We had been on the Island a little over two years, I think. I was never quite sure, for there came a time when I stopped keeping track of the days. The seasons never changed here. There was a time when I did not think I would have liked that. Back in the Shire, in better times, I had loved to see the changing of the seasons. But after the Quest, I found myself dreading the pain and illness that the spring and autumn would bring. Here on the Island the flowers and fruit bloomed all year long, and it was never either too cold nor too hot, and there was only the occasional mild storm, which brought rather exciting displays of lightning out on the sea.
Once a week an Elf would come bringing us a jug of cream, a pot of butter and a wheel of cheese which I stored in our little spring-house. I would trade him a basket of oranges or a bucket of raisins for it, for his wife liked to bake with them, or maybe a couple of loaves or a cake I had baked myself. When my vineyard ripened, a small team of Elves came to help me harvest the grapes, taking no more payment than a bottle of wine or a jar of honey at my insistence. Children showered me with gifts: flowers, sea-shells, pretty stones, things of their own making. Naturally, they pumped me for stories, but I liked better to join them in their games on the beach. On the whole it was a happy time, but for my anxiety about Bilbo and a certain vague longing that would not go away. I missed living in the House of Elrond sometimes, and rarely got out to the Palace, and so I saw the Ladies only at the Temple.
“Bilbo, what is it?” I asked him one night after supper as we sat out on the terrace watching the sun go down and lighting our pipes. I noticed he had taken but one puff of his, and he had not spoken much at all. And I braced myself for what I had been dreading for nearly a year. I went to his long chair and dropped down to one knee beside him, taking his hand in mine. He looked at me then, with infinite sadness and love mingled, and I held his hand to my cheek for a long moment.
“You want to go, don’t you?” I said finally–forcing myself to say it. My insides were quivering. I prayed I was wrong. Or that he would snap out of it, change his mind, anything.
“I’m tired, it’s true,” he said. “This old body keeps telling me: `All right, Bilbo, you’ve reached your goal and outlived the Old Took, now it’s time to quit,’ and my stubborn old head is telling it: `I’ll quit when I’m good and ready, not before, thank you very much.’ Just a constant bicker betwixt the two. I don’t want to go off and leave you all alone here, lad, with no one of your own kind. Dreading the very thought of it, I am. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep up. I know it’s got to be sooner or later…but I’m just having a hard time to bring myself.”
I knew what the right thing, the unselfish thing, to say was, but I just could not make myself say it. Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow. But not tonight. I needed more time to prepare myself. Although, of course, I should have prepared myself long before this, and deep down, I knew I would never really be prepared.
Finally Bilbo took himself off to bed, and I tucked him in and said I would go out for a bit. I kissed his forehead and went down to the beach to my favorite spot, and sat for I don’t know how long, listening to the roar of the tide. Sometimes, if I sat still and listened long enough, I would begin to hear the Music, which came from the heart of the sea and was like no other music I had ever heard. Hearing the Music was no easy matter. You didn’t hear it by listening for it and expecting it, but you had to be open to it, and of a certain accepting and detached frame of mind, and then when you least expected it, it would come to you unbidden, rather like a kitten that would not come when you called it, but only when you appeared to forget about it. But I did not listen for it tonight. Instead, I prayed. I prayed for more time for Bilbo and more strength for myself.
And a few minutes later, I heard a step behind me.
“Baggins? You all right, old chap?”
“Bilbo,” I said in the morning as I laid out our breakfast on the terrace, “what do you think? Galendur has challenged Gandalf to a horse race–tonight! Can you imagine?”
Bilbo jerked his head up and the most amazing change came over his face. It was as though a candle that had been just about to flicker out completely had suddenly flamed back into life.
“You don’t say?”
“Yes, I do. He actually thinks his horse can beat Shadowfax! I guess he’s got a huge surprise coming, what?”
“Why, I never heard such cheek in all my life,” cried my uncle. “That young whipper-sn–of all the–well, we’ll just have to go and see that, now won’t we? Yes, sir. That we must see. When do you say it is?”
And instead of picking at his breakfast as he had been doing for the past few weeks, he dived right in and cleaned his plate, then asked for more. And spent the whole afternoon getting himself up to “go see that young rascal get put in his place once and for all.” Oh, this should be good. Thought he could beat Shadowfax, did he? Oi! Just wait!
He was in capital spirits as we rode into town in our pony-cart, and my own mood rose as well. Actually there were several roads we could take, and when we rode to Temple, we usually alternated amongst them. One road went through a meadow full of flowers of every possible color and graceful grasses of green and gold and silver and dark red. Another took us through a deep wood resonating with birdsong and mysterious dimness, another past some rock formations of fascinating intricacy, glittering, twisted, splotched, jagged, towering. And one alongside a rushing mill-stream full of singing cataracts, and trees of incredible height, and a rainbow that always shimmered over the water on sunny days. I drove through the meadow today, so we could pick flowers to make a wreath for the winning horse.
