Disclaimer: Although I probably own enough Lord of the Rings paraphernalia to actually guarantee me rights to the material, no one has alerted me of this fact. Therefore, I would say I don't own it.

A/N: Well…it's almost been a year since Chapter 37 was posted (or something like that). I'm sorry. The delay was initially due to the craziness of my schedule, but as the months rolled on, it became more of an issue of writer's block. I couldn't summon up the will to write in this story, nor could I come up with new material. Granted, I knew (and still do) what was going to happen, but I had no motivation to put it to paper. Revisions also presented a problem because I found myself disagreeing with what I had written before. So…I shelved the story. I placed it in a corner of my mind and let it gather dust. Instead, I let other things occupy my time. In that time, several other stories were put to paper. But I couldn't just forget about TTAE (indeed, some of you made it incredibly difficult for me to forget)—because I still owe you a story…a story with an ending.

I was contemplating my dilemma after a really long nap. I had just been reflecting on a dream I had recently had. It was a nice dream, inasmuch as the Guy of the Moment had asked me out, which is always a good thing (until you wake up and grudgingly realize that the dream is not yet reality). But what was different about this dream was the tension. I didn't get together with this guy without some problems. Then, it suddenly hit me. I understood the source of my writer's block:

The ending for Chapter 37 didn't fit.

Granted, it was a pretty good ending. It resolved some conflict and both characters got what they wanted. But after thinking about it, I realized that although it was a good ending, it wasn't an ideal ending. I couldn't write any more because there simply wasn't much left for me to write about. So, after much deliberation, I decided to change it. Now, I'm not changing any fundamental parts of the story—Haley isn't going to suddenly realize her undying passion for Aragorn, but I am changing one very important part of the chapter. The ending is pretty different from the original. Although it is not going to alter the final course of the story, I think it will make the plot more interesting and make some of the relationships more realistic and complex than they originally were.

So, I guess I'm going to give it a go again. I'm still going to revise the other chapters…but I figure that first, you deserve an update in the form of Chapter 38. So…here it is. Happy (belated) Holidays, Happy New Year, and thank you for all the support.

NOTE: Do not read the following chapter UNLESS you have reread Chapter 37, which has been rewritten (with a different ending) as of December 26, 2004. Because otherwise it will be highly confusing, I promise you.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Masquerade

It was awhile before I could muster the courage to return to the battlefield.

The panicked feelings I had experienced mere moments before were replaced by a new kind of nervousness. At the time, I thought that it had gone as best as could be expected—he agreed to forget about it and I had the note back in my possession.

I had gotten the ending I wanted. Or, at least the best ending I could have expected, given the circumstances.

However, as I continued to reflect, the worse I felt. Pretending would not be as easy as I anticipated. How could I simply forget something as important as this? How could I pretend to have acted in haste and regret my actions when I knew what I was doing? How could I deny the hurt this was causing me?

I was always one to speak my mind. To be forced into this kind of silence would be little short of torture.

A distant shout broke me from my thoughts and I realized that I would have to go back out. I preferred the shelter of the deserted hall, but I knew that the only thing worse than returning outside would be cowering within Helm's Deep, frightened by something that I didn't want to visibly affect me.

I had asked for this. It was a bargain I had made—and I was obligated to fulfill my end of it.

The sunlight was unforgiving, nearly blinding me as I stepped out into the daylight. I shielded my eyes as I carefully walked down a set of crumbling stairs. Soldiers were milling around, each focused on his respective task or errand. I sidestepped two men helping an injured comrade, and turned down a hallway that I knew would take me toward the causeway.

The causeway was strewn with corpses and in some places the stone was slick with blood. Men were already busy hauling off the enemy carcasses, throwing them into massive piles that would later be burned. Our own dead were taken more carefully from the field, destined for a more respectful burial.

I returned to the Deeping Wall and wandered in search of Aragorn. I found him not too far from the wall, accompanied by Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Théoden, Éomer, and some other advisors I did not recognize.

I swallowed and moved to join them.

I sidled up next to Aragorn, who looked at me carefully with a somewhat blank expression. I looked away and he sighed, almost disappointedly. My eyes involuntarily flicked over to Legolas. He nodded in greeting, as he would have at any other time.

The words echoed through my head almost mockingly: as though nothing had happened.

"Haley," greeted Gandalf. "We depart for Isengard shortly. Will you be among our company?"

"Yes." I felt numb, as though I was simply observing the world, rather than taking any part in it. I had just agreed to journey to the lair of one of the wizard responsible for most of the atrocities committed against the citizens of Middle-earth. Any other time I would have been at least somewhat frightened, but instead I felt dazed, as though I had just come out of a coma.

"But first, you have wounds that need to be attended to," Aragorn said, gesturing to my fingers. "Come with me—I'll see that they're bandaged." He grabbed hold of my arm and pulled me away from the group.

