White Shadow by Cara J Loup

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Story notes: Timeline: 1442 S.R.
Warnings: Multiple viewpoints and some highly speculative ideas about the trees of Valinor and their scions.

This story draws on the history of the White Tree, as described in 'The Silmarillion', and Tolkien's Epilogue.

Much thanks to Heather for beta-reading and to Lorelei for invaluable help with the Elven languages.
It is not your time.

White light fell down the tree, washed over limbs and trunk, and froze --


Under a blackened sky. Then he heard aught but his own breath, loud even against the hoofbeats. He blinked into the pale day that ought to be shining fair, and his fingers clamped into a tight hold on the reins. Not a single tree grew on these fields, once scorched and blooded, that were now rippling with bleached grass from end to end.

"Dad?" Elanor repeated, nudging her pony closer. Her cheeks were bright with the wind and the riding pace they'd kept over the last mile.

"What, my dear?" Sam murmured.

She glanced swiftly over her shoulder. "For a moment, it looked... as if you might fall off."

Behind the three of them rode Men from Rohan, in a heavy clatter and jangle that grew loud as they reached the paved road under the gates.

"It takes a bit more to knock me over, don't you be worried now." Sam fumbled for a smile. "More than letting the mind wander in the wrong place, leastways."

"Ah." Elanor's quick smile returned without hesitation. "And perhaps your mind wandered through a bit of rhyme, dear dad?"

"Now you're laughing under your tongue," Sam answered in a playful grumble. He might have reached across to brush her cheek or her wind-tangled curls, if the sharp little tremor that stung him so didn't linger on. His right hand detached slowly from the reins and crept into his pocket. There's no rhyme to such fancies, he thought. None.

In truth, it were a dream he'd known before, but never in daylight, never while his mind were running through such sights and memories as came with travelling far from the Shire.

He tugged on the reins, checking his pony's trot so that Rose could catch up to them. He'd picked her a very gentle mare, but that pony was in the habit of stopping to champ the fat grasses swaying high enough to tickle her nose. Rosie had raised one hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and for a moment her mouth stood open in sheer wonderment. "Why, this city is a mountain!" she said when she noticed him watching. "How do folk live in such heights without being afeared of falling?"

"Why, you said the same about their horses!" Elanor replied cheerfully. "And yet you sat on one only yestereve, without seeming very much afraid."

"Well, let no-one say I brought our family to shame." Rosie's cheeks coloured a little, but her eyes remained fixed on the walls towering ahead.

Sam watched the sight slide over her face, in fluid sparkles first, then tightened shadow, and thought it best not to look himself. Up and up the tall city, to the tower that would flame at daybreak and burn its light out last with nightfall. Too many places up ahead reeled with remembrance that would find him soon enough.

The gates stood wide open, and in another moment, the deep arch welcomed them with dry, stone-cooled air. At the corner of his eye, Sam caught movement in silver and black on the far side. He jumped off his pony and reached a hand to his wife. Rosie's cloak tangled a bit in the saddle-bags, but she yanked it free and found her balance with a short huff. In a flash of riding breeches, Elanor hitched up her skirts and swung smoothly to the ground.

All of the arch rang as the Rohirrim followed them to the first circle of the city, their steeds marching with the full tread of an army. The noise shuddered up from the pit of Sam's stomach, to mesh with his unsettled heartbeats. A few steps more, out of this watered half-shadow, and everything was white --Washed so white in a glare of mid-day, it ached in his chest where a scarce indrawn breath stopped and trembled. His sight blurred in the streaming brilliance of an open street.

Oh, they had come through this very gate, years ago, heads tipped back as they gaped at those fierce spires, and the call of trumpets running like a storm about them, from every crook in the winding roads. They'd felt so small that their hands caught between them, tangling on a quick surge -- and then Sam thought he could stretch out and touch a fingertip to the highest roof, easy as you please. So many years ago.

His hand inched back to his pocket to seize what comfort he might --"Master Samwise."

Aragorn's voice was as soft and clear as he remembered, and strong without being raised an ounce. In his mind Sam still called him Strider, or Aragorn leastways, not Elessar, King... His own greeting came without thought or pause, and he was thankful that his sight cleared after a blink and another. The street and what houses leaned over it with fine turrets and arches shone fairer than his memories, cleaned of such scars and gashes as the war had dealt.

"And Mistress Rose. We welcome you." Aragorn bowed, a warm smile slipping into the motion.

Sam drew her forward by the hand, her cheeks blooming with bashful pleasure, and knew well enough that Elanor wouldn't need no prompting. She stepped forth with a quick curtsey and a dazzled smile.

"Elanor." The name flowed on a voice like midnight water, and cast silence over them all. The Queen had come down from the inmost halls, her robes a fair mirror to the sky. If there were a bit more silver threading Aragorn's hair now, she had aged not a day.

Sam felt a quick flush of pride when his daughter repeated a first murmured greeting in the Lady Arwen's own tongue. Stumble a bit on the words as she might, he could see how it pleased the Queen. Her smile lost all its carved stillness as she held out her hand.

Something stirred Sam to look at Aragorn then, and his own smile faltered. He'd not expected to be watched with such serious intent. The dark brows were drawn together, over some startled musing perhaps -- but then Aragorn raised his eyes past him to speak to the Rohirrim.

"Our welcome and thanks to you, friends and knights of the Mark, for guiding our guests safely on their long journey. Be at peace, and take what rest you may."

Yet in a quick half-turn, ere Aragorn reached out his hand to the Queen, his eyes found Sam again, seeming to question him in a dark flash.

Sam breathed deeply. Inside his pocket, his fingers were close on a smooth curve and wrapped in a fine chain. His heartbeats ran calmer with it, but even this most treasured charm couldn't stop the words whispering under his thoughts. It is not your time.

Aragorn made sure to keep his countenance firm until Sam had closed the door with a final 'good night' that echoed in his wife's murmur. Entirely too fast, the room fell to silence, shadow-soaked around the scattered gleams of silver and crystal.

Instead of dining in the hall, they had spent several hours in a more private chamber, seated around a low table that ensured their guests' comfort. Among the shimmers of goblets, plates and ewers, cheerful voices still seemed to hover, with their charming lilt and vivid tales of the North. Over his shoulder, Aragorn glanced back at his wife.

Poised in her own reflection, Arwen stood by the window. The brighter alcove enfolded her in deep amber and softened her profile. Almost unwilling, Aragorn turned fully to cross the distance that stirred with unspoken disquiet. The silence would break now, it had to.

"He is unchanged, Estel."

"I have seen it."

Beneath the marks that he recognised -- a weariness there that spoke not of years but of toil and loss -- it had been too apparent, painfully so. A wing of darkness shaded Arwen's face as she leaned forward. "Could it be--"

"No." His reply sprang up too rash, too brusque to be keenly perceived truth. But -- not that curse, not Isildur's Bane, itt has claimed and drained far beyond the reach of our old doom -- "He carried it only for a very short time."

Her fingers twined through his, drew him with irresistible certainty into the shrinking embers of day. "Even now, it frightens you."

Aragorn closed his eyes in simple admission. The debt must have been paid, for those who lived through this darkness. Her fingers skimmed from his wrist to his shoulder and brushed a well-known chord into his thoughts. "Have I not lived long enough to know it is a foolish dream?" He shook his head. "To wish that one soul -- one at least! -- may remain untarnished, untouched."

"Yet you grieve and fear for him." Wan threads of daylight wove themselves into Arwen's hair and sank down her throat.

For him and another, Aragorn thought, a swift frown shaping in the wake of this -- intuition? Was it even possible to ssepparate--? "I have known him long enough to understand..."

"That his doom is not of this shadow?"

"It is so," he agreed.

"I cannot answer this riddle," Arwen said softly. For a moment, suspicion seemed to light in her eyes, yet it passed on such restless wings that it might have been a mere flicker of his own imagining.

"Perhaps it isn't for me to solve either, if indeed heart and eyes deceive us not." Aragorn brushed his lips to her temple and shaped words where his own remembrance dwelt nearest. "It should not be."

'Tis only a dream, and won't never be more. Sam lay on his back, in a struggle to even out his breaths. Night stretched the room to a vast space of stone and dark air, and the smells filling it were not of earth and growth but dry rushes and lamp-oil. Instead of snores from the cradle and a hundred small noises from the children's rooms, a deep-drawn quiet gathered about.

They'd all been restless afore going to sleep, Elanor in her smaller bed and Rosie beside him, even as she nestled up close and clasped Sam's hand to her softly swollen belly. Rosie hadn't known she was expecting again till they reached the Gap of Rohan, and then it were too late for turning back home.

Our last, Sam thought, and an odd anxiety slid into the notion. Twelve were a tall number to be sure, and yet he'd not felt such misgiving when little Robin began twisting about in his mother's womb.

Rosie slept a space away from him now, curled up round the budding life she carried, the covers bunched in thick folds about her. Nearer the window, Elanor's hair gleamed soft from her pillow. Sam shifted on the deep mattress till he could swing his legs off the bed without making it dip and rousing his wife. He'd slept brief and uneasy, the threads of rest tearing whenever his dreams crept too near. Perhaps if he went and tired out his legs...

Above the window, a high arch turned from black to wavering grey. He listened to Rosie's breaths, to Elanor's breaths and his own, and behind it all breathed a silence that he kept hearing like a thing come into the world on one single day. Year after year, it thickened on his skin and couldn't be answered or broken through nobody's fault but his own. What had he been thinking to find here? One foot on the cold flagstones and one on the rug, Sam groped for his breeches and pulled them on fast over his nightshirt. Warm as these parts of the world might be outdoors, the walls of Minas Tirith held a steady chill, and at nights it inched forth from every corner and cranny. This he remembered clear and true, though twenty-three years might have passed since...

A cool tickle to the back of his neck would tease him awake, while his body rested warm and snug where all his wishing were lodged, unwilling to rouse. But each morning he'd crept early from their bed to start a fire before --Sam tore himself from staring into the dead hearth and padded back to the bed. His fingers slipped under the pillow, grasping comfort thin as moonlight that rustled with the faintest chime into his pocket. There.

"Sam... where have you been?" a precious recollection murmured, and turned itself to light. A shiver of bronze kindling in drowsy eyes, while the softest glow edged shoulder and throat.

