Title: Voices at the Door
Words: c. 16,000 told in 14 vignettes, letters and short scenes
Genre: Friendship, character study
Characters: Bilbo and Aragorn, with appearances by Gandalf and Frodo.
Summary: Bilbo spent nineteen years in Rivendell, as both he and the world slowly changed. This is those nineteen years charted in scenes between Bilbo and Aragorn, plus occasional letters that remained unsent.
This story was inspired by Through Other Eyes, the 1000 words story I wrote for the October challenge. In that story, Aragorn bought comfort to Bilbo in Rivendell by painting him a word picture of the Shire. It was clear that this was an established tradition between them.
I wanted to write more, but I was reluctant to undermine that first story. Needless to say, the Muse won, so this, here, is that expanded story, covering the whole period of Bilbo's years in Rivendell, telling it through snapshots and short scenes. You do not have to read Through Other Eyes to understand this; this story starts several years earlier, back to the very beginning of Bilbo's friendship with Aragorn. Conversely, you do not need to read this story to understand Through Other Eyes. Think of Through Other Eyes as a missing scene from this story, that can stand perfectly well by itself.
Mountains and Moonlight
The wolves were howling in the mountains. Dark lines of cloud were etched across the sky, obscuring the full moon; only a faint light remained, slate grey, rather than silver. Bilbo's fire was almost out. He prodded it with a stick, and watched the orange sparks fly upwards, then vanish into the night, carried by the wind.
It was very cold.
"What a fool you are, Bilbo Baggins," he muttered to himself. He had spent half a year with the dwarves in Erebor, and had departed on the day of summer's final blaze. "Which means a chilly autumn in the mountains, and it might be winter soon, before the end."
He grabbed another branch, intending to throw it onto the fire, but something screamed in the night. The sound rose high and shrill, then was suddenly cut off. "Some poor animal getting eaten," he said, "and I don't want it to be me. Better be cold and unseen, than eaten and warm." He pulled his blanket tighter.
In the trees behind him, the small twigs were rattling together like bones. It was barely October, but few leaves remained on the branches. "Not like home," he said, before remembering that the Shire was no longer his home. He had walked away from it just over a year ago, and now his home was the whole of Middle Earth and the endless road.
"The endless road," he murmured out loud. "Forever and on."
The wolves fell silent. He drew Sting an inch out of its scabbard, but its blade remained dull. He let out a breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. He had chosen this life. For his last few years in Hobbiton, he had felt cabined and confined, trapped and yet… stretched; that was how he had described it to Gandalf. This was better. The road stretched out in every direction, boundless in its possibilities, and he was free.
"Free," he whispered.
The howling started up again, first one wolf, and then another, as if they were shouting messages at each other across the mountains. "I wonder what they're saying," he thought. "'I spy a nice juicy hobbit.' I hope it's not that."
But they had howled on other nights, too, and no harm had ever come to him. "And it's better like this," he said, as he settled himself down beside the dying fire and prepared to sleep. "I'm happier here than I was at home."
Home, he thought.
"Than I was," he said, "in the Shire."
He was wandering in a bleached wilderness, searching, searching desperately for something that was precious to him, something he had lost. Then the ground at his feet simply fell away, vanishing between one step and the next. He fell, and woke up with a start.
"Just a dream," he told himself.
He shifted position, easing the stiffness of old joints. The moon was still concealed, but it was bright enough for its location to be clearly visible. He had slept for several hours, he thought. His fire was down to black embers, in which a few gleaming sparks still doggedly blazed. The night was very quiet, just the cold wind whispering in the dying trees.
Bilbo had not meant to do it, but he found himself drawing Sting. The blade shone with a dull light, but even as he scrambled to his feet, the light winked out, and the blade was dark again.
He stopped breathing, then very slowly let out a breath. "Now what could have happened?" He whispered it, hardly any sound on the wind. "Goblins don't just disappear like that, unless they're…" He swallowed. "Dead," he said.
He heard the faintest of sounds away to his right, deeper into the trees. "Now the sensible thing to do," he said, "would be to stay here nice and quietly and hurry away as soon as it's light." His feet started to move towards the sound. "Morning can't be so many hours away, after all." He drew Sting fully from its scabbard. The blade was still dull. He looked back. The tiny sparks of his fire were lost in the darkness, impossible to see.
No wolves howled. The clouds were moving fast, some of them dark-edged, hinting at rain. But then came a patch of clear sky, and the moon blazed forth. The shadows of the trees seemed blacker than the rest of the night.
"Go back," he thought, but he no longer spoke out loud. "Yes, that would be the sensible thing to do." But still his feet carried him forward, moving him on without a sound.
