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The Riddle of Strider  by Mirach

Summary: The verses about Aragorn in Gandalf's letter were written by Bilbo. This is a story about the relationship of the Ranger and the Hobbit, and the events that inspired each of those verses.

Rating: K

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

Beta: Cairistiona (thank you x 1000!)

2. Not all those who wander are lost

The evening was cold, a late autumn at the very gates of winter. The land at the feet of the Misty Mountains seemed to be empty and dark under the heavy clouds. A merry flicker of fire that could be seen in a small dell seemed almost out of place here. The song that accompanied the fire, on the other hand, somehow strangely fitted the dark and lonely landscape, as it was sung by an old, wistful voice.

The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!

It used to be a merry song once; that much was clear from the words. It should be sung with a lively melody and good company, a song about a happy future. To the one singing it, though, it was a song about the past, about times gone and friends lost.

His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden
To songs of yore re-sung.

If someone were watching the little dell, he would be greeted by a most unusual sight east of the Shire – an elderly Hobbit sitting on a log and warming his hands above the fire, singing quietly to himself. Not only was the hobbit far from home and its comforts, he also did not seem to mind…

The woods shall wave on mountains
And grass beneath the sun;
His wealth shall flow in fountains
And the rivers golden run.

There was a distant look in the Hobbit's eyes as he stared into the flames, as if there was a story unfolding in front of his mind's eye, and he saw not a little bonfire, but dragonfire that burned in a night long ago and far away.

The streams shall run in gladness,
The lakes shall shine and burn,
All sorrow fail and sadness
At the Mountain-king's return!

Bilbo Baggins, a former burglar of Thorin Oakenshield's company, sighed as the song ended. This was the end of the adventure. His last journey before settling down. It was the last time he would see the Lonely Mountain and the halls and riches of the Dwarven kingdom. Now Rivendell will be his home, the place to live the rest of his days. Yet there was an empty place in his heart. He wished he could see Thorin as a returning king on the throne of his lost kingdom. But Thorin was dead, and the friendship Bilbo longed for gone with him.

"My pardon, Mister Hobbit…" a voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts.

Bilbo started. There was a stranger looking down into the dell. One of the Big Folk! He berated himself for getting so lost in thought that he didn't hear him coming, and for being generally not very cautious, assuming that the land between the Misty Mountains and Rivendell was deserted and patrolled by Elves. A Hobbit not hearing a Man's approach! He'd have to use his old age as an excuse for that!

That did not improve his mood at all, nor did the disturbance of his private thoughts. Realizing what kind of people one can encounter in the wilderness nowadays, he put his hand on the hilt of Sting, and only then took a good look at the stranger.

It was just as he suspected – a scoundrel by appearance, in a ragged cloak and muddy boots, grim-faced and unshaven.

"Who are you?" Bilbo asked sharply, pulling Sting out of the sheath a little to show the Man that he was not afraid.

The man stepped back, looking not so much afraid as wanting to give the elderly Hobbit some space. "I apologize for my intrusion," he said in a conciliatory tone. "I've just been alone in the wild for a long time, and when I saw your fire… I hoped for a friendly company. But if it bothers you, I will just leave…"

Bilbo frowned slightly. He did not like the looks of the Man, but he was also a Hobbit known for his hospitality… or, rather, the inability to drive away unexpected guests, he thought to himself, fondly remembering the memorable party of thirteen Dwarves and a Wizard in the Bag End. And there was something in the Man's face… something lonely and resigned. "You did not answer my question," he said cautiously, not letting his hand from the short sword.

"They call me Dúnadan," the man said with a bow of his head.

"A Man of the West?" Bilbo shook his head, looking slightly confused, although not taking his eyes off the Man.

Dúnadan just nodded. "That's who I am."

"And what are you doing here, if I may ask? Did you get lost?"

The Man smiled slightly. "No, I'm not lost. I'm just where I should be."

Bilbo frowned again, not knowing what to think of that answer, nor what to do. He did not want to drive the Man away from his fire, but he did not trust him either.

Dúnadan waited patiently, without moving. Only did his eyes few times wander away from the fire and into the night, as if searching for something, with a strange alertness in the Man's otherwise tired face.

"Very well," finally Bilbo put his hand away from the sword, and made a hesitant but inviting gesture. "You might join me if you want..."

Dúnadan watched him intently for a moment before he opened his mouth to reply. But the reply never came. He frowned suddenly and drew his sword.

Bilbo started and reached for Sting again, but the Man jumped over the fire and was gone into the darkness, leaving a confused Hobbit behind.

Bilbo stood there, his heart pounding. He drew Sting and pointed it in the direction where the Man ran, more instinctively than consciously. For a moment there was silence… then a growl. Clash of metal against metal. In that moment, Bilbo looked down at his blade, and realized it is glowing blue… He let out a Dwarvish curse. Orcs! And there he thought the Battle of Five Armies has decimated them enough for these lands to be safe to travel. Yes, but that was sixty years ago, a little voice in his head reminded him, the voice of a younger Hobbit that left with a Dwarven company. He missed that lad, he really did. The time was passing so quickly!

He was really getting old… and senile – by Mahal's beard and Old Took's horse, there was a fight there, and he was letting his thoughts wander away! That wouldn't happen to young Bilbo, he would… oh damn, again! He gritted his teeth, sheathed Sting, and quickly crept away from the fire, where anyone could spot him easily, and into the dark night under autumn stars.

