Gandalf looked down with considerable pride on the small figure on the pony beside him, leading a second pony behind him laden with two small chests of treasure and what little goods he brought with him. The diffident, comfort loving soul he'd prised out of the Shire had been honed into an alert, thoughtful, caring, and increasingly curious individual who now knew he was capable of facing trolls, goblins, wargs, spiders, and dragons, who'd befriended Eagles, shapechangers, Dwarves, Elves, and Men. Bilbo was singing one of the many songs he'd crafted in his travels, and appeared a good deal more comfortable now that they were on their way home than he'd been on the outward journey.
There were no known Dragons capable of fire and destruction left in Middle Earth that the Wizard was aware of, none that the Enemy, when he rose again, could use against the rest of the Free Lands. One less weapon in the hands of the dark forces, he thought with relief. Of course, he didn't plan on telling Bilbo this--wouldn't do to let Bilbo's head get further turned by just how incredible the feat had been of inducing Smaug to leave his hoard and so exposing himself to the bow of Bard for his destruction. Even more incredible had been finding that this burglar had such a strong streak of integrity, leading him to seek to stop the Dwarves from their reckless career before they came to full blows against the Men of Laketown and the Elves of Mirkwood. Who else might have seen how the Arkenstone could be used to begin to force Thorin to see sense? The Dragon sickness had run through almost all, all save Balin and Bilbo himself. The Creator be thanked that even Thorin saw the foolishness of it all ere he died, had found his end freed from it and having both forgiven the Hobbit and been forgiven by him. One more redeemed, Gandalf thought.
It was as they came down out of the pass and neared the Vale of Rivendell that he realized he could clearly see Bilbo's Light of Being, and paused his steed to fall behind to look on it in awe. He'd been allowed to see glimpses of it, which had been part of what had drawn him to choose the Hobbit for the fourteenth member of Thorin's group. Much of his reason for choosing Bilbo had been to suit his own sometimes twisted sense of humor--let the Dwarves learn that the apparently meek and foolish could reach great heights once challenged, he'd thought at the time. But apparently there had been guidance given him he'd not been aware of at the time for his choice. Invoking the power of his hidden ring, the Wizard examined his companion more closely, seeking to illuminate his True Shape, something he did rarely. The brief glimpse afforded him was enough to humble him and to give him even more ease of mind. No, it had not been just he himself who had seen the worth of Bilbo Baggins, who had desired to see him shorn of his Shire sensibilities and his full might of imagination and intelligence set loose.
But there was something else about Bilbo that disturbed the Wizard, something which had been discernible for a good part of the journey but not so clearly so as to allow him to put his finger on it, something potentially dangerous but which he sensed must be allowed to be for a time. Somehow the very presence of this danger was increasing the clarity of Bilbo's Light. Gandalf decided he would need to ponder on this.
As they descended into the Valley, once again they were met by song by the Elves of Imladris, but this time the song was less frivolous, the rhymes more in honor and less in teasing. Elladan dropped from a tree overhead into the path of the Wizard and his companion, and bowed low, greeting both and leading them to the door of the Last Homely House.
Bilbo had awakened to the sound of singing in the gardens below his window, and looked out at a boy holding a white cat in his arms, stroking the animal as he watched the Sun lift her head to look down into the vale, her light sparkling from the waters of the Bruinen and the many waterfalls that filled the valley with their coolness and mist.
Estel stood almost still as he sang, his young face full of joy and quiet delight. Bilbo smiled, then paused as he realized that about the young Man he could see a clear, shining Light. He'd not seen such a Light since his grandfather had died when he himself was so very young; and that which had surrounded old Gerontius had been nowhere as bright as what he saw now about the boy, which to Bilbo's eyes resembled the light of stars. Bilbo felt a distinct thrill of awe as he looked on the boy known as Estel. Last night after his arrival he'd been looking through the books that Lord Elrond had indeed left in his room for his return, and had found that estel meant hope. He felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, not in fear, but in anticipation. There was a great mystery here, he sensed.
