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10

'I called for the help of the Dúnedain, and their watch was doubled; and I opened my heart to Aragorn, the heir of Isildur.'

FOTR: The Council of Elrond


~~~

For many days, now, the winds blow upon us from the west. They have been generous with their waters and the land has turned a softly-burnished green. Spring comes to the Angle in her fullness, with warm sunlight by day and cool airs by night.

True to his word, my lord and his men built raised beds in the well yard and about them wove a fence of thin birch and willow branches. Here the tender shoots are lit by the morning sun, sheltered from the wind, and barred from predation by the creatures of forest and field. Here, between paths of sunken stone that wind through the herb beds, we planted garlic, savory, basil, and sage for the comfort of the palate; valerian, mallow, comfrey, and feverfew for the comfort of the body; and lemon balm, vervain, and lavender for the comfort of the spirit. Here I will sit upon benches of earth laid over with thick turf cut from the meadow and pluck apples and plums from trees that reach their long limbs over the wall.

With the sun's rising, I entered the garden and planted flowering ivies between the benches, so they may one day climb the wattle fence, and rosemary at the gate, so its brush-like branches may grow to hang heavily from the arch overhead. One day, the herbs we planted for their usefulness will grow up about the stone well and fill the air with their scents when heated by the gentle sun.

All this I see in my mind's eye, but the fruits of my labor are yet to come to pass. I have brought the potted aloe and bay from my father's home out of doors, where, now that frost no longer threatens, they are the tallest of the plantings in the garden.

My labors will be long, but the garden already shows much promise. The soil in its beds has been raked to a fine tilth and my fingers are deep in the dirt as I kneel upon the stone and thin clusters of madder shoots. By the fall I will pull the roots of the madder to make a red dye as light as the sunset upon white clouds or as dark as oxblood. Now, they are but small tender stars the color of new pease.

I lift a plant with the tip of my spade, dividing it from its mates, and pat it into the soil further apart where I hope it will take and grow strong. A lone cricket chirps plaintively along the wall of the house as the day waxes. He seems to be my only company.

My lord pores over his maps and journals in the hall, the warm sunlight and scents of spring streaming in through the high windows. Halbarad has walked to the market to consult with the elders on a small matter. XY, newly made my lord's reeve, prepares the sheds for the promised flocks of sheep. Elesinda is in the buttery and dimly I can hear her beating upon pots as she puts them away from the morning meal. The younger sister of one of my lord's men, he brought her to our household just the week prior. A girl with a sweet face, rounded figure and eyes wide with awe, I knew I would find her pleasant company, but too much daunted by my newfound title to be a good companion. But, today, the sun is pleasant, the soil warm, and the twittering flight of doves and chattering of chaffinches nesting in the berry brambles are enough. I find my aloneness a blessing.

A sigh escapes from me as I look over the gardens. I shall be here until dark if I do not put aside my dreaming and increase my pace. Wiping dirt from my fingers, I shove the folded blanket further along the planks that hold the soil within its bed and am prepared to kneel when I hear a voice calling from over my shoulder.

"Hello to the house!"

I turn to find a curious sight. An old man stands behind the fence where I can see him from his gray-clothed breast to the tip of the strangely shaped staff he bears and the pointed hat that perches atop his head. His face is kindly and his beard is long and white, as are the brows that grow as thorn bushes above his keen eyes.

"Bid you good morrow, Father," I say, "How fare you?"

"Well, Daughter," says he and leans into the fence. "I have traveled far and this seems a pleasant place. Might I join you and rest these weary bones?" His eyes twinkle at some inner amusement, making me wish to laugh, though I know not why.

"Of course, Father." I drop my spade to the soil and wipe at my hands with my apron. "You are welcome."

I meet him at the wicket and open it as he ducks beneath the arch, neatly avoiding striking the point of his hat. At that, I marvel at the many years he has had to become accustomed to its height. I follow him into the garden and he looks about him with an air of satisfaction, his bright eyes peering beneath the shadows of the fruit trees and into the corners by the buttery and pantry walls. He seems an unlikely wanderer, but his clothes, a rusty gray, are much stained with the weather and the paths he has trod. I notice, then, with a shock, a long finely-wrought sword hangs from his belt.

"Yes, yes, a pleasant place," he says, turning about to take in the gardens. His glance takes me in. "Though you, no doubt, have hopes of it being much more."

I smile. "We will build what refuges we can."

"Indeed," he says and briefly places a gnarled hand over mine where I have them clasped before me, "May yours provide you with what peace may be found in these times and may you share it as generously with others who have need of it." He returns to surveying the kitchen yard, leaning upon his staff.

"Father," I ask, "would you break the fast of your traveling? I can offer you some ale, bread, cheese, cold meats—"

"No, no, do not trouble yourself."

