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And What Happened After

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Frodo Baggins was not exactly lost, but neither could he be certain just where he was. He had been hiking cross-country for several days west out of Valmar, and had long since left both road and path behind.

He found himself in a dark wood, stern and ancient, and it came into his mind that though there might be nothing evil in the land, it was still a place of peril. He walked among great fir-trees, some with black bark, some with red, and some with silver-grey. Their bases were like towers, their crowns so far overhead that he could hardly make them out.

The forest floor was thick with their needles and here and there with moss, but there was little new growth, only the weight of the old. Here and there stood spiny thickets of tall holly, clustered around wide shallow meres clotted with short golden reeds. It seemed the ground had been rising, smoothly but steadily, for some time, and he followed its rise, having altogether lost the direction of the sun behind the cover of the trees above and the low smooth clouds beyond. Although the space was wild and vast, it felt nonetheless interior, enclosed, a temple with living pillars.

The cedars thinned ahead of him, and he saw that the forest came to a sudden end among trees with pale trunks and broad leaves and wild berries tangled around their feet. The light was golden where it sifted through the leaves, though the sky was grey above. Faint and far he heard a distant, sorrowful murmur, which might have been the wind in the tops of the trees, or the cry of the sea against some unseen shore.

He was standing before a low series of mountains. They were nothing like the fierce knife-edged Pelóri, razor-peaked and towering to inhuman heights before the shores of the Great Ocean. These were worn and weary hills, the Oronairë, the Mountains of Lamentation.

Above him, tumbled and steep, rose the foothills: first meadow, then gravel, then great bare rocks, and then above that, as if it had grown from the mountain itself, the black walls of Mandos, named the Prison-Fortress. There were neither doors nor gates nor windows, nor any kind of ornament on the outside. He saw no one enter and no one leave, and the gray clouds hung even and close across the sky.

Long he stood by the verge of the forest, looking up at the Halls. The woods were utterly deserted. He had seen neither bird nor beast for days; not even an insect stirred the still, cool air.

He knew he must have come far out of his way, that he must have been walking through the dark forest for a longer time or a greater distance than should have been possible, to have come at last to the feet of Mandos itself.  “It’s only over there,” he echoed to himself, “and this is faster than walking.”

All at once, beneath its blank walls, he felt weary and heartsick. “What is there beyond?” he said to himself. “The Encircling Sea? The way out of the world? And what am I doing here?” Then after a while he lifted up his voice and began to sing, and although his voice was not loud it carried across the empty meadows and echoed among the quiet hills.

I walked by the sea and there came to me
as a star-beam on the wet sand
a white shell like a sea-bell
trembling it lay in my wet hand –“

The tune was an old Shire-ballad, but the words were his own.1 He had never been as prolific as his uncle in turning out verses, and had never had anything like Bilbo’s inclination to trot them out at every opportunity. After his return he had written no song at all, save this. It was long and its pattern complex (‘braid-rhymes’ as they called them in the Shire) and he knew it from beginning to end, for the song had echoed in his mind since he first put it into words.

“And at last I came to a long shore.
White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net -”

He had written it out twice in Bag End, and twice destroyed the paper, deeming its thoughts too ill to risk Sam finding.

  “‘Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!’ Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.”

Here beneath the halls of the Dead in the Undying Lands, he spoke the words aloud for the first time. As Frodo sang of despair, he felt his heart strangely lightened and he lifted up his voice to the rocks above:

“I cast away all that I bore:
in my clutching hand some grains of sand,
And a sea-shell silent and dead.
Never will my ear that bell hear,
never my feet that shore tread,
never again, as in sad lane,
in blind alley and in long street
ragged I walk. To myself I talk;
For still they speak not, men that I meet.”

The song was ended, and the stillness fell again, but was broken shortly afterward by the sound of footfalls and the flicker of distant motion. Frodo looked up sharply and to his unutterable astonishment he saw a figure above him on the mountain, briskly descending from below the black walls. As he watched there came springing over the rocks a tall man, his motion quick and decisive and his bearing proud, barefoot among the sharp stones and wrapped in a loose robe of pale gray. He made straight for Frodo where he stood amazed by the verge of the trees.

“Hail, stranger! Yours is not the speech of this land. Nor the face,” he added after a moment. “Nor the stature.”  He looked down at Frodo steadily, and his regard was curious and keen. Plain as his garments were, his person carried an impression of a frightening intensity, and if Frodo were not accustomed to the Eldar, he would have found him almost impossible to look at directly.

Frodo struggled for a reply, courtesy lost in surprise. The stranger had addressed him in the High Speech, in an accent Frodo couldn’t place but found perfectly intelligible. He must have been an elf of great age. A light shone in his eyes, such as shone in the eyes of all who had lived in that land before the Darkening, but it was a splintered light, refracted into endless fiery hues combining and recombining.

The winds above were blowing, and through a gap in the clouds there suddenly shone the sun, riding clear and high. The stranger gave a loud cry and held up his hand, turning suddenly from Frodo to fix his gaze directly on the distant fiery orb. For a moment he stood, drawing in deep breaths as though he meant to inhale the light itself. Then he raised both his hands toward the sun, and shouted joyously:

Aiákhârra phanaigâl mánàkselluthan!
Nazachâgwetherûz, illélèzâgwehân, áthâraghephelûn
Phanairùbhorân rušurràd ayánellûz! 2

He dropped his arms and turned back to Frodo, coughing and rubbing his throat but looking extremely pleased with himself.

“If I astonished you with my speech just now, well, turn about is fair play, I suppose!” said Frodo, finding his voice at last. “What was that?”

“Valarin! The tongue of the Powers, who have no need of one. It sounds like an electrical storm, and feels like a swarm of bees in your throat, but it’s a fascinating study. Few undertake it, though. It’s tonal, as you can hear – á, à, â.” He sang out a series of buzzing vowels and coughed again. “But it’s not just the tones, it’s the harmonics; you’ve actually got to sound two tones at once, so that discouraged the Quendi from even attempting it. You can get by well enough if you’ve got two people to say one sentence, or if you’ve got a mouth-harp, or if, with practice –“ and here he looked delighted, “you produce one tone in the chest and another through the lips.3 What it is to have a body! I feared that after so long its skills might be lost to me, at least those skills that come not through knowledge but through patient training.

“But perhaps you were asking what it was I was saying? I was greeting the sun, and in such a way that she might hear me.” He looked up to the sky again. “I knew of the sun, but I have never seen it. It seemed absurd to me when I first heard news of it, and still more absurd when I first saw it depicted. A round thing, rolling here and there in the heavens like a child’s toy? But now I see it in body and in truth, and it is glorious in its light. Not the glory of its great source, no. Like, and yet unlike. Thinner, fiercer, more restless. It is as if I beheld the child of someone dear to me.”

He turned back to Frodo, all focused attention. “But your language, now, the one in which you were singing. I would hear more of this. How do you call it? Do you have a name for the language itself?”

“It’s the Common Speech,” Frodo replied, bemused. “Westron, that is. Is it strange to you?”

“Strange indeed. I have heard nothing like it in my life or after it. It is one of the tongues of Men, that much is immediately clear, for it is wild and untended, taking on new words and new patterns before old complexities have entirely died out of it.” His hands, graceful and expressive, were tracing patterns in the air as he spoke, as if he were before a student or attempting to make something clear to a stranger.

“In bygone ages – long past, by your reckoning – its speakers would have had contact with our people. But I perceive that much within it is changed; there have been many tongues and kindreds leaving their mark upon it. Fierce peoples and warlike, who love the open lands; city-dwellers; mariners. And yet at some point, and a recent one - though perhaps you would not call it so - the changes seem to have slowed, as when a people dwells apart and at peace, yet takes little thought for the art of refining the words that are theirs.”

Frodo stared at him in amazement. “I beg your pardon!” he said. “I have known great hunters, who could track their quarry by signs too subtle for me to read, but this – this is astonishing! Forgive me if I misunderstand you, but did you really get all that from one song?”

“You can learn much from a song,” he replied, “for music can aid in the apprehension of meaning, and a song will quickly show how a language can be woven together: rhyme, rhythm, parallel and assonance. Before long patterns begin to shine forth: here is a verb, here a noun, this change must show some sort of conjugation –“

“I suppose that’s true,” Frodo said, “though even for you – the Quenya speakers, I mean, begging your pardon – there’s a considerable difference between the kind of language you use to sing and the kind you use to speak. Though my own knowledge could hardly be called extensive, and I don’t presume to tell you anything about the High Speech itself.”

“It’s certainly not your native tongue – no, why should you apologize for that?” he added quickly, seeing Frodo begin to demur. “You have the words of a scholar, but the speech of one who is hardly yet habituated to hearing those words, still less to giving them voice. ’Begging your pardon,’ for instance, that has to be a direct translation from the Common Speech, unless the loremasters and the language-wardens have grown lax in their duties.”

“And here I thought I was coming along quite well!” exclaimed Frodo ruefully. “Perhaps I should try singing instead. I’m told my accent is hardly noticeable in song, and there would certainly be less danger of my introducing the wild words of the Common Speech into the carefully tended language of the Eldar – though you might find my conversation rather less informative!”

“Would you prefer to converse in the tongue of the Elves of the Twilight?” asked his companion. “I warn you, you may not understand my speech, for Thindarin was always more changeful than Quenya. It alters with years and distance, and it may have altered out of recognition since first I learnt it under the stars of cold Hithlum.”4

“What? No, my Sindarin must be worse than my Quenya now. At least it’s Quenya I’ve been using in conversation since I came here, and it took long enough for that to stop feeling frightfully solemn, as if the lightest word had to carry the weight of an incantation. But it’s the Common Speech I was brought up in, so that’s still the first source I’ll reach for if I need to say something I haven’t yet heard said. And you still haven’t told me how you managed to track its entire history across Middle-Earth from a few lines of verse!”

“Do not overestimate my knowledge! I caught a few fragments of our words among yours, and a few fragments of words which probably came from roots shared with ours. A language carries its history in its structure and sound, recounting its story as clearly as in any tapestry for those who have eyes to see.” He pulled himself back from an abstraction that was sending him into a profound distance, and bent the full fire of his attention back on Frodo. “But I did not mean to astonish you with conjuring-tricks; your tongue is strange to me but not wholly strange, for I have seen something of the world in which it was born. Now I will understand that world better for knowing one of its languages – one of its great languages, if I understand rightly.”

“Well, that’s certainly the first time I’ve heard the Common Speech called great,” said Frodo, confounded and in part amused, “though I suppose it is, in its way. It receives more use than love in Middle-Earth, but you can hear it in kings’ halls and gaffers’ gardens. And in worse places too; it’s easy to learn.”

“I thought it might be.” His companion seemed pleased. “Then let us begin at once! How would you say ‘to speak’in the Common Speech? Do you have one word for this, or many?”

“Hm, let me see. Speak, talk, converse. Chat. Discuss. Say – although of course that’s transitive, say this or say that –“  The stranger was nodding, and Frodo felt acutely, though not unpleasantly, that he was entirely out of his depth. If it were not for the black bulk of Mandos on the mountain above, he thought, he would be certain that he had made his way into Lorien and was even now wandering in dreams.

His companion was repeating the words softly to himself, savoring them. “I suppose it’s not wrong to call it an untended language,” said Frodo, running over in his head lists of words that were possibly related to speak in sound or in meaning, and seeing for the first time the intricate, tangled branching of his native language. “I mean, I don’t think I could tell you where all of those words come from, for indeed I’d given little thought to the question before. But you seem to be enjoying them.”

“Can you say that again, in the Common Speech?”

Frodo did; the stranger repeated it, nodded. “Enjoying, possible root gai with velar nasalization? Stem joy with prefix en? Yes; it is not the loveliest of languages but I rejoice to hear it, as much as or indeed more than I rejoiced to see this light. The Dead speak little, and when they do speak for the most part it is as one mind to another. I understand that they should not wish to be kept apart by the tangle and blur of spoken language, but a word without a sound is food without taste. It’s a word’s embodiment in speech that makes it interesting, that gives it not just meaning but beauty, not just beauty but life!” His eyes flashed as he spoke, and he looked happier than Frodo had yet seen him. “All right, inflection –“ he began, just as Frodo finally broke in with:

“Excuse me, but who or what are you? Your face and form are like one of the Eldar, but you are not dressed like one. You greet the Sun in her own tongue, you seem to have spoken with the Dead, you know rather much more about my language than I do myself even though you have never heard it before, and now you appear to be expecting me to teach you the Common Speech right here where we stand under the Halls of Mandos! Are you one of the Holy Ones? Am I trespassing in your land?”

He seemed surprised at the question, though he took no offense. “I am neither Maia nor Vala, stranger, but a Noldo of the house of Finwë. My name is Curufinwë Fëanáro in the speech of the Eldar of this land, Fëanor in the speech of the Eldar of the Outer Shores, and in your tongue it might be, let me see, something like... no, no, I will not attempt it; I don’t yet have enough to go on.”

Frodo had spent enough time in the libraries and with the loremasters that he was by now accustomed to the mental cross-referencing that came with being a newcomer in a land where his hosts had for the most part known to each other for centuries beyond counting, and where accumulation of names began at birth and continued indefinitely. The quick calculations were almost automatic now: who the person counted in their family, to whom they owed allegiance, where they were living and where they had lived, and in which, if any, of the great deeds of the past they taken part. The vertigo of sharing daily pleasantries or dinner conversation with someone who had built the towers of fallen Gondolin or walked the woods of drowned Beleriand had mostly subsided.

