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The Time of Probing  by Larner


            Sam slept fitfully, and was awakened after only a couple of hours when the Elves gathered again to sing.  This time they sang Aragorn’s invocation of healing, followed by a song he’d not heard before, one that was filled with a complex harmony that somehow reminded Sam of the intricate movement of blood within a body combined with the rhythms of simple breathing.  This was followed by a song offered by the woman whose fingers were stained with ink.  Some words he recognized—the name of Elbereth, and the name the Lady Arwen had given to the figure carved into the headboard of the bed on which Frodo slept, that of Estë, and of others—Nienna, Irmo, Yavanna and Aulë, Manwë, Nessa, Vána, Oromë, Tulkas, Vairë, Ulmo, Námo.  This song lulled Sam into sleep, and in it he saw that the Sun, Moon, and stars were being invoked to allow their combined Light to shower down upon the spirit of Frodo Baggins, to remind him that his own Light was a delight to the Creator, that he must not surrender it vainly to the powers of darkness.

            And when that song was done Glorfindel raised a song in defiance of the darkness, and Sam knew that the golden Elf had no fear of death at all, for he’d been through it and had come out again and knew fear of death to be foolish.  And briefly Sam slept more deeply, dreaming of Glorfindel and other Elves, some with hair dark as jet and others as silver as moonlight, ready to guard the world and all its children from the darkness that seeks to devour all.

            He awoke to again find the Lady Arwen watching over Frodo, sewing in hand.  This time, however, the fabric she was laboring over was black and silver rather than green, and it was not clothing from what the Hobbit could tell.

            “Hullo,” he said, sitting up for a better view.  “Done with the outfit for Mr. Frodo, then?”

            She smiled, and again he felt that now familiar twist in his heart.  “There was but a little of the hem of the jacket left to finish, and so one of the other maidens offered to finish it for me so that I might return to this.  It is felt by all that it will be needed soon.”

            “What is it?” he asked.

            She shifted the great rectangle of cloth in her lap.  “It is called a standard.”

            He didn’t recognize the word.  “What’s it to be used for?”

            She was fixing an embroidery hoop into place.  Somehow it seemed strange that it should look exactly like the one his sister used.  “Standards are used to declare the identity of a lord or commander to all who see it, whether it is seen from nearby or from afar.  Aboard a ship it will declare the identity of whichever great noble or captain is in charge of the vessel or the fleet that it leads.  In lands of nobility, the standard of the noble with the greatest rank present is displayed on the flagstaff for the city or its principle keep that newcomers will have an idea of whom they will need to honor first on entering the place.  When approaching the capitol of a land such as Gondor, one can tell whether or not the ruling Steward is within the city by looking to see whether or not the Steward’s standard is displayed.  If he is visiting elsewhere, the standard of whatever lord sees to the realm’s business in the Steward’s absence is displayed instead.  And in battle the standard indicates the location of each noble so that their men and their allies can tell at a glance who leads the fight in each portion of the battlefield.”

            Sam could immediately imagine the perils such a thing could pose.  “If’n the one’s friends can tell where him is, can’t his enemies do the same?” he asked.  “Seems as it’s much the same as wearin’ a target darin’ the rest t’knock him down, carryin’ about a great big cloth markin’ out where he is to all and sundry.”

            Her expression grew serious as she focused on her work, drawing a particularly shining needle out of needle case apparently carved of bone in the likeness of a fish and pulling out a length of black thread from a hank of embroidery floss to thread through its eye.  “You are right.  Which is why it is such a great honor for the standard bearer to carry it for his lord.”

            “Then the noble don’t carry it himself?”

            She shook her head.  “No, not if he’s to lead the charge and to strike his own blows against the foe.  Usually the standard bearer is one who volunteers, and so tends to be a kinsman who loves his lord more than he does life itself.  It is his job to keep pace if at all possible with his lord, even if it means that he must race toward the press of the enemy armed only with a spear or sword and no shield, with small recourse to a spare weapon if he loses the one he carries.  For he fights with but one hand, making certain that the standard is carried always upright for all to see, as much to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy as to cause rejoicing among the allies of his lord as he joins the fray.”

