Bilbo Baggins would like to say that he thought long and hard about whether to join the company of dwarves that barged into his life one night with a promise of adventure and entirely possible incineration. He would like to be able to say that he weighed the pros and cons, perhaps made a list, maybe even consulted the wiser folk of the Shire (not that there were very many of those). But in fact, what he did was read too many books and spend too much time exploring hollows in the safe, green woods of the Shire, and get it into his head that that was all that adventure was. What he did was decide, in a moment of madness, that he would like to be like the folk in those books, to meet the elves and explore the hollows of greener woods beyond the borders of the only place he'd ever known. At the time, it seemed like the obvious choice.
What he did not do was consider that elves were not the only strange race out there to be discovered. What he certainly did not do was consider that there was just the outside possibility that he might encounter orcs.
“What?” he said to Balin. Surely he must have misheard. “I'm sorry, what?”
“Aye, laddie,” the old dwarf said, peering at the misshapen footprint in the mud. “The filthy beasts came through this way, all right.” He turned back to the rest of the company, catching up now to where the two of them stood in the midst of what Bilbo had previously thought was a rather innocent-looking sunlit glade. “Thorin,” he said. “Orcs. They must have passed through just before dawn.”
Bilbo wasn't sure what he had expected Thorin's reaction to be, nor the rest of the company, for that matter. He knew only a few vague, half-heard stories about orcs, and they had always made him shudder and turn back to his fire and his books of elves. Surely, then, they would turn aside from the path, do everything they could to avoid encountering these dreadful beasts?
But the company merely shifted slightly in their saddles, glancing at each other and then at Thorin. As for Thorin himself, he sat up a little straighter, if that was at all possible, and lifted his chin. Perhaps it was just his general kingliness, but Bilbo could have sworn he saw something else in the set of his chin. Something hard and angry and -- eager? Dismounting, he knelt in the dirt and traced the edge of the footprint with a finger, then stood and nodded at Balin.
“Then we must hurry if we are to catch them while they still sleep,” he said.
There was a general murmur of assent, and Bilbo saw that Fili had also dismounted, sword half drawn like he thought the orcs would come crashing in at any moment -- and for all Bilbo knew, they would. Fili, too, looked almost excited by the news. It was something Bilbo had already rather suspected, but this was definite confirmation. Dwarves were quite, quite mad.
“Catch them?” Bilbo said as Thorin turned back towards his pony. “I'm sorry, did you say catch them?”
Thorin glanced down at him. “That is what I said, Master Baggins,” he said. “And if you are to be of help to us, you will go ahead and find their camp. Fine work for a burglar.”
“Find their camp?” Bilbo asked, his voice becoming rather high-pitched.
“Bofur, you will go with Bilbo,” Thorin said. “You know the tracks of orcs.”
“I don't think--” Bilbo started, but he was interrupted by Fili, who took two steps forward.
“I'll go,” he said. “I know them better than anyone.”
Thorin considered him for a moment, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “Bofur.”
“Er, excuse me,” Bilbo tried waving a hand in the air to see if that would catch anyone's attention. It did not.
“Uncle--” Fili started, but Thorin raised a hand.
“We will not have this conversation again,” he said.
“Would everyone please just listen!” Bilbo shouted, louder than he had really intended to. He was rewarded by the sight of twelve pairs of eyes staring at him. Gandalf, he noted, had slipped off somewhere, just when Bilbo needed him to talk some sense into these confounded dwarves. He cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the other.
Thorin raised an eyebrow. “We're listening, Master Baggins,” he said.
“Well, I just,” Bilbo glanced around at them all, hoping someone else would see what a terrible idea this was. But there was nothing to suggest that any of them thought it strange in the slightest. “Would someone explain to me why we want to catch up with the orcs?” he said finally.
The corner of Thorin's mouth twitched downward, but it was Fili who answered.
“So that we can kill them,” he said. “So that we can wipe their stinking filth from the face of the earth.”
Bilbo swallowed around a lump in his throat. In truth, he had not known any of the company for many days, Gandalf excepted, but he had never heard Fili speak in such a tone before. It sent shivers down his spine.
“Ah,” he said.
