Bilbo Baggins had been making inquiries around Bree for most of the day - apparently it wasn't as simple a matter as he had hoped, to send Gandalf a message. He should have realized that this might be a problem earlier on, as the wizard was a bit of a wanderer and, as far as Bilbo knew, didn't exactly have a home address or anything of the sort.
But Gandalf the Grey was someone he had grown quite comfortable with, and after their adventure and Gandalf's occasional visits he had rather started seeing the wizard as a slightly eccentric friend who would no doubt turn up again at some point. At no time had Bilbo ever had a cause to send the man a message and only now that his need was high, did he find the troubles with such.
With a defeated sigh, the hobbit temporarily admitted defeat. He settled himself at a table at the Prancing Pony and ordered a decent dinner – he would stay the night and tomorrow he would settle the matter. If he failed in this course of action, there were other options for him to take, though none of them seemed very expedient.
"Master Baggins?" A deep, measured voice called him from his thoughts.
The weary hobbit looked up to find a large man at a small distance to his table. This wasn't just any of the men in Bree, though, no, from the looks of it, this was one of those Rangers.
Rather wary, because he had heard ill things about these people over the course of the day, Bilbo hesitantly answered; "Yes?"
"Might I join you at your table for a moment?" the man asked him, unfailingly polite, and with no hint of a threat anywhere in his demeanor.
As a hobbit, the rules of politeness meant a lot to him, even after the time he had spent in the wilds with a group of dwarves. The man, Ranger or not, had been polite, and it would be a great rudeness to refuse now. "Certainly, sir. I do apologize; I do not know your name. Nor am I aware of how you came to know mine."
The man silently sat down in the chair opposite to his own, but even seated this wild-roughened stranger seemed to be looming over him like a large shadow.
"I am known as Strider in these parts," he introduced himself, "And I know your name because I have heard tell that you have been making inquiries today about Gandalf the Grey."
"Then you are well informed, Master Strider," Bilbo replied, wondering what this fellow wanted from him.
The man smiled grimly, "I wonder if you would have me know why it is you require the wizard."
"It is a private matter," Bilbo replied shortly, unwilling to trust this stranger who had not even given him his real name.
"So I see. And yet, you were rather adamant in finding one who might send a message to him. I could do this, if you so wish."
The hobbit felt somewhat uncertain how to deal with this strange man – he hadn't exactly done or said anything displeasing, but Bilbo felt rather uncomfortable around him nonetheless. Maybe it was the stories he had heard about Rangers, or maybe it was the man's dirty clothes or his inscrutable gaze. Nonetheless, he needed a message send, and it was hardly fair to judge someone just by the rumors he had heard. "I would be most grateful if you could accomplish that." Just to make sure there were no unpleasant surprises he added, "Might I ask what sort of payment you would want for this?"
"No payment is necessary," Strider said immediately, in a tone that brooked no argument, "If you give me a message, I will see to it that it reaches Gandalf. But I cannot assure you that it will do so with haste – the wizard is a difficult man to find, at times."
Bilbo grimaced, because he knew those words were likely true. "Any haste you could make would be appreciated – and I would be quite willing to pay for anything you need to accomplish that."
The Ranger stared at him, long and hard and Bilbo started to fidget – those grey eyes were not unkind, but they were piercing in their intensity. "If you are truly in need of aid, you need not ask the wizard. I know there are ill tales about my people in these parts, but we are no bandits or ruffians. We do what we can to protect – to keep free and safe the peoples of these lands."
Those words were well meant, the hobbit could tell, and suddenly he saw not the imposing stranger, but a decent warrior of the likes of Bard, or Dwalin, or Thorin. And Bilbo believed, suddenly, that this was indeed a good man.
And if it concerned only himself, he would have taken the chance – he would have put his life in those rough, dirty hands.
But there was more than his own well-being at stake this time.
"Then we are lucky indeed," Bilbo finally answered, allowing some of that gratefulness to coat his voice, "But the matter for which I need the wizards assistance is more delicate than battle. It is rather urgent, and important, but not, I think, of a threat to life. And it is not something I can entrust to a stranger, no matter how trustworthy they may be."
