It was with a sigh of relief that Laerophen Thranduillion sank onto his usual chair in the great underground library of his father’s palace. It was good to be away from the noise and bustle and attention of the court. Though Laerophen was the second son, he was still expected to be in the public eye for the midwinter celebrations, something he had never grown fond of. And as Laerophen was as least as tall as his father, if not an inch taller, he stood out like a hunched wading bird.
It was Laerophen’s fervent hope that he would not often be called upon to represent his home. But then, awkward and conspicuous and close-mouthed as he was, who would expect such a thing?
He drew his long legs up and reached for the book of Galadhrim poetry he had been reading and let it sweep him away from the stilted self-consciousness of the last few hours.
There was a small shuffling sound in the bookshelves.
Laerophen redoubled his focus upon his book, and ignored it.
The sound came again.
Laerophen’s mouth flattened into a line, and he stared at the page as though it could block out any noise of the world.
The shuffling grew closer.
With a groan, Laerophen let his book fall to his lap and brought up a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezing shut. “I know you are there, honeg nîn.”
With sheepish footsteps, the child came out from between the great stacks, his hair falling over his face. Laerophen gave him a long, tired look. “What do you do here, Legolas?” he asked, trying to keep a plaintive note out of his voice. He was not the child here, after all. “Why do you not stay at the celebrations?”
Legolas, who was a wide-eyed and fascinated observer of the world (and was already more confident than Laerophen despite his meagre eight summers beneath the trees), only pulled a face. “Ada has begun his second flagon of Dorwinion and is too busy to pay me any mind, and Laindawar is dancing. Do you know, he came second in the Turuhalme games!”
Laerophen’s teeth scraped against each other, and he brought up his book again. “Of course he did,” he muttered.
Where Laerophen was ungainly and studious, Laindawar was athletic and martial. Laerophen had never been as competent in the arts of war as his eldest brother, who (despite his lack of height) had always excelled in any swordplay or archery competition. Laerophen had forced himself to practice with his bow time and again for even a third of the mastery that seemed to come to Laindawar with the ease of breathing.
Strange, then, that they were both so reclusive and reticent: one more at home secluded with his books, the other with the solitude of the trees and the company of his sword alone.
And strange, too, that the youngest of them all should be so in love with the world and the people in it, a direct contrast to his solitary brothers.
“He caught the white squirrel, and he gathered the most logs,” Legolas continued, and he clambered up to Laerophen’s knee and arranged himself comfortably. His little coltish limbs did not have the grace of a grown Ellon, and so he seemed as awkward as Laerophen himself in that moment. “You should have seen it, muindor! He reached out and caught the squirrel with a bare grip, and it lay there as trusting as you like, looking up at him with black eyes in its white face.” Legolas peered at Laerophen’s book. “What are you reading?”
“Poetry of the Second Age,” Laerophen said, and he tipped the page away from Legolas. The boy’s curiosity could not be daunted, however, and he craned his neck around to try and see the words.
“Is it interesting? It must be interesting if you are missing the dancing and the feasting in order to read it.”
“I am sure you would not think so,” Laerophen said, and he smiled despite himself, rubbing at his brow. His fingers rasped over the silver branches of his mid-winter crown. Taking off the thing, he slung it upon Legolas’ fair head and the boy beamed up at him. “There is much talk of longing and tragedy and parted lovers.”
“Pah.” Legolas turned away from the book, all interest forgotten. His small hands came up to grip at the crown on his head, which was far too large and sank nearly down to his eyebrows. “Why aren’t you joining the dancing?”
“I am not much for the dancing and the crowds, honeg nîn,” said Laerophen, wryly. “The rhîwened dances are the most intricate of all the festival dances, and I doubt any would care to have my overlarge feet crush theirs.”
“You wouldn’t do that,” Legolas protested, and he jumped from Laerophen’s knee with a sudden burst of childish energy. It made Laerophen smile once more. He and Laindawar were four centuries older than this child, the late and unexpected gift of their family, but Legolas had the rare talent of making him feel young again. “Come on, dance them with me then. I don’t know them either, and we can work on them together.”
“Please,” Legolas insisted, tugging at Laerophen’s forearm. “Just here in the library. Nobody need see us!”
With a sigh of defeat, Laerophen laid aside his book. “Do not say I did not warn you when your feet are flattened like plates.”
Legolas only laughed, and tugged at his forearm again.
Standing, Laerophen felt every inch the sparse and spindly spruce that loomed over a graceful little larch, but Legolas paid his ungainliness no attention whatsoever. He bounced on his toes and rocked back on his heels, his eyes sparkling with eagerness. “They stand like so, to begin, do they not?” he said, and he assumed an exaggerated pose with his arms held out to the sides and his feet crossed.
Laerophen snorted. His brother looked ridiculous with a too-big crown slipping over one eye, arms stuck out like a scarecrow, bouncing upon the spot. “Nearly,” he said, as diplomatically as he was able. “Like so.” And he took the pose.
“Ohhhh.” Legolas was a quick study, and he corrected himself at once. “Is this how it is?”
“Almost.” With the crystal clarity of Elven recall, Laerophen reached for the memory of Thranduil teaching his younger self the Mettare dances, his father’s soft, silky voice explaining their meaning. Now he repeated them word for word for his bright-eyed brother in the close silence of the library, as the celebrations continued far above.
“Your arms are the branches, honeg nîn,” he said, and he reached out and gently moved Legolas’ small arms slightly forward. “They shiver in the winds, for their leaves are gone. Your fingers are the small bare twigs that reach out for the coming of spring, and the touch of the sun.” Legolas’ eyes shone with the desire to please, and his fingers flexed at once. “That is right. Like that.”
“Is my body the tree, then?” Legolas asked, and then he added, “I have never seen trees dance like that, all whirling and creeping. I do not think that they can.”
“Perhaps one day, trees shall dance,’ Laerophen teased, “but you are right. The tiny steps are the creeping of the snow and the ice, stealing over everything and blanketing it in crystal. The spinning steps are the wind, howling between the trunks and scooping up the snow to make it eddy and whirl in the air. The leaps are the sap inside the trees that waits to rise, the sleeping leaves that bide their time, the frozen earth that yearns to sprout. If midwinter were a shape, Legolas, how would it move?”
