Mikala gathered all the dead flowers that she and others had laid on the pedestal of the Monument and put them in a basket, then laid fresh ones before it. Then she knelt on a small stone block that had been placed before it, and looked up at the two small figures that glowed like misty moonlight in the noonday sun.
"Thank you for all you did," she whispered. "I am glad you are in a happy place where you will never have to be apart, get old and sick or hurt, or die. Please greet my father for me."
The figures seemed to smile down at her and she smiled back and blew two kisses to them.
"You seem on friendly terms with them," said a voice behind her, and she started with a little squeak. She turned and saw a man with scraggly grey hair and a grizzled beard, dressed in old and ragged and rather dirty attire. "I am sorry, child. I did not mean to startle you."
"That's all right," she said, putting a hand to her fluttering heart. She noticed the man's right hand was bandaged. His face was scrawny and pinched looking, his eyes bloodshot and bleary, his nose large and hooked, his teeth bad. He appeared to be in pain--from the injury to his hand, she supposed. His appearance would have made some girls jump and back away, but now he looked so sad and sick and lonely, she felt only a stirring of pity. "I've never met them, of course," she said. "Yet I feel as if I know them. I come here every day to take my lunch when the weather is good. Have you seen it before?"
"Many times, but not so close," the man said.
"I've a drawing the sculptor Annúnlanthir made before he carved it. At first I thought it was prettier. I guess it is, but I don't care any more. I like that one best--" she indicated the plumper figure. "I love them both, but he's my favorite, although he's not as pretty as the other. I think it's because he was a servant like me. I am also caretaker for the Monument now. Look, here are their names...." She pointed with a plump forefinger at the carving on the pedestal. "Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee. When my sister and I first heard those names, we nearly died laughing, but no more. I would be angry if anyone did so now."
The man glanced at her wrist. She looked too, and saw that it was her bracelet that had caught his eye. She saw a flicker of horror cross his face, but was sure a moment later she had only imagined it. What could possibly be horrifying about her bracelet?
"This stone is the same sort the Monument is carved from," she said. "I wear it in tribute to my father, who fell in the War. The sculptor made much jewelry from the chips and sold it all, and gave the money to the orphanage."
"Aye, I know all about that," said the man, glancing down at his bandaged hand. "I am sorry about your father."
She wanted to ask how he hurt his hand, but her mother had told her it wasn't polite to ask questions of strangers. Perhaps he would explain it himself if she gave him time.
"Annúnlanthir has sailed away to be with his daughters," she said by way of drawing him into conversation. "I miss him, although it has been several months ago. My mother said I should be glad he is finally happy with his daughters, and I am, because I could see he was very sad at times. But I miss him. He was so good to me, and gave me drawing lessons. He was an Elf."
"Drawing lessons?" the man smiled faintly in spite of his pained expression. "So you are a budding artist?"
"Oh no, sir. I only draw for fun. My mother would never allow it, anyway. She says it's not for people of our station in life. I am training to be a lady in waiting for the Queen." She picked up the basket of dead flowers and another, smaller basket covered with a linen napkin, rose, and went to sit on one of the benches that flanked the Monument. "Are you hungry? I've enough food for us both."
"Ah, thank you my dear, but I am not hungry, and I would not take your lunch from you," he said, but she could see he was wavering. She took out a brown seeded roll stuffed with meat and cheese and held it out to him.
"This is very good," she said. "My mother is a cook in the palace, and everyone says she is one of the finest. There's an herb and mushroom sauce on it also that is her own recipe, and it's excellent. Here, I've plenty, see?" She took out another roll, and finally he held out his uninjured hand for it.
"Thank you very much, dear child," he said and bit into the roll quite ravenously. She grinned with satisfaction and began to eat her own. "This is magnificent. Your mother is deserving of all the praise. And she raised a fine daughter on top of it."
Mikala giggled a little. She still wanted to ask about his hand. Instead she glanced upward at the Tree, whose white blossoms filled the spring air with a delightful fragrance. A white dove perched high in the branches, and it called softly.
"That's my bird," she said with a nod toward it. "My name means 'dove', you know. You can see Annúnlanthir carved the stone in my bracelet in the shape of a dove."
"You knew him well, did you?" the man asked. She saw he had nearly finished his roll. She fished in the basket and took out a fruit tart, broke it in half, and handed one piece to him. He acted as though he didn't want to take it at first, but soon he did, when his nose told him the pastry was not long out of the oven.
