The dwarves of old sang of family, of the tender shackles forged by Durin the Deathless himself, delicate strands of mithril binding their kin together until the end of all times. When wars came upon them, and the battlefield did not allow for proper ceremonies, for the souls to be returned to stone, they burned the bodies and sang dirges of the ashes of their brethren becoming one with the stars. They sang lullabies to their fauntlings, deep and soothing, the mountains helping lull the children to sleep, and they sang great ballads that made the miles of stone under their feet come to life with the melody and join in.
But they used to have very few songs about the roads, about traveling – that is until the King of Erebor became a King of nothing at all, and his kin had to re-learn how to survive with no mountain halls above their heads and no booming forges underneath their feet.
The road the King in Exile embarked upon decades later called for a different kind of music, and it came to be with an unlikely ease, what with the promise of a homeland on the horizon, and the determination of all involved driving the nearly impossible quest forward.
There is much room yet for hope in the heart of Thorin Oakenshield, but his predisposition often makes him forget that. None of his companions know that his future has only ever spanned as far as the Lonely Mountain's peak bathing in white and violet clouds, no regards in the mind of their leader for what might come after that. His heart is heavy still, has been heavy for as long as he's carried it with him he thinks, and his resolve is borne from what he likes to call duty, or blood right, but what is in fact a steaming ember left over from the fire that burned within his forefathers. It barely manages to fuel the heir of Durin, for he is a great forge himself, a forge whose bellows have been silent for a long, long time, and whose core was nearly extinguished when the dragon claimed all that was his. Thorin is a forge with the might to power the whole kingdom he so desires, but that forge has yet to be rekindled.
They climb a hill that evening in search of a good spot to rest for the night – not a steep one, but high up enough above the canopy so that the surrounding forest spreads below and around them like a dark whispering sea, and they can see for miles, wary eyes catching any odd movement in the greenery.
The slowly approaching dusk colors the sky in rich tones, stripes of orange and purple soothing the underbellies of lazy puffed clouds their mothers used to call ambâr -nikud – duvets. They're loud that night, the companions of Thorin Oakenshield, and sing and joke as they set up the campsite, foraging the surroundings for wood and game. A bonfire is lit, Bombur complaining until they create a smaller fire for him to start cooking his dinner, and even he joins in the merriment after that. The young ones return with glad tidings, speaking of a fresh stream nearby, and the whole Company splits into turns, bathing and refilling their flasks.
The slowly concluding day is warm and kind to them all, and so Thorin allows himself to remain alone longer than is perhaps wise, washing himself with quiet enjoyment, regaining his peace of mind, ever so fragile an article.
The cheerful melody of his kin makes his feet lighter as they carry him back to them, and the smell of smoke and something delicious cooking mingles with the scent of the forest, and nothing suits that concoction more than a joyous song and well-earned rest.
Thorin finds a place a little way away, sitting comfortably and devoting a sliver of his time and attention to each member of his entourage, reassuring himself that they are without pain or trouble.
“Where is the hobbit?” he demands to know, spotting the empty spaces left behind by the most unseemly of his companions quite easily.
“Just over there,” Balin informs with a small smile, and Thorin's gaze follows his small gesture, falling upon the tiny figure of the halfling almost melding with the sea of tall grass higher up the hill.
“What is he doing?” Thorin mutters, frowning – Bilbo seems to be preoccupied with something on the ground, bent over, moving here and there as if in search of something.
“I believe he's picking flowers,” Balin comments.
“What for?” Thorin wonders, and doesn't receive an answer beyond that unreadable smile that his oldest friend so likes to hide behind.
Hunger is what calls the hobbit back in the end, though Thorin suspects he barely would have noticed had not the others reminded him, summoning him with loud cries until the halfling jolted upright like a startled rabbit and hurried to rejoin them all, clutching to his chest what indeed turned out to be a bouquet of wildflowers. Whatever he might need those for, Thorin doesn't know, and keeps stealing glances at the bundle after Bilbo sets it on the ground nearby and trots to get his own share of Bombur's broth.