Legolas’ lips parted as he inhaled in silent understanding. “How many steps before the turn?”
“You are the snow and the wind, Legolas,” said Laerophen, smiling. “Take as many steps as you think the snow and wind would take.”
At first he was hesitant. Legolas took two tiny, light-footed steps forward, before he looked up at Laerophen, who nodded. Encouraged, the boy took four surer steps, as quick and clean as dagger-strokes, before he launched into a whirl that sent his hair flying.
“Good! Now you are the snow and the wind!” Laerophen praised him. “You pick it up quickly!”
“So there are no set steps to follow,” Legolas said, and he turned back to Laerophen with a flush of victory rising on his cheeks. “You feel the air and the ground and listen to the trees, and you dance their dance, because they cannot dance it for themselves. Am I right?”
“You are,” Laerophen said, and he held out his arms and let his own fingers caress the chilly air. “Here, let us practice together. Mind where I step!”
“You will not step on me,” Legolas said confidently, and he began to spin in circles around the lanky frame of his middle brother. Watching him for a moment, Laerophen could see the joy in his movements and the grace he would one day achieve, a grace that forever remained beyond Laerophen.
Ah, but this was Legolas, their unexpected gift, who loved the world. Despite Laerophen’s solitary nature and awkward ways, he could not resent him.
Breathing in, he began to dance the shivering of icicles upon a bough, and wondered at himself.
It was still freezing inside the Mountain. The walls were bare and bleak, the furnishing sparse, and many still went hungry. The first crops the Dale-Men planted did not do as well as they had hoped, and there had been two years of struggle. Much of the city still lay in ruin: even the doughtiest Dwarves could not undo such devastation overnight.
Still, Frerin thought, they were home at last.
Frerin didn’t remember much of Erebor. He was barely out of woollen caps himself when they fled, his small feet stumbling behind his father and brother, his arms full of his baby sister, his nose full of the reek of dragon-smoke.
That same baby sister had wide grey streaks in her hair and beard in these cold days, and her eyes and lips turned down at the corners. And Frerin was long dead, his body meticulously preserved in never-ending adolescence as though he was captured between the pages of a book, forever unchanging, never to grow old.
Dís carefully placed the nine-stemmed oil-lamp known as the Tagerzarasî where it could be seen from the door. Then she carefully took up the tall middle taper widely referred to as the Maker, and using it she lit the wick for the first day. She bowed her head. Her lips moved in the shapes of the old, old words:
I light these lights in thanks for the miracle of your mercy, that you took pity on us and breathed your will into us and made us a free people. For these eight days these lights are sacred, and shall not be used for any work of craft or hearth. When I look upon these lights I will rejoice in your glory and your promise, and give praise to your name.
Frerin mouthed along beside Dís, before he let out a sigh and rubbed his face. It was not permitted to mourn at this time.
Eight wicks, eight flames. Frerin could dimly remember his mother teaching him the meanings, his father smiling in the dim unsteady glow. Seven lights for the Seven Parents, who were saved from destruction. One light to remember the One, who in love and pity had spared the Seven, and had granted them the miracle of life. A day for each, to remember them.
Once, Frerin would have lit the next, and Thorin the next, each taking their turn to light the next one along the lamp as the eight days of the Festival passed. Each day would have been full of singing and food and family. The eighth day would have been full of joy and praise for the One, who had stayed the hand of their Maker, and who had promised that the Dwarves would be hallowed and accepted in the world that was to come.
Once, the whole family would have gathered about, laughing and bickering, the smell of hot oil and sugar in heavy in the air. Thrór would have held a great public ceremony, lighting the huge, beautiful and ancient Tagerzarasî for all of Erebor to see. Those who spoke to the stone would have led the people in the old prayers.
Now it was just Dís alone.
Oh, Frerin knew that somewhere out there, Dáin now lit the great candle for the first day and led the people in song. Perhaps Óin would lead the prayers – he read the stones and portents, and was scholar enough to satisfy their reduced circumstances. Glóin no doubt would be lighting the candles for his family, and Bombur too, both at last reunited with their children and spouses. Perhaps Dori would be bickering with Nori over where he had ‘found’ such a fine Tagerzarasî.
But here, there was only silence. Dís should have been surrounded by love and family, but instead she stood in the echoing bareness that had been their mother’s chamber, and brought forth the lights by herself.
She lifted her head and looked at her two lone dancing flames for a moment, before she raised her arms and tied her hair back in a rough tail. “Enough,” she said to herself, and turned away. “There’s cooking to be done: snap out of it, you maudlin old woman.”
“Namad,” Frerin said miserably, even though he knew it was useless.
But as Dís made to walk out of the family-chamber into the kitchen, there came a knock upon the door. Frerin whirled and stared at it, before he squinted back at Dís. “Who would come calling on the first night of the Festival?” he asked her in bemusement. “They should be with their own…”
From the look on her face, Dís was just as perplexed. She wiped her hands down the front of her plain dress, before she crossed to the door and wrenched the handle. “It’s after sundown,” she said bluntly as the door swung open.
“Aye, and I’ve got fried dough balls, so watch the door Aunt Dís!” said a cheerful voice from without.
Dís’ eyes widened. “Gimli?”
“Would you have a spot for me to put this down? It’s not as light as it smells,” said the young Dwarrow, and he hefted the platter he was carrying. It was nearly as wide as the door-frame, and Dís stepped back in wordless amazement to let Gimli through.
“Where did you get all that?” she asked, and then she made a wordless noise of amazement as Gimrís marched in behind her brother. She had a basket full of bottles in her arms.
“My mother and I made them,” she said with a toss of her red head. “This useless lump sat there and did nothing, as usual.”
“Ach, she’s a dreadful liar, don’t listen,” Gimli grumbled. “I kneaded the dough, Gimrís!”
“If you call that kneading,” she shot back at once. “I could have done better with my foot.”
“I wish I could have used your head,” Gimli retorted.
“Pipe down, you pair!” said Mizim, who entered next. She gave the stunned Dís a kiss on the cheek. “Hello dear, maimhid amrâgulukhûd. Now, do you have something you could put under these berry pies? They’re still very hot, the plate will burn straight onto the table if I put it down.”
