1. White Shadow – part one
White light fell down the tree, washed over limbs and trunk, and froze –
Under a blackened sky. Then he heard aught but his own breath, loud even against the hoofbeats. He blinked into the pale day that ought to be shining fair, and his fingers clamped into a tight hold on the reins. Not a single tree grew on these fields, once scorched and blooded, that were now rippling with bleached grass from end to end.
"Dad?" Elanor repeated, nudging her pony closer. Her cheeks were bright with the wind and the riding pace they’d kept over the last mile.
"What, my dear?" Sam murmured.
She glanced swiftly over her shoulder. "For a moment, it looked... as if you might fall off."
Behind the three of them rode Men from Rohan, in a heavy clatter and jangle that grew loud as they reached the paved road under the gates.
"It takes a bit more to knock me over, don’t you be worried now." Sam fumbled for a smile. "More than letting the mind wander in the wrong place, leastways."
"Ah." Elanor’s quick smile returned without hesitation. "And perhaps your mind wandered through a bit of rhyme, dear dad?"
"Now you’re laughing under your tongue," Sam answered in a playful grumble. He might have reached across to brush her cheek or her wind-tangled curls, if the sharp little tremor that stung him so didn’t linger on. His right hand detached slowly from the reins and crept into his pocket. There’s no rhyme to such fancies, he thought. None.
In truth, it was a dream he’d known before, but never in daylight, never while his mind were running through such sights and memories as came with travelling far from the Shire.
He tugged on the reins, checking his pony’s trot so that Rose could catch up to them. He’d picked her a very gentle mare, but that pony was in the habit of stopping to champ the fat grasses swaying high enough to tickle her nose.
Rosie had raised one hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and for a moment her mouth stood open in sheer wonderment. "Why, this city is a mountain!" she said when she noticed him watching. "How do folk live in such heights without being afeared of falling?"
"Why, you said the same about their horses!" Elanor replied cheerfully. "And yet you sat on one only yestereve, without seeming very much afraid."
"Well, let no-one say I brought our family to shame." Rosie’s cheeks coloured a little, but her eyes remained fixed on the walls towering ahead.
Sam watched the sight slide over her face, in fluid sparkles first, then in tightened shadow, and thought it best not to look himself. Up and up the tall city, to the tower that would flame at daybreak and burn its light out last with nightfall. Too many places up ahead reeled with remembrance that would find him soon enough.
The gates stood wide open, and in another moment, the deep arch welcomed them with dry, stone-cooled air. At the corner of his eye, Sam caught movement in silver and black on the far side. He jumped off his pony and reached a hand to his wife. Rosie’s cloak tangled a bit in the saddle-bags, but she yanked it free and found her balance with a short huff. In a flash of riding breeches, Elanor hitched up her skirts and swung smoothly to the ground.
All of the arch rang as the Rohirrim followed them to the first circle of the city, their steeds marching with the full tread of an army. The noise shuddered up from the pit of Sam’s stomach, to mesh with his unsettled heartbeats. A few steps more, out of this watered half-shadow, and everything was white –
Washed so white in a glare of mid-day, it ached in his chest where a scarce indrawn breath stopped and trembled. His sight blurred in the streaming brilliance of an open street.
Oh, they had come through this very gate, years ago, heads tipped back as they gaped at those fierce spires, and the call of trumpets running like a storm about them, from every crook in the winding roads. They’d felt so small that their hands caught between them, tangling on a quick surge – and then Sam thought he could stretch out and touch a fingertip to the highest roof, easy as you please. So many years ago.
His hand inched back to his pocket to seize what comfort he might –
Aragorn’s voice was as soft and clear as he remembered, and strong without being raised one bit. In his mind Sam still called him Strider, or Aragorn leastways, not Elessar, King... His own greeting came without thought or pause, and he was thankful that his sight cleared after a blink and another. The street and what houses leaned over it with fine turrets and arches shone fairer than his memories, cleaned of such scars and gashes as the war had dealt.
"And Mistress Rose. We welcome you." Aragorn bowed, a warm smile slipping into the motion.
Sam drew her forward by the hand, her cheeks blooming with bashful pleasure, and knew well enough that Elanor wouldn’t need no prompting. She stepped forth with a quick curtsey and a dazzled smile.
"Elanor." The name flowed on a voice like midnight water, and cast silence over them all. The Queen had come down from the inmost halls, her robes a fair mirror to the sky. If there were a bit more silver threading Aragorn’s hair now, she had aged not a day.
Sam felt a quick flush of pride when his daughter repeated a first murmured greeting in the Lady Arwen’s own tongue. Stumble a bit on the words as she might, he could see how it pleased the Queen. Her smile lost all its carved stillness as she held out her hand.
Something stirred Sam to look at Aragorn then, and his own smile faltered. He’d not expected to be watched with such serious intent. The dark brows were drawn together, over some startled musing perhaps – but then Aragorn raised his eyes past him to speak to the Rohirrim.
"Our welcome and thanks to you, friends and knights of the Mark, for guiding our guests safely on their long journey. Be at peace, and take what rest you may."
Yet in a quick half-turn, ere Aragorn reached out his hand to the Queen, his eyes found Sam again, seeming to question him in a dark flash.
Sam breathed deeply. Inside his pocket, his fingers were close on a smooth curve and wrapped in a fine chain. His heartbeats ran calmer with it, but even this most treasured charm couldn’t stop the words whispering under his thoughts.
It is not your time.
Aragorn made sure to keep his countenance firm until Sam had closed the door with a final ‘good night’ that echoed in his wife’s murmur. Entirely too fast, the room fell to silence, shadow-soaked around the scattered gleams of silver and crystal.
Instead of dining in the hall, they had spent several hours in a more private chamber, seated around a low table that ensured their guests’ comfort. Among the shimmers of goblets, plates and ewers, cheerful voices still seemed to hover, with their charming lilt and vivid tales of the North. Over his shoulder, Aragorn glanced back at his wife.
Poised in her own reflection, Arwen stood by the window. The brighter alcove enfolded her in deep amber and softened her profile. Almost unwilling, Aragorn turned fully to cross the distance that stirred with unspoken disquiet. The silence would break now, it had to.
"He is unchanged, Estel."
"I have seen it."
