In the bright unknown, there was a beautiful world. It was a massive land that stretched far along the edges of time, with high peaks and deep valleys carved into the earth, and thick forests of many, many different trees curving along the hills. Along the coastline were many natural caves and outlets made of rock, and within one of these holds lay a sparkling city of pearl and ivory. The entire land was breathtaking, with cities and towns resting in the natural holds the land provided, including a city of white with a great silver lantern in a high tower, visible to any who crossed the seas to the east. Tall, beautiful beings walked about the land, carrying with them a grace that was even greater than those of the elves of Arda. The seas rose and fell gently, like any other sea, but within their depths glittered the ageless light of thousands of stars.
This was a land of legend to some. Others called it home.
In the highest of the mountains of this land, there was an immensely tall peak that shone white. On that peak rested a grand city of spiraling towers, glittering white halls, and a spacious courtyard, filled with the most beautiful of flowers and trees. Many eagles, hawks, and other birds flew about the great mansion, taking rest in the tall aviary or dipping into the gentle streams that wove through the courtyard.
In one of these halls, there was a room open to a small and delicate garden of flowers, budding trees leaving white petals on the ground. In this room was a bed of silken linens, and on this bed slumbered a man rejuvenated and young. He had long silvery hair that was once a dusky grey, and some might have once known him as a tall fellow with oddly thick eyebrows. He looked nothing like what those of the distant lands of the Shire and Imladris had known of him, though he still carried a level of age, an air of gravity and knowledge that few others did.
He was known to some as Mithrandir, to others as Gandalf. In these white halls, in this distant, beautiful land of legend, he was known as Olórin.
A beautiful voice, as deep as the sky and as light as the wind that carried blossoms to the ground was heard across the garden outside this room, and to it another voice responded, sweet and lilting, with all the grace of the stars. They spoke in a language older than time, but the man sleeping on the bed would have understood it, for it was his cradle-tongue and the language of his heart.
"His body has healed, yet he sleeps so deeply."
"His soul carries the weight of fire and loss. Let him sleep."
"His soul may never heal. Someday he will return again, and then he may rest without worry."
"You mean to send him back."
"Not as he is. You and I will both see to that. The darkness in the land grows every day."
"Yes... as you have seen, and as I have heard. He will be needed. They will all be needed -- but I fear for Curumo. He speaks into the darkness with envy. I have heard whispers... he seeks the One to rule them all..."
"I have not seen it. Unless the eyes know it for its true self, I cannot see it. Yet I suspect -- there, in the dark lands, where the little people are."
"Yes... that halfling, the one Nienna has chosen."
"He carries two rings. One is wrought with a blue gem, and it belongs to Aulë's children. The other... simple and gold, but fire will show the truth."
"I have heard it. It whispers of fire and darkness, but he does not hear it. He has not placed it on his finger, not even once."
"If he had, it would be noticed. It would be seen and heard by those in the darkness. Such an odd creature..."
"Nienna chose well of him, this halfling... this bearer, of things seen and unseen, heard and unheard. Though the darkness surrounds him, he walks through it as if it were merely a mirage. Nienna's influence, and perhaps a touch of Námo's power..."
"What else was to be done, my wife? When the darkness spread across the green lands of the halflings, Nienna came to us herself. Her wish was granted, and now this child walks, bearing such pain... and a ring that he has no desire to carry. Olórin must guide him far to the south, deep into the darkness, where he may lose every hope... but Nienna has wept for him."
"Yes. He shall carry it far away, to where it was wrought... but it will not happen for many years. I wonder, my husband... perhaps that journey was meant for another?"
"It has always been, and will always be, meant for someone who cannot be lost to the darkness. Halflings... such an odd race. The other bearer, was he not a halfling too, once?"
"Yes. A curious race of creatures. It is no wonder that Olórin likes them so. Come, my husband, let us walk together, and when Olórin wakes, he shall know our thoughts."
"As my wife wishes."
