62. The Quest Begins
“Frodo?” asked Gandalf softly.
After several long moments, the Ring-bearer opened his eyes. They were clear and brilliant, their astonishing blue almost the only color in the hobbit’s face. “It is time,” Frodo said softly, almost to himself. “I am ready.”
He raised his head and faced Elrond. “Thank you, my lord,” Frodo said in a clear and ringing voice. “For saving my life, and for all that you have done for us. Hobbits exchange gifts at Yule, and with your permission, we would like to present you with this.”
On cue, Samwise stepped forward and held up a gaily-wrapped package to Elrond, presenting it to the Elf-lord with a bow. Elrond took the long, slender package with a raised eyebrow and a bemused expression. He glanced at Gandalf, who shrugged, and Aragorn, who was suppressing a grin. “Thank you,” he said to the hobbits, and unwrapped it.
As the bright paper fell away, Elrond inhaled sharply. The blood drained from his face as his dark eyes widened. The watching hobbits were treated to a sight rarely seen in this latter age of the world – a totally flabbergasted Elrond. The Elf-lord stared at the dragon’s tooth in disbelief, then slowly extended a long finger and ran his fingertip along its dagger-like length, watching the play of pearlized light as it danced over the tooth.
“That,” whispered the tweenager, “is worth falling in the water and everything else!” Merry squeezed his cousin’s arm.
Elrond stared at the priceless thing in his hands, and for the first time in many, many long years, he could find no words in the depthless sea of his mind. Gandalf, too, was equally struck, but after choking a moment, the wizard found his voice. “Where – Where did you get that?”
Pippin swelled visibly and took a deep breath, ready to launch into an involved tale, but Aragorn put his hand on his shoulder. “We returned with it from our walking party, and it was the cause of much grief. We nearly lost something far more valuable to obtain it.” Pippin looked up into the Man’s face and smiled.
“I … I am overwhelmed,” Elrond said at last, still staring at the dragon’s tooth. The many candles in the room lent it a fantastical air, reflecting colors from its shining surface like lamp oil poured into water. “It quite puts the poor gifts I have for you to shame.”
“Presents?” said Pippin eagerly, while Merry tried to repeat the word around a slice of gingerbread. “You have presents for us?”
“Over there.” Elrond smiled, and his deep eyes were lit with amusement. “Under the tree.”
The hobbits had completely overlooked the four gaily-wrapped boxes, so enthralled had they been with all the garlands of ribbon-wrapped holly and decorations and other delights. With a whoop, Pippin dashed under the tree and to his and all the others’ pleasure, found that each package bore an attached tag with a name written upon it. Pippin rooted around them in great excitement, head down and posterior bobbing among the packages. "This one's yours, Sam!" Pippin crowed, and with a great “ummph!” the youngster dragged the largest and heaviest box out from under the tree and hobbit-handled it into position before the gardener, waiting eagerly for him to open it.
Sam placed a reverent hand on the decorated paper. “It’s too pretty ‘ta undo,” he murmured, to the laughter of the others. Sam flushed, then slowly and deliberately unwrapped the paper and eased it off, folding it carefully before prying up the lid. “Oh,” he said softly.
Unable to restrain his curiosity a moment longer, Frodo leaned over him and reached into the box, withdrawing a cooking pot. Inside was a whole set of hobbit-sized cookware, including a kettle, as light and as sturdy and as beautiful as the Elves could craft. Sam sat down right there on the floor with one arm around the kettle and took out each piece to examine it, marveling over its make and design. When the box was emptied, Sam looked at the treasures around him and burst into happy tears.
“Buck up, Samwise,” laughed Bilbo. But Frodo knelt beside him for a moment and embraced him.
“Thank you, my lord,” Sam whispered, hugging the kettle to him.
Elrond smiled. “Estel suggested your gift, Master Samwise. It seems my son much regretted that he required you to cast away the set which you carried before, however pressing the need.” Aragorn rolled his eyes and grinned when Sam looked at him with such gratitude. They both laughed when Elrond continued, “And, from what I have heard of your cooking ability, I believe Estel hopes that you will make proper use of it.”
“Aye, sir,” Sam whispered happily, “that I will.”
