|School of Rings IV.
"All stand for the school song," said Elrond.
A few atonal horns drifted across the tune, followed by an enthusiastic rush of strings and brass. It was an uplifting song, though inexpertly attacked by the musicians. The school band was largely comprised of hobbits, a highly musical race, but not all the members were proficient. The philosophy of the school band was all-comers welcome.
Frodo stood with the other first years and began to sing:
Pleasant the home beneath the hill
Proud the tower, the winged crown, the fountain
The forest eternal--
"I haven't seen them. You don't think they're in trouble?" Frodo whispered back.
Around them, the singing continued. The hobbits sang with gusto; this part of assembly was genuinely well-liked by the Shirefolk. Similarly the dwarves roared out the tune. The elves sang with the pure, fluted notes and perfect pitch of choirboys. Among the humans, it was a piecemeal affair. Some of them sang well enough, but the cool groups tended to stand around looking bored.
"They skipped breakfast," said Sam.
"Please be seated," said Elrond. "We have a few brief announcements to make this morning."
A dais housed the ornate wooden podium at which Deputy Headmaster Elrond stood. Behind him sat Elladan and Haldir, and, on a little stool, Bilbo Baggins. The dais was used as a stage during school debates or the school play. Decorations on and around the dais represented each of the four houses: the bow and the leaf were carved elegantly into the dark wooden paneling. Elsewhere, in carefully equal prominence, the hammer and the anvil were carved in stone. The hall itself was a cathedral of pews, its walls and pillars soaring upwards to a ceiling so high it made Frodo dizzy to look up.
Haldir stood, and Elrond surrendered him the podium.
"Thank you, Deputy Headmaster," said Haldir. "As you all know, Frerin and Glorfindel are stepping down from the Student Council this term. I'd like to thank them for all their hard work last year."
"I wonder who the replacements will be?" said Sam.
"It's going to be an elf and a dwarf, for even numbers," said Frodo. "Bilbo says the Council has been made up of three elves, three humans and three dwarves for as long as he can remember."
He'd barely finished saying this when Haldir made the announcement.
"Grima Galmodson of Gondor, please come up to the stage to receive your badge of office." Shocked murmurs and cries sprang up across the hall. "And Frodo Baggins of the Shire."
"Did you hear that? Oh, did you hear that? Well done!" cried Sam.
"A hobbit! A hobbit!" Cheers all around him.
"It's only because Bilbo's his guardian," said one of the Sackville-Bagginses loudly and nastily.
Frodo felt Sam's hands in the small of his back pushing him out into the aisle between the seats almost before he knew what was happening to him. His cheeks were bright red as he made his way to the front of the hall. The tall human boys near the front created a tunnel of cheering that was dreamlike and difficult to walk through. He turned back to look at Sam, who was smiling from ear to ear, urging him on.
The Student Council? He was only a hobbit. And a first-year. He didn't know anything about anything! There was some mistake, surely.
"Congratulations. To think! My nephew." On the dais, Bilbo greeted him proudly.
Frodo, feeling strangely lightheaded, noticed that Bilbo's hand was deep in his pocket. What happened on the dais was a blur of jumbled impressions. Haldir bent down on one knee to pin the badge of office to the lapel of his school blazer, and Frodo felt a breathless wonder at that beautiful face so close, at eye level. Looking up he saw Elrond, distant and luminous. Grima and the impression of snake scales.
He and Grima were instructed to remain on stage and stood obediently beside Haldir while Elrond said a few words of congratulations. Then it was time for Bilbo to speak.
The podium was too large for a hobbit, but there was a microphone set up on the other side of the dais, and Bilbo made his way over to it, taking out few pages of notes, glancing at them, then returning them to the pocket of his waistcoat.
Frodo looked out at the hall, and smiled when his eyes found Sam. From the dais, it was obvious that not one but three seats beside Sam were now empty, but in the excitement, the two extra seats were easy to overlook. Frodo had forgotten all about Merry and Pippin.
Bilbo reached up for the microphone, drawing it down and adjusting it to his height.
"Good morning all," he began. There was an ear-piercing feedback shriek from the microphone. He fumbled with it a little. "Testing. Hello? Is that better? Ah yes."
The feedback cleared.
"We all know how these retirement speeches can be, but I shan't keep you long," said Bilbo. "I've promised not to talk about my book."
A few friendly cat-calls, mostly from the hobbits and the humans.
"First of all, I want to tell you how immensely fond I am of you all. Working as the librarian at Rivendell has been a privilege and a pleasure. Half a century is far too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits, such talented elves, such outstanding young men and such noble dwarves."
Each of the houses applauded as they were mentioned, the dwarves last and, as so often, loudest. Bilbo beamed down at the hall.
"Secondly, of course, to announce my retirement. As most of you know, today is my last day at Rivendell. It is also, coincidentally, my birthday, and the anniversary of my arrival by barrel at Esgaroth on the Long Lake, though the fact that it was my birthday slipped my mind at the time. I was much younger then, fifty one, I believe, and I had a bad cold, which was due to the lake and the barrel, not a method of travel that I would recommend, which reminds me. . ."
Even the hobbits were fidgeting by this point. Bilbo was infamous for his long reminiscences. His story wandered here and there and showed no sign of arriving anywhere at all until Elrond very politely cleared his throat.
"But that's in the past," said Bilbo. "The substance of the matter is that I'm leaving. I'll miss you all. Oh, there's one more thing. I regret to announce that I will not be staying to see out my classes today. It's time, you see. This is the end. I am leaving NOW. Goodbye!"
