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In Empty Lands: 12. A Conversation in the Dark
A Conversation in the Dark
Most had gathered in the Hall of Fire, but Boromir found it confusing, too crowded after his months alone upon the road. He wandered out of the Last Homely House, and somehow found his way to the garden of roses where the preceding day Frodo Baggins had broken the news to his cousins of his acceptance of the role as the Ringbearer. He was not certain what brought him there, but he stood brooding on the last of the roses as their now faint scent delicately perfumed the air.
Part of what had driven him from the singing, he knew in his heart of hearts, was the sight of that small figure, seated on a low couch that had been produced solely to give him and his companions comfort, listening to the singing and the tales told. Most of the songs were in an archaic form of Sindarin, and Boromir could swear one song at least had been sung in the full High Tongue of Quenya, which he barely could follow in spite of the years of instruction he'd received.
There had been a hunger in those fathomless eyes for the images inspired by the songs and tales. And Boromir found himself feeling envious of the Hobbit for appreciating what had no power over himself.
"Was it becoming too close in there?" asked a familiar voice, causing the Gondorian to jump in startlement. He turned to see Mithrandir standing near a railing that looked down upon the river.
"I am sorry--I did not see you here," Boromir said.
The Wizard waved a dismissive hand. "I was certainly not making my presence here known. Grey is a useful color within the twilight--it so easily is overlooked." He turned again to look down on the Bruinen. After a moment he said quietly, "It often takes several days after I arrive here, perhaps as much as a month, before I can comfortably spend the entire night within the Hall of Fire. By the time I arrive I've become comfortable with my own company once more, and must learn anew how to appreciate being around many. It's easier for Hobbits, I think, coming as they do from a people who often live in shared quarters. Bilbo had no problems from the beginning, although I will admit he retreats frequently to his own rooms. That, I must suppose, is the Baggins in him. The Bagginses have frequently felt most comfortable alone or in the company of merely one or two others at most. At home in the Shire, in spite of his reputation for hospitality, he did live alone for many years between the death of his mother and his adoption of Frodo; and the two of them did famously together, both of them happily ignoring the rumors and gossip going about describing them as those cracked bachelors living alone up on the Hill." He turned briefly, giving the Man a rueful smile and shrug.
Boromir moved to lean on the rail beside Mithrandir. "It is true," he admitted, "that I have become unused to being amongst crowds of folk. Perhaps Father would have done well to send Faramir after all--he would be sitting in there beside Frodo Baggins, reveling in the stories told and sung."
He saw an indulgent smile touch the bearded lips of his companion. "Perhaps," Mithrandir replied, his eyes again on the glimmer of moving water below. "Or perhaps it would be he who stood beside me now, as uncomfortable as you are tonight. As a Ranger he, too, is accustomed to being alone."
Boromir shrugged, and the two were quiet for some time. Finally the Man asked, "Have you known this Frodo long?"
The Wizard cocked his head to one side. "Oh, some years, I must admit. I'd not had much to do with the Shire and its folk for quite some time when, on a journey west to Mithlond I found my path blocked by a Hobbit's wagon that had become mired seeking to cross the Baranduin at the Sarn Ford. The owner of the wagon and his folk were putting their shoulders to it, seeking to work it free, and their leader glared up at me and commanded me to help as if I were any other Hobbit under his authority. That was my first introduction to Gerontius Took, Bilbo's venerable grandfather. We became friends, and I visited him on occasion at the Great Smial, and a few times he came abroad with me for a season or two. Once I arrived at Bree to find him awaiting me at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and he rather imperiously informed me he wished me to bring him here to Rivendell so he could consult with Elrond. One of the Enemy's plagues was sweeping through Eriador, and he wanted advice on how to contain it once it should reach the Shire's borders. He came back again not long after his wife died, wanting advice on how to deal with a failing heart. He managed to live a hundred twenty-nine years, the brave old soul.
"On one of my visits to the Shire he introduced me to his grandson Bilbo, who at the age of four was a remarkably curious child. I doubt Bilbo remembers that visit, but he followed after me everywhere I went during my stay.
"Bilbo, however, was a Baggins by birth. Of old his family was always a highly intelligent and responsible one; but it has married so often with the stodgiest of Harfoots that in the past few generations it's been best noted for its predictability. Bungo, however, married old Gerontius's daughter Belladonna, so Bilbo is at least half Took. No matter how well his father trained him to be predictable and dependable, in the end he could not withstand the challenge of proving to the Dwarves and himself he was indeed the competent burglar I named him, and became even more of a hero than I'd ever considered possible."
"He is a strange soul," Boromir commented.
"Perhaps. But he has a core of strength and integrity to him that is not always easily apparent, particularly when he is rambling on and on in typical Hobbit fashion about food or how he is related to approximately half the Shire."
