Equinoxium II: The Fading: Chapter 2
See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.Author's Note:
Thank you for the continued support!
The next morning slayer and elf rode hard through the forests of Ithilien, across the river Anduin, and into the vast Pelennor Fields beyond. Minas Tirith rose like an alabaster beacon before them, birds of prey circling the ivory towers of a place that she had once been freely offered as home. But that had been many lifetimes ago, and though Aragorn's generosity had been borne from a heart in all of the right places, Buffy had never felt welcome in the city of Men - not after everything that she had done, and all that had been done to her within the stone circles that encased the highest tier.
The impressive gate to the first circle of the city stood open, a testament to the peace that now settled upon the lands of Middle-earth, and the guards gave way before Legolas' white stallion and her own chestnut mare as they rode quickly through the ever upward slanting streets. Already Buffy could see the odd juxtaposition of grief and joy that marked the faces of the people that filled the bustling city, and she knew that word had already spread of Aragorn's decision.
Gondor was preparing to say goodbye to their king, and in doing so they would honor him for the great services he had rendered, the sacrifices he had made, and for the love they felt for a man who had loved them, led them, saved them, and restored them to the glory of ages past. Aragorn's life was one long-lived, and so his passing would be celebrated, not mourned; but for those who loved him best, death was still a parting - and for some, that parting would be so very final.
Gimli was waiting for them at the royal stables when they reached the sixth circle. While the years had not been as kind to the aging dwarf as they had been to Buffy, his strong shoulders remained unbowed and his white beard shone beneath the bright spring light. His dark eyes, set amidst a host of deep wrinkles, met hers only briefly before they shifted past her and became locked on Legolas' slight form.
The dwarf wore his sadness like a cloak that was tempered with the steel of mortal understanding, while the archer's grief was like the ocean, vast and deep as it pressed upon his narrow shoulders and bore him down beneath its immense weight. Legolas was lost, his soul, already fractured by the loss of so many friends, was shattering before the eyes of those who loved him.
Without word the three fell into step together and began the short trek through the sixth circle, through the final guarded gate, and into the empty stone courtyard of the seventh circle, where the White Tree of Gondor drooped with heavy, fragrant blossoms. By some unspoken agreement, they paused beside the symbol of the prosperous nation, and Buffy's hand found Legolas', their fingers becoming tangled in each others fierce grips.
The silence was broken when Gimli, eying the tree with a pensive frown, nudged Legolas in the arm. "Lad, death is inevitable for we mere mortals-"
"Not now, Gimli," Legolas interrupted, his fair features creasing in pain as he turned from the tree, pulling Buffy with him as he moved towards the King's House.
"Think of it this way," Gimli persisted in his usual dwarven way as he hurried to fall into step beside them, "210 years is a long life for a Man-"
"Death is longer," Legolas returned, his broken voice dissuading the dwarf from further conversation.
With a sigh, Buffy shared a secret look with the dwarf - one made of equal parts worry, exasperation, pain, and love - before she hurried her step so that she was walking beside the elf, and not being dragged behind. As they moved through the grandly appointed hallways, servants bowing their greetings as the small party moved past, Buffy ignored the beautiful, familiar trappings of human royalty and instead surreptitiously studied the wood-elf beside her.
For years now, Buffy had begun to notice a brittle, careworn edge to the staid archer. With each mortal death the losses dug deeper, and more and more of his carefree, jovial nature were ripped free. His edges were sharper, his eyes deeper, and they now carried a sadness that was crippling to any mortal who was unlucky enough to get caught in that piercing blue gaze. All of the softness - the innocence - was burning away, and all that remained was a dogged determination to remain in this world, despite the cost, and his passion: passion for life, for friendship, for the world, and for her.
But what would happen to that wonderful, burning passion when Aragorn was dead? When Legolas' promise to remain for the King of Men had been fulfilled? Would he then remain in Middle-earth for her, and would she become that final link that tethered him to a world that brought nothing but grief and sadness to his battered frame? Or would he travel to a place where she couldn't follow?
Buffy turned away from her fierce inspection, though the elf remained uncharacteristically oblivious to her searching looks, and trained her eyes on her worn boots as they tread over the finely-decorated rug that adorned this familiar hallway. She didn't know the answers to her questions, and if she was honest with herself, she was afraid to find out.
