The final meal with the Lord and Lady of Gondor and Arnor was subdued. All the Hobbits were experiencing mixed feelings, hating the thought of leaving the presence of Aragorn and Arwen, and wishing strongly to be home again, in their own houses or holes, where things were proper Hobbit-size, where they would sleep on or near ground level, where they weren’t surrounded by so many strange if friendly folk so many times their own size. Aragorn’s attitude was also quiet, and he spent much of his time looking at his guests as if memorizing each face and form and nature. Melian and Rosie-Lass sat side by side, the two of them keeping watch on one another from the sides of their eyes as if afraid one or both would suddenly disappear. Elanor and Frodo-Lad sat by their father, leaning into him, although it was unclear whether it was to comfort him or themselves--or both. They ate in the large dining hall within the Citadel tonight rather than in the feast hall, and other than Pando, Ruvemir, Elise, and Ruvemir’s apprentice Armanthol there were no other guests.
“I will be there in the summer,” Aragorn said quietly, “for there is the conference on security of borders and coordinating coinage which will be held in Rivendell.”
“That’s not a long time,” Sam noted. “Twice in a year to see you may seem a bit overwhelming though.” His smile was quickly mirrored by one from the King. “Will you be coming alone?”
“No, Prince Faramir will be accompanying me, and I hope Arwen and Melian as well.”
“Who will serve as Steward here, then? The Lord Prince Imrahil?”
“Yes. After all, Halladan has certainly had his share of trips here to Minas Anor where he has had to leave the Seneschal or Gilfileg in charge.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t had them here with us as well.”
“I see a great deal more of my cousin and Steward than I do of you folk, and we had our final meal together at luncheon, along with the rest who will be heading north again. He wished to spend the evening with Prince Imrahil and his brother and some of our other cousins tonight.”
Ferdibrand asked, “Did it seem odd, going from growing up in Rivendell as if you were Lord Elrond’s son to living and serving among your kinsmen among Men and becoming the chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain and the captain of the Rangers?”
Aragorn thought for a moment, his eyes observing the blind Hobbit as he felt surreptitiously on his plate with his finger to find what food was left. “Yes, in many ways it did. For eighteen years I had lived primarily among Elves, and to see so few now with the familiar grace and ears was rather a shock. The voices were deeper, more likely to be rough; there were the beards to experience; decisions tended to be hastier and less considered. I’d not yet begun to grow a beard myself--it didn’t really begin to grow until I was about twenty-four; alongside my fellows I looked like a youth, although I was as old as fully half of those in my troop and taller than all. Most didn’t know who I was at first, for I’d asked to start as any new Ranger would so that I know what those coming in experienced. Only four in my first troop knew my identity, and they did not differentiate between me and the other new recruits. It took many by complete surprise the first time we encountered orcs, for none expected me to be as able with sword and bow as I was. Most thought I was several years younger than I was due to my lack of a beard shadow, and had not expected me to have had long practice with weapons. None save my commander knew I’d ridden out against orcs with Eladdan and Elrohir since I was seventeen.
“When Halbarad lost his sword I was able to put myself between him and the orcs who had attacked him and hold them off long enough for the others to pull him to safety. When afterwards I took over and stitched his wound and saw the bandages on, they looked on me as if I were a legend come to life. Halbarad said I had such an Elvish air as I worked over him, far different from those who served as surgeons among our forces; and one of the older youths who had taunted me for leaving my mother’s hearth to die yet a child made great apologies. By the end of our three-month patrol no one was treating me as a child any longer, at least.”
He sipped at his goblet of wine, and finally continued. “It was not always comfortable, yet there was a feeling of rightness to it, if you can understand it. I was among those whose heart beat as mine did, who didn’t see and hear better than I did for a change, whose awareness we all might die in the next assault was as strong as my own. I kept my own counsel for the most part, watched, listened, and learned. I was often homesick for Rivendell, but at the same time I had a feeling of homecoming.”
“Among your own kind, then?” asked Fredegar Bolger.
