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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

A/N: I apologize for the slowness of updates. I do intend to finish this story in any case.

4. Deep roots are not reached by the frost

"When winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
'tis evil in the Wild to fare."

"What?" Elrond asked, hearing that Bilbo said something, but not quite understanding him through the roaring wind.

"Oh, nothing…" Bilbo said more loudly. "I was just muttering to myself. An old Shire rhyme." Originated probably sometimes during the Fell Winter, he thought to himself. And very fitting to what he saw around him. The sky was distant and cold, pale stars shining like the shimmer of foam at the feet of a waterfall. The dark mass of mountains rose heavily against the sky in the east, blocking every sign of dawn that might already grace the horizon behind them. The silhouettes of trees were bare and black, but on the ground there was a faint frosty shimmer, reflecting the starlight above – the first snow. And in the middle of the scenery there was the pale mane and ears of the elven horse rising and sinking before him with the rhythm of the hooves, sounding into the night. Even that sound was dull, muted by the fresh layer of snow.

The winter had come early and suddenly, changing the country overnight. The sharp rocks were softened by the cover of snow, but what changed most was the scent in the air – clean and cold and a little wet, like the feeling of freshly washed bed sheets bed sheets. That reminded Bilbo of where he would rather be, instead of admiring this change: in his own, warm bed, with a fire cracking merrily on the hearth. The scent in the air might be fresh, but the wind was bitterly cold, and although Elrond shielded Bilbo as he huddled behind him, it stung his face and hands, and seeped into his bones.

When winter first begins to bite, indeed, he though absently, and then suddenly… "There! This is the place!"

Elrond halted his horse. "Are you sure, Master Baggins?" he asked, looking around.

"I think I saw a fox down there, so I think this could be the dell. It's hard to tell under the snow, so we should probably look closer."

"At the dell?"

"No, at the fox."

"Uh… I'm afraid I don't follow you there, Master Baggins," Elrond murmured, but turned his horse in the direction that Bilbo pointed at. "Ah, I see now!" He nodded his head respectfully, before Bilbo could explain through the strong wind. The fresh tracks of the fox they just disturbed led away from a few snow-covered shapes. From the distance, it was easy to pass them for rocks, but now their suspicious shape became visible. They were the bodies of the orcs killed in this place, and the fox was lured here by the prospect of food. Elrond jumped down from the horse to look at the carcasses, but Bilbo remained on its back, looking in the distance instead.

"I think it was the pass over there," he told Elrond when the Half-Elf returned to him. Knowing Elrond couldn't see exactly where he was pointing, he tried to make his statement more precise. "Between that mountain with the top crooked slightly to the left, and the one that seems more flat and a bit lower."

Elrond looked at the line of the mountains intently for a moment. "I see," he said then, thoughtfully. "The High pass… It's not one many travellers would use. It's rather steep and treacherous. I wonder what compelled Estel to go there," he sighed and shook his head. "You led me to the right path, Master Baggins. I should not ask more from you, yet I fear the time I would lose by returning with you to Rivendell and getting here again is too precious. Would you mind riding with me?"

"Oh, not at all," Bilbo assured him. "You should not lose any more time indeed. That I didn't tell you about it immediately was enough of a delay. And I will gladly help you find the Dúnadan, if the lad is in trouble."

Elrond smiled slightly. "Alright then, Master Baggins," he said, jumping into the saddle behind Bilbo. "Let's ride!"

The elven horse galloped through the night. To Bilbo it almost seemed like a dream. He dozed off a few times, thinking "I'm too old for this" to himself, but saying nothing aloud. In such a half-sleeping state, it was hard to discern the haze of shallow dreams from reality. The horse was floating above a sea of white, the steady rhythm of hooves like the pendulum of a clock, swinging there and back, there and back, tam-ta-dam, tam-ta-dam, and between a short moment of weightlessness, filled with the whistling of the wind on the background of darkly-white show. He didn't even know when the sun started to rise nor when they got so close to the mountains. The wind calmed and the peaks towering ahead turned gold in the reflected light of sunrise. Only briefly did that play of light last, as soon the rising sun was covered by clouds, and the day turned grey and cheerless.

They entered a dense pine forest, along a narrow, barely visible path leading between the trees. It rose steeply, and the ground became more and more rocky. Big pieces of rock that were once a part of the peaks above protruded from the ground like scattered and forgotten toys of stone-giants. The soil gathered at the top of them, and the trees took root in it, so now it seemed as if the pines were trying to devour the rocks. As they rode higher, the forest grew less dense and more open, and Bilbo could see the mountains towering above them. He recognized the crooked top of the peak on their left, and the flat crown of the one on their right. As the forest thinned, the snow got deeper as well. In places the wind swept it away completely, leaving just cold stone, but in others it created deep snowdrifts. Elrond got down from his horse and led him through them by the bridle. Bilbo did not even suggest getting down as well, knowing it would be of no help in speeding their pace.

Elrond suddenly stopped. It did not take long for Bilbo to see the reason for the sudden halt. As they turned a bend in the path, it was clearly visible before them: the detritus of a fallen avalanche, blocking the path.

"Oh dear…" Bilbo murmured, and although Elrond didn't say anything, the "oh dear" was apparent in his look. Bilbo always imagined an avalanche as a mass of snow, but here it also included rocks and pieces of wood – the trunks and branches of grown pine trees broken like matches from the force of rolling down the slope.

Elrond stood unmoving, his eyes narrowed as he surveyed the picture of destruction. Time stretched. Bilbo turned his gaze from the avalanche to Elrond when he realized he wouldn't find anything that the Elf-Lord couldn't. He coughed quietly. "You think…" he started to ask, but his voice died down as he beheld the expression in Elrond's face. Time flew around them, moment by moment, but Elrond stood like a statue in it, his features like white marble in their paleness.

Suddenly he moved. With an almost tangible determination he put the bridle into Bilbo's hand and started to climb over the snow and rocks. He made it look almost easy as he jumped from one rock to another, running atop the fallen trunks and on the snow without sinking. But Bilbo knew that if he attempted to follow, he would not get very far.

After a moment it was evident where Elrond was heading. There, in the middle of the destruction, was one tree that somehow managed to resist the force. It was a pine, old and gnarly. Only a few of its branches were alive and bearing green needles. The rest of them were dry, and a part of the trunk was missing the bark as well. The wood underneath was light grey, bleached with the wind and snow and the sharp sun of the mountain summer. It was possible that the tree has been resisting the elements for centuries, and even now, against the impossible odds of the avalanche, it somehow managed to survive. Elrond walked to it, as if led by some instinct. When he got there, he was lost from Bilbo's sight for a long moment as he bent down. There was just a movement of branches and stones, and the top of his head appearing now and then as Elrond seemed to be digging in the frozen snow and debris right beside the tree.

The horse grew restless as it could not see its master, and Bilbo, whose legs did not even reach the animal's belly, had to calm him with voice and gestures. It took some time before the horse stood still. Bilbo turned his attention to the old pine. For a moment he could not spot Elrond. Then he suddenly appeared not far from the pine. He was walking towards Bilbo, but walking more slowly and heavily than before. He was carrying a burden in his arms.

"Dúnadan…" Bilbo whispered, his throat constricting with worry. He could not see the Man's face, but he had no doubt that it was the one Elrond called Estel that he now carried. As the avalanche fell, Estel had probably found a meagre shelter behind that old tree – the only one with roots deep enough to resist the force. But if he was alive, Bilbo could not tell. He could only wait for Elrond to come back with his burden.

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