Usual disclaimers and thanks: Nothing is mine, etc., etc.

Thanks to my betas, eekfrenzy and Rose—and thanks also to my reviewers.

Reviews are my only reward. I like them a lot.

First off, eekfrenzy's illustrations of Misfit in Minas Tirith can be viewed at http:/ / www. severalunlimited. com /barbarella/ (Close up the spaces-FFN scrubs out URLs.) I think her pictures of Serindë are fantastic and you get to see what Barbarella and her friends are supposed to look like. Also, eekfrenzy has some LOTR stories posted on FFN that I recommend and if you wanted to drop her a review she certainly wouldn't mind!

Well, this chapter is the end—it's been a long ride. If you have any remaining questions you can post them in a review and I'll try to answer them. Do keep an eye out for my next story. The current title is 'Fire in the East' but that may change.

Loads of thanks to my reviewers! Your comments mean more to me than I can say.

Chapter 36: Her Mother's Daughter

Our little 'troop' reached the site selected for King Elessar's event somewhere around noon. A black-and-white cloth pavilion had been set up for the King in a meadow dotted with yellow dandelions. To the left, you could look down the mountain and see the northern wall of the Rammas Echor. To the right, somebody had stacked several kegs of beer into a neat pyramid.

Prince Faramir indicated a small hillock about ten yards away from the King's pavilion. "Put our carpet over there." Beregond good-naturedly unrolled the carpet while I went over to the stream to fill our water jugs. Meanwhile, Elric and Bergil were running around and goofing off like the pair of normal kids that they were.

I was kneeling on the carpet to unpack a picnic basket when Elric ran up to me and gasped, "Barbarella! Barbarella! I just saw Fréalof! He's over there in the King's pavilion with the Elf lady! Look!"

At the front of his picnic pavilion, the King sat with his friends Legolas and Gimli on campstools. Aragorn was smoking the long pipe that I'd seen him use on the road to Helm's Deep. But Elric was right. In the shade of the pavilion, Elric's brother Fréalof was sitting at Arwen's feet.

"Éowyn! Prince Faramir!" I raised my voice just a little. "Didn't the King say that he was coming here to meet his subjects? Shouldn't we take him at his word and go over to meet him?"

"Why don't you and Beregond do that?" Faramir countered. He and Éowyn were squeezed close together under the parchment suncreen, and for one reason or another they didn't seem to want to move. He pointed out—reasonably enough—that if the Steward went over to speak to the King, it would look like a council meeting.

By that time Beregond knew me pretty well. He shot me a look of quickly-stifled anguish, but he picked up my picnic basket and followed me to the King's pavilion. The two boys scampered right behind us.

Beregond, of course, had no intention of speaking to his King until he was spoken to. For a second I wondered whether I might be pushing a bit too hard, but I decided to plow right along. I curtseyed and said breezily, "As you requested, Your Majesty, here we are to meet you."

Gimli slapped his knee and laughed at me. Even Legolas smiled a little. Aragorn bit down on the stem of his pipe and said sourly, "And you are the only ones to do so. Will none but the boldest of the bold come to speak to me?"

I decided to take that as a compliment. "What did you expect? Scary Elf warrior, scary Dwarf, scary new King."

"Then perhaps you can tell me what I should do to be less 'scary,'" Aragorn said with a sigh.

I shrugged. "How should I know? I'm a stranger here myself."

At that, the King's gimlet eye fastened upon Beregond. "Captain Beregond, you have lived in Minas Tirith all your life. What would you suggest?"

Beregond went red with embarrassment, but he didn't freeze or panic. His King had made a request of him and he would fulfill it or die. His gaze happened to fall upon his young son, who is truly the sun in his sky, and he stammered, "As you see, sire, my son Bergil does not fear your presence. I suggest that you ask your people to bring forward their children so that you may come to know them."

I could see the brownie points ticking off for Beregond in the King's head. For Aragorn, to think is to do, so he said right off, "That is a good idea, Captain. We will try it."

Without waiting another moment, he strode into the middle of the meadow with Beregond and Bergil trailing behind. After a brief whispered discussion, Beregond announced to the multitude in his best 'Citadel' voice, "People of Minas Tirith! Come forth with your sons and your daughters so that they may say for all their lives that they met the King Returned in the first days of his reign!"

And the people did! A stream of children was brought forward: liquid-eyed toddlers, little soldiers in short pants, and tiny princesses-in-training with ribbons in their hair. As the first trickle of people inched forward to greet their King, Gimli squinted over at Legolas and said, "D'ye think we ought to go with him, laddie? Or would we frighten the younglings?"

Legolas smirked at Gimli. "We can go, but it is likely that one of those children will pull your beard."