Pippin could contain himself no longer. Frodo laughed, eyes sparkling, as the youngest hobbit located his box among those remaining and examined it carefully. Merry leaned against his cousin, grinning crookedly as they watched Pippin’s inspection, recalling many Yule's spent watching their youngest cousin shake, sniff, rattle and feel every gift (intended for Pippin or not) under the tree. The box was very light and flat, bedecked with ribbons. Pippin rattled it carefully and laid an ear against the box but it remained uninformative. Patience exhausted, he ripped off the beautiful paper and pushed it to the side. He tore off the top and his whole face lit like the sun rising in the morn. With unaccustomed carefulness, he reached into the box and lifted out a single piece of white paper. “Oh,” he sighed softly, staring at it rapturously.
“Pippin, what is it?” asked Frodo. Pippin’s gaze remained fixed on the paper, a fatuous smile spreading slowly across his sharp features. “Pippin? Pippin-lad?”
“Pippin!” In exasperation, Merry reached over and pinched him. Pippin jerked and looked at him dazedly. Then slowly he turned the paper around so that all could see it. It was a group portrait, done in charcoals and tinted with pastel chalks. Elrond sat majestically in his great chair with Elladan and Elrohir lounging at his sides. Seated at her father’s feet was Arwen, her flawless face turned directly towards the artist. Bilbo, Merry realized. Bilbo, drawing the twins and their sister as they kept Pippin amused during his convalescence. Elrond must have sat for his likeness separately. Pippin turned the paper back around, joy and disbelief mingling on his face as he stared at it.
Merry laughed – they could not have chosen anything that would please his little cousin more. Frodo nudged him and glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “Now we’ll be treated to even more long discourses on the Lady Evenstar's beauty, Merry. Aragorn might have something to say about that.”
Pippin blushed abruptly and forced his gaze away from the portrait. With visible effort, he refocused on them. “All right, all right. What did you get, Merry?” But he did not set down the drawing.
Merry grinned and left off his teasing, retrieving his own box since Pippin’s eyes had returned to the portrait. His own box was very light and as flat as Pippin's, and he opened it eagerly but with a bit more decorum than Pippin had shown. Butter-soft hide, folded into a compact bundle met his fingers. A jerkin? A new rucksack? Carefully he lifted the hide from the box and shook it out. The other hobbits gasped. Merry looked down in amazement as Middle-earth unfurled beneath his fingers. It was a map, cut of the softest, sturdiest deer-hide, upon which was detailed in myriad colors all that was known of the world. Each mountain range, each river, each abode of Men and Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits, was marked in a crisp, clear hand. Tears gathering in his eyes, Merry hugged the precious thing to him, and whispered, “Thank you. Thank you, my lord.”
“Thank your Cousin Bilbo, rather,” replied the Elf-lord softly. “The map was his idea and of his making. I only supplied the materials and the resources.”
Truly overwhelmed, Merry folded his treasure carefully and returned it to its box, stroking the hide as one might a cherished pet. “Thank you, Bilbo,” he whispered, then went to the old hobbit and kissed him. Pippin followed suit, nearly strangling his elderly cousin with a hug.
Frodo was last for he had chosen to wait, preferring to watch the joy on his dear friends’ faces as they opened their presents first. His box was almost as heavy as Sam’s, though much flatter. The others crowded around him curiously. But instead of unwrapping it, Frodo merely knelt and stroked the box with his hand, his gaze unfocused and remote. Pippin nudged him impatiently and he seemed to leave off his wool-gathering. “Let us see what this is, shall we?” Frodo opened it carefully, setting aside the gaily-colored wrapping paper. Sam and Merry and Pippin watched breathless as their friend’s face paled. With a gasp, Frodo reached both hands into the box with and withdrew from it a book.
A thick book, wide and heavy, with fine vellum pages. Frodo ran his hand reverently over the gold-chased title and caressed the fine leather binding. “It’s yours, Bilbo. It’s your book,” he whispered in awe.”
“That it is, my lad. Now it is yours. Waiting for your part of the tale.” The old hobbit looked both happy and sad at that moment, brown eyes sparkling with tears. “The rest of the pages are blank, for your story, and for Merry's and Pippin's and Sam's.”
Frodo opened the book and turned the pages reverently. When he came to Bilbo’s map of the Shire, he paused and spent some time looking at it. Then his respectful hands found the center of the book, and he saw that the remaining pages were still uncut, pristine and unmarked. He traced a fingertip along the gilt on the side of a page, stroked it across the absorbent surface. “I can’t take it with me,” he murmured regretfully.
“But it will be here waiting for you to come back,” said Bilbo softly. “As will I.”
