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Pain-Bearer

Chapter Text

Twilight fell upon the valley, casting shadows across the pathways of Elrond's home. Elves with lanterns walked about, lighting lamps and brightening the darkened halls. On the northern side of Rivendell, there was a small garden surrounded by tall trees with high lanterns, but none were lit, as tonight the garden was nearly empty -- save for one figure who sat at the foot of a great tree. He was missing his characteristic pointed hat and staff, and his grey robes were, for once, open to show the white underneath. He was Gandalf, and he was brooding.

Balaphadro.

The Wizard contemplated the young Hobbit whom he had brought to this place. He had watched Bilbo from a young age, interested in the child that had changed the wild and wandering Belladonna Took into a mother and wife. Such a sweet child -- and such a jaded adult, after such horrors at so young an age. His wish had been to heal Bilbo with Rivendell, with its serene halls and natural beauty, and already, after ten days with the Elves, he could see that Bilbo was greatly affected by Elrond's home.

Bilbo smiled more. He laughed more. He ate to fullness and enjoyed everything given to him, and there was no doubt that he spent more hours in the library than Gandalf cared to count. He slept better, which was a relief to Gandalf, who had worried over the dark circles under Bilbo's eyes for weeks now. Gandalf had seen him in the company of Erestor several times now, talking about whatever book sat between them, while brightening the stoic Elf's normally placid expression.

Bilbo was a little less shy after making friends with Erestor, and he responded to the wonder the other Elves showed, engaging in light conversation when before he could not meet the Elves' eyes. It was obvious that Bilbo was healing, despite the darkness in his gaze and the anger simmering beneath his calm expression. Gandalf had not forgotten Bilbo losing his temper in the meeting over a week ago. It worried him, more than anything else.

The other Hobbits, too, could be seen smiling with newfound joy, running about Rivendell with a fascination Gandalf only saw in the young these days, both in relief for their cousin's smile, and in their own healing. Bofur, in contrast to how he had behaved upon first arriving, had relaxed and taken to training the boys in defensive combat. A good idea, and at least it distracted the Dwarf, who attempted to bother Gandalf at least once a day about leaving Rivendell. Gandalf always felt exasperation at the racist hatred between Dwarves and Elves -- but who could blame either race, when the two had such history? At least Bofur was not as cold about it as Thorin, though the Wizard suspected that Bofur hid a great deal of his thoughts from the others, and especially from Gandalf himself.

Rorimac's eyes were no longer so haunted, no longer so dark with rage and emotions that he never expressed in front of Gandalf, but which the Wizard knew he possessed anyway. The young Brandybuck had taken to chatting with the various Elves of Rivendell when he was not with his cousins or sneaking into the kitchens. The lessons with Bofur had done well to take the edge off his hard anger, and the boy showed delight every time Bilbo laughed or spoke out during a meal.

Drogo, poor Drogo whose wound was all but a memory, gave Gandalf a moment's worry. Drogo, who had been so furious after Shirefall, who had guarded his cousins' vulnerable moments with fierceness, who was the first person to go to any of his cousins' sides after one woke from a nightmare, was now solemn when he was not cheered by his cousins. Gandalf suspected that the Baggins boy felt guilty for his injury and helpless at his own weakness, especially since Bofur would not yet allow him to take part in his more rigorous lessons. Bilbo had once expressed dismay to him over the anger in Drogo and Otho, who had lost their entire families to Shirefall. Gandalf hoped that it was only the anger of youth, and that it would fade as Drogo grew older.

Otho, the youngest, who had walked about with such scowls and worried expressions, who had been a truly awful boy in his youth, was calmer in the halls of Rivendell, the worry for his cousins fading to curiosity. He had even showed very un-Baggins-like tendencies, such as following Bilbo into the library, which delighted the older Hobbit to no end. Late in the evenings, Gandalf could hear Otho and Drogo reading to each other from the books Otho would borrow from the library, in some truly alarming subjects: battle tactics, defensive techniques, and worst of all, Orc weaknesses and habits. He did not stop the two young Hobbits, though, as the knowledge would be good preparation for them, particularly on a journey so dangerous.

But still, Gandalf brooded, concerned for the young Hobbit at the center of the company. He had not forgotten Nienna's request. He fretted and contemplated and worried, always searching for a way to draw his young friend out of his fate -- while pushing him ever toward that inevitable future.

Touched by the Valar.

He had seen so many succumb to darkness, to fear, to the evil that tainted the land, yet Hobbits amazed him time and again with their resilience and strength. Bilbo Baggins was no different -- he was just like his mother, really. Stubborn and fearless, and still afraid for all those he held dear.

Pain-bearer.

