The Bright Sunset|
Summary: A variant account of an event in the year 120 of the Fourth Age.
It happened one day as Aragorn was walking alone along the long passageway outside the Great Hall of Feasts. There was a sound, out of place, behind him. A faint echo. A footstep. A voice. The bare chord of a distant song. When he turned, he saw only his shadow, stretched long and thin as a scepter, as it would look set against the bright ending of a long day, though he was yet indoors and the setting of the sun was some hours still to come.
He stared, and the echoes grew. The sound of the footsteps felt like his own. The distant voices like something from memory. And the music—the music expanded in the bright hallway, rising up around the long spire of his shadow. A song familiar, as though he’d been listening for it his entire life and only now had discovered instruments wise enough to give it voice.
Aragorn turned at the old name, for it was rare that even Arwen should use it except in the most private moments between them. She was standing outside the doors to the feast, where their family and some from the realm were gathered. Her eyes were knowing and watching him in such a way that he wondered if the strange moment had been the thing to draw her hence.
“Arwen,” he said, as though waking from a dream.
Arwen took a step. “Your family awaits you, my lord. Do you join us?” Her words were gentle and refined, though even through their measured emergence he detected a rare note of sorrow.
Glancing behind him, he stared once more over the polished floor, letting his gaze travel the length of the hall to drift up towards the woven tapestries where he’d seen his shadow stretching. Absent now. All brightness faded to steel.
But the music. The music was in his memory.
Arwen touched his hand. Turning, he reached back, folded her warm fingers into his own and allowed her to draw him forth. As she did, he remembered words his mother had said to him at their last parting. Soft words, half whispered. His mother’s deep eyes drifting to a far off place as she’d voiced them, as though speaking mostly to herself.
The music begins to play for me, my son, as I imagine only some have heard. My Aragorn, I begin to hear the song.
Of a wonder, wise it sounds to me after all.
Under the quiet glitter of the clear night, Aragorn stood near the base of the white tree. Even in starlight the growth was apparent, the strength beautiful. Like his children. His son had become compassionate and discerning. His daughters wise and insightful.
For a space, he stood in gratitude, with his palm over his heart, feeling the life within him echo the life without. It was different now than it had been so long ago. The tree no longer required the resonance of his crowned heartbeat to maintain its own. It was rooted, with a future full of blooms it would sprout and carry without him. He imagined them, season after season, sunrise after sunset, and the corner of his mouth lifted despite himself.
Gripping briefly into fabric of his sternum, he let his hand fall away and drifted, walking slowly towards the low wall bordering the courtyard, intent on the view of his kingdom.
The white city was peacefully quiet, the grace of starlight making it look laced with silver. The Pelennor Fields seemed to reflect the glory, sending a gentle shine back to the sky. All around him, the air was crisp and keen. A clear night that painted the illusion of a horizon drawn closer.
He could see so far.
So very far.
“It is a beautiful sight.”
Aragorn turned his head to see who had joined him so silently and drew a sharp breath. “Elrond?”
The man turned his gaze to meet his. The sharpness there was as profound as his once foster father’s deepest stare, and yet was different. Remarkably different.
Aragorn did not say the name aloud, but the man nodded. This is a dream, Aragorn thought as he took in the familiar face, and knew by the expression he found there that it both was and wasn’t.
In the distance, the starkest notes of music began drifting on the breeze. Notes wise and wonderful. Symphonic, though not building towards crescendo. Descending. Softening.
Aragorn exhaled unhurriedly and steadied his hands on the cool stone in front of him. A dénouement.
“It is a gift, Estel,” Elros said softly. He made a gesture with his arms. A small gesture that nevertheless seemed to encompass everything, even the night sky. “Though bitter is the parting, it is a gift.”
Silent for a span, Aragorn bowed his head. “Arwen?”
“She sees,” said Elros. “As she has seen for some time, though she does not yet wish to.” He put his hands on the wall, like Aragorn, replicating his posture. “The choice is before you. Power enough remains in your bloodline for this, that you may choose your parting.”
“Yet only now have I come to imagine the wisdom of its consideration,” Aragorn mumbled, staring down at the fields, noting the change and new growth that had spread across their expanse since he’d long last done battle upon them. “And here it plays before me. The Doom of Men.”