Returning with his bowl full and steaming, the halfling flashes the dwarf King a nervous smile, as if he can't be quite sure that he's allowed to sit in such close proximity. Thorin offers a curt nod, and that seems to appease the hobbit, for he settles on the ground comfortably, sitting cross-legged and devoting all his attention to his dinner.
It is Gloin who starts the tale about this or that raffle with elves he took part in decades ago, and though it sounds more fictional than true, the others listen eagerly and laugh even more eagerly, joining in until they've all arrived at the steadfast conclusion that they have indeed always disliked elves and always will. The somewhat troublesome stay at Rivendell behind them and the dark, silent mass of the Misty Mountains ahead, they are allowed a bit of complaining as well as a healthy dose of rest, and soon enough, Thorin lets himself laugh alongside them.
The heat of the fire as well as the heat of the meal seep into their bones and put them at ease, and the flames climb higher, fed into a roaring beast of a bonfire, until some go find shelter a little ways away from it, and others turn their cheeks to it, basking in its light and energy. They used to light dozens of these all at once back in Ered Luin on nights like these, to remind themselves that they were still capable of it, to keep warm despite the lack of proper stone around them, to forget for a few precious moments how shallow the halls of their makeshift home were.
It brings a strange sense of familiarity now, in the middle of nowhere on their way to nowhere as well, and Thorin will forever have nightmares about dragonfire, but feel safe and comfortable in this, and there is some peace to be found in that, he decides.
His eyes travel to the hobbit, not having paid much attention to him at all for a while, and the sight captivates him instantly. Little Bilbo's brow is furrowed with lines of concentration, and yet a small smile dances on his lips just as the gleam and glint of firelight dances in his eyes. He works silently and expertly, nimble fingers weaving and knotting the delicate stems of the flowers he'd collected, creating a braid or a string of some sort, Thorin cannot tell. There is no rhyme or reason to his eyes in the task, as he is untrained in herbology and thus doesn't know the significance of the flowers – Oin would know, and would probably praise the hobbit on whatever he's achieving, but Thorin can merely watch somewhat dumbly, and wonder what Bilbo wants to arrive at with this activity.
“It's a flower crown,” the halfling speaks without being prompted, his smile broadening but his gaze never straying from his work, “I expect it might seem a bit pointless, but it calms me down.”
Thorin opts for saying nothing at all. He's always considered hobbits to be peculiar folk, long before he met this unexpected addition to his Company, and this only proves it. A crown, of flowers? Hardly suitable, not to mention impractically fragile. Flowers wilt and dry very quickly, don't they?
“Do your Kings really adorn themselves with such... perishable jewels?” Thorin mumbles, watching in a daze as the hobbit's thumb and index finger squeeze and tie the stem of what might be a harebell, or might also be a hundred other flowers the dwarf King never knew the names of.
To his mild surprise, Bilbo chuckles softly, a gentle sound, but somehow louder and clearer to Thorin's ears than the song and cheer of the other dwarves all around him.
“Don't be silly,” he smiles, but never looks up from the flower crown, “we don't have royalty. Just those with bigger and older pantries than the rest, that's all there is to it really. And these,” his fingertips dance over the tiny petals in his lap as if trying to smooth them down, “are for everyone. Little ones learn how to make them sooner than they learn how to read. Lads make them for lasses to court them, mothers weave them for their daughters and sons both when they do, after all, get married... Even when putting the dead to the ground, we rest crowns on their heads, carnations for remembrance, chrysanthemums for the joy they brought to the world while they were still... Oh, do excuse me.”
It's as if the halfling has woken up from some sort of reverie. He looks up at Thorin at long last, his smile turning apologetic, his eyes, usually the green-blue of a sky before a heavy storm, now entirely dark in the approaching night.
“I do believe I got a little carried away,” Bilbo mutters, grinning shortly and awkwardly, “no need to fill your head with all that nonsense.”