He saw the goblin first, lying dead on a bier of autumn leaves, criss-crossed with the shadows of trees. The other figure was harder to see; Bilbo's gaze passed right over him at first, and it was only a tiny inkling of a second thought that caused Bilbo to look again. The figure was almost lost in the shadows, betrayed only by the sudden emerging of the moon.
"Who… who are you?" Bilbo demanded. "I'm armed!"
There was no reply. Bilbo heard no sound of movement, but the figure seemed to disappear, almost as if he had put on… "But no," Bilbo thought. "He can't have. There's only one, and that's mine, and… No. No," he thought, and he frowned fiercely at the place where the other person had been hiding, and yes, there he was, still there.
"I expect you think I can't see you," he said, "but I have very keen eyes. I was a burglar once, you know. Nobody can hide from me."
"I can see that, Master Hobbit," said a voice from the darkness.
"Well, then." Bilbo brandished his sword. "Come out where I can see you. Don't hide away like some…"
"Burglar?" suggested the voice.
"Villain," said Bilbo firmly, but then his sword almost slipped from his hand in surprise. "You called me Master Hobbit!" he gasped. "Nobody ever knows about hobbits. You called me Master Hobbit."
"I did," the voice agreed ruefully.
"Well," said Bilbo, recovering himself, "that means… I don't know what it means." His blade was still dull, but of course goblins were not the only danger in the wilds, and not even the worst. "Did you kill the goblin?" he demanded.
"I did," the voice admitted.
"Oh." Bilbo looked at the dead goblin, then hastily looked away again. Even a dead goblin was still… well, dead. But only a few minutes before, it had been alive, and so very close to him, and he had been fast asleep and unaware of it. He shivered with sudden cold. "Are you going to kill me?"
"No," said the voice. Bilbo let out a breath. The branches stirred above him, but there was no other sound. "Do you believe me?" the voice asked quietly.
"I…" Bilbo stopped; closed his mouth again. Leaves rustled, the sound barely perceptible. Bilbo wondered if the owner of the voice was going away. He wondered if he was relieved. But then he saw the goblin. So close, it had been; so close. "I want to," he said.
The figure emerged from the trees; so he hadn't gone, after all. He was a tall man, taller than any man Bilbo had seen, except for Beorn. His clothes were weatherbeaten, and his face in the silver moonlight was somehow ageless. He had a long knife in his hand, but he held it reversed, its point sticking out behind him in a gesture of no threat. Its blade was stained dark, and not just with shadow.
"I thought you'd gone." It sounded like a silly thing to say, but, there, he'd said it.
"I almost did," said the man.
"Oh." Bilbo realised that Sting was still thrust out in front of him. He lowered it; considered sheathing it, but did not. The man had a serious face, perhaps even a grim one, but there was something about his expression, something Bilbo could not pin down. "I… think I believe you," he found himself saying.
The man smiled, and suddenly Bilbo was sure of it. But even villains could smile, he reminded himself. It was easy to imagine such a man as a villain. But then he looked again at the man's eyes in the moonlight, and thought that he couldn't imagine him as a villain at all.
"Oh…" Bilbo moaned, shaking his head with indecision. He glanced again at his dull blade. "Why did you kill the goblin?"
The man gave a crooked, fleeting smile. "They were creeping up on you. I, on the other hand, they were unaware of."
"They. " Bilbo's left hand rose flutteringly to his mouth, then down again. "So you knew I was there before I came and found you. Were you going to make yourself known?"
The man said nothing, but then he shook his head.
"Oh," said Bilbo. He seemed to be saying it a lot. He made a sudden decision. If he told the man to run along, to hurry away like a good fellow, he could just double back and creep up on Bilbo from the other side. The damage was done now, so he just had to make the best of it. "Well, come along, then. Join me at my fire." He sheathed Sting. "Although it's all burned down now, just embers and ashes. I thought I'd build it up again, but I thought that… things would see it."
"Some of those things fear firelight," said the man, "and others need no light to draw them, for they hunt by smell."
"Oh," said Bilbo. "That's… not a cheering thought." He clutched at brightness. "May as well light that fire, then, and get a little warmth. Do you want some supper? It's late, of course, but when isn't it a good time for eating?"
The man followed him back to Bilbo's camp. Bilbo started to coax the fire back into life, but he kept a discreet eye on the man as he did so, and saw that he was wiping his knife clean. Then he sheathed it, and Bilbo concentrated on the fire for a while. "There we are," he said at last. "A nice cheerful flame."
The man settled himself down, his long legs drawn up in front of him. The firelight dazzled Bilbo's eyes, and made it harder for him to see the man's face. He told himself that it didn't matter.
"Where did the goblin come from?" Bilbo asked instead.
"These are their hunting grounds," the man said. "You have come further north than was wise, Master Hobbit."
