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Shades of Dale

Chapter Text

It was cold.

In Bilbo's head, that was the first word that came to mind. Just...cold. It wasn't winter yet, but up near the mountains one could definitely feel the chill, and Bilbo was a Hobbit, and Hobbits did not care for the cold when they weren’t adequately prepared for it, with cloaks and scarves and at least one hat with the promise of a hot meal inside waiting for them thankyouverymuch, and none of this terrible wind.

At least it wasn’t snowing. There were small blessings, even now. Hobbits didn’t walk in snow, or if they did, it wasn’t for long. Hobbit feet may be tough and strong, but when certain Hobbits had never been outside the Shire before, and were only subjected to rolling hills and peaceful, warm ground, Hobbit feet could freeze just as quickly as those of a Man or Dwarf.

Discounting Elves, of course. Bilbo still disagreed with the Dwarves on their view about the Eldar, but he was just as skeptical (and slightly jealous) when he learned that they could walk on snow.

Bilbo shivered a bit and continued downward, away from Thorin’s tent, to the elven encampment. He still hadn’t decided what to do yet, or where to go. He and Thorin had made their peace, yes, but things were still uneasy between them. He had thought that he was beginning to see flashes of the Thorin the Dwarves knew, at Laketown and again at the secret door on Durin's Day. Although, looking back on it, it was fairly obvious. The map and the location of the door were written in moon runes, so why wouldn't the light to reveal the door be the same?

Bilbo quickly buried that thought as he was waved past into the conference tent, where King Thranduil, Bard, and Gandalf were waiting. Of the three, two were magical, and both could probably read minds, and he did not want Thranduil to pick up on that thought and use it as a jab at the Company the next time they met. Thranduil didn’t mean much harm by it, Bilbo was sure, but he did like to create...chaos, on occasion.
And although Thranduil would probably refuse to agree if he heard it, in that way, he was much like his son, Legolas.

His arm twinged unpleasantly in his sling as he was waved into the tent by the guards standing outside. It was broken in two places and he had dislocated his shoulder, but that was a small price to pay for saving Thorin at the last moment from Azog's warg. Kili and Fili were saved as well, when Bilbo used his ring and managed to sneak up on their would-be killers before either of them had the opportunity to attack. After the twin princes were safe, Bilbo continued throughout the battle, watching over members of the Company, before seeing Thorin strike Azog the final blow. The dwarrow had stood triumphant for one moment, not noticing Azog's warg behind him. Bilbo, however, had. Afterward, in the healing tents, Bilbo could be heard scolding himself to not continue with such heroics ever again if he was going to end up like this, and next time he would just let Thorin be killed so he could bring him back and kill him again for his stupidity. The elven healers, though amused (especially Thranduil) continued to treat him without any fuss and, in fact, agreed with him, for the sake of their health as much as his.

A panicking wizard who specializes in fireworks has no place in a healing tent. Ever.

"Bilbo." Gandalf's voice was warm as he knelt to embrace the hobbit for the first time since the beginning of the battle. The wizard about had a conniption when Bilbo was carried into the healers' network of tents by Legolas, with several members of the Company trailing behind. He had bellowed for Thranduil and managed to get him situated on a bed before Bilbo passed out. He didn't remember much after that until he had woke up. As Bilbo stepped out of the embrace, he looked at Gandalf. The wizard seemed drawn and exhausted, with lines around his eyes, although they were warm. Thranduil and Bard had the same visage, and Bilbo wondered if he looked in a mirror he would have the same face.

"It is good to see you up and about, Master Hobbit." Bard nodded at Bilbo and motioned to a chair for him to take at the table. "I have a proposal for you, but it depends on a couple of things. Firstly, were you planning on going back to the Shire anytime soon?"

Bilbo blinked. "Ah. I hadn't really thought of it, to be honest. I don't really fit in there, now, but I would need to sort out some affairs, either in person or by letter, regarding Bag End. And where I could be reached? Erebor isn't closed to me, but it is for the dwarves first and foremost..." The hobbit shrugged. "I would help somehow, because I did awaken the dragon for the Arkenstone, and move on from there."

Gandalf chuckled. "My dear hobbit, for all you have done, I tell you you would be welcome virtually everywhere, although I would personally recommend you avoid Laketown." Bilbo winced and nodded in agreement. The city itself was fascinating, considering it floated on water, but the Master was absolutely repugnant and the majority of Men in the city didn't seem to understand that Hobbits did not equate children of other races.

"And you must know, for what you have done saving my son and so many others," Thranduil's voice echoed resonantly in the tent, "That you would always be welcome in my home, if other places prove to be...inhospitable."

"So you could settle your affairs by letter, you said?" At Bilbo's nod Bard pressed on, "I have heard that Hobbits know a bit about gardening, is that true?"

Bilbo tilted his head to the side, considering his answer. "Yes, it most certainly is. We grow all our own food and livestock, and know quite a bit about medicinal herbs and flowers as well. Outside of the elves--and forgive me, but I didn't notice much in the way of gardens like in the Shire--we hobbits are probably some of the best gardeners you would ever meet. My own gardener was the one who taught me everything I know after my family passed on. Why?"

Bard's face settled in a look of satisfaction. "As you might have known from talk around the camps, I'm to be Lord of Dale after restoring it. However, there is a bit of a problem in that none of the men that will be coming with me know anything about gardening. Or plants. Or flowers. It will probably take a bit for them to take a shine to it, or be successful at all, and getting the rebuilding started and being able to rely on ourselves is incredibly important. My men would need to be taught."

Bilbo felt a wave of shock pass through his frame. "You would have me do this? But would they even listen to me? I'm only a hobbit! Not that I'm not flattered," He rushed to say as Bard exchanged sardonic looks with Thranduil and Gandalf, "Truly, I am! But I am a hobbit, and many of the men of Laketown do not understand that hobbits are not children! I doubt that they would listen to a single word I said."

Thranduil interjected when Bard looked as if he was about to respond, "And that is why we are choosing who comes with me very carefully, Master Baggins of Bag End, for it will not only be Men that will be rebuilding Dale, but elves too. The dwarves shall be too preoccupied in their mountain and riches to pay attention to what goes on in the outside world for some time, even the goings-on on their very doorstep, despite what Lord Balin may believe. And your people will not starve, Lord Bard. But the Hobbit is right in that there are no gardeners in the world such as those that live in the Shire, touched by Yavanna as they are."

"Gandalf?" The grey wizard looked up to the tent thoughtfully before regarding Bilbo with a measuring gaze. "I told you that you would never be the same if you survived this, Bilbo. And I think, yes, I do think, that this would be good for you."

Bilbo looked away and considered the tabletop before him. But truly, it did not take long for him to decide. "Then you have me to teach and to guide your men in the ways of gardening and agriculture, Lord Bard. But I must settle my affairs first, get things in order, and I would rather go to the Shire to do so. If Gandalf consents to come with me, it shall not take long. Will you wait?"

Bard smiled and nodded, "Yes, Bilbo, and you have my thanks."

Thranduil commented with a small smile, "I look forward to seeing you pass through my realm again, Bilbo Baggins. Until we meet again."

As Bilbo exited the tent for his own to start packing, the delayed panic began to set in. What had he gotten himself into this time?

Chapter Text

All in all, Gandalf was pleased, in a world-weary sort of way. The Battle of Five Armies (as it was already named) was won, the treasure divvied out by Thorin, and Dale was soon to be rebuilt, with Bard being named its Lord.

Not that he was exactly Lord of much. But there was something to be said for descendants coming into their own, prophesied or not. Gandalf's mind flashed back to Rivendell, with its waterfalls and quiet streams, and a small human child with dark hair and grey eyes, much like the Dúnedain of old, a child named-

"-alf? Are you ready to leave?"

Gandalf's mind was forcibly brought back to the present by Bilbo's question. The hobbit was sitting on his pony, a quiet chestnut named Hazel.

"It's just, if we want to make it to Thranduil's palace when we said we would...we ought to get moving, yes?"

In answer Gandalf harrumphed and nudged his mount forward.

"My apologies Bilbo; You are quite right and my mind was elsewhere. After that business I had to tend to-"

"-You mean Dol Goldur?" Bilbo ducked his head as Gandalf turned a surprised eye toward him.

"Yes, Dol Goldur. I have been more absent of late; my mind tends to wander down roads long forgotten. May I ask how you came by such information, Master Hobbit?"

Gandalf waited patiently as Bilbo thought, the both of them moving farther down the road. Bilbo and Gandalf made their goodbyes earlier that morning. Gandalf had waited outside Thorin's tent as Bilbo informed the king of his departure. When he emerged his face was tense but he was smiling slightly as well, so the wizard, though mildly concerned, didn't say a word. He knew the hobbit would bring it up in his own time, if ever.

Bard had decided to wait for Bilbo and Gandalf's return before moving his people into Dale, after further discussion with the wizard and Thranduil. Throughout the winter, they would make short excursions to the city ruins in order to begin fortifying and clearing out the wreckage in concert with the elves. However, since winters in the footlands near the Lonely Mountain were notoriously brutal, Bard also decided to postpone full rebuilding work until spring, provided nothing else caused an abrupt departure.

None of them said it, but the thought was in everyone's minds. One could always hope with the Master of Laketown but one never really knew what he was up to (or could be convinced of). Hopefully things could remain relatively peaceful until winter began to thaw, because the Master now owned an enormous amount of treasure. But the greed of Men, as Gandalf, Thranduil, and now Bilbo knew, had a tendency to grow instead of wither with the more wealth they received, and the Master's avarice was legendary.

Hopefully Bard, as a descendant of the Northmen, would not be the same.

Gandalf's attention was brought back to Bilbo as the hobbit began to speak. "Hobbits," he said finally, "have long ears. Longer than many people seem to remember, and being so small lends itself to wandering about unnoticed."

Gandalf chuckled. "Very true, Bilbo. I suppose that one must be more careful when speaking of important matters, if one does not want to be accidentally overheard."

"If it helps," Bilbo offered, "I didn't tell the rest of the Company. Or the other dwarves. Or Lord Dain. You should be impressed I kept my silence from Lord Dain, actually; the dwarrow was very persistent."

Gandalf laughed outright. Persistent was an understatement. From the moment the dwarves from the Iron Hills arrived to when Gandalf and Bilbo had departed, they had constantly hounded the hobbit for his stories about the Company and the parts he played. Lord Dain, unlike his reticent cousin Thorin, was much more friendly and sympathetic to Bilbo from the outset. He was also much more pragmatic.

"Oh, aye, I knew of Thorin's dream to retake the Lonely Mountain," Dain said gruffly, "I also knew that you could not pay me with a thousand Arkenstones to go and battle that dragon in the company that Thorin thought of taking. A dragon's a dragon's a dragon, and I remember only too well the desolation of Dale and the deaths that took place there. I also knew that, unless some miracle occurred, that killing Smaug was nigh on impossible."

"So why did you come when Thorin called for aid?" Bilbo asked curiously as he sat at supper with him one day.

Dain sighed, "Because although I knew that it was a suicide mission, Thorin is kin. And if I didn't answer his call, I would be branded kinslayer, and some idiot would be ruling the Iron Hills instead of me. And seeing Thorin as gold-mad--well, that was even worse, and strengthened my resolve to fight."

"At least you came and were able to talk some sense into him." Bilbo pointed out.

Dain nodded and reclined back in his chair, regarding Bilbo and Gandalf thoughtfully, "Barely. But I also know if it wasn't for you," He pointed a finger at Gandalf and the wizard adopted a look of surprise (Bilbo smothered a smile), "Then this wouldn't have happened."

"Worse things are to come, Lord Dain." The wizard puffed on his pipe as he replied, "And having a dragon here, instead of dead and gone, with that battle raging on? Smaug needed to be dealt with."

Dain grumbled as he continued to eat. "Still. Next time that something of import happens, stay away from me and my own, for I would have some years of peace for a change: to rule my people and have them prosper. And on that note," the King of the Iron Hills faced turned his face towards Bilbo, his face solemn, "I must thank you, Bilbo, for saving my kin, and keeping my idiot cousin from losing everything to gold-madness and pride."

Bilbo shrugged uncomfortably. "I did what I felt was necessary."

Lord Dain regarded him thoughtfully, "Let us hope you continue to do so with such results, Master Hobbit. Our people are in your debt, and none shall forget what you have done."

Yes, Gandalf thought, Hobbits are certainly remarkable creatures. "I am indeed impressed, Bilbo, and I thank you for keeping that information in your confidence. It is best if for now only a few know what happened in Dol Goldur, and the part the White Council had to play in resolving it. We cannot be everywhere, and it is truly the people of Arda who do the most in the battle against evil, not us."

Bilbo nodded and it was several hours before he spoke again. Gandalf was pleased at the time they made; they reached the Mirkwood forest a little before the sun had begun to set. Gandalf paused as he made to dismount, looking once again at the trees that used to be known as the Greenwood. The land still seemed sick and strange, as though the miasma surrounding the forest had sunk deeper in the land's bones. Gandalf was concerned, because he had thought after the Necromancer's death that the land would, if not fully heal, at least not seem quite so forbidding. It looked as though he was wrong.

"Gandalf." Bilbo said conversationally as he remained mounted on Hazel. "We have a bit of a problem."

"Yes, Bilbo." The wizard replied absently as he focused harder on the forest. There was something there, right on the edge of his vision. "What is it?"

The sound of Sting being drawn made Gandalf turn as Bilbo replied tensely, "Wargs. And here I thought we were done with the bloody beasts."

The creatures were still a couple of leagues away but moving fast, and none appeared to have riders. Gandalf was thankful; it meant that any remnants from the goblin/orc horde weren't following them. At the same time, both Bilbo and Gandalf began backing their mounts into the trees, keeping an half an eye on the approaching beasts and half an eye on the path ahead of them. Neither wanted to fall off that path, after the disaster when the Company was lured off the first time.

"Why Bilbo, such language!" Gandalf drew Glamdring and mentally catalogued his spells, thinking of what would be best to drive the wargs off, "Your mother would be ashamed to hear you speak so."

Bilbo shook his head, "No, she's a Took. Father would be appalled. Mother would be offended, because she taught me to swear better than that."

"I hope she did, lad, because I taught her some of what I knew, and that is formidable indeed." Bilbo choked out a laugh as they braced themselves to gallop into the forest, when suddenly a rustle was heard farther down the forest's edge on their right. Howling, the wargs changed course, all except for one, which Gandalf dispatched quickly as his horse reared and kicked the animal in the head. As he withdrew Glamdring from the creature's side and turned to face the other wargs, he saw Bilbo sitting open-mouthed on his steed and Gandalf soon saw why.

At the edge of the forest Gandalf noticed the wargs, but it took him a moment to realize just what they were fighting, and losing, against.

It was the giant spiders. And there were many more than what Bilbo described when he fought them for the first time. Both of them looked on, amazed, as while one spider bit a wargs' neck and wrapped it in webbing, another arachnid was being torn apart by another three of the wargs. Then what could only have been a score more of the spiders poured out of the forest and surrounded the pack.

Abruptly Gandalf turned his horse and Bilbo hastily followed. Gandalf wanted to avoid the possibility of being set upon by two different sets of creatures of the Dark. As a result, by the time they had made camp in the forest, the moon had long since risen.

"Well," Bilbo said finally after they settled down to rest, "That was unexpected."

"Unexpected is one word for it, Bilbo." Gandalf replied as he thought. "That was certainly something else."

"I didn't think that Dark creatures fought each other," ventured the hobbit as he bedded down.

"Normally, I would have agreed with you. However, I have been around much longer than you have, my dear hobbit, and although giant spiders and orcs and goblins and wargs are all under Sauron's domain, due to their natures they are continually at odds, except in times of war. I would guess that as soon as the Battle of Five Armies ended and the Necromancer defeated, the free passage granted for wargs and other creatures through Mirkwood unmolested by giant spiders was revoked."

"So why were you surprised?"

"To be quite honest, I thought their truce would have lasted longer. I'm glad it hasn't. That means that wargs and orcs are less likely to ambush us should we eventually move off the path to reach Thranduil's home."

"When will we reach Eryn Galen, or at least the part that could still be called that, Gandalf?"

The wizard sighed. "Most likely in a day or two. Travelers along the elven paths through Mirkwood and Lórien tend to progress farther than they normally expect."

"So how come-" Bilbo broke off his question as he thought, then continued, "How come it didn't work for the dwarves? It felt like forever when we were in there. I felt like I had just smoked pipeweed for the first time, then not slept for five days straight. Is it because they're dwarves?"

Gandalf smiled, though the hobbit couldn't see it. "Most likely. For reasons that go back more than an Age, the Dwarves and Elves have ever been at odds, though they weren't, once. Long ago. In addition, forests do not normally care for dwarves because of their closeness to Aulé the Smith and fire."

"It seems as if nobody cares for dwarves." Bilbo muttered and the wizard chuckled.

"But I do. And so do you, Master Baggins, do you not?"

"Of course. The dwarves are my friends, though they are absolutely insufferable at times. But then you warm up to them, eventually. And somehow, the longer you know them, the more you cherish them." Bilbo's voice trailed off. Gandalf was amused.

It didn't sound like the Hobbit was talking about Dwarves in general anymore.

"One step at a time, Bilbo." Gandalf said finally. "Things will certainly be different when we return, if not better. Especially if Lord Dain has anything to say about it."

"True." Gandalf could hear Bilbo's voice lighten. "Goodnight, Gandalf. Don't forget to wake me for my watch."

"I most certainly shall not." Gandalf replied as he settled back against one of the trees. "Goodnight."

The wizard then kept watch through the dark until dawn.

Bilbo was not pleased. Gandalf only laughed.

Chapter Text

Eryn Galen, Bilbo decided, was definitely a more welcoming place when one had been invited there, and not in the company of dwarves. This time, traveling with Gandalf, they had no difficulties reaching the wood elves' stronghold within the great forest. They even arrived earlier than expected, although that was more from the initial run they made away from the wargs and spiders the first day more than anything else. It helped that the path worked for the pair of them instead of confusing their feet and getting them lost.

On the morning of the second day, four elves emerged from the branches above and dropped in front of Gandalf and Bilbo. They bowed simultaneously and one stepped forward to speak.

