Fourth Age, Year 21. (Eighteen years after the events of previous chapter.) September 22, late afternoon.
The Citadel of Annuminas in the realm of Arnor
"This ought to be quite interesting," Merry said to his cousin. "I'll admit I've been itching with curiosity, haven't you?"
The Governor of New Farthing (formerly Heir to the Master of Buckland, and now the elected leader of a thriving colony of Shire-Hobbits in Anorien of Gondor) and the Heir to the Thain of The Shire walked side by side down a long, curving hallway lined on one side by floor to ceiling open arched windows. Pippin's pace slowed as he gazed at the scene framed by the white stone. A slight breeze ruffled his light brown hair.
"I never tire of this view," he said softly. "When I first arrived in Minas Tirith, riding in front of Bori, I thought it to be the most majestic sight imaginable. But Annuminas-Rebuilt puts the grand old White City to shame. This place is simply stunning."
Merry stopped and joined his kinsman. "It is beautiful, isn't it?" he said as he turned toward the West and looked out at the orderly circles and slender towers as the gleaming new city spilled over the slope toward the shore. Beyond a small harbor, the eerily brilliant sapphire hue of Lake Evendim glowed between green slopes. Aragorn had explained that the lake owed her vibrant color to the roaring streams that tumbled down from the snows of the northern mountains. "And in an hour or so it'll be even more so… And if we're to have half a chance of seeing today's gorgeous sunset, we'd best hurry. We're late for our audience already."
"Oh, I think old Strider will wait for us," Pippin said as he patted a handsome leather satchel that was slung over his shoulder. "We're bringing the loot, after all. And from the sounds of it, his Majesty is as intrigued as we've been."
The cousins hurried onward now, through the arched door at the end of the hallway and continuing up a curving stair that led to the King's private audience chamber. The interior of the rebuilt Citadel of Annuminas resembled nothing so much as the graceful halls and elegantly designed rooms of Lord Elrond's Last Homely House in Imladris—burned to the ground over two decades earlier, but living still in the memories of the rulers of the new seat of the Kings of Arnor.
A guard in the livery of the Northern Dúnedain—his tabard embroidered with a rayed, eight-pointed silver star upon sable—nodded in greeting at the approach of the two most well-known Pheriannath in either Kingdom.
"My Lords," he said with a bow. "The King and Queen, and your companions of old await you." He thrust the double doors open to the King's private audience chamber.
Aragorn and Boromir stood together at the windowsill, their heads together in murmured conversation. Pippin nodded approvingly to see that the King was wearing one of his latest devices beneath his silver and black tunic: an undertunic with a curved, padded weight sewn on the right side, custom fit to his altered torso and designed to counterbalance the inevitable—and painful—spinal curvature that was the result of his long ago loss. To the appraising eye of the Perian-Healer, his most important patient seemed more comfortable, and his posture appeared straight once again. Legolas sat, long legs folded beneath him, upon a thick blue and green carpet at the feet of Arwen, who sat upon a cushioned chair. Her hands lay lightly upon her slightly bulging abdomen. Her features—the scars now flattened and faded with the passage of time—were alight as she leaned toward the Elf's upturned face. Her brother, Elrohir, stood behind her chair, a tender smile on his lips.
In a chair beside her sat Eowyn, her green and gold gown stretched even more tightly across her middle. She was turned toward the men at the windows, and her lips twitched as her eyes grazed slowly over her husband's figure. As if he felt her gaze like a caress, Boromir glanced over one shoulder and smiled in return. Gimli's right hand curled around a pipe as he sat at a round table, his left arm pinning one edge of a large parchment map of Erebor, Dale, Laketown and the lands to the East. The Stewards Halbarad and Faramir sat on either side of the Dwarf, each with their own pipes, and a film of smoke hovered over the table. The Lady Faeleth, wife to the Steward of Gondor and daughter of the Steward of Arnor, was the only invited guest not present, for she rested that afternoon with her two week old son, she and Faramir's fourth and Halbarad's seventh grandchild.
The walls of the royal audience-chamber were hung with colorful tapestries depicting the long history that had culminated in the renewal of this realm, ancient in the measurement of men, yet so brief when set beside all that had come before. Above the living folk there gathered, Barahir and Finrod clasped hands in the Pass of Sirion, and Luthien danced in the twilight while Beren looked on, half hidden in the trees. Elros stood at the rail of a high-prowed sailing ship as it approached the harbor at Rómenna, and Elendil rode at the side of Gil-Galad in the stark wasteland of the Dagorlad. The Tower of the Dome of Stars rose in Osgiliath in her glory, and Elrond welcomed Arahael son of Aranarth, the first of Isildur's Heirs to be fostered in the refuge of Imladris. Other images displayed scenes from important battles, the crowning of kings, or the defeat of deadly foes of long ago.
But only one tapestry showed more recent events of the age just past. Largest of all, the scene displayed in the place one's eye first fell upon entering the room showed two small grimy figures, shoulders sagging with weariness, standing together upon a stony, harsh road on the side of a bleak mountain, the air about them filled with smoke and fire. They stared up toward a looming black Doorway that led into the heart of that fiery Mountain, their eyes filled with dread and their faces set with determination. After briefly glancing about the room, the hobbits' gazes were fixed upon the image of their kinsman and friend.
The King was the first to notice the newcomers.
"Ah! The Ernil Pheriannath have arrived at last," he said as he turned away from the west-facing view and stretched out his arm to the hobbits. "So glad you two managed to find time for your old friends…"
"It's Pippin's fault, of course," Merry said, cheerfully swatting the top of his shorter cousin's curly head.
