Actions

Work Header

And What Happened After

Chapter Text

No songs are sung of the Eldar in Middle-Earth after the Third Age ended and the last of their greatness passed over sea. But all voyages have an end, save one, and the white ship that left the Havens drew to port at last beyond the confines of the bent world. Many songs there were in after days sung by the folk of the Blessed Realm of the return of the last of the Exiles, and of the strange burden that their ship brought to the shore.

Many songs too were sung on the day of returning itself, for the rumor of the ship’s arrival had spread through the land, and the elves gathered to welcome it. They sang as they watched the white sails growing in the distance, and the mariners heard their clear voices over the voice of the sea. Then the ship was drawn up on the white sands, and the voyagers descended. Many of the great ones among them wept as they set foot on the shore of the home they had heard of, but never seen, and as they greeted friends and kin from whom they had last parted in battle and bitter sorrow.

In the crowd that had assembled on the shore to meet them was Celebrian, Elrond’s wife, and with her Galadriel’s father and mighty brothers, and great was the joy and the wonder, mingled with grief, at their reunion.

Frodo and Bilbo stood a little apart, with Gandalf, unwilling to intrude on such high meetings.  But presently there broke off from the assembled company one arrayed in blue, who bore himself like a king. In his eyes it seemed the light of Aman was blended with the shadows of Middle-Earth, and the wisdom of the ages was in his face. He approached the travelers beside the ship, and to their amazement he bowed low before Gandalf.

“Olórin!” he cried, “In a glad hour you return to us. Dark had been all the news brought by our kindred fleeing Middle-Earth, and we grieved, for it seemed to us that all our work should perish and come to naught at last, and the land of our birth would be left broken and darkened, an open wound in Ea. But I see in your face this is not so, and I name you Calanyar, for you bring us good tidings of the passing of the shadow.”

The voice of the Elven-King was grave, but Gandalf roared with laughter. “The world is changed indeed,” said he, “if I am to be named a bearer of good news! But you are right, of course. I do bring good news, and more than news. I bring you my friends.” And Bilbo and Frodo bowed, with great solemnity, still not speaking a word.

“I see. Great indeed must be the friendship that brings a mortal to the Undying Lands, and for your sake they shall be made welcome. Have your friends our speech?” the King added quietly to Gandalf, for though he greeted the travelers with courtesy, he was filled with amazement at the sight of the two hobbits.

“We have,” replied Frodo in the same tongue, “though I ask your indulgence that I speak it imperfectly, as a scholar only and as not one for whom the words are as living thought.”

Bilbo blinked in surprise, parsing his words. “Fairly spoken, nephew! If I do say so myself,” he added. Then, turning to the king, “We thank you kindly for this welcome to your lands, Lord Nolofinwë. I am Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, and this is my nephew Frodo. The blessing of the Valar upon your days!”

“And on yours,” replied the King, smiling. “But this realm is not mine, though these people, for the most part, are. Will you not come up to the city? We shall see you well bestowed, as fits your rank and your... nature.” And he nodded to some of his men, who began to gather the cargo from aboard the ship.

“Come,” chided Gandalf. “Surely you have earned the right to speak what is in your heart. You want to know what my friends are, and you are trying to figure out how to ask without throwing them quite out of countenance. I shall tell you. They are hobbits. They are mortals, they are small, they are ridiculous, and they shall be held no less in honor than the greatest among you. And knowing them, they are also probably hungry, so let us find them some lunch without delay!”

“Of course. Bring them to my house, and we will dine together, and you shall tell me all your story and the deeds that bring you and the last of my people and your mortal companions out of Arda. Its enemy has passed away, but how? And what has become of the world that we left so long ago?”

Gandalf laughed. “Oh, there will be time and more for the telling of tales, and if I so much as begin, my friends will never get their lunch. But the news is good! The dark tower has fallen, the King has returned among Men, and the last of the Exile is ended.” On the shore behind them, the reunions of the travelers with their long-parted kin continued, and the sound of their joy carried to them.

“Your history was dark,” said Gandalf, “but its ending is not so. The shadow passes, the hurts are healed, and everyone comes home.”

“Not everyone,” said the King of the Noldor, and Gandalf bowed his head. They turned away from the shore and began to take their way up toward the city.

“How did you know who he was?” Frodo demanded softly as he and Bilbo followed their train. “I guessed, but I didn’t have nearly the courage to risk being wrong.”

“You have not been reading my books with the attention they deserve!” replied Bilbo. “I recognized the crest, of course. You didn’t see – on his chain of office? I drew it myself when I was illustrating my Translations.”

So they went up together to the white-walled city, and so it was that for the first time in the long history of the world, two hobbits set foot on the Undying Lands. And when the night had come a great feast was prepared, and the singing began again with the voices of the exiles joined again to those of their kindred. Through numberless days and nights, the stories of the mighty ages of the past were retold, and the glad news of the White Ship added to their tale. For, as it seemed, the time of high deeds was ended, and the time of long memory had begun.

 

The two hobbits made their home where they were first welcomed, in Tirion of the Noldor. Bilbo dwelt in a white tower overlooking the water, treated with high honor (and not a little bafflement) by the folk of the Blessed Realm.

The elves in the city and beyond often came to their house, first in curiosity and then in friendship, delighting to hear their stories. They seemed to have as much appetite for Tookish children’s stories or herb-lore as they did for tales of adventure and great deeds, and Bilbo took great pleasure in recounting them. In turn he made great friends among the Loremasters, and delighted to question Rumil on the finer points of orthography. They called him Eldandellë, or Small Elf-Friend, and his house was bright with laughter and loud with song. He taught them recipes from his home kitchen at Bag End, and was doubtless the one responsible for a fad for tea-drinking among the Eldar that was observed taking hold in the city.

Bilbo and Frodo both took a keen interest in the languages of their hosts, and progressed rapidly in their ease of speech and writing. Bilbo, however, had little interest in the wonders of craft of the Noldor city, save for the hot running water. He marveled over this at every opportunity.

 “Of course you are welcome to settle wherever you like,” Gandalf told them, a few weeks after their arrival, over tea and cakes in their quarters, “provided you don’t disturb anyone – or anything - that happens to be living there already. The elves are not so sour-faced as they used to be regarding strangers tramping around in their lands, but it’s a courtesy to ask, or to wait to be asked, before moving into someone’s city. Your fellow-voyagers are all starting to disperse all over this land. But if this suits your taste, I would call Tirion a fine place for you. The Noldor know you, and know what they owe you.”

“Please, don’t speak of debt,” said Frodo in a low voice. Gandalf looked at him keenly from under eyebrows that had grown still more exuberant in their flourishing. “Indeed,” he said. “You’re quite right, for a change. Between kinsmen and friends, neither debt nor desert. And your hosts are your friends – perhaps even your kinsmen, if you take the longest of possible views about it! I met a young fool in the mead-hall1 yesterday who was grumbling about how the last time Men set foot on these shores a continent was shattered and the shape of the world was changed, and how they were inviting the wrath of something-or-other by letting the Common Speech be heard in these hallowed so-and-so.”

“Well, what did you say then?” asked Bilbo curiously, for it was in that language that the three were conversing.

“Say? I took him by the ear and dragged him to the balcony. ‘Look at that!’ I said to him, holding him face out to the city. ‘If this city is fair, if your land stands at all, it’s thanks to the labors of these and people like these, and if you fear inviting wrath, you had better fear inviting mine unless you mend your tongue!’ But I don’t think he speaks for any but the witless; once it gets out that you’ll be staying here permanently you’ll both be even more plagued with loremasters and singers and historians and sight-seers, and people who will just want to you to talk so they can make notes. A nine days’ wonder here can last for centuries. You’ll be right at home.

“Well, I’m off. I myself have friends and kinsmen (in the long view) that I owe a good long visit, for the last time I saw them I was naked and in a terrible hurry. Goodbye, and take care of yourselves. If I don’t hear Shire drinking songs echoing in the white streets of Tirion when I get back, I shall consider you both remiss!”

He was nearly out of the house when he paused in the doorway. “Actually, you at least should come with me as far as Valmar, Frodo. The healers have made their halls there, and I think there’s a good chance they can give you some relief from that old injury you had from the Witch-King and from the poison of Ungoliant’s unpleasant granddaughter.”

“Well, I don’t want to leave without -” Frodo looked back at Bilbo, but the old hobbit waved his hand. “No, no, you go on! I have settled in here quite comfortably already. The King’s people have seen that I don’t want for anything, if that were even possible in this country. And you really ought to get yourself seen to.”

“All right then! I will see you when I get back,” said Frodo, going to the closet where he kept his traveling things. “Gandalf? Is there anything in particular that I should bring with me? Or that I should know before we set out?”

“Oh, certainly nothing that you need to bring,” said Gandalf, “but have a care! Their arts are deep indeed, but they are not accustomed to caring for mortals and their medicines may be too strong for you. I’ll speak to them, or arrange for someone to, but keep your wits about you. Healing’s no simple matter, but it ought to be embarked upon at once.”

Bilbo watched them go from his window. “There goes Gandalf taking people off on adventures again!” he said to himself. “I hope this sort is less uncomfortable than his usual kind! Still, I think my traveling days are done, or almost, and that’s just as well.”

 

The stream of visitors continued, just as Gandalf had said, and Bilbo never found himself in want of company. The elf at his kitchen table was clearly one of the older ones, with the light of the ancient world in his eyes and a generous and open face. He had been conversing with Bilbo eagerly on the history of the Shire, demonstrating a nearly Hobbitish appetite for genealogies, and so Bilbo felt some slight embarrassment that he couldn’t remember his name. “Well, if it comes to it, I suppose I can just give him one,” he said to himself, “names never seem to comes amiss as gifts here.”

“And how are you finding the Undying Lands?” his guest asked him. “It has been a long time since I’ve seen one of your kindred, and I certainly never expected to see one in Aman. There were some of our sages who thought that mortals would be bound to wither and perish in the pure light of this unmarred country. Do you find yourself withering? You seem withered, but your kind does that anyway.”

“Quite the opposite! I was nearly spent altogether when we arrived - that’s me and my nephew - but I’ve found myself much clearer of mind, and lighter of heart too, since our voyage began. I can’t believe that Gandalf would have brought us here if he thought that these lands would be for us nothing but a place to hurry up and die in peace in. Not that there’s anything wrong with dying in peace, you understand, for someone of my age, but I’m certain that he was hoping that my nephew at least could find some sort of healing.”

“Your nephew, that’s the one with Sauron’s Ring? Between the two of you, you have brought more of death to these shores than has been seen here in many a long age!”  

“Well, he doesn’t have the ring anymore,” Bilbo pointed out. “You seem to have put some thought into these sorts of things, so perhaps you know this. Was there some good reason we couldn’t have brought the Ring here? There are so many great ones dwelling in these lands. Begging your pardon, but the ones here brought down the Enemy of the Elder Days, didn’t they?”

His guest seemed shocked at the very suggestion. “The Valar would never suffer this clean land to be polluted by the presence of such a thing! They have taken a great deal of care to preserve the purity of this place - the height of the mountains, the depths of the sea, and whatever it was they called down to bent the world away from it, so that there might remain in this marred world something good, which evil things could not touch.”

Bilbo was not entirely content with this answer, and poured out more tea while reflecting on it. “See here,” he said finally, “there’s strength in purity, to be sure. I’ll never deny it. But I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that’s the same thing as goodness. Look, the Dúnadan – him that’s King in Gondor now, bless him! – used to give us endless grief about how the only thing that kept that the Shire safe at all, safe for our gardens and parties and petty squabbles, was the cold and thankless labor of those whom we never thought to inquire of, much less to thank. I don’t see how this is any different.”

His guest nearly choked on the tea. “Are you seriously implying that the Blessed Realm owes its blessedness to you?”

“Oh not to me personally, good heavens no! Though it certainly owes something to young Frodo, not that I expect he’d say anything about it. But you talk about the Valar preserving things, the goodness of things. They’re not the only ones through whom that’s preserved, though I dare say they’re the most powerful.” He considered again. “Of course - going back to my people again, back home in the Shire, we hardly knew about you, the Eldar I mean, still less about the Powers. I wonder if they knew about us?”

“Of course they did. Weren’t you just telling me about your encounters with the Eagles that are Manwë’s servants?”

“Hmm. I suppose you’re right. Still, it seems hard that there should be no one to speak for us before the rulers of the world. The Eagles are certainly very impressive, but they don’t make for very comfortable - or very reliable - mediators!”

“No one to speak for you? What about your Gandalf? He was a being of might beyond your comprehension and indeed beyond mine, and though I have yet to hear his whole story from his lips - he seems to have left in a great hurry - surely he undertook the care of Middle-Earth? He must have loved your kind; he died fulfilling his commission towards you.”

“So he tells me! A nasty unpleasant business it sounded like, too. All right, so the voices of the Powers reach us, even if we do not recognize them. But do ours reach them?” He shrugged. “Anyway, these matters are much too high for me, but it seems like a point someone ought to make. More tea?”

 

So Bilbo passed his days, and some of his nights, in conversation with the figures out of the legends he had once translated in the peace of Elrond’s house at Rivendell, and he found as much delight in speaking with them as he did in writing about them, although he did not always find their thought much easier to understand in person than he had on the written page.

It was a quiet moonlit night, well past midnight. Bilbo, who found himself needing sleep both more and less than he used to, was sitting on the balcony wrapped in a blanket, watching the play of the light on the water and thinking of nothing in particular. He heard the soft sound of feet padding up the stairs, then the click of the latch and the rustling of the heavy door-curtain being pushed aside. Peering backwards into the shadow of the rooms, he made out Frodo setting down his pack and trying to make as little noise as possible. His nephew caught his eye, and seeing him awake, hurried forward.

“You’re back already!” Bilbo exclaimed

“Already? I feel like I’ve been gone for months! But if you want me to go away again –“

“Don’t be ridiculous! Only if I’d known you were coming I’d have put the kettle on.”

“I’ll put it on myself – no, don’t get up!” Frodo began rummaging along the white stone shelves in the pantry, and had soon assembled a plate of odds and ends to pass for a midnight snack. He banked the fire in the beehive stove, and set the kettle to boil, then drew up a chair beside his uncle on the balcony and set the tray between them.

“Back already!” said Bilbo again, peering at him closely as if to ascertain whether the shadow had seen on his nephew were lifted or not. It was  impossible to tell, in any event. Everything in the moonlight was silver and shadow, flattened like an illustration in a Sindarin book. “Did the Healers say you were fit to travel?”

“Fit to travel? Indeed, I’m fit for little else at the moment.”  

A pure, sonorous chord resounded through the house. “The kettle!” cried Frodo, jumping up, as it began to add urgent harmonics to its note. “That’s new. Noldorin make, I suppose?”

“Yes, that fine young fellow, what’s his name, the smith. Oh dear, I suppose they’re all smiths, aren’t they? Very Dwarvish, for elves, don’t you think? Anyway, I was reading them my book, and I suppose he really liked the phrase about the kettle singing. You know how the ones here only hiss. He brought me this one, and I was quite startled the first time I heard it go off. Leave it to the elves to make a chorus out of a whistle.”

Frodo brought out the tea in a little stone pot, and then went back for cups and saucers.

“They haven’t done anything for your poor hand, I see,” Bilbo observed as he poured the tea out. “What a pity!”

“What? Not in the least; it doesn’t trouble me at all. I don’t know what they could have done for it, and I’m not sure I would have wanted them to even if they could. It sounds strange,” he added, “but it was almost a relief to me. Back there. Back home. When the – the Shire began blossoming again, and everyone started going about their business, the neighbors in their gardens and the children on the lawn, the books in the study and the road just smiling in the sunlight, it was a reminder to me that everything had really happened. And that was a torment, of course it was, but it was better than knowing it had happened and being unable to... to prove it? Never mind; I’m not making sense.”

“No, I think I know what you mean, or I can guess, anyway. But go on. What did the Healers do? What happened after you and Gandalf left?”

“So we set off toward the interior, traveling along the river meaning to cross through the gap in the mountains. Then we picked up Elrond along the way.”

“Good old Elrond! How is he? And where is he? I haven’t seen him about.”

“That’s because he’s building a hall – well, he says it’s a hall, but it looks like a small city – halfway up the slopes of the Calacirya, where the snowmelt comes down in a great waterfall. He’s got hundreds of people with him now, all twining branches and quarrying stone and carving out terraces. They come from all over Middle-Earth, it seems, and it’s very interesting to listen to them. We talk about this place as if it’s home for the Elves, and I suppose it is, but there are plenty of them who had seen it no more than we had, and could hardly be said to know any more about it. Anyway, they’ve been flocking to Elrond, and he’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him.

“Gandalf persuaded him to leave the work to his friends for a while and come along with us. He wanted him to come and talk to the healers.  I think he was honestly afraid that without Elrond’s advice the healers might break me purely by accident. ‘Elvish medicine is strong,” he said, “and mortals require so little encouragement to take leave of their bodies. I’m sure I don’t know what I would say to your uncle.’”

Bilbo laughed. “That was a good piece of thinking by Gandalf, then. Elrond’s got experience caring for mortals; he knows them. He nearly was one himself, you know.”

“We went on together, and once we were past the mountains we could see the city of Valmar on the other side. That’s where the bells are – the ones you can hear at sunset sometimes when the wind is right. The city is beautiful, Bilbo. It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere, nor like anything I’ve heard described. I wish you could see it.”

“That’s why I have you to tell me about it! If I have earned nothing else from my small part in the great deeds of this age, I think I have earned the right to be a Baggins for a while and have other people describe to me wonders while I enjoy my tea in comfort.” And he took a long and contented sip from his cup.

“Very well! It’s a city like a song. I don’t mean a city like one in a song, but as if a song were a place you could walk into, and live inside. You see it everywhere around you. The pillars and the walls, the gardens and the statues and the fountains, they all – they all harmonize, they all answer each other. And would you know what I meant if I said that the city appeared to be held together by its own cooperation? As if, by sweet persuasion over numberless years, the stones themselves have had life poured into them, or coaxed out of them, and rejoiced to bear each other up. Outside the city, I heard songs rising from the streets within, and now I wonder if it weren’t the streets themselves that were singing. The Powers walk there, or so I’m told, and that might account for it. I didn’t see any of them myself.

“We didn’t linger in the city, though. We passed straight through and went out the Western gate. The Healers’ Hall is built all up the slopes on the far side of a high green hill, and all at once I realized where we were.”

Frodo paused while Bilbo worked it out. “That means they’ve decided to settle their Healers on... They wouldn’t!”

“They did, evidently! I don’t know whether they mean this as a sort of defiance, or as a reminder of the limits to what can be healed.”

“It’s the Elves,” said Bilbo, “it’s probably both. But did you – well – see?”

Frodo set down his empty cup. “I saw the trees where they stand at the summit of Ezellohar, consumed and poisoned and dead. But it’s not a place of ruin, somehow, not anymore. You can feel the weight of the tears that were shed there, and they’ve cleansed the place, if they didn’t suffice to heal it. One of the healers told me that they send up there the people who can’t weep, in the hopes that the tears of others might do them some grace.

“They are an extraordinary lot, the healers, and the Hall is an extraordinary place. It can be hard to face. So many of this great folk so grievously injured in body and mind. All of the wounds there are of the kind left by slow poisons, or the injuries that leave the body altered and heal without restoration. Some of them don’t speak at all. The really serious cases they send onwards to what they call the Gardens; I suppose they mean Lorien. I don’t know what happens to them there, other than that they can sleep without dreams.”

He paused and tried to collect himself, then went on with some reluctance. “There are many of them who were held prisoner during the war, by Sauron or by his forces. And you can tell immediately, when you look at them; it’s like some horrible language you share and you wish you didn’t. I hadn’t thought of how many there must be. I should have thought of that. You know that – at the end, there – I saw everything. I saw the towers falling. I saw the prisons broken and the captives going free. Free! Well.

“I was afraid, Bilbo, I was so afraid that they would recognize me. And of course they did.”

Bilbo reached out in the dark for Frodo’s hand and took it in his. After a moment Frodo went on in a lighter tone.

“But they only deal with the worst problems there in the halls; I suppose most households here have healers who can deal with the ordinary accidents of life! I met there healers from the people who walked the forests of the Drowned Lands long before they were – well, drowned – and it seems they know just about all there is to know about spiders.

“The Vanyar seem to run the place. At least there are more of them than anybody else; there isn’t really a management as such. It’s authority over illness that matters, not really authority over other people. But there are healers there from every Elf-kindred I could name, and some I couldn’t. From every Age, too.  I learned that for the warriors who wish to return, apparently it’s encouraged for them to spend some time laboring for the healers before they go home to their kin and their lords. I saw ones among them, grinding herbs and scrubbing pots as meekly as you please, who would have been more at home at the head of armies.

“Yes, there are a number of the Returned among the healers too. Not all, by any means, and probably not even half, but they seem to be prized for their counsel and for their imperturbable peace. They’re grave-faced – you can tell by their eyes that they’ve seen the Halls – but I believe they were the lightest of heart in that company.

“Elrond fit right in at once, and I sat through some really interminable lectures he gave the other healers about the proper aging of herbs and the efficacy of song-distillation versus steam-distillation of root-extracts when treating mortals, before I realized I wasn’t actually expected to have to listen, and could roam more or less where I pleased.

“You know the way things go here. For a long time nothing at all seemed to happen, though I can’t say I minded. I must have told them my story from beginning to end three times, and they asked me any number of impertinent questions about who and what hobbits are. They had me in their reference library adding in notes about the Shire to their works on Middle-Earth, and I began to wonder if I would be annotating Second Age histories for the rest of time. Then everything happened at once.

“Elrond came to fetch me just after full dark one evening. ‘Get up, Mr. Baggins!’ he said. ‘We’ve reached as much of an agreement as we’re likely to get, and the Healers will be singing tonight.’ He led me right into the center of the complex, where there’s a circular courtyard. It seemed like half the healers in the place were there already, sitting around the edges and looking very solemn. It occurred to me, as I sat there, that I had heard none of the usual evening songs that night. We waited there in silence until Luinil rose, and then the Healers stood up all at once and began to sing.

“We’ve heard some fine singing since we came here, but this was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The words were strange enough, for they sang of matters I didn’t understand.  It started out as something about invasion and defense, battle and war, kingdoms rising and falling, and then moved without any change of tone to what I can only call a dance, and then it seemed to be about books being edited and knowledge restored – I know it sounds absurd – and then I lost the thread of the song altogether.

“I seemed to hear it with more than just my ears, if you understand me. It buzzed in my bones and hummed in my blood. I felt quite suddenly as though I might be taken apart and remade into something different – a leaf, or a root, a wave of the sea or a handful of dust. I wanted to run away.  The courtyard was full of moving shadows, and the healers – they were terrible to look on. I don’t mean that they were changed exactly, but it was like catching a glimpse of the sun in a mirror, straight in your eyes. Only it wasn’t light, it was... Anyway, there was no help for it there, so I set my teeth, fixed my eyes on the stars, and tried to hold on.

“That was no good either. They skittered and spun, as if time were speeding up; they seemed first too far away and then too close, and then it seemed that they were part of me – or perhaps I of them, and I had to keep them all wheeling through the unimaginable depths. I could do it, but only just, and everything kept going faster.

“It went on and on. It must have gone on all night, because the next thing I remember clearly, I was being carried down a long colonnade by one of the healers, a woman moving very fast. Elenwe, I think her name was; one of the older elves and one of the Returned as well. It was just sunrise.

‘Put me down!” I said. ‘I can walk. It’s all right.’

‘That’s right!’ she exclaimed, setting me down and taking me by both shoulders as if she were congratulating me for something. ‘Open your eyes, and keep them open! Talk, and keep talking!’

“I thought that I could walk, but I found my legs were so shaky I could hardly stand. The Healer helped me over to a bench and gave me something out of one of the bottles that she had hanging from her belt, it stung on the lips but was cold and soothing on the throat.  I asked her what it was that had just happened.

‘We’ve been singing the void out of you. At least that’s how my people would describe it; others would give it another name. But that’s the way we understand the injuries left by the dark: void lodged in flesh, which will slowly consume it away if given enough time.

How is it with you now?’

‘Now I know how a clock feels when it’s been taken apart and cleaned and put back together again!’ I said. I couldn’t tell whether I felt better or not, my head was swimming so dreadfully. All I wanted to do was to sleep.

‘Are you tired?’ the Healer asked me.

‘Yes,’ I said, then ‘No. No, I’m not. I thought I was, but I believe I could walk straight from here back to Tirion in a single night without pausing for rest, once I can stand up properly.’

‘Then don’t sleep,’ she said. ‘Now is not the time for sleep.’ What she meant by that I’m not sure; half the time the Elves will say one thing and intend for you to take three or four meanings from it.”  

“Well!” said Bilbo sleepily. “That was real Elvish magic, if you like!”

“That’s not how they’d describe it, though. Think about the Vanyar you know. They seem frightfully – well, magical – to us, but I think that’s only because they’ve lived at peace here with the world so long. When they tell the world how to be, it listens. All they have to do is find the right way of asking.

“So I sat beside her on the bench, trying to collect myself and watching the Western sky lighten slowly. I asked her if many treatments of this sort were usually necessary, for I thought, though I didn’t say, that now I had a notion of what they entailed, I was not sure I could summon up the nerve to face it again.

‘For you? I doubt it. It is possible, I suppose, but it seems that Elrond knew your kind well when he called you hardy. No, with old wounds,” she said, “often the wound itself is the least of the trouble. It’s the way that body and spirit remember the shape of the wound long after it’s gone. Strength is hard to accept after you’ve gotten good at weakness, and we often re-injure ourselves by the customs of injury.’

‘Then there is no healing!’ I burst out, for I was still feeling shaky and it was too horribly like the doubts that have been with me from the moment I woke up in an eagle’s claws.

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ she said – just like that, in the Common Speech, in the most absurd Vanyarin accent. I suppose she must have learned that phrase from Elrond or maybe Gandalf, ‘Healing isn’t something you do, it’s something you do.’2 Seeing I was trying to parse this, she tried again. ‘It’s not something you make, it’s something you grow. It’s not something you accomplish, it’s something you practice.’

‘It is not the least unhappy paradox of this unhappy world that the stronger we are to endure, the longer it takes us to heal,’ she said, ‘but as long as either the body or the spirit wants to be made whole, we have something to work with. Keep awake!’”

 

The Healer’s injunction brought him back to the present, and he turned to his companion, whose hand was still resting on his own. “Bilbo?” he asked. “Are you asleep?”

The old hobbit made no answer, but drowsed on in his chair. Frodo smiled, and set his uncle’s hand back in his lap. He tucked the blanket in around him, then sat back in his own seat and spoke on quietly.

“She spoke to me again, the next day – after they had a chance to observe me, I suppose, and verify that I was not going to suddenly burst from the effects of the Song, or anything like that.

‘I am not sending you away!’ she said. ‘You are always welcome here, as often as you like, for as long as you like, and for whatever reason you like. The pain may return, but I don’t think it will. I do think, though, that you have found here all that you are going to find.  For the damage done to body and spirit, we can provide rest and restoration. But for an injury done to the will, by the will, there is only forgiveness, which can be neither compelled nor provided from without.’

“I felt my own - ingratitude? on me like a great weight, and I thought that I owed it to her to speak what was in my heart. So I twisted and turned within myself, trying find some way of making the truth something that could be spoken. She waited; they’re used to that sort of thing. Finally I said to her what I thought was too ill to be spoken to anyone who was listening.

‘I do not want to be healed.’

‘There,’ she said, ‘is that such a terrible thing to confess? If you wanted to be healed, you would have no need of healing.’

‘What should I do?’ I asked.

‘I do not know,’ she said. ‘But I do not think it is time to despair. You will know your own need when you see it in the face of another.’”

 

Frodo spoke no more about the matter in the morning, and he stayed for a time with his uncle in Tirion, enjoying the company of his guests and helping him with his endless and terminally disorganized translation projects. Bilbo seldom walked abroad, though when he did walk, it was straight-backed and unsupported, save for a simple cane that Frodo had brought for him on the journey over the Sea. But Frodo was often alone, ranging through the woods and fields of Aman. He met with few and spoke with fewer, and the undispelled shadow that seemed to hang on him was the only thing that troubled the brightness of Bilbo’s waning days.

After a time – how long a time would have been hard to count, since the old number days differently from the young, mortals from elves, and the years of the Blessed Realm are not the years of Middle-Earth - Bilbo sent out neatly lettered invitations to a group of particular friends, informing them that he would be hosting a farewell gathering in his quarters and would be honored by their presence. The wind up the river from the mouths of the sea was cold, and the little rock-flowers were blooming in the wall gardens of Tirion, when his friends gathered to see him off. No one came in a hurry; Bilbo had left them plenty of time for the journey. The Loremasters left their libraries, Elrond came from the halls that he was building on the slopes of the Calacirya, and from their city beyond the Mountain of Defense came his friends of the Vanyar, who had perhaps the least of idea of who and what he was, but loved him no less for it.

Frodo, who had some notion of what was coming, had been lodging at home with him to help put things in order. The curtains at the end of the room were drawn, and the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains. Bilbo had seldom risen from his bed in recent days, and it was from his bed that he turned to his assembled guests and addressed them in the Common Speech.

“My Friends!” he announced, and his voice was weak but perfectly clear. “First of all, I wish to thank all of you for coming! You’ll find tea and cake on the sideboard, and there are pies in the pantry.  Not what you’d call a feast, of course, and not even what I’d call a proper late afternoon tea, but I don’t mean to be long. I am sorry Gandalf couldn’t be here – that’s Olórin Calanyar to you, you know – but that’s his way, and I suppose he hates scenes. But for all of you, you deserve to be better known no less than I desire to know you better, and I’m more pleased than I can say to see you here. You have made an old Burglar very happy.”

At this he saw a few of the younger elves whispering to each other about “burglar”, trying to figure if they’d heard right.

“Secondly, I see some of you screwing up your faces trying to follow my speech, and I’m sorry! Perhaps a host should be more considerate of his guests. But this is my own language, the tongue I was born to, and I am old enough to have earned a few indulgences. Yes, old, Master Rumil, though I see you laughing! You saw the first stars kindled over Middle-Earth, but I have well outlived my span of days, and there is not an Elf among you that can say the same.

“I had prepared a longer speech – my notes are all there if anyone would care to take on the challenge of reconstructing it – but now it comes to it, I find that I don’t want to bother with it after all.”

At this there was something like a sneeze from his nephew, which might have been a suppressed sob or a muffled laugh, since this was possibly the first, and certainly the last time in Bilbo’s life that he would voluntarily give up the opportunity to make a long speech. Bilbo shot a glance at him and continued.

“I know that it may run counter to the – er, the general trend of things here, as I’ve heard you tell it, where light passes and day is done, and even the world renewed is never the world as it was,” he said, “but I have found my stay here to be most marvelously restorative. Your counsel, your song, the very airs and waters of this living land, have brought back the light to my eyes, and, which was the more appreciated, the light to my mind. I could see again, really see, and hear, yes, clearer than I ever did before. This land has eased the bitterness of age, but it can’t undo the fact of it. I think it’s beyond even your art to make time itself run backward, and I am come to the end of mine.

“When I set out from the Grey Havens, I thought that was the longest voyage, and the last one, that I should ever take. But you know, as I do, my friends, that isn’t the truth. I must go, and I am going, beyond the circles of the world, where all your wisdom cannot guide me. Farewell.”

By now even those of the company who had not already guessed the purpose for which they were summoned had grasped what was going on, and there was again some murmuring among the guests. But Frodo spoke out, now speaking seriously and with some difficulty.

“Uncle – please – I don’t mean to turn you from your purpose. And I have no right to ask anyone not to leave. But as long as we are suffered to stay... don’t you see, there’s no doom on us that we have to go? Age here can come without weariness, years without weight. And there’s so much that remains for you here. To learn, and to teach –“

Bilbo regarded his nephew thoughtfully. “You are getting more elvish all the time, Frodo my lad,” he said. “’Uncle’ indeed! You’ll be calling me Master Unquesamno the Hole-Builder in your Histories before long, and I won’t be around to stop you! But my dear boy, you of all people know that I’ve given up greater things than this – and less willingly too! Besides –“ he nodded weakly westward past where the sun struck fire off the slopes of Taniquetil– “it’s only over there, and this is faster than walking.”

“It is at that!” said Frodo, and he laughed though his voice was thick with tears. “And if you leave me anything like the kind of trouble you left me last time you went away, I shall tramp over there myself and demand an apology!”

But Bilbo spoke no more, and soon the sun set behind the black bars of the Pelori. From the city below came the sounds of the evening hymns of the Elves, and the company left in silence. But Elrond lingered, and came out to the balcony where Frodo was standing and looking out bleakly at the starlight on the dark water.

“My brother did the same thing,” Elrond said at last.

“I thought it must have been like that.” Frodo did not turn around. “It seems – well, ungrateful to be sad, since he lived just as he pleased, and died just as he wished. But I am now altogether alone in this land, and I will miss the old fellow dreadfully.” He sighed deeply. “Your kind call death a gift to us, and he certainly seemed to take it as one.”

“Indeed,” said Elrond, and he sat down on the edge of the stone railing, where it met the wall. “So it was for the Men of Westernesse of old, and for those who leave their lives without bitterness to go beyond the circles of the world. But we who are part of the world itself know loss of a different nature. Mortals seldom live to see the end of anything, but we shall see the end of all the works of our hands.”

He looked far into the distance, out seaward, where the lights of the Lonely Isle could just be glimpsed low on the horizon. “And beyond that, drowned Numenor once stood,” he said softly. “I came out to it for the last time to bid farewell to my brother, nearly in sight of the Undying Lands. That parting seemed very bitter to me at the time, and it has lost little of its sting though it is now one parting among many. I do not grudge mortals their gift, though under such circumstances it may be harder for us to receive than for them. They may depart the world at will without being forced out of it by age or sickness or the working of death in the mortal body.”

Frodo looked back at him then. “Still,” he said, “it seems a dangerous sort of ability. I would think that only the very happy and the very good – or perhaps the very cowardly – would not be tempted to misuse it.”

Elrond rose, the heavy folds of his robe rustling against the stone. “Tempted to misuse it? That is not how most mortals would see it, I think. You left the healers’ halls by withered Ezellohar, and they told me that your body was sound. How are you faring now?”

Frodo said nothing.

“You are still within the world, but you are not at peace with it, or so it seems to me.”

“How can I be?” His voice was low and without expression. “You do know what I chose to do to the world, don’t you? Oh, I know they don’t phrase it like that in the stories, but I knew what I chose when I chose the Ring. How can you look something in the face after having chosen its destruction?”

“Do you ask me this, Frodo, because I can still look at you?”

There had been no such thing in Frodo’s thoughts, and for a moment he was deeply taken aback. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I meant at all.”

“I know that,” said Elrond. “But you would be within your rights if you did. You knew when you set out that you would not return.”

“I did. I believe you knew it too.”

“Of course I did. It was not the first time, Frodo, that I have seen someone take up a burden he cannot bear and cannot cast aside.”

The sound of song was fading in the city below, and the evening lamps were being lit. Life and activity in the white city of the Noldor continued with quiet energy both day and night, and people moved about the streets as gladly beneath the stars as beneath the sun. But Elrond looked out at the city without seeing it; he was gazing into distant reaches of time on the other side of the sea.

“Still,” he said at last, “if mercy was to be shown, I am glad it was shown to you.”

“Was it? I wonder.”

“Do you dream?” Elrond asked him suddenly.

Frodo considered. “Not of the worst parts. Not anymore. But now...” His voice trailed off, and after a moment he began again. “I dreamed of coming here, you know. Long ago. Long before I quite believed this place was real. But in those last months, when I knew we would be leaving, I began to dream of it again, and the dream has not left me. I sleep, and it seems to me that I’m here, that I’ve come to these shores at last after long searching. But it’s empty. No, not empty, exactly; it’s full of people, but I can’t see them. I can’t hear them. And they can’t hear me, though I call and call... And I wake cold, and the emptiness does not leave me.”

Elrond looked straight at him, and compassion was in his face, and a tempered sorrow. “The world is not empty, Frodo.”

“No. It isn’t.” The lights gleamed in the streets, and the more distant lights on the water. “Perhaps one day it won’t even seem so.” He shivered. “Shall we go in? It’s growing cold.”

In the days that followed, Frodo was surprised, and rather touched, by the depth of feeling that his uncle’s departure evoked in the city. Bilbo’s friends among the Vanyar were thrown into confusion and deep grief at his passing, for though they knew of age and death, death visited them seldom and old age not at all. They mourned for him, and in their mourning was the echo of their grief for the light of the Two Trees, for the peace of Eldamar broken and for their kin who forsook the world, and for all things lost that do not return again. His friends among the Noldor, though, and the other kindreds, mourned his death with practiced ease, if no less feeling. But after efficiently and quietly making the necessary funeral and administrative arrangements Frodo left his uncle’s papers and possessions untouched, and set off again into the interior of Aman, wandering the trackless woods and speaking to no one.

 

It may or may not have been quicker to arrive at the Halls of Mandos on foot, for when Bilbo opened the eyes he no longer had, he had little memory of how he had arrived there. He had a confused and fading impression, slipping away like a dream, of wandering down the front hallway of his own home at Bag End in the dark, not bothering to light a lamp because he knew the way so well. Had he heard someone calling his name, someone he knew well and would be glad to see? No, it was gone altogether, and he was in the silent halls of the Dead, on the borders of the world.

Form, or something like it, returned with memory and purpose. The spirit remembered the shape of the body, and as long as he didn’t think too hard about it (as one on a mountain pass does well to keep from looking down) he found that he could manage well enough. As he took shape, the shadowy halls took shape around him. It seemed to him that he was in a vast, dark space with cold smooth floors, standing near the foot of a flight of broad stairs. The walls, where he could discern them in the distance, appeared to be of the same black stone as the floor beneath him. The great flat central hall itself was so huge and empty it hardly seemed like an interior space at all, but along the walls he had an impression of pillars and arches, alcoves and balustrades, and broad stairs leading both up and down into the darkness beyond. It was a stern place, like a fortress or a temple, but not without a somber grace in its lines. The darkness was not complete, for illumination came from faint distant lights far overhead.

“The stars!” Bilbo exclaimed softly to himself. Then he thought that couldn’t possibly be what he was looking at, for the stars that wheeled and burned over the Blessed Realm were strange to him in their patterns, but these were the dear familiar constellations of a summer night in the Shire: the Warrior, the Net, the Burning Briar. Neither did they move, but were fixed above him, and he realized at last that he must be looking at the domed ceiling of the great hall.

As he turned his attention away from the vault above him, he found that he was not alone. Perhaps he was becoming accustomed to the shadows, but with a little concentration, he could discern, ever more clearly, that the hall was filled with people. Human figures, men, women, and children, were continually entering the hall, coming up or down the stairs at its edges. They did not seem to see each other – certainly they did not react as if they did – but neither did their paths cross; they avoided each other as if by instinct. Around the edges of the hall – the shadows grew ever clearer to his sight – there were people gathered, waiting and still.

As sight grew sharper, so did hearing, and the silence of the hall was changed to a faint diffuse murmur, as of many conversations conducted in a whisper. The only time he had ever seen anything like so many people gathered at once had been at the foot of the Lonely Mountain just before battle was joined. Bilbo gathered his courage and his curiosity, hopped off the last step of the staircase where he had been standing, and set off across the great hall toward the ones who were waiting.

They seemed no more conscious of him than they were of each other, for most were sunk in contemplation. They leaned against the back wall or sat on the long benches set against it. Many seemed to be sleeping. Some wept. Some bore the shadows of many wounds. Some of them he could hardly make out at all, for they seemed blurred and faint even among shades. All sorts and conditions of men were gathered there, young and old, men and women, and kindreds of men unknown to him. Here and there in that silent host, he even caught a glimpse of a hobbit, but nowhere a face he knew.

“The world is wider than I knew,” he said softly to himself, “and stranger than it seemed. Who would have believed it?” No one heard him. He hardly heard himself; his murmur was lost in the murmuring hall.

