Disclaimer: The content of Tolkien's books belongs to him and his heirs. I am respectfully borrowing some of it for the sole purpose of enjoyment. No money is in anyway involved.
FOR THE ROAD
Bilbo Baggins awoke with a start to find that the night had deepened around him and the stars were visible through his open window. Blinking sleepily he noticed that his candles had been lit and his fire prodded to a cheerful blaze. Someone had tucked his soft woollen blanket neatly over his knees. The old hobbit smiled "Goodness me!" he murmured to himself. "It seems a dreadful shame to be leaving when they take such very good care of me here." Then, with a snort of annoyance at such thoughts, he flung off his rug and pushed himself stiffly to his feet. "You'd think I was the Gaffer! I don't need comfort, what I need is peace! That and a chance to see something new once more." His eyes strayed to his old walking stick propped invitingly by the door. "Yes, time to be travelling on again at last!"
He looked at the open letter that was still clasped in his hand and chuckled. If his old friend had thought his room was untidy before, he would be doubly amused at the state of it now. In the end he had been surprised at how few possessions he needed to take with him and most of these were already stowed away securely in a travelling chest. Other belongings had been neatly labelled as presents for his friends or of interest to the archives in the Shire or Minas Tirith, but there were still a large number of mathoms scattered about his room or loosely gathered together in untidy heaps. Bilbo gave a little sigh of relief that there were still some elves remaining behind in Rivendell. "Thank heavens they've taken pity on me and offered to find homes for all these leftovers."
He picked up a pouch made of soft black leather from the table next to his chair and admired the silver decoration of tree and stars. Attached to it was a label written in an elegant, decisive hand. He began to laugh out loud as he read the words:
To Bilbo Baggins, Esq.
"The old that is strong does not wither"
He opened the bag and thought he caught the slightest hint of a familiar aroma escaping from the neat little packets inside. Still laughing he closed it again carefully and crossed the room to put it with the personal things to be packed in his saddlebags. Then the old hobbit returned to his chair to recover his breath and examined the letter once more. It was an impressive sight, written on the finest quality paper and embossed with the royal seal of Gondor and Arnor. He looked affectionately at the writing. "I can't see any harm in looking through it one more time," he mused. "I really am getting terribly sleepy these days! More than likely I dozed off in the middle first time round and missed a line or two." Leaning back comfortably on his cushions he began to read:
8th day of Cerimë, 1
My dear Bilbo,
Time presses, as it ever does and the night is growing old. My brothers must depart soon after dawn and I have spent the last hours finishing my letters to friends who will be taking ship with you. Yours I have left until the end, but the first gleams of light are threatening in the east and I can no longer put off this moment of parting. Although it saddens me that I have not seen you and embraced you one last time, I know that written words have ever found a special place in your heart and that thought comforts me now.
It has never been our way, in all the years we have known each other, to speak overmuch of things that touched us closest, so I will not make either of us uneasy now. But I find I cannot leave unsaid that I will always be grateful to you for your companionship in those darkest times, following the death of my mother, when the shadow seemed to lengthen over all of us. On my rare visits, when my childhood room felt cold and desolate with the memory of her loss, you offered me a cheerful haven where we smoked and talked and were comfortable with each other. For as you were always so fond of saying "We mortals should stick together".
If I close my eyes for a moment, I can see you in your chair by the fire surrounded by untidy heaps of books and scattered piles of papers. Your cluttered room is very different to the fine study where I am sitting now. This chamber is not close to the earth, as hobbits prefer, but high up in the White Tower of the Citadel. The views over Minas Tirith and the river beyond are truly breathtaking, but sometimes I find I regret that it does not open straight into the garden. When you and I sat together in the evening, we could glimpse the silver glow of birches in the moonlight and catch the scent of the night flowering plants that grew close to your window. Still, here too, I can watch the bats as they dart and dive among the towers of the City just as they yet must do around the eaves of Elrond's House. Here I have bookshelves enough to keep even you content, and the walls are hung with maps of Gondor and the surrounding lands which I know you would take great delight in pouring over. And, of course, I have an endless supply of parchment, paper and ink should I desire to add to the tide of charters and documents that must surely drown my loyal subjects. I still cannot believe that the people of Gondor have quite the taste for such things that some hobbits do.
Old friend, as I am writing this, before me on my handsome desk, among the seals of office and other necessary trappings of kingship, sits the little travelling salt box that you gave me, all those years ago, when I renewed the hunt for Gollum. You blamed yourself, I know, that I should be the one forced to complete an adventure that you considered yours. Such concerns were, of course, completely unfounded, but you were right in one thing. Salt does indeed bring much needed savour to a lonely meal in the wilderness. It was in those desperate times, when hunger drove and danger pressed too close to risk a fire and I was even forced to eat fish or flesh uncooked, that your gift was the most precious to me. Wily old traveller that you were, you knew that something as little as this applewood box, carved with scenes of hobbits eating, drinking and smoking as only hobbits can, would be enough to raise my spirits when they were in most dire need of it. Indeed it has become so dear to me over the years that it is impossible to think of travelling any distance at all without it being safely tucked away in my pocket.
