Her mother had been brought back to Imladris almost as soon as it was discovered that she was pregnant. Lady Ídhil had had a hard time of it with Arahael, from beginning to end, and Lord Aranarth thought it better that she be monitored by the Elven healers for as long as possible. Arahael had seen little of her mother since the latter was brought to Imladris, though that was scarcely unusual—her mother was typically far away in the northern wastes of what had once been Arnor, and had neither the time nor the opportunity to visit the place where her daughter was fostered. As a younger child, Arahael had resented it, but Master Elrond had taught her (among the other things he had taught her) the paramount importance of adhering to duty. Her parents could not be with her, but they still wished for her to be safe and cared for, and have all the advantages she would have had if her father was King of Arthedain instead of chieftain of a scattered, broken people. That was why she was here, and they were so rarely with her. And even if they were rarely with her, it was hardly as though they’d left her alone.
She’d seen little of her mother. Lady Ídhil’s health had been poor since around the third month of her pregnancy, and she rarely stirred from the rooms that had been prepared for her. Arahael’s days were consumed by her lessons—dawn to dusk, she had lessons. If she neglected them for even one day, it would take well-nigh a week to catch up. She’d done that but once while her mother was here, stealing away from her lessons to pay her mother a visit.
“Do you think it pleases me to see you disrespect our allies thus?” Her voice was deathly quiet as she spoke, her eyes like chips of ice. “Leave me. Go back to them, and beg forgiveness. If you wish to please me, you will dutifully attend your lessons, and never again visit me when you should be elsewhere.”
The rebuke had stung, but it was supposed to; a rebuke could not be taken to heart unless it pierced the flesh. Arahael had done as her mother had asked, and on the occasions they saw each other, she thought Lady Ídhil was happier with her. But they hadn’t seen each other often.
It was months ago now, nearly a year ago, that Arahael’s mother had come to Imladris. Her father was here now, as well. She had seen little of him. Given what was happening, she wasn’t certain she wanted to. Her mother had given birth, Arahael’s sibling had been brought into the world, and everything that had happened since then left Arahael less and less certain of just what her place was supposed to be.
“You’ve been very quiet.”
As ever, when her grandmother spoke up suddenly, it was jarring, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have been. Her grandmother had lived in Imladris for longer than Arahael herself had been alive. She ought to have felt like a fixture here, her presence as right and natural as the towering peaks of the Hithaeglir that surrounded the town, as ineffaceable as the voice of the Bruinen. And yet, she seemed as Arahael sometimes still felt—at best, a guest; at worst, an intruder. Someone who was allowed to live here, but would never truly belong here.
Lady Arwen had murmured to her, her night-dark eyes trained on a point just over the top of Arahael’s head, that all Men were guests on this earth. One of the names the Elves had given to Men when they first met was the Guests, for they had perceived that this world was not their true home. Arahael had never forgotten that conversation. The memory of unease sat on her chest in the dark of the night like the tales she had heard whispered by Éothéod traders passing through Imladris on their way west—the mære, an evil spirit that tormented sleepers by sitting heavily upon their chests, tearing at their flesh with their claws and flooding their minds with terrible dreams. She felt… unsettled.
Now, more so than ever.
“Have I?” Arahael asked, her voice more stilted than it normally was to her ears. Fíriel had taught her grandchild Sindarin as the people of Gondor spoke it, and they had taken to speaking to one another in that dialect when they were alone. It had never sat as well on Arahael’s tongue as had the Sindarin of the northern Dúnedain, the Sindarin of the Elves of Imladris, but she made the effort for her grandmother’s sake. After everything else, it did not seem so much to ask, that Fíriel of Gondor could hear Sindarin spoken as her countrymen spoke it.
“Indeed, you have,” Fíriel told her, her keen eyes glinting with the edge of her amusement. “Until you spoke I was wondering if you hadn’t been struck mute.” Her voice softened as she pressed her hand to Arahael’s arm. “What troubles you, child?”
Arahael twisted the tip of her belt in her hands, trying to find words with which to make concrete the things that were twisting in her mind—mære fears, or perhaps the fears manufactured by a worrying child, or perhaps they were reasonable fears considering what had happened. She felt her grandmother’s touch on her mind. Gentle, no doubt meant to be reassuring—it didn’t feel like she was trying to pick the locks on the doors or force them open, not the way her father might do if she behaved thusly with him. “You’ve seen my mother,” she said slowly, tentatively. “You’ve seen the baby.”
“Indeed I have, Arahael. It’s been more than a month.” She tilted her head downwards, so that they were a little closer to being on eye level with one another. “I could scarcely have avoided it,” she added conspiratorially, her mouth twisting in a rueful smile.”
“Then… you know. That the baby’s a boy.”
Fíriel’s eyebrows shot up. “I have been told as much, yes.” She regarded Arahael with her head tilted slightly to one side. “This is something that troubles you?”
