The Gray Havens
The Lord of the Rings is not history, and as readers of that great work are aware, the title of its last chapter is "The Grey Havens," not the "Gray Havens." Nonetheless, the world of Middle Earth that J.R.R. Tolkien imagined for us is so detailed that it is difficult to think of it as pure fiction. Because the events of the War of the Ring have something of the density of factual history, they invite the sort of stretching and speculation that factual history invites. A major genre has grown up in fiction that treats historical scenarios that did not happen. That is what I have done in this novella with the climax of The Lord of the Rings.
John J. Reilly
March 15, 2006
The work to which this page links, The Gray Havens, as contained on the pages with URLs tg1.html through tgh10.html, is not a part of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; neither does it purport to be a part of that work or a sequel to it. The Gray Havens does not include copyrighted or trademarked material from The Lord of the Rings or from any other work. The Gray Havens is a new work that alludes to a small set of the ideas and characters that the genius of Professor Tolkien has made the common possession of mankind in a very real and legally binding sense.
(1) The Downfall of Rivendell
“The end of the world is one thing, but missing lunch is serious.”
It was March 25, in the 3019th year of the Third Age, and Arwen was not taking the lack of news from the South well. She needed to get out of her rooms. As for me, being a Hobbit, I would have gone to lunch even if I were on fire.
“Bilbo, you are incorrigible,” she sighed, perhaps genuinely glad of the interruption. “Let us go down to the Lesser Refectory, then.”
She stood up, and I took my accustomed distance. I had long since stopped being uncomfortable around Big People, but a conversation at close quarters was a strain on the necks of both parties.
We passed through the double oak-doors of her suite and headed towards the first stairway, walking down a corridor whose waxed floor gleamed under the long skylight. Like most of the younger members of Elrond’s household, it was in one of the new wings of the Great House of Rivendell, built of wood rather than the immemorial stone of the central villa. We went quite a distance before we met anyone else. Arwen was not the only person in Rivendell who had things on her mind at the moment other than the next meal.
“Lady Arwen,” said Gelmir as we entered the Refectory. He came forward when he spied us at the doorway. He was one of Elrond’s senior advisors; the oily one, I had always thought. Now he was the one who said “I told you so.” The Lesser Refectory was a fine room, used much more these days then the vast and gloomy Great Hall. Today, though, the thin sunlight that shone through the tall, narrow windows cast no shadows; it was the kind of light that seemed to cool rather than warm. The scattered diners were more interested in whispered conversation than in eating. “It is good to see you about again,” Gelmir said. Turning lightly to me, he offered: “And you too, Master Baggins. I hope that even in these stressful times that you find nothing lacking in the table of this House?”
“Even in the best of times, Councilor,” I said bowing low, “the splendid hospitality of Rivendell can be eclipsed by the quality of the company.” I carefully did not look in his eye, but I was fairly sure I heard Arwen choke back a snort. She tactfully took up the conversation.
“I saw a rider enter the eastern courtyard an hour ago, Councilor. Am I correct in thinking that was a messenger from Lorien?”
“Indeed, Lady,” he replied as we took our seats. “As you have no doubt surmised, we have no new intelligence, or we have sent to you immediately. The Ring has passed beyond our knowledge into the Shadow. So have Elessar, and the hosts of Gondor and Rohan. And the Rangers. And the sons of Elrond. It would be comical if it were no so tragic. The flower of the West has offered battle to Mordor. It will be cut down unless the One intervenes.”
“And what would you have done differently, Councilor?” I asked as the servants placed dishes of bread and melted cheese before us. As a matter of fact, the quality of the food on Elrond’s table had declined in these distressful times; the villages of the network that traded with Rivendell were being attacked, or abandoned, or just had no spare produce to sell. I had alluded once to Elrond himself about the decline in quality. He was having a bad day and took the remark with less than his accustomed good humor. Gelmir seemed determined to never let me forget it.
“Perhaps I would have done nothing differently, Master Baggins,” he said as he munched his cheese sandwich philosophically. “We all had a hand in what has been decided, after all. Perhaps all will be well. Perhaps the Enemy will flee from the host of the West, and the Lord Elessar will be greatest King of Men since Ar-Pharazon the Golden. Perhaps, contrary to all appearances, the advent of the Hobbits into the affairs of the world has not been a sign of its downfall.”
Arwen put her hand on my arm. I thought she was cautioning me against making a sharp retort; then I realized she was listening. I heard it too. Far away, someone was screaming.
“It’s coming from the Keep,” she said. That was where her father’s private quarters were.
Without a glance at her companions, she rose from table and walked, and then ran, to the doorway that led to the Keep. Hobbits have long ears, and the elvish aristocracy were, well, sensitive to their blood relatives. Gelmir, who was neither, could not hear the cry. “What is happening, Master Baggins?” he asked.
“Trouble in the Keep, looks like. Perhaps I should see whether I can assist the Lady Arwen,” I said as I rose to follow.
“Yes, that would kind of you.” He said politely. He himself did not move. Several centuries as a courtier had taught Gelmir that it was often better to be available to discuss a mishap later than to be there to stop it from happening.
By the time I had caught up with Arwen, it was becoming clear that something was very wrong. People were not running to the cries for help, which were now audible to even ordinary elvish ears; they were standing stock still. I was not quite sure that I felt a tremor through the stones of the floor.
The noise became louder and louder as we approached Elrond’s private study. We burst open the door. There was Elrond, mighty among elves and men, writhing on the floor. His right hand was bloodied and mangled. It was smoking.
Some of Elrond’s household shook themselves from their bewilderment and ran into the study; doubtless the smell of burning flesh got their attention. On the ring finger of Elrond’s right hand, or what was left of it, there was a ring that glowed white hot. I knew about what it was, though few others did: it was Vilya, the Ring of Air.
Elrond had seemed to be trying to say something like, “Get it off me!” Then, however, he opened his eyes and looked at his would-be rescuers.
It was like being hit with a blast of air from a furnace. Several of us fell. I stood, but for a moment I did not see Elrond, or the room in Rivendell. I saw a space of infinite darkness, and in it I a burning eye, an eye with a slit pupil. I head a voice like thunder say:
“Air is mine; Adamant is Mine; Fire is mine. The One is mine. You are mine.”
The vision passed, and once again Elrond was just screaming and mouthing words. I heard a rabble of advisors, knights, and servants behind me, trying to decide what to do and who should do it. At my side Arwen wept and cried, “Father what is happening!”
Suddenly, none of this was important to me. Without anyone noticing, I slipped to the window that looked to the southeast. The view was the same as it had always been, of rocky pineland that fell away to the hazy feet of the Misty Mountains. Nothing seemed to have changed, but I knew that the view was a fraud. I felt, with a certainty that I could never have achieved with mere vision, that everything had changed. And what I felt was envy and fury. He had it. It was mine, my Precious, but He had it now. I would never get it back.
* * *
The Council was held a week later, in a pavilion in the north of Rivendell. It might have been held earlier, but the Keep and the oldest parts of the complex began to shift off their foundations on the day of Doom. Everyone was evacuated from the oldest structures before they collapsed, but getting everyone billeted and accounted for was challenge enough for the government of the High Elves. Besides, Elrond was not recovering quickly from the amputation.
“My Lords, Lady Arwen, distinguished guests, this is a day that we have long dreaded,” said Erestor, another of Elrond’s advisors. He was a windbag of the first water but not a bad fellow; what he had to say was usually worth hearing, once he got around to saying it. “We have dreaded this chance so much that we could never bring ourselves to plan for it. Now there is no time to plan. The Enemy has triumphed in the field and in the Other World. Our own resources have fallen to nothing more than our lives. As I have said, there is no time to plan. We have only…”
“Yes, yes, you have only to flee to the Gray Havens, if you can reach so far, and if any ships remain to carry you.” So said Gloin the Dwarf, the father of one of the members of the ill-starred Fellowship of the Ring. He had returned to Rivendell as an ambassador from the Lonely Mountain to bring news of the defense there and seek Elrond’s advice about securing increasingly dangerous Forest Road through Mirkwood. Now it seemed he would not be going home anytime soon. Now it seemed there might be no home to return to.
“The Elves have always had the option to flee, and Men, Men seem as happy in the service of the Dark Lord as out of it. But what of the Dwarves, I ask the Council? We have nothing but this Middle Earth. Now it is lost, lost, and where shall we go? Do the Elves know any refuge for my people, for any remnant of the people, before the Shadow covers the whole world?”
“Peace, Gloin,” said Elrond with difficulty. The remains of the right arm were well-bandaged but swollen. The evil was beginning to affect his chest. “The elves do not know just what form the sorrows of these days will take. Also, the elves of my kindred have not yet determined whether to stay or to flee. That is among the things we must decide.”
“But surely there can be no doubt?” said Hador, the Councilor who performed the necessary function of stating the obvious at every meeting. “We have few men at arms, and our powers have waned almost to nothing, or passed to the Dark Lord’s control. We saw this just a week ago when the Keep collapsed. It had been built with the aid of the Ring of Air. When the Great Rings passed to his control, everything ever done with them crumbled. We cannot resist the Dark Lord, even in the near term. We have no choice but to go west. The only question is whether we can still reach the Havens.”
“And whether the Havens still stand,” Gelmir interjected mildly. “Cirdan also wielded a Great Ring, remember. And we see that Lorien is burning, where Galadriel had worn the Ring of Water.”
Actually, all we could see was a darkening of the sky on the southern horizon. When we first saw that darkness, we feared the Shadow of Mordor was spreading over the whole world. Within a few days, though, the last of our scouts reported. They were no longer able to cross the mountains, but they said that the darkness was an immense billow of smoke, almost too big to see, that an east wind blew over the mountains. There was only one explanation. Lorien was burning.
“My Lords, these are craven counsels,” said Glorfindel, the chief of Elrond’s warriors in the absence of the Elrond’s sons. He was a fine Elf, but he was also evidence for the proposition that immortality need not sharpen the wits. “We do not yet know what is happening in the wide world. Are we to flee on the mere rumor of defeat? May we altogether abandon our allies, as the worthy Gloin has hinted that we might? And if the worst has happened, a flight to the Havens would have as little chance of success as a last defense of Rivendell, and far less honor.”
“Master Elrond, may I make suggestion?” I asked.
“I think perhaps that we have heard enough suggestions from Hobbits for many an age,” Gelmir said.
“Gelmir, this is my Council,” said Elrond as sharply as he could. “What is it, Bilbo?”
“Might I suggest that an age has ended, and not the world? We cannot live as we have lived, but we need not assume that no life is possible. We do not know enough to despair, and that means we should avoid a final stand, if we can do so with honor,” I said, nodding to Glorfindel. He might be wrong, but no one had ever called him malicious. Unfortunately, was not true of Gelmir, who interjected again.
“The aged Halfling speaks unexpected good sense,” he said. “Indeed, I think that we have underestimated our remaining resources. The name of Elrond carries great weight in the North and West of Middle Earth. In this time of fear, it might be possible to turn that reputation into power. Also, the power of the Dark Lord remains limited, even now. Only in Gondor and the borderlands of Mordor can he rule like a king. His power in these parts is terror and treason. And he knows this well. He also knows that we have things to trade. We might yet secure from him leave to rule ourselves.”
“What sort of things, Councilor?” asked Arwen in a carefully noncommittal tone.
“Vilya, the Ring of Air, for one. Yes, he now controls it, but he does not have it. He might be persuaded to forgo a raid in force on these lands if he could receive it as tribute.”
“And what other things?” she asked again.
“Rivendell has ever been a center of opposition to his ambitions, and rightly so, for many lives of Men. However, we must now consider whether we can continue to support all the enemies of the Dark Lord, or any of them. The families of the Rangers who disappeared into the Shadow have some call on our charity, perhaps, but we must acknowledge that the people of Isildur have failed. We can no longer aid them in war, even if we would. There may even be some individuals who have the misfortune to be the special enemies of the Dark Lord. We may pity them, but we can no longer shelter them.” He carefully did not look at me.
“Councilor Gelmir has persuaded me to seek the Havens at all hazards,” Arwen said, “if Middle Earth is to be ruled in the way he proposes.”
