The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 78: A Life for a Life

In Rivendell the summer twilight seemed to last until the following dawn. Stars like silver dust covered the deep blue of the sky and lights twinkled in the woods and along the terraces and pathways that wound away into the mountains.

At midsummer, it was the custom of Elrond Half-Elven to hold a great feast, and invite all the great Elf-lords to attend. Now, with all roads dangerous and the power of the Enemy ever threatening to break through from the East, fewer and fewer of the Elven nobility risked the long journey to the Last Homely House before the West.

After the great feast had ended, those Elves who had attended walked with Elrond along the winding paths beside the famed waterfalls of Rivendell, their long blue and red and silver robes shining with myriads of tiny diamonds and pearls sewn into the silken material. Laughter echoed through the trees and the soft strains of a harp mingled with the noise of the falling water. Under the pines the air was sweet with jasmine and honeysuckle and the warm smell of summer grass. Deep in the woods the music and voices could be heard by the Elven sentries, seated with their bows at the ready, their green-grey jerkins indistinguishable from the bark of the beech and oak and ash trees among which they were concealed.

For even at this glittering feast, Elrond had ever to look to the defence of his realm. As he walked and spoke with his guests, a gesture of his right hand sent a flash of blue fire from his finger; it came from Vilya, greatest of the Elven rings, with which he sustained and protected Imladris, the realm of fountain and forest.

Although those accounted great among the Fair Folk were fewer this year, still they were a magnificent assembly, and their entourages strolled together in the wake of the Lord of Rivendell. Ahead, however, Elrond walked with Gildor, and his head was bowed and his face stern. He hardly uttered a word but merely listened to the other Elf-lord, who spoke at length....

Behind Elrond, far enough so as not to intrude on her father's conversation, walked his daughter, Arwen. She was alone, her Elven attendants following her at some distance, and the other lords not venturing to speak to her. So it was that under the stars which she rivalled in beauty, Arwen walked without companion, her face cast down, deep in thought. A long train of deepest blue, embroidered with tiny river-pearls, flowed behind her, and on her brow was a mithril circlet. Her long dark hair gleamed like jet and her white hands were clasped tightly together as she walked.

Suddenly she looked aside into the forest, and drew her breath in sharply. Gathering up her train, she glanced back at the other Elves, who were deep in talk. Stepping quickly, she left the white stone path and ducked into the trees....

'Aragorn, what are you doing here? Have you not spoken to my father?'

Standing in the deep shadow of a great yew tree stood a quite different figure from the lordly and resplendent Elves who walked with Elrond. This was a man, taller than most Elves, lean and hardy and weatherbeaten from campaigning in the wilds in sun and snow. When he saw Arwen come towards him he went at once to meet her, raising a hand, calloused from the sword, as if to ask her not to give his presence away.

So Arwen stood while the Elves passed on down to the terraces of Rivendell and the Hall of Fire, ablaze with lights. When they were out of earshot, she said again;
'Why did you not speak to my father?'

Aragorn was gazing at the Elves ascending the steps to enter thr Hall. Arwen scanned his face impatiently. Aragorn had put aside his worn leather coat and tunic, and his scuffed boots and sword belt. He was wearing a velvet tunic of silver grey embroidered with silver thread. The needlework was her own, and she put a hand on the fabric, then raised it to caress the man's face.
'My lord, what ails you?'

Aragorn took her white hand between his own calloused palms and kissed it. He smiled.
'Arwen, I did not think your father wished to speak with me, not at this time, and in such royal Elven company...'

Arwen shook her head, but said nothing. Aragorn noticed that her eyes in the shadows were deep as a winter sky at midnight, but there was still a star in that sky....

'Your father frowns to see us together, Arwen. I am not mistaken...'
Arwen put a finger on his lips to silence him.
'Even Elrond Lord of Rivendell, bearer of the greatest of the Elven rings, cannot alter what has been decreed by fate; that I should love you, and that you should love me, and for all time our fates entwine. Like Beren and Luthien, we cannot be parted...'

