2. White Shadow – part two
With a worried sidelong glance, Bilbo sat down beneath a patch of elder brush. They’d walked less than a mile, and Frodo’s breath came in thin gasps that he couldn’t conceal any more than his frequently faltering steps. Bilbo snorted through his nose, but instead of saying something outright, he opened his pouch and stuffed half a handful of crumbled brown leaves into his pipe.
"And here I thought a walk would do you good!" He lit the pipe, waving puffs of smoke in the other direction.
"It did, Bilbo. The view is beautiful."
"Oh, but look at you..." Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo, my lad, I’m sick with worry, and old Gandalf’s dark mutterings aren’t helping. Though he says it’s your own resistance causing this condition, I’ve not the slightest idea what he means by that. What in the world could you possibly miss in all this splendour?" He paused and sent Frodo a look of unyielding intent. "Well?"
"It’s not what I miss." Frodo’s eyes wandered restlessly to the silver strip of water and back again. "It’s who."
Bilbo’s eyes narrowed. For moments he studied Frodo in the way he used to long ago, when smudged fingers or ripped clothing betrayed a long streak of mischief. "Not–"
"Yes, it’s Sam," Frodo said at once and still came ridiculously close to stammering like a flustered lad. "No-one else."
Bilbo’s mouth curled, but surprise was not among the feelings that chased each other across his face. "Well, I may have been a prattling old dotard when you returned to Rivendell, but I could certainly see that you’re very fond of him."
"We were... I could not have survived without him." Frodo laced his fingers over his knees. "Our journey opened my eyes in so many ways. That I owe him my life is the least–" But even these words, flat and dry as they were, dragged hard against the void in his breast. "Sam is... dearer than life to me."
Bilbo took a long drag from his pipe, and a thoughtful hum slipped out with the smoke he blew into a lop-sided ring. "If I were to take a guess, I’d say you were just as dear to him. Which begs the question why–"
"He had a full life waiting for him, the life his family wanted for him, and with him. How could I claim him away from that?" Frodo’s breath caught on the question.
"Very noble of you," Bilbo huffed, "and very silly, considering that you’re now pining uselessly. You’re neither the first lads to set eyes on each other, nor will you be the last, I expect." He scratched at his chin with the stem of his pipe. "If Sam had stayed unmarried – oh yes, that would have caused a fine storm of gossip all over the Shire, but–"
"I had no right," Frodo cut him off.
"Stubborn as a Brandybuck," Bilbo grumbled. "That brick-walled head of yours is not an inheritance from the Baggins side of the family."
For a while, the tide’s swell filled the silence. Then Bilbo spat into the grass and frowned at the gloaming bowl of his pipe. "Well, I hope your Sam comes soon. He’ll grow us the kind of leaf deserving the name of pipeweed!"
His grimace startled Frodo into a grudging smile, and unexpected relief swept through him before he could think again. "I don’t know if he will..." Frodo’s hand flew to his throat, reaching for remembrance, and found only the chill of his own skin. "If he can."
Clearly exasperated, Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo... if this means the world to you, why ever did you–"
"Because I had to." His fingers tightened where nothing remained. "I had to spare Sam the pain after he had already suffered so much for me. He longed to return to the life we had, but every day he would look at me and see only the shadows, only the loss that could not be healed. I could not bear that thought."
"I don’t suppose you ever asked his opinion on the matter?"
"I fooled myself," Frodo answered, though his voice had grown unsteady. "I did not tell him of my decision to leave because I believed the pain would be quick and merciful... like drawing a splinter from a wound, so that it can finally heal. But then, once we reached the Havens..." Recollection kindled too fast, seething brighter than the daylight that poured over the bluffs. "My mind cleared at last. I saw his grief, and what it might do to him."
