The Age of Men
“Is that the Queen?”
“No, fool! What would the Queen be doing on foot, with no guard, and in such plain raiment?”
“Well, they all look the same, these elves…”
If one thing can be said about the atani, they do not all look the same. Eru must have a sense of humour to have created a species of such diversity of shapes and sizes and colours. They are mostly ugly, but in different ways.
I hate this city. I hate its people.
I move through the sweaty, stinking mass of atani. The reek of garlic and unwashed bodies almost makes me gag. Most of them clear a path for me, making way for that most rare and exotic of beings in Minas Tirith—an elf lady. Not all though. I have been groped thrice. I made sure the three swine who dared to do so peed in their pants and squealed like little girls for it. They may count themselves fortunate to still have all their extremities and their balls intact.
I greet with relief the short, sturdy, bearded figures at the Great Gate. Mortals too, but superior ones. They smell of earth and iron ore and coal smoke and pipeweed. How you hate that last scent... but it is, for me, the scent of childhood memories in the Ered Luin. Sitting at the feet of Telchar, Suthri and Aurvang, listening to them talk with my father into the night…
The new Great Gate of Minas Tirith is a wonder of mithril and steel, a thing of beauty and grace and strength. The Seventh Gate had been a labour of eight full months for me and all the smiths of my house. The casári began work two coranári after the War of the Ring and have taken twenty-one. It is understandable. The rebuilding of the rest of the city and the restoration of the townlands took precedence. And as mortals they waste so much time sleeping and eating.
The first stars are lighting the sky by the time we finish. We admire the magnificent gate as it shimmers softly, catching the starlight and the light of Rána, a thin sliver rising in the east. It is finally complete. The first undertaking of dwarves and elves—elf, rather—since the days of Eregion and Moria. And possibly the last.
The Regent of the Reunited Kingdom and several officials of the city have come to admire it as well.
“Magnificent!” exclaims Prince Faramir in awe. “The King would regret missing this moment. We will send word.”
Gimli beams with pride, and pats me on the shoulder as he speaks. “Dwarven skill and elven spells conjoined. Not Grond, nor black spell, nor fell might of any troll would ever breach this gate!”
“Indeed,” say I. “May it stand ten thousand years.” And I fall silent. There had been another gate, once, and magic had availed nothing. How casually the Abhorred One had delved within my mind and spirit to uncover the keys to cancel my spells. And the strongest and finest of all my works had fallen to ruin beneath the onslaught of ram and fire.
Amid my memories of that other gate, Gimli cocks a thick eyebrow at me and nudges me. “How are you holding up, lass?” he asks, his voice gruff yet oddly gentle. “And the boys?”
I look down at him and manage a smile. “As well as we may, Gimli Glóinul.”
“We return to Aglarond four days hence. You are welcome there anytime, lass. You and your lads.”
Before I head back into the city, the worthy casar takes my hand and pats it comfortingly with his broad, gnarled one.
I am drained and weary as I walked through the gates. The casting of the wards of protection has taken far more out of me than I had thought it would. You have felt it too—this diminishing of our powers. How mindspeaking across distances is now harder for us two. How we could not sense our lost son even over half a league.
So this is what the fading of our kind feels like. I wonder bleakly if it will worsen over centuries… till our light fades and we become no more in power than the mortals that surround me now.
I glance back at the finished gate. Amid my pride and satisfaction, sorrow that this work is done consumes me. Emptiness yawns before me in the days ahead.
I walk over the cobbled streets of Minas Tirith alone. The atani part to clear a path before me, in their eyes a mix of wonder and fear. I wonder if I look as fey and grim as I feel within.
The nights are worst. The twins lie sprawled on your side of the bed, and I lie gazing at them, or at the ceiling. The aching emptiness is so great inside me, there are no tears. The silence within where your voice had been is like the void before the first note of the First Music.
It is a year to the day since Laurefindel first told me the news at the highest point of the city. As we climbed to the top of the Tower of Ecthelion to watch the sun set over Ered Nimrais, I knew in my fëa he had some great matter to discuss. He had been in the Hall of Council all afternoon with Estel and the others, whilst I was with the casári at the Great Gate. I could feel the restless, surging currents of excitement and unease in his fëa. We stood at the high battlements encircling the silver spike, just below the chamber of the palantir, and he told me how different reports had brought intelligence of the surviving forces of Sauron gathering at the Hrónairë, the Sea of Rhûn.
“Urqui?” I had heard of King Elessar’s campaigns. Gondor and Rohan had hunted the remnants of the dark lord’s armies for the last two decades. The twins had been too young for Laurefindel to think of going. There had been no word for the last five years. I had imagined the wars were over.
“Yes. Apparently they rally under an Uruk chieftain who calls himself Dagog the Cruel. They have with them mountain trolls. And darkened races of men… Hrónatani, Easterlings… and Variags, and the Balchoth. Gondor prepares to strike at them with Rohan. Once his baby is able to walk, Estel will ride forth with Éomer.”
He was silent for a while. His arms tightened around my waist, his cheek pressed against my hair. “Elladan and Elrohir will join them. And Legolas too.”
I felt my heart go dead within me as I pulled away from his embrace. “Just say it. Just say that you are going. There is no need to skirt around it like this.”
“But you and I need to discuss—”
“What is there to discuss?” I said resentfully. “The twins are twenty already this year. There is nothing to stop you from taking up your sword again.”
He looked into my eyes. I felt a curious undercurrent I did not understand. “There is no way I can go if you say it like that,” he said quietly.
“How would you like me to say it? I will not stand in your way. Go then. Go with my blessing. There, is that not what you want? Take it. Take my blessing and go.”
“I will not go. Not if you feel this way.”
“How do you expect me to feel? The Hrónairë is four hundred sodding leagues away.” It would make his previous trips to Lothlórien and Mirkwood seem like a jaunt to Bree. “You are bored. You need your battles and your sword is thirsty for blood. How could I deprive you?”
“Is that how terrible you think me? That this war will be like play to me? The best war is the one that never needs to be fought. I get plenty of pleasure in wielding a blade with skill, yes, but I get that just from sparring with the pereldar and with you—”
“Oh, how could it compare with the thrill of the kill? Hunting rabbits and squirrels is not the same thing. You know it.”