Still, he hardly knew what to do with the stranger’s answer and its implications, which unfurled themselves slowly in his thought like page after page of references in one of the great Histories in the halls of records. And Seeing Stones. And Sons of. See “War of the Jewels”. See “Of the Silmarils”.  “You could not astonish me more if you said you were the Elder King himself!” he said slowly.

Fëanor laughed, a short sound without humor. “Are you sure that’s a comparison you want to make, stranger? Have you no fear of blasphemy? There was a time when my name itself was a curse, and the language we are speaking now deemed treason for my sake.”

“Well, I don’t know you so much as a curse as... as an adjective, really. Even back home among my people, the learned called the alphabet – your alphabet – the Fëanorian characters, although we didn’t have the least idea what we meant by that.”

There was considerably more humor in Fëanor’s short laugh this time. “An adjective indeed? But I gave the Tengwar a name, its right name. You speak of the letters as though they were my children but children I have, and they are not nearly so orderly!” Frodo had spoken the name of the letters in the Common Speech, and Fëanor repeated it. “Fëanorian. That cannot be how all your adjectives are formed; I have not yet heard this ending in your speech.”

“Oh, indeed not. Half our adjectives follow no rule at all.” He glanced around him, gesturing. “Tall trees, yellow leaves, high hills, cool wind, clouded sky – no, wait, that one’s from cloud –“

“So I could say the Fëanored characters for my poor long-suffering script?”

“Only if you consider yourself a verb. And if, as you say, your name is a curse, perhaps you do! But cloud is a noun, meaning the thing itself, and a verb, meaning the thing that clouds do as they fill the sky. Or by extension anything that dims light without extinguishing its source.”

“So clouded by time, clouded by distance, clouded by the memory of pain.”

“You take a cheerful view of things!” Frodo said. “Though yes, those would all be correct ways to use the word.

“Very good! You may call your speech Common, but it is clearly not altogether without grace of thought, for clouds arise and linger, but they may break at last in rain. Clouded by doubt,” he said, meditatively. “Or clouded by ignorance. As I am, strange-spoken stranger, to find you in this empty land. Unless these lands have been reshaped – and they may well have been, for all I know – the living do not come before these walls.”

“Do they not? I came through the forest, and I met no danger on the way, or nothing that seemed openly like danger, though it was a... a heavy place, if you understand me. Like walking up a steep hill, or through deep snow. It seemed to me I was in those woods a long time, yet I must have travelled even farther than I thought. Is this land forbidden, then?”

“Forbidden? Not in words, perhaps, but in its nature, which amounts to the same thing among the Valar. The living can only leave these lands, they cannot enter them. I made the attempt myself, very long ago, until I learned in bitterness of heart to accept as fact what I would not have accepted as ruling. Aim for Mandos, and you will find yourself in the domain of his brother, Lorien. I suppose the Valar in their wisdom deem that if you are troubled enough to trouble the dead, that you are the one in need of healing.”

“Well, I’m not dead, if that’s what you’re asking. Not yet, anyway. Or not exactly. Or not to my knowledge.” Frodo looked up at the figure before him in doubt. “But I am evidently talking to the person who set in motion the whole troubled history of Middle-Earth, so I can hardly be certain of anything at the moment.”

Fëanor shook his arms free of the folds of the loose grey robe. “May I?”

He dropped to one knee before him and took both of Frodo’s hands in both of his. Frodo felt the heat of his hands, and then heat passing across his mind, like a sudden beam of sunlight. He was not unfamiliar with the converse of thought among the Eldar, and had often felt the flickerings of other minds as they cast their thoughts abroad. He did not flinch at the passage of the foreign awareness, but regarded Fëanor steadily. After a moment Fëanor raised his eyes to his.

“Well, stranger, you live and I live,” he said, unsmiling, “though it would seem that neither of us has the right to be here.” He opened his hands. “That is flesh and blood, not the touch of a shade.  O sweet as language, strong as light, to have the use of hands again! To shape the world and to learn its shaping, to give form and to perceive it!”

He looked closely at his hands, which were strong and graceful, well-shaped and unscarred. He ran his thumb up the side of his fingers and across the arch of the palm. “This, now, this is not quite right. No, they are too clean, far too clean. They say that the body draws its shape from the spirit but perhaps they overstated the case.”

“What do you mean?”

A shadow passed over his face, and all at once Frodo saw the immense age in his ageless features, as if each year of the circling centuries had landed like a blow. Heat rose against his mind again, searing and heedless and terrible. He tasted acrid choking ash in his throat, heard the wailing of distant voices, and all around him was salt and smoke and the flat metallic tang of blood.

Far to the east in Alqualondë by the sea, the sea-folk faltered at their nets as the shadow of ancient grief crossed their hearts, and in white-walled Tirion, the scepter fell as the High King of the Noldor suddenly stiffened in his seat, and then leaped up and ran to a window. He gazed westward, scanning the horizon beyond the Calacirya for he knew not what, pierced by a nameless hope.

But Frodo reached out in return and clasped both of Fëanor’s hands, and they did not burn, but were only flesh and blood, as his own. The heat faded, and Fëanor held out his hand before him; it was still empty and unmarked.

“No, too clean altogether,” he said lightly. “A hand shows what its work has been: calluses, inkstains, scrapes and nicks, little silver scars.”

He let his hand fall, and sat back in the grass. “So then, it would seem you are twice a stranger: not only living before these halls, but mortal in the Undying Lands.”

“I wondered if we would get to that. Yes, of course I’m mortal, and you aren’t the first here to find that disturbing, either. Most people have had a chance to get used to the idea, but it’s rather different in practice to spend time around someone who’s going to die, much less to get attached to them. I think they think of us as – well, as loose ends.”

“I have heard of your kind,” said Fëanor slowly, “but you are the first of the Secondborn I have seen in the world, and certainly the first who has spoken to me. Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Being mortal. Dying all the time. Even here in Aman, where time does not devour, your spirit seems to be set so lightly in the world that it could be shaken loose with a thought. One of my kindred who was so near to death would be ill past cure, and one who was so deeply divided from the world would be gravely injured in spirit.”

“Well! I suppose that’s the difference between your kindred and mine, then! What you’d call dying we call living, and while it may not always be the most comfortable thing, I don’t think I’d say that it hurts exactly. And while I may be mortal, I evidently have less of death about me than you do.”

“You’re certainly less mortal than you used to be, that much is clear.”

Frodo started and looked at him sharply. “What do you mean by that?”

“Surely you would know better than I do?” There was genuine curiosity in his voice. “Something’s held you back against the pull of time, flattened your spirit’s arc toward death. Well, that’s one thing, but not the heart of it; you’re out of your place to be here at all, of course, but that’s an effect not a cause. No, there’s more of the world in you than you appear to have been designed to withstand-”

Frodo was not entirely at ease in being spoken of as if he were a puzzle to be worked out, but before he could frame an objection, Fëanor stopped short.

“I believe I know you.”

“I would say that’s altogether impossible, but if there was a time for me to object to impossibilities, it would have been – oh, probably when I took ship for the Last Shore in the first place? Go on then. You say you know me.”

“I’ve seen you before, a small figure in the great events of the world beyond the seas. There has been much upheaval of late in the kingdoms of Men. Battle and war and the overthrow of the Dark Tower, and you were the one who passed through it all – yes, the bearer of the star-glass.”

Frodo stared for a moment and then burst out laughing. “That’s hardly the first thing most people think of me as carrying, but all right! Of all the things I bore on that whole miserable journey, that was possibly the most useful and certainly the most pleasant! But, if you will excuse me, you’ve been out of the World for a very long time, haven’t you? Did the news of the War of the Ring trouble even the peace of the Dead?”

“You could not call it news exactly. Still, the Weaver and her servants pass freely in and out of the Halls, and they recount the doings of the world in their webs. You can read the whole story of the world there if you want, if you have the patience to follow it through the labyrinths of Mandos. It’s a different art from that of reading written history, of course – the Dead deal very little in words. And it’s a useful corrective for those of us who believe our deeds to have shaped the course of the world, for we see peoples awaken and flourish and pass away, empires rise and fall, without the slightest reference to anything we did or knew or made or shaped or taught. It is an order so vast it looks like chaos.”

“How in that chaos did you come across me?”

“I followed the light, silver threads in the dark tapestry.” He looked up to the sky, as if beyond the hurrying clouds he could trace the path of the evening star.

“The light? Oh! Well yes, I suppose you would have a – an interest in that.”

“I bound that light to the world, and it works in it still. Splintered and broken, distant and diffuse, reflected and refracted, yet undiminished.”His words were proud, but he did not speak in boast. “And stiff-necked Artanis was the one who captured it for you! She’s learnt more of my art than she was willing to let on. After the light came to you I traced your journey through the dark places, to the end of your quest. No, light-bearer, if I am a figure out of story to you, you are no less to me – although I cannot say you are an adjective.” He paused. “But there were two of you who bore the light. Yes, shouldn’t there be two of you?”

Frodo looked away. “Perhaps there should. Certainly there were two of us. But my companion I left behind me in my own land, where his garden is prospering now. He had the strength to return to the world, but I –“

Fëanor nodded, his grey eyes alight. “This makes many of your mysteries clear! I’ve never seen one of the Secondborn in the flesh, of course, but I had not thought that Men were so diminished in stature. And that explains your speech, of course, and your injury.”

“What, this?” Frodo held up his hand.

“What? No – though yes, it explains that too, if I remember rightly. But I meant the injury done your spirit; it’s very distinctive.  Our works, our selves, are shaped by the presence of those we were close to. You can see in my smithwork that I was a student under Mahtan Aulendur. I can hear in your speech that you’ve been tutored by my high-hearted niece – those are her sibilants, her studious avoidance of lenition, and who else is so fond of the partitive plural? And I see in your thought, the traces left in you are unmistakably those of the presence of my Enemy’s old lackey.”

“If you mean that someone’s scrawled Sauron was here in large red letters across the surface of my mind, you can come out and say it. No need to be mealymouthed! I’ve heard worse from the Healers, anyway. As I believe one of them put it, ‘You still smell faintly of Mordor.’”

At this Fëanor laughed aloud. “What doesn’t? Mordor5, indeed! I saw the light fail and the shadows fall in the heart of blissful Valinor, so there’s nothing beneath the stars that is entirely free from the trace of them, no matter what anyone would like to think.”

Frodo was lost for an instant as to his meaning, then worked it out. “Oh, I suppose I should have said Morinore. Mordor’s a name; Sindarin; the Black Land. Where – well, I suppose you saw it, if you saw me.”

“Is that what that ruined place is called? Accurate, and it’s hardly worth a more descriptive name. Still, even your Mordor was green once...” Fëanor cast a long thoughtful glance over the green hills and the low crumpled mountains above them, as if picturing them without light or growth, poisoned and dry and dead. He shook off the image, returning lightly to the question of language. “These sorts of cognates are to be expected, really, Quenya and Thindarin being two long-separated branches of the same tongue. But come, this grows unbalanced! Now I know your nature or part of it anyway, I know your Enemy, I know where you’ve been and what you’ve borne, but I don’t know your name.”

“Frodo Baggins, at your service, sir, and I am honored to make your acquaintance.” Somewhat awkwardly, he bowed, having not the least notion of which, if any, of the courtesies among the Eldar might be appropriate for such a strange introduction. Fëanor certainly took no offense and possibly took no notice; he was repeating Frodo’s names.

Frodo? That’s a word altogether of your speech; I can’t imagine from what lost roots in the Elven tongues it might spring. What does it mean?”

“Interesting you should ask; I asked my elders myself when I was a child, and received two answers – the first, a review of everyone in my family for the last dozen generations who’d borne the name or something like it, and the second, that it meant nothing whatever. Eventually my uncle, who took an interest in these sorts of things, worked out that it came from a very long way off and a very long time ago, and meant something like ‘wise’. ‘Wise by experience, though, Frodo my lad,’ he said to me, ‘so don’t get cocky. This is the wisdom you gain the hard way, not the kind you start out with!’ And he quoted a few lines of verse about how he who learns must suffer. ‘Until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us – so yes, you have to finish your penmanship exercises!’ It was a king’s name, evidently6,” Frodo added as an afterthought, drawing himself back from the thoughts of his earliest days as Bilbo’s ward.

“Truly your mother named you well, then.”

Frodo blinked at him. “My mother? Oh – that’s your custom, not ours, for the mother to give the child one name and the father another. Though my other name is my surname, and that is from my father’s family, so I suppose there might be something to that... Do you know, I don’t know whether it was my mother or my father who named me? I can’t imagine there was any degree of foresight involved, though. I can hardly remember my mother. She died when I was quite young.”

A brief flicker in the light of his companion’s eyes. “But look here,” Frodo went on, “what shall I call you? We seem to have fallen into conversation like people who’ve known each other for a very long time or not at all, but now we’ve actually been introduced I don’t wish to show you discourtesy in speech. I’ve made some attempt to get a notion of how to address people among the nobility here, but I confess that my studies have not prepared me in the slightest for how to address –“ Several possible descriptors flickered through his mind. The first son of the first lord of the Noldor returned unlooked-for beyond hope or expectation? The mightiest of word and hand of the Eldar? Kinslayer and Dispossessed?  

