"Ours are bountiful lands, Bilbo," his father had told him once when he was very young, after a lesson of gruesome history, of wars and dead kings. "The soil is rich, the nature vibrant. It feeds us well and it gives us great surplus. The Shire is blessed with easy winters and long summers, with an all but assured great harvest each year. For hundreds of years and more, no one has ever starved in the Shire."
Bungo looked over the maps they'd been studying, running a finger along the Green Way, from Bree and up to the north and to the mark for the ruins of Fornost, before tracing west, over Lake Evendim and the hills to the River of Lune, down to the Grey Havens.
"This is not how it is elsewhere," Bungo continued. "Not all lands are so kind, or so lively. Even as near as in Bree, people do not have such wealth of land. A little further to the north and harvest seasons grow shorter, the land colder, the soil rougher. And to the south the land grows drier and wilder. In those places, people struggle to make means. In those places, people starve."
The Shire was a small place on the map, nestled between the White Downs and the Barrow Downs, on the border of what some still called Arnor. It was markedly different from the lands around it, set apart by the fact that while most of Eriador was open wilds and hills, the Shire was drawn cultivated and surrounded in forests.
"The Shire is not rich in metals, perhaps. We have no gold to mine, no silver to unearth, and there are no gems or mithril beneath the surface to be found here," Bungo mused. "But ours is still a wealthy land, make no mistake of that. And many would kill to have such a land to call their own," he added quietly and looked at Bilbo. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, Dad," Bilbo had said then. And of course he had. It was an old lecture, one he'd heard hundreds of times through his childhood. It usually came preceded by the tales of the great kingdoms of the Dúnedain that the Shire had once upon a time, long ago in a different age, been a part of. Technically still was in some books and in some paperwork. They were still, to this day, led by a Thain who still, technically, reported to the Dúnedain kings.
"Anyone with people to feed would very much like such a land," Bungo continued. "Not perhaps elves, theirs being a race that does not grow fast in numbers, and not dwarves, seeing as there is nothing to mine here. But men? Or goblins…?"
Bilbo shuddered – he always did. He'd been getting lessons about the kingdoms and ways of men and the history and deeds of goblins all his life as well – he knew how both could be, how quick they were to reach for something they deemed theirs to take.
"We are not a large people," Bungo said, still trailing a finger over the map. "And we're not quarrelsome by nature. We're small and we're peaceful and we prefer to keep our noses to our own business. We have no warriors – even our Shirriffs barely carry weapons and our Bounders might be true of aim, but they are more like hunters than true guardsmen. The Shire is, for all appearances, easy pickings for anyone with an eye for conquest and a few well-armed men – or goblins – at his side."
Bilbo swallowed, like he always did, at that thought. He'd been hearing these stories for long enough to be utterly scared of the idea of an army marching up to the Shire, with the aim to conquer it and add it to some kingdom of man or goblin or some other warmongering race. Bungo smiled. "Why is it then," his father said, "That we're not conquered half an age ago?"
Bilbo smiled at that too, looking up, holding his left hand high – with his fourth finger tucked in so it looked like it wasn't there. "Because of people like Mum," Bilbo said proudly. "Because of the Underhills."
"Right you are," Belladonna Baggins said, equally proudly, as she walked over to her husband and son and pulled Bilbo from his father's arms. "And because of you too, my lad," she added, tucking him against her hip, where he could feel her belt and tools, the arm around his waist stiff with the concealed bracer. She tweaked his nose gently. "One day, it will be because of you."
Bilbo was born into a very special sort of hobbit family – or more specifically, to a very special sort of mother. He'd always known that. It was all very hush hush, though, and he'd always known that too – the stories his parents told him by the fire weren't the sort of stories he ought to share with his friends, outside the family.
Secrecy was something he'd been, almost literally, been fed in his mother's milk.
On the outside the Baggins family of Bag End was nothing unusual. A perfectly proper father, a Baggins through and through, an honest gentlehobbit who had, with his manners and charisma, managed to catch the eye of the daughter of the Old Took himself. A mother, fair and somewhat wild in her ways as the Tooks were wont to be, who'd been tamed by her husband's calmer demeanour. And a son, a tad unruly but altogether not an unpleasant child, secretive and sombre and eager to learn all he could.
