What Gandalf Heard
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed… 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if ye will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'
Gandalf stands in the sea.
The tide has drawn out, exposing the shiny grey and white rocks. He steps carefully among them in the morning mist, searching, his white robes dragging in the lingering pools as the gull calls fall muffled through the pale air.
Here, below the white cliffs, is the place the hobbits loved to come to on moonlit nights. The sea would draw back her skirts and Frodo would clamour over her naked knees, dipping his dark head into wet hollows, lifting rocks in his hands to see what hid underneath.
Sam would go slower, following, ever watchful of the distant foam, measuring their time suspiciously as if the sea meant to trap them out unawares.
"Now Frodo, look here. See where the waves are breaking? We've not much time."
Frodo would laugh in his way, dismissing Sam's worries. "You forget, love. I can swim!"
Gandalf would remain on the wet flat sands with Bilbo, watching them and waiting for Frodo to come back in with a small sack of wonders: purpled spines, cream-curled shells, odd oozing creatures with too many legs. When they'd sufficiently remarked and awed over them, Sam would take the sack and wade back in, just far enough to gently send the little sliding, crawling things back to their home as the tides returned.
Gandalf smiles with the memory as he bends to pick up a rock; under it a pale white crab cowers, newly hatched from its old shell. Its limbs are slick and delicate. Gandalf scoops the sand out from under the rock before he sets it down, careful not to crush this vulnerable being who must lie hidden until its bones can grow strong again.
This is not the case with the next creature Gandalf finds.
"Most unusual fish," he says, turning the limp sea-child over in his arms, wearied of the waves that carried it here.
"The elves will want to see you."
Círdan waits in Gandalf's stone rose garden, his long beard blowing over the thorns. The wizard shows the Eldar-lord his catch and Círdan is moved.
Gandalf whistles for Shadowfax and the two of them mount and ride slowly towards the harbour road. The wizard feels the sadness seeping slowly into his bones like the sea water staining is robes. As they pass beneath the evergreens, his heavy heart is stirred with memories of this Lonely Isle, of days upon days in which he has tarried here: of his youth within the shelter of Yavanna's groves, of his departure to Middle-earth, days of darkness and doubt; and now in this latter age, the days of peace and laughter.
Today the sun is bright and warm and the distant tower of Avallónë stands out over the crest of the forest, a beacon of the sea.
Gandalf thought he should have known something was wrong long before the snow began to fall. He remembers sitting at his study window, deep in a book of lore when the flakes of an unexpected winter began to fall outside, sudden and heavy onto the boughs of the pines.
He chuckled at its absurdity, and went to the stone window to let out his hand to catch some of it, cold and delicate in his palm.
The pounding upon his door sounded moments later.
Gandalf hurried down the stairs and opened the heavy oak door.
Bilbo stood alone, his face ashen and drawn.
"It's Sam, Gandalf. You must come. I've left Frodo alone."
Shadowfax hastened them both through the snowfall, leaving trample tracks through the forest and over the snowy sandhills to slow at last at the white cliffs where the halflings dwelled. Gandalf brushed the flakes from his lashes and brows to better understand what his eyes saw.
At the cliff's edge the snow collected over a strange shape motionless and quiet, not part of the hill. Gandalf came forth and kneeled in the thick white powder. He reached out to brush the cold settlement from the dark curls, falling onto cold hands and arms that cradled the other who lay so still. The falling sky had buried the hobbits' legs and feet, coating their shoulders and moulding them into one sculpted form. Sam lay across his master's lap, his fine hobbit's face sealed in silence.
"Frodo…" Gandalf said slowly as he opened his palm to lift the hobbit's small chin.
Frodo raised his eyes and squinted strangely at the dropping sky.
"It's snowing," he said in wonder.
"Yes, Frodo; it is."
Frodo was nested in a bowl of snow, tied bush twigs shaped into windows and arches lay broken and tangled under them. A birdcage.
"Sam always loved the snow," he said, as if in a fairy-dream, and began to brush the white flakes from his lover's hair; while at their side, Bilbo wept.
Shadowfax carried the hobbits through the snowfall as Gandalf walked ahead. The steed took slow muted steps, absorbing the dips of the buried road upon his proud legs, easing the journey for them. Gandalf would pause to look back from time to time. Frodo sat up straight upon the beast's back, pale hands steadying the body he held before him, the face hidden away in the folds of his cloak like a mother shields her child from the wind and rain. Frodo gazed ahead at the road before them with clear far-seeing eyes. To Gandalf he seemed almost an Istari--strong, yet scarred, gifted with the age and wisdom to understand this world and beyond.
The elves met them in the grove at the height of the Tol. Here the evergreens stood dusted in white, the sounds of the forest, dulled. The half-lit world of near-night still lingered as though time had chosen to pause and observe this unknown event. Círdan was among them and he came forward and lifted his arms to Frodo. Frodo let go and they slid down together. The elves rushed forward to catch them up and bear them away into the long twilight.
Gandalf held out his hand to Bilbo who still sat, clutching Shadowfax's mane tight in his knuckles. His age was worn plainly on his face.
"I don't know what to do, Gandalf. I don't know what to do."
Gandalf's first sight upon waking was of white polished arches, blown with a light breeze that swept into his chamber, warm and comforting. He was slow to wake as if wandering out of a long pleasant dream. He lay and listened to a distant music as his breath eased with the scent of mist and high cloud. For then it was a glory to simply be still--to feel no pain, just to be.
When he rose, Gandalf wandered the long halls of bright white stone, carved with golden inscriptions in a language so old, it was some time before he could recall their meaning.
He sat at a high window, looking out upon layer and layer of cloud, fading in and out of mist. The golden runes upon the stone bench where he sat read: Behold the whole of Arda. And Gandalf knew where he was, Oiolossë, the uttermost tower of Taniquetil, seat of Manwë, where all the world fell away below. He was home.
