Summary: By the grace of the Valar, not all endings are final.
Disclaimer: All of Middle-earth and all its inhabitants belong to Mr Tolkien.
Song drifts upon the lazy wind. Again they celebrate; there is a song for the setting sun and the rising sun; there is a song for the waxing moon and there is a song for the waning moon. I can no longer tell them apart.
I wonder, as my gaze loses itself in the dark blue heavens that stretch out above me, if they would sing so joyously if they knew of this great deception? It is now many moons ago that I ceased to offer fuel to the fire of guilt that used to burn in my heart. I tell myself I am deserving, that I have well done what was asked of me once; never have my feet strayed from my path, only my heart has sought to flee its prison and has sometimes persuaded my imagination to run wild and I was too tempted to rein it in. But in word and deed I have honoured my vows to my heritage, my people, my wife and our children.
It is also long now since I last saw the stars. Aye, men are weak. We do not grow more handsome, nor agile with age, but stoop and transform into gnarled roots. Our limbs stiffen and we discover an inner ache that seems to sprout from our very bones. We long for long nights by a fire, but not like we did in our youth when nothing more than a dry patch of grass and a decent bedroll were a blessing; now we crave also a comfortable chair, a woollen blanket and – I'll be damned – our slippers. When we one day find the strength and the courage to examine ourselves in the looking-glass, we stumble backwards in fear and disbelief for surely the gods are only playing a cruel trick on us? No man, we say, could look that withered and weary. And yet we cannot be entirely sure for the days are now hard to separate, one from the other, and we have seen very many, and our eyesight is not what it used to be. And so it is long now since last I saw the stars.
You said four guards of the Tower would come for me in the end, and I think you were right. I admit the memory of our last conversation is muddled, as if it were created in a dream. But I do remember your eyes of the clearest day-sky blue, how they pleaded with me to fully grasp your words. I promise you I tried, I tried to understand why you spoke so urgently, but I drifted off perhaps for the next thing I knew, that beautiful blue was drowning in tears.
My twisted, bone-like hand upon your cheek trembled but you clutched at it as if I could somehow lend you strength. Was I ever able to do that? What words did I offer you by way of comfort? Did I ever hold you, or was it you who always protected me?
There was a sharp noise over by the door. I recall this for we both started and a chill caught me so quickly it must have been biding its time in a dark corner, waiting for the right moment to strike. You fell to your knees before me then, and repeated over and over the same words: 'Please, they will come. Four of them. Let them take you with them. Please, please...' Your tears were spilling all over my hand as your whispers grew more intense and with fear weaving its web around you and your time running out, my name on your lips was barely audible. 'Please, Aragorn... My love.'
When the door was thrust open by the ever-present guard whose name and family I never learned, you shot to your feet as though stung by the tip of a lance, and the world blurred before my eyes and I realised your tears were my own. You fled from my side and I saw you never again.
The days come and go as they please when one travels. Day and night, dusk and dawn twine around each other in an endless dance. I enjoy the summer wind that swoops down and the warm rays of the sun upon my face. Sometimes when I open my eyes the world is aglow in silver and I think that might be the moon coming out to greet me. Someone has swathed me in blankets and the sway of the carriage is not too hard upon an old body such as my own. I forget where I am headed, wherefrom I journey; I have no purpose but to lie here and breathe. For if there is one thing I know, it is that this is of great importance: I cannot stop breathing or I will know no more. Even though my heart at times slows almost to a stop, I cling to this knowledge and somehow it is enough for my heart to not grow still.
Yet at times, when the sunlight is particularly adventurous, I seem to remember that this is both how it should and should not be. I should be journeying to meet a different end – that this is what is expected of me – and I know then that I have betrayed many. Even so, this realisation does not manage to haunt me for very long, for there are other horizons, I am sure, and these I am to seek.
"My lord?" Voices hold little power over me these days but this one is insistent. "My lord?"
The movement has ceased and all is quite still. I open my eyes but I see nor Sun nor Moon; all around me is a bluish dusk I think, and there is an unfamiliar sound in the background. I know not for how long this odd peace reigns but all of a sudden there are voices floating out to me from every direction. There is a whirlwind of sound before a hand falls to my cheek and turns my head to the side.
"Aragorn!" The voice is anxious, steeped in fear. "Aragorn! Look at me!"
My eyes must have fallen shut again and I strain to open them.