Sam's pulse leapt high, caught between a keen ache and the strangest relief. Nowhere far from you, never far... He looked at Rosie's huddled form amid the heavy blankets, and a guilty start followed short on the heels, familiar like his own shadow. The fresh air outside would make it easier to breathe. One hand close in his pocket, he walked across the hall, past a doorway and another, then down a curved flight of stairs. Though the moon had set hours ago, the city glistened with its own shine, as if locked in a fine frost. The alley before him lay deserted, but his ears picked up the pacing of guards, and a dim clack and clink of dishes from one of the kitchens. So familiar, all these small noises, like a strain of lost music. Where shall I go now?

Tight within himself, he stood with his fist clutched on the charm till one silver point bit into his hand. Never far. And it didn't matter now, did it? His feet took him along the alley, into a courtyard and another, each dappled with a planting of shrubs and flowers. Sam wandered amid rare scents pricking the night-air and ran his fingers over silky leaves. Perhaps he'd take some seedlings back with him as would prosper in the Shire's cooler airs, but his mind strayed again and again from such plans. Under the dimming stars, not a breeze ruffled the foliage, and there wasn't aught to answer him here... Save a thin rustle that trickled from the west arch.

Oddly drawn, Sam climbed towards it, and there in the stone hollows played rippling whispers of water. His breath fled as he looked through the passage into a shadowed garden. Grass spread dark round the pool and its lively fountain, and over it bent a single tree.

Frodo... Sam closed his eyes, remembrance under his tongue, at his fingertips --Here, it was here.

The last morning it had been, as fair and cloudless as anyone about to travel could wish for. And here he'd waited while Mr. Frodo walked into the strong daylight, for a final leavetaking from Aragorn and the Lady Arwen. Her voice had roamed through a spell of song that wound and sank into the fountain's own chanting. With the glitters leaping off the water, it seemed to wrap about Frodo and catch in his hair like the spray, each note full and mellow -- and Sam never blinked as he watched.

Such a marvel it was to see the colour fresh in Frodo's face, the sun agleam on his curls, and if his body were still tight and spare as a sapling after long drought, it were but a matter of time and healthy eating -- so he'd thought then --to cure that, too. Sam had paid no heed to the blossoming tree, not when the promise of life itself seemed to dazzle round Frodo, the hope --

He lurched forward, and his shoulder caught against a pillar bracing the tall arch. Dull greys and black swam before his eyes, sundered by all the world from his memory. He'd not known what it was that he watched when Lady Arwen spoke to Frodo, and a secret passed between them.

An iron clink dropped hard into his thoughts, followed by the shuffling of heavy boots on stone. Sam's glance veered sharply left and fell on dark silver, but the guard made no move to approach him.

With a tight breath, Sam stepped into the open. What did you say to him, Lady? What choice did you offer? But he'd not been supposed to hear, nor see the gift that she draped about Frodo's neck.

Right then, a wind roused in the east, and the first pale beams reached over the walls, stretching curious fingers to the tree. Out of the dark, it grew into long-familiar shape, glimpsed oft in his dream. Painted bone-white in that freeze of light, the tree stood like a dancer, straight trunk and graceful boughs gathering the wind that whirled its fragrance about. A tang of salt bristled on the air, and Sam snatched at it like a beached fish would for water.

So beautiful was the White Tree, proud and whole... and so wrong. A fine young tree planted where the old one had wasted. He'd set foot on the grass before he knew, his eyes fixed on the splendour before him -- still here while he isn't --and if he could but touch --

The fountain's shimmers washed round him and folded him into that twilight space. Moist grasses bent under his feet, then the tree's living skin lay damp against his free hand. Over his fingers dripped wetness that tingled with the sweetest chill, and of a sudden it seemed that the tree stretched him out to the sky. Here, oh here... A sharp anguish rolled beneath his breastbone, so fierce he could almost feel the life taken away --

His fingers tightened on the promise inside his pocket. From the heart of his palm, it glanced and sheared through him, keen as a lightning bolt. Not a breath were left to him to gasp at such a cutting beauty that his skin didn't know how to bear. Though he didn't wish to, he tore his hand out of his pocket.

After that blinding call, the walls and the garden drowned in hazy darkness. Soft ground caught him with wet grass, and Sam held on to it, one fleeting thought chased down into boundless black --That it were hope burning him so.

"His sleep is without rest."

Thin lines twitched at the corners of the gentle mouth and hardened as if in wariness or resistance. Even by candle-light, the soft features appeared gaunt and sallow, drawn by too harsh a struggle.

Gandalf let his breath flee in a sigh. "He is ill at ease during the days, and his nights..."

"Oh, they're worse," Bilbo answered in an equally lowered voice. Deep worry cast its shadows around his eyes and grew heavier when the sleeper's hand moved. "Frodo, my boy..."

Gandalf rested a soothing hand on his old friend's shoulder. In troubled silence, they watched pale fingers rise and circle beneath the throat, restlessly seeking a hold where none remained.

"Do you think it's that accursed--"

"Hush, not here," Gandalf warned.

In the parlour burned a pleasant fire that Bilbo kept stoked up out of fond habit, and for comfort rather than needed warmth. The hobbit sank into a deep chair. His eyes traced leaps of flame while he set forth his worries on one splayed finger after another. "Most of the time, Frodo will take neither food nor drink, and when he does, he can't seem to keep it down. Only the miruvor, or what ever it may be called here, seems to agree with his stomach." Bilbo rubbed a hand across his face, and shook his head in sudden agitation. "He is listless, Gandalf, as I've never known him to be before!

"That might be expected from one who sleeps so little." Gandalf walked to the hearth, placing himself within Bilbo's narrowed vision. "And remember that he bore the One Ring when it fed on its Master's growing power," he cautioned.

"You were not there to witness the most grievous state in which it left him, once the quest was fulfilled. Yet he survived, and regained strength." With a smile, Gandalf offered scant reassurance that might fray at a gasp from the inner chamber.

"Well, yes, I suppose it was worse than--" Bilbo gestured impatiently. "Oh, that wretched Ring! I wish I'd never left it to Frodo."

"Do not torment yourself with guilt, Bilbo. Some things come to pass because they are meant to be, and in others that the wise did not foresee, your choices were true. You gave, and Frodo took--"

"His death, it seems like!" Bilbo interrupted hotly. "Or living death, even here. His old injuries still pain him, though he won't mention it, not even to me... but I've seen him rub his left hand as if it were numb." He clasped his own hands together to rest his chin on them. "There must be healers that can help him."

"Yes, there are," Gandalf answered thoughtfully, "but it is not illness that we see, I'm afraid."

"Then... what do we see?"

Out of the fire danced flickers of history, dazzled in brilliance and lambent shadow as Gandalf gazed into the unmoving core. One of these images he took into his thoughts as a mariner might sift a pearl from turbulent waters. A stranger with a star upon his brow, daring to tread where no mortal had yet walked, and few ever would.

"You have experienced the change yourself. These lands may be tethered within Eä, yet their ways are foreign to those not bound to this world."

Bilbo frowned. "For us mortals, you mean."

"You could not live here without the grace that refashioned you," Gandalf returned.

Complete in its smallest fragment, living music strummed beneath the rumours of mind and breath, made and unmade between dissonant pitch and radiant fullness. A strain of constant creation pierced earth, flesh, and air, only to weave them anew.

"It would seem," he said slowly, "that Frodo takes ill to the transition from one life to the other. That he cannot accustom himself to it..." Cannot, or will not? queried the sharp voice of his inmost perceptions, alert even now to the shifting patterns of Frodo's sleep.

"But then, why can I?" Bilbo jumped from his chair and ran his fingers through curls that had grown brown as oakwood again. "I was worn out when we sailed, plain and simple, and closer to death than all you good people cared to notice."

With arms crossed, he paced up and down, as upset and irritable as he had been many years ago, when Gandalf first set a mark upon his door. "Why Frodo? The Ring was destroyed, and Sauron with it, so you've all told me. Surely it can't be--"

"No, that shadow has indeed passed," Gandalf answered, "though it scarred Frodo's mind worse than his body. Yet its power never extended this far, even when our enemy still plotted against us."

"Well, if it's not that evil thing making him miserable, then that leaves us at our wits' end, doesn't it?" Bilbo asked crossly.

"I have no answer to your questions. At least, not yet." A ring of warning and command had slipped into Gandalf's voice, and it pained him to see another cloud add itself on the dear hobbit's face. "But I shall find one, rest assured," he said gently.

For long moments, Bilbo stared at him, doubt vivid in his eyes, then he slumped back into the chair. "We haven't been here very long. Perhaps... perhaps because his injuries were so grave, Frodo takes longer to get accustomed, as you call it."

"Perhaps. Few mortals have been admitted into the Blessed Realm, and none were hobbits." Gandalf strode to the door. "If I cannot find an answer myself, I shall seek the counsel of those who hold closer knowlege on the matter."

"And I will watch over Frodo," Bilbo murmured disconsolately.

Night was lifting as Gandalf wandered along the coast. It seemed that the answer to Frodo's mystifying state was very simple, and perhaps his own insight into mortal life served better than the lore of ages.

Deep in thought, Gandalf watched as Eärendil steered to safe haven from his journey across the night. He bowed his head. You were given a choice, and in the choosing lay all that was needed.

As the brightest star touched its rays to the cliffs of Tol Eressëa, reflections stitched silver across the rocks, and a snowy glitter lit where Celeborn grew, the mighty tree made in the image of Telperion the White. As if in greeting, sparks flashed from one mirror to the other, each guarding a memory of long-lost light, and ebbed again into the shading between times. The lap of waves to shore remained, and a silent music played through it.

Listless, Gandalf thought, no, indeed. Of this and this alone, he could be entirely certain: that the fierce spark of will had not been quenched in Frodo. In truth, it seemed focused to greater clarity, the tighter it wound about a single secret.

Waking was such a wonder, he hardly dared a breath. A fine scent rose from the sheets, of herbs crushed and blown across them after the washing, so they dried off with the wind. But much sweeter was the warm scent of Frodo's skin, his curls brushing lightly against Sam's chin and the top of his chest.

"Sam... where've you been?" The sleepy murmur touched goosebumps to his own skin, but the pair of arms tightening their hold spoke less of slumber than Frodo's voice did.

"I've been up to start us a fire, Mr. Frodo, and weren't gone longer than a minute."

