HOLDING BACK THE FLOOD

Chapter 19: Let the River Run

"I don't think we've found a better place than this. There's something of everything here, if you understand me: the Shire and the Golden Wood and Gondor and kings' houses and inns and meadows and mountains all mixed." Sam, 'Many Partings', The Return of the King

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"Careful, Merry," Frodo warned.

"Gimli built this!" Merry reminded his cousin. He was leaning far out between the rails of the fence at the top of the new waterfall. "We couldn't be safer."

"I suppose you're right!" laughed Frodo. "Just be careful anyway."

Beneath them was a spectacular sight; the vigorous tumble of water fell more than 100 feet straight down into a sparkling pool. It then spilled from the pool through a gap between two enormous boulders, and continued south until it disappeared.

"It looks like it goes underground again out there," Merry remarked.

"It probably joins the Loudwater somewhere, or maybe even the Anduin," Frodo said. "It doesn't take long for a whole landscape to change, does it?"

"Strider and Boromir have to see this," Pippin remarked. He climbed part-way up the railing and turned to look back at the meadow.

"Aragorn's been back for a few days, so they probably already have." Frodo closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation of the cool mist of water on his face. "I wonder who's winning the race?"

"It must be Strider," Merry remarked. "He's a Ranger, after all. And he knows this valley like the back of his hand."

"It will definitely be Boromir," Pippin countered. "Strider walks all the time, and doesn't get much practice riding horses."

"He doesn't walk all the time," Merry argued. "Just when he's escorting hobbits through the Wild. I'm certain he'll win."

"Boromir might let him win."

"You've seen him at sword practice! A warrior doesn't just let someone win."

"But Strider's his king, or lord, or… well, something."

"No one can beat Strider," Merry insisted.

"Care to place a wager on it?" Pippin asked. He jumped down and turned his pockets out. "I'm not sure what to bet."

"How about the loser carries the lunch basket back to the House?" Frodo suggested, amused. "Sam and Legolas have been wandering about for hours, and will have filled it to the brim with flowers by the time we go back. I can always ask Gimli to toss in a few dozen rocks." He opened his eyes and smiled, and his cousins followed his gaze.

"Here they come!" Pippin cried out. "Race you back!"

The cousins ran all the way back to the stone bridge, and arrived just as Aragorn and Boromir rode their horses the final distance through the trees.

"You won, Strider!" Pippin yelled excitedly. "Boromir, you didn't let him win, did you?"

"I did not, Peregrin," Boromir chuckled. He and Aragorn dismounted, and Aragorn murmured something to his horse. "He and that steed communicate in a way I have seen only among the Elves, and the Horse-lords of Rohan."

"High praise, indeed," Aragorn said, bowing slightly. "And yet I won only by one length. Frodo, it is a delight to see you running again."

"It's a delight to be running again," Frodo grinned, then turned to Pippin. "You'd better hope that basket is light, Pip."

"Sam, is that basket light?" Pippin yelled across the river. Two figures examining a patch of ground thick with yellow flowers looked up and waved.

"I'd better make sure," Pippin muttered, and dashed over the bridge to the other side, where he plopped down next to Legolas and Sam.

Frodo slowly followed him. He walked to the center of the elegant arch, and paused to look down at the swift, cold water. When he thought about Elrond holding all this back, by force of will or some Elvish magic… it was almost beyond comprehension. He ran his hand along the smooth stones, and examined some of the intricate carvings. In the weeks since the cave-in, Gimli had been enthusing about the bridge he was supervising, and it far exceeded all expectations.

Gimli was at that moment standing on the opposite bank, stooping to dip his hand in the cold, clean water. As he drank, his thoughts flew north, to snow-covered Mount Gundabad, the source of this river. Somewhere in a dark cavern of that peak, surrounded by jewels selected by Mahal himself, Durin had first awoken… or so the tales spoke.

Realizing that Frodo was watching him, he nodded, and Frodo gazed at him solemnly and nodded back. Gimli suspected that Elrond had consulted with the Ring-bearer about whether he would be welcome on the journey South, before giving his assent. He straightened to his full height, and cast a silent vow in the direction of his home. He would make his people proud, or die trying.