“-you,” he concluded.  “Sir? My Lord?”

“Call me by my name. I am no lord of yours – although as of the last hour or so I may in fact be High King of the Noldor. But let that be! I cared little for custom before Mandos, and less now. We both stand alive here, equal in honor and affront to this land. Besides, are you not also a lord among your own people?”

“Certainly, if you want to call Deputy Mayor of Michel Delving lordship, though I dare say the Shire would object!” laughed Frodo.

Deputy... what?” Frodo had not even attempted a translation of the title from Common Speech. Before he could formulate an explanation, Fëanor held up his hand again, fingers canted down in invitation. “Frodo Baggins, I have an idea. Tell me your history, from the beginning. Use words – your words, the Common Speech, I mean. I still wish to learn your language, and while I may have seen some of the events within the Halls, and some of their effects within you, it’s a very different matter to hear them spoken. The important things are worthy of words.”

Frodo looked at him thoughtfully. “All right! Though I should warn you, it’s a long story, and my own part in it, while it was important, is hardly the one that makes the best hearing. The rest I’ve filled in from the stories of my friends and my kinsmen. Are you sure you want it in Common Speech, though? It’ll be a relief to tell you what happened in the language that it all happened in – happened for me, anyway – but I’ve more or less worked it out in the High Speech, since goodness knows I’ve been asked for it often enough.”

“Use your own tongue, that’s the point! Half the point. I’ll follow, with difficulty at first and then more easily. You’ll be describing events that I already know – or know in part. Speak slowly. Stop to explain if you see you’re losing me altogether. And try and keep the images of the events vivid, at the front of your mind. That’s nearly as good as a facing translation. If you have no objection to being so read, that is,” he added somewhat belatedly.

“No – no, I suppose not. It sounds wildly ambitious to me, but I suppose you know what you’re about! Let me think a minute, and for goodness sake let’s sit down.”  Frodo found a comfortable seat at the base of an alder and set himself against the trunk, but Fëanor dropped flat on his back into the grass before him and lay there looking up at the sky.

“I hardly know where to begin,” Frodo said after a moment. “Every place I think I should start, there’s something that came before it that needs explaining – and it goes right back to your own works, sir. Fëanor.”

“Most things do,” he replied mildly, without taking his gaze from the clouded sky.

“Indeed. Well, I’ll begin with my own part in it all. No, wait a minute, in order for you to have the least idea what I’m talking about, let me tell you about who we are. My people, I mean. Hobbits.” With a glance at Fëanor where he still lay unmoving in the grass, he continued slowly in the Common Tongue. “And my own family, the Bagginses, because it all began for us the day that Gandalf the Grey came to his door with thirteen dwarves beside him –“

It was a long story, and the morning wore away to afternoon as Frodo told it, judging by the slant of the light that appeared from time to time through the clouds.  The narrative was well-rehearsed, but this was the first time he had spoken at such length in his native language since leaving the shores of Middle-Earth, and the events sprang vividly into his mind, in detail that he had almost forgotten.  He sang snatches of Shire-songs, recalled the absurd quirks of his Hobbiton neighbors, recounted whole conversations among his friends. He found himself strangely reluctant to get into the substance of the story, and lingered on the description of the Shire as he had once lingered in his home, delaying the beginning of his journey.

Fëanor was alternately gratifying and infuriating as an audience. He frequently murmured under his breath as he tried to catch the sounds of the Common Speech, and would often demand explanations of the names of people or places. When Frodo described the inscription on the Ring, he became intensely agitated at the two lines of the Black Speech that Frodo quoted, springing to his feet, tossing his head as if his ears pained him, and clearly preparing to demand a more detailed account. Frodo explained in haste that he knew no more of the language. “And frankly I wouldn’t go into it even if I did! It may have lost its power with its master, but it’s grown no more pleasant in meaning or in sound.”

“But this is impossible, this is a farce, do you mean to tell me that cringing lapdog of my Enemy took it into his head to create a language? He must have, that’s got Valarin roots in it or I am no judge.7 Say it again!”

“Certainly not! Once is quite enough; I don’t know whose attention I’ve already attracted by uttering those foul words in this clean land, and I don’t mean to press it! Besides, are you here to learn the Common Speech or aren’t you?”

Fëanor’s knowledge of the language did appear to progress as the day wore on, though his methods of learning were idiosyncratic. He would echo whole sentences, apparently at random, and at one point halted the progress of the narration for nearly half an hour to ask Frodo for a detailed explanation of prepositions and their usage, while in the story, the company stood before the gates of Moria.

But he seemed to follow the narrative closely. The intensity of his attention was slightly unnerving. He shuddered, and laughed, and even shed tears in most of the right places. In the beginning Frodo translated numerous terms and frequently recapitulated the events in Quenya, but he found himself doing so less and less, and eventually only when prompted or when introducing something particularly unusual.

Precious?” asked Fëanor, when introduced to a sample of Gollum’s speech. “What is that?”

Frodo considered briefly. In his recountings of the story in the High Speech, he had never attempted a rendition of Gollum’s gobbling, broken words. “Ah, maira, I believe, that’s the adjective.”

Fëanor’s eyes sparked “Hah!” he cried, then “No, never mind, go on,” in response to Frodo’s curious look. Frodo went on, but the outburst stayed with him, and troubled him in a way that he was hardly aware of. The term seemed familiar to him, but he could not place it and eventually put it from his thought.8

Always at the front of his thoughts, he felt the heat of Fëanor’s awareness, which intensified from time to time as he leaned more heavily on Frodo’s knowledge of what he was saying than on the sound of the words he spoke. Accustomed as he was, from almost his first acquaintance with the Elves, to the ways that they shared image and sense as part of their storytelling, Frodo still found it disconcerting to hear Fëanor asking “Are you getting ahead of yourself?” when his thought touched upon the betrayal at the Spider’s Pass as he described the passage of the Dead Marshes.

At one point a light rainshower began. Frodo paused in his story, leaving war gathering in Gondor and himself with Sam watching the sun set in Ithilien. He retreated under a large cedar whose drooping branches and feathery needles made an effective shelter, but Fëanor stood on the grass, holding his hands up to the sky and letting the water pool in his palms. He shone like silver under the rain, the disquieting beauty of his face and form veiled by the falling water.

The shower passed quickly, rolling away eastwards, and the low white light of late afternoon followed it, edging the breaking clouds with silver and the tips of the wet grass with gold. Fëanor joined Frodo under the tree, shaking his wet hair out of his face. The light grey cloth that he was wrapped in appeared entirely dry.

“What is that, anyway?” Frodo asked him, as he folded a corner of the seamless gray garment beneath him to sit down. “It’s nothing like the clothes I’ve seen any of the Eldar wear – not in these lands, at least. It seems useful!”

Fëanor shifted the drapery of the cloth to pull out some of the loose folds, and passed Frodo an edge of it. It was a soft, thin fabric, liquid and supple, but heavier in the hand than he would have thought possible.

“They make it in the Halls,” he said. “Probably best not to ask from what. In this fashion, our fathers tell us, we were clothed before the art of the needle was devised by Miriel Therinde. And in this fashion we return to the living world, without color or art or any of the tokens that we might have once borne on our persons. No more the bright gold or the gleaming white, no more the crown or the sword or the jewel.”

Frodo looked at him with attention but said nothing; the cloth slipped softly through his fingers and fell, slightly too still, back at Fëanor’s side.

Fëanor shrugged. “This is the generosity of the Valar! They clothe us with flesh, but it’s up to our kin to clothe us with anything else. Our kin...” He got to his feet again, and began to pace about the forest verge, his face troubled.

“What is it? Shall I go on, or do you want a rest? We’ve been at this for a while now. My head would be aching if I’d had to listen to any new language for this long, no matter how fair.”

Fëanor shook his head. “No, learning is strength not weariness. I flourish with it as these woods do with the rain; my old skill rejoices to be called forth again. But there is within me an unease, a nameless disquietude –“

“Are you hungry?” Frodo asked suddenly.  “I know I am, frightfully. In fact I don’t think I can face the last bit of this story without some kind of fortification. Would you like some lunch?”

“Hunger! Of course! It has been long since I last ate.”

“Well, it’s always possible that the gnawing sensation is the cureless sorrow of the world,” Frodo said without changing expression, “but why not have something to eat, just in case?” He began to rummage in his pack.

There was a peal of laughter, or it might have been an exclamation, from Fëanor, a single clear sound. “Hunger!” he said. “Hunger, indeed. It’s a humble thing. I’d forgotten it altogether. And yet it’s an agent of torment, a herald of joy. It’s the first way we recognize desire in the flesh. This body that calls out to the world continually, and is continually answered! Is this how you mortals feel all the time?

“What, hungry?”

“Astonished.”

He stooped, dug his fingers into the leaf-mould and lifted a handful of the crumbling golden leaves and dark green needles. He looked at it closely, sifting the dust slowly off his hand. “So much beyond ourselves,” he said. “Stone becoming earth, earth becoming growth. Creatures that cannot be seen without the aid of Art. Time and the air, which pass unseen and are measured only in their effect. And yet we call to them all, Frodo, through our skill and through our wisdom and through the mere mute fact that we live, we live! And we are answered. I am –“ he added carefully, in the Common Speech, “very hungry.”

Frodo unwrapped a packet of lembas. “I feel that after a speech like that, such a momentous occasion as your return to the world of the living deserves more a feast than a snack! But I have brought with me only such things as travelers carry: waybread, water, some dried fruit and nuts and hard cheese. Still, what I have is yours! Come, we’ll dine together.” He spread a cloth over the ground and put his sole piece of dining ware, a shallow metal bowl, in the center.

“Indeed we shall, but you’ve spoken rightly. This meeting calls for a feast.”

“I’m afraid this is all I have! I mean, I can forage pretty well, and I can cook well enough when I’m home in a kitchen, but I never had my companion’s knack for making a proper sound meal out of whatever he had to hand even in the wildest of places. Sam was a wonder!”

“I am not unskilled in the art of cookery.” Fëanor was already bending to the earth, gathering little white mushrooms from near the base of the trees. “We learn it at our father’s knee, such was our custom of old.” He straightened and dropped the mushrooms into a fold of his robe, then scanned the woods for a minute. “Where the forest meets the open lands you’ll find berries, probably blackberries but you may see thimbleberries, red currants. Any of them will work. And this –“ in a couple of steps he was at the forest verge, where the grass was scraggly and sparse, “-this is wild chive. I need a couple of handfuls, both roots and leaves. You do have a knife or something to cut with?”

“I do.” Frodo pulled out the little folding knife. “But that’s all I have, that and the plate and some spoons. I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer you in the way of tools, if you’re planning to cook anything. No pots or pans, no even a good way to build a fire – can we even light a fire in these woods?”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right.” Fëanor was walking deeper into the woods, stooping now and again to pick something from the forest floor. Frodo gathered the little wild onions that he had indicated, and skirted the edge of the woods for a little distance until he found a tangle of blackberries. After a little while he heard Fëanor calling from within the forest. Packing his meager equipment back up, he followed his voice.

He found him some way into the woods, in the shelter of a moss-grown boulder. It would have been a clearing in a younger forest, but the trees were old enough that their tops met far overhead, and the ground was dry, covered with lichens and mosses and the occasional low shrub. Fëanor had gathered mushrooms and herbs, and was grinding what looked like hazelnuts to a powder against a clean flat part of the stone.

“Your knife,” he said, holding out his hand for it. “Thank you! There’s a little spring coming down the other side of this rock, go and wash these, will you?” When Frodo came back from the task, he found Fëanor in the center of the clearing, bending over a small, spiny black plant and twining its uppermost branches into a rough circle.

“This is what I was looking for! I knew this wood wouldn’t be without them. Come and see.”

Frodo knelt beside it. Its branches were hard, and sharp-angled, more like stone to the touch than like wood, and they left a thin sheen of oil on the fingers. “I’ve never seen this before. What is it?”

“Step back.” Fëanor put his hands to the base of the plant, there was a spark, and thin blue flames licked up the branches. In a minute all of the branches were blazing merrily, and he felt the warmth from the fire against his face and hands.

“It is ainatussa,” Fëanor said, returning to chopping the vegetables, “which in your tongue would be...”

“Godswood.”9

“Godswood, which burns and is not consumed. The Lady of the Earth brought it forth in the days of our long journey across the starlit land, though it has long since perished from your world. She saw that we had need of fire, and was unwilling yet that we should look to her trees.” He set the onions in the metal bowl and shredded the herbs over them.

“We used it little in after days, though, for we soon built forges and needed fuel mightier than this. It still grows wild here, a friend to travelers. It will serve to cook a meal or to warm a cold night.” He set the dish directly on the top of the blazing plant, where the branches bore it up, and with brisk attention turned to the preparation of the meal. Before long the earthy, savory scent of mushrooms and onions filled the clearing, mixed with the lighter, wilder tang of the herbs that grew in the northern forests by the Encircling Sea.

“Thank you!” said Frodo at last, as he spread out the cloth again, this time over a flat outcropping of the stone. “Is that the right thing to say? This - This has been altogether a day of unexpected events, but I certainly never expected you to cook me the sort of dinner they’d smile at in the Shire!”

