He could feel the stares of the crowd as he rode into the city on his black horse, a tall and lordly figure with golden bronze hair gleaming in the late sunlight, clad in simple brown riding clothes with a long grey cloak and high black boots. The King waved the people back as he stepped forward to greet the Elven sculptor who would create the monument to the two small heroes who had sacrificed their lives to save Middle-Earth.
And Annúnlanthir had never met either of them.
King Elessar looked much as the sculptor had envisioned him, in rich black tunic trimmed with silver embroidery and simple coronet, dark hair lightly streaked with grey, high-cheekboned face etched inexorably with sorrow. A fine subject for a statue he would have been, himself.
"So," he said with an attempt at a smile that only deepened the lines of sadness, "this is the son of the greatest sculptor on earth, the designer of the Argonath, no less. I have seen much of your work, and I cannot imagine anyone more qualified for the task at hand. Not even your father. His work is awe-inspiring, unparalleled in sheer grandeur. But yours has such an intimacy about it. Looking at your figures, I feel as if I know them. That is the quality I would wish for this memorial. Come, I shall show you to your rooms."
He asked a youth to look after the visitor's horse, then lifted Annúnlanthir's one bag himself instead of ordering his page to do so, much to the sculptor's surprise. He was pleased that the rooms had large sunny windows and opened onto a small and private veranda overlooking magnificent gardens and providing a view of the chalky mountains in the west, which the setting sun was tingeing with coral red. Just four months it had been since the War had ended, and already much of the city was rebuilt and the gardens replanted. He could hear court musicians playing on the second level.
There was everything he could need in the room: tools, cloths, cleaning equipment, and of course the clay. The only ornaments hanging on the walls were a fine tapestry and an impressive shield bearing an image of the White Tree. There was a narrow but comfortable looking bed, a large cushioned chair and a small table, a shelf of books, a bowl and pitcher, a bell he could ring for a servant. A door revealed a small room with a tub. Another door led into the hallway which led into the palace itself.
The King asked him if he found it to his liking and the sculptor said certainly. He felt glad of the simplicity of the apartment. And grateful to the King for not allowing the populace to overwhelm him.
He dined with the King and Queen that evening, along with a motley company consisting of a Dwarf, an Elf like himself, two very small youths and a very old fellow even smaller, and another royal couple who were introduced as Prince Faramir of Ithilien and his new bride Eowyn. Annúnlanthir knew the Elf already: Legolas, who was a distant cousin and in fact had referred him to the King. Legolas and the Dwarf, Gimli, appeared to be staunch friends, much to the sculptor's amazement. The two young Halflings, Meriadoc and Peregrin, known more fondly as Merry and Pippin, could hardly take their eyes off the stranger in their midst. He could hardly help but wonder what they must think of him.
Then there was the white-haired Wizard, the one the People called Mithrandir and the Halflings called Gandalf. Annúnlanthir tried not to look at him too steadily. He thought he had never seen so much naked sorrow distilled into one face before. It was rather frightening, even though the sculptor was no stranger to sorrow himself.
The main problem was obvious enough: how to capture the likenesses of two faces he had never seen, when there were no drawings to be had anywhere. Descriptions he heard in plenty. He could picture them in his mind, listening to the stories the others of their Fellowship told. But it was his impression only. Would the images he formed in his own mind satisfy their closest comrades?
Of course, the vast majority of those who would see the monument had never seen its subjects, and would not care one way or the other. He knew what his father would have done in such an instance: he would have searched in his memory for the most beautiful faces he could recall and fused them into his work. But Annúnlanthir hated the very idea. He wanted to reproduce the faces exactly as they had been in life, not impart an empty, decorous beauty that would be admired momentarily and then forgotten. One's subject need not be beautiful in order to make a beautiful work of art. And he was aware of the impossibility of the task at hand, and he felt as if the block of marble from which the monument would be carved were already laid upon his shoulders.
