The Undying Lands surpassed all description with beauty and wonder. Palaces built entirely of pearls lined the seaside. Mighty forests sprawled with riotous blossoms, many of which glowed in the night to rival the moon. Grand cliffs rose seemingly from nowhere, with striations that made glorious murals out of natural formation. Everywhere one looked, something marvelous appeared.
More than even the majestic landscape, the Valar who walked there appeared in such forms and aspects as to quite befuddle a fellow who fancied himself worldly. Bilbo admired them all tremendously, of course. However, it was difficult to know what was a true flock of colorful birds and what was a Lord of the Valar appearing away from his throne. Many things about the Undying lands were confusing. As Bilbo’s mind wondered at it all, the particular confusion of age which beset him east of the ocean fell away. Miraculously, he was once again able to hold a conversation without losing the thread halfway through.
Just being in the Undying Lands apparently did hobbits a power of good. That was more than apparent to anyone looking at Frodo. Poor Frodo, with his many injuries to both body and spirit, seemed to let go of all of his cares. No longer haunted by what he saw as his failure at Mount Doom, Frodo laughed as easily as a child. The lad did not even clutch his shoulder when he thought no one was looking. Only that awful missing finger remained, and Frodo’s hands were dexterous enough with a dinner fork to work around the lack. He was well a last.
This was the greatest blessing of the place by far, though Bilbo also noticed that his old bones creaked just a little less than they had before. He still needed a large glass to read anything, but the light of the place let him see further than he had in years. His bad hip still gave out at inconvenient times, but everything hurt less when he fell. Why, he could even walk short distances with only a stick, instead of relying so heavily on dear Frodo all the time.
Not to say that the journey was without its drawbacks. Gandalf, for one, started going about as pillars of fire, swirling formless smoke, a white tree with impractical leaves made of solid amber, and all manner of other ridiculous things which seemed to be the fashion amongst his fellows. “Would you like a mirror to inspect your fine feathers, my friend?” Bilbo said, raising an eyebrow at the gray and white eagle which trailed flames as it flew. “I am almost certain that you would prefer its conversation to mine!”
Then Gandalf laughed, for he was always laughing these days, and turned back into the old wizard clad in white. As an apology, he showed Bilbo to a bridge spun entirely of starlight and spidersilk. For everything in the Undying Lands seemed to be both beautiful and impossible.
“Tell me how it was made,” Bilbo requested, resting his bad hip on a soft, swaying bench of silk, looking out over silver waterfalls that cast rainbows through the air as freely as a farmer scattered seed.
Naturally the story was long and lovely, full of duty and devotion as all such stories seemed to be in the Undying Lands. Gandalf spoke for many hours, but Bilbo grew neither hungry nor tired. The very mist of the waterfalls seemed to sustain him. In truth, the story of the long building gave him new vigor, and planted an idea in his recovered mind.
“I am an old hobbit,” he said softly, more to the waterfall than to Gandalf. “This land is pretty, I grant you, but I shall leave it soon.”
“Not too soon,” Gandalf said carefully. “There are the Halls of Waiting. When your body grows too tired, your spirit may remain there for some time before accepting the Gift of Ilúvatar. You and I have many stories left to share, old friend.”
“I would like that,” Bilbo admitted. “Not such a bad end for our tale: two old travellers, retired to gossip over a checkerboard in a beautiful place. Yet I think I would trade it for one last adventure.”
Gandalf’s smile was as easy as his laugh these days, and though he had the same visage of an old man that Bilbo knew, he seemed younger than ever. “An adventure is it? Well, I know how to give a hobbit one of those! Mountains, do you think? North of here there are mountains taller than even the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth. When we climb them, you shall look upon the stars as an equal. Let us gather Frodo and form a fellowship. Elrond may come as well. I know he wishes to spend more time with you before you go to the Halls.”
“It is not mountains I wish to see this time.” Bilbo looked out at the mists of the falls. “In truth, it was never mountains. Not really, Gandalf. Where do dead dwarves go?”
“Ah.” The wizard took a pipe from the folds of his robe, though Bilbo did not know where he could have kept the object in his previous form. Nevertheless, the hobbit withdrew his own pipe from a pocket and offered his friend a companionable fill from his pouch.
The leaf in the Undying Lands was as superb as everything else. Sitting and watching Gandalf blow smoke rings was always a pleasant way to pass the time. Smoke wove with the mist and rainbows into unbelievable patterns. Where once the wizard might make a running stag or sailing ship, now his smoke formed entire landscapes full of color and light. Bilbo did not interrupt, but he awaited an answer.
Finally, Gandalf said. “I do not know. I should tell you that they go to stone, which is what many are told and elves believe. Yet Ilúvatar has promised Aulë that in the remaking of the world, the dwarves will return to play an important role in the rebuilding. More than that, Durin, at least, shows up from time to time. So it follows that he and the other dwarves must be somewhere, waiting. But they are not in the Halls of Mandos.”
This answer was not entirely unexpected, so Bilbo was not terribly disappointed. “Then it shall be a worthy quest, and I will learn something even a wizard does not know.”
“Bilbo.” Quite out of character, Gandalf hesitated to give his advice. “The Gift of Men is given also to hobbits. I do not understand it. Even Manwë does not understand it. Yet it is not something to be casually relinquished.”
“I am not relinquishing anything.” Bilbo tamped down the leaf in his bowl and relit it. “I am simply old, Gandalf. Perhaps older than any hobbit has ever been. I would do this one last thing before I go.”
“Then I will help you.”
One of the easy smiles that pervaded the Undying Lands, overcoming the unwary, stole across Bilbo’s face. “Thank you. I hope we may begin with an introduction.”
“In the morning,” Gandalf said firmly.
“In the morning,” Bilbo agreed. It would be unpardonably rude to call uninvited at such an hour. Especially upon a great lord.
Sleeping less at night was another hazard of age that even the Undying Lands could not cure. Yet it was not an eager bladder or the pain in his hip that woke Bilbo so frequently. Instead, the excitement of memory teased his mind, and he heard, as music from another room, a soft voice singing of Misty Mountains cold. This time, unlike that night in Bag End all those years ago, his dreams did not need such a temptation. He was as resolute as any dwarf, his feet already set upon the road.
Only breaking his fast with his nephew tempted him to stray. “Frodo, my lad,” he began uncomfortably, “You know I shall not be here with you forever.”
“Yes, Bilbo,” the boy said with an utter lack of concern. “I know. Undying does not mean we will not die. Pass the marmalade, please.”
“Don’t take that glib tone with me, you whippersnapper! I am trying to have a proper talk.”
Startled, Frodo looked up from his breakfast and burst into laughter at Bilbo’s expression. “Uncle! Surely you have spoken with Gandalf or someone about this already? You will go to the Halls of Mandos for a time. All hobbits do, just like Men. Lord Elrond has been already to visit some of his old friends, and he was kind enough to tell me my parents are there waiting to see me again. When you are there, I shall visit you all regularly. I promise. Indeed, you’ll probably be annoyed by all of my interrupting.”
Frodo’s eyes were soft and fond. Bilbo had never really been annoyed by the child who wanted attention when he wanted to read. No one could be properly annoyed at such a good natured lad. “Life’s little annoyances build character,” the hobbit said automatically. “Without you, I would be poorer. In spirit, if not in strawberry preserves.”
