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Falcon, The: The Adventures of Peregrin Took: 9. The Valley of the Star
He didn’t know it at the outset, when he was thrown into the river barge after three days’ ride from the slopes of the Elder Mother, but Pippin was about to embark on the longest of his voyages to date. A thousand miles from the Shire to Minas Tirith. Two hundred leagues across the Bay of Belfalas, a month at anywhere from five to twelve knots into Belegaer, an unknown length of leagues to the Bone Shore, another three hundred leagues across the Plains of the Sun, in six months. He had left Tuckborough in April, and it was now September in the Shire. In Buckland Merry was overseeing the harvest in Buckland in place of his father, and in Great Smials, Diamond was fending off suitors who believed she was widowed.
But now Pippin was on a barge among a train of barges with hundreds of other captives, Bani and otherwise, floating down the swift current of the Long River of Far Harad; and the Long River would prove to be the longest in the world, four thousand miles from its source upon the side of the Elder Mother to its mouths at the Straits of the World. Two thousand of those the barges would sail.
The first week of the voyage Pippin constantly tried to save the captives. He plotted scheme after scheme in which somehow he would manage to free all the people locked in the barges, and they would seize the horses upon the last barge, and ride gladly back down to the rolling savannahs with their teeming herds and mighty oliphaunts. He failed. They punished him with beatings, whippings, deprivation of food and water. Pippin remained defiant.
At last the captain ordered his lieutenants to chain Pippin in a box on the deck of a small raft at the end of the train, four feet cube, with no windows but the trapdoor lid and nothing inside, nothing, but bare, stained floor. They left him there.
All Pippin could see was himself in the light let in by the slits of the trapdoor. All he could hear was his own breath. He nearly passed out the first day from the heat and the closeness of the air, woken only by the coming of food and water. After a few days all he could smell was his own stench.
His mind began to break. A spirit that had survived, barely, the gaze of Sauron was now trapped in the tiniest and darkest of spaces. Imprisonment in the hold of a Corsair ship; shipwreck upon a desert shore; a journey on foot through untamed grasslands; the War of the Ring—none of it seemed as difficult as the silent, reeking, baking box.
He began to hallucinate. Whatever gift or sight had been awakened in him, by the palantir or some lingering trace of magic from wizards or dark lords, in isolation and imprisonment he lost all sembance of control over it. Reality merged with phantasm. Past, present, future, events near and far, all became a single stream of impressions that did not stop even when he closed his eyes or plugged his fingers in his ears or sang until his throat was raw. And still they kept him there, feeding him only occasionally. It was as if the captain had forgotten all about him.
Pippin broke after two weeks. Death, he became convinced, was his only escape. He tried refusing food, but that only ruined him further, for he was already experiencing hunger worse than a Man could survive, and though being a hobbit allowed him to endure it physically, his very nature made it doubly excruciating. When next watery gruel came, he threw himself at it and lapped it up like an animal.
In a moment of seeming lucidity, he wondered if he could strangle himself with the rags that were once his clothes; but then his mother arrived and scolded him, and his father took out his belt and whipped him, and Gandalf threw him to Sauron who strapped his hands onto this burning jewel and they all had a party with fireworks as the light consumed his flesh, so Pippin didn’t strangle himself. He went mad.
Finally, even as the barge train emerged from forty days in the wilderness into the green Valley of the Star, he used his teeth to gnaw open his wrists. He was practically dead when the Sakharan captain was told the troublesome pygmy thing was still alive. Horrified, the captain ordered the boat pulled in, and opened the box.
The smell was terrible. The pitiful remnants of the halfling were curled up like a lost child. Blood and filth puddled the floor.
The captain, pale and expressionless, ordered the prisoner’s chains broken and the body dumped overboard. He reached inside, full of remorse for what the little thing must have suffered. That was how he realized Pippin was still alive.
Pippin’s breath was rattling in his throat as he wheezed, or laughed, the captain was unsure which; but he did manage to say, softly but clearly, “Merry,” as his captor brought him out of the dark box into the sunlight.
