Summary: Aragorn is in grave danger, and only Arwen can save him, or so she most desperately hopes.
Rating: PG. References to war and injury, but nothing remotely graphic
Word count: 3730
Arwen was sewing when it happened, crafting golden flowers on a silver tree.
Her needle jerked, jabbing into her thumb. In that moment, it seemed to her as if all light fled from the room, and a fist grabbed her heart and squeezed it tight. She felt cold. She could not breathe. All was empty, empty and alone.
"My lady?" said a voice from far away. She blinked. It was an effort, as if even her eyelids had turned to ice.
She blinked again. The light came back, but it seemed unreal, like bright candlelight that tries but fails to drive away the dark. The sky was a pale painted blue. Birds sang in the trees outside her bower window. Humming in the background came the sound of marching footsteps and music and quiet conversation: the sounds of Minas Tirith at rest. Nothing had changed.
Everything had changed.
Blood welled up from her thumb, staining the embroidery she had worked on for so many months, sewing it late into the night, because she had to do something, anything, to help her endure the endless time of waiting.
"My lady?" The voice spoke again: the sound of a chair scraping on stone; footsteps padding on the rug; hands reaching for her. "The Queen is unwell!"
"No." She managed to shake her head; managed to speak without weeping. Her face, she knew, was as pale as the linen she was working on. "No, I am not. I…"
She was Queen. She was of the line of Lúthien. She…
She could not find the strength to speak without weeping.
Estel! her heart cried, as blood from her thumb stained the remembered trees of Cerin Amroth.
"Are you sure?" asked the Steward of Gondor.
An hour had passed. Arwen had spent a while in the solitude of her chamber, her face pressed into her hands. She had wept, but not for long. Now the tears were scoured away, and her head was high.
"I am sure," Arwen told him.
"But…" Faramir protested. "Perhaps it was…"
"A dream?" she finished for him. "For half a year my husband has been away from Minas Tirith, leading the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the East. I have dreamed a hundred deaths for him. I have lain awake in the dark watches of the night, picturing the dangers he might face on the morrow. You have done the same, I know."
Faramir turned his face away.
"But they were just a painting of my fears," she said. "This… This is different. For nearly forty years, I watched over him from afar as he faced great dangers. I could not see him clearly. I lost sight of him, sometimes, for a year at a time, or even more. But when he was in great need or great pain, I knew. I knew."
Faramir had walked to the window. His hand gripped the stone frame, his knuckles white. "I knew, too." His voice was choked. "When Boromir was fighting for his life, I knew. I heard his horn. I… did nothing."
"There was nothing you could do," Arwen said gently.
"But the King…?" Faramir turned back to her, although his hand still gripped the window. "It is not too late?"
Too late, too late! her heart had cried, in that first burst of grief and loss. She shook her head, the muscles of her neck taut with control. "I sense that he is close to death, but still alive. If I can get to him soon…"
"I will go with you," Faramir declared, then recollected himself. "My Queen," he added.
She managed a smile, reassuring him that she forgave and understood his interruption. She was Queen, but he was the Steward of Gondor, ruling in the absence of the King. He had as much right to command her and he had to obey her commands.
"No," she told him. Her eyes still hurt, but the tears were gone, at least for now. "The Steward stays behind to rule when the King is absent. Your duty is here."
Faramir's eyes were glistening. He turned away again, and she saw his hand rise to his face. "My duty…" He took a deep breath, in and out, his shoulders heaving with the force of it. His hand fell to his side, resting perhaps unconsciously on the hilt of his sword. "If my King is in danger, it is my duty to be by his side."
And this, she knew, was the painting of his fears. This was what had haunted his dreams ever since Aragorn had ridden to war, and Faramir, like Arwen, had been left behind.
"It is your duty to stay here," Arwen said gently, "as your King charged you. But I…" The fear, the darkness, had not gone. It still roiled inside her, and threatened at times to spill over. It did so now, just for a moment, making her voice crack. "I think I can save him. If I ride fast. If I leave now."
He looked at her, and let out a breath, hope kindling in his eyes. He thought that she spoke with the foresight of the elves.
She hoped he was right.
She slept little, and when she slept, she dreamed.
