Interlude: The Second Letter
My dear Frodo,
Over the years, I have started so many letters to you, but somehow I never seem to finish them. Unfinished, they sit there, staring at me, reminding me of how useless words can sometimes be, when it comes to telling the truth to someone you love.
Maybe you need to come here and see for yourself. Until you've seen Rivendell with your own eyes, I don't think you'll ever understand. Why I came here, I mean. Why I stay.
Yes, yes! What an excellent idea! Come back with Gandalf when he rides back this way. I'll show you what I've been getting up to. I've nearly finished my book, you know. Of course, whenever I almost finish it, I come across something new that I need to put in it, and there we go again. But that's the joy of it, don't you think? Stories are like the Road: when you start out upon them, you never know where you will finish..
I would like you to read it. We can argue about all the things I still need to say. We can walk the road of words together. I think I might be too old to walk the other Road again.
And since you're coming here, could you bring that old Ring of mine along with you? I'd very much like to see it again.
The page stirred in the breeze from the open window. Bilbo shivered. "How cold it is," he said, "although it's barely autumn."
"Is it?" said Gandalf. "I was thinking how warm it was in here."
"But you spend your time wandering in cold places." He laid down his pen. "Will you bring Frodo back with you when you come? I would very much like him to visit."
Gandalf raised an eyebrow. "Would you?"
"I don't think a letter alone will make him understand," Bilbo said. "And I want him to understand; I want that very much indeed. I used to think he wouldn't, but now I've been here longer, I think he would. And, besides, he's got something, something of mine."
"Yours?" The other eyebrow went up.
"That old Ring of mine," Bilbo said. His hand went to his empty pocket. He recognised the movement as something intensely familiar. "I forgot to bring it with me. I can't think why."
"The Ring has passed on, Bilbo." Gandalf's voice was gentle, but the air felt suddenly as cold as winter.
Bilbo closed his eyes. "I dream of it, sometimes. Oh, not often, not here in Rivendell, except when something happens to remind me. But when I pass the borders of Rivendell... Sometimes even when I merely think about passing the borders of Rivendell..." He opened his eyes, and looked at Gandalf beseechingly. "Is there such harm in that, Gandalf?"
Gandalf's eyes were full of pity, but they were merciless, too, in a way. "I'm afraid there could be, Bilbo."
Bilbo picked up the letter and pressed it between his hands. "Then what can I say to him?"
But Gandalf had no answers, not to this.
Bilbo tore the letter in two, and threw the pieces away. "Oh, I can't find the words. I can write whole books, but I can't do this. But when you see him, will you tell him..."
Tell him that I'm thinking of him.
Tell him that I'm happy.
Tell him to bring it anyway. Tell him that I'll come myself one day. Tell him that I'll come for it.
Tell him that it's mine.
"Tell him… nothing," he said at last, "but when you come back, tell me... tell me if he is happy, because I so much want him to be. Because I am," he said, wiping at his stinging eyes. "I am. Really."
The first swallow of summer
Bronze-edged leaves skittered across all the terraces. Wind blew through the pillars and the open porches. When Bilbo looked up from his window, he saw swallows flying south for the winter. "I wonder where they go," he thought, "and if anyone watches them arrive when they get there, and wonders where they came from." He waved to them, wishing them good fortune and a safe journey.
He was often cold. Sometimes he wore a second jacket on top of the first, or wrapped himself in a blanket as he sat by the fire. He went outside less and less, although often he watched it through the window.
"I think I'm getting old," he confessed to Aragorn, as they sat side by side with mugs of warm mulled wine, a few days after he had watched the swallows fly. "Or maybe I've been old for a long time, but kept forgetting. One day soon, perhaps, there will come a winter without a spring that I will see."
"Not for a long time, I trust," said Aragorn.
"We'll see." Bilbo had both hands wrapped around the mug, although it was almost too hot for that. Closing his eyes, he breathed in the steam. "I don't fear that time. It will be just like falling asleep. In Rivendell, how can you be afraid of falling into a dream? But I would like to finish my book first, and I still have so many poems to write, and so many songs."
"I know you have." Aragorn raised his mug in a silent toast.
Bilbo echoed the gesture, and took a drink. The rich spices blended perfectly with the deep red wine. "What are the spices called, and where do they come from?" Bilbo wondered.
"Cinnamon and cloves," said Aragorn, "nutmeg, mace and star anise. Some come from Lothlorien, and some from southern Gondor, but most spices come from much further away. It has become increasingly hard to trade with such places in recent years."
Bilbo breathed them in deeply, and savoured the thought of those distant places. "Have you been there, to the places where the spices come from?"
Bilbo blew across the surface of wine, setting the spices swirling. "Tell me," he breathed. "No, don't tell me yet. I was wondering where the swallows go in winter. Have you been there, too?"