"Oh yes," she said with wistful pride. "We were great friends. My girl friends used to tease me about it, saying I fancied him." She looked thoughtfully at her roll.
"And did you?" the man asked gently, with a hint of smile. She blushed a little.
"Umm...no, I think not," she said. "Well, maybe a little. Of course he would never fancy me back. After all, I am a mortal and much too young and silly for him and not very pretty. But he never treated me as if I were just a stupid child, and never minded even when I talked his ear off. Of course, the King is also a mortal and he is married to an Elf-woman who is thousands of years older than he. Did you know about that? She gave up her immortality to be with him. I think that's the most romantic thing I ever heard in my whole life."
The man chuckled with his mouth full. "Yes, I have heard."
"That sort of thing runs in her family. Her ancestress, Lúthien, did the same for the mortal man she loved. I would tell you the story, but it is long and I must get back soon. Some other time maybe. You will just die when you hear it."
The man laughed out loud, then the laughter turned to what sounded like a cry of pain. Mikala jumped to her feet.
"What is it?" she cried. "Is it your hand?"
"Yes," he gasped, clutching it in the other, dropping the remainder of his fruit tart, his face wildly contorted. "I burned it badly. It was several months ago, but it has never healed. I do not believe it ever will, at this point."
"Let me go for the King," she said wincing. She had burned herself in the kitchen not long ago, and although it was not a severe burn, the memory of the pain was still with her. His must be agonizing. "He is a healer, you know. Have you seen him about it at all?"
"No, no, my child," he said and she could see he was trying not to whimper. "Do not go for him. You see...I did a very bad thing. There, it is passing. Not quite so terrible now...I should not have come here...."
"What did you do? I will not tell."
"Well...you see...that jewelry you spoke of? I tried to steal a piece with intent to pocket the money myself, and it burned me as though I had picked up a piece of red hot metal. I have not been free of pain ever since. Sometimes it's so bad that I feel like flinging myself to my death from the parapet, but I am too cowardly for that. I have too much fear of what may be waiting for the likes of me after death, that it might be even worse that what I suffer now. But other times...I feel that nothing could be worse."
He groaned, the pain flaring up again.
"The King would know, I'm sure," he said, unwrapping the wet bandage from his hand and opening his fingers to show her. She saw a burn mark that looked like raw meat, oozing and livid. She gasped and shuddered, feeling a little sick in her stomach. The mark was very much in the shape of a pendant, rather like her mother's. "And he would have me imprisoned or banished, certainly, as I deserve, but I do not know if I could endure it. Then again?"
Mikala felt her throat tighten. She had seen many people in pain, since the War, when sometimes the Queen took her with her visiting in the House of Healing. But rarely had she ever had to see the actual injuries.
"I think," she said, "if you go to him and confess what you have done, he will be merciful. He is like that. I can take you to him, since I am a maidservant to the Queen, and I can ask for mercy in your behalf if need be. Will you come with me? I will go and ask them, and take you around so you don't meet the Queen. She is with child, and may not want to be seen. I wouldn't, if I were all swollen so. I would look horrible, I'm sure. But she still looks very beautiful."
The man looked down miserably at his hand. "It is all the worse that the money was for the orphanage," he said in a low and wretched voice, "because, you see, I grew up in the orphanage myself. My mother was...not a good woman, and she didn't want to be burdened with the raising of me, so she left me there. They were not bad to me, on the whole. Well, some of the boys were, since I was small for my age and not at all fair to look upon. But the matrons were kind in the main, and I was often bad to them in return. I ran away when I was about your age, and took to thieving. I grew quite good at it, and soon I became proud of how good I was at it. But no more. No more." He shook his head slowly, awkwardly trying to re-bandage the hand. She saw that the cloth was stained with vile-looking matter. "The sculptor knew of it. I yelled loud enough to waken the dead, and so he caught me. He let me go, saying I was sufficiently punished and the scar in my hand would surely serve as a reminder for all my days. He applied cooling poultices to the burn, but said his skill as a healer was small and he, too, advised me to go to the King. But I could not find the courage, coward that I am. I have done too much bad. I do not deserve to sit beside such a sweet child as you, let alone stand before the King. I deserve only death."
She sat down on the bench, tears welling in her eyes. "There has been so much death," she said in a low voice. "So many bodies, and people dying right before my eyes. At least, I didn't have to watch my father die. But I saw people killed in the streets. I wasn't supposed to look, but I couldn't help myself. Sometimes I dream about it...."