* * * * *
Other gifts Elrond gave to them also, thick warm clothes and jackets and cloaks lined with fur, dried meats and preserved foods, those that would last upon the trail, and many small gifts that would help to ease their way on the journey they were about to undertake. There were crackers, too, made by Gandalf, that exploded with a bang and bright flash of light when the hobbits pulled them apart. Inside they were filled with sweets and almonds rolled in sugar and ridiculous paper hats and cunning favors. The hobbits laughed in delight, treasuring each moment. And that evening lasted far into the night, filled with many songs and feasting and merry-making, and it lived in the hobbits’ minds as a happy time to remember in all the dark places that were to come.
* * * * *
At long last, the Fellowship was ready to depart. Farewells had been said, the last gifts given, and the Ring-bearer and his Company stood in the courtyard of Imladris in the failing light of day and huddled in their cloaks against the raking fingers of the East Wind. Sam was rubbing the pack-pony’s nose while Merry and Pippin checked that all of the bundles containing their spare clothes and food and supplies were evenly distributed amongst Bill’s panniers and safely lashed down. Bill shifted as the young hobbits adjusted his load, and Sam murmured, “Easy, Bill. Easy there, my lad.”
“Pippin,” Merry whispered, “let me do that.”
Pippin shook his head, then gasped as a strap pulled on his tender hands. But he did not stop working. “I can do it, Merry. My fingers are just sore, that’s all.”
Merry nodded doubtfully. “All right. But I don’t want you hurting yourself.”
“Yes, Merry.” The tweenager finished his task and shook his hands, wincing. Then, “Merry?”
“Why didn’t you want to bring the map Lord Elrond and Bilbo gave you with us?”
Merry leaned against the pony’s warm legs and idly stroked Bill’s neck. “Something might happen to it, Pip. It might get lost, or soiled.” Merry smiled faintly. “There isn’t another like it in the Shire.” He sighed and reached up to run his fingers through the rough hair of Bill’s mane. “I’ve memorized it as best I can. Bilbo will keep it safe for me.”
“With Frodo’s book? And my picture?” asked Pippin.
“Waiting for us to get back,” Merry whispered, and gave his little cousin a hug. “Pippin?”
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Yes, Merry.” Pippin exhaled softly, relaxing. Now that the time had come to depart, he felt young and frightened and nervous, and not at all eager to leave. I’m glad we came here, he thought, his gaze taking in the leaves falling from the winter-touched trees and the elegant, time-honored architecture. ‘I will remember our time here as long as I live. And I have Cousin Bilbo’s drawing to remind me, tucked safely in the pages of Frodo’s book. Waiting for us to get back.’
The members of the Company that had volunteered to go with the Ring-bearer waited, their faces solemn and their thoughts turned inward, for this day had been both long dreaded and long anticipated. Frodo stood quietly at the base of the stairs, eyes downcast, silent and withdrawn. Aragorn sat on the courtyard steps, his head bowed to his knees, for his destiny had come upon him at last. Gimli stood with his hands resting on the handle of his great battle axe, silent and still, unmindful of the cold wind. Next to the Dwarf, Boromir shifted from foot to foot, checking and re-checking his sword and other weapons. Legolas arrived a few moments late, joining the others on silent feet with bow in hand and his quiver on his back.
At last Gandalf and Elrond came from the House, and the wizard took his place at the Ring-bearer’s side. The Company drew closer together and stood in the courtyard before the Master of Rivendell. With others of his household gathered there, Elrond gave them his final words of wisdom and hope. “This is my last word,” he said in a low voice. “The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need…”* Frodo listened with bowed head, his face set and pale, and Gandalf placed a hand upon his shoulder.
When all had been said, Elrond blessed them and the Company bowed to him.
Aragorn straightened and his eyes sought those of Arwen Evenstar, but no gentle words of parting were exchanged between them. All that they had to say to each other had been said. Arwen stood among her kin in the courtyard, silent, knowing that like herself, each was thinking of the perils that lay ahead for this small company. So much depended on the outcome of this Quest. All of her hopes, and the hopes of every Elf, Human, Dwarf or Hobbit, indeed, all living things that breathed the free air of Middle-earth. “Fare well, Frodo,” she whispered.
With Gandalf’s hand resting gently on his shoulder, Frodo allowed himself one last look at the Last Homely House. Then he led the way as the Fellowship of the Ring turned from Imladris, from that place of recovery and renewal, and following the Ring-bearer, walked forward into the gathering dark.
* Elrond’s speech is taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Ring Goes South.”
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