Gandalf feared for him, and perhaps even feared him a little bit. Why had Nienna chosen Bilbo Baggins? What gifts lay beneath that dark gaze, that judged the Wizard for his silence, for his manipulations which were only for the good of others, that seemed to know when Gandalf had done nothing to give himself away? What would Bilbo become in the future? How would those dark years change him? Gandalf could not see a future that was not stark with despair.

"What draws your gaze eastward, Mithrandir?" called a familiar voice in Sindarin, and Gandalf turned to see Elrond approaching. He smiled at his old friend and patted the spot beside him.

"Merely concerns, old friend." For a moment, Gandalf was silent, gathering thoughts between bushy brows, and Elrond took the proffered seat, waiting patiently for the Wizard to speak.

"We must reconvene the Council," Gandalf said slowly, "but not as it was. The Lady Galadriel, of course --"

"But not Saruman," Elrond finished, and Gandalf made a perturbed noise. "So you have told me. This disturbs me, Gandalf, for I do not relish the idea of excluding one who has stood at our side for ages past. Yet... I cannot see into Saruman's realm. I cannot see his paths. If what you saw was true..."

Gandalf straightened with a faint scowl, old knowledge darkening his gaze. Shifting made the white of his robes flash in the dim light. "There is no denying what was told to me by my Lord and Lady. I saw such terrible catastrophes, Elrond, and all of it from the rise of evil... from Saruman's betrayal, yes, and from darkness that grows in the corners of the world. What happened to the Hobbits of the Shire was only the beginning. If we do not gather our allies and take out the darkness before it spreads, then I fear all will be lost."

Elrond frowned into the dark serenity of the valley, grey eyes laden with deep thoughts. "Then we will do what we must," he said slowly. "What of Saruman?"

"He must be stopped," Gandalf intoned. "After I deliver Bilbo and his family to the Vale, I will investigate Dol Guldur once more, and then I will go to Isengard myself. Saruman is my kin, and... it is my duty to handle him." He could not hide the sadness in his voice, and Elrond reached up to touch his shoulder.

"If you have need of me, I will come, Mithrandir," his friend said quietly, and they shared a small smile.

They sat together for a time, listening to the muted sounds of the dinner hall on the other side of the house. Music drifted to them on the wind, until at last Elrond stood and offered Gandalf his hand. Gandalf helped himself up, pulling his grey robes shut again, and together they walked back into the house.

"You are planning to leave soon, aren't you?" Elrond mused, and Gandalf huffed a small breath.

"In a few days' time, yes. I hope we have not been a bother," he said, and Elrond shook his head.

"Mister Baggins and his family have been a delight, and even that curious Dwarf has not been a terror as Lindir worried. You always collect such interesting company, Mithrandir," Elrond murmured, his solemn mien softening with a smile. "Mister Baggins in particular..."

"What do you think of him?" Gandalf asked lightly.

Elrond was silent for a time, and the two stopped at the edge of a long hallway, looking ahead together to the dining hall, which was lively with music and chatter. Beyond the open doors, Gandalf could see Bilbo laughing with Bofur and Rorimac. "I have not met many Hobbits in my life, but what I know of them... it is just as I see in that room. They have a love of life that would surprise even some of my kin who have watched this world from its youth. Bilbo Baggins and his kin suffered such hardship, and still they laugh, still they smile with joy and hope. I have never known an Elf, who was a victim of torment at the hands of Orcs, to heal so swiftly or so completely. It is a wonder to behold them, even if it leaves me with a great sadness, that they suffered as my Celebrían did. I admire your young friend, Mithrandir, and I hope to call him friend myself, one day."

A slow smile touched Gandalf's face, and his eyes twinkled as he looked over at Elrond. "You should tell him that. I think he quite admires you as well," he said with a teasing lilt. Elrond shot him a look, shaking his head with a small smile.

"I have noticed his attention. If he should seek me out before you leave, then I will not deny him," Elrond promised. A moment passed, and Elrond's shining features twisted slightly in worry. "Mithrandir... did you ever find Iarwain Ben-adar? I have heard nothing of him, these years past."

Gandalf slowly shook his head, his expression saddening again. "No, I saw nothing of him in the Old Forest, which had taken such damage during the Orcs' attack. But he is wise, and I think nothing has felled him. I suspect he has hidden himself away, perhaps to nurture the earth there."

"Hm. When I send aid to the Shire next, I shall have someone look for him," Elrond mused, and the two continued on to dinner, more relaxed now despite the worries looming in the back of their minds.

~

"Hit me harder, Otho! This isn't a rumble with the boys down the street! Hit me like I cussed your cousin out!"