Then one day Gandalf woke in his solitude to the sound of singing, soft and beautiful beyond words. He rose to seek it, passing along the high windows one after another until he came to a great golden door and heard the singer beckon him to enter.
Shield thine eyes, Olórin. Long hast thou been from our sight.
Gandalf entered the room with a hand held over his eyes. There was a brightness behind them so great, he wept to feel it, to know once again the light of Illúvatar he had so long missed. He walked slowly forward, following the song until he was bid to kneel and rest until his eyes would ease.
When he at last raised his head, Gandalf beheld a vision of two forms glad in bright robes. From the one came a blinding dazzle of starlight shining from a face so beautiful it pierced his heart. Varda, Valar of the stars smiled upon him and at her side, stood her mate, Manwë, wisest and most powerful of all the children of Illúvatar, save one.
My masters, how may I serve thee?
His joyous birth-language came slowly to his tongue, too long dulled by the syllables of Middle-earth. Varda's singing slowly silenced as he waited for answer. It was Manwë who first spoke.
Long hast thou journeyed within the Outer Lands, Olórin. Dost thou not recall thy final days?
At once Gandalf was taken back from the warmth and light of Oiolossë and thrust into the fire and shadow of Khazad-dûm, falling, forever falling--his nostrils choked with smoke and his ears deafened by the roaring of the beast that fell beside him.
I was lost. I fell with mine enemy and he fought me. I hunted him from the bowels of the mountains to their highest shelf and there I struck him a fatal blow. All was gone. My gifts forgotten. I was but an old man, broken and frozen in the snow.
This tale we have seen unfold from our high seat. Thou didst fight bravely, but thou hast not seen the end of thy days. Thou hast not sought thy rest for evermore.
Even as Manwë spoke these words, Gandalf was flooded with memory of his nearest past: Of how he came to be drawn into those nameless depths and more acutely, those whom he had bid to fly. What had become of their Fellowship? How they must have continued their perilous quest even as he fell into darkness.
Be eased,spoke the Lady of starlight. Thine errand upon the Hither Land continues. The one thou hast named Ringbearer lives still, though grief and despair hath entered his heart since thy departure.
My masters,spoke Gandalf. I beg thee, return me to my purpose. I have failed thee but for now. But if I shall be renewed and returned, I will face mine enemy with fortitude five-fold. And should the Evil Lord turn his eye to me and meet my gaze, may he tremble in fear of the wrath he hath engendered therein.
Not by wrath wilt thou be victorious,warned Manwë. Within that fire lies the burning of deception and the doorway to darkness. Remember thy teachings, or else thou wilt be lost to us and my brethren shall lament for thee, our most beloved servant.
Gandalf bowed his head and was silent. So much of his former self had been lost to him. But with each breath the memories returned and his inflamed heart was calmed by the green hills and golden dawn of the lands he loved, though they be gravely troubled.
Remember now the hope thou hast brought before thee in times passing,spoke Varda, knowing his thoughts even as he summoned them. Thou art a vessel of strength not by the flame of Anor but by the giving of thy heart.
Gandalf recalled the long journey as if on the wings of eagles--from the Shire to Isengard and then to Rivendell where Frodo had been brought hurriedly though the forests and lain before the healing hand of Lord Elrond, not a moment to spare. Gandalf could still see the face of suffering and burden so clearly worn upon that small, pale face.
I must go back,he spoke at once. I must not leave my friends to this task alone. Too long have I tarried here in sleep and dreams. They have suffered for it and I fear the most for the one who bears the burden of evil. He is strong, stronger then I could have imagined, but he must not be left to this task alone. I beg of thee, return me!
It is by our design that thou shalt be returned. Thou art healed at last and thou shalt wake soon to find not an hour hath passed upon the frozen eyrie from whence thou last departed.
Gandalf bowed in relief. Frodo would not be left alone. But in his heart he knew, the strike from the Nazgûl's blade would not be the worst of Frodo's woundings.
There is something more I would ask,he began, pleading, for the halfling, the one you know as Ringbearer. He came upon this task though my unwitting hand. The finding of the Evil was but the result of a whim of my own design. It was I who sent his uncle into unnecessary peril upon a thief's errand. They do not deserve his fate, the halflings they call Baggins, the elder nor the younger. Long years have they spent entangled close in its influence--worse for the Ringbearer for the task he must complete. I beg of thee, should the balance be restored by his hand, that he be healed of all wounds and live his days in peace at the side of those he loves most in the world.
And how shall we honour this request?asked Manwë. Faint is the influence we carry over the sundering seas. Our light shines only here, in Valinor and her sister-shores of Eressëa.
Then I would ask, great Lord and Master,said Gandalf, that they be granted passage West, out of Middle-earth where all their suffering began.
Thus Manwë answered him: Thy request is mighty, Olórin. One thou shouldst know better than to ask. The lives of mortal kind are not of our concern. Their destiny lies with Our Father, not here to remain forever upon the Undying Lands.
Then let it be by their choice, Gandalf said. Let it be as a gift laid before them to take up or leave aside as they see fit. I cannot know how hard the choice will be for those that bear the Ring, nor how the days that follow the ending of his quest will wear upon them, should it end well. I have great need to undo this manner of course I have long set in place. The people I speak for, the halflings, are innocent and blameless. It is for their protection I feel such a fire stir within. I beg thee, let them be healed!
And Varda spoke: If this promise gives thee hope, Olórin, and restores thee to thy purpose and quells thine anger, then it shall be granted. All who have born this Evil to its end will be offered passage. No more. Though know this, never shall the foot of mortal-kind walk the shores of Valinor. They may journey as far as Tol Eressëa and there live in harmony among the firstborn and benefit from the healing those near shores will bring.
