Offered with joy to Dreamflower for her birthday, and to everyone else for Independence Day--and who better to appreciate freedom than these?
Beta by RiverOtter.
Beta by RiverOtter.
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. Theseus, scene I, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Hey, rol-a-derry-o, ah the weather’s mellow!
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are….”
But he stopped in the midst of his song, listening intently to the murmur of the trees about him. “And what is it?” he asked aloud. “Someone comes? Ah, no—two someones, one you’ve met before, and one who has been but a rumor to you, eh? Then perhaps it’s time for your Tom to be off home.
“For Goldberry waits us there, with honey-mead and water,
There my heart is turned, toward the River-woman’s daughter!”
And, singing and capering, Tom Bombadil hurried down the path that followed the course of the Withywindle, waterlilies in hand carried in tribute to his beloved.
Arien was dropping in her course westward almost behind the trees when they came at last to Tom’s door. All was in readiness for them, of course—the house spotless and festooned with flowers, sprays of greenery, and candles ready to be lit, the table already set with fresh-baked bread, golden butter, honey, strawberries plucked from the wooded hillsides, and sweet cream to pour over them.
“And what have we here?” asked Tom of the two who approached his door. “It’s been time and time, even as I have known it, since last you visited with us, son of Arathorn and Elrond. And what does the High King of the West seek from those who dwell within the Old Forest?” Not giving him a chance to answer, though, he turned his attention to the King of Men’s companion. “And you, my Lady—I will say this:
“From morning’s Queen you come, and from Silver also, and Wisdom’s seat.
Had Ulmo not giv’n one mete to me, my heart might also lie at your feet.”
The Lady Arwen laughed, her dark hair thrown back and her shining eyes bright with delight. But Goldberry had come forward, reaching to embrace them. “Welcome, sweet guests,” she was saying, “and pay this one no mind, for his eye is easily caught in the net of wonder. Come—all is prepared for you! Will you stay with us this night? For, lo! Thy bed lies ready under the eaves, the blankets soft upon it, ready to ease the cares of those who rule.”
So it was they were led to the table and sat down to eat Tom’s simple yet filling fare, and all was filled with the beauty of the Queen’s voice as she joined Goldberry in song, and in time the men-folk joined in as well, filling the house with music and merriment.
At last all were sated, and when Goldberry rose to clear away, Arwen would not be deterred from aiding her, the two of them making short work of plates and cups, bowls and pitchers. Tom poured out a goblet of golden mead for each of them. Slippers, soft and restful, were provided for the feet of all, and Goldberry settled into her seat in the midst of her waterlilies, their white and golden beauty reflecting her own. Tom had seen the candles lit. No fire was needed, for the night was warm with summer. Arwen breathed the scented air and murmured, “A pleasant dream this seems, our most beloved host and hostess. But it was with a serious purpose we sought you out.”
“And where did you leave those who ordinarily guard you?” asked Tom. “I cannot think they know peace in their hearts with the two of you out of their sight.”
The King, unlit pipe in hand, smiled. “No, I don’t suppose they are happy with us. But as we entered your realm this day, they have had to agree to allow you to guard us in their stead, and they wait in Bree, from whence they will come to join us tomorrow. Not,” he added, his hand raised to forestall any further speech for the moment from Tom, “not here, but on the borders of Tyrn Gorthad.”
Tom cocked his head, fixing Aragorn Elessar with his bright eye. “And what would you do there?” he asked. “The residents of that place do not take kindly to visits from the living, and they might seek again to take you prisoner, and to use you to their own purposes.”
Aragorn, however was shaking his head, his hand upon the green stone he wore on his breast. “They cannot hurt us,” he said simply. “But we came primarily to ask you if you would mind to lose them as neighbors. I know that they can do no harm to you, no more so than can they do now to us; and I know that their presence has helped to ensure the peace the two of you know here. The Hobbits of the Shire respect your borders and have managed a truce with Old Man Willow’s sentries this side of the High Hay. But I worry somewhat that if we banish them as we’d like to do, that wanderers from the Breelands and elsewhere might seek to enter the Old Forest and despoil it, thinking the land uninhabited and thus free for the taking.”
