What the Heart Knows
by Frayach ni Cuill

Frodo Baggins. Son of Drogo. Bilbo’s second cousin.

The dear old Shire, Bilbo had said, less than a fortnight ago. And then... I don’t expect I shall return.

Gandalf chewed the stem of his pipe thoughtfully. The evening was settling in every nook and cranny of Bag End, and crickets were making tentative forays into the deepening stillness. Across the table, Frodo leaned back in his chair and raised the fiddle to his shoulder.

“I used to think that they had little tiny fiddles of their own,” he said.

“Hhhmm?” Gandalf rumbled and shifted, suppressing a short cough behind his hand. No matter which way he positioned himself he could never quite get comfortable at Bilbo’s great table. ‘Great’ for a hobbit, that is. The grandest oak I could find, Bilbo had told him proudly. Still Gandalf was unable to fit his knees beneath it and had to sit instead on a long low bench with his legs crossed.

“Sorry, did I catch you napping?” A wry smile scarcely touched the corners of Frodo’s mouth, and he drew the bow over the strings with a low hum.

“No. You caught me thinking,” Gandalf answered, filling his pipe again. “Or, to be more precise, you interrupted me thinking. What is it, exactly, that possess these tiny fiddles you speak of?”

“Crickets,” Frodo answered with a laugh. “When I lived at the Hall, I used to lie awake listening to them. It always sounded as though they were having a grand time. I’d imagine whole little worlds for them – laden tables and tiny little bonfires resting in acorn caps. And a lot of dancing, of course.”

Frodo raised the bow again, angling his elbow upward until his arm half obscured his face. Through the window came the scents of Bag End’s herb garden as the dew settled on sweet bay, savoury and thyme.

“Play me something,” Gandalf said, and the room filled with a sound like flowing honey.

The heat soaked through Gandalf’s light woollen cloak as his cart rattled along the flats by the river, raising dust clouds behind him. In the road, loose stones, rubbed smooth by years of passing feet and wheels, clucked and knocked against his pony’s hooves, while on either side, mature fields of rye and wheat lay like blankets on a deep and furrowed feather bed. The air was still, and every sound seemed to hang, suspended and unmoving, for long moments until falling back into silence like a stone dropped into a deep pool. It was the warmest autumn that Gandalf could remember, and that was saying something. After all, he could still remember the autumn of 1394 and the way that the hot winds had blown across the northern downs like blasts from a furnace, and the men in the fields had bent over their sickles as though the heat was a great burden pressing them to the ground.

There were no hobbits in these fields, Gandalf noticed, and there probably wouldn’t be until the sun had dropped behind the crowns of the sycamores that lined the river’s banks. They had been out earlier, before the morning grew too hot. He had seen their curly heads bobbing about among the rows, barely reaching higher than the crops they harvested. Now they were more than likely asleep in their cool dark holes or sitting, propped on squat little pickling barrels, beneath the spreading shade of a tree playing that tedious board game they so loved, with its delicately carved pebbles and its inscrutable set of rules.

Bilbo had taught him the game years ago, and Gandalf had sometimes agreed to a round or two after dinner, but it had never engaged him the way he had imagined it would. He’d been watching generations of hobbits play it and had even followed the careers of some of the more famous players as they made their rounds of the annual competitions at fairs and Yule parties. He’d always found the concentration they displayed fascinating, the way it would wrinkle their brows and set their fingers to drumming on the table top. The game had seemed to bring out a very unhobbit-like quality in the hobbits who played it – a seriousness and determination that Gandalf suspected ran in most of them but seldom rose to the surface. But he, himself, had found the game dull. Unspeakably dull, in fact. Although he’d never confessed this to Bilbo who, no doubt, would have been both disappointed and vaguely annoyed.

