A Tale in Four Parts
Part One: When Winter First Begins To Bite
The coronation came first, Estel had insisted, taking place in the House of Kings with only a few trusted advisors and their daughters as witnesses. Estel, Elessar, Aragorn, her beloved sat on the white marble slab that would be his final resting place. Embodied in the winged crown of Gondor and the scepter of Arnor, Aragorn transferred the rule of the kingdom to his only son and heir, Eldarion. The glow of a father's pride in his son erased the lines of age, if only for a moment.
Later there would be a grand feast to pay homage to the late King and tribute to the new. The cooks kept the ovens roaring from dawn until dusk for the better part of a week. But now, there was only a loving father giving soft words of encouragement to his son before the final good-bye. Then that too was said and the King of Gondor and Arnor went to meet his people, followed by the advisors who now answered to him.
A kiss and a word for each and then the daughters also made their way from the ancient tombs.
Dimly, the couple heard the joyous shouts of praise and greeting. How appropriate, a new King crowned at the beginning of a new season. Life was renewed all around. However, for the widow-to-be, spring had come and gone and she began to feel the chill bite of winter in her heart.
Silence reigned. With a sigh, Aragorn lay back on the cold, unyielding stone. Arwen stood at his side, as she had for the last six score years since he attained the throne: Elessar, of the house of Telcontar , the last King of the Elder Days. So long had been his reign that there were now none left in the city that remembered the rule of the Stewards. None left that had seen the Battle of the Pelennor or the Battle at the Black Gate. The youngest infant who cried at the shriek of the Nazgul laid dead and buried for over forty long years.
Yet for Arwen Undomiel, the time allotted them was still not enough and, despite her vow, she could not help but ask her beloved for a little more.
She embraced the sound of his voice even as she shrank from his words.
"The grace given to you as a daughter of Elrond, you returned to cleave to a mortal man. A choice you made freely. Do you regret that?" Aragorn traced the line of her cheek with a trembling finger, his strength leaving him.
"That would mean to regret you, my son, my daughters. A joy that I would never have known in Valinor, no matter how many ages should pass. I could not have lived with a memory and a dream." Arwen kissed the palm of his hand and then set it to rest atop the other hand on his breast. Better not to cling for too long lest the temptation to never let go be given into. "Still I cannot deny the joy is now bittersweet."
As they spoke together, she steeled herself for what she knew must come. They could not go back nor could they renounce the choices they made. Both must abide by the Doom of Men. And yet she could not help but cry his name as he kissed her hand one last time before falling into sleep. Arwen forced back her tears and continued her vigil. She would not leave his side until the end.
Though they resting in eternal sleep under detailed graven images, Arwen felt the spirits of the Kings of old joining her watch. They pressed around her, a faint mist, and a shredded bit of smoke in the haze of the failing light. Arwen sensed their eager to welcome the one who had restored Gondor to a glory greater than she had ever known and reunited her with Arnor.
Strange, Arwen thought when she glanced back up the long hall. The lamps were lit. She had no recollection of the Keeper coming in to light them so that she would not have to stumble in the dark. A kind deed, unnecessary, but kind.
Lamps meant night. Her vigil would soon end.
The space between his breaths grew longer and longer until finally, he breathed no more.
"There will be nothing for you, only death. Yet not yours. You will not die until you have lost all that you gained."
The words of her father echoed in her head, drowning out her voice when she called for the attendants and gave her last order as Queen. The beds of the Periannath, Meriadoc and Peregrin, were to be brought and placed on either side of the King's. Even in death they were to be in his charge. Only Legolas and Gimli remained of the original Fellowship that was formed at her father's home in Imladris.
And what of her elven kin? Arwen had lost Elrond when he went into the West. Celeborn had abided in the Last Homely House for a short time until the former King of the Golden Wood sailed from the Havens to join his wife. Rivendell, Imladris, the Last Homely House East of the Sea was no more. Lothlorien, the Golden Wood, was no more. The Havens lay empty and no ship had sailed west in many a year.
Now her heart and life resembled the old strongholds of Elvendom, empty and bereft. A lamp with the light snuffed out. A cold winter's night with a sliver of moon that gave no light, dark and frozen.