The grass was wet and cold under his fingers as he carefully progressed to the place from whence the sounds of the fight came. He pressed himself low to the ground, and felt the wetness seeping into his clothes. No sound, no rustling could be heard as he crept closer. He only wished he would have his precious ring, it would be so much easier to be invisible right now…

He saw Dúnadan. It was dark, but his figure was tall among the Orcs, easy to spot even in the heat of battle. There were several dead Orcs on the ground, and still a few of them standing. Bilbo did not know who the Man was, but he knew on whose side he fought in this battle, without any doubt. He approached through the shadows, unnoticed. The Man was doing well so far – another Orc fell dead to the ground. Bilbo had to admire his efficient movements for a moment: it was as if he was seeing Thorin in battle again. That thought give him a new urgency – Thorin died in that battle, despite his skill as a warrior.

Next Orc down, three remaining. Dúnadan retreated a few steps, clearly exhausted. Bilbo grabbed a stone and lifted himself from the ground. He aimed… and with satisfaction he saw one Orc stagger after the stone hit him right in the head – his aim was still true.

Dúnadan used the chance and killed the Orc with one quick thrust. Two still stood against him. One noticed Bilbo.

The Hobbit stood up and drew Sting. He watched the foul creature intently. That he was afraid the Orc would never guess from his posture – he knew how to control his fear. One that has talked to a living dragon had to know that.

Several things happened at once. The Orc attacked. Dúnadan saw it out of the corner of his eyes, understood what was going on. He jumped after the Orc, trying to stop him and protect the Hobbit. Bilbo raised Sting to defend himself from the Orc, but before he could do anything, Dúnadan's sword beheaded the creature with one powerful cut. Bilbo saw it, and saw the other Orc behind Dúnadan, prepared for strike. "Behind you!" he cried out, and jumped.

In the next moment they were all on the ground: him, Dúnadan and the Orc. There was sticky and dark blood on his hands… and Sting was embedded in the Orc's chest. The elven blade no longer shone.

Dúnadan breathed heavily, trying to catch his breath after the exertion. "Master Hobbit…" he panted, "that was… really unexpected… and very brave. Thank you…"

Bilbo blushed, still a bit shaken. He staggered to his feet and looked around, at the Orc corpses. "I think I should thank you," he said quietly. "It seems I got a bit careless with that fire…"

Dúnadan remained lying on the ground, too exhausted from the fight even to move. "Not really…" he said hoarsely. "They were following you… since you crossed the mountains… and since you split with your Dwarven companions… they just waited for a chance to attack…"

"Oh." Bilbo paled slightly. "They wanted to avoid Rivendell and continue directly to the Blue Mountains… er… and how do you know that?"

Dúnadan very slowly rose to a sitting position, hissing a little with the movement. "Easily," he said. "I have been following the Orcs."

Bilbo bit his lip when he heard that hiss. "Oh dear… I totally forgot to ask… Are you injured?"

"No, not really," Dúnadan smiledslightly. "Just a few scratches and bruises… and quite sore muscles. I've been running for most of the day to catch up with them. I saw their and your tracks on this side of the Pass, in the morning."

Bilbo's eyes widened a little. "But that's almost thirty miles!"

Dúnadan finally got to his feet and looked around. He approached the Orc with Sting in his chest, took the blade out and carefully wiped the blood from it. Then he handed it to Bilbo, hilt first. "And I was just in time," he said quietly.

"Oh dear…" Bilbo stammered. "Yes. Yes, you were… But why did you ask to join me at the fire? Why didn't you warn me first?"

Dúnadan shrugged slightly, as if he didn't know the answer to that question himself. "I don't really know why," he said quietly, and looked away, to hide something sad and strangely vulnerable that appeared in his eyes in that moment. "My original plan was actually to wait for them a little further from here, and dispatch them without you ever knowing about them, or about me…" he said slowly. "But then I saw your fire, and heard your song… and I wanted to join you, just for a little moment before they arrived. I miscalculated their pace a little, you see… I thought I still had about an hour before they came."

"You were lonely…" Bilbo translated that feeling he saw in Dúnadan's eyes into soft words.

The Man bit his lip and nodded, barely perceptibly.

"I was feeling a bit lonely tonight as well." Bilbo shrugged, as if saying that there's no shame in it. "I'm really sorry for the cold welcome. One never knows what kind of people one meets in the wilderness, if you get my meaning. No offense."

"None taken," Dúnadan smiled slightly. "I know I look like one of the worse kind one can meet."

"Yes, that's right, I mean no… I mean yes, but... er…" Bilbo blushed. "I mean… one can also meet someone looking fair, who cuts his throat in sleep. It is a pleasant thing to meet someone who maybe looks foul, but turns fair. And I'm really sorry for the welcome, I mean it. Shall we begin again? The fire should be still burning…"

Dúnadan smiled, and this time his eyes did as well, and his face looked much fairer for it. "I would really like that."

"Great. Give me just a moment. I will prepare everything. Then you can come to the fire."

Dúnadan shook his head with amusement, but let the elderly Hobbit go and obediently waited for some time before he followed him.

The sight of a kettle with water, heating over the fire, and the smell of baking potatoes greeted him when he arrived – for the second time – into the little dell. There was also a warm sheet spread on the ground, meant for sitting or lying on. Dúnadan's muscles protested with that short journey – the battle took all his remaining strength after pursuing the Orcs, and he longed to sit down there and warm his cold hands. But still he felt somehow hesitant when he approached the fire, as if afraid of rejection for some reason.

He coughed to get Bilbo's attention, still busy with some preparations, to himself. "My pardon, Mister Hobbit," he said quietly, and somehow humbly. "Would you mind if a weary traveller joined you at your fire?"

"Oh…" Bilbo turned around, and smiled brightly. "Not at all, dear friend! " He bowed. "Bilbo Baggins, at your service!"

Dúnadan smiled, and there was relief visible in his face. He came closer to the fire, and bowed as well. "And I am at your service, Mister Baggins. They call me Dúnadan, but my true name is Aragorn son of Arathorn."

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