For a time, the orc-kind hunted their helpless prey in sport, but soon were called away by the greater power that had sent them so far West, falling back to the blackened fields and wasted smials. They had done what they had come to the Shire to do, and their master was brooding on future conquests.
Lost, weary and unused to the wilds, it was only through sheer luck that the survivors wandered into the pathways that the dwarves had cut and hidden on the Blue Mountains, and luck again that the summer profits in Ered Luin that year had been great enough to permit taking in and supporting the refugees. For although the Shire folk had not known it then, Ered Luin too had been built by refugees fleeing a great calamity, and its people remembered what it was like to be adrift, friendless and helpless.
It's still early enough into the evening that Bofur surely does not truly need to light the tapers as yet, but he's engaged in something delicate, it seems, his thick fingers busy on a knob of wood and his paring knife - he doesn't even look up when Bilbo circles the table to have a look.
"Someday you'll have to tell me how it is that you always know that I'm there."
"Oh, don't y'worry," Bofur grins in a brief flash of white teeth, though he doesn't turn his eyes away from the wood as he flicks off a sliver. "You ain't getting soft. Nobody visits this old place at this time of night and I felt a wee bit of a draft, so I guessed."
"Meaning sometimes you guess wrongly?" Bilbo asks, amused at the thought.
Bofur isn't embarrassed in the least. "It's worth it when I am right, eh? You're impressed, admit it, Master Burglar."
"I was, until you conceded that it was a matter of guesswork." Bilbo retorts, though he grins as he says it, probably the only hint of white in his current get-up of gray tunics and a lightweight leather vest and bracers, stained unevenly dark to blend into the shadows. His hood has been pulled back over his cloak, the fabric artfully discoloured to resemble old, dusty cloth, and at his hip his knife's hilt is a dull matte that won't gleam even in candlelight.
"So what can I do yer for," Bofur glances up, finally. "Weren't you heading out t'day?"
"Mechanism's a little stiff," Bilbo unbuckles one of his bracers and sets it on the toymaker's bench. There's a cunning, wicked contraption strapped to the underside, like a spring-loaded miniature crossbow, and Bofur picks it up and checks the spring, then takes it apart with practiced ease. He oils it up, tests the flex, then puts it back together and hands it back with a flourish.
"There ye go. All set. And I won't hear about payment for such a trifle," Bofur adds, when Bilbo opens his mouth. "Come back in one piece and I'll count us even."
"Hm," Bilbo notes, by way of response - as he always does - and Bofur's friendly smile wilts a fraction: as it always does. He hasn't quite figured that one out yet: but today, as before, it's a question for tomorrow. "Thank you, Master Bofur."
"It's just Bofur," Bofur corrects absently, though he swivels in his chair to watch Bilbo go, as he bows, slips out of the toymaker's shop and into the street.
Primula melts out of the alley next to the shop to fall into step with him as they trot briskly towards the night gate, her grin broad and wicked: they pass Bombur's grocery, then later, Ori's tiny little scribeshop, both closed for the day, before Bilbo grows tired of her smugness. "Yes?"
"Don't you think that it's about time...?" Primula has the cheek to ask.
"Time to what? Work?"
"There was nothing wrong with your bolter and he probably knew that as much as I did."
Bilbo sighs. "That's none of your concern, Prim."
"Oh yes? Maybe I should tell Master Nori that you've been getting your tools picked over by a toymaker and not a right proper smith, eh?"
"You tell him that and I'll tell him that you've been sneaking off-quota items to an unnamed swain on the side."
Primula bristles. "Everyone does it!" Bilbo, however, merely smiles gently if pointedly, and after a while, when they're nearly at the gate, Primula huffs. "Fine. You win. But really, Bilbo, Nori will find out sooner or later."
"So what if he does?"
"Well," Primula flounders, "It isn't right for an outsider t'be involved in Guild business, is it? The smiths we usually go to are contractors, after all."