"But…" Bilbo looked up at the moon, at the dark trees, at the mountains beyond. "But I haven't seen any goblins before tonight. Of course," he added, "I wouldn't have seen any tonight, either, if I hadn't…" He stopped; let out a breath; started again. "You weren't going to make yourself known. You just killed it. Them. You killed them, and you were going to go away again." He looked into the fire, at the shadows at the heart of flame. "It's not the first night you've done this. It's not the first night, is it?"
The man said nothing. It was answer enough.
Bilbo closed his eyes. He had no idea how to react. He wanted to be furious. He wanted to be grateful. He had chosen this life, and he was a great traveller of the wilds, and although he was small, he was fearless, and let anybody dare say otherwise. But he was old, and he was tired, and although he sometimes dreamed of wandering and searching, he most often dreamed of Rivendell.
Well, he thought. The damage is done. No use crying over spilled milk.
"So what's your name?" he asked. "If you've been following me around for days, killing all the horrid things that want to eat me, the least you can do is tell me your name. You're a guest at my campsite, after all."
"I… prefer not to," said the man. "I apologise for this breach of the rules of hospitality, but…" He let out a slow breath. "I, too, have need for caution. Even a chance-met hobbit might not be what he seems."
Bilbo moved closer to him, so he could see him more clearly, without the firelight getting in the way. There was a strange expression on the man's face, and for a moment, Bilbo thought he had caught him unawares. In the silver moonlight, he looked carved from stone, "like those statues," Bilbo said, suddenly startled into speaking out loud. "You don't look like the other men I know, not that I know many, just the men of Dale, and I used to think men looked all the same, like sheep. But you look like a statue I saw; they said he was long ago dead, a king from Westernesse beyond the sea. 'I expect the elves still remember them, Gandalf,' I said, and Gandalf said that some of their people still remain, wandering in the wilderness… Oh, you must think I'm silly. We talk, you see, we hobbits, when we don't know what to say."
The man smiled, but for some reason, it only increased his likeness to the statue. "The Dunedain," he said. "Rangers, people call them."
"The Dunedain," Bilbo echoed. "A Dunadan," he said, remembering his Elvish. "Is that what you are? I can't call you that."
"Why not?" the man said with a smile.
"It would be like you calling me Hobbit."
"I believe I did," said the man.
"You did," Bilbo conceded. "Oh. Food," he said, remembering his offer of a meal. He rummaged around until he found some dried meat and cram. "How do you know about hobbits, anyway?" he asked as he chewed.
"I have travelled widely," said the Dunadan.
"So have I!" Bilbo said eagerly. "Isn't it a wonderful feeling when you're out on the road, and you know that the whole world is ahead of you, and you can go just anywhere, and there are towers ahead of you, and rivers and lakes and fields of flowers and mountains, mountains. I want to see them all before I settle down to rest."
"Where will you go next?" the Dunadan asked.
"South," Bilbo said firmly. "There are cities there. I've never seen a city, not a real one. And I want to see the elven woods, and I read somewhere about two great pillars of ancient kings. Sometimes I can see them in my mind, almost as if I'm standing there in front of them, but the picture is veiled somehow. I need to see them. I need to see them, Dunadan."
The fire crackled. A dark streak of cloud passed over the moon, a line drawn across its face. "Perhaps you will," the Dunadan said.
Bilbo pressed his hand flat against his breast. "No perhaps about it. I will. I will."
But first, said his feet, said his heart, said the very core of him, first you will go to Rivendell and stay there, just for a little while. And then… And then…
"Look at this, Dunadan!" Bilbo cast out his right hand, gesturing at the sky, at the whole world around them. "This is why I left my home. This. They call it the wilds, but it's beautiful, too. Oh, yes, it's dangerous, too, I know that, but it can be beautiful even when it's terrible. Look at those clouds. They're like lines of grey paint drawn by a child with a shaky hand, with all the black sinking to the bottom. And, look, over there, where there's a gap in the clouds, small enough that I can cover it with my hand. But the stars!
"Like silver jewels in an obsidian crown," the Dunadan said.
Bilbo gave a shuddering laugh; it was closer, perhaps, to tears. "And just enough moonlight to show the mountain peaks, where the snow reflects the glory of the silver moon. Unchanging…"
"No, not unchanging," said the Dunadan, "for the mountains change, but so slowly that we cannot see."
"And the trees," Bilbo said. "Tall dark shadows…"
"But see how the moonlight touches them where their leaves are damp," said the Dunadan. "Even in an autumn twilight, the trees are gleaming."
Bilbo passed his hand across his eyes. "You should put it in a song, Dunadan." He tried to laugh. "You play this game well. You could be a poet, with a bit more practice."