One thing death can do: it stops the visions, or at least erases the memory of them. Nienna gathers mortal souls and eases their grief with her own tears, as she sails them in her black ship beyond the circles of the world to a fate of which Elves know nothing.
Pippin did not die, but he came close, and the Grey Lady was close at hand when finally his body rejected collapse and began to rebuild itself. He was a hobbit; half as large as a Man and at least twice as hard to kill.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a multitude of figures above him. He blinked, and realized he was gazing at a plaster ceiling covered in painted pictures. Men and women with golden-brown skin moved through fields of grain and flocks of donkeys and goats. They fished upon the river. They fought crocodiles and fat riverhorses. They worshipped their gods. Pippin saw a picture of a resplendent jewel on a high tower, with a falcon perched upon it.
So he was in a house. Pippin tried to move, and found that, though weak, he could sit up a little. He was lying on a hard bed with carved legs that resembled the stylized paws of a cat or leopard. The thin mattress seemed to be made of hay or reeds—it rustled when he shifted. But the bedclothes were cotton, and the smoothest of their kind he had ever felt, far superior to even the textiles of the Eastfarthing, matching the satin of Gondor, sweet and cool against his naked body. The warm, dry air was perfumed by a stick of smoldering incense. A low laver filled with water sat upon a pedestal with some damp washcloths hanging nearby. A pitcher stood next to it. The light from the tall, narrow windows said it was late in the afternoon. Every wall was decorated with the painted pictures.
Pippin realized he was unbound, and he saw no doors, only curtains, to keep him barred. Was he that weak, that they wouldn’t think him capable of walking out of here? He started to smirk, and then he saw the scars on his wrists, and the memories flowed back like the returning tide.
Pippin retched. Nothing came out. His stomach heaved in his shrunken belly. As if his mind were an opened sluice, he recalled the box, the heat, the smell, the madness. For a moment it seemed that madness was about to overtake him again, and he threw himself back down into the bed, his face pressed into the bolster, clutching at his elbows, whimpering in fear of losing his mind again.
The footsteps made him stop. Soft, bare, they passed through a rustle of curtain fabric and neared the bed on which he lay.
Pippin spun into a crouch, teeth bared, fists balled, and snarled at the woman who had come to him.
But the woman only raised her hand, and spoke in a low and firm voice, and it sank into Pippin’s mind that he understood her. She was speaking Adunaic.
“Be not afraid,” she was saying. “I am Iset, queen of the Valley, and I and my women have been tending you for many days.”
The ordeal of the barge had stripped Pippin of almost every vestige of civilization and identity. It took a long moment for him not only to understand that this queen was speaking to him, but that he understood her, and could think, and speak, in return. What he said first had nothing to do with where he was, what had happened to him, or why a queen would be tending a prisoner of her own soldiers in what seemed to be her own chambers.
Instead, as he reckoned together the words of the old tongue of Númenór from what he had read in old texts, all he wanted to know was, “Can I have some food?”
“This is a paste of boiled dates,” said Iset, handing Pippin a dish containing a honey-brown gruel. “Sweet and nutritious. There is also unleavened bread, if you can stomach it, or perhaps some boiled grain…”
Pippin stopped shoveling the dates into his mouth with his fingers and said, “No boiled grain, I beg you.” He would never be able to eat oatmeal again. But the date paste was rich and mealy and he devoured it hungrily.
Iset watched him eat with a soft smile. Pippin guessed she was perhaps middle-aged, with her bosoms and arms beginning to soften, but she was still a beautiful woman. She seemed familiar to him, but he didn’t know why that should be so. Perhaps it was how she mothered him. She looked nothing like Eglantine, though.
A noise outside the bedchamber made him tense. Iset also heard it. She gave Pippin a silencing look and rose. Pippin saw she had a dagger inserted in the folds at the back of her gown.
“Almas?” she called.
Pippin understood the reply—“Yes”—but not the rest of it, spoken in a language that seemed based on Adunaic but as different from it as Westron was.
Iset looked at him again, and then said carefully in Adunaic, “He has awoken.”
Pippin saw the shadow of a young woman fall upon the curtain entrance, and then part, revealing a slender young woman, perhaps five and a half feet tall, with dark hair and almond-shaped eyes.
