Light on the Way
A Bell Tolls
How does one say goodbye?he wondered as he carefully fastened the ties on his shirt, and looked at the surcoat he'd chosen to wear over it. This was something he'd found himself wondering repeatedly over the past few weeks, even as he'd done it repeatedly. He'd ridden to Ithilien to personally inform Legolas, and Legolas had immediately left all other business and taken horse to Rohan to bring Gimli to Minas Anor. He'd stopped at the Steward's House to summon Barahir to accompany him back to the capitol with him, to be on hand when the moment came to support Eldarion. He'd greeted his brothers on their arrival two days past and held them for longer than any of the three had intended, and he'd begged them to stand by their sister. He'd looked into the ancient eyes of the Lord Glorfindel, who knew well where he was going and what he could expect on arrival, and had seen the reassurance there. He'd sat at his desk penning the proclamation for his people, making fifteen copies--seven for the City, one that had been sent off three days ago to Dol Amroth to the hands of the Prince of the Silver Swan, one to the Seneschal of Ithilien who ruled there now in the absence of his Lord, one that had been sent to Edoras, one to his Steward in Annúminas, one to the Thain in the Shire, one to Erebor, and one to the Vale of Imladris, all sent a month past, to be opened and read on this day at sunset.
The signs his time was coming had begun four months past--suddenly a shortness of breath as he rose from his bath; an ache in his head on awakening; his joints suddenly stiff after only an hour in the saddle. And there were the dreams--the dreams of his father and his Adar together, looking at him from afar, both shining, and beyond them two other lights that were intimately familiar, watching with concern, love, and trust; of his mother smiling at him as she hadn't since his childhood; of a Voice, unfamiliar yet known, telling him, "You have some time to choose." He'd been granted time, time to take his leave with dignity and with planning for the future, time to go unhurriedly, time to avoid the indignity that had claimed some of his ancestors and predecessors, who had simply fallen from their thrones unmanned when their bodies failed them. No, he would not present that spectacle to his family and his people. But it would be hardest, he knew, for his beloved Arwen. He closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer for her, for her comfort. As he opened them and straightened, he felt again the pain in his chest that had been the latest sign, and knew he had been right to choose now. He wondered how Bilbo had managed it all the years he had lingered, and found himself smiling to remember the old Hobbit and his determination to last just a bit longer than his grandfather had done.
A knock at the door heralded the arrival of Faramir Took, who'd come to Minas Anor after the death of his wife Goldilocks, following the lead of his father and cousin, giving over his office to his own son Frodo, who'd been born shortly after the death of his uncle Frodo Gardner and had been named in his honor as well as the honor of the Ringbearer. The idea of a Frodo as Thain of the Shire was pleasing to the King of Gondor and Arnor, and he saw in it a sign that all would continue well in that peaceful land he'd ridden through only four times in his life. Aragorn turned to greet the Hobbit and to smile into his eyes, tightened with anxiety and the anticipation of loss. He'd had time to come to appreciate this one, the humor so similar to that of his father's, the quieter subtlety of his intelligence, the still active curiosity, which nonetheless was more controlled than Pippin's had ever been, the deep well of compassion in his heart.
Faramir Took was no warrior, nor had there ever been any sign of him ever being so. He was a scholar, as had been his son's older namefather; and when he was asked if he would wear a sword at a formal ceremony he'd turned red with embarrassment. He carried instead a cane, a cane of lebethron left to him by Master Sculptor Ruvemir of Lebennin, who'd had it from the King himself many years ago when he'd been released from the Houses of Healing after his hip had become disjointed. This cane had been well cared for by both its bearers, and Aragorn knew it would one day be entrusted to another as it had been entrusted to Faramir. Faramir's own leg had healed badly after a severe break as a child, and as he himself approached old age he'd found the cane a welcome aid. Now, as he stopped a few feet short of his father's friend--and now his own as well, he clutched at its handle and leaned heavily on it.