"It will do, Master Dwarf," came a melodious voice from behind him.

"I am gratified the construction merits your approval," Gimli said smoothly. He had not heard Legolas approach, even using the walking stick he still needed, but all the Elves (and the hobbits, now that he stopped to think about it), walked soundlessly when they chose to. He turned around, but Legolas was not looking at him; he was gazing appreciatively at the bridge on which Frodo stood.

All along the span, large river stones had been engraved with leaves of hammered gold entwined on vines of silver. Each stone had been painstakingly chosen to produce a smooth progression of color and shape, and small crystals sparkled in delicate patterns. The entire design was in all ways pleasing to an Elf. The only thing obviously Dwarvish about the bridge was a rune carved unobtrusively into one of the support posts, similar to a symbol Legolas had spotted on Gimli's axe. He wondered if that was Gimli's family name. When questioned about it, the Dwarf only grunted, and Legolas doubted he would ever know for certain.

The entire bridge glittered in the sunlight, and Legolas found himself imagining how it would look when lit only by the stars.

"It is quite beautiful."

"Thank you," Gimli said. "I had a great deal of help," he added graciously. He eyed Sam and Pippin, sitting in the grass nearby, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Did Master Elrond say that you--"

"He said yes," Legolas answered just as softly. "The Ring-bearer's Company will leave within a fortnight."

"Do you know how large a force will be sent?"

Legolas shook his head, then placed a hand on Gimli's shoulder. "Master Dwarf," he said gravely, "I hope someday to return to my home, and tell my father of your deeds. Neither Sam nor I would be alive now, had you not been with us."

"I would accompany you to your home, Master Elf, to tell your father of your own deeds," Gimli responded, clasping Legolas' arm with his own. "How are you feeling?"

Legolas balanced for a moment on his right leg. There was still pain, but the bone was healing swiftly.

"I will be ready," he said quietly.

Frodo came the rest of the way over the bridge. "I am glad," he said. He smiled at the Elf and Dwarf before walking over to join Sam.

"Confounded hobbits and their confounded hearing," Gimli grumbled.

"Perhaps, Master Dwarf, if your ears were not covered with so much hair, you would hear as clearly as any," Legolas said lightly. "Have you ears? I cannot recall seeing them."

"Of course he has ears!" Pippin called out. "Don't you?"

Gimli was saved from answering by Merry, Aragorn, and Boromir crossing the span together, and Frodo calling out to them.

"Come, let's see what's left of the cavern! Gandalf's had it all to himself long enough."

"Once inside, we must walk slowly," Gimli said, leading them through the trees. "I have followed the path to the end, and it is only wide enough for two to walk abreast."

A tunnel burrowing into the hillside, following the underground river along its course, was all that was left of both the cavern's entrance and its vast chambers; the cavern itself was now a channel through which the river flowed from deep within the earth out into the valley, then southwards down the ancient riverbed to the waterfall.

Once inside, everyone stopped briefly so that Aragorn and Merry could light torches.

Sam and Frodo stood together, looking up uneasily.

"Fear not, my hobbits," Gimli said encouragingly. "There are no more teeth of iron above us, and the walls are sound." He walked forward, and the others followed.

Deep underground, Gandalf stood quietly, lost in his thoughts. In his hand he held an exquisite, white crystal that had been lying on the ground where he now stood. Locked within many earth gems was great potential, as he knew well. The palantíri, the Silmarilli, even the jewel in his own staff... knowledge and craft had brought each crystalline form to full promise.

When he heard voices calling his name, he turned to see bobbing torches approaching. As eight figures grew closer – Gimli and Legolas in front, then the hobbits, then two Men bringing up the rear – the hairs on the back of his neck shivered and rose, and he had a sudden knowing of the type that came but rarely.

This will be the Company of the Ring-bearer.

"Gandalf, are you there?" Frodo called out.

