shall surely see you then.'
'That's good,' Bilbo allowed. 'By then I should have my new song ready for your helpful ear.' At this Aragorn arched an eyebrow, and Bilbo laughed as he had hoped he might. 'Oh, not that song! No, Gandalf got no promises out of me there, though I expect he may try again. I don't intend to write anything about the hunt for Gollum – I couldn't make a very interesting song of it anyhow, as neither of you have been very free with the tale. My latest project is entirely unrelated to your journeys beyond the mountains, I promise you; though I shan't promise more than that.'
He gave a sly smile that was entirely irresistible. Aragorn grinned and Arwen laughed lightly. 'Most intriguing,' said the Ranger. 'It will give me something to ponder as I watch the stars on a cool summer night.'
This picture too had the desired effect. Bilbo's eyes grew soft with nostalgia. 'I do sometimes miss it, you know. The open Road, the wild lands, miles and miles of quiet – well, apart from the dwarves, in my case, though you'll not have to worry about that!'
'No,' said Aragorn. 'And I too have grown to miss it, as fair as the valley may be and whoever awaits me here. It will feel good to be back to my usual business.'
Bilbo regarded him quizzically. 'Just how would you describe your "usual business", Dúnadan? I think I should run out of words if I tried.'
Again Arwen laughed, and Aragorn obliged Bilbo with a sheepish smile. While it was true that in Imladris he missed his folk and the rugged beauty of Eriador, he knew that he would miss this far more.
On the morning that had been ordained for his departure, Aragorn awoke before the sun. He had bathed the night before, and by candlelight he washed his face, cleaned his teeth, rinsed his mouth, and combed his hair. He took a last look in the mirror, satisfied that the Dúnadan appeared little different now than he had on his last leave-taking from this hospitable place. There was still a thinness to his features: a prominence of bone beyond that of his Númenorean heritage. Halbarad would see it, though most others might not.
He dressed in clean linen, far finer than his outer garments. Cote and hose had been made to the usual specifications, sewn of deliberately cheap-looking but very durable wool coloured blotchily in imitation of a poor dye job. They were a little heavier than his usual summer garments, for Aragorn was still prone to chills at night. He had a new cloak, just as coarse-looking as the other clothing, and a surcote with a leather lining to help repel the rain. He had a new belt also, but this he coiled up and slipped into his nearly-empty new pack that would soon be filled with provisions. His old belt had some life in it yet, and it would make him more comfortable to have something on his person that was genuinely worn to shabbiness. His raiment would look far less crisp and new after a few days of sleeping rough, but at present he looked more like a play-actor than a true Ranger.
From the chest he took a battered leather sheath from which swung a thick sword-belt. He girded himself with it, and took a last look around his bedchamber. If all went well, he would be back in four month's time. Still this last look was a habit, a final reminder that he had somewhere in the world that he belonged and to which he could always return. It was his anchor: the thing that kept him from feeling like a ship lost at sea or a leaf buffeted hither and yon by the winds. When he had fixed the image of his little corner of Arda in his mind, Aragorn went out into the anteroom.
He put on his boots first, wrestling with the new leather. Snugness was the price one paid for a perfect fit, and the boots were challenging to get on and at times nearly impossible to get off. This resistance would lessen as the leather stretched, but it was more a reassurance than a nuisance. He had not forgotten the awful feeling of wearing broken boots as they disintegrated by degrees around his feet.
Clothed and shod, with his star clasping his cloak, Aragorn went to the mantel. Here too he paused, taking in the sight by the light of the lone candle. Narsil lay upon its velvet bed, the shards separated by a finger span. The breaks were so clean that he could fit them together, giving the sword (at least while inert) the look of a blade unbroken. He had done so once, when he was very young, and he had never tried it again. It seemed somehow impious, a presumption of things not yet achieved and prophesies still unfulfilled. In its brokenness there was beauty. In its brokenness there was hope.
Carefully he lifted the long shard, the lower span of the blade. It lay across both palms, its weight a burden more unwieldy than any millstone – and yet a privilege also. Then Aragorn shifted so that he held it carefully, with fingers and thumb holding the flat. Narsil's edges were blunted by time, for it had not been whetted since the dark before dawn on the day a band of five had ascended the slopes of Orodruin in answer to a deadly summons. Yet there was keenness in it yet, sufficient to cut a hand that grasped too tightly. This hold gave him better control also, as he set the point in the mouth of the scabbard and lowered the blade. When he had reached its broken edge, he let go. With a soft whoosh of steel on leather, the shard slid to the bottom of the sheath. When he wanted to retrieve the piece, he would have to upend the leather casing and shake it.