“Erestor,” said Elrond, “you were about to propose a course when you were interrupted. May we hear it?”
“Lord Elrond, my first advice is that we do not deceive ourselves. We have no power in this world any longer. Our old policies have wholly failed. We have nothing with which to make new ones. The Dark Lord has no need of our bargains. Perhaps he would not trouble to send an army from Mordor to this thinly peopled country, or maybe he would. In any case, he has creatures nearer to hand. And I can only repeat that we have nothing: neither provision, nor magic, or even a decent fort. We can only run. The Gray Havens is the obvious destination, but we should not count on the ability to leave Middle Earth. As we travel, must be alert along the way to the possibility of refuge. And we must leave now. The longer we stay, the worse our case will be.”
We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Elrond spoke.
“I have no ambition to be the viceroy of Mordor. Neither do I wish to leave Rivendell. For the moment, in fact, I cannot. We are not strong enough to fight. We do not know enough to flee. We will remain where we are, and gather news. That is all for now.”
* * *
And so we did nothing for two months. Actually, we did even less than Elrond had proposed, since news got scarcer and scarcer. We learned that Orthanc had been briefly abandoned and then occupied by a lieutenant of the Dark Tower; then all news from that quarter ceased. The wizard Rhadagast joined us from southern Mirkwood, which was becoming a lawless jungle. He came through a northern pass that, remarkably, the Beornings had managed to keep open. He said that Lake Town had been sacked. However, the Lonely Mountain had come through relatively unscathed. The siege was lifted after King Dain paid a heavy tribute to the Dark Tower and pledged fealty to Sauron. Gloin did not like this news any better than Elrond did, but on the strength of it he risked the journey home. Rhadagast himself, seeing Rivendell had slender hospitality to offer, continued West. From that direction scouts brought sporadic reports of Trolls, Wargs, and even the occasional Orc raid, but worst of all were the Men. Most of the recent immigrants from the South had been simply displaced persons looking for a home. Rumors of the great change in the world, and the influence of the Enemy’s agents, had here and there turned the newcomers into marauding hordes.
Our own situation deteriorated, first slowly and then quickly. Ordinary supplies that had been hard to import in January were unobtainable by the middle of April. Rivendell was self-sufficient in some commodities, notably dairy products, but there was not nearly enough to feed a population of 500. Hunting and fishing supplemented the dwindling stores, but hunting became harder and more dangerous, and fishing at Rivendell could never be more than a sport. Soon we were eating the cattle, and then the horses. Just as bad, the place was literally falling apart. The pavilions and outbuildings had never been meant to be lived in, as a late snowfall proved. There were no materials or enthusiasm for repairs. The softwood ornament beloved by the Elves was designed to be ephemeral; it almost melted in the wet, cold spring. Meanwhile, the new wings of the Great House that had connected to the Keep suffered several major fires, and another major collapse. By May, Rivendell had decayed to a network of encampments, cut off from the outside world and bickering with each other. I myself wound up in a tunnel with straw for a floor, like my remotest hobbit ancestors. I was better off than many.
The end came on half-a-day’s notice. A scouting and hunting party that had ventured as far south as the border of Hollin returned in a panic. “A host is coming this way! Hundreds of them, thousands of them! They are attended by Wargs and evil birds!”
“Hundreds or thousand of what?” asked Arwen. She and Elrond had taken up residence at one of the few decent lodges remaining in Rivendell. I happened to be present when the scouts made their report. Arwen said I cheered up her failing father, and maybe she was right. “We are not sure what kind they are, Lady,” continued the scouts, “but we saw from afar, in the dusk of the morning. We think they were Orcs at the end of a night’s march.”
“Or maybe they Men at the beginning of a day’s march,” I suggested, to no one’s satisfaction, including my own.
“Men or Orcs or wraiths, they are coming this way, and they can be here in a day’s march. They could even arrive tonight!”
“Or they could miss us,” I observed. “You know hard the entrance to this valley is to find, Master Elrond.”
“That obscurity was partly a glamour created by my will, Master Baggins, with the aid of my Ring. We no longer enjoy that protection. If anything, we must reckon that the Ring draws our enemies and guides them. No doubt the Dark Tower has dispatched this force to collect it. And me, I suppose. The simplest course might be to give them both. Then, perhaps, they would overlook the lives of my people.”
“Father, you are talking nonsense,” Arwen said. “The Enemy would not forbear to destroy Imladris and everyone in it once he has it in his power. And if you think to make a quick end, consider that Gelmir was right in this: your name really is known through all these northern lands. If we are to find a new refuge, or fight our way to the Havens, we will need the authority of your House.”
A hurried meeting of the Council was called. No one even suggested that we not flee. Glorfindel might have done had he been present, but he was away south toward Tharbad. We trusted that he would notice our absence when he returned. Nonetheless, the Council still managed to argue for several hours about what to do. Elrond was almost unconscious, and Arwen lost control of the meeting. In the end, with the sun already about to set behind the mountains, the order went out: “Take everything. Go West. Now.”
* * *
There was never a moment when the flight from Rivendell was not a catastrophe. The lack of clear instructions began the evil. “Everything” was interpreted to mean the books and chief treasures that had escaped the destruction of the libraries. The valuables were taken from storage places, where they had been safe from the weather and well hidden against theft, to assembly areas, where they were supposed to be loaded on carts. Arguments and then fights broke out between people trying to load the valuables and those trying to load the foodstuffs. Nothing was properly packed. It started to rain. Books and much grain were spoiled. Maybe it was just as well. There were not enough carts for either, much less for both.
Since there were only a few draught animals, most of the carts were pulled by soggy Elves and the few adult Dunedain whom Elrond still had under his protection (most of the Rangers’ families had drifted off into the wilderness since March 25). We reached the Ford of Bruinen with difficulty, and some injuries. Elrond was one of the few to be riding in a cart; certainly he was too weak stay astride one of the few remaining horses. (I rode in a cart, too: not because I was held in such high honor, but because no one noticed me among the barrels. It was like old times.) Elrond tried to exert his power over the ford, which was submerged in swift-flowing water because of the recent rains. The other Elves of power tried also. It started to rain harder. Arwen, finally, signaled that the train would have to make what headway it could against the flood.
It was not our good luck that the first carts had almost reached the other side before the lead cart overturned, spilling its contents into the water and sending its handlers downstream. Nearly the whole train was stranded in the current. The carts were not linked together (maybe they should have been) but the stream did not seem to grow especially stronger. For whatever reason, three quarters of the carts overturned within a few moments. Mine was among them, but as I said, it was like old times: I latched onto a barrel (of glue, as I later discovered) and quickly washed up on the nether shore. Many of us were not so lucky. An unknown number disappeared into the darkness then. So did most of our goods.
The survivors assembled at the western side of the ford. In the nearly total darkness, there was no way to count noses, but I was sure that Elrond was there, soaking wet and carried on a litter. Arwen was nearby, just as wet. We abandoned the few carts that had reached this side of the ford, and made up backpacks of the remaining goods (we later found out we had left quite a lot of preserved meat and accidentally took several packages of bunting and other festive decorations).
We were on the Great East Road, and many of us knew the lands about it well. This land was almost empty, but to the south of the Road were a few villages that helped provision Rivendell. One of Elrond’s stewards led us west into the dark to what he assured us was a secure refuge perhaps 10 miles distant. Then the really bad part began.
There was movement in the night that was not our own. The enemy did not come from behind: if that army ever reached Rivendell, assuming that’s what it was, it would not have followed us over the ford in this weather. Rather, it was clear that things were moving in the dark to either side of us, both in the forest on the north and the high grass to the south. Some of those things sounded as if they were quite large.
Elves had always had sharp eyes, and did so still in this dark new Fourth Age. Archers and spearmen moved off from the main body of our group, and sometimes found a mark, as some of the gurgling death cries attested every few minutes. What the Elves no longer had was luck; some of those cries had elvish words in them. Our stragglers soon began to be snatched. Later, an intrusion of shadowy shapes from the trees cut our column in half. Elrond was in the rear section, so that was where his guard rallied. Possibly all the Household of Elrond, along with its guests and dependents, would have disappeared into the shadows that night, if Glorfindel had not come up from behind just then.
He was mounted on that magnificent white horse he had refused to let us eat. Accompany him was a small squadron of guards on foot. It was like the old days; like this time last year, in fact. The intruders were beaten off or killed, but the forward group of our column was much smaller when the rear made contact again. I knew this because I was in the forward group. I actually was picked up by something that was very strong and very foul smelling, but it had caught hold of my backpack. The pack came loose and the thing slouched off with it, apparently not noticing I was missing. Or maybe it really was interested only in the backpack.
The march went on so long, or so it seemed, that I had actually forgotten about the refuge; I had been accustoming myself to the assumption that we would always be walking. I felt as if I could have done so. Since the day of the great disaster, I had seen no further visions of the Lidless Eye. The Ring was affecting me, though. I felt, if not younger, then at least of no definite age. I felt quite up to walking forever in the dark, but I did not have to.
We were led down a trail to the south of the road to a sturdy stone doorway. It was set into the end of a low ridge that made two levels of the forest floor. The heavy wooden door itself had been split in half. The doorway led to a burrow that served as a warehouse and a refuge for a nearby village that had sold produce to Rivendell for time out of mind. The burrow had been dug, however, as a shelter for the Rangers and others of Elrond’s household who had need of it. When we lit some torches, we found that the villagers were here, too, along with their butchery tools. The bones had been stripped and cleaned and some had been broken open for that marrow. Any food that had been stored there had been looted. We set a guard outside in the dark. At least the bunting we draped across the entrance allowed us to make a fire without being seen.
Just 200 of us remained. Erestor was with us; and so, for better or worse, was Gelmir. Arwen was with her father. Glorfindel was there, with all his personal guard. It was apparently safer to hunt the nightwalkers than to be hunted by them. Hador was never seen again.
Even Elves needed some sleep after a night like that. In the morning, Glorfindel remonstrated with the remnants of Elrond’s Council. The exchange was actually part of a general meeting, however; elvish culture at its dissolution was retuning to democratic forms of its origins. Glorfindel spoke for almost an hour about the folly of taking off in the night like that, and especially about not taking him. When he had run out of expletives, he answered some questions.
No, he did not know whether Rivendell had been occupied. He had come north on the western side of the Loudwater and found at the ford the wreckage from our passage. He guessed what must have happened. No, very few people were passing through Tharbad now, or heading northwest on the Greenway. He did meet bands of folk fleeing across the countryside, many of them people of Gondor and Rohan, and even Belfalas. Tharbad, the long-ruined city, had briefly been choked with refugees, but they were massacred a month ago by an army of the Great Eye. The army came through the Gap of Rohan, most of the refugees thought.
Yes, they told many tales. Some said that Sauron had moved his capital to Minas Tirith. Some said the city had been besieged twice but still stood. Others still said it had been abandoned without a fight. No one he spoke to, he was sure, had been in a position to know. It was certain, though, that the Host of the West that had gone eastward had disappeared. The only survivors were a small group that had been assigned to guard some islands in the Anduin. They fled after March 25. Many people throughout the South fled then, long before the Enemy appeared.
Elrond could barely speak, but he whispered to Arwen, who finally asked something relevant:
“Glorfindel, is it safe for us to travel on the Road?”
He considered the question with evident care. “No,” he answered. “Of course not: but at least we can know a little about what is happening on the Road. That is not true a hundred yards to either side. If we send scouts before us and behind us, and we don’t do anything suicidally foolish, such as traveling at night, we may hope to arrive at our destination.”
“And what might that be?” asked Gelmir.
The members of the Council groaned. Some of the ordinary Elves gasped: this was the first they learned their leaders still had not decided what to do. Erestor responded almost through clenched teeth.
“Councilor Gelmir, I thought we had decided to head toward the Gray Havens, but also to look for alternatives along the way.”
“That is certainly what we discussed,” Gelmir replied. “I do not recall that we ever decided. We followed that course in any case, and lost more than half our number in less than a day’s march. Perhaps at this point we should reconsider.”
“Do you propose to return to Rivendell, Councilor?”
“I think that we should at least determine the state of things there before we proceed. If the valley of Imladris has not been taken, we should consider reestablishing our position there and maintaining our contacts with the outside world.”