Strider let out a deep sigh, suddenly seeming rather weary, or defeated. And it was strange to see that this tall man, who seemed utterly toughened and unflinching was capable of such a feeling. "You will not tell me, then." It was a statement and not a question. "Would that you would allow me to aid you, but I can tell you will not be moved on this. Very well, then, if this is your wish, it will be so. I will try to send word to the wizard – that he should come to you quickly, when he can."
Bilbo nodded, feeling both relieved and somewhat disappointed in himself. "Thank you, Master Strider. I am in your debt."
"No debt is needed, Master Baggins. But I will ask once more – is there any other way I may help? Or is there any other I may send word to? For Gandalf the Grey may not be as swift as you would hope and you have made clear the urgency of your unnamed problems."
Now the troubled hobbit blinked. He had always realized that there was an other option – that the elves would be able to help as much as his old friend could. But Bilbo did not believe himself capable of travelling all the way back to Rivendell on his own – the roads would be too dangerous for just him. Moreover, he could not afford to be away from home. This trip to Bree was only out of necessity, and already he was anxious to be back home, his mind was filled with possibilities of all sorts of alarming troubles and misunderstandings that might be taking place back in the Shire.
"This 'problem' could be resolved in Rivendell, but it is too dangerous for me to travel there," Bilbo pondered out loud.
"Ah," the man started slowly, "There I could help you, for I could escort you safely there - if you are willing to put your trust in my word."
The hobbit looked up at the Ranger. He had doubted this man when he had first sat himself at Bilbo's table, but now almost all of that doubt was gone. Even so, this was not a solution, for it was not just his own life at risk – he would not travel to Rivendell with a child in tow. If he did, then Strider would have two people to protect instead of one, and one of them far more fragile than Bilbo. He was not willing to risk that young life. And Bilbo could not go alone – he could not leave the child at home without him.
He shook his head. "I do not doubt your word on that, Master Ranger, and I do not doubt your sword either. But I cannot leave home at this moment. Please send word to Gandalf and I will considered this a great favour done, and will thank you for the other help you have offered me."
He had made his decision, there was no large risk in waiting, though he hoped with all his heart that Gandalf would hurry - for this situation was not one he had been prepared for in any way. "I will wait for the wizard, and if he takes too long then perhaps… perhaps, if the situation at home settles, I can manage a trip to the Grey Havens – there are elves there too, I believe, and they too would be able to help me."
Strider nodded in understanding, "Then I will do as you say, Master Baggins, and bear this message to the wizard as quickly as I may."
The Ranger left him with a small bow of his head that Bilbo mimicked. Then the man's swift, long legs carried him away from the table and he disappeared into the shadows of the inn.
Suddenly Bilbo was alone with his dinner once more – the dinner that he, very much unlike a hobbit, had taken not a single bite of during their entire conversation. And, to his horror, he realized that he had not even offered the man anything to eat or drink, despite the fact that he had a small feast in front of him (at least in the terms of dwarves, elves and men).
"Beaten in politeness by a Ranger," Bilbo mumbled to himself as he finally started eating. He consoled himself with the thought that at least it hadn't been a dwarf.
It was already late in the evening when a knock on the door roused Bilbo from his book. He stood up, somewhat grumpy at the interruption, and yet hopeful that perhaps Gandalf had come at last.
When he opened the door it was not the wizard that he found there. Instead he found one of the race of Men towering over him. The shadows of the night clung to the man and it took him a moment to realize that he knew this person – that this was the Ranger who called himself Strider, a person who he had met only weeks before in Bree.
"Master Strider," he greeted, somewhat baffled at the man's presence, "how may I be of service?"
"Master Baggins," the man said warmly, despite the fact that he was still hovering outside the door in the cold night air, "perhaps you would allow me to do you a service instead?"
The Ranger gestured with his arm, and suddenly Bilbo noticed a second figure standing outside of the circle of light that was coming from his doorway.