"I'm hitting as hard as I can, Bofur! Ow!"

Bilbo lifted his head from inspecting the darkening bruise on his shin, exasperation sending his eyes rolling. While Bofur's taunts to his cousins were admittedly amusing at times, Otho's expression every time Bofur egged him on was shifting from mulish dismay to pure fury. His own pride was wounded enough that he hoped one of the boys would succeed in knocking Bofur down.

Not that Bilbo did not appreciate Bofur teaching them to fight -- quite the opposite. His aching back and bruised shin left him cranky, though, and he openly smirked when Rory and Otho rushed Bofur together and managed to push him a few feet back. They did not keep the Dwarf busy for long, as he easily tossed them onto the grass. The two Hobbit lads were up again quickly, while Drogo shouted suggestions and cheered from several feet away.

At the moment, Bofur was teaching Otho, Drogo, and Rory how to take down a stronger opponent, using one of the smaller courtyards as a training ground. He had demonstrated first with Bilbo, who had managed to knock him down by tripping him (much to the displeasure of his knees and poor shin). The boys were not as sure in their abilities as Bilbo was, nor had they refined their speed or agility, so they were having a tougher time of it.

Bilbo suspected that Bofur had gone easy on him. One flinch from Bilbo when Bofur had grabbed his waist was apparently enough to make the Dwarf turn gentle. It greatly bothered Bilbo, who felt Bofur was not taking him seriously. He had outwitted and escaped Orcs far bigger than Bofur -- he was not a weakling! Though Bofur was rather strong, which Bilbo thought was because he was a Dwarf.

Bilbo was amazed at the strength and power of a Dwarf body. Hobbits were quick and light on their feet -- completely different from Dwarves, who stood immovable and strong like a mountain. Bofur was not as fast as the boys or Bilbo, but what he lacked in speed, he made up for with sturdy legs and powerful arms. He could throw any of the Hobbits across the entire courtyard, though he never went that far.

At least Bilbo had managed to trip Bofur, though his shin was still protesting his decision to twist it under Bofur's knee. Those Dwarf boots were as hard as a rock!

Movement caught Bilbo's attention, and he looked over to see two Elves standing by the pavilion. Elrohir and Elladan, with their twinkling grey eyes and serene expressions -- that, to Bilbo, spoke of mischief, reminding him of his younger Took cousins. He watched them watch his companions, until one of the twins noticed him, and together they made their way to Bilbo.

"Hello again, Bilbo Baggins!" the first twin said, and the note of his voice left Bilbo thinking he was Elrohir. The other twin nodded in greeting, and Bilbo remembered how Elladan had barely spoken to him the last time they had met.

"Hello again, Elrohir and Elladan. Are you enjoying the spectacle my cousins make?" Bilbo asked, raising an eyebrow as he heard another shout from the courtyard, followed by some foul language. He glanced over and watched Rory shout at Bofur, who was grinning. The two Elves followed his gaze, and Bilbo looked back in time to see both of them smirk at the sight.

"Quite so. It is most curious to see two races, so very different, in such an atmosphere. Halflings are usually not so..." Elrohir trailed off.

"Violent," murmured Elladan, and Bilbo stared at them.

"It's hardly violent -- just some tussling between boys. Surely Elves are no different as children?" he asked, hiding his irritation at the implication that his cousins were violent, of all things.

"Elven children grow up very differently from other races," Elrohir explained. "There was the occasional mischief, but Elves are unlike other races in aging. Your cousins, for instance -- how old are they?"

Bilbo raised an eyebrow, but answered readily enough, "Twenty, twenty-two, and twenty-nine. None of them are adults yet, which for Hobbits is when one turns thirty-three. When are Elves considered adults?"

"At such ages, we would appear like small children, but we would have the mental force of an adult Elf. An Elf is physically an adult by the time they are one hundred years of age, which is when most other races have already fallen to age and sickness. To watch the world move so quickly, when one's own time is so slow... it is saddening," Elrohir finished, and Elladan tilted his head toward the courtyard.

"Elven children did not play like this, nor did they train for warfare so young. It is unfortunate your cousins must learn such things," Elladan interjected, surprising Bilbo who had the suspicion that Elladan was much more circumspect than Elrohir.

Then Bilbo frowned, but his voice was mild as he replied, "I'd like to know what a Hobbit should do if an Orc grabs him and tries to hurt him. Orcs are much stronger and larger than us, and we come from a peaceful life. I want my cousins to survive any fight they may encounter in the future. How is this worse than Elves carrying around swords and bows?"

Both of the Elves looked down at him in surprise, and after a moment it was Elladan who said quietly, "It is not worse, balaphadro. Only unfortunate." For a moment, the Elves' expressions faded to distant remorse and pain.