Beneath the marks that he recognised – a weariness there that spoke not of years but of toil and loss – it had been too apparent, painfully so. A wing of darkness shaded Arwen’s face as she leaned forward. "Could it be–"
"No." His reply sprang up too rash, too brusque to be keenly perceived truth. But – not that curse, not Isildur’s Bane, it has claimed and drained far beyond the reach of our old doom – "He carried it only for a very short time."
Her fingers twined through his, drew him with irresistible certainty into the shrinking embers of day. "Even now, it frightens you."
Aragorn closed his eyes in simple admission. The debt must have been paid, for those who lived through this darkness. Her fingers skimmed from his wrist to his shoulder and brushed a well-known chord into his thoughts. "Have I not lived long enough to know it is a foolish dream?" He shook his head. "To wish that one soul – one at least! – may remain untarnished, untouched."
"Yet you grieve and fear for him." Wan threads of daylight wove themselves into Arwen’s hair and sank down her throat.
For him and another, Aragorn thought, a swift frown shaping in the wake of this – intuition? Was it even possible to separate–? "I have known him long enough to understand..."
"That his doom is not of this shadow?"
"It is so," he agreed.
"I cannot answer this riddle," Arwen said softly. For a moment, suspicion seemed to light in her eyes, yet it passed on such restless wings that it might have been a mere flicker of his own imagining.
"Perhaps it isn’t for me to solve either, if indeed heart and eyes deceive us not." Aragorn brushed his lips to her temple and shaped words where his own remembrance dwelt nearest. "It should not be."
‘Tis only a dream, and won’t never be more. Sam lay on his back, in a struggle to even out his breaths. Night stretched the room to a vast space of stone and dark air, and the smells filling it were not of earth and growth but dry rushes and lamp-oil. Instead of snores from the cradle and a hundred small noises from the children’s rooms, a deep-drawn quiet gathered about.
They’d all been restless afore going to sleep, Elanor in her smaller bed and Rosie beside him, even as she nestled up close and clasped Sam’s hand to her softly swollen belly. Rose hadn’t known she was expecting again till they reached the Gap of Rohan, and then it was too late for turning back home.
Our last, Sam thought, and an odd anxiety slid into the notion. Twelve were a tall number to be sure, and yet he’d not felt such misgiving when little Robin began twisting about in his mother’s womb.
Rosie slept a space away from him now, curled up round the budding life she carried, the covers bunched in thick folds about her. Nearer the window, Elanor’s hair gleamed soft from her pillow. Sam shifted on the deep mattress till he could swing his legs off the bed without making it dip and rousing his wife. He’d slept brief and uneasy, the threads of rest tearing whenever his dreams crept too near. Perhaps if he went and tired out his legs...
Above the window, a high arch turned from black to wavering grey. He listened to Rosie’s breaths, to Elanor’s breaths and his own, and behind it all breathed a silence that he kept hearing like a thing come into the world on one single day. Year after year, it thickened on his skin and couldn’t be answered or broken through nobody’s fault but his own. What had he been thinking to find here?
One foot on the cold flagstones and one on the rug, Sam groped for his breeches and pulled them on fast over his nightshirt. Warm as these parts of the world might be outdoors, the walls of Minas Tirith held a steady chill, and at nights it inched forth from every corner and cranny. This he remembered clear and true, though twenty-three years had passed since...
A cool tickle to the back of his neck would tease him awake, while his body rested warm and snug where all his wishing were lodged, unwilling to rouse. But each morning he’d crept early from their bed to start a fire before –
Sam tore himself from staring into the dead hearth and padded back to the bed. His fingers slipped under the pillow, grasping comfort thin as moonlight that rustled with the faintest chime into his pocket. There.
"Sam... where have you been?" a treasured recollection murmured, and turned itself to light. A shiver of bronze kindling in drowsy eyes, while the softest glow edged shoulder and throat.
Sam’s pulse leapt high, caught between a keen ache and the strangest relief. Nowhere far from you, never far... He looked at Rosie’s huddled form amid the heavy blankets, and a rueful start followed short on the heels, familiar like his own shadow. The fresh air outside would make it easier to breathe.
One hand close in his pocket, he walked across the hall, past a doorway and another, then down a curved flight of stairs. Though the moon had set hours ago, the city glistened with its own shine, as if locked in a fine frost. The alley before him lay deserted, but his ears picked up the pacing of guards, and a dim clack and clink of dishes from one of the kitchens. So familiar, all these small noises, like a strain of lost music. Where shall I go now?
He stood with his fist clutched on the charm till one silver point bit into his hand. Never far. And it didn’t matter now, did it?
His feet took him along the alley, into a courtyard and another, each dappled with a planting of shrubs and flowers. Sam wandered amid rare scents pricking the night-air and ran his fingers over silky leaves. Perhaps he’d take some seedlings back with him as would prosper in the Shire’s cooler airs, but his mind strayed again and again from such plans. Under the dimming stars, not a breeze ruffled the foliage, and there wasn’t aught to answer him here... Save a thin rustle that trickled from the west arch.
Oddly drawn, Sam climbed towards it, and there in the stone hollows played rippling whispers of water. His breath fled as he looked through the passage into a shadowed garden. Grass spread dark round the pool and its lively fountain, and over it bent a single tree.
Frodo... Sam closed his eyes, remembrance under his tongue, at his fingertips. Here, it was here.
The last morning it had been, as fair and cloudless as anyone about to travel could wish for. And here he’d waited while Mr. Frodo walked into the strong daylight, for a final leavetaking from Aragorn and the Lady Arwen. Her voice had roamed through a spell of song that wound and sank into the fountain’s own chanting. With the glitters leaping off the water, it seemed to wrap about Frodo and catch in his hair like the spray, each note full and mellow – and Sam never blinked as he watched.
Such a marvel it was to see the colour fresh in Frodo’s face, the sun agleam on his curls, and if his body were still tight and spare as a sapling after long drought, it were but a matter of time and healthy eating – so he’d thought then – to cure that, too. Sam had paid no heed to the blossoming tree, not when the promise of life itself seemed to dazzle round Frodo, the hope...
He lurched forward, and his shoulder caught against a pillar bracing the tall arch. Dull greys and black swam before his eyes, sundered by all the world from his memory. He’d not known what it was that he watched when Lady Arwen spoke to Frodo, and a secret passed between them.