Their voices were carried away, as the lady in white and the lord in blue walked from the quiet garden and the sleeping man. Though he slept, his mind still heard, deep within the slumber of exhaustion and power. Time in the beautiful land passed differently than it did in the place where he had fallen, yet within his mind there was no time, no space, only the edge of eternity and the knowledge of a thousand ages.
In his dreams, he saw the young Hobbit who carried many things, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. He heard his lady in grey walking with the young halfling, her head bowed as she wept. He saw a ring on a white chain on the halfling's neck, and he saw that ring being carried to a distant mountain of fire and darkness. He heard armies rise and fall so that they may take this ring, or that country, or this land, or that belief. He saw the kings of lands that already had been touched by darkness, kings in glittering robes and kings in dirty leathers, kings who would be touched by darkness themselves. He saw them fall, and he saw them rise. He heard his old friend, speaking into the darkness and commanding it for himself. He saw the fall of great and wise men, to power and darkness, to death and destruction.
He saw and heard as his Lord and Lady did.
Through it all, he felt the light of hope, for a simple life and a simple peace, burning in the hearts of those who fought against the darkness.
"You have walked the shadows," she whispered.
Olórin did not speak. He did not need to; he was only here to hear her mercy.
"You have seen the darkness. You have seen the despair of many, yet you do not fall to its power.
"In the lost halls of Aulë's children, there was a great darkness. So many lost to terror and despair. So many lost to the darkness, to the evil that could not stop itself.
"My little child was there. You saw in him what I placed -- a mercy for the children. A mercy for the old. A mercy for the weary ones who could no longer go forward. Those poor souls..."
A tear ran down her cheek, but still Olórin said nothing, only squeezed her hand.
"He is a bearer, of things seen and unseen, heard and unheard, touched and untouched. Please guide him, Olórin. Do not let him fall. Guide him, as you guided the children of Aulë and the sons of men -- as you will guide all the people of the world.
"Look after him, Olórin, and after yourself. Take hope with you, and always pity, for those who cannot help themselves, and for those who need help but cannot ask for it."
She stopped, and he turned to face her, reaching up carefully to wipe the tears from her cheeks. Once he had pulled her grey hood down again, he knelt before her and kissed her hand, giving her his promise.
"Yes, my lady."
He was himself, but no longer Olórin. He was once again Gandalf, a Wizard of Middle-Earth, yet he was not as he had been.
He felt power as he had not held before. He felt his spirit rising with hope, light, and a great understanding of the world. He felt the darkness on the edge of the land creeping ever closer. He knew he had to act, but first he had to ascertain his surroundings and self.
His hair was long and white, as it had been when he was young, shining and soft. His body felt strong and young again, though when he touched his face, he felt the wrinkles of an old man. His favorite disguise, though changed through the gain of knowledge and power. There were new scars on his body, remaining from his battle with the Balrog. His long beard was as white as his hair, and Gandalf felt a wry smile appear on his lips, wondering if his Lord and Lady were laughing at him.
He looked around and realized he knew this place. The forests of Lothlórien. He realized that his body had stayed here while his spirit had rested in Aman. A piece of knowledge came to him, that Gwaihir had carried him here, and he felt gratitude toward his Lord for watching over him.
Gandalf rose from the bed and found a robe of white with a silver sash hanging over a chair. He lifted it and pulled it over his thin body, realizing that it matched the white staff that was leaning against the wall nearby. He glanced at his hand and saw Narya, and with only a thought, he hid it from the eyes of others. When he reached out to take his staff, the power settled into him easily, the sensation like coming home. He looked to the table in the center of the room and saw the sword that had come to him in the halls of Khazad-dûm by Bilbo Baggins' efforts.
"Mithrandir," called a deep and beautiful voice, and he turned to see an old and precious friend.
"My Lady Galadriel," he said, and they both smiled.
He was Bolg, once a great Orc king, and within him burned the fury of a ruler who had lost his throne, and a son who had lost his father, though no love had ever existed between him and the Orc who had sired him. Instead it was a matter of pride, that his father had fallen to lesser beings who lived and walked in freedom while Bolg had prostrated himself before a stronger being and begged for safety.