"This isn't Guild business and Nori will see it that way," Bilbo retorts, if with a touch more conviction than he really feels, but then they're at the night gate, and one of the guards takes their names. The Captain assigned for the night, Glóin, gruffly wishes them good luck as they saddle up on scruffy, well-bred mountain ponies.
Once out of the gate, Primula settles into a workmanlike, watchful silence, and Bilbo forgets the matter of toymakers and quotas for the moment as they descend down the hidden paths in silence. They make good time down the slope, and their ponies quiet only when the paths start to peter out. Out of necessity, the Great Road lies untended: the orc patrols about the mountain's foothills have amplified over the months, though they haven't yet ventured past the main treeline.
They ride in silence until they reach the first, concealed checkpoint, waiting for the flash of a signal from the guardpost built cunningly high in the branches of an old oak, before taking their ponies further down. It's growing darker now, the branches and leaves almost obscuring all of the moonlight, but their ponies are bred to be surefooted on the slopes, and they know these routes now by heart.
Bilbo gives the order to stop only once, when he hears the distant howl of a wolf, but after a tense moment of silence he decides that it's just a wild animal, not one of the orcs' twisted pets, and they descend further, winding through the pine and oak, breathing in the clean scents of scrub and bark and leaf-mould. There'll be less of such comforts the further East that they venture, and they're still in the safe lands, for now.
The quiet won't last, though. It hardly ever does, these days.
When Primula manipulates the hidden weighted levers of the door and pulls it open, however, a crossbow bolt shoots past her and embeds itself into the tree behind her. She yelps, and Bilbo clasps a hand over the hilt of his knife, then he frowns, hissing, "Paladin!"
Paladin grimaces at him, pale and shaking, pressed against the wall, his bolter hand dropping to the ground, his free hand clenching a rag against a seeping wound at his ribs. "Sorry, so sorry," he gasps, even as Primula hurriedly leads their ponies into the bolthole and Bilbo steps out to pull the bolt from the tree.
Primula's already starting to tend to Paladin's wound from their supplies by the time Bilbo rolls the stone door closed behind them, and he looks Paladin over critically. The other Burglar's lost blood for a time, but it's not fatal: still, enough to be serious. There's scratches on his face and hands, and several shallower lacerations over his thighs, but he's bleeding heaviest from a deep graze to his ribs.
"Goblins?" Bilbo says at last, frowning, then, "Where's Daisy?"
"Still out there," Paladin hisses as Primula pulls away his vest and then efficiently cuts away his tunic. "Must be... five, six miles East, when we split up. We were going to meet back here - oh Eru, that hurts - goblin ambush. Careless."
It had been a seemingly abandoned merchant's cart, Bilbo learns, the frightened cows yoked to it still and lowing in fright, pulling at their traces. Paladin had been wary, but Daisy had been excited. Livestock would have been a great find: would have gone a good deal towards a quota, even if the merchant's cart had held nothing else. The goblins had been hidden in the long-overgrown fields beside the road.
"Must've dragged the poor beasties up from Bree-land," Paladin concludes with a grunt and a wince. "Damned goblins. They're getting smarter. Bolder."
Bilbo nods slowly. He doesn't need to be told that. Goblin and orc patrols no longer feared daylight, not even in the lowlands in the shadow of the Mountain, and trade had all but dried up from the East. Only the few fastness and Holdings of the fisher-folk further West from Ered Luin had remained, for now. Eastwards, there was only Bree-land within the stretches of overrun ruin between Ered Luin and Rivendell, and the Elves had long withdrawn into their magic.
"Still have your pony, at least." Bilbo pets the beast as it nuzzles Myrtle's neck for reassurance. "Can you get back to Ered Luin yourself?"
"We'll look for Daisy," Primula assures him. "She's good. Can't be far."
"I'll leave a note," Paladin agrees, a little doubtfully, once he catches his breath. "You'll best be leaving your ponies here, though, if you're going further East."