More like a cranky dwarf than a hobbit, Gandalf thought. By the year of his eighty-fifth birthday, Bilbo’s temper had taken on a decisive edge, like a newly whetted knife. It had troubled Gandalf even then, although at the time he’d supposed it was Bilbo’s age catching up to him with its bone aches and swollen joints that can turn a morning’s stroll into an all-day excursion. Now he was not so sure. Now he suspected that sharp little temper was like a trickle of water on a moss-covered dike. The harbinger of a flood.

And Gandalf now suspected the springsource of that flood, although he was still far from certain. “Suspect” might even be too strong of a word to describe the slow burn of realization that he felt in the back of his mind, like the glowing bowl of a newly lit pipe. Bilbo’s ring. That now lay in the pocket of Bilbo’s young cousin. Frodo Baggins. Gandalf repeated the oft-spoken and, seemingly, unremarkable name under his breath. Frodo Baggins. Drogo’s son. Suddenly, up from the river rose a brisk little breeze that stirred the tuft of mane between his pony’s ears and bent the rye in a long bright sweep.

“I love the Shire. But...”

Frodo paused and set the fiddle on his knees. His eyes wandered almost imperceptibly from Gandalf’s face to rest, for a moment, on the open window before moving to where Merry sat, with a book in his lap, by the fire.

“... I begin to wish that I had gone, too...”

Gandalf heard behind the words a sadness that seemed to swell and fade like the notes Frodo had drawn from the fiddle, and he could see in Frodo’s eyes that strange flicker he often saw in the eyes of mortals he’d known over the years – an acknowledgment of time passing, swifter than a runnel on a mountainside.

“Don’t you dare, Frodo Baggins!” Merry laid aside his book and scampered toward the chair where Frodo sat. He threw his arms about Frodo’s neck and buried his face in Frodo’s hair. “Don’t leave me.”

Frodo laughed, and the sadness drew back again like a veil. He squeezed Merry’s shoulders and yawned, stretching his arms above his head and arching his back until his round hobbit’s belly showed between the waistband of his breeches and his untucked shirt.

“Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You left the Hall, didn’t you?” Merry withdrew into the chair beside Frodo’s.

“Yes, but that was only because I had an invitation that I would have been a fool to refuse. No one’s invited me anywhere this time. Certainly not Bilbo. He wants an heir for under the Hill. If he saw me trotting around the bend after him, he’d have a sharp word or two for me, I’m sure.”

“No doubt,” Gandalf laughed. “He’d eat a pie made of feathers before he saw the Sackville-Bagginses in Bag End. I’ll never forget the look on his face when we came up the Row that day and saw the auction going on in his front yard, and Otho and Lobelia holding court like they owned the place.”

“So, you promise you won’t go, then? That you won’t just disappear?” Merry’s face was all open earnestness, but Frodo cast an anxious glance in Gandalf’s direction.

“Of course not, Merr,” he said, drawing his handkerchief from his breast-pocket and reaching for a bottle of linseed oil. “Of course not. There’s too much for me here. I’m not going anywhere.” He removed the cork from the bottle and covered its mouth with his handkerchief, flipping it upside-down and back with a flick of his wrist.

Gandalf watched Frodo’s face as he polished the fiddle in his lap until it shone in the firelight. Concentration was etched into every line, and, for a moment, he looked far older than his years.

“You are at a crossroads, Frodo,” he said slowly.

“I know,” Frodo replied without looking up.

“While I am loath to dispense advice, I will say this. And, mind you, while I can see some things, I cannot always see what they mean.”

Frodo gave the fiddle one last swipe. The woodgrain glowed as though a light burned within it, like a lantern. Slowly, he folded his handkerchief before placing it on the table and looking up into Gandalf’s eyes.

“Go on.”

“You have received a gift recently. Very recently, as a matter of fact. You must never be careless with it. You must never lose it, or you will be lost.”

Frodo’s hand leapt to the pocket where his handkerchief had been, his breast-pocket over his heart, and his fingers splayed as though to clutch something to him. The motion was fierce and instinctive, and Gandalf turned his eyes away with a sharp and fleeting sensation like pain.

