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Betrothal
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Three

3

The archivist paused and looked about him. The natural light was fading fast and the candle was burning low. He took the papers and rolled them gently into one of the spare cloth covers that were kept in every room, and concealed them in his clothing before slipping away. He could not help gazing at Firiel’s picture before he left. She has her father’s skill with tales, he thought as he returned the half smile that was another family trait. But Halbarad, now that was a surprise. He recalled what little was known about the king’s cousin. A dour man of scant conversation, whose actions spoke louder than his words, and whose loyalty was unquestionable. Little was recorded of his life before the war. And where, he wondered was the rest of Firiel’s biography? Had she died before she finished it? Or had she withdrawn the rest for some other reason? The archivist drew breath and hastened back to the small rented rooms on the fifth level that he called home. When he got there he hurried upstairs to find that he had no more candles or oil for the lamp, for such domestic necessities were rarely uppermost in his mind and in his excitement he had forgotten to buy them that day. He swore under his breath as he realised that he had no chance of reading more that evening, and the morrow would be much too busy to risk another attempt amidst the bustle of the bookbinding. He would have to buy oil at the first opportunity and wait to read more until he returned home.
Under the bed was a large wooden coffer where he kept such treasures as he possessed; a volume of poetry, an embroidered neckerchief that had been given to him long ago and his father’s hunting knife, which he had never used, but admired as a thing of mystery, quite beyond his skill to wield. He laid the sheaf of rolled pages in the coffer and paused for a moment to run his fingers over the neckerchief. A faded memory of bluebell woods and a running brook caused him to smile. Then he closed the lid and went to bed.
The next morning he had slept worse than usual and was irritable and sharp with everyone he met. In a meeting at the college, he fumbled his way through the agreed lists of artisans and felt embarrassed before the dean at his unaccustomed ineptitude, but if truth be told his mind was not on the task in hand. He longed to tell someone what he had found, his assistant, or preferably the professor. He felt sure that she could be relied upon to be discrete for the time being. But something kept holding him back, both the desire to keep the knowledge to himself for a while, and a strangely protective feeling towards Firiel, and to the King her father, at least until he knew the contents of the pages. Somehow he got through the rest of the day and raced home early, stopping only to buy a meagre quart of oil on the way. As he entered the house and climbed the steep stairs he was already thinking about Rivendell and trying to picture the leafy valley with the fine Elvish halls built into the clefts amongst the falls.

***

It is told that when Aragorn came to Rivendell he went not straightaway to Elrond’s chambers, but first sought his mother to tell her the news of his betrothal, and that she wept, for she was glad that at last their troth was plighted. She hoped that they might marry with due speed and seal the bond. But Aragorn said, ‘We may not yet be united, for there is much still to do and we must consult with Elrond before anything more is decided.’

***

On the day of their arrival, Halbarad was invited to the Hall of Fire, the first time that he had spent an evening in that most evocative and beautiful room in Rivendell. He was never to forget it. The music was the thing he would remember the most, for it both saddened him and, at the same time, filled him with a deep joy and sense of peace, so that as long as it continued it was the only music in the world, and nothing else mattered except that Halbarad was there in that room, listening to it. Around him, in the dim light from the fire, he could make out elves playing on flutes and harps, and singing, but what he heard seemed not to come from them but from the earth itself, so rich and so pure did it sound. It filled his whole body with the deepest calm, the strongest thrill, the essence of every tree and stone of the mountain vale. Afterwards he would struggle to remember the notes and rhythms, but always he kept the core of it close to his heart so that it would return unbidden to embrace him in the lonely places, where the other joys of his life were forgotten.
And he glimpsed Aragorn across the room, but this was not the Aragorn of the windswept hills and the wilderness, nor yet his comrade in arms. He was clad in grey as one of the elves and his dark hair was arrayed about his shoulders and, as Halbarad watched, he thought he discerned the light of a star on his brow. This, he realised, was Aragorn at home, as the elves knew him, one of the children of Lúthien, speaking and singing in Elvish as if it were his mother tongue, a lord of both his peoples, and suddenly Halbarad felt humbled and could scarcely look upon him.
Soon the music gave way to verse and tales, some that Halbarad knew and many more that he did not. He found that he was drifting on a stream of words that had their own music, for they sang to him of the wisdom and follies of ages past and of love and valour without end. And, as weariness took him and he wandered in and out of sleep, the words entered his dreams and he was filled with their resonance.
When at last it ended, he stirred himself with an effort, and there was Aragorn, alone again now, and he came over to Halbarad. They left the hall together, passing out into the court of the fountain to watch the full moon as she rose and cast her reflection in the water. The light fractured into a thousand shards under the shimmering curtain of the fountain.
There was little need for the friends to speak, for Halbarad knew now in his heart what his head had already told him before that evening. Aragorn stood by the pool searching its depths for a moment and then he turned to his cousin.
‘You see now what I must do, if all this is not to be lost?’ he said softly. He spoke as though half addressing himself in some internal debate. Halbarad nodded. Now at last he knew Aragorn, man and elf. Always the heirs of Elendil had been forced to choose between duty and desire, between love and destiny. He grasped his cousin’s hand in the gesture of friendship they had always shared. He would do whatever was needed to secure Aragorn’s future, and at whatever cost to himself.