"Other paths await me, I'm afraid."
"Well," said Bilbo, "that's a shame."
He fell asleep shortly afterwards, and dreamed of moonlight and mountains and a road that had no end.
When he woke up, the Dunadan was gone.
"So that's the end of it," Bilbo said.
The path zigzagged up the sheer valley side, shaded by trees and high walls of stone. Bilbo paused for breath, resting his hand against the mossy surface of the rock. Small fronds of fern brushed his fingers. "I don't think," he gasped, "that I'm quite as sturdy... as I used to be."
It was late summer, but even here, there were places where sunlight dappled. He could no longer hear the sound of running water. Trees lower down the valley hid the roofs of Rivendell, but very faint and far away, he could still catch the echo of a song.
He pushed himself away from the rock, and continued to climb. "Not far now," he said, because at the top was heather moorland, purple as far as the eye could see, and beyond that mountains, and the river, and the distant sea.
When he reached the top, he threw himself down, and lay for a while on his back, gazing up at the sky. His face prickled with sweat. A bee came over to investigate him, buzzing around his face. "Go away, bumblebee," he murmured, "dumbledore, humblebee."
He rolled onto his stomach, then scrambled awkwardly into a sitting position. "Not as easy as it used to be," he said. "I think I'm getting old."
He hadn't felt old, not really, before he had left the Shire. He had felt restless and wrong and stretched too thin, but seldom old.
"But I've still got plenty of years in me," he said cheeringly. "One day I'll find somewhere nice where I can rest, but there's still time to travel to oh so many places."
Beyond the heather, the mountains were grey. Clouds clung to the highest peaks.
"But not today," he said, and closed his eyes, and turned away.
When he opened them, a tall elf was approaching across the moorland, heading towards Rivendell on foot. "At least," said Bilbo, "I think it's an elf, because who else is it likely to be?" He decided to stay where he was, in case the elf had news he was willing to share, or songs and stories that he was willing to tell.
It was only when the traveller was almost upon him that Bilbo realised that it was a man. Men were altogether more chancy than elves. But even though the moorland looked wild, it was well within the Elrond's realm, and the hidden watchers at the bounds had allowed this man to pass, so that meant there was no danger in him.
Bilbo rose to his feet. The man drew closer still. There was something familiar about his face, Bilbo realised. He frowned at him, struggling to place the memory.
"The Dunadan!" he cried. "Is that you?"
"It is indeed, Master Hobbit." The Dunadan looked less like a statue in the daylight, of course. Sunlight was merciless, showing the sweat on his brow, and the dust of the road that marked the fine lines on his face. But then he smiled, and Bilbo was reminded quite unexpectedly of Elrond in a rare, merry mood.
"I knew I was right to trust you," Bilbo said. "Well, apart from the whole thing when you didn't kill me while I slept. But they wouldn't let you be here unless you were an elf-friend and a good man."
"I am glad you have your approval, Master Hobbit." The man's voice was grave, but his eyes were sparkling, and Bilbo thought that for some strange reason, he really meant it.
"Oh, that won't do," Bilbo said. "You can't go on Master Hobbiting me, not now. Come. Come. Sit down for a bit. Are you going down to Rivendell? We can walk down together in a minute. Oh, but where was I? Names. Yes, names. I am..."
"Bilbo Baggins," said the Dunadan, "unless I am very much mistaken."
"Oh," said Bilbo. "Yes. Yes, I am. How did you know?"
"You are quite a famous hobbit, Master Baggins." The Dunadan settled down beside him. "In truth, I suspected who you were when we met last year, but I could not take the risk of counting upon it. Traps have been set for me before now. Sometimes people chance-met in the wilds are other than they seem."
"Traps." Bilbo swallowed. "That all sounds very... dangerous, and... important. I don't think anybody sets traps for me."
"And let us hope that they never do," the Dunadan said with surprising fervour.
Bilbo shivered, although no cloud had passed in front of the sun. He remembered the malice of Smaug, and although he had long tried to forget it, the hatred of Gollum, shrieking in the dark.
"What a gloomy thought," Bilbo said, "on a lovely day like this. Look at the roofs of Rivendell, sparkling in the sun! You can never feel sad in the House of Elrond, you know; that's what they say." He let out a slow breath. A bird rose up from the valley, wheeled, and flew away to the south.
"Indeed," said the Dunadan quietly. "This was my home once."
Bilbo turned towards him. "You! A man?"
The Dunadan smiled. "I was raised here. When I was a foolish boy of ten years old, the most curious group of travellers came to stay. I stayed up past my bedtime to catch a glimpse of them. Dwarves I had heard of before, and Gandalf I knew from tales, but the last member of the party was new to me. They told me afterwards that he called himself a hobbit."
