64. To Take The Hidden Path
Chapter 64. To Take The Hidden Path
Despite the morning's loveliness, the coming of day loaded the full weight of exhaustion of an intense and sleepless night onto Frodo. As they walked over the Downs toward Bombadil's homestead, he soon lagged behind his two taller companions. Gandalf noticed and shortened his stride to fall into step beside him.
The wizard's voice dropped as he spoke into the hobbit's ear. "I promised you would not go through this day alone, my friend…and if I am not mistaken, your shoulder is troubling you again, isn't it?"
Frodo was reluctant to admit it, but the brief respite he'd had in the night from the ache in the Morgul knife wound had passed, and the now annual surge in his pain had begun to encroach upon him again. He felt both chilled and a bit feverish. "I had hoped it might not be so this year, but it's true," he sighed. "Sometime in the night—midnight, I suppose—it started in again…"
Gandalf placed his hand on the hobbit's shoulder. "Have as long a nap as you'd like, to make up for all the hours we've kept you out of your bed, and when you wake I shall be there, waiting… and we can finish our talk that we began a few nights ago."
The wizard remained out of sight while the Elf and hobbit approached the cottage in time to catch Farmer Maggot and Tom on their way to Bombadil's apple orchards. Tom had harnessed a sturdy pony to a large wooden cart, which was piled high with empty bushel baskets. The brown pony was round in the belly and had very intelligent eyes. With a smile Frodo recognized Fatty Lumpkin.
Maggot squinted into the morning light at Frodo, a wry grin on his face. "I see you found it necessary to stay up the entire night this time, Baggins…"
Frodo laughed. "Seems so, Maggot… Tom, I must give you my apologies for my lack of help with chores. I'll not do anyone any good today unless I get some rest…"
Bombadil's ruddy face wrinkled with a hundred lines as he smiled. "No matter, no matter, little Friend," he said. "This fine Farmer and I shall enjoy the Sun, one another's company, and have our fill of the ripest, sweetest apples for our labors. We'll have a long day of it, for all the fruit that can be must be picked before nightfall—Tom's nose tells him rain comes before the morrow… Rest well, Ring-Bearer…"
Iaurel bowed low and spoke to Bombadil in his deep voice. "Master, I offer my hands for whatever task needs doing…"
Tom clapped and laughed. "'Tis thy legs we shall be a'needin', for those shanks are longer than Maggot and Tom's put together! Now even the highest fruits shall find their way to my River-Daughter's larder!"
Frodo watched the three very different looking figures walk beside the cart as Fatty Lumpkin, who knew the path to the orchards without being led, trotted away. Maggot's sturdy short legs moved in a rolling gait, Tom's large booted feet capered and leaped about, and tall Iaurel loped along with slow, even strides. As they disappeared behind the line of sheds, he entered the cottage. Goldberry greeted him with soft humming, a platter laden with freshly baked bread, blackberry jam and a mug of honeyed tea. When he had broken his fast, he found his bedchamber nicely warmed with a hot brazier, with the drapes closed against the morning light. Heaving a huge sigh, he sank into the mattress, pulled the covers to his chin, and slept.
But all too quickly, disturbing dreams infiltrated his slumber. It was dark, and he was camped beneath a line of hills. The others with him seemed made of white mist, and he could not recognize them, while the ghastly figures of tall, aged men with glittering eyes approached, their haggard, snarling faces and their fierce armor all too clear. The tallest wore a crown, and the blade in his hand was edged with greenish fire. The crowned figure was whispering an evil spell, and the very bones of his left shoulder felt as though they were splintering from within. He tossed and turned, sweating and moaning as he tried to escape. But he couldn't escape. The haggard king bore down on him and cursed as he stabbed the dagger deep into his shoulder. He cried out and fell, but before he swooned and felt even momentary relief from the pain, the dream began all over again.