He sighed. “Look. I admit there was an element of sport for me in slaughtering the minions of darkness for thousands of years. It was one way I dealt with the grimness and bitter losses and sorrows of war. Oh, I rejoiced when the dens of urqui in the Greenwood were destroyed, and when the packs of rácar roamed the Rhudaur no more... But I confess that part of me has rather missed them. Fighting has always been one of the things I do best.”
“You see? I know you too well. So there is no need to lie to me and pretend indecision over going to Rhûn—”
“It is not pretence!” he cried, a note of anguish in his voice. “I do not like what I have become over the last age—a seeker of that thrill of the kill, as you call it. Especially now that the rules of the game are no longer the same.” His eyes were dark violet and troubled. “This will be a different war, for me, and I do not think there could be sport in it for me any longer.”
There it was again, that dark, tumultuous undercurrent, so alien in his bright fëa. He turned away and leaned his elbows on the battlements… gazed out eastwards, over the Pelennor Fields. The western sun was fading on the Ephel Duath. Beyond it, vast lands stretched unseen.
I walked up and leaned close to him, my hand sliding under heavy golden tresses up the nape of his neck, my lips brushing against his ear lobe. “What is wrong? Talk to me.”
He did not speak for a while. “Do you know of the Great Plague of 1636?”
“I read of it.” I gave a small shrug. “It had naught to do with us.”
A corner of his mouth lifted wryly at how casually callous I was regarding that horrific decimation of the mortal population of Endórë. “That’s my atani-loathing dark prince talking. You love Estel and Arwen. And admit it—you rather like Faramir and Éowyn. How many good atani will have to sneak into your heart ere the race can be redeemed, cundunya?”
“We will never find out. I have no intention of admitting any other of the Afterborn into my affections. So. The Great Plague. What of it?”
Memory haunted his eyes. “It began here, in Gondor, brought by a ship from Umbar. There are no words to describe the horror. I was travelling through Anórien when I met the first groups of people fleeing west. By the time I arrived in Osgiliath, Telemnar and his queen and children were dead. And four-fifths of the people. I remained there eight months as a healer, helping to burn the bodies and tend the stricken, even after Telemnar’s successor abandoned the capital…”
As images of blackened and bloated bodies flashed in my mind from his, I wondered how much he had seen in seven thousand years that he had barely begun to tell me over ninety years of marriage. And for the hundredth time I wondered—from what fount he drew his endless joy and light, even after all that he has lived through.
“I managed to save many,” he was saying, “and the word must have spread… I was summoned urgently to Minas Ithil, one evening, and it proved to be a trap. Wainriders. Their people were dying like flies, and they brought me in chains to the lands beyond Dagorlad to save—”
“Wait. How did you let yourself be captured by barbarians?”
“For eight months I had laid my sword down to be purely a healer, melmenya. When they ambushed me, I was loath to fight them. All I saw when I looked at them were children of Eru Ilúvatar in need of my help. All I felt was compassion. I was with the Wainriders for almost a year. I saw much barbarity and cruelty that I loathed… but also honour… and courage… sometimes, in one and the same man. Pitiless pillagers who impaled the babies of their enemies on spears at lunchtime could go home for dinner to kiss their wives and cuddle their children. One such pillager, my captor, almost became my friend. Their tribe was almost exterminated by the dread pestilence, but I healed his children and many of his people. And, out of that, many friendships were truly born. I could have escaped at any time, but chose not to… till one day, the chieftain released me. Called me brother and gave me the kiss of friendship ere I left.” He paused. “Two centuries later, the Wainriders attacked Gondor. Thousands died over a century of war. I had no idea what to think, or what I felt.”
I reached for his hand and squeezed it. He looked down at our joined hands, and began to massage mine gently. Hands so healing and wondrous in their touch, it seemed heresy to think they could kill. He continued to speak.
“How easy it would be to act in a world of blacks and whites. In the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, had our Gondolindrin army clashed with Uldor’s Easterlings—the Wainriders’ forebears—I have no doubt I would have slaughtered them without compunction, as Makalaurë did. Put me back there now... I would fight them. But with what conviction…” His voice trailed away. “That year with the Wainriders has coloured my world grey. I have made it my mission to destroy the fell creatures of darkness. I have never once taken the lives of atani, no matter how darkened their hearts, how savage their natures. They are not the Nazgûl, in whom all that was human had been utterly consumed, as all that is elven has perished in an orc.”
“What of the slavers that stole our son? They are foul and depraved men. They may be neither urqui nor Nazgûl, but they are no better than beasts, and deserve to die as such.”
“I wish I could see it so simply, my bloodthirsty beloved. But I cannot. For millennia I have watched atani slaughter atani and wanted no part of it. That is why my heart is not in this. Easterlings. Variags. Balchoth… I would have to meet them on the battlefield, in Rhûn.”
“Then there is no dilemma—do not go! This is Man’s fight, not ours. Let them go kill each other.”
He looked at me gravely. “But I remain the servant of Turukáno’s line and of the light. There was no question, during the War of the Ring, that my first duty was to you and the children. Now our boys are already twenty. How could I let Estel and Elladan and Elrohir ride to war, and not take my place at their side? How could I know that creatures of darkness yet threaten Endórë, and not do my part to destroy them?” His eyes travelled over the lands spread before us. “Will we sail, or will we stay?” he asked me quietly. “Until we decide, my love, this is still my fight.”
Bastard. Noble, dutiful, heroic bastard.
“Not much of a discussion in the end, was it?” I said tightly.
“I wanted to explain it to you. I wanted you to understand—”
“But in the end nothing I had to say mattered.”
“It does. It does matter, vesseya. I have said my part, but what you say will decide the matter.”
I am selfish. I played dirty. “Damn it, Flower… you could have sailed back to Aman with Elrond, and counted your duty to Turukáno’s line and the Valar as fulfilled. The truth is that you stayed back for me. Do you think I do not know it? Estel and the twins have the armies of Gondor and Rohan. They can secure the future of Endórë without you. But our boys need you… I need you.” Tossing out my pride, I played my last card, and looked at him through eyes swimming with tears that came all too easily.
