Star's End

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'Star's End'

 

Star's End

 

Seven millennia is a long time, enough years for a lone wanderer to see everything the world has to offer ten times over, you might imagine. Yet there is always room for something new under the sun, or so they say.

I had been in the northlands, pausing in settlements long enough to rest my mount and earn my bed with a song and news garnered from other travellers on the road. Between us we formed a conduit, sharing word of events great and small, near and far. Very soon after they occurred, I knew all about the end of the Dark Power, the setting up of the elf-reared king, and even that the lord of the hidden vale had taken ship into the sunset.  However, despite a curiosity to see it at last, I always bypassed Imladris. Elves seldom act in haste when their lives are not under threat nor their tempers raised; and I suspected Elessar's grandson would wear the crown of Gondor before the last elven ship sailed.

I had traversed the infamous Redhorn Pass and down past Isengard, still a sight to behold, standing alone in the midst of devastated lands, the water marks from the Ent-lake still visible. I was venturing out onto the plains of Rohan – carefully, they still cross-question strangers in those parts – when I saw them heading towards me. The horse moved slowly, as though it had come a long road and was tired of the adventure. A beautiful beast, my thought ran, black, shining, totally unlike anything the herds of Rohan had to offer. From the east, I thought, Harad or the lands beyond. Then my eye strayed up to take in the rider and I slowed Deneb to a halt and sat unabashedly staring.

Even mounted she seemed tall. She was mantled from head to foot in grey, her hair covered, no more than a hint showing – it was dark, I could see that much from where I waited. What most drew my attention was that, although the mount came from mortal lands and she wore what was clearly the garb of Gondor, she rode elf-style after the way of the woodfolk, using neither saddle nor bridle.

She saw me watching, but paid me no more heed than one would to a tree or one of the large standing stones the first men had left in the midland barrens. It was only when we were finally level that she turned to look at me, taking her eyes from the horizon before her. Those eyes. Clear grey, the exact shade of a winter sky, black fringed, the weight of years in their depths at odds with her still-young face. I knew that face, I had seen its like in male form both in the flesh and in the dreams that still occasionally came to me, dreams of the days before my world changed and I cut myself off by choice from my kind.

“My greetings, daughter of Elrond,” I said politely, touching my hand to my forehead in the age-old gesture of respect that was my offering to her endurance rather than to any difference in rank between us. She was the daughter of the half-elf and the wood; I was the grandson of a king. “Your riding speaks its own tale. My condolences for your loss. He was a great king, or so I am told.”

~*~*~*~*~

We made camp under the eaves of ancient Lorien, a sad sight now, its trees tired and fading as other trees do the world over. The giant mellyrn no longer bloomed, or so I heard whispered in those villages of the Rohirrim that for centuries had lain along its skirts, preferring the uneasy safety of the Lady of Enchantments to the less certain protection of their own warriors. I often wondered how my cousin Artanis had taken to being seen as the witch within the magic wood; it had probably amused her mightily.

Her granddaughter was amused by nothing. She dismounted lightly, refusing my proffered hand, and walked a while amongst the trees. She seemed shocked, clearly unprepared for what she found in this place she would have known since childhood.  I set up a small fire, letting her wander, my ears alert to her direction, tuned to any other sounds of movement. Things had become more settled in the last twenty years, but still – Isengard was close at hand and evil things had been bred there in the last years of the darkness.  

Dried vegetables, carried at my saddle, a form of wild spinach growing beneath the trees, a handful of fresh-picked herbs, a strip of dried beef for flavour, and water from the nearby stream. I saw to Deneb and the black horse, then settled back against a tree and watched the meal simmer over the heat. It was growing dark when she returned. She looked first to her horse, which was a good sign – no spoilt royal this. Finding him settled to graze beside my stallion, she came to the fire and sank down with sinuous grace.

“Thank you,” she said simply. Her voice was low for a woman, slightly husky, faintly echoing what I thought might be the accents of Lórien. She spoke in Sindarin; like knows like and she had probably pegged me as an elf before I was close enough for her to discern my features, note the tilt to my eye, the tapering of my ears, my too-young face. My eyes though, like hers, I think are not young.

“Dinner will be ready soon. Vegetable stew, simple but filling.”