In fact, Bilbo decided as he did his best to slip through the forest without attracting the attention of any orcs that might be out for a stroll, it was all probably Gandalf's fault. Gandalf had brought the dwarves to his door, after all, and Gandalf had told them all that he was a burglar. Gandalf had suggested that all this would be an adventure. Perhaps it was an adventure, but if so, Bilbo was rapidly coming to the conclusion that adventures were not at all like he'd imagined them. And now, of course, Gandalf had wandered off somewhere, and left Bilbo to track murderous beasts through the forest. He could, of course, have refused. But then he would have faced the wrath of Thorin, and quite possibly been left alone to fend for himself in an apparently orc-infested wood. No, his only option was to be as quiet as he possibly could.
“Found another one,” said Bofur, stumping over to him from the path, breaking every twig on the forest floor as he passed. Bilbo winced and raised a finger to his lips. Bofur shrugged and pointed back to where Bilbo could see what was probably a footprint in the churned mud. Bofur held his hands up, perhaps eighteen inches apart. Bilbo swallowed hard. Orcs were big, then. Bigger than dwarves, much bigger than hobbits.
Mad, they were all mad.
Bofur jerked his head, and Bilbo crept forward, his feet soundless on the leaf litter, until he was near the top of the little rise that blocked their view. He dropped quietly to his knees and crawled, six inches, twelve -- and then he could see over the top. See something white through the fronds of bracken.
Bilbo frowned and screwed up his eyes, trying to make sense of the tangle of bracken and bark and whatever the white thing was. It was smooth and curved, like marble, bluish -- maybe part of a broken statue? Bilbo had read that the elves had built many statues in the woods of Middle Earth, before they left to travel westward over the sea.
The white thing twitched and let out a whistling snort, and Bilbo fell back, heart hammering in his throat. Not a statue. Definitely not. Statues didn't snore. And even if they did, their breath definitely wouldn't stink of rotting meat.
There was a crackling sound down below, and Bilbo turned sharply to see Bofur frowning up at him, opening his mouth to ask a question. Bilbo flapped his hands frantically, mouthing no, you idiot, and then glanced fearfully behind him. In his haste to move back from the snoring, stinking thing in the bracken, he'd risen to his full height, and now he could see what lay beyond. It was a flattened, cleared area, half-hidden under a rocky overhang, and it was full of sleeping figures, bluish-white, long-armed and spidery.
Bilbo had definitely found the orcs.
“They're, um,” Bilbo flapped his hand at Thorin and tried to catch his breath. He wasn't sure he had ever run so fast in his life, not even when he'd been caught stealing mushrooms as a child. It certainly didn't help that his heart was still trying to fight its way out of his chest. Orcs. Orcs! And he'd been no more than a few inches from them! He wondered what his respectable neighbours in the Shire would think if they could see him now.
“Spit it out, lad,” said Dwalin. “Where are they?”
Bilbo forced himself to gulp in a deep breath. “Over there,” he wheezed. “Over there.” He flapped his hand a little more.
Thorin sighed heavily. “How far?” he asked. “How many?”
“Hundreds,” Bilbo choked. “Orcs!”
“I'd say about thirteen,” Bofur's voice came from behind him, and Bilbo turned. Unlike Bilbo, he had not run from the orcs, and Bilbo had half-assumed that he'd already been caught and most likely eaten. “They're about half a league ahead. Still sleeping.”
“Thirteen,” Thorin said, and Dwalin sat back in his saddle with a grunt.
“Short work for twelve dwarves, if we can catch them before they wake up,” he said. “We'll need to be quiet, though.”
Thorin considered for a moment, then glanced back at Fili. Bilbo heaved in another breath, staring at them in astonishment. It had been one thing, them determining to go after the orcs before Bilbo had seen what they looked like, but now that he had the scent of them in his nostrils, the sight of those spidery, bestial arms turning his stomach, it was unimaginable.
“Then we shall be quiet,” Thorin said, and dismounted from his pony, drawing his sword.
Unimaginable, perhaps. But of all the many unimaginable things that were to happen to Bilbo on this journey, it was only the first.
It wasn't until all the dwarves had filed past Bilbo and gone on their surprisingly stealthy way towards the orcs that Bilbo realised Gandalf had returned. He was bringing up the rear of the company, and he did not move to follow them. Perhaps wizards had more sense than that, although it was Gandalf that had talked Bilbo into this quest, so perhaps not.
“Where have you been?” Bilbo hissed at him. “They're going to get themselves killed!”