If he mentions how Estel is leaving Arwen with a tiny baby and four children, I am going to drug him and tie him to our bed till the army leaves…
The tears worked as I knew they would. He tenderly brushed them from my face and kissed me, his azure eyes stricken. “Then I will stay,” he said simply. “I will tell Estel. Come.” He turned and pulled me by the hand towards the steps.
“Wait!” I pulled him to a halt, my heart guilty and unquiet. I thought of Arwen, and the baby, and her daughters. If anything, anything were to happen to Estel, or to her brothers, and I had kept back the best warrior in Middle Earth for myself… “How long do you think the campaign will last?”
He looked at me in some surprise. “It could be a year. It could be five. We do not yet know what exactly we are up against—” Once the words left his mouth, he realized it. In his heart, he was still going. We looked at each other. A sense of resignation descended upon me.
“You are going,” I said wearily. “I will not fight it. You are the greatest warrior in Endórë, and you should be at Estel’s side. I know what staying behind will do to you.” If anything befell any of the three, regret and guilt would eat away at him… “I could not do that to you. Are you certain, regardless your scruples, that you are prepared to lift your sword against moratani?”
“Prepared? No… but I would do it. I would see it as a necessary evil in the face of a greater evil.”
“Would you hesitate to kill the savages?”
“If I ride under Estel’s banner, his enemies are mine. I will not fail him.”
“Four hundred leagues...” I muttered. A tight knot formed in the pit of my stomach, and I felt as though the vast distance already yawned between us like a great gulf.
“I will not go without your blessing. I will not leave you if you need me. One word.”
“Damn it, Flower. I will always need you.” My throat ached and I felt a hot tear slide down my cheek. “Go. But let me go with you and fight at your side again.”
He did not release my hand through all this. He pulled me to him and held me tightly. “Valar, do you know how much I want that? I want it and fear it in equal measure.”
We were both quiet, having the same thought at the same time.
“What of the boys?” he said. “How could both of us go so far and leave them for so long?”
“They are already twenty...” It was traditionally the age at which the children of the Eldar required less of their parents’ care.
“Look what happened when we left them alone for a morning?”
And both of us knew at once what needed to be done. I felt a strange calm descend upon me.
And I, who had once defied a king’s wishes—who had refused to remain behind as his regent, but wilfully rode with him to war—I, who had once, young and arrogant, burned with eagerness to prove myself in battle—now looked at my husband with soft eyes, and spoke as a docile nís.
“Go then,” I said quietly, my arms tightening around him. “Go with my blessing… I shall stay with the boys. Estel needs you at his side, and I will not withhold you. With the greatest warrior of the quendi there, the enemy shall fall the faster, victory will come the sooner. Arwen and her daughters, and many families, will rejoice to receive their men back safe, and sooner, because you go.”
How selfless and noble. None of that comforts me now as I stare at the ceiling and feel my emptiness. You and I had hoped our minds could touch, over the leagues. But once you and the troops passed Osgiliath, the silence fell.
It is going to be another sleepless night. I roll over and breathe in deeply the scent of our sons’ fair hair. They smell like summer, as you do. I memorized your mouth, imprinted you on my body, each time we made love from that day till you left. I have discovered how little elven memory, for all its crystal clarity, is worth. I would take back all the selfless words I said at the top of Ecthelion’s Tower just to have you back here in my arms again.
He walks slowly along the wall of the Citadel, tall and regal, his silver hair lifting in the western wind.
I never have anything to say to him, this great-uncle of yours, nor him to me. We bow to each other as we pass like ships in the night. I glance back and watch as he gazes west. Alone as I.
But is he as lonely? I wonder why he stayed behind when his love sailed west. He has no reason to dread Aman as I do, surely.
I have been without you eight months and twenty-four days and thirteen hours. What is that but the blink of an eye to an elf? Yet how the days have dragged for me. I shiver when I think of the twenty-two coranári he has been here without his mate.
Loneliness must have driven him from the golden woods. The memory of a smile and a radiant gleam of golden hair haunting him in every glade, from behind every tree. The memories of her voice echoing down through the millennia as he walked over swards of elanor.
He has been here in Minas Tirith for two years now. His people he has sent to Eryn Lasgalen or Ithilien, or bidden them take ship from Mithlond.
How does he survive in this city of men? He is as out of place as a snowy owl among noisy, flapping crows, as a swan among ducks.
He keeps largely to the Citadel, where his chambers are near Arwen’s. I oft meet him in the library. He reads the poets and philosophers of men and elves. He has no use for history; he has lived it all. Always, his face is serene and smooth. He glides along silently through the aisles, straight and tall, only his long robes whispering his presence. I have never seen him speak to any of the atani he passes or who serve him. He barely acknowledges their presence. They are to him like wraiths or mayflies; their brief lives signify no more to him than the statues of kings lining Rath Dínen.
His glittering grey eyes come truly alive only with his family. He sits, a Silver Tree beneath the boughs of the White Tree, and watches his great-granddaughters at play with a gentle smile, and listens with pleasure to Arwen singing his favourite songs and playing the harp.
In a hundred years or so, that song and that harp will fall forever silent. He will watch, in turn, each of those fair, laughing children grow grey and wither and die.
Where will you and I be, when that happens? Will we have taken the road west like his lady, or chosen to remain as he?
Or will we have parted ways as they, one following the sunset… and the other…
It is myself I contemplate, as my eyes follow the silver lord. Imagining myself a lone raven among crows, an immortal among mayflies. Facing the long ages till the Second Music in these lands overrun by men.
We stand apart on the citadel walls, our faces turned west. The breeze that kisses our faces as it flies up the Anduin from the sea has never smelled so sweet.
“Go to Ithilien, and wait there for me,” he said before he left. He knew how little I would enjoy being surrounded by mortals for the year or more he would be away.
I was silent. Haldir and a handful of the elves of Ithilien would ride to war with him and Legolas. The rest had no desire to risk going to Námo in a fight not theirs, regardless they wished to sail or stay in Endórë.
The one who would lead the elves of Ithilien in the absence of Legolas would be Teliaris.