"That was me!" Bilbo clapped his hands together. He frowned, struggling to remember. So long ago, it seemed; so long! "I don't remember..."
"You would not have seen me," the Dunadan said. "I was kept well away from travellers then." He quirked a half smile. "My mother was quite cross with me that night, I remember."
"Why would she...?" Bilbo tilted his head, considering. "Traps, again, I suppose."
The Dunadan looked at him in surprise. "Your eyes are keen, Master Baggins. I have, perhaps, already said too much, but you are a guest in the House of Elrond, so little harm can come of it. My name is Aragorn son of Arathorn."
"Aragorn." Bilbo smiled. "So now we are properly introduced. What a shame there's no tea! And cake; cake is good for an introduction."
"I have lembas," the Dunadan offered.
"No." Bilbo shook his head. "Lembas is food for the road, and this is..."
He stopped. He sighed. Clouds were rising in the west, soft and white and lovely. Bilbo had been in Rivendell for three quarters of a year.
"Have you travelled?" he found himself saying. "Since I last saw you, I mean. I... meant to. I was going to. I came here just for the winter, but then spring came, and... " He ran his hand through a sprig of heather, until the flowers sat like pink beads between his fingers. "And then the summer, and it's nearly autumn now. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe next spring."
The Dunadan said nothing.
"Have you travelled, Dunadan?" Bilbo asked urgently. "Aragorn, I mean."
"Dunadan will serve," Aragorn said gently. "Let it remind us of our first meeting, when neither of us could trust each other with names. And, yes, I have travelled."
"Tell me." Bilbo snatched his hand upwards, ripping flowers from the stalk. "I have such pictures in my mind, but they're veiled, always veiled."
Aragorn was silent for a while. "At the start of summer," he said at last, and quietly, "I stood on the edge of a high plateau. It was moorland like this, but the heather was white, and it was speckled all over with yellow flowers, their four petals like a star. Rising from the moorland were stacks of black rock, formed into towering shapes."
Bilbo closed his eyes. "What sort of shapes?"
"Curious ones. Some were like a man, and some you could almost imagine to have the shape of a beast. Some were so slender at the base, that it seemed impossible for them to stand without toppling over, but stand they did. The stone was black, but when sunlight shone on them, as it did, they sparkled, because the black rock was embedded with a myriad tiny crystals."
"Ah," Bilbo breathed. "I can almost see it."
"There were no trees," said Aragorn, "but as I walked, a grey bird rose up from the nearest rocks, and then another and another. For a moment, the sky was dark with them, but then they were gone, and I was alone."
"I want to see it some day." Bilbo pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, chewed it, and let it go. "I will see it one day, or somewhere like it. I will." He opened his eyes, and almost shouted it. "I will, Aragorn. I will."
Aragorn looked at him solemnly, his expression unreadable. "I trust you will," he said. "One way or another, you will."
Interlude: The First Letter
My dear Frodo,
How are you, my boy? I'm hoping you're taking good care of that old hobbit hole of mine. But of course you are; you always were far more responsible than me. Not the kind to go gallivanting off on his birthday. And it's yours now, of course, not mine.
Oh, this isn't the way I meant to start this letter. I've started it so many times in my head, you know, but now I come to write it, I can't find the words, and here I am, prattling away like a fool.
I'll start again. My dear Frodo, I hope you're well. Since I left Hobbiton that night, I've been on such journeys. First I came to Rivendell, and then I went to see the Dwarves in Dale, and then
The pen stopped writing. The fire crackled, and a high clear voice was singing. Outside the window, the sky was grey, and fine rain fell on the many-panelled glass.
And then, he thought, I went to see the stone cities in the south, and I sailed upon the Great River, and I slept beneath the stars. I saw strange rock formations and vast grasslands where horses ride free. Because that's why I left you, my dear Frodo; because I was no longer content to live within unchanging walls. There is now no door between me and the open road.
He laid down his pen. He could write no lies.
"Frodo didn't want me to go, Gandalf," he found himself saying. "Oh, he loved me too well to say so out loud, but it was true, even so. He didn't want me to go, but he knew I had to. He knew I needed to travel. He knew I felt trapped by staying in one place."
"He knew," Gandalf agreed.
Bilbo pressed his hands down on the letter, feeling the last words smear and blur. "So how can I write the truth?" he said. "I always meant to settle down to rest somewhere, but I didn't mean it to be so soon. He offered to come with me, you know, but I said no. He's still in love with the Shire, but I craved the wilds and a larger country. He knew that. So how can I tell him that I've just exchanged one set of walls for another, and the only difference is that these walls don't include him?"
"He would not see it that way," said Gandalf, "because that is not how it is. He understands, Bilbo."