Dís shook herself out of her stupor, and stammered, “Ah, yes, I think I have an old shawl…”
“That’ll do nicely, I think.” Mizim then raised her voice and called out, “do you old fools need a hand out there?”
“That’s your loving wife, that is.”
“You shut your face.”
Dís stared in amazement as Glóin and Óin together rolled in a great barrel, setting it up in the corner and standing with matching groans. “Not as young as we were, are we?” Óin said, pressing his hands into the small of his back.
“Suppose we’d better refresh ourselves after that,” said Glóin, giving the barrel a speculative look. Mizim, who was bustling around the table, rolled her eyes.
“Oh yes, I thought I might hear something like that at some stage. Save some for the King, he’s to be along after the public ceremony is done with.”
“But,” Dís said, at last finding her tongue, “why aren’t you all there now? Why aren’t you all at home? Why are you here?”
“Because some things need doing, and they need doing by family,” said Balin, standing in the doorway. “Bofur’ll be along when Dáin is; they said to get started wi’out them. Dwalin’s on patrol tonight, sadly. He sends his apologies, and promises that he’ll be along after sundown tomorrow. Maimhid Amrâgulukhûd, Dís.” He nodded to her, his eyes kind and understanding.
“Maimhid Amrâgulukhûd, Balin,” she said faintly.
“I love you all very very much,” Frerin declared to the world. The change in the air was startling. In a matter of moments, the room where his sister had stood as still and cold as a carved statue now thrummed with life.
“I’ve got potato-cakes,” Balin added, and Glóin (tankard already in hand) stood and cheered.
“Well, why didn’t you say that at once!”
It was much later.
Frerin’s eyes were aching, but he did not want to leave Middle-Earth yet, no matter how tired he was. The small, raucous gathering in Dís’ rooms had only grown, and the truly staggering amount of food had been attacked with the fervour of a rampaging army.
Mizim, Óin and Gimrís retired when the young Dwarrowdam began to yawn. Gimli stayed, stubbornly blinking his drooping eyes and trying not to nod into his beer.
Finally, the King arrived with his son and Bofur in tow, all three of them grey-faced and with dark rings pressed beneath their eyes. Dáin perked up at the sight of the barrel. “Ah, good,” he sighed, and happily shucked off his formal cloak and began to tug off his boot. “Lad, be kind and get us a tankard would you?”
“Ooooh, if you’re there?” Glóin said, waggling his own with a pleading expression. His face was very flushed, and he had sugar dusted in his beard.
The Stonehelm shared a look with Gimli that eloquently spoke of the eternal embarrassment that was parents, and then did as asked.
“I don’t understand,” Dís said, shaking her head as everyone settled in comfortably. She had a glass of wine in her hand, and she was seated in an ancient padded chair that had once belonged to Queen Hrera. “Where did you get the food?”
“Ask Glóin, he knows,” said Bofur with a yawn, flopping down before the hearth and snagging a potato-cake. “Maimhid Amrâgulukhûd, Lady Dís.”
“Ah! Traded for it,” Glóin said, beaming. “I know a few useful folks, and Bombur knows even more.”
Balin topped up Dís’ wine, before pouring a glass for himself. “Because our first proper Amrâgulukhûd under the stone of Erebor shouldn’t be spent scraping by, no matter what else may come. Last winter there were so few of us here that it barely passed notice, but now that everyone has made the journey from Ered Luin…”
“It’s time,” Dáin said, and he patted his son’s shoulder as the boy passed him a tankard. “Ta, inùdoy. An’ we should worship and celebrate as a unified Durin’s Folk once more, not as wanderers wi’out a home or as separate peoples wi’out a shared history. It’ll give everyone heart to see the great Tagerzarasî lit again.”
“Even if you have to wear the torture-device,” Dís said, dry as dust.
“Why they made it grip so around the ears, I don’t know,” Dáin grumbled and he took a long swig.
“Reminds all you Royal types not to get too uppity,” Bofur said, but the sad look in his eyes belied his humorous words.
Glóin made a rude sound in his throat. “Oh, and speaking of uppity, Elves charge like maddened pigs fer oil, I’ve discovered, though Mahal knows why. An’ the Iron Hills folk make a decent goat’s cheese, which is worth knowing.”
“I coulda told you that,” Dáin said mildly, scratching at his beard.
“And so could I,” added Bofur. “Bifur’s a menace for cheese.”
“He’s with Bombur and Alrís tonight?” asked Balin, and Bofur nodded and yawned again.
“He makes the best spinning tops. The kids love ‘em.”
“That one went down far too easily,” said Dáin, squinting at his tankard.
“They always do,” Bofur agreed, lifting his own.
“Gimliiii,” Glóin began brightly, but the young fellow lifted a hand at once.
“Stop there, don’t embarrass yourself,” he said. He and the Stonehelm shared another look full of the long-suffering of the adolescent, before Gimli hauled himself out of his prone position. “Ooof. I’m getting up, I’m getting up…”
“You’re a good boy,” said Glóin, his face creasing fondly as he watched his son stagger to his feet. “Thank you, lad.”
“Ow. I ate too much,” Gimli puffed, and he managed to straighten up.
“That’s all part of Amrâgulukhûd. The good part, Bombur’d say,” Bofur said, and waggled his tankard meaningfully.
Dáin had his mouth full of fried dough, but he mmmphed in agreement and held his own tankard high.
“You’re all terrible examples,” Gimli said, and snatched the tankard away from Bofur to fill it at the spigot. “Highness, get yourself over here an’ help me. Our revered elders are too worshipful to stand, it appears.”
Frerin couldn’t contain a chuckle as the Crown Prince visibly jerked, startled at being addressed. It seemed that this Thorin was rather more retiring than the last. “Um. Certainly?” he said, and went to get a refill for Glóin and Dáin.
Balin leaned back in his chair, his wine-glass in hand, and he began to hum softly under his breath. Dís glanced up at him, before she raised her own voice. One by one, each Dwarf began to hum along, slow and sleepy and content.
Frerin thought that the Song of Beginnings hadn’t ever sounded quite so thankful before. He looked up at the two glowing flames that danced upon their old family Tagerzarasî, and joined in gladly.