It was time. Nothing remained for her here.
Part Two: Stones Crack in the Frosty Night
Night had indeed fallen, confirming the Keeper's decision to light the lamps. With slow, heavy steps she crossed the arch of granite that connected the land of the dead with the land of the living.
And Minas Tirith was very much alive. Sounds of celebration and rejoicing were created by voice, flute and lyre. The melody started softly, pianissimo, in the First Circle and began to crescendo with each Circle until a double forte had been reached by the Seventh. The sound was almost deafening. The joy was almost too much to bear. At least the stout oak door of her private chamber muted it somewhat.
A single candle was all the light she needed for her task. A few minutes to gather the little she required and she would be ready. Her hand trembled a bit as she fastened the clasp of the coarse woolen cloak. An item she had purchased from a nondescript shopkeeper in the Third Circle. The poor man, she could see the question in his eyes. What on earth did his Queen want with a garment that was obviously ill suited to her station? A gracious smile was the answer to his guess that it was for handmaiden or perhaps a scullery maid who could not afford a new one for the winter.
Arwen knelt and pulled from beneath the bed a small wooden chest. Had only a few days past since she had placed it there? Or had a lifetime come and gone since she closed the lid? And did it really matter? She supposed not since time no longer held any meaning for her. There was only one truth that ruled her life now. Estel was dead . . . and she was not.
As she became aware of an insistent knocking at the door, Arwen wondered if the person on the other side had been there long.
A frown creased her brow and a grimace twisted her lips at the effort required to stand, especially since the original kneeling had been much easier. Another question of time. How long had she been in this position? Long enough for the chill of the stone floor to seep into her legs, making them awkward and stiff. A sound somewhere between a crack and a pop startled her until she realized the source, her knees.
Truly she had entered the winter phase of her life. Like stones riven and cracked by the freezing night, she, too, was beginning to show the effects of the season. In her ice encased heart and the body that was failing her.
"Lose all that you have gained."
It had begun. First her Estel, and now this. Would the decaying of her physical self be swift or slow?
Her name, spoken as a question, caught Arwen's attention once more. Her youngest daughter stood, hesitant, in the doorway with an odd, worried expression on her face.
And why not , Arwen thought, she finds me kneeling on the floor and though I asked her in, I've not said a word to her.
"Mother, please say something."
The daughter's hands caught her own up. The heat of the living flesh scorched Arwen's and she glanced down. Surely this would only accelerate the decomposition of skin and sinew until nothing but bone was left. It did not. Instead it threatened to melt her frozen heart and deter Arwen from her purpose. She could not allow it for it was far too late to go back.
Gently Arwen freed herself from her daughter's embrace and returned to the chest. A waterskin and a cloth sack full of lumpy objects appeared and Arwen held them close to her. A shield to protect her from life and the living.
"The time I spoke of has come and I leave tonight." Arwen's voice sounded cold and lifeless in her ears.
Tears welled up in the luminous blue eyes. So much like her own only more so. They had done well to name her Luthien Undomiel for this child possessed the beauty of both her namesakes combined and multiplied. Would Luthien pass this beauty to her own children? Arwen doubted it. This Undomiel would be the last: the final Evenstar of a new people in a new age; the last of mortal blood to be blessed with the light of the Elves.
"Will you at least tell us good-bye?"
Arwen dipped her chin once. "The small parlor. you know which; gather them there but quickly."
Arwen watched Luthien vanish from sight. A shiver caught her by surprise and shook her body from head to toe. She slung the strap of the water skin over one shoulder and used the now free hand to draw the cloak tightly around. Somehow she doubted she would ever be warm again.
Taking a deep breath she left the familiar chamber. A final look was not needed. Its rooms were etched into her memory though she would never again see them as a living woman . . . like her children.
Somewhere a stone split asunder from the water frozen in its center, its heart.
Part Three: When Pools Are Black And Trees Are Bare
A raised brow was the only indication that the groom found something amiss in his lady's request. For her part, Arwen was grateful not to have to offer an explanation. The truth was something he did not need to hear; he would learn it soon enough. The whole city would know soon enough.