The crisp air expanded in his lungs and he drew his gaze sideways. “You do not regret it?”
In stillness, Elros turned his entire body away from the fields, lifting his head so that he was facing Mount Mindolluin, facing west, as though to face his absent brother, and all those of the firstborn now departed. Aragorn could not read the expression in his eyes, but his heart tightened abruptly, and with a sudden surge he felt the irrevocable pang of the sundering. He closed his hands into fists and reflexively locked his knuckles to the stone.
If the Doom of Men was not found precisely in death, it was surely to be discovered in fates stretched so far apart.
For the first time, he understood in his bones why the far off point so few could even imagine was so oft referred to as the breaking of the world.
With quickness, Elros tore his eyes away from that elusive distance and gripped his hand to Aragorn’s shoulder, just as Elrond once used to. “It is a gift,” he repeated strongly, drawing Aragorn back from the panged beating in his chest. “Though bitter is the parting, it is a wondrous, joyous gift. One of hope, and worthy of your old name. Estel.”
Rising up on the breeze, the music swelled stronger, invoking a layered collaboration of notes and instruments Aragorn could not find words for. And suddenly, the sensation of brilliant sunlight hit his back, stretching across his shoulders and building until in a stark moment he looked down and saw the gentle outline of his shadow marking his profile in a thin warm line over the land.
As Arwen often maneuvered their bed out to the terrace when she insisted there would be no rain, Aragorn woke staring at the gentle hue of a morning sky. Arwen was next to him, both of them on their backs, elbows pressed together with hands laced above them. The morning air was cool, though her skin was soft and warm against his.
He turned his head to look at her, and found her staring back. There was, on her face, a new expression. Something of a smile and something of sorrow, and yet still more. Something they would not yet speak about. Not as such. But his heart… his heart beat intensely with the music in his vibrant blood and he tried to remember her face from the last day she’d seen her father.
Looking back to the sky, he held her fingers tighter. She returned the gesture, calm and immovable as she’d always been. They were like children, he thought, youths again, young and in love, lying in the grass in Lothlorien. Whispering secrets and hopes, sharing wisdom and counsel, friendship and sacrifice.
“It is a beautiful life we have had, is it not?” she whispered, and he heard the music surge, in barest strains, marking her words with gold and mithril.
Such unfathomable music.
Of a wonder, he echoed his mother in his mind, wise it sounds to me after all.
“Of all the blessings we have experienced in Arda…” he began.
“We have been the best of all.” She rubbed her thumb across his knuckles, slowly, as though memorizing every scar and crease.
One lifetime. One lifetime they’d been given to hold together, and the sun was setting on the day.
She nodded and kissed the top of his hand. For a moment she seemed to hold her breath. “It is still a beautiful life,” she said.
Aragorn closed his eyes to memorize her voice.
If he could make it so, he would stay this time forever. Yet it was the close of his day, and he did not wish to be as the Númenóreans of old, believing they could shun the path of men and seize eternal life by force, beguiled by the folly and ruin of that determination, until the greater shadow fell upon them and became harbinger to their downfall.
He would not shun it. He would be grateful for the gift.
The preparations, such as they were, were quiet. He walked streets, stood upon the fields, and spoke with his children, his family. All while the music played in the distance, as though it had become a part of him. As though it had always been there and he could not imagine why he had not been hearing it all along. It carried him, and called to him, and yet even at its strongest, begged him stay, as though he’d been bidden to wait for just one more thing.
Soon though. Soon.
In the gardens of his home, those once restored to beauty by the elves, his youngest daughter approached him. The wisest of his children, he sometimes believed, or perhaps simply the most considering. He knew what she would ask before she spoke, but allowed her to raise the concern in her own voice before giving his response.
Her eyebrows creased as she contemplated, like Arwen’s, like his own, though there was something of Galadriel that seemed continually to pour over all else in her demeanor. “You are still a strong man,” she said quietly. No censure, only a desire to understand. “You told me once there was no shame in age, nor in weakness of body; that our people were wiser for such things.”
In the dappled sunlight through the trees, he took her hands. This daughter of his. She would live a long life, and grow wiser with her gifts. Eldarion would seek her counsel often.