"I have not brought you the wizard, though I have left messages for him where he may find them. But I remembered that you mentioned finding assistance in Rivendell so I have brought a piece of Rivendell to you." The man smiled warmly at his companion when he moved to stand alongside the dark-haired man.
This second figure was even taller and also dark-haired, but not scruffy like the Ranger and no man at all. No, it was an elf who greeted the hobbit, in a beautiful, musical voice that filled the night like a song: "I greet you, Bilbo Baggins. And I bring you greetings from my father as well. I am Elladan, son of Elrond and I have come to give you what aid I may give."
One of the sons of Lord Elrond, the hobbit echoed in his mind. And one glance at that face was enough to validate that claim. Because, although Bilbo had not met the twin sons of Elrond during his stay in Rivendell, he could recognize much of the elf's father in that face.
"Ah. I. Thank you, for coming," he stumbled over his words, "Bilbo Baggins, at your service and your family's." He bowed.
"I am pleased to meet you. From what I have heard you are quite the remarkable hobbit," the elf replied.
"Thank you. Oh, um, please come in. Both of you." Bilbo hastily stepped back, finally allowing those he had forced to linger on his doorstep (the rudeness!) entry into his home.
When all three of them were seated near the cozy fire Bilbo had left behind at the knock on the door, Lord Elladan spoke again. "Estel has informed me that you are in need of our help, but he has not been able to make clear just what aid it is you need. All he could tell us was that it was both urgent and important, but also a delicate issue."
Bilbo almost blushed, feeling rather embarrassed at his earlier wariness of the Ranger, "um, yes. I may have been somewhat reticent in sharing the details of my situation with Strider. Um, Estel?"
"Either is fine, Master Baggins," the man in question replied, as kind and calm as ever.
"Bilbo, please. You have done me great favor, after all - despite my rudeness and forbearance. I hope you will pardon my hesitance in entrusting you with the details. Were it only my own wellbeing at stake I would not have hesitated," here Bilbo glanced back at the hallway leading to the bedrooms in his smial, "but I have recently found that when a small, young life is at stake, and yours to guard, it becomes far more difficult to give one's trust so easily – and no form of risk is considered acceptable, no matter how slight."
"I understand, Master Baggins, Bilbo. And no pardon is necessary. You have not been rude in your refusal to inform me of the details – in fact, I believe that was the politest 'mind your own business' that I have ever heard tell, and considering the company I sometimes keep," Strider glanced at the elf at his side, "that is quite the feat."
Elladan chuckled merrily. "I do not doubt that. But I had not heard you had a child, Master Baggins. Or, indeed, a wife, for that matter."
"I have neither," Bilbo informed them, "but at the moment I am guardian to a young girl – and have been for the past month, since about a week before I traveled to Bree. That child is the reason you are here, for it is no hobbit that has come into my care. No, this child was one we have found, on the North-eastern borders of the Shire, completely naked and alone. She has been left in my care because I was the only one who could understand even parts of what she said."
"A dwarf lass?" the Ranger queried. And Bilbo turned his incredulous eyes to the man, why would he believe her to be a dwarf, of all beings?
Strider easily recognized the look in his eyes and smiled at him, "I have heard the tale of your adventures many a time, Bilbo Baggins. If there is any hobbit in this Shire who has cause to know some of the dwarf-tongue it is you."
The hobbit returned the man's smile with his own, even as he shook his head and teased, "if she spoke Khuzdul I would need not ask for the aid of the elves, now would I?"
"Sindarin?" Elladan exclaimed softly, "the child speaks only Sindarin?"
The man and elf exchanged glances, and the mood seemed to turn far more serious. After a long moment, Strider spoke slowly; "If it is the elven-tongue she speaks, then mayhap it was me and my kin you needed to find after all. For I can think of no others amongst the race of Men who would have cause to know Sindarin, except perhaps, the scions of the Houses of Gondor. But they would be far from home, and if one had gone missing, far away or not, our people would have caught word of such a matter. Then again, if one of our own was missing I too should have known by now."