Aragorn said nothing, just gazed at Arwen's pale, beautiful face. Even in the depths of battle he could never leave this vision behind. Arwen was right; but how could he take such beauty away from Rivendell, when his life was so fraught with danger and death?
'My father will understand' said Arwen. Aragorn shook his head and pointed to the doorway of the Hall of Fire. Elrond was just then entering, still deep in conversation with Gildor.
'Do you know what they are talking about?' Arwen shook her head.
'Gildor has announced to your father that he intends to go to the Grey Havens at summer's end. To leave Middle Earth, and return to Valinor...'

Arwen involuntarily looked down at the door of the Hall, to where Gildor, clad in a long silver robe and blue cloak, was entering slightly in advance of her father, as befitted the guest of honour. She spoke softly;
'Gildor's ties to Middle Earth are slender, Aragorn. My father has all this...'
And Arwen gestured to the summer woods, and the sky full of stars, and the tumbling waterfalls.
'...Lord Elrond will never leave Rivendell.'
'He will leave it if the Enemy threatens to take it...' said Aragorn. Arwen faced him and her eyes flashed with momentary anger;
'We are not afraid of Sauron!'

Aragorn put a hand on her arm, and caressed the fine material almost absent-mindedly.
'I know, Arwen, my light of the evening. I did not mean to say he is afraid, not for himself. But for you....'
Aragorn gazed at Arwen with longing and sadness.
'Your father will want to take you with him to the West, to safety. He will want to leave, for your sake, when he deems the time is right ...'

Arwen smiled then.
'I will never leave Rivendell...' she said. 'except to be your bride. When your time has come......'

Aragorn did not know why he remembered that night under the starsof Rivendell now, on the field of battle. The westering sun slanted fiercely in his eyes, and his sword arm ached; all day he had hacked and slashed, and now even he was weary. He wanted to rest, to find an end to slaughter. Was this really the path that would lead him to his destiny? Would this lead him to Arwen?

He became aware of someone looking at him, and turned to Callanach, still standing beside him.
'Why did you desert the service of King Théoden?' he asked the boy. Callanach straightened up and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. Aragorn might be the Dunedain and his lord, but this matter had to be put right...
'My Lord Aragorn, I did not desert; King Théoden is dead, and my oath is cancelled. I have no debt to King Eomer, and he has released me from his service. All I want to do now is serve you, my lord. King of Arnor and Gondor...'

Aragorn said nothing for a while. To be greeted with his titles on a field of death by a raw, skinny boy in Elven armour was a strange herald of kingship; but Aragorn suddenly realised it was fitting. He looked towards Minas Tirith and saw the Army of the Dead swarming into the city, overwhelming the enemy that thronged the lower levels. Even from this distance, he could hear the cries of the enemy. Through fire and death, he thought, I come to claim what is mine; the evening star in all its brightness....

Aragorn smiled at Callanach and said;
'You shall be one of my Rangers once again, as you were of old, and your father Feolchú before you...' Callanach's face brightened at once. Then Aragorn asked, pointing with his sword at Marfach, lying in the dust at his feet;
'What about this?'

Callanach looked down at his friend; he might lose his new-found favour with Aragorn if he took Marfach's side. But he could not desert one who was his friend, whatever he had done...just then Marfach opened one eye, and a crooked smile twisted his face.
'Remember, Dúnedain, how I saved the life of one of your knights, in the Black Hollow. I claim payment for that now, a life for a life...'

Aragorn remembered indeed. He knit his brows.
'Why..' he asked '...did you not claim this pardon when you were brought before King Théoden and me after Helm's Deep? Why did you wait till now?'

Marfach closed his eyes again, and for a moment Aragorn thought he was dead. Then he said in a whisper;

'I like to keep something in reserve....'