The winter of Year 1974 of the Third Age had been such that Arwen had found herself unable to make the journey back to Imladris from Lothlórien, as she had planned. The past few winters had been so unseasonably mild that riders had actually been able to make their way across the Pass of Caradhras in the deepest parts of winter, though the mountain’s ill temper always made the journey somewhat hair-raising. Everyone had expected that the winter of 1974 would be the same, but the weather had reverted to type, and Arwen, hoping to make it home to Imladris, had found herself wintering in Lothlórien instead. She didn’t mind, overmuch; the situation in Imladris had been rather tense, and with Lothlórien by comparison quite tranquil, Arwen had secretly been relieved to learn that the pass was blocked. Promises to spend the winter with her parents and brothers were thoroughly disregarded, and Arwen hoped that by spring, things in Imladris would be calmer.
They were quite decidedly not calmer.
Arwen remembered when Arnor had fractured. Her father had established at the start of the Third Age the tradition of fostering the eldest children of the eldest line of Isildur. Boys and girls, he took them all on for a time, with an eagerness that Arwen had never really understood. She was the only one in their immediate family who didn’t; her brothers had taken to the Dúnedain children as much as her father had, and her mother nearly as much. To Arwen, they were too short-lived to really form bonds with. They grew up in a flash, and were grey-headed in nearly as short a time. It was just…
It gave her an odd feeling, to watch the way age painted itself on Fírimar faces. The feeling that came over her to see her family grow so attached to them was stranger.
Arwen remembered when Amlaith had been sent to foster with her father. Then called Baineleth, the child had been firstborn of her father, and never expected to rule over anything. Arwen remembered that, remembered the attitude Arnor had taken to the idea of being ruled over by a woman. She remembered Amlaith’s ambitions, and remembered just how poorly Amlaith’s brothers had taken to them. Arnor split into three realms, and the last of them to stand had been in dire straits for years. She remembered civil war, she remembered strife, she remembered a king overreaching himself, and she remembered ruin. Ruin was always easiest to remember, especially when it made itself heard over and over again, in history and in living memory. It was something that dogged the steps of the Dúnedain from their earliest days, and when Arwen could see the shadow of ruin lurking so thick and so dark over them, it was hard to see why becoming close to them would be worth the effort at all.
(They were, she supposed, better than the other Men of the world, who had broken faith with the Powers. Men who served the Enemy, Men who dwelled under the shadow of evil, even those connected to that stain only by distant ancestry were, to Arwen’s mind, utterly unworthy of knowing.)
Arwen came home to Imladris, and found what seemed like the entire royal court of Arthedain dwelling in the city, and Imladris wrapped up in a fog of tension and distress. She learned the news soon enough—her father had intercepted her before she could get too far into the interior and draw too much attention to herself with her obvious ignorance of the situation.
Arthedain had fallen. It had fallen very quickly, so quickly that no one had had the time to send word to Lothlórien until after Arwen had already been on the road back here. King Arvedui, whom Arwen remembered as a little boy who had had a habit of taking horses out of the stables without permission, was missing somewhere in the north and presumed dead. His son was out trying to rally all the warriors he could find. The Witch-King was on the move. Word had been sent to Círdan and to Gondor. No one quite seemed…
And though she was not so crass as to say as much aloud, Arwen heard all of this news, and greeted it inwardly with something close to numbness.
She grasped the consequences of the Witch-King of Angmar overthrowing Arthedain. She was not a novice; she understood the implications of the chief Ringwraith overthrowing a kingdom of the Dúnedain. She grasped what this meant for the northern Dúnedain, and the news of just how many of them had already died in the wake of the fall of Fornost gave her no joy. The idea that the North would now be mobilized to war made a cold lump form in her stomach that had nothing to do with the bitter chill of late winter.
It was just…
Arwen stabled her horse, changed into her winter clothes (more of a necessity in Imladris than in Lothlórien, where the weather was to begin with significantly milder and her mother had offered her services in making the Golden Wood a place where winter had little sting), and set about trying to get her bearings.
(She was not that much younger than her brothers, not really, not in the eyes of the Eldar. They were reasonably close in age. But when Arwen saw her brothers coordinating with their parents and Glorfindel and the Dúnedain, working out a plan for the defense of Imladris, she felt as a child, unable to contribute anything but her labor in the kitchens, if such labor was needed. They did not comment on any disorder within her, though after a while her father looked at her oddly and said, softly, that she had had a long journey and should get some rest before they had any further discussions regarding her responsibilities during the upcoming…
Everyone was calling it a ‘situation.’)
She felt as if there was wool in her brain, and Arwen had always hated the feeling of wool in her brain. She hated feeling anything short of aware and alert.