So will it be done, said Manwë.
So it is done,said Varda.
As he bowed his head in thanksgiving, Gandalf felt the polished floor crumble beneath him. The fine robes upon his back tore and fell away, taken up by the hard biting winds of Celebdil upon the pinnacle of the Silvertine. The icy snow under his knees burned his bloodied skin as he rose to face Durin's Tower rising black and broken before his eyes from a long battle that had only just begun.
Gandalf turned his face into the wind and once more made his summons to the Windlord.
In the days that followed, after the Black Gates fell and the fields lay stained with the blood of Rohan and Gondor, the time came for those who had been raised in the highest honours for their victory upon the desperate slopes of Mt. Doom to begin their journey home.
A long road it was, for Frodo wished to see his Uncle once more and Théoden, the fallen King, was borne across the leagues to Meduseld to find his rest within an honoured tomb of stone. There, upon the rolling fields below the Golden Hall, a feast was laid in praise of Éomer, newly-hailed King of the Mark. In the glow of a high bonfire the music and dancing ran late into the night.
The stars pricked between the gusts of woodsmoke as Gandalf wandered through the revellers, accompanied by his own thoughts. At last his feet took him to the edge of the firelight where, upon a haystack, lay two hobbits asleep, their curly heads blown about in the pleasant night breeze. Sam had taken his master up close beside him and sheltered him with his arms and cloak. Frodo lay with his head upon Sam's shoulder, and for once seemed restful in his dreams. Gandalf smiled and made to pass when Sam opened his eyes and spoke softly.
"Gandalf, sir, would you mind staying a bit?"
The wizard paused. "Certainly, lad. What is on your mind?"
Sam blinked up at the night sky and said nothing at first, yet his hand strayed tenderly into Frodo's hair. Gandalf came and sat upon the grass, joining Sam in his heavenward gaze.
"I never thanked you," Sam said at length. "For coming after us, bringing the eagles, I mean."
Gandalf squinted into the darkness. "No thanks is needed, my dear friend. If anything it is I who owe you all the thanks my heart can give."
"I didn't think nobody was left, you see," Sam said, continuing. "The Fellowship and all. Mr. Frodo and I saw that army coming out of the Dead City, and well, I thought in some ways we were the lucky ones to let all those orcs pass us by."
Gandalf smiled sadly and nodded. They had been so very alone, these two, clinging to each other in a dawnless nightmare.
"I wanted you to know, Mr. Gandalf, how glad I am to be here now under these stars. I don't reckon I've ever been as glad for anything in my life before."
Gandalf answered the hobbit with the only words he could find.
"Neither have I, Samwise."
During the days that Frodo chose to remain in the Shire something Gandalf had not foreseen had came to pass. Sam had married. And Gandalf knew the choice of Lúthien would have become a harder path for Frodo to choose. Bilbo would come; Gandalf was certain. Bilbo had always wanted to sail from the very beginning, but did not know he was invited until Gandalf came at last to Rivendell with a well-laid cart to bear the ancient hobbit to the Havens.
"Will Frodo come?" the old hobbit asked him as he was made comfortable upon the cushions and covered in warm blankets.
"I have little doubt he would let you go on another adventure unaccompanied. But his choice is hard; we shall see, my friend."
In Minas Tirith during the days of rejoicing, Arwen had come to Gandalf's side, her queenly brow thoughtful as they stood at the fountain under the White Tree.
"I see Frodo wears the Evenstar openly upon his breast," he said. "You have told him of my Masters' promise."
Arwen nodded and her dark hair danced about her fair face. "He now has a choice to make."
"Did he give you any indication what that choice might be?"
"No," she said. "He keeps his own thoughts."
Even when his boots first touched the planking leading up to the deck of the ship, Gandalf's heart was still filled with doubt. But he turned at last and held out his hand to the halfling who stood frozen between his weeping friends.
"Come, Frodo; it is time."
And then Gandalf knew the decision had been long-made as the Red Book passed from Frodo into Sam's trembling hands.
On the ship Frodo stood at the bow looking upon the horizon, silent and still. He did not speak and not a tear fell from his eyes as they searched for what lay ahead.
They sailed on past the hours and Gandalf watched him from afar until the last shadowy remainder of the lands of Middle-earth began to fade at last in the distance and the wizard was taken by a sadness he did not expect. There would be no more returnings. Gandalf rose and came to set his hand upon Frodo's shoulder.
"Look now, Frodo. Look back before the horizon fades."
At once the hobbit turned to look up at him and in his eyes Gandalf saw the full measure of longing and sorrow Frodo had long hidden so well. The halfling dared to turn his dark head to look behind him and with a sudden cry, Frodo ran aft. His hand reached for his pocket and from it he set free the Glass. Bright it shown as Frodo held the Light of Eärendil aloft at the stern, as far as his arm could reach, as his cloak billowed about him and the last hint of his homeland sank deep into the sea.
Sam was laid on a dais of velvet in the white tower of Avallónë, his body prepared and anointed blessings given by many slim artful hands. The moon dome flooded the polished floor and walls with soft light. The halfling gardener of the sandhills was dressed as he had been earlier that day in a plain hand-woven shirt and woollen breeches and coat. Bilbo lent him his waistcoat as Sam had not thought to wear one that day.
This is the place Gandalf returned to after some hours once the preparations had ended and the hall cleared to allow for privacy. His hand felt cold as he reached to part the tall doors and break the stillness within. In the dimness, Frodo lay upon the velvet pillows of the dais, his right hand clasped in Sam's. His eyes were closed in sleep just as they had been under the stars of Edoras.
Frodo's eyes opened, dry and weary from the long day's rituals. He had not been sleeping.
"We need you to come away, if you will. The elves will care for him now."