The hedgerows sang with invisible sparrows. Gandalf could see only a flickering shadow of dark feathers every now and then, but the sound seemed to swell up from the very ground itself, discordant and busy, and it set his teeth on edge. He reached into his pack where it lay on the bench beside him and fumbled for his pipe and satchel. Fortunately he’d had more than ample opportunity to stock up on Old Toby. He’d paid handsomely for the crate – despite having Bilbo on hand to drive down the bargain – but he had no doubt that it was well worth it. Nothing these days soothed his mind as much as a quiet smoke, and it would be months – if not longer – before he’d be able to come by this way again. There were matters, too long neglected, that needed seeing to. And there was something else. A shadow, perhaps, that had been building in his thoughts like the slow gathering of clouds before a summer rainstorm, and there were questions he needed answers to. Every now and again, in the fist of a half-formed dream, he’d realize that what he felt was fear, though it was hard to place a name to it, even now – especially now, as he guided his pony around each curve in the road with a touch of his fingers, and the smell of foxglove and wild roses clung to the hedgerows on either side. But even the Shire was not a haven. He knew this now, and it was this thought, more than all the others, that set his teeth on edge and his mind to flying over every detail it could light upon. He knew this because the night before Bilbo’s party he’d seen it all – in a flash, like a lightning strike. All had fallen to darkness immediately afterward, but the knowledge had remained, seared into his mind like a brand. Suddenly, the image he had seen, all those years before, in Galadriel’s mirror made sense. The time, it would seem, was upon them.

“There were no secrets between me and Bilbo,” Frodo said. “That was our agreement when I first came to live here.”

Merry emerged from the kitchen bearing another pot of tea and set it on a folded cloth on the table between them. The steam curled from the spout like smoke from a little chimney, and Frodo drew his finger through it, back and forth.

“He told me the real story, not what he told the dwarves and put in his book.”

Gandalf watched Merry gather their plates and scrape the chicken bones into a pot. His eyes followed his back until he disappeared down the gloom-filled hall.

“I think we should not discuss these matters in your cousin’s presence,” he said.

Frodo abruptly stopped moving his finger through the steam and looked at him closely.

“There’s something troubling you that you’re not telling me,” he said.

“Yes, that is more likely than not.” Gandalf filled Frodo’s teacup and then his own. “There are many things that trouble me that I deem wiser to keep to my own counsel.”

“It seems to me, however, that this... thing... or whatever it is... that is troubling you concerns me in some way, and I’d like to hear it, whether I like it once I’ve heard it or not.”

Gandalf sighed. It had been years since that day he’d been greeted at Bilbo’s door by a young hobbit with a half-eaten peach in one hand and a book in the other. He’d seen Frodo nearly every year since and watched him grow from a skinny lad to the solid and respectable-looking hobbit that sat across from him now, with his arm draped over the back of his chair and his other hand, holding his teacup, resting atop his belly. He had always been fond of Bilbo’s young cousin and heir and admired his quick mind – for a hobbit, that was – and his quick fingers on the neck of his fiddle. But he’d never seen what Bilbo saw. Mark my words, Gandalf, that boy has a spark to him like a fine-grained flint. He’s bound for great things. Gandalf had always assumed that by “great things” Bilbo had meant a position of respect in the Shire – mayor even, perhaps. And he’d been ready enough to agree. Frodo struck him as ideal for the job – stable and solid and capable of being stern, but not without a quick laugh and eyes that crinkled at the corners in a smile even when none showed on his face.