Sometimes she thought she heard Aragorn crying out for her, but it did not have the ring of true-seeing, or not quite. It was just imagination, she thought. She was mortal now, prey to all the fears that had always plagued mortal Men, who could not see beyond the limits of their here and now.
But he was still alive. The knowledge of his continued existence blazed inside her heart like the jewel that he wore. It sustained her as she rode through the rain. It nourished her as she settled down at night, as she gazed down at food she could not bring herself to eat.
Once she woke to a desperate, piercing absence where Aragorn had been. She opened her mouth in a silent scream, and then started awake, and this time to waking was real. His death had been a dream, she told herself. His death was a dream. His death was a dream. She pressed her hand to her pounding heart. Her pillow was wet with the tears she had shed in her sleep.
He was still alive, she told herself. She had chosen a mortal life, but she was of the line of Lúthien, and blood could not be denied. This gift at least remained to her. She knew.
"I know," she whispered. Even when whispering, her voice cracked on unshed tears.
On, they rode; ever onward. Faramir had given her an escort of a dozen guards on swift horses. They rode the couriers' route, changing horses at the posting stables, and stopping only for the hours of darkness, setting out again as soon as it was dawn.
Arwen did not travel openly as the Queen, although her escort knew who she was. She wore a cloak and a hood, and sat astride her horse, like a man. Light armour covered her breast and her back, a gift from Éowyn upon leaving. Éowyn had squeezed her hand fervently, wishing her well. "I hope..." she had started to say, but the words had trailed away.
"So do I," Arwen had replied. She had looked back just once after riding away, and seen the two of them, Faramir and Éowyn, standing shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, watching her go. They had continued to watch her for a very long time, she thought.
They passed the bounds of Gondor. The posting stables turned into armed outposts, some of them bearing the scars of war. Arwen kept her hood down, and said nothing, but the captain of her escort asked for news from the front lines. The King had been everywhere victorious, he was told. The tattered alliance of orcs and Easterlings and rebel Haradrim had been defeated in three great battles, and...
"We know," said her escort, with a quick glance in her direction. "That news has long since come to Minas Tirith. Have there been any more recent tidings? Any...?" Another quick glance at Arwen. She shook her head slightly. "Problems?" he finished.
"I don't know about problems," came the reply. "Everywhere the King goes, he brings victory. Mind you..." The soldier shaded his eyes. "Here comes a courier in the usual cloud of dust. He'll know more. Not that he'll stop and tell us. They change their horses, and whizz on through, carrying letters between the King and the Steward."
Arwen stepped forward, her step loud on the stable yard floor. The captain turned towards her, and understood her unspoken command. "Leave us," he commanded the soldier. "He will talk to us."
Arwen's hands were trembling beneath the cover of her cloak. He is still alive, she told herself, but how many mortal widows had told themselves the same thing?
It had happened three days before, two hours before sunset.
I know, Arwen thought. Blood on her embroidery. A room that turned as dark as night. Two hours before sunset on a summer's day in Minas Tirith. It was a comfort, in a way, to know that she had been right to fear for his life. If she was right in that, she was right in this, her continuing certainty that he was still alive.
The last of the enemy armies was routed, and Éomer had taken out his Riders to round up those who had fled. Trumpets had sounded, and the armies of Gondor had regrouped, to stand ready and watchful, catching their breath where they stood. Aragorn had been surrounded by his captains, giving orders, when...
"It was an arrow, my lady," the courier said. "The straps of his armour had been damaged during the battle, and there was a gap..."
Her hand rose unwittingly, pressing itself against her chest, high on the right. The courier gestured to the same place, patting his chest with two fingers.
"He didn't fall," the courier said. "He snapped off the shaft and stayed on his horse until the rout was complete. I... don't know what happened next, my lady; I was busy carrying messages between the captains. But then, the following morning, when I went to the King's tent to receive his dispatches, they wouldn't let me in. Instead, Lord Legolas came out and gave me letters, one for the Lord Steward, and one for you." He pulled a rolled letter from his pouch, and belatedly remembered ceremony, going down on one knee to present it to her.
She took it. She even managed to keep her hands from trembling as she unrolled it. She already knew what the message would be; knew it even without reading it.
Come quickly. Aragorn needs you.
Was it better or worse now that she knew that her fears were founded?
