The High King of the Men of the West sat his horse on the crest of the hill, holding up his Elessar brooch until the last of the party going North disappeared over the crest of the next ridge and could no longer be seen. He knew he would never again in this life see his foster father, the Lady Galadriel, Lord Gildor Inglorien, Gandalf, or Frodo--or Bilbo. Those he loved and honored most in this world, save for most of his mortal friends, were leaving Middle Earth, by one means or another.
Some moments after the last of those going North passed out of view he lowered his hand, still watching after. Then, with a sigh he solemnly replaced his brooch to secure his white mantle and turned to the mounted Men about him--some of them from among the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth, some from among the Guards of the Citadel who’d been chosen in the past few months to be among his personal Guard, and the rest from his own kindred of the Northern Dúnedain. “Gentlemen,” he said, quietly but with decision as he put his grief away for proper mourning later, “shall we ride?”
He turned and led the way down the crest in the gathering dusk, Roheryn retracing their trail surely, the rest following. Those from among his own people looked at those who questioned, “He would travel now, and so swiftly?” and laughed.
“You do not know our Lord if you do not think he would ride swiftly and surely at night,” one of them addressed the rest. “We are no longer hampered by stores wagons and ponies. He will return to Edoras and his Lady as swiftly as he might, and then we will set out back for the capital. There are threats, after all, from Harad, and already he has sent troops South to be in position to meet them. We will follow after, and you will find we will be there in good time for him to order the battle to his liking.”
The Ents of Fangorn who watched near the Ring of Isengard watched the troop of mounted Men approach. Here alone did the King in his white mantle slow his pace. “I greet you this night,” he said. “I return to my own place and thank you for your service to all of Middle Earth.” Then he led his Men onward, causing as little disturbance as was possible. Treebeard looked after with a smile. A worthy one, this Lord Aragorn Elessar.
They reached Helm’s Deep sometime between midnight and the dawning, and paused to take a few hours’ rest and break their fast. They then thanked Erkenbrand’s Men and old Gamling and continued on their way, arriving at Edoras before sundown.
Two days later they again rode out for Minas Tirith, this time arriving in six days’ time. The Lady Lothiriel and her mother were exhilarated after the long, steady ride--exhilarated but also now very weary; the Lady Arwen, however, appeared refreshed as if she had but taken an afternoon’s ride with her beloved, and swiftly slipped back into the administration of the Citadel of the city of Minas Tirith while the Lord Aragorn drew Prince Imrahil and the rest of the Lords of the realm into planning for the proposed defense of their Southern borders. Three days after their return arrived Prince Faramir, who with his wife and the guards of the White Company that had remained with them had lingered but a few days longer in Éomer’s court; with Faramir remaining in the White City to watch over all, Aragorn and Imrahil’s Men took ship on one of the great transports taken from the Umbarians and sailed South to the Mouths of the Sea to the borders of Gondor’s claimed lands, riding overland to Poros to set up their defense.
The assault foretold by Rustovrid of Harad came two weeks before the end of August. The battles raged over the space of four days; but at last they were over, and those from Gondor had prevailed. The transport was sent to Risenmouthe to await the troops which were told off to carry the survivors from Harad back to the Haradri capital of Thetos while the majority of those who would return to Gondor proper set off on their way back North toward Ithilien and home.
