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14
Flights of Stairs


In the morning a pair of armed guards came to escort the family to the Palace. They commented admiringly on the stone dog, and Sam could have sworn it looked pleased with itself.

Amaryllis was in better spirits, especially when told that Silivren and Little Iorhael would be coming to stay at the Palace for a while also. And Sam managed to cheer them all with a story about the time Merry-lad and Pippin-lad lost their fine new clothes betting on a pony-race, and had to walk through the night nekkid as the day they were born.

“Them two fools spent the night out in the woods,” he told them as they drove down the meadow road, “coverin’ theirselves up with leaves to keep warm, and in the morning, each one took two branches and held one in front of theirselves and the other in back, and set out through the town, having to stop and scratch theirselves from time to time, ‘cos they was covered with chigger-bites and tick-bites from neck to knee. Then they spied some ladies’ clothes hangin’ on a line, and ‘borrowed’ a couple of dresses and put ‘em on, and also a couple bonnets the better to hide their faces. Well, there they was, walkin’ along, swingin’ their hips and gigglin’ and chatterin’ in high voices about lads and nice dresses and what have you so’s folks would think they really was lasses. And as they was walkin’ home, some lads tried to flirt with ‘em till they discovered who they was, then the lads started laughin’ and carryin’ on, yankin’ their skirts up till Merry-lad and Pippin-lad had to put up their fists and fight ‘em off, and then along come the two that they’d lost their new suits to, and a sight of other folks, and if they didn’t have a time watchin’ and howlin’ at poor Merry-lad and Pippin-lad in lasses’ clothes punchin’ one minute and scratchin’ theirselves like hounds the next….”

The Palace loomed up in all its dazzling white splendor on the hilltop in the morning sunlight. Sam had not seen it up this close before, and thought to himself that it even made the Hall of Kings seem ashamed of itself. Northlight started to lift him to carry him up the front stairs.

“Don’t you even think about it,” Sam told him. “You’ll put your back out, you will, liftin’ the likes of me. Let that guard feller do it, he’s bigger and stronger.”

“Allow me,” Moonrise said and he hefted Sam up as easily as if he’d been little Perhael’s size. Northlight lifted Frodo instead, very gently and carefully, and the others followed, slowly behind.

“This is the flight of steps where I fell,” Frodo said to Sam as they ascended the first. “It’s well that it was the first flight, or I might have been killed. I’m still not sure how it happened. I suppose I was thinking how sweet and proud and happy Lyrien looked with her little newborn in her arms, and how lovingly Perion was gazing at them, I just plain was not looking where I was going.”

Sam shook his head in consternation. The flight in question was a round one, divided in two, with a small fountain in the middle. It met in one broad stairway divided by boxes of flowers of eye-piercing color, scarlet stars and purple bells and yellow sun-bursts and blue spears and pink-and-white hanging clusters, none of which Samwise Gamgee, the most famous gardener in the world, knew the names of. But to be sure there were rose-trees, and ferns, and white lilies, and red hollyhocks, and others that he did recognize, and that was a relief. Butterflies and hummingbirds abounded, and birds singing all around, and if there wasn’t a snow-white peacock in a low-hanging cherry tree! There were dozens of windows pointed at the top, with glass that winked glittering colors in the sunlight, and the door was made of a polished reddish-brown wood with a working of bronze that looked to be forming a pair of wings, flanked by two crystal lamps, and above it was a marble relief swan with spread wings, surrounded by an oval of polished rose-colored tiles. And above it all, roofs of gold, and towers with little railings all around, and pointed gold domes on top, and the sun was fair blinding on them. And far behind it all, mountains, high and covered with trees and crags, and incredibly tall waterfalls pouring down streams of diamonds in an endless soft musical roar.

Sam opened his mouth to say he wished his old Gaffer could see all this, but not a word would come out.

And there was Lord Celeborn once more, standing with his Queen, and his daughter and granddaughter, and Lord Elrond and his lady and his lady mother, and Mister Gandalf, now known as Olórin, with his lady Ríannor and their son Arasirion. And lovely Mistress Lyrien with Perion and their little one Perhael.

