When the Midsummer sun sank down behind the tower, behind the mountains, the revellers lit strings of lanterns by the lawn, the feast tables and the dancing floor, but when they called upon the king and queen to lead another Elvish bransle, the newlyweds were nowhere to be found.
Arwen laughed, silent and breathless, as Aragorn tugged her hand, and then the rest of her, into a shadowed alcove moments before a stern-faced guard rounded the corner. She pressed close to her husband, and he drew his cloak about her, concealing the silver shimmer of her dress. Still as two trees they stood, hands cupped around each other's hips, hearts pounding, but lungs ruthlessly controlled. The guard strode closer. Arwen's lips found Aragorn's pulse point, and parted, tasting. His hand tightened, but he made no sound. She smiled.
Eyes half-lidded, she licked lightly up the column of his throat, paused, waiting until the guard (one of the Steward's men, she noted, because she noted everything) was just in front of them, and bit, hard, on Aragorn's ear.
All his muscles jumped, and his nails bit back into the tender flesh of her sides, but the guard marched staunchly past and out of sight, hearing nothing. Only then did Aragorn gasp aloud. Leaving him no time to recover his wits, Arwen snatched up his hand and pulled him out into the corridor. Aragorn resisted, eyes gleaming. She lifted an eyebrow, wondering what retribution he meant to claim, and lifted the other when his hand disappeared beneath the folds of his tunic. He turned away, and she rose on tiptoes to peer over his shoulder as he fitted a slim key to a secret lock, and watched a door swing silently inward.
Without looking 'round, Aragorn squeezed his bride's hand and led her into the secret passage. "Thano!" he whispered, when the door shut, and Arwen laughed in pleasure as a thread of light appeared at their feet, guiding the way between the citadel's massive outer walls toward the king's private quarters. She darted ahead of him, fingers skimming the worn stone, learning its contours. "Here," Aragorn called, at length. She danced back and observed as he whispered the light away and drew her through another door into an antechamber, and through that to yet another door, this one carved and paneled oak.
Arwen paused, knowing what was beyond. She traced the stylized white tree, lingered over the stars above it, then turned and pressed her back against cool wood, palms flat against its smoothness. She opened her mouth to speak, to say something light and laughing, or low and fervent, but no words came at all. Aragorn blinked at her slowly. He lifted his hand, palm up. Eyes never leaving his, Arwen took the key that lay there. Without a sound, she fit it to the lock, pushed the heavy door inward, and slipped within.
Aragorn hung back as Arwen drifted across their bedchamber, assessing the tapestries and furnishings in her keen, curious way. His hand drifted up to touch the rings he wore, silver, gold and green. With eyes gone wide and sober he stared at his bride's tall silhouette. She had opened the doors to their private garden, and stood framed there, poised like a bird or a hind, with the night breeze stealing past her into the still air of the room.
He shivered, swallowed once, and stepped forward. "Arwen." Aragorn touched her shoulder, waited till she met his eye. "This day has been full of theatre, all rings and crowns and oath-taking before hundreds. But now I give you my private pledge. Arwen, I love you. Everything I have is yours. But no gift I give to you is so terrible as what you offer me. So consider well, at this late hour: what happens in this room is ours alone, and the choice you make tonight, and all nights, whatever it may be, will I honour."
"Tonight," replied Arwen, "only brings my body where my heart already dwells. I made my pledge long ago, Estel. Whither thou goest."
"It is a cruel pledge."
"Are you afraid?" Arwen asked a little coldly.
Aragorn looked into her eyes. "Not anymore." And then he kissed her.
Arwen shifted, winding her arms around her husband's back and closing her eyes to let her other senses play. Aragorn's mouth opened on a sigh, and his hands opened, too, first spanning her waist, then sliding to cup her shoulders, then curling in her heavy hair. Arching against him, she deepened the kiss and let her own hands wander and tease and massage until he grew clumsy, and whimpered, urging her toward the bed and fumbling with the delicate ties of her dress.
The desire of the Elves is slow to rise, but when it does it courses like a river in the dark. And so Arwen gladly took the lead, guiding her mortal husband through the long, slow, marvellous dance of Elvish lovers, until every inch of his long-labouring body trembled at last under the adoration of lips and long fingers, and all his senses knew the hundred secrets of her skin. Deep in the black night she rose above him, and he pulled her down and rolled so that he covered her, and it seemed to Arwen that time lost hold, spilled out like stars in an hourglass sky and in one immeasurable moment she was everything: mortal and immortal, fast bound and ripped in twain; yearning and ecstasy merged and melded within her.