            “How is it carried?”

            She considered the question as she began her embroidery.  He realized that she was adding small beads into her work as she set the stitches of her pattern.  “There is a thin sleeve at the top of it, and a rod is pushed through it with a great finial on each side to keep it from sliding off either way.  The center of the sleeve is cut away and reinforced, and a ring is screwed into the back of the rod at the balance point, and that ring is attached to the staff to be carried by the standard bearer.  The standard bearer usually has a special loop through which the staff is thrust on the side of his saddle and a supporting flange added to his stirrup against which the butt of the staff rests while he rides.  He must hold it erect with his hand, so his off hand is encumbered as he begins.  Usually the horse he rides is trained to answer more to knees and shifting of weight rather than to reins that its master can protect himself and the standard at least some.  And you are right—those who bear their lord’s standard are often the particular target of their foes, for to see a standard fall and be trampled into the dirt of the battlefield is considered to be an omen of defeat.  Many armies will fight with full will as long as they see the standard carried aloft, only to lose heart if they see it fall, even if they were winning the battle to that point.  So it is that the standard bearer is often closely followed by his own best friends and closest kinsmen who will seek to protect him as well as they can, and they seek to grasp the standard from him and keep it aloft should he be struck down.”

            She stopped her agile stitches, leaving the needle loosely thrust through the fabric to keep from it losing itself before covering the black with white lawn, and set aside the tin filled with beads, snapping its top down that the beads not all be lost should it accidently be tipped.  She shifted herself to sit upon the bed by Frodo’s pillow, and gently drew him to sit upright, leaning against her arm.  “Not that the one destined to receive the standard is any more worthy of it than this one would be.  How strongly even now, in the height of his physical weakness, he fights the will of the shard!”  She lifted the invalid’s cup with her free hand.  “Now, my bonnie fighter, can you find it within you to swallow for me?  Here is one more way in which you can defy your enemy!”

            Frodo managed a single swallow before the liquid ran out of his mouth, and she leaned him over to allow it to drain away, wiping it with a cloth she had carried draped over her shoulder.  Still she appeared pleased.  “One less swallow that might need to be administered in another, far less comfortable manner,” she murmured.  One more swallow she managed from him ere the door opened and Strider paused in the entranceway, looking down on her with eager eyes.

            “My sweet lady,” he began, “you have spent much time in your daernaneth’s company.  Can you scry as does she?”

            Sam had no idea as to what Strider meant by that, nor why the question might have caused the lady to color as she did.  “I can do so, although perhaps not as readily as does she.  Do you require it of me?”

            “Gandalf and Lord Elrond have been discussing how best we might follow the progress of the shard that we cut no more than is needful and do so no sooner than the shard can be fetched away safely.  If perhaps you can watch it for us….”  He paused, and suggested, “I know that scrying does not always follow the will of the observer, but do you not think that perhaps it might be possible?  The pendulum can tell us the point under which it lies, but not necessarily how deep or how close to a vulnerable blood vessel.”

            “I will be willing to try,” she answered.

            “And you will bring the Evenstar gem?” he asked.

            She nodded.  “Adar had already asked that of me, after all.  Should you not be abed yourself if you would be in the best position to aid Ada in the morning, my Lord Aragorn?”

            He gave her a grateful smile.  “I am to bed once I have told your father and Gandalf that you have agreed to watch the shard for us.  If you will have what you will need brought to you about an hour ere dawn….  Good night, my Lady Arwen.”

            “Rest well and blessedly, my Lord Aragorn,” she responded, and he withdrew, closing the door softly.  She watched after him, a small smile on her lips.  “His love and caring are not idly given,” she remarked to Sam.  “The more do we all wish to see your Master restored, seeing how much Aragorn son of Arathorn cares for him.  Now, perhaps you, too, ought to rest, for the dawning will come all too soon in spite of the year drawing toward its turning as it does.  Sleep well, Master Samwise.  Sleep, and awaken refreshed.”

            She saw Frodo settled down in a new position on the sheepskin brought in earlier in the day, and sang what appeared to be a soft lullaby as she resumed her embroidery.

            Sam and Frodo both slept more comfortably and restfully.

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