Greenjade had finally reached the point where his head stopped turning to look back, convincing himself it was useless; that they had passed the point of no return and would not go back. The absence of the Book seemed heavier than the Book itself.
Sméagol was riding on Baran the donkey, since his leg was paining him, or so he said. Radagast was carrying much of the load that would have been on the little beast, and Greenjade carried some also, although he knew the Wizard could have borne it all. He was far stronger than he looked, although he had said he had the body of a mortal man, and knew the pains, urges, and ailments that came with it.
The days on the road had gone by one much the same as another, for which Greenjade was glad. They walked from morning until noonday, when they would eat a meal consisting of nuts and berries picked along the way, jerked venison, a slab of bread and cheese or jam, or perhaps a fried fish if Sméagol got lucky. Miss Carrie had given him a little iron skillet which he had hung from his belt, and he would scarcely be parted from it.
Nilde seemed a little jealous of the donkey, and when Radagast led it along, she would stop following her master, and trail far behind, until Sméagol went to her, whereupon she would slink along a little sadly until Sméagol petted her and called her his pretty lass. Then she would walk happily with him, occasionally stopping to chase a squirrel or rabbit. Rusco didn't seem to know what to make of their new acquisition either, and spent much of his time perched backwards on Radagast's shoulder, looking at Baran and chattering until the Wizard quieted him, then he would fly upward and circle around the donkey high in the air, fluttering his wings loudly, then swoop down at Nilde, and return to the Wizard once more. Greenjade smiled grimly at these antics a time or two, then returned to his own brooding thoughts.
On the seventh day of each week, they would take the day off from their trek and rest, sometimes stopping at a village and putting up in an inn--Radagast sternly admonishing the others not to break any bones. They always departed quickly the next day, after a good meal and bath. If no village were handy, they camped out, and took a dip in a nearby stream, and then tried their luck at fishing. Sméagol, of course, was always the luckiest in that pursuit, and Greenjade knew he could look forward to a good feast. It was then that he would catch himself watching the small fellow, and wondering about him. What he thought about, what his youth had been, and what those five hundred years of being Gollum had been like. What did one do in all those centuries? He wanted to ask, but knew that he was unlikely to get much of an answer. Then he would decide that he did not care anyway, and remembered what some of the children had said on the last day at the Partridges'. About how Sméagol had told them much of the Ringbearer. It was of him Greenjade really wanted to hear, but he knew he would have to win over Sméagol's trust in order to get him to open up about him. And Sméagol was ever wary of Greenjade, drawing up inside himself when the man approached him. It was frustrating, especially since Greenjade had a feeling Sméagol knew what he wanted and was deliberately withholding it, trying to break him down, make him swallow his pride and come right out and ask. Perhaps he was secretly pleased with himself that he had something the other wanted, and was not going to be forthcoming without any sort of price.
So, Greenjade kept silent on the subject, and maintained his distance from Sméagol. Sometimes, after making an excuse about answering the call of nature, he would lag far behind, glaring at Sméagol's back as he trudged along. Other times he would try being helpful, bringing wood and kindling to cook the fish he caught, sometimes even making the fire for him, although he was still awkward at it.
Last week they had stopped at a village in which Greenjade had seen a red-haired woman carrying a baby, with two small children, a boy of about ten and a girl three or four years younger, skipping along by her side. The woman was the same height as Nell, a bit plumper, but she made him draw in his breath and stare for several minutes before Radagast gently took his arm and steered him away. That was a week ago, and they were in the wild once more, but Greenjade stayed far behind the others, wishing he might fall down and die, and he considered doing just that, and wondered if the others would miss him or be relieved at not having to put up with him any more. Radagast was talking to Sméagol far ahead, and Greenjade slipped out into the trees once more, deciding he simply must be alone for a while; he did not think he could endure another moment in their company. He thought for an instant of the woman in the village, and then his thoughts inevitably strayed back to Nell, wondering if she missed him, if she were thinking of him this minute, or if she were happily making plans for her wedding. Her wedding...he could see it now. She was standing in a festively embroidered gown, a wreath of flowers on her flowing hair, and Jem at her side, taking her hand and slipping the ring upon her finger promising to have and to hold her until death did them part....