There was such a look on the two Elves' faces then, that Bilbo recognized, and it sent a chill through him. These Elves did not simply know of Orcs and their torments -- they understood the vile acts, perhaps almost as much as Bilbo did. He dipped his head slightly in apology.

"I am sorry for overre... for leav... for any offense with my words," Bilbo said finally, unable to call forth the right words in Sindarin, but the twins' expressions lightened.

"You did not offend, dear Halfling," Elrohir replied quietly. "You see, our mother was taken by Orcs as your brethren were. It was we who saved her. Father... went through the same reactions as you do now. We understand the necessity of it. It is still sad to see such a gentle race in our situation." For a moment the Elf looked achingly sad, and Bilbo watched them both with dimmed shock, that they truly had experienced what his family had. He had to avert his eyes at the thought -- their mother? Just like him, and his mother --

"I am deeply sorry," he whispered, and Elladan and Elrohir bowed their heads.

For a time, they were silent, watching the commotion in the courtyard, until Bilbo remembered something that had bothered him earlier. "If I may ask, young lords," he began, slipping back into Westron, "what does balaphadro mean? You have called me that twice now, and others have said it to my face." He watched the twins, his gaze narrowing a bit as they exchanged a glance that spoke untold volumes.

After a moment, Elrohir answered hesitantly, "Your question has a somewhat complicated answer. What do you know of the Valar?"

"The Valar?" Bilbo questioned, his eyebrows creasing. "Only that they are the Lords of the West, in the lands where the Elves go when they sail from the Grey Havens. Why do you ask?"

The twins exchanged another glance. "I think that is something our ada should explain, Mister Baggins. He is a master of the ancient knowledge of this world, and the name that has been given to you has old history. We are poor substitutes for him," Elrohir explained, and Elladan nodded solemnly, their Elvish miens turning distant.

Bilbo eyed the two Elves, annoyed with their answer, but he showed none of his irritation. "I'll do that," he murmured. Perhaps Elrond would be more forthcoming than his sons.

~

The next evening, Elrond informed the company that Drogo had healed completely, and Gandalf made the decision that they would leave Rivendell in two days' time. Then the Wizard retreated while Bilbo tried not to feel sad. He had grown to enjoy Rivendell very much, with its beautiful library and serene atmosphere. Despite his initial worries, the Elves had warmed to him and his family, and they had been treated very kindly.

It had been a lovely stay -- but Bilbo was ready to go on. He had new knowledge of the history of the lands east of the Misty Mountains, as well as lists of plants and herbs that grew around the Anduin River. Erestor had been most helpful in locating a book that contained gardening techniques for mountain soil. Bilbo even had seeds that someone had generously donated.

(Bilbo had found the gift one morning outside his door, a bag filled with small pouches of seeds with careful labels in Westron, from tomatoes to squashes, and herbs as well, with tiny notes on when best to plant them. He was delighted, but nobody admitted to the deed. He suspected one of the librarians, who may have seen his notes on where to find wild vegetables in the mountains. The grey-robed aides had been most helpful whenever he visited the library, and he made sure to compliment them to Erestor whenever they were in hearing distance.)

Bilbo had at least thanked Elrond, who had smiled mysteriously, but the Elf Lord had not revealed the source of the gift. It was all Bilbo could do not to cry at the kindness -- or at Elrond's promise of supplies for their journey through the Misty Mountains.

He was very happy to have come to this place. Rivendell had acted as a balm to his soul, worn and lost after Azog. He felt like himself again -- reading and laughing and learning and exploring, such as he had as a child. He felt normal again, and not just because of his renewed understanding of his body, but more like a proper Hobbit, with useful manners, and intuition into situations, and a love of good food. Even though darkness and anger lurked in the back of his mind, Bilbo felt good about himself again.

With so little time left, Bilbo forewent visiting the library on the morning after Gandalf announced their departure. Instead, he walked about Rivendell alone, admiring its natural beauty and thinking of how he would very much like to come back here someday. If only he could face his fear of the Mountains ahead and return -- perhaps some long years in the future.

After lunch, he found himself a hall full of statues and relics of Ages past. There was a mural on the wall of a Man holding a shining broken sword up to a figure of darkness, and Bilbo shivered as he looked upon it. He recognized the scene. It had been in his favorite story, The War of the Last Alliance.

The sword that had been broken, but which had cut the One Ring from the hand of Sauron the Cruel.

Something burned in his mind for a moment, and Bilbo reached up unthinkingly to touch his necklace, grasping the rings and key that lay hidden under his shirt. He stared at the sword that had taken the Ring from that Dark Lord, his hand slowly tightening, until he felt pain and let go in surprise. He glanced at his hand and saw no blood, but he had gripped his necklace tightly enough to leave indentions. How strange.