He nodded carefully before he spoke. “The choice of parting instilled in our bloodline is not given in regard to advancing age, nor in avoiding the feeble hand. It is not given to shun the pain of a living pathway, be those pains in youth or age,” he agreed.
He would endure the blessing of such things in his life should he require the wisdom they would teach, but the song…
He looked up and saw the brief appearance of his shadow cast upon the garden wall. The bright ending, as it should be.
He swallowed as it faded.
…the song hinted at a different doom if he tarried.
He squeezed his daughter’s hands. “We each have a time appointed to us. Our gift, our choice, is to embrace that time, or to rail against it. The bitter downfall of which railing brings only grief. We are trusted with the wisdom to know the difference.”
It was all he could say that she would understand. If the sun was setting, he wanted to walk out with its golden hue upon him, and not tarry in an attempt to stumble through the night. If it were asked of him by the Valar, he would remain for the moonlight, but the song, his song, was dimming in his chest, and the resonance of sound was leading him to the power of his ancestors. As he could choose the time of his going, he would go when they called.
“My lord.” A messenger approached up the garden path. “Legolas of Ithilien, and Gimli the dwarf, have arrived at the gate.”
Aragorn’s heart dipped, and then soared. Though he had not sent for them, they were here. The last of The Fellowship in Arda.
The music changed.
Now. Now he could depart.
Gently, he loosed the warm hold on his daughter’s hands and watched her nod, understanding, almost as though she’d heard it too. Gazing at her face, his heart seized in temporary stillness. He would see her again, he reminded himself. Though long would be her life, the parting would not be long for him. It would not be forever, not for any of them.
He bid farewell to his daughters privately in his own house and then walked to the citadel with Arwen and Eldarion to meet with Gimli and Legolas before Fen Hollen—The Closed Door.
When he got there, Aragorn went before his friends, both of whom were wearing the cloaks of Lothlórien of old, as though in tribute. Gimli had aged, even from the last time Aragorn had seen him, and though Legolas had not, there was a worn and weary appearance about him, ethereal, as though he’d been stretched across worlds. As he neared him, Aragorn noted that the song swirling about the elf was distinct, and as pressed for departure as his own.
Deferentially, he stared at them, crossing his palm over his chest.
Finally, he went to his knee and spoke to Gimli first. “My friend. My dear friend. My brothers.” He gripped Gimli’s shoulder and stared at him, though he swept his glance momentarily to Legolas, then continued with the dwarf as though Legolas was not standing a mere span away. “You will see his way to Aman?” he asked. “I wish I could ask him to stay, for Arwen, or Eldarion, but his fëa can take no more of this world. This I can see. His promise to those of us in Arda is more than fulfilled.”
Roughly, Gimli cleared his throat. “I will see him there, and him me, as he has told me.” He nodded then, as though he’d been asked another question, and focused himself towards Aragorn’s gaze, eyes heavy with sadness. “He has been building a ship, years now, tuning it to finery in those times when the song seized him strongest.”
Aragorn wondered, glancing up to catch Legolas’s eyes with his. The music drifting constantly about him surged as they maintained a hard and reverent look between them.
“In the last weeks,” Gimli continued, “his work has grown to fever pitch. Then recently, with abruptness his gaze turned towards Minas Tirith, as though he knew…” Gimli’s voice dropped lower, growing gruffer. “As though he knew.”
Remaining on his knee, Aragorn contemplated. The Fellowship. This Fellowship. In no other situation would the dwarf have allowed it, but Aragorn did not care. He closed the hold he had clasped over the dwarf’s shoulder and drew him forward to kiss the top his forehead, feeling such a strong flood of affection that the simple gesture could only account for a portion of it.
Then, quickly, he rose and pulled Legolas into his grip, hugging him as he would hug Eldarion, with a hand to the back of his head, hard and crushing, as pretense and decorum fell away, heart beating fast in fierce gratitude and sudden desperate sorrow as he cleaved to the sensation of their end. That he would remember every bit of him. That they would remember this moment of their affection, and how they’d kept faith with one another.
A long divide this one would be.
Minutely, briefly, Legolas trembled.
For the second time, Aragorn’s heart nearly faltered.