Gandalf shook his head. “My dear Bilbo,” he said. “There are many things you do not yet understand. But let me settle your mind: I do not believe them to be in any serious danger.”
“But--” Bilbo looked back at the dwarves now disappearing into the woods behind him, “there are orcs, Gandalf.”
“It will not be the first time that Thorin Oakenshield and his people have gone against such creatures,” Gandalf said, and now he, too, was staring off at where Thorin had disappeared, his face set in lines of sadness. “Nor will it be the last, I fear, until Durin's children walk no more upon this earth.” He seemed lost in thought for a moment, but then his face changed, and he smiled down at Bilbo. “If I were you, I would wait here. I think they will not be long.”
Yes, Bilbo decided. There were still many things that he didn't understand, and many things that made him wish he had never listened to the wizard's harebrained scheme in the first place. He contemplated how easy it would be now to take his pony and go back to the Shire. They were only a few days from the borders, after all, and there were no serious obstacles between him and his warm hearth. No serious obstacles except the orc-infested woods, anyway.
Away off in the direction of the orcs there came a sharp cry, rough and jagged and like nothing Bilbo had ever heard before. It seemed to slip under his skin, scraping up his spine and under his scalp. He turned on his heel, wishing he had a weapon of some kind. Not that he would know how to wield it, but he might at least make himself look more fierce.
Then another cry, this one deeper and full-bodied. Dwalin, Bilbo thought. He glanced back at Gandalf.
“I believe there are no more orcs to be feared,” the wizard said. “At least for this day.” He laid a hand on Bilbo's shoulder. “Come,” he said. “They will need the ponies.”
Bilbo had not entirely trusted the wizard's certainty that the orcs were all dead, but when they reached the rocky overhang, it was clear that he had been correct. The bluish-white bodies lay sprawled almost as Bilbo had last seen them, but there were no more snores now, and the smooth, ugly skin was splashed with something black that Bilbo realised must be orcish blood. He shuddered to think that the foulness of these creatures went as deep as the blood that flowed in their veins.
Thorin was stalking from orc to orc, lifting the head of each one and peering into their face. Across the clearing, under the overhang, Bilbo could make out Fili doing the same thing. A grim business, he thought, but perhaps it was some kind of dwarvish ritual. In the centre of the clearing, the rest of the company were engaged in stacking a great pile of wood. Bofur, passing by with a branch, paused at Bilbo's side.
“They're much easier to kill when they're unconscious, you know,” he said, then glanced at Gandalf. “Good to see you again,” he said. “We'll be needing your help with this wood, it's soaking wet.”
“What are they doing?” Bilbo asked, but Gandalf merely sighed.
“Searching,” he said, and would say no more.
Thorin dropped the head of the orc he was examining, and it hit the earth with a dull thud, rolling on its neck to stare sightlessly at Bilbo. He stared back in horrified fascination. The orc's features were twisted, misshapen, as if whoever shaped it had been trying to make a man or an elf but had not the skill. Thorin straightened up and looked over to his nephew.
“Fili,” he said. He didn't raise his voice, but it carried nonetheless, and Fili looked up from the body he was inspecting and shook his head. Thorin nodded once, and then turned to Dwalin.
“Burn them,” he said.
Night was falling by the time the bonfire got going, the wet wood taking a while to catch even with Gandalf's help. The stench of the burning orcs coiled greasily in Bilbo's stomach, and he was glad when Balin suggested they move on, build a smaller fire somewhere a mile or two down the road in the hope of drawing less attention to themselves. Indeed, it took them all of that mile and more to escape the smell, and it was full dark by the time Bilbo found himself sitting beside a much more cheerful-looking fire contemplating a bowl of rabbit stew. Normally he would have been very happy to swallow it, especially after such an exhausting day, but the sight of the twisted bodies of the orcs still lingered in his mind, and he found that for only the second time in his life, he had lost his appetite.
“Not eating, Mr. Baggins?” Bofur asked, sitting down next to him with his own bowl of stew. “Is the world drawing to an end and I just haven't noticed yet?”
Bilbo gave a weak smile. “I'm not used to all this excitement,” he offered as an excuse.
“Aye, well.” Bofur slurped on a spoonful of stew. “You'd best get used to it. A party of sleeping orcs is the least exciting thing we'll be encountering in the next few months, if I'm any judge.” He shrugged. “At least most of us have some experience in killing those.”