"My fault!" Pippin cried, poking his companion in the ribs. "I'll have you know, Strider—Your Majesty—that this so-called Governor dilly-dallied for an hour this afternoon, fussing about this and that… He's the reason we are late…"
"Never believe a Took before a Brandybuck, my Lord…"
"…as if the word of a Bucklander can be trusted… Everyone knows queer folk live East of the River…"
The room rippled with laughter as the final surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring entered and made a circuit through the room for embraces and pressing of hands. Merry received a kiss on the brow from the Queen of Rohan, congratulating her and Boromir on their blissful expectation to come—their third. Pip knelt eagerly at Arwen's side, grasping her hand between his as he questioned her about the progress of her first pregnancy. Elrohir smiled down at the now fully mature hobbit-healer fondly.
The King allowed a few minutes of greetings before he cleared his throat. Immediately all conversation ceased, and the room's attention was upon him.
"I thank you for gathering here with me to mark the passing of our dear friend, Frodo Baggins," he said quietly. He turned to Pippin. "Peregrin, please convey to your father the Thain my heartfelt gratitude for allowing so many Big Folk to enter your country for the memorial in Buckland, and of course, Meriadoc, extend the same thanks to your father…" He held the hobbits' brown and hazel eyes with his deep grey ones. "I am glad that Frodo's will on the matter was so clear—that he wished, as I hoped he would, to be laid to rest here in Annuminas, where he will at last be given the renown he so deserved in life…"
"Yes," Merry said sadly. "I don't think that even now, after all this time and despite the attendance of Kings and Queens and Elves and Dwarves and dozens of other important folk at his memorial, that one Shire hobbit in a hundred could explain who Frodo really was, or what he did…"
"Make that one hobbit in a thousand," Pippin muttered. "Old Maggot is the only one who ever really understood it all, back at home…"
The King nodded solemnly. "We in Arnor and Gondor shall honor his deeds and his memory, as long as my line endures." Aragorn's eyes settled on Pippin's. "And now, if my interpretation of the hints in your letter is correct, you have some things to tell your former Companions upon the road and these other friends and kin you instructed me to gather here—or, perhaps, to show us?"
"You have interpreted correctly, sire," Pippin said formally, with a graceful bow. "And though my kinsman and I are equal in our relationship to our dear Frodo, both being descendants of the Old Took—he on his mother's side and I on my father's…"
"…though technically, I am also related to him through his mother Primula Brandybuck…" Merry muttered under his breath.
Pippin went on without a pause. "…as Heir to the Thain I have claimed the right, and responsibility, to see to it that our beloved cousin's final wishes are carried out."
Aragorn gestured toward the table. "Then sit in the place of honor, Peregrin Took, and all shall be seated at the table with you."
Pippin climbed up onto the chair at the end of the table, piled with cushions for him, and placed the leather satchel before him. The others took chairs on one side or the other, reserving the seat at the opposite end of the long table for Aragorn. Only Arwen and Eowyn remained as they were.
Merry sat next to Pippin, and his taller stature allowed him to use but a single cushion and still keep his head and shoulders above the level of the table—barely. The two hobbits had apparently discussed how to proceed in advance, for Pippin nodded, and Merry undid the buckled strap of the satchel and withdrew the first item: a folded parchment, tied with a red ribbon and sealed with red wax. The seal, however, had already been broken. He handed it to Pippin, who carefully untied the ribbon and opened the document.
The Heir to the Thain glanced up, and seeing every eye upon his face, he suddenly flushed.
"This isn't right," he mumbled, as he tried to push the document into Merry's hands. "I hate all this formality… I know Frodo would really have hated it… I… I don't see why I should be the one to…"
Merry's head was already shaking as he pressed the parchment back toward Pip. "No, this is absolutely right, Pip. You know it is, we've talked about this for hours… You saw him far more often in these last years than I did…" His voice grew hoarse. "And though none of us expected it would be so soon, you were with him, at the end… I didn't arrive until it was too late…"
"I was at Crickhollow," Pippin whispered. "But…but he died alone, in his sleep…"
"You were there, caring for him, for weeks beforehand…"
"I know, but still…"
Aragorn broke in. "We are all your friends here, Pippin," he said softly. "Simply friends—as we all were Frodo's friends. There is nothing formal about it. And I think Merry is right. You should read Frodo's words. It is only fitting."
Pippin caught his lower lip between his teeth for a moment as he frowned down at the paper, then he looked up. "All right. Well then," he said, as he unfolded the layers of parchment. Gaining confidence, the waver in his voice soon vanished. "His will has, of course, already been read into record in The Shire. None of you will find it a surprise that the bulk of his estate—and an amazing amount of old Bilbo's treasure from his adventure with the Dwarves remained intact—has been placed in reserve for the continued funding of the remarkably successful and innovative schools that, as you all know, Frodo established in The Shire, Bree and New Farthing these last fifteen years. His extensive personal collection of books and maps was donated to a wing of the Mathom House in Michel Delving that Mayor Bolger had built for a library some years back, at Frodo's urging. The house at Crickhollow, where he lived after his arrival back in the Shire until his death, he wanted Merry to have…"
"...for which I am honored and more than pleased," Merry interjected. "Crickhollow was, in fact, a property of Brandy Hall for many years before Frodo first came to purchase it. I've spoken to my Da about it, and we intend to keep it as a guest residence for travelers from New Farthing—and Berilac, my cousin and his named Heir, agrees, by the way…"
Pippin was nodding as he turned to the final pages of the lengthy document. "And Frodo entrusted his original of The New Red Book—the true one, that he has been working on for the last nearly twenty years—to me, and wished for me to continue to record the doings of the Shire and the Two Kingdoms in it. In truth, none of all that concerns any of you, but we wanted you to feel assured that everything else was on the up and up, so to speak… Well then, to get to the rest of it…"
He fingered the final page. His hand shook slightly. Pip's eyes shimmered as he gazed at Frodo's wishes, written in his own handwriting—no longer the steady, swift, clear lettering he once used, but now spidery, faint, and barely legible. Pippin would have had difficulty reading it, had he not spent several heart-wrenching hours with Frodo as his cousin read it to him, over and over, until he had it memorized.