Then he turned, and he saw a statue of an Elf with a great stone shield, and on that shield lay a cloth of blue silk. A broken sword glinted in the sunlight, and Bilbo stared down at the shards of Narsil, his eyes slowly widening.

History, right here before his very eyes. How Bilbo itched to find his old book and reread those passages -- what deeds this sword must have seen in its days of glory. He did not reach out to touch it -- he had too much respect for the history in that sword -- but he admired it, idly piecing together the shards in his mind.

"Do you know the story, Master Hobbit?" a deep voice called, and Bilbo turned to see Elrond himself approaching. He flushed pink and nodded, clasping his hands behind his back.

"I do, Lord Elrond. It was one of my favorite stories as a child," he replied, and Elrond came to stand beside him, his stern expression solemn as he gazed down at the Sword That Was Broken.

"Oh?" Elrond murmured, looking down at Bilbo with interest. "The story of our failures lured you more than sweet fairy tales or songs of better times?"

Bilbo dared a glance up at Elrond, and he relaxed slightly see the twinkle in Elrond's eye, so much like his twin sons. "The history of our world is a wise lesson to learn. Otherwise, we may find ourselves repeating it," he offered, and Elrond's lips twitched into a smile.

"Indeed so, Mister Baggins. Do you not wish to join your companions as they ready to leave? Your family surely could use your assistance."

Bilbo gave a little shrug. "I shan't be missed. My cousins need to learn some independence, after all. I can't be telling them what to do every step of the way. Besides, Bofur has it under control, I think."

Elrond chuckled in response and gestured before him, and together they began to walk along the balcony, the afternoon sun gleaming through the thick leaves. "Have you enjoyed your stay in my home?" Elrond asked, and Bilbo nodded, looking up at the clear blue sky.

"It is a beautiful place. I have enjoyed the people I have met here, and everything that I have learned and experienced. You have been very kind," he said quietly.

"I could do nothing else," Elrond responded, his voice low against the gentle breeze. "I am glad for it, Mister Baggins. You are always welcome in my home, and if you wish to return one day, I will be pleased for it."

Bilbo looked up at him with a small smile, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. "I would like that very much, Lord Elrond," he said, and Elrond smiled back at him.

A moment passed, and Elrond said to him, "On the matter of your departure, I have a proposition for you as a representative of your Thain."

"Oh?" Bilbo managed to say, blinking up at the tall Elf.

"Indeed so. When we first spoke, you told me of the illnesses your brethren suffered. I have thought upon this topic, and I wish to offer my hospitality to those who cannot pass through the Misty Mountains at this time due to their illness. It is my hope that I may treat your kin and heal that which weakens them, as well as devise assistance for those who go to the Vale of Anduin. What was done to you in those mountains cannot be healed in a few weeks, but if I understand what you suffer now, I may be able to send instructions to you in some months' time. With your blessing, I hope to send this offer to your Thain, so that any who need healing may come to my house immediately," Elrond explained to a stunned Bilbo, who could not believe his ears.

Such kindness! Such willingness to help them -- and before, had Bilbo himself not believed that Elves would do nothing for his kin? He had been mistaken about the Dwarves, who had come to their rescue, and again about the Elves, who were so affected by their plight that they offered aid immediately. Perhaps even Men would prove different than he had once thought -- but for now, he was happy, and he smiled brightly up at Elrond, reaching up to take his hands which were so much larger than a Hobbit's could be.

"Yes -- a hundred times yes. I cannot express how grateful I am to have met you, Elrond, for your kindness, to myself and my kin -- thank you. Thank you! I cannot believe how much you have given us," he rambled, tears coming to his eyes again, and Elrond only smiled kindly at him, squeezing his hands until Bilbo, suddenly embarrassed, let go.

"You are most welcome, good Hobbit. I will send someone to the Shire immediately, then," Elrond said, and Bilbo nodded, his cheek still very pink.

They walked for a little while, as Bilbo's blush calmed, but the quiet between them was not awkward. Elrond was someone with whom he could get along, and he was very glad for the opportunity to speak with him. Bilbo wondered if one day he could talk to Elrond as he could with Erestor, and he wished that he could stay longer. He would have to visit again, sometime after the Vale was settled.

As they neared the main courtyard, Bilbo was reminded of the previous day and his conversation with Elrond's sons. When they neared a private corner, he looked up at Elrond. "If I may ask -- do you know the meaning behind balaphadro? The Elves of your house have taken to calling me that name, and I'm afraid I do not know what it means. Your sons said that you would be the best person to explain it," he admitted, and Elrond glanced down at him in surprise. Those grey eyes widened, then narrowed, and Bilbo briefly wondered if he had gotten those two Elves in trouble.