"We saw a patrol. Orc. Maybe they were looking for you," Primula concedes, with a little frown. "Be careful."
"I'm always careful," Paladin notes, with a touch of his usual Tookish mischief, and leans back against the walls. "You be careful."
"I've got Bilbo with me," Primula shrugs, and smirks when Bilbo rolls his eyes. "You know what he's like."
"Ered Luin's only sensible burglar," Paladin drawls, with a wink, and Bilbo sighs but allows them a laugh at his expense. Paladin's near to fainting from the pain, and he'll need all the distraction he can get to ride back home safely.
He worries a little on the way down, until Primula snorts and nudges him in the ribs, then he shakes himself into alertness. They quietly trace Paladin's probable route, sweeping the area, but then they get as close to daybreak as they dared near the foothills, and scurry up an oak to secure themselves down to rest and wait out the day.
"D'you think she's all right?" Primula whispers once, before they settle down to sleep.
"I'm sure," Bilbo murmurs, though he isn't. The orc patrols were unusually thick on their way down, and they themselves had run into a couple of close calls. He can only hope that Daisy too had hidden up a tree to wait until the heat had settled.
They cross further East when it's dark again, and decide not to keep looking for Daisy. If she's got any sense, Primula notes, she'll be in the bolthole by now, and Bilbo has to agree - the orc patrols have gone back to their normal sweeps, and they head Eastwards on their usual pace.
The overturned merchant's cart is still there, and although the animals seem to be still yoked to it, they give it a wide berth. It takes them a couple of nights' worth of good time to make it to the edges of the Shire, and by then, they've left the roving patrols behind. Primula stands straighter, but Bilbo's still wary. The orc and goblin-kind may have seemingly long abandoned their rampage through the Shire lands, but his nerves are unsettled by Paladin's mishap.
"Oh, come on," Primula tries to cheer him up, if in a hushed whisper, as they step quietly through the blackened husks of trees in the Rushock Bog. The bogland is now dead, its waters brackish and pools thick with flies, but they pick through it quickly with the ease of practice, confident. "We're past those nasty patrols now."
"Maybe." Bilbo murmurs, and tries not to jump at shadows as they step quietly towards Hobbiton proper. The few hobbit holes that they pass on the way have long been burned out or filled with stinking refuse, but there are different ways down into the hobbit holes, here and there, and, more importantly, hidden ways into the underground granaries and seed banks still buried beneath Tuckborough.
They dutifully fill their packs to brimming with the seed quotas first, their footfalls without echo in the large, now dark storage vaults of the once prosperous Took clan, and as they start to head out, it's only Bilbo's unsettled nerves that has him drag Primula sharply back behind a storage silo at the sound of a faint scrape.
She frowns at him sharply, then settles down, slowing her breath and quietly drawing her knife, even as Bilbo does the same, waiting. They turn out their senses as they've been taught, even as Bilbo starts to circle away in the shadows of the silent vault, hoping to flank whatever it is that might be in there with them - then he stiffens suddenly as he catches Primula's eyes - they're round with horror, staring at a space just behind him.
It's only instinct that has him turn, bolter up, and he fires true - the bolt slamming into the hairy, many-eyed bulbous head of a spider as big as Myrtle. It drops, dead, but Bilbo dives away at another quick movement in his peripheral vision, and another spider pounces out onto the space where he had been, huge mandibles stabbing into space. It staggers back instantly, Primula's bolt buried in its head, and they don't wait to see if there are more - Bilbo and Primula are running for the exit at full pelt.
They stop only when they're in the woodlands west of Tuckborough, out of breath and still frightened, but there are no more skitters in the dark, only comfortable shadows. Primula sinks against a tree, pale and shaking. "What in the name of Yavanna was that?"
Bilbo shudders, and says nothing, his hands planted on his knees, breathing out harshly. Finally, he mutters, "No webs. I would've thought-"
"Spiders that big wouldn't need webs," Primula cuts in, rubbing at her face. "They could hunt like wolves or lions! Valar save us. If they've come and taken over the Shire..."
