Bilbo jumped over a low place in the hedge, and after him, the three dwarves, Frár, Buri and Hornbori followed. Behind him the lights and the noise of the Party in the field at Bag End went on, as busy as before, but before him the quiet meadows stretched dark under the starlit sky, the only sound the faint hush of grasses stirring in the night breeze.
They were not in a hurry, and Bilbo had in any case no desire to bump into any of his relatives who might be travelling home from the Party by travelling on well-trodden paths. They crossed the East Road near the Three-Farthing Stone, and walked south into the Green-hill Country, a quiet land of grassy sheep-grazed rolling hills. There under the stars of Elbereth that hung huge and bright against the black sky, they heard the sound of fair voices ahead, singing.
“Here we are then,” Buri said doubtfully. “And there they are. Your friends, the Elves.”
“Of course they are!” Bilbo declared cheerfully. “I’ve organised everything. Don’t be so grumpy, Buri. This is one of the Wandering Companies, made up of High Elves out of Lindon who are friends and kinsmen of Elrond himself. Old friends of mine too, I’m delighted to say. I’ve arranged for us to walk with them for a little while before we leave the borders of the Shire. You can let go of your beard, Frár! Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod has more serious concerns than lying in wait for dwarves to tug their beards!”
Laughter came bubbling down the hillside towards them. “It’s true that we do have other business,” Gildor said, stepping down to greet his hobbit friend in the starlight. “But since you have brought three such very fine beards with you, Bilbo, I’m sure we’ll all have great difficulty restraining our natural elvish instincts!”
His finger flicked out playfully, and tapped the elaborate silver-and-enamel bead that held Hornbori’s beard in place. Frár’s hand shot nervously back to his chin.
“I’ll thank you not to tease my cousins, Master Gildor!” Hornbori said levelly, fixing the Elf with a reproving look. “Just because we Broadbeams of the Blue Hills have got somewhat used to you flighty Elvish folk, that is no excuse for rudeness! They don’t see so many of your sort in the Iron Hills.”
“Rudeness!” Gildor said. “Ah, you Broadbeams are so stern, to call my light jest a rudeness! You are so wary of your fine beards. I must endeavour to be as grave and unbending as a pine-tree, so as not to cause offence!”
“And so you should, for you’re nearly as tall as one, and have very little more sense!” Hornbori said with a booming laugh. He turned to his cousins and put a large hand on each of their shoulders. “These western Elves are just as silly as the wood-elves at least half the time, I fear, but they are fierce allies against the shadow-walkers and the fell-beasts of the darkness nonetheless. For that we must put up with them.”
“And another thing to cheer you up: they always have excellent provisions!” Bilbo said. “Are we in time for an extra supper, Gildor?”
“And here I thought you were just coming from a great feast,” Gildor said. “But I had a suspicion that the short walk here might have given you an appetite. Everything does! To go would be folly, to stay would be jolly. Come, friends and allies! Let us eat together, and forget suspicion where we can in these darkening days.”
. . . . . .
They said farewell to Gildor and his people at Woodhall, near the borders of the Shire, and took a wandering path through the fields and woods to Stock, and thence to the East Road and the Brandywine Bridge.
The days might, as Gildor said, be darkening, but the East Road was still much used by Dwarves travelling from the Blue Hills to Dale and the renewed Kingdom of Erebor, and the Road was safe enough, if not particularly busy. They passed a handful of Rangers heading East towards Bree, and later, three laden carts travelling in company, accompanied by a well-armed group of Dwarves heading for the Blue Hills. But Bilbo was keen to hurry on, and the late-September skies remained blue and clear, so walking was a pleasure.
“I’m missing mountains,” he would say, when any of the dwarves asked what was his hurry. “I lingered far too long in the Shire, with a string of confounded relatives hanging on the bell. It’s well past time to be heading East.”
. . . . . .