"I have." Aragorn took a long swig from his mug. "The spices come from further east, but the swallows travel further south. They had arrived before I did, and were gathering to leave again on the day I left. After a day, they had left me far behind, and I walked on alone beneath empty skies."
He said no more about it, though, and Bilbo did not ask. For years, Aragorn had been painting him pictures of the places he had seen, and Bilbo cherished each and every one of them, but today he had no idea what sort of picture he wanted to see.
Bilbo took another drink, feeling the warmth spread through his body. He wriggled his shoulders out of the blanket. "What's the best wine you've ever tasted?" he asked.
"Old Winyards," Aragorn replied, without a moment's thought.
Bilbo laughed. "I won't fall for such tricks, you know. We hobbits like it very much indeed, but we are a simple people with simple tastes. It is not a wine for the heir of kings."
"I mean it," Aragorn said. "I have drunk ancient wines in cold stone towers, and precious wines that speak of the glories of the world that is gone. But the wines of the Shire are made for friendship and fellowship. They make no greater claims than those, but what claim could be greater? There are many men who could stand to learn some lessons from the hobbits of the Shire."
Bilbo shook his head. "You're still teasing me."
"I am not," Aragorn insisted. "You Shire folk are a lesson to us all. You might seem shallow to someone who does not know you, but you run deep, and the things that you value are some of the truest, most important things of all."
The warmth of the wine had seeped through Bilbo's whole body. He pulled off the blanket, and stood up, still clutching the cooling dregs of his drink. Dry leaves swirled against his window, and the swallows had all gone.
"Do you often visit the Shire?" Bilbo asked. His window faced the west. In winter, when the trees were bare, he could see the high slopes on the far side of the valley. "Oh, but I think you do. I've seen things and heard things and read things. I know that you and your people labour endlessly to keep us safe, us silly, heedless folk who never think to wonder why the terrible things from stories never come to our own front doors. Why do you do it?"
He heard Aragorn moving behind him. "Because you are worth protecting."
"No." Bilbo shook his head. Putting down the mug, he pressed his hand against the window. It felt shockingly cold against his wine-warmed palm. "Why do you do it? But I already know. You are the rightful King of Arnor, and your people are its lords. You take upon yourself all the responsibility of kingship, but none of its glory. It isn't fair."
Aragorn gave a soft laugh. "What else can we do, my friend?"
Bilbo sighed. "What else?"
The window began to steam up from the warmth of Bilbo's breath. With the tip of his index finger, Bilbo began to draw in it, just a simple circle.
"Paint me a picture, Aragorn," he begged. "Somewhere. Anywhere. I don't know what I want."
"Then I will tell you about green hills," said Aragorn. "It was the middle of spring, but as warm as summer. I stood in a quiet lane with tall banks on either side, scattered with primroses and cowslips and violets. An orange-tipped butterfly was passing from flower to flower, but found none to its liking. I know not what it was seeking."
"Bluebells," said Bilbo, "or red campion. That is, if it's like the orange-tipped butterflies we have at home."
"It was," Aragorn said. "At the top of the bank on my right, there was a hedgerow. It must have been laid by somebody, once, but it had been untended for many years. A cherry tree grew in it, heavy with blossom, and all the thorns in the hedge were wrapped around with bindweed."
"Bindweed! How the Gaffer used to complain about bindweed!"
"But on the other side," Aragorn said, "there was an old fence. There was a fox trail going under it, with orange hair caught in splinters of the wood. Are you familiar with the smell of foxes?"
Bilbo wrinkled his nose. "Oh yes."
"The hills were beyond the fence. They were rounded and gentle, and sheep were grazing on the slopes, keeping the grass smooth and green. It was a beautiful day: did I tell you that? A thrush was singing, but when I looked up, I saw not a thrush, but the first swallow of summer."
"The first swallow of summer!" Bilbo clapped his hands together. "Oh, I think I like this best out of all the places you have painted for me. It sounds like somewhere I have seen in dreams."
"In dreams?" Aragorn asked quietly.
"No. No." Bilbo brought both hands to his face, breathing into his palms. "Somewhere I've been. I've walked that lane. I've seen those hills. Green Hill Country, not far south of the road." He turned to Aragorn, his eyes brimming. "Oh, thank you. Thank you so much, my dear friend."
The evening star
The summer breeze was trying to steal his pages. "I probably shouldn't try to write outside," Bilbo said, "but it makes a nice change." Two doves were billing on an archway below, and butterflies were dancing in the sunlight.
He was translating old poems, walking once more upon the great Road that was ancient history and story. He fell asleep amid an elegy to the lost beauty of Luthien. When he opened his eyes, he saw Luthien herself walking towards him, more beautiful even than the songs could make her.