But Bilbo’s words, it seemed, had been prescient, and within the shadow that was growing in Gandalf’s thoughts was the burgeoning knowledge that Frodo would be called upon to do more than preside over feast days and sign ordinances into effect. What that “more” might consist of, however, Gandalf could not yet begin to tell. Even the quick strike of vision he’d received not two days back had failed to show him what would be asked of Frodo. But whatever it was, Gandalf’s heart welled with pity when he imagined Frodo in the midst of a night blacker and longer than even Gandalf could foresee. Frodo should spend his long years comfortably as Master and Mayor, not as... but what, exactly, he could not say. He’d felt badly enough when he’d seen Bilbo again after his ordeal with the dragon – all angles and bones with a hungry look in his eye that no hobbit should ever have. And the changes he’d seen in Bilbo over the years – the gnawing unease and the darkness that would pass across his face suddenly like clouds reflected in a pool. Something had happened to Bilbo during his “adventure” (as he liked to call it), and something had continued to happen to him even long after he’d settled back into the rhythms of life in the Shire. It had troubled Gandalf immensely. The Shire was day incarnate, and hobbits the very children of that day. None of them should ever know night as it can be – long, endlessly long, with a darkness like the water at the bottom of the deepest well...

What did you see?

Galadriel had never asked him before what he saw when he looked in the mirror, and he’d been startled. Even more so because what he had seen was so unlike anything that had appeared there before.

I saw a light. It was less a light, though, than an absence of darkness. There was nothing but darkness and then a light, like the hand of a star, reaching out to...

“Well, are you going to tell me or not?”

Frodo was sitting straight in his chair now, with his arms crossed on his chest. His eyes were clear and steady.

“Yes,” Gandalf sighed. “Yes, I will tell you. What I know of the matter that is, and there’s not much to say at present. First, send your cousin off to bed.”

Frodo stood and went to where Merry sat by fire, and Gandalf watched as he stooped and spoke something low in his cousin’s ear. Merry turned his book spine up on his belly and stretched with a yawn. Frodo straightened and tousled Merry’s sandy curls fondly.

“Go ahead and get the bed-warmer if you wish, Merr. It’s near the pantry door. Just don’t singe the sheets.”

“I’m not completely inept,” Merry protested. He stood and yawned again, stretching for the curved beams in the ceiling. “Good night, Gandalf. I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Maybe you will, Meriadoc, and maybe you won’t,” Gandalf replied, and Frodo chuckled as he took his seat again at the table.

“Don’t mind him, Merry. Wizards love to be puzzling. Good night and sleep well.”

Merry tottered away down the hall, rubbing his eyes, and Frodo smiled.

“He wore himself out today helping me play Master of the Hall.”

“Is there any chance at all that he could come to Bag End to live with you?”

Frodo raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“I doubt it. His father would be bereft without him. He may not show it readily, but Merry is the apple of Uncle Saradoc’s eye.”

“Not even for a year or two?” Gandalf pressed.

“Why all this sudden concern over my comfort?” Frodo asked with a slightly strained smile. “Is this all a part of this mysterious something-or-other that you want to discuss with me?”

“Yes and no,” Gandalf replied as he picked up his pipe and filled the bowl again. “Let’s just say that it would ease my mind if I didn’t have to think of you all alone here.”

“Well, I won’t be ‘all alone,’ as a matter of fact,” Frodo said, holding the candle to light Gandalf’s pipe. “Just this morning I settled it. I’ll have Samwise Gamgee around to help me out. He starts tomorrow.”

The cart’s wheels rattled over the hardened ruts in the square, and Gandalf grabbed at the pony’s reins to keep her from startling. On either side of him, faces looked up with guarded curiosity, and in the market stalls, lasses stopped their chatter as he passed. At the far corner of the square he could see the sign of The Golden Perch swinging in the late afternoon breeze, and he turned his pony in that direction. The Perch was the last decent inn until Buckland, and Gandalf was in need of a good meal and a pint or two. And then a solid night’s sleep. He’d left Bag End just past nightfall and traveled through the morning without a stop, though he’d had a bite of lunch at a farm he’d visited with Bilbo on a number of occasions and whose occupants he found both accommodating and entertaining. There were few places that he could visit in the Shire without creating a stir that wouldn’t die down for a fortnight, but those few places were among his most favoured in all his travels. There was something about the Shire that he loved – a contentment, perhaps. A feeling that the present moment was entirely adequate and that the morrow would hold more of the same.