"I am here," the wizard raised his voice. "Just ahead of you." For now. But I will not always be here to guide you in the dark; it is these companions who will help you to find your way, each to his own gifts and destiny. Pippin ran to him, smiling, and he gazed thoughtfully at the young hobbit. Aragorn was correct; Elrond must be encouraged to let Pippin and Merry go with Frodo. They have something to do 'ere the end, and it lies not in the Shire. Not yet.

"Why are you just standing here?" Pippin asked, as everyone grouped around Gandalf. He gazed with frank curiosity at what the wizard was holding. "Is that something special?"

"Impertinent hobbit," Gandalf said fondly, and Pippin grinned.

Merry looked at the river flowing past them, his eyes dancing. "It would be fun to try a boat in this current."

"Fun?" Sam asked, aghast. "In the dark?"

"We need more light," Legolas said. He had not lost his unease in closed, dark places.

Gandalf obligingly raised his staff, which suddenly blazed in a way that made Legolas catch his breath and the hobbits to clap their hands with delight. The gems in the walls and floor shot sparks of color in all directions.

"Have you any caves in Gondor?" Pippin asked Boromir, and Gimli grew attentive.

"Not precisely like this one," Boromir said, "although the White Mountains hold many caverns and secret places. But I have heard rumor of a series of caves in Rohan that might rival this one in beauty."

Aragorn nodded. He, too, had heard stories of caves of great wonder when he had served King Thengel.

"Rohan," Gimli murmured, remembering the maps he had seen. It was regrettable that the land of the Horse-lords was so far away; he would never see those caverns unless strange fortune brought him there.

After a few moments, Frodo knelt by the river, listening intently.

"I hear something," he murmured. "Not water, exactly..."

"It is Ulmo," Legolas said. Now that there was light, he could attend to what he was hearing; the voice of the river was so exuberant, he could scarcely hold back his own song.

"It is Mahal," Gimli insisted. "The earth is adjusting itself to what has occurred."

"Which is it?" Sam asked Gandalf, but the wizard merely smiled.

"It's cold down here." Pippin drew his cloak closer about himself.

"We should have brought the jackets Lady Arwen gave us," Merry agreed. "Was it like this when you were trapped, Sam?"

"Mr. Gimli kept a fire going the whole time," Sam said. He beamed at Gimli, who harrumphed in embarrassment.

"I'm getting cold, too," Frodo said, getting to his feet. "Shall we go back?"

Legolas looked relieved.

"I will follow soon," Gandalf told them. When everyone had gone, he allowed the radiance of his staff to once again dim and go out as he continued to contemplate the river. Waters that had once travelled silently in the darkness could now tumble freely into the valley of Imladris, where they were touched by the subtle influence of Vilya. They sang with joy, and limitless possibilities, and unbounded hope.

Hope. The wizard closed his eyes. I will not always be here to guide you in the dark. With a single, directed thought, a faint pulse from Narya flared scarlet and embedded itself within the crystal's facets. He then dropped it into the river, where it disappeared.

Be thou guided by the Lords of Earth and Water. Act for me when I cannot.

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The eight friends emerged from the darkness, and walked back towards the bridge. Pippin happened to look up first, and stopped walking so suddenly that Frodo, trying to interest Aragorn in another riddle game, walked right into him.

"Pippin, what--" Frodo followed his cousin's gaze, and was momentarily struck dumb himself. Upon the graceful span of the bridge stood Arwen, clad in a gown of deep blue, her dark hair blowing in the fresh wind.

"Sam," Frodo said, seizing the moment, "Pippin volunteered to carry your basket back to the House."

"Sir, he needn't--"

"Sam," Frodo said in a voice that brooked no disagreement. He led an unresisting Pippin to the large basket filled with food, flowers, and seedlings, and the young hobbit lifted it obediently, never once taking his eyes from the vision before them. Chuckling softly, Frodo led Pippin over the bridge to the other side. The others followed silently, but Aragorn lingered.

It was only when the group had walked some distance, and Legolas was teaching Sam the Elvish names for the flowers they had gathered, that Pippin grew aware again of his surroundings.

"Where did this come from?" he demanded, struggling not to drop the heavy basket. With a laugh, Boromir took it from him.

