5. The Final Reckoning Approaches
The Final Reckoning Approaches
"You have it all now, all protected just in case a rain might choose to fall before you reach the Shire?" asked the Dwarf who'd accompanied him this far.
The Wizard peered back over his shoulder at the heavily wrapped bundles that filled the back of his cart. "I am certain of it, Mali. And I thank you for the use of your workshop for these last few weeks."
"I hope that the Hobbits of the Shire will appreciate all of the care you have taken to make of this a display to be remembered," the Dwarf returned. "Be certain to convey my respects to the Esteemed Burglar on his birthday, won't you?"
"I most certainly shall. And again, thanks for all the hospitality and aid you have granted me. And, believe me—Bilbo Baggins will be most gratified, as I've tried my best to duplicate the fireworks I set off for his grandfather's last birthday within the Shire and to do them at least one better." So saying, he tipped his hat to Mali, and shaking the reins, chirruped to the brown mare that Halbarad of the Dúnedain had loaned him for this purpose, and the vehicle started off with a slight lurch, heading south and west toward the Breelands and the Shire.
He'd spent almost a month here in the mountains north of Fornost with Mali, whose people had lived here for most of the past millennium. Mali's ancestors had been gladly welcomed by the Dúnedain of Eriador to colonize the highlands here in thanks for the manner in which the Dwarves had helped fight the forces of Angmar, and the Dwarves had definitely profited by that acceptance. They were not as wealthy or as prominent as, say, those of Dúrin's lineage who lived in the Blue Mountains or the Iron Hills or once again within Erebor under the Lonely Mountain, but they had more than sufficient resources to allow themselves to trade with the Men, Elves, and Hobbits who dwelt in portions of Eriador where Dúrin's folk would not go and to do well by it. And Mali was always pleased to aid the Wizard in his artistic endeavors and learn more secrets of the nature of his explosive powders and fiery compounds with each visit.
It was a beautiful day in the early part of the season of Fall-of-the-Leaf. Halimath, the Hobbits called this month when the days reached equilibrium once more, and the produce of their fields came to their final, glorious and abundant ripening ere the cooling weather sent the stalks and vines into their winter sleep.
Halimath had seen the birth of two of Gandalf's favorite Hobbits—the gregarious, now unpredictable, and delightful Bilbo Baggins, and his more thoughtful, gifted, responsible, and gentle kinsman Frodo. And this year Bilbo had let the Wizard know that he would be retiring soon, and intended to leave the Shire and Bag End to Frodo's capable and caring attentions.
"And that ring, too," Gandalf murmured to himself around the stem of his pipe. "He's promised to leave his so-called birthday present to Frodo as well. And he'd best do so. I don't like what I believe that ring is doing to the old fellow!"
Some hours later he guided the horse down the twisting track to the plain that lay below the ancient stronghold of Fornost. Once more he looked upon the site of that last great battle between the Witch-king's army and the allied forces of Arnor, Elves from Imladris, Lórien, and Lindon, Dwarves, and Hobbits from both the Breelands and the Shire. He drew back on the reins, and the mare gladly paused to recover her breath and rest before they should go onwards once more. He sat on the bench of the cart, and images of that battle replayed themselves before his mind's eye. The cost had been high. Twenty-five Elven warriors had fallen in that struggle; nearly twice that number of Dwarves had lost their lives, and nearly five times that number of Men. And of the forty Hobbits who'd left the Shire led by Bucca of the Marish, only Bucca himself returned home again, accompanied by a single Hobbit from the Breelands who'd been bequeathed lands in the North-farthing by a fallen friend who'd lived in Hobbiton beneath the Hill.
Gandalf had known that Hobbit, and had visited his widow and blessed their children. He knew that both Bilbo and Frodo were descended from both Bucca and Landro Baggins, and was glad that their courage and honor was manifest in both of their living descendants. "Bilbo lived through as bad a fray in the Battle of the Five Armies," he said aloud. "I only pray that Frodo never has to know such harrowing events. He's too gentle a soul to face such a trial."
Shivering at the thought of Frodo Baggins forced to take part in a battle, he shook the reins and spoke to the mare, who was glad of the rest granted her and shook herself briefly before resuming the journey, as eager to spend a few days in the lush surroundings of the Shire in the glory of Halimath as was the one driving her.
Once Gandalf was well on his way, a shimmer of brilliant late-afternoon light coalesced into the figure of a shining Maia. His eyes sad, Eonwë watched after the retreating form of his incarnate brother, grieving that Olórin's prayer must be denied. Gentle Frodo Baggins might be, but it was judged that his courage and endurance might—just—prove sufficient for the task appointed to him in the too-swiftly approaching future.
And if the prophecy proves true that no Man shall be able to fell the Witch-king himself, yet we deem that perhaps there is still another hand that will be able to aid in cleaving the sinews that bind him yet to existence in this world, the Maia thought. He bowed after the Istar, and then disappeared from view once more, hurrying to report to his own lord that one more step was being taken to the final reckoning with Melkor's former lieutenant.