He looked up at her in some surprise; she had seemed so untouched. She wiped her eyes and nose with her apron and looked toward the monument.
"So I come here every day," she said sniffling. "The Monument just has this...this virtue, that brings peace to my soul. And I feel better about myself afterward, and I don't feel like quarreling with my sister, or talking back to my mother, or saying bad things about people with my friends. Because you see, I want to be like them. Can you feel none of it?"
"I fear not," he whispered.
"I do not know if this is true," she smiled through her tears, "but I heard tell of a woman who had a little crippled boy, and she brought him here and held him up to the Monument so he could touch it, and now he can walk again. I have never seen him, and my mother said I should not believe all I hear. But it couldn't hurt to try, yes?"
"Perhaps it could not hurt a little, innocent child. But I could never touch this stone again," he said with a shudder.
"I think it will not hurt you if you don't touch it with evil intent," she said. "Annúnlanthir said it had Elf-magic in it. There was a sculptor, long ago, who tried to use it for his own glory, and he found he could not make the tiniest dent in it, although he was very strong. But Annúnlanthir said it was like carving in beeswax at times for him. And overnight it took the actual form of the Ringbearers. That much is true, for I saw it myself. Will you not try?"
Tears seeped out from the man's eyes. He stood up, walked over to the Monument and looked thoughtfully at it. Shyly, Mikala came to stand beside him.
"I miss the Fellowship," she said. "Gandalf the Wizard went with the sculptor to the Blessed Realm. Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf are still about, but they are in the service of the King and I don't see so much of them anymore. Merry and Pippin the Halflings have gone back to their homeland. I miss them the most. They were funny and nice, and told the most wonderful stories, although I suspect that some of them were a bit--made up. There was one about walking trees that was a little far fetched, in my opinion. But I liked it. And they weren't even so tall as my sister, who is only ten. Things just...change, you know?"
The man looked down at her, then up at the Monument. The sun was high above and made a dazzling glow in the stone, which seemed to extend to the young girl standing by his side. The throb in his hand had subsided somewhat. Could it be?
And then, seemingly of its own accord, his uninjured hand reached over slowly and found hers, cool and plump and very alive.
"Take me to your King," he whispered.
"Thank you for all you did," she whispered as she cleared away the dead flowers and laid fresh ones on the pedestal. "I am glad you are in a happy place where you will never have to be apart, get old and sick or hurt, or die. Please greet my father for me."
"And thank you," said a voice behind her, and she started with a squeak.
She could hardly believe her eyes. It had been only two weeks since she had taken the man to the King, and she had not seen him since. At first she had supposed him to be the age of her grandfather. Now he looked closer to the age her father had been when he died, his hair as brown as her own, with only a few grey streaks here and there, his beard neatly trimmed, his skin a hundred times smoother, eyes clear and bright. His clothing was clean and neat, his hand no longer bandaged.
"I am sorry, little dove," he said with a smile. "I did not mean to startle you."
"How is your hand?" she asked with an effort to keep from skipping for joy.
"See for yourself," he said holding it out to her. The burn mark was still there, but looked far better. "It will take a while to heal completely, but it no longer keeps me awake at night. Your King is truly legendary."
He looked into her shining face, then at the Monument. "It is permitted to climb upon the pedestal?" he asked almost timidly.
"Yes. Many people do so," she said. He stepped upon the kneeling block, then after a long moment laid his injured hand over the clasped ones of the Ringbearers. He kept it there for a minute or two, then turned and stepped back down, taking her proffered hand in his good one.
"The King has made me caretaker of the Monument," he said with hesitancy. "I hope you do not mind terribly my taking over your job?"
"If it were anyone else, I would mind very much. But since it is you, I am happy to allow it." She decided not to tell him it had been her own suggestion.
"The Queen told me you would say just that," he smiled. "After my hand is better, I will be assigned to help with the rebuilding of the city, which is still going on as you surely know already. Perhaps then you may have your job back as I may not have time for it anymore....She is something beyond all believing, the Queen. And she did not mind my seeing her with child."
"Did you ever see anyone more beautiful?" Mikala beamed up at him with wide eyes.
"Only one." He looked down at her meaningly and she looked away in embarrassment. Then laying a hand on her shoulder, he led her back to the bench.
"And now, my dear," he said with a broad grin, "perhaps you could tell me that story?"