As the silence was not complete, neither was the solitude in the great crowd. Every now and again, as he padded along the hall, he saw two or more of the Dead in conversation, or standing hand in hand, aware of each other if of nothing else. Although Bilbo passed quite close to some of them, his presence troubled them not at all, nor could he quite make out what it was they were saying to each other.

As he watched, from time to time he saw a spirit rise from their silent thought. Some rose slowly and deliberately, other started as if at a summons. They took their way across the great floor, direct and purposeful as if they knew precisely where they were going, and passed beneath one of the archways leading outward and away. A surprising number of the Dead took their departure in groups: lover with beloved, father with children, enemy with enemy. Though he peered carefully after them as they threaded the corridors outside the great hall, he found it hard to determine where exactly it was they were going. As it seemed, at the far end of the passage they would pass through a door that had not been there moments before. From shadow they passed into deeper shadow, and they were gone.

Cautiously, he followed into one of the corridors. But as he approached the place where he had seen the shade of a stern-faced woman draw open a door and vanish through it, he found himself facing a wall of the same dark smooth stone as the rest of the halls. His hand hesitated against the wall for a minute, then he turned around and set off back into the hall, aiming his path up the stairs back in the direction he might have come from.

The stairs brought him to something like a gallery, from which he could look down on the great hall and its inhabitants. Despite the continual flow of people through the space, the endless stream of entrances and exits, the overwhelming impression was one of an imperturbable stillness. Moving, the Dead moved without haste or regret; waiting, they waited without weariness, like carven images in stone. “Or books on a shelf,” he thought. “A library of living books. Some new, some of great age, some treating of matters of great moment, others trivial, but all of them holding worlds within.”

“Well, not living books,” he corrected himself as he came to an archway in the upper gallery, and paused an instant before turning away from the great hall. Beyond the archway, it was deserted, and nearly pitch-black. Neither sight nor sound nor sense had anything to catch onto in that darkness; no breath of air clean or foul stirred from the space beyond.

He stood on the threshold, peering into the darkness of the inner halls of Mandos. “All right then!” he said to himself at last. “I have been in dark places beneath the trees, and dark places beneath the earth, and even in some dark places of the mind and heart, if I don’t speak too bold, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen darkness like this. It’s not evil, no, but it’s uncanny, and I don’t like it. Still, I suppose I had better get on with it.” And he turned, leaving the hall behind him and set off down the corridor.

It is an uncomfortable thing to move silently through darkness and feel watched, but it is still more uncomfortable to feel the absence of any watchers at all, to be so far out of thought and time and fellowship that there is no one but the self to testify to its own existence. This reflection was troubling to Bilbo, and he attempted to put it out of his mind. He lifted up his voice and sang his old song. “The Road –“ he began, but he fell silent almost at once, the words swallowed up by the stillness of the halls.

“’All your wisdom cannot guide me’, indeed!” he thought to himself as he groped along, keeping one hand braced against the corridor wall. “Well, if that won’t teach me to sacrifice a fine turn of phrase to good sense! Maybe no one can guide me beyond the circles of the world, it’s true, but I could at least have thought to have had a good heart-to-heart with someone who’s been in these Halls before. Frodo’s kept company with some of those shadow-eyed Returned; I’m sure one of them could have been persuaded to draw me a map!”

 

Long he crept through the darkness, guided only by the feel of the wall beneath his hand, and a sort of remembered hobbit-sense that points toward home even under the earth, even when the home is someone else’s. He traveled a great time, and a great distance, for within those halls time seemed to flow like water – now swift and smooth, now swelling and slow, breaking here and there into little eddies and backwaters. At last, somewhere ahead of him, as if through a crack in the wall, shone a sliver of pale light, and he felt for the first time really startled by how far he was from life and the laws of the living. For where the eyes of the body would have been dazzled by even the faintest light after such long darkness, here the light was merely a quiet fact quietly accepted. As he approached it, he felt, and then saw, that the stone of the walls had given way to something heavy and yielding, and that the only thing that separated him from the light was a curtain. He shifted the heavy cloth aside – it hardly moved, but hardly needed to, to admit his passage – and stepped into the room beyond.

It was not a room exactly, for it was not enclosed; it stretched out to the limits of sight to his left and his right. The long curving walls before him and behind him were lined with hangings, and it was from behind one of these that he had emerged. He seemed to be standing in a sort of alcove, facing a high wooden frame, on which was fixed a tapestry showing a grotesque and distorted chaos of forms.

“You’re looking at the back of it.” They were the first words he had heard clearly in the Halls, and he did not hear them. The voice echoed inside his mind; it was not sound but as if he were reading a line of text. From the other side of the loom stepped a woman, and she ran her long fingers down the fine threads of the tapestry.

“Yes, it’s backward to you, and sideways. It looks shredded, doesn’t it, with the threads hanging down?  But that’s how tapestries are worked. Even we who weave them cannot see them otherwise until they are complete. But I see you are a stranger to this art, as you are to this place.”

Bilbo found his voice and mastered his astonishment. “You can see me? Forgive me, Lady, but I can hardly see myself.”

“I have seen you before, and I know your face.” Again her words sounded without sound; he was not even sure in what language she was speaking. “Yes, I know your face well, for I have worked it into the threads of the world. No mind knows what is not in it, and so the Dead see only those they know, unless they have eyes that can see through the shadows. And such a one are you; the Unseen has touched you and you shall in part be always at home in darkness.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Bilbo protested. “I dare say you’re referring to that business with that Ring I had for a while, and I won’t deny I’ve had more practice than some at being invisible. I don’t mind being invisible – not anymore, anyway. I thought I might, but I don’t. But I was groping in the dark just the same, for ages and ages, back there.” And he gestured behind the curtain.

“Were those passages dark to you then?”

“Dark! I couldn’t see a blessed thing, and I suspect there wouldn’t be anything to see even if I could! Your lamps – they are yours, aren’t they? – are the first proper ones I’ve seen since I got here, and we could certainly do with more of them. If you’ll pardon the suggestion.”  He looked more closely at the lights which were fixed to the wall between the heavy hangings. They had seemed at first like candles set in suspended glass globes, but though the globes contained a dim flame, the fire did not flicker nor did it seem to have anything to consume.

“These are the lights of memory,” the woman said, noticing his attention. “Or the memories of light, if you prefer. Perhaps the whole of the Halls may one day be lit by memory, if memory is strong enough. Perhaps it is already. In truth, I do not see darkness as you do, here or elsewhere.”

“You see far, then?”

“To the ends of the earth. The darkness of distance is no darkness to me. We watch history’s pattern as it is woven, and we weave it again in recognition and in answer. Those who dwell here may behold these weavings, learn from them the momentous events of the world, and perhaps learn to discern their part in the larger design. But will you not look on the front?”

He followed her around to the front of the great upright loom, cocked his head on one side, and saw the pattern show clear that had been tangled and confused on the reverse. Although unfinished, the tapestry showed two trees in blossom, one of silver and one of gold. At first he assumed this referred to the ancient joy and grief of the Blessed Realm, but then he saw that the silver tree stood by a fountain in a stone court, while the golden one, though unfinished, spread its branches over a green field.

“Is this a momentous event, Lady?” he asked. “From what you said I was expecting – oh, kings and queens, battles and voyages, that sort of thing.”

“If that is what you seek, well, history spreads both forward and back from where we stand, and you can find as much of such things as any mortal heart can bear, and more.” She gestured along the curving hall. “But the blossoming of trees can be a matter of as much moment, in the great tapestry, as the fall of towers. Perhaps we do not measure notability as you do.”

Impulsively Bilbo stepped toward her, took her long graceful hand in both of his, and bowed. “No, that’s precisely how I would measure notability. And though I do not know where I will be at the end of the day, whether or not further darkness lies before me, it has heartened me right to the core to hear one of your kindred speak so.”

She smiled. “You are courteous but imprecise; days have no meaning here. And I cannot see the future, only the present.  It is for that purpose we are working this pattern here and not elsewhere.” She touched the loom again. “Not all our weaving is done in these halls, but sometimes to see the present clearly you must look through the eyes of the past.” As he turned his attention to the completed tapestries on the surrounding walls, he saw they were plainly done in an earlier style. The tree motif was repeated, but this time it clearly showed the Two Trees standing in the Noontide of Valinor.

“Here begins the Count of Time,” she said. “On this side, history; on that, story alone – from which history springs, and to which history will in time sink back. I do not know your future, Mortal and Guest, but I think I know something of your purpose, and there lies your way: backward and still back.”

Bilbo bowed and thanked her, and set off down the tapestried hall. Then a thought which had been nagging at him since his sight of the unfinished tapestry suddenly found its purpose and shape, and he rushed back to the loom.

“It  is – it is the Party Field!” he cried, tilting his head and looking once again at the green ground on which the golden tree was worked. “There’s the edge of the Hill, and that must be Bagshot Row, of course, though they’ve got the holes all wrong. Bless me! The Party Field here. I suppose that must mean they’d cut down the Party Tree,” he added sadly. Frodo had never said anything about it to him, but he had learned enough of the troubles in the Shire to be able to guess. “Still, what a glorious tree to have in its place. I wonder what else is growing there now?”

He looked about for the Lady with whom he had been speaking, but she was gone, and after a minute – and after running his fingers fondly over the golden blossoms – he continued on his way.

 

Down the long curving hall he went, the tapestries under the dim lamps unfurling farther back into the reaches of the past. The designs grew stranger and more unsettling; lands fell and rose and fell again, seas boiled and froze. Now and again among the scenes he glimpsed great figures that seemed to grow less human the farther back he went: mountain-tall, ocean-liquid, with too many arms or too many eyes. Then the patterns lost all resemblance to things he recognized, and showed only spiraling geometries of frightening complexity and appalling beauty, and before he realized it, the hall had ended and he was stumbling into a courtyard, large and round and open to the sky.

Above him wheeled the stars, clear and distant in the night. The floor was rough raw stone, and in the center of the courtyard on an unadorned black throne there sat the one that he had come to see. To living eyes he wore a form like a tall man, deep-hooded and clad in grey, but to the eyes of the dead, which could perceive reality unmediated by fact, there in the seat and the heart of his power, Mandos had a face like stone, or the law of gravity, and to look upon him was like working out a mathematical proof.  His garments were woven of the laws of man and nature, and he was robed in shadow, as if light itself were obliged to slow down and pay homage to his rule. He looked like unmovable boundaries, like sickening certainty, like justice untempered by mercy, like the hungry darkness of the onrushing future and the flensing light of unclouded memory. As strange and terrible as his aspect was, he was deeply familiar, for Bilbo, trembling, recognized him from every consequence he had ever suffered and every judgement he had ever feared.

Slowly the Judge of the Valar raised his head. When Bilbo met his mirrored eyes, he saw for an instant himself reflected in them, and it seemed that he was swallowed in a vision of depthless darkness. Through that unmeasured void tumbled the world, infinitesimal and falling, always falling, toward an end it never reached. Within the world and upon the world all was fading and ending; stone wore to dust, dust became men, men sank back to dust again. Still the world fell, through where the light of the stars themselves failed, and all was night, and he did not know if he looked upon the past, or the future. Then he saw himself again, glinting back from Mandos’ eyes. This was too much for him, and he fell upon his face.

Then Mandos spoke, and his voice was hardly less dreadful than his gaze. It was a cold voice, not loud, but solid in a place of shadows. If that voice were lifted in judgement, it would be heavier than the world; it could sink through time and distance and the soul itself. “Creature of dust,” said Námo Mandos, “smallest and least of the Children of the One, how come you here?”

Bilbo made a tremendous effort, lifted himself from the floor, and faced the Judge, taking care to avoid directly meeting his eyes. “My dear – Lord Mandos,” he squeaked. “You of all people should know that! I came here in the usual way, of course.”

“You are out of your appointed place, Mortal and Guest. Truly do they speak who name you Burglar, for you have stolen your way here.”

This stung a bit, and Bilbo found his fear beginning to fade. “Well, if it comes to appointed places, I’ve spent more time out of mine than in it. And as for stolen, you can see for yourself that I came here with nothing and I don’t plan to leave with anything more. I’ve picked no locks, tricked no guards – I haven’t so much as seen a NO TRESPASSING or STAFF ONLY sign. But yes, I have found my way here. I wanted to see the management, begging your pardon.”

“My pardon is not lightly granted, nor is begging the way to it,” said Mandos. “Speak plainly, and tell me what it is you want.”

“Want? Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Don’t want anything, really. No complaints. Only... well, I do have a few suggestions. If you are going to be running what amounts to a way station, couldn’t there be a little more cheer and comfort for the travelers? I’ve seen people weeping here – with joy as well as with grief, I grant you – but none laughing. And couldn’t there be a little more light? Let me put it this way. I’m a hobbit, and though my people are mostly overlooked in the great doings of the world, at least we know how to build underground and still have light and warmth and coziness. And you must have somewhere around here the great ones who helped to build the underground cities of legend - well, what I’d call legend, anyway. As long as you’re keeping them here – and I’m not questioning your judgement; you know best, I’m sure – why not open the place up a bit?”

He felt rather than saw the Vala’s gaze upon him, cold and heavy and intrigued. “These halls are open, Bilbo – open to the sky above, and to the sea and the land around, and to realms beyond the world of which I may not speak even if you were capable of hearing such words.  If there are walls here, they are of your building, and of the building of every spirit who comes before me. The walls are all that the spirit throws up between itself and everything outside it – they are fear, they are hate, they are pain unassuaged and desire unfulfilled, no less bitter than iron and no less durable than stone.  I am not the builder of walls, I am the opener of doors.  

The minute a spirit has the strength to walk through it, the door stands open. Here there is no distinction between the metaphorical and the material, and for this reason my brother and I are named, and truly, for the lands we inhabit and the place we are.

“I am the Judge of the World, but I am not your judge, for you are not wholly of the world. Your fate, and your judgement, lies elsewhere, as you shall find when you pass through the door that opens to you. But though I do not deal your spirit’s doom, some discernment yet I have, and I tell you that you did not come here only to give me advice on the construction and adornment of these my halls.”

Bilbo shuffled his feet, and the memory of anxiety did its best to replicate in the spirit the sense of dryness in the absent mouth and chill in the vanished fingers. “Well, I did have something to say, in fact. To you, and to all the Powers, really, but since you are the one who’s seen most of us, seen all of us, I thought that you might actually be the one best placed to understand. I say “us”, but I don’t just mean us mortals. Meaning no disrespect but I’ve lived among the Elves for a while now, and I’m speaking of all the Children of... of Ilúvatar.”

He drew a deep breath. “We have learned much of you, and yet so much more remains, both in the past and in the unimaginable stretches of the future that – forgive me – I don’t know if the whole sum of the ages of the world would suffice to learn it all. But, my dear Mandos, you must also learn of us! If you are to judge our souls, shape our world, tell our stories, put your own twists into our small fates, then learn of us! Not just when our tales are done, not just when we come before you houseless and alone, but in our lives, in our homes, in our loves and our hates. Our lands, our homes, the dreams we dream - Can you who are infinite imagine how vast the finite looks to finite eyes?

“In fact,” he added, reaching instinctively for pockets that he no longer had, “perhaps you’d like to hear a song that I’ve written about it? I was going to bring it with me, but of course... well, if you have a pen and paper I could write it out again, or –“ But he stopped, for over the mighty Vala’s iron face, which had wept but once and smiled never, crept an unknown light, brighter than stars and clearer than memory, the light of mirth. Mandos opened his lips and laughed, and the sound was like the rending of the earth in the birth of mountains, or the roar of the sea overwhelming field and tower. The Halls shook, the Dead trembled, and in the Blessed Realm song faltered and work was stilled at the laughter of the Doomsman of the Valar.

“Well then! All right!” gasped Bilbo, quite flustered, but Mandos interrupted him.

“I see I am never to live down the incident of that song while the Ages run. Many there are in these halls who plead consideration for themselves or for their kin, and many who rehearse their grievances and long for vengeance. But mercy is only ever shown in the measure they can receive it. And you have come to plead not for yourself, but for us? You are a curious thief indeed. But speak yet again, and tell me truly if there is not something that you would have of me, for you have the attention of the Master of Spirits, and that is something that many seek, and dread when they find it.”

Bilbo considered. “Well, now, perhaps there is something that you can do for me. It’s my nephew, you see. He’s a good lad – the best fellow anyone could ask for, and a better one than anyone deserves. You must have heard of him; there are only the two of us. He was mixed up in that last unpleasantness about my Ring, you see. Right in the thick of it, in fact. I thought that surely here of all places he could find – well, healing. Here all weariness can find rest. And he is healed, Lord. The wounds of his body trouble him no more. But in his spirit there is burning still the spark of a distant and terrible fire. Will he – can he find life again, before he comes to these halls at last?”

Again he felt the weight of Mandos’s regard, and the weight of his voice falling like stones through water. “I have no comfort for you,” he said.  “I do not deal in comfort. You are impatient, Burglar. There are in these halls those who will never be made whole before the healing of the world. They are world-poisoned; the world and its marring have entered into them and they have become a part of it. You demand of me something beyond my power, as you stand here beyond your appointed place.”

“The word you’re looking for ‘confounded nerve’,” said Bilbo. “There now, I’ll go. I dare say you have a door for me somewhere in this rabbit-warren. Perhaps even a round one, so I’ll know it’s mine.” And he bowed, suddenly light-headed and weak-kneed again. “But thank you all the same, sir. I appreciate you hearing me out.”

“Stay!” said Mandos, in a voice like the falling of great gates. “If you will.”

“What choice do I have?” cried Bilbo, staggering.

“All the choice in the world. But you came here to speak, Burglar, and I say to you that you have been heard and even now your words are at work. Stay, if you will, and see them in their effect.”

He paused, and all was still. Then far above in the night sky came a sound like the rising of a wind. Lifting up his head to look through the open courtyard roof, he saw dark shapes circling overhead against the bright stars. They rapidly grew larger and darker, and he stumbled back as they came dropping into the courtyard with a thunder of wings, and a great wind blew through the still halls. But Mandos merely sat back on his throne, and watched unmoved.

The immense birds folded their wings and preened their pinions, their claws clicking on the stone floor as they settled themselves around the courtyard. Their glance was sharp, and their talons sharper, and among them walked like a torn cloud on a moonlit night a figure like a man.

“The Eagles!” Bilbo said softly. “The Eagles! Well, bless me.”

“I have,” said Manwë, “and do, and shall.” The Lord of the Breath of Arda looked at him, a mild gaze full of power without terror. His face was kind and nearly shadowless, his eyes as changeable as the sky and now the blank midnight blue of the night overhead.

“You know me, sir? I feel I know you; surely I must have seen you before. Your face is familiar. Well, no, not your face, begging your pardon, but -”

“You have seen me before.  If you have seen authority exercised for the general good and not for private gain, if you have seen the lonely determinations by which the weal of many is protected, if you have seen lordship in city and mountain and forest, you have seen me. If you have seen responsibility held in trust – as all responsibility truly is – you have seen me. And if you have seen wisdom and good will brought to ruin and bringing ruin with them, there you have seen me also. And I have seen you, ever a small figure in the company of the great, and ever to be found where least one such as you would be expected. And I have protected you; among my cares you especially have been my care. From you and such as you come such salvation as we could not and cannot foresee.

“But we will speak more of this. First, let we who know each other make ourselves known. I am named Manwë Súlimo, and other titles might be added to those, but I stand here in a realm not my own.” Here he turned, and bowed to Mandos, who inclined his head and said nothing. “Tell me then who you are.”

“Oh! Well,” said Bilbo, who had been tremendously heartened by the sight of the Eagles, and by the gracious speech of one who had been for so long no more than a name in story, “My own name is – or was – Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. But now I have more names than I had buttons on my waistcoat. I never knew such a folk for names! Here they call me Ingolmica, and Eldandellë, and Quendil, and Pityapilon, and they think I don’t know what they mean by Lapattë but I do. 3 And your friend here keeps calling me Burglar, which I think is very uncivil.”

“To these names I will add one more,” said Manwë, and the wind stirred in the hall again. “Manya I name you, which is my own name, the Blessed, and blessed you are among the Children of Eru. For I have heard your voice from the heights, and your cry has come before me on the breath of the world –“

“My... well, I don’t know if I’d call it that exactly. You do mean what I was saying to Lord Mandos just now, about how you, the Powers I mean, the Holy Ones, have need of us? Well, it was a piece of impudence,” he said, “but if you’re here to call me to account for it, I stand by it all the same.”

“I am glad that you will stand,” said Manwë, and he smiled. “I am come to summon you to see your words fulfilled. Come with me. In Ilmarin upon Taniquetil you shall sit by my side and speak to me of the ways of the Children of Eru until the world is renewed.”

Bilbo blinked at him several times, attempting to fathom what it was that had just been said. “I really don’t think that would be possible. Not to put too fine a point on it, sir, but I am mortal, I am dead, and while I would not presume to teach you the ways of your own world, I think I’m correct in saying – am I not – that when I leave these halls, it will be out of the world altogether?”

“We may return you to the world you left, living and in the body,” the Elder King replied. “We have done it before, and good was brought from it. You have not left the circles of the world, from which it would require authority higher than ours to call you back. This needs no change of fate, no reshaping of the world, only our assent and yours that this should be. So long as a life is mortal, the span of that mortal life matters little to us.”

He saw Bilbo overcome with astonishment and struggling to formulate speech. “Come! Or did you propose that our teacher should be some other? Warily should they speak, who speak to the Judge of the Earth!”

Mandos said nothing, but his eyes glinted out of the darkness.

“Answer without fear,” said Manwë, “and without restraint. None shall hinder you.”

Bilbo found his tongue at last and began to stutter and shake. “O most noble Lord of the Holy Ones, gracious and glorious,” he began, “to whom every thought is open, all knowledge clear, and before whom no desire can be concealed –“

Out with it!” cried Manwë in the Common Speech.

“You cannot possibly be serious!” he exploded.

This was more forward than even Bilbo would have been quite comfortable with being, but he was greatly perturbed in mind, and hearing the Elder King address him in his own language had loosened his tongue altogether.

The night-blue gaze regarded him with quiet attention, as the Lord of the Valar appeared to realize that the hobbit was addressing his knees. With a swirl of his sky-colored robes that sent little breezes eddying through the courtyard, Manwë sat down on the stone floor. His eagles all cocked their heads as their eyes followed him, but no longer towering over the one he had come to speak with, he held out his hand in an invitation for him to continue.

Bilbo was still troubled and astonished.“You don’t mean to send me back again,” he protested. “I am far too old to undertake new adventures at my age!”

“Is this not to your will? Not to your liking?”

“Well, no, not that – it’s ... I am entirely the wrong person for the job. To teach you about us? To speak to you of the world? My knowledge of the world seems frightfully broad to me, but I was born among people for whom mountains are a children’s tale and who counted themselves great travelers if they went to the next town twice in a fortnight. I don’t want to say you’ll be disappointed, sir, but there really isn’t all that much to know about us. You’d be much better off with one of these great ones –“ But as he spoke he became aware that he was contradicting himself, and he started on another tack.

“No, back again? And after having taken all that trouble to say goodbye? Letting those good folk among the Deathless all tie themselves in knots on my account, and just to come sauntering back without a by-your-leave? A nice fool I shall look! And my nephew, poor fellow, he’s got enough work to do sorting through my papers without me coming back and telling him how to do it. But I suppose you mean I would be staying with you, right up there on the top of the world. The Mountain itself – I should dearly love to see that. But no, it is all very well to find myself in the inside of the songs and the stories, but this is farther in than I can fathom.”

Manwë dropped his gaze, and there were clouds in the clear skies of his eyes. “I came,” he said, “as I thought, in answer to your demand, not to bid you undertake something against your will. No one shall send you anywhere, save at your own choosing.” Behind him in the shadows Mandos on his throne inclined his head very slightly.

“No, no, I don’t say against my will. Nor with it. I don’t know! Don’t you see? This is not a decision I can take!”

And as they paused there in the Halls of Waiting – Fate on his throne in the shadows, Authority seated on the floor beneath the night sky, and the hobbit very far from his home, there came from beyond the courtyard the sound of footfalls more substantial than anything in those halls had the right to be. A light in the corner of his eye, and Bilbo turned to find Gandalf, staff in hand, walking briskly into the courtyard. Gandalf bowed to Mandos, noted with a raised eyebrow the sight of the Lord of the Valar sitting cross-legged on the floor, and broke into a great smile when he found Bilbo standing among the Eagles.

“Olórin!” Manwë raised his head, but did not rise. “You are unbidden here, but not unwelcome. Indeed we could have summoned no better counsel.”

“It was from you, Lord, that I learned something of the art of turning up when called for,” he replied. “But between your laughter, Námo – what was that? – and the descent of your Eagles, Manwë, I’m not sure there’s anyone in Aman who doesn’t know that great deeds are afoot in the Halls of the Dead. I dare say in some quarters they’re already arming themselves for the last Battle of Battles. I claim the ancient privilege of my Lady, so I come and go here as I please. And Mr. Baggins, I might have expected to find you in the thick of it!”

The sight of his old friend had made Bilbo nearly faint with relief, and it was only his sense of decorum that kept him from running straight to him crying Thank goodness you’ve come! “My Lord, and you, my Lord,” he stammered. “Might I have just a minute? I am dazed with high words and dazzled with promise. Will you not give me leave to speak with my friend?”

“No leave of mine do you require,” said Manwë, standing back up, “nor need you hurry in your counsels. Take all you will of time and fellowship –“ But Bilbo was already hurrying over to Gandalf.

“High King, a word with you,” said Mandos from his seat. Manwë went to him then, and they conferred together, thought passing between them like lightning from cloud to cloud. But Bilbo clasped Gandalf by the hand and sat down with him at the edge of the courtyard.

“Gandalf! How glad I am to see you! These heights are too much for me. I have been a small person in the company of the great ever since you started your meddling in my life, but the Holy Ones are a caution. You know how it is with – oh, with horses and such, with very big creatures, where you have to have your wits about you since they could crush you with a careless move? You have only to catch the eye of the Lord Mandos to feel that with a careless thought he could destroy you – unmake you - wipe your very name and memory from the world itself.”

“That description is both true and accurate, Bilbo Baggins!” said the wizard, “and it’s a good thing for you that Námo hasn’t had a careless thought in all the ages of the world. But if you have lived a lifetime and a half and you still have no more sense than to look one of the Powers in the eye, then I don’t know what I am to do with you.”

“You know what they have asked me, I suppose? I don’t mean Mandos; all he asked of me were things like what I mean and what I want – and a fine lot of trouble I seem to have gotten myself into by answering that! But the Elder King, he’s telling me I can come back from this, come back from everything, to serve him in his halls as something unspecified. He seems to think of it as a kind of tutor, though you must know better than I how absurd a proposition that would be. Now I think of it, he reminds me of you, a little. Nothing like so warm, you understand, though he seems to mean well enough.”

“Well enough? Mean well enough? You are speaking of one whose whole mighty being has been bent upon the well-being of the world for ages longer than you are capable of fathoming, Mr. Baggins.” His eyes flashed and he seemed on the verge of anger. Then he laughed, a little sadly. “And yet ‘well enough’ hardly approaches the mark, for in this world it is never enough to mean well. Not for your kindred, nor, alas, for mine. Not even the highest and holiest among us can ever mean well enough to be spared from doing harm or suffering it. Mercy is all we can hope for, when we fail... Yes, I heard your conference; spoken words carry in these silent halls. You were building up a very fair speech to Manwë just now – every thought open, no desire concealed – but I think you might have been getting carried away.  If every thought were truly open to him, the woe of the world might have been less than it was.

“So, whatever else you may think of the offer he’s made you, do not believe that his wisdom has no need of you! I’ll tell you what I told your nephew not so long ago: even the very wise cannot see all ends. Elrond – who is, incidentally, most likely the wisest person you will ever meet, and I am using ‘person’ in its most expansive sense – is forever cautioning about the limits of wisdom. And who, save perhaps your nephew, knows the truth of that better than you?”

“Elrond! Now there’s a good point, Gandalf, surely he’s much more suitable for this sort of job than I am.”

“Elrond may one day have much indeed to say to the Powers. Or perhaps not, that’s for him to settle in his own heart. But for now, his work and his calling are all before him: building a city where the scattered kindreds of the Eldar in Middle-Earth can find hospitality and home. Your work and your calling are before you, but it is up to you whether you take them up. Do you want to?”

Bilbo put his head in his hands. “That’s just it. Want to? Of course I want to! Can you imagine? The stars, Gandalf, to live where the stars were made... In my Translations I wrote about it all, but to see it for myself, not filtered through another’s words? To approach those mysteries I’ve only glimpsed half-seen through the darkness of distance and memory? And to know that I could speak and would be heard? You could not offer me anything I like better. Adventure and talking, Gandalf! I’m dizzy with the longing for it. But I am sorely in doubt. No, I am afraid. I might do something terribly wrong. I might prove simply terribly insufficient. You brought me here, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful. It’s been more than I deserve to come to this land at all, and I could – and did – die happy just having seen it.”

“My dear Mr. Baggins, you cannot possibly imagine I have brought you across the boundaries of the sundered world, bending every law of gods and men, over land and over sea and through the fathomless heights, for your health? Well, I did, of course I did, and I’d do it again. But it was not for your own good only that I brought you here. I have been on this world a very long time, Mr. Baggins, and if there is one thing that I have learned about the Wise and the Great, it’s that they benefit from the company of hobbits, and it’s the wisest and greatest who have most need of them.”

“What?” cried Bilbo. “Do you mean to tell me that this was your idea? Was that why you couldn’t be bothered to show up to my farewell party? Have you been planning this all along?”

Gandalf laughed again. “No more than you have, you with your prepared speeches! Were you really going to try and sing to Mandos? You’ll have to sing that song for me, if so. But in truth, ever since I saw your two young kinsmen dispatched to the courts of kings, it came into my heart that one day I should see a hobbit standing in the highest court I knew, in the uttermost West. If you are really finished with the world, no one can say you haven’t earned a rest. But if it is only your doubt that hinders you, cast it off, and take my certainty instead: you will be good for Manwë. Indeed, you’ll be good for the world, as it for you.”

Bilbo sat in silence, intending on a long period of reflection. But all at once there rose within him a thought like music, like song and the memory of song. He saw sun on green hills, and snow on far mountains, and he remembered the first time he came home to find it all the same and not the same, and in his mind he found no trace of fear.

He sprang to his feet and turned to answer Manwë, but he fell silent as he saw him still with his attention bent on Mandos, for they were deep in urgent conversation.

“I am no jailer, save at great need,” Mandos was saying. “The door stands open, but he will not walk through it. The offer is useless, request worse than useless, command impossible.”

Manwë bowed his head as in agreement. “It is an enduring grief that the people I love, come to the end of their road at last, should remain sundered from the one who set them on it.”

“Three things were asked of me before my throne,” said Mandos slowly. “One I have answered, one you have answered, and one lies beyond my power and beyond yours, the matter of your Burglar’s unhealed kinsman. Yet do we not have such a case always before us? It may be that the one may answer the other, to the benefit of both. It is my counsel then that they should be brought to speech together.”

“When he comes to you at last? Slow and uncertain would such a course be.”

“No; they are world-poisoned, let them converse in the world or not at all. The voices of the living do not reach the Dead, but that is by custom not by rule, and may be suspended.  I will send my brother to bend the lands around. He shall come living before my gates, though he may not enter within. What may befall next is in the Freedom of Eru, and nothing of which I am permitted to speak.

“But there is one who waits to speak to you,” Mandos added, for his eyes missed nothing in the shadows of the hall. “Well, Burglar? You asked and you were answered; is the answer one you can accept?”

“Of course I’ll do it,” Bilbo said. “Lord King! I’ll do it, and may you have no cause to regret it!”

There was a rustle of wings among all the Eagles, as Manwë turned from his conference with Mandos, and came swiftly to the two of them.

“Yes, I’ll return living with you to the living world,” Bilbo said, “to learn and to, er, teach. Certainly I’ll speak to you of the Children of Eru, until you’re quite tired of hearing about them, I dare say. But mind! I don’t mean this to be a permanent post. I was born a mortal, and a mortal I will stay; I’m not giving up my birthright for all the bliss of the Blessed Realm. So I will see you again, sir,” and he nodded cautiously to Mandos, “or at any rate return to these halls one day, and then I will take the more usual way out. Beyond the world. But for now? I am at your service.”

Manwë accepted his answer and his service with fair and courteous words. From that time on, as he promised, the hobbit would be accepted as one of the Elder King’s household, to dwell in his high halls on the Holy Mountain and to enjoy his favor and protection as long as his life should last within the circles of the world.

“So, well, what happens now?” Bilbo asked. “I am afraid that while I left my body in a better state than when I first came to these shores, it will hardly be good for anything should I return to it. And while I don’t mind being invisible now nearly as much as I thought I might, it seems discourteous somehow in the living world.”

“Clothing a spirit in flesh is simple; we do it at a thought – though I understand that with you long habit makes alteration of form impossible. It is the act of leaving itself that houses you again, and your body will draw the pattern of its existence from the memory of your spirit.”

“Well, then I can expect to be tolerably younger. For in my memory I will always be the fellow who ran out the door after you, Gandalf, on a fine spring morning. The first time I really did something worth remembering. Well, that’ll be another shock for anyone who’s gone to the trouble of getting to know me the first time around!”

Gandalf spoke up. “Oh, they’ll get used to it. So will you; it will be good for you. Dying is an educational experience, Mr. Baggins; take it from me. Though I don’t know what you will do when you can no longer get out of your duties by claiming that you are too old and tired.”

Manwë laughed like the spring wind in the trees. “You’re a fine one to talk, Olórin; you were pleading your advanced age while you were yet a beardless gardener in Irmo’s lands. I don’t believe you were ever so pleased as when we clothed you in age as a mortal to send you forth in the world. ” The clouds again passed over his night-sky eyes. “What was it about mortals, Olórin, that drew you to them? We lavished our care on the Firstborn, and that led to great sorrow. We stood apart from the Secondborn, and that led to sorrow no less, as their hearts were turned away from the gift that should be theirs. And yet they remain mortal, they continue coming into being and passing away, though all their days be haunted by the fear and sorrow they have no time to understand, much less master.”

Gandalf straightened then, and spoke gravely. “If you can love this Arda, this tiny needle’s-point in the deep vastness of Heaven, deeply enough to descend and dwell within her, is it so strange that they should love it enough to dwell in a moment in time, a particular place, a needle’s-point within a needle’s point? Not all that is beloved endures; there is no endurance but love. But I am no longer the one you should be asking about this!”

So they made ready to depart from Mandos. Not without some trepidation, Bilbo agreed to be carried by one of the Eagles. Houseless spirit or not, he was still not keen on heights, and did not entirely like the look of their huge sharp beaks. Still, after the endless vertiginous depths he had glimpsed in the eyes of Mandos, he told himself that he could certainly face a short flight, and Manwë saw him securely settled on the great bird’s back. Mandos himself said nothing, as he would see them both again and the time to him would not seem long. But Gandalf surveyed the scene and smiled, and chanted a snippet of song:

He came unto the timeless halls
Where shining fall the countless years
And endless reigns the Elder King
in Ilmarin on mountain sheer-

Do you remember that, Mr. Baggins? You sang that on the other side of the world once, when you had not the least idea what you were talking about.”

“Of course I remember it! I remember all my verses – well, most of them anyway, if I have my notes. But I’m rather flattered that you do as well. If I’d had any notion where you came from I should have asked your advice about it to see if I’d gotten my description right! I know I’m not like you, Gandalf, not like the Elves. This isn’t my home; I wasn’t coming back when I came to this shore. But I recognized it. I knew it. I’ve seen it, somehow, all my life. Can home be a place where you have never been?”

His perch on the back of the Eagle brought them very nearly eye to eye, and Gandalf looked straight at him with deep affection and something that might have been pity or might have been admiration.

“You sang of this land before you saw it, Bilbo, and having seen it, you’ve chosen to sing still. Go then, and behold your music!”

Manwë gave Gandalf a very sharp look, but the Wizard only smiled and stepped back into the archway as the Eagles opened their wings to take flight. With piercing cries and with a great noise of wings, they rose up through the open roof of the round courtyard and into the starlit sky.

Chapter Text

Frodo Baggins was not exactly lost, but neither could he be certain just where he was. He had been hiking cross-country for several days west out of Valmar, and had long since left both road and path behind.

He found himself in a dark wood, stern and ancient, and it came into his mind that though there might be nothing evil in the land, it was still a place of peril. He walked among great fir-trees, some with black bark, some with red, and some with silver-grey. Their bases were like towers, their crowns so far overhead that he could hardly make them out.

The forest floor was thick with their needles and here and there with moss, but there was little new growth, only the weight of the old. Here and there stood spiny thickets of tall holly, clustered around wide shallow meres clotted with short golden reeds. It seemed the ground had been rising, smoothly but steadily, for some time, and he followed its rise, having altogether lost the direction of the sun behind the cover of the trees above and the low smooth clouds beyond. Although the space was wild and vast, it felt nonetheless interior, enclosed, a temple with living pillars.

The cedars thinned ahead of him, and he saw that the forest came to a sudden end among trees with pale trunks and broad leaves and wild berries tangled around their feet. The light was golden where it sifted through the leaves, though the sky was grey above. Faint and far he heard a distant, sorrowful murmur, which might have been the wind in the tops of the trees, or the cry of the sea against some unseen shore.

He was standing before a low series of mountains. They were nothing like the fierce knife-edged Pelóri, razor-peaked and towering to inhuman heights before the shores of the Great Ocean. These were worn and weary hills, the Oronairë, the Mountains of Lamentation.

Above him, tumbled and steep, rose the foothills: first meadow, then gravel, then great bare rocks, and then above that, as if it had grown from the mountain itself, the black walls of Mandos, named the Prison-Fortress. There were neither doors nor gates nor windows, nor any kind of ornament on the outside. He saw no one enter and no one leave, and the gray clouds hung even and close across the sky.

Long he stood by the verge of the forest, looking up at the Halls. The woods were utterly deserted. He had seen neither bird nor beast for days; not even an insect stirred the still, cool air.

He knew he must have come far out of his way, that he must have been walking through the dark forest for a longer time or a greater distance than should have been possible, to have come at last to the feet of Mandos itself.  “It’s only over there,” he echoed to himself, “and this is faster than walking.”

All at once, beneath its blank walls, he felt weary and heartsick. “What is there beyond?” he said to himself. “The Encircling Sea? The way out of the world? And what am I doing here?” Then after a while he lifted up his voice and began to sing, and although his voice was not loud it carried across the empty meadows and echoed among the quiet hills.

I walked by the sea and there came to me
as a star-beam on the wet sand
a white shell like a sea-bell
trembling it lay in my wet hand –“

The tune was an old Shire-ballad, but the words were his own.1 He had never been as prolific as his uncle in turning out verses, and had never had anything like Bilbo’s inclination to trot them out at every opportunity. After his return he had written no song at all, save this. It was long and its pattern complex (‘braid-rhymes’ as they called them in the Shire) and he knew it from beginning to end, for the song had echoed in his mind since he first put it into words.

“And at last I came to a long shore.
White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net -”

He had written it out twice in Bag End, and twice destroyed the paper, deeming its thoughts too ill to risk Sam finding.

  “‘Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!’ Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.”

Here beneath the halls of the Dead in the Undying Lands, he spoke the words aloud for the first time. As Frodo sang of despair, he felt his heart strangely lightened and he lifted up his voice to the rocks above:

“I cast away all that I bore:
in my clutching hand some grains of sand,
And a sea-shell silent and dead.
Never will my ear that bell hear,
never my feet that shore tread,
never again, as in sad lane,
in blind alley and in long street
ragged I walk. To myself I talk;
For still they speak not, men that I meet.”

