Secrets and Lies
It seemed that they had been cursed to live in very interesting times. So much for manageable, Gilraen thought to herself.
They were all doomed.
"I-" Gilraen started to say, "Bilbo, you-" The Ranger shook her head, wordless.
"Is anything we know about you the truth?" Arathorn asked at last, his head still bowed. He looked up, his face pinched and his lips tight. "What are we to you, then, that you thought you could trust nothing to us?"
Bilbo blinked rapidly, his eyes wide. He looked to Fortinbras, who shook his head his head.
Gilraen bit her lip until it drew blood, the rage, helpless and frustration of the past week surging through her veins. "Tell us," she urged, "we wish to know. When we fought together, back to back, thinking we were all going to die, you said you trusted us with your life. Was that a lie?"
Bilbo raised his hands in a gesture of peace, a look of horror on his face. "Of course I trust you!" he said. "But my life is worth so much less than my secrets, and I did not want to risk yours."
Gilraen laughed in response to this, a sharp, harsh noise, while Arathorn just glared. "That is what a unit is, hobbit," she said, shaking her head , her emotions a mix of rage and bitterness. She stood, and Arathorn stood with her.
Fortinbras was beginning to look alarmed by their exchange. Good, Gilraen thought savagely. He hadn't trusted them with the truth either, or at least not enough to go against Bilbo's wishes. Fortinbras had probably only agreed to speak to Bilbo out of guilt from before.
"I don't want to talk to either of you right now," Gilraen stated flatly. "Don't follow us." She turned and strode into the growing darkness, Arathorn a silent shadow at her right.
Gilraen headed in the direction she had taken earlier, remembering a fallen log that would be comfortable to sit on. She lapped the blood from her lips, her fists still clenched. The silence lasted only until they reached their destination.
"How could he have-" Arathorn demanded, gesturing in frustration.
"I don't know," Gilraen said. She sat heavily, blinking at the surrounding trees.
"If he had - done this all before - then why, why would he have not at least warned us about the coup - " Arathorn cut himself off here, swallowing.
Gilraen slowly shook her head. They had been used, she thought. Convenient swords and shields and not much else. That Bilbo had only spoken the truth when they were no longer capable of leaving him - of betraying his secret - said much.
"Months, months we've known each other now," Arathorn added finally, " through war and fire and death, carnivorous trees and barrow-wights - and then to be kidnapped, and to hear of Galador's betrayal, Grandfather, and, and-"
"And he never breathed a word of any of it," Gilraen finished dully.
Arathorn seated himself next to her and they slumped together until their shoulders touched.
"Now what do we do?" Arathorn eventually asked. "If... if we aren't even a unit, then..."
Then what was the point of continuing their acquaintance? And an acquaintanceship it was, instead of the friendship they thought it had been. Friends did not lie about something this big, nor use another so. The affection between the four of them might have been real, but there could be no true friendship with neither trust nor respect. And the hobbits did not trust them with the truth, not even when it could have saved them so much grief, and they certainly did not respect them even enough to explain why...
Could Bilbo, could Fortinbras, truly have sought to use them? If they had just told us that there were matters they could not discuss, we would have accepted their word. We could have investigated Galador, uncovered the conspirators, saved Chief Argonui... He didn't have to die.
Gilraen stared at her hands for a long moment. "They came for us, when we needed them to," she said at last. "And Fortinbras, at least, wanted to tell us. He bullied Bilbo into it, after all. Possibly... Possibly, they did not know the truth of Galador, or your grandfather. Certainly that did not know that we would be captured."
Perhaps they had been told only out of pity and guilt and fear that the two bumbling humans would raise too many suspicions for the hobbits to deal with, but it was still something, at least.
Arathorn exhaled slowly. "So, we go back, then?" he asked quietly.
Gilraen raised her head to look at him. "What choice do we have?" she replied.
The two of them could survive on their own for a while, but without a map and coin of their own they would not last the year. And that is to say nothing of the schemes of our enemies... There were Rangers stationed all across Eriador, and no matter where she and Arathorn chose to stay the two of them would be discovered before long. Cirdan's realm was truly the safest for them, at least on the west side of the Misty Mountains. It was farther than most Dunedain would be willing to tread.
Arathorn let out a sharp bark of laughter. "Elbereth," he said, his voice wavering. "It all comes at once, doesn't it?"
