Note: "Come Back to the Valley" and selected excerpts from "The Last Stage", The Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkien.
Epilogue: Here Down in the Valley
Spring had come to the Last Homely House. The shadows were lengthening and evening was falling as Elrond sat in his study, composing a letter to his daughter. Life in Imladris had at last returned to its wonted rhythms. Glorfindel and his host had come home, and Elladan and Elrohir were once again riding in the North, dispatching the lingering orc-hordes that had survived the battle at the Lonely Mountain. Only scant rumours had reached the Valley thus far regarding the events surrounding the downfall of Smaug, but already the folk of Rivendell were spinning songs to honour the victory of Gandalf's rag-tag band of adventurers. Even now, high in the forest, the wood-elves were singing:
The dragon is withered,
His bones are now crumbled;
His armour is shivered,
His splendour is humbled!
There was a soft knock at the door. Elrond set down his pen and sat back, smiling expectantly. 'Come,' he said.
The door opened and Estel peered around it. His breathing was laboured and his eyes were shining. 'Atarinya!' he exclaimed. 'Can you hear them?'
'Yes, Estel, I can hear them,' Elrond said, affecting a long-suffering expression. Inwardly he was laughing, revelling in the sight of his son. Over the winter Estel had recovered his full strength and vigour. The pallor was gone from his cheeks, and the shadows had faded from around his eyes. He would have regained his lost weight, save that he had spent it as swiftly as he had earned it as he achieved another inch and a half in height.
Though sword shall be rusted,
And throne and crown perish
'A scout just arrived downstairs,' Estel said breathlessly. Though is body was entirely healed there was a new look in his eyes; a new maturity. It was the wisdom that came with suffering. He was still a boy, but he was no longer a child. He now seldom suffered from nightmares, but when they came he would never complain. He was already developing calluses upon his heart, shielding himself from hurts and horrors that one so young should never have to bear. As much as it pained Elrond to think of such things, he knew that in the end such strength would serve him well. When the time came and he was again faced with the malice of the Enemy, he would be far better equipped to cope. It was a dreadful thought, but at the same time heartening. Not for naught had been the long months of misery.
With strength that men trusted
And wealth that they cherish,
'A scout? Indeed?'
Estel nodded eagerly. 'She said that Mithrandir has returned with the little one! The hobbit, I mean. They will reach the house soon!'
Elrond nodded. So Gandalf had returned at last. He had certainly taken his time about it: in the reckoning of the Shire it was the first of May. There were blossoms on the cherry trees, and the gardens were sprouting. Gilraen had been passing much of her time among the vegetables, tending them with care. As her kinsman had told Elladan, she needed occupation, and she seemed more contented now than she had in the nine years that Elrond had known her. At times he still spied a trace of jealousy in her eyes when Estel came to him with news of some accomplishment or other, but these incidents were increasingly rare.
'They shall have such stories,' Estel said wistfully. 'Atarinya, might I... may I... Glorfindel said that there was no harm in asking...'
Here grass is still growing,
And leaves are yet swinging,
The white water flowing,
And elves are yet singing
That, at least, remained unchanged. Estel's indomitable curiosity was as unconquerable as his courageous spirit. His thirst for learning had been rekindled with the return of uninterrupted sleep. He had started his first lessons in healing and the arts physic, and showed a marked aptitude for the subject. Furthermore, though he was still three years short of the age at which his father had first learned to hold a blade, it had been decided that the time was ripe for Estel to begin to study the art of swordplay. Glorfindel had been the chief proponent of this advancement of his education, and to Elrond's astonishment Gilraen had agreed. Estel had not progressed much beyond learning how to hold a blade, but he was taking to these new lessons as naturally as he took to a new tongue. Soon his slender arms would grow hard with lean muscle. His shoulders would become strong and sure, and his gentle hands would learn how to mete out death with relentless efficiency.
Come back to the Valley!
'You wish to know if you may join the rest of the household tonight,' Elrond said indulgently.
Estel nodded frenetically. 'I am quite healthy; I would not draw attention to myself. I would sit very quietly in the shadows. Even Erestor would not know that I was present!'