Frodo nodded slowly and rose on his arm to sit, but he did not let go of the hand he held, threaded with his own.
"What is the time?"
"It is almost dawn."
Frodo looked up to the height of the open dome where the moonlight shown down upon them in a long pale sheet.
"I suppose it is time we were going."
Gandalf waited as Frodo reached out to smooth Sam's sleeves and collar and to arrange his curls upon his pale forehead, just so. His fingers traced along the jacket trim and over the pocket of Sam's coat, where his fingers stopped to worry a worn spot at the corner.
Frodo let go of Sam's hand and laid it upon the still chest with a kiss. Then he slipped his hand in the pocket to pull out a tiny wrap of cloth, well hidden and until now, overlooked. Frodo cupped the strange bundle in his hands, rolling it about until a small white shell slipped free.
When Frodo first awoke from his long healing sleep upon his arrival in the West, there were many things to do: new faces to meet, new hearths to sit before, new tales to be told and listened to late into the night with good company and a drained flagon of wine.
But those days passed and Gandalf took up residence in the tall stone house at the lake and Frodo and Bilbo soon joined him, occupying rooms on the ground floor while plans were underway for the digging of a smial.
Gandalf spent many afternoons reading in his library with Frodo. The hobbit would sit at the window overlooking the stone gardens below, his quiet face lost in a book or a sketch of a woodcarving or window seat he remembered from Bag End. These days passed peacefully, and in the evenings there was talk and good food and company when they wished for it. But it was those long afternoons Gandalf recalled best when he would watch his small friend secretly as he read.
Frodo was healed, there was no doubting it; his bearing was calm, his shoulders no longer set as if they were prepared to ward off an unseen blow. He seemed happy and alive enough, and would smile pleasantly at every new wonder presented to him in Tol Eressëa. But he was not the Frodo of Bag End--the lad who once used to grin so merrily and run to grasp Gandalf's hand and pull him in to a welcoming fire and hearty supper, the light of life itself shining in his laughing eyes.
But for it all, Frodo never said a word of his suffering. If there was suffering still to be felt in this land of gentleness and ease. And Gandalf did not need to guess the cause.
"How are you faring, Frodo?" Gandalf asked once during their repose when Frodo's eyes had strayed from his sketch book and remained fixed at the view of the distant sea beyond the forest rim.
"I am well, Gandalf," he said, but there was little heart in it.
"That is not what I was inquiring," the wizard pressed, for once putting to words the chief concern he'd born along with Frodo out of Middle-earth. May it be his fate was chosen well.
"Sometimes I play a game with myself," Frodo said softly. "While I sit here with one of your books in my lap, I turn my ear to the forest outside. Sometimes I hear a rustling through the brush and if I let myself believe it…I almost think I can hear him moving in my garden of long ago, gathering flowers. Sometimes I can even smell them, delicate and sweet. And if I sit very still, I can hear him breathing as he moves to bring them to me at my study window."
"One day, he may yet."
Frodo lowered his eyes from the sea and traced his fingers over the mantel sketch he held in his lap. "Sam was born in 1380, the same year I lost my parents. I did not know it then, but in our growing years together, I came to wonder if my mother and father did not somehow send him to me. From the morning I arrived in Hobbiton, and through every step to Mordor and back, he was always at my side."
Frodo paused. He seemed rapt by a vision of far off and long ago--a bittersweet memory perhaps, yet he did not weep. Not once since the Ring met its undoing had Gandalf seen tears visit those lonely eyes.
"Do you still doubt that he will come?"
Frodo sighed and closed his sketchbook, setting it aside. "I dare not ask so much," he said as he rose to leave Gandalf to his dusty age-worn books.
"They should not have been parted," Elrond said to him one night long ago when Gandalf and the two hobbits met to celebrate Arda's Creation with the Elven-lord and his retinue in the Great Firehall of Avallónë.
Bilbo was standing on the hearth-stones, a sloshing tankard in hand, reciting his latest poem in praise of the Tol's excellent complement of toadstools. Frodo sat in a high-backed chair in the shadows, his legs curled under him, gazing at his cup of wine as if it sat a league away.
"Frodo is melancholy this time of year," Gandalf said. "It reminds them both of Shire Yule if I don't miss my guess."
"Perhaps," said Elrond. "Nevertheless, the Valar did not adorn these lands to bear a mortal's burden. Bilbo is well enough, but Frodo walks too heavily upon these shores. It does not take an elf's eye to see he is heartbroken and ever shall be."
"Sam will come," Gandalf said, draining his glass. He and Elrond had argued before over this matter, long before they left Middle-earth. But now there was little point. Frodo had taken sail, chosen this exile if only to give Samwise his chance at a proper life. Or so had been Frodo's brief words on the subject. Gandalf understood that wish more than Frodo could have known. I have thought of a better use for you.
"How can you be certain?" Elrond asked. "He carried the Ring for only a day. Truly, his wounds do not run as deep."
Gandalf kept his eyes on Frodo's face, quiet and beautiful in his contemplation. "I am as certain of it as I was of Frodo finding a path to Orodruin. They are bound, these two; by love, loss and pain. The Ring was not the greatest of their wounds. Sam will come. When, is all we have left to wonder."
Sam did come. And none too soon. Although he would never let Frodo know it, even Gandalf felt his heart falter the moment he beheld Sam, so old and frail, lying asleep in Frodo's bed.
You forget how stubborn your kind is, he'd said to Frodo. This proved true. Sam was a vision of life and hope when he at last climbed the steps to Gandalf's house, its stone halls already teeming with feasting and revelry. Frodo stood at his friend's side with a smile that would have outshone the light of Eärendil. It melted away the chill of doubt in Gandalf's heart.
The next morning was another matter. Gandalf rose from a short rest to find his house in shambles. Drunken slumbering guests lined his hallways while food scraps and dirty plates, cups, pots and spoons adorned the tables, benches and fine Elvish rugs.