“It’s thoughtful, the King, he is,” Tom sighed, taking a sip from the goblet he held. “Old wights can’t touch us, and we won’t fear them. They know I’m Master here and won’t allow their mischief free rein.” He looked thoughtfully into his cup. “But,” he murmured, “they grow tired. Aulendil is gone, his golden soul-trap with him. The Ringbearer is gone also, may his troubled soul know rest now.”
Aragorn smiled at him. “I’m certain he does now.”
Again Tom eyed him, a smile touching his eyes. “Ah—then I’m not the only one trees might confide in, then. Good! Good!”
He downed his drink, and setting the goblet down by him, rose to his feet. “So, you think to banish the wights, eh? But where would you send them? And will they be pleased at the prospect?”
“Probably not,” admitted the King. “Not that I care that much for their thoughts on the subject. But too many decent folk have been bedeviled by them, and some lost who’ve been sorely missed. And we would honor those who were laid there so long ago as they deserve.”
“Few enough of those are still aware of the place, I suspect.” Tom shrugged. He raised his arms and began to sing.
“Long have the wights ruled there, and fair souls care not for them.
Far past Arda’s bounds they’ve gone, Light and Love now hold them.”
“And we rejoice that this is true. But the question still stands—do you wish to keep them as neighbors to protect your borders? It has been said, after all, that good fences make good neighbors.”
“True enough,” Tom admitted. He gave the brooch the King wore a long look. “Hmm,” he said. “Perhaps that trinket you wear might serve all.” He looked up to meet the King’s eyes. “Elessar Envinyatar you are now, the Elfstone, the Renewer? Well, instead of banishing those who’ve taken Tyrn Gorthad, why not renew them?” And he turned in his place, chanting, “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. Why not allow yourself to sleep on the problem, and see what thoughts you find when the morning light embraces us once more?”
So saying he set to blowing out most of the candles in the room. Goldberry took one that still twinkled brightly and bade them soothing dreams, advising them to fear no nightly noises, and went to her own chamber. Tom gave one of the last two into the Lady’s hands, and taking the other, led them to a room under the eaves where a great soft bed, apt even to Aragorn’s long frame, lay awaiting them, even as Goldberry had described it. Fine night robes lay there, and after bidding them good night, Tom shut the door behind himself and hied himself off to his wife’s embrace.
First they heard the running of water through a sandy bed. Frodo was hunkered down, his hands upon his knees, looking into the depths of a stream. On hearing Lord and Lady approach, he looked up, his smile of greeting radiant. “Oh, Aragorn, come and see!” So saying, he indicated the water that ran by his toes, a few droplets escaping its flow and shining happily in the hair that clad his feet.
They came opposite him and looked where he pointed. There, crawling along the bottom was what appeared to be a tube made of sand and strands of dried grass stalks cemented together, out of which feet emerged at the forward end. The creature in its ungainly house was making for the stalk of a great cattail that rose up high above the surface of the stream, and as it traveled Frodo sang it on its way. They watched as it finally reached its goal, and as, once its feet grasped the stalk of the plant, the larva of a caddis fly began laboriously shedding its protective shell and, at last free of its former home, started its climb toward the air above. Frodo, enthralled, watched its progress, his eyes growing brighter by the moment.
“The pupa will form around its body,” he told them, “and within it, it will change. Oh, Aragorn, how it will change!”
But the dream was beginning to fade away, and they found themselves slipping backwards, away from Frodo, a mist of silver-white forming between him and themselves.
Aragorn awoke and rolled to affirm that his wife lay by him, and saw that in her hand she now held the stem of a cattail, to which was affixed a brown shell that even now was hardening about what had been a vulnerable larva’s body….
They paused in sight of the standing stone that marked the boundary to the ancient royal cemetery for Arnor. “I was little better than a boy when I came this way before,” Aragorn said quietly, “filled with the bravado of youth, certain that no danger could touch me—that I could command those that dwell within. That I survived is not due to what little caution I showed at the time, I fear.”
She laughed, laying her slender hand on his arm. “Oh, I am sure that they found within themselves a certain reluctance to force you to plumb to the depths of your ability to command them, my beloved. And you mastered them.”