As the notes faded, Glóin sniffled. “I should go t’ bed,” he managed. “While I can still walk.”
“Aye, I’m not dragging you!” Gimli said, and he crossed to Dís and kissed her cheek. “See you tomorrow evening, Aunt Dís.”
“I don’t know what brought this on,” Dís said, and she squeezed Gimli’s hand. “But thank you.”
“It was your idea, wasn’t it,” Frerin realised with a start, and he looked with new eyes at this young, brash Dwarf with the wild red hair and ready grin. “Thank you. Thank you.”
“That goes for all of you,” she said, lifting her face and speaking to all of them.
“This is where the good food is,” Bofur said, shrugging and grinning. Glóin snorted loudly at that, and Balin chuckled.
“Ah, Lady Dís, I wouldn’t be thankin’ us yet,” said the Stonehelm ruefully. “Da’s gone fallen asleep on your hearth.”
Dís smiled her sad and wintery smile, though it was less chilly than it had been of late. “It’s late and he’s been working hard. Let him sleep there. He’ll be sorry enough in the morning.”
The Stonehelm looked apologetic. “Ahhh, that’s very kind of you to say… but then, you’ve never heard him snore, have you?”
This was Boromir’s absolutely favourite place in the whole of the world.
He tucked himself into the little window-corner, out of the wind, and put another fold into the piece of paper in his hand. It was a better effort than his last. This would probably be his best paper boat yet.
From his seat he could see as far as Osgiliath on a cloudy day, the river Anduin snaking across the valley floor like a dropped ribbon. It was the highest point inside the Tower of Ecthelion that he knew, though from the outside it appeared that there were higher chambers still. He didn’t know how to get to them. Perhaps his father knew. Boromir would know, one day, when he himself was Steward.
He pressed another crease into the paper, and held up his handiwork. The paper wasn’t the finest, but surely his father would appreciate the crispness of the folds, the tidiness of the little white thing. Seven down, two to go.
Of course, that was if his father even noticed Boromir’s efforts. His father was a busy man, Boromir told himself sternly, putting his paper boat aside and picking up the next piece of paper. A very busy man, and he had… many cares…
Shaking himself, he focused on placing the first fold into his eighth boat. A stray gust of wind – the Tower was drafty, standing so high above the plain, and powerful gusts often pressed through the window-frames – caught it and pulled it from his startled hands. Jumping to his feet, the boy chased the paper around the small chamber for a moment.
Another hand came out of nowhere, and caught the paper in mid-air.
Boromir stopped, mid-leap, and shrank back. There was a newcomer in the stairwell door, dark and lean and weathered-looking. Nobody came up here except Boromir, and sometimes his father disappeared into the mysterious higher chambers at the peak of the Tower. He never told Boromir how to reach them, no matter how he begged.
The man had tired eyes and unwashed, unbound hair, and he had a faint air of danger around him. He wore a sword at his side with the same easy familiarity as others might wear a hat. He wore stained livery embossed with the White Tree, but it was that of an infantryman and not a Tower guard. Boromir swallowed, and then threw back his small shoulders. He was the son of the Steward, of the line of Ecthelion. “That’s mine!”
“My apologies, young master,” said the man. His voice was soft and weary. He held out the half-finished paper boat at arms’ length.
Boromir edged forward bit by bit until he was just close enough to snatch the paper out of that brown, callused hand. The man did not move as Boromir scooted back.
“How did you get past the guards?” Boromir blurted.
“I can move unseen, if I wish,” said the man, and a faint melancholy smile crossed his lips. “What are you doing here? Surely this is not a place to entertain a bold young man such as yourself.”
Boromir lifted his chin. “I am Boromir son of Denethor,” he said, with all the pride in his young heart. “And I have every right to be here, unlike you!”
The man paused, eyes sparking in recognition, and then he bowed slightly. “Well met, Boromir son of Denethor of the line of Stewards.”
Made braver by this strange man’s sudden show of deference, Boromir clutched his paper boat closer to his chest like a shield and took a step forward. “And who are you?”
The man hesitated again, and then he inclined his head in a strange, formal gesture that Boromir didn’t quite recognise, but tugged at his memory nevertheless. “I am called Thorongil.”
“And what are you doing here?” Boromir said, and his fingers twitched on his mid-winter boat. “I come here to be alone, and you’re not allowed.”
“My apologies for interrupting your solitude,” said Thorongil. It didn’t escape Boromir’s notice that he hadn’t addressed his trespassing into the Tower, into Boromir’s most special and favourite place.
“You still haven’t said why you’re here,” he said, and it came out a trifle sulkily.
Thorongil lifted his face to where the window looked out over the expanse of the Pelennor, and there was a strange expression in his eyes. He seemed both longing and pained as he said, “I wished to see the view.”
“Oh.” Boromir couldn’t really fault that. After all, that was why this place was his very favourite. “Well, it’s the best place in all of Minas Tirith.”
Thorongil’s lip twitched. “And you can assure me of this?”
Boromir tossed his head. “I certainly can! I know all of Minas Tirith, I do. Every back alley, every nook and every tree. It’s the best city in all Middle-Earth, and this is the best place in it, because you can see it all at once.”
Thorongil sucked in a small breath, and that obscure pain in his eyes deepened. “I have not learned to love her as you do. I pray that some day I can see this city with eyes like yours.”
“Well, look out there!” Boromir said, incredulousness rising in him and crowding out his initial wariness. “Look at it!”
Thorongil obediently looked back out the window, at the seven tiers of the city stretching below him. He shook his head a little, and let out a sigh. “It is lovely, but it appears that my heart still lies elsewhere, beneath the eaves of golden trees.”
Boromir’s nose wrinkled. How could anyone not love his shining white city, especially when it was laid out before them like a feast, the ice and snow sparkling from white stone, the pennants snapping in the midwinter winds?
“Well, Yestare is coming, and I can’t see how anyone could not love Minas Tirith during the celebrations,” Boromir said staunchly. His fear forgotten, he held out his paper boat in explanation. “The whole city makes boats! Nine boats for every house, and the air is filled with the call of the trumpets and the lanterns make the sky shine like day, even in the middle of the night! You’ll love it after that, I promise. Nobody could stay sad in Minas Tirith on Yestare. Not even my f-” He broke off, and pressed his lips together tightly.
