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Epilogue - Soaring Wings
It had been a tiring day. Tiring, but rewarding as no day in his life ever had been.
It was not every day, after all, that one is crowned a king.
He looked at the crown sitting on its stand in the niche in the wall of his bedchamber. It was a bit crooked, so he straightened it until its graceful wings stood level with each other. His hands shook slightly, and he balled his fists and put them at his sides. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath and opened them again, almost afraid it had all been a dream....
The crown was still there. And he was still standing in a vast bedchamber, where there were candles lit all around and a bed laid for him and a tray of food sitting on the table, left where heíd directed his maidservant to leave it.
His very own. Not Elrondís. Not Theodenís. Not Denethorís, nor Echthelionís, all of whose household staffs had served him but at the behest of his hosts. Now, though, he had his own. And his own valet. And chamberlain and Steward and a vast army and... a crown.
He buried his face in his hands, then rubbed his face as though washing it and stood for a long silent moment with his hands covering his mouth, staring at the ancient yet still gleaming crown.
It was done. All the long years of struggle, of fighting and hardship and hiding and doubt, were over. Peace stretched before him and around him and within him, and within the hearts of good folk everywhere.
The Shadow was finally defeated.
No. He would not allow his thoughts to travel that road. Not yet. She was far away, and so many things would need to be done before he could look toward his own pleasure. Tending the wounded, seeing to returning refugees, housing those whose homes had been destroyed, rebuilding the city gates and repairing its walls, clearing away the battle detritus still clogging the Pelennor, readying it for next yearís crops...
But his mind would not let it... her... go. She was coming... and they would wed at long last.
He smiled at the crown, seeing in its soaring wings his own soaring heart. "Thank you," he whispered, both to it and to Eru, and Elbereth, and the Valar and the Maiar and every Man, Elf, Hobbit and Dwarf who had given so much to defeat the Darkness. He would never forget that it was their sacrifices that allowed him to stand in this place, his future bright and secure and stretching out before him like the vast table of the past eveningís first royal banquet.
He let out a laugh, then... a laugh that was halfway to a sob, a sound of disbelief mingled with a feeling he could not define. Sorrow, perhaps. Elbereth knew the weight of sorrow in his heart, but that did not define all of what he felt.
Humility? Certainly when he first felt the crown touch his head, it had been all he could do not to fall upon his face, prostrate before all who felt him worthy of such an honor, but he had taken a deep breath and reminded himself sternly of all that was expected of a king, none of which included huddling on the ground weeping.
Humbling it had been, yes, but now, in the quiet of his room, he had to admit, with the start of a smile, that it was not sorrow nor grief nor a wild tumult of humility that had him on the verge of losing all control.
No, it was all of that and none of that. It was happiness and sorrow, pride and humility, peace and turmoil... but such a turmoil! Would that his spirit had always been so tempestuously stirred, for he recognized at last what it was that beset him:
Deeper than happiness, strong enough to overcome sorrow, joy such as he had never known and feared he would never experience again cascaded through every channel of his spirit. Every emotion he had ever felt he now knew had been nothing more than tainted water, polluted by the Shadow, murky and stagnant. But now the darkness was defeated, and hour by hour, all day, he had felt the tumult building, just as surely as a great spring seeks a way through stone. But he had kept it contained, out of respect for the valiant dead and respect for the solemnity of the coronation and the gravitas of the moment when a throne left empty too long enjoyed a new occupant at last. He had dared to release a measured amount during the long coronation banquet, though as the wine flowed and his fatigue grew, keeping his emotions in check had become increasingly difficult.
But now, here in the privacy of his bedchamber, the full expression of his joy could no longer be gainsaid. He threw his head back with another laughing cry, then spun and raised both hands high in the air.... reaching for what he was not sure. Eru Himself, perhaps. He could not say. He only knew that suddenly he wanted to leap, to run, to fly....
And then he dropped his hands and his head and stopped, blushing, even though no one was there to see him.
But he did not stop smiling.
Feeling too constrained by the four walls of his room, he pushed through the double doors onto the balcony and looked to the skies. The sun had long set in the West, drawing down a day that had been filled with celebration and ceremony and smiles. So many smiles, each face lit as with a bright and shining beacon. On all levels of the city, revelers had been making merry throughout the night, and the thought warmed him that the people of Gondor had so thoroughly and unequivocally welcomed him as their new king. He heard the echo of Faramirís cry... Behold the King! And he heard the echoes of the trumpets and smelled again the flowers that blanketed the streets, flowers that released their sweet perfume under his feet as he walked upward through the city.