Had there been any sign, any real, concrete sign that Fornost was in danger of being sacked, Arthedain in danger of being overthrown? Arwen wracked her brains as she walked the corridors of her home, pacing a well-worn path in the household hallways that she knew more than one person was grateful was made of stone. There had been strife between Arthedain and Angmar; she knew that much. Arthedain had sent to Gondor for aid; she had heard that conveyed by couriers and travelers alike. But had anyone taken seriously the idea that Arthedain could fall? Arthedain had been in decline, but it was still a strong kingdom. The blood of the northern Dúnedain ran true, undiluted by the blood of lesser Men. When she thought about it at all, Arwen had assumed that of course the northern Dúnedain would push back Angmar’s forces.
That was where she had gone wrong, perhaps. She hadn’t been thinking about it enough.
Arwen’s feet had carried her down a familiar path: to a secluded part of her family’s house, a little room open to the outside on two sides, necessitating some sweeping in autumn when the leaves were falling from deciduous trees. The room was kept warm in winter by means of a small fire pit sunk into the floor in the center of the room—and Arwen found, stopping dead in her tracks as her eyes were drawn to the flames, that it had been lit.
Very few people ever came to this room. It was sparsely furnished—just a metal table and chairs—and it did not offer a good view of the valley, the window being completely obscured by thick branches. It was somewhere you went when you did not wish to encounter too many other people, and judging by the stony, shock-eyed expression of the woman sitting at the table, the room’s occupant seemed to have realized that.
A Dúnadan. Though there was little in her face to distinguish her from one of the Eldar, the clothing she wore, what little of it Arwen could see beneath the dark, dense furs wrapped around her shoulders, was very distinctly the current court fashion of Arthedain. Or not the current fashion of the royal court, but the last fashion of a currently defunct royal court. The distinction didn’t matter, though it did make Arwen’s stomach churn, just a little. The Dúnadan wore a heavy surcoat of wine velvet, buttoned down the front; the hem of the front of the surcoat, the hems around the open, hanging sleeves, and the high, stiff collar were heavily adorned with silver lace and seed pearls. In her face was the aspect of the high Númenóreans, though there was something about her that Arwen did not associate with the northern Dúnedain. She couldn’t make it out, but there was something different about this woman.
Well, whoever she was, and whatever it was that was different about her, she was doubtless a lady of the court; Arwen had rarely visited the court of Arthedain, and had not visited recently, but the last time she had been there, royal servants had not been dressed nearly so richly as that.
Perhaps she was lost.
With that in mind, Arwen took a step forward, grateful for a way to regain some sort of control over her own disordered mind, even if it was only to bend it to the task of helping a lost woman find her way back to the bulk of her people. But before she could take another step forward, the woman turned her head to look at her, and stared at her so calmly that Arwen suddenly doubted whether she was lost at all.
They looked at each other in silence. Arwen saw that the woman’s eyes were nearly as dark a gray as her own, and as piercing as the eyes of any Dúnadan she had ever known. Her long, coarse black hair was touched with no hint of gray, and her brow was smooth and unmarked. Finally, the woman said, in a voice that, while touched with some strain and some tremor, was remarkably strong. “You must be Lady Arwen.”
The question of how the Dúnadan knew her was, as far as Arwen was concerned, not to be dwelled upon overmuch—she would soon have an answer, anyhow. “I am,” she said softly. “Have we met?”
The woman narrowed her eyes slightly. “No. But one of my own people would not be dressed so lightly in the cold, and Master Elrond told me that you would be returning to Imladris soon.” Her mouth quirked slightly, neither smile nor frown. “You look very like him.”
It was an obvious comparison to make, but it still threw Arwen, just for a moment. There was another comparison that was constantly being made, and no matter how sick of it Arwen had long since become, she was always a little surprised when someone who knew their history did not make it upon meeting her. It was… She found herself relaxing, just a little bit, as she stepped fully into the room, and if she did not smile, she at least did not make herself forbidding, either. “You have me at a disadvantage.”
At that, the woman blinked, and something in her smooth face crumpled a little. “Forgive me, I…” She paused, tapping her finger against the smooth metal surface of the table at which she sat. “…The last few months have been difficult for me. I forget myself, at times.” Her voice cleared again, and she said, “I am Fíriel.’
Oh. This was Arvedui’s Gondor-born queen.
Her father had once remarked of Gondor that the southern Dúnedain had married lesser Men, and had thus weakened the power of Númenor by the dilution of their blood. King Valacar had taken a daughter of the King of Rhovanion as his bride, and it was all downhill from there. But Arwen looked into Queen Fíriel’s face, and saw no hint of dilution. It would hardly be the first time she had met one of those lesser Men who had in days gone by preferred pledging their allegiance to the Enemy, rather than the Powers. They had always seemed smaller and cruder to her, when she compared them to the Dúnedain. But her initial assessment of Fíriel stood; this was one in whom the blood of Númenor ran true, nearly as true as it ran in her father, in her brothers. In her.
And this woman in whom the blood of Númenor ran true was trembling, ever so slightly, despite the dense furs draped around her shoulders, despite her clear gaze and strong voice.