It was hours later that somehow, despite everything that was going on and the many people that vied for the king's attentions, Buffy found herself alone with Aragorn in a quiet corner of the Queen's Gardens. The afternoon had been long and lively, filled with laughter, tears, and the quiet reminiscences between good friends. None save the king's extended family were in attendance, the court having been dismissed upon their arrival, and Buffy had watched the proceedings, had watched Legolas
, with piercing eyes. There had been so much happiness, and Aragorn had looked so vital and alive - and with that vitality, Legolas had seemed lighter and happier. He had almost looked like the Legolas of before - the elf that had existed in an immortal world untouched by mortal death. It was a time for celebration, not mourning, but now, away from the others, Aragorn once more looked all of his 210 years as he wearily sat on a stone bench, a tired sigh escaping him. "Come, sit with me," he invited as he patted the empty space beside him.
"Are you sure you don't want me to get one of the others?" Buffy asked as she jerked a thumb back to where Gimli was acting out a story that had Eldarion and Arwen in stitches, while Legolas pretended to glower at whatever role he no doubt featured in the tale.
"No, I would like a moment to speak with you, if you would not mind," he explained with a smile that, despite the deep lines that were cut into his perpetually grizzled cheeks, still looked as charming and boyish as ever.
"Of course," Buffy returned as she swept forward, the hem of her long dress brushing against the fresh spring grass. She had changed out of her travel-stained leggings and coat hours ago, and had slipped into one of the dresses that she kept stored in the rooms that were always left open for her and Legolas. The beautiful gowns no longer felt the part of a costume that she wore to blend in with this world of kings and queens, princes and princesses, and lords and ladies. Now they felt as comfortable to her as her sturdy boots, soft leggings, warm shirts, and leather duster - a replacement of a replacement of a replacement of the original leather duster that she had first worn into this world. "What's up?"
Long accustomed to her strange phrasings, Aragorn's steady gray-eyed gaze held her as he reached for her hand and clasped it within his own - hands that were large, warm, and calloused from hard work. Hands that still spoke of a strength that had long defined the ranger-turned-king. "Buffy, I wanted to thank you again for all of your hard work and your sacrifices, for your many toils and trials, and for all that you have done for Middle-earth."
Smiling at his warm words, Buffy gently squeezed the king's hands. "Aragorn, all of the kindness and support that you've shown me these past years have been thanks enough."
"Mayhap," he agreed with a small dip of his head, "but the fact remains that I would have died long ago were it not for you. Eldarion would never have been born, and I wouldn't be leaving my kingdom in the hands of one so trusted, nor in times of such peace and happiness," he explained as his grip tightened. "You've given this to me, and at great sacrifice to yourself - and you did it for the love of a friend that is most cherished to me."
"Oh, you may not have consciously known it at the time," Aragorn admitted with a grin, "but the foundation had already been laid. Which leads me to a favor that I must beg from you."
"A favor?" Buffy returned, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. Over her many years in Middle-earth, Buffy had learned that though he was a King of Men, the fact remained that Aragorn was reared by Elrond of Imladris, and in his youth had been surrounded by Elladan and Elrohir. While the man often showed a countenance that demonstrated the grim mask of his Dúnedain kin, the fact remained that there was a mischievous nature that lurked beneath the solemn exterior.
"A very important favor that is dear to my own heart," Aragorn agreed as his eyes slipped past her and to his family - those bound by blood, marital bonds, and a friendship that burned so deep, the links were as though forged by mithril. More specifically, though, she watched as his gaze caught that of Legolas from where he leaned against a far tree, their eyes locking together before breaking away beneath Eldarion's deep, booming laugh.
"Aragorn?" Buffy queried, pulling the king away from his friend as he looked at her with solemn eyes.
"Middle-earth has become a place of death and sadness for Legolas," he stated, his stark words ringing with a truth that Buffy had long understood, bringing her back to her earlier worries and unspoken fears. "He will find no happiness or peace in these lands that he once loved, for though you cured him of his sea-longing many years ago, it exists for a reason."
"Valinor is the only place that can heal him," Buffy agreed, her eyes shifting down to their clasped hands as her heart contracted painfully. "It's the only place where he can be really happy again - where he can be healed from all of this death." And it was a place to which she couldn't follow her immortal elf. A place where no mortal, save for the ring-bearers, were allowed to tread.
"Yes," Aragorn agreed as he squeezed her hand. "And there you and Gimli must both go with him."
For a beat, Buffy didn't move - unable to process the king's solemn words. "What?" she demanded as she stared at Aragorn in disbelief.
With a mild shrug, the king looked back at his family and friends, a wistful smile pulling at his lips. "Legolas would never leave Middle-earth without you two, and in your case, that would mean trapping him in this void for all of eternity. He is the last of elven kind upon these shores. He deserves to go home to his own people, to be reunited with his family and kin.
"And we both know that you have never belonged with the race of Men here in Middle-earth."
