'We're afraid to inform you that our dear granny is finally succumbing to her age. It would comfort our hearts if you found the time, at your earliest convenience, to be with her during her last moments.'
She clutched at the letter, staring at it, unaware of the rapid increase of her breathing, and of the worried look on Mr. Barliman Butterbur's eyes, set on her face.
'Ah, Mrs. Burrows,' he sighed, shaking his head with sadness. 'I know of her. One of the boys who comes often is her nephew, if I remember correctly. Quite the character she is, I've heard. Such a shame. Is she an acquaintance of yours? Oh what am I saying, of course she is, that's why you received that letter! But it's strange to think of it, I mean, what with you Miss being an Elf, and Hobbits---especially Shire-folk---not being exactly famous for establishing friendships with outsiders in gener---'
'I need one of your fastest horses, Mr. Butterbur, please,' she said, relieving her tense jaw only for speaking. 'As soon as possible.'
'Why, yes of course! How silly of me getting carried away talking and all---Nob! Nob!! Where did you get yourself into now?!' The man walked away, while she read the short message for the tenth time.
So it had finally caught up with her once more. Death. Yet another loved one was to part, not to be seen again by her while the world lasted.
Her hands trembled and her eyes stung, though her emotionless expression didn't waver.
She remembered when she'd met Myrtle Burrows, all those many years ago. Unusual she had been since the beginning, and yet as typical as any decent Hobbit would be expected to be amongst their own folk. She didn't care for adventures, nor about doing anything out of the ordinary. But that one day when the "strange Elf" had ventured to talk with the then Mayor in Michel Delving, something sparked within her. For whatever reason, she decided to enable conversation with the stranger, since both of them had been left waiting for the Mayor to arrive from whatever important matter he was supposed to be doing.
'... So, what business brings a …' She scrutinized the outsider's face '... An Elf, to speak with our Mayor?'
Although the question could have been taken to be a little rude in tone, there clearly was nothing but curiosity in the woman's inquisitive eyes, not hindered by the also clear nervousness in her voice and the surprise at finding herself with the courage to speak in the first place.
Indeed, Amarthniel herself was surprised. She'd come late in the afternoon, intending to be unseen by as many Halflings as possible. What were the odds that the one she'd meet would be the one with the nerve to talk with her?
She didn't speak for a couple of seconds. Then, blinking herself out of the surprise, she answered: 'I … came to inform him about some ruffians that have been spotted in the southern borders of the Shire. I wish to ask him to spread a word of caution for those who would find themselves around those parts, for business or for leisure.'
The Hobbit woman seemed encouraged by the hesitation in her voice, and spoke now with more confidence. 'Ah, well, that's very nice of you, but I doubt you'd find any Hobbits going that way at all, anyway. Those are some queer lands in the south beyond our country. There's nothing to do over there. But, how do you know about those people?' She added, before Amarthniel could speak. 'I don't suppose that Elves can be ruffians themselves, can they? Do you live down there in the south?'
'No, I've simply been scouting those parts for a long time,' she smiled. She hadn't expected the Hobbits to take her seriously. Talking with the Mayor was her only hope for them to listen.
'Mmm …' A short silence. 'So, you pass your days in the wilderness just like that?' Amarthniel nodded. 'Isn't that tiring? Don't you ever feel like just going back home to a nice dinner and a comfy bed? What's that eagerness of being away all the time? Is that normal with Elves?'
'Not … usually,' she sighed, breaking eye-contact and looking at the ground, chuckling despite the bitter feeling that swelled in her chest with those questions. It annoyed her. She hadn't come to the Shire expecting to feel uncomfortable because of the questions of some unusually friendly middle-aged Halfling. Just what was that Mayor doing?!
But the awkwardness did not escape said Halfling's attention, and she stopped talking for a while after that. Still, the thought bothered her, and eventually she asked yet another question, in a more kindly tone '... Are you too far away from home?'
Only Amarthniel's eyes looked at her, stern in her expression. For a moment she thought about not answering; her bad character was slipping through. But the Halfling fidgeted nervously under her stare, and she felt bad for her, and guilty '... There has not been a place I call home for a very long time.' She said only.
After this, both remained quiet, deep in thought, until the Mayor arrived at last. Then the little woman excused herself and asked to meet him first, saying that she was there only for a small, unimportant matter, and she'd be done quickly. Indeed, only five minutes later she came out, and Amarthniel passed her with a little bow of her head.
