A Bit of Rope: 62. A Question of Friendship

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62. A Question of Friendship

A Question of Friendship

        When he awoke the following morning, Frodo's first thoughts were of his unexpected conversation in the night. Or was it just another curious dream? He had nothing solid as evidence, but any lingering doubt was faint. It felt true, however fantastic it might sound… Has he really returned, after all this time?

       After he dressed, he dug into the bottom of his traveling pack and pulled out the Queen's gem. The white stone was tapered, like a raindrop… or a teardrop… and attached at the top of the jewel to a chain of silvery metal. He toyed with the links. Not silver… truesilver… The gem was as big as the end of his thumb. A stone that size, and a chain made of mithril… If Bilbo's mailshirt is worth more than the Shire and everything in it, this must be worth more than all of Buckland…

        He swallowed hard. He'd never thought about the value of Arwen's gift to him in such terms. All of a sudden the wizard's midnight advice seemed daunting. Wear such a priceless thing? Yet he supposed it was as safe around his neck, hidden under his clothing, than lying forgotten in the bottom of an old bag. He tugged the chain over his head, awkwardly sliding it into place about his neck, and tucked the jewel beneath his thin under shirt, so that it lay next to his skin. Like the Ring… But this is meant to bring comfort, not grief… He opened the door to his room and entered the hallway, just as Farmer Maggot walked by.

            "Mornin', Baggins…"

            "Good morning, Maggot…"

            "I trust ye didn' stay up too late?"

            "Hmm… Well, no later than seemed necessary…"

            Tom and Goldberry greeted the hobbits with beaming smiles and a bountiful breakfast. The weather finally took a turn for the better. The sky was a bright, rain-washed blue, and the eaves of the Old Forest were a tapestry of yellow, russet and orange. Bombadil, as always, conferred eagerly with the Farmer at the breakfast table, bubbling with enthusiasm as he asked his hobbit-friend's opinion on all manner of topics to do with animal husbandry, farming, beekeeping—and, in particular, the gathering of wild mushrooms. Unfortunately, Mrs. Maggot's basket of mushrooms had been ruined by the rainstorm, so instead they spent at least three quarters of an hour discussing the finer points of mushroom identification. Frodo politely pretended to listen while he silently mused on his conversation with Gandalf, and of the wizard's hints about the strange Elf. He must have been one of the Avari… Gandalf said he was alone… I wonder what happened to all his folk...

As he had on their other visits, Tom recruited Frodo and Maggot to assist him in chores in the gardens and in the scattered small buildings of the homestead. It felt good to be outdoors in the refreshing, crisp air, and seemed right and correct to be helpful to one's generous host even in some small way.

            "Today's task, Little Friends, shall be sweet—and sticky!" Tom laughed, as he explained that it was time to clean the many beehives before the coming of winter. "Our industrious buzzing friends have mostly flown south now, though a few may linger—have a care—and my River-Daughter is to have honey for her sweets through the cold months to come, Tom must gather the combs and prepare the hives for next spring…"

            They joined Bombadil in his honey shed, which was painted amber-gold, as he brought out pails, rags, scrapers made of wood, gloves, and large baskets from a cabinet. He sent Maggot to fetch a pail of water, and when he was out of earshot, Tom leaned down to Frodo.

            "It might be for the best," he said quietly, his bright blue eyes gleaming, "that Farmer Maggot know not of our friend, your Silvery Visitor in the night. 'Twould be a twisty thing to explain his appearance, don't you agree?"

            Ah! Frodo thought. Then he was truly real!

            "Of course… I'll be careful not to say anything…"

            Iaurel strode silently behind them as Tom, Maggot and Frodo walked out into the fields to the first set of hives. Frodo glanced back, and saw that just as Gandalf had predicted, the Elf appeared nervous, his black brows drawn together in a knot, and his eyes flicking back and forth across the horizon as if in search of something. Frodo hesitated for a moment, then he fell back to walk beside the Elf. He slowed his pace on purpose, intending to lag far enough back so that the Farmer wouldn't overhear any conversation.

            "Good morning, Iaurel," he said cheerfully. He dropped his voice. "Our mutual friend said that he would return in a few days…"

            "You saw him?" Iaurel whispered urgently. "When did he leave? Where has he gone? Why did he not speak to me…"

            "Wait, wait," Frodo laughed. "One question at a time, please!"

            "One at a time…yes, of course… Forgive me, Frodo Baggins…"

            Frodo looked at him with curiosity and a hint of annoyance. Why does he feel the need to beg forgiveness for every little thing, I wonder?  "Listen, Iaurel," he said, as he reached up and placed his hand on the Elf's arm. "There is no cause for you to apologize so often. It's very polite, I'm sure, but it makes conversing with you a bit awkward…"

            The Elf looked down with a stricken look on his face. "I have much to learn," he muttered.

            "Perhaps," Frodo said. "But undoubtedly there is much you could teach, having lived a long life. We all can learn from one another, don't you think?"

            Iaurel blinked at the hobbit, a look of profound shock on his face, as though he had never heard such an outrageous idea. Frodo had to struggle not to chuckle aloud. If his quest is to learn how to be a friend, he's certainly got a long way to go…

            "Well, then—to your questions. Yes, I saw him; he was in the parlor last night when I awoke before the fire. He left after speaking with me for a while, I can't say exactly when it was, but quite late, after midnight, I'm sure… He said he was taking a short journey, and he promised to be back by dawn on October the 6th. As today is the 3rd, that is just three days from now. As to why he didn't tell you himself, I believe he thought you needed the rest, and he didn't wish to waken you."

            The Elf frowned, wrapped his arms about himself and seemed to curl inward slightly. Poor fellow… He looks the picture of miserable loneliness…

            "He always keeps his word," Frodo said. "He'll be back. He promised he would, and he is as reliable as rain…" The hobbit wondered whether to mention the one time their mutual friend had not kept his promise, and thought better of it. "We're falling far behind the others. Let's hurry along and make certain old Tom and Maggot don't eat every last honeycomb!"

