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Thicker than Blood: 2. Portents
The elf-lord’s arrival stirred a quiet but hurried rush into the people of Elrond’s house and he was curious about the commotion. Of course, a commotion among elves was a fairly innocuous affair, none of the bustling and calling of his own kind, merely the swift whir of elven feet in the corridors and the melodic sound of their voices speaking with gentle urgency, instead of song. He wondered if they were finally preparing for his nephew’s arrival. He smiled, forgetting his dread. Bilbo had always called Frodo nephew. Because of the difference in their ages, it sounded more appropriate even if it wasn’t entirely accurate. Frodo had set out from Hobbiton weeks before and he was getting anxious about it. He was overdue; for surely the trip should not have taken a full month, but Elrond assured Bilbo that everything was all right, and his nephew would be there soon.
Bilbo scoffed and struggled to sit up in his bed. His body was aging fast, but he was not yet in his dotage. Elrond was not telling him something; of that he was fairly sure. He wiggled his stiff toes on the stone floor working them a bit before attempting to stand. He was old but when he first came back to Rivendell he had felt so much younger than was his due. The journey to Dale started out brightly, but even before he reached Mirkwood, he knew it would be his last adventure. Age and creeping infirmity were settling swiftly upon him, as if catching up to all the years he had spent spryly in the Shire. At least, in the house of Elrond, he was tenderly and respectfully cared for and his aches and pains troubled him less than they might have had he remained among his own people.
He stood and made his way down to the kitchens. Dinner was over but the cooks were happy to provide him with food and drink. They were used to Bilbo’s odd schedule and his frequent meals, though he never ate much at a sitting anymore. He carried the food out to a broad, stone paved balcony that overlooked a southwesterly facing ravine. It was the selfsame hollow he had trod more than 70 years ago, the first time he came to Rivendell. On the trail below, a small host of elves were gathered. Gandalf stood with them, speaking intently and gesturing up the pathway. It looked as if they were preparing to climb. Bilbo peered over the rail with interest. One object the group carried caught his eye. It looked like a kite; a square wooden frame covered with a silky green fabric. For a moment, he pondered what the object could be and then a chill of realization struck him. It was a litter: a frame for carrying someone who was unable to travel. The continuation of the thought chilled him even deeper. Frodo was expected at Rivendell at any time and elves were proceeding up the road he would take with a litter…. Bilbo shook and his heart quelled as the implications of the thought set his mind racing.
“Now, you old fool!” he scolded himself, settling on a bench and putting down the plate and cup before he dropped them. “Don’t go jumping to conclusions. Just because you are waiting for someone, doesn’t mean he’s the one who needs a litter!” His fingers trembled despite his efforts to quash his suddenly fertile imagination. There was no reason for him to fear that Frodo was injured, they would have told him of it, surely. Still, he could not shake his apprehension. He shook his head, scoffing at his foolishness. His nephew was a perfectly sensible hobbit by more than just his account, and Gandalf had promised he would be protected. Still… For years Elrond had warned Bilbo of traveling, saying that the enemy was searching for him and he was much safer here. What if the great enemy had turned his eye to Frodo instead?
“I am an old fool!” He was angry with himself. “I’ll just march straight down and ask what the matter is. Elrond will answer me if I put it to him directly.” Bilbo took a deep breath and watched as Gandalf and the elves below started up the path. He picked up his meal, uneaten, and trotted back into the house.
Elrond took a bit of searching to find, but after asking about, Bilbo found his host in the storage rooms picking through ropes of braided herbs and long dried roots. The scent of dusty flowers and the sweet perfume of summer green pervaded the room. Bilbo fought back the urge to sneeze. Elrond did not turn, but appeared to know who stood behind him. He also seemed to have some understanding of what troubled his little guest. “And what have you heard, my friend?” There was a tone in his silky voice that told Bilbo that though he would answer his questions, it would pain him greatly to do so.
“Nothing at all, sir!” Bilbo answered with forced gaiety. “Your folk tend me kindly and with reverence – like some old mathom that would shatter if handled – but though I look frail and feeble, my mind is still sharp as ever. ” He fixed Elrond with his sternest no-nonsense stare. “For days and days I have been aware that more was not being said to me than was said. You folk keep secrets well, but I have dwelt here long enough to know you and I can tell just by the way you are looking at me that something is dreadfully amiss.” The old hobbit frowned. “Is it Frodo?” he finished softly, hoping but no longer expecting Elrond to allay his fears.
The elf-lord’s enigmatic eyes held the old hobbit for a long moment. Bilbo’s own stare faltered and his chest tightened as he grew more certain his guess was right. “Tell me!” he gasped.
“I will know more when I see him.” Elrond’s voice was kind, comforting and sincere, though his gaze remained inscrutable. “It is true he was attacked and wounded by servants of the enemy, but he is strong and was not slain. He is strong still, though with each hour that passes his strength wanes.”
