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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, winning the "best beta reader award"

A/N: look, an update! I realized it's Tolkien's birthday today, and this story is sitting here, unfinished. So happy birthday, Master Tolkien!

3. The old that is strong does not wither

"How do you like your room, Master Baggins?" Elrond asked politely at the dinner.

"Very much, thank you. The view is wonderful. And the carved bookshelf, it's a beautiful work, really. But I believe someone has forgotten their books there. I… wouldn't want someone to think that I stole them." Bilbo blushed slightly, thinking about his reputation as a burglar. Burglar, not a thief – those were two different things in his mind, and he didn't like people mistaking them. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was a thief of his silver spoons. He was a honest burglar.

Elrond smiled slightly, just with the corners of his lips. "Oh, but they are yours, Master Baggins."

Bilbo stared at him for a while. "Mine? Oh dear… but they are so valuable! Most of them illuminated, and some are really old. Surely there has been some mistake."

Elrond shook his head. "No mistake. They are yours, dear Bilbo."

"Oh. Oh… where are my manners?" The elderly hobbit stood up and bowed solemnly. "Thank you very much, Master Elrond, for such a wonderful present. I truly appreciate it, and I'm at the service of you and your family whenever you would need me."

Elrond bowed his head slightly, acknowledging the thanks. "I know you are," he nodded quietly. For a moment Bilbo had the feeling like he glimpsed a hint of worry in his ageless eyes. It passed quickly though, and for the rest of the evening Elrond was as polite and caring a host as always.

There were songs and stories in the Hall of Fire after the dinner. Bilbo remembered the time when the Dwarves stayed in this very room, singing about their hopes and memories of home.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

Another voice sang, sweet and serene. It was not a Dwarven voice, deep and earthy. It did not fit the song at all. And the song it sung was something entirely different, as realized he had dozed off, and the Dwarven song was just a part of his dream. He sighed and looked around. Elrond has left sometime during his nap, it seemed. He stood up as well, thinking a proper sleep on the soft bed would do him good. As he left the Hall of Fire behind to seek it, he absently wondered where Dúnadan will be sleeping tonight.

"Come with me," Bilbo told him as he was taking his leave. "I know the secret path to the Hidden Valley. I can show it to you. I'm sure you would be welcome in the Last Homely House."

Dúnadan just smiled a bit sadly at his offer. "Thank you, Master Baggins. It is very kind of you to offer such a thing, and in some other time I would gladly go with you into that beautiful valley. Another duty calls me now, but maybe we will meet there once."

"I hope so as well. If you meet some Elf, just say you are a friend of Bilbo Baggins. He will surely show you the way."

Dúnadan smiled a little again. "I will do that… my friend. Have a safe journey."

Bilbo shook his head. Who knew if he would ever see him again, that mysterious man who saved his life in the wild. It really was a pity he didn't take the offer. In Rivendell he would get a warm bed and plenty of good food – which he needed, judging by his looks. And some nice clothes as well, not the worn ones he was wearing. Maybe then, and after a bath, he would look less like a scoundrel and more like the kind and pleasant companion he proved to be during their short stay together.

As he was lost in thought, he suddenly realized he was lost in the Last Homely House as well. He had missed the hallway leading to his room. He looked around, trying to determine where he was. He had never been to this part of the house – these were not guest rooms, but rooms of those living in the household, and he respected their privacy. He wanted to ask someone for the way, but the corridor was empty. He noticed though, that one door was slightly open, and a strip of light from it illuminated the hallway. Maybe he could ask the one in the room – if he didn't want company, then he surely would have closed the door, right?

He wanted to knock first, but curiosity won, and he peeked through the slightly open door. He was taken aback when he recognized Elrond himself in the room. The Half-Elf was turned away from the door, looking out the window and holding something in his hands. The room did not seem to belong to Elrond, though. It was not as big as the room of the master of the house would be, and there were little things, suggesting the room belongedto a child, a boy: the wooden sword and shield on the wall, a carved figure of a warrior on the mantel...

"Come in, Master Baggins!" Elrond said before Bilbo could knock on the door.

Bilbo blushed a little, but he entered hesitantly. Elrond turned to him. In his hands was a little stuffed toy, a brown horse with woollen mane. Bilbo watched the toy curiously, almost forgetting what to ask. "Er… yes. I'm sorry to disturb. I just got lost in thought and took a wrong turn. Could you please help me find my room?"

Elrond smiled slightly, politely. "Of course. I can show you the way. I was ready to leave, anyway.

"That would be really kind of you," Bilbo said thankfully. But then curiousity got the better of him again. "If I can be so bold to ask… whose room is this?"

Elrond's sight wandered to the window again. "Yes, you may ask," he nodded quietly. "Do you remember the boy you helped to find the first time you were here? It's his room."

"Of course I remember him. Estel, right? But that was over sixty years ago. He must be more than seventy years old now. You are still keeping this room for him?"