            They approached the first dozen clay hives, set in two neat rows. Tom and Maggot were working side by side at the farthest end of the rows.

            "Our Small Friend and our Tall one be slow as cold honey today, eh, Maggot?" Tom laughed. He was just replacing a small wooden door that blocked the rear opening of the hive. On the ground at his feet were four round trays tightly woven of reed, and each tray was filled with honey and combs. A few sluggish bees buzzed about, flying from the edge of the trays to the tiny openings in the hive's walls. Maggot had a large basket draped over one arm; inside were stacks of other round woven trays, overflowing with honeycombs.

            "We left them first two for you," Maggot said gruffly. "An' remember—you can have honey-cakes in proper proportion, to as many combs as you gather! Them's the rules, and don't pretend to forget!"

            "We won't!" Frodo laughed. As the Farmer and Bombadil strode off to take their bounty back to the honey-shed, Frodo watched them fondly. "Farmer Maggot has quite a sweet tooth… He always gathers more than anyone, even Tom himself!" He looked up at his companion. "Are you fond of sweets and honey, Iaurel?"

            The Elf had a slight smile on his face. "I did not taste such things often… Although, I recall that I found honey, once." His eyes seemed to focus at something far off. "I believe I like honey…"

             "Well I know I do," Frodo said. "Let's get to work…"

            Bombadil's hives were an ingenious marvel. They were made of sun-baked clay, mixed with straw, in the shape of a large jar or deep vase, placed upside-down so that their rounded bottoms were on top. Each was set upon a stands of wood or large stumps. One hive was half the height of a hobbit. Tom had placed ladders nearby, one for every three hives. The clay was full of small holes that led to the hollow insides of the jar. At the back, an arched opening had been cut from the clay, and this could be closed off with the wooden doors. Inside, pegs set into the walls held up a series of round woven trays, and on these platforms the bees built their interlocking combs. The trays could be lifted out and removed from the rear opening easily, without destroying the rest of the hive, and allowing Bombadil to collect honey throughout the season. Now, of course, as autumn was passing, all the trays were to be removed and the inside of the clay hives cleaned out.

            Maggot and Tom were well aware that they would be doing the bulk of the work today, as Frodo could only do so much with one hand. Frodo was uncertain what sort of help Iaurel might provide, not being sure that the Elf had any experience with this sort of thing, or even any willingness to try. But the hobbit was happy to be outdoors in the sunlight, with a useful chore to do that wasn't too difficult—and an opportunity to learn a bit more about the mysterious Elf.

            They had each gone to work on one hive. Iaurel, of course, had no need for the ladder to reach even to the very top of the hive. He had steadied the hobbit's ladder while he climbed up, and given a hand with the small hooks that latched the wooden door. Then Frodo had shooed him off, intending to do his level best with his work, even if it took him longer.

            The four trays inside this hive were only about half-full of the shining, gooey combs, which made things easier for Frodo, as they only weighed half as much. He reached beneath the clay dome and slid each laden tray out, one by one, stacking them next to the base of the hive. Then he leaned fully inside and with a wooden scraper and a rag, he pulled the sticky, waxy bits of the remnant combs off the inner walls and the floor, making certain to clean around all the air holes in particular, as Tom had taught him. Only a few sleepy bees remained, and they hardly seemed interested in him.

            He backed out and let the scraper and rag fall to the ground. Eyeing the stack of trays, he recalled how last year he'd managed to balance them, one at a time, on the crook of his left arm while he made his way back down the ladder. It had been slow and very awkward. But this autumn, he had a tall, helpful companion. He leaned back with a smile to look at Iaurel, who was at work at the next hive, intending to ask for his assistance.

            Instead, Frodo's eyes flew open. "Iaurel! Oh, no!" he cried, and he quickly climbed down the ladder and sped to the next hive.

            A cloud of angry bees flew about the Elf's head. A dozen or more attacked his face, and more found every patch of exposed flesh, on his neck, ears, hands and wrists. Iaurel eyes were squeezed shut and his face was contorted in a grimace of pain. Both his hands were raised, poised to defend himself from his attackers. But instead of slapping them or swatting the bees away, he held very still, his hands clenched into fists and trembling.

            "Come away from the hive!" Frodo cried. He grabbed the Elf's arm and dragged him backward and away. The bees continued to swarm about, stinging and buzzing. Frodo reached up and swatted a few of them away from Iaurel's face, and suddenly they all flew off with a loud bzzzz.

            "What happened?" Frodo said anxiously.

            "I do not know," the Elf said through clenched teeth. "They gathered to me… Only a few from this hive…" He pointed to the hive where he had been working, which was empty now. The honey-trays lay on the ground. "Many came, from all around…" Iaurel weaved and seemed unsteady on his feet.

            Frodo reached up and clutched the Elf's arm. "I don't understand why they came after you that way! But we need to get you back to the cottage. Those stings look awful…"

            Iaurel's entire face was beginning to swell, and everywhere, hard red lumps appeared and were enlarging steadily. His eyelids were already nearly swollen shut, and his lips were misshapen and distorted. His hands were just as bad—red, puffy and covered with lumps.

            Frodo turned around to see if he could spot Tom and Maggot; but they were well ahead of them, having finished settling the first combs to drain and now striding purposefully toward the next field, a half a mile distant.

            "Lean on my shoulder," Frodo said, and he began to guide the half-blinded Elf back toward the cottage. "Let's go back and see if Goldberry has some ointment… Perhaps she'll loan me a needle, to remove all those stingers… I just don't understand what happened. The bees are never so active, not this time of year, and even at other times, why, I've hardly been stung at all by them, and they never sting Tom…"

            "I was stung before," Iaurel muttered glumly. "But it did not hurt … I could hardly feel it … The little stingers were nothing against my thick hide…"

            Frodo glanced at him worriedly, wondering if his companion was already feverish from the many beestings. He isn't making much sense… Frodo's anxious thoughts were full of a memory from long ago, at a Midsummer Festival in Buckland when he was a child. A hobbit-lass, just entering her tweens, had been stung by a bee, and her face and throat had swelled quickly, cutting off her breathing. The poor young girl had died, and Frodo had never forgotten it, or the anguish of her distraught parents. Maybe Iaurel is suffering the same ill effects… But though the Elf appeared uncomfortable and dizzy, he gave no sign that he was having difficulty breathing.