The song was ended, and the stillness fell again, but was broken shortly afterward by the sound of footfalls and the flicker of distant motion. Frodo looked up sharply and to his unutterable astonishment he saw a figure above him on the mountain, briskly descending from below the black walls. As he watched there came springing over the rocks a tall man, his motion quick and decisive and his bearing proud, barefoot among the sharp stones and wrapped in a loose robe of pale gray. He made straight for Frodo where he stood amazed by the verge of the trees.

“Hail, stranger! Yours is not the speech of this land. Nor the face,” he added after a moment. “Nor the stature.”  He looked down at Frodo steadily, and his regard was curious and keen. Plain as his garments were, his person carried an impression of a frightening intensity, and if Frodo were not accustomed to the Eldar, he would have found him almost impossible to look at directly.

Frodo struggled for a reply, courtesy lost in surprise. The stranger had addressed him in the High Speech, in an accent Frodo couldn’t place but found perfectly intelligible. He must have been an elf of great age. A light shone in his eyes, such as shone in the eyes of all who had lived in that land before the Darkening, but it was a splintered light, refracted into endless fiery hues combining and recombining.

The winds above were blowing, and through a gap in the clouds there suddenly shone the sun, riding clear and high. The stranger gave a loud cry and held up his hand, turning suddenly from Frodo to fix his gaze directly on the distant fiery orb. For a moment he stood, drawing in deep breaths as though he meant to inhale the light itself. Then he raised both his hands toward the sun, and shouted joyously:

Aiákhârra phanaigâl mánàkselluthan!
Nazachâgwetherûz, illélèzâgwehân, áthâraghephelûn
Phanairùbhorân rušurràd ayánellûz! 2

He dropped his arms and turned back to Frodo, coughing and rubbing his throat but looking extremely pleased with himself.

“If I astonished you with my speech just now, well, turn about is fair play, I suppose!” said Frodo, finding his voice at last. “What was that?”

“Valarin! The tongue of the Powers, who have no need of one. It sounds like an electrical storm, and feels like a swarm of bees in your throat, but it’s a fascinating study. Few undertake it, though. It’s tonal, as you can hear – á, à, â.” He sang out a series of buzzing vowels and coughed again. “But it’s not just the tones, it’s the harmonics; you’ve actually got to sound two tones at once, so that discouraged the Quendi from even attempting it. You can get by well enough if you’ve got two people to say one sentence, or if you’ve got a mouth-harp, or if, with practice –“ and here he looked delighted, “you produce one tone in the chest and another through the lips.3 What it is to have a body! I feared that after so long its skills might be lost to me, at least those skills that come not through knowledge but through patient training.

“But perhaps you were asking what it was I was saying? I was greeting the sun, and in such a way that she might hear me.” He looked up to the sky again. “I knew of the sun, but I have never seen it. It seemed absurd to me when I first heard news of it, and still more absurd when I first saw it depicted. A round thing, rolling here and there in the heavens like a child’s toy? But now I see it in body and in truth, and it is glorious in its light. Not the glory of its great source, no. Like, and yet unlike. Thinner, fiercer, more restless. It is as if I beheld the child of someone dear to me.”

He turned back to Frodo, all focused attention. “But your language, now, the one in which you were singing. I would hear more of this. How do you call it? Do you have a name for the language itself?”

“It’s the Common Speech,” Frodo replied, bemused. “Westron, that is. Is it strange to you?”

“Strange indeed. I have heard nothing like it in my life or after it. It is one of the tongues of Men, that much is immediately clear, for it is wild and untended, taking on new words and new patterns before old complexities have entirely died out of it.” His hands, graceful and expressive, were tracing patterns in the air as he spoke, as if he were before a student or attempting to make something clear to a stranger.

“In bygone ages – long past, by your reckoning – its speakers would have had contact with our people. But I perceive that much within it is changed; there have been many tongues and kindreds leaving their mark upon it. Fierce peoples and warlike, who love the open lands; city-dwellers; mariners. And yet at some point, and a recent one - though perhaps you would not call it so - the changes seem to have slowed, as when a people dwells apart and at peace, yet takes little thought for the art of refining the words that are theirs.”

Frodo stared at him in amazement. “I beg your pardon!” he said. “I have known great hunters, who could track their quarry by signs too subtle for me to read, but this – this is astonishing! Forgive me if I misunderstand you, but did you really get all that from one song?”

“You can learn much from a song,” he replied, “for music can aid in the apprehension of meaning, and a song will quickly show how a language can be woven together: rhyme, rhythm, parallel and assonance. Before long patterns begin to shine forth: here is a verb, here a noun, this change must show some sort of conjugation –“

“I suppose that’s true,” Frodo said, “though even for you – the Quenya speakers, I mean, begging your pardon – there’s a considerable difference between the kind of language you use to sing and the kind you use to speak. Though my own knowledge could hardly be called extensive, and I don’t presume to tell you anything about the High Speech itself.”

“It’s certainly not your native tongue – no, why should you apologize for that?” he added quickly, seeing Frodo begin to demur. “You have the words of a scholar, but the speech of one who is hardly yet habituated to hearing those words, still less to giving them voice. ’Begging your pardon,’ for instance, that has to be a direct translation from the Common Speech, unless the loremasters and the language-wardens have grown lax in their duties.”

“And here I thought I was coming along quite well!” exclaimed Frodo ruefully. “Perhaps I should try singing instead. I’m told my accent is hardly noticeable in song, and there would certainly be less danger of my introducing the wild words of the Common Speech into the carefully tended language of the Eldar – though you might find my conversation rather less informative!”

“Would you prefer to converse in the tongue of the Elves of the Twilight?” asked his companion. “I warn you, you may not understand my speech, for Thindarin was always more changeful than Quenya. It alters with years and distance, and it may have altered out of recognition since first I learnt it under the stars of cold Hithlum.”4

“What? No, my Sindarin must be worse than my Quenya now. At least it’s Quenya I’ve been using in conversation since I came here, and it took long enough for that to stop feeling frightfully solemn, as if the lightest word had to carry the weight of an incantation. But it’s the Common Speech I was brought up in, so that’s still the first source I’ll reach for if I need to say something I haven’t yet heard said. And you still haven’t told me how you managed to track its entire history across Middle-Earth from a few lines of verse!”

“Do not overestimate my knowledge! I caught a few fragments of our words among yours, and a few fragments of words which probably came from roots shared with ours. A language carries its history in its structure and sound, recounting its story as clearly as in any tapestry for those who have eyes to see.” He pulled himself back from an abstraction that was sending him into a profound distance, and bent the full fire of his attention back on Frodo. “But I did not mean to astonish you with conjuring-tricks; your tongue is strange to me but not wholly strange, for I have seen something of the world in which it was born. Now I will understand that world better for knowing one of its languages – one of its great languages, if I understand rightly.”

“Well, that’s certainly the first time I’ve heard the Common Speech called great,” said Frodo, confounded and in part amused, “though I suppose it is, in its way. It receives more use than love in Middle-Earth, but you can hear it in kings’ halls and gaffers’ gardens. And in worse places too; it’s easy to learn.”

“I thought it might be.” His companion seemed pleased. “Then let us begin at once! How would you say ‘to speak’in the Common Speech? Do you have one word for this, or many?”

“Hm, let me see. Speak, talk, converse. Chat. Discuss. Say – although of course that’s transitive, say this or say that –“  The stranger was nodding, and Frodo felt acutely, though not unpleasantly, that he was entirely out of his depth. If it were not for the black bulk of Mandos on the mountain above, he thought, he would be certain that he had made his way into Lorien and was even now wandering in dreams.

His companion was repeating the words softly to himself, savoring them. “I suppose it’s not wrong to call it an untended language,” said Frodo, running over in his head lists of words that were possibly related to speak in sound or in meaning, and seeing for the first time the intricate, tangled branching of his native language. “I mean, I don’t think I could tell you where all of those words come from, for indeed I’d given little thought to the question before. But you seem to be enjoying them.”

“Can you say that again, in the Common Speech?”

Frodo did; the stranger repeated it, nodded. “Enjoying, possible root gai with velar nasalization? Stem joy with prefix en? Yes; it is not the loveliest of languages but I rejoice to hear it, as much as or indeed more than I rejoiced to see this light. The Dead speak little, and when they do speak for the most part it is as one mind to another. I understand that they should not wish to be kept apart by the tangle and blur of spoken language, but a word without a sound is food without taste. It’s a word’s embodiment in speech that makes it interesting, that gives it not just meaning but beauty, not just beauty but life!” His eyes flashed as he spoke, and he looked happier than Frodo had yet seen him. “All right, inflection –“ he began, just as Frodo finally broke in with:

“Excuse me, but who or what are you? Your face and form are like one of the Eldar, but you are not dressed like one. You greet the Sun in her own tongue, you seem to have spoken with the Dead, you know rather much more about my language than I do myself even though you have never heard it before, and now you appear to be expecting me to teach you the Common Speech right here where we stand under the Halls of Mandos! Are you one of the Holy Ones? Am I trespassing in your land?”

He seemed surprised at the question, though he took no offense. “I am neither Maia nor Vala, stranger, but a Noldo of the house of Finwë. My name is Curufinwë Fëanáro in the speech of the Eldar of this land, Fëanor in the speech of the Eldar of the Outer Shores, and in your tongue it might be, let me see, something like... no, no, I will not attempt it; I don’t yet have enough to go on.”

Frodo had spent enough time in the libraries and with the loremasters that he was by now accustomed to the mental cross-referencing that came with being a newcomer in a land where his hosts had for the most part known to each other for centuries beyond counting, and where accumulation of names began at birth and continued indefinitely. The quick calculations were almost automatic now: who the person counted in their family, to whom they owed allegiance, where they were living and where they had lived, and in which, if any, of the great deeds of the past they taken part. The vertigo of sharing daily pleasantries or dinner conversation with someone who had built the towers of fallen Gondolin or walked the woods of drowned Beleriand had mostly subsided.

Still, he hardly knew what to do with the stranger’s answer and its implications, which unfurled themselves slowly in his thought like page after page of references in one of the great Histories in the halls of records. And Seeing Stones. And Sons of. See “War of the Jewels”. See “Of the Silmarils”.  “You could not astonish me more if you said you were the Elder King himself!” he said slowly.

Fëanor laughed, a short sound without humor. “Are you sure that’s a comparison you want to make, stranger? Have you no fear of blasphemy? There was a time when my name itself was a curse, and the language we are speaking now deemed treason for my sake.”

“Well, I don’t know you so much as a curse as... as an adjective, really. Even back home among my people, the learned called the alphabet – your alphabet – the Fëanorian characters, although we didn’t have the least idea what we meant by that.”

There was considerably more humor in Fëanor’s short laugh this time. “An adjective indeed? But I gave the Tengwar a name, its right name. You speak of the letters as though they were my children but children I have, and they are not nearly so orderly!” Frodo had spoken the name of the letters in the Common Speech, and Fëanor repeated it. “Fëanorian. That cannot be how all your adjectives are formed; I have not yet heard this ending in your speech.”

“Oh, indeed not. Half our adjectives follow no rule at all.” He glanced around him, gesturing. “Tall trees, yellow leaves, high hills, cool wind, clouded sky – no, wait, that one’s from cloud –“

“So I could say the Fëanored characters for my poor long-suffering script?”

“Only if you consider yourself a verb. And if, as you say, your name is a curse, perhaps you do! But cloud is a noun, meaning the thing itself, and a verb, meaning the thing that clouds do as they fill the sky. Or by extension anything that dims light without extinguishing its source.”

“So clouded by time, clouded by distance, clouded by the memory of pain.”

“You take a cheerful view of things!” Frodo said. “Though yes, those would all be correct ways to use the word.

“Very good! You may call your speech Common, but it is clearly not altogether without grace of thought, for clouds arise and linger, but they may break at last in rain. Clouded by doubt,” he said, meditatively. “Or clouded by ignorance. As I am, strange-spoken stranger, to find you in this empty land. Unless these lands have been reshaped – and they may well have been, for all I know – the living do not come before these walls.”

“Do they not? I came through the forest, and I met no danger on the way, or nothing that seemed openly like danger, though it was a... a heavy place, if you understand me. Like walking up a steep hill, or through deep snow. It seemed to me I was in those woods a long time, yet I must have travelled even farther than I thought. Is this land forbidden, then?”

“Forbidden? Not in words, perhaps, but in its nature, which amounts to the same thing among the Valar. The living can only leave these lands, they cannot enter them. I made the attempt myself, very long ago, until I learned in bitterness of heart to accept as fact what I would not have accepted as ruling. Aim for Mandos, and you will find yourself in the domain of his brother, Lorien. I suppose the Valar in their wisdom deem that if you are troubled enough to trouble the dead, that you are the one in need of healing.”

“Well, I’m not dead, if that’s what you’re asking. Not yet, anyway. Or not exactly. Or not to my knowledge.” Frodo looked up at the figure before him in doubt. “But I am evidently talking to the person who set in motion the whole troubled history of Middle-Earth, so I can hardly be certain of anything at the moment.”

Fëanor shook his arms free of the folds of the loose grey robe. “May I?”

He dropped to one knee before him and took both of Frodo’s hands in both of his. Frodo felt the heat of his hands, and then heat passing across his mind, like a sudden beam of sunlight. He was not unfamiliar with the converse of thought among the Eldar, and had often felt the flickerings of other minds as they cast their thoughts abroad. He did not flinch at the passage of the foreign awareness, but regarded Fëanor steadily. After a moment Fëanor raised his eyes to his.

“Well, stranger, you live and I live,” he said, unsmiling, “though it would seem that neither of us has the right to be here.” He opened his hands. “That is flesh and blood, not the touch of a shade.  O sweet as language, strong as light, to have the use of hands again! To shape the world and to learn its shaping, to give form and to perceive it!”

He looked closely at his hands, which were strong and graceful, well-shaped and unscarred. He ran his thumb up the side of his fingers and across the arch of the palm. “This, now, this is not quite right. No, they are too clean, far too clean. They say that the body draws its shape from the spirit but perhaps they overstated the case.”

“What do you mean?”

A shadow passed over his face, and all at once Frodo saw the immense age in his ageless features, as if each year of the circling centuries had landed like a blow. Heat rose against his mind again, searing and heedless and terrible. He tasted acrid choking ash in his throat, heard the wailing of distant voices, and all around him was salt and smoke and the flat metallic tang of blood.

Far to the east in Alqualondë by the sea, the sea-folk faltered at their nets as the shadow of ancient grief crossed their hearts, and in white-walled Tirion, the scepter fell as the High King of the Noldor suddenly stiffened in his seat, and then leaped up and ran to a window. He gazed westward, scanning the horizon beyond the Calacirya for he knew not what, pierced by a nameless hope.

But Frodo reached out in return and clasped both of Fëanor’s hands, and they did not burn, but were only flesh and blood, as his own. The heat faded, and Fëanor held out his hand before him; it was still empty and unmarked.

“No, too clean altogether,” he said lightly. “A hand shows what its work has been: calluses, inkstains, scrapes and nicks, little silver scars.”

He let his hand fall, and sat back in the grass. “So then, it would seem you are twice a stranger: not only living before these halls, but mortal in the Undying Lands.”

“I wondered if we would get to that. Yes, of course I’m mortal, and you aren’t the first here to find that disturbing, either. Most people have had a chance to get used to the idea, but it’s rather different in practice to spend time around someone who’s going to die, much less to get attached to them. I think they think of us as – well, as loose ends.”

“I have heard of your kind,” said Fëanor slowly, “but you are the first of the Secondborn I have seen in the world, and certainly the first who has spoken to me. Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Being mortal. Dying all the time. Even here in Aman, where time does not devour, your spirit seems to be set so lightly in the world that it could be shaken loose with a thought. One of my kindred who was so near to death would be ill past cure, and one who was so deeply divided from the world would be gravely injured in spirit.”

“Well! I suppose that’s the difference between your kindred and mine, then! What you’d call dying we call living, and while it may not always be the most comfortable thing, I don’t think I’d say that it hurts exactly. And while I may be mortal, I evidently have less of death about me than you do.”

“You’re certainly less mortal than you used to be, that much is clear.”

Frodo started and looked at him sharply. “What do you mean by that?”

“Surely you would know better than I do?” There was genuine curiosity in his voice. “Something’s held you back against the pull of time, flattened your spirit’s arc toward death. Well, that’s one thing, but not the heart of it; you’re out of your place to be here at all, of course, but that’s an effect not a cause. No, there’s more of the world in you than you appear to have been designed to withstand-”

Frodo was not entirely at ease in being spoken of as if he were a puzzle to be worked out, but before he could frame an objection, Fëanor stopped short.

“I believe I know you.”

“I would say that’s altogether impossible, but if there was a time for me to object to impossibilities, it would have been – oh, probably when I took ship for the Last Shore in the first place? Go on then. You say you know me.”

“I’ve seen you before, a small figure in the great events of the world beyond the seas. There has been much upheaval of late in the kingdoms of Men. Battle and war and the overthrow of the Dark Tower, and you were the one who passed through it all – yes, the bearer of the star-glass.”

Frodo stared for a moment and then burst out laughing. “That’s hardly the first thing most people think of me as carrying, but all right! Of all the things I bore on that whole miserable journey, that was possibly the most useful and certainly the most pleasant! But, if you will excuse me, you’ve been out of the World for a very long time, haven’t you? Did the news of the War of the Ring trouble even the peace of the Dead?”

“You could not call it news exactly. Still, the Weaver and her servants pass freely in and out of the Halls, and they recount the doings of the world in their webs. You can read the whole story of the world there if you want, if you have the patience to follow it through the labyrinths of Mandos. It’s a different art from that of reading written history, of course – the Dead deal very little in words. And it’s a useful corrective for those of us who believe our deeds to have shaped the course of the world, for we see peoples awaken and flourish and pass away, empires rise and fall, without the slightest reference to anything we did or knew or made or shaped or taught. It is an order so vast it looks like chaos.”

“How in that chaos did you come across me?”

“I followed the light, silver threads in the dark tapestry.” He looked up to the sky, as if beyond the hurrying clouds he could trace the path of the evening star.

“The light? Oh! Well yes, I suppose you would have a – an interest in that.”

“I bound that light to the world, and it works in it still. Splintered and broken, distant and diffuse, reflected and refracted, yet undiminished.”His words were proud, but he did not speak in boast. “And stiff-necked Artanis was the one who captured it for you! She’s learnt more of my art than she was willing to let on. After the light came to you I traced your journey through the dark places, to the end of your quest. No, light-bearer, if I am a figure out of story to you, you are no less to me – although I cannot say you are an adjective.” He paused. “But there were two of you who bore the light. Yes, shouldn’t there be two of you?”

Frodo looked away. “Perhaps there should. Certainly there were two of us. But my companion I left behind me in my own land, where his garden is prospering now. He had the strength to return to the world, but I –“

Fëanor nodded, his grey eyes alight. “This makes many of your mysteries clear! I’ve never seen one of the Secondborn in the flesh, of course, but I had not thought that Men were so diminished in stature. And that explains your speech, of course, and your injury.”

“What, this?” Frodo held up his hand.

“What? No – though yes, it explains that too, if I remember rightly. But I meant the injury done your spirit; it’s very distinctive.  Our works, our selves, are shaped by the presence of those we were close to. You can see in my smithwork that I was a student under Mahtan Aulendur. I can hear in your speech that you’ve been tutored by my high-hearted niece – those are her sibilants, her studious avoidance of lenition, and who else is so fond of the partitive plural? And I see in your thought, the traces left in you are unmistakably those of the presence of my Enemy’s old lackey.”

“If you mean that someone’s scrawled Sauron was here in large red letters across the surface of my mind, you can come out and say it. No need to be mealymouthed! I’ve heard worse from the Healers, anyway. As I believe one of them put it, ‘You still smell faintly of Mordor.’”

At this Fëanor laughed aloud. “What doesn’t? Mordor5, indeed! I saw the light fail and the shadows fall in the heart of blissful Valinor, so there’s nothing beneath the stars that is entirely free from the trace of them, no matter what anyone would like to think.”

Frodo was lost for an instant as to his meaning, then worked it out. “Oh, I suppose I should have said Morinore. Mordor’s a name; Sindarin; the Black Land. Where – well, I suppose you saw it, if you saw me.”

“Is that what that ruined place is called? Accurate, and it’s hardly worth a more descriptive name. Still, even your Mordor was green once...” Fëanor cast a long thoughtful glance over the green hills and the low crumpled mountains above them, as if picturing them without light or growth, poisoned and dry and dead. He shook off the image, returning lightly to the question of language. “These sorts of cognates are to be expected, really, Quenya and Thindarin being two long-separated branches of the same tongue. But come, this grows unbalanced! Now I know your nature or part of it anyway, I know your Enemy, I know where you’ve been and what you’ve borne, but I don’t know your name.”

“Frodo Baggins, at your service, sir, and I am honored to make your acquaintance.” Somewhat awkwardly, he bowed, having not the least notion of which, if any, of the courtesies among the Eldar might be appropriate for such a strange introduction. Fëanor certainly took no offense and possibly took no notice; he was repeating Frodo’s names.

Frodo? That’s a word altogether of your speech; I can’t imagine from what lost roots in the Elven tongues it might spring. What does it mean?”

“Interesting you should ask; I asked my elders myself when I was a child, and received two answers – the first, a review of everyone in my family for the last dozen generations who’d borne the name or something like it, and the second, that it meant nothing whatever. Eventually my uncle, who took an interest in these sorts of things, worked out that it came from a very long way off and a very long time ago, and meant something like ‘wise’. ‘Wise by experience, though, Frodo my lad,’ he said to me, ‘so don’t get cocky. This is the wisdom you gain the hard way, not the kind you start out with!’ And he quoted a few lines of verse about how he who learns must suffer. ‘Until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us – so yes, you have to finish your penmanship exercises!’ It was a king’s name, evidently6,” Frodo added as an afterthought, drawing himself back from the thoughts of his earliest days as Bilbo’s ward.

“Truly your mother named you well, then.”

Frodo blinked at him. “My mother? Oh – that’s your custom, not ours, for the mother to give the child one name and the father another. Though my other name is my surname, and that is from my father’s family, so I suppose there might be something to that... Do you know, I don’t know whether it was my mother or my father who named me? I can’t imagine there was any degree of foresight involved, though. I can hardly remember my mother. She died when I was quite young.”

A brief flicker in the light of his companion’s eyes. “But look here,” Frodo went on, “what shall I call you? We seem to have fallen into conversation like people who’ve known each other for a very long time or not at all, but now we’ve actually been introduced I don’t wish to show you discourtesy in speech. I’ve made some attempt to get a notion of how to address people among the nobility here, but I confess that my studies have not prepared me in the slightest for how to address –“ Several possible descriptors flickered through his mind. The first son of the first lord of the Noldor returned unlooked-for beyond hope or expectation? The mightiest of word and hand of the Eldar? Kinslayer and Dispossessed?  

“-you,” he concluded.  “Sir? My Lord?”

“Call me by my name. I am no lord of yours – although as of the last hour or so I may in fact be High King of the Noldor. But let that be! I cared little for custom before Mandos, and less now. We both stand alive here, equal in honor and affront to this land. Besides, are you not also a lord among your own people?”

“Certainly, if you want to call Deputy Mayor of Michel Delving lordship, though I dare say the Shire would object!” laughed Frodo.

Deputy... what?” Frodo had not even attempted a translation of the title from Common Speech. Before he could formulate an explanation, Fëanor held up his hand again, fingers canted down in invitation. “Frodo Baggins, I have an idea. Tell me your history, from the beginning. Use words – your words, the Common Speech, I mean. I still wish to learn your language, and while I may have seen some of the events within the Halls, and some of their effects within you, it’s a very different matter to hear them spoken. The important things are worthy of words.”

Frodo looked at him thoughtfully. “All right! Though I should warn you, it’s a long story, and my own part in it, while it was important, is hardly the one that makes the best hearing. The rest I’ve filled in from the stories of my friends and my kinsmen. Are you sure you want it in Common Speech, though? It’ll be a relief to tell you what happened in the language that it all happened in – happened for me, anyway – but I’ve more or less worked it out in the High Speech, since goodness knows I’ve been asked for it often enough.”

“Use your own tongue, that’s the point! Half the point. I’ll follow, with difficulty at first and then more easily. You’ll be describing events that I already know – or know in part. Speak slowly. Stop to explain if you see you’re losing me altogether. And try and keep the images of the events vivid, at the front of your mind. That’s nearly as good as a facing translation. If you have no objection to being so read, that is,” he added somewhat belatedly.

“No – no, I suppose not. It sounds wildly ambitious to me, but I suppose you know what you’re about! Let me think a minute, and for goodness sake let’s sit down.”  Frodo found a comfortable seat at the base of an alder and set himself against the trunk, but Fëanor dropped flat on his back into the grass before him and lay there looking up at the sky.

“I hardly know where to begin,” Frodo said after a moment. “Every place I think I should start, there’s something that came before it that needs explaining – and it goes right back to your own works, sir. Fëanor.”

“Most things do,” he replied mildly, without taking his gaze from the clouded sky.

“Indeed. Well, I’ll begin with my own part in it all. No, wait a minute, in order for you to have the least idea what I’m talking about, let me tell you about who we are. My people, I mean. Hobbits.” With a glance at Fëanor where he still lay unmoving in the grass, he continued slowly in the Common Tongue. “And my own family, the Bagginses, because it all began for us the day that Gandalf the Grey came to his door with thirteen dwarves beside him –“

It was a long story, and the morning wore away to afternoon as Frodo told it, judging by the slant of the light that appeared from time to time through the clouds.  The narrative was well-rehearsed, but this was the first time he had spoken at such length in his native language since leaving the shores of Middle-Earth, and the events sprang vividly into his mind, in detail that he had almost forgotten.  He sang snatches of Shire-songs, recalled the absurd quirks of his Hobbiton neighbors, recounted whole conversations among his friends. He found himself strangely reluctant to get into the substance of the story, and lingered on the description of the Shire as he had once lingered in his home, delaying the beginning of his journey.

Fëanor was alternately gratifying and infuriating as an audience. He frequently murmured under his breath as he tried to catch the sounds of the Common Speech, and would often demand explanations of the names of people or places. When Frodo described the inscription on the Ring, he became intensely agitated at the two lines of the Black Speech that Frodo quoted, springing to his feet, tossing his head as if his ears pained him, and clearly preparing to demand a more detailed account. Frodo explained in haste that he knew no more of the language. “And frankly I wouldn’t go into it even if I did! It may have lost its power with its master, but it’s grown no more pleasant in meaning or in sound.”

“But this is impossible, this is a farce, do you mean to tell me that cringing lapdog of my Enemy took it into his head to create a language? He must have, that’s got Valarin roots in it or I am no judge.7 Say it again!”

“Certainly not! Once is quite enough; I don’t know whose attention I’ve already attracted by uttering those foul words in this clean land, and I don’t mean to press it! Besides, are you here to learn the Common Speech or aren’t you?”

Fëanor’s knowledge of the language did appear to progress as the day wore on, though his methods of learning were idiosyncratic. He would echo whole sentences, apparently at random, and at one point halted the progress of the narration for nearly half an hour to ask Frodo for a detailed explanation of prepositions and their usage, while in the story, the company stood before the gates of Moria.

But he seemed to follow the narrative closely. The intensity of his attention was slightly unnerving. He shuddered, and laughed, and even shed tears in most of the right places. In the beginning Frodo translated numerous terms and frequently recapitulated the events in Quenya, but he found himself doing so less and less, and eventually only when prompted or when introducing something particularly unusual.

Precious?” asked Fëanor, when introduced to a sample of Gollum’s speech. “What is that?”

Frodo considered briefly. In his recountings of the story in the High Speech, he had never attempted a rendition of Gollum’s gobbling, broken words. “Ah, maira, I believe, that’s the adjective.”

Fëanor’s eyes sparked “Hah!” he cried, then “No, never mind, go on,” in response to Frodo’s curious look. Frodo went on, but the outburst stayed with him, and troubled him in a way that he was hardly aware of. The term seemed familiar to him, but he could not place it and eventually put it from his thought.8

Always at the front of his thoughts, he felt the heat of Fëanor’s awareness, which intensified from time to time as he leaned more heavily on Frodo’s knowledge of what he was saying than on the sound of the words he spoke. Accustomed as he was, from almost his first acquaintance with the Elves, to the ways that they shared image and sense as part of their storytelling, Frodo still found it disconcerting to hear Fëanor asking “Are you getting ahead of yourself?” when his thought touched upon the betrayal at the Spider’s Pass as he described the passage of the Dead Marshes.

At one point a light rainshower began. Frodo paused in his story, leaving war gathering in Gondor and himself with Sam watching the sun set in Ithilien. He retreated under a large cedar whose drooping branches and feathery needles made an effective shelter, but Fëanor stood on the grass, holding his hands up to the sky and letting the water pool in his palms. He shone like silver under the rain, the disquieting beauty of his face and form veiled by the falling water.

The shower passed quickly, rolling away eastwards, and the low white light of late afternoon followed it, edging the breaking clouds with silver and the tips of the wet grass with gold. Fëanor joined Frodo under the tree, shaking his wet hair out of his face. The light grey cloth that he was wrapped in appeared entirely dry.

“What is that, anyway?” Frodo asked him, as he folded a corner of the seamless gray garment beneath him to sit down. “It’s nothing like the clothes I’ve seen any of the Eldar wear – not in these lands, at least. It seems useful!”

Fëanor shifted the drapery of the cloth to pull out some of the loose folds, and passed Frodo an edge of it. It was a soft, thin fabric, liquid and supple, but heavier in the hand than he would have thought possible.

“They make it in the Halls,” he said. “Probably best not to ask from what. In this fashion, our fathers tell us, we were clothed before the art of the needle was devised by Miriel Therinde. And in this fashion we return to the living world, without color or art or any of the tokens that we might have once borne on our persons. No more the bright gold or the gleaming white, no more the crown or the sword or the jewel.”

Frodo looked at him with attention but said nothing; the cloth slipped softly through his fingers and fell, slightly too still, back at Fëanor’s side.

Fëanor shrugged. “This is the generosity of the Valar! They clothe us with flesh, but it’s up to our kin to clothe us with anything else. Our kin...” He got to his feet again, and began to pace about the forest verge, his face troubled.

“What is it? Shall I go on, or do you want a rest? We’ve been at this for a while now. My head would be aching if I’d had to listen to any new language for this long, no matter how fair.”

Fëanor shook his head. “No, learning is strength not weariness. I flourish with it as these woods do with the rain; my old skill rejoices to be called forth again. But there is within me an unease, a nameless disquietude –“

“Are you hungry?” Frodo asked suddenly.  “I know I am, frightfully. In fact I don’t think I can face the last bit of this story without some kind of fortification. Would you like some lunch?”

“Hunger! Of course! It has been long since I last ate.”

“Well, it’s always possible that the gnawing sensation is the cureless sorrow of the world,” Frodo said without changing expression, “but why not have something to eat, just in case?” He began to rummage in his pack.

There was a peal of laughter, or it might have been an exclamation, from Fëanor, a single clear sound. “Hunger!” he said. “Hunger, indeed. It’s a humble thing. I’d forgotten it altogether. And yet it’s an agent of torment, a herald of joy. It’s the first way we recognize desire in the flesh. This body that calls out to the world continually, and is continually answered! Is this how you mortals feel all the time?

“What, hungry?”

“Astonished.”

He stooped, dug his fingers into the leaf-mould and lifted a handful of the crumbling golden leaves and dark green needles. He looked at it closely, sifting the dust slowly off his hand. “So much beyond ourselves,” he said. “Stone becoming earth, earth becoming growth. Creatures that cannot be seen without the aid of Art. Time and the air, which pass unseen and are measured only in their effect. And yet we call to them all, Frodo, through our skill and through our wisdom and through the mere mute fact that we live, we live! And we are answered. I am –“ he added carefully, in the Common Speech, “very hungry.”

Frodo unwrapped a packet of lembas. “I feel that after a speech like that, such a momentous occasion as your return to the world of the living deserves more a feast than a snack! But I have brought with me only such things as travelers carry: waybread, water, some dried fruit and nuts and hard cheese. Still, what I have is yours! Come, we’ll dine together.” He spread a cloth over the ground and put his sole piece of dining ware, a shallow metal bowl, in the center.

“Indeed we shall, but you’ve spoken rightly. This meeting calls for a feast.”

“I’m afraid this is all I have! I mean, I can forage pretty well, and I can cook well enough when I’m home in a kitchen, but I never had my companion’s knack for making a proper sound meal out of whatever he had to hand even in the wildest of places. Sam was a wonder!”

“I am not unskilled in the art of cookery.” Fëanor was already bending to the earth, gathering little white mushrooms from near the base of the trees. “We learn it at our father’s knee, such was our custom of old.” He straightened and dropped the mushrooms into a fold of his robe, then scanned the woods for a minute. “Where the forest meets the open lands you’ll find berries, probably blackberries but you may see thimbleberries, red currants. Any of them will work. And this –“ in a couple of steps he was at the forest verge, where the grass was scraggly and sparse, “-this is wild chive. I need a couple of handfuls, both roots and leaves. You do have a knife or something to cut with?”

“I do.” Frodo pulled out the little folding knife. “But that’s all I have, that and the plate and some spoons. I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer you in the way of tools, if you’re planning to cook anything. No pots or pans, no even a good way to build a fire – can we even light a fire in these woods?”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right.” Fëanor was walking deeper into the woods, stooping now and again to pick something from the forest floor. Frodo gathered the little wild onions that he had indicated, and skirted the edge of the woods for a little distance until he found a tangle of blackberries. After a little while he heard Fëanor calling from within the forest. Packing his meager equipment back up, he followed his voice.

He found him some way into the woods, in the shelter of a moss-grown boulder. It would have been a clearing in a younger forest, but the trees were old enough that their tops met far overhead, and the ground was dry, covered with lichens and mosses and the occasional low shrub. Fëanor had gathered mushrooms and herbs, and was grinding what looked like hazelnuts to a powder against a clean flat part of the stone.

“Your knife,” he said, holding out his hand for it. “Thank you! There’s a little spring coming down the other side of this rock, go and wash these, will you?” When Frodo came back from the task, he found Fëanor in the center of the clearing, bending over a small, spiny black plant and twining its uppermost branches into a rough circle.

“This is what I was looking for! I knew this wood wouldn’t be without them. Come and see.”

Frodo knelt beside it. Its branches were hard, and sharp-angled, more like stone to the touch than like wood, and they left a thin sheen of oil on the fingers. “I’ve never seen this before. What is it?”

“Step back.” Fëanor put his hands to the base of the plant, there was a spark, and thin blue flames licked up the branches. In a minute all of the branches were blazing merrily, and he felt the warmth from the fire against his face and hands.

“It is ainatussa,” Fëanor said, returning to chopping the vegetables, “which in your tongue would be...”

“Godswood.”9

“Godswood, which burns and is not consumed. The Lady of the Earth brought it forth in the days of our long journey across the starlit land, though it has long since perished from your world. She saw that we had need of fire, and was unwilling yet that we should look to her trees.” He set the onions in the metal bowl and shredded the herbs over them.

“We used it little in after days, though, for we soon built forges and needed fuel mightier than this. It still grows wild here, a friend to travelers. It will serve to cook a meal or to warm a cold night.” He set the dish directly on the top of the blazing plant, where the branches bore it up, and with brisk attention turned to the preparation of the meal. Before long the earthy, savory scent of mushrooms and onions filled the clearing, mixed with the lighter, wilder tang of the herbs that grew in the northern forests by the Encircling Sea.

“Thank you!” said Frodo at last, as he spread out the cloth again, this time over a flat outcropping of the stone. “Is that the right thing to say? This - This has been altogether a day of unexpected events, but I certainly never expected you to cook me the sort of dinner they’d smile at in the Shire!”

Shielding his hand with the edge of his robe, Fëanor lifted the bowl off the burning branches. “The pleasure is mine. Didn’t you say, in your tale, that you liked mushrooms?” He set the dish between them. “The host should serve the... ghost,” he added in halting Westron.

“What? Oh! Guest, it’s guest.10

Guest? Really? So you’ve shifted the vowel too? Guest, guest,” he repeated, trying out the sound of the word. “No, you’re right, it’s better that way; keep it.”

They ate in silence at first, sitting by the rock and watching the fire. For a meal so hastily improvised, it was satisfying and complex, the richness of the mushrooms blending with the creaminess of the hazelnut milk and the light sweet-sharp bite of the berries. It was, Frodo reflected, possibly the most skillfully prepared meal he had ever had, but out of loyalty he put the thought out of his mind directly and kept his attention on the ainatussa as the flames danced up and down its unmarred branches.

With a pop and a shower of sparks, a flower burst open. The petals stood out black against the flame for a moment, then caught fire. They twisted and blazed, their netted veins traced in brilliant gold as the rest of the flower turned to ash that was carried upwards on the heated air.

“They cannot seed unless they burn,” Fëanor remarked, watching the remnants of the flower shred away, leaving the pistil glowing faintly at its core. “So where one’s grown, another will grow again, and so you could trace the paths that others before you took through the wild lands. So it was said, at least.”

Frodo stared at it, half-dreaming with his chin on his hands. “I wonder if this isn’t what we named the stars after?” he asked at last. “The Burning Briar – what you would call the Valacirca – that shines in the northern sky. Hobbits had our wandering days as well, after all. Long after yours, and still, for us, nearly lost to the past. But this seems like the sort of thing we would have valued, just as we too valued the stars...”

He had wondered if the interruption in the story would have sent his companion’s restless and wide-ranging interest off in other directions, but after the refreshment of the meal Fëanor returned to the subject with even more intensity than before. Whether through his increasing grasp of the language, or simply because he had become caught up in the narrative, he now seemed as interested in the story as in the language in which it was told, and he only interrupted with one major digression on registers of formality in the Common Speech. Because of the way the tree-canopy shaded them from the sky, the light in the forest increased toward the day’s end, and Frodo finished the account of the battle of the Pellenor Fields as the reds and oranges of sunset were beginning to slant through the trees.

When the moment arrived to turn for the last time to the progress of the Ringbearers toward the fire, Frodo stopped and got to his feet. “I need water,” he said, and went to fill his flask again from the spring behind the rock. He dropped to his knees and drank from his cupped hands for a long time; the water tasted of nothing at all and was so cold that his teeth ached and he was shivering by the time he returned to sit beside his companion. “Water?” he said in the Common Speech, holding out the flask.

Fëanor took it but did not drink. “Your need is more. No, wait, you need it more. Which is correct?”

“Hm, either one, I think, though the second is a better way of putting it. With the first – well, more is an adverb there, so you’d be expecting another adjective. More pressing or more evident or something. Or a comparative, more than something.”

You talk more than I talk. You have more thirst.

Frodo snorted at this, and felt lightened in heart. “Oh, I dare say you’ll get your own back soon enough!” he said, dropping back into Westron. “We’re nearly at the end, anyway.”

He picked up the story again with the tale of his rescue from the tower of Cirith Ungol. As he sang the song he had heard Sam singing, he was greatly startled to hear Fëanor’s voice broke in, harmonizing wordlessly on the second verse.

“A good song!” he said, unabashed, “and a sound strategy, singing beneath the prison walls. You seem to have learned from it, at least!” Still, he laughed immoderately at the prospect of Sam and Frodo being mistaken for elves in course of their escape.

“No,” said Frodo, dropping the story for a moment, “I am afraid we are done with the high deeds and the battlefields now. There’ll be little left of Elvish sorts of things to speak of any more, until it’s over.”

“I’ve seen enough of those,” said Fëanor, imperturbable. “If it were glory of arms that moved my heart now, what would surpass the massed armies of Valinor as they threw down Thangorodrim? The banners of the Noldor as they dared the gates of Angband and my Enemy trembled in his bolt-hole?  I said that our deeds would be the matter of song until the last days of Arda, and they were. They are. For all that that’s worth. It is not thus that evil is unmade.”

“The First Age!” said Frodo, his thought flickering across the events that Fëanor recalled. “Wouldn’t it have been something to blaze through Mordor like a falling star and brave the Dark Lord on his doorstep? But we crept through those ruined lands like rats on a slag-heap. Everything was dust, filth, stench, thirst, suffocation, fear. It was the opposite of a mighty matter of song. But it ended in fire all the same.”