"Gandalf and Bilbo, you are expected and welcome to our king's halls. Up to this point we have tracked your progress silently, but now that you are close to our realm, we would make ourselves known to you. I am Indis," she pointed to herself, then motioned back to the elves behind her, "and the other scouts are Míriel, Tuor, and Eilian." They nodded as Indis introduced them all.

Gandalf inclined his head, but Bilbo bowed, "Bilbo Baggins, at your service."

"If half of what we had heard is true, Master Baggins," said dark-haired Míriel as the party began to move forward once again, "Then it is we who are at your service, and in your debt as well."

Bilbo began to grow uncomfortable, and replied uneasily, "I truly did not do much, not at all! I did what I thought needed to be done." Bilbo didn't like the idea of the elves, of all people, being at his service, when it was his and the Company's fault that they had all nearly fought each other in a war in the first place.

Gandalf came to his rescue as Míriel looked puzzled. He turned back from where he was conversing with Indis and Eilian, "Do not be concerned, Míriel, for hobbits hate acknowledgement as much as they love their seven daily meals."

She raised an eyebrow, "Seven daily meals? That seems rather--excessive."

Bilbo gaped at Míriel in shock, "Excessive? You elves only eat three! It is a wonder that you don't faint dead away from hunger! No wonder you all are so thin like your trees. If you came to the Shire you wouldn't be able to leave until you were as round as my cousin Lotho, for that is considered a healthy size of hobbit, not a stick like me."

It was a good thing that Bilbo didn't notice the other elves' amusement or Gandalf's smile, or he would have stopped talking then and there from embarrassment. But Míriel, who was genuinely curious about Hobbits and the Shire, was delighted to discuss the differences between Hobbit meals and Elvish ones, as well as some of their customs.

"You would be considered thin amongst your people?" Tuor asked curiously. He had dropped back to join Míriel and Bilbo in their conversation.

Bilbo replied (slightly woefully), "Oh, yes. And with my scars and all the muscle I've gained now, I hardly look like a respectable hobbit anymore."

There was a slight pause as the three thought on what Bilbo said. He was right--by Shire standards, as he had explained earlier, he was hardly respectable after leaving without any sort of notice for over a year. For all they knew, Bilbo was dead and not coming back. Many would blame it on his Tookish side, and the best that Bilbo could really hope for was to be considered eccentric, instead of mad. Now that he had been on his adventure, it would be interesting after the rebuilding of Dale whether or not he would wish to return home. Bilbo then thought, Do I really want to go back to stay? He quickly buried that to think about another day.

"I wonder," Tuor looked thoughtfully at Bilbo, "If you could eat one whole lembas--or even more."

Bilbo eyed Gandalf's back. It had stiffened at Tuor's comment, and Bilbo replied, "Is that elvish waybread?"

Eilian looked back, curious, "Yes. How do you know of it?"

"Well, I'm sure I had some when we left from Rivendell, and I believe that we also were provided with several pieces before we departed on our journey here. Is there something special about it? Seemed a bit bland for Elvish food, to be honest."

Bilbo had kept walking forward and didn't notice his companions stop behind him for several paces. He turned around, confused, "Is something wrong? Do you hear something?"

"Bland?"

Bilbo looked from one elf to the other, "Yes? I mean, it's a lot better than cram, but I was used to more flavorful food from the elves when I've had your other dishes. After I spiced it, it was fine--"

"-spiced it-" Tuor choked and Gandalf's shoulders shook, but Bilbo blithely continued on.

"-Well, yes, and after that it was rather tasty. I ended up eating four pieces."

"Four pieces?" Míriel exclaimed, "In one day?"

Bilbo frowned at the Tuor and Míriel like they were a little muddled in the head, "Of course not in one day."

The pair relaxed. Then Bilbo clarified, "In one meal. Good heavens, I am a hobbit, what do you take me for? Those pieces are the size of my hand! That's barely enough to work with for a meal regardless."

Bilbo grinned as Gandalf began to laugh from the front of the group, while the elves looked at him in surprise and a wary sort of respect.

"We may have to rethink the feast that Thranduil has planned out, then," said Tuor semi-seriously. Míriel lightly smacked him upside the head as Bilbo chuckled.

It was close to sundown before they reached the heart of Eryn Galen, where the wood-elves dwelled. Bilbo's heart lifted as they approached, because the forest here felt less diseased than the rest of the trees that they had navigated through thus far on their journey. However, Bilbo was nervous as well--he had broken the dwarves out of here and snuck around this place for weeks before finally escaping. Things were different now, yes, but until Thranduil gave him a friendly welcome he would be on his guard.

"Well," Bilbo said cheerfully as they went through the front gate, "It is nice to just walk in the front gate, instead of sneaking in like last time."

Míriel looked down at her new friend as they continued through, "You'll have to tell us all that story before you continue on your way, Master Baggins. It is for all of us an interesting experience that we would like to hear."

"If your king allows it," Bilbo said cautiously, "I'd be honored."

"Allow it? Master Baggins, I request it." Gandalf, Bilbo, and their escort bowed as Thranduil stepped down from his throne, an actual smile on his face. Bilbo was startled. It was a little shocking to see the elf-king smile, when he seemed so solemn before. The king continued as they all straightened, "I have reports from my guards, of course, and we knew that there was another intruder in the keep because of the sharp decline in food stores, but we couldn't actually find anyone anywhere."

"Since your majesty seems so curious," Bilbo replied as Thranduil motioned them to follow him, "Hobbits are fast and light of foot. If we do not wish to be found, we will not be. Our feet, see," he wiggled them as everyone looked down, "Are furred, which helps us move silently. We are also small, your majesty, and it is easy to overlook a small and slow shadow than a large and quick one."

Thranduil nodded regally. "Very true. Indis tells me your journey here has not been too difficult."

It was Gandalf who answered, "No, Thranduil, it was not. Of course, now that the Necromancer is gone and the armies disbanded, the wargs and spiders are back to fighting each other. We observed one such conflict before entering the forest."

Thranduil looked sharply at Gandalf and Bilbo, "You must tell me more of this when you have rested and eaten. But please know that you are welcome in my halls, and you, Bilbo, since I have not done so already, are named elf-friend here in the Woodland Realm. Forgive me for not announcing such earlier; it was a regrettable lack of oversight on my part."

Bilbo opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again, "Your majesty, I am--honored. Thank you."

"As I know others agree with me, it is the least you deserve. Now here are your chambers. Gandalf, I believe you know your way around...?" Thranduil trailed off and the wizard nodded. "Good. I shall see you both at the evening feast. Until then." Thranduil inclined his head again and started back down the hallway.

"I wasn't expecting that." Bilbo said finally. Gandalf smiled.

"I have found the word unexpected to become synonymous with hobbits, Bilbo Baggins. I suspect that that will not be the last time you or I are surprised on this journey."

Bilbo bit his lip as Gandalf turned to go to his own rooms, then blurted out, "Gandalf."

The wizard turned expectantly, "Yes, Bilbo?"

"There's something..,About our escape from here." Bilbo hesitated, "Something I ought to tell you. Later. Perhaps once we've departed. I found something in the misty mountains, underneath the goblin kingdom."

Gandalf frowned, "I see. Yes, I do believe that it is wise to wait, Bilbo. We shall speak of this another time."

At his nod Bilbo stepped in his room and shut the door, surveying his quarters. "Well," he sighed, "I ought to get settled in."

Bilbo and Gandalf would be staying here for the next three days, then would depart to continue on through the forest. Thranduil would be providing them with another escort to the edge of the forest, where Beorn would be waiting. It would take about a week and a half to two weeks, depending on if the path would cooperate and if there were any large giant spider nests nearby. All in all, since the Necromancer had been defeated, things had quieted down, but Mirkwood had proved to be--unpredictable, if one wanted to be charitable.

After Bilbo had washed and changed clothes, he was met outside by Míriel and Tuor. "Hello, Master Baggins!" Tuor said cheerfully, "We're to show you to the feast. You'll be seated at the high table, of course, but we'll be there to keep you company as well, should you so desire it."

Bilbo forebore mentioning that, as he had been sneaking in the palace prior to this for several days, if not a couple of weeks, that he knew the place very well indeed. Instead, he just smiled and said, "Thank you very much, you two. I would be delighted if you sat with me."

"I would be pleased if you told us more about Hobbits, Bilbo. And the Shire." Míriel smiled back at him.

Tuor explained as they continued down the hallway, "Míriel is our official scholar and archivist for the king, much like Lindir for Rivendell."

"If there is time I would love to see your library, if that's possible." Bilbo brightened as he thought of all the possible books the wood-elves must have had, "Though I must warn you that if you don't come and check on me, I could stay in a library for days without even noticing and, considering a hobbit's appetite, that is something."

Tuor snickered, "We shall do what we can for you, Master Baggins."

And with that last comment, they entered the elves' Great Hall. Everyone else was already there and, upon seeing him, stood and bowed simultaneously. Bilbo was about to shrink in on himself when he saw Gandalf's eyes twinkling merrily from up where he was sitting beside Thranduil. Bilbo's eyes narrowed, 'Meddling old wizard. This was all his idea.'

"Chin up, Bilbo, it's not that bad," Tuor patted his shoulder as they made their way up the center of the Hall to the high table, where the two elves and one hobbit took their places.

"Were you not aware you were the guest of honor, Bilbo? Gandalf must have told you." Bilbo raised his eyebrows at Thranduil's knowing smile.

Bilbo just shook his head, "And I wondered where Legolas got his sense of mischief from. Elves."

The table just made sounds of amusement as they all began to eat.

The feast ended and the rest of Bilbo's time in Eryn Galen passed in a slightly dreamlike quality, much like when he was in Imladris. Thranduil did end up wanting to hear about the wargs outside his forest and Bilbo did recount his escape with the dwarves for the wood-elves at large. This seemed to increase the elves' respect for him, as whenever Bilbo needed help when he was navigating the library, he had many volunteers to aid him. Only too soon did the time at Thranduil's home end and both Bilbo and Gandalf were on their way once more.

Chapter Text

As Bilbo and Gandalf (with their escort of Tuor, Míriel, Indis, and Eilian) continued the move west through Mirkwood, the hobbit couldn't stop comparing this journey with the one he had made previously with the Company some months earlier. With his friends the elves that guided him around in Eryn Galen, the trek was far more enjoyable. Míriel learned from Bilbo about the Hobbits and the Shire, along with what history he could remember. In turn, Tuor and Míriel told Bilbo stories of their people and taught him a few of their songs. However, not all of the darkness had been lifted from the forest, so when it became too pressing for Bilbo, he would hum a line or two of the songs he learned and the others would pick it up. By the song's conclusion, their voices would echo and bounce against the trees, temporarily lightening the atmosphere.

Gandalf could also be persuaded to create shapes in the fire or with his pipe smoke as he told a story of the Elder Days. Bilbo would sit on his bedroll, listening intently to every word he said and letting the wizard's words sweep him away to the kingdom of Doriath or the Voyage of Eärendil. After the first night, Bilbo had been self-conscious--he didn't know if he looked like an eager child to these elves--but when he glanced away from Gandalf as he spoke, he saw the elves were just as enthralled with the wizard's storytelling, and so Bilbo focused on the tale once more.

Yes, Bilbo decided, it was much nicer indeed to travel with folk who actually knew where they were going.

Not that Bilbo didn't miss the dwarves. He had. But traveling with dwarrows who were not on the best terms with other races in addition to having an especially antagonistic attitude toward the elves certainly made the journey much more difficult. It was also his first adventure. Bilbo grimaced as he thought back to how soft he must have appeared to the Company, and yet they welcomed him regardless. Now, though, as he had fought in his first battle and seen more of the world, he was used to this life of wandering, even if he did long for the Shire. As to whether or not he'd still see it as home...well, there was still the restoration of Dale to consider. Bilbo would see how he felt after that.

Bilbo parted with his friends at the edge of Mirkwood with a heavy heart, but was comforted by the knowledge that he would be returning in this direction fairly soon.

"Come, Bilbo, Beorn expects us." As if in emphasis a roar echoed across the plain and Gandalf grinned at Bilbo's start. "Let us continue on before he becomes impatient, hmmmm?"

Bilbo huffed irritably and nudged his pony forward, "Oh, yes, after calling me a bunny, I wouldn't be surprised if he thought to eat me."

"Skinchangers are wild but they are not utterly savage, Bilbo Baggins. I highly doubt he would eat a hobbit of the kindly West when he knows of your bravery during the Battle of Five Armies amongst your other deeds." Bilbo relaxed at Gandalf's assurance, which didn't prepare him for his next statement.

"Besides," Gandalf looked back with a merry twinkle in his eye, "You are far too thin to be an acceptable meal."

Bilbo chuckled, "I guess I ought to make sure I don't fatten up too much then during my time in the Shire or in Rivendell, then."

"That would be most wise."

They rode on for a time in silence as they continued southward towards Beorn's territory. It was huge, but that was necessary for skinchangers, as they needed to large amounts of land for pasturage for their animals and room to hunt. It would take most of the day to finally reach the border of Beorn's home. However, they had only ridden for about a league before a large dark form loped across the field, headed straight towards them. They were downwind of the bear and although Gandalf's horse and Bilbo's pony Hazel whuffed nervously as they picked up his scent, they stood firm as Beorn changed as he moved before standing upright a couple hundred meters away. Gandalf and Bilbo saw him duck briefly behind a rock, then emerge fully clothed. He hopped onto the boulder he had changed behind and sat, waiting.

Gandalf refrained until they were within shouting distance before hailing him, "Ho, Beorn, Chieftain of the Beornings! How goes the day?"

Beorn's voice was deep and sonorous as he replied, "It goes well, now that you have arrived. I had expected you a few days later than this, and yet I see you now."

Bilbo looked up at the skinchanger and said nervously, "I, er, hope that doesn't present a problem?"

As if sensing his apprehension, Beorn turned his full gaze on the hobbit. Bilbo felt rather like he was held in the grasp of a great predator (which he was, Bilbo reminded himself) before the skinchanger grinned, "No, little bunny, it is not. I am pleased I did not have to wait for you outside my territory."

He suddenly raised his head and looked toward the south. From where Bilbo sat on his pony, he noticed with some amusement that the great mans' ears were twitching, as if hearing something from far away.

"We had best move," Beorn suddenly leapt off the boulder slapped Gandalf's and Bilbo's mounts into a canter, "I hear wargs and goblins moving farther upwind. If it were not for you, little bunny, and the agreement I made with the wizard, I would run and tear them apart. But there are too many that are a match even for me, Gandalf, and you, halfling, with your invisible Sting, and it is best that we move onto my territory. You will be safe there. And," The skinchanger grinned savagely, "If they move onto my lands...well. Orcs are stupid, but not that stupid. Ever since I killed Bolg they have known better than to trespass."

Bilbo's horsemanship had improved dramatically since he had left the Shire and he was able to respond without worrying about falling off, "They shouldn't have come on your land the first time, should they?" he called out over the sound of Hazel's hooves.

"No. But then, we are an old race, and they, in their idiocy, forgot the skinchangers. They forgot me and my people. We had faded into the ancient tales, but we shall not stay there after this last battle." Beorn, although he was now in the shape of a Man instead of a bear, easily kept stride with their mounts as they continued across the plain, "Now, more of us are waiting nearby and will crush any orcs that dare to come near our home if they try to cross the Misty Mountains again. Hurry!"

With a sort of yipping cough Beorn somehow spurred Gandalf's horse and Bilbo's pony to move even faster, although Bilbo could hear howls some distance behind them. It was sunset before they were able to cross into Beorn's lands. This time, they weren't even close to a confrontation. Every time their mounts faltered, Beorn would call to them in a hoarse language and suddenly they would pick up speed. As they moved over the border, they slowed their mounts down from a canter to a trot and from a trot to a walk, until the animals were fully cooled. Bilbo looked back, but didn't see any of the creatures that had pursued them. Then he saw a flash of a huge, furry something that moved soundlessly under the trees near the border and abruptly turned to face Beorn and Gandalf, whom had moved a little distance ahead of him.

"Beorn?" The great man paused and waited for Bilbo to reach him before walking alongside him. The hobbit had to marvel at the man's size; even when Bilbo was on a pony, Beorn still stood at least two heads taller. If he had not met Beorn with the Company during that run from the wargs, Bilbo would have been convinced the man was a Giant, no matter what Gandalf had said. As it stood, the Man had a reassuring presence that kept Bilbo from being cautious around him.

"Yes, bunny?"

"Are all of you-" Bilbo stumbled over his question as he realized how rude it could be, but pushed on, "-Are all the forms of skinchangers that of bears? Or do some of you take other forms? Forgive me if that was too private to ask."

Beorn tilted his head at the hobbit, giving him a considering gaze. Then he snorted, "No, bunny, we are not all bears. Some of us are cats. Some of us--very few--are birds. And some," he bared his teeth in what he must have thought was a grin but Bilbo perceived as slightly terrifying, "Some of us are wolves."

"So do you choose what you become, or is it a spell, or-" Bilbo's question stopped as he saw Gandalf turn and raise an eyebrow, "-it is obviously a secret. Please forgive me." Bilbo briefly wondered where his sense of self-presentation had gone. He was much more sensible at the beginning of the journey.

Ah, yes. It must have been when he snuck into Smaug's lair the first time. No, the second time.

Beorn turned to see what had stopped Bilbo's question in its tracks and glimpsed Gandalf's face. He patted Hazel on the neck and laughed at the hobbit's discomfiture, "Done, hobbit. Long it has been since anyone has been curious enough or brave enough to ask us how we came to be. Not that we answer many questions."

Bilbo nodded and Beorn continued, "But I shall tell you where we came from, if not how. You are an outsider, halfling."

It was obviously a warning and Bilbo took it as one, "I understand, and I'm honored. Please, continue."

Gandalf dropped back to listen as well. Although the wizard knew much, and had traveled the length and breadth of Arda for Age upon Age, some things had slipped out from under his nose, and the origin of the skinchangers was one of them.

"There are many tales about us," Beorn began, "From how we are descended of the great beasts of the mountains of the north, to being created by the Highest himself, to being cursed by Morgoth to change into what we despise most about ourselves, and never be able to eat the creatures of Middle-Earth, only that which is anathema to great predators, such as the fruit of the earth or the honey from bees. But none of these are true."