I wonder, do you still recall as clearly as I do, that evening when you gave me this gift? I fear it is forever stamped in my mind. In all honesty, it has to be the strangest way that I can remember of passing my time before setting out on a dangerous journey in the wild. And now I am also wondering, did you ever finish your book? I know it must be a relief to you that Sam shares your concerns about those varieties, some now only preserved in Rivendell, that might soon be lost to the Shire forever. Now that I think back on that evening, I cannot fathom what possessed me to agree to help you as I did. For all our friendship and for all I agreed with the importance of your endeavour, I cannot believe that I allowed you to take me to your room, blindfold me, in the interests of impartiality, so you said, and persuade me to undertake two hours or more of arduous apple tasting. I can only think that I was swayed by your flattery when you told me that my mortal decisiveness was just what was required. I can understand, though, that you may have found the elves wholly unsuited to your purpose. It must have been well nigh impossible for them to describe the taste of an apple, from sweet to tart, on a rigid scale of just one to five, or its texture, for that matter, in just one of three words - soft, firm or crisp, if I recall correctly.
I well remember that, at the beginning, all I could think of was that I was heartily relieved that my brothers were not at home and there was no danger of them ever getting to hear of my embarrassment. After a while though, against all expectation, I actually grew to enjoy the experience. There is something about a blindfold that stills the mind and I encountered tastes that I had never noticed before. Besides, I suppose, there is always a certain pleasure in carrying out any task to the best of one's ability. Looking back I am glad that we took that time to retaste the earliest samples just to be sure I had been consistent. Then, after we were done, we took our well-deserved rest by the fire and you gave me your present and we talked for a while of the roads I would take. And you told me that your survey of the old Shire apples had grown out of a desire to expand the notes on "travel food" you might include in the account of your adventures with the dwarves. I departed in the morning and did not return for many months, so I never did find time to taste for you the dried apple rings that Elrond's cooks were preparing. To this day I do not know which of those varieties are the best for preserving in that manner, but the lasting memory of that evening served as inspiration for my own parting gift to you.
Even amid all the carnage of the Pelennor it was a wonder to me that there survived some remnants of the orchards that flourished there. Where everything was destroyed the ground has been cleared and many new trees have been planted, but it will be a while yet before they come to full fruit. Here and there, however, some old trees remain, scorched and hacked in places but still alive. In the packets that accompany this letter you will find dried rings made from apples I picked myself from these ancient trees. They are of several different kinds and have been clearly labelled, as I know that will be of interest. You might be amused to hear that I also saw to their preserving, much to the surprise of the Citadel cooks who were a little shocked at the impropriety, I think. Still it is a skill we Rangers have always valued and one which I learnt at my mother's knee. If you are careful to keep them tightly wrapped they should stay fresh for a good long time, but not forever, so when they are gone I thought you might like to use the pouch for pipe-weed.
Dear Bilbo, it seems that we have indeed come to the end of our road together, though we may still walk side by side for a little longer in memory. It is my most fervent wish that you and Frodo shall find your peace and healing beyond the sea, but perhaps at times, even there, your thoughts may turn to Middle-earth and those you have left behind. Then I invite you to sit a while and take an apple ring and close your eyes and savour the taste of it upon your tongue or, in later times, fill a pipe and smoke a bowl and think of me and quiet evenings by the fire.
And now all that remains is for me to wish you an interesting journey and a merry landfall, which I do with all my heart.
All was silent and still as the old hobbit gazed for a time at the fire. Then with a little shake of the head he began to chuckle once again and took from a pile of carefully labelled books a smallish volume with a new leaf-green binding. Elrond's sons would be sure to join him to share a bottle of their father's best wine and swap songs and stories one last time. They would be returning to Minas Tirith but, wanting to ride quickly, had said they could only carry letters. "But I fancy I may have found the coin to pay for a special delivery" he thought with a glint of mischief in his eye. "Some tales are just too good to let fall by the wayside." He slowly turned the pages of the book where his own spidery hand ran between lively hues of red and green and yellow. His laughter became the warmer and the saying "wise minds wend together" popped into his head as he read the title page:
An Account of their Kinds and Uses with Illustrations by the Author
"Deep roots are not reached by the frost"
A/N Written in response to a Quickie Challenge at the Henneth Annûn story archive. Thanks to Altariel and Azalais for helpful comments.
Quotations taken directly from Bilbo's rhyme in The Council of Elrond