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Graceful and Green
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Graceful and Green

You prepare a table before me under the eyes of my enemies

Psalm 23

"Samwise! Stop!" The cry brought him up short; but he came back to his senses only to find he was tottering dangerously close to the edge. He shouted out in alarm and swayed dizzily; before a sure hand reached out to steady him and draw him back.

"Careful, Master Gamgee. Best you sit down for a while I think." The Ranger's voice was calm now, and reassuring, and Sam was more than glad to be guided away to safety; away from the fierce rush of the falls. He was led to a sheltered seat on a boulder, warmed by the afternoon sun, where the man watched him for a few moments then quietly took a place at his side. "Are you well?" he asked, clearly concerned.

"Yes … well … an' no…" Sam found he was unable to say for sure. His heart was hammering harder than it should be, but the sudden awful sickness that had shot through him, when he woke to find his master gone; that was fading fast. But his limbs felt weak and his hands shook a little as he pushed them through his hair. And it was there again, he noticed, that odd sort of a veil that sometimes draped over things, dimming them somehow; even these breathtaking views. But he remembered Strider telling him that healing would take its time and he must be prepared to give it some; and Sam could only trust that it was so.

But now he was calmer, embarrassment could no longer be held at bay. What had he been thinking of rushing about the cave like that, shouting out his master's name; barging through all those men who had welcomed them as guests! He could feel his face beginning to burn. "Ah, what was I doing! I've been nothing short of a fool!"

"A wise fool, then, Master Samwise." The man beside him chuckled. "But be easy all the same. There is not a man among us who would see any cause for shame. Indeed we greatly honour you for your concern."

Sam muttered, uncomfortable at that, and felt himself going redder still. For there really had been no need for making such a fuss. These men would never have allowed his master to come to any harm; and it was a strange relief, he realised, to be sharing some of the load. But he was mortified all the same. "I can't say how sorry I am, sir, to bother you all like that. I don't know what in the world came over me."

"Do you not? Then perhaps I may be of service in helping you find that out?" The Ranger was making himself more comfortable on the stone. Sam gave him a sideways look. The words had come out quite naturally, he supposed, but this was a man that Strider thought well of, he'd noticed; and they were Rangers the lot of them: devious, cunning, close! He remembered how Captain Faramir had bided his time, plied him with wine, played him like Anborn's harp; until the secret had been told. But hadn't that been for the best, like a weight lifted off of their hearts: dark as the secret had been? For a problem shared, is a problem halved wasn't that how the saying went? Perhaps this Mablung was much like his captain: someone you could tell things to, whether you thought you wanted to or no, and feel the better for it.

"If it was a dream that disturbed you," the man was continuing, "that would come as no surprise, for most of us here have been suffering from those. These past few weeks more than before."

"And why's that, sir?" Sam asked, raising his head to meet the keen grey eyes; though he guessed what the answer might be.

"Well, Master Gamgee," Mablung continued with a slight wry smile, "men who have been helpless to prevent their comrades suffering; who have seen them cut down while they themselves have survived; such men have a great capacity for guilt, however unfounded it may be."

Sam sighed at that and slowly nodded his head. "But this time it hit me so bad because it wasn't the dream. I'm getting so I can cope with that, sir, if you get my meaning. No, this time it was because it was real. Part of it, anyway; the part that matters most."

Mablung waited for him to go on.

"See in my dream, sir, me and my master are together again, somewhere in that dark place, and he's sleeping peaceful for once. But I know I must keep watchful, stay awake, for there's this danger sneaking close. But my eyelids just won't stay open, they keep on getting heavier and heavier. And all the time I know what's happening but I just can't make it stop 'til at last I drop off whether I will or no."

Sam paused a moment, reluctant to relive the horror, despite the clear light of the waking world.

"Then I wake up again see, still in the dream, and of course my master's gone. And however much I hunt for him, desperate that I am, I know it's no use, it's never going to be no use, that he's gone for ever - gone where I can't follow. So down there in the cave, in the dark, dozing as we were on the bed, when I woke to find him gone … really gone …"

"Ah, yes, I can see that must have been very bad indeed."

With sudden grace, Mablung rose from their boulder and strode to the bank where the river ran foaming past. To give me a moment to pull myself together, Sam supposed, touched by the kindness. He steadied his breathing and watched while the man bent over a small inlet and filled the dipper left there for the purpose. He returned with it to their seat.

"But tell me - that is if you will - this dream: is it rooted in something real? These sorts of dreams often are, I have found."

"Well, sir, yes, an' no. And there we get to the heart of it, I suppose." Sam felt bile rising in his throat and was grateful for the offered drink. The water was refreshingly cold and sweet and he nodded his thanks as be braced himself to carry on. "You remember that wretched Gollum?"

"How could I forget? Truly the stuff of nightmares. Is he the sneaking danger in your dream?"

"Well there again, yes an' no. In the dream maybe, but in the real world, not always, no. Leastways, nearly always, but maybe not that time I called him a sneak when he wasn't, seemingly; a part of him anyway. And sometimes I can't get past thinking that's what might've pushed him over the edge; with no chance of ever getting back."

Perhaps he was making no sense, as the words ran along on their own, but his companion didn't seem to mind.