"You are still set on it being today, my Liege?" he asked. At Aragorn's nod he dropped his eyes. "It's going to be a shock to your people."
"I know, but that cannot be changed now." Aragorn picked up the sealed scrolls that lay on his desk, carefully slid them into the carrier bag he'd asked be brought in earlier, and asked, "Has the messenger to the Guard arrived?" At the Hobbit's nod, he asked, "Will you please bid him enter, then?"
The messenger entered, a young man, great grandson, Aragorn knew, to Beregond, Captain of the Guard to the White Company, the personal guard of the Lord Faramir, Prince of Ithilien and Steward of Gondor. "Welcome, Bergemon," the King greeted him as the young man bowed. "One of these is to be given to the Herald for each Gate of the City, with directions they are to be opened and proclaimed aloud at the tolling of the bell."
"At the tolling of which bell, my Lord?" asked Bergemon.
Aragorn smiled wryly. "That will be plain when it occurs," he said, then stayed the leaving of the messenger with a gesture. "Your great grandfather was a good man and true, as were both his son and your father. To have had four such in service to the realm has been an honor. I thank you for what you and your fathers before you have offered to me and to Gondor." So saying, he bowed his head, which confused the young man.
His lord smiled. "Go now, and do your duty, Bergemon of the Guard," he said in dismissal; and as the messenger disappeared on his errand, he said softly, "And may your sons and your sons' sons be as faithful in their turn." He turned to Faramir, who was waiting at the doorway. "Five generations I have known in that family, actually, and every one of the five has been a man of great honor. Will you call my valet, please, Faramir?"
He ordinarily preferred to dress himself, but lately this had become more difficult, as to raise his arms over his head had become painful. The surcoat was heavy with silver and white embroidery on green velvet so dark as to appear almost black, a gift long ago from his wife after the birth of their first child, beautiful Melian. It was the work of Miriel of Lebennin, Master Embroiderer. And the effigy that would be placed over his tomb had been the last work of her brother Ruvemir. It was fitting, he thought, that both should be honored today, that the work of both would be part of his own memorial. He remembered the two unusual artisans, the shyness of the sister, the boldness of her brother, the beauty that had been their gift for so long to the realm. Would he see them soon? he wondered, and thought, for the first time, that this was going to be a time not only for goodbyes but for greetings as well. Suddenly his own mood lightened, for he could think of many now he wished to greet.
Faramir noted the change in mood as he returned with young Lasgon, whose grandfather of the same name had once served his own father, and wondered at it.
Lasgon assisted the King to don the surcoat, straightened it carefully, brought forth the soft whisk to brush free the few stray hairs and dust motes that had fallen on it, and smiled with satisfaction. "You look very fine, my Lord," the valet commented He suddenly laid the whisk on the table nearby and hurried forward to catch up Beruthiel, the Princess Idril's favorite cat, before she could brush up against the King and leave more hairs behind. But Aragorn stopped him before he could put it out, took the animal from his arms, and hugged it close.
"Stay by her, little one," Faramir heard the King whisper into the cat's ear, which twitched as the breath tickled it. "Stay by her and comfort her." The cat turned its head to look up into the Man's face and examined him gravely, butted her head against his beard, then leapt down and departed. With a sigh Lasgon reached again for the whisk, and the King laughed. "Do not begrudge it, my friend," he said. "It was worth the bother for me, you know." Then, when the young man was satisfied his master's appearance was appropriately spotless, Aragorn thanked him for his service, donned his sword belt and Andúril, nodded at Faramir to follow, and went out of the room.
As they walked toward the stairs down to the throne room, the Hobbit asked quietly, "He does not know?"
The King, again preoccupied, shook his head. "No, I've not told them. They will learn of it with the rest of the city."
"Then why did you tell me?"