He went into the dining room to find that again food for the dawn meal sat upon the great sideboard, and one of those who had just come in from the night guard assisted him to fill his plate and saw him to the chair laden with cushions that had been placed for his use. Bilbo thanked him and climbed up into the seat, and set himself to making up for many days of far lighter fare enjoyed during his return journey. The Lady Gilraen was in the room, he realized when halfway through his meal, although she appeared not to be paying any attention to him. Her face was sad, and the shadowing of her eyes indicated she'd not slept well the preceding evening. Both his curiosity and his empathy were now engaged as he looked at her across the room, and as his eyes followed her out when she finally rose and brought her almost full plate to the cart set to receive it, then quitted the hall.
He was again exploring the gardens after the meal when he heard a noise in a summer house that drew him. He entered it quietly. "If I can be of service...." he began.
The Lady Gilraen sat inside, and it was plain she'd been weeping as she straightened from the cushions that covered the bench.
"I'm sorry, my Lady," he said quietly. "If I have intruded----" He began to back out of the small structure.
"Master Baggins!" she responded. "No, do not be embarrassed. It is nothing."
"I cannot believe, Lady Gilraen, that such tears were brought on by nothing."
She turned her head and looked out one of the open panels of the summer house. "It is but echoes of griefs long past, Master Perian." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
Bilbo brought out a clean handkerchief and offered it to her. "The loss of your son's father?"
She accepted the square of cloth and made use of it. "Among other losses."
This answer was said so softly Bilbo almost couldn't hear it. He came closer and lifted himself onto the bench beside her, reached out his hand to gently stroke hers. "Would it help to talk about it?" he asked.
She'd not spoken of it for a very long time, and sat thoughtfully. She knew she must not tell him, yet was suddenly angered at the strictures surrounding her son and herself, the constant need to keep silent and secret. Finally she said, rather defiantly, "Estel was not the only child I bore, Master Baggins. There were two other babes, and I lost them both. One would think that after all this time I would have come to terms with their loss and would give over the grief. Yet, I find I have not been able to do so. I dreamt of them again last night. It's odd--I'll be able to almost pretend they hadn't been conceived for some months or even years--and then for some reason I cannot understand the memory comes back and the dreams return, and the grief is as fresh as if it were only yesterday when I lost them."
He said, rather carefully, "I know that miscarriages do happen. I am sorry, my Lady. It must have been devastating."
She nodded, and wrung his handkerchief a bit. "They were both sons, also. Our people have such need of strong sons, for there are so few of us left. Once the whole of Arnor was full of our people, of villages and even cities, farms and woodlands teeming with life and delight. Now--now we are but a shadow of what we once were, and we must rely on Imladris for so much. We ought to be equal partners with our kinsmen among the Elves, not always supplicants and dependents."
He nodded and kept silence, stroking her hand. She smiled down at him, her color beginning to return. Finally he asked, "Does Estel know that he had brothers that were lost to him?"
"He wishes that he had them, you know."
"Yes, I know." She was quiet for a time. "In my dream last night, I saw them, smiling, as I've seen them before, my beautiful sons, beside their brother, first as children, then as adults. Then they faded away, the two lost ones. Then I saw their smiles and the Lights of their Being, but not on the faces of our people."
"What does the dream mean? Or does it mean anything?"
She shrugged. Then she sought to change the subject. "Did you ever wish for brothers or sisters?"
"As I told Estel, I didn't mind being an only child. I rather enjoyed being the center of my parents' attention. But I always loved my cousins when I was small. They were my favorite playmates and friends. My Took grandparents alone had eleven children, so have my share of cousins, you see."
"What is it you do among your people?"
"My heavens, you do ask the difficult questions, don't you? I am a gentlehobbit. My parents left me well enough off I've never had to worry much about money. I inherited the shares they held in farms around the Shire, and the partnerships they held in businesses. I own a fair amount of land, mostly in the Westfarthing, and it's all let out properly, so my income is steady and more than I need. I enjoy entertaining, and am glad Bag End is so large that I can pretty much entertain as many of my relatives as I please when I please. But I am also glad I live alone, and enjoy it when the rest go home and I have the place back to myself.