On cue, Frodo laughed again, and passed his uncle the half-empty jar of jam. Guilt prickled under Bilbo’s skin. That laughter would never have stopped if Bilbo had been hobbit enough to deal with his own mistakes instead of leaving the matter to his heir.
“Frodo, my lad, the truth is, I am not sure you will see me there.”
At once, Frodo’s eyes focused on his uncle, and a serious cast shadowed his face. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know I care about you a great deal, my lad, a very great deal. But as you say, you will have your parents. They’re not moving along just yet, and will not for some time, knowing they can see you again.”
Patiently, Frodo waited for the old hobbit to get to his point. The boy had such wisdom now. Bilbo wished he’d come by it in another way.
“As it happens, there are some people who I would like to see again as well. People who were very dear to me. Much as I should like to see my mother and father, and your mother and father as well, if we come to that, I know they are safe. Everyone says they’re just down the lane on the left.”
Frodo snorted. “I think it’s a bit further than that.”
“But something in the way of an inevitable destination.”
“And you have never been one for surrendering to the inevitable, have you, Uncle?”
“No, I have not. So you understand then?”
Looking down at his breakfast, Frodo said, “Yes, I understand. Better than you think. You are going to see your dwarves. But you are afraid they will not want to see you. Because you parted on bad terms before they died, and you could not save them. Boromir waits also for me in the Halls.”
“Boromir?” Bilbo wracked his tired brain. So much of Frodo’s story was told to him through a fog during those last days in Rivendell when everything seemed to send him to sleep. “I thought he died well, didn’t he? Saving Merry and Pippin?”
“Yes.” Frodo forced a smile. “Yes, he died well. But I was not there, and I do not know if he will want to see me. I do not know if I could have acted better before we parted.”
“Ah.” Bilbo waved the lad’s concerns away. “Of course he’ll want to see you. If he does not, he is not worth seeing.”
As his smile turned into something more genuine, Frodo said, “You would say that, Uncle.”
“Then it must be true.” Bilbo sniffed. “Anyway, that is all very high minded and considerate of you. As always, my concerns are slightly more practical. Gandalf says even he doesn’t know where dwarves go when they pass. For once, I believe him. He’s remarkably straightforward these days, despite all the shape shifting. So he and I are going on a bit of an adventure to find out.”
“Oh! Well then, I will come with you.”
“You will not. You have had enough of adventures, my lad, and don’t you deny it. Besides, if I achieve my objective, it shall be a deadly dull time for you. You’d be entirely shunted off to one side while we all chat about places you’ve never been and people you’ve never met. No, let the old folk gab amongst themselves. You belong to the amusements of the young. Isn’t there a concert or something you were on about today?”
“The Blossoming of the Bells in Yavanna’s Garden,” Frodo said. “It is a portion of the garden that blooms only once a century, each flower ringing like a little bell as it opens. Apparently, the music is incomparably melodic. You could come with me.”
“No, no, my lad. Once again, we must part ways. But let us do so with a smile. For we are both well, and off to do what will make us happiest.”
“Alright, Uncle.” Belying this easy acceptance, Frodo hugged Bilbo very tightly and did not let go for quite some time. Bilbo patted his back gently. He was a good lad.
As if on cue, Gandalf appeared in the doorway. Parting was never easy, so it was best done without a lot of long, lingering goodbyes.
The stairs to Lord Aulë’s house in the Undying Lands were made of polished marble, smooth as silk beneath Bilbo’s feet. Grand as mountains and beautiful as sculptures, all who traversed those steps knew in their hearts that they entered the home of the greatest craftsman among the Valar. Which was to say that Bilbo’s hip gave out six times before they reached the top and Gandalf had to half carry him the last little bit to the door.
At the rap of Gandalf’s staff, the massive doors opened into a vast hall. Sitting in state upon a golden chair bedecked with thousands of jewels was an armored giant. Easily three times Gandalf’s height, two of Lord Aulë’s fingers could crush Bilbo like a conker. There was something quite intimidating about the golden armor that sat unmoving, as though there was no flesh within the impassive metal.
In truth, he reminded Bilbo more than a little of Thorin during the bad days under the Lonely Mountain when all was gold and madness.
Gandalf stepped forward, bowing low. “Lord Aulë,” he said. “Allow me to present Bilbo Baggins, Ringbearer of the Shire, Burglar of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, Elf Friend, and Poet to the House of Elrond.”
Bilbo’s eyes slid sideways to his friend. That last was more than an embellishment, so it must be a hint. “I am honored to be granted an audience.” Bilbo cursed his old, querulous voice. Who among the great and good would take pleasure in hearing such weak, mortal tones? “If it please you, Lord Aulë, I might tell the tale of how a humble hobbit came to be in such an august place.”
“That is a story I know already,” the great being said flatly. “You come to ask a boon. Ask it.”
Remembering how dwarves felt about bowing and scraping, Bilbo straightened his crooked back as best he could and looked the giant in the eye. “I beg to see my friends again, Lord Aulë.”
“Then return to the side of Elrond Half-Elven,” Aulë said. “I am told that all in his household love you well.”
“Your pardon, my lord, it is my dwarven friends that I would like to see. I hope that a short visit might not be entirely out of the question.”
“The short visit of a thief,” Aulë said. “I wonder what you will do with the knowledge you steal! Yet my curiosity is not great enough to take such a risk. The dwarves are my most precious creations. Loved and admired by me alone, I will trust their safety to no other. If you have come for an admission that there is such a place, that the dwarves you knew beyond the sea are well and happy, then go in peace. There are many marvels and wonders in these lands which you may be shown, Bilbo Baggins, but the resting place of the dwarves is not for your eyes.”
“Not by you alone,” Bilbo objected quietly. “What do I care about wonders and marvels? I am old. I make no claims to wisdom, but I know my own mind. I do not want to see flowers that ring like bells or bridges made of silk string. They’re all very well and good, of course, and I admire the makers of such things tremendously, but I do not want them. I want to see the faces of my friends. Please. There is nothing in this land or any other that I want more.”
For a long while, silence was the only answer to this speech. Then, the golden helm tilted slightly toward Gandalf. “I will concede nothing to the tool of Olórin’s curiosity. Come alone tomorrow, but know that if you do so you may never again walk with your own kin among the living or the dead.”
Then, Bilbo and Gandalf were outside of the hall, standing once more at the bottom of that immense staircase. Looking up toward the closed doors, Gandalf sighed. “The fall of Saruman is hard on him.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Bowing his head, the wizard looked as old and tired as ever he did as Gandalf the Gray. “Lord Aulë has more reason than most to guard his knowledge. In the past he has shared it more often than any other, and lost more than you and I can understand. Be not wroth with him, old friend. For he has given us an answer, at least. Our companions are with him, and at peace.”
“Oh. Er, yes. Of course.”
Gandalf’s eyes were sharp and bright beneath his bushy gray brow. “You mean to return tomorrow.”
Leaning heavily against his walking stick, Bilbo sighed. “Are you going to try to talk me out of it?”
“You are weary. Sit.” Which meant yes, but the wizard conjured up a floating cloud of smoke to carry them along, so Bilbo forgave him for it. Indeed, he filled his own pipe, added to the smoke, and was pleasantly surprised by Gandalf’s silence. Until they arrived at another great hall which was not at all the little dwelling Bilbo shared with Frodo.