He blinked, but she was not a dream. She was escorted by tall elves who wore brooches fashioned in the form of green leaves, and as she passed him, it seemed to Bilbo that her gaze fell upon him, and her mouth curved slightly into a gentle smile.
"Who is she?" he asked, when she had passed inside, and the world and everything in it resumed. The doves were still there. The butterflies still flew. The soft wisps of cloud were little moved from where they had been. "Who was she?" he asked.
At length he found somebody who would tell him. She was Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, the Evenstar of her people, and she had returned from a long stay with her mother's people in Lothlorien.
"Lothlorien," Bilbo breathed that night, as he gazed at the evening star gleaming bright in the west. Aragorn had often promised to paint him a picture of Lorien, but never had.
This time, my friend, Bilbo thought, I'll try to paint a picture for you, if words can do justice to beauty such as hers.
It was over a year before Aragorn returned to Rivendell. Bilbo watched him from a high balcony, and saw how heavy his step was, and how haggard he looked, how tired. He did not see him again that day, but that night, Bilbo dozed in the Hall of Fire as music and singing lapped around him like the waters of a gentle pool. Rising slowly through the surface of song, he saw Arwen in a dress of blue and silver, sitting in a low chair. A tall elf stood beside her…
No, not an elf, he realised. It was Aragorn, dressed as an elf lord, wise and strong. He said something to Arwen, and Arwen smiled at him, a smile like the first clear dawn of summer.
Bilbo carried that smile back with him into sleep.
"I saw you arriving," Bilbo said, the following morning. He had almost convinced himself that the previous night had been a dream. "You looked tired, Dunadan. Have they been very difficult, the paths that you have been walking?"
"Dark and difficult," Aragorn said. He was back in his travel-worn clothes; or maybe he had never changed them. "I was far in the east, hunting."
"Hunting?" Bilbo ran his finger up and down and patterned metal of the balcony rail. "What were you hunting?"
"Something that needs to be captured."
"Needs to be," Bilbo echoed. "So you haven't caught it yet?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I will paint no pictures of the roads I have travelled since last we met, for some things should not be remembered."
A white creeping plant was entwined around the railing. Bilbo brushed its petals with his fingers, and watched the pollen fall. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I had a picture for you this time, but I think… Unless I was dreaming, I think…" He rubbed his fingers together, scattering the last of the yellow pollen. "I think you might know about it already."
Aragorn came to stand beside him. The railing came not much higher than his waist, whereas Bilbo had to stand on tiptoe to see over it. It was strange how comforting it felt to have someone so tall beside you. Once, long ago, Bilbo had felt threatened by it, but it was years now since he had seen anybody close to his own height.
"She was such a vision of beauty," Bilbo said, "as if I had… fallen into a song. I thought she was Luthien."
"So did I," Aragorn said quietly, "when first we met."
Bilbo glanced up at him, and caught once again an echo of the man he had seen the night before. If he had received such a smile from Arwen, Bilbo thought that he, too, would shine.
"And are you…?" Bilbo began, but he found that he could not ask it. There was so little about his friend that he did not know. For years, Aragorn had been bringing Bilbo what he needed, but Bilbo had never wondered what pictures Aragorn cherished in his own mind. Until he had seen Arwen, he had never thought to return the gift.
"We pledged our troth in Lorien," said Aragorn, "many years ago. Since then we have seldom met. We cannot be together, not yet, and maybe never will be."
"Oh!" Bilbo cried. "Why not?"
"Because…" Aragorn was silent for a very long time. There was movement on the terrace below them, half hidden by the trees. A male blackbird sang from the rooftop, its beak shining like gold.
"Oh, I wish I could help you, the way you've helped me," Bilbo said fervently. "You've been so good to me. Even when you come in half-dead with exhaustion, you've made time to seek me out. I know it seems silly, but if it wasn't for those pictures of yours…"
Bilbo would never travel again; he was at peace with that now. But back in those early days, Aragorn had helped him to realise that he could travel without even stepping outside. He would never walk in the Shire again, but Aragorn had ensured that he no longer needed to. Even in Rivendell, he could still see the Shire.
"It's impossible to feel truly discontented in the House of Elrond," Bilbo said, "but you can feel melancholy at times. If it wasn't for you, I would feel melancholy more often. Because of your pictures. Because of your friendship… Oh dear, I'm not saying it well. We hobbits aren't good at saying those things that really matter. We talk so much, but only because we don't know how to say those few words that mean the most." He reached up and touched Aragorn's arm where it rested on the railing. "I wish I could help."
"You do," Aragorn said. "You always have."
Bilbo shook his head. "But I haven't done anything."
"You have." Aragorn looked upwards towards the sun. "When you describe something for someone else, you see it more clearly yourself. When I walked in fair places, I searched for scenes that I could describe to you. I saw the beauty of places that I would never have noticed otherwise. I paused, when I had time, to seek out precious views. I've cherished them all this past year, especially those from the Shire."
