The Queen’s Choice
On entering the room of his wife where he usually slept when they stayed in his father’s house, Ankhrabi found she lay, still awake, her eyes reflecting the glory of the stars as they shone through the high windows near the roof.
“You took long enough to come to me, beloved,” she sighed as he slipped out of his kilt and laid it carefully on the stand set to receive it, and as he reached behind to undo the clasp of his pectoral.
“My father asked me to walk with him out in the gardens, and we found there near the Western wall the Lord An’Elessar with his son in his arms, singing as he looked to the stars of the West.”
“He carried an infant outside at night?” she asked, amazed.
“He is an unusual Man.”
“Oh, indeed so, Nefirani.” He slipped himself into the wide bed beside her.
“What did you speak of?”
“Of his names, of his grief for those who have gone before him from whom he is separated, and of--of Osiri.”
“Of Osiri? Do those of Gondor believe in Osiri?”
He shrugged elaborately. “It is a long story. They do not call his star Osiri, but Eärendil, and the story is told differently there than here, although it was again in response to him the rest of the gods came to fight Seti, whom they call Morgoth. Only, it was not for the reason of the loss of him, but because he went to seek their aid instead.”
She shrugged a single shoulder. “He told you the story as it is told there?”
“Yes.” He decided not to tell her of the claim to be descended from Eärendil, however--it would only serve to confuse her further at this time.
“Did he tell you how he knew your father?”
“Yes. He has Elven blood in his heritage, and his family lives longer than do most Men, and appear younger longer.”
“You are certain he is the same one who was here before?”
“Yes.” He reached to caress her shoulder.
“His wife is so young and beautiful, for all she wears no kohl about her eyes.”
“His wife is not young, beloved. Indeed, she is far older than he.”
She turned to look at him, more amazed. “How is that possible?”
“She is an Elf.”
“You are certain of that?”
“You heard the letter Rustovrid sent my father--she and the Lord Legolas are Elves.” When she would have protested further, he set a finger against her lips. “It appears that many strange races have remained in the far North, Nefirani. What we see here seems strange because our people have been so long estranged from those of the North. The Eastern Lord hated those races he could not dominate easily, so he destroyed them where he could. No Elves have remained here in Harad or Far Harad, possibly, but they lingered in the North where those who opposed him and before him Seti remained and had their strongholds.”
“She is an Elf, yet she married a Man?”
“Our sons had much to say on their arrival back here about the greeting, how he claims to speak many languages, of how Sa’Amonri started to faint with surprise.”
“He recognized An’Elessar from when he was here before. Amonrabi also recognized him. And he recognized both of them.”
“The small ones--they have the faces of grown men.”
“They are men among their people, and are married. Their wives did not accompany them.”
“And they have no slaves.”
“True, they have no slaves.”
“I wonder how a Man loves an Elf.”
He smiled. “Probably much as a Man loves any woman fortunate enough to be his wife.” He drew her to him and kissed her.
In the morning Nefiramonrani woke early and slipped out of her bed, went to her dressing room and was dressed and painted by her personal slave, then went out into the garden shortly after dawn. The Lady Arwen was sitting on a bench, her son lying in a basket before her as she drew a brush through her hair. Behind her stood the small one who wore the uniform of the Guard of Gondor, obviously attending her, singing in a clear, sweet voice for her enjoyment.
Beside her was a goblet of juice, from which she sipped from time to time as she paused in the brushing of her hair. She looked up at Nefiramonrani with a smile of acknowledgment, but did not interrupt the song of her guard.
At last he was done, and she smiled. “Thank you, Pippin. It was beautifully sung. Not exactly one of the comic songs popular in the Shire.”
“No, we do sing some love ballads as well. You can’t go strictly by what Merry and I always used to sing, for we were quite young and foolish when we first met you, you know.”
She then looked at their hostess, and said in Haradri, “I apologize, my lady, for speaking in Westron. However, Captain Peregrin’s Haradri is most basic at best.” Quickly she translated what had been said between them.
“How long have you known one another?” Nefiramonrani asked.
Again the Queen translated, and the Hobbit smiled, answering by way of the Queen. “Almost eleven years now. I was still quite young by the reckoning of my people, for I turned twenty-eight years old only a few days after we left Rivendell.”
“When I was twenty-eight years old I’d been married to Ankhrabi for eleven years already, and the boys were already five while Nefirnerini was nine.”
