Voices at the Door

by Rhymer (Eildon Rhymer/rhymer23)

Bilbo spent nineteen years in Rivendell, as both he and the world changed. This is those nineteen years charted in scenes between Bilbo and Aragorn, plus occasional letters that remained unsent.

This story was inspired by Through Other Eyes, the 1000 word story I wrote for the October Lord of the Rings Community challenge. In that story, Aragorn bought comfort to Bilbo in Rivendell by painting him a word picture of the Shire. It was clear that this was an established tradition between them.

I wanted to write more, but I was reluctant to undermine that first story. Needless to say, the Muse won, so this, here, is that expanded story, covering the whole period of Bilbo's years in Rivendell, telling it in snapshots and short scenes, most of them between Bilbo and Aragorn. You do not have to read Through Other Eyes to understand this; this story starts several years earlier. Conversely, you do not need to read this story to understand Through Other Eyes. Think of Through Other Eyes as a missing scene from this story, that can stand perfectly well by itself.

There are fourteen scenes, and about 16,000 words. Since years pass sometimes between the scenes, I think it suits serial posting, but there will be no long delays. The whole story will be posted within a week. There are no cliffhangers, and each scene can stand on its own.

Voices at the Door

I: Mountains and Moonlight

The wolves were howling in the mountains. Dark lines of cloud were etched across the sky, obscuring the full moon; only a faint light remained, slate grey, rather than silver. Bilbo's fire was almost out. He prodded it with a stick, and watched the orange sparks fly upwards, then vanish into the night, carried by the wind.

It was very cold.

"What a fool you are, Bilbo Baggins," he muttered to himself. He had spent half a year with the dwarves in Erebor, and had departed on the day of summer's final blaze. "Which means a chilly autumn in the mountains, and it might be winter soon, before the end."

He grabbed another branch, intending to throw it onto the fire, but something screamed in the night. The sound rose high and shrill, then was suddenly cut off. "Some poor animal getting eaten," he said, "and I don't want it to be me. Better be cold and unseen, than eaten and warm." He pulled his blanket tighter.

In the trees behind him, the small twigs were rattling together like bones. It was barely October, but few leaves remained on the branches. "Not like home," he said, before remembering that the Shire was no longer his home. He had walked away from it just over a year ago, and now his home was the whole of Middle Earth and the endless road.

"The endless road," he murmured out loud. "Forever and on."

The wolves fell silent. He drew Sting an inch out of its scabbard, but its blade remained dull. He let out a breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. He had chosen this life. For his last few years in Hobbiton, he had felt cabined and confined, trapped and yet… stretched; that was how he had described it to Gandalf. This was better. The road stretched out in every direction, boundless in its possibilities, and he was free.

"Free," he whispered.

The howling started up again, first one wolf, and then another, as if they were shouting messages at each other across the mountains. "I wonder what they're saying," he thought. "'I spy a nice juicy hobbit.' I hope it's not that."

But they had howled on other nights, too, and no harm had ever come to him. "And it's better like this," he said, as he settled himself down beside the dying fire and prepared to sleep. "I'm happier here than I was at home."

Home, he thought.

"Than I was," he said, "in the Shire."

He was wandering in a bleached wilderness, searching, searching desperately for something that was precious to him, something he had lost. Then the ground at his feet simply fell away, vanishing between one step and the next. He fell, and woke up with a start.

"Just a dream," he told himself.

He shifted position, easing the stiffness of old joints. The moon was still concealed, but it was bright enough for its location to be clearly visible. He had slept for several hours, he thought. His fire was down to black embers, in which a few gleaming sparks still doggedly blazed. The night was very quiet, just the cold wind whispering in the dying trees.

Bilbo had not meant to do it, but he found himself drawing Sting. The blade shone with a dull light, but even as he scrambled to his feet, the light winked out, and the blade was dark again.

He stopped breathing, then very slowly let out a breath. "Now what could have happened?" He whispered it, hardly any sound on the wind. "Goblins don't just disappear like that, unless they're…" He swallowed. "Dead," he said.

He heard the faintest of sounds away to his right, deeper into the trees. "Now the sensible thing to do," he said, "would be to stay here nice and quietly and hurry away as soon as it's light." His feet started to move towards the sound. "Morning can't be so many hours away, after all." He drew Sting fully from its scabbard. The blade was still dull. He looked back. The tiny sparks of his fire were lost in the darkness, impossible to see.

No wolves howled. The clouds were moving fast, some of them dark-edged, hinting at rain. But then came a patch of clear sky, and the moon blazed forth. The shadows of the trees seemed blacker than the rest of the night.

"Go back," he thought, but he no longer spoke out loud. "Yes, that would be the sensible thing to do." But still his feet carried him forward, moving him on without a sound.