“We were slowly starving in the cold at Rivendell,” Arwen noted. “No one was offering us aid, or asking for it. The only people who were coming to visit were probably Orcs. We might as well ‘reestablish our position’ in any hollow to the side of the Road, if it comes to that.”
“The point, Lady, is not so much where we are, as what we are doing there. We should be seeking an accommodation with the powers of the age. As I noted, we do have things the Dark Tower greatly desires. In any case, I insist that we ascertain the state of our ancient home before we go much farther west.”
“My Lord Gelmir may do so if he insists,” said Erestor dryly, “but I fear he may have to go on foot. I doubt that Lord Glorfindel would consent to lend him his horse.”
The strange thing was Glorfindel almost did lend Gelmir his horse, or ride off himself on the same errand. Glorfindel had not wanted to leave Rivendell, either. In part, that was because he really was willing to make a brave stand, but also because, after living there for so many centuries, he could not easily imagine being anywhere else. Elves often got like that. It was a wonder that so many ever managed to reach the Gray Havens.
In the end, we decided to split the difference. We would go west to Weathertop, Gelmir included, and there set up a camp where we could gather information. Meanwhile, we sent a small party back to Rivendell to see how matters stood there. Glorfindel finally decided not to risk his horse on that trip after all.
That was good, because the Last Bridge, which crosses the Hoarwell, was held by the Enemy. There they were, three Men on the bridge in some dark livery. They had two horses between them. They were not really a guard on the bridge, perhaps, but relay riders. Certainly they fled when they saw us. The much diminished Host of Elrond would have been adequate to deal with this unit even without Glorfindel, but he was able to make sure that none of the Men escaped alive.
We crossed the Hoarwell without further incident. After walking for a few more hours, we camped a short distance to the north of the Road. The land on that side was rising and not heavily wooded. We did not dare risk a fire. In the morning, we continued west, and by noon we were approaching Weathertop. Glorfindel went scouting a mile ahead of the column. The bulk of our party had just left the Road for the trail that led to the peak; then we heard a single horse behind us.
Through the bushes I saw a large black figure on a large black horse. He face was covered, and he was riding the horse hard. One of the elvish archers saw him, too. He launched a single arrow that felled the horse. The rider, who was limping after his fall, tried to run back east, but two spearmen quickly broke from the foliage and killed him. Erestor came out to examine the body. I came with him.
“A messenger, clearly,” Erestor concluded, “and from some force in Mordor, but not from the Dark Tower. Look,” he said, indicating a badge on the man’s shoulder strap that showed the Eye and some elvish characters rendered in an unlovely script. “The Morannon,” I said. Erestor continued searching until he found a round leather case. “The message. We will look at it when we reach safety.” Erestor gave orders to hide the corpse and to butcher the horse.
Horsemeat would not have rendered the evening merry, even if there had been more it, but at least we had some fires. I suspect we were in the same dell where Frodo and friends had been attacked a few months ago. The Elves had rediscovered their skill at scavenging. Arwen and, surprisingly, Gelmir proved particularly adept at finding folk-salad. The result tasted like the hash of weeds it was, but at least it was not poisonous. After supper, a small group gathered around Erestor to examine the message borne by the dark rider. Erestor opened the leather carrying case and extracted a sealed scroll.
The seal, predictably, was impressed with image of an eye. When Erestor broke it, the paper around it began to ignite. He was not the person to whom the message was addressed, evidently. We did manage to put the fire out without losing any text, but the paper was smoking and quickly decaying. “The script is elvish,” Gilmer observed, “but the language is not Elvish or Westron.”
“It’s the Black Speech,” Arwen. “My father can read that tongue, but not now.” We glanced at Elrond, who was flat on his litter a few yards away. His eyes were half open. He was breathing with evident difficulty. He was shivering. “What do you make of this, Bilbo?”
“Here, move aside; let me see,” I said as I bowed over the document.
“You know the Black Speech, Master Baggins?” asked Erestor with evident surprise.
“Some. I made quite a study of it when I first arrived at Rivendell.”
“May I ask why?
“Because it is the language of the One Ring, Councilor. Now give me a moment.”
In Elrond’s libraries, there had been only two kinds of texts in the Black Speech. One consisted of spells and curses, often inscribed in stone to protect hiding places. The document before me fell into the other category: a message of administration. The latter were rare, outside the Black Tower and Dol Guldur, since only the elite of Sauron’s government used the language regularly. The mere presence in the West of the intended reader of such a document was a very bad sign.
“As nearly as I can make out, it says:
“To the Prefect of Ecstasy, now succoring the Ratland, the Second Secretary of the Office of Persuasion of the Ministry of Peace reflects a glint of the Great Eye, and sends this instruction:
“The Prefect is to double and redouble his efforts to find the principal traitor. The Rat People whom the Prefect has dispatched to our Office have proved unsatisfactory patients. They know nothing. Our Office is surprised and displeased that the Prefect supposed they would know anything. Our Office judges that the Prefect has sufficient means at his disposal to induce ecstasy without further taxing the resources of the Ministry.
“The Prefect’s request to remove his seat of operations to Tharbad is denied. The Prefect is to persevere.”
“That sounds as if they are in the Shire,” said Arwen. “Sorry, Bilbo.”
“It also sounds as if there is someone in this land with the authority to treat with us,” said Gelmir.
“Treat with us about what, Counselor?” asked Erestor. “We have nothing they want but our lives.”
“As I have had occasion to remark before,” Gelmir replied, “we have two things they want: a traitor and one of the Three Great Rings.” This time he did not trouble to avoid indicating me.
“Do you have a Great Ring, Counselor?” Arwen asked innocently. “You really should have told us.”
“But your father’s Ring…!” he spluttered.
“…Is still in the lodge at Rivendell. It’s well hidden. I put it under the rug in the study.”
I don’t think I had ever seen Man, Elf, Orc, Hobbit, or Troll so surprised. Gelmir’s mouth made a perfect circle.
“Are you mad!?!?” Gelmir shouted.
“No, and I am the daughter of Elrond, which you should keep in mind when you address me, Gelmir. Look, we could no longer use the Ring. We cannot even pick it up without being burned. We suspect it may draw the Enemy. Also, I suspected that its presence might have been what was keeping my father sick.”
“The ring must be recovered.” he said, a bit more politely.
“You are welcome to try, Councilor, provided you don’t return to us with it. As for Bilbo, he is a thief; no, excuse me: a burglar, not a traitor. The Dark Tower seems uninterested in Hobbits at this time.” And so we went to a night’s uncomfortable sleep. Well, sleep for some of them: I was having increasing trouble telling day from night.
* * *
The next morning, we found that Elrond was dead. There were plenty of shaped stones on Weathertop, so we were able to make a decent burial chamber. We used the last of the bunting as a winding sheet. Still, it was a barbaric end for such a cultured being.
When we returned to the Road, we met the scouts who had gone to Rivendell. No, they said, Rivendell was not occupied. It had been disturbed, probably by no more than a band of robbers, or maybe just refugees foraging for food. Some of the remaining structures had been damaged, though.
“Was Master Elrond’s lodge destroyed?” Gelmir asked.
“There had been a small fire, and part of the roof collapsed, Councilor,” one of the scouts replied. “Most of the house still stood when we left.”
“Lady Arwen, I will take you at your word,” Gelmir said. “I am returning to Rivendell for the Ring.”
“Councilor, why?” she asked.
“Because anyone who follows the road you are on will die in the woods like a sick dog. The Three Rings set us apart from all the other Speaking Peoples. The Ring of Air may have passed out of our power, but only a fool would let it out of our possession without getting something of value in return. The Enemy knows he has defeated us. That means he has nothing to fear from a bargain. I at least propose to try to make one. Will any come with me?”
Ten people did; that was ten more than would have gone if Elrond had still been alive. The small party left the main group after dispirited farewells. We continued westward.
As we marched, we came upon more signs of habitation, and of former habitation. Columns of smoke rose above the trees to the north, presumably from burning homesteads. On the other hand, sometimes we found farms immediately to the south of the road that had not been touched. Occasionally we found bodies of men and animals. We even saw a few living farmers, but they ran off as soon as they saw us. Obviously, someone had been pillaging the country, but not very systematically.
We met no sign of the Enemy until that evening, when we were bivouacked to the north of the road. It was fortunate that we had put our fire out. Suddenly in the dark, we could hear the clanging tread of iron-soled Orc shoes on the road, and see the glitter of torches through the trees. They were heading east, apparently in a hurry, and did not seem to be looking for victims. Could it be that the Enemy had finally found the leisure to dispatch a force to Rivendell?
The next morning, we arrived at the gates of Bree, or rather the place where the East Gate used to be. Today it was gone, and the hedge that had surrounded the town was smoldering. The fires have gone out in most of the buildings of the town itself. We passed gingerly through the main street, since that was the fastest way to pass from east to west. Then, to our surprise, a hail of arrows came from ruins to either side of the road and struck three of our number dead.
“Take cover!” shouted Glorfindel in Sindarin, so we did. The arrows stopped. Before we could get off any of our own, a voice speaking the same language came from the north of the Road:
“Ahoy! Who are you? What sort of folk are you?”
“Who are you, who murder strangers unawares?” asked Glorfindel.
The rhetoric became heated, but it was immediately clear that neither side was Orcs or allied to the Enemy. By and by, the chief Elves, plus me, were standing in a town square and talking to a young Man and a few companions. They were dressed in the ragged remnants of what must originally have been some fine uniforms.
“I am Faramir, the Steward of Gondor,” the young Man explained after our party had introduced themselves. “I ask what pardon you can give for our ambush. In the past fortnight, an army has passed twice through this town. However, it is the smaller units of the Enemy, no bigger than yours, that do us most damage now. They raid the hamlets and the homesteads to which the people of this land have retreated. I have, of course, heard of all of you, particularly of Lady Arwen and the Halfling.” He bowed to Arwen. He looked as if he were about to pat me on the head, but thought better of it.
“And I have heard of Gondor, Master Faramir, and that its Stewart is named Denethor,” said Arwen. “If you are the Steward, you are far from office. Tells us, does that city still stand?”
“The buildings may still stand, but only as a mirror to Minas Morgul. The people are scattered.”
Then he told a remarkable story: a siege of the city, the lifting of the siege, and the coming of a pretender to the long-vacant throne.
“I might have followed such a one, had he achieved victory over the Enemy, or even restored our defenses, no matter the strength of his claim. Now whether his claim be true or false is no matter. He and the principal lords of Gondor went into the Shadow, and were swallowed up on the Day of Doom.”
“The ‘pretender’ of whom you speak was Aragorn son of Arathorn, Man of Gondor, and his title was more firmly established than yours!” Arwen said with unaccustomed ferocity. “Also he was my betrothed, and I will not hear his memory dishonored!”
“Lady, I meant no disrespect,” he said in the polite tone used by one who plainly believes he has been given every reason for discourtesy. “He fought well and he meant well, but he played a central part in the downfall of my country.”
“The downfall of your county?!” she nearly shouted. “The downfall of your country, Man of Gondor, was the fault of….”
“Arwen,” I suggested, “maybe we should hear the story before we cast the blame.”
Faramir told the story. On That Day, despair flowed from Mordor like a wave. The darkness did not return, but spirits fell lower than they had been during even the worst of the siege. There had been plans to evacuate the Minas Tirith again if the Enemy again crossed the Anduin. Faramir never received a report of such a crossing, but rumors of one spread as quickly as the despair. A trickle of citizens had begun to leave the city by sundown on the day the pretender fell. By morning, there was panic flight, and no order from Faramir could control it.
Perhaps 400 men at arms could be persuaded to remain in the city. Chiefly they were men of Gondor, but also some of the people of Rohan, commanded by Queen Eowyn. She had ascended to that unlucky dignity on the death of her uncle, who had been king for many years, and of her brother, whose kingship ended with the pretensions of the pretender. There was also an intrepid Halfling who had helped to slay the Enemy’s most fearsome commander and lived to tell about it, but not, alas, for long.
The guard and the Rohirrim could not give their whole attention to the defense. A degraded rabble had remained in the city to loot and dishonor it. By the time the Enemy did come, the lowest three levels were already burning. Some of the guard remained occupied, even at the end, with preventing the rabble from pillaging the treasures of the citadel.