“Not even your father?” Thorongil finished. Boromir clenched his jaw and glared at him, daring the man to say anything about the rising redness in his cheeks.
There was an awkward silence, broken only by the calls of the birds roosting in the eaves high above. The wind whistled through the gap between the window-ledge and the pane, and Boromir blinked furiously and tried not to cry. He was no small child, like his brother. Boromir was the eldest. Boromir had to be brave.
“You still use the Elvish names,” Thorongil said, as though to himself. “So. I am not altogether a stranger in my home.”
Boromir did not understand, and didn’t care to. His eyes pricked.
Moving slowly, the strange soft-spoken man sat down on the window seat and picked up one of Boromir’s finished paper boats. “This is fine work,” he said.
“I’m making the boats this year,” Boromir said, latching swiftly onto the new topic. “I’ve got seven already. We have to make nine, like I said, but I don’t know why.”
The man looked surprised. “Do you not?”
Boromir shrugged carelessly, and he sat down and began to work upon his half-finished eighth boat once more. The man was strange. How could he look at Minas Tirith beneath the sun and not feel his heart soar? “Nobody knows, except probably my father. He reads a lot. My brother likes reading too, but I like riding better. Nine boats which we set in the water, and then we sing songs and light lanterns marked with the sun and the moon. We set a branch over the kitchen hearth and hang the sun and moon from that, too. And then we make seven round cakes on Mettare, and wrap them up in leaves. We get to eat them on Yestare, and they’re good. My mother-” He stopped again.
There was a sad understanding in Thorongil’s eyes. “I see.”
Boromir blinked rapidly, and breathed in hard through his nose. “My father is a very busy man,” he said, and made a hard crease in his paper. “He’s very busy!” he repeated, and turned his new boat over. It was slightly crushed from his too-tight grip and rough handling. “So, I am making the boats this year.”
Thorongil was silent again. Boromir got the feeling that he was quiet a lot. He had the same sort of bearing that Faramir, small as he was, sometimes had: of a person who spent more time in their head than with other people. Then he said, “I miss my mother also.”
Boromir’s eyes filled with sudden tears, but he looked up defiantly. “I will make the seven stone-cakes, too,” he said defiantly, and hated the way his voice trembled. He tried to make his face seem more stern, more adult, but the quivering of his lip spoiled it.
“Seven stone-cakes,” Thorongil said, and he looked out over the Pelennor again. “For seven stones.”
Boromir used the moment to wipe at his eyes with his sleeve, and he pounced on the new topic. “Do you know why there are seven, then?”
Boromir rubbed his nose, and waited. When the strange man remained silent, he said impatiently, “well?”
“No doubt your father also knows,” Thorongil said, in a distant voice. “Seven stars and seven stones, and one white tree… is the branch painted white? The one that hangs over the hearth-fire?”
“Yes, it is!” Boromir said, and he scooted closer. “Why?”
“Much of the lore of this city has been lost,” said Thorongil, and he turned back to Boromir and smiled at his crushed boat. “The city remains, a shadow of the splendour of its first days. But once it was new and full of glory and knowledge and hope, and the White Tree in the fountain courtyard was covered in blossom.”
Boromir scowled at him. “You’re dumb. Minas Tirith is the most beautiful city in the world. Why seven cakes?”
Thorongil laughed softly, and he took up a piece of paper in his travel-worn hands and began to fold it. “When Elendil and his sons fled the fall of Númenor,” he began, his attention on the rough paper, “they fled in nine ships. Though they lost two of those fair ships in their perilous journey, still they landed safely in Middle-Earth in the dead of mid-winter. And so, that is why you fold nine paper boats, to remember their flight and the day they found safe haven.”
Boromir forgot all his irritation at Thorongil’s insulting words, and his jaw dropped open in amazement. “Then what happened?” he said, eager for more. He had ever loved stories of valour and danger.
“They founded the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor,” said Thorongil, and he made another careful crease. “They had brought with them a sapling of Nimloth, the white tree of Númenor, and the seven seeing stones out of the West. And Anárion Elendil’s son established a great city, Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, while his brother Isildur…” - here Thorongil’s tone darkened, as though in resentment or sorrow, Boromir could not tell which – “Isildur founded the Tower of the Moon, Minas Ithil.”
“The Tower of the Moon, and the Tower of the Sun,” Boromir echoed in fascination. “I bet they were beautiful.”
“They were,” Thorongil said softly. “They are. You stand in the Tower of the Sun. Minas Ithil was lost, and Minas Anor was renamed Minas Tirith long ago. This Tower has been rebuilt since its first flowering, by your ancestor. So now it is named for him: the Tower of Ecthelion.”
Boromir sat back, his head spinning. “I’m sitting in the Tower of the Sun?”
“You are.” Thorongil lifted up his finished boat to study it, and to Boromir’s eyes it seemed strangely alien. Its prow was delicate and tall, and the swoop of its sides made it seem nearly swanlike. He glanced down at the boy, and his eyes glinted with some small amusement. He handed the ninth boat to Boromir, who took it in numb amazement. “And now you know why the lanterns are marked with the sun and moon, and why seven stone-cakes, and why the branch above the hearth is painted white.”
Boromir stared at him for a moment with wide eyes, and then he let out a wondering sigh.
Thorongil smiled at him, brief and contained, like a sudden flash of sunlight between gathering clouds. He stood, lithe as a cat, and took one last look out of the window before bowing to Boromir once more. “I wish you every strength, young brave one, for your midwinter. May the new year be fair and kind. Be well, Boromir son of Denethor, of the line of Ecthelion.” He turned towards the stairwell.
Boromir clutched his ninth boat in nerveless fingers, and said, “will you be back?”
Thorongil paused at Boromir’s voice. “Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta,” he murmured, and Boromir shrank back at hearing the foreign, molten syllables pouring from that grim mouth with such ease. “No doubt we will meet again.”
The invitations were sent out in Winterfilth that year, and anyone lucky enough to receive one boasted about it for days. For Mr Bilbo Baggins, the eccentric and notorious bachelor of Bag End, The Hill, Hobbiton, was holding a great celebration for Yule.