King and friend stopped, looked at one another. Faramir had lagged behind as they descended the stairs, and his eyes were now on the level of the King's own. He searched the keen grey gaze of his father's friend, which was leveled unwaveringly on his own. Finally Aragorn answered, "Because you, my friend, understand as they won't. You know I am mortal, while they think of me as one who will be here always. You have seen the devastation that still marks much of the Northern Kingdom, and have seen the faces of those who remember the Time of Troubles. Few here in this city can think of what happened in the time of their fathers' fathers as quite real. It is one of the marks of difference, I think, between Halflings and Men."
After a moment of silence, Faramir sighed, "Some distinction, my Lord."
Aragorn raised his hand to Faramir's shoulder, squeezed it in comfort, and the Hobbit placed his own, smaller hand on the King's wrist. Aragorn could see the unshed tears gathering, but that there was acceptance there, also. He smiled at Faramir, and Faramir smiled back reflexively. "Come. Time grows short."
Faramir gave a small shake of his head, held his place for a moment longer. "How long would you remain, do you think?"
The Man shrugged. "Not long--perhaps two months more, not much longer. The weakness is spreading rapidly through my body now. I would not have my people see such happen to me. Better I give back the grace granted me, accept the Gift of Ilúvatar now, than lose all along with my dignity." With a nod of understanding the Hobbit released the King's hand and gave a short bow; and straightening, the Lord Elessar Telcontar turned, and continued on his way.
Near the Throne of Gondor stood Eldarion, formally dressed in armor, holding his father's white mantle in his arms. His face was pale and strained, and that of his wife Loreth was white and tear stained. Their son Valandil, a slender, tall child of twelve years, stood straight and with great dignity, holding his grandfather's crown. Melian stood with her husband Hirgion, grandson of Húrin of the Keys and Keeper of the Keys of the Kingdom in his turn. Hirgion had only just been informed of the day's proceedings, and was standing stiff with disbelief and shock. The door at the far end of the room opened, and Barahir entered, followed by Legolas and Gimli, who carried his own cane now, and no longer an axe. Gimli's beard and hair were now completely white, his face heavily wrinkled with time and humor--and now grief. Only the extreme pallor of Legolas's features betrayed his own grief, and Aragorn was grateful for his long-time friend's steadiness. He still had to face Arwen's grief, for Arwen had risen before him this morning, had found herself unable to eat the breakfast he'd asked be brought to her, and had finally told him she would await him at the White Tree. Aragorn looked to his older daughter and asked, "Your sister is with your mother?"
"Yes--she will accept comfort more readily from her than from me right now--still thinks of her as a child. And Arien is there, and Elladan and Elrohir and the Lord Glorfindel are with her as well." Father and daughter shared a brief smile of understanding.
"Will you wear the Crown, Adar?" asked Eldarion.
Aragorn considered. Finally he said, "No. I think I would wear the Star of Elendil and carry the Sceptre of Annúminas today." He turned to his grandson. "Are you willing to carry it for a time, Best Beloved?" he asked. At the boy's nod, he nodded in return and straightened. He looked at all of them. "I could not remain long with you at any rate. Please accept this. I honor and love each and all, and rejoice to have you as friends and family. And it eases my heart to have you all with me this day."
Barahir opened the ancient casket in which Aragorn's Crown and Circlet were kept, and produced the Star of Elendil as Eldarion carefully laid his father's mantle about him, fastening it with the brooch of the Elessar stone. With a deep bow the Steward of Gondor placed the Circlet in his King's hands, and with a return bow Aragorn accepted it and placed it on his brow. Accepting the Sceptre, he straightened one last time, the King of Gondor and Arnor. He smiled at them all, a surprisingly joyful smile, and turning he led the way down the Throne Room of the Citadel of Minas Anor to the door.
The Captain of the Guard himself, Bergevir son of Bergil son of Beregond, stood straight and proudly as he gave the sign the door was to be opened, his face white but self-possessed. He led the King's Honor Guard, drawn from both Gondor and Arnor, three before, three after, as they paced out to join those waiting beneath the White Tree. His son had not been told the nature of the King's plans for the day, but he had had both the right and the need to know.