Arwen was not certain what to say to her. She was still trying to sort through how any of this could have happened in her own head, and the thought that her father or brothers might ride to war was a leaden weight in her stomach that grew colder and heavier with each passing minute. She would have expected a refugee from Fornost to sit before her with tears in her eyes and ash coating her hair, though she knew it had been long enough since Fíriel arrived here that she had had more than enough time to dry her eyes and wash her hair.
She sat down at the table beside this queen from the south, and they sat in silence together until sullen darkness crept towards them from the west.
There were times when Arwen did not quite know what to make of her mother.
She knew that Celebrían had seen her share of combat, though she knew also that her mother had not lifted a sword since the end of the Dark Years and that when the Eldar and the Dúnedain and the Hadhodrim of Khazad-dûm, Celebrían had stayed behind, and held Imladris against the possibility of a renewed siege. She also knew her mother to be unflappably optimistic, or at least that was the face Celebrían showed to her children, and to the people of Imladris. Perhaps when in private with her husband, the face Celebrían showed was a different one.
Arwen wondered, really wondered, how it was that her mother could present such a face to the world. Perhaps the time she had spent wielding a sword had given her that gift. Arwen had, herself, never wielded a sword, never cut down any Orc or goblin or evil Man. Perhaps it was that surviving those bleak years had given her mother a strength she couldn’t understand. She could only watch it for hints on how to emulate it.
She found herself sitting with her mother and the now-landless and husbandless Queen Fíriel at the same metal table Arwen had found her sitting at a few days prior. She had sat with Fíriel at mealtimes since then, of course. The Dúnadan queen had been taken into Elrond’s house, and took meals with the combined household and former court of Arthedain. In all that time, Arwen had spoken with Fíriel but little (though she did catch herself watching her out of the corner of her eye, watching for any break or slip, and uncertain of what she would have done if she had seen such), and listening to her speak with others, Fíriel barely spoke of Arthedain at all. The name passed her lips but once, and there were only the faintest flickers in her eyes to signal emotion.
Arwen had arrived too late to hear her speak of it, of her loss. That was it, she supposed. Still, the silence bothered her.
Her mother didn’t seem bothered by Fíriel’s silence, but then, her mother did not give such things away unless she intended to do something about it.
“Have you been well since we last spoke?” Celebrían asked, jostling her cup of mead as she did so—to stir the cloves at the bottom; Arwen knew her mother well enough to know that much.
“Indeed, I have.” Arwen watched as Fíriel fidgeted with the sleeve hem of her surcoat (black today, adorned with strips of gold thread piping and another high, stiff collar, also of gold cloth; it was striking, and Arwen couldn’t help but look at it); the smile she gave didn’t quite match with the fidgeting. “It is a relief to have somewhere safe to rest.”
Arwen couldn’t imagine what it was like not to have somewhere safe.
“And your wound isn’t giving you any more trouble?” Celebrían asked earnestly, searching Fíriel’s gaze intensely.
“No, none,” Fíriel replied smoothly. She was still fidgeting with her sleeve hem. “Master Elrond’s reputation is not exaggerated.”
“You were injured?” Arwen blurted out, startled out of her study of Fíriel’s fidgety hand. When Fíriel blinked at her, she went on, slightly abashed, “Forgive me; I had no idea.”
But Fíriel quirked her lips in an expression that could have been a slight smile. “I’m not surprised you didn’t realize; it wasn’t anything terribly serious. The women were evacuated from Fornost well in advance of the onslaught; we had little trouble reaching Imladris.”
Celebrían raised an eyebrow. “It did not seem so slight to me, not when you arrived here with blood dripping from your saddle.” Fíriel didn’t budge, and Celebrían sighed, her silver hair catching the firelight. “Oh, fine. But if you do find it troubling you again, please don’t remain silent. My husband is happier in the sickroom than he ever was on the battlefield.”
“I…” Something wry sang at the edges of Fíriel’s voice “…think I can handle that.”
Words lapsed into silence, the wind filling up the empty space with a long, mournful howl. Fíriel stared out past a gap in the branches, a gaunt, twisted look coming over her face as her fidgeting hand lifted to pull her furs closer. Arwen wanted to say something, could think of nothing to say. Studied the chiseled, statuesque profile of Fíriel’s face, searching for likenesses to others she had known, and found something oddly soothing in the familiarity.
“Do you know—“ Celebrían’s clear, high voice broke the silence like sunlight pushing away night cold “—in all of my travels, I have never had occasion to visit Gondor?”
Fíriel snorted. “Asides from the Elves of Edhellond, few have. Gondor is far from your people’s homelands, and, as I understand it, a place of sorrow to many.”
Another jostling of the mead cup; one of the cloves bobbed to the surface before sinking back down out of sight. “Sorrow should not keep people from traveling.” Celebrían’s voice was very soft, suddenly, and Arwen’s eyes snapped to her mother’s face, her own mouth curved in a sickle of a frown. But she could see nothing in Celebrían’s expression that she could put a name to, and whatever nameless thing it was she had heard, there was no trace of it when Celebrían spoke again. “I would be interested to hear what it is like.”
