"...such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song."
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Ring Goes South," The Fellowship of the Ring
The valley was so different from my home. In Mirkwood we lived, always under the threat of our enemies, but here we were safe. It felt as if I have come out from a dark room into sunlight and the sky seemed to float so much higher above my head.
It was slightly unnerving to walk outdoors without a bow or knife in my hand. In Mirkwood I was raised never to go outside without a weapon and, as a prince, I had moved always with body guards until I was deemed old enough to look after myself. The earliest present I remember receiving from my father was a small, white-handled, dagger that I still carried in my boot top. I felt oddly light without the weight of quiver, bow and knives at my back, having to shift my centre of balance slightly as I walked, although it was freeing to be able to take a deep breath without the constraint of the quiver's harness across my chest. The air felt cold at my wrists without their leather bracers.
I could see that Aragorn was uncomfortable too. Like me, he was haunted by the presence of his weapon. Used to letting his left wrist drape over his sword hilt I caught him, several times, with a mild expression of surprise in his eyes as his hand continued, unchecked, to land on his thigh. Even though he had lived in the safety of Imladris for most of his childhood and many of his adult years, the tension of living outside had marked him and it would be several days before he grew used to his sword's absence. Even now, however, there was a lightness to his step that was almost elven.
The hobbits, of course, had no problem with weapons. I knew that they owned them but, as yet I had not seen them. At dinner the previous evening Elrond mentioned that their blades were very ancient and beautiful, but he did not say how they had come by them. I could not imagine that they would even know what to do with a sword. They looked perfectly at home among the trees and rivers of Imladris and I could picture them wielding nothing more dangerous than a fishing rod. I decided that I would dearly love to see this Shire that they talked of if it could produce such a hardy and open-hearted people, for they seemed to have fully recovered from the terrible ordeal of getting to this refuge. You would think they had not a care in the world and yet the Ring bearer and his servant, at least, had a great many.
In fact, it was only the Ring bearer, Mr. Frodo Baggins, that displayed any wariness. I supposed he had a right to do so. A morgul wound was not something to be taken lightly and he was still weak, although Lord Elrond allowed him beyond the gardens for the first time that day. I watched the other hobbits keeping one eye on him as we climbed the path. He stumbled at one point and four sets of hands reached out to steady him. He did not like that. I saw him glower at them and they released him, rather smartly. He may still have been weak in body but he was certainly not weak in mind. I knew the man, Boromir, thought him a little too innocent for the task he had set himself but I was developing a healthy respect for Master Frodo.
Boromir was a mortal, of course, so he could not see what I could. There was strength in this hobbit that had nothing to do with brawn. I could see a faint light shining in him. I mentioned it to Elrond once and his only response was to put his finger to his lips. I decided that I would mention it to Aragorn later. I do not think the other hobbits saw it but I do think that they sensed there was something special about their friend. Even without that knowledge I would have volunteered to go on the journey with him. I learned that there was a great deal to respect in that small person.
From what they told me as we walked, the Shire was very isolated and this world outside, wholly new to them. Elves were a thing of legend and even dwarves were seen rarely in their land. I was a little surprised, then, when I discovered that Master Frodo could speak Sindarin.
When I realised that our path from the garden was getting quite steep I called ahead to Aragorn, asking if our companion would manage. I spoke in Sindarin. The impoliteness of speaking in a language that the hobbits did not understand seemed preferable to embarrassing Mr. Baggins. I was horrified when a little voice at my elbow said, "I will be all right" in the same tongue. The accent was a bit rough, I grant you, but the syntax was perfect. I thought I had offended him but when I looked down he was smiling up at me from beneath slightly arched brows. I suspect he was rather pleased within himself for catching me out and his eyes were so merry that I could only laugh. "My apologies, Master Frodo. I did not know that I travelled with a scholar." He laughed out loud then. I think it was the first time I saw him totally free of shadow. When we had both stopped chuckling he switched back to Westron, in deference to his friends, who had watched the exchange in confusion. "I feel much better today, Master Legolas. I shall manage well enough. Thank you for the thought, though."
