When I posted The Last Gift, some of you asked for a sequel. At first, I had no idea or inspiration how to do it; I simply didn't know how Elrond and Celebrian would react when they saw Arwen's gift. Then, in the end of February, Teitho web page announced theme for March: Return of the Light. And then, in that moment, I knew; everything became clear and I knew how to do it.
Isn't it funny how things can change in a single moment? :)
Anyway, here it is – the sequel to The Last Gift. I decided not to send it to Teitho contest, because it just didn't seem right to me. Yes, it is written as one-shot and everything from the first story that is important for understanding the sequel is described in it; but it is not a true one-shot and some readers would recognize me as the author. And that is not in accordance with Teitho rules. So, I am posting it now (after March dead-line had passed), as an ordinary story, and not as a part of the contest.
Big thanks to Cairistiona for beta-reading. *hug*
While I was still living in Middle-earth, I often heard it said that the Blessed Realm healed all wounds. When I finally arrived there, I discovered it was true... almost. This land eases pains and heals scars, although some of them cannot vanish. Some shadows are impossible to chase away. I often thought of Arwen. I knew how much she loved Aragorn, and how much he loved her; I knew he would do everything to make her happy. Still, I wish that fate had taken her down a different path, that she had been with us and found happiness with one of our folk. Selfish of me, I know. But every parent wants what is best for his child. And wants to be close to it.
I, however, had been far away from my child. And I knew I would never see her again, not in this world, because with each passing second and each passing minute, the time of her death inexorably approaches.
The messenger arrived at my house as soon as the ship landed at the port. One of the last ones. Not many more will arrive from Middle-earth. And on this ship which had sailed in a few hours ago, Thranduil's son had arrived to Valinor.
I knew what it meant. Legolas would never leave Middle-earth for as long as his best friend – his brother – were alive. And if Aragorn had passed away... I could not complete the thought. The pain that ripped through my heart cut deeper and more fiercely than any parting so far; the loss of parents, Celebrian's departure, even Elros' death, seemed pale in comparison. My daughter, my own child, had died.
Through the window I stared into the sky; there were no clouds or rain, but it had turned gray. The sun ceased to shine. Eclipse. Darkness. Night. As I was falling into pieces, I could not imagine that there had ever been joy in this world. And as my soul was writhing in agony, I could not imagine that I would ever be able to smile again. The healing powers of the land of Valinor faded before this; this darkness will never disperse.
How can I tell Celebrian?
But I did not need to tell her. I don't know whether she felt what was going on, but she hastened towards me with an apprehensive expression on her face. A single look at my face told her everything. She fell into my arms with a soundless scream and we both fell down on our knees. My tears mixed with hers, but they could not bring relief nor wash away the sorrow. The pain was devastating; it ravaged us. And there was no way to change the fate; it had been determined long ago.
I knew this day would come. During the past 120 years, every night as I lay down to bed, I knew that this day was getting closer. It was a shadow that had been pressing us, a shadow in the unspoiled splendour of Valinor; no, not even this blessed land cannot chase away all the pains. It never could. Every evening, in the silence of the night, I prayed to Eru to postpone it for as long as possible. Every evening, in the solitude of my thoughts and fears, I knew I could not stop time. However, even though I have been aware of it, nothing could prepare me for this moment, when this dreadful day finally arrived.
Arwen's smile had faded forever. As had everything around us.
For how long have we been sitting in each other's arms, enchained by our pain? A few minutes? An entire Age of the World? I could not tell. At a certain point, I recognized the muffled sound coming from the adjacent room as the knocking on the front door, but I did not move. I closed my mind to the world outside. I did not want to see or hear anyone. But the knocking continued, persistent and relentless.
"Go away!" I shouted. I did not recognize my own voice, distorted and broken.
"My Lord Elrond, I would like to see you." The voice which came in through the closed door was quiet, but I would have recognized it among hundred others. I hesitated. He wishes to see me; but do I wish to see him? Now, in this moment? Finally, I gently laid Celebrian down in the armchair and headed toward the door.
Legolas had come to my house straight from the port, still dressed in the simple travel garments and carrying luggage in his hand. His face was still the same as when I last saw him – time cannot touch an elf – but his eyes were empty. Just like mine. Standing one step behind him was a gray-haired dwarf with a long white beard. There were deep furrows on his face. For a moment I watched him, perplexed, only then recognizing Gimli in the aged figure. The passing of time left much more visible traces on him.
