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Passover and Pilgrimage

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Particularly for Jeannette, Dave, and Peggy, and their families, with thanks for acceptance and Seders and Shabbots shared.  With thanks to Fiondil for his help with the language issues, and to RiverOtter for the beta.

Pilgrimage and Passover

Memorials Reversed  

            "And have you all that you require for your comfort, Master Samwise?" asked a voice.

            Sam looked up from his cup of ale, rather surprised, for he'd not heard Prince Faramir approach, followed by his son Elboron.  "I'm well enough at the moment, Captain Faramir," he said.  "Was gettin' a bit much for me, is all, seein' where the camp was raised, and memberin' it all."  He took another sip before setting his cup on the table beside him.  "It don't look much the same, but it still brings back the memories, it does."

            "I can imagine," the Man said softly as he carefully lowered himself to sit beside the Hobbit.  "I was not well enough at first to leave the City, and then was too busy preparing for the coming of the King and arguing with those lords of the realm who would have preferred to keep things as they were to visit the camp here, although I did my best to see to it that sufficient supplies and comforts were sent for the needs of those who were worst hurt and those who must serve them."

            Faramir smiled.  "I think on all our Lord Elessar did for those who were injured and still marvel.  My father might have visited those who were wounded, but for the first hour or so he would have been visibly uncomfortable, for never was he so injured that he could not rise and go about other needful work.  Seeing those so hurt they could not rise or would never fully recover to be as they were before made him feel most distressed.  In time he would finally find one with whom he could converse easily and the discomfort would pass at last, but Boromir and I came to wager on how long it would be before he would meet that one.  Indeed, I preferred to see to it my father was led to those with whom I believed he would relax early in his visits to the healers' camps or the Houses of Healing.  Boromir, however, would at times become impatient with his discomfort...."

            Sam found himself smiling at the Man's words.  "And so you do the same with me, eh?  Talk on to help ease the discomfort?"

            Faramir's smile widened.  "Ah, but you have found me out!"

            Sam became more serious.  "I thank you for it.  Trouble is, it's a bit too much the same out there as it was, and too much different at the same time, if you take my meanin'.  It's all just a bit--well, off is the only word as comes to mind.  And that puts me off, at least a bit."

            "I see."

            The doors opened, admitting the King Elessar and his personal guard, accompanied by his Queen, Diamond, Estella, and Rosie, Elanor following behind them.  Sam was noting who had--and hadn't--entered the building.  "So," he commented, "Pippin and Merry've decided to continue their lookin' about, have they?"

            Aragorn nodded.  "Yes, they are doing so.  They went first to the grove where we set up the enclosure for you and Frodo, and I believe that Merry's memories were as stirred there as yours have been just to be here at all.  So much of this is bringing his longing for Frodo's presence to the fore, but he says it is good that this is so.  He was describing what it was like to first see the two of you, and then how Pippin appeared at the time, how desperately afraid he was but how that fear fell away as he saw you all three returning to normal day by day."

            "I don't quite understand, Lord Strider," Sam said slowly, "just why these monuments have all been put together, out here in the wilderness, like.  Who will even see them?"

            The King sat down opposite his friend and reached out to take Sam's hand.  "Your land has always been sheltered from much of the evil that has troubled the rest of the world, and for that I rejoice.  So it is that, although you and Frodo know perhaps better than most just how fragile peace can be and how destructive and pervasive evil can become, still you always knew peace and security as you grew up."

            "Well, if we did, a good deal of that was due to you and your folk keepin' a watch on the Shire, though we didn't know about it at the time."

            Aragorn smiled, his love for Sam clear to be seen.  "That may be so, but as a result it's harder, perhaps, for you to realize how much what was done here has had an impact on those in Gondor, most of whom have known only the enmity of Sauron and the destruction of his creatures' assaults on their lands all their lives.  To know now the peace that we do, and to know that most of it is due to the sacrifices of Gondor's army and Rangers, the alliance we have with Rohan, and beyond all else on the willingness of you four Hobbits and those of us who marched to the Black Gate to sacrifice our own lives to see Sauron destroyed forever--people have made this a route of pilgrimage."

            "Pilgrimage?"

            "A route to follow to honor those who were most willing to die that they might live.  A route to follow to appreciate just what was suffered that peace might be restored to the world."

            Sam slipped his hand free of the King's, and reached for his cup of again.  He took a sip, obviously considering what he'd just been told.  At last he returned the cup to the table, folded his hands together, and looked directly into Aragorn's eyes.  "I can begin to understand, Lord Strider, sir.  What I don't understand is why that monument as was unveiled today, the one Master Ruvemir sculpted, why it only shows you and us--my Mr. Frodo and me, I mean.  We wasn't the only ones as was hurt near to the death, after all."

            Aragorn was shaking his head.  "That is true, Sam.  You must understand--for most among Men it is easier to appreciate such an experience if they focus on only one or two individuals rather than on many.  Nearly six thousand Men, one Hobbit, two Peredhil, one full Elf, one Dwarf, and a Wizard marched upon the Black Gate.  Nearly five hundred Men of Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan died that day, and at least that many were seriously wounded, along with one Hobbit who came very close to losing his life."

            "Pippin, then," Sam commented, again lifting his cup.

            "Even so.  The mind of a Man simply cannot take in the enormity of such numbers.  But it can focus on one or two and their plights, and from those one or two it can then apply what it learns of those individuals to the rest, and so better achieve understanding.  And if those one or two are exceptional in some way, the lessons are learned the better.

            "Remember also that of all who struck out at the might of Sauron that day, of soldiers, Rangers, Princes, Kings, lords greater and lesser, and even common bakers who put by their rolling pins to take up weapons for one last act of defiance against the forces of darkness, the victory was won in the end when two small souls came to the Sammath Naur, winning through not by might of war but by faithfulness and endurance.  Only when they brought the Ring within range of the Fire could the Creator use Gollum to see It taken from Frodo and into the abyss, delivering both the Ringbearer and all others forever from Sauron's intended tyranny.  Soldiers and warriors--for ages they have opposed the lords of Evil; but this war was not ended by the sword but by the feet of those who love the land that bore and ever sustained them, and the people who had helped them become who they were.

            "I was not proclaimed a Lord of all the Free People of Arda for leading the assault on the Black Gate----"

            Sam gave a great laugh, holding his cup between both his hands.  "And you think as you ain't seen as such?"

            All shared in that laugh save the King himself, who merely smiled fondly at the Hobbit.  "The Great Eagles proclaimed that honor for you and Frodo, Samwise Gamgee, not for me.  Oh, they cried out to the folk of the White City that their King would return to them and dwell among them once more, but there are but two they declared as Princes of all of the West--you and Frodo."

            Sam was flushing deeply, and took a deep draught of his ale to cover his embarrassment.

            Aragorn continued, "The most extraordinary feat in the entire history of the ongoing struggles against those who would enslave all others to their own will was achieved by a scholar and a gardener.  The grocer who has never held anything more lethal than a trimming knife, the farrier who has never seen any greater blaze than that in his forge and who knows his own hammers but not those intended for purposes of war, the goodwife who has done nothing of violence worse than preparing a fowl for her family's daymeal--they cannot fully appreciate the warrior's life.  But they know when two of their own kind have accomplished great deeds, and they will honor them.  And when two who are not of the warrior's way yet manage to bring about peace without violence, soldiers take notice.  You and Frodo mean a good deal to both parties.  And when such as the Great Eagles, who are believed to be servants of the Elder King, declare folk Princes of the West--well, that serves to capture the attention of even those lords of the realm who have not been convinced there are Powers dwelling within Aman."

            Sam shrugged, obviously uncomfortable.

            Elanor, who'd come to stand behind her father and had her hand on his shoulder, shared a look of sheer pride with the Queen, while Rosie simply beamed at her beloved spouse.  "I must say," she confided in him, "you look mighty fine in that statue.  Too bad the other children aren't here t'see it, too.  They'd all be so proud of their old dad!"

            Sam shuddered at the thought.  "That's as might be, I suppose, sweetling.  But can't you imagine as how much trouble as they'd of been had we brought them all?  I doubt as they'd of left the Citadel standin'!  Little Primrose is into everythin' lately; and the kitchens wouldn't be proof against the lads!  Robin loves his sweets, not to mention all the sweets of anyone else, and will ferret them out wherever they've been hid!  Bilbo's at that clumsy age when all he has to do is look at somethin' fragile and down it bumps to shatter t'splinters, and Rosie-lass and Goldilocks can't seem t'speak on aught but clothes and lads--when they're not raidin' the strawberries.  I never seen any children as keen on strawberries as ours!"

            He sighed.  "Oh, they all wished t'come, 'tis true, and in especial Ham and Merry and Pippin-lads.  Oh, those three've always wanted to stand there at the battlefield and see where their Uncle Pippin killed him his troll.  I hated leavin' them home, but suspect as it'll be best they come when they're all older.  And as Frodo-lad will be servin' on you two as a page when you come north next year, he'll have his special time with you away from the rest.  I'm just glad as he's there to keep an eye on the younger ones--mostly he's a steady one as can keep the rest in line.  And as much devilin' as they all was doin' afore we left, they need some steadying."

            Aragorn rose as Lady Avrieth entered carrying the Princess Idril, who was but a year old; and reached to take his younger daughter from her.  "Ah, our small, benevolent tyrant has risen from her nap, I see.  And just in time to join us as we go out to the small river where we used to gather in the evening to talk."  He looked down at Sam.  "I think you will be pleased to see the spot once more.  Pippin is insisting we must have tea there, and swears it has not changed since we were encamped here."

