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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 8


The King and Queen hosted a gala that evening in honour of the Travellers.  Prominent citizens of Bucklebury and the Marish, many who had only half believed their tales, listened with curious ears as new songs were sung in tribute to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.  Unlike the Ballad of Frodo of the Nine Fingers, Merry thought these melodies sounded Elvish and sad, but also hopeful, as of someone who must leave the familiar behind but keeps his heart open to whatever the future might hold.  He found them quite appropriate to honour his lost cousin.  The other hobbits, though they had never heard any music not made by their own art, were moved by the strange songs, and as they ended, Merry saw more than one eye turn thoughtfully in his direction. 

Estella had begged off this first day's festivities, but Merry was not concerned.  There had been a twinkle in her eye when she'd explained she did not feel up to such excitements and Diamond, too, had looked at him with calculating amusement.  They had some mischief planned.  Even Queen Arwen, returning to the celebration from a talk with the Thain's lady, seemed just on the brink of laughing when she spied him.  Apparently they'd let her in on their scheme too.  Merry assumed an indifferent air, unwilling to be baited, but was eager to see what the ladies had in store.

The last time Merry had been as truly happy as this was on the Field of Cormallen, watching Frodo being honoured by the legions of Middle-earth.  At every occasion since, he'd keenly felt his beloved cousin's lack.  But Aragorn, Arwen, Sam and Pippin now shared the grief, making it lighter, and with the lords and ladies from Gondor showing them such honour, Merry's heart was eased.  He knew Frodo would be remembered long after all others of his race had been forgotten.  The knowledge gave him great comfort. 

At full dark, the torches were lit and Aragorn stepped forward onto the field.  He had drawn Sam Gamgee with him and had laid his arm around the hobbit's shoulders. 

"If I might have your attention, gentle folk?" he called over the crowd.  His voice carried well and the attending hobbits grew quiet.  "We dedicate this celebration to those members of our beloved Fellowship whose honour we have sung, and whose people we have had the pleasure of meeting this day.  Seeing their happiness and prosperity brings us great joy."  He paused and his eyes sought out Merry and Pippin where they stood at the forefront of the crowd.  He smiled.  "We, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, owe our very freedom to their courage.  When all of the land was in danger, a hobbit took upon himself a great and terrible quest to try and save the land and people he loved.  Against all odds, he completed his task, but he could not have managed it without the help of those who loved him and whose bonds of friendship took them to the ends of the earth with him."

"It grieves me beyond measure that Frodo Baggins can no longer be with us, that I cannot exalt him before his people as he deserves, but I do not believe such a ceremony would have been to his liking in any case. 

"Frodo gave his all so that his people could live on as they always had; in peace.  We may celebrate his life tonight, but the greatest tribute we can give him is to live in a way that honours his sacrifice."  Aragorn drew Sam closer and Merry saw the fellow wiping his eyes.  "He would be well pleased, I think, to see how you have thrived."

Then Aragorn took a medallion from his shoulder and bent and whispered something in Sam's ear.  Sam nodded, blew his nose and stood a little more stiffly at attention.  The King raised the token above his head so that the crowd could mark it.

"In honour of Frodo's memory and in gratitude for all that Samwise Gamgee himself has done, for his courage and faithfulness and his unwavering heart, I do now bequeath to him the Star of the Dunedain.  It is a mark of my house and a symbol of my kinship.  No other outside of my realm has ever worn this symbol.  Until now, none have ever been deemed worthy enough." 

And then he carefully pinned the emblem to Sam's coat.  The poor hobbit tried gamely to stand fast, but by the time the king had finished, his cheeks were shining with tears again.  Aragorn, tears in his own eyes, bent down and embraced him.  "He would be well pleased indeed, Sam.  I have no doubt of it."

After the ceremony, the musicians began to play livelier tunes for dancing.  The attending hobbits clapped and cheered and many a furry foot began to tap in eager anticipation.  Aragorn took his lady's hand for the first dance of the evening and led her into the centre of the green field.  The firelight glinted off of Arwen's hair and glimmered along her flawless arms as she circled her lord.  Merry had been blessed to see them dance once before in the stately courts of the Citadel, but in the flickering torchlight and the shadows of the forest night, with a carpet of verdant green beneath her feet, he saw more clearly than ever Tinúviel reborn before him.  And Aragorn, with the Ring of Barahir glittering on his finger, might have been Beren himself.  She whirled in the dance and her husband caught her deftly about the waist, gazing into her eyes with clearly evident adoration.  The joy they took in each other's company warmed the heart, but it brought unbidden to mind a chant Merry had heard a world and lifetime away.