It was the girl from his dreams.
“Leah,” he said before he could stop himself.
Both women gazed at him, startled. The young woman whom Iset had called Almas glared at him. “How do you know my name?” she demanded furiously, and Pippin was taken aback again, for she had spoken in Westron.
But before Pippin could explain, he heard another set of footsteps, and tensed all over again. Then he heard the voice, familiar and male, and his fingers tightened into claws.
Iset tried to intervene. “Captain!” she warned, “now is not an acceptable time,” but she was too late. Pippin saw the man, shaved head and clean-shaven, slim and well-built, with light brown eyes and black-rimmed eyelids, wearing a kilt of blue linen and blue armor under a cloak of leopard-skins and cloth. It was the man who had captured him, the captain of the Sakharan soldiers who had led the sortie south. Pippin only had to hear his voice and see his face to find some strength in his weakened body and launch himself upon the man.
The two women had to pull him away, both of them surprised at the sudden strength in his limbs, but Pippin didn’t care. He had no thought other than to cause pain, as much pain as he could offer, with his bare hands and nails and teeth.
“Razàr!” Iset cried. “Master yourself! You are acting like a beast!”
Pippin found words. “He made me a beast!” he snarled, kicking and struggling against them. “He put me in a box where I had to lie in my own shit and left me to go crazy from the heat and the darkness!” His language lapsed from Adunaic to Westron to the foulest of Orcish.
He broke free from the women and leapt upon the man, knocking him down into the curtain, which fell upon them, as he struck the man across the face again and again, cutting the man’s lips and drawing blood from his nose before reaching to choke the man’s neck. The man grabbed Pippin’s wrists and held him back, but Pippin grunted and growled and bit the man’s cheek.
Blood welled up against his teeth. Pippin tasted it and realized what he was doing.
He beheld himself as if from afar with horror and revulsion. Hunched over, bestial, biting and drooling and cursing and strangling, all ropy muscle and wildly gleaming eyes… Bile rose in his throat and he choked, crawling off the prone man into a corner of the room. He pulled up his legs, ashamed of his nakedness before the women, and more ashamed of his behavior. He covered his face and head with his arms and wept with wide eyes.
“I want to go home,” he heard himself say, and he saw again his mother and father and sisters, the big, roomy Whitwell manor, the sheep in the lower meadow, the hayfields high in summer, Merry smiling at him, Merry hugging him, Merry ruffling his curls and spitting on a scraped knee and carefully fixing the scarf his mother gave him for his twenty-first birthday along with his first big jacket with deep pockets… And more: he remembered the smell of pipeweed and the strange taste of fine wine mulled over an embering fire, Merry’s favorite waistcoat against his cheek as they listened to Frodo read them a story… all that simple life. He had gone too far. This painted room, these strange people, this babel of tongues on his tongue; he wasn’t even a hobbit anymore, was he? A hobbit was jolly and fat and contented to see only well-tilled earth and nothing more. He once was a hobbit, but now was a lean, starved thing that once was a hobbit, who had wandered too far from the fields and streams of youth.
Sick-sweet liquid rose from his gut into his throat. He choked again and knew who he sounded like.
He felt a hand fall upon his curls. He hesitatingly looked up. Leah—Almas—the beautiful young woman standing next to him was stroking his hair. She held one of the sheets from the bed, and asked with her eyes, and then at his motionlessness draped it over his nakedness and clothed him in the clean white raiment. She knelt, and inclined her head, and smiled at him, and then with the backs of her fingers wiped his cheeks dry.
The queen had given a small washcloth to the man he had attacked. The man looked now in his direction and went to him. Pippin gazed up at him with fear and distrust and confusion.
The man spoke Adunaic so Pippin could understand. “I have wronged you,” he said slowly, with the precision of someone speaking an old and disused tongue. “My life belongs to you.”
And from beneath his cloak to Pippin’s wide eyes he produced Trollsbane in the scabbard of Gondor.
“This also belongs to you,” he added, and knelt, and closed his eyes, and bared his throat.