Gandalf guided his pony into the inn’s small dirt yard and tossed the reins to a young hobbit who emerged from a side door and looped them around the hitching post. He then removed his pack and staff from the cart and directed the hobbit to put his pony in the best stable in town if the stables at the inn were crowded. Cost was never an obstacle in such matter, and he handed the young lad a couple of pennies for his troubles. That had been his way ever since he began travelling the length and breadth of these lands – the beasts that carried him through the wavering heat of the plains or over windy moors deserved their moments of ease and comfort. It was an ill day, indeed, that afforded neither man nor beast some kind of respite from their labours.

On occasion this habit of his had earned him raised eyebrows. Gandalf could remember one such occasion in particular, and it was probably forefront in his mind now because it had involved Frodo’s new servant, Samwise Gamgee. Frodo’s mention of Samwise the night before had caused his mind to survey every memory of the lad that he could summon. It had been the spring before last – a wet, raw and overcast afternoon. Gandalf had arrived in Hobbiton to discover that Bilbo and Frodo were in Tuckborough. A fine mist hung in the air, but as the evening had neared, it started to freeze on the stones in the road and then, eventually, on the trunks and branches of the trees. By the time Gandalf had returned to the intersection of the lane and the Row, even the grasses were encased in a fine sheath of ice. He’d climbed down from the cart and taken the reins, close to the bit, in his left hand, while he’d clasped his staff in his right hand, feeling his way down the rapidly darkening road – he’d run out of oil for his lantern and cursed under his breath at his decision to wait until arriving at Bag End to replenish it. Just as he’d reached the bottom of the lane, his pony and cart had slid, both at once and so quickly he’d only had time to fall against the hedge on his right and position his staff between himself and the sliding cart. The cart narrowly missed him, but his pony had slipped to her knees and was scrabbling frantically with her hind legs for a hold as the cart bore down on her, pushing her into the hedge and pinning her, with her neck bent at an awkward angle, between the traces.

Samwise must have heard his shout and the whinnying of the pony, because suddenly Gandalf was aware of his presence at his side, and they struggled together to wrest the traces from the hedge. It had been a bit of work: the stays were lodged solidly, and the pony’s struggles only served to frustrate their efforts. Moreover, the iced briars and sharp-leafed holly snatched at their cloaks and tore at their arms. Samwise, it seemed, had been at his table and wore only a cotton work shirt, with its sleeves rolled up, beneath his cloak. Fortunately, though, he’d had the presence of mind to grab a lantern and a long knife. They worked in silence for many minutes, their only words not to each other but to the poor beast whose eyes rolled white in the wavering light. That’s my girl, Samwise had said to her over and over in a low calm voice. We’ll have you out of here in no time and bedded down with your own blanket and a bucket of oats. Finally, they’d been able to tug the cart loose, and Samwise had hacked the pony’s harness off with his knife, cutting himself in the process, though Gandalf had not learned of it until much later. Together, they helped the pony to her feet, and Gandalf untangled the reins while Samwise held her muzzle in both his hands and placed his forehead on her nose. The simple gesture helped to calm her, and Gandalf was soon able to lead her the rest of the way down the Row, with Samwise walking on her other side with his hand on her flank.

At the Dragon, however, all of the stables were already taken, and although the innkeeper had offered to put his pony up in a cramped old shed, Gandalf would have none of it. Instead, he’d given Samwise a pouch of coins and orders to find the largest, cleanest stable in Bywater. No expense was to be spared. Upon overhearing this, though, several hobbits at a nearby table had struck up a conversation loud enough for Gandalf and Samwise to hear, as well as half of the tavern’s other patrons for that matter.

“Twould be a fine thing to have enough money to put up your nag like the Mayor’s wife,” said one. His mouth screwed around the stem of his pipe in a scowl, and when Samwise had turned to look at him, he’d spat in the sawdust.