"And later when he betrayed us, deep in that horrible cave, I was that angry I saw red. Like a curtain of blood it was that blinded me; I was so mad with hate. And because of that, sir, I left him; left my master alone without the Lady's glass, his light for dark places; left him without his defence, just because I wanted to kill! And I know it can't have been for long; but it was long enough! Long enough for him to go and get stung by Her! And the mark of it's still there, and perhaps it won't ever go away, and it's all because of me; my fault, whatever old Gandalf may say."

Sam's cheeks were wet now, with more than just the spray, but he paid it no heed. "Didn't I say that nothing would ever be all right where that piece of misery was? For all that he's dead and gone - gone into the fire - we're neither of us free of him yet, are we sir? Not quite free. Because he's still here isn't he? Here … there …" He waved his arm, indicating the edge of the shelf where the falls thundered down to the Forbidden Pool beneath. And in his mind's eye he saw his master crouching there alone among the shadowed rocks, watching his reflection in the water. He started to his feet. "By your leave, sir, but I must go down. That's not a good place for him to be."

"Not a good place, Sam? No perhaps not. But, wait just a moment. Have you considered it might be a needful one? A place your master needs to be?"

Sam stopped and looked down at the green-gloved hand that had been laid gently on his arm, and decided not to pull away. "You mean like I needed to be here with you, sir? Like I needed to talk just now, about being in bad places and all?"

Mablung nodded. "Yes, Sam. Something like that."

Sam frowned trying to steady his thoughts. "But it's not the same though, is it sir? He's all on his own down there with none to talk to but himself - or something worse." He shuddered and made to move past the man again. "No it's best I go down to him now, sir if you don't mind."

"Of course, if you wish." The Ranger withdrew his hand. "But … have you really asked yourself why he slipped out so quietly while you slept?"

"Now what's that you're saying sir? That my master sneaked out all alone 'cause he didn't want me to come?" He felt a sudden flush of anger, whether at Mablung or something else, he couldn't be sure. "Then who better to go with him, may I ask, to look after him and comfort him, than me as knows him best? After all he's gone through!"

"Ah, but truth be told, Master Samwise, this time he did not need you, or anyone else, to go with him, did he? He simply wanted to take some time alone." The Ranger sighed. "The Valar know, Sam, I would not cause you any further pain, but it seems to me, this is something you are holding too much to yourself. For your master's sake as much as your own, is it not time to let it go?"

Sam felt his anger drain away to be replaced by an empty sort of ache. With a rueful glance at his host he dropped down on the boulder once more. "I'm being a fool again aren't I, sir?" He sighed not needing a reply. "But you're right; I do feel as I'm losing something somehow, and it does hurt; and I suppose I hadn't noticed it 'til now."

The sun was sinking lower bringing them into shadow, but he was still quite warm, he realised, though he had rushed out without jacket or cloak. In the Shire, even this late in the month, there could be quite a chill in the air, but he supposed he had never paid it much heed; no excuse for just sitting around - what else were the cold-frames for? But you rarely saw a bee, not so early in the year, not working outside the hive, but here there was a gang of them, a little wild and lean, all busy about a honeysuckle tangle that flourished for having some shade. He took in a breath - long and deep - to notice the scent of it, and then let it out again in a sigh.

"You see, sir - and, I think you may be one to understand - it's been so long, and sometimes so very hard, the looking after him; the not leaving him; as Gildor said, so long ago in the Shire - not that I needed to be told. And looking back now, there at the end in the dark, it was like it was all there ever was. I mean, I could remember other things, if I tried, not like poor Mr Frodo - and that Sméagol, I suppose - but sometimes it's still hard, sir, to let it all go and trust there'll be enough of something else besides."

Mablung gave a gentle laugh. "That is hardly the impression you gave this morning, when you questioned me so closely about oliphaunts, Master Gamgee."

"Too true, sir. They're wonderful and no mistake!" Sam found he could still join in a laugh. "But I still think it's a shame if they're used for nothing but war."

In the companionable silence that followed, he noticed that somewhere along the way, the veil over him had lifted, for now the woods and distant greenswards, falling away before them, were bright again and clear. After a while he lifted his gaze and watched a tiny pair of swans, necks outstretched, following the line of the Great River far below. He was sitting very close to the man, he realised, and somehow it made him feel rather bold. "And what about you, then, sir - if you don't mind me asking - are you going to be finding enough of anything, any time soon?"

Mablung chuckled again. "You mean to ask: can a scarred, old soldier like myself be of use for anything other than war? I certainly hope so Sam." He rose to his feet, and stretched and Sam did the same, stepping up onto the boulder to make them more of a height. The man gave a wide sweep of the arm. "Beautiful, is it not? For all it is despoiled, this is my country, Sam, Ithilien, to me the most precious place in the world. Our people were forced off the land years ago but we have not forsaken it. From shadows and secret places we have guarded it as best we can." He sighed. "But even though the Enemy is defeated there are dangers lurking here still, and there will be much for us Rangers to do."

"But now there's some real hope your folk will be coming back soon?"

Mablung smiled broadly. "Aye, that there is." He pointed southwards. "Our domain lies over there, in the steep hills near Emyn Arnen. The house and buildings are in ruins, of course, and the vines were destroyed long ago; but most of the terraces remain intact and can be stocked again in time, and as for our ancient olive trees - well, they keep on stubbornly clinging to the soil."

"Olives, sir? Now aren't they just a glorious thing!" Not that he didn't feel a little guilty, liking them quite as much as he did; for the Gaffer had strong opinions when it came to foreign food. And wasn't it oil that Ted Sandyman slicked through his hair? So as for dipping your bread in it, without use of a knife or fork, Sam could only imagine what he would say. But he relished the taste, all the same, and his stomach growled loudly at the thought. The Ranger's sharp ears heard it, of course, even above the rumble of the falls.