He paused and Bilbo and Gandalf waited silently. The hobbit got the impression that he was organizing all of his words in one great thread that he would spool out, and that interrupting him would cause his thoughts to become endlessly snarled.

"I know my story, as my father told me, as his father told him, from time to time to the beginning of Us." Beorn continued, "We, the skinchangers, we who swore, we who are bound, as our ancestors were bound, as our descendants are bound, until the Breaking of the World." Beorn's voice slid into a soft rhythm as he continued to speak. "We, who are descended from the North. We, who are descended from Men of the North. But we are Men no longer. We are more, as we have been charged. The first of us was the best of us. His name was Baerin, and he was one of the greatest hunters Arda had ever seen. He was a great protector of his people, Baerin of the North, and took only what was necessary from the great forests surrounding his mountains, and no more. It is known amongst us that he had slain the fiercest wolves, the largest bears, the quietest cats, and the swiftest birds that dared to attack his home."

Beorn paused again, considering, before he continued, "It is said amongst us one day that Baerin, as he was coming home from a successful hunt, encountered someone. A vicious old boar had been harrassing the women gatherers of the village, and Baerin went out and swiftly killed it. But a fellow hunter he had met in the forests was gravely injured, and was not likely to survive the night without help. Baerin knew that he should continue on, that his village needed him. There was no one else who was strong enough to protect his people should something arise, but the man's eyes stayed his hand. They shifted colors, from the green of the brightest trees to the brown of rich earth during spring. The hunter's gaze was both ancient and young, and Baerin knew he had to stay. So he set up his camp and treated the hunter as best he could. As the moon rose and fell Baerin kept watch, and the injured hunter did not say a word. It was not until the next morning that the man spoke. 'You are both wise and merciful,' he said, 'A great warrior and a gentle shepherd, who takes those not under his care and treats them as his own, and takes what he needs, and not what he wants.' Baerin only nodded, sensing the man had more to say. 'And so,' the hunter continued, 'I have found who I have needed, the people I require, to be stewards and shepherds of my animals as the Ents watch over their trees.' And suddenly, as if a fog was lifted from his eyes, Baerin saw the hunter as he truly was, and was both frightened and amazed."

Beorn nodded at Bilbo, who guessed, "Oromë, Lord of Forests?"

Beorn spoke again, "Yes. 'I have watched you for some time, Baerin, first of your name, and I am pleased with what you have done for your people. I would charge you with a duty.' Baerin was about to agree when the Lord of Forests raised a hand, 'But know that you will never be able to abandon your post and that your descendants will be sworn in service as you will be sworn from now until the Breaking of the World. This duty I charge you is to protect the creatures of the forests, from the smallest mouse to the largest panther, and to keep them well in your care. You cannot consume that which you protect, and you will hold in these animals in your trust until their natural deaths, or until I return, for the end of all things. I will give you a way to defend them, in times when your own skills as a Man are not enough and more power is needed, or to communicate with those in your charge. Do you consent to this? ' Baerin thought for a moment. He could protect his people now, but not forever. He was a great hunter of his time, but even he knew that if Oromë asked this of him, that a darkness was coming and all would be needed to keep it from destroying Arda. And so he said to the Lord of Forests, 'I will do this thing for you, Great Lord. I do so swear, for me and my descendants, to be your shepherds and your keepers, from now, until the very end.' The Hunter nodded gravely, 'Then you are bound, you to me and I to you. Call on me when your need is most dire, and I shall be there, for you and your children and their children, as the land ages and the world turns.' "

Beorn stopped and looked at Bilbo, who could only sit, stunned, "That is our beginning, halfling. That is the story of us, the story of our people, the story that we pass down from father to son, all along our line. So Baerin did to his offspring, as my father eventually told me. So we are bound. So we remain."

"Baerin is your ancestor?"

Beorn looked at Bilbo and Gandalf seriously, "Yes. From him all true descendants take the first letter of his name, and it is we who always remember how we began, so we do not let any of us revert to our more--ferocious--selves, when the Shadow calls."

The skinchanger looked forward again as Bilbo and Gandalf sat silently, "Come. We must find suitable shelter for your pony and horse before dark."

Chapter Text

"My Lord Bard, considering the rebuilding of Dale-"

"-Lord Bard, what about the houses here? I-"

"-Lord Bard, is it possible another dragon will-"

"Lord Bard!"

The weary archer turned and raised his hands placatingly, "Gentlemen, ladies, please! I know I did not have the chance to speak to all of you today, but the sun is almost down and I must be home. I promise that those of you here now will talk to me first about your concerns tomorrow morning."

With some grumbling the men and women who had pursued him from the Master's Hall departed to their own places. Bard sighed and continued down the docks. Noticing that his thoughts were elsewhere, his neighbors and others who lived nearby merely nodded or waved and let him continue on his way.

It had been about a month since Gandalf and Bilbo had left, and during that time winter had started to set in. The great camps of the Elven and Dwarven armies had been disbanded, while the skinchangers had long since retreated back into the Beornings and the Eagles had flown back to their territory. With the aid of the Elves, the Men of Laketown had food to survive the winter while rebuilding their homes.

With the dragon defeated and the Battle of Five Armies concluded, Bard's reputation with the people of Laketown had (not so surprisingly) soared. All of a sudden, from the smallest concern to the largest and everything in between, it was Bard who was consulted and not the Master. Although much of the city had been burned down by Smaug, the people of Laketown, having been harrassed by the dragon before, were able to quickly repair or replace what had been lost. Of course, much was still to be done and now that Thorin was more forthcoming with the treasure after regaining his lost city, the Men of Esgaroth had enough money to pay for whatever they needed.

Or at least...that was the idea. If they perhaps did not have such a greedy ruler such as the Master, anyway.

Bard shook his head as he continued down toward his home. When the Men's share of the treasure had been sent down to the people of Laketown, much of it had mysteriously disappeared over the next few nights. No one was precisely sure where it had disappeared to, or rather they did. However, if they still wanted to continue living in Laketown and not raise the Master's ire, they kept their mouths shut. So although the city received a decent amount of gold, it would take longer to rebuild the rest and continue improving what already existed.

'But that, thank the Valar,' Bard thought as he started up the stairs, 'Is not my problem anymore.' The archer had become quite disillusioned when he had recovered from the gold madness that had crept in on his--and so many others!--thoughts. Esgaroth had become a blight on the Long Lake, what with its greed and selfishness, due to its proximity to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug's constant raiding. Bard had done what he could, of course, but it wasn't enough--a war had nearly started because of Smaug's magic over the treasure of Erebor, and he had almost succumbed to it. He still felt guilty about how Bilbo had been treated--it was strange how, in the end, it was the smallest of all of them who made the largest difference. Or perhaps it was not so odd. After all, Gandalf had believed in him, and if Hobbits had the faith of wizards, then-

His train of thought stopped abruptly as he entered his home. Tilda noticed him first and sprinted toward him, smiling, arms outstretched. Sigrid was mending something by the fire, while Bain was peeling potatoes under a stranger's direction. The three of them looked up when they heard his entrance and Sigrid and Bain shouted greetings before returning to their chores. The woman, who looked to be around Bard's age, or slightly older, nodded at him before continuing to talk to Bain, while at the same time inspecting Sigrid's work.

"Father!" Bard bent slightly and embraced Tilda before pushing her slightly behind him, ready to draw his bow at any time. His temper was already short from answering petitioners all day. He could have sworn they had all asked one of the same three questions worded a hundred different ways. The Master was there, of course, and that rat of an adviser, and with them constantly making snide suggestions or remarks, Bard had worn through his considerable store of patience.

Bard had had a very long day. Unfortunately, it looked as though it would be even longer.

"I tire of unknown visitors making themselves guests in my home. What business do you have with me?"

The stranger turned toward him as Sigrid replied, "It's alright, Da, she helped us with-"

"-Some overly solicitous citizens of Laketown, who seemed very concerned for your children," The stranger interjected smoothly and Sigrid closed her mouth, "And so, to discourage any unwelcome attempts to enter your home, I decided to remain and make myself useful. I hope you don't mind my ducking them in the water instead of cracking their heads; with their luck they'll catch a cold or worse and remain miserable for days."

Bard's eyes narrowed. Her accent was...strange. She looked normal enough, with brown hair and green eyes, plain features, but she was garbed all in blue. She was tall, as tall as Gandalf, and something about her bespoke a certain..peace.

"-It ended well, all things considered," The woman said, still speaking, "They said they came at the behest of some Master or other. They shan't bother you again, though."

Bard resolved to think about that later. He frowned, "Who are you?"

"Her name is Morinehtar, Da!"

Tilda's voice had popped up from behind him and the woman smiled, "It most certainly is, Miss Tilda."

"I told you, I'm no Miss! I'm just Tilda!"

Bard hushed his youngest daughter as the woman chuckled, "Miss Tilda, we do not know each other well enough yet for me to call you by just your name, and to keep your father from having any sort of conniption, we ought to let him talk to me first, hmmmmm?"

Eyes wide, the girl nodded and remained silent. Sigrid and Bain ducked their heads down and kept focusing on their work, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Bard hadn't seen his children so well behaved since his wife was alive, and he couldn't decide if he should be alarmed or amused.

"Your name," he said finally, "Does not sound familiar." He stepped farther in the room, keeping Tilda behind him at all times.

Morinehtar just shrugged her shoulders, "It has been more than an Age since I have last passed through the lands of the West, and I would not be surprised if you did not know who I am." She grinned suddenly, "That means that I'm an unknown entity here. Oh, how exciting."

Bard's reaction to her statement by putting a hand to the hilt of his sword dampened her enthusiasm. She lost her smile, but her eyes still sparkled merrily, "Bard the Bowman, Son of Girion, Bard of Laketown, Dragon Slayer, King of Dale, so I find you, and so I name you. Please, relax, and do know that I come sincerely as a friend. If I had not, would your children be here now?"

Something in her words resonated deep inside him and Bard had to acknowledge that she had a point. He took his hand away from his sword and motioned to a chair. Ignoring the invitation, she grabbed a wooden scepter resting on the windowsill and hopped up onto the table, swinging her legs as he sat. As he moved to light his pipe, she snatched a fruit from the basket next to her and tossed it at him, grinning when he caught it.

"Well done, lad. Now, as Miss Tilda so excellently introduced me, I am Morinehtar, one of the Ithryn Luin," she paused and looked at him, giving him a penetrating stare.

Bard had no idea what that was, although he did recognize it was something Elvish. He wasn't about to let her know that he had no idea what she was talking about, though. When he just continued to chew his fruit patiently, she kept twirling her wooden stick, "I had heard of there being a bit of a dust-up here in the West involving a dragon, and naturally, as I had spent much of my time in the East, and a dragon is a creature of the East, I thought I might come by and see how it caused such a ruckus in the West."

"That is an understatement. Did you not see the damage here when you came from...wherever you were?" Bard questioned her and Morinhetar nodded.

"It seems I arrived later than I expected, but it looked as if you had it all well in hand, and there was nothing, really, that I could do, so I waited to see who was in charge. And as soon as I heard about the battle--It's being called the Battle of Five Armies, it's named already, don't you know--"

"-Truly?-" Bard asked dryly. Sigrid giggled in the corner and Morinehtar blithely continued on.

"-So I had see who was in charge. And I knew sometime not too long ago a Girion ruled these parts, or at least that's what one of my cousins told me, and so I thought he must have had a descendant somewhere, and sure as sure, as I was listening to gossip, your name popped up."

Bard resolved to talk to his neighbors about bandying his name about, although he knew it was hopeless, considering how well known he was now.

Morinehtar was still talking," 'Well,' I say to myself, 'He must live somewhere hereabouts, him and his family, and I must needs speak with him.' And on my way there appeared some ruffians of the most uncouth sort, asking the children ahead of me about bride prices and all sorts of appalling things-"

Bard choked on his fruit and she pounded him on the back before continuing, "-And then I decided to teach them some manners. And when they didn't listen, I thought a nice swim in the lake would do. Then I introduced myself to your daughters and son, who ended up being your offspring. Not customary, I am well aware, but you weren't there, and your family needed me, so I decided to stay. So here I am. And now here you are."

"If what you say is true," Bard looked at Morinehtar gravely, "Then I must thank you for what you have done."

Morinehtar only nodded serenely and threw another fruit at him when it appeared he was reaching for his pipe, "You do know that smoking too much poisons your lungs, yes?" She said conversationally, "And it is especially bad for the children."

"You aren't my wife." Bard snapped and he winced.

He was relieved to see his guest only looked amused, "And now I will thank the Valar every day for such a blessing." Tilda giggled and Morinehtar tried not to smile.

"My apologies."

She waved one hand languidly as she twirled her scepter about with the other, "It's alright. Honestly, I don't understand how my relatives can smoke the stuff. It's quite unhealthy. At least Aiwendil knows better. Now, if you could tell me, I would hear about this dragon and what you're planning on doing for Dale."

As Bard told her the story, beginning with him encountering the Company inside their barrels, he weighed his options. She had rescued his children, come into his home, and set things more to rights than they had been in years. She told him earnestly why she had come, even if it sounded-well, not insane, but not completely plausible, and he didn't have much to lose. And something, deep, deep down, said she could be trusted. In fact, he had that feeling once, when he met Gandalf for the first time-

He stopped talking abruptly and narrowed his eyes at her, "You're a witch."

Morinehtar snorted in disgust, "Oh, please. I'm a wizard, thank you very much. There is quite a difference. I do not go puttering about making love potions and those sorts of things, acting the midwife and keeping a village happy. Not," she added hastily, "That there is anything wrong with that, don't you know. But calling me a witch implies I have the same limitations as a witch, and that is simply not true."

"Did Gandalf send for you?"

Morinehtar laughed as Bain, Sigrid, and Tilda looked on with wide eyes, "Most certainly not. He thinks I'm still back East, my silly old cousin, and I would prefer it if he continued to do so, at least until he meanders back again. Although," she said, pondering, head tilted, "I wonder if he's older, or if I am. After all, Rómestámo and I came here first...but time is irrelevant, all things considered."

"And why do you not want him to know you are here?"

It was at this moment that Morinehtar's expression turned solemn and Bard learned what it was to see a wizard at their most grave. There was something old, incredibly old, behind those green eyes and, for just a moment, it glimpsed out and looked right back at him.

Then it was hidden again as Morinehtar responded, "Things here in the West are moving rather quickly, and not at all in the manner that I expected, at least when I spoke to the head of my order last," she said slowly, "And as such, I would hear just what is happening here, before I learn from others who may not have the most...accurate interpretation of events."

There was silence as Bard considered her words. At least, until Bain spoke, "Where's your staff? I thought you couldn't be a wizard without one."

He flushed as Morinehtar raised an eyebrow at him, "I don't particularly care for staffs much, my lad, although I do have one. It's just detachable. You see, I have the top here," she gestured to the top of her scepter, which housed a crystal the color of the sky wrapped in wood shaped like branches, "While the bottom I attach when I need it. But in terms of carrying it with me anywhere else--it's much more practical to carry a staff in two pieces instead of one, but you couldn't convince the others of my order of that."

"Why?" asked Sigrid curiously.

"Wizardly things, my dear, which would confuse you if I tried to explain, and make you go loopy for a while. So I'm afraid my explanation must end there," the wizard looked back at Bard, "Now, if you would, please continue your tale, and tell me how you intend to rebuild your city."

"You plan to share your thoughts?" Bard asked, slightly confused.

"I plan on helping you, Lord Bard, especially with Dale. You can't imagine that the place isn't haunted. And it is a particular talent of mine, among others, to be able to address the dead. If you ever plan on rebuilding Dale without being hampered every step of the way, I will go with you--or whoever you send--to the ruins during the initial scouting forays. And if you want them to come back alive, you will not argue with me."

Bard nodded. Although it wasn't widely spoken of, everyone in Esgaroth knew that Dale was haunted, even decades after Smaug's initial attack. Places where violent deaths occurred tended to attract...things. The people of Laketown knew the stories. Women could be heard crying out if one strayed too close to the ruins, and children's laughter and flashes of small figures running could be glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye. But one could also feel a sort of despair, of listlessness, that lingered in the air like an invisible miasma. This was also why they planned on waiting for Gandalf and Bilbo to come back before doing much in the way of any sort of restoration work. The idea of subtle magic working on upon the minds of those who went to restore Dale (after the effects of the gold sickness) drove people away and didn't leave many in the way of volunteers behind.

"Then this, lady, is what I know," Bard began, and Morinehtar leaned in to hear his words. He held up a hand.

"But in return," he warned her, "I must know what you meant by the Master sending those men after my own."

Morinehtar frowned thoughtfully, "Of course. I have some ideas on that score as well, if you care to hear them."

Bard nodded and their talk carried on through the night. There was much to discuss.

Chapter Text

"This isn't a good idea."

Morinehtar and Bard, along with the rest of the scouting party (which numbered five), surveyed what remained of Dale from a nearby overlook. The ruins looked quiet and no activity could be seen inside, but so were many other places filled with spirits or evil. It was also midday. Spirits and ghosts, as Morinehtar knew, did not truly care that much for daylight. They were diminished in terms of power. It was harder for evil creatures and unearthly shades to deceive those who trespassed "their" territory when they had no cover of darkness to do their work. Bard had timed their arrival well.

"What do you mean, this isn't a good idea? Of course this isn't a good idea." Morinehtar bounced a bit on her toes, Bard standing a few meters behind her, "But Bard, I can't think of anything better."

"You shouldn't go in alone."

"Bard." The wizard's voice was flat and the archer sighed. "You know that none of you can come inside until I say it's all clear. We have absolutely no idea what's in there. We have no idea if there's anything there at all. Or anyone. Gods forbid there's some Valar-forsaken spawn of Ungoliant lurking about or some other group of ghosts nobody remembers. Actually," Morinehtar paused, then said thoughtfully, "The second is far more likely, as most of Ungoliant's children are dead, that I know of, but I haven't been this far West in some time-"

"My lady." One member of the scouting party that had accompanied Morinehtar and Bard piped up, disrupting her ramble, "Are you certain that none of us should accompany you?"

The man who had spoken, but for the exception of Morinehtar, was easily taller than everyone else there by a good foot. Finn, as he was known in Laketown, was one of the city's blacksmiths who had been good friends with Bard since the archer was a child. He would be intimidating, if it wasn't for his quiet and gentle demeanor. However, Finn could be absolutely devastating with a hammer, as those who tried (and failed) to accost him found out to their folly.