***

The next morning Elrond summoned Aragorn to him and said, ‘My son, years come when hope will fade and beyond them little is clear to me. And now a shadow lies between us. Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the Kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life’s grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow and parting - but to you hope of joy for a while. Alas my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending.’
As he spoke there was deep sadness in his gaze and Aragorn was greatly moved and fell to his knees before Elrond.
‘My father,’ he answered and his eyes shone with tears, ‘I know what this choice has cost you and, love her as I do, I would release Arwen from her vow and have her take the ship to Valinor and be with her people, rather than see her meet her end untimely. But this choice she has made of her own will and now that she has chosen she will not be dissuaded, however hard the end may be. And the task that you have laid before me has already long been in my heart, though the road to its fulfilment is still hidden from me.’
So it stood afterwards between Elrond and Aragorn, and they spoke no more of this matter, but Aragorn went forth again to danger and toil.3 When he departed he rode with Halbarad and they spent many months as they had of old, riding the breadth of Eriador together while Aragorn revisited his kin and the lands which he was born to protect. And Aragorn spoke to Halbarad of the words of Elrond and bade him keep silent on the matters of the Kingship and the betrothal.
‘For this you have long known, Halbarad,’ he said, ‘that no word must ever come to Mordor of my lineage or of the task before me, lest the Enemy put forward all his strength to find and destroy me and all my kindred. And I would ask another favour of you. Arwen returns soon to Rivendell, for even Lothlórien is not now safe from the shadow, and Elrond shall have need of her in the dark days to come, for in his heart he longs for Celebrian and the West. I would have you speak with Arwen and my mother and watch them for me when I cannot, and bring to me whatever messages they may have. I know that you understand me Halbarad, and I need not speak more clearly. Will you do this for me?’
And Halbarad agreed, and so thereafter he was Aragorn’s ally at Rivendell, taking messages to and from there when Aragorn could not come himself. He became the confidant of Arwen and a comfort to her in the dark times when her father railed at her choice. Times came when, though Elrond could speak of his pain to no one, his suffering was plain to all, and in these days especially Arwen drew close to Halbarad. Thus between them there was kindled a friendship, so that in the long waiting to come Halbarad learnt all the counsels between Aragorn and Arwen and was party to the secret working of the Standard, the cloth of sable that was to bear the devices of the house of Elendil. That Aragorn trusted Halbarad implicitly was evident from the depth of his involvement in the King’s affairs.
So it was that when Arwen arrived in due course at the house of her father, Elrond had already known her desire for many days. It is recorded that contact between them was strained and that they did not speak of the choice until she had been at Rivendell for several months, and Halbarad also had returned thither.