When the grey was brought around, Arwen nodded her approval. Smoke-n-ashes, as the head groom's son had named her, was a quiet dependable mare. Not one of the best in the King's stable, but far from being a broken down nag. Arwen patted the charcoal colored coat. Smoke-n-ashes was eminently suited for the task ahead.
"Why not take your favorite?"
Arwen felt no need to turn around. She had recognized the near silent footsteps before the familiar voice spoke.
Tying the last knot in the cord on the saddlebag Arwen answered, "My Asfaloth is too well known and I prefer to travel unnoticed."
Legolas laughed softly. "As if Arwen Undomiel could hide the light of her beauty."
Arwen turned so that her elven kin could see the truth with his own eyes.
"That light has dimmed over the years; and with its source removed, it has failed."
In the flickering yellow glow outside the stable, Arwen's eyes resembled black pools set in the frozen landscape of her white skin. In spite of this, Legolas would not let her off that easily.
"Can you not stay for your children and their children?"
Arwen did not answer, at first. It did not escape her attention that Legolas did not ask why she was leaving.
"They understand." She almost smiled. "Or they are kind enough to say they do."
The elf took heart at the minute upward curve of her lip. The light of the Evenstar had faded as the grace of the elves left her yet a natural radiance had remained. Mortal Arwen had become still she shone in a manner no other mortal woman was capable of. Thus when returned from the Hall of the Kings, it was twice painful to see that light had been quenched by an unfathomable grief.
He did not let the ghost of a smile fool him into thinking he had won any kind of victory. The heart of an elf still beat in her breast. She lived for Aragorn and no one else.
"And what of you Legolas? Now that he is gone, what will you do?" The smile disappeared. "And Gimli."
"The elves who heard the call of Valinor have answered. For those who did not, I know not what fate awaits them," he paused. Legolas was not trying to evade her question but a simple answer would not suffice. "I fear they will fade into the shadows until all that is left are legends and stories."
Arwen nodded. "Men have dominion of Middle-earth. As they multiply and spread across the lands, I believe elves will not be the only race to become nothing more than a dream. Dwarves and Halflings will suffer the same fate."
"That is not my desire, nor is it Gimli's." Legolas turned and faced south, to the sea. He took a deep breath and tasted the faint tang of salt in the evening breeze. "I plan to build a ship and sail west. Gimli has agreed to accompany me."
"Do you truly believe you can find the way? And if you do, do you think Gimli will be allowed to join you?"
A happy grin, the first that day, stole over Legolas' face. "The hobbits were granted entrance." The grin slipped a little. "We are the last of the fellowship."
"I had Meriadoc and Peregrin moved to Aragorn's side. It seemed fitting."
"Thank you, my lady. Aragorn had a special place in his heart for Merry and Pippin." He sighed. "For Frodo and Sam as well. It was fitting." Legolas took Arwen's hand. "We are kin and it is in this spirit I offer you a place on my ship."
"Not even your ship can bear me hence; I chose a mortal life." She pulled her hand from his. The warmth of it went straight to her heart and threatened to smash the already broken pieces into dust. "Bitter though it is, I must abide by that choice. It is too late."
"I thought you would say as much, but I had to ask."
"You are kind and have been a good and loyal friend." She kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were cold "The summer sun shone on the love of Aragorn and Arwen. Not even autumn could completely dim its brilliance. But it is winter now, frozen and lifeless without the warmth of our love."
"Where will you go?"
Arwen looked to the north. Her eyes distant as her mind made the journey ahead of her body.
"I would see the mallorn bloom one last time."
Legolas cupped her chin and turned her face towards him. "And if they have gone the way of the elves?" he asked, his voice almost a whisper.
"Then I will have truly lost everything and I will meet my fate all the sooner."
Arwen could not bear the look in Legolas' eyes and pulled away from him.
"Then a darkness shall descend on the world of Men though they will never know the cause."
There was nothing left to be said. Legolas helped her mount the grey.
The ring of metal shoes on cold stone was the only acknowledgement she gave. It was all he expected.
Legolas shook his head sadly; it was time to go south. There was nothing left for him here.