As Gandalf lead Bilbo among shadowed pillars and ornate, echoing chambers, Bilbo wondered what he was on about. After all, whatever great and august personage they were going to see could hardly tempt the hobbit away from the friends his heart yearned to meet again. Then, the wizard opened a round little door in the wall which he had to duck to pass through, and they were in the Shire.
It was the Shire. It could be nowhere else. There in the center of everything was the party tree, all covered in lights just beginning to glow in the late afternoon. Something was unusual, out of place, but Bilbo could not see it at first glance. All around the party tree were the usual tables full of laughter, musicians, and the dancing feet of happy hobbits. Upon their entrance, many came over to greet Gandalf and peer curiously at Bilbo.
Of all people, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins recognized him. She looked just as she had on the day she tried to steal his home at auction: sour. And, it must be grudgingly admitted, young. “Bilbo Baggins.” She sniffed. “Not as well preserved as you once were. I suppose there is a price for everything.”
Well aware that fact, Bilbo did not show her how the remark cut. Instead, he said, “And your lovely visage is as welcome to me as it has ever been to anyone, I think, dearest Lobelia.”
“Bilbo?” A hobbit in his early thirties turned away from Gandalf to look curiously at the other new arrival. “Bilbo Baggins! Well, he has appeared this way to brag, hasn’t he? Passed me by years now, I should think, though I don’t grudge you a day, my boy, not a day!”
At once, Bilbo was shaking the cold, weak hand of the Old Took, who was not quite so old any longer. After that, his mother and father embraced him fiercely. There was a certain physicality absent from the gesture, but the emotional warmth more than made up for a coolness of the body. In any case, Bilbo was rather weak on the whole, and so even the press of a spirit against flesh was quite enough to bowl him over.
Once his parents backed off enough for the old hobbit to breathe, Drogo and Primula came over to thank him in a profuse and unseemly fashion. All too soon, Bilbo was quite exhausted. Fortunately, it was a hobbit party. So there was a comfortable enough chair on hand with plenty of tea to perk him up. Warm tea, not hot, and of a very weak variety. Strangely, no one offered him so much as a biscuit to go with it.
Then he noticed what was off about the scene. There was no food on the table. Indeed, although several hobbits had drinks, it seemed to be more for the comfort of a tankard in the hand than any need of the beverage. These were spirits, and they did not require sustenance.
As Bilbo settled, so did the hobbits around him, falling into gossip about acquaintances as hobbits were wont to do. For a while, the old hobbit drifted into a little doze, lulled by the comfort of such familiar surroundings. Rousing himself eventually, he tried to hold up his end of the conversation, inquiring about the health of anyone he could not see. Most of the friends of Bilbo’s youth were absent. The answer always seemed to be an unconcerned, “Oh, she has moved on, of course.”
“No one wants to stay at a party forever,” his mother explained. “We are all quite curious about what comes next. These are the Halls of Waiting, and hobbits on a whole tend toward acceptance. Moving on is inevitable, so there’s not much sense in shovel-leaning. Your father and I are only waiting to see you again and to hear about your life.”
“And of course we shall remain for a time to help you get settled here,” Bungo said firmly, by which his son understood that this was a sacrifice indeed on the part of his father.
“Besides, you will not want to wait here long yourself,” Belladonna said. “There is your Frodo to consider, but on the whole you haven’t many folk left to wait for.”
Considering what he owed to Frodo, Bilbo thought he might have waited forever. Once again, guilt pricked him. He really was a very selfish fellow.
“But tell us about your life,” Bungo pressed. “Were you happy?”
“I have been happier than any hobbit has a right to be,” Bilbo said, but he did not tell them about that. Instead, he told them about all of the beautiful places in the Undying Lands, and all of the unusual people he was privileged to know. Talking about the Dúnedain was much less complicated than speaking of dwarves.
Naturally, the hobbits were only somewhat interested in tales of Rivendell, kings, and poetry. As soon as someone else began speaking for more than two minutes together, Bilbo’s world went dark.
When he woke some time later, there was a homespun blanket about his shoulders. His mother was holding his hand. Belladonna Baggins loved her son, and had clearly shooed away everyone who might disturb him.
“Mother,” he said softly. “If I do not come here very soon, do not continue to wait for me. Take father and move on, as you both seem to wish.”
“You want to go somewhere new,” she guessed. “Somewhere no other hobbit has ever gone.”
“I do. One last adventure.”
Kissing his wrinkled forehead with a resounding smack, she told him to have fun.
So Gandalf’s plan was a failure. The old wizard knew it. Still, he was not a bad sport. After seeing Bilbo back to the little home he shared with Frodo, he mused aloud. “You were never happy in the Shire, once I brought you into the wide world.”
“Nonsense!” Bilbo scowled at him. “To suggest such a thing entirely ignores the deep joy it gave me to see Lobelia’s face when I willed my estate to someone else.”
But of course, Bilbo did not think of Lobelia’s face. He thought of Frodo’s laughter the first time the lad tried some of the Old Wynards. Of the boy grinning up from his desk when he finally mastered his Quenya declensions. Of the young hobbit lounging against a tree with an apple, a book, and not a care in the world.
The deep well of the wizard’s eye was full of unspoken sorrow. Bilbo looked away.
“It is not your fault that I developed a taste for adventure. Do keep an eye on Frodo, though, won’t you? Once I am gone.”
“Two eyes,” promised Gandalf. “As long as he needs me.”
What could a hobbit do in the face of such endless kindness? Embracing his friend as tightly as his old arms could manage, Bilbo bid him farewell.
For once, Bilbo’s inability to sleep through the night served him well. Waking hours before Frodo, the hobbit was able to fill his pockets with bread and cheese before sneaking off. He arrived at the base of Lord Aulë’s steps just as the first rays of dawn transformed the cool light of the stars into the warm light of day.
Without help, Bilbo could only go up twenty or thirty stairs before his hip pained him to the point of impossibility. Then he sat, eating a little of the bread and cheese from his pocket. Eventually, he caught his breath, took up his walking stick, and climbed a few more stairs. The sun reached its zenith before he reached the door.
Even so, he reached it in the end and knocked politely.
The enormous door opened not upon a vast throne room as it had the day before, but on a small, comfortable room. Although there were windows to let in sunlight, only one piece of furniture graced the room. A single workbench stood proudly along one wall. Lord Aulë was nowhere to be seen.
Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Bilbo limped over to the bench and sat. His hip was in a bad way, but more than that, he was disappointed. Apparently, there was to be another trial before he could gain the promised audience.
Writ large in Quenya on the wall behind the workbench were the words, “Man na-túl?”
An easy enough question to answer. Since he had no pen to hand, Bilbo Baggins spelled out his own name with the little wooden blocks on the table. When this had no effect, he tried sermë, seron, sondo, nildo, meldë, and every other word for friend he could think of. He also tried speaking aloud, but he was quite certain that the trial had something to do with the little wooden blocks.
They were very small, the size of caraway seeds, and light enough that the movement of his shirtsleeves sometimes created enough of a breeze to scatter them. As he was shifting them about to spell different passwords, two of the blocks clicked together. They would not separate. It was a puzzle. A far more complicated puzzle than any child’s game in the Shire.