Under different circumstances, I would have probably been surprised and wondered how a dwarf could have traveled to Valinor. My mind was, however, much too numb at the moment to notice anything unusual about that fact. I looked back towards Legolas.
"Lord Elrond," he said softly, his voice tinged with sadness, and he slightly bowed his head. "I greet you. When the time is right, when you feel ready, I would like to speak with you. There is so much I wish to share with you. But not now; it is not yet time." Having noticed the pain in his blue eyes, I suddenly realized I was not the only one who was not ready for a long conversation about the past and memories. Then he stepped aside and behind his back, a few metres away, I noticed two elves carrying a large heavy chest.
"This is for you and lady Celebrian," Legolas went on. "Arwen's gift from Middle-earth. I will not say anything about its contents, as you will discover it yourself while going through it. I will only deliver her last message. She said: 'Tell them I love them with all my heart.'"
I watched him without a word, barely noticing the two elves who took the chest into the house and then came out. Her words, spoken through him, found their way into the Undying Lands. And into my heart. My eyes, red and puffy from crying, filled up with tears again. I love you, too, my child.
I would give anything to be able to trade places with her, just so that she could live on.
We exchanged a short greeting, and then the elf and the dwarf took their leave. Slowly I went back into the house and approached the chest. Arwen's gift, Legolas had said. Celebrian and I stared at it. It was heavy. What was in it? Almost timidly, with a slightly trembling hand, I opened the lid.
For a few moments I stared at the countless sheets of paper and small boxes which lay in there, and then I realized. It was her family, her life, painted by her own hand. With our eyes misted with tears, we looked at one picture after another, overwhelmed with emotions. The first drawings depicted a newborn baby in a cradle. Eldarion. Her son. Our grandson.
Grandson. The notion slowly sank in. I was a grandfather. I observed that small sleepy face, absorbing in every detail. He was gorgeous, perfect. I smiled. Quickly I took the following drawing, and then the next. As if in a dream – as if looking at the past in one of the palantirs, as it flows hurriedly before our eyes – we watched him grow, watched him transform from a small chubby baby into an exuberant young boy.
Having found a box containing a lock of his hair, we cried again. For how many times already? Can a living being even have that many tears to cry?
And then the granddaughters! My heart swelled, atremble and delighted, filled with emotions. Eilinel. Silmarien. Miriel. Beautiful. I see Arwen in each of them; in their smiles, in their gazes, in their gracious movements. Every new drawing induces a new tear. But a new smile as well.
More pictures. And more yet. Arwen and Aragorn, seen through the eyes of their children. Smiling. Happy.
Years go by, Aragorn's hair turns silvery. Hours go by, but we feel no hunger nor pain in our legs stiff from sitting. Years go by, Arwen and Aragorn are surrounded by grandchildren. Hours go by, night replaces day, although I do not notice the eternal exchange of darkness and light, nor Ithil sailing in the sky; as far as I am concerned, there is only this room and these pictures, only my daughter and her family.
Years go by, and Arwen and Aragorn's smiles are still equally radiant and full of love.
I am glad that she is happy; I want to share that with her. I touch the paper, as if that way I could touch them, bridge the abyss of time and ocean; as if that way I could enter the picture and be with them. Laying my hands down onto the drawing, I close my eyes and see them before me: we are together, they are real, they are smiling at me...
Entranced, I open my eyes, but the reality is different. There is only Celebrian, in a room that is cold and dark and lit only by candles which cannot chase away the darkness. Arwen is not here, and nor are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I will never hold them in my lap and tell them stories. I cannot embrace Arwen. She is dead; she had died.
The vision vanishes, everything crumbles again. I am sinking again.
"Beautiful." Celebrian's whisper snapped me out of my reflection. I turned toward her. She was holding a picture of Aragorn and Arwen surrounded by their family and pressed it to her chest gently, so gently, as if she were holding the most fragile porcelain. "Thank you, my little one."
"Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. I will never hold them in my arms," I said in a hollow voice.
She looked at me. I saw a glimpse of a smile on her wistful face. "Try to look at it this way. If Arwen had not sent us this, we would never have seen them. We would have kept her in our hearts forever, of course, but that would be all. We would never have met them. And this way, although they are all far away from us, they have become a part of our lives," she said gently.
She was right, of course. And I wanted to see things through her eyes; maybe some day I will be able to. But for now I could not. I admired her for being able to do so; she was stronger than I was.
Or was she not stronger than me? Maybe she was just as devastated as I was, but she saw how close I was to falling apart so she endeavoured to be strong for me as well and tried to make me see the good side too?