The Ranger turned his piercing grey eyes to Bilbo, "May I see her, Master hobbit? For there is indeed a chance that she is one of my kin. Though perhaps more distantly than one who went missing amongst our people. She could be the child of one of my men - kept secret for some reason."
"You may see her," Bilbo affirmed, and he stood up, "but I assure you, the child is no little Ranger. Secretly or not." He met Elladan's eyes for a moment but said no more. Instead he turned and led the way to her room.
Carefully, he opened the door and stepped in. There the child lay sleeping, warmly enveloped in one of his many quilts. Her blonde hair was spread out on the pillow like the rays of the sun and her eyes were glazed over in slumber.
Bilbo could see Lord Elrond's son halt in his movement and wondered if perhaps he should have warned the elf. Some part of him was still as mischievous as he had been as a lad - never with malice, but with the well-deserved joy that comes from sharing a pleasant surprise. But perhaps this surprise had been ill thought out.
His apology could wait, he decided when he saw the ancient being finally move forward again and reach out ever so slowly and carefully until his hand was resting softly upon the child's hair.
The hobbit felt firmly like he was intruding. "I will leave you for a moment," Bilbo murmured softly, "I will prepare some tea."
Strider nodded distractedly, never taking his eyes off the sight before him.
The hobbit shook his head and left them to it. Tea, and perhaps some cake as well. He might still have that cherry pie, or was that already gone? With his thoughts now bend to foodstuffs, Bilbo made his way to the kitchen. It was about time he stepped up to his duties as a host after all.
"Elbereth," Elladan breathed in disbelief, "Do your eyes see the same thing as mine, little brother? Or have I wandered into a dream?"
Aragorn shook his head, feeling the same wonder he could hear in his brother's voice, "I see what you see, Elladan - even though it should be impossible. I cannot imagine the birth of an elfling passing by unremarked and uncelebrated."
The elf gently moved his hand over the child's hair, touching upon one of her little ears, pointed, much like his own. "I cannot believe my eyes. And since you see the same as me, I am doubting yours as well," his hand moved to caress her cheek, as softly as a breath of air, "and yet my hand affirms that she is indeed here."
"She is indeed," Aragorn agreed, "and while one mystery is solved - that of the secretive hobbit, a greater one has arisen in its place."
"A great mystery she is," Elladan said, and he gazed upon her in silence for a long moment. Then a warm smile finally formed on his face, taking the place of his earlier disbelief, "but it is a sweet mystery, is it not?"
His brother could do no less than agree.
Then, between one breath and the next, the child awoke and she was staring up at them with large grey eyes.
She blinked at the tall strangers who had invaded her room and, like a sudden gust of wind, she ducked out of bed and out of the room so quietly and quickly that the two of them almost believed they had been dreaming after all.
But the little girl had been no mirage, Elladan ascertained. They found her in the kitchen, half-hidden behind their hobbit host.
Bilbo Baggins looked at them for a moment before turning to face the elfling at his back. "Child," the hobbit told her in his sparse Sindarin, "It's alright. No danger. Just friends, see," he gestured to where they were waiting in the door opening, not wanting to overwhelm the young elfling they had so unexpectedly found. "Elladan is like you. An elf."
"Like me?" came the innocent lilting voice and she peeked out from behind the halfling. Elladan took a step forward and her curious eyes settled on him immediately. She perked up, moving a little in his direction. Yet there was still some hesitance there, and she faltered, looking back to the hobbit for encouragement. It was only after Bilbo Baggins nodded that she fully crossed the distance between them and gazed up at him.
He smiled warmly and slowly lowered himself to her level. "Well met, little one, I am Elladan."
She nodded in understanding, but didn't reply. Even so, his greeting seemed to have emboldened her, for she reached out and touched his face without hesitation. Her small hand was warm and soft on his cheek and he felt his own smile widen. The elfling giggled at him and climbed onto his knees, his arms coming up without a thought to cradle her so she could not fall.
With a sigh she settled against his chest and he felt a great joy and warmth spread through his limbs – for without a doubt he was holding one of the greatest treasures of his people, and most certainly the dearest one.