"Oh," said Bilbo. "Really? Even when you've got…" He swallowed. "I mean, when there's Arwen… When you must surely have such pictures of her."
"Yes," said Aragorn with a smile. "Even then."
Interlude: The Third Letter
My dear Frodo,
There is nobody to carry this letter to you. Why, then, am I writing it?
It's been six years since Gandalf last stopped off at Rivendell on the way to visiting you. I wonder what he's doing. The Dunadan drops hints sometimes, but even he seldom has time to visit now. They're hunting something, sometimes together but often apart. I don't know what it is.
Have I told you about Aragorn? Of course I haven't, because although I've started so many letters, you haven't received any of them. I don't suppose this one will be any different. Who can I find to carry it?
I should have sent you news with Gandalf that last time. He'd visited you quite a lot, you see. I didn't know he was going to stop. I thought I'd always have next year. I thought I'd have another chance.
Master Elrond drops dark hints about that Ring of mine, and Aragorn says even more. I think it would be safer here in Rivendell with me. I'm old, Frodo. You can't deny me another sight of it before the end.
Bilbo lowered his pen. There was no sound except for the crackling of the fire in the hearth. Rivendell was quieter than it once had been; far quieter than when he had visited with Thorin and the dwarves. Sometimes he looked out of his window and imagined that he was entirely alone, in a place inhabited only by memories.
Some of the elves have gone into the West, and there are few travellers now. They tell me that the roads to the east are now too dangerous. Aragorn still walks them, though. I wish he wouldn't. I'm finding it harder and harder to understand why anyone should want to travel.
I used to dream of places. I longed to see towers and rivers and mountains. Aragorn gave me those, and he gave me back the Shire. We still play that game when we can. But he's seldom here these days, and when he comes, he won't talk about where he's been. He walks in grim places now, I think. But he still visits the edge of the Shire when need takes him, and I think he might have set some of his people to catching pictures for me, so he can pass them on to me second hand. It's a pleasure for both of us, I think.
But it's the faces I dream of more and more. I used to long for places that were gone: for Gondolin and Nargothrond and the forests of Doriath; for Numenor and Annuminas and Fornost. Now I write songs about kings and heroes and lovers of old.
I wonder what Aragorn's doing now, and Gandalf.
And you, my dear Frodo. I think most often of you.
But there is no-one left to carry this home to you.
Sunlight sparkled on the river. Bilbo dipped his toes into the water, and pulled them back with a gasp. Although it was summer, the waters rose in the far-away cold of the Misty Mountains. "Too cold for an old hobbit like me," he said.
It had felt like quite an expedition, just dragging himself down to the water's edge. "But I've managed it," he said. He spread his blanket over a damp rock, and sat down carefully, gripping a branch for support. Marsh marigolds clustered at the water's edge, their yellow leaves speckled with shining droplets. Across the river, he could see nothing but trees and the beauty of nature, but he was close enough to the buildings of Rivendell to hear the singing. "I should do this more often," Bilbo said. "I wonder why I keep forgetting."
He saw Aragorn as a reflection first, a tall shape made of darkness and sunlight. "Dunadan!" Bilbo cried. "You're back!"
Aragorn sat down beside him, no blanket for him, just a smooth wet rock. "Not for long."
Bilbo plucked at the blanket's woven edge. "Still hunting?"
He saw the reflection of Aragorn's smile. "Not any more. I found it at last, and took it on a long and bitter journey, then handed it over to others."
"Oh," said Bilbo. "That's good. It's always good when journeys are over." He pulled the trailing ends of the blanket over his lap, and settled them there. "A long and bitter journey, did you say? Well, you should rest here for a nice long time. It's a good place for resting, is Rivendell. After a while, it quite stops you from wanting to go anywhere else. Oh," he remembered, as a kingfisher flashed blue across the water, "you said you couldn't stay for long. That's a shame."
"But how are you, my friend?" Aragorn turned towards him. Bilbo looked at him fully for the first time, seeing his face and not the reflection. Aragorn's grey eyes were surprisingly earnest.
"Oh," said Bilbo. He turned back to the water, and twisted the blanket's trailing fringe around his finger, coiling it tight, then letting it go. "Very well, I think. Yes, very well." Something moved on the far bank: a bird, he thought, hidden by leaves. "I seem to have… settled."
"Yes. I think you have." Aragorn smiled, but the reflection made it a sad smile, broken up by ripples and fading away.