Now that he knew what he was meant to do, the hobbit set to work in earnest. There were thousands of the little blocks, and swishing them around randomly did not click many together. He had to focus on the larger picture. Some blocks had a smooth, round edge that clearly could not lock with others. So Bilbo focused on arranging those together. It was tricky, fiddly work, but by the time the sun disappeared from the windows, he had a model of a hobbit’s foot as big as his thumb, complete with very realistic curls.
When the sun set, candles lit about the workbench. Bilbo considered heading off to supper and bed, but dismissed the idea immediately. Leaving might mean a different challenge when he returned. Or he might not be allowed another audience at all. It was best to keep working.
Still, the puzzle pieces were so small and the whole so complicated, that Bilbo worked for many hours to get only a disembodied hand, part of a waistcoat, and one trouser leg rising from the foot he already had. In frustration, he shut his eyes for just a moment.
Opening his eyes, Bilbo saw sunlight streaming through the windows once more. His back ached, which was what he deserved after a night sitting up in a wooden chair, but his mind was clearer. Looking at his puzzle pieces, the hobbit got back to work.
Around midday, just as he was finishing off the waistcoat of the wooden hobbit in his hands, Bilbo’s stomach lurched. All of the bread and cheese was gone, of course, and there was nothing to eat in the workroom. Behind him, the door opened.
“Thank you kindly,” Bilbo said to the empty room. “A bit more light was just what I was wanting.” And he kept on assembling his puzzle.
By the time the sun sank away and the candles lit once more, Bilbo had a complete wooden statue of a hobbit in his hands. A very familiar hobbit, though Bilbo wondered if he had ever really been so young. Sting was on his belt where it belonged, and Bilbo could see the hint of a silver-steel shirt beneath his waistcoat.
“I’ve finished,” he announced to the room at large.
Groaning, Bilbo levered himself out of his chair and began searching for a missing piece. Crawling on all fours underneath the workbench was undignified, but not being able to get back up was worse. For a time, he simply lay with his back flat on the stone floor. Moving at all pained his old hip terribly. Remaining on the floor forever in the one position that did not hurt held a certain appeal. If he did so, he would not see his friends again.
With the aid of his walking stick and the chair, Bilbo managed to get back to his feet. The doll was complete. After such a thorough search, he ruled out a missing piece. And so it followed that there must be an extra one.
Bilbo knew well that the wooden hobbit in his hands had no pockets, just a line sketched in the appropriate place to give the artistic impression of such. Had he not pieced those very pockets together out of solid wood? Yet when he reached into one with the tip of a fingernail, he found space enough to do so. Drawing his hand back, he saw the tiny, golden ring.
In miniature, the ring was perfect. Bright and beautiful as always, it shone in the candlelight on the tip of his finger. He could put it in his own pocket. Where it belonged. If he did so, it would grow. Bilbo did not know how he knew this, but he was quite sure. This ring would be even better than the last. A pure gift from Lord Aulë, it would have none of that sneaking, creeping evil. This ring would be a proper magic ring, turning Bilbo invisible at will without doing anything insidious along the way. All Bilbo had to do was put it in his pocket and go.
With a flick of his fingers, Bilbo dropped the little wooden ring into a candle flame. The gold-painted puzzle piece flashed and turned to ash before falling to to the workbench. As it did so, the room around Bilbo grew larger. His wooden chair turned into a comfortable armchair, and another of similar style appeared across from him. Upon it, sat Lord Aulë.
No longer helmed in gold, Aulë had a long black beard and a distinctly dwarven cast to his features, though he remained a giant in size. He frowned at Bilbo.
“So, you have answered all the riddles and earned your passage into the realm of the dwarves, have you?”
Bilbo bowed as best he could while sitting. He was not strong enough to stand. “Such a boon cannot be earned, Lord Aulë, only begged. Well do I know that even in my prime, a humble hobbit could not perform a service deserving such a favor from you. Yet, old and incapable as I am, I will try. I will do any task you set before me, until my body gives out, for the chance to see those I love one last time.”
The giant was silent for a long time. Then he took a single breath, not quite a sigh. “A bargain, then,” he said.
“You say you are old, but you know in this place that death does not equal silence. A clever burglar must have realized as well that I am not worried about you telling my secrets to other hobbits. It is Olórin and my own kind that I fear.” Grudgingly, the giant admitted, “Olórin less than most. He has proved himself worthy of some faith.”
“So here is the bargain, hobbit who claims the friendship of dwarves. You may have all the beats left in your mortal heart to spend in my realm. There are not many, but enough. If you are honest in your desires, you shall have time enough to see and speak to those you claim to miss. In return, I will have your vow. After your heart gives out, you will go to Mandos. Not for Waiting. For Judgment. Thereupon, you shall go where none in this realm may use you to learn my secrets.”
“Yes,” Bilbo said quickly. “I agree. Very fair, my lord.”
Aulë did sigh then, and rose from his chair. When he stood, Bilbo saw that he was not a giant at all. In fact, the Lord Maker was only slightly larger than the average dwarf, though he was still significantly taller than Bilbo. Courteously, he extended a hand. Bilbo accepted the support.
The halls and passageways Lord Aulë led Bilbo through seemed normal enough for a grand mansion, though the hobbit suspected that if he walked down them alone he would wander forever and lose his way. Finally, they went through a door not unlike any other door in the place and wound up in a library. Intrigued, Bilbo looked about at the books and scrolls they walked past. Then he stared at the long tables with dwarves seated in study.
Aulë cleared his throat. At once, all of the dwarves stopped what they were doing to look attentively to their lord.
“Hear me,” he said, and his voice boomed among the books like the echo of a cave. “This one comes with my permission. Fear not, and show him to what he wishes to see. His time is short, and his errand worthy.”
The dwarves bowed their heads, and Aulë turned away.
“Thank you,” Bilbo said softly, but only to the air. Lord Aulë was already gone.
Before Bilbo turned back to face the dwarves, rough arms wrapped around him, knocking his walking stick out of his hand.
“Bilbo!” the dwarf hugging him cried. “You old codger! How in the world did you manage this?”
“Easy, Ori.” Bilbo laughed, but it turned into a cough in his old throat. “I’m not as tough as I used to be.”
“My dear hobbit,” Balin said. “You were never tough.”
“Hello, old friend.”
Balin’s embrace was much gentler than Ori’s. He also supported more of Bilbo’s weight while pressing their foreheads together. Afterward, he thoughtfully bent to pick up Bilbo’s stick. Only then did the hobbit realize how strange he looked.
Ori seemed ordinary enough. The scribe’s beard was fuller and he looked older than he had the last time they met, but the last time Ori visited the Shire was only ten years or so after Bilbo’s own adventure. It made sense that the scribe would be a bit older. Balin, on the other hand, looked most unlike Bilbo’s memories of him. With brown hair and a long brown beard, Bilbo only barely recognized his laughing eyes, for all the wrinkles in his face were smoothed away.
“Young friend, I should say,” the hobbit corrected.
Balin laughed. “You’ll get used to it. Most of your friends will appear as you remember them. But tell us, how did you come to be here in the first place?”
“Perhaps we can walk as we talk,” Bilbo suggested. “I never had the speed to rival a dwarf’s, and these days I can barely cross a room before lunchtime. Lord Aulë has been very generous, but he only said I would have enough time, not what would happen if I wasted it.”