There was quite a crowd at the track. It certainly hadn’t taken long for word to get around. Galendur was in fine form, grinning at everyone, gallantly saluting the ladies and children, slapping the men on the back and being as hearty as you please. I could hardly believe the audacity of him, myself, as he came running as we pulled up and helped us down from the cart. Bilbo cheerfully informed him that he was about to get trounced.
“Am I? Well, we’ll soon see, won’t we, old chap?” Galendur slapped me on the back, nearly knocking me over. Bilbo shook his head, no doubt thinking the fellow had clearly gone round the bend. Then we heard a collective gasp as Gandalf appeared riding Shadowfax.
Maegfán, Lady Galadriel’s white palfrey, had recently dropped a beautiful little filly, pure white with silver mane and tail, and she was now the property of Lady Ríannor. Of course, she was nowhere near old enough to ride yet, but Ríannor was thoroughly devoted to the little creature, whose name was Silverdance. Ríannor was riding on Maegfán now, and Silverdance trotted right between her parents, sometimes frisking on ahead of them, then stopping and looking back waiting for them to catch up, looking a trifle impatient with their staidness. At one point she rolled around in the grass like a little puppy-dog, to the delight of the crowd, and I could swear Shadowfax looked at her with infinite pride and joy.
“Now isn’t that something,” Galendur chuckled. “Regular family affair, what? Adorable! Now mind, Baggins, I don’t expect you two to be rooting for me.”
“Small danger of that,” Bilbo said with a wink in my direction.
“It’s enough that you’re here,” Galendur said. “That’s what counts.”
“Of course,” I said grinning.
We took our place in the stands. There was more cheering as the Queen and her family appeared with their entourage, stepping out of the royal carriage, and they were escorted to their special box, summoning us to come sit with them. I politely thanked them and said we wished to sit out front, along with Tilwen and Seragon and Niniel and little Lyrien, who had once more had her hair squiggled for the occasion, and was skipping about like a lamb who does not know that slaughter is imminent, making delighted comments over the antics of Silverdance. A small band formed of drum, flute, bagpipe, and viol, played lively music. There was some pre-race foolery, two Elves dressed as a white horse with black spots racing with two more dressed as a black horse with white spots, and at the end of that race, the two “horses” danced with each other on their hinder-legs. It went over wonderfully with the children, and even Bilbo enjoyed it, although I think he was rather impatient for the real race to begin.
I had to admit, Galendur cut the most dashing figure…but, Shadowfax was still Shadowfax. And Gandalf was no slouch himself. I could see him looking in Ríannor’s direction, and I could only hope he wouldn’t be too distracted by her to ride his best. The two riders shook hands, lined up at the starting point, where an Elven-youth with a little flag was standing. A trumpet was blown, the little flag was raised then lowered with a snapping motion, and they were off!
I noticed that Nightwind was not saddled this time, although Galendur usually rode with one. I suppose since Shadowfax was never saddled, it would be a shame to use one for the race. I hoped he’d had some practice riding bare-back, but it did not look as though he were having much trouble. I can hardly describe the thrill I felt as the coal-black horse and the silver-white horse bounded along side-by-side past the roaring crowd. I found myself not really caring which of them won. The sheer primal power and energy and grace and urgency of the two magnificent animals filled me with such surging wonder, I felt a new connection to the Divine. Seragon commented that it was as if two opposing forces, such as Power and Reason, were struggling for eminence, at odds with each other yet of equal magnitude in the grand scheme of things. He didn’t say which horse represented which, however.
I had to admit, a similar idea had occurred to me as well.
And then it looked as though Nightwind were in the lead. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, glanced at Bilbo, who looked regally dismayed, and he stood up in the stands and shouted at Shadowfax to pick up his feet, blast him! Lyrien jumped up too, but she was cheering Nightwind on, her curls bouncing, and she screamed at us, “He’s WINNING, I KNEW HE’D WIN, WHEEEEE!” Tilwen, who had looked less than enthused earlier, as though she knew her husband would end up making a colossal fool of himself, was standing also, and soon her sister alongside of her, and even Seragon forgot to be weighty and cheered right along with them. And Bilbo shouted once more and I caught myself shouting with him, even after I had resolved to remain neutral.
And soon Shadowfax caught up, and yes, outstripped the dark horse…and oh yes, surpassed him indeed…I think Gandalf had let Nightwind get ahead of him on purpose, just so he could make it all the more dramatic when he left him in the dust. Galendur kicked his mount in the sides and stuck out his elbows in a manner I thought looked rather silly, I knew he was a much better horseman than that! and Shadowfax left him far behind, and the stands went crazy as the silver horse thundered over the finish-line, leaving his opponent almost fifty feet behind.
Bilbo was cheering the hardest of anybody, slapping me on the back so hard I nearly fell forward on the stands. I felt badly for Tilwen and Lyrien, who were looking so dismayed and disappointed, and I put an arm around the little one and kissed her cheek and gave her the prettiest flower from our wreath, and she brightened. Galendur dismounted and went to shake hands with Gandalf, and the crowd cheered once more, and as Gandalf came near the royal box, Ríannor threw a bouquet of roses to him. Golden roses.