And they were that, too. Bungo Baggins was well liked by his peers and he kept a pleasant house, he dealt fairly with his neighbours and business partners and made his living by loans and investments and the occasional dabbling in the markets of Hobbiton and Michel Delving. Belladonna was a bit unusual in her manner and ways, but she was a Took after all, and she was a pleasant enough conversationalist, could tell the most outrageous jokes that had all the neighbouring ladies tittering with outrageous laughter, and never shied from a good bit of gossip. And Bilbo was a good lad and all what his peers thought him to be – a bit bookish perhaps, but he never said no to a bit of adventure.
Underneath that, however, they were more.
"How did you get chosen, Mum?" Bilbo asked, many, many times through his childhood, never tiring of the stories.
"I didn't, love. I chose myself," Belladonna said, as they cuddled on the couch with him in her lap. As always, he was holding her left hand, examining the fingers in fascination. She had only four on that hand. "When I was a lass, much younger than you are now, I spied on one of my father's meetings and heard things I should not have, but which made me mightily curious. Before that I wanted to be a Bounder or, if I could not, then perhaps a Sherriff. Which of course was nowhere in the designs my Mother had for me – with eight daughters already wed, she would've much liked for me to develop into an old maid to care for her and father in their dotage – the nerve of her."
Bilbo giggled, running his fingers over the missing fourth finger.
"So I spied on the meeting, and made note of the man my father was talking with. A gentlehobbit, I'd seen him before," Belladonna admitted, watching him play with her hand benignly. "At my father's great parties – the last I'd seen him had been in a birthday party for my mother. And this gentlehobbit – a Longbottom – had been the worst sort of bore imaginable."
"But he wasn't a bore at all, was he?" Bilbo asked.
"Oh he was. In public, at parties, he was an utter bore. Four and sixty in years, he talked always about how it used to be when he was a child, how his own grandfather used to beat him over the head for every little slight. Always the same boring stories, sometimes several times in a row," Belladonna chuckled. "Everyone avoided him like the plague. I did too. Up until that meeting. After that, well. I all but stalked him."
"And he was an Underhill!" Bilbo announced.
"And he was an Underhill, yes, and you, my boy, are getting ahead of yourself," Belladonna admonished. "Do you want it in order or not? Yes? Then listen!"
Belladonna had followed the Longbottom gentlehobbit every time he had made an appearance, making a beeline to his side every time and hounding the gentlehobbit's every step, plaguing him with questions and inquiries, trying to solve the mystery of the strange discussion she'd heard – concerning dead goblins and poisoned water pouches. It had been a great mystery for her, like one of those stories written by men that she wasn't supposed to read.
She'd pushed it so far, that in the end old Gerontius Took, her father, had been forced to pull her aside lest she make a mess of things and make known secrets that ought not be revealed.
"He told me to be a good little girl and mind my own business. Of course I did nothing of the sort," she chuckled. "No, later that summer I figured out where the Longbottom gentlehobbit lived and ran off right away. Broke into his smial in the small hours of the night – this little slip of a lass, all dirty from running through mud, skirts all torn. Made a beeline for his pantry, I was so hungry. Which is of course where he found me."
Bilbo grinned happily, as she told him of how she'd been sure she'd get a beating or a scolding at the very least, and instead had been met with uproarious laughter of a very amused older gentlehobbit – and with what might've very well been impressed curiosity. She smiled, full of nostalgia. "I stole into his smial while he was asleep and he was none the wiser. Sure, Master Longbottom wasn't quite in the prime of his youth anymore, but it was still an impressive feat, to sneak up on one like him."
It hadn't been the only time she'd done it either. After Longbottom had returned her to the Tuckborough hall, she'd run away again – four times in total. The fourth time she'd snuck up on Master Longbottom in his bed chamber and drawn a moustache on his sleeping face. "After that, Master Longbottom pleaded with my father to have me for his apprentice," Belladonna grinned. "And so I began going through the very same training you're going through now."