An iron clink dropped hard into his thoughts, followed by the shuffling of heavy boots on stone. Sam’s glance veered sharply left and fell on dark silver, but the guard made no move to approach him.
With a tight breath, Sam stepped into the open. What did you say to him, Lady? What choice did you offer? But he’d not been supposed to hear, nor see the gift that she draped about Frodo’s neck.
Right then, a wind roused in the east, and the first pale beams reached over the walls, stretching curious fingers to the tree. Out of the dark, it grew into long-familiar shape, glimpsed oft in his dream. Painted bone-white in that freeze of light, the tree stood like a dancer, straight trunk and graceful boughs gathering the wind that whirled its fragrance about. A tang of salt bristled on the air, and Sam snatched at it like a beached fish.
So beautiful was the White Tree, proud and whole... and so wrong. A fine young tree planted where the old one had wasted. He’d set foot on the grass before he knew, his eyes fixed on the splendour before him – still here while _he_ isn’t – and if he could but touch –
The fountain’s shimmers washed round him and folded him into that twilight space. Moist grasses bent under his feet, then the tree’s living skin lay damp against his free hand. Over his fingers dripped wetness that tingled with the sweetest chill, and of a sudden it seemed that the tree stretched him out to the sky. Here, oh here... A sharp anguish rolled beneath his breastbone, so fierce he could almost feel the life taken away.
His fingers tightened on the promise inside his pocket. From the heart of his palm, it glanced and sheared through him, keen as a lightning bolt. Not a breath were left to him to gasp at such a cutting beauty that his skin didn’t know how to bear. Though he didn’t wish to, he tore his hand out of his pocket.
After that blinding call, the walls and the garden drowned in hazy darkness. Soft ground caught him with wet grass, and Sam held on to it, one fleeting thought chased down into boundless black.
That it was hope burning him so.
"His sleep is without rest."
Thin lines twitched at the corners of the gentle mouth and hardened as if in wariness or resistance. Even by candle-light, the soft features appeared gaunt and sallow, drawn by too harsh a struggle.
Gandalf let his breath flee in a sigh. "He is ill at ease during the days, and his nights..."
"Oh, they’re worse," Bilbo answered in an equally lowered voice. Deep worry cast its shadows around his eyes and grew heavier when the sleeper’s hand moved. "Frodo, my boy..."
Gandalf rested a soothing hand on his old friend’s shoulder. In troubled silence, they watched pale fingers rise and circle beneath the throat, restlessly seeking a hold where none remained.
"Do you think it’s that accursed–"
"Hush, not here," Gandalf warned.
In the parlour burned a pleasant fire that Bilbo stoked up out of fond habit, and for comfort rather than needed warmth. The hobbit sank into a deep chair. His eyes traced leaps of flame while he set forth his worries on one splayed finger after another. "Most of the time, Frodo will take neither food nor drink, and when he does, he can’t seem to keep it down. Only the miruvor, or what ever it may be called here, seems to agree with his stomach." Bilbo rubbed a hand across his face, and shook his head in sudden agitation. "He is listless, Gandalf, as I’ve never known him to be before!"
"That might be expected from one who sleeps so little." Gandalf walked to the hearth, placing himself within Bilbo’s narrowed vision. "And remember that he bore the One Ring when it fed on its Master’s growing power," he cautioned. "You were not there to witness the most grievous state in which it left him, once the quest was fulfilled. Yet he survived, and regained strength." With a smile, Gandalf offered scant reassurance that might fray at a gasp from the inner chamber.
"Well, yes, I suppose it was worse than–" Bilbo gestured impatiently. "Oh, that wretched Ring! I wish I’d never left it to Frodo."
"Do not torment yourself, Bilbo. Some things come to pass because they are meant to be, and in others that the wise did not foresee, your choices were true. You gave, and Frodo took–"
"His death, it seems!" Bilbo interrupted hotly. "Or living death, even here. His old injuries still pain him, though he won’t mention it, not even to me... but I’ve seen him rub his left hand as if it were numb." He clasped his own hands together to rest his chin on them. "There must be healers that can help him."
"Yes, there are," Gandalf answered thoughtfully, "but it is not illness that we see, I’m afraid."
"Then... what do we see?"
Out of the fire danced flickers of history, dazzled in brilliance and lambent shadow as Gandalf gazed into the unmoving core. One of these images he took into his thoughts as a mariner might sift a pearl from turbulent waters. A stranger with a star upon his brow, daring to tread where no mortal had yet walked, and few ever would.
"You have experienced the change yourself. These lands may be tethered within Eä, yet their ways are foreign to those not bound to this world."
Bilbo frowned. "For us mortals, you mean."
"You could not live here without the grace that refashioned you," Gandalf returned.
Complete in its smallest fragment, living music strummed beneath the rumours of mind and breath, made and unmade between dissonant pitch and radiant fullness. A strain of constant creation pierced earth, flesh, and air, only to weave them anew.
"It would seem," Gandalf said slowly, "that Frodo takes ill to the transition from one life to the other. That he cannot accustom himself to it..." Cannot, or will not? queried the sharp voice of his inmost perceptions, alert even now to the shifting patterns of Frodo’s sleep.
"But then, why can I?" Bilbo jumped from his chair and ran his fingers through curls that had grown brown as oakwood again. "I was worn out when we sailed, plain and simple, and closer to death than all you good people cared to notice." With arms crossed, he paced up and down, as upset and irritable as he had been many years ago, when Gandalf first set a mark upon his door. "Why Frodo? The Ring was destroyed, and Sauron with it, so you’ve all told me. Surely it can’t be–"
"No, that shadow has indeed passed," Gandalf answered, "though it scarred Frodo’s mind worse than his body. Yet its power never extended this far, even when our enemy still plotted against us."
"Well, if it’s not that evil thing making him miserable, then that leaves us at our wits’ end, doesn’t it?" Bilbo asked crossly.
"I have no answer to your questions. At least, not yet." A ring of warning and command had slipped into Gandalf’s voice, and it pained him to see another cloud darken the dear hobbit’s face. "But I shall find one, rest assured," he said gently.
For long moments, Bilbo stared at him, doubt vivid in his eyes, then he slumped back into the chair. "We haven’t been here very long. Perhaps... perhaps because his injuries were so grave, Frodo takes longer to get accustomed, as you call it."
