~*~Chiseled in Stone~*~

~*~Chiseled in Stone~*~

by Armariel


He could feel the stares of the crowd as he rode into the city on his black horse, a tall and lordly figure with golden bronze hair gleaming in the late sunlight, clad in simple brown riding clothes with a long grey cloak and high black boots. The King waved the people back as he stepped forward to greet the Elven sculptor who would create the monument to the two small heroes who had sacrificed their lives to save Middle-earth.

And Annúnlanthir had never met either of them.

King Elessar looked much as the sculptor had envisioned him, in rich black tunic trimmed with silver embroidery and simple coronet, dark hair lightly streaked with grey, high-cheekboned face etched inexorably with sorrow. A fine subject for a statue he would have been, himself.

"So," he said with an attempt at a smile that only deepened the lines of sadness, "this is the son of the greatest sculptor on earth. I have seen much of your work, and I cannot imagine anyone more qualified for the task at hand. Not even your father. His work is awe-inspiring, unparalleled in sheer grandeur. But yours has such an intimacy about it. Looking at your figures, I feel as if I know them. That is the quality I would wish for this memorial. Come, I shall show you to your rooms."

He asked a youth to look after the visitor's horse, then lifted Annúnlanthir's one bag himself instead of ordering his page to do so, much to the sculptor's surprise. He was pleased that the rooms had large sunny windows and opened onto a small and private veranda overlooking magnificent gardens and providing a view of the chalky mountains in the west, which the setting sun was tingeing with coral red. Just four months it had been since the War had ended, and already much of the city was rebuilt and the gardens replanted. He could hear court musicians playing on the second level.

There was everything he could need in the room: tools, cloths, cleaning equipment, and of course the clay. The only ornaments hanging on the walls were a fine tapestry and an impressive shield bearing an image of the White Tree. There was a narrow but comfortable looking bed, a large cushioned chair and a small table, a shelf of books, a bowl and pitcher, a bell he could ring for a servant. A door revealed a small room with a tub. Another door led into the hallway which led into the palace itself.

The King asked him if he found it to his liking and the sculptor said certainly, a bit taken aback. He was glad of the simplicity of the apartment. And grateful to the King for not allowing the populace to overwhelm him.

He dined with the King and Queen that evening, along with a motley company consisting of a Dwarf, an Elf like himself, two very small youths and a very old fellow of the same size, and another royal couple who were introduced as Prince Faramir of Ithilien and his new bride Eowyn. Of course, Annúnlanthir knew the Elf already: Legolas, who was actually a distant cousin and in fact had referred him to the King. Legolas and the Dwarf, Gimli, appeared to be staunch friends, much to the sculptor's amazement. The two young Halflings, Meriadoc and Peregrin, known more fondly as Merry and Pippin, could hardly take their eyes off the stranger in their midst. He could hardly help but wonder what they must think of him.

Then there was the white-haired Wizard, the one the People called Mithrandir and the Halflings called Gandalf. Annúnlanthir tried not to look at him too steadily. He thought he had never seen so much naked sorrow distilled into one face before. It was rather frightening, even though the sculptor was no stranger to sorrow himself.

*****

The main problem was obvious enough: how to capture the likenesses of two faces he had never seen, when there were no drawings to be had anywhere. Descriptions he heard in plenty. He could picture them in his mind, listening to the stories the others of their Fellowship told. But it was his impression only. Would the images he formed in his own mind satisfy their closest comrades?

Of course, the vast majority of those who would see the monument had never seen its subjects, and would not know the difference. They would not care one way or the other. He knew what his father would have done in such an instance: he would have searched in his memory for the most beautiful faces he could recall and fused them into his work. But Annúnlanthir hated the very idea. He wanted to reproduce the faces exactly as they had been in life. One's subject need not be beautiful in order to make a beautiful work of art. And he was aware of the impossibility of the task at hand, and he felt as if the block of marble from which the monument would be carved were already laid upon his shoulders.

The others would watch him draw sketch after sketch, offering hints: "No, his nose was more like this...­no, the chin was more like so...and the eyebrows...had a round face and, um, no, the eyes were deeper, I think...." Queen Arwen talked to him as he sketched with a stick of charcoal, sitting out on the sunny veranda. It was a beautiful late summer day, a light breeze wafting in myriad fragrances from the garden below, the sun turning the water that bubbled up from the fountain to innumerable diamonds. A peacock called from a nearby tree. Hard to believe that sorrow could touch such a place.

The little handmaiden who had accompanied the Queen gazed at him in wonderment, then blushed as he smiled at her and turned her eyes to the garden, then to the Queen, whom she plainly adored. Small wonder, he thought. He had already observed her kindness to her servants and would have greatly admired her for that alone, had she been only half as beautiful.

Then again, had she been only half as beautiful, she would still have been breathtaking.

"I met one of your daughters," she said with a smile. "Orolindë, I believe? It was a very long time ago, but she was hard to forget. She has your eyes. The same dark amber color, and as clear and deep and compassionate...but less sad. Your hands also. Shapely and graceful, yet strong."

He nodded with a bit of a smile. "I have not seen her in a long time, either. She is the only one of my daughters who has never married and gone to the Undying Lands. She has a wandering spirit."

"And an artist's soul," the Queen said. Then she picked up one of the drawings and studied it closely. "I can see him in my mind so clearly. He had a face of uncommon beauty for his kind--I might have taken him for an Elf-child at first sight, but for the feet."

She smiled sadly almost to herself, and the sculptor felt a disturbing flutter. Just as well he had not been commissioned to put her into marble. He wrenched his eyes to the drawings and tried to concentrate on them instead of the moonbeam face and dusky eyes before him, the melodious voice that spoke so feelingly into the fragrance of the garden.

