#13

In the quiet hour before sunset, Frodo wakes, heart pounding.  Abruptly he sits up and looks around.  Weren't there.... shadows of some kind?  Wasn't something watching him?  His right hand throbs painfully and instinctively he clutches the white jewel still hanging around his neck.  No, that didn't happen, that wasn't real.  He is breathing fast.  But something was here, or maybe it was himself who was somewhere... In the dimness he can see the furniture well and does not notice anything moving.  He tries to slow his breathing.  It sounds very loud.  His hand still hurts.  He crosses the room in the dark with certainty.  From the basin he throws water on his face.  He catches his breath then begins to breathe more easily.

‘Where am I?' he thinks with dread creeping in the back of his mind.  ‘I know this place but cannot remember it.  I know I am alone but I wasn't always so.  How long have I been here?'

Going to the nearest chair, he sits while still looking around.  Memory comes back with an almost physical impact.  He remembers waking this way many times.  His painful hand begins to ease but he does not loosen his grip on the jewel.  Without any haste he washes and dresses, then leans against the window frame.  The landscape is bathed in a sort of misty light.  Hills and roads stand out in odd shades of grey.  He knows that once the sun rises further things will look more as they should.  He is becoming used to seeing things in this "light".

‘Two more lives gone, and not even the work of orcs.  Two people who will never come back to their homes.  An absurd loss, an accident.  A loss that had nothing to do with the Great Darkness.  Or perhaps it did, perhaps that Darkness is the source of all loss.  Whither do we go, when our bodies die?  Do we vanish into that Gloom and disappear like the snows in April?  Does our agony remain, making us ever aware of our failings and losses?  The Elves have their place of unending peace but how shall the rest of the world fare?  Those who simply were taken away in a moment, having no crime on them then, whither will they go?  And if we will disappear, what then is the use of living?  Is that not a victory for the Darkness?'

The white jewel emits a delicate glimmer through his hand.  Frodo looks at it, turning the gem around.  It feels slightly warm and almost soft, as if it was part Elven cloth and part stone.  ‘The Light of Elbereth... the Light of Arwen Evenstar.  If we do not disappear, perhaps we become part of the Light.  Perhaps we are really meant to live and ease the way of others.  The Shire is safe now, I said that myself.  There is a King in Gondor again.  My friends have years ahead of them, they still have the Light inside themselves and do not need to search for it.  As for me, I think I will need to hold this to see it.'

Later, Frodo decides to visit Torold to see how he is getting along.  Torold has sent a few of his men along with Iris and Lily so Frodo volunteers to help take care of the cows.  Some were sold before the fields of Longbottom Leaf were planted so there is less work here than there used to be, Frodo is told.  He actually does little work, he mostly listens to Torold talk about how he met Iris and what the Gamwich family has been up to in Long Cleeve.  He describes his and Iris' early life together, how hard it was to get enough land and cows.  He never wanted to take anybody's money to help him so he did everything around the farm with hardly any help, at first.  Gradually he got a reputation as a fair man to deal with who would cheat no one.  Iris trusted him to make a good living and so he worked hard at it.

Torold fixes lunch and sets the table.  In the stillness both Hobbits look at each other.

"Well!" says Torold, reaching for the bread.  "Help yourself, Mr. Baggins!  It's not as fine a meal as Iris or Lily would make, but nobody's ever been sick from my cookin'!  And I might add a thank-you, you've been mighty kind to be helpin' me today."

"You're very welcome.  I don't feel I did much, though."

"Oh indeed you did!  The cows always need some lookin' after and sometimes, sometimes it gets to be lonely work, the cows don't usually talk to me."  His gaze wanders around the table and the kitchen.  "This farm is what Iris and I wanted.  We have some good things.  But when something like this happens, you just think about it, and you wonder.  You wonder why you have all these things because you could die tomorrow, and that's the truth."

Frodo lets a small smile pass across his face.  "Torold, it's the truth, but if you didn't have this farm and you were still waiting to die, you would be a lot unhappier."

"Ha!  Mr. Baggins, you have it!  What would be the point of sittin' around waitin' except that the grass I'd be sittin' on would turn brown and die, and then I'd have to find another spot!  Yes, that's it.... For a young Hobbit you use your head."

Frodo smiles again, a little wider.  "Torold, please call me Frodo.  And I'm quite sure you would have thought of the same thing soon.  Just now I think you can be allowed some sober thinking."

"Frodo then.  You're generous!  If you don't mind me saying, Lily seems to think so too.  She talks about you quite a lot during supper."

"Is that so?  I hope I haven't said anything offensive!"