            They quickly returned to the cottage. Goldberry was in the kitchen garden, collecting roots and the year's last peas, and at the sight of the stumbling Elf and the look of alarm on the hobbit's face, she hurried to meet them. Soon, Iaurel sat at the wide table, his hands wrapped in wet cloths, and Frodo sat beside him on the edge of the table. The hobbit held a cool compress to the worst swelling on the Elf's face.

            "Here are my 'broidery needles," Goldberry said, "and a supply of soothing unguent of comfrey and willow bark, to diminish the swelling and the sting." She placed the opened jar on the table near a swath of fabric where three slender needles lay. "Little Friend Frodo, can you attend to his needs?"

            Frodo nodded. "I think so… Removing stingers is something I'm quite good at, as it turns out… It doesn't require two hands, so I think I'll be fine…"

            She smiled and bowed her head as she left. "If you need my help, come find me in the garden…"

            Frodo went to work removing the bee stingers using the tiny needles. It proved to be a much easier task than removing the more deeply imbedded spider stingers from Sam's flesh, for the Elf's bites had not had time to fester, and he wasn't covered in layers of grime from weeks of travel. Still, it was painstaking work, and the hobbit did his best to avoid hurting Iaurel even more. He climbed up onto the top of the table and crouched, leaning closely to the Elf's face, fully focused on his task.

            "Goodness, you must have twenty or more bites," he murmured. "It must have hurt terribly, yet it looked as though you weren't trying to swat them off or slap them at all…"

            "I wished to, but I was commanded not to…"

            Frodo frowned. "Whatever do you mean?"

            "I was told I must not kill—or even harm—any creature, no matter how small…"

            "Even to defend yourself against stinging bees?"

            "Aye… even in self-defense…"

            "Really? And who would command such a thing?" he said irately, staring at the Elf's blotchy, distorted features.

            "The one who is named Námo…"

            "Oh… I see…"

            That seems a stern command to give someone returning to life in Middle Earth and all its possible dangers… I wonder what it means…

            As Frodo finished removing the final stinger from the Elf's face, he found that Iaurel was staring at him intently. The Elf reached out and lightly touched the hobbit's forearm with the tips of his swollen fingers.

            "I thank you," he said softly, his voice a husky whisper. "You are… you are such a kind person, Frodo Baggins…"

            Frodo sat back at smiled gently. "Please, just call me 'Frodo'… And you're welcome. But I haven't done much, just what anyone would do, for a friend…"

            Iaurel looked up at him, his dark eyes half hidden behind his puffy lids. "It seems you use this word 'friend' rather lightly…"

            "Nonsense. As Gandalf calls you 'friend,' why wouldn't I?"

            The Elf's eyes dropped and he seemed to stare at the floor. Frodo slid off the edge of the table and sat near him on the bench, and started in on removing the stingers from his hand. Frodo peeked up at the Elf, trying to encourage him to look back at him; but Iaurel's gaze was fixed downward.

            "You know, Gandalf didn't tell me much about you," he said in as nonchalant a tone as he could muster. He lifted another stinger out, noting again how the Elf's long-fingered hands appeared to be so elegant, yet so strong. "I only know a little, for instance, that you came with him from across the Sea, and that you were recently released from…from Námo's Halls… He said I should ask you about the rest… And as that's a very good way for friends get to know one another—by telling one another their stories—why don't you start by telling me how you met the wizard? I'll bet that's an interesting tale…"

            But Iaurel suddenly jerked his hand away and stood, shoving the bench backward and away from the table with the screech of wood on the flagstones. Frodo was tossed in his seat and nearly fell off the bench. He grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself. Goldberry's needles went flying and were scattered about on the floor.

"What on earth… Iaurel, why did you do that?…"

            The Elf had already crossed the room and was headed for the door.

            "Wait, stop!" Frodo cried. He swung his legs over the bench quickly and jumped up. "Please, won't you wait a moment…"

            Iaurel slowed and stopped, his back turned, one hand upon the latch of the door that led to the front of the cottage and a sweep of lawn falling off toward the Forest. Frodo caught up to him.

            "Look, I… I apologize," Frodo said softly. "Apparently I have asked too many questions, too soon… Gandalf said you would answer when you felt ready…" The hobbit placed a tentative hand on the Elf's wrist, puffy with angry red wheals, and gazed up. "You know, you're not the only one who has things in his past he'd rather not speak of… Did Gandalf happen to tell you how I lost my hand, for instance?"

            Iaurel's head hung down, and his features were pulled together in a deep frown. Frodo could hardly hear his muttered, low tones.

            "He said you were wounded in the war… in the fight against the N... Against the Enemy…"

            Frodo sighed. "True enough, as far as it goes. But the real story is far more complicated than that…" He squeezed the Elf's wrist gently and let go. "Come—help me collect Goldberry's needles from the floor. We shouldn't leave them lying about… I think old Tom and Maggot will forgive us if we don't return to our chore among the hives. Let's just take a long walk, shall we?"

            Iaurel nodded slowly and shuffled back to the table. His eyes darted about, and with swift movements he had retrieved all three needles and placed in exactly the same position upon the swath of cloth as where they'd started. Frodo watched him in silence; then he fetched his water bottle. He slung the braided strap over his shoulder and went to the door.

            "Ready for a nice walk with a friend?" he said with a smile.

            Iaurel looked at him, and Frodo was astonished to see a shimmer in the Elf's eyes. He blinked hard and quickly hid his face. But he nodded firmly and joined the hobbit at the doorway. Frodo lifted the latch and they went out into the sunlight.

