For Armariel, Lily, and Ellynn for their birthdays.
Folco found his cousin Frodo outside the house that had been built to replace the Silver Ridge smial in which Folco had been born and lived throughout his life. There was a gallery out front with a raised rail, and Frodo was leaning upon that rail, his attention fixed westward, a look of naked longing on his face. A breeze had sprung up, rustling the leaves of the young larch trees that surrounded the house, no longer mere saplings as they’d been last spring when Sam Gamgee and his helpers had planted them to replace the grove that had grown just south of the Boffin hole. That grove had been felled on Lotho’s orders just before the hill in which Silver Ridge had been dug had been caved in completely. It appeared that Lotho had been intent on destroying the happiness and homes of those who’d been close friends to Frodo as much as possible, as he’d had Bagshot Row dug out completely and its former tenants moved to drafty houses Bywater-way, had dispossessed the Bolgers from Budge Hall and thrown Fatty—once he was caught—into the Lockholes, and besieged the Tooklands and Buckland, firing what fields and homes they could get to.
“The trees are particularly beautiful,” Folco commented to his kinsman. “They are growing so quickly!”
“The blessing of the Lady,” Frodo said distantly in return, giving his cousin but the barest of glances before turning his attention again westward, rubbing at his left shoulder as if it caused him pain, a slight grimace of discomfort on his face.
“The Lady?” asked Folco. Frodo had told him very little about the adventures he, Merry, Pippin, and Sam had shared beyond the boundaries of the Shire, save that they’d journeyed far to help see the King Returned. Whatever had happened to him, he’d returned deeply changed, his personal peace disturbed, his innate good spirits apparently blighted. Oh, he could still melt your heart with his smile—when he smiled, that is. But he didn’t laugh as readily, and not only was his formerly ageless face now etched deeply with lines of care, but his hair was now streaked with silver, particularly at the temples, and he was developing a white streak to one side. He was as slender as he’d been as a young Hobbit newly returned to Hobbiton as Bilbo’s ward, if not even thinner, and there was that sense of fragility to him Folco had seen in Frodo during visits made with his mother to Brandy Hall not long after the death of Frodo’s parents. Folco repeated his question. “What Lady, and what kind of blessing should she lay on the Shire?”
“The Lady Galadriel, Lady of the Elven land of Lothlórien, which lies hidden between the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains and the River Anduin, far to the south. We passed through the Golden Woods on our journey south and eastward, and she gave a box of the earth from her gardens to Sam. It was her parting gift to him. He says he placed a grain of earth beneath the roots of every sapling he planted, and dug some into every garden or field he helped cleanse and till. We are certain that is why the trees grow so quickly and are so beautiful this year.”
Again Frodo grimaced as if with discomfort, and he straightened, once more rubbing at his shoulder. Folco watched with concern. “You’re in pain, Frodo?”
Frodo dropped his hand. “It is nothing to worry about. Just my shoulder again. Not hurting so much as—as reminding me that I was wounded there.”
Frodo’s face closed somewhat. “We were all wounded in one way or another during our journey. It is what is to be expected when one takes part in a war, I understand.”
“Was it a serious wound?”
His cousin didn’t look at him, merely shrugging. “Serious enough, I suppose. It’s all healed now, however. But you know how deep cuts or old breaks tend to ache some at times, even long after they’ve been considered healed.”
Folco understood. His mother’s hip had been broken when she was sixty-two, and although she finally was able to stand and walk again, he suspected it never stopped giving her at least some pain. She’d taken to using a cane, and had often limped until her joints began to swell when she was in her eighties, and she found herself confined almost totally to her bed in the end. She’d died a few weeks ago, and Frodo had come to spend a few days now that he no longer served as deputy Mayor. At least Wisteria Boffin had died in her own bed, in her home rebuilt, comfortable with the thought that the Shire was healing after the Time of Troubles, and that her son would be able to remain in Silver Ridge for as long as he wished. He nodded, and stood by Frodo, placing his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. They were quiet for a time until a bird above them gave a plaintive cry. Both looked up at it.
“A gull,” Folco noted. “It’s far inland. There must be a storm upon the sea. That’s what Bilbo always used to say, the few times we saw them over the Shire.”
“Yes, that’s what he told me as well, and Gandalf and Aragorn told me the same.” Something in Frodo’s tone drew Folco’s attention to his companion’s face, and the longing he’d seen there earlier seemed even more intense. Frodo’s lips were parted, his eyes fixed on the grey and white bird wheeling overhead.