The force that Mordor sent was an insult, but more than sufficient. A few thousand Orcs, and some Easterlings who could bear the daylight, entrenched only about the gate. The assault was made with a single siege engine of no great size. The Great Gate fell in a day. Thereafter, the defenders removed to the higher levels as the Enemy took over the city ring by ring. The Halfling fell in the brief defense of the Second Gate; he had never really recovered the wound he took when he attacked the commander of the Dark Tower.
Sometimes the Orcs and Easterlings captured and slew the rabble; sometimes they recruited it. They had no great need of recruits, however, since a leisurely column of the Enemy poured into the city night after night. Finally, the guard realized that the host of Mordor did not distinguish between them and the looters. The city was considered abandoned; it was being repopulated, not conquered. A remnant of the guard and the Rohirrim, no more that 100 fighters in all, quietly abandoned the city by taking secret paths that led into the White Mountains.
“Useless human weasels…” muttered Arwen with no attempt at inaudibility. The tactful Erestor cleared his throat. Faramir continued:
Descending again to the plain of Anorien, Faramir and Queen Eowyn headed northwest. As they moved, they acquired horses at the widely scattered homesteads. Often they found horses riderless in the fields, still saddled with the gear of their luckless owners. In four days they reached Edoras.
In Edoras there ruled Grima, who had taken the title of Protector. He had escaped from his detention at Isengard and returned to Rohan to rally those of the folk who believed that the alliance with Gondor had been folly. That number had never been small, and the return of deserters and survivors from Gondor and Anorien had only swelled their number. Grima, in fact, commanded no fewer than 1000 lances. He immediately took Faramir’s little band prisoner when they arrived at his door, though their capture and imprisonment were framed in the most polite terms. The very next day, he acknowledged Eowyn’s title. He also announced that he would rule with her as her advisor and wedded consort. Grima then sent heralds to the Orkish army in Anorien to seek terms from Mordor, and to offer them Faramir as a token of good faith.
The queen did not survive her murder of Grima on their wedding night, but Faramir and 15 of his men did contrive to escape in the confusion that followed. They stole horses, but no one pursued them. The next noon, when they were well away from Edoras and nearing the gap of Rohan, they looked back and saw smoke rising from the direction from where the town lay. Grima’s heralds, Faramir surmised, had found that the Dark Tower no longer needed to parlay.
The rest of Faramir’s tale was soon told. He and his little band continued to the northwest toward Tharbad. Their first thought was to seek refuge in Imladris, but when they realized that none could tell them where it lay, they continued up the Greenway with the other refugees. Some of these were men of Gondor who held Faramir for their lord; others were simply folk of goodwill who sought any legitimate authority in the chaos. Soon Faramir and his caravan of a few dozen followers reached Bree, which had not yet been sacked and whose townsmen refused to admit any strangers. However, Faramir drove off the outliers of an army of the Enemy, maybe part of the host that had burned Edoras that was coming up the Greenway a few days behind him. Some of the cannier folk of Bree Village surmised that the main force could be not be far behind, so they left with Faramir for the remote and more easily defended village of Archet. Faramir informally assumed command of the defense of Breeland after Bree Village, Combe, and Staddle were destroyed.
When Arwen and her people arrived, he and a few scouts had been in the ruins of the village to reconnoiter the movements of the enemy. When it came to the point, Faramir was not much happier than the Breelanders had been about taking in our contingent of strangers, particularly that aggravating Elf woman. Nonetheless, he agreed to admit us to Archet for a few days. He sent a few of his men with us to show the way.
We did not take the old track to the village. When the army of the Eye left for the West, the Breelanders set about erasing the track as much as possible, so that no one without local knowledge could find Archet by accident. What should have two hours’ walk became an afternoon’s scramble along twisted paths among bushes and ravines. The village turned out to be both heavily fortified and very well camouflaged. We entered through a nearly invisible gate hidden among fir trees. The center of the village was dense with temporary structures to house the new refugees. We were escorted to a long, low shed, evidently used as a sort of barracks. There we were given water and promised food.
Breeland had traditionally been governed by an annual meeting of the householders of all four villages, but now it was ruled by an Extraordinary Council of Both Sizes, with six Men and six Hobbits. The Senior Councilor was a Man named Barliman, who had once owned an inn in Bree Village. He owed his position in part to his ability to organize relief for the many displaced Breelanders. Besides, as the keeper of the largest public house in Breeland, he knew everybody.
“Baggins: now there’s a name I remember. Didn’t your nephew stay in my house one night last year, Master Bilbo? He caused quite stir, I can tell you, or at least what we used to call a stir in those days. No time to worry about that sort of thing anymore, of course.”
I was wondering whether to try to explain what Frodo’s visit had meant, but Arwen interrupted me.
“Master Barliman, my people and I are trying to go west, to the Gray Havens, or possibly north, if the Havens no longer exist. Do you get news here from those quarters?”
“Aye, Lady, lots of news; none of it good, but maybe none of it true, either. Many of the Fair Folk have passed through Breeland since the Bad Day, and most don’t come back. A few do, though. They say the Shire is too dangerous to pass through. It’s not just the Enemy, though there’s a proper army of Orcs and Men there, by all accounts, burning or killing whatever they see. The greater danger is the Shirefolk. They now shoot at everyone they see who isn’t a Hobbit, no questions asked. Anyway, the ones who come back say they will head back East over the Mountains until things calm down, or they try to go around north to Fornost and Lake Evendim.”
“Isn’t that the way to the Blue Mountains?” I asked. “Do the Dwarves still have works in the Blue Mountains?”
“Seemingly, Master,” he answered, “some of their traffic even finds its way through Archet these days; but not much, as you can imagine. Some Men and even a few Elves are seeking the Blue Mountains, too. That looks as if it might become the safest place in this part of the world. I’ve been thinking of heading there myself. It’s a dangerous way, though, and a slow one.”
Erestor addressed our party:
“It is not far from the Blue Mountains to the Gray Havens. The wiser course may be to seek shelter there, until we find how things stand at the Havens. We might, perhaps, even make a haven for ourselves there. That part of the world is too remote to be of much interest to the Enemy.”
Arwen thought otherwise. “Councilor, I suspect that time may be of the essence with regard to the Havens. They can be defended longer than almost anyplace in Middle Earth: certainly longer than Imladris could have been, even had we had the fighters to make the attempt. However, if there is an army of the Enemy in the Shire, then can we doubt that the Dark Tower will move against the Havens before the summer is out? We must go now. The Havens may be besieged in a few weeks, if they are not already.”
“And if they are already closed to us?” he asked.
“Then we will know; and as you say, the Blue Mountains are only a few days further north.”
Barliman watched the argument with placid interest. Finally he interrupted to suggest that we need not settle the matter now. We were welcome to stay until tomorrow, and then our further journey would be provisioned through the generosity of the People and the Extraordinary Council of Both Sizes, though of course neither the People nor the Council would take it amiss if we cared to contribute trinkets or other valuables to the general fund. Additionally, our leaders were invited to dine with him and the rest of the Council that evening at the inn of Archet, which these days served the small republic as a sort of capitol. The Steward Faramir would also be there, and could advise us further. Arwen did not actually spit.
“Yes, there is room for you in Breeland,” Barliman answered Erestor after a surprisingly sumptuous dinner. One of the few advantages to rapid depopulation is that, briefly, there is more than enough for all the survivors. “There are only about a thousand of us here now. But think: if you stay, you would have to become farmers or gardeners, or maybe hunters. And we might not stay. We are hidden here, but Breeland is right on the Road, and the Road is where the Enemy moves. My thinking is that we will all have to move north. If the Dwarves won’t have us, then maybe we would be left alone at Fornost, or the Hills of Evendim.”
These possibilities interested Erestor, but not me. Pioneering did not appeal to me at my age. I had my reasons seeking the Gray Havens, but it seemed less and less likely that I would ever get there. Still, I had hopes of seeing the Shire before I died. I did not care if I were shot for a Mordor Orc as soon as I crossed the Brandywine; which is what might happen, seemingly.
These possibilities did not much interest Arwen at the moment, either, not when she had Faramir to hand to berate for the fall of Gondor.
“And you say these Nazgul never appeared again after the siege of Minas Tirith was lifted?” she asked him. “I could understand your terror of them, you being a mortal, but it seems to me that your people fled at the mere rumor of the Enemy.”
“Lady Arwen, by your grace, the people had had enough. And speaking of having had enough…”
“I think the Lady has made an important point,” Glorfindel broke in. “If these winged nightmares can fly like the wind and cannot be resisted, then why have they not come here?”
“Perhaps we are not important enough for them,” Barliman suggested.
“The Enemy thought these parts were important enough to send an army here, to look for ‘traitors,’” I interjected. “Why not send a Nazgul? And besides, Gelmir was surely right that the Enemy desires to collect the Three Rings. Perhaps he does not want them urgently, but is it not strange that many weeks passed after the Enemy’s victory before he reached out his hand to Imladris?”
“Would that Aragorn and his kinsmen had escaped,” Arwen said. “The true Men of the West would have found a way even in this dark time.”
Faramir actually slammed the table. “Lady, I am the rightful Steward of Gondor. I am as much of the race of Numenor as the pretender; no, I withdraw that; as the late King Elessar ever was!”
Something clicked in my mind them. I had been trying to place who Faramir reminded me of. It was Strider, obviously. Arwen had made the same connection; her problem was that she didn’t realize it.
Erestor re-imposed decorum in a very loud voice. “Lady, my Lords, Extraordinary Councilors, there is only thing we must decide this evening, and that is what we are to do in the morning. For my part, I think the wisest course would be to follow Councilor Barliman’s wisdom and go north. In that way, we could remove ourselves from the greatest danger, ascertain the possibility of making a new settlement and, with due prudence, determine whether the Havens…”
“Summer would be fading by the time we reached the Havens, if we took such a course,” Glorfindel said.
“Yet if we go directly West, we will lose much or all of our party,” Erestor countered. “So large a company could not hope to pass through the western end of Eriador in these days without serious fighting.”
Arwen said quietly, “If the remnants of the House of Elrond are as cowardly as the Men of Gondor, then I will seek the Havens alone.”
“Look,” I said, “let’s do both. A small party can go through the Shire, avoiding trouble, and determine the lay of the land at the Havens. The larger group should take the northern route. The small party can send word about what they find, either through Bree or the Blue Mountains.”
“As I said, Master Bilbo, the Shire has become dangerous, even for Hobbits,” Barliman warned. “Who would you send on such a mission?”
“Myself, for one, obviously,” I answered. “Like Arwen, in fact, I will say that if no one goes with me, then I will go alone.”
“I will go with the Lady Arwen and the Halfling,” Glorfindel said. “Perhaps no one else should come.”
Arwen decided to make the parting easy:
“Erestor, as the heir of Elrond, I charge you to take lead the remnant of his people north. Seek the possibility of refuge wherever you can, but look for word from me to come from the West. Indeed, if I find the path over the ocean is closed, I will come to you.”
Erestor nodded. “I think this is the best we can do, Lady.”
“I need to scout the region to which Elrond’s people are going in any case,” said Faramir. “With Erestor’s permission, I will accompany them.”
As the meeting broke up, Arwen remained seated with Faramir.
“Lord Steward, please forgive me for what I said in the heat of the moment. In these terrible days…”
“My Lady, you said nothing to me that I have not said to myself. You must see…”
No one saw either of them again until the morning, so apparently they did get a room.
(4) The Old Forest
The Breelanders were actually better than their word. The next morning, they gave backpacks with clothes and food for the westward-bound trio, and the loan of a small pony for as long as we remained on the Road. That would not be long; the Road was not safe, and in any case, to attempt to enter the Shire through the Brandywine Gate would evidently be suicidal. We hoped to travel in reverse more or less the course that Frodo had taken: across the Downs, through as little of the Old Forest as possible, and then into Buckland through the Brandybuck Gate. I knew the Gate, and poor Meriodoc Brandybuck had left some of his small effects with me, for safekeeping, so I also had the key. Faramir would accompany us to retrieve the pony.
