World Without End

The stillness of this place does not require silence. It took some little time before I heard it, I confess. The wind upon the grass or upon the eternal restless waves of the Sea; the slow groaning talk of the boughs of the trees, or the soft rustling laughter of their leaves; the buzzing of a bee making its drunken way from flower to flower; above all else, the whisper of music. The Elves sing to Elbereth, and their songs could break your heart.

One Elf who crossed with us -- hardly more than a child as they reckon things, though she’s older than I am -- asked me, not long after we arrived, “Why do you not sing for us?”

I shook my head. “I’ve nothing ready,” I said.

She smiled, and didn’t make any of the responses she might have made, for which I was exceedingly thankful. Not that I hadn’t told the truth: I didn’t have anything prepared to sing or recite, nothing new at any rate. My old songs hardly seemed suited to this new place. I said as much to Frodo, who sat next to me.

He smiled. “You sang a song of Earendil in Elrond’s hall, dear Bilbo. I can hardly think you shall hesitate long from singing here as well.”

I smiled back, and attempted to find words in response. Not because he was in error, although really I hardly thought the two compared, since I’d lived in Rivendell for quite long enough to know what Elrond would think of any cheek on my part, while I’d been here for only a short while, and would sing to a rather larger audience. No. It was... well, I admit, I’ve been rather worried about my boy. The air here has cleared my head better than even a cup of tea could do, back in the Shire. It’s the stillness.

I found Frodo down near the shore, the other day. Not taking a stroll, or even sitting down on a rock like a sensible hobbit (although I can’t bring to mind any other hobbit who’d care to stare out over the Sea), but standing there, the breeze tugging at his hair and whispering into his ears while the sea murmured its own secrets. I don’t know how long he’d been standing there, but when I clapped him on the arm in greeting, the fabric of his coat felt cold under my fingers, and he didn’t answer me. I watched him for a moment, then sighed and shrugged my own coat closer around me.

After a few minutes, he turned his head, blinking like one who’s been trying to look into the sun. “Bilbo,” he said, sounding rather surprised. “I’m sorry, I didn’t--“

“I know you didn’t,” I said. “Gandalf came for tea and said you were standing out here, so I came to fetch you in.” In my opinion, the boy needed a cup of tea, especially after standing out here in the sea wind for an hour or two. It gave a bit of color to his cheeks, which sadly needed them -- he tended to look as pale as over-mashed potatoes, or badly bleached linen -- but I didn’t propose to have him catch his death of cold. “Are you, er, done?”

One last long look at the sea, then he turned back to me and smiled. “No. But a cup of tea sounds lovely.”

That -- that was precisely why I was concerned. I’d been rather foggy by the time he returned to Rivendell, but not so fogged in my wits that I didn’t notice he’d changed. He wore garb made from cloth finer and softer to the touch than any Shire homespun, he spoke as if he must listen to every word first and be certain he meant it, and he’d the rather uncanny habit of looking at a hobbit as if he noticed your inmost heart first and the color of your waistcoat second. Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, they’d become loud and strong as lords of Gondor, but my Frodo said little enough, even when it came time to tell stories about where they’d been and what they’d done. He left that to young Sam Gamgee, who changed too, although I couldn’t put my finger on precisely how. Something more than growing up, I thought. He’d sat with Frodo and me often enough at Rivendell before that Quest of theirs, tending to this and that, and I didn’t remember seeing whatever it was I saw, not then. I rather wish I’d thought to speak with him then. Sam was always one to know what’s what.

But Sam was not here. So I took Frodo back to the small house the Elves had given us, and fed him tea and seedcake and talked about small things like whether the willow sapling that Lindir had transplanted would take (Gandalf thought not: Frodo, who had learnt something of forestry somewhere along the line, assured him that it would), and why Elves don’t grow potatoes. “Because they don’t like the taste of them,” Frodo said.

“I’ll believe that when I see an Elf try one and prove it,” I said. “Not that they don’t make excellent meals, but they’re worse than a Boffin for trying new things. I once demonstrated to Erestor how to make a proper stew of fish--“

Gandalf glanced up at Frodo, swift and sharp. But when I broke off and looked too, there was nothing to see, only Frodo sat back into the cushions of his chair, hands clasped around his cup of tea. I’d missed it, whatever it had been... or worse, been told and forgotten it along the way. I opened my mouth to ask, then shut it again. Gandalf answers questions better than once he did, but I am too old to be brash about asking as once I was, and anyway I thought it properly Frodo I should ask.