            As they strolled without purpose over the yellowing grass, aiming generally toward the Old Forest's edge, Frodo did most of the talking. He realized that to begin with the tale of how he lost his left hand would be far too difficult, and not only because of all of the background he'd need to fill in. It would, he admitted, be hard just to say the words. I haven't really spoken of it, save for that very first day, when it came blurting out in the tent... When he had told Gaffer Gamgee of Sam's death, he said only that the Gaffer's son had been killed in the struggle against the Great Enemy, and that he had died a hero. The Gaffer had stared, apparently unseeing, at the end of Frodo's left sleeve, which at that time he wore pinned closed to protect the still tender stump. Whether Sam's father guessed that his severed limb and his son's death were closely related, Frodo did not know. He only knew that he still shuddered every time he saw the stump. Not because of the loss, or the pain, but because it was a glaring symbol to the hobbit of what he called his 'failure.' If I hadn't failed to do my duty, Sam wouldn't have had to die… And he wouldn't have been forced to inflict this on me… I know that tore his poor heart open, to have to do this… No, he couldn't begin his demonstration of friendship with Iaurel with that tale.

            So instead, he started with an older story, and easier one, he thought.

            "I asked you where you met the wizard, and as you are not ready to tell me, I am happy to take the first turn," he said. "As it turns out, I've known Gandalf nearly all my life, for, you see, he was a dear friend of my 'uncle' Bilbo, who adopted me when I was young, after my parents died. And the story of they became friends is quite interesting…"

            The tale of the fussy, middle-aged hobbit who left his hole one morning without even a pocket handkerchief and ended up helping to bring down a dragon was fascinating, and sufficiently long to occupy them for most of the rest of that day. The Elf listened attentively—and in nearly complete silence—as they walked. At several points along the story, his brows furled and his lips pursed together. Frodo thought he seemed about to speak—to ask a question, or make a comment—but he merely grunted once in a while. He snorted at Frodo's rendition of the chants of the Orcs as thirteen Dwarves and one miserable hobbit were taken prisoner in the caverns of the Misty Mountains.

            Down, down to Goblin Town you go, my lad!

            Soon, Frodo recited the horrible tune sung by the Orcs while all fifteen of the travelers were trapped in the burning trees.

Bake and toast 'em, fry and roast 'em!
till beards blaze, and eyes glaze,

till hair smells and skins crack,
fat melts, and bones black
in cinders lie
beneath the sky!

To the hobbit's surprise, Iaurel laughed aloud.

"Really, Iaurel, it was hardly a thing to laugh about," Frodo said indignantly.

The Elf's slanting grin appeared. "Ah, but as your uncle and our mutual friend seem to have escaped unscathed, this dreadful little song is rather amusing…"

            Finally the tale came to its conclusion, with Bilbo's return to the Shire to find that he had been declared dead, and his least favorite cousins were about to claim his beautiful hole.

            "Bilbo told me that Gandalf was less than useless in sorting all that out," Frodo chuckled. "He'd finished the serious work, and was in no mood for dabbling in the intricacies of Shire property law and all that… Bilbo often said that he suspected the wizard could easily have made the entire problem vanish with one well-aimed incantation, and turned Otho Sackville-Baggins into a toad… But then, he was really only jesting, for of course he would have been horrified had Gandalf actually done such a thing… and he was truly grateful for the company of the wizard for those first few months, returning to a home that seemed strange to him, after so long wandering in foreign places."

            Iaurel finally spoke. "And so, you met him—our mutual friend—when you were but a child?"

            "Yes, at least I knew of him, and had seen him from afar, at festivals and such… But it was only after I came to live with Bilbo, when I was only twenty-one—still quite young, among my people, but no longer a child—that I finally got to know him. Yet I didn't truly think of him as my friend, not then. He was Bilbo's friend, to me: so very mysterious, and such fierce eyes!... Bit by bit I got to know him… After Bilbo left, I saw him much more often, and learned to think of him as my friend, too… A very dear friend…"

            The Sun was just peeking above the tops of the trees of the Forest, and long slanting rays of red-gold light streamed across the fields.

            "Goodness, we've been talking for a long time!" Frodo said. "It must be late afternoon… You've been a very good listener, Iaurel. Thank you, for all the attention…" He steered their path back toward the cottage. "I'd like you to know that I'm willing to listen, too… to any tale you'd like to tell me… one friend to another…"

            The Elf gazed toward the setting Sun, silent for a moment. Then he spoke.

            "You came to life in yonder small country, that green, settled place you name 'Shire'?"

            "Yes… I was born in Buckland, in the same region where I live now…"

            Slowly, Iaurel turned around until he faced East. "I came to life far, far away… far to the East," he whispered. "… beside a vast, blue lake, ringed by mountains… I know not where it is, or if it even still exists… I left, long ago. All who were there with me are gone… I have forgotten them, and they have forgotten me…"

            "I'm very sorry, that you lost all your folk," Frodo said slowly.

            Iaurel turned to look down at the hobbit. His eyes gleamed with a strange light. "I found others… Distant kin…"

            Frodo had left his cloak at the cottage, for the day had been bright and pleasant. But the late afternoon shadows lay long across the fields as the Sun sank behind the dark border of the Forest. He rubbed his hand on his arm as he shivered with a sudden chill.

            "Let's go back, shall we?" he said. "Evening is coming, and I'm looking forward to a hot meal by the fire, aren't you?" He took a few steps forward, then stopped. The Elf had not moved.

            "Go on ahead, Frodo Bag… Frodo… I wish to stay beneath the sky. I wish to watch Night arrive, and see the Stars."

            "Of course," Frodo murmured. He is an Elf, after all, fond of starlight… and by the sounds of it, one of the oldest of the Quendi, one who awoke by the shores of Cuivienen… If only I could tell Bilbo… He'd have been fascinated to hear of it… "I'll see you later… or in the morning…" he said as he raised his hand and turned toward the cottage, where golden lantern light was already shining through the windows.