The wizard beamed at him and patted him on the cheek with her hand, saying with a motherly voice, "Thank you, Finn dear, but no, I shall be fine. And you most certainly should not, for if I venture in and do not return, what on earth makes you think you others would be safe if you came after me?"

"What would you have us do, then?" Davoth, one of the local woodmen, asked.

Morinehtar face turned grim as she looked over the ruined city, "If I do not return in two days, leave swiftly and silently, and do not look back. Find Gandalf, if you can, or send for the head of our order, if you cannot, for I tell you now that no other power will be able to contain what lurks inside Dale but the Istari if I should fall."

Her face lightened up suddenly and she grinned at them all, "But then, why be so gloomy? Come now, friends, I highly doubt it should be as bad as all that. And even if it is, Bard, you ought to rule Laketown if Dale should prove to be inhospitable."

Davoth choked and the others gaped. Bard sighed, "Please, my Lady, try to say as few treasonous things as possible around our companions. They do not understand your sense of humor."

"Who said I was joking? And treasonous? I follow no man's Master, least of all that of Laketown." Morinehtar cackled as everyone looked even more appalled, "And now we're off."

"I thought you said you were scouting alone."

The wizard paused in her climb down from the overlook and looked back, eyebrows raised, "And I know at least one of you will attempt to follow me without being noticed, if not more. So, Lord Bard, you get the honor of seeing your city first with my scintillating company. Down you come, my lad, and off we go. Ruins to see and ghosts to chat with, and no time to waste."

It was some time later before the two of them spoke again. Morinehtar glanced back once and could see the others setting up camp above them, keeping watch as they continued on toward the city. What Morinehtar also hadn't mentioned was that she, with her considerable...presence, magically, would probably draw out all sorts of things into the city, daylight or no. It was good that the rest had remained there. Not that they weren't capable fighters, but should something happen, Morinehtar didn't think she could keep them all safe. Bard was an exception because he was descended from the ruling line of Dale, and as such, was much less likely to succumb to any mere spirit's influence. Turning her head back around, she caught the tail-end of something Bard had said.

"-like Gandalf."

Morinehtar blinked, "Pardon, repeat yourself, please?"

"You are very unlike Gandalf." The archer jumped nimbly over a gap in the rocks, Morinehtar just behind him, "You're very-odd. Even more than wizards are odd."

"Surely you didn't expect all wizards to be the same? And I shall take that as a compliment," she moved around a boulder and continued farther up the slope, adding, "Valar forbid I should be like Gandalf or the head of my order. They are too grim altogether, and I am not suited to such a dour personality. Neither is Radagast, for that matter. What that cousin of mine can do with mushrooms just addles the mind."

"Gandalf does not seem grim to me, Morinehtar. He can be light-hearted on occasion. Have you not seen his fireworks?"

"Not for an Age or more. I was helping empires rise and fall and causing general chaos, don't you know, and that sort of work takes time, and I hadn't been able to travel much until recently, you see."

"I really do wonder, sometimes," Bard said drily, "When you say such things if you are serious, or merely jesting."

"I do not merely jest, my lad, I throw myself into whatever I do quite whole-heartedly," Morinehtar and Bard stopped for a moment to rest and she continued, "As for whether I joke, or no, is for me to know, and for you to ponder. I like to affect an air of mysticism and eccentricity, so that I leave all baffled in my wake."

"Well," Bard said as the two began trekking up to the Dale's gates once again, "You certainly succeeded."

"It's what we wizards excel at, my Lord Bard," Morinehtar said serenely as they reached the entrance to Dale, "As well as deception."

"Deception? What-" the archer's eyes widened in realization just as the wizard turned and knocked him unconscious with one swift blow of her staff.

Looking down at him, Morinehtar narrowed her eyes and shook her head, "That was altogether too easy, friend Bard. When you wake up, we are going to have quite a talk about traveling with strangers, especially magical ones. You folk in the West are far more trusting than those in the East."

She sighed and looked around, "Well, time to get to work." Looking around, she found a nearby stack of stones, just inside the gates, that looked to be the perfect spot to set up the unconscious Bard. Pulling one arm over her shoulders, she carried the archer up to the rocks and laid him out. With a glance around, she took some rock dust nearby and blew it onto his body, making it look like rocks had fallen on him from the building nearby and knocked him out.

Not the best trap, she would admit. But goblins are a stupid bunch, and would only notice a possible meal. The ghosts, meanwhile...well. Morinehtar would speak to them after full dark.

The wizard had noticed signs of goblins in residence as soon as they approached the city. Bard would not have been too familiar with them, as most of them had lived in the Goblin Kingdom in the mountains, but Morinehtar seen traces instantly. It took her a few seconds to figure out a plan. It definitely wasn't her best, and she didn't like having to trick Bard, but there wasn't enough time to talk it out. Dale was a very large, ruinous city, and if the goblins nearby got scared off, they could hide gods knew where and would not be found until dead bodies started appearing once the city was rebuilt. Or skeletons, actually, if one wanted to be gruesomely realistic.

Morinehtar took apart her staff, moved into the shadow of the building near the gates (it looked to be some sort of home, once), and sat down, keeping an eye on Bard all the while. She would hate to have to hit him upside the head again if he woke up before the goblins came.

Thankfully, she didn't have to wait long.

Out into the open the goblins crept. Then, as they saw no one but Bard's body, moved swiftly, caring little for the noise they made. There were only a few, though, which was a little surprising. Morinehtar supposed that the ghosts had something to do with it. After she dispatched them, she'd have to investigate.

"Looks like we'll have fresh meat tonight, boys," the first goblin hissed in Black Speech, "A whole Man, and won't be missed."

"Gruk must share," said the second as it circled to Bard's head, "Gruk must share tasty Man. We are the last ones. Ghosties can't find us."

"Gruk will share," said Gruk to the second and third, "Gruk will share with Mok and Nubb."

"Must check it, Gruk. Must check if it's alive," Nubb said, grinning viciously, "If the Man's alive we can make it scream."

Morinehtar debated within herself. She doubted that they would say anything more useful. They just admitted themselves they were the last ones, and that 'ghosties' managed to get the rest. Now looked to be the time to intervene.

"Why, hello there!" Morinehtar said cheerfully as she moved out of the shadows, "It's good to meet you, Gruk, Mok, and Nubb. May I join you? I'm quite hungry myself, dontcha know."

As the three goblins turned to face her in shock, the wizard noticed Bard's hands twitching, "I can't say that I've eaten a Man before," Morinehtar continued as she slowly began to back up, "But I should certainly like to try."

Although she kept it from showing on her face, inside Morinehtar was incredibly amused. She could practically see the calculation on their faces as they figured out the odds. It was three-to-one, they figured, and she was a woman, at that. It would be very easy to kill her and eat her too. Just as the first one called Gruk moved forward, she struck.

Pressing a switch hidden on one of her maces, three blades slid out the bottom and sprang out into a claw formation. With a grin, she skipped to the side and gave the goblin a gentle push, causing him to fall, and she slit his throat on the way down. Continuing the movement, she ducked the second goblin and whirled, bashing the face in of the third goblin. Turning again, she sweeped the second goblin off its feet and drop-kicked its head, killing it instantly.

"Duck." Morinehtar dropped as an arrow flew over her head, piercing the eye of a fourth goblin that had leapt out of the second-story of the building behind her. Glancing around, she didn't see any more of the creatures approaching. With a quiet shick, she retracted her blades after wiping them off and reattached her two maces into one staff. Bard was pointing his bow at her all the while, but she ignored it.

"I would say I'm sorry, Lord Bard, but you would see it as an empty platitude. Which it is, honestly, because I'm not actually sorry that I had to knock you out in order to draw the goblins from their hiding place," Bard looked furious and the wizard continued as she strode towards him, "However, I do apologize that I didn't tell you, and that I gave you a concussion, the latter of which I can remedy if you allow it."

Bard's weapon lowered as he thought over what she said. His eyebrows raised when he spoke, "You knew the goblins were here, didn't you."

It wasn't a question. Morinehtar winced, "I saw signs, yes. And there wasn't time for you to argue with me. We were already too close to their location and they definitely heard you speaking. When did you wake up?"

"Around the time they started poking and prodding. I heard them coming. And smelt them. Gods, goblins sink." Bard was disgusted and Morinehtar chuckled.

"If it's any consolation, I thought you were a brilliant dead body," Morinehtar offered as she began to poke at Bard's head. When he winced, she muttered a quick healing spell and Bard's face cleared instantly.

"Maybe because someone knocked me unconscious. A useful trick, that." Bard said as Morinehtar headed back toward the building she had hidden against, "We could have used it after the Battle."

"I couldn't get here fast enough, Lord Bard, and besides which, the Elves were here. They wouldn't have refused to aid you if your need was dire. And wizards," Morinehtar grunted as she shoved a badly damaged cabinet out of the way on the floor, "Are not endless founts of magic, as amusing as that would be to have you think. We are not invincible. You know," she remarked thoughtfully as she peered inside the house, "This really all isn't as bad as I expected. Looks mostly to be fire damage, but structurally sound. For all that dragon fire rained down, you'd think the stone would have been destroyed as wel-ah," she bent down and, whispering a spell into her staff, illuminated the room, "Bard. Come here, please."

Bard was still angry with her, but forebore showing it. She'd just ignore it. Stooping down, he tried to notice what she did, "What is it?"

"Look here." The wizard pointed to a small glimmer in the stone, "Do you see a sort of sparkle there? That's the answer to my question. I wouldn't have even seen it if the paint hadn't burned off the walls."

"What is it?"

Morinehtar stood and began to clear the room of debris, her crystal glowing all the while, "I had wondered, when we first arrived with the scouting party, just how any of the buildings in Dale were still standing. Dragonfire is nasty stuff and can melt anything, even stone. You know this."

"Yes, I remember."

"Well," she grunted as she shoved a large rock out of the middle of the room, "Obviously, all the wood structures are gone and anything else remotely flammable, but not the buildings. And that's because your stone isn't true stone. I bet the other structures in the city are the same."

"We would have to check Laketown's records, if any remain from that time, but you are probably right. It was a couple centuries ago, so I'm not sure if there is anything left after Laketown was burned to the ground," Bard replied as he continued helping Morinehtar set up camp in the building; it was a strategic location, close to the gates if they needed to flee, and yet out of sight of any other beings present in the city.

"Have you ever heard of a metal called Mornmith? It's not common."

Bard shook his head.

"It's a rather odd name. For the Elves it means Black Mist, but for the Dwarves, in their tongue, it's called Narageljezer, or Black Rope. It's a variant of Mithril, from what I remember, and fairly rare in the East, while practically nonexistent here in the West. And yet, I would wager this whole city is made of the stuff. Anyway, Mornmith retains many of the same properties as Mithril, in that both are extremely strong and durable, while having a high melting point, like that of dragon scales. It's a dark variant of Mithril, not as shiny or pure, so the dwarves considered it a lesser grade and not worth their time. Plus, it was considered unlucky, because it was a black metal, and the dwarves are extremely superstitious about such things.That didn't help your people then, obviously, because although the city wouldn't necessarily melt or burn away entirely, it still held heat very well, and many folk probably-" Morinehtar looked over at the archer and, seeing his face, abruptly changed the direction of the conversation, "-well. At least this means that you don't have much structural work to do. You're incredibly lucky in that regard. I'll wager the dwarves won't have much to say when they come inspect the inside once we banish the ghosts. You know," a contemplating look passed over her face, "Erebor sounds like a very interesting place. I'll have to make my introductions there once we finish with the city."

Bard pitied the dwarves who met her first.

"So now what?" Bard got their bedrolls and rolled them out as Morinehtar checked the windows.

"Now we wait, Lord Bard, until full dark. It will be easier for me to reach the dead if I speak to them at their full strength."

An uncanny breeze whispered through the room and ruffled her hair. Bard stiffened, but she only smiled, "Oh, it looks like they've noticed us already and want to say hello."

Bard could feel his apprehension growing and the wizard came over, putting a hand on his shoulder, "Bard. The dead do not have power over you unless you give your consent. Remember that, and you will be fine. They will try to trick you, try to coerce you, but do not let them, and you will not be harmed."

"I cannot help but be skeptical, wizard." Bard frowned.

Morinehtar thought for a time before she responded, "I highly doubt that there are spirits powerful enough to harm either of us. And if they are, well." For a moment her presence seemed to loom overhead, filling every corner and causing her to be...larger, somehow, "They will have to deal with me." She grinned at him as he began to slowly relax, "And spirits of the dead tend to be much less foolish than those of the living."

Bard nodded.

"Now, get some rest. I will rouse you at full dark; you will need what sleep you can to prepare for what comes next."

And as Bard laid down to sleep, he couldn't help but hope that Morinehtar was right. Because if she was not...Valar knew what would happen to them both.

Chapter Text

"I don't understand what you're doing."

"That is always the attitude of those who wander with wizards, my lord Bard. We attempt the inexplicable and impossible and leave others awed and amazed."

"I will tell you right now that I'm neither one." Bard, at Morinehtar's side, brought his bow over his shoulder and held it ready, "I'm confused."

"Be patient. All will come to you in time."

"Morinehtar, you're sitting on an armchair. On top of a boulder. In the middle of the city square." (Well, one of the city squares. Bard knew Dale was enormous, but didn't fully grasp it until he came here with the wizard).

"I most certainly am." Morinehtar agreed.

"Is it truly appropriate to speak to the dead sitting on an armchair?"

"Relax, Bard. It's far more pleasant to talk to ghosts when I'm sitting versus standing threateningly, staff in hand. Gives off a bad first impression, don't you know. This way is much less stressful for all parties." The wizard had split her staff again, and was using the end that didn't have the crystal as a prop for the leg the chair had lacked, "Besides which, you know, it is better to create a more comfortable atmosphere in moments like this, don't you think?"

"I wouldn't know," Bard said dryly, "I've never talked to spirits before."

Bard and Morinehtar had continued exploring throughout the city, inspecting the other structures. In the area they had covered so far, it seemed that the Blue Wizard's assessment was correct. Mornmith was found as the stone for almost all the buildings the pair had examined. Most of the furnishings had burned and what hadn't was badly damaged, but in one of the homes they had discovered a type of basement (the house was built into a hill, so it had outside entrances on two different floors), in which a beaten-up old maroon armchair with a missing leg was found. Morinehtar lit up and persuaded (forced) the archer to help carry the chair up to the nearby city square, where there was a shallow stone pedestal that happened to be positioned right in the middle, looking for all the world like it belonged there. For all Bard knew, it did.

Now the wizard was reclined in the same armchair, waving her scepter (it really was too large to be considered a wand) idly as she surveyed the sky above turn to night as the sun set. It looked to be a cloudless evening, which could only improve things. Having the light of Varda beam down on Morinehtar as she worked would only improve her chances of some sort of a positive arrangement. Morinehtar glanced once more into the sky and smiled to see a full moon shining. 'Good. Another point in my favor, then.'.

"Not only wizards talk to ghosts, you know."

Bard's eyes narrowed, "Who else can speak to the dead?"

"Well, obviously, Men can. Elves usually do. Dwarves don't. Too...down to earth."

Morinehtar snickered as the archer closed his eyes and sighed.

"How long have you been waiting to use that?"

"Oh, lad, you have no idea. I am quite partial to puns, don't you know."

"I didn't before, but I do now," Bard looked amused, "And what's worse is that I'm not even in the least bit surprised."

"Good. That means you're learning. On the other hand," Morinehtar's eyebrows furrowed for a moment, "That means I'm getting predictable. Which is alarming."

A flicker in the shadows drew the wizard's eye and she glanced toward it and raised an eyebrow. Another flash could be seen out of the corner of her eye, opposite the first, and Bard shifted his feet restlessly, "Morinehtar?"

"Yes, Bard?"

He shot her a sidelong glance and the wizard straightened in her chair. He nodded toward the other flashes that began to circle around them, some streaking through the air, others drifting along the ground, "Are these the ones you're waiting for?"

She shrugged, "I won't know until they decide to speak. Right now, they're showing off. Enjoy the show, my lad; I don't know when you'll see something like this again."

As more and more lights began to flicker into existence in the square, they began to take shapes. Some of them only had faint outlines, while others seemed completely...well, solid, if glowing faintly, and even more couldn't seem to take any sort of form at all, and remained lights floating restlessly above the others' heads. Bard took the wizard at her word and just observed. Granted, he was still nervous, but Morinehtar didn't seem concerned, so he decided to follow her lead. She hadn't led him wrong so far.

Except when she knocked you unconscious.

Bard resolutely ignored that thought. It had been for a good reason. Even if he nearly got eaten.

He instead focused intently on the...being approaching him and Morinehtar. The wizard straightened up in her chair and readjusted so she was sitting up, her scepter in her lap.

With a grin, she waved cheerfully, "Hello! Lovely evening, isn't it?"

The figure paused, then continued forward again. Now that it had drifted closer, he could see that it was an older man, still in his armor, sword in its scabbard at his side. It leaned forward, peering into Morinehtar's eyes, and the wizard mimicked the gesture, her presence seeming to grow, with the feeling that everything would be all right. With a blink, the ghost broke eye contact and took a step back.

Morinehtar merely cocked her head to the side, "Are you actually going to talk now? Things would be ever so much easier if we all used actual words that everyone can hear. Besides just me. Because I'm a wizard. And Bard over here-"

"Bard?!"

The wizard sighed as another ghost drifted past the first, peering up at Bard, whose face had turned white. Judging by his expression, it must have been the very image of his wife or some other relative.

"Morinehtar, what-" Bard choked.

"Gods damn it, I had hoped to solve this without any difficulties," Morinehtar looked irritated, "Look at her, Bard. Really look."

He did as the wizard bade and examined the ghost closely. It was the image of his wife, Mida, down to the bangs that always escaped her braid and the the crooked index finger on her left hand from when she had broken it as a child. It had never healed straight. She was wearing the same dress on the day she died and the same one they buried her in, blue, with Sigrid's crooked flower border along the hem from when she first began to embroider.

"That isn't your wife, Bard. She's just a shade."

