Paths for the Dead

He was expecting the green fields, and clear blue sky. Peregrin recalled Gandalf's words, that day in the White City, even after so many years.

He wasn't expecting the gentlehobbit sitting at a podium with a very large book.

"Name?" The hobbit looked up at him only briefly, focusing primarily on his book. He was dressed in simple attire, white shirt and black vest, kept neat and clean but without ornament.

"Peregrin Took," Peregrin answered politely. He didn't quite recall the moment after closing his eyes for a nap, and before finding himself standing here. But he knew quite well where he was.

The hobbit frowned at his book as he flipped through several pages. Peregrin could hear him muttering to himself, "Q...R...S...T. Ah." He read for a bit, following his finger down one column after another. Finally, he tapped the page and looked up. "Peregrin Took the what?"

A bit surprised, Peregrin nonetheless answered quickly. "The first. My father was Paladin the second, and his father was Adalgrim. Er, the onlyth." He paused, prepared to go on should the other hobbit show any sign of needing to hear more.

But he waved a hand. "Right, right. Got the right one, then. Well, Peregrin Took," he said, placing his arms across the pages and leaning forward. "You can't come in."

Peregrin blinked. He looked around, wondering if he'd somehow come to the wrong place. Everywhere was just green fields, with well-worn dirt paths leading off in several directions. It looked a great deal like the middle of the Shire. "Er, sorry?"

The hobbit tapped his book with one finger. "Hobbits only."

Peregrin looked down at himself. He wasn't surprised to see himself dressed, not as he had been when he'd taken to his bed that morning, but as the younger hobbit he'd once been. His old elven cloak was even resurrected and on his shoulders.

The white tree of Gondor covered his black tunic, and he smiled. "Ah, well, you see -- I am, actually, a hobbit. Er, I believe you can tell by looking at me. If not, my father and mother and grandparents were all hobbits. Shouldn't that make me one as well?"

Gandalf had not only not mentioned a gatekeeper, but he hadn't mentioned solving riddles. But perhaps it was the way of hobbits, and not of wizards. He recalled Bilbo and how he'd got the great ring, after all.

But the other hobbit shook his head. "Aye, you were born a hobbit. That's clear. But the AfterShire is no place for warriors. All the farming and weaving and such tends to make them a bit mad with boredom." The hobbit pointed down one of the paths. "The warriors halls are that way. Gondor, Rohan, each have their halls though I understand nowadays they're linked by a short bridge. There's also the Elven and Orcish halls, and the river that leads in from the West."

That surprised him. "Orcish halls?" He hoped they weren't anywhere near the other halls.

"Aye. The others aren't so much warriors, as folk who like a good fight. The trolls are down there, for instance." The hobbit gestured behind Peregrin, who looked over his shoulder quickly, hoping he wouldn't see a troll bearing down on him.

Relieved to see only a wide path, with nobody on it, Peregrin turned back to the hobbit behind the podium. "Well, then -- am I to go to the Gondor Hall?"

Perhaps Merry was in Rohan's Hall, he realised. Merry'd sworn his service the same as he, and fought in as many battles. Peregrin smiled at the thought of the bridge between the two halls, glad to know he would be reunited with his friend.

However, the hobbit replied, "I'm afraid not," looking down at him with a solemn expression.

Again, Peregrin could only blink at him. "W-- why not?"

"I show that you were released from your Lord's service on 15 March of the year 3019."

Peregrin had to think a moment before placing the date. Lord Denethor had set himself afire, believing his second son to have died. "Well, yes, I suppose I was," he allowed. "But doesn't that make me a hobbit, then?"

The hobbit shook his head. "Still a warrior, with blood on your sword. You wouldn't be wearing it, if you weren't," he added, pointing to Peregrin's waist.

He looked down, and saw his short sword hanging there, the one Tom Bombadil had given him far back at the beginning of Frodo's quest. He put his hand slowly on the hilt, feeling its familiar weight. He hadn't worn his sword in a long time; realised he wasn't even sure where it had gone to. He'd meant to leave it in Great Smials for his son, but perhaps indeed he'd taken it with him when he and Merry had left for Minas Tirith.

"So, then where am I to go?"

The hobbit only shook his head. "I've no instructions. I only know where you cannot go."

Peregrin felt his heart sinking. He forced himself to ask, "And where may I not go?"

The hobbit listed them, one at a time, counting them off with his fingers. "The AfterShire, the Halls of Men, the Halls of Elves. Additionally, as a former sentient being, you may not reside in the fields of animals. Nor the Forest, which is for the trees and plants which once inhabited Middle Earth."

"And where may I go?" He heard his own voice drop to nearly a whisper.

"There is a Hall of Men which allows any who wish, to enter. I do not recommend it, as it is the hall of murderers and thieves, and traitors."

Peregrin shook his head. To spend an eternity there? He would rather stay here, at the crossroads, than be in such a place.

The hobbit frowned, now. "There is also the Hall of Orcs. There is a taint of Sauron within you; it would get you in there without much fuss."