"Then there is the garden. Holman and Hamfast see to it now, and both are totally devoted to it. I work in it also, but where Holman always saw himself as working alongside me, young Hamfast seems to believe that when I do so I am working alongside him, if you appreciate the distinction.
"And then there are my books. Always up to now I've read widely. But now that I've been out in the world--now I plan to read to learn, and possibly to teach as well."
"Whom will you teach, and what?"
"Undoubtedly I'll teach my younger cousins. My grandfather Gerontius, who as I told you was known as the Old Took, encouraged us all to read and write, and seeing how keen I was to do so as a child was always giving me books. My dad was terribly torn by a good many of those books, don't you know, decent, predictable Baggins as he was. The tales were all right; but the histories and books of maps and the idea that they could waken the curiosity about the outer world enough to perhaps make one wish to go out and see it for oneself frightened him. Never even went to Bree, my dad. And I loved the books of maps, and always wanted to know what features and lands and so on were in the white spaces beyond the margins."
He paused thoughtfully. "And now I know some, at least." He looked up into her eyes and smiled. "I've been further than any Hobbits since Manco and Balcho came over the Misty Mountains into Eriador and founded the Shire, you know. Except perhaps my two uncles who left so long ago. But one of them never came back, while the other was reportedly a cabin boy on a ship from Gondor, but we've not heard from him for years."
"So you will teach them beyond the white spaces in the margins?"
"Oh, yes, my Lady, I will do so. I see why my venerable grandfather wished us to appreciate them. Now, he did go to Bree, and I now believe he might indeed have visited here once or twice himself, alongside Gandalf, of course. Always had a particular fondness for Gandalf, the Old Took did. Certainly I've seen that some of my own books and many I read in the Great Smial came from here, or were copied from here."
His eyes were suddenly alight with purpose. "I will see to it that more books from here make it into our libraries. I'll become a copyist and bookbinder myself." He suddenly became concerned. "That, is, of course, if the Lord Elrond will agree to share the works of his library with me so I can copy them." He sighed. "It's quite ridiculous that the folk of the Shire should continue to pretend that the world ends at the boundaries of the Shire, and that there is nothing in those white spaces, you know. My mum would tell me about them--when Dad wasn't home, of course. Wouldn't do to speak of what was in the white spaces when he was, for he truly didn't wish to know. What possessed Bungo Baggins to marry one of the Old Took's daughters I cannot fathom. What she knew and was curious about so often scandalized him."
That night she saw him in the Hall of Fire, a journal in his hand, taking notes, and the next day he was speaking at length about binding books with Lord Elrond and some of those who worked in the libraries. For several days he worked with the bookbinders, learning how pages were sewn together and bindings added. Then he spent a day in the scriptorium watching the patient work of the copyists. She would catch glimpses of the Hobbit in the gardens with various books, oftentimes taking notes in his journal. She admired his enthusiasm, even found it a bit intimidating.
The last night of his visit he sat in the Hall of Fire, listening to the tales told there, his quill and journal forgotten in his hand as he heard sung the Lay of Gil-galad. Estel sat with her, his own eyes distant as if he saw the shining from afar of the great Elf lord, the glimmer of the head of his great lance and the light of stars reflected from helm and shield, the courage with which Gil-galad had faced Sauron himself alongside Elendil the Tall, followed close as they were by Elrond and Isildur.
Gandalf was looking curiously at the Hobbit where he sat, and didn't seem to notice the boy from among Men who sat by the Lady Gilraen. It was odd--neither Wizard nor boy had as yet appeared to pay the least bit of attention to one another during Gandalf's infrequent visits to Imladris, and Gilraen wondered about that. Right now, as had been true in his previous visit, Gandalf was almost totally focused on Bilbo, a mixed look of pride, amusement, curiosity, and anticipation on his face. What is it, she wondered, the Istari sees in store for the Perian that catches his interest so markedly?
She wondered further, then felt Estel lean against her, put her arm about him as he gave himself up to the images induced by the Elven song. She smiled as she looked down into the drowsing face of her son, and then saw about him the Light of his Being, the clear, star-like shine of his very spirit, a Light which would, with the Grace of the Creator, shine before all of Gondor and Arnor one day. If that day can now come, she thought. For there were others who ought to shine alongside him, the matching light of Gilorhael and the reflection of Anor's own Light from Anorhael.