"Too long." A smile edged out, pressed to his throat with warmth of lips and surge of breath. "No fire can possibly--"

But Frodo chose to pass the rest into a kiss that lasted long, deepened from a clinging press of lips to a soft mingling of tongues. And it couldn't, truly, no flame could take the place of this raw unknown light under his skin that sparked where Frodo's fingers caressed, mapped and knew him as they'd never --

"Do you know, Sam, there's still one light that I see..."

He couldn't answer this save in kisses and choked breaths, and clasping Frodo so tight that he might feel how it were all just the brightness pouring from him, how it filled Sam in and out with joy -- oh just to hold him again, like this, alive...

His mouth settled on the small scar near Frodo's shoulder, to stir feeling into the cold, knotted mark if he might, and shine it through with the tenderness that welled without end from the bottom of his chest.

"Hold me, Sam..." A raw whisper strained close by his ear, crushed with anxious unrest. "Don't let go."

But I'd never... The grey light of morning flung a chill over him, and though he might screw his eyes tight against it, he couldn't shut out the feel of bones pushing the skin, the sharp heave in Frodo's breathing. Between them ran tremors that spilled out thin as blood, and he had to look then --I'm here, I'll never leave you. Each time, it tore him, and each time, his answer was the same. No matter how sharp the shadows cleaving Frodo's face, how hazed and fearful his eyes, Sam could still see the far glow of him and touch it, shelter it. Even if there weren't a hope left, he'd hold on to the heartbeat burning quick and frantic to his palm. And his own aches ran to naught when such a thin wisp of breath touched his cheek, and Frodo leaned closer.

Help me, Sam...

His eyes were turned a pale grey with the hard glint of the Ring's own greed, and the life of him nigh gone save for a spark --

Don't go where I can't --

But his sight faltered, and all he knew was a voice sobbing wordless grief in the foggy distance, then a dim shine piercing his lids. A salt taste lay in his mouth while he still floundered desperate in a sea of remembrance --

Your time may come.

A rushing noise rose to pounding wildness at his temples and ebbed off, into a rustle of quiet movement somewhere nearer. The bed on which he lay was in truth clean and soft as it had been in his dream, but it was wide and --It is not your time.

Empty as his hand. Sam curled his fingers round the edge of a blanket that covered him. He heard his own gasps grow louder as he pulled out of the dream, as if struggling against murky waters. His body felt heavy as stone, and so cold and tight too, the same as it had --

"What ails you, my friend?" Aragorn's voice slipped past the remainder of dream and recollection, like a cooling ripple.

Sam shook his head, mute as he'd been through the whole ride home, the Havens at his back and a single sound scrabbling up and down that well of silence --"Samwise."

The voice of the Sea. He wanted nothing so much as to wake for good, and grasp some solid hold, never mind how. Through a flicker of lashes, he caught sight of a window arch and Aragorn seated next to the bed, but he missed... Only a dream.

His eyes found his coat where it was hung over a chair, straight and proper. From where he lay, he couldn't reach it though, not and pretend he'd missed Aragorn's question. He swallowed, and light sparkled on a glass held out to him.

"Drink, Sam."

He obeyed the firm tone for the promise that lay buried within. The trembling in his fingers spilled trickles down his chin and throat, but his sight cleared apace, and a bit of the watery weight lifted off his chest.

This weren't the bed he'd slept in the past night, he noticed then. "What--" he mumbled with effort, "how--?"

"I brought you here," Aragorn told him. "Your wife and daughter sat with you until a short time ago, but Rose was unwell this morning. We persuaded her to return to your rooms and lie down."

Sam pushed up fast on one elbow. "Then I did ought to--"

"Do not be worried," Aragorn leaned forward and stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Rose is with child again, is she not? I've sent for a midwife to tend to her, but unless my own knowledge deceives me, she will find no cause for alarm."

Sam propped himself against a pillow and gave in with a weary nod. "Oh, I--I should hope so... and I thank you for your care and kindness."

Aragorn accepted this with a short nod of his own. "What happened in the Court of the Fountain?" he asked without further ado. "What made you come there before daybreak? The guards alerted me, but when I arrived, I found you in a swoon."

"I can't say." Sam breathed hard against the thickness in his throat. "I couldn't sleep proper and wandered round the streets. Then I remembered..." He shook his head, a rustle against the pillow. "But I'd like to know -- if it's no bother --about the White Tree..."

"It is a descendant of Nimloth, the tree that grew in Númenor ere it fell beneath the waves. My forefathers brought a sapling across the Sea when they fled."

"No," Sam whispered, wondering what brought his own curiosity about. "The other one... the dead tree as stood in its place before."

"It was of the same lineage, but it withered when the line of kings failed," Aragorn answered patiently. "It was taken to Rath Dínen, the Silent Street where the Houses of Burial stand, and laid to rest there." His grey eyes lingered on Sam, sharp as ever, seeking such answers as he would give of his own will.

"Sam, you have not answered my question."

"And I do wish that I could, truly." He closed his eyes briefly, on a glimpse of light spilling through his fingers with the soft spray. "I remembered coming there before, and last when Mr. Frodo said his farewells to you and the Lady Arwen. Then... I went over to the tree, and I must've -- I fell." Sam folded his hand tighter on the blanket. His palm felt raw and hot from the burning, but how to explain the way it sang through him -- "There's something about that tree... something that put me in mind of Elves and... Lórien."

"As well it might..." Aragorn's glance shifted, catching a little light from the window, and for a moment Sam could see the ranger again, wearing that look of steeled, patient want. "I, too, have waited many years," he said softly.

A short shiver of warning touched Sam's neck. Did he know?

"You are not at peace, Sam."

And why wouldn't he know, with eyes as piercing and so many years of watching behind that frank look?

"But -- I should be," Sam muttered. "All the years have been so... kind."

"Less reason then, to be unkind towards yourself," Aragorn replied, in the same even tone. "If not for your labours, the Shire would not have been healed within these short years."

"Oh, I did my part and not a pinch more, as others did theirs." Sam found a shaky smile though the years had not been so short to his mind. "But I was right glad to see everything come back to bloom after that first dreadful winter." His mind dipped at a memory of bare trees and white fields, and Frodo walking next to him, eyes flickering after the ragged flight of crows. "I would've made the whole Shire his garden, if I could--"

Aghast, Sam clamped his mouth shut. His own voice seemed too loud in the room's hush, and jarring where silence ought to keep. "Not meaning to complain, I know where my place is, too -- what with a life as good and rich--" But with every word, he was only making it worse, and his throat grew dry again. "Oh, I didn't ought to miss him so!"

A frown of true puzzlement shaped on Aragorn's brow. "What do you fear?"

"Naught but that I'll never--" Sam caught himself and brushed a hand over his face. "See, I have my family," he said, as steadfast as he could, "and I'm glad to be giving them all the happiness as they did ought to have, and more. The children have been such a joy..."

Another silence fell and seemed to run after his words, keen on their heels. Then Aragorn stirred with a settling of his shoulders, like a decision made.

"You do not need to keep this from me, though if secret it is, your secret shall be safe." He'd lowered his voice, and his eyes rested gentle on Sam's face. "We could all see it, Sam. You did not have to touch him. He did not have to be near you. We never spoke of it out of esteem for you both, but do not mistake our silence for disdain. You have no cause for shame or concealment."

Sam shook his head, a flush of mixed recollection inching up from his chest. "No... there couldn't be no shame," he murmured, "and I wish that I didn't--" He paused, gathering breath and such courage as he could find. "Do you remember how you told us the tale of Beren and Lúthien at Weathertop? It--well, it's not for the likes of me to make such claims." A fierce heat rose into his face that he couldn't wish away. "As Beren did, if you take my meaning."

"Or I." An odd little smile quirked Aragorn's lip. "But in truth, it is not the bold claim that binds, or brings hope when our doom seems pitted against us, as well you know. There are promises that cannot be earned through valour of heart or deed."

"I do know, at that." The croak in his throat wouldn't let up, and to say out loud what he'd never --

"And they cannot be taken back either," Aragorn answered him.

Sam swallowed hard. Questions fluttered all round his head now, like crows in a storm, whirling and crowding -- "Then, tell me... did he have to leave?"

"I cannot tell you this, for the choice was his to make, and his alone." A sudden shadow troubled Aragorn's eyes, near like grief. "But when you think of Beren and Lúthien, also remember this: it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas."

He reached out to clasp Sam's hand warm between his own. His bigger palms were still calloused from wielding sword or staff, and from many years in the wilderness.

"I'm sorry for being such trouble," Sam murmured through his awkwardness.

"You are not, and between us, no word of gratitude or regret is needed." A smile lightened the grave tone. "Friends have no use for them."

"Thank you, Strider," he mumbled, grateful for Aragorn's chuckle at the use of this outworn name.

When he were gone, Sam climbed from the grand bed and picked up his coat, grasping for reassurance in the right pocket. He touched only a fingertip to the cool silver before slipping his coat back on, mindful of unmeasured gifts.

Rose lay dressed on the broad bed, her hair spilling loose over the cushions. On the covers beside her, a plate of shortcakes and fresh grapes had been placed. Sam closed the door quietly and smiled at her. "You look fine as a queen there, Rosie." A soft laugh answered him, but trouble stayed tight in her eyes as he sat on the edge of the mattress. "Are you--"

"Oh, that were nobut the morning turn and not sleeping much last night," Rosie dismissed it before he could fully ask. "You still look pale as henchbloom though, Sam. The lord Aragorn says you stumbled in the dark and hit your head."

Sam shifted his shoulders, uncomfortable in the half-truth. "I'm right sorry for causing you such upset."

"And what would you go wanderin' in the dark for?" She took his hand firmly, showing only the fondest kind of reproach. "This mountain-tall city's like to turn our heads dizzy -- not but that it's fine and fair as your stories say. But it's not so easy to go walking into such tales, is it?"

Sam shook his head and couldn't say aught but, "It won't seem so strange after a while."

When Rosie propped herself up, he reached her another pillow to settle in her back. A calmer mood brushed round him, like a remembrance of the Shire's softer airs and scents. And from the look in Rosie's eye, Sam could guess that her mind were off home, too. He stroked her cheek. "You miss the little 'uns."

"Don't you?"