Laurefindil did not have to tell me a word of anything that had transpired between him and his sister. One look into her azure eyes at our wedding, at that sly little smile on her luscious lips, and I had known.
Whenever I think of Teliaris, this is how I usually imagine her: pinned pretty face down to the ground under me, as I twist her arms behind her back and rub her nose into the dirt.
“No, the boys and I will stay in Minas Tirith,” I told him.
And kissed him as I knew Teliaris could never.
I let the boys go nowhere lower than the Fifth Circle without me or another to watch over them.
“Am-më, we will be fine,” they protest. “We are older now—we can take care of ourselves.”
No. No more wandering in the bazaar and markets alone, no traipsing around the hamlets and townlands of the Pelennor unsupervised.
They are our children and they chafe against it. They are restless and long to roam free.
I roamed the dark woods of Nan Elmoth all alone at their age. When I got home close to dawn, Adar would be waiting, smouldering with rage and ready to smite me. Ammë never seemed to mind how late or how long I stayed out. Only now as I follow behind our children, never losing sight of them as they race over the open fields and through the groves of the Pelennor, do I understand the love in my father’s cantankerous heart. The further my Ammë drifted from him, the more furious their fights, the tighter he sought to control and hold on to me.
They are all I have left of you right now. The thought of their loss or danger is not bearable.
Of course, as your children, they want to scale the Rammas Echor simply because it is there. They attempted the turret of the Tower of Ecthelion last week.
“Get down from there right now! Do you want to kill yourselves?”
In my own voice, I hear my father’s fear. And the faint, ironic echo of a curse.
Every time I see that bright flash of gold, just a little less bright than your hair, my heart leaps. I watch our Firstborn run to the young messenger waiting outside the House of the Riders in the Sixth Circle. These relay riders make the first leg of the journey from Minas Tirith to Annúminas, bearing letters and papers between the Governors and the Regent. There are privileges in being the special guests of the King and Queen. I watch our son pass the messenger a small package, the size and shape of a small book.
Of course, I think... the third relay station en route to Annúminas is at Imladris. Some soldiers and officers of the Reunited Kingdom were granted use of the southern wing of the great house by the Lords of Imladris seven summers ago.
I doubt our son’s package is for anyone in our household. Unless it be a long-distance prank mailed to Erestor, and I know Aryo has too much good sense now.
What would you do?
You would go to our son, and speak to him gravely, man-to-man, and discover what is afoot.
How ashamed of me you would be. I wait till our son has skipped away, then approach the messenger.
“Did my son give you a package?” I smile sweetly, in a manner I have discovered makes male atani of all ages go weak at the knees. “I forgot to put something in it.”
On the package is written, in Westron, Faelinn Hawthorn, Rivendell.
I run back to our chamber, for our twins are at their music lesson. I untie the string and take out two small, slender books wrapped in a piece of cloth. The Lay of Leithian and Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, both translated into Westron and written on thin parchment in Aryo’s precise, well-formed hand.
They are bound in leather; I remember seeing him do this over the past few days.
There is a letter sealed with wax. I slide a thin, sharp blade under the seal and open it without breaking it.
Greetings, fair Faelinn, from the City of the Kings…
There are four pages covered with close text, pouring out his life here in Minas Tirith.
…Atto has been gone fourteen months and seven days now. We miss him so much, and Ammë most of all, though she will never say it…
I scan it rapidly. Lessons. New friends. A funny incident in the market. A book he is reading now. Then…
…I hope you continue to read and are diligent in practising your writing. I enclose here two translations I have made for you—they are the writings I told you of in my last letter. I think you are ready to read them by now. You are the cleverest girl I have ever met, after my Ammë, who is truly not as scary as you imagine.
Oh, he has no idea. I have been wishing every plague and mishap mortals are susceptible to upon the young adaneth, if only she would be permanently removed from my son’s life.
I have sent word to Erestor that you should have use of our library whenever you wish. Please feel free to go to the house—they are all very kind and Thalanes makes excellent honey cakes...
I bite my lip, suddenly so homesick for Imladris that I want to weep.
… I have seen you not for eighteen months and fifteen days already, and I cannot tell you how much I miss our lessons and our talks. I miss you so much. Though your parents knew no Sindarin when they named you, dear Faelinn, by a strange fate of the stars your name means “soul-song” in my tongue. And I am feeling the truth of your name, for now I am far from you my soul feels out of tune...
My skin crawls with goosebumps.
Where in Eä did that come from? Our baby is twenty-two. At that age my life’s pleasures were smithing and hunting small mammals, and yours were sailing and games and swordplay.
Why could he not be like Arman, for whom life is archery and play and song, as it should be for a child?
I blame this on your father. He fell in love with Amárië when they were both children. And oh, of course, he loved the fírimar. Loved them enough to lay down his immortal life for one of them.
I blame this on your uncle. That fíriel-loving colossal moron. Is our son not intelligent enough, with all his knowledge of history, to realize that when it comes to loving mortals, the néri have had no luck?
It is all the fault of that damned Arafinwion blood.
It took your father over a hundred sodding Valian years to win Amárië’s hand. This wretched mortal girl is probably going to be dead in less than six Valian years.
I stare at our child’s signature before folding up the letter and taking up the books.
What would you do?
I want to light a fire and feed all of it to the flames.
I flip through the books our child has lovingly inscribed. My fingers tremble slightly. The translation is accurate, the language precociously polished. The heavy relevance of the two texts to an elda-atan relationship would be obvious even to a halfwit.
I seal the letter again with a heavy heart.
I do not have your courage to speak to him about this. You always know the right words to say, that censure and comfort and counsel in equal measure. I fear confronting it will stir him to recklessness or resentment. Drive him away from me. Drive him to rebellion and defiance. As happened with my father and I.
We came here hoping it was a child’s fancy, and would fade with time.
What if it does not?
I light the fire, the letter poised in my hand above the flames.
The next morning, the messenger rides out with the neatly-retied package in his pouch.
It is late afternoon when I go to the training courtyard on the Fifth Circle. It is empty at this time, I know, and the sword-training dummies will be in the shade. The summer sun blazes here with a brilliance that is almost harsh.