Shielding his hand with the edge of his robe, Fëanor lifted the bowl off the burning branches. “The pleasure is mine. Didn’t you say, in your tale, that you liked mushrooms?” He set the dish between them. “The host should serve the... ghost,” he added in halting Westron.

“What? Oh! Guest, it’s guest.10

Guest? Really? So you’ve shifted the vowel too? Guest, guest,” he repeated, trying out the sound of the word. “No, you’re right, it’s better that way; keep it.”

They ate in silence at first, sitting by the rock and watching the fire. For a meal so hastily improvised, it was satisfying and complex, the richness of the mushrooms blending with the creaminess of the hazelnut milk and the light sweet-sharp bite of the berries. It was, Frodo reflected, possibly the most skillfully prepared meal he had ever had, but out of loyalty he put the thought out of his mind directly and kept his attention on the ainatussa as the flames danced up and down its unmarred branches.

With a pop and a shower of sparks, a flower burst open. The petals stood out black against the flame for a moment, then caught fire. They twisted and blazed, their netted veins traced in brilliant gold as the rest of the flower turned to ash that was carried upwards on the heated air.

“They cannot seed unless they burn,” Fëanor remarked, watching the remnants of the flower shred away, leaving the pistil glowing faintly at its core. “So where one’s grown, another will grow again, and so you could trace the paths that others before you took through the wild lands. So it was said, at least.”

Frodo stared at it, half-dreaming with his chin on his hands. “I wonder if this isn’t what we named the stars after?” he asked at last. “The Burning Briar – what you would call the Valacirca – that shines in the northern sky. Hobbits had our wandering days as well, after all. Long after yours, and still, for us, nearly lost to the past. But this seems like the sort of thing we would have valued, just as we too valued the stars...”

He had wondered if the interruption in the story would have sent his companion’s restless and wide-ranging interest off in other directions, but after the refreshment of the meal Fëanor returned to the subject with even more intensity than before. Whether through his increasing grasp of the language, or simply because he had become caught up in the narrative, he now seemed as interested in the story as in the language in which it was told, and he only interrupted with one major digression on registers of formality in the Common Speech. Because of the way the tree-canopy shaded them from the sky, the light in the forest increased toward the day’s end, and Frodo finished the account of the battle of the Pellenor Fields as the reds and oranges of sunset were beginning to slant through the trees.

When the moment arrived to turn for the last time to the progress of the Ringbearers toward the fire, Frodo stopped and got to his feet. “I need water,” he said, and went to fill his flask again from the spring behind the rock. He dropped to his knees and drank from his cupped hands for a long time; the water tasted of nothing at all and was so cold that his teeth ached and he was shivering by the time he returned to sit beside his companion. “Water?” he said in the Common Speech, holding out the flask.

Fëanor took it but did not drink. “Your need is more. No, wait, you need it more. Which is correct?”

“Hm, either one, I think, though the second is a better way of putting it. With the first – well, more is an adverb there, so you’d be expecting another adjective. More pressing or more evident or something. Or a comparative, more than something.”

You talk more than I talk. You have more thirst.

Frodo snorted at this, and felt lightened in heart. “Oh, I dare say you’ll get your own back soon enough!” he said, dropping back into Westron. “We’re nearly at the end, anyway.”

He picked up the story again with the tale of his rescue from the tower of Cirith Ungol. As he sang the song he had heard Sam singing, he was greatly startled to hear Fëanor’s voice broke in, harmonizing wordlessly on the second verse.

“A good song!” he said, unabashed, “and a sound strategy, singing beneath the prison walls. You seem to have learned from it, at least!” Still, he laughed immoderately at the prospect of Sam and Frodo being mistaken for elves in course of their escape.

“No,” said Frodo, dropping the story for a moment, “I am afraid we are done with the high deeds and the battlefields now. There’ll be little left of Elvish sorts of things to speak of any more, until it’s over.”

“I’ve seen enough of those,” said Fëanor, imperturbable. “If it were glory of arms that moved my heart now, what would surpass the massed armies of Valinor as they threw down Thangorodrim? The banners of the Noldor as they dared the gates of Angband and my Enemy trembled in his bolt-hole?  I said that our deeds would be the matter of song until the last days of Arda, and they were. They are. For all that that’s worth. It is not thus that evil is unmade.”

“The First Age!” said Frodo, his thought flickering across the events that Fëanor recalled. “Wouldn’t it have been something to blaze through Mordor like a falling star and brave the Dark Lord on his doorstep? But we crept through those ruined lands like rats on a slag-heap. Everything was dust, filth, stench, thirst, suffocation, fear. It was the opposite of a mighty matter of song. But it ended in fire all the same.”

So he drew a breath and went on with the story: the escape, the road down from the mountains, the long and hopeless miles across the broken lands seething with preparation for war. Suddenly Fëanor interrupted again.

“Wait a minute. Weren’t you there?”

“Of course I was,” said Frodo, puzzled. “Didn’t I – wasn’t that clear? Sam got me out of that tower, and now it’s both of us on the plains of Gorgoroth.”

“Yes, but it’s not your own memory that you’re holding in your mind; you’re thinking of what someone else has told you. You’re picturing the events the same way you picture the ones that you learned about afterwards. There’s no words to it, but it’s as if you’re thinking in the third person where you should be thinking in the first. Why?”

Frodo found it deeply unsettling to have his thoughts questioned with the same brisk curiosity as a translation or a point of grammar. “Oh well, I suppose I did sign up for it,” he said to himself, “and didn’t I say I wanted to be heard? No use flinching when it turns out someone is listening after all!”

“You do remember it, don’t you?” Fëanor pressed.

“Yes,” he answered, and left it at that for a minute. Before his companion could question him further, he went on in a low voice “but it will hardly bear the recollection, let alone the telling. There was – there was very little left, if you understand me. Not much to make a coherent story out of.  I was nearly blind. I could not look ahead; I knew what was in front of me. I could not look behind; the past was shredding away. Not faded, not obscured, but consumed, until there was nothing left beyond Mordor, until light and water and home  were only words in a dead language, sounds that had had a meaning once.

“You asked me to teach you my language. Do you know what it is to have language die within you, to lose the meaning of words one by one until you’re left only with that crushing weight of will, with the knowledge of what you must do, and the knowledge that it cannot be done?”

“You would do better to ask my sons than me.” Fëanor’s voice was sober and his eyes were clear. Frodo sighed and straightened his back against the rock.

“So as we say in Westron, words fail. That was probably originally transitive, words fail me. But to fail can be intransitive as well, and then it means to fade, to break down, to wither, or else simply not to succeed or suffice. The light fails.” He gestured to the darkening woods. “The plan failed. But all that to say, if you want to get any kind of notion of what actually happened, if you want your facing translation to make sense, you’re much better off with the events as Sam remembered them. He had enough self left for both of us; it was only his will that kept us moving at all once we had crossed the border.”

Fëanor did not interrupt again but sat leaning forward, his expressive features still and his eyes fixed on Frodo, who recounted the ascent of the mountain and the events of the Sammath Naur with no emotion whatever. But when he described their final rescue by the Eagles, Fëanor got to his feet and paced back and forth before the fire, charged and perturbed.

“Such was ever the charity of the Valar! To leave others to bear the burden, yes, and to pay the cost of fighting an evil that was in no wise your responsibility. And then to have the gall to call their own belated contribution a gift rather an apology.”

Frodo looked at him as he turned by the fire, but it was on Frodo’s behalf that he seemed to be agitated. “They would say that I have no right to voice any complaint, since my kin have also benefitted from the tardy grace of Manwë Súlimo. But I give the Valar little credit for their bad consciences.”

“Would you have had it otherwise?” asked Frodo mildly.

Fëanor stopped. “Would you?”

This struck home. “How can I answer that question?” he said at last. “How could I reject the mercy that let us come home, that meant that Sam would see his garden again, heal our country, become the joyful father of children? And yet – here I am. There was no homecoming for me, and isn’t that itself a rejection? At least, if there was a gift, I couldn’t receive it.”

He went on, his voice low and hoarse. “Others, cleaner of heart than I, gave up the Ring. I never did. And now I never can; it is consumed and much of my self consumed with it.”

He sank to silence, watching the flames, while Fëanor paced beyond them.  “Gandalf told me later that it was impossible from the beginning,” he said,  “that having carried the Ring as long as I did, no mortal will – ‘or immortal either, and thank goodness they weren’t involved,’ he said –would have been capable of giving it up. And I suppose that’s true – good heavens, how could I help but know it? But that doesn’t mean that its effects were somehow cancelled. They tell me I am not guilty, but I am certainly not whole.”

“That says nothing about your nature,” Fëanor broke in, seeing that his halting speech had stopped altogether, “only than that your Enemy was stronger than you, and no one was ever in doubt about that!”

Frodo shook his head. “If the Ring can be said to make you do anything, it makes you do it to yourself. I had a choice. I never believed that I would come home – you know that – and I certainly didn’t deserve to. By rights I never should have left the Sammath Naur.”

Fëanor sat down again beside him, and his words were proud but his tone was gentle. “Why do you speak of rights?” he asked. “Do you reproach yourself so bitterly for a will that was in the end indistinguishable from your Enemy’s?” He laid his hands on each other, open and empty, in his lap.  “I know something of the will that sets ruin in the world. When we laid claim to that which we held most dear, it was our own choice, free and unforced, by which we bound ourselves to it. I suppose,” he added, “that was why there was no mercy for us.”

Frodo looked back at him for a long moment. “You’re here now, aren’t you?” he said at last.  “What is that, if not mercy?”

It was now nearly full dark, and splintered glimmers of starlight were beginning to filter through the upper trees. As the light fell on Fëanor, a change seemed to come over him; his face drained of all color, and wordlessly he sprang to his feet and began moving swiftly through the trees. Frodo, who had never had much trouble finding his way in the forest at night, barely managed to keep up; he seemed to know where he was going.

Running after him, he found they were climbing a rise that soon turned to bare rock. It was much too large to be called a boulder but too small to be called a hill, and though the trees surrounded it on all sides, above it a wide circle was open to the darkening blue-purple sky. The wild stars of Aman burned in their unknown patterns overhead, and in the east,11 the Evening Star was rising.

Fëanor gazed after it, mute and stricken, his face working. Frodo looked up at him and looked up at the distant, familiar star, and it came suddenly into his mind that he recognized the desperate hunger on Fëanor’s face and the strange light that burned in his eyes. He stepped forward and spoke seriously, and with more boldness than he would have believed himself capable of:

“It’s not yours,” he said. He heard Fëanor draw his breath in sharply. “Not yours alone. That’s not only your work you’re looking at.”

“No?” Fëanor turned his eyes from the sky to look down at him; they were blazing and dangerous. “Have a care, Frodo! I honor your deeds, but you are speaking of matters that you know nothing about.” He towered over him, a darker shape against the dark heavens, but Frodo held his gaze.

“Am I? Do you think I don’t know what it looks like when the madness of desire takes hold? Do you think I don’t know what that desire will do to the world, to your own mind? Listen to me. It is not your work alone that is rising now as the mightiest and fairest of stars. I’ve heard it said that the Silmarils were your self, your very nature, and now that I have met you I can well believe it. But it’s not only your sacrifice in that wandering star. That’s someone’s father, taken up into the heavens, sundered now forever from home and kindred and from the fate was his by right. The star was made by his sacrifice as well, and that of those who loved him and loved their people, by a voyage through despair to the shores beyond it and yes, by the grace of the Powers.”

Fëanor’s breath hissed over his teeth and he seemed about to speak, but Frodo went on. “And it shines on a world of darkness and grief as a sign of hope, praised in the evening and greeted in the morning, deeply loved even by those who know no more of it than the brilliance of its light -”

“You come near to making me angry, Frodo. This stolen light is loved? How should it not be? It is ours, we claimed it unto the world’s end. You speak very grandly of sacrifice, but it was no choice of mine that gave my light to the world, it was theft, theft, and murder.”

Frodo did not ask him to which murder he was referring.

“Thrice-hallowed I called the Silmarils once in pride and in innocence, before our language had a word for theft. Thrice-stolen now they are, stained with my father’s blood and my children’s, and with the terror and sorrow of my kin. And yet the star rises shining undefiled! Thrice-stolen it may be, yet that did not suffice to dim its light.”

“Well, of course not. What’s done to something doesn’t change its nature.”

For a moment they stood there like enemies poised to fight, a few feet apart, but Fëanor tore his gaze away and began to pace across the flat surface of the rock. Frodo went after him, but Fëanor rounded on him suddenly.

“And shall I rip the stars from the sky?” he demanded.  “Is that what you think of me, that I also am a darkener?”

Frodo gave no ground. “Rip the stars from the sky? What I know of your deeds suggests that you can, what I know of your oath outright states that you must. But no,” he added more softly but no less firmly. “I do not think you will.”

Fëanor stared at him, his face blank and remorseless but with something like wonder in his eyes. “Strongly spoken. Why do you trust me? You know nothing of me beyond my deeds.”

“Well, that’s not quite true, is it?” said Frodo. “We’ve spoken together, we’ve eaten and drunk together.  Besides, you’ve been sitting there looking at my thoughts like an owl on my shoulder for most of the day.”

Even in his anguish of mind, Fëanor was struck by the absurdity of this image, and he snorted. Frodo went on.

