By Niphredil of Doriath.

Frodo slipped out of Bag End and walked to the bottom of the back garden, climbing over the fence with slightly more care than he had done a mere thirty months ago. He winced somewhat as his pack jolted against his shoulder and back, steadied himself, and took another couple of paces. His whole frame felt vaguely nauseous and dizzy - a sensation which infused his limbs. His recent sickness seemed still to linger. Indeed, each illness took longer to pass now than the preceding one, it seemed. The resolution in his face wanned a little. Perhaps it would be better if he rode.

He leant on the stile for a few moments before climbing back over it and retracing his steps back up the garden. He walked back through the hole and exited by the front door, closing it quietly. Then he headed towards the village, and on to Bywater, where his pony was stabled. Dusk was beginning to fall when he knocked at the door of the stable-hand, who helped him to saddle Strider before locking the door again and bidding him good evening.

Frodo had never yet been back to Buckland - not since his journey to Crickhollow, just before he had taken his friends into the Old Forest under the leadership of Meriadoc, and then on to Bree. Merry and Pippin had paid several visits to Bag End since its restoration, but Frodo now avoided travelling far from home, unless social obligations absolutely demanded it. But he had agreed to go and visit Merry, who was now living at Crickhollow. Pippin lived there too, although he was currently at Great Smials. The Thain and his son had matters to discuss, and his sisters still liked to spoil their kid brother, great and strong though he had become. Merry resided at Brandy Hall when he wished, although he found it rather stifling after the independence he had learned outside the Shire.

Frodo thought of his strong, magnificent cousin as he rode along in the deepening twilight, even as he had the last time he had travelled - walked - without him to Buckland - now years ago, as it seemed. Samwise and Peregrin had been with him then, but Frodo had been afraid and preoccupied, cloistered with private fears and anxieties, yet thinking ahead in gratitude to the kind, resourceful kinsman who had ridden on ahead to warm and furnish his new home before he arrived. Frodo smiled at this memory, and tears glistened in his eyes. It felt odd yet familiar to be returning now - on horseback, and by a different route; the far more direct way of the road. The Shire was scarred and changed, but Frodo was by now so accustomed to sorrow and loss that he experienced no shocks, merely a deepening of his sadness at all that had come to pass. The tears washed and cleansed his eyes, relieving his soul somewhat, as he beheld the many saplings which Sam had planted on either side of the road. Already they were flourishing, and though Frodo himself would never see them grow to their full height and abundance, he foresaw that others would see their beloved country as he had once known it - or close to it, for, as Bilbo had sung by the fire in his little chamber in Rivendell, "in every tree, in every wood, there is a different green." Frodo felt the change, just as the Elves of Lothlórien felt the tides passing through their ancient land, but without bitterness. The many lands he had passed through returned to his memory as he journeyed on. Travelling always used to clear his thoughts, and it did so now. He felt the unease within him unravelling, although he still did not fully understand why he was riding to Buckland; he merely knew that it was right to do so and that he had a purpose for returning. Ever intuitive, his powers of foresight had waxed and his spirit had warmed and strengthened, even as his body had waned. He knew that his health was failing, and this did not panic him; he merely responded with grace and sense on the whole, knowing that he could no longer run or ride as fast as he had before his terrible odyssey. Truth to tell, however, if Sam had known how ill his master had been, he would never have let him ride forth, let alone walk, as had been his original intention. But Sam was busy with his firstborn child and her mother, and knew nothing of Frodo's last illness, seeing only his master's joy at his friend's happiness and his scholarly commitment to recording the tale of their travels, which had kept him busy and locked away for so many days - in addition to the space he was obviously giving to the newlywed couple. Still watchful of his master on the way home to the Shire, it seemed to Sam that Frodo was to a degree settling down; something was still wrong, he felt - but on the whole he had high hopes for the future.

But things were not the same. This journey was not the same. Of course, he had no wish to be repursued by the Ringwraiths and hunted to spiritual death. But things were so different now. And he felt that a journey - half familiar, half new - might lead him to a greater understanding of the changes, both inner and outer, that had taken place - or perhaps to an acceptance of what he almost understood already. The crispness in the air reminded him of something else that was different. He usually travelled in autumn, but it was spring-time; the air was not mellow, but fresh. Yet that was odd, because it always felt like autumn now, deep within his psyche. Perhaps he was a perpetual Wanderer, and that was why. His spirit still longed to roam free, but his body had become a cage.