"Yes, indeed," Mablung laughed, "it seems that Arda is full of good things; and a well-laden table not the least. So, by your leave, I must go down to see that one is prepared. Will you come?"

Sam considered for a moment and then smiled up at him. "No sir, I think I might take a moment or two alone; just to listen to the falls. That is, if it's all right by you?"

Mablung smiled back and bowed. "Quite all right, Master Samwise; but take care not to stay too long; we will begin with the setting of the sun." He watched as the tall, green-clad man disappeared - surprisingly neat and quick - behind the arching dog rose guarding the door to the winding stair.

* * *

Sam set his feet as near to the edge of the falls as he dared and gazed far out, shading his eyes with his hand. Per-spec-tive: he mouthed the fine new word, learnt from the Captain of Ships come over from Cair Andros; and hadn't that glass of his been a marvellous thing! Yes, it was all too easy for a hobbit to focus in too close; to fail to see the forest for the trees. And truth be told, it was hardly every day a body returned from the dead, and there could be no harm at all in simply enjoying the view!

And wouldn't the Gaffer have something to say; about counting his blessings and not looking gifts in the mouth! Just take his old Bill; and didn't he know a thing or two about sharing a load! And Sam dearly hoped he had found a safe way home. But there were times, seemingly, when you had to go where your friend couldn't follow you; into some deep, dark place like as not - and sadly, mostly when you were dead, that was the way you stayed.

But it eased Sam's heart to know that men had been gathering, in their companies - through all the Army of the West - to remember their fallen in ways that suited them best. Not that anyone would ever say that folk had not done the best they could, things being as terrible as they were, but the hard truth was: most times there had been nothing for it but to gather up the bodies, whole or in parts, and lay them out in common graves - small time for doing things properly; and even less for grief.

But even though the Enemy was dead, there was still a deal of ugly mopping up to do and the Rangers of the Ithilien Company had seen little time to rest. It had been hard enough to get them gathered together at all, let alone sneak them up to their hidden cave. For the refuge, he learned, was still to be kept a secret, right under the noses of all those other men. He would not have thought it possible, even with men as hobbit-like as these, but Strider had agreed with Mablung it was an important thing to do; and these days, of course, what Strider thought was important, was done.

He sighed and narrowed his eyes a little, against the lowering sun, and fancied he could just make out some banners fluttering above a distant scattering of tents. What was it that old Mr Bilbo had sung? In that poem of his all those months before? In panoply of ancient kings … upon his breast an emerald … Now wasn't that just Strider to a tee! And there was no denying this lordly Strider had taken a deal of getting used to at first; but, in truth, the strangeness hadn't lasted long. For it was plain as a pike-shaft to Sam he hadn't really changed that much at all - not in the way old Gandalf had changed. Rather it was like the shape of him had been there all along, just biding its time to come into its own; the way a plant bushed out to fill a space, when you moved it or gave it the room to grow - not that it wasn't a crying shame if others had to be thinned along the way. He drew in a breath then let it out again with a smile. "And for all he says we've come a long way from Bree, I fancy he's still got a sharp bit of tongue in him, all the same!"

But fair was fair, and he had to concede he had never felt the edge of it himself; downright rude and suspicious as he'd been! Rather he thought of a gentle voice calling him back to life; flowing through his dreams, quiet and clear - but not to be resisted all the same. And to think, all those tender nights his sleep had been lulled by the music of a distant falls and it had turned out to be one he knew: this great Curtain of Henneth Annûn! He was not a bit surprised it had brought him such heartsease. And now, here at the rim, he could feel the roar thrumming through his body like the rolling of a great bass drum; and all the while the golden spray shimmered around him, like spider-silk in the sun. Surely there could never be anything so fine as the sound and sight of water!

"But doesn't sadness always have a way of creeping in?" he murmured, thinking of his friends in those tents down below. Soon they would be gathering to share a meal and then, most likely, they would sit on the grass and sing, and tell tales, late into the night. But what with the endless sighing of the waterfall, how could they not remember Rauros and Boromir and their loss? He knew he felt it the keener now that Gandalf had returned. And then that old worry would raise its head again, wouldn't it? That he might have been in some way to blame for letting his master go off like that alone; that time he wanted to think - Strider's say so, or no. For maybe, just maybe - the wretched niggle went - if he had only been there as well, Boromir might not have fallen as far as he did.

"And then there's Strider himself, isn't there? Making time out of nothing to join us, as he can." He sighed, for he had a way, Sam noticed, of slipping in quietly, his mail hidden under his cloak and that brooch of his dim in the dark. And what with Pippin letting his tongue run on, talking about Boromir, as he often needed to do, Sam had watched the man look back towards the north, empty pipe cradled in his hand - leaf being in such short supply - and he had not needed a penny for his thoughts.

And perhaps there was some comfort in telling themselves that Boromir had died well. But could a man really die 'well', Sam wondered, shot all through with arrows but not finished by them right off? But maybe it had been worth even that, to find a bit of peace in the end, to die in the arms of a friend? And at least the three of them had been there at the last, to lay him out properly, as was only right: to wash the blood off his face and run a comb through his hair. And they had sung for him and sent him off down the river for his brother to find: beautiful and at rest. Sam knew there were all too many who had not been granted such a grace.

