THE VAULT OF ANNÚMINAS

For an explanation as to why Aragorn is known in this series as "Estel", and uses the nickname "little one" for Frodo, please refer to "Quarantined" chapter 11.

This chapter references "Quarantined" chapter 16, "Reflections of the Past" chapters 2 and 6, and "When the King Comes Back" chapter 14.

DISCLAIMER: Professor Tolkien's wonderful characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night.

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Chapter 1: An Elven Encounter

"They are fair and gallant as Elven-lords; and that is not to be wondered at in the sons of Elrond of Rivendell." 'The Passing of the Grey Company', The Return of the King

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Aragorn awoke to the familiar sound of Arthad cropping grass nearby, and a less familiar rustling very close to him. He tensed, then opened his eyes to behold three pairs of eyes watching him closely. As he moved slightly, two of the creatures scurried backwards, while the third – bigger than the others but still tiny, as dogs are measured – dashed forward and began to lick his face rather enthusiastically.

"Did they wake you, Mr. Estel? I'm sorry, sir, but we didn't expect to find you sleepin' here." Sam patted Arthad, standing next to a horse he didn't recognize. A long bow and an elaborately-decorated quiver full of arrows lay on the grass near Aragorn's pack.

"No need to apologize, Sam," Aragorn said, sitting up. "I had not planned to be sleeping here. Bilbo and Frodo do not expect me, and we arrived too late last night to feel comfortable knocking on their door." He gave Sam a hug. "How have you been?"

"Fine," Sam grinned, wondering who else was with the Ranger. He looked around, but saw no one. "We've got some new piglets, and the fruit trees are fairly burstin'. We're hard-pressed to keep up with all the plums and peaches."

Patch and Blossom had slowly approached again, and now felt brave enough to inspect Aragorn's bootlaces, twin tails wagging in excitement.

"They have have grown a bit, I see," Aragorn smiled.

Sam whistled, and the pups came obediently to his side. "They probably don't remember you, Mr. Estel," he laughed, "but they surely enjoyed your gift! It was awfully nice of you to remember 'em."

"It was a pleasure to be part of their adoption, even though I could not be here myself." Aragorn shook out his bedroll. "I see that you have them very well trained."

"Had to," Sam said proudly. "I promised my Gaffer they wouldn't be diggin' up the gardens or gettin' into too much mischief, and I'd never go back on a promise."

"I cannot imagine that you would." Aragorn suddenly peered at the boy curiously. "Why are you out here with Scamp, Sam? Are Frodo and Bilbo away?"

"No sir, they're home right enough. It's just that Mr. Bilbo's been sick, and Mr. Frodo's plumb worn out from lookin' after him. Not that he minds, just the opposite, but he hasn't got much rest, so I brought Scamp out with the pups this mornin' to let 'em both sleep."

Aragorn looked concerned. "How ill is Bilbo?"

"Oh, he's much better," Sam assured him. "It was just a bad cold, Mistress Brownlock said. She says he'll be right as rain in a few more days."

"I am glad to hear it," Aragorn said. "I am quite fond of Bilbo, and I know Frodo must worry when he's ill."

"He has been," Sam nodded. "He thinks the world of Mr. Bilbo." He eyed the beautiful chestnut-colored stallion. "Whose horse is this, sir?"

"You may come down," Aragorn called out unexpectedly, looking up into the enormous tree under which they were standing. "Slowly, my brother. Do not startle my young friend."

The leaves shook very gently, then a pair of long legs emerged from the upper branches. A slender form jumped lightly to the ground, and stood before Sam.

"Samwise Gamgee, this is Elladan," Aragorn said. Sam was staring so hard, the boy's eyes seemed about to pop out of his head. "It is all right, Sam; he won't bite."

An Elf! Sam thought in utter amazement. Right here in front of me!

"I am pleased to meet you," Elladan said, bowing slightly.

"A. . . at your service," Sam stuttered, bowing in turn. The Elf seemed to him as tall as a young tree. His voice was soft, and his eyes were the same clear grey as the Ranger's. Unable to stop himself, he reached up and shyly took Elladan's hand. "Are you an Elf, sir?"

"I am," Elladan said. He knelt and smiled at the hobbit.

"Why did Mr. Estel call you 'my brother'?"

Elladan hesitated, unsure how to answer the lad's frank question. He knew that Aragorn had shared with Bilbo Baggins a great deal of information about his true identity, and that Bilbo's ward, Frodo, knew somewhat less; however, there was much about his foster-brother that should remain hidden from everyone else.

"I grew up around Elves, Sam," Aragorn said simply. "I have always considered Elladan as a brother."