His long travails had somehow stripped him of any natural sense of time. It was now mainly the domesticity of Sam and Rose that punctuated its passage. He worked mostly at night, by candlelight, and the comfort of the stars which he saw clearly from the window of his study. "Eärendil", he had sighed, as he dreamily caressed the white gem nestled against his breast. "Brightest of stars, guide me now through the valley of death." It had been a difficult chapter to write, and worse was still to come. He had only rough drafts for the next episodes. He had recorded all that he recalled of Sam's account to him in Mordor of Gollum's betrayal and his own heroic defence of his master, yet it had pained him almost immeasurably to do so, and the knuckles of his right hand had been white from grasping the quill, though no whiter than those of the other hand, that gripped the silver chain of Arwen as if it were a lifeline. Frail it seemed, though substantial - a strand of Elvendom, shining in the darkness of the night, both actual and spiritual - like the slender silver-grey rope which had descended to him down the Emyn Muil, where he had clung in the driving rain, struck blind, as it seemed, by the winged Nazgul rending through the atmosphere. It was indeed to Elvendom and beyond that he clung in his dark and twilit life; the stars of Varda and the whisperings of Ulmo. He was fading, even as the Elves were: his deeds were past, as were theirs. But what of his future? Every droplet of dew, every raindrop, sent deep yet gentle tremors through his soul. The Ainulindalë, distant in time, whispered to him through brook and stream, through lake and river. The themes of Ilúvatar, perverted by Melkor yet still incorruptibly holy, rippled through his subconscious, even as the blessèd water ran through his hair and down into his clothes. He had borne almost the entire life-force of Morgoth's henchman about his neck. He knew the weight of that corruption.

It was raining; had been raining for several hours, and he had scarcely noticed. No more had he realised how much time had passed; indeed, only three hours remained before dawn. Checking himself, he dismounted by a stream, and let Strider drink and graze by starlight. He stooped to the water himself and drank a little, quietness creeping into his soul. "Remember Galadriel and her Mirror", he whispered, as he gazed into the dark water, wondering about Elvenhome beyond the Sundering Seas, as though looking into the indigo stream would tell him the secrets of that far land. "Galadriel", he whispered again, and touched the Phial in his inside breast pocket. Then he turned up his face again to Eärendil's star. There was the final remnant of the last Silmaril, one of the three jewels for which the White Lady and her kin had left Aman so long ago, some traversing the cruel and perilous Helcaraxë after Fëanor in his wicked madness had burned the Teleri ships. What was it all about? Why had the Noldor left Aman, if it was such an unstained Paradise, and dared such peril to reach Middle-Earth? What peril, indeed, might he be daring, if he ventured to those far shores? Were all elves proud and hungryfor power? Had he been blinded by their knowledge, their grace, their apparent sublimity? Could he ever really live amongst them?

Half-dreaming, he rose and fastened the pony to the bough of a tree by a long tether. Then he lay down on some fairly dry grass beneath the tree, and passed into his recurrent dream of the rain-curtain which turned to silver glass; but when the glass curtain drew back, Frodo's vision always darkened. Then he thought of faithful Amandil, lost upon the waves to who knew what fate, and the thought haunted his psyche, even as at times it crept into the soul of the King Elessar, descendant of that ancient Númenorean prince, and spouse of Undómiel, who for his sake had relinquished the Undying Lands for ever.

Could Saruman's mockings be right? Was it Amandil's voice that came wailing over the seas, intermingled with the crying of the gulls? Would even Galadriel, who had rebelled, be allowed to step back onto the shores of Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, or would they pass like phantoms into turbulence and chaos?

Frodo dozed for a few hours, and was eventually woken by the nuzzling of the pony. Half-dreaming, he washed, drank and remounted. Strider knew his little master well, and bore him with little direction towards Buckland. Frodo did not know how long it took them, at a variable pace, now ambling, now jogging for a while. Jolting shook his frame and aggravated old wounds, and the pony sensed its master's distress and slowed to a smooth, gentle pace.

So it was that Meriadoc Brandybuck saw his half-somnambulic cousin come riding towards the Bucklebury Ferry one evening in late April, and he ran towards him, shouting joyously. Frodo partially woke from his dreamlike state, then looked up. Warmth flowed through his veins, and he seemed to return to mortal spheres. Frodo looked tranquil and rested, and Merry thought for a moment that he saw again the mischievous prankster and favourite cousin from the days at Brandy Hall. His features became clearer as he approached Merry and dismounted. The eyes were deeper than then, like wells of joy and sorrow, the face paler; its lines more sculpted, his gentle beauty still more radiant. The two cousins embraced, and Merry held him for longer than usual. It seemed years since they had spent time alone together. There was a sadness about him, Merry thought, as he kissed his brow, but Frodo smiled at Merry, who took his arm and led him to the Ferry, with the pony walking beside them.

Merry divined something otherworldly about his cousin as he unwound the ropes. Tranquil he seemed indeed, yet tired and fragile. It had been a long ride, but two years hence he had sprung out of his concealment in the wagon, in relief at seeing Merry, hungry for supper, and robust with joy, however tinged with dread and sorrow, at the fellowship of his friends. Now he seemed to hug the pole as though requiring anchorage as he stared at the rippling surface of the Brandywine. This river had claimed his parent's lives, some forty years previously, but fear of water had never seemed to be an issue for him. He and Merry had fished and swum together in their youth, and indeed water seemed to calm and soothe Frodo more these days than ever before. Yet it was with slow caution that he stepped onto the Ferry, leading the pony, and looking preoccupied as Merry paddled them to the far bank.