Bilbo sagged, feeling suddenly as old as his years. “Attacked? Wounded?” It felt like the walls of the close room were rushing towards him. “But why? Because of me? Of my ring?” His voice tightened and the question fairly squeaked out. Elrond placed a comforting hand on the hobbit’s shoulder, steadying him.
“Because Frodo is selfless and brave, and dared to defy the dark lord. Sauron knows little of hobbit-kind – few of us knew much about you before your adventures – and thought he could overcome your nephew with ease. It has surprised and enraged him that he was resisted… “
Bilbo felt cold dread, like that he felt after his dream, returning. A gnawing hollowness filled his belly. The thought that an enemy as great as Sauron targeted his nephew, his heir, and the hobbit he loved most in the world was terrifying beyond measure. He looked up at Elrond again and now saw pity and sorrow in his ageless grey eyes. He understood. They had wanted to spare him this pain, he could see that, and had held this truth from him as long as they could. They knew how the news would affect him. He pulled himself together with a great effort, squelching the cold terror with every bit of his will. He would not make his host regret this disclosure, especially since Bilbo himself had demanded it. “We are a doughty lot, we hobbits,” he sighed. “And my Frodo is the best of the Shire, mark my words. He’ll be all right.” Bilbo wished he felt as much confidence as he tried to put in his voice. Elrond smiled again.
“There are many healing hands in my house. If we cannot save him, none can.” He gave the hobbit’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze. “And you are right, there is much more to hobbits than meets the eye. I am sure your nephew can be made whole again.” At that Bilbo nodded, though he thought Elrond did not sound as convincing as he might have. The ancient elf took his arm and guided him from the room with kind words and a tone that held the gentlest of dismissals. It was the tone more than the words that told the hobbit that Elrond had much work to do, and Bilbo needed to trust him and let him do it.
Alone and not much comforted, Bilbo wandered along the elegantly decorated corridor. He was still numb and trying desperately to keep from imagining the very worst. His thoughts ran back to a dark day at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where he had come to the bedside of Thorin Oakenshield to gain back his forgiveness and friendship. Thorin had died that day, and Bilbo had felt as if his heart would break from sorrow; but this… this was different. This was Frodo. The old hobbit approached the door that was beneath the balcony from which he had watched the elves and wizard depart. He could still see far off up the trail the flicker of elvish lights in the gloom of dusk. He shivered. Frodo was as dear to him as any child of his own could have been and perhaps more so because of the two of them were so alike. They had been drawn together; the lonely bachelor and lonelier orphan, and in making Frodo his heir, Bilbo had at last found contentment. Even though he had not seen the boy for nearly 20 years, the knowledge that he was safe in the protected Shire and provided for as master of Bag End was great comfort. That knowledge alone had enabled him to journey onwards.
He sat, hunched down on a bench outside the great hewn doors of the last homey house and stared miserably out at the forests surrounding it. That small comfort was gone. If he lost Frodo… The thought of the lad laid out as Thorin had been was too painful to bear and even worse was the guilt growing in his mind. It was his old ring, of course. Elrond had not confirmed his suspicion but it was the only thing that made any sense. If only they had let him go back to get it! Several times he suggested returning to the Shire for it, but Elrond and Gandalf always turned his intent gently aside, telling him that the dark lord and others were searching for him and assuring him that everyone would be better off if the ring remained in Frodo’s hands. Yes, he mused bitterly, everyone but Frodo.
He stirred uncomfortably. The lights were gone now; they had traveled far beyond his aging sight up the thin, rocky trail. This entire mess was his fault. If he had never picked up that accursed thing, never kept it, never passed it on to his heir… Hot rage filled his heart. Gandalf had told him to do it – practically forced his hand – and though the wizard had assured him that he would protect Frodo, he most obviously had not. Bilbo set his jaw and leaned back against the wall of the house. He would wait and when the party returned, he would have stern words for Gandalf’s ears. He would also make quite certain that the ring came back to his safe keeping. He would not see his nephew imperiled again.
A cold smile crossed his face as he thought about his ring. He could still see it in his minds eye, it’s perfect gold circle glittering brightly in the firelight. It was such a precious little bauble. He still could not see what all the fuss was about. Though he knew the tale of the ring’s creation and was aware of its true nature, he could never find it in his heart to condemn the thing. His anger was directed to its creator, and now towards Gandalf for forcing him to give it to Frodo, but whenever he tried to think ill of the ring itself, he couldn’t. It was as if any malice he might rightly feel towards it merely rolled off it’s shining surface. He closed his eyes, imagining the feel of its cold weight in his hand. Yes, he thought, soon, and with a satisfied sigh his head nodded and he slipped back into his dark dream.
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