She blinked at me, those unfamiliar familiar eyes curiously empty. “I do not hunger,” she said quietly. “I am here now.”

She lifted the hood back finally as she spoke, and in the dying light I saw her hair at last. Cobweb fine, dark, a cloud of silk. Her father’s hair had been, was, thicker, more curl to it. He had despaired of it as he grew, seeing it as a sign of the human part of his heritage. His brother, her uncle, had owned this soft, shimmering hair, elven hair for a prince who one day crossed the water to become a man. I had wondered long on the irony of that; in many ways the calmer and more settled of the two, the more elven in appearance, Elros had taken man’s estate. His brother, fiery, impatient, bright-burning Elrond, had chosen eternity. I wondered as I had many times before how that had worked for him in the end.

“Why are you here?” I asked her. “The wood lies deserted, home to the wild, preserve of badgers and owls. There is no one left here now. The dwarves tell me they all went to Imladris, and from there to the Havens.”

An almost-smile. “Oh, I know that,” she said dismissively. “My brothers came to take leave of me before they finally left. “

“So, they sailed then?” I had no idea why I asked this, as though it were a matter of doubt, but unexpectedly she shook her head.

“No, no they went east. They planned to keep travelling until the call into the dark came to them.” She brushed hair back from her face, an unconscious and somehow endearing gesture. “We are a sore disappointment to our parents, I think.  Faced with the thing mortals crave all their lives, immortality, we turned it down in favour of the racing pulse and heady taste of life lived fast.”

“You, I understand,” I said slowly. “Your story I know. And you are not the first in your line to make this choice for love. But your brothers – whatever possessed them?” No matter what the world has brought me, I have never, except while in the depths of a wine skin, regretted my race.

She tilted her head to the side, considered me. For a moment she looked so like her father as a child that it sent a small shiver over my skin. “How would they have lived?” she asked simply. “They grew up free to ride with the Rangers, to fight our enemies. They were bound by no more constraints and restrictions than any sons of mortal great houses. They are who they are. There…” She gestured in an almost westerly direction, “There they would be oddities, curiosities, or so they felt. And there would be nothing for them to do, nothing to set the blood racing. No way to grow.” She looked at me bleakly. “So they stayed here. Rather end knowing your life was well used than sit in paradise watching the stars turn and counting the eons.”

Faintly, I could hear her grandmother’s voice behind her words.

We kept silence for a while after that. When the stew was ready, I found the second plate – as well to keep two of everything, just in case – and ladled some onto a slice of day-old bread and passed it to her. She gave me a nearly defiant look and I shrugged. “Starving yourself takes time and is painful at the end,” I said dryly. “I hardly think this would have been Their intent. Eat.”

She looked from the plate to me, then her eyes went back down. To my hand. I saw the questions forming in a face that years in a mortal court had not yet completely taught discretion, and let her thoughts follow their course. Elf. Ancient scar. Hand. Finally she looked up again, grey eyes wide. I shrugged. “We each have our reasons for being this side of the sea,” I told her. “And regret grows tired after a few millennia. What is, is. That’s all.”

“But you are alone. There will be none of us left….” Horror crawled on her face.

I smiled down at her more gently. “Child, I have been alone for two Ages,” I pointed out. “I grew used to it a long time ago.  I doubt I would know how to conduct myself in polite elven company any longer – I am far more accustomed to mortals.”

And it was true. They are slower than we, their speech not as elegant, they live life at a different rate, far faster, and yet still far too often tie their minds up with the mundane details of life. And yet, they are warm and generous, good friends, implacable enemies. They value a joke, a tall tale, they love a song. And I have songs aplenty.

I sang one that night. I do that sometimes when I sit alone at night under the stars, I play a little music to blend with the dark, to make the world feel smaller, closer. I took the little harp from its carrying bag, wrapped in its cloths, and played runs and answers for a while before looking for a tune that spoke of the night, of the animal sounds, of the strange, sad silence of a wood returned to its original inhabitants and neither they nor the trees with any idea what to do about it. Mostly I played the tree music, the whisper of their leaves, the quiet creaks and groans, the sounds of water being drawn deep.