Because of the heat, I pull back my hair in a long braid that hangs to my waist. I put aside the dresses I wear daily here, and pull on a short-sleeved grey tunic in a fine, cool linen, and lightweight slate-grey breeches, and the black boots you bought me before you left. A woman in mannish clothing. That might make them gawk. But if they think I am going to train in skirts, they can go to hell.
It’s been a bad day. I miss you so much I hurt. Practice sword in hand, I run through the advanced drills you taught me so well. The familiar rhythm soothes me, and your voice runs through my head as I go through the paces over and over and over again. Footwork! Point up! Breathe!
I miss sparring with you. I attack the row of dummies lining the courtyard and rehearse perfect killing strokes with almost trance-like concentration. But there is little satisfaction to be had in attacking dummies. Before long, the presence of others here filters into my consciousness. Eyes staring. Muttering voices.
There is a gallery above the courtyard running along its length. Eight soldiers are leaning over the railings and looking at me. I see admiration on some faces, leers on others.
The show is over, boys. As I turn away to leave, one lewd comment catches my ear. A comment akin to what you once said to me in the healing halls, only phrased far less poetically and in Westron.
I whirl around to face them, cheeks burning, my eyes raking over their faces.
Silence falls abruptly.
“One of you thought highly of his manhood a moment past,” I snap. “Whoever you are, I dare you to look me in the eyes and repeat that again.”
No one speaks or moves for an awkward moment, then one brave young fellow speaks up. “Our apologies, valiant lady. We are but rough soldiers admiring a good sword-stroke and a fair face. And some tongues, alas, are made foolish in the presence of beauty.”
“Prettily said, good sir. But it was neither my skill nor my face that inspired those words from your fellow,” I growl.
“What goes on here?” says a clear, ringing voice.
The Regent of Gondor stands at one end of the gallery, hands behind his back.
“Prince Faramir,” I say with a bow, something in the kind regard of those grey eyes calming me.
“Lady Lómiel,” he bows in return. “Pray tell me, have my men been disturbing you?”
“One of them underestimated elven hearing, my lord. I am waiting for him to apologize like a man, instead of hiding now like a wet-nosed pup.”
A dark-haired young fellow at one end steps forward, his face red. “I proffer my humblest apologies, my lady, for the offence I caused,” he says a little stiffly, probably deciding it is best to come clean before one of his seven comrades outs him. I stare at him coldly for a long moment. His dark eyes falter and look down, cowed yet sullen. Take up your sword! Show me how much of a man you are! I am about to bark at him—but suddenly, it is someone else I see in his place. Someone no better than him, who had near done what this one only spoke. Had you not intervened in time, that someone might have done worse. My cheeks burn again, but with shame.
“Apology accepted,” I say shortly.
“Let me not hear of disrespect shown to the King’s guests again. Get along to your duties,” snapped Faramir.
The soldiers disappear and as I make to leave, Faramir descends the stairs and enters the courtyard. “Lady Lómiel, I make apology for my men’s behaviour. They have seen few elf women, apart from the Queen.”
I smile wryly. “And I am not like her in the slightest.”
Queen Arwen is all the perfections of womanhood and all feminine graces in one slender, immaculate, shimmering package, an object of reverent awe bordering on worship to her people. The effect her peerless beauty has on common fírimar, especially at close quarters, is usually to reduce them to silence like stunned mullets or to incoherent gibber.
Sword in hand, sweating from the heat, with wet strands of loose hair clinging to my neck and brow, and my damp tunic clinging to my body, I cut a very different figure, I am sure.
Faramir speaks as though he broaches a matter of utmost delicacy. “It is unknown here for women to wear men’s clothes as well. Thus it does tend to draw… undesired attention.”
Oh yes. It is one thing to dress as a man if one slays a Nazgûl king in wartime, and quite another to make a spectacle of oneself in peacetime in an open courtyard with soldiers passing by. In other words, though in his courtesy Faramir would never say it, I had almost invited what had just happened. I feel my cheeks burn. “So I have come to realize. I shall refrain from being so attired, henceforth. But to train in skirts would be incredibly tiresome.”
His grey eyes twinkle sympathetically. “I agree. I certainly would not wish to do so myself. Perhaps I could arrange for a private practice room for you? There are a few suitable ones in the Sixth Circle, close to your quarters. I will have a couple of training dummies moved there.”
“Thank you. That would be most kind.”
“I had thought, before this, that elf women were…”
I smile wryly. “Nice? Polite? Kind? Gentle? I am none of those things. I do not pretend to represent my race nor my sex. And I have brought disrepute to both, I fear.”
He laughs. “I would have said ‘less warlike’. I see now why the King and his brothers regretted that you could not ride with them to war.”
“What is the latest from Rhûn?”
“It goes well. Two tribes of the Úmanyar have joined forces with our troops. They crossed the Celduin unopposed, and have taken a fortress of the Balchoth. Minimal losses. Your husband is well. And your lords, and Legolas, and the King.”
I smile at him, relieved and grateful. “Thank you.”
Light and lively voices approach, chattering in a strange mix of Quenya, Sindarin and Westron. Our twins bound into the courtyard, grinning cheerfully and glowing almost as brightly as you do.
“Ammë!” they shout. Then they bow to the Regent with happy grins on their faces. “Prince Faramir!” They are familiar with him by now. He has been almost a father to them in your absence, taking them hunting and riding with Elboron. You would approve.
“Master Feredir taught us about Gondolin today!” says Aryo, falling into Westron sprinkled with Sindarin.
“Of course we already knew all about it—” brags Arman.
“Feredir said Father is one of the bravest and noblest elf heroes in history!”
“Everyone here knows how Father slew a balrog!”
Given that they have been mixing mostly with Gondorian soldiers and their sons, I am sure that must have seemed true to them. They are bursting with pride as they speak.
Faramir smiles. “It is true. Your father is a mighty warrior and a hero of great renown. You are rightfully proud of him.”
“But not all in the books here is as Father told us,” says Aryo, looking a little puzzled.
“Yes—according to Feredir’s book, the gwarth Maeglin was a coward.”