I sat patiently as Aragorn examined my fingers in what was serving as a temporary hospital. There were men all around me with injuries much worse than my own and I felt somewhat silly because of it. It was like I had gone to the emergency room because of a paper cut—it was superfluous. Haldir lay among the wounded, though he was looking somewhat better than the last time I saw him. A white bandage was wrapped securely around his middle and he was being attended on by several Elves.

"You are very quiet," observed Aragorn as he rotated my left ring finger. I flinched. "This is broken," he stated. "As is this one." He gestured to my little finger.

"It was a long night," I replied as he examined a long cut on my forearm.

"That has not quelled your tongue before," he said.

"Must I always act the same way?" I asked.

"When you act contrary to your normal character, it leads others to believe something has happened to affect you in such a manner." He regarded me with a serious expression.

"You know what happened," I said quietly.

"I do not know what happened after I left."

"I asked him to pretend it never happened."

"Why?" He frowned in mild confusion.

"Because it was the one way to try to salvage what had already been damaged."

He looked at me pensively for a moment.

"A charade accomplishes nothing," he replied simply.

I know, I thought to myself.

"I don't want to talk about it," I said instead. "I did what I thought was best."

"Very well."

He finished splinting my fingers in silence.

We left for Isengard late in the afternoon, pausing to look east, toward Mordor. The sky above the mountains was fiery and turbulent; lightning flickering across clouds the color of ash. It was a somber landscape that seemed poisonous to merely look upon, much less dwell in.

"Sauron's wrath will be terrible, his retribution swift," Gandalf said as we came up the crest of a hill. "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-earth is about to begin. All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits, somewhere in the wilderness."

The battle for Middle-earth—greater things were now in motion. This was a turning point in history; this was the battle of the ages. It made my situation look frightfully insignificant in comparison.

But it was, altogether, a wholly different battle.

"Come—we ride to Isengard. My senses tell me we may find alliance there," said the wizard, urging Shadowfax onward.

Alliance I asked myself as I nudged Larien. It seems like we're going directly into the hands of the enemy. But despite my misgivings, I concluded that Gandalf most likely knew what he was doing.

At least I fervently hoped he did.

It took us little less than a day to reach the fortress of Saruman. The ride itself was wholly uneventful—I said little, being occupied with other matters. We rode through Fangorn, which was somewhat unsettling, as the forest itself had been responsible for the massacre of the rest of the Orc army. Gandalf did not seem overly perturbed by this and rode into the forest without concern, the rest of us following warily. The journey through the forest took most of the day and was mostly silent, save for Gandalf's booming voice, which echoed throughout the eerily silent forest. The trees seemed somewhat less hostile than the last time we had visited Fangorn, their anger evidently sated by the host of Orcs that had fled into their deadly shelter. Occasionally, I would hear a rumbling growl from a particularly ancient tree, but it would usually lower to a quiet grumble as we passed, which only made me feel slightly better.

We exited Fangorn as the last few rays of sunlight melted into the horizon and rode on until the moon was high in the sky, the small conversation occasionally interrupted by the howling of wolves. We made camp by the drained bed of the Isen River. In the darkness, I could see shapes of grasses and weeds that had since grown in the water's absence.

That night was one of the few that passed without a Sindarin lesson.

I sat with my back to the fire, my cloak wrapped snugly around my shoulders. I had been unable to rest since we set down camp and instead sat staring off into space, idly listening to the distant whisper of the trees. Every one of my thoughts seemed like a blur, a jumbled stream of words that made little or no sense, even in my addled brain.

Someone sat down beside me on the grass. The faint scent of pipe smoke and pine met my nostrils. It was a scent I recognized and associated with Gandalf. It was a comforting smell, one of the few parts that had not changed in his transformation into the White Wizard.

"I once told you to trust yourself," said Gandalf.

"I remember," I said softly, staring across the empty riverbed.

"I would have that you trusted yourself in all things," he replied, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder.

"I did what I thought was best," I said for the second time that day.

"The best course of action is not always the easiest," he pointed out, gently. I bristled and looked at him sharply.

"This isn't as easy as it seems," I replied, my tone somewhat clipped.

"No, no, of course not," he reassured me, shaking his head. "But the truth, no matter how difficult it may be, is often the best course of action." He paused. "And the truth is not always easy to tell."

I swallowed and looked away.

"I told the truth—I want to forget about it," I said quietly.

Gandalf exhaled slowly and rose from his seat. "Very well…but think on it."

The night passed relatively uneventfully, save for two disturbances late in the night. I had heard a rustling and creaking sound long before the watchmen starting shouting, but I had paid little attention to it, as it did not sound particularly threatening. There was a dark object creeping toward us on both sides of the river. The moon had since set and there were few stars, making the occurrence all the more eerie.

"Stay where you are!" shouted Gandalf. "Draw no weapons! Wait! And it will pass you by!"