"Don't listen to her, Bard, please, I'm here, I came back for you, my love, I-"

"Bard. Remember what I had told you. They do not hold power over you without your consent. They will trick you, make you see things that are not there," The wizard's voice cut through the ghost's pleas and Bard sprung away with a start. He didn't realize that he had moved closer to the ghost, instead of back toward the wizard.

The archer shook his head, "Let her go, whoever you are. My wife is dead and at peace, and you cannot bring her back."

The shade's eyes narrowed and the glamour began to fade away as she replied, "But what if I could?"

"You must be an anomaly amongst spirits, you foolish creature," Morinehtar remarked idly as she began to stand, "Because from the ghosts I encountered, I had gathered the impression that spirits were much less stupid compared to when they were alive, and knew better than to promise things that could not be delivered. But then, of course," She paused and reassembled her staff, "Ghosts do like to lie. I had forgotten about that."

The illusion had fully faded and Bard was taken aback to see that where his wife had once stood, a hissing, feral-looking creature took her place.

"Foolish creature? Foolish Lady and her Bowman, to come here all alone, full of magic." It licked its lips and Morinehtar just raised an eyebrow, "Full of power. Oh, yes, we noticed you as soon as you crossed our Border. And it would have been so easy to snatch you the first night, to take you away and drain you of everything that you are-"

The first ghost said nothing as the specter continued to rant and was watching passively. When other spirits began to move forward, he stayed them with a hand. Bard couldn't imagine why he wasn't trying to order this creature away, but Bard assumed it was out of curiosity as to how the wizard was going to handle it. The archer was rather curious, himself.

"Well," Morinehtar's voice became stern, "I think that will be quite enough, don't you agree, Bard?"

Bard nodded and the wizard turned to the first ghost, "Is this the only one here, or are there more?"

"There are more, but they will disperse if this one is defeated. It is the strongest of those that remain."

Morinehtar shrugged, "Best not leave anything to chance. Brace yourself, Bard."

And with that she kicked the armchair away, then struck the platform with her staff, shouting in Quenya, "Haldafairëa, a tulë sirar!"

As she finished a great thunderclap echoed and reechoed throughout the square; Bard was nearly driven to his knees by the noise. Morinehtar had somehow-not quite grown, but became...more. Her presence seemed larger, as it looked like she was looming above everyone that was gathered nearby. Her shadow had grown longer and the world around her body seemed to curve higher, like a distorted mirror, making her seem even taller. She didn't glow, but the smell of ozone lingered in the air and her hair and clothes whipped around, although there was no breeze to cause it. Morinehtar's face was stern and unforgiving, and with her staff crystal shining, she radiated an air of power and formidability. The shade that had been ranting was now totally silent, eyes wide. It looked utterly terrified.

Bard didn't blame it.

With several more flashes, the rest of the shades appeared in the square next to the first with startled cries. Taking a look at their surroundings, they all jumped and gaped at the wizard, who smiled grimly.

"You know why you are here," Morinehtar paused, then continued, "I give you one chance to leave. One. Return to the planes from whence you came, for if you return here, to this place, I will bind you to such a worse fate than this you will wish you will never have crossed me."

"You're not of our kind, our Master will-" the leader of the shades faltered as Morinehtar chuckled without any humor.

"Your Master? You mean that Necromancer? That black magician? He fought the members of my order and fell, along with his army. You truly think you can face me with your Master defeated once more?"

"Our Master will come back, he will save us all and raise us to such glory as-where are you going?!" The shade glanced around at the others that were quickly disappearing as it continued to watch, "Come back!"

The wizard sighed and raised her staff, "I tire of this, and of you. You will depart. Á autaldë!"

With another clap of thunder and a flash of light that dazzled Bard's eyes, the shades disappeared and Morinehtar sagged a little against her staff, her looming presence gone. Bard began to move towards her, reaching out, but stilled himself when Morinehtar waved him away.

The wizard turned to the other spirits, saying, "I hope that I don't need to do the same to you all as I had done to them," she smiled affably as she sank back down in the chair, fixing her staff as its missing leg once again, "You seem much more sensible."

It was silent in the square.

Morinehtar turned her gaze back towards the other ghost, the one clearly keeping the other spirits in check. She motioned at him, "Lord Girion, I presume?"

The past King of Dale nodded as Bard's mouth dropped open in shock.

The wizard gestured him to come forward, "Good. We need to talk."

Chapter Text

Thunder and lightning crashed in the sky. The wind howled. The trees bent. Water was pouring down as if it was the end of days, and on top of that, the temperature was beginning to drop, and Bilbo already had a frightful cold, and to make it even worse, he and Gandalf were still journeying through the lower slopes of the Misty Mountains without any glimpse of the other side.

Gods forbid they got lost. Again.

"If I get pneumonia and die, Gandalf," Bilbo grumbled, "I will forever haunt you beyond the grave, I swear it."

"And you, Bilbo," the wizard grunted as he helped guide his mount over another gap in the trail, "Will thenceforth make excellent company."

"How much farther?"

Gandalf paused at the next rise, squinting his eyes against the downpour. With a sigh he looked ahead and behind, trying to get a sense of the distance they had walked so far. Bilbo hunched further down in his cloak and huddled as close as he could to his pony for warmth.

"Not much more, Bilbo," the wizard said finally, "We should be almost there, in fact. Or by this evening, if this confounded rain does not end."

"Better rain than snow, at any rate," the hobbit reminded him as they started walking, "Gods know we were lucky enough to have a warm crossing at the Mountains. I don't suppose you had anything to do with it?"

"My talents do not include weather-working, my dear Bilbo. I suspect," Gandalf called over his shoulder, "That it was just more of your burglar's luck at work."

"Burglar's luck", Bilbo grumbled, "Didn't stop those Stone Giants from tossing those baby mountains about. I thought we were going to be flatter than Iris Gamgee's piecrust."

"Burglar's luck, Bilbo! It amazes me at every turn--and speaking of turns, I believe we have made it onto Lord Elrond's lands."

And it seemed the old wizard was right, for as soon as Gandalf and Bilbo ducked under the treeline separating rocky hills from the valley of Imladris, the rain was much lighter, and their mounts pricked their ears forward as they resumed their gait with renewed energy.

"Come, Bilbo," Gandalf nodded to a path that branched off to the left, instead of straight down across the bridge, "There is more than one way into Rivendell, and in this horrendous weather I would not chance that bridge again with us so exhausted."

So they turned down the leftward path and as they moved deeper beneath the trees of the valley, the sound of the rain became more distant, until it was barely audible to Bilbo's ears, and drops no longer fell on them as frequently from the leaves above. The path their mounts trod on gave off the scent of damp earth along with wet leaves. Bilbo could immediately feel the difference between Imladris and Thranduil's realm in Mirkwood--although the woodland king did all he could to keep his land cleansed of evil, Eryn Galen emanated still an aura of strangeness the darkness had left behind.

"You perked up a bit there, Bilbo." The wizard's eyes twinkled merrily at him and the hobbit smiled back.

"The land is healthier here, and content--do you not feel it?"

Gandalf shook his head, "Hobbits are far more attuned to the earth than the other Races of Middle Earth give credit for, my friend."

"It's almost as if, though," Bilbo paused as they sighted the first elven dwellings, "This whole valley is slowly changing. Not dying but--as if it faded from summer to autumn."

Gandalf stilled his horse and turned a penetrating gaze on the hobbit next to him, considering, "That is because, Bilbo, the Elves are departing Middle Earth, so the power that remains in these lands is slowly fading away as well. The time of the Elves is ending, and the Age of Men is to begin. Thus the land is changing from summer to autumn, in farewell to the Firstborn. However, I do not believe that that will happen for quite some time yet."

They sat there on their mounts for a moment, appreciating the view of the valley, before a giant water drop fell on Gandalf's nose. He snorted and Bilbo stifled a laugh before reigning in his pony and following the wizard down the trail.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Much like Eryn Lasgalen, when Bilbo and Gandalf approached the front gates of Rivendell, they were welcomed by a bevy of elves, who took their bags as they dismounted and led Gandalf's horse and Bilbo's pony away. Lindir (Bilbo vaguely recalled him as Elrond's steward) was coming down the steps to greet them.

"Imladris welcomes you, Mithrandir and Bilbo Baggins, but I'm not afraid not, at the moment, Lord Elrond himself. He is at the borders of our land, looking over the defenses."

"The defeat of the Necromancer has made him even more vigilant," Gandalf nodded as the three ascended the steps, "This is good. Darker times than what has just passed are coming."

"You are certain?"

"I am," the wizard placed his hand on Lindir's shoulder and the elf bowed his head, "But all is not lost, and I would speak with the Lord Elrond upon his return, if that is feasible."

"Certainly, Mithrandir. I will show you to your quarters."

Lindir led them down different hallways than the ones they used when they were here previously with the dwarves. He waved them inside their archway and immediately, the differences between Imladris and Mirkwood were evident. Their rooms here were open, with no doorways, just arches. Mirkwood, in contrast, though also having Elven architecture, was much more solid, and closed-in, due to part of it being built in caverns.

"I will leave you here to settle," Lindir stood at the entrance to their quarters, "And I will send a messenger when Lord Elrond has returned."

Bilbo nodded and poked his head in one of the bedrooms. Seeing his bags nearly arranged at the foot of the bed, he shed his coat with a sigh and unbuckled Sting from his waist, placing them on top of the pile.

"Gandalf?" he called softly. His hand, almost unconsciously, went to this pocket, "Did you want me to talk with you about the caves?"

The wizard motioned him onto a platform that was outside their rooms, where they sat on the chairs that were provided for them. As the wizard pulled out his pipe and the hobbit did the same, Bilbo saw that Gandalf had removed his hat and changed into robes more comfortable (and elaborate) than what he was previously wearing.

Gandalf lit his pipe first. When Bilbo held his out, the wizard waved a hand lazily and smoke began to spiral from the top. Bilbo took his first puff with a sigh of satisfaction. His friend always knew the exact right amount of flame to get a pipe going.

They sat for a few minutes in silence before Gandalf spoke.

"Tell me about the Goblin Mountain."

Bilbo did.

It was some time before he finished. Food and drink were brought out to them periodically, and Gandalf managed to forewarn Bilbo every time, so that there was no chance someone would overhear. Then Bilbo would continue. The rain had stopped just before they reached their quarters, so they were able to see the sun set while Bilbo spoke. The stars were starting to appear in the sky by the time he was through. Gandalf didn't say anything for a time, then motioned at Bilbo. The hobbit pulled his hand out of his pocket, ring on his palm.

The wizard leaned forward, but didn't touch it.

"Well," he said, finally, "That is intriguing. But I think, in this case, it's better if I do not examine it too closely. For now, Bilbo, this ring ought to remain in your keeping."

"What are your thoughts?" Bilbo closed his fingers over the ring with an odd feeling of relief.

Gandalf shook his head, "They are still too nebulous to give voice to, my friend. However, after I see you safe to the Shire and back to Dale, I believe I should visit Minas Tirith's archives. They may prove to be informative. But Bilbo," his gaze became stern, "Keep it secret. Keep it safe."

At Bilbo's nod of agreement, Gandalf became relaxed once again.

"As for Gollum...," Gandalf shook his head, "we shall see what happens. But if that ring sustained him in those caverns under the Goblin Kingdom, and if he was willing to kill you for it--"

"-and eat me," Bilbo interjected, shuddering a little.

"--then," the wizard continued, "I would be wary, Bilbo, of how often you use its powers. It is probably best if you don't use it at all."

Bilbo opened his mouth to protest, wondered why, exactly, he was wanting to protest such good advice, then closed it again. Gandalf nodded, eyes knowing, before changing the subject.

Bilbo firmly deposited the ring in his pocket. He would put that ring in a box, he resolved inwardly, as soon as he got home, and forget about it.

Or at least...he would try.

Chapter Text

It was evening in Erebor, Kingdom Under the Lonely Mountain, and the dwarves were continuing to move about inside it with the usual activity. Just because the rest of the world went to sleep as the sun set did not mean the same for the dwarven kingdoms. Within, Thorin Oakenshield was present on his throne, Heart of the Mountain above his head, for his third audience of the day. This was his Evening Audience (as opposed to Dawn or Afternoon Audience) and he was not looking forward to another long line of petitioners when all he wanted to do was eat another meal and retire.

Thorin, for all that he was grateful that he had his Mountain back, that he was King Under the Said Mountain, and that he and his company (except Bilbo for the moment) lived Under the Same Mountain with the number of Dwarves increasing day by day was, quite frankly, bored.

He was, in fact, bored out of his mind.

Thorin was raised to rule; he had been schooled in it since he was born. He had attended enough audiences and Council sessions that he had learned the process of running a nation, from the lowest chore to the most exalted position, and seen the necessity of it all. He had also, mistakenly, assumed that once he took the throne, since he would be more directly involved (instead of a bystander in the wings) that ruling would become more interesting.

Thorin sighed, readjusted his position, and waited impassively for the next petitioner.

He was wrong.

Oh, there were issues, such as the trade agreement with the Elves or renewing alliances with the remaining Dwarven kingdoms, that piqued his interest. The day-to-day minutiae, though?

Flour and whole grain, and how the prices would be different between them. The location of the new Market District, and who was to head the design and construction. Taxes for the next ten years, if they were to be implemented, and if so, how and why. Tariffs on goods brought in from the Iron Hills, Dale, and the Mirkwood Elves, as well as other places, and when those would take effect. Reintroduction of the Guilds, who was to head them, why, and registration fees. Positions for the upper classes, positions for the nobility, depending on what they were suitable for. Who was to be a member of the Council or head any of the various Commerce posts and other areas necessary for the running of daily life. Who would probably take those posts, who wouldn't because they died or had taken up positions elsewhere, and which replacements would be acceptable. And how, exactly, the Company members would receive their due. Even the meddling wizard. Thorin had to admit that the last one was important, since they had stood with him through almost everything, and he would not forget his friends now that he was King of Erebor.

But gods knew that the rest of it wasn't anything to stimulate the mind. And that was what he and the Council had only discussed this morning.

And the Treasury. By the Smith, that was a nightmare in and of itself. The members of the Company were technically assigned a portion each to be divided among all of them in the event that they had succeeded. However, the mission was considered to be impossibly dangerous, and even if they had won against Smaug, none had thought that they would all survive. That was partially why so many family groups had participated in the quest--even if one member of the family had died, the others might survive and claim the treasure for their children and their children's children.

Dwarves are nothing if not pragmatic.

And although it was a miracle that they had all survived, there still was the issue of just counting the stuff first. Solely appraising it all could take years. Additionally, in order to prevent anyone from suffering with gold-sickness the way Thorin had, they had to rotate the Dwarves counting it all in shifts so that no one would be affected. For the most part, this worked. The counters were also searched as they exited the Treasury to make sure that they weren't carrying any gold with them and further affecting their minds.

Thorin knew better than anyone else how vital it was that no other dwarf went mad from gold-sickness, as he had done. But even if they counted the gold and distributed it to everyone properly, it had still been tainted by a dragon for decades--centuries, even. The King hoped that with the distribution of the gold the effects of the dragon's magic would lessen, but he and Balin and the others weren't certain. Gandalf wasn't either and he was a supposed expert in magic.

'Wizards', he scoffed in his head, 'Useless, the lot of them.'

"Your Majesty!" a shout rang across the Greater Audience Chamber as Thorin looked up toward the entrance. A dwarf ran towards him, then sank to his knees, chest heaving, before pulling out a scroll. Bracing himself, Thorin glanced at Balin at his right hand, Fili at his left, Kili standing just behind him. Dain, as Lord of the Iron Hills, stood arms crossed a step below Thorin and to his right. Dwalin was behind the throne, but Thorin could feel his presence all the same. They were all thinking the same thing.

Gods, not another army?

Thorin took the scroll--from its seal it indicated it was from the guard outpost overlooking Dale--and read the lines quickly. Then read them again. And again. He handed over the message for Balin to read and waved the guard up from his knees.

"So," Balin's voice was speculative as it echoed in the Audience Chamber, "Bard has ventured into Dale at last, with a wizard by his side?"

Thorin frowned, "I thought the wizard had returned with Bilbo, or was I mistaken?"

"Your Majesty," the dwarf who handed him the message spoke, "I have come from the Rookery, where we had received that message from the guard outpost that watches over Dale. While we untied the message from the raven's leg," he swallowed, "A great explosion of light moved out from the center of the city."

Balin frowned as Thorin leaned forward, "Do you mean to say that this occurred just now, and no one else heard anything?"

"No, Majesty, I mean to say, there was an explosion, but it was silent, none of the buildings in the city had fallen. I thought I heard a voice call out, briefly, but," the dwarf shook his head, "I could not be certain."

"When did Bard first enter the city?" Fili sounded concerned. Thorin looked at his nephew. Fili and Bard had become fast friends during the Quest and afterwards while they were aiding the people of Laketown. He looked back to the messenger as he replied.

"They first entered at dawn about a day ago, your Highness, and this is the first evening. And your Majesty," he hesitated, then spoke, "Lord Bard did not travel with the wizard Tharkûn. It was someone else."

Thorin frowned, "Elaborate."

"He was accompanied by a--a woman, Majesty. Garbed all in blue."

A murmur broke out through the Audience Chamber and with a wave from Thorin it was silenced. He leaned toward Balin, "I thought that the Blue Wizards were dead."

"Gandalf only said," Balin replied quietly, "That he did not know of their fate. Maybe the defeat of Smaug drew this one back."

"Well enough," Thorin regarded the dwarf thoughtfully, "We thank you for bearing these tidings, and will send word when we have need of the Rookery. You may go."

The messenger bowed and departed quickly.

It was silent for a moment before Kili's voice rang out, "Well, that's something you don't hear every day."

"These recent times, I have found, my nephew, are filled with such things," Dain returned dryly, "My King?"

"You are quite right, cousin," Thorin rose from his chair, "Due to this news, Evening Audience is ended for tonight. The petitioners who would have seen me this evening will be first at Dawn Audience tomorrow. We must discuss this."

"Peculiar happenings for peculiar times," Fili mused as they all (Thorin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dain, and Dwalin) moved toward the Council Chamber, "I wonder what this one heralds."

"Perhaps it's something good for a change," Kili offered optimistically as they took their seats. Ori as Royal Scholar followed through moments after they sat down and Nori as Spymaster was with him.