Pippin stopped crying. He slowly got to his feet, the white cloth draping around him like a robe. On unsteady feet he stood and looked at his sword and then grasped Trollsbane’s hilt with both hands.
“Small one,” said the queen, “this man has my trust. He delivered you unto me in secret for healing and succor, when he could have let you die, or given you to the jackals, or taken you to he who is our enemy.”
She watched Pippin draw sword, and went on speaking. “He has repented of his deeds and forsworn our enemy,” said Iset. “Know that ere you judge him. He is the captain of the fifth regiment, the Queen’s Guards. His name is Mery.”
The first lesson of swordfighting—never let go—was all that kept Pippin from dropping Trollsbane in shock. As it was, the blade sank down, and Pippin with it.
Pippin stared at the floor for a long time. The man named Mery watched him, and then lowered the black scabbard onto the floor before him, waiting.
Finally Pippin looked up. Then with an anguished cry he raised his sword and brought it down upon the man before him, and then stopped, gasping for breath.
A trickle of blood welled up where Trollsbane’s edge had touched Mery’s skin. Pippin had brought down the flat of the blade upon his shoulder.
Pippin sat down, exhausted, and sheathed Trollsbane. It was Iset herself who poured them both cups full of cool water. Pippin drank without stopping.
As Pippin recuperated, he discovered he had fallen in with a conspiracy.
Iset was the wife of the ruling king, or Pharu. Zosir was her cousin and they had wed as children, as was the custom of Sakhara. Zosir had taken the throne in the midst of upheaval, for his uncle, Iset’s father, had usurped the throne and attempted to install the god of the desert wanderers as the supreme god above all others. The resulting strife pitted all the Valley against each other nearly devastated the Valley of the Star. In the disarray, the young Zosir had found wisdom and power following the advice of a wandering magician who called himself Seti, the Man of Seth, the god of the desert storm. Under Seti’s guidance and the blue spiral of Seth, Zosir triumphed.
In gratitude for the favor of Seth and Seti’s guidance, Zosir raised the cult of Seth to the prime cult of the Valley, and named Seti high priest of the capital Sakhara. Seti had accepted the position with gratitude and humility, which is more than could be said of the priests of the other gods. They questioned how Seth, the dark god who arises in strength, could claim lordship over the shrine of the Dawnstar and Sakhara, the City of the Sky.
To placate them, Seti unveiled plans to build a new temple, one that would bridge darkness and light, the bowels of the earth and the lights of heaven. He called it the Stairway, he said, like a mountain made of brick, surrounding the Star and magnifying its power, opening the road from the mortal lands to the land of the gods.
Even after all he had seen and heard in his life, Pippin thought this was absurd. From the windows of the house he could see the Stairway, built in five levels, each with a hundred stairs, leading up to a steep-sided apex where at night the beam of the Dawnstar’s light blazed into the sky. How could a structure of mud brick make a jewel, no matter how magical, into some sort of key to heaven? It was absurd.
Absurd or not, the people of Sakhara threw themselves into the work, and when their enthusiasm flagged—for Seti wished it finished in time for the next total darkening of the sun visible over the Valley—Seti advised the army to bring more workers all over the Valley. Iset had been appalled by this, but her husband felt indebted to the high priest and allowed Seti to issue orders in his name. Iset was grieved at Zosir’s decision, but said nothing.
Then Seti began to send the army outside the Valley. The army, Mery among them, who had long existed to defend against the hostile tribes of the eastern highlands and the nomads of the desert west, now went among them taking slaves for conscripted work. When even that dried up, the army ventured south.
As for Almas, whose name truly was Leah, she told Pippin she was captured several weeks ago in the city while she aimed to steal back her horse. Being an Erite, one of the cursed desert fanatics, she was sold into slavery. Mery noticed her and brought her to the attention of Iset.
Iset had secretly maintained sympathy for her heretic father’s love of the Erite god, and she refused to see this proud girl sold to some disreputable merchant or nobleman. She purchased her herself, and took her into service as both maid and—when she found Leah’s gift for swordsmanship—as her bodyguard.