"But even more than that, he had a quality that stood out from the rest. Like a little prince among them he was. At times he became filled with a silvery inner radiance that literally shone out of him as if he had been dipped in starlight. It stirred a feeling in my heart like no other--not the same sort of love I have for my husband or for my father or brothers even, but powerful nonetheless. Sometimes I would see him looking at me as though he understood perfectly, and it was as the meeting of twin souls."

She sighed and the sculptor felt his mouth twitch. Twin souls indeed, he could not help thinking. He picked up one of the drawings and held it up to the sunlight.

"I suppose this is not even close," he said. She looked at the sketch gravely. The maidservant stole over shyly to look too. She was about thirteen or fourteen years old, with guileless brown eyes in an inquisitive sweet face, and her plump hands fluttered a bit on her bosom as she peered at the drawings.

"Your skill is astonishing," the Queen said, and he could tell she meant it, that she was not merely trying to be kind. "Yet..."

"Yet it is not right," he said, laying the parchment down on the table once more. She looked at him gently.

"No one expects you to capture their exact likeness," she said. "We all know you have never seen them. This we knew when we commissioned you."

"I know," he sighed. "Most people have never seen them either, and will be satisfied with what they get. Indeed, it is my guess that most of them will forget about them soon anyway. But still...I would not be content with merely producing a beautiful work of art. With all due modesty, I know I could do that. But I want...the truth. Not mere beauty. I want the reality, to render the true beauty that precipitated such an act as they performed."

She nodded. "I understand. I wish I had the skill for it myself. They paid a great price so that we could unite this Kingdom once more and reign in peace and prosperity. No monument that could ever be made could ever really do justice to such nobility of soul. We only expect you to do what you can."

She rose and went to stand at the rail of the veranda. The breeze molded her emerald-green gown to her body and stirred strands of her long dark hair into dancing plumes, until once again the sculptor found it necessary to avert his eyes to his pitiful parchments.

"And his poor servant," she said suddenly turning to look at him once more. "In all that time when they were at Imladris, I never saw him leave his master's side. They were always together."

Absently she plucked a purple flower that grew on a vine around the railing and twirled it in her long pale fingers for a few moments. Then she let it drop and turned abruptly, and started back inside.

"Come, Mikala," she said to the girl, who trotted along after her, with one backward glance at the sculptor.

*****

"I have endured many losses in my life," the Wizard said, "but these two were the very hardest of all. And I fear the grief will remain as a cold blade wedged inside my breast for all eternity. Sometimes I wish I could seek solace from the pain in death. This comes of loving mortals, of course. I've always known the danger of that, and yet it has never stopped me. I have always sought their company, preferring it to my own kind somehow." His voice trembled and he looked away abruptly toward the sinking sun.

Annúnlanthir nodded. "I know that feeling all too well. My wife was mortal."

"Was she?" The Wizard looked at the sculptor again, raising bushy white eyebrows.

"Yes. It was almost four hundred years ago, and she lived a long time, by mortal reckoning. Yet it seemed a mere day that we were together. Losing her was particularly hard because of her pain. She had a terrible illness that ate at her insides and gave her no rest, and all the concoctions I could prepare for her could only ease her suffering somewhat, until it came to the point where she virtually begged me to kill her. I think I would have done so, but she spared me from the necessity herself. She merely let go, in the end, as I instructed her to do. I have small solace even in memory, because of the horror of her illness. I have never seen such--such devastation of one beautiful, helpless, brave soul and body who did nothing to deserve such torment."

"You still feel the loss even after all these years," the Wizard said gently. "Time is far kinder to mortals. When they suffer loss, their grief lessens with time, and eventually, they die, themselves. I have sometimes envied them this."

"So have I. Sometimes I wish that my children had chosen mortality, so they would not be subjected to this. Then again, that would mean that I would lose them, but I lost my two sons in battle anyway. My father, who had such a horror of loving mortals, lost three of my brothers in war as well, and one of my sisters, who succumbed to grief at the loss of her husband and son. Still, they lived a very long time, even so. Mortals live the mere space of an eye-blink, by our reckoning."

He looked at the two masses of clay that were beginning to take shape under his hands. Two weeks had passed since his conversation with the Queen, and he had decided it was time he started working the clay. Dipping his hands in a bowl of water, he began kneading one of the masses until something resembling a head began to form. The Wizard continued to stand at the rail with his back to the sculptor. He had met Annúnlanthir's father and disliked him, even while acknowledging the greatness of his work. An arrogant fellow, with a supercilious attitude toward ordinary human beings and icy intolerance of their weaknesses...­reminded him strangely of Saruman.

"My wife was not beautiful by the usual standards," Annúnlanthir said thoughtfully, as if to try to shake off the depressing subject of loss, "and I sometimes think that outraged my father even more than her mortality. He would scarcely have anything to do with us, or even with our children. But she had a face of such ineffable sweetness and humor and strength, with fine dark eyes that could flash with anger one moment and brim over with merriment the next, nearly closing when she laughed. I would have changed nothing. My father taunted me with the fact that even if she had been a beauty, her looks would have faded with age and I would be going about with a woman who appeared to be my grandmother, and we would look ridiculous. I think he was appalled that a son of his, and one following in his footsteps at that, would do something that made him ridiculous. But I could never understand why he could so completely fail, as a great artist himself, to look beyond surface appearances and see the true beauty within. Then again, maybe that very beauty is what held him back. For that sort of loveliness was inexorably linked to her mortality. I can understand that. As you say, loving a mortal exacts a heavy price. I never married again and do not believe I ever shall. And yet if I had it to do all over again, even knowing what I would suffer, I would do so without hesitation."

"As would I," the Wizard said softly.

In the next several days, Annúnlanthir found himself growing less interested in what his subjects looked like and more in what they had done. He divined much in the stories the others told him, but their grief was still too fresh, they could tell only fragments before they would break down. It went hard with him that he was putting them to such pain while trying to come to know his subjects. Yet this knowledge was vital if he were to do justice to his work.