“Among my own kind? Perhaps--as much as such as I am has an own kind.” He thought some more. “Raised among Elves, yet a Man. I thought in Sindarin primarily, although I was raised to speak Westron and Adunaic as well as Quenya at the same time. I was serving alongside Adar in the healing arts from childhood, and here, because I bore the healing hands of the King expectations were very high. I was not exposed to many children, and knew little of how normal children grow--even then there had been no Elflings born in Rivendell for centuries. I grew up hearing the tales told and songs sung in the Hall of Fire. Hearing the rougher songs and tales told among the Men of my troop was disconcerting, and even more so when I found myself understanding them at the last. The sense of humor among Elves is far different than that borne by mortals, and I had to learn to know my own mortality that I might understand the jokes and jibes I heard among my fellows. To find myself among a good many who had never learned to read and write was a shock. Denied companionship of my own age as a child, I had turned to books as my companions, and so knew more of Túrin and Turgon and the tales of the First and Second Ages than I did of the pursuits of childhood.
“Of course, my brothers and Adar and Naneth raised me aware of the world of nature around me, but it hurt not to be able to hear the communications of the trees as they did. Elladan and Elrohir did teach me to track, however, which certainly stood me in good stead in my new position. I was taught how to hide as well, for such is often necessary for Rangers to know. The day I managed to hide so well that Elladan could not find me they celebrated my mastery of that art.”
“They celebrated?” asked Pippin.
Aragorn laughed. “Oh, yes, they celebrated, for I had not thought ahead of time to work out with them how long I ought to stay hidden before I accepted they had given up on me. I returned two days after I left, stiff from having stayed so still for so long. They were beginning to become worried by that time, but Adar let them know I was well enough and would return when I’d finally realized that the hunt had been given over.”
Again he sipped from his cup, then put it down. “I was a puzzle to my fellows when I began my work among the Rangers, with my solemn demeanor, my quietness, my lack of understanding of their humor, my lack of familiarity with so many of the ways and traditions of our folk--yet they realized I knew far more of the history of both Gondor and Arnor than they did, and far more of the nature of the Enemy and his creatures. A few of them referred to me as the Elf Princeling, addressing me as ‘my Elvish Lord’ and other such foolishness. Our troop’s captain allowed this, warning me that he would do so. ‘You must understand how they see you,’ he told me. ‘You must prove your skills and your leadership with them. The name does no harm to you, and reflects in truth a deal of respect in spite of being intended as a taunt. Show them that you are mortal, but also show them that there is truth in the title, for you are indeed Elvish in nature, and rightly so. Let them come slowly to the realization of just who you truly are, and they will at the proper time follow you where you must lead them. Just make certain that when you lead them, it is indeed the proper time to take them to the specific place that is your goal.’
“There was a good deal more of such advice, and I followed it. As they saw me wield sword and bow, as they realized I could track almost any creature, as they realized I was a skilled healer in spite of my apparent youth, as they realized I had been taught a full understanding of our foes and used it well--a few began to realize who I must be. Then came the day when Orimirion found Narsil in my equipment....”
He went quiet for some time, a half smile on his lips.
Finally Pippin prompted him, “What happened then?”
The King straightened, looked at his Captain from among the Periannath, and his smile became rueful. “He had the unfortunate habit of borrowing from other people’s stores without asking. He’d torn his own cloak and knew I carried two extra, one given me by Adar that had been sent from Lothlorien for his use, but that he’d not had the heart to wear since the Lady Celebrían sailed for the Undying Lands. He was looking through my goods to find one of the extras and found the sheath and brought it out, calling out, ‘Look, all--the Princeling is so wealthy he can afford to carry two swords at the same time! What is this one, one left by an uncle or some such?’ and then he sought to draw it.
“I must have gone stark white with fury, for he stopped and paled, and let his hands drop. In doing so he turned the sheath, and the hilt spilled out upon the ground. He looked down upon it, and the paling grew profound as the realization of what he’d done and what sword this was struck him, and what that indicated about me. He went upon his knees and held out the sheath to me, struck dumb with shock.”
Merry was shaking his head. “It must indeed have been a shock, particularly as you’ve said that it had been told to your people you’d died of a fever as a child.”