So he drew a breath and went on with the story: the escape, the road down from the mountains, the long and hopeless miles across the broken lands seething with preparation for war. Suddenly Fëanor interrupted again.

“Wait a minute. Weren’t you there?”

“Of course I was,” said Frodo, puzzled. “Didn’t I – wasn’t that clear? Sam got me out of that tower, and now it’s both of us on the plains of Gorgoroth.”

“Yes, but it’s not your own memory that you’re holding in your mind; you’re thinking of what someone else has told you. You’re picturing the events the same way you picture the ones that you learned about afterwards. There’s no words to it, but it’s as if you’re thinking in the third person where you should be thinking in the first. Why?”

Frodo found it deeply unsettling to have his thoughts questioned with the same brisk curiosity as a translation or a point of grammar. “Oh well, I suppose I did sign up for it,” he said to himself, “and didn’t I say I wanted to be heard? No use flinching when it turns out someone is listening after all!”

“You do remember it, don’t you?” Fëanor pressed.

“Yes,” he answered, and left it at that for a minute. Before his companion could question him further, he went on in a low voice “but it will hardly bear the recollection, let alone the telling. There was – there was very little left, if you understand me. Not much to make a coherent story out of.  I was nearly blind. I could not look ahead; I knew what was in front of me. I could not look behind; the past was shredding away. Not faded, not obscured, but consumed, until there was nothing left beyond Mordor, until light and water and home  were only words in a dead language, sounds that had had a meaning once.

“You asked me to teach you my language. Do you know what it is to have language die within you, to lose the meaning of words one by one until you’re left only with that crushing weight of will, with the knowledge of what you must do, and the knowledge that it cannot be done?”

“You would do better to ask my sons than me.” Fëanor’s voice was sober and his eyes were clear. Frodo sighed and straightened his back against the rock.

“So as we say in Westron, words fail. That was probably originally transitive, words fail me. But to fail can be intransitive as well, and then it means to fade, to break down, to wither, or else simply not to succeed or suffice. The light fails.” He gestured to the darkening woods. “The plan failed. But all that to say, if you want to get any kind of notion of what actually happened, if you want your facing translation to make sense, you’re much better off with the events as Sam remembered them. He had enough self left for both of us; it was only his will that kept us moving at all once we had crossed the border.”

Fëanor did not interrupt again but sat leaning forward, his expressive features still and his eyes fixed on Frodo, who recounted the ascent of the mountain and the events of the Sammath Naur with no emotion whatever. But when he described their final rescue by the Eagles, Fëanor got to his feet and paced back and forth before the fire, charged and perturbed.

“Such was ever the charity of the Valar! To leave others to bear the burden, yes, and to pay the cost of fighting an evil that was in no wise your responsibility. And then to have the gall to call their own belated contribution a gift rather an apology.”

Frodo looked at him as he turned by the fire, but it was on Frodo’s behalf that he seemed to be agitated. “They would say that I have no right to voice any complaint, since my kin have also benefitted from the tardy grace of Manwë Súlimo. But I give the Valar little credit for their bad consciences.”

“Would you have had it otherwise?” asked Frodo mildly.

Fëanor stopped. “Would you?”

This struck home. “How can I answer that question?” he said at last. “How could I reject the mercy that let us come home, that meant that Sam would see his garden again, heal our country, become the joyful father of children? And yet – here I am. There was no homecoming for me, and isn’t that itself a rejection? At least, if there was a gift, I couldn’t receive it.”

He went on, his voice low and hoarse. “Others, cleaner of heart than I, gave up the Ring. I never did. And now I never can; it is consumed and much of my self consumed with it.”

He sank to silence, watching the flames, while Fëanor paced beyond them.  “Gandalf told me later that it was impossible from the beginning,” he said,  “that having carried the Ring as long as I did, no mortal will – ‘or immortal either, and thank goodness they weren’t involved,’ he said –would have been capable of giving it up. And I suppose that’s true – good heavens, how could I help but know it? But that doesn’t mean that its effects were somehow cancelled. They tell me I am not guilty, but I am certainly not whole.”

“That says nothing about your nature,” Fëanor broke in, seeing that his halting speech had stopped altogether, “only than that your Enemy was stronger than you, and no one was ever in doubt about that!”

Frodo shook his head. “If the Ring can be said to make you do anything, it makes you do it to yourself. I had a choice. I never believed that I would come home – you know that – and I certainly didn’t deserve to. By rights I never should have left the Sammath Naur.”

Fëanor sat down again beside him, and his words were proud but his tone was gentle. “Why do you speak of rights?” he asked. “Do you reproach yourself so bitterly for a will that was in the end indistinguishable from your Enemy’s?” He laid his hands on each other, open and empty, in his lap.  “I know something of the will that sets ruin in the world. When we laid claim to that which we held most dear, it was our own choice, free and unforced, by which we bound ourselves to it. I suppose,” he added, “that was why there was no mercy for us.”

Frodo looked back at him for a long moment. “You’re here now, aren’t you?” he said at last.  “What is that, if not mercy?”

It was now nearly full dark, and splintered glimmers of starlight were beginning to filter through the upper trees. As the light fell on Fëanor, a change seemed to come over him; his face drained of all color, and wordlessly he sprang to his feet and began moving swiftly through the trees. Frodo, who had never had much trouble finding his way in the forest at night, barely managed to keep up; he seemed to know where he was going.

Running after him, he found they were climbing a rise that soon turned to bare rock. It was much too large to be called a boulder but too small to be called a hill, and though the trees surrounded it on all sides, above it a wide circle was open to the darkening blue-purple sky. The wild stars of Aman burned in their unknown patterns overhead, and in the east,11 the Evening Star was rising.

Fëanor gazed after it, mute and stricken, his face working. Frodo looked up at him and looked up at the distant, familiar star, and it came suddenly into his mind that he recognized the desperate hunger on Fëanor’s face and the strange light that burned in his eyes. He stepped forward and spoke seriously, and with more boldness than he would have believed himself capable of:

“It’s not yours,” he said. He heard Fëanor draw his breath in sharply. “Not yours alone. That’s not only your work you’re looking at.”

“No?” Fëanor turned his eyes from the sky to look down at him; they were blazing and dangerous. “Have a care, Frodo! I honor your deeds, but you are speaking of matters that you know nothing about.” He towered over him, a darker shape against the dark heavens, but Frodo held his gaze.

“Am I? Do you think I don’t know what it looks like when the madness of desire takes hold? Do you think I don’t know what that desire will do to the world, to your own mind? Listen to me. It is not your work alone that is rising now as the mightiest and fairest of stars. I’ve heard it said that the Silmarils were your self, your very nature, and now that I have met you I can well believe it. But it’s not only your sacrifice in that wandering star. That’s someone’s father, taken up into the heavens, sundered now forever from home and kindred and from the fate was his by right. The star was made by his sacrifice as well, and that of those who loved him and loved their people, by a voyage through despair to the shores beyond it and yes, by the grace of the Powers.”

Fëanor’s breath hissed over his teeth and he seemed about to speak, but Frodo went on. “And it shines on a world of darkness and grief as a sign of hope, praised in the evening and greeted in the morning, deeply loved even by those who know no more of it than the brilliance of its light -”

“You come near to making me angry, Frodo. This stolen light is loved? How should it not be? It is ours, we claimed it unto the world’s end. You speak very grandly of sacrifice, but it was no choice of mine that gave my light to the world, it was theft, theft, and murder.”

Frodo did not ask him to which murder he was referring.

“Thrice-hallowed I called the Silmarils once in pride and in innocence, before our language had a word for theft. Thrice-stolen now they are, stained with my father’s blood and my children’s, and with the terror and sorrow of my kin. And yet the star rises shining undefiled! Thrice-stolen it may be, yet that did not suffice to dim its light.”

“Well, of course not. What’s done to something doesn’t change its nature.”

For a moment they stood there like enemies poised to fight, a few feet apart, but Fëanor tore his gaze away and began to pace across the flat surface of the rock. Frodo went after him, but Fëanor rounded on him suddenly.

“And shall I rip the stars from the sky?” he demanded.  “Is that what you think of me, that I also am a darkener?”

Frodo gave no ground. “Rip the stars from the sky? What I know of your deeds suggests that you can, what I know of your oath outright states that you must. But no,” he added more softly but no less firmly. “I do not think you will.”

Fëanor stared at him, his face blank and remorseless but with something like wonder in his eyes. “Strongly spoken. Why do you trust me? You know nothing of me beyond my deeds.”

“Well, that’s not quite true, is it?” said Frodo. “We’ve spoken together, we’ve eaten and drunk together.  Besides, you’ve been sitting there looking at my thoughts like an owl on my shoulder for most of the day.”

Even in his anguish of mind, Fëanor was struck by the absurdity of this image, and he snorted. Frodo went on.

“Your nature does not conceal itself.  You love the world. You delight in it. I do not believe that you would now lift up your hand against it.”

This seemed to sink in. Fëanor stood before him silently for a moment, then wrenched himself away again, turning his face upwards with a cry. “And should I rejoice to see my work, my gift, now part of the world itself? Yet they had no right to make my own soul’s labor into... a public good. To take up my designs into theirs.”

“No,” Frodo said quietly. “No right.” He stepped up beside him, and turned his face skyward as well. “And yet it was taken up, and joined to the works of others, and served to defeat your enemy at last. Would you have had it otherwise?”

“Do you mean to cajole me into acceptance through failure of imagination? Otherwise? There was a time in the Halls where in silence and in dark thought I set myself to determine otherwise. Working backwards from the end which I desired – my children whole and sound, my people mighty and free, my works restored, my enemy in chains – I brooded upon those deeds and those choices which might have been different, until in the end I had, in thought, uprooted the foundations of the world and begun it anew and unmarred.”

“I do not think you would have chosen that.”

“You make very free with my choices!”

“No, only with my observations. History – the world itself – is a collaborative project, a work undertaken together, if you understand me. To keep it unmarred, you would need either to be entirely alone or to rule absolutely, and there is nothing in your will addressed to the domination of others.”

Fëanor looked back down at him and blinked. “That’s a strange assumption to make about me.”

“Who said it was an assumption? I do not have your people’s art of looking into the unshielded heart, but if I learned anything from dragging the One Ring across half a continent, it’s to recognize even the smallest and most diluted fragment of the will to power. First to order, and then to control, then to enthrall, then to enslave, finally to destroy rather than see anything exist outside your own will. But there’s nothing of that in you. Which is frankly very striking,” he added, “considering that the more power someone has the more they generally want, and you are named the mightiest of the Noldor.”

This was not flattery, and Fëanor did not take it as such. “The desire to possess, though?” Frodo went on. “Certainly. That you have, and are within your rights to have. And you don’t need me to tell you the destruction that desire sets loose. In the end perhaps as devastating as power. Who knows?”

The star shone on them from the unclouded sky, and a light wind, edged with the chill of night, began to blow. Neither spoke, until at last Fëanor said, his voice low and bleak, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“I’ve met you,” said Frodo simply. “I do not think any power in the world could deprive you of that choice.”

“In the world,” Fëanor echoed. “But the One who holds our oath is beyond the world; we bound ourselves by Him and it is only He that can release us. And no word comes from Him to us within the world.”

He flung out his arms and began to pace again. “Narrow indeed is the place where I am driven, and darkness on every choice before me! To take up my Enemy’s work and fight for the darkening of the world, or to take up my Enemy’s fate in everlasting darkness?” He groaned bitterly. Frodo waited, until his restless motion slowed and he came to stand beside him again.

“Of course there is a choice,” he said quietly. “Perhaps I have made it already, in returning to the world. I know what I should do. All that remains is to accept it.”

He laughed soundlessly, a short stuttering breath. “Your fears on my behalf are needless anyway, Frodo,” he said. “There was never any hope of my reclaiming the Silmarils. They were mine, yes, and they are mine still. But I am debarred from them, and by a power higher than the Powers.”

“What do you mean?”

“Surely you can’t imagine my creations would suffer my touch? Their judgement is no more lenient than my own, their nature now far purer.” He held out his hand; it shimmered in the starlight. “I feel that upon me like an accusation. Even its light burns me now.”

Frodo reached out his hand to his, fingers chill with the night wind. “But you are not consumed.”

The look that Fëanor turned on him was brilliant with the light of the distant star, and utterly desolate. A tremor seemed to pass through his body and he swayed where he stood. Like a falling tower, he slowly sank to his knees and then farther, bowing with his face to the earth. He remained there, crumpled to the ground, his head against the rough starlit rock and his hands turned upward to the sky. Eventually Frodo sat down beside him, and waited in silence.

After a time Fëanor lifted himself from the stone, his face dry and drawn and his eyes shadowed but perfectly clear. He slowly took in the world around him, looking at Frodo, at the rock beneath his fingers, at the starry sky and the dark trees in the night air. “Surely this was not what I intended?” he said at last, wonderingly. “I was dead. I meant to remain there.”

“But you live,” said Frodo and he smiled, for he felt the easing of the tension around them. “As you have been reminding me all day. Something must have brought you out.”

“What else? I heard you, singing beneath the prison walls.”

Frodo was really taken aback by this revelation; it hardly seemed fitting that he should have interfered in the fixed purposes of one whose will had shaped the stars. “How – how on earth –“

“It was your Fate,” said Fëanor, “which means we know who arranged that particular exception to his self-imposed rule.” He shook his head, half in admiration. “I suppose he knew my old skills called to me, that I could not forbear to know more of a language. And so I heard a foreign voice singing in an unknown tongue. A strange music, a new theme. And now -” He got to his feet and Frodo rose after him. Fëanor lifted up his hands to the sky and spoke in a clear ringing voice and in the Common Speech: “Hail Earendil of stars the brightest!”

“Over Middle-Earth sent unto men,”12 Frodo finished automatically. They paused.

“Westron’s heavily dependent on word order, though,” said Frodo after a minute, “and even though there’s a fair amount of leeway in poetry, it would flow better as brightest of stars. Scans better too.

“It wouldn’t have to be the brightest of stars?

“Not unless you were making a sentence out of it – this is the brightest of stars or something like that.” Fëanor repeated this to himself, but Frodo shook his head. “And of course you pick the one sentence out of the story that you have translate yourself instead of just echo! Well, you evidently like a challenge.”

Fëanor made no reply, but one side of his mouth crooked in a slight smile. He drew a long breath, sighed, and then, clearly having come to some sort of resolution, began moving lightly down the rock, making his way back toward the forest. Turning back, his face now nearly on a level with Frodo’s, he asked “Are you coming?”

“Back to the camp? Certainly.” Frodo began to follow after.

“Well, back to the camp first.” Fëanor swung himself softly down from a waist-high drop-off in the rock, while Frodo made his way along the gentler slope to the side. “But I will be going onward. My mind is made up, and what profit or relief should I have in delay?” He turned again to face him. “I do not know your purpose, but perhaps your road lies with mine, for a little while.”

Frodo looked past him then, out to the woods. There seemed to be no road at all through the forest, and still less in the dark.

“I do not ask you to come with me,” Fëanor began. “Wait, no, that’s exactly what I ask you. Will you come with me? For I must set my face now toward the living world, and I should be glad not to be alone.”

He spoke lightly but his words were not light, and Frodo was filled suddenly with warmth and with a deep fellow-feeling for his unexpected traveling companion. “Of course I will!” he said, scrambling down the rock.

“Excellent! Are you sure? I do not mean to turn you from your purpose in coming here.”

“Well, I don’t rightly know that I had one,” Frodo admitted as he followed him into the shade of the trees.

“You came unbidden to the feet of Mandos himself? You were not seeking death? Seeking the dead? Do you mean to tell me that you were lost?”

“I don’t know if lost is the word for it. Wandering, certainly. I have been wandering since I came here, seeking out the solitary places.” He sighed.  “I prefer the pathless fields, the trackless woods, somehow. For when I see a road, it comes suddenly into my mind that I can see all the way down it, straight to its ending, and the end is nothing but fire.”

Fëanor nodded in acknowledgement. “Yes, once you have seen the end it’s hard to face the beginning.” They walked on in silence for a while, until the glow of the burning briar shone ahead of them, homely and comforting in the starlit forest.

“Do you mean to go on now, tonight?” Frodo asked as they drew near their camp. “You don’t want to sleep and go on in the morning?”

“I have been sleeping for too long,” he answered. “I do not know when I will want sleep again! But if you –“

“I need sleep less and less these days,” Frodo said. “We’ll go together. Since you seem to know where you’re going.”

So when they returned to the place where they had dined by the rock, Fëanor washed the dinner things, few as they were, and Frodo packed again. When they were ready to depart, he paused, looking back at the clearing and the cheerful firelight.

“Surely we shouldn’t just leave it burning? Not that I suppose it will draw enemies, not here at any rate.”

“No, and there’s little for any windblown sparks to catch on. Still, I have enough to answer for without adding to my charge that I burned down the Forest of Return!” He went to the bush and bent down beside it; Frodo heard him speaking in a low voice, and the flames died suddenly in wisps of smoke and a sweet smell. The berries glowed like coals on the branches. Fëanor remained crouched by the spiny branches for a moment with his head bowed.

“Yes, there is darkness before me on this road, a darkness greater than you know – indeed, greater than I know. But if my strong-hearted sons have shown me anything, we can live while we wait for the Doom to fall.  And that is not nothing.

“But then, you mortals would know all about that,” he added, straightening, “insofar as you have time to know about anything.”

Frodo decided to accept this as a confidence rather than an insult, lifted his pack to his shoulders, and followed Fëanor out of the clearing.

As before, he seemed to know where he was going, and moved with great confidence in the night. The starlight that made its way through the canopy overhead caught the cloth that he wore as a robe, and Frodo followed its shape rippling before him, a paler shadow among the deep shadows of the trees.

“Where are we going?” Frodo finally asked, after they had been walking for some time over the soft, even ground, skirting the great trunks of the ancient trees.

“We walk –“ His hands sketched shapes in the air as he formulated the concept, “- with the grain of the woods. This whole place leads away from the Halls of the Dead, path or no path. Can you not feel it?” He paused and closed his eyes. “The slope of the land, the breath of the trees. The air, and the water in the air. The curve of the light.”

Frodo considered this. He had put it down to the way that Fëanor seemed to know where he was going, but there had been something intuitive about the path they followed. He was walking like some distracted hobbit-child sent to run errands who finds himself, unconsciously, on the familiar road to the house of a friend.

“I would have said like a dreamer,” Fëanor broke in, “but yes, you see it.”

“So we will make our way back if we go where it is easiest to go.”

“Easiest?” The lights burned low again in Fëanor’s eyes. “For you, perhaps.”

 

They walked on through the night in the starlit woods, moving quickly enough to keep off the chill of the air, but without a sense of haste or urgency. At times they spoke together, at other times they walked without speaking, but both speech and silence seemed equally companionable. Fëanor had compared them to dreamers, Frodo considered, and this quiet unquestioning comfort in a circumstance so unfathomably strange was like something out of a dream, from before his dreams had grown empty and cold.

When the night was half-gone, or nearly, the world began to brighten and shimmer. The shadows grew sharp-edged, and a strong light became apparent past the tops of the trees and far to the east. Thinking of his fellow traveler’s reaction to the first rising of the sun and of the stars, Frodo looked anxiously at him. But although Fëanor stopped and stared keenly into the sky, the thin crescent of the rising moon provoked only a long, attentive, inquisitive regard, broken at last by a peal of laughter.

“Tilion! That’s Tilion!” Fëanor exclaimed. He waved his arm over his head and shouted in the High Speech “Fair rising! Fine faring! And mind your course!

“Not that he’s likely to take notice of us at this distance,” he added to Frodo, “but he always had a sharp eye to catch creatures that moved beneath the trees, and it would be discourteous not to greet him.”

“So you are also apparently a personal acquaintance of the Moon!” said Frodo, throwing up his hands. “Of course you are, why wouldn’t you be?”

“Well, not exactly, but he’s an old friend of my son.” Fëanor began walking again, moving with a cheerful energy as if the sight had heartened him. “They rode in Orome’s train together, and he’s dined with us before at my family’s home. Long ago, in our early days before anyone but the Lady of the Stars took thought for the darkness that lay on the lands of our birth...” He looked back up again at the moon through a gap in the trees. “I wonder if he still carries that silver bow. My son made it for him – my other son, I mean, the second of my name. Silver’s the wrong material altogether for archery, but nothing else would do, and so he built him a composite bow out of silver and horn and fiber from a filament he devised by spinning heated resin in a solution of –“

Fëanor was clearly about to depart from the subject of the Moon in favor of a disquisition on the advanced craft required for increasing the tensile strength of silver, but Frodo was still fathoming the prospect sharing a family dinner with the spirit who guided the Moon through the skies above the upper air.  “Wait, I thought that the Maiar weren’t usually so – that they didn’t need things like food and drink?”  

“What, you mean you don’t know his ways? Weren’t you singing about him just now? The man in the moon himself came down one night to drink his fill,” he caroled, in a very creditable imitation of Frodo’s own singing.

“That was a nonsense-rhyme, a piece of doggerel – my uncle wrote it, for goodness’ sake, to make me laugh when I was a child!”

“It was a lucky shot, then, since unaimed it hit its mark. Certainly it’s as good a description as any of Tilion’s character. I was astonished when I heard that it was he who’d been chosen to bear lost Telperion’s final flower, since he was never serious-minded. Unreliable even for a god. Still, I am told, he begged, for love of the silver light, to be given to its service. The Valar appear to have learned a certain respect for a life freely offered. And they’ve always been inclined to credit love as much as skill,” he added, a little sourly, “a policy whose results you can see scorched all over the surface of that fine light.”

They traveled unwearied the rest of the night, moving more swiftly and at times almost running for the sheer joy of being abroad on so fine a night. The chill in the air grew nearly to the point of sharpness, and then it lessened, lifting and leaving dew on the leaves and on the edges of their garments. The forest began to lighten, first through a spectrum of gray and then to orange and rose and gold. From a treetop near them came the clear call of a bird, and soon the woods were alive with song.

Frodo stopped and looked about him in wonder. “Surely this is not the same forest?” he said. When he had come this way before on his way toward the Halls, it had been a dark place, somber and soundless, without neither motion nor color, and even his footsteps on the soft earth had been muffled. Now there were flashes of red and yellow and the sound of wings as little songbirds darted between the trunks of the trees, white flowers on the forest floor, low thickets of berries, the sound of running water. The trees, which had stood like huge stone pillars in an empty hall, were towering still, but around their feet unfurled great ferns half again as tall as he was.

“There was nothing living here when I passed through it,” he said at last, “except the trees, of course, and even they didn’t seem to so much be living as, well, standing, if you understand me. It was a more forbidding place altogether.” He looked over at Fëanor. “Have we come by a different way? Crossed some kind of border? I didn’t notice that we had, but we were walking in the dark all night.”

Fëanor laughed; he was already gathering dark purple berries from one of the silver-leaved bushes. “Does it surprise you that the wood at the world’s end should look very different depending on which direction you are facing?” He offered Frodo a handful of the little round fruits, which he sampled with curiosity. It was no species he was familiar with; their flavor was concentrated and piercingly sweet, as good as a splash of cold water on the face. “No, if you came to Mandos through a forest, you came through the places we are walking now – though it would be a very difficult journey to trace on a map! But then, mapping the Blessed Realm was always difficult, since time and space, at least in certain areas, bend to the authority of the Power through whose domain they pass. When in the Years of Bliss I ranged with my friend – and later with our children – across the hills and forests of this land, we could take the same path across Yavanna’s lands a dozen times, and never enter the same forest twice.” He popped a handful of the berries into his own mouth and blinked at the sudden intensity of the taste.

They moved onward, more slowly now, through the brightening woods. Mists streamed up from shadowed dales, shining like white clouds when they caught the sun streaming through the trees. The air was clear and fresh, smelling of new leaves and old roots.

Frodo walked through that pleasant land deep in thought, taking the time to reflect on the events of the previous day, and to absorb the strangeness of the fact that he was walking through a land of legends with a man who was scarcely less a figure of legend himself. But contemplating the difference between the figure in the stories and songs and the fierce-hearted, bright-edged person at his side, a doubt gradually rose in his mind. Eventually he voiced it to Fëanor, whose sometimes alarming frankness, he felt, was surely license for questions that might otherwise be impertinent.

“There’s something I can’t quite square about this,” he said. “Everything I’ve ever heard about you – and even your own words last night, really – says that you were never to return to the world. Not before...”

“Before it ended?” Fëanor seemed to have been expecting the question. “Before the world should be broken and remade. Indeed.”

“Some of the accounts suggested – well, that you couldn’t return.”

“That the Valar would keep me locked in Mandos forever, as they should have kept my Enemy? Wishful thinking, perhaps, on the part of those who have little desire to see me again – and little knowledge of death and its doorwarden.  That my oath had overtaken me at the last, and that I had fallen into the darkness that we called upon ourselves? No, that darkness is deeper than Námo’s deepest halls. Or that I had made some ill bargain, as my mother made for her peace and my father’s? That would have been closer to the truth.”

The brightness of the day now seemed incongruous with his words and the thoughts that hung about him. “But if the stories told you I would never return, Frodo, they spoke truly. They said no more than those were closest to me knew. No more than I knew myself. You have heard something of the woe that I brought to the world, and seen something of the woe that I might still bring. But long before I quarreled with the gods, I quarreled with my father’s son.”

Frodo thought for a second, parsing this. “Oh, of course! Your brother. That business before the Darkening. He who’s king in Tirion now.”

“Yes, king indeed if Finwë’s firstborn is dead.” There was something in Fëanor’s voice that Frodo could not read. “As he believed I would remain. I told him as much.”

He sighed deeply and began his story, unconsciously dropping into the formal parmaquesta of songs and long tales.

“It was in the waning years of the Age of the Exile, although within the Halls there was no when at all. We take no measure of time’s motion there, only of time’s effects. Our host within was great in those days and growing every day. My world-hardened kindred who had drunk the bitter wine of exile to its last drop. The starlight-loving folk of the Hither Shore torn forever from their woods that would never grow green again. The unscarred Elves of the Light who learned in wrath and ruin what it meant to look upon the shadow.

“I said the host of the Dead was great, but the Halls were empty still. Mandos is a cold and solitary place; it could be filled with numberless people and each one there might still feel himself alone. I put it to Námo once that he had patterned it after the Void, but he insists on maintaining that the vision bodied forth by those halls is not his but ours. I say that matters little if it’s his will that makes it real – but I am straying from my purpose.

“In the World, then, the rocks melted and the seas burned as Thangorodrim was thrown down. Some had no heart to watch the horror of that battle, nor to see all that they had loved overwhelmed in fire and water. But the Weaver and all her company were busy in those days, and for those who wished, we saw as in a mirror the final end of all we had fought for, and the removal at last of the Enemy from the world whose foe he was.

“Then Námo rose from his throne, and his words in the darkness were like the sudden realization of something long forgotten whose memory comes too late. He pronounced to us mercy and the pardon of the Valar, he spoke of the return of to these shores of all who wished to come, and he told us that our crimes were forgiven and our warfare was over. There were many of the Dead in those days who laid aside their sorrow and lifted up their hearts, and it may be that their term within those walls was shortened by their own hope as much as by the pardon that was offered.

“But the threads of fire and silver and splintered light shone still in the darkness of the tapestry, and I knew that no Doom could ever speak peace to my children and my works.

My brother, he who was once the High King of the Noldor in Middle-Earth, came to find me. That itself was no small deed, for finding a spirit who does not wish to be found is a difficult thing. It has more in common with the art of the healers than anything else. Or of the tormentors. I suppose that healing is an art he has learned... He came before me at last, his spirit like a white flame, hard-edged with memory and hope. I saw that his heart was bent upon the world again, and that the whole force of his nature went with it.

‘Well?’ I said, though I knew the answer. ‘You have found me, and I must listen whether I would or no. What do you want?’”

“What did he want?” asked Frodo after a time, for Fëanor had sunk to silence. He considered another minute, and then began slowly.

“He was returning to the world, as I knew he would. He asked me to return with him. I cannot rightly report his words, for he did not speak. But his thoughts flared in my mind: pardon and peace, the healing of all wounds. The dear-bought end of the strife between us and our peoples, and our return, together, to crown this new beginning. He did not beg me, but only because he knew it would do no good. Nor would he say anything of it to me – he had learned something, at any rate, over the long years! - but I saw beneath his thought that he intended to vouch for me before the Valar, that he would plead for me before them, if that was what they required, for my return.

“He came to me as one steeled against a blow, for he knew that I might receive his offer like one. But whatever else they may say of the sons of Finwë, no one can say that we refuse to undertake the impossible. He had to make the attempt, and I knew he had to, and I honored the effort even as I rejected it utterly.

            “I spoke to him harshly and in the bitterness of grief, sharp words that I will not recall here. For I had seen that the last of my sons, rather than bring strife and death again to the shores of Aman, had sought the desperate fulfillment of their oath against the host of Valinor itself.” Fëanor raised his eyes; they gazed on nothing or on things that only he could see.  “At the end of all, the Silmarils were in their hands again. But they burned them, my children, as they had burned in the hands of my Enemy. My mother, whose long labors in the Weaver’s service have made her near as iron-eyed as Námo himself, wept and hid her face when she told me of it.

I did not curse him, no, but I cursed the hope he offered. ‘If for my father’s death,’ I cried, ‘we cracked the course of the world, how then, and on whom, shall my sons be avenged? No, I will not return with you to declare that the strife is over. I shall not look upon the light again until the world, the world that has consumed us, be broken and remade. I swear to you –‘

‘I should have thought, brother,’ he said to me – and he used words this time, for my sake – ‘I should have thought by now you knew better than to swear to anything at all.’

“He left me then, not anger but in pain. And of all the wrongs that I have done to him, though this was not the worst, still its hurt is perhaps the keenest. For when we quarreled of old, the lies of our Enemy were at work upon the pride of our hearts. But now I saw him with eyes unclouded by suspicion. I saw that he came with nothing but love in his heart, and I threw it back in his face.

“Still, in that hour he showed himself his father’s son. Perhaps he has begun to attain the wisdom his name promised, for he knew better than to press the issue. Even though we parted, as far as we knew, forever, he laid down the sorrow of loss and gladly took up the burden of life.

“The gates of Mandos were flung open, and Nolofinwë led his people out rejoicing, to peace, as once he had led them to war. Yes, Mandos has gates, evidently!” he added, dropping suddenly into Westron on seeing Frodo furrow his brow in recollection of the doorless and windowless fortress.

“Not gates that you passed through,” replied Frodo in the same language, smiling at the sudden shift to the conversational Common Tongue.

“No – I passed through the – small door –“ Fëanor was concentrating hard, trying to keep up. “Unlooked for – no, unseen? Like a thief. Námo will be glad –“ He switched back to Quenya, unwilling to labor out his turn of phrase in Westron. “Námo will be glad to hear of my departure. He never lets on, of course, but it burned his heart that in his Halls dwelt one with a will more fixed than his own.”

His fingers flexed at his sides, as if impatient for something to work on. He stooped to pick up a small stone from the forest floor, and tossed it from hand to hand as he spoke. “I judged my deeds a weight too great to ask the world to bear – for they are mine, all of them. I can abjure none, repent almost none. And now I must cast myself, deeds and all, full weight upon my people. It is a bitter burden to ask them to take up.”

“Ask them? Weren’t you just saying that it was your brother who asked you?”

“He asked and was refused.”

“Don’t you think he’d understand that refusal, though?” Frodo pressed. “Your grief for your sons, for your lost works, for the oath and all that had come from it –“

He drew himself up proudly. “I have no desire to see myself explained or excused.”

“No,” said Frodo, “only forgiven.”

Fëanor shot a look so fierce at him that for a moment it seemed he could feel its heat against his face, but then broke away. He threw the little stone down along the path before him, where it rolled along for a considerable distance before bumping to a halt against a root.

“Ah,” he said, “so we are still going downhill. It feels like walking uphill to me.”

They spoke of lighter things, in both Quenya and Fëanor’s increasingly fluent Common Speech, as they went onwards. About noon they came to a little river flowing beside the way they were taking. “Now I’m certain this can’t be the same forest,” said Frodo. “There wasn’t any running water at all on my way here, and I should have heard it, at least. Still, I’m not complaining!” He leaned down at the bank to refill his bottle. The water tasted of nothing but water itself – it was clean and cool, with a faint scent of stone to it – but it was as strong as wine, it brightened the eyes and breathed life into the limbs.

“Have a drink of that!” He passed the bottle to Fëanor. “Wherever the waters come from in this forest, it seems to be somewhere healthy. A few draughts like that, and I don’t suppose I should need to drink again!”

They followed the river now, down through the forest, until their way grew rocky and the river was interrupted by a small waterfall splashing down a low series of rocks into a deep pool below. The rocks were worn smooth where the water passed, but where the spray fell they were covered with deep mosses and long grasses, and blue mountain-columbines that clung to the rock face like hanging gardens. When they had made their way around the side, they sat down on a flat rock, and bathed their feet, for both were barefoot, in the pool.

It was sparkling clear straight to the gray and white sands and the swaying water-weeds at the bottom, where small brown fish darted. The sun came down softened and dappled through the treetops, and the surface of the rocks were warm; it would have been a fine place for an afternoon nap if either of them had been in the least bit sleepy. Still, Frodo was perfectly content to lie on his back staring up at the shifting patterns of gold and green in the leaves and the pine-needles far overhead.

Eventually he heard Fëanor moving about, and raising himself up on one arm, he saw him examining a small cairn of rocks built by the side of the pool. The heap of stones seemed too deliberate not to be the work of someone’s hands, and Frodo did not know what to make of it.

“We are not the first to pass through these woods,” Fëanor said. “This is the road by which those who have died return again to the green world. It has been designed for comfort and refreshment –as you’ve probably noticed – of the body and the soul, that when we return we might awaken to the world as our parents did, singing in joy. And not, as our children, screaming in pain and terror.”

“I wondered about that! But I haven’t seen anything exactly Elvish about this forest. Back home, in Middle-Earth, that is, even in the woods not too far from the Shire you could find signs that the Elves had passed through there once. Steps set into the face of a hill, carvings around what once had been a spring. But here?”

“Here we must come emptyhanded without tools, and none of the Eldar would lay violent hand on the skin of these trees,” said Fëanor, “and so there is little record we can leave of our passing.” He looked at the cairn; Frodo now saw that there were several of the rock towers, some larger and some smaller, around the pool and close to the base of the waterfall. “But we may be sure that others before us have looked upon this light and tasted the refreshment of these waters.” His face was thoughtful.

Coming back to the water’s edge, in one smooth motion he lay down flat on the broad rock, and plunged one arm into the pool. He searched with his fingers along the bottom until he came up with a smooth round stone about the size of a fist, which he added to the pile nearest them. Frodo came to join him, but he suddenly bent forward with a cry of surprise. When Frodo asked what the matter was, Fëanor indicated one of the stones in the anonymous heap. Frodo looked at it closely. Although, as Fëanor said, travelers in this land passed this way without tools, an eight-pointed star had been scratched into the surface, most likely by another stone.

“Your own sign,” he said, “unless I am misremembering?”

“That’s quite correct. Do you mean to tell me that emblem is still seen in your lands?”

“Well, not my lands exactly, but it was right square in the middle of the doors of Khazad-dum, and we certainly spent enough time sitting there staring at them! I remember them so well I could draw it.”

“The doors of that deep kingdom,” said Fëanor, musing. He touched the faint markings on the stone with one finger. “My grandson’s work. As is this, if I guess rightly; it seems his way.” He fell then into deep thought, and after a while they began to walk onwards again.

For three days and nights they walked through that pleasant land, little troubled by hunger or by weariness. As Fëanor had said, it was as if the land had been expressly fashioned to hearten and strengthen those who walked within it. At regular intervals they came upon deep pools suitable for bathing, and clear springs suitable for drinking, and as they walked they passed fruit-bearing trees and bushes and plants of all sorts. Some, like the apple, were well-known to Frodo, but others wholly strange to him and a few unknown even to Fëanor, who added a few of their seeds and leaves to Frodo’s pack. “I have no pockets,” he explained without embarrassment, “and how else will we find out what these are and if they can germinate outside the Forest of Return?”

They had little need of other nourishment, but for sheer variety at one point Frodo unwrapped the lembas and shared it out between them. No sooner had Fëanor tasted the waybread than his face lit up in recognition. “Anaire!” he exclaimed. “You are higher in honor in this land than you told me; this comes from the hand of the Queen herself.”

Frodo considered. “Well, I suppose we are her guests, in a manner of speaking. She and the King your brother were very generous to us when we first arrived; they saw us settled in Tirion and made sure that we would want for nothing.”

“We?”

This sobered Frodo. “Well, my uncle and I, when we came to this land together. You know my uncle, Bilbo, from everything I’ve told you, and I’m sorry you won’t have the chance to meet him.” Then he laughed. “And sorry, indeed, that he won’t have the chance to meet you; I dare say you think I am frightfully impertinent. Well, he taught me my manners, and he is ten times worse.”

“Of course I remember him. This is the one who bantered with a dragon?”

“Oh yes! And it was he who taught me my letters – well, your letters, I suppose – and really it was he who first put the love of Elvish things into my heart, though I dare say he had no idea what that would lead me to in the end.”

The mention of his family seemed to please his companion, for all that afternoon as they walked Fëanor told him stories of the noontide of Valinor, of his children and their youthful doings. Frodo listened, and laughed and at last he said,

“This may sound like an insult, but please don’t take it as one! If it were not for the – well, for the scale, these might be stories out of the Shire. I knew the Eldar must have tales other than those of sorrow and loss and mighty deeds, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them before.”

“It was a brighter world,” said Fëanor, “and a narrower one, and perhaps not so different from your Shire, save that our hearts were turned toward art instead of vegetables.”

Frodo smiled ruefully. “Well, that and the Shire is hardly a place to foster the increase of skill and deep knowledge! It is my homeland, even if it is lost to me, and I love it, on that shore or on this. But its people, for the most part, neither know nor care to know of the things beyond their borders.”

“Yet though it is a small land of small folk,” said Fëanor, “it is by no means least in the songs of your age, for out of it came the downfall of the Shadow, and now one of the Shire’s children will take his place beside the heroes of the Elder Days!”   

This remark bothered Frodo, and he considered for some time as they walked how to put his disquiet into words. “It is hard,” he said at last, “and it grows harder, to hear people talk of these events as if they conferred greatness on me. I am not great. I am not a creator or a healer or an explorer, not a warrior or a scholar or a ruler. I do not have the sort of will that shapes the world.”

“No,” agreed Fëanor. “You were not framed for high deeds. Yet you lifted up your heart to the undoing of your world’s great foe.” He laughed softly.  “And the songs say of me that I overreached myself!”

Frodo looked back at him, his face troubled. “You don’t even have to look beyond the War of the Ring, let alone into the depths of history, to find others who did more, suffered more, lost more, in strife with the Enemy.”

“Perhaps not,” Fëanor agreed, “but it’s one thing to fight, another to unmake. It’s one thing to set strength against strength, wisdom against wisdom, will against will, to see which proves the mightier.  But that, for you, was a question answered before it was asked.”

This was perfectly true, and Frodo made no reply.

“Anyone could have fought your Enemy,” Fëanor continued.  “Everyone would have, if things had continued on the path they were set. Could anyone have beaten him? Perhaps. It’s possible. It had been done before. You have walked with those that did it. But you took your Enemy’s nature on yourself in order to unmake it. That is a wholly different thing.”

Frodo found his pace slowing; he recalled what Fëanor had said about the sense of going uphill. He closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them to a world resolutely solid and unchanged. The pleasant woods still rose about him, the sunlight smiled, the clean air carried the scent of moss and pine-sap and fresh water.

“A thing which I did not do,” he said finally, forming the words with difficulty. “I don’t know if you understand me. Yes, he was unmade. Yes, the Shadow was defeated. Yes, the sun can still rise and the world draw its breath in freedom, not because of me, but in spite of me. I chose the world’s destruction. Do you know what that means?” He caught himself. “Well, I suppose you do, at that.”