As for the rest of our party, they would remain several days in Archet. The Breelanders were outfitting them as pioneers for their own move north. If the members of Elrond’s Household were not torn apart by unnamed horrors in the dark of night, then the Breelanders would follow them. Fair enough.
We four, plus the pony, returned to the Road after taking an even more circuitous route that bypassed Bree Village entirely. There was no one on it, neither armies nor travelers. On the other hand, there was a trail of discarded wrappings, some bones, occasional bits of papers, lots of spit, and fecal matter of various origins. The hardened earth of the Road had been turned to powder by marching feet. Many were prints of iron shoes, but there were as many tracks were of ordinary boots. We noted that more of the Orc tracks were headed east than west.
It was fine morning in late spring, and we made good time. I walked with Glorfindel, who explained that he was still of two minds about making a stand somewhere in Middle Earth or taking ship. He thought those Elves who had turned back east over the Misty Mountains might have made the best choice. The Sylvan Elves of Mirkwood had been as much masters of their domain as any Elves on Middle Earth, including the Elves of Lorien. Now their position was unique, since their magic was close to the ground and little affected by the changes in the great world, unlike the high magic of Galadriel and Celeborn.
“And what do you think happened in Lorien, Glorfindel?” I had never been there, but I had met Elves from there, and I had long been curious about that land.
“I think the Dream Flower burst into flame like a dry leaf. It is a loss beyond tears, Bilbo. Rivendell was a sapling compared to the Golden Wood.”
As we talked in this vein, Arwen and Faramir, and the pony, were walking a little ahead of us. They were taking great care not to look at each other. The lack of shouting between them was deafening.
By midmorning, we came to a place where the plain to the south seemed to flow toward the forest and yet offered us a little cover from enemy eyes on the Road. The pony’s burden was unpacked and divided into bundles according to our capacities. I protested that mine was enormous in comparison to my size. Yes, said Glorfindel and Arwen, but you are also by far the youngest of us three. There’s Elf humor for you.
We said rapid but not wholly despairing goodbyes. I wondered what I would do if Arwen gave Faramir another one of those elf-broaches that seemed to have jinxed so many fine people, but the occasion did not arise. They clasped hands and he bowed lightly. Then he turned east, taking the much-relieved pony with him.
The walk south was a golden reminiscence of my own youth; which, despite the mockery of the Elves, really had been a very long time ago. The land sloped at just the correct angle to help us move swiftly over the short turf. The sunlight seemed to fill me, a feeling that received appalling confirmation when I trotted a little ahead to hop on ruined wall to see the lay of the land.
“Bilbo,” Arwen said tactfully, “you are not casting a shadow.”
This was an exaggeration. A definite darkening of the grass could plainly be seen to the north of me. When I stood in front of a white standing stone, I thought I cast a fairly clear outline, all things considered.
“Bilbo, you’re fading,” Glorfindel said.
A stout fellow, I thought: always so quick on the uptake.
I explained as we continued south.
I was not sure it had not begun to happen even before the Day of Doom. I had given up the Ring, which seemed to slow whatever had been happening to be, but still I was not ageing quite normally. No one ever noticed me fading. I saw no signs of it myself. What I did see, sometimes, was that other people faded for a while. I also needed less and less sleep. After the Day of Doom, the symptoms accelerated. The bad days still came and went, but I was surprised it took so long for someone else to notice. Elves might not be impressed by mortal longevity, but I was the oldest Hobbit alive; soon I will be the oldest Hobbit who ever lived. Did anyone think I could have gone on this journey if my condition had been altogether natural?
I was trying to explain my puzzlement about the indifference of the Eye when we came in sight of a house and garden, with a small stable attached. There was nothing alive or dead in the stable. The straw was clean but old. We knocked politely on the door of the house several times. When there was no answer, we less politely pushed it open. The house was a neat as a pin, but dusty; clearly no one had been here for several weeks. There was a bag of beans in the kitchen, along with some other non-perishable items, but otherwise nothing to eat.
We were farther west than we wanted to be, but the Elves assured me that the land was not trying to mislead us. It did not occur to them not to follow the path down the banks of the Withywindle. It was summer here already, to judge by the warmth, but there was almost no foliage. There was plenty of grass and the bushes were flourishing, but the only leaves to be seen were on this season’s saplings. It was a scene from the dead of winter on a day more than warm enough to take your coat off.
With every step we took, a sense of chill deepened that had nothing to do with the temperature. I began to be surprised that I could not see my breath smoke. Glorfindel and Arwen felt it too, I suppose, but they seemed more puzzled than uncomfortable. As the afternoon began to decline, we came to a wide place in the river where a huge oak stood on the bank. It had not been damaged; its wood seemed to be perfectly sound. However, there was not so much as a green twig in all its canopy of branches.
“Could it all have been poisoned somehow?” I asked as I put a hand gingerly on a root. I drew it back immediately.
Arwen nodded. “See, it is not dead; it is terrified.”
The root had been trembling.
“Are you saying the forest is too frightened to grow?”
“Too frightened to grow; too frighten to move; too frightened even to face the sun with a leaf.”
“Can it stay like this?”
“No,” Arwen answered again, “not for very long; no more than a Man could live if he could never wake up. This is not an enchantment. The forest is insane.”
What insane thing could a vegetable do? I thought. It could deliberately ignore the spring. Of course, considering the sort of things that one might encounter this spring, I was not sure the forest did not have the right idea.
“What about that wood sprite Frodo was talking about? Tom, Tom Bombadil was his name. He had a consort, too.”
“Wood sprites are imaginary, Bilbo. Anyway, Tom is probably hiding in a cave, as terrified as the trees. He and the forest have grown together. When the forest dies, he will die. No doubt his consort has left him.”
We saw a trail that headed west; we began walking again under the blind and barren trees. The path led us to a ridge, which we followed until we could find a way down into a ravine, which brought us a little south. We repeated the process many times in the course of the waning afternoon. I could see how Hobbits alone might have been trapped in this sort of landscape. As it was, Glorfindel set me on his shoulders during the rough parts. We made good time.
The sun was almost setting when we reached the bare top of a tall hill. We could look around us at the forest, from the coldly glinting water of the Withywindle, clearly visible in the crystal-clear air, to the ranks of bare branches that bordered the green downs. I had been in the Old Forest twice before during visits to Buckland, one time at night. I was disturbed by the new silence and light far more than I had been by the groaning of trees invisible in the dark.
“I had thought that the spirit of the Old Forest was akin to the spirit of Mordor,” I said. “Before today, I would have said that the trees would delight in the victory of the Shadow. Now I see otherwise.”
Arwen replied, “So it is. The ancient dark before the Sun rose was innocent; the dark of Mordor is mere nothing. The victory of the Dark Tower was a disaster for everything that lives, but most of all for the dumb things close to the earth. With the return of the Ring, the Great Eye had only to blink to wither the forests”.
The sun just touched the horizon as we completed this sad exchange.
“You know, “I said, “if we don’t start to run right now, I am quite sure I am going to go insane myself.”
So run we did, faster and faster, as the light of the setting sun made the trunks of each of the mad trees into a harlequin pillar of gold and velvet. Overhead, nothing shielded us from the reddening twilight sky that cruelly refused to become dark. I would have given anything for a bit of cover.
We had a bad moment when we reached the hedge. As I said, I had been there twice before, but never alone, and never at this time of day. We almost became lost as we searched for the entrance to the tunnel that led to the gate. The Elves were beginning to panic, something I had never seen an Elf do in the face of the supernatural.
Finally, we did find the gate, and we descended into the blessed dark. I had the key to hand. We passed through the gate without difficulty and closed it carefully. I walked a little ahead of Arwen and Glorfindel to the western end of the tunnel and turned to address them.
“Now you two better wait here for a few hours until I can spy out the lay of the land. Hobbits have always been leery of Big People in the Shire, even Elves, I am afraid, so let….”
An arrow thwanged firmly into the rear of my backpack. I reflected that I had not even reached the Brandywine yet.
“I can see plainly enough who you are, Master Baggins,” said Rorimac Brandybuck, the Master of Buckland, “but that does not mean I like what I see.”
The interview was held in what had been the largest parlor in Brandybuck Hall. Now, aside from the Master’s chair at one end of the room, it held racks on which weapons were stored. Maps covered much of the walls. There were also 20 Hobbits in arms. My friends were being held in the Hall’s newly improvised dungeon.
“But Rory, I am so glad to see you after all these years! And I had so many fine times here in Brandybuck Hall!”
Both those statements were true, more or less, but I did not mention how shocked I was when I saw that the Hall had been turned into a network of trenches and gated tunnels. Moreover, those defenses had obviously been tried in the recent past. By and by, I was sure, Rory would tell me what had happened, assuming he did not hang me and my friends first.
“If you liked it the Shire so much, Bilbo, then why did you run off into the blue like that? And now you come back, not much the worse for wear, and at an age when decent folk are long dead.” I was stunned to see how much Rory had aged since he attended my last birthday party in the Shire; evidently he was stunned to see how much I hadn’t. “But that’s not the worst of it: you took poor Frodo to Bag End and made him as cracked as yourself. He ran off too, you know. Now he’s the one I’d like to get news of. Strange folk were asking about him before those devils came from the South, and I’d like to know why.”
I was reasonably sure that Frodo had died horribly, and I knew for a fact why strange folk had been asking about him. Explaining all that would require explaining about the Ring. The Ring was no longer a secret, but I was disinclined to tell the Master of Buckland about it. The tale might raise the suspicion in his mind that the invasion of the Shire had been ultimately my fault; because, after all, it had been.
“What’s done is done, Rory, and I don’t know the half of it, not even about Frodo. Look, I am not even asking for hospitality. All I ask is that I and my two friends be allowed to make our way west. They are Elves on their way to the Gray Havens, Rory. No master of this Hall since the founding of Buckland would have interfered with such a journey.”
“In my time, Bilbo, in these past few years, I have had to things that no earlier Master of Buckland had ever had to do; or I hope will ever have to do in the days to come, if there are any more Masters after me. The Elves have failed, Bilbo, and we no longer think of them as friends. A great crowd of them came up the Greenway just a few days before that army of monsters. They came through Sarn Ford, broad as daylight, and hadn’t a word for anyone. They sure enough did not warn us of what was right behind them.”
“It’s possible they did not know,” I said. “Elves don’t really know everything. You can trust me on this.”
“They also don’t pay for everything they take,” Rory countered, “not anymore, if they ever did. Some of our folk west of the Brandywine have been robbed blind at night. In a few cases, not just the food and gear are gone: the Hobbits are, too. Anyway, we don’t want any more strangers of any sort in the Shire. If you don’t know why yet, you will soon enough.”
That was encouraging. He meant to keep me alive long enough to tell me all the bad news. These days, that could take a month. He considered a moment and then spoke again.
“For old times’ sake, Bilbo, I will make an exception for, and your friends. I would think better of you if you gave a better account of your movement, though, because I can see there are things you are hiding. Anyway, maybe you know that your nephew Frodo bought a house at Crickhollow before he left? Well, that neighborhood is safe again, or as safe as anyplace in the Shire is these day. You and your two Elves can stay there for a few days. And then you can go.”
I thanked him effusively. The guards showed me to the door.
The stay at Crickhollow was the most painful time for me since March 25. It was not just the Shire; it was Bag End, or close enough. It was still filled with the things that Frodo had brought from home. I wanted to stay forever, and I wanted to leave immediately. Glorfindel and Arwen favored the latter option, since grown Elves don’t really fit into a Hobbit house. They spent most of the time in a tent outside that the guard Rory set on us helped to improvise.
At Rivendell, I had heard fragmentary reports from the Rangers about what had been happening in the Shire, but the rumors had had not prepared me for the full story. Apparently, that nitwit Lotho Sackville-Baggins had made himself Tyrant of the Shire, or some such nonsense. At any rate, he tried to: his petty empire did not extend to Buckland, or away in the Tookland around Great Smials. In a way, Lotho’s presumptions had been a blessing in disguise, at least for Buckland. Rory had armed and fortified the country to keep out Lotho’s thieving men and weasely sheriffs. So, when the army of the Eye arrived, not all the Shire was unprepared. Great Smials had been sacked and burned, but it held out for several days. Thereafter the army razed the center of the Shire, and particularly the neighborhood of Hobbiton. No Hobbits had escaped from that farthing, as far as anyone knew. In contrast, the Enemy was not much interested in Buckland. They raided once east across the Brandywine and once south from Bridge, but soon turned back. Lately, most of the Enemy force had dispersed east and west. There was still an Enemy fort of some kind near the center of the Shire, though. There was no peace in the Shire; it was no longer the Hobbits’ country.