Through his city.
His eyes stung and he blinked several times, swallowing hard against the knot lodged in his throat. Yes, it had been a day like none other, but he realized now how very tired he was. Fatigue had crept over him as the coronation feast went deep into the night, and as its grip tightened, his own grip over his emotions had started to slip. Gandalf had seen it, had seen him surreptitiously blinking away tears of joy as he looked out at the throng of happy guests at the table. And Elladan and Elrohir had seen it a moment later when those tears of joy turned to sorrow as thoughts of Halbarad suddenly flooded his mind, and he had buried his nose in his goblet of wine and nearly choked when the wine could not pass the lump in his throat. Together, in unspoken agreement, they had shooed him away from the eveningís banquet to seek the solitude and rest he sorely needed.
And now he placed his hands on the balcony rail, tentatively at first, as if he were not quite sure he were allowed, but then he cast aside such foolishness and gripped the stone balustrade as so many Stewards and Kings had before him. It felt cool against his palms, and smooth. He rubbed his hands up and down its length and then looked again at the bright moon sinking in the southwestern sky. He imagined, fancifully, that he might see beyond it to Elvenhome. "To Nķmenor that was, and Elvenhome that is." Then he repeated, in a whisper, "To Nķmenor that was." The moonlit clouds seemed then to change before his very eyes, and it was the Meneltarma he spied, and Elros walking up its steep flanks, leading a silent procession of the Faithful to give thanks to Eru.
Then with a gasp and a blink, the vision faded.
He rubbed his face again, wondering at the portent of what he had just seen. Had it been a chimera cast by an overwrought imagination, or had it been a true vision? He listened to the awful thudding of his heart and sensed in his spirit a fear unlike anything he had ever felt. It was the fear of someone about to approach something... holy.
He took another shaking breath.
Could it be... dare he try to renew that custom, here in Minas Tirith, even as Gondorís kings of old climbed Mount Mindolluinís steep flanks to offer their prayers? He looked at the bulk of the mountains to his right, at Mount Mindolluin that loomed over the Citadel and blocked part of his view of the western horizon. Where on that mountain was that ancient, long-forgotten hallow? Perhaps Faramir might know. Or Gandalf. Or perhaps he might go up there himself to seek it out. However he accomplished it, he knew somehow that in the finding of it, he would receive the sign that this vision was true, and that his heartís desire was not some cock-a-hoop homage to his own greatness but an act that would be pleasing to Eru.
The moon again broke through the clouds and pulled his gaze back, and his imagination wandered again to Nķmenor and the Pillar of Heaven, where the witnessing Eagles circled...
He squinted. As unlikely as it seemed in this pre-dawn hour,†a pair of Eagles were indeed flying through the distant sky. He could see the moonlight glinting on their wings, and see their shapes as they passed before the moon. He watched them disappear against the dark cloth of heaven between the stars and then he saw them reappear in the moonlight, growing ever closer in leisurely swinging arcs, as if they were looking down on the Pelennor, wondering at the dots of lights spangling its edges, lights that for this one day signified celebration instead of mourning, bonfires of joy instead of the mournful pyres that had burned nearly without cease since the siege and the final battle before the Black Gate.
"Long have you been faithful servants of ManwŽ," he whispered, "And as you were welcome in Nķmenor, so you are welcome here." But unless they came closer, he had no idea how he might tell the Eagles such a thing. He thought back those many years to the only Eagles he had ever spoken to directly: Menelris, and her mate, Durvain, he of the valiant and compassionate heart who had promised to return in the spring to take him on a flying ride across the Misty Mountains. But Aragorn perforce had to travel to his own people before Durvain returned, and in all these years since, though he looked often toward the Eagleís Eyrie, he had never seen the bird again. He finally had to assume that some disaster had befallen Durvain, and his heart still grieved at the loss.
He lost sight finally of the Eagles as they continued eastward past the great prow of the city, so he walked back into his bedchamber, knowing he must find sleep before the night was entirely wasted. But he was so beset with restlessness that the bed held no welcome. He walked to the door and opened it, and the guard immediately snapped to attention. "As you were," Aragorn murmured. Then he stood for a moment, wondering which way to go. He glanced at the young man standing so stiffly by his door, worried for a disquieting moment that the man had heard his earlier wild laughter. Then he glanced at the thick stone walls and the sturdy wooden door and decided it was unlikely. "Can you tell me," he started, then had to scramble for the young manís name, "Sigilthir, which is the quickest way out of this building and into the fresh air of the court of the Fountain?" He had followed the chamberlain through so many twisting corridors and up so many winding staircases that he could have been back in Rivendell for the length of time they had walked.