Elrond turned his face towards the window, looking pensively out into the clement twilight.
The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure:
The household would gather tonight to hear the wizard's tale. There were a great many unanswered questions, and Elrond realized for the first time that he had not asked Gandalf about his mishap in the mountains. In the haste and strain of the Council's move against the Necromancer there had been no time to talk of such things. Nor had they had any opportunity to debrief one another – and it was likely that Gandalf had news of the situation in Mirkwood now that Sauron was banished. Yes, there was much to discuss.
'Atarinya? Please?' Estel persisted, but his voice was more hesitant now. He no longer believed that consent would be forthcoming.
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?
Come back to the Valley!
It was a comfort to know that Estel still delighted in such simple things: a glimpse of a peculiar visitor, an evening in the Hall of Fire. He was growing up, but he was still young and merry. Elrond looked at his earnest expression as the hope began to waver in his eyes, and he smiled.
'Very well,' he said. 'You may join us tonight, and you need not trouble yourself to stay out of sight. I imagine both of our guests will have considerations beyond studying you.'
Joy illuminated Estel's face and he ran around the desk to embrace his father. 'Atarinya, thank you! I shall be sublimely well-behaved, I promise!'
O! Where are you going,
So late in returning?
The river is flowing,
The stars are all burning!
'I am pleased to hear it,' Elrond said, holding back the laughter that sparkled in his eyes. There was nothing that brought more delight into the world than the merriment of one's children. The dark portents of Estel's uncertain future faded from conscious thought as Elrond reached to straighten the boy's mantle. 'Please do not badger Mr Baggins tonight. He will be weary after his long journey over the mountains, and there will be time enough for your questions in the days to come.'
'Questions?' Estel echoed.
'If you do not believe that you will have questions, I cannot be so hopeful,' Elrond said with amusement. There was little harm in allowing Estel to speak with the hobbit. He could always ask Gandalf to intercede upon the matter of secrecy... 'All that I ask is that you refrain for a single night from interrogating our guest.'
'I mean: shall I be allowed to ask him questions? Shall I be allowed to speak to him?' pressed Estel.
Elrond nodded. 'I can see no harm in it. It would be cruel to deprive you, I think. You may never have another opportunity to converse so closely with one of his race.' The Little Folk distrusted Men in general. Rangers they would utterly revile.
O! Whither so laden,
So sad and so dreary?
Here elf and elf-maiden
Now welcome the weary
'Thank you!' Estel said eagerly. 'I promise I shall not make a nuisance of myself. I promise that I will not overburden him with questions. I promise—'
'Do not be so swift to make promises that you may not be able to keep,' Elrond laughed. 'At least when you were not sleeping through the night your tongue was curbed a little.'
Estel chuckled softly, shaking his head at the jibe. 'I have all of my life to be sedate and silent,' he teased. 'I am only young for a short while!'
'Yes,' Elrond said softly, and upon the backs of his eyelids there appeared an image of a tall, grim-faced man clad in weatherworn rags, a broken sword at his side and a look of dogged determination in his keen grey eyes. 'For a short while.'
'Then let us go!' Estel exclaimed gleefully, untroubled by such visions. He tugged at his father's hand. 'They will reach the house soon! We must hurry: it would never do for the master of the house to be late in greeting his guests!'
Come back to the Valley,
Elrond rose and followed his son. Together they descended the stairs and stepped out into the warm, fragrant evening, where the household was gathering to greet the two mounted figures drawing near beneath the beeches. Estel obediently stepped into the throng where he would not be so easily noticed, and Elrond strode forward as his guests reined in their mounts.
'Welcome!' he cried gladly, extending his arms in a gesture of greeting. 'Welcome once more to Rivendell! Welcome once more to the Last Homely House.'
Bilbo Baggins snorted and straightened a little: he had been half dozing in the saddle. 'Why thank you, certainly!' he blustered. 'Thank you, thank you! Though I must confess there were times when I never thought I'd pass this way again!'
