Aragorn and Olórin drew away, and together they ventured deeper into the Garden. Finally they saw before them a stream shining in a dawning light, and over it a silver Bridge. Aragorn stood looking at that Bridge for several moments before turning to his guide.
“He is not on this side, then.”
“No, neither of them is. They did not enter the Halls of Waiting at all, but crossed the River immediately. Too long had he waited for that release, Aragorn.”
“So I must cross to come to him again.”
“Yes, although as long as you do not go out of sight of the Bridge you may return to do what you must do.”
“Will you come with me?”
Olórin laughed. “No, I bound myself to Arda again when I was sent back to complete my task.” Then a look of deep longing crossed his face. “Although I will tell you, I look forward to again approaching the Presence, and once again hearing, ‘Welcome, my good and faithful Servant’ as I heard before. But I know when that day comes, there will be many already there with whom I will be joyfully reunited, both among my own brethren and among yours.
“I am content with my lot, Estel. When I saw the beauty of Arda shining in the Void I was drawn to it with the Aínur, and rejoiced to be allowed to bring it to its full glory. And when my own brother betrayed the vision of it, following the way of he who was once Melkor, I knew that in the end I should have to oppose him to set things right again. That along the way I should know such as Galadriel and Elrond and you and Gerontius and Bilbo and Sam and Iorhael--that was more than I’d ever imagined. I will come back into the Presence when the time is right, and I have not forgotten the last time I stood there and my agony was relieved.”
“So--when you fell with the Balrog, you did not come to the Halls of Waiting.”
“No--I, too, am a Child of Ilúvatar, but the Halls are not for our kind, but for those created specifically for this Creation.”
“Shall I bear your greetings to them?”
“Oh, please do, although they know already how much I rejoice in them.”
Nodding, Aragorn embraced the Maia, then turned to the Bridge. Immediately he found he was again accompanied, the tall youth who had been Pippin and the authority who had been Merry joining him once more. “We will make certain you do not lose sight of the Bridge,” Merry announced. “Wouldn’t do not to be there when she is ready.”
Together they moved to the slender Bridge, and there Aragorn paused. He looked at Merry. “You have been across it before?”
Merry laughed, living up to his nickname. “Oh, yes--and in doing so we found these forms. Within the Halls we find ourselves assuming the shapes we were known in before, but they are not fully us, you know.”
Pippin nodded. “I had not thought to be a youth again, but find this is my true shape. Wonder if you will be transformed, too, although I doubt there is much needed to express you more fully than you are. You were always a bit mysterious, even when we saw you fully Elessar; and always worshipful, even when you were guised as Strider the Ranger. Are you ready?”
With that deep dignity even the scapegrace of the Great Smials had displayed deep inside, Pippin led the way forward to the further Gardens. There was a tingling within Aragorn as he stepped onto the silver Bridge that continued as he finally essayed the last step back onto living turf. Merry and Pippin examined him closely and with delight once all three were on the far side.
“I knew that was within you, Estel,” Pippin laughed, “but I didn’t see how you could be improved upon--but there you are!” And reflected in the eyes of the youth before him, Aragorn saw the youth he himself had been, but shining with a clear light, a familiar light he’d seen once in another he’d not yet found again. This youth was tall and royal, but also full of deep joy, and on his breast he wore a green and gold and wine-colored gem intended for another. He looked down to see the gem, to see his shining arms and form, and was surprised.
Merry smiled, “He told me once he’d seen the Light shining within you as you called him back, Aragorn, that only that convinced him to return. Believe me, he will know you, and you will know him.” And he indicated the narrow opening between two flowering bushes.
Bowing, Aragorn turned to that opening, went through it.
He saw the Guardian first, tall and strong and golden, his proud face shining with Joy, that responsible stance so very familiar. And before him the mithril-pure light of the other he’d desired to see again for so very long, slender, nurturing, surrounded by the forms of children. Young and ancient at the same time this one was, neither fully male nor female, but beautiful as the dawn and the twilight and the Light of Varda’s Stars, and tears of sheer Joy and relief fell from the eyes of he who had been King as he beheld the one who, briefly, had been Frodo Baggins and Iorhael. And those tears were mirrored in the eyes of the other, who swept forward and took him in its embrace, murmuring into his heart itself, My Friend--my Brother! How long it’s been! How I’ve awaited your coming! The children clustered about both, demanding to be allowed to share in the joyful reunion.
The golden Light of the Guardian embraced both and all. “About time, Strider,” he heard whispered into his ear.
He heard delighted laughter, looked up, and saw advancing toward himself another Being of Light, the Teacher, as full of humor and mischief as the youth who had been Pippin, as full of good sense as the authority who had been Merry, as full of wisdom and nurturance as the Light that embraced him now.
Aragorn straightened, pulled free briefly to honor he who had once been Bilbo Baggins, and found himself pulled into another embrace.
More children clustered about all, and Aragorn found himself drawn to one, a delicate girlchild who smiled up into his face with delight when he swept her up into his arms. Iorhael laughed, “So, little Celebrían, you intend to know your grandfather before you go to your parents, do you?” Aragorn raised his head and looked at his companion with surprise. “Yes, some of these are newly returned, and others preparing for their lives to come. And this one will be soon born to Eldarion and Loreth, a delightful sister for Valandil. We’ve been allowed to prepare her some, as we did her brother. And this one--” Iorhael caressed the hair of a sturdy boy, “will be the firstborn of Idril.”
Aragorn knelt down to look into the smiling face of the child, and saw in it the reflection of what his own face had looked like as a boy, but with less solemnity, more delight. He loosed one shining arm from his granddaughter’s form to clasp the boy’s shoulder, and he laughed with sheer pleasure. “You must bear my greetings to your mother and whomever she has chosen as husband, my son. Let them know I watch over you all with pride. And I give to you my own child’s name to bear, if you will, Estel.” The boy shone with Love as he accepted the gift.
He looked once more into the face of Iorhael. “You have your family, your children, at last.”
A shining head, crowned with white Light, nodded. “Yes, Sam bore me this gift ere the end. None are mine, and yet all are mine.” Eyes more blue than summer skies searched his own, searched his heart. “You must go back ere we can go on together.”
“Yes, I must guide her so she can find her way. She gave herself into my keeping completely when she gave me her love, and I must return the gift.”
Another nod. “Then you’d best go, beloved Brother. Merry and Pippin are waiting for you there,” indicating the way Aragorn had come here, “and they will come no further until you are ready.”
“Then we will go on together?”
“Yes, that is what I have waited for.”
With one last embrace they parted, Aragorn reluctantly setting down the form of his granddaughter to be, and smiling one last time into the eyes of his grandson. The Guardian who had been Sam walked with him to the edge of the glade, his eyes shining with that core of Love. “Rosie’s waiting for us, you know. She knows I belong to both, and has been content.”
“I know, Sam. Panthael you have always been.”
The Guardian laughed, “That’s what they called me on Tol Eressëa, you know. No ‘Half-wise’ business with them.”
Aragorn joined in the laugh. “No, they’d not bother with a half truth, I’m sure. Until I can return, Brother.”
Again he was embraced. “Until you return, Brother. Give her my Love.”
And so Aragorn returned past the bushes, saw the two who awaited him, who accompanied him back to the Bridge and across it, led him to the start of the Way....