"I agree," I said out loud, concealing my thoughts, not wanting her to carry my burden on her shoulders any more. Quickly I hugged her and buried my face into her hair, so as to hide my gaze from her, so that my eyes would not betray me.
"It is late, let us go to bed," she said quietly. "We will look at them again tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. And every day after that."
We went to bed. We were holding hands, but not even the touch of our fëar could not fill the void inside me. I could not sleep, and her breathing and restless twisting and turning clearly told me she couldn't either. I lay with my eyes open, fully awake, and the darkness around me was identical to the one within me. To outlive one's own child... is there a more dreadful fate than that? For the first time in my long life I questioned the choice I had made many centuries ago. Maybe I should not have chosen the fate of the Firstborn. Maybe humans were blessed with their gift after all; maybe they were luckier than us.
There was no point in staying in bed; I knew I would not be able to fall asleep. And something urged me to return to the pictures, to look into another world through the window of the past once more, to once again feel the bond, as feeble as it might be, with the family I will never see in this world. Quietly I slipped out of the bed, but Celebrian heard me, naturally. She did not sleep either.
"I am just going for a short stroll to stretch my legs, and then I'm coming back." A feeble lie, but she did not challenge me. "Try to sleep."
I went into the living room and lit two candles. The dim golden light cast swaying shadows on the walls. Outside, the night was pitch-black. And there was no sun nor stars in my sky anymore.
Pictures and small boxes lay on the table and the armchairs as we had left them. I took them again one by one, experiencing all their small and big moments with them, feeling their emotions, laughing and crying with them. I was with them when the children made their first steps, while they were playing in the backyard of the palace, while they were making their funny little mischiefs. I watched the sunsets over Mindolluin with them, built fortresses by the hearth, smiled gleefully on their weddings.
And then I chanced upon this one picture – I could not remember whether I had seen it earlier that day – but it immediately captured my attention. Even if I hadn't seen the signature, I could have told it had been drawn by Lalaith, Eldarion's daughter. She was exceptionally gifted. Her pictures were almost alive; they had their own voice and soul. This particular one depicted almost the entire family – Arwen, Aragorn, their children and most of their grandchildren. Looking at it, I could smell the spring grass of the Pelennor fields, hear the sound of children's laughter, feel the mild, warm breeze. I blinked, and the vision was still there. I was there, with them; they were here, with me. But most of all I was captured by Arwen's face. She was smiling and looking straight towards Lalaith who had been drawing the picture; due to some magic, or to the skill of the artist, her gaze came out of the picture and reached me, reached the depth of my heart. I have never seen such serenity and happiness within anyone; the serenity of a fulfilled life. Her eyes were full of warmth and love for Aragorn, for their children and grandchildren...
...and for me. For her parents. I kept on staring at the picture and read everything from her gaze. A moment later I took another picture, and another, and many more, and looked them over. And over. But with different eyes than before, now unaffected by self-pity and pain. No, the sorrow did not vanish, but now I really saw. In each picture, whether crafted with a supreme skill of the artist Lalaith or with unskillful strokes of a child which Arwen encouraged to draw for the very first time, my daughter had that same expression – the expression of utter happiness and fulfillment. The emotions were the same, and they were always present.
How stupid I was not to see it right away! I must have been blinded by my pain; it must be that the parental selfishness did not want to retreat. I believe Celebrian understood it straight away; she was wiser than I was. But now I saw things differently as well. If there had ever been any doubt in my mind that this had not been the best path for her, all doubts had now vanished without a trace. Yes, I have been hoping that fate would take her down a different path; yes, I wished she had chosen one of our folk. But this was her path, there was no other which would have brought her a greater joy. Every parent wants what is best for his child, and she had the best. Even if the loss of immortality was the price to be paid. Sometimes even that which seems like the highest price is but a pittance compared to the happiness gained.
My daughter died. We will not meet in this world, for as long as Arda does not change. The pain was still there. But now I look at her life – blessed more than a person could ever wish for – and I cannot but thank Eru for granting her such a wonderful family and a life full of love. Thank you, my daughter, for making it possible for your family to become a part of my life forever, although I thought I had lost everything that day many years ago, when I left Middle-earth for good.
The pain is still there, but a smile appears through the tears; the pain is no longer the only thing I feel, now there is joy as well. For her gift is the greatest one I have ever received, a gift of boundless love which triumphs even over the greatest sorrow. It is still dark outside. But I am no longer in the darkness. The light returned.
* fëa (pl. fëar) = soul