So many bodies broken! Crushed under oliphaunts and trolls and terrible engines of war; burnt so even their mothers wouldn't know them; hacked apart - even after they were dead! Sometimes he felt such a deal of anger and grief! And always he thought mostly of these Rangers, for they were men he could put faces to and names; kind, brave men who had helped them in their need. And when he heard how the enemy had chopped off heads, cut in His foul mark - there was no thinking about the rest!

"Just be grateful Captain Faramir made it through in one piece," he muttered rather grimly, he supposed, but by all accounts it had been a close run thing; and now, it seemed, he was to be shuffled round to take his brother's place, as if life were a game of musical chairs! He shook his head, sure the Captain must be hurting, not being here today with his men. "Still, me and Master will be seeing him again very soon. And as he says himself: he will be with us 'in spirit'!" And Sam felt his own spirits rising again at the thought; even so far as to make him chuckle.

There were times, he remembered, in that great bustle of a camp, when he felt he had gone wandering into some ancient book of tales; like the ones the elves had shown him in the library at Rivendell. You turned a corner like you turned a page to come upon a sudden busy scene, all glowing in colours as bright as any jewels - the ink all the brighter for having been kept in the dark. And that sunny visit, to Strider's great striped tent, had surely been one.

They had gone in, past the guard, to find the quartermaster bowing before their friend, looking quite splendid in a coat of glittering mail; and Sam still fancied that poor man had been shaking in his shoes - wary, like as not, of the edge of this new lord's tongue! A small consignment of fine apple brandy had arrived, it seemed, under the Lord Steward's personal seal, and the quartermaster had thought it best to deliver it to Strider's 'pavilion' straight away: 'so as your lordship can be quite certain of keeping it safe'. Sam chuckled; so much for not judging a man by his cloak! For they had not looked much to him at all - just five fat carboys with plain wicker jackets still covered in cobwebs and dust - but Strider had taken one look at the labels tied around their necks and Sam had thought his eyebrows would disappear into his hair.

"The 'fifty-four, a truly exceptional year! More so for only a small amount was made!" Strider had looked up at the man beside him, dressed in his usual shades of brown and green. "No need to remind a man of Ithilien, I think, that Gondor had other things on her mind that year."

"Aye, the last of our folk were driven over Anduin, my lord," the Ranger had replied.

"Yes, a grim year indeed. Though I was young and not yet come to the South." Strider had paused for a moment, still down on one knee before the precious brew. "It must have been more than twenty years later I made its acquaintance, at the wedding of the Steward's heir. It had reached its best, I recall, and we had it straight from the casks." He had paused again with rather a suspicious look. "I am very surprised any found its way back to the cellars at all!"

"Well, my lord," Mablung had suggested, "sometimes it is the custom to set some aside; for the wedding of the heir to come. And of course, the Lord Boromir never …"

"Ah, yes, quite so. I can see how it might have stayed buried until now." And Sam had watched a shadow fleet across his face. "But it is most generous of Faramir to send it along for his Rangers; very generous indeed! And it should still be as good as the day that it was drawn." He had straightened again, with one of his sudden smiles. "You're a more fortunate man than me, it seems, Captain Mablung! I regret I must leave it to you to see it to its final destination." He had already been striding away. "Just bear in mind: the sooner it is out of my tent, the safer it will be!"

There was no help but to grin, remembering the scene, and his master, too, had been very amused; and this morning, it had warmed his heart to see how Frodo was still enjoying it all. "What fun to be off in the Wild with Rangers!" he had joked, reminding them all of Mr Bilbo's tales. And Strider had laughed as well, as he came to say goodbye, slipping through the camp with them, in the grey of the breaking dawn. And if it had crossed Sam's mind that it might not be all good for his master to be off like this, revisiting old places, it seemed he would do better to keep a sharper lookout for himself. And, of course, such a very courteous invitation could never have been refused!

* * *

"Careful now, Sam, just you watch your step. Don't go making yourself into more of a fool than you already have!" He kept a steadying hand on the rough rock beside him as he hurried on down the winding stairs. The steps were wet and slippery in places and built with tall men in mind, and to go pitching down them head-over-heels would be just one embarrassment too far. Though certainly not worse than being late! That he could never forgive! He turned the final corner and, to his relief, he saw the guard on the landing was holding up a reassuring palm.

"No need to hurry, Master Gamgee, you still have plenty of time."

"Ah, yes. Thank you. Seems I managed to lose some of it all the same." He paused to catch his breath and looked towards the second stair. "My master?"

"All is well. Mr Baggins came in a while ago and decided to go on down."

Sam felt himself going red as he nodded his thanks and carried on, but the awkwardness was not nearly as bad as he had feared. Though as for revisiting old places … For all there were lanterns in the tunnels and a good earthy smell on the stairs, he breathed a mighty sigh of relief when he reached the lighter, more open space of the cave. It seemed quieter there now, he noticed, though it was packed rather tighter with men, as the boards had already been set up on the trestles, the same as they had been before.

"Now, first things first," he muttered, climbing up onto a bench to look over the heads of the crowd. There was his master, safe! Already washed and brushed, by the looks of it, and sitting close to Anborn by the wall. "More talking about tales, I shouldn't wonder," he spared a moment for a smile; "but now for the rest!" Resolutely, he fixed in his mind the path to the back of the cave, and jumped back down. It was hard work for a hobbit to get to the other side of so many men - mostly twice his height and broad beside - but now there was no pushing or shoving or rudely barging through! Just a deal of dodging around and edging past, with a bow and a mumble of thanks; always politely returned.