"A real Elf," Sam whispered. He suddenly released Elladan's hand, his eartips reddening in embarrassment as he realized his boldness.

"Will you introduce me to your pups?" Elladan asked, trying to distract the lad from his curiosity about Aragorn.

With a huge smile, Sam reached down to pet the twins.

"This is Patch, and this one's Blossom," he said proudly. "Scamp, over there, is their ma. She belongs to Mr. Frodo."

"Ah, I have heard much about the clever and courageous Scamp," Elladan said. He watched as Arthad greeted Scamp, touching his friend with her nose. His own mount, Romaryn, peered curiously down at the tiny creature. Elladan pulled some strips of dried venison from a pouch at his waist and lay them on the ground, drawing all three of the dogs over to investigate.

"Sam, is it too early for us to go up to Bag End?" Aragorn asked. "There is something I wish to discuss with Frodo."

Tearing his eyes away from Elladan's face with difficulty, Sam looked up the Hill and shook his head.

"The kitchen chimney's smokin', so Mr. Frodo's no doubt gettin' breakfast ready for him and Mr. Bilbo," Sam said. "You go on up; they'll be happy to see you. You can take Scamp, if that's all right. I should head home and get to the rest of my chores."

"Of course it is all right," Aragorn smiled. He picked up his pack, and Elladan lifted his bow and quiver from the ground.

"Fare well, Samwise," Elladan said softly.

"And. . . and you, sir," Sam stammered. A real Elf. Still somewhat dazed, he watched the Ranger and the Elf stride up the lane towards Bag End, Scamp frisking at their heels.

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"Estel!"

The look on the halfling's face was that of utter joy, and Elladan was pleased to see Aragorn greeted so warmly. The blue-eyed youngster who opened the door flung himself into Aragorn's waiting arms, and his foster-brother's face shone with the same happiness as the child. This boy was taller than the lad they had met earlier, with darker hair and more delicate features.

"I am happy to see you," Aragorn said, laughing at the exuberance of the hug. "I would like to introduce you to someone. Frodo, this is--"

Frodo gasped, stepping back from where Aragorn knelt in front of him. He looked up at Elladan in embarrassment.

"Please forgive me, sir. Frodo Baggins, at your service and your family's."

"I am honored," Elladan said, kneeling next to Aragorn. "I am Elladan of Rivendell. And I believe you have already been of great service to my family, Frodo Baggins; Estel is my kin."

"Truly?" Frodo asked curiously, then frowned suddenly. "El... adan? 'Elf man'?"

"Indeed," Elladan nodded. "You know Sindarin, Frodo?"

"Just a bit," Frodo said, blushing. "Bilbo taught me a little, and I have Estel's copy book."

"Yes, I heard that he gifted you with that," Elladan said. He is known to them as Estel; I will enjoy using that name once more. "Estel worked many long months copying each word, and greatly valued that book."

Not as greatly as I value the one to whom I gifted it, Aragorn thought, gazing fondly at Frodo.

"I can see that I am not the first Elf you have met," Elladan continued, intrigued with this young one. Whereas Samwise had looked at him with wonder and disbelief, Frodo's gaze was more that of delight and great interest.

"No," Frodo replied. "Estel brought an Elf named Arminas for a visit, just after we adopted Scamp; his dwelling is to the west, beyond the Tower Hills."

"You brought Arminas to the Shire?" Elladan asked Aragorn. "Why?"

"With Bilbo and Frodo's permission, I will show you something later that will explain it," Aragorn told him. "Bag End conceals something quite unique."

"I'm so glad to see you, Estel," Frodo said fervently. "Did Bilbo know you were coming?"

"No," Aragorn said. "When I received your letter, I was anxious to speak with you as soon as possible. I met Elladan on the road near Bree, and he wished to accompany me."

"My letter?" Frodo asked, puzzled. "The last one I sent you?"

"Yes." Aragorn looked closely at the boy's face, gently brushing a bit of flour off his nose. "You look tired, little one," he said softly.

"I am," Frodo admitted. "Bilbo's been sick."

"We met Sam in the field where we left the horses, and he told us about it. I'm sure you've helped care for Bilbo very well," Aragorn said. "Tell me--"

"Oh, you must think I have no manners at all," Frodo cried out suddenly. "Here you are, both still standing – well, kneeling – on the doorstep, when you could be inside, washing up and having a good breakfast."

"You always think I need washing up," Aragorn chuckled. He got to his feet, as did Elladan.

"And I'm always right," Frodo grinned. "Please come in, both of you. Bilbo will be so delighted."

TBC