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The Riddle of Strider  by Mirach

A/N: This story was originally published under the title "All that is gold does not glitter" in Teitho. I decided to continue it with the next verses of the riddle though, so that became the title of the first chapter... and I hope I'll get to writing the next chapters soon.

Summary: A company of Dwarves and one Hobbit stop in Rivendell on their journey after treasures, and a little boy gets lost. The first meeting of Aragorn and Bilbo. Written for Teitho: First Meetings

Rating: K

Disclaimer: I am not Tolkien. I am a fan = This is not work for profit. This is fan fiction.

1. All that is gold does not glitter

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day,
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Shadows danced in the Hall of Fire, lights and shadows upon the veil of bluish, sweetly-bitter smoke. Tongues of flames licked the wood in the hearth, and a blinking red eye in the shadows - the embers in the wizard's pipe - lit when he inhaled the strange, heavy smoke of the pipe weed.

The Dwarves sang. Deep and rough were their voices, so unlike the elven choirs that usually sounded here. Their eyes shone as they sang: pale gold glittering in the dark depths of the Lonely Mountain, dragon fire reflecting in the obsidian surface of the Lake under the stars. There were deep forests and distant mountains, the calling of stone, sound of hammer and anvil echoing in the ancient halls once again, old legends about a returning king waiting for fulfilling…

The voices of Dwarves were rich and deep like the hills themselves, and resonated with something earthy, deep in the roots of the world.

Nobody paid attention to the boy, sitting quietly in the corner, his eyes alit with inner fire as he listened to the song.

"Lord Elrond! Lord Elrond!" an abrupt knock on the door of his study forced the Lord of Rivendell to put down the quill and look up from the letter he was writing.

"Do not tell me the Dwarves again…" he muttered as he went to the door. But instead of Erestor, complaining about smoking in the library, he saw a very worried woman.

"Lady Gilraen! What happened?"

"It's Estel, my lord! I cannot find him since morning!"

Elrond sighed. It was not the first time the adventurous boy hid in the house or decided to explore the valley on his own. "Do not worry, lady Gilraen. I will have the house searched, and send the scouts to look for him in the valley. He couldn't go far."

"No, but what if he fell somewhere, or…"

"Shh, Gilraen…" Elrond interrupted her. "We will find him."

But when the widow of Arathorn left, and he gave the orders to the scouts, he could not hide the shade of worry in his own ageless eyes…

"Have you found him?"

"No, my lord."

Elrond bit his lip, looking from the window at the sun. It was setting. Soon it would be dark.

"Where is the other group?"

"They…" the scout avoided Elrond's look," …they are searching beneath the waterfalls."

Elrond inhaled sharply, but remained calm on the outside. "What about the tracks?" he asked.

"They end among the stones. The boy is too light to leave any marks there, and there are no tracks leaving…"

The Peredhil lord pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "Search further."

The scout bowed and left. Elrond continued pacing in the study.

"We have found something!"

It was shortly before midnight, and one of the scouts returned.

"Something? What… What should that mean?" Elrond felt his mouth go dry.

"Well… we didn't find the boy, but I think we know where he is."

"Ah so…" Elrond sighed in relief, as he imagined something worse. "So you know where he is? Then why didn't you bring him back?!"

The scout made a step back before his lord's look. "There is… um… one problem…"

"W-What? No thank you Lobelia, come some other time…" Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit and burglar in the services of Thorin & co., pulled the blanket over his head.

But the knocking on his door only grew more persistent. As he gradually became more awake, he realized that he was not home in the Bag End, but on the quest with the Dwarves, currently staying in the Last Homely House with Elves, from the hospitality of Master Elrond.

Now fully awake, he sat up on the bed. "Come in, come in! Did a dragon attack, or what's going on?"

He expected a Dwarf or even a Wizard, but when the door opened, the light from the hallway revealed lord Elrond himself. Bilbo blinked in surprise and tried to straighten his nightshirt and generally make himself more presentable.

"I am truly sorry to disturb you at this late hour, Master Baggins," the elven lord entered the room and placed the candle he was carrying on the night table.

"That's perfectly fine, Mister Elrond," Bilbo replied with growing curiosity. "I'm at your service and your family's..."