He shook his head ruefully. “I fear it was more of a draw in the end, and it was decided only when our host of last night came to see what riot I was inciting. Iarwain Ben-adar has brooked no nonsense from them since Angmar first drew them here, intending to use them to sow fear and distress among those who must hold the line against him in this region. Bombadil taught me that day that you cannot fear them, for to do so gives them their weapon to use against you.”
He held out his arm for her to take, but before they could even take a step they were halted anew by calls from the direction of the Road. “Hoy—Strider—hold up for a moment!”
Neither was surprised to realize that the Mayor of the Shire, the Thain, and the Master of Buckland were hurrying to join them.
“It appears we were just in time,” announced Pippin. “One minute more and you’d have gone in there!”
“We will not be deterred,” warned Aragorn Elessar.
“No one,” Merry said, “said anything about stopping you. We’ll be going with you, is all.”
“And why?” the King asked, standing straight and regally, his eyes demanding justification for their inclusion in the party to face the wights that haunted Tyrn Gorthad.
Sam exchanged glances with his fellow Hobbits, then returned the Man’s gaze as directly as he was looking at them. “Well,” he said, “we was as good as told to do so.”
The four of them stood, defiantly looking at one another, until the Queen laughed. “I believe, holder of my heart and Light, that Lord Irmo has been relaying messages to more than just to us.”
Merry was nodding his head. “We’d slept the night just inside the gate, in the Brandybuck pavilion, waiting for your visit today. And we all awoke at the same time, with the same dream in our minds.”
“Frodo, a stream, and those water worms he used to collect,” Sam agreed.
“And he told us that you needed us by your side today, and to find you by the standing stone,” said Pippin. “Which we did,” he added, indicating the one before which they stood.
Rubbing his chin, Aragorn examined them. “They will seek to rouse fear in you, and by that fear will seek to take you,” he warned them.
Sam gave a snort. “Think as we’ll be that frightened again by the likes of these?” he asked, waving his hand at the barrows beyond the standing stone.
The eyes facing him were as steady as his own. Merry had survived the Black Breath; Pippin had managed to keep the secret of Frodo carrying the Ring into Mordor itself from Sauron when their minds connected through the Palantiri; and Sam had faced the terrors of Shelob and Mordor and won through against them, had even worn the Ring, and had stood in the Sammath Naur itself under the very Eye. No, these were not the callow, rather foolish but determined would-be adventurers who had stumbled into these precincts before. They were proven warriors against evil now, as he knew full well. And they bore arms, he noted. He looked at the sword Merry wore—not that given him by the Lady Éowyn, but the one Sam had worn during their journeys in the Fellowship, while Sam wore Sting. Noting the focus of their Lord King’s attention, Sam explained, “I brought both of them, that one and Sting. Thought as Frodo-lad might practice with it, once we get to Annúminas with you. But, once we knew as we’d be comin’ here, I thought as maybe that would be the better one to carry. Made to oppose the evil from the north, wasn’t it, after all? And you never know—we may need to cut off another wight’s hand like Frodo did.”
Aragorn laughed. “I am convinced! Well, gentlemen, shall we face them, then?”
Arwen laced her arm through his, and as she began to sing, they moved forward, Pippin taking the point, Merry alongside them to the Queen’s left, and Sam guarding the backs of their sovereigns.
The song wasn’t one he’d heard more than once, Aragorn thought—and then he recognized it. It was the song Frodo had been singing in the dream as they’d watched the larva on its laborious journey toward the cattail. He smiled as he passed the stone, and joined her in the song. The temperature had seemed to plummet as they entered the Barrow-downs, but as Sam began to sing, too, the air seemed to warm slightly. Then Merry joined in, and at last Pippin, his voice sweet and confident.
It was a song of change, of transformation, of metamorphosis.
And the wights heard, boiling out of the ancient tombs that they’d taken for their habitations, howling and moaning in their fury and fear.
Yes, they were in terror!
How the table had been turned, Aragorn thought fleetingly.
The song at last ended, and the five of them stood facing the wights, wary but not fearful.
“What do you want with us?” demanded the wights.
“I am the King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar!” proclaimed Aragorn. “Do you wish to be freed from the bindings that brought and hold you here?”
The response was almost a shriek of derision and rage. “You are mere mortals!” one of the wights challenged. “You have no authority over us!”
