He dreamed, as he so often did now.
“Would you have saved them, Bilbo Baggins?”
The old hobbit, stooped with age and the heavy weight of more than one hundred and thirty years, worried at the edge of the thin shawl that was draped across his shoulders. His clouded eyes could barely see his own hands, let alone the figure that stood beside him, hooded and dressed in brilliant white.
“Of course I would have. I was their friend and I failed them. I failed everyone, including myself.”
He was dreaming. He knew it because he didn’t feel the stutter in his heart any more or the pain in his hands that had begun to develop when he reached one hundred and twenty. It eventually became so bad that he could no longer write, and that had been nearly unbearable. All those letters he could never send, the stories he could never finish – the elves in Rivendell had offered to dictate for him but it hadn’t been the same. Their words were not his own, nor could they understand the heart behind them. It had been then that he had truly begun to feel the heavy hand of time pressing down upon his back. The last few years had seemed like nothing more than the long, regretful wait before the final end.
“There is no need to carry such painful memories with you. They made their own choices in the end, as did you.”
“But I could have done so much more! Maybe I could have saved them and then things would have been done properly. A Baggins always does things properly, or at least they should. I just wish…”
“What do you wish?”
“I wish I could have changed it all. I was always fond of happy endings and I was disappointed by this one.” He shook his head, frail white curls falling in blind eyes. Fili and Kili lain out under white sheet stained with blood, never to laugh or tease each other again. It had been a mercy that they died together. Blood had bubbled up from Thorin’s lips as he said his final goodbye and followed his nephews into the Halls, where no hobbit could follow. Bilbo saw their bodies often now, whenever he closed his eyes and didn’t have the energy to think of happier times.
A gentle hand settled on his shoulder. “Some things are fated to happen. It is impossible to change everything we wish we could have avoided, even the most painful. Because of you, the Ring of Power was brought to light and eventually destroyed thanks to your nephew, bringing balance and peace to the world once more. Would you have changed what brought peace to so many?”
“No, I wouldn’t have. But there were so many little things – helping the dwarves, being a better uncle to Frodo – maybe I could have prepared him better for the horrors he would have to endure. I read his account of things after his adventure and I think that he had an even harder time of things than I did. We both lost our hearts somewhere along the road.”
“You could not have known – “
“I was a fool of a hobbit and I hid my head in my garden dirt so that I would not see! Don’t tell me that I did everything I could have, because I know for a fact that didn’t! I was too lost in my books and my own grief to care and now I can’t help but think about all of the good I could have done if I had just opened my eyes a little bit wider! I know that I accused my friends of having more than their fair share of stubbornness, but now I realize that I was the most stubborn of them all.”
The old hobbit took a half-step forward and sank to his knees. His heart was fading and he knew, even in this dream, that his time was drawing to a close. “Now I won’t even get to say a proper goodbye to Frodo because I had the bad taste to die in my sleep. The only right thing I ever did in my life was walk out my front door and the worst was to come back again thinking that everything would be as it was before.”
“You will find peace hereafter. That is the nature of death. The land will welcome you into its arms and you will forget your regret and pain.”
“Another cowardly act. Now that death has come for me I find that I’m not ready to greet it yet.” Bilbo rubbed at his watery eyes with his sleeve and sniffled wetly. “Why did it have to be this way?”
“You still wish you could have changed the past?”
The figure knelt beside him, enveloping the dying hobbit in robes that smelled like the deep woods and something sweet. Maybe apples. “There are some things that were not meant to be changed. Certain events may be altered or avoided altogether, but know that no matter what you do or how hard you fight some things will always come to pass.”
“What does it matter now?” He asked, his heart as heavy as stone in his breast. “No matter how much I may wish to, I can’t go back. I have neither the power nor the life left in me.”
“Would you have given your own life for theirs? Taken their pain and made it your own to change the course of history?”
“I would have and I would have done so gladly. So many people suffered and died because of me because I was a fool and a coward. I stood by and did nothing while they fought for what they believed in and now…now they’re dead. I will be soon as well and this will all just be another story in my books.”
“Look again. Perhaps you can indeed do more than you thought.” The figure waved a hand and the fog cleared. Bilbo gasped as suddenly everything came into focus, brighter and more vivid than he could remember seeing in more than a decade. They hovered above Valinor, the undying lands of the elves. He had taken a ship here in the company of Gandalf and Frodo and the last of the elves of Rivendell. In truth he hadn’t anticipated surviving the journey, but somehow he had stubbornly clung to life long enough to see the haunted look slowly fade from his nephew’s eyes. Frodo had contracted the same illness of the heart and spirit that had dogged Bilbo’s feet – no one had even quite understood and they hadn’t been able to move on.
An ancient hobbit lay in a soft bed below them. His eyes were closed. There was a breeze coming in through the open window that made his thin white curls stir slightly. The sheets lifted with each shallow breath and Bilbo realized that he was looking down at himself and that he was dying. There was a pale cast to his features that showed that he was not much longer for this world. Outside, Frodo sat in the garden the elves had gifted them, a book in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. A smile made his face light up as he turned the page and there was an inner peace about him that helped to settle Bilbo’s fretful heart a little. His nephew would be happy here and maybe with time the pain of his wounds, the ones on his heart especially, would diminish. No doubt he would miss his uncle, but that was such a small thing that it hardly seemed to matter now.
“Change is a fickle thing. Remember this in your journey, Bilbo Baggins, and perhaps you will be able to alter history after all.”
The hobbit in the bed took its last breath and was still. Frodo closed his book.
Bilbo Baggins sighed with contentment, the morning sun warm on his face, and opened his eyes to see a very familiar wizard standing in front of him as he sat on the bench in front of Bag End.