“It's not nonsense if it bears tradition,” Thorin says solemnly, and it's as if the words have taken the hobbit by surprise, so he continues somewhat stiffly, “the traditions and customs of your people might differ vastly from mine, but that does not mean I'll dismiss them.”
“Oh,” Bilbo quirks a somewhat quizzical brow, “oh, I see. That's very... considerate of you, indeed it is. I suppose the same respect can't be extended to the elves for some no doubt grave reasons?”
Thorin huffs indignantly, turning away, but not before he catches the halfling's grin gaining a momentary sardonic edge.
“There is a difference between honoring your traditions, and keeping to them so strictly you dismiss the world around you, and its perils. The elves would rather spend lifetimes walking through their traditional halls, then set out and help where it is most direly needed.”
“Oh, of course,” Bilbo peeps, and the slightly amused undertone of his voice does very little for Thorin's calm.
“I would not expect you to understand,” he utters, perhaps a tad more gruffly than he'd meant to, but the hobbit brushes it off effortlessly enough.
“And I would not expect you to waste time explaining it,” he quips lightly, and their short conversation is thus concluded, leaving the King in silence, and the halfling humming quietly along with the song the others have started.
But today is not for wallowing in the persevering hardships of his plight, and so the King does not remain disheartened for long. The sparks of the bonfire flicker and flutter high up above their heads like frantic fireflies, and the song the dwarves have chosen is a cheerful one, prompting some to dance, some to merely join in on keeping the rhythm of it going, but ensnaring all of them in kind.
“Come join us!” someone cries, and it takes Thorin an embarrassing amount of time to understand that they're not asking after him, but their burglar.
Bofur comes to drag Bilbo to his feet, and the halfling frets and protests, “ Oh, no no, really, it's been years since I danced, I couldn't possibly... ”, but follows in the end, if still highly reluctantly, his delicate creation landing in the grass near Thorin. Much like with the flower wreaths, Thorin suspects the dancing of hobbits differs much from what the dwarves are used to, with their heavy boots and heavier rhythms, clapping and drumming. And indeed, the halfling stumbles rather than dances at first, but everyone is determined to teach him, and the process seems to amuse him and the dwarves alike, Thorin's own nephews especially deriving a lot of cheer and joy from showing him the correct steps while also trying their absolute best not to stomp on his bare feet, very much at danger among their hobnailed boots.
The heat is enough for even dwarves to shed some of their layers, and Bilbo himself disposes of his flimsy overcoat soon enough, as well as his embroidered waistcoat, and dances close to the fire in just his trousers and cotton shirt, perspiration glistening on his forehead, honey-brown curls soon damp and flying about... There is such energy in his little frame, unlike Thorin has ever seen or even expected. Once he understands, he moves quickly and with ease, and the wizard's words, there's more to him than meets the eye, return to Thorin in full.
Bilbo spins and twirls, keeping up with the dwarves easily enough, kicking up dust and clapping when they do, their conjoined laughter carrying on the soft breeze, and in the eyes of the King, he shines brighter than any of the embers the mighty fire spews into the air, even brighter than the fire itself.
He tears his gaze away from him only long enough to catch the look of Balin, steady and calm, but still somehow accusatory... Thorin hangs his head, looking at his own hands in his lap, and the heat in his cheeks is not entirely fed by the bonfire then. He spots the tiny flowers in the grass, and picks up the flower crown as gingerly as he can, cradling it in his palms. It's still far too fragile, at danger of dissolving in his hands if he handles it wrong, he thinks.
If dwarves are like forges, he muses, resting the wreath on his knee and stuffing his pipe, then surely hobbits are like flowers – delicate and often exotic in their beauty, beautiful but hardly sturdy. Something to be admired from a safe distance, and handled with utmost care.
Impractical. There is a reason why dwarves favor gems and metal over flowers, always have – there's beauty in those materials as well, immeasurable beauty if one knows how to handle them, but in addition to that, they offer protection. When has a daisy ever protected anything?
...If dwarves are like forges, and hobbits are like flowers, one must keep a safe distance between the two, lest the fire scorches the blossom .
This time they are asking after him – Bilbo himself is, in fact, as Thorin discovers with some shock. The hobbit stands with his hand extended to him, carrying the fire with him in the glint of his eyes, cheeks red, hair tousled like a messy crown of his own, a bright smile accompanying all of that. Thorin finds he's a bit short of breath.
“I'd rather sit and watch, but thank you,” he grumbles, and against all odds, all that prompts is a bout of gleeful laughter.
“Oh, no doubt,” Bilbo says, “and I would have much rather sat down and finished my flower crown, but that was before your nephews showed me the wonders of spinning around so fast all you can see are the stars. Invigorating, really. You should try it.”
Thorin gazes at him and the halfling withstands it without much hardship, breathing calming down only very little, running his hand through his sweat-drenched curls.
“It's not finished?” Thorin asks, and Bilbo frowns.
“The flower wreath. It's not done?”
“Oh!” Bilbo understands and laughs again, swaying back and forth on his heels, “oh, not by a long shot! It never will be. But that doesn't matter now! Come dance. Or does dwarven royalty not do that?”
Thorin continues to glare at him, the lightheaded creature, speaking so out of turn, no doubt on account of all the blood rushing in a thrill through his head still, and the small body of Bilbo shields him from the heat of the bonfire for a few moments, and yet he senses a warmth he does not have a name for blossoming somewhere deep within his chest.
He wants to tell him that if he were royalty by anything else than blood, he would have lit dozens of bonfires, and sang a much different song, and the stars above his head would have spun with him, the spirit of Durin the Deathless watching over him and his. That if he had been true royalty and his home had never been lost, he would not have come to know any of the songs they have been singing on this journey, songs about losing things and finding them again, songs about dreaming and wandering, and remembering.
That if he had been real, dwarven royalty his whole life, he would never have known flowers, and he would never have known Bilbo.
He accepts the halfling's hand in the end, in much the same way he's been accepting what fate dealt him his whole life – reluctantly, but with great determination nevertheless – and it is the softest sensation he's felt in a very long time.
The rest is a blur. The flames sing along with them, the dust swirls in languid whirlwinds up in the air, the very earth drums along under the soles of their boots and under the soles of a lone hobbit's feet, and the night comes and envelops them without them noticing, the first stars trying and failing to shine brighter than the great fire's sparks.
They will travel far and wide, and see and feel horrors yet unimaginable to them, but for that one precious night, they are all of them suspended in time and space, spending lifetimes together in song. Lifetimes where the little hobbit is allowed to feel nothing but excited about this adventure he's embarked on, where the dwarves find home, or a strong enough sense of it, in the heat of the bonfire and the rhythm of their chanting, and where their King knows nothing else but hope, hope to see the successful end to this quest. Hope, and the fire.
For it has taken decades upon decades, but he feels it then in the speed of their steps and the melody – his heart beats louder, loud enough for him to hear. Someone has cleaned out the age-old ash, the bellows have been readied anew... and someone has taken the steaming embers of his heart into their palms, and blew on them until they shone and their light and heat spread.
It has taken decades, but that night, under the vast starry sky and the shadow of the mountains, with his whole journey still ahead, Thorin Oakenshield burns again.
All that they leave behind is a large barren circle where the fire had thrived, and trampled grass. And if anyone else shall ever brave these parts and takes a closer look, they might happen upon a slowly wilting crown of wildflowers resting atop one of the stones. It's tiny and insignificant and one day the wind will carry its dried remnants far and away, but the night it was made it survived the fire, and the one who made it would tell you that according to the traditions of his people, leaving it behind was a way of blessing the journey ahead.
The dwarves accompanying him would tell you no flimsy flowers hold that sort of significance, and the King... the King would merely smile to himself and perhaps tell you that what the fire does not consume, it strengthens.