The Prince of Ithilien, Faramir, was the one most willing to tell what he had seen. He had known them only for a short time but had observed much.

"There was such a connection," he said as he sat in the large chair and watched the sculptor at his work. "It was not like brothers exactly, although it was close to that, and not like lovers either, or the usual kind of friendship or relation between master and servant. In some wise it was like all of those things, yet something more. It was very like comrades in arms, which I know much about, and like parent and child, in other ways. Nor was it all on one side. I remember one day when the gardener was struck with a dreadful toothache. That was when his master searched all around for the herbs to prepare the treatment for the impacted tooth. He applied it himself, then sat beside him until he was better, then sang him to sleep. I'll never forget it....I only wish I had written down the formula. But I was too preoccupied with other things."

A sad smile flickered over his handsome face as he reminisced. "There was...such a lack of hesitation and nonsense to their connection. A complete harmony. It was perfection. I know not how else to define it."

A connection.

Annúnlanthir felt sorriest for the old one, who should have been able to tell him the most. The sculptor had begun on the faces at last, the bodies being done almost to his satisfaction. Except that he was not sure how to position them. Side by side, of course. But, should they be touching? And if so, how? Perhaps the old one could tell him.

"How is this?" Annúnlanthir asked him, pointing out the face of the one that would represent the old one's nephew. "I know it does not resemble him exactly, but is it anywhere close?"

The old Hobbit moved closer to the clay models and squinted. They were life sized, seated on what was meant to be stone. He reached out a wizened hand and almost touched the face of the one representing his nephew, then the fingers stopped short. That small gesture said much to the sculptor. It seemed his project was as doomed as the Ringbearers themselves.

"I am sorry," the sculptor said after a long moment. "I can see them in my mind, without even closing my eyes, so clearly. I can see exactly how I think they should look. But it is my vision only. I would never be able to convey them to those who truly knew them."

He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them, for it seemed his despair transferred to the old Hobbit, who moved back a step or two and would have fallen if the sculptor had not jumped up and caught him, and moved him to the chair.

"My dear, dear lads," he murmured, not seeming aware of anything else and not taking his faded eyes away from the clay models. "I shall be joining them soon, I know. Perhaps I will live long enough to see the monument complete, but then again ­I think not. I think I cannot wait so long to be with my sweet boys again. You know?"

The sculptor shut his eyes tightly. "I feel with you," he said. "I lost both my sons, and I think I shall never see them again. When this project is completed, I will be sailing to the Undying Lands to join my daughters and their families. That is all the comfort I have."

"Yes," the old one said, although he did not seem to have heard the sculptor's words. "I think I will go to be with them soon. I do not need to see marble likenesses of my dear lads. I can see them clear as daylight by shutting my eyes. Sometimes in dreams I can see them beckoning to me, laughing, teasing, asking me when am I going to quit this silly earth and come to where they are. Where do you think they may be, eh?"

"I know not," the sculptor said thoughtfully. "My father scorned the idea of an afterlife, either for mortals or immortals. But as for myself, I have sometimes held out the hope that there is something after all. I think if it gives comfort to believe it, then one should believe it. One must hold onto hope at all costs. But it is not easy. Still, if there truly are rewards after life, your lads are faring very well indeed."

"Ah," the old one said with a hint of a smile spreading the countless wrinkles of his tiny face, "thank you. Yes, they are surely having a wonderful time, far better than most of us. All the more reason to join them, I should think. Can't let them have all the goodies and leave none over for poor old Bilbo, now can we?"

Legolas came to look at the work, after a few days. He looked thoughtfully at the two clay forms, as Annúnlanthir's large strong hands worked tried vainly to form them to his vision.

"What do you think?" the sculptor asked. "You have an Elf's memory; perhaps you can convey more clearly to me how they should look?" A spark of hope flared in him. Yes, surely maybe Legolas could be the one to help.

"You come close," he said. "It is hardest to make the faces exact, I know that, even when one has seen them. You have molded them beautifully. I can see much of the souls of their models in them, even if the features are not quite like."

"Can you?" Annúnlanthir felt the spark flare and he turned to the other Elf with lifted eyebrows.

"Yes, it seems you are coming to know them, little by little. You have begun to love them, and it shows. A bit more and it will be ready for the stone. There's just one thing..­."

Legolas peered at the figures. The Ringbearer's right hand was clutched to his chest where the Ring was supposed to be; only it did not show, presumably covered by his hand. But his left hand--the sculptor was at a loss at how it should be. It rested on his knee, but seemed not entirely at home there.

"It's the positioning," he said. "It's not quite right somehow. I am still not certain how it should be."

"Seat them a trifle closer," Legolas said. "Like so...­do you mind if I tamper with your work a bit?"

"No, go ahead. Show me."

The other Elf took the left hand of the Ringbearer and held it for a long moment. A look of wonder stole over his fair features.

"It is warm," he said still gazing at the small clay hand that lay like a child's, trusting and vulnerable in his own. "Almost like human flesh, although it is a cool day. It seems that it would move on its own in another moment."

He continued to look at it as though not quite sure what to do with it himself, now. As if he expected it to direct him what to do. Then after a long moment, he laid it on the shoulder of the other figure and stood back a step or two to look.

"Better," he said almost to himself, "but...­I don't know. Leave it overnight. Perhaps in the morning it will be easier to tell."

The sculptor rose to smooth down the clay where the arm had been moved, then saw, to his utter amazement, that it was unnecessary.

*****

"Pippin! What's the matter?" cried Merry as a strange spasm seemed to grip his cousin. The young Hobbits were getting ready for bed. Pippin had only begun to unbutton his shirt when he clutched at his hair, his face contorted.