Elrond smiled a bit wistfully. "He still uses it sometimes. Very rarely, though. He travels a lot."

"He did look like he would grow into an adventurous type, indeed," Bilbo nodded thoughtfully. "He's your adoptive son, isn't he? You did not say it, but it seemed like that to me. Or at least now it does. I adopted a boy myself, you see. He is a wonderful lad, my Frodo."

"I'm sure he is," Elrond smiled slightly, and sat down on the bed, inviting Bilbo to sit beside him. It seemed he welcomed the chance to talk to someone who understood his concerns. "And yes, you guessed it. Estel is my adoptive son. This is his room, but he rarely stays here anymore. " He turned the stuffed horse in his hands thoughtfully. "There are just a few reminders of his boyhood left," he whispered. "This was his favourite toy. He took most of the other toys away when he grew up and joined his people. For the children there."

"There are not many children in Rivendell, are there?" Bilbo asked quietly.

Elrond shook his head. "None at the moment. Those toys have found a better use there, indeed. He just left a few… more for me than for himself, I believe. I often come here when he is away."

Bilbo nodded with understanding. "I miss Frodo as well," he sighed. Then he took a closer look at the toy. "The horsie looks quite well for such an old toy," he remarked. "And a favourite one, besides that. I know how quickly the favourite toys wear out…"

"Indeed," Elrond smiled with a mild amusement. "This one has been repaired more times than I care to countactually. It has been cleaned and patched up several times, the eyes and mane replaced, and one ear as well. It looks this well because the one repairing it always took great care in it."

Bilbo took a closer look of the toy, but he did not touch it. "I see," he murmured. "So your Estel is traveling somewhere right now? Isn't he already a bit too old to travel, too? Well, I know I am, and Men age more quickly than Hobbits from what I have heard," he said, but then he realized that he might have caused Elrond grief with such words. It must be hard seeing your adoptive child getting old when you do not age yourself. "My pardon," he murmured apologetically. "I did not mean…"

"It's alright," Elrond interrupted him. "He is 71 now, but he does not age as quickly as you would expect a Man. He is from the Dúnedain folk, and the blood of Westernesse is strong in his veins. You would not guess he is older than 40, I believe."

"Dúnedain age more slowly?" Bilbo asked with interest. "I did not know that. I met one on the way here. He was a very nice fellow. I offered him to show him the way here. I thought you would approve once you get to know him. That doesn't matter though, because he declined. Said he has still some work to do…"

Elrond gripped the stuffed horse more forcefully as he looked at Bilbo. "Did he say his name?" he asked hoarsely.

"Well, at first not. He just introduced himself as "Dúnadan". But then he told me his real name. Aragorn, it was. Not Estel. I'm sorry…"

"Oh! You… offered to show him the way to the Valley?"

"As I say. If I shouldn't have, I apologize, but…"

But Elrond suddenly chuckled. "I assure you, he already knows the way. Estel is Aragorn. That is his true name. He was expected here a week ago, and we are getting worried. Where did you meet him? And where did he go? Did he say that?"

Bilbo looked astonished, and it took him a moment to digest the news that the Dúnadan he met was the little boy from years ago. Only then did he realize that Elrond was asking something. "I met him… about a day's journey from here. He… He saved my life. Killed the Orcs that pursued me. But where he went… I'm not really sure. He mentioned some pass, but not by name. But I asked him to show me where it is in the mountains. You never know when it might be useful to know one more pass through the mountains…"

Elrond bit his lip. "You arrived here four days ago. That's five since you split with him. He should be able to check the pass and arrive here in three. Something must have happened!"

"Oh dear," Bilbo murmured. "He did not tell me he was headed to Rivendell as well. Otherwise I would have told you immediately. I guess he wanted to surprise me…"

Elrond took a sharp breath and stood up. "Possibly. But would you be able to show me that pass on the map?"

Bilbo shook his head mutely. "I don't think I could. I just know where he pointed with his finger… and I would have to stand on the same place. The mountains look a bit different from here."

Elrond nodded gravely, and put the toy back on its place on the shelf. "Then Master Baggins, I'm afraid I must once more ask for the service you offered me and my family. Will you ride with me to that place?"

"Of course," Bilbo nodded. "I wouldn't want something happen to Dúnadan. He… He is my friend, as well. And I would do the same for Frodo. Let me just get my traveling cloak, and we can go."

Elrond looked worried, but a little relieved at Bilbo's words. "Take a coat as well. It's still autumn in the Valley, but outside it got much colder in the last days."

"I will."

"I will meet you in the hall then." Elrond said, and wanted to leave to prepare himself. But then he remembered that Bilbo didn't know the way to his room. "Oh… of course. Come with me, I'll show you the way first." He led the Hobbit through a few hallways until Bilbo recognized where he was and told him that he would be able to find the way from there.

It did not take long from that moment that Bilbo and Elrond met again, in the hall leading to the main gate of the house. Soon an Elf and a Hobbit, both sitting on one big white horse, galloped into the night.

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