"He wanted to see to it that his personal things—his most cherished things—got into the proper hands, as he put it… The only thing of any consequence not right here in this satchel was his Elven cloak, with its leaf-brooch…"
"…and he gave that to his friend, Farmer Maggot, at the end of their last journey together to see old Bombadil," Merry added.
"Poor Maggot! I hear he was so overcome by the gift that he broke down and wept in public for the first time in his life…" Pippin looked around the table. "It's remarkable, really, that we've managed to come together on this date, which is, of course, the day of his and Bilbo's Birthday. As you undoubtedly know, it is our custom in The Shire to give gifts on birthdays, and not the other way 'round, so our timing is impeccable. Frodo thought of everyone in this room, and personally chose something for each one of you."
He nodded again toward Merry. His cousin opened the satchel and withdrew three small, beautifully bound leather books. Pip picked up the first one and ran his fingers over the embossed lettering.
"A good deal of Frodo's last years were spent in continuing what Bilbo started—translations of stories, histories and poetry from all over Middle Earth, from their original tongues into the Common Speech, so that they could be preserved and understood in many lands… Well, these are variations on that theme, if you will. Faramir, this one is for you and Lady Faeleth…" He handed the blue-covered book to Merry, who passed it on to the Steward of Gondor. "And Halbarad, this is yours…" The Steward of Arnor's book was covered in burgundy red. "And Eowyn… He didn't forget you, either…" The Queen of Rohan blushed as Boromir fetched the deep green book and placed it in his wife's hands.
Pippin went on. "All three books are similar. Frodo has been chasing down every song, folk tale and poem of the Shire and Bree—along with a good sampling of Bilbo's own poetry—and rendering them into other languages. Fari, Hal—yours are in the Southern and Northern dialects of the speech of the Dúnedain. Eowyn, yours is in Rohirrhic… He wished that the plain and simple tales of the folk of his homeland—a land that enjoyed centuries of peace because of stalwart friends far off and courageous neighbors close at hand—would be presented to you as a very small token of appreciation for long years of diligence and protection." The Stewards and the Queen were already paging through their books, smiling or chuckling as they came upon some rhyme or song that caught their eyes.
"Lord Marshall Boromir," Pippin said with a grin. "You're next…"
Merry dug in the satchel and withdrew the next object: a slim folded pouch of weathered leather, tied with a worn strap. Boromir eyes flew open in recognition as Pippin went on.
"Frodo said he always meant to return this to you," he said, as Merry handed the healer's kit to Boromir.
The man turned it over in his hands, gingerly unwinding the stiffened strap. He opened it, and withdrew the thin blade, the sheaf of curved suturing needles, and the still unopened tin of unguent.
"I am so touched that he kept it, all this time," Boromir said, his voice hoarse. "This is but another example of the indomitable heart that beat in his slight frame… He knew nothing of the healing arts, yet he took the daunting task of draining the wizard's festering wound upon himself with the same courage with which he took on the burden of the Quest…"
"Yes," murmured Aragorn. "When we eventually learned the true details, I admit I was astounded, on more than one account… For Frodo to do what he did, with no instruction other than what his already feverish patient could provide in the moment, and for Gandalf to have carried a Nazgûl-cursed and poisoned arrow-head within him for so long is simply astonishing to me…"
"Thank you, Master Took," Boromir said earnestly as he clutched the pouch to his chest. "This shall be an heirloom of the House of Húrin…and of Éorl…"
Pippin glanced at his cousin again. Merry searched inside the satchel as Pippin continued.
"Next is something he wished, as he put it, given to one of those remaining on these shores who has the greatest claim upon it," he said as he turned toward Elrohir. "El, you and your sister share equal right upon this next object, but as Frodo chose something else for Queen Arwen, he wished for you to have this…"
From the satchel, Merry withdrew a silvery-grey leather pouch cinched with a cord of gold thread. At a nod from his cousin, Merry opened it. At once, his face was illuminated with a softly shimmering light. Elrohir gasped as the hobbit pulled the Star-Glass from the pouch and leaned out to place it in the Peredhel's hand.
"The light is of Eärendil's Star, of course, and…well, you are his son's son. And your mother's mother made this and gave it to Frodo when we parted from Lothlorien… He thought it should be yours now…"
"I know not what to say," Elrohir said in a hushed voice. "I have heard of this marvelous thing, but have never seen it, 'til now… It is utterly magnificent… I can hardly wait to show it to Ivreniril..." The Star-Glass glowed softly in his hand, as if he held a single candle. The silvery light glimmered upon his shining eyes. "This is a treasure beyond words. How I wish that Frodo were here for me to thank him…" His fingers closed about the phial, and he pressed it to his heart and bowed. "Accept my thanks, Peregrin, and Meriadoc, in his stead…" He left his chair and went to Arwen, kneeling beside her as he placed the Star-Glass into her waiting hands. Her face was alight with its glow, and tears glittered in her eyes.
"Next, my Lady, Frodo wished that your gift to him be returned to you, with his profound expression of gratitude…" Pippin smiled at her while Merry climbed down from his chair to bring the white gem upon its chain of mithril to the Queen. "Frodo said that he wore it next to his heart every day, and that it brought him great comfort in times of sadness, and also seemed to amplify thoughts and feelings of joy… He said he hoped it would do the same for you."