…and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening…

Merry's eyes filled with tears, he dashed them away before they could be seen.  This was a night for joy, not sorrow, but he could not help remembering the price Arwen had paid for love.  It was strange how mortality seemed so much more tragic for her than it did for those beings born to it. 

Arwen spun away from her husband, laughing, her dress floating about her like dark faerie's wings.  She had made her sacrifice freely, for love, but it still saddened Merry that one of the Elven kindred would someday succumb to the ravages of time.  The First Born were supposed to be eternal, the light and spirit of the world that could never die.  Mortals were the ephemeral ones, knowing they must celebrate life and joy while they might, just as Arwen did now.  The thought pricked his conscience uncomfortably.  She was living the life she had chosen and to the fullest measure, giving all she could to those she loved while it was in her power to do so. 

Was that not all that Estella had wanted too? 

A small figure clothed in shimmering blue walked to the edge of the circle of onlookers.  She looked like an Elf-maid, but was hobbit-sized, as sharp and bright as a diamond.  The song ended, Arwen and Aragorn's last promenade had deposited them in front of her, their faces glowing with exertion and delight.  Unexpectedly, they beckoned the lady forward.  A curious murmur flitted among the crowd.  Merry looked up again to see a young lord standing before him, bowing and suggesting the King and Queen would be honoured if the Master of Buckland would take the floor with them.  Sam was already guiding an astonished Rosie, and Diamond, looking determined not to be intimidated, followed Pippin into the circle's centre.  Merry shook his head.

"I have no partner for this dance, good sir.  My lady-wife is poorly this evening."

Rather than accepting his excuse, the man smiled gently.  "With all due respect, my lord Holdwine," he winked, "she is awaiting you and looks quite hale to me.  Though perhaps you should judge for yourself?"

Merry started.  He looked to where the man indicated and there, in the centre of the grassy field, standing between the King and Queen of Gondor, was Estella.

Her new dress flattered her lean body, its flowing fabric clinging to her waist and arms and defining her elegantly in silver and shadow.  Falls of rich silk fell from her waist and shoulders, giving the impression of cascading pools that rippled as she moved.  In her hair, a scattering of tiny diamonds glittered like a field of stars.  A circlet of the precious stones graced her neck and one brilliant gem sparkled in the point of each ear.  Merry stared gape-mouthed. 

She was astonishingly beautiful

It was as if a shadow had been lifted and he saw her with new eyes.  Like the Queen at her side, Estella looked almost ethereal, a melding of starry sky, somnolent forest and the swift river running into shape that was both familiar and unfamiliar at once.  He had grieved the loss of Estella's rounded, very hobbit-like features, but it seemed that beneath the soft, solid lass that he had treasured was a creature of elegance and grace, almost Elvish in her bearing, as perfectly and precisely cut as the sparkling diamonds she wore.

He came to stand before her, entranced.  A subtle Elvish fragrance teased his memory and mingled with her warm and comforting scent.  His stunned reaction might have suited the earlier amusement Diamond and Arwen shared, but he could see Estella had not come this night for folly.  She had never been more in earnest.  She took a step toward him.  The pride and confidence of the harvest maid of yore was gone.  Her heart was in her hands. 

This was no wasted and sickly matron.  The illness had merely burned away all baser matter leaving resolve and a strength that Merry had rarely glimpsed.  Here was a slim, bright blade, tempered in the hottest flame his pastoral land could produce.  Her clear and honest gaze pierced him.  He could still read it perfectly.  She desired him, but she had not come to beg, nor to tease him back to her bed.  She would accept his choice with grace, whatever it was, but she would let him know her mind without any doubt before he made that decision. 

The sheer force of her conviction struck him like a physical blow and left him speechless.  There was strength in her not unlike that which Frodo possessed; to endure, accept and go on.  He had never imagined, while he'd held her flickering life in his arms, that such reserves existed, but he could not deny they fed the spirit that looked unwaveringly back at him.

"And now," Aragorn called out to the crowd, "the remaining members of the Fellowship shall join me in The Harvest Reel!"