At once, Balin took Bilbo’s free arm and began to lead him from the vast library. Ori fell into step beside them. “Enough time for what?”
“Oh.” Bilbo faltered. His hip pained him. “Nothing really. Nothing important. I should just like to see everyone. You know, I have missed all of you so terribly. It would be foolish to come so far and then not see someone.”
“How much time do you have?” Ori asked.
Bilbo shrugged. “Enough, is all I was told.”
“I’ll gather everyone together,” the scribe said immediately. “To the Feast Hall of Durin’s Folk, do you think?”
“Yes,” Balin said. “That is the best place. In the meantime, Bilbo and I will go to Thorin.”
Squeezing his friend’s arm gently, Bilbo murmured a thank you as Ori dashed away. “But I am here to see you as well, dear Balin. When last you visited me in the Shire you were off to reclaim the great Khazad-dûm. Tell me, how did your adventures go?”
Wryly twisting his lips into a half smile, Balin said, “Poorly.”
“Oh!” Bilbo waved a hand dismissively. “Not the ending. I heard all about that from Frodo. That Ori fell with a pen in his hand and all the rest. Long have I already sat beside your tomb in Moria, old friend, mourning with Frodo and your cousin Gimli, Gloin’s son. Let us dwell on grief no longer! Tell me of the heights! Did you find that endless staircase? What about the lake which reflects the stars even during daylight when they cannot be seen?”
Slowly, Balin’s smile grew genuine. “I did indeed.” And as they walked, he told Bilbo of his adventures. These involved a great deal of darkness, death, and, of course, a Balrog, but also many beauteous treasures of the ancient past.
Listening with his full attention did not prevent Bilbo from looking about as they walked. He no longer felt as though he was in a great house. These stone walkways and vaulted ceilings were the streets of a dwarven city. Well did he know the style from his time in Erebor, yet this was no dilapidated ruin. This was a lovely, orderly place where anyone would be happy to live. Balin led him down a respectable side street, to a very ordinary looking door. With a wink at Bilbo, the dwarf knocked.
“Go away,” a familiar voice bellowed. “I am working.” Bilbo’s knees went weak with memory, even hearing Thorin sound so cross.
“It’s me,” Balin said.
For a moment, there was silence, then Bilbo heard the distant ring of a hammer behind the door. “Come back in an hour. I’ll be finished by then.”
Rolling his eyes at Bilbo, Balin grinned and pushed the door open. Golden light illuminated an neat, well stocked forge and the figure of a dwarf long absent from Bilbo’s life. Rolled up shirtsleeves revealed strong arms covered in soot as Thorin wielded his hammer with powerful, repetitive blows. Sweat beaded across the dwarf’s forehead in testament to the vigor of his work. His long hair fell loose and wild about his shoulders. If there was slightly less silver in it, Bilbo could not tell in the gentle glow of the forge. Otherwise, the handsome dwarf might have stepped directly out of Bilbo’s memory.
“This cannot wait, my king. We have a visitor who you have not seen for many years.”
“Not your brother?” Thorin looked up from his work, saw Bilbo, and slowly lowered his hammer to the anvil, releasing his grip on it.
“Not my brother,” Balin agreed pleasantly.
“Hello, Thorin,” Bilbo said softly. “I am so very sorry to interrupt your work.”
Thorin said nothing.
“It’s me. That is to say, Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit. We went on an adventure together many years ago. The one to Erebor? You’re looking well,” Bilbo observed inanely. “I trust you are in good health.”
Thorin stared at him.
“What are you working on?” the hobbit asked, feeling a bit desperate.
In answer, the dwarf quickly thrust the glowing hot thing in his tongs into a nearby bucket of water where it hissed and filled the air with steam. But he did not say anything, and he did not look away from Bilbo’s face.
“Well.” Bilbo laughed uncomfortably. “Again, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you. Unconscionable, really, for us to barge in when you asked us to come back later. Only I shall be leaving soon, and—”
“Leaving!” Thorin’s voice was so sharp that Bilbo was not sure if this was a question, an objection, or a directive.
“Yes,” Bilbo said. “Lord Aulë, that is to say, your Lord Mahal has been kind enough to allow me a brief visit to see all of my old friends. My understanding is that it shall be very brief indeed. Likely a few days at the most. So you needn’t concern yourself about seeing too much of me. I shall be out of your hair in no time at all.”
Thorin only blinked in response to this, squeezing his eyes together very tightly before staring at Bilbo once more.
“We are gathering in the Feast Hall of Durin’s Folk,” Balin said, taking pity on Bilbo at last. “If you care to join us, please do.” Then he made as if to lead Bilbo from the room by his arm, but the hobbit resisted. Just for a moment. Just to be sure he would remember the exact shade of the roses beneath Thorin’s beard.
“It is so very good to see you well and whole, Thorin,” the hobbit said softly. “Thank you for indulging an old fool, but I am so very glad to look upon your face again. In my dotage, I had nearly forgotten you!” Although he meant this as a joke, it fell flat. No one laughed, and Balin lead him gently away.
Bilbo’s eyes were weak in the dim light. That was the only reason he needed to dab them with his handkerchief. Mercifully, Balin did not even ask for this excuse, only returned to telling Bilbo of his adventures in Moria as they walked.
The Feast Hall of Durin’s Folk was vast indeed. According to Balin, it could seat all the dwarves of that lineage who ever died and ever would. Yet the tables did not seem overly long or expansive, and all of them seemed to be situated perfectly near one of the roaring fireplaces along the edge of the room. Bilbo squinted. The longer he looked at it, the more impossible it was that such a place could exist.
“Don’t think about it too much,” Balin advised.
In fact, Bilbo was promptly saved from doing so by a pincer assault. Two dwarves came up on either side of him, knocking Balin out of the way to embrace him forcefully. Once again, the hobbit’s eyes filled with tears.
“Bilbo!” Kili cried.
“However did you manage this?” Fili demanded, too loudly in his ear.
When they finally set him down, Bilbo could barely stand under his own power. He was much too tired after all that walking and being knocked about. “I shall tell you all,” he promised, “but I need a seat and a drink to do so.”
It was a feast hall, after all, and there was food aplenty here. Not only the big haunches of roast meat that dwarves favored, but some very passable soup was found which would not utterly destroy Bilbo’s aged digestion.
Kili stared at it. “I have never seen soup here before.”
“I see it often.” Balin snorted. “The food upon this table is to suit the diner. A hungry dwarf, or hobbit, will find what he likes.”
Fili nodded sagely. “That makes sense. It is like the materials bin in my forge, then.”
“Oh!” Kili realized. “I’ve one of those, too. I didn’t know the food was like that.”
Balin raised an eyebrow. “Where did you think it came from?”
Kili shrugged and looked about. “I don’t know. Kitchens? Farms? Places?”
Bilbo laughed. The soup was really quite good. It reminded him vaguely of something his mother used to do with squash and apples when he was young. Before he could comment on that, more dwarves swarmed around their table introducing themselves.
“Thrain, son of Thror,” was a name that stood out among the others.
“But that would make you Thorin’s father,” Bilbo said.
“And our grandfather,” Kili agreed. “That is our grandmother, and our great grandmother. Of course, age is no use telling them apart, so just remember Hrae for hair. That’s what I do.”