Arwen returned the Star-Glass to her brother and took the gem. She held it up, sliding the smooth shining links of the chain between her fingertips.
"I am pleased to hear that it gave him comfort," she said softly. "The day I gave this to him, I ached for his grief and deep hurt… My heart is filled with gratitude that healing found him at last." She turned to the hobbits and smiled sweetly. "My thanks, Peregrin and Meriadoc…" Aragorn came to her side, and with remarkable grace and ease for a man with only one arm, he swept her thick dark hair aside and slid the necklace over her head, arranging the jewel so that it lay upon her bodice. She smiled and her cheeks flushed pink as he bent and placed a kiss upon the side of her slender neck.
"Gimli, your turn," Pippin said as he turned toward the Dwarf. Gimli shifted on his chair and his ruddy cheeks flushed a shade darker. A faint smile flickered on the lips of the Elf sitting beside him.
Merry retrieved a beautiful long-stemmed pipe from within the satchel, and handed it to Gimli. The Dwarf took it into his hands and turned it this way and that, a look of wonder on his face, and Legolas peered at it over his companion's shoulder. The bowl of the pipe was of stone: smooth, black—or very deep blue—and glittering with flecks of silver, like tiny stars. The stem was of a lustrous, creamy white material, carved with fine lines, and inlaid over all was a tracery of silver metal. His thick brows rose as he looked toward Pippin.
"That's the pipe Frodo used for the last, oh, I don't know, fifteen or twenty years," Pip said. He glanced at Merry, then back to Gimli. "It really is a lovely thing, isn't it? I have no idea where he got it… Frodo said he wished you to have it. He also said that there's an interesting tale that goes with that pipe, but that you'll have to wait for a little while to hear it..."
Gimli grunted as he studied his gift. "Strange… very strange. I thought I knew pipes, but I've never seen the likes of this one… These materials… Is this stem carved of Haradric ivory, or another sort of bone, I wonder? It is light as a feather, and the carvings are exceedingly fine… And look at the stone! It is a thing of beauty… And this is mithril, or I'm an Elf…"
"And that you are most certainly not," Legolas muttered, as he leaned close. He reached out and traced a fingertip over the carved stem. "It is neither bone nor mûmak tusk… but something finer, liken to a pearl of the Sea, yet far stronger… These minute lines spiral and swirl about the stem, and the delicate mithril threads follow them…"
"Aye," Gimli whispered as he squinted at the tiny carvings. "It minds me of the curls and twists of smoke itself…"
"What hand has the skill for such a thing, I wonder?" Legolas added.
"I marvel that he found the courage to risk setting spark to bowl or lip to stem! By the scent, this was well used, yet the pipe has narry a stain upon it," Gimli said. "Many thanks for this, my friends…I will treasure it…" His eyes glinted as he gazed at Pippin. "A tale, eh? I like a mystery… How long will I have to wait to hear it, did he say?"
Pippin smiled. "Not much longer. Only until his final gift is presented."
"Believe me, we're as curious as you are," Merry said. "I must have asked Frodo a dozen times where he came by that pipe, and he'd always just smile… And that isn't the only mystery to be revealed today, my friends…"
"Oh, no, we're far from finished," Pippin said. He turned now to Legolas, seated beside Gimli. "Legolas, you are next…"
The Prince of the Woodland Realm sat up straighter. Gimli nudged him none too gently.
Merry was already searching in the satchel as Pippin spoke. "We're coming near to the end of the treasures," he said. "For Legolas, Frodo chose another gift that was given to him during his Quest… although he would have said it had been only loaned to him…"
In Merry's hand lay the folding knife that the wizard had long carried. He reached across the table and handed it to the Elf.
"Along with the smaller blade in Boromir's kit, Frodo dug that awful cursed splinter from Gandalf's arm with this," Merry said.
"…and forgot to return it afterward," Pippin went on. "A good thing, too, for after Sam lost his dagger in the Mountains of Shadow, this was the only other weapon they had, besides Sting." The hobbit gazed at Legolas, who balanced the still-folded knife upon his outstretched palm. "Frodo thought that you were best suited to it, Legolas, because with this little knife, meant to carry in a Big Person's pocket to cut a bit of string or slice an apple, he killed dozens and dozens of spiders… And as you're from Mirkwood…"
"Greenwood the Great, my homeland is now called," the Elf murmured.
"…Yes, well, as you're from Greenwood, you may have had some experience with spiders… even if only in years past…"
One of the Elf's fair-colored brows arched slightly over his bright green eye. "Perhaps there may be one or two spiders remaining…"
Gimli grunted. "'One or two'…!" he growled. "Last time I passed through the shadowy gloom beneath your so-called 'Greenwood' trees, I lost count of those miserable eight-legged beasts…"
"Alas, you never were very good at counting…"
"…and I suppose you deem yourself more accurate than me?"
"Indeed yes, particularly when it comes to Orcs…"
"Oho! That again! Bring it on, Elf, I am eager for this account to be settled once and for all…"
Aragorn raised his hand and laughed. "My friends, I implore you, spare us another reprise of your ancient but worthy quarrel, at least for tonight…"
Legolas rose from his chair and bowed gracefully, and Gimli slid to the floor with a bump and a snort. He bowed low in his turn, his beard sweeping the rug. Pippin caught him in a wink aimed at the Elf, and Legolas barely hid his grin in return. The Elf traced his fingers over the worn handle of the knife and nodded toward the hobbits.