Buffy turned from Aragorn's gaze with a stuttered sigh. He was right, of course. She had no patience for the politics of this human world, for the strange etiquette and the tiny box that human women were forced into. The elves had a more 'modern' take on the gender roles - meaning that there weren't any. An elleth, a she-elf, was just as willing, capable, and encouraged to take up the tasks of any ellon. Males and females were equal, and that fit just fine with the kind of modern society in which Buffy had been raised.
But Valinor? The Undying Lands? That was the Land O' Elves, and Buffy was pretty sure that the mortal political scene had nothing on that haven. A haven into which only the eldar were granted access.
"Aragorn, even if Ulmo allowed Legolas to sail us over his seas and land in Valinor, what's to stop the rest of the Valar from kicking our mortal butts back to Middle-earth?" Buffy demanded as she crossed her arms in exasperation. "I was told quite specifically that Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were only permitted passage to the Undying Lands because they were ring-bearers. Gimli and I? Didn't so much bear the ring, did we?"
"No," Aragorn admitted with a wry twist to his lips, "but Gimli was one of the famed Nine Walkers, and I am confident that both Elrond and Galadriel would argue on his behalf-"
"And me?" Buffy cut in, her voice soft as she serenely folded her hands into her lap, her gaze calm and sure as she looked into his eyes and dared him to contradict her - to offer her false assurances. "I may have been a Champion back on my world, and while I tried to pull my weight here in Middle-earth, the fact remains that it was because of me that the mornedhel were even created. Who's going to argue on my behalf?"
Startled, Buffy turned from Aragorn to find that sometime during their conversation, the others had abandoned their small circle to join Buffy and Aragorn's secluded corner. It was Legolas who had spoken, and as Buffy stood from the stone bench, he pulled her into his arms and pressed a soft kiss against her forehead.
"I will speak on your behalf," he whispered as he crushed her against the taut lines of his body, his arms twin bands of steel that encircled her slight frame and clutched her against him, as though afraid that she would somehow disappear, as had his many other friends, and leave him alone in his immortal life.
"Aye, and should it be needed, lass, I would also speak on your behalf," Gimli gruffly offered from where he stood beside Eldarion.
Buffy turned suspicious eyes to Legolas. She knew a set-up when she saw one. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas had obviously discussed this before - probably many times. Their minds were set, and now they sought only to convince her to once more follow their lead. It was an action that she had become well-accustomed to over her time in Middle-earth. She was a warrior still, but long gone were the days when Buffy was the one girl that was forced to stand before the darkness. Now she was merely one of many that chose
to stand against the darkness - and that difference had been more than enough for Buffy to willingly lay down her General's cap so that she could fall beneath Legolas' and Aragorn's banners.
But this? This was huge - like huge
huge. This was put yourself on a boat huge; sail the unknown seas for an unknown amount of days, weeks, or months huge; and then hope that you get accepted on the other side huge, and not just killed for your audacity to believe that you could possibly have earned a spot in the elven equivalent of heaven, huge. It was huge
And it was also the easiest decision she had ever made.
"Then of course I'll go," Buffy murmured, her eyes catching Legolas' - quite happy to drown in their impossible depths. He smiled at her words, and that smile alone was worth a thousand possible deaths for she saw in that smile that just a small portion of the burden that he carried had been lifted. Her consent was something that she could give him, and happy she would give it. "Someone has to keep you two out of trouble, after all," she offered with a small, but genuine grin.
"Then it is decided."
With that solemn declaration, Buffy turned away from her elf-prince and looked at Aragorn. His son stood tall and silent beside him, with eyes that were only for his father. Then Arwen moved forward until she was pressed up against her husband's side. Her arm snaked around Aragorn's back, her hand twining with his, and while her features were serene and a small smile lifted the corners of her lips, her beautiful gray eyes looked like a storm that was slowly dying, the fire snuffed beneath heavy rains.
Tearing her eyes away from the heart-wrenching tableau that was the tragic end to an epic love story, Buffy felt the jovial air rip, tear, and crumble into pieces. With one look at Aragorn, Buffy knew that it was over.
It was time to say goodbye.
Grief was a funny thing. It was an emotion, and like all emotions, it carried great power. It had the power to lift people up - pushing them beyond their limits and achieving heights never before imagined - and it also had the power to drive them down until nothing but a shell remained. Preceding Aragorn's death, Buffy saw both of these extremes in the people that had loved the king most.