“It was a nice race, even if Nightwind didn’t win,” Lyrien said grinning at me, after a while. “Shadowfax is corking, isn’t he?”
“Stop sounding like your uncle,” Niniel said, then she laughed and so did I. Bilbo was in such grand form, I felt like going out and shaking Galendur’s hand for losing.
And he stayed so for weeks on end, and talked about it until, under other circumstances, I might have grown sick of the subject. But I let him gloat and chuckle as much as he pleased.
“I hope that teaches you a lesson, you brazen whelp,” he said to Galendur when he came over the day after the race. “Never trifle with the Lord of all Horses. Hah!”
“Why did you challenge Gand–Olórin, anyway?” I couldn’t resist asking as Galendur sprawled gracefully on the terrace steps. “Surely you must have heard of the reputation of Shadowfax?”
“Wanted to see what it was like to lose for a change,” he said giving me a light upward slap on the back of my head. “Gets bloody tiresome winning all the time, what? Must say, I don’t like the taste of losing, though. No more does Nightwind. He gave me a swift kick in the arse after the race. I won’t try it again.”
I didn’t believe him for a minute, but I let it go. And it was nearly half a year before Bilbo began slowing down again, and I knew that this time, there would be no turning back.
It was a beautiful afternoon…well, all afternoons were beautiful really, but this one seemed exceptionally so. The birds seemed in unusually fine form. I could hear one with a singularly haunting and bell-like tone, echoing richly off the cliffs…and I didn’t have to listen hard to hear the water singing. The air was fine and delicate, butterflies hovering over the flowering vines that twined over the columns of our terrace. Bilbo, from his long chair, called me to his side once more.
I knelt beside him on the stone floor and he took my hand in both his and just sat holding it and caressing it for a while. I leaned my head on his shoulder and he stroked my hair and kissed the top of my head.
“Frodo-lad. My beautiful boy,” he said. “I’ve no regrets. I’ve seen you grow well and strong and happy again. You’ve no idea what that’s done for my old heart, to see the sun come up in you once more, where once there was mostly grey clouds and rain with only a rare gleam of sunlight that didn’t last near long enough. If I just didn’t have to leave you here….Yes, I know you won’t be alone really. Everybody loves you. They’d do anything for you. It’s silly of me to worry, you’re not a child after all. I just wish…that it was Samwise that was going to be here to look out for you…instead of that Galendur fellow. You’d do better to stick with, with Seragon, for instance. A steady and responsible sort of chap like that.”
I laughed shakily. “Seragon? Well, he is all that, and quite smart I suppose, and the father of the sweetest little girl in the world…but, really he’s rather boring sometimes, don’t you think?”
“Hmph. That popinjay has turned your head, he has. Warped your sense of values, if that’s what you think. Boring, hah!”
I lifted my head. And decided I’d better tell him. I couldn’t let him go out thinking so badly of Galendur.
“Uncle dearest,” I said, “let me tell you something. He knew he’d lose that race.”
Bilbo snorted a bit. “Say what?”
“He knew it from the beginning. He did it for you. He wanted to give you a big thrill and lift your spirits. That’s why he challenged Gandalf. It was all for you, Uncle.”
“He told you that, did he?” Bilbo sat up a little.
“No, he didn’t. And if I asked him, he’d probably deny it. I just figured it out for myself. I think he wanted to give you the incentive to live a while longer. And you did. So you see, it worked. He let himself look a fool. He did it for us.”
“Come on now. You mean to tell me…”
I surprised myself by smiling. “You don’t have to worry about anyone looking out for me. So if you must go, you can go in peace. I’m prepared now. You see?”
“You really think that.” Bilbo sank back in the chair among the cushions. “Well, I never. So. Guess I was right in the first place. You won’t lack for friends. And that young…who’d have ever thought it?”
“Guess marriage agrees with him,” I grinned. “Tilwen brought out the best in him.”
Bilbo laid a hand against my cheek. “I would say it was you that brought out the best in him, my lad,” he said barely above a whisper.
“Well, maybe we both did,” I said, blinking back tears as I laid my hand over his. Through the tears I could see a butterfly fluttering quite close. It was quite large, bronze colored with green and gold and blue spots and streaks. Bilbo weakly put his free hand toward it, and it perched on his finger. It was no uncommon thing for butterflies here to come to you when you willed them.
“Look at that,” he said. I looked, and tears spilled over and he gently wiped them away with his fingers. “I leave you in good hands, my lad. I’m at peace now. And I think…maybe there’s someone else awaits you…maybe it’s my old head playing tricks on me, but I thought I saw….” His voice trailed off and the butterfly fluttered away but stayed close by.
“Saw what, Uncle?”
He shook his head, closing his eyes, then pulled me close one more time.
“My Prince,” he whispered. Those were his last words.