"Look at me... Aragorn... meleth, please!"
I do my very best, but there is only that mess of blue. The hand against my cheek goes limp, however, and the voice is now much softer. Perhaps there is relief in if. "Oh... my love... Breathe... breathe."
Willingly, I surrender and obey. There is jostling and the whining of metal against wood. The whole world shifts and pain shoots through my body as I am lifted and carried to a new bed, a softer one this time. My heart stumbles over a beat and I gasp as a white-hot fire seizes my lungs and drives all air out of me. For a moment, when I hold no life force I contemplate giving in, stepping aside. Another took over long ago, another now wears a crown. What do I care for a crown?
There is a velvety darkness waiting at the very edge of my awareness and I would let it embrace me. I have no more air left in my lungs and my heart is wearied. Once it held the ability to swell with pride and joy, but now it is no more than a shrunken bit of muscle, suffering from the lifelong pain I forced upon it. No more will it know love.
Once I imagined words to be powerful, even magical if spoken with the right knowledge, but that was a lie. There is nothing to be gained from longing for a simple word to create a new reality. And so I shall never breathe again.
Ah, but fate is a capricious master. There are hands upon my shoulders, shaking me, and that same voice calling out to me; and something presses against my lips that can only be that which I have forced myself to forget the memory of.
'Breathe, my love... I beg of you...'
The darkness is not what I thought it was.
A gentler rocking gradually replaces the shaking and I feel the wind once more. Fingertips are tracing my hollow cheek and I wish I had the power to smile. This, too, I know.
"I told you they would come."
Aye, you did.
I let this revelation wash over me in endless waves, not caring how this has come to be. I remember the healer standing ashen-faced in the shadows building around my bed, and I remember my children's kisses, left upon my brow, sinking into my skin and bringing tears to my eyes. I lay drenched in those shadows for a long time. Maybe Arwen came to me then, whispered your words, and renewed her promise.
Like then, I now drift. There is no more pain and my lungs are easily filled with fresh air. Your hand is resting upon my chest, over my heart, and I know that it is safe in your keeping.
How you could love me, I never saw. You who were perfection – though you have always disputed that – would find only faults in a human, I argued. I no more wish to argue. You will be what you have always been, and I am too old to waste anymore time. As weariness slips away I become aware of your solid body, stretched out against my own, and I find that your fingers are twined in my silvery hair.
"I love you."
Have told you so before?
When I open my eyes it is not dusk but nearing dawn. The gentle breeze is filling the sails high above us and though the light is feeble, I can make out the mast towering towards the sky. You have curled around me and we are both buried under many layers of blankets. Your face is hidden in the crook of my neck and when I lift my hand to caress your cheek I see it as it once was: strong and calloused.
My heartbeat picks up as you slowly lift your head and I meet your gaze. I know your face, I will know it beyond death, and I will love it for eternity. You too have aged, but with grace and only a little; but it is not the years that have weighed heavily upon your shoulders but solitude.
We meet halfway in a kiss that should have been one of many. Now it is you who do not breathe. I taste the traces of tears upon your lips and feel you tremble against me. Chosen for death I was, but I will not go if I am offered life. I hold you close; my arms that could not support me lock you in an embrace you could not escape even if you so desired. But you seek out my cheek with your lips, and my neck and your hands grow bold and desperate. Those, not even Kings, who are to leave for the halls of their forefathers have no need of much clothing and you tear at my simple garments, craving that sweet heat of my youth and our carefree days long past.
We make love as the night gives way to a day I never thought I would see. When my eyes fly open as your hand coaxes my seed to spill all over it, I see that you are crying still, but your smile is as glorious as the dawn itself. A while later, as you lie shaking in my arms, the first burst of gold in the sky take refuge in the white sails above. I look at my hands in your hair. I am not young, but a blessing and a promise has stripped the veil of old age from them.
Gently, I tilt your head back a little but the same gift has not been bestowed upon you. There are fine lines around your eyes and my own eyes may be deceiving me, but in your flaxen hair there is a shimmer of silver. Yet you are as beautiful as the day I first saw you and came to love you.
Loving you has been painful, though I know not who suffered the most. Loving you I must, for no man can live without a heart and I gave you mine before I knew what such a gift entailed.
The tides of time carry us all to our end eventually, but as we watch the Sun rise and wait for the first flash of white shores in the distance, I know that my road goes ever on.