"Oh, I know these are dark times," Bilbo said. "No-one says much about it, or not to me; I think Master Elrond is trying to protect me, for some reason. Sometimes it seems almost as if… as if the dark times affect me in particular, and so they guard their words. But how can that be?" He shook his head, exhaling on a laugh. "When you're old like me, it's easy to think that everything's about you. That's why I like it here: because it isn't about me. Nothing is. Rivendell has endured for thousands of years, and it won't notice when I'm gone. It's not like Hobbiton, where you couldn't change the colour of your pocket handkerchief without the whole of the Shire talking about it by sunset."
"Indeed," Aragorn agreed. "They still talk about the day you started using the one with purple spots."
Bilbo laughed. "You said you'd never tease me. But I don't mind."
The laughter was slow to fade. He listened to the sound of a distant song. Although the singer was far away from the river, the notes seemed to weave through the sound of running water, until it created a single song. "Or maybe everything's just a single song," Bilbo mused.
"Perhaps," said Aragorn.
Bilbo let out a breath. "I know the song is turning dark elsewhere in the world. Will you think very badly of me if I tell you that sometimes it… it doesn't seem to matter." He twisted the coil until his fingertip turned white, then released it again. It stayed loosely curled, and did not return to straight. "I still sleep through whole days. I write songs. I work on my book. I spend whole months lost in tales of the distant past. Rivendell grows quieter and the roads are being closed, but I'm still here. I'm never going to leave, not now. And so the darkness doesn't touch me… Oh," he said, when Aragorn made no reply, "I am such a selfish old hobbit. What must you be thinking of me!"
Aragorn placed a hand on Bilbo's shoulder. "Only that I wish you could stay like this for many years to come."
"That I could," Bilbo echoed; he had not missed that. "You speak as if all this is ending. Is it true, Aragorn? Are the dark times coming even to Rivendell?"
"They may," Aragorn said softly, "but the situation is not without hope."
"Which is why you're rushing off again, off into danger again in the wilds." Aragorn's hand was still resting on Bilbo's shoulder. Bilbo reached up and grabbed it with his own. "I wish you had time to rest. I don't need you to bring me pictures from far away places, because that means you've been to far away places. I wish you could stay here for a while and watch the world go by. Remember that night on the mountainside? That's how it started. We painted that picture together. We can do it again; put the beauty of this river into a song, both your words and mine."
"One day, perhaps," Aragorn said.
"But not today." Bilbo tugged at the edges of blanket, pulling it upwards so it wrapped him like a low shawl. He looked down at their reflections, side by side in the water. "Isn't it strange how the same river can sparkle so brightly that it hurts your eyes, but right next to the sparkles, there are places so dark that you can't see anything at all?"
"Like dark clouds that streak across the moon," Aragorn said. "I do remember it, my friend."
Bilbo wondered whether to say it, but he had never been one to keep silent. "Lady Arwen talks to me sometimes," he said. "We talk about you – oh, nothing bad; don't worry. She doesn't say much about it, but I think she watches over you, somehow, from afar. I know you've been walking through the darkest of places." He looked up at the tree tops, at the sunlight, at the sky. "I told her about your pictures. She's painted some of her own for me, showing me places I've never been. But I think… When she does it, I think… I think all she's really seeing is you."
Aragorn said nothing. A grey wagtail landed on a flat rock, its long tail bobbing above the water. A fish jumped from the water, but Bilbo did not see it; he just saw the splash of its landing.
"I must go." Aragorn stood up. Bilbo bowed his head, and Aragorn bent to pressed his hand lightly against Bilbo's hair. "I hope this time it will not be so long."
"So do I," said Bilbo, but by then Aragorn was already gone, and the only reflection in the river was that of one old hobbit, sitting alone. "So do I," he whispered.
Frodo's hand was cold. Bilbo held it in both of his own, but even that was not enough to warm it up. The fire was high, though, and the little room was warm. "Warm even for me, my boy, and old hobbits like me are wont to feel the cold."
Frodo made no reply. His eyes were closed, and he was still sleeping. "But Master Elrond says you're past the worst of it, my boy. He says you'll likely sleep for a good few hours yet. I'd like…" He yawned. "I'd like to be here when you wake up, but I'm feeling quite sleepy myself."
In however many years in Rivendell, he had never before found it impossible to sleep. But when they had carried Frodo in… What he had been told what had been happening to him…
"Gandalf packed me off to bed in the end," he told Frodo. "Said quite bluntly that I was only getting in the way; you know what he can be like. But I couldn't sleep. I kept on wondering…"
Wondering how afraid Frodo must have been. Wondering what it had been like for him. Fourteen nights earlier, what had Bilbo been doing? Dreaming beside the fire, content in his own little bubble of peace. Writing songs. Reaching the end of his book, because he knew that all his stories were over, and the only new stories in the world were things that had nothing to do with him.
"But they have everything to do with me," he said, "if what they're saying about that old Ring of mine is even half true."
A branch snapped in the hearth. Firelight shone on the dark beams like gold. Frodo lay so very still.