All of the Company was a part of the Council, but it was rare due to restoring Erebor that they all participated at the same time. Bombur was head of the Royal Kitchens, while Dori was wrangling the current market into shape (he'd probably take a place as Head of Commerce or as a Guildmaster at one point or another). Bifur happily created toys as a Senior Master Craftsman for the Toymaker's Guild (yes, there was such a thing) while Bofur would lead it, once the establishment of Guilds was to take place. Gloin was head of the Guard, while answering to Dwalin, who led the Royal Guard. Balin was the Seneschal of Erebor (the equivalent of Man's Steward of Gondor), while Oin was the Royal Healer and held precedence in the Healer's Wing. All of them were busy, but they would probably drop in as the Council commenced or hear about it from the other members of the Company if they couldn't attend. Bilbo would probably act as a Liaison between Dale and Erebor, when he came back. 'I don't even know if he will...,' Thorin shook his head as Dwalin spoke.

"Since when," Dwalin snorted, "Do wizards ever bring something good?"

"He did find Thrain," Balin pointed out, "And gave the Key to our King afterwards."

"When it suited him," Thorin's tone was sour as he remembered the meeting in Bree, "And when it was best for his plans, not for us."

"Moving on," Fili said hastily, "Ori, do we know anything of these Blue Wizards?"

"I don't have much," Ori shifted through the notebooks he brought with him, "But there is some information about them I remember reading while I lived in the Iron Hills. Erebor will probably have more, once I go look in the morning."

"Good enough, lad. What do you know?" Bofur clapped a hand on the scholar's shoulder as he moved by and sat down, "Bifur's in the middle of a project and Bombur's busy, so it's just me. What is this about Blue Wizards? The Mountain's in a bit of a tizzy."

Thorin nodded at him as Ori spoke, "Well, we know that there are two of them. They're members of the Istari, like Gandalf, and their color is Blue, like Gandalf's is Grey. Instead of remaining in the West, however, they went to the East and weren't heard from since for over an Age. As to when they came, the writings are conflicted. Some say they appeared around the same time as Gandalf and Radagast and Saruman, while others write that they appeared centuries, perhaps an Age, earlier. As to their names--" Ori pulled another notebook out and flipped through the pages, "In Quenya they're known as Morinehtar and Rómestámo. Also as Alatar and Pallando, respectively," Ori's eyebrows rose as he flipped a page.

"What is it?" Thorin asked as Ori squinted down at the words.

"They," he said slowly, "They are known to us."

The present Council members gave each other a sharp look.

"They are--?" Dwalin spoke a Khudzul word before switching back into Westron. It didn't translate well between languages, but basically meant, 'one-who-is-outside-yet-inside'.

Ori nodded, "We see them as 'Khagolkhud' and 'Khagolinh'."

Shocked silence.

"Well," Nori said, "That puts a new complexion on things."

"You think?" Kili said sarcastically, "Uncle, we adopted wizards?"

"You have a gift for understatement, Nori," Fili muttered and Nori only waved in acknowledgement.

"You're exaggerating, lad," Balin's voice was sardonic, "We didn't 'adopt' any wizards."

"It's nearly as good as," the prince grumbled as Fili elbowed him, "What were we thinking?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," Balin's voice became cheerful, "But there must have been an excellent reason for it."

"I hope so," Thorin was grim, "Nori, go down to Dale; you're good at what you do. See what Bard and this wizard are up to. Wizards," his voice was filled with annoyance, "Without even being here they cause a disruption."

"You can't be sure that this Morinehtar is as bad as Gandalf, Thorin," Balin pointed out as Nori slipped out of the room.

"Oh, I am sure. She's a wizard. I don't need much more of a reason than that."

"King's got a point. But so do you, your Advisorship," Bofur ducked the pen that Balin threw at him, "And I doubt there's much more any of us can do, right? At least until Ori finds out more."

Thorin made up his mind, "You're going to help him with that, Bofur. Bifur can take your place for now. Gods know that a new wizard on our doorstep working magic is a bit more urgent than the restoration of the Guilds."

"Can do, Thorin."

"What will you be doing in the meanwhile, Majesty?" Ori asked as everyone began to get up.

"I," Thorin sighed, "Will be writing a letter to Thranduil to see if he knows more of these wizards. I've never known a wizard with evil intent, but I have also never known a wizard who spent most of their time in the East before, either. Kili will take it to him when he visits Tauriel."

Kili gaped, "You're letting me visit Tauriel?"

Thorin's expression was long-suffering as he steered his nephews down the corridor, "Did you really think I would not find out about your little trysts?"

Kili's horrified expression only made Fili laugh.

Chapter Text

Bilbo and Gandalf departed Rivendell after only a week with promises to Elrond that they would be soon coming back. They left the question of possible company open-ended, because Bilbo honestly had no idea if any of his kin would volunteer to go haring off with him back to Dale to aid in the restoration effort. He'd ask at the next meeting of the Thains, but otherwise wouldn't press his luck. Hobbits were very insular, and it would take a lot to pry them out of the Shire. Bilbo nearly hadn't gone, and only changed his mind at the very last minute, despite being meddled with by Gandalf and all.

They had taken the East Road through the forest past where the Company had first battled the Trolls. They both learned from Elrond that it was called the Trollshaws now and that they had fully excavated what treasure remained. The Weather Hills, notorious for capriciously changing the weather from one slope to the next, were surprisingly quiet and sunny. Bilbo was suspicious, but Gandalf attributed it once again to his 'burglar's luck'. They were now moving through Bree at a quick trot, taking the quieter roads and pathways.

"Don't say that where anyone in Hobbiton can hear you," Bilbo grumbled as he steered Hazel through winding alleyways after Gandalf's horse, "My reputation will be in tatters as it is. I already know. 'Respectable indeed, haring off after Dwarves on an adventure! I suppose Belladonna's Tookish blood proved the stronger after all'. Lobelia's going to have a field day."

"Lobelia's knowledge of what is proper behavior in Hobbiton, Bilbo, is much higher than what is good behavior outside of it," Gandalf called back, "And gods know that Lobelia's knowledge of the outside world could certainly be expanded."

Bilbo stared after the wizard in abject horror, "Gandalf," he said, appalled, "If we tried to take her to Dale, she'd eat the Men there alive."

"All the more reason for her to come with us, then," Gandalf's voice paused, "And what is this?"

The alley had widened enough back into a street that Bilbo was able to bring Hazel up beside him without obstructing traffic. Gandalf had pulled a flier down and was reading over the page, eyes flying across the lines. He handed it to Bilbo and waited.

At first the hobbit couldn't believe what he was reading. Gandalf reached over and took a hold of Hazel's reins, guessing his reaction.

"Gandalf!" Bilbo cried, reaching for Hazel's reins, but the wizard held firm, "They're selling off my house because they think I'm dead! Look at what you've done!"

"I," Gandalf put a hand on the hobbit's shoulder, "have done nothing. And neither have you. For all they know, you could have just been on a lengthy excursion outside the Shire following in your mother's footsteps. Haven't hobbit traders been on voyages with their trade caravans?"

"Yes..." Bilbo's voice was hesitant, "But not quite so long as I was gone. Hasn't it been almost a year?"

The wizard handed the reins back to Bilbo's control, sure that he wasn't about to go galloping off through the Barrow Downs back to Hobbiton.

"Indeed it has, my friend," Gandalf paused and looked down at him, "How do you want to handle this?"

"Well..." Bilbo paused, looking over the notice, "I'm most certainly not dead, and the auction is in a week, so we should be able to get there before it starts, if I reckon correctly."

"Your travel-sense has greatly improved, Bilbo," Gandalf's voice was warm as they turned their mounts toward the main gate, "And I believe we most certainly shall arrive at least two days before it begins."

"Then let's get going; we have no time to waste!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was a very confusing and exciting morning in the Shire on the 24th of February.

The wizard was the one who first appeared, mounted on a horse and waving cheerfully to every home as he passed by. Children followed him, eager to see a firework or two, but he didn't oblige them and instead gently shooed them on their way. He ignored the hobbits shrinking back into doorways and pulling curtains over windows with a laugh. Hamfast Gamgee wasn't so sure that the wizard should be laughing, with him being the one who made Master Baggins run away on some harebrained adventure, but then again, he didn't know much.

He did know, however, that hobbit's silhouette anyhere. His master, against all odds, had come home. Hamfast straightened slowly from where he was weeding Bag End's garden. He waved briefly as Master Baggins and the wizard walked up the slope, then sat on the bench outside Bag End's door, lit his pipe, and waited.

When the two of them finally made it to the front gate, he looked up at them thoughtfully. He got up and stood behind the gate. Bilbo visibly braced himself as Gandalf's eyes twinkled.

"Well," Hamfast took a puff from his pipe, "It took you long enough."

Relieved that Hamfast wasn't going to cause an absolute ruckus (though he was certainly entitled to!), Bilbo laughed with relief as he dismounted and stepped past the gardener as he opened the gate, "It's an absolute marvel to see you again, Master Hamfast! Has it really been almost a year?"

"Looks like, Master Baggins," Hamfast's eyes narrowed at the wizard, but let him pass as well before closing and relocking the gate, snuffing out his pipe as he did so, "And it's caused quite a stir among the local folk, you know."

"Has it now?" Bilbo pulled off the auction notice from the front door and unlocked it with the key he kept around his neck, "Well, this is only the beginning, my friend. I don't intend to stay for very long; I have a lot of work to do."

The gardener was puzzled. "Work?" he took the reins from Gandalf and Bilbo, "I should think so, with needing to reclaim your house and all."

"Although that is very important as well, Master Hamfast, that wasn't what I was talking about! And reclaiming my house was as simple as tearing the auction notice down from the door. I've already been by the auction house and although it took a bit of persuading, they have verified my identity," Bilbo called from inside Bag End, "I was talking about something else."

Hamfast could only imagine what kind of ‘persuasion’ was used if Bilbo had that wizard in tow.

"Like what, sir?" Hamfast called as he led the animals around the back and began removing their tack.

Bilbo opened one of the rear-facing windows and stuck his head out, "I am going back to Dale and I mean to take whoever will come with me!"

The gardener dropped the saddle he was holding onto the ground, "Begging your pardon, sir?"

"I'm going back!" Bilbo's grinned cheerfully, "And I need some more hobbits to come with me this time."

A pounding could be heard through the window. It sounded like it came from the other side of the house.

Bilbo rolled his eyes, "That's probably Lobelia now. She most likely wanted to get here before the rest of Hobbiton decided to see for themselves that I was alive."

"Good luck, sir. I'll be back here with the horse and pony."

"Coward."

Hamfast only chuckled, "I pick my battles, sir. Shame you can't do the same with relatives."

The gardener worked in (relative) silence for a time, stoically ignoring the sounds coming from the house. Unsaddling the mounts and getting them settled with a couple pails of water and grazing on the grass surrounding them gave him some time to think over his master's sudden arrival. Unlike the rest of Hobbiton, Hamfast held firm against the others' reasoning that Master Baggins was never coming back. Hamfast knew his master's ways well, knew that he liked to travel to Buckland periodically and wandered the bounds of the Shire with abandon. For the gardener, this was just a bit longer journey than usual.

Well, not a bit. The point still stood, though.

"I wonder," Hamfast started as old hands took hold of the remaining tack that he held in his arms, "Whether or not Bilbo has made a bigger fuss by taking up residence in Bag End once again, or whether Lobelia's hue and cry instead drew everyone's attention. She's rather upstaged him, I think."

Hamfast shook his head at the wizard as they set everything inside the shed next to the vegetable garden, "Mrs. Sackville-Baggins could shatter glass from here to Buckland, sir, if she had a mind to try."

"Well," Gandalf motioned for Hamfast to sit next to him under the tree that grew over the top of Bag End, "I'm glad it hasn't occurred to her yet."

"I can agree with you on that, sir."

They sat for a time in thought before the wizard nudged his shoulder, “You didn’t doubt Bilbo coming back, did you, Hamfast?”

The hobbit shook his head, “Of course not.”

“Why is that?”

Hamfast frowned, “I’d be a bad friend indeed if I gave up on Mr. Bilbo as soon as all that, sir. It’s a poor hobbit that can’t stand by—or for,” he amended for this particular instance, “his friends if ever there was a need.”

Gandalf smiled, “Hobbits. You constantly surprise me, and I’ve known of you folk for hundreds of years.”

“Why, sir?” the gardener couldn’t help but ask, “Because we’re decent folk? Or at least, we try. Well, I do, at any rate. It’s part of being a hobbit, sir. Being decent. Trying to do what’s right. I like to think so. That’s how I’ve brought up my faunts, you know.”

The wizard sighed, “Would that more parents did the same for their children. But goodness can’t be found in all places.”

Hamfast snorted, “That don’t mean that bad is found everywhere else, sir. Most folk I know live in between.”

Gandalf looked briefly surprised before chuckling, “Indeed that is true, Master Gamgee.”

The two of them were silent and listened to the birds that hadn’t flown away at Lobelia’s strident tones. Gandalf pulled out his pipe and Hamfast did the same. They sat companionably, smoking various-sized rings and sending them chasing after each other. A small crowd had formed near the gate to Bag End; everyone there was pretending that they had some reason to be there, but it was obvious that they were just eavesdropping. They took brief notice of Gandalf and Hamfast on the roof, but at both of their glares quickly found other things to focus their attention on.

Eventually, Gandalf spoke again, “When do you think we should rescue him, Master Gamgee?”

Hamfast snorted, “You couldn’t magic me through that door no matter how hard you tried, sir.”

The wizard looked at him thoughtfully before nodding his head, “That quite possibly may be true. Well, desperate times sometimes do call for some truly desperate measures.”

And with that, he pulled a small firework from his pocket. As Hamfast gaped, Gandalf put a finger to his lips and ignited the firework quietly before dropping it down the chimney.

Silence.

Then shrieking was heard, and Lobelia ran as fast as she could out of the front of Bag End, shoving the waiting hobbits out of her way, beating her skirts as she went. Behind her flew a dragonfly firework, small but intense, which burst into bright sparkles above the crowd. Lobelia didn’t slow down, but instead continued down the lane without showing any signs of stopping.

Bilbo stepped out from Bag End into the view of what looked to be half the citizenry of Hobbiton. He peered up at Gandalf and Hamfast, who only waved.

“You know,” Bilbo called up to them, “Her yelling really did shatter two of my windows. Those will have to be fixed before I leave.”

“Easily done,” replied Gandalf cheerfully as Hamfast grinned.

With that, Bilbo turned toward the waiting crowd, put his hands on his hips, and said, “Anybody else care to have a turn?”

As the crowd disappeared as fast it formed, Hamfast leaned over to Gandalf, “What was that about upstaging, sir?”

The wizard only winked, “It doesn’t count if wizards are involved, Master Gamgee.”

“Of course not, sir. I’ll remember that.”

Then the three of them went inside Bag End. It was teatime, after all.

Chapter Text

Morinehtar turned her gaze back towards the other ghost, the one clearly keeping the other spirits in check. She motioned at him, "Lord Girion, I presume?"

The past King of Dale nodded as Bard's mouth dropped open in shock.

The wizard gestured him to come forward, "Good. We need to talk."

“Well,” the wizard said thoughtfully as she replaced the leg of her armchair with part of her staff once again, “That was thoroughly satisfying, if a bit tiresome.”

Bard was still gaping as Girion drifted closer to Morinehtar, who curled up contentedly back in her chair. She glanced at the archer, amused.

“You may want to close your mouth, Bard, or a ghost may fly in it and try to possess you.”

His jaw snapped shut with a click.

“I’m jesting. I haven’t heard of anyone literally eating a ghost and becoming possessed before. But then,” she said thoughtfully as Bard perched on a nearby piece of stone building, “I could be wrong. Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean that it couldn’t now.”

“Again,” Bard was finally able to respond, “I find your words encouraging.”

“No, you don’t,” Morinehtar grinned, “But then, of course, you are the sarcasm to my wit so it is quite all right. In any case, feel free to join in at any time, Lord Girion; you are sitting next to the only wizard that can talk to you, and your grandson. Well,” she amended, looking at the ghost, “Many-generations-removed grandson. But you understand what I mean.”

The ghost hadn’t said a word but alternated between gazing at the pair of them, listening to their conversation. The ghosts surrounding had faded away after Morinehtar had banished the other spirits, and now only a few wisps remained to light the square.

Morinehtar continued, “Again, feel free to use words we all can hear. Aloud. This whole state of contemplative silence without words is something I find incredibly boring. Furthermore, you remind me far too much of my cousins, and they are very gloomy wizards indeed, don’t you know. Full of portents and solemnity about the doings of the world and the fate of Middle Earth and all. They meddle too much for my taste.”

“Pot. Kettle,” Bard muttered and the wizard laughed.

“I heard you! But you are quite wrong, my friend,” she waved her scepter at him, amused, “I meddle in the fates of empires and kingdoms, of peoples and races, but I like to think that I play a useful part in the happiness of my friends. Furthermore, meddling implies manipulation that may not always be welcome.”

“And of course no one would ever think of you as unwelcome,” Bard shot back and Morinehtar laughed again.

“Of course not! And if I were to cause trouble, I should hope that I wouldn’t get caught at it, or blamed for it, unlike my cousin Gandalf, who picks up names like Stormcrow and Lathspell with ease. Doings in the East require much more subtlety.”

“You are…different,” Girion spoke before she could continue.

Morinehtar shrugged, “Of course. I’m a wizard.”

“And yet you are here with my grandson. I would know your purpose. I would know who you are,” Girion drifted forward again and this time Morinehtar stood to meet him.

“My purpose is to steer the peoples of Middle Earth to victory. To set things right, to find what was lost, to walk the pathways others fear to tread. To move amongst the shadows, to hunt the perils within. I am a wizard to all, a friend to some, an enemy to others. I am the after-comer, the hunter in the shadows, and the slayer of the darkness,” she smiled slightly, “Is that enough for you?”

The ghost inclined his head slightly and turned to Bard, “And of you I need not ask your name, Bard the Bowman, Dragon-Slayer. You are of my line as surely as the wizard speaks her identity. Are you here to reclaim what was ours?"