He, like so many other Orcs, had been without a home, thanks to the actions of the Dwarves, who had taken their caves in Moria at the cost of thousands of Orc lives.
The great halls of Moria had once housed thousands of Orcs, but no more. Here and there, in small pockets that were very hard to access, there remained a few small clans, but most of the creatures of darkness had fled when Thorin Oakenshield and his army of Dwarves had swept through the Misty Mountains.
Only in the far north did a city of Orcs remain, and it was called Gundabad. It could hardly be called a city, though, as it had been deserted by its first leader and the majority of its so-called citizens. The wounded and clanless stayed here, after fleeing from the axes and swords of thousands of angry Dwarves. It would become the last great refuge of Orcs and goblins, but by no means was it a prosperous city. King after so-called king would fall as soon as they gained a seat of power, until one called the Great Goblin came to control the city, though still murder and mayhem ruled the minds of the Orcs who lived there. Dirt, filth, blood, gore -- some days it burned with rage, some days it simmered with hatred. The Orcs there felt true hate as they had not felt since their creation.
Bolg, the original leader of the city, had left months ago when he had heard of the fall of his father, the great Azog the Defiler of the mines of Moria. He had taken with him his clan and followers, and they had disappeared deep into the darkened forests of Mirkwood, to the ruins of Dol-Guldur. Though fury made his black blood run hot, he had the cunning of his father and knew when to retreat, for the Dwarves who remained in Moria would no doubt seek to defeat him as they had his father.
Instead, Bolg son of Azog sought the protection of the dark sorcerer who lived in Dol-Guldur, to use his rage as fuel for the dark acts the necromancer would ask him to commit. He would live, and he would remember. Someday, he would get his revenge on those Dwarves, especially on the two beings who had killed his father together: the Dwarf King of Erebor, and his father's pet Halfling.
They were all thin. It had been a harsh winter, and it was already the third month in. Most of the aid from other lands had dried up, spent on food that had to be overpriced, but they bought it anyway from passing Men who wished them luck but hurried on. No one was starving by human standards, but by Hobbit standards, they were hungry. Three meals a day as well as tea, and sometimes the tea leaves were reused from the morning -- nothing like the standard Hobbit fare.
But life was not as it had been seven years ago. Every harvest time there had been fewer crops, less grains and potatoes to store for winter, which was made worse with every group of Hobbits who had returned home from the Misty Mountains. There was enough to survive, to be sure, but not enough to be plentiful as it had been in years past. The poison from the Orcs' raid was seeping into every piece of land around them, darkening the soil and leaving the vegetables spindly and the fruit sour. What food stores had been hidden in the empty homes around them had been taken and shared, so that everybody could make it through the winter -- but this would not last.
Life could not go on this way.
So thought the Thain, Fortinbras Took II, who walked through his home to his cousin Bilbo's room. He was tall for a Hobbit, with the sandy blonde hair of his family and the dark eyes of his mother. His father, rest his poor soul, had died during Shirefall, and so Fortinbras had taken his title and attempted to make sense of the chaos the Orcs had left behind. He was very young for a Thain, and he doubted he would have gained the title so soon in his life, had it not been for the Orcs' invasion.
Shirefall had been a dark and terrible time. So many missing, so many dead, and the Orcs had run about as they wanted, grabbing up Hobbits and carrying them off for sinister purposes. No one had realized exactly what, thinking that those poor Hobbits would certainly be dead by the end of the day.
The Orcs had not been in the Shire long, though, before the Rangers from the North swept down and drove them out, but the wound upon the land was too deep. So many dead. So many missing. So many broken families, empty homes. It had been so dark then, and for months afterward, they had all been lost, unable to piece together their lives after losing so much.
Fortinbras had stepped up and called every Hobbit to the Great Smials. They would account for who was still alive and who had been found dead. They would make a list of the missing. They would mourn, and they would move on. Tuckborough had been the least ravaged, so all of the families were asked to come live there, because they would be greater and better prepared for the future with greater numbers.
So the Hobbits crept into Tuckborough, though many hid in other places, further from the Shire in fear of another Orc raid. Two years had passed, and carefully, they began to heal.