"I'm not afraid of a little tyke!" Gimli spluttered. He and Legolas soon joined the King out in the meadow. Gimli was a big hit, giving horsie rides to many a Gondorian toddler.

Actually, I think he's better at being a horse than at riding them.

From a blanket about ten yards away, Gandalf was smiling benignly. The four hobbits were clustered around him. Pippin and Merry were unpacking big picnic baskets that had to be filled with the most delicious foodstuffs Sam Gamgee could prepare and Sam himself was sitting next to Frodo. Occasionally Sam would nudge Frodo and point at something, and Frodo would smile a little. I was tempted to swing over to say 'hi', but that wouldn't have been very nice. Frodo actually seemed to be enjoying himself, and what could I have offered him but a reminder of the worst hour in his life?

Besides, I hadn't said 'hi' yet to Fréalof, and he was sitting not twelve feet behind me. Elric's brother really did seem to be getting better. The pink weals on his face were a lot less puffy, and his hair was growing back in a fuzzy fringe. But what had he been doing while I was otherwise occupied? Fréalof was sitting at Arwen's feet dressed in the black-and-silver livery of Gondor!

Elric, who was right beside him, yelled, "Come on over, Barbarella! Don't you want to meet Lady Arwen?"

Since he put it so nicely, how could I refuse?

Well. How can I describe Arwen Evenstar? Practically perfect in every way—her hair, her skin, her smile. If she had an advanced degree too I would just have to curl up and die. Lady Arwen made the little tuffet that she was seated on look like a royal throne. She had a filigree tiara in her hair and she was wearing clothing in various royal shades of purple. Aragorn and his buds must have appropriated all the other chairs, because Elric and Fréalof were perched on large tasseled pillows beside her.

I took four medium strides across the carpet and then froze, unsure of what to do next. What's the correct protocol when you meet the King's fiancée? Lady Arwen took pity on me and sat me down on another one of those pillows.

"So you are Fréalof's Captain Barbarella. The King has told me much about you. He said that you were a healer at the Battle of Helm's Deep."

I shook my head in negation, more from embarrassment than modesty. "Umm… no. I'm no healer. I just find ways to encourage the people who are. Like Captain Haldir, when I asked him to help Fréalof."

From the suppressed laughter in Arwen's eyes, I'd guess that the 'Barbarella story' would be buzzing around Haldir's head for the next millennium or so. But she said seriously, "I am very glad that you did! Fréalof's burns were terrible when he was brought to Rivendell. I helped my father to care for him and over the past few weeks I have also been teaching him to speak the common language."

Fréalof had been watching us both with bright eyes. He sat up proudly on his pillow and said, "I feel much better now, Barbarella. I was able to ride all the way here with Lady Arwen." And he said that in Westron! I was so impressed.

Arwen picked up a stoneware urn and said to Fréalof, "Bring me water, please." As if it was an order he was accustomed to, Fréalof pulled himself out of the pillow, smoothed down his new livery, and accepted the urn from Arwen's hands. With Elric at his side, he sedately carried it out of the pavilion.

Once the two boys were gone, Arwen confided to me, "I would like Fréalof to become my page. The children of men have never been a part of my life, but he has touched my heart. I wish to watch over him until his healing is complete. But he is a boy of Rohan. Do you think Princess Éowyn will object?"

"I shouldn't think she'd have a problem with it," I replied noncommittally. I wasn't so sure about Fréalof. A page is sort of a male handmaiden, which isn't everybody's cup of tea. I'd had some issues with it myself—and Fréalof had dreamed of becoming a proud Rider of Rohan.

While I was worrying about Fréalof's job prospects, Arwen said, "The King also told me about the jewel that you wear. He says that it resembles the Evenstar that I gave to him."

Was I supposed to return the necklace, now that I'd finished my Quest? Giving up my 'Universal Translator' would be a wrench, that was for sure.

For what might be the very last time, I pulled up the chain that was always around my neck and brought my silver-and-topaz pendant out of hiding. As it dangled and spun before her, Arwen gazed at it pensively and said nothing. Finally I prompted her, "You know, Aragorn wasn't the only person that I showed this to."

Arwen's eyes were deep silent pools. "Yes? And who were the others?"

"Well, there was Gandalf. He said that the necklace wasn't made in Middle-earth. Then Captain Haldir told me that it was Elvish work, but that I should keep it. And Serindë told me that it was called the Northstar, and that it belonged to Galadriel."

Arwen turned her eyes from the Northstar and looked over at me—but what she was thinking, I couldn't tell. "Yes, it is the Northstar. Serindë was my mother's handmaiden. She would know."