“If you would have it so,” Bard answered cautiously, “And I would build the Kingdom of Dale to even greater glory than before. But I will not come where I and my people will not be welcome.”

The ghost smiled and Bard relaxed slightly, “You are wary, and rightfully so, to venture so far into a city that was overcome with evil and death. And yet you came anyway, wizard at your side and courage in your heart,” Girion’s stare became measuring, “Yes, I think you have the makings to be a wise king; the blood of the Northmen runs true in our line still.”

“I thank you,” As Bard spoke he saw Morinehtar nodding her head in approval.

“You will be welcome here, you and whomever you bring. But I warn you now that there is much to be done,” Girion moved back a pace.

Morinehtar spoke up, “What of the ghosts that remain?”

“I have power over them still, and they heed me because of my once-kingship.”

“Would you have them swear allegiance to your bloodline, until they find peace and can move on?” the wizard asked and Bard frowned.

“It has already been done; his body has entered the city, his blood has been given to the earth, and his spirit has resisted his heart’s desire. That is all that is required. Now that I am no longer needed, I will depart. Grandson, farewell.”

And with a brief flash the ghost of Girion disappeared.

Silence.

Then, “Was that—was that really--,” Bard’s voice faltered and Morinehtar put a hand on his shoulder.

“Yes, that really was your I-don’t-know-how-many-times-great-grandfather. Or at least a part of him, anyway. Quite kind of him to say hello before he vanished, I think. And to formally grant you the Kingdom of Dale and its surrounding borders.”

“What do you mean?”

She picked up his hand and he saw a small symbol on the back of it in blue; it was a stylized sun in the center with four wavy lines forming a diamond around it. Bard couldn’t decide if he ought to be alarmed or amazed. He hadn’t felt the mark form.

“You entered the city of your own volition, blood was spilled when you fought the goblins, and you resisted the seeming of your wife by that shadow-spirit,” she explained.

Bard only shook his head.

“In every civilization, every country, every race, there is a mark of kingship, and trials that follow before obtaining it,” Morinehtar explained quietly as he rewrapped his hand, “The Dwarves have the Lonely Mountain, Gondor the White Tree, the Elves their mallorn trees, Rohan the mearas herd, and the Shire their Thains of old, to name a few. For the Kingdom of Dale, it was this mark,” she nodded towards his hand, “The weather was almost always fair, and the Northmen always had an affinity for minor fire magic. However, what they were really known for were the Four Winds.”

“The Four Winds?”

Morinehtar nodded as they moved back towards their camp, “It is said that in the days of old that one could hear the voices of the Kings of Dale from mountain to mountain, that they commanded storm and sky to suit their needs. I know not if this is true, because I was in the East during this time, but it is said.”

“My people were great, once,” Bard said softly.

“Yes, Bard, your people were great, once. That isn’t to say that they could not be great again. And as much as I hate to say it, Gandalf would probably know more than I, or the records in Erebor may have something.”

The archer nodded and Morinehtar stopped in front of him and tilted his chin up to meet her eyes, “Remember not what you have lost, Lord Bard, but what you have gained, and what you will become. The War of Wrath was not wrought upon your people,” her eyes became distant, “Consequently it is not such a loss as a change; the peoples of this world must move ever-onward, ever-learning, ever-reaching, for how else could they surpass their own history?”

Bard didn’t move. The wizard’s eyes focused on him once again and she dropped her hand from his chin with a laugh. The moment broken, they made it back to camp and began to pack their things.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next day

The two of them emerged from Dale’s gates to see their fellow companions waiting faithfully on top of the cliffside. The two of them waved and the others descended to meet them instead of Bard and Morinehtar having to climb up.

Taking a seat under the cliff face, Morinehtar called out as they approached, “I told you it would all work out!”

Davoth snorted in amusement, “My lady, you did not. After that firework business the other night, you made all of us a bit anxious. Lit up the whole sky, it did.”

“Just a bit of wizardry, don’t you know,” Morinehtar waved a hand dismissively at his words as she moved amongst the group patting shoulders and clasping arms, “Can’t expect me to get rid of spirits without magic, now can you?”

Bard, who was mirroring Morinehtar’s actions from the other end of the group, retorted, “Well, could you perhaps be less showy next time?”

Everyone laughed.

She grinned, “I thought you handled it well enough, all things considered, with my work being ‘unnatural’ and all.”

“Nothing gets more ‘unnatural’ than a dragon, my lady,” a dwarf spoke up, “And we’ve already killed one of those. Compared to a dragon, lights in the sky are nothing.”

“Indeed,” the wizard moved toward the speaker, eyes narrowed slightly, “I don’t remember you.”

“Ah, yes,” Finn chimed in, “He’s from Erebor looking to see what all the fuss was about last night. Apparently you startled the folk up there quite a bit. We flagged him down as he was on his way to the gates.”

“It is bad manners to wake your neighbors in the middle of the night, my lady,” the dwarf said dryly, “And I am Nori, of the House of Durin. I was a member of Thorin’s Company.”

“Well met, Nori, I am Morinehtar,” Morinehtar bowed slightly and the dwarf did the same, “But I highly doubt I woke you up, since Erebor is within a mountain and—do you still have Evening Audience?”

Nori’s eyes crinkled as he replied, “Indeed, my lady, we do.”

“Then you were already awake; you just wanted to see if I knew the ways of your people,” she wagged a finger at him, “Don’t try to be tricksy with me, Master Nori; to survive in the East one must be made of sneakiness.”

“As you say, my lady,” Nori bowed again and the wizard chuckled as the others looked on.

“Now, why are you really here?”

“We were concerned about what occurred last night, my lady, and my King would hear it from your own lips, if you would not mind the journey from here to Erebor.”

“Of course he would, as well as know the reason behind my coming to the West after such a long time in the East, and if I intend chaos or some such here.”

“You can’t blame him, my lady,” Nori answered sardonically, “The last wizard through these parts did end up causing a bit of a war.”

Morinehtar was gathering her things as the others, including Bard, had sat down, “Battle of Five Armies, wasn’t it? Very inspiring, I heard. Lots of death and dying and heroic antics, all over a bunch of gold in a mountain and a shiny rock. Rather silly, I should think.”

“Depends on which side you fought on, my lady.”

“As you say. Anyway, I’m off.”

“Pardon?” Nori started following her down the path.

She called back to the others, “I’m off to Erebor! Bard, you may as well tell the Master the good news,” she turned to the dwarf beside her, “Didn’t you want me to speak with your King?”

“Yes, but,” Nori looked back at Bard, who only smirked and made a shooing motion with his hands, “You do not have any more business to attend to?”

“I do not!” the wizard replied cheerfully, “And I want to take a closer look at this fabled Arkenstone. And search the archives for information about the Kingdom of Dale. And hear more about this reclaiming the Mountain business. I heard it was quite a tale, and I only got the bare bones from Bard, more’s the pity.”

Nori shrugged, “I was there and can tell you more, if you want.”

“Grand!” the wizard’s stride lengthened and Nori moved faster to keep up.

In the distance behind them Finn turned toward Bard, who was still smirking at the two figures slowly moving away, “You don’t mean to accompany her, my lord?”

“Oh, no,” he chuckled as he took out his pipe, “She’s Nori’s problem now. I wish him the best of luck.”

Chapter Text

It was a quiet morning, reaching closer to noon as two figures carefully made their way across the rocky landscape. With the ruins of Dale behind them and Erebor looming above them, the lands were rocky and treacherous; one misstep could make them lose hours of progress by tumbling back down the hillside. Although there was a road, Morinehtar wanted to cross the hills, saying, "Paths know the feet that trod upon them" and went around, not explaining any further. It wasn't time wasted, however, as she pointed out to a mystified Nori the various plants that grew in the crevices and possible areas to create scout posts and farms. Nori carefully memorized everything she said so he could report his findings to Dwalin and Oin.

"It doesn't look too different from when I was last here," Morinehtar paused for a moment, leaning on her staff at the top of the hill before the gates, shading her eyes with her hand as she gazed up at it, "Still tall and peering as usual. Nothing can out-Loom a mountain, that's for sure. Especially when it's the only thing with height for leagues around."

"Aside from the charring, you mean?" Nori's voice was dry as he stopped beside her, "We have Smaug to thank for that."

The dwarf did have a point. The dragonfire took days to burn out after Smaug had fallen; if it wasn't for the snow that fell thick and heavy two days later, the ground might still be smoldering. Oddly enough, it did not spread; it seemed to burn deeper into the earth instead of moving across its surface. After it was discovered the soil was still warm to the touch, the dwarves avoided walking across the burned swathes of land that surrounded parts of the mountain. Whether anything could be grown upon it remained to be seen. Nori looked forward to hearing Bilbo and his kinsmen's thoughts on the matter when they returned. Where the dragonfire burned there was dark, almost black, irregular stretches of ground that covered parts of the fields in front of the Mountain.

"I think it adds character!" The wizard added cheerfully as she looked around, "Nothing like dragonfire to bring some life back to the place."

"I hope you're joking."

"Well," Morinehtar said thoughtfully as she began down the other side of the hill towards the gate, "No, not really. It's not like anybody has lived here in some time. Because they died. And the people of Esgaroth haven't exactly led a happy life either--it was either worrying about the dragon, or pirates, or bandits, or the Master, or something else equally ridiculous. At least now that Smaug's dead it's not a weight dragging down the populace anymore. Think of it as a mudslide. You know it's there, you know it's coming and inescapable, but you can't stop it. And now you're on the other side. Rather freeing, I should think."

Nori mulled over that as she continued, "Of course, having a dragon here is awful. And of course, what happened here with the dragon and the Battle is truly horrendous. But now we're past that and in the aftermath. Not that there really ever is an aftermath; we always learn to carry on. But what I'm trying to say is that there is hope. And hope, Master Nori," she looked back at him with a twinkle in her eye, "Is a powerful thing, is it not?"

"Some would say the dwarves were built on hope, after what happened to our people."

Morinehtar nodded as they approached the gates (which, although a bit mangled, were standing again), "And that hope was not misplaced," she paused and put a hand on the wall, "Erebor, Erebor," she said softly, "Long has it been since I have walked these halls, long has it been since I have lived among your people. Long, long have I been away, and yet I find you here waiting for me still."

She rested her forehead on the wall for a moment before turning to face Nori, "The Audience Chamber, Master Nori?"

"This way," Nori took the lead, feeling a little unsettled from watching her, "I thought you would be giving me a tour, not the other way around."

The wizard snorted, "Sass at your age," she grumbled cheerfully, "I could certainly give you a tour! And then fall into a bottomless pit when those superstitious brethren of yours decide that I'm a little too odd for their taste. No, thank you."

"We would never. You'd turn us into toads on the way down."

"Probably!" She grinned as Nori moved down the hall, coming to a stop at the next gate, "More than one gate? Did I forget about that, or is it a new addition?"

"New," Nori explained as the doors began to groan open, "It's made of wood and stone now, but we've plans for it in case another dragon decides to make an appearance."

Morinehtar took a moment to reply as they made their way through the first hall, "I believe that's the last one, but I shall have to consult my cousins before I say so with any sort of authority."

The doors to the Audience Chamber swung open and the herald announced at the door, "Nori of the Company and Khagolkhud the Blue!"

"Well," she muttered at Nori as they made their way down the walkway, dwarves with eyes wide parting before them, "That was not actually the most pompous way of being announced I've ever seen, though it came close. At least you all remembered my name. It would have hurt my feelings otherwise."

"You're back in Erebor since Mahal knows when, and that's one of the first things you notice?" Nori raised an eyebrow, which Morinehtar knew he thought she said something amusing.

Morinehtar smiled down at the dwarf, "I notice lots of things. Whether I divulge them is another matter."

"And you are the wizard we've been hearing about." She and Nori both stopped the appropriate distance away from the throne. Much like when they first heard of the news of Dale that night several days ago, Fili and Dain were standing with Thorin on the dais, while Dwalin had his arms crossed off to the left, Balin was on their right. It was Thorin who spoke.

Nori bowed, right arm to his heart. Morinehtar just looked at him blankly, "That's awful for your back, you know. Bowing in general. Bobbing up and down all the time. Doesn't it make you feel like a chicken?"

"It's respectful," Nori straightened up as Balin explained, tone reproving, "And Court protocol."

Morinehtar just stared at Thorin straight on, "I don't know if he's earned mine yet. Wizards don't bow. Or maybe that's just me. But hello!" She smiled and waved, "You must be His Majesty King Thorin and the Company," her arm motioned to everyone on the dais, "That I've heard so much about," she frowned, "Most of the Company. I think. Maybe half. I'm not sure," she looked at Nori, "Half?"

Nori nodded, "Something like."

Morinehtar spoke again as Thorin opened his mouth, "Lovely kingdom you got here. Shame a dragon rousted you out a couple centuries ago, but that's what happens when you're gold mad and start hoarding. Rather dragonlike of your grandfather, if I do say so myself. But otherwise it looks much like before, except perhaps a bit more grim. And dark. And still smells a bit like dragon. Or Smaug, was that his name? Yes, I think it was. But on the whole it could be worse. You could be gold mad too," she waved her hand at the King dismissively, "And then I'd have to thump you over the head with my staff. Nori told me that Kili already brought you to your senses, so that's a shame. I was hoping to see if my staff would break on a dwarf's head. It's ironwood, don't you know. Are the Archives accessible yet? I want to poke around."

Thorin's eyebrows raised higher and higher until she stopped speaking, while the rest of the dwarves present (including those on the dais) for Afternoon Audience gaped. Nori's shoulders were shaking. Morinehtar knew he was trying not to laugh.

"You would have to ask our Royal Scholar and Chronicler," Thorin said finally and that seemed to be the cue for everyone else to relax, "Ori would know best of all of us."

She grinned, "Brilliant! Is there anything else you need from me?"

"You're a wizard, are you not?"

Morinehtar blinked, looked down at her (admittedly dusty) blue robes, her staff, then back at Thorin, "Yes? I should think it was obvious."

"So you're the one that caused that ruckus down in Dale, then?" Dain looked stern and still hadn't moved his hand away from his axe.

She tilted her head at Dain, "It wasn't really so much a ruckus as a kerfuffle. But it's all settled now. Bard's been officially invested with the Kingdom of Dale by the spirit of his ancestors. Whether or not he's suited for kingship remains to be seen, but I have high hopes for him. We get along swimmingly."

"For now," Nori muttered and ducked as she swung her staff at his head.

"I heard that," she replied serenely, "And I am deeply, deeply hurt at your implication that my friendship with Bard is anything less than sincere. And so would he, I would imagine, if he were here."

"Of course he would." It was Fili who responded that time with a slight smile and Morinehtar sighed and said again, "Deeply hurtful."

"Why did you come to Erebor?" Thorin tried to keep the wizard on track, though inwardly he felt like he was in a barrel racing down the river again, speeding along without any control whatsover. Wizards. "We have you in our records, but you have not come this way for some time."

"The dragon!" she said cheerfully, "I heard one had arrived a while ago, and like I told Bard, a dragon is a creature of the East, and as I had spent much of my time in the East, I decided to make my way here. And then I heard from good Master Nori all about the dragon and the battling and adventuring and some sort of tale with goblins and shiny rocks and orcs and armies, of all things. Five of them, wasn't it? It's been named already, don't you know."

"We know," Thorin replied, but Morinehtar just barreled onwards, waving the arm not holding her staff expressively, "The Battle of Five Armies. Rather grand-sounding, all things considered. Almost a miracle that the forces of Dwarves, Men, and Elves managed to work together and that Beorn's people managed to arrive in the nick of time. I have got to talk to Aiwendil," she said to herself, "And figure out just how he managed to bring them and the Eagles of Manwë along. I'm almost sorry I missed it. But you all seem to be doing well enough."

"Thank you," Thorin's tone made Balin wince, "I suppose you don't have any advice to offer us."

"You're welcome!" Morinehtar ignored his sarcasm, "Of course I do! I'm a wizard. We come along and meddle. Almost always with good intentions. Especially in this case. One of the things I'd advise if you haven't already is not to touch the gold with bare skin. The second is I'd like to take a stroll about the Treasury. I need to understand if Smaug's magic has penetrated the gold, although I wouldn't be surprised if it has. The third, and you're not going to like this," the wizard said carefully as she stepped closer, moving in line to Balin just below the dais, "Is I have to deal with that."

She pointed at the Arkenstone above Thorin's head.

Immediately Thorin stood and Dwalin moved in front of the King. Morinehtar frowned as the court began to shout. She struck her staff on the walkway, creating a low boom that echoed and re-echoed in the Audience Chamber until the shouts were drowned out and quieted.

"Stop that. I'm not going to destroy it. I'm not even certain I could. But the Heart of the Mountain is the Heart of the People, and a dragon has lived with the Mountain's Heart for centuries now. I heard of your gold madness once, Thorin Oakenshield," her voice rang out and she narrowed her eyes at him, "And I will not put up with such foolishness again from anyone else in your line."

Dwalin had his axes out in front of the throne until Thorin pushed him gently to the side. He moved down the dais until he stood on a level that left him at the same height as the wizard. They looked in each other's eyes for a moment. It was Thorin spoke first.

"The others here have tread around me as if I'm some swooning Elvish maiden fit to collapse at the mention of my gold madness," he said quietly, "You are one of the few besides Gandalf who spoke openly of what happened to me. And yet I trust you as I did not fully trust him."

Morinehtar gazed steadily back at him, "There may be reasons for that," she said finally, "But I am a wizard. And although my cousin has meddled quite thoroughly in your affairs, he is a wizard as well, and I believe there was no ill intent in his actions. Who we are speaks to you, as a being of Middle Earth, like almost nothing else ever will. Now," her eyes twinkled as she smiled at him, "Can you believe I have your best interests at heart? Remember, as you are known to me, I am known to you."

"Khagolkhud." Thorin murmured. Morinehtar nodded.

"Exactly so."

It was another moment before Thorin nodded and stepped to the side, "We know you, Khagolkhud. You may approach the Stone," he gripped her arm gently, making her pause as she passed him, "But do not make us regret it."

Chapter Text

Lobelia still couldn't believe she was doing this.