When Mery brought the near-dead Pippin in secret to Iset, and confessed his remorse and hatred for Seti and the cult of Seth, the conspiracy was born. The Queen, the officer, and the slave girl began to plot the overthrow of the blue-garbed magician.
Pippin peeked out the bottom of the narrow window again, facing north, as he had grown fond of doing during his stay in the queen’s house. The royal houses and the army’s fortresses were located on the eastern bank of the river, built into the hills that climbed up into broken desert highlands. To the west he saw the remnants of the old temple compounds, now the brick kilns and slave barracks, and the ramps that led to the Stairway. From its apex a beam of light lanced the darkness.
“What are you thinking of, Pippin?”
Pippin smiled over his shoulder at Almas. Leah. “I haven’t heard my name said right in a long time,” he said. “Helps me remember who I am.”
“My uncle was a trader,” said Leah, joining him. “I learned the Western speech from him.”
“Your people must travel widely.”
“When you are unwanted in every place, no place can keep you.”
They gazed out together for a long time, upon the city and the valley. Leah’s gaze was far-reaching, and it seemed to Pippin she was looking with longing upon the desert beyond the cliffs, beyond the Stairway and the light of the Star. She was homesick. He knew how she felt.
He took her hand boldly.
She looked at him for a moment with a shade of uncertainty in her eyes, taking in his set chin and his sharp nose and his deep-set, searching eyes in a color of which she must have had little experience; the hard muscle and flat belly, so unlike a hobbit, that his months of wandering had given him; the light in his expression ... and then chuckled and ruffled his curls.
Humiliated, Pippin turned back to the window.
She had paused, and her smile was unmistakable.
“Come join our lady and the captain for water.”
“Oh!” said Pippin. “Are we plotting tonight?”
Leah laughed. “Yes, we are.” She held out her hand to him. “Come with me.”
Pippin hurried to her side. He took her hand gallantly and together they went.
The tentative plan was to stage an uprising on the eve of the next eclipse of the sun, which would be in nine weeks according to the records of the astrologers. At this time the people of the Valley would normally congregate at Sakhara to pray under the light of the Dawnstar that both Sun and Moon would be released from the clutches of Apep, Darkness, embodied as a giant serpent. Seti planned the opening of the Stairway at that time, when the Dawnstar had no rival. Mery would rouse sympathetic elements in the army while Iset both secretly and then in open as the Queen stir the noble houses and the common people.
Pippin decided to tell them about Poclis and the Bani. “My friend is somewhat versed in battle,” he said. He had been learning Sakharin, and between Leah, Mery, and Iset, they all found ways to understand each other. “You may find your southern travels a bit more difficult since my capture.”
“It would be better if they could come here and join us,” Mery replied. “But the desert is long and the river dangerous in the highlands.”
“Don’t underestimate them,” Pippin replied shortly. “Do you have enough supporters for your little uprising?”
Iset and Mery glanced at each other.
Leah answered. “They do not. That is why I will go to my people and bring them here.”
“You cannot be certain they will follow you,” Mery said.
“They will follow my father,” Leah averred.
“My father is the Prophet of Er,” she answered. “He speaks with Er upon His mountain, and all our people follow his wisdom. If my father calls for a war against the Valley, then I promise you, ten thousand warriors will emerge from the sands and come to Sakhara.”
“Almas, I do not wish your people to come as if all the Valley were under a holy ban,” Iset told her. “Our enemy is the cult of Seth and Seti Al-Atar his priest.”
It was one of those moments that could have slipped past without anyone noticing. But Pippin did notice. The magician's name.
Al-Atar? “Say again?” Pippin piped up, his voice sounding distant even to himself.
The three conspirators seemed not to have noticed his demeanor. “Seti,” Iset said.
“No…” Pippin frowned. Al-Atar. In Great Smials he’d begun to borrow Númenórean texts and books from Arnor and Gondor, having copies made for the Thain’s library, and he had come across that name, he knew it. Where? Gandalf would have known…
Gandalf. Saruman. Radagast. The rods of the Five Wizards…
“Alatar,” Pippin said again, aloud. Iset, Mery and Leah all now saw his expression.
“We call him Seti, ‘man of Seth’,” said Mery. “But I have heard the King call him Al-Atar. Perhaps that is his birth name.”