He saw the goblin first, lying dead on a bier of autumn leaves, criss-crossed with the shadows of trees. The other figure was harder to see; Bilbo's gaze passed right over him at first, and it was only a tiny inkling of a second thought that caused Bilbo to look again. The figure was almost lost in the shadows, betrayed only by the sudden emerging of the moon.

"Who… who are you?" Bilbo demanded. "I'm armed!"

There was no reply. Bilbo heard no sound of movement, but the figure seemed to disappear, almost as if he had put on… "But no," Bilbo thought. "He can't have. There's only one, and that's mine, and… No. No," he thought, and he frowned fiercely at the place where the other person had been hiding, and yes, there he was, still there.

"I expect you think I can't see you," he said, "but I have very keen eyes. I was a burglar once, you know. Nobody can hide from me."

"I can see that, Master Hobbit," said a voice from the darkness.

"Well, then." Bilbo brandished his sword. "Come out where I can see you. Don't hide away like some…"

"Burglar?" suggested the voice.

"Villain," said Bilbo firmly, but then his sword almost slipped from his hand in surprise. "You called me Master Hobbit!" he gasped. "Nobody ever knows about hobbits. You called me Master Hobbit."

"I did," the voice agreed ruefully.

"Well," said Bilbo, recovering himself, "that means… I don't know what it means." His blade was still dull, but of course goblins were not the only danger in the wilds, and not even the worst. "Did you kill the goblin?" he demanded.

"I did," the voice admitted.

"Oh." Bilbo looked at the dead goblin, then hastily looked away again. Even a dead goblin was still… well, dead. But only a few minutes before, it had been alive, and so very close to him, and he had been fast asleep and unaware of it. He shivered with sudden cold. "Are you going to kill me?"

"No," said the voice. Bilbo let out a breath. The branches stirred above him, but there was no other sound. "Do you believe me?" the voice asked quietly.

"I…" Bilbo stopped; closed his mouth again. Leaves rustled, the sound barely perceptible. Bilbo wondered if the owner of the voice was going away. He wondered if he was relieved. But then he saw the goblin. So close, it had been; so close. "I want to," he said.

The figure emerged from the trees; so he hadn't gone, after all. He was a tall man, taller than any man Bilbo had seen, except for Beorn. His clothes were weatherbeaten, and his face in the silver moonlight was somehow ageless. He had a long knife in his hand, but he held it reversed, its point sticking out behind him in a gesture of no threat. Its blade was stained dark, and not just with shadow.

"I thought you'd gone." It sounded like a silly thing to say, but, there, he'd said it.

"I almost did," said the man.

"Oh." Bilbo realised that Sting was still thrust out in front of him. He lowered it; considered sheathing it, but did not. The man had a serious face, perhaps even a grim one, but there was something about his expression, something Bilbo could not pin down. "I… think I believe you," he found himself saying.

The man smiled, and suddenly Bilbo was sure of it. But even villains could smile, he reminded himself. It was easy to imagine such a man as a villain. But then he looked again at the man's eyes in the moonlight, and thought that he couldn't imagine him as a villain at all.

"Oh…" Bilbo moaned, shaking his head with indecision. He glanced again at his dull blade. "Why did you kill the goblin?"

The man gave a crooked, fleeting smile. "They were creeping up on you. I, on the other hand, they were unaware of."

"They." Bilbo's left hand rose flutteringly to his mouth, then down again. "So you knew I was there before I came and found you. Were you going to make yourself known?"

The man said nothing, but then he shook his head.

"Oh," said Bilbo. He seemed to be saying it a lot. He made a sudden decision. If he told the man to run along, to hurry away like a good fellow, he could just double back and creep up on Bilbo from the other side. The damage was done now, so he just had to make the best of it. "Well, come along, then. Join me at my fire." He sheathed Sting. "Although it's all burned down now, just embers and ashes. I thought I'd build it up again, but I thought that… things would see it."

"Some of those things fear firelight," said the man, "and others need no light to draw them, for they hunt by smell."

"Oh," said Bilbo. "That's… not a cheering thought." He clutched at brightness. "May as well light that fire, then, and get a little warmth. Do you want some supper? It's late, of course, but when isn't it a good time for eating?"

The man followed him back to Bilbo's camp. Bilbo started to coax the fire back into life, but he kept a discreet eye on the man as he did so, and saw that he was wiping his knife clean. Then he sheathed it, and Bilbo concentrated on the fire for a while. "There we are," he said at last. "A nice cheerful flame."

The man settled himself down, his long legs drawn up in front of him. The firelight dazzled Bilbo's eyes, and made it harder for him to see the man's face. He told himself that it didn't matter.

"Where did the goblin come from?" Bilbo asked instead.

"These are their hunting grounds," the man said. "You have come further north than was wise, Master Hobbit."