The King did not go directly to his wife, but directed the procession was to go beyond the Court of the Tree to the grouped statues which stood beyond it in the midst of a raised bed of elanor and niphredil and athelas, warded behind with a hedge of rosemary plants. He looked into the timeless eyes of four Pheriannath carved in finest marble, the marble of Casistir, set up here to honor four who had given so much for the freedom and safety of all the Free Peoples as well as those who'd previously not known freedom, and he reached forth to touch the hand of Frodo Baggins, the Ring lying in his palm, and murmured, "Soon, mellon nín, soon." Faramir saw that Aragorn touched the fingertips, nowhere near the circle, saw the tenderness of the King's expression, the pride, the longing. Faramir's own tears, long held in check, began now to fall.
Finally the King gave a deep bow, straightened slowly and with a visible twinge of pain, then turned with great dignity to circle the monument back to the White Tree, before which he again bowed deeply, then set his hand on its bark and closed his eyes. "Continue to grow and bloom," he said in a low but carrying voice. "Let Middle Earth continue to know the dignity and honor of our people, our lineages." He looked up, turned to look at the light of the Sun, which stood now at her zenith, and finally turned to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, his brothers, and the closest friend to his foster father. "It is time," he said simply, moved to his wife and put his free hand on her shoulder, and led her, reluctant, toward the Silent Street.
The Warden opened the door with the dignity of his office, bowed as the procession entered, closed the door after and then took the lead, bringing them to the Kings' House. Aragorn looked at the doors with sudden revulsion. "No," he said. "I wish to take my leave out here, beneath the open sky."
If the Warden was surprised at this he was too well trained in the ways of grief to betray it, but at a clap of his hands those whose duties were to care for the Houses of the Dead appeared from whatever parts of the cemetery they'd been working in, and at a quiet order they went into the Kings' House and brought out first a pedestal set on a cart flat to the ground, then after carrying it to a stone slab set nearby placed it with great care. They disappeared back inside and returned with a large slab of finest marble, and under the direction of their master carefully centered it over the pedestal. Finally one went back inside and brought out a pall and pillow of red silk, draped cloth over the stone, laid the pillow at the west end of the bier so made, and bowed to the King. The Warden joined in the bow. "You are not the first to desire such a thing, my Lord. Would you prefer you remain here after? We do have the tomb and cover prepared long ago by the Master Ruvemir." At the King's thoughtful nod, he nodded in return. "So it shall be done, then, My Lord. Rest well." All saw that, in spite of his respectful, professional demeanor, the man himself was weeping quietly as he gave a sign to the others to withdraw as well, to allow these their grief in privacy and dignity.
Aragorn unfastened his sword belt and handed it to his son. "When the time of honor is done, take it, my son, and wear it with honor, and in his time give it to Valandil." Eldarion nodded solemnly. The two embraced, and then Aragorn embraced all others, whispering words of leavetaking to each.
When Faramir's turn came, the King knelt, held him very close, and the Hobbit felt, for the first time, the labored beating of the Man's heart, realized at last that the King had reason to know his time was short. He straightened with concern, touched his King's face, and whispered, "Go with the blessings of all with you, my Lord, my father's friend. And when you see him, bear him my love, tell him it shouldn't be too long ere I join you all." Aragorn smiled. His face was now visibly tired. He nodded.
What was said between the King and each of the others no one heard, but at last he stood alone one last time, and all could see he suddenly swayed before he found his balance. Eldarion handed sword belt and Andúril to the Steward, aided his father to sit, then to lie down, straightened first pall and then mantle around him, smoothed his hair. The King's face was definitely pale. "It is coming more swiftly than I'd expected," he said, when all was in order. "I'm sorry--but it would have come almost as swiftly if I'd tried to delay." He smiled into his son's eyes. "I will be all right, my son. This is the natural order of things, after all." He turned his head slightly, looked to his grandson, who came forward to set the Crown of Gondor in his hands. He smiled into the boy's eyes, and the boy smiled back, the grief briefly fled. "I am so very glad," the King whispered, "that I was granted the grace to know you in this life. Support your father well, Valandil. And when you come to marry, may you know the great joy he and I both have known." He reached up to touch the boy's temple, then withdrew his hand and looked to his son.