"Yeah!" Bilbo cheered.
Bilbo had been slated to become his mother's successor right from the start. That was the way with Underhill families. He was his father's successor too, of course – one day, Bag End and all the responsibilities therein would be his. But Bag End was a location carefully chosen by Bungo and Belladonna, for the responsibilities laid upon the Master of Bag End were few and far between. All in all, all the Master of Bag End was required to do was to mediate the disputes of the lesser homes around it and to aid those families in more business like matters, such as law and ownership. And in a place as peaceful and quiet as Hobbiton, there was not much of that.
It was the perfect front for an Underhill – and Bag End itself was the perfect house. His father had never been anything but fully supportive of his mother – to the point where every aspect of Bag End had been designed for her. It was close to the road and on the outside it was unassuming, with its small garden and green door. It was large for a smial so new, but understandably so, by all appearances designed while keeping in mind the prospect of a large family to come – and yet it was not so large as to be overly arrogant. Inside, it was full of secret corners and hidden panels, a dozen and more secret hideaways littered through the smial, never mind the second cellar, the four completely unknown rooms, and the hidden window that led to the top of the hill Bag End was built under. And of course, one of the two back doors – the hidden one – led right into the nearby forest. It was the door Belladonna Baggins used the most.
"And to think, people considered your father altogether too proper for me," Belladonna laughed. "If only they knew."
Bungo Baggins, for all that he was an extremely proper sort of gentlehobbit, was a man of wits and learning and all sorts of intellectual curiosities – and Belladonna had been just that for him, before and after their courting.
"Your mother was the strangest of women, make no mistake of that," Bungo often told Bilbo. "She kept her secrets and she kept them well, but there was always this hint of mischief about her, even when we were too young to care for such things as romance. It always allured me."
Of course it was nothing a young lad of Bilbo's years wanted to hear of his parents, them being romantic and whatnot – but he liked the stories of their courtship, of how Belladonna had gone out of her way to mess with his father, playing little tricks, and how Bungo had investigated her like one would a great mystery, trying to get to the bottom of her secretive ways as if there was treasure to be found there.
Which, for Bungo, there obviously was – but Bilbo was far too young to care.
His parents always argued over who had caught whom – whether it had been Belladonna who'd lured in a husband, or Bungo who had unearthed a wife. However it had happened aside, it had happened, they'd fallen in love, and in that odd place of secrets and mischief and romance that grew between lovers, Bungo had found many secretive things. Underhills being one of them.
And when he'd learned of her lifestyle as an Underhill, he'd embraced it. Underhills were secretive people who didn't write their business down and didn't keep record, but he found the right books to read and the right articles to peruse and he learned many things – lot of them unknown to Belladonna herself. He'd made friends with Master Longbottom and learned more – he'd even met other Underhills too. He'd become a bit of a connoisseur of the Underhill lore and knowledge – and eventually, its undisputed expert, despite the fact that he was very much not one himself.
"Oh, I never could be," he said when Bilbo asked why. "I'm far too old for the training and I could never stomach it at any rate. It's an important service the Underhills provide, and I respect each and every one of them, your mother above all. And I respect them all the more, knowing that I do not have what it takes to be one of them."
He'd been such a stout supporter of the Underhills right from the start, and his wife's supporter most of all – to the point of building the perfect smial for an Underhill, as a wedding present to her. And that smial was now where he, and not his wife, taught Bilbo the history and lore of an Underhill – going even further than Master Longbottom had with Bilbo's mother in that he taught the history and the politics too, the social and even the economical value of the Underhills and their service.
"Underhills have been around since before the fall of the Dúnedain, of course," Bungo explained, smiling. "And their very existence is what made the Shire the peaceful place it is today."
But as many history and philosophy lessons as there were, the other lessons were much more plentiful. From since long before Bilbo could remember, his mother had been at his side, instructing him. He could not remember a time when she hadn't woke him with a cheerful, "Rise and shine, my lad, it's time get ready for the day!"