They had stopped altogether now, and somehow Fëanor had worked around to face him. “You, and yet not you, cast down your Enemy. History has taken you up, and surely you don’t think that you are still only yourself? These are deep questions.” He cast a look at Frodo from under his eyebrows. “You cannot put forth your hand to grasp such matters and expect to draw it back whole.”

“Indeed not,” Frodo returned, “history burns and we burn within it, or others are burned for us.”

There was a sharp-edged silence for a while as each of them worked out the particular applications of that remark, walking onwards. Suddenly Fëanor spoke.

“For the injury which my family has done to you, I ask your pardon. If it is any comfort to you, the third of my name, through whom was wrought your woe, also did not escape whole from the world he shaped.”

Frodo was, for a moment, entirely lost. “Your... your family?” Fëanor said nothing, waiting for him to resolve the question himself. “The third of your name? You don’t mean... the chief of the Ring-Smiths of Eregion? I thought that was Celebrimbor.”

Fëanor considered briefly, working out the translation of the name. “Yes, as well it should have been. Curufinwë 13 was hardly a beloved name in that land. My grandson, the Ring-maker, who alone of all my house escaped the doom I fixed upon it, and who in his turn set a new one at work in Middle-Earth.”

He looked out into the distance, his features set between pride and grief. “When he lifted up his thought and his hand to the working of power, rather than beauty, he made ill choice of whom to admit to his counsels and his heart. He was betrayed, and all his works with him. Or nearly all.”

His face darkened. “Yet I don’t believe any torment was so sharp to him as the loss of his friend. Your Enemy was promising him right to the end that if only he would relent, he might still have back everything he had lost. But he learned in bitter pain what later you would learn, and what the bearers of his Three rings are learning now: some losses are beyond the hope of redress within the circles of the world. And so,” he added, “you are in some measure avenged.”

“It is no comfort to me! Rather the opposite,” exclaimed Frodo, appalled. “Good heavens! What do you think of me? I now have some notion of what it would mean to fall into my Enemy’s hands, and I wish I didn’t. And so that’s what happened to the maker of the Rings, and that’s supposed to balance things out? If this is your notion of justice, it seems – well, harsher than I can muster.”

Fëanor looked at him curiously, and then went on with a slight, liquid shrug. “I meant that the Rings were none of your making. It was not you who set my Enemy’s lickspittle lieutenant at large in the world, though you were – in some measure –“ he added with emphasis, seeing Frodo about to object, “in some measure responsible for removing him from it. And it sits ill with me that we should ask you to pay the cost of our deeds. If you are not avenged, we remain in your debt.”

“You began by asking for pardon,” said Frodo, closing his eyes again and this time stumbling over a root. He caught himself, feeling lightheaded and sick. “It is yours, and your family’s, before you ask it. Do not speak of debt!”

Fëanor inclined his head. “Very well! You will not urge your claim against my family, though you would be within your rights if you did. What of your claim against your Enemy? He may be beyond the reach of revenge, but not beyond the reach of hatred. As my Foe as well as my friends can attest, my curses are not without effect. Shall I curse him then, for your sake?

“No need! Goodness, if it comes to that, I myself have some skill in cursing. I cursed one that was for a while under my care, and he met the fate that should have been mine. But no, I cannot now curse my Enemy. I pity him.”

“I do not understand you, Frodo.” It was now Fëanor’s turn to stop, which he did so suddenly and completely that it seemed at an instant he had always been standing motionless. He looked down at him, his keen eyes alight and his expression unreadable.

Frodo looked about for a place to sit down, but found none, unless it would be to sink straight down to the earth of the forest floor. He stumbled as through a fog to the foot of a large beech tree and reached out with his right arm to steady himself, setting his maimed hand against the silver-grey bark. Bracing himself against the tree, he felt the dizziness begin to subside.

“I had a self to come back to,” he began after a moment. “The shadow may have bitten deep, but I am not wholly lost nor wholly changed. But to have nothing left but that void in the heart? Cut off from the sunlit world, all delights only bitterness to you because you do not possess them? Trapped in the self which is nothing of substance, only ravenous void gnawing itself in the knowledge that outside of it nothing is strong, nothing is beautiful, nothing is valuable, nothing is holy. How could I not pity that?”

Fëanor regarded him, searchingly, for what felt like a long time. Eventually he asked “Are you speaking of your great Enemy, or of that treacherous creature, your servant Gollum?”

“Well, both, I suppose.” Frodo drew himself up, and started forwards down the path. For the first time on that journey he felt a great weariness all through him, and a desire for sleep.

“Let’s make camp tonight,” he said, as they took their way onwards again together. “You may be reveling in the first strength of the body renewed, but I am still a mortal, and I am older than I look, and I can’t go forever without sleep. I suppose it’s – well, safe – to sleep here?”

“If it is safe to sleep anywhere!” Fëanor answered. “It’s well thought of. It seems to me that we should be nearing the end of these lands but I cannot see that end, nor sense how far it is for us to travel. It’s possible this forest won’t let us leave it until we have taken rest here.”

Frodo blinked. “That’s a strange thing to say.  Who on earth would enact such a requirement? And why?”

Fëanor glanced about the darkening woods. “Almost any of the Powers, greater or lesser, work out their will in their lands. Here, perhaps, the Master of Spirits? The Lady of the Earth? Most likely, though, it’s the will of the forest itself. You’ve seen by now that this is a land that has its wanderers in its care; that is its nature and its purpose. Those returning from death may shy away from sleep, but if the body is to be taken up again, then rest is something that must be taken up along with it. Of course,” he added, “this is all pure speculation, and I could be entirely wrong.”

So it was that not long after, they found another stand of ainatussa – Fëanor pointed out that they had been seeded regularly throughout the woods, another testament to the quiet passage of the Returned – and made camp beside it. Frodo got his blanket out of his pack for the first time in days, and was asleep not long after supper, but Fëanor sat straight-backed beside him, his eyes on the play of the flames among the branches and his mind sunk into the unfolding patterns of his dreams.

Frodo woke late and refreshed; the sun was well up and the fire had burned out. The black branches now had an iridescent sheen and a light coating of white ash along their edges. The birds were singing loudly, and so was his companion.

“Up! Up!” he cried, seeing Frodo stir. “It is a new day, and we are nearing the end of our road.”

Certainly, as they walked through that morning, the forest changed around them, the trees giving way from the ancient firs and evergreens to younger and smaller trees with broad leaves in golden and green. They walked quickly again, and it seemed to Frodo that they covered a good deal of ground.

Though Fëanor did not speak of what he had dreamed, his spirits were high, with a hint of wildness to them. He sang for much of the morning, and Frodo sang with him, exchanging songs in Quenya and in the Common Speech. Frodo was surprised to find Fëanor teaching him walking songs, drinking songs, children’s counting rhymes. But when he expressed his wonder at this, Fëanor only laughed. “Surely you don’t think all our songs are hymns or laments? But here – do you by any chance recognize this?” And he sang out in a simple melody with a strongly marked rhythm:

“Zakharei ha-niddabad, zakharei ha-niddabad,
Tanakhi ha-zirrabad, zirrabad, zirrabad14

It’s meant for a round,” he added.

“That’s nothing I recognize,” said Frodo, thinking. “It sounds almost Dwarvish, though I don’t suppose it can possibly-“

“Yes!” cried Fëanor, clearly delighted.

“You seem determined to baffle me! Unless I am entirely confused in my dates, you would never have met any of the Dwarves – and surely they would not have been willing to teach you their language!

“Indeed. It’s an enduring regret of mine that I have never met any of that well-crafted people. But I have spoken with their lord, Aulë the Maker. He alone of the Valar took any enduring interest in the creation of language, and so we spoke much together about it. I was hoping that you might be able to tell me how that language fared among the race of the Stone-Lords – how it has changed, whether it is well-tended or left to run wild like your Westron. I know it is not their way to teach this speech to outsiders, but you are not unskilled in tongues, and you counted Dwarves among your friends.”

Frodo shook his head. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I know almost nothing of Khuzdul. I believe I would have to be counted as far more than a friend and fellow-traveler to be trusted with their language, which they prize above all their other treasures. It’s my understanding, though, that it has hardly changed at all since its earliest days. If you learned it from the one who created the language, then the Dwarves would probably understand that song you’re singing. What does it mean, anyway?”

“It’s simple enough. After the ascent – or uphill slope – comes the descent – or downhill slope. And then the round is the reverse, after the descent comes the ascent. Come, I’ll teach it to you; we’ll set these woods ringing and give them something to puzzle over.”

So they sang together as the day brightened and the trees thinned, and eventually even Frodo could tell that they were coming to the edge of the forest.

“Well!” he said. “Where to after this? We’re still some days’ walk from the nearest city, which would be Valmar, on the other side of the plains - unless we’re emerging in some completely different corner of Aman, and given everything else that’s happened in these woods, that would not surprise me in the least.”

Fëanor ran both his hands backward through his hair; his eyes were bright and he seemed charged with a fierce and settled energy. “Where to, indeed? Toward Estolad Eledhronnath, the Exiles’ Camp, where my firstborn now walks with his friend in the gray highlands of the North? Southward to where my wife dwells among her father’s people? To the white shores where the sea-folk labor in peace?”

He looked up at the sky, gauging the track of the sun. “No, I think. We shall continue as we are: straight Eastward, Frodo, back to your home in Tirion. I must see my brother first, for ours was the first strife that arose in this realm.”

He drew a last deep breath of the clean air of the forest, and turned to Frodo. “Now it comes to it. I shall come among my people again, and I fear they will have little joy of the sight.”

The forest was ending, and the ground becoming more uneven; they found themselves descending into a wide shallow glen through which bright streams ran. It was now apparent that the forest grew on an upland whose edges they were now approaching. Beyond, the land descended into low hills, and beyond them, the plains, and still further beyond, the cities of the Noldor.

But while they were still a long way off, Fëanor lifted his head sharply, as if he heard something  through the sound of the wind in the leaves and the water over the stones.  Before he had time to speak, Frodo saw coming up over the hills and riding hard toward them, the man he had first seen on the shore waiting to welcome the last of the exiles home. His robes were blue and silver and as rich as the hard traveling would allow, for he must have ridden for days without rest or food, and he bore no other ornament except the silver circlet on his brow. Because of the screen of the trees and the curve of the land, the High King of the Noldor was nearly upon them by the time he saw them, and he pulled his horse up so suddenly that a less skillful rider must have fallen.

His eyes met Fëanor’s as his brother stood before him beneath the trees, barefoot and empty-handed and wrapped in gray, like a flame seen through smoke. But for a long moment he showed neither joy nor anger, nor even surprise. He looked at him, stunned, his strong grave features instantly wiped blank, as one who has in the heat of battle received a mortal injury. Before the fear, even before the pain, only the dull shock and the sudden knowledge that something has changed irrevocably and nothing will ever be the same again. Frodo, in sudden anxiety, looked up to Fëanor beside him and saw his brother’s expression almost mirrored in his face, save that his eyes still burned steadily and his mouth was set.

Slowly, almost without thought, never taking his eyes from Fëanor, Fingolfin swung himself off his horse and began walking toward him. At first Fëanor did not move, but when Fingolfin was within a few paces, all at once he stepped towards him. In a motion almost too quick for Frodo’s eye to follow, the king threw his arms around him and pulled him into an embrace. He held him and would not let him go, his hands tangled in the folds of the gray robe.

Fëanor stood transfixed, unmoving and unable to move. At last in turn he raised his arms and clasped his brother to him, and they stood locked there on the edge of the forest as if they meant to let the sun set and rise again on their reunion.

But at last Fingolfin pulled away from him. His face now alive and alight, he took a step back, drew back his fist, and struck Fëanor a blow in the face that sent him reeling backward onto the forest floor.

Fëanor drew himself onto his elbows and stared back up at him. He was not slightly built, but he had made no defense whatever, and the blow had all his brother’s force behind it. “I suppose I deserved that,” he said, touching the corner of his mouth where his lip had split against his teeth. For the first time since their meeting, he almost smiled.

Several responses flickered across Fingolfin’s face, and at last he spoke. “I have been waiting for this, brother,” he said, “for a very, very long time.” Then he reached out both hands and set Fëanor on his feet again, and embraced him and wept freely, laughing and crying at once in the curiously unrestrained manner of the Eldar. They swayed against each other, murmuring old endearments, accusations and pardons, in broken fragments of speech and flashes of thought

As on his first arrival in Aman, Frodo stood apart, unwilling to intrude on a reunion of those who had last parted in deadly anger before the first rising of the Moon or the Sun. The two were extraordinarily alike in frame and feature, and he wondered that he had not noted their resemblance when he first saw Fëanor beneath the walls of Mandos.

At length they broke apart, and Fingolfin noticed Frodo as if for the first time. “Frodo Cormacolindo!”15 he exclaimed, looking from him to Fëanor and back again, attempting to fathom what it was he saw. “You are strangely accompanied.”

“I’m sorry, which of us are you speaking to?” returned Frodo, whose formality in addressing the lords of the Noldor had been considerably eased over the last few days. Fëanor laughed aloud.

“Strangely accompanied?” interjected Fëanor.  “And why should it be strange to you? Do you not know my companion’s kind and his history?”

Fingolfin frowned. “A small folk among the deeds of the great?”

“I thought you were charged with making them welcome!” said Fëanor. “Do you know no more of them than that? I will instruct you. This is Frodo Silmacolindo, 16 bearer of starlight, wanderer in the shadowed lands, and-“ he dropped into the Common Speech, “my tutor in the tongues of the Outer Shores.”

The High King now appeared utterly baffled and turned to Frodo. “Forgive my discourtesy; I spoke in surprise. You are welcome, and twice welcome for the company you bring. But none of that explains how you come to be journeying with my brother out of the Forest of Return whence none save those who have tasted death may walk.”

“Do not let him talk you in circles!” said Frodo with an amused glance at Fëanor. “As for how I came there, I hardly know myself; it appears to have been some sort of interference on the part of Mandos. But your brother has returned of his own doing, not mine, and he has often spoken of you on the road.”

Fëanor looked at him sharply. “Indeed,” he said, and his face grew stern. He turned to Fingolfin, the warmth gone from his eyes. “But now, Nolofinwë, give me the crown.”

The mingled joy and bewilderment faded from Fingolfin’s face as well, and he held Fëanor’s gaze coldly. “It is your right,” he said. Reaching up, he set both hands to the circlet he wore, and handed it to his brother, who looked blankly at it as though he did not know what it was he held. An echoing silence descended and for a moment it seemed that neither of them breathed while they stood facing each other.

Then Fëanor drew a long breath, took his brother’s hand and reaching up, set the crown back around his brow. He spoke in a clear voice, one hand holding Fingolfin’s and the other resting on his head.

“This passes now from me as it passed from my house,” he said. “Secondborn of Finwë the Unbegotten, the lordship of the Noldor is yours. By my right as king, I renounce it. By my right as heir, I renounce it. Before you and before this witness, I renounce it altogether. Brother and king!” Taking his hands from him, he sank slowly and with a difficulty quite unlike his ordinary eager, decisive motion, to one knee before him.

The King flinched, and nearly made as if to stop him. It was a quick motion, almost instantly suppressed, and he held himself back. He composed his face to solemn gravity, but his eyes were wide as if in wonder or pain.

Fëanor went on. “Nolofinwë Arakano, you have my loyalty and you have my life, in this world and in the world to come. Hail, King of the Noldor, and my King!”

The King bowed his head, and Fëanor got to his feet again. A slow smile was dawning on Fingolfin’s face.

“You know, we have an actual ceremony for the transfer of authority now, as well as for the pledging of loyalty,” Fingolfin said.

“Well, now you have a new one.”

The tension was broken at this point, and though Fëanor remained unsmiling, both of the brothers seemed now at ease in each other’s presence. Fingolfin straightened the crown on his head, although it had not been crooked. “Why did you –“ he began.

Fëanor brushed this aside. “You clearly came to me ready to make the offer; I thought I would spare you the embarrassment.”

“Oh, did I?”

Fëanor looked over at the horse, which was quietly nosing at the grass at the edge of the forest. Its saddlebags were full. “Obviously. Why else did you come with a spare set of robes and wearing a crown without the badge of your house?”

“Was I going to let you come home unclad?” Fingolfin went to the packs and undid them, taking out a rich robe embroidered at the sleeves and hem. He threw it over Fëanor’s shoulders. “What would that have said of me, that I let my own brother wander naked through the land as one of Mandos’ penitents? What kind of a welcome would that have been?”

“Were you really prepared to give up the kingship of the Noldor?” Frodo asked him hesitantly, as Fëanor brushed his brother aside and busied himself with the intricate knots and ties and closures.

“Of course I was,” the King replied, as informal now with him as with his brother. Fëanor started to speak and Fingolfin pre-empted him. “Oh, I didn’t believe that you wanted it, not now. Have three ages of the world sufficed to teach me nothing? Kingship is neither your vocation nor your avocation. You’d hate every minute of it, and you know that.”

“That and the Noldorin kings would murmur, if not break into open revolt,” Fëanor pointed out.

“And can you imagine Olwe’s reaction?” Then Fingolfin sobered. “But I would not hold legitimate power illegitimately. That would also be a betrayal of my people.”

“No, you wouldn’t! Still one of Manwë’s tame eagles, I see.”

“None of Manwë’s birds are caged, brother, and you know that as well as I do.”

They glared at each other for a minute, but without real danger in their looks. Then Fëanor threw his arms wide. “No, let the Blessed Realm breathe easily! It will be hard enough for them to accept me at large in the land; they need not face the prospect of having me on the throne!” He nodded to Frodo. “I have learned from my companion that the Secondborn hold sway all over Arda. Why should Aman be any different?”

“Well!” said Frodo, and he looked from one to the other of them again. “I feel rather superfluous at this point. I suppose you will be returning together from now on?”

“What?” cried Fëanor. “This is the beginning, and not the end, of our road. Well, of my road, at least, and I had thought you meant to accompany me on it. Though if you wish to cross these plains on your own, by all means –“

“Of course not, if you really still wish to travel together. Are we going on to Tirion?”

“To Tirion? No. Not now. What should I seek there? The one I needed to deal with has sought me out already.” He turned to his brother. “Go, carry the word that you hold the crown in full right at last, and, if you can, fortify my people against the news that I return! But that question settled, I must turn my steps now toward my wife, who has been waiting for even longer than you to settle her account with me – though perhaps she will not urge her claim with so heavy a hand.” Fëanor put up a hand to his aching jaw. “Do you now ride in Tulkas’ train?”

“Yes, to long-suffering Nerdanel and her children,” said Fingolfin, ignoring the last remark. “But do not delay too long to come to the city! The scholars and the craftsmen will be waiting for you, the loremasters will lining up for you to settle their quarrels. We must prepare a feast for you, to welcome you back to the world that you have scorned for so long.”

Fëanor looked out over the low hills, to where the titanic peaks of the Pelóri rose snowcapped in the eastern distance. “You speak of welcome,” he said warily. “But I have not forgotten, even if you seem to have, the blood on the waves and the flames on the shore. My children have returned before me, but surely there are those who cannot accept us, who cannot accept a world where we are accepted.”

“Of course.” Fingolfin was buckling the saddlebags back onto the horse. “There were centuries where you were yourself their chief. What was your long exile if not your own refusal to accept such a world? But you are ours, your works are our history, we could not now be free of you even we wanted to. If we were to reject you for being bloodstained, we would have to reject the world for being bloodstained.” He clapped a hand on Fëanor’s shoulder. “Do you mean to carry yourself as though it is a heavier matter to receive pardon than to grant it?”

Fëanor glanced back at him through narrowed eyes. “You pile your forgiveness atop me, brother, as though you mean to crush me beneath its weight.”

Fingolfin only laughed. “And will you sting my foot for my pains?” He turned again to Frodo where he stood beside Fëanor.  “No, strangely fulfilled are Olórin’s words, Frodo, that he spoke to me when he first brought you as guests to these shores. Everyone comes home.”

The wind blew across the plains, and the high clouds flew over the hills, dappling them with shadow and light, and Frodo felt an unfamiliar lightness of heart.  

“Indeed,” he said softly. “Everyone comes home. Even if home is a place where we have never been.”

 

 * * * * 

“Here, sir.” Bilbo quietly touched the Elder King’s elbow, offering him one of his pocket-handkerchieves.

“What is this?”

“Oh,” he said, looking at the tears running freely down Manwë’s face, “I just thought you might want one.”

Far below the upper peaks of Taniquetil, on the worldward edge of the forest of the Taurë Entulesson, the Forest of Return, the High King of the Noldor embraced his brother, returned beyond hope from exile and death. Bilbo peered downward with interest.

“Bless my soul! I’m glad my nephew found someone to talk to, at any rate. And here I thought you might have forgotten about him.”

“Forgotten? Never. No one is forgotten.”

The dizzying heights of the Mountain no longer bothered Bilbo, and he had learned without much difficulty the art of Manwë’s long sight, though in general he still preferred the near to the distant. Now, though, he scrutinized his nephew and his companion with great attention. “And is that really Fëanor himself? That one who made such a hash of the Elder Days, and who made the evening star and all? I thought he wasn’t supposed to come out until the healing of the world?”

Manwë looked down upon the plains, where the three figures, perfectly clear despite the distance, were setting off homeward together.

“This is the healing of the world.”

* * * *

Chapter Text

“Well, Sam Gamgee, you’ve done it this time,” he said softly to himself. Sam was perched on a large rock on the empty shore, watching the dark waves breaking into white foam. Behind him stretched the great quay of the Grey Havens, and beyond that the gates of Mithlond stood open to the hills and the East Road. He had seen no one all morning; there was sand in the deserted streets and some of the structures seemed to be vanishing altogether, sinking back into seaweed and driftwood and salt-scoured stone.

“Too late!” he said to himself again. “Of course you are, you tom-fool, you didn’t expect that the Elves were going to wait for you? It was a pretty piece of cheek coming here in the first place!” But although he upbraided himself in round terms, in his heart stubborn hope was striving with cold grief. He could not quite bring himself to believe that he had come here in vain, and so he made no motion to turn back toward the Tower Hills, though the morning wore on to noon. The sun climbed the heavens. The waves slapped at the ancient piers. The wind hissed through the sedge-grass on the dunes, and the seabirds wheeled overhead with chill and piercing cries.

“Come along,” he said to himself at last. “What’s the use in waiting? As if there was anyone going to come back for you!” This was the sound practical hobbit-grandfather speaking, the voice that was very much his own gaffer’s. But he made no move to get up from the stone.

“I wonder how hard it is to build a boat?” said a very different voice in his mind, the dangerous voice that had always whispered to him of daring and adventure and other things most unsuitable to hobbits.

“Stop with your nonsense, now!” he told himself sternly. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and you certainly can’t teach it to build ships.” He recognized the foolishness of the thought immediately, but he also knew in his heart that he could not bear now to turn his back to the sea and that one way or another there was no returning for him. Then it came into his mind that as it would be told in the Shire his story would end the same way regardless: old Master Samwise setting out for the sea, never to be seen again.

“None of that!” he said, aloud this time, though he saw no one to hear him on the lonely shore. “I was called. And I’m coming.” As if to underscore his own commitment to the world, he took some biscuits out of his pack and munched them defiantly, throwing the crumbs to the gulls.

He could not be sure of what he heard at first, for the sound blended with the melancholy rhythm of the waves and the high cries of the birds. But it grew louder and clearer, and just when he was certain that what he heard was music, he saw, unmistakably, a white sail rounding the edge of the firth. A small craft came slipping swiftly into the harbor, and Sam scrambled off the stone, waving his arms and hailing the unknown mariner.

The little ship was nothing like the great deep-drafted vessel that he had seen depart with his master, and Gandalf, and the last of the Exiles, so many years before. Its pilot, singing as he steered and maneuvering skillfully - although with something strange in his motion - among the sails and ropes, brought it up directly onto the sand, and came up toward him through the surf, answering his hail.

He was certainly an elf of some sort, Sam thought, peering at him. He had the height and the grace of the Eldar, and certainly the beauty of voice, although he found him curiously difficult to look at directly; he seemed to keep slipping out of the center of his vision. But meeting a stranger was hardly a time for personal remarks, and so Sam bowed low and greeted him with all the well-honed ceremony of the Shire, which the newcomer returned in kind, adding a few courtesies in the Elven-tongue.

“I hope you have not been waiting long,” he said. “The Shipwright told me that I would not be departing alone, but I did not guess – nor did he see fit to tell me! – that my shipmate was to be one of the Secondborn, and I know that even the shortest of times is much to you.”

“The Shipwright!’ Sam exclaimed. ‘So there is someone still here! I was that downhearted when I saw how empty the place was, I was afraid that everyone had left for good.”

The stranger laughed, a soft, musical, wild sound like the speaking of the sea. “Not yet. The dwellers here are few, but not yet none. Cirdan and his people are faring out along the coast, and I was voyaging with them, to learn the touch of this craft.” He gestured to the ship, and Sam saw with an unpleasant shock what it was that had made his movements on board the ship seem slightly off. His right hand was withered and blackened, useless for grasping or for fine work. He noted Sam’s attention, but ignored it, and went on. “It is newly made and nameless, but it seems to answer well; it will bear the last voyage.”

Sam sat back down on the rock; despite his age he was stout and hale of body, but the elf seemed to be settling in for the long conversations that his people favored and Sam saw no reason to tire himself out. “And it will bear us, seemingly,” he said. “At least, it had better! I should warn you, I’m not likely to be much use on a sea-voyage, but I’ll do my best.”

He inclined his head. “We will muddle through, as your people say. Yes, I know something of your kind, Master Hobbit, and I know that you are not the first of them to make this journey, which was once forbidden to those much higher than you!” He looked out seaward. “I know something of what it is that summons me at last to the place that I cannot yet call home. But what is it that calls you, and why now?”

Sam considered, pleased to be asked but uncertain of how to answer. “I don’t want to say, it sounds so strange – but there now, perhaps it’s not so strange to you. I had a dream,” he said. “Or something very like a dream anyway.

“So my wife, Rosie that was, bless her, passed on about Midsummer this year, and I knew that was the end for me of my time under the Hill.  I waited until the Birthday, because it seemed right somehow, and then I went away. I didn’t say so at the time, not even to myself, but I knew I was leaving like Mr. Frodo had left, and Mr. Bilbo before him, so I took the Book with me, and my old traveling gear, and I rode till I came out to the Westmarch, where my lass Elanor lives with the Fairbairns of the Towers.

“My lass I call her, and so she’ll always be to me, but her golden head is halfway silver now, and she’ll be a grandmother herself before long.  Very Elvish she looks though. Always did. And she has an Elvish heart to her, too. She came traveling with us away into the South once, and served the Queen, the Lady Arwen herself in her great court in Gondor. Now of course we don’t have queens ourselves here, hobbits don’t hold with such things, but I think if you asked the folks of the Undertowers, they’d say that Elanor is what we have instead. She’s the keeper of the old stories and the new ones, she makes the guests welcome, and folks come to her for when they need things settled between them or settled in their own minds.”

Sam was telling his tale in the fashion of any elderly hobbit – indeed, restraining himself from adding the sort of judicious proverbs and genealogical notes that would have made it a proper story in the Shire. The elf beside him listened without impatience, as one accustomed to storytelling in many modes.

“Of course Undertowers is new, well, new as a town. There have always been a few stray families out there on the downs, but since the King in Gondor added the Westmarch to the Shire, and since the Thain named Elanor’s goodman Warden, it’s become a fine and busy place, with the three White Towers overlooking it all.

“It used to be thought the Towers were haunted, but then there were plenty of our folks who didn’t rightly know the difference between Elves and ghosts, begging your pardon, sir. Now, I’ve seen one thing and another and I think I can tell when a place is evil and when it ain’t.  The Elves may not come there any more since they took away the seeing stone, but I thought they might have left behind some of their wisdom, and maybe some of their sadness too. I asked Elanor what she thought about living so close, under the shadow of the towers.

‘Folks here aren’t scared of them the way they are in the Eastlands, Dad,’ she said, ‘but they do think of them as queer places. They’ll look up to them, and smile, but they’ll leave them alone.’

‘Have you ever climbed them?’ I asked. She laughed.

‘What do you think, Dad? Of course I have. And I’ll take you too, this very evening.’ She knew right away what was in my thought, and maybe what I hoped to see again.

“So about sunset we went up into the tallest of the Elven-Towers, right to the very top. Of course it was empty, but it seemed even to me – and I’m not really the one to have an eye of this sort of thing – that the whole place still yearned. It echoed with longing. And so I looked out westward, and far over the hills I saw the sea, and the sunset on the water, and the evening star at its rising. Elanor must have slipped away very quietly down the stairs, because the sun sank, and the stars came out, and the sea glittered, and I was quite alone.

“I don’t know how long I stood there, staring out that window as if I could see right beyond the sea itself into the uttermost west. But as I watched it seemed to me that suddenly the distance rolled away before me, and I saw an island, a beautiful island, in the West under the stars. The lights on the shore, and the voices on the wind – it went right through me, just like the voices did the first time I heard the Elves singing in the Shire at night, and I knew that I had to follow. But then I looked up, and beyond the island I saw the mountains.

“Now I come to talk of them I see I must have been dreaming, because those weren’t like any mountains I’ve seen – and I have seen mountains, you may believe me, some more terrible than others. But these? If the whole world were drawn up into mountains, maybe, if everything that is or was decided to leave off being rivers and plains and hills and cities and came together to be mountains instead, that might come near it. And I seemed to be rushing straight at them, most dreadfully fast, and I couldn’t see how I wasn’t going to be dashed to bits. But there must have been some kind of gap or pass or something, because then the mountains were behind me, and I was looking down over a wide and beautiful country, all silver under the stars. And all the while there was distant singing, and the sound of bells on the wind.

“It went on and on, but at last I saw in front of me a garden, and – you know how it is in dreams – then I was right there inside of it. Well! They call me a Gardener, but that was a Garden, if you like! The streams and the lakes, the willows in the starlight, the night-blooming flowers and the trees with their leaves furled for sleep! And it felt familiar, if you know what I mean. Well, of course everything in dreams does. But I felt as if I had been there forever, and not just that, but that around the corner on those paths, I might meet anyone, any of the people I’ve been longing to see again.

“And of course I did. There he was, pacing back and forth across the crown of a green hill, just as he was the day he left the Shire, save for the light in his eyes. Such a light as I haven’t seen even among the Elves, sir, unless it might be the lady Galadriel herself.

‘Frodo, Mr. Frodo!’ I cried, and though it was a dream I will swear that he heard me, yes, for he turned and looked straight at me, and his face lit up just like he was as glad to see me as I was to see him. ‘Sam!’ he started to say, but that moment I woke up sitting on the floor of the tower, nodding against the wall, and certain I had just heard someone call my name.

“Well, I’m an old hobbit – though nothing to old Mr. Bilbo – and I sometimes find myself asleep when I don’t expect it, but this was different. I got to my feet, feeling younger than I have in years, and looked back out the window. I couldn’t see the island, or the mountains, but I could see the sea, and I knew where I had to go, if you understand me. Even when I came down those winding stairs and I couldn’t see it any more, I knew where the sea was, same as a river knows, or the same as a bird knows where to go when the winter comes.

“My lass was waiting for me at the foot of the tower. She saw at once that something was changed, but she always understood me very well, did Elanor. Quick-hearted, as we say in the Shire. ‘You’re going, aren’t you,’ she said to me, and it seemed that she was sad maybe, but not a bit surprised. ‘Going away over the Sea. Like the Elves. Like Mr. Frodo did, long ago.’

“I put my arm around her. I was sorry to cause her pain, but I had to go, I felt it straight down to my bones. ‘I’ve been two people for a long time, Elanor my dear,’ I said, ‘but my story’s almost done and now it’s time to be Sam Gamgee one last time.’

‘But you haven’t though, Dad,’ she said, and she put her head on my shoulder just as if she was still our little bright-eyed girl all hungry for stories of Elves and Dwarves and Wizards. ‘Do you think that Mayor Gardner of the Shire, our Dad and Granddad, isn’t the same person as the one who stood before the Cracks of Doom in Mordor? Because I think you’re the same person, and I think you always have been. It’s not everybody that can see it, because it’s not everybody who can really believe in both of those things at once.’

‘You can?’

‘I never forgot what you said to me, Dad, about the Road. You looked at it running down from the door of Bag End, and you said that was the road that once led to the Enemy’s land, and then led back again. And I thought about everything that you’d seen on the way – the Dwarvish caverns and the Elvish woods. The glorious parts, like the King’s city, and the terrifying parts with the spiders, and the parts that I didn’t quite understand back then, with Mr. Frodo and the Enemy’s Ring. And yet it was all one road...’ She gave me a hug. ‘And it’s still one road, for you. It’s still going on. Straight over the sea.’

“It seemed like as good a time as any, then, so I gave her the Book, and she helped me pack a few things for the last journey. She offered to come with me to the Havens, or to at least send a few of the younger ones to bring me to the coast. Now Hobbits didn’t used to have any truck with salt-water, but seemingly living in the shadow of the Elven-Towers will change that.

‘Why, some of our people even take to the sea now,’ she told me. ‘Our Firiel is quite a sailor herself.’

‘Oh now, don’t tell me that,’ I said to her. ‘That’s not natural in a hobbit! I may be going over the sea myself, but I will fret terribly if I have to think about my little granddaughter messing about in boats!’ But I laughed, and she laughed, and the next day I said goodbye to everyone and went on my way, quite alone. It seemed right, somehow. And, well, here I am.”

Having brought himself up to the present, he turned his attention back to his audience and voiced the concern that had been at the corner of his mind throughout his story. “Excuse me, sir. Can you stop that moving about? I’m not as young as I was, and my eyes can’t get a fix on you.”

The elf, who had been standing beside him while he told his story, inclined his head again. “I’m not young either, Master Hobbit. You see me dimly, but it may be you see all that there is. The world begins to lose its grip on my body, and I begin to lose my grip upon the world. Indeed, if I were not to take ship, I might fade to no more than memory; there might eventually have been little left of me but a voice on the wind.”

“What? Well, all I can tell you is that you had better stay more than a voice on the wind if we are to get across the Great Ocean!”

Again the sea-voiced laughter. “Why, yes. We should be off at once. Today, if you like.”

“All right!” Sam eased himself back down off the rock. “Best set about our preparations now-ish, then.” He looked at the boat doubtfully. “That doesn’t look like it can hold very much. Are we going to lay in some provisions?”

“No, no provisions. Where we are going, we shall have no need of them.”

“Hold hard there, Master Elf! I won’t have you talking like that. They say those sorts of things in the Shire. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘going west over sea’, with a wink and a nod, as if to say ‘Well, we know what that means!’ But going over the sea to find the Elvish country is not the same as going into death, and I wouldn’t believe it even if you were to tell me yourself, sir!

“No,” he added meditatively, “he wouldn’t have taken them into death. Or not just into death, anyway.”

“Have it your way!” said the stranger lightly. “We’ll make a raid on the storehouses of the Sea-Folk.” He did not make to secure the boat on the shore, but instead spoke to it softly, and then turned to Sam, gesturing back up the dunes to the low buildings of the Grey Havens.

The place felt, and even looked, much less deserted now that there was someone at his side. Buildings that he had believed abandoned were merely empty, and his fellow-mariner moved through them with the ease of long familiarity. He packed, one-handed, into a pair of light waterproof chests, a variety of dried items Sam did not recognize. Dried fish, he supposed, and dried fruits and dry sea-vegetables, and something that looked like lembas but was much darker in color. “No chance of a proper meal till we reach the other side, I see!” he thought to himself, for although he had brought his most beloved pans with him for old times’ sake, he could not conceive of any way to use them in the small craft.

The one who had evidently been appointed for him as a traveling companion on this last voyage had a quiet, assured manner, though he still seemed somehow blurred around the edges, like a stone tumbled in the surf. There was something about him that reminded Sam of Elrond, though he could not have said precisely what it was. It came suddenly into Sam’s mind that he gave an impression of greater age even than the sea-worn buildings of the ancient Havens, and as they emerged back into the open air bearing their provisions, he spoke to him again,

“Excuse me – you may have said this already, but I’m not so young as I was, and my memory may be failing me. But just what is your name? You greeted me fairly enough, but I don’t remember you saying who you were. Shouldn’t you be oh, so-and-so of the house of such-and-such?”

There was a low and musical sigh, blending with the notes of the sea and the wind through the sedges. “Yes, I suppose you have a right to know who you travel with. I have left many names behind me; I have been nameless through many a long age. And until I pass beyond the seas I am houseless; my house has perished from Middle-Earth.”

“First the boat, now you!” Sam exclaimed. “That doesn’t seem right. I’ve never known Elves to go nameless. You said you were with the Shipwright’s people; surely they call you something.”

“I see you are not to be put off,” the stranger said, and he seemed to be faintly amused. “Saerlind1 the remnant at the Havens call me now, since I came singing among them. My old name would be still more bitter to them than my songs.”

“What? Why would that be?”

“Because that was the name I bore when I slaughtered their kin.”

Sam set down the sea-chest and stared at him, and meeting his eyes for the first time he seemed to see him clearly. There was strength in his face, and beauty, and the faint light of the ancient world, but loss and long sorrow, the shadow of ill done and suffered, was worn there as well. Sam wondered whether to be afraid.

“Kanafinwë I was to my lost House, Makalaurë my mother named me in the vanished years before the sun, Maglor they called me in the tongue of this shore before the lands were drowned.” He watched Sam to see if this meant anything to him.

“Well now, there’s something familiar about that. You say that like it’s something I might know, and it seems to me I do, but I can’t place it.”

“I was the second, and am the last, of the self-cursed sons of Fëanor.”

“Fëanor, now I know I know that name –“

“My father, whose hand wrought the stolen Silmarils, whose words shaped the will of the exiled Noldor when we fled the Blessed Realm with fire and sword to find freedom and war in the lands of Middle-Earth. We bound ourselves, my brothers and I, to our father’s revenge and to the recovery of those jewels in which alone lived the lost light of Aman. We bound ourselves in words that should not be spoken, we bound ourselves to the end of the world and beyond it.”

His voice was now lyrical and resonant, he was almost singing. “On us and through us the Oath worked utter ruin. For its sake we lifted up our swords against our kin in the Thousand Caves of Doriath. For its sake we stained our hands with innocent blood at the Havens of Sirion. And it brought us all to nothing in the end; the Silmarils are lost to us in the air, the sea, the depths of the earth.”

Sam was deeply unsettled by this. He knew the tales of the wars and strife of the Elder Days, but he still found it difficult to picture Elves fighting other Elves.

“Well!” he said at last. “I’m sorry I don’t know your story better. I must have heard it at one point. I do dearly love to hear the old tales, but I liked the ones with the happy endings best. Beren One-Hand and the quest of the Great Jewel. Fingon the Valiant saving the Prince from the Old Enemy’s tower...”

“That was my brother,” put in Maglor, “and it was really more of a cliff-face than a tower.”

“But I know well enough that not all stories are happy ones. Your brother. Gracious. So of course he was another one of the ones who...” Sam looked down at the shore below and searched for words; everything that he could think of seemed like a meaningless platitude in the face of such age and such grievous deeds.

“Knowing what I am,” said Maglor after a while, “do you still wish to travel with me?”

“You’ve done no wrong to me,” Sam answered slowly, “It’s hardly my place to judge someone like you! If the Lord of the Havens sent you to me, well, it seems that he ought to know best. You are – you are allowed to go back?” he added cautiously, for he remembered something from the old stories about the banishment of the Exiles, and that there seemed to have been some doubt about Galadriel’s own return.

“It seems I am.” Maglor looked out past the empty horizon. “I know the Lord of Waters well by now. He comes to me in dreams, wearing the faces of the dead. Our dead. Their dead. Alqualonde. Sirion. And so in a dream I was walking by the shoreline, and he rose from the waves, the water running red from his hands.