After several days, Arwen, Glorfindel, and I consulted at a picnic in the garden of the house. There was actually room for them in the parlor of the house, but it seemed polite to invite Rory’s guards, too.
“We know that some of the army of the Eye went west,” Glorfindel said as we started on the last of the tarts. “That can mean only that they were headed for the Havens. I want to see the Havens as much as the next Elf, but there would be little purpose in pursuing our journey if at the end we find Orcs sitting on the wharf.”
“I don’t think you would find Orcs there, Master,” said one of the guards. “There are still some Orcs at Michel Delving and Bag End, not that we see much of them anymore, even at night. Most went east, though, just a few days before you arrived. There would be Men at the Elf harbor. They are just as bad Orcs, if you ask me.”
“It is not news that the Enemy uses Orcs and Men for different things,” Arwen observed. “But just because the Men went west does not mean that they took the Havens. There has been word of the return of that part of the army of the Eye, has there?”
The guards shook their heads no. The Hobbits might not control what happened in the Shire any longer, but they still knew exactly what was happening in it.
Arwen continued, “That could mean that the Havens are besieged, or even that the Enemy was destroyed. The Havens are far easier to defend than Imladris, remember.”
“It could also mean that the Enemy is simply holding the Havens until they can be relieved,” Glorfindel countered. “And the Havens may have been strong, but they were built and preserved with the aid of Narya, the Ring of Fire. How do we know that what happened to Imladris did not also happen to the Havens?”
“Maybe because Narya has not been at the Havens for centuries,” I interjected. “Poor Gandalf has been wearing it all these years, you know. He did not seem to know that I knew, but of course I had worn the Great Ring, so I could see all the others.”
My skin crawled with rage as I again thought I would never see my precious again: never, never.
Arwen said, “We must find out what happened at the Havens, and the sooner we do the better. The Enemy might not have taken the Havens yet, but he will surely do so soon. We must find out now whether the Elves can still escape.”
None of us had really thought otherwise. The problem now was how to cross the Enemy’s Shire.
(6) The Conquered Shire
Two days later, we stood on the west bank of the Brandywine with new provisions and a plan, if not quite a solution. The provisions came from the Master of Buckland, who did not like his new role as warlord; he had actually offered us as much Hobbit hospitality as he judged the safety of his people would allow. The plan was mostly of our own devising, but with lots of advice from the Master’s scouts and spies about the lay of the land. The fastest way to the Havens was, of course, the Great Road, but to take the Road was out of the question when the Men of the Eye used it every day. Instead, we would take the country road that led through the Woody End to Tuckborough. We would not rejoin the Road until we were well into the West March. The Shire was not such a wilderness that we could not make good time away from the major thoroughfares.
The Buckleberry Ferry was no longer in service, obviously, but we had gotten a lift across the river in the small, swift boats that the Bucklanders still used for trade with the Marish. We waved goodbye to boatman and took a route that would take us around the town of Stock, which had been damaged by the same force that entered Buckland from east. Even more than the Bucklanders, the people of Stock would be inclined to shoot on sight anyone who was not a Hobbit. We set off west.
The walk through the Marish was unreal to me because it was ordinary. Many homesteads along the road had been pillaged, but the neighborhood was still intact, with its tidy Hobbit farm buildings and small fields like the squares of a quilt. (Why was it that people who positively disliked organization would marshal every landscape they farmed like an army camp of the Big People?) I very much wanted to walk up one of the paths to the door of a farmhouse and introduce myself. I knew some of these Hobbits, or at least I had known their fathers and mothers. I was sure they would offer me lunch. As it was, though, my friends and I had to skulk along behind hedges and across the edges of fields, as if we were Gollums of various sizes.
Eventually, we did stop for lunch at a farm house, though it had no roof. It had been overgrown by the neighboring wood, except for a stone path to the door, and seemed to have been abandoned for years. A fire was out of the question, but we were quite secure from prying eyes.
“Bilbo, you’re casting a good, solid shadow today,” Arwen complimented me.
“Fank umb bury mulk,” I say around a bite of one of Rory’s sandwiches. “As I said, it comes and goes. My spirits affect the fading; so do my surroundings. Few surrounding are as solid as the Shire. Please forgive me if I say now that Rivendell may have been a bit too ethereal for my good.”
“Or maybe for its own good, too,” she allowed.
The Shire seemed only to sadden Glorfindel. “The little people do not know what the age has in store for them. They think a storm or a plague has passed over them, but that they will be able to rebuild the lives they knew. They will be hunted like prey at the Enemy’s whim, so that first one and them another polite custom will fall from them. If they survive at all, they will be like badgers in their burrows. Alas.”
I was about to suggest to Glorfindel that it might be better to live like a badger in a burrow than to disappear in a puff of smoke, which seemed to have happened lately to some Elves I could mention, but instead we just finished lunch. When it was time to go, I said:
“Again, I better do any talking that needs to be done. I will walk a little ahead. If you two hear anything on the road, get undercover until I can sort things out. I won’t reveal your presence unless I absolutely have to.”
So we left the ruin, and walked up the short path that led to the road. It was exactly the way we had come a half-hour ago. I was gingerly looking up and down the road from the head of the path when I heard something large behind me fall.
Glorfindel and Arwen were struggling in a net that looked very much like the natural foliage. They were being held down by a dozen Hobbits in hunting clothes with quivers of arrows on their backs. Everyone knew that Hobbits were better in a wood than an Elf. Since these Hobbits had managed to approach the ruined farmhouse and set a trap without being noticed, they must have been very good indeed. Even I was impressed.
“Did these sneaking Elves hurt you, master?” asked a Hobbit. He was betrayed by a feather in his cap as the leader. “We could have just shot them, but we need something to trade to the Prefect. They’ve got another six of our folk at Bag End. The devils are particularly in the market Elves, I hear.”
“Well done, captain,” I said. “May I go along for the exchange? I think that one of those six could be one of my cousins.”
* * *
I was 129 years old, and I had once outsmarted a dragon, but I never lied so frequently, or so well, as I did over the next day and a half. I explained that I was a refugee from the West Farthing (which was true, after a fashion) and that these Elves had kidnapped me and forced me to show them the way across the Shire. I said they were particularly interested in knowing which farmsteads would be worth robbing. Indeed, I painted such a picture of Elvish turpitude that Glorfindel and Arwen would have been hanged if they were not about to be turned over to the Enemy to be tortured to death. The only plan I could make was to stay with the prisoners as they were moved from camp to camp of Hobbit irregulars. Twice I was left alone with them and almost succeeded in cutting their bonds; both times I was discovered. After the second time, the Hobbits would not let me alone with the prisoners again. The Hobbits thought I had been poking them with my penknife (which was also true, but it was an accident).
The upshot was, early one bright and warm day, I found myself peering from the cover of hedges at a flat stone in the midst of a field near Bag End. Arwen and Glorfindel were tied up on the stone. This was one of the locations where the Hobbits sometimes traded with the Enemy’s Men. The commanders of the army of the Eye had not condescended to treat with any of the Hobbits. Once the Enemy was established, however, his forces became notably less aggressive. Here and there, the Men began trading with the natives. They found they could also make a nice little pile for themselves for themselves by collecting ransom for Hobbits who had been enslaved, or sometimes simply taken hostage so they could be ransomed. The kidnappers were paid in food and trinkets. Enough Hobbits were saved this way that it was in no one’s interest to break off the contacts. Very recently, however, the Prefect had discovered the arrangement, and had begun to use it himself to police the Shire for travelers. At any rate, that seemed to be what was happening.
“Here they come,” said the local Hobbit captain, feather and all.
They were six Men, each dressed in a badly maintained version of the livery that had been worn by the Men whom Glorfindel had killed on the Last Bridge. Each led a Hobbit. The Hobbits were in even worse condition than the Men. One, whose head was bandaged to cover the eyes, was barely able to stand. The Men determined that the prisoners on the rock were alive, and apparently were Elves. Then some of our party, including me, stepped out into the clearing.
“This is a fine catch, little folk,” said one of the men, kicking Glorfindel lightly with his boot, “thank you kindly. And here are your kittens in return.” He signaled to the Men to release their prisoners.
The freed Hobbits stumbled into the arms of the Hobbits from the bush, some of whom were obviously kinsmen. “Griffo, Pearl, Saradoc, you’re alive, you’re alive!” they said amidst many hugs. I was glad to see the Hobbits released, too, but I was no closer to saving the Elves. It looked as if I would have to sneak into Enemy headquarters somehow: hard to do, without a magic ring. In the meanwhile, I had picked out one of the released Hobbits whom I could comfort without saying anything too specific about our relationship. Then one of the other prisoners said, “Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins: how dare you show your face here!” I could barely recognize the Hobbit, who of course was much older than the last time I saw him. Finally I placed him. It was Olo, Olo Proudfoot: my cousin.
The Hobbits all looked at me. So did several of the Men. “Why, Olo,” I began, “how delighted…”
“It’s Mad Baggins!” cried one of the Hobbits I had come with.
“Yes,” said Olo, “the one with all the stolen treasure! The one who started the trouble all those years ago. And the one…”
“Baggins!?! Stolen treasure!?!” aid the leader of the Men. My fame had preceded me, evidently. “Take this one, too, boys, and don’t take an argument from the rest!”
It was not actually much of a fight. Some of the Hobbits drew their knives, but only to make sure that the released prisoners got away. All the Hobbits soon scurried into the bushes. They did not stage an ambush on my behalf. Perhaps they thought I could disappear if I needed to.
(7) The Prefect of Bag End
Bag End looked much less like Bag End than the house at Crick Hollow had looked like Bag End. The diggings had been extended and the roof raised to allow for larger occupants. The old hole had become Mordor’s capital in the Shire because Lotho had used it for that purpose, and Lotho had been the first thing in the Shire that the Enemy sought. I never found out exactly what had happened to Lotho, but his family and most of his hired Men had met grisly ends, some of them in public, usually while protesting that they did not have information that the Great Eye urgently wished to have.
In any case, Bag End had become a clerical office, and a prison, and a torture chamber, but most of all it was now a hospital. The new tunnels were occupied by moaning Orcs who looked as if they had been burned. This puzzled me mightily. I had had more to do with Orcs in my time than I care to say, and I knew they did not like the sunlight, but I had never seen anything like this.
The guards and the workers were Men. There were surprisingly few. Four of then led us, with our hands tied, to the Audience Chamber of the Prefect of Ecstasy.
The Audience Chamber was in fact my three best bedrooms, with the walls knocked down and the walls painted sable. Skillfully wrought scenes of mayhem and misery were worked into the darkly stained glass of the windows. The culture of Mordor was irredeemably depraved, but it was also helplessly exquisite; that was one of its insistences, like the tidiness of the Shire.
At Man height, at the narrow north end of the room, a strangely glinting mural of the Great Eye floated in the blackness of the wall. Large iron stands stood at intervals about the room, burning huge candles that had been made from the fat of some fell beast. They produced considerably more smoke than light. It took my eyes a moment to take in the room.
The Prefect himself was unmistakable. All in black, with a high black headdress, he had the look of perpetual, dismayed surprise that characterized all the Men who had knowingly submitted to Sauron. He sat on a low-backed chair (not one of mine, I could see) on a circular dais under the Eye. Before his feet, there seemed to be a little cup in which an ember glowed redly. To his left another figure, dressed in dark brown, sat on the edge of the dais.
The figure in brown was Gelmir.
“Where is he?” the Prefect demanded. He had a surprisingly fine tenor voice, but it rasped with impatience. In fact, he sounded very close to desperate.
“This is the traitor of whom I spoke, Prefect, the Hobbit who stole the Great Ring of the Eye many years ago.”