"Merryyyy! ­help meeee," he moaned, then his knees buckled and he doubled over on the floor, rocking himself back and forth. Merry dropped down beside him, clutching his shoulder.

"Pippin! What is it? What's happening?"

"It's...­something! ­I..." Pippin gnashed his teeth and shut his eyes tightly. "I...­it's like something--­invading me..."

"You mean like..." Merry made a helpless gesture in the air.

"It came in here..." Pippin pointed with a quivering finger to his chest-- "and it's gone into my head...­it wants something...uhhhhh...."

"I'm going to get Gandalf," gasped Merry jumping to his feet.

"No Merry­, don't leave me!" wailed Pippin, then suddenly went limp on the floor. Merry stood for a horrified moment, then stooped down once more over his cousin. The agonized expression was gone now and Pippin's face was blank, then a most astonishing change came over it.

"Pippin? Are you all right?"

Pippin appeared now to be much more than all right. He smiled almost beatifically. "Ohhhhh," he breathed. "Ohhhh...ohhhh...ohhhhh..."

His eyes closed and now he looked to be having the most wonderful dream imaginable, surrounded by mountains of fine food and drink and candies and pipe-weed and comely maidens and delicious music and who knew what else. Merry could only think that he was passing into the next world, and he jumped up and dashed from the room, shouting for Gandalf.

The Wizard came in with him to find Pippin asleep on the floor, still appearing to be in an utterly blissful dream. He lifted the young Hobbit and laid him on the bed, shaking his white head.

"What has he been into this time?" he demanded.

"I--I don't know, honestly," Merry stammered. "One moment he looked like he was being--twisted, then suddenly it went away and now..."

Gandalf laid a hand on either side of Pippin's face. "His skin feels normal. I think maybe he had some sort of--of after-effect, episode, flashback, something from that ***ed palantir. But I cannot imagine what is affecting him now. Look at that smile."

"You don't think he's going to..." Merry looked close to tears.

"No," Gandalf said, "I think he'll be all right. He certainly looks like he's enjoying himself, yes? It would be a shame to wake him out of it, and I doubt he would love us for it. But I'll stay here until morning."

All next day Pippin went about with a silly grin on his face. He could not seem to remember what his lovely dream had been about; he could only remember having it at all. Yet when questioned about his attack the night before, he gave them only a blank stare.

*****

"I think it is ready," said the King as he stood looking at the clay figures, after a long thoughtful gaze that misted his grey eyes. The sculptor thought once more what a fine subject for a statue he would have made. In spite of the King's and Legolas' reassurances, Annúnlanthir felt once more that he had failed.

"Is it?" he said, looking at the clay figures. "I cannot help but feel that it is not right and at this point it never will be."


"But I think it is," the King said looking at the sculptor with indubitable sincerity. "The features are not exactly like, that is true. But the spirit shines out of them, just the same. I actually feel as though I were looking at the originals. I can feel them looking back at me as if they know me, as though they might speak to me. I feel almost an urge to bow to them, and to order the entire city to do so. I've seen that quality in your work before, as I told you, but I really think you have outdone yourself. This is wonderful work, and no amount of riches could possibly recompense you. I hardly know what else to say."

"I must confess something," the sculptor said after a long moment. "I've done a bad thing. Yesterday I decided to try a technique I learned long ago, but have never used before, of penetrating the mind of one who knew the subjects very well, to extract a clear and precise vision of the originals. But it caused such torment that I had to stop it after a few moments. There is a counter-probe, if you will, that will put the subject into a dream so beautiful that he will not remember the suffering afterwards. But I cannot do it. I cannot put anyone to that kind of torture, even if I can give them such bliss afterward that they will not remember it. Indeed, I am not so sure they would forget, if the suffering was too prolonged, rather like an exceptionally hard birthing."

"So that's what..." The King put a hand to his bearded chin, frowning.

"Forgive me," the sculptor said bowing his head. "If you really think this is ready for the marble..."

"I do." The King gave him the saddest smile he had ever seen. "Do not worry about young Pippin; I assure you he has absolutely no memory of it. And think not badly of yourself. You have done a wonderful work. I think to do any more with it would be to diminish it--not that I am any expert on art, but I know what my heart tells me. The marble block will be delivered in a day or two. Wait until you see it--I think you are in for a pleasant surprise."

He was indeed. The marble was of a sort found only in a certain part of the world, and was extremely costly and very rarely used. Even Annúnlanthir's father had never used it but once, for the monument of a great king. It was of a moonlit white with an almost translucent quality a little like onyx, a subtle rose-gold flame deep inside, and a sheen of palest blue-violet that eluded the eye, then appeared once more when one least expected it. At times it seemed to shimmer in the dark with a soft gold-silver radiance, as though a star were trying to work its way out.

Annúnlanthir stared in stunned silence as the block was born by twelve strong men and two powerful draught-horses into his studio. He could hardly believe his eyes. His heart twisted. Like his father before him, he always did his own stone-cutting. But how could he render his vision into this wondrous marble?

"No other stone is good enough," the King said. "For that matter, neither is this. But it is the closest any could come."

"I still believe my work is hardly worthy," the sculptor said, rather lamely. The Queen, along with little Mikala, was looking at the clay work with soft eyes.

"You can feel proud and satisfied, I should think," she said. "After all, a monument is just that. It is not the originals. One can hardly expect it to be so, but a tribute only."

"I think it's the prettiest thing I ever saw," Mikala spoke up. "Don't change a thing!" She put out a hand to touch the figures, then jerked it back, shocked at her own temerity. The Queen laughed gently.

"When it is put into marble, then you may touch it," she said laying a hand momentarily on the girl's shoulder. The caress made her positively glow with delight.