"Let me take him for you", said Merry, as he stabled the pony in the outhouse with his own beast, a small breed of horse from Rohan, which he was now tall enough to ride alone. He checked the contents of the trough and manger. Then he unlocked the house at Crickhollow. "A bath! O blessed Meriadoc!", came the voice of Pippin in their memories - loudly in Merry's ears, more distantly in Frodo's. When they had shed their cloaks and washed, they went to the kitchen and warmed up the already prepared supper before carrying it to the hearth. Joying in each other's company, they ate slowly as they listened to the gentle falling of rain on the window-panes, and then began to talk.

First Frodo told Merry about Sam and Rose, and the baby. Merry had seen them, of course, but he and Pippin had been absent since their one visit to celebrate Elanor's birth. They were still busy re-ordering the Shire, although most of their directions had now been set in place. Then Frodo took out a packet of legal documents securing the house at Crickhollow under the names of Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took. Merry thought it strange that Frodo should have felt the need to do this, but he must have his reasons. Indeed shrewd, perceptive Merry perhaps understood Frodo better than anyone else; often Sam could not see the wood for the trees in the urgency and ardour of his devotion. But Frodo and Merry in a sense went back even further, and Merry could sometimes see what Sam was too close to see. Never had Merry and Pippin questioned Sam's rights over Frodo as he sat by his bedside in Rivendell, but their own love for their brave, vulnerable kinsman had not gone unnoticed, and often Merry had thought of ways of comforting Sam's fears and easing Frodo's path on the long ride from Weathertop. Now, looking into Frodo's dark eyes beneath his soft, dark curls, Merry knew that Frodo had come back to Buckland for a reason, whether it was clear to him or not. He waited, patiently, joying in his company, as they drank fortified, sweet wine by the fire and Frodo's cheeks flushed a little. Maybe he needed to talk, but scarcely knew it. He was still Merry's cousin, still Frodo Baggins, the sweet, energetic boy with the misspent Buckland youth, but a golden light seemed to radiate from him now. His grey elven-cloak hung in the porch, and his breeches and waistcoat, as always, were unostentatious, though of beautiful quality. His old travelling clothes, brutally ripped from him in captivity, had been too torn and shredded to mend, but lay preserved in honour in Gondor, now so many leagues away. Now and again, Frodo's left hand would creep to his shirt and close about something beneath it, as Merry asked him how his memoirs were coming along. Merry, as always, was slightly flambuoyant in his dress, and his waistcoat was of a brighter colour than Frodo's, but his mail and weapons were stowed away in a chest in the spare bedroom. The Shire was still more vigilant than it had been during its long slumbers, but safety had now been restored. Off had come the garb of the esquire of Rohan as he returned to Crickhollow for a spell, and the king's friend, who radiated more elvishness every day, had hung up his cloak of Lórien weave when he had come to the fire. There they now sat: hobbits, kinsmen, childhood friends, deep in talk as only hobbits knew how, and although Merry had spoken first, Frodo had asked him about his labours, and Peregrin's, with the air of one who cared deeply yet was removed and remote; but the more they spoke, the more Frodo seemed to return to his old self. Merry sensed a preciousness about this sweet, rainy evening, but he did not realise until several months later that Frodo had come to say goodbye. Neither did Frodo, fully.

"Well, we haven't had a talk like this in ages! Everything seems to have moved so fast since we came home." "Yes, yes; I suppose so. Is it really so long?" "Do you remember the old days at Brandy Hall, Frodo? How we used to talk? Pip was only a baby then - or a twinkle in his father's eye. Then he started to grow up, and follow us everywhere, and somehow we stopped speaking so many secrets to each other, or getting up to so many pranks!" "Well, you know Pippin - anything you tell him goes in one ear and straight out of his mouth!"

Both laughed, and Frodo's smile showed his deep affection for the impetuous Took, the cheeky, big-hearted lad who looked up to Frodo as to an elder brother. As Merry and Pippin had grown closer, Frodo himself had taken more and more to solitary wandering - indeed, the last seventeen years of his life before the quest seemed to have flown by, as he waked through the Shire, visiting the deathless Elves, and seeming to push Time away before the confidence of his stride. For indeed those years had barely touched his face or his features, although the soulful innocence beneath had nonetheless taken on a maturity far beyond his years, either actual or apparent. That he had not married or settled down had not seemed very odd to Meriadoc, the adrenalin of wanderlust had still burned within him, and they were all of them unmarried then. There was plenty of time, and somehow Merry knew that Frodo would only marry for love, if at all. Now, however, Merry wondered if Frodo had wandered partly in subconscious pursuit of a soul-mate. And what mate was there for this rare soul, who inspired reverent love in women of Gondor and of elven-kind, and whose powers of intuition indeed saw into the hearts of women and perceived their sorrows, yet whose peculiar vocation had made him so ultimately alone in the world?