“Your nature does not conceal itself.  You love the world. You delight in it. I do not believe that you would now lift up your hand against it.”

This seemed to sink in. Fëanor stood before him silently for a moment, then wrenched himself away again, turning his face upwards with a cry. “And should I rejoice to see my work, my gift, now part of the world itself? Yet they had no right to make my own soul’s labor into... a public good. To take up my designs into theirs.”

“No,” Frodo said quietly. “No right.” He stepped up beside him, and turned his face skyward as well. “And yet it was taken up, and joined to the works of others, and served to defeat your enemy at last. Would you have had it otherwise?”

“Do you mean to cajole me into acceptance through failure of imagination? Otherwise? There was a time in the Halls where in silence and in dark thought I set myself to determine otherwise. Working backwards from the end which I desired – my children whole and sound, my people mighty and free, my works restored, my enemy in chains – I brooded upon those deeds and those choices which might have been different, until in the end I had, in thought, uprooted the foundations of the world and begun it anew and unmarred.”

“I do not think you would have chosen that.”

“You make very free with my choices!”

“No, only with my observations. History – the world itself – is a collaborative project, a work undertaken together, if you understand me. To keep it unmarred, you would need either to be entirely alone or to rule absolutely, and there is nothing in your will addressed to the domination of others.”

Fëanor looked back down at him and blinked. “That’s a strange assumption to make about me.”

“Who said it was an assumption? I do not have your people’s art of looking into the unshielded heart, but if I learned anything from dragging the One Ring across half a continent, it’s to recognize even the smallest and most diluted fragment of the will to power. First to order, and then to control, then to enthrall, then to enslave, finally to destroy rather than see anything exist outside your own will. But there’s nothing of that in you. Which is frankly very striking,” he added, “considering that the more power someone has the more they generally want, and you are named the mightiest of the Noldor.”

This was not flattery, and Fëanor did not take it as such. “The desire to possess, though?” Frodo went on. “Certainly. That you have, and are within your rights to have. And you don’t need me to tell you the destruction that desire sets loose. In the end perhaps as devastating as power. Who knows?”

The star shone on them from the unclouded sky, and a light wind, edged with the chill of night, began to blow. Neither spoke, until at last Fëanor said, his voice low and bleak, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“I’ve met you,” said Frodo simply. “I do not think any power in the world could deprive you of that choice.”

“In the world,” Fëanor echoed. “But the One who holds our oath is beyond the world; we bound ourselves by Him and it is only He that can release us. And no word comes from Him to us within the world.”

He flung out his arms and began to pace again. “Narrow indeed is the place where I am driven, and darkness on every choice before me! To take up my Enemy’s work and fight for the darkening of the world, or to take up my Enemy’s fate in everlasting darkness?” He groaned bitterly. Frodo waited, until his restless motion slowed and he came to stand beside him again.

“Of course there is a choice,” he said quietly. “Perhaps I have made it already, in returning to the world. I know what I should do. All that remains is to accept it.”

He laughed soundlessly, a short stuttering breath. “Your fears on my behalf are needless anyway, Frodo,” he said. “There was never any hope of my reclaiming the Silmarils. They were mine, yes, and they are mine still. But I am debarred from them, and by a power higher than the Powers.”

“What do you mean?”

“Surely you can’t imagine my creations would suffer my touch? Their judgement is no more lenient than my own, their nature now far purer.” He held out his hand; it shimmered in the starlight. “I feel that upon me like an accusation. Even its light burns me now.”

Frodo reached out his hand to his, fingers chill with the night wind. “But you are not consumed.”

The look that Fëanor turned on him was brilliant with the light of the distant star, and utterly desolate. A tremor seemed to pass through his body and he swayed where he stood. Like a falling tower, he slowly sank to his knees and then farther, bowing with his face to the earth. He remained there, crumpled to the ground, his head against the rough starlit rock and his hands turned upward to the sky. Eventually Frodo sat down beside him, and waited in silence.

After a time Fëanor lifted himself from the stone, his face dry and drawn and his eyes shadowed but perfectly clear. He slowly took in the world around him, looking at Frodo, at the rock beneath his fingers, at the starry sky and the dark trees in the night air. “Surely this was not what I intended?” he said at last, wonderingly. “I was dead. I meant to remain there.”

“But you live,” said Frodo and he smiled, for he felt the easing of the tension around them. “As you have been reminding me all day. Something must have brought you out.”

“What else? I heard you, singing beneath the prison walls.”

Frodo was really taken aback by this revelation; it hardly seemed fitting that he should have interfered in the fixed purposes of one whose will had shaped the stars. “How – how on earth –“

“It was your Fate,” said Fëanor, “which means we know who arranged that particular exception to his self-imposed rule.” He shook his head, half in admiration. “I suppose he knew my old skills called to me, that I could not forbear to know more of a language. And so I heard a foreign voice singing in an unknown tongue. A strange music, a new theme. And now -” He got to his feet and Frodo rose after him. Fëanor lifted up his hands to the sky and spoke in a clear ringing voice and in the Common Speech: “Hail Earendil of stars the brightest!”

“Over Middle-Earth sent unto men,”12 Frodo finished automatically. They paused.

“Westron’s heavily dependent on word order, though,” said Frodo after a minute, “and even though there’s a fair amount of leeway in poetry, it would flow better as brightest of stars. Scans better too.

“It wouldn’t have to be the brightest of stars?

“Not unless you were making a sentence out of it – this is the brightest of stars or something like that.” Fëanor repeated this to himself, but Frodo shook his head. “And of course you pick the one sentence out of the story that you have translate yourself instead of just echo! Well, you evidently like a challenge.”

Fëanor made no reply, but one side of his mouth crooked in a slight smile. He drew a long breath, sighed, and then, clearly having come to some sort of resolution, began moving lightly down the rock, making his way back toward the forest. Turning back, his face now nearly on a level with Frodo’s, he asked “Are you coming?”

“Back to the camp? Certainly.” Frodo began to follow after.

“Well, back to the camp first.” Fëanor swung himself softly down from a waist-high drop-off in the rock, while Frodo made his way along the gentler slope to the side. “But I will be going onward. My mind is made up, and what profit or relief should I have in delay?” He turned again to face him. “I do not know your purpose, but perhaps your road lies with mine, for a little while.”

Frodo looked past him then, out to the woods. There seemed to be no road at all through the forest, and still less in the dark.

“I do not ask you to come with me,” Fëanor began. “Wait, no, that’s exactly what I ask you. Will you come with me? For I must set my face now toward the living world, and I should be glad not to be alone.”

He spoke lightly but his words were not light, and Frodo was filled suddenly with warmth and with a deep fellow-feeling for his unexpected traveling companion. “Of course I will!” he said, scrambling down the rock.

“Excellent! Are you sure? I do not mean to turn you from your purpose in coming here.”

“Well, I don’t rightly know that I had one,” Frodo admitted as he followed him into the shade of the trees.

“You came unbidden to the feet of Mandos himself? You were not seeking death? Seeking the dead? Do you mean to tell me that you were lost?”

“I don’t know if lost is the word for it. Wandering, certainly. I have been wandering since I came here, seeking out the solitary places.” He sighed.  “I prefer the pathless fields, the trackless woods, somehow. For when I see a road, it comes suddenly into my mind that I can see all the way down it, straight to its ending, and the end is nothing but fire.”

Fëanor nodded in acknowledgement. “Yes, once you have seen the end it’s hard to face the beginning.” They walked on in silence for a while, until the glow of the burning briar shone ahead of them, homely and comforting in the starlit forest.

“Do you mean to go on now, tonight?” Frodo asked as they drew near their camp. “You don’t want to sleep and go on in the morning?”

“I have been sleeping for too long,” he answered. “I do not know when I will want sleep again! But if you –“

“I need sleep less and less these days,” Frodo said. “We’ll go together. Since you seem to know where you’re going.”

So when they returned to the place where they had dined by the rock, Fëanor washed the dinner things, few as they were, and Frodo packed again. When they were ready to depart, he paused, looking back at the clearing and the cheerful firelight.

“Surely we shouldn’t just leave it burning? Not that I suppose it will draw enemies, not here at any rate.”

“No, and there’s little for any windblown sparks to catch on. Still, I have enough to answer for without adding to my charge that I burned down the Forest of Return!” He went to the bush and bent down beside it; Frodo heard him speaking in a low voice, and the flames died suddenly in wisps of smoke and a sweet smell. The berries glowed like coals on the branches. Fëanor remained crouched by the spiny branches for a moment with his head bowed.

“Yes, there is darkness before me on this road, a darkness greater than you know – indeed, greater than I know. But if my strong-hearted sons have shown me anything, we can live while we wait for the Doom to fall.  And that is not nothing.

“But then, you mortals would know all about that,” he added, straightening, “insofar as you have time to know about anything.”

Frodo decided to accept this as a confidence rather than an insult, lifted his pack to his shoulders, and followed Fëanor out of the clearing.

As before, he seemed to know where he was going, and moved with great confidence in the night. The starlight that made its way through the canopy overhead caught the cloth that he wore as a robe, and Frodo followed its shape rippling before him, a paler shadow among the deep shadows of the trees.

“Where are we going?” Frodo finally asked, after they had been walking for some time over the soft, even ground, skirting the great trunks of the ancient trees.

“We walk –“ His hands sketched shapes in the air as he formulated the concept, “- with the grain of the woods. This whole place leads away from the Halls of the Dead, path or no path. Can you not feel it?” He paused and closed his eyes. “The slope of the land, the breath of the trees. The air, and the water in the air. The curve of the light.”

Frodo considered this. He had put it down to the way that Fëanor seemed to know where he was going, but there had been something intuitive about the path they followed. He was walking like some distracted hobbit-child sent to run errands who finds himself, unconsciously, on the familiar road to the house of a friend.

“I would have said like a dreamer,” Fëanor broke in, “but yes, you see it.”

“So we will make our way back if we go where it is easiest to go.”

“Easiest?” The lights burned low again in Fëanor’s eyes. “For you, perhaps.”

 

They walked on through the night in the starlit woods, moving quickly enough to keep off the chill of the air, but without a sense of haste or urgency. At times they spoke together, at other times they walked without speaking, but both speech and silence seemed equally companionable. Fëanor had compared them to dreamers, Frodo considered, and this quiet unquestioning comfort in a circumstance so unfathomably strange was like something out of a dream, from before his dreams had grown empty and cold.

When the night was half-gone, or nearly, the world began to brighten and shimmer. The shadows grew sharp-edged, and a strong light became apparent past the tops of the trees and far to the east. Thinking of his fellow traveler’s reaction to the first rising of the sun and of the stars, Frodo looked anxiously at him. But although Fëanor stopped and stared keenly into the sky, the thin crescent of the rising moon provoked only a long, attentive, inquisitive regard, broken at last by a peal of laughter.

“Tilion! That’s Tilion!” Fëanor exclaimed. He waved his arm over his head and shouted in the High Speech “Fair rising! Fine faring! And mind your course!

“Not that he’s likely to take notice of us at this distance,” he added to Frodo, “but he always had a sharp eye to catch creatures that moved beneath the trees, and it would be discourteous not to greet him.”

“So you are also apparently a personal acquaintance of the Moon!” said Frodo, throwing up his hands. “Of course you are, why wouldn’t you be?”

“Well, not exactly, but he’s an old friend of my son.” Fëanor began walking again, moving with a cheerful energy as if the sight had heartened him. “They rode in Orome’s train together, and he’s dined with us before at my family’s home. Long ago, in our early days before anyone but the Lady of the Stars took thought for the darkness that lay on the lands of our birth...” He looked back up again at the moon through a gap in the trees. “I wonder if he still carries that silver bow. My son made it for him – my other son, I mean, the second of my name. Silver’s the wrong material altogether for archery, but nothing else would do, and so he built him a composite bow out of silver and horn and fiber from a filament he devised by spinning heated resin in a solution of –“

Fëanor was clearly about to depart from the subject of the Moon in favor of a disquisition on the advanced craft required for increasing the tensile strength of silver, but Frodo was still fathoming the prospect sharing a family dinner with the spirit who guided the Moon through the skies above the upper air.  “Wait, I thought that the Maiar weren’t usually so – that they didn’t need things like food and drink?”  

“What, you mean you don’t know his ways? Weren’t you singing about him just now? The man in the moon himself came down one night to drink his fill,” he caroled, in a very creditable imitation of Frodo’s own singing.

“That was a nonsense-rhyme, a piece of doggerel – my uncle wrote it, for goodness’ sake, to make me laugh when I was a child!”

“It was a lucky shot, then, since unaimed it hit its mark. Certainly it’s as good a description as any of Tilion’s character. I was astonished when I heard that it was he who’d been chosen to bear lost Telperion’s final flower, since he was never serious-minded. Unreliable even for a god. Still, I am told, he begged, for love of the silver light, to be given to its service. The Valar appear to have learned a certain respect for a life freely offered. And they’ve always been inclined to credit love as much as skill,” he added, a little sourly, “a policy whose results you can see scorched all over the surface of that fine light.”

They traveled unwearied the rest of the night, moving more swiftly and at times almost running for the sheer joy of being abroad on so fine a night. The chill in the air grew nearly to the point of sharpness, and then it lessened, lifting and leaving dew on the leaves and on the edges of their garments. The forest began to lighten, first through a spectrum of gray and then to orange and rose and gold. From a treetop near them came the clear call of a bird, and soon the woods were alive with song.