The Mayor too was a little skeptical, but she managed to scare him enough; just a little for him to understand the potential danger of the circumstances. He assured her he'd spread the word, but he couldn't promise that people would listen. And there wasn't much more she could do about that.
When she came out, she found the woman outside, waiting for her, her third surprise that afternoon.
'Ah, there you are! See I was thinking … I suppose you're heading off now to the south again, or to some place away from civilization to hunt for some food and pass the night, aren't you? Well, I was going with the thought of preparing dinner for my children and I thought, "Well, Myrtle, quite a decent Hobbit you'd be going to eat some delicious meal while there's some others who won't even have a spoon for theirs!" If you take my meaning. As such I am inviting you to come have dinner with us, at the very least.'
Amarthniel frowned and shook her head, smiling incredulous. 'You are indeed strange for a Hobbit, aren't you? But as thankful as I am, I'm afraid I could not accept your offer. There's no need to worry about where I'll make my bed or what I use for a spoon,' she laughed. 'I shall disturb the Hobbits no longer for today.' She bowed. 'Have a good evening.'
She moved to leave, but the Halfling quickly stepped on her way.
'No, no, that won't do! You're in Hobbit country now, and I reckon Elves are some well-mannered fellows; there's no refusing such an invitation! I will not take a "no" for an answer!'
Amarthniel sighed in annoyance. But she'd already said no, and that was that.
At least until some twenty minutes later, when she found herself bending down carefully not to hit her head against the low---for her---ceiling of Myrtle Burrows hobbit-hole. Her children (and husband, and brother, and sister-in-law, and nephews and nieces) were already waiting for her, already having started preparing dinner themselves since "she'd taken so long", and Amarthniel had a hard time trying not to laugh at all of their expressions when they spotted her. The children shouted, while the adults put a hand to their chests and stepped back, Myrtle's husband even tripping on his sofa behind him and falling on it.
'Don't start! She's a hungry traveller and we have plenty of food in this house. I don't want to hear any of it!' She warned them. 'I believe we can find it in our hearts to feed the needy?'
Amarthniel raised an eyebrow at that, but she was too amused to say something against it. 'I thank you all for your hospitality. I assure you I will only be a nuisance for a short time.'
'You shush, girl. Now, I'm afraid we don't have a chair that suits your size, but I think we can manage a make-shift … Come and help me with the other sofa, husband!'
Even years later, Amarthniel wasn't sure about how Mrs. Myrtle had convinced her to go to her house that night. How she managed to appeal to the deeply buried longing of her heart of allowing herself to rest, if only for a single night, from the oath of unending struggle that she'd put upon herself. By the end, even the other Hobbits in the family were friendly to her, especially the children, and they invited her to have dinner some other time. For about a month she did not show up, but then she did, and thereafter she was a common sight in Michel Delving for many a year.
Initially, the Burrows were frowned upon by the other Hobbits, with people here and there talking about how they'd lost their hobbit-sense and were bewitched by "Elven magics". But in truth most were curious of Amarthniel, and progressively more and more approached her when they saw her in the streets, having deemed her not to be a threat, asking or questioning her not unlike the way Myrtle had the first time. And, in time, even though she still left to keep her patrol around the southern borders of the Shire, the people of Michel Delving became used to her, even trusting her to invite her to their own homes. So much so that, two or three years later, they even insisted on her having a home of her own in the Shire.
And then there it was at last. Her very own house. The first one she'd ever owned in her entire life, set in the heart of the Halflings' country, of all places.
It was indeed a funny thing to behold, amidst all the other "normal-sized" hobbit holes and houses. As if that one plot of land were being looked at from afar with a magnifying glass. Amarthniel chuckled imagining that thought to be the first one crossing the minds of those few beings that made the travelling of the sky in their heavenly ships their purpose, if they ever happened to glance down at this particular, unassuming point of Middle-earth.
'Well, have a look at that!' Mrs. Myrtle said the day it was finished. 'A decent hobbit home, as inconvenient as its size would make it for us! Hardly a feat the boys will ever repeat, I reckon!'
Amarthniel smiled. 'Like I said before, I am deeply grateful for this honor. Still, I should not have them doing anything similar in the future. I can hardly repay this kindness!'
'Pff, nonsense. You keeping watch over this country of ours is worth more than a simple house. Besides, they just expanded what was already there!'
Over the years, they'd grown quite close. Mrs. Myrtle was ever curious to hear about her new friend's life before her arrival to the Shire, and the more so since she actually rarely spoke of herself properly at all. The Hobbit had to be very insistent with question after question, and, the more their relationship became ever closer, the more confidence she had to ask for more. Her reaction when she learned that Amarthniel was only half-elven had been hilarious.