A transformation was wrought in Fíriel’s face, though it was such that Arwen wondered if anyone would notice it, if they were not sitting directly opposite her. She looked soft and sad, and seemed somehow closer to the Eldar in her maybe-grief than she had when she presented herself as calm and remote. “It has been a long time, Lady Celebrían. Perhaps not a long time to one such as you, but for me, it has been something close to an eternity. I was not…” Her voice caught, and Arwen’s frown deepened as she scoured Fíriel’s face. Fíriel recovered, and went on, “There was never any opportunity for me to make the trip south to Gondor after I wed. The road is long, and not without its dangers.” In a quicker, more business-like voice, “I fear much has changed since I last lived in Gondor. I would not be able to provide you an accurate impression of the kingdom.”
“That doesn’t trouble me. If ever I had the chance to visit Gondor, it would be interesting to see the ways the kingdom has changed since you left it.” Fíriel’s face twisted momentarily, but Celebrían seemed not to notice as she pressed, “If you wish to speak of it, I would be glad to hear.”
The wind howled between them for a long moment, and Arwen, watching Fíriel’s face grow subtly taut, wondered if she wouldn’t just stand up from the table and leave the room. But Fíriel drew a deep breath, and the tautness left her, leaving behind only that maybe-grief that made her so like so many of the Eldar whom Arwen had known.
She began to speak, and once she started, the words tumbled out in a torrent to rival the current of the Bruinen.
There was barely any room for Celebrían to ask questions—or for Arwen to ask questions, for that matter, for after just a few minutes her interest was piqued enough that she had many questions of her own, curiosity stoked where her distant cousins in the south was concerned. Not that they—or Arwen, at least—needed to ask too many questions, for Fíriel answered them all in short time.
Arwen could paint a picture in her mind of the banners of Minas Tirith flapping in the wind. She could see the White Tree on its black field, surrounded by stars, and could see another White Tree standing tall and proud in an austere court, guarded by somber men wearing tall helms as its white blossoms quivered in the breeze. The fertile farmlands and scattered towns of the Pelennor rose vividly to mind, a strip of verdant green to offset the Ered Nimrais. She could see and nearly smell the fair gardens of Ithilien, the hills thick with anemones and asphodel.
She saw Anor setting over the Belegaer from a vantage point in Belfalas, the blue waters sparkling as if adorned with an endless net of diamonds. The perfume of the famed pink roses of Imloth Melui and the wild horses of Pinnath Gelin were stamped so deeply on Arwen’s mind that it was as if she had been there herself, had seen these things herself.
Soon, the wistful affection in Fíriel’s voice proved infectious, for Arwen could feel that same wistful affection swirling in her chest. Another kingdom of Dúnedain, and she had never seen it. True, Arwen did not care for how quickly men, even comparably long-lived Dúnedain, changed and aged and died—and surely in Gondor, where the high Númenóreans had mingled with lesser Men, they would change and age and die all the more quickly. But it was a land where dwelled distant kin, and Arwen somehow found herself in the position of being homesick for a place she had never known.
It was, with the knowledge imparted through Fíriel’s smooth, longing voice, a place of beauty unmatched by any kingdom of Men on the face of the earth. It was a place where history sang in the very stones that made up the peaks of the Ered Nimrais. Here treaded the Númenóreans. Here was where they poured their hearts into Ennor.
It all came out so fast, with so little in the way of filter, that Arwen knew, just knew, that no one had ever asked Fíriel such questions before. She tried to imagine what it was like to leave your home forever, and never have anyone in your new home express curiosity about the old. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
In the midst of all of that, Arwen did not miss how Fíriel never spoke of anyone she had known when she lived there.
Arwen’s mother had much to do. The Lady of Imladris had many duties at the best of time, and though she had always made time for her children when they were young—both of her parents would, Arwen acknowledged; she had hardly lacked for attention or affection as a child—she had her duties. She had many duties during peacetime, and when the world was troubled and the North threatened to break into war, those duties grew tenfold. Arwen saw little of her mother as plans progressed. She saw little of her father or her brothers, either.
And truth be told, she had her own duties. Her dizzy confusion over the state of affairs in Imladris as she had found it upon coming home had faded, and as winter receded and a cold, pale spring stretched its fingers into the earth, she settled into those duties with nothing that could be described as contentment, but could at least be described as understanding.
The thing is, Arwen soon discovered that she had a certain duty that no one had spoken of. Not a duty that anyone had spoken of, and sometimes she wondered if it hadn’t been completely self-imposed, and it wasn’t just that her family approved of it too much to try to dissuade her. But it was hers, and she had not shirked it, not once.
Arwen remembered, quite distinctly, the queens of Arthedain having ladies-in-waiting. Whether they were queens regnant or simply the consorts of their husbands, they had a large entourage of noblewomen who acted as confidantes, messengers, errand-runners, and (Arwen suspected) sometimes as spies. Arwen saw no trace of that here. Queen Fíriel had led the women of Fornost away from their doomed city, but among those women, Arwen could see no one who seemed willing to claim they were their queen’s lady-in-waiting.