The others would watch him draw sketch after sketch, offering hints: "No, his nose was more like this...no, the chin was like so, the eyebrows...had a round face and, um, no, the eyes were deeper...." Queen Arwen talked to him as he sketched with a stick of charcoal, sitting out on the sunny veranda. It was a beautiful late summer day, a light breeze wafting in myriad fragrances from the garden below, the sun turning the water that bubbled up from the fountain to innumerable diamonds. A peacock called from a nearby tree. Hard to believe that sorrow could touch such a place.
The little handmaiden who had accompanied the Queen gazed at him in wonderment, then blushed as he smiled at her and turned her eyes to the garden, then to the Queen, whom she plainly adored. Small wonder, he thought. He had already observed her kindness to her servants and would have greatly admired her for that alone, had she been only half as beautiful.
Then again, had she been only half as beautiful, she would still have been breathtaking.
"I met one of your daughters," she said with a smile. "Orolindë, I believe? It was a very long time ago, but she was hard to forget. She had your eyes, as clear and deep and compassionate, but less sad. Your hands also, shapely and graceful, yet strong."
He nodded with a bit of a smile. "I have not seen her in a long time either. She is the only one of my daughters who has never married and gone to the Undying Lands. She has a wandering spirit."
"And an artist's soul," the Queen said. Then she picked up one of the drawings and studied it. "I can see him in my mind so clearly. He had a face of uncommon beauty for his kind--I might have taken him for an Elf-child at first sight, but for the feet."
She smiled sadly and the sculptor felt a disturbing flutter. Just as well he had not been commissioned to put her into marble. He wrenched his eyes to the drawings and tried to concentrate on them instead of the moonbeam face and dusky eyes before him, the melodious voice that spoke so feelingly into the fragrance of the garden.
"But even more than that, he had a certain quality that stood out from the rest. Like a little prince among them he was. At times he became filled with a silvery inner radiance that literally shone out of him as if he had been dipped in starlight. It stirred a feeling in my heart like no other--not the same sort of love I have for my husband or for my father or brothers even, but powerful nonetheless. Sometimes I would see him looking at me as though he understood perfectly, and it was as the meeting of twin souls."
She sighed and the sculptor's mouth twitched. Twin souls indeed, he could not help thinking. He picked up one of the drawings and held it up to the sunlight.
"I suppose this is not even close," he said. She looked at the sketch gravely. The maidservant stole over to look too. She was about thirteen or fourteen years old, with guileless brown eyes in a small sweet inquisitive face, and her plump hands fluttered on her bosom as she peered at the drawings.
"I like this one," she said picking up one of them. "So pretty. May I have it after you're done?" she asked the sculptor shyly. "I would like to copy it. I don't draw nearly as well as you, but I would still like to try."
"You may have it now," he said smiling, and the Queen smiled also. The girl held the sketch to her breast with an expression of pure delight.
"Your skill is astonishing," the Queen said, and he could tell she meant it, that she was not merely trying to be kind. "Yet..."
"Yet it is not right," he said, laying the parchment down on the table once more. She looked at him gently.
"No one expects you to capture their exact likeness," she said. "We all know you have never seen them. This we knew when we commissioned you."
"I know," he sighed. "Most people have never seen them either, and will be satisfied with what they get. Indeed, it is my guess that most of them will forget about them soon anyway. But still...I would not be content with merely producing a beautiful work of art. With all due modesty, I know I could do that. But I want...the truth. Not mere beauty. I want the reality, to render the true beauty that precipitated such an act as they performed."
She nodded. "I understand. I wish I had the skill for it myself. They paid a great price so that we could unite this Kingdom once more and reign in peace and prosperity. No monument that could ever be made could ever really do justice to such nobility of soul. We only expect you to do what you can."
She rose and went to stand at the rail of the veranda. The breeze molded her emerald-green gown to her body and stirred strands of her long dark hair into dancing plumes, until once again the sculptor found it necessary to avert his eyes to his pitiful parchments.
"And his poor servant," she said suddenly turning to look at him once more. "In all that time when they were at Imladris, I never saw him leave his master's side. They were always together."
Absently she plucked a purple flower that grew on a vine around the railing and twirled it in her long pale fingers for a few moments. Then she let it drop and turned abruptly, and started back inside.
"Come, Mikala," she said to the girl, who trotted along after her, with one backward glance at the sculptor, holding her drawing with tender reverence.