Bilbo's hand left Frodo's, and closed again around his wrist. Then higher, higher, up his arm, across his elbow, moving over his injured shoulder without touching it, settling on the side of his neck. There was a fine chain there, leading to something just hidden by the white sheets. Bilbo touched the chain. Slowly, slowly he moved his fingers downwards.
The door opened behind him. Bilbo snatched his hand away, and grasped at Frodo's hand again. He was breathing very fast, almost as if he had been running.
"How is he?" Aragorn asked. He came up behind Bilbo, and squeezed his shoulder. "How are you, my friend?"
"Oh, he's going to be quite well," Bilbo said, "or so Master Elrond says. And why should I be anything else myself? I haven't been out there being hunted by those… things. " He thought his breathing was under control now. He risked looking up at Aragorn. "You saved his life; I know that much. I can never thank you enough."
"There is no need." Aragorn sat down in the chair that Gandalf often used.
"Yes, there is." Bilbo closed his eyes, then opened them again. "The dark times are upon us, aren't they, Aragorn? This is what you were preparing me for, that last time, beside the river. I can't hide from it any more. It all comes down to that Ring of mine, and Frodo… Frodo paid the price."
"He will be well," Aragorn said gently, "and he was not alone."
"No." Bilbo let out a breath. "I'm tired, Dunadan. I can't sleep for worrying about him and thinking about things. You've known this was coming for years, you and Gandalf and Elrond. For years you've been walking dangerous roads, and I never asked about them. As long as I had songs and stories, and as long as you bought me pictures…"
"No." Aragorn's voice was firm.
Bilbo faltered. "No?" he asked.
"You were about to reproach yourself for being ignorant. But call it not ignorance, but innocence, and nowhere is innocence more to be found than in the hobbits of the Shire. That you could bear the Ring for so long, yet still retain that innocence is a marvel indeed. If the Dark Lord were to triumph, there would be no innocence left in the world. It is a thing that must be guarded. It is a thing that must be cherished."
Bilbo shook his head. "But…"
"No." Aragorn smiled at his gravely. "You played your part. You have earned your rest."
"But that game of ours…" Bilbo said. "That silly, silly game. As it that mattered!"
"It mattered," said Aragorn. "It matters."
Bilbo looked down at Frodo's pale, still face. He wanted to pull the sheets up to his chin, but then he remembered what lay beneath them. His fingers shook. He wrapped them together, and pressed his hands against his breast.
"It matters," he said quietly. "I want it still. Play the game, Dunadan, even if it's just one more time. Paint me a picture. Tell me… Tell me where it happened. Tell me about Weathertop."
Aragorn looked at him with those keen grey eyes of his. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Yes. I'm sure." Frodo shifted a little in his sleep, but did not awaken. Bilbo waited until he was still again. "Oh, don't tell me about those things; Sam's already told me far more than I'd ever want to know about them. Don't tell me about Frodo screaming; I can hear that when I close my eyes, you know. But tell me what it looks like, like you always used to do. It's another Numenorean ruin, isn't it? A watchtower."
"The watchtower of Amon Sul," Aragorn agreed, "built by Elendil himself. But it was destroyed half an age ago, and only a ring of stone remains. Much of it is covered now with grass. But even without the tower, it can still be a place of watching. We stood on the hilltop and the land around us could be seen in a full circle. There was woodland in the south, and mountains in the east. For the most part, the land was featureless, but the day was bright, at least at first. I remember seeing a…"
"No." The word left Bilbo's mouth without him bidding it. "I can't," he said. "I don't…" He stroked Frodo's cheek, then pressed his hand against the side of his throat. His fingertips brushed the chain. Why shouldn't I touch it? he thought. It is mine, after all.
"Bilbo?" Aragorn's voice was soft, yet somehow inescapable.
"It was all about places once, wasn't it?" Bilbo said. "I never asked you to put people in the scenes you described to me. But now…" He took Frodo's hand again. "I can't see it in my mind. All I can see is Frodo screaming in the dark, and Sam and the young ones, and you, of course, fighting for his lives, and saving him." He looked across the pale sheets at Aragorn, who had the fire behind him. "Middle Earth is cast in shadow. I can't see the places any more. I'm not sure I want to."
Aragorn stood up and came to stand beside him. "He will be well, Bilbo, and so will you."
Bilbo let out a breath. "Yes," he said.
Interlude: The Fourth Letter
My dear Frodo,
Where are you? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Are you afraid?
I think of you all the time, you know. I wish I could have gone with you
No, not that. I wish you hadn't had to go. That's it. I wish none of this was happening, but it is, so we've got to make the best of it.
'When you return' – that's what I said to you that last morning. I was putting on a brave face for you, and you, I think, were putting on a brave face for me. But Aragorn and Gandalf will look after you.