And for all that manners make the man - and the hobbit - it was a relief to reach the alcove their host had insisted they share. But there was to be no escape from courtesy, even there, it seemed; for a basin had been left ready for him, at a comfortable hobbit height, leaving nothing for him to do but pull off his shirt and set to with the washcloth and soap; and shake his head in disgust as he gasped and shivered at the cold. "You've gone soft, my lad, that's what you've gone!" he sputtered as the icy water slapped his face. "Too much of this being waited on, hand and foot; and hot water brought to you in silver ewers!" He towelled off - more briskly than was needed - glad to get back into his shirt; followed by his jacket and cloak; and, for once, he was so busy, running a comb through his dampened hair, that he nearly didn't notice his master had come in and was watching him with a smile.

"All set are we Sam?

"All set, sir - though I'd forgotten how it was to feel so cold!"

"Yes, this water is a bit invigorating! And I imagine it's always chilly in here, whatever the weather outside. Still it should warm up a bit now; what with so many of us tight together inside. And that was neat work, Sam, I have to say, finding your way through that crowd!"

"It's really not so hard once you get the hang of it, sir. And it seems to me some folk just have a knack of making you feel tall - even when you're small - if you get my meaning."

"Yes, I think I do!"

Sam watched his master nodding his agreement and thought he looked quite well, all things considered. Rather sad perhaps, underneath that smile, but not at all what he had come to think of as 'shadowed'. Then, after a moment, Frodo cleared his throat and looked down.

"Sam … about earlier …"

"That's all right sir; please, pay it no mind! To tell you the truth, I think it might have done me a deal of good. I realise, this time, as you just needed to be alone; Captain Mablung helped me see it as it is. We had a good chat up there, the two of us," he gestured to the stairs, "me and Captain Mablung."

"Ah yes, he is rather good at that isn't he: chatting?" Frodo let out a breath, then smiled. "But you know, he doesn't like being called 'Captain' at all. Says that the appointment is 'unconfirmed'and there is still only one Captain at Henneth Annûn and it most certainly is not him!"

"Well sir, he mightn't like it, but he is one all the same; for all there's a part of him wants to go tending to his vines. He's got that captain's quality, if you know what I mean; and any way, Mr Strider's already seen him for what he is, so I fancy he'll have no help but to grow into the part - whether he thinks he wants to or no."

Frodo chuckled. "Poor Mablung! You'll be burdening him with an 'air of Númenor' next! But I think you may well have the right of it, Sam." He paused. "And now I find myself asking: were you always able to see so far?"

Sam blushed. "I don't know about that, sir, but I'd say we've all done a fair bit of growing, seemingly; a bit of bushing out - and I don't just mean Master Gimli's beard." And again, as he'd hoped, there was a chuckle that warmed his heart.

He turned away for a moment, to put his comb in his pack, and when he turned back, he saw his master had his hand in his pocket, as he often still needed to do.

"I spoke to him earlier," Frodo was continuing, "Mablung that is - as it's up to him to keep this refuge safe and, well, it can get rather bright, can't it Sam: the Lady's gift! It had occurred to me, you see, that when it comes to the time to remember, she might like me to share the light around; that is if it's still in a mood to shine."

"That's a wonderful idea, Mr Frodo! And you'll see, it will be in a mood, you mark my words! For though this cave's far from being one of those terrible 'dark places' the glass was made to light - very far, I'd say - it's a good sort of dark all the same - leastways it will be by then. And it seems to me as it can go the other way; that even where folk seem to be in the light - though, of course, they could be sitting in the dark - they can still have their dark places, on the inside, and be needing that bit of starlight; however light they look."

"Quite right again, Sam; I think!" Frodo smiled. "And I'm not so sure I could have put it any better myself!"

"And I'm not so sure, sir, as you couldn't have given it a try!"

"Well … it seems to me that the Lady's light can be as much a comfort as a defence and that sometimes the two are really much the same."

Sam nodded thoughtfully. "That's it sir, I think that might be something of what I was trying to say."

There was a companionable silence between them; until Sam noticed his master was looking at him a little oddly, or so he thought. "Mr Frodo? Is anything wrong?"

"Oh no, nothing wrong." And this time, it seemed, it was his master's turn to blush. "It's just … I know this is very rude; and certainly no business of mine! But I simply can't help it anyway … you've been driving me mad with curiosity all day." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Oh dear … but what exactly have you got in your pocket, Sam?"

Sam felt his hand jerking away in surprise.

"I know; I'm sorry," Frodo was hurrying on, "and you can see how I hardly liked to ask! But I had to, all the same; what with you checking it like that all the time!"

Sam burst out laughing. "Now if that isn't a fine case of the pot calling the kettle black!" And to his great relief, he saw that his master was grinning as well. "Well, it's hardly a terrible secret, sir, leastways I don't know why it should be." He paused a moment to gather up his thoughts. "You know how Captain Faramir wrote - joking, but meaning it all the same - that he will be with us 'in spirit'?" Frodo was nodding, eager for him to carry on. "Well, it seems as Mr Strider would like to have a drop of it, too - there with him - if you get my meaning." He pulled out the small silver flask in its leather case and handed it over for his master to see. Frodo turned it around in his hands.

"Aragorn gave you this?"