‘Are you mourning yet, Kinslayer?’ he said to me. ‘Do you mean your voice to outlast the voice of my waters?’

‘Blood?’ I said bitterly. ‘Still?’

‘In your thoughts, at least,’ he replied. ‘But though you fouled my clean Sirion more that day than the unholy hordes of Morgoth, the wounded waters do not scar. Blood may be washed away.’

‘Waters may not scar,’ I said, ‘but we do.’ And then, strangely, it seemed to me that water was flowing from my hands as well, clear and cool, and the pain in my hand began to ease at last.

‘There are great changes stirring in the world,’ the Lord of Waters said to me. ‘Have you not felt it?’

And I had felt it, I had felt it as you feel the tritone strain toward resolution in a piece of music, as you feel the strands of a story being gathered and know the end cannot be far. I do not know what it means, exactly, but I know that the way West lies open to me, and that the time has come to depart, for the Lord of Waters himself now calls me home.”

“The Lord of Waters!” was all that Sam could say, for this was a figure that occupied approximately the same status as oliphaunts and dragons, on the edge of pure legend to the folk of the Shire.

“Yes,” said Maglor, hefting his sea-chest and starting downward to the shore. “We will travel at his sufferance.” His voice took on a lighter tone. “And you will guard me against wild Ossë forgetting his promises of peace, for if I traveled alone it is possible that his rage would overwhelm his reason and I would be drowned before I set foot on Valinor.”

“Wild who? Guard you? I don’t know enough of your ways yet, Mr. Maglor, to tell if you’re having a joke or not, but I can tell you that I’m coming along for my own reasons and in my own way and not as some kind of good-luck charm!”

Maglor sobered. “Of course not; forgive me, Master Samwise. Still, this is a voyage that neither of us has the right to make. We make it by mercy, or by grace, or perhaps by need –“

“And yet we are making it, evidently,” said Sam, who had already noted his companion’s tendency to embroider on his points. “So let’s get on with it!”

They made their way back down to the shore, each bearing a chest of provisions. Sam retrieved his pack from beside the rock where he had set it down and took a long and deeply mistrustful look at the boat. Its wood was a light golden brown not yet weathered to gray, and though it had seemed small when skimming into the harbor, it now looked far too large to be comfortably approached, and there seemed to be no way to get into but an undignified scramble over the side.

“No need to wet your toes!” Maglor was laughing at him now, waist-deep in the surging waves. “I’ll bring this round to the fishing dock, there on the far side of the great quay.” He gestured. “Leave your pack! I’ll load it for you, then meet you there. Then out sails, and call for a generous wind and yielding water!”

This did not sound altogether reassuring, and Sam must have shown it in his face, but he trudged up the dunes, across the great quay where the huge seafaring vessels boarded, and made his way down the little stone steps that led to a low dock on the far side. The boat came gliding up to it, and its pilot held out his good hand to him.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked Sam. “Have you any last farewells to make, any last songs for your old country and your home?”

Sam considered. “No,” he said, “No, I reckon I’ve said all that needs to be said. And I am coming home now myself, after a fashion, though it sounds conceited to say it. But look,” he added, taking Maglor’s hand and gripping very tightly as he made his way with great care down into the boat, “If you’re coming home, it must be by your right name. I don’t know much, but I know that at least.”

“Do you say so?” Maglor seemed surprised at his firmness, but not offended. “So be it! Then let this nameless vessel have my name. Saerlind now will be the boat, and I will come back to my country under the name I bore away from it, stained though it now may be.”

Sam crouched in the bow of the boat, clutching the rails on either side with both hands as Maglor moved deftly about the deck, fixing the sails. Then, balanced in the stern by the tiller, he began to sing.

As far as Sam could tell, the song was in the High-Elven tongue and the words were strange to him, but images rose in his mind nonetheless: the rising of wind and the rushing of waters, land sinking from sight behind the horizon and the glitter of sun on the shoreless sea. And a wind sprang up behind them and the sails were filled, and the ship was soon running before it, out of the harbor over smooth and quiet waters. So absorbed was Sam in the music that he forgot his discomfort and his fear of the sea, nor did he even notice the moment when the land was left behind. The ship hummed with the sound of the song as if it were itself an instrument, making its own wordless music with the winds above it and the water beneath it.

When they were well out to sea, with the grey skies and the grey waters of the shoreline giving way to deep blue, Maglor ceased his song, tied the tiller, and came to join him at the front of the boat. Sam stared at him in wonder and admiration.

“I’ve never seen anything like that, sir! Nor heard, I mean to say. Was that what you meant by calling the wind? I thought you were just speaking poetry.”

Maglor nodded. “I do much of my sailing by voice.” He held up his withered hand. “This serves me little among sail and line. And after a hundred lifetimes on the sea’s verge, I could hardly call myself a singer if I had not learned something of the music of water and air.”

Sam looked about him, and from horizon to arched horizon the world was entirely ocean. Such vast expanse of water and sky had been beyond his imagination; indeed, he was not entirely prepared to accept the fact of the sight itself. Far in the north he saw the slanted shadows of rainclouds, but westward along the track of the sun where their own path lay, the skies were clear and the seas smooth. He turned from the immeasurable distance back to the boat, and he felt both strangely young and unwontedly shy. “Is it, well, far?” he asked his companion.

“Very far,” said Maglor, “but it won’t take long.”

 

The night on the open ocean was, if anything, more dazzling than the day. The dome of the stars seemed to touch the edges of the world, and not even on the clearest summer night in the Shire had he seen so many of them, or so bright. There was a low sheltered space beneath the hatch where he might have slept out of the open if he chose, but Sam felt little inclination for sleep, and little desire to leave the light of the stars. Only the dinner (which had been, as he had prophesied, dry and rather tasteless) left his heart anything less than satisfied.

“Are you glad to be going home?” he asked after a while, not taking his eyes from the heavens. “After being gone so long?”

There was no answer for a while, but then he caught a shadow against the stars out of the corner of his eye. Maglor had come to sit down beside him where he lay looking up at the sky.

“I lost the right to call it home,” he said, “long, long ago. I am coming back to the country I helped to injure. But I darken your thoughts with this talk. You are from an innocent land.”

“Well, now,” said Sam slowly, “I don’t know about that, exactly. You seem to know a good bit about us, but surely you didn’t miss what happened to the Shire sixty years or so ago, during the War of the Ring?”

From his blank look, it seemed that Maglor had indeed missed this period in the Shire’s history.

“Why, for more than a year Saruman, him that was one of the good wizards but went bad, was running the Shire, or as good as! The trees were cut down, and folks turned out of their homes, and it was all rules and reports and ruffians out of the Southlands running about. A great deal of harm was done, but even more would have been done if the Shire hadn’t risen when it did.”

“Then I am glad you did! It would have been a small wound, but a grievous one, to see your little country darkened.”

“But it wasn’t Saruman I was thinking of, when you were talking about coming home, and innocence and all that.

“It was Afteryule of 1420,” he began, “before we knew all the good that year would bring us. Everything was still at sixes and sevens from Saruman’s mischief in the Shire. We were all working day and night to pull down all the shoddy works of Sharkey’s Men, and to build up some new and decent houses, and to sort out the frightful shambles that had been made out of field and garden all over the Shire. There’s no warmth like working, of course, but there were dozens of families still homeless, and though we all shared what we had I can’t say I didn’t worry for the spring and for our stores running low.

“Mr. Frodo was Deputy Mayor then, and he spent three days a week in the offices down at Michel Delving. Of course I was there and everywhere those days, there was so much to be done. Hands needing work in one corner, and work needing hands in the next, and the ground all frozen and torn, and families needing food, and families needing fire. But I made sure to come and see him as often as I could.

‘How are you getting on, Sam?’ he said to me.

‘Oh, we’re managing,’ I said, ‘if only just. I’ll be easier in my mind when this cold lets up. But wouldn’t I like to get my hands on those villains that cut down the trees! I wish they were hanged on them!’

“He looked at me, troubled. ‘Don’t say such things, even in jest; that’s orc-talk.’

“I was instantly sorry for it, and was going to tell him so, but there came a commotion outside the door, and bursting into the office came Tom Cotton, who was the new head of the Shirriffs. ‘You’d better come quick,’ he said. ‘There’s been bad trouble out in the Southfarthing, and I’ve – well, come see.’

“The Southfarthing had had some of the worst of the troubles, for that was leaf-growing country, and it had all been dug up and reorganized and somehow there were only two or three huge plantations where before there had been hundreds. Some families had sold their fields and early, it seemed, but for most of them – they couldn’t quite say how it happened – there had been new tools, and new seeds, and loans, and all of a sudden they found themselves working their own land like hired hands. Only it wasn’t their land any more, and there was precious little hire, for somehow it always worked out that after the rent and the interest and the food – because none of them had their own gardens to tend now – that instead of wages they got further marks against their credit.

“And now outside the Town-Hole were half the small-holders of the Southfarthing, and with them, riding backwards on a donkey, they’d brought old Athanaric Lefferts2. He was of a good family, one of the best in the Southfarthing, and I don’t mind telling you it was a nasty shock to see him hooted so. The crowd was roused, and very angry, but eventually Tom brought them round and we got the story out of them.

“He had evidently been named Inspector General of Production Control and Management under Lotho’s administration, and he’d been responsible for enforcing all the regulations and the by-laws coming down from Central, as they called it. I dare say he’d thought himself very important, because to hear them tell it he jumped at every chance to turn in reports and so increase his standing with the Big Men. For a time anyway.  It seems they kept him jumping higher and higher, for soon he was griping and squeezing and making faults where he could find none, just so he could have something to report. Seems that he knew he was next for the chop if he slacked.

“This was as much as we got out of them before they began to murmur again. A farmwife was weeping and shaking her fist. ‘Old Gran Greenbank might be alive today if we’d had aught but your poor leavings to feed her when she took sick that winter!’

‘Where is Till Penniworth?’ another one shouted. ‘He turned him in for sowing vegetables in his own garden, for theft of Shire property, if you please!’

‘Till’s here,’ Tom Cotton broke in, ‘getting his strength back after the Lockholes-‘

‘Gripe in your guts and stones on your bones, Aric Lefferts!’ cried another. ‘And may you never sleep sound again, for my children cried for hunger and we had nothing to give them!’

“Well, things looked like they might get ugly, so Tom got him down off the donkey as best he could, and hustled him into the hall all sniffling and shaking. The crowd jeered and shook their fists at him.

‘Report him! Turn him in! Write him up!’ they shouted. ‘To the Lockholes with him! Send him to the Lockholes!’ But they seemed content enough to see Mr. Frodo take him down the hall and into the office. He shut the door and looked at all of us, Tom and old Aric and me.

‘Well, Tom,’ he said, ‘what do you make of this?’

‘They have the right of it, Mr. Mayor,’ he said. ‘It’s the Lockholes he deserves, or worse.’

‘The Lockholes will never hold anything but goods and stores again,’ said Frodo, ‘and you know that, Tom.’

‘Then send him over the border, right out of the Shire. They won’t have him among them, not after what he did.’

“At this the old villain stumbled forward and made to throw himself at Frodo’s knees. ‘Mercy! Have mercy!’ he shrieked. ‘Don’t send me away! It will kill me, sir, indeed it will, and my blood on your hands!’

“I was ready to haul him off right there, but Mr. Frodo only looked at him. He could go quite cold at times, and he was cold now. ‘Be quiet!’ he said to him. ‘Send you away? You left this land the minute you chose to destroy it. Take him out of here, Tolman, but don’t give him back to the crowd. Sit him down in the archive room or something, and keep an eye on him.’

“Tom frog-marched him back out into the hall, but the minute they were out the door Frodo slumped down at the desk with his head in his hands.

‘This is horrible, Sam,’ he said. ‘I’m no one’s judge; not anyone’s and certainly not his. And Shire’s not a place for locked doors. We never had prisons before.’

‘The Shire never had people sneaking on their neighbors before,’ I said, and I pulled up a chair beside him. ‘Nor cutting down trees, nor fouling the waters, and all.’

‘No,’ he said, ‘but now we must all learn how to deal with those who did. Aric won’t be the last, and probably not even the worst. We want to believe it was all Sharkey’s Men, but it wasn’t; it couldn’t have been. They’d never have gotten a foothold if it weren’t for us – for ordinary hobbits, I mean, with nothing worse in their hearts than maybe a little meanness, a little greed, or a little fear. Maybe no hobbits actually did violence to their neighbors, but they certainly made it possible for violence to be done. And how do we live with each other now we know that?’

‘They cut down the trees,’ I said, under my breath, ‘that seems like plenty of violence to me.’

‘We can’t send him away. He is right, it would kill him, and that would mend nothing. And if we send him away, where does it stop? The under-bosses? The old Shirriffs? Anyone who took Sharkey’s coin or ate Sharkey’s bread?’ He got up from the desk and began to pace back and forth, looking at the great stacks of papers left over from Lotho’s misrule. ‘I don’t suppose I can find some work for him here?’

‘You can’t go filling the Mayor’s office with every sniveling sneak-thief in the Shire,’ I said, for I had a sudden picture in my mind of him doing just that.

“He almost laughed. ‘No, I suppose I can’t. That would create quite the wrong impression!’ He sighed. ‘And we mustn’t have any more appealing to the Mayor. The Mayor isn’t supposed to do anything more than make speeches at banquets and keep the Post Office open. I was only appointed to this miserable office because I have less to recover from than anyone else here, and I suppose because I can read and write.’

“This seemed to give him an idea. ‘How about this, Sam,’ he said. ‘We don’t have judges yet, nor courts, and even now we may not need them. Why don’t we start giving folks their say, let them set down everything that happened – and everything they did, if it comes to that. Maybe then we can avoid trouble like this in the Southfarthing.’

‘You want a record of everything that passed while we were gone? Are you sure that’s a good idea? It’s nothing folks want remembered. Least said, soonest mended, as my Gaffer says, and there’s so much mending left to be done. And what about the ones like Robin Smallburrow, who might want to marry one of these days, having it writ down that they rode with Sharkey’s men?’

‘But it happened, Sam. We can’t change that. So would it be better for people like young Robin to have it linger in whispers and side-glances, or to have it set down but have set down beside it that he worked all winter, without hat or gloves, building the New Row?’

‘Now you’re talking like we need something besides memory,’ I said, ‘and I think you’re right. Even when people are as angry as the cotters of the Southfarthing, I don’t believe that they do want their neighbors cast out, not forever anyways. They’d rather be able to look them in the face again.’

‘Well, no one knows the repair work better than you do, Sam, and you know where hands are needed. You’re right, that’s the other part of this, if people want to come back. If they worked to harm this country, let them work to heal it.’

‘We’re all working to heal it,’ I said.

‘Well, yes. That’s the point. True accounting on the one hand, and honest labor on the other. It’s the best I can think of, anyway. Perhaps it will be enough.’

‘All right then!’ I got up from the chair. ‘But you have enough to do without filling your days with the sorry stories of all the wrong that was done over the last year. I’m ranging up and down the Shire anyway, and you’re not the only one who can read and write!’

‘Sam!’ he said. ‘You’re run off your feet as it is!’

‘Well, it’s a good thing I’ll have a staff!’ I said. ‘I’ll tell Tom that if he runs into trouble like that again, to send whoever it is to me, and if anyone has a bad conscience on them, to send them to me as well. I can’t say as I’ll take any pleasure in hearing whatever it is they’ve got to say, but I can set it down at least, and set them to digging, until their neighbors can stand to look them in the face again.’

“He pressed my hand. ‘We can’t forget,’ he said. ‘We mustn’t. But the Shire wasn’t Mordor long. Perhaps we can still come back.’

“So that was what we tried, and I think it did come right in the end. Some people just wanted to move on with the rebuilding, but some wanted to talk. Whenever it came out that someone had a grievance against their neighbor I offered them the chance to join the Under-Gardeners. Before long there were more than two dozen of them, and a sorrier pack of sinners you never saw. The young ones and the fit ones and the ones without their letters I set to planting trees, the old ones and the ones with a bit of learning I set to writing down everything their neighbors felt like saying about what had happened over the last year, and Mr. Frodo gathered them all together into a book. The Book of the Black Year, it’s called, and it’s still in the Mathom-House in Michel Delving for anyone as cares to read it over. That old wretch Aric was my secretary for nearly a year, if you can believe it, and he did go home in the end though I don’t know if he was ever really happy about it.

“Well, I called that group the Under-Gardeners, but everyone else called them the Mayor’s Men. Some of them were useless, perfect villains that I was glad to see the back of, but some of them turned out to be among the best I’ve ever worked with, and they worked for me again when I came to be Mayor myself. And it seemed that they loved the Shire better for having come so near to losing it, and losing themselves with it.”

Sam sighed and stretched.

“I don’t know why I told you all that,” he added, “but it seemed like it might make sense to you.”

 

The days and the nights passed swiftly under the circling heavens, and Maglor’s art kept off all but the occasional rain. In Sam’s mind the sea had always been a vast blank space, more nearly a void than the star-dappled skies, but now he was actually upon it he found it to be rich in its particularities; a thousand shifting landscapes all at once. Maglor made as companionable a fellow-voyager as he could have asked for, under the circumstances, for he had an enthusiasm for the telling of stories nearly as boundless as Sam’s for hearing them, drawing both from history and from the shapes of his own thoughts.

Despite Sam’s entrenched opinions on old dogs and new tricks, and his even more firmly entrenched opinions on the fundamental incompatibility of hobbits and boats, the curiosity and the practicality of his disposition could not be denied, and he learned a great deal of the basics of sailing from Maglor. The dozens of small modifications to the ship that made it possible for Maglor to sail it one-handed served Sam well even though he did not have Maglor’s strength or stature or command of the elements. Maglor, for his part, delighted to teach him, and taught well, without pride or impatience, and after a few weeks on the water Sam’s own granddaughter would have been astonished at his newfound skill.

Eventually Sam quietly assumed all of the cooking duties in the ship after Maglor showed him the charcoal camp-stove and its use. The food was rather more comforting and satisfying after that, though to Sam’s mind there was still an excessive amount of fish in their diet, and everything had a briny sort of taste that he thought he would be just as glad to be done with.

The water never ran low, and after days at sea the water tanks seemed to be as full and as fresh as the day they set out. This was a mystery to Sam, until one morning he found Maglor kneeling beside the storage vessel. Its lid was off, and he was trailing his good hand just beneath the water’s surface. He was chanting something in a low voice, his eyes closed and an expression of intense concentration on his face.

As Sam watched, he ended his song and, swaying slightly, opened his eyes and got to his feet. He drew his hand out of the water; it was white with salt.

“There!” he said, noting Sam’s interest. “That should be as sweet now as the waters of the earth. Will you draw me some? I need to catch my breath.” He sat down heavily, braced himself against the ship’s railing and began bending and flexing his fingers to crack the salt crust off them.

Sam filled a mug and brought it to him. “Others of my family might have approached such a task differently. Lenses, panes, cooling and heat... But the waters know me. They received at my hand the light that hallows them yet, and so they will heed my voice. And even if I had the use of both hands, I would still exercise words rather than tools, art rather than craft. But either way,” he said, taking the cup in his salt-dusted hand and leaning his head back against the rail, “it takes a good deal of energy.” Through all of this activity, his right hand had been resting useless at his side, but now he lifted it to his lap.

“Now,” Sam began, “you’ve been in the war.”

“Some of them,” Maglor agreed.

“Does it hurt you very much?” Sam nodded at the blackened fingers.

“Yes,” he said simply.

“What happened to you? If you don’t mind my asking. I’ve never seen one of your kind injured like that. It must have been powerful dark magic, if it left a wound not even Master Elrond could heal.”

Something that he could not recognize passed across Maglor’s face. “Dark magic?” he said at last. “No. This is not an injury left by the dark. And there is no one in Middle-Earth I would have asked to heal it, for I earned this at the end of our quest.”

Sam had by now, from Maglor’s stories, pieced together the outline of the events of the War of the Jewels and of the dreadful deeds of the Sons of Fëanor in pursuit of their oath, but this was the first time that Maglor had spoken of its conclusion. It seemed he was ready to speak of it now, for his voice took on the timbre and pace that he used for the telling of stories, and Sam would not even have heard the raggedness at its edges if he had not grown deeply familiar with Maglor’s voice over the days and nights of their solitary voyage.

“The Battle was over,” he began, “the Great Enemy defeated. The victorious hosts of Aman were camped in the wreckage that remained of the lands that we had loved.  In my memory all is darkness, but I had not seen color, nor breathed clean air, nor heard any sound of music or of song or even of friendly voice, for years. The Oath had worn it all away. I could not remember the faces of my children, of my lost brothers. There was only the weight of what we had to do.

“Only two of us remained, and our war was not over. I will not speak of the last debate between my brother and me, but at the last we took up arms and struck by stealth against the hosts of our homeland, the foes of our great Foe. There in the heart of their encampment we came at last to the Silmarils, to our father’s greatest work, prised by others from the iron crown of the Enemy. We had no need to search for them. They shone in our thoughts, a light that beat against our minds as the fire of the sun beats against closed eyes.

“We killed the guards. Perhaps they also had been people we once knew. I seized the Silmarils in the coffer where they were kept. There was no more need then for secrecy, and we heard the alarm ringing through the camp, the muster of men and the drawing of weapons.

“My brother had not sheathed his sword, and he once more made ready to fight, but he bore himself lightly now, and in his face was something closer to relief than I had seen in years.

‘Come!’ he said to me as I stood holding the case. ‘We will both fight one-handed now. It’s done. We will die with our oath fulfilled.’ And he flung the tent’s hangings aside, and we both strode out together ready to fight and ready to be struck down.

“But I knew, I had known from the instant I picked up their case, that the host of Valinor would lift up no hand against us, and why. After so many years of needless death, the deaths of the guards had been doubly needless. They would not keep the Silmarils from us. They did not have to.

“We were surrounded. There was fire, torches flaring in the darkness, flashes of faces, the glitter of arms and of armor, the clamor of many voices, but no hand was raised against us.  The crowd drew back, not for us but for someone behind them. We had been crouched back to back, now we stood side by side and awaited the Herald of the Valar.

“He faced us then, warlike and beautiful. He was yet newly come from strife with the dark, and he wore his glory hardly veiled, trailing plumes of light coruscating in the smoky air. The eyes of all that mighty company were turned to him, but his were fixed upon us. He lowered one shining hand, and all around us the host lowered their weapons. Beyond him the path lay open, out of the camp, into the nameless and broken country beyond.

“My brother looked him in the face, and perhaps he read his purpose there, pardon as keen and merciless as a knife-edge. He opened his hand and let his sword fall to the ground, then reached out for me and the burden I carried.

‘Don’t-‘ I said, or maybe it was only a thought, but it was useless and I knew it, and I dropped my weapon as well and opened the case that held the holy jewels. Even in that lightless place they shone; clear, undimmed, but somehow remote.

“My brother said nothing, and he closed his hand around the Silmaril.

“He made no sound, but I felt the shudder run through his body and the breath catch in his throat. I took up the other one then, and that jewel that would suffer the touch of no unclean thing burned in my hand as the oath had burned in my thought.

“I believe that was the last thing I feared,” Maglor said slowly, “the knowledge in the body of what I knew already in the spirit. After that fear and desire were ended together... But my brother’s eyes never left the Herald’s, and the Herald was the first to drop his gaze.

“We walked out of the camp. No one stopped us. No one spoke. We had come to the end of all that words could do, and nothing remained but to flee.

“Though we moved quickly, driven by the pain that we could not escape, we could not travel fast. The war had ripped the very earth to pieces. I could not have said exactly where we were, or what that ruined country had once been. Nothing was growing anymore; the ground beneath our feet was mud and ash and stinging sharp-edged dust. The air was thick with smoke and choked with fumes. Here and there great rents in the surface of the earth showed the raw and ancient stone beneath. Some were filled with water, some with fire, and from time to time the ground shuddered and groaned. It was hard to keep our footing.”

There was something about this that seemed unpleasantly familiar to Sam. The boat swayed beneath them.

“And all for the sake of that oath you swore?” he asked.  “Why didn’t you - Well, I don’t know what good it does to ask this now, of course, it was so long ago even for you. What’s done’s done, and can’t be undone, nothing to do but be done with it, as my gaffer used to say. And I know it’s a powerful wicked thing to break a promise; more wicked even for you than for us, seemingly. But surely it would still have been less wicked to break it and chance the consequences, if this is what happened when you kept it!”

Maglor almost laughed.

“Maybe I’m being ignorant,” said Sam, “and if I am, I’m sorry for it.”

“Not ignorant,” said Maglor, “nor are you the first to ask that question. The oath was ours, we wrought it and we chose it, although in some ways it was the last choice that we ever really made. It was our father’s oath,” he added, “but I helped him write it.”

Sam looked at him, astonished.

“In truth there was nothing of my own addition in those terrible words, but in darkened Tirion long ago, my father called me to him to hear the oath that he purposed to swear before our people, and to help him ensure that in beauty and in power it would body forth his purpose.

‘Words, Kanafinwë,’ he said, ‘words, my strong-voiced son, to make the gods tremble. Words stronger than the world, to sear our will into the skies and root it to the earth, so that the skies may fall and the earth crumble but our oath will still stand.’

“And so we swore to set our right higher than all fears or powers or bonds of any kind, and for failure called upon ourselves a judgement which the Valar themselves have no authority to enforce. We bound ourselves to the Everlasting Darkness. We bound ourselves by the One whose name should not be uttered; by the one who hears and does not speak, by the living fire at the heart of the word, by the head and source of language itself. Fair and dreadful that oath seemed to me then, and in fair and dreadful words we stamped our will upon the world.

“Yet by those words our wills were all destroyed. In the torchlit darkness of Tirion, we little thought of lifting up our swords against mothers and children, of pursuing not Morgoth but his foes, of killing our own people first in desperation and then in anger and then in cruelty and then in stealth. And yet the Oath brought us there both late and soon.

“In horror and heartsickness we would – some of us – have renounced it if we could, even at the price of the Everlasting Darkness. But our will had gone forth from us and we could not call it back, it was woven into the fabric of the world.

“And so we reclaimed what we had claimed so long ago,” he went on, returning to his story, “and that claim was rejected by the jewels themselves, who perhaps alone within the world had the right and the power to reject it.

“Long ago, the Lady of the Stars had hallowed them, binding them, as we later bound ourselves, to that which is beyond the reach of anything within the world. That light was holy and could not be made unholy. And so all the darkness of everything we had done for their sake could not dim their living radiance. Rather in that light we were the ones who withered.

“The anguish of the oath fulfilled was worse, after all, than the anguish of the oath unfulfilled; pain as various, and almost as beautiful, as the light that was its source. It splintered and seared, it scoured and scourged, it burned us away and broke us apart, and if it had been in our power we surely would have died of it. It was unbearable, and so we did not bear it but were borne by it. We were running, stumbling, driven by light into darkness and yet unable to escape.”

“For pity’s sake!” Sam burst out, “why didn’t you just put the confounded things down?”

“Our past behind us, our oath within us, our deeds around us, our father’s works in our hands at last. We could not endure them, we could not cast them aside. I did not know where we were running. Where was there for us to run to? But we ran, from darkness to darkness.

“It may have been a long time. There was no light of sun nor moon; dawn did not pierce the clouds and the thick darkness of the smoke from the destruction wrought by the war, nor were the stars visible behind that veil.

“A violent tremor in the earth threw us both to the ground. There was the roar of stone moving, and the scream of breaking rock, and the land ahead of us was split apart by a great chasm. Dust rolled upwards in choking clouds, lit by the fire beneath.

“I did not get up. It came distantly into my mind that perhaps the earth might swallow us up, or the hills fall on us, and so make an end. But I knew that hope was vain; the Doom was upon us and so we could hope for no mercy from chance.

“So I lay on the broken ground where I had fallen. I could see no reason to rise. I knew already I would never use my hand again.

“But my brother got to his feet, slowly, as one carrying a great weight. He stood there in the darkness, and his hand was burning, and my thoughts flew back to our father at his end, the deadly light under his skin, the flames that flickered along his fingers while he constrained himself to speak. But my brother looked at his hand, and saw that it was burned black by the touch of that hallowed light, and he was thinking of someone else.

“Then he began to sing. He sang softly, almost tunelessly. But I caught the words and even in that tumult of darkness and fire they froze my heart, for this was the song that his friend had sung when he sought him beyond hope in the Enemy’s lands.

‘Light of the world poured into us,
true mirror of the hidden fire,
we lift our voices loud in praise,
our hearts to hope3 –‘

“I had no breath to sing, scarcely breath to speak, but he smiled, and I saw that the light in his eyes was utterly quenched, as one whose spirit has already departed. He looked at me as if I were very far away, but I do not know if he recognized me.

‘There never was any hope,’ he said softly. ‘Not really.’ And perhaps he did know me, for he knelt swiftly and kissed my forehead.  For a moment it seemed that I could see again that face that had been so dear to me, before the Oath had turned even love to bitterness in our hearts.

“Then his voice was gone altogether, but I saw his lips moving. ‘Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean...’

“He straightened and walked away and did not look back. There was nothing before us but the chasm. I saw the light of the Silmaril as he lifted it, and his body black against the glow of the fire, and he was gone.

“There were no words left to me, for memory or for pain or for anything else. Within me the oath itself was burning away. I did not know what it was I held, or even who it was that held it, but it seemed to me that someone was weeping. After a while I got up, and I too began to walk.

“I was burning, but I walked away from the fire. I walked until the air began to clear above me in a storm of wind from the west. Around me was the rushing of water; the sea was pouring in and cleansing the ruined earth.

“I might have stayed where I was, let the sea cover me as it was covering the broken land. But I did not. I climbed to the highest promontory I could find and watched the waters swell. When the cliff where I stood had become the rocky seashore and the waters were lapping at my feet, I opened my hand for the last time and cast away the Silmaril into the ocean.

“For a long time I wandered along those new shores, and slowly things began coming back to me. Sorrow came first, and the feel of the water, and the salt scent of the air. Then I found that I could recall the faces of the ones that I had lost, and of the ones that I had killed. Eventually the world grew clear to my eyes, and finally again I heard music, the music of the waters. I lifted up my voice in answer. I have been singing since.”

Sam drew a long breath. “Well!” he said at last. “I’m glad it all came right in the end, at least.”

“It all – what?”

“Well, you didn’t have that dreadful oath anymore, did you, breathing down your neck?” Sam refilled him the water-cup. “And the Great Jewels all found their proper places, and you came back to yourself, and now you’re coming home at last, to see if things can’t be set right with everybody.”

Maglor seemed genuinely speechless.

“Set right?” he asked, in a tone quite unlike the confident and sonorous voice with which he had shaped his story. “We all chose destruction; my brother chose it finally and wholly. There is as little hope for him as for my father, whose pride and anger will bar him from return until the world itself is healed.”

“It’s a lot to come back from,” Sam went on, “but what are we doing right now, I’d like to know, if not coming back? And I know death isn’t the same for your kind as for ours. Why, I myself once met someone who’d died, died fighting a fire-demon, if you can believe it, and seemed no worse for it! Well, two people,” he added, reflecting, “but Gandalf doesn’t count. Why shouldn’t you see your brother again, when we land in the Elven-country beyond the sea?”

“I must be fading farther than I knew,” murmured Maglor into the cup, “if I have failed to convey even to you the depth of the darkness that we called upon ourselves.”

“Now, don’t say that! I’ve known people hurt bad by the Darkness, hurt within and without, if you see what I mean, and they went to be healed from it, and I’m going to see them again. And I don’t believe for a minute you’re more frail than we are. While there’s life there’s hope, as we say in the Shire. And this is life,” he added, now addressing more the imagined chorus of doubters back in Hobbiton, “Ocean or no Ocean, Last Voyage or otherwise!”

 

On the day that they left the world he knew, Sam saw nothing to distinguish the day from any of the other days, the sea from the sea as he had come to know it over their fair and tranquil voyage. But Maglor, recognizing something in the time or the place, or perhaps simply responding to an unheard call, was seized with a strange vitality. He called Sam to help him about the ship, setting the sails and securing the lines. When all had been made fast, he took his place in the prow, and raised both hands to the cloudless skies. Sam looked about him curiously. Then Maglor began to sing.

As before, Sam did not understand the words, but he understood the longing in his voice. Loss was his song, and cureless sorrow, and long years of regret, but Sam also heard, or believed that he heard, words that spoke of hope. In that music, he seemed to see the world as it had first appeared to the eyes of the speaking peoples, dark beneath the stars. He heard a clear summons and saw then a land lit by living radiance, silver and gold, beautiful beyond the compass of his thought. But the light failed, and all was darkness, and he saw, or perhaps heard, the discord that marred the music. By turns great and terrible, theme answered theme as the beauty of the original faded and was lost. Yet it did not perish altogether, for here and there he caught echoes of its rippling notes, as something half-remembered or glimpsed in the uncertain distance. Then the music changed: it spoke of the heart of the exile yearning towards home, of the burden of slow centuries in strange lands and of the transformations wrought by time and change.

Quite unexpectedly Sam found himself cast back in his mind to his own days of wandering, and to his own love for the home to which he could not yet return, a love that pierced and sustained at once. That love rose again in his heart as Maglor sang. He clung to the railing, looking out past the horizon, and he did not know whether it was tears or the salt spray stinging his eyes. There was a rushing noise in his ears, of air as well as of water, and he felt a drop in the pit of his stomach as if he were falling, or perhaps rising very quickly.

Nothing appeared to have changed around them – the sun shone high and bright, the waves glittered silver and green and blue-black. But Maglor ended the song and lowered his hands, breathing deeply. “We have left the bent world behind us,” he said, “and now sail the straight road home.”

That evening Maglor, staring into the setting sun, gave a loud cry; he had glimpsed land on the horizon. Sam peered in the direction he indicated, but could see nothing, and the glare hurt his eyes. Still, after the sun set, he thought that there might indeed be something before them – lights that were lower and fainter than the stars ought to be, homely in that wilderness of water and starlight.

By morning it was evident even to him. The horizon was sharp-edged with mountains, which he recognized immediately although he had seen them only once before, and that was in a dream. Beneath them was a low green island rising out of the sea.

Although it was little more than a blur to Sam’s eyes, the sight of the land filled him with something great and solemn which he supposed must be a sort of joy. But Maglor sprang lightly up on the forward railing and gazed out at the island. Although the boat swept and swayed with the sea’s motion, he balanced on its edge with no more effort than if he were standing on a promontory of rock.

He had been standing so for some time when he suddenly gave a half-choked cry and dropped back onto the deck. Sam, supposing that he must have hurt himself, quickly made his way to his side, but Maglor was swaying on his feet, wonder and blind incomprehension on his face

“Perhaps I may have steered us wrongly at the last,” he murmured, dazed. “Was this what the Lord of Waters meant when he spoke of blood being washed away? I am sorry, friend Samwise. But I do not understand how this can be unless we have passed indeed into death. None of our songs speak of death as an ocean...”

“Our songs do,” said Sam, “but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re not sailing into death, poetry or no poetry, songs or no songs. Whatever are you on about?”

Maglor groped for Sam’s shoulder and seemed to find his solidity reassuring. “If I live and if I wake,” he said, “and yet see such visions as these – I do not understand how this can be unless perhaps we have come to the end of the world and all things are to be made new.”

“The end of the world? Well, it is, isn’t it? Or near enough, anyway, it’s not like there’s a world beyond that.” Sam nodded at the mountains that were growing larger against the horizon. “Oh, but you meant something like the Last Battle, when the wolves eat the Sun and the Moon and the mountains are flattened?4” He nodded to the peaks again, pointedly this time.

“I thought I saw my father,” Maglor said in a low voice. “My brothers. My - others as well. They are waiting for us on the shore.” He looked back towards the island. “We’ve been sighted. Can you not see? They’ve lit the beacons at the mouth of the Eastward Harbor.”

“I can’t see a thing at this distance,” said Sam, “and either way, there’s no help for it until we get there. So let’s for goodness sake get there as fast as we can, and clear it all up once we’re safe on land!” He did not say it, but at Maglor’s mention of others a hope even stronger than the wind behind them had sprung up in his heart, and he was impatient to arrive.

Nor was his hope disappointed, for as the Saerlind drew into port at last he saw among the people crowding the edge of the dock – most of whom were very tall and very animated, quite unlike the solemn and stately assembly he had been picturing – a small figure among the great. Then there was Frodo’s hand reaching for his, and Frodo’s arms around him as he pulled him up onto the shore, and at once he was again the sturdy young hobbit who had leaped after his master into the Great River without knowing how to swim.

Around him the sound of weeping and laughter and song, shouts of joy and cries of welcome, all blended into a clamor like the ringing of the bells of a whole city. But his old friend, sound and whole and thoroughly alive, his face unshadowed and his eyes alight, was before him, and Sam found that he had no words at all, nor any need of them.

“Sam!” Frodo said at last as they broke apart. “Best of friends, dearest of hobbits! I had not dared hope to see you again.”

“Indeed he had not,” broke in Gandalf, coming up behind them.  “He would hardly believe it even from me when I told him to expect you. He’s been sorely lacking your influence on him, Sam, I think, because even after so long on these shores he has apparently not learned to come out and ask for what he wants, still less to expect it!”

“But you were so much at home in the Shire,” said Frodo, helpless, “and, well, you never liked boats, and –“

“I should have liked to see anyone keep me away!” said Sam indignantly. “You called me, didn’t you? And I came.”

Frodo looked at him strangely. “So it wasn’t just a dream, then?” he said, as much to Gandalf as to Sam, but the wizard raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

“You see, Sam, I thought it might be that you were the one who was calling me. I was dreaming, and it seemed to me that I was walking over the Blessed Realm at night, and I had come to the gardens of Lorien. I was quite alone, but then I thought I heard someone behind me, and there you were. You looked just as you do now. I was afraid that it meant you – well, that you had died, back home at Bag End, and that this was the last that I would see you. I heard you call me, and I woke suddenly and –“

“Death again!” exclaimed Sam. “Why does everyone keep jumping to that as an explanation? You wouldn’t believe the job I had convincing Maglor there that he hadn’t somehow taken a wrong turn and steered us into the land of the dead, when he caught sight of these folks on the shore. Even though he’s the one who’s supposed to know about boats,” he added. “And about poetry.”

He turned to the group beside them, who were still embracing the wanderer and crying out to each other, the liquid syllables of the High-Elven tongue flowing over each other like leaping waters. “This is his family, evidently,” he said, by way of explanation. “Do you know them?”

“Know them!” Frodo laughed aloud. “They are my – well, not my family, of course, but they’ve become my, my hosts. We got the news at the same time, that they should come to meet him, and I should come to meet you, so we came here together -”

“Yes, Mr. Gamgee, your peace-loving master has moved in with the most notorious family of murderers in Aman,” said Gandalf. “I suppose I should apologize to you for taking my eye off him.”

“Stop that!” said Frodo. “Sam’s just gotten here; give him a few minutes to get his feet before you start trying to knock him off balance again! But you do know the house of Fëanor, Sam? I thought that over the voyage Maglor might have told you the story, at least.”

“Dozens of them! Stories, I mean, although it looks like dozens of people as well,” Sam eyed the crowd doubtfully. “But he seemed to think they were all dead.”

“Well, they were.” Gandalf seemed to be enjoying himself. “And not even the wise looked for Fëanor’s return, until none other than your Mr. Baggins here comes wandering out of the woods one day, bold as you please, with the mightiest of the Noldor in tow. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the first words out of Fëanor’s mouth were in the Common Speech, in a perfect Shire accent no less.

‘Gandalf!’ he said to me when I came to see him – and that would have been astonishment enough, since I have never borne that name in these lands – ‘It seems I owe you my thanks!’

‘The thanks you owe is to Frodo, if anyone,’ I said,  ‘And I owe him thanks as well, since without Frodo you would have kept me waiting on your doorstep for years just like one of those innumerable linguists and mathematicians and smiths.’”

“Slow down!” cried Sam. “Are you saying it’s Frodo who brought back Maglor’s father?”

“I really had very little to do with it-“ Frodo began, but Gandalf was nodding toward the group on the shore.