They camped out in the wild once more, no village being close enough, and after their noon meal they settled down for a good nap as usual. Sméagol lay with his head on Nilde's flank…well that she did not seem to mind his snoring. Radagast sat with his back against an ancient oak, his bedroll serving as padding, Rusco fluttering up into a branch above and Baran munching at a little pile of straw the Wizard had put down for him. Greenjade slipped off by himself, raking a hand through his hair from time to time, leaning his head on the bole of a tree and stamping his foot in agonized frustration that would not let up.
I am not going to Mordor, he told himself. He could not take this any longer. He did not deserve this. Hadn't he done his best, back in Nell's village, making himself useful, trying to atone for the wrong he had done, making life better for the folk? Yes, he had succumbed to temptation, but she had played a part in that. And what of his child? For she would have it, he was certain, and he would never get to see it. No, he would turn back. Likely the others would not care. Sméagol would be glad to be shut of him, in particular, and Radagast…well, he would feel a failure for a while, but he would understand, having experienced something similar himself, long, long ago….
After tramping a good distance, Greenjade stopped beside a wood-stream, picked up stones and hurled them into the water as hard as he could, then last he sat down, overcome with physical and mental fatigue, absently picking small blue flowers and dropping them into the stream. Then he lay his head on his bedroll, listening to the gentle babble of the water that seemed to be trying to lull him into sleep like a mother patiently soothing a fretful babe. He tried thinking of Garland, but could not ever seem to remember how she looked. What he did see was Fairwind, in the whitest gown imaginable, pearls gracing her neck and lilies in her hair, and she stood among towers full of bells playing joyous melodies high over the crowd, as a glowing man stood beside her holding her hand and smiling down from a lofty height as well, and as he slipped a ring onto her finger, she smiled up for his kiss...at which everyone burst into song and some flung flowers. Her brothers and sisters took hands and danced in a ring around the pair, along with a dark-haired tall fellow and a small maiden with hair of the same shade.
And Greenjade saw his mother, along with a little curly-haired, hairy-footed fellow dancing with the rest, and they whirled about so that Greenjade could never quite see his stepfather's face, but his mother's he saw plainly, all radiant and twinkling as though a brood of stars had found a nesting place there, her honey-colored hair elaborately braided and curled and bedizened with pink roses that matched her dress. When had she cut it? He could recall it flowing to her hips, so that she could have sat on it if she leaned her head back far enough, and now it barely reached her waist…and yet somehow it suited her better that way, and seemed alive with streaks of bright gold and bronze in the sunlight. A pendant with a sparkling white gem hanging from a silver chain around her neck was her only jewel.
He waved his arms frantically to get her attention, but she gave no indication that she saw him. He had never truly noticed how lovely she was before. He had once thought landishness would render her common and insipid, but not a bit of it. The rich pink suited her perfectly and her eyes were full of love and pride and joy and fun, looking first to her husband, then to her daughter and her new son-in-law, then to her other children, and back to the one with whom she danced. Greenjade tried once more to see his face, but somehow could not, only the brown curls that bounced jauntily to the rhythm of the music.
Then just when he was about to succumb to despair, the small fellow turned, and Greenjade was able to see him fully.
"What is that?" Frodo pricked up his head from the pillow at the sound of giggles that seemed to be coming from outside, cradling his pipe in his hands.
"Why, it's the girls, silly," Anemone said from the other side of the bed with a smile. "I told them they might stay up late tonight, and they're having a little frolic in the gazebo with some of the remainders of the wedding-feast."
"But it's a school night, is it not?"
"I told Raven she might take a little holiday tomorrow, and I would help her catch up. She has earned it, and she's still too excited to concentrate on school-work anyway, I dare say. Wasn't it a lovely wedding?"
"Almost as beautiful as ours." Frodo took another puff of his pipe and lay back with a blissful smile. "If not more so," he added daringly, then laughed. "Poor Barathon. I might have known I should not have told our lads of the wedding-customs of hobbits. I'm sure he managed to find his way home after being forcibly blindfolded and tied up and left in the woods Eru knows where. I hope Fairwind will not be too hard on her brothers, and will amply compensate Barathon for his trouble."