Though a flurry of dark specks swirled in his sight, Frodo climbed to his feet and walked some steps forward. His hand found a hold on a young beech, but his eyes fell to the water again that charged the cove’s rocks with greater clamour and gushes of white. "I said that his time might come, Bilbo, but then I thought – I wondered if he’d live long enough–"
Before he could finish, the memory surged and claimed his voice, his breath, with a smothering cloud of grey. He had turned to Sam last of all, the ship and the Sea’s murmurs behind him, and the world narrowed to the drained look on Sam’s face. If everything had been fogs before, veiled in the certainty of leaving, Sam’s expression pierced denial and deception with a raw, black hurt. It was in his eyes, in the harsh grip he kept on Frodo’s shoulders. Worse than the fear after Weathertop, worse than the sorrow in Cirith Ungol or the cold despair of Mordor. A wild heartbeat stormed into Frodo’s throat and locked it. One look from Sam tore him into an endless fall, but it wasn’t his own this time, it was –
What have I done? Yet it could not be undone now, and the clasp of his arms around Sam, the tight pressure of Sam’s embrace only deepened the cold that ran through him. When he kissed Sam, it seared him with betrayal. One moment more and another, another – so filled with need, and so empty – then Sam let go with movements so stiff as if his arms might break. The ground swayed under Frodo’s feet as though he’d stepped out on water. He turned away, hiding a desperation to which he had no right.
If only I could give... In a single moment, he ripped the fine chain from his neck and caught it in his fist, holding fast to each digging point of the star-shaped gem. His comfort of the past months seemed to thrum from within, yielding a live warmth he might never feel again.
When he turned back to Sam once more, tears had already started, begging his own, though he wasn’t meant to see them. Sam did not return his embrace this time, but his forehead came to rest on Frodo’s shoulder, a shudder of breath burning against Frodo’s neck. Although his own fingers seized in a violent tremor, he slipped the gem into Sam’s pocket, his murmurs helplessly choked. "Sam, Sam..."
Each heartbeat, each step afterwards shook through him in heaves, and his stomach twisted in rebellion. My life for yours.
Frodo leaned heavily on the tree, his face pressed to the cool bark. "I left Arwen’s gift to him, for the healing virtues that dwell within it and the hope it gave me." He noticed then that Bilbo had moved close, wind-ruffed curls blown back from the furrows on his brow. "The quest claimed my life, but it took his too, Bilbo. It... remade us in the manner that Gandalf says I should have been remade here, by myself." His breath rasped on broken grief. "How could that be, with our lives so bound together, and tempered in the same fire?"
"And you truly believe that Sam will be well and whole if you only torment yourself enough?" Bilbo asked, his gestures flaring with angry concern. "Frodo, you can’t possibly–"
"I do not know," he said sharply. "But it is all that I can think to do. I have no regrets... save one."
Bilbo threw up his hands. "Perhaps they’ll send you back now! And by all that’s good and fair, I almost hope that they will."
Gandalf strode away from the watchtower of Avallónë where a light burned out eastward, beckoning to all ships that might pass the riddling fogs and sail the straight path. High on a slope above the buttressing cliffs, the bright crown of Celeborn stretched proudly into dusk, dwarfing the shapes of mallorn, beech and linden. A smaller form nearby blended into the tree’s shadow, equally white, her long tresses lighting with the last glimmers of day.
"You seek this place often," Gandalf greeted her.
Though her eyes remained on the quiet sea in the distance, Galadriel smiled when he reached her side. "Elrond keeps his watch in the tower, and here I keep mine."
"He has turned the palantír that once yearned for ever into the West to look upon Gondor." Gandalf let go a long breath, unraveling the memory of unheard counsel. "Círdan meant well when he gave the seeing stone into Elrond’s keeping, yet the knowledge of Arwen’s joy brings little comfort to her father and does less to ease the bitterness of his loss."
"Arwen would not undo her choice, even if she could." Galadriel bowed her head. "An hour will come when Elrond sees her death."
A mournful surrender flowed in her tone, and Gandalf discerned in it the shadows of long exile. "It is the way of love to hope even against wisdom."
"But it is not Elrond troubling your mind, Mithrandir." Galadriel searched him with a keen glance, and the tree’s own lustre limned her face in ageless knowing. "What ails the Ring-bearer?"
Gandalf considered his answer for a long moment. "His heart is still caught to a life that he cannot release."
"He held up the light of Eärendil when we sailed, as if to reveal the path."
Gandalf nodded and remembered Frodo’s unmoving vigil at the ship’s stern, long after the shore vanished from view, the light from the phial casting his face in a chiselled pallor.
From windless silence, both raised their eyes to the brightest star, riding into nightfall above the netting of leaf and bough.
Galadriel touched the wide trunk of Celeborn as if dipping her fingertips into a still water. "Here the knowledge of the first light still dwells, as it does in the silmaril that Eärendil guards. The light may be scattered, but as long as our memory holds true, it will continue to give life."
"It shines unbroken," Gandalf returned thoughtfully, "for eyes to see that can."
From the wind-swept loneliness of the gallery, Sam watched a crush of clouds fray and break apart. The winds had veered from East to North more than once this day, and he’d thought there might be a storm coming, but now the weather looked to be heading back out to the black land. He wondered if there were any growth to welcome rainfalls in Mordor by now – more than the dry scrub and black thorns that there had been – and how many years it might take for trees to arise from that wasted soil.
The old clutching chill inched forward, and Sam turned his thoughts away fast, back to the planting he’d done in the Shire. Those trees were now tall and sturdy, and their brighter greens the only mark of such scars as the woods and fields had suffered. He’d wander in their shade and feel small among them. Times were, he’d taken note of every new-sprouted branch and sapling in those young groves, but they’d soon grown past the need for his nursing.
Like the children, he thought. When he looked on Elanor at the King’s table, fair in her fine dress and her speech growing fluent with the terser pitch of Gondor, she seemed so whole and enclosed in her own life. As her brother did, when he went about his work in the Bag End gardens.
And that’s as it ought to be. Sam rubbed his hands together and wiped at a streak of stone dust on his sleeve. Noises rose dim from the city, twirled about on a lesser wind. Some days there were when time passed right into dreaming, rolling gentle as a mist – though his own dreaming had scarce been gentle of late. All too often, it gripped him with the terror of Frodo’s hollow eyes and haggard face, worn to skin and bones on the last stretch of their journey. Sam stared hard at Mordor, a black ridge on the horizon that was blurring into evening shadow. He must be well where he is now – oh, he must be, when he so longed –
The thought broke on a jab of remembrance under his breastbone. It was after they’d left Rivendell, when the bright days of Halimath were gone and the leaves curled up dry, that he’d first seen Frodo’s true unrest.
At just such an hour of dusk, Frodo had slipped away from the camp, wandering off into long shadows. Sam had left tending the fire to Mr. Merry then, and he’d found Frodo not far off, seated under the loose branches of a mulberry tree.
Sam stopped some paces away though, for a sound rose into the crisp air that he’d not heard for long and missed even when more needful things had gone missing. Frodo was singing below his breath, but it weren’t one of their way-worn walking rhymes. Elvish words came drifting over to Sam like hanging smoke.
Many a time, Mr. Frodo would claim that Sam’s voice was much better suited for singing, and Sam would ever disagree. Frodo’s voice had a softness as could reach deep into every song and lift up notes that fanned and broke round the melody. But the tune he’d chosen then...
It brought on a recollection of rushing waters, and Sam remembered hearing it from the Lady Galadriel’s folk as their boats started on the first furlong down the river. A music swelling in sweet, sad ripples crept cold and bright on his skin before running past.
The shadows had grown close about Frodo when he ended, but something gleamed from his hand where it lay below his throat. Sam pulled himself from the strange, aching silence and walked over.
"Not meaning to bother you, Mr. Frodo," he said more urgently than he’d wanted, "but dinner’s about to be fixed, and you ought to come and take a bite."
Frodo nodded, but he wasn’t moving, and so Sam lowered himself in a crouch. I heard you sing, he couldn’t say, but he saw then what glinted clear as starlight between Frodo’s fingers. In silence, Frodo raised the Lady Arwen’s gift on his hand, and it gave off enough light to show a clouded smile. Sam’s breath caught, jarred by a piercing start that was more than awe and less than gladness.
It shines brighter for your smile.
More the poet than I ever was, my dear Sam.
Sam shook his head. Neither of them had spoken, he remembered as plain as day. And he’d not known then that Frodo sang of leaving, neither. All he’d done was reach without thinking, brushing just a fingertip to the starfire at the heart of Frodo’s palm. Frodo’s fingers closed tight round his own, the jewel captured in their handclasp. Time passed as a breath, and round them spread nobut twilight while they were safe in a place between day and night, between the Shire’s near welcome and the borders of Wilderland.
And there I’d stay if I could, only for the touch of your hand. Sam could feel it now, a warm pledge that dissolved in a shiver of evening wind. The waiting wouldn’t matter if I could but touch him again, only once... If I could _know_.
But then he thought of the dreams he’d had and how the waking tore him each time, with such a blind, hopeless need. It will all come to an end, any moment now...
On returning from the Havens, he’d been left with naught but the star-jewel and Frodo’s smile carved deep into his memory. Though he’d not known of the gift for hours after, not till he reached into his pocket in the middle of night, and what he’d touched then lived, while he was –
Sam felt again that sick, trembling despair that took him by the Sea.
Always yours, but –
He held on to the gem as he had on the ride home, and it seemed to glow with forbidden promise, with a secret wish for his touch. – never mine.
Soft footsteps fell on the flagstones at his back, and he turned around quick, his hand pushed deep into his pocket.
Though Elanor smiled, her eyes weren’t reached by it. "The Queen wishes to speak to you, Dad."
"I did not foretell..." Arwen turned from the narrow arch, against a fading edge of daylight. In all the citadel gardens, Aragorn had long known, this pavilion of pierced stone was the place she most favoured when memories claimed their due. Flowering vines and glossy leaves wreathed the graceful pillars, arrayed to recall the lofty spaces of Imladris. "Yet my words became part of the Ring-bearer’s choice, did they not?"
"No decision is ever obtained without counsel," Aragorn answered her. "And choices made in the hearts of mortals must often seem as passing whims to you." As mine once did. His breath wavered strangely, thinned by the memory of first glimpsing her like a song’s shadow, and the ghosts of what might have been.
A soft noise drew their joined glances apart. Framed in a cluster of pale blossoms, Sam paused in the pavilion’s entrance. Elanor had not returned with him, and Aragorn supposed that she had gone to find her mother in the herb garden of the next court.
"Come inside, Sam." Aragorn smiled, reading a wary tension in the hobbit’s stance.
A small lamp was hung from the roof’s keystone, and its halo touched anxious expectation on Sam’s face. It heightened to alarm the moment Arwen asked to be shown the white jewel.
"You have nothing to fear," she added, though her own face revealed a rare uncertainty. Sam met her gaze with an unwonted dark look.
I don’t know what you mean, Aragorn remembered suddenly, from the deep trench of those years. I carry nothing. This, and the high-strung courage that sparked unexpectedly through a hobbit’s understandable fright.
Sam dug his hand into his pocket and lifted out the jewel, still reluctant, a ripped silver chain dangling from it.
It is as we thought. Aragorn looked at his wife and found a new glimmer kindling in her expression.
"This gem was a gift from Galadriel when I lived in sanctuary at Caras Galadhon," Arwen said, "yet my heart yearned elsewhere. It is a capturing stone. In it I caught the light of Eärendil who is also called Gil-Estel, high hope." When she turned her head by a fraction, Aragorn saw the reminiscent smile that brushed her mouth without gaining hold. "My own hope poured into the stone as I wore it, through many years of watching the shadow lengthen, while our doom was approaching."
Sam listened to her with a sharp attention that Aragorn shared, caught again to the ravels of the past.
"When my wish was fulfilled," she continued, "I gave it to Frodo, so that the capturing stone would cloak him in hope that was nearly lost, and relieve the pain of his memories."
Arwen bent to look into Sam’s eyes, but when he held out the gem on his palm, she merely touched two fingers to it and drew back almost at once. "Aragorn..."
Though her expression remained very still, he saw grief run its taut trace across her cheek, and disquiet smouldered even through her lowered lashes. Sam stood with both hands clasped around the precious jewel, eyes wide and anxious. Almost, Aragorn thought, the frightened young hobbit who had begged his help when Frodo was wounded at Weathertop.
"Is there..." Sam stammered, "oh, what is wrong, my Lady?"
"I did not know... This stone bears the memory of Frodo’s pain, and yet it runs over with his life." Arwen straightened, and her face was composed to show an assurance Aragorn missed in her bearing. "It seems that the Ring-bearer poured himself into this stone, and what hope for living remained to him during his most tormented hours."
"I... know." Sam lowered his head and wiped quickly at his eyes. "He’s so – so near when I touch it."
"Samwise... you cannot carry this."
"Oh, but I have to!" Sam fell back a step, his hand tightened to a fist around his treasure. "He said maybe my time would come, and I’ll be glad to give it back to him, but till then–" An ungovernable tear made a moist streak down his face. "It’s been a comfort all the years, Lady."
"Comfort perhaps, yet has it not kept your own pain fresh, and your wounds unhealed?"
The clenching of Sam’s jaw was unmistakable as he looked past them. "Jewel or no jewel, there’s naught in the world as to change that, begging your pardon."
"He intended to shield you from harm," Arwen said. "That was his wish for you."
"But he didn’t know mine," Sam returned defensively, though his gaze dropped in another moment, as if he rued the words. "Not then, if you understand me. And I don’t mean to say – it don’t matter none, so long as he’s healed..." Breathless, he stopped and did not speak again before straightening his shoulders. "Please, if you can, tell me that he is."
Arwen met his demand with a look full of sorrow, but then shook her head mutely. Across the half-lit space, Sam stared at her. Grief and betrayal flared in his eyes, and traces of the hot anger Aragorn recognised well. It had marked their first hour of acquaintance and warned him not to overlook the passions within that gentle nature.
"But you said he might go if he wished to, didn’t you?" Neither hurt nor anger slipped into Sam’s voice, save for the slight roughness of swallowed tears. "You’re much wiser than I could ever be, Lady... What did you see that I didn’t?"
Aragorn frowned when a sharp recoil seized Arwen’s expression and her unflinching gaze travelled aside. "I saw nothing," she whispered. "I told Frodo that he might cross the Sea in my stead, but was it for me to bestow what I had surrendered? It may be that I longed to restore a balance and succeeded only in breaking it."
Aragorn watched her closely, misgivings leaping to the fore of his mind. Between them arose the memory of Elrond’s leaving, his face a mask of grief in the cold mountain light. One loss calling forth another, threading echoes through Mindolluin’s crags that ran back to them now, in a wide circle of years.
Sam’s shoulders rose and sank with heavy breaths. "Then you can’t tell me if I’ll be allowed to go either, or what I’ll find when I do."
"The promise is yours to keep," Aragorn said at length, when Arwen did not reply. "Trust your own eyes, Samwise, and take counsel where your heart guides you."
"He said he’d leave me what he might’ve had, but I don’t know–" Sam burst out, then squeezed his eyes shut, and his voice sank to a murmur. "Naught but that I couldn’t bear it a day longer if there weren’t a hope–"
He broke off at a rustle from outside the pavilion. Over his shoulder, Aragorn caught a pale hint of movement and the flutter of Rose’s skirts. How long had she stood outside and listened?
In a brisk half-turn, Sam gathered himself and breathed, "If you’ll pardon me..." Then he stormed from the pavilion without looking back.
"He did not tell her..." Aragorn looked out into the garden and felt the evening’s untimely chill crawl inward. "What can we do that will not go amiss?" He lifted Arwen’s mantle from a carved seat and draped it gently around her shoulders. She leaned into him then, a movement fluid as a breeze and soft with reflection.
"Loss and grace cloak him as a mist," she said as if speaking to herself, "nimwath... entrapped in a twilight that neither waxes nor wanes."
Uneasy at the trembling in her voice, Aragorn drew her closer. "Tell me what grieves you."
"Was it the Ring’s taint that I perceived about Frodo, or was my own vision shadowed by long foreboding, and the passing of the Eldar from Middle-earth?" Her breath escaped slowly into the question. "I fear for Frodo. My gift should have eased his passing."
"Surely you do not believe that the gem drained–"
"No, not that." She turned to face him, her eyes brimming with memories richer than mortal kind could fathom, and lucid with long-reaching strength. Aragorn’s hand slid off her arm as he watched her, cloaked in a frost of lambent night that dimmed the lamp-glow.
"But it speaks to me," Arwen said, "of choosing once and for all times between one life and another. The Ring-bearer could not make such a choice, and that he left the gem behind is token of his plight." She shook her head, and the shadows around her shifted, receding to leave her slender and alone. "It is too full," she whispered, "too alive."
"Then you believe that it is for Sam to–"
A slim finger rose to his lips, sealing them. "I do not foretell. I should not. The path is for him to find."
"It seems to me," Aragorn said slowly, "that he already has, though he may not know it yet."
"Rosie," Sam called, though his voice wouldn’t hold steady. She’d not walked very far, and he followed her to a hedge dividing the cropped grass from a bed of white evermind. "Rose... forgive me. I don’t mean to–"
"Hush, now." She whirled suddenly, and though her face were wet with tears, her eyes bore the same staunch look she’d given him each time he worried over the nearing birth of their next child. "Let me have my say before you start."
He barely managed a nod. The earth seemed to slant away under his feet on both sides.
"I’ve long known that you’re keeping your own secrets, Sam, and I never asked. I didn’t mean to go eavesdropping neither..." She took in a sharp breath. "But you’ve shamed me, speaking of such things as you won’t share with your wife."
"I’ve made you a promise, Rosie." He closed his eyes. "Don’t be thinking that I’ve forgotten what promises I ought to keep, or I–"
"You did keep them," Rosie interrupted, "to me and the children, and those you never made us – well, those will be kept too, won’t they?"
Mirthless humour lay like glass in her words, scathing for its fine edge.
"When the time comes." The truth thickened his voice for the sorrow it caused her, and for the waiting behind it, pushing up like piled rocks about to topple down a hillside. But how would I know –
"Sam..." Her steadfast look faltered. "Before we were wed I said you’d been wasting a year... And now more years have gone a’wasted."
"Oh no!" he started to protest. "Not–"
"Aye, we have our children and a land richer than it ever used to be, before your leaving. But you..." Fresh tears started in Rosie’s eyes and she brushed them aside with quick annoyance. "Folk say there’s a blessing on you and your hands, and right they are. You came home so changed, and you still look so well and hale..."
"More’n I ought to," he muttered.
"Don’t say that, Sam." She cupped her palm to his face, moving her thumb a little over his cheek. "But ofttimes it sets me thinking that you don’t belong with us no more than Ellie does with her Elvish looks, and still you’re wastin’ in your own way."
"It’s not the years..." Sam looked aside, striving against the ache in his chest. But the wishing... the wishing never stops.
Rose stepped back and clasped her hands over her belly. From a window in the palace, a little light touched her cheek, and the taut face of a stranger it seemed then. "Whatever it is, Sam, it’s in your eyes, the look of things as others won’t see, or believe in their hearts."
"Aye, I’ve been setting my hopes on what I can’t never know," he said miserably, thinking how no-one in the world could assure him that Frodo –
Anger boiled up again, mingled thick through his grief, hot and bitter enough to wrench his stomach. The garden swam bleak before his sight.
"We won’t... speak of it again." Sam balled his hands tight before reaching one to her, but Rosie didn’t take it. "There’s no need–"
"–for making things seem as they aren’t," she said with straight-out refusal. "We’d only dishonour our marriage, and I couldn’t bear that. No matter what other folk think, I won’t have you bury yourself like a springshoot in snow."
"That’s not how it is," Sam answered fast, but a firm resolve had come into her eyes.
"I’ve listened to you dreaming. The nightmares and... such other dreams as you’ve had."
"They were dreams, Rosie," he murmured painfully. "I never meant for you to–"
"‘Tis not a dream now," she answered as softly.
High on the slope grew a tree taller than a tower, its trunk white as if glazed in starlight, though the first stars had yet to appear. Frodo climbed towards it, strained breaths hissing through his teeth. Only a short step behind, Gandalf walked in measured strides, prepared to steady him if he should stumble.
When they reached the top where giant roots lightened the earth, Frodo blinked against another giddy spell. Soft movement stirred through his sight, and it was then that he noticed Galadriel standing beside the tree.
"Yavanna Kementári sang the first trees into being," she said, "and their lifeless remains still stand in Valinor. Grief is no stranger to these lands, Frodo, it is wreathed into the light that you see and flows ever in our songs."
An immense calm lingered about her, hard-forged and patient, and her own words returned to him: stronger than the foundations of the earth... She held out her hand and drew him into the tree’s shadow. The crown that had seemed dusky from a distance spread in rent silver overhead.
"You are without rest, bound to the time of your waiting as a prisoner."
"It is my own fault," Frodo answered without flinching from her gaze, "the flaw in my choices. I chose not to give up the Ring, and what it took from me I could not... regain by myself."
"You impose demands on yourself that are too harsh," Gandalf said at his shoulder, his tone not quite so patient. "Some choices were made against your choosing, and you bore them with much strength and courage. What you surrendered is still yours to embrace if you would but open your eyes. Have you not learned this lesson?"
"Which lesson, Gandalf?" Frodo murmured. Under the tree’s branches, a fresh scent washed around him, and he breathed more easily.
"That a gift’s true worth is seldom known to him who gives, and one loss set against another does not restore a whole. Take a closer look, Frodo."
The riddling words hovered on the edge of his mind without pressing for answers. Drawn by a strange curiosity, Frodo placed a hand against the wide trunk. His fingers sank into one of the long furrows, brushing skin more tender than he’d expected and a tremor like –
Closer than a dream, an image flashed beneath his eyelids, between one blink and the next: Sam, alone by a white tree slighter than this one.
He gasped, caught to a fierce heat that seeped inward, from a sting at his fingertips to a pang in his chest. His eyes flew back to Gandalf.
"He is in Minas Tirith," the wizard said, as if Frodo’s thoughts were splayed open for all to see. "This Elrond perceived in the palantír. All else is for you to discover."
But fear ran through him in waves, crushed into rife pain that wasn’t his own. Sam, how can –
"Time and distance are as veils, Frodo, if you so choose." Galadriel’s eyes rested on him and offered a beginning, if not a purpose.
Then I choose... I choose not to let go, ever. Frodo turned back to the tree and raised his hand to touch what couldn’t be. Whatever is mine to give –
In the Court of the Fountain, Aragorn and Arwen were seated on a pale stone settle. Above the walls, the tower of Ecthelion flared like a beacon over the sea of dusk. Sam slowed his pace as he stepped into the open. Here he’d come after a long day of running circles round his own thoughts, and here they’d expected him, seemingly.
"Is this–" Sam stopped, unsure what he’d meant to ask. His eyes wandered to the fountain and the spray misting the tree in fretful glitters. Maybe the memories lived more strongly in this place and that was why he’d been tugged back here. Twenty-three years seemed to crumble to naught when the Lady Arwen rose towards him and said, "Mine is the choice of Lúthien..."
...and yours may be that of Eärendil, if there is compare in the lays of the Eldar, the words fell into his mind like rustling leaves. Have no fear of the unknown.
Instead of speaking further, she sang softly, "Nai hiruvalyë Valimar, nai elyë hiruva."
Sam held his breath, for it were the same song that had twined itself through the branches of the mulberry tree and sealed their passing from Lórien. He reached for the jewel in his pocket that seemed to fend off the years.
Arwen turned back to the White Tree. "Here is a promise brought from the ruin of Númenor, and yet it grows to remind us of the light that once was. That still is."
"What shall I do?" Sam asked, though his voice scarce carried.
"Go to the tree, and call out as you may."
But how? he wanted to ask, when recollection of the first night and his odd faint woke a sudden thrill. Sam closed his hand tight around the gem, for all that his fingers trembled. "It burned."
"It may burn worse yet, but do not give in."
"Oh, I won’t, but..." The Lady’s warning tones raised another shiver on Sam’s neck. He looked from her to Aragorn. "I’ve had another dream of him last night, only I’m thinking they’re not dreams so much as–" He swallowed, trapped and breathless in a burst of fearful anger. "He’s failing, as he was in Mordor!"
"He needs you, Samwise. That has not changed."
"But – what’s wrong with him? Please, Strider, I have to know!"
"Listen to me, Sam." Aragorn dropped down on one knee and spanned Sam’s shoulders in his hands. "Everything that you need to know, you do know. Your love saved the world from darkness." He held Sam’s eyes another moment before rising to his feet again. "This may not seem like fair counsel to you, but often you stood back and looked to others whose wisdom is no match for yours. It is time for you to trust your own insight."
Sam watched them pass under the arch, in a struggle with furious anguish that seethed all the brighter. All these wise and mighty folk that didn’t think to help when Mr. Frodo were ill and confused. Though Frodo himself had refused to accept help – like as not, he still did, stubborn as he could be.
Aye, and I’d give him a piece of my mind about that, too, if I had a chance. Anger carried him forward, across the moist grass, and each step unloosed the memory of coming here before. Sam looked up into the lacings of pale twigs. Every bit of practical hobbit-sense inside him reared to question how this tree could help him reach Frodo.
I said I’d follow him to the moon, and this – He took the jewel from his pocket, holding out its bold shine against nightfall. "Well, then..."
When he closed his eyes, it simmered through the skin of his lids, his palm, as the starglass once had, coloured like his own blood.
Mr. Frodo... you must be one and whole – Sam breathed hard, and laid a hand to the tree – for me. Frodo, wait for me...
Against his cheek, the tree’s bark felt warmer than the air. Frodo found himself in a memory of Lórien, afloat in the living presence of river and forest, and he only had to lift his head to see –
Sam... Walking out of a dream with a firm tread. A star burned in his hand, and a strong blaze enveloped Frodo, raking shivers across his skin. His fingers grasped a hold, reached into the heat that poured words too desperate for sound. Forgive me...
For all our might-have-beens... I made this choice for you, and I should not have, but it was all for you, Sam, always _for_ you, not –
What I wanted. Not an answer yet, not quite. But something breathed through Sam, uncertain with choices only half-known, and it was for him to make them whole somehow. But how could I, without him? And he didn’t have the words to say –
It’s all here, Frodo, what you might’ve had. Sam pressed his hands and his forehead to the tree, breathing the wet air and clean scents in deep. All yours. It were never lost, it can’t be, and don’t you forget... But where words ran out, a song hummed through him and grew stronger, grew silvered as the dust on the withered tree.
In western lands beneath the Sun...
It was the best he could think of, when it had once brought him from hopeless loss to the clearest joy. He let his breath carry the notes, and his heart strain at the song, though it might well take his voice just from searing so in his breast. He tried not to listen for a voice answering his, not across this harsh a distance, it couldn’t –
Or there maybe ‘tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.
On the gallery, Arwen let her long hair fly in a southern wind. "Im laston nan aerlinn gwath... Do you hear, Estel?"
A tear glistened on her cheek, trailing broken silence unheeded on its soft path.
"Im henion, Undómiel." Aragorn laced his fingers through hers, listening to her breath and the wind’s voice stirring answers from emptiness. A song made whole, running ageless through the ripple of leaves in the court below. Of such moments, eternity is shaped. From afar, he looked again at the light of Cerin Amroth, where never and always dwelt but a breath apart.
You chose death for me.
But before death there’s –
Life. Running from leaf to bough, from earth to air, from hand to hand.
I hold you –
– always near, my love.
We _will_ be.
If such soft, fervent singing could flow in his veins, if his own skin could hold a second pulse like a tale of fire, then maybe this wasn’t a dream. Sam shuddered, his arms stretched as if he clung to a far taller tree, his fingers pressed into deep furrows and craggy braids of bark. A fierce heat throbbed in his empty hand, familiar yet unlike the scorching of coal, and he still felt the lips branding a kiss to his palm, lingering so with want –
His breath caught on a sob for the loss – no... Frodo – and fled, leaving him shaken. But he couldn’t let go yet, and his eyes were drawn up to the brightest star, piercing the tree’s crown with its high glint. With the nearness of an answering song.
Above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell...
His mouth and chest burned as if he’d swallowed light. Frodo’s fingers opened around the ball of a white blossom that must have sailed down from the tree, though he could not remember it. Beneath the narrow petals, winged seed lay nestled.
"Take this and plant it in your garden," Galadriel said, her voice lighter than the Sea breeze. "And your time will not grow long, it will merely grow."
I will oh I will I will... Frodo couldn’t answer when so much hope still flamed in every part of his body and sang through him –
I will not say the day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.
Sam closed his eyes again, and a smile hovered very near, a pledge brushed against his mouth together with the taste of his own tears. All the years couldn’t stand against the voice breathing endless promise into the ebbing of a song.
Our time will come.
– vanimelda (Quenya): beautiful dear one
– nimwath: white shadow
– Nai hiruvalyë Valimar, nai elyë hiruva (Quenya): Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. (From ‘Farewell to Lórien’, The Fellowship of the Ring.)
– Im laston nan aerlinn gwath: I hear the shadow’s sea-song.
– Im henion: I understand.
Author’s note: My fondest thanks to Frayach for beta-reading and to Lorelei for invaluable help with the Elven languages.
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.