The Prefect scarcely glanced at me; he glared at Gelmir.
“You know perfectly well, elven fool, that the Eye seeks just one thing in this land of imps. I don’t need another imp, no matter what he has done. I don’t need any more Elves, either, or to hear what they say, unless they know where the traitor is. Do you, Elf Bitch?”
I was shocked to hear Arwen Elvenstar addressed in this fashion. Glorfindel was struck dumb, or perhaps dumber. Arwen herself, however, had not lived to be upwards of 3000 years old without learning a measure of composure.
“I see that victory has not made Mordor forget its accustomed courtesy,” she said. “I normally do not address persons who have not introduced themselves to me, but in this case I will say that I do not know what the Servant of the Eye is talking about. I will further suggest that the Servant does not know, either.”
The Prefect took no further notice of them and turned his attention back to Gelmir:
“We need to find him now, today. I have already had to send most of our Orcs to the Misty Mountains to preserve them from sun poisoning. My Men I have sent west. Then, at your counsel, I sent more west to find what became of the army. The imps will realize our position any day now. Do you not know how cruel they are? But I hear nothing from the Ministry of Peace about relief. The Dark Throne is silent, or its messengers are waylaid by bandits.”
Gelmir said in a reasonable tone, “Perhaps, Prefect, it was a mistake to advise the Throne to send its messages through the eastern route rather than the southern. The imps were not that great a peril to communication.”
“Do not forget, Gelmir, that the span of you life is no longer than the span of your usefulness. If we cannot complete our mission here…”
“But Prefect, have I not brought a great gift?” Gelmir indicated the ember in the cup.
“Gelmir, you flatter yourself, and most of all you flatter your wit. You have brought a useless bauble that the Eye could have whenever it desired.” The Prefect kicked the cup away. “The Eye is sick of rings.”
The cup clattered off the dais, sending the ember skittering across the slate floor. It did not actually come to a stop very close to my feet, but no one was paying much attention to me as the exchange between Gelmir and the Prefect continued. I bent down and picked it up. It was very hot, I knew. I could even feel some of the heat. However, in the unreal darkness of this outpost of the kingdom of nothingness, I was as faded as I had ever been. One of the advantages to that was a degree of immunity to physical forces: such as heat, for instance. I picked up Vilya (Gelmir really had retrieved it; had he been fool enough to bring it here voluntarily, or had he been picked up by one of the Prefect’s sunburned Orcs?) and applied it to the cords on my wrists. No one noticed the small amount of smoke. Then no one noticed that I was free.
Well, my hands were no longer tied: I was still being kept under guard by four large men while the slithery Gelmir seemed to be losing an argument with the viceroy of darkness about whether to just kill the lot of us.
“First, Gelmir,” the Prefect was saying, “I will personally induce the ecstasy of the Eye in all three of them, to see whether they do know anything. And then, Gelmir, before we leave this place, the time will come for you; so much for your ‘offer of negotiation.’”
I took a certain degree of satisfaction in that last bit, but not so much that I did not run from the Chamber.
One of the guards did follow, but no one seemed terribly put out about my escape attempt. After all, where could I go?
Where I did go was into the largest Orc ward (made from my kitchen and my principal larder, the devils!) and tore down the curtains over the south-facing windows. Beautiful bright sunlight streamed into the room, a fair amount of it straight through me. No matter. The Orcs erupted like disturbed bees and ran screaming into the hall. Then I exited a window and walked on my lawn for the first time since my eleventy-first birthday party. When I came to the deliciously horrible stained glass of the Chamber of Audience, I used a rock to clear away the glass before jumping through. I was never a hero.
Inside, I found the situation better than I had hoped. The guards had gone to attend to the riot in the hall, and Gelmir was wrestling with the Prefect. I did to Arwen and Glorfindel’s bonds much what I had done with mine, which hurt the prisoners but not as much as the Ecstasy of Mordor would have. We were hopping through the window when Gelmir yelled, “Wait, take me!” This gave the Elves pause, but I responded immediately with the only weapon we had. The Prefect, whom Gelmir did not quite have in neck hold, could scarcely see me, what with the sudden access of sunlight and the fact I was half invisible anyway. So, he was not prepared to stop me from popping the Ring into his mouth and making him swallow it. Then he ran into the hall, too, but not to call the guards after us.
(8) North & West
Outside on the lawn of Bag End, there was nothing to do but run. There were some Men about, but none had horses, and the Men seemed disinclined to challenge us on foot: three High Elves, even unarmed, are pretty formidable. In any case, the guard concentrated on the chaos in Bag End, which seemed to taking on the aspect of an Orkish uprising. When it was just a matter of speed, Glorfindel carried me. The landscape was one of gently rolling hills, with occasional patches of trees: it lent itself to flight. Long before sunset, we were many miles away.
We had run all the way to the North Farthing. Indeed, we were not far from Bindbale Wood. I had visited here in my younger days, and I knew the people for hospitable folk. Still, the whole Shire had been brutalized, so I did not know how much the rules of hospitality still applied. In any case, I suspected that a little harmless dissimulation about my identity would be prudent.
“We might just spend the evening in the woods,” Arwen suggested.
“And we might miss lunch and dinner and breakfast and cast ourselves into the Encircling Ocean,” I said crossly. “Whatever may suit the Elves, however, I am a Hobbit. I will knock on the first door we see.”
The first door actually took a little finding, but finally we came across a farm just outside the border of the wood, a farm that looked as prosperous as any Hobbit farm ever had. Leaving the Elves at a discreet distance, I knocked on the door just as the sun was about to set.
“Good evening, madam,” I said to the farmer’s wife who answered the door. “My name is Boffo Feathertoes. Would it be possible for you to put up my friends and me for the night?”
“You’re not Boffo Feathertoes.” She answered evenly. “You’re Mad Baggins.”
“Why do you say that, madam?”
“I can see the sun setting through your stomach.”
They put us up anyway, but we had to stay in the barn. Gelmir, who had picked up a few other things besides the Ring Vilya during his expedition to Rivendell, paid quite a lot of coin for our lodging. The story that circulated afterward was that I had appeared at the door with a bang and a sack of gold. I had joined the immortals.
Gelmir was penitent. He had lost his little band of followers to Orkish stragglers or to desertion. Possibly that was just as well: if a band of Elves had approached the garrison of Men at the Brandywine Bridge, they would probably have just been shot with arrows from a distance. As it was, he had no trouble gaining an audience with the Prefect. The Prefect had no interest in Gelmir’s offer of surrender on terms, but he did seem really desperate for information about the outside world.
Mordor was not paying attention to his mission. In fact, Mordor did not seem to be paying attention to anything. The Eye had not been surprised by victory. Mordor had been planning for centuries about the course it would take when Gondor fell. Those plans had not included the recovery of the Ring; that had been pure luck. Something about the recovery of the Ring, however, had deranged even the most straightforward schemes over which the Eye had gloated for so long. Mordor could and did still overawe its near neighbors, but more and more, when the claw of Mordor reached out afar, it closed on nothing. No one at the Ministry of Peace was sure what was happening, except that anything that miscarried in Eriador was certainly the Prefect’s fault. At any rate, that was their attitude the last time he had heard from them.
Gelmir also learned what had happened at Mount Doom on March 25. Two palantiri were found at Minas Tirith, and one came into the possession of the Prefect’s Ministry. They can see through time as well as space, and stories about what they revealed spread like lightening among the Dark Lord’s principal servants.
The Ring-bearer had almost fallen to the temptation of the Ring, but in the end he rallied. He had been about to destroy the Ring when he heard a struggle behind him between his servant and the Gollum-creature. He left the Sammath Naur to help his friend, who was rolling down the path with Gollum at his throat. As the Ring-bearer stood at the entrance to the cave, however, he became aware of the approach of the Nazgul. He raised to rebuke them the hand that wore the Ring; they fell from the sky like sparks from a fire. He followed the wrestling figures down the path. When he reached them, before he speak a word of command, Gollum sprang up and ripped his throat out. The Ring-bearer’s servant eventually slew Gollum, but not before he had himself been mortally wounded. He died clutching the Ring a few yards from the entrance to the Sammath Naur. The Ring was on the Dark Lord’s hand within a few hours.
“Perhaps if he had claimed the Ring for his own, matters would have turned out differently,” Gelmir concluded.
“That is exactly the kind of thing I would expect someone like you to say,” Glorfindel sneered.
I said nothing, but I was not sure I disagreed with Gelmir. Poor, honest, doomed Frodo: if he had understood that he could not possibly achieve the Quest by his own virtue, then maybe, just maybe, a way would have been found that no one could have predicted.
* * *
The last stage of our journey to the West was not without incident. We went northwest to Needlehole, thinking to travel through Little Delving rather than through Michel Delving, which for all we knew was still in the hands of the Prefect’s Men. We discovered, though, that the Hobbits of the northern border of the Shire were no happier to see strangers than the Bucklanders had been. The northerners had not been troubled by Men or Orcs, however: their problem was the Things that Live in the Woods. Wags and trolls and nightwalkers had long haunted Hobbit mythology, for the excellent reason that they also haunted the wastelands to the north of the Shire. All that had kept them from haunting the Shire, too, were the Rangers, and to a lesser extent the sheriffs. Now both were gone. We heard a lot of sentiment that things were better when Lotho was in charge: he at least had kept up the border patrol.
We met some of the Things, on the one night when we unwisely attempted to make camp. After that, we took lodging where we could get it, sometimes without informing the owners of the barns and sheds where we took refuge. Quite often, we also made off with their goods and smaller livestock. (Yes, Elves do steal: I know this because I helped them do it. They don’t kidnap Hobbits, though: Rory had been listening to rumors.) We barely escaped from the neighborhood of Little Delving with our lives. In contrast, we were well enough received in Michel Delving to use the inn. Yes, the Prefect’s Men had been there, but had done no damage beyond some ordinary thievery. Nothing more was heard from them; no one and nothing had come from the West.
While we were at Michel Delving, however, we did hear that the remnants of the army of the Eye had left the Shire through the southward roads. It had not been defeated. When Hobbits cautiously entered Bag End and the other headquarters, they found that most of the army had died.
We stayed on the Road thereafter. We passed through the lightly people White Downs, and the Far Downs, of which I had so often heard but which I had never visited. The Elves told me that the tang in the air and the high haze in the sky were signs of the proximity of the sea. I could just detect these things, but in truth my senses were failing me, or at least my senses for natural things. It was getting so that I had to concentrate to see the ordinary world. I was beginning to be able to see another world all about me, even in the daytime. Some of it was quite alarming. I mentioned it to the Elves. They said yes, they could see that world, if they needed to do so. Usually they preferred to ignore it. I could understand why, but I was having less and less choice about seeing it.
(9) The Tower Hills
I had seen a fair amount of Middle Earth, but the White Tower was by far the most striking building I have ever seen. It rose up like a chalk continuation of the highest of the rolling green hills. It almost glowed against the sky behind it, a sky so blue it was almost black. And the Tower was perfect; no harm had come to this place.
Arwen said, “Bilbo, as you know, we three Elves have been here before. Now come up with us, and you will what you have never seen before.”
The great oaken doors of the Tower were open. No one was inside at ground level. Around the walls of the great tower was a wide stairway, punctuated by small glassed windows. The stairs wound to an aperture in the roof far above us. We climbed.
We were able to see the sea long before we reached the top. It was not the sea’s apparent infinity that astonished me. I was astonished because the sea was the one thing that looked the same in both worlds.
The top of the tower was large. A central chamber took up most of it; doors led off that circular space to other rooms. In the middle of the chamber there was stone pedestal. On the pedestal was a softly glowing white sphere.
“Look, Bilbo,” said Arwen, “here is the great palantir that looks to the uttermost West. The Elves come here in pilgrimage, so that we do not forget our true home. You are worthy to see this vision, too. Come.”
I stood up on the shallow step on which the pedestal stood and gazed into the sphere. The milky glow became clouds. The clouds thinned. And then opaque glow returned.
“I am sorry,” I said, “perhaps I am not worthy enough.”
“I see nothing but clouds and light,” said Gelmir.
“That, too, is all I see,” Glorfindel said.
We were silent for several confused moments. Then we heard a door opening behind us.