Gilraen snorted at that. "It certainly seems so," she said with fell humor. "I know I have said it before, but this was most definitely not what I was expecting when we left the Angle."
The minutes rolled past and the Ranger let her eyes fall shut, focusing on keeping her breathing calm. The forest and her friend's company worked to slowly leech her rage away, leaving a cold pit of anxiety in its place. She did not want to think such things of Bilbo and Fortinbras. She did not. Gilraen discretely lifted her sleeve to wipe the gathering moisture from her eyes.
Intellectually, she knew that there was nothing stopping her from marching back to where the hobbits were and demanding the true reason why Bilbo had kept this from them. But - she feared the answer. And if she knew Arathorn at all, he felt the same. After all, Captain Galador had been their mentor, not so long ago. And if he was capable of such betrayal...
A hand gripped Gilraen's shoulder then and she looked towards its owner. Arathorn met her eyes, though he had to blink many times to hold the watering of his own at bay.
"We are alive, and whole," her old friend said. "Surely that counts for something." He took a deep breath before slowly exhaling. "Bounders are not like Rangers, and hobbits are not Dunedain. They knew nothing of units when they joined ours, and they know but a little now." Arathorn's voice was rueful as he spoke.
"Are you saying that you...?" Gilraen prompted, her voice trailing off.
Arathorn shook his head. "I still quite angry with them, but... perhaps..." He swallowed. "If they truly did not know of the coup - I do not see why - we - would not have told Bilbo of the matter, though I could say the same of the Ranger way of operating in a unit. I suppose our group would have been parted after the invasion was routed, but..." but they still would have kept in contact, in letter if by nothing else, he did not say.
"Perhaps it came to nothing, without either of us having known of it," Gilraen said uneasily. Of course, if Bilbo truly had been ignorant of the matter, it could have also been because...
Well. As certain as death was to a mortal, one did not often like to think on the matter at length. Particularly when the deaths in question involved oneself and one's closest friend. Gilraen was no different.
Arathorn slowly shook his head. "I do not see how our presence or absence would affect matters in such a way," he said.
They were silent for a long moment. Whatever the answer to that particular question might have been, it was probably better not to ask about it. Better to focus on something else.
"What do you think Bilbo was doing on a ship to the undying lands?" she asked eventually, for lack of anything better. "And how did that bring him back to his... youth?" And turn his... world... to nothing?
Arathorn looked at her. "That is the part of his tale that concerns you? Not the dragon, nor the Necromancer, who, apparently, has spies even in the wilds of Eriador?" He frowned suddenly. "This is the same Necromancer that drove the hobbits out of their old homeland east of the mountains?" he asked.
Gilraen blinked at that. "I suppose," she said slowly. "I did not ask."
Arathorn chewed his lips. "If so," he said, choosing his words carefully, "then he is their ancient foe, as the Dark Lord is ours."
Gilraen sat up straight, ice jolting through her veins. She had not thought of that. "Do you think that's why the Shire was invaded?" she asked uncertainly.
Arathorn nodded. "Possibly," he said a bit more firmly. "The Necromancer is said to command all sorts of foul beasts, and orcs are the least of them. He might have wanted to finish his work."
"But why would he move against the hobbits now, of all times?" Gilraen asked, dismayed. Much time had passed since the last time the Necromancer had menaced the hobbits - they had moved west more than a century before Arnor's fall, and that had happened more than a thousand years ago.
Arathorn shook his head. "The Greenwood is failing," he said, "and the Misty Mountains are overrun. The orcs grow stronger daily." He frowned. "Long have the Rangers defended what remains of Arnor, but if the Necromancer is aware of the dissent within our ranks..."
The ice in Gilraen's veins reached her heart and her eyes flew open. "You think he knows about the coup?" she demanded.
"Given what Bilbo has shared, it seems... probable," Arathorn answered, looking to the side. "It would certainly answer a few questions if he did."
"I can't imagine even rogue Dunedain would have any dealings with orcs..." Gilraen said with unease, remembering the written accounts of the survivors of the Dunedain kingdom of Rhudaur. Of the corruption that had allowed the Witch King to conquer and occupy their lands. Of those who had neither fled nor been killed, but had instead turned to his will. "However..." she began.
"It has happened before," Arathorn continued, his face grim.
Gilraen's lips twisted. "And it could certainly happen again," she finished.
They sat in silent commiseration for some time afterwards.