At last they came to the half-hidden entrance to the secret valley of Rivendell, where they had planned to stop for a few days on their way to the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo remembered every step, and led the cautious dwarves eagerly through the rocks to the long zig-zag path that led to the swift stream and the green meadows, and then, abruptly, he halted.
Far below in the distant valley, there were people on horseback heading up the path.
Hornbori stopped walking too, in some surprise. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I don’t,” Bilbo said rather vaguely, and stopped. He was looking down into the valley with an odd mixture of emotions on his face: longing, certainly, but discomfort too. He turned away from the valley and looked east. “Perhaps we should skip Rivendell and go straight on,” he said. “It’s not even lunchtime yet.”
“You want to go straight on to the Misty Mountains?” Frár said incredulously. “I was looking forward to a few days rest and some food that I haven’t carried on my back all day!”
“Hah!” Hornbori said with amusement. “We’ll have you an Elf-friend before you know it, young Frár! But we do have many days of walking ahead, Bilbo. Don’t you remember how long it took, when you came this way with King Thorin and his friends? Even in these days, with the mountain-passes clear and the roads a good deal better, we could do with topping up our supplies. And I thought that Master Elrond was a friend of yours?”
“He most certainly is!” Bilbo said. “And I did send him a message saying I would be dropping by, but somehow now I’m here it... it doesn’t seem such a good idea.” He put his hand in his pocket and seemed to be looking for something.
“Well,” Hornbori said doubtfully. “It’s your idea, this journey. But I’ll admit I was counting on a pint of Rivendell ale myself, and perhaps some company for the journey, if there happened to be someone else heading east. There aren’t too many goblins about these days, after the Battle of Five Armies, not now there’s a King Under the Mountain again. But the mountain-passes are still risky at times.”
Bilbo looked down the path again, and then back to the East, an oddly vague, uncertain expression on his usually round and cheerful face.
And then the people on horseback reached the top of the path, and reined their horses in in a great clattering of hooves. They were not in armour, but were dressed for hunting in green and brown, with bows and arrows on their backs. Their leader was Elrond himself, though he was dressed like all of his people, save for the silver circlet on his head.
“Bilbo!” Elrond leapt down from his horse smiling. “I thought it might be you, hanging about at the top of the path! It doesn’t get any less steep for looking at it, you know.”
Bilbo said a little vacantly, “Oh, hello, Elrond... I was just wondering whether to come down or not...” Hornbori frowned at him. This did not seem like cheerful determined little Bilbo at all.
Master Elrond clearly thought so too. He dropped to one knee, to look more easily into the hobbit’s face, and gave Bilbo a very searching look for a long moment as he pulled off riding gloves. Then he said “Certainly you must come! Here we are just back from our hunt with a fine fat stag. It will be a good feast, and there will be singing afterwards. You will not want to miss it. And it’s not so steep a walk as all that.”
Bilbo shook his head fiercely, as one coming up out of deep water, sending his curling hair springing around his face. “Of course!” he said. “Singing afterwards too? I can’t miss a chance to hear the songs of Elves beneath the stars, now can I?”
“Indeed not! Now, I recognise the good Hornbori of the Broadbeam folk with you. A few years since you have been to call upon us here in Rivendell, Hornbori. And are these gentledwarves more cousins of yours?”
. . . . . .
“Well, Master Elrond, I had best be off, I think,” Bilbo said, some weeks later, as they stood side by side, looking out over the green valley and the white waterfalls that fell from the high valley sides, from a high terrace near the house that was thick with the huge white scented blooms of a late-flowering creeping plant. “It’s very good of you to look after us so well, but the year is wearing on, and I’d like to get safely through to Dale and the Lonely Mountain before the winter gets here.”
“Of course, Bilbo,” Elrond said. “Are you planning to stay long in Erebor?”
“I hadn’t made any firm plans, to be perfectly honest with you,” Bilbo said. “I was thinking of finding somewhere to settle down, where I could finish my book. Old Balin said I should come back to the Mountain, if I ever I had the chance, though I’m not sure I fancy living so very far underground all the time.”