I hope you will remember to look after them, too. They're very dear to me. I saw Master Elrond the other day, when he thought he was alone, and he looked so sad and worried. We hobbits, we tend to think that we're the only people who feel sad and afraid sometimes. We don't expect Big People to feel that way, especially if they're like Gandalf, so ancient and wise.
Sometimes I worry about Aragorn as much as I worry about you. He spoke to me once about a time when he would be put to the test. I think this is the time. Please help him if you can.
Things are dark even here in Rivendell. War is coming. I hope it leaves the Shire alone.
I wonder where you are. Aragorn showed me a map before you left, but he said your exact road was yet to be decided. Have you passed through the Gap of Rohan? Are you in Gondor? Or did you go the other road, and have you seen Lothlorien? Aragorn never did get to paint me a picture of Lorien, you know.
You don't need to being back pictures of the places you have seen. Just come back.
Bilbo gazed out at the winter sky. "I don't know why I'm writing this," he said. There was just a single page of it, written over weeks, odd disjointed thoughts sometimes scrawled down in the middle of the night. Rivendell was quieter than ever before, and even the singing was almost stilled. The whole world was waiting between one breath and the next, waiting for news.
I'm trying to finish my book. It's an old story, and now it's over; that's clear to me now at last. Your story will be so much bigger. I need to finish mine so I can move on to the story that's still being told. But I can't seem to finish mine, or even make a start on yours. I don't like to think of you caught up in such things. I feels worse, somehow, than when it was me. You need to come back so you can write your own story. Maybe, when the dust has settled, I'll be able to read it.
The sons of Elrond had ridden to war, or so it was said, and a company of Aragorn's people had ridden with them, although this Bilbo only learned by keeping one ear open while nodding beside the fire. He saw Arwen at a high window, gazing into the south. "Can you see him?" he asked her weeks later, when she passed him in the Hall of Fire, but she shook her head. "He took the path that was foretold by the Seer," she said, "but that path is too dark for me to see him."
I wonder what that means. Are you still with him? I don't like to think of you in dark places.
Have you still got that old Ring of mine? Oh, silly me. Of course you have. That's why you've gone on this whole sorry journey. I hope you're taking good care of it. It's very precious, you know.
They want you to destroy it. Why would they want you to do that? It's been in my mind more and more these last few days. I wonder why.
Have you destroyed it already? Have you sneaked out and done it without asking my permission? It is mine, after all.
No, I don't think it's gone.
It hasn't gone. If it was, I'd know.
And then came a day when the entire world fell silent, caught breathless between action and a thought. When the world resumed, all the bells in Rivendell were ringing, and songs came from every window.
I know, Bilbo wrote, and then he wept.
The memory of faces
"I'm always tired now," said Bilbo, when the greetings were over, and all was said and done. "I don't really go outside much any more. Is it summer? I haven't noticed. Or maybe I just keep forgetting."
He had no memory of recent birdsong, and it was a long time since he had seen a butterfly, or touched fresh leaves.
"Something changed," he said. "Something disappeared. I don't know what it was, but I think… I think it was pinning me to this world. Now I keep forgetting…"
He faded away. "Bilbo?" Frodo said quietly, and Bilbo's head jerked up again.
"Where was I?" he mumbled. "Oh, I don't suppose it mattered much. Have you told me about Aragorn's coronation? I don't think you have, or not enough. Tell me everything. Aragorn used to bring me back word-pictures from wherever he went. Did I tell you that?"
"You did," said Frodo with a smile. "I don't know if I can do it as well as him. I'll start with Minas Tirith. It was quite austere at the time of the crowning, because everyone was just coming back from war. But by the time of the wedding… Oh, Bilbo, there were flowers everywhere! The Pelennor had been devastated, of course, but by midsummer it was covered with wild flowers. All the windows were full of them, even those in empty houses. There were cornflowers and poppies and buttercups, and lots more that I didn't recognise. And at the top of the city, the Citadel…"
"No," Bilbo murmured.
Bilbo smiled. "You do it very well, Frodo my lad, but I've changed my mind. Don't tell me about the towers; tell me about Aragorn. In all these years, I've only once seen him dressed as befitted a king, and even that might have been a dream: I often can't remember, now, the difference between memories and dreams. Does it suit him, being a king?"
"It suits him very well," said Frodo. "When he rose up with the crown on his head, he looked like a legend come to life."
"I'm glad," Bilbo murmured.
"And when he took Lady Arwen as his queen," Frodo said, "I don't think I have ever seen such joy in a person's eyes before."
"Good," Bilbo nodded. "That's good."
The light had begun to fade when next he opened his eyes, but Frodo was still there, his face turned to the window. Bilbo kept forgetting to look outside. Sometimes he forgot to open his curtains.