Master Baggins walked beside me in silence for a few minutes. "Was I grammatically correct? I haven't had much practice, although I have been listening a good deal since we arrived in Rivendell." "Yes, indeed, Master Frodo. The sentence was constructed perfectly. Where did you learn to speak Sindarin and why? There is surely not much call for it in the Shire, from what I have heard."
"Bilbo taught me. He used to try and translate bits of songs and poetry that he remembered from his visit to Rivendell. I think he sometimes used to meet some elves in the woods at the edge of the Shire. Some of them pass through the Woody End on their way to the Grey Havens. The language sounds so much more musical when elves speak it, though."
I suspected, from the standard of his Elvish, that he had made a few visits to the Woody End himself but I decided not to pursue the matter. "The speech rhythms are a little different to Westron, but they can be learned. Aragorn can speak it so I am sure you can improve. I will help you, if you wish." I did not tell him that, for most of his childhood, Sindarin had been Aragorn's first language. Frodo's smile broadened. "Thank you, Legolas. I would like that very much." We passed the next hour pleasantly, conversing in Sindarin about anything that came to mind. His vocabulary grew and the rhythms of his speech soon drifted into the patterns I was more familiar with.
It was at the end of that hour that we hit a particularly steep section of the trail. Aragorn was in the lead and he reached back to offer a hand up to each of the Perrianath in turn. Frodo was the last of the hobbits and I was at the rear of the party. I saw him halt and knew he didn't think he was going to make it, even with Aragorn's help on that last stretch. I was about to step up and offer my aid when I saw him square his shoulders and start forward again. He was very determined. Once or twice, when the other hobbits were not looking, I put my hand on his back to steady him and I was grateful when he did not pull away from me. He was not so proud that he was foolish. My father always said that it was a wise elf that knew his own weaknesses. When we reached the top Master Baggins nodded silent thanks to me.
The other hobbits were a mixed group but they all had one thing in common. They were totally devoted to this gentle hobbit. Peregrin told me that his cousin had intended to go to Bree on his own but that the three of them had conspired to go with him. He had been totally unaware of their scheming until his very last day in the Shire, a feat which I could only admire, having just tried to fool Mr. Baggins myself. How Peregrin Took had managed to hold his tongue during that period of scheming I would never know. The youngest hobbit seemed to chatter away from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep. Even the other hobbits would tell him to be quiet and they were much more talkative than any company I had ever been with. Most of what I knew of the Shire I learned from Master Peregrin Took that morning.
I learned that Frodo, Meriadoc, and Peregrin are related in some complicated way. Pippin spent the biggest part of half an hour trying to explain it. Out of politeness, I finally said that I did understand but it was not true. Their convoluted family trees left me totally baffled. I suppose, when they lead such short lives, the trees had more generations to get confused in. Samwise Gamgee was the only one not related by blood but he had been around Mr. Baggins for so long that he appeared to be accepted as part of the extended family. I found Master Samwise as intriguing as the Ring bearer. He liked to play the part of servant and the other three let him, to a certain extent. I suspect it was only his own feelings of inadequacy that kept him in that role, however, and that the other three would rather he called himself their equal. They never used him as a servant and would often tease him if he sank too deeply into the role.
He would have carried the food for our entire party if Meriadoc and Aragorn had not stepped in. As it was, I am sure that he still carried the greater share of our stores for the day. At least he had been spared the chore of carrying water. In my own woods many of the streams had been poisoned by orc, spider and other foul creatures so I had grown used to carrying water with me at all times. I was surprised, that morning, when I found no water canteens amongst our gear and Aragorn had to remind me that, in Rivendell, Lord Elrond controlled the rivers and streams and they ran pure and clear. We needed only to carry cups. I did notice that Aragorn has also packed a large skin of wine. I hoped it was the Imladris white that we had been drinking at dinner the night before. If there was one thing that father had instilled in me it was an appreciation of fine wine and it appeared that Elrond kept a very good cellar.