She was a shape in the dark, huddled deep within her cloak. The only part of her that seemed alive, here, were those eyes, glittering in the dark. She was in mourning, I recalled, not a time for the sounds of loss that crept into my tune, mimicking what I felt around me, the land and the trees calling for their guardians to return. Equally, not a time for a cheerful jig.  In the end I chose a traveller’s song, a story of the road. It was appropriate for us both; my road stretched on before me into eternity or until such time as I became careless and took a blade between my ribs, hers was near its end. No, not its end. Its destination.

~*~*~*~*~

She made no objection to my company. I suspect that when the idea first came to her, to come home to Lórien to die, she had been thinking of the world she once knew back when she was an elven princess and the High Tongue was still spoken in places in Middle-earth. This deserted woodland unnerved her. Were danger to threaten, she would have no recourse to aid, and death at the point of a brigand’s blade was not the end of her choosing.

We wandered under the trees, moving slowly, taking our time. She stopped to greet trees she had known, bathe her feet in streams, pick berries, flowers. I have no idea what the trees made of us, unlikely pair that we made, one an elf who had been too long amongst men, another a child who had gone away and now returned strangely altered.

Each night we chose our campsite for shelter and warmth, and in my case with an eye to defence should we need it. I knew they still whispered of ghosts walking these woods, but in the villages there was a sense that the power that had brooded beneath the golden trees had moved on. In time, men would once more pass through Lórien on their way north and west. For now, I suspected we would remain undisturbed, but I have not lived this long by being careless.

Arwen was eating less now, but each evening still obediently pecked at whatever I found to cook for us. I always asked the trees’ permission before making my fire, always used fallen branches, putting my hand to no living limb. I spoke softly to the herbs and wild vegetables before harvesting them. These are things I have always done. One night, our third or maybe our fourth, she broke her habitual silence. “Men. You live among them, but you have not become one of them.”

I raised an eyebrow, not following her thought. She pointed to the gathered deadwood I was breaking into useable pieces. “You would not cut living wood. You would not pollute a river. You would not pull up a turnip without first explaining you need to eat.”  I waited, going on with my task, snap, crack, crunch. 

“I do not hear the trees anymore,” she said finally. “Either they no longer speak, or my ears can no longer hear them.”

I put down the wood, half reached a hand to her but drew it back and let it drop. If I tried to touch her, she moved away. I think it had less to do with who I was than with her own mourning, the deep inner pain that ate at her day and night.  “They speak, but softly,” I told her. No point in lying, in making the thing pretty. She had made her choice, and this was part of it. “They miss the elves, but in time the memory will fade. I have seen that before, in the land that was once Lindon. You do not hear them because your senses have become mortal.”

She nodded, looked down at fingers twining a flower stem in her lap. The head lay broken off beside her. “I know,” she said softly, a world of loss in her voice. “And in the city it was - less a part of my life. I thought when I came home…”

But the elven lands were no longer her home, she knew it as well as I now. They were home to no one, abandoned, given back to the world. The elves had gone; there was no place for their remnant here.

~*~*~*~*~

I knew the heart of Lórien, Caras Galadhon, without being told. All the old, overgrown trails led to it, our horses would have found it with no urging on our part. I thought she might ride forward eagerly but she knew what to expect now. When we entered the great clearing she merely looked around with something akin to resignation.

Great trees, open spaces between them. Grass, overgrown now, studded with flowers and weeds. A massive tree, with the remains of its flet structure still in place. I had never been on a flet before, but I had seen them and heard talk. They say I spoke no more with elves after I threw the Curse into the sea, but that is one of the legends of the Sons of Fëanor. Of course I spoke to those elves I met on the road. I usually avoided giving my name, but I listened and in my turn shared news of the lands I had just left. Most assumed I was one of Gildor’s company. Gildor himself would have eaten ground glass first before taking me under his protection.

Arwen had dismounted and was walking slowly ahead, her horse following her, pausing to crop grass along the way. She headed with a slow, determined gait towards the hill that lay in the centre of the clearing. Her shoulders were tense, her carriage very erect. I felt exposed in this open expanse, even though common sense and the evidence of my eyes told me we were alone. Shaking off the urge for concealment, I dismounted, called the gelding to me, spoke quietly to Deneb, went to find a trees with spreading roots where I could sit out of the sun.  I would not intrude upon the grief that surrounded her like a cloud.