"My deepest thanks, on behalf of your kinsman, Meriadoc and Peregrin," he said solemnly. "I will carry this with honor, in memory of all the worthy hands that wielded it…"
Pippin exchanged a quick glance with his cousin.
"Er… There is another mystery… Frodo said he had a second gift, for the two of you together…" The hobbit frowned and bit his lip before continuing. "I didn't really understand what he meant by this, and it struck me as quite odd… He said I should tell you that you'll understand more about it soon enough, but that he was passing someone along to you both, not just some thing. His exact words were the two of them understand how to befriend a stranger more than almost anyone."
The Dwarf and Elf frowned as they seemed to puzzle over the declaration. The glazed windows on the West glowed red as the Sun fell toward the distant ridge beyond the now shadowed lake. The conversation paused as servants appeared to light the lanterns and bring a tray with wine and other refreshments.
When the servants had left, and they were alone again, Aragorn spoke.
"Evening approaches, my friends. It would seem that the time to complete this honorable task is come, and for all mysteries to be revealed."
Pippin bowed his head. "Of course, my Lord. And I do hope it has not escaped your attention that the place of greatest honor—the last—was reserved by my dear cousin Frodo for you."
He glanced at Merry, who brought out the last items in the satchel: the small water bottle Frodo carried with him nearly every day of the last twenty-one years, and an envelope.
Aragorn's chest rose and fell as he drew in and released a slow breath.
"Gandalf's flask," he said huskily.
Merry rose and presented the leather-covered silver bottle to the King with a formal bow. Aragorn accepted it with a nod of his head; he began examining it carefully, as Pippin went on.
"Once Frodo finally felt strong enough to rewrite the Red Book and tell the tale—the whole story, and not just the vague, fuzzy summary he put down at first, during the worst of his dark times—we all learned what that flask really meant to the both of them," he said quietly. "Not only was it a powerful reminder of Rivendell, with the scent of the liqueur in each drop, but of Gandalf, as well—and what his giving them that flask, all his remaining supplies and his own water bottle truly meant…"
"Not to mention the purely practical aspect: that every drop of extra water they carried into that horrible desert made a difference… at least for Frodo…" Merry whispered.
Pippin looked up at Aragorn. "And because he knew that you, more than anyone, would understand, he wanted you to have it."
Arwen rose and stood behind her husband's chair at the table, one hand draped over his shoulder and the other lightly caressing the tooled grey leather that had been made in her father's House, by skilled Elven craftsmen. The others watched solemnly as Aragorn worked the stopper of the flask out with one hand—much as Frodo had—and sniffed it. His eyes closed as he sighed.
"It still carries the fragrance of miruvor," he murmured.
Then Pippin and Merry approached their King together, and bowing low, they presented the envelope. He took it, and after handing it to Arwen to open, he searched the hobbits' eyes.
Pippin spoke first. "He said you should read this, Aragorn, aloud, if you would, for, as he put it, most everything is explained in there…" The hobbit's voice cracked.
The envelope was carefully labeled, in Pippin's hand: To Be Read Aloud By King Elessar, At the Request of Frodo Baggins of The Shire, After His Death.
Aragorn looked up at Arwen. "Sit beside me, beloved, while I read… I would that you were near to me for this duty…"
Elrohir rose and placed a chair next to the King for his Queen, and she sat beside him, serving as his right hand to steady the pages—for Aragorn, son of Arathorn, King of Gondor and Arnor, Elessar, the Elfstone, found that he was trembling as he looked down upon the writing of his old friend.
The others turned their chairs so that all could see the King, and Eowyn joined Boromir at the table. The room fell into silence even as the sky to the West faded into purple, and the first stars appeared above Lake Evendim.
Aragorn began to read in a low, clear voice.
"'My dear friend, and my Lord, Aragorn,
'If you are reading this letter, then I am gone at last. I beg you and whoever else of our old Companions and friends are hearing these words, waste not a moment in grief, nor shed a single tear for me. Rejoice instead for my blessed release from this life. As you know so very well, this hideous malady, the shaking palsy* that began to rob me of my ability to do even the simplest things, has been slowly overtaking me for lo these last two years—as evidenced by, to my horror, the shockingly illegible appearance of this letter. For that I apologize, but though I asked my dear Pip to address the envelope, I could not burden him with this transcription, for there is much he does not yet know—that no one yet knows. Or, perhaps the truth is that no one on these shores, save one other, knows all of what I am about to tell you.
'But first, there is much else I would say, to all our old Companions on the road, to those other wonderful friends I have met along the way, and especially to you, dear Strider. How does one go about thanking someone for over twenty years of devotion, wisdom and care? From the moment you rescued me from my own disastrous folly in the Common Room of the Prancing Pony, in the dell beneath Weathertop, through the wilds between the Tower Hills and Rivendell... From Elrond's Council chamber to the Chamber of Records in the everlasting night that was Moria... Before the Black Gate, in the fields of Ithilien, and in the kingdoms you now rule... You have ever been my stalwart friend. I, on the other hand, have not always been capable of accepting that which you have so generously offered. For my dark years of wretched self-pity, I beg your forgiveness. I can only be grateful that you stood by me during those times and were ready with your affections when I finally emerged into the daylight.
'By now I believe that my dear kinsmen, Pippin and Merry, will have presented my humble gifts to you and to those others closest to me. Nearly everything I have of value to give was once a gift to me. In the Shire, we call these sorts of things "mathoms," and we hobbits cherish them, for we believe an old treasure given a new home carries with it all the memories of the former owner. I hope all of you will take pleasure in these small tokens of my fondness for you. To the other surviving members of the Nine Walkers: Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, my dear Merry, and my devoted Pip: thank you all, from the bottom of my heart. And to my friends Arwen, Elrohir, Eowyn, Faramir, Faeleth and Halbarad: my gratitude for all you have done for this ordinary hobbit.