As the day drew on to noon our groupings changed. Meriadoc was talking to Aragorn and Frodo was strolling along by himself. Samwise was walking with Peregrin, for the moment, having just relieved his Master of the role of listener. During a merciful lull in Master Took's chatter Samwise spoke up, "I wonder what type of tree that is. I don't think I've ever seen the like before. Look at those strange shaped branches." Sam was pointing to a specimen to his left. "It is not native, this far north, Master Samwise," I cut in. "The shelter afforded by this valley allows it to survive the winters here. You will see it growing more widely as we travel south on our journey." I regretted introducing the subject of our quest as soon as I spoke. Both hobbits became pensive and Frodo slowed until we had caught him up. I tried to distract them. "Some of the trees around us will grow well, with a little care, in more exposed places." I went on to point out a few to the gardener and he began to brighten. Peregrin soon grew bored and ran ahead to join Merriadoc and Aragorn. I went on, naming the varieties that I thought they may not know, and Frodo helped him with the pronunciation of their names where I could find no Westron equivalent. I discovered that Samwise Gamgee had a great deal of knowledge about living things. He seemed to grasp, instinctively, how to nurture and protect them, and his skill was not just applied to plants. He had a knack for distracting Peregrin, when he was pestering too much and Frodo would accept his help when he would accept no other.
Frodo stumbled again but Sam threw out a hand and steadied him. I signaled to Aragorn that it was time for a halt. He led us to a little coppice by a stream, only a few yards from the path. It was there, in the dappled shade, that we ate our lunch. The wine was as good as I anticipated and all but Pippin drank their fill. Aragorn, thoughtfully, provided some cider for our youngest member but I suspect that Master Peregrin would have preferred the wine. Meriadoc was very protective of Peregrin and I noticed him slipping a couple of extra apples his way when he thought no-one was looking. For his part, Master Frodo ate little until he came under Aragorn's glare. I did not envy him being on the receiving end of one of Aragorn's "no nonsense" stares. I had fallen foul of one or two of them myself a few years ago, when I had been injured on one of our scouting expeditions. I well remembered their power. I noticed that the Ring bearer did not hold out long either and took the sandwich offered; a wise hobbit, that one.
I swirled the last of the wine in my cup, inhaling its fragrance. Master Brandybuck glanced across at me.
"It's not as sweet as the one last night, is it?"
I was surprised and yet I do not know why I should have been. Peregrin had advised me earlier that the Brandybucks were one of the wealthier families in the Shire. Meriadoc had probably sampled his fair share of fine wines.
"Indeed, it is not. But it is light and refreshing on a warm day like today. It is a shame we could not cool it more."
He chuckled. "I doubt my father would agree with you."
"Do fathers ever agree with their sons?" I interjected and that elicited a peel of laughter from him.
"Not in my experience. Mine always says that people cool white wine too much."
I smiled, ruefully. "Mine would say just about anything, as long as it was the opposite of whatever I said."
While Master Frodo ate his sandwich and Master Peregrin ate anything he could lay hands on, Meriadoc and I discussed the merits of the various wines with which we were acquainted and the peculiarities of fathers.
After our lunch break we resumed our journey. The path continued to climb but not as steeply. Suddenly we stepped out of a deep cutting and rounded an outcrop to find ourselves on a wide, grass-covered shelf, the steep, bare rock of the mountain forming a sheer wall behind us. I had not realised we had climbed that high, for before us lay the whole vale of Imladris. I cannot remember how long we stood there, in awed silence. To my surprise, it was not Peregrin that broke the spell but Samwise.
"Well. There's an eye opener, as my Gaffer always says."
Master Frodo sighed, "It certainly is, Sam."
Pippin ran to the edge and Aragorn grabbed his collar as he made to lean over. "Owww. I was only going to see how far down it was," he yelled, much aggrieved.
Meriadoc rushed forward and rescued him from Aragorn's grip, pulling him back with an annoyed look. "Honestly Pip. Your father will skin me alive if you fall off there."
"Who says I'm going to fall?"
Merriadoc only glared. I could see Aragorn trying not to laugh and I had to look away myself as Master Brandybuck tugged his cousin's jacket straight and gave him a playful cuff on the ear. I remembered getting similar cuffs from my older brothers when I was younger and my ears smarted in sympathy.