Boromir found himself smiling in spite of himself, having already been exposed to such talk twice. He thought for a moment. "Then you have known this Frodo all his life also?"
"I never said I knew Bilbo all his life," Mithrandir noted rather dryly. "I met him first at the age of four, and saw him a few times during his childhood. But then my own business kept me away from the Shire for many years, and I did not see him again until he was fifty. I was on my way westward when I found myself falling into company with a group of Dwarves in Bree, a company intent on finding the means of recovering the treasures of Erebor from Smaug the Dragon. It just so happened that Smaug was much on my mind as well, as the presence of a dragon in those parts had been seen as too much of a threat by far more than merely the Dwarves of Erebor, the Men of Esgaroth, and the Elves of Mirkwood. The Wise had been seeking a solution to that threat ever since his arrival there."
"Why?" asked the Man, his curiosity piqued.
The Wizard examined him as if surprised by the question. "A dragon, so close to Dol Guldur and the great forest of Mirkwood? Perhaps Gondor has not dealt with Elves and Dwarves sufficiently for the past thousand years to care for what catastrophes that might befall their lands, but I assure you it is different with those who dwell north of the Argonath who faced the threat of Smaug to themselves and their neighbors, and particularly since it was revealed that the Necromancer was Sauron himself."
"And who learned that first?" Boromir asked.
Again Mithrandir examined him. "Your father did not tell you that?"
Shaking his head, the warrior answered, "No. He knew?"
"Oh, indeed he knew, for I discussed the matter with your grandfather Ecthelion while your father was present. I did."
"Indeed. It had been suspected for quite some time, you must understand, but there were those who chose, whether through hope or self-delusion I could not say, to believe that it was not true. I decided at last that it was time to put an end to such questions and to prove it one way or another. Not, perhaps, the wisest decision I ever made to enter his stronghold myself, but at least I did manage to put the question to rest." There was no humor in the Wizard's face now, only greyness as if the memory of that time still could cause him grief and pain. "I barely escaped alive, and I was unable to bring any out with me."
For a time the Wizard brooded, looking down on the darkening view of the river below. At last he continued in a low voice, "The Wise wished to attack Dol Guldur and flush Sauron from his strong place there, but we needed a diversion. And we all desired an end to the threat of Smaug, whose presence in that region we perceived to be a deliberate move by the Enemy to set a powerful weapon near to his hand to use against Thranduil's folk and the other Elven realms, as well as disrupting the trade that has ever flowed through the folk who have dwelt about the Long Lake. Nor is it particularly far from there to the lands of the Beornings and the woodsmen who dwell about the northwestern margins of the great forest, or those of the Eotheod who remain yet in the headwaters of the Anduin. And from those lands it is a small journey for a dragon to the High Pass and the strongholds of the Dwarves that remain on the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains or in the Iron Hills. Perhaps the people of Gondor have ever thought of the northern lands as empty, but I assure you they are not."
He straightened. "I was led to go into the Shire, and why I cannot say. It had been many years since I was last there, and it had been far longer since I last passed through Hobbiton. But I went there, and found, there upon his doorstep, smoking in the sunshine of a May dawn, Bilbo Baggins, who wished me a good morning and begged my pardon before becoming frightened at my suggestion of an adventure and fleeing into his hole. Although he did manage, in pure Hobbit fashion, to ask me to tea the following day. So I came--but not until I'd made certain the thirteen Dwarves I'd accompanied part of the way down the Road got there first."
He was now smiling again. "I'd thought at first I was merely being capricious in choosing Bilbo Baggins as their companion, but now I realize that I was indeed led to his door. As fussy and impractical for such ventures and as fearful as he was, he nevertheless revealed a courage that is belied by his size, and through his nobility he shamed many into behaving far better than they'd intended. And then, on our return journey here to Rivendell I had a glimpse...." His voice trailed off. He took in a deep breath, then leaned forward, his forearms crossed over one another on the railing as he apparently stared into a memory.
At last he spoke again: "I saw Bilbo now and then, and whenever I passed through here there would be letters waiting for me. He wrote that his favorite cousin Drogo had married, and in time let me know that Drogo and his wife Primula had finally given birth to a child that survived, a boy-child with striking eyes. He was devoted to the lad, and as proud as if he were the child's grandfather.
"I first met Frodo shortly after his twenty-second birthday, the autumn after Bilbo brought him home from Brandy Hall. I fear I rather startled the lad at first, but he came around swiftly enough. Intelligent, well educated. Again, far too curious for a proper Hobbit--but then he, too, has a good deal of Took in his makeup through his mother. After all, she also was one of Gerontius's grandchildren. A pleasant young Hobbit, and far more interested in other peoples than is normal among Hobbits.