Arahael bit her lip. Her grandmother was a daughter of Gondor, many generations removed from Númenor, but she had never seen in any way diminished to Arahael’s eyes. She was well past her hundredth year, and her face was as smooth as an Elf’s, her hair untouched by frost. Her eyes were as far-seeing as any king of old’s must have been, her mind as quick and wise. Though Arahael could immediately discern the difference between Fíriel and the Elves, her grandmother still seemed to Arahael grand and ageless, as timeless as the Hithaeglir. She could imagine Fíriel must have been what Silmariën looked like when she ruled Andúnië, thousands of years ago. The blood of Númenor ran stronger in her than it did in anyone else Fíriel had ever seen, and the things that plagued Arahael’s mind seemed… small, in comparison.
It was too late to give her excuses and bow out of her grandmother’s chambers, too late to pretend that she was not troubled at all. Much as she would have liked to go, Arahael saw now avenue that would let her. She sucked in a deep breath—meant to be steadying, but honestly, she didn’t feel any different at all. “The baby’s a boy.” Her fingernails sank into her knees, needle-points of pain even through layers of soft, rich fabric. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now.”
“Why should anything happen to you?”
A knot formed in Arahael’s throat. “Everyone says men are better warriors.” And still believed it, even when Arahael spent hours slaving over exercises, over archery and swordplay and knife-work. She learned quickly, her teachers allowed, but her natural skill would never be the equal of a man’s. That was something that everyone knew, a truth so obvious that usually there was no value in saying it aloud.
“Being a leader means more than just being able to swing a sword and strike true, Arahael,” Fíriel pointed out. “There were many kings in Númenor—ruling queens, as well—who never brandished a sword against a foe.” She picked up a book from a nearby dresser. “I could list them to you, if you so desire.”
“I’m not going to be the heir anymore.”
“That’s not how it has ever been done in Arthedain, child—the oldest child inherits, regardless of their sex. The disagreement between Amlaith and her brothers is the reason it was Arthedain, and not Arnor.”
Arahael stared up at her. “They wouldn’t let you been Queen of Gondor,” she said in a small voice, “because you’re a woman.”
Fíriel’s expression was unreadable—she could be made from carven stone. “And you believe that because your father has the blood of Gondor in his veins, he will follow Gondor’s customs and disinherit you.”
Silence. There was nothing she could say, nothing that didn’t sound utterly pathetic.
Everyone agreed that men made for better warriors than did women. Fair enough, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain’s duties were not limited to combat—Arahael had just as many lessons about healing, woodcraft, and herb lore as she did the art of war. But it was scarcely possible to deny that the North was a dangerous place, any more than it was possible to deny that the Dúnedain were always at risk, and that they needed a leader who was as great a warrior as a healer.
Most also believed that men made for better leaders than did women, and Arahael couldn’t work around that by giving her all both to lessons in combat and in healing. Men were made to lead, women to follow. Though everyone had always insisted that she was an exception, that the highest blood of Númenor was not governed by such things, this was still what they claimed to be true. Only a man could be both the warrior and judge his people needed.
Now, Arahael was no longer her father’s only child. The Chieftain of the Dúnedain had a son, a son who could be the warrior, judge, and leader the Dúnedain needed, scattered across the North as they were. Arahael had always striven to be all that her people needed her to be, but would it be enough or him? Or would she be set aside in favor of the baby? Was it her fate to be doomed to become one of the unnamed spaces on the old genealogical tables, unworthy of a name for she was a woman who had neither ruled over anyone, nor married anyone who did?
No intrusion upon her mind was forthcoming, not even the gentlest of knocks upon the door, but Fíriel sensed her disquiet, all the same. She reached out and grasped Arahael’s hand (it was shaking, she realized almost absently, and even more absent was the revelation that she couldn’t remember when her hands had started shaking thus) in her own large, strong hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Her hands were always so warm, Arahael thought numbly, even in the depths of winter when the snowdrifts were up to her waist. “The North isn’t as Gondor in matters of inheritance, my love.” She smiled slightly, her eyes tilting upwards. “You need not fear the theft of your inheritance.”
“But what if Father—“
“Your father will not forsake Arthedain’s laws in such a manner,” Fíriel said firmly. “He’s too much a traditionalist; no doubt he thinks that to rob you of your rights would bring the wrath of the Valar down on his head.” She looked off to one of the walls of her chambers. “He’s far too devout to risk that.”
“But they wouldn’t let you be queen at all,” Arahael mumbled. Her mouth twisted in something akin to a grimace, the thought swirling in her head a distinctly unpleasant one. “And Grandfather…”
The wind blew through the open window between them, as if to prove some kind of point. “The throne of Gondor was never my birthright to begin with. It’s hardly surprising that they wouldn’t let me have it. Although—“ A shadow dark and obscuring as a funeral shroud passed over Fíriel’s face, and for a moment, she seemed as old as a woman of lesser blood would have seemed at her age. The shadow passed, but it left behind a spark of bitterness that gleamed out of Fíriel’s eyes like pale fire. “And your grandfather, oh, what illustrious company he wished to keep.