"I meant to ask what was the meaning of that strange contraption waiting to take the bridal pair home?" Anemone said. "The one resembling a giant conch-shell, yet with wheels. Did Barathon have any idea what he was letting himself in for, I wonder, becoming a member of our family?"
Frodo laughed uproariously. "Well, things won't get dull for him, at any rate."
"And those two strange horses pulling it along—jet-black and tawny-gold," Anemone said giggling. "And that driver whom I could have sworn had the face of a dolphin, yet wore a silver crown. And the two white doves fluttering behind. Folk were asking me where certain members of our family had got off to. I scarcely knew what to tell them."
"I had naught to do with any of that," Frodo said with a wink.
"Ah no, of course not," Anemone said, then she sank back with a dreamy sigh. "The first of our kind to wed an Elf. A pity Nimrodel never made it. I suppose she had no brothers. Yet legend has it that she may be my ancestress."
"So I've heard," Frodo said, reaching over to take her hand and draw it to his lips. "Do you suppose she was truly the mate of Ulmo?"
"If so, he hasn't seen fit to let anyone know of it," Anemone said as she let her fingers stray lightly over his face. "Well. I dare say Fairwind is getting her first taste of the joys of the flesh now. I can scarcely wait to hear what she will have to say of it. I wonder which chapter they will start with. Wouldn't it be something if they did the exact one we just did? Eight, was it? Although I doubt that would be just the right one for the first time. Chapter three or four would be far more suitable, I should think."
Frodo laughed until he nearly spilled his pipe ashes. Who but a sea-lady would express delight in her offspring getting acquainted with the joys of the flesh, even on the marriage-bed?
"I'm sure the book prepared her well," he said. "Speaking of books, Sam assured me he has gotten the Red Book back. That's a vast relief to me. I was afraid it might be lost, or that…"
"Or that Greenjade might keep it?" Anemone voiced the thought he had hesitated to express. "It's all right, you may say it. So he has left the village now?"
"Yes," Frodo said thoughtfully. "I dare say his head is turning back again and again."
"You don't suppose he will go back and abandon the others, do you?"
"I cannot say. I was just thinking…"
"I'm wondering if I can let him see us through the Glass. I would like to show him Fairwind's wedding. Do you think that would be a good idea?"
"Is it possible?" Anemone asked.
"I'm not sure. Perhaps it will only remind of what he cannot have now…but on the other hand, perhaps it will motivate him to keep Garland's release in sight, so that he might remain on the right path…. Yes, my love. I know you did not like her. I know there was enmity between you, that you never approved her as a mate for him, and that she would not let you see the children, let alone have contact with them. But the thought of her in that Place…"
"Aye, I know. I detested her, quite frankly. As she did me. I do not exactly relish the thought of them getting back together. However, that does not mean I wish her in that Place. Not for all time, at least. I would have her out of it, but not by his side. However, that will not be my choice to make, should she be released. And I am glad the children are where they are now, rather than being allowed to grow up as their parents. Although I wish they could have been removed and placed in our keeping instead. I blame her for what happened to them. She went off with another mate and left them to shift for themselves, unprotected and alone, assuming, I suppose, that they could look after each other. Even so, I would not have her punished for all time, although I cannot say I am sorry she ended where she did."
"I am glad you did not take exception to my making intercession for her," Frodo said, drawing her head to his shoulder and stroking her hair. "That was most generous of you. I knew there was a good reason why I loved you."
"I am trying to pattern myself after you," she replied with a gentle smile.
He leaned over and kissed her lingeringly on the lips. Then he rose from the bed and padded over to the western window where the Glass stood, picked it up and looked thoughtfully at it, spoke softly the words to make it light, then set it down again, and began murmuring an invocation to the Lord of Dreams. That done, he turned and came back to the bed.
"So…do you feel up to another chapter tonight?" he whispered as he ran a finger through the silky strands above her right temple.
"Your turn to choose," she said with a roguish flutter of her eyelids.