The six days of Yuletide were customarily spent with family, and Mr. Baggins’ own family was enormous (as Hobbit families tended to be). He had never married, though his wealth and notoriety had made a few Hobbit-lasses try their luck, but his extended and sundry relations stretched all over the four Farthings, from Tuckborough to Buckland and as far even as Bree.
Mr. Baggins proposed a ‘family feast’ that would run for two entire days, to be held over the Yule eve and into the next morning. “To see in the new year!” the lucky ones exclaimed happily, as those who hadn’t received an invitation grumbled in jealousy. Mr. Baggins’ parties were rare, but exceptional, and he always gave the very best gifts in all the Shire; cunning and beautiful toys from far away, or remarkable little baubles with curious designs.
“Tain’t fair!” some growled. “To invite some, and not others! And him made of money, too!”
In the last days of Foreyule, gaily-painted tents were erected all over the Party Field, and the Party Tree was strung with bunting. Poles with lanterns were hoisted high, and long tables were brought out. Great braziers were dotted here and there, and the dancing-square was swept free of frost and snow and the grass beneath it clipped close.
Young Frodo Baggins, twenty-one years old, watched all these wonderful things unfold with mounting excitement, and gripped his invitation tightly in his grubby hand.
He had never met his famous cousin. Brandy Hall was a fair distance from Hobbiton, after all, but everybody’s tongues wagged so freely about the remarkable (and irascible!) Mr. Bilbo Baggins that Frodo half-felt that he already knew him. He had found a lovely little place beneath a hedgerow overlooking the Party Field, dug out over the years by the passage of small animals. It was exactly the right sort of spot for a young Hobbit to lie on his stomach and watch the fascinating goings-on all unseen and undisturbed.
“You see those braziers? Those will be of dwarf-make,” he whispered, and shifted over so that his tiny companion might see.
“Oooooh,” Merry piped, and stuck a hand into his mouth to muffle the sounds.
“I’ll dance all night, I will,” Frodo said, and he pointed at the dancing-square. “There’ll be music and fireworks, and the tables will groan under all the food, you’ll see.”
“Farmer Maggot said he’s sending mushrooms, if we haven’t eaten them all,” Merry said, and he giggled a little.
Frodo sniggered, and nudged his tiny cousin with his shoulder. “Well, we gave it a jolly good try!”
In the years since his parents’ unfortunate deaths, Frodo had been living with his mother’s family in Brandy Hall. The ancestral home of the Brandybucks was enormous and cheerful and swarming with Hobbits, and so a stray Baggins often got a little lost in the crowd. With so many distractions and other calls on their attention, Frodo’s guardians did not have much time for him and so the young Hobbit had run a little wild. To be frank, he had developed a name as something of a rascal.
He had befriended his small cousin Meriadoc, who often accompanied Frodo on his repeated attempts to relieve Farmer Maggot of all his mushrooms – very disreputable behaviour for the son of the Master of Buckland. Thankfully, at a tender ten years old, Merry didn’t care a single jot about his reputation, and was quickly becoming known as a scallywag to match Frodo himself.
Frodo, sad to say, took some pride in it. If the remarkable Mr. Bilbo Baggins could be so very infamous, why then, so could his tweenaged cousin - let the tongues wag from here to Frogmorton!
“I can’t see the tents,” Merry said after a moment, and Frodo shook himself out of his thoughts and tried to squeeze back in their little hollow to let Merry push past. But Frodo was just too tall now (and too-well fed upon Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms) and Merry wasn’t able to get a good look. “Your elbow’s in my side!” he complained, his fluting voice rising even higher. “Shove over!”
“I am, I am!” Frodo replied crossly. “Hold onto your toes, I’ve a big old root sticking into my leg and there’s something crawling down my back now!”
“Ow! Frodo, you-”
“Stop pushing, I’m moving over as far as I-”
“Here now, what’s all this? A talking hedge?”
Both young Hobbits froze. The new voice had come from above them, and it was accompanied by the smell of pipe-weed and the sight of a pair of admirably-furred feet. There was a chuckle, and then the voice said, “well lads, I am afraid the jig is up and you are caught. Best to come out now and shake the leaves and dirt off, while you can still save a little face.”
Merry immediately squirmed forward out of their little hollow, but Frodo hung back, reluctant to give up his watching-spot. “And who might you be?” the newcomer said to Merry.
“Merry Brandybuck, sir!” he said proudly, and the other chuckled.
“I might have guessed. Although my first notion was that you were a pair of Tooks. But perhaps your friend would come out to say hello? It can’t be comfortable down there with all the worms and bugs.”
Frodo bit down upon a grumble and crawled forward on his elbows, shaking the dirt out of his hair as he went. Standing, he brushed the soil off his knees and stole a glimpse of the person who had spoiled their little vantage point. He was a Hobbit of average height and average looks, just passing middle-age, comfortable-looking and merry-faced. He had a pipe between his teeth, and his waistcoat was unbuttoned despite the chilly weather. “And what is your name, young sir?” he asked, his eyes twinkling brightly.
“Frodo,” he answered, with a touch of defiance. “Frodo Baggins.”
The newcomer blinked, and then he refocused upon Frodo with intent. “Well now, I’ve heard tales of a Frodo Baggins. A mushroom-thief and a disturber of dogs, is that so?”
Merry gasped and said, “oh, that liar! Those dogs disturb us, and that’s a fact sir! They bark and chase and howl, it’s a wonder a fellow can fill his basket at all!”
Frodo felt his face flush as the new Hobbit threw back his head and burst into laughter. “Yes, that would put a damper on any burglary, wouldn’t it, a pack of dogs yapping at your heels!” He shook his head as though remembering a private joke. “Well, well. And why are you tucked under the bushes here, spying? There’s no secrets about the Yule Party, and people have been coming and going as they please for days now.”
“We wanted to see it without being disturbed,” Frodo said, feeling very reckless and rude.
“Frodo says that the braziers were made by the Dwarves, and that Mr. Bilbo is very rich and peculiar and that he might go off on a grand adventure at any moment and come back with potfuls of gold!” Merry said, fidgeting and twitching with the excitement of it all. “I’m invited to the Party, but not the adventure. D’you think Mr. Bilbo might take me to see Dwarves and that? I’m good at adventures… as long as there’s time enough for Elevensies on the way.”
