"Still 'round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun."

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Chapter 16: Epilogue: An Unexpected Reunion

One year later…

I didn't know how long the dogs had been barking before they woke me. Chaucer, the older and smaller, was wedged behind the toilet, not uncommon behavior during storms, but Beowulf's calls rumbled low and frenzied from the front door.

The perks and pitfalls of living alone, I thought, rubbing my eyes. I had fallen asleep on the couch, my whiskey glass still half full, the stress marks of having had company earlier in the evening.

My reserve and reclusiveness – normal behavior for me – had become even more pronounced since my return from Middle Earth. I hadn't, of course, told anyone anything about it, but my sister especially had noticed, and after a few months of odd behavior brought on by seemingly nothing more than having fallen asleep on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, she had started grilling me.

It had begun as little things: "Maybe you should join a book club," or, "Do you want to take the kids for a few hours? I think it would do you good," and had grown into, "Patrick has been by an awful lot lately. He's a good guy. Maybe give him a bit more encouragement?"

That was the very last thing I wanted to do, but it unfortunately had been said in the kids' hearing and soon escalated to, "Priscilla and Patrick, sittin' in a tree…"

Eventually, I heard their sing-song voices even when they weren't around.

In my irritation, I had done the last thing anyone wanted and bought a house out in the country. Way, way out. In a deep corner of the woods. And they could all come to visit me as they liked, because other than for work and major holidays, I hardly budged. At my brother-in-law's insistence that I needed some protection (he didn't know I'd fought goblins), I'd gotten a Great Dane, and that wretched creature was now competing with the autumn thunder for the Rumbles Blue Ribbon.

I sighed and got up, shushing Beowulf and attempting to pull him back towards the bathroom, where I could deal with both animals at once, but he was straining at his collar, and I was not strong enough to really drag him.

I landed in a heap not far from the door, and behind me I heard Chaucer still whining. My head pounded, and not just with the thunder. It had been a lot of whiskey I'd consumed. The windows were open, and I felt the damp on my skin. I was sweaty and tired and in no mood to deal with stubborn dogs who had no more sense than my houseplants.

"The thunder is not going to kill you!" I yelled, and I was really yelling all the things I couldn't, because my sister had been at it again earlier that evening, about how I couldn't possibly be happy out here on my own, and how she couldn't understand what had happened to me, though she knew it was something. Of course it was something, but I couldn't very well tell her I'd vanished into a fairytale past and left the love of my life behind. I could tell her the love of my life was not Patrick, but my opinion seemed the least important in the matter.

In the end she had sighed and stood up to go. The kids were tired, and my brother-in-law had already hauled them off to the car and secured them in their car seats.

She'd looked down at me where I still sat at the kitchen table, glaring, and said, "Whatever it is you need to do, do it. We know you're unhappy, and we love you." She'd wrapped her arms around me in something like resolve, but I had felt it like a farewell. My sister was giving up, and for some reason that broke what was left of my heart.

Sitting on the floor now, with one animal freaking out in front of me, and the other freaking out behind, I felt powerless and ill-equipped. I couldn't even get my dogs to stop barking, and now the rain was coming into the house.

Lighting lit up the windows, and in one a large silhouette was illuminated. I yelped and scrambled backwards. Beowulf leaped at the door, barking louder. Chaucer joined him from his sanctuary in the bathroom.

There were words on the wind now, mingling with the thunder, but I couldn't make them out. It struck me that my brother-in-law could have come back, concerned about the storm, but somehow even that felt absurd, and I was suddenly aware of how silly I was living out in the woods by myself.

The voice came again, stronger, and as if a mouth were pressed to the seam of the door, "Lady Scilla, if you don't let me in out of this wretched storm, I shall blow your house down!"

In astonishment I scrambled to my feet and pushed past Beowulf. I shushed him, then drew back the bolts. Wind and rain erupted inside, and with them Gandalf. I slammed the door shut behind him. Beside me, Beowulf started whining.

"Fierce protector," Gandalf harrumphed, eyeing the dog.

"He'll do," I said. "What are you doing here?"

Gandalf removed his hat, shaking the rain off all over my wooden floors. "Fetching you," he said, "Or at least, I hope so. I have one last task. It's a long one, but I hope you'll be willing to undertake it."