Why had Frodo hesitated on the riverbank? What was troubling him? Frodo himself was simultaneously gauging the mood of his cousin. As he had followed Merry into the house, he noticed the brown scar on his forehead and wondered what horrors he had suffered at the hands of the orcs, hidden beneath his youth and merriment and the strong Fallohide spirit that had protected both of them for so long. Frodo looked back at Merry, and their eyes met. Both were haunted by their memories, but for Frodo they ran deeper, piercing his marrow, penetrating his dreams to their bitter, empty core. Often he lay awake listening to the rain, or got up and continued writing far, far into the night, to stave off the nightmares that came when sleep closed around him, when he was back, drowning under dark water, his veins heavy with poison; terrible, hostile faces all around him, their dripping fangs as sharp as the teeth of piranha fish. And he remembered the terrible mental connection. When that dreadful, tentacled creature in the foul, stagnant pool before Moria had grabbed his leg and pulled him under the water, his head had been swept beneath, through the reeds, and he had seen these vicious little creatures, cowering from the terrible Watcher yet maybe in some terrible collaboration with it. He was sure that they would devour him if they dared, strip to the bone any limb that the monstrous creature flung away, as Sauron maliciously sent victims to Shelob, laughing obscenely at his malevolent philanthropy. All this had flashed before him as horrible, burning liquid was forced down his throat, and grinning faces, razor-sharp teeth, hook-like claws and knives had closed around him. Choking, half-drowning in poison and foul liquor, he had expected, once more, to be devoured, piecemeal, torn limb from limb, annihilated and crushed. Always, in Bilbo's adventures, the fear of being eaten was predominant, and it had pursued his favourite nephew through his own odyssey; yet the devouring for him had become a dreadful reality, both inner and outer: insidious, calculated, and as malignly inventive as it was ineffably cruel.

Frodo's voice slowed to a murmur as he gazed into the fire, lost deep within the memories, then looked back at Merry, clothed from head to foot in the reflected tongues of flame. Merry looked at his flushed, iridescent cousin, and, as quietly and unobtrusively as he could, whispered: "Are you all right, Frodo?"

Frodo frowned his features into a smile and looked back at Merry. "Oh yes - just a bit stuck, you know. I've brought the saga almost to the crunch" (here he winced a little at his unfortunate choice of noun) - "but I thought I'd break off for a moment - I realised I had to catch up with the goings-on in Gondor and Rohan, or the story wouldn't make much sense. And I took plenty of notes, from you and Pippin, and Gimli, and Aragorn and Legolas, but - well, it all seems so far away; I just can't quite visualise it. I remember Faramir heading for Osgiliath, and I start to imagine what it would be like, but then - I don't know, writer's block kicks in, I suppose."

Merry smiled. As his cousin had grown older, he had begun to exhibit a tendency to put things off, even as his body had delayed the business of ageing - the hallmark of the perfectionist, of one who expected such impossibly high standards of himself, and therefore tarried in dread of the arduous tasks required to accomplish them. But when he finally screwed up his resolution, there was no holding him back - as if, once having Time overtake him, he must chase it, flat out, to the finishing post. His swift egress from Parth Galen came to mind - although Merry himself had been whisked off that day, in quite another direction. No doubt Fate had played a part in delineating both their paths, but Fate had manifested itself rather physically in his own case, in the amorphous, charging form of a huge band of orcs. Almost imperceptibly, Merry touched his brow, then guided his hand through his hair. Frodo saw this, but remained silent.

"Well, why not take a break?" suggested Merry. "Why the great urgency? It took Bilbo well over fifty years to write a much shorter tale - although I admit he liked to translate and versify too. But honestly - it seems to me that you've hardly been out of that study for months. We all know the Baggins definition of a study is a room in which one can sit and daydream and pretend to work - (here he smiled roguishly, and Frodo laughed) - but you seem to be taking this "historian" lark altogether too seriously."

"Well - I promised Bilbo. And ." "Look, we both know even old Bilbo can't go on forever, but he only asked you to knock things into shape, didn't he? You've done that, and the tale is well on its way, if you've brought the final draft as far as you say. That'll be more than enough to satisfy the old fellow that you'll finish the story, for posterity or whatever." "But I want to finish it. I want to. And somehow I can't." "It'll come, Frodo. Why don't we go for a swim in the morning? Nothing like it for clearing the mind. It may chase away the writer's block, too." "You're right. I'm sure it will help." "But you worry too much, you know. Why not just take him what you've done so far, when you do decide to visit Rivendell again? Pip and I will come with you - we've been like ill-sitting hens since we drove out the last of the ruffians." They both laughed again. "And Bilbo will give you a few ideas, and then my completist friend will be able to finish his magnum opus!"

Frodo smiled, but he did not look much relieved. He knew he had the skill to unravel the goings in the West; it was the final stages to Mordor that he dreaded. His memories of that terrible plain were hazy yet intense: internalised, wrenching, hellish and despairing, and his tale had not yet even crossed the awful threshold which preceded it. In short, these memories were indescribable. How he was to record them he did not know, but the account would be brief. He would check certain facts with Sam, and bring the tale back to the swinging boughs of Ithilien as swiftly as possible. Ithilien. If only the story had stopped there. He remembered his former self, the one who had debated and conversed with Faramir. If only he could have ridden with the Captain of Gondor to the attempted succour of Osgiliath; if only his errand had permitted it. The he would have been almost whole - or died whole, at least. And Faramir had tried to warn him, tried to stop him, tried to deflect him from the road to Cirith Ungol. Was he merely stubborn and fey, or was he truly doomed? He had had no real choice in the matter - had left himself no time for the luxury of choices, as he saw it - and that last spurt, that champions' sprint through the foul tunnel, would somehow accomplish the task, redeem the lost time, break through the impenetrable darkness, out of the black, toxic air, out, out .