"Perhaps. Few mortals have been admitted into the Blessed Realm, and none were hobbits." Gandalf strode to the door. "If I cannot find an answer myself, I shall seek the counsel of those who hold closer knowlege on the matter."
"And I will watch over Frodo," Bilbo murmured disconsolately.
Night was lifting as Gandalf wandered along the coast. It seemed that the answer to Frodo’s mystifying state was very simple, and perhaps his own insight into mortal life served better than the lore of ages.
Deep in thought, Gandalf watched as Eärendil steered to safe haven from his journey across the night. He bowed his head. You were given a choice, and in the choosing lay all that was needed.
As the brightest star touched its rays to the cliffs of Tol Eressëa, reflections stitched silver across the rocks, and a snowy glitter lit where Celeborn grew, the mighty tree made in the image of Telperion the White. As if in greeting, sparks flashed from one mirror to the other, each guarding a memory of long-lost light, and ebbed again into the shading between times. The lap of waves to shore remained, and a silent music played through it.
Listless, Gandalf thought, no, indeed. Of this and this alone, he could be entirely certain: that the fierce spark of will had not been quenched in Frodo. In truth, it seemed focused to greater clarity, the tighter it wound itself about a single secret.
Waking was such a wonder, he hardly dared a breath. A fine scent rose from the sheets, of herbs crushed and blown across them after the washing, so they dried off with the wind. But much sweeter was the warm scent of Frodo’s skin, his curls brushing lightly against Sam’s chin and the top of his chest.
"Sam... where’ve you been?" The sleepy murmur touched goosebumps to his own skin, but the pair of arms tightening their hold spoke less of slumber than Frodo’s voice did.
"I’ve been up to start us a fire, Mr. Frodo, and weren’t gone longer than a minute."
"Too long." A smile edged out, pressed to his throat with warmth of lips and surge of breath. "No fire can possibly–"
But Frodo chose to pass the rest into a kiss that lasted long, deepened from a clinging press of lips to a soft mingling of tongues. And it couldn’t, truly, no flame could take the place of this raw unknown light under his skin that sparked where Frodo’s fingers caressed, mapped and knew him as they’d never –
"Do you know, Sam, there’s one light that I always see..."
He couldn’t answer this save in kisses and choked breaths, and clasping Frodo so tight that he might feel how it were all just the brightness pouring from him, how it filled Sam in and out with joy – oh just to hold him again, like this, alive...
His mouth settled on the small scar near Frodo’s shoulder, to stir feeling into the cold, knotted mark if he might, and shine it through with the tenderness that welled without end from the bottom of his chest.
"Hold me, Sam..." A raw whisper strained close by his ear, crushed with anxious unrest. "Don’t let go."
But I’d never... The grey light of morning flung a chill over him, and though he might screw his eyes tight against it, he couldn’t shut out the feel of bones pushing the skin, the sharp heave in Frodo’s breathing. Between them ran tremors that spilled out thin as blood, and he had to look then –
I’m here, I’ll never leave you. Each time, it tore him, and each time, his answer was the same. No matter how sharp the shadows cleaving Frodo’s face, how hazed and fearful his eyes, Sam could still see the far glow of him and touch it, shelter it. Even if there weren’t a hope left, he’d hold on to the heartbeat burning quick and frantic to his palm. And his own aches ran to naught when such a thin wisp of breath touched his cheek, and Frodo leaned closer.
Help me, Sam...
His eyes were turned a pale grey with the hard glint of the Ring’s own greed, and the life of him nigh gone save for a spark –
Don’t go where I can’t –
But his sight faltered, and all he knew was a voice sobbing wordless grief in the foggy distance, then a dim shine piercing his lids. A salt taste lay in his mouth while he still floundered desperate in a sea of remembrance.
Your time may come.
A rushing noise rose to pounding wildness at his temples and ebbed off, into a rustle of quiet movement somewhere nearer. The bed on which he lay was in truth clean and soft as it had been in his dream, but it was wide and –
It is not your time.
Empty as his hand. Sam curled his fingers round the edge of a blanket that covered him. He heard his own gasps grow louder as he pulled out of the dream, as if struggling against murky waters. His body felt heavy as stone, and so cold and tight too, the same as it had when –
"What ails you, my friend?" Aragorn’s voice slipped past the remainder of dream and recollection, like a cooling ripple.
Sam shook his head, mute as he’d been through the whole ride home, the Havens at his back and a single sound rising from that well of silence.
The voice of the Sea. He wanted nothing so much as to wake for good, and grasp some solid hold, never mind how. Through a flicker of lashes, he caught sight of a window arch and Aragorn seated next to the bed, but he missed...
Only a dream.
His eyes found his coat where it was hung over a chair, straight and proper. From where he lay, he couldn’t reach it though, not and pretend he’d missed Aragorn’s question. He swallowed, and light sparkled on a glass held out to him.
He obeyed the firm tone for the promise that lay buried within. The trembling in his fingers spilled trickles down his chin and throat, but his sight cleared apace, and a bit of the watery weight lifted off his chest.
This weren’t the bed he’d slept in the past night, he noticed then. "What–" he mumbled with effort, "how–?"
"I brought you here," Aragorn told him. "Your wife and daughter sat with you until a short time ago, but Rose was unwell this morning. We persuaded her to return to your rooms and lie down."
Sam pushed up fast on one elbow. "Then I ought to–"
"Do not be worried," Aragorn leaned forward and stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Rose is with child again, is she not? I’ve sent for a midwife to tend to her, but unless my own knowledge deceives me, she will find no cause for alarm."
Sam propped himself against a pillow and gave in with a weary nod. "Oh, I – I should hope so... and I thank you for your care and kindness."
Aragorn accepted this with a short nod of his own. "What happened in the Court of the Fountain?" he asked without further ado. "What made you come there before daybreak? The guards alerted me, but when I arrived, I found you in a swoon."
"I can’t say." Sam breathed hard against the thickness in his throat. "I couldn’t sleep proper and wandered round the streets. Then I remembered..." He shook his head, a rustle against the pillow. "But I’d like to know – if it’s no bother – about the White Tree..."
"It is a descendant of Nimloth, the tree that grew in Númenor ere it fell beneath the waves. My forefathers brought a sapling across the Sea when they fled."