The Elves stepped back and drew their knives, but there was no need. Two young Men in gray uniforms stood politely by the head of the stairs. On their right breasts they bore a white emblem with which I was not familiar.
“Lady Arwen, my Elf Lords, Master Halfling, we greet you in the name of Warden Cirdan and his allies. With your permission, we have been sent to escort you to the Gray Havens.”
“Well met, fair-spoken strangers, for the havens are indeed our destination,” said Gelmir. “But can you tell us why the stone no longer looks beyond the sea?”
“I can merely confirm that the stone is as you say for all who try to use it. Why this should be I do not know. However, my master may know. In any case, he desires urgently to speak to you. Will you come down and take some refreshment? We have mounts for you all. We can be at the Havens by sundown tomorrow.”
We looked at each other. There nothing else we could have asked for. The two Men in gray preceded us down the stairs. I kept hopping up to the westward-facing windows to get one more look at the reassuringly solid sea.
(10) The End of the World
In the fine weather, we made better time even than we had hoped. On the journey, our hosts answered direct questions but volunteered no information. We arrived at the Havens by mid-afternoon. The Havens were a small and ancient town of square towers and substantial houses, all built entirely of basalt. The town was almost an island. It was located at the end of a long, narrow peninsula that defined the inner harbor. The Havens were easily defended and impossible to truly besiege without a formidable armada to flank its seaward side. No ships but the town’s own were in evidence when we arrived, however. The town was a perfect as the White Tower had been. Its folk were busy and undisturbed.
In former days, I would have complained that I was not offered a meal after such a long journey, but food was becoming one of those earthly things that meant less and less to me. My horror at this development grew daily, but it did allow me to be as eager as the rest to be led to the quarters of Cirdan the Shipwright, the Warden of the Havens. We came to a long room with windows of leaded glass that overlooked both the inner and the seaward harbors. Long tables along the sides of the room held maps, scrolls, and instrument of observation, as well some products of elvish ingenuity whose function eluded me.
“Arwen, Glorfindel, welcome, welcome!” he said. He gave me a wry look and said, “And welcome to you, Master Baggins, the little fellow who started this big war.” I made a similarly ambiguous expression and bowed low, wishing that I were not just faded but completely invisible already. Then Cirdan addressed the last member of our party.
“Oh, Gelmir, it’s you. You survived, I see.”
Gelmir made much the same sort of bow I had.
Arwen said, “It is good to see again, Cirdan, my friend, and good beyond hope to see your city safe and whole. Many terrible things have happened, and we must discuss them soon enough. But tell me first, if you will, why the palantir of the Hills no longer has the Straight Sight.”
“All in good time, Arwen. Indeed, may mysteries will be made clear before the sun sets. I had asked several other persons with an interest in these matters to be here, but you are a little earlier than we planned, so it will take a few moments to alert them. Ah, here are two now!”
Erestor and Faramir had entered the room. Warm greetings were exchanged. Faramir and Arwen actually embraced; they did not entirely disentangle from each other when they were finished. Erestor seemed a little concerned that there was less to me than when we last met. Gelmir smiled and nodded and overlooked the fact nobody met his eye.
“There were monsters to fight in the Hills of Evendim,” Faramir was explaining, “but no Men, fortunately. The Breelanders think they can make a go of it there. Some of us then continued west and met the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. They are eager to help us. They were beginning to wonder how they would support themselves in a world without farmers to trade with.
“After that, I came south with Erestor and most of the other Elves. When I arrived here and learned the state of things in the Eriador, I was about to head east into the Shire to search for you. Then we heard you were on your way.”
“Yes, better monsters than Men. Would that I had taken that advice earlier.”
Someone unknown to me had joined us, a tall bearded figure in a gray uniform. Like the uniform of the men who had brought us, his bore the symbol of a white hand.
“Saruman!” said Arwen and Glorfindel in dismay. Gelmir said nothing. Perhaps he was struck dumb with happiness at there being someone in the room who was even less popular than he was.
“At your service,” he said with a small bow. “And yours, Master Halfling,” he said, turning to me. “The famous Bilbo Baggins, Esquire, if I am not mistaken?”
I bowed back. “The very same; and my service to you.” I knew enough about Saruman not to like him one bit, but I also knew enough about villains to be polite to them until the last possible moment.
“Cirdan, you know well that Saruman was cast from the White Council,” said Arwen, “and that he was long in secret league with the Enemy. How comes he here, your ally and apparent friend?”
“Lady Arwen, I have done many foolish and wicked things,” Saruman said to Arwen before Cirdan could reply, “yet now I have learned a little wisdom, at an immense price. Cirdan has heard my tale, and has become reconciled with me. I ask that you, too, hear me out.”
It was quite a story. We had heard that Gandalf had imprisoned Saruman with Grima at Orthanc, and set the Ents to guard them. On the Day of Doom, however, the Ents were terrified quite as much as the trees of the Old Forest had been. Unlike those trees, the Ents were mobile. They ran away. Saruman and Grima simply walked out of Orthanc and parted company, with slight expressions of mutual esteem.
I had not heard that Saruman had had dealings with the Shire. Now that he mentioned the matter, I began to understand how someone as clueless as Lotho Sackville-Baggins could cow the country into submission. In any case, Saruman fled to the Shire. He believed he had done so in secret, but the secret was apparently not as tightly kept as he had hoped.
Then something clicked in my head.
“The traitor: you are the traitor that Sauron was seeking in the Shire!” I said. “You were the reason for the invasion!”
“Yes Master Baggins, I was the proximate cause, and I deeply regret the great harm that was done to your beautiful country in the search for me. May I remind you, however, that the Dark Tower had business with the Shire that had nothing to do with me? There were more remote causes for the invasion. How regrettable that your own noble self was among them.”
He was better at innuendo than Gelmir was, I thought. Much better.
In any case, Saruman did not remain long in the Shire, but fled westward when he realized that the hand of Mordor was reaching out for him. Before many days had passed, he was at the Gray Havens. He had an awkward interview with Cirdan, who detained him at first. However, Cirdan was growing desperate. He knew that an army of Mordor was on its way to Havens. He could not defend the Havens indefinitely. He did not have the ships to evacuate its people, either to the West or to some remote place on the shores of Middle Earth. Saruman reminded him of his power of the Voice, and asked Cirdan to let him meet the army marching from the Shire.
“It was the best display of the great Art in my very long career,” Saruman said in a voice that failed to convey modesty. “With an hour’s talk, I stopped their advance. Within a day, I had turned their allegiance. In a week, most of them were reformed characters. Many now choose to continue to serve with me here, though of course now I have little extraordinary power of persuasion: other than reason, of course.”
“And how can that be,” asked Gelmir, “if that is a power that is native to you?”
“This can be, Councilor Gelmir, because what mortals call ‘magic’ is ending.”
This was food for thought for everyone. I thought of an objection.
I stood up on a chair in front of a window that looked out on golden afternoon light falling on the inner harbor. “If that is the case, wizard, than how is it you can see the white sails through my body, and in a week you will be able to see the masts?”
“Bilbo, let us consider your strange case. May we take it as proved that you are indeed fading, as the Nazgul did of old?”
“Just follow my voice if you can’t see me when I climb off the chair. Yes, Saruman, I am fading.”
“But when the Nazgul faded, the disappearance of their bodies was the least grievous matter. Their wills faded, too, Bilbo, until their minds became only puppets of the mind of Sauron. Has anything like that happened to you?”
I considered a moment, but I had already given the matter much thought. “I saw the Eye just once, on the Day of Doom. I am aware of it, like a stove across a room, but no, it does oppress me. The Eye is silent. I had, frankly, been hoping to leave Middle Earth before it began to speak.”
“It will not speak to you, Bilbo. Indeed, even in his bodily form the Dark Lord no longer speaks to his own servants. You may have noticed some of the effects of this silence on the government of his kingdom.”
“Is he then dead?” asked Gelmir.
“By no means. Sauron cannot die. He observes all that passes in Middle Earth. No doubt he sees us here now. He shouts and struggles and tries to affect the course of events, but he is like a man at the bottom of a waterfall who cannot make himself heard. The power of Sauron was Nothing, or rather the control of the flow of power and substance from this world to the absolute void that is not Arda. That is why every exercise of Sauron’s will was always a loss of some kind. His towers rose to the sky, but at the cost of realms that had held much greater substance. The Rings were only valves to give Sauron greater access to the void. When he acquired the Great Ring, the hole he had drilled through the world of substance became too great, a chasm not even he could control. All the magic in the world is flowing through it, and at an ever faster pace.
“I tried once to warn him that this could happen. He would not listen.”
Glorfindel became alarmed. “But what about the Elves?” he asked. “Is even the West safe, and can we still go there? Was the palantir clouded because the West is no more?”
Cirdan reassured him. “The palantir is clouded because Those Beyond the Sea obscured it when they realized the magnitude of Sauron’s victory. They do not wish their secrets spied out, and they know Sauron might well acquire the stone. Perhaps they did wisely, though now they have no way to see what is happening here. In any case, the very fact the palantir is still obscure is proof that the West still exists. The magic will not flow out of all creation, Glorfindel: only Middle Earth.”
“The Elves can still leave Middle Earth,” Erestor said, “but the time is short. The Straight Road to the West is a special grace between two worlds, but it cannot long endure now. As Cirdan can tell you, his ships have ever more trouble traversing the Gulf. I judge that no ship will be able to reach the West after the end of this year.”
“But what will happen to Middle Earth? What will happen to the race of Men?” asked Faramir.
“Some part of the effect you have already seen, Steward of Gondor,” answered Saruman gravely. “The creatures of this Middle Earth that belonged to the elder days are passing away. That would have happened anyway, but what would otherwise have taken centuries will now require only a few months. All of them: Trolls, Orcs, Ents, the good creatures and the bad, all will simply fall apart under the inflexible laws that will order nature in this Fourth Age.”
“So you are saying that Men will have the world to themselves?”
“For the most part. I tried very hard to tell Gandalf this. I tried too hard, and in the wrong way, and maybe I did not deserve to be listened to. In any case, I thought to use my knowledge of the new age for my own benefit. I started as a fool, and I became a tyrant.”
“Yes, you did,” said Arwen.
“O wise persons,” I broke in, “a mere Hobbit is unworthy to learn such great secrets as I have heard in this room. But may I point out that I am still disappearing?”
“You are no longer disappearing for quite for the reasons the Nazgul did, Bilbo,” Saruman said. Gently. “You are disappearing because, in your long and remarkable life, you have become magical. You are one of the immortals, my friend.”
“In that case,” I said, “this is no longer the world for me.”
* * *
Arwen chose to remain with Faramir: no surprise there. He was still calling himself the Steward of Gondor when our ship left, and talking about reconstituting the kingdom. I suspect that is wishful thinking. By and by, Arwen will persuade him to declare himself king of someplace new. Is he is as good a Man as Strider was? Maybe not, but he is willing to try.
Saruman had the option to stay, but chose to submit himself to the judgment that awaited him in the West. Perhaps, in light of what happened to Sauron, he considers that the worst the Valar would do to him is better than the best he would have devised for himself. I still don’t trust him, but he is quite a conversationalist.
Erestor will be coming in one of the last ships, if he comes at all. He was taking about staying in Middle Earth. He would be satisfied with mortality, he says. The fact is that none of the Wise know whether the Elves can long endure in the Fourth Age. The Wisest Wise are not taking any chances.
Gelmir was supposed to come on this ship. I got Cirdan to change the passenger list.
The sea journey itself has been one continuous storm. I really thought we would capsize in the first few days. The winds have quieted a little, but since then there has been rain and more rain.
And as for me, I keep to my small cabin and do what I have done for many years: write an account of my adventures. My first diary is still at Rivendell, probably, unless someone has used it to start a fire already. So much happened between the end of that book and the beginning of this one. Whole lifetimes passed: Merry, Pippin, Sam, Strider, and of course Frodo. They are all gone now, fallen in a crack that opened between one world and the next.
Only I am left to tell the tale, but who will care to hear it? Do they even have memoirs in the uttermost West? We’ll find out. At least, as I write this, I have the satisfaction of seeing that my fist once again casts a shadow.
Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly