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7
With Foes Ahead, Behind Us Dread

"Bilbo... have you been out of the library this afternoon?"

Rowanna was somewhat late for her lesson that chilly October day by the Hobbit's reckoning; yet looking up from his notes on the Battle of Erebor, he noticed that she was still in the breeches and shirt she now habitually wore for her mornings working in the stables, as though some distraction had prevented her going to change. She was frowning as she took her seat. "Something - strange - is going on. Can you hear it?"

"Hear what, dear girl? Really, I've entirely lost my thread now!" Bilbo grumbled.

"All that..." Rowanna searched for words. Not commotion, exactly. It was too subtle for that. But coming across the courtyard from the stables she had felt, as much as heard, the disturbance in the air. Whisperings. Murmurings. And then, as she ran up the steps and crossed the threshold, she had come upon the source of it all.

Swiftly she sketched for Bilbo what she had seen; Erestor the steward standing in the centre of the great hall, the mellow autumn sunlight striking obliquely through the high windows over his head to glow on the rich hangings covering the wall behind him. Erestor, listening intently to a taller Elf with gleaming golden hair - not one of Elrond's folk, Rowanna was sure; for she knew at least by sight those few in Rivendell, like the lord Glorfindel, who were fair-headed. Besides, the stranger stood in muddy, travelstained cloak and boots, and breathed hard whenever his urgent flow of words and taut gesturing was interrupted by a tense, biting question from Elrond's steward.

"What did they speak of?" Bilbo, interested now despite himself, put down his quill and gazed at her over the top of his sheaf of notes.

"I could not catch much. They were speaking quickly, and I was trying to creep around to the staircase without disturbing them, for they did not look as though they would welcome interruption! A few people were lingering in the doorways and on the stairs trying to look as though they just happened to be passing, but I know they were listening. The stranger said something about nazgûl; I'm sure of that, for he spat the word out as though it was something foul. And I heard 'nine', and 'hunting'... and several times periannath. That's 'hobbits', isn't it, Bilbo?..... Bilbo?" For the old Hobbit was staring blankly at her, his papers forgotten on the desk, and his face suddenly rather pale.

"Hunting?..." he whispered, as though to himself. "That's very odd, very odd indeed... no, surely not, it couldn't be... periannath?" he demanded, suddenly turning his attention back to his baffled pupil. "Are you sure?"

"I - yes, I think so. What is it, Bilbo? What is wrong?..."

Just as Rowanna despaired of obtaining any sense from Bilbo, there came a sudden flurry of movement beyond the door, and Master Elrond's deep. commanding tones reached their ears.

"No, thank you, Erestor, this I must do myself. Go and make all ready, as swiftly as you may. Summon those we spoke of. Bid them make the greatest haste!"

Then he swept into the library, his clear gaze swiftly raking its corners. When he lit upon Rowanna, she realised with a stab of cold shock that she had never seen him look more grave. His brow furrowed as he strode towards them.

"Rowanna, I must crave your indulgence a few moments. I have need of a word privately with Master Baggins..."

As Rowanna, stammering something, got to her feet, Elrond took her elbow under the pretext of guiding her to the door and murmured:

"Do not go too far. Bilbo may need you when I have done."

Feeling chill fingers of dread beginning to clutch at her stomach, she made her exit blindly. Only on the threshold did she dare look back. The lord of Rivendell had dropped to one knee in front of Bilbo, had taken the Hobbit's hands in his, and was speaking to him with gentle gravity. She forced herself not to strain to catch the words, and instead stumbled out into the corridor.

She could not bear to linger outside the door, and yet did not have leave to go. Pacing helplessly to and fro, she heard shouts, running feet, the slamming of doors. Somehow this, in a house where nothing was ever done with anything less than measured grace, frightened Rowanna more than all the rest. Her distracted steps brought her to the head of the staircase.

Down below, Erestor stood again in the hall, at the hub of frantic activity. She recognised the imposing figure of Glorfindel beside him, and several other Elves whom Bilbo had at one time or another pointed out to her, "lords of the Eldar, my dear; some of the greatest princes of the Firstborn lingering anywhere in Middle-earth." They towered even over Erestor, impossibly fair; it seemed to Rowanna as she watched that in the now shadowy hall a pale glimmer surrounded them, as though they cast their own starlight. With a shock, she realised that several of them bore full arms.

Suddenly there were running feet behind her, and as she turned a lithe figure flew past her with a bundle in his arms, crying urgently:

"Your weapons, Lord Glorfindel!"

Gracefully checking his headlong flight down the staircase precisely at the Elf-lord's feet, the boyish newcomer - an esquire, she guessed - swiftly helped Glorfindel arm, speaking rapidly in the Grey Tongue; too rapidly for Rowanna at first, until she realised he was simply providing a commentary on each piece of gear as he secured it.