"If they have, we've got to find out," Bilbo says grimly. "Come on."
Reluctantly, Primula gets to her feet, and they check as much of Hobbiton as they dare as the dark dwindles, and find no other giant spiders. Primula's mood is greatly improved when they stumble on a hidden cellar, buried into a hill, close to Warmeet, still well-stocked, and they take as many bottles as they can carry, wrapping them up in cloth in their packs before sealing the cellar again and marking it on their maps.
Then they head homewards, in fair spirits. "Probably just some monsters driven West from Rivendell," Primula keeps saying, as though to reassure them both, as they pick their way westwards, packs full and heavy. "Blast. We probably shouldn't have left the carcasses in the seed halls. Nori might be upset about it."
Bilbo nods, but he knows that the two of them would never have been able to move the giant spiders out, not by themselves, even if they could bring themselves to hack them into smaller pieces or something equally horrific, and worse - there might have been more of them in the dark spaces between the silos. Still, he allows himself a tentative amount of good humour: he's over quota, and perhaps one of the wine bottles could go to... well. Perhaps.
"I don't think your 'swain' likes wine," Primula whispers at him when they settle down for the day, and he pulls a face at her.
Maybe not, then.
The next day, Bilbo was beginning to wish a little furtively that they had stayed longer in Hobbiton, so that he could have perhaps scrounged up something more suitable as an off-quota gift, when Primula grips his wrist tightly. In the distance, they can see the overturned cart. The animals are gone, but on a tree branch, overhanging the abandoned cart, is a broken body, hanging by its neck from the branch.
Primula lets out a low sob, and Bilbo hastily claps his hand over her mouth. He forces himself to take in the detail with a longer glance, then he tugs at her elbow, then drags at it when she doesn't move.
"We can't just leave her there," Primula whispers. "What if she's still-"
"She's not, Prim, Valar, she's not," Bilbo whispers back. "And it'll be us next if we stay here. Come on!"
Despite his fears, they make it back to the bolthole with only a single close call - Primula had spotted a hidden goblin ambush when one of the goblins had moved against a shrub and shaken it - and they sneak quietly back to their ponies with little mishap. It's tempting to ride back home immediately, but again, they wait for dark; once Bilbo rolls the door closed in the bolthole, Primula starts to cry, quietly, facing the wall: it's only through the shaking of her shoulders and the clench of her hands that Bilbo even knows that she is weeping.
They dismount and fall into step beside him as Nori starts to head back towards Guild headquarters. "How's Paladin?" Primula asks.
"Fine," Nori mutters. "Confined to bed-rest for now. Been asking about Daisy every hour, poor mite. Mahal. Later," he adds, when Bilbo starts to speak. "Not out in the street. How's the haul?"
"Wine," Bilbo murmurs uncomfortably. The sight of poor Daisy had long soured any hint of triumph that Primula and himself had felt about finding the cellar, but Nori still nods curtly.
"Wine'll fetch a good price - if it's any good, that is, of course. Good work," he adds gruffly, when Primula only nods faintly.
"Are you going to tell the Guard?" she asks, as they turn down a side-street, away from the steadily noisier thoroughfare. It's past dawn, and the streets are growing sturdy with their usual business.
"Sure I'll have to," Nori mutters. "After I talk to Daisy's mum and da' and all, o' course."
Nori's face is long and a little ashen, and Bilbo nods, slowly. "Second incident in a month," he adds quietly. "And there's more. In Hobbiton-"
"Mahal, there's more?" Nori groans. "Here. Wait. I'm probably going to need to sit down."
The Guild's quartered under the Skylark taverns, past the cellars, in an orderly warren of boltholes, storage vaults, sleeping quarters and training rooms. Nori's office is in the centre of it all: not so much an office but a meeting space, a long stone workbench where piles of ledgers and lists and maps line up in a motley wall of yellowing paper and drying ink bottles. Nori settles into a chair wearily, and at a gesture, the two hobbits in the room patiently attending to the ever-impossible ordeal of tidying up the desk nod at them and leave.
