A Questionable Quest
The piece of cloth Thranduil had given her became Anna’s most prized possession, her own small piece of happiness. It still bore his scent and if she closed her eyes and allowed the delicate silken fabric to run through her fingers, any physical distance between her and him evaporated into nothingness. She was almost sure that it was the one he had used to blindfold her on her first day in the forest. It was her loyal companion while she slept, easing the feeling of loneliness that overcame her more often than not in the darkness of night, and she carried it with her wherever she went, reminding her always of why she was still here after all. Of course she kept this hidden from everyone, after all she did not want people to believe that she was acting strangely, and even less she wanted to have to give it back if she were spotted with it in hand.
For several days after the meeting with Thranduil in the library she was so elated that she felt like floating around with a glowing smile on her face and a generally cheerful mood seemed to suffuse the halls of Mirkwood. On the surface things had not changed much, she was still only a guest, albeit a slightly less alien one, and still she did not see as much of Thranduil as she would have liked to. He was for most of the time busy with his many obligations, but the few instances they did meet, be it in the hallways or during a dinner with his guests that she had been invited to, there was a distinct warmth emanating from him that enveloped her heart like the sunlight caressing a budding flower in spring.
Brethilwen seemed especially pleased with this development and she kept peppering Anna with questions about her encounter with the king. “It fills me with joy,” she told her one morning as she organised things in Anna’s room with the nonchalant grace Anna had come to admire in her, “to see the king so at ease. It is like a weight has been lifted from him. He has not been in high spirits like this in a very long time.” She turned around with a pile of sheets in her hands pressing them against her body and smiled. “Thank you for staying here.”
Anna was slightly embarrassed that she would think the king’s renewed liveliness was solely owed to her continuing presence. “I am sure that the change in his spirits must have other reasons too.” But deep down she knew very well what was the truth, the image of the heartfelt relief on his face when he had heard her words had forever been etched in her mind. “There was a sincerity about him when he asked me. It was not a command, but a wish. A wish I could not deny him.” She wanted to add, that she also did not have anywhere else to go, but instead she only said: “That is all.”
But Brethilwen would not hear of it. “No, my dear, do not underestimate the importance of your decision,” she said with a meaningful look and made to pick up the leftover food from the table when she realised that it was getting late. “I’m afraid, I will have to do the table later, but I will take the sheets with me.” She turned around slightly flustered. “If that is all right with you?”
Having a servant attending her still felt somewhat strange, so she simply assured her not to worry. “You can come back anytime whenever it is convenient for you. I will be possibly going out for another walk into the forest with Legolas.”
Brethilwen nodded in approval. “That sounds delightful, the prince is a very knowledgeable guide of our woods.” She gave Anna another brief smile and turned to leave, when a thought crossed her mind “Has he taken you to the Enchanted River yet?”
Anna shook her head. “No, I don’t think that we have ever gone that far from the palace. The king would not have allowed it. Legolas only has mentioned its existence to me once, warning me to stay away from it.”
“It is a place with strong powers and dangerous indeed. But you must see it.” Her eyes shone with a strange glow. “When the time is right.”
When Brethilwen had left the room Anna stayed for a while pondering her words. Curious how she always had a way of leaving her slightly confused.
Anna had only just finished getting dressed for the day, making sure her small treasure was securely nestled in her pocket, when a timid knock at the door prevented her from drifting yet into another possible daydream. She did not expect Legolas so soon, but maybe time had flown faster than what she had thought. “Yes, come in,” she called while throwing another quick look at her reflection in the mirror, which turned into a reproachful glance at her freckles, and tugging some wayward strands of her hair back into her braids with a sigh. Her mouth fell open when she saw the small shape of Bilbo Baggins emerge behind her in the mirror. “Mr. Baggins?” She turned around, all the same surprised and pleased at the fact that he had indeed considered to accept her offer. “What a nice surprise!”
He bowed apologetically and shuffled his feet nervously. “Well, to be honest, I did not want to bother you with my presence but I remembered your offer and I could dearly use some reasonable company for once.” He seemed quite distraught. She beckoned him to come closer, curious as to what was the reason of his annoyance.
“Please do sit down. And if you are hungry, there are still many leftovers from my breakfast. Apparently the elves think that I must be starving.” A chuckle escaped her and when she saw his eyes drawn to the food she quickly pulled up another chair for the hobbit.
“This is very kind of you indeed. I have not had a proper first or second breakfast in quite a long time.” He happily reached for the fresh loaf of bread and served himself some slices of cheese and ham to go with it.
“Would you like something to drink too? I am afraid I have only water if that is all right with you? I know that the king has some excellent wine in his cellar, but I assume that for this time of the day it would not be a wise choice anyway.” She pointed at the pitcher on the table and offered him a mug. “Water will do just fine, thank you very much.”
He poured himself some water while he dwelled on her last words. “It does seem that the king enjoys himself a good wine. And he is not averse to feasting either. I have already assumed that there must be a wine cellar somewhere to quench all that thirst. Strange that I still have not come across it.”
“You would have to go down to the lowest levels of the palace. I have been there only once and seen the barrels that are kept there. And believe me there are many of them!”
For a while busy munching and gulping sounds were the only things heard in the room. Anna leaned back in her chair and observed the little man, legs dangling in the air on his oversized chair, and was wondering how he had gotten to the Elvenking’s halls and even more why he was here with the dwarves and what was this peculiar quest all about. Maybe now that he had come to visit her, he would be more willing to reveal some of those secrets.
Bilbo noticed her lingering looks and once he had swallowed the last bite he reached for a napkin to clean his mouth, slid back in his chair to make himself comfortable and folded his hands on his belly. “Much better now.” He gave her a polite smile and raised his eyebrows with a knowing look. “I know that you have many questions on your mind, but I am afraid that I may not be able to answer all of them to your satisfaction, as I am bound to a certain degree of secrecy.”
She nodded in agreement. “I understand. But please do tell me, what caused you to be so upset today?”
“My dear, if you knew the dwarves like I do, you would be aware that they are a bit grumpy and quite stubborn and having a reasonable conversation with them can be as rewarding as an argument with an obstinate toddler. The thing is that all of them seem to be convinced that I will somehow be able to find a way out of the Elvenking’s halls.” He frowned and shook his head in dismay. “Unfortunately I must say that I have not been able to find anything. And soon we will be running out of time.”
“You mean because of this quest?”
“Yes, every day spent here is a day lost.” He sighed and his eyes trailed off into the distance.
“But can you not tell me at least something about this quest? I am really curious.” She added quickly “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
He gave her a scrutinising look through squinty eyes. “You seem like a really nice lady and I am indeed very grateful for your hospitality but I am afraid that I can only give you a very limited account.”
“A little bit is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?” She smiled briefly at him and then she was all ears.
“Very well. The dwarves, they lost their home. It was taken from them by the —,” he paused and pondered as how to circumnavigate the tricky parts. “Well, never mind by whom, they lost everything in a most tragic incident. And then an opportunity arose for them to reclaim their homeland, to take back what was stolen from them. A wizard came into play and then my humble self was finally added to the company. We set out last April from Bag End, which would be my home. We have overcome many obstacles until we got trapped here. And we need to be at our destination on Durin’s Day, and that is soon, too soon for my liking.”
Her eyes widened slightly. “But if you have a wizard in your company, he surely will be able to help. Isn’t that why wizards are vested with special powers?” She was just a little bit proud that her visits to the library had not been for naught.
“So you know about wizards?” he shifted his eyebrows in skepticism. “Do they have wizards where you come from? I mean this other world you have been mentioning.”
“No, I do not think so. But to be honest I would not know, because I cannot remember anything about my old world. But I have read about wizards in the king’s library.” She wanted to keep the conversation about Bilbo and the quest and not about her, but it was obvious that he was as interested in her secrets than she was in his.
He nodded, apparently satisfied for the moment with her explanation. “Of course, yes, books can be formidable teachers indeed. Anyway the wizard I am talking about would not be able to offer us any help, because he is not with us now. He had to attend some urgent wizarding business of his own.” He shrugged as if this was the most common thing for wizards to do. “But while he is around, he is indeed a very useful asset to have, with that magic staff of his and all.”
“So who is this wizard then, what is his name?” Her curiosity was certainly stirred up now.
“He apparently goes by many names, but most commonly he would be known as Gandalf the Grey.” Bilbo lent his words as much weight as possible, but the name dropping did not have the desired effect as she only looked at him slightly confused. “Doesn’t ring a bell then?”
“I am not quite sure. I did read about one called Mithrandir, could that be him?”
“Yes, yes it is indeed. That is the name the Elves have given him. Elrond of Rivendell also calls him by that name.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment. “You have been to Imladris? And actually met Master Elrond?” This Mr. Baggins was full of surprises apparently. He seemed slightly flattered and nodded. “Yes, I have. I have been his guest with the company of the dwarves and Gandalf. A very lovely place, peaceful valley, a hidden paradise of perfect beauty that is.” A glow was in his eyes and a glorified smile dawned on his face.
“Oh, it must be wonderful indeed. I have read quite a bit about it, and if I ever get out, I mean, if I ever have a chance to go there, I would very much like to see this place.” She fell suddenly silent, fearing that she had once again deviated the conversation back to her.