"The pictures are fading," Bilbo murmured. "I can't really see them any more. I'm losing the stories, too. I can't seem to organise them into a book. I don't think I ever will. But the people… Old friends… The memories of smiles… That's not ready to fade, not yet. It's all I've got left."
Night fell between one word and the next. Frodo was no longer there, but someone had lit the candles on the dresser, and a blanket had been placed across Bilbo's knees.
"And it's enough," he said. "It's enough."
But he wondered how long it would be before even that had gone.
Voices at the Door
He knew this was an ending, but sometimes… sometimes it seemed to him as if this was the beginning of all things.
They passed out of Rivendell, and sad songs followed them. "I think I went for a walk this way," he murmured, "once upon a time. Aragorn caught up with me. We talked about ancient ruins."
He turned his face away as they passed by Weathertop, and did not think about it.
"I never thought I'd see the Shire again," he said, as they stopped to stretch their legs. Bilbo managed three steps, leaning on Elrond's arm. "Oh, I forgot. I didn't need to. Aragorn brought me pictures of it. A sunken lane and soft green hills. And wine, I think; we talked about wine."
Dawn came soft and early on some other day. Bilbo raised his chin from where it had nodded on his chest. "This is quite a pretty place, isn't it? Where is it?"
"The heart of the Shire," said Elrond. "Woody End, I believe the hobbits call it."
"I played here once, a very long time ago," Bilbo said, "but it feels as if I'm coming here for the first time."
He was rocked in the arms of harp music. When he opened his eyes, he was unsurprised to see Frodo and Sam waiting for them in the twilight. "Hullo, Frodo!" he said.
Having Frodo there made the memories come closer to the surface. Often now he drifted, unless there was a friend or a familiar face to anchor him to awareness. Once he'd expected to travel so very far. Then he'd accepted that he would never travel again. But now, "I think I am quite ready to go on another journey," he said.
They rode through song, until they emerged on the far side of it, and saw the sea. "Oh look, Frodo, the sea! I've never seen the sea! But now I see it, I think… I know that I've dreamed about it, oh so many times."
"So have I," said Frodo.
"Or maybe it's just because the elves sing about it so much. It's hard to remember what you've seen and what you've only heard about. But there's no 'only' about it. I remember the pictures and some of the songs. I have forgotten so many of the places where I've been."
The white ship drew his eyes for a while. "Oh, look," Bilbo said, and it might have been hours later, or just minutes. "Gandalf's here."
Frodo smiled. Sam was weeping.
Then Merry and Pippin rode up. "I wish Aragorn was here," Bilbo said, "because then we'd have everyone. I wonder if he's seen the sea. I'll have such a picture to paint for him next time we meet." Above him, the white sea birds called. "No, I remember now," said Bilbo. "I won't see the Dunadan again. The world is his now, or all the dearest, most precious parts of it. I won't…"
But then it was time to go onto the ship. The wind filled the sails, and then they were away.
"It's quite nice," said Bilbo, "travelling without getting sore feet. I should have done this before. But then I'd have missed seeing Aragorn coming into his own. I liked seeing that."
There was music even then, and the birds and the waves and the sails made music of their own, and all of them together made a perfect tune. Frodo looked back towards Middle Earth, but Bilbo turned to face the West, "because I began to say my farewells so many years ago," he murmured, but his words were taken by the wind.
Slowly, slowly memory returned. "Do you remember…?" he said to Frodo more than once. "I remember… I remember…"
The Shire in spring time. Rivendell in the winter. His father's hand upon his head. Scurrying after Thorin and the dwarves. Aragorn reflected in the water, crowned with stars. Black rocks on the moorland. A skylark's song. Frodo asleep and so very pale. Arwen at a window. A ruin by the river. The laughter of elves.
And then, far away in the west, they saw a silver strand, and a soft fragrance came across the waves. On they sailed, and as the sun rose, Bilbo saw a land of soft green hills and fair flowers. Blinking, he saw towers of white stone, and clouds in the moonlight, and rocks on the moorland, sparkling in the light. He saw sunlight on the water, and apple blossom and cherry trees. He saw every tree there had ever been, in every different green. He saw the plains of Rohan and the woods of Lorien, and all the places he had ever seen, and all the places he had yet to travel to.
"Oh!" He clapped his hands together. "It's all here! It's all here, because Middle Earth's just an echo of Valinor beyond the sea."
And with the places came the memories. Because how could he look upon white towers without feeling that Aragorn stood beside him, painting them with words? How could he look upon starlight without remembering Arwen? How could he see stone without seeing Thorin? How could he see green hills without remembering those old, dear hobbits of the Shire?
"I understand now," he said. "This is the origin of all songs, and everything is here, everything, everything that matters."
And smiling, he stepped from the ship and walked into the pictures beyond.