The procession that had followed Aragorn to his eternal place of rest had been very small. Only those closest to the king had been permitted into the sacred House, and so Arwen, Eldarion, Gimli, Legolas and Buffy herself had followed the great king through the throng of Gondorian citizens that lined the stone roads and hung from open windows, all paying silent witness to their passage. Aragorn their friend, King Elessar of Gondor, Strider of the Dúnedain, Thorongil the soldier of Gondor, and Estel of Imladris - the man of many names walked with his head held high, the Winged Crown of Gondor sitting upon a bed of thick silver hair, with the Sceptre of Annuminas in hand. Arwen stepped beside him, so tall, beautiful, and strong, while Eldarion followed behind his father and mother.
Eldarion, son to Aragorn and Arwen, soon to be King of Gondor, fell under the former as he walked with a heavy grace and quiet understanding. The ninety-year old man, who of course didn't look a day over thirty, was a great man and well-respected by the people of Gondor, and the slayer knew that he would be a great king - just as his father. He was a queer mix of his human and elvish parentage, impossibly tall and lean with fair features, deep gray eyes, long, curled ebony hair and perpetually grizzled cheeks, no matter the time of day. He was as yet unmarried, but she didn't expect that to last long as more than once over the years had she caught his eyes stray to little Anariel, great-great-granddaughter to Faramir and Éowyn, great-granddaughter to Finduilas. The girl had to be twenty by now, and if Eldarion didn't get moving, he'd most likely lose his chance to some other young noble. Eldarion, Buffy knew, would survive his grief and rise above it. He would spend the rest of his life trying to rule his people in a manner which would make his father proud.
Arwen, on the other hand, fell under the latter. Her grief was the kind that would destroy her.
They walked through the seventh gate and back into the sixth circle of Minas Tirith, past the Houses of Healing and to Fen Hollen, the Closed Door, which was cut into the very rock of Mount Mindolluin. The entrance was guarded by a porter in a gate-house, the door locked, and only the Lord of the City and the people who tended the tombs were allowed entrance.
Beyond the door lay a winding road that was cut into the rocky spur that joined Minas Tirith to Mount Mindolluin on the fifth level of the city. High stone walls closed them in on either side, and Buffy slipped her hand into Legolas' cold grip as the waning daylight was lost to them from so high above. Torches soon became their only illumination as they went down, down, ever downwards to where the Rath Dínen, the Silent Street, opened up before them. They were in a world of cold stone: the straight hard road that ended in a wall of craggy rock - the cliff face of Mount Mindolluin arching in the sky before them - and two magnificent stone buildings that were cut into the rocky spur to the right and left of their small party, with the sky open and barren above them.
Buffy had only ever visited this quiet, dead place once before - thirty-eight years past when Faramir was laid to rest in the House of Stewards, the grim building on the right. But now their party turned to the left, to the House of Kings, and torches in hand, they made their way through the grand entrance and into the largest, most grand mausoleum that Buffy had ever before seen.
The passages twisted and turned, and Buffy was easily lost in this place of solemn death - a place so unlike the graveyards and cemeteries of her youth. Back then, even when surrounded by tombstones and earth-filled plots, the world had been alive and vibrant. Branches moved with an ocean-scented breeze, birds twittered in their high nests, insects chirped from their hidden places, small animals rustled through the brush, cars passed on the adjacent streets, and tinny voices drifted from open windows. Her former hunting grounds, the final resting place of the residents of Sunnydale, had been rich with the vibrant symphony of life, even in the darkest part of the witching hour. But here, upon the Silent Street and within the House of the Kings, no life existed beside that of her small party, and no sound could be heard outside of their hushed movements. The stone should have captured the sounds of their ragged breaths, of their quiet steps, and amplified the sound in this empty place until it echoed from every barren, desolate hallway - yet it didn't. The stone passageways absorbed the sound, the light, the life
of her companions until the world became a muted place of gray, grim death.
She hated this place.
When they came to the room in which Aragorn's tomb lay empty, Buffy held back from the others. Legolas' hand slipped from hers, and she watched as those closest to the king followed him into the grand chamber. Like the many other rooms that they had passed, the walls were intricately carved, and the ceiling arched so high above them that the top was lost in darkness, the flickering light of their torches shying away from the deep shadows. Oil lamps hung from the airy heights, but they were ignored in favor of the bright, smoky torches that Legolas and Eldarion placed in mounted holders, adding little illumination to the large room.
From her spot near the door, Buffy could just make out the flat, unadorned tomb upon which Aragorn now perched, as well as the two, smaller tombs that sat on either side. These were the tombs of Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, the brave hobbits that she had come to treasure during her time in Middle-earth. After their deaths over fifty years ago, their small bodies had been moved into these grand halls, their likenesses carved in eternal slumber atop the stone caskets. They would rest beside Aragorn in the House of Kings until the end of time.