“No,” said Pippin. “Not birth. That’s what the Elves called him.”
“The Djinn?” Leah said with suspicion. “Can they be trusted?”
Aghast anyone could think otherwise, Pippin said, “Yes,” a little hotter than he had intended.
Leah looked dubious, as did the others. Pippin remembered that the Sakharim were descended from Númenóreans, and wondered if Phazan their first king had come after the estrangement of the Elves and the Númenóreans. But why should Leah mistrust them?
Iset spoke. “You know who our enemy is,” she guessed.
Pippin nodded. His head was spinning. Of all the things he had dreamed he’d find in the many journeys he had imagined, this was not one of them. Not at all. He stared at the three conspirators. They had no idea of who they were up against.
“Alatar is a Wizard,” Pippin said. “One of five sent from the Blessed Realm in the West. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they are not Men, nor Elves neither. They have lived thousands of years, and have tremendous power that they choose to hide. I’ve known two. One was the greatest of them, and he used his power to make himself a lord of Men, and he caused war and ruin before he fell. From what you’ve told me, Alatar has followed suit. You’re fighting a Wizard, milady, and no mere man at all.”
In the silence that followed all that could be heard was the sighing of the desert wind through the cracks and crevices of the rapidly cooling cliffs. Then Leah spoke.
“Can these wizards be killed?” she asked coolly, and Pippin suddenly thought of Diamond.
Pippin thought of Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Then he thought of Saruman at Bag End. His sword hand twitched. He had always envied Wormtongue that kill.
“Dead enough,” he replied, looking Leah in her dark amber eyes.
Later that evening, before Pippin went to bed, Iset stopped by to speak with him. In her hands she held a folded sheaf of paper.
“I am grateful for your aid,” she said. “Knowing the nature of our enemy is half the work of the battle, as my husband was wont to say.”
Pippin was touched. “Lucky for all of us I ended up with you,” he said.
“We do not believe in luck,” Iset replied. “We believe in Maat, what we call the feather that is the weight of truth; and Almas … Leah would say it is the will of Er.”
Pippin shrugged. He didn’t know about things like that. Although he would think that if it was willed he should end up with Iset by the efforts of Mery, he would rather not have experienced the hole in the barge.
He looked on in surprise as Iset deposited the papers in his lap. They were old, and seemed to be made of the leaves of the plentiful river-reeds that surrounded the city. They were covered in writing.
“Can you read this?” she asked him.
Pippin opened the document. It was a single sheet, folded many times, with pages full of writing on each surface. The script was clearly Tengwar, though in an archaic style; the language was Adunaic.
“Yes,” he replied. “What is it?”
“This is a copy of the record of Phazan of Westernesse, first Pharu of Sakhara,” she said. “We know it is in the Old Tongue, but we have lost the ability to decipher the writing. Please read it and tell me what it says, before you go.”
Pippin looked up at her. “How did you know I still wished to go?”
“Only a guess,” Iset replied. “You wish to leave with Almas.”
Pippin folded the document before replying. “The Erites know the way to Umbar,” he said. “If I can get there, I can find my way home.”
“I do not think that is the only reason you wish to accompany her, Ràzanur.”
Pippin blushed but said nothing.
Iset made to depart. “Good reading, and then sleep well.”
“Good night, milady,” Pippin replied.
Pippin lay on the bed staring into the darkness, unable now to sleep. He wasn’t afraid of any dreams or visions. They had stopped. Reality, if he could call it that, had superseded it.
He threw off the covers and padded to the nearest window and looked out. The Stairway was almost finished. Even at this time of night, construction went on. Its sides were lit by torchlight, but near the top, where it remained open, no torch or lamp was necessary. The light of the Dawnstar was more than enough, lancing into the night, slaying the darkness.
Pippin remembered a visit to Bag End when he was very young, before Bilbo went away. Merry was there with his parents, and Pippin was with them, and the lads had begged Bilbo for a story. Bilbo made as if to protest, but finally relented.
“Let me go fetch a book,” he said, getting up.