It was almost three days before Annúnlanthir could bring himself to begin cutting the stone, but once he had begun, it was not so monumental a task as he had imagined. It was almost as if the stone were helping him along, cooperating, aware of its privilege in having been chosen to immortalize the little heroes. It was encouraging to the sculptor. He hardly touched any food and drank only water, feeling that bodily nourishment would somehow diminish the purity of his work. He felt something akin to happiness as he worked day after day, night after night, week after week, a feeling he had not felt in so long that he had almost forgotten what it was.

He was interrupted only to be informed that the old one had passed in the night, and had gone to join "his dear lads." Merry and Pippin had been with him, sitting by his bedside talking with him far into the evening and holding his hands, reminiscing, listening to him talk about what all they would do when he reached the Other Side. He went out with a smile on his face, they reported tearfully. Whatever monkeyshines you young scamps are about right now, you better not leave me out of it or you'll catch it flying, were his last words. There was a funeral of course, and his body was sent to Rivendell, at his request. And then as always, life must go on....

Yet when Annúnlanthir finally laid the chisel aside and viewed the finished product, dissatisfaction and disappointment overtook him again. Yes, doubtless, to the eyes of many, it was a beautiful work of art. Perhaps the best thing he had ever done, aside from the statues of his sons, and he felt he had not entirely done them justice either, but they at least looked like his sons.

With a heavy heart he summoned the King and Queen to view the monument. It was getting on for dusk when they appeared, along with the little maidservant, whose mouth dropped open in a silent wide O, her eyes widening to their limits.

"I hardly know what to say," whispered the Queen. Her eyes filled with tears and looked even more beautiful than when dry.

The King swallowed twice. "It is...wonderful. I am at a loss for words also. This is beyond anything I could ever have expected, even from you."

"Look," Mikala said, "it's...glowing." She pointed at the marble work, and indeed, it was suffused with a faint radiance in the setting sun. "I've never seen a statue glow before. How does it do that?"

"It is a special property of this kind of stone," the sculptor explained kindly. He felt the weight that lay upon his heart lift ever so slightly. Perhaps it was more than just a property of the marble, after all.

"There are chips left?" Mikala said. "Um...can you make--jewelry of it?"

"Jewelry?" The Queen raised her eyebrows. The maiden blushed.

"N-not for me," she stammered. "I want it as a gift for my mother, to console her for the loss of my father in the War? I know it won't really make up for it, but still..."

"I will make her the loveliest necklace in all the land," Annúnlanthir said smiling at her, in spite of the sudden tightness in his throat, and the King and Queen smiled also. "And although I doubt I can make it truly worthy of her and her husband and her daughter, I will certainly do my best."

"Let me know what you need, and I will see that you have it," the Queen told him. "Our little heroes are not the only ones who gave their lives for the rest of us, after all."

*****

It was the night before the unveiling . The sky was clear, the stars brilliant in the autumnal chill. Annúnlanthir felt restless. He went to the stables, saddled his horse, and went riding out on the plain, as he often did at night. He slowed his horse to a walk, taking deep breaths, trying to account for the melancholy that was seeping back into his being. Why could he not shake off this feeling of failure? It was approaching despair. Oh, he knew what some of it was. The monument was only part of it. He could not deny it: he had fallen in love with the Queen. He had fought with all his being against it, knowing nothing could ever come of it, and that he could only take comfort in his art and in the thought of meeting his daughters once more. But before him he could only see yawning blackness, and he felt a sudden craving for complete oblivion. What would it be like? Was there really nothing else, or would he perhaps be engulfed in a sweet dream that would make him forget the torment that was life?

Only one way to find out, he supposed....

He gazed up at the largest star in the sky, trying to fix his mind on it and block out everything else. He had found this technique to be comforting at times when his thoughts were very black, to focus entirely on a star and concentrate as hard as he could, until the star seemed to speak to him with a voice of council and music. This time it required all the mental strength he could muster, to put everything out of his mind except for this blue-white orb an inestimable distance away, and try to become one with it, to put himself inside the star and the star inside himself, until he hardly knew where he left off and the star began.

It was almost working...almost. And then, just as his concentration was about to break, he heard it. Something indeed was speaking to him.

Go back. Now.

He turned his horse back to the city and spurred him on, scarcely aware of how cold the night air was. He rode as fast as he could, stabled his horse and began the usual grooming, telling himself that whatever had compelled him to come back, his steed was still entitled to the best of care.

This done, he turned back to his quarters, walking slowly, pulling his cloak around him. As he came in sight of the veranda, he could see a light burning in the window. He had not left a lamp burning--he never did, since he could see his way in without it from the torches that burned at night around the ramparts of the city.

Someone was in the room.

He had no weapon with him except a small knife he always carried, but something told him it would not be necessary. Still, cautiously he approached the doorway and peered into the window. He told himself no thieves were likely to be able to make off with his work, as well guarded as the palace was, and as heavy as was the monument itself....

There appeared to be a child sitting in the big chair, practically swallowed up in it, and it must have been holding a rather powerful lamp, burning fragrant oil. It sat very still, its face turned from him so all he could see of it was its curly brown hair and one arm in a white sleeve.

He drew his key from his pocket in puzzlement. There were no children about the palace and if there had been, they would surely have been in bed. It was not one of the Halflings either; how would they have got in and what would they be doing here? He fitted the key in the lock and turned it.

His visitor turned to look at him without the slightest sign of alarm and he saw it was no child, though by no means old either. Its large blue eyes, which seemed to have been made especially for laughter and merriment, were fairly brimming with mirth and delight as he halted, nearly dropping his key.

"Hullo!" it spoke in a voice that might have done his heart good to hear, under other circumstances, but it did not rise from the chair. "You're late--but no matter. You have done magnificently. I am proud to meet you at last."

It was not holding a lamp after all, yet it was swimming in radiance. Its white shirt and breeches emanated the same light that issued from its skin, yet there was neither lamp nor candle to be seen anywhere in the room.