The dwarf with the elaborate golden braids twisted up in looping rings about a gorgeous, ruby bedecked crown, pinched Kili’s ear until he apologized. Bilbo could only laugh again.
“Tell us of yourself, Bilbo Baggins,” Thrain said, sitting close to him. “We have heard much of your adventures, and yet to actually speak with you is an unexpected pleasure indeed!”
“Well, Thrain, son of Thror, I don’t mind telling you, we had a bit of trouble with that old map of yours on the way to Erebor.” Bilbo took a little sip of ale to wet his throat for storytelling. Then he dove right in. It had been a long time since he last had such an appreciative audience. The dwarves laughed and gasped in all the right places.
“And then, once we finally had the door open,” Bilbo concluded, “No one would come inside with me! Balin, brave soul that he is, agreed to keep watch in the doorway. The doorway, I tell you.”
Clapping Bilbo on the back, Balin said, “I like you, Bilbo, but I like my unscorched skin more.”
All the dwarves threw their heads back in laughter, and Bilbo looked up to see that his audience had grown by a few familiar faces. Bombur was as fat as ever, though not as large as rumor made him near the end of his life. In fact, he looked exactly as he had during their adventure together. Next to him, Oin’s gray was entirely gone. Bilbo was surprised to learn that his beard and hair were black, not red like his brother Gloin’s. Leaving his story, Bilbo rose to greet them both with a hug.
Then he turned to offer his hand to Dain Ironfoot. The old king had more red in his beard than Bilbo remembered and the Raven Crown of Erebor upon his brow. Bilbo looked from him to King Thror, who also wore the crown. There were subtle differences. Thror’s was bright and golden while Dain’s seemed to have a red, almost rusty cast to match his fiery hair. The knotwork varied slightly between the two crowns as well, and the wings which stretched down to fame Dain’s face put Bilbo in mind of a boar’s tusks.
“Forgive my ignorance,” he said, “but how is it that the two of you have the same crown?”
Dain waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, it’s nothing. Just a silly trinket left over from life. Go on with your story, lad. You were just getting to the good part.”
Fortunately, Bilbo did not have to insist. Thrain gave him a proper answer. “Those dwarves who lead our people well in life are gifted with crowns by Lord Mahal here. Together, they form a Council of Kings, and are privileged to advise him as needed. You will notice I do not have one, for I never led my people. Indeed, some who claimed kingship for many years in life are not granted the privilege, and some who never had it, but ruled in truth, are.” Here he nodded to the crown worn by his mother. Looking at her crown, Bilbo remembered who it was said ruled Erebor truly in the last days of Thror’s madness before the dragon came.
Bilbo looked at Dain again. The crown suited him. Undeniably so. Yet it seemed unfair to the hobbit that he should wear it. Thorin, who fought, and bled, and died to win the thing back, spent his days all alone in a forge, covered in soot.
As if summoned by these thoughts, Thorin appeared. He was not covered in soot. In fact, a silver crown adorned his black hair, looking nothing at all like the Raven Crown worn by Dain and Thror. Instead, the circlet put Bilbo in mind of a long, winding road. Thorin’s clothes were clean, well pressed silk. Blue always brought out his eyes, but the blue of this tunic reminded Bilbo of the deepest parts of the sea he’d crossed. The silver and gold filigree which decorated it was worthy of any noble figure.
“The crowns are made by Mahal himself, you know,” Kili said helpfully.
“Uncle earned his by leading our people through exile,” Fili said. “It is based on no earthly design. Entirely Mahal’s own work.”
“It’s a great honor.” Dain nudged Bilbo in the ribs with the strength of a dwarf who did not realize how easy it would be for him to knock a hobbit over. “Much nobler than me getting mine because I was the only one left to lead.”
“I think it suits him,” Hrae added. “Don’t you think he’s handsome in it?”
Thorin ignored these remarks, coming directly to Bilbo. He gathered the hobbit gently in his arms for the warmest embrace of all, simply holding him for a good long while. He still smelled a bit like a forge, but also like a rich perfume. When he pulled away, it was only to press his forehead to Bilbo’s in a gesture of friendship.
“Welcome,” the dwarf said. “Forgive my surprise at seeing you after lo these many years, Bilbo. I did not anticipate that the passage of such time could make a hobbit so comely, nor that one so noble would deign to call upon me.”
Bilbo laughed loud and long. “Oh, Thorin! There is your silver tongue! I almost wondered if I invented it for my memoir.”
Thorin’s smile did not make him look young. He looked exactly as he had upon the Carrock all those years ago: wise, yet full of vigor. Delightfully, this time he was uninjured. He was whole, and healthy, and perfect. Bilbo leaned in to feel his strength again, confident that old age would mask his more prurient motives.
“I cannot be the only dwarf struck dumb by your presence, dear Bilbo.” A warm hand slid around to the small of Bilbo’s back, supporting him easily.
Entirely unable to stop grinning, the hobbit said, “In my experience, dwarves keeping their wits would be the more astonishing outcome.”
Chuckling, Thorin tucked a few of Bilbo’s thin white curls behind his ear. For the first time in a long while, Bilbo wished he still looked as he had for all those years: unchanged. But that was simple vanity and it had never been worth the price. “Tell us your tale, Master Baggins. We are eager to hear it.”
“I am telling everyone about the dragon just now.”
Thorin gave one curl a little tug. “Tease me not! How did you come to be here, Bilbo? How can such a miracle occur?”
“Oh, very well.” So Bilbo told them all about crossing the sea with Gandalf and Frodo, although his mind was unclear about most of the early events. The dwarves were mildly curious about what Bilbo had seen in the Undying Lands, but they were far more intrigued by Mahal’s house and the challenges set before the hobbit.
“Those stairs were the biggest challenge of my life,” Bilbo said, and everyone laughed. The dwarves approved highly of a physical test. They also liked that Bilbo had to make something to prove himself to the Great Maker.
In the end, Bilbo left out the Ring and the bit about the beating of his mortal heart. It was much too depressing for such a friendly gathering.
“You must be exhausted,” Balin observed.
Bilbo sighed, and simply looked at his friend. “I’m determined to make the most of my limited time.”
“Like a child arguing against bedtime,” Thorin said. “Lord Mahal will not steal you from us in your sleep.”
“I’ve a spare room,” Bombur said. “For one of my children, or maybe Bofur. Not sure yet.”
“Bofur? Is he here?”
“No,” Bombur said. “But he will be one day. Or some other member of my family who will want to be with my wife and I instead of alone. In any case, I’ve an empty bed, and you’re welcome to it.”
“I shall escort you.” Thorin offered an arm, helping Bilbo out of his chair. Balin fetched his walking stick, but then bid everyone goodnight. Most of Bilbo’s audience dispersed similarly.
Bifur and Bombur lead the way through the streets to Bombur’s home, but given Bilbo’s pace they soon drew ahead. Bilbo and Thorin were left walking together with the illusion of privacy.
“You know,” the king said mildly, “You are welcome to stay with me instead of Bombur, if you choose.”
“You have an empty bed as well?”
“No. Simply a lonely one.”