            That evening, Maggot sniffed about Frodo and Iaurel's escape from the beehive cleaning chores, though Frodo could tell his friend was merely teasing him. Tom and Goldberry both inquired about the Elf's stings. Frodo was able to report that the red wheals had seemed to subside as the day went on, and no lasting harm was done.

After they supped and Goldberry retired for the night, Frodo joined Maggot and Tom in a pleasant singing contest. It was difficult to judge who, if any, won, for each voice was unique: Tom's scratchy baritone, Maggot's rumbling deep bass, and Frodo's lively tenor. They soon gave up the idea of a competition and simply enjoyed the hours spent sharing music. Bombadil taught them several complicated rounds—which of course, required dancing—and the Shire hobbits in their turn found a few tunes between them that Tom claimed to have never heard. Maggot sang a ribald tune set at Midsummer's Fest in the Marish, involving a pair of lads sweet on the same charming—and devilishly teasing—young lass, and Frodo discovered to his delight that old Bombadil had never heard Bilbo's Bathing Song. The three of them laughed so hard that the tears fell from their eyes as they shouted more than sang on the second time through.

O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer, if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back

Suddenly, their three mingled voices abruptly ceased. They turned as one to the west-facing door. From beyond, in the night, had come an unearthly howl.

            "What was that, d'ye think?" Maggot whispered.

            "I don't know," Frodo said in a hushed voice. "Are there wolves near here, Tom?"

            Bombadil was gazing at the door with a curious look… of sadness, Frodo thought.

"Nay, children… No wolves have been seen in this land since the Fell Winter… That was the voice of another creature altogether…"

            The hobbits glanced at one another nervously. Quite clearly, Bombadil knew what had made the mournful call. Like a cry of pure anguish… But Tom seemed to have no intention of telling his companions the source of the sound.

Frodo suddenly didn't feel like singing any longer. Weariness fell over him like a heavy blanket across his shoulders.

            "I think I'll retire," he said as he rose to his feet. "I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night…"

            "You see?" Maggot growled, as he wagged a finger. "I told you not to stay up so late, Baggins…"

            "And you were right," Frodo laughed. "I must pay for it now, by going to bed early. Thank you both for a pleasant evening, and good night…"

            "G'night to ye, Frodo…"

            "Fear not the Voices of the Night, Little Friend… Nothing evil can pass beneath the eaves of this House…"

            But though he fell asleep quickly, Frodo's dreams were troubled by vague and frightening calls from the darkness—the voices of creatures he'd come to know all too well on his journey. Farthest away, like echoes in the back of his mind, were the fell screeches of the Ringwraiths. But their shrill voices seemed powerless now, and soon they faded into silence. Closer were the mournful howls of wolves. But for the first time, Frodo heard not ravenous attackers in pursuit of him, but a brotherhood of animals, calling out to one another, banding together in defense against their pitiless foes: human hunters with arrows, and hunger, from the ever shrinking sources of food and wild places to run free.

            Closest of all, he heard the gruff and grunting snarls of Orcs on the prowl, and he shuddered with terror in his sleep. Yet the dream shifted, and as he and Sam hid beneath the wizard's grey cloak, trembling with fear, every Orc in the patrol stood before them and paused. He looked into each one's eyes—the whites stained a sickly yellow, and their irises nearly black—and deep within, he thought he saw a flicker… of something else… something he almost recognized… He heard Sam whispering beside him.

            Almost want to pity 'em, the wretched creatures…

            Frodo woke with a cry, and sat up. He had thrown his arms out and banged his stump on the bedstead, and it hurt sharply. He sat clutching it to his chest as he struggled to stifle the sobs that wanted to break loose. Sam… oh my dear Sam… He lay back down, curled on his side, and for the rest of that night his sleep was deep and untouched by dreams.

            The next morning, Iaurel waited at the cottage door as if it wasn't at all unusual to have stayed out all night. The swelling of his face and hands had reduced, and the beestings had faded to nothing more than scattered red spots. He bowed his head to Frodo and turned his attention to Bombadil as Tom explained their chores.

          "This be the day for Goldberry and Tom's to seal yesterday's bounty in crocks and jars for long storage. First we must render wax from the many combs, and such a task is a mighty mess for more than two," he grinned. He nodded at Maggot. "Would ye be the leader today, my wise little friend?"

          Farmer Maggot's bronzed face colored a bit more deeply as he bowed with pride. He led the way into the edge of the Old Forest.

            "I'll show ye three tasty kinds that'll never cause you to sicken, and three to always avoid," he said. "Mind ye, these are secrets passed in my family for generations… You'll be keeping this knowledge to yourself, now, Baggins…"

            "You have my word," Frodo said solemnly.

            Maggot glared at Iaurel, who simply gazed back calmly. The Farmer seemed about to ask the tall Elf to swear to keep his secrets too, then appeared to think better of it.

            "Right then," he said gruffly. He kicked a matted pile of leaves aside with his toe and pointed down. "This one here's a prime example of one you should always avoid… You see these thin dark flutes, on the underside of the cap…"

            Maggot was a remarkably good teacher, and soon Frodo and Iaurel had the hang of it enough that the Farmer thought they were capable to gather—with the understanding, of course, that Maggot would have the final say on whether a mushroom was one to keep or one to leave behind.

            The three of them wandered in and out of the verge of the woods, careful to stay within sight and earshot of one another. Frodo had leaned down to inspect a mushroom with an unusual shape when he found Iaurel at his elbow, gazing down at him expectantly.

            "It would please me greatly if you would continue your tale, Frodo," he said quietly.