"Yes, sir … though 'loaned' might be the better word. He slipped it to me this morning when he knelt down to say goodbye. You know, the way his does; to look you straight in the eye, even if you're just strolling out to the mess tent in search of a cup o' tea."

"Yes, I know. Well … go on then, Sam."

"Yes, Mr Frodo. Well: 'Sam,' he says,'it seems as a man may acquire a fine set of elven names and still not be blessed with their memory; so if you could, in any way, find it in your heart …' and then he gave me his flask - along with a terrible longing look, I might add!"

"Oh Sam! This must be what Gandalf says; about not all tears being an evil!" Frodo wiped a tear of laughter away from his eye. He had been trying to hold it in, it seemed, so as not disturb the caveful of men; but laughter will always out, one way or another. His master snorted again, before looking him in the eye. "And can you, Sam - you know - find it in your heart?"

"I certainly hope so sir - that I do - though there's no real knowing as yet if I'll be willing to give him some of my share; which won't be a great deal anyway, seeing as it's got to go round so far." He sucked in a breath. "To be honest, Mr Frodo, I'm not that familiar with strong drink myself - the Gaffer not holding with it at all; always saying how the good stuff's not for the likes of us; and pointing out one of the Gravellys gone blind from distilling his own."

"Still, the Gaffer could hardly object to you sharing a toast with the King of the West, could he Sam?" Frodo grinned. "Even if the appointment is as yet to be confirmed."

"Yes, but only a few more days to go now!" Sam shook his head overcome by the wonder, as he sometimes was. And suddenly he brought to mind Merry, coming back from 'remembering' among those Men of Rohan, with a sore head that lasted two days - for all Strider's potions and his boasts that 'the Brandybucks held their drink'. Well, he thought, the Gamgees could hold their heads up with the best of 'em, when it came to ale - though wine, it seemed, might be another matter - but as for fine liquor? That remained to be seen!

But his master, he noticed, was still busy looking at the flask. "I can't say as I recognise it myself, sir. Do you?" It was hard to travel so far with a man and not know mostly what he had in his pack; and Strider was one to travel particularly light. "I don't recall as he brought it with him from Rivendell, though, I'd say, it has a bit of that Ranger look."

"No I don't think I've seen it before either Sam, now you mention it." He was unlacing the worn brown leather to see more of the silver inside. "But look, here, there's a rune - an 'h' I think. I wonder … that kinsman of his, who brought messages one time to Rivendell. Halbarad, wasn't it?"

"Ah yes sir, I remember. I suppose it could have been his - seeing as he was sadly killed on the Pelennor, an' all. A great place for orchards - or was - so I've heard."

"Orchards? Yes, perhaps." Frodo ran his finger over the fine engraving for a moment or two, lost in thought, and then slipped the little flask into its cover again. "Well, wherever it came from, Sam, it's a very beautiful thing - best put it safely back in your pocket." His master reached out and gave it to him; and then his hand carried on, over his shoulder, to pick out something that must have been caught in his hood: a spray of small flat-needled leaves dotted with tiny blue flowers.

"Look! Ithilien is still eager to share with us, it seems." He smiled and broke off a sprig and tucked it behind the elven brooch on his cloak. Then he leaned forward to do the same for Sam's. "Rosemary for remembrance. Isn't that how it goes?" The scent of the bruised leaves filled the space between them.

"Yes Mr Frodo, that's right:

When the land lies still in cold embrace
Rosemary for remembrance; rue for grace

"That's it, Sam." His master's hand rested a moment on his shoulder and then he laughed. "But a hobbit can hardly live on memory alone! Time for supper, I think; and it wouldn't do to keep our hosts waiting! Shall we go?"

* * *

The familiar scent of the rosemary stayed with them as they left the quiet of the alcove behind; and it would be hard, Sam thought, for a hobbit to walk in Ithilien and not pick up some greenery along the way. Boun-ti-ful, he reckoned, that was the word for it; and if there were darker things still hidden in the undergrowth, he had seen no sign of them today. And even tall men might pick up a twig or two, crawling past pickets in the early morning dew! Yes, sure enough, it had been 'fun', off with the Rangers into the Wild! And today the shadows had been their friends, as the sun rose higher, and the hillsides got steeper, and their escort wilted under their heavy loads; for all they had chuckled and let him know these burdens were 'gladly borne'. And when he and his master had seen, at last, all those places where they had been blindfolded before, that had been worth a little toil!

And Sam felt warmer already, remembering the fine welcome they had received. But somehow that made it the worse, didn't it? Finding these men still looking so worn out and thin! He shook his head as he followed his master back into the crowd. Now it just didn't seem right he'd been sleeping and lounging away his time; leaving others to go and get on with the work. And grim work too, by all accounts, that didn't bear thinking of; however sunny the day. But one thing, at least, was clear: men were as good at walking round their feelings - mostly by way of a laugh - as any hobbit from the Shire.

And keeping yourself busy; wasn't that another way to go? Earlier he'd watched them: unpacking their provisions, sorting out their stores, checking through every bowstring, arrow and spear they could find. And hadn't he felt better for offering them a helping hand? But, now and then, they'd pause for a while and call for a song; and Anborn, on 'light duties' because of his wound, would run his long fingers lovingly over his battered little harp and break into one - sometimes glad and sometimes sad; and sometimes in the Elven-tongue Sam found he never needed to understand. "And the bawdy ones come later!" The tall archer had grinned and murmured in his ear. "A Ranger never passes up a chance to take a nap, Master Gamgee, if the night is likely to be long!" And good advice, for those as would take it, Master Anborn! Sam now thought, with a wry little smile, as he eyed the comforting sight of mattresses stacked against the wall. But happily none'll be staggering far to find a bed tonight!