            "It hasn't changed all that much," Sam agreed once they'd passed the line of bushes and trees that screened the sheltered spot where those of the Fellowship had been wont to spend much of their time.  "True, there's benches where those logs used to be, but the great stone on which you used t'sit is still there!"

            In time all were settled.  Pippin was lying on his back on the grass with his head in his wife's lap, listening to the King's sculptor describing how he'd come to choose this particular pose for the memorial statue, and Merry was seated nearby with his legs crossed, burnishing his sword.  Master Faralion, the minstrel who had composed and first sung the Lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers all those years ago, was idly picking out individual notes on a lap harp as he listened.  Somehow they all felt the memories of Frodo and that horrible time were easier to deal with here, with the familiar, cheerful murmur of the water rushing to join the Anduin as an immediate backdrop to their conversation.

            Arwen sank down to sit upon the ground near the bank of the small river, slipping her shapely feet out of her shoes and cooling them in the rushing water, while Elanor joined Princess Melian, who held out a platter of preserved pear slices to share between them.  Estella sat quietly near Princess Éowyn and her daughter, and gladly accepted small Princess Idril into her lap, watching as young Faramir Took and Prince Eldarion, who were immediately joined by Elboron, scoured the bank for pretty stones.

            Servants soon appeared with blankets and hampers of food and drink for the party.  Rosie looked up from the dish of cheese slices she'd been served to examine the face of her husband.  "Did Master Frodo come here often, there while you was restin' here, love?" she asked.

            "That he did.  But then we all liked it here, we did.  Was easier here, by the river, to remember as we was safe now and not in want no more.  Frodo would approach the water, kneelin' much there where our Lady is sittin', and dip his hands in to drink.  He often needed to drink, even if he wasn't particularly thirsty, just to be certain as he'd not be that again.  He'd close his eyes and listen, and at the sound of the water he'd start to smile again.  Oh, that crease in his brow--that never quite went away; but he would still know relief here."

            The others who'd been part of the Fellowship nodded in recognition of how that reflected what they, too, remembered.

            "I'm just surprised that Legolas and Gimli weren't here, too," Merry said, meticulously picking the last shards of shell from his boiled egg.

            "They are seeing things readied at our next stop," Aragorn answered with a quick, smiling glance at his youngest lying in Estella's lap.  "There is no guesthouse there, or at least not yet.  And they seem more tied to the memory of the day of the last battle than they are to the two of you awakening here.  I must say that I cannot wait to see the sculpture that Master Celebgil has created there.  And I am amazed that he was able to get those who took part in the events there to agree to come and allow him to draw their likenesses."

            Arwen laughed her beautiful, quicksilver laugh.  "Ah, there I think you can thank Radagast the Brown, who agreed to serve as intermediary."

            "Seems a bit daft to me," Sam muttered, reaching for another of the fine cakes provided them, "reversin' the memorials as you have.  I mean, Strider, unveilin' the statue here on the New Year, and then waitin' for my birthday to do the second, and two days after that the one as is to remind folk of the victory.  And I still think as it's odd to place the second on the side of the road as we've been told it is."

            "Well, that is where it happened.  And it will be seen more often that you might think.  The emissaries from Rhûn will pass it every time they come to Gondor, as shall many of those who travel between Laketown or Dale and Minas Anor," Aragorn sighed as he sipped from his mug of herbal drink.  "It will be good for them always to be reminded how it was that Mordor was felled."

            "Ham will be that disappointed, I know," Rosie commented, "not bein' here t'see and all, I mean."

            "And I'm just relieved as he's not here to be gettin' into arguments with his brothers as to which should get to stand where Pippin there killed his troll," Sam said.  "Now, that would be a fight worse'n what you all saw when you were here afore!"

            The others laughed.  "At least young Wynnie is staying with those she loves best, since Merry and Estella left their brood at home," Diamond sighed.  "She refused to come if Sam and Rosie's younger ones couldn't come, too.  But then I don't know if she'll ever leave the Shire willingly to go further than Annúminas, and even then she wishes to hurry us home again!  I think she's rather afraid of Outside."

            Farry Took paused and looked up from his perusal of a shard of green jade he'd found.  "No, she's not so afraid of Outside as she is of changing," he said.  "She knows that Da and Uncle Merry and Uncle Sam and especially Uncle Frodo all came back changed from what they were, and she's afraid that if she's away too long she'll change and maybe not recognize herself, or at least not fit in any more back home."

            It was a sobering thought, and the rest of the time spent by the water was largely quiet.  Certainly Frodo Baggins had never found the true homecoming they'd all hoped for--not that he'd truly looked to return to the Shire at all once he'd accepted the burden of the quest upon his slender shoulders.  It was likely he was far more at home where he was now, in the alien lands far to the west of Middle Earth, than he'd proved on his return to Hobbiton and Bag End.

            A few more days they stayed in the guesthouse at the Fields of Cormallen, and all now explored the region about the fields.  Aragorn showed them where the camp for the enemy wounded had been set up, and spoke of his visits there.  Sam told of his forays with those who foraged for the camp.  Master Faralion described his private interviews with various members of the Fellowship and his meetings with Frodo during the weeks spent within the camp before the return to Minas Tirith.  Pippin explained what it was like to waken to find himself unexpectedly alive, and realizing Merry was there with him.  Merry was quiet during much of their stay in the guesthouse, but there was no question he was listening hard.  Sam found himself wondering at that; but then Meriadoc Brandybuck had shared Frodo's ability to keep his own council until he felt it time to let others know the thoughts and plans he'd already set in motion.

            On the evening before they were to leave the guesthouse to take part in the second unveiling Sam found Merry leaning against the boulder on which Aragorn had so frequently sat, there by the river.  He'd drawn out his pocketknife, and with it was shaving a piece of wood to toothpicks with deft and sometimes savage strokes.  He gave only the briefest of glances at the Mayor of the Shire as Sam joined him.  After a moment he said, as if they were merely continuing a conversation, "There are many places that bring back the memories, of course.  It's not as if this doesn't happen elsewhere.  Down by the Brandywine where he taught me to swim and to handle a boat, in the grove where he did much of his plans for distracting farmers and smallholders, in the old mill where he spent a good deal of time reading, in his old room where Perry sleeps now.  Or there in Hobbiton--the place where he interrupted Lotho and Ted Sandyman when they were tormenting me and the two of them turned on him, and it didn't stop until some lads from the village came and joined us, or atop the Hill where we'd lie out together and watch the stars.

            "But here----"  He paused and let his hands drop, looking around them.  "It ought not to look so much the same, I suppose, lying as it does beside this smaller river.  But it does, and I remember coming here with Aragorn and Gandalf, and them comforting me while I cried.  The three of you when I arrived--you all were so badly hurt--so wounded!  And I so feared none of you would awaken again.  I don't know that Aragorn ever gave up hope, not once he'd brought Frodo's spirit back to his body, but I had so little.  And it was worse as the shadow of the Black Breath was still lingering some."

            He looked up to meet Sam's eyes directly.  "He was going to leave us without saying farewell, Sam!  He was just going to disappear--again!  Oh, how I hated that in him, his fear of saying goodbye.  He would not even say it when he left the Hall to go with Bilbo to live in Bag End--he held me and kissed me, but wouldn't say it to me!  And when he'd been visiting we'd have to watch him like a hawk to keep him from simply slipping away."

            At last Sam agreed, "It hurt him so, and him wouldn't say it at all if'n he could avoid it.  Was easier for him, bein' able to slip away when he left you or the others as he loved, knowin' as the last memories he'd have of you was you and him smilin' together the night afore.  It hurt him, seein' you lookin' sad as he was goin'.  He'd of slipped off on me if'n he'd thought as he could of got away with it."

            He came closer, hearing Merry closing the knife.  He held out his arms, and Merry moved into them, and he felt the Brandybuck's tears on his shoulder.

            "There, there," he said softly, as if this was yet another of the young Gamgees he was comforting.  "At least Master Ruvemir has him smilin' in the statue here, stead of him lookin' as uncomfortable and lost as him did when he did awake."

            He could feel the hitch in Merry's breath as the other Hobbit found himself laughing through his silent sobs.  "He did look most confused, I must say!" Merry said, straightening and rubbing at his eyes with the back of the hand holding the stick.  "I don't think he quite believed it was all happening, and that he'd truly awakened after all.  I think in some ways it offended his sense of Baggins propriety and decorum in some odd fashion I doubt that I'll ever fully understand.  There always was far more of his Aunt Dora and Uncle Dudo in him than he ever admitted."

            And the two of them were suddenly laughing together, remembering how unutterably fussy Frodo Baggins could sometimes appear, and how that used to spark Bilbo into becoming acerbic, which in turn would turn Frodo stubborn as the Hill itself.  Sam found himself looking at Merry's hands, noting how Frodo's cousin tended to hold things much as Frodo himself had done.  It could easily have been Frodo's penknife, with Frodo paused in the act of sharpening a new nib to answer a question.  And he knew his eyes were swimming slightly as again he met Merry's.

            Merry's face grew more solemn once more.  "This is proving a bit of a pilgrimage to me, following your part of the journey.  I came here afterward, and only saw folks getting better.  I'd never meant to be separated from him--from any of you!  I'd meant to go with you to the very end."  He looked away before continuing, in a softer voice, "I want to understand just how he felt--what he went through."