"But he would still be hurt."
"No," said Gandalf. "He understands more than you know."
Bilbo picked up the letter and threw it into the fire. The shadows of words were imprinted on his palms, impossible to read. "I'll write next year," he said. "I'll have travelled by then, after spring comes. I'll have such tales to tell him!"
Gandalf stood up, his steps soft on the carpet. "What shall I tell him? Shall I give him any news of you?"
Bilbo let out a breath, and moved to the window, to gaze out at the rain. "Tell him nothing," he said, as his mind saw pictures beyond the clouds. "Let him imagine me to be where he wants me to be. It's better that way."
Even in Rivendell, snow sometimes fell. For weeks, Bilbo had seldom ventured outside. He dozed whole days away, musing on the words of songs not yet written. Whenever a door opened, it bought with it a rush of cold air and a flurry of powdery snow. The firelight painted pictures, and the music of the elves swept him away into dreams.
"Not the season for travelling," he murmured in a gap between songs, "just for resting indoors."
They were strange, those dreams. He was sailing into the west, beneath a field of stars. He was crawling in the dark, seeking something he had lost, something precious to him. He saw two slender elves dressed for war, but maybe there was just one of them reflected in a mirror, because they were so alike.
People came and went. An elf maiden carried a vase of red berries and filigree seed cases, as delicate as lace. Bilbo stood at the top of a mountain and surveyed the world at his feet. He was opening his own front door, heading out with Frodo at his side. The Dunadan was there, ragged and weatherworn and wrapped in fur. Another man was with him, very like him, but not so tall. Aragorn appeared to be giving him orders, but Bilbo could not hear what was said. The man bowed his head at the end of it, and pressed his fist against his chest. He wore a brooch there, like a silver star.
Bilbo watched through half-closed lashes. This much, at least, was not a dream, he thought.
He struggled awake. The door opened, bringing in the usual blast of icy air. The other man left, but the Dunadan was approaching Bilbo, his footsteps soft on the cold stone floor.
"Who was that man?" Dreams still clung to him. "Did he bow to you?"
"One of my people," said Aragorn with a smile, "come here to seek advice."
"And now he's gone again?" Bilbo shivered. "In this weather! Some animals sleep through the winter, you know. I always used to think they were so silly." His voice was faint and wondering. He rubbed his eyes with the back of a fist, first one and then the other. "But you've been travelling, too, I can see that."
In truth, the Dunadan looked quite as villainous as Bilbo had ever seen him. Wherever he had been, the journey had clearly been hard, and it had left its mark. His furs looked warm, but as the snow melted, they turned damp and ragged. "Like an smelly old wet bear," Bilbo thought.
"Not as bad as that, I hope," the Dunadan laughed.
"Oh, I hadn't meant to…" To say it out loud. He wiped his eyes again, and yawned into his hand. "I'm still half asleep. It's easy to sleep here; easy to dream. I've been writing a lot, you know. I spent most of last year busy with it. Not the book I meant to write, but other things. 'Translations from the Elvish, by Bilbo Baggins.' That's what I'm calling it. When I've finished it, I'll travel again."
Aragorn took off his furry cape and placed it carefully in a corner, where it could steam and smell to its heart's content. His clothes underneath were, if anything, even more tatty. The back of one hand was dark with old bruises, and his lips were chapped and dry.
"Of course," said Bilbo, "there's so much Elvish here in Rivendell to translate that I could keep going forever. Master Elrond lets me read his books, or some of them, because some are too ancient and precious. They were written before the world was changed. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't travel to the places described in those tales, because they're gone, lost under the waves."
"Many places are," said Aragorn gravely, "but not all."
"Numenor is," said Bilbo. "I've been reading about Numenor a lot, and the sea kings that came from there, and the kingdoms that they founded here in Middle Earth. Master Elrond has a special interest in them, you know, because of his brother… but I expect you know that; of course you do." But Aragorn was no longer looking at him. His eyes were distant, and firelight played upon his face. It shone on the pillars, too, where pearl and silver traced the patterns of the stars. "I've been thinking about names, too," Bilbo said, "and what they mean in Elvish. I think," he said, "I have an idea," he said, "of what your name," he said, "might mean."
Aragorn said nothing. Traps again, Bilbo thought. Of course. Come on, Bilbo. Change the subject. Why should he tell you? You've only met… how many times? That first time, of course, and then the second, and several more after that, and that makes…
"I can't remember how long I've been living here," Bilbo confessed. "Is this the third winter, or the fourth? Time passes so strangely here. I always knew that Rivendell was a special place, but I've read more now, and listened to even much more than that. It's not just a special place; it's the last place. It holds all the echoes of the world that is gone. The Last Homely House East of the Sea. I thought that meant that when you walked on past it, you were in the wilds, but it means last, too; last in time."