And it was one good thing, he supposed, come out of the Company putting this off so long, that Anborn was up, and walking, and there with them at all. But it never got any easier seeing scarred men limping, or with their arms in slings, or worse, with empty sleeves; and it was harder - much harder - with these he now thought of as his own. And suddenly he felt it the keener; that he'd been invited back to share this meal at all. I don't deserve it! Not for myself! Not like Master does! Hot tears started in his eyes; and as they approached the table, it struck home to him - with a jolt right down to his toes - the gaps that there now were. For a place had been set for all who had sat down together on that night; and now a deal of those places were bare.

But the same could hardly be said of the board! Sam swiped at his eyes and blushed furiously as his stomach simply refused to mourn. He had stepped up onto the box provided, to get a better view, and found all those good things that had been such a blessing before; but now there were more of them; the loaves fresher and the victuals more varied; and there were olives in earthenware dishes, and fresh-gathered watercress still glistening with water from the falls; and, best of all, those plump, honeyed dates he was told were 'spoils of war'. And then he remembered the Southron: the one dead man he had really seen - when he thought of it - not counting that terrible Marsh; and surely a soldier who'd carried such food in his pack couldn't have been all bad!

But here he was, letting his greed get the better of him, and that would never do! He turned to his right, to bow to Damrod; thankfully no gap there! His master, of course, was on his left; but then there was the empty place where Captain Faramir had been; marked by his plain silver cup and well-worn folding chair. Mablung, however, was one along, so he bowed to him instead, and the man, yet again, bowed back with a smile. Then, as all were ready, Mablung gave the signal for the Company to turn to face the West.

Through the entrance to the cave, the evening sun was already at her magic, weaving the falling water into a net of fiery gems; and, in that moment, Sam knew there were things he would never have words for; however many foreign ones he learned. And wasn't that what silences were for?

But, this time, into the silence, Mablung spoke; his clear voice filling the cave as he named them: firstly the wounded, not 'walking' enough to be with them that day; and then - slowly and solemnly - the dead. And it seemed to Sam that for all it took a while - Mablung telling what he knew of how and where they fell if he could - for some it would never be taking long enough, as they kept their heads bowed, or looked around to where their comrades should have been. And as Damrod leaned against him, in the close quarters of the cave, he thought, not for the first time, how hard the captain's part must be; for too soon, seemingly, Mablung had to be moving things along - and be doing it with a smile.

"So, now we have looked to the West, as has long been our way," the man was saying, more lightly, "doubtless you think it past the time to fill our cups as we remember them?" Sam was relieved to hear the willing rumble of assent; but Mablung smiled again, and raised a hand. "But, before we do, let me remind you: this place is, for a while, our refuge. Here there must be no ghosts at the feast ashamed to speak their names! And let no Ranger turn from his friends to face guilt or grief alone!" Mablung paused a moment, to let his words sink in, then turned to Frodo with a respectful bow. "And, Mr Baggins, I believe there is something you wished to say?"

His master cleared his throat. "Yes, by your leave Captain Mablung, there is - that is, if we can all hold off a little longer before we eat?" Now there was smiling and nodding and Frodo smiled as well. "Good, well, that being so; I would consider it a great honour to share with you here - as far as it is safe - a gift I received from the Lady of the Golden Wood."

Now that's raised a bit of a murmur! Sam thought, though, of course, nothing less than polite! But his master was unconcerned - enjoying himself, truth be told - for all the world as though he were back in Bag End and been asked to 'say a few words'!

"For the Lady Galadriel," he was continuing, with a bit of a gleam in his eye, "like many of you here, has known long exile; and let us remember, too, that she is the sister of Finrod Felagund, the Hewer-of-Caves and Friend-of-Men - Beren One-handed in particular -" he caught Anborn's eye across the table and smiled, "and an excellent harper too, if the Tales be true … and there's surely no reason to think otherwise, is there? Not with so many Legends found to be alive and walking in the world!" The man was smiling back, Sam noticed, but could hardly be blamed for looking a little dazed.

"And after Gandalf fell - Mithrandir, that is - and it seemed that everything was lost; the elves, like you, gave us refuge; and food for the journey, and parting gifts. And I think we can never thank you enough - Sam and me - for all those wonderful gifts you gave!" Sam nodded wordlessly, still sorry for loss of his staff, while his master carried on.

"But as for the Lady's gifts: Sam has a box, with earth from her orchard; so we're hoping for the rosiest apples ever - North or South - once we get home, aren't we Sam!" He chuckled. "And for myself? Well, for me, she caught the light of the Even-star in the waters of her fountain; to be a light, when all other lights went out - and so it was, and so I hope it will be again."

Here he paused, hand in his pocket, and Mablung made to speak; but then he pressed on, with a sideways glance at Sam. "And there is something else, Captain, if I may be so bold?" Mablung nodded encouragement as Frodo drew in a thoughtful breath. "You see, there was one other - a ghost if you like - here on that night, that you did not name; not exactly sitting at the table with us, to be sure, but there all the same; outside, in the dark; 'feasting' you could say, on his own. And though he did, indeed, betray me, as Captain Faramir feared he would, for a time he was our guide. And had he not been there - at the end - none of us would be here to see this day," he looked around at the Company, "however heavy the loss, and however injured we may be."