“Herucalmo the Upstart, who leeched off of a weak-willed queen and stole his only child’s birthright for his own. Calion the Tyrant, who won a crown for his lofty brow by nobly raping his cousin—“ Fíriel’s lip curled; Arahael winced “—and spent it driving Númenor headlong into the abyss. I wonder what they would have called my husband, had he succeeded? Arvedui the Insolent, perhaps?” She tapped a finger against her mouth. “Or perhaps Arvedui the Unlearned? Certainly, if the claim he made to the Council was not totally disingenuous, it showed a shocking lack of understanding of the Númenórean inheritance laws he was trying to invoke.”
In spite of herself, Arahael blinked, startled by the venom dripping from her grandmother’s voice. Knowing what she did, it should have been obvious that there would be something like this lurking in Fíriel’s mind, waiting for the opportunity to be vented. But she had never evinced as much to Arahael, and it had never occurred to Arahael to look for it. Fíriel of Gondor had lost much. Fíriel of Gondor had been denied much. More than Arahael had, and more than Arahael thought she ever would, even if she was stripped of her inheritance as her half-mære fears warned she might be.
“What did you think of it?”
The question was blurted out, with Arahael not realizing until it was put to the air that it might not have been the best thing to ask. But it was in the air, said and done; it was too late to take it back.
Fíriel raised an eyebrow. “Of my claim being rejected?” she asked, entirely too calmly—Arahael caught sight of her shoulders stiffening. “Or your grandfather trying to take my claim for his own?”
Arahael watched her face closely, wishing her grandmother’s mind was not a house full of locked doors and shuttered windows. “All of it,” she said finally, her voice hushed.
Not immediately did Fíriel reply. She leaned back in her chair, drawing a deep, sharp breath, nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing. “I never,” she said quietly, “while my father and my brothers still lived, I never thought that I could be the queen of Gondor. We have already discussed the differences between Gondor and Arthedain in this—let me go a step further. In the waning days of Númenor, the eldest daughters were stripped of their rights; Tar-Míriel was not the only one. Elendil and Anárion hated the men who did this, but they were happy to follow the precedent they set. There have been no Ruling Queens of Gondor. Women cannot inherit the throne, even if all of their brothers are dead, and their brothers childless. Not even a king’s sister-son can inherit the throne from him. The thought of my being acclaimed queen was ridiculous.
“My father never pretended that I would be anything but what I was.” Her voice was very soft; she slowly twisted the ring on her left hand from side to side. “I would never been a great woman. I would marry a great man. I would bear his children. Perhaps one of the children I bore him would be a great man, and if he was, I would be remembered as his mother. That was what I would be. No matter what my abilities—“ she clenched her jaw “—that was what I would be. I was always loved, but my family let me suffer under no illusions of what I was permitted to be.”
Her eyes misted over suddenly; she clapped a hand to her mouth. Arahael leaned forward, alarmed, but Fíriel waved her off with her free hand. “It was the most ridiculous idea. But then I learned that my father and my brothers were all dead.” She wavered, a few shaky breaths escaping her mouth, distorted by the hand still planted over her mouth. “Gondor was in turmoil; there was no clear line of succession.” As soon as Fíriel’s eyes had misted over, they hardened, water freezing to ice. “He tried to use me to make himself king of a land he had never before cared for,” she hissed venomously. “If it was anyone’s claim, it was mine, not his.” She took her hand away from her face to reveal that her mouth was twisted in an almost grotesquely hideous scowl. “If either of us should have ruled Gondor after my father died, it should have been me.”
Arahael stared, feeling all of a sudden something like an intruder, and very much like a stranger.
Fíriel drew another breath, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was familiar to Arahael again, her wise, kindly grandmother. “I was a Silmariën,” she told her gently. “A path was closed to me, and I found another. I did not enjoy the level of success that Silmariën did—I never ruled anything in my own name, not even my own house—but I was one of my father-in-law’s highest advisors, and he lent his ear to my counsel when he would not take heed of anyone else.
“You, Arahael…” She reached out and held both of Arahael’s hands in her own. Her grip was slacker this time, almost weak, but there was a vitality under her skin that belied it. “…If I am Silmariën, then you are Tar-Ancalimë, Tar-Telperiën. Your life shall be what you make of it. None of us are without things that limit our choices—in your case, it is your duty to your people—but you will have so much more control over your fate than I did.” A shadow of bitterness passed over her face, before it melted away. “And remember, Arahael. If you think that someone means to steal your birthright from you, you must fight to keep it, rather than simply withering in despair. Never let them have it, no matter who they are. Never let yourself be ruled by fear.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Arahael nodded.