            Frodo glanced up, and immediately he noticed that Farmer Maggot was also listening intently. He colored a bit. Maggot is right, I haven't been forthcoming with my stories… The Ring has been destroyed, and Sauron has fallen. The time for secrecy has passed. There is no reason he cannot hear everything too…

            "Very well. Do you remember yesterday, I mentioned that my 'uncle' Bilbo had found that magic ring along the way, and how it proved so useful?" he began. "Well, you see, that little trinket turned out to be something altogether different…"

          All that morning, as they gathered and sorted mushrooms, Frodo told the slowly unwinding story. Farmer Maggot nodded at several points, though sometimes Frodo felt the hobbit's stare upon him, or turned to catch his look of amazement. He was hesitant at first, finding it much more difficult to describe his own experiences—and his own errors—than it had been to tell Bilbo's story. Gradually he found confidence. A feeling built within him, that it was good to tell the tale—that it was somehow healing to speak of all the terrible things he had been through, that by naming what he had seen and endured he might somehow find a way to let them go.

        Frodo had just told of the Council of Elrond and his own halting words offering to carry on with the Quest, when a bell clanged from the cottage.

        "Ah!" he said with a rush of relief; for his companions were gaping at him with astonished stares, and he suddenly felt acutely uncomfortable with their attention. "That must be Tom and Goldberry calling us for lunch…" He dropped the mushroom he'd been holding into the nearly full basket. "What do you think of this one, Maggot? Does it pass muster?"

       The Farmer blinked and looked down. "Aye," he muttered as he leaned close. "You're getting good at this, Baggins…" He looked up. "And that's not all you're good at, it seems…"

       Frodo flushed. "Well I don't know about that… But I do know I'm hungry. All this storytelling has just about done me in! Let's head back, shall we?"

       Iaurel spoke from where he stood behind Frodo.       

       "Only if you promise to carry on, once the meal is done…"

       "Aye," Maggot said. "You've left us hanging, Baggins, wondering how on earth you got yourself through it all. Your lad Sam had it right: a mighty pickle you found yourself in…"

       Frodo felt his face heat up. "There's a good deal more to this tale than just what concerned me, you know…"

      "All the more reason you'd best start in on it again as soon as we've had a bite," Maggot grunted as they walked back over the fields to the cottage.

      The story took all that day and most of the next to fully recount, especially as Iaurel and Maggot seemed to have found their courage, and asked an increasing number of questions as he went on. With one interruption after another, Frodo's narrative continued, following the journey from Rivendell. Just as the Sun slipped behind the wall of the Old Forest, he described the Company's narrow escape from the Balrog and the hordes of Moria. Then he ceased his tale for the night, insisting that it was not a tale for darkness. But that only made his companions more anxious for him to start up where he'd left off the next morning.

     As the three of them helped Tom and Goldberry prepare baskets of fruit for canning and drying, Frodo picked up the story with the Fellowship's pause in the eastern shoulders of the Misty Mountains, and continued with a sigh as he attempted to describe Lothlorien and the Lady of the Golden Wood. Now he had five eager listeners. Bombadil and Goldberry added their voices to the questions and comments of approval, astonishment, or sympathy as Frodo wove the many threads of the story together into a rich tapestry of drama, adventure, sorrow, joy and loss.

      The Sun was once more slipping behind the living wall of the Old Forest when Frodo finally completed his tale. They had gathered around him in a half-circle, seated on the ground before Tom's cottage in the last light of a beautiful autumn day. In a low and hesitant voice, the Ring-Bearer spoke aloud, for the first time, of those final hours of desperate struggle on Orodruin itself. He told of his grim determination to succeed at his task, whatever the cost, even if it meant leaping into the Fire himself. In a husky whisper he described how his dearest friend would not let go of hope, even in the darkest moment of both of their lives. And saying the words aloud brought a new and stark clarity to him. He knew now that had he taken the Ring into the Sammath Naur and in hopeless courage stepped over the edge of the precipice, Sam would not have escaped alive either. He would have followed him.

      "And so he did the only thing that might have saved us both," he whispered. "I think I finally understand… The Ring… The Mountain, and the Enemy's rage: that's what killed Sam… I didn't… Though I still wish, with all my heart, that somehow I could have found the strength to just let It go, when the time came…." He sighed. "But I couldn't. It was too strong for me…"

      Bombadil spoke quietly, his blue eyes focused brightly upon Frodo's face. "There be but one Hand that, once that Ring had encircled a finger, that might have had such strength—the Hand that made the evil thing. And yet, my brave Little Friend: even He was under the sway of His Precious… Far more than were you…"

       "You and your dear friend Samwise did what no others could," Goldberry said, her eyes glimmering. "I believe only the Little Folk could carry out such a deed, for the roots of your quiet courage grow from within Arda herself…"

        "And not just any 'Little Folk,'" Maggot grumbled. "As I see it, only a Baggins could've done so… Maybe only one Baggins, at that…"

        As his friends spoke, Frodo had bowed his head and closed his eyes. More than ever, he missed Sam keenly. Telling all the details, as he had not done before, brought the memories of his friend back sharply. He sighed deeply. Then an abrupt sound broke into the quiet evening. He looked up.

       Iaurel had jumped to his feet. The Elf's fingers were clutched in his black hair, and his face was contorted with a strange look: of horror, or of tremendous grief, or both.

      "I… I must… must leave…" he said in a choked whisper as he tripped backward. "I cannot stay here… I deserve not such friendship…"

      Frodo and the others rose and turned toward the Elf.  "What are you saying? I don't understand!" he cried.

       But the strange Elf shook his head and began to stumble away into the gathering darkness. Frodo's throat was tight with sadness. No! Not again… I was just beginning to feel our friendship growing… I don't think I can bear to lose yet another friend…

       "Iaurel, wait!"

       The Elf's dark, haunted eyes pierced him once; then he turned and ran. Frodo started to run after him.

       Tom was at his side in an instant, his warm broad hand upon the hobbit's shoulder, gently but firmly restraining him.  "P'rhaps best to let him go, Little Friend," he said.