“Do your people not live underground?” Elrond enquired. “I had understood you had a taste for it too.”
“Well, yes, but not like the Dwarves do!” Bilbo exclaimed. “ I think the Mountain might be rather too grand and stony, for a hobbit to be quite happy living there, though no doubt they’ll have done it up all very nicely. We like to be able to pop in and out easily and look at the flowers. But I’m looking forward to seeing all they’ve done with it. And now young Frodo is quite old enough to look after Bag End himself, I feel I’ve had more than enough of the Shire, somehow. I was feeling all thin and stretched, if that makes any sense at all.”
Elrond looked at him with some concern. “It does,” he said.
“I thought it would feel better once I got on the road, but I didn’t, really. It still felt like there wasn’t quite enough of me. I seemed to be ... looking around for someone that wasn’t there, half the time. But I must say, I feel twice the hobbit I was, now. Rivendell has done me a power of good.”
“Yes,” Elrond said, thoughtfully. “It does seem to have done that. Bilbo, had you considered coming back to Rivendell, after your visit to Dale and Erebor? You would be very welcome to stay here for as long as you wish. And it seems most unlikely that these Sackville-Bagginses you mention will ever come so far to bother you!”
Bilbo laughed. “I would love to see Lobelia walking for weeks with a pack on her back to get to Rivendell! That would do her a power of good. But I can’t stay here. This is such an Elvish sort of place. It’s not... Well, I don’t think I’d feel quite right here.”
“Why not?” Elrond asked. “Rivendell is not a place just for Elves. We have all sorts of people coming here: Men, and Dwarves. Even the odd Hobbit, from time to time. Usually one of your Took relatives when they decide to set off for adventures. Though I don't think we've had any Tooks for a little while. It must be three hundred years, at least, since last a Halfling visited, before you. And for that matter, I’m not entirely an Elf myself. I like to think that Rivendell is a homely house for all kindly creatures.”
“Well, yes. But those are guests. I’m only an old hobbit. You don’t want an old hobbit cluttering the place up indefinitely, do you?”
“I most certainly do,” Elrond said. “Bilbo Baggins, hero of Middle-earth, is most surely welcome in Rivendell, and should be quite at home here. And if you want something to do, you can help out in the library. I’ve thought for a long while that it would be good to have some of our older verses translated into the Common Tongue. I have meant to do it myself for at least five hundred years, but so far, I have not quite got around to it. You have a fine grasp of Sindarin at least, and your Quenya only needs a little polishing. You would be ideal for the task.”
Bilbo laughed. “Five hundred years! That makes my unfinished book look like quite a small and reasonable job! Very well then. I’ll go on to Erebor for a while, but perhaps next year, in the Spring, I shall come back. At least, for a little while.”
“I will look forward to seeing you again, when you return,” Elrond said.
. . . . . .
An hour or so before Bilbo and his little party of Dwarves, accompanied by some Rangers who happened to be heading East, was due to leave, Hornbori was surprised to be interrupted in his packing by Master Elrond himself.
After the initial pleasantries, Elrond gave him a very serious look. “I am concerned for our friend Bilbo,” he said. “I’d count it as a great favour if you could keep an eye on him, Hornbori. He will, I hope, come back to Rivendell next year. I think he should. I think it would be healthier for him to be here. But he may be a little reluctant to come in across my borders.”
“You mean, as he was reluctant to come down the path here a few weeks back? I thought that an odd thing, too,” Hornbori admitted.
“Yes. There is some shadow that lies on him. I cannot see what it is. All I can see is a darkness. But if you will, bring him back here safely. And if you arrive, and he is reluctant to come in, will you find some excuse and send word to me? Such barriers can be set aside.”
Hornbori gave the lord of Rivendell a cautious and considering look, and ran his fingers through his beard. Then he came to a decision. “I will.” he said. “I will do that.” And he bowed, very politely.