After the Queen translated, the Hobbit responded, “We don’t come of age until we reach thirty-three. My father was terribly upset I left the Shire with Frodo and Merry and Sam, and without permission at that, when I was still but a lad.” He shook his head. “What I’d feel if it were my Faramir I don’t know. However, he’s still years from putting me into such a situation.”
“You have children?”
“One so far. A fine lad he is, too, if I must say so myself.” He smiled with obvious pride. “And he’s the apple of his grandda’s eye, let me tell you.” He laughed. “Not that they aren’t all four the apples of their grandda’s eye. I have three older sisters, you see, and Pearl and Isumbard have two children while Pimmie and Ferdibrand have one, young Piper. Or, that’s what we call him--his full name in Peringard. We’re hoping that Pervinca will be able to carry this one to term. She’s miscarried two. Pervinca is expecting in the fall.”
“To lose two children, but to continue to try for another, that is to show great hope.”
The Hobbit smiled sadly. “Yes, we do tend to be given to such hope, there in the Shire. But she’s carried it this far--hopefully she will make it to full term this time. Aunt Esme lost two before Merry was born, and Frodo’s parents lost two before him and two more later on. But then there’s the likes of Rosie--she and Sam have five already now, and it sounds as if young Goldilocks will be a great beauty. How many they’ll have before they’re through, Sam and Rosie, is anyone’s guess. Well, Frodo did charge them with filling Bag End with life, after all.” He gave a glance to the West, then turned again to his attendance on the Queen as the Lady Arwen finished translating.
His right hand lay on the hilt of his sword. His face was now a bit solemn and thoughtful, The Queen gave him a gentle smile, then turned back to their hostess. “He will be quiet now for a time,” she said softly in Haradri. “Speaking of Frodo has put him back in mind of his duty at the moment.”
“Who was this Frodo?”
“His beloved cousin. A most, most unusual soul of any race, and perhaps the most responsible individual Eru ever placed on the face of Arda.” The Queen laid her brush beside her on the bench, then leaned down to lift up her son, smiled into his eyes.
“Your son is a fine infant.”
“Yes, he is. His eyes are so wise.” She held him close, kissed his cheek, then lifted a blanket to cover her as she prepared to nurse him.
“You do not use a wetnurse?”
“Why ought I to do such a thing? I produce milk and to spare, and I’ll not give over the raising of my children to others who might have quite other ideas as to what is important or not to know.”
“You do not use paints on your face.”
“No, I do not. Such are little needed by those of us who are of the blood of the Eldar.”
“They will have the morning meal ready soon.”
“Thank you. We were able to get a light meal for Pippin before he started his duty, so he will wait now until it is done before he eats again, although he will most like seek to make up for those meals he missed at that time. The Periannath need more food than Men twice their size, we’ve learned.”
After a time of quiet between them, Nefiramonrani asked, “How old are you, my Lady, if you do not take offense at such a question?”
“Take offense? Why ought I to do such a thing?” She sighed. “Let me see--I was born in the year 241 of the Third Age, and this, if we went still by that reckoning, would be the year 3031----” She smiled and gave a slight shrug. “Two thousand, seven hundred ninety years this year, I suppose.”
“But--how could you be that old?”
The Lady Arwen’s face became solemn. “My father is Elrond Peredhil, the son of Eärendil the Mariner and the Lady Elwing. My mother is the Lady Celebrían, daughter of the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn. My brothers and I were also born Peredhil, Halfelven. I knew the life of the Eldar until I chose to cleave to Estel. In doing so, I accepted the Gift of Iluvatar, and now must face death in my time.”
“But you do not look that old----”
“You have known any that old to compare me with? Elves do not look any particular age, you realize.” She shook her head. “My mother’s mother came to Middle Earth from Aman during the First Age of Middle Earth. She lived in the time of the Trees. She saw Mankind awaken in Middle Earth. Yet when she left Middle Earth she did not look to be any older than I do.”
“How long ago was that?”
The Queen’s face grew sad. “Eight years ago, in the fall of the year in the Northern Lands. She, my father, and many others of our Elven kindred chose to leave Middle Earth at that time. The time of the Elves is past. It is now the time of Men. There are relatively few Elves still remaining in Middle Earth--my Anadar Celeborn, father to my mother; the Lord Glorfindel; my brothers and a few of those who considered themselves my father’s people or my grandparents' people; rather more of the sylvan Elves of Eryn Lasgolen and a few others; some who remain in Mithlond with Círdan....”
“Why did they leave?”
