(Written in 2006 for Marigold's Challenge)
SUMMARY: Bilbo encounters a mysterious stranger while exploring Rivendell.
AUTHOR'S NOTES:  Marigold gave a list of four categories of elements for each writer to choose from. I chose the following:
Category one: a dangerous or dangerous seeming stranger
Category two: a strange occurrence
Category three: a place of healing
Category four: a writer
 This story takes place in S.R. 1402, just slightly over a year after Bilbo left the Shire.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Bilbo took up his pack and his old walking stick, and looked about his cozy lodgings. He had been here in Rivendell, in the Last Homely House, for nearly three months now.
And it was delightful-he could not imagine a better place to retire to, and he still marveled at Master Elrond's generosity in inviting him to make his home here. He had spent days wandering the grounds and the halls, taking his meals sometimes with the Elves, and sometimes in his own lovely little room. He worked on his writing, and on improving his skills in Sindarin and even Quenyan. And the evenings were spent in the Hall of Fire, where he could listen to his heart's content to the sound of Elven song.
But Imladris, Rivendell, was more than just the Last Homely House. It was an entire valley, and the vistas of waterfalls and trees also spoke to him. He wanted to know more of his new home than just this house, as large and magnificent as it was. So, shyly, he had approached the Lord of Imladris about the idea of his taking a small walking trip within the valley. The weather was perfect-it was late autumn, right after his birthday. He was still fit. He had after all, just returned from the Lonely Mountain before coming here.
"Most certainly, Bilbo. There is no reason that you should not do so. No evil thing can come into this valley to trouble you, and the weather should hold mild for at least two more weeks. Please feel free to explore all you like."
And so, as he had often done in the Shire, he was going walking for pleasure. A pack, well filled with provisions to last him at least two weeks, his old cloak, still sturdy and warm, and a bedroll. He left his room and made his way from the House, the Elves bidding him farewell, reminding him not to stray out of the valley, lest he lose his way returning, and he turned his face to the west and a lovely waterfall which he could espy in the distance, and which had caught his attention. It was the very waterfall which was framed by the window in his room, and he had often thought how wonderful it would be to see its magnificence close up.
The valley was a far different countryside than the fields and copses of the Shire. The trees were taller, there were no farms and croplands-not in this direction, anyway. The land seemed older, and yet fresher-untouched, unspoiled. But the rhythm of walking, of stopping to eat when hungry, of foraging for mushrooms and nuts, and sleeping beneath the stars, was still the same gentle pleasure it had always been.
At one point, he paused to silently observe a magnificent stag, drinking from the pool of a spring. He watched a young fox, stalking and pouncing at a wily old hare-and missing. He found a bounty of mushrooms, and had quite a feast of them. It took him five days to reach the waterfall, and it was worth the walk: the water roared down with a sound like giants, and even from a safe distance, the spray dampened him, and felt pleasant on his face. He watched the play of a rainbow within the mist, and gazed to the west, as the sun went down.
He supped on a nice little trout, caught from a pool at the foot of the fall, supplemented by some of the mushrooms, and a bit of journeybread, and wrapped in his blanket, lay beneath the stars, composing a poem to the waterfall in his head.
The next day, he turned and began to follow the course of the river. The Bruinen was wide and wild. He thought that he would go south along it, and see if he could find the ford through which he had entered the Valley this time. If he remembered aright, it would not be more than a day's tramp at a hobbit's pace from there to return to the Last Homely House. He should get back well before his supplies ran out.
Four days he wandered down the river, occasionally wetting his toes in its icy waters, and more than once stopping to try his luck with the fish. The countryside along the water was a bit more open, and he could look up to see the high walls of the Valley, and the occasional large bird-perhaps even an Eagle, soaring overhead. On the fourth day he started early, just after sunrise. Things began to look somewhat familiar, and he thought he might be approaching the ford-indeed, it seemed that he was, as he could discern the path leading away and back up towards the Last Homely House.
He knew, of course, that the ways into the Valley were hidden, and only those who had legitimate business there were even supposed to be able to find their way in.