“He allied himself with Morgoth to escape torture—”
“—but Father always told us he was a brave man—”
“—that he was tortured—”
“—but I wonder… how Father could have known that…” says Aryo. “He never spoke to the gwarth before they were both killed.”
“Father doesn’t like to speak ill of people. Maybe he was just guessing.”
“I was taught from the same book as Feredir,” says the Regent. “Loremaster Pengolodh survived Gondolin, and would have been able to gather the story from other survivors who would have had words with the traitor. Princess Idril and Tuor her lord, most especially. Your father is a generous and noble spirit indeed, to speak so well of one who wrought his own fall and that of many he loved.”
I like Faramir a little less than I did a couple of minutes past.
“Oh yes! Yes, he is!” Aryo beams.
“Maeglin could not have been that brave!”
“One who could betray his own kind surely could not have good in him.”
“Pengolodh even said he might have orc-blood!” Arman says it with relish even though he grimaces.
“Eww… that is balc, all right!” exclaims Aryo. Our sons wrinkle their noses in disgust.
I feel as though a knife has been thrust through my heart. Never had I conceived that my old tutor, the loremaster, could say such a thing… How did you always manage to conceal that particular detail from me?
A vandal in the last years of the Third Age had torn out all the pages on Maeglin from the books in the library. Idhren ere he sailed west had almost fainted at the unspeakable horror of such a crime.
I struggle to keep down the wave of nausea rising in me. “Utterly preposterous,” I manage to say, my voice harsh. “How could such a thing even be possible?”
“Maybe his father was half-orc!”
“There is no such thing! That is obscene!! As if one with orc-blood would ever have been made a prince and lord by the king, and respected for centuries within the city. I am ashamed that you would give such filth any credence. Do not ever repeat such rubbish again.”
Our sons look contrite and a little cowed. “Yes, Ammë,” they murmur.
I see Faramir eyeing me a little oddly. I quickly school my face.
“Get along now,” says the Regent to the twins, clapping them on their backs. “Did you not tell Harnor you wanted to watch him challenge Gaelig? They should be in the jousting yard now.”
“Oh yes, Prince Faramir! May we, Ammë?”
“Ammë!” They hug me and run out.
“Lady Lómiel,” Faramir says. “Methinks you are weary. Will you come partake of some refreshment with me and my lady? We have a very good cake sweetened with dates, and a fragrant new drink from pods grown south of the Haradwaith.”
It is not the first time an invitation of this nature has been extended. His grey eyes are kind. He is a handsome mortal, and his features have a certain boyishness in them, but there are lines already at the corners of his eyes, and after another two years of shouldering the burdens of the Kingdom, grey is showing at his temples.
“That is most kind, lord... but no. I shall practice with the dummy a while longer.”
“We could also spar a little now, if you wish. It would take me but a moment to get another sword.”
“Oh no. You are kindness itself, but I shall not keep you. The dummy is all I need.”
I could not make it clearer that I wish to be alone. He bows as he takes his leave. “I will send you word on the morrow, which room will be at your disposal for your practice.”
“My heartfelt thanks, Prince Faramir.”
The pain and hurt are so great within me as I stand alone in the lengthening shadows, that I give vent to them by drawing a knife from my belt and hurling it violently across the courtyard. It lands loudly with a reverberating thunk and quivers dead-centre between the carven eyes of a weather-beaten dummy.
A movement at the corner of my eye. I turn my head to see Faramir lingering at the entrance of the courtyard, looking back at me over his shoulder. The expression on his face is a little… disturbed.
As I lay out the pieces of jewellery, there is a rapturous chorus of oohs and aahs from the ladies of the Queen’s court. I step back and watch as they reverently lift necklaces and earrings and bracelets, trying them out before the mirrors sitting on the table. They look like bright, richly-plumed birds. Their giggles and chatter rise like the chirping clamour of birdsong that greets me each morning at our bedroom window.
Since the dwarves left, I have had little occupation for my hands. The Queen sent a message to the smithies to make me welcome, but the burly smiths had eyed me dubiously and not known what to do with me. And there had been more of the same stares and leers that I had from the soldiers. It was impossible to do any work in such surroundings. I would have feared my hammer ending up buried in someone’s brain.
With my jewelling tools and a crucible for smelting, and handfuls of gemstones and gold and silver from the Queen, I craft these creations in our chamber. I come to the Queen’s court only when I have pieces completed. Arwen and her older daughters are given the first selection, the remnants are laid out as gifts for her ladies-in-waiting to choose from. The cloistered atmosphere stifles me. Their gossip and chatter and idle vanities drive me insane. When I spend more than two hours with Arwen’s ladies, you do not want to know where I want to stick those jewelling tools, my love.
Arwen comes to sit at my side on the luxuriously upholstered leather couch.
“I understand that you have been keeping to your quarters a great deal of late.” There is a gentle concern in her grey eyes.
“I read, I craft. I train in a nearby room. I have all I need there, Arwen.”
Arwen’s eyes wander fondly over her ladies as they deck themselves with baubles and preen before the mirrors. “I do not expect you to come here and mingle with my ladies, mellon-vuin. But you know you are always welcome to join me for my private dinners… why have you not come once?”
I do not know why. I have preferred to take a quiet dinner alone in our room or with the boys…
“Nor have you once accepted the invitations of Prince Faramir and Princess Éowyn to their home, Lómiel,” the Queen adds gently.
“I send the boys. They enjoy being with Elboron.”
Arwen gazes at me for a while, a faint smile playing on her lips. The grey eyes are wise and sad. “Do not withdraw from life so, mellon-vuin. When Glorfindel was here, you would go to the markets and ride out into the townlands with him. You would join us for all our banquets or dine with Estel and me in our chambers… and we would sit together under the stars by the fountains and the White Tree, and listen to song, flute and harp as we talked the night away. You miss him as I miss Estel, but he would wish you to live life as though he were here. As I do in Estel’s absence, for the sake of our daughters, and await with hope the day he rides back through the gates in victory.” She takes my hand and pats it. The gesture is maternal, and I feel it as such, no matter how many millennia younger her fëa is than mine.