Guttering, choking for air, the quill itself thirsting and scratching across the page . in his anxiety to break through this suffocating blackness, Frodo had written, scrawled, tried to scribe his way out of the passage, forgotten to re-dip then pen in his reluctance to stop the cathartic flow. The quill scraped discordantly. He became aware of it and dipped it in the ink-well, and again the letters flowed across the page, until suddenly he came to the climax of that sprint. Six weeks ago, or something like that, he had sat at his desk in the Bag End study, trying to get to grips with the darkest part of the story, and as he reached the part where consciousness had left him in Shelob's den of horror two years before, he had felt as though he were being sucked into a black hole - nearer and nearer to it's dreadful, bottomless centre - until suddenly an indescribable pain, present and immediate, had buoyed him up into the conscious world, and he had risen up out of the body that lay senseless in the grip of Shelob and saw, aghast, his helpless form being bound fast in the ogress's viscous threads. But simultaneously, that terrible, stinging pain, which he had felt two years ago as he sank into stupor, returned with dreadful force as the vicious ulceration broke out afresh at the back of his neck and shoulder. He stuffed his left hand into his mouth to muffle his cry of pain, for Sam must not know of it at any cost, and bit down hard in his agony. Blood from his hand splashed over the parchment of the Red Book, and darkness came into Frodo's mind as he fainted over it.

Two hours later, there came a knock at the door. Rose was calling him, and Frodo could dimly hear the words "coffee" and "breakfast" rippling through the atmosphere and calling him back from the darkness. In a panic, and with painful effort, Frodo roused himself and answered: "Good heavens, is it really breakfast-time?", with forced but entirely convincing cheerfulness. "I'm so sorry - I must have fallen asleep while I was writing! Could you just leave it outside the door, do you think?" "Right you are, sir", replied Rose, who knew of Frodo's bashfulness and, since she did not at that moment fear for his well-being, did not wish to disturb him, newly woken out of his tousled sleep. Frodo looked down at the page. His deep red blood had mingled with the blue-black ink. Frodo himself did not see the connection, but years later Sam was to read that page, purpled with the nobility of sacrifice, glorified with the humiliation of pain. Frodo cleaned the edges of the paper with water and a cloth, as well as he could without rubbing through the quality parchment. Tears and water, too, had washed that page, immersing it in the resplendent translucence of the mortified saint.

Frodo had then cleaned and tidied himself as quickly as possible and gone to the kitchen, where he had gently chided Rose for waiting on him when she was so near her time. Rose smiled, telling the master of Bag End that the imminent arrival woke her early these mornings, and it did her good to stay active. She looked, indeed, the picture of health. They took more coffee together as they talked about the nursery and all the beautiful things the child would have. It healed Frodo's heart to see the flush in her cheeks. His struggles had not been for nothing. Hope and happiness still remained.

But when he had returned to his study, he had known that the next part of the story - his story - was the hardest of all. Courage had failed him, and pain and sickness had returned. For the next few weeks, when he could bear it, he wrote and re-wrote his notes on the siege of Gondor and the battle of the Pelennor Fields, and the final stand at the Black Gate. The discerning eye of the scholar and the objective precision of his writing helped to protect him from the dragging weight of his illness and to focus his mind away from his sufferings. It was easier, true enough, to be objective about these chapters. Yet he also felt the pain of his friends as he thought of Pippin, crushed beneath a troll maybe ten times his size, and Merry, blinking through his tears and anguish as his lord and king was broken under Snowmane. "O, I have ta'en too little heed of this!", Frodo might have thought to himself, but that, too, would have been unwarranted self-reproach. His eyes had been cleansed with tears as he had written about that chance meeting in the little lane near Minas Tirith, when Merry had sunk into Pippin's lap under the dreadful canopy of the Black Breath. He must visit them, both of them, alone, to see how they were. The memories must lie heavily on them too. Soon after the birth of Elanor, he had decided to go to Crickhollow and visit Merry. Then he would go to the Smials, and have a talk with Pippin. If he was to leave the Shire, Middle- Earth and mortal lands altogether, and it now seemed that he must, if he were to have any hope of the healing he so deeply craved, he must first be sure that his friends would be all right.

"There's something else, Frodo, isn't there?", said Merry, bringing his cousin back to the present after his long silence. "Thewre's some other reason why you write. It's become a need, a compulsion. A wish for something. What is it?"