"I have endured many losses in my life," the Wizard said, "but these two were the very hardest of all. And I fear the grief will remain as a cold blade wedged inside my breast for all eternity. Sometimes I wish I could seek solace from the pain in death. This comes of loving mortals, of course. I've always known the danger of that, and yet it has never stopped me." His voice trembled and he looked away abruptly toward the sinking sun.
Annúnlanthir nodded. "I know that feeling all too well. My wife was mortal."
"Was she?" The Wizard looked at the sculptor again, raising bushy white eyebrows.
"Yes. It was almost four hundred years ago, and she lived a long time, by mortal reckoning. Yet it seemed a mere day that we were together. She had a terrible cancer that ate at her insides and gave her no rest, and all the concoctions I could prepare for her could only ease her suffering somewhat, until it came to the point where she virtually begged me to kill her. I think I would have done so, but she spared me from the necessity herself. She merely let go. I have small solace even in memory, because of the horror of her pain. I have never seen such--such devastation of one beautiful, helpless, brave soul and body who did nothing to deserve such torment."
"I see you still feel the loss even after all this time," the Wizard said gently. "Time is kinder to mortals. When they suffer loss, their grief lessens with time, and eventually, they die themselves. I have sometimes envied them this."
"So have I. Sometimes I wish that my children had chosen mortality, so they would not be subjected to this. Then again, that would mean that I would lose them, but I lost my two sons in battle anyway. My father, who had such a horror of loving mortals, lost three of my brothers in war as well, and one of my sisters, who succumbed to grief at the loss of her husband and son. Still, they lived a very long time, even so. Mortals live the mere space of an eye-blink, by our reckoning."
He looked at the two masses of clay that were beginning to take shape under his hands. Two weeks had passed since his conversation with the Queen, and he had decided it was time he started working the clay. Dipping his hands in a bowl of water, he began kneading one of the masses until something resembling a head began to form. The Wizard continued to stand at the rail with his back to the sculptor. He had met Annúnlanthir's father and disliked him, even while acknowledging the greatness of his work. An arrogant fellow, with a supercilious attitude toward ordinary human beings and icy intolerance of their weaknesses...reminded him strangely of Saruman.
"My wife was not beautiful by the usual standards," Annúnlanthir said thoughtfully, as if to try to shake off the depressing subject of loss, "and I sometimes think that outraged my father even more than her mortality. He would scarcely have anything to do with us, or even with our children. But she had a face of such ineffable sweetness and humor and strength, with fine dark eyes that could flash with anger one moment and brim over with merriment the next, nearly closing when she laughed. I would have changed nothing. My father taunted me with the fact that even if she had been a beauty, her looks would have faded with age and I would be going about with a woman who appeared to be my grandmother, and we would look ridiculous. I think he was appalled that a son of his, and one following in his footsteps at that, would do something that made him ridiculous. But I could never understand why he could so completely fail, as a great artist himself, to look beyond surface appearances and see the true beauty within. Then again, maybe that very beauty is what held him back. For that sort of loveliness was inexorably linked to her mortality. I can understand that. As you say, loving a mortal exacts a heavy price. And yet if I had it to do all over again, even knowing what I would suffer, I would do so without hesitation."
"As would I," the Wizard said softly.
In the next several days, Annúnlanthir found himself growing less interested in what his subjects looked like and more in what they had done. He divined much in the stories the others told him, but their grief was still too fresh, they could tell only fragments before they would break down. It went hard with him that he was putting them to such pain while trying to come to know his subjects. Yet this knowledge was vital if he were to do justice to his work.
The Prince of Ithilien, Faramir, was the one most willing to tell what he had seen. He had known them only for a short time but had observed much.
"There was such a connection," he said as he sat in the large chair and watched the sculptor at his work. "It was not like brothers exactly, although it was close to that, and not like lovers either, or the usual kind of friendship or relation between master and servant. In some wise it was like all of those things, yet something more. It was very like comrades in arms, which I know much about, and like parent and child, in other ways. Nor was it all on one side. I remember one day when the gardener was struck with a dreadful toothache. That was when his master searched all around for the herbs to prepare the treatment for the impacted tooth. He applied it himself, then sat beside him until he was better, then sang him to sleep. I'll never forget it....I only wish I had written down the formula. But I was too preoccupied with other things."