And with that Arwen felt her soulsong curve and spiral away from the close-woven harmonies of the Eldar, and she cried out with the sudden terror of loss.
Aragorn's warm arms held her tight, and terror fell back before the immediacy of his kisses and praise. She held on to him with all her might, but long moments passed before she could speak. "Aragorn. My love," she whispered. Then Arwen closed her eyes. And slept.
Arwen woke before dawn, her eyelids fluttering, then flying open as awareness settled upon her. For the briefest of moments disorientation seized her, before her mind shook clear of sleep and her senses reasserted themselves. Her body felt heavy and strange. Aragorn was tucked against her, asleep, his breath softly tickling her neck. She breathed in slowly and smelled the alchemy of the night before, and the scent of dew and flowers from the garden. I slept, and dreamt as Men dream, she thought with a small thrill, and tried to recall her dreams. She could not. They were gone.
She drew her senses songward, and a puzzling quietness greeted her. I am sundered, she thought, stretching vainly toward the Westward-pulling light and the music that had cradled her all her life. All she could hear was her heartbeat, and her husband's heartbeat at her side. Joined and severed; bound and lost. She slipped carefully from Aragorn's embrace and rose, treading silently to the arched doorway that led outside. Some of the lethargy of her limbs dispersed as she moved. For a moment she hoped that Aragorn would not wake, that she might flee unnoticed into the garden and down the secret stairways to the dark city below. If she could walk alone for a while unseen on stone streets black with stone-cast shadows, she might find her resolution. Or perhaps she would not stop at the gate, but slip past the sentinels, her sleepy mortal subjects, fly down to the river, the woods, the marshes, down to the wide and singing sea.
No chance. Aragorn was yet a ranger, and his eyes were open and bright with awareness ere she had even left his arms. "Good morning, love," he said softly, a little cautiously, and watched her turn to his voice. Their eyes met, and in an instant he was at her side. He did not touch her, but merely stood close, carefully, waiting for her to tell him what she felt, and what she needed. And because she had always told him plain truth without hesitation, the words escaped her ere she could think better of them.
"I am dying. I can feel it."
She could feel it, even as the first king of Númenor � her uncle � must have felt it: an hourglass suddenly tilted, the slow, strange, singing sound of the sand as it drained, almost imperceptibly, away. Five hundred years.
Elrond would be abroad, somewhere below.
Her brothers would have drunk too much wine last night, then stumbled back to a single room and fallen asleep, curled tight around each other like small animals hibernating underground.
"Arwen," her husband whispered, and she turned her head at the unfamiliar catch in his voice. A shock jolted through her as she realized Aragorn was weeping. In all the time she had known him, she had never seen his tears. Not when his mother died, for he had been away in the wild then, not on the Pelennor at dusk, standing over the body of his dearest friend, nor when he had ridden to meet his bride and her father after seventy years of waiting. She gazed at him dumbfounded, amazement chasing away her introspection. He was not an elegant sight, for his eyes reddened like any other man's and his mouth drew itself into an odd little involuntary frown.
One last bond broke in Arwen then. Oh, my love. It seemed she still had many things to learn. Her grief was not her burden only, and the dark streets before dawn not hers to walk alone. Pity those who perfect their strength in solitude. She thought of a linnod, the beginning of a poem:
One grief by two hearts doubled, two griefs by one love halved.
She realized she had not touched him yet. Quickly she did so, reaching up with both her hands to cup his face. He stared back unflinchingly, and she slowly slid her hands back, cradling his head, watching him watch the tears starting up in her own eyes, then suddenly wound her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close. How can you doubt? He reacted like a sprung trap, catching her in his embrace and burying his face in her neck. She felt relief wash through him, and they swayed a little, together. Even amidst her grief she loved the feel of his body against hers, and knew that she would cherish this closeness above all other sensations until the end of her days. She told him so with her touch, and he understood and stroked her in return and ran his hand through her silky hair and finally kissed her, and some of the magic of the night before returned.