On the tenth day of November Aragorn walked about the level of the Citadel with his lady wife. That morning he’d written a letter to Frodo, which would be sent with the dispatches to Halladan, the Mayor, the Thain, the Master, and the lords of Lothlorien and Imladris on the morrow. Arwen had crafted for Frodo a suit of Shire fashion embroidered with silver stars, which would be bundled with the letter and the coins from the first striking of the new King’s coinage which Aragorn was sending to him. Gifts Frodo had ordered for them had been given them on his birthday: a pipe inlaid with silver he’d commissioned from Gloin for Aragorn and a fine needlecase in the shape of a resting bird with its head under its wing carved of bone and fitted with silver for Arwen; a pendant of an enameled golden leaf for Legolas and a tankard of fine glass crafted by Master Celebrion for Gimli; a set of dishes from a maker of fine porcelain in the Fifth Circle of a dark blue decorated with a single star and a crescent moon for Prince Faramir and his wife for their new home, for which the foundations were already being placed in the ruins of Emyn Arnen; a book of Bilbo’s poetry he’d written out himself (and illustrated) for Master Iorhael which he’d bound one day with the assistance of those in the archives; a pair of wooden birds carved in Dale for Master Celebrion and Linneth; a platter of fine pastries ordered from one of the finest bakers of the Fifth Circle to be delivered on the birthday for the family of Healer Eldamir; a bracelet of silver stars for Mistress Loren; and a fine dagger for young Lasgon set with a star on its hilt.
Aragorn hadn’t been home long. It was a relief to be there and by his wife. Legolas had sent word he would return a month after Yule; Gimli’s message which had arrived at the same time indicated he would be here two weeks after Yule with several of his folk to start the more major repairs on the city walls, although he intended to take the cart North to the Shire almost as soon as he returned.
“A blossom for your thoughts, beloved,” the Lady Arwen said.
“Not much, my heart,” Aragorn responded. “Only thinking on those who have returned to their homes, and missing them.”
“And especially Frodo and Samwise?”
“And Bilbo. It will be a sad day when he must leave Middle Earth, which I fear must be all too soon. He is ancient now for his people.”
“He wept when he realized he had not the strength to accompany us here for our wedding.”
“And I grieved he did not come.” He smiled. “The first among Hobbit-kind whom I met, and I came to treasure him so. And, due to him I met Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Bless the old Hobbit.”
They were come about to the Court of the Tree, and smiled to see its beauty even as it had begun to shed its leaves in preparation for the winter to come. Aragorn stepped to it to lay his hand upon it in greeting, and paused, his expression surprised.
“What is it, holder of my Light?” Arwen asked in Quenya.
Aragorn shook his head. “The Tree is excited, dearling. I have never felt it so before. I will swear it sings today, a hymn of delight.”
Arwen looked on the Tree with surprise, then growing excitement herself. They heard the call of a great bird, and looked upwards to see Gwaihir circling them on the winds that blew ever in the upper airs. “The Hallows,” she murmured, and he nodded, and together they began to hurry toward the ramp down to the Sixth Circle, their confused personal Guards scrambling to keep up with the two of them.
The Porter at the gate to the Silent Street looked up with surprise. “My Lord? My Lady?”
“We must go through the Rath Dínen, and immediately,” the King said.
“If you so desire,” he said, hastily unlocking the gate and bowing them and their escort inside.
The two guards were surprised to be ordered to remain at the hidden gate at the back of the cemetery, and watched after with grave concern. “Lord Hardorn will have our hides cut from us in strips,” one murmured quietly to the other.
“Perhaps,” the other replied, “although I suspect that had we insisted in accompanying them further what the King would have ordered would be worse.”
Both turned their backs on the hidden gate and stood at attention to wait what might come next.
As soon as they set foot in the King’s Hallow Gwaihir alit before them. Both bowed respectfully to him, even as he did the same before them. “Lord Gwaihir,” Arwen said. “You wished us to meet you here?”
“Your petition is now answered, son and daughter of Iluvatar,” he said, examining each in turn. “It is not precisely answered as you had requested.”
“That it is answered at all is, perhaps, more than we deserve,” Aragorn said quietly. “If the Valar choose to deny it we will understand.”