'Come now, Mr Baggins,' Gandalf said as he dismounted; 'that's no way for a returning hero to talk. You must show the proper self-confidence!'
'Returning hero?' Glorfindel laughed. 'Tell us your tale, Mithrandir, and let us be the judge of who is a hero and who is not!'
There was general laughter, and Elrond held up his hand for peace. 'There will be plenty of time for tales,' he said. 'First let us sup: I daresay you could use a break from camp-fare.'
'Oh, yes please!' Bilbo said eagerly, rousing considerably at the prospect. 'I've dreamed of your tables many a time since we left!'
This elicited more noises of mirth, and the assembly migrated into the house. Elrond sought out Estel with his eyes, enjoying the avid look upon the boy's face as he studied the smaller of the guests. It occurred to him that tonight represented the end of a long and bitter year, and the dawn of a new and prosperous one. The dragon was slain and the treasure regained. The Necromancer was gone from the Greenwood, and soon the mountains would be safe again for a time. Estel was healed, wiser and stronger for his ordeal, and the Valley was jolly once more.
Bilbo was eager to return home, and not even the hospitality of the Elves could induce him to tarry long. After only a week, it was decided that he and Gandalf should set out on the last leg of their journey. The household gathered to see them off with song and laughter, and their mounts picked their way up the steep slopes. It was a blustery day, and the clouds hung low. As they left Rivendell behind the rain began to fall.
'Merry is May-time!' said Bilbo, squinting against the driving shower. 'But our back is to legends and we are coming home. I suppose this is the first taste of it.'
'There is a long road yet,' said Gandalf.
'But it is the last road,' said Bilbo.
They rode in silence for a while as the path wound down the hillside. Presently Gandalf slowed his horse, and fell into step beside the hobbit's plump pony.
'Speaking of legends,' he said; 'I imagine you will have quite the tale to tell when you return to the Shire.'
'Dragon-treasure, wood-elves, mighty warriors – I daresay that I will!' Bilbo said happily. He could already envision sitting by his fire and relating his adventures to his friends and relations. 'Why, I shall be telling this story for years to come!'
'Well, then, there is something we need to discuss, and I think it would be best to do it now, while we are still under the watchful eyes of Elrond's folk,' the wizard said gravely.
'Oh. All right,' said Bilbo, suddenly uneasy. He wondered what on earth could be so important in this late stage of their adventure that it had to be said while there were Elves about to guard them.
'I noticed you were growing quite friendly with Master Elrond's son.'
'Young Estel? Oh, yes: he's a delightful lad!' Bilbo remarked happily. If that was all that Gandalf wanted to say, he was quite content. Certainly the Elf-lord had not seemed to mind his association with the youth. 'It never occurred to me that Elves might have children, but I suppose they must come from somewhere: they don't just spring up out of the grass like tulips, do they?'
'Indeed they do not,' Gandalf said coolly. 'Now listen to me, and listen carefully, Mr Baggins. Elrond will not take kindly to having his family made the subject of gossip from Brandy Hall to Michel Delving. When you tell your tale, keep the boy out of it. Entirely out of it, do you understand me?' Gandalf fixed Bilbo with a very stern gaze indeed. 'If I hear tell of any rumour of your encounter with the young son of Elrond, you will find me most disagreeable to deal with. I am terrible in my wrath, and you do not want to test me on this.'
Bilbo was startled by the commanding light in the wizard's eyes. 'I—I understand,' he squeaked. 'Of course I understand. I would never want to insult Master Elrond. I won't say anything about the child: I promise.'
Gandalf's expression softened considerably. 'See that you don't,' he said. Then he clicked his tongue and his horse picked up its pace.
After a moment, Bilbo went on, talking more to himself than to his travelling companion. 'Of course dwarves, and dragons, and trolls, and goblins, and daring escapes from underground dungeons are one thing: they come into all sorts of stories. But a handsome young boy, eleven years old and already a head taller than me, who speaks Elvish like a prince, as pretty as you please, and who beat me at quoits?' He chuckled to himself, shaking his head ruefully. 'Why, no one would ever believe me!'
(Or, as the Shire-folk have it)