***
The tall, slender figure of the elf started as Halbarad entered the Hall, still dressed in his mud-stained travelling gear, and then she turned and he saw her features close by for the first time. Her striking beauty astounded him - the long dark hair flowed like a river down her back and her face, pale despite the bright glow of the fire in the hearth, was both strong and finely drawn. She seemed most like to her father, especially in the depths of her eyes, and so he knew her at once.
For a moment she stared at him, searching his gaze, and then turned and made as if to leave the room. Halbarad hesitated and then spoke.
‘Forgive me, Lady Arwen,’ he said. ‘I have come but lately from the wild and have not had time to change.’
‘It is I who should beg forgiveness, sir, for my ill manners,’ she replied. ‘When first I saw you I thought you were someone else, but in my disappointment I appeared rude.’ Her voice caressed his ears like silk, so that he longed to hear it again.
‘I am Halbarad, son of Haldan,’ he continued, ‘kinsman and steward to lord Aragorn, my lady. I was lately in his company and he bade me send you his greetings.’
Arwen smiled then and Halbarad felt at once as though the Hall was bathed in a golden light, like the fairest sunset.
‘Your name is well known to me, son of Haldan.’ She paused. ‘And now I look upon your face I can see that you are indeed close kin to Aragorn. Tell me, where was he when you parted?’
‘He was at Amon Sûl and about to ride south,’ said Halbarad.’ He asked me to tell you to look for his coming with the new moon.’
‘Less than a month before he comes again? So soon and yet never soon enough. What more can I do? He has already the swiftest horse in Rivendell, at my own bidding. But he comes and goes at his own behest.’
‘If I may be permitted, my lady,’ said Halbarad, ‘I should say that he goes not of his own choosing, but because he must. For I know that if he were to follow his heart’s desire, then he would be here in this hall.’
‘He has indeed sent a chivalrous messenger. Will you stay to await his coming, or must you also fly away on the wind?’ The smile was discernible in her voice now and not only on her lips.
‘Now that my lord has returned from the South,’ replied Halbarad, ‘I may take some rest for a little while, until he has need of me again.’
About her neck, he glimpsed a narrow silver chain that bore the ring he knew so well; twin serpents entwined about a crown of golden flowers. Arwen caught his gaze and turned the ring in her fingers.
‘Yes it is the same,’ she said. ‘I see in your eyes that Aragorn has told you of our bond.’
Halbarad nodded. ‘He has, my lady, and I wish you joy of it. Rarely can there have been such a match.’
‘And yet it may be long,’ said Arwen, ‘ere its fulfilment, even by the reckoning of the Men of Westernesse. But I am already accustomed to awaiting my heart’s desire, and the years are but a passing season to me.’
‘My lord Aragorn is a patient man and will wait as long as he must, I am certain.’ Halbarad hesitated a moment and then asked, ‘Lady Arwen, may I kiss your hand?’ Immediately he felt abashed and wished he might withdraw such a rash request, but Arwen smiled again and raising her left hand, offered it to him.
‘I must ask your forgiveness a second time,’ he said shyly as he took it and kissed the ivory skin. ‘I forget myself.’
As he turned to leave she said, ‘Sir, there is naught to forgive. The days grow short for such proprieties.’
Halbarad took his leave then and withdrew to his chamber, but it was some time before he dared to seek Arwen’s company again.

***
The Archivist reeled. So this was the mother of Firiel! That she was a beauty he already knew; the whole world talked of Arwen Undomiel, once it was known that not only had the King returned, he was to take an Elven Queen. In his student years the Archivist had taken political history, and had cynically drawn the conclusion that the marriage had been, in truth a political match, sealed to cement the Kingship and give credence to Elessar’s claim. The Queen had been a private individual and great care had been taken to ensure that her life remained her own insofar as it was possible. Nothing of her private affairs had been permitted to enter the public domain and she had retained an air of mystery, unsurprisingly perhaps for someone of her race. He made a mental note to speak to the Professor as soon as he could meet her alone. Or should he go straight to the citadel and ask for the Lord Chamberlain? The responsibility of what he had found began to lie heavily on him and he began to wish he had delivered the pages to the citadel unread.