"That you haven't.  She's pleased you spend time with her.  As a matter of fact, when she came to stay with us two weeks ago, she said she couldn't be here long."

"She was supposed to have left by now?  But she didn't tell me that!"

"That's my point, Mr. Baggins – er, Frodo.  I think she's fond of you."

"She told me she still thinks of me as her friend, and I appreciate that.  It had been so very long since we saw each other last, I'm still surprised she remembered me so well.  Lily has always been thoughtful."

"She's been giving you a lot of thought, I daresay!  Frodo, never mind.  I shouldn't be gossipin'."

Lunch continues but Frodo keeps thinking about Lily and what it's been like staying in the village.  Finally he sits back.  "Torold, since you know Lily well, what do you suppose she would think if I said I was going to stay in Oakleaf for a few months?"

Torold smiles.  "I think she would be right pleased!  You're a likeable fellow, if I might say, and Iris and I wouldn't mind at all seein' you around.  I shouldn't be surprised if Lily's been wondering if you'd stay."

"Thank you.  I haven't decided yet, mind you.  There are details to settle if I do decide to stay.  But Oakleaf is a peaceful place where I might find some contentment after the War."

"It's a good place, it is!  If I might ask, Frodo, what's wrong with goin' back to Hobbiton?"

"Not really anything wrong, it's just... It's hard to explain.  It doesn't feel like home the way it used to.  It's not just the damage that was done, that's been repaired, but it's the feeling.  I've been through so much... Maybe what I need is to be somewhere new.  This is still the Shire, I couldn't live outside the Shire, but Hobbiton isn't the same.  I'm not the same.  This might be a better place, at least for a while."

"Well, we'd all be pleased as hens with new chicks if you were to stay.  Take your time.  None of us here are in a hurry.  Why, Frodo, did you cut yourself?  I hadn't any idea!  You should speak up!  Don't want that to get infected!"

"It's hardly anything...."  Over Frodo's protests Torold goes into another room, saying he won't be but a minute.  Frodo sighs, feeling the cut.  ‘I think I would rather see it for a while...I need the reminder.'

Torold bustles in with a small bowl of water and an injury kit.  The cut stings when the wet cloth is brushed over it.  Torold wraps it with a soft cloth and advises Frodo to have the bandage changed every day.  With a weak smile Frodo thanks him.

The afternoon passes with some additional work around the farm.  By the time Frodo returns to the inn for supper, he is genuinely tired.  He expects to have a few aches tomorrow but that should be of no particular worry and in fact may be welcome.

When he wakes the following morning, he keeps his eyes closed.  If only he could go back to that blessed dark place where he is unaware of anything.

***

#14

50th Day Back: Well Yule begins tomorrow, Torold and I are planning to join the village celebrations.  It won't be the sort we were looking forward to, but that is the way of things.  The news has spread and many visitors have stopped by the farm, he told me at lunch today.  He says it does much for his spirit and will do much for the ladies also.  I'm not sure quite what sort of celebrations I've been looking forward to but this is not it.

The stars are so bright tonight.  I don't know if everyone sees them that way or if it's me.  If I will always see them this way I will not mind that.  When I was young, I used to sometimes see them like this, and I remember how it scared me.  That vast territory filled with luminous things looming above my head, so immense and pressing down on me that it would have swallowed me had I not run away and hid.  Now it doesn't scare me but makes me think.  What really is up there?  Does anyone ever get swallowed?  What would happen if I did get swallowed?  Would I find any Elves among the Stars?  Is Elbereth there, waiting?

I went down to the Shirebourn this afternoon.  The water tumbles along like puppies after a ball.  It was greyish like the sky but also brownish.  It doesn't have as strong a voice as the Brandywine.  But it tries to talk and I keep leaning closer to understand it.  It splashed me and it immediately reminded me of Gollum, cold and clammy.  I deliberately put my hand in it.  It feels so strange, like and unlike something solid.  I could have easily convinced myself that it was reaching up at me, clawing at my hand, but I can escape it effortlessly.  I am amazed in fact how my hand slips out of it without any resistance.

How is it that even the same stream can be so caressing and yet so hungry?  How can a river be so different within a space of minutes?  I suppose the same is true of fire... one lamp burning is a comfort, one hearth cooks meals and warms our rooms, and one spark where it ought not to be turns into something monstrous.  And even the wind and the rain have their own evil sides.  I almost laugh to read what I've written... so often I have asked myself these questions!   When I was young I would ask the Brandywine what had possessed it to reach out and take my parents and then so sweetly carry others along.  Even though it had a loud voice, often, it never bothered to answer me.  The wind is a blessing in the heat of summer but also runs wild and blows chimneys away and sometimes crops.  Then too, a person will clasp your hand in friendship and tomorrow stab you.  All these things have always been so.  It makes me wonder now, what has become of Sauron's Darkness?  Has it somehow turned into Light, somewhere?