He paused again and sighed, and Sam reached out to take his hand; and, after a moment or two, he carried on. "So, by your leave, and Captain Mablung's, and particularly Sam's; I would like to include Sméagol - also known as Gollum - on the list. Not so much a 'poor gangrel creature' as I called him then, but someone who could once have been a hobbit, it seems, very similar to Sam or me."

The hand he held still weighed less than it ought to, the skin stretched too tight across the bone, but to Sam it had never been more beautiful; far fairer than his - as a diamond to a stone - and no tooth or sting could ever mar it; not when it had been tended with such care. Still his breath caught painfully in his throat, and he had to close his eyes against the tears; but then, surrounded by the murmuring of the men, with a last gentle squeeze he let it go. And when he opened his eyes, he saw that Mablung was bowing again; this time with his hand upon his heart; and somehow it helped him to bear it: that Strider would be glad that he was nodding too. And then, once more, the Captain's clear voice rang out across the cave:

"As the Ringbearers have requested; so let him be named!"

And strangely he did feel lighter, for all he was so hollowed out inside; and he shrugged a little too, to ease a stiffness he had scarcely known he had. And in the silence that followed, he stood between Damrod and his master as the Company watched that glittering web of water turning to a veil of ruby red, like wine pouring out of a bowl; until everything faded, in the end, to a deeper and darker grey.

But then, as night fell in the unlit cave, he was heartily relieved the Lady's gift was back where it belonged! For, once more, all eyes were on Frodo as he took the Phial from his pocket and kindled it in the cavern of his hands. "Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!" Sam heard him murmur, softly this time, as if it were a prayer; and at first nothing seemed to happen; but then his hands began to glow the colour of his blood, as they were lit up from inside; and as the light grew brighter, a clear, silver ray escaped through the gap where his finger once had been. Then his master opened his hands and held up the star-glass, as high as he could, so as to share it with everybody there. And, now, somehow, Sam thought it was a safer sort of brightness, a little tinged with sadness, as if it knew the cave must be a secret still.

But such was the source of its power there was just no containing it for long, and, all at once, a few dazzling beams shot out, right across the cave, even as far as the Curtain, to be caught in the ever-falling droplets of the falls; and Sam thought of them swirling on through the Forbidden Pool, past the Field of Cormallen, and out into the wide Anduin far below. And suddenly he wanted to laugh, imagining the Captain of Ships pacing his deck, watching for the signal to sail; and spying them with his glass, all dancing in Boromir's wake, perhaps, as they floated out to the Sea!

But, now, quickly, before the refuge could be betrayed, his master was covering the Phial with his hands and hiding it in his pocket once more, and, after an awestruck moment, a gasp of wonder swelled around the cave.

"Thank you, Frodo son of Drogo, for your great gift! To share with us here a glimpse of the light of Eärendil!" Mablung was rather hoarse, Sam thought, and his eyes suspiciously bright, but his voice still held the attention of all. "And so let Ulmo, Lord of Waters, carry our hope, even past the ruin of the Meneltarma, to the westernmost edge of the world! Where Nienna weeps - it is said - that all sorrow may turn to wisdom in the end!"

Again there was a rumble from the men, and Sam thought, with a smile, that Mablung could certainly be taking on the part when it was needed; tall and long-sighted, even in the dark; though more than a bit uncomfortable about it now! Still he was gamely pressing on, if a little more gruffly than before.

"So, now, let us have some lights; and everybody move along and close up these gaps! And, of course, let us not forget the Captain! The real Captain! For, though his new duties have kept him from us today, he has promised that he will be with us in spirit, and sent us this gift of fine apple brandy to stand in his stead." He exchanged a grin with Frodo and Sam. "The 'fifty four, no less; which we understand - on the highest authority - to be 'a truly exceptional year'!" The men laughed and raised a cheer as Mablung bowed to the carboys, ranged and ready, behind the Captain's chair. "And all that he asks," he continued a little more sombrely, "is that, sometime during the evening, we raise a toast to his brother, our late Captain-General Boromir, for whose wedding it was reserved - which I think we can all well manage to do!"

Again there was a shout of agreement, and the Rangers began lighting the lamps on the tables and shifting along the benches to close up their ranks; and there were a few more cheers of encouragement as Mablung, with a shake of his head, took his place before the Captain's chair; then, all at once, the whole Company was seating themselves and pouring out wine and passing around the food as the meal began.

And as Damrod gave him a helping hand up onto his barrel, Sam felt Strider's flask nudging him through his pocket, and had a small, clear picture of him, sitting below under the rising moon; looking east for a while, perhaps, rather than to the north; and he wondered whether he had glanced up - seeing as he knew where to look - and caught the quick glimmer of a star; and known it for what it was; and let the beauty of it pierce his heart; and Sam very much hoped that it was so.

* * * * *

Author's notes:-

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! Hail Eärendil brightest of the stars! (Shelob's Lair, TTT)

"There peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land and hope returned to him." (The Land of Shadow, ROTK).

Title taken from The Sisters of Mercy by Leonard Cohen:
"If your life is a leaf
that the seasons tear off and condemn
they will bind you with love
that is graceful and green as a stem"

In honour of the HA mailing list's fourth birthday April 06.

Special thanks to Altariel and Dwimordene for lending me a hand.


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