Better, she thought, because at least now she knew that Aragorn was in the hands of friends who would tend to him. He was not lost. He was not a prisoner. He was still alive. She could still sense him; still feel him cherished in her heart. She had renounced her immortality, but this gift still remained. This was not the desperate hope of a blind mortal. This was truth.
He was alive, but...
She leant over her horse's neck, as if she could urge it to grow wings and fly. He was alive, but he was fading. Her awareness of him was flickering, sometimes strong, but sometimes, and ever more often, dwindling to a fragile spark.
Come quickly, she thought. Legolas' words had been more gentle, but the truth of his meaning had been evident in the haste of his script. Come quickly, and hope that you are not too late.
They were challenged as they approached the camp. The captain of her escort showed Faramir's token, and asked to speak to Lord Legolas.
Legolas was there almost before the captain had finished speaking. "I sensed..." His eyes rested on her cloaked figure, and nodded with understanding. He said what was necessary, and got them in without revealing her identity.
"He is still alive," he told her, as soon as they were alone.
"I know." She wanted to cry, now. Except in her dreams, she had not wept since Minas Tirith.
"Of course you do." Legolas looked deeply weary, she thought. "And you set out as soon as it happened. Of course you did." He passed a hand over his face. "We thought little of it at first. We knew he had been hit, but we thought it just a glancing blow by a chance arrow loosed by a routed enemy. But later..."
Arwen breathed in, and out again. "Tell me," she said.
"The wound would not stop bleeding at first," Legolas said. "We stopped it eventually, but then..."
He trailed away again. Arwen had never seen him so troubled. She pushed everything down inside, and kept her head high. "Tell me," she commanded.
"There is little fever," Legolas said. "The wound is healing, and does not rot.. He is lucid at times, sometimes for hours at a time, but he drifts ever further from us, lost in dark dreams. It was black arrow, long and strange. We found no other such arrows on the battle field. We now believe it was an assassination attempt: one last arrow imbued with the dark magics of Mordor, shot by a master bowman in the very hour of Aragorn's victory."
Arwen closed her eyes, just for a moment. They were walking ever nearer to Aragorn's tent. Although she was so near to him, her awareness of him had never been less. She fought the urge to break into a run.
"The men have not been told how serious it is," Legolas said. "I am no healer. Your brothers are scouting far ahead of the lines, and we can get no message to them. The army healers wring their hands. Only King Elessar can heal a wound such as this, they say."
"But I, too, am of the line of Lúthien," Arwen said.
"Yes," Legolas agreed, as he raised the tent flap and let her in.
Her first, fierce thought was that the danger was over.
He did not look unwell. His hair had been combed, and there was no dampness on his skin. His eyes were open, gleaming in the lantern light. He was propped up on pillows, nearer to sitting than to lying down. She had often seen him like that in the morning, still in the bed beside her, but awake and reading reports.
She took a step towards him, and then another. "Arwen," he said.
She smiled, but it was a tremulous smile, and it was too late now to stop the tears. "Estel," she breathed.
"Arwen," he said again. His eyes were moving from side to side, desperately searching for something.
He was lucid at times, Legolas had said. Of course he was. He had an iron will, and would drag himself out of the grip of even the darkest magics of Mordor. It was not for him to sink into the quietness of unconsciousness. He had stayed in the saddle for several hours after being hit.
Another step. "Arwen." His eyes passed over her without seeing her. He was lucid at times, Legolas had said, but afterwards he always slipped away.
"I am here," she whispered.
There was an army healer at his bedside, his eyes ringed with shadows. "My lady," he said, his voice cracked with despair. "I can't... I'm so sorry..."
He thought she had been summoned here to say her last goodbye.
Perhaps she had, and all the rest...? Perhaps that was just hope.
Alone, she sat beside him deep into the night. She called to him using athelas, and although it helped a little, it did not bring him back. She was not the King, merely the Queen, and she had surrendered her immortality and the gifts that came with it.
She did not sleep, but sometimes she was close to dreaming. If she had not chosen to become mortal, would she have the power to save him? Could Arwen Undómiel, the immortal daughter of Elrond, have saved the dying King of Gondor?