It's not much past supper but I suppose I ought to be getting to bed.  The village will be up to watch the sun rise.

[Frodo puts away his journal and writing materials.  He takes off the bandage on his arm, washes the cut quickly and decides it is healing nicely enough to not need replacing.  He hears soft knocking on his door.  Beyond it stands Lily, almost in tears.  Frodo brings her inside.]  "What are you doing here, Lily?  Is something else wrong?"

She shakes her head.  "I just didn't want to be there any more... my parents' home, empty now... and I missed you."

"You left Iris there because you missed me??"

"Yes!  I remember the same thing happened to you, and... I don't understand why this happened to my parents!  I know it's been a long time, there must be some way you've adjusted to it.  Please, help me somehow.  I don't mean to bring back those memories but I need to understand."

In her tearful dark eyes Frodo sees what others must have seen in his.  He hugs her quickly.  "It's not all that bad anymore.  Sit for a while, I don't mind talking about it.  I was younger than you so it was worse in some ways.  You already have your life settled.  You have your sister and her husband.  I know this hurts, and a lot, but there are things that might have made it worse.  You will never be alone, Lily, remember that.  You have a place in Iris and Torold's home and hearts.  There is no question of that."

She brushes the tears away, looking at him earnestly.  "I know; if I had lost them when I was little Iris and I would not be the same people we are now.  But... the suddenness of it, nobody knows exactly what happened... Why does that happen?"

"Life comes and goes as it will.  When you talk a walk on a spring day you don't stop before each flower at your feet and ask if you can step on it, you go right along.  That flower may ask the same questions you are asking.  None of us knows when that time will come, and we shouldn't expect to.  No creature is born knowing how long it will live.  Well, Elves might have some idea, but Elves are special.  They don't die at all unless cut down.  And even that is not always a blessing.  They are seeing their beautiful world slowly pass away, over many years.  Now the Shire isn't passing.  You will see Spring come, and then Summer and Autumn and Winter again.  Not everyone will.  Not every plant sees the Spring, either."

Lily sighs, looking at the floor.  "Well... I see what you mean.  I can't just accept that, though."

"I know.  In time you will.  Sometimes Night falls in a hurry, sometimes slowly.  Forever the seasons have been moving this way.  Lily, Yule is almost here.  This is a time not only of the new Light, but also of things passing.  Why, if none of us died, think how crowded the Shire would be, with such large families!"

She smiles, a thin smile but it is there.  "I suppose that's true!  Frodo, how are you so wise?  What is it you've seen and done that makes all this so clear to you?"

"Well, now.  It's common sense, really, it's just that it's not always easy to remember."

"You've met Elves..." She touches the white gem that Frodo always wears.  "Did they help you understand some of these things?"

"Yes.  They helped me realize that common sense is in everyone, if we take the time to think about it.  Things are moving along as they should.  The likes of you and I may not agree with everything, but our part is not to agree or disagree.  The world knows what it's doing, even if we don't."

"Oh, Frodo!  You are not like any Hobbit I've ever met!  You are wonderful!"  Before she's quite finished speaking she leans over and kisses him on the cheek, then blushes and turns away.

For a few seconds, Frodo doesn't know what to think.  She has quite taken him by surprise.  Then he laughs a little.  ‘I suppose Torold was right!  But she must be feeling better,' he thinks.  "Lily, you scamp!  Does Torold know you're back?"

"No, I came here first... I just had to talk to you.  Please, will you come to the house with me?  I will never get to sleep so early and I need to talk to you more!"

Her intent gaze makes it obvious that saying No will not work, so Frodo agrees.  It is a short walk to the house and Torold is delighted that Lily is not alone.  The three sit up over a pot of fresh tea then Torold says he must get some sleep after the long day.  Lily and Frodo talk for hours, keeping the hearth lit.  Frodo finds he enjoys talking about his first years living at Bag End.  There are many good memories, and they make him happy.

"Do you miss Bilbo?" Lily wants to know.

"In a way, but I know I'll see him again.  He belongs in Rivendell for now."

"Did you know your eyes shine when you talk about him?"

He smiles.  "No, but I'll believe you.  No one else could have taken me in, really.  He encouraged me to read or whatever made me happiest.  He is all the parent I could have wished for."

"How lucky!  Frodo, how long are you staying here?"

"I don't know yet.  I'm enjoying my stay but there is still Bag End.  I've been helping Torold with the cows."