"I've seen him now and then since, of course. But when I coaxed Bilbo to leave the Ring behind as he left the Shire I will admit I was not thinking that much of Frodo's well-being, but instead of that of my long-time friend. Only when Bilbo was well clear of Bag End, with the Ring left on the mantelpiece, did I find myself thinking of what this thing, should It prove as malignant as I suspected It to be, might do to this remarkable young Hobbit. I advised Frodo to keep the Ring secret and safe, and not to use It, and he did as I asked. But he carried It with him wherever he went, and I had but hints of what It was doing to him."
"And what was It doing to him?" Boromir found himself asking.
But Mithrandir was shaking his head. "No. No, it is best not to speculate. But I will tell you that in my few visits since Bilbo's departure I did see Frodo Baggins fighting thoughts and urges that were definitely not in keeping with his nature. And when I realized he was having dreams of being sought for and pursued.... Oh, I had reason, Boromir, to come to Minas Tirith to go through the archives, looking for some means to test this--thing."
He turned to search the Gondorian's eyes. "Had you seen Bilbo there in Bag End when he accused me of wishing It for myself, you would not question why I was concerned. That was simply not the Bilbo I knew and loved so well. It was not the Hobbit who came in the dark of night to deliver into the hands of Bard the Arkenstone, a desperate move intended to forestall war between the survivors of Laketown with their allies from Mirkwood, and the Dwarves who were his friends. And the odd glimpses of more commonly Mannish hungers I would catch in Frodo's expression from time to time worried me greatly." He shivered and looked away.
At last the Man stirred. "They seem a hardy race," he observed, not certain what else he might say.
The Wizard gave a laugh. "Hardy? Oh, indeed! Hardy and light-hearted, for the most part. But do not allow that to fool you--there are depths to Hobbits that few have the chance to behold, even among themselves."
Again the two went quiet, both watching as they could the glitter of the moving stream under the light of the stars. At last the Wizard drew his pipe out of an inner pocket and filled it with pinches of stuff taken from a leather wallet. As he sealed the wallet again and sought to return it to its place he commented, "Gerontius gave me this, the last time I saw him. He said he wished I might carry with me something by which to remember him."
Boromir watched as he put the pipe to his lips, murmuring a Word, and a brief flame sprang up in its bowl before settling to a dull glow. The Man said consideringly, "I thought it was your pipe I smelled on the night I arrived here, but it proved instead to be that of this Aragorn." At his companion's absent nod, he asked, "Then this smoking of the dried galenas leaves is common here in the northern lands?"
"Oh, yes," Mithrandir said around the stem of his pipe. "Very common indeed, among Hobbits, Men, and Dwarves, at least. The Elves, however, find it a lamentable habit. The only one I know who would even try it was Círdan, although he did so but once, to my knowledge. Alas, it appears that Elves do not find pipeweed as pleasant as do Hobbits, Men, or Dwarves--and at least this Wizard." He smiled and blew out a ring of smoke that was somehow discernible even in the dark of the evening.
"And this is of old a practice, here in the northlands?" Boromir asked, intrigued.
Mithrandir shrugged thoughtfully. "Oh, not that many generations, actually--perhaps two hundred or two hundred fifty years. I believe it started among the Hobbits of the Southfarthing, although those of the Breelands have also laid claim to the distinction of first thinking to smoke pipeweed. If you wish to know more you should apply to Bilbo, for I suspect he could tell you perhaps to the day; although I believe young Merry might also have some knowledge of the practice, having relatives who raise the plants in the Southfarthing. Old Toby and Longbottom Leaf are considered two of the most flavorful varieties throughout Eriador, actually. Among the Dúnedain one can often tell which of their menfolk usually serve on the borders of the Breelands and the Shire by whether or not they carry pipes. It's far more widespread among the Dwarves to smoke than it is among Men, although most of the Men and Hobbits who live in the Breelands and the Shire do so, or so it appears."
"Lord Aragorn has obviously taken up the practice."
"That he has--but then he often serves about the Breelands and the boundaries of the Shire. I am certain that if you should express an interest, he would be willing to instruct you in the finer points of the art, although the Hobbits might be better ones to teach you. They consider it their right to introduce folk to the smoking of pipeweed, seeing its practice began with them."
"And you are well acquainted with Lord Aragorn?"
The Wizard paused, again examining the Man, a half smile on his lips. "And how well can any one person truly know another one has seen but rarely over many years? Oh, I have known of him for some time, and have traveled with him on occasion. I will admit he has often listened to my counsel. However, Aragorn son of Arathorn is very much his own Man, and knows well the worth and need for secrecy when dealing with the Enemy. That he should have declared himself openly at the Council indicates he sees that it is needful to at last face Mordor and its dread lord openly; but even now he will move carefully, doing all he can to see that the way is clear that he not expose others needlessly to danger. And I doubt any other Man within Middle Earth understands the stakes of the coming war better than he, not even your father."