Bilbo wondered how much of his time was being eaten away by the sudden racing of his heart. Then he wondered if he would not trade all of it for what Thorin offered. “Foolishness.” He huffed a little laugh. “I couldn’t possibly, Thorin. Not because our inevitable parting would lead to heartbreak or anything so maudlin. As a practical concern, I simply couldn’t. The air in the Undying Lands granted me a little respite from the worst pains of my age, but the fact of it remains. My blood has not stirred in many years. Not since. Well, not since my nephew came back from his quest at any rate.”
Thorin stopped walking and turned to face Bilbo directly. “Tell me if my foolish pride once again seeks to claim more than is my due, Bilbo. Did you come here for me?”
Blushing what was sure to be a terribly unflattering shade of scarlet, Bilbo looked away from Thorin’s focused gaze. “I was in the neighborhood. But yes. I suppose I did. Mind you, I do not cherish any ridiculous fancies about the two of us. I just. Wanted to see your face again.” And because this was the truth, he met Thorin’s softening eyes. Daringly, he raised a hand to cup a bearded cheek.
Slowly, Thorin bent down and brushed their lips together, very gently. When the king withdrew, his eyes scanned Bilbo’s face, searching for something unknown. Whatever he was looking for, Thorin found it, grinning in relief.
“My love,” he said, and Bilbo’s heart decided to extend his stay by skipping a few beats entirely. “Well have I learned my lessons! Here, in this place of peace and plenty, I do not seek to rule or command. My days are spent in simple crafting, even as another might spend their time studying in the library, and my nights are spent upon the pleasures of home and hearth. Whether we are making music or making merry, my family and friends do our best to bring joy to one another. It is as I said to you when last we parted: this world is a merrier place.”
“That’s wonderful.” Overcome, Bilbo blinked away a few tears. “That’s all my hopes fulfilled. Oh, Thorin! I am so glad you are happy.”
“Stay. Stay here, with me. Be happy here, with me.”
“The Council of Kings is not an honor only. We advise Lord Mahal. He has never failed to grant us a petition when we asked in one voice, and they will join their voices to mine for this, if you give me leave to ask it. You will be allowed to stay.”
Bilbo blinked again. Then he stepped backward out of the warm circle of Thorin’s arms. “Lord Mahal and I made a bargain.”
“He will change the terms, not you.”
“And he will stop me here, leaving you an old hobbit to take care of.”
“Leaving me my beloved. Blessing me with your wit and your wisdom for all the years to come.”
There was no humor in Bilbo’s laugh. “Perhaps you do not know, Thorin, but I have been stopped once before.”
“The Ring, Thorin! My Ring! The destruction of which earned me my passage to this place, though everyone except Lobelia is too kind to mention it.”
“Yes, I know. We have heard the tale, even here. From Dain and others who gave their lives in what is now called the War of the Ring. It extended your life. But that was dark magic. This would be a gift from Lord Mahal! There would be no evil in it.”
“You don’t know what it’s like. To be stopped. To be stretched out past your natural span. Perhaps I did not understand it at the time, but I felt it. I felt so very wrong. And there was another hobbit, stopped in the same way. He suffered for centuries before ending very badly. You will say it was the evil of the Ring, but I think there are only so many beats in a mortal heart. If you try to hard to stretch them out, the heart cannot remain as it was.”
Thorin looked down at Bilbo from a grave face. Slowly, he nodded. “I am sorry. Once again, my greed overcomes my wisdom and only your goodness prevents the ultimate disaster. It was wrong of me to ask.”
When he stepped close once more, Bilbo did not pull away.
“Would you have stayed in Erebor, had I lived?”
Bilbo looked away. “There lies madness, Thorin. We have so little time. We cannot know if you would have forgiven me, had you lived, or if I would have given over my own home for yours. It is pointless to wonder.”
Thorin caught the hobbit’s chin with a gentle hand, forcing Bilbo to meet those sad, blue eyes once more. “Then stay with me tonight. Just to sleep at my side, so I know what it is to share a bed with you once. Give me something to carry with me for the long years I must spend without you.”
“If you insist.” The kiss that followed probably stole months from Bilbo’s life, speeding his heart to the breakneck pace of a galloping horse. It was absolutely worth it.
In the end, Bilbo spent three days in the Halls of Aulë. Three days of song, story, good food, and better fellowship. He spent three nights in Thorin’s bed. Three nights of the warmest, deepest, truest rest he had ever known. It was not enough.
Three centuries would not have been enough.
Aulë came for Bilbo directly, in the form of a dwarf only slightly bigger than all the other dwarves making merry in the Feast Hall of Durin. Smiling apologetically at Bilbo’s friends, he said, “It is time.”
“Alright.” Bilbo levered himself out of his chair unsteadily. Perhaps he would not have indulged in a whole pint if he knew the time was so close. Perhaps he would have indulged in two. Questioning the past was pointless.
Thorin stepped forward, thrusting himself between Bilbo and Lord Aulë.
“It is time,” Aulë repeated. “To extend it another hour or another day will only stretch out your grief, my son. Say your farewells.”
“Let me go with him.”
Bilbo had never seen one of the Valar surprised, but having surprised many dwarves in his time he recognized the expression on Lord Aulë’s face immediately.
“It has been granted once before,” Thorin said. “An elf was permitted the Gift of Ilúvatar to be with the one she loved. Allow me the same, my lord. Sunder me not from my heart, for without him, I am inconstant sand. He is my wisdom, my joy, and my strength. I am too weak to part from him again.”
“What you ask is not mine to grant.” There were tears in Aulë’s eyes. Bilbo wondered if the dwarves could see them.
“Then bring me to one with the power to do so,” Thorin demanded.
Aulë looked at him for a long moment. Then he said, “No.”
That was all. Thorin did not argue. Instead, he fell asleep. Dropping backward like a badly balanced pitcher of milk, he hit the ground before anyone could catch him. At once, his family gathered around him, looking concerned.
“Well,” Bilbo said, as cheerfully as he could, “I shall bid you all goodbye, I think. It has been a truly remarkable experience. Perhaps the most pleasant few days of my entire life, and I have lived a long one, indeed! Thank you for your hospitality.”
All of Bilbo’s friends stood, gazing at him in the respectful manner of dwarves, but it was Balin who spoke for the group. He came forward to embrace the hobbit one last time.
“We will miss you, old friend. We will remember you until the breaking of the world.”
Grinning, Bilbo blinked his tears away. “Look after him, won’t you?” he said, nodding to Thorin unnecessarily.
“I always do.” Balin’s eyes darted toward Lord Aulë with something very like fear. “It may be difficult this time. Thorin does not forgive.”
“Nonsense,” Bilbo said. “He has learned to be happy, and that means learning to forgive. If he gives you any trouble about it, tell him I shan’t accept his forgiving me for everything if he can’t continue the practice more generally.”
Laughing, Balin promised to try. Then, Bilbo could only look down at Thorin’s sleeping face. He looked so peaceful when he slept, and hardly snored at all, unlike other dwarves Bilbo could name. Although it was very difficult for him to stoop so low, the hobbit knelt at his lover’s side to press a single kiss to the dwarf’s forehead.
“Bilbo Baggins, we must go,” Aulë said mercilessly. So Bilbo rose and went to his side. His final walk through the dwarven streets was rather blurred by tears. After a time, Aulë stopped walking, and breathed a sigh of relief. “That was cutting it close,” he said, almost like a regular person would.
Bilbo looked at him in confusion.