"The cows!  You?  Frodo!  I can't see you with the cows!"

They both laugh.  "It's been a change, that's true," Frodo says.  "Of course he won't let me do everything I'd like to... he says his guests have never worked on his farm and he didn't want to start with me."

"Well, he's right."  She takes his hand. "You've been so good to me.  I see you've had an accident, too!  I hope you told him you got cut and let him take care of it."

Frodo glances at her, wondering what she'll think of the truth.  He suspects she'll understand.  "Lily, it didn't happen on the farm.  I did it."

Her eyes grow round and she grips his hand.  "Oh, Frodo," she says quietly.  "I'm so sorry.  Tell me."

"I don't know if I can!  Sometimes I feel... about to disappear, and I'm not ready to disappear yet.  Sometimes I can't tell whether I'm alive here, or in some Twilight, or somewhere else.  It happens most often late at night but there are other times.  I needed to be sure I wasn't gone yet, that I could still feel."

Without speaking Lily kisses the cut very softly.  Then she says, "Mother used to do that for me.  I don't know if it ever helped but it always made me feel cared for.  There's more than one kind of hurt but love heals all of them."

Frodo is partly astonished she understands as well as that, and partly not at all surprised.  Intense gratitude fills him.  He kisses her on the cheek and they sit close to each other, not speaking.  It is enough to be with someone, someone who passes no judgment and offers only support.

***

#15

As daylight begins to show ever so faintly through the windows, Torold comes into the room.  "Well," he says, "You two might have enough time to wash if you go now... but come back quick, we have one thing to do before leaving the house!"

Lily sits up and blinks, then looks at him. "Oh... the fire.  Iris isn't here."

"You're as much the lady of the house, lass!  Hurry along!"

She and Frodo rush off to wash.  Frodo laments not having time to get back to the inn for clean clothes, but Lily says that's not a worry.  They dash into the kitchen where Torold is on the floor beside the hearth.  Lily kneels in front of it.  "This is an old custom," she explains to Frodo.  "The woman of the home usually does this, but I am substituting today!"  She picks up the container of water Torold has brought and pours it very slowly over the fire.  The smoke makes them cough a little; most floats up the chimney.  "As the old year passes away, so we make room for the new."  With the utensils she quickly sweeps up ashes and charred wood.  Torold puts new wood in its place.

He and Frodo follow Lily outside; the sky is clear with just a handful of tiny stars still glittering.  The air is chilly.  Frodo is caught up in the anticipation.  He has forgotten the dismal thoughts of a few hours ago.  They can hear talking and laughing close by and he tries to see who it is, but they are behind the hill.  Lily goes to the garden area where she casts the remnants over the slumbering ground.  Taking the utensils, she leads them across to a path where they meet up with several other families.

Most folks are gaily dressed, many of the women have long ribbons wound in their hair.  They reach a field just at the edge of the village, where a large pile of wood is ready.  The entire village is there, quieting down.  They form a loose group around the wood pile, facing the rising sun.  When the first rays strike the group, a loud cheer goes up.  A song breaks out, as cheerful and rousing as any Frodo has heard.  He can't catch all the words but it has something to do with the Light bringing back warmth, love and laughter.  A few people dance with each other.  The mood is infectious; Frodo laughs at the dancers, who don't seem to agree on what steps to take.  As the song comes to an end, everyone quiets down again and they form a more complete circle around the pile of wood.  Lily pulls Frodo closer to the front.

A very old woman approaches the wood.  She moves slowly but surely.  She stops about an arm's width away.  She takes, from her skirt pocket, a tinder box and works with it until sparks begin to fall.  "We have made room for the new year," she says in a hushed voice, "And we have Light to fill the Darkness."  She scatters sparks over the wood and it catches.  It seems to burn at the lowest edges first as the woman goes back to the crowd.  Then the fire catches all round and the group cheers again.  They back away a little and more singing and dancing start, this time with everyone joining in.  Everyone grabs someone else's hands.  There is no time to wonder who to approach; two women who look similar enough to be mother and daughter each take one of Frodo's hands and whisk him off into the crowd, laughing and dancing.  The bonfire adds some welcome heat but before too long, the crowd backs away from it.  Dancing, Frodo discovers, is good to get the blood moving!