“Twould be an even finer thing to have the patronage of old mad Baggins. You’d have your whole barnyard dressed up in finery straight away,” said another.

Gandalf had been more amused than anything else by this display of hobbit curmudgeonry, but at his side he sensed Samwise tensing.

“Maybe you should get yourself a pointy hat and go a-knocking at his door,” a third hobbit chimed in, nudging the spitting hobbit with his elbow.

“Or a dwarf’s hood. Now wouldn’t that be a sight...”

“They say Bag End’s got beds big enough for a dozen bachelors and their nags. I wouldn’t mind...”

Before Gandalf could reach out an arm to restrain him, Samwise had moved with surprising speed and dexterity between several tables and over a bench until he had the speaker’s collar in his fist. His face, still wet and reddened from the stinging icy rain, shone in the lantern light, and his eyes flashed.

“One more word, Sandyman. One more word. I dare ye.” His voice was not raised, but there had been something in it that had silenced the whole table and half the tavern besides.

“Now, Sam, we was only having a bit of a laugh,” one of the other hobbits had said, standing and placing a conciliatory hand on Samwise’s arm.

“You stay out of this, Robin. You haven’t more than a thimbleful of sense if you’re after kicking about with this lot.” Samwise had continued staring at Sandyman, and the last remaining voices in the far corners of the tavern died out.

“Let go of my collar, boy,” Sandyman said, returning his stare.

“Not until I hear an apology to Mr. Bilbo, Mr. Frodo, Mr. Gandalf and Mr. Gandalf’s pony as well.”

A few snickers could be heard, but they fell silent when Samwise yanked Sandyman’s collar and brought the miller’s son’s nose within an inch of his own. “Now,” he said, his voice low and fierce.

“Do as he says, boy!” the innkeeper had called over. “You’re in your pints pretty deep and said not a few things that oughtn’t be said about the Master nor his guests.”

“Oh, blast ye, Sam,” Sandyman had scowled and made to spit again before thinking better of it. His friends had all taken their seats, and none looked at all inclined to come to his rescue. “All right then, my apologies to the Master and his guests.”

“And their ponies,” Sam added.

And their ponies,” Sandyman had mimicked, and Samwise released his collar, turning to join Gandalf again at the bar. Just that moment, Sandyman looked down at his rumpled shirtfront.

“Blast ye twice over, Sam Gamgee,” he shouted. “You’ve gone and wrecked my shirt. My Da’ll be looking for its value from the Gaffer come next milling.” In the swinging light of the lanterns, Gandalf could see the bloody stain on Ted’s collar and the droplets smattering his shirt front.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Gandalf had said and put out an arm to restrain Samwise, who had looked more than a little inclined to resume Sandyman’s lesson in manners. “Here, this will buy you three new shirts. Now consider yourself lucky and off to bed with you.” He’d thrown a couple of coins in Sandyman’s direction before turning to Samwise and asking to see his hand. Samwise had refused, saying it was nothing compared to the cuts on the pony’s knees. Gandalf had been only barely able to prevail on him to accompany him to the farmhouse where one of Bag End’s ponies was stabled, and there he and the farmer’s wife had cleaned and dressed his wound, although Samwise had only acquiesced to this arrangement after seeing that the pony’s knees had been bandaged and she’d received a blanket and a bucket of oats. I may not be good for aught else, Gandalf had overheard him whispering into her ear as she’d munched slowly and calmly. But I’m good for my word and that’s certain.

There was darkness and then the darkness was no more and there was light...

Galadriel had watched him closely as he fumbled uncharacteristically for the words to describe what he had seen.

...actually there were two lights, but they became one, and the darkness receded like sleep upon waking.

There had been nothing more he could tell her, because what he had envisioned he had felt more than seen. It had been nearly impossible to put into words – this sense that he’d had suddenly of something so elemental that it teetered on the edge of its own contradictions. How could he describe to her that sense of strength more fragile than a spring forget-me-not, or that sense of fragility as bright and hard as blue steel?

