The day was a cold one, and a hard frost lay on the ground. As nightfall drew near and the wind rose, the hobbits thought they ought to stop at the next inn along the way. None of them wanted to spend a night sleeping rough in the bitter winter cold if they could help it, and such a night would be especially hard on old Bilbo. Frodo broached the subject to Gandalf as they went around Michel Delving, but the wizard replied that other plans had already been made.
Once they were past the town, Gandalf turned the cart off the road and onto a track that led into a wood. The hobbits followed, although they had no idea of their destination. They rode quietly on for several miles, until it grew dark--but even as the last of the twilight faded, a warm glowing light appeared through the trees ahead. Soon, they came upon a clearing amid a circle of pines, where an encampment had been set up. Tall white tents were placed under and around the trees, and glowed from within like huge lanterns. Horses were sheltered under a bower of intertwined pine branches. From within the largest tent, they could hear the high-pitched, plaintive sound of pipe music and low-toned and beautiful voices singing. The scene was almost magical, like an illustration from a book of fairy-stories. The hobbits found it hard to believe they were still in the Shire, but they were barely more than 10 miles beyond Michel Delving.
Elves came out of the large tent to greet them: Elrond, Celeborn, and Galadriel. They had, of course, been expecting the wizard and hobbits; Elrond had accompanied Gandalf and Bilbo from Rivendell into the Shire and only parted from them outside Hobbiton.
Within the tent, warm drinks and a feast awaited the travelers. The chill of the night did not touch them. The deceptively thin material of the tent kept out the wind, and a low fire at the center of the transitory room made it as cozy as any hobbit-hole. Bilbo began to nod soon after he finished his dinner, and Gandalf escorted him to a bed laid out for him in another tent. After the younger hobbits had also gone to bed, Frodo sat up awhile longer, talking with the Elves of old friends, of Bilbo's current health, and of the journey ahead. Then Frodo brought up Elessar.
"What did happen to it? If Gandalf knows, he hasn't told me, nor Bilbo." Frodo looked from one Elf to another. "You do know, don't you?"
"Of course," said Galadriel, and smiled.
Frodo thought that she was teasing him. "Won't you tell me?"
"Perhaps..." the Lady was still smiling as she glanced at Elrond, then her husband, as if she shared an unspoken joke with them. "I know that you have a liking for mysteries, Frodo. This is no great mystery, merely a riddle. Shall we make a game of it, to divert us during our journey?"
Frodo smiled in return. "Yes, if you like. I began my profession as an investigator by finding missing jewels." Why not end it in the same way?
"And you've taken an interest before in the history of Elven-kind, and my family," added Elrond rather more wryly, but he seemed to share Galadriel's amusement and made no objection to her proposed game.
"Each day I will tell you a tale of the gem Elessar. When I am done, you may ask three questions that I shall answer Yes or No," Galadriel laid down her rules. "When we come to the Havens, give me your answer as to what has become of Elessar, and I will tell you whether or not your guess is true."
"Very well. I'd like to find out the truth," said Frodo. "At least, I'd like Bilbo to find it out before he leaves Middle Earth--unless the answer to his question lies on the other side of the Sea. Earendil will be there, won't he, in the Undying Lands? "
"Yes, he is there," answered Galadriel.
"Did he take the gemstone with him when he sailed for the West?"
"Then it still remains in Middle Earth?"
"Yes," the Lady answered. And she would say no more about it, for Frodo had used up his three questions for that night.
A short while later, Frodo went quietly into the smaller tent he would share with Sam and his cousins. Four pallets had been laid out for them. Merry and Pippin had pulled theirs together and were sleeping cuddled close so that they formed a single lump beneath one blanket. Frodo dragged the remaining empty pallet next to the one on which Sam lay sleeping and removed his coat and waistcoat before lying down beside him. As if sensing Frodo's proximity, Sam shifted drowsily and put an arm over him.
"I didn't mean to wake you," said Frodo.
"I was meaning to wait up for you... only it's been such a long day. I didn't know they was all going to be here--the Lady 'n' her husband, Lord Elrond. They're all going, aren't they?" Sam asked. "Off to the lands across the Sea?"
"Yes, that's right," Frodo answered as he nestled against Sam. "They agreed that they would all go together, when Uncle Bilbo went. It's fitting, you see. We are all the Ringbearers--Bilbo and I, Lady Galadriel with Nenya, Lord Elrond with Vilya, and Gandalf has the third Elven ring, Narya."
"And that'll be the last o' the Elves?"
"Of the great ones, yes. A number are still here. Legolas is, certainly. Lord Elrond says he's in Mirkwood, and intends to remain until the last of his people have gone."
"Legolas wouldn't go without Gimli." Pippin's voice from the other pair of pallets startled Frodo; he hadn't realized his cousins were awake and listening. "And you can be sure they would've dropped by to see us on their way West--they wouldn't leave without saying goodbye."
"You'd say if you were going, wouldn't you, Frodo?" Merry asked him directly. "You'd tell us."
"I will tell you," Frodo promised, "when I've decided."
All the Ringbearers were to leave together--that had been Elrond's plan and it seemed fitting to Frodo. His story, after all, was but the final chapter in the great tale of the rings of power. Their Age had come to an end with the destruction of the One Ring. Those who wore the three Elven rings, finding their magic diminished, had decided to carry them all away into the West at once. It should be the end of his story too. It would make a beautiful ending to his book; Frodo could imagine Sam going home to Bag End and writing of how they'd said their last, tearful farewells before he joined Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Elven Lords and Lady on the ship to the Undying Lands.
In some ways, it was a comforting idea. The pain in his heart had faded, but it would never entirely go away while he lived here in the Shire. No medicine or skill in Middle-Earth could mend the wound left by the Ring's effect upon him. But in the West, he would be free of his pain at last. Healed. At peace and at rest. Forever. But there were drawbacks too. He would be among friends, but aside from Uncle Bilbo, there would be no other hobbits. Perhaps Sam would follow him one day, but it was uncertain if that was to be allowed. No one had been able to answer Frodo's question on this point. Sam had carried the Ring for such a short time, and remained untouched by its ill effects.
Could he leave Sam now, leave the Shire forever and put the life he'd made for himself since returning from his quest behind him?
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