Part Four: 'Tis Evil In The Wild To Fare
Lothlorien, for those who were concerned about such things, was a journey of many days from Minas Tirith. Time was irrelevant to Arwen. She followed the Anduin north, more or less and avoided the small settlements that had sprung up in the new prosperity of the fourth age. It was a handsome legacy for her Estel to leave their son, Eldarion, a flourishing kingdom.
Arwen's passage went unnoticed for the most part. Those who saw her thought she was a wraith of some sort. It was difficult to tell and some rubbed their eyes more than once to be sure. A few even pointed at her with forked fingers to ward themselves against evil spirits from the wild. The woolen cloak should not have had the properties of the ones made by her mother's people yet it did more than shield her from prying eyes. Or maybe it was Arwen's grief that made her seem dim, there but not there.
Truly she cared not. She was single-minded in her goal to reach the woods of Lothlorien.
Time had wrought its changes to the elven realm. Arwen reached point of the Naith were the Anduin accepted the Silverlode's offering. If it were not for the living towers on the hill and the many mallorns spread about its feet, she would have thought herself to be at the River Entwash or the River Limlight. Wrapped in a fog of sorrow she was, but she still remembered crossing the two rivers.
What then was the reason behind the shrinking of the forest of beloved mallorn trees? Arwen had no answer.
At one time there would have been boats to ferry her across the river or border guards that would cast her slim, silver lines of rope to bridge the icy water. Arwen rode upstream to find a place that was shallow enough for her horse to walk, hopefully, or swim, hopefully not, across.
It took another full day to find such a place. The Silverlode, unlike the woods, had not shrunk. And another full day to make her way back to Caras Galadhon.
The Golden Wood was still beautiful where there were still mallorn trees to merit the name. Yet something was missing. The grass, the flowers, the trees used to be vibrant with life. Now the grass was just green and the flowers merely pretty. For every mallorn that blossomed with the yellow flowers that caused the leaves to finally fall, there were two that did not bloom. It seem Lothlorien had lost the same grace that she had given up.
Signs of decay were everywhere in the elven city. There was no need to enter through the Great Gates. The wall that had circled the city had crumbled into heaps of dust that could be ridden over, though not easily. Parts of the circling stair added to the debris that formed where flets had given way to time and the elements.
Amazingly enough, the fountain still bubbled at the base of the great tree and it was here that Arwen made her new home. With water and the lembas she brought, her physical needs would be met for as long as she needed or as long as it took.
One day blended into another and every day she woke with the same question in her heart. Was this the day? And for many months, the answer was no. While waiting for the answer to change, Arwen walked the silent woods and lived in her memories. Yet each morning dawned with the loss of some of these memories. Not of her life with Elrond and Celebrían before Estel, but of her life with him. They were all she had left and she was losing these too.
"Until you have lost all that you gained."
So this was the final price she was to pay for her choice of a mortal life. 'Twas a heavy one indeed, but if it was too late to take that choice back at Estel's deathbed, then it was beyond too late to do so now.
Spring gave way to summer, which in turn bowed to autumn that conceded to winter. The new spring was near but had not yet come. It was a morning that when her breath still hung in the air in visible puffs, proof that Arwen still lived. For the first time in months, restlessness stirred in her heart. Impulsively, without knowing where it came from, Arwen left Caras Galadhon and made her way to Cerin Amroth.
She had not visited this spot since returning to Lothlorien. The thought of this place aggravated her grief instead of assuaging it. Not today. As she climbed the slope, past the scattered clumps of elanor and niphredil, past the ring of bare-branched white trees and into the ring of mallorn, peace settled over Arwen with a comforting embrace.
Here, this was the very spot where she and Estel first plighted their troth. Here is where she chose a mortal life over the immortality of the Eldar. This memory, the only one she still possessed, filled her heart with a joy she thought she had left behind forever.
It was time and her Estel waited for her.
On the first day of spring the mallorn trees dropped their leaves and the wind tossed them into a mound over the body. In time, grass grew and covered her in a mantle of green dotted with yellow and white flowers. Never again, did the mallorn bloom. And in the wild, for good or evil, the heart of elvendom on earth stopped beating.