Author's Note: Many thanks to my two invaluable beta's, Inzilbeth and Estelcontar, who walked me through my insecurities writing a fic of this type. Any errors are mine, not theirs. This was written back in November as a birthday fic for Lady Roisin, and has been tweaked a bit since then.
Tolkien is rather silent on the details of what might await beyond the Dark Sea, of this land beyond the circles of Arda that Aragorn assures Arwen holds 'more then memory'. This short story is but one possibility.
I waited, my heart in my throat.
Long years have passed, well over a hundred, since that moment when I had heard it... felt it... breathed it ... knew it.
Knew the instant that the Bane was gone.
And now... now, if I trusted my ears... trusted what the voices around me were excitedly murmuring, voices belonging to the greatest throng to meet a ship since none other...
He was coming.
The Great King.
I took a deep breath, rubbed sweating palms on the fine cloth of my breeches. Even here, beyond the Dark Seas and beyond the wrenching judgment of Mandos, it seems a man, even a king, might find his heart pounding from nerves.
I looked at those seas, and aye, they were dark but not as dark as so many feared. The Light of Ilúvatar shone on those waves, the Light from this land reaching out to bless the waters. And when the ship comes, the Light glimmers and dances like living joy itself.
And so it danced now, skipping and sparking across the wave tops, casting rainbows aloft and tossing spindrift into the air with abandon. I swallowed hard. The joy has always moved me, strumming the strings of my heart with Music that echoed the past, the present and the future all at once. I do not understand it, this feeling of living joy, but as always, I embraced it and let it wash over me and renew me. Sometimes I let it stir my heart so that it takes me away from the shore, away from the Arrival, but not today.
Not today. I have waited too long for this moment.
I again steadied my breath. Watched the boat slowly approach. Looked as the sails hove into view. As it drew near, the rigging and the spars became clear, and finally the railings and those who stood along them, all of them looking, wondering, hoping; yet in so many of their eyes fear also dwelt, for so much was unknown about this new land to which they came. And many looked back, beyond the ship's churning wake, sorrowing, yearning for those they had left behind.
Arrival holds the bitter alongside the sweet.
I searched the faces, suddenly unsure. Maybe the rumors were misplaced. Maybe he did not come on this ship, for there seemed to be nothing special about...
No. My eyes finally lit upon a face that could have been that of my own son. It was indeed him, the one my heart sought. He was standing by the rail, amidships, one in a crowd.
One in a crowd? This man? This King?
It was not what I expected. I expected this one to have his own ship, grander than any other, manned with a contingent of footmen and attendants and guards standing attention. Trumpets blaring and banners waving...
But no. He came on a ship like all the others; indeed, it was one I recognized, one that bore men, women and children from all walks of life nearly every day to these shores, for death, as does birth, comes daily to mortal lives, and though this ship was extraordinary in its purpose, the very frequency of its arrivals lowered it in most of our eyes from the sublime to the plebeian. And on this very familiar vessel, he stood among the crowd of ordinary folk, quiet, alone, his hands holding fast to the same rail so many other hands had gripped before him. And even from this distance, I could see his eyes were as somber and uncertain as all the others, as he searched the shoreline, then looked back, beyond the stern, seeking one last time for a glimpse of the ones he had left behind, no more immune to the bite of the bitter as any other man.
I longed to comfort him, to comfort all of them... to shout assurances...
Look, yes, look behind you... look and sorrow but for a moment, for their ship will come... and while you tarry here at the shore, waiting, you will touch joy and sorrow will flee...
But I did not shout. There was no need. They will... and he will... discover the truth, soon enough.
I let my gaze travel to those waiting, to those in the mighty throng who stood in front of me, those who needed to see him and embrace him far more than I. The King's mother. The King's father. I smiled, then, for Arathorn looked as nervous as I felt. 'Twould be his first meeting with his own son since the King was toddling around at knee height.
Standing alongside Arathorn was another. A friend like no other the King had known in his life, and one who has become a friend to me as well. Halbarad. I have spoken much with Halbarad, learned much about this King, about his life and his struggles and the Hope within him that he never let falter no matter how dark his path. Together, after the Bane fell, we had listened eagerly to every scrap of news of the King's reign. As each ship had arrived, we eagerly sought out those whom Halbarad knew, and we would sit and listen and marvel and sometimes cry with joy at all the blessings that had finally come to pass.
And even now, I felt tears burning in my eyes. But I blinked them back, impatiently swiping away the few that escaped my control. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Elendur's. My son. He knew, more than anyone I think, the importance of this moment to me. I gave his hand a rough squeeze, then pulled myself together without looking at him, for to see his compassion would be my undoing.