It was possible that they had all died on the road. For all that Fíriel had attempted to downplay the danger they had faced, she had, as far as Celebrían was concerned, been seriously injured on the way to Imladris. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that they had all simply died. It didn’t quite ring true to Arwen, that explanation, but it was the only one that really came to mind.
Whatever the reason, Fíriel seemed to be utterly without lady companions in Imladris. None of the great Men of Arthedain seemed to see fit to include her in their counsels, and her son was still out in the wild. She was often alone.
Alone, apart from Arwen.
Fíriel had been given the rooms that Galadriel occupied whenever she made the journey to Imladris without her husband—which was most of the time, if Arwen was being honest; generally, if she wanted to see her grandfather, she had to go to him, rather than the other way around. Fíriel was decidedly out of place in those rooms. Whenever Arwen heard a swish of skirts from somewhere outside of her field of vision, she fully expected to see her grandmother walk out to greet her, but more than that, Fíriel was too quick and too transient for these rooms. Watching her in them was like watching water crash over stone.
Then again, the pacing didn’t lend itself to a feeling of belonging. The hard soles of Fíriel’s shoes clicked constantly against the polished stone floor of her rooms, muted only slightly when transferred to one of the thick rugs. Arwen was not certain to what purpose Fíriel paced—her mind was shuttered against intrusion, and it would have been uncourteous to pry. But Arwen watched steel-gray eyes dart back and forth over the confines of her makeshift presence chamber, and there were a few things she could guess at.
(She disliked watching agitation grow to distress. It had always been like someone threading a needle through her skin.)
“Would you like me to show you the valley?”
The words were out of Arwen’s mouth almost before she knew what she was saying. She was just watching Fíriel pace, her hands prickling with emptiness and agitated, painful energy starting to race under her skin.
Fíriel stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes fixing abstractedly on Arwen where she was sitting. “Excuse me?” she asked, sounding decidedly distracted.
“Would you like me to show you the valley?” Arwen repeated, staring intently into Fíriel’s face. “I do not know if you saw the valley beyond the settlement before I arrived, but I know you have not seen it in spring.” She thought of Fíriel’s fond, longing descriptions of Ithilien and Imloth Melui, and the sudden desire to present beauties to rival it shot up hotly within her. “It would be no trouble.”
Fíriel fidgeted with the stiff, black-beaded cuff of her yellow kirtle, before she seemed to realize what she was doing and stopped, grimacing. She stilled and drew herself up, though Arwen was not certain to what end. “I…” A long pause, while her brow furrowed. “…I think I would like that. Thank you.”
They were paid little mind as they left the house; Arwen knew all the corridors to pass through without attracting much scrutiny, and household servants were needed elsewhere. Arwen wondered if Fíriel would want a cloak when they went outside—the Eldar could be satisfied, in such weather, with just light clothes, but many of the Dúnedain were still reaching for furs and heavy wool—but Fíriel made no comment to that effect. Then again, her surcoats were thick, and might have been enough to ward off the chill of early spring.
Once they were out in the street, it was impossible to completely avoid scrutiny. The settlement was thick with Men and Eldar preparing to launch a counterattack against the Witch-King’s forces, and there was no way to reach the boundaries of the settlement without encountering them.
There were more Dúnedain in Imladris now that there had been in all of Arwen’s life, and when she and Fíriel walked down the roads past them, they drew their share of attention. Quite a lot of attention, actually.
Arwen was used to being stared at, both by the Eldar and by the Men who visited (or, rarely, lived in) Imladris. She’d long since grown to dislike it, for it all arose from the same source as the constant comparisons made to Lúthien by those who knew of her ancestor and were seeing her for the first time. She disliked it, but there was little she could do about it—those who were determined to stare at her were hardly going to be dissuaded by her frowning at them, or so experience had taught Arwen, long ago.
She was used to being stared at. She wasn’t used to being upstaged.
Every Dúnadan in Imladris knew exactly who Fíriel was. Every Dúnadan looked at Fíriel with the sort of mingled respect and awe that Arwen would have thought more appropriate for the visit of one of the Maiar. The murmured greetings were so hushed that even Arwen had a hard time making them out, and she could hardly miss the way the Dúnedain bowed their heads, so as to avoid meeting Fíriel’s eyes.
Arwen didn’t remember any king or queen of Arthedain ever being treated thusly. She couldn’t discern any fear in the faces of the Dúnedain they passed by; it was just that mixture of awe and respect that Arwen would have started to chafe under after just a few minutes. Like dealing with something larger than life, something beyond them. It really was like Arwen would have imagined a multitude of the Children of Ilúvatar greeting a Maia.
Arwen snuck a glance at Fíriel’s face, and saw none of the discomfort stamped there that she herself would have felt in her heart. Fíriel maintained the whole time a mien of calm, impassive dignity, nodding to those she met on the street and looking every inch the queen.