The hilt-shard was next. This Aragorn lifted as if the sword were whole, his fingers closing upon the grip where once Tar-Minyatur himself had held it. He tilted his well-placed fist so that the dozen inches of broken blade now pointed upright as if in parade salute. Thus Elendil had held it before the Morannon, when he mustered his army with stirring words ere he led them to a hard-won victory. Last of all he tipped it back again: not to the horizontal plane in which he had raised it, but to an angle fit for striking. Too late he realized that he had overshot his mark, misjudging because of the shortness of the truncated weapon. He had turned it past the point where one would position a sword. He held it like a knife.
He held it, Aragorn realized with a chill that coursed up his spine and out into shoulders suddenly made rigid, as Isildur must have held it in the moment before lunging at Sauron. Thus Narsil had canted just ere it cut the One Ring from its master's hand and set the course of events that had led to this moment. To it and through it, into whatever lay ahead.
He had said most of his farewells the night before. Erestor he had visited in the library. Bilbo had sat long beside him in the Hall of Fire. Other comrades he had spoken with at their work or in the doorways of their chambers or upstairs in the long gallery. Glorfindel had come to his room bearing spiced wine and encouraging words to send him off to sleep. Only two figures stood upon the steps with Aragorn as he took his leave in the mists of predawn. A third, the groom who had ridden Moroch back to her beloved master a month before, was upon the path with Roheryn's reins in his patient hand.
'My son.' Elrond laid his hands upon Aragorn's shoulders and looked into his eyes. One lamp was lit, not to see him off but to welcome any who sought the house by night. Its glow cast half of the fair face in shadow, but the love and pride and well-masked worry showed clear in the grey orbs. 'I have treasured our time together, though I would never have wished it to come about as it did. Remember as you ride forth that you have done your duty and far more besides. You fulfilled the promise you made long years ago, and paid in its fulfillment such a toll as none would ever have asked. You have cause for pride in this, and in all your deeds. In what is to come, I know you will deport yourself with courage and nobility.'
'I shall strive to do so,' Aragorn pledged, his voice low and grave in the gloom.
Elrond nodded. He had expected so humble an answer, and in this too he took a parent's quiet pride. 'My love and my blessing go with you always: Estel, Aragorn son of Arathorn who has journeyed under many names, Thorongil among them. The time is near at hand for you to rise to claim still other names and glories – sung or unsung – yet to be imagined. Go with a peaceful heart, my child, and know that the works of your hands are good.'
Aragorn bowed his head, eyes closed as his father's blessing anointed his spirit. He had been sent forth with words of benediction before, but never so lofty as these. It seemed ill-suited to the prosaic labours before him now, but he knew he would hold Elrond's praise long in his heart.
'I thank you, Atarinya. It shall be my foremost task to make myself worthy always of your gracious words, and the faith you have placed in me.' He raised his eyes and met Elrond's. 'My feet may wander far, but my heart dwells ever here.'
They embraced then, holding one another near as if in this nearness they could eschew any separation. When Elrond drew back at last, hands moving to Aragorn's arms, he kissed the Man's brow. His palm rose to rest briefly upon the pale cheek.
'Fare you well, Estel, until we meet again,' Elrond murmured. Then turning he was gone, the great door shut fast behind him.
Now in the first grey glow there stood only Arwen, a warm mantle about her shoulders to ward off the dew. The groom had gone some paces away, leading Roheryn with him, and with the mists upon the land he could no longer be seen. Aragorn held out his hands to his betrothed and she took them, standing a courteous distance removed as they always did.
'What parting can there be between us, beloved?' he said. 'Where ere I go I bear you with me.'
'And you bide always with me,' said Arwen. Her voice was rich with love and melancholy, and beneath it the warm determination of hope undimmed. 'Two conjoined in heart can never truly be severed, though all the leagues of Eriador lie between.'
'Then it is not farewell,' Aragorn decreed, as if by words he could make it so. He reached to stroke her velvet-soft cheek with the backs of curled fingers. The roughness of healed chilblains was all but gone, and he did not rasp her as he had upon their reunion. Only the callouses on his palm were hard: made so by long practice with the blade. It was once again the hand of a warrior, not a beggar.
'Never farewell,' Arwen sighed, and she stepped nearer.