Eventually something terrible occurred to Gilraen and she frowned. "If it was the Necromancer who was responsible for the invasion, then... Do you suppose that the dragon Bilbo mentioned, Smaug... Do you suppose he attacked the Shire in Bilbo's... world?" And that was why Bilbo came... back?
Arathorn choked, his eyes going wide. He swung his head around to stare at Gilraen. "I certainly hope not," he exclaimed in horror.
Both of them contemplated the idea of the Shire in flames while the rest of Eriador was invaded by orcs and goblins and other fell things. That image was enough to decide them. They stood up, and headed back for camp.
It was fully dark when the two Rangers returned. Both hobbits were still awake, the campfire and their fretful pacing casting strange shadows on the trees around them.
Fortinbras was the first to notice them, and he shook Bilbo's shoulder to get his attention. The two hobbits looked up at the both of them, wide-eyed and anxious.
It was Arathorn who broke the silence. "You should have told us before," he said grimly. "During our stay in the Old Forest, at least, if not earlier. And you must be honest with us from now on, if we are to forgive you and trust you once more. If your enemy is as terrible as you say then we understand that you cannot tell us everything - but say that, at least, and do not invent an excuse."
Bilbo nodded quickly at Arathorn's words, while Fortinbras slumped in relief.
"You still have some explaining to do," Gilraen said. "And you can begin with, the, ah-" she trailed off, exchanging a glance with Arathorn.
"The dragon," Arathorn said, wincing. "What... did he, ah, do?"
"Ah, Smaug," Bilbo said. He swallowed. "Besides taking Erebor, you mean?" he asked. "Well, before the dragon was killed he managed to destroy Laketown. Thankfully, the humans there had a superior archer among them. He shot Smaug down before too many lives could be taken."
"So he didn't attack the Shire, then," Arathorn said, sounding much cheered. "Did the Necromancer manage to invade Eriador?"
Bilbo blinked at him several times. "Err, somewhat," he said. "Your folk and the elves were enough to hold the Misty Mountains - Erebor had been retaken before that and they, the Iron Hills, New Dale and the Greenwood held much of his might on the eastern side. Gondor, Rohan and Lothlorien did the rest."
"It wasn't some terrible disaster, then?" Gilraen asked, wishing to make certain.
"It was no where near as bad as it could have been," Bilbo answered, sounding bewildered.
"Was the Necromancer defeated?" Arathorn added.
"Well, yes-" Bilbo said. "I can't tell you how, exactly, you understand-"
Then why- Gilraen's brow crinkled in puzzlement, and she exchanged a glance with Arathorn. "Then how... why would you have returned to your past if there was no need?" she asked.
At this, Bilbo sighed, shadows creeping under his eyes. In that moment he almost seemed as old as he claimed to be. "The Valar are not always kind," he said.
Arathorn straightened. "You said you were... on a ship to the undying lands?" He exchanged a glance with Gilraen. The question of howand why a hobbit would be there went unasked. Bilbo would probably refuse to tell them, anyway.
"I was," Bilbo nodded. He paused a while before continuing, hesitation writ large upon his features. "However, I died before reaching my destination."
Fortinbras looked up at this sharply.
Gilraen stared off into the distance. She had never before heard of anyone dying on the Straight Road before, much less a hobbit. Mortals were not allowed at all, and she could not begin to guess at the consequences of such a thing. "Was that how...?"
"According to Bombadil and Goldberry, yes," Bilbo answered with a nod.
"But, if the world was going well, why would the Valar...?" Arathorn blinked.
Bilbo sighed. "Unbeknownst to all of us who sailed, they apparently consider hobbits to be the same as humans, and banned us from venturing there as well," he said. "I was not the only hobbit among our party: my nephew also sailed. And he did not die before reaching our destination. The Valar were not... pleased by his arrival."
"Ah," said Gilraen. She winced. "How, ah, bad was their reaction?"
Bilbo swallowed. "To the point where the world could not endure..." he answered, trailing off. "Goldberry said it was best that I did not know, but I can guess at any rate."
"Why would the Valar not have warned you, if they so objected to your presence?" Arathorn demanded. "The last time they acted against the world, it was to destroy a conquering and corrupt nation and those who refused to stand against it - a hobbit merely setting foot on the undying lands is not nearly the same thing!"
If Mandos had truly considered the hobbits to be the same as a human then Bilbo's nephew should have merely been struck dead, Gilraen thought. Not... not that.