"Now, what's this about more?"
Bilbo tells Nori about the seed silos, interspersed now and then by Primula, and Nori looks grim, but not surprised. At the end of it all, he leans back against the chair, pulling absently at his beard, lost in thought. Bilbo still can't place his age - and if he hadn't known who Nori was, in the street, he wouldn't have been able to place his occupation, either. Nori is dressed unassumingly in brown tunics that hide his leather vest, and his bracers are mostly unadorned, his fingerless gloves worn and stained. His own noticeable aspect are his great tufts of hair, worn in three large triangular points from his face, but Bilbo knows personally how quickly these can be smoothed down, in time for Nori to disappear into a crowd if need be.
"There's been talk," Nori says finally, "In the fisher towns. The Elves call these... huge spiders... Ungoliant's children. They're a symptom of the Corruption. Spreading out from the Greenwoods, and such."
"So there's going to be more of them?" Primula grimaces.
"Maybe." Nori scowls at the thought. "I'm going to need to have a think about this."
"We need those seed banks still," Bilbo points out quietly, and when Nori glares at him, he holds up his hands, palms up. "It's going to be a hard winter."
"Who's Guildmaster, eh? Me, or you? Leave the worrying about the city quota to me, Mister Baggins," Nori growls. "Now, what happened to Daisy? Y'saw her body?"
Bilbo does all of the telling, this time, Primula staring hard at the desk, and at the end of it, even the seemingly hardened Nori is grim and a little pale. He stays silent for a long time, until Bilbo starts to shift his feet, then he sighs. "Leave the worrying about that to me, as well. Let's look at the take, then the two of you had better get a good, long rest."
Dutifully, they hand over the seed packs and the bottles. Bilbo's too tired to try and hide any of the take, and he can see that Primula's the same - then he blinks as Nori, after sorting through the labels, picks out two bottles, handing one to Bilbo, and another to Primula. "Call it a bonus," Nori says, then adds, when Primula's eyebrows arch, "Don't think that I'll be getting into the habit of it."
"Thank you, Master Nori," Primula says, and manages a weak grin that Bilbo tries to mirror.
"Now out with the two of you, I need to think. And," Nori adds, with a frown, "Don't spread this about. I'll handle Paladin and the others. Mahal willing, this doesn't have to go all the way to Thorin."
Nori doesn't sound hopeful about that, though, and it drives in the gravity of the last few nights as they head quietly out of the Guild halls. At the unassuming entrance, past the posted guard, Primula clasps Bilbo's arm. "Go home, Bilbo."
"I will," Bilbo assures her, and adds, "After a fashion," with a grin.
"Seriously, you're better off selling that bottle in the markets and buying That One a scarf," she tells him loftily, and he sniffs.
"I was going to get breakfast, you tart."
"Well, just..." Primula trails off, uncharacteristically, then squares her shoulders. "I'm off. Get some rest. I have a feeling that we won't be getting as much time off as we normally would, this time."
"Nori's scrupulous about rest," Bilbo disagrees. "Oh, stop worrying, Prim. Go moon about Drogo's window."
She mimes boxing his ears, but he ducks away quickly with a forced laugh, and they melt into the morning traffic on quiet feet, pulling up their hoods, separating in the next junction, their hearts still heavy with slow grief and horror, the shock of the last few days still quietly catching up on them. Bilbo folds his hands into his pockets with a little sigh, watching the mingled, growing traffic of dwarves and hobbits pass by, and lifts his chin, peering up towards the carven halls further up from the market quarters, to the administration caverns.
He doesn't envy Nori the day to come, even as he slips through the crowd towards his home above Bombur's grocery, hesitating only once in the street, as he looks up the rise towards the toymaker's shop, then he shakes his head, murmurs to himself, and keeps walking. Maybe tomorrow.