It took Bilbo nearly ten years to realise that for most faunts getting ready for the day did not, in fact, include a morning routine of physical exercise. Most faunts did not stretch so thoroughly or so elaborately when they woke, nor did they fall from their beds to their fingertips and toes on the floor, to do push ups, they did not shift from there to crunches – their bed chambers did not actually have bars for chin ups and the like. Nor did most hobbit mothers attach bells to their children's clothing in the morning, and then tell them to be quiet.
For him, though, it was natural and an obvious part of life. As were the strange games his mother came up with. He played conkers and cards and even checkers, and all the other normal games. But he also played games like Skipping Logs – for which his mother stood a whole bunch of logs across the corridors of Bag End and then told him not to touch the floor for the entire day. When he was a little older, the game was upgraded to the ceiling beams – which Bungo had built thin and easy to grasp on purpose. For hours Bilbo and his mother would do nothing but swing from beam to beam, chasing each other across the smial, trying to kick each other down. Later, once the game got too easy for them, they'd do the same outside, in the forest, on the branches that added elevation to the game.
And for as long as Bilbo could remember, he'd been learning horticulture. And that too, he later figured out, was very different from the norm.
"Belladonna is my favourite, of course," his mother would whisper to him, while they went through the half hidden plants in a sheltered, unseen corner of Bag End’s garden. "It's a good and trustworthy sort of plant – and it's been blessed with the best of names. But this here, monkshood, has its own charm. Do you have your gloves, my lad?"
"Yes, Mum," Bilbo said, eyes gleaming with excitement.
"Well then," she grinned at him. "Let's see what mischief we can make, hm?"
At Belladonna's side, Bilbo learned how to cultivate plants. They tended to things as commonplace as tomatoes and peppers, of course, and onions and carrots too. They even had some potatoes growing here and there for fun, and their berry bushes flourished greatly under their care. Edible plants made the bulk of their garden, in fact. But the most important lessons were concentrated around that corner hidden behind the wall and a hedge and by all appearances covered in weeds, where the plants grew.
He learned to recognise the monkshood flowers and leaves in all their shades and types, and how to tell apart the different breeds of the plant – some of which were more useful than others. They have a type of monkshood growing in the front garden – the tamed, least dangerous sort that was bred to look pretty and not to kill. But in the hidden corner, they have the more interesting types.
"All parts of the plant are poisons in their own right," Belladonna taught him, as they chopped and minced and mixed the plant in different ways. "But it's the root that holds the most of the toxins."
The very first poison Bilbo makes by himself is a monkshood poison, made largely of the root. But it is not the only one. He learns to mix and blend and store the curare plants and to boil the deadly nightshade – he even learns the process of making poison from apple seeds, though Belladonna considers it too troublesome to bother with on a regular basis. They go through hellebore, larkspur, hemlock, privet, oleander, daffodil, moonseed and water dropwort, and all other sorts of plants that were easily at hand, and all had their uses for a skilled Underhill. And they go through more exotic ones too, the plants that had spilled to the Shire from travellers from distant lands, and which had found their home in the windowsills of busy Underhills.
"Each of us has our favourites," Belladonna said, while they coated a series of arrows in a thick, almost black paste made of about half a dozen plants. "And each of us carries our own preferred sets of them. In time, you will figure out what blends you prefer, and what works best in what situation."
Belladonna herself had four main poisons she used.
One that was as swiftly lethal as she could make it, made of deadly nightshade and oleander and monkshood and a handful of other plants, just to be sure. It seized the throat and the breath and the very veins of whoever came in contact with it, and stopped them all – and the recipient's heart stopped before they could even realise that they could not move, could not breathe, that their blood could not flow.
Another was a paralytic, a careful blend of five different plants that froze the muscles and seized the sinews, but kept the recipient conscious. It could send anyone to the ground, as stiff as a board, and they would remain that way for hours – and even after the poison wore off they remained numb for days on end, their movements clumsy, their senses dulled.
The third poison did the absolute opposite of the second, one that turned the one at the receiving end utterly lax and instantly unconscious – and when the recipient woke, they remained lax for a while, their limbs relaxed and numb, and their tongues thick and clumsy. They also, according to Belladonna, felt as if they were drunk.