"I do not know," Bilbo said, looking up at the two humans. He shook his head. "It was naught but chance that sent me back, and when I came the world behind me was unmade. Gandalf himself did not remember what had transpired in the time Before - he is but a Maia, but he is powerful among them - and if he does not remember..."
"You do not believe that the Valar remember, either," Gilraen said. But then how would Bombadil and Goldberry know? she wondered. And what were they that they could remember when one of the Maiar could not?
Bilbo threw up his hands. "There may be no answers beyond those I have already discovered," he said.
Fortinbras blinked. "Wait, wait - so, Eriador was invaded by the Necromancer, you died, the world was destroyed, the Valar were responsible for it - but, but Gandalf is a what?"
"One of the Maiar, or, the lesser Ainur," Arathorn answered. "It is not common knowledge, even among the Dunedain and the elves," he offered hesitantly.
Fortinbras turned his head first to one side, then to the other. "You mean to tell me," he said slowly, "that the old wizard who peddles fireworks in the Shire, Grandfather's old friend who delights in turning hobbits to mischief and adventure, who goes wandering about the countryside both looking and smelling thoroughly unkempt is one of the powers of the world?"
"Yes," Arathorn said with a nod and a twitch of his lips. "Bilbo told you none of this?" he asked.
Fortinbras glared at his cousin. "No," he said.
"Err," said Bilbo. "You know now?" he volunteered.
Fortinbras sighed and rubbed at his temples. "Cousin," he said, "sometimes I do not know what to do with you."
Arathorn snorted at this while Gilraen looked off to the side, her lips quirked. So Bilbo wasn't just like that with them, then. That was good to know.
Gilraen chewed on her bottom lip. She was curious about the answer to her next question, for it would reveal at least some of the extent to which the hobbits had lied to them. "You aim to destroy the dragon and defeat the Necromancer, yes?" she asked. "Why, then, are you traveling to the Grey Havens, if your enemy lies in the east?"
Bilbo exchanged a glance with Fortinbras. He grimaced. "I was traveling with a caravan of dwarves, when I first faced the dragon," the hobbit explained. "They sought to re-take their home from the beast and needed me to, ahem, retrieve a particular jewel from Smaug's horde in order to do so. Apparently the other dwarf clans had sworn an oath on it, to come to the holder's aid when asked. The leader of the dwarves wished to reclaim that jewel, the Arkenstone, and force the clans to uphold that oath - to send out armies and defeat Smaug."
Arathorn blinked in realization. "The dwarves of Erebor now dwell in the Blue Mountains," he said.
"Yes," Bilbo nodded. "As does Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King under the Mountain. I believe you remember the dwarf from Bree?"
The Rangers choked. "The smith we hired was an exiled king...?" Arathorn asked, once he had recovered.
Bilbo smirked. "Indeed," he said.
"A dwarf king made your armor?" Gilraen asked in astonishment.
Fortinbras frowned. "I don't see what's so exciting about a king-in-exile," he muttered. "Arathorn is one, after all. Or a prince-in-exile, at least."
"He's a dwarf king!" Arathorn protested. "From Erebor!"
Gilraen blinked, remembering the scene from the inn, which already seemed like so long ago. "You knew him from before," she said slowly. "It is no wonder you looked at him so strangely."
Bilbo's lips twisted. "Thorin was a harsh dwarf, but an honorable one, at least before the gold madness struck," he answered. "Our -my- actions awakened the dragon, and, unable to strike at us directly, Smaug destroyed Laketown before he was struck down by Bard the Bowman. The Elvenking Thranduil sent aid to the humans, but the elves of the Greenwood have never been wealthy and they were already fighting a war on two fronts. There was not much that they could spare."
"With the winter coming on, the humans were set to starve unless they were able to purchase food from the south. So they went to the mountain to learn of our fates and see if they could recover the treasury of Dale. The Elvenking and his guards accompanied them. Thorin..." Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut. Despite committing the tale to pen and paper, he had never quite gotten used to telling this part of his story. "Thorin was greatly angered by their presumption, and refused them. They, in turn, decided to just starve us out."
Gilraen listened, her eyes wide. Arathorn gripped her hand, and she squeezed tightly.
"Of course, what they did not know was that an army of dwarves was arriving from the Iron Hills to help defend the Lonely Mountain against interlopers. We were all headed for a terrible battle and - over what? A pile of gold and jewels? I was not... particularly happy with the dwarves' decision. I had already found the Arkenstone some time beforehand and, seeing the madness descend upon my companions, had told no one of it. And so, in the dead of night, I crept away from the mountain and entered the encampment of the humans and elves and offered them the Arkenstone itself."