He pushed a drooling elf-servant off the bench and made a place to sit at his kitchen table to grumble and pick through the scraps for a bite of breakfast. He found a half of grouse and a tray of cold mutton pudding, but not a drop of wine to be found in all the tumbled emptied barrels.
"Looking for this?"
Gandalf turned from his reasonably clean, although very vacant, glass to find Frodo standing in the doorway with a full sack of wine. "By the Valar, Frodo. Wherever did you find that?"
"Sam stashed it early last night in our room," Frodo said with a sly grin. "It seems he took note of the rate of indulgence being taken on his behalf. Very resourceful of him. Though, pity, we never got to it."
Gandalf raised his brow and held out his cup. "Pity, indeed."
Frodo climbed up onto the table's bench across from him and began to pick the cold flesh off the side of a cadaverous pork roast. He deftly avoided the wizard's scrutiny as he leaned on one elbow, his belly to the tabletop to scrape up a mouthful of cold pudding with a hard heel of bread. "Mind your staring," he said around a hearty bite. "You look at me as if I were a thief."
Gandalf chuckled over the rim of his cup. "No, I'm merely watching you, young Baggins. You cannot fool me, you know. I've known you far too long not to guess when you've been up to something."
Frodo did his best to look shocked. "Gandalf! Have you been peering through keyholes again?"
"Nothing of the kind. Yet one would be blind not to notice something different about you this morning. One wonders who to give thanks to for this welcome change."
Frodo eyed him coyly as he took a swig from the wine bag. He fought a smirk as he swallowed it and wiped the drips from his chin in the effort to hide a delicate blush brought on the wings of private recollection. "You old goat," he said, popping the cork back in. "The one you should thank is snoring quite loudly upstairs. And of course I seem different, Gandalf. I'm in love."
The decades turned fast during those blithe days. It was as if the Shire had somehow replanted itself here on the white sands, across the sundering seas from where it first brought forth the merriment and cheer of halfling-kind. Gandalf entertained the hobbits often and spent many days out at the smial walking in Sam's flourishing gardens and ducking inside their kitchen for meals. These three unassuming persons who had fallen into such toil at a wizard's whim in their former life, thrived now in this life now that they were all made whole.
That is, until the last ship came.
It began innocently with Frodo, just a tour of the isle, but that tour was soon repeated and Frodo and Legolas spent longer and longer days away at sea.
At first, Sam kept his chin up well enough. After all, Frodo and he had not left one another's company for nigh on sixty years; what harm could a few weeks bring?
At first the change was faint, hardly noticeable, perhaps it showed itself in a slower walk, or a less ambitious harvest. But something was beginning to fade in Sam. He became quieter, he stayed at the smial alone more often. He spoke less, and more importantly, his eyes kept straying to the sea.
"Samwise. I have been meaning to ask, why aren't there any roses?" Gandalf asked one day while sharing a smoke with Sam in the heart of the hobbit's garden. Honeysuckles were in bloom and the sea-wind was washed in their sweetness. Sam was keeping busy that day, working well past luncheon. Frodo had been gone for nearly a month if the moon told true. "The elves keep many roses, you know."
Sam took a puff from his pipe and looked about as if he'd not considered the matter before. "I can get a goodly supply of hale roots, Gandalf. But you see, roses are too delicate for this quick wind we get blowing up the high cliffs. I don't see no point in wasting them."
"Come with me, lad, if you will," Gandalf said, getting to his feet and offering Sam a hand out of the wheelbarrow where he sat. "I've thought of a place they might fancy."
The stone garden behind Gandalf's house was called thus only in name. Gandalf's wizardly talents lent themselves more to the pursuit of the written arts and less to the proliferation of flora. The wizard had observed Sam's method of transporting good soil and thought the hollow stonework might do with a little life.
"Aye, roses would do fine up this way, I reckon," Sam said as he studied the pathways and their patterns of light and shadow. "If we move some earth, like you said, I think some blooms might make this place a bit more homey, if you take my meaning."
Gandalf laughed at Sam's observation. "You are most welcome to try, lad."
Dawn had risen outside the Tower as Sam's wain gathered to bear his blessed body back over the simple roads to the sandhills.
The litter was adorned with pale silks that blew in the breeze as the elves began their solemn chanting. Horns sounded in a long sombre chorus as the ensemble began to move through the city along its cobblestone streets. The warm air carried the scent of falling flowers cast by fair hands from open windows and doors as they went.
Legolas and Gimli walked behind Gandalf who followed Bilbo and Frodo after the litter-bearing elves--Círdan, Celeborn and Elrond among them. Bilbo kept close to Frodo, one arm extended as if to catch him, should he stumble. But Frodo did not. He held his head up and his eyes forward, as if to burn in his memory, every little thing.
Their path took them over the arched bridge above the quays. A flock of gulls dove about overhead, screeching in excitement for a dozen or more ships had arrived in the night. Many had come, from the four shores of the Tol and from Valinor itself. For the first time in many centuries, the harbour was filled with silver masts and white flowing sails.
"Look," Frodo said. "The bay is alive once more."
Sam's was buried in a grave at the foot of the oak he'd planted decades before upon the bare hill below the forest. Here the earth was dark and rich and the skinny tree had grown tall and thick in its age. Frodo had chosen this spot. It had a good view of the rolling hills and the sea beyond. It was only a short walk from the smial.
The roots of the tree ran gnarled and close, but the elves dug around it with their silver spades as did Frodo who worked at their side, lifting away the earth piece by piece until trickles of sweat ran from under his curls and traced through the fine dirt that settled upon his face.
Sam was not sealed within a box of wood or stone as is the manner of elves and men, but rather in the following of his own kind--laid into the earth, upon the earth, and to the earth he would return. A simple clean sheet was spread over his body and herbs were sprinkled upon it, leaf by leaf.