It is true, Laurelotya, that over the years you have pulled me out of the shadows and solitude of my mole-tunnels, and that you are what draws me into the sunshine of life. Arwen makes me realize how easily, in your absence, I have withdrawn and reverted to my old ways… and not even been conscious of my lapse.
But it is more than this. Only I will never have any way of saying it.
On one hand are the common masses of atani whom I despise as a race. They are predominantly rank and crass, dirty and stupid. They are capable of depravities and debaucheries beyond elvish comprehension. And they are ludicrously self-important for a race that perishes like mayflies, their brief lives like flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow.
But on the other hand, there are Estel, and Faramir, and Éowyn, in whom I have come to know nobility, courage, wisdom and generosity far beyond my own, and who have stealthily crept into my esteem and my heart. I look at Arwen, to whom I gave my friendship ere I ever guessed that she might choose mortality. When she did, it had felt almost like betrayal.
I could never tell her, could never say it: I don’t know how to be a friend to you anymore—how to draw close to someone who I know will be dead in a handful of seasons. I don’t know how to bear such a loss except to draw away and armour my heart against caring too deeply.
For that reason, too, I have not gone to Aglarond to visit the dwarves.
As I gaze into Arwen’s grey eyes, I feel somehow that I do not need to say it. That she knows. There is something of her grandmother in the way her eyes penetrate mine. She smiles at me reassuringly like a mother, then appealingly like a sister.
I smile back at her. “We will come for dinner tonight.”
A messenger rides in from the north. I watch our son run to meet him, and go away dejected. No reply. Again.
There have been five letters to Imladris I have intercepted, over the past two years. I do not know how many others have gone without my knowledge. Always, I reseal them after reading. The messengers have begun to give me conspiratorial smiles.
The letters have grown shorter, their tone increasingly despondent.
…did you get my last letter? I hope you are well…
…I have been thinking much of you and wondering how you are. I do hope you may write soon…
I am glad now I did not destroy any of his missives. The wretched and unworthy girl sees but a child beneath her notice, and her lack of response will kill the sorry affair better than if we had intervened. I want to thrash her for wounding our son, kiss her for giving him back to us.
Aryo kicks a stone dejectedly as he walks away. I long to rush out there and fold him in my arms.
I know a report has come in from Rhûn. They come only once in two months, or more. Dagog the Cruel and his orcs and trolls were destroyed or scattered in the first year of the campaign. The Balchoth and Variags have been subjugated over eighteen months of war, but the Hrónatani tribes, with their lightning-fast cavalry strikes, are still unconquered.
I see at once from Faramir’s face when he comes to the Citadel that he does not want to tell me. I know you are alive. If you were not, I would feel it in my fëa. That gives me strength as I look into his grey eyes.
“I can take it. Tell me.”
“There was a battle with the Easterlings outside the gates of the fort—”
“He has been taken,” I say at once. I know.
“Yes. He was wounded and captured in a great act of heroism, while covering the retreat of the Gondorian forces. King Elessar has sent forth a party to parley.”
I hold the boys close to me as we stand at the Embrasure of the white city and look east. I tell them you will come back and that you know well the language of the Hrónatani and their ways.
I do not tell them my own fears. Of savageries and tortures and heads of enemies displayed on spikes. Of wounds so great they fester and bring fever and death. Of the last I fear less. It took the relay riders a whole month to carry the news here on swift steeds. You live still. My greater fear is of debilitating wounds, crippling hurts.
The boys stand on either side of me and hug me tightly. They seem to be giving comfort more than seeking it. I stoop to kiss the tops of their fair heads. They have grown two fingers’ breadth since you left.
We lie basking in the afterglow, talking in bed, heads close together on our pillows. I never thought that the familiar sight of his golden tresses, as they lie once again in a luminous tangle with my own black ones, could fill me with such joy.
“You are thinner,” I murmur softly. I brush bright strands of hair from his face and glide my fingers over the contours of his subtly-sharpened cheekbones. He is only a little leaner, his skin glowing warm and tan from long hours in the sun. It suits him. My fingers then travel downwards to trace new, fast-healing scars on his body, still raised and white, not yet faded to faint silver lines. “Arwen is lamenting that Estel is skin and bones.”
“We were too eager to be home to linger over meals.” He smiles, making light of the hardship.
With infinite tenderness his fingers lightly trace my face, then lightly draw patterns on my back until he falls asleep, more exhausted than he would admit. I watch him through the hours of the night, drinking in the sight of him as though re-learning each eyelash and curve of his lips.
In captivity he had negotiated with the Easterling chieftains and won over the descendants of the Wainriders he had once saved. Reached out to heal their warriors in their infirmary, and earned the tribe’s reverent awe.
They have songs still, these tribes with no written records, of a golden angel who had come with healing in the time of the Great Death. Passed down over a thousand years, the songs tell of how the eight mighty sons of Varek the Terrible were saved from the demons of the Black Death, snatched from the very brink of hell by this angel of light, and hence survived to form the Eight Great Clans of the Shaad-ren. Five went further east. Three clans, Bear, Wolf and Lion, now remain at Rhûn.
Disabused of many of the lies of Sauron by my Laurelotë over weeks of his captivity, and finally persuaded by him to seek peace, the chieftains agreed to negotiations with Estel, then released him. Talks and a peace treaty soon followed between the Reunited Kingdom and the Shaad-ren.
I do not ask him how many of the Afterborn fell to his sword over these three years, nor does he wish to speak of it yet.
He has mentioned how, in the full fury of battle, he could feel his own exceptional strength was not all it had once been. “I had to be careful. I could feel that I was not as fast as before, nor as tireless. I had to relearn my body, and how much it could do. How much I could trust it.”
We spend a summer in Ithilien, then journey back to Imladris. He sings again, and there seems to be joy undiminished in his voice and face. But occasionally I catch it—a distant look in the azure eyes, brief flashes of images in his mind: wiping the sword of Valinor clean of blood that is red, not black… faces of men frozen in death on a battlefield, a few of them mere beardless boys.
It is the price of peace. It is necessary. It is the face of war in this Age of Men. He knows that, and he chooses not to regret it. But my throat tightens with tears at times, to feel the shadow that has tainted the purity of his fëa, to see his golden brightness marred. To know I have no comfort to offer him, save my love, no means of healing him in return for all he has wrought for me over the long years.