He had endured three dreadful cycles of the nightmare when he heard two voices that were apparently discussing him, just as Sam and Strider had whispered worriedly nearby when he lay wounded in the dell below Weathertop. But that doesn't sound like Sam… although that deeper one might be Strider… He drifted in and out, listening to the furtive conversation, uncertain what filmy imaginings came from his uneasy dreams and what threads were real. All he knew was that while the two voices spoke, the wraiths retreated.
…hides much strength in his small frame…
…Indeed, more than I, or anyone, imagined… Yet to see him like this, reliving it again and again, tears my heart in two…
…Has he made his choice yet?
…There has been no time to present it to him. I deemed it was too soon, that first night, and now he is too ill—worse than I feared…
…Aye, no doubt these last few days have strained him all the more…
…I was a fool to leave, thinking to place the two of them together for a few days… I should have spoken at once…
…Nay, 'twas good, what came of that brief time, for both, I reckon…
…Yes… You should have heard him, out on the Downs… Such wisdom… such remarkable kindness… but this!… Listen to him! I can bear it no longer…
…You were given leave this time, to do more?
…Leave? Hardly that…
…Then you are forbidden…
…Not precisely. No 'foolishness,' the Healers' said… Such a word seems open to interpretation…
…As ever, you will interpret as fits your need …What will you do?
…What my heart asks of me…You won't say anything, will you, old friend?
…And to whom would I say such a thing, Wanderer? Few indeed visit this Mossy Stone… But have a care with your 'foolishness'… You are far from full recovered…
…It is but for a little while…
The voices faded, and the Nazgûl bore down upon him again. He groaned and clutched his shoulder. Then Frodo sensed a faint light from above, perhaps from the steep side of the dell, or from the old ruins that sat atop the heights. At the first pale glimmer of that silvery light, the approaching figures halted. Their forms blurred and faded, and the small fire beside him was clear once again. The pain lessened, then ceased altogether. He saw Sam hovering near him, Strider kneeling at his side, and Merry and Pippin standing looking over Sam's shoulder. He felt a soothing hand on his brow. Someone raised his shoulders and helped him sip a fragrant infusion, then eased him back onto the soft pillows. He felt searching fingers on the scar, and he thought of Aragorn's gentle touch… and he sighed, and fell deeper into sleep.
How many times the evil dream threatened to overtake him that day and into the evening while he trembled in fevered sleep, he couldn't say. He only knew that despite the repeated assaults of the evil figures of the wraiths, he felt safe. He knew somehow that he had nothing to fear, that the Witch King could not overpower him this time and transform him into a wraith, as was the deepest fear that secretly gnawed at him. He no longer felt the urge to put the Ring on his finger, and the icy claw that gripped his shoulder released him. The shimmering light remained by his side, and he knew, unlike the last two October the 6ths, that this time he was not alone.
When Frodo finally woke, the coals in the brazier had been renewed, for they glowed and the room was quite comfortable. The drapes were still drawn, but he could tell that night had arrived by the room's darkness and the presence of a softly glowing lantern nearby. A low drumming from above signaled that the rain Bombadil predicted had come. He noticed several things at once: that although he had fallen asleep fully clothed, he was now in his nightshirt; that he was very hungry; and that, as promised, the wizard sat waiting at his side.
Gandalf's eyes were closed, and his wiry silver brows were knitted together. His hands gripped the arms of his chair, and his face was drawn with was looked like weariness. Or pain… And at that thought, Frodo took stock of his own sensations. Remarkably, his shoulder felt completely normal—as it had not since before the Morgul knife had pierced him, fully three years ago. He felt no ache, no lingering knot of cold beneath the scar; nor did his severed wrist burn or tingle, as it usually did from the moment he woke each day. The complete absence of discomfort was startling, and made him realize what he had been enduring, day after unrelenting day, for so long. He shifted in the bed and leaned up onto his elbows.
Immediately, the wizard's eyes opened, and his troubled expression vanished.
"Ah, good—you're awake," Gandalf said as he turned toward him. "I was just beginning to worry…"
Frodo sat up and rubbed sleep from his eyes. "How long have I slept?"
"Midnight has come and gone, and a new dawn is not far off."
"No wonder I'm hungry!"