The sun was warm and the air fresh and scented with gorse. We spread out our cloaks and sat down to enjoy the view and while away the afternoon. At first, all eyes were drawn to the scene below us. It was a beautiful sight. The whole valley was nature, carefully managed, but not controlled. I could pick out where old and damaged trees had been felled and new ones planted to replace them. Hidden from view, below us, was Elrond's house, surrounded by its beautiful gardens; but among the trees, all about the valley were smaller houses where others of his household lived. The buildings were a mixture of stone and wood. They had no need to build for defense, as the valley was safe enough, so the buildings were delicately carved, with huge open windows and finely tiled roofs. In Mirkwood we were forced to live in stone buildings, for protection. Alone, of all the elves of Middle Earth, my family lived within a cave. It was a finely carved cave, with high bright windows but it was a cave. Gimli, Son of Gloin, had made much of that the previous afternoon when our paths had crossed in Elrond's garden. I hoped our relationship would improve by the time we set out with Master Frodo but, at that moment, I was sorely tempted to tie Gimli by his beard, to the topmost branch of the tallest tree I could find.
I was just trying to select the right tree when I felt Pippin flop down beside me.
"What are you looking at?"
I glanced around, hoping that Meriadoc would come and rescue me, but I was surprised to find that the other three hobbits were otherwise occupied. Samwise and Meriadoc were lying on their backs, reading shapes into the clouds, drifting by high above us.
"That one looks like an oliphaunt."
"Don't be silly, Sam. You don't even know what an oliphaunt looks like."
"Well, neither do you, so how do you know it don't look like one?"
I smiled, unable to fault Samwise's logic and, in front of me, I could see Aragorn's shoulders shaking with stifled mirth. Frodo lay alone. His eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell slowly. I guessed he was asleep. Not a bad thing. It had been quite a hike up here for someone still recovering from a major illness. I must confess to having been a little worried at my friend's choice of route but most walks in this steep valley went upwards and I supposed this one was no steeper than any other.
I felt a tug at my sleeve.
"I said, what are you looking at?"
I reconciled myself to the talkative hobbit's company. "I was just admiring the trees."
To my surprise, he replied, "They are lovely. Or rather, they're stately, aren't they?"
"They are, indeed. Elrond's people tend this valley well. Can you see, yonder, where an old oak tree has been felled and two young saplings planted in its stead?" I pointed across the valley. Peregrin leaned forward and squinted and I suddenly remembered that he did not have my elven sight.
"Where?" he asked.
"I am sorry, Master Peregrin; perhaps it is too far off for mortal sight. Over there, just below the waterfall."
He turned from me to the waterfall and back again, a look of open amazement on his face. "You can see that far?"
"Oh, my. You can call me Pippin, by the way. People only call me Peregrin when I'm in trouble."
"Then I shall call you Pippin, for you are not in trouble, at the moment." I looked at him sidelong, to see how he had received my teasing and was rewarded with a bright but quiet laugh. Although he normally spoke in a voice that carried far, he had lowered it now, in deference to his sleeping cousin.
"You come from Mirkwood, don't you? That's over the mountains behind us isn't it?"
I smiled. Geography was obviously not his strongest subject. "Well, it is over the mountains, but it is over those mountains." I pointed to our left, where the valley narrowed to a cleft between two peaks.
There were a few moments of silence as he absorbed that piece of information and I watched Aragorn shift his position in front of us so that his seated body shaded Frodo's face. The fact that Frodo did not blink at the change confirmed that he was, indeed, asleep. Samwise and Meriadoc were still talking softly but the conversation had moved on to the best way to cook a chicken.
"Living in a forest, I suppose you know a lot about trees," came Pippin's voice again.
"I suppose I do," I replied, trying to be non-committal until I could establish which way the conversation was heading.
He continued. "Elves are very good at climbing trees, aren't they?"
I paused to think a moment. "Some elves are, yes. Why do you ask?"
"I watched you jump up into that tree this morning."
I had done it without thinking. We had reached a fork in the path and Aragorn had been unsure whether to turn right or left. He knew that a large oak was the next landmark so I had climbed a nearby ash to see if I could spy it. I had spotted the oak's large canopy easily and shouted to Aragorn to take the turning to the left. Pippin had been standing at the base of the trunk when I'd come down.
"I was raised amongst trees. To me they are as easy a path as the one we used to get here today."