He stepped forward and vanished.
There was a blinding flash of light, and all the boys blinked and rubbed their eyes. Boromir squinted and shook his head to clear it. When he looked around a moment later, Bilbo was nowhere to be seen. All the boys in his year were craning their necks. Even the teachers on stage looked surprised. Elladan had risen to his feet and Elrond's mouth was an 'O'.
There was a dead silence, until suddenly, after several deep breaths, there was a sprinkle of sporadic clapping that quickly grew in volume to sustained applause. The magic nerds at the end of Boromir's row of seats immediately started discussing how it had been done. Radagast was saying something about flash powder and finding out from Gandalf when he returned from long service leave. "Brilliant," was the consensus from that direction. Lame, thought Boromir. Glancing to the right, where the elves were murmuring decorously, he saw Faramir lean in and whisper something into Legolas's ear.
His mouth turned down.
Aragorn skipped assembly.
He woke early, yawned, dressed and slung his sports bag over his shoulder. Emerging in the pre-dawn, he surveyed the sweep of the school, a chimney or two smoking already, the kitchens no doubt bustling with activity, the forest a dark shape over the hill. A long look, then he made his way to the hall used by the sword circle. This was a morning ritual. He liked to practice when the training hall was empty.
Sometimes he went back to Gondor for breakfast when the waking-bell rang, but most mornings he skipped the communal meal and then skipped school assembly, doing instead exactly as he pleased: he continued practicing, or he wandered down to Rohan and exchanged a word or two with the boys already up and seeing to their horses, or he simply ate a makeshift breakfast on the hill and watched the dawn become day. He was both a good and an unobtrusive student. His minor truancies went unnoticed.
Today he went straight to AE after practice, hoping to finish his Elven homework before the start of class.
The Advanced Elven classroom was empty when he arrived. The other students were still at assembly. He slung his school blazer over the back of the chair and unpacked his books. His hair, still damp from the toweling after his post-practice shower, curled a little at his jaw-line. They were studying the Namárië, which was all right, except that they were studying it in Quenyan, the ancient language from which modern Elven had sprung. This was quite a jump up from the intermediate class who had been learning in modern Elven how to ask for and give directions.
Aragorn knew the poem vaguely, but had never studied it, and while his Elven was fluent, he knew little or no Quenyan. The text was dense and overrun with footnotes that must be read three times before they could be understood. Only a profound effort of concentration stopped the words from blurring. Even relying heavily on his Quenyen-Elven dictionary, Aragorn struggled to draw out a translation. And all the paths something something shadows. Drowned by shadows? He glanced at the footnote, which was no help and even, arguably, made things worse.
* Note that ilyë, the pl. of ilya "all", is here used adjectivally and must therefore agree with the plural word that follows: tier pl. of tië "path".
"I'm behind," said Aragorn.
"You're human." Legolas placed his satchel neatly on the desk next to Aragorn's and sat down at the same time as he delivered this haughty remark. But words were less important than actions with elves. Legolas's tone was cool but another elf would have sat in the furthest seat in the classroom and said nothing at all.
Aragorn had been raised as a foster-son of Elrond and made welcome by Elrond's family, but the elves of Rivendell were a different matter. Friendships between elves and students of other races were nonexistent. Instinctively, Aragorn understood why: elves topped their classes academically, and they dominated in archery, daggers, cross-country riding and every discipline in which they competed including--until last year--swords. It was easy for them to believe in their own superiority. It was also easy for resentment to build up in those outside of Mirkwood who did not succumb to hero worship and awe.
Solitary by nature, Aragorn had remained friendly towards the elves of Rivendell while undisturbed by the fact that they did not welcome him into closeness. In first year, he had been no more liked or disliked than any other human, but all that had changed with Haldir's defeat.
This, then, was surprising. Legolas was the son of Thranduil of the Five Armies. He was first in archery. He sat on the Student Council, which in itself was a sign of pedigree or popularity. He would probably take over from Haldir as Student Council President next year. Legolas was surely the last elf likely to make an overture of friendship towards Aragorn the Upstart. The second last, after Haldir.
"Boromir says you were raised in the house of Elrond."
"You're a friend of Boromir's?"
"No. We're on Student Council together. He nominated you for a position, but there was an objection from the dwarves. And the elves. I've never seen Haldir and Balin agree before, but something about you created an accord. You're never going to finish that in time."
Legolas's gaze was uninterrupted, and it took Aragorn a moment to realize that the subject had shifted to the question marks and crossed out lines that made up his homework assignment. Around them, other students had begun to file into the classroom.
"Not now, I won't."
"May Elbereth protect you," said Legolas, "from being called on during class."
"Thank you," said Aragorn, dryly.
"Good morning, everyone. I trust there will be no further disappearances," said Elladan. "Please open your books to page four."
The instruction was a courtesy. Being an all-elven class, everyone's books were already open to the correct page.
"Aragorn," said Elladan, and Aragorn groaned internally. "Could you read the verse from "ar ilyë tier", and then we'll discuss your translation."
He felt Legolas's knee brush his under the desk, and then the flutter of something dropping into his lap. A note. Surreptitiously he unfolded it and glanced down. He flushed at the contents.
Legolas's lashes were golden and his eyes, fixed on Elladan, were as innocent as the sky.
The note, written in clear modern Elven, read:
and out of a grey country darkness lies
on the foaming waves between us,
and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya forever.