And there were also Ionwë, with his sister Arasinya and her two lads, one of whom was on the floor with Perhael playing with little wooden soldiers and horses and a small castle made of blocks. Her other son, who looked to be somewhere between Amaryllis and Little Iorhael in age, was talking with Arasirion. It was the first time Sam had seen Arasinya up close. She and her brother both had the same fine-drawn features and blue-grey eyes, although her hair was a shade or two darker and shinier than his, her skin with a more healthy rosy glow to it, and she held her head and shoulders higher and straighter than he did. He looked as though he could do with a bit of sun, hisself.

“I am so thrilled to meet you,” Arasinya said to Sam as they were introduced, and he thought to himself: Now here was a lady and no mistakin’. Her voice was like pure soft silver rain, and she wore a simple gown of grey and rose that seemed to have grown from her. “My brother told me how you faced him down single-handed last night in defense of the others, and I was completely taken aback. You are every bit as courageous as your legend.”

Sam felt himself blushing, and saw Ionwë look away sheepishly. Here was a lady who didn’t mind saying what she was thinkin’, but knew how to do it so’s not to put folks off.

“These are my sons,” she said as the older, brown-haired boy approached. “This is Jolyan, and that one on the floor is Ninniach. He is named in honor of Northlight, who used the name Ninniach when he first appeared on the Island. But, I suppose you knew that already?”

“Yes, my lady,” Sam said smiling. Ninniach was fair-haired, and a bit older than Perhael. He had caught hold of his feet, and was spinning on his behind. His mother bade him get up and come meet Sam. He grinned a little cheekily at Sam and extended a hand to him, saying, “Are you a Squirrel?”

“Beggin’ your pardon?” Sam said with raised eyebrows. Arasinya laughed.

“Of course he isn’t a Squirrel, silly,” she said. “He’s a hobbit, just like the Prince. ‘Squirrels’ are what some folks here call Wood-elves,” she explained to Sam, “along with ‘Harp-pluckers.’ Neither name is necessarily complimentary.”

Soon Guilin arrived with his family, all in a state of excitement, especially Turin—something was Going On. There was much flurry deciding where to put everyone, and the children got to pick out their rooms, which of course was an immense thrill. And Anemone said that during their stay at the Palace, Sam and Frodo might room together, and she would sleep with Tilwen. Amaryllis and Silivren, of course, would room together, and Castiel with them, since one of the enormous beds was big enough for three, and the three little girls squealed with delight and Amaryllis proposed a race to see which would get to the bed the fastest. Later Sam heard her telling Castiel and Lúthien the story about Merry-lad and Pippin-lad.

After breakfast, it was decided that Olórin, Guilin, Galendur and Northlight would all go with Moonrise and Ebbtide to hunt down the rogue Elves. Ionwë asked if he might go also, but the Queen bade him stay, saying he had already done his part in going out alone in the night to warn the others, and she feared for his life if he went this time. Perhaps she would send out another hunting-party if this one were unsuccessful and he could join that one later. He seemed relieved. The children wanted to see Moonrise and Ebbtide turn into dogs, but they said with twinkling eyes that they couldn’t do it with people looking, only in secret.

I don’t really believe they can turn into dogs,” Jolyan said with a wise look at the others. “I think they’re pulling our leg. I bet they can’t do it at all.”

“Oh, they can,” said Tamarind, Moonrise’s youngest son. “I’ve seen it for myself. They can turn into anything they want. I bet your dad can’t do that.”

“Yes,” Frodo said, “I’ve seen it too. Rest assured they will hunt them down without mercy.”

“I’m not sure how merciful I can be now,” Northlight said in a low voice, glancing toward the doorway from whence the girls’ voices were issuing, “after seeing the way they frightened my little daughter last night. That is something I shall not soon forget. I would not go, for that reason, save that I feel I should.”

“Then you should heed that voice and not go,” Guilin said. “The rest of us can take care of them, and you can bet your grandmother’s lace shawl that we will.”

Sam found himself hoping Northlight would heed. He looked so much smaller than the others, more like one of the lads. And Sam understood completely about mercy, and found himself hoping there would be none wasted upon those villains. Not just because Sam was a father himself, but seeing Northlight this way, the effect that witnessing Amaryllis’ fear was having on him, was a dreadful thing. Would he ever be the same afterward?