Tenderly he brushed his hand over her long blonde hair. "What is your name, little one?" he asked her softly – afraid that if he spoke to loudly this spell would break and the elfling would have melted back into the world of dreams.
The child shook her head and hid her face against his chest.
He frowned slightly, but his voice was as gentle as before "will you not tell me?"
"Nuh-uh," she mumbled.
At this moment Bilbo spoke up, "why not, child? You told me. Elladan is not that scary, is he?"
The blonde-haired elfling giggled softly, "not scary," she agreed, and then she yawned and sighed happily as she cuddled against him. The elf held back a chuckle, not wanting to rouse her further. But she was sweet, this little one, and it was hard not to sing or laugh in delighted wonder.
Instead he let his voice be a gentle guide to sleep; melodious and light. "Rest then, child. And you may tell me at the morrow. For now, let your mind be untroubled, and your dreams be filled with starlight."
He felt her little nod and then the young one let sleep overtake her once more. He glanced at both Bilbo and Aragorn and smiled ruefully. Sleep would still be some ways off for all of them, unless, of course, their host suddenly proofed unwilling to discuss this matter further. Judging from the smile the hobbit bestowed on him and his little burden, as well as the fact that Bilbo had obviously been preparing some food, that would not be a problem.
And that was good, for sweet or no, a mystery this was - and there were many questions that needed answering.
When the dawn came, the three weary men were no nearer to solving their intriguing puzzle. Bilbo had long ago retired to bed, although he had been hesitant at leaving his guests behind for sleep.
He had tried to encourage them to seek rest as well, offering to provide them with a makeshift bed so that they may get some sleep (he had no real beds that would fit his tall visitors). But Strider and Elladan refused, saying that their need for sleep was not that great as they had spent many nights without rest in their lifetimes – one more such night would not harm them, and they had many thoughts to ponder and discuss.
After a while Bilbo simply gave up. He had brought his largest quilts from one of his chests and some blankets and pillows, despite their claims to not needing them. And then, feeling somewhat like a poor host but beyond caring due to his tiredness, he ambled off to his bed, leaving his guests behind next to the dying fire.
At dawn Elladan stood and told his companion, "I will see to the horses, Estel. And stretch my limbs. For although I do not doubt that this is a well-made house for a halfling, and think no ill of our gracious host, this ceiling is rather low and my body longs to stand upright even more than it wishes to taste the morning air."
"Then I will wait and keep watch, brother," Aragorn replied with a nod, because, although the young elfling had obviously been safe in the hobbit's care so far, such a life was too precious to allow for any risk.
Elladan donned his cloak, covering his head and face as best he could and slipped outside, moving to the small wooded area containing their horses on swift and silent feet. It was best not to rouse the curiosity of these peoples, even if the chance was great that they were already aware of the elfling in their midst. For it would be a long road to Rivendell, and secrecy was one of their greatest aids when it came to a treasure that would be eagerly welcomed amongst their kin - and just as eagerly destroyed by the malicious forces of this world.
As he cared for the horses he admitted to himself that he would have felt far more at ease with the prospect of the journey back to Rivendell if his twin had been with him as well. Had they known in advance just what they would find in the Shire, his father would have sent more than just him – a small group, no doubt, because it would not do to draw undue attention, but every pair of eyes and every sword and bow would have been appreciated.
Ah, had Master Baggins not been so reticent in his dealings with Estel, he might have had Elrohir and Lord Glorfindel at his side even now – and yet the caution of the halfling was also something he was most grateful for. For if word had gotten out to the wrong ears…
No, Bilbo's caution could not be considered a bad thing - for at least they had found the little one was well and safe.
Perhaps Aragorn could ride out in advance to Bree, gather the Dúnedain that may be found nearby, so that they may serve as a guard. Estel's men could wait for him and his charge near the road – he was certain that with a few more of his brother's kin by their side they had little to fear on this journey. He had travelled the lands between his home and Bree many times after all, he knew they were well protected by the Dúnedain and he had shared in providing that protection many times.