"Not quite," said Aragorn softly. He sat down, leaning back against the pillar on its shadowed side.
"Tell me about them," Bilbo begged. "Not about the places that are gone, but those that still remain. Paint me one of your pictures. Tell me where you've been."
"Very well," Aragorn said. "In the spring…" He let out a breath. Apart from that, he was completely still. "It was dawn in late spring. I stood on rich farmland, covered with vineyards and orchards and pale pink blossom. There was a tall mountain in the west, grey in the morning mist, and cut into the mountainside, there was a great city."
"Cut?" Bilbo said. "Like the cities of the dwarves?"
Aragorn shook his head. "Not underground, no. Great circular walls of stone surrounded the shoulder of the mountain, which thrust out like the keel of a ship."
"The elves have told me about ships," Bilbo murmured, "but I have never seen one. They seem sad when they tell me about them."
"Like a stone knife, then," said Aragorn, "but the walls were built around it, in seven circular tiers, each one higher than the last, and at the top, there was a mighty tower. Even in the mists of early dawn, it gleamed, but as I watched, the sun rose in the east. It touched the pinnacle of the tower first, and then the walls…"
Bilbo clapped his hands together. "And they shone like gold!"
"Not gold," said Aragorn, "for these walls seldom shine. It was soft light, like a maiden's blush. They are made of enduring stone, not jewels. This was Minas Anor once, the Tower of the Setting Sun, and it was fashioned by men who were born in Numenor before the fall. But now it is Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, and seldom now does the sun rise in the east. Its walls are strong and white and turned towards war. It guards the realm of Gondor from the Shadow in the East."
"And you were there in the spring," Bilbo said.
"Not this spring." Aragorn shook his head. "It was long ago that I last saw Minas Tirith. I… I am sorry, Bilbo. I broke the rules of the game. Somewhere I have travelled to since our last meeting; that is what it is meant to be, is it not?"
"Oh," said Bilbo. "Oh, no. It doesn't matter. Truly it doesn't." You fool, Bilbo Baggins, he berated himself. Now you've gone and made him sad. He sought around for something merry to say, but nothing came to mind.
But then Aragorn was speaking again. "You are right," he said, "in what you suspect. I am Chieftain of the Dunedain of the North, descended through many fathers from Isildur, son of Elendil, High King of Arnor and Gondor."
Bilbo had clapped his hands together with joy when he had first suspected it, but now that it was confirmed, he felt strangely sad. "When the King returns…" he said. "That's what we still say in the Shire, meaning some future time when everything will be well."
Aragorn gave a quick breath of a laugh. "And also meaning a future time that will never come. I know your Shire proverbs, Master Baggins."
"But it might," Bilbo said. "It might."
"It might," Aragorn agreed. His face was still in shadow, hidden more deeply than it had been in the moonlight of their first meeting. "It was foreseen that a time will come when I will be put to the test. One way or the other, the wandering life of my people will come to an end, but whether it is because we fall into the darkness and are forgotten even by those few who now remember us, or whether we will step forth into the light, I do not know."
"Oh, the light!" said Bilbo. "The light!"
Aragorn turned his face towards him, and gave a sad smile. "I wish I had your faith."
"But you won't be forgotten," Bilbo vowed, "even if… those bad things happen, which they won't. Oh, the songs that people should be singing about you: the lost heirs of kings, tramping around looking like vagabonds, helping people, killing goblins that creep too near to foolish sleeping hobbits…"
"There are no songs," said Aragorn, "or none that any but the Dunedain sing."
"But there should be," Bilbo insisted.
And afterwards, after Aragorn had headed out once more into the snow, to resume his solitary wandering, Bilbo picked up his pen. He thought of Minas Tirith, that had been built by ancient kings from across the sea, and still endured, although it seldom shone. Not gold, Aragorn had said. Not gold, because it did not gleam.
And then he thought of a man who wandered through the snows of winter, in lands that he should rightly rule as king. He thought of a friend who brought tales to an old hobbit, without pausing to see to his own comfort first.
He started to write, and the words came easily to him, as the truest verses always did.
All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost…
It was hot beneath the pine trees. Even though there had been no rain for days, the ground was still damp beneath its carpet of pine needles, and the air was thick with the scent of resin. In the slanting sunlight far above, Bilbo caught a quick glimpse of a squirrel, just a flash of an orange tail. Speckled butterflies flew between the branches, and he could hear the drilling of many woodpeckers, although he had yet to see one.
"I'll just rest here," he said, "for a little while." He squirmed out of his pack. His back was sodden with sweat, and suddenly cold as it was exposed to the air. "It's harder than I remember it, this walking business."