            "Be glad as you can't, for he'd never of wanted that for you nor anyone.  He loved you that much--it would of killed him if'n he'd thought as you had to know that."

            Merry's expression was steady and he said with soft determination, "And it nearly killed me, seeing him lying there, emaciated to the point of being skeletal, his skin an unnatural grey, his eyes sunken, barely breathing, watching as they carefully coaxed liquids and broths into him a little at a time, all through the night and day.  At least you could swallow almost normally."

            He turned away slightly, looking off into the distance.  "He was my cousin, and almost my brother.  He was there when I was born, and always after, until at last Bilbo took him to Hobbiton.  But he never gave up loving me, even when I behaved horribly to him or others.  And at times it feels as if part of me went with him--" he looked back to catch Sam's eye again, "--just as it must feel for you, too."

            Sam couldn't deny it, that feeling of brotherhood he felt for Frodo Baggins, that feeling he knew he shared with Meriadoc Brandybuck, that feeling each of them had at times felt ought to be private just to himself.  They did not speak any more words, but the look the two of them shared communicated far more than mere words could convey.

            Early the next morning the party headed north to the unveiling of the next monument, just where the final spur of the Ephel Dúath stuck out that divided Ithilien from what had been the waste before the Black Gate.  They reached the camp at sundown, and entered into the pavilions prepared for them, raised by those who'd come earlier, accompanying Prince Legolas and Gimli Gloin's son, assisted by Radagast the Brown, who'd come together to see all prepared for this day.

            They welcomed the three Hobbits and their families with great joy, and were immediately beset by young Prince Eldarion, who was obviously a favorite of both Elf and Dwarf.  Rosie was soon overseeing the serving of the meal prepared to the new arrivals, and Sam could see the amusement in the Lady Arwen's eyes as she accepted her meal--more than she could eat, Sam was certain--from Mistress Rose's hands.  Meanwhile Melian and Eldarion and Prince Faramir's son Elboron, accompanied by Elanor and Farry, went out to explore the area surrounding the camp, joining Master Celebgil's apprentices and peppering them with questions about their parts in the sculpting of the monument to be unveiled upon the morrow.

            As the party came together at the dawning for first breakfast Aragorn made a point of sitting by Sam.  "I am sorry that neither of us can be by the White Tree or the Shire's mallorn this morning," he said, "for I grieve not to be there for the first blooming.  I must say that as the blossoms open I tend to feel as if I had both you and Frodo by me, sharing in the delight of it."

            Sam nodded his understanding.  "Well, at least we're here by you in person.  I only hope as Frodo realizes we must be together, and that we're all thinkin' of him."

            As Rosie settled herself by her husband's side she momentarily took and squeezed his hand.  "I'm sure of it, lovey.  How could he ever doubt that?"

            When all were finished they were arranged into a procession of sorts by Gimli, and all approached the great veiled structure that had been raised upon the spur.  There they were met by Master Celebgil himself, who looked down on them all, and particularly on Master Ruvemir, who'd been his master in the White City in the last years of his own apprenticeship.

            The younger sculptor cleared his throat, then began:  "I wish to greet you all this day, and thank you for coming here to see this monument unveiled.  How many in the future may choose to come to see it I could not say, as isolated in many ways as it is.  However, this is a point of importance in the final battle of the War of the Ring, the place where our beloved King, who had not yet accepted the Winged Crown, came to the succor of the Cormacolindor as they were brought out of the destruction of Mordor and the torment of Mount Doom.  We know now that neither of those restored to us had expected to survive that turmoil, but the Powers and the One saw to it that they received the grace to be assured their sacrifices had not been in vain.

            "That this event never be forgotten by the peoples of the western lands, we now unveil this memorial to that moment."  So saying, he gave a signal to his apprentices, who, assisted by Princess Melian and Elanor Gardner, pulled the ropes that uncovered the great grouping.

            This was constructed not of stone, but of bronze, and consisted of depictions of three of the great Eagles facing the King in his battle armor, the figure of the Wizard Mithrandir beside him, all of them set on the lower slopes of the great spur of the mountain.  Highest up, as if settling himself on a rocky outcrop, Gwaihir the Windlord was shown just beginning to fold his great wings.  Gandalf had just received the body of Samwise Gamgee into his arms from the second Eagle, and was tenderly pulling the Hobbit close to his breast.  And Aragorn was holding out his hands to accept the form of Frodo Baggins from the talon of the third Eagle.

            All stood, examining the grouping in awe, when cries from above caused them to look up.  Out of the glory of the blue sky dropped a half dozen of the great Eagles, each alighting near the monument.  Immediately Men, Elves, and Dwarves pulled back respectfully.  Once the birds were settled, the King and Queen of the West stepped forward with Radagast to greet them.

            "We welcome you, and rejoice you have come to join us as we honor the memory of the saving of the Ringbearers," the Lord Elessar said, bowing deeply.  "Certainly had it not been for your assistance it is likely none of us would be here now, and particularly not Lord Samwise and his family."

            The Eagles fixed their gaze on Sam, who had been beckoned forward by the King, and who stepped forward steadily enough, although he was flushing deeply.

            Gwaihir bobbed his head respectfully toward the Hobbit.  "We greet you, Lord Perhael, and are glad you have made the journey from your own land for this."

            "And I thank you for drawin' my Master and me from the destruction of the mountain," he answered, bowing low.  "We'd of not survived if'n you hadn't braved the rocks and all to come and find us."

            "And this is one of your young?" the Windlord asked, fixing his attention on Elanor, who had followed her father forward.  He turned his head to examine the Hobbit lass carefully, and appeared enthralled.  "A worthy child, and blessed by all, I would say."  Again he bobbed his head, this time to Elanor.  "Lord Iorhael must have rejoiced to see you born, child."

            She curtseyed.  "Yes, I'm told he was very glad, although I barely remember him.  He went away when I was still a small bairn."

            Sam put his arm about her and drew her to his side, a gesture that appeared to spark approval in the eyes of the Eagles, who now all turned their attention to the memorial.  "It is much as it was," commented one of the others, "although, Lord Gwaihir, I don't remember you having gone up so high."

            Gwaihir made a noise that Sam realized was his manner of laughing.  "And never did I do so; but it is a worthy depiction in spite of that, I think.  And they have caught your reluctance to release the Cormacolindo to the Eagle of the Star very well, Landroval."

            The other Eagle mantled slightly, perhaps in embarrassment, but all in all the great birds appeared pleased by the depiction made.

            Master Celebgil now bowed to the Eagles.  "And I thank you all for your agreement to allow yourselves to be depicted, and for the patience you showed while we sketched you to make certain we caught your seemings as faithfully as we were able."

            "You have done well enough," Gwaihir answered him.  "It was our honor to be allowed to do all that we did in that last battle.  To face down the Nazgûl and the dumb beasts they'd enslaved was most satisfying.  And to be allowed to bring Lords Perhael and Iorhael out of the destruction was even more so."

Chapter Text

Following the Steps

            There was one more official stop to be made, and after an additional day spent at this second camp they set off on the third morning to pass the spur of the mountain to approach what had been the field of battle, on this, the anniversary of the day on which Sam and Frodo had awakened in Cormallen.

            They'd not ridden far before Sam, who was riding between Aragorn and Faramir, paused his pony.  "It doesn't look the same at all!" he exclaimed.  "All the black and slag and all--it's all gone now!"  He looked about, and at last pointed.  "I think as we come that way, and that's about where we first saw the gates--but the rest is all different!"

            For those who'd fought there both before and after the Towers of the Teeth had fallen, many now smiled.  "Even we have difficulty telling where the Black Gate stood," said one of the soldiers who belonged to the White Company and who'd served in the Third Company with Beregond of the Guard.  "Only one of the two hills that stood then yet remains, and we are certain of it only because of the white stone we raised on it to mark where our Lord Elessar once stood."

            Here one last statue had been raised--this time of Mithrandir the White with his hand lifted even as he had stood, cautioning all within hearing to stand still for the moment, as the moment of Doom had come upon them!  After this last memorial was properly unveiled and dedicated, Merry began exploring the area, trying to appreciate how the battlefield had looked then.  "It was nothing as it is today," Gimli explained.  "Then there was no grass, no trees, no living things at all to soften the ground.  Most of the land was stark and empty, and what pools there were were dark and slimy, unfit to drink from.  And afterward we searched the field for any who might have survived.  I believe that we found Pippin over here----"  And he led the way to a section near a lower rise.  "Lord Imrahil fought from the hill that stood here.  However, when the earth shook as the Ring fell into the Fire this hill split, and the stones that had made up its upper reaches rolled here and there."

            Merry looked up curiously at a great grey figure that stood there.  "Who sculpted the troll?" he asked.

            Legolas laughed.  "None did!" he answered.  "Gimli had it brought here from the Pelennor that we might always remember how close we came to losing Pippin.  It was frozen in that attitude when the Sun pulled clear of the clouds and shone upon it."

            "But couldn't you have used one of the trolls who fought here?" Pippin asked, his attention caught.  "How about the one that fell on me?"

            Legolas smiled.  "That one was already dead--it did not turn to stone.  The rest did not remain upon the field of battle once the Eagles arrived--they were confused, particularly when the attention of the Enemy was drawn away as Frodo and Sam arrived within the Sammath Naur and Frodo found himself struggling with Gollum.  The trolls and most of the orcs, finding themselves without guidance from their master, all turned and fled the field, most heading back toward the Black Gate, and they were caught by the earthquake that caused the Towers of the Teeth and the wall to fall."  His eyes went distant, reliving the scene in his memories.  "The earth itself opened and swallowed the signs of the might of Mordor, along with most of its armies as well.  It was a sight to see!"