But with such a young and innocent life in his care, their roads suddenly seemed a great deal more dangerous. He was reminded of the hobbit's words and now that he found himself in the self-same situation he could understand them, and agree with them, to a far greater extent. With such a precious young life to guard, no form of risk can be considered acceptable, no matter how slight.
And this was why he longed for Elrohir, and for a group of Rivendell's greatest warriors at his side. But that was a futile wish and he had to make do with what he had instead.
They would have to do this themselves.
At least he had one brother at his side and that was significantly better than having no one with him at all.
Inside, Aragron's thoughts were, to some extent, a mirror of Elladan's. He too was considering the worst dangers that they might find upon the road ahead, and how they could best avoid or handle these situations to ensure the safety of their charge.
His thoughts were interrupted when the cause of all this entered the room. He remained seated where he was, not willing to frighten her – for he knew he must look rather rough after all the time he had spent in the wilds. Even his stop in Rivendell had been a short one, for the urgency in the hobbit's voice had spurred him onwards.
The elfling wandered closer and closer before finally stopping a few paces from his chair. Her face was scrunched up and she stared at him with such great concentration that he could not help but smile at the picture she made.
That little blonde looked as though she was trying to stare straight into his soul with pure force of will.
Luna stared deeply at the only person in the room, the one person she hadn't really been introduced to last night.
He looked too big for Bilbo's chair. Too big for Bilbo's home – and very out of place. He actually looked rather scary, but Bilbo had said that the elf, like her, and him were both friends. And Elladan wasn't scary, so maybe this one wasn't either?
"Hello there, little one," the tall man finally greeted her, after she'd been staring at him curiously for several moments.
She took a small step back, rather uncertain about this man.
His voice was kind, though, despite his somewhat rough appearance. "My name is Estel. Can you tell me your name, child?"
"Luna. Nice to meet you, Mister Estel," she mumbled softly, the rules of politeness that Bilbo had been trying to teach her coming to the forefront.
"I'm not a mister, little one. Just Estel."
"You look like a mister," she stared up at him silently for a moment longer and decided, "no, a king."
Then she ducked her head shyly and looked away.
Mister Estel was silent for a long moment and after a while she dared to look back at his face. The expression there was weird – somewhat stunned but there was some other, indescribable emotion there as well.
The scruffy king knelt before her and she frowned slightly at that, because weren't people supposed to kneel for kings instead of kings kneeling for people?
"What makes you say that?" he asked her, his voice almost stern.
Now she smiled, even though Mister King Estel looked very serious, because just moments ago she'd seen him and he had looked very beautiful and even the memory was enough to make her smile. "Well, you had a crown, and kings have a crown. Though I suppose princes do too." She frowned slightly as she considered that but dismissed it after a moment – she was sure that he was a king, not a silly prince. "There was a white city made of stone and a white tree and an elven stone and you were standing tall and smiling so you must have been a king."
Mister Estel opened his mouth and closed it without saying anything. Grownups were silly like that sometimes – they worried too much about strange stuff and practically invited the Wrackspurts to come and play with them.
She moved forward, deciding that she would just have to save him from such a fate – after all, you can't be a king if your brain goes all fuzzy. So she climbed into his lap and to her great joy he gently settled his arms around her. "I am no king," he told her softly as she took in the scent and feel of him.
"Hmmhmm…" she hummed in agreement, her face burrowing into the crook of his neck, "not yet. But you're an almost-king. A maybe-king. A someday-king." She grinned up at him. "I think that makes you a mister, Mister Estel."
He laughed softly at her teasing voice and Luna felt more and more sure of him. Bad people couldn't laugh like that. "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer." She rattled off, from somewhere in her mind, "I think that makes you a nice person, doesn't it?"
Silently he brushed his hand over her hair. His hands were warm and careful and she thought in satisfaction that she had been right. They were a healer's hands, she was sure. And a king's hands too.
"I'm glad you think so, little Luna," he finally spoke, and the two of them sat in contented silence as they waited for the others to join them – the day still laid out before them, filled to the brim with promises of the future and sprinklings of potential and maybes.