"A heavy question, Mister Baggins. I can indeed answer your question, though it may take some explanation. Would you like to join me for tea?" When Bilbo agreed, Elrond called aside someone, and they proceeded to the Elf Lord's personal study, where Bilbo had once sat over a week ago. No sooner than Bilbo had sat upon a large chair across from Elrond than an Elf came in carrying a tray of tea things and a plate of soft pastries that Bilbo took delight in. When the servant had left and Bilbo was breathing in the steam of his teacup, Elrond looked upon him.

"As my sons must have explained, what the people of my home have taken to calling you has some history behind it. The most direct translation I can offer to that term is, one who follows the path of the Valar. Do you know of the Valar, Mister Baggins?"

Bilbo frowned into his cup of tea, remembering when he had first heard the word and tried to pull apart its meaning. "As I told Elladan and Elrohir, all I know of the Valar is that they are the Lords of the West, and it is their lands to which your people sail upon the ends of your lives here. I do not know much past that," he explained, and Elrond sat back in his chair, fingers steepled.

"Let me explain first the etymology of the name chosen for you, Mister Baggins. Balaphadro. Bala refers to the Valar, who walked the world before us. Phadro means one who follows, as such on a path. Thus, balaphadro is one who follows the path of the Valar.

"Once, when the world was young and the Eldar were but children under the stars, we woke from our first sleep to meet the world as it was. At that time, the Valar walked among us, and they guided us through the chaos that darkness called upon this land. After much warring with those dark forces, the Valar saved us from the wrath which sought to destroy us all.

"During that time, many Elves followed the Valar on their paths through Middle-earth, through every dark shadow that they battled. There were fourteen of them, and sometimes they lay gifts upon their followers. The Valar favored the Maiar, of course, but some of the Eldar received gifts as well. These few Elves were called balaphadro, for they carried their gifts with grace no matter what they suffered."

For a few moments, Elrond was silent, while Bilbo stared at him with wide eyes. He wished immediately to fly to the library and look up everything about these Valar, for he knew very little about the beginning of their world. Then he hesitated, wondering what this had to do with him -- why would Elves call him such a historical name?

"To most of this world, the Valar are known as the Lords of the West. To the Elves who linger here, the Valar are our Lords and more; they are the essence of Ilúvatar. It was they who sang to him of the world, and it was his will that the song came into being, and us with it."

"So they helped begin the world?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Elrond hummed in reply, picking up a gleaming flask and pouring a faintly green liquid into a glass.

"Indeed so. Each Valar worked on a particular part of the world. Have Hobbits never wondered how our world began?" Elrond asked, and Bilbo hummed as he recalled older songs that he had never given much attention.

"There are not many history books of our people, but we do have songs. Some songs sing of a mother, but most think of that as the earth itself," Bilbo said, wondering if he could ask his older relatives about those songs.

Elrond replied, "One can only suppose how Hobbits came to be, but all save the Dwarves were created by Eru Ilúvatar, and they were created by Aulë. Perhaps one of the Valar petitioned him. If your oldest songs sing of a mother, then I might even suppose that Yavanna, wife of Aulë, had something to do with Hobbits. She loved all things that grow, and it was she who planted the first seeds of the world."

Bilbo sat quietly for some time, digesting all that Elrond had told him and wondering at the largeness of it all. Something in Elrond's words niggled at him, made him wonder, made old dreams rise to the back of his mind -- but Bilbo did not understand, and he did not want to.

He wondered at the truth of it, but he feared he might never understand. It eased his mind a bit, to know that Dwarves already apparently knew of these Valar and their hand in creating this world. The Elves had their beliefs, but Hobbits were simple creatures, and they cared little of what had happened long ago, only what happened now and could happen in the future.

It was a very interesting story. Perhaps someday he might be able to understand. For now, what use was it to know of creators and spirits of ancient times, when they were no longer here? But then Bilbo realized that Elrond had not quite explained why he of all Hobbits was called that name. He looked up at Elrond and set down his tea. "And the balaphadro -- those who were gifted, as you said. Why do I share their name? I am but a simple Hobbit," he said quietly.

Elrond looked at him with piercing grey eyes. "You shine with a light that no other Hobbit ever has, Mister Baggins -- a light that could only be gifted by one of those faraway Lords. You are clever, indeed, and you have done heroic deeds -- but you insist that you are a simple creature, of a simple people. Every balaphadro in our oldest stories was like you. They insisted they were not special, that they were not heroic or just or mighty.