Bilbo frowned. “Are there many orcs in the Blue Mountains?” he asked. He knew little of the homes of dwarves and orcs, knew little of orcs at all, although a great deal more now than he had when he'd woken this morning.
“Not many,” Bofur said. “Not any more. There used to be quite a few, but.” He stopped, contemplating his stew. “Thorin decided to get rid of them,” he said, finally. “Made it a duty of all of us to kill them wherever we found them. Good thing, too,” he added. “Cause no end of problems, the nasty buggers.”
Bilbo looked over to where Thorin was sitting, alone as always, just beyond the circle of firelight. He seemed lost in thought, staring back towards the smudge of light on the horizon that represented the orcish funeral pyre.
“What's he searching for?” he asked, without really thinking about it. When Bofur didn't answer, Bilbo looked back at him to see him frowning into his stew.
“Ah, well,” Bofur said. “You'd have to ask him that, now, wouldn't you?” He stood up abruptly and grabbed another bowl, spooning more stew into it. “If you're not going to eat, would you mind taking that down to your man with the ponies?”
Fili was sitting on a fallen log when Bilbo found him, the ponies ranged in a circle around him. They'd been skittish all day, ever since Balin had found the first orc footprint. Now they shifted quietly in the dark at Bilbo's approach, and he patted Myrtle gently on the flank as he passed.
“Brought you some food,” he said to Fili, holding out the bowl.
“I'm not hungry,” Fili said.
Bilbo sighed and sat down next to him on the log. “It must be catching,” he said, although to tell the truth, now he was away from the crackling fire, he was starting to feel like maybe he could eat, after all.
They sat quietly for a while, Fili watching the ponies and Bilbo thinking about whether he really was hungry and then testing it out by trying just a little of Fili's stew. Yes, definitely hungry. Surely Fili wouldn't mind if he had a little more. Unfortunately, it was rather dark, and Bilbo only realised how much he'd eaten when his spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl.
“Er,” he said. “I do apologise, I appear to have eaten your dinner.”
Fili looked down at him and smiled. “No apology necessary, master hobbit,” he said. Bilbo smiled back. He had spoken very little to Thorin's nephew in the few days he'd been with the company. In truth, he'd spoken very little to any of them except Bofur, Balin and of course Gandalf. But there was something different about Fili, something that set him a little apart. He was alone, Bilbo realised. All the other dwarves had their brothers constantly with them, except Thorin, of course, and Thorin was the king so it made sense for him to be set apart. Perhaps it was the custom of dwarf royals to have only one child. A sad custom if so, Bilbo thought, especially given how close all the other dwarves seemed to their kin.
“Why did they not send someone else down to watch with you?” Bilbo asked. “It must be lonely, out here on your own.” Not the first time, either, he realised -- it seemed as though Fili was always set to do tasks on his own.
Fili shrugged. “I'm not much for company,” he said.
“It must run in the family,” Bilbo said, and then bit his tongue. He had little experience of how to act around kings, but he suspected that he had just put his foot in it.
Fili didn't seem offended, though. Instead, he looked thoughtfully into the darkness. “It seems so,” he said finally with a sigh. “I think the line of Durin is fated to find itself alone.”
Bilbo nodded. “It's not so bad,” he said. “I have no brothers, either.” He had never felt the lack before, although watching the dwarves together he did wonder if it might not have been pleasant.
“What makes you think I have no brother?” Fili said, his tone suddenly sharp, and Bilbo looked up at him in surprise. Well, now I've definitely put my foot in it, he thought.
“I'm terribly sorry,” he said. “I just assumed--”
“No, no,” Fili said, seeming to shrink a little into himself. “I should be sorry. You're right, Mr. Baggins. I have no brother.”
Well, now Bilbo was truly confused. Dwarves, he thought. Quite mad. Fili, though, was frowning at something out in the darkness.
“How many ponies do you see?” he asked.
Bilbo counted. “Fourteen,” he said.
“That's what I thought,” Fili said, slipping off the log. Bilbo followed him, almost running into Fili's back when he stopped abruptly. “Look,” he said, pointing through the trees to where a faint light gleamed.
Bilbo peered. “What is it?” he asked.
Fili looked down at him.
“Trolls,” he said.