Frodo stopped and looked about him in wonder. “Surely this is not the same forest?” he said. When he had come this way before on his way toward the Halls, it had been a dark place, somber and soundless, without neither motion nor color, and even his footsteps on the soft earth had been muffled. Now there were flashes of red and yellow and the sound of wings as little songbirds darted between the trunks of the trees, white flowers on the forest floor, low thickets of berries, the sound of running water. The trees, which had stood like huge stone pillars in an empty hall, were towering still, but around their feet unfurled great ferns half again as tall as he was.

“There was nothing living here when I passed through it,” he said at last, “except the trees, of course, and even they didn’t seem to so much be living as, well, standing, if you understand me. It was a more forbidding place altogether.” He looked over at Fëanor. “Have we come by a different way? Crossed some kind of border? I didn’t notice that we had, but we were walking in the dark all night.”

Fëanor laughed; he was already gathering dark purple berries from one of the silver-leaved bushes. “Does it surprise you that the wood at the world’s end should look very different depending on which direction you are facing?” He offered Frodo a handful of the little round fruits, which he sampled with curiosity. It was no species he was familiar with; their flavor was concentrated and piercingly sweet, as good as a splash of cold water on the face. “No, if you came to Mandos through a forest, you came through the places we are walking now – though it would be a very difficult journey to trace on a map! But then, mapping the Blessed Realm was always difficult, since time and space, at least in certain areas, bend to the authority of the Power through whose domain they pass. When in the Years of Bliss I ranged with my friend – and later with our children – across the hills and forests of this land, we could take the same path across Yavanna’s lands a dozen times, and never enter the same forest twice.” He popped a handful of the berries into his own mouth and blinked at the sudden intensity of the taste.

They moved onward, more slowly now, through the brightening woods. Mists streamed up from shadowed dales, shining like white clouds when they caught the sun streaming through the trees. The air was clear and fresh, smelling of new leaves and old roots.

Frodo walked through that pleasant land deep in thought, taking the time to reflect on the events of the previous day, and to absorb the strangeness of the fact that he was walking through a land of legends with a man who was scarcely less a figure of legend himself. But contemplating the difference between the figure in the stories and songs and the fierce-hearted, bright-edged person at his side, a doubt gradually rose in his mind. Eventually he voiced it to Fëanor, whose sometimes alarming frankness, he felt, was surely license for questions that might otherwise be impertinent.

“There’s something I can’t quite square about this,” he said. “Everything I’ve ever heard about you – and even your own words last night, really – says that you were never to return to the world. Not before...”

“Before it ended?” Fëanor seemed to have been expecting the question. “Before the world should be broken and remade. Indeed.”

“Some of the accounts suggested – well, that you couldn’t return.”

“That the Valar would keep me locked in Mandos forever, as they should have kept my Enemy? Wishful thinking, perhaps, on the part of those who have little desire to see me again – and little knowledge of death and its doorwarden.  That my oath had overtaken me at the last, and that I had fallen into the darkness that we called upon ourselves? No, that darkness is deeper than Námo’s deepest halls. Or that I had made some ill bargain, as my mother made for her peace and my father’s? That would have been closer to the truth.”

The brightness of the day now seemed incongruous with his words and the thoughts that hung about him. “But if the stories told you I would never return, Frodo, they spoke truly. They said no more than those were closest to me knew. No more than I knew myself. You have heard something of the woe that I brought to the world, and seen something of the woe that I might still bring. But long before I quarreled with the gods, I quarreled with my father’s son.”

Frodo thought for a second, parsing this. “Oh, of course! Your brother. That business before the Darkening. He who’s king in Tirion now.”

“Yes, king indeed if Finwë’s firstborn is dead.” There was something in Fëanor’s voice that Frodo could not read. “As he believed I would remain. I told him as much.”

He sighed deeply and began his story, unconsciously dropping into the formal parmaquesta of songs and long tales.

“It was in the waning years of the Age of the Exile, although within the Halls there was no when at all. We take no measure of time’s motion there, only of time’s effects. Our host within was great in those days and growing every day. My world-hardened kindred who had drunk the bitter wine of exile to its last drop. The starlight-loving folk of the Hither Shore torn forever from their woods that would never grow green again. The unscarred Elves of the Light who learned in wrath and ruin what it meant to look upon the shadow.

“I said the host of the Dead was great, but the Halls were empty still. Mandos is a cold and solitary place; it could be filled with numberless people and each one there might still feel himself alone. I put it to Námo once that he had patterned it after the Void, but he insists on maintaining that the vision bodied forth by those halls is not his but ours. I say that matters little if it’s his will that makes it real – but I am straying from my purpose.

“In the World, then, the rocks melted and the seas burned as Thangorodrim was thrown down. Some had no heart to watch the horror of that battle, nor to see all that they had loved overwhelmed in fire and water. But the Weaver and all her company were busy in those days, and for those who wished, we saw as in a mirror the final end of all we had fought for, and the removal at last of the Enemy from the world whose foe he was.

“Then Námo rose from his throne, and his words in the darkness were like the sudden realization of something long forgotten whose memory comes too late. He pronounced to us mercy and the pardon of the Valar, he spoke of the return of to these shores of all who wished to come, and he told us that our crimes were forgiven and our warfare was over. There were many of the Dead in those days who laid aside their sorrow and lifted up their hearts, and it may be that their term within those walls was shortened by their own hope as much as by the pardon that was offered.

“But the threads of fire and silver and splintered light shone still in the darkness of the tapestry, and I knew that no Doom could ever speak peace to my children and my works.

My brother, he who was once the High King of the Noldor in Middle-Earth, came to find me. That itself was no small deed, for finding a spirit who does not wish to be found is a difficult thing. It has more in common with the art of the healers than anything else. Or of the tormentors. I suppose that healing is an art he has learned... He came before me at last, his spirit like a white flame, hard-edged with memory and hope. I saw that his heart was bent upon the world again, and that the whole force of his nature went with it.

‘Well?’ I said, though I knew the answer. ‘You have found me, and I must listen whether I would or no. What do you want?’”

“What did he want?” asked Frodo after a time, for Fëanor had sunk to silence. He considered another minute, and then began slowly.

“He was returning to the world, as I knew he would. He asked me to return with him. I cannot rightly report his words, for he did not speak. But his thoughts flared in my mind: pardon and peace, the healing of all wounds. The dear-bought end of the strife between us and our peoples, and our return, together, to crown this new beginning. He did not beg me, but only because he knew it would do no good. Nor would he say anything of it to me – he had learned something, at any rate, over the long years! - but I saw beneath his thought that he intended to vouch for me before the Valar, that he would plead for me before them, if that was what they required, for my return.

“He came to me as one steeled against a blow, for he knew that I might receive his offer like one. But whatever else they may say of the sons of Finwë, no one can say that we refuse to undertake the impossible. He had to make the attempt, and I knew he had to, and I honored the effort even as I rejected it utterly.

            “I spoke to him harshly and in the bitterness of grief, sharp words that I will not recall here. For I had seen that the last of my sons, rather than bring strife and death again to the shores of Aman, had sought the desperate fulfillment of their oath against the host of Valinor itself.” Fëanor raised his eyes; they gazed on nothing or on things that only he could see.  “At the end of all, the Silmarils were in their hands again. But they burned them, my children, as they had burned in the hands of my Enemy. My mother, whose long labors in the Weaver’s service have made her near as iron-eyed as Námo himself, wept and hid her face when she told me of it.

I did not curse him, no, but I cursed the hope he offered. ‘If for my father’s death,’ I cried, ‘we cracked the course of the world, how then, and on whom, shall my sons be avenged? No, I will not return with you to declare that the strife is over. I shall not look upon the light again until the world, the world that has consumed us, be broken and remade. I swear to you –‘

‘I should have thought, brother,’ he said to me – and he used words this time, for my sake – ‘I should have thought by now you knew better than to swear to anything at all.’

“He left me then, not anger but in pain. And of all the wrongs that I have done to him, though this was not the worst, still its hurt is perhaps the keenest. For when we quarreled of old, the lies of our Enemy were at work upon the pride of our hearts. But now I saw him with eyes unclouded by suspicion. I saw that he came with nothing but love in his heart, and I threw it back in his face.

“Still, in that hour he showed himself his father’s son. Perhaps he has begun to attain the wisdom his name promised, for he knew better than to press the issue. Even though we parted, as far as we knew, forever, he laid down the sorrow of loss and gladly took up the burden of life.

“The gates of Mandos were flung open, and Nolofinwë led his people out rejoicing, to peace, as once he had led them to war. Yes, Mandos has gates, evidently!” he added, dropping suddenly into Westron on seeing Frodo furrow his brow in recollection of the doorless and windowless fortress.

“Not gates that you passed through,” replied Frodo in the same language, smiling at the sudden shift to the conversational Common Tongue.

“No – I passed through the – small door –“ Fëanor was concentrating hard, trying to keep up. “Unlooked for – no, unseen? Like a thief. Námo will be glad –“ He switched back to Quenya, unwilling to labor out his turn of phrase in Westron. “Námo will be glad to hear of my departure. He never lets on, of course, but it burned his heart that in his Halls dwelt one with a will more fixed than his own.”

His fingers flexed at his sides, as if impatient for something to work on. He stooped to pick up a small stone from the forest floor, and tossed it from hand to hand as he spoke. “I judged my deeds a weight too great to ask the world to bear – for they are mine, all of them. I can abjure none, repent almost none. And now I must cast myself, deeds and all, full weight upon my people. It is a bitter burden to ask them to take up.”

“Ask them? Weren’t you just saying that it was your brother who asked you?”

“He asked and was refused.”

“Don’t you think he’d understand that refusal, though?” Frodo pressed. “Your grief for your sons, for your lost works, for the oath and all that had come from it –“

He drew himself up proudly. “I have no desire to see myself explained or excused.”

“No,” said Frodo, “only forgiven.”

Fëanor shot a look so fierce at him that for a moment it seemed he could feel its heat against his face, but then broke away. He threw the little stone down along the path before him, where it rolled along for a considerable distance before bumping to a halt against a root.

“Ah,” he said, “so we are still going downhill. It feels like walking uphill to me.”

They spoke of lighter things, in both Quenya and Fëanor’s increasingly fluent Common Speech, as they went onwards. About noon they came to a little river flowing beside the way they were taking. “Now I’m certain this can’t be the same forest,” said Frodo. “There wasn’t any running water at all on my way here, and I should have heard it, at least. Still, I’m not complaining!” He leaned down at the bank to refill his bottle. The water tasted of nothing but water itself – it was clean and cool, with a faint scent of stone to it – but it was as strong as wine, it brightened the eyes and breathed life into the limbs.

“Have a drink of that!” He passed the bottle to Fëanor. “Wherever the waters come from in this forest, it seems to be somewhere healthy. A few draughts like that, and I don’t suppose I should need to drink again!”

They followed the river now, down through the forest, until their way grew rocky and the river was interrupted by a small waterfall splashing down a low series of rocks into a deep pool below. The rocks were worn smooth where the water passed, but where the spray fell they were covered with deep mosses and long grasses, and blue mountain-columbines that clung to the rock face like hanging gardens. When they had made their way around the side, they sat down on a flat rock, and bathed their feet, for both were barefoot, in the pool.

It was sparkling clear straight to the gray and white sands and the swaying water-weeds at the bottom, where small brown fish darted. The sun came down softened and dappled through the treetops, and the surface of the rocks were warm; it would have been a fine place for an afternoon nap if either of them had been in the least bit sleepy. Still, Frodo was perfectly content to lie on his back staring up at the shifting patterns of gold and green in the leaves and the pine-needles far overhead.

Eventually he heard Fëanor moving about, and raising himself up on one arm, he saw him examining a small cairn of rocks built by the side of the pool. The heap of stones seemed too deliberate not to be the work of someone’s hands, and Frodo did not know what to make of it.

“We are not the first to pass through these woods,” Fëanor said. “This is the road by which those who have died return again to the green world. It has been designed for comfort and refreshment –as you’ve probably noticed – of the body and the soul, that when we return we might awaken to the world as our parents did, singing in joy. And not, as our children, screaming in pain and terror.”

“I wondered about that! But I haven’t seen anything exactly Elvish about this forest. Back home, in Middle-Earth, that is, even in the woods not too far from the Shire you could find signs that the Elves had passed through there once. Steps set into the face of a hill, carvings around what once had been a spring. But here?”

“Here we must come emptyhanded without tools, and none of the Eldar would lay violent hand on the skin of these trees,” said Fëanor, “and so there is little record we can leave of our passing.” He looked at the cairn; Frodo now saw that there were several of the rock towers, some larger and some smaller, around the pool and close to the base of the waterfall. “But we may be sure that others before us have looked upon this light and tasted the refreshment of these waters.” His face was thoughtful.

Coming back to the water’s edge, in one smooth motion he lay down flat on the broad rock, and plunged one arm into the pool. He searched with his fingers along the bottom until he came up with a smooth round stone about the size of a fist, which he added to the pile nearest them. Frodo came to join him, but he suddenly bent forward with a cry of surprise. When Frodo asked what the matter was, Fëanor indicated one of the stones in the anonymous heap. Frodo looked at it closely. Although, as Fëanor said, travelers in this land passed this way without tools, an eight-pointed star had been scratched into the surface, most likely by another stone.