Frodo bent and grasped a handful of freshly turned earth. "Be kind to him," he said as he held his closed fist to his chest before letting the dirt fall. Bilbo bent and did likewise, and Gandalf followed. The elves worked the spades until a small mound sat softly between the knuckles of the oak's roots.
Songs were sung, some solo and some in chorus. Gandalf moved his lips to the words as did Bilbo when his tears did not stammer him. Galadriel spoke of the bold lad who came to her groves to look in her mirror, and Elrond spoke of the unexpected guest at his Council. Gandalf spoke of a little child who once climbed in his lap and asked to hear tales of elves and trolls. Legolas and Gimli told of Samwise the Brave and Bilbo spoke of the finest gardener, cook, father and mayor the Shire had ever known.
Frodo neither sang nor spoke. His eyes remained fixed upon the mound, gazing as if he could still behold his beloved's face.
In time the voices quieted, and the elves turned to walk slowly away, heavy in their steps until all who remained were Gandalf and Bilbo, waiting to see what Frodo would need of them.
Bilbo tried first, only a brush to Frodo's elbow. Frodo turned to them both. "Go," he said. "I cannot."
Bilbo wiped his face upon his handkerchief. "I will come back for you at dusk, lad."
"So shall I," said Gandalf, and together he and Bilbo walked sadly away.
They travelled downhill after the fading silken trails of the distant scattering elves when a voice lifted into the air, high and sweet. It made those who were still lingering about the hills stop to turn and listen.
The words Frodo sang were no more than a young maiden's lovesong, but they bit into the air like gentle claws:
My heart is lost in your eyes,
In your eyes, my heart is dancing.
I lost my soul in your eyes,
In your eyes, my soul is dancing.
So is love, so is love.
So is love, so is love.
They came back for him in the early evening. The sun had fallen below the sea's edge and the stars were beginning to shine. Gandalf bent to lift Frodo from the soft earth of the burial mound where he had fallen exhausted into asleep.
Gandalf held him as Bilbo brushed the dirt from his cheeks and curls with his handkerchief. "Let's bring him home," Bilbo said and they began the short walk to the smial.
Gandalf carried the sleeping hobbit into the parlour where Bilbo stopped them, a fretful look on his face.
"We'd best not put him in the bedroom," he said quietly, considering. "Bring him into mine."
Gandalf set a fire going while Bilbo laid a blanket over Frodo. He did not wake and slept soundlessly upon the coverlet with his hand curled under his chin.
Gandalf sat upon the warming hearth-stones while Bilbo took the rocking chair, sitting at the edge of it, staring at his hands. The logs cracked and sparked and outside, the crickets were singing to one another through the long grass. No one asked for tea.
"Why didn't you tell me, Gandalf?" Bilbo asked, his voice rough with weariness.
"What could I tell? There is so little I know."
Bilbo scrubbed his cheek and sighed. "But Sam? He was the youngest of us all. I had thought…" Bilbo opened his hands, studying them. "It makes no sense to me."
Gandalf wanted to say to Bilbo how little sense death makes to anyone, mortal or immortal. He wanted to say that perhaps the Ring was still affecting the longevity of the Ringbearers' souls, each according to how long they'd kept it. He wanted to say that of them all, Sam was the most weary of living, having never ceased to ache deep inside for the life he left behind. Or perhaps it was simply Sam's knowing that he was losing Frodo all over again that had broken his heart for good. But none of these thoughts would bring comfort, so he held his tongue.
"We must be strong for Frodo, now," Bilbo said at last. "Yet, I know I must give him room to grieve."
Gandalf nodded. "Yes, that is best."
Bilbo sat back in his chair and began to rock, eyeing the woodcarvings in the ceiling. "I shall miss our home," he said. Tears misted his eyes, and for the remainder of that long night, he spoke no more.
Gandalf sat in his stone rose garden with Bilbo enjoying a pleasant luncheon in the mild sunlight, while Frodo and Legolas kept themselves locked up in his library, unrolling musty charts and working the nautical rulers over ancient sea-ways long forgotten.
"Where is Samwise today?" Gandalf asked, pouring the tea.
"Oh, he's off on some project or other," Bilbo said, waving a hand toward the sea. "Claims to be building a cage for that infernal bird of Frodo's. If only it could have escaped with the rest of the beasts, I'd be sleeping a good deal better. It squawks from noon to midnight!"
Gandalf grinned and helped himself to a bite of lemon cake. "Frodo isn't planning to set sail any day soon is he?"
Bilbo shook his head. "I doubt it. He only just got back and he's got quite a mess scattered about the parlour. Sam's had a devil of a time keeping the place in order."
Gandalf cocked his brow at the library window high above, wishful that Bilbo's grievances would prove true. He was worried for Sam. The wounds of Frodo's last parting were not yet fully healed. Sam had been by often in the passing months to tend his roses. There were nearly a hundred bushes now, all colours and scents from the most brilliant reds to the palest lavender. He was grafting them, marrying them into hybrids that impressed many of the elves who came by this way now just to see it.
Today he and Bilbo were luncheoning in the centre of the garden where Sam had first planted a pair of white and red Elvish roses. He collected the seeds season after season and for each year since he began, surrounded that first pair with thirteen offspring, one for each child he'd left behind in Middle-earth.
Sam arrived alone when he came to tend them. And Frodo only rarely stepped within the stone walls and paths--an unspoken respect given and allowed between them.
Bilbo had fallen into some troubled thought brought on by Gandalf's questioning of Frodo's plans, so he asked the old hobbit to share his thoughts.
"I am troubled in my sleep lately," Bilbo admitted. "And not just for the bird. I've been having a dream."