"It is time, Eldarion, for you to accept this. Wear it proudly, and wear it in humility as well. Remember that its weight represents the responsibility you owe not only the peoples of Gondor and Arnor, but to all others outside our sway as well. Let all who see you wearing it know you do so in honesty, fealty, strength, honor, justice, mercy. Let you never betray a treaty or your word. May the Valar guard and guide you, and our people, always." He started to lift the Crown to his son, but his hands were trembling, and the younger man reached down and took it from him, and at a weak gesture from his father, set it on his head. Aragorn's voice regained its strength. "Behold the King!" he pronounced, and Hirgion and Barahir repeated the declaration as all others, save Arwen, knelt.
Eldarion knelt over his father's form, embraced him, weeping, and the King briefly embraced him one last time in return, until his hands fell away. His face was very pale now, his eyes growing distant. Eldarion laid his fathers' hands on his breast, and he took Andúril from the Steward and laid it on his father's body alongside the sceptre, and Aragorn grasped it one last time.
"Leave us," he whispered. "Leave Arwen and me. May Ilúvatar bless you all." The others withdrew.
A bell had been carried to Middle Earth from foundered Númenor on the ship of Elendil, and when the Dome of Stars had been raised in Osgiliath it had been placed in a high tower built beside it. When the former capitol was abandoned, this bell had been brought to Minas Tirith and placed high in the tower of the Citadel. No rope hung from it, no way it could be rung by Men. It had not been heard sounding for over a thousand years, and no one had given much thought to it for many lives of Men. But suddenly it tolled, the great Bell of the Kings, gift to Elendil from the artisans of Tol Eressëa, tolled a single note for each year that Aragorn son of Arathorn and Gilraen, Heir to Elendil and Isildur and Valandil, the Dúnadan, Man of the West, the Lord King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, the Elfstone and Renewer and Far-Strider, Lord of Gondor and Arnor, bearer of the Star of Elendil as well as the Crown of Gondor and Sceptre of Annúminas and the Sword Reforged and the Elessar stone, once known as Strider, the Lord Captain Thorongil, Ælric, Swiftfoot, Estel, and other names long forgotten, he who had been the Hope of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth--for each year he had lived. All looked up in wonder and consternation, not immediately understanding the meaning, then all suddenly realizing all too well the message it proclaimed. Their King was dead!
As the tolling continued, they gathered, each to the gate nearest to them, those who lived out on the Pelennor hurrying forward to the Great Gates set in place in the fifth year of the King's reign to hear the news confirmed, those from the Citadel itself to the Court of the White Tree. Two hundred ten strokes were sounded by that Bell, giving all ample time to gather, for the pale-faced Heralds to unseal their scrolls with trembling fingers, to take their places where all gathered near could hear. And when at last the Bell went silent, each unrolled his scroll and began to read.
"To my people, I give you my greetings and my farewells. Today my story in Middle Earth is completed, for the sands in the glass of my life have at last run out. Let it be known that it has been a blessing to have served you as your Lord and King. Our son Eldarion has received the Winged Crown from my hands, and is now Lord and King of Gondor and Arnor" (although those scrolls sent to the northern realm had the names reversed).
"Let all rejoice that the King is with you and will remain among you. And may he remain true to you and you to him for as long as the Valar hold Their Thrones. Blessings be upon and remain with you all.
"The King is dead. Long live the King."
And there was weeping in all parts of the city, and at the setting of the Sun in the Southlands, the Northern Kingdom, Rohan, Ithilien, Imladris, and the Shire.
"The King is dead. Long live the King."