His left hand clasped her right, now both upraised between them. They were near enough that they could feel the caress of one another's breath. The hand that had touched her face now found the small of her back, and Aragorn drew her nearer still. She was warm and solid beneath his hand: no dream and no memory but his own dear Lady in his arms. He upheld this moment in his mind, where later it might be fixed as in amber, but his eyes and his heart dwelt only in the present. They were here, together. For a little longer, they were together.
Then her left hand slipped up to cup the nape of his neck, tilting his head towards her. He bent his shoulders a little, instinctively. And Arwen kissed him.
Their lips met with the effortless grace that only time can bring. Their long years of waiting, yet far from their end, had given them that gift at least. They pressed to one another, holding fast while all the world seemed to turn slowly around them, as ephemeral as the mist. Aragorn searched the contours of Arwen's lips with his own, eyes closed that he might uphold her visage in his mind rather than watch it at so close a range. Seldom did they allow themselves this passion, and it was ever to be savoured.
He drank in the actuality of her presence, the heat of her mouth upon his, and the love that flowed from her like the boundless waters of the Sundering Seas. She tasted of cinnamon and moonlight, and she loved him. She loved him, and she longed for him, and she would wait for him: wait for his return, and wait for the day when he might at last fulfill all that had been foretold and all that was only a slender, desperate hope. She was his, and he hers. Whatever befell them in the months to come, in the years stretching ever onward before them, they would always have that truth to cherish. Until the breaking of the world and beyond it, there would always be their love.
They parted at last, after what seemed an eternity but had been in truth little more than half a minute. As their eyes met, Arwen's lips parted slightly. They were flushed darker than before, and in the lamplight they looked like rose petals. Yet it was the twin pools of silver loveliness that held Aragorn's gaze. Wordlessly they stood thus, reading one another's hearts and seeing each the same. Then Arwen took his hands and gripped them with a fervour that told him she, too, was clinging to his realness while she could.
'Ride in safety,' she whispered; 'and return to us again.'
'I will,' murmured Aragorn, and in that moment he knew it to be true.
She had spoken the words of parting, and there was no more to be said. He bowed in courtesy as he moved to the steps. He descended without turning, loth to let her from his sight. The groom, hearing his boots upon the earth, came near again. Roheryn nickered a soft greeting to his master, and Aragorn went to his side. He mounted smoothly, his eyes all the while upon his beloved. Gathering the unadorned reins into his hand, he spoke the words with which he had left her upon Cerin Amroth long ago.
'Arwen vanimelda, namárië,' he said. Then he turned his horse and rode off into the mists. The last glimpse he caught of Arwen was of her small, resolved smile and the white hands that hugged her mantle to her as if against a bitter chill.
The fog melted swiftly about him as Aragorn rode up from the valley. He crossed the narrow bridge, Roheryn walking with solid confidence despite the roaring waters below. He passed the quiet pastures where milch-cows slept or lowed soft greetings to the one another. He reached the rocky heights and soon found himself at the crest where he would soon be hemmed in on both sides by the cliffs that shot upward into the mountains. The dawn was breaking behind him, and the golden light broke forth as Aragorn turned and looked back.
Below him Rivendell lay verdant and peaceful, still drowsy with the early hour. The rooftops of the Last Homely House seemed to glow with warm welcome, but not for him. For him their rich colour was a promise of a haven to which he might one day return as his duties allowed him. There dwelt all he held most dear in the world. He tasted the bitter draught of loneliness: the first of many to come.
Aragorn allowed himself one last long look before touching his heel lightly to Roheryn's side. The mighty warhorse turned in obedience, and Aragorn turned with him. He fixed his eyes now upon the last fading violet of the night and the light of Ëarendil's star. It was the Evenstar and Gil-Estel, that Star of High Hope for which both he and his beloved had been named. It promised strength to face the Shadow, no matter the toil and no matter the cost.
As Aragorn rode the rocky trail that led to the Ford of Bruinen, he watched that constant star until it faded into the day. Then he fixed his gaze upon the earth once more, and the road beneath his horse's hooves. It was in these next simple steps to which his purpose must now be bent, and neither to lofty hopes nor bleakest dreads for what was to come. There were many miles to travel and many toils, great and small, to which he must turn his hands. Yet in his heart Aragorn son of Arathorn felt a thrill of exhilaration well tempered with terror.
It had begun.
Note: Soon to be posted as a separate story are the Appendices to 'A Long and Weary Way'. Be watchful!