        Frodo looked up at Bombadil. "But he's in pain, that's obvious… I don't know what it's all about, but I'm worried about him… He shouldn't be alone, not when he's like this…"

       "You have a kind heart, Frodo Baggins," Tom said. "But some sorrows are best felt in private—and our Elvish friend's grief is, I deem, one of those." Bombadil's bright blue eyes gleamed at him. "We have all known the desire to be alone with one's hurts, have we not?"

        Frodo's face suddenly burned, as he thought of awakening on the Field of Cormallen, and his subsequent rejection of the gentle efforts of everyone to help him. I wouldn't let anyone near me… How stubborn I was… And how much it must have hurt all my friends, to see me in such pain, and be helpless to do a thing for me…

       Tom went on. "Come now, and while Goldberry and I set food and drink on the table, finish your tale…"

       "Aye," Maggot said. "I'm keen to learn how you escaped from the middle of the blackest and hottest spot on earth, Baggins... And I'd like to know a bit more of how our young friends Master Brandybuck and Master Took came out…"

       They returned to the cottage, though Frodo lingered on the step for a long moment, searching the twilight for a glimpse of Iaurel. But the Elf had vanished. He had seemed to run north and eastward, toward the Barrow-Downs. Frodo shivered at the thought of following him, for even cleansed of the wights, the Downs still felt cold and dangerous. He sighed as he turned toward the threshold.

      Whatever will I tell Gandalf? What will he think of me for driving off his friend, Iaurel? And what's it all about, anyway—what terrible sorrow is eating at the poor Elf? But as he had no answers to any of his questions, he entered Tom's cottage. A few hours after they supped, Frodo finally finished his story, satisfying Farmer Maggot's deepest curiosity and answering every one of old Bombadil's probing questions. He sank back into the chair before the hearth, as weariness suddenly fell upon him. He yawned widely. Tom and Maggot chuckled, and he laughed along with them.

      "'Tis a tiresome thing, to speak so long," Tom said with a smile. "You have done the labor of ten this day, my friend…"

      "You're right," Frodo said as another yawn burst forth. "I feel as though I've been carrying bushels of fruit from your orchard all day long." He stood and bowed to his friends. "Thank you both, for listening so attentively to such a long and difficult tale…" They nodded and smiled in return. "I shall sleep well tonight, I think," he said as he took his leave of them. At the doorway he turned and grinned. "Don't stay up too late, now, Maggot…"

       The Farmer grunted. "No later than what's necessary, Baggins…"

      Frodo listened to the low tones of the voices of his friends in the parlor as he snuggled beneath the covers. He suspected they were talking about his adventures. I know I would be, had I just heard such a remarkable tale… He did not begrudge them their conversation, even knowing that he was most likely the topic. For the understanding had grown within him, as the words of the tale had spilled out over the last days, of how he was just one small part of a great whole, and that his story was merely part of The Story: the endless flowing river of people—and all their deeds and choices—that had come before him and would go on long after he was gone.

      I wonder how Iaurel fits into The Story… And with that thought, he drifted into sleep.

      The House was silent and dark when he woke. He shivered, for the coverlet had slid from him, and the air in his chamber had grown chill. A thin cold stream of air brushed him as he reached for the edge of the quilt. His eyes fell on the nearest glazed window, which was slightly ajar. Of course; I left it open a crack when I went to bed, for last evening was so pleasant and warm… No longer. The icy breeze carried a reminder that Winter was not far off. Frodo slipped out of bed, stepped to the window, and pulled on the hinged frame to close it tightly. As he turned the latch he glanced outside.

      The Moon was now at three-quarters, six nights after full. The turf of Tom's homestead spilled down toward his tilled fields, and Frodo's north-east facing window looked out on a silvery scene of orderly squares, a huddle of barns and sheds, and beyond, the first ridges of the Downs rising. Long black shadows lay between the crests. And atop the nearest hill, the hobbit saw a tall figure standing all alone.

      Even from a distance he could tell that it was Iaurel. The Moon shone on his sculpted face and glinted on his black hair. His arms hung at his sides, and he faced Bombadil's cottage. Frodo couldn't see his features well enough to discern the expression on his face, but he imagined it was a look of sadness and longing.

       The wizard's words came back to him. He is really just extraordinarily lonely… The hobbit's heartstrings tugged with sympathy. I can understand such loneliness… I've felt it, too…

       In a moment, he was dressed and headed toward the door. He snatched his cloak as he went by, and as quietly as he could, he slipped out into the night.

      As he hurried around the cottage he worried that the Elf would simply bolt at the sight of him. I'd never be able to catch an Elf, if he decides to run… Determined to speak to him, he waved his hand as soon as he came within sight of the hill where he'd caught a glimpse of Iaurel. He stared upward as he trotted as fast as he dared in the darkness. The Elf did not make a move. Indeed, Frodo was not certain that Iaurel was even aware of him coming toward him.

       It proved to be farther than he thought. Frodo walked quickly through the yard, on the path between the fields, beyond the last shed, and still the hill rose in the distance. He passed between Bombadil's pastures, and saw the rounded forms of beehives in the shadows on his right. He looked up, no longer able to see the crest where the Elf was standing. Finally the ground rose, and he struggled up the slope. When he at last reached to top of the hill, he was breathless and his heart raced.

       There stood Iaurel, staring down at the cottage and fields lying unfolded below them. The Moonlight seemed brighter here. Frodo noticed at once that his guess had been right: the Elf's face was full of longing and brooding sadness. The hobbit's generous heart ached for him as he approached cautiously.

       Iaurel spoke first, his deep voice low and gruff. "Why have you come, Frodo Baggins? What reason have you to seek my company?"

       Frodo stood beside him now. He looked up. "I came because that's what friends do, Iaurel. I was worried about you, if you'd like to know. But I might ask the same thing of you," he said. "You ran away, earlier, without any explanation… But here you are again. You've come back… Why? What reason do you have to seek for company?"

      The Elf's dark eyes fell on him, and Frodo thought he had never seen such a bleak expression. "I came to say good-bye to our mutual friend… He said he would return this night, did he not?"