And the fourth…
"The very smell of this," Belladonna whispered while holding a crystal phial of perfectly clear liquid for Bilbo to see, "Is incredibly painful. The tiniest, most infinitesimal amount of it will send any man, goblin – even a troll – into convulsions of the most intense agony imaginable. A drop of this in a pint of water could take down a dozen men."
She did have other poisons, for other purposes – and she tailored new ones as she needed them. But those four were the ones she had at her side, the ones she coated her arrows and knives and throwing darts with – the ones which she used the most. In them, the four most common tasks of an Underhill were plainly obvious.
"This is the one I use the most, of course," she added, showing Bilbo the first poison, the instant killer. "This I've made by the bucketfuls. And you will be making a blend very much like this, I imagine, and you will be making as much of it as I've made my personal blend."
While learning plants and poisons from her, in the midst of games of speed and stealth and agility, Bilbo also learned other things. More impressive things – the things which he sometimes wished he could've shared with his unknowing, ignorant peers.
While Otho branched about, flaunting his accuracy at conkers, Bilbo learned how to throw blades. In the forest not far from Bag End, there was a tree stump that felt the brunt of them, either from Bilbo's hand or from Belladonna's as she talked him through the throw and how to make it right, where and when to release, how to control the angle and the spin if he added one – how to read the wind. He started small – and big – with a simple set of throwing knives, heavy and big in his hand, to train his throw. When he figured it out and his muscles grew to know it, his mother handed him a more slender set, faster in the air, more likely to spin – and so much sharper than the practice knives. He also learned how to throw darts, though his mother told him early not to get used to it.
"They're accurate and easy to handle, but you cannot get a proper range out of them," she explained. "And if you can get close enough to throw a dart, then a knife can often do you much better. For proper range, however…"
A bow was nothing new to Bilbo – there'd always been a bow at hand at Bag End, always out of sight of guests, but still at hand. It was the most favoured weapon of most of the Underhills – it is quiet, quick, deadly, and safe to use. Since long before Bilbo could remember, he'd been playing with one of his mother's bows, testing his draw on the string, playing at aiming. By the time his mother started to properly teach him how to use one, he already knew enough of them to very nearly make one.
"Which we will teach you to do properly, in time," she assured him. "But first you have to learn how to shoot."
And not just shoot, but shoot the way Underhills did. They weren't Bounders and they weren't hunters – they often didn't have the peace to take their time. No, they had to aim quickly and they had to fire fast – and often many times in a row, in the span of seconds.
"Like this. Always like this – never mind what you're shooting," Belladonna said, taking her arrows and aiming her bow – one arrow on the arrow rest, two in hand, the fletched ends held against her palm by her thumb, the two extra arrows almost parallel to the one on the string. "Watch," she said, and quickly drew the bow string three times – and three arrows were on the tree stump before it stopped vibrating from the last draw, with her never having had to reach for the quiver.
"This is how the elves shoot – this is the style of archery we learned from the Dúnedain, according to your father. Wherever it came from aside, it is what sets us apart from the Bounders, hunters, and human archers," Belladonna explained, looking at the stump, where the three arrows stood in a neat row. She smiled and looked at him. "We must be fast, Bilbo. We do not have the time to fetch more arrows. They all have to be in the air, all at once – and once they land, we must be finished. An Underhill who reaches for the quiver a second time is a dead Underhill."
"Yes, Mum," Bilbo said, looking at the stump in amazement. "How many can you hold in hand and still shoot accurately?"
She chuckled. "Five," she said. "But I've heard of elves who can balance more than a dozen and have the last one in the air before the first lands."
Bilbo never learned how to shoot with only one arrow in hand – from the beginning it was with several. It was clumsy at the start, and he dropped the arrows at first, but in time he learned to balance the arrows between his fingers, and to instantly put a new one on the string after the first had been shot. Arrow on string, draw, fire, arrow on string, draw, fire, arrow on string, draw, fire.