He was astonished, therefore, to see on the other side of the ford a campfire, a large horse, and a lump of blankets that could only be a person. He quickly hid behind a rather large boulder to observe. It was as well he did so, for only a few moments after, the blankets stirred, and the being sat up.
It was definitely not an Elf. It was a Man. A scruffier and more dangerous looking specimen of the race Bilbo had never seen. Tall and long-limbed, he was dressed in worn and faded leathers. His dark hair was lank and unkempt, and his beard was short and uneven-completely unlike the lush and well-cultivated facial hair of Dwarves, or even that of Gandalf.
As he watched, the Man first crawled to the edge of the water, and scooped some of it up, first to drink, and then to splash upon his face. Then he moved back to his pack which lay upon the ground near the blanket. He rummaged in it, and took something out. Then he drew a wicked-looking knife from a scabbard at his waist. It was a deadly looking thing, very nearly as long as Bilbo's Sting! The Man used it on the chunk, which Bilbo realized must be dried meat, and cut off a strip and began to chew, as he put away the knife. The campfire, which was small, and burnt to embers, he doused by rather awkwardly kicking dirt over it. He gathered and rolled the blanket, and moved stiffly to the horse, where he secured it behind the saddle.
The Man took the horse's reins, and began to lead it towards the Ford. Bilbo noticed that both Man and horse were limping.
Bilbo was shocked to see him lead his horse right into the water. Elrond had said that no evil could enter that Valley, yet this was obviously a dangerous brigand. It was a strange occurrence that he should be attempting to cross the Ford. Perhaps, thought Bilbo, the water would rise up and wash him away. He held his breath and bit his lip-it would be horrid, but only to be expected.
No. The Man made it across. He stumbled wearily as he splashed out of the river, and led his horse to the bank. He paused, and leaned against the animal tiredly, patting its neck. And then both horse and Man began to limp their way up the path that would lead towards the Last Homely House.
Bilbo swallowed, and watched, as the stranger vanished slowly around a curve in the path behind a copse of trees. Perhaps one Man, clearly injured, was not much of a threat to the Elves of Rivendell-but Bilbo remembered the dangerous look of him, and that long and glittering knife. He should try at least, to warn the Elves of the intruder into their midst. Normally, he would have stood no chance of doing so-the long-shanked Man would have easily outdistanced a small elderly hobbit. But Bilbo was fit and rested, and the Man was obviously injured and tired. If Bilbo proceeded at a trot, parallel to the path, he might be able to overtake him at least enough to offer a small warning.
He removed his pack and left it behind the boulder, lest it slow him down, and began to jog along, keeping to the north of the path, and far enough out, so that he might not be seen by this unsavory character. He was surprised when, glancing through the trees towards the path only a few moments later, he realized he had already drawn near the intruder. For a while, they kept pace with one another, all unknowing for the Man's part-and then, Bilbo had passed him. Perhaps this Man was no danger after all, being so weak and slow. But Bilbo would take no chances, and trotted on as quickly as he could. It would be a poor repayment to Master Elrond for his kindness to fail of warning him that a trespasser had entered his domain!
Still, after a while, he felt a stitch beginning in his side, and was forced to slow down. But he did not stop, and when he caught his breath once more, he increased his pace.
Finally, it was his stomach that did him in. He felt quite famished, and realized he had missed not only second breakfast, but elevenses, and from the look of the Sun overhead, possibly luncheon as well. He had begun to feel quite wobbly, when he heard the sound of bells, and realized he was hearing a party of Elves on horseback. Quickly, he regained his resolve, and with a second wind, he moved in that direction to encounter them.
He burst out of the undergrowth near the path almost directly in front of the Elves-fortunately Elven steeds are not easily startled, and these shied only enough to avoid trampling him.
"Master Baggins!" exclaimed one of the Elves, "What is wrong?"
Bilbo was still puffing a bit, and looked quite disheveled after his efforts. He looked up to see Lord Glorfindel, who had spoken, and behind him were Elladan and Elrohir, Elrond's sons, and a few other Elves whom he had not come to know well yet.
"Lord Glorfindel, there is a trespasser in the Valley! I saw a Man crossing the Ford! He looks quite wicked and dangerous!"