As if he had been dipped in starlight.

Annúnlanthir looked at its feet.

"I'd no idea I was so beautiful," it said and it seemed about to burst into loud laughter. The sculptor sat on the edge of the bed. "I am in awe. I can only offer my thanks."

"Indeed," Annúnlanthir found himself smiling, much to his surprise. "Yet...it doesn't really look like you, does it? Although I was not so far off as I supposed."

"Oh but it looks so much better!" his visitor exclaimed, the radiance increasing twofold. "Sam is even more delighted. He was fretting over how awful he would look and I could not seem to persuade him otherwise. He has never been very pleased with the way he looks. But now he is convinced."

"And why didn't Sam come with you?" The sculptor lifted his eyebrows.

"He is shy. I think he was afraid he would get your name wrong. `It's too much of a mouthful for the likes of me, begging your pardon, master,'---for the afterlife of me, I never can get him to stop calling me `master' somehow. `I can't get past the idea of anybody doing a statue of the likes of me anyways,' he said. `I think my old Gaffer wouldn't approve. Statues and such. That's not for us.' That's Sam for you."

The sculptor was surprised to hear himself laugh out loud.

"Why didn't you appear to me sooner?" he cried a moment later. "I could have captured your exact likeness if you had come before the cutting. It is too late now."

"Because I was certain you could improve on me," said the Spirit with a laugh that must have been quite infectious in life. "And so you have. I can hardly wait for the unveiling."

"But I didn't want to `improve' on you." The sculptor thought how silly this must sound. "I wanted to capture you just as you were, and I tried so hard and agonized over it for weeks. Besides, if I may be so bold as to say so, you scarcely need improvement."

"I am sorry," the Spirit said and the radiance diminished ever so slightly as it clasped its hands and looked down at them. "But the thing is...I think I was afraid that if I appeared to you before the cutting, your vision wouldn't be true. Maybe you'd be too caught up in capturing our exact images to accomplish ... What exactly were you trying to accomplish?" The blue eyes looked up once more at the sculptor with a self-reproachful beauty.

"I think I wished little more than to give comfort to those who had known and loved you best, and to capture your true essence," said Annúnlanthir. "I knew it could not truly make up for their loss, but whatever I could possibly do to lighten their sorrow...well, I was willing to do anything within my power to do so. I have never known such good company. In this, I think I have failed."

"You think?" The Spirit drew up its feet and blinked at the sculptor. "Do you think it would really have made such a difference if you had captured us exactly?"

"I always feel it would have. I suppose I am thinking of my own sons. I asked myself if someone who had never seen them and did not know them had carved their likenesses, but did not really recreate them exactly as they were, would it have satisfied me?"

"And would it? Would it make such a difference if the sculptor captured them exactly, if he did not infuse the soul of them and himself into the work? Would it not have been better for him to give his own vision to them?"

"Yes, of course. But..."

"But you would also have wanted them rendered as they truly looked."

"Exactly." The sculptor gazed at the shining figure before him, wondering if he could be dreaming. "Am I the first you have appeared to?"

The Spirit's face creased again into merriment. "You are."

"I am flattered." The sculptor could hardly help but smile back.

"I met your wife," the Spirit said. "A wonderful lady. I am quite in love with her."

"Really?" Annúnlanthir stood upright suddenly.

"Not to worry," the Spirit held up one hand as though to ward off a blow and he could see that it lacked a finger. "She is like a second mother to me. She sends her love. She is proud of your work and thinks it the very best you have ever done--even better than the statues of your sons, so she says. You can imagine what that does for my ego...such as it is."

The sculptor sat down again, his head reeling.

"She is very, very happy, you know. But of course it would be impossible to impart that to you. Your sons are here also. I have been reunited with my parents, who drowned on the same day when I was a child, and also my dear old `uncle' Bilbo, and Sam is with his mother. Yes, of course it's sad for those left behind. Even if they believe they will be reunited with us again, still I can understand their feelings. Because, you see, long ago, when I was a boy, I was very ill once, and I saw this place. Well, only a pale shadow of it really, but to me, it was...well. I saw a dazzling light, like the sun but much brighter, and yet it did not hurt my eyes. I wanted nothing so much as to go to it. And as I approached it, I saw them. My mother and father. They stood smiling at me with their arms outstretched and I tried to run to them. I was surrounded by such love. I wanted to fly straight to their arms and just rest there. I heard music the like of which even you never heard before, and there were so many flowers, trees, fragrances I never knew existed, and an unspeakable brightness. I felt I could dance and sing and fly forever. But then...."

"They told you you must go back."

"Yes. They said I had a mission to accomplish and I must go and fulfill it before I could join them, then I would return to them once it was done. I so did not want to go back! I fought and kicked and screamed and cried not to. But, go back I did, and there were Bilbo and Sam, weeping for joy to see I had returned. But I was far from happy. They had their hands full, I can tell you, for I made no secret of the fact that I was not happy to be back. My poor old uncle, and dear sweet Sam--he was just a little lad then, but already far fonder of me than ever I deserved. I was horrid to them, to the point that Bilbo finally told me if I did not behave myself, I would not get to where my parents were after all, but rather I would go to the place where bad Hobbits were sent, where all the mushrooms were flavored like castor oil and would give me a dreadful stomach-ache every day. People speak of me now as if I were too good for this earth, but let me tell you, I could be a very naughty boy! Of course I felt pretty badly about the way I treated them, much later. But it is of no consequence now. If the subject comes up at all, we laugh about it."

The sculptor said nothing. He looked down at his hands, which were dangling between his knees, then lifted and gazed thoughtfully at them, aware once more of the fragrance that filled the room. It was like something he had smelled before, and yet not. Like some sweet herb or leaf crushed and wetted as with rain or dew, then warmed in powerful sunlight.