It was a balance of speed and accuracy – and Belladonna was merciless in drilling him in both. The first week into his archery training, Bilbo broke the skin of his forefinger several times and learned to hate the damn tree stump whenever it didn't catch his arrows, and he had to go and fetch them instead. But in time, his motions evened out, he found his rhythm, and under Belladonna's relentless patience, he found accuracy.
"He'll make a good archer yet," Belladonna said proudly to Bungo, the day Bilbo got all three arrows on the stump. "He'll have bigger hands than I do, our lad, I'll bet he can have more than half a dozen arrows in the air by the time he's official!"
"I guess it's time we get him his own bow, then." Bungo said, ruffling Bilbo's hair.
The bow they got him was a short recurve bow made for a hobbit's hand, a composite make of hickory and horn, beautifully laminated. It was not a bow that would stay with him for the rest of his life, Bilbo knew. But it would be the one he was the fondest of, because it was the one he'd learn to truly master archery with.
"From here on you can practice that by yourself and master it however you will," Belladonna said, watching him as he drew the string and tested the draw. She smiled. "You've learned how to fight at a distance. Now it's time for close quarters."
And so they moved from throwing knives and darts and arrows to swords.
"Why is it that Underhills must remain secret?" Bilbo asked, during one of those quiet nights, when Belladonna was not home, and Bilbo and Bungo waited for her to return.
"There are many historical reasons," Bungo said thoughtfully, leafing through his notes. "The one I believe to be the most accurate is that originally the Underhills were servants of the Dúnedain kings – their secret servants. Hobbits served occasionally in the armies commanded by the Dúnedain, after all. We are keen of eye and make good archers – your mother and all like her attest to that. And we have many useful qualities besides, qualities the other races do not possess. We are small, quiet, and easily overlooked. We can move unseen very easily. We make good thieves and spies and… well. Assassins."
Bungo glanced at him and smiled. "The last days of the Dúnedain kingdoms weren't kind for anyone," he said. "The war against the Witch King of Angmar was… hard and desperate. Every talent on the battlefield, however unseemly, was used – every skill utilised. I imagine at some point someone looked on as a hobbit made his way through a battlefield in ways a man cannot, and saw an opportunity. Perhaps that very night, a hobbit was sent into the night with a bow and a pouch of poisons, to sneak into the enemy camp."
"It doesn't seem like a very honourable thing to do, does it?" Bilbo asked thoughtfully.
"Honourable? No, not as men, or elves, or dwarves see it. Honour in battle is, I think, a very hollow thing," Bungo said, tucking his son against his side. "It is the sort of thing that gets you and your allies easily killed, that spills blood, and makes widows and widowers and orphans. We hobbits are not an honourable breed of people. We are a pragmatic one. And that is why we have the Underhills – rather than armies."
"Hm. But why must they remain secret?" Bilbo asked.
"Because, my boy," Bungo chuckled, "Other races are honourable. Of all the recordings and tales and songs written during the wars where I believe Underhills first made their mark, not one of them mentions inexplicable deaths in the night. It is unseemly to them, the victories made by poisoning cooking pots and sticking knives into sleeping enemies. It is dishonourable, whatever that is supposed to mean. It is not the sort of thing people like to hear happening – it lacks the sense of… equality most big people expect of battle."
The older hobbit chuckled and ruffled his son's hair. "We hobbits have a reputation for being peaceful and homely and perhaps somewhat simple. We are not quarrelsome, as a whole. And that is how we ought to remain for the world to see. Besides," he chuckled. "Can you imagine the hullabaloo that would rise, should our gossip loving neighbours find out what your mother can do, the things she's done?"
Bilbo shuddered at the thought.
"Hobbits like things simple. They prefer to think that the world outside the Shire does not exist, most of the time," Bungo continued, amused. "And I think, should they get the choice, they would always choose not to know what it takes to keep what is outside the Shire outside. So, your mother works in secrecy. As will you, one day."
"When?" Bilbo asked, both eager and uneasy. Belladonna did not go out every day or every night but she did go out often, and sometimes she came back looking tired and worn. Bilbo wanted to help her, to put his skills to use. He was into his tweens now, almost twenty one, and well into his swordsmanship training – while he could not beat his mother in single combat, he was sure he could beat anyone not expecting him to know how to fight. Which, outside Bag End, was everyone.