The Elves exchanged startled looks. "A Man, you say?" asked Elladan.
Bilbo nodded. "He seemed to be injured-he was limping and moving slowly, else I would never have been able to overtake him and give warning. A scruffy, dark-haired fellow with a knife as long as my arm…"
The twins gave one another alarmed looks, and then nodding to one another, instantly set off down the path toward the Ford.
Glorfindel dismounted. "Master Baggins, if you would, please ride back with me to deliver this news?" Without really waiting for Bilbo's answer, he lifted the startled hobbit up onto his horse's back, and quickly mounted behind him. There was no saddle, though the horse wore a beautifully tooled belled bridle, and Bilbo felt quite insecure at first. But as they headed back up the path, he soon realized he was as safe as could be in front of the mighty Elf, though they raced along at a gallop.
As they rode up in front of the house, Elrond came out.
"Glorfindel! Bilbo! Is there something wrong?"
Before Bilbo could answer, Glorfindel replied in a spate of Sindarin too rapid for Bilbo to follow, although he caught his own name and the words "ford", "hope" and "injured" and "twins". Then the Elf dismounted, and helped Bilbo down.
Elrond looked at the hobbit gravely. "Bilbo, I am most grateful to you for this news!"
Before Bilbo could reply, Elladan and Elrohir clattered up. One of them-Elladan, Bilbo thought, bore the intruder, unconscious, before him, while the other, who must be Elrohir, was leading the injured horse. Elladan gave his burden over to his father, who held the Man in his arms as easily as he would have a child.
"We found him collapsed upon the trail, Ada!"
"We shall take him to the infirmary immediately!" said Elrond, and they moved off rapidly.
Bilbo watched with wide eyes, and then turned to Glorfindel. "It is so very kind of Master Elrond to treat this stranger's injuries!"
Glorfindel looked down at Bilbo in amusement. "It is no stranger, Master Baggins. That is Master Elrond's foster son, Estel."
"Estel!" Bilbo gasped. "Hope" indeed! And suddenly Bilbo remembered another day long ago, on his return through Rivendell from his Adventure with the Dwarves, walking with Elrond, and espying a young child in the garden, playing at ball with one of the twins while a woman, clearly not an Elf, watched fondly. To Bilbo's curious question, Elrond had replied "That is Estel. I took him and his mother in when his father was killed. His father was a good Man and a friend." Elrond had not explained further, and Bilbo did not see the child again during his visit. Bilbo felt very foolish now.
"And here I thought he was a trespasser! I suppose my warning was very silly and unnecessary," he said with a crestfallen air.
"Oh no, my small friend," replied Glorfindel. "Without your news, poor Estel might have lain upon the path for hours, with none to know or tend his wounds. You did us a great favor, though not quite for the reason you originally supposed. And it was a brave deed to try and warn us of one you thought might be dangerous!"
Bilbo felt much better at this news, though still a bit foolish. He should have realized that the Man could not have entered the Valley without the blessing of the Elves. Just then his stomach rumbled loudly, and he blushed.
Glorfindel chuckled. "It sounds as though you have missed some meals today, Master Hobbit! Shall we pay a visit to the kitchens?"
Some hours later, Bilbo was back in his rooms, seated at his little desk, and writing up an account of his trip. He remembered his abandoned pack, and wondered if he could persuade one of the Elves to take him down to retrieve it. And he thought of Estel, and wondered how he fared.
Just then, there was a rap upon his door. He looked up, and called out "Come in!"
It was Elrond. Bilbo stood and gave a polite bow of the head.
"I want to thank you, Bilbo, for letting us know about Estel."
Bilbo blushed. "I am afraid that I thought I was letting you know something quite different," he chuckled ruefully.
Elrond gave him a kindly smile. "Well, of course you did. I am afraid my son's appearance would not have inspired confidence. But he has been long wandering in the Wild."
"Will he be all right?"
"Yes, he is going to be fine after he has had some rest, and he must stay off his feet for a few days. Would you like to meet him? He is most curious about you, for we told him of what you did."
"I certainly would like to meet him. I must say I am quite as curious about him. He must have an amazing story to tell!"