The manís eyes widened a bit, and he stammered out directions, offering to accompany the King.
"No, thank you. I prefer to walk alone for a bit, to clear my mind before I retire."
"Yes, my lord." He bowed his head, clicked his heels and jerked his shoulders even straighter.
Aragorn stifled a sigh, wishing suddenly, desperately, for Halbarad and his easy way of ever standing guard over him, whether it was outside his tent or beside him as they lay each in their own bedrolls under the stars, or, as on that last day of his life, doing his best despite wretched seasickness to make sure Aragorn did not somehow fall over the railing of the ship to, as he had growled, give the sea monsters a royal banquet. Irreverent, irrepressible, irreplaceable. Gone now to his fathers beyond the halls of Mandos. Hot tears burned his nose and throat. Would the pain never ease?
Burying memory of his late kinsman deep in his heart, where its sting could be hid for a time from daily thought, he walked down the corridor, following Sigilthirís directions until he found himself outside. He followed an ancient stone pathway around the base of the White Tower. He stopped for a moment and craned his neck back, looking upward. It seemed as though the tower scraped the stars themselves.
He moved on, past Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts, on his left. The vast white building had been filled with light and laughter deep into the night, but now was quiet and dark as he walked past. The revelers had gone, and the replete silence left in their wake reached even into the Place of the Fountain. The courtyard was empty save for the four guards standing watch over the lifeless White Tree. Aragorn looked at its bare branches and felt an incredible sadness. He had hoped, a bit fancifully, that the old tree might have magically sprung back to life at the moment the crown was placed on his head. Childish thinking, that. "But wouldnít it have been something?" he murmured. He walked down the steps and to the tree, nodding at the guard standing on its north side. He walked under the spreading, lifeless limbs and laid his hand on the trunk. "Would that you have bloomed one last time," he sighed. He sat down on a bench in front of it, again facing West.
The moon had now set, but the stars still blazed with unbridled vigor in the black vault above his head. He looked at them, spotting the familiar constellations and suddenly saw a movement there, a dark shadow flitting across them, momentarily blotting them out with its passage. With too many recent memories of fell beasts driving fear into his heart, he scrambled to his feet, and the guards around the tree jerked their gazes upward and drew their swords.
But Aragorn raised a hand . "Stay your weapons. It is an Eagle," he said. He walked out from under the tree and halted when he saw it was not one Eagle but two, surely the same two he had seen from his balcony. Then his eyes widened. "How can this be?"
The Eagles came down gently, and as the light from the flickering lamps set round about the courtyard revealed them fully, he ran to them, tossing propriety to the winds, so great was his joy and amazement. "Menelris! Durvain! My old friends! I thought you had perished!"
Menelris bowed her head. "Great King, it is good to meet again."
Durvain also bowed and Aragorn remembered belatedly to return their greeting, but then he lost no time in throwing his arms around Durvainís neck. "My old friend," he cried, and cared not that hot tears dampened his cheeks as Durvainís wings enfolded him. "I thought you lost."
"It is good to see you again, Strider," Durvain chuckled. "I mean, your Majesty."
"No, no. None of that among friends. Strider I was, and Strider I shall always be. It is the name of my house, after all. I am known now as Elessar Telcontar."
"Elessar," Menelris said, with the air of one trying out an unusual meal that is not altogether appetizing. "It is a noble enough name, I suppose, if you must name yourself for a rock. But though Telcontar is higher than Strider, in any language it still seems harsh and landbound to me. I would rather you were King Thorongil." She clacked her beak and settled a few displaced feathers on her chest.
"Menelris, hush. He can use whatever name he chooses. He is the King now, after all."
"You may call me King Thorongil if it pleases you, my lady," Aragorn smiled. Nothing could dim the pleasure of this moment. "You may call me whatever you wish, in fact."
"Fear not, I shall call you by your rightful name, lest Durvain peck me to pieces for my breach of etiquette."
Durvain let out a whistling snort. "And that you may count on, even if you are my Chieftain."
Aragorn laughed at their antics, and finally shook his head. "It has been a day of wonders for me, but your arrival, when I thought you long consigned to the grave, may be the greatest wonder of all. Tell me where you have been these many years!"
"I never did give you that ride, did I?" Durvain said. "I apologize for that. We returned late to Beornís Hall that spring. Hunting had been particularly good in the south, so we stayed longer than usual. By the time we arrived, you and Gandalf had already gone. And then of course, having stayed overlate in the south, we had to rush to get to our nest, so that we might ready it for our egg, and then Ė"
"We had two eggs that spring," Menelris interrupted proudly. "Two boys. We named one Thorongil, after you."
"I am honored."
"He was, and still is, a stout one. And the other was swift, the first to break free of his egg and the first to spread his wings, so we named him Meneldor."
"But I know of him!" Aragorn cried. "He was at the final battle and flew into the Black Land to help fetch the Halflings."
"Thorongil was there as well, fighting in the company at the Black Gate. He saw you, he said," Menelris said. "He it was who set himself high above you toward the last, defending you from the air."
Aragorn swallowed hard. He had seen many Eagles, and rejoiced at their arrival. And he had noticed that one in particular seemed to be staying overhead as he ordered the final fighting against the remnants of Mordorís armies, after Sauron fell and after Gandalf left to retrieve Frodo and Sam, but he had given no thought to the idea he or any of them might have been kin to Menelris and Durvain. That the one that stayed over him the entire time was their son... named in his honor.... He was left utterly without words. "Tell him thank you," he finally choked.
"You may tell him yourself, for I will make sure he calls upon you," Durvain said, then a twinkle of humor gleamed in his eye, "that is, if you welcome Eagles in your new eyrie."
"Welcome them! I should say so! You and all your kind are not only welcome but expected, nay commanded to visit as often as you can, if a humble king of Men can place so bold a commission on the great Eagles."
"I think in your case, such a command is quite permissible," Menelris said. She let out a small whistling chuckle.
"In fact, I have much to discuss about that," Aragorn continued. "About Eru and giving thanks as in the days of Nķmenor, and re-establishing your witness..." He stopped and held up a hand. "But wait. I am overwhelmed and my words are making little sense, so save all that for a later time when joy has not made such a muddle of my wits. Tell me instead of simple things, more about your children and your nests and whether Durvain has found more trinkets by the road. And how it is that Eagles are flying at night! I want to know what has occupied you these many years."
"Much the same as has occupied you, I would think," Menelris said. "Raising our young. Fighting orcs."
"And finding trinkets!" Durvain chirped. "I found an entire set of silver spoons last fall."
"Still my little magpie," Menelris said, affectionately rubbing her head on his shoulder.
"Of course, we also found far too many orcs," Durvain sighed. "We lost an eaglet to a band of them two years ago."
"Oh, how terrible. I am so sorry," Aragorn said.
"But of all little ones who lived to adulthood, every one lives yet," Menelris said. "And what a privilege it was to fly alongside our children in the great lines that arrived at the Gates of Mordor just as the fell beasts retreated back to their barbarous lands. We were witnesses to the ending of the Shadow, and glad we were to watch the Tower fall."
"That darkness was so heavy that the darkness of night now seems as day to me. Perhaps that will suffice as an answer to why we fly at night now and then, in these days of peace." Durvain shook himself, fluffing his feathers as if in discomfort, and as they slowly fell back in place, he continued in a brighter†tone,†"But enough talk of battle and darkness. We brought you a gift."
"No, please... the assistance you have given me, to all of the free folk, is gift enough."
"No, no... this is a personal gift, from both of us to you. It is a gift for your coronation, a token of our joy that you have at last achieved your dream, and also a remembrance of our time together those harrowing days so long ago." He stepped aside and it was then that Aragorn saw that there was a bundle sitting in the grass, a very large one. He must have missed seeing it in his excitement.
"Open it," Menelris urged.
Aragorn grinned, feeling a bit like a child at Yule, and tugged on the ropes. They fell away, and he unfolded the fabric wrappings and he suddenly was a child at Yule. "Eagle down!" he cried. "You brought me eagle down! And so much!"
Durvain let out a happy whistle as he bobbed his head. "You thought I was sleeping, but I overheard you tell Gandalf that you only ever wanted to sleep on eagle down. We could think of no more fitting gift for your coronation day, Strider-Elessar Telcontar, King of Gondor and Arnor."
"Thorongil," Menelris added quietly, with a gleam in her eye.
"I will have a cover made for it straightaway and sleep on it tomorrow night and every night thereafter," Aragorn said. He pulled a handful out and rubbed it against his cheek. It seemed softer even than he remembered. Arwen will be so pleased.... "Thank you."
"And I have one more gift for you, if you would be willing," Durvain said. "Although it is less a gift than a belated fulfilment of a promise."
Aragorn turned and stared. "You mean - "
"If it would be permissible, I would gladly fly you over your new city."
Aragorn gasped. He had not considered such a thing... his heart leapt at the thought, but would it be proper... would it be too great a risk? "I accept!" he said immediately. "But it must be a very short ride, and high enough that no one sees me. And," he added with a sly smile, "I must be atop."
"What, you donít prefer to dangle from my claws?"
"Talons," Aragorn corrected. "And no, I do not prefer that."
Durvain chuckled and lowered himself to the ground. It was then that Aragorn saw he had a harness of sturdy rope tied around his neck and his body. "You came prepared."
"I felt fairly certain you would accept the invitation."
Aragorn sternly admonished the guards around the White Tree that no one was to know their new King was about to fly over the city. As one, the four men bowed their heads, and he saw a flicker of a smile light the stern visage of the one nearest him. But then, heart pounding, he scrambled up and onto Durvainís back. "What should I do?"
"Hang on, mostly."
"I donít need to shift and such? Gandalf warned me I should not sit like a lumpy sack of potatoes."
"I remember. And Iím sure you will do no such thing. I have seen you ride horses; riding with me will differ little from that. Oh, and do you see the loops on either side? Slide your legs through them. They will hold you in case you slip. We mustnít lose Gondorís king on the very first day she has him, after all."
Aragorn slid his legs into the loops and tugged them tight.
"Ready?" Durvain asked.
Durvain spread his wings and pushed off with his legs and with one easy flap they were airborne. Aragornís breath utterly left him and his hands tightened reflexively on the rope. High above the Citadel they flew, in great circles, and though his stomach shivered a bit, he was far too excited to feel anything but delight as he looked down upon his city. In the soft shadows of pre-dawn, much of the damage from the siege and battle was mercifully hidden, and he saw walls gleaming like so many luminous pearls, and he saw lamps shining golden in windows and the glint of bonfires on the Pelennor, and beyond the city he saw the mountains, their snowy peaks already gleaming shell pink in the dayís first light. And above it all, in the East, Gil-Estel sailed, the Silmarilís light of the past giving hope to the present. Aragorn raised a hand to Ešrendil, who seemed near enough to reach down and clasp the hand of his grandson so many generations removed. Aragornís throat tightened, and he took a great shuddering breath. "Thank you, Giver of Hope," he whispered.
He looked again at the city below.
His city. His people. He thought of Boromir, then, and their final words to one another: ĎGo to Minas Tirith and save my people!í he had pleaded.† And Aragorn had given his promise: ĎMinas Tirith shall not fall!í† And, though sometimes†still he†could barely trust it not to be a dream, the promise had been fulfilled; the city had not fallen. Then his thoughts went to Halbarad, and from his fallen kinsmen to the countless others who had given all so that this day might arrive. "I look down upon this city for you both, and for all those who did not live to see this day!" he cried.
Then he fell silent, overwhelmed. He leaned down to rest his cheek against Durvainís broad neck. "Thank you, my friend. This is a gift beyond price."
"You are most welcome, Elessar Telcontar, Great King of Gondor. Behold your city, and rejoice."
And so Aragorn looked and beheld its beauty, and he wept for sheer joy.
Boromirís last words and Aragornís reply taken from "The Departure of Boromir", The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien.
A note about Aragornís living quarters after the coronation: it says in "The Steward and the King" in The Return of the King, "In those days the companions of the Ring dwelt together in a fair house with Gandalf, and they went to and fro as they wished." It could be presumed that Aragorn also lived with them there, but†it seems more plausible to me that a King would dwell apart from everyone, in the royal apartments... although I imagine he spent as much time as he could spare at Gandalf's fair house!
Finally, a note regarding the custom of Gondorís kings climbing to the Hallow on Mount Mindolluin to offer prayers to Eru: According to that same chapter, the custom was long forgotten by the men of Gondor, but I am assuming that Aragorn, being Elven-wise and educated in the lore of Middle-earth, would have had at least a passing knowledge of that ancient practice in Gondor, although no practical knowledge of where the hallow was. And of course, being†equally well†educated in the history of his own lineage, he would have been very familiar with the Three Prayers offered by the kings of Nķmenor. In my universe, he has a desire within him to renew the practice when and if he becomes king, although up to this moment on the balcony, it was always more of a wistful daydream than the strong calling it becomes here.
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