Pippin was picking at the grass at the edge of my cloak. "I've always been frightened of heights. Would you teach me how to climb a tree?" He looked up at me shyly.
"If you are frightened of heights, why do you wish to climb?"
"So I won't be frightened any more."
I had not considered that and yet I remembered my father making me learn how to ride at an early age because he had discovered that I was frightened of horses. I was so familiar with horses now that I had almost forgotten that early terror.
"Very well, Pippin. When would you like to learn?"
His eyes lit up. "How about, now?"
Mortals are so hasty and Pippin seemed more so than most, but I had seen enough of broad vistas myself and I missed the cool, dark woods.
I tapped Aragorn on the shoulder. "Pippin and I are just going back down the path a little way. We will return within a couple of hours. Pippin has requested a climbing lesson."
For a moment I thought Aragorn was going to choke with laughter but he managed to control himself. "I don't think I need to tell you not to get lost, do I?" was all he said. I gave him what I hoped was one of my most imperious glances and he rewarded me with another bout of coughing. I hope Peregrin did not notice that I was trying not to laugh, myself, by the time we left.
When he applied himself, Pippin was a very apt pupil. Remembering my first riding lesson I introduced him to the trees slowly. I started by showing him how to assess the bark; which bark would stay put and which would come away beneath his foot and throw him off the branch. Then I taught him how to read the shape of the tree so that he could plan his route. After that I led him a little way up a large, sturdy oak, that assured me it would not allow him to fall. By the end of half an hour he could climb several feet off the ground and we were sitting on a low branch, while he got used to this new perspective on the world. As we sat I pulled out my knife and showed him how to carve a whistle out of a small straight twig that he had found. I let him finish the last part of it himself and he was ecstatic when he blew its first note. I thought it was a little flat but it was his first attempt. I played a short tune on it that my older brothers had taught me when I was a child and he tried very hard to repeat it. Let me just say that there was room for improvement. Pippin, on the other hand, was overjoyed with his new found skill. I felt so happy for him that I made him a present of the little knife my father had given me, all those years ago. You would think that I had given him the moon and all the stars. I decided it would be prudent to lead him back down before he got too excited and fell off the branch.
If our companions were not already awake they certainly would have been when Pippin arrived. He had insisted on making a discordant noise with the whistle all the way back to our resting place. Fortunately, Samwise and Meriadoc were busy packing and Frodo was sitting, drinking some sort of tonic that Aragorn had provided. From his grimace I suspected that it tasted unpleasant. Master Brandybuck must have seen his face too, for as he finished it Meriadoc tossed him a small apple. Frodo caught it, expertly and quickly took a bite. Aragorn replaced the small bottle of tonic in Sam's pack and we all prepared for the return journey.
Pippin kept up a steady stream of noise all the way. When he wasn't trying to play the whistle, he was showing everyone his new knife or spinning tales of how high he had climbed while they slept. His tales were wildly exaggerated but I did not bother to correct him. He was having too much fun. As we reached the gardens of the house, Frodo drew back to walk beside me.
I was perplexed. "What for, Master Baggins?"
"Just plain 'Frodo' will do. We're going on a long journey together, you and I. I think we'd better set off on first name terms."
"Thank you, Frodo. But I am still puzzled. What do you thank me for?"
"I was so worried about Pippin. He doesn't show it, but he is upset about my leaving. I know he wants to go with us but I think he really is too young. The journey to Rivendell was so frightening for him and I should not have let him come this far. You have brought back the happy Pippin I knew in the Shire. Thank you." He looked almost as if he were going to cry.
"It was my pleasure, Frodo, but I think you underestimate him. Master Pippin has a bright spirit that will take a lot of quenching. In fact, I believe that is true of all of you. I have learned much today and I am honoured to be included in your company."
Pippin chose just that moment to pop out of the undergrowth at Frodo's side and let out a shrill blast on the whistle, right in his cousin's ear. Three hobbit voices yelled in unison, "Peregrin!" and the little imp ran, squealing, through the gate and into the gardens beyond, chased by three more hobbits threatening death by tickling if they caught him.
Aragorn and I could only laugh.
This was going to be a very interesting journey.