"I will leave it to him as to how much of his tale he cares to relate, my friend. But I think that you will like one another very well. He is fond of hobbits."
Bilbo's eyebrows rose in surprise at this pronouncement, for in his experience most of those who dwelt outside the Shire had no notion even of what a hobbit was, much less know enough of them to feel fond of them. But he said nothing, and merely followed his host.
Elrond led his small friend not to the infirmary, but towards the wing of the house where he and his immediate family dwelt. Bilbo was let into a light and airy room with wide windows facing south. In the bed lay the Man, propped up against pillows, and looking a bit pale. On a tray next to the bed were the remains of a meal.
He looked quite different and less dangerous than he had by the river. His beard was clean and trimmed, as was his hair, and he was wearing a fine linen nightshirt. He turned to his visitors with a smile, which lit his grim face up and made him look kindly, wise and warm.
"Hello, Ada." His eyes, however, were on Bilbo.
Elrond quirked a smile. "Good afternoon, my son. I am glad to see you looking so much better. I would like you to meet Master Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire, who has retired here to Rivendell and is now a treasured member of the household."
Bilbo gave a courteous bow. "At your service, and your family's" he said politely.
The Man gave a nod in return. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, at your service and your family's, Master Baggins."
Bilbo could not suppress an expression of shock, for he was well-versed in the history of the North, and he knew what those particular names must signify. He shot a look at Elrond, who nodded gravely.
Elrond moved into the room, and after placing a cushion on the chair that stood by the bed, he picked up the tray. "I shall leave the two of you to get acquainted, then. I hope that you will enjoy one another's company."
Bilbo clambered up to the seat provided, and studied the Man for a moment. "You are one of the Dúnadain," he said finally.
"Yes, I am." There was amusement twinkling in the Man's grey eyes.
"I hope your injury is not too troubling."
"I encountered a pack of Wargs on my way here. There were too many for me to slay, and in fleeing them, my horse and I took a tumble down a steep embankment. My injury was only slight to begin with, but as my horse was injured as well, I was forced to walk, which of course made my own injury worse. I am most grateful that your timely warning enabled my brothers to find me when I collapsed."
"I am sorry to say, I had no idea who or what you were. I thought-" Bilbo bit his lip, but then continued on with the painful truth-"I thought you were a brigand, you see."
The Man gave a hearty laugh. "I daresay I looked much like a brigand!" he grinned. "You are a most intrepid hobbit, Master Baggins! But then I know of the famous Bilbo and his deeds! I was very upset when I was a lad, and was not allowed to meet you. I was very vexed with Gandalf, Mithrandir, as I called him then."
"Oh! You are a friend of Gandalf's!"
"Indeed! I have been doing an errand for him, in fact, and was on my way here in hopes of sending a message to him. But I may not say more of that."
Bilbo nodded. One did not discuss a wizard's business when he was not present. Instead, he said, "Tell me about yourself, then. How did it come that one of the Men of the West should be raised in Rivendell, and call its lord 'Father'?"
The two were soon chatting companionably. Bilbo heard with interest much of Aragorn's story, and the Man encouraged him to speak of his home. As a Ranger he had spent much time guarding and observing the Shire. Bilbo found himself speaking with fondness of Frodo, whom he still sorely missed, and passing along bits of old Shire gossip that the Man seemed to have an interest in.
So well were they getting on that Bilbo was surprised to be interrupted by the entrance of Elrond. "I see that you are enjoying one another's company every bit as much as I thought you might. However, it has been a long day for you, Estel, and you need to take this draught. And Bilbo, it is very nearly time to dine."
Bilbo slid from the chair with alacrity, and bowing to his host and his new acquaintance, he bid them farewell.
That night, Bilbo did not go to the Hall of Fire. Instead, he returned to his own chambers, to write of his meeting with this amazing Man. And as he wrote, words seemed to come to him of their own, words that described one who hid his true and noble nature beneath the guise of a wandering vagabond. He dipped his quill, and began:
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all that wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows will spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."*
* From The Fellowship of the Ring Book I, Chapter X, "Strider"