Maybe this was how things were done in Gondor. Mayhap things had changed in Arthedain more than Arwen would have thought they had, since the last time she visited the royal court. Or perhaps there was just something about Fíriel herself, something that put that awe into every one of her own people (or not hers, perhaps) who interacted with her.
It was enough to keep Arwen looking at her, though, to a mix of relief and something like disappointment, Fíriel didn’t notice Arwen looking at her.
When they reached the edge of the settlement, Arwen noticed something for the first time. “Shouldn’t you have guards when you go outside?” she asked, just a little anxiously. She remembered how every king and queen of Arthedain had had at least two guards watching over them at all times, whether closely or from a discreet distance. It had always been just a little jarring, the way kings and queens were not considered safe even within their own fortress, but her father would remind her that the Dúnedain did not enjoy the safety enjoyed by the Eldar of Imladris. The northern Dúnedain lived very different lives from the Eldar in one of their safe havens.
And yet, Fíriel had no guards. There had been none stationed outside her door, and none had followed her out of her current home.
A thin, soft smile stole over Fíriel’s mouth. “No need,” she murmured. “It’s hardly as if I’m not safe here. No danger of assassins or invaders or kidnappers; I don’t think I’ve ever been safer.”
Arwen tried to imagine what it was like, living a life where fear of those things was normal, rather than extraordinary. This time, her imagination did not fail her completely, and what it conjured up made her stomach churn so badly that for a moment, she thought she might be ill.
Imladris in high spring was Arwen’s favorite place to be. Lothlórien might be more staggeringly beautiful, but the prettiness of home combined with the familiarity of home made it the loveliest place on earth. Though her mother and her brothers might be inveterate travelers, Arwen’s father, at least, seemed to agree with her; he rarely left the valley these days, not unless his presence was absolutely required elsewhere. She wondered, to herself, how it would be with Fíriel, how many springs in Imladris she would see, or if she would go elsewhere. The thought didn’t appeal to her.
It was not high spring yet, and the bulk of spring’s flowers had yet to bloom. But that did not mean that the gently rolling hills were barren, or that beneath the smattering of oak and beech trees, there was only cold earth. New grass had grown up, sweet and young and glistening glossy green under Anor. Deep indigo bell flowers grew on tall stalks that quivered in the breeze, and the wide petals of globeflowers streaked the meadows with sunny gold. Celebrían brought back tulip bulbs from a journey east and south some thirty years ago, and now there could be found scattered across the valley tulips growing wild, in dots of scarlet and pink and white. Arwen was slowly growing used to seeing them here.
Fíriel stood stock-still, the breeze plucking at the thick skirt of her black surcoat and her long, loose hair. The expression on her face as she drank in the sight before her was oddly blank, her eyes one wide and no light coming in to them.
Such an expression wasn’t something Arwen could look at for very long before she became concerned. She took a step forward, lighting her hand on Fíriel’s arm, but almost as soon as she had done so, Fíriel stepped forward without saying a word, walking further down into the valley. She walked slowly, as if in a dream. She walked faintly, as if made of air, and fighting to stay rooted to the earth. She walked weakly, as if her spirit was trying to wrench itself abruptly from its cage of flesh and flee the circles of the world.
When she watched it, Arwen felt her stomach start to twist itself into knots. On the other hand, it made Fíriel fairly easy to follow after.
As best as Arwen could tell, Fíriel wasn’t walking with any particular destination in mind. Considering the way she kept craning her neck, the only real purpose she had was getting a closer look at the valley outside of the settlement. Her hair kept blowing over her face, obscuring it from view. Arwen couldn’t tell if her expression had changed.
The wind picked up as they continued their slow, circuitous descent towards the utter base of the valley, blowing through the grass and the young spring leaves of the trees like the roar of the sea far to the west. Scattered clouds rose up out of the west, bruise blue and moving fast over the azure sky. They passed over Anor as they made their journey east, casting strips of shadow over the valley, like the early onset of night. Arwen watched those clouds, frowning, wondering if it would rain.
Fíriel kept on walking, that ambling, almost boneless gait of hers now putting Arwen in mind of nothing quite so much as someone on the verge of fainting, though her legs never buckled, and after a minute or so, Arwen pushed back the urge to rush forward and slip her hand under Fíriel’s elbow. She had the feeling, growing stronger with every moment, that touching wouldn’t help. Touching her would make whatever was happening worse. The settlement had passed out of sight, now, swallowed up by rolling hills clothed with grass and flowers. They could have been completely alone in the world.
Finally, Fíriel stopped at the base of a hill steeper than many of the rest, standing by the stony, slightly muddy bank of a narrow, fast-flowing stream. Sweet-grass grew on the banks, stalks bent and bowed. Daffodils were growing scattered by the stream, snowy petals quivering around the floral tube of crimson-rimmed gold; their perfume filled the air, overpowering the smell of running water completely.
Arwen came to stand beside Fíriel, looking up into her face—she didn’t have to look up very far, but somehow, just the fact that she had to look up at all was jarring. The shadow in which they stood was too deep for Arwen, even with eyes as keen as hers, to see if Fíriel’s expression still bore the shock-eyed, lightless emptiness which had characterized it when they had first left the settlement. In the shadows, her face was simply unreadable.