"At least let me bring you some water, father. The sun grows warm and one of your years should not be under it overlong."

"Some water, yes, some water will do nicely." He seems to have chosen the spot for his rest, for he now strides along the inside of the fence, the foot of his staff thumping against the stones.

When I return from the buttery with a cup, I find him seated upon a turf bench along the fence, comfortable beneath a plum tree heavy with sprays of small white flowers. He has taken off his hat and laid it beside his pack and staff. Now he leans against the wall, the stem of a long pipe clenched between his teeth. Thin streams of smoke curl about his nose as he rests with his eyes closed and the smell of pipeweed weaves its way through the garden. He seems quite content. Though I draw water from the well, he does not stir at its bubbling or my footsteps as I approach.

"Here you are, father," I say and his eyes fly open.

"Ah," he says with a smile, lifting his pipe from his teeth and taking the cup from me.

Our hands touch in the passing and I feel a tingling as if I were carding wool on a cold winter day. I stare at him and his eyes twinkle in the sunlight as he watches me over the rim of his cup. My face must be full of confused thoughts, for my mind cannot make sense of what I have seen and felt. When he first opened them to me the depths of his eyes seemed alight with a powerful fire, but now I see only his mirth playing upon their surface.

Yet, he has given me no cause for alarm. I step back and watch him, not knowing what to make of my guest. He drinks the well water as if it were the finest wine, sipping it delicately before he leans back against the fence.

"My thanks to you, Daughter."

So completely out of my depth am I, I can think of no question to ask that is not impolite. So, instead, I nod and turn to my work.

From my place kneeling before the bed of madder plants, I can see my guest. He raises his eyes to watch the sprays of flowers above him fluttering in the breeze as he smokes. He seems but an old man content to take his rest amongst what beauty he can find. The sun has turned warm with its rising and the shade must be welcome to a traveler.

"Have you journeyed far, Father?" I ask, pinching away small, overcrowded seedlings.

"Aye," he says, "many have been the leagues I have walked, but, most recently I have come from the land of the Halflings. Do you know it?"

Looking about, I find the spade I dropped and poke at the soil. "The Shire?" I say. "But little, more in story than aught else, though the abandoned dwellings of the small people can still be found near the riverbanks, hereabouts. They left them behind in their move west, before men came to reclaim these lands."

"A pity. They prize gardeners there, from what I hear."

"Indeed?" And for the second time, he has made me smile. "I had not known that."

"Among other things of comfort," he says and purses his lips to send rings of smoke floating before him.

I laugh. "A happy chance, then, you have friends in such a place."

"Yes, a happy chance, indeed," he agrees. "I would travel there more often had I the choice." He gestures vaguely to the garden in which he rests. "And I must be sure to earn your friendship as well, lady, so as to see what you have wrought here when it comes to full flowering."

"I think I will be glad to show you," say I, warmed to an instant affection by his manner, before returning to my task.

For a long moment, we are silent, each with our occupation, I with my plants and he with his pipe. I have finished thinning the madder and now pluck at feathered fronds of yarrow.

"What brings you to the Angle in your travels, if I might ask?"

"A friend," says he and smiles. "I come seeking him. It has been years since last we spoke and it came to my mind it would be good to hear his thoughts on certain matters. I may have need of his aid, if he can lend it.

"Weighty words, indeed, father, to make a journey so far as you say. I hope you will find them worthy of their purchase," I say, wedging the spade between plants and pushing them apart.

"So do I, Daughter," he says, "but then, the words of a friend are most often worth the price just to hear the voice that speaks them."

"Mae Govannen!" comes the glad call from the buttery door and we turn toward it, our conversation coming to a sudden halt. My lord strides swiftly across the yard, his face lit with joy.

The old man rises slowly as if against stiff joints. "Ah! And here he is now!" He steps toward my lord, his face wrinkling so in his delight his eyes show only as small points of light.

"Well met! Well met!" my lord cries and embraces the old man, who chuckles and pounds him upon his back with the palm of his sturdy hand, clutching his pipe in the other.

The old man thrusts him to arm's length. "Let me look at you!" His keen eyes peer at my lord.

"Gandalf!" My lord smiles broadly under his examination. "My heart has so hoped for your coming, I thought it a trick and not your voice I heard."

"And yet here I am, my friend," the wizard says, frowning mildly and looking him over from head to toe, "and find my worst fears have been for naught. You look well."

"Twas but a scratch," my lord says, grinning like a boy.

"Humph!" the old man grunts and clouts him fondly on his shoulder. "That is not what I heard, but, scratch or no, it is good to see you in such good health and high spirits."