"Serindë also said that it was the Northstar that pulled me out of my world and dumped me here in Middle-earth. She wasn't quite sure why Galadriel would want to do that."

Arwen sighed. "Galadriel keeps her own counsel. There are few to whom she reveals her plans, and I am not one of them. You were brought here from another world? That is…remarkable."

Remarkable? That's one way of putting it. It really wasn't Arwen's fault—but I was mad. "It was certainly a surprise to me! I woke up one morning and found myself in the middle of a warzone. I survived and I think I've done all right, but the fact is, Galadriel marooned me in an alien world. Because of her, I'll never see my home or my mother again."

For whatever reason, my words really touched Arwen. I could see it in her stricken face. "The world has changed, but my grandmother still has power. It may be that she can return you from whence you came."

Right, that would be nice. To the snow or to the fire?

"I've been given reason to believe that can't happen," I said grimly. "I'm stuck here—forever."

This was one of those unanswerable statements. Lady Arwen didn't even try to answer it. Fortunately, Elric and Fréalof came back from their errand before the silence got too unbearable. Elric was bounding as usual but Fréalof was shuffling his feet on the carpet and clasping the stoneware urn as tightly as it were a priceless artifact.

Arwen held up a pair of silver cups. "Water, please. For me and my guest."

Her words were in Westron, of course, but Fréalof seemed to understand them. He carefully tipped the urn to pour—first for Arwen, and then for me. When he bent to fill my cup I asked softly in Rohirric, "Will you be all right with this, Fréalof?"

His smile was so bright that his face practically glowed. "Oh, yes! I will serve the Lady Arwen and Elric will be Princess Éowyn's horsemaster. We can be together forever!"

Okay, then.

I sipped from the cup and wondered just when I'd gotten used to drinking water right out of a stream. When I finished, Arwen said, "I will be gone for a little while. I want to walk with Barbarella." Shooting me a sharp glance, she copied the Rohirric words I'd just spoken. "Will you be all right with this, Fréalof?"

Fréalof bobbed his head in reply. "Yes! I have my brother!"

These Elves are scary-smart.

I had no idea why Arwen wanted me as a walking companion, but I wasn't about to say no. We strolled out of the pavilion and surveyed the picnic grounds. There was a small open space in the center of the meadow where King Elessar and the children were becoming acquainted, but other than that, the place was packed. Everyone in Minas Tirith who could make it up Mount Mindolluin was sitting on the grass and drinking the King's beer. Nobles under fancy sunshades. Common folk dressed in their best to hike up a mountain. Even the ex-refugees, who'd dragged up any cloth they could find to sit on—in one case, a ragged black flag emblazoned with the Lidless Eye.

Lady Arwen stared out at this happy crush and shivered. "There are so many people! It is never like this in Rivendell. The crowd makes me feel stifled. Do you feel it too, Barbarella?"

I knew where she was coming from. "With me it's the night. Sometimes I go out after dark and I feel like the night is crushing me. The only light I can see is from the moon and the stars. Where I come from, the shop windows stay lit all night and there's a street lamp at every corner."

Arwen considered this for a moment, then said softly, "We both must become accustomed to these things."

Fortunately, the Gondorians opened up a path when we walked into the crowd. I was prepared to straight-arm anybody who tried to get touchy-feely with Arwen, but nobody did. Everyone was gawking at the beautiful Elf Princess though—but funnily enough, a lot of people were staring at me too.

We passed a group of dark-skinned merchants who were swigging from winebottles instead of drinking the King's free beer, and one of them winked at me! It was Lorkan. On impulse, I raised my skirt above the tops of my half-boots and let him see my sunflower stockings.

We kept walking until we reached the end of the glen. Where the walls of the valley converged, the beginning of our stream was tumbling from a narrow cleft. As far as I could see, there was nowhere to go from there. A blue rock wall stretched nearly straight up on one side, and on the other I saw a steep eroded slope where the trees thinned into scraggly bushes and rocks. "This looks like the end of the road, Arwen. Shall we go back?"

Arwen had bent down to cup water in her hand, but she straightened up and pointed to those rocks and bushes. "I can see an old path that goes up the mountain. I wish to follow it until we find a place that is quiet and secluded."

Was mountain climbing on Arwen's agenda? It would definitely be the most challenging part of the day's hike. I don't usually take on serious mountains without a professional guide and we weren't dressed for climbing. Neither of us was wearing pants, and Arwen's mauve silk gown and wine velvet overdress didn't look that sturdy.

But Arwen was determined, and I couldn't let her try this slope without a climb buddy. Maybe I could talk her into coming back down after half an hour or so.

Yeah, sure.