“Are you alright?” she asked softly.
A jarringly high-pitched, choked-back giggle, and a faint, “No.”
They stood in silence, Fíriel staring at nothing in particular and Arwen standing awkwardly at her side, unsure of how to comfort her and unwilling to leave her alone, settling for resting her hand on Fíriel’s arm and feeling a giddy shock of relief when Fíriel didn’t shift her arm out of reach.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard—the news was only relayed to me this morning, and we are trying to keep it from spreading too quickly, or too indiscriminately.” Fíriel crushed the hem of the hanging sleeve of her surcoat in her hand; her eyes narrowed, lips thinned. “Scouts found the wreckage of my husband’s ship on the shores of Forochel.”
An image of a little boy falling from the back of a horse Elrond had told him he was too small to ride flashed through Arwen’s mind. “I am so s—“
“No sign of his body,” Fíriel went on almost casually, as if she hadn’t heard Arwen speak. “No sign of him, nor any of the men he took north with him.” Her lip curled. “No sign of the palantíri he insisted on taking with him into the frozen North instead of carrying them here to safety. Typical of the man; he was always careless of what he should have held dear, and his judgment has never been what I would call sound. I suppose I should be grateful he didn’t insisted on having Aranarth join him in the ice-bay; it would have been just like him to do some foolish thing like that.”
The bitterness in Fíriel’s voice stopped any words that might have come to Arwen’s tongue. She watched the progression of the stream towards the Bruinen, and tried to listen for its voice, the small voice of its spirit, something, anything to listen to instead of that bitterness.
A small smile stole over Fíriel’s mouth. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. She clasped her hand over Arwen’s own. “I should not burden you with my troubles thus.”
“No!” Arwen blurted out, more loudly than she’d intended. Her face warmed to see Fíriel’s eyebrows shoot up. “I do not mind it,” she explained hurriedly, suddenly feeling hyper-aware of her own skin. “We are kin, however distant the kinship might be. If you have no one else to confide in, confide in me, at least.”
Men made loveless marriages at times, Arwen remembered suddenly. It was something difficult to keep in her mind; the concept was utterly foreign to the Eldar and the Hadhodrim both, a grotesque curiosity peculiar to Men. The great among Men would give their children in marriage to people they did not love or to complete strangers, for alliances, for wealth, for power. Sometimes they arranged their own loveless, transactional marriages, and though perhaps they found some pleasure in it, Arwen couldn’t imagine marrying someone you did not already love, and ever being truly happy in such a marriage.
It wasn’t always just the great among Men who carried out such practices, either. Arwen had heard tell of lands where virtually every marriage was made in such a way, children betrothed in their infancy by their parents and finding themselves free only if their betrothed died before reaching marriageable age and their parents couldn’t be bothered to arrange another marriage for them, or if their family was so destitute that they couldn’t find the money or other resources required for a dowry. Arwen tried to imagine, sometimes, what it would be like to be wed to someone she did not love, someone she had not even known before their wedding day. That was how it had been for Fíriel, had it not? The youngest child of the king of Gondor, sent far away from home to marry the son of the king of Arthedain, never to see her family again, only receiving the news of her father and brothers’ deaths weeks or months after the fact.
All that, and Fíriel would have had no one to confide in. This was a normal arrangement for the great among Men—at the very least, it was not something that was at all shunned by Men. It was considered normal for a princess to be wed to someone she did not love; it was not passing strange for her to be wed to someone she did not know. She had been sent far from home, and Arwen did not know what the size of her entourage had been, if any of them had stayed in Arthedain once the wedding festivities were over. She would not have been expected to complain. She would not have been expected to be overly unhappy.
And yet, decades after the fact, it was clear that… Well. That particular strain of bitterness said a great deal without having to say much.
Meanwhile, Fíriel seemed to have taken Arwen’s assertion as an immediate invitation. A short, choked-off huff of a laugh escaped her mouth. “He was almost tolerable for a while, do you know? I never cared much for him, but he was a good father to our son, and he did not impose upon me overmuch.” She knelt down by a patch of daffodils, running long, deft fingers over a snowy petal. Arwen couldn’t see her face; all she could see of her was her hunched back, her long hair. “Living in Arthedain was tolerable, for a while. My father-in-law found my judgment sure and relied upon my counsel. I had duties and diversion and the respect of my husband’s people. It was almost comfortable.
“But my father and my brothers died, and I was alone. If ever there was a time I needed Arvedui’s support, it was then. I had not seen my family since I was sent north as a bride; my son had never met them. And now they were dead, and I needed support.” Another short, harsh laugh. “My husband did not look at me and see his grieving wife. My husband looked at me and saw a tool. He tried to use my family’s deaths to gain power over a distant kingdom he had never cared a whit about before.” She ripped a petal off of one of the daffodils. “He didn’t warn me beforehand that he planned to do this. I only learned of it a week before he returned to Arthedain—he had told me that he went to offer condolences to the royal court in Minas Tirith, and to bolster the bonds between our lands; what utter rubbish—when messengers arrived informing King Araphant that his son’s claim to the throne of Gondor had been rejected.” Fíriel laughed bitterly. “To add stupidity to cupidity, he had done this while his own father still lived. He claimed his right to the throne of Gondor was based not only on being my husband, but upon being Isildur’s descendant—while his father still lived. I do not think my father-in-law ever looked at him in quite the same way again.”