Nonetheless, Galadriel had seen into his heart. “We cannot be certain that the darkness will not prevail,” she’d said quietly. “And we cannot be certain that death for them would not be preferable to survival.”

“No, we can never be certain of such things,” he’d answered her. “But when evening falls you cradle the spark and blow on it until it becomes a flame. That is the nature of hope.”

“Hope is so often blind,” she’d replied, and he had not answered. “Blind and painful. Like a burn.” Her long fingers had curled into a fist, but when she’d opened them again, like a lotus to the sun, on her palm lay a bit of light, a grain of a star, that winked and then went out.

“This thing... that you said I should never lose... you’d meant Bilbo’s ring, of course. Hadn’t you?” Frodo’s eyes were wide and dark, and he watched Gandalf’s face almost as closely as Galadriel had.

But Gandalf remained silent. The candle’s flame fluttered in the welcome little breeze from the open window, and outside, the tall chrysanthemums nodded in the faint light of the rising moon as though they were holding council and finding themselves in agreement with one another.

“Why must you ask me then if you already know?” Gandalf sighed, feeling suddenly weary. Frodo’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Because clearly I don’t already know, and, besides...” he paused as if thinking better of continuing.

“Besides what?”

“Besides, I feel as though I’ve been given more than Bilbo’s ring recently, and I want to be sure I know, exactly, what it is that I shouldn’t be losing.”

Gandalf looked at him to see if any trace of hobbit literal-mindedness remained in his eyes. He was reluctant to speak more plainly, out of fear of saying more than he understood as of yet, but, at the same time, he did not want Frodo to be misled in any way.

“You know in your heart what I mean, Frodo Baggins. And if you don’t then you’ve lost this precious thing already.”

“That doesn’t exactly give me comfort,” Frodo replied as he stood and placed his hands in his trouser pockets. Slowly, he turned his back and walked toward the dying fire, scuffing the soles of his feet on the tiles.

“Is the ring in your breast pocket, Frodo?”

With one hand on the mantel and his head bowed, Frodo turned to look at him. His eyes were unreadable from that distance, but Gandalf could see in their depths the flicker of a light, an almost-smile, wistful and fleeting.

“No, actually. It’s in my trouser pocket and has been all evening. This one, in fact.” He brought forth his right hand and held up a simple band of yellow gold.

Gandalf nodded slowly in recognition. “I think perhaps we understand one another then,” he ventured.

“Well, I don’t know if ‘understand’ would be my choice of a word,” Frodo said wryly, placing the ring back in his pocket.

Gandalf smiled and, standing in turn, reached for his cloak and his staff.

“Odd things may happen to people with such treasures,” he said absently as he searched for his satchel of pipeweed. Frodo had turned back to the hearth, but on hearing Gandalf’s warning, he looked up again.

“Are we talking about the ring now or... something... else?”

“The ring, Frodo, although I’m not entirely sure that the same thing may not be said of all precious things. But let it be a warning to you to be very careful with it. It may have other powers than just making you vanish when you wish to.”

“Now I truly don’t understand,” Frodo replied.

“Neither do I,” Gandalf answered him truthfully. “I have merely begun to wonder about the ring, especially since last night, after Bilbo’s party. No need to worry. But if you take my advice you will use it very seldom, or not at all. At least I beg you not to use it in any way that will cause talk or rouse suspicion. I say again: keep it safe, and keep it secret!”

Frodo had seen him to the door, and Gandalf had felt his keen eyes on his receding back for many minutes as he’d made his way down the lane. When the door to Bag End finally shut, the trail of light that had emanated from it fell to darkness, and all around Gandalf the night closed in like the tide returning to fill pools and inlets on the shore. The fields on either side were full of crickets and their music, and the sky too was full, like a wide basin, of countless stars.