At last he could bear it no longer. “Frodo, you must tell me what’s bothering you so! You look as if you are—are suffering with some great desire or need!”
“Suffering?” Frodo’s voice was uncharacteristically rough. “Suffering, you say?” He again glanced briefly, if with some irony, at Folco, and purposely looked away again, toward the western horizon. “Do you really want to know what is bothering me, Folco?”
“Yes, I do! Frodo, you know that I love you dearly—my favorite of our many cousins. I would do anything to help you in any way I could. If there’s anything you want….”
“But you can’t give me what I need, what I want.” The sentence was said with a simplicity that verged on the flippant. For a time Frodo stayed quiet, both hands now clenched on the rail to the gallery, his eyes staring blindly into the distance. At last he continued, “You once copied Bilbo’s translations of Lord Elrond’s journals back when he was sent them to search through them for any mention of previous contacts with Hobbits—both you and he told me that.”
Folco couldn’t imagine what Lord Elrond’s journals could have to do with Frodo’s fascination with the western horizon. “Yes. So?”
“Did you ever read any mention of lembas?”
Folco wracked his memory. “The word is familiar somehow. Some kind of bread or biscuit, I think. Yes, I remember him mentioning in one entry made in the autumn that the womenfolk were preparing the grain to make lembas.”
“It’s the Elvish waybread. The Lady spoke with me about it during our return journey, one day while we were riding and my pony was near her palfrey. At first I thought she was merely seeking to distract me from my—my discomfort. Then it hit me, after she was done, that what she’d really been doing was to—explain. Explain what I was feeling, or rather, part of what I was feeling.
“The grain from which lembas is made is sacred to the High Elves. Its seed came with them from Aman, I believe. It is planted by those maidens who have vowed themselves to the Lady Yavanna Kementari, the Lady of the Harvests and Growth. They use no metal tools in preparing the ground for its sowing, or in removing weeds from its fields. They go forth with baskets at the prescribed times to pull its grain from its stalks by hand. They grind it in the manner used by their foremothers since the dawn of time, and they make from it a bread that is much lighter than Dwarves’ cram or Men’s travel cakes. It takes little to satisfy hunger and to give one strength for a long journey.
“When we went to leave Lothlórien, we were provided with a great store of it in the boats they gave to us for our journey southward. When they saw it, Legolas, the Elf King’s son from Mirkwood, and Aragorn both were very surprised, and I thought at the time that Aragorn looked somewhat worried by its presence among the stores they gave us. He would not speak of it before the others, but he took great pains to see the most of it put into our packs, Sam’s and mine. He admitted, once we were in Minas Tirith, that he felt that Sam and I would need it most. Sam and I believed at the time it was to keep Pippin and Merry, mostly Pippin, of course, from gorging themselves on it. It was very good, you see, and you know Pippin’s penchant for sweets.”
Folco smiled as he nodded.
Frodo continued, “What I did not know is that Elves have not shared this bread with Mortals save for those who were openly dying since soon after the Noldor returned to Middle Earth. It wakens in mortals who consume it—Elvish—cravings, cravings we as mortals cannot assuage easily, if at all. And greatest and most likely of the cravings it tends to waken is the tendency toward the Sea Longing, the desire to sail West to live at the feet of the Powers, there in the Undying Lands.”
Again he was quiet for some moments, and when he spoke again it was in such low tones that Folco found himself straining to hear his cousin’s words. “We were forced to depend on it, Sam and I, as we traveled further and further eastward into Mordor. There was little game to be had, and no time for me to see to tickling fish, even if we came upon any likely streams. It was the end of winter, and we were traveling mostly through lands purposely turned barren by the hand of the Enemy and his creatures. Only during the brief time we spent in Ithilien did we manage to find some early herbs growing, and Sméagol caught us some conies to cook. Not that he didn’t regret it the moment Sam began to prepare them for the pot, of course. I don’t know how long it had been since Sméagol had eaten cooked food—perhaps not for most of five hundred years. Now and then he’d share what bannocks Sam would bake on rocks about a firepit, but he didn’t really like them—ate them only because there was nothing else for him to find. Few birds lived in those lands, and what few did were carrion birds for the most part, making what nests they might high in rocky crags and squabbling about whatever spare remains they could find amongst the rocks and desert lands they flew over. He wouldn’t touch lembas at all, said it choked him to merely put it in his mouth. It might have done him some good had he eaten it….