"No," Sam whispered, wondering what brought his own curiosity about. "The other one... the dead tree as stood in its place before."
"It was of the same lineage, but it withered when the line of kings failed," Aragorn answered patiently. "It was taken to Rath Dínen, the Silent Street where the Houses of Burial stand, and laid to rest there." His grey eyes lingered on Sam, sharp as ever, seeking such answers as he would give of his own will. "Sam, you have not answered my question."
"And I do wish that I could, truly." He closed his eyes briefly, on a glimpse of light spilling through his fingers with the soft spray. "I remembered coming there before, and last when Mr. Frodo said his farewells to you and the Lady Arwen. Then... I went over to the tree, and I must’ve – I fell." Sam folded his hand tighter on the blanket. His palm felt raw and hot from the burning, but how to explain the way it sang through him – "There’s something about that tree... something that put me in mind of Elves and... Lórien."
"As well it might..." Aragorn’s glance shifted, catching a little light from the window, and for a moment Sam could see the ranger again, wearing that look of steeled, patient want. "I, too, have waited many years," he said softly.
A short shiver of warning touched Sam’s neck. Did he know?
"You are not at peace, Sam."
And why wouldn’t he know, with eyes as piercing and so many years of watching behind that frank look?
"But – I should be," Sam muttered. "All the years have been so... kind."
"Less reason then, to be unkind towards yourself," Aragorn replied, in the same even tone. "If not for your labours, the Shire would not have been healed within these short years."
"Oh, I did my part and not a pinch more, as others did theirs." Sam found a shaky smile though the years had not been so short to his mind. "But I was right glad to see everything come back to bloom after that first dreadful winter." His mind dipped into a memory of bare trees and white fields, and Frodo walking next to him, eyes flickering after the ragged flight of crows. "I would’ve made the whole Shire his garden, if I could–"
Sam clamped his mouth shut. His own voice seemed too loud in the room’s hush, and jarring where silence ought to keep. "Not meaning to complain, I know where my place is, too – what with a life as good and rich–" But with every word, he was only making it worse, and his throat grew dry again. "Oh, I didn’t ought to miss him so!"
A frown of true puzzlement shaped on Aragorn’s brow. "What do you fear?"
"Naught but that I’ll never–" Sam caught himself and brushed a hand over his face. "See, I have my family," he said, as steadfast as he could, "and I’m glad to be giving them all the happiness as they did ought to have, and more. The children have been such a joy..."
Another silence fell and seemed to run after his words, keen on their heels. Then Aragorn stirred with a settling of his shoulders, like a decision made.
"You do not need to keep this from me, though if secret it is, your secret shall be safe." He’d lowered his voice, and his eyes rested gentle on Sam’s face. "We could all see it, Sam. You did not have to touch him. He did not have to be near you. We never spoke of it out of esteem for you both, but do not mistake our silence for disdain. You have no cause for shame or concealment."
Sam shook his head, a flush of mixed recollection inching up from his chest. "No... there couldn’t be no shame," he murmured, "and I wish that I didn’t–" He paused, gathering breath and such courage as he could find. "Do you remember how you told us the tale of Beren and Lúthien at Weathertop? It – well, it’s not for the likes of me to make such claims." A fierce heat rose into his face that he couldn’t wish away. "As Beren did, if you take my meaning."
"Or I." An odd little smile quirked Aragorn’s lip. "But in truth, it is not the bold claim that binds, or brings hope when our doom seems pitted against us, as well you know. There are promises that cannot be earned through valour of heart or deed."
"I do know, at that." The croak in his throat wouldn’t let up, and to say out loud what he’d never –
"And they cannot be taken back either," Aragorn answered him.
Sam swallowed hard. Questions fluttered all round his head now, like crows in a storm, whirling and crowding. "Then, tell me... did he have to leave?"
"I cannot tell you this, for the choice was his to make, and his alone." A sudden shadow troubled Aragorn’s eyes, near like grief. "But when you think of Beren and Lúthien, remember this also: it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas."
He reached out to clasp Sam’s hand warm between his own. His bigger palms were still calloused from wielding sword or staff, and from many years in the wilderness.
"I’m sorry for being such trouble," Sam murmured through his awkwardness.
"You are not, and between us, no word of gratitude or regret is needed." A smile lightened the grave tone. "Friends have no use for them."
"Thank you, Strider," he mumbled, grateful for Aragorn’s chuckle at the use of this outworn name.
When he was gone, Sam climbed from the grand bed and picked up his coat, grasping for reassurance in the right pocket. He touched only a fingertip to the cool silver before slipping his coat back on, mindful of unmeasured gifts.
Rose lay dressed on the broad bed, her hair spilling loose over the cushions. On the covers beside her, a plate of shortcakes and fresh grapes had been placed.
Sam closed the door quietly and smiled at her. "You look fine as a queen there, Rosie." A soft laugh answered him, but trouble stayed tight in her eyes as he sat on the edge of the mattress. "Are you–"
"Oh, that were nobut the morning turn and not sleeping much last night," Rosie dismissed it before he could fully ask. "You still look pale as henchbloom though, Sam. The lord Aragorn says you stumbled in the dark and hit your head."
Sam shifted his shoulders, uncomfortable with the half-truth. "I’m right sorry for causing you such upset."
"And what would you go wanderin’ in the dark for?" She took his hand firmly, showing only the fondest kind of reproach. "This mountain-tall city’s like to turn our heads dizzy... not but that it’s fine and fair as your stories say. But it’s not so easy to go walking into such tales, is it?"
Sam shook his head and couldn’t say aught but, "It won’t seem so strange after a while."
When Rose propped herself up, he reached her another pillow to settle in her back. A calmer mood brushed round him, like a remembrance of the Shire’s softer airs and scents. And from the look in Rosie’s eye, Sam could guess that her mind were off home, too. He stroked her cheek. "You miss the little ‘uns."
"It’s so quiet here, compared." He pulled up his shoulders. "They’ll be fine and snug with Tom and Marigold, and spoiled with sweets and play when we get back, you’ll see."
"Robin will be toddling about and talkin’ when we do," Rose said wistfully. "How long do you think–?"
He glanced to the window where morning dazzled on a curve of domed roof. "There’s no sense in travelling again before... well, before our youngest is a weight in your arms, not your belly."
"I don’t like him being born in such a strange place."