"I'd sooner--" Well, he'd been about to say 'die.' But he'd just done that, and look at the trouble that had landed him in. "Please, sir, where else?"

"There is only one other place," the hobbit said. "That path there," he nodded, and Peregrin looked to his left. The path was rocky and led towards a range of short mountains. He could see no trees on them, only the bare face of rock. "It is the path those take who are ready to be reborn. While you may not take that whole path," he said quickly. "You may follow it as far as the mountains. Then, step off the path. You may reside there."

Studying the indicated path, Peregrin frowned. "It doesn't sound that bad. Who else is there?"

There was a long pause, and Peregrin turned back. The gentlehobbit gave him a grieved expression and said quietly, "No one."

Though he knew what the answer would be, Peregrin asked, "Might I not stay here, with you? I can read, and would be happy to assist you in your work with the Book."

He heard regret in the gentlehobbit's voice. "This is only a waystation. None may reside. Even I do not reside here, but am only a shade, formed by the book itself, to match what each traveler expects to see."

Peregrin looked at the path and the mountains beyond, once more. He considered, quite carefully, the other options. The Den of Thieves would be worse than being alone, constantly surrounded by those he could not trust and whose appetites were base and honourless. Equally, he could not imagine being in the Hall of Orcs. The brief contact he'd had with Sauron through the Palantir had apparently changed something in him, enough that it could be seen, here.

But he could not align himself with those who had tried to destroy all he held dear. He took a deep breath, though his lungs did not need it. "Will I be there forever, then?"

He heard the gentlehobbit's voice, soft, behind him. "In those mountains, you shall not be able to earn your way towards rebirth. But I cannot see the future, only tell you how things are now, at the moment of your dying."

He fell silent, and Peregrin looked into the distance. The mountains stretched to the horizon, impossible to tell from here how many peaks lay beyond. There were enough, perhaps, to keep a single hobbit exploring.

For awhile, at least, if not forever.

Peregrin turned back, and held out his hand. The surprised hobbit took it, shaking it once. "I suppose we shall not meet again."

The gentlehobbit said nothing. Peregrin turned, resolutely, and took a single step. For a moment he felt a pull, as though the wind were catching at his cloak. Then he took another step and the path fell before him, and his steps became easy.

The smooth path of soft dirt reminded him of the paths between his home and the holes in Hobbiton and Buckland he'd once visited often. Soon, though, the path became hard with stones. He walked for some time before he reached the foothills, and he began to wonder where he might step off the path. He decided to wait until he reached the mountains themselves.

Peregrin had not gone much farther before his foot found a stone and he fell, tumbling onto the path. He rolled over and looked up. The mountains proper were nearly beginning, the foothills hiding most of the green fields behind. He got to his feet and took a step, and found his foot caught, as though in thick, invisible mud.

"Well, then, Peregrin," he said to himself. "Here's as likely a spot as any."

He brushed the dust from his trousers, and took a step sideways from the path. The way was clear, and he walked fully off the path and into the mountains.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

He kept forgetting how many mountains there were. He would start on the southmost peak nearest the green fields, and go from one to another in as straight a line as was possible 'til he got to the end, where he would go one peak north and go back towards the fields.

He was fairly sure there were at least thirty-three, but he could never quite remember. He'd once or twice thought of marking each mountain with a number, then going back and counting, but if he'd actually done it he couldn't now find the numbers.

He hadn't tried counting them for awhile, contenting himself to wander about two or three of his favorite peaks. He wasn't precisely sure why he liked them so well. He had a view of the path that ran between them -- the path he could only ever cross, but never go up or down it. He couldn't recall ever seeing anyone walk down it, and couldn't remember why it mattered.

But his favorite peaks had a view of it, and so he spent a good part of his time sitting on a wide, flat rock, and watching the ground below. Other times, when he felt like a bit of a nap, he would climb down into a small valley and stretch out on a bed of sand; alternatively, he would climb as high as he could and sit wherever he could and look out over everything until he fell asleep.

His most favorite spot was a single rock, tall and wide, that overlooked a long canyon. He could remember how the wind felt, when he sat there, looking out into the rocky valley. But he could never seem to find it, anymore. He'd looked everywhere, but he couldn't recall having been there for a long, long time. He knew it was his favorite, though, and he told himself that someday he'd locate it again.

Right at the moment he was sitting with his back to the side of a mountain. His feet were up, on a rock, and the sky above was clear. He'd been resting there since awhile ago, after he'd gone for a walk on the peak at his back. He was thinking about whether he wanted to walk farther down, or stay where he was, when he heard someone climbing up towards him.

He waited, wondering who it would be. After another moment, a man came into view. He was wearing the same icon as was on his own clothing, and when the man looked up, he smiled and shouted.

"Hello," he called back in a voice unused to talking. He'd once talked quite a bit, and even sung, but now he'd forgotten most of the words. He got to his feet and waved, then waited until the man had climbed up to stand beside him.

"Pippin," the man said, smiling widely. "You look no worse for wear."

It took him a moment to think of what to say in response. "You look well enough, yourself," he said, thinking it a suitable reply.