"I actually like what you did with our feet," the Spirit said. The sculptor caught himself laughing again. "It cannot be easy to sculpt foot hair, I am sure. I dare say many mortals think we Hobbits have ugly feet, and ought to wear shoes. Did anyone advise you to put shoes on us?"

"Not a one," Annúnlanthir smiled. "Of course, no one outside the Fellowship was allowed to see the work with the exception of a servant or two, but no one seems to have noticed the feet. I suppose that says something for my work. But still..."

"I understand your feelings," the Spirit said, propping its chin on its clasped hands. "I know what it is to feel that you have failed at what you set out to do. I suppose no one but you will ever know the real story, unless you tell them, and I hope you find a way to do so. But, as you know, I was supposed to toss the Ring back into the fire and destroy it? I did not. Something happened...it took full possession of me, and I could not let it go. But for the creature they called Gollum, it would not have been destroyed at all, and the unthinkable would have happened." He held up his right hand once more to show the missing finger. "I claimed it for my own. After that whole excruciating trek up there with my faithful Samwise, without whom I would never have made it at all, I could not do what I had set out to do. I suppose, had I survived, I would have spent much time agonizing over my failure and all, but I know now that would have foolish. Because I had done what I could, and it is useless to berate oneself over what one can't. Do you see what I mean?"

"I think so," said the sculptor. "So, you are saying I should be content with knowing I did what I could, and not torment myself over what I could not?"

The Spirit nodded. "Exactly. You were true to your vision, and in my estimate, you accomplished what you set out to do. I know it will not make up for everything, but could you not be at peace with yourself knowing that?"

"Perhaps." Annúnlanthir was thoughtful. "Time will tell. But you--could you not tell me more of what happened? Or appear to the others? It might be a tremendous comfort if they knew you were in a place where you are happy and safe. Far more so than a hunk of chiseled rock, I should think."

"They will see me," said the Spirit with a sly secret glee. "I suppose someday a book will be written about us, although not for a very long time yet. And I imagine they will change our story so that we do not die, after all. How our rescue will be accomplished, I've no clue. Of course, in that instance, you would not be in it at all, my friend."

"Fine with me," said the sculptor with a sad smile. "My life is hardly worth putting into tales or ballads. But you would wish this? To have them change the true story so that you and your companion survived the cataclysm?"

"Well..." the Spirit looked up with a charmingly thoughtful air, laying a finger to its chin. "It would be nice, indeed, to think that readers would become so fond of us that they could not bear to have us die. And yes, I like to think they would have Sam go back home and marry his sweetheart and raise up a dozen children or so, and become greatly esteemed of his people. I could accept that much deviation from the facts. But I wish them to tell the truth about me and the Ring, and not simply have me chuck it in and be the big hero and come marching home in a blaze of glory and so forth. I would have them tell it as it really happened."

"I've a feeling they would not like that any more than having you die," the sculptor said shaking his head. "Nor would they love me for telling it. But did you not say you hoped I would improve on you?"

"Art is one thing, deliberate lies are another." The Spirit shrugged. "Many people prefer a lie, I suppose. You are not one of those, and that gives your art its greatness. It may not always show things exactly as they were, but it reaches the core of the truth and does not flinch from it. That is all I want for myself. To be the subject of great art and not of lies." It drew up its knees and wrapped its arms around them in a childlike manner. "I am in the middle of pleading Sméagol's case, you know. After all, he did save Middle-Earth, although such was not his intent, but he has suffered much for a very long time, and I would hate to think of him condemned to eat castor-oil flavored mushrooms for all eternity. They are still deliberating what to do with him."

Annúnlanthir chuckled again. "Well, I wish you luck." He glanced downward. "Your feet are not ugly at all. They are far comelier to me than any smooth, dainty fairy feet that never took a step on anyone else's behalf. It would be a shame to hide them."

"Thank you," the Spirit said modestly. "I am so looking forward to the unveiling. I think I said that already. I had better go, before I grow tiresome."

"I am looking forward also. I feel better about my work now. But...I'm afraid I have fallen in love with the Queen. I am a fool." The sculptor sighed, not really knowing why he had disclosed this information, unless he thought maybe the Spirit could council him upon the matter.

"That is a fatally easy thing to do." Compassionate eyes looked up at him. "I know."

"Do you?" Annúnlanthir looked out the window. Some of the darkness seemed to be creeping back in.

"Go to your daughters," the Spirit said gently. "I promise you will be happy. And try to forgive your father if you can. He is far unhappier than you. He has shunned the light much too long."

"Happy. I have nearly forgotten what happiness is. It has been so long since I felt such a thing. So...will I see my sons someday too?"

The Spirit stood up, went to the sculptor and held out its left hand. Annúnlanthir took it hesitantly, as Legolas had done, and was surprised to find that it felt exactly like living flesh only much warmer. He could feel fine small bones beneath the smooth skin, a slight quick pulse in the wrist.

"I cannot predict that far yet, but--you never know," the Spirit said. "It was wonderful chatting with you. I feel honored that they allowed me the privilege, Annúnlanthir...did I say it right?"

"Precisely." The sculptor's large hand closed over the Spirit's tiny one, very gently and protectively, although he knew he could have squeezed it very hard without hurting it at all. "The honor is all mine. And...do not feel unworthy of your friend. I think we deserve our friends. We may not always deserve our lovers, our parents, our children or siblings, but the love of our friends is not such a blind love. Perhaps it is the truest vision of all. We are none of us perfect, but I have heard it said that our friends are a reflection of ourselves." It seemed absurd to be giving council to one who had passed to the other side, but the sculptor felt compelled to do so somehow, and he had never been one to ignore such compulsions. "So, please feel free to drop in again any time. And tell Sam I don't care if he gets my name wrong...Frodo."