The King nodded. “Yes, it was. I reached inside my shirt and drew out the chain on which I carry the ring of Barahir when I do not wear it, unfastened it, and put the ring upon my hand. I did not say another word. I gently took the sheath from his hand, respectfully lifted the hilt from the ground and placed it where it belonged, and then I simply looked at him. Finally he murmured, ‘I apologize for my lack of respect, my Lord,’ and that was the end of the affair. But in that moment I lost my place among them as their fellow, for I was plainly not that. It is lonely, being born to wear such as this,” and he raised his hand to look on the ring he wore.
Sam was nodding his head with sympathy and understanding in his eyes. “So it was you understood the better what is was like for my Master, having to carry the one as he bore.”
The King dropped his eyes to the table top, then raised them to meet the Hobbit’s. “Yes. Not that any of us, save you, Sam, has any true idea of how it was to carry that. Not that even you can know truly how it worked on him.”
Sam dropped his own eyes and shrugged. Elanor looked up at her father and smiled, and his own face softened into a smile in response.
Merry cleared his throat. “We will all miss you, Aragorn, my Lady Arwen. But it is time for us to return home.”
“We will miss you as well,” the Queen said softly. “And we look forward to seeing you again in a few months in the North. That you agreed to come to the unveiling for the memorial--that you agreed to it to begin with, has meant such a great deal to all of us here.”
After the meal was done, the King asked if they would walk out with him to the White Tree. Together they did so, Aragorn carrying both Melian and Rosie-Lass, speaking softly with each as they went, both of them reduced quickly to giggles at whatever it was he was saying. Sam carried his son on his left hip, and Elanor walked alongside him. Folco and Miriel, they found, were sitting on one of the benches that looked on the Tree, their arms about one another.
“Where’s the bairns?” Sam asked.
“With my father and Naneth Lisbet,” Miriel answered.
“We’ll miss you so, both of you and your whole family, Folco and Mistress Miriel, and Mistress Elise and Master Ruvemir as well. I regret now fully that I did not come to your wedding,” Narcissa said.
The King was standing beside Ferdibrand, and leaned down to ask him something privately. The blind Hobbit turned toward the Tree as if examining it, and his face lit up with a smile. “Yes, my Lord Aragorn, I see the reflection there now.”
Aragorn smiled broadly. “Good then. Well, my friends, shall we pay our respects to the White Tree of Gondor, to the one which gave birth to it, and to all those who may rest for a time beneath that one?”
Sam looked up to the King for clarification, but Pippin, with a moment’s thought broke out into a wide grin and stepped forward, bowed, then placed his hand against the shining trunk. “As one who is now a son of Gondor I salute you, and your ancestor, and the one I hope is there with your ancestor now. I’m doing well, Frodo. Wish you could see the beauty of my wife.”
He stepped back, and Merry took his place. “So, that’s what this is about.” His eyes closed as if bringing to mind a particular scene, and at last, with a smile he ducked his head and stepped back, then bowed to the Tree.
Folco looked at the others, then took his own place at the Tree, reaching out to his cousin, expressing his love for him, and finally retreated and bowed to the Tree as had Merry. He was followed by Fredegar and Ferdi. “Well, old Cousin,” Freddie whispered, “I’ve found my courage at the last, and I think you’d feel proud of me if you could only see me now.” Ferdi said nothing, only kept both palms to the bole of the Tree for some moments, a smile growing larger across his face as he stood there. At last he nodded and stepped back, and Freddie followed suit, taking his arm to steady him. Both gave bows to the Tree, Ferdi’s quite profound.
Budgie looked embarrassed, but straightened and stepped up to the Tree decidedly, deliberately set his hand against its bark. His expression turned from decision to delighted surprise, then a gentle smile, as if he were able to hear the voice of one he remembered with longing. At last he, too, stepped away and gave a bow. “I’d never thought of honoring a Tree before,” he murmured, “but I find more of my beliefs about the world have been changed. Thank you.”
Sam looked at Pando and Cyclamen, and together they stepped forward, both smiling proudly. They were followed by Miriel, Diamond, and Estella. “I feel a bit embarrassed,” Diamond said. “Yes, I saw him dancing at the Free Fair, and even danced with him once when I was but a lass, but it’s not as if I truly knew him as you all did.”
“And I never met him at all,” Miriel said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sam said with quiet authority. “You’re family now.”
