Radagast yawned hugely, and as usual Rusco made a dive for his mouth, and as usual the Wizard laughed and made a grab for the little bird, catching him this time. The finch made a great fuss and Radagast released him, whereupon he flew into a nearby small tree and made a show of indignation, ruffling his feathers and fluttering his wings, then turning his tail and sitting perfectly still. Radagast laughed again, then glanced over at Sméagol, who was still sleeping, as usual with his head on Nildë’s flank. The dog opened her eyes looking sleepily at Rusco, then closed them again. The Wizard glanced up at the sky and saw he had slept longer than usual. It was quite late, although not dark yet.
Well, it is autumn now, after all, he thought. Been moving for about five weeks. We should be crossing the Baranduin before long, and reach the North-South Road. Wonder where Greenjade is. There is a mill nearby, we should go purchase some flour for making flatcakes. If there’s a dairy about the place where we can get some butter and honey….
Radagast and Sméagol always took long naps on the days of rest, and awoke quite refreshed from them. Greenjade, however, did not nap for long. He was apt to go wandering about by himself, relishing the chance to have some time alone. If there were a stream or lake nearby he would go and bathe in it, staying in the water for hours as though vainly trying to reassume his original form…even though he still did not know how to swim. At least he might wash off the dirt of his travels; he detested being dirty. He would watch Sméagol swim, with a strong feeling of envy. The small fellow was an expert swimmer, and was not above showing off a bit. Greenjade sometimes felt that Sméagol was deliberately trying to rub it in that he was still at one with the water while Greenjade was not.
But on this day, Greenjade slept much longer than usual also.
It was the most healing sleep he had ever experienced.
He saw the Ringbearer’s face for he never knew how long…not more than an instant perhaps…but he would have sworn he saw his stepfather’s eyes looking right at him. Only a moment, and then he had turned about in the dance once more. He danced with other females as well, Greenjade’s sisters, including the bride, then a lovely girl-child with hair very like Nell’s only of a lighter shade, and another slightly older one with dark hair, then a raven-haired lass who towered well over him but neither seemed to mind it, and she was the most beautiful of all and the most graceful dancer. So that was the new sister. His elf-sister. Greenjade had never seen any Elves before, even in all his travels in Middle-earth. And now he was brother to one.
And the Ringbearer danced with two sea-children as well; a little lass with hair like Northlight’s and a much smaller, golden-haired one, which he picked up and balanced on his hip as he held out his free hand to the older girl. Greenjade surmised that she was the child of one of his siblings, but what of the smaller one? Was she the Ringbearer’s infant daughter? Rose-pink must have been a fashionable color on the Island, for a good many of the females were wearing it….
He saw his mother dance with others too; his brothers Northlight, Ebbtide and Moonrise, and another fellow, raven-haired like the elf-sister. But Greenjade did not watch him for long; he was looking for his stepfather once more, but had lost sight of him. Great merriment abounded, and it was not just the rose color that made it seem so, it went far beyond the usual gaiety of such celebrations. It was Joy, such as he had never seen anywhere else, never would see, very likely. And it seemed to have its center in the Ringbearer, as though he were emanating it, and the others absorbed it from the sheer brilliance of his being, as though he were the sun and the others his satellites, his light illuminating their individual beauties into gemlike perfection.
And thus Greenjade was able to see his stepfather even when he was not in sight. He would not soon forget those eyes, to be sure.
He awoke with tears on his face, and saw it was near dusk. His left hand was still dangling in the streamlet.
He sat up slowly, smiling a little despite the tears and his cold hand, stretched and yawned, then rolled over to his knees. After answering the call of nature, he set out in the direction he had come, wondering how far he had wandered out, and if the others were still asleep. As he recalled, he had gone quite far, having decided he was not going to Mordor, at the same time knowing he could not go back to Nell now…or could he? But he would join the others now. The memory of his stepfather’s face would sustain him…and he felt kindly disposed to Sméagol for the first time. They could be friends now. He would tell of his dream, and Sméagol would open up to him, and they would talk of the Ringbearer together. Greenjade recognized the feeling inside of him as happiness, but he had to wonder about it, how he could be feeling it apart from Nell. Likely it would not last; it would eventually fade away like the clean feeling following a bath, or the ineffably sweet euphoria in the aftermath of lovemaking. But he would hold to it as long as possible.
Well, it will be dark soon, he thought. Days seem to be getting shorter. Radagast said they would. There’s a bit of chill in the air. Better find the way back before it gets too dark…but which way did I come? Seems I left the path, or there was another…Yes, here’s a fork in it, but which one did I take? Can’t remember now.