It is a gift, he heard Elros say again. Though bitter is the parting. It is a wondrous, joyous gift.
The echo of music, of symphonic harmonies, grew keener in the air, and he felt the brightness of the otherworldly sun turning gold against his shoulders. Finally, he stepped back. He kept one hand threaded to the elf’s shoulder and returned the other to Gimli’s. The Three Hunters, as once they were.
Legolas’s eyes were dark and watery, while Gimli’s held to a stoic sadness.
This we will remember, thought Aragorn. This moment. Wherever we go to in our next journeys. This we will remember, and hold…
Until the breaking of the world.
At once, Legolas tightened his fingers over his shoulder, warmly, fiercely, then with a deep and visible breath, let him go.
The music became both softer and sharper, grander still, and the way the elf tilted his head, it could almost seem to Aragorn that he heard it too.
With an even stance, he turned next to his son.
Eldarion grasped his arm. “My king and father,” he whispered, steady and solid for the crown that would sit upon his head. Then he closed his lips together and stopped. “Ada. Ada,” he said next. His eyes watered, blurring in Aragorn’s vision.
For him, Aragorn gave both embrace and kiss, pressing his hand tightly over Eldarion’s hair, as he had so often done when he was a boy. “My son. My king,” he replied, speaking into his ear. Gripping the sides of his neck, holding his face, Aragorn leaned back and stared confidently. Eldarion met his eyes and held the gaze fast. There were too many words and not enough of them all at once. After a space, his son nodded. Aragorn kissed his brow one last time, and released him.
The Closed Door opened.
Taking his wife’s hand, he walked the Silent Street to the House of the Kings.
Taking position on the long bed prepared for him, Aragorn kissed Arwen warmly, then pressed back as she drew close and took his hand in hers. She brought their clasped fists near her lips, till she could kiss his knuckle, then folded them, still grasped together, over her heart, where he could feel the music of its beat, and know her grace, once given for him, would go with him into that dimming sun.
The grief was upon her, and he could see it all. “Could you not tarry, my lord?” she asked, though the answer was long known to her.
The third faltering of his heart. But the bright sunset was steady now, and his shadow was as it should be, cast in simplicity across the long space and haloed in gold relief against the wall.
It is a gift, he reminded himself, then said it aloud. “My Lady Undómiel, our time has been much blessed, and though it is a bitter thing, I must honor the gift. The silhouette I leave behind marks my memory and the close of my day. I go, lest I linger and my shadow become something it shouldn’t. I go lest it grow dark and overbearing because I could not pass this last test. Such is the folly that led to the fall of my ancestors, and later even to those who pursued the false power of the ring, believing they could hold a power and gift to themselves when it should have been returned. I wish to pass the test, Arwen.” He took a breath, like breathing with the song, and said softly, “I will pass the test.”
“Once, I pitied your ancestors for their pride in trying to seize the Undying Lands. Now.... I understand them now.”
Watching her face, lit with the gold light only he could see, Aragorn breathed in once more. “Those lands need not be lost to you. There is a choice before you also. Legolas has built a ship.”
“Nay, my lord. There is no ship that could bear me hence. My grace goes with you. The Doom of Men is mine. I will bear the loss and the silence.”
He nodded steadily. “Arwen,” he said. “We are not bound forever to the circles of this world, and beyond them is more than memory. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Not in despair. It is a fine farewell.”
He tightened again their hands. His heart, he felt was slowing, as though time itself was stretching thinner. I go to the house of my fathers, he thought, listening to the music descend, seeping in through his bones and swelling into his sternum. I go to the house of my mothers. It was nearly a chant, gripping at his heart. They will greet me in the halls of the setting sun, and there be glad.
“Estel, Estel,” he heard Arwen cry. And with that, the last sensation of her skin on his fingers dulled away. He sang in a final lovely breath, set his heart to peace, and closed his eyes completely, walking into the sunset, and letting the gold in his mind dim into night.
Note One: Though this is clearly AU (ish), some portions of the last conversation between Arwen and Aragorn are taken directly from Tolkien’s Appendix A.
Note Two: Though perhaps not the most appropriate song in regard to its purported meaning, nevertheless this story came to me and insisted it be written while I was listening to Bon Iver’s Holocene on repeat.