            Farry and Elanor had approached the troll and were looking up at it, their eyes wide.  Elanor tentatively reached out a hand to touch the creature's great calf while Farry turned to look up at his father.  "But this one is taller than those on the way to Rivendell," he commented.  "Or at least it seems that way!"

            The King nodded solemnly, looking up appraisingly at the face of this troll.  "First, those were crouched while this one is standing.  Remember, those were caught in the midst of an argument as to how to prepare thirteen Dwarves and a 'burrahobbit.'  But those who served here in Mordor itself also were of a taller, more massive breed.  All trolls tend to be very strong; the ones who fought here and on the Pelennor were much stronger than those we are accustomed to fighting in the north."

            Farry was shivering with the mere thought of it.  "No wonder Gimli thought you were dead when he found you," he said to his dad.  "You must have been so crushed!"

            "He was," Gimli agreed, coming up alongside the young Hobbit and placing a reassuring hand on the lad's shoulder.  "But I found him in time, and we did have Aragorn and two Peredhil here to see to him--and a Wizard as well!"  As Radagast the Brown joined them, the Dwarf nodded.  "It can be helpful, having the friendship of Wizards," he added.

            Radagast laughed.  "Well, all is well on the way to recovery now, including the land," he grunted, looking about with satisfaction.  "Now all here comes closer to what it was intended to be at the beginning."

            Soon most of the Hobbits were gathered about the feet of the stone troll, listening to Gimli as he told of the long search for Pippin, and how he'd recognized the Hobbit's foot sticking out from under the fallen troll.  Farry was listening with fascination, and Elanor was standing by her father, his arm about her protectively once more.  But one Hobbit had wandered away:  Sam saw Meriadoc Brandybuck walking further and further east, toward that area where differences in rock and stone indicated that the earth had been stirred by the anger of Aulë himself.  After a moment he murmured into his daughter's ear, gave a significant glance at his wife, and surrendered his place to Rosie so he could follow after Merry.  As he sought to catch up with the Master of Buckland he heard another quiet step behind him, and realized that Strider intended to join the two of them.

            Merry was looking eastward intently.  As Sam caught up with him he said, "And the two of you were both there--you both went through all that!"

            The land within the circle of the Mountains of Shadow and the Ered Lithui was still mostly empty and bare.  Together the two Hobbits examined it as Aragorn came up behind them, setting a competent hand on a shoulder of each of them.  "And what fascinates you regarding this view?" asked the Man.

            "That Frodo and Sam survived that," Merry explained, looking up briefly to meet his eyes.  "I'm trying to understand where Barad-dûr stood, or the mountain."

            "It does look considerably different now," Aragorn noted.  "The Black Tower, though, was over there, about forty miles.  And Orodruin, it was beyond by another twenty miles or so, there where that great prominence is now.  That, my friends, is all that remains of Mount Doom.  Watching it erupt on that day was a marvel.  And none of us, seeing the top of it explode into the air and the great fountain of molten rock bursting upward, could imagine that anyone could have survived."

            "Just what we could see from the city was so daunting," Merry murmured,  "When we felt the tension grow to the snapping point, and suddenly the ground shook under us--we were afraid the end had come--that we wouldn't see any of you again!  But then the wind began tearing at the clouds, and we all felt relief in our hearts!  I was still afraid to believe--to believe that all of you would come back again!"

            "And what is this?" asked another voice as Prince Faramir joined them, followed closely by Pippin.

            "Just looking there.  And why didn't you stay with the rest?" Merry asked his younger cousin.

            "I don't need to hear again how I was buried under that troll," Pippin assured him.  "After all, I went through it first hand."  He rubbed at his chest uncomfortably.  "It's enough to make the places where the ribs broke ache again."

            They all stared toward the remains of the mountain once more, each quietly contemplating what had happened there, so many years and two weeks ago.  Suddenly Merry looked up to meet the King's eyes purposefully.  "How long to get there now, Strider--to the remains of the mountain, I mean?  Can we take the time before you must be back in the capital again?"

            Faramir looked curiously at his wife's swordbrother.  "You wish to go there--to the ruins of Orodruin?  Why?"

            Merry turned back toward the remains of Mordor.  "I have to see, is all.  I have to go there, see what's left of the way Frodo went, and spit in Sauron's own Eye for what he tried to do to my cousin!  Frodo won, but at what a cost?  Now, I pray he's healed and happy once more.  But Middle Earth lost so much when Frodo Baggins left it to go to Valinor."

            The two Men communicated wordlessly, their years of close association having given them each a wonderful appreciation for the way in which the other's mind worked.  At last Faramir said thoughtfully, "At the very least four days to get there, although it would be perhaps better to plan for six each way.  Nor do I know of any watercourses that run between here and there----"

            "Oh, you need not worry for water," interrupted a new voice, and all were startled to realize they'd been joined by Radagast.  "There are a few small streams, and even more springs throughout the area.  Lord Ulmo seeks to reestablish his ways through that land, with the aid of Lord Aulë.  Once they are finished that will allow the Lady Yavanna full access once more.  Already she has brought some of the surviving plants back to a more proper growth.  I do believe, Lord Samwise, that you will appreciate it."

            "Then if we ride toward the remains of the mountain we will find sufficient water for us?" Aragorn asked to reassure them all.

            "You need not worry on that score.  The healing of this land is well begun, you will find."

            They thanked the Brown Wizard, and returned to the rest of the company.  They then went back to the camp around the promontory for the night.

            As they gathered in the pavilion where their evening meal was served, the King, his attention apparently on the sauce he was spooning over his meat, made the proposal to all there.  "We are giving thought to going but a bit further--to ride into the ruins of Mordor to the remains of Orodruin itself.  Merry has begged this journey of me, and I cannot find it in my heart to deny him.  And I find that I, too, hide within me the desire to see where it was that Frodo and Sam sojourned, and how it was they were rescued.  Those who do not wish to go with us may await our return at the guesthouse at Cormallen --we should be gone about eight to ten days."

            "Perhaps as long as twelve days," Faramir amended, a slight smile on his face eyeing his King obliquely.  "However, it is to be hoped we would return more swiftly than that.

            By mid-afternoon the next day those who would ride to the ruins of Mount Doom were ready to begin their journey.  "There used to be roads much of the way," Aragorn told the others, "both as reported by Sam and Frodo and as I saw myself in my one attempt to look within Mordor.  Some of our Rangers and soldiers have crossed into its remains, usually following rumors of sightings of orcs or trolls, and they have stated some of these roads survived the earthquakes and more natural changes since.  However, to my knowledge none has gone far past the former site of Barad-dûr, certainly none as far as the mountain.  What we will see I could not say.  Radagast has indicated there is drinkable water along the way, so we will not be required to take a wagon for water barrels.  We may need to leave the horses behind at one of the sources of water should we find the land too terribly rough as we approach the site of the mountain, but I doubt we would need to walk all that far.

            "Until we return, we leave you all in the capable hands of Lord Erchirion here, who has much experience in watching over nervous spouses and children.  And we ask that you not worry overmuch.  We will take excellent care of ourselves and one another."

            Sam had insisted that Rosie not go along, as she'd realized shortly after their arrival in Minas Anor she was expecting still another child.  Rosie had, however, unexpectedly championed her daughter's plea to be allowed to go with her father.  Diamond had no interest in seeing the mountain, and so would attend on Sam's wife.  Estella, on the other hand, had indicated she had no intention of allowing her beloved husband to go to such a place without her beside him.  Farry would go with those who were headed for the mountain and would stand by his father and the other Travelers.  Princess Éowyn had made it plain Elboron would not remain behind, although she and the younger children would remain at the guesthouse; and at last the Queen, having discussed the matter with her husband and considered it in her heart, told the rest, "The children and I will be coming, too.  It is important that Melian and Eldarion see this, and I would be with them, and with you, my Lord Husband."

            Faramir would ride by the side of King and Queen, and Elboron would accompany Eldarion and Melian.  With the inclusion of  Legolas and Gimli, the King's sculptor, Master Faralion for the bards, ten men at arms drawn from both the King's Guard and the White Company, and two Rangers to serve as scouts, they set out upon their way, leading three pack horses laden with supplies, and two ponies with the Hobbits' gear upon them.

            It was sunset when they passed the place where once the Black Gate had stood; by the time twilight had faded they were traveling along one of the roads down the inner side of the Morannen and the eastern rise of the Ephel Duath, and they camped in the open near one of the remaining cisterns, well between two of the ancient fortresses where Sauron's forces has been stationed.

            "It's not quite the same," Sam commented to Merry as they set out their bedrolls.  "Yes, it's hot and dry enough, but the smell of the air's different.  Afore it was dry and dead, full of awful scents.  Now it--it's clean, if'n you understand.  Dry, but clean."