“Once we were inside Mordor proper, we had next to nothing we could find to eat or drink. It is a sere land, long blasted by the fires of Sauron’s hatred for anything and anyone he could not dominate. We found growing things only just inside the walls of the Ephel Dúath, the high, bare mountain range that encircles Mordor. They were twisted plants with hard, woody stems and long, dagger-like thorns that rent our skin and our clothing. We found but one thin stream of water I remember, there on the inner slopes of the mountains. As we journeyed further eastward the only water to be found was in cisterns built along the roads that allowed swift travel between orc fortresses. Sam tells me it was not really fit to drink, but we had no choice at that point. And when we left the road behind to head directly for the Mountain, we had only what little we could carry in Sam’s remaining water bottle. Both of us were dying of thirst before we were done.
“We had the lembas, and little enough of that. Sam would give me whatever he could get me to eat, and most of the water he felt we could afford to drink each day. It was enough to keep us going, but nowhere near enough to fully sustain us.”
Again they were quiet for a time, and Folco squeezed his hand on Frodo’s right shoulder. He was shocked to realize how little flesh he felt there. Frodo shrugged his hand away, and stood brooding for a few more minutes.
The Sun was sinking beyond the hills across the Water, and Frodo’s pale features reflected the warmth of the sunset rays. Folco found himself speaking aloud one of the weather rhymes he remembered from his childhood. “Red sky at night—traveler’s delight.”
Frodo gave a slow nod, perhaps remembering that rhyme from his own youth. But his words drew a shudder from Folco. “That was the color we saw at night in Mordor—reflections of the cooking fires for the Enemy’s forces and flames from the Mountain’s torment. At least it helped us keep to our path….” He quieted once more, and finally whispered, “I suspect that while we slept, after Gandalf and the Eagles found us, that Aragorn, his Elvish brothers, Legolas, and Gandalf fed us at times with lembas wafers soaked in wine, Sam and me. Once we became able to swallow and keep down other foods they weaned us off the lembas completely. Sam must have been relieved, even with him asleep and not fully aware of how we were being taken care of. None of us could imagine when we first tasted them that we would ever tire of lembas, but Sam particularly was aching for what he thought of as good, homely foods as we traveled eastward. But without the lembas we wouldn’t have survived to be found, I suspect.”
At last Folco said, “So, what you are trying to tell me is that you are now feeling these—Sea Longings—you spoke of?”
Frodo’s eyes finally met those of his cousin. “Yes.” He looked up at where the lone gull still sailed upon the winds that rustled in the larch trees, its white breast the color of garnets in the sunset. “Legolas was warned by Lady Galadriel that if he were to hear the call of the gulls on the shore, that he’d find no peace in the woods any more. He traveled with Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead, a great ancient tunnel through the White Mountains from Rohan into the Morthond Vale in Gondor, a shortcut to the southern shores of Gondor where an enemy navy was finding its way up the River Anduin to join the battle for Minas Tirith, Gondor’s capital. As they reached the city of Penargil on the shores of the great river, he heard the gulls crying for the first time in his life, and since then he, too, has been fighting the Sea Longing. If he felt free to do so, he would either build his own boat to sail down the river to the Sundering Sea, or travel to Mithlond, the Elves’ Grey Havens west of the Shire, and set sail westward to find the Straight Path to the Undying Lands. He won’t do so now, saying he’ll wait until Aragorn and his queen Arwen are gone. But when he hears the echo of the Sea in the wind flowing through the grasses and leaves of trees, or when he hears the gulls’ cries, you can see the longing to start that journey now, and how hard he must fight it.” He again looked west, his eyes now fixed on the growing light of the evening star as it began to become visible. “Hail, Eärendil,” he breathed.
After another time of quiet, he finally purposely turned away, shouldering by Folco into the house, closing the door decidedly behind himself, shutting out the echoes of the distant Sea. And Folco felt compassion for his cousin, caught in the midst of a hunger no mere mortal could expect to ever satisfy, or not as Folco understood it. He went inside, and began fixing late supper for the two of them. Frodo seemed more himself, but each time they heard the echo of distant waves in the rustling larch leaves Folco grieved that he could not give his beloved kinsman what he now seemed to need.
And that night Folco dreamed of a grey ship sailing away toward the last echoes of sunset, a silver light marking its passage as the night fell ere it sailed past the grey horizon.