"Is it a bad dream?" The wizard asked when Bilbo paused. Nightmares were rare in these lands.
"No, I don't think so, but it is strange and unsettling. I am walking through the sandhills, alone. It's a fine day and all around me are these lettuces springing up out of the ground, all kinds; green, purple and brown."
Bilbo nodded. "I know that's odd. One needs snow to sprout lettuce seed, but never mind. I'm walking when I see Frodo standing at the end of the path where the farthest cliff juts out into the sea. He has his back to me and I call out to him, but he doesn't hear me. He's got a bag in his hands and he's reaching in and throwing out all these pages. From a book or a journal perhaps, just letting them blow out to sea."
"What happens then?" Gandalf asked.
"Nothing, he cannot hear me; and then I wake up, my heart hammering in my chest, frightened beyond all sense."
"Your gardens have been dwindling of late, Mithrandir," Elrond said one day not long after, strolling with Gandalf along his stone pathways. "I see bramble where there once stood vine and flower. Though many of the roses remain in bloom and are still most enjoyable."
"My gardener is in mourning," Gandalf said, the words heavy on his tongue. Frodo had been gone too long this time. Even Círdan could not see where the Galadine had sailed. Sam's strength was waning and there was little Gandalf could do other than to pour the tea and offer awkward words of comfort.
Gandalf stopped in their walking to pick a dry rosehip from a dying bush. "They remind me of roses, my beloved hobbits: bold, beautiful and fragile all the same. This day has come sooner than I thought. Every hour Frodo sails farther away from us and Sam languishes in his absence."
"Their days are ending," said Elrond. "You knew they could not remain here forever. Soon they will only be a memory to us."
"My heart is wrung with sorrow to witness it," said Gandalf bitterly. "To stand aside as they stumble in their weariness. Yet, how can I offer wisdom to ease their fears of what lies beyond? For all my many years upon this earth, I have learned little of the paths of mortals. They have been my teachers. It was a fool's hope to think I could guide their way."
Elrond took the hip from Gandalf's hand and held it up, examining its shape. "Death is Our Father's gift to mortal-kind," he said. "You love them dearly, and for you it will be hardest to let them go, but you must. Remember, the creation of this world was begun long ago with a song. And in that song was told not only the making of the seas and the mountains, but of the shaping of kingdoms and the turning of tides--life, death and rebirth, all foretold. What these coming days bring are merely the flowing of a melody, sorrowful though it may be."
Gandalf nodded, though he was little cheered. "These words are familiar to me, old friend. Tell me, what was the source?"
"The words are yours, Mithrandir, told to me on a dark night upon a ravished battlefield long ago. I have never forgotten them."
Elrond broke the hardened hip in his hand and let the seeds take to the air and fly out over the stone garden's walls. "Be eased, Mithrandir. After all, your request of the Valar gave the halflings the most precious gift of all. When all is done, it was you who gave them time to love."
Gandalf sat at his hearth on the ground floor where Bilbo and Frodo once lived, staring into the fire. It gave him little warmth. A wind had picked up, setting the chimneys of his old stone house to moaning.
Sam had been laid to rest for a fortnight or more. And every afternoon, Gandalf had gone to the smial to help Bilbo with the keeping of the home and with the care of Frodo who moved about his empty days like a child abandoned in a forest, too heartbroken to cry out.
They fed him and made him comfortable and made suggestions for short walks and idle pastimes Frodo once loved. But there was no desire left in him. He would shake his head and politely decline, returning always to the room he had once shared for so many years. Only now he sat at the window alone, looking inland, eyes gazing up at the nearby hill and its solitary oak.
There was no further sign of the sudden and unexpected snowfall. Spring had come at once, setting the lands bright with bloom. Along the pathways from the smial to the cliffside, lettuces had begun to sprout along the old haunts of Sam's long-faded garden.
Gandalf had spent this night lost in troubled thought when a rapping came to his door. Bilbo stood on the flagstones, his coat unbuttoned and his face reddened by the chill wind.
"Bilbo, come in at once! The hour is very late and I do not like this wind."
The hobbit obeyed, removing his cap and moving stiffly across the hall towards the fire, a haunted look in his eyes.
Gandalf fetched him a warm blanket for his shoulders and a cup of brandy for his belly. Though Bilbo seemed hardly to notice as the wizard knelt to press the glass into his small cold hands.
Gandalf touched his shoulder. "Bilbo, old friend, what is it?"
Bilbo stared ahead at the fire. "I cannot find him," he said.
"Cannot find whom?" Gandalf asked, though he knew his question was already answered.
"His bed was not slept in. All day and night, I have searched every place. Every hall and fern grove, but I fear…"
"Oh, I am cold!" Bilbo began to shake so badly, Gandalf reached to take the untouched brandy from his hands. He took the trembling hands in his own, patting them gently. Bilbo said nothing, but the grief he carried in his eyes told all.
"Dawn is breaking," Gandalf said. "I will go. Wait for me here."
The hobbit who Gandalf had first called friend, shook his head. "No. There is still too much to do. I have so many things to see to… promises I've not yet fulfilled. I must go!" he said obstinately and got to his feet. "I must get home!" He stumbled past Gandalf to grab his coat and hat, shoving them both on recklessly as he made for the door.
Bilbo paused upon opening it, the pale hint of day just touching his grief-stricken face. "How did we both come to be so cheated by time?" he asked bitterly, and like a ghost, vanished into the growing mists.
When Gandalf returns to the smial from his errand at the Tower of Avallónë, he does not knock as is his habit. He pushes the door open gently to find Bilbo bent at the table, sorting through loose leaves of parchment he has taken out of an old sack. The pages are worn and folded, their edges greyed by saltwater stains: Frodo's jumbled sea journals. A trunk sits open upon on the floor at his feet, waiting to be filled.