'When last we met in your breathtakingly beautiful citadel at Annuminas, Aragorn, I asked for your honesty as my friend and as a wise and learned healer. You gently told me the truth. It was nothing I had not thought myself, in the long nights of late when my illness robbed me even of sleep. Your assessment of what would inevitably become of me—loss of the ability to walk, speak, control my limbs or in the end any other part of my body—was not unexpected news, for I had imagined this, and worse. You shed tears of frustration on my behalf that no remedy is available for this terrible indignity. And you said that you wished you could offer me the gift granted to the Kings of Numenor: the choice to lay down the burden of this mortal life when its burdens become too great. I said nothing to you at that time, other than to mumble my thanks for your forthright words and your compassion. I returned home, escorted as no other hobbit has been, by the King himself, riding upon the magnificent Shadowfax, and his Royal guardsmen.
'You did not know it, but I was well aware it would be our last meeting, at least in this life. For the Gift of the Kings has in fact been granted to me. When this letter and one other is complete, I shall lie down and ask for that boon. I have every expectation that a peaceful end to this life that has indeed become burdensome shall arrive for me, without pain, and sparing me further infirmity.
'How, you might well ask, has this tremendous and solemn gift, reserved for the most Royal of Men, come to me, a simple Shire-hobbit? To answer that I must explain something that I have told no one, until now. You see, my old friend, I had a very special and unexpected visitor, eighteen years ago next month.
'Gandalf returned from beyond death, from the West, to see me.
'Someday we shall all be together and I can tell you each detail--but my afflicted hand, which darts and shakes ever more stubbornly as my desire to write clearly increases, demands that I cut the tale short. But you did not read wrongly: Gandalf visited me. And lest you wonder whether I only imagined such a thing, the splendid pipe that Gimli now holds belonged to Gandalf. He brought that pipe with him from Valinor, which must seem obvious to anyone who looks closely at the marvelously artistic workmanship of the thing, the beauty of the midnight-blue Star-Stone, found only in the West, and the intricately carved stem, made of the rarest of things, the single tusk of a creature that lives beneath the Sea**. Indeed, he informed me that Aulë himself fashioned it as a gift especially for him. (And thus, could there be a more appropriate recipient for it, than Gimli Gloin's Son?)
'How his return to mortal life came to be I cannot say, other than what Gandalf himself told me: that he asked leave from the Powers to be clothed in flesh once more, and permission to make this journey. He came as soon as he was able—so he said, for he, too, had to heal from all that transpired in those final terrible days before the fall of Sauron. And as to why, again, I can only report his own words: that he felt he had left too much undone.
'And I was the chief thing he felt he had left unfinished. He knew somehow, from afar, all about everyone, all of us who were his friends. He knew, therefore, that I, more than anyone else, was doggedly slow to find healing of my spirit and my heart—far more important and difficult to obtain than simple healing of the flesh.
'I had a brief and cryptic hint that an old friend was near, but I never expected to see such a wonder as a serenely smiling Gandalf sitting beside me, grasping my hand, smoking that beautiful pipe, laughing, scowling, snorting, and shining—for he is no longer Grey, but is Silver now, Aragorn! He has been refined—his words—into something greater than he was. And yet in the warmth of his spirit he was just like he had always been—and he was real, of mortal flesh, of warm blood and solid bone! The only thing different was the color of his eyes—dark blue now, but just as flashing, and just as piercing.
'His visit came at the third anniversary of the night I was wounded beneath Weathertop. And here is something else I have heretofore told no one: I was in dread of that date, for the first two of those October the 6ths were truly awful for me. For a full day and night I struggled with the Witch King over and over, drifting in a nightmare of pain and feeling the dagger strike me again and again. But Gandalf changed all that. I do not fully understand what he did, but I believe he took it from me—onto himself, if I'm not mistaken. The struggle and pain was over, and it has never visited me again.
'But he had more reason than that for his journey back to these shores. He had a favor to ask—more on that in a moment—and a choice to offer me. He knew I was suffering greatly, in spirit even more than in body. He said that I would be granted the same privilege given to the Kings, whenever I felt my life had become too burdensome. I knew at once that however dark my days had been, I was not yet ready for that final journey—not then. He had another choice to present to me, however. He offered me the chance to leave Middle Earth and return with him to the Blessed Realm, to Valinor, by ship, live out my life there, and find peace and true healing. Such a thing has not been granted to one of Mortal Race, as you know very well, in three Ages. He planned to leave in the spring, for he had one other errand to perform.
'After several days of deep consideration, I decided to go with Gandalf on that ship to Valinor. For the months between October and March, I got my few small affairs in order, and carried out a number of unfinished tasks of my own. The day came at last, and I packed my small bag and latched the door to Crickhollow behind me. I left a sheaf of letters with Farmer Maggot's wife—Maggot himself was away that day—and took my leave of the Shire for the second time, riding West.
'Gandalf was waiting for me just outside the borders of the Westfarthing. We rode together to the Grey Havens, and he spoke of the peaceful delights of the Blessed Realm that awaited us beyond the Sea journey. We passed the Tower Hills and climbed up to catch a glimpse of the ever-moving waters. We came at last to the Havens. I met Master Cirdan and the few shipwrights that remain—for those Elves living on these shores are very few indeed. The War of the Rings was so utterly devastating to the Elder Race. Master Cirdan said he would take ship with us, along with nearly all that remained of his folk. I was also glad to see that Gildor and the majority of his people would also depart for the Western Shores in our company. I felt honored and, quite frankly, thrilled to be accepted among them.