Then a small group of weary and scared Hobbits wandered into Tuckborough, looking thin and wild in torn clothes, lead by Dwarves who were rather bewildered by it all. Then came the news that no one had expected:
They had been slaves.
Terrifying, but they were all overjoyed nonetheless. Some of their missing had lived! There had to be more who lived -- so many had been taken, surely not all had become dinner? And months later, again: a much larger group of Hobbits returned, this time in simple clothes spun by their Dwarf guides.
So there grew a great hope for the Hobbits of Tuckborough, as each day they kept an ear out for Dwarves' boots stomping up the path. Who might come home next? Who might be alive, out there in those dark mountains?
But with every group of Hobbits, there came some bad news: this father was murdered. This child had been eaten. This grandparent had tripped and died.
But at least they knew. At least the list of 'MISSING' grew shorter, names crossed out, but the list of 'DEAD' grew longer, names written in shaky black ink. Fortinbras knew there would always be names on the list of 'MISSING,' for they would never be able to find all of their friends and family -- but like every Hobbit who lived in his family home, he had hoped.
Now, seven years later, the last of the slaves had come home. So many families reunited, so many more broken hearts -- and amongst all of them, dark rumors of a young man, barely more than a boy, who fought back against his Orc master. A Hobbit who protected the children of his master's clan from being touched. A Hobbit who may have helped murder other Hobbits -- but to protect them from being eaten or raped by Orcs?
Fortinbras had heard the rumors, had listened to the frantic worries of anxious Hobbits whose children spoke of the pain-bearer, whose old parents simply shook their heads and muttered that poor boy, whose friends muttered in clusters after that 'boy' had walked by.
Bilbo Baggins, his first cousin, and possibly a braver Hobbit than any of them could be -- and possibly a more dangerous Hobbit than any other in his house, if the rumors were to be believed.
Bilbo had been quiet ever since he had returned, escorted by a cheerful Dwarf who was staying the winter, along with some other Dwarves, in one of the smaller smials nearby. Ever since his return, rumors had abounded about him and his time as Azog the Defiler's slave. Some insisted that Bilbo had sided with the Orcs, that he was a violent and dangerous person, while others, the Tooks, Brandybucks, and few Bagginses the loudest of them, had defended Bilbo fiercely.
From what Fortinbras could tell, there were a few things out of the rumors that were definitely true: Bilbo had been Azog's personal slave. He had slept in the Orc king's room. He had spent a lot of time with the other Hobbits. He had bodily protected the children from harm.
What nobody could really figure out, because none of the former slaves would talk about it outright, was whether Bilbo had gained access to some sort of poison and used it on his fellow Hobbits. Many of the older Hobbits, none of whom had been former slaves, believed he had and were pushing Fortinbras to throw Bilbo out of the home -- but Fortinbras could not ignore the truth.
The children loved Bilbo. None of the former slaves would hear a word against him. Bilbo himself was a polite and kind Hobbit, who kept to himself when he was not playing with the children or spending time with his remaining family.
What Fortinbras believed was that Bilbo and the other slaves had suffered so much more than any of the Hobbits who had survived and remained in the Shire. He believed that Bilbo, and a few other Hobbits who had acted like him, had made the best of his situation and helped where they could. Fortinbras did not know what he himself would have done in such a situation -- but Bilbo Baggins had done what few others could have: he had protected the Hobbits with him, and his actions had inspired similar acts in other Orc clans' slaves.
It amazed Fortinbras that such ugly rumors were circling about a young Hobbit who could earn a smile from any child that saw him. Some of the parents were getting anxious about it, believing Bilbo dangerous, but Fortinbras knew that Hobbit children were the most honest of their race, seeing through any guile someone may exhibit, and Bilbo Baggins had none.
The young Baggins was an honest Hobbit who had suffered many things, and Fortinbras was ashamed of how the other Hobbits were behaving toward him. Bilbo seemed to know about the rumors, as he had been spending less time with children of other families, only playing with the fauntlings of Took or Brandybuck descent, sometimes the Bolger and Proudfoot children as well. He rarely left his room except to visit his kin or occasionally the Dwarves, not even during meal times, which were held in the massive hall in the middle of the Great Smials.