And indeed, Bilbo took a renewed interest in her situation and a thought seemed to take shape in his head. He looked at her intently and leaned closer. “You know my dear, I do actually think that if you are in need of help concerning your ‘situation’ Gandalf may be just the one to ask. His knowledge is quite extensive, so he could have a solution even for your unusual problem.” He gave her an encouraging look, served himself some more water and leaned back in the chair, allowing her to digest his suggestion.
She was silent for a moment, nodding slowly. “But did you not say that he has left? I mean, it does sound like a good idea, but first I would need to find him.”
“That may indeed be a problem,” Bilbo had to acknowledge her objection. “In my limited experience with Gandalf I have gotten to the conclusion that he cannot be found, but he will find the ones in need.” He put the mug back on the table and his voice took on a serious tone. “If I make it out of here on time and we do complete our quest then I should be able to see Gandalf again, as he has agreed to meet us at our destination. And when I do, I will tell him about you.” A kind smile spread on his face. “You have offered me your hospitality and I do not have anything to give in return. So the least I can do is to try to help you in any way I can.”
Bilbo’s brown eyes showed sincere sympathy and she smiled back at him. “That is very kind of you, Mr. Baggins.” She blushed, visibly moved by his offer.
“You should call me Bilbo and whenever you either remember your old name or happen to come across a new one, make sure you let me know.”
“Yes, I will, I promise.”
With a sudden jolt of energy Bilbo rose from his chair and prepared to leave. “If I am ever to meet Gandalf then I better find this confounded exit, if it is indeed to be found.”
“Yes, of course.” With sadness in her heart she realised that she would maybe not see him again. “So it is good bye then Bilbo?”
He straightened his waistcoat, shaking off the last breadcrumbs. “For now at least, but we may yet meet again.”
Anna led him to the door and reached out for his hand. “I want to thank you for the help that you have offered me. I sincerely wish you and your friends all the best.”
“The pleasure is all mine and I am glad if I can somehow be of assistance.” And with a smile that made his eyes crinkle and a curt bow he slipped out the door and was soon swallowed by the darkness of the hallway.
Anna spent the rest of the day slightly downcast and absentminded and not even the company of Legolas was able to lift her spirits. The walks into the forest were usually a welcome distraction and she had always enjoyed the time with the king’s son. But today was different, all this talk about a home lost and Bilbo’s desperate attempt to find a way out so it could be reclaimed had pulled at her heartstrings in the strangest of ways. And the far away possibility that a wizard might be able to give her answers to her questions was like a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. But was it really hope? Or was it rather fear? Fear of what those answers could be.
She reached for the fabric inside her pocket feeling its softness against her skin and it was as if two forces were tearing at her heart in opposing directions, threatening to shatter it into a million pieces. Torn in between her feelings for the king and the pull she felt towards a home she did not even know if it still existed. She had chosen to stay here out of what she believed to be love, but how could she even be sure that Thranduil would reciprocate those feelings? After all he had not made any promises, nor any further advances, besides being now generally good-natured towards her. Had she forsaken her whatever slim chances of getting back home for something that only existed in her imagination? Her spirits sank as the dismal clouds of doubt descended on her, clutching her heart in a suffocating grip.
Little did she know that rather sooner than later things would come thick and fast, turning upside down her fragile life at the palace.
The seed of curiosity which Bilbo had unintentionally planted had taken root and sprouted into a sapling that eagerly reared its head towards the surface and would not be plucked any more from her heart. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away from her eyes, revealing a wider world that lay behind the walls of this palace and even beyond the dense woods surrounding it.
The next day after breakfast she decided that she needed to find out more about those dwarves. Lucky for her, she had been granted more liberties lately. The level of surveillance had considerably lessened and for most of the time she was now allowed to walk the halls of the king on her own. Only when it came to leave the palace, Thranduil had maintained his strict orders and she was either to be accompanied by his son Legolas or once in a while Tauriel, whose initial distant attitude towards her was only slowly shifting towards a hesitant level of trust. She could not quite tell what it was that Tauriel did not like about her, because no harsh words ever left her mouth, but there was always a lingering tension in between them.
As she strolled along the dim hallway that led from her room down to the lower levels of the palace and towards the cells, she was glad to find her path practically deserted. Brethilwen had told her that tonight there was going to be another feast, so most elves were busy with preparations in either the kitchens or the designated hall being adorned for the festivity tonight.
Doubts about her undertaking resurfaced as she took another sharp bend down the labyrinthine pathways. What if the dwarves would even refuse to talk to her? After all they did not know her at all. What if she just got herself into trouble for nothing? Wasn’t she even betraying Thranduil’s trust in engaging in a conversation with the dwarves?
She pushed those thoughts aside and picked up her pace, but a bitter aftertaste with an uneasy feeling in her stomach remained when she finally reached the narrow ledge of the stairway spiralling down to the cells.
But to her surprise someone was already there. Someone she did not expect at all.