The yarrow lies forgotten, for I have launched myself to my feet, staring at my lord and his guest. The spade dangles loosely from my hand and I catch myself gaping at them. I have heard tales of the Grey Wanderer since my childhood, but never had I seen him. Hastily, I close my mouth and straighten my shoulders, letting the spade drop to the soil. In the welcoming of guests, my rightful place is beside my lord and to him I go.

The wizard's eyes light upon me. "My friend," he says, turning, "I believe the lady is owed an introduction, at the very least for the kindliness of her welcome."

My lord retreats a pace, his face newly sober, and raises a hand to take mine formally. "Mithrandir, known as Gandalf among Men of the West, here you find Nienelen, Lady of the Dúnedain, but newly made my wife."

I think I have never been so painfully aware of the dirt beneath my nails and the smudges upon my apron. I am a fine sight for such an introduction, but, eager to bring no further shame upon my lord, I incline my head and make as graceful an obeisance as I am capable.

The old man's eyes sparkle and his voice is full of a gentle mischief.

"Yes, this I hear, as well." He takes my hand from my lord. He seems not to mind its lack of cleanliness. "Please accept my best wishes for your future happiness, lady," he says and bows over my hand.

He releases it to clasp that of my lord's. "And yours as well, my friend." His grip is fond, though his voice now holds a note of warning that, at the time, I did not understand. Yet, my lord returns his look dispassionately.

"But, come!" Gandalf continues, his voice warming. "We have much on which to speak, things of less joy, I fear. I would take your counsel, if you are of a mood to give it."

"It is ever yours to have, my friend, such as it is in these times," my lord says. "And it seems you have counsel in mind to give, as well."

"Indeed," the old man says as he strides to where he has left his pack and staff, waving off my startled attempt at aid. "Much changes in the world, both the great and the small." He tosses his pack over his shoulder and lifts his hat to his head. "But ever our task remains the same, should you have the will to resume the burden." He has taken a firm grip upon his staff and now stands, leveling a stern, questioning look upon my lord.

"My heart has not changed."

My lord stands with his feet firmly planted and arms folded across his chest. They meet eye to eye, neither flinching beneath the other's sharp gaze. It came to me, then, they were of like will, each of such stern stuff that, when kindled, few fires could match. Those who wished to oppose their desires would do well to consider the chances of being burned.

"Ask what you would of me," my lord says, "you will find me ready."

"Good!" The wizard nods sharply. He clamps the pipe between his teeth and speaks around it. Small puffs of smoke come with his words. "I have much to ask!"

A small laugh escapes my lord. "As ever, but, this time I would claim a fee in advance of you."

"You would?" Gandalf peers at him, a frown furrowing his face. He has come upon my lord, who relieves him of his pack.

"Aye, all for a pipeful of that leaf you smoke," my lord says, hefting the pack in his fist.

"Ah, you ask much, my friend!" The wizard's thorny brows lift high beneath the brim of his hat. "This is Longbottom leaf, no less, straight from the Hornblowers of Southfarthing."

My lord smiles and, placing a hand on the old man's shoulder, eases him along the path. "Do I not know it? Why else should I ask it of you?"

"Lady!" the wizard calls over his shoulder as he walks with my lord, "Shall you not intervene on my behalf and plead mercy from your husband?"

"I think, Master Gandalf," I call after them, amused, "you might consider yourself lucky he is willing to give aught in exchange."

"Humph," he grunts and turns away. Faint his voice drifts back to me as he mutters, "She has the measure of you already, dear friend."

With that, they have walked out of my hearing, two forms, one straight of shoulder and tall, the other bent beneath his labors, but, I doubt not, no less strong.

~oOo~

The smell of burning leaf drifts through the tall windows of my lord's hall where he and his guest take their ease. The young plants of the garden are well-snuggled in their bed, as am I. Frogs sing from their perches in the trees and the sheets are cool beneath my arms where I hug the pillow against me. The bed is wide and I am sunk deep into the mattress, alone as I am. A quick pass of a wet cloth to clean away the dirt of the day and I climbed into the bed, grateful to make it thus far. I am heavy of body, but light of heart and reluctant to let the day end.

The day was full and I am content with the manner in which it passed. For my labors, I know now the garden will prosper and, for the words of the wizard, am comforted that others see its worth. I had not thought something so small would concern the mighty, and yet he took time before the evening meal to return to the well. There, he walked the paths littered in white petals and questioned me as to the herbs I had chosen, their uses, and the manner of their growing. It seemed he already knew much of what I had to tell, but would use it as an excuse to wander at his leisure among the flowering trees.

The meal itself was a happy affair. Where once my lord and I had dined quietly, I laughed until, weeping, I begged the wizard to cease long enough to allow me to catch my breath. It began with my tentative and polite queries as to the lands he had walked. He told tales of the little people of The Shire and I came to know more of their simple lives and dauntless hearts. Of the Elves he spoke, and I came to know more of their grace and fierce will. But it did not end there, for soon after the meal he took up stories of his travels with my lord.

