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Everything was grey: the sea, the sky, the ships, the cloaks of the waiting elves, their eyes, the mood. What should have been a glad time of anticipation was shadowed by the fog of grievous departures. And that heartache, Celeborn thought, was given expression in the faces of four small hobbits.
The Ringbearer inspected the curly hair on his oversized feet, as if ashamed to meet the eyes of his cousins and friend. He had grown paler still since Celeborn had last seen him on the road home from Minas Tirith, paler and thinner and with the same translucence that affected Galadriel and Elrond.
For a moment the elf was aware of a furious desire to hurt somebody – preferably the long-dead Celebrimbor, whose passion for creating the impossible had led him into contributing to Sauron’s perverted desire for control. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. It had not all been his fault, he told himself, as he had over more than an age. He had meant well: he could not help being the idiot descendant of an obsessive line, born to be destroyed by jewels and curses and dooms.
‘It’s not your fault, Mr. Frodo,’ Sam said, his voice hoarse with grief. ‘You’ve tried. I know how hard you’ve tried. It won’t let go of you, not anyhow.’
‘I have to go, Sam,’ Frodo replied, his voice murmuring with the song of the waves, already half-abandoned to the ocean. ‘I’ll never be free of it here. I don’t think even my death would make it leave me be.’
Celeborn looked towards Galadriel where she stood with her grandsons’ arms around her and thought how strange it was that two beings so different could share so much. She had fought the sea’s call over the last months with all the dogged determination she possessed, but still he had seen her weakening as it took possession of her. Yet here was a slight Halfling who seemed to partake of a strength of mind and resolution comparable to that of one of the Eldar. It should not surprise him – this was, after all, the Halfling who had carried the One Ring to its eventual destruction – but surprise him it did. Frodo Baggins was infinitely more worthy of his place among the great in the Blessed Realm than many of the elves who accepted it as part of their birthright.
‘Don’t worry about us, Frodo,’ the bell-like voice of the green-eyed Took said earnestly. ‘We will miss you, of course, but we are relieved that you are doing something for yourself at last. It’s about time, isn’t it, Merry?’
‘We will ride to the Havens every few months, Frodo,’ Merry said practically, ‘and leave letters with Cirdan for you and Bilbo, so that each new ship should bring something from us. I know you can’t reply, but you’ll be glad to know how we’re getting on.’
A smile crossed the elf lord’s face. Meriadoc Brandybuck appeared to possess more common sense in his curly head than three ages of elves, many of whom had taken personal word of friends and family, but had never, as far as he knew, thought to treat the grey ships as a postal service. He glanced at the Shipwright and they exchanged wry grins. Cirdan nodded briefly, and accepted that Celeborn would join the hobbits in sending letters into the West. After all, there was no harm in trying, even if the Valar should choose not to permit the liberty.
Frodo looked up and smiled. ‘We would like that,’ he said simply. ‘I know we will be thinking of you always.’
‘You don’t want to be doing that,’ Pippin said in mock horror. ‘I wouldn’t want to be having to spend all my time behaving myself for fear that you’re keeping an eye on me. There must be plenty of better things you can do with your time.’
‘Fishing,’ Merry suggested. ‘Cooking – even in the Blessed Realm a hobbit has to eat, and elves don’t really understand food.’
‘Mushroom hunting,’ Pippin offered. ‘I expect there are mushrooms even better than Farmer Maggot’s – and without the risk of being caught by his dogs!’
‘Gardening,’ Sam said. ‘If you’d told me before we left home, Mr. Frodo, I’d have seen you had some seeds so you could grow your own pipeweed and some proper Shire-bred taters.’
A deep voice harrumphed behind them. ‘I shall see that Frodo is kept busy, young hobbits,’ Gandalf said, resting an affectionate hand briefly on each bright head. ‘He will have too much to do to be worrying about you all the time. And I am not a fool,’ he added, raising his bushy white eyebrows as he looked at Sam. He slipped a folded white paper out of his pocket surreptitiously before returning it and patting it proudly. ‘Seed for the best Old Toby, Master Gamgee.’