Cerin Amroth they called it, I believe. The centre of Lórien, the place where, so the story ran, an elven princess of the highest line on either side of the sea had promised her heart and her soul’s future to a landless, crownless king. 

~*~*~*~*~

She did not eat that night. She did not even come to the fire. I let her be until late, until the stars hung high in the sky above the trees and the moon bathed all in a soft, grey light. Then I left my mossy bed amongst the old tree’s roots and walked soundless over long grass and up the hill.

At first I couldn’t see her. Trees grew on the little hill’s summit, strange patterns of shadow and light were formed by their branches and by the clouds’ passage across the moon. I was born in the days before moon and sun, but time had passed, several Ages to be exact, and my eyes had grown less like a cat’s for the dark. Then I made out a shape on the ground, half hidden by the tall grass.

I thought she had harmed herself, either that or the Mystery had happened and she had somehow given back the Gift without my sensing it, though surely I would have felt her passing? I had been present when other mortals had moved on to wherever it is their souls are housed; I always knew. She must have guessed my thoughts, for she turned dark, gleaming eyes on me, her gaze almost baleful in the pale light. “No, I am still here, Maglor,” she said tartly. “Nothing in my life was ever that easy.”

She had been crying, I could hear it in her voice, see the strained lines of her face. She propped herself up on an elbow and looked around at the grass, the trees, the emptiness. I sank down beside her. “Tell me what it was like before,” I suggested, with no thought in my mind other than to distract her.

After a minute she heaved a great sigh and sat up, her arms folded round knees drawn up tight to her chest. “There were lights,” she said, the words coming from a place deep within her. “Lights everywhere. In the trees, strung on cords between them, on little poles set in the ground. You could hear voices all through the night, soft, calling, singing. The trees whispered. The grass was short and studded with flowers, everything was clean and green and the sky had a different light.” She shrugged and looked at me. “It was a little like the land beyond the sea, just with trees, so Glorfindel said. Now – now it is like everywhere else.”

“You came to find the doorway to the next stage of your journey in a place that no longer exists,” I said quietly, taking her hand in mine and trying to ignore the slight wince. “What will you do now, Evenstar? Can we not leave here tomorrow, retrace your steps? I will escort you home to Gondor. Your children will welcome you with joy, you can live out your days there until the call comes. This…” I indicated the silent, ghost-filled forest. “This is wrong, child. This is not for you.”

She looked up at me, great, suffering eyes, deep fathomless wells of sorrow. “I said my farewells. I will not put them through that again. And… we were a team, he and I. Us against the world, the darkness, the change of days. He was my strength against my father’s disapproval, my brothers’ pleas that I reconsider. We were everything to one another, we did everything together. Every waking moment I am aware of the empty space beside me, every night I sleep and I dream, not as elves dream, but as mortals do. Loss and pain and an end to sweetness.”  Her voice was rising, thickened with tears. “My father said there would be a bitter ending, my father said I would regret too late. My father is wrong. I do not regret the life. All I regret is the empty space beside me. I was supposed to die when he did, I was supposed to follow him, he promised me I would follow him….”

I moved to hold her as she wept, great heaving sobs that seemed to come from the core of her being. Poor, loving, trusting girl. Her heart given, her choices made, believing a promise made by one who lacked the means to test its veracity. I stroked her hair, this girl who was my distant kin, child of the child I had spoken softly to after nightmares shook him from sleep in the early days when we took him and his brother from the burning city beside the sea… The life force leapt high in her still. I could sense it, strong, vital. Whoever had charge of her destiny had not yet deemed it her time to die.

~*~*~*~*~

We stayed there a week, a dark, ghost-ridden week. Arwen wandered through glades and among trees she had know as a child, even climbing up to the great royal flet despite my warnings about unsafe ladders, the rot of time. She laughed at me till I pointed out that broken limbs would not necessarily kill her, but the pain would be considerable and I lacked the skill to douse it – not strictly true, but she heeded me and grew more cautious after that. Each day she walked and I sat repairing clothes, restringing my harp, thinking, talking to the horses. Each evening I made a meal, and ate alone.