"It's so quiet here, compared." He pulled up his shoulders. "They'll be fine and snug with Tom and Marigold, and spoiled with sweets and play when we get back, you'll see."

"Robin will be toddling about and talkin' when we do," Rose said wistfully.

"How long do you think--?"

He glanced to the window where morning dazzled on a curve of domed roof.

"There's no sense in travelling again before... well, before our youngest is a weight in your arms, not your belly."

"I don't like him being born in such a strange place."

Sam's eyes snapped back to her. "Him?"

"Aye." The bit of grievance were already gone from her expression, and Rosie smiled, pleasure twinkling at his surprise. "And I think we ought to call him Samwise, if you want to know. There's no telling if there'll be another--"

"Now don't you start again," Sam cut in, holding out a smile of his own to soften the quick retort. "There's far better names, and no call for the lad to be reminded of his dad every day in his life."

"You're a stubborn one forsooth, Sam Gamgee." She sighed and studied him a moment longer, her lips pursed. "But I can't say as I wasn't warned aforehand, can I?" With a wry look, she drew up the plate and held it to him. "Eat a bit now, you've not have breakfast yet."

Sam took one of the crumbly cakes, worried unrest starting to twitch at the back of his head again. Perhaps we didn't ought to have gone on such a long travel...

"Where's Elanor?"

"Out in the gardens," Rosie answered him, "in the Queen's company, most like."

"Aye, our Ellie's eager to learn the old tongue better than I could teach her."

Sam looked to the window again, and wondered how the palace gardens might have changed under the Lady Arwen's guidance.

"That she is..." A hint of disquiet or doubt lay in Rosie's tone, but then she asked, "And where are you off to now, Sam?"

"I'm not goin' nowhere." He turned back to her instantly.

"Oh, shush!" Rosie's laugh rang a little sharp, her fingers squeezing on his arm.

"I've known you long enough to see when you want to be up and doin'."

Sam took a bite of the cake and tasted less than straw. "There's a place as I'd like to see..." But to explain what, let alone why -- "It can wait."

Rose shook her head, wearing that look she had each time her mind were made up flat. "I've a mind for a little nap myself, and I'll be resting fine here. Just you be sure you don't miss your step again."

"I won't be away for long." Sam rose, thinking again how small she looked on the bed, and if there were aught he might do to take the worry from her eyes --

"They're holding market just below the walls of the inner circle," he said from the door. "We could go down after luncheon, if you like."

Her smile didn't waver and saw him out of the room with small comfort.

Sam walked down straight to the sixth circle of the city. His recollections of Minas Tirith were clear enough to chart a way through the warren of streets, and Pippin's tale of his doomful walk in Denethor's company proved a trusty guide. The door he spoke of stood shadowed beneath the rocks that towered over the rear wall. High above, the mountain flanks glittered faint with snow. The porter didn't step from his lodge beside the road, but a pair of guards stood watch on either side of the door, and those two stopped Sam with a rattle of spears thrust into his path.

"No one passes where the Stewards of old sleep their long slumber that must not be disturbed," the older boomed at him.

"And a good day to you, sirs." Sam drew himself up, and leaned back to look the Man full in the eye. Those were pale eyes, but without guile or anger, and even a bit of curiosity. "I am Samwise, Mayor of the Shire and Counsellor of the North-kingdom. I haven't come to disturb, I merely wish to learn something."

The guard shot a sideways look at his companion. "And what might that be?"

"I wish to look on the tree that stood in the Court of the Fountain before King Elessar and his Queen were wed."

"The tree." The Man's brows twitched and climbed, puzzled thoughts running all asunder across his long face.

"Aye, and I promise you, I won't be setting foot nowhere else."

"It lies in a separate chamber," the younger guard murmured from the side, "I don't think any harm can--"

"Even so," his elder grumbled and threw another doubtful look about.

Sam didn't say a word more, in part because he couldn't rightly tell why he'd come, and also for the hope that these Men would deem him little trouble, once their surprise wore out.

"We ought to bring this before the King," the guard said after a short while, "and yet we cannot doubt that our King chooses his Counsellors wisely." He bowed his head courteously. "Nor is your name unknown to us, Master Samwise. We will show you what you wish to see."

He waved for the porter to open the door. Sam returned the bow with polite thanks and followed the guards down many steps, into a road winding past high pillars and domes and carved statues, all of them grey as the rockflanks. Cold mountain air breathed through the road, returning the chill of Pippin's tale, when the Steward had meant to burn the Lord Faramir alive. And he would have, too, if not for Pippin's quick wits.

In a spell of odd regret, Sam thought of Merry and Pippin wearing those foreign liveries and boots that made them look like Men, taller and fiercer than they ever did ought to grow, and how some of their warriors' ways had stayed on since --even while the Shire's affairs ran on at their slow, easeful pace. Busy as they were kept these days, being Master of Buckland and Took and Thain, Sam thought they'd want to travel again in later years, and return to see the white city too.

The Men halted by a round arch and opened another door that creaked heavy from long unuse, but they didn't follow him inside.

Sam climbed down a short stairs. From a window slit high in the wall, a single shaft of daylight fell into the chamber, thick with motes that shivered as he stepped closer. The tree had been placed on a stone slab covered in grey cloth, shimmering even through layers of dust, like Elven weave. Though shrouded in the traces of years, the tree's bark still glistened white, and its branches were laced to a spidery crown.

Sam wandered round to the meshwork of fine roots. He could see they'd been pulled from the earth right careful, with barely a rip or tear, and strong they were, too. The tree might've been withered where it stood, but its roots had kept firm in the soil till it was dug out and brought here.

He shook his head, recalling one of his Gaffer's earliest lessons: Don't be too quick thinkin' a tree's dead, Sam, there be times when they mull over themselves and stand dry like their last winter's come, but wait for a year or another, and see if you ain't surprised. As if to prove him true, the stunted oak on the edge of the party field that Mr. Bilbo had been considering for firewood brought forth a strong shoot the next spring, that grew like a new tree out of the old.

Sam eased down on a stone ledge running the length of the room, wide enough to serve him for a bench. Now the Gaffer himself were gone fourteen years and his little namesake racing about like a shiny whirlwind on Overlithe. A splinter of old pain turned in Sam's chest that he held close for a moment. This tree here wouldn't get another chance of drawing such strength through the earth as would drive new leaves from its boughs when no-one was expecting them.

But perhaps, he said to himself, it didn't matter so much, seeing as how the trees were all of one seed, and the very first of them still in full bloom over the Sea. Sam shook his head at himself on the next breath. And how would you know that, Sam Gamgee? Aragorn said the old tree were drowned with Westernesse... He could ask Aragorn, he reckoned, but now he thought that maybe the tree of his dreams weren't the one he'd touched in the court. Nor the one lying asleep here. Though he looked on branches stiff and bare as sticks, he could almost see dark leaves that shone silver underneath, all asway in a breeze like a thread of silent music. Sam breathed deep, a strange peace rising and swelling through him till a song sparked from it and hovered against his tongue, strangest of all --Though here at journey's end I lie...

The tune hummed in his body, astir like a fanned flame, and nigh roused a note in his breast --

"What are you hoping to learn here, if I may ask?" a clear voice broke the silence. "It is hardly your time yet."

The words rolled loud in the stone vault, and Sam jumped from his seat, shaken after the dreaming he'd done with wide open eyes. The younger guard stood in the doorway, a shadow at the top of the stairs.

"Forgive me, I had no intention of startling you."

"Well, you gave me a right turn there." But something familiar rang in the Man's tones, and Sam reached for a name -- "Bergil, is it? Why didn't I--"

"It is indeed," the Man answered, "but I did not expect you to know me. The last time we spoke, I stood barely a head taller than you, Master Samwise."

"Oh, leave out the Master, if you please!" Sam walked across, his head tipped to take in Bergil's face and beard as he climbed the stairs. "But weren't you gone to Ithilien with your father, to serve the Lord Faramir?"

Bergil took a moment before he replied. "My father died, two summers past, and all that is fair in Ithilien seemed fraught and dark with memories then. I asked Prince Faramir's leave to return to the city and the service of the King."

Aye, and so you came here... Sam said nothing. The Man's words tugged sharp on his own remembrance, of the Shire's fresh glory dimmed, removed like --

"Do tell me, how is my old friend Pippin?" Bergil asked.

"Very well," Sam answered readily. "He is now Thain Peregrin and has a son of his own that he named Faramir after your Lord."

"We all deemed him a prince among your kind when he first entered the city, and he lived to fulfill the promise, I wager."

"That he did, though you might think better than telling him so," Sam returned with a chuckle.

From the arch, he looked back into the vault, at the tree's brittle form, and still it seemed to be tracing the call for a song. He bowed his head quickly, ere following Bergil back into the road.

Daylight seemed overly bright now, rushing in a brilliant stream down the mountain's side. Sam blinked, and found the young Man watching him curiously.

"Ah, but you have not changed at all!" Bergil said with a wondering laugh. "You Periain are a marvellous people indeed."

A southern wind had swept all clouds from the sky, and crisp sunlight silvered the garden, lending sharp shading to every leaf and branch. On the rosebush nodded a spill of blossoms so heavy, their weight bent its boughs. In the near distance sparkled a snow-capped mountain, and the blooms shone as if cut from the same frost.

"Your garden is plentiful, Frodo."

Shadows curled and wavered across the page of an ancient book, and trailed their fleeting writ across the letters.

"My garden..." He didn't look up, though the letters swam before his eyes, blurred strangely in the too-clear light. Not a rustle in the grass had announced Gandalf's presence, but no surprise unsettled him now. Frodo closed the book.

"Yes, it is exceptionally beautiful, as everything here is."

Gandalf's eyebrows were drawn up, a but tracing embers in his glance.

"This garden doesn't need my attention to bloom." Frodo shrugged his shoulders. Sunlight darted with abrupt vehemence through the branches, and he lifted a hand against its sting. The movement was slow, cramped by the very air that seemed too pure to breathe, too raw in his chest -- "Look at this rosebush... It carries twenty-three blossoms that were tiny green buds last night," he said. "I have done nothing but counted them, three times twenty-three."

"Do not be too quick in your judgment," his old friend returned. "You do not know how the garden might flourish if someone were to tend it."

"Will it, Gandalf?"

Frodo bit his lip. He remembered how Sam had planted snowdrop in the windowbox outside his study, late that last summer, humming under his breath. Times were, he thought that Sam could make things grow with a song, though the slow, sad glide of this melody --

Frodo shook his head before the memory could take more of his breath. Of course there was no answer. With a searching kind of encouragement, Gandalf's eyes rested on him.

"Would you like some tea?" Frodo remembered to ask and made to rise from the bench, but Gandalf stayed him with a gesture.

"Do not trouble yourself, Frodo." He settled in the grass with a lithe movement that belied his appearance. "I have come to find out why you are ill at ease. Bilbo has been very worried. He believes you are fading."

"As I once was..." Frodo touched his left shoulder and let his hand drop. "It is small trouble now, and I am as well as can be, Gandalf. I did not mean to cause you or Bilbo any concern, and I don't believe there is reason to--"

"That is not for you to decide," Gandalf said in a sterner tone than Frodo had heard him use since -- "Nor will your silence on this matter improve it."

But I must not -- In another life, Frodo might have pushed up and paced, to escape the hollow burn that rose fast in defiance. Yet there were answers that he could give without -- "The music. I hear it at nights, a torrent in my dreams that tosses me about."

I feel as if I am the dream, set adrift in this world.

"It would bear you gently, if you would but let it." Gandalf's fingers wove together and parted again. "The music that you hear has shaped and held the world from the beginning and shall do so unto its end. Do not fear the freedom that it brings."

"It is not that--" Frodo interrupted himself with a quick gesture. "Tell me, what do you think I have earned?"

"Peace," Gandalf said without hesitation. "Answers. Fulfillment."

He felt his hand clench tightly on the book where its cool weight rested against his thigh. "You know well that I can't possibly--"

"No, Frodo, this I do not know."

"You saw the lack in me," Frodo insisted, "more than weariness, more than the smarting of old wounds. Was I not in danger of draining life, as mine had been drained?"

"That is the Ring speaking." The wizard's glance flared into his words, fierce as the glint that lit on his finger when the ship cast off from the Havens. "But its power has been broken. You could not."

How strange, Frodo thought, how strange that it should be easier to speak of the Ring than -- "Yet you agreed that there would be no healing for me in Middle-earth."

"It was your choice. A choice only half-made, it seems now."

And how could it be otherwise, when there is only half of me? Frodo turned his face, to look at the white roses and breathe -- "do not think me ungrateful" -- a sweetness that tore in his chest. "Gandalf... could I have stayed? Was there truly a choice?"

"You have lost, and you have gained, Frodo," Gandalf said carefully. "Your own wisdom is your best guide. It should tell you that your coming here means neither exile nor imprisonment."

"And I did not say that it does, unless I have made it so myself." Frodo rose from the bench after all and wandered a few steps, to look across the green rise at the sharper ridge of cliffs. The Sea was invisible from where he stood, but the wind carried its prickling taste and constant rumour to shore, and the sky seemed ever more clear in the east.

"Well, have you?" Gandalf's voice raised a subtle challenge from close behind.

"I am only... waiting." The silence shifted and in a faltering moment between breaths, Frodo heard the notes of a hummed song again, turning hope to sorrow and both to light. Unbroken.

"I needed... I took more than enough, and the Shire needed him." A stronger breath seeped into the pause. Frodo drew back his shoulders. "I thought it would be for the best that Sam should not -- should not waste on me what was never mine to claim. He always loved the Shire with the whole of his heart..."

"Bilbo once said something similar about you, when he decided to leave."

"Oh, that's hardly--"

"Frodo Baggins, tell me what you have done."

"Ask me what I did not--" He stopped on a hard, broken laugh that bit into his chest.

Though he had not moved, Gandalf seemed closer now, his attention flung to the hazed horizon and back again. If you were to see these colours in all their radiance, they would not blind you.

Frodo closed his eyes. But I do see... I see white.

Why do you deny yourself?

He shook his head softly. "Oh, I do not. I merely had to leave him as much of myself as I dared. Everything that I couldn't--"

"Such grief in him." Arwen stopped on the path that ran above the gardens and folded both arms around herself, the movement measured slow in thought.

Aragorn bent his head, aware that her mind ever enclosed him, as if in a circle of shimmering air. Below, Elanor waved a quick goodbye to her parents. In the company of Bergil, Sam and Rose passed through the north arch, and their daughter returned to the book she had left on a stone bench.

"I have not your knowledge of the Periannath," Arwen continued, "and short was the time I spent in their company. Yet I see that Samwise is unlike the others." One of her hands rose and spread into the restless gusts that swerved across Mindolluin's peaks. "His heart follows the call of Arda and all she bears. Such a blessing is rare among the Secondborn, and Galadriel's gift was bestowed well. And yet..."

A shiver in her words traced itself against Aragorn's senses, and he stepped nearer.

"I have watched him these weeks," Arwen said quietly, "and I have listened. A strange silence is wound through all that he is, all that he does... His life runs thin as a song missing its harmonies."

Questions snapped unexpectedly from a sealed chamber of his mind, and Aragorn could not halt them. "What songs and harmonies do you miss, vanimelda?"

She turned to him, wind-blown strands entangling a swift smile. "I live behind seven walls, in a city of closed stone that would guard all regrets, but I hold none." A clear gaze searched Aragorn's face, newly vigilant. "I spoke of him, not myself. But you do not seem surprised."

"I travelled with the Ringbearer over many miles, and it did not take long to see..." Aragorn paused for a short, regretful smile. "What was never meant for the eyes of others, nor mentioned between us."

"I did not know." A stricken look came over her face, and she averted her eyes. "Some pledges need no spoken word."

He nodded. Pledged to go to the fire together, come what would, that it burn both or none. "The silence that you speak of--"

"Is beyond your healing, Estel. Or mine. And the riddle remains unsolved." Arwen glanced across the carved balustrade again and turned towards the stairs

leading down into the garden. "We should speak to Elanor. She is a lovely child, and her understanding greater than her years."

Elanor had become so absorbed by her reading that she didn't notice their approach until Arwen spoke her name. Then she started up, holding the book with one arm to her chest.

"You did not wish to accompany your parents?" Arwen drew her back to the bench where a juniper spread its tattered shade.

While the people of Minas Tirith often faltered with awe in her presence, Elanor showed none of it. "Not today," she answered with a shrug. "Bergil said he'd take me to meet his friends' children tomorrow."

"You must miss your brothers and sisters."

"Not so much, no," she said frankly, wrinkling her nose. "Bilbo leaves fingerprints all over the books if I don't watch him, and Ham's awful fond of setting grasshoppers in my bed. They're with Uncle Halfred now, all my brothers are, save Robin. Fro didn't want to leave Bag End though..." She threw a quick look at Aragorn. "We call him Fro, you understand."

"I understand." Aragorn smiled at her, and she lowered her eyes.

"He didn't want to leave for the gardens' sake, and he'll see to them over the winter, too. He'll be a fine gardner. Dad's right proud of him."

"Elanor..." Arwen reached for her hand. "Does your father ever take ill?"

"Ill?" Her eyes grew wide, as if someone had mistaken a mûmak for a mouse.

"You can ask anyone back home; even when half of Hobbiton's laid by the fever, Dad will walk about sound and hardy." Pride flashed in Elanor's glance as she turned from Arwen to Aragorn. "And he's got his own remedy, though he won't tell. There's a white jewel that he always carries in his pocket -- he'll touch it when he's worried."

Aragorn frowned. "The Star of the Dúnedain? I gave it to your father six years ago, when we met by the Brandywine."

"Oh no, he's had it for many years," Elanor said firmly. "He used to show it to me when I was still very small, each time I'd been dreaming badly. It would shine so fair, I'd forget all about my dreams in no time."

"Do you remember its shape, Elanor?" Arwen asked.

"It's like a star." Elanor tipped her head to the side, remembering. "And brighter than I've ever seen. Dad said it's Elvish, but he never told me who gave it to him. I thought... if you don't mind, that maybe you did."

"No, I did not."

Aragorn glanced across at his wife, but she had closed her eyes, and he could not read the cast of her expression.

"Then..." Elanor twisted her fingers through the lacings of her dress, her round face full of thought. "It's a secret he never told no-one but me," she murmured, "and perhaps I didn't ought to speak of it, but... I'm thinking you might know it yourselves."

"What would we know?" Aragorn asked gently.

"That he's waiting to go over the Sea." Elanor looked at them with close dismay, her lips pressed tightly together for another moment. "I think the white star keeps reminding him. All the Elves are leaving Middle-earth, aren't they?"

Frodo sank into long grass and half-shadow that cradled him in the far breaking of waves. The coast still lay a fair distance away, but from the top of this bluff, he could look into a steep cove. A narrow wedge of water rose and glittered against the rocks with the coming of high tide.

With a worried sidelong glance, Bilbo sat down beneath a patch of elder brush. They'd walked less than a mile, and Frodo's breath came in thin gasps that he couldn't conceal any more than his frequently faltering steps. Bilbo snorted through his nose, but instead of saying something outright, he opened his pouch and stuffed half a handful of crumbled brown leaves into his pipe.

"And here I thought a walk would do you good!" He lit the pipe, waving puffs of smoke in the other direction.

"It did, Bilbo. The view is beautiful."

"Oh, but look at you..." Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo, my lad, I'm sick with worry, and old Gandalf's dark mutterings aren't helping. Though he says it's your own resistance causing this condition, I've not the slightest idea what he means by that. What in the world could you possibly miss in all this splendour?" He paused and sent Frodo a look of unyielding intent. "Well?"

"It's not what I miss." Frodo's eyes wandered restlessly to the silver strip of water and back again. "It's who."

Bilbo's eyes narrowed. For moments he studied Frodo in the way he used to long ago, when smudged fingers or ripped clothing betrayed a long streak of mischief. "Not--"

"Yes, it's Sam," Frodo said at once and still came ridiculously close to stammering like a flustered lad. "No-one else."

Bilbo's mouth curled, but surprise was not among the feelings that chased each other across his face. "Well, I may have been a prattling old dotard when you returned to Rivendell, but I could certainly see that you're very fond of him."

"We were... I could not have survived without him." Frodo laced his fingers over his knees. "Our journey opened my eyes in so many ways. That I owe him my life is the least--" But even these words, flat and dry as they were, dragged hard against the void in his breast. "Sam is... dearer than life to me."

Bilbo took a long drag from his pipe, and a thoughtful hum slipped out with the smoke he blew into a lop-sided ring. "If I were to take a guess, I'd say you were just as dear to him. Which begs the question why--"

"He had a full life waiting for him, the life his family wanted for him, and with him. How could I claim him away from that?" Frodo caught his breath on the question. "And Rose had been waiting longer than a year."

"Very noble of you," Bilbo huffed, "and very silly, considering that you're now pining uselessly. You're neither the first lads to set eyes on each other, nor will you be the last, I expect." He scratched at his chin with the stem of his pipe. "If Sam had stayed unmarried -- oh yes, that would have caused a fine storm of gossip all over the Shire, but--"

"I had no right," Frodo cut him off.

"Stubborn as a Brandybuck," Bilbo grumbled. "That brick-walled head of yours is not an inheritance from the Baggins side of the family."

For a while, the tide's swell filled the silence. Then Bilbo spat into the grass and frowned at the gloaming bowl of his pipe. "Well, I hope your Sam comes soon. He'll grow us the kind of leaf deserving the name of pipeweed!"

His grimace startled Frodo into a grudging smile, and unexpected relief swept him before he could think again -- "I don't know if he will..." Frodo's hand flew to his throat, reaching for remembrance, and found only the chill of his own skin. "If he can."

Clearly exasperated, Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo... if this means the world to you, why ever did you--"

"Because I had to." His fingers tightened where nothing remained. "I had to spare Sam the pain after he'd already suffered so much for me. He longed to return to the life we had, but every day he would look at me and see only the shadows, only the loss that could not be healed. I could not bear that thought."

"I don't suppose you ever asked his opinion on the matter?"

"I fooled myself," Frodo answered, though his voice had grown unsteady. "I did not tell him of my decision to leave because I believed the pain would be quick and merciful... like drawing a splinter from a wound, so that it can finally heal. But then, once we reached the Havens..." Recollection kindled too fast, seething brighter than the daylight that poured over the bluffs. "My mind cleared at last. I saw his grief, and what it might do to him."

Though a flurry of dark specks swirled in his sight, Frodo climbed to his feet and walked some steps forward. His hand found a hold on a young beech, but his eyes fell to the water again that charged the cove's rocks with greater clamour and gushes of white. "I said that his time might come, Bilbo, but then I thought -- I wondered if he'd live long enough--"

Before he could finish, the memory surged and claimed his voice, his breath, with a smothering cloud of grey. He had turned to Sam last of all, the ship and the Sea's murmurs behind him, and the world narrowed to the drained look on Sam's face. If everything had been fogs before, veiled in the certainty of leaving, Sam's expression pierced denial and deception with a raw, black hurt. It was in his eyes, in the harsh grip he kept on Frodo's shoulders. Worse than the fear after Weathertop, worse than the sorrow in Cirith Ungol or the cold despair of Mordor. A wild heartbeat stormed into Frodo's throat and locked it. One look from Sam tore him into an endless fall, but it wasn't his own this time, it was --What have I done? Yet it could not be undone now, and the clasp of his arms around Sam, the tight pressure of Sam's embrace only deepened the cold that ran through him. When he kissed Sam, it seared him with betrayal. One moment more and another, another -- so filled with need, and so empty -- then Sam let go with movements so stiff as if his arms might break. The ground swayed under Frodo's feet as though he'd stepped out on water. He turned away, hiding a desperation to which he had no right.

If only I could give -- In a single moment, he ripped the fine chain from his neck and caught it in his fist, holding fast to each digging point of the star-shaped gem. His comfort of the past months seemed to thrum from within, yielding a live warmth he might never feel again.

When he turned back to Sam once more, tears had already started, begging his own, though he wasn't meant to see them. Sam did not return his embrace this time, but his forehead came to rest on Frodo's shoulder, a shudder of breath burning against Frodo's neck. Although his own fingers seized in a violent tremor, he slipped the gem into Sam's pocket, his murmurs helplessly choked.

"Sam, Sam..."

Each heartbeat, each step afterwards shook through him in heaves, and his stomach twisted in rebellion. My life for yours.

Frodo leaned heavily on the tree, his face pressed to the cool bark. "I left Arwen's gift to him, for the healing virtues that dwell within it and the hope it gave me." He noticed then that Bilbo had moved close, wind-ruffed curls blown back from the furrows on his brow. "The quest claimed my life, but it took his too, Bilbo. It... remade us in the manner that Gandalf says I should have been remade here, by myself." His breath rasped on broken grief. "How could that be, with our lives so bound together, and tempered in the same fire?"

"And you truly believe that Sam will be well and whole if you only torment yourself enough?" Bilbo asked, his gestures flaring with angry concern. "Frodo, you can't possibly--"

"I do not know," he said sharply. "But it is all that I can think to do. I have no regrets... save one."

Bilbo threw up his hands. "Perhaps they'll send you back now! And by all that's good and fair, I almost hope that they will."

Gandalf strode away from the watchtower of Avallónë where a light burned out eastward, beckoning to all ships that might pass the riddling fogs and sail the straight path. High on a slope above the buttressing cliffs, the bright crown of Celeborn stretched proudly into dusk, dwarfing the shapes of mallorn, beech and linden. A smaller form nearby blended into the tree's shadow, equally white, her long tresses lighting into the last glimmers of day.

"You seek this place often," Gandalf greeted her.

Though her eyes remained on the quiet sea in the distance, Galadriel smiled when he reached her side. "Elrond keeps his watch in the tower, and here I keep mine."

"He has turned the palantír that once yearned for ever into the West to look upon Gondor." Gandalf let go a long breath, unraveling the memory of unheard counsel. "Círdan meant well when he gave the seeing stone into Elrond's keeping, yet the knowledge of Arwen's joy brings little comfort to her father and does less to ease the bitterness of his loss."

"Arwen would not undo her choice, even if she could." Galadriel bowed her head. "An hour will come when Elrond sees her death."

A mournful surrender flowed in her tone, and Gandalf discerned in it the shadows of long exile. "It is the way of love to hope even against wisdom."

"But it is not Elrond troubling your mind, Mithrandir." Galadriel searched him with a keen glance, and the tree's own lustre limned her face in ageless knowing.

"What ails the Ringbearer?"

Gandalf considered his answer for a long moment. "His heart is still caught to a life that he cannot release."

"He held up the light of Eärendil when we sailed, as if to reveal the path."

Gandalf nodded and remembered Frodo's unmoving vigil at the ship's stern, long after the shore vanished from view, the light from the phial casting his face in a chiselled pallor.

From windless silence, both raised their eyes to the brightest star, riding into nightfall above the netting of leaf and bough.

Galadriel touched the wide trunk of Celeborn as if dipping her fingertips at still water. "Here the knowledge of the first light still dwells, as it does in the silmaril that Eärendil guards. The light may be scattered, but as long as our memory holds true, it will continue to give life."

"It shines unbroken," Gandalf returned thoughtfully, "for eyes to see that can."

From the wind-swept loneliness of the gallery, Sam watched a crush of clouds fray and break apart. The winds had veered from East to North more than once this day, and he'd thought there might be a storm coming, but now the weather looked to be heading back out to the black land. He wondered if there were any growth to welcome rainfalls in Mordor by now -- more than the dry scrub and black thorns that there had been -- and how many years it might take for trees to arise from that wasted soil.

The old clutching chill inched forward, and Sam turned his thoughts away fast, back to the planting he'd done in the Shire. Those trees were now tall and sturdy, and their brighter greens the only mark of such scars as the woods and fields had suffered. He'd wander in their shade and feel small among them. Times were, he'd taken note of every new-sprouted branch and sapling in those young groves, but they'd soon grown past the need for his nursing.

Like the children, he thought. When he looked on Elanor at the King's table, fair in her fine dress and her speech growing fluent with the terser pitch of Gondor, she seemed so whole and enclosed in her own life. As Fro did, when he went about his work in the Bag End gardens.

And that's as it did ought to be. Sam rubbed his hands together and wiped at a streak of stone dust on his sleeve. Noises rose dim from the city, twirled about on a lesser wind. Some days there were when time passed right into dreaming, rolling gentle as a mist -- though his own dreaming had scarce been gentle of late. All too often, it gripped him with the terror of Frodo's hollow eyes and haggard face, worn to skin and bones on the last stretch of their journey. Sam stared hard at Mordor, a black ridge on the horizon that was blurring into evening shadow. He must be well where he is now -- oh, he must be, when he so longed --The thought broke on a jab of remembrance under his breastbone. It was after they'd left Rivendell, when the bright days of Halimath were gone and the leaves curled up dry, that he'd first seen Frodo's true unrest.

At just such an hour of dusk, Frodo had slipped away from the camp, wandering off into long shadows. Sam left tending the fire to Merry then, and he'd found Frodo not far off, seated under the loose branches of a mulberry tree. Sam stopped some paces away though, for a sound rose into the crisp air that he'd not heard for long and missed even when more needful things had gone missing. Frodo was singing below his breath, but it weren't one of their way-worn walking rhymes. Elvish words came drifting over to Sam like hanging smoke.

Many a time, Mr. Frodo would claim that Sam's voice were much better suited for singing, and Sam would ever disagree. Frodo's voice had a softness as could reach deep into every song and lift up notes that fanned and broke round the melody. But the tune he'd chosen then --

It brought on a recollection of rushing waters, and Sam remembered hearing it from the Lady Galadriel's folk as their boats started on the first furlong down the river. A music swelling in sweet, sad ripples crept cold and bright on his skin before running past.

The shadows had grown close about Frodo when he ended, but something gleamed from his hand where it lay below his throat. Sam pulled himself from the strange, aching silence and walked over.

"Not meaning to bother you, Mr. Frodo," he said more urgently than he'd wanted, "but dinner's about to be fixed, and you ought to come and take a bite."

Frodo nodded, but he weren't moving, and so Sam lowered himself in a crouch. I heard you sing, he couldn't say, but he saw then what glinted clear as starlight between Frodo's fingers. In silence, Frodo raised the Lady Arwen's gift on his hand, and it gave off enough light to show a clouded smile. Sam's breath caught, jarred by a piercing start that was more than beauty and less than gladness. It shines brighter for your smile.

More the poet than I ever was, my dear Sam.

Sam shook his head. Neither of them had spoken, he remembered as plain as day. And he'd not known then that Frodo sang of leaving, neither. All he'd done was reach without thinking, brushing just a fingertip to the starfire at the heart of Frodo's palm. Frodo's fingers closed tight round his own, the jewel captured in their handclasp. Time passed as a breath, and round them spread nobut twilight while they were safe in a place between day and night, between the Shire's near welcome and the borders of Wilderland.

And there I'd stay if I could, only for the touch of your hand. Sam could feel it now, a warm pledge that dissolved in a shiver of evening wind. The waiting wouldn't matter if I could but touch him again, only once... If I could know. But then he thought of the dreams he'd had and how the waking tore him each time, with such a blind, hopeless need. It will all come to an end, any moment now --

On returning from the Havens, he'd been left with naught but the star-jewel and Frodo's smile cut deep into his memory. Though he'd not known of the gift for hours after, not till he reached into his pocket in the middle of night, and what he'd touched then lived, while he was --

Sam felt again that sick, trembling despair that took him by the Sea. Always yours, but --

He held on to the gem as he had on the ride home, and it seemed to glow with forbidden promise, with a secret wish for his touch. Never mine. Soft footsteps fell on the flagstones at his back, and he turned around quick, his hand pushed deep into his pocket.

Though Elanor smiled, her eyes weren't reached by it. "The Queen wishes to speak to you, Dad."

"I did not foretell..." Arwen turned from the narrow arch, against a fading edge of daylight. In all the citadel gardens, Aragorn had long known, this pavilion of pierced stone was the place she most favoured when memories claimed their due. Flowering vines and glossy leaves wreathed the graceful pillars, arrayed to recall the lofty spaces of Imladris. "Yet my words became part of the Ringbearer's choice, did they not?"

"No decision is ever obtained without counsel," Aragorn answered her. "And choices made in the hearts of mortals must often seem as passing whims to you."

As mine once did. His breath wavered strangely, thinned by the memory of first glimpsing her like a song's shadow, and the ghosts of what might have been --A soft noise drew their joined glances apart. Framed in a cluster of pale blossoms, Sam paused in the pavilion's entrance. Elanor had not returned with him; Aragorn supposed that she had gone to find her mother in the herb garden of the next court.

"Come inside, Sam." Aragorn smiled, reading a wary tension in the hobbit's stance.

A small lamp was hung from the roof's keystone, and its halo touched anxious expectation on Sam's face. It heightened to alarm the moment Arwen asked to be shown the white jewel.

"You have nothing to fear," she added, though her own face revealed a rare uncertainty. Sam met her gaze with an unwonted dark look.

I carry nothing, Aragorn remembered suddenly, from the deep trench of those years. This, and the high-strung courage that sparked unexpectedly through a hobbit's understandable fright.

Sam dug his hand into his pocket and lifted out the jewel, still reluctant, a ripped silver chain dangling from it.

It is as we thought. Aragorn looked at his wife and found a new glimmer kindling in her expression.

"This gem was a gift from Galadriel when I lived in sanctuary at Caras Galadhon," Arwen said, "yet my heart yearned elsewhere. It is a capturing stone. In it I caught the light of Eärendil who is also called Gil-Estel, high hope."

When she turned her head by a fraction, Aragorn saw the reminiscent smile that brushed her mouth without gaining hold. "My own hope poured into the stone as I wore it, through many years of watching the shadow lengthen, while our doom was approaching."

Sam listened to her with a sharp attention that Aragorn shared, caught again to the ravels of the past.

"When my wish was fulfilled," she continued, "I gave it to Frodo, so that the capturing stone would cloak him in hope that was nearly lost, and relieve the pain of his memories."

Arwen bent over to look in Sam's eyes, but when he held out the gem on his palm, she merely touched two fingers to it and drew back almost at once. "Aragorn..."

Though her expression remained very still, he saw grief run its taut trace across her cheek, and disquiet smouldered even through her lowered lashes. Sam stood with both hands clasped around the precious jewel, eyes wide and anxious. Almost, Aragorn thought, the frightened young hobbit who had begged his help when Frodo was wounded at Weathertop.

"Is there..." Sam stammered, "oh, what is wrong, my Lady?"

"I did not know... This stone bears the memory of Frodo's pain, and yet it runs over with his life." Arwen straightened, and her face was composed to show an assurance Aragorn missed in her bearing. "It seems that the Ringbearer poured himself into this stone, and what hope for living remained to him during his most tormented hours."

"I... know." Sam lowered his head and wiped quickly at his eyes. "He's so -- so near when I touch it."

"Samwise... you cannot carry this."

"Oh, but I have to!" Sam fell back a step, his hand tightened to a fist around his treasure. "He said maybe my time would come, and I'll be glad to give it back to him, but till then--" An ungovernable tear made a moist streak down his face.

"It's been a comfort all the years, Lady."

"Comfort perhaps, yet has it not kept your own pain fresh, and your wounds unhealed?"

The clenching of Sam's jaw was unmistakable as he looked past them. "Jewel or no jewel, there's aught in the world as to change that, begging your pardon."

"He intended to shield you from harm," Arwen said. "That was his wish for you."

"But he didn't know mine," Sam returned defensively, though his gaze dropped in another moment, as if he rued the words. "Not then, if you understand me. And I don't mean to say -- it don't matter none, so long as he's healed..."

Breathless, he stopped and did not speak again before straightening his shoulders. "Please, if you can, tell me that he is."

Arwen met his demand with a look full of sorrow, but then shook her head mutely. Across the half-lit space, Sam stared at her. Grief and betrayal flared in his eyes, and traces of the hot anger Aragorn recognised well. It had marked their first hour of acquaintance and warned him not to overlook the checked passions within that gentle nature.

"But you said he might go if he wished to, didn't you?" Neither hurt nor anger slipped into Sam's voice, save for the slight roughness of swallowed tears.

"You're much wiser than I could ever be, Lady... What did you see that I didn't?"

Aragorn frowned when a sharp recoil seized Arwen's expression and her unflinching gaze travelled aside. "I saw nothing," she whispered. "I told Frodo that he might cross the Sea in my stead, but was it for me to bestow what I had surrendered? It may be that I longed to restore a balance and succeeded only in breaking it."

Aragorn watched her closely, misgivings leaping to the fore of his mind. Between them arose the memory of Elrond's leaving, his face a mask of grief in the cold mountain light. One loss calling forth another, threading echoes through Mindolluin's crags that ran back to them now, in a wide circle of years. Sam's shoulders rose and sank with heavy breaths. "Then you can't tell me if I'll be allowed to go either, or what I'll find when I do."

"The promise is yours to keep," Aragorn said at length, when Arwen did not reply. "Trust your own eyes, Samwise, and take counsel where your heart guides you."

"He said he'd leave me what he might've had, but I don't know--" Sam burst out, then squeezed his eyes shut, and his voice sank to a murmur. "Naught but that I couldn't bear it a day longer if there weren't a hope--"

He broke off at a rustle from outside the pavilion. Over his shoulder, Aragorn caught a pale hint of movement and the flutter of Rose's skirts. How long had she stood outside and listened?

In a brisk half-turn, Sam gathered himself and breathed, "If you'll pardon me..." Then he stormed from the pavilion without looking back.

"He did not tell her..." Aragorn looked out into the garden and felt the evening's untimely chill crawl inward. "What can we do that will not go amiss?" He lifted Arwen's mantle from a carved seat and draped it gently around her shoulders. She leaned into him then, a movement fluid as a breeze and soft with reflection.

"Loss and grace cloak him as a mist," she said as if speaking to herself, "nimwath... entrapped in a twilight that neither waxes nor wanes."

Uneasy at the trembling in her voice, Aragorn drew her closer. "Tell me what grieves you."

"Was it the Ring's taint that I perceived about Frodo, or was my own vision shadowed by long foreboding, and the passing of the Eldar from Middle-earth?"

Her breath escaped slowly into the question. "I fear for Frodo. My gift should have eased his passing."

"Surely you do not believe that the gem drained--"

"No, not that." She turned to face him, her eyes deeper of memories than mortal kind could fathom, and lucid with long-reaching strength. Aragorn's hand slid off her arm as he watched her, cloaked in a frost of lambent night that dimmed the lamp-glow.

"But it speaks to me," Arwen said, "of choosing once and for all times between one life and another. The Ringbearer could not make such a choice, and that he left the gem behind is token of his plight." She shook her head, and the shadows around her shifted, receding to leave her slender and alone. "It is too full," she whispered, "too alive."

"Then you believe that it is for Sam to--"

A slim finger rose to his lips, sealing them. "I do not foretell. I should not. The path is for him to find."

"It seems to me," Aragorn said slowly, "that he already has, though he might not yet know it."

"Rosie," Sam called, though his voice wouldn't hold steady. She'd not walked very far, and he followed her to a hedge dividing the cropped grass from a bed of white evermind. "Rosie... forgive me. I don't mean to--"

"Hush, now." She whirled suddenly, and though her face were wet with tears, her eyes bore the same staunch look she'd given him each time he worried over the nearing birth of their next child. "Let me have my say before you start."

He barely managed a nod. The earth seemed to slant away under his feet on both sides.

"I've long known that you're keeping your own secrets, Sam, and I never asked. I didn't mean to go eavesdropping neither..." She took in a sharp breath. "But you've shamed me, speaking of such things as you won't share with your wife."

"I've made you a promise, Rosie." He closed his eyes. "Don't be thinking that I've forgotten what promises I ought to keep, or I--"

"You did keep them," Rosie interrupted, "to me and the children, and those you never made us -- well, those will be kept too, won't they?"

Mirthless humour lay like glass in her words, scathing for its fine edge.

"When the time comes." The truth thickened his voice for the sorrow it caused her, and for the waiting behind it, pushing like piled rocks about to topple down a hillside. But how would I know --

"Sam..." Her steadfast look faltered. "Before we were wed I said you'd been wasting a year... And now more years have gone a'wasted."

"Oh no!" he started to protest. "Not--"

"Aye, we have our children and a land richer than it ever used to be, before your leaving. But you..." Fresh tears started in Rosie's eyes and she brushed them aside with quick annoyance. "Folk say there's a blessing on you and your hands, and right they are. You came home so changed... and you look so well and hale--"

"More'n I ought to," he muttered.

"Don't say that, Sam." She cupped her palm to his face, moving her thumb a little over his cheek. "But ofttimes it sets me thinking that you don't belong with us no more than Ellie does with her Elvish looks, and still you're wastin' in your own way."

"It's not the years..." Sam looked aside, striving against the ache in his chest. But the wishing... the wishing never stops.

Rose stepped back and clasped her hands over her belly. From a window in the palace, a little light touched her cheek, and the taut face of a stranger it seemed then. "Whatever it is, Sam, it's in your eyes, the look of things as others won't see, or believe in their hearts."

"Aye, I've been setting my hopes on what I can't never know," he said miserably, thinking how no-one in the world could assure him that Frodo --Anger boiled up again, mingled thick through his grief, hot and bitter enough to wrench his stomach. The garden swam bleak before his sight.

"We won't... speak of it again." Sam balled his hands tight before reaching one to her, but Rosie didn't take it. "There's no need--"

"--for making things seem as they aren't," she said with straight-out refusal.

"We'd only dishonour our marriage, and I couldn't bear that. No matter what other folk think, I won't have you bury yourself like a springshoot in snow."

"That's not how it is," Sam answered fast, but a firm resolve had come into her eyes.

"I've listened to you dreaming. The nightmares and... such other dreams as you've had."

"They were dreams, Rosie," he murmured painfully. "I never meant for you to--"

"'Tis not a dream now," she answered as softly.

High on the slope grew a tree taller than a tower, its trunk white as if glazed in starlight, though the first stars had yet to appear. Frodo climbed towards it, strained breaths hissing through his teeth. Only a short step behind, Gandalf walked in measured strides, prepared to steady him if he should stumble.

When they reached the top where giant roots lightened the earth, Frodo blinked against another giddy spell. Soft movement stirred through his sight, and it was then that he noticed Galadriel standing beside the tree.

"Yavanna Kementári sang the first trees into being," she said, "and their lifeless remains still stand in Valinor. Grief is no stranger to these lands, Frodo, it is wreathed into the light that you see and flows ever in our songs."

An immense calm lingered about her, hard-forged and patient, and her own words returned to him: stronger than the foundations of the earth... She held out her hand and drew him into the tree's shadow. The crown that had seemed dusky from a distance spread in rent silver overhead.

"You are without rest, bound to the time of your waiting as a prisoner."

"It is my own fault," Frodo answered without flinching from her gaze, "the flaw in my choices. I chose not to give up the Ring, and what it took from me I could not... regain by myself."

"You impose demands on yourself that are too harsh," Gandalf said at his shoulder, his tone not quite so patient. "Some choices were made against your choosing, and you bore them with much strength and courage. What you surrendered is still yours to embrace if you would but open your eyes. Have you not learned this lesson?"

"Which lesson, Gandalf?" Frodo murmured. Under the tree's branches, a fresh scent washed around him, and he breathed more easily.

"That a gift's true worth is seldom known to him who gives, and one loss set against another does not restore a whole. Take a closer look, Frodo."

The riddling words hovered on the edge of his mind without pressing for answers. Drawn by a strange curiosity, Frodo placed a hand against the wide trunk. His fingers sank into one of the long furrows, brushing skin more tender than he'd expected and a tremor like --

Closer than a dream, an image flashed beneath his eyelids, between one blink and the next -- Sam, alone by a white tree slighter than this one --He gasped, caught to a fierce heat that seeped inward, from a sting at his fingertips to a pang in his chest. His eyes flew back to Gandalf.

"He is in Minas Tirith," the wizard said, as if his thoughts were splayed open for all to see. "This Elrond perceived in the palantír... all else is for you to discover."

But fear ran through him in waves, crushed into rife pain that wasn't his own. Sam, how can --

"Time and distance are as veils, Frodo, if you so choose." Galadriel's eyes rested on him and offered a beginning, if not a purpose.

Then I choose... I choose not to let go, ever. Frodo turned back to the tree and raised his hand to touch what couldn't be. Whatever is mine to give --

In the Court of the Fountain, Aragorn and Arwen were seated on a pale stone settle. Above the walls, the tower of Ecthelion flared like a beacon over the sea of dusk. Sam slowed his pace as he stepped into the open. Here he'd come after a long day of running circles round his own thoughts, and here they'd expected him, seemingly.

"Is this--" Sam stopped, unsure what he'd meant to ask. His eyes wandered to the fountain and the spray misting the tree in fretful glitters. Maybe the memories lived more strongly in this place and that was why he'd been tugged back here --twenty-three years seemed to crumble to naught when the Lady Arwen rose towards him and said, "Mine is the choice of Lúthien..."

...and yours may be that of Eärendil, if there is compare in the lays of the Eldar, the words fell into his mind like rustling leaves. Have no fear of the unknown. Instead of speaking further, she sang softly, "Nai hiruvalyë Valimar, nai elyë hiruva."

Sam held his breath, for it were the same song that had twined itself through the branches of the mulberry tree and sealed their passing from Lórien. He reached for the jewel in his pocket that seemed to fend off the years.

Arwen turned back to the White Tree. "Here is a promise brought from the ruin of Númenor, and yet it grows to remind us of the light that once was. That still is."

"What shall I do?" Sam asked, though his voice scarce carried.

"Go to the tree, and call out as you may."

But how? he wanted to ask, when recollection of the first night and his odd faint woke a sudden thrill. Sam closed his hand tight around the gem, for all that his fingers trembled. "It burned."

"It may burn worse yet, but do not give in."

"Oh, I won't, but..." The Lady's warning tones raised another shiver on Sam's neck. He looked from her to Aragorn. "I've had another dream of him last night, only I'm thinking they're not dreams so much as--" He swallowed, trapped and breathless in a burst of fearful anger. "He's failing, as he was in Mordor!"

"He needs you, Samwise. That has not changed."

"But -- what's wrong with him? Please, Strider, I have to know!"

"Listen to me, Sam." Aragorn dropped down on one knee and spanned Sam's shoulders in his hands. "Everything that you need to know, you do know. Your love saved the world from darkness." He held Sam's eyes another moment before rising to his feet again. "This may not seem like fair counsel to you, but often you stood back and looked to others whose wisdom is no match for yours. It is time for you to trust your own insight."

Sam watched them pass under the arch, in a struggle with furious anguish that seethed all the brighter. All these wise and mighty folk that didn't think to help when Mr. Frodo were sick and confused. Though Frodo himself had refused to accept help -- like as not, he still did, stubborn as he could be.

Aye, and I'd give him a piece of my mind about that, too, if I had a chance. Anger carried him forward, across the moist grass, and each step unloosed the memory of coming here before. Sam looked up into the lacings of pale twigs. Every bit of practical hobbit-sense inside him reared to question how this tree could help him reach Frodo.

I said I'd follow him to the moon, and this -- He took the jewel from his pocket, holding out its bold shine against nightfall. "Well, then..."

When he closed his eyes, it simmered through the skin of his lids, his palm, as the starglass once had, coloured like his own blood.

Mr. Frodo... you must be one and whole -- Sam breathed hard, and laid a hand to the tree -- for me. Frodo, wait for me...

Against his cheek, the tree's bark felt warmer than the air. Frodo found himself in a memory of Lórien, afloat in the living presence of river and forest, and he only had to lift his head to see --

Sam... Walking out of a dream with a firm tread. A star burned in his hand, and a strong blaze enveloped Frodo, raking shivers across his skin. His fingers grasped a hold, reached into the heat that poured words too desperate for sound. Forgive me...

For all our might-have-beens... I made this choice for you, and I should not have, but it was all for you, Sam, always for you, not --

What I wanted -- Not an answer yet, not quite. But something breathed through Sam, uncertain with choices only half-known, and it were for him to make them whole somehow. But how could I, without him? And he didn't have the words to say --

It's all here, Frodo, what you might've had -- Sam pressed his hands and his forehead to the tree, breathing the wet air and clean scents in deep. All yours. It were never lost, it can't be, and don't you forget... But where words ran out, a song hummed through him and grew stronger, grew silvered as the dust on the withered tree.

In western lands beneath the Sun...

It were the best he could think of, when it had once brought him from hopeless loss to the clearest joy. He let his breath carry the notes, and his heart strain at the song, though it might well take his voice just from searing so in his breast. He tried not to listen for a voice answering his, not across this harsh a distance, it couldn't --

Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

On the gallery, Arwen let her long hair fly in a southern wind. "Im laston nan aerlinn gwath... Do you hear, Estel?"

A tear glistened on her cheek, trailing broken silence unheeded on its soft path.

"Im henion, Undómiel." Aragorn laced his fingers through hers, listening to her breath and the wind's voice stirring answers from emptiness. A song made whole, running ageless through the ripple of leaves in the court below. Of such moments, eternity is shaped. From afar, he looked again at the light of Cerin Amroth, where never and always dwelt but a breath apart.
You chose death for me.
But before death there's --

Life. Running from leaf to bough, from earth to air, from hand to hand.
I hold you --
-- always near, my love.
Reaching --
We will be.

If such soft, fervent singing could flow in his veins, if his own skin could hold a second pulse like a tale of fire, then maybe this weren't a dream. Sam shuddered, his arms stretched as if he clung to a far taller tree, his fingers pressed into deep furrows and craggy braids of bark. A fierce heat throbbed in his empty hand, familiar yet unlike the scorching of coal, and he still felt the lips branding a kiss to his palm, lingering so with want --

His breath caught on a sob for the loss -- no... Frodo -- and fled, leaving him shaken. But he couldn't let go yet, and his eyes were drawn up to the brightest star, piercing the tree's crown with its high glint. With the nearness of an answering song.

Above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell...

His mouth and chest burned as if he'd swallowed light. Frodo's fingers opened around the ball of a white blossom that must have sailed down from the tree, though he could not remember it. Beneath the narrow petals, winged seed lay nestled.

"Take this and plant it in your garden," Galadriel said, her voice lighter than the Sea breeze. "And your time will not grow long, it will merely grow." I will oh I will I will -- Frodo couldn't answer when so much hope still flamed in every part of his body and sang through him --

I will not say the day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.

Sam closed his eyes again, and a smile hovered very near, a pledge brushed against his mouth together with the taste of his own tears. All the years couldn't stand against the voice breathing endless promise into the ebbing of a song. Our time will come.
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