Bungo looked at him levelly for a moment. "In time," he said gravely, and took Bilbo's left hand in his. He looked at his son's fingers, callused from bow and knives and practice swords.
With a smile, Bungo kissed Bilbo's fourth finger gently.
Yeah, Assassin!Bilbo story and I ain't even ashamed.
This will be au, people - like, some facts will go wrong, some people will die before they ought to - and some won't - and so on. Some of it will be intentional, some will be because I didn't do my research. Lot of it will be because I didn't do my research, actually. Sorry.
"It will be a cold winter, young Master Baggins," old man Gamgee warned Bilbo, who was readying the garden for the snowy months. "A very cold winter."
Bilbo didn't think much of it, at the time – but he did take care to cover the plants that would remain outside, to make sure that should there be much snow they wouldn't be crushed, and when stocking firewood, he carried a few extra armfuls inside and to the storage room. That was about all the preparation anyone did for that fall, expecting the winter to be no different from the others they had had in the Shire.
It grew cold fast that fall and the autumn leaves had barely managed to turn from green to gold and orange before they froze on the branches, to hang there helplessly all winter. Many a field froze before it was properly set ready for the upcoming spring, and then couldn't be turned in preparation. Many a garden got frost bitten before the winter preparations were even began. Then it started to snow early that November – a good four weeks ahead of its usual time.
"That's an unusually good bit of snow for this early," Bungo murmured, as they watched as the snow piled on the garden and the fence and the wall, and how it toppled over. "Bilbo, my lad, could you shovel the front again? I'll take care of the back entrances."
"Yes, Dad," Bilbo murmured, knowing by his father's uneasy expression not to argue despite the fact that they'd shovelled the snow off earlier that very day. He picked one of the two shovels – the heavier one, he having a much easier time wielding it than his father – and then stepped out front, to clear the path. As he did, he idly wondered how great the sledding would be that year, with this much snow. It was a rather overly optimistic thought.
At first people didn't think much of the early snow. "Oh, it's one of those excitable winters, starting early. It'll melt right off when it warms up, and then we'll have a proper winter come December," they said, nodding knowingly. Only that year the first snow didn't melt, no. It kept on snowing and it piled and beneath it the earth froze solid. It snowed all through November nearly constantly – and when all it took was a day to cover Hobbiton in a thick blanket of snow, the piles grew very heavy, very fast.
"Well, one good thing's come of this," Belladonna commented. "Not so many unseemly travellers on the road and in the forests, right now. Everyone's waiting for clearer weathers, I expect." It was the first time in many a year that she hadn't gone out in weeks, her services not required.
"There are records of unusually early winters," Bungo said to her, frowning. "And I don't much like the look of this one."
"Well, it's not so cold yet," Belladonna murmured, but she was frowning too.
November ended in an atmosphere of odd and oblivious resistance. People still went out doing their business as usual, just with more coats and gloves and hats. They still visited, many a hobbit gracing the Bag End table with their presence and gossip. It looked, for a while, as if things were normal, only with more snow than usual. Everyone complained, sure, but with the air of exasperation, rather than concern.
"I cannot wait for it to ease off," they'd said, as if it was a sure thing that it would. "Come December, you'll see. It'll ease off."
Then December came and yes, the snowing did ease. But with December came the cold. The snowing stopped, the sky cleared, and what had been an already particularly chilly winter turned utterly frosty, with the sun hanging low and pale and cold in the clear sky. It took no longer than a day before the hobbits of Hobbiton found they preferred to stick to their homely holes and avoid frostbite – and when a hobbit complained of cold toes, it was indeed very cold outside.
And again it had the air of exasperation and waiting to it. The few who did venture outside – those who had not made their stores quite as big as they ought to and who had to head to the market to see if they could buy themselves a bit of cheese – always grumbled about how these frosty days ought to pass already. Yet, some were starting to see the strangeness of the winter – those who would not trade flour or a bit of butter for a trinket and who would not, under any circumstances, part with any of their cold stored vegetables or cheese.