"Your sword, my lord," - belting Glorfindel's scabbard in place, as he passed over the weapon for its owner to inspect and sheathe it himself - "your bow..." He added bow and then quiver with practised speed, hastily tugging and adjusting straps. "Bracers," - the Elf-lord held out his arms for the younger Elf to clap each of the leather forearm-guards in place and lace them swiftly - "knife," Glorfindel secured that at his belt. "Do you need aught else, my lord?..."

Just as Glorfindel opened his mouth to reply, however, there came another flurry of light feet; from the hallway to Rowanna's left, black hair flying every which way, burst a breathless Elf-woman. Rowanna recognised the harpist who had smiled at her the day she had first met Bilbo. She gasped out a single word:

"Melethen!.." but stopped dead, gazing down stricken at the golden-haired Elda with huge, dark eyes. Glorfindel whipped around at the sound of her voice until his eyes found hers; the look on his face tore at Rowanna's heart, and while he said nothing aloud, she was sure words were being exchanged which she could not hear. Then the Elf-lord turned back to the centre of the hall. The dark-haired harpist stood motionless, both hands pressed tightly to her mouth. Unshed tears glittered in her eyes.

Rowanna shrank back into the shadows, understanding blindly that here she could offer no comfort. Even as she withdrew behind a pillar, she heard a rustle of movement behind her, and a moment later the Master of Rivendell swept past her and down into the hall. His jaw was set and his expression grim.

He spoke swiftly and intently to the Elf-lords as they mustered, surrounded by that strange, lambent light they seemed to cast in the gathering darkness. Rowanna saw him take from Erestor and pass to each of them a small shape like a flask. Then the princes of the Eldar bowed hastily to Elrond, turned and ran for the great doors.

Rowanna was rooted to the spot as she watched them go. The first coherent thought she achieved was, I must go to Bilbo. As she turned on her heel, she heard a lilting murmur from the Elf-woman, who still stood gazing after Glorfindel, and spoke as though to convince herself:

"He will come back. He always comes back..."

Rowanna's heart hammered in her chest as she slipped through the Library doorway once more. She could not begin to fathom what was happening to disturb the serenity of Rivendell; yet tendrils of dread were clawing at the fringes of her mind. Whatever the dark threat was - and it surely must be powerful for such forces to be mustered against it - it seemed that it reached out to Bilbo, although how, she could not guess.

The little Hobbit sat motionless on his high stool, staring blankly at a sheet of paper on the table before him. He did not stir as his pupil approached.

"Bilbo?.." Rowanna slid to her knees before him as Elrond had done. Placing a hand gently on his, she found him icy cold, and saw he was trembling. "Bilbo, are you all right?..."

"It's all my fault..." the Hobbit whispered unhappily. Slowly he raised his head to look at her. "They're out there - my lad, my Frodo, he's out there with that Ring of mine, and those.. things after him! Why, oh why did I ever leave it with him? I knew I should have gone back to fetch it long ago, but I let Gandalf and Elrond put me off, and now..."

"Frodo - your nephew Frodo?" Grasping at the only detail in this anxious flood which made any sense to her, Rowanna tried to remember what Bilbo had told her of the heir who seemed to be the apple of his eye. "What ring, Bilbo? And who is after him?"

Her tutor shook his head in alarm. "No - no, I can't say! I shouldn't have said anything - even here one mustn't speak of such things, I begin to understand that now - please, my dear, don't press me!"

He was so distressed that Rowanna made no attempt to draw him any further on the subject. Instead, with gentle cajoling, she persuaded him to agree to go to his rooms and take some tea. Bilbo began to shuffle his papers together distractedly, but knocked a great swathe of them to the floor with his shaking hands. Stilling his protests, Rowanna bent to gather them up, leaving him to tidy away his quills and ink.

As she carefully collected the leaves of paper and parchment, her eye was caught by a single sheet on which a verse had been inscribed in Bilbo's characteristic spidery hand. The upper portion of the page was written in Elvish tengwar; the lower part contained the same number and length of lines in Westron, as though Bilbo had at some time copied out the verse above, and with his habitual love of translating poetry had then rendered it in the Common Speech below. She did little more than cast a glance at it - something about Elven-kings, and dwarf-lords, and mortal Men - but it was the last few lines which arrested her eye, and which, much later as she sought sleep that night, beat in her head to a steady metre of doom:

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them:
One Ring to bring them all,
And in the darkness bind them,
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie
.

~~~

Author's Notes:

The dark-haired Elven harpist whom Rowanna first encountered in Chapter 5 is Nenglîr, LOTR lover's OFC from her lovely fic Anticipation, who was graciously lent to me for this story.

When he meets Aragorn and the Hobbits in Flight to the Ford, Glorfindel tells them that news of their plight came to Rivendell via "some of my kindred, journeying in your land beyond the Baranduin"; it's not clear how many stages the news went through on its way to Rivendell, but I took the liberty of assuming that the messenger who actually reached Rivendell was of Glorfindel's/Gildor Inglorion's kin, and therefore, unlike most of the Noldor, would be blond.

The verse on Bilbo's parchment comes from FoTR Chapter 2, The Shadow of the Past.


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