       Frodo nodded, a bit stung by the Elf's blunt declaration. He realized he'd been hoping that Iaurel had come back for him… for my friendship… But it made sense that he would return for the wizard. Of course… Gandalf said he was Iaurel's only friend… He's known him much longer than I have… I have no claim on him…

      "He said he would return before dawn," Frodo said calmly. He gazed at the sky. "But the dawn is several hours off…" He smiled slightly. "Now that I'm here, I'll wait with you. And while we wait for dawn to appear, you could take your turn at telling stories. I am still very interested in hearing more about you… Where you and Gandalf met, for instance…"

      Frodo's heart jumped as Iaurel's face snapped toward him. The Elf's features were stone-hard and full of anger.

      "So be it," he hissed. "And remember, you asked me to tell you the tale. Remember that, when you flee from here in horror and hatred…"

       Frodo stepped back a pace and blinked in surprise. "There's no need to get angry, Iaurel…"

      "Silence!" the Elf shouted. Frodo flinched. "Listen to my tale… and see if I am right: that one such as I deserves not what one such as you call friendship…"

      Frodo's mouth was dry and he trembled as the Elf turned partly away and began to speak in low tones. The generous-hearted hobbit listened intently to the broken, halting words: words that fell into the night like splintered glass. Sharp, harsh words, evil names… Dark places, pain and anguish… year after year, century after century, age after age… The hobbit's heart was filled with grief and sorrow at the tremendous suffering. He reached out instinctively to touch Iaurel's hand. And the Elf shook him off immediately.

      But then the story shifted and emerged from dark holes beneath the ground. All the faint memories of the distant past were forgotten, buried deep… Nothing remained but the dim recollection of torment… Everything was gone but rage, and the desire for revenge… But revenge against whom? Not against those who had caused his suffering… Ah, no! Against everyone and everything that was fortunate enough to be free of the Darkness…  Against all who had not suffered in the same manner… Ugly words flew out, horrible tales of war and slaughter, of delight in killing and bloodshed, of kinship with others who delighted in destruction of anything light, anything weak… Of decision after decision, and the worst, the most cruel choice made, again and again… And then, when Frodo's head was spinning with stunned disbelief and he thought that Iaurel's story couldn't possibly get worse, it did.

      "I was chosen," he whispered. "For a special sort of work…"

      Slowly Frodo's sorrow for the person standing near him turned to horror. The names of evil, black fortresses spilled out, places so dreadful that they only hovered on the edges of the hobbit's worst nightmares. What had been done to him became his task to do to others. Frodo gaped at his companion, his face flushed with astonished anger. How could he…! Whatever happened to him in the past, there's no excuse for such abominable deeds…

       As if he read the hobbit's thoughts, Iaurel turned to stare at him. A sneering smile flashed on his face, and vanished quickly.

      "You think you know the worst of me now," he whispered, his deep voice choked into a rough rasp. "The worst is yet to come…" His face became savage with rage, and Frodo stepped back in sudden fear. "Stay and listen, little Halfling… brave hero, so full of courage… stay, and learn the truth—and think on this question of what you so easily call 'friendship'!"

       And then, it came: the worst story that Frodo could conceive; far worse, indeed, than he could fathom. This creature standing beside him—someone to whom he had offered his hand in friendship, someone for whom he had felt pity, and sorrow—was unimaginably evil. As evil as Sauron Himself… He held his hand up to his ear, wishing fervently that he had two hands, to stop the terrible words from reaching his mind. He backed away, step by step, his mouth gaping in horror, his face in a grimace of anger.

      "You…you…"

      Iaurel stopped. His mask of savage rage was gone. He trembled over his entire body. While Frodo watched, the Elf fell forward onto his knees and tumbled, face first, into the grass, his fists hammering the ground.

      "Yes… I did it… All of it… Or commanded it to be done…"

       Frodo's whisper was harsh. "Did you… did you cut out his eyes?"

       Iaurel looked up, and his own dark eyes overran with tears. "With my own dagger," he gasped.

       Frodo turned and ran. Behind him, a horrible, gurgling howl rose into the Moonlight.

To be continued...


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

Go to A Bit of Rope overview

Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

A Bit of Rope

Revox - 03 Dec 11 - 1:22 PM

Ch. 62: A Question of Friendship

OMG - please don't leave us hanging here - I know you won't, just - this is really wonderful, Aiwendiel.

A Bit of Rope

maeglin - 03 Dec 11 - 5:46 PM

Ch. 62: A Question of Friendship

"The Farmer seemed about to ask the tall Elf to swear to keep his secrets too, then appeared to think better of it." - Haha!  What a line! 

It took me until this chapter to figure out who Iaurel was.  Interesting to see that the Valar are still up to their old tricks.  They tend to backfire rather regularly...

A Bit of Rope

ziggy - 11 Dec 11 - 2:12 AM

Ch. 62: A Question of Friendship

Two chapters to catch up- brilliant. I think you have absolutely 'got' Tolkien's tone in this chapter. Iarual is very Silm and Frodo very hobbity even though he is so wounded. But in this we see Frodo's recovery deepen and be challenged too when he heards what Iaurel has to tell him. You have drawn Iaurel so fabulously well- this is alomost a sequel to Rope actually; it has a sort of magical quality that referes back to The Hobbit and is not in LOTR -I feel LOTR loses the magic for its epic proportions in many ways but you have got that back.

A Bit of Rope

Larner - 31 May 12 - 1:41 PM

Ch. 62: A Question of Friendship

Well, we readers already have met him, and have seen him at his work, and I'd guessed at his identity.  But such horror to have to recount and hear it told for the first time since!  And of course Gandalf would befriend him....

Well done!

A Bit of Rope

TariElfLady - 17 Dec 14 - 10:42 AM

Ch. 62: A Question of Friendship

I feel so bad for Iaurel.  He needs to let go of all the pain.  In the end I do hope Frodo decides to be his friend.


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