            Having laid out his roll, he moved out onto the road again, peering first back toward the living lands and then toward the place he knew the mountain's remains lay.  Pippin and Merry, accompanied by Estella, had followed him, stopping just short of the roadway.  Sam shook his head.  "Of course," he said with a sigh, "then we was afraid.  There was orcs all round us, and the roads was full of them, marchin' here, gettin' ready to go out and fight Aragorn's army.  I think as we must of come most of this way, after the orcs caught up with us and made us march with them."  He went silent for a moment, staring down the road toward the south.  "He was so tired when we come to the crossroads," he said, lost in his memories.  "I was afraid as he'd fall, and then they'd really look at him and know as we wasn't orcs.  And his eyes--he thought the same.  He thought the same!"  He shook his head.  "I was ready t'kill that slavedrivin' orc, I was, there at the last.  Wonder if'n he survived?  I'd surely like t'tell him now just what I thought of him!  Was lucky when we ran into the other group of orcs--them got fightin', and I could get my Master away."

            Aragorn and Master Ruvemir had followed the Hobbits away from their campsite.  "If it disturbs you too much we could always stop here and go back, Sam," the King advised the Mayor of the Shire.

            Sam gave his Mannish friend a sideways glance and shake of the head.  "No, Strider--I'll see it through.  Maybe tell him, one day, what this place's come to."

            "A good idea, Master Samwise," agreed the sculptor. 

            Sam turned to look at him squarely, and smiled before returning to their camp and checking on his daughter and Farry, then wrapping himself in his blankets for the night.  Elanor woke once in the night to find her father sleeping near her, and Lord Aragorn sitting beyond him, smoking quietly, watching over his friend's dreams as he once did, long ago.

 *******

            All were surprised to feel no dread as they passed near the former site of Barad-dûr.  "I thought I should feel horrible here," Merry noted, speaking for all.  "I mean--that is where he dwelt for so long--the very seat of his power!"

            Pippin, who had spent long hours studying the writings collected by Frodo and Bilbo, had a small, startled smile on his face.  "Oh, no, Merry-mine," he said.  "But it's because at the end even the Great Powers turned on him, and wiped the place clean of every trace of his influence.  Can't you see?  Aulë himself opened the earth to see all swallowed up and buried within the heart of the world!  And wasn't Sauron once called something like 'Friend of Aulë,' there in the days he was true to the Powers and lived in Valinor, before he made it clear he'd changed allegiance to Morgoth?"  He shook his head and stared at the empty, turbulent landscape with pleasure.  "Look!  There are plants there now, where his tower must have been!"

            And, indeed, this area appeared to be a small oasis in the midst of what still was much a desert land.  The few black stones that they could see that had apparently fallen free from the tower as it fell were now covered over with vines, and green plants like trees lifted their serrated crowns toward the sun.

            "And as Radagast foretold, Ulmo's water adds his seal over Aulë's earth and stone, further freeing Middle Earth of Sauron's memory," agreed Legolas, his smile satisfied.

            Gimli, who rode as usual behind his sworn friend, nodded sagely.  "Must have been a great disappointment to him, realizing just how much his former Master regretted that early friendship," the Dwarf grunted.  "Mahal must have taken that betrayal very badly to have agreed to this.  And you will note that Mahal's Lady has also added her own signs of approval to the looks and feel of the place!"

            As they rode on their hearts were lighter. 

 *******

            Indeed the cisterns along the remains of the roadway proved full of fresh, clean water; and as they approached the remains of Orodruin they found they now followed a small watercourse where a shining, singing stream flowed over stones, apparently washing colors into them.  Alongside the stream grass grew green, and short vines covered much of the raw stone.

            "There's birds and beasts returnin' to this land," Sam noted as they watched a hawk swoop upon a basking lizard that just managed to escape becoming the hawk's noon meal.  Not far away a great toad gave a hop to take it under the shadow of a pile of leaning stones.

            Aragorn nodded his agreement.  "Yes, all returns to the way it once was--as it is in much of Rhûn, for example.  It was a blessing to see the last of the evil of his spells of horror disappear from what were the Dead Marshes.  And now proper life returns here as well."

            They rode on, but had now to leave the road, its line having been covered over with molten rock and the debris from the top of the mountain over a score of years since.  They camped by the side of the stream where a great hollow in the stony ground had allowed a sizable pool to form.

            "We will have to go on foot the remainder of the way," Aragorn noted.  "There are too many rifts in the ground that could cripple our mounts.  It should take us a day, or perhaps a day and a half to complete the journey--for those who would go on."

            Those who had been part of the Fellowship looked to one another.  At last Gimli spoke for them all.  "We had all meant to accompany Frodo to the end then," he said, his gruff voice particularly solemn.  "We will go the distance this time, to keep faith with him now."

            Pippin and Estella slipped their arms about Merry's shoulders as the older cousin agreed, "Yes--this time I won't be carried away before we come to the end.  I need to prove to myself that the quest indeed ended properly, and that I did my best to follow him where it was needed that he should go.  We each did what we could then to see to it that the Enemy was defeated.  Now that the victory is confirmed, we should let the Powers know how hard it was to have to let him and Sam go on alone." 

            So saying, he held out his hand to Sam, who took it, his own eyes moist as they hadn't been then, considering how little water he and Frodo had had left.  "I----"  Sam cleared his throat.  "We did it afore--and this time it's easier--much easier, for now I know it wasn't for naught."  He was beginning to smile.  "And you know what?  If'n my Master was here now, he'd be right there, in the middle of that pool, laughin' at the lot of us for bein' such sentimental fools!"

            And then they were all laughing.  Slipping free of Sam's grip, pulling off his shirt, shrugging off his braces and shucking off his trousers Merry ran forward to jump into the water, disappearing under its surface.  After a moment he reappeared, laughing as he shook his hair out of his eyes.  "It's wonderful!" he called.  "Come in, all of you!  Sam's right--Frodo would have been first in!  And as this pool is, in its way, his gift to us, I intend to enjoy it thoroughly!"

            Soon enough most of the company was joining the Master of Buckland in the pool, and even Sam was convinced to do so, although they allowed him to remain in the shallows.  And if the guards were shocked to see their Lord and Lady and the Prince of Ithilien disporting themselves as gladly as the Hobbits from the Shire, they never admitted it!

            That night they ate ravenously and slept well, and no one's dreams appeared troubled.

 *******

            Just before dawn they left two guards with their mounts, and set out once more, now on foot.  The walk to the mountain took them all of the day and a half the King had prophesied.  The ground was uneven as they made their way over the black stone that marked the lava flow, although now and then they saw signs of the land as it had been then.  Near midafternoon of the first day of their walk they paused in the shade of a great boulder that leaned at an angle against a shorter one.  Sam took a drink from his water bottle, and looked upward thoughtfully.  "This is mighty like the place where we rested, and I saw the star."  He sat down between the two stones and looked up again, then nodded.  "Yes," he murmured.  "It was here.  He didn't see--was too far gone, what with fightin' the Ring and all.  I had to hold his hope here.  Yes, I had to hold the hope for the both of us."

            He was very silent for the rest of the day, and both Elanor and Farry stayed close by him.  Merry was mostly staying by Estella and Master Ruvemir, assisting them as needed over the rougher parts of the way.

            "Perhaps I ought to have remained with the horses and ponies," the sculptor noted.  He had almost fallen trying to step across a  crack in the surface.  He paused, wiping his forehead and staring ahead toward the bulk of the mountain, not that far ahead of them now.  After a moment, however, he shook his head.  "No," he said, "no, I'll go the distance, also."  He looked about at the rest of them.  "Although I do ask that if I fall into a crack you wait to fish me out--I do not particularly like small spaces."

            Master Faralion laughed as he held out his hand to assist his fellow artist across the crevice.  "Nonsense," he said.  "If I know you, you will only pull out one of your chisels and pick up a stone to hammer it with, and soon carve yourself steps out.  And I would wager they would be beautiful things to see once you were done!"

            Ruvemir's laugh was a bit breathless as he found his balance on the other side.  He unstrapped his water bottle and drank deeply.  The stream still ran alongside of them through a deep groove in the black surface of the crust of cooled lava, but it was difficult to approach, considering the nature of the ground.

            One of the scouts returned with Legolas, who'd gone ahead.  "There is an area on the other side of that rise, my Lord King, where we might camp for the night.  The ground is clear of the rougher flow, and the stones smoother.  There is even some plain ground to be seen there, and a few plants.  And the air seems cooler there as well.  It is, we think, the most suitable place we have found to spend the night."

            The Lady Arwen nodded, shifting the sling in which young Idril rode on her back slightly to ease her shoulders.  "You have done well," she told him.  "And the children appear to be doing well enough."

            Elboron and Eldarion helped Elanor and Melian across the gap, then walked slightly ahead of the rest of the group, having taken it on themselves to test the stability of the ground on which they traveled.  Soon enough all were finding places in the somewhat clearer area on the other side of the ridge, and Gimli was preparing a cooking hearth.  They had to ration their firewood, brought with them from the camp just within Ithilien, but all were glad of the small blaze as it was used to heat water for drinks.

            Elanor and Melian sat on either side of Sam, a distance away from the flames where they might look up at the stars.  "They are beautiful," Melian sighed.  "It is as if the air were clearer here, so far from the city and people, and the obscurity of trees."

            Sam nodded, a slight smile on his face.  "He used to look from the balcony of our house, there in Minas Tirith, out at the clear skies over the Mountains of Shadow and be glad as there wasn't no darkness now.  If'n him was here with us I suspect as he'd be that much the happier, seein' the stars so close and bright, almost as if we could touch them."

            Aragorn nodded as he filled his pipe and lit it.  "You are right there, Sam.  It must seem quite a different place altogether to you, having the skies overhead so clear.