"But…" Bilbo looked up at the moon, at the dark trees, at the mountains beyond. "But I haven't seen any goblins before tonight. Of course," he added, "I wouldn't have seen any tonight, either, if I hadn't…" He stopped; let out a breath; started again. "You weren't going to make yourself known. You just killed it. Them. You killed them, and you were going to go away again." He looked into the fire, at the shadows at the heart of flame. "It's not the first night you've done this. It's not the first night, is it?"

The man said nothing. It was answer enough.

Bilbo closed his eyes. He had no idea how to react. He wanted to be furious. He wanted to be grateful. He had chosen this life, and he was a great traveller of the wilds, and although he was small, he was fearless, and let anybody dare say otherwise. But he was old, and he was tired, and although he sometimes dreamed of wandering and searching, he most often dreamed of Rivendell.

Well, he thought. The damage is done. No use crying over spilled milk.

"So what's your name?" he asked. "If you've been following me around for days, killing all the horrid things that want to eat me, the least you can do is tell me your name. You're a guest at my campsite, after all."

"I… prefer not to," said the man. "I apologise for this breach of the rules of hospitality, but…" He let out a slow breath. "I, too, have need for caution. Even a chance-met hobbit might not be what he seems."

Bilbo moved closer to him, so he could see him more clearly, without the firelight getting in the way. There was a strange expression on the man's face, and for a moment, Bilbo thought he had caught him unawares. In the silver moonlight, he looked carved from stone, "like those statues," Bilbo said, suddenly startled into speaking out loud. "You don't look like the other men I know, not that I know many, just the men of Dale, and I used to think men looked all the same, like sheep. But you look like a statue I saw; they said he was long ago dead, a king from Westernesse beyond the sea. 'I expect the elves still remember them, Gandalf,' I said, and Gandalf said that some of their people still remain, wandering in the wilderness… Oh, you must think I'm silly. We talk, you see, we hobbits, when we don't know what to say."

The man smiled, but for some reason, it only increased his likeness to the statue. "The Dunedain," he said. "Rangers, people call them."

"The Dunedain," Bilbo echoed. "A Dunadan," he said, remembering his Elvish. "Is that what you are? I can't call you that."

"Why not?" the man said with a smile.

"It would be like you calling me Hobbit."

"I believe I did," said the man.

"You did," Bilbo conceded. "Oh. Food," he said, remembering his offer of a meal. He rumaged around until he found some dried meat and cram. "How do you know about hobbits, anyway?" he asked as he chewed.

"I have travelled widely," said the Dunadan.

"So have I!" Bilbo said eagerly. "Isn't it a wonderful feeling when you're out on the road, and you know that the whole world is ahead of you, and you can go just anywhere, and there are towers ahead of you, and rivers and lakes and fields of flowers and mountains, mountains. I want to see them all before I settle down to rest."

"Where will you go next?" the Dunadan asked.

"South," Bilbo said firmly. "There are cities there. I've never seen a city, not a real one. And I want to see the elven woods, and I read somewhere about two great pillars of ancient kings. Sometimes I can see them in my mind, almost as if I'm standing there in front of them, but the picture is veiled somehow. I need to see them. I need to see them, Dunadan."

The fire crackled. A dark streak of cloud passed over the moon, a line drawn across its face. "Perhaps you will," the Dunadan said.

Bilbo pressed his hand flat against his breast. "No perhaps about it. I will. I will."

But first, said his feet, said his heart, said the very core of him, first you will go to Rivendell and stay there, just for a little while. And then… And then…

"Look at this, Dunadan!" Bilbo cast out his right hand, gesturing at the sky, at the whole world around them. "This is why I left my home. This. They call it the wilds, but it's beautiful, too. Oh, yes, it's dangerous, too, I know that, but it can be beautiful even when it's terrible. Look at those clouds. They're like lines of grey paint drawn by a child with a shaky hand, with all the black sinking to the bottom. And, look, over there, where there's a gap in the clouds, small enough that I can cover it with my hand. But the stars!

"Like silver jewels in an obsidian crown," the Dunadan said.

Bilbo gave a shuddering laugh; it was closer, perhaps, to tears. "And just enough moonlight to show the mountain peaks, where the snow reflects the glory of the silver moon. Unchanging…"

"No, not unchanging," said the Dunadan, "for the mountains change, but so slowly that we cannot see."

"And the trees," Bilbo said. "Tall dark shadows…"

"But see how the moonlight touches them where their leaves are damp," said the Dunadan. "Even in an autumn twilight, the trees are gleaming."

Bilbo passed his hand across his eyes. "You should put it in a song, Dunadan." He tried to laugh. "You play this game well. You could be a poet, with a bit more practice."

"Other paths await me, I'm afraid."

"Well," said Bilbo, "that's a shame."

He fell asleep shortly afterwards, and dreamed of moonlight and mountains and a road that had no end.

When he woke up, the Dunadan was gone.

"So that's the end of it," Bilbo said.