It turned out that our hike up Mindolluin wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Arwen's path must have started out as a goat track or something—it meandered around every tree, boulder, and rain gully on the slope. We didn't make much altitude but we weren't clinging to the rocks either—although I did have to grab a few handholds from time to time.

For a while I wondered why King Elessar's security people hadn't followed us out of the glen, and then I remembered that his security people were Rangers. I tried to spot man-shaped shadows behind the larger trees, but I never did.

For the most part, it was a pleasant climb. Butterflies with bright blue wings flitted from golden flower to golden flower and once I spotted a dove's nest in a fir tree. The wildlife that I was mostly concerned about, though, was snakes. I was wearing leather half-boots but you can't be too careful. For most of our hike, Arwen didn't say much except, "Do not place your foot on that stone, it is unsteady," or "Take my hand and step up," or even "Put on your cloak. The winds are cold."

We finally reached an appropriate 'place'—a gigantic limestone boulder thrusting well out from the face of Mount Mindolluin. Stepping onto the rock, we tacitly agreed that the climb was over. Arwen was looking much less stressed; I felt a little chilly. I'd brought along my elven cloak—if you're used to mountains you expect sudden weather changes.

The limestone rock made an impressive overlook. Below us, the White City gleamed like alabaster. It was truly the Eternal City of this world. Beyond its walls, the Pelennor Fields were blackened by fire, but the wounds of war would soon heal, and the farmers would plant crops again. From where we were standing I couldn't see the Anduin, but I knew there were tall ships docked in the harbor and that the homes of the people of Harlond still stood. "Homes can be rebuilt," yes, but this time they wouldn't have to be.

After a time Arwen spoke. "I have touched living water and I have walked among the rocks and the trees. I can see mountains veiled with purple shadows and far off, a waterfall shining like a star. I can hear the mighty river that flows to a Sea I shall never cross. I needed to come here, Barbarella. I needed to know the wilderness that abides in this land. For I shall be Gondor's Queen and I could not love this kingdom if all that I knew of it were things built by hands."

I looked down again and tried to see the landscape from Arwen's perspective. While I was looking, she asked me, "How did Serindë die?"

"She used Glorfindel's enchantment. Didn't the King tell you?"

"I know that she made Glorfindel's choice." Arwen's beautiful face was somber. "But she was my mother's companion for longer than you can imagine, and I would know how she faced her death."

After all those elven years, it was a mortal stranger who had shared the last secrets of Serindë's life. Sometimes life's funny that way. "You know that she wanted to strike down Sauron more than anything."

"She made that very clear," Arwen said tonelessly. "For hundreds of years."

"In the end, Serindë was happy with her choice. She said to me once that if an Elf lacked the courage to pursue her heart's desire, then what was the use in having a long life?" My voice caught a little, because it still hurt to think about it. "She told me that she would go to Valinor to be with Princess Celebrían. And after she died, a mist rose from her body and went west."

Arwen stared down at the landscape below and then said without meeting my eyes, "Did Serindë mention that I too was riding in my mother's party when she was captured?"

That was another one of those unanswerable questions.

"Serindë loved my mother and would have done anything for her, but her choice to dedicate her life to vengeance was wrong. She gave up her life long ago," Arwen said sadly. "I grieved for my mother and my heart broke when she left us, but I would not allow myself to be consumed by grief."

Then Arwen turned to face me and gave me that 'look of eagles.' "Nor should you, Barbarella! Keep the Northstar, for it may be of use to you. But do not eat up your life yearning for the ones you have lost, for there are many here who love you as well. You cannot be always torn in two."

That was the truth—I knew it. I'd known that truth for some time. Suddenly all the feelings that I'd shoved aside for months struck me in a giant wave. I wanted to cry, but I found that I had no tears left.

"But it's so hard, Arwen, it's so hard! I know that my Mom's out there somewhere, but I'll never get to see her again. I won't even be able to tell her that her sci-fi stories worked out for me after all."

Arwen grasped my hand and held it tight. "I too shall never see my mother again. I have chosen a mortal life, and so my people and I shall be parted until the End of Days. For when an Elf dies, her spirit goes to Valinor, but where a mortal's spirit departs to, no one knows."

The wind echoed around us and for a long while neither of us spoke.

At the very edge of our limestone outlook, a little sapling was clinging to the rock and bravely flowering in the cold. Arwen plucked a single white flower from it and threaded the flower into her hair.

"We have lost much," she said, "but it is now our task to seek out all the good that remains to be found."

I didn't have to tell Arwen anything. She knew.

People had to be wondering where we'd gone to and our lunches were waiting for us down in the meadow. I pulled Serindë's beautiful warm cloak around my body and took a deep breath.

"Well, let's go back."

THE END