"Release", breathed Frodo, almost subconsciously. Then he looked at Merry, realising what he had said. "Catharsis", he repeated. He might as well admit it now. It would be obvious enough, at any rate, to anyone who knew him well, if in years to come they were to peruse the as yet uncharted provinces of the Red Book.

"Catharsis", repeated Merry. "So it was given to you as a task and a labour of love, but it became your - I don't know, lifeline, I suppose. Frodo, I'm so sorry. I had no idea ."

"Sorry?", replied Frodo, faintly perplexed. "No, no - no-one's to blame for this. Why should you be sorry?"

His friends had sensed a change in him, had even felt that he was slipping from them - again - but this time, because they did not want to believe it, they had pushed the thought from their minds. And they had carried on with their lives, chasing Time to the bottom of their tankards, re-ordering the turbulence of the violated Shire, hunting down and dispelling the last of the invaders, just as Sam had reforested their land, planting the new to replace the old and withered.

"It's therapeutic", resumed Frodo. "Keeps the mind focused."

"Too focused", said Merry. He had avoided probing too deeply until now, but his cousin needed relieving of some dreadful memory, too awful to be recorded on paper. He knew that Frodo's history had narrowed into a tunnel of unfathomable pain, of unspeakable trauma. Writing was indeed a focus and release, but it had led him to a point too horrendous to contemplate. Maybe intuition was lent to Merry at that point, or maybe it was long memories of the quiet, bereaved foundling who always said so much less than he felt, but the depths of whose eyes and the warmth of whose presence spoke oceans of feeling and care for those dear to him, and compassion even for those who caused him pain.

"The Tower", said Merry, very quietly. Frodo's shoulders twitched. "Something happened there. I don't know what, and whatever it was, you have no intention of recording it. And yet you can't get past that point until you can start to deal with it - in your own mind - once and for all."

Frodo looked up at Merry. His cousin knew him so well. "Not an easy nut to crack" - but tonight he had had to be far subtler than that night at Crickhollow, now so long ago, when he had unburdened his friend of his cares by telling him what they were. Tonight he did not know them - not quite - but if Frodo were ever to open up about what was troubling him, it surely would be now.

"And I came to see if you were all right", murmured Frodo. Merry's words had this time produced no shock, no open-mouthed astonishment. Perhaps the violation of innocence took away the capacity for surprise.

"Tell me", said Merry, even more quietly. Frodo's eyes closed, and he trembled. "Take your time, but tell me. Or maybe you'll never be free of it."

So rare indeed was it for Frodo to communicate his deepest thoughts, Merry knew that he would never again have the opportunity of helping his friend in this way. "Maybe it's too hard for you, but if you can just give me a hint, maybe I can help you."

"Merry", said Frodo, taking a deep breath, and summoning every ounce of his spiritual strength, "you have been in the captivity of orcs. You know what they are like." "I have. I do."

But Frodo quailed. As he had written Merry and Pippin's story, he had trembled and wept at the thought of their sufferings. At times he had felt alienated from Merry and Pippin, since he and Sam alone had trodden the dreadful path to Orodruin. But the writing of their tale had made him fully realise that he had not been able to protect his young friends, even by absconding from them. He could not go on. He looked up at Merry, and two tears, one welling from each eye, moved slowly down his cheeks. Guilt and grief began to melt his composure; guilt at his weakness, at broaching a matter perhaps best left unsaid, at his powerlessness against his feelings, against the past, against the power of the Ring, against the razor-toothed opponents who had fallen upon him, outnumbered him, stripped and devoured him, torn him physically, dismembered him mentally, limb from limb .

"Frodo, what is it?" Merry moved towards him. Self-control was ebbing. "Grishnakh", replied Frodo, shaking violently. "Did he . oh no, I can't bear it. And I have no right to ask." "Frodo! What do you mean?!" gasped Merry in shock, the silent disclosure breaking on him at last. "Good grief!"

Merry's head swam. Memory flooded back, and he remembered the tracing of Grishnakh's filthy hands through his and Pippin's garments, and the stifling scent of his breath . but, quick-witted, they had played mind- games with the orc, and had been delivered - although not before he had almost crushed them to death beneath his arms.

Merry, who had inched closer and closer to Frodo's chair, took his cousin's hands in his own and kissed them, kissed his eyelids, and looked earnestly into his face. At last he understood. "I'm fine, Frodo", he reassured him. "Pippin's fine. We're whole. We were delivered before anything might have happened. And Grishnakh had other things on his mind. But YOU - heavens above - how long have YOU concealed these memories?" He flung his arms around his cousin and held him close, the younger kinsman protecting the fragile elder. He kissed his hair, and wept into it. "Oh Frodo, why didn't you tell me before? Maybe I could have helped you." Still he held Frodo's trembling frame, as they wept together, before releasing him slightly, and drying his eyes with his own handkerchief. "No, you were right to tell me. I'm strong enough to bear it. No-one should bear such things alone." Frodo looked back at Merry. "Bless you, cousin", was all he could find to say. Then, slowly, Merry's cheeky grin returned, showing Frodo that, although saddened, Merry was not traumatised by his discovery, and he pressed his fist playfully to Frodo's cheek. He squeezed his hands again, then sat down and thought for a moment. Both breathed deeply, then, after some consideration, Merry asked gently:

"Does Sam know?" "No. And he must not." "As you wish. But he never guessed?" "No. I think Arwen knew, somehow - and maybe Gandalf. And Aragorn. But no-one else." "It's safe with me." "Pippin mustn't know either. It was only because I feared for you both . I didn't really mean to tell even you." "I understand. Don't be troubled. This is right. You were fated to tell me." Frodo nodded.