'We rested a day and a night at the Havens before the ship would depart. I wandered at Gandalf's side, speaking little, mostly taking in what would be my final hours in Middle Earth. I hoped that the letters I had left with Mistress Maggot would by now be making their way North, South and East, for I had written to you, to my dear cousins, to Mayor Bolger and Farmer Maggot, and to Boromir, Gimli and Legolas, explaining the circumstances of my sudden vanishment, and leaving instructions for the dispersal of my worldly goods. I felt at peace with my decision. I had no wish to remain as I had been: on the edge of dark melancholy, alone, without purpose beyond my own rather pitiful garden. I was excited to be starting another adventure, and was certain this would be the most interesting of them all. We stayed up very late and watched the Stars, and I slept with dreams of Gandalf's deep voice describing the wonders he would soon show me.
'Morning dawned and the hour came for the ship to sail. I followed Gandalf to the quay and stood by his side as the gangplank was slowly lowered from the deck. Our small bags were loaded, and the other passengers were already taking their places aboard ship. He strode forward, and turned to beckon me to follow.
'All at once, I knew that I could not. It was not my time to leave Middle Earth, to leave the Shire, my friends, my kin-folk. Suddenly I felt that I had work to do, here, on this side of the Sea. I knew not yet what that work might be, but my heart rang with the message: don't go, not now, you have things yet to do.
'And as he always has, Gandalf knew what was in my heart. He paused, and looked into my eyes with his deep and startlingly blue ones. I felt he gazed right into me—as he so often had, when we all knew him before as Gandalf the Grey, but even more intensely now that he is Silver. He walked back down to the dock, crouched down in front of me and took my hand in his.
'"My dear Frodo," he said, "I would have been so very pleased to have you with me in my homeland..."
'I nodded, numb and mute now. I knew I could not go with him, but as certain as I was, still I felt sad. For my dear friend Gandalf, who had come back from death on my behalf—as he had done so much else on my behalf—would leave again very soon, and I would stay behind.
'He smiled in that slow and crooked way he has, a smile that means happiness and understanding and sorrow all at once. "You must listen to your own heart, my friend. And I can see that your heart advises you to stay…"
'"I'm as surprised as you are, Gandalf," I said. "I truly meant to come with you…"
'"I know you did. And I truly wish that you could—for myself, if I am honest, for I will miss you very much, my friend… But it wouldn't be right. Not now that your heart has spoken clearly at last..."
'Gandalf then gave me the pipe he had brought with him from the West, in memory of our recent time together and the renewal of our friendship. We both wept a little, spoke a few more words, and did our best to say farewell. It felt so like—and unlike—the last time we had parted, on the bleak shoulder of the Nameless Pass, when I was certain that I went on toward death in Mordor, and he knew that he went on toward torment in Barad-dûr. Yet this time, though the parting was almost as painful, our hearts were full of light, not shadow.
'He stood at the rail looking back, his hand raised, shimmering faintly like burnished silver. The mariners raised the sails, cast off the lines, and pulled away from the shore. The ship set out, and I stayed upon the quay and watched until she was out of sight.
'That day was March the 25th, Fourth Age, Year 3—three years after my dear Sam fulfilled the Quest, and now, more than eighteen years ago.
'I returned to the Shire, in the company of but one other. To my chagrin—and delight—I discovered that Mistress Maggot had carefully set my letters aside and forgotten to mail them! I took them back gratefully, burned the lot, returned to Crickhollow, and began again where I had left off.
'The tasks my heart told me were mine to do, when I stood upon the shore of the Western Sea, gradually unfolded before me. I worked diligently to mend the torn relationships of my kinfolk among the Brandybucks and the Tooks. I witnessed as sweet young Rose Cotton was finally able to let go of one love and find another, in the person of Halfred Gamgee, Sam's gentle older brother. I believe I can claim a bit of the credit in the smooth establishment of New Farthing—and contributed the suggestion for the colony's plain but descriptive name. I welcomed new little ones into the world—Elanor Brandybuck, daughter of Meriadoc and Mareyn of New Farthing in Anorien was but the first—and stood up in attendance for the joining of our dear, wise Peregrin to his hobbit-lady love, the charming Diamond of Long Cleeve.
'And at last I began again the long and satisfying work of setting down in writing my beloved Bilbo's tale, and my own. With gentle but pointed advice from Farmer Maggot, who has been a wise friend, I began to shape the idea of a school for hobbit youngsters—a place where the true tales, the real stories, of great heroes, yes, but also of the courage and sacrifice of ordinary folk could be learned—a school where wisdom and not just facts would be taught—and make it a reality. The years went by more swiftly than I could imagine. You and all those dearest to me lived rich, full lives, and allowed me the pleasure of sharing in your frequent joys and occasional sorrows. I was blessed to be friend, teacher, writer, story-teller, scribe, translator, honorary uncle, and when I found time for it, gardener. My life has been full of happiness, and extraordinarily satisfying. Though I miss Gandalf very much, and think of him and what might have been every single day, I do not regret my decision to stay.
'But now the time has come to take the other choice he gave me. This malady now prevents me from enjoying on any of those roles I just named. Simply writing this overly long letter has been horribly difficult, and has taken several days and many more sheets of ruined paper than those you now hold. I do not wish to linger, ever weaker and more dependent upon others for help with the most private and basic functions of my failing flesh. I have made my decision, and I am ready now.