“He’d be delighted to see the wonderful lady you’ve become, and to know the one Folco has come to love,” Estella said encouragingly. “On the count of three?” At Diamond’s nod, she counted.
“Oh!” Diamond said, then smiled. Miriel’s face was full of soft pleasure. After a moment the three of them pulled away, all smiling through tears.
Narcissa bowed to the Tree as she approached it, then placed her own hand on the trunk, felt the thrill of the Life that ran through the Tree it encased, the joy of Life it embodied. She closed her eyes and tried to envision Frodo there, standing also under his own Tree, and seemed to see him indeed, a shimmering figure in the starlight, his face full of delight and awe to equal theirs as his hand touched the bark of a Tree far taller than the one before her, far taller and far older, yet just as lovely. I want to thank you, she framed the thought she wished to share with him. Thank you for teaching me how to love. I so hope you are happy also. And you were right--your friend Aragorn the King is indeed well worth the loving.
She had the experience of surprise, delighted surprise. Narcissa? How wonderful! May you know Joy! There was no regret in that communication. Tears of pleasure spilling from her eyes, she stepped back, bowed again to the Tree, thanking it. She seemed to feel amusement and compassion.
Sam and his family stepped up all at the same time, Rosie now carrying Rosie-Lass, and Frodo-Lad now following his dad and sister. Sam bowed deeply to the Tree, and Elanor and Frodo-Lad both copied him. Then, at his nod they all gently laid their hands on its bark. None said anything, and all stood still there for several moments, a smile of delight filling Elanor’s features, Rosie-Lass and Frodo-Lad looking a bit surprised, a look of intense, gentle pride filling the face of Rosie, and a great tenderness shining on Sam’s. Rosie pulled away first, touched her husband’s arm, and he looked up at her, nodding and smiling through his own tears, and he pulled away also, murmuring, “Keep well there, Frodo,” as he did so. Together the family stepped backwards, and bowed again.
Ruvemir and Elise stepped forward then with Armanthol. All three gave bows of respect, then looked to one another’s eyes. At a nod from the sculptor they reached forward together, offered their respects, and stepped back.
At last Aragorn and Arwen, Melian held in her father’s arms, stepped forward and reverenced the Tree. With authority Aragorn reached forward to touch it gently, giving his first thought to it and its forebears, feeling the respect it held for him in return. He stepped closer so his daughter could reach the bark, and at last Arwen also reached forward. They stood quietly in communion with Tree and the other for some time, then gently stepped away. “May you know Joy, my brother,” the King could be heard whispering softly. He was weeping, but not with sorrow.
Together the group moved away, then together went to the memorial. Ferdibrand reached forward and gently ran his hands over each of the four figures, starting with that of Sam and ending with Frodo’s.
“I’m glad, so glad, that I came,” he said quietly. “And you were right, our Lord King, this memorial was needed--needed by all of us.”
The King smiled, and gave a look of question to Ruvemir, who nodded.
The sculptor had brought a box with him to the dinner, and had carried it away with him as well. “The King and I both felt, Master Ferdibrand, that this should go to you. I hope it brings you comfort and pleasure over the years.”
Ferdi accepted it carefully, felt the box’s structure, finally lifted away the lid. He handed the lid to Freddie, reached inside with one finger. Most of the box was full of fleece, but on lifting off the top layer, he felt four rounded shapes. “The model?” he asked, startled.
“Yes, the model. It belongs there in the Shire.”
Gently Ferdi replaced the fleece on the top, held out his hand for the lid and replaced it as well. “It is a great honor. A great honor.” He turned back toward the Tree, and smiled, clutching at the box with both hands. “His Light is still reflected there, and it is shining more brightly than ever,” he reported softly.
The Lady Arwen looked down on their guests from the Shire, then at her husband. She was so glad he had these in his friendship, as well as Master Ruvemir. It was good to have friends who held no thoughts of dignity and honor owed to them, but who bestowed it so naturally in return. Seldom did she see her Estel so at ease as he was now, so at one with the entire group. He wasn’t the King first with them--he was accepted as being part of their family. It was good to know he had this family as well as their own to reinforce his sense of balance and pleasure. She gave her own private thanks to the Tree, the Valar, and the One for the gift of this visit.