Numbly, Merry moved into position for the ancient dance.  Taught to hobbits by Men, it was little changed from the dance the Elvish children had learned for millennia.  The four couples lined up as if they'd been dancing together for many years.  First the lasses would step into the centre and, arm in arm, would circle round.  Then they would step back and the lads would come forward.  Next would come the pinwheel, and the couples would break off and move to separate corners of the dance floor.  After that they danced as couples, coming closer and closer to each other till they met in the centre once more.  They would then repeat the dancing steps as two separate groups of two couples each, and then again as a single group they would start over from the beginning.

It was well the dance was a simple one, for Merry found it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the movements.  Whenever they required him to hold his wife, he could feel her trembling.  Exertion might have explained the roses in her cheeks, but she'd lit up like a tween when he took her hand, and the feel of her strangely firm body electrified him in a way it hadn't in years.  He spread his hand wonderingly across her back.  Through the thin material of her dress he could feel the heat from her body and the regular rhythm of her heartbeat.  It was steady and strong.

He had denied his desire in an effort to protect her, to keep her with him always, but now he saw the actions that had so long seemed both eminently logical and noble were a fallacy.  There was nothing he could do to slow the inevitable march of time, no sacrifice he could make to gain more of it.  All he would have of his lady was the time that was allotted to her.  To them.  There could be no more.  He had a choice: To squander that time or use it to celebrate life and love while they might. 

He had been squandering it.

As the other dancers spun around them, he drew her close and in that envelop of privacy in the midst of merriment he kissed his beloved wife.

In that touch was his answer.  She was his life, the flame that warmed his night and the sun that guided his day.  She was the bountiful harvest and the warm sunshine from which all good things sprang.  Time might have left its mark on her, but she was still beautiful and he was bound not by her health or beauty, but by her unique and inviolate being… and always would be.

A convulsive shiver rippled through her body.  He could almost taste her relief, sharp and sweet, like the traces of the half-remembered flavour that lingered on her lips. 

"If I don't ask for the next dance now, I fear I'll never have the chance." 

The Harvest Reel had ended and more dancers, hobbits and Gondorians, were filling the field.  Aragorn smiled down at him from behind Estella who blushed like a maiden and released Merry.  The King chuckled.

"May I have the honour of this dance, Lady Brandybuck?  Merry has been far too jealous with your favour, though now that I see you, I understand why."

Estella's blush deepened but she nodded and took the King's hand.  Merry, his mouth still tingling from the kiss, stepped back.  He did not begrudge Aragorn a turn with his lady, though he resolved the King would partner her for no more than one dance.  Buckland's Master had unfinished and decidedly urgent business with its Mistress.

"They look like a father and daughter dancing," he grumbled, sounding more petulant than he felt.

Arwen, behind him, laughed.  "Ah, but she has a wisdom in her eyes no child would have.  She is a very worthy lady."  She smiled down at him.  "You are lucky to have her."

"I haven't appreciated that very well lately, my lady."

She nodded, her smile becoming kindlier.  "I saw that in both of you.  But do I now sense a change of heart?"  She nodded again in satisfaction, the merry twinkle returning to her eye.  "It is good to know I have not lost my talent for bringing forth loveliness and rekindling wayward affections."

"You've sensed aright," laughed Merry and then he looked at her thoughtfully, "but maybe your sight could set my heart to rest as well.  You've seen into it, you say.  Can you tell me ought of hers?  I have been terrified of losing her, you see, and though I know now that I cannot let that fear destroy what time we have left together, it would be a relief to know if, well, if she's really going to be all right now." 

Arwen looked out at the dancers milling merrily about and was quiet for a long while.  Merry wondered if he had asked more than was within her power, or right, to tell, but at last she spoke. 

"She is hale enough," she said softly.  "Her illness has cost her much, but she will not be taken from you for many years.  Love her while you can, Merry." 

She spoke with a poignancy that struck an all too familiar chord.  With sudden and sombre insight, he saw that she was not at all as Estella, embracing the time she had left to her, but was more like himself, desperately treasuring a beloved she would one day outlive.  Frodo had once hinted that it might be so, saying that though the Queen was now mortal, her heritage would probably give her a longer life than Aragorn would enjoy.  At the time, Merry had not appreciated what Frodo had meant.  Now he realized that Arwen Evenstar understood his sorrow very well. 

"I will," he answered in the same tone she had used.  "And you must do the same with him." 

The King's laugh rang out as he tried to duck under his dance partner's arm.  Arwen placed a hand Merry's shoulder and gave it an eloquent squeeze.

"I shall," she said. "Thank you, Meriadoc Brandybuck."



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