The Hobbit grinned. “I dare say Mr. Bilbo would enjoy your company, Master Brandybuck, though I hear that adventures don’t provide much in the way of Elevensies. Perhaps you can content yourself with grand parties and the odd adventure under hedgerows for now. Less taxing on the stomach.”
Frodo snorted and rolled his eyes as Merry made a whining noise of disappointment.
“And you, Master Baggins?” The Hobbit turned to Frodo, and regarded him keenly. “Do you want to see Dwarves and mountains, and go on adventures that contain far more to contend with than a few noisesome dogs, with no guarantee of Elevensies?”
“I could, if I wanted,” Frodo said, lifting his chin. He was acutely aware of the leaves in his hair, and the dirt smudged over his nose. The Hobbit’s mouth twitched. “I could!”
“Hmm.” The Hobbit tucked his pipe back between his teeth, and took a good drag. “Well, you may yet get an opportunity. Where are you living?”
“Frodo is in the seventh bedroom in the west-hall,” Merry said, and he scratched at his ribs as he shrugged one shoulder. “He’s two doors down from me, and he doesn’t have to share his room, but I have to share with Doderic and Ilberic, even though they’re brothers and I’m not.”
“Ah, so you are in Brandy Hall.” The Hobbit chewed on his pipe in thought. “That’s a goodly long way from Hobbiton. How is old Rory treating you?”
“He’s very good to me, sir,” said Frodo, feeling rather unsure at all these questions… and also slightly taken-aback that somebody might call the Master of Buckland ‘Rory’ rather than ‘Rorimac’. “I’m well-provided for.” The phrase fell from his lips with the ease of routine; he had been saying it for nine years, and it nearly felt true.
“He does his best,” he added, and then wondered why he had felt the need to say that.
The Hobbit’s eyes were very knowing. “I am sure he does, but Rory has a great many demands upon his time, doesn’t he? And he’s getting on nowadays as well… though he’s not as old as some I might mention.”
Frodo didn’t know what to say to that.
“Well!” The Hobbit took his pipe out of his mouth, and wagged the stem at them. “Enjoy the party, lads, and don’t go disturbing any fox-holes or badger-setts with your spying, eh? Walk around as though you own the place, that’s my advice, and look at what you like – but don’t touch! You don’t know who might be standing nearby having a quiet smoke!”
And with that, the odd Hobbit was striding away up The Hill, whistling a tune. Frodo watched him go, his head too crammed with thoughts.
The first day of Yule dawned clear and chilly: one of those still and cloudless winter days when the sun shines thin and bright and turns all the world into cut glass. The sky was the very palest blue imaginable, and seemed to stretch endlessly into infinity.
Frodo dressed in a state of high excitement, his fingers shaking so much he could barely do up the buttons on his feast-day coat.
The Party was indeed splendid, and Bywater had never seen anything quite so spectacular in many years – not since the Old Took had celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, the gaffers and gammers said, nodding to each other sagely. The food never seemed to end, and the dancing and music rang out into the chilly winter sky as assorted Bolgers, Bunces, Brownlocks, Bankses, Burrows, Goodbodies, Chubbs, Tooks, Brandybucks, Boffins, Hornblowers and Proudfeet celebrated the coming of the new year.
Even the Sackville-Bagginses made an appearance, though they left rather hurriedly after the present-table had been brought out. And from the bulging of her handbag, Lobelia had been rather light-fingered with the excellent food as well.
Frodo looked about everywhere for a sight of his famous cousin, but he saw nobody who fit the description of an elderly eccentric with tunnels full of treasure. The Party Field was swarming with unfamiliar Hobbits, all talking and eating and laughing. With Merry’s little hand in his, Frodo scurried around the throng peering into their faces and wondering whether Mr. Bilbo had even made an appearance. Surely Frodo would know him if he saw him, one disreputable Hobbit to another?
Just before midnight, there was an especial surprise. From behind one of the bright tents stepped the long, bearded shape of one of the Big Folk, and many exclaimed in happiness. For this was old Gandalf, the Wizard, a familiar sight in Hobbiton in those days. His attendance at a party never meant trouble (as it was wont to at all other times) but rather the most astounding fireworks that anyone ever saw.
“Good evening, my dear Hobbits!” he called, and nodded as he leaned upon his gnarled staff. “Now, if you would allow me a moment or two of peace to arrange matters, we shall see what we can do about making this new year begin with a bang.”
“Pops up out of nowhere, he does, and always brings nowt but bother,” some grumbled, but the children swarmed around the Wizard and jumped up and down in excitement.
“Now, now then!” Frodo heard Gandalf saying gently, pushing through the herd of over-stimulated children. “Stand back, little ones. This isn’t a toy, I’ll have you know!”
“Gandalf!” Merry said, his face alight with anticipation. “Oh Frodo, how wonderful!”
“I still haven’t seen Mr. Bilbo,” Frodo sulked, and he glared at the mass of Hobbits surrounding the Wizard. Surely Mr. Bilbo would be somewhere close by his old friend? But none of them struck Frodo as quite the type either. They all seemed perfectly normal, every one as ordinary and staid and comfortable as Hobbits come.
“Perhaps old Gandalf knows which one is Mr. Bilbo?” Merry said, echoing Frodo’s thoughts.
“I’m not going up there to talk to a Wizard!” Frodo hissed, and he dragged Merry along until they were peering around the ale-tent, close to where Gandalf was setting up his whizzpoppers and fizzbangs. “But Mr. Bilbo will go and talk to him eventually, mark my words. They’re well-known to be cronies, and I’ll know him the minute he walks up to speak to him. Oh yes.”
“Don’t see why you can’t just ask,” Merry complained. “This is just like the hedgerow all over again.”
Frodo ignored that and watched the Wizard avidly.
The midnight fireworks came and went, and were suitably stupendous. A great cheer rose, and everyone jumped up and down and kissed and hugged, wishing each other a merry new year and a full larder. Afterwards the party began to lose its momentum as the hours turned towards morning. Many Hobbits had to be escorted home in wheelbarrows, much to the amusement of the remaining guests.