Then Merry got up, shook himself, and smiled. "Do you realise, Frodo Baggins .", he said, impersonating Pippin in tones of very severe opprobrium, "that we have eaten nothing for over two hours?" And then they both laughed, and the memories of friends and fellowship, past and present, washed through them both.

"Tell you what. You go and have a bath while I clear up the kitchen and fix a pot of tea. Won't take me long. No - I can't do much for you. Let me do what I can."

The water had been left heating. Merry had bathed before meeting his friend. As Frodo took off his loosened clothes and slipped beneath the water, he felt a blessedness course through him, cleansing the evil memories, and whispering to him of a final hope of healing. Not today, or tomorrow, but soon. Meanwhile he cherished the company of his kinsman; the friendship of one of his kind and his close kin.

His sublimated form appeared at the door in the white night robe, calmed and comforted, his hair clean and combed. Merry beckoned him to a supper of tea and cookies. "Talking is hungry work", he winked, as Frodo sat down. "No cheese though - we don't want nightmares." "It must be late." "Guess so. My, but it's been good to see you again! Let's go for that swim tomorrow." "Yes, I'd like that." "And you're going on to Great Smials later on?" "Yes, I want to see Pip. Have a proper talk with the young rascal. But I want to visit the grave first." "The grave?" "Yes - my parents' grave." "Well, you're a dark horse and no mistake! But maybe less close than of old, like you said of Gandalf." Merry stopped, but Frodo understood. Seldom had he spoken of his mother and father, but Merry had never doubted the depth of his love for them. It was just that he had never mentioned the grave before.

"We'll have a swim in the Brandywine tomorrow, then ride to Brandy Hall to visit the aged p's", said Merry. "And you can go and see the grave for as long as you like before you go on to the Smials. My parents often ask after you." "Yes, I suppose they wonder how their errant ward has turned out", laughed Frodo. Merry laughed too, but he took another long look at him. Never before had he fully understood the loneliness of the Ringbearer. One day he would read his story in full, but even how he wondered at this person he felt so honoured to have known, at his strength and fragility, at the agonies he concealed beneath the apparent tranquillity and wry humour. Frodo Baggins had come back to Buckland once more. And why? To search for roots amidst a wasteland of exile? To sense the departed spirits of his parents? How terribly alone his life had made him. Merry did not wonder that Frodo had at times seemed something of a loner. He wondered if he himself would still want to talk with his mother if he lost her. Frodo was only twelve years old at the time. It was so sudden, so shocking, so ridiculous; a needless death that had cast his cousin alone on the bitter rocks of the world. Yet he wondered if Primula's son, who had transcended the expectations of the Wise, had ever screamed for his mother, had ever longed for her touch, in the midst of his utmost agonies, at the very end of his endurance, when a burden beneath which the strongest warrior of distant Númenor would have buckled had reduced him to the helplessness of a wailing infant.

Considering all these things, Merry knelt before him. Pippin and he were close, but for Frodo they felt reverence, and always had. Merry looked at Frodo. "Pippin and I", he said, "Not just ourselves - we would have sacrificed each other to save you. And not because of what you bore." A slight shudder passed through Frodo's body at these last words, and his right hand involuntarily touched his breast, but he nodded, and whispered, "I know."

Here, indeed, were those who loved him disinterestedly, who had no stake in him - any more than everyone had had a stake in the future which his labours had tried so hard to preserve. Merry's heart swelled with pride as he remembered Pippin, the Messenger of the King, defending the Ringbearer's honour as they were compelled into battle in their own land. Faramir, too, had felt that love, had foreseen his torment and wished to avert it, in unmixed concern, unlike that of his noble but flawed brother. And these were the very people he was going to leave.

Not for him the victory of Agincourt or Pelennor; the sweet Prince Hal of the madcap Buckland youth was transformed into the blinded ?dipus, searching through the darkness before his eyes for the reason why he still breathed. So, and yet not so. For Frodo was the true knight, the one for whom they all felt the purity of the retainer's love, the bond that transcended the call of sex, wife or kin. And Merry swore to himself to carry this love in his heart, no matter what distractions life brought him, no matter how many children he had. This he thought to himself again, six months later, as he rode back from the Grey Havens with Samwise and Pippin. He would never forget him - and that precious night in Crickhollow had stepped over the bridge of Time and given him a moment of eternity that he would carry throughout his life. Pippin thought the same of Frodo's visit to him at Great Smials, as he rode by Merry's side towards Buckland - and although they were singing again, their friend, who had not forgotten them, was embedded deep within their hearts, from which burst their hope and song.