The boat finally bumped against the quay, and with shouts and tossed ropes, the ship was made fast in most ordinary fashion, for even here, beyond the Dark Seas, sailors did their jobs in the same way as they did on the mortal seas of Arda. A ship is a ship, after all, and it is not by magic that it cleaves to the dock.
I looked again to the King as he stood along the railing, and a hush fell as the gangplank banged against the dock and the last shouting sailor announced all was secure. For a moment, no one moved, then those closest to the King, by some unspoken agreement, stepped aside. One touched his arm, as if to urge him forward, and it was only then that he turned and walked, slowly, and those on the ship bowed their heads as he passed, and in that moment, I understood why there were no trumpets, no fanfare. It was the love of the people that he had led, and who had the privilege to journey with him at the last, who provided the pomp, the circumstance.
It was fitting.
The King walked down the ramp, then stepped ashore, and smiled a little as he staggered a bit. A soft ripple of gentle laughter stirred the crowd's edges, and I smiled as well, for I remembered the odd feeling of stillness after the long voyage at sea. At sea, the boat shakes. On land, the legs. Even here, there was no difference.
Then the King let out a soft cry and ran forward. He had spotted his mother. They embraced, long and lovingly, and then his mother turned her son toward the man beside her, and at long last, father and son met once more.
Arathorn's back was to me, but I watched Aragorn's eyes. I had heard they were keen, with a light that could cause men to quail before the power of his gaze, but today, they glowed with warmth and joy undimmed by the tears pooling within their depths. He looked so very much like his father... it must have felt a bit like looking in a mirror. I saw Aragorn reach up and gently touch Arathorn's right eye, the eye that had been pierced by the orc arrow that ended his life, restored now as all things are in this land beyond the circles of the world. For a long moment they stood, motionless, then they fell against one another, holding to each other as though they sought to make up for all those lost years. I watched Aragorn's face crumple and those wondrous eyes squeeze tightly shut as he gripped his father, and I shuddered with my own pent-up sob. Elendur's hand, still on my shoulder, gripped me tightly. I knew he was fighting his own heart's battle.
Finally they separated, and Aragorn gave his father a trembling smile. They separated, it seemed to me reluctantly, but then another caught Aragorn's full attention.
For a moment, Aragorn seemed struck as with some sort of moon sickness, so silent and still he stood, eyes wide and staring as his soul's friend started to kneel before him. But then a wondrous change came over him. A smile, slow and warm enough surely to keep away the worst chill winter could offer, spread across his face. Then, like hearing water bubble up from a deep spring, a laugh exploded from him and he threw his arms around his old comrade, pulling him to his feet, and it was as if joy became incarnate in these two friends. They spun around and around in glee, slapping each other and laughing and crying all at the same time, nearly knocking into me in the abandon of their reunion. They reminded me of a couple of little boys, and I saw then with my own eyes the depth of their friendship. Aragorn and Halbarad might not have had brothers by blood, but here I saw brothers in spirit, the truest kind.
Then my heart lurched, for as their dance ended, his eyes fell upon me. How he looked like my son, Elendur, and my sire, Elendil! He watched me as I did him, cataloguing my features even as I did his. The long, straight nose, the noble brow... the eyes. Always the eyes. Grey, they were, like mine. Like Elros'. Grey that I knew reflected his moods like the sea ponders the temper of the sky. Stormy and dark, or nearly blue and cloudless. A thousand shades mirroring a thousand feelings.
And a thousand emotions seemed then to pour through me. Joy, foremost, and pride, but also fear. So much fear... for it was my mistake... my error... that had brought so much pain to his life, to all the lives of men through all the ages until the Bane finally fell.
How many long years have I carried that guilt! How many times have I wished that I might trade all the good that I had done in my life to have that one moment back, that one moment when I listened not to wisdom but to some other voice and in my pride, thinking I might master it, kept the Ring. A thousandfold times in my dreams I relived the making of that ill choice and a thousandfold times I turned to take the Bane to the Keepers of the Three, but each time, I would lurch to wakefulness just as the orc arrows flew, and know that there was no undoing the past. And so, here in this new realm where, by the mercy of the Valar I now dwell, I take it upon myself to watch every ship arrive, and I let their faces and their stories be my punishment.
And now, just as I had faced the judgment of the Valar, and the judgment of my own conscience, so now would I hear the judgment of the one on whom the undeserved suffering of my atonement fell so heavily.
I stood trembling, caught in his stare. He walked toward me, then laid a hand on my shoulder. "The White Tree blooms once more in Gondor, Isildur, and gladdens the hearts of all," he said quietly.
In those few words, he released me from the guilt of my past, from the stain that I felt would mar me forever. I fell into his arms, into the embrace of my long-son of many long-sons, and together we wept for the bitter and the sweet.