It was a strange command and several of the watchmen muttered their displeasure at Gandalf's instructions. But all the same, they were unwilling to doubt the wizard and stood still as the darkness moved forward, a mist settling around us. It passed around us, the rustling and creaking noises filling the still air, accompanied by low voices.

And then I smiled to myself for the first time that day. Fangorn Forest had been discharged from service. Or, rather, it had discharged itself.

The second disturbance occurred shortly after the trees had departed. The sound of running water broke through the air and I could see the riverbed growing full again with water. Gandalf seemed very pleased.

"The Isen flows once again…this brings good tidings," he said with a smile, though he would explain no further, but his eyes sparkled enough to suggest news of great importance.

By dawn we were ready to move on. We rode in silence, for the most part, the landscape foreboding enough to silence most attempts at conversation. In a small way, I was glad, as I was left alone with my thoughts, which weren't exactly comforting, but it gave me some peace not to be troubled with idle chat.

By the time we reached Isengard, the sun had fully risen and was shining cheerfully down upon us. We had entered a small wood with old, twisted trees that were very reminiscent of Fangorn. They were, thankfully, much more agreeable than Fangorn and made very little noise as we rode through.

As the trees started to thin, I began to hear voices on the other side. Voices I recognized, but the idea seemed too far-fetched to even contemplate.

"…Putting my feet up on a settle after a hard day's work," said one as we drew closer, the lilt of his voice almost unmistakable.

"Only…you've never done a hard day's work!" replied the other, cheerfully. They both laughed together, a chorus that rang through the trees and made me smile hopefully. The trees suddenly gave way, revealing a tall, ebony tower surrounded by a wall that was very much dismantled, the inner courtyards flooded with water, debris scattered all over the place, whilst what appeared to be giant trees wandered amongst the mess. I did a minor double take. They were tree-like, that was for sure, but they were almost humanoid in shape and form, with long branches waving about like arms and their trunk split up the middle to form a pair of long legs.

However, the most unexpected individuals were standing upon the ruins of the wall, each with a long pipe in one hand and a mug of what appeared to be ale in the other.

Merry and Pippin—alive and well.

And, of course, smoking and drinking well before seven o'clock in the morning.

Pippin crowed with laughter as soon as he caught sight of us, raising his mug to the sky in a toast while Merry rose to his feet, pipe in hand and a smile on his face.

"Welcome, my lords," he bellowed, raising his arms in greeting.

"And my most gracious lady," added Pippin, nodding to me.

"…to Isengard!" finished Merry, gesturing to the ruin of a fortress behind him.

"You young rascals!" shouted Gimli once he was able to properly see the hobbits. "A merry hunt you've led us on and now we find you feasting…and…and smoking!" I smiled in spite of myself.

"We are sitting on a field of victory," explained Pippin through a mouthful of bread, "enjoying a few well-earned comforts." Merry exhaled smoke through his mouth with a smug look. "The salted pork is particularly good," added Pippin as an afterthought.

"Salted pork?" repeated Gimli, his irritation quickly abating and an interested smile taking its place.

"Hobbits," muttered Gandalf under his breath, looking as though the scene in front of him was something he should have expected. Aragorn laughed.

"We're under orders from Treebeard," said Merry, gesturing toward the destruction behind him, "who's taken over management of Isengard."

"Then we should hold counsel with this Treebeard," said Théoden, regarding the hobbits with a rather confused look.

"That is what I intend to do—accompanied by Master Took and Master Brandybuck," replied Gandalf. Merry and Pippin received this with a look of shock.

"But Gandalf, someone needs to look after the supplies!" protested Pippin.

"And what better candidates than Pip and myself?" asked Merry.

"I imagine that when we return, we would find the supplies very much depleted," put in Aragorn. "Come, Pippin, you can ride with me and Merry with Haley."

Merry and Pippin obediently (but grudgingly) came down from the wall, but insisted that they take some of their haul along for safety purposes. This would explain how I came to have two barrels of pipe weed, a small wheel of cheese, and two bottles of wine in my saddlebags. Gimli suddenly became very concerned about Larien carrying too much weight and insisted that we allow him to carry the salted pork and the leg of lamb.

"It's good to have you both back with us," I said to Merry as Aragorn helped him onto the back of my saddle. "You're a sight for sore eyes."

"It's good to be back," he replied. "You were all properly missed. Uruk-hai are hardly good company and Ents are tiresome after a few days."


"Yes," said Merry. "They're kind, of course, but you can't have a decent conversation with one of 'em—they can be terribly slow."

"Who is this Treebeard?" I asked as we entered Isengard through the gap in the wall.

"Oh, you'll see, Miss Haley, you'll see," he replied, simply.

A/N: Well…let me know what you think. There'll be more to come—I don't know when, but I will attempt to get the next ten chapters revised and posted in a timely fashion. And, of course, I'll be working on new chapters as well, but my goal is to get one new chapter up for every set of revised chapters posted. Feedback is welcome, as always.