It was a great honor, and yet Buffy couldn't help but wonder where Arwen would spend her eternity. She knew that in time, Aragorn's body would be laid to rest within his own stone casket, and a final piece would be added to the top of his tomb: a statue portraying him in his final sleep. But there was no sign of Arwen's tomb, ready and prepared for her own bed, and Buffy couldn't help but wonder what that meant. Aragorn was giving his final goodbyes to Gimli and Legolas, and then he turned to his son with proud eyes. And all the while Arwen stood silently at his side, her face grave and her eyes wet with tears.
With much patience, Legolas had once explained that death was a funny thing for one such as Aragorn with his elvish heritage. When it came to death, he actually had options
. The king could wait until death claimed him, as it did with everyone in the end, or else he could choose the time of his passing and take that final step on his own terms. In other words, Aragorn had sensed that his time was drawing near, and instead of waiting for death to claim him, Aragorn was going to meet death head on. It was an option that was truly elven - the idea that a person could simply release the bonds that tethered their fëa, their soul, to their mortal body. Yet as Buffy watched the others draw away to give Arwen and Aragorn some semblance of privacy, she saw that it was an option that not everyone had embraced.
"I am the last of the Númenóreans and the latest king of the Elder Days," Aragorn spoke to his wife from where he lay upon his bed of stone, her pale hands firmly wrapped around his own as she crushed them against her chest, "and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep."
"Then you would leave me in this final, bitter hour?" Arwen demanded, her voice filled with so much desperation that Buffy quickly averted her eyes from the heartbreaking scene.
Yes, Aragorn had the option of choosing the time of his death, and whether that was right or moral, Buffy didn't feel qualified to decide, but she was starting to understand that while Legolas could choose to forfeit his mortal body so that his fëa could travel to the Halls of Mandos, should grief or injury ever be too great, as was his elvish right, Arwen no longer seemed capable of doing the same. Arwen had chosen a mortal life, and in doing so, she had bound herself to mortal laws and rules - rules that even Aragorn was shirking.
"But I say to you, King of the Númenóreans," Arwen stated, her raised voice breaking through Buffy's troubled thoughts as, despite her best efforts, she found herself once more eavesdropping on her friends' pained conversation. "Not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them," she admitted, "but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of One to Men, it is bitter to receive."
"So it seems," Aragorn agreed as he gently brushed away an errant tear from his wife's face before his arm fell to rest at his side. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring," he murmured as Arwen pressed a trembling kiss against the fingers that were still twined with her own. "In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory," he whispered, so much love and confidence ringing in his promises that it seemed that Arwen couldn't help but grace him with one final, tremulous smile. A smile that he took as his final parting gift.
"Farewell!" he whispered and then pulled her hand to his lips to press one last kiss against her soft skin. With this final gesture Aragorn, son of Arathorn and King of Men, released his hold on life and fell into eternal slumber.
In that moment, Buffy watched as both Arwen and Legolas stiffened, as though paralyzed, and the slayer imagined that they could feel as the special bond that had bound them to the ranger-turned-king became severed in one gut-wrenching blow. And then the moment was over as Arwen slumped over her dead husband, and as Legolas staggered back against Gimli's sturdy frame.
Buffy cried out, and in moments she was beside elf and dwarf as she placed her hands on Legolas' cold cheeks and turned his face towards her. His shoulders were bent and his features were wan, his glow so dim so as to be nonexistent, but his eyes, though tempered by grief, still burned with the fire that she so loved. The slayer released the breath she hadn't realized that she had been holding as she drew him forwards into an embrace that would have crushed a normal human.
At Gimli's pained sigh and Eldarion's horrified whisper, Buffy turned back towards the tomb, only to find that something profound had happened while she had been turned away. Arwen - tall, beautiful, ethereal Arwen was held in her son's strong embrace, but the lovely queen was a faded version of her former glory. Arwen's light had been quenched by the loss of her husband, and she was now cold and gray as a nightfall in winter that comes without a star. In her hollow eyes Buffy saw that her light had died with her husband. Aragorn was dead, and Buffy knew that soon after Arwen would follow.
"It is done," Legolas whispered as his strong arms slipped around her waist and drew her near, holding her small form tight against him as though he was afraid that she would somehow slip away.
"Yes. Let us leave this place," Eldarion stated as the new King of Gondor, wearing the crown and carrying the sceptre, turned from his father's body, his mother tucked firmly at his side, and led the way from the cold stone chamber and back into the bustling city beyond.