Sam opened his mouth and closed it quickly. He looked at Frodo as the wizard moved away. ‘You’d better make sure you get some of that, Mr. Frodo,’ he advised quietly. ‘There’s a lot more to getting good pipeweed than scattering seeds in the ground. If you’ve got a moment, I’ll tell you what I’ve picked up.’
Celeborn shook his head and moved away from the bustle of elves loading last minute items on the ship that would carry his wife beyond his reach, only to catch sight of his son-in-law. Elrond stood transfixed, watching not the activity, but instead gazing at his sons with an expression of hopelessness that unsteadied the older elf.
‘You will see them again.’ The silver-haired lord put a sympathetic hand on Elrond’s shoulder. ‘They will join you in time,’ he promised.
‘I have learned not to trust to hope,’ Elrond said, his voice bleak as mid-winter. ‘I have little hope that Celebrian will be waiting for me, full of joy at our reunion, and I have still less that Elladan and Elrohir will decide to sail.’
Celeborn took him into his arms, offering him support and strength and the love of one who had known him since he was an elfling, orphaned by war and a lust for jewels and left to the care of those who knew him not, sustained only by the devotion he shared with a twin who had then left him to become a king of men. ‘You are in need of your own healing, my son,’ he said with gentle affection. ‘You are not alone. Celebrian will be there. Your sons will come – I promised Arwen that I would bring them and I shall, whether they will or no. You have much to look forward to in the Blessed Realm.’
‘I was of the opinion,’ Elladan said from behind him, ‘that the choice was ours. How are you intending to make us sail?’ He lifted a dark eyebrow at his daeradar.
‘I might use the same method with which I threatened your daernaneth,’ Celeborn replied amiably. ‘Or I might just wait until you are tired of saying that you are not ready.’
‘You threatened Daernaneth?’ Elrohir said incredulously. ‘You must be very brave!’
‘Foolhardy is the word I would choose,’ Galadriel remarked. ‘Spend some time with your adar, my grandsons, for I wish to take this impetuous Lord of Trees away with me.’ She looked at her husband, her cheeks so pale that the blue of her eyes stood out like splashes of ink on a blank page, but with a depth such that he could drown in them.
‘My lady,’ he said. Words between them were unnecessary: they had said all they could say, they had wept all the tears they would shed, they had clung to each other through starlit nights while the world spun around them. They stood as close as an embrace, but they did not touch. Instead eyes held eyes with a challenge and an understanding that went beyond love, beyond passion, beyond speech, beyond cool reason. They devoured each other: a last oasis before a desert, a last meal before a famine, a final chance to be together in neither of them knew how many years, decades, centuries, millennia, ages.
Around them the business of preparation went on: the sailors loaded the necessities of travel, families carried their goods aboard. Cheerful farewells were called by those who were taking their final journey to seek out the Elvenhome promised them. The frantic hurly-burly of last-minute preparations swirled around them, but they noticed none of it.
Galadriel stretched out a tentative hand, as if afraid that a touch would break them both, and she laid it gently on the front of his dove-grey robe.
He caught his breath as shock stung him like a flick of white-hot fire and he moved instinctively to clasp the slender fingers, raising them to his lips, before leaning forward to capture her mouth.
Pippin gazed at them with open fascination, nudging Merry to attract his attention to the couple who had no thought for anyone else and to whom all, except the youngest hobbit, had granted a pretence of privacy amidst the milling elves.
‘It’s none of your business, Pip,’ Merry insisted. ‘Come away.’
Frodo exchanged a glance with his cousin. ‘Come on, Pippin,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to you and Merry and Sam – and say goodbye to Bill. The tide is almost full now – we’ll have to go aboard soon.’
Elladan laughed shortly. ‘Well, the Halflings should brighten the voyage for you, Adar,’ he said in an effort to appear normal. ‘Provided they are not sea-sick, I suppose.’ He lapsed into silence again, unable to take his eyes from his adar’s face.
