The forest was deep and wild with thick patches of undergrowth, huge ferns, and moss covered beech and oak. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the trees, creating small pools of light upon the ground. A strong, cool breeze intermittently shook the treetops, dislodging a leaf or two from the summer canopy above. Within the wood a hunting party made their way slowly through the trees, leading their horses zigzag to avoid bramble bushes, low branches, and gnarled wide, spreading roots.
“How much farther, my lord?” one of the men asked.
“Not far,” their leader replied. “If we stay true perhaps only a couple of hours.”
“If you still remember the way,” the man said.
The leader smiled. “Oh, I remember, never fear. This is not the sort of place one forgets.”
The men continued to talk in hushed tones, leading their trusting horses as they picked their path carefully. Then, of a sudden, they broke through to the rolling green hills of the valley and all conversation came to a halt.
Craggy ridges rose sheer and tall on either side of the forest while in the far distance the pale hazy peaks of the Hithaeglir soared high above the dale. Birdsong and the muted thunder of faraway waterfalls filled the air. The breeze, warmed by the westering sun, was achingly sweet and clear. It felt like a different world, a sacred place, untouched, untrodden by Man. The hunting party let out an audible gasp but Eldarion just smiled. He remembered the few times he had come here with his father and his stories of what the valley looked like when Elves still resided here, a bit more pristine and vigorous than it appeared now but no more beautiful he was certain.
His heart had drawn him to return many times but he was a busy ruler with no queen or children, though his sisters and court constantly urged him to acquire both, and little time to travel for pleasure. On the rare occasions he was able to get away from his duties he hunted in Ithilien with his Steward or toured the provinces in the North. He had so many demands on his attention he had not even been able to make the small trips for the past five years or so.
Then he had begun having dreams of sweet voices, like the voice of his mother, singing of ageless beauty, of a land fair and green. After the particularly harsh past winter and a wet, miserable spring, he began to hearken to the voices in his dreams and heart. He knew he had to see the valley again.
Eldarion led his men in the direction of where the Last Homely House had once stood, though it would take as much as half a day more to reach that area. He called his party to make camp beneath a stand of trees on a little hill and the men obeyed gladly, fairly glowing with joy from being in such surroundings. Eldarion shared their delight and was pleased at their reaction. It was like seeing the place for the first time through their awestruck eyes. Here he was in his element, in the company of men, living off the land as he liked to imagine the Dúnedain rangers had. Far from the shallow flirtations of his more aggressive female courtiers and nobles, none of whom stirred his desire, far from the insincere fawning and flattering that made him long for this unspoiled, timeless place.
Just as the last rays of the sun slipped below the mountains the three partridge and a rabbit they had caught just after crossing the river were roasting over a fire pit. The weather was mild with just enough of a breeze to keep them cool after their long trek through the wood.
“Where shall we go tomorrow, my lord?” Aelfirion asked.
“To the forest on the other side of the valley,” Eldarion said. The hunting is good there and the athelas plentiful. I would like to bring some fresh cuttings back to Gondor for the herbalists. The athelas here is the best in Arda, or so my father used to say.”
“I will leave that to your knowledge, my lord. For myself I would like to take a stag or doe this trip. It is long since I have had a good spit of venison.”
“Shall we make a wager on who will take the first stag?” Eldarion’s warden of the hunt, Meneldil, asked.
“That is hardly fair,” Beragil laughed. You are the best of us. It will undoubtedly be you who brings down the first deer.”
“You may all take the deer,” Aelfirion said. “But I shall have the first of this plump rabbit.”
They all chuckled and helped themselves to a fine meal as the first of the stars began to twinkle in the sky above. Eldarion had little difficulty picking out the few constellations he remembered from his youth. When he pointed them out to his companions they pointed out a few they knew as well. It turned out between them they knew the names of many of Elentári’s flowers.
After they ate they settled in for the night. Aelfirion took up his harp and sang in his rich tenor while the king joined in on the chorus. At last they lay down upon their bedrolls and one by one fell asleep, save for Eldarion who remained awake for a long time, looking up at the stars, thinking on the past.
He was twenty-two the first time he had seen the valley. His reaction had been no less rapt than his companions today. Not even Ithilien had the breathtaking vistas of this secluded little valley in the shadow of the Misty Mountains. Aragorn had shown him the remains of the Last Homely House which was gone now except for the courtyard, and even that was succumbing to nature as thick grasses and weeds grew high among the stones. His father showed him the places he had enjoyed in his childhood, the waterfalls with their clear pools and streams, the Bruinen, the forest that grew right up against the cliffs that protected and hid the valley. Rivendell it had been called in the common tongue, and while Eldarion agreed the name was descriptive he also thought it too mundane to encompass the splendor of this place.
He and Aragorn spent many happy hours hunting the forests, fishing the streams, gathering herbs and wild blueberries. At night, over a campfire supper, his father told him of the great deeds of the Three Ages of Middle-earth. Yet the stories Eldarion loved most were the ones of his father’s youth in Imladris with the wise and loving Elrond, the beauty and melancholy of the Elves, of the feeling that took his father the first time he gazed upon Arwen and knew he would love her until the end of his days. Everything beautiful and magical about the world had died with his mother, Eldarion always felt, even though a few Elves were said to still remain in the remote forests of Middle-earth. He lamented missing out on those times, though the peace that reigned now was a legacy he maintained with pride.
With thoughts of magic and memory floating through his wearied mind, Eldarion at last drifted off to sleep.
Somewhere at the edge of consciousness, a twig snapped in the night and Eldarion sat up, knife in hand in an instant. His father had taught him well but his caution was unwarranted this time for he saw at a distance of about twenty feet the biggest, most majestic stag he had ever seen. The stag turned to look in his direction and as he locked eyes with the beast, a feeling of excitement and an inexplicable fear gripped him. The stag turned away, walking unhurriedly into the trees. Eldarion rose, knife still in hand, and followed it.