He sat down on the needles, his legs stretched out, and his hands on the ground behind him. He flexed his feet, grimacing at the pain in his calf muscles. Even the soles of his feet were sore. His chest still ached from the effort of the climb, and he felt faintly light-headed, "as if I'm not quite here," he said, "but have faded…"
He let the thought trail away. The air touched the wet clothes at his back, and he shivered.
"It reminds me a little bit," he said, "of how I felt before I left Bag End, all unsettled and… stretched. Now why should that be?"
Food! he thought. Food would set things right. He rummaged in his pack and pulled out some fruit, only slightly bruised, and a soft white roll. As he ate them, he became aware of someone else approaching.
By the time it occurred to him that he might want to get out of sight, it was already far too late. "That's what living in Rivendell does to you, I suppose," he said. "It makes you forget that there can be such a thing as danger."
"Indeed it does," said Aragorn with a smile.
"Sit down, Dunadan. Sit down." Bilbo gestured with his half-eaten roll. "I've got food to share. It tastes better when it's shared, or that's what I've always found. Unless you've got places you're hurrying off to. You weren't expected back in Rivendell for several days, you know."
"I arrived early," Aragorn said. "Barely an hour after you left, in fact."
"Yes." Bilbo looked up at the patches of blue sky beyond the tall treetops. "It was such lovely weather, you see. I thought I'd go for a little walk – not a proper journeying, of course, but two or three nights out, and then home in time for tea. I can't remember how long it is since I've done such a thing."
"So they told me." Aragorn settled down beside him. Bilbo watched him as he did so.
"How far away the ground must seem when you're as tall as a man!" Bilbo blurted out. "Why, falling over must be such a dangerous business."
Aragorn laughed. "We have learned how to live with it."
Bilbo pulled out another apple and passed it to him. "Did you come out specially to find me? I was heading south, you see. There's an old guard post near the river, a day's journey south of the ford. I wanted to see it." He took a bit of his own apple, and chewed it slowly, savouring the taste. "I've become quite interested in Numenorean ruins since I met you. Oh. Oh," he said in sudden consternation. "I don't mean that I think you're a Numenorean ruin, of course… Oh. Oh dear. I'm making things worse."
"Not at all," laughed Aragorn. Bilbo looked at him anxiously, but he seemed genuinely amused.
"Well," said Bilbo, recovering himself, "it seemed like a good reason for a walk. But it's harder than I remember it, walking. I think it might take longer than I thought."
The laughter had left Aragorn's face. He had not yet started his apple, but was shining it, rubbing it against his palm. "You do know," he said at last, "that you haven't turned south? The river is some miles away, and you are…"
"…on the road back to the Shire." Bilbo closed his eyes. "Oh. Yes. So I am." He had known it, of course he had known it, but still…
His feet had decided it without bothering to ask his permission, he thought.
"But why shouldn't I go there?" he said. "Why can't I pay a quick visit? I can't leave Rivendell yet – all my writings are there, and there are still so many stories that I haven't heard. But I left something behind in Hobbiton, something that's mine. Something that I want," said the ache in his chest. "Something that I need," said that light-headed part of him, the part that saw with shadowed eyes.
His hands were shaking. The apple core slipped from his fingers.
How he longed to see that old Ring of his! Whole days went by in Rivendell without him even thinking about it, but now that he had named it, he realised that it had been in his mind from the moment he had crossed the ford.
"And why shouldn't I?" he said. "It is mine, after all."
Aragorn was looking at him gravely, and Bilbo fought the sudden urge to scream at him: don't look at me like that! It's mine! It's mine!
"I think," said Aragorn gently, "that you should come back with me to Rivendell. A storm is rising quite unexpectedly in the east, and summer's heat is coming to an end. That's what I came to tell you."
"I can't walk to the Shire in a storm," Bilbo agreed. He stood up, and slowly turned back to face the way that he had come. Something twisted inside him, and it might have been pain, or it might have been relief. He wriggled into the straps of his pack, and grimaced as it drove the wet clothes into his back. His legs felt far more stiff than they had before he had stopped. "I think I need to practise with shorter walks," he said. "It's… How long have I been at Rivendell?"
"Nearly six years," Aragorn said.
"Oh." Bilbo frowned. "I thought it had been less than that. But sometimes it feels like a lifetime; it's so very hard to tell. Six years without ever going very far." He took a first painful step, and then a second. It became easier after a while, but not much. "But I would have liked to have seen that guard post."
"I have seen it," said Aragorn. He was slowing his long stride, allowing Bilbo to set the pace.
"Then tell me," Bilbo urged him. "Tell me about it, please."
And Aragorn did so, as side by side, they walked back home to Rivendell.
On to the second half