‘Goodbyes are intolerable, my sons,’ Elrond said, holding them both as if he could not bear to let them go. ‘You are always in my heart.’ He swallowed and drew them close to place a final kiss of blessing on each brow. ‘I will miss you.’
‘It will not be for ever,’ Elrohir said, his voice cracking. ‘Give our love to Naneth.’
‘We will come,’ Elladan said, trying desperately to keep his tone steady. ‘I promise, Adar. When the time is right, we will sail.’
Elrond’s eyes met Elrohir’s and each breathed an almost unnoticeable sigh. ‘When you are ready, my sons,’ their adar said, accepting the undertaking without further comment. ‘We will be waiting for you.’
The quayside quietened as those boarding the ship abandoned their ties to the lands of their birth. Elrond dragged himself reluctantly away from his sons as Mithrandir claimed him. ‘It is time,’ the wizard said with gruff sympathy. ‘We could stand here for days, my friend, but the final words will have to be spoken sooner or later.’
Frodo stepped back from a last embrace with the group of hobbits, leaving the three of them to close into a huddle, shoulder to shoulder. He raised a hand and attempted a smile. ‘Look after each other,’ he said, as he joined the Bearers of Vilya and Narya. Gandalf dropped his hand on the Ringbearer’s shoulder consolingly.
‘Bilbo has already found your cabin,’ he said. ‘He is waiting for you.’ He looked kindly at the three remaining hobbits. ‘You will do well,’ he told them. ‘You will have long and happy lives – as you deserve.’ He turned his attention to the two elves each still lost in the other’s face. ‘Lady Galadriel,’ he insisted.
She moved slowly, like someone trying to move through treacle, drawing away from Celeborn until only their hands linked them. ‘Do not keep me waiting too long,’ she whispered fiercely to her lord. ‘Or I will be most displeased with you.’
He kissed her fingers. ‘I shall try to keep in mind that my lady’s sword is to be feared almost as much as her tongue,’ he replied with the deceptive tranquillity that exists at the very eye of the storm.
She clung to his hand, reluctant to take the last step that would remove her foot from the land and end her long connection with Middle Earth, taking her back to a home that was, in truth, home no longer, but drawn, nevertheless, by the compulsion that told her that the time of the Rings was at an end and that she could no longer delay her departure. They needed no words of leave-taking, for each could hear the pain of the other as their song, bound together for so long, began to tease apart.
Celeborn watched the scene unfold before him with an agonising slowness as the Ringbearers crossed to the ship, and gathered against the rail to bid their final farewells. Frodo withdrew the Lady’s starglass from his pocket and held it up, gleaming with promise of a brighter future. Cirdan indicated that the ropes should be loosed and, as the tide turned, the pearl-grey ship began its slow separation from the land. The white sails were raised, dazzling in a sudden ray of light, and the wind filled the billowing canvas as the ship moved inexorably towards the West.
The hobbits stood, dry-eyed, and watched until the White Ship moved beyond their vision, and waited longer still, until the twin sons of Lord Elrond dropped their heads and wept, for they knew then that Frodo had passed out of the sight of Middle Earth on his way to healing in the Blessed Realm, taking with him many of the greatest of the elves.
Far off, in distant Gondor, Arwen Undomiel looked to the west and paled, for she could feel the departure of her kin like a shadow darkening the sun. Elessar Telcontar, known as Strider, the Dunedain, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Estel of Imladris, the last foster son of the great Lord Elrond, the heir of Isildur of the line of Elros, Tar Minyatur, took her in his arms and held her close, and together they mourned the passing of the Ringbearers.
On the wind-whipped quayside in the Havens, Celeborn put his arms round his grandsons and drew a shaky breath. ‘And so begins the Age of Men,’ he said, as they turned their backs, elves and hobbits, and trudged mournfully away from the salty barrier of the sea.
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