He lost sight of the stag almost immediately but now the moon had risen and provided just enough light for him to make out a set of tracks. With the stealth of an experienced hunter, he stalked the trail.
He had not gone ten paces when he saw a soft glow of light ahead. Curious, he went toward it, surprised to find an Elf standing in a clearing. The man’s long black hair was loose on his shoulders, held away from his face by the gentle points of his ears. He wore a sea blue robe that did nothing to hide the robust strength of a youthful body. Yet his benign grey eyes held an ancient wisdom and a strange, unearthly light, echoed in the aura surrounding him. Eldarion found himself staring at the man as though he had never encountered another living person before. He was struck with a mixture of awe and desire so strong it nearly took him to his knees.
“Greetings, Eldarion Telcontar,” the Elf said. “You have come just as we hoped.”
“We?” Eldarion replied. “Are there other Elves still on these shores?”
“There are but few. The rest have gathered in Aman, as the Valar intended, for it is their will that all Elves return to Elvenhome or be doomed to fade.”
“Why then do you linger?”
“It is for you I have come.” He held out his hand.
Eldarion had no idea why, but he took the man’s hand with complete trust. Something happened to him then that he had longed for, wished with all his heart would happen one day, an instant, deep connection with this extraordinary being. An ache he had denied, that brought shame and fear to the pit of his stomach, now made him feel light, valiant. They gazed upon each other spellbound for a long moment, but then Eldarion found his tongue, feeling a bit foolish for comporting himself like some love-struck boy.
“Forgive my lack of manners,” he said, yet he still held the man’s hand. “I feel like I have strayed into a dream.”
“You are not dreaming, son of the Eldar. In fact, I believe you have awoken at last,” The Elf said, smiling.
“But why have you come to me, who do you speak for?” Eldarion asked. “You said “we” hoped I would come.”
“I have been sent by my master, Manwë, I am his herald. Eönwë is my name, and from the time of Elrond I have come to witness the choice of the half-elven to be counted among Men or the Eldar. You, Eldarion, are scion of Elves and Kings. Manwë has deemed it your time to make this choice, as Elrond made his, as your mother made hers, even as your sisters were offered their choice in their youth before they wed.”
“My mother rarely spoke of her decision and my sisters have never spoken of a choice. Why me, why now?
“Your mother’s choice was made before your birth, your sisters were forbidden by Manwë’s decree to speak of it. The answer must come from each person in the time ordained, without the influence of others. It has always been thus. Your life has reached a crossroad. You do not know whether to bind yourself to your duty to marry and sire heirs or to follow the path of your heart.”
Eldarion felt his face flush with anger. “What do you know of my heart?”
Eönwë lifted Eldarion’s hand and placed it on the man’s chest, covering it with his own. “I know it belongs to a good and just king, a man who has placed his duty above his desires for a very long time.”
Eldarion felt tears prick his eyes. He looked away, his mind in turmoil. “Every king must fight battles of one sort or another, even if it is only with himself. I would not sully the memory of all who came before and put the very darkness to rout to follow my own selfish desires,” he said.
Eönwë touched Eldarion’s cheek, gently turning his head to face him, his expression tender and understanding. “Is not love the reason the darkness was banished? I have sung the music. I have seen the vision of Eru, and though brief, it was, at its core, a vision of love.”
“You speak of love as if you know. . . as if you feel. . .” Eldarion knew his feelings, but this Elf could not feel the same for him, could he?
“Yes, Eldarion, I know how you feel for we are as one in this.” He hesitated and then admitted, “You would not know it, but this is not our first meeting.”
Eldarion’s eyes widened in surprise. “I certainly do not remember meeting you before,” he said.
“Not in any way you would have known, but I have been there many times throughout your life. I have been in the breeze that stirred your hair as you sat reading in your garden. I was in the tree you climbed to pluck the sweet fruit from my branches for your sister. Once I even took the form of a stag, as I did earlier this evening, and took your arrow gladly that I might, in some small way, experience what it was like to depart a failing body. I did all this for love of you, hardly daring to hope you might return my feelings. At first Manwë cautioned me against becoming attached to you in this way, but he has finally given me his blessing. Now all that remains is for you to decide your path.”
“Elves do not have such power,” Eldarion said. “How is this possible?”
“Men once believed more strongly in us, in forces more powerful than their minds could imagine. We are the husbands of this world and worlds beyond, the Powers to which you pray in times of need. I am not an Elf, I belong to these beings of pure spirit, but I took this form because I knew it would please you. I wanted to please you.”
“This is not possible,” Eldarion whispered. “I am dreaming. I have to be.” He squeezed the hand in his which was as solid as his own. “If this is true then it has been you all along. You’re the presence I have felt and loved without knowing whence it sprang. Yours is the voice I have heard on the wind when I was hunting or traversing the great open lands of this world. Your presence has kept me going in the deep watches of the night when all I wanted was to give up my crown and flee, to where I knew not. Yet, if this is true, I do not have a choice to make, for I must become immortal or lose you forever.” He was almost weeping now.
“No, the choice is very real. As I said, Manwë has given his blessing. I have made my choice to be with you, whatever you decide.”
“Then you mean. . .?” Eldarion could not finish, he was too overcome.
Eönwë smiled and stepped forward, pressing his lips to Eldarion’s in a gentle kiss. Time halted within that kiss. The sun and moon might have risen and set a thousand times, the rivers of the world might have changed their course, the lush mountains become barren plains. The very rhythms of life might have slowed and ceased forever, it did not matter. Eldarion made his choice.