Elrond nodded gravely. "I'm afraid I really have to ask for that service. You see… a boy got lost in the valley. A little Man of ten summers, the son of one Dúnedain lady who's our guest at present. Maybe you have seen him during the dinner…"

Bilbo thought for a moment. Now that Elrond mentioned him, he remembered a young lad, could be fifteen if he were a Hobbit, but the children of the Big Folk grew up more quickly…

"Yes, I have seen him, but I'm afraid I can't help you. Last time I saw him was yesterday evening…" Bilbo looked puzzled about why Elrond is asking exactly him, of all people.

"The scouts have found his tracks," Elrond explained, "but they are leading to a cave, and the entrance is too small for anyone except a child, or…"

"Or a Hobbit…" Bilbo was starting to understand. "You don't have to say more, kind sir. Just give me a moment to get dressed, and I'll be on my way."

"Thank you, master Baggins. Thank you…" Elrond sighed with relief.

Bilbo waited.

"Ah. You want to dress. Of course…" Elrond took the candle and headed out of the room. Then he remembered that the hobbit would need light, and returned it again.

"The boy must be really dear to you…" Bilbo murmured when Elrond left, and hurried with the dressing.

"Are you sure he went down there?" Bilbo stared at the narrow hole between the rocks. He was suddenly getting afraid for his buttons.

The Elven scout nodded. "The ground is too hard for tracks, but we found them nearby, on the softer ground. One pair of small tracks leading in this direction… and none leaving. Do you wish to see them?"

Bilbo nodded. "No, thank you. Let us not lose any more time," he said, thinking privately that he wouldn't recognize a track if somebody stuck his nose into it. A burglar, indeed… He looked back at the few other Elves with torches that came with them. Master Elrond stood in their light as well, and with him a worried looking woman – must be the boy's mother.

"I'm going there now," he said resolutely, as if only saying the words would be needed to actually make them true. It did not, though, and he tried to hide the trembling of his hand when he reached for the torch the nearest scout has been handing to him. It was a dark hole, especially now during the night, and he did not like it at all, but he forced himself to look professional before all these high people, and step towards it.

"Master Hobbit?" the scout's question stopped him before he could enter it. "Don't you want to take a rope?"

A rope! He should have thought about it… "Do you have one?" he asked, hiding his embarrassment. The scout just nodded, and handed the Hobbit a sling at the end of a long rope. "We will secure you from here," the Elf assured him. "Just pull on the rope thrice, and we will pull you out."

Bilbo nodded at that, feeling somehow better. Armed with the torch and rope, he squeezed himself through the dark opening. He had to bow his head and blow out all air from his lungs to get through, as the first few steps were a mere crevice in the hard rock. Yes, pull in the belly… careful with the buttons… that's it…

The crack made a sharp turn before finally opening into a broader corridor. Phew, no buttons lost. He could not see the light of the torches from outside, nor hear the voices of the Elves. Without the rope, he might believe that they left and he is alone down there. It was an unpleasant feeling – he didn't know what he would do if it were true. But the rope reminded him there are Elves waiting for him outside, and a little boy inside – hopefully.

The ground got steeper after a few steps. Bilbo had to climb down very carefully – find a place for feet, another, hold on to the walls, hold on… no, turn and continue backwards... The torch was a nuisance, as he could only use one hand, but a great help in the same time, as he actually saw where he is going. Without that, he would not find the courage to climb the last few steps of a nearly vertical rock wall, not knowing how high it actually was. Only then did he remember to call the boy's name. Elrond told it to him. What was it? Ah yes, it was an elvish word…

"Estel!" he called.

There was no reply. The boy is probably further down there, he told himself. Maybe he got lost in the corridors; he thought when he saw the fork of the paths. Who knows what a labyrinth lies beneath the rocks of the valley… He chose the right corridor, but after a few steps came to a blind end. That would narrow the options, at least. He returned and took the left one, calling the boy's name again.

This time, he could hear something in reply. "Who are you?" a childish voice asked suspiciously, sounding nearer than Bilbo expected. "Are you a dragon?"

He sighed with relief, and rushed in that direction. "No, I'm not a dragon!" he called on the way. "I'm a Hobbit! Bilbo Baggins at your service!" He held the torch so that the light fell on him, and soon he could see a little figure as well, huddled at the end of the second corridor – there was no labyrinth to talk about after all.

"See, I am no dragon…" Bilbo knelt near the boy. "I came to bring you home. And you must be Estel, right? Are you hurt?"

