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Rose Riddle

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I run a finger along a saw-toothed edge of leaf, and the rose recalls...

Finrod on a white horse, reaching down to snap a rosehip from the tangle at his knee, flipping it to Luthien. "What is not, you have in your palm," he riddles with a wink, as she catches it. Luthien laughs back at him and replies, "A race of summer gardens." She pockets the berry and urges her horse ahead of his, and before long (inevitably, knowing the two of them) he's giving her another sort of race, and they wheel away over the hillcrest at the girdle's edge, black hair and gold streaming in the sunshine, leaving me and my lady alone with the flowers...

"Give them two years," chuckles young Ruby Gardner, "and they will be all over the library windows."

Master Meriadoc Brandybuck peers judiciously into the face of a bobbing blossom. "The strongest roses," he says, with the air of one who knows, "fair thrive on neglect." He wanders thoughtfully along the grass, hands behind his back, pausing intermittently to examine a plant. Ruby trails in his wake, soaking in late summer warmth and whistling conversations with the birds. "I wonder..." mutters Merry, "Look at the fine, thick stalks on these fellows, and their lusty efforts to burst their trellises." Ruby comes over to look. "I wonder, if we grafted them with the hill roses from home..."

"The hedge you mentioned?" asks the apprentice.

"Aye. Strider is quite keen on the idea, and I can't see the harm in it, myself. But not a horrible, sinister thing, like the one by the wood."

"Poor, disparaged hedge: fie, Uncle! The poor thing's roots have been half savaged by its neighbour."

I step closer to the sound of their cheerful voices, watching, through leaves, the venerable grey head and the gay-beribboned brown one. I shake off reverie: it clings to me like misty cobwebs, but if ever a creature existed who could besom an aging elf-lord out of his idle dreams, it would be one of the Shirefolk.

They are speaking now of climate, and of aphids, and diseases, 'gainst which Shire plants have long been hardy, which might trouble breeds accustomed to the havens of the elves.

Without warning, Ruby asks, "Will the valley be a haven still, when all the elves are gone?" She stands very straight, looking up at her teacher. I stand very straight, looking up at the solid, shadowy cliffs and the rushing river, the flowers that already begin to grow wild, and the still, quiet house. I see, with eyes-that-see-not, the moss creeping across the flagstones, and the slender ivy that will, in time, prove mightier than stone. I hear, with ears-that-hear-not, the bats come down from the heights to roost in the chimneys, and the salamanders wriggle in the mud-filled baths. I wait with my breath caught still in my throat, like any child at storytime, for the old hobbit's answer.

"Until all the land is changed and destroyed, and founders beneath the sea¹," says Meriadoc with a smile. "Come, Ruby, are you a gardener, or no? Hobbits have short memories, elves longer ones, and roses longer yet. But even when the elves are gone, even if the roses fail, the land will remember, and shelter all creatures who come here for love of the kind lord who dwelt here long ago."

She's caught by the rhythm of his voice. "What was he like, Uncle?"

"Put your ear to the ground; it will tell you."

I breathe again. Ruby laughs. Their careless conversation washes over me like revelation. It is revelation, for I have an answer that I did not have before. Silently, I return to the house and make my way to Elrond's rooms. The reveries return, clamouring in my head....

"She will savage your roots, this Noldorin princess. She will tear you up."

"It was the bitter of winter, the river was hard as stone, but the grass was green."

"The King is dead."

"A plague on the pride of the Eldar."

"The King is dead." "Elrond?" "Makes no claim."

Behind my son-in-law's worktable stands a cabinet with a number of small drawers. I pull open the first and find what I seek.

"Elladan will not claim it, nor will I. We do not travel the safe roads, these days; if one of us should fall, in a dark place, with no friend at hand, its loss would be grievous. Keep it, therefore, while you stay here, and should you desire to leave, choose another keeper."

I return to the garden, where the hobbits are pulling at a mass of purple-blazoned vetch advancing on a frail young cultivar. I approach them softly, shortening my stride. I have never been completely easy with little folk, on whom I must look down as were they children. I conceal my discomfort with levity. "Master Meriadoc, Mistress Ruby: my ears, if not my other parts, are certainly fading, for I thought just now I heard you planning to improve on Elrond's roses!" The youngster drops an embarrassed curtsey. Her companion bows neatly and looks me in the eye, laughter lurking at the corner of his mouth.

"Indeed, milord. We were wondering how they might fare on more open and varied terrain. King Elessar, you see, has been talking of planting a hedge about the Shire, now the North is filling with people again. Not to keep us in, mind, but just so later on the big folks outside don't grow confused about the placement of the borders. Roses, I thought, would be handsomer than holly or fir...."

I forestall his civilities, gesturing down the sloping garden. "Make free with Imladris' rosehips, Master Meriadoc. Take cuttings home as well, if you think they will stand the journey. May their blossoms girdle your Shire in beauty and their thorns protect its wealth." He is bowing deeply, professions of gratitude ripe on his lips, when I say, "But take this, too," and open my hand. The key is of middling size, well and gracefully made but not in any way remarkable; it bears no decoration but a simple E rune.

Master Merry straightens to see what I hold, and his eyebrows climb high. His wits are very quick, but he asks the question anyway. "What is this you offer me, my lord?"

"The master key of Imladris." His apprentice sucks in her breath.

"Do you sail west, then, that you must seek another bearer?" Oh, he is bold, this hobbit.

"I do not." Thranduil will never leave this land, but I.... I love this land like the wailing of loons at midnight, like the crash of the poplar in stormwind, and the bite of ice on the granite shore. I love it more than song, solace, more than self. I am in love with a Noldorin princess. I do not know. "I have a desire to journey eastward, for a while. Among other things, I think it high time I paid a visit to the folk of Erebor."

"Ah." He pauses, looking at me frankly. "Well done, my lord." An astonished laugh threatens my countenance, for none has addressed me in such a tone of paternal approval since the Elder Days. He does not mean my gift. He is steeped in lore.

"Take of Elrond's roses," I repeat, "and make your hedge. But mayhap will come a time, long hence, when all its doughty thorns cannot hold back the threats without. And so remember this." I give Meriadoc the key. "It is no more than a symbol, to unlock the memory of roses, but it knows its way home. Drop it on the earth, and it will point the way." The Master bows.

Outward and outward the patterns spiral, until their beginnings are scarce to be seen. The strongholds of my kinsmen rise and topple, or bit by bit dissolve to earth beneath the gentle scrape of rain. Around us the landscape goes to seed. The wind is obsessed by tomorrow. I snap a rosehip from the bush at hand, and press it into Ruby's palm.

~~~

I can pass to you
Generations of roses in this wrinkled berry.
There: now you hold in your hand a race
Of summer gardens, it lies under centuries
Of petals. What is not, you have in your palm.
Rest in the riddle, rest; why not?

- C. Fry