“I’m bored,” Merry said petulantly, and he yawned. “And tired.”
“He’s got to be here!” said Frodo in frustration, and he sat down on the ground heavily and glared at the Wizard, who was relaxing against the Party Tree and sending odd-coloured smoke-rings into the air. He was evidently nothing but disappointment and trouble, as all the tales told.
“Can we at least do something interesting?” Merry whined.
Fiddling with a chicken bone (he had been very freely sampling the excellent food), Merry shrugged. “I don’t know… steal the Wizard’s hat then. Goodness knows you’ve stared at him long enough, you could probably sneak right up to him and pinch it right off his head.”
Frodo started, and then looked down at Merry with an incredulous expression. “You’re not serious.”
Merry only smirked at him.
“You little weasel,” Frodo muttered in admiration, and he readied himself in a crouch. Perhaps it was the late hour or the fireworks or the mention of their hedgerow visitor, but he was feeling rather adventuresome and wild. Steeling himself, he began to creep as quietly as he could to where the smoke-rings sailed lazily into the star-filled night sky.
Gandalf didn’t even appear to notice. Big Folk, Frodo thought gleefully to himself. Always so inattentive! And he reached out to touch the soft brim of the hat.
“And what do you think you are doing, hmm?” said the Wizard, entirely unsurprised and not even bothering to turn around. Frodo yelped, and fell over backwards to tumble onto the hard-frozen ground. He pushed up on his hands and shook his spinning head to see the Wizard blow out another smoke-ring with unruffled calm; a green one this time.
“So, who is this rash young thief, hmm, who thinks he can do with a Wizard’s hat as he pleases?” Gandalf looked at him from under bushy brows, and Frodo shrank back.
“Well! You are making a head-start on your adventures, aren’t you?” came another voice, and Frodo glanced to one side to see the Hobbit from the other day grinning down at him. “I’ve done some very foolish things, my dear boy, but not even I would dare take a Wizard’s hat straight from his head!”
“Bilbo, you know this scamp?” Gandalf asked the Hobbit, and Frodo’s jaw dropped open. His odd hedgerow visitor was Bilbo Baggins himself?
“Indeed I do. This is my second cousin however-many-times-removed, Frodo Baggins,” said Bilbo, and he stuck his thumbs into his pockets and laughed in delight. “I thought I told you, quite plainly, to look but don’t touch! My word, what a spirit you have, my boy! You would go tweak a dragon’s nose if you could, wouldn’t you?”
“No doubt you approve,” Gandalf said, smiling a little at Bilbo. “Though I advise against marching up to dragons, on the whole.”
“Oh, most certainly.” Bilbo snorted loudly and derisively. “Yes, of course you do, I remember you advising against it quite well indeed.”
Frodo simply gawked at Bilbo Baggins. He looked so very ordinary! In fact, he was even a little shorter than Frodo himself! And he didn’t appear a day over sixty, though Frodo knew that Mr. Bilbo was rapidly approaching a hundred years old. “I didn’t know you were him!” he blurted, and Bilbo winked at him.
“I gathered that, and I didn’t feel it necessary to correct you. I find that people are a little stand-offish once they’ve learned my name, and it was a small everyday sort of adventure to discover a talking hedgerow. And is your accomplice nearby?”
As if on cue, Merry barrelled around the corner at a run and crashed straight into the old Hobbit’s back. “Don’t hurt him!” he hollered at the top of his lungs. “It was my idea, don’t magic him into anything terrible, I’m getting his room when he moves out and I won’t if I’m in disgrace!”
“Ah,” Gandalf said, and he gave a rusty laugh. “So this must be him, then.”
Merry’s little chin wobbled, but he stood up to the Wizard with all the bravery in his tiny body. “He’s my friend,” he said in a quavering voice. “Please don’t hurt my friend.”
“Heavens above,” Bilbo said, and he threw a sly look back at Gandalf. The Wizard appeared a little dumbstruck. “Old friend, may I introduce you to Meriadoc Brandybuck, another cousin of mine. Please deal gently with him, if you would!”
“Hobbits!” was what Gandalf had to say on the matter, shaking his head fondly. “Don’t look so alarmed, Master Meriadoc. I don’t intend to harm a single hair on his curly feet. I think the scare he has had is quite enough, don’t you?”
Merry deflated all at once. “Oh good,” he said. “Because Frodo can carry more mushrooms than I can.”
At that moment, Merry’s mother Esmerelda finally noticed the commotion. With a shriek of alarm, she scurried over and gathered up her wayward child, scolding him all the way. “Aooowwww, but Mum!” they heard Merry wail as he was swept into her orbit.
The old Hobbit and the Wizard chuckled together as Merry was seated at a table between his parents, his face roughly washed, and his ears roundly boxed. His tiny cousin Peregrin was dumped into his arms, firmly pinning him in place. His expression turned martyred as the toddler began to crawl over his lap, poking chubby fingers into his nose and tugging at his hair.
“And what shall we do with you, then?” Bilbo wondered, and he turned back to where Frodo still lay on the ground half-frozen in shock.
“I have given my word,” Gandalf said, his eyes glinting in humour.
“Ah, but I haven’t.” Bilbo put his hands on his hips and tilted his head as he regarded Frodo. “Hmm. I have one or two ideas.”
Gandalf took his pipe from his mouth. “Bilbo? What are you scheming this time?”
Bilbo smiled merrily and raised his eyebrows. “Well, you know the old saying! Set a burglar to catch a burglar…”
Three weeks later, it became known around the Shire that the strange and solitary Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, The Hill, Hobbiton, had formally adopted his cousin Frodo.
“As like as two new pins, that pair!” was the general consensus. “No wonder Mr. Bilbo never sold off that grand old hole - he was waiting until he found a rascal just as contrary and hare-brained as himself!”
It was said that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins had nearly snapped her umbrella in half upon hearing the news.
Merry missed Frodo fiercely and was sad to see him leave Brandy Hall. Nevertheless, he was also loudly thrilled about having his very own room at last.
As far as Frodo himself was concerned, it was the best and strangest Yule of his entire life.
(And he never again attempted to steal a Wizard’s hat.)