"Naw, you’re having me on now, the two of you, and I won’t be hearing it. I’ve no time for tales of nonsense, not with Mr. Frodo so ill. I’m only here to get myself a scrap of food and then I’m back to his side. So don’t you two be distracting me with such folderol."
"Sam, I’m telling you, it’s true!" Merry insisted.
"Every word!" Pippin added.
Sam wiped his hands on a towel and glared hard at Merry. "You mean to say that Mr. Strider is Master Elrond’s son?"
"Foster son," Merry corrected.
"And he and Miss Arwen have some sort of ... of ..."
"They’re betrothed," Merry said. He took a large bite of pie. "You should see them together. You’d not recognize our grim old Strider."
"Tell Sam what you told me about his eyes," Pippin said.
"What about his eyes?" Sam asked.
"Soft as a puppy’s when she’s in the room. And all those grim frown lines fade clean away. You really have to see it to believe it. If Strider had looked anything like that the first day we met him, we wouldn’t have had one bit of doubt about him. He looks right handsome."
"Huh," Sam grunted. He piled some scrambled eggs on his plate and added two sausages on top. "Well, I’ve no doubt now that he is on the side of good, of course, but I still can’t help but think you’re exaggerating."
Merry put down his mug with a decided thump. "It’s no exaggeration, none of it. Just wait until you see him. He’s all cleaned up now and wearing finery just like the Elves, just his pyjamas mind you, but fancier than my finest suit of clothes. And I’m sure he’ll have on something even grander once he gets dressed and comes down in just a bit. Mark my words: he looks... well, like some Elven king of old."
"Or more like a king of Men," Pippin said. "He doesn’t look all that Elven you see him standing next to Lord Glorfindel."
"No, but when he’s cleaned up and with Lady Arwen he certainly does. His eyes shine just like an Elf’s."
This was too much for Sam. "Here now, I’m the one that likes the old tales about Elves, and you can’t tell me he looks much like an Elf."
"I wonder if he is part Elf, like Master Elrond?" Pip speculated. "What’s the word for it... par-something... pear... parcel... parsnip..."
"Peredhil," Sam snapped. "Not parsnip. Per-e-dhil. It means half-Elf."
"One of those, then. Maybe Strider’s one of those."
Merry looked doubtful. "I don’t know... I’ve seen Master Elrond and Lady Arwen, who are perth- ... parth–"
"Peredhel," Sam sighed.
"... and he doesn’t look anything like them as far as his ears or his hair, and he’s not as willowy. But his eyes, they put you in mind of Master Elrond’s. You’d almost think they were actually related."
"We are," a deep voice rumbled from the doorway.
The three hobbits jumped, and Sam gasped and paled as if he had seen a ghost. "Mr. Strider?"
Aragorn entered the kitchen, with Arwen at his arm. At the sight of her, all three hobbits scrambled to their feet. Aragorn stopped before them. "Merry, I know you have met Lady Arwen," Aragorn said, "but Sam and Pippin, have either of you had the pleasure?"
Two mute shakes of the head answered his question, so Aragorn presented her. "May you be pleased to meet Arwen Undómiel, the daughter of Master Elrond, the Evenstar of her people. Arwen, I present to you Samwise Gamgee and Peregrin Took. And you already know Meriadoc Brandybuck."
Arwen curtsied, and the hobbits bowed deeply. "May a star shine on our meeting," Sam said in halting Sindarin, then he ducked his head. "I don’t know if I said that right."
"You said it perfectly," Arwen assured him. "I am so pleased to meet you both, Samwise and Pippin. And Merry, I hope you are not upset at the way we so precipitously ushered you from the room."
"N-no, ma’am. Not at all," Merry said, and actually knuckled his forehead. Aragorn had the impression that Merry would not mind being so manhandled by Arwen every day of the week. He gave Merry a sideways look that caused him to blush even more furiously, then pulled a chair out for Arwen. She sat down, and then he pulled up his own and sat beside her. The three hobbits seated themselves, but far from relaxing, they simply gazed at her, all thoughts of eating apparently banished by a sudden and wholly consuming infatuation with the Evenstar. Aragorn had to admit being very relieved that she distracted them from any further discussion of his appearance, which he had overheard with excruciating embarrassment. He knew he looked very different, cleaned and pressed, having changed into a dark blue silk surcoat and trousers of soft grey wool, but when people fussed about it, he wanted to flee back into the wilds. That Arwen had been hanging on his arm stifling giggles the entire time they stood listening beyond the kitchen door did not help ease his discomfiture one bit.
Sam leaned over and though he spoke in a whisper, Aragorn’s keen ears caught his words. "By my gaffer’s favorite spade, you were right. He does look different!"
Aragorn cleared his throat noisily. "You are looking well, Samwise."
"Thank you, Mr. Strider. I just wish Mr. Frodo was in as fine a fettle as the rest of us."
"Do not fret, Sam," Aragorn said. "He will recover, in time."
Sam nodded, still looking miserably worried, but Merry finally dragged his eyes from Arwen and gave Aragorn a narrow stare. "Getting back to what you said as you came in: now you say you are related to Master Elrond? You told me before that you weren’t."
"I told you he was not my father, which is the truth. My line descends from Elrond’s twin brother, Elros, though many, many generations have passed."
Merry thought this revelation over for a moment, then frowned. "But wouldn’t that make Arwen your cousin?"
Sam’s brow furrowed in disapproval, and even Pippin looked from Arwen to Aragorn with ill-disguised dismay.
"We are not cousins," Arwen said quietly, and at the sound of her voice the frown on Sam’s face melted away, replaced by an expression that put to Aragorn’s mind something of puppies greeting their long-lost master. "So many years have passed that Aragorn is in no way a close relative. It is not unhealthy for us to marry, any more so than if you fell in love with a woman who was kin to an uncle seventy generations back."
Pippin visibly relaxed, but Aragorn winced. As he feared, the three hobbits enthusiastically started discussing just who that would be, that seventieth generation ancestor of Meriadoc Brandybuck. He leaned close to Arwen’s ear. "Never, ever, bring up ancestry when conversing with hobbits."
She laughed, and the spell was cast again across the three hobbits, who at the sound immediately dropped their heated debate over whether the various descendants of Sadoc married more Bolgers than Burrows, or if indeed they had married any of those lines at all, and instead stared at Arwen adoringly. Yes, thought Aragorn, definitely lovesick whelps.
"My sweet hobbits," she said, and so lovely and gentle was her voice that Aragorn did not doubt his own expression looked just as lovesick as the hobbits, "let us set aside such debate for another time. I wish to know how each of you fare this morning."
Sam blushed to the roots of his hair, and Merry produced much stammering but little in the way of intelligible words, but Pippin smiled. "We’re doing wonderfully. This is a glorious place, Rivendell, and the food can’t be matched. But your cooks really could do with a lesson or two about proper Shire baking. They can’t seem to get the right turn on cake."
"I am sure the bakers will benefit from any advice you can give them."
Aragorn was certain that Pippin positively glowed, so proud he looked. He took Arwen’s hand, and squeezed it gently, thrilling as he always did when she returned the squeeze.
Merry chuckled, regaining mastery over his voice once more. He pointed toward their clasped hands. "I promise you I won’t slap you this time, Strider."
Aragorn smiled, but he kept silent, content to merely sit beside Arwen here in this warm kitchen, hearing the clink and clatter of cooks with their pots, smelling the herbs that hung from the ceiling beams and the bread baking in the ovens. Rivendell’s kitchens always smelled of baking bread in the mornings.
"You’re quiet, Strider, even for you," Pippin said.
"I am fully content just listening. I have no need to fill the air with words just now," Aragorn said.
"You’re doing enough of that, Pip," Sam said, giving Pippin’s arm a nudge with his elbow. "Mr. Strider’s probably still tired, if what you told me about him getting that Black Breath is true."
"How are you, Strider?" Pippin asked.
"I am well, although Sam is right... I am a bit tired, both from the Black Breath and from our long journey. It has been a hard road for all of us."
Pippin looked thoughtful. "I wonder..."
"What, Pippin?" Aragorn urged.
"I wonder what will come next. When we will get to go home. And what of the Ring? Will the Riders come after it again?"
Aragorn read in the three faces turned toward him doubt and worry and a strong yearning for him to provide them, if not answers, then at least reassurance. "I do not know the answers to all your questions, and I fear the answer I do have is not what you want to hear. But nonetheless, I will say this much: our enemies will not stop in their quest for the Ring. We have won a battle, gentlemen, but I fear a great war lay ahead, and the possibility that a great darkness will fall on Middle-earth is strong enough to put fear in my soul. Indeed, my heart would shrink at facing such prospects except for this one thing: as long as there is bravery, and friendship, and stout hearts that hold true, there will always be hope."
Sam looked at Aragorn, then looked at Arwen and finally to Merry and Pip. He raised his mug. "To hope, then," he said.
"And bravery and hearts stout and true, wherever the road may lead," Merry added.
They touched their mugs together, and for a moment, silence fell. Then Sam scratched his chin. "I still think Sadoc’s oldest daughter married a Bolger, so that puts it at three Bolgers and two Burrows–"
"No, no, no," Merry countered. "She married a Hornblower–"
Aragorn leaned close to Arwen’s ear again. "They will be at this the rest of the day. Let us away where we can find some peace."
She rose, taking his hand, and as they left the kitchen for the gardens, the sounds of the three hobbits arguing faded away beneath the birdsong and the distant roar of the waterfalls. Under the trailing fronds of a willow, Aragorn drew Arwen to him and kissed her, and marveled that in a world about to be torn asunder by war, he could know such peace. But such peace seemed a vapor, lasting no longer than the mists that rose from the base of the falls all around them. He rested his cheek against her head, and looked beyond her shoulder to the mountains ringing this sacred valley and pondered darkly at the page that had turned, at a world that would not, could not, go on as it was.
Time for peace was ended; war loomed beyond those mountains, and a throne called to him.
And he would answer.