“With the destruction of the Enemy’s Ring the power of the three great Elven Rings was also curtailed, for Sauron tied their might to the Ring he crafted in Orodruin. With the loss of that power, the weariness and grief that can strike even the immortals came upon them, and they left to enter the Undying Lands, taking with them the Ringbearer.” She straightened. “They had done much in their years in Middle Earth, and they knew that if Sauron’s Ring were to be destroyed the greater part of what had been done with the Three Rings would begin at last to decay. Yet better that than that the entire world lie beneath the Darkness of the Enemy again. And now all of the Great Rings are no more, and all of their bearers are gone from Middle Earth. All save Samwise. He bore It but a little time, but that was long enough to scar him.”
The Pherian guard looked to her. “You spoke of Sam?” he asked.
“Yes. I told her that he alone of the ringbearers is left in Middle Earth.”
“When he is gone from it, too, I don’t know that I would wish to remain.”
Nefiramonrani looked at her in question, and the Lady Arwen translated for her.
“But why would he not wish to remain beyond this Samwise?”
The Queen gave her escort a quick glance. “I suppose because that would be to lose the last strong tie to Frodo that he recognizes.”
A gong sounded and Nefiramonrani looked up. “The dawn meal is prepared. Let us go in.”
Nefiramonrani led the way back into the palace, and through the room where they’d spent the previous evening, where they found the King An’Elessar in debate with An’Sohrabi, Ankhrabi, Lords Sherfiramun and Afraim regarding the benefits of cavalry in battle, Prince Faramir translating the argument for his wife and An’Éomer and Lord Berevrion. In the room where the morning meal was to be served the Lady Lothiriel was translating a discussion on architecture between Master Ruvemir, Lord Gimli, Lord Elfhelm, Master Isumbard Took, the youth Owain, Sa’Bhatrabi, and Lady Ankhsarani, with Khafra Antipatha listening with interest. Lord Legolas was patiently answering questions put to him by Ma’osiri, Amon’osiri, and Nefirnerini, holding in his arms the Steward’s son, the King and Queen’s daughter standing nearby.
The Princess Melian touched the Elf’s arm indicating she was leaving him, and came to join her mother. She and her mother both wore sleeveless dresses of green so pale as to appear almost white, embroidered with bands of golden flowers. She wore also a girdle of linked green leaves similar to the Hobbit’s sword belt, but of much smaller links, a single strand hanging down the front of her dress from where it fastened, and about her brow wore a circlet of enameled golden flowers, each centered with a pale green peridot. She reached up to touch her brother’s basket, her smile lighting the room.
As the Lady Arwen leaned down to allow her son to look into his sister’s face, it could be seen that her ears were distinctly and delicately pointed, as was true also of Prince Legolas. The ears of her children, on the other hand, were rounded as was the way with those of most children of Men. The eyes of mother and daughter, however, were identically grey, their smiles also identical. When she came at last to womanhood, Ankhrabi’s wife realized, the Princess Melian was going to be as startlingly beautiful as her own mother.
Those who’d been involved in the discussion with An’Elessar now entered, still caught in his orbit, their attention still fixed on him. He wore a smokey blue robe embroidered with a great raptor--not a golden hawk such as Horubin, but an even greater bird of browns and golds, over its head an embroidered eight-pointed star set with a great shining crystal in its center. On his brow he wore a circlet of what appeared to be silver set with a great, shining jewel, also like a star. He wore a ring set with a great emerald on his right hand, on his left a carved gold band on the third finger, and a great signet ring of black onyx in which was imbedded a single diamond on his index finger. Amonrabi met them and began pointing out their places for the meal, and soon all stood near their couches awaiting the coming of the Farozi.
Why those from the North stood by their couches Nefiramonrani didn’t know--meal times were one time when those of Harad did not stand on such ceremony. However, as her husband’s father had made it plain they were to allow their Northern guests to follow their own customs when they were obviously intended to be courteous or were simply different, those of the court found themselves waiting alongside those from Gondor to take their places on their couches.
The small sculptor had been placed at the same table as Nefiramonrani, as well as the youth identified as his apprentice. They bowed to her and her daughter as they approached the table and then stood patiently; and when the youth leaned down to ask a question the dwarfling answered back equally quietly, shaking his head and smiling. Amonrabi returned with Lady Ghansaret, who was to take the couch between Nefiramonrani and the sculptor, for which Ankhrabi’s wife found herself grateful. To have to eat a meal by these and not understand what they were saying would have been extremely difficult. Again they bowed politely, but remained standing until the Farozi entered, at which time all of the Northerners bowed deeply to him. Then, after they’d greeted their host, they all turned to the West and stood quietly for a moment, then took their places on their couches. The Haradri looked to one another in question. Noting the unspoken question on Nefiramonrani’s face, Lady Ghansaret smiled.