The wizard enters and stops, standing silent across the parlour. Bilbo does not turn to face him, instead, he continues to lift each page, arranging them into piles.
"Did you find my Frodo?" he asks.
"At the place in your dream. Below the white cliffs," Gandalf says, still feeling the lifeless sea-drenched child he carried upon Shadowfax to the Tower--how the blue of his small sealed lips wore stark against the white skin, the brilliant blue of the eyes, forever closed. "I have given him into the care of the elves. Círdan has called the ships back. They say Manwë himself has opened his golden doors and descends the Pelóri to take ship. They all will wait until you are ready to come."
Bilbo nods and goes about his paper sorting, unfolding the wrinkles and bends, spreading each sheet flat with his palm. He reads some of the lines with whispered lips before setting them one after another in order. It is several minutes before he speaks again.
"Did I ever tell you, Gandalf, how it was when I first brought Frodo to live with me at Bag End?"
Gandalf leans upon his staff and listens patiently for what Bilbo will say.
"He'd been living with those teeming Brandybuck cousins of his all that time and yet I'd never met such a lonely child. You could see it in his eyes, but he kept his chin up and was always so polite. He asked for nothing and always thanked me for whatever was given to him. He had a smile now and again for me, and I would have thought him happy. Yet, late in the night, I would hear him weeping into his pillows like only a child can. It was the most pitiable sound. I have never forgotten it. I was so frightened, you see. I had never loved another person in this world half as much. But when I rose to comfort him he would hush himself before my feet left my bed. If I opened his door, he would pretend to be soundly asleep."
Bilbo pauses in his shuffling of papers to stare at the tabletop. "He did not wish to share his pain with me."
"Frodo was stronger than any of us," Gandalf says. "He alone possessed a fortitude I've not known before nor since in all my years..."
"But when his Sam left him, it began again, late in the night," Bilbo continues as if he has not heard the wizard's voice. "It was that same child's weeping that cuts your heart in two. I've heard so many sounds come from that bedchamber over the years: sounds of laughter, sounds of passion, sounds of restful sleep. With Frodo there were always sounds, but his new weeping was the one I most feared to hear end." Bilbo's fingers let slip a parchment and he reaches out to catch it against the table before it floats to the floor. "He remained with us only long enough to grieve."
Gandalf waits as Bilbo arranges the parchments stack by stack into the chest, then closes the lid and slides the locks in place. He can hear the hobbit's measured breath as his small shoulders slowly straighten and he lifts his head. "Well, then. We must be going," Bilbo says, and begins to rise, reaching behind himself blindly for Gandalf's hand.
"Look Gandalf! Look what I have found!"
Gandalf peered into the midnight gloom, following the sound of Frodo's voice. Bilbo stood at his side on the sea shore, grumbling. It was growing more than comfortably late and the tide, was indeed turning in.
Frodo made his way towards them, splashing through the shallows, careless that the hem of his cloak was soaked clear to his waist. "I cannot believe it!"
Sam came in more slowly, choosing his path with a more discretionary eye. But he followed all the same.
Gandalf knelt in the sand to see what Frodo held up in his opened palm. A crab casing, hollowed and empty, yet intact and glistening in the moonlight--black on red and gold. It was the empty shell of what Frodo had named a Mathom Crab, a creature that stuck bits of its daily travel to its back--tiny broken shells, torn sea leaf and rock. It stuck to the shell for as long as the animal had strength to carry it, before shedding the lot and burying itself to await a new skin.
"It's like holding a whole lifetime in your hand," Frodo said breathlessly, and even in the darkness Gandalf could see the laughter from his youth shining in his eyes.
Sam came up just then, rubbing the sand from his cheek and yawning. He bent to have a look at Frodo's catch.
"Well, that is a wonder, ain't it? I'd fancy to know what he thought of, Mr. Crab, setting all his troubles aside. Are you going to be keeping this one, love?" he asked, pressing his nose to Frodo's shoulder affectionately.
Frodo held his treasure and considered it for some moments. "No, Sam. I don't think so. It will shine more brightly in the sea. Come, let's give it back."
Sam took his master's hand and together they walked back into the sea, helping each other to climb up the side of an old weathered rock. Together, they bent to set the empty crab in a pool where the tide would soon come to carry it away.
The two hobbits stood atop their rock, arm in arm, and shared a brief kiss before pausing to watch the setting moon sending white ribbons of dull light over the waves.
Bilbo stood proudly at Gandalf's side and smiled.
Bilbo spends most of his time with Gandalf now in his tall stone house by the emerald lake. They sit up late into the hour smoking pipes and talking about the places they have seen and persons they have known and loved in this world and the last. Sometimes Gimli and Legolas come by and then they will all speak of Frodo and Sam as their lasting memory of them lightens and warms their hearts.
And then there are days when Bilbo goes away, back to the empty smial to dig about in the garden and dust off his old books. He does not ask Gandalf to visit and Gandalf does not ask if he may. The wizard can see the old oak tree from his rooftop and knows now why Frodo chose it, a sunny spot under his watchful eye halfway from the forest to the sea where he'll sometimes catch a small bent shadow sitting beside the two graves.
"I do not know when I shall weary of this world," Bilbo has said to him. "But when I do, you shall know of it."
Tonight the sky is clear and the stars are bright. Upon his rooftop, Gandalf feels the warm wind in his hair and beard. He closes his eyes to hear the chorus of the trees, the hum of the lapping lake, the long slow chanting of the sea. He listens until he can hear the chiming of the stars and the intone of the round white moon. He knows if he listens long enough he might catch the fleeting notes of those whom he has loved, gone now beyond his sight, but not beyond his hearing. Their song is simple, known to sorrow and to joy, as their small voices entwine together, an endless melody within the Valar's grand symphony.
Gandalf raises his chin to the heavens and listens.