“Your own sign,” he said, “unless I am misremembering?”

“That’s quite correct. Do you mean to tell me that emblem is still seen in your lands?”

“Well, not my lands exactly, but it was right square in the middle of the doors of Khazad-dum, and we certainly spent enough time sitting there staring at them! I remember them so well I could draw it.”

“The doors of that deep kingdom,” said Fëanor, musing. He touched the faint markings on the stone with one finger. “My grandson’s work. As is this, if I guess rightly; it seems his way.” He fell then into deep thought, and after a while they began to walk onwards again.

For three days and nights they walked through that pleasant land, little troubled by hunger or by weariness. As Fëanor had said, it was as if the land had been expressly fashioned to hearten and strengthen those who walked within it. At regular intervals they came upon deep pools suitable for bathing, and clear springs suitable for drinking, and as they walked they passed fruit-bearing trees and bushes and plants of all sorts. Some, like the apple, were well-known to Frodo, but others wholly strange to him and a few unknown even to Fëanor, who added a few of their seeds and leaves to Frodo’s pack. “I have no pockets,” he explained without embarrassment, “and how else will we find out what these are and if they can germinate outside the Forest of Return?”

They had little need of other nourishment, but for sheer variety at one point Frodo unwrapped the lembas and shared it out between them. No sooner had Fëanor tasted the waybread than his face lit up in recognition. “Anaire!” he exclaimed. “You are higher in honor in this land than you told me; this comes from the hand of the Queen herself.”

Frodo considered. “Well, I suppose we are her guests, in a manner of speaking. She and the King your brother were very generous to us when we first arrived; they saw us settled in Tirion and made sure that we would want for nothing.”

“We?”

This sobered Frodo. “Well, my uncle and I, when we came to this land together. You know my uncle, Bilbo, from everything I’ve told you, and I’m sorry you won’t have the chance to meet him.” Then he laughed. “And sorry, indeed, that he won’t have the chance to meet you; I dare say you think I am frightfully impertinent. Well, he taught me my manners, and he is ten times worse.”

“Of course I remember him. This is the one who bantered with a dragon?”

“Oh yes! And it was he who taught me my letters – well, your letters, I suppose – and really it was he who first put the love of Elvish things into my heart, though I dare say he had no idea what that would lead me to in the end.”

The mention of his family seemed to please his companion, for all that afternoon as they walked Fëanor told him stories of the noontide of Valinor, of his children and their youthful doings. Frodo listened, and laughed and at last he said,

“This may sound like an insult, but please don’t take it as one! If it were not for the – well, for the scale, these might be stories out of the Shire. I knew the Eldar must have tales other than those of sorrow and loss and mighty deeds, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them before.”

“It was a brighter world,” said Fëanor, “and a narrower one, and perhaps not so different from your Shire, save that our hearts were turned toward art instead of vegetables.”

Frodo smiled ruefully. “Well, that and the Shire is hardly a place to foster the increase of skill and deep knowledge! It is my homeland, even if it is lost to me, and I love it, on that shore or on this. But its people, for the most part, neither know nor care to know of the things beyond their borders.”

“Yet though it is a small land of small folk,” said Fëanor, “it is by no means least in the songs of your age, for out of it came the downfall of the Shadow, and now one of the Shire’s children will take his place beside the heroes of the Elder Days!”   

This remark bothered Frodo, and he considered for some time as they walked how to put his disquiet into words. “It is hard,” he said at last, “and it grows harder, to hear people talk of these events as if they conferred greatness on me. I am not great. I am not a creator or a healer or an explorer, not a warrior or a scholar or a ruler. I do not have the sort of will that shapes the world.”

“No,” agreed Fëanor. “You were not framed for high deeds. Yet you lifted up your heart to the undoing of your world’s great foe.” He laughed softly.  “And the songs say of me that I overreached myself!”

Frodo looked back at him, his face troubled. “You don’t even have to look beyond the War of the Ring, let alone into the depths of history, to find others who did more, suffered more, lost more, in strife with the Enemy.”

“Perhaps not,” Fëanor agreed, “but it’s one thing to fight, another to unmake. It’s one thing to set strength against strength, wisdom against wisdom, will against will, to see which proves the mightier.  But that, for you, was a question answered before it was asked.”

This was perfectly true, and Frodo made no reply.

“Anyone could have fought your Enemy,” Fëanor continued.  “Everyone would have, if things had continued on the path they were set. Could anyone have beaten him? Perhaps. It’s possible. It had been done before. You have walked with those that did it. But you took your Enemy’s nature on yourself in order to unmake it. That is a wholly different thing.”

Frodo found his pace slowing; he recalled what Fëanor had said about the sense of going uphill. He closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them to a world resolutely solid and unchanged. The pleasant woods still rose about him, the sunlight smiled, the clean air carried the scent of moss and pine-sap and fresh water.

“A thing which I did not do,” he said finally, forming the words with difficulty. “I don’t know if you understand me. Yes, he was unmade. Yes, the Shadow was defeated. Yes, the sun can still rise and the world draw its breath in freedom, not because of me, but in spite of me. I chose the world’s destruction. Do you know what that means?” He caught himself. “Well, I suppose you do, at that.”

They had stopped altogether now, and somehow Fëanor had worked around to face him. “You, and yet not you, cast down your Enemy. History has taken you up, and surely you don’t think that you are still only yourself? These are deep questions.” He cast a look at Frodo from under his eyebrows. “You cannot put forth your hand to grasp such matters and expect to draw it back whole.”

“Indeed not,” Frodo returned, “history burns and we burn within it, or others are burned for us.”

There was a sharp-edged silence for a while as each of them worked out the particular applications of that remark, walking onwards. Suddenly Fëanor spoke.

“For the injury which my family has done to you, I ask your pardon. If it is any comfort to you, the third of my name, through whom was wrought your woe, also did not escape whole from the world he shaped.”

Frodo was, for a moment, entirely lost. “Your... your family?” Fëanor said nothing, waiting for him to resolve the question himself. “The third of your name? You don’t mean... the chief of the Ring-Smiths of Eregion? I thought that was Celebrimbor.”

Fëanor considered briefly, working out the translation of the name. “Yes, as well it should have been. Curufinwë 13 was hardly a beloved name in that land. My grandson, the Ring-maker, who alone of all my house escaped the doom I fixed upon it, and who in his turn set a new one at work in Middle-Earth.”

He looked out into the distance, his features set between pride and grief. “When he lifted up his thought and his hand to the working of power, rather than beauty, he made ill choice of whom to admit to his counsels and his heart. He was betrayed, and all his works with him. Or nearly all.”

His face darkened. “Yet I don’t believe any torment was so sharp to him as the loss of his friend. Your Enemy was promising him right to the end that if only he would relent, he might still have back everything he had lost. But he learned in bitter pain what later you would learn, and what the bearers of his Three rings are learning now: some losses are beyond the hope of redress within the circles of the world. And so,” he added, “you are in some measure avenged.”

“It is no comfort to me! Rather the opposite,” exclaimed Frodo, appalled. “Good heavens! What do you think of me? I now have some notion of what it would mean to fall into my Enemy’s hands, and I wish I didn’t. And so that’s what happened to the maker of the Rings, and that’s supposed to balance things out? If this is your notion of justice, it seems – well, harsher than I can muster.”

Fëanor looked at him curiously, and then went on with a slight, liquid shrug. “I meant that the Rings were none of your making. It was not you who set my Enemy’s lickspittle lieutenant at large in the world, though you were – in some measure –“ he added with emphasis, seeing Frodo about to object, “in some measure responsible for removing him from it. And it sits ill with me that we should ask you to pay the cost of our deeds. If you are not avenged, we remain in your debt.”

“You began by asking for pardon,” said Frodo, closing his eyes again and this time stumbling over a root. He caught himself, feeling lightheaded and sick. “It is yours, and your family’s, before you ask it. Do not speak of debt!”

Fëanor inclined his head. “Very well! You will not urge your claim against my family, though you would be within your rights if you did. What of your claim against your Enemy? He may be beyond the reach of revenge, but not beyond the reach of hatred. As my Foe as well as my friends can attest, my curses are not without effect. Shall I curse him then, for your sake?

“No need! Goodness, if it comes to that, I myself have some skill in cursing. I cursed one that was for a while under my care, and he met the fate that should have been mine. But no, I cannot now curse my Enemy. I pity him.”

“I do not understand you, Frodo.” It was now Fëanor’s turn to stop, which he did so suddenly and completely that it seemed at an instant he had always been standing motionless. He looked down at him, his keen eyes alight and his expression unreadable.

Frodo looked about for a place to sit down, but found none, unless it would be to sink straight down to the earth of the forest floor. He stumbled as through a fog to the foot of a large beech tree and reached out with his right arm to steady himself, setting his maimed hand against the silver-grey bark. Bracing himself against the tree, he felt the dizziness begin to subside.

“I had a self to come back to,” he began after a moment. “The shadow may have bitten deep, but I am not wholly lost nor wholly changed. But to have nothing left but that void in the heart? Cut off from the sunlit world, all delights only bitterness to you because you do not possess them? Trapped in the self which is nothing of substance, only ravenous void gnawing itself in the knowledge that outside of it nothing is strong, nothing is beautiful, nothing is valuable, nothing is holy. How could I not pity that?”

Fëanor regarded him, searchingly, for what felt like a long time. Eventually he asked “Are you speaking of your great Enemy, or of that treacherous creature, your servant Gollum?”

“Well, both, I suppose.” Frodo drew himself up, and started forwards down the path. For the first time on that journey he felt a great weariness all through him, and a desire for sleep.

“Let’s make camp tonight,” he said, as they took their way onwards again together. “You may be reveling in the first strength of the body renewed, but I am still a mortal, and I am older than I look, and I can’t go forever without sleep. I suppose it’s – well, safe – to sleep here?”

“If it is safe to sleep anywhere!” Fëanor answered. “It’s well thought of. It seems to me that we should be nearing the end of these lands but I cannot see that end, nor sense how far it is for us to travel. It’s possible this forest won’t let us leave it until we have taken rest here.”

Frodo blinked. “That’s a strange thing to say.  Who on earth would enact such a requirement? And why?”

Fëanor glanced about the darkening woods. “Almost any of the Powers, greater or lesser, work out their will in their lands. Here, perhaps, the Master of Spirits? The Lady of the Earth? Most likely, though, it’s the will of the forest itself. You’ve seen by now that this is a land that has its wanderers in its care; that is its nature and its purpose. Those returning from death may shy away from sleep, but if the body is to be taken up again, then rest is something that must be taken up along with it. Of course,” he added, “this is all pure speculation, and I could be entirely wrong.”

So it was that not long after, they found another stand of ainatussa – Fëanor pointed out that they had been seeded regularly throughout the woods, another testament to the quiet passage of the Returned – and made camp beside it. Frodo got his blanket out of his pack for the first time in days, and was asleep not long after supper, but Fëanor sat straight-backed beside him, his eyes on the play of the flames among the branches and his mind sunk into the unfolding patterns of his dreams.

Frodo woke late and refreshed; the sun was well up and the fire had burned out. The black branches now had an iridescent sheen and a light coating of white ash along their edges. The birds were singing loudly, and so was his companion.

“Up! Up!” he cried, seeing Frodo stir. “It is a new day, and we are nearing the end of our road.”

Certainly, as they walked through that morning, the forest changed around them, the trees giving way from the ancient firs and evergreens to younger and smaller trees with broad leaves in golden and green. They walked quickly again, and it seemed to Frodo that they covered a good deal of ground.

Though Fëanor did not speak of what he had dreamed, his spirits were high, with a hint of wildness to them. He sang for much of the morning, and Frodo sang with him, exchanging songs in Quenya and in the Common Speech. Frodo was surprised to find Fëanor teaching him walking songs, drinking songs, children’s counting rhymes. But when he expressed his wonder at this, Fëanor only laughed. “Surely you don’t think all our songs are hymns or laments? But here – do you by any chance recognize this?” And he sang out in a simple melody with a strongly marked rhythm:

“Zakharei ha-niddabad, zakharei ha-niddabad,
Tanakhi ha-zirrabad, zirrabad, zirrabad14

It’s meant for a round,” he added.

“That’s nothing I recognize,” said Frodo, thinking. “It sounds almost Dwarvish, though I don’t suppose it can possibly-“

“Yes!” cried Fëanor, clearly delighted.

“You seem determined to baffle me! Unless I am entirely confused in my dates, you would never have met any of the Dwarves – and surely they would not have been willing to teach you their language!

“Indeed. It’s an enduring regret of mine that I have never met any of that well-crafted people. But I have spoken with their lord, Aulë the Maker. He alone of the Valar took any enduring interest in the creation of language, and so we spoke much together about it. I was hoping that you might be able to tell me how that language fared among the race of the Stone-Lords – how it has changed, whether it is well-tended or left to run wild like your Westron. I know it is not their way to teach this speech to outsiders, but you are not unskilled in tongues, and you counted Dwarves among your friends.”

Frodo shook his head. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I know almost nothing of Khuzdul. I believe I would have to be counted as far more than a friend and fellow-traveler to be trusted with their language, which they prize above all their other treasures. It’s my understanding, though, that it has hardly changed at all since its earliest days. If you learned it from the one who created the language, then the Dwarves would probably understand that song you’re singing. What does it mean, anyway?”