There is healing and wholeness, for him, in Aman. But I know he will not say it nor seek it for himself. That if I say stay, he will stay.
What will I say? I do not know. I belong neither in this world of mortals, nor in the Blessed Realm beyond the sea. There is nothing new in this. I did not belong among the Avari of Nan Elmoth, with my mother’s golodhrin features and white skin. I did not belong in Gondolin, with my black eyes and my Avarin father’s temperament.
There is only one place I have ever truly felt I belonged.
He turns and smiles at me as we ride into the valley of Imladris one autumn afternoon. “Here we are! Home at last.” It is, for now. And it is so for one reason alone.
It is he who makes this, or any place, home.
We have no sooner stabled our horses than the ancient silver-haired lord wanders off towards the waterfalls alone. He surprised his grandsons by quietly announcing that he would come with us when we left the land of Gondor. He spoke little on the ride.
The reunion with the household is joyous—even Erestor is happy to see Glorfindel and the twins. An hour later, I espy Aryo running down the terrace besides the ravine, towards the path leading down to the village.
I slip away and follow stealthily behind. As I go through the village I am struck by the changes of four years. The few elves have diminished further in number, the atani seem to have almost doubled.
I see my son run to a cottage, where a woman who must be the girl’s mother sits plucking a chicken in the doorway. I slip behind the thick trunk of an oak.
“Why Master Aryo! Welcome back! You have grown some I see. You would be looking for Faelinn, of course.”
“Is she home, Goodwife Hawthorn?”
“Well, I have to tell you… Faelinn has gone north. To Annúminas, the big city.”
I hear the sharp intake of my child’s breath. “Gone?” His voice is faint.
“Aye. Four springs ago. Wed a soldier passing through from Gondor to Arnor. A fine young fellow, merry-hearted and gentle-spoken.”
“Wed? But she… she is so young!”
“Oh, Master Aryo, she was almost sixteen and that’s a ripe age! I wed at fourteen meself. We have just had word she’s been brought to bed of a fine, strong boy. Her second babe. She had a bonny lass three springs ago.” The goodwife’s cheerful voice was full of pride. “We sent some letters of yourn by Aldo the Tinker when he headed north last spring. But the good-for-nothing sot sent back word he lost them and all his worldly goods in a tavern brawl. And with two good shawls I made for her too! I really am sorry, Master Aryo. But Faelinn remembers you fondly enow, and sent well-wishes along with the news of the bairn.”
I catch up with him on the banks of the Bruinen as he tries to run from the hurt of rejection and loss as I once did. I hold him tightly, relieved that he will not have to watch the girl grow grey and bent with age and care. I remember a garden in Gondolin on an autumn night long ago. My own heart breaks as his small body shakes with bitter, heartbroken tears.
We sit on the river bank. His voice chokes out the story of his loss, barely coherent as he sobs. I murmur consoling noises as I wipe his eyes and tears with my sleeve. After a long while, his weeping subsides. “I am never, ever going to love anyone again.”
“Oh, that was what I told myself too,” I say, “Before your Atar and I came together.”
“What?” Shocked, teary grey eyes stare at me.
“I loved someone else, a long, long time ago.”
“But… but you didn’t love him like you love Atto, did you?”
“Not at all as I love your Atto. But I really loved her—him—with all my heart at that time. I could not imagine loving anyone else.”
His grey eyes are still startled, he looks at me differently, as though I am not the Amil he has always known, as though his reality is being redefined. “What—what happened?”
“I was not loved in return. It hurt. Greatly.”
His face crumples. “I will never see her again…” A fresh flood of tears comes. “Why did she have to leave? If only she could just be here, and I could see her now and again—“
“No, no, yonya. Believe me. It would be worse to see her daily. Much worse. To know that you cannot have her. Ever. And worst of all to see her wed to someone else, and behold them together every day. Little in the world hurts more, believe me, and I am glad that you are spared that. It is better your Faelinn has left. And you can hold on to the memory of those few fragile moments you enjoyed her friendship.” I am astonished at the emotion with which my voice shakes, as I recall it all.
He hears it and looks at me, troubled. “But Ammë… you love Atto?”
I smile. “Oh, so much. So much there are no words for it. My first, sad love is so weak, such a pale shadow of what your Atto and I have. That does not mean it did not deeply hurt at the time, does not mean it did not feel real. But it is history, and sometimes I feel as though it happened to someone else, and was merely a dream. Your Atto is my reality now. And it seems to me that all the love and grief I once had only prepared me to love him all the more. No one could possibly compare to this Atto of yours, and I would not have anyone else in all of Eä.”
Aryo gives me a wan smile.
“Give your Amil a kiss.”
He kisses my cheek and hugs me tightly.
“Now. Let us go find your Atar and Arman. I think they should be preparing to go hunting.”
As he walks by my side back up the Bruinen and towards the house, Aryo says suddenly, “Ammë?”
“Does Atar know you loved Camaen?”
I stare at him, utterly stunned. “What makes you think it was Camaen?”
“Your first love married, right? Camaen and Thalanes are the only ones to be married in Imladris in the two hundred years before you and Atar were married. That’s what Lindir said.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, look down into his grey eyes, and say very seriously, “Now, Camaen has no idea of any of this. You must never, ever say anything to him about it. It is our secret. All right, yonya?”
“All right, Ammë. I love you.” He takes hold of my hand and squeezes it as we make the ascent to the house.
I look down at him with a smile, and for a moment I think I would fight off every elleth and adaneth in Arda to have him always mine. “I love you too.”
As we reach the door, we hear a bloodcurdling scream somewhere within from Lindir.
It would appear that the twins’ Umbarian Hissing Cockroach has survived the journey from Gondor.
Atani (Q) – men
Moratani (Q) – darkened men
Laurelotya/Laurelotë (Q) – [my] golden flower
Fírimar (Q) – mortals
Fíriel (S) – female mortal
Gwarth (S) – betrayer, traitor
Ná (Q) – yes, it is so
Balc (Westron) - horrible