At first I hid my smiles and choked on my laughter behind my linen, glancing at my lord to gauge his mood. I should not have worried, for he endured the wizard's teasing with good humor, sprawled in his chair with a cup of ale, a crooked smile lighting his face as he shook his head tolerantly. Little did I know why he was so unmoved until he spoke in his turn of the wizard, at which the old man let loose an irritable huff, all the while winking at me from across the table.

They spoke of rainwater pouring from scabbards, dunkings in rivers, wizards and dwarves perched in the upper boughs of trees, sheep mistaken for trolls in the dark of night, and the hazards of traveling with elven companions who failed utterly to account for the limits of mortal flesh. In each tale, danger loomed large behind the laughter, but they made light of it and of each other with such companionable warmth that I soon laughed openly.

Thus the evening passed, and though I tired, I was reluctant to leave their company. Until this night, I had not seen my lord's face lit full by his mirth nor his frame limp with his ease. Gone was the reserve that kept him silent. Gone were the cares that kept his face solemn and the burden that stiffened his back. It seemed that, until this night, though I had known the lord, I had not known the man.

So it was with regret that I finally parted from their company. I had little choice, for I dozed with my head propped upon my fist only to startle awake at my lord's touch. The wizard pulled on his pipe silently, his eyes twinkling as they watched through the haze of the smoke drifting about his head. Tugging upon my wrist, my lord lifted me to my feet and ushered me to the stairs, all the while forbidding me to pour them more ale or find some last bit of food for them to eat.

When I protested my need to check our guest's bed for his comfort, from the foot of the stairs my lord commanded me, "Nay, lady. Sleep!"

And so I sleep and my lord and his guest's voices drift into the solar with their pipe-smoke. There they lull me into slumber and mingle with my dreams.

"Think you truly the Halfling's ring is the One?" My lord's voice is slow and thoughtful.

"He ages little," the wizard's voice says.

"And that is sign enough?"

"Have you doubts?"

"About many things," my lord says. "We are hard-pressed as it stands and soon will become more so. It is a grave risk we take, placing so much faith in this and so little in aught else. I would know more of this ring and who knows it has emerged from its long hiding place. If you came to ask my counsel, it is unchanged from years past."

The wizard's voice grunts in agreement and I can all but see him sending streams of smoke into the air between them. "Can you spare me your services?"

My lord's voice answers, "Aye, though the trail be cold."

"But the need great and I have faith in your skills, my friend." Mirth warms the old man's voice.

Some unspoken confidence must have passed between them, for the wizard goes on.

"Then I shall return to Rivendell, to consult once more with its Master before I join you. Between us two we shall find this Gollum and see what riddles he can answer." He sighs before speaking in quiet tones. "I have come too often to the Shire and draw too many eyes that we can ill afford to be directed hence. Though I shall miss him greatly, my heart tells me I shall not see Frodo again soon. Keep watch will you, my friend?"

"It has been done."

Wood creaks in the silence that falls between them. When I hear the old man's voice again, it is close, as if he has risen and now looks through the windows at the stars above the meadow.

"You have found yourself a pleasing place to rest from your wandering. I confess I wondered should you not wish to be wrested from it."

"Do you think my resolve so thin?" I have heard that tone to my lord's voice before. Its chill holds a warning I am glad has not yet been turned upon me.

"Come! Come now!" the wizard says and his voice becomes a murmur, as if he has turned from the window. "Do not distress yourself. I have good reason to wonder."

"My heart is unchanged, Gandalf."

"In all things?" For all that the question is mild, the wizard's voice has sharpened.

My lord's voice falls quiet and he pauses before he speaks. "In all things."

"Strange then, that you have chosen this path."

"Many roads may lead to the same end. If my path has changed, Gandalf, it does not follow that the goal of the journey has changed with it."

"Humph," the wizard grunts and the smell of his pipe grows strong. "Then if this is your path, best you should tread on it with both feet and looking ahead, not over your shoulder at the way abandoned."

My lord does not answer, and in the silence, the wizard's voice strengthens again.

"She is much as her garden," he says. "Much in it of usefulness and comfort but will require tending to reach full flower. Should you rise to what you aspire, my friend, she should be prepared. You have the will. Have you the desire?"

Footsteps scuff along the floor as my lord rises. His cup hits the table with a dull clank.

"Ah, well, you will sort it out," the wizard says briskly when the question goes unanswered, "and I have meddled enough in your private affairs."

"Come, my friend!" The old man's voice fades until, in my dreams, I know not if he speaks or if I hear the insects' song upon the night air. "Show me to my pallet. The sun shall rise soon enough and we can continue our debates then."

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