By this, she was mounted. On a pony, of all things, instead of walking like any sensible hobbit would, or if not that and one had to stretch the bounds of respectability, riding on a cart. Or in a carriage. But not on a pony. Hobbits, as a rule (almost a law of nature), did not ride. They were too short. They liked staying in touch with the ground as they moved across their fields. They were not meant to be gadding about on top of the creatures that helped them farm, for Yavanna's sake. She tried to protest to Gandalf about it (that dratted wizard) but gave up when he pointed out that the rest of the group would be mounted, that she would slow them down, and that being mounted later on when they crossed the Weather Hills and other terrain would be the only way to keep up. She gave in with a huff and got on the animal before it started to nibble on her hair.

Not that Lobelia expected she would have had a problem keeping up. It was more likely that Bilbo was getting back at her for having a fit in his house. But what did he expect? The wretch was gone for nearly a year, the house was practically laying vacant, of course she and Otho would have participated in the auction and moved in! But here he was, back from gods-knew-where, she and Otho volunteering to go back with him and Addy and Sigs and Flambard and Herugar and Jessie to gods-knew-where, and here she was on a pony.

By Yavanna, the things she did for family.

The creature underneath her shifted as they moved down the road and she tugged on its reins carefully. Bilbo moved up beside her on her left, Otho was on her right, "Doing all right there, Lobelia?"

She narrowed her eyes at her cousin, "I still hate you."

He grinned, "Brilliant!"

Lobelia scowled at him. Otho stopped snickering with a yelp when she leaned over and pinched his thigh, "What happened to you, Bilbo?" she said mournfully, "You were respectable. You were well-off. You came from a good family. I actually liked you-"

Bilbo tried to interrupt, "You’ve always liked me-”

“And then he,” she gestured at Gandalf, “Comes to your house with a gaggle of dwarves, one of whom showed up at our house uninvited-"

"Wait, a dwarf came to your house?" Bilbo tried to interrupt again, but she ignored him.

"-and off you go on an adventure. You. On an adventure. And then you're gone for nearly a year, we've given you up for dead, but suddenly you're back and dragoon the lot of us along to wherever-it-is, and you're not even properly contrite about it!"

"...do you want me to apologize for dragging you on a journey?"

Lobelia snorted, "Hah. It won't do you any good now; I know you're faking."

"Lobelia," Otho said softly.

She let up on Bilbo. Slightly. "Fine. You didn't dragoon us along. But we have to make sure you don't disappear again and at least get to where you want to go. You were not very respectable-looking when you first came back, I'll have you know. And people thought you were the responsible one, what with being older and all. Gods be good."

Her cousin kept grinning at her, "Shows how wrong they were, eh?"

"No kidding."

"But Lobelia," Bilbo leaned forward, "I thought all the dwarves went straight to my house. Courtesy of Gandalf."

At the mention of his name she scowled, glaring holes into the wizard's back where he was chatting with Adalgrim Took. They left Bree that morning and Addy and Gandalf were debating which road to travel on next.

She still hadn't forgiven him for the firework. Soot on her favorite dress. Her favorite.

Otho noticed her gaze and chuckled before answering, "Oh. Oh, no. Not all of them. We weren't the only hobbits with dwarf visitors, mind, but ours was surely the rudest. Comes up to our house after dark, bangs on the door fit to wake the dead and nearly puts an axe in one of our hounds as a result, then has the temerity to say that we shouldn't let our dogs roam unrestrained, and could we please point him in the direction of Bag End? Which we did, of course."

"Unhappily," Lobelia muttered.

"And then," Otho continued, "What happens but not an hour later he's back again, pounding the door, and saying we gave him bad directions! He was huffing and his beard was puffed like an alley cat and he bellowed that he needed me to escort him myself! Well, I refused and Mauler and Tamer gave him a good growl, so we compromised by having me walk him a little ways down the lane to make sure he was going in the right direction. It's not like you live that far away-"

"Unfortunately-ow!" Lobelia leaned over her other side and smacked Bilbo's arm.

Used to the two of them bickering, Otho kept talking, "-and Loobie had gone to bed at this point, because she was tired from waking up early that morning to check on her orchards, and she needed to go out again the following day. I finished tidying up the smial and blew out the candles, when-"

Bilbo's eyes widened, "You must be joking."

Otho chortled, "-he nearly broke down the door, he did, saying all sorts of things, "I am Thorin Oakenshield!" He thunders, "Three times I have asked for directions, and three times have you led me astray!" and all such fiddle faddle-"

"Wait," Bilbo choked, shaking in the saddle as he tried to contain his laughter, "That was Thorin Oakenshield?! Thorin can't follow directions?"

"Apparently he can't," said Otho, "But that's not the best part. The best part is that he managed to wake Lobelia up."

"Not 'we' woke her up?"

"I take no responsibility for the actions of a lunatic dwarf."

Bilbo at this point looked like he couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh hysterically or be utterly horrified. Concerned he was about to hyperventilate, Lobelia leaned over and thumped him a couple times on the back, "You're going to pass out if you keep doing that. And my husband knows better than to wake me once I'm asleep. It's not his fault this dwarf didn't know better."

"Thorin woke you up?"

Lobelia sniffed, "He most certainly did. Such a ruckus I had never heard in my entire life. And you know our bedroom is all the way in the back of our house, cousin, and I could hear him anyway. Never had I regretted our smial's accoustics so much."

Otho called ahead to Jessamine Boffin, "Jessie! Didn't you and Herugar have a dwarven visitor too?"

The blond-haired hobbit dropped back to a few paces in front of them and grinned, "Been telling dear Bilbo all about your dwarf, have you? Well, ours was tattooed up to his ears and on top of his head! Brusque but polite and didn't cause near the ruckus that yours did, Loobie. Dilbert or something-or-other-"

"That sounds like Dwalin!" Bilbo covered his face with his hands.

Jessamine shrugged, "-whatever it was, he was very courteous and he didn't have to come back for directions, unlike some people. Herugar was even pleased enough to provide some extra food for the walk, since we're a bit farther out than the rest of you are."

"Of course you did."

Jessamine just laughed at Bilbo's words and chirruped to her pony, moving back to where her husband was riding with Adalgrim and Flambard Took.

"I'm glad you found it funny," Lobelia sniffed again, although if one looked closely they could have seen the corners of her mouth twitching up, "I found it very stressful to have to drive a dwarf away from my house in the middle of the night."

"I'm still amazed that nobody died."

"It was close," Sigismund Took piped up from up ahead, "I was staying the night with some relatives down the lane instead of in Buckland. When the rest of us started turning on our lights and making our way down the street, your dwarven fellow finally found his feet and moved along. We didn't see him again after that, so he must have made it to Bag End eventually."

"I wondered why he was late!" Gandalf shook his head, amused. He had slowed his horse to hear what was going on, "But that certainly explains it. Thorin Oakenshield bested by a hobbit. Again. Before even you, my dear Bilbo! Lobelia, I am very pleased to hear how you set a trend for discombobulating dwarves."

"Well, good on her!" Otho said cheerfully, "It sounds like these dwarves needed a good shaking up, and we're just the band to do it!"

Gandalf raised an eyebrow, "Well, that's much more enthusiastic than what I heard before, Otho."

Said hobbit waved a hand, "Once we found some relatives to take care of our lands while we were gone and were reasonably assured we'd come back, of course we did. Bilbo needs more looking after than we thought-"

"I'd resent that if I wasn't so happy you all consented to come."

"Plus," Lobelia murmured to Bilbo, "We'll actually be able to send letters back to our families to keep them apprised of our progress. And to let them know we're still alive. Unlike some people."

Bilbo flushed as Otho continued speaking,"-and how on earth could we say no? You said these dwarves don't know how to farm. Farm, Gandalf. They'll starve in the next year if we don't do something. And it doesn't sound like those Men of Lake-village or whatever-"

"-Laketown-"

"Know anything about farming. Just fishing. And it sounds like they'll need to farm for this Delly-place-"

"Dale. We have got to work on your remembering names, dear."

"-Since the dragon probably poisoned all the fish in the lake."

Gandalf's eyes widened. Bilbo gaped. Otho looked around at everyone, "Please tell me I wasn't the first one who thought of that. You said the lake feeds into a river, too, and gods know if it would spread even farther down the River Running."

"I certainly hope that isn't the case, Otho. Smaug fell into the deepest part of the lake where nobody would be able to dive after the body," Gandalf rumbled, "But I cannot be certain. Long has it been since a dragon was vanquished. I will investigate when we get to Imladris. I do not believe we need to fear, since the elves will keep them from starving, but I think we must move with even more speed. Spur your ponies, my friends. We have many leagues to go, and less time than I thought."

"Great," Lobelia muttered to Otho, "Even more riding. Thank you, husband. Thank you so, so much."

It was late that night when Gandalf finally called a halt, "Less progress than I'd like, but more than I hoped," he said as they set up camp, "We're making decent time. At this pace it will take us another several days to reach Imladris. I don't want to push our mounts and none of you except for Bilbo have been on a long journey like this before."

"Don't I know it," muttered Jessie as she massaged her legs. Lobelia handed her the jar of ointment without comment.

Flambard was put in charge of cooking as the others began to lay out their sleeping rolls. Lobelia waved at Bilbo and he put his down next to hers and Otho's. She offered him the ointment as well but he waved it off with a hand.

"I'm still travel-fit, but thanks for offering," he touched her arm as she gave it to Otho, "Are you all really unhappy to be leaving home?"

"Bilbo," Lobelia looked at her cousin measuringly, "If we really were unhappy leaving, do you think you could have pried me out of the Shire, Gandalf's fireworks notwithstanding?"

He chuckled, "No, of course not. I doubt anything could."

"You said these people don't even know how to farm, cousin," she said softly, "How on earth could we not help them? Growing things is our way of life. The idea that people don't know how just--it baffles me. And they've been through so much. You may be a bit cracked in the head, Bilbo, but you're not a liar. Of course we'd come, and so would the others."

"What she said," Otho stood up, "And now I'm going to eat if you all are done chatting. Loobie?"

"Thank you for your input, dear," she said dryly as the two of them got up, "And yes, we're coming."

Gandalf's gaze was appraising as she passed him, "Well-put, Lobelia," he said softly, "Well-said."

She nodded at him and got her food. Later on as everyone started to bed down, Gandalf smoking his pipe over the embers was the last thing she saw as she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Estel was hiding.

To be more accurate, he was practicing his tracking skills if anyone asked, especially if Elrohir or Elladan found him, but the biggest point of tracking was to remain unseen, so he hoped nobody saw him and asked what he was doing.

One could even call what Estel was doing eavesdropping, but if there happened to be some weeds where there shouldn't be right under the window where Elrond and Gandalf were talking, then him pulling them out couldn't exactly be called suspicious, now could it? Elrohir and Elladan's first lesson to him was that, no matter what, if he was somewhere he wasn't supposed to be, he needed to blend in and have an excuse just in case.

Elrohir and Elladan always had good advice.

Estel moved a little closer to the window and stayed crouched down, pulled weeds in hand, as he strained his ears to listen to what Elrond and the others had to say.

"Glorfindel might know more about dragons and their blood, or if they're poisonous," Elrond was saying, "Considering he had wandered north during the War of the Dragons; he may have fought in a battle or two."

Estel's eyes widened and he froze. Dragons? That's what Gandalf and the others had been talking about? He thought they were leagues away from here! And Gandalf had seen one?

"Where is he now?" Gandalf asked.

"I am not entirely certain. Glorfindel comes and goes as he pleases--"

Elrond's voice faded out as the implications sunk into Estel's mind. All he first understood when he saw Gandalf and his friends arrive a few days ago was that Gandalf's friends were all--short. As small as him! And yet everyone treated them like adults and let them go wherever they wanted, helping prepare food for the meals and talk about flowers with the gardener. Estel wasn't jealous (ok, maybe he was a little bit) but he had his own lessons with his teachers, and there was always Elladan and Elrohir to play with, so he didn't feel too alone.

But here were people his own size and looked more like him and less like all the Elves that lived in Rivendell, and they were all doing whatever they wanted. It wasn't fair. And now they were off to go see dragons? They had a reason for being here and going off on an adventure. A-a-what was the word his teacher Amdir used? Purpose. That's right. A Grand Purpose. Estel frowned and pulled out the next weed savagely. Well, that's fine! Estel had a Grand Purpose. More than that, a Destiny! Even if nobody would tell him what it was. He was about yank out the adjacent plant when he felt a hand fall gently on his shoulder.

Estel turned his head to see one of the female hobbits that came with Gandalf kneeling next to him, eyes twinkling. She had some of the curliest blond hair he had ever seen in his life, with a cheerful look on her face and a smirk that instead of making him feel defensive, felt more like Elrohir or Elladan before they started in on another prank.

She leaned her head towards him and he mimicked her, straining to hear her voice as she whispered, "Good place to eavesdrop! Although I wouldn't pull that plant if I were you; that looks like one of the flowers Master Gardiner Lindadel just transferred."

Estel looked down in dismay and realized that she had stopped him in the knick of time. "Thank you!" He whispered gratefully and the she-hobbit's smirk widened into a grin, "What's your name?"

She stuck out a hand and Estel looked down at it a second, confused, before taking it in his own, "Jessamine Boffin at your service, young friend! And who might you be?"

Estel looked about awkwardly before standing out of sight of the window and bowing as he was taught, "Estel, Miss Boffin, and the same to you and your family?" His answer was uncertain--she had different manners than the Elves did.

"Well done! Come away from there a bit, young Estel, and maybe you can tell me more about Rivendell, and I can tell you exactly why we came to visit, how does that sound?"

And with that Estel just realized that he had gained another friend. As he passed by her, he didn't notice that Jessie looked back towards the window where Gandalf and company could see and winked, before they both moved out of the garden entirely.

~~~~~

Bilbo waved at Jessamine as she walked out of the garden before turning back to the others present in the library.

"Sometimes, for all that young Estel has lived among us, he forgets that we are Elves, and have sharp hearing," Elrond chuckled, "It is good that Miss Boffin found him before the twins did, or there would have been a reckoning."

"Really?" Bilbo asked curiously, "How so?"

"Because, as my sons would say, 'we taught him better than that' and they would be right. But he is a Man, a child still, and not accustomed to being silent. They most likely would have convinced Estel a truly epic prank would have been the only way to repair his honor. But I digress. We were speaking of dragons and Glorfindel, yes?"

"I heard my name," a deep voice echoed from the doorway and they looked up to see a tall, golden-haired elf with Adalgrim Took at his side, "And as I was already headed here with one of your companions, Master Bilbo, I thought I would come see just what you need of me."

"I wanted to see your library," Adalgrim bowed a little before moving next to Bilbo, "And you, cousin, weren't anywhere to be found, so I prevailed on this nice gentleman to show me the right direction."

Elrond meanwhile walked over and clasped arms with the golden-haired elf, "Glorfindel. Mae govannen. Gandalf and Bilbo and their friends have brought us a pretty puzzle."

Glorfindel moved closer to the table and peered at the various papers and scrolls and books scattered about. He raised an eyebrow, "Dragons, I see? What on earth do you want with them? I thought you already killed off the last one. Well," he amended, "Except for the ones on the Grey Mountains; the range is practically crawling with the things."

Gandalf shook his head, "Smaug was shot by Bard's Black Arrow and plunged into the lake and has not resurfaced. Otho, Lobelia's husband, brought up the unpleasant thought of the dragon poisoning the entire lake in which his body now resides, and we are concerned that if that is the case, if we can purify the water, or if not, do we need to worry about it spreading down the River Running."

Fingers skimming over the pages of Bilbo's book, Glorfindel furrowed his eyebrows, "That is a good question, but not one I am certain I can answer. I am inclined to say no--after all, if in the War of the Dragons there were no incidents recorded of combatants being poisoned via dragon blood, I doubt fish or plants in a lake or water source would be affected either, since the blood would be diluted out to something much less powerful, and there was only the one wound from the Black Arrow. However," he cautioned Bilbo and Adalgrim heaved sighs of relief, "I cannot be entirely certain. Your brethren would know far more than I, Mithrandir. The Blue Wizards especially--"

Gandalf shook his head, "I have not heard from my cousins in the East for over an Age, Glorfindel. I know not if they have survived or if they have failed in their tasks. Radagast's domain was the Greenwood and lands here in the west, and as for Saruman," the wizard frowned, "This is not something he needs to be troubled with, and not something in particular I believe he would have knowledge of."

Elrond silently agreed. Although Saruman was wise and powerful in the ways of the Istari, and even more in the ways and doings of the Maiar, that did not negate the feeling that he (and he suspected other members of the White Council) had begun to feel since the confrontation with Sauron. Saruman had been retreating more and more into his stronghold at Isengard of late, and it was extremely pressing business now, such as with the Necromancer, that drew him out anymore. Privately Elrond felt that Saruman was hiding secrets from them, or other business. Although he would never say it out loud, and he wouldn't go so far as to say he didn't trust the White Wizard, something seemed--wrong. Elrong resolved to converse with Galadriel about it at a later date. He wasn't certain yet it was a truth that Gandalf was ready to hear.

Glorfindel had inclined his head, "As you say, my friend."

"Well, what can we do about it in the meanwhile? Is there anything to be done?" Bilbo piped up from stacking the books at the end of the table.

Adalgrim added, "Because if we don't know for certain, it's better to be prepared regardless. The ponies can hold more luggage than what we've brought in our stores."

"Quite right," Elrond agreed as he moved to a different section of his library, "And therefore we must look into various herbs and concoctions that may be beneficial to the water. Now, it is not practical to try to cleanse the lake--that takes an enormous amount of magic and power, and we are not entirely certain it is even necessary. However, there are herbs that can introduced to it that may have the same effect over time, or boiled with water that is drawn out from it if there is nothing else to be done. If Dale's lands are able to grow these herbs, that's half the problem solved. Correct, Gandalf?"

The wizard smiled, "Very much so, my friend. Now, where do we begin?"

"Well, having seen your library, I might as well be on my way--hey!" Adalgrim yelped as Bilbo snagged his shirt.

"No, you don't," Bilbo's voice was amused as he tugged his cousin farther into the library after Elrond, "You just want to escape doing any research and go bother Cook. I know you. And Herugar won't stand for it."

"Fine, fine," Adalgrim grumbled as he followed after Bilbo, "But if we're not done by teatime, I'm bringing provisions here and eating as I work, like it or not."

"As long as you bring enough for all of us, I won't complain!" Bilbo grinned.