            Eldarion had fetched water and was bathing Estella's feet, checking to see they were not injured.  Aragorn gave his son an approving smile before accepting Idril from his wife.  Faramir was assisting Gimli and Merry to prepare the meal, and several of the guards were carefully removing such stones as they could, making the site as comfortable as possible for those who would sleep there.  Ruvemir sat nearby on a lower stone, and Elboron was preparing to rub his hip with a scented oil to ease it from the stress of the day's walk.  Meanwhile Faralion was tuning his lap harp, then began picking out idle notes as he often did when he knew not what to play. 

            As Arwen fetched fresh garments in which to clothe her youngest, she began to sing a hymn to Elbereth under her breath, now and then glancing up to enjoy the stars.  Almost immediately the minstrel began to follow the tune sung by the Queen, and soon many of the others were joining in the song.  Idril turned in her father's arms to look about at the others, her eyes darting from one to the next, and settling in time on Gimli, who had learned the hymn from Legolas and had added his rich bass to the voices of the Men and Hobbits already singing.

            Oh, Frodo, the King thought in his heart, if only you, Gandalf, and Boromir were here, also--how wonderful it would be to share this evening with all of you!  His eyes alit on Faramir, sitting back after having set a fresh pot of water on to boil and singing with the rest, and smiled, relieved that if Boromir could not be here in person, at least his brother was here and delighting in the company.  Yes, Frodo--this is now a peaceful land, if still spare.  But I think you would approve.

            Long after the rest had taken to their bedrolls, he and Arwen lay side by side, Idril between them, together watching the stars and murmuring quietly between them of their wishes for those they loved who were not with them.

 *******

            They began climbing the slopes of Orodruin's ruined form not long after midmorning.  Aragorn and Eldarion were climbing not far below Ruvemir, watching the mannikin sculptor to see to it his weak hip did not give way on him, ready to assist him should it become obvious he needed it.  Merry and Estella again were at his side, also to aid as might be needed.  Elboron was at the back, Idril now on his back as they climbed, his eyes flitting from one to another of those in the party, watching for any signs of flagging.

            Legolas and one of the two scouts were well up the slope, and the guards had fanned out, watching for any signs of ambush or danger of any sort.  Gimli, who had paused to lean on the heft of his axe, commented, "This is no cinder cone as such things often are.  No, it was formed from lava bubbling up and cooling, again and again over much time.  Had Sauron not taken it and forced it to blast forth ash and cinders for his own purposes, this could have been a beautiful sight to look upon, tall and majestic.  Instead, it has lost what little majesty it had."

            Sam nodded, but didn't respond, having no breath for speaking.  Elanor accepted Faramir's hand while Faralion watched after Farry and Pippin.

            "This way," Legolas called down.  "There is what appears to be the remains of a carved path here!"

            Pippin paused as he worked his way toward the Elf, smiling down near his feet.  "Look!  There's what appears to be a small tree here--it looks like a plum tree from the leaves!"

            Arwen and Farry examined it.  Gondor's Queen turned to smile at her husband.  "He is right--apparently a bird dropped a plum pit here!  It can't be more than a year old as yet."

            Even the guards were exchanging pleased looks at the news.  Soon all were standing more steadily on the remains of the road, and Sam paused to wipe his brow as he looked back downwards.  "It was much the same afore, when I carried him up here," he said.  "Crawled up the side so far, and then found the road.  But if'n this is the same road, chances are it'll be cut as we go forward--there was the fiery river comin' right at us, you see."

            His words proved true, but now they had not much further to go to reach the top of the ridge looking down into the crater left when the top of the mountain had blown off.  Once all had rested they set off again--and soon they stood, side by side, at the top, looking down into what they'd expected to be a scene of devastation----

            ----Only it was anything but that!

            Below them, there lay a lake, almost the full width of the crater; and about it were fruit trees ranging from small saplings to tall young trees with trunks several inches in thickness, all blooming.  In the center rose a small island, on which a single tree filled with white blossoms could be seen growing.

            Sam looked down, his face a study in amazement.  "But, how----" he began.

            There was a sweet scent to the air, and all found themselves breathing it in with pleasure.  Farry was smiling broadly.  "It must have been birds, Da," he said, looking back at his father.  "Birds carrying seeds from fruit trees, bringing them here, here where the lake formed in the middle!"

            Aragorn was the first to recover enough to begin working his way downward toward the banks of the lake in the one area near them where it could be reached.  "It must have sealed itself, that last time," he breathed.  "One last eruption, and it sealed itself, and then each time it has rained since, it has trapped the waters here, making of it a lake."

            All were silent, looking at the great lake before them, until Pippin suddenly began to laugh with heart's ease.  "Sam," he called out, looking sideways at the Mayor of the Shire, "didn't you say you'd wished for water and light as you came through Mordor?  Well, it appears your wish has been granted, and more so than you'd ever dreamed!  Look at that!  Now, how's that for a sign of what the Powers thought of  Sauron?"

            And all were laughing save Sam, whose face was fairly shining.  "You're right there," he finally said, his eyes alight with pleasure.  "I'd say as Lord Ulmo and Lady Yavanna were right there alongside Lord Aulë in wishin' to reclaim this for themselves!  What d'you think, Gimli, Legolas?"

            Pippin began to sing, and the others turned to listen as his clear Hobbit voice lifted in the song that he'd heard the Elves singing so many years since as they went aboard the Grey Ship that had borne away the Ringbearers.  Then Sam joined him, and Legolas, and the King and Queen, and those others who could follow the words, while the eight guards and the scouts stood proudly to listen.

            When the hymn, one to Ulmo, was over, the Lord King Aragorn Elessar and his Queen Arwen Undómiel together knelt, placing their hands within the water.  "Let this lake from henceforth be known as Nuru Lahta, for here Death has passed over, and life sprung from out of the ashes of the pain and blood shed by Samwise Gamgee, Sméagol, and Frodo Baggins.  And here indeed have the Valar made it plain they have reclaimed the land itself for the living!"

            As the King spoke, he appeared not a dusty wanderer through the wilderness, but a Lord of Power himself, and the green stone he wore on his breast shone in emerald radiance, and a silver light seemed gathered about his queen as well. 

            Aragorn gestured, and Sam stepped forward to kneel between King and Queen, and placed his own callused hand in the water as well.  "I know as his touch is here, too, for his finger was lost here, in the Fire.  Well, it's plain as the Fire's now quenched, and the healin's begun.  For my Master, for Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, I give thanks--thanks as Death passed over us, and now new life is come here once more."

            A golden glow seemed gathered about him, and the Elessar again shone out on Aragorn's breast, its light even brighter.

            From a nearby tree they heard a single bird begin to sing; then suddenly the trees were filled with song, and the sky filled with birds of all sorts.  And it seemed the scent of the blossoming trees was magnified, and laughter and joy seemed to surround them.

            "Vána is here!" whispered Legolas, his face alight with awe.  "She, too, is here for the renewal of the land!"

            As Aragorn rose to his full height, he was nodding.  "And Estë as well--I am certain of it."

            Sam merely nodded, and soon they all, without further speech, turned to leave the place, Eldarion following last, once all others had gone. 

            But before he turned his eyes from the lake, he seemed to see several great shining forms gathered about the blossoming tree that grew upon the island rising from the center of the expanse of water.  And there in the midst of the greater forms there appeared to be one smaller one, like a small column of silver light. 

            Yet one last memorial of sorts to the Ringbearers? he wondered, taking care not to crush strawberry blossoms under his feet as he ducked under the limbs of a young cherry tree.

            And as he followed the others back down the side of the mountain, a fine trickle of water followed after him, the birth of a second singing stream to quench the thirst of a land long bereft of refreshment. 

Chapter Text

Epilogue

            They'd spent a long afternoon under the White Tree of Tol Eressëa, talking of this and that.  Sam had again brought his pack, and as they did once or twice a day, drawing out the delight of it, they delved into it to bring out just one more memory he had of his years after his Master had left him.  This time it was a folder of stiff paper, one that Frodo examined thoughtfully before he realized why it felt familiar.  It is from Minas Tirith, he hazarded.  One of those folders people there use to protect documents and diagrams.

            Sam nodded.  "Master Ruvemir gave it to me, last time he come north," he agreed.  "Although I put another picture in there, too."

            Inside were two pictures, one watercolor over graphite, the other a chalk drawing.  "Estella Brandybuck, Estella Bolger as was--she did that one," Sam said, indicating the chalk drawing.  "She was not so good as you or Master Ruvemir, but she proved as she had an eye for it.  Merry--he's been mighty lost without her this past few years since she died.  Not but the Thain's been much better without his Diamond."

            Frodo gave a small shiver, and his Light reflected from the blossoms overhead.  It is still difficult to imagine Pippin as the Thain, he shared with his friend.  I know he is and has been for many years, but it seems he ought to have stayed young Pippin, my scapegrace Took cousin, forever.

            "And to the Tooks you've always been the one what glued Mistress Lalia to her own chair, you know!"

             Frodo gave a sigh.  I suppose that folk will never accept that it was Reggie who did that.

            "No, even when he told folks as it was him, they never did.  It was always more excitin', it seems, to think as you'd done it."

            They both laughed, and Sam's heart lifted as it always did to hear the joy there.

            Frodo examined the two pictures.  They were of a circular lake with a small island in the center of it, the water blue in Estella's picture and somewhere between brown and a soft green in that by the Gondorian artist.  Around the lake grew an assortment of trees, most of them apparently fruit trees.  Somehow it seemed familiar to him, although he could not say how.  Where was this? he asked.