"I did my best, mother", Frodo murmured, as he planted fresh blooms of primrose and primula around the grave. "Sweets to the sweet; farewell .." "You have obviously been planning to go and saying farewell to all your favourite haunts since spring", echoed the voices of his cousins in Crickhollow, as they unmasked their conspiracy of love to him., almost two weeks before the first blow had struck him and he had fallen, pierced by the Morgul-blade. "Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder", echoed his own voice. No indeed - not Frodo as he was then, and not at the same, unruined valley. Sharkey's men had seen to the latter, and as for the former .

"Your best is the best there is", came Primula's voice, carried some forty- five years on the wings of memory. "You, my heart, my own, my pride, my precious son." Frodo sat at the graveside for long hours, as the evening deepened. No word of blame was here, and a mother, in spite of partiality, knew best. She had always spoken truth, and spoken it quietly. Primula was, indeed, a gentle soul, but Drogo, his solid, loving father, had been no less proud of his rare son, of the child whom they jokingly called an elf-changeling on account of his radiant beauty and sensitive, inquisitive mind, but who was unmistakably theirs; their only child, and the scion of their love. "It's not for ever", he whispered. "I'm not going beyond the Circles of the World. Not for ever." He took from his breast another gift of renewal and remembrance - this one from Arwen, though from the land of her mother's kin - and from Aragorn, from the lands of his ancient kindred. Frodo turned over the earth with a small trowel, and carefully sprinkled the small packet of seeds into his palm. He kissed them before sprinkling them evenly into the rich, fertile ground. And as the capable brown hands of Samwise had planted his little silver nut and a mallorn had begun to sprout forth from the ground with certainty of strength, greatness and majesty, so the white hands of Primula's son covered over these seedlings with earth and watered them with his tears. And so it was that the fragile, delicate blooms of niphredil and simbelmÿne came to grace this mound, the nearest thing that Middle-Earth would ever have to a grave for the Ringbearer, even as the flower of perpetual memory still graced the lowly yet valiant soldiers of ancient Númenor, lying beneath their burial mounds in lands far away. "When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien." Not only in Lórien, while the hearts of his friends remembered him. And the Shire now had a living Elanor in human form.

"Farewell", said Frodo softly. "Farewell, dear mother. Goodbye, dear father. Wait for me on the other side of eternity." And he rose and walked back to Brandy Hall in the twilight, his living form reflected along the river, rippling with each step. He felt strengthened and calm as he thought once more of the Red Book and his promise to Bilbo. The Tale of the Ring would be completed, and he knew that he now had the strength to see it through.

And on that rainy night in Crickhollow, Merry took the candle and led Frodo towards the bedroom. The house was somewhat sparsely furnished since Merry and Pippin had taken most of its contents back to Bag End, and Frodo felt somehow calmed and relieved by this. Less baggage, less evidence of the inheritance which on some level he had never quite thought of as his own. The bed was comfortably made, with clean white sheets, soft blankets and a downy quilt.

Frodo needed something they could not give him - the love of a good woman. Merry still prayed that he would find her, that elusive soul-mate, but he would not leave him alone tonight, this hobbit for whom he felt such overwhelming love. When he blew out the candle, he would not leave him to scream alone in his dreadful nightmares, if they should return to pierce his current mood of peace. He entered the bed-chamber and closed the door.

As when, years before, they had been bedfellows at Brandy Hall, Merry got into bed beside Frodo and pulled the covers over them both. But instead of turning over to go to sleep, he turned to his cousin and put his arms around him, even as Sam had held his trembling master on the very eve of eucatastrophe, at the foot of Mount Doom. He took his left hand and kissed it, and gently stroked his hair, before laying his head on the pillow beside Frodo's and clasping him in a close embrace. Frodo took Merry's hand in love and gratitude, and clasped it to his breast, and they fell asleep in peace, and slept through the night, Merry's form sheltering Frodo whenever he sighed or trembled. "What a piece of work was this being, this prince among halflings; how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form, how like an angel; in apprehension, how like a god. The paragon of his kind; the quintessence of elvishness." But Merry could find no words to express this as he cradled the precious, wounded frame that slumbered beside him; the body of the gentlest, bravest person he had ever known.

Now Meriadoc stood at the Haven of Mithlond, witnessing the departure of his cousin in Cirdan's ship. And what a passing! "Here was a royal fellowship of death!" No, not death. This was not the spectral ship of which Saruman had mocked. Yet this was a passage out of mortal lands, and one which would separate Frodo from them until the Breaking of the World. It was, indeed, a matter for tears. But not for despair.

And as Merry turned from the Haven with Peregrin and Sam, the memory of his friend, reflected on the waters, washed over by the tide and his own tears, soothed and comforted his soul. "Maybe thou shalt find peace. Maybe thou shalt find it. Maybe thou shalt find - her. Farewell", he had whispered to the waves; but he rode back to the Shire in peace and blessedness, sure that his cousin would at last be made whole, in whatever sense that was meant to be.