"It's been a long time." The man looked down at him, still grinning, but starting to look slightly puzzled at the same time.

"Yes, it has," he agreed.

They stood for a moment, then the man frowned and gestured down the side of the mountain. "I suppose... shall we?"

He nodded. "Of course." He began to climb down, his bare feet finding purchase with unconscious ease. There was no clear path downwards, but he had no trouble. The man climbed down behind him, and he could hear the scattering of pebbles as his boots slipped here and there.

"I thought you would be...more surprised to see me," the man finally said, sounding faintly worried.

"Oh, I'm used to dreaming about my friends. It's been a long time since the last," he said, apologetically. "I'm not sure I can think of anything to talk about. But it's nice to have someone to walk with," he added quickly, wanting to assure the other that his presence was welcome.

They reached a flat spot almost even with the path he could not take, and he stopped to let the man join him. He did so, and they faced each other. The man was frowning again.

"I am not a dream," he said quietly.

He grinned. "I don't mind." The company was welcome, even though he knew, now, they were dreams.

The man knelt, and reached out, taking his hand. He stared at it, his own hand dwarfed in the other's. He heard the man's intake of breath as he was about to speak. But he spoke first.

"I had forgotten what it felt like."

"Forgotten what?" the man asked.

"The touch of skin. The warmth." He curled his fingers around the fingers pressed against his own. The hand moved, holding his hand tightly. The man placed his other hand on his shoulder.

He gaped at it, then stared at the man before him. He heard more rocks clattering, and footsteps. He stared, until figures came running from either direction along the path. Men, and hobbits, and two others he had to search his memory for their names.

He could feel his heart beating, something he couldn't recall ever feeling before.

One of the hobbits came up to him, giving the man on his knees a curious look. Then the hobbit picked up his other hand and they each waited there, holding his hands.

Slowly, the words tipped out, as though the first he'd spoken in a dozen or more years. "I'm not sure this is a dream."

"It is no dream," the man said again. "We've come to collect you, and take you home."

He looked at the man, and thought the words again. The folk gathered around them, all watching, and he stared at them, one after another. He'd often dreamt them, and he knew their faces. Once or twice he'd dreamt a few of them together, and one time he'd re-enacted something he'd thought once true, where all those now before him had gathered to walk along the mountains together on some urgent errand.

"I know your face," he said, starting at the hobbit looking at him.

The hobbit smiled. "You'd better, Pip. Or we'll have found the wrong lost hobbit."

He frowned. "I know that name, too."

He felt a hand run down his face, brushing back curls that had never seemed to grow unruly. He looked at the man, staring at him sadly. "Come. Let us take you home."

He nodded, not quite sure where they meant to go, but desperately unwilling to let go the hands holding his. He tightened his grip, and found the hands tightening on his in return.

As they bore him towards the path, he looked at worried, relieved faces of his friends. When he set foot on the path he made to keep going, but they held him fast.

When he realised what they intended, he stood still and shook his head.

"I cannot go that way."

He'd tried, more than once in either direction. If he took more than two steps up or down the path, he found himself unable to move. He could only ever cross the path, from one side of the mountain range to the other.

"I think you'll find you can," said the other man. "By special dispensation of the King of Gondor. You have your due place in the Halls of Men."

"One of them, at least," said one of the others, smiling at the man. "When there are several dozen of you, the title seems a bit redundant."

The man grinned. "Be that as it may, Frodo, the title still bears some power."

The hobbit laughed, but gave him a worried glance. Listening to them talk, he found himself wanting to believe them. Wanting to believe this was not another dream, that he could place one foot after the other, and journey up the path they stood on.

His hands were still held firmly. He knew which way was which, in what direction lay the green fields and in what direction lay the other. The halls...the halls were beyond the green, he remembered.

He took a step. The man and hobbit at his sides moved with him. He stopped, and lifted his other foot. Slowly, he placed it down again. His second step.

He stopped and considered the path before him. Looked at the row of faces watching him. Felt the warmth, and rough skin of the hands holding his.

It did not feel like a dream.

He lifted his foot, and took a third step. His foot came down on the path, hewn with sand and rock and dirt, and smooth as the worn rocks he'd climbed on for long these many years.

He took another step, and repeated the word to himself. "Fourth," he said aloud. "That was my fourth."

"Yes," said the hobbit holding his hand. "Just a few hundred more and we'll be there."

He looked at the hobbit, found him smiling but his eyes were dark with worry. He smiled back, and said slowly, "Hullo, Merry."

The darkness vanished, and the smile grew wide. "Hullo, Pippin. Ready to go?"

Pippin looked over his shoulder, past Boromir, at the mountains. He could recall, with clarity, each and every step he'd ever taken on them. Forty-two, he knew, now. Forty-two mountains. And the canyon he'd loved was near the furthest north corner, which he'd rarely reached before winding his way back towards the peaks surrounding the path.

He felt tired. But perhaps now he could sleep in a real bed, tucked in Merry's arms again.

"Yes, I'm ready to go."