“Indeed. Fëanor. That’s him there.”

Sam was about to object to the vagueness of the description, but looking at the tall and joyful figures, many of whom seemed to share so much of form and feature that they had to be very close kin, he found his eye drawn to one in particular. He was not set apart by richness of garments or by any other token of authority, but in his bearing, and perhaps the bearing of those around him, as a king might be recognized without his crown. Yet it was not kingliness exactly that he bore about him, but power of another sort. It was a bit like looking into a strong light, and Sam found his eyes watering.

“Yes, that is Fëanor, returned at last!” said Gandalf, “And I couldn’t be better pleased. The injury done by and following on the theft of the Silmarils was as deep as any ill in Arda, and if that is amended at last, then the healing of the world has begun sooner than even I thought to look for it. Besides,” Gandalf added, “the world is better off for having him back in it. Don’t let on to him, though, it wouldn’t do for him to get prouder of himself than he already is.”

Fëanor had clearly heard him perfectly well, for he shot the wizard a glare. But Sam, in looking at the group surrounding Maglor, had recognized another one of the figures, and now sprang forward with a cry of surprise and delight.

“Why, Elrond, Mr. Frodo, it’s Elrond!”

Elrond caught his words and glanced toward them. “It is indeed, Master Samwise!” But the attention called to him had hushed the others, and now Maglor, disheveled with the embraces of his brothers, turned toward him as well, and he was frozen at the sight, pinned between joy and grief.  But Elrond, looking him in the eyes, swiftly stepped forward and took both of his hands in his, and if Maglor’s injury pained him at this, he gave no sign.

There they remained for a moment, studying each other’s faces. Then Elrond spoke, in the ancient mode of their ancient language and in a tone Sam had never heard him use, and though Frodo later translated their speech in full, Sam found that the import of their words was piercingly clear.

“My second father,” he said. “Second in time, but not second in heart. Too long you have been lost to me.”

And Maglor, to whose voice words came flowing and strong, struggled to speak. “My child,” he said at last. “My dear one. I have no right to call you my son.”

“No right,” said Elrond, and Sam could not tell if it was a question or not. “Between us there is no question of rights. You are my father, and I am your son, and you have come home to me beyond the world.”

And then they were in each other’s arms, and Maglor wept and Elrond with him, and yet it did not seem that they grieved. They broke apart at last, and looked at each other, and laughed. But Sam was still struck with amazement.

“Wait, do you mean to tell me Maglor is Elrond’s father? But I thought Elrond’s father was, was –“ He could not immediately recall the name, but nodded toward the sky.

“No, you are quite correct, Master Samwise,” Elrond replied in the Common Speech, turning to him again.  “Eärendil sired me, but it was Maglor and his brother who raised me. I have had more of fathers than any one person might expect, and yet I have always had less of them than I could want.”

They had drawn together in speaking, and Sam found himself, with Frodo and Gandalf, among the Elves in the heart of their company, giddy with his own delight and with theirs. “O starlight and sunrise and springtime!” he cried, making no sense even to himself, but feeling that poetry was called for. “And all the sorrow’s done at last!”

His outburst caught the notice of Maglor’s brothers. “Do our guest some courtesy!” cried one of them, “and let us speak in the Common Tongue!” The murmur of their speech changed immediately; while it lost little of its music Sam found that he could understand what was being said and that in fact their speech had more of the sound of the Shire in it than he had ever heard among the Elves.

“Brother, have you also brought one of the hobbits?” asked the tallest of Maglor’s brothers, looking from Sam to Frodo and back again.

“Is this the new order of the world?” inquired another with mock gravity. “Will all our returning kindred bear with them one of these Shire-folk?”

“Well, I know why I have one, but not why you do,” replied Maglor, “And yours seems to know mine! I have been long away – long away – but I had not thought to see any of you in the world again, and still less in such company!”

“But if your companion is a hobbit, he must be hungry – and all the hungrier for having had to cross the sea with no one but you for company.” Sam assumed that the dark-haired speaker must be yet another of Maglor’s brothers. “I must beg your forgiveness, small elf-friend!” he went on. “For if you have had no better cheer than my brother’s cookery you must be hungry indeed. Unless long ages of exile have mended his skills.”

“I can’t imagine they have,” put in the sharp-tongued one who had spoken before.

“Now, is that any way to speak of your brother?” Sam said, the hobbit-grandfather in him responding almost automatically.

“He did do most of the cooking himself,” said Maglor over him, “but I am sure he would be glad of something that did not taste of the sea – “

This seemed to be taken as a general call for everyone to adjourn. A woman in the party, who seemed to be in a position of some authority, called to the harbormaster’s people to find anchorage for the Saerlind. Then, moving slowly, for there were a good many of them and none of them seemed in a hurry to get anywhere, the group left the long pier with its colored beacons and began making their way from the docks.

Maglor’s younger brothers jostled to walk at his side – doing nothing for the speed of their progress – and eventually Sam saw him between two whose build and appearance were so similar he was not entirely sure whether he was looking at two people or merely suffering one of the peculiar effects of vision that seemed to be common when looking at the elves. They were red-haired – nearly half the group seemed to be; a trait Sam had noted among hobbits but never among the Eldar. He realized, with a thrill that seemed to shake the years from him, just how very little he knew about the Elves, and how much this strange country had to unfold to him.

He had not the least idea where they might be going. The city around them was built of stone, white and gray and dusty rose, and lined with fragrant trees. The buildings and streets rose steeply up the slope of a hill at whose summit stood a glittering white tower, but the group of Maglor’s kin seemed to be staying close to the shore rather than heading into the city’s heart. Sam had never seen a city built right up to the edge of the ocean like this, though he had heard tell of such things in the south of Gondor. He looked around him with attention, but the island was so large that he had no sense at all of where the other side might be, save that in the western distance the mountains of Aman rose, snow-capped and unthinkably huge.

“There are other ports on this side of the Sea.” One of Maglor’s brothers, the same one who had addressed him earlier, had noted his interest in their surroundings. “Avallonë  does not have the wild and glittering beauty of Alqualonde of the pearls, but I’m sure you see why we might not have chosen to greet you there. But look around you! There is some of the oldest work of the Eldar here, mingled with the art of later ages.” Sam was not entirely certain he could distinguish between different periods of Elven architecture but he endeavored to appear suitably impressed nonetheless.

“Avallonë, is it? Very nice. Who rules here?”

“No one at all. This is one of the in-between places: both of Aman and Arda. It belongs wholly to neither world, and for this reason the island is called lonely. It’s a ship-haven now, that was itself a ship in the days of the Great Journey. Many of the returning Exiles live here, for a time at least. Then, if they wish to take up their places in the realms of the Eldar on the shores of Valinor itself, they may go on. Some never do. The Harbormaster and her people tend the havens and light the beacons, but otherwise this place has no need of rulers.” This seemed like a surprisingly Shire-like arrangement to Sam, and he approved.

“These are the wanderers’ halls,” his host went on, indicating the low buildings they were approaching, which overlooked a series of grassy, tree-shaded terraces descending to the sea-wall. “Where we lodged awaiting you, and where you will lodge with us, unless your friend or your wizard has other plans for you.”

With a great deal of noise and in a tangle of swift motion, the brothers moved the voyagers’ small belongings into the houses and began moving the makings of an excellent feast out of them. They threw coarse-woven cloths over the grass, unfolded low tables of beautifully carved wood, brought out light metal plates and heavy glass cups, and Sam shortly found himself seated among the elves on the short grass underneath the ancient trees, enjoying the hospitality of the Undying Lands, which took the form of as fine a picnic as he had ever enjoyed on a summer’s day in the Party Field. The food and the wine went around to all, and then there were the questions, and the news, and two ages of the world worth of stories and explanations and apologies to be had all around.

At Maglor’s halting request, backed by Fëanor’s demand, Frodo got up and recounted to the whole company all the strange story of how he had come unexpectedly to the Halls of the Dead and how he had returned in the company of Fëanor, whom all the Eldar had believed lost to them. Sam and Maglor listened to this with astonishment while Fëanor visibly restrained himself from making commentary. As soon as he had finished, Maglor, slipping back into the High Speech, his strong voice nearly cracking with pain and wonder, demanded further explanation – and, it may have been, apology - from the father he had not seen since the days before the sun. But Frodo came back to Sam’s side, and they sat together with Gandalf under the trees, perfectly content.

“Well, Sam Gamgee!” The wizard looked at him thoughtfully, but with deep affection. “So here you are at last. You haven’t brought any pipe-weed with you, have you?”

“I was waiting for you to ask, Gandalf. Yes I have indeed! I hardly smoke at all myself any more, but that means the stock’ll last all the longer. It’s with my things, back up in the house. Oh! And I brought something for you as well, Mr. Frodo. Wait for me!”

He trotted back up the hill to their guest-quarters and rummaged about until he found his small chest. There was little enough inside. He had brought nothing with him more than a change of clothes, and his pots and pans, and right at the bottom, a package double-wrapped in brown paper and oilcloth, labeled, in his strong blocky lettering, “FOR AFTER”.

He brought the package back to Frodo and Gandalf, and after a good deal of fussing with the knots, drew out a large pouch of the Southfarthing’s finest, which he handed to the wizard. Gandalf declared that Mayor was too poor a title for one who had so clearly shown himself a lord among hobbits, produced a pipe from somewhere in his sleeve, filled it, lit it and began blowing smoke rings, to the intense interest and mild consternation of the company. But Sam turned to Frodo with the other contents of the treasure he had carried with him from the other side of the world.

“This I brought for you, though,” he said, unwrapping it carefully to reveal a handful of wrinkled brown lumps. “It’ll be a little time yet until you can enjoy them, but I thought, well, time’s not a problem in the Elvish Country...” Frodo looked at him curiously.

“Do you mean to tell me you don’t know a tater when you see it? Why, they’re seed-potatoes, and a fair job I had too, to keep from cooking them up on the voyage across when there was nothing but dried vegetables in a fish sauce, or fish in a dried vegetable sauce, nothing that sticks to your ribs. I didn’t know if they’d have potatoes here, you see, and I thought I ought to bring some sort of gift, bring something of home to you now we’ve left Middle-Earth for good...”

Frodo was really touched by this. “Oh Sam, carrying those all this way? But every kind of plant grows here.”

“Not this one, begging your pardon, sir! This is my own variety; I bred it myself in the garden at Bag End. Five seasons it took, but now it’s the pride of the gardeners of the Shire.” He held a withered potato up and patted it affectionately. “Deep yellow flesh, rich buttery taste, good for frying or mashing or roasting with a few herbs. Always manages higher yields than you expect, too. Mad Baggins’ Gold is the name they gave this strain in Hobbiton, so you see why I had to bring it.”

Frodo laughed in delight. “Sam, you are a marvel. When we get home, we’ll plant them by the Sarnaherion and show all of these Elves what a proper Shire meal tastes like.”

“By where now? I may have walked into a song – it certainly feels like I have – but I can’t be expected to keep track of all the names of everything. Especially not when everybody seems to have three or four just to start off with!”

“Of course – I’m getting ahead of everything, Sam, but it’s only that I’m so glad to see you again. The Oromar Sarnaherion are Nerdanel’s halls. That’s her there, between those two with the red hair.”

Sam looked at the elves; the two he had last noted flanking Maglor as they walked were now on either side of a woman whose hair shone like copper in the sun. As if she had heard Frodo’s remark, or felt Sam’s gaze, she looked over at them and smiled.

She had none of the remote, glorious, almost frightening beauty of the queens of the Eldar, but she carried about her something of the same quality that had made Fëanor instantly distinguishable among his mighty kindred. There was wisdom in her face, and a settled power, quiet attention and deep understanding.

Sam liked her at once. “Their mother, yes?” he said. “Well, someone’s mother, anyway?”

“I should say so! Most of these people are her sons; Fëanor’s her husband, and I’ve been living there with them for – it must be years now. Dozens and dozens of years.” He was looking at Sam, trying to calculate, without much success, how much time must have passed since he saw him last. “Back in Valinor,” he went on, “and so we’ll be heading over there – oh, after a while, I dare say; nothing moves in a hurry here.”

“Wait, Valinor? I thought – isn’t this Valinor?” He waved his hand vaguely at the island around them, the flowering trees and the stone city.

“Well, yes and no. This is Tol Eressëa; it’s the main island off the coast of Valinor itself. This is the island that the Númenóreans used to gaze at, in the stories, and tell themselves that they were seeing all the way to Aman. But Nerdanel’s home, our home, is in Valinor proper, right behind the mountains.”

His voice dropped and softened, as if he were reading from a work he had written. “It’s a remarkable place, Sam; the whole country is remarkable. The Oromar Sarnaherion’s built by a river, in a shallow valley by the foot of the mountains. It’s the country of the smith-folk of Aulë, and it’s where the domain of the Maker meets that of his mighty spouse, the Lady of the Earth.” He had been looking off into the distance, the motion of his hand tracing the shape of the country he described. But he saw Sam looking at him questioningly, and he came back to him with a start.

“Everything – everything grows there. I think you would like it,” he said anxiously. “Do say you will come with me, at least for a little while.”

“Mr. Frodo,” said Sam with great formality, sounding (and looking, if he had only known it) a great deal like his old tutor Bilbo, “if you think I have come this far to find you, if you think that I have crossed the entire world and then some, if you think that I have spent all that time on a boat, only to let you go off somewhere by yourself again – well, you must have spent your years in the Elf-country asleep and dreaming!”

Frodo started to speak, thought better of it, started to speak again, then simply reached over and closed his hand over Sam’s, with the potato resting in his palm. “We’ll plant them together,” he said, almost entirely successful at keeping the tremor out of his voice. “And when we have our first harvest, we’ll send for Bilbo down from the mountain, to come and feast on his gold.”

Of all of the wonders that Sam had seen and heard that morning, this was the first that really took him by surprise. “Bilbo?” he said. “You don’t mean - Old Mr. Baggins? He that left with you, so long ago! Then it is true what the stories say about this country!”

Frodo smiled, but Sam was deeply alarmed. “I know I’ve been saying how none of this – not the Sea, not the ship, not the Elvish Country – means death. But do you mean to say we won’t die at all? Oh, now, I am not sure that is a good idea. I didn’t come here to die, not a bit of it! But I didn’t come here to – well, to not die! Not natural, that is, and me with Rosie gone before me... No, no. A good length of years, a quiet life, and a peaceful death, that’s all I ask.”

“You have asked for, and received, a great deal more than that, Sam Gamgee!” put in Gandalf, pausing in his blowing of smoke rings. “But be easy. Not the Powers themselves can take away the Gift of Men. Though they may give their own gifts besides – or receive them, if it comes to that...” And he told him all the story of the strange fate that had befallen Bilbo Baggins, and Sam listened in amazement.

“But yes,” Frodo added by way of explanation, in case it had been lost in Gandalf’s tale of the shadowed halls of Mandos, the eagles of the Elder King, and the audacity of the Burglar in Valinor, “we are still mortal, of course we are, bound to leave the world altogether eventually. But we die in our own time and – I think – by our own will. As far as I learned from Bilbo anyway, we just know when we are done, and take our leave. And he says he will leave some day, and for good this time. ‘Once the old fellow seems like he can get on without me,’ he said – referring to Manwë himself, if you please! ‘But I’m sure I don’t know when that will be. Do you know, Frodo, he doesn’t seem to know what fear is? I’ve been all week explaining to him why I might be nervous about eagles no matter how highly I think of them in general!’

“But you’ll live, Sam, live here, with us, exactly as long as you like. Time won’t chase us out of the world. Not here.”

Sam looked attentively at Frodo. The years seem to have passed him by altogether, though there was something, whether in his look or in his bearing Sam could not decide, that reminded him more of elves than hobbits. Like them, he seemed hard to place in time, neither old nor young, or perhaps both at once.  “The Elvish country seems to have agreed with you, at least,” he said. “And Gandalf - bless my soul, Gandalf, are you getting younger? I do believe I am now the oldest of the lot of you!”

“Age is hard to reckon here,” said Gandalf with great tranquility, gazing at the curls of smoke from his pipe. But Sam turned again to Frodo.

“Seeing all of these great ones, together like this – “ he began, waving his hand vaguely at the gathering, “I can’t say I ever really thought of Master Elrond as having a father, much less a grandfather!”

“It is strange, isn’t it?” Frodo agreed. “I had trouble getting used to the idea myself. Of course I think Elrond refers to Fëanor as Grandfather partly just to watch people trip over themselves trying to keep their composure. He’s almost as bad as Gandalf in that respect, though you’d never guess it to look at him! Nerdanel, on the other hand, he calls Grandmother and means it. He’s been to visit us at her halls several times, although he’s built his own city now. I dare say he’ll tell you all about it, once he gets done quizzing Maglor on everything he knows about the doings back in Middle-Earth.”

Frodo leaned back on the grass and looked thoughtfully at the group. “But I think that’s why they can seem so young to us – so old and so young at once, that is. It’s not like it is with us, where by the time our children are having children, our grandfathers are only a memory. Speaking of children’s children, what was your and Rosie’s final tally?”

“We passed your guess by seven, Mr. Frodo.”

“Wait, my guess? What are you talking about?”

“I remember every word you said to me that day,” said Sam, with a note of reproach in his voice. “The Shire does too; it’s in the last pages of the Red Book. You gave me the names of five more children besides little Elanor, and they all came, just as you said, and then another seven.”

“Thirteen children? Great heavens above, Sam, how did you and Rosie find the time?”

“Well, I don't know - is it so different from this family? They’re – well, there’s more to them somehow, like being in the midst of the stars laughing or the rivers quarreling. But once you get used to that, it’s not so different from my own family when we all got together in Bag End, the noise and all the merry bedlam, with the food and drink flowing and everyone talking at once.”

“I suppose you’re right!” Frodo laughed. “I’ve been with them for years now, and it’s rather like living in the inside of a fireworks display, even when all of them aren’t home together. But look, Sam, let’s get you properly presented to everyone.”

“So I’ll at least know who’s talking, if not what they’re talking about,” muttered Sam under his breath. But Frodo pulled Sam to his feet, and led him before the elves.

All the company on the hillside introduced themselves in turn, at a length and with a degree of ceremony that satisfied both his hobbit sense of propriety and his dearest expectations of Elvish poetry. None of them seemed to have less than three names, even leaving aside their lineage and titles, and his head was spinning by the end of it.

“Here!” said Maglor, seeing his confusion. “My mother, my father.” He pointed out Nerdanel and Fëanor where they sat among their children. “My brothers.” He chanted a few familiar lines in the Common Speech, indicating each of them in turn. “His sons beside him, the seven kinsmen / the Morgoth’s foes unflinching and fell / crafty Curufin, Celegorm the fair / Maedhros left-handed, leader and lord / Amrod and Amras and dark Caranthir – now do you know us?”

“Is that one of the songs of Men?” demanded the one that Maglor had just named as Curufin.

“Do you mean they somehow got hold of the Lays of Beleriand?! No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know how they wound up mangling it.”

“I don’t see why I’m always dark,” grumbled Caranthir, flushing. “Men did call me other things, you know. Is there some reason I couldn’t have ended up as Caranthir the high lord or open-handed Caranthir?

“It doesn’t scan -” Maglor was clearly ready to launch into a short treatise on Westron prosody.

“It could be worse, I’m always and Amras,” put in one of the twins.

“But you have left out a line.” The speaker was Maglor’s older brother, Maedhros; tall, quiet, and grave-faced he sat at his father’s side. “Shouldn’t there be something like ‘Maglor the mighty, sea-voiced singer’? And besides, your song is not true.” He held up his right hand, and Sam saw tears start again in Maglor’s eyes.

“You have left out more than a line,” put in a dark-haired woman with bright eyes and sharp, graceful features. “Some of us were left out of the songs altogether. Or come into different ones, like my son.”

“A different song?” Sam asked, curious. “Which one would that be? I’ve heard so many of them now, mind you, I couldn’t promise I’d know it.”

She looked surprised at his question. “But it is your own song, or at least its prelude.  My son is he who wrought the Rings of Power in the Second Age, Tyelperinquar Curufinwë, the third of his name.” Hearing himself named, he turned toward them, as if waiting for Sam to speak. But Sam, suddenly realizing what was meant by your own song, could find nothing to say that he considered fit for decent company.

“No, Sam!” said Frodo hastily. “It’s all right! We’ve – we’ve worked it out between us.”  Sam’s face had darkened alarmingly and for a second Frodo was afraid that he might launch himself bodily at him. But Celebrimbor of Eregion looked thoughtfully at Samwise of the Shire, and Sam, who had borne the Ring for a brief and bitter time, recognized the loss in his eyes, and the shadow of old pain and old grief, and when it came to it, he found he could hold no real anger toward him, though courtesy stuck in his throat. “Oh, very well!” he said. “Don’t think this means that I’ve forgotten, though!”

This seemed to remind Maglor of something, or possibly he wished to draw Sam’s mind to kinder things. “Master Samwise. Did you not tell me that of all the tales of the First Age, you loved the tale of Fingon’s rescue of the prince?” He called across the group. “Findekano! You have an admirer, valiant cousin!”

“You have nothing but admirers, valiant cousin,” shot Curufin.

Fingon sprang to his feet and came over to Sam at once, and Sam, exceedingly self-conscious, bowed a number of times and pronounced various formalities about it being a great honor. He attempted to summon up all of the dignity he had acquired over several decades as mayor, but found it altogether overwhelmed by a delight like that of boyhood, almost as good as the moment when he had first learned that the Elves were more than figures out of children’s stories. But Fingon, who had evidently learned something of Shire customs, sank to one knee and shook his hand.

“But you are yourself a warrior of renown,” he said.

“Oh, sir, no need to make fun,” Sam protested.

“Not a bit of it!” Fingon seemed almost hurt. “Your friend has told us of your deeds, and if your enemies erred in naming you an elf-warrior, still they were right to flee before you. Valor, and hope unquenchable, and courage in the dark places – we carried the light of Aman in our eyes, but you carried it your heart and in your hand.”

Such praise, and from such a source, left Sam quite flustered. He looked to Frodo for help, but Frodo seemed to agree. “Have you forgotten in what high honor you are held, beyond the Shire?”

Now the language of the gathering had shifted again to the Common Speech and their notice had been called again to Sam. “I’m pleased to hear another native speaker of Westron!” said Fëanor, looking at him with the sort of attention that made Sam feel uncomfortably like he were a book someone was about to make notes in. “There are many of our kindred here who are fluent, of course, but there’s a particular value to someone who speaks it as a mother-tongue.”

“Yes,” put in Curufin, “and there are a number of recommendations we have for improvements to it.”

Flustered, Sam looked back to Frodo again. “Oh, dear me. I’m certainly not the hobbit you want for that; I’m afraid you must have gotten rather a different picture of us – we’re not all authors and scholars like Mr. Frodo or Mr. Bilbo. I’m only a gardener.”

“But are not gardeners the great ones among you?” said Fingon, who was now, Sam noted with profound alarm, sitting by his feet.

“That is true both literally and figuratively,” Frodo said, with the air of someone for whom explication on linguistic points had become a deeply ingrained habit. “Gardner, which is a contraction of his occupation, is the name of his House, and it will be one of the greatest names of the Shire for... well, for as long as there is a Shire.” Sam had thought he was too old for blushing, but he felt his cheeks reddening at the words.   

“Besides, Sam,” said Frodo, the scholastic air dropping away, “you’re an author yourself, aren’t you?” Sam looked at him, puzzled as to his meaning. “The Red Book, Sam – did you ever... did you ever finish it?”

“How you do talk. As if there ever was any question of that! You gave it to me, didn’t you? The last pages. Didn’t I tell you the Shire remembers your words? I wrote of you leaving, going over the sea, and coming to this country at the last.  And so our story is in Elanor’s hands at the Towers, and in the King’s halls in Gondor, where it’s been translated, if you’ll believe it, into as many languages as are spoken there – though,“ he added hastily, seeing Curufin about to frame a question, “don’t ask me how many that might be, for I have no notion.”

Seeing he would receive no assistance from the newly-arrived hobbit, Curufin contented himself with explaining his proposed Westron modifications to Maglor, who dismissed most of them, countered others, and gave grave consideration to a few, citing lines of song or story from a memory that seemed to encompass most of the major works of the three ages of the world. Fëanor followed their disputation with an attention alternately fierce and amused, occasionally seized on these quoted lines, demanding their history or their context.

Around them the group settled down again, for another round of food and drink and news. “I know it’s a lot at once, Sam,” said Frodo, “and probably more than you bargained for – but do you feel like you have a sense yet of who everyone is?”

“I think so! I mean, your Fëanor and those other two might as well be the same person for all the difference in their looks, and I could swear that either two of the others gave me the same name when introducing themselves, or one person gave me the same name twice, but I’ll catch up, I’ll catch up. Time for it, of course. Nothing but time, now.” He leaned back on the hillside, expected to feel the ache in his back and the stiffness in his aging limbs, but instead felt only the short prickly grass, and the touch of the light buoyant wind, carrying the mingled scents of the salt of the sea and the spice of the flowering trees.

Something occurred to him, and he spoke in a low voice to Frodo. “I don’t feel quite right asking him,” he said, nodding at Maglor in an attempt to be surreptitious, “but you know this family and so you could probably tell me. Didn’t Maglor have a wife? Is she – did something happen to her? Why didn’t she come to meet him?”

Frodo considered. “She must have known he was coming home. Gandalf tried to be very coy about it with Elrond – ‘Someone you might want to meet will be coming soon,’ or some such elliptical nonsense – but he didn’t try any of that with me when he told me you were coming, and all the family worked it out in less time than it takes to tell. But Maglor’s wife... I think she’s waiting for him to come to her. At least, if her logic is anything like Nerdanel’s.”

“That would be -” Sam sifted through the tangle of names in his head. “Maglor’s mother, right? Your Fëanor’s wife? Oh! And the one whose house you’re living in, unless I’ve got everything backwards?”

“No, you have it! And I haven’t even told you how we came home yet, have I, once Fëanor and I left the Halls of the Dead?”

It was a day for long stories, and so after downing another glass of the cool, pale-green draft that the Elves made from citrus and herbs steeped in the sun, Frodo began. “After we left the Forest,” he said, “and after we met Fëanor’s brother on its edge – that’s the one who’s the High King in Tirion – Fëanor and I rode together across the plains of Aman, toward the mountains.”

“Those same mountains there?” Sam twisted his head to look behind him, away from the empty ocean and towards the shores of Valinor itself.

“Yes, next to them hardly anything else can be called a mountain! Even now –“ Frodo looked up at them where they towered high and far above the heights of Tol Eressea, their scale skirting the edge of comprehension, “even now it’s hard to really look at them. They’re – awful, somehow. Well, awe-inspiring. Like they belong to some other sort of world... I don’t know if I’m making any sense.”

Sam peered at them, squinting against the brightness of the day and against the blinding whiteness of the peaks. “I know what you mean. It’s hard to believe I’m seeing them. They seem altogether too large for my thoughts even, too large to fit inside my head.”

“The Mountains of Defense,” said Frodo, “the Pelóri. Do you know, they weren’t always like that? When we had gotten properly out onto the plains, Fëanor looked up at them, and then down at his own shadow on the ground, and did some sort of calculation in his head. ‘It cannot be a trick of the distance,’ he said. ‘Those mountains are taller than they were.’

‘Indeed they are, or had you forgotten that the Valar took thought for the guarding of this land once murder and plunder had been set loose within it? They labored much to keep things outside their realm.’ Fingolfin, the King, was still with us, and though he has a very calm manner, careful and evenhanded, you might say, he can show a great deal by his restraint.

But Fëanor is only subtle when it suits him, and it didn’t suit him then. ‘The Valar are at times altogether too obvious to be understood! Did they mean to earn in their fear the name which I bestowed in my anger, the name of cage?’

So that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains,’ Fingolfin said, his voice cold as he quoted the words that the Valar had spoken when the Noldor first left this land, so long ago. All at once I remembered that he also had led his people into exile, and a really chilling thought occurred to me.

‘You don’t mean those mountains were raised up against you?’ I stammered.

‘Yes,’ said Fëanor, and ‘Not exactly,’ said Fingolfin, at once, so that wasn’t really an answer. But it stayed with me, and now I see it when I look at those mountains. The world being split apart like that, the Powers withdrawing themselves. Hiding, and fleeing, and defense... It seems a dark thing, here in these unshadowed lands. And I don’t want to believe that’s how it has to be. Can there be majesty without threat?”

He shook himself. “But I’m straying from my story! Anyway, the King went back to Tirion, but Fëanor and I crossed the plains and found ourselves in one of the loveliest lands I’ve seen in this country of loveliness. The one I was telling you about, the garden-country by the foothills of the mountains. Cultivated and uncultivated woven together, plowed lands and rice fields alternating with small forests of red pine, oak, and bamboo.

"We were bearing for the place where Nerdanel made her home; she had gone back to live among her father’s people after she and Fëanor had quarreled in the morning of the world. She didn’t come with him into the Exile, you see, though they had been so close before.”

Sam looked over at her again, and found her looking back at the two of them with a half-smile, following Frodo’s story among the threads of conversation. Frodo himself did not seem to notice that his audience had expanded; he was calling the events before his mind and seemed to be lost in them.

“The closer we got, the more Fëanor spoke of her,” he said. “Not of their parting, nor even of their life together before strife came between them, but of the person herself. You know the way the Elves are whenever they speak of anything that moves them deeply – very beautiful language, but not always the easiest to follow. And the Noldor are the worst of all for this, I’ve found. Think of what we’d think of as a love-song; we might bring in comparisons to, oh, flowers or birds or springtime or whatnot. Well, Fëanor was going on about equations and optics and astronomy, comparing his wife to the diagonal of a square and to a prism splintering light, and I couldn’t tell if he was elated, or nervous, or both. He’d been talking about the old bitterness and the old grief, but he didn’t seem sad, exactly. It was as if sorrow had no more hold on him, or had been swallowed up by something else.

“I asked him, at last, what kind of welcome he expected. ‘None at all,’ he said. ‘I have forfeited expectation. And welcome too, to speak truly.’ Still, he did not seem cast down. ‘It may be she will turn me away, as is her right. Yet if I returned to the world only for this, it would still have been well done: that I might stand before her once again to lift the name of untrue I laid falsely on her. We began our partings long ago. We have left each other so much and so thoroughly that perhaps – who knows – we may come back to each other again.’

“So we passed the crest of a hill, and found ourselves looking down into a wide shallow valley at the foot of the mountains. It took my breath away. That’s true of so many things in this country – there’s more beauty here than any mortal heart can quite handle - but here it wasn’t just beautiful, it was busy, full of work and the evidence of work.

“Built up around a great central hall on the far side of the valley were houses and towers of wood and stone. It wasn’t a city, exactly. There seemed to be no clear distinction between indoors and outdoors, paths and dwellings and sculptures. Walkways sprang from the mountainside in slender bridges of stone, fountains played on rooftops and ran down through gardens.

“Up the slopes of the valley were terraced fields fed by intricate streams and springs, and a broad canal ran through the center of it all. People were at work in the fields and in the workshops. Smoke was rising from some of the outbuildings, and the singing of women came from the banks of the canal, where they were unloading great blocks of stone from a barge.

“Well, I was dumbstruck, and even Fëanor seemed surprised. ‘This is no estate!’ he said.  ‘This is a domain, this is a stronghold, this is a realm!’ Then he laughed. ‘And what else should she have done, indeed? It was never her way to gnaw at herself in idleness.’

“As we came down into the valley I saw runners going ahead of us; the news of our arrival was spreading. But Fëanor didn’t pause for greetings or even inquiries. He seemed to know exactly where he was going: to one of the outer fields where a woman was setting seedlings in the fresh dark earth.

“She did not pause, or even look up, when Fëanor leapt down off the horse. He turned to me then, to help me down, and I caught his eye, and I think that was the closest to fear I ever saw him, before or since. But he did manage to face his wife, and she finished setting the seedling, straightened, looked back at him, and waited, calm and searching.

“From the way that Fëanor had been going on, I had expected someone – well, someone beautiful.  Of course, the Elves are all beautiful to us, but you know what I mean. She was wearing loose, practical garments of sun-bleached linen, the wide sleeves stained with water and soot and dust. But as I looked at her, all at once I saw what Fëanor meant when he compared her to language and to light.

“Steadily, deliberately, she set down the basket of seedlings she was carrying. She didn’t move, just waited there as Fëanor met her eyes, and she kept waiting while he began to walk toward her. He stood before her, waiting in his turn. At last he reached out his hands, and she took them, and there they stood, hand in hand, unmoving, contemplating each other.

"Someone touched me on the shoulder. I jumped – I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath. Two young men were standing behind me, so like each other that they had to be twins, and so like Nerdanel that they had to be her sons.”

“Twins?” broke in Sam. “I thought that was it, but then I was afraid that my eyes were playing tricks on me. So there are actually two of them!”

“Well, sort of, though they both go by the same name when they’re at home. They say that they can be told apart by their hair – one of them is just slightly darker – but they never made it entirely clear which one of them is which, and I think they like it that way. Conversing with them is a little unsettling – they each pick up the other one’s thought before they’ve quite finished speaking it. And I’m virtually certain they can see out of each other’s eyes, whenever they take a mind to. But I only got to know all that later. At the time I just guessed they had to be the youngest sons that Fëanor had spoken of so fondly as we were walking in the forest.

‘Come, stranger!’ said one of them. ‘We’ll leave them to their reunion.’

‘This could take years,’ agreed his brother.

‘But we have not forgotten our duties to our guests, even if they have.’

‘The way they’re taking on, they’ve forgotten three ages of the world.’

‘And their own names.’”

There came an echoing peal of laughter that rippled back and forth between the two youngest sons of Fëanor; conversation had gradually faltered and Frodo’s audience had expanded still further as he spoke. Though Ambarussa laughed to hear their own words retold, Frodo did not seem to be disconcerted at all. He looked up at them, and went on, “It wasn’t actually years like they threatened, but it was definitely long enough to make things quite awkward – at least for me, because I am only a hobbit after all, and I had figured the business about spending whole seasons gazing into each other’s eyes was just poetry.

“At last, one fine morning, when the two of them had finished sounding the depths of each other’s souls, or whatever it is that the Eldar are doing when they look at each other like that, they came into the great hall, hand in hand, looking positively light-hearted. They laughed more than they spoke, and they spoke a good deal.

"But Ambarussa – “ he nodded to them, “- had been perfectly content to welcome me to the halls, and to show me around, in the meantime.”

“The Oromar Sarnaherion!” said Ambarussa, picking up the thread of the story without a pause. “The Halls of the Stone-Women. Not that all our mother’s guild are women, of course, though most of them are. And not that all our mother’s works are stone, either! So officially the story is that the name is because of the columns on the house.”

“The great porch of the central hall,” his twin continued, “one of the wonders of the Blessed Realm, and the first of its kind, though the style was picked up all through this land. All the supports of the house are women, carved in white stone and bearing up the weight of the roof.” As he spoke, an image rose suddenly before Sam’s mind and it seemed as if he saw the place they spoke of and the mighty stone figures beneath the roof of the wall. They were all different, and all graceful, but some of them appeared to be almost dancing beneath their burden while others strained to bear it up.

“A mighty work,” said Fëanor softly, turning to his wife.

“Do you say so? I did greater works before it; I have done greater things since.” And for the first time even Sam could see the darkness of the past still threaded through the brightness of the company.

Her voice was low and resonant, vibrating with three ages of tears shed and unshed. “You know what it is to have the greatest works of your hands torn from you,’ she said. ‘What about the greatest works of your body? You did not leave me even one, Fëanaro, even a little one.”

One of the twins made as if to rise, but his brother laid a hand on his arm.

“There is only one thing I would have claimed to the world’s end, and I knew that I could not. I could not bind your wills to mine. I loved you then, as I love you still. For the sake of that love I left you once, for the sake of that love I watched each of you leave me.”

Fëanor bowed his head. “There is nothing that I can change about what is past,’ he said, ‘and little that I would. But I am sorry. O my second person, my incommensurable one, that I should ever have done my Enemy’s work of breaking the trust between us, I am sorry. The one who spoke so has gone; he fell to ashes in the darkness of the Ered Wethrin.”

“I know he did. As I knew when one by one my children perished; in the teeth of their oath, on the swords of their kin.”

“I thought that not even an echo of our lamentation came over the mountains?” Celegorm’s voice was lazy and dangerous.

“I am no Vala,” she said fiercely, “who can choose to turn away. I am your mother. I could not shut you out. Slain ye may be and slain ye shall be, by weapon and by torment and by grief... They spoke no such doom to we who remained, but people did die. People died, here in the Undying Lands, after the Exile, when they learned what it meant to be sundered from the ones they loved, sundered from the better part of our people, sundered, as it seems, beyond hope of repair.” The eyes of all the company were on her now, but she was looking into the vanished past. Her hands gathered and creased the cloth that rested in her lap, folding it and refolding it into forms that appeared and were lost again.

“They came to me,’ she said, “for portraits of their lost kindred. For a long time I refused. For many years of the new Sun I would do no work at all that showed any of the Noldor. It twisted my heart to think of them gazing at those unmoving faces, speaking to them the words that their beloved ones now could not hear. Sorrow wears away the spirit as water wears away stone. But it is through the wearing away of stone that images are revealed.”

“I suppose that is more blood to be laid to my account, then.”  Her husband set his long graceful hand on her square, capable one. “But you endured, and death has never touched you.”

“Tell me the fate of my husband,’ she said, ‘and tell me what became of all of my children, and then look me in the eye and tell me whether death has touched me.”

Fëanor met her eyes, and the air between them seemed to tremble, and for a moment Sam wondered if they were going to fall into one of those weeks-long stretches of contemplation that Frodo had just been speaking about. Celegorm evidently feared the same thing, for he hastened to divert the conversation.

“And you, brother?” he asked of Maglor. “In all the ages of the world you have never trodden the lonely paths from Mandos, never paced the darkened Halls of the Dead. What would you say? Would you say that death has touched you?”

Before Maglor could make any kind of reply to this, Curufin cut in. “Leave the poetry to the poet, brother. No one paces the Halls of the Dead, not even you.”

“No?” Their long ages of separation had not entirely effaced Maglor’s ability to talk over his brothers. “Shall I tell you of the paths that I trod? Shall I tell you of the slow centuries that beat and broke against the shores of Middle-Earth, while kingdoms rose and fell, powers came into being and passed away, and the world itself was cracked in two? Death has touched me. Death has touched Arda. Death is at work within it even now.”

“Excuse me,” Sam broke in, “what kind of talk is that for a reunion? Death at work indeed! All of you look perfectly healthy to me, even if some of you, as you say, have been dead at some point -”

“Some of us?” Celegorm laughed, showing his teeth. “No, almost everyone here! Except Elrond, and Maglor, and our mother herself – and you mortals, I suppose.”

Frodo was nodding. “It’s true, Sam. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can see it directly.” Sam cocked his head and looked at them, searching for evidence of his words.

“See it?” asked Caranthir, noting his interest. “Even you mortals? Tell me, Guest, what of death do you see in us, whom death cannot sever from the world?”

“Well, it’s in your faces, of course,” said Frodo, “but not just that, the way you move.” He scanned the company. “Even to my eyes, those ones who’ve died stand closer together, and there’s nothing on earth like their stillness at rest. Altogether they seem brighter, if you know what I mean. I think it’s the contrast: the darkness of the Halls against the light of memory.”

“Returned from the dead!” said Sam. “Well, thank goodness that part isn’t talked about in the Shire. As if they needed any more trouble distinguishing between Elves and ghosts! Not that anyone who’s seen your folk could mistake them for ghosts. Indeed,” he added, peering at the company, “it’s more I feel like a ghost myself by contrast.”

Even Maglor, who on the shores of Mithlond had seemed faint and hard to see, seemed now to reverberate with life. The years seemed to be falling from him, the sorrow of the ages evaporating like dew in the morning sun.

“That’s something to do with Middle-Earth itself,” said Frodo, “its age and its marring, and, I think, the loss of the elves themselves. I don’t think in this land it’s possible to fade.”

