Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever the wizard went, lies most, told to comfort the already lost. The wizard, his cloak gray as weathered bone, had not gone that way under The Hill for ages and ages. The curse of memory meant that most of them had forgotten what he looked like. He had been away over The Hill and across the water for a long time, a long time indeed. Those who were small once had gone, food for the earth much like what was under the wizard’s feet.
Good Morning! It was the hobbit.
What do you mean, the wizard said. Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?
All of them at once.
The wizard turned and looked at the hobbit. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the hobbit he was himself an alien. A being from a land that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the hobbit's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the hobbit had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He could not enkindle in the heart of the hobbit with the ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished he'd never found the shire.
What's the bravest thing you ever did? The hobbit asked.
The dwarf spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.
The hobbit felt swallowed up by the darkness of the cave, like a pilgrim in a fable, lost in the innards of shambling beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Toiling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours of the days of it and the years without cease. The hobbit stopped in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake, and on the far shore a creature raised its dripping mouth and stared with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of giant spiders.
Sssss. It like riddles, praps it does, does it?
Sure. You ask first.
How would you know if you were the last man on Earth?
It wouldn't make any difference. When you die it's the same as if everybody else died too.
The hobbit had guessed right, and the creature was disappointed and now he was getting angry and also tired of the game and had made him very hungry indeed.
The dragon had left his lair in silent stealth and quietly soared into the air and then floated heavy and slow in the dark like a monstrous crow. Down the wind towards the west of the mountain, in the hopes of catching unawares something or somebody there, and of spying the outlet to the passage which the thief had used.
The hobbit watched and lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of middle earth carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
The wizard looked at him. Something is the matter with you. You are not the hobbit that you were.
The hobbit walked in the gray light and stood in front of the wizard and was about to say how he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Instead he nodded, yes, yes. He was not the hobbit that he once was. Whoever that was. Whoever he is now.
You are a very fine person, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!
Thank goodness, said the hobbit and he was crying and he cried for a long time and he couldn’t stop.