On the night of the full moon she came and sat beside me, close as though seeking warmth. She had lost weight in the week we had been there, her bones showed under that pale skin and her eyes were enormous in her pinched-looking face. Even so, she was beautiful.  “How do you live?” she asked. “How do you live alone? Where do you go? What do you do when you need to feel someone close to you?”

“I travel from place to place, I sing, I share people’s fires. I am alone on the road, but in the places between there is company, good cheer. Not my own kind, but – you have lived among them, you know how they are.” The last question I chose not to answer. When I felt a need for that kind of closeness, male or female, I could usually find someone. By their standards I am exceptionally easy on the eye.

I felt her shudder slightly. “I lived among them, yes, but not with them,” she said. “I was with Estel. And our children. I… there was no need of anyone else. I was the queen. There was… there was no one.”

Ah. Of course. The end result of a great love; isolation. Beren and Lúthien on their island. I held her closer, my hand gentle in her hair. I had no words for her, no hope. All roads behind her were closed.  The only direction she had left was forward.

She leaned against me, her cheek against my chest, and was still for so long that I thought she slept. Her words when they came were indistinct enough that I thought I heard wrong, but I hadn’t. “Tomorrow I will go home to my father’s house,” she was saying. “Sleep in my old room. Try and find the patience to wait.”

I felt ice down my spine, horror clawed at my gut. Imladris had been deserted for years. By now it would be returning to nature, rock held strong by a power beyond this world would be crumbling, animals would nest where elves had lived and laughed and dreamed. If Lórien had been a shock and a heartbreak to this fragile, grieving creature, how much more so the sight of her father’s house gone to ruin? 

The moon rose high above the trees, bathing in luminous light the barren clearing that had once housed a city . Arwen was still awake, still resting against me, taking comfort at last where it was offered. I tried to picture the remaining years of her life; Imladris, and then, broken in spirit, driven by grief, where? Bree? I tried to imagine this or any of our other options, each more laughable than the first, if she would not return to Gondor. The track of a single teardrop down the back of my hand told me she too saw the same grim future unwinding.

The night was busy, animal rustlings on all sides, the call of hunting owls taking advantage of the brilliant moonlight. I remembered Artanis, who I had not seen for longer than I cared to think, tried to imagine what she would advise, she who had always been a byword in practicality, but I was on my own with this. The hours moved on, Arwen’s head drooped, lifted, drooped again, and the song came to me. It was old, far older than she, and I had sung it last at a feast shortly after we reached this shore, when the world was still young and all things seemed possible. The words came to me as though rehearsed, the tones lifting and falling, a tale of love and hope and courage; the lost dreams of the Noldor.

My hand sought the hilt of my dagger almost of its own volition. I have taken lives beyond counting, in anger, in the blood heat of battle, twice in vengeance. A blade can strike in rage, in cold fury, in the execution of justice. Or it can be a benediction, tender as a kiss, a granting of safe passage into the bright unknown.

When the song was finished I sat with her in my arms for a while, probably the last of my kind I would ever hold close. As the night grew old and the moon sank low, the flow of her life’s blood down my chest and arm slowed and cooled. I rose and carried her up the hill one final time, laying her in what seemed to me its exact centre, the place where she said they had plighted their troth. I wrapped her cloak about her, the tree shadows playing strange tricks with the bloodstains that spread through the upper part.

I had no words; the Valar have no ears for me. I made the sign of the blessing of the One, even though I was stained with the Oath’s taint. I knew she was safe – she had gone to meet her love in a land I would never know. Lúthien the beautiful would be waiting there. So, too, Elros, the uncle she had never known. Then I went back down the hill, changed out of my sodden clothing, and took up my harp once again. Tomorrow would be another day, filled with travel as I put as much distance between myself and this abandoned realm as I could. I had no regrets, only that we could not have more time together first. But I would not pass this way again.

The moon set, the stars wheeled overhead, and I took up my harp and sang once more, a new song of my own making, one which I would sing that once and never again. The song of the setting of the evening star.

~*~*~*~*~

~*~*~*~*~

Beta: Red Lasbelin

Artwork: Artist unknown.  If yours, please contact me so that I can either credit you or remove it.