In her waking dreams, she walked beneath the trees of Cerin Amroth, where she had met Aragorn so long ago, and fallen in love with him. She imagined herself turning away. She imagined herself running, far far away, far enough away to keep from meeting him. She would make a different choice. She would save him.
Tears fell onto their clasped hands. "I... cannot," she whispered. She brought them to her face, pressing his hand against her cheek. His hand was close. There had always been such strength in it.
She sank forward. His eyes were still open, seeing things that she could not see. She climbed onto the bed beside him, and lay down, her arms wrapped around his body, and her face pressed against his neck.
She closed her eyes, and once more she was under the trees of Cerin Amroth, and this time she was not alone.
He was not clad in white, not this time. He looked younger even than he had been then, dressed in the weather-worn clothes of a Ranger who had endured much hardship without hope. But his eyes... No, his eyes were not young.
"Estel!" Beneath the trees of Cerin Amroth, she called his name.
"No." He raised his hand in negation, as if pushing her away. "Run."
She shook her head, opening her arms to him. "Please..."
"Run," he rasped. "Run far away, far enough away to keep from meeting me. Make another choice. Save yourself."
It was her own thoughts turned back on her; the very same words. Of course it was, she told herself, because this was a dream, because she was mortal now, and dreams were all she had left to her. She...
She stopped. Save yourself, he had said. Those words had not come from her. She could still feel his body against hers, faint and far away. This was real. In some strange way, this was real.
"Aragorn," she said, perhaps out loud, or perhaps just beneath the trees of Cerin Amroth. "Please come back to me."
She saw him shake his head, although the body beside her was still. "You wished you had not met me. It is better for you this way."
"No!" She almost screamed it, there beneath the golden trees.
He was down on his knees now, although she had not seen him fall. Leaves rustled overheard. "I heard you," he said.
"No!" she protested, before she realised the truth. She had given up her immortality, but of course she still had gifts. She had sensed his injury. Close to death, he had sensed her despairing thoughts.
She could save him. She had to save him.
"Aragorn," she said, "I was foolish. For a moment, I thought that if the only way I could save you was to give you up, I might do so. But it is not the only way."
The leaves were dying beneath him where he knelt. She could see his wound now: a great pit of darkness at his heart, with tendrils reaching into every part of him. "Would you?" he asked. His voice sounded raw. "If it was the only way, would you make another choice?"
She shook her head. "It is not the only way."
"But if it were...?" Even dying and trapped in a dream, his voice knew how to demand a reply.
"If it were," she said, looking up at the golden leaves and the sky above it, "then I would not wish to make another choice. I have been happier with you these last few years than in all the long years before we met. But if you wished it..."
"I do wish it," he said.
It pierced her like a blade to the heart, but there beneath the trees of Cerin Amroth, she made no sign of it. "You would rather live without me than die..."
"I want you to live," he said. "I want... Oh, Arwen, my love, my love, you gave up so much for me, and I... What have I given you? Just grief and a bitter parting. Just the loss of your birthright and the diminishing of your gifts. Here we stand on Cerin Amroth, where it all began. Turn away. Never meet me. Make another choice."
"No," she said, and her eyes were wet, both in the real world, and in the world beneath the trees. It was because he loved her that he was saying this, she knew. She had never realised that he could still doubt her love, and blame himself for the partings she had endured.
"Please," he begged her, almost lost now beneath the darkness of his wound.
"No." She walked towards him, golden leaves rustling beneath her feet. "Aragorn," she said, "I do not regret my choice. I never have, and I never will. I chose you then, and I choose you now. Come back to me. Take my hand. Come back to me."
He looked up at her, hope and despair warring in his eyes.
Arwen knelt before him. "I have not been diminished by my choice. I feared so for a while, because I was so afraid for you, but I am still Arwen Undómiel. I am the same as I have always been, except that I am so much more, because now I am happy, because now I have you."
He said nothing. His head fell forward, and she could not see his face.
In the past, he had been the one to do the asking. This time she was the first to take his hand. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, do you plight me your troth?"
Golden leaves fell upon his hair. Shadows stirred behind him.
At last he looked up. The darkness that was his wound swirled sharply, and then was gone, fading away like shadows in the morning. Far away, where their real bodies lay, she felt him stirring, taking her hand in his.
"Yes, I do," he said, saying it both in Cerin Amroth, and in the world to come.