Saradoc and Esmeralda begged off storytelling and went to their room. As Esmeralda passed by, Bilbo remarked once more about her lovely new pendant of her namesake stone. Saradoc beamed and boasted of how much it cost from the dwarf who’d made it.
When Bilbo sat down, he didn’t open the book he’d chosen. Rather, he leaned back, and then asked Merry and Pippin, “Would you like to hear the story of the Great Jewels of the Gnomes?”
“Yes!” Merry cried, having heard it before. “That is the greatest story of all!”
“Well, so far,” said Bilbo with a wink. “And you, Pip-squeak?”
Pippin had been ten. “Oh yes please absolutely do cousin Bilbo!”
From the kitchen, where he had been helping with the dishes, emerged Frodo. “Are you sure that’s not too heavy a tale for the lads, Bilbo?”
“Nonsense,” said Bilbo. “What’s the use of passing down stories if you can’t tell them to children? Especially the important stories?” Bilbo beckoned Frodo and cuffed him gently on his cheek. “I told them all to you whenever I visited, didn’t I? You turned out all right.”
“I doubt the general population of Hobbiton would agree with you.”
“Hang them. You’re fine.”
“But what about these two?” Frodo teased, dropping down gracefully next to his cousins. He seized Pippin and pulled him into his lap and reached under Pippin’s shirttails and tickled Pippin’s tummy. Pippin squealed and giggled and attempted to box Frodo’s nose.
Merry helpfully seized Pippin’s ankle. “I think I’m quite mature enough to hear it,” he said meanwhile to Bilbo. “After all, I’ve read it myself.”
“But you should hear Mr. Bilbo tell it,” said Sam, emerging also from the kitchen. Seeing Merry’s frown, he immediately blushed and said, “Not that you need to be listening to me, Mr. Merry sir.”
Frodo gave Merry a hard pinch. “Ow!” Merry protested, but Frodo’s look quelled him. Pippin observed it and then pinched Merry too.
“All right, settle down,” Bilbo said. “Do you wish to hear it too, Samwise?”
“Come here, Sam,” said Frodo. “Sit by me.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam, taking a stool and placing it at the periphery of the firelight. “This will do for me just fine.”
“Tell it!” Pippin insisted loudly. “Come on, Bilbo! I want to hear all about the Big Jools.”
“Let me have him, Frodo,” Merry said. “I’ll choke him if he tries anything.”
“All right,” said Bilbo again. He became quiet, and it seemed his features changed, became fair and mysterious in the firelight. “Now this is the story of Feanor and Fingolfin and their mighty kindred. Of how Feanor captured the light of the Two Trees in three mighty gems. How these gems were stolen by the dark power of the North, and the great wars fought by the Noldor to get them back.”
He gazed at each of them in turn. Earth-brown eyes, wood-brown eyes, green eyes, blue. “This is the story of the Silmarils!” he exclaimed, and being ten years old, Pippin gasped.
Now forty-one years old with thousands of miles behind him and pieces of his life and self strewn across each one, Pippin looked out from the narrow palace window across the sleeping houses and streets, across the valley and the river to the man-made mountain and the jewel that was now trapped within, waiting for an eclipse of the sun to make some unknown magic at the hand of an unknown wizard. The story of the Silmarils never had ended. One shone in the sky, and the light of it shone from the star-glass in his cousin’s hand, in his cousin’s eyes, as Frodo left forever. Another was cast into the fires of the earth, and was lost forever.
A third was thrown into the sea. It too was supposed to be lost forever. But instead it was found by a prince of Númenór, who was wrecked upon this shore, and now it was here. His vision upon Meneltarma was corroborated by the words of the prince himself that he had just read. Reality? He had stepped right back into a story that had yet to end.
What have I gotten myself into?
He went back to bed and turned onto his side, rubbing his cheek into the embroidery upon the bolster. He thought long and lingeringly about Leah, in her own chamber no doubt, sleeping the sleep of the just. He envied her. He closed his eyes and pictured her: her beauty, her steel, the slimness of her waist, the curve of her hips, the shape of her under her garment, her eyes… Eventually he fell asleep, but instead of Leah, he dreamed of Diamond.
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