 

The afternoon wore away to evening on the slopes of the Lonely Isle, and the sinking sunlight skimmed over the water, crowning the dark blue waves with orange and gold. And still there the company showed not the slightest inclination to disperse, and still there was more to be told of the doings on both sides of the ocean. Elrond was hungry for news of his daughter, and Sam was pleased to be able to retell, at considerable length, the account of Elanor’s time in Arwen’s service.

Afterwards, reclining on the hill, Sam drifted off into a doze, in which the sounds of the voices of the Elves and the warm presence of his old friend at his side all blended together like the surging of the quiet sea against the wall below. He woke to find the rising, for once, better than the dreaming. It was full dark now, though he had no idea how far the night was gone. Someone must have come along and strung paper lanterns from the trees, for above them globes of soft light swayed in the night breezes. The evening had turned cool, and the feel of the air had changed. The flowers of the night-blooming trees had opened, and their scent, stronger and sweeter and wilder than that of the blossoms of the daylight, came to him on the night-breath of the island. He found himself wrapped in a blanket; someone had covered him as he drowsed.

He sneezed, and rubbed his eyes, and sat back up. The conversation continued unabated around him, mixed with snatches of song and the occasional heated argument followed by rounds of embraces. Someone had modeled an entire contour map of Aman into a cleared section of the sandy soil. The food was still not exhausted, and one of Maglor’s brothers had brought out little charcoal braziers and was brewing a sweet pungent tea in iron pots. Sam surveyed the scene for a while, in deep contentment, before he spoke.

“You know,” he said to Frodo, who had not left his side, “the way Maglor was talking, I don’t think he expected to see anyone here at all. But I’m glad to see that perhaps things weren’t so bad as he made them out. Everyone seems – well, happy. Sound.”

“It does seem like that, doesn’t it?” It was Gandalf who answered. “But everyone has come a very long way to be here, and, if you can believe it, your strong-voiced voyager isn’t the one who’s come the farthest. There’s distance of the mind and heart, you know, as well as distance over sea.”

Frodo seemed to agree. “And I’ve been meaning to ask you, Gandalf, how did you find out about Sam and Maglor coming anyway? Not that anything you know can possibly surprise me anymore, but I was curious.”

“I get my news from a variety of sources,” the old wizard replied, “and I can’t be expected to give away all my secrets.” He could not, however, make any sustained effort toward maintaining an air of  mystery, and continued after only the barest attempt at sinking back into an inscrutable silence.  “This particular news I got from my old master Irmo. If people are going to be passing messages to each other in dreams, you may be sure that he has had something to do with it, and he is an incurable gossip.”

“Your old master?” Sam found it impossible to imagine Gandalf as anything other than the oldest and wisest of any company he found himself in.

“Indeed yes, Master Samwise. I began as a gardener like you, though my fireworks are better than my vegetables ever were. I tended Lorien’s gardens when I was younger than you are now, and though I have been in the Elder King’s service for most of the ages of the earth, there’s always a place for me with the younger Master of Spirits. I find him more congenial company than his brother; I have always had more to do with what might be than what must be.

“And of the things that might be, the restoration of Fëanor’s fallen house is one that even the wise did not dare to look for. But there is more in you – in all of you, I mean, in the Children of the One – than any of us are quite capable of comprehending.”

Fëanor himself, hearing this part of the conversation, made his way over to them and sat down between Sam and the wizard. “Do you say so, Gandalf? You seem to have better comprehension than some higher than you.” He looked out over his sons, warmth in the scintillant light of his grey eyes. “In truth, though the work of restoration is long, I returned to find the greater part of my labors had been accomplished, or at least begun, by my sons. Ambarussa had toiled for slow centuries in the harbors of Alqualonde the Swanhaven; Maedhros had sued for pardon before Elwing the White, Tyelkormo rode again in Oromë’s train with Nimloth’s murdered children. They have lightened my toll beyond my desert, but much work remains -”

Maglor, though, had caught on one of his words. “Elwing?” he asked, with a quick glance from Elrond to Maedhros and back again. “You mean - she was willing to speak with you?”

“In the end, she was,” said Maedhros slowly, looking off into the night sky as if searching for one star in particular. “She refused our brothers, one by one and then all together, as was her right. When I returned to the world, last of the sons of Fëanor, to face among the living the crimes for which I had chosen death, I sent to her as well. She had not suffered the least by my deeds, and I sought to acknowledge before her the evil I had done.”

Even those of his brothers who had heard his account before were listening, and Fingon quietly changed places so as to sit beside him. Maedhros’s eyes did not leave the sky.“I did not expect a reply,” he went on. “But after much time had passed, I received word back from her. She would hear me, she said, and no more. And so I came to her tower by the sea, empty-handed, as I had once come in arms.”

Elrond looked at him sharply. “I heard nothing of this.”

“No? She has not spoken of it to you, then? I’m not surprised, I suppose; she has, in her way, farther to travel than the Mariner her spouse before she can see you with eyes unclouded. Murder, and theft, and the homes she could never return to… Well, there is healing in Aman, or so it is said anyway. But healing’s neither an easy process nor a comfortable one.” He glanced at his foster-son under his brows. “As you have more cause than most to know.”

“She did not wish to look at me, at first, and so I waited before her while she looked out at the ocean. At last she turned to me, and in her face I saw the shadows of old terror, and the pale light of a hatred that had never grown old.

“I don’t think, though, that I was quite what she was expecting. She had seen me before, of course, but that was long ago, and…” He considered for a minute, but then thought better of adding anything to the description of the last time that he had encountered Elwing the White in the burning Havens at the mouths of Sirion.

“‘Are you changed, Kinslayer?’ she said to me.

‘Changed?’ I said. ‘Yes. I will never be free of my deeds, though I am free of what drove me to them. If I am to return living to this world, it cannot be as I was.’

‘So you propose to make amends?’  

‘There is no amendment I can make for the wrongs that we have done you,’ I said. She turned away from me with a high harsh sound, somewhere between a laugh and a scream, like the cry of a sea-bird.

‘You slaughtered my parents,’ she said, looking out at the ocean, ‘and stole my children. That you should live in the world at all is an injury, that you should walk free in this holy land is an insult. Why do you think you have the right to speak to me?’

‘Because, Lady,’ I said, ‘I too know what it is to have chosen my own destruction.’

“The anger that burned in her then was like fire on the seashore, cold wind and searing heat. She did not deny it; she could not, and I perceived that it was not for me alone that she carried her hatred. I am the only one of the whole race of the Eldar to have slain myself - as Mandos keeps reminding me - but I am not the only one to have tried.”

There was a quick movement and a low stifled sound from Maglor, but his brother went on. “That, I think, was why she had agreed to see me, even if she could not yet say it even to herself. It is a grievous thing to confess, and a still more grievous knowledge to bear alone.  

“And so, I think, there was something like relief in her voice when she spoke again. ‘My husband does not know my anger, nor does he understand it. How can he? It was not his parents who lay in their blood in Doriath, not his brothers who starved in the forests. He chose the sea for love; he left his children lightly and in the hope - in the hope of return -’

‘You abandoned your children and killed yourself for the sake of the Silmaril,’ I said. ‘I know what that means. I did the same thing.’

‘I do not want your pity, Kinslayer.’

‘Is it my judgement that you want?’

"Dior’s daughter turned to face me with cold fire in her eyes. ‘Do you dare to compare your deeds with mine?’

‘May the mercy of the Valar save you,’ I said, ‘from ever having deeds to compare with mine.’

‘It already has,’ she said, and turned back to the ocean.

"I came to stand beside her at the window; she flinched but did not send me away.

‘The holy light has blinded me,’ she said at last, ‘and I do not have the darkness of Ilmen, as my husband does, nor the darkness of Mandos, to clear it from my eyes.’

"We watched together as the night wore away, as the Evening Star moved through the heavens and turned again to the earth and towards us.

‘The star returns,’ she said, ‘and it is time for you to go.’ I do not know whether she did not trust me in the presence of one of the Silmarils, or if she wished to spare me what she thought would be a source of pain.  ‘I do not forgive you,’ she said as we parted. ‘But perhaps one day I will thank you. For the care that you took of the children that you stole. If there is not world enough for reconciliation, is there world enough for anything?’

"And I have thought of her words often,” said Maedhros, “in the years that followed. I do not believe that she has forgiven me yet, but she has not chosen despair. Still, Maglor, you owe her a visit as well. She will not, I think, refuse to see you now, for the sake of her children and the son who has been restored to her.”

“In the end,” said Elrond, and it seemed to Sam that he was not speaking to anyone present, “love endures longer than anger.”

“So we must hope, at least.” Fëanor shook himself; the whole company had fallen silent while Maedhros spoke.

“Hope?” retorted Maglor. “I assure you that on the far side of the sea, there is general agreement among the Wise that your own anger would outlast Arda itself. If there is something stronger than anger that pulled you back to the world, that is hope indeed, and more than hope; perhaps Arda may be restored after all.”

“Though some people seem have gotten quite the wrong idea about what restoration means.” Celegorm added, shaking his head.

“The lost Eldar being gathered to these shores? Fëanor returned from death?” Ambarussa seemed to find the whole thing amusing. “Uncle Nolofinwë had his hands full persuading some that the End of the World and the Final Battle were not at hand. He nearly had to get the Valar themselves to attest to it.”

“Some even seemed to be expecting you to lead the armies of Valinor against Morgoth returned,” Curufin added. “Why they should think of that as a good thing, given your record as a leader of armies, I’m sure I can’t say.”

“There are others who hope that your return means something else, you know,” said Caranthir, with a glance at Elrond where he sat beside Maglor. “That you can do something about the fading. The disconnect. The way that we grow weary of the world we were meant to inhabit.”

“Surely that’s not a problem here, though?” Sam broke in. “Maglor, you were talking about fading, back on the other side of the sea, but isn’t that something healed in Aman? Why, I think I can already see you better. Though that might be my eyes, not you.”

Maglor shrugged. “We will end with the world, we say. Certainly we cannot wholly end before it; its limits are ours.”

“Its limits are ours,” echoed his father, and began to sink into an abstraction. But Sam was still chewing over the talk of fading and of disconnect.

“That’s not right, though,” he said slowly. “Ending with the world, I mean. At least, that isn’t how it looks to us who live in it! Why, I recall the tears on little Elanor’s face, when I first explained to her that Master Elrond from the stories was gone, and the Lady Galadriel too, and that all the Elves were leaving the world forever. I dried her tears, and I told her of the Queen in Gondor, and the light that still lingered, but I can’t say as I didn’t want to weep with her in that moment. But then I suppose you know all about that,” he said hastily, suddenly embarrassed at the recollection of Elrond’s own parting from his daughter.

“Yes,” said Elrond dryly, “but having spent time with the House of Fëanor, I think, gives one a good deal of perspective on what can and cannot be cured within the circles of the world.”

“And so we who shaped Middle-Earth and were shaped by it must leave it at the last,” Maglor seemed almost to be testing out a line of verse. “We must leave home for home, for the land of long memory.”  But Elrond was not following his words, but rather the motion of his hand.

“Some wounds may be cureless, but this –” he took Maglor’s injured hand gently in his own, “– this is not beyond my art. Why did you never come to me for healing?”

Maglor looked away.

“I looked for you,” Elrond said quietly. “I looked for you for years.”

“I know. I did not wish to be found.” The air between them seemed to change, to grow heavy and charged as with a shift in weather, and Sam recalled that the Eldar were said to speak at times without voices, one mind to another. He looked at his side for Frodo, but found that he was gone.

No one seemed to have taken any notice of it – conversations, and the people in them, were continually shifting and recombining – but Sam thought of the drift of the speeches he had heard and came to a pretty shrewd idea where Frodo might have gone. He picked himself up off the ground, and quietly slipped out of the lantern-light and down towards the water.

As he had expected, he found Frodo sitting on the sea-wall, looking out Eastwards across the empty water.

“Are you all right?”

“Oh yes.” Frodo made no move to get up, but indicated with his hand the wall beside him, and Sam, not without some protest from his aging knees, took the seat.

“Do you know,” he said, “I believe you are. I never doubted it, of course, when Gandalf called you away with him. But it was hard, it was. I tried to picture you as you might be in the country of the Elves, whole and sound again, but I didn’t know what it was the Elves might do for you.

"They always seemed so much stronger than us, what do they know of what it means to, to...” He trailed off and tried again. “But then Maglor was telling me, on the journey over, of their oath and how it ended. Such a terrible thing it seemed. Reminded me of such things as I wouldn’t want to speak of. I didn’t know such things could happen to the Elves. He didn’t seem to think it was something that they could come back from, but they did, you did, and everyone’s come home, even here across the Great Ocean at the very end of the world.”

“We have been nearer linked with Fëanor and his kin than we suspected, and for longer than we knew,” Frodo said. “Before your voyage; even before the star-glass.” He looked out at the sky, where the evening star blazed above the horizon. “Fëanor’s grandson, do you remember, made those letters on the gates of Moria so long ago –“

“And that wasn’t all he made!” Sam exclaimed, his face darkening at the recollection. “You said, back there, that you had worked it out between you, but I’m very curious as to what he could possibly have said or done that would have made up for what he set loose in the world.”

“Made up for? No, that wasn’t it at all. He – well, I’ll tell you the whole story.” Frodo settled into the familiar story-telling mode as the waves washed against the sea-wall, and the lights of the gathering flickered in the distance behind them.

“I didn’t meet him until I had been at the Sarnaherion for some months. He had been travelling, I learned later, into the heart of the mountains, where the Lord Aulë has his halls. There’s been a long estrangement between Fëanor’s house and the Power who favored them for so long, but Celebrimbor had been at work to repair it. He and Aulë seem to have some kind of understanding between them. It wasn’t until I put some thought into it that I realized just where that understanding might come from – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“I had no notion he was coming until he walked into the library one cool evening, dusty from the road. He was looking for me; someone must have told where I was. But at first, though, I think he was almost as taken aback to see me as I was to see him. It didn’t make him any less gracious to me, but I don’t think he was expecting to be – well, to be recognized like that, any more than I was.

“I knew him at once. Not just because he looks so much like his father and his grandfather, but – well, you saw it too, didn’t you? When you met him? I think no one who’s borne any of the Rings can help but see it.”

Frodo looked down thoughtfully, dangling his feet above the spray of the waves. “I found it very hard to be in the same room with him. I felt partly like I wanted to run away, and partly like I wanted to strike him. He made me very uncomfortable.”

“I should think so!” Sam interjected, the long miles of Mordor rising again in his mind, the terror and the thirst, the fiery distance in his master’s eyes, the creeping fingers of Gollum. “After what he did! And I don’t care if he did make the Lady’s Ring, not for all the good it did. You may say that it was worth it, but you’d have to be a bigger person than me, or a greater one anyway, to say so!”

“No, it wasn’t that. I’d forgiven him for all that, years ago, before I even crossed the ocean. How could I not?  And I don’t want you to think that forgiveness was some sort of effort on my part; it seemed to puzzle Fëanor, but you must know what I mean.”

“You always had pardon readier to hand than I could be quite happy with, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

“Does it seem like that, to you?” Frodo looked at his hands and then back at Sam, his face sad and almost stern. “But the idea of forgiveness is one thing, and the practice of it quite another. I’d spoken very grandly of not holding anything against the Ring-Maker, but when it came to meeting him face to face, I... I wasn’t uncomfortable because of who he was, or what he did, or even because of what I did. I think it was because he was so comfortable himself. Does that makes sense? He carried himself easily, lightly even, in spite of everything.

“Well, I was standing there, tied in knots, courtesy forgotten, trying to think of what it was I ought to say, to do. This didn’t surprise him in the slightest.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’ve...” and I ran out of words, which would be embarrassing enough among the Eldar, but I was too distressed even to feel the embarrassment.

‘I can see it, and I’m sorry,’ he said ‘You’re not the only person I have that effect on, if that helps. I can go away again, if you’d like.’

‘No, don’t,’ I said. There was no help for it; I had to go on, straight to the end of whatever it was that had been set off.

“It was... it was just that I recognized him so clearly. That intelligence, that fire, was the kind that created the Rings, and I could see just how much of him was in it. Yes, even in the One. What I saw in him was the Ring itself, and its lord. That part that wasn’t – that wasn’t lying when it said it was precious.”

Sam started at hearing Frodo speak so directly of the Ring, but he held his tongue.

“And that was what was so hard to bear. Do you know how long I have been trying to purge that out of myself? I had to believe that it was nothing but lies, even if I surrendered to those lies in the end. Yes, the Ring was precious to me. But you need only look at Smeagol to see the final effect of that love. It leaves you gibbering in the dark, whispering your own name to yourself... And knowing that, I did not have the strength of soul to look at my own heart without disgust.

“Yet there he was, neither poisoned nor consumed. He wasn’t trying to scour that out of himself. He didn’t seem to feel the need to.

"So I sat there before the fire, and I said nothing. He sat down beside me, so much like Fëanor that I might have been back in the forest under Mandos’ walls. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and we knew each other far better than either of us had any right to, and all at once we found ourselves laughing, Sam. Laughing, if you can believe it, because it was all so perfectly absurd. What should the greatest craftsman of the Second Age have to do with one of the Bagginses of Hobbiton? And it wasn’t as if our mutual acquaintance was in any position to introduce us! ‘Ah, I see you know my friend and collaborator Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor...’

“He was the first to catch his breath. ‘I have been waiting to meet you,’ he said. ‘When I heard you’d come to these shores, I wanted to seek you out directly, although Elrond told me I had better hold off.’

‘I can see why!’ I said, sobering again.

‘I wanted to thank you. To apologize. And I wanted –‘ He paused. I think he was trying to gauge if he could say this to me or not. ‘I wanted to know what happened to him.’

‘So it’s true. He was your friend.’

He said nothing, but bowed his head in assent.

‘You miss him.’

‘I do.’”

Sam nearly choked on his own indignation, but Frodo was calm, somewhere between reflection and deep relief. “Well,” he said, “there it was. I might have asked him why, or even how, given how dreadful an end everything came to with the forging of the Rings, but I found that I didn’t need to, and after a minute, unprompted, he began to speak of it.

‘He was... generous, once,’ he said. ‘Proud, and beautiful. A mind like the core of the sun. He looked out on Middle-Earth – once – and saw what I saw: a place that might be healed and strengthened and made whole. And we lifted up our hands together to that work.

‘How can I recount the first glory of what we wrought together? The secrets of the world unfolding before us.  Gazing into the hidden fires at the heart of creation, drawing beauty and strength out of even the marred world. Valinor itself in its noontide could have been no more blissful than Eregion in those days.

‘O my city!’ he said softly. ‘O my friend!’

I saw that I had come upon something quite deep and dreadful, and I was rather afraid of what I might end up saying. All at once I missed Bilbo desperately.”

“Well, of course you would!” Even at Frodo’s account of the memory of distress, Sam felt himself distressed too on his behalf, and he felt, not for the first time, the unfairness of the whole thing. “These quarrels among Elves, and higher than Elves – how did we ever end up mixed up in them? It’s not natural for us hobbits. You wanted someone of your own kind, someone who understood you.”

“I wanted someone who didn’t understand me quite so frightfully well! Even the wisest ones – Elrond, say, or Galadriel – they’d never seen Sauron as anything other than an enemy. But Celebrimbor turned to me again, and there was wonder on his face. ‘I did not expect to find pity for him from one such as yourself.’

‘I did not know what he was,’ I said, ‘and I don’t expect I ever will, not really, not like you at any rate. What do I know about the hidden fires at the heart of creation? But I did see something of what became of him.’”

Sam scowled. “Yes, and so did half the Armies of the West, evidently! But look, I don’t see what business he had dredging up that terrible time, not when he could have asked anyone coming from over the Sea how the War ended!”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about that at all! You’re right, everyone does know about the fall of the Dark Tower. And that wasn’t what I told him about. No, I told him about Smeagol. Gollum, I mean, because that was what Gollum was, on the inside. Gollum had almost nothing left of him but the Ring, and you know what, you know who the Ring really was. Not the power and the majesty that the it promised, not the soul-stripping terror of the Eye or its servants, but that creeping, whining, muttering anguish, at once lust and poisonous hatred; precious, in the end, to no one but himself. The darkness, the gnawing hunger, and the endless self-justification – do you recall Gollum’s story of his birthday-present? It seemed to strike Celebrimbor, at any rate.

‘Gifts?5’ he said, more to himself than to me. ‘Still?’ Then he sat quietly for a long time before he spoke again.

‘It grieves me, but it does not surprise me. There was no other end to the path that he chose the minute he poured himself into that ring.’

“I had wondered about that – not for Sauron, I mean, but for Gollum. If there could have been some other end to the path that he chose. That was the other part of the story I told: the way that in spite of the Ring, in spite of everything, there was still something left of Smeagol. Something that was fighting to come home. I know you never trusted him, but –“

“And I was right about that, too!” broke in Sam. “No, but I was sorry for him in the end, miserable old slinker that he was.”

Frodo looked at him seriously. “I am glad to hear it,” he said. “And do you know, even there, Celebrimbor seemed to see some kind of echo of... of the person he’d known?  ‘He tried to be something more than he had been,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it was a weak repentance, driven chiefly by fear, but there may have been something in him that was not wholly beyond cure. Even if that cure did not succeed, and the healed person who might have been was lost altogether... And pity’s all that’s left, at the last. Pity for him, and pardon for yourself.’

‘The pity I had for Smeagol did not save him,’ I said.

‘No. Pity alone cannot save,’ he said. ‘I believed there was a chance for him, the partner of my labors, the friend of my heart. It was not, in the end, a chance he took. The hand I reached out was broken by what it sought to grasp. And I went to my death knowing that he was gone beyond recall. He took everything from me but the mercy that I offered.’

He held out his hands - which are uncannily like his grandfather’s, even more so than their faces – and looked at them, in the flickering light of the fire.

‘Don’t be too hard on yourself!” I protested. ‘He never did touch the Three, and that was thanks to you, as I understand it.’

“He smiled sadly. ‘I asked Elrond about that too, you know, when I went to ask him about whether I should seek you out. Poor Elrond, he kept saying how good it was to see me well; I got the impression that he was surprised to see me returned to the world at all. The last time he’d seen me was under rather unpleasant circumstances, and he wouldn’t be the first to assume that the bitterness of my defeat and everything that happened after would keep me in Namo’s darkness for many long ages of the world.

‘But I asked him about the Three, since Vilya had come to him, and he had always been one to turn his hand to the work of healing. And so Elrond told me that their powers were fading from the world with the destruction of the One. He carried Vilya with him still; he had it there with him and I had not known it, for now it was indeed only metal and stone. Fair, but powerless. Memory and no more.’

“Celebrimbor looked away from me then, into the fire, and I know the look of a person who is remembering other fires and fiercer ones. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘He hadn’t, after all, been lying when he told me they contained more of his art than mine.’

“He told me then a little of what it had been like in Eregion, after Morgoth – the Old Enemy – had been cast down, and those who stayed in Middle-Earth were left to rebuild. Sam, do you remember those Elvish ruins that we passed on the way to Moria? At his words I saw them as they had been at the dawn of the Second Age, fresh-built and shining, gates flung open, echoing with the sound of song and the sound of hammers, and many tongues of Elves and Dwarves and Men.  And do you know what it reminded me of? The Great Year, Sam, 1420, with you and the Mayor’s Men mending and building up and down the Shire, and the trees springing up like flowers, and the wounds of war bound up and healing.

“Fëanor’s grandson saw, I think, that my heart rose at the sight. ‘I repent nothing,’ he said fiercely. ‘No, not though it ended in fire and ruin. As fair as Aman, we said, for we love this Middle-Earth, and we were right to say it, to set aside secrecy and defense, fading and regret.I believe now what I believed then: we are made for more than memory. But...’

“And his thoughts dissolved into a tangle of images: I saw the gates shut and the towers broken, fire and steel, blood and ashes, and a ring gleaming on someone’s hand.

‘The goal we grasped for was right,’ he said, ‘but our means were wrong – perhaps fundamentally so. Almost at the end he reproached my tears, and he mocked me, saying that from the beginning, the One had been the only possible end of the work that we had set out to do. And he did not lie in saying so; we chose the path of power and paid the price of that choice, and others paid as well.’

‘If that was true, if it was flawed from the beginning,’ I said – and I would never have had the nerve to ask this, but there was no room between us to spare our feelings – ‘then why do you mourn him? What is there to mourn but your own loss?’

‘I asked myself that,’ he said, ‘in the long darkness of the silent Halls, and that question burned in me when everything else had burned itself out. Had he come to us bent on nothing but deception? Had there never been anything else in him but the will to see us corrupted?’

“He sighed. ‘That was certainly the choice that he made: he decided that this had been his plan all along. That was his choice, but it is not mine. Even if he had come to us with evil in his heart, his works were beautiful. Friendship may be feigned, good will a pretense, but not creation itself, no, nor joy in creation. No matter what violence you have done to your nature, if you have that, you still have something... He made nothing beautiful, you know, after the One, but there was beauty in the work we made together, and in the art that I learned of him.

“And so I say that there was once good there, that there was hope, and I will not cast that good aside because it was mingled with evil. I am the last one left within the circles of the world to have seen that good in him. But that doesn’t mean that it should be forgotten. It is all the more reason not to forget it.’

“And I knew just what he meant. It was the same with Gollum, at the other end of the Ring’s history. If ever he could have been healed of what it had done to him, of what he’d done to himself, it could only have been where he was. With us.”

“With you, you mean,” said Sam.

“With someone who knew what the Ring was. What it meant to carry it...” Frodo straightened. “But there was only ever a slim chance. And somewhere, it slipped away.

‘So you saw the Ring destroyed,’ Celebrimbor said to me. And I did not fail to notice he did not make the elision which practically everyone – deliberately or not – makes: you destroyed the Ring. I asked him about that, and he was surprised I even found it noteworthy. ‘Of course you didn’t destroy it!’ he said. ‘Not even its maker could have chosen to destroy it, and a creator can always unmake his works – though the price of doing so may be his own life.’

“His father – another Curufinwë, just to make things even more confusing – arrived at the hall a few days after him, and he seemed to really take to me once he learned that I’d been involved in Sauron’s defeat. I mean, my own opinion differs on who defeated whom, but he paid that no attention whatsoever. ‘Is that evildoer gone? And were you involved? Then I fail to see what else you consider relevant,’ he said. Well, he didn’t say evildoer, exactly – I got Fëanor to attempt a translation of the word he did use, and it lasted for five minutes and very nearly set my hair on fire.”

Thank you!” said Sam. “He seems to take a very sensible view of things, and I’d shake his hand, if he were here and I could be quite certain which one he was.”

Frodo laughed and drew his feet up. “Shall we go back to them?” he asked, nodding up the hill. Then he paused, looking into the darkness. “No, wait – bless my soul, they’re coming down to us!”

Sam heard them before he saw them, their fair voices carried on the night wind, and then their forms passing swiftly from shadow to sheen in the shade of the trees and the light of the brilliant stars.  Then suddenly springing out of the tangle of the strange sweet sound of the High-Elven tongue, he heard Fëanor’s voice raised in the Common Speech and it did not occur to him until much later that this was because he was speaking to him.

“Yes,” he was saying, as he came over the grass toward them, his wife at his side and his sons behind him, “some things there are that cannot be repaired. But what is there that cannot be remade? Ask Arda about the injury lodged within it, and then ask the weeping Powers if what is marred is wholly ruined, and what is wounded thereby destroyed? No, do not ask them, they know nothing about it. Ask the Secondborn, perhaps, who carry their death with them all their brief days, whether that has destroyed them, or whether they do not still raise their eyes to the light.”

Sam looked up at him. “Well –“

“Do your children grieve for our kind,” Fëanor went on, “over the Sea?  Do our people mourn here fruitlessly the loss of the world we loved? But on this night I do not think that anything is ended forever.”

He came to the edge of the sea-wall and stood between Frodo and Sam, looking out at the empty sea and the starlight glittering on the waves, and he seemed suffused with a kind of a brightness of thought, fire just beginning to catch.

“No, we are for the world,” he said, “and it is for us. Do you not see it? Elrond Half-Mortal, do you not see it? There, across the waters!”

“I see what is no more,” came Elrond’s voice from behind the hobbits, and Sam heard in his voice the age he had never seen in his face. “Númenor that is lost to men, and Middle-Earth that is lost to us.”

“Lost? So I said once of my children. So I said once of the works of my hands. So I said once of my own self, if it comes to that.  Light of the world poured into us,” he sang under his breath. “No, that is an old song. Let a new theme be joined to it; the time has come to give back the light that we were given.”

He tapped out a pattern with his thumb against his hand, softly muttering fragments of phrases. The two hobbits stared up at him, Frodo bewildered but Sam with dawning recognition. “To give back the light you were given?” he said. “Do you mean -”

“I do not mean that what has been will be again.” Fëanor paused in the flow of his thought. “Arda Healed is not Arda Unmarred; the Great Trees will not grow again and the Great Jewels will not be broken. No, it is a third thing; I mean the world will not be divided forever. There is a work before us, Mortal and Guest and Gardener, worthy of my kindred and of yours.”

 

***

 

It was not entirely true, as Sam had thought at first, that the Undying Lands knew no change of time or season. Harvest time came at last to the country behind the mountains, and in a time of warm days and cool nights, slanting golden sunlight and rustling golden leaves, he lifted the first crop of his Shire-bred potatoes, whose yield, as he had predicted, surpassed even the most generous estimates he had made at the planting.

He could not restrain his pride in his harvest, and proposed that they might get together for a celebratory supper with some of their old friends that they had known on the other side of the sea.  This idea was taken up with enthusiasm among his acquaintances, and before he quite knew what was happening, Elrond had organized not just a dinner but a feast; a First-Fruits festival to be held in his new-built halls, on the slopes of the Calacirya.

Sam privately decided that this was a good a time as any to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday, and Frodo’s, and, not without some trepidation, sent out a very nice formal invitation to Bilbo, and entrusted its delivery to Gandalf. The reply came back almost immediately, and though couched in innumerable pleasantries in the usual hobbit fashion, could be condensed to its first sentence and to its final post-script: Thank you, I shall certainly come, and I hope it will be all right if I bring a friend.

The feasting-hall was built over a branch of the mountain river. It ran straight through the middle of the hall, bridged with dozens of small graceful footbridges, then poured down just outside it, under the floor of the curving wooden balcony. Elrond’s mansions were crowded, both in the feasting-hall and elsewhere, his own people mingling with his guests. Frodo’s hosts had come up from their halls in the North, and Fëanor and his wife sat in the  hall while the brothers made their way to the kitchens, competing with each other over the preparation of dishes from the potato harvest.

“I never expected a crowd like this,” Sam confided to Frodo, the two of them having found a corner suitable for ducking out of the way until everything had been made ready for the feast. “Apparently Elrond invited his whole family.”

“What, all of them?” cried Frodo. “There’ll never be enough potatoes!”

“So I said too, but it seems he doesn’t expect them all to come. ‘And a good thing too,’ he said. ‘I have asked everyone very firmly to refrain from shedding the blood of their kin, but though the healing of the world may have begun, I don’t know if it’s gotten far enough yet to keep all them from each other’s throats.’ I hope he was joking, it’s so hard to tell with the Elves, and with Elrond especially. But I don’t think he’s half so serious as he seems, and he seems less grave here than he ever did back home in Middle-Earth.”

“It’s not any of Elrond’s family that I’m worried about, though,” said Frodo, dropping his voice still further, although this was a perfectly useless gesture among the keen-eared Eldar. “It’s him. Bilbo’s friend. There are plenty of people in this company who I wouldn’t expect to be able to hold a civil conversation with him.”

There was no need to indicate who he meant by him. Though Manwë Súlimo, Lord of the Breath of Arda, wore the dimmest of his shapes, wrapped in blue robes and in the form of a mortal man, his power burned through it like the sun through clouds. He sat at the table’s head at Elrond’s hand, and the currents of air and of attention in the room warped around him; he seemed at once too large and too bright to be contained in the hall.

“Brr! Yes!” said Sam, looking slantwise at him. “Still, I don’t suppose he’s actually going to set anything on fire?”

“No, that’s not his way. Try to avoid looking him full in the face, though; there’s only so far they can veil their nature and the effects can be unpredictable.”

“Speaking of setting things on fire,” said Bilbo, coming up to them, “keep an eye on the Fëanorians, can’t you?” He squeezed himself into the alcove beside them, laughing and pressing both their hands. He looked up toward the high table. “Or - no, it’s too late for that now. Dear, dear! The Lord of the West and the mightiest of the Noldor, sitting at the same table and glaring at each other like Sackville-Bagginses when someone mentions the word inheritance.”

If either of the hobbits had hoped to avert a confrontation between their hosts, it was now too late. Fëanor was on his feet before the Elder King, and though he bore himself tall and proud, he seemed suddenly small before him, like a spark caught by the wind. Silence fell in the hall. The flames of the torches all leaned toward the table as if drawn by a draft.

“Let us speak plainly,” Fëanor was saying. “If you mean to say that you and your kind have more power than me and mine, I will never deny it. If you mean to say that power gives you the right to rule us, I will never admit it.” He drew a breath, and stepped back. “But this is ill spoken, when we are both guests in one hall. Lord Elrond, I trespass your hospitality, and I ask your pardon.”  But Elrond had been watching both of them, his face immovable. Fëanor pulled his chair back, and sat down.

“Lord of Arda,” he said more quietly, “we have both come here among those who might, if they so chose, urge grievous claim against us. The words that I spoke once in darkened Tirion laid waste to the labors and the kingdoms of my kin. I labor now to heal the world I injured. You, on the mountain you raised against us, on the far side of the world that you sundered, why have you descended among us now?

Manwë looked back at him, long and searchingly, and when he spoke, his words unfurled before the speakers like a tapestry. They seemed more like a picture than a speech, like something seen all at once and from many sides.

“Son of Finwë,” he said, “long ago I chose this world over the unmediated and immediate presence of the One who dwells beyond it. I am bound to it, am bounded by it.

“Why do you think we raised the mountains so high? Why do you think we stood apart from Middle-Earth for so long while the people we loved suffered and died? And why do you think Earendil, bearing your jewel, could pass the way that was barred to so many before him? We could do nothing against him while he wore it; that would have drawn your oath upon the Powers themselves. That you and all the Noldor did not fear to lift up your hands against the Valar, you had proved in your bitter strife with Angband. That you and your sons could not be restrained by the bonds of law or righteousness or duty or kinship or even by your own hearts’ will, you had written in blood in Alqualonde and Doriath and Sirion. If I could have loosed your oath, I would have. But I could not risk drawing it upon us and on Aman and seeing the world made altogether dark.

“And so I learned what I had not understood though the One himself had shown it forth to me: his Children were beyond our authority and beyond even our power. We could not protect both you and this land.”

His voice was very quiet now, a summer wind in the tree-tops, but it echoed in the ears of every hearer in the hall. “Do you know how we loved you, when we first heard you raise your voices in song to the stars?’ Manwë said quietly. ‘Through your eyes we saw anew the beauty of all we had made, and we knew that it was all for you. You know what it is, Fëanor, the act of creation... As you poured yourself into your jewels, so we had poured ourselves into Arda, and in the coming of your people we saw at last the crown of all our labor. We wanted to give you everything, we wanted to see the splendor of the world we had shaped refracted again in the light of your eyes. We wanted to shelter you and nurture you and teach you everything we knew, but perhaps in our perilous love, we forgot one thing.”

“What was that?” The speaker was not Fëanor, but Elrond.

“To learn from you. In you and in you alone are the new thoughts of the One revealed to us, for you are his children, and not ours. We are not your parents, after all, nor even your rulers. We are, if anything, your brothers. Oh, Finwë’s son,” he said, “may we not say we begin to understand each other?” Sam saw Frodo stiffen in alarm, but after a moment Fëanor inclined his head, and a breeze rippled outward across the table.

“Well. I would not go so far as that,” said Fëanor, but the tension was broken, the hall breathed again, and as one of Elrond’s people sounded the call for the guests to be seated, Bilbo slapped Frodo’s knee.

“Bless my soul, so the old fellow really has been listening! That’s one of my own bits, you know, to learn from us.

“Really?” said Frodo, genuinely surprised. “What do you suppose they think about Fëanor’s plan to reunite the worlds again?”

“To what?” Bilbo blinked at him. “Well, I should hope they’d learned their lesson about stopping the Elves from doing anything, after how everything turned out in the First Age. And I don’t know – I can’t speak for them, bless me, but I think something has changed in them, after all. Or, no, not changed in them, but in the world. It is our world too, you know, as much as it is theirs, and they know that now, even if they still haven’t the least idea what to do about it.”

“Indeed not.” There was no room in the small alcove for anyone else to sit down, and so Gandalf stood before them, a shield for the moment against the eddying motion in the hall as the guests began taking their way to the tables. “You have always managed to surpass my hopes for you – yes, you too, Sam.” He saw Sam open his mouth to protest. “Do you think I am speaking in flattery? Believe me, all of you, I know the limits of your natures! You inhabit a corner of the world so small that it would scarcely account for a footnote in the history of your world, and your ambitions mingle potato-breeding and altering the nature of the cosmos without taking note of the difference!”

He cast his piercing eye over them. “But weak as you are, ridiculous as you are, you are the clearest view we have into the heart of creation itself. You did hear what Manwë said, didn’t you, about where you came from? Which means that if we want to know more of the Great Song, we could not do better than to follow your lead.”

Sam found his voice. “The Great Song? Why, I remember that story. But I thought that was just poetry?”

“Just poetry?” Gandalf exclaimed. “Why yes, it is just poetry; this world is just poetry, everything that you have ever seen or touched or known is just poetry. To deal in words and in music is to deal in the very stuff of creation itself.”

“So it’s true, then! The music, and all the world within it - But you were there, weren’t you?” He caught himself, remembering just who it was to whom he was speaking.

“I am there, Mr. Gamgee. I was present at the creation of the world. I am present as it is being created even now.”

“Created?” Bilbo broke in. “Do you mean that there is still – well, still work to be done?”

“Of course there is! Why do you think it’s fallen to this pack of kinslayers and oathbreakers to heal this injured world? For healed it will be, mark my words, though the labor be longer than that of the making or the marring. Now come sit down, or we will be missed, and I shall be reproved for keeping you from this company.”

 

The feast was begun, the potatoes praised, and the food and drink, the speech and the song, went round through the evening and into the night. Long before the Elves showed any sign of wearying of the feasting, Sam slipped away. Frodo and Bilbo both seemed entirely acclimatized to the customs of the Elves, but he was tired, and feeling the need of air and a bit of quiet.

Sam went out onto the balcony. Below him, the cataract poured down over the great dark rocks, and by the starlight he saw, perched on one of those rocks, another figure who had escaped the feasting, and at once he knew the shape. Maglor sang to himself and to the water, a song that Sam had never heard before from him or from anyone else.

He heard Maglor’s voice rising and falling, occasionally going back over a sequence of notes or adjusting a phrase or a turn of words. He watched him a long time before calling down to him:

“What is that you’re singing?”

Maglor looked up. “I did not see you there, Sam. I was lost in the music. Here it is in the Common Speech:

O Lords of Song,6 who ere the world was formed
within the vast abyss did body forth
the breathing world, join now your voice with mine;
For higher yet my song intends to soar
and overleap the mountains of the gods...

Or something like that,” he added, suddenly self-conscious. “I haven’t had the time to translate it properly yet.”

“It sounds lovely, anyway.” Sam leaned both his elbows on the carved wooden railing. “What are you going to call it?”

“Call it? Why, it is the Noldolante, the great epic of our people.”

“The Noldolante?” Sam recalled the name, and indeed portions of the song itself, from their long voyage.  “But I thought that was finished! It's a very famous song, isn't it?"

He heard Maglor’s soft laughter in the starlit darkness. "No more finished than the Noldor are finished, nor the story of their deeds. The first canto is the best known, of course. But the third has not been written." And he lifted up his voice again, beside the voice of the waters.