"Our kindly hostess knows hobbits rather well. She left this for you…"
He pointed to the bedside table, where Goldberry had left sliced fruit, buttered bread, and a covered bowl full of soup, kept hot in a quilted cloth wrapping. Frodo tossed back the covers, sat on the edge of the bed and without further wasteful speech, dug in. As he scraped the bowl of soup with the last hunk of bread, the hobbit finally spoke.
"I'm certain my manners have deteriorated shamelessly, Gandalf, eating in front of you like this… Have you had any supper?"
His companion went about lighting his pipe. "Worry not. I'm rather enjoying watching your excellent appetite—a sign of improved health." He peered inquisitively at the hobbit. "How is your shoulder feeling now?"
Frodo placed his napkin on the table and returned the wizard's piercing gaze. "Strangely enough, it feels normal—entirely normal," he said.
"And what is so strange about that?"
The hobbit's brows rose in an imitation of his old friend's frequent expression. "October 6th is merely the worst day of the year. But my shoulder—indeed, my entire arm—has never really felt normal, not for three years…"
Deep blue eyes studied him. "And now you feel no pain?"
"No discomfort of any kind…"
The wizard's aged features were graced by a smile. "Good… very good…"
"What did you do, Gandalf?"
"What makes you think I did anything?"
The hobbit frowned. He could vaguely recall that he had heard something to give him that impression, but when he tried to remember, the quiet voices of the night fled from him.
"Well, all I know is that I'm feeling better than I have in a long while, and here you are… You're the only thing that's different this time…"
"Hardly what The Shire's finest solicitors would call evidence, my boy," he said gruffly. "Circumstantial, at best. Might well be coincidence …"
Frodo rubbed his left shoulder absently. "I wonder how long this will last…"
"I wish I knew the answer to that," Gandalf said softly, as he stared at the fiery coals in the brazier.
He was silent for what felt like a long time. As Frodo watched him, the thought came to him of how his friendship with Gandalf had evolved over the more than three decades he had known him. He was Bilbo's friend, and I was too awed by him to feel anything else at first… Then Bilbo left, and the wizard had focused his fierce attention on him, as Bilbo's heir, and—so clear in retrospect, of course—as the new keeper of his 'uncle's' little trinket. He was watching over It as much or more than he was watching over me… Yet each time he came to Bag End for a visit during those years of vanished tranquility, Frodo sensed a slow easing of the wizard's usual stern reserve, and Gandalf's genuine affection growing for him as himself, and not just as Bilbo's heir. And my fondness for him grew as well… But then everything changed. The wizard uncovered the truth and time sped up. Harsh fate shattered the hobbit's peaceful world. He became my teacher then, for I had to learn so much, so quickly…
The harrowing flight to Rivendell—all the while filled with dread at what might have befallen the inexplicably absent wizard—was followed all too swiftly by the dark and hopeless quest to Mount Doom. Gandalf was never more than a few steps away, and each day brought another quiet conversation, another thorough searching by those piercing eyes. Yet it was only after the Fellowship was divided—and divided again—Frodo now realized, that his true friendship with Gandalf began. For only then, when he and Sam were alone with him, and they relied upon one another in new ways, he began to feel that not only was Gandalf his friend, but that he had earned the right to be called Gandalf's friend, too. And when it came to their bitter, final parting, they had gazed into one another's eyes, for the first time, as equals—at least in determination, in their shared but separate sacrifices, and in the depths of their friendship. And then he was gone… Yet here he is…on my behalf…
The hobbit's musings were interrupted as the wizard shifted in his chair. He drew in a deep breath and Frodo knew that he was about to say something… something important…
The wizard spoke at last. "Do you remember I said we would continue our conversation that we began the other night?"
"Of course," the hobbit said. "I've been burning with curiosity ever since. Go on, please…"
He sat back and cupped the bowl of his pipe in his hand. "I have already told you that I returned in large part to see you, and that I would have come much sooner if it had been possible…" Frodo nodded. "As I said on that first night, I left so much undone, so many hurts and sorrows of the spirit…" His gaze drifted away from Frodo's face and seemed to settle upon something far off. "From a distance, it seemed that for our other friends—for Aragorn and his beloved, for Boromir and his brother, for Pippin and Merry, Gimli and Legolas, even Elrohir—the healing of their spirits was well underway. For some, it came in the form of love or the deepening of friendship; for others, in finding new purpose or in pursuing new dreams. Yet for you, who had done what no other could—upon whose courage and endurance all hope depended—true healing was, it seemed, elusive." He turned back to the hobbit, and his eyes glittered in the lantern-light. "It seemed so unfair, that the one who had sacrificed most, gained the least. And I was determined to do what I could to change that…"
"And then you said something I didn't understand," Frodo interjected. "You said that it had worked out better that you came now, rather than earlier—at my darkest moments, when I thought I needed you the most… And I still don't understand…"
"I believe you will, soon enough… Let me start by saying that I was not the only one who was worried about you, Frodo. Those who watch over all things, in whose keeping the well-being of all of Arda rests, were also gravely concerned for your welfare, and grieved that your suffering continued…"
"Who…who do you mean, Gandalf?"
"Why, I mean those whom Bilbo taught you to call 'The Powers'… The Valar, and Lord Manwë in particular…"
Frodo flushed a deep shade of red. "But…but why should… Why would the…the Lord Manwë even know about someone like me, much less be worried for me?" he stammered.
Gandalf's mouth curled in a crooked smile. "Ah, my friend, your name is celebrated in all of Aman. Everyone knows your tale." Frodo appeared even more flustered. "You still don't understand how very remarkable you are, do you? The names of the Ring-Bearer, Frodo Baggins, and his servant and friend, Samwise Gamgee, the Ring-Destroyer, are honored as much as the name of Beren son of Barahir, who cut a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth—for your deeds are every bit as worthy of renown as his, and you and Sam accomplished your impossible feat with far less help…"
The hobbit blinked. "I…I don't know what to say…"
"No need to say anything, as yet." He paused to exhale a cloud of smoke, and his deep voice dropped low. "I am of Manwë's House, and I am his servant, Frodo… Thus it is by his command—and his grace—that I am here at all. Before I left the Far Shore to return across the Sea, he and I spoke of you. He said that should I find, as I feared, that pain from your wounds and sorrow from your dreadful quest haunt you still, he bade me offer you a choice..."
"A choice?" Frodo whispered, his voice trembling.
"Yes. Indeed, more than one choice." Gandalf rose from the chair and knelt beside the hobbit as he sat on the edge of the cot. He reached forward and covered Frodo's hand with his own. The hobbit looked into the endless depths of his eyes.
"There is no need to be frightened, my friend. Think of what I am about to describe as something like a verse in Bilbo's Walking Song… Simply as other turns in The Road, those 'secret paths' you have yet to explore… First, as was granted to the descendants of Elros—the kings and queens of Númenor, and as will be granted to Aragorn, if he wishes—if you come to feel that the burden of your life, with its grief and pain, has become too much to bear, you would be allowed to set that burden aside, peacefully take your leave of Middle Earth and find rest in Námo's Halls…until the next journey comes. As it is largely due to your deeds that kingship has been renewed in Gondor, it only seems fitting that you should be granted the same..."
Frodo swallowed hard as the wizard continued.
"…The second choice is this: that when I return to Valinor, as I am now, embodied in this form, you would be allowed to accompany me. And as I am once again a being of flesh and blood, I will journey there by ship—and so, if you desired, could you…"
He could hardly speak for how stunned he felt. "Come with you… to…to Valinor… What…what would happen to me there?"
"You would live out your span of days, as was determined for all Children of Arda at the beginning, in the strains of the Great Music… And I hope that during those days, however long or short they be, that you would find healing in those peaceful and blessed lands, my friend." He squeezed the hobbit's hand. "You would at the very least have my friendship there, and the friendship of those of the Eldar whom you know, who have already been released from the Halls of Waiting… Elrond, his son, Elladan… Glorfindel… The Lady Galadriel, and the Lord Celeborn..."
"…and what about Sam, or Bilbo…"
The wizard sought his companion's eyes and held his gaze, a faint and gentle smile on his lips. "I think you already know the answer to that. Sam and Bilbo had their days of rest in the Halls of Waiting that are set aside for those of mortal races, but they linger no more. They have gone on."
"So if I choose the fate of the Númenorians, I'll join Sam right away…"
But Gandalf was already shaking his head. "I am afraid not, Frodo. I spoke to Námo on this very point, anticipating that you might draw this conclusion… knowing how much you miss your dearest friend and your kinsman… The number of days given to a mortal are spent upon Arda, whether in life, or afterward, waiting in the peaceful Halls of Námo's realm. Only when that allotted span of time has passed would you take the next journey, to accept The One's Gift to Mortals… and be reunited with your dearest ones."
Frodo bowed his head. When he looked up, his eyes were brimming with tears. "I think I understand now, Gandalf… If you had offered me the first choice two years ago, I would have taken it at once," he said hoarsely. "For I did think my existence was unbearable then… But as difficult as it was… as black as those days were, somehow I don't think it would have been right, to decide that… at my lowest…"
Gandalf nodded. "Yes," he murmured. "It would have been the worst time to make such a choice…"
"Must I decide right away?" the hobbit whispered.
"Goodness, no," the wizard replied. As he spoke he returned to his chair and picked up his pipe again. "Indeed, it shall be your right to take the choice of the Númenorian kings, should you wish to do so, at any time…" Curls of smoke hovered above his head. "And you need not make either choice, Frodo. You can simply continue to live your life as you would have otherwise: gardening, writing, making supper for yourself, enjoying an occasional visit from Mayor Bolger or Farmer Maggot… Reaching out to old friends…. Learning about yourself… Forgiving yourself… And slowly healing, as you have been… For as long a life as is granted to you…"
"Oh, Gandalf, I don't know what to do!" he cried. "What do you think? Do you have any advice for me?"
"Advice?" the wizard said with a snort of smoke. "Oh, no—not this time. This decision is—must be—entirely up to you, my friend…"
Frodo blinked back the sting of tears. "I…I don't think I ever been in a situation before when you didn't have a single word of advice for me…"
The wizard chuckled. "Bilbo said something similar to me once… While I may not be in a position to give you advice, I can certainly answer questions, or simply listen… It may help you to speak your thoughts aloud…"
The hobbit nodded, his brows knit together pensively. "Well, I think that I'm not inclined to take the first choice—not now, anyway. And especially not if things continue as they are tonight—if the pain stays away…"
His companion nodded as he pulled on his pipe. Instead of words, a series of smoky images emerged and hovered in the air: an opened book, with a filmy pen scribbling on evanescent pages; a gauzy bush that might have been a potato plant; a gossamer mushroom. Frodo's lips twitched in a little smile as he watched. Then another set of ephemeral pictures floated up, and the hobbit's face filled with wonder. A ship with billowing sails appeared, its high prow rushing through waves of a diaphanous Sea, then a translucent city of towers, far greater than Minas Tirith. A range of majestic but airy mountains was next, followed by a soaring eagle, high above the peaks. He watched it circle until the bird with wings of smoke disappeared; then the hobbit sighed. He turned to his friend.
"Tell me one thing: when do you plan to take that ship?"
"I have not decided yet," he replied. "It will depend, in part, on Iaurel. For, as you recall, I came for him as well, and I would see him find a path that he can follow, one that will lead to his own healing, and his atonement… Not for a few months, at least, and by then it will be winter, and a sea journey much less pleasant… And so, perhaps, in the spring…"
Once again, Frodo reached up and by long habit began rubbing his shoulder. He shook his head in amazement at the lack of discomfort. "So far, so good," he muttered. "It would also help, of course, if I knew why my pain has vanished, and how long I can expect it to remain as it is…" He looked up and stared at the wizard intently, recalling the strained expression he had seen on his friend's face, earlier that very night. And I can still see it, around his eyes…. "It was you, wasn't it! I heard you and Tom talking right here, in this room…"
The wizard gave him a look of irritation tinged with amusement. "You heard that, did you? Hmm… Next time I shall have to nudge you to make certain you are truly asleep…"
"Well? Are you going to tell me what you did—indeed, what you are still doing?" The hobbit wagged a finger. "I should warn you that I can be every bit as dogged in my pestering as Pippin…"
Gandalf groaned and rolled his eyes. "Oh, spare me from all things Tookish… Very well. As you insist on knowing, I did help you."
"I can't say I like this sort of 'helping' very much." The wizard looked puzzled. "I heard Tom giving a warning of some sort, to be careful… You certainly looked as though you were in pain when I awoke, so I must guess that somehow you took it upon yourself…"
Gandalf keen gaze never wavered from Frodo's eyes as he blew an ordinary ring of smoke. "I would say instead that I was able to release the last stubborn pocket of shadow that had lingered—very like the splinter of the Witch King's dagger—as a hidden abscess of dark power inside you. And what you took as an expression of discomfort on my face was, I suspect, merely my effort to focus on the task…"
Frodo looked askance at his companion. "'Focus'… Is that what you would call it? And you say that I am stubborn…"
The wizard glared at him, and the hobbit returned the look. A soft harrumph emerged from the bearded lips with a puff of aggravated smoke. "Well, perhaps there was slight discomfort…"
"I knew I was right…"
"…then accept it, as I do, as one half of the bargain of friendship—the more difficult half, for one as unpretentiously generous as you. You must allow me to begin to repay you for all that you have done for me…"
"Gandalf, you cannot possibly believe that you have anything to repay to me, after everything…"
"It is not for you to say what I should believe," he said sharply. "I shall believe what I know in my heart to be true." His voice and face softened. "This isn't simply a matter of settling accounts, my friend. Some debts cannot be repaid in full—perhaps are not meant to be. And as the one most responsible for your suffering…"
"But that's absurd! Why should you feel that way?" Frodo interrupted. "You weren't to blame for what happened to me any more than you've helped me begin to see that I wasn't to blame for Sam…or for you, for that matter…"
The wizard sniffed. "With greater power comes greater responsibility. While I did not force you, nor command that you take the Quest upon yourself, I certainly influenced you—and Bilbo—to take risks you never would have dreamed of doing otherwise. One might even say that I manipulated you…"
"Now you sound like the Voice of the Ring," the hobbit scoffed.
"What did you say…!"
"That's what the Ring whispered to me, things just like that—that I should blame you for all the difficult things that were happening to me…"
"Really… How curious… It whispered similar accusations to me…"
Frodo nodded. "And as a very wise friend of mine reminded me again and again, remember the source of that Voice…"
The wizard cleared his throat. He looked a bit chagrined. "It seems that you are to take part in my healing as much as I am in yours, my old friend…"
Frodo flushed. "Nothing would please me more, Gandalf," he said softly. He glanced at the curtained window, where a gleam of pale gold peeked through the gap. "Look," he said as he pointed. "October the 7th has arrived." He gazed at the wizard. "I think it is time that you stop whatever it is you're doing. I don't like the idea that my feeling better comes at a cost for you, for one thing. And I must know how I will feel, once things return to…well, back to normal, whatever that means now… Otherwise, how can I make a decision about what I should do?"
Gandalf held his eyes steadily. "Are you sure, Frodo?"
"Yes. I'm ready."
Frodo watched as his friend's eyes closed and his brow furrowed for a moment. The wizard drew in a deep breath and slowly released it. Then he opened his eyes.
The hobbit tensed, as if for a blow. A minute passed, then two… He sighed and smiled.
"Still nothing," he said hoarsely. "It's gone…"
"Wonderful," Gandalf whispered, his blue eyes shimmering.
* * *
The wizard managed to stay out of sight and avoid Farmer Maggot as Bombadil's household began the day. Rain clouds came and went, interspersed with wide bands of bright blue skies. Maggot eyed Frodo sharply as he sat beside him at breakfast.
"Feelin' better yet?"
"What do you mean, Maggot?"
The Farmer grunted. "Well, ye spent the whole of the day in bed with a fever, accordin' to Tom…"
"Ah, yes, so I did…" From his perspective, the day before had been almost entirely lost to him—and thankfully so. All but those most remarkable wee hours, and another unexpected conversation… "Thank you, I am feeling better…"
"Time we thought of leavin', then, if you're up for travel. We've had a fine visit, but my own harvest duties are callin' me… Best be headin' home…"
"Yes, I…I suppose you have much work to do at your farm," Frodo said. "When would you like to leave?"
"I was thinkin' tomorrow, right after breakfast… Wouldn't want to miss one of Goldberry's breakfasts, now, would we?" he said as he slathered strawberry jam on his toasted bread.
"No… Of course not," Frodo said with a smile that did little to hide his sudden uneasiness. He felt Maggot's curious eyes on him as he stared at the bowl of steaming porridge on the table before him.
"Well," Maggot said as he picked up his spoon and started in on his own bowl. "You got your own ideas on the matter, clear enough… When you're ready to share your thoughts, Baggins, I'll be ready to hear 'em…"
Frodo played with his spoon, his appetite suddenly gone. He hadn't seen Gandalf since first light; Iaurel had bowed without a word before breakfast and disappeared. Now Farmer Maggot's interest had been piqued, and he would soon be forced to accompany his friend back to Buckland with no decision made, or find a suitable excuse to stay behind—an excuse that Maggot's keen wit and skeptical nature wouldn't find suspicious. And perhaps he's just given me one… He pushed the bowl away.
"You know, Maggot, now that I think on it, I'm not back to full fitness quite yet… The idea of travel at the moment isn't appealing at all."
"Well, then, if not tomorrow, maybe the next day…"
"I don't want to put you to any trouble, my friend. You should feel free to go on without me, seeing as your family and farm are waiting for you…"
One of Maggot's thick brown eyebrows rose. "You'd be all right, you think, coming home all by yourself once you're over whatever grippe has got ye?"
"Certainly… And besides, I suspect that Iaurel will travel with me..."
"…if he shows up again…"
"He will, I'm quite sure of it. You needn't worry about me. I'll be just fine…"
Maggot sniffed. "You'd better be. The missus'd box my ears and good if something were to happen to you," he growled. "She's right fond of you, Baggins…"
Frodo smiled. "As I am of her, Maggot. Your wife is a queen among hobbit-women, in my opinion…"
"Well, I don't think I'll tell 'er that one," the Farmer mumbled. "Her head's already a mite swollen…"
The day was spent in a meandering stroll through the edges of the Old Forest in search of more mushrooms. What with dodging in and out of the day's fleeting rains, it took until late afternoon to gather enough for Tom and Goldberry's larder, for a basketful of a rare and oddly wrinkled variety that Maggot's wife coveted above all others, and a sufficient supply for Frodo at Crickhollow. That evening, Farmer Maggot himself prepared a dish of buttered mushrooms, flavored, he said, with onions and a few sprigs of thyme. Though he did his best to hide his actions, Frodo noticed his friend add a splash of wine to the pot when he thought no one was looking.
"That was truly delicious, Maggot," Frodo said with a mouthful of succulent mushrooms. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to part with your recipe…"
"Nothin' doin'! The missus would really box my ears if I let the secrets to her most prized dish be known—even to you…"
"And I thought you said she was fond of me!" Frodo laughed.
"Not that fond," Maggot grunted.
They spent their last evening together in Tom's House singing and laughing along with Bombadil as he entertained them with tunes he claimed he had learned from the Moon himself. In the spirit of the moment, Frodo performed a vigorous rendition of the song about the Man in the Moon at the Inn that had gotten him into so much trouble over three years ago—although he left out the rather embarrassing ending. He said goodnight, leaving Maggot and Tom sitting by the hearth and smoking their pipes, and slept through the night without a single troubling dream.
In the morning, Tom reassured Maggot that Mr. Baggins would be safe on the road when he left his House. Frodo pressed Maggot's thick brown hand, thanked him for his friendship and his company, and waved as the Farmer on his russet pony cantered northward toward the Great Road. The hobbit turned to where his host and hostess stood at their door, smiling with bright eyes.
"Our Silvery friend asked me to tell you that he's out a'walkin' and a'wand'rin' with your tall companion," said Tom, "for they have much to discuss…"
"He thought you might wish to have a while to yourself," added Goldberry.
"Now be a time for rest, and for a'thinkin'," Tom said. "Little Friend, you are welcome in Tom's House for as long as you would like to stay. If you want quiet, you shall have it. If you'd like a bit of song, Tom will be glad to oblige…"
"And if you desire a friendly ear for listening," Goldberry said gently, "know that the Master and I understand the decisions you face. You may come to either one of us at any time…"
"Thank you." Frodo blushed under the intensity of the lady's shining gaze. "I do very much appreciate your hospitality. I'm simply not ready to decide right now, and I believe I'll think more clearly here than at Crickhollow…"
The next few days were spent in quiet and simplicity. Tom and Goldberry went about their routine, which to the hobbit appeared like a complex dance to the intertwining music of their voices raised in song, and made no demands upon him. He spoke little as he ate the nourishing food, took long and pointless walks over the fields and along the edge of the Forest, even venturing onto the first few ridges of the Downs. He listened to the calls of birds, the wind, and the rustling of the brown leaves of the trees. He studied the clouds and watched the stars, confident that somewhere, not far away, the wizard and the Elf were watching as well. And when he slept, only comforting images came to him—nothing evil could pass the eaves of that House.
Through each hour of those private days and nights, he pondered which path to take. He wondered what Bilbo would advise, hearing echoes of his favorite cousin as he sang his Walking Song. He thought about Sam, which made him chuckle about his paltry attempts at gardening. The cozy parlor of Crickhollow came to him, and he could look out the west-facing window and see the red-orange sky framed by a lane of shapely lindon-trees, and Freddy on his pony riding for a visit. Brandy Hall decorated for Yule with boughs of fir and holly branches laden with red berries appeared before him, and Esme and Sara smiled warmly as they greeted him at the door. He caught Rosie Cotton's hand and held it while he spoke gently to her; he saw himself sitting next to Pally, as he had so many times before, sharing a pipe and a good long talk.
Then he imagined standing on the deck of a ship, feeling the bracing wind of the Sea, and almost thought he could smell its briny scent. Gandalf stood at the rail beside him, his midnight blue cloak whipping about in the wind. The wizard laughed with pleasure as he pointed to a huge silver fish leaping from the waves. He tried to picture the Far Shore, with its beaches of pearl and strewn gems glittering as the foam washed up, and the rich green of the rising hills. His head spun with images he had seen in books, of the fair white towers of Tirion, or of innumerable swan-ships at the quays of Alqualondë. The pealing bells of the city of Valmar rang in his imagination, and the inconceivably high peaks of the Pelóri rose glittering into the sky.
He shook his head again and again in wonder that someone as ordinary as he had fallen into this great story. More remarkable still was that somehow he had caught the attention of those far, far above him. No matter how he turned it about in his head he couldn't imagine that what he had done was really all that brave. He'd never felt brave, not once—indeed, he thought of himself as the very opposite of courageous. I was terrified every step of the way… All I did was put one foot in front of the other… I did what I had to do, not because I was special, but because there was no other alternative…
After three days and nights of thinking, and a decision no closer, Frodo lay his head back onto pillow, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He hadn't found the right answer; there was no right answer. I'll just have to let go and trust that it will all become clear…
Frodo woke late in the night, his heart calm and certain. As if called, he tossed back the covers and rose, shrugging into a robe. He padded to the parlor, and just as he had known he would be, he saw the wizard sitting in a chair by the flickering fire. As he climbed onto the seat of the chair beside him, Gandalf turned toward him.
Frodo smiled at his old friend. "I've made a decision," he said.
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.