“My grandmother hadn’t a lace shawl, nor aught else to wear other than her long and flowing hair,” Northlight said grinning. “But I shall go nevertheless. When do we set out?”

“Ionwë,” Lord Elrond said, “what precisely did Beleg and Raegbund say to you? What did they propose doing?”

“They were extremely vague,” Ionwë said. “They just asked me if I wanted to have a bit of fun. I think it’s Northlight they really want. But I wouldn’t put anything else past them either.”

“I have heard reports of theft in some of the villages,” the Queen said, “but if there were violent incidents, I did not hear of them. However, the fact that they were together would be reason enough to apprehend them. It is in direct violation of the conditions of their release. They were strictly forbidden to associate with one another.”

“Why would they want Northlight?” Sam reasoned. “They’d of been put to death but for him. I should think they’d be grateful.”

“One would think so,” Frodo said. “But if they wanted only Northlight, why would they wait until you arrived to come out of hiding, Sam? We are all in danger. I wish I might go, myself, but of course that is out of the question now.”

“Perhaps they wish to get their revenge on Northlight by cutting the rest of you down in front of him,” Olórin said. “They may hate him simply for being all that they are not, and may harbor some desire, of which they may be only vaguely aware themselves, to bring him to their level by destroying all he loves best, just to see if they can. The ways of the wicked are hard to understand, but they are thorough and utterly ruthless. We must take no chances with them.”

“I think you are right about them,” Ionwë said. “Especially Beleg.”

“Why did you ever go about with him, uncle?” Jolyan asked. His mother shushed him, but he did not look her way.

“Because he was bold and brave and daring,” Ionwë said, “and seemed to care what no one thought, and did things his own way, and took what he wanted and commanded respect. He was that bad boy other lads secretly wish they dared to be. I was flattered that he would even want aught to do with me, for although I was cocky and a braggart, I did little to prove what I boasted. He was often cruel and I was afraid of him also, yet there was something in me that was drawn to him as a moth to flame. It is hard to explain his fascination; it was evil, and frightening, and yet extremely alluring.”

“Yes…I know something of that,” Northlight said very softly. Ionwë looked at him and nodded slightly. Apparently he knew of Darkfin.

“Was he a Squirrel?” Ninniach asked from the corner where he had resumed his game with Perhael. Sam started. He had forgotten the little ’uns were still in the room.

“Of course not, dear,” Arasinya said. “Why don’t you and Perhael take your toys out to the garden to play? It’s a lovely day out.”

“And yes,” Ionwë said to Olórin, “that about Northlight being all they were not—I think that is what I had against him myself, all along. I never really thought he was interested in Arasinya that way. Rather, I hated him for being the brother to her that I should have been, and would not be…until later.”

After some more deliberating, the hunting party set out, with many exhortations from the womenfolk to be very careful. Arthion and Turin begged to be allowed to go, but Guilin told them very sternly not to even think about it. They turned away muttering and grumbling darkly about the unfairness of life in general until Arasirion informed them that his mother had a mare that was due to foal very soon, perhaps today, and offered to take them down to the horse farm. After a bit more grousing, they skipped off with him.

“Ionwë,” Galadriel said, “I have decided to grant you passage to Aman if you should wish to go and make a new start in a land where you are not known. I know you do not truly enjoy copy-work, and if you do not mind my saying so, I think you need to get out in the light and work in the fresh air. You’re far too pale and peaked, and your eyes are bloodshot and squinty. I will send word to my relations there to find and give you work more suited to you.”

“Thank you so much, my Lady,” Ionwë said. “I may take you up on it, although…if it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to stay here, at least for a while. I am much attached to my sister’s family, who are all that has kept me going all this time. And while it’s true that I don’t enjoy the work, I have learnt a great deal from the books you have had me to copy. And Northlight gave me work also, and the books he had me copy were surprisingly interesting and different. I regret now that I never finished my college education, and proved such a great disappointment to my parents. I wish I might go back and change all that, but I cannot.”