Last week, someone had complained about Bilbo snitching food late at night, but Otho Sackville-Baggins had charged forward and bellowed about Bilbo eating only once or twice a day now because certain people did not want him to join the communal meal time, causing a loud argument right there at the table. Rorimac Brandybuck and even Drogo Baggins had started throwing punches, leaving Fortinbras and his uncles to drag eleven young Hobbits to another room for a very long lecture.
It had not been like this five months ago, when Bilbo had returned shortly after the large group of Hobbits from the Misty Mountains. Everyone had been too happy to be reunited with their family and friends to think much of him, save the Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses. Fortinbras had taken Bilbo in at his aunt Mirabella's urging, though he would have accepted Bilbo into his home no matter what, as Bilbo had few relatives left on his father's side.
(Otho Sackville-Baggins, Drogo Baggins, Rosa Took née Baggins, her son Aldagrim, Linda Proudfoot née Baggins, and her son Odo -- the only Bagginses left out of the once large family, along with Bilbo. All of them lived in the Great Smials; Otho and Drogo even lived in the same hall as Bilbo, alongside Mirabella Brandybuck and her many children, all of whom had miraculously survived.)
Bilbo had been polite, but quiet -- much quieter than Fortinbras remembered. It was only later during a visit from the helpful Dwarves staying for the winter that everyone learned that Bilbo had helped the Dwarf King win his war against Azog the Defiler. One Dwarf in particular, the oddly charming Bofur, was insistent upon singing Bilbo's praises whenever he visited -- and it was likely because of these stories that most of the Hobbits did not believe the darker rumors about Bilbo now.
Four months, three months, even one month ago, Bilbo had rarely avoided the others as he did now. He had come to meals as normal, had visited his Dwarf friends at least once a day, had played with the children often and spent much time in the library, when he was not offering this uncle or that family help with whatever task was in order for the day. He had smiled sometimes and seemed at ease, though like the other Hobbits returned from the Orcs, he rarely embraced his family and even more rarely did he let anyone embrace him.
Then, as the snow set in and the ability to travel and work lessened, the other Hobbits began to gossip as they were wont to do. They began to talk, to help their families heal, but no one wanted to talk about what happened in the Misty Mountains. Those who did always whispered about it, and never with anyone who had not been there. It was impossible to talk about, and the way the former slaves sometimes looked at Bilbo led some to believe that he was bad, dangerous even.
It seemed impossible, though. Part Took though he was, Bilbo had always been a kind and cheerful person, much like the famous Belladonna herself. Adventure may have run in their blood, but they were not capable of violence, of horrible things -- yet had Bilbo not killed an Orc? Still, that was defeating something evil, not hurting a fellow Hobbit. Fortinbras could not believe the rumors. He knew his cousin.
Still, someone had made yet another complaint, so Fortinbras had come to visit Bilbo for appearances' sake, though he was actually intending to have a chat. When Bilbo had returned, he had given Fortinbras a heavy scroll that was signed by Thorin, King under the Mountain, and one that Fortinbras had contemplated many times in the past several months. He had considered the people of the Shire, the Dwarves who had helped them so much and brought so many of them home, and the loss of their farmland. All these things had been building to an important decision in his mind, and he wanted to ask Bilbo his thoughts. He already knew the thoughts of his aunts and uncles, as well as his Brandybuck cousins, but it would be interesting to learn Bilbo's opinion.
They could no longer stay near the Shire. Those older and wiser than him did not truly want to leave, but they understood his reasoning. There was nothing more for the Hobbits here, in a land that had been destroyed by monsters.
Fortinbras believed that they should leave the Shire. He hoped to take all who still lived away from this dark place, back to the land where they had all come from. The old tales whispered of green lands and a great river, and perhaps there still existed smials there. At least the land would be untainted by death or grief.
It would be a new start for all of them, in the Vale on the other side of the Misty Mountains.