The euphoria began to fade already as he stood trying to think in which direction he had come. So preoccupied with his troubles he had been, he had not even noticed that the path had forked. He vaguely recalled crossing the stream, and Radagast saying it was a mill-stream and they should buy some flour. Perhaps he should follow the stream to the mill; maybe they had been there buying the flour, and the miller could tell Greenjade where they had gone…. But would they go off without him?
He strained his eyes to see if he could see his footprints, then remembered brushing them away with a branch so the others could not see where he had gone. He swore to himself. He was hungry, also, and had stupidly gone off without taking any food.
Then he began to shout their names, remembering how well sound carried in the forest, cupping a hand around his ear in hopes of hearing them call back. He looked toward the sun, remembering it set in the west, and they were traveling eastward. But both paths went eastward. It was a simple matter of remembering which one he had taken.
Finally he decided on the right, shrugging to himself. If it weren’t the one, he would backtrack and take the left. Hopefully he would find them before it grew dark, or he would be in a pickle, having no light; he would be engulfed in total darkness, and would be unable to see the path at all. The thought was terrifying; he had but one memory of total darkness, and that was in The Prison.
He sped up his steps, in frantic hope that he was on the right path, breathing hard, then calling once more. After going he knew not how far, he began to feel he had not come this way before, and had chosen the wrong path. There was a strangely shaped tree of which he would surely have taken notice if he had passed it already. True, he had been too preoccupied to notice much before, but that tree would have been hard to miss. It stood weirdly twisted as if in torment, its branches, nearly denuded of leaves, reaching grotesquely out as if to grasp desperate hands for help, and the late afternoon sun behind it made it appear to be in flames. Sméagol might have looked so upon falling into the lava, as he had appeared when Greenjade had beheld him for the first time in that Place.
He would have noticed that tree. This was the wrong path, and no mistaking.
Well. The thing to do was turn back now, but the tree was somehow transfixing him; he could scarcely take his eyes from it. It seemed to be both taunting and beguiling him, almost speaking to him.
You think you can escape me? Is that what you think? He escaped me, but you will not. There is no escaping the Void. I will have you back, and there will be no rest for you then. You only think you can redeem yourself. You are deluded, Darkfin. You fool, you pitiful wretch, so deluded. I have Garland, and you shall never have her. She is mine. She hates you, she sent me to tell you that you have no hope, you will only encounter yourself everywhere you go. Lost, so lost and alone, forever and ever, you shall never reach fulfillment, never rest, poor deluded fool. For there is no escape from the prison of self. Your will is not your own, it belongs to me, you sold it to me and now you are mine, my slave, my underling, my own being, and in the end I will consume you utterly and you will embrace your fate….
Greenjade trembled in every nerve, unable to move nor take his eyes away from the tree, which though faceless seemed to leer at him with a single eye of flame.
Liar, he said softly, after a moment.
It laughed. Its laughter seemed to echo throughout the forest.
All the trees laughed with it.
Greenjade closed his eyes, trying to recall his dream, and the eyes of his stepfather, looking straight at him, and he clamped his eyes tightly shut, and held his hands over his ears to stifle the laughter of the forest.
He will not help you now, said the tree. You are paralyzed, just as he was paralyzed at the Crack of Doom, you cannot move, cannot act, cannot free yourself. You belong to me. Come back to me. I will save you from that Place. You shall have whatever you desire, you shall have Garland, you shall have dominion over Mordor, and it will rise again. You—
“LIAR!” Greenjade screamed at it, shocked at himself that he had found his voice once more. “You fooled me once. Do you really think you can do it again? I am free of you. You shall never have me again. You are naught but a tree, anyhow. I do not fear you. Even if you do your worst to me, as much as you can do outside of the Shadow, you will never own me. He freed me, as he was freed, from you. I belong to the Light now. And there I stay. So, farewell, it has been lovely chatting with you, but now we must part company. I truly have better things to do than conversing with vegetables, I should hope.”
He laughed, a bit insanely, and as he looked again, he saw merely a tree like any other, and he was unnerved all over again. Where was he?
And then even as he listened, he heard a voice calling his name. Radagast’s voice, nearly inaudible, but unmistakable in tone. But he could not tell from what direction it came. First the cry seemed to come from one direction, then another. Was it the Enemy deliberately diverting the voice, or some trick of the forest itself?
He plunged blindly ahead, praying he was going in the right direction, and that he would arrive there or be found before nightfall. The sun was sinking at an alarming rate already….
And at last he saw a flicker of firelight, and he bounded joyfully and thankfully toward it….
But it was not the place where they had stopped that day. And Radagast and Sméagol and the beasts were nowhere in sight. Instead, there were several beings about the fire, raven-haired and white-faced, with eyes of strangeness and hunger and lostness, and they seemed very glad to see him, almost as if they had been expecting him….