            Sam had a gentle smile to him.  "You'll never guess," he said.  "Not in a thousand years!"

            I feel as if I've seen this place.  Frodo examined it again.  But I didn't see it from where the pictures were made.  Both of them are almost the same, it seems, although the trees are better in the painting.

            "I suspect as Master Ruvemir caught them more as they was, and for all as I know he might of gone there a second or third time, even, after the one time as we went there together.  It was the year as we spent in Gondor when Elanor was a tween, Rosie and her and me, when little Tom was born.  Rosie didn't go all the way with us--she stayed at the guesthouse with Mistress Diamond and the Lady Éowyn and them, although Estella wouldn't let her Merry go without her.  She felt as he might of needed her, I'd guess.  And I suppose as he might of, at first, at least."

            Frodo only nodded, his attention still fixed on the pictures as he listened.

            "So we went on, went on to let them see...."

            See what? Frodo prompted after a moment's quiet.

            Sam was also looking at the picture, a look of thoughtfulness and--and satisfaction--in his eyes.  At last he said, "Where we went--you and me."

            Where we went?

            "Yes."

             Frodo returned his attention to the pictures.  I certainly don't remember any lake that looked like this, he noted, a touch of irony to the thought.

            Sam shrugged, and he smiled again.  "No, it wasn't there, not then.  And, no, it wasn't there in Ithilien."

            Frodo lifted his own eyes to search Sam's face.  That's not the Dead Marshes, then?  No--not with that ring of hill about it!

            "Oh, no--not the Dead Marshes, although them's not the Dead Marshes no more.  Anything but dead now, they is.  You'd not know that place, neither.  There's lots of birds as lives there now!  But, then there's lots of birds as live here, too, now, here about this lake.  This lake wasn't there then, not when you and I was there."

            Frodo looked at the painting more closely, and then he suddenly smiled.  I remember--I saw this in a dream, oh, some time ago.  I was here--had been feeling rather restless and had been haunting this garden for some days.  I'd not sensed any of you for some time, and I----  Again he laughed.  To tell the truth, I was feeling rather neglected.  I was rather stubbornly spending almost all my time here beneath the Tree, hoping against hope I'd get some sense of what you were all doing--and then Olórin came to me.  I am not certain why he even bothered, as I was being rather rude to others, as obsessed as I'd become with trying to imagine where you and Aragorn might be.  It was spring--I remember, for the White Tree had just blossomed, and almost always I would feel you there, there beneath the mallorn when the White Tree blossomed here, and I would feel Aragorn beneath the White Tree in Minas Tirith.

            "My birthday, then," Sam said, nodding slightly.  "It had to be just after my birthday.  The mallorn in the Party Field and the White Tree in Gondor both always bloom on my birthday."

            They do?  Wonderful!  I only know that I always feel close to you and the others when the Tree blooms for the first time each year.  But that year I didn't sense either of you.  I remember feeling very disappointed.

            Sam was smiling.  "Then that had to be about the time as we was goin' here," he said, pointing to the pictures.  "There's only a couple times as I know as I wasn't there in the Party Field on my birthday, and that was when I was in Gondor.  I always took time off for the family birthdays, you see--wouldn't go to Michel Delving or nowhere else for my birthday.  Only the year as we went south to Gondor with Elanor, when little Tom was born, and afore that the year as Master Ruvemir finished the monument there afore the Citadel.  We come south both them years, and that year we wasn't even there at the White Tree--we was across the River, helpin' to dedicate more monuments.  Seems as Lord Strider loves monuments as much as other Men.  Right foolish, it struck us--but as he's the King I suppose as nobody's goin' to say him nay."

            Frodo laughed again, and Sam laughed right along with him.  "What monuments?" he asked aloud.

            "Well the first is there where we woke up, you know, there at Cormallen.  There's a guesthouse there, now.  Big place--bigger than the Prancin' Pony in Bree, you see.  And there's a monument, with the King standin' there, and you're on one side of him, and I'm on the other."

            Frodo shuddered deliberately.  He didn't!

            "I told you, Frodo--he's made certain as you and me is goin' to be membered all through Gondor.  At least with Master Ruvemir the statues look like us, not somethin' strange and all."

            Frodo shook his head.  I must suppose that this was indeed the year you were away from home, then.  He turned his head back to the pictures once more.  But although my memories have never fully come back of everything we saw during our journey to Mordor, I know I never saw this place.

            "Oh, but we did.  It just didn't look like this then.  Looked completely different when you and I was there.  But you was tellin' of when you had a dream of this place."

            Yes, Olórin came to me, as I said.  I was tired, as I had been refusing to sleep for fear you might come to the mallorn or Aragorn would visit his White Tree and I'd miss it.  He sat by me, and put his arm about me, and--well, I fell asleep in spite of myself.  And Lord Irmo sent me a dream.  He'd do that now and then, the times I was feeling particularly lonely.

            Gandalf was by me, and we stood up--and then we were there, on that island.  He tapped the island in the painting.  It was beautiful, only we weren't alone.  I believe Lady Yavanna was there, looking particularly satisfied.  And I believe Lady Vána was there, too, dancing both about the island and on the surface of the lake.  And--and Lady Estë.  All were filled with joy and triumph!  And I looked across the lake and saw that there were people leaving--it appeared to be a number of them.  I saw curly hair beyond the ridge.  Gandalf had his arm about me, and I saw there were other Maiar about me as well, and all had a similar look of pride and satisfaction to them.  I looked at the far shore again, and realized one had stayed behind--no, not one--two.  There was a young Man--a boy, really, tall and slender, obviously of Dúnedain heritage, and he was carrying a young child, almost an infant, on his back.  He had dark hair, and hers was golden as the Sun.  She reminded me of Elanor as I remember her.  He was looking across the lake at us, and seemed to see something.  He gave a rather respectful nod, then turned and left.  I saw that by where he'd been standing there were strawberry plants--I could recognize them in spite of the distance.

            The air was sweet and filled with the scent of blossoming fruit trees.  I saw apples, cherries, plums, peaches, apricots, even almond trees such as bloom in Mistress Rhysellë's orchard.  And over me was a white tree--not one such as this, or that Aragorn found in the King's Hallow, but one such as I'd not seen before.  And I knew that this was special and blessed, given for this place alone.

            Sam nodded thoughtfully.  "That was us leavin', then.  Lord Strider and the Lady Arwen and me--we all knelt to touch the water.  The King--he blessed it, and named it Nuru Lahta."

            Frodo examined the painting and chalk drawing again.  Death passed over?  He named it that?

            "That he did."

            But whom did it pass over? Frodo asked.

            "Us.  You and me.  You see, Frodo--this is what's left of Mount Doom.  When the mountain exploded--there was this bowl left, and Lord Strider--him and Gimli both say the same--as the lava boiled up and sealed it off, and then the rain has filled it.  And the Powers--the Valar--them claimed it--give it back to the living."

            Sam straightened proudly.  "Merry--he felt as he had to see where it was you and me went.  He begged the King, and we all went with him--Pippin, Legolas, Gimli, me.  Elanor went with us, and Pippin's Farry, and Estella with Merry.  And with the King came the Queen and their children, and Master Ruvemir and Master Faralion as well, and the Captain Faramir.  Only him was Prince by then, you know.

            "Yes, old Strider named it 'Death Passed Over.'  Only it passed over so many--most of them as had been fightin' afore the Black Gate, and those as was tryin' to hold Cair Andros, and those as was fightin' at Erebor and Laketown and Mirkwood and Lorien and Rivendell--there was fightin' almost everywhere, you know."

            I know--remember, I was there at Aragorn's side as he heard all the reports and those who'd been there told him how the Enemy was attacking them!

            Sam again nodded.  "Oh, yes, we was both there, you and me!  That's right,  Well, Mordor--it's still hot and dry, most of it, but it ain't dead no more--not now.  It's a livin' land now, and many of them as lived about the lake as Lord Strider told us about, there to the south of Mordor--many now live there about what was the Mountain.  And they call it all Nuru Lahta, they do.  And some is certain as they've found the knoll as you and me was on when the Eagles found us.  The Eagles--they just laugh--say as it's not there no more--was carried away by the lava as was comin' down toward us when them found us, you see.  Said as that knoll is long gone.  But that don't make any difference to them as now lives about the place.  They say as it's a hallow, and whenever the King comes there they ask him to come and bless the water again.

            "There's light and water now, there in Mordor, Frodo Baggins.  And the folks as live there--they say as they all owe it to us--to you, me, and old Gollum."

            Frodo looked at the two pictures of the lake, trying to imagine how all this life could have returned to such a place as he remembered.  He gently ran a finger over the painting.  It is a living land now, Mordor is?

            Sam nodded solemnly.  "That it is."

            Frodo appeared to be shining more brightly.  Then we did make a difference!

            "That we did, Frodo--that we did."

            And the Maiar who kept a discrete watch on the two Ringbearers were pleased to see the Light of each shine out the more.

Chapter Text

Author's Notes

            Tolkien was a Christian, as I am, and a Roman Catholic while I am Anglican Catholic.  He admitted he had a fair amount of imagery from his faith worked into The Lord of the Rings, and that he trimmed the majority of it out of the book so as not to overwhelm the reader with blatantly religious references.  So it is that the mythic tends to stand out more strongly than the solely Christian in his writing.