“It’s simple enough. After the ascent – or uphill slope – comes the descent – or downhill slope. And then the round is the reverse, after the descent comes the ascent. Come, I’ll teach it to you; we’ll set these woods ringing and give them something to puzzle over.”

So they sang together as the day brightened and the trees thinned, and eventually even Frodo could tell that they were coming to the edge of the forest.

“Well!” he said. “Where to after this? We’re still some days’ walk from the nearest city, which would be Valmar, on the other side of the plains - unless we’re emerging in some completely different corner of Aman, and given everything else that’s happened in these woods, that would not surprise me in the least.”

Fëanor ran both his hands backward through his hair; his eyes were bright and he seemed charged with a fierce and settled energy. “Where to, indeed? Toward Estolad Eledhronnath, the Exiles’ Camp, where my firstborn now walks with his friend in the gray highlands of the North? Southward to where my wife dwells among her father’s people? To the white shores where the sea-folk labor in peace?”

He looked up at the sky, gauging the track of the sun. “No, I think. We shall continue as we are: straight Eastward, Frodo, back to your home in Tirion. I must see my brother first, for ours was the first strife that arose in this realm.”

He drew a last deep breath of the clean air of the forest, and turned to Frodo. “Now it comes to it. I shall come among my people again, and I fear they will have little joy of the sight.”

The forest was ending, and the ground becoming more uneven; they found themselves descending into a wide shallow glen through which bright streams ran. It was now apparent that the forest grew on an upland whose edges they were now approaching. Beyond, the land descended into low hills, and beyond them, the plains, and still further beyond, the cities of the Noldor.

But while they were still a long way off, Fëanor lifted his head sharply, as if he heard something  through the sound of the wind in the leaves and the water over the stones.  Before he had time to speak, Frodo saw coming up over the hills and riding hard toward them, the man he had first seen on the shore waiting to welcome the last of the exiles home. His robes were blue and silver and as rich as the hard traveling would allow, for he must have ridden for days without rest or food, and he bore no other ornament except the silver circlet on his brow. Because of the screen of the trees and the curve of the land, the High King of the Noldor was nearly upon them by the time he saw them, and he pulled his horse up so suddenly that a less skillful rider must have fallen.

His eyes met Fëanor’s as his brother stood before him beneath the trees, barefoot and empty-handed and wrapped in gray, like a flame seen through smoke. But for a long moment he showed neither joy nor anger, nor even surprise. He looked at him, stunned, his strong grave features instantly wiped blank, as one who has in the heat of battle received a mortal injury. Before the fear, even before the pain, only the dull shock and the sudden knowledge that something has changed irrevocably and nothing will ever be the same again. Frodo, in sudden anxiety, looked up to Fëanor beside him and saw his brother’s expression almost mirrored in his face, save that his eyes still burned steadily and his mouth was set.

Slowly, almost without thought, never taking his eyes from Fëanor, Fingolfin swung himself off his horse and began walking toward him. At first Fëanor did not move, but when Fingolfin was within a few paces, all at once he stepped towards him. In a motion almost too quick for Frodo’s eye to follow, the king threw his arms around him and pulled him into an embrace. He held him and would not let him go, his hands tangled in the folds of the gray robe.

Fëanor stood transfixed, unmoving and unable to move. At last in turn he raised his arms and clasped his brother to him, and they stood locked there on the edge of the forest as if they meant to let the sun set and rise again on their reunion.

But at last Fingolfin pulled away from him. His face now alive and alight, he took a step back, drew back his fist, and struck Fëanor a blow in the face that sent him reeling backward onto the forest floor.

Fëanor drew himself onto his elbows and stared back up at him. He was not slightly built, but he had made no defense whatever, and the blow had all his brother’s force behind it. “I suppose I deserved that,” he said, touching the corner of his mouth where his lip had split against his teeth. For the first time since their meeting, he almost smiled.

Several responses flickered across Fingolfin’s face, and at last he spoke. “I have been waiting for this, brother,” he said, “for a very, very long time.” Then he reached out both hands and set Fëanor on his feet again, and embraced him and wept freely, laughing and crying at once in the curiously unrestrained manner of the Eldar. They swayed against each other, murmuring old endearments, accusations and pardons, in broken fragments of speech and flashes of thought

As on his first arrival in Aman, Frodo stood apart, unwilling to intrude on a reunion of those who had last parted in deadly anger before the first rising of the Moon or the Sun. The two were extraordinarily alike in frame and feature, and he wondered that he had not noted their resemblance when he first saw Fëanor beneath the walls of Mandos.

At length they broke apart, and Fingolfin noticed Frodo as if for the first time. “Frodo Cormacolindo!”15 he exclaimed, looking from him to Fëanor and back again, attempting to fathom what it was he saw. “You are strangely accompanied.”

“I’m sorry, which of us are you speaking to?” returned Frodo, whose formality in addressing the lords of the Noldor had been considerably eased over the last few days. Fëanor laughed aloud.

“Strangely accompanied?” interjected Fëanor.  “And why should it be strange to you? Do you not know my companion’s kind and his history?”

Fingolfin frowned. “A small folk among the deeds of the great?”

“I thought you were charged with making them welcome!” said Fëanor. “Do you know no more of them than that? I will instruct you. This is Frodo Silmacolindo, 16 bearer of starlight, wanderer in the shadowed lands, and-“ he dropped into the Common Speech, “my tutor in the tongues of the Outer Shores.”

The High King now appeared utterly baffled and turned to Frodo. “Forgive my discourtesy; I spoke in surprise. You are welcome, and twice welcome for the company you bring. But none of that explains how you come to be journeying with my brother out of the Forest of Return whence none save those who have tasted death may walk.”

“Do not let him talk you in circles!” said Frodo with an amused glance at Fëanor. “As for how I came there, I hardly know myself; it appears to have been some sort of interference on the part of Mandos. But your brother has returned of his own doing, not mine, and he has often spoken of you on the road.”

Fëanor looked at him sharply. “Indeed,” he said, and his face grew stern. He turned to Fingolfin, the warmth gone from his eyes. “But now, Nolofinwë, give me the crown.”

The mingled joy and bewilderment faded from Fingolfin’s face as well, and he held Fëanor’s gaze coldly. “It is your right,” he said. Reaching up, he set both hands to the circlet he wore, and handed it to his brother, who looked blankly at it as though he did not know what it was he held. An echoing silence descended and for a moment it seemed that neither of them breathed while they stood facing each other.

Then Fëanor drew a long breath, took his brother’s hand and reaching up, set the crown back around his brow. He spoke in a clear voice, one hand holding Fingolfin’s and the other resting on his head.

“This passes now from me as it passed from my house,” he said. “Secondborn of Finwë the Unbegotten, the lordship of the Noldor is yours. By my right as king, I renounce it. By my right as heir, I renounce it. Before you and before this witness, I renounce it altogether. Brother and king!” Taking his hands from him, he sank slowly and with a difficulty quite unlike his ordinary eager, decisive motion, to one knee before him.

The King flinched, and nearly made as if to stop him. It was a quick motion, almost instantly suppressed, and he held himself back. He composed his face to solemn gravity, but his eyes were wide as if in wonder or pain.

Fëanor went on. “Nolofinwë Arakano, you have my loyalty and you have my life, in this world and in the world to come. Hail, King of the Noldor, and my King!”

The King bowed his head, and Fëanor got to his feet again. A slow smile was dawning on Fingolfin’s face.

“You know, we have an actual ceremony for the transfer of authority now, as well as for the pledging of loyalty,” Fingolfin said.

“Well, now you have a new one.”

The tension was broken at this point, and though Fëanor remained unsmiling, both of the brothers seemed now at ease in each other’s presence. Fingolfin straightened the crown on his head, although it had not been crooked. “Why did you –“ he began.

Fëanor brushed this aside. “You clearly came to me ready to make the offer; I thought I would spare you the embarrassment.”

“Oh, did I?”

Fëanor looked over at the horse, which was quietly nosing at the grass at the edge of the forest. Its saddlebags were full. “Obviously. Why else did you come with a spare set of robes and wearing a crown without the badge of your house?”

“Was I going to let you come home unclad?” Fingolfin went to the packs and undid them, taking out a rich robe embroidered at the sleeves and hem. He threw it over Fëanor’s shoulders. “What would that have said of me, that I let my own brother wander naked through the land as one of Mandos’ penitents? What kind of a welcome would that have been?”

“Were you really prepared to give up the kingship of the Noldor?” Frodo asked him hesitantly, as Fëanor brushed his brother aside and busied himself with the intricate knots and ties and closures.

“Of course I was,” the King replied, as informal now with him as with his brother. Fëanor started to speak and Fingolfin pre-empted him. “Oh, I didn’t believe that you wanted it, not now. Have three ages of the world sufficed to teach me nothing? Kingship is neither your vocation nor your avocation. You’d hate every minute of it, and you know that.”

“That and the Noldorin kings would murmur, if not break into open revolt,” Fëanor pointed out.

“And can you imagine Olwe’s reaction?” Then Fingolfin sobered. “But I would not hold legitimate power illegitimately. That would also be a betrayal of my people.”

“No, you wouldn’t! Still one of Manwë’s tame eagles, I see.”

“None of Manwë’s birds are caged, brother, and you know that as well as I do.”

They glared at each other for a minute, but without real danger in their looks. Then Fëanor threw his arms wide. “No, let the Blessed Realm breathe easily! It will be hard enough for them to accept me at large in the land; they need not face the prospect of having me on the throne!” He nodded to Frodo. “I have learned from my companion that the Secondborn hold sway all over Arda. Why should Aman be any different?”

“Well!” said Frodo, and he looked from one to the other of them again. “I feel rather superfluous at this point. I suppose you will be returning together from now on?”

“What?” cried Fëanor. “This is the beginning, and not the end, of our road. Well, of my road, at least, and I had thought you meant to accompany me on it. Though if you wish to cross these plains on your own, by all means –“

“Of course not, if you really still wish to travel together. Are we going on to Tirion?”

“To Tirion? No. Not now. What should I seek there? The one I needed to deal with has sought me out already.” He turned to his brother. “Go, carry the word that you hold the crown in full right at last, and, if you can, fortify my people against the news that I return! But that question settled, I must turn my steps now toward my wife, who has been waiting for even longer than you to settle her account with me – though perhaps she will not urge her claim with so heavy a hand.” Fëanor put up a hand to his aching jaw. “Do you now ride in Tulkas’ train?”

“Yes, to long-suffering Nerdanel and her children,” said Fingolfin, ignoring the last remark. “But do not delay too long to come to the city! The scholars and the craftsmen will be waiting for you, the loremasters will lining up for you to settle their quarrels. We must prepare a feast for you, to welcome you back to the world that you have scorned for so long.”

Fëanor looked out over the low hills, to where the titanic peaks of the Pelóri rose snowcapped in the eastern distance. “You speak of welcome,” he said warily. “But I have not forgotten, even if you seem to have, the blood on the waves and the flames on the shore. My children have returned before me, but surely there are those who cannot accept us, who cannot accept a world where we are accepted.”

“Of course.” Fingolfin was buckling the saddlebags back onto the horse. “There were centuries where you were yourself their chief. What was your long exile if not your own refusal to accept such a world? But you are ours, your works are our history, we could not now be free of you even we wanted to. If we were to reject you for being bloodstained, we would have to reject the world for being bloodstained.” He clapped a hand on Fëanor’s shoulder. “Do you mean to carry yourself as though it is a heavier matter to receive pardon than to grant it?”

Fëanor glanced back at him through narrowed eyes. “You pile your forgiveness atop me, brother, as though you mean to crush me beneath its weight.”

Fingolfin only laughed. “And will you sting my foot for my pains?” He turned again to Frodo where he stood beside Fëanor.  “No, strangely fulfilled are Olórin’s words, Frodo, that he spoke to me when he first brought you as guests to these shores. Everyone comes home.”

The wind blew across the plains, and the high clouds flew over the hills, dappling them with shadow and light, and Frodo felt an unfamiliar lightness of heart.  

“Indeed,” he said softly. “Everyone comes home. Even if home is a place where we have never been.”

 

 * * * * 

“Here, sir.” Bilbo quietly touched the Elder King’s elbow, offering him one of his pocket-handkerchieves.

“What is this?”

“Oh,” he said, looking at the tears running freely down Manwë’s face, “I just thought you might want one.”

Far below the upper peaks of Taniquetil, on the worldward edge of the forest of the Taurë Entulesson, the Forest of Return, the High King of the Noldor embraced his brother, returned beyond hope from exile and death. Bilbo peered downward with interest.

“Bless my soul! I’m glad my nephew found someone to talk to, at any rate. And here I thought you might have forgotten about him.”

“Forgotten? Never. No one is forgotten.”

The dizzying heights of the Mountain no longer bothered Bilbo, and he had learned without much difficulty the art of Manwë’s long sight, though in general he still preferred the near to the distant. Now, though, he scrutinized his nephew and his companion with great attention. “And is that really Fëanor himself? That one who made such a hash of the Elder Days, and who made the evening star and all? I thought he wasn’t supposed to come out until the healing of the world?”

Manwë looked down upon the plains, where the three figures, perfectly clear despite the distance, were setting off homeward together.

“This is the healing of the world.”

* * * *