With a smile of blinding brilliance, the Spirit vanished. But the fragrance remained, and before long it began to steep into Annúnlanthir's senses, until peace found him and he floated in it as if in a warm bath full of lilies and light.

*****

In the morning, Annúnlanthir told Merry and Pippin of his visitor, thinking it might comfort them. Somewhat to his dismay, Pippin just looked hurt and stricken. "Why didn't he appear to us?" he asked. "We're his cousins and all. He didn't even know you."

"And it's too late to change the statues," Merry said. "Why did he wait so long to appear to you?"

The sculptor relayed as much of their conversation to them as he could remember, leaving out only the part about Gollum and the Ring. The Spirit had overestimated him, he thought, in his refusal to flinch from the truth, but he could find no way to tell it just now. But, was it really necessary for them to know?

"Can you not find some consolation knowing they are happy now and watching over you?" he asked them.

"Well...maybe," Merry said dubiously, swallowing hard. "Maybe--sometime. I don't know."

"You are lucky to have known him," the sculptor said. "He is a delightful fellow."

"I know," Pippin said, tears springing to his eyes. "I just wish...that maybe we had taken better care of him...or something."

"You did what you could, I'm sure. And he knows it well."

The Queen had brought the sculptor a royal robe to wear to the unveiling. It was of midnight blue velvet lined with scarlet silk, embroidered with gold and pearls around the edges and sleeves, very intricate and gorgeous, and he knew it for her work without being told. The oppressive ache the Queen's presence pressed on his heart was lessened. As he bathed and dressed he looked at the clay models and could have sworn he saw a soft shine about them, an air of sweet merriment and fun.

The veiled monument was set up before the White Tree. The musicians were playing softly. The royal pair wore their crowns and dark rich clothing, and the entire Fellowship was turned out as well, following the King and Queen in silence. The sculptor saw Mikala and her mother and sister all wearing the jewelry he had made them from the marble chips. Mikala's mother looked at him with a gentle smile as she rested her hands on her daughters' shoulders. She was a solid, plain-looking servant woman, but the marble stones somehow imparted a pale glimmer to her that made her face actually beautiful. Mikala looked happy and excited, and from time to time she looked down at her new bracelet and stroked it with a plump forefinger.

There was also the father of the Queen, Lord Elrond, along with his twin sons; Annúnlanthir had met them on one or two occasions before. There was also the King of Rohan, Eomer, Eowyn's brother, with his fiancée and many of their entourage. There were a good many other Elves, some of which the sculptor had met and some which he had not.

Legolas looked at him with a tightlipped smile. The Hobbits stood by, nervously taking their hands in and out of their pockets and fidgeting with their brooches. Faramir and Eowyn nodded toward him and he took a deep breath.

At the stroke of noon the music stopped and some poetry was recited, a prayer said. Finally it was time for the unveiling. Annúnlanthir felt a strange warmth at his back although the sun was shining straight up in the sky and it was a cool day. Bells rang in the tower. The veil was pulled away, slowly at first, then with a quick jerk it was tossed aside.

A loud collective gasp went up from the Fellowship. Annúnlanthir looked toward them, and saw the Hobbits stagger a bit, caught by Gimli who stood behind them. Legolas's eyes widened to their limit. Gandalf stared in unabashed amazement. The King and Queen looked like statues themselves.

Annúnlanthir heard a cry to the left of him. It came from Mikala.

"Why did you do that?" she squealed and her mother shushed her. Murmurs ensued from the crowd. The entire courtyard was buzzing.

"HOW did you do that?" Merry gasped. "You'd never seen them!"

The sculptor, who had not seen the monument in all the excitement, looked toward it then, and was struck totally dumb.

"Why did you change it?" Mikala demanded, and her mother spoke her name sharply. The sculptor could only stare as the murmurs grew ever louder.

"It's them exactly," Pippin marveled. "Why, it--it--it looks more like them than THEY did. They must have appeared to you long before last night, too? And you didn't tell us?"

"Stars," Legolas said softly. "It is a miracle."

"Aye, that it is," Gimli agreed, showing signs of getting royally choked up. Annúnlanthir felt the heat at his back grow even warmer. The King was visibly tearing, and soon, so was the Queen.

"How did you do it?" Faramir asked him. "For yes, it is the exact image, down to the positioning of their hands, the features, the expressions.... Their very spirit shines out of the marble as though someone had poured it in and set it alight. I fully expect them to speak. Yet you never saw them in life."

"Well, he is an Elf, to be sure," Eowyn said smiling. "Everyone knows they have powers beyond those of us ordinary mortals."

"Ordinary?" Annúnlanthir said. "It was no Elf who slew the Witch-King of Angmar."

"I thought they were prettier like they were before," whispered Mikala. Her little sister sniffled, then giggled.

Annúnlanthir scarcely heard any more. He could not take his eyes off the creation before him. But it is not my work, he thought. So how came it to be?

It IS your work, he heard and was not sure if the voice had come from within him or from outside. No one could have accomplished it but you. So what if you had a bit of help from the Divine? We all need that, surely?

He had to smile then, for he knew very well to whom that voice belonged. He felt the warmth positively shivering along his back

Yes sir, it's wonderful, said another voice, which he knew also, even though he had never heard it before. I just wish my dad could see it. He'd have a thing or two to say for sure.

Indeed, thought Annúnlanthir with a tightness in his throat.

"Wonderful, Father," said yet another, very familiar voice, and the sculptor started, turning to see his daughter Orolindë smiling at him, no sadness in her eyes at all. "I cannot tell you how proud I am!"

And behind her stood a tall grey-eyed figure with dark burnished hair and a truly commanding presence...no, it could not be....

"Yes, it is miraculous indeed...my son."

The monument was not the only miracle unveiled that day......



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