            Many of those who are drawn to write Tolkien fanfiction are themselves Christian and tend to be blatantly more open about it in their writing than was the Master himself.  We tend to forget, however, that there are many from all faiths, philosophies, and traditions who read The Lord of the Rings regularly, and who see in the mythic images he allowed to remain much to draw their own appreciation.  One of my closest friends, nearly a sister to me, is Orthodox Jewish, and she, too, loves the books as I do.

            Each year I tend to write stories at Christmas time and for Eastertide; this year I wished to write one specifically for Pesach as well.  The Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews enslaved within Egypt as Death passed over Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, lying on their small, beleaguered hillock at the foot of Mount Doom.  That is as miraculous as any solely Christian image, after all!  So, Jeannette, for you and for John and Rebecca Ann I have written this, rejoicing in our long friendship.  It's taken far longer than I'd intended to be finished, but it's no less heartfelt for that!  Rejoice, and may it bring you much pleasure.

            The lake within the caldera left by the eruption of Orodruin is based on Crater Lake in Oregon, a most beautiful spot to visit!  And that the Valar might have blessed this spot by bringing there trees, bushes, and plants bearing the fruits most beloved by Hobbits seemed like the best revenge they could take on the fallen Maia who'd corrupted the land and the mountain itself for so long.  It only took the desire of the remaining Travelers to see the spot to make that blessing known throughout the lands!

            I thank Fiondil once more for his help in providing the Quenya name Aragorn bestows on the lake and that those to whom the land of Mordor was given, those who'd worked as slaves in the southern and eastern farmlands, subsequently attribute to the entire remains of Orodruin. 

            The pack filled with mementos, mostly letters and pictures and locks of hair brought by Sam to share with Frodo, appears in Filled with Light as with Water and in Reunion.  Master Ruvemir, the Gondorian sculptor who is subject to human dwarfism, one of those I've chosen to refer to as mannikins, first appeared in The King's Commission, and has appeared in a number of other works since, both longer tales such as The Ties of Family and Lesser Rings, and in a few of my shorter stories as well.  The monument before the Citadel is one commissioned by the King of the four Hobbits, only slightly larger than life-size, set within a basin planted with elanor, niphredil, Elven lilies, and rosemary.  Master Faralion, the minstrel who composed and first sang the Lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers, was granted his name first in Lesser Rings, and appeared in more depth in The Acceptable Sacrifice.

            Tolkien himself indicated that the mallorn that grew in the Party Field tended to bloom on Sam's birthday.  It took but a little stretching to have the White Trees also bloom on that day, giving one time when Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn would be most likely to be, if at all possible, each under his own tree and possibly aware of the presence of the others, at least a bit.  That Frodo should at times feel somewhat isolated living among the immortal Elves seems very likely.  It appears that most of the Reborn would have returned to their interrupted lives on the mainland of Aman, so with whom could such a one as Frodo Baggins discuss his own mortality and expect to be understood?  It is only likely that at times he should wish to reach out to those he'd loved best that he'd been forced to leave behind in Middle Earth; and if the Trees allowed him the reassurance that all was well with those he honored most it would, I've always felt, help to nurture his own personal estel that he would one day most likely at least be able to be reunited with Sam and be able to spend his last days within the Circles of Arda reassured that he would not remain alone as he passed from this life.

            There is in all of us a need to be reassured that we do not lose all communication with those who have gone before, as I've noted previously in discussions of some of the stories I've written in which different people feel as if Frodo were present beneath the White Tree of Tol Eressëa, or when a vision or dream is granted on either side.  It is possible that Frodo was at times granted the chance to follow the lives of those he loved in Middle Earth perhaps through a scrying construct moderated by Galadriel or another Elf with similar gifts, or as has been suggested through the Palantir returned to the island by Elrond.  I myself wonder about that—it was always said that that particular seeing stone looked West, back to the Undying Lands where it was crafted.  Would it change its nature once it was returned to the Lonely Isle, and suddenly look East?  It is a question to consider, I think.  However, I suspect it was primarily through moments of mutual awareness or vivid dreams bestowed by Irmo that Frodo and his friends might have had their greatest reassurance that all had indeed worked to the good for all of them as a result of his choice to leave with the other Ringbearers.  And without hints that Frodo did indeed survive to greet him, would Sam have ever considered taking his own grey ship in search of him?

            One subject I've already had brought up to me in response to this particular story—how much would the other Hobbits truly know about the Valar and the Maiar?  We already know that from the point of view of most mortals of Middle Earth there is little active consideration of the Powers, and almost no interaction of which the inhabitants of the Mortal Lands are aware.  Certainly Frodo and Sam find themselves feeling intolerably rustic as they see the Standing Silence performed for the first time by Captain Faramir and his Men.

            Yet Frodo Baggins has been partially raised and definitely educated by Bilbo, who has decided ties to both Dwarves and Elves, and to a lesser extent to Men as well.  Both as the grandson of the Old Took and protégé of Gandalf, Bilbo has been in a unique position to learn about the outer world and to continue his communication with the denizens of Rivendell, gathering Elvish tales and sharing them with the young relatives with whom he has developed his stronger relationships.  It is very likely that at the time the four Travellers left the Shire the only one who had strong inclinations to believe the tales he'd learned of Elvish history and whatever tales might have been learned of the Dúnedain was likely to have been Frodo, although Sam, having grown up around the place and being known to have doted on stories of Elves, is likely to have been nearly as well versed and perhaps even more credulous.  For Merry and Pippin, however, the likelihood is that the stories told them by Bilbo are likely to have been long ago dismissed as fairy tales and fables, as little regarded, perhaps, as the more traditional Hobbit folktales of widows' sons and talking animals.

            However, the quest we know served as a crucible in which the personality and experiences of each of the four were tempered.  They have now passed through two hidden Elven lands and even dwelt there for a time, and have traveled with the prince of a third.  No longer are Elves legends or merely the subjects of reports of groups seen traveling west to the Havens:  Gildor Inglorion, Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, and Glorfindel are known quantities—persons they have seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears.  They have heard the hymns to Elbereth/Varda sung now by many; have seen the glory of one who was born beneath the light of the Trees revealed and heard him invoke power and probably the Powers.  As for Legolas—he has become a friend and intimate companion.  They have been guided and guarded by the Heir of Isildur himself, and participated in his coronation as King of Gondor and investiture as King of Arnor as well.  They saw Gandalf fall, and saw him resurrected afterwards.  They have seen a Balrog with their own eyes, and have all felt the attentions of the Eye and its most dread minions.

            Then, two years after their return, Sam, Merry, and Pippin take their farewells of the Ringbearers and watch them all, and particularly Frodo, sail away toward Elvenhome.  That having gone through all of this they would remain the callow, thoughtless, ignorant youths Merry and Pippin were when they set out through the Old Forest toward Bree in September of 1418 S.R. is totally unlikely.  That they would choose to remain ignorant of the Powers and the lore of Aman is even more so.

            Their Frodo has gone away with the Elves, gone to the Undying Lands.  What does that mean?  Why would he be granted this honor, and why would he feel compelled to accept it?  What benefits is he likely to receive as a result of having gone with the Elves?  How long is he likely to survive living in such an environment—will he become deathless as are the Elves (unless slain or fading from grief and travail), or will he still face the probability of a natural death at some point in his future?  Will he be likely to be changed beyond recognition, or would he be more likely to remain their Frodo?  Will he recover his more youthful participation in life, or will he continue the emotional and social withdrawal and the anniversary illnesses of which they've just become aware?

            These are Hobbits who have inherited Frodo and Bilbo's own writings, and who have unprecedented access to those of the High Elves who remain in Middle Earth.  They are the friends of the King and his half-Elven Queen.  It is Pippin who presents Aragorn with his copy of the Red Book and Bilbo's translations from the Elvish; Merry, we are told in the Appendices, makes a point of traveling to Rivendell to study in what remains of Elrond's library.  They most likely continue to remain friends with Legolas and Gimli to the end of their lives.  They undoubtedly encounter the twin sons of Elrond and Celebrían on a fairly regular basis, and probably Celeborn and Glorfindel as well.  They can question these and the Queen and Legolas and whatever of the Wandering Companies they might encounter in the woods of the Shire with a level of impunity.

            They are now themselves Elvellonim—Elf-friends.

            I strongly doubt that Merry, Pippin, or Sam would remain ignorant of whatever lore they can gather of Aman and the Lonely Isle once Frodo sailed.  They would want the reassurance that Frodo made the right choice, and that he is likely to be safe, happy, and healing there of the ills he's known since his ordeal.  And it is likely that they, too, at times feel unprecedented longings in the core of their beings as the lembas they consumed exerts its influence.  That once their children are sufficiently mature to take over as Master of the Hill, Thain, and Master of Buckland (and now the Warden of West Marches as well) and their spouses have predeceased them (I find it impossible to believe that any of them would have left the Shire had Estella, Diamond, or Rosie remained alive), the three remaining Travellers would choose to retire as they did outside their native land now appears inevitable.  We know from Tolkien's intended epilogues that Sam was feeling the Sea Longing strongly; it is likely that the others also felt it, if more vaguely.  Denied Sam's right to sail, they instead resort to the company of those who would be most likely to appreciate the ineffable urges they know themselves—Aragorn, his Queen, and Legolas (and possibly Gimli as well), all of whom have also eaten lembas and likely heard the call of the gulls and waves.

            So, thank you for reading and enjoying this story.  As I said, it is particularly dedicated to Jeannette and her family, to David and his family, to Peggy and her sons, and to those who have accepted this Christian into their Jewish homes and lives.  Shalom, friends!  I thank you all!

B.L.S.  June 20, 2009