“That’s…” Arwen groped for the proper word; the only one she could come up with was “…appalling.”
A high giggle jittered from Fíriel’s mouth. “Oh, very much so, yes. He was a pariah in the royal court for a long time afterwards, was my husband, and Araphant was cool towards him until the moment of his death. There was talk of Arvedui being passed over in the succession in favor of our son, but that, I am reasonably certain, was only ever a rumor. It would have set a dangerous precedent, and there is a particular story behind how my husband got his name that my father-in-law always took entirely too seriously for him to consider disinheriting his son.
“I needed support,” she said softly. “My father and my brothers were all dead, and I was not there. I was not there to act as their mourner; I was not there to lay them to rest. I was not there to say farewell. I needed support. What I received was my husband’s greed, and the apathy of the rest of the court. No one in Fornost cared what happened in Gondor. Even my father-in-law cared little, despite having accepted me as a bride for his son specifically to foster an alliance between the kingdoms of the Dúnedain.” The wind whipped along the base of the hill, blowing her hair to and fro and leaving it completely disheveled. She did not smooth it down. She ripped another petal off of a daffodil, instead. “Fornost was not home. I knew, then, that it never would be. That I could live in that city for the rest of my life, and it would never be home. I would never be one of them.”
Finally, Arwen was able to overcome her own inertia enough to kneel at Fíriel’s side, resting a hand on the woman’s back as she did so. She peered past the veil of Fíriel’s hair, and saw with a jolt that Fíriel’s face was wet. It showed in her voice not at all—bitter, but still clear—but she had been crying. Arwen wasn’t certain how long. Mayhap the whole time. She rubbed her hand slowly up and down the track of Fíriel’s spine, feeling now a slight tremor through layers of cloth.
“I do not miss it.” Fíriel looked up at her, and her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, but her gaze was steady. “I do not miss Fornost. I am not happy that so many innocents died when the city was sacked, but neither do I regret its loss.” Tonelessly, as if she was reading aloud from a genealogy, she asked, “Does that make me a bad person?”
Somehow, in over seventeen-hundred years of life, Arwen had never had such a conversation. She wondered how that could have been, with the sort of events her loved ones had lived through. “I… don’t know.” Her voice was fainter than she would have liked it. “I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Fíriel patted Arwen’s outstretched arm; her fingers were cold and clammy. “Thank you for your honesty.” Arwen would have thought it sarcastic, if not for the faint, tired smile that appeared briefly on Fíriel’s lips.
They stood again, watching the current of the stream as it flowed ever on towards the Bruinen. Leaves caught in the water gathered in little sodden piles by mossy boulders, dull in the shadow without sunlight to make them glint.
“What concerns me now—“ When Fíriel spoke again, it was after a silence so deep that for noise to intrude upon it was jarring “—is what becomes of the rest of the north.”
“Angmar will be defeated,” Arwen said, almost immediately. She wanted to believe it. Wanted Fíriel to believe it. She thought of the Witch-King riding into Imladris and her stomach turned.
Fíriel ducked her head, fisting her hands in her skirt as she did so. “One hopes,” she replied, very softly. “But I am a child of Gondor, and I have watched the Enemy grow stronger with each passing year. As our defenses grow in strength and armament, so too do theirs. When I was young, my grandfather Calimehtar led an army to Dagorlad to do battle with the Wainriders. The Dúnedain and the Éothéod prevailed over their foe, and my grandfather built the White Tower in Minas Tirith to commemorate the victory. He won peace for us for many years. But I recall, very clearly, how many more men went out of the city with him than returned. You can only sustain so many victories of such a kind before defeat becomes inevitable.”
There was nothing Arwen could say to that. She could only pray that it would not be so, and try to breathe evenly.
(How would it look, this valley, if the trees were on fire and the flowers were burned to ash?)
“But I will not run.” Fíriel lifted her head back up. She looked… Not confident. Resolute. “I will not cower in terror of the Dark. It is not for me to constantly flee, ever searching for a safe haven.”
“No,” Arwen murmured. Tales of the First Age that her father and grandmother had told her rose to mind. Tales of Eldar fleeing the Dark, clinging to safe havens that were continually stripped from them. It had not been any kind of a life. “Nor will I.”
Eventually, there came the day when the host gathered in Imladris, which had been growing larger and larger for months, left to do battle in the ruins of Arthedain. On that day, Fíriel reached for Arwen’s hand and held it in her own. Her grip was tight, nearly painful, but Arwen didn’t take her hand away. She held on just as tightly.