Gandalf chewed a thick hunk of brown bread slowly and thoughtfully, and let his eyes wander over the faces of the Perch’s other patrons. There had been few others when he’d first arrived, but their numbers had been increasing steadily as the work in the fields ceased with the settling of the dew. He had seated himself at his favourite table, tucked back in a corner, where he had a good view of the door but could still hear the low banter at the bar, and ordered a bowl of stew and a pint of ale. Now he was mopping up the last of the stew and going over the events of the past few days one more time, detail by detail. At a table by the wide hearth, a red-cheeked lad with a pert little nose had just finished a song to the cheers of his companions and a smattering of “sing us another ‘un, Barley!” from several of the adjacent tables. Gandalf smiled and took a swig from his mug. The innkeeper’s daughter emerged from the hot little kitchen on his right and set a small earthenware dish on the table before him.

“From my Da,” she said shyly upon meeting his quizzical glance. “This is the end of the blackberries, I should think,” she added with a wistful sigh and wiped her hands in her apron. “Tis been a good season for ‘em. Just send me a holler if there’s aught else I can do for ye, Mr. Gandalf.”

Gandalf thanked her warmly and watched as she made her way to the bar where she stood for a moment surveying the room with one hand holding her tumble of curls up off her neck and the other fanning her face. Turning his attention to the little bowl on the table in front of him, Gandalf discovered, to his delight, that it was full of blackberries and thick sweetened cream. The taste of it was like sunlight on his tongue, and he closed his eyes for just a moment, when, in a searing flash, he saw it again – just for an instant, as had been the case the night before Bilbo’s party – but just as clearly, if not more so. And then a sudden grief, like a flood. Gandalf dropped his head into his palm and squeezed his eyes shut. Whether to drive the vision from his mind or to capture it, like a moth in a jar, so that he could examine its every detail, its every clue – Gandalf could not, himself, be sure. It had been long years since he’d known such apprehension, such fear, such... loss.

The vision was almost identical to the one he’d received the night before Bilbo’s party. In it he’d seen, as though from a great height, all of the Shire – its fields and streams and hills of rolling green woods. One moment the scene was as it should be, ordered and pretty, like a quilt lovingly sewn and laid out on a wide feather bed for visitors to admire. The next moment, it all had changed. The fields were torn as though by great talons, and trees lay upended, their leaves brown and withered and the holes beneath their severed roots like toothless mouths gaping at the sky. And the sky... The sky was not dark with night. Nor with an encroaching storm. Rather, it hovered, still and heavy, above the ruined ground like a great and spreading bruise and from it fell a silence, feeding the little streams that beat at their banks like living things struggling to escape the hunter’s knife, bright and sharp, at their throats.

The bile rose to Gandalf’s tongue as his vision cleared and the room around him became real again. Barley had begun another song, and another group of farmhands had come through the door, greeting their neighbours with shouts and raised hands. Sadly, he pushed away the little bowl of blackberries and reached for his pipe in the pack at his side. Searching for his pipeweed, he discovered, to his surprise, a small bundle wrapped in paper and string. He removed it and held it for a moment in the lantern light. The paper was an inky blue, and Gandalf recognized it almost immediately – Bilbo’s favourite paper that he’d begged Gandalf to bring with him every time he’d come from Rivendell. Despite himself, Gandalf felt a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He cut the string with the knife that had been brought to the table with his bread and cheese and unwrapped the parcel slowly. Inside were two bright stones, characteristic of the banks of Bywater Pool, a bunch of dried sweet bay, and a tiny cage with an ingenious little latch. Inside it sat a fat cricket, shiny and black. As Gandalf held it up to the light it began to play its little fiddle – tentatively at first and then with surer and stronger strokes, almost as though it sensed an audience, patient and admiring, just beyond its little world. Just then a paper, folded several times, fell from the cage and fluttered to the tabletop before him. Gandalf set down the cage with its singing captive and unfolded the tiny missive. Come again soon, it read. The Shire is your home as much as mine. Yours truly, Frodo Baggins.

* * *

To be continued...

| continued in: The Invitation | back to top |

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