“There are few practices which we would recognize as honoring the gods in Gondor, my lady; but the Standing Silence is one of those that is widely practiced. Before each meal all turn to the West in respect to the gods, whom they call the Valar, and their servants, whom they call the Maiar, and the great Creator God who is over all. The Valar and the Maiar dwell to the West in the Undying Lands, to which the Elves may go in their bodies, to dwell there until the ending of Arda. Many feel great respect for these also, and honor them along with the Valar and the Maiar.”
She then apparently repeated this in Westron for the benefit of the dwarfling and the youth, who nodded their agreement. The dwarfling added, “The Undying Lands have been appointed the proper, final home for Elves. We do not honor the Eldar who dwell in Aman in the same manner in which we honor the Valar, Maiar, and those of the Ainur and Maiar beyond the bounds of Arda who dwell in the presence of Iluvatar the Creator--it is more respect we feel for the Elven people who dwell in Aman--the Elves and the very few of those of other races who have, on very rare occasions, been allowed to enter those lands. Also, it is believed that the Halls of Waiting lie within those lands, the great Halls of Mandos in which the spirits of those who have been slain among Elves rest while awaiting rebirth in Aman, and the spirits of those among Men who die may remain for a time before leaving the bounds of Arda.”
After Ghansaret translated that last, Nefiramonrani reclined thinking on what had been said for some time. “Elves may die?” she asked.
“Yes, my Lady,” he answered her. “They may be slain, or may die of wasting of the spirit, usually as the result of great grief or lasting pain. Their spirits, however, are tied to the bounds of Arda and may not, under ordinary circumstances, leave those bounds until the End of Days--or so we have been taught, and told by those among Elvenkind we have had commerce with. Lord Legolas and the Lady Arwen may tell you more of that, for it concerns them directly as they are indeed Elves, and High Elves at that. The spirits of mortals, however, must pass beyond the bounds of Arda, although they may rest for a time in the portions of the Halls set aside for mortals, or so we have been told.
“However, the Lady Arwen, in cleaving to our Lord Elessar, has accepted mortality, and her spirit will be free to go to whatever place Iluvatar has set aside for our mortal spirits to dwell in, once we are free of the body.”
“What is Aman?”
The discussion of the Undying Lands went on for some time.
“You say that some few of those with mortal blood have been allowed to go there?”
“A very few. The great Lord Eärendil was finally allowed entrance there, but at great cost. The mortal half of his nature was burned away by his quest, and he might not return to Middle Earth. And it is said that his father, the Lord Tuor, a mortal Man who married the Lady Idril, a maiden of High Elven blood, was allowed to go there in the body after his marriage. Whether he still dwells there, however, we do not know. And now two of mortal heritage have been allowed to go there, but only, we are told, until the end of their natural lives, to find there healing for what they have endured, Master Bilbo Baggins and the Lord Frodo Baggins; and it is believed by some that in his time the Lord Samwise Gamgee also may pass over the Sundering Sea to come to his friend. But they do not walk abroad in Aman proper--they have been allowed to come to the Isle of Tol Eressëa, which started as part of Middle Earth and now lies at the entrance to the Undying Lands, and may go no further. Although it is most likely Master Bilbo has already died, for he was ancient of days for his kind before he sailed.
“To the twin sons of Eärendil and Elwing was granted the choice to live as Elves or mortals; but if they chose mortality they chose it for their children as well as themselves. Lord Elros chose mortality; his brother Lord Elrond chose the life of the Eldar. To his three children again was offered the same choice; his daughter has at last chosen mortality; his sons have yet to make their final decision.”
“Then his children yet live in Middle Earth?”
“Yes, for I have met all three--the Lady Arwen Undomiel--" with a nod toward where the Queen sat, "--and her twin brothers the Lord Elladan and the Lord Elrohir. Their father has at last abandoned Middle Earth and sailed to the Undying Lands eight years past.”
“So the Lord Elros will die?”
Very gently the small one answered, “The Lord Elros died already my lady, almost six thousand years past. Our Lord Elessar is his descendant.”
The Lady Nefiramonrani suddenly began to realize that what the Queen had told her and what the small artisan was telling her was the same thing.