“Perhaps so, or perhaps you are wrong. I ask again—would you be freed from what binds you here?”
“Free to do what?”
“Perhaps free to be as you were intended?” suggested the King. “I have examined the spells set about this place, spells intended to protect those who pass by the barrows. Those spells were not designed to hold any against their wills, not as long as they did not display a will to harm any outside of this place. If you are willing to lay aside evil intentions, you may go where you please.”
A lesser wight pushed past the one who’d taken the role of spokesman. “Do you mean that we can perhaps leave the bounds of Arda?” it whined. Was there a hint of hope in that question?
“Do you wish to return to the Timeless Halls? I cannot say for certain what awaits you once you leave the Barrow-downs, but certainly it cannot be worse than what you’ve known for the past two thousand years, can it? Are you willing to lay aside your will to evil?” He focused his attention solely on the smaller spirit.
There was an incomprehensible rumble about them. It appeared that the wights were debating amongst themselves as to what they ought to do.
The five mortals watched about themselves warily, but with growing confidence. Sometimes they could clearly see shapes forming here or there, but then those shapes would as quickly dissolve again into swirling mist. At first they oft saw slavering fangs and burning eyes; but as the debate continued the shapes became more generally similar to the bodies of the Children of Ilúvatar, and the distortions began to diminish.
At one point the howling became piercing in its intensity, and again the air grew cold, almost as if winter were ready to take hold of the land about them in spite of the fact they were approaching the summer solstice. Pippin raised Trollsbane, his guard intensified. Another voice answered the howl, calmer but still powerful, and in time the general cacophony began to reflect that voice’s tone.
At last all began to go still. Again forms became visible around them, no longer visions out of nightmares, but instead shapes that were more similar to the forms of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits, some with a ruined beauty, some laughably ugly, but all of them—tired.
“We would indeed be freed from our bonds,” one of the wights told them.
“Including the bonds of anger and hatred?” asked the Lord Elessar.
For a moment there was quiet, but then, from all sides they could hear the word echoed, “Yes.” It was not a shout, but instead sounded almost like exhausted acceptance. The eyes they could discern were watchful, but in many of them they saw an almost desperate hope growing.
“If you mean it,” Aragorn said.
He gathered to himself the power of the Elessar stone upon his breast, and began again to sing the song Frodo had been singing in the dream. He envisioned in his heart the image of the Army of the Dead, the Oathbreakers, as they’d stood before him at Pelargir, their mission accomplished, their oaths at last fulfilled, and he sang similar Freedom for these. Pippin joined the song, then Merry, followed by Sam; and at last Arwen’s descant rose above the other voices. It was a symphony of Hope Returned, of Victory, of Change.
Then a new voice was heard as a wight stepped forward and joined the singing, its voice growing increasingly pleasant as it sang. Its shape began to change again, and it lost the darkness that had been discernible in it a moment before. It grew brighter, brighter and more beautiful—and then it rose up, glorious and joyful, turned at an angle away from everything, and----
----And it was gone!
The tiredness fell away from a few others, and now they stepped forward as had the first. They joined the singing, and the same transformation could be seen in them. More began to follow. Some followed the first out of Arda; others merely grew brighter and then appeared to fade from sight.
More and more joined the singing, until at last all had been changed—or so it seemed to the five mortals.
No—there remained at least a few dark spirits there, although not much more than a single handful. But surrounding them could be sensed a large number of bright entities who appeared intent on herding the dark ones into the furthest reaches of the ancient cemetery.
One of these bright ones made itself nearly visible. Not all of us will leave this place, they heard in their hearts, not as long as those refuse to give over the anger that our ancient Master taught them. But we thank you! We had forgotten how to hear the Song, and you have taught us to hear It once more and to join in It again. And we thank you for that!
They felt as if hands had been laid on each of them in blessing, and then they were alone.
From the top of the Tor Iarwain watched, a smile on his lips. “It’s done,” he exulted. “And the old barrows are not all deserted, but no longer all given over to dark spirits! And it seems that a few will remain, not dark but bright, to keep the fences….”
And then, putting that out of his mind, Tom began singing, dancing his way across the hilltop, heading to the heart of his land, back to the company of his lady once more.
And the pupa split unnoticed, and a caddis fly spread its shining wings to dry.