The Lord Maker gestured to the marble floor, and Bilbo realized they were no longer in the dwarven hiding place, but back in the halls of Lord Aulë’s home. The body of a dead old hobbit lay crumpled upon the marble. In his sadness, Bilbo did not even notice falling. But then, he was still standing. It was a most unusual sensation.
“Your friends did not need the grief of witnessing your passing,” Aulë said.
“No, of course not,” Bilbo agreed. “Thank you for sparing them.”
“I would spare them more than that, if I could.” Once again, the dwarf-like visage of the powerful being looked impossibly sad. “That I do not disobey the order of the world does not mean I am never tempted, Bilbo Baggins.”
“I know.” Bilbo patted his arm companionably. “You love them, so naturally you want them to be happy. But that does not mean one can do just as one likes. Besides, you have been as kind to us all as you could be, under the circumstances. Thorin will understand, once his temper has time to cool. Just you wait and see.”
Smiling wryly, Aulë offered Bilbo an arm. “I may wait, but your appointment will not.”
“Indeed, it will not. Lead on!”
Visiting the Halls of Waiting as a disembodied spirit was rather different from Bilbo’s earlier visit. On the positive side, he could move much more quickly and without pain. As a neutral observation, he didn’t really feel anything he touched. He no longer wondered at the lack of food involved in the eternal party of the dead hobbits. In truth, he doubted he would be able to taste even the strongest goat cheese. And then there was the rather alarming fact that the deep shadows in the Halls of Waiting were endless now.
Where a living eye skipped over the shadows as a normal pattern created by pillars and light, the disembodied hobbit knew better. Each was an empty void, a bottomless abyss, into which the unwary might fall. Stepping closer to Lord Aulë, Bilbo tightened his grip on the strong, dwarf-like arm.
Aulë smiled at him. “I will see you safely to my brother,” he promised. “Fear not.”
Bilbo tried to obey, but the seat of Námo was frightening indeed. He was easily as large as Aulë had been when appearing as an empty suit of armor, but his throne was shining steel, more implacable and unyielding than gold. The figure himself was thinner, and more elf-like, with pointed ears and dark skin. His lips were bright blue, but he did not look cold. In fact, Námo looked entirely unaffected by all that passed before him.
“Lord Mandos,” Bilbo said, bowing low.
“Bilbo Baggins.” Námo nodded. “You come before me for judgment, but it need not be so.” He gestured gracefully with one hand toward a shadow. Gandalf stepped out of it, with Frodo at his side. “My brother has no power in my hall. You may wait for judgment, if you choose. Olórin will show you the way.”
Frodo smiled hopefully.
Clearing his throat, Bilbo forced himself to look back at the great judge. “Thank you, my lord, but I gave my word. I am ready for my judgment. I have no regrets.”
“None?” Námo raised an eyebrow.
At once, Bilbo’s heart was full of them. He looked back to Frodo and began weeping openly over the pain his own adventure brought the lad. How that adventure ended! Could he do anything but regret betraying Thorin? Failing Fili and Kili? His life was nothing but regrets, from not advising poor Lobelia against her loveless marriage to his cousin all the way to not thanking Elrond properly for all his time in Rivendell.
Námo did not laugh, but his expressionless mein cracked in a small smile. “Ah, hobbits,” he said, almost fondly. “How is it that those with the least to regret always feel those regrets most strongly? You lived well, Bilbo Baggins. Leave your regrets here, and move on with a glad heart.”
As his tears dried, Bilbo felt a lightness take him. Looking down, he saw that his feet no longer touched the floor. All of his cares were gone. Frodo was weeping now, but Bilbo could only smile at the boy.
Námo raised a hand, but before anything else could happen, Lord Aulë spoke. “Thorin Oakenshield would go with him.”
The judge tilted his head toward Aulë. “You admit freely, in front of witnesses, that a dead dwarf is with you and able to speak.”
Aulë scowled. “You already knew it, Doomsayer.”
“I did.” Námo looked back at the floating hobbit. “But that is not the Doom of Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield.”
Lord Aulë looked so frustrated and dwarvish that Bilbo felt compelled to speak up for him. “Please, Lord, he means no offense. Can you not be swayed in the cause of love? Tales tell us that it has been so once beore. I make no pretense toward the elegant speech of Tinúviel. No one ever likened my voice to lark or nightingale, but surely that does not make my heart less. My love is as true as any, and my situation as pitiable. For we were parted by death, and only by the grace of Lord Aulë did we even come to understand one another. Yet that was so late, and we have never truly been together. Can we not be joined now, in this new adventure?”
Once again, the Lord of Death smiled his strange little smile. “Freed of all cares and attachments, still you ask this, Bilbo Baggins?”
Bilbo searched his light, unburdened heart. “Love can be a care, and a promise, but it is also a joy. I will carry it with me always, whether or not Thorin is at my side.”
Námo bowed his head. “Aulë, you will allow a dwarf who chooses another path to do so, for love?”
“Remember that. The time for it approaches. But that time is later, and that dwarf another.”
Aulë’s scowl was so fierce now that Bilbo wondered vaguely how it would be if two Valar fought. It seemed like something he should worry about, but he was incapable of worry.
“Bilbo Baggins: a choice lies before you. Accept the Gift of Men! Pass from this world to what awaits you, but do so alone. Or, go with Aulë.” Námo’s lips twitched again. “Likely, you know better than I what fate awaits you in his keeping.”
Bilbo blinked at Aulë, who grinned fiercely. “Our bargain.”
“Either choice will keep it,” the Maker of Dwarves promised, stretching out a hand to the hobbit. Bilbo wondered how often the great lord extended such a hand. More often than most, if the stories were true. Well, he would not be lumped in with the sorry fellows who abused and betrayed such trust. At least not willingly.
No sooner did Bilbo touch his fingers to the hand than he found himself ripped backward, wrapped in Frodo’s arms, with forceful kiss pressed to his cheek. “Goodbye,” the lad whispered through his tears.
“Goodbye.” Bilbo patted his back gently.
Frodo only hugged him more tightly.
“Come now,” Bilbo murmured. “You know I’m no good at these.”
“I’m afraid to let go,” Frodo whispered. “Gandalf made me promise not to interfere. I suspect I’m in trouble.”
“Well,” Bilbo said, “You’re a Baggins. You can’t help a little interfering every now and again.”
So they parted on a laugh, at least, which was a comfort, since Bilbo never saw his nephew again. Nor was Frodo ever permitted to know precisely what came of him.
However, he was not so easily shot of wizards. A few centuries later, Gandalf himself managed to talk his way into the Halls of Aulë. Aulë, who of all the Valar was the quickest to trust and the most ready to take students. There, the old wizard found a very happy hobbit composing merry songs in dwarven time.
“I have not been entirely honest with you,” Gandalf admitted to the Valar.
“I did want to see how Bilbo was getting on, but I think it’s only fair to let Kili know that Tauriel has arrived in the Halls of Waiting.”
“No!” Aulë put his foot down. “I already gave him Gimli for Bilbo! How many of my dwarves does Námo want?”
Gandalf laughed. “They are not toys, Lord Aulë. They are in love.”
“So they are,” Aulë observed, watching a tipsy hobbit plop himself into the lap of a great dwarven king and claim a kiss. “I suppose that is worth something, in the end.”
“I suppose it is worth everything,” Gandalf said.
And the Valar did not naysay him.