Frodo gives no thought to how long the dancing goes on.  Finally he begs to rest and staggers to a grassy area to sit.  A few others are sitting too, mostly the old with grandbabies.  He has no idea where Lily and Torold are.  He's content to watch the crowd.  Lily finds him, after what must be quite a while, and collapses beside him, still laughing.  She asks if he's hungry yet and he's surprised to find that he is.  Many yards away two tents have been raised and filled with tables full of food and drink.  Such a breakfast is a marvel, Frodo had no idea this much preparation went into it.  Torold discovers them there.  The celebration has reminded Frodo of Bilbo's long-ago Birthday Party, and at least a dozen people have gathered to hear him tell of it.  Frodo decides to leave out the mention of Bilbo vanishing... that would lead to questions he didn't want to think about now.

Children's games begin near the tents, some Frodo has never seen and some he has very fond memories of.  Many adults gather to watch the little ones and a few even take part.  After several rounds of games, Frodo, Lily and Torold are yawning.  They make their good-byes and almost everyone they talk to expresses some good wish for Torold and his wife, and Lily.  Many also tell Frodo they're glad he came to the morning festivities.  Lily takes them back to the bonfire which is now burning low but is not allowed to go out.  She picks up a set of utensils, not looking to see if they are the ones she'd brought along.  She carefully scoops out some smoldering embers. On the way back to the house, the three continue one of the songs begun by the group under the tents.  At the house, they finally become more serious.  They follow Lily into the kitchen where she ever so carefully lays the embers beneath the new wood then blows a little on it.  The wood catches quickly and they must spring away.

"May we have Light and warmth for another year," Lily says.

"Lily...." Frodo says, "I don't think those are your utensils."

"Oh, I know!  We always do that.  It's a way of sharing.  I had such fun!  I'm so glad you came with us.  You laughed like I remember, all those years ago.  It's good to see you happy."

"Well, it feels good, I'll admit.  The villagers are a boisterous lot!  I didn't realise so much work was done for this... I feel guilty that I didn't contribute something."

"But you did!  You danced and sang and added to the feeling.  It's important to make the Sun feel welcome, you know, or it might not come back next year!"  She winks at him.

He laughs.  "I certainly don't want to be accused of causing that!  I'm going to sleep while I have a chance."

"You can sleep here... we have room... instead of going all the way to the inn when you're so tired."

He shakes his head.  "Lily, I have a room there.  I'll have the innkeeper wake me before the sun sets."

"Are you sure?  We really do have enough space."

"Yes, I'm sure.  I'll meet you here later."

Lily watches him walk away from the door, only turning back into the house when he has gone round the hill.

In his room at last, Frodo begins to feel very weary.  Snatches of songs run through his mind.  He sits on the bed, remembering the jubilation.  Another Yule, another year, everything turning a little older... so much passing away... and yet, the sunrise was so brilliant!  In the cold winter air the sun's rays felt warm and comforting.  As soon as his head is on the pillow, he falls asleep.

Loud knocking and someone calling his name startle Frodo wide awake.  The room is taking on that greyish yet distinct appearance that comes with each evening.  He calls a thank you and the knocking finally stops.  He sits for a few minutes, not moving, enjoying the stillness.  Evening has at times been a lonely part of the day but this day, loneliness doesn't trouble him.  After washing and dressing he writes a few lines in his journal before leaving for Torold's house.

51st Day, 1 Yule: What a morning!  It reminded me of Bilbo's Birthday Party, except in daylight and Gandalf wasn't here.  I'm quite glad I stayed.  Maybe such a party is what I needed.  The sunrise was glorious, it even chased away the chill – or was it the bonfire that did that!  So much drink and food!  I'm told there will be more tonight and all tomorrow.  I almost wish it would go on yet another day.  I think it helped Lily as well, I haven't seen her so excited since we were young!  Torold said he thinks she is fond of me... She has been so understanding.  I am rather sorry she and I didn't keep in touch.  Of course she hadn't the urge to go wandering and I've always supposed that was one of the biggest differences between us.  Still, her sensitivity here means much.  Why should I feel that way when Sam has really done so much more for me?

Part of me is glad for someone who doesn't think of me as the Ringbearer.   It's because of that, that Sam saved my life and almost gave up his.  Sam is attached only to Rosie and his gaffer more.  I am so grateful for Sam... and to him I'm still his master and his friend but also the Ringbearer.  That can't ever change.  Lily doesn't know much about that and hasn't asked.  I can't ever put any of it out of my mind but at least it's in the background now.  I still wonder if it would be easier if I lived here.  Then, that other part of me, where Darkness always seems to be, feels so strong and inescapable that I can't help but think it doesn't matter at all where I live, because the wounds will never go away.  Ah, Bilbo!  I wish I could go to Rivendell and stay there, drifting in and out of the Elvish world.  But that's a long way from here, I think I'm tired of traveling so far.  Perhaps with the return of the Sun the Darkness will be driven a little further away.

***