Sam’s eyes snapped back to her. "Him?"
"Aye." The bit of grievance was already gone from her expression, and Rosie smiled, pleasure twinkling at his surprise. "And I think we ought to call him Samwise, if you want to know. There’s no telling if there’ll be another–"
"Now don’t you start again," Sam cut in, holding out a smile of his own to soften the quick retort. "There’s far better names, and no call for the lad to be reminded of his dad every day in his life."
"You’re a stubborn one forsooth, Sam Gamgee." She sighed and studied him a moment longer, her lips pursed. "But I can’t say as I wasn’t warned aforehand, can I?" With a wry look, she drew up the plate and held it to him. "Eat a bit now, you’ve not had breakfast yet."
Sam took one of the crumbly cakes, worried unrest starting to twitch at the back of his head again. Perhaps we didn’t ought to have gone on such a long travel... "Where’s Elanor?"
"Out in the gardens," Rosie answered him, "in the Queen’s company, most like."
"Aye, our Ellie’s eager to learn the old tongue better than I could teach her." Sam looked to the window again, and wondered how the palace gardens might have changed under the Lady Arwen’s guidance.
"That she is..." A hint of disquiet or doubt lay in Rosie’s tone, but then she asked, "And where are you off to now, Sam?"
"I’m not going anywhere." He turned back to her instantly.
"Oh, shush!" Rosie’s laugh rang a little sharp, her fingers squeezing on his arm. "I’ve known you long enough to see when you want to be up and doin’."
Sam took a bite of the cake and tasted less than straw. "There’s a place as I’d like to see..." But to explain what, let alone why – "It can wait."
Rose shook her head, wearing that look she showed each time when her mind were made up flat. "I’ve a mind for a little nap myself, and I’ll be resting fine here. Just you be sure you don’t miss your step again."
"I won’t be away for long." Sam rose, thinking again how small she looked on the bed, and whethere there was aught he might do to take the worry from her eyes...
"They’re holding market just below the walls of the inner circle," he said from the door. "We could go down after luncheon, if you like."
Her smile didn’t waver and saw him out of the room with small comfort.
Sam walked down straight to the sixth circle of the city. His recollections of Minas Tirith were clear enough to chart a way through the warren of streets, and Pippin’s tale of his doomful walk in Lord Denethor’s company proved a trusty guide. The door he spoke of stood shadowed beneath the rocks that towered over the rear wall. High above, the mountain flanks glittered faint with snow.
The porter didn’t step from his lodge beside the road, but a pair of guards stood watch on either side of the door, and those two stopped Sam with a rattle of spears thrust into his path.
"No one passes where the Stewards of old sleep their long slumber that must not be disturbed," the older boomed at him.
"And a good day to you, sirs." Sam drew himself up, and leaned back to look the Man full in the eye. Those were pale eyes, but without guile or anger, and even a bit of curiosity. "I am Samwise, Mayor of the Shire and Counsellor of the North-kingdom. I haven’t come to disturb, I merely wish to learn something."
The guard shot a sideways look at his companion. "And what might that be?"
"I wish to look on the tree that stood in the Court of the Fountain before King Elessar and his Queen were wed."
"The tree." The Man’s brows twitched and climbed, puzzled thoughts running all asunder across his long face.
"Aye, and I promise you, I won’t be setting foot nowhere else."
"It lies in a separate chamber," the younger guard murmured from the side, "I don’t think any harm can–"
"Even so," his elder grumbled and threw another doubtful look about.
Sam didn’t say a word more, in part because he couldn’t rightly tell why he’d come, and also for the hope that these Men would deem him little trouble, once their surprise wore out.
"We ought to bring this before the King," the guard said after a short while, "and yet we cannot doubt that our King chooses his Counsellors wisely." He bowed his head courteously. "Nor is your name unknown to us, Master Samwise. We will show you what you wish to see."
He waved for the porter to open the door. Sam returned the bow with polite thanks and followed the guards down many steps, into a road winding past high pillars and domes and carved statues, all of them grey as the rockflanks. Cold mountain air breathed through the road, returning the chill of Pippin’s tale, when the Steward had meant to burn the Lord Faramir alive. And he would have, too, if not for Pippin’s quick wits.
In a spell of odd regret, Sam thought of Merry and Pippin wearing those foreign liveries and boots that made them look like Men, taller and fiercer than they ever ought to grow, and how some of their warriors’ ways had stayed on since – even while the Shire’s affairs ran on at their slow, easeful pace. Busy as they were kept these days, being Master of Buckland and Took and Thain, Sam thought they’d want to travel again in later years, and return to see the white city too.
The Men halted by a round arch and opened another door that creaked from long unuse, but they didn’t follow him inside.
Sam climbed down a short flight of stairs. From a window slit high in the wall, a single shaft of daylight fell into the chamber, thick with motes that shivered as he stepped closer. The tree had been placed on a stone slab covered in grey cloth, shimmering even through layers of dust, like Elven weave. Though shrouded in the traces of years, the tree’s bark still glistened white, and its branches were laced to a spidery crown.
Sam wandered round to the meshwork of fine roots. He could see they’d been pulled from the earth right careful, with barely a rip or tear, and strong they were, too. The tree might’ve been withered where it stood, but its roots had kept firm in the soil till it was dug out and brought here.
He shook his head, recalling one of his Gaffer’s earliest lessons: Don’t be too quick thinkin’ a tree’s dead, Sam, there be times when they mull over themselves and stand dry like their last winter’s come, but wait for a year or another, and see if you ain’t surprised. As if to prove him true, the stunted oak on the edge of the Party Field that Mr. Bilbo had been considering for firewood brought forth a strong shoot the next spring, that grew like a new tree out of the old.
Sam eased down on a stone ledge running the length of the room, wide enough to serve him for a bench. Now the Gaffer himself were gone fourteen years and his little namesake racing about like a shiny whirlwind on Overlithe. A splinter of old pain turned in Sam’s chest that he held close for a moment. This tree here wouldn’t get another chance of drawing such strength through the earth as would drive new leaves from its boughs when no-one was expecting them.
But perhaps, he said to himself, it didn’t matter so much, seeing as how the trees were all of one seed, and the very first of them still in full bloom over the Sea. Sam shook his head at himself on the next breath. And how would you know that, Sam Gamgee? Aragorn said the old tree were drowned with Westernesse...
He could ask Aragorn, he reckoned, but now he thought that maybe the tree of his dreams weren’t the one he’d touched in the court. Nor the one lying asleep here. Though he looked on branches stiff and bare as sticks, he could almost see dark leaves that shone silver underneath, all asway in a breeze like a thread of silent music. Sam breathed deep, a strange peace rising and swelling through him till a song sparked from it and hovered against his tongue, strangest of all –
Though here at journey’s end I lie...
The tune hummed in his body, astir like a fanned flame, and nigh roused a note in his breast.
"What are you hoping to learn here, if I may ask?" a clear voice broke the silence. "It is hardly your time yet."
The words rolled loud in the stone vault, and Sam jumped from his seat, shaken after the dreaming he’d done with wide open eyes. The younger guard stood in the doorway, a shadow at the top of the stairs.
"Forgive me, I had no intention of startling you."
"Well, you gave me a right turn there." But something familiar rang in the Man’s tones, and Sam reached for a name. "Bergil, is it? Why didn’t I–"
"It is indeed," the Man answered, "but I did not expect you to know me. The last time we spoke, I stood barely a head taller than you, Master Samwise."
"Oh, leave out the Master, if you please!" Sam walked across, his head tipped to take in Bergil’s face and beard as he climbed the stairs. "But weren’t you gone to Ithilien with your father, to serve the Lord Faramir?"
Bergil took a moment before he replied. "My father died, two summers past, and all that is fair in Ithilien seemed fraught and dark with memories then. I asked Prince Faramir’s leave to return to the city and the service of the King."
Aye, and so you came here... Sam said nothing. The Man’s words tugged sharp on his own remembrance, of the Shire’s fresh glory dimmed, removed like –
"Do tell me, how is my old friend Pippin?" Bergil asked.
"Very well," Sam answered readily. "He is now Thain Peregrin and has a son of his own that he named Faramir after your Lord."
"We all deemed him a prince among your kind when he first entered the city, and he lived to fulfill the promise, I wager."
"That he did, though you might think better than telling him so," Sam returned with a chuckle.
From the arch, he looked back into the vault, at the tree’s brittle form that still seemed to call for a song. He bowed his head quickly, ere he followed Bergil back out into the road.
Daylight seemed overly bright now, rushing in a brilliant stream down the mountain’s side. Sam blinked, and found the young Man watching him curiously.
"Ah, but you have not changed at all!" Bergil said with a wondering laugh. "You Periain are a marvellous people indeed."
A southern wind had swept all clouds from the sky, and crisp sunlight silvered the garden, lending sharp shading to every leaf and branch. On the rosebush nodded a spill of blossoms so heavy, their weight bent its boughs. In the near distance sparkled a snow-capped mountain, and the blooms shone as if cut from the same frost.
"Your garden is plentiful, Frodo."
Shadows curled and wavered across the page of an ancient book, and trailed their own fleeting writ across the letters.
"My garden..." He didn’t look up, though the letters swam before his eyes, blurred strangely in the too-clear light. Not a rustle in the grass had announced Gandalf’s presence, but no surprise unsettled him now. Frodo closed the book. "Yes, it is exceptionally beautiful, as everything here is."
Gandalf’s eyebrows were drawn up, a but tracing embers in his glance.
"This garden doesn’t need my attention to bloom." Frodo shrugged his shoulders. Sunlight darted with abrupt vehemence through the branches, and he lifted a hand against its sting. The movement was slow, cramped by the very air that seemed too pure to breathe, too raw in his chest. "Look at this rosebush... It carries twenty-three blossoms that were tiny green buds last night," he said. "I have done nothing but counted them, three times twenty-three."
"Do not be too quick in your judgment," his old friend returned. "You do not know how the garden might flourish if someone were to tend it."
"Will it, Gandalf?" Frodo bit his lip. He remembered how Sam had planted snowdrop in the window-box outside his study, late that last summer, humming under his breath. Times were when he thought that Sam could make things grow with a song, although the slow, sad glide of this melody –
Frodo shook his head before the memory could take more of his breath. Of course there was no answer. With a searching kind of encouragement, Gandalf’s eyes rested on him.
"Would you like some tea?" Frodo remembered to ask and made to rise from the bench, but Gandalf stayed him with a gesture.
"Do not trouble yourself, Frodo." He settled in the grass with a lithe movement that belied his appearance. "I have come to find out why you are ill at ease. Bilbo has been very worried. He believes you are fading."
"As I once was..." Frodo touched his left shoulder and let his hand drop. "It is small trouble now, and I am as well as can be, Gandalf. I did not mean to cause you or Bilbo any concern, and I don’t believe there is reason to–"
"That is not for you to decide," Gandalf said in a sterner tone than Frodo had heard him use for a very long time. "Nor will your silence on this matter improve it."
But I must not... In another life, Frodo might have pushed up and paced, to escape the hollow burn that rose fast in defiance. Yet there were answers that he could give without – "The music. I hear it at nights, a torrent in my dreams that tosses me about."
I feel as if _I_ am the dream, set adrift in this world.
"It would bear you gently, if you would but let it." Gandalf’s fingers wove together and parted again. "The music that you hear has shaped and held the world from the beginning and shall do so unto its end. Do not fear the freedom that it brings."
"It is not that–" Frodo interrupted himself with a quick gesture. "Tell me, what do you think I have earned?"
"Peace," Gandalf said without hesitation. "Answers. Fulfillment."
He felt his hand clench tightly on the book where its cool weight rested against his thigh. "You know well that I can’t possibly–"
"No, Frodo, this I do not know."
"You saw the lack in me," Frodo insisted, "more than weariness, more than the smarting of old wounds. Was I not in danger of draining life, as mine had been drained?"
"That is the Ring speaking." The wizard’s glance flared into his words, fierce as the glint that lit on his finger when the ship cast off from the Havens. "But its power has been broken. You could not."
How strange, Frodo thought, how strange that it should be easier to speak of the Ring than – "Yet you agreed that there would be no healing for me in Middle-earth."
"It was your choice. A choice only half-made, it seems now."
And how could it be otherwise, when there is only half of me? Frodo turned his face, to look at the white roses and breathe – "do not think me ungrateful" – a sweetness that tore in his chest. "Gandalf... could I have stayed? Was there truly a choice?"
"You have lost, and you have gained, Frodo," Gandalf said carefully. "Your own wisdom is your best guide. It should tell you that your coming here means neither exile nor imprisonment."
"And I did not say that it does, unless I have made it so myself." Frodo rose from the bench after all and wandered a few steps, to look across the green rise at the sharper ridge of cliffs. The Sea was invisible from where he stood, but the wind carried its prickling taste and constant rumour on the shore, and the sky seemed ever more clear in the east.
"Well, have you?" Gandalf’s voice raised a subtle challenge from close behind.
"I am only... waiting." The silence shifted and in a faltering moment between breaths, Frodo heard the notes of a hummed song again, turning hope to sorrow and both to light. Unbroken.
"I needed... I took more than enough, and the Shire needed him." A stronger breath seeped into the pause. Frodo drew back his shoulders. "I thought it would be for the best that Sam should not – should not waste on me what was never mine to claim. He always loved the Shire with the whole of his heart..."
"Bilbo once said something similar about you, when he decided to leave."
"Oh, that’s hardly–"
"Frodo Baggins, tell me what you have done."
"Ask me what I did not–" He stopped on a hard, broken laugh that bit into his chest.
Though he had not moved, Gandalf seemed closer now, his attention flung to the hazed horizon and back again. If you were to see these colours in all their radiance, they would not blind you.
Frodo closed his eyes. But I do see... I see white.
Why do you deny yourself?
He shook his head softly. "Oh, I do not. I merely had to leave him as much of myself as I dared. Everything that I did not think I could give."
"Such grief in him." Arwen stopped on the path that ran above the gardens and folded both arms around herself, the movement measured slow in thought.
Aragorn bent his head, aware that her mind ever enclosed him, as if in a circle of shimmering air. Below, Elanor waved a quick goodbye to her parents. In the company of Bergil, Sam and Rose passed through the north arch, and their daughter returned to the book she had left on a stone bench.
"I have not your knowledge of the Periannath," Arwen continued, "and short was the time I spent in their company. Yet I see that Samwise is unlike the others who remain." One of her hands rose and spread into the restless gusts that swerved across Mindolluin’s peaks. "His heart follows the call of Arda and all she bears. Such a blessing is rare among the Secondborn. Galadriel’s gift was bestowed well. And yet..."
A shiver in her words traced itself against Aragorn’s senses, and he stepped nearer.
"I have watched him these weeks," Arwen said quietly, "and I have listened. A strange silence is wound through all that he is, all that he does... His life runs thin as a song missing its harmonies."
Questions snapped unexpectedly from a sealed chamber of his mind, and Aragorn could not halt them. "What songs and harmonies do you miss, vanimelda?"
She turned to him, wind-blown strands entangling a swift smile. "I live behind seven walls, in a city of closed stone that would guard all regrets, but I hold none." A clear gaze searched Aragorn’s face, newly vigilant. "I spoke of him, not myself. But you do not seem surprised."
"I travelled with the Ring-bearer over many miles, and it did not take long to see..." Aragorn paused for a short, regretful smile. "What was never meant for the eyes of others, nor mentioned between us."
"I did not know." A stricken look came over her face, and she averted her eyes. "Some pledges need no spoken word."
He nodded. Pledged to go to the fire together, come what would, that it burn both or none. "The silence that you speak of–"
"Is beyond your healing, Estel. Or mine. And the riddle remains unsolved." Arwen glanced across the carved balustrade again and turned towards the stairs leading down into the garden. "We should speak to Elanor. She is a lovely child, and her understanding greater than her years."
Elanor had become so absorbed by her reading that she didn’t notice their approach until Arwen spoke her name. Then she started up, holding the book with one arm to her chest.
"You did not wish to accompany your parents?" Arwen drew her back to the bench where a juniper spread its tattered shade.
While the people of Minas Tirith often faltered with awe in her presence, Elanor showed none of it. "Not today," she answered with a shrug. "Bergil said he’d take me to meet his friends’ children tomorrow."
"You must miss your brothers and sisters."
"Not so much, no," she said frankly, wrinkling her nose. "Bilbo leaves fingerprints all over the books if I don’t watch him, and Ham’s awful fond of setting grasshoppers in my bed. They’re with Uncle Halfred now, all my brothers are, save Robin. Fro didn’t want to leave Bag End though..." She threw a quick look at Aragorn. "We call him Fro, you understand."
"I understand." Aragorn smiled at her, and she lowered her eyes.
"He didn’t want to leave for the gardens’ sake, and he’ll see to them over the winter, too. He’ll be a fine gardner. Dad’s right proud of him."
"Elanor..." Arwen reached for her hand. "Does your father ever take ill?"
"Ill?" Her eyes grew wide, as if someone had mistaken a mûmak for a mouse. "You can ask anyone back home; even when half of Hobbiton’s laid by the fever, Dad will walk about sound and hardy." Pride flashed in Elanor’s glance as she turned from Arwen to Aragorn. "And he’s got his own remedy, though he won’t tell. There’s a white jewel that he always carries in his pocket – he’ll touch it when he’s worried."
Aragorn frowned. "The Star of the Dúnedain? I gave it to your father six years ago, when we met by the Brandywine."
"Oh no, he’s had it for many years," Elanor said firmly. "He used to show it to me when I was still very small, each time I’d been dreaming badly. It would shine so fair, I’d forget all about my dreams in no time."
"Do you remember its shape, Elanor?" Arwen asked.
"It’s like a star." Elanor tipped her head to the side, remembering. "And brighter than I’ve ever seen. Dad said it’s Elvish, but he never told me who gave it to him. I thought... if you don’t mind, that maybe you did."
"No, I did not."
Aragorn glanced across at his wife, but she had closed her eyes, and he could not read the cast of her expression.
"Then..." Elanor twisted her fingers through the lacings of her dress, her round face full of thought. "It’s a secret he never told no-one but me," she murmured, "and perhaps I didn’t ought to speak of it, but... I’m thinking you might know it yourselves."
"What would we know?" Aragorn asked gently.
"That he’s waiting to go over the Sea." Elanor looked at them with dismay, her lips pressed tightly together for another moment. "I think the white star keeps reminding him. All the Elves are leaving Middle-earth, aren’t they?"
(continued in part two)
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.