I stared at him, then, remembering my manners, "Whiskey?"

"Whatever that is, I'll take," he answered, and I directed him to the living room while I went to fetch glasses and a bottle from the kitchen. Returning, I lit a fire, then stood in the doorway until I had coaxed Chaucer out of hiding. I settled down with the dogs on either side of me.

"Fine animals," said Gandalf sociably. He took a sip and coughed. "And fine drink, too. I can see why you were so eager to get back to your own time."

"Gandalf," I said.

"Yes, yes, to the point." He took another sip. "Mr. Baggins, as you may well be aware, has set for himself the task of recording all his adventures."

I didn't respond.

"A momentous charge for himself, no doubt, but it will hardly be the account the story deserves, especially as he did not witness some of the key points first hand, which is where you come in."

"Where I…what?"

Gandalf looked me in the eye, and his gaze was both assessing and kind. "My dear, you have been unhappy, one glance would tell me that. Can you truly tell me you made the right decision in returning here?"

I frowned, miserable, my sister's voice ringing in my ears. "In returning…yes. I had a few things to look into. But now…"

"But now you feel you belong elsewhere, and there are other and more interesting things for you to do."

"How do you know this?"

'Well, that is quite simple. I've been watching you."

"You what?"

"I've been watching you, as has the Lady Galadriel. The portal that opened when you came to Rivendell has never really been closed. That is one of the reasons we were able to send you back. Now, after the past year, we both believe it safe and even prudent for you to return to Middle Earth, for your own sake if none other."

I was silent a long time, during which the thunder continued to rumble, but I hardly heard it. Sensing my distress, the dogs pressed up against my legs, bringing me back to the present. I set down my whiskey and reached to scratch both their ears. "Is…is there a reason for me to return?"

Gandalf was sampling more out of his rocks glass. "There is work, at the very least. It is not only Bilbo who is attempting to set down his adventures. Lord Elrond, Lady Galadriel, and I have been speaking, and we feel it is time someone recorded the history of Middle Earth. There are many tales now known only in song that should preserved, preferably in the Common Tongue, but the Elves have other things to tend to. They sense that their time is fading, but would not have it lost and forgotten."

I knew then what he was asking. A clerk, a scholar, a job recording great deeds and tales...if I really listened to myself, I longed for such a task.

"And," said Gandalf ominously. I looked up, and there was a glint in his eye. "You need not do all this from Rivendell. I suspect, with the dragon gone and trade resumed, it will be easy enough to exchange messages and letters from Dale."

My heart swelled, and I said nothing, but Gandalf read all he needed in my face.

"Gather your things," he said. "The dogs can come too."

Sensing adventure, Beowulf jumped, but Chaucer pressed harder against me and wagged his tail. I patted him, then smiled, a real smile, for the first time in a year, at Gandalf.

This time around, I had a chance to think about my journey, and so I threw a few luxuries into a backpack: jeans, mostly. When this was done, I found pen and paper and hastily scrawled a letter to my sister. I left it tacked to the refrigerator door.

Taking your advice, was all it said.

I put the dogs on leashes and followed Gandalf out into the rain. We were only there a moment, then the sky cracked, and we stood once again in the ruins at Dale. I looked up at Gandalf, hoping my eyes expressed the gratitude I could not. He held out one hand, and I handed over the leashes. I dropped my pack to the floor and ran.

The house I sought was not hard to find. It was larger and grander and sturdier than when I had left it, but it could not be mistaken. It was a king's home, yet a modest and comfortable one.

I came to a halt at the door and hesitated. It was night, but the lamps and fires were burning, and voices flickered indistinguishably from within. It occurred to me that with his new status, Bard might have remarried, and I felt a sudden dread that Gandalf had led me into further heartbreak. I stood there, paralyzed, my hand half-lifted to knock.

A window opened near the door, and the contents of a pot were thrown into the street. I jumped, and the figure at the window did as well. Then, "Scilla?" Sigrid said.

I nodded, unable to speak, as I heard the creaking of chairs and a jostling from within.

The door opened, and light spilled out to frame Bard's figure, lean and sturdy. A moment passed, and two, and then I was gathered into strong arms and firelight.

The End

For my own sister, who likes it when stories end "as they should."