She wondered where they might be born, when they would come to birth, how they might meet one another. A teacher would be given to them, she'd been promised, one who would share with them the Lord Elrond's wisdom.
As the lay was at last finished Elrohir came to gently waken Estel and lead him to his bed. The movement caught the attention of the Perian, who looked across the room at the boy, and suddenly Gilraen saw clearly a flaring in Bilbo Baggins's own Light of Being, a warm, white Light which, she realized with a thrill, was indeed growing stronger as Estel had reported.
Gandalf had begun to turn to speak to Elrond, but had paused, the flaring of Bilbo's Light plainly catching his attention, which drew it further to the sight of Elrohir with his hands on Estel's shoulders. The Wizard's own blue Light suddenly flared more strongly, his face intent, as he looked quickly back from Estel to the Hobbit, his curiosity plainly roused, as if he were seeking to look beyond seemings as at last he looked back at Estel.
He sat and watched the boy disappear out the door, a look of wonder and growing delight on his face. Elrond was watching him with concern, then appeared to be sharing an unspoken communication with the Istari. Gandalf simply raised his hand dismissively, as if he were well aware of the need for silence on the subject of Gilraen's son. He then looked quite hard at her, and she perceived the interest and deep compassion he felt for her.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Gilraen rose, bowed toward Lord Elrond and his guests, and turned and left deliberately. She withdrew to her room, but found she could not rest. At last she took the cloak from Lothlorien she'd been sent a few years back and slipped out to the gardens.
Gandalf was before her, though, was standing, leaning on his staff, looking toward the West, his Light of Being shining clearly in the darkness of the night beneath Elbereth's stars. It was as if the light of the stars themselves answered his, as one after another they shone down on him.
She finally spoke. "You may not speak of what you have seen this night outside the Vale of Imladris."
Again the dismissive gesture, although he did not yet turn to her. "I know that, my Lady. So, the stories were untrue--or, rather, premature."
He turned to her at last, his face shining with relief. "Good. Very, very good. And to catch even me off guard--that was right and proper. But rest assured, my Lady, I will never speak out of turn of what I have seen. I was sent to follow the path of Gil-galad and Elendil, to face the Enemy, and this is something I must enjoin on you which you must share with no other, not even Elrond, though he knows it well enough. To know that slowly the prophecies are coming to fruition is heartening.
"He will be all you would have him be and more, your son. He will be a great warrior, but also a great leader in peaceful times as well. And the healing hands of the King will be celebrated in song and story for millennia to come."
"But how is this to be," she burst out, "without his brothers? They were lost to me, and their father is now dead and I can take no other as husband. I am, after all, one of the Dúnedain myself."
"What have you been told of them?"
"That they will now be born elsewhere, in different form, to different parents of other lands, that they will be taught."
"Then that is what will be, daughter."
"And who will teach them?"
"Have you seen none you would have teach them?"
She looked away, giving almost a sob of loss. "And who might that be? The Perian?"
"You would have Bilbo Baggins be their teacher?"
She shrugged. "He would do as well as any other, I suppose." Then she turned back to him. "But certainly the Creator would not send the spirits of Estel's brothers to be born among the Periannath. That would be the height of absurdity."
He shrugged in return. "Do not seek to second-guess the Creator, Lady, for He is far more subtle in thought than are we of His creation." At her intense look of question he shook his head. "No, to me is not given foresight of what disposition will be made of their spirits. I am only assured that when they are needed they will be born and come forth, to the consternation of all the wise, including myself." He smiled. "My Masters are as intrigued as I am myself."
She found herself, in spite of her unwillingness, smiling in response to him. She could almost feel the sheer joy that at the moment suffused him.
He raised his eyes again to the stars. "One of starlight and one of sunlight--they will be born, my Lady, they will be born. And a little they will know of you, even. Of this am I assured. But this you must remember: they are not only the Hope of the Dúnedain--they are the Hope of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, the lost two and the one who sleeps now in his bed within this house. You do not have exclusive claim on them."
Reluctantly, Gilraen nodded her understanding.