"I believe you were given a gift, to help you protect your people. I see this in you, as do the members of my house; they cannot explain it, but they understand it just the same. So they call you balaphadro, because you walked that same path as the Valar once did. You guided your people out of the darkness, and you granted them mercy when you could not save them. None in my house know of what you told me and Glorfindel that day, but they see it, all the same. They see the light in you that led you out of that darkest place."

Bilbo stared up at Elrond, feeling something in him tremble at the truth of it, but he could not believe such pretty words. He was no hero, and he was not a good person, not after all that he had done in those mountains. He was not special. He had just done only what was right, at that time, and it was no hero's duty. Whatever light the Elves saw in him -- it mattered not, because he was not that person. He was only Bilbo, and no matter what they called him -- pain-bearer, naeggyl, balaphadro -- he would not change for them. Perhaps he had been given a gift -- but it was also a curse, and he wished it had never happened.

"I see," he murmured, sipping his tea slowly and trying to ignore the sensation of the world spinning around him. "Does... Gandalf know about this?" he asked after a moment, his voice quiet, and he watched Elrond nod. His expression fell into contemplation, thinking of the Wizard's reactions to him over the past few weeks, and Elrond watched him closely, his solemn expression saddening slightly.

"I did not mean to upset you, guest of my home," Elrond said quietly. "Mithrandir means well, surely."

Bilbo shook his head, giving a faint smile. "You know, I have heard that it is unwise to seek the council of Elves, for they will answer both yes and no. In this, you have not failed the rumor of you, Lord Elrond. What you told me is not what bothers me, but what it means for my past. Thank you for telling me," he finished quietly, and Elrond watched him for a long moment, until his mouth twitched into a faint smile.

"What I have heard of Hobbits is that they are very resilient. You and your kin amaze me every time I think upon your plight, Mister Baggins. I wish you and your brethren the best, and I hope you find a new home in the Anduin Vale," Elrond said quietly, and Bilbo gave him a small smile. He breathed in deeply, to help clear his head, and he caught an odd scent.

"What is that you are drinking?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Elrond blinked.

"It is springwine, made from the fruit of a tree that grows not far from here. We harvest the fruits in late summer, but the wine is not ready until just as the snow melts for spring. Would you like to try it?"

Bilbo perked up a bit, ready to put aside all that they had talked about for a time. Hobbits were always interested in trying new things, and he told Elrond so. Elrond found another glass and poured some for Bilbo, who sipped the light, flavorful wine with fascination. Elvish wine! Wouldn't his Took cousins be jealous!

Despite the heavy topics of their earlier conversation, Bilbo sat with Elrond for some time, drinking wine and tea and speaking of many things. The plate of pastries was steadily emptied, and at one point Erestor peeked in on them, to find that Elrond had spread a large map of Middle-earth over his desk, and he and Bilbo were leaning over it and talking animatedly. Erestor only shook his head after a concerned glance at the old map and left. Glorfindel was next to visit, and he could only stare in surprise, that Elrond and Bilbo of all people could speak so easily. His message was received and summarily dismissed, and Glorfindel left, looking rather bewildered.

Finally, Gandalf peered into the room, and was shocked to see the black gleaming hair of Elrond bowed close with the dark blond curls of Bilbo. He hesitated, listening for any strangeness in their conversation, but the two spoke of historical things that did not interest him. Finally he managed to announce that dinner was about to be served, and only then did Elrond roll up the map, while Bilbo, whose cheeks were strangely flushed, gave him a cheerful smile.

"Have you finally come out of hiding then, Gandalf?" Bilbo said, a small hiccup escaping him, and Gandalf realized that the Hobbit was tipsy. He shot a look at Elrond, who merely smiled, before sighing.

"I have not been hiding, my dear boy --"

"Oh, but you have! And I do not blame you for it, even though I have been very cross with you, my dear old man! But that is neither here nor there, and I am willing to forgive you, so long as you stop being so mysterious!" Bilbo said, his grin turning cheeky, and Gandalf stared at him. Then Bilbo bowed good-bye to Elrond and sauntered out the door, a small sway to his large feet, and Gandalf looked at Elrond in bemusement.

"What have you been telling that Hobbit?" he demanded, and Elrond laughed.

"Oh, this and that, my dear friend. Come, let us retire to supper, where it will be most amusing to see such a small Hobbit sing, as he has promised." With that worrisome tidbit, Elrond swept Gandalf from his study after Bilbo, much to the Wizard's consternation.

~

The long road through Mirkwood always left Thorin feeling cranky and disturbed. The path itself was easy to travel, especially with a company of highly-trained and fully-armed dwarrows, despite the heavy presence of Elves in the forests. None of the Elves actually bothered them, but just seeing an Elf through the trees left him grumbling.