“No, one cannot change the past, of course,” the Queen said, “but one can have a hand in shaping one’s future. I see you have made up your mind to do so, and would help you in whatever way I may to set and guide your feet upon that steep and upward pathway.”

“I have a proposition for you, Ionwë,” Ríannor said, and Sam started as she came through the door, and he was floor all over again by the impact of her dark and penetrating beauty. “I discussed it with my husband this morning, and he is in favor. How would you like to come and work on my horse-farm?”

Ionwë flushed a little. “Why, my Lady,” he stammered. “That’s so…so kind of you to offer…but the thing is…I know next to nothing of horses. I can ride one, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge, I’m afraid.”

“You will learn as you go along, and Arasirion can teach you, if you are not above taking instruction from a young boy,” Ríannor said. “It is not easy work, but the Queen is right, it will do you good to get away from those books for a while and get out into the fresh air and use your muscles. And if you learn well and work faithfully, you may soon earn a horse of your own.”

Ionwë looked down and although his back was turned, Sam was certain he was blinking back tears.

“This is so good of you, and I do not deserve it,” he said almost inaudibly. “I will take you up on your offer, my Lady Ríannor, and start work as soon as you need me.”

“Olórin will bring you to the farm when it is deemed safe for you to leave the Palace then,” Ríannor said. “There are rooms above the stable you may have for your lodging. They are scarcely palatial, but comfortable enough I am sure, and we will have them fixed to make them more livable. You may bring what you like to furnish them.”

Sam and Frodo went out to the gardens later on and strolled about, admiring the flowers and discussing them, Frodo naming off all the unfamiliar ones, then they sat on a bench under a spreading tree, smoking their pipes and talking quietly together. But for their worry about Northlight, it would have been a very happy time.

“I can very well see why you’re proud of him,” Sam said. “I know I’ve said that before, but it’s so. I feel fonder of him than my nephews, and that’s wrong, but I can’t help it. He’s a bit of a miracle, he is.”

“More than a bit,” Frodo smiled. “I suppose the barrier between him and Ionwë will be breeched now, and they can be friends at last. I didn’t even know Northlight was giving him books to copy. He never told me. I suppose he thought I would not approve. I don't know that I would have, at that. And Sam, I do very much appreciate you telling those stories to the girls this morning. I think it helped take their minds off what is going on….I hope they find them quickly, and that no one gets hurt.”

“Me too,” Sam said.

They spent some time, after luncheon, watching the children play, talking with the little girls, telling more stories, going to see the Queen’s grotto with the little statue of Nimrodel for which Anemone had posed. She had described it as “respectable,” Sam remembered. Well, sea-folk had a different idea of respectable than Shire-folk, that was for certain. The statue was wearing a gown of sorts, but so short and clingy, it was a mite hard to tell where she left off and it began. Still and all it was a beautiful piece and no mistaking. Especially in this setting, with the water whispering so soft and sad and gentle behind her, as though it was the tears of Nienna all come together in one place, saltless and purified, plentiful and blessed. And her hair flowing all down and down her back as though it was just water in stone form, and her face so pure and wistful and dreaming and full of fair hope with slightly downcast eyes and parted lips, one hand raised to put back a lock from her forehead, that gesture caught just perfect, one knee bent, the pretty foot turned just so, with all the tiny and delicate bones in view…well, it scarcely seemed a stone maiden at all, but a real one just caught at the right moment, born of the waters and the dust of all mysteries, captured in time…and he remembered Mister Frodo saying that was just exactly how she had been sitting by the sea-side, the very first day of their meeting.

And Sam found himself falling in love again, not with Anemone exactly, nor yet with Nimrodel, but with something so beautiful, so timeless, so divine, so tender and seductive and inclusive, that it couldn’t be named, nor drawn, nor sung, nor summoned, nor dreamed, nor recalled. It was just there, holding him in its embrace. And Mister Frodo was there beside him, and Sam willed it to flow into him as well.

And much later, Sam knew he had glimpsed the Door that stood before the stairway that would lead him into the presence of the Gift, and he knew he would walk it himself…with none but his master by his side, and he would not be afraid, nor spend so much time looking back at those who would be left behind in the rainbowed gardens of brightness, however dear and miraculous they might be.



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