The boy raised his face to look at him. His cheeks were dirty, with traces of tears, and he was shivering with cold. He started to shake his head, but then he bit his lip and nodded shortly. "I twisted my ankle…"

Bilbo nodded. That explained why the boy could not climb up the way he climbed down. He gave him an evaluating look – the lad did not look too heavy, actually, if he were a Hobbit, his parents would be quite worried that he was too thin. "Don't worry; soon you will be out of here. Just put your hand around my neck." He leaned down so the boy could do that, and then pulled him up carefully. They were approximately the same height.

The boy bit back a cry of pain as he got to his feet.

"Lean on me," Bilbo instructed. "You can lean on me a little more, you know…" he said after a while. "Good. Now let's try to walk, shall we?"

Estel nodded shakily, and made a careful step. Then another. It was a slow progress.

"So… What were you actually doing down here?" Bilbo asked to distract the boy.

"Looking for treasure," Estel replied.

"For treasure? Here?"

"I wanted to go under the Mountain, and find a treasure for my mother. The Dwarves sang about it…"

"Oh…" Bilbo shook his head. "But this is not the Mountain."

"But there could be treasure," Estel insisted. "I just wanted a nice present for her…"

"I see…" Bilbo smiled slightly. "You know what? I do have an idea. Instead of climbing into dark holes, you could bake something for her, what do you think?"

"Bake?" Estel looked at the Hobbit as if he said something absurd. "There is no adventure in baking. Every maid can bake. I wanted to go under the Mountain, and fight a dragon, and win his treasure, and be a returning king..."

That, in turn, made the Hobbit to raise his eyebrows in amazement, that somebody could actually prefer fighting a dragon to a cake. "Well, I guess you can do that when you are older. But you have to eat nicely to gain strength…"

"You think I really can?"

"Um… I'm not sure about the dragon and treasure, as my companions seem to be intent to do that first, and the king under the Mountain you certainly can't be as you are no Dwarf," Bilbo replied honestly, "but I think that when you get strong, you could be some other king, or go under some other mountain if you want. But I've heard some of them are haunted…"

"I'm not afraid of ghosts," the boy said resolutely, hissing slightly as he stepped on the injured ankle. "But what about the treasure?"

"Well…" Bilbo smiled. "Maybe there is some treasure for you as well…"

"Not for me," the boy protested. "I wanted to find some gold for my mother!"

"Ah, yes, you did… But I'm sure it will be a great present for her just to see you again. She has been very afraid for you…"

"Was she?" Estel sounded suddenly unsure. "Are she and Ad… lord Elrond angry?"

"Maybe later they will, but now they will be just glad to see you, trust me. That will be the greatest treasure you can give your mother right now."

Estel nodded uncertainly, and looked up in the light of the torch. They were already at the steep rock, and he didn't know how he would climb up.

"Just hold on firmly, can you do that?" Bilbo asked him.

"Yes, I think…" the boy embraced the Hobbit around the neck, and Bilbo pulled the rope three times. Soon strong Elven hands started to pull them up. He let Estel go first through the narrow passage out then. He was able to pass through it much easier than the Hobbit, even doing it just on one foot, keeping his balance by leaning on the walls.

When Bilbo managed to get out of the crevice as well, he could already see Elrond and the Dúnedain lady embracing the boy, who sniffed slightly, but if it was from suppressing tears, or a beginning cold, Bilbo could not tell.

Elrond noticed him as he climbed out and tried to straighten his clothes. The lord of Rivendell stood up immediately and headed to him. "Master Hobbit!"

Bilbo stopped checking his buttons and looked at the Half-Elf, blushing slightly as he could tell from his look what would follow.

"I don't know how to thank you enough…"

"Oh please. No thanks are needed. That's why I'm here after all. A professional burglar, you know… Um…" Stop blabbering Bilbo, before you say something stupid, he told himself. "Maybe you could mention that to Thorin?" Ah well. Too late…

Elrond smiled. "I will mention it to him discreetly. But please," his face got a serious expression, "do not speak about the boy outside of the valley. I will just tell them you helped with one matter of great importance, and I expect the same from you."

Bilbo watched the Half-Elven face intently, his glance sliding to the Dúnedain lady embracing the boy. "He is precious to you, isn't he?" he asked quietly.

Elrond thought for a moment, but then he nodded shortly. "He is… the greatest treasure in this valley to us…"

"Do not worry," Bilbo smiled. "I will not tell that to anyone. Actually, I'm starting to think I would like to have such a boy one day. Doesn't have to be my own, I never like the idea of marriage, but maybe I will adopt one when I get home, if you understand me…"

"Oh yes, I do, Master Baggins," Elrond smiled, and his face was kind like a summer evening. "I do…"


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