A sad smile flickered over his handsome face as he reminisced. "There was...such a lack of hesitation and nonsense to their connection. A complete harmony. It was perfection. I know not how else to define it."
Annúnlanthir felt sorriest for the old one, who should have been able to tell him the most. The sculptor had begun on the faces at last, the bodies being done almost to his satisfaction. Except that he was not sure how to position them. Side by side, of course. But, should they be touching? And if so, how? Perhaps the old one could tell him.
"How is this?" Annúnlanthir asked him, pointing out the face of the one that would represent the old one's nephew. "I know it does not resemble him exactly, but is it anywhere close?"
The old Hobbit moved closer to the clay models and squinted. They were life sized, seated on what was meant to be stone. He reached out a wizened hand and almost touched the face of the one representing his nephew, then the fingers stopped short. That small gesture said much to the sculptor. It seemed his project was as doomed as the Ringbearers themselves.
"I am sorry," Annúnlanthir said after a long moment. "I can see them in my mind, without even closing my eyes. I can see exactly how I think they should look. I would never be able to convey them to those who truly knew them."
He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them, for it seemed his despair transferred to the old Hobbit, who moved back a step or two and would have fallen if the sculptor had not jumped up and caught him.
"My dear, dear lads," he murmured without taking his faded eyes away from the clay models. "I shall be joining them soon. Perhaps I will live long enough to see the monument complete, but then again I think not. I think I cannot wait so long to be with my sweet boys again. You know?"
The sculptor shut his eyes. "I feel with you. I lost both my sons. When this project is completed, I will be sailing to the Undying Lands to join my daughters and their families. That is all the comfort I have."
"Yes," the old one said, although he did not seem to have heard the sculptor's words. "I think I will go to be with them soon. I do not need to see marble likenesses of my dear lads. I can see them clear as daylight. Sometimes in dreams I can see them beckoning to me, laughing, teasing, asking me when am I going to quit this silly earth and come to where they are. Where do you think they may be, eh?"
"I know not. My father scorned the idea of an afterlife. But as for myself, I have sometimes held out the hope that there is something after all. If there truly are rewards after life, your lads are faring very well indeed."
"Ah," the old one said with a hint of a smile spreading the countless wrinkles of his tiny face, "thank you. Yes, they are surely having a wonderful time, far better than most of us. All the more reason to join them, I should think. Can't let them have all the goodies and leave none over for poor old Bilbo, now can we?"
Legolas came to look at the work, after a few days. He gazed thoughtfully at the two clay forms, as Annúnlanthir's large strong hands worked tried vainly to form them to his vision.
"What do you think?" the sculptor asked. "You have an Elf's memory; perhaps you can convey more clearly to me how they should look?" A spark of hope flared in him.
"You come close," Legolas said. "It is hardest to make the faces exact, I know that, even when one has seen them. You have molded them beautifully. I can see much of the souls of their models in them, even if the features are not quite like."
"Can you?" Annúnlanthir turned to the other Elf with lifted eyebrows.
"Yes, it seems you are coming to know them, little by little. You have begun to love them, and it shows. A bit more and it will be ready for the stone. There's just one thing..."
Legolas peered at the figures. The Ringbearer's right hand was clutched to his chest where the Ring was supposed to be. But his left hand--the sculptor was at a loss at how it should be. It rested in his lap, but seemed not entirely at home there.
"It's the positioning," he said. "It's not quite right somehow. I am still not certain how it should be."
"Seat them closer," Legolas said. "Like so...do you mind if I tamper with your work a bit?"
"No, go ahead. Show me."
The other Elf took the left hand of the Ringbearer and held it for a moment. A look of wonder stole over his fair features.
"It is warm," he said still gazing at the small clay hand that lay like a child's, trusting and vulnerable in his own. "Almost like human flesh. It seems that it would move on its own in another moment."
He continued to look at it as though not quite sure what to do with it himself, as though expecting it to direct him....