Boromir felt himself stiffen at the apparent disparagement of his sire. "I doubt," he said in carefully controlled tones, "that anyone has a better appreciation of how much of a threat Mordor poses for Gondor than does its Steward."
"Oh, yes, there you are right. However, most of Middle Earth does not lie under the authority or protection of Gondor. When was the last time your father visited lands not your own? I suspect it is many years since he went so far as to visit even Rohan, Boromir. What he knows of Dale is limited, while Bree is but a name he hears in reports from a few traders. As for those who are your distant kindred here in the north--they are but dimly heard rumors that he listens to with suspicion as to what their intentions might be toward his own domain. I have tried to convince too many of the Ruling Stewards to open communication with the Dúnedain of Eriador only to be reminded that they are of little interest to Gondor as they are too few to even constitute a kingdom once more. Seeing them as worthless in building alliances, Gondor has for most of the past thousand years allowed its brethren north of Tharbad to dwindle into obscurity, although at least that has also served in part as a protection to those of the Line of Kings.
"But where Gondor has ignored relationships with Dwarves and Elves and has remained in almost total ignorance of Hobbits, the Chieftains of the northern Dúnedain have been forced to maintain treaties and trade routes, and their forces have ridden in the upper vales of the Anduin with the remnant of the Eotheod even as they have guarded the boundaries of the Breelands and the Shire and stood by the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains and the Elves of Imladris and Mithlond. And you noted that Dale and Esgaroth sent envoys here, did you not? Aragorn has passed through their lands and left a memory of aid unsought that yet came when needed. His folk keep the routes of communication open along with offering what trade can be maintained. He could do much to aid Gondor to increase its knowledge of what the Enemy is doing outside of Mordor if Denethor would only open himself to the friendship offered and long-since rejected."
"And when did such offers of friendship ever come to my father?" demanded the Man.
"Long ago, first before you were born, and again when you were but a child. It was not long after the death of your mother I brought to your father a letter from the Chieftain here, written in his own hand, expressing compassion and grief for his loss and begging him to allow an alliance, and your father took that missive and threw it into the fire, making it clear to me that he would never willingly make an agreement with the dregs of Arnor."
Boromir was surprised, for his father had never discussed knowledge of the northern Dúnedain with him, not even when it was decided that this quest for Imladris should fall upon his shoulders. He'd certainly not mentioned any correspondence with their Chieftain!
He looked out into the starlit darkness, thinking. There were always a few who appeared to be of Númenorean heritage who would come to serve among the forces of Gondor, often serving as Rangers and scouts--Belveramir, who'd been a Ranger of Ithilien before injuries had reduced him to serving as a valet within the Citadel, had many stories in praise of the tracking skills of those Men who had come out of the obscurity of northern lands to take arms as mercenaries for Gondor. Now he wondered how many of those had perhaps been sent by their Chieftains....
The Wizard, too, was now looking out into the dark, puffing at his pipe and surrounding himself with rings of smoke, many of which lit the evening with unusual bright colors. Boromir found his attention caught by the strangeness of the sight. As he went to knock out the spent ash from the bowl of his pipe, Mithrandir apparently realized Boromir's fascination with the display, and gave a self-deprecatory laugh. "Ah, don't mind me. It's a trick I devised long ago to amuse Hobbit children and that I use on occasion to divert Bilbo. He finds the different colors intriguing. The Dwarves also appear to appreciate the game."
"And Frodo Baggins--does he enjoy them?"
"Frodo? Oh, yes, I must admit he does--or at least he did when he was younger. He used to suggest different shades for me to try for. We spent one day when Bilbo had to be away to Michel Delving at it, and Bilbo when he returned swore he had to air out the smial for several days to get the last of the smoke out of the hole." He smiled at the memory of it. "Bilbo could be quite a fussy individual at times."
"And this Frodo--is he, too--fussy?"
Mithrandir shrugged. "Frodo Baggins is another who is very much his own person. He is one who is capable of fierce loyalty and remarkable sagacity, and those who know him well for the most part will bind themselves to him as a result of the love they bear him. And, like Aragorn, he is one who knows well how to keep his own counsel. I will warn you of this--it is never wise to underestimate any Hobbit, and particularly not this one. He is extraordinarily responsible and mild in nature, but nowhere as passive as he might appear. He thinks deeply and plans thoroughly; and when he has accepted to himself a purpose he will see it through."
"But will he be able to endure this task of seeing the Enemy's weapon to Its destruction?"
The Wizard straightened and took a deep breath as he pondered the question, at last murmuring, "I fear that if he cannot that we will all be doomed, Boromir. Of all the Children of Iluvatar, Sauron appears to have left Hobbits alone out of his reckoning, Therefore I suspect only they might now be able to move undetected by the Eye."
It was a sobering thought.
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