To her, for the first time in an age, Amarthniel confessed many things about herself. For the first time in hundreds of years she'd allowed herself to cry. To admit that she was tired of fighting. To admit that she still held the same irrational fear of deep gorges, just like when she was a little girl, along with the terror of failing to protect the few people that she loved, having failed way too many times at that in the past. Myrtle Burrows listened, and was moved, and became ever the more insistent on having her visits.
Amongst the Burrows family Amarthniel learned to enjoy life's little pleasures, like simply sitting under the sun in a lazy afternoon without worrying and anxiously blaming herself for what she used to believe to be a waste of time. She even learned how to smoke!
Before, the Halflings' deliberate ignorance of the outside world, making little of its dangers and current struggles exasperated her, believing them to be selfish and lacking in empathy. But now she'd begun to understand that it wasn't so, at least not with most of them. They were indeed very good people, with no natural tendency to be malicious; they were merely, purely, incredibly optimistic. And from them she learned to look at life with less of a heavy heart. At the very least, she started trying, and for the first time in who knows how long, she experienced genuine happiness.
But the dangers west of the Misty Mountains were increasing, and around the Shire the watch of the Dúnedain doubled, and Amarthniel, who had for long helped them in their endeavours of protecting the Northern lands had to be away for longer periods of time. Still, whenever she found the time she made sure to pay a visit to her good friend; and not only because she missed her.
Myrtle was, of course, growing old. Amarthniel tried to remain cheerful, as Myrtle herself reminded her whenever she caught her staring in worry when the troubles of age began to appear.
'Don't look at me like that! This is a very normal normal thing, my girl. And yes! I'll continue calling you that---you may be older than me but still I grow old faster than you, and I daresay it's more than just in body. I need to know you won't give up on being social again after me. If you need to continue in your travels and your struggles, then don't do it alone! You have to promise!'
And she tried. Oh, she tried. But every one of those signs were a subtle reminder of the one thing she still did not know how to deal with efficiently: the death of those she loved. The only two things she knew how to do in order to keep at bay the horrible anxiety that consumed her at its mere thought were to ignore the feeling, instead of working on it, putting on a perfectly stoic mask and diverting any stray thought into maintaining herself busy in the wilderness. The other was to stay away from the people she still cared for, in a vain (and truly cruel) attempt at severing her "over-emotional" ties with them.
So stupid. She knew it. But it worked. It had always worked. She could deal with the panic attacks that woke her in the morning, as a result of everything she kept inside. It was only some minutes everyday. She was fine.
Which was why she wondered, as she clutched at the letter in her hands, almost ripping at its edges, already smeared with tears, trying to calm down before heading out of the room and taking the horse she'd just asked for, why had she decided to grow close to these small, optimistic, short-lived Hobbits? Why had she put herself in that situation again? Once they died, she would never see them again. Not even on the other side of the Sea, for her oath had been to remain in Middle-earth until the very last remnant of Morgoth was erased from Arda. This didn't only mean his servants, it was the very influence of his negative thought on every living being that would endure until the End. Such hatred was that which she felt for him.
Such an idiotic oath haunted her now. Back then, just as the War of Wrath was over, she was still young, she was still angry, there was still energy in her left to continue the fight that she knew very well was far from over. Back then it seemed rational. But now? Now that she'd tasted the bitterness of the long, long years of the Elves of which she was granted kinship, she faltered. But to break such an oath? She remembered well what had happened to the sons of Fëanor. At this rate she would go mad whether she continued it, or broke it.
'You have to promise!'
She hadn't promised. Not that day.
'Miss!' Came a knock on the door. 'Begging your pardon, but the horse is ready!'
She looked at the door, swallowing, trying her best to sound composed. 'Thank you. I'll be there in a moment …'
But she had to now. She had to go and let her know she'd be alright. Her old mask was cracking; soon it wouldn't be of much use anymore. There were still tears rolling down her face when she thanked Nob and Mr. Butterbur and rode on to the Shire.
'We're afraid to inform you that our dear granny is finally succumbing to her age. It would comfort our hearts if you found the time, at your earliest convenience, to be with her during her last moments.
She insists on seeing you, and keeps repeating that she won't go anywhere until she does. She would also like you to know that, as such, there is no hurry, but that when you do come, you don't forget to bring your pipe!
Our best regards,
The Burrows family.'