Bungo did, for a while, give away a few potatoes and such – but as the cold continued, he too closed the doors of the Bag End pantry and stores. He regretfully informed any and all neighbours who braved the cold in search for a bit of sugar or perhaps a bit of dried fruits, that they had none to spare.
Half way through December, the Hobbiton merchants began turning away customers.
Around that same time, Belladonna started being called out more often. First by the usual messenger birds that landed on her windowsills with urgent messages tied to their talons. But then, when it grew too cold for the birds to easily fly, the Bounders came knocking on their door, carrying letters.
"A band of goblins," they'd say, looking confused as to why they were informing a gentlehobbit family of such things. "Seen no less than twenty miles off – in the Bindbole Woods."
"Thank you," Belladonna would say, taking the message and sending them on their way. That night she donned a heavier cloak and gloves and after a moment of thought asked Bilbo to coat her arrows in the deadly sort of poison. "Out there, the poisons might freeze. Better be ready," she murmured and glanced at him. "Coat them all."
Bilbo did the work as ordered, while Bungo watched on worriedly. "Will the cold bother you, love?" he asked worriedly.
"It will," Belladonna sighed, considering her feet – hardy and calloused even by a hobbit's standard, with a thickening patch of hair on top. "Perhaps… perhaps socks wouldn't go amiss."
Bilbo frowned but Bungo only nodded and fetched a pair of leather socks, supple and soft with a separate section for the big toe, which Belladonna donned with a sigh. She wiggled her fingers and did not look too pleased, but she wore them without complaint. "Such are the times, my lad," she said to Bilbo's uneasy look. "Even a hobbit's toes can the frost bite off. And we Underhills must protect them, should we wish to remain stealthy."
"Can't I go with you?" Bilbo asked worriedly – because she'd asked him to coat all her arrows, and she was coating her knives as well, she was even taking a few darts with her. That could only mean that the band of goblins was bigger than she'd like.
She smiled and patted his cheek, and went off alone. It was early in the morning when she came back, tired and cold and with a bloodstain on her sleeve. Bungo mothered her in the living room, washing her feet tenderly in hot water, while Bilbo demanded details. And, for the first time in a while, she gave them without any warnings or cautionary comments beforehand.
"Fourteen of them," she murmured, staring at the fire. "A rag tag bunch and badly prepared for forest fighting, but they had a command structure, a big old goblin in the lead. They meant to head down to Hobbiton, and raid the smials."
"For food?" Bungo asked worriedly.
"And anything else they could find," Belladonna murmured, nursing a cup of steaming tea with a frown. Then she looked up at Bilbo. "My lad," she said. "I need you to make me more arrows. I'll be heading off again, next night."
"There were others, then?" Bungo asked worriedly.
"There will be."
Bilbo fletched arrows all that day while Belladonna slept. He even readied the poisons in preparation for their coating. Belladonna took them all with her when she went, coating her knives anew, and again she took darts also. Bilbo and Bungo watched after her worriedly as she headed off into the icy night and shared a look of concern.
It was only the start – she headed off every night from then on, with or without orders to do so. And yet, less than a week later, they got word of it. A hunter's hut on the southern edge of the Bindbole Woods, ransacked – and the hunter who'd taken to weathering the winter there, dead.
"That's not the worst of it," Belladonna said over the fire, where they warmed their feet and hands and tried to keep the chill at bay. "In the North Farthing there have been many attacks. People who've ventured outside for whatever reason go missing. The smials further north…" she shook her head. "There's an Underhill family in Oatbarton – father, mother, two sons, and a daughter, all of them Underhills. The father's dead, one of the sons has lost an arm, and the rest aren't enough to quell the tide. There are goblins coming south, many of them, and there are whispers of others. Fell things, coming from the north."
"If the winter is bad here, it must be worse there," Bungo murmured.
"Yes," Belladonna murmured with a sigh and then looked up. "How are our stores?"
"We can yet manage," Bungo promised, squeezing her hