1. Impossibly Blue
"A day like today comes once in an Age," said the young woman. She might have been referring to the weather, which was exceptionally fine with sunshine just warm enough for comfort, a tender breeze to freshen the air and an almost impossibly blue sky stretching over Minas Tirith and all its surroundings.
"I believe you will find on closer inspection," said her companion, "that this is true for any day. In fact, each day is so unique that it comes only once in all the time of Arda."
"I didn't say this day, Innadan, I said a day like this," she replied.
"No day is quite like another. You may have been brewing dyes yesterday and the day before that and all the days of this week, but in some house in the city, a child was born on Tuesday; in another, the venerable grandmother breathed her last on Wednesday morning; and in another still, they celebrated a betrothal on Thursday."
"Hair splitting!" cried she. "I might retort that this is exactly what makes days very much like one another, because on any given day you would find some house somewhere in this realm where a babe is born."
"My dearest Ingolwen, are you implying that one babe is like any other?"
"Don't you dearest-Ingolwen me! All I'm saying is that children are born every day, but it is not every day that we celebrate five hundred years since the kingdom was restored."
They continued their way through the streets of the city. Ingolwen wore her best gown, a flowing dress of light blue cotton imported from the southlands. The matching stains on her hands were not intentional; in fact she had scrubbed and scrubbed to remove them, but had been forced to admit defeat in the end and resign herself to these marks of her trade. The young man beside her was somewhat less formally attired, though he, at least, was clean from head to toe. There was such a striking resemblance between them, not only in their features but in their bearing and gait, that any observer would have immediately concluded they must be close kin.
The higher they climbed, the busier became the street, as a steady trickle of people joined the stream of citizens moving up to the Citadel. By the time Innadan and Ingolwen passed through the seventh gate, a fair crowd was already milling about the lawns.
In the days of King Elessar, the grounds of the Citadel had been turned into a pleasure garden for the people of Minas Tirith. A healthy grove of trees grew here, so that to anyone approaching from the plains it looked as if the city was wearing a shock of green hair. Those who wandered in the gardens could see the trees reflected in shallow ponds, the images of leafy branches mingling with the red and golden shapes of the fish. In the shady grass, a profusion of lilies and irises flaunted their colours. It was said that these flowers had been planted by the Queen Arwen many hundred years ago and that an Elven spell made them flourish and multiply. Ingolwen was not sure if she believed this, but she had to admit that even the harshest of winters, like the one four years ago, had not harmed the bulbs. The Elven descent of the queen, apparently, was a solid historical fact; at least Ingolwen did not question her brother's authority in such matters.
Since it was nearly a whole hour before the beginning of the ceremony, and since Innadan was of a determined mindset, they succeeded in finding a place in the Court of the Fountain itself, not thirty yards from the White Tree.
Ingolwen had been to this place before, but not so often as to outgrow the sense of awe the tree inspired in her. It occupied so high a spot and had grown so tall that when the sun stood low, it acted as the gnomon of a giant sundial and its shadow reached the lower circles of the city. The trunk, almost five foot across, rose beside the fountain like a small tower.
Its name had not been bestowed on account of its canopy, for its leaves were dark green and glossy, splaying out in clusters of five slender shapes much like those of the chestnut. White, however, was the bark of the tree, a greyish, mottled white with hues of silver, reminiscent of the sycamore or plane. On a special day like this, the lower branches wore their festive garb of ribbons and flags and small silver lanterns that would be lit after dusk.
"You have to wonder," said a middle-aged woman to the crowd in general, "what this tree has seen over the years."
"An awful lot, I assure you," replied Innadan. "It was, as you might know, planted by King Elessar shortly after the fall of Sauron and it bore its first fruit the same year. Four years later, its flowers were woven into a garland to celebrate the birth of the crown prince. During the second century of the Fourth Age, it was severely damaged during a storm and a major branch broke off. You can still see the scar if you go round the other side. The tree recovered, though, and at the beginning of King Eldarion's reign, saplings were gifted to the rulers of Harad, Khand and Rhun as tokens of peace. Of course, by that time there was already a flourishing White Tree in Edoras…"
"Never ask a librarian," whispered Ingolwen to the woman, whose face indicated that she had begun to regret her question. Indeed, the woman smiled vaguely and turned her face away to speak to another bystander. Ingolwen, however, continued to listen to Innadan's elaborations and found no small measure of delight in them. She had been keen on everything scholarly from an early age, but as the eldest child it had fallen upon her to learn the family trade and run the business when her parents became frail, while her younger brother had attended the city school. All the better for her, then, that Innadan was always happy to share his knowledge.
Nevertheless, the moment came when they ran out of things to talk about and they began to pass the time with peering about and shifting their weight from foot to foot.
Eventually, fanfares announced the arrival of the king and queen, who took their places on the canopied seats by the fountain. A herald appeared and announced that it was the king's pleasure to welcome the people of Minas Tirith to the Citadel in this very special day. Then the king stood up and addressed the crowd.
Ingolwen tried to listen at first, but her mind soon drifted away. The king, wise and virtuous ruler though he was, had no talent for public speaking and she felt relieved when he had droned to the end of his declaration. He sat down, and now the queen rose, a long band of black cloth in her hands. She walked up to the White Tree and tied the sash around the trunk, and when the fabric fell and opened its folds, Ingolwen saw the tree and the seven stars embroidered in silver thread.
Cheers and applause arose from the crowd as the queen returned to her seat. More speeches followed, from the Steward, from the Keeper of the Keys and from the ambassadors of many foreign lands, some of whom were Dwarves and Halflings. The line of speakers was just drawing to a close when Ingolwen noticed a commotion in the crowd.
"What's going on there?" she asked.
Her brother, half a foot taller, craned his neck.
"Someone is coming through," he said.
"Who is it? Let me see, let me see."
"What do you expect me to do, lift you up?"
"Oh, don't be silly!"
She stood on tiptoes and pulled herself up further by leaning on Innadan's shoulder, and then she saw. With slow and stately strides, a man approached from the gate, so tall that his head was clearly visible above the crowd. Where the sun touched his hair, the glare reminded Ingolwen of the way light reflected off the city's white marble walls. A wave of motion seized the throng, the press of people shifted and opened so that he moved into a clear space right in the centre of the paved court.
He carried a staff which he did not so much lean upon as display. His face seemed ancient, tightly wrinkled, his long beard curly and neat. His posture, however, was majestic, bearing no trace of age. And his robe, which hung off his shoulders in heavy drapes, was blue.
Impossibly blue. Rich and vibrant, but paler than indigo or woad, and with a hint of green that Ingolwen could not attribute to any dye she knew. It caught the sunlight like the feathers on a peacock's neck. She wanted to run across, tug his sleeve and ask, How? Of course, it was not the kind of thing one did. She just knew, though, that the vision of this colour would edge her on to hunt and hunt for a plant that yielded such a dye.
The guards beside the king and queen put their hands on their sword hilts, but the old man merely inclined his head in the direction of the royal couple. He walked on, still with those calm, measured steps, towards the sward of grass on which stood the White Tree. Under the tree's mighty canopy, even this imposing man looked small. For a fleeting instant it seemed to Ingolwen as if the tree stooped down to the bright blue figure. Presently, he put his hand on the bark, moving it slowly from side to side like a blind man seeking a sign. He tilted his head as if to listen.
"It is good," he said at last, in a voice that sounded hesitant and long unused. He spoke in the Common Tongue, though in his mouth the words had an outlandish slant unlike any Ingolwen had ever heard. "It is good that some things should…remain."
With this he turned and strode, unchallenged, through the gap that opened again in the crowd and out of the gate of the Citadel. Nobody followed, but it was said later that he had been seen descending to the Harlond and sailing down the river in a strange, shallow boat all by himself.
In the Court of the Fountain, the people stared after him in silence for some time before the inevitable murmur arose. In response to a minute gesture by the king, the heralds lifted their trumpets and blew the fanfare that signalled the end of the ceremony. As if this sound had broken a spell, the crowd began to move. Those who were bidden to join the royal couple in their feasting drifted towards the Merethrond, while the rest of the city folk spilled out of the gate to go and partake of their meal elsewhere.
Innadan and Ingolwen were among the latter and ambled without much urgency towards their home in the third circle.
"Do you realise what happened there?" asked Innadan.
"I'm not sure. That old man was something special, so much is certain. But what…?"
"Well, listen. Do you remember two years ago when I was reading all these records about the end of the Third Age? Do you know who Mithrandir was?"
"That wizard who fought in the Ring War?"
"Yes. He is described as a bearded old man, of imposing stature, garbed in white and bearing a tall staff."
"And he left Middle-earth, didn't he?"
"Yes, it is said that he went to the Undying Lands. The thing is, Ingolwen, he was not the only one of his kind. There were several, five, if I remember rightly."
"And of course we know that you always remember rightly."
"Hold your tongue, girl! I am making a crucial revelation to you."
"Oh, forgive me. I thought you were just prattling."
Their conversation was interrupted as they shoved each other playfully back and forth.
"Well then," said Ingolwen at last. "What were you trying to say?"
"I was trying to say that while we know that Mithrandir sailed to the Undying Lands and while it is said that Curunir perished, we don't know what happened to the other three. And two of them…" He paused for effect. "Two of them wore blue."
Ingolwen held her step just for a heartbeat, while she took in her brother's words.
"Remarkable," she said.
"Isn't it just?"
"I wish I knew who dyed his robe."
"Good grief, you always have to talk shop! Do you know what I think, Ingolwen?"
"I don't know what you think, but I have no doubt that you intend to tell me."
"That's not what you're supposed to say."
"I'm sorry. Try again."
"Do you know what I think, Ingolwen?"
"What do you think, o dearest brother of mine?"
"A day like this comes once in an Age."
"I believe," she said, "you will find on closer inspection - "
"Oh, do be quiet, will you?"
Giggling, bantering, they walked on, down the curved street with its neat paving stones and fine houses. This day, more than on other days, the streets were filled with laughter, and it would have been true to say that there were as many smiles as there were people. Innadan and Ingolwen took their time on the way home and they rejoiced in the sights and sounds of all that flourished in the long shade of the White Tree of Gondor.