'There is but one more thing before I say Fare Thee Well to all my old friends. I have mentioned that Gandalf had another task, and have hinted that one other knows all that I have revealed. These two things are the same: and his name is Iaurel. He is an Elf, and he is my friend and Gandalf's as well. As Gandalf did before me, I would ask that Legolas and Gimli watch out for him, and if your hearts tell you to do so, to befriend him. You need not seek him out—he will find you. But if you wish to look for him, start your search wherever small remnant bands of Orcs linger in these later days, and you may find him nearby, hard at his chosen task—not hunting and slaying them, but something far more difficult. And as to who he is and how he came to be Gandalf's friend—and indeed, how he came to be my friend—you shall have to wait to hear that tale from him, when he is ready to tell you himself. All I can say is that, like me, Iaurel has been many things and has seen much sorrow. But now he is a teacher, and a story-teller. And believe me, he has some remarkable stories to tell. And if you do find and befriend him, I ask that you read to him the words I have written on the single extra page enclosed with this letter.
'And with that I come to the end of what I have to tell you, my dear friend Aragorn, and all of you, kin and companions. All that remains is to say good-bye. I go to the Halls of Waiting, and soon thereafter to join my dearest ones, Bilbo and Sam, in the next place beyond. To all my friends, whom I love, May the Stars Shine Upon Your Path, until we are all reunited once more. Namárië!
'Your devoted servant,
The room was utterly still as Aragorn, whose voice had long since grown strained with emotion, reached the end of Frodo's letter. Yet the chamber was hardly silent, for each one of the friends gathered there made some small sound that expressed the depth of their feelings. Some wept openly; others sighed deeply. The seconds ticked by and turned into minutes of solemn and respectful quiet, until at last, one voice broke the silence.
"I know not what moves me the greater," Gimli whispered hoarsely, as he held up the marvelous pipe in his trembling hand. "That Mahal Himself made this priceless thing, or that it was once Gandalf's…"
His comment seemed to open a gate, and the room was suddenly filled with fervent and astonished voices as everyone began speaking at once.
"Now I understand… How grateful am I that he need not have endured even more grief, and found peace at last…"
"What a story! Dear, dear Frodo… And Gandalf!"
"To think he never told anyone… How could he keep such a secret for all these years?"
"What a courageous person he was… And Mithrandir has won my heart all over again…"
"Such humility… A mark, I deem, of the true greatness of his spirit…"
"Never let it be said that the small and meek cannot do great things…"
"How I shall miss him," the King sighed. "How I shall miss both of them…"
Aragorn then asked that the single sheet of folded paper in the envelope be passed down the table to Gimli and Legolas. As the two friends opened it and read it in silence, their unlike heads tipped toward one another as they looked down at the page, Halbarad and Faramir rose and poured wine for everyone. Aragorn sat back in his chair and heaved another deep sigh, and Arwen clasped his hand, entwining her fingers in his. They both stared at the miruvor flask in awe, and the others brought out their gifts and studied them.
Gimli cleared his throat and looked up at the King. He and Legolas exchanged a glance; the Elf gestured for his friend to continue.
"I cannot," Legolas whispered huskily. "You do it, my friend…"
Gimli bowed his head, and to the astonishment of those listening, he passed up a perfect opportunity for a barbed comment aimed at the Elf. Instead he addressed Aragorn.
"My Lord, we… Legolas, and I… would like to read this aloud…" He held up the page. "By your leave…"
Aragorn nodded; Gimli cleared his throat again, and began to read.
'"My friend, Iaurel,
'The one who carries this letter brings it from me. By its appearance, you will know that I have decided to take the second of the two choices that our Mutual Friend gave me all those years ago, when you and I first met after you crossed the Sea and returned to this Shore.
'Iaurel, I won't see you again, not until the Ending of the World, for now that you have been granted this new chance, I believe you will share in every aspect of the life of the Eldar. So I wanted to say farewell, and a few other words.
'First, know that I am honored to be your friend. I know you still have difficulty believing that, given all that came before, and who you once were. But I meant what I said, soon after I met you, that your task is to teach us what Hope means, for you never lost yours, at your core, through all the long ages.
'Second, I am so proud of the task you've set before yourself—and amazed at the success that you have described when you have visited me! No one but you could do this remarkable Quest. In that way, I suppose, you and I are alike—both doing something no one else believed possible because we're the only ones who can. Every Lost One that you reach and befriend, teach about themselves and help along a path toward healing is a miracle, plain and simple. But your Quest is perilous, my friend, so please be careful.
'And last, a word of advice: however much you discovered you have a taste for honey, stay away from bees!
Gimli's voice failed him at the end, and he dropped the letter onto the table. His head bowed, and he covered his eyes with his hands. Legolas placed his hand on his friend's broad shoulder.
"Do you know what it means?" Aragorn asked.
Legolas nodded hesitantly. "I think I may… I have heard rumors, for the last twenty years or so… Of a solitary, strange Elf, who is attempting the impossible…"
"Yes, I have heard of this as well," Elrohir said quietly. "It is said that he tries to find Orcs...'Lost Ones'... and teach them who they really are… or once were… and coax them to turn their backs on evil and violent ways…"
Gimli raised his head, and his eyes were rimmed with red. "And I think I know who he is… One whose name we have all heard, once before, upon the Field of Cormallen…"
Aragorn's eyes widened as realization dawned. "Then Frodo was right: you two are the most seemly to befriend him. If you find him, I would like to meet him someday…"
Then he gazed around the table at his closest friends, kin, and loved ones, catching each pair of eyes in turn. At last he raised his goblet of wine, and the ten others gathered followed suit.
"To our beloved friend, Frodo Baggins," he said with a smile.
"To Frodo," they replied.
*"Shaking Palsy" is an old term for Parkinson's Disease, which was extremely disabling and universally fatal before medications for it were discovered.
**I imagine that pipe is made of very dark blue lapis lazuli and a narwhal tusk.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.