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Ernil i Pheriannath: 1. The Golden Wood
Bilbo patted his pony’s neck and looked down the vale. Far below in the sunlight he saw a slender lake the color of the richest sapphire. Looking further into the distance, he could see green lands dropping away to a glint of silver, then a low, dark smudge beyond that. Mirkwood. Goody snorted and began rubbing her soft muzzle on his arm, wanting to get going. The old Hobbit laughed a little at her impatience but had to admit it was getting cold standing on the shadowed stair. He started down the Dimrill Stair again, Goody picking her way behind him. He did not have to lead her by the reins as she knew to follow.
A month of traveling and Bilbo was happier than he had ever been before. Here was an adventure! No wizard, no Dwarves, no Elves, just himself and his pony. Gandalf and Lord Elrond might think he was a doddering old invalid, but he felt like a Hobbit half his true age. It was odd that no one had been sent after him. They probably have been sent after you, Baggins. You just cannot see them! He chuckled to himself and continued down the stone stair, the clop of Goody’s hooves echoing softly in the narrow defile. To his right there was a sharp drop into a stone slot, the walls wet with spray from the Celebrant. In the cliff along his left hand, there were faint carvings of axes and ravens, weathered away through the years. They were like the carvings one could see in the High Pass above Rivendell, evidence of the ancient work of the Dwarves.
Thinking of the High Pass made him think of Orcs, and Bilbo’s humor faded somewhat. Thankfully, he had not run into any of the vile creatures as he journeyed south. He had followed the faint Elf track south from Rivendell, the one he and Elladan often took, but this adventure he had not stopped after one week and returned. He continued south along the track, though it had taken all of the skills the Elf and the Dúnadan had taught him in the last five years to stay on it, and it led him to the pass and the Stair.
He was not quite sure when the idea of his own adventure had seized him. Quite soon after he left the Shire. The tramp to Erebor had been enjoyable enough, but he wanted something his own. He remembered the tales his uncle Isengar would tell him, of ships and mountains and cities carved of stone and armies of men, and he wanted to see these wonders for himself. Last year, he had ridden out with Elladan to meet Arwen’s party as they traveled back from Lothlórien. They had ridden quite a ways further south than they usually did, for Elladan was loathe to leave his sister unescorted through the wild. That Elrohir was with her did not appear to count as an escort in the elder brother’s eyes. They camped that night below the mountains and Bilbo quietly listened to the Elves talk about the trip over the Stair. As he listened, a plan took form in his mind. He would travel to the Golden Wood himself, over the Stair, and see where adventure would lead him after that.
It is just another trip over the mountains, he reassured himself as he and Goody made their way to the dale below, and scarcely more difficult than the High Pass. For goodness sake, it is Dwarven stone work! It was comforting to think that this was not a completely wild place. It could not be, if the Dwarves had carved it and the Elves traversed it.
Bilbo came to a sudden halt when he realized that Goody was no longer right behind him. She was stopped a couple of yards back, and was intently watching the path ahead, nostrils flaring. She knew better than to make a sound. She might be a Breeland pony, but she had lived at Rivendell and the Elven steeds had taught her well. The Stair up ahead turned to the left and disappeared around an outcropping of rock. She was curious, not frightened, so he did not think it an Orc. An Elf? That was probably the case, but to be sure, Bilbo quietly drew String. It did not glimmer blue, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Even so, he kept it out and waited for whatever was below him on the Stair to approach.
To his delight, the person who rounded the corner was Aragorn. The Ranger came to an abrupt halt and stared.
‘Bilbo?’ The old Hobbit grinned at the look of astonishment on the Dúnadan’s face. Aragorn wiped his eyes as though to clear away a dream. ‘Bilbo Baggins? What are you doing here?’
‘I’m on an adventure, dear friend!’
‘But, but… You should not be here!’ Bilbo laughed merrily as the Ranger shook an admonitory finger. ‘You know it is too dangerous for you to be going about in the Wild. Are you all alone?’
Bilbo was laughing so hard he had to sit down on the Stair, wiping his eyes. Goody clopped down and nibbled on his hair. After a moment, Aragorn began to grin as well and chuckled, shaking his head. The Ranger joined Bilbo and sat.
‘Oh, Dúnadan, you sound just like one of the old hens back in Hobbiton scolding me to quit being so disreputable and find myself a good fat wife! “Bilbo Baggins”,’ he mimicked, ‘ “Are you still all alone? I know a nice girl down in Pincup who would make you quite happy. It’s not right for you to gad about without a wife!” ’ Aragorn laughed out loud at that and shook his head. Goody snorted and began nosing the Ranger, sampling his hair and lipping at his cloak. Aragorn rubbed her muzzle, finding an itchy spot near her chin. ‘But I have followed some advice. I did bring my Goodwife with me! I’m not all alone.’
‘So, Master Burglar, what are you doing here on the Dimrill Stair with only Goody for company,’ Aragorn asked once his mirth was under control. ‘It is not good for anyone to be wandering about by themselves in the Wild.’
‘I may wander, but I am not lost,’ Bilbo teased back. Now that he had to explain himself, he did feel a bit foolish. ‘I wanted to go on an adventure, Aragorn, and Gandalf and Elrond and you yourself and everyone at Rivendell were not inclined to help me, so I had to take things into my own hands.’
Aragorn sat silently and watched him for a long minute. Bilbo knew the other disapproved, and felt even more foolish. Then he became a little angry. He was not a child or a simpleton. He could do as he pleased even were it ill-advised. Big People needed to remember that being short of stature did not mean being short of wit as well. Or of curiosity. Or, for that matter, courage. Aragorn sighed, then chuckled again.
‘I shan’t scold you, Bilbo. It would be impertinent for a youngster like myself to take an old adventurer to task,’ the Ranger gently teased. ‘If the words of Lord Elrond and of Gandalf are not enough to turn aside a Hobbit’s stubbornness, then my own can have no greater effect. But why do you journey alone? Goodwife here is a sensible girl, ‘tis true, but not what I would call sufficient company for a long and dangerous journey.’
‘And you go about without so much companionship as Goody here all the time, Dúnadan!’ Bilbo cheerful countered. ‘In truth, I know not why there is not an Elf or two with me. I had thought, once it was known that I had tottered off, that someone would be sent to try to make me come back, or at least to keep me company. I suspect that I am watched. Poor Teiglin is probably a few hundred yards back up the Stair.’
‘Where are you, bound, Mister Baggins?’
‘To Lothlórien! Lady Arwen’s accounts of it have inspired me to pay a call.’
Aragorn sighed, then rose, dusting off his rump. ‘Very well, then. I will accompany you to the eaves of the Wood and make sure you arrive safely. Unless I can convince you to come back to Rivendell with me, for that is where I am bound.’
‘No, Aragorn, I have no wish to return to Rivendell, not before I’ve see a bit more of the world. And you needn’t interrupt your own business. Set me on the right path and I will find my way on my own. I have come so far already, it is but a few days more.’
Aragorn shook his head emphatically. ‘No, Bilbo. You are in a very dangerous place. There are many Orcs and dread things wandering these hills. If I cannot argue you to see reason and come with me, I must see you to Lothlórien. Gandalf will have my ears otherwise.’
Bilbo stood and gave the other an elaborate bow, gesturing for Aragorn to precede him. ‘Shall we continue, then?’
Aragorn nodded and set out down the stair. Bilbo followed, Goody bringing up the rear.
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