"'Take it,' I implored them. 'And use it to bargain for your share of the treasure. The heart of the mountain is the heart of Thorin Oakenshield as well, and he values it above a river of gold.' They accepted, and, though the Elvenking feared for my safety, I returned to the mountain to face the judgment of the dwarves. I barely escaped with my life." Bilbo shook his head at the memory.
"It all came to naught, of course: orcs, goblins and wargs invaded, seeking the treasure and revenge against the dwarves. The armies all fought together against their common foe. Thorin was badly wounded in the battle, and his nephews and heirs fell defending him. He apologized to me upon his deathbed, having come to repent for the destruction his madness had nearly wrought." Bilbo's lips quirked in fell humor at the memory.
"The Thorin Oakenshield that we met is not the same as the Thorin I once knew," Bilbo said finally. "So I bear no grudge against him. But, all the same... It is not an experience that I can ever forget."
Gilraen swallowed. "No, I imagine not," she said.
"Then, your aim in the Blue Mountains...?" Arathorn asked eventually, his question trailing off.
Bilbo shook his head. "There are... several items that will make gaining access to Smaug's cavern easier. If I am lucky, then the dwarves still carry them. If not, then I will simply have to go without. In either case I do not intend to inform Thorin as to my plans. There is also, of course, the matter of the Necromancer... He was felled by an item of magic - I know of its location, but it will be exceptionally difficult to retrieve. It is my hope that I might find something in the Havens that I can use to gain access to it."
"So, you do not have uncles living there, then?" Gilraen asked.
"We did," Fortinbras answered. "Though we have not heard of them for some time."
Both Gilraen and Arathorn nodded at that bit of news.
"And your arranged marriage," Arathorn asked of Fortinbras, "was that true as well?"
Fortinbras winced. "Yes, Father engaged me to Lalia Clayhanger!" he said. "And I would prefer a lifetime of hunting goblins and orcs over marrying that harpy! Even the dragon is better!"
"Oh," Gilraen breathed. The hobbits were being honest, before, then. Or, honest to some extent, at least. Time would tell the extend of the damage. "Good. I would hate to think that you had our sympathy for nothing."
Fortinbras only huffed at her in reply.
"And the elven friend you told us of, back when we first met," Arathorn asked of Bilbo. "Was he...?"
Bilbo smiled. "He was Lord Elrond, of Rivendell," the hobbit said. "And I first met him on my quest with the dwarves. I lived in his house for nearly twenty years, near the end of my life, and he was my good friend for all of them. We sailed together, when the time came."
The hobbit looked up at the two humans, then, utter sincerity shining through his eyes. "Everything I told you about myself was true, in some form or another," he said. "Do not doubt that."
Gilraen grimaced at his words, wishing that she could believe him.
Actions spoke so much louder anyhow.
3.5k+ words of angry teary-eyed Rangers, awkward explanations and jumping to conclusions... Why brain, whhhhhyyy? And, did you guys think the Rangers were going to take the news well? Heh, no. They've been kidnapped, betrayed by their mentor, found out that one of their parental figures was murdered by said mentor and then Bilbo and Fortinbras go and drop a bombshell on them. And yet, this reaction is still far better than if they had found out on their own... And yes, the Rangers can tell that something was a bit fishy with Bombadil and Goldberry's explanation of Bilbo's time-travel... (Don't you just love it when I smile at your questions and then purposefully misdirect you? Bilbo had to get it from somewhere :D)
Silmarillion-stuff: Rhudaur, along with Cardolan and Arthedain, was one of the splinter-kingdoms of Arnor. Rhudaur was composed of a small population of Dunedain and a larger population of Hillmen. (Of course, they had a Dunedain king... *Cough* colonialism *cough*) Supposedly Angmar offered power to one of the leaders of the Hillmen if he would be willing to oust the old order - he did, and Rhudaur was afterwards an ally of Angmar. Most of the Dunedain there were killed or fled, but I imagine some (likely those who married Hillmen or were part Hillman or were especially friendly towards them) probably stayed. And ended up working for the new order.
Chapter last edited on 2/23/14. You will see the Rangers' reaction making much more sense, and the scenes flowing together much more smoothly. This was so very, very painful to write. And I really, really need a beta. Or something.