Aragorn steered them both back toward the bed, but only long enough to tug a blanket free and wrap it around his wife's slim body. His own robe hung on a peg on the wall, and he shrugged it on before treading purposefully to the far side of the room, where he knelt on the hearth and struck flint to tinder. Arwen smiled. This Aragorn she knew well: Aragorn the interminable drinker of tea, for whom there was no trouble in the world that a well-brewed cup could not ease. Joining him, she took the kettle from its cubby and filled it from a waiting pitcher. Aragorn opened a set of boxes and measured their contents into a pair of earthenware mugs, which Arwen realized after a moment were over-sized soup mugs of Shire make: gifts from a very old friend and confidant, arrived yesterday.
She curled up on the settee, watching the man before her, his grace of movement, the strong, kingly profile at odds with the fuzz of his hair where he had slept on it, and his slightly red nose. Before long the kettle began to sing, and Aragorn handed his wife a steaming mug. She wrapped her hands around it and tucked it under her nose, basking gratefully in the aromatic warmth. Aragorn sank down close beside her, his own mug cradled just like hers.
"What did you dream of last night, Estel?"
Aragorn started, and looked as though he would not answer. "I cannot recall much," he said finally. "But ... death." He laughed softly, without smiling. "Of course."
"I do not know. It fades already. I am tired of dreaming of death."
Arwen twisted to face him and exclaimed, frustrated, "What are dreams for if you cannot understand them?"
The king stared at her in silence until she dropped her eyes. "And you?" he asked gently. "What did you dream?" And so she explained the veil that had fallen with her waking, and the peculiar loneliness where, but a few hours past, had rested Arda's deep harmonies.
"I never longed for the sea, as my kinsmen do. I feel no sea-longing now, but ... I feel the absence of longing. It's a hollowness in me. To match the heaviness of everything else. I do not know what I am!"
Again, Aragorn's arms encircled her. "My wife," he murmured. "My beloved, my Tinúviel."
She pressed her cheek against his shoulder, claimed one of his hands in hers, and ran her fingers over the lines and calluses there. "Tell me how you do it. How do you live with this ever-presence of death?"
How indeed? How does a mortal fathom Time, much less speak of it to an Elf? Aragorn frowned and sipped his tea, pensive, while Arwen drew idle patterns on his wrist, absorbed by his pulse. "Wherein the solace of mortals? In work, I suppose. In building things of beauty and in teaching our children. In creation."
"Legacy," said Arwen.
"Aye, that's the only immortality we know. But I seek not to preserve and glorify my own life's work. For long years the Dúnedain could but look to the future for their hope, and now their hope is come, but my kingship brings not the end of their labour. I am but a link in a living chain, the present keeper of a burden and honour that lives before and after me. And so, I think, to value change and be, boldly and gladly, its agent, is to reconcile with death. As much as one can."
Once spoken, the truth of it seemed plain, plain as the lives of Aragorn's kin, and her kin, too, down those long years. "Yes." Arwen smiled, and pushed her hair away from her face. Something small and new budded inside her, like the idea for a melody. She laughed. "It is well, my husband, for we have work enough to do!"
"Fortunately nothing new for either of us."
"The togetherness is new."
Aragorn laughed, too, gratefully. "In work and in love, my love.
"Come! The sun is nearly up. Dress, and then I will show you the doors in the garden wall, and the passage that runs from the citadel out to the mountain slope.... The tower guards think I do not know they have a wager set on the hour of our appearance this morning. I am inclined to teach them a lesson. They are impertinent."
"They are indeed!" exclaimed Arwen. "How shall I face them? I am mortified!" Aragorn looked at his wife sharply, blinking, and then helplessly began to laugh. Arwen, solemn-faced, rescued his mug, then stood and set it on the low table with her own. She took his hands and tugged him to his feet.
Aragorn sighed and looked at her sidelong. "I suppose," he said, "that the poor guards have been terribly bored of late." Arwen's mouth twitched infinitesimally. Their gazes held.
"Thou, indomitable," he said.
"We had better begin," said she.
He kissed her again, and she ran her hands down his body, making him groan appreciatively into her mouth. She pushed him off balance, and he laughed, deftly pulling her back into his arms. Then he stepped backward of his own accord, and they moved together to the wide bed and tumbled down, and the hollow ache went away, if only for a little while. Without, the sun broke over the rim of the shadowed mountains. It stretched its warmth across the trees and fields, farmsteads and guard towers until it reached the river and the sundering sea, and, far away and beyond, lit gold the tide-washed sands.