“I did not say it was denied,” the Eagle said, and the King realized that the Eagle was, in his way, amused to draw out his message. Suddenly the Man’s hope began to surge through him, and he looked intently into the Eagle’s eyes. “For the Perian Frodo Baggins, the right to take the place intended for the Lady Arwen Undomiel on the ship Círdan the Shipwright now builds is granted--should he choose to accept that right.” Arwen took a deep, shaky breath. “He may not go beyond the Isle of Tol Eressëa, for his nature as one who is a mortal will not be able to bear it further. As you said before, the Last Isle was once part of the mortal lands, and there he may remain somewhat grounded for what time remains for him. The Valar make no guarantees as to how long he may remain there, for that is dependent not on them but on his own ability to endure, which we already know is far greater than any had foreseen.”
Aragorn, not trusting himself to speak, nodded. He found he felt somewhat dizzy with relief.
“You may not speak of the choice to him again save to allow him to know that it lies before him. You may not urge him to accept it. You may not beg him to remain in Middle Earth.”
“I would never beg him to do that last,” Aragorn whispered, his eyes closing. He felt a feather of the Eagle’s wing caress his face, and realized he was weeping and that Gwaihir was gently wiping away the tears.
“I realize that, Dúnedan,” the Eagle said. Aragorn opened his eyes, and the Eagle stretched himself taller. “There is more. This choice is open not only to Frodo Baggins, but to all three of the living Ringbearers as well as to those who bore the three Rings of the Elves.”
“Who were leaving already,” Arwen said, her own eyes fixed on those of the Windlord. He looked at her somewhat sidelong, then bobbed his head slightly.
“It is open also to the one who is, in his way, the heir to those granted the Rings of the Dwarves, to Gimli son of Gloin, Elvellon among the children of Aulë.” Both King and Queen stared at the Eagle in surprise.
“And one last grace is granted. The limit laid upon the sons of Elrond Peredhel to leave with their father is lifted. To them is granted the right to remain in Middle Earth until each either chooses mortality or to take ship to join his parents and their people.”
Again Aragorn’s eyes closed. “Thanks be to Iluvatar,” he murmured fervently. He looked at his wife with growing joy. “Then I leave you not unsupported when I must perforce accept the Gift.” He was still weeping, with heart’s ease, he realized. “Thanks be to Iluvatar,” he repeated.
“Indeed,” said Gwaihir gently, “for thus it is His will, more than that of the Valar themselves, that the Lights of the three be fully restored before they are ready to return to the Presence.” Again he bobbed his head slightly. “In truth, the three mortal Ringbearers, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, and Samwise Gamgee, need not sail on any specific ship, but may choose to go when it pleases them. However, know this--it is seen that the Perian Bilbo Baggins is ready at any time to accept the Gift of Iluvatar and will not be able to put off that acceptance all that much further--if he does not go with the Lord Elrond, he is not likely to survive to take one in the future.” The King and Queen nodded their understanding. “As for the Perian Frodo Baggins----” The Eagle shook his head. “No one can say as yet precisely how much time he might remain, here in the Mortal Lands. But, although he has not yet actively begun to fade, it is not likely to be long before that day comes. His body and spirit were much depleted by his ordeal. But you already know this fully too well.”
Both King and Queen nodded their understanding.
Aragorn straightened to his full height, which before the Great Eagle seemed little enough. “I ask that you bear our thanks to the Valar, and ask that Manwë offer it further to Iluvatar Himself,” he said. “We can ask no more, and rejoice that you have agreed to do as you have done already.”
“For such a petition, and one which we of the Aeries of the Misty Mountains also supported, it was no labor, son of Eärendil, Elros, and Elendil the Faithful,” Gwaihir responded. “And your response is already known--I have no need to bear it anywhere.”
The Eagle mantled and stretched out his neck. He lifted his wings and again held them briefly over the heads of Lord and Lady, then launched himself up into the sky, singing in joy to the mountaintops as the word the Cormacolindor was granted the right to sail to the Undying Lands was announced to the mortal lands.
When at last the King and Queen returned through the Rath Dínen to go back up to the Citadel of Minas Tirith, their two Guardsmen were eyeing one another sidelong. Not since the day of their marriage had Lord and Lady appeared to shine so in joy.