The woods had been dark and murky since long ago, but soon after becoming King and starting the Eastern Council, Thorin had grudgingly worked together with Thranduil the Elvenking to empty the forests of the many nests of Spiders, Orcs, and other dark creatures that lurked in the shadows of those trees. It had been neither Thorin's nor Thranduil's idea, but Beorn's, who had insisted that if the Councils were going to continue, and if they were to change locations every time they met, then the roads would need to be cleared for easy travel between the realms. Indeed, after the road was first cleared and the next Council convened, the Lady of Lothlorien herself came to visit, acknowledging their hard work and leaving a few mysterious words before disappearing into Thranduil's realm. Thranduil had been determined to clean the forest ever since.

That had been over a hundred years ago. Since then, all of the forest north of the mountains of Mirkwood had been cleansed of darkness, through the joint efforts of Men, Elves, and Dwarves. Trade had since increased with the safer travel paths, and all of the nations had prospered. The East had become a great region that attracted many Men, Dwarves, and even Elves from across Middle-earth.

Ever since, Lady Galadriel had visited many Eastern Councils, but not every time, and sometimes for no other discernible reason than to smile mysteriously at everybody and be very cryptic with her words -- particularly to Thorin, with whom she would mostly speak in Khuzdul, just to exasperate him. He still had no idea how she knew the language.

Thorin did not much like Galadriel. Dís and Frerin usually ignored him when he complained about her presence.

She was easier to deal with than Thranduil, at least, who bothered Thorin when they were in different cities and infuriated him when they were forced into the same room. There was no dealing with Thranduil -- he was arrogant, haughty, rude, and truly one of the most irritating individuals that Thorin had ever met.

Thorin had always thought Thranduil arrogant, but it was not until he became King and had to deal with the Elvenking personally that he came to understand the true treachery within Thranduil's character. The Elvenking was selfish and cruel, and far too capricious for Thorin to trust him. After what Thranduil had done -- or not done, as was often the case with the Elvenking, who would nary lift a finger to help a Dwarf, let alone send his warriors whenever Thorin called for aid -- Thorin could not speak to him without an argument.

At least he had not yet murdered Thranduil. There was something to be said about his patience.

"Daydreaming on the road, Thorin Oakenshield? My, what would your sister say?" called a deep voice that made the hair on Thorin's body stand on edge. He turned slowly to behold the Elvenking himself standing upon a ledge above them, his favored warriors gathered around them, long Elven hands clutching their bows as if they dearly wanted to the shoot the company of Dwarves below. Immediately Thorin's guards went for their weapons, but Thorin shifted his hand in a small signal, and they subsided.

"What brings you out of your trees, Elvenking? Did a spider get loose in your rooms again?" he answered loudly, making the Dwarves snicker and the Elves above them sneer. Thranduil stared at him with an impassive mien, but Thorin saw the glint of malice in his pale gaze. Good.

"Is your war march done then? Is next year's Council to be graced with your presence once more?" Thranduil asked boredly, and Thorin glared.

"As if you hadn't heard my herald when he came around the first time. I was successful! The ancient halls of Khazad-dûm belong to the Dwarves again! My army marched home ahead of me, in case you were too drunk to notice. Now I return home to my kingdom," Thorin declared, and Thranduil clasped his hands behind his back, looking down his nose at Thorin.

"Pity for the kingdom that awaits such a king. Watch your step in my forest, Thorin Oakenshield. I would not have your company ruining my paths," Thranduil commanded, and he turned to disappear back into the shadows, but Thorin had a parting remark that had the Elvenking's shoulders stiffening.

"Watch your step at the next Council, Thranduil Elvenking. Since it will be in Erebor, it would be a failure of our hospitality if you lost your way, as my Dwarves once did in your woods," Thorin growled, and he turned and stormed further into the woods, his guards following quickly, as Thranduil turned to watch them leave.

Worthless, arrogant, malicious Elf -- there was no dealing with him. Thorin almost wished that Dis would continue to go to the Councils for him, so that he would no longer have to deal with Thranduil. Trust an Elf to insult a guest of his woods personally!

At least soon he would be out of these horrible woods, and he would be nearly home. Then he could see his family again. Perhaps there might even be a letter waiting for him, from the Hobbit he had left behind -- but Thorin tried not to think about that. He had thought about the Hobbit far too often these past weeks, imagining the day he would see him again, thinking of the celebration his kingdom would give to the hero of the War.

But that would have to wait until Bilbo Baggins actually visited him, which might be years in the future. Until then, he would have to make do with letters.