The difficulty was in finding the right words. After some days of considering and discarding questions, I began to think I should have plucked up my courage at teatime and asked straight out what had made Gandalf’s eyebrows draw together, and Frodo smile something that wasn’t properly a smile, only a turn of the lips upward. A recollection of the Quest, most likely. Botheration. Not really something to be discussed over tea. Quests, in my experience, were sung over grand dinners, or told over a hundred times to eager young faces gathered around one’s knee after dinner in front of an enormous fire... or written down in careful runes. I should have asked Frodo to bring along that book he meant to write: I hadn’t had the chance, after all, to look it over. And it seemed a suitable sort of thing to compose a song about, something new.

This meant going for a walk -- a walk not constrained even by the boundaries of laid-out paths, but only by where meadows lie open to the comfort of the mid-afternoon sun, and wildflowers that haven’t yet been named grow in bright, sweet-smelling profusion. Frodo accompanied me, so if the wildflowers did require naming, at least there should be someone else to remind me of what their new names were.

We wandered for a while, occasionally humming snatches of song as we went. I took care not to notice, at first, in which direction our steps tended, but it was a childish game. I knew where we would end, even before the trees fell back around us and we stood on the edge of the salt-washed sand leading down to the Sea. The wind itself seemed to hold its breath: at least no taunting breeze insisted on blowing hair into our teeth. Frodo rocked back on his heels and breathed deeply.

“You’re doing better, my boy,” I said -- which wasn’t how I’d meant to begin, but it would do.

Frodo glanced over at me and smiled -- a true smile, this one, not with the bitter overwhelming the sweet. “A little,” he said. “It seemed... the air here is clearer than in the Shire.”

More Elf-like, I nearly said, but bit my tongue instead. The air here didn’t smell of the Shire as I remembered it, true -- of turned earth and pipeweed smoke and new-baked bread. But neither did it smell of Elves, the way Rivendell did, of clear-running water and fallen leaves and a sweetness like new spring honey, faint but unmistakable. The air here smelled of rain and growing things, of tears that were both less and more than a sort of passing rain. I will not say, do not weep... I could hear Gandalf’s voice entirely too clearly in my heart. When had he said that? “Yes, I believe so,” I said myself, rather awkwardly. “I feel clearer, like a pail of water that’s finally been allowed to settle. I, er, fear I missed rather a bit.”

Frodo smiled again, but so quick and faint I could hardly be certain of it. He looked away from the sea again to me, and this time he had not forgotten his companion. “You were tired, dear Bilbo,” he said gently. “We didn’t begrudge you your rest.”

Begrudge me my -- oh, sticklebacks and horned toads, did Frodo think I meant the time in Rivendell? “You may not begrudge it, but I do,” I said, a trifle irritably. “I don’t believe I even said goodbye properly to your Sam.”

That won me a look not gentle or smiling at all, but sharp and seeing as anything from Gandalf. “At the Grey Havens.”

“Yes.”

Frodo looked back out to sea rather than answer me immediately, long enough that the stillness of the place fairly prickled against my skin, as if some greater power had drawn breath and waited to blow it back out again, or as if the air were water too deep for me, and no barrels this time for me to cling to. But Frodo -- Frodo didn’t seem to feel the prickling pressure, at least not the same way I did. For a moment, rather, he inhabited the stillness, wrapped around him like a king’s cloak. Then the breeze picked up again, and Frodo was my boy once more, hands clasped so tightly in front of him that his knuckles stood out white, looking out over the Sea. “Not goodbye,” he said, so quietly I could hardly hear him. “He’ll come, Bilbo.”

Sam. He meant Samwise Gamgee. I attempted to imagine practical Samwise in this place. He’d always been so rooted in the Shire -- but then (I reminded myself) he’d followed Frodo willingly, into the heart of the Enemy’s territory. And Frodo watched the Sea with salt-washed cheeks, waiting and hoping. There was a story there, more than one story, that I’d missed in sleep or forgetfulness. My heart ached, a heavy beating in my chest. I clasped Frodo’s shoulder, and he gave me one more smile, true and clear as the sea wind itself.

The tale is not yet finished. The hope still ripens. Someday I’ll put it into a song properly, but Amarie will have to wait to hear it. I trust Frodo for this: sooner or later, Samwise will sail into the harbor, and we shall smoke our pipes in perfect stillness.

– end –

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