1. Darkness Receding
For Yule, and for Baranduin, Alphien, Chibi-Amber, Curious Wombat, Surgical Steel, and Ainu Laire for their birthdays. Please forgive me, but with computer troubles it's been all I could do to get this one posted for all of you!
"Well, that's enough excitement for you right now, Frodo my lad," Bilbo said as he escorted his young ward back inside Bag End. "It's all right, Dora," he called back toward where his cousin was coming out of the kitchen to check on the two of them. "He's done quite well, believe me!"
"I still do not understand just why you felt compelled to allow him to watch the Yule bonfire, even from the bench out front, Bilbo Baggins," Dora Baggins said with a level of disapproval. "I mean, he's only recently been allowed out of bed for any stretch of time. He was so very ill…."
"And to overprotect him when he's decidedly on the mend would have made him fractious and more inclined to slip back into illness, believe me," Bilbo responded. "Just look at him—his color has returned, and he is much happier for knowing that the whole village felt up to celebrating this year in spite of so many having suffered so from ague and catarrhs and the like. My cloak? Oh, if you feel up to it of course you may hang it up for me, Frodo. Thank you, my dear boy—you are so very thoughtful!"
Frodo smiled indulgently as he made away with Bilbo's cloak back to the entrance hall. Bilbo in turn gave a triumphant look at Dora as he headed her way to accept the mug of mulled wine she'd prepared for him. In a lower voice he confided, "There's no need to worry, old girl—he's well past the point of any danger. I swear that he'll outlive all of us. And he did enjoy being allowed out to see the fire being lit. Nor did he indicate any desire to do more than he was able. Primula and Drogo named him most properly, you see, the wise young Hobbit he is."
"If you say so, Bilbo. I find myself shuddering each and every time I remember how very ill he was."
"As do I. But all people become ill from time to time, except for the Elves, of course. Although they can suffer greatly from injury, or so I'm told."
"I wouldn't know." Again Dora's disapproval was obvious. "At least now the days will begin growing longer again," she continued, her tone softening. "It's good to know that the days won't keep growing shorter and shorter until we find ourselves facing darkness the clock around."
"That's true enough," he agreed between sips of his wine as the two of them watched Frodo, his eyes sparkling once again with his renewed health and returning strength, coming their way. "The Dark Days when all dwelt beneath the Shadow won't return this year, at least."
"Were there truly such days?" asked Frodo as he joined them.
"According to what I've read in Elrond's books it appears there were indeed such days, but long ago in the Second Age, before the last King of Númenor took Sauron the Terrible prisoner back to his island nation."
"Then the King of Númenor saved Middle Earth from the Dark Lord, did he?" Frodo smiled his thanks to his aunt as she gave him a mug of the mulled wine as well.
Bilbo frowned thoughtfully. "Well, if he did, it was not as a result of his intent to do so. No, he only wished to prove himself stronger than Sauron. So it was he came to Middle Earth at the head of a great armada of ships, so great that not even Sauron could command a greater force than he, and so Sauron the Great, Sauron the Terrible, abased himself before the King of Númenor and allowed himself to be bound in the shape of a Man—or was it an Elf?—and taken as a prisoner back to the Star Isle. A bad business it proved, in the end. Inviting the greatest villain there is into your home is not a particularly wise move, and trusting the word of such a person is even more dangerous. I'm not certain how it came about, but in time the King accepted Sauron as his closest advisor, and of course he was counseled to commit all sorts of atrocities, including allowing a temple to be built to honor Morgoth with human sacrifices, and to cut down Nimloth the Fair, the White Tree gifted to the people of Númenor by those who dwelt in Elvenhome as a sign of the favor his ancestors had known for their faithfulness. All who might have counseled the King to remain faithful to the old alliances and covenants were driven out of the capitol and treated abominably! But it was when Sauron sought to send the armies of Númenor to attack Valinor itself that things went truly wrong, and the land of Númenor sank beneath the waves as the world was broken.
"But all was not lost, and the very waves that destroyed the Star Isle brought the aid we in Middle Earth needed to guard us against Sauron's return. Those from Númenor who had remained among the Faithful prepared their ships as they'd been advised, and when the King's armada sailed west, the Faithful set sail to the eastern coasts of Númenor, and were driven back to Middle Earth, where they set up the two realms of the Sea Kings and prepared for the day when Sauron might find his way back to Mordor once more."
Dora sniffed. "Not that this is of the least of importance to those of us who live in the Shire, particularly as we are neither Men nor Elves."
Bilbo gave her a lopsided smile. "You think not, do you? But there wouldn't have been a Shire were it not for one of the descendants of the Sea Kings granting these lands to us Hobbits as our own."
"But there isn't any King anymore," she pointed out.
He shrugged. "Who's to say that the King won't come back one day?" he asked. "The Elves have hope that it might happen when the time is right. You might say that they have ever guarded that hope."
"And what do we have to do with Elves? When was the last time an Elf even came through the Shire? Tell me that, Bilbo Baggins!"
"The last time I saw an Elf was at Midsummer, actually, and not far from Michel Delving." Bilbo's expression dared her to nay-say him. "He was headed eastward on foot, and traveling north of the Road. Although most I've seen here within the Shire have been heading the other direction, toward the Grey Havens to sail to Elvenhome."
Frodo's attention was fixed on his nominal uncle. "But why do the Elves wish to leave Middle Earth?" he asked.
Bilbo grew more solemn. "I'm told because the Shadow is growing once more in the east. Sauron returned to Mordor when Dol Guldur was attacked by the White Council back when I accompanied the Dwarves to the Lonely Mountain. The rumors of war brewing have been confirmed by those Dwarves, Elves, and even some Men that I've had the chance to speak with. Many of the High Elves will remain to face down the Dark Lord when the final battles come, but many others have no desire to have to protect themselves and their families yet another time, and seek to distance themselves from the troubles to come. So, they choose to sail West, from which they cannot return here to the mortal lands." He finished his drink and allowed Dora to take the mug from him. "Thank you, my dear cousin. However, there are no indications that the final battles between the Dark Lord and the rest of Middle Earth will come during the next year or so, or even within our lifetime, Dora. Now, I cannot speak for that of Frodo here, of course…."
Dora stared at him, her mouth open in shock and denial, until outrage took all and she slapped down the mug she held on the top of the head of her second cousin. "How dare you wish evil times upon our Frodo here, Bilbo Baggins? How dare you wish them on anyone?" she spat at him.
"Dora!" he remonstrated, rubbing the painful place with his hand, but she ignored his words completely.
"As for you, young Hobbit," she said, turning on Frodo and snatching his own mug from his fingers, "it is long past time for you to be in bed. For all Bilbo here treats you as an adult, the fact is that you are still early in your tweens, and you are barely recovered from a serious illness. Off with you—now!"
Frodo fled down the hallway with a wary glance back over his shoulder, and she stood there shaking with emotion, dribbles of spiced wine falling from the mug she'd taken from the lad spotting the carpet runner.
"Was that quite necessary, Dora Baggins?" asked Bilbo in acerbic tones. "You almost cracked my head!"
"And you would have deserved it, Bilbo!" she shot back. "I swear, I simply do not understand you at all at times!"
"I am wishing evil times on no one, and particularly not on dear Frodo there. But what will come will come when it will, whether or not we wish to see it happen. And all of the wishing in Middle Earth—or all of Arda, for that matter—will not stay it an instant. I tell you, the end of this age is coming closer by the day, and it very well may prove that Frodo shall see in the beginning of the next one, whether for good or ill. We may be aged, but he is still young and fresh, and has the greatest heart I've ever encountered in our kind—or of any other kind, for that matter. If I could spare him evil times by mere wishing I would. And I will tell you this—should I ever sense evil seeking to hurt the child I will do all I can to stand between him and it. This I swear by all that is good in the world, Dora Baggins, and in light of the great love I always had for your brother and his beloved wife as well as that I hold for their son. Will you accept this?"
She was beginning to weep, and she rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. He hastily withdrew one of the handkerchiefs he carried in the pocket of his vest and handed to her to use, surprised that she'd forgotten decorum enough not to have one of her own tucked up her sleeve. "I am sorry, Bilbo, dear. I ought not to have bopped you on the head like that. But just the thought of anything further threatening that dear, dear lad drives me wild, I find. To know how close we came to losing him, too…."
"I know, my dear cousin. But he came through the lung sickness well enough, and for that I am forever grateful to whatever powers might have sought to ease his way. He survives, and that shows both the Baggins and Tookish nature of the lad if anything does. Stubborn as the day is long, and perfectly willing to defy all obstacles to continue on until he finds out what comes next. And if the evil I fear does choose to manifest itself during his lifetime I predict he will be there, his lips compressed and his ire raised, to defy it and help in thrusting it back. He'll not allow it to hurt any more than can be managed, not our Frodo. And when all is over and done he'll not understand just why others seek to praise him for helping to put things right again. You just wait and see!" He put his arm about her shoulder and hugged her close to him, whispering in her ear, "You will see, dearling. It's not just the Elves that have managed to guard the hope for the future, I suspect. The dark will recede then just as it does now with Yule upon us. Yes, Dora my sweet, sweet, decorous cousin, the dark will find itself drawing back as much from the pure flame at the heart of our lad there as it will from anything. You will see!"