***

One evening soon after, it happened that Halbarad went strolling in the gardens of Elrond’s house, for it was only a little past midsummer and still warm in the sheltered glen of Rivendell. As he walked under the canopy of the trees, he was suddenly aware of voices talking in the grove that sloped below him. The tones of the master of the house and his daughter were unmistakable, and in spite of himself he stopped to listen, slipping out of sight with accustomed ease.
The lady Arwen was seated in an arbour made from living withies of woven willow. Lord Elrond was standing close by, but Halbarad could feel the distance between them like a wall. Arwen was speaking urgently in a low voice.
‘Father, what would you have me do? I will never marry another if I may not marry Aragorn, and if I must journey west, I shall leave my heart and all my longing behind me. Would you wish for such a pass? To give him up would be the end of all our hopes, and I fear he would waver from the burden that he must carry, on which both our peoples depend. He loves these lands and all the folk therein, it is true. But I fear he has not the resolve to finish the task, if he may not see me there at its fulfilment. I love this valley, and more than that I love Aragorn. I am not my mother. You must see that.’
‘I would you had not spent these last years with Galadriel,’ replied Elrond in a cold tone, ’that you choose now as you do. You are not your mother that is clear, for she would not have gainsaid me thus, knowing my heart on this matter.’
‘But she chose to leave and you did not follow, Father. I wonder if, after all, you loved her as I do Aragorn.’
‘How dare you question me so, child?’ His tone was low so that he almost whispered, but Halbarad saw Arwen flinch before his words.
However she began again, her gentle eyes hardening. ‘You stayed here when you could have gone with my mother, but you chose not to.’
There was a silence, as Elrond looked away, and Halbarad could see the knuckles on his clenched hands whiten.
Presently Arwen broke the silence. ‘I am sorry father. But you chose to stay in spite of your love, while I stay because of it!’ She gazed at Elrond, imploring him to answer, but his face was stone hard with rage, and so she turned on her heel and walked away, almost bumping into Halbarad in her haste, but not seeing him, for her eyes were bright with tears. Halbarad stayed long enough to see Elrond put his head in his hands, before probity overcame his awed curiosity and he retreated to the house.
Later he saw Arwen again, staring out of an upper window at the night; in the starlight her face was calm, but a deep sadness was revealed as she gazed across the vale towards the falls. The moon was waning and its light cast a mantle of deep indigo about her hair.
‘My lady,’ said Halbarad and bowed.
‘Sir,’ she replied, without turning towards him. ‘Do you not love the Evening? It is the time when the world can breathe again.’ A slight breeze floated her robe so that it gently outlined her profile against the mullion and in that instant Halbarad was reminded of a bird, a swallow or a falcon, about to take off into the darkness.
Then she broke the spell. ‘May I ask you about the lord Aragorn? You have known him long, I think.’
‘I used to know him well, my lady,’ replied Halbarad. ‘Less so these last few years. We have been parted long.’
‘But you call him friend,’ said Arwen, ‘not only your kinsman and lord.’
‘He is the truest friend I ever had. All who know him love him.’
‘It is a mighty gift to be loved by all, but a burden also. And my father loves him dearly, as he loves his own sons. You do understand that, Halbarad.’
‘I know that Aragorn loves Elrond like a father.’
‘I fear that in his love Aragorn will release me from my vow, lest he and my father become estranged. I could not blame him for such a course. A father’s love is a costly debt.’
‘My lady,’ said Halbarad slowly, measuring his words, ‘do not be troubled by such fears. Aragorn loves you more than he loves life itself. In all the years I have known him he has always been true to his own heart. And he would sooner have you than all the realms of Arnor and Gondor. He would die for you. Never doubt it.’
Arwen gazed at Halbarad, wondering. ‘Then he has told you of my father’s words? You speak with such certainty of his heart,’ she went on. ‘It is a lofty task and he has laboured already nine and twenty years.’
‘Aragorn has long prepared himself for that burden. It is his with or without you, lady Arwen. But for you he would wait another nine and twenty years. And he is yet young by the reckoning of our race.’
‘He will likely have to wait longer. But I fear for him. Your short lives are so precious that every year wasted must seem a heavy loss. Without Aragorn all my days would be an endless burden and I should long to follow him. My father cannot see that and thinks only of himself.’
‘He does no more than try to hold on to that which is dear to him.’
‘And I, too, fear his going, Halbarad. Is that wrong? I can only hope that he will be whole again when he is reunited with my mother.’
‘How can it be wrong to dread the loss of one who is so dear to you? I lost my father when I was but a child and I mourn him still. But a man must live his life in the way that was allotted to him. Is it not the same for the Elves?’
‘That may be so,’ said Arwen. ’But it is also said that Elves and men alike choose the place and manner of their lives, and it is for us to determine our paths, for good or ill. Aragorn knows that better than most.’
‘Then, if that is so, I deem that Aragorn has long since laid his path, my lady, though it may still be hidden from him and perhaps from you. Do not be afraid!’
She looked straight into Halbarad’s face until he thought her gaze would pierce his heart, and then said ‘Say not that I am afraid, but that I fear to lose the one by embracing the other. But this I must do, if I am to be true to myself.’
Then Halbarad said, ‘Lady, you will never lose your father’s heart, no matter what you do. His love for you runs too deep.’
Arwen walked away from the window and along the passage towards him. When she brushed against Halbarad in the narrow place by the stairs, her movement caused a shiver to run up his spine.
‘Thank-you Halbarad,’ she said at last. ‘You have the patience of the Elves, I think. But tell me, are all your people so courteous?’
‘In the presence of one such as you I would hope so, yes,’ said Halbarad. ‘They are dwindled to a rustic, wandering folk, but they never forget their roots.’
‘And I deem,’ said Arwen, ‘that they shall never forget, with men such as you to lead them.’

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