Before they lost sight of the bridge entirely, Frodo couldn't resist looking back at Aragorn and Arwen standing together. The air around them was radiant.

"The gold and silver reflect the sunlight well," Gimli said with satisfaction. "It is a beautiful sight."

"Yes," Frodo murmured, his heart swelling with joy for Aragorn. "It certainly is."

"Is everything all right?" Sam asked, coming to join them.

Frodo looked around the meadow at the fountains, flowers, and trees, and breathed in the fragrant air.

"This is a nice place, isn't it?"

"Nice?" Sam asked incredulously. "It's… it's so…"

"It really is," Frodo smiled. "Come, let's get back to the House. Bilbo is waiting."

xxxx

February 17

It had been a long day, and spirits were low. Traveling south without Gandalf was something no one had imagined, and his loss was still fresh in their hearts. When Aragorn at last called a halt at a small and secluded beach, a weary Fellowship worked to set up camp and dig through their supplies.

Sam was kneeling by the Anduin to fill his cooking pots with water, when something just under the surface caused him to gasp in sudden amazement. Was he seeing things?

"Mr. Frodo!" he cried out. "Look at this!"

Frodo came running, with the other hobbits and an alarmed Aragorn not far behind him.

"Look," Sam said, getting to his feet. He held out his hand, and in his palm lay a small crystal, sparkling brilliantly in the Sun

"That looks familiar," Pippin said.

"I thought so, too," Sam said. "I saw it a-glittering there, in the water. D'you think it could be the same one Gandalf found in the cave? Could this have come all the way from Rivendell?"

"Perhaps so," Aragorn said thoughtfully. "The force of that river might indeed have brought it here."

Frodo bowed his head, and clasped Merry's hand; he wished with all his heart that Gandalf was still with them.

"We'll see Rivendell again," Merry said encouragingly.

"Of course we will," Pippin agreed.

"Yes," Frodo said firmly, raising his head. "Of course we will. Bilbo would never forgive us if we didn't bring him our story."

Sam sighed, and closed his eyes for a moment. Rivendell, he thought with longing. A wave of peace washed over him, and his weariness lifted.

Frodo was still thinking about Gandalf, but when Sam passed him the crystal, his memories blurred into happy ones, and brought no pain. With a smile, he gave it to Merry to hold, and then Pippin, who both suddenly felt stronger and more ready to go on than they had before.

Aragorn closed Sam's hand over the gem.

"It is beautiful. Keep it safe."

Sam shook his head. "Won't you take it, Strider? I've not got much use for jools just now. Besides, it'll get all scratched up in my pack."

"If you wish it," Aragorn said gravely. "Thank you."

"Maybe you can give it to someone very special, someday," Frodo teased. Aragorn's eyes softened at his words, and something Bilbo said came back to him in a rush. "Lucky he who takes this wife," he whispered in sudden comprehension.

"What does that mean?" Merry asked.

"Aragorn knows," Frodo said, his eyes sparkling.

"I'm not feeling so tired anymore!" Sam announced.

"Neither am I," Merry said in surprise. "I feel like I could--"

"An arrow flies more accurately than any axe, Master Dwarf!" came a voice from camp.

"What nonsense are you speaking?" came the loud response. "Boromir, I call on you to witness a contest! It will be a brief one, I assure you. Just long enough for me to teach this stubborn Elf--"

"They're at it again," Merry chuckled.

"They're just hungry," Pippin declared, picking up two of Sam's full pans. "When's supper?"

The hobbits scampered away, leaving Aragorn standing alone. The crystal, although quite small, felt warm and solid, and as he looked to the north, he imagined that he heard his beloved speaking to him. He felt her presence, and her love. He slipped the jewel into a deep pocket, his usually grim features transformed into a gentle smile.

"Arwen," he whispered. He took a deep breath, his heart flooding with renewed hope. But this flood he welcomed, and for a brief and precious moment he allowed it to sweep him away.

** END **

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Author note: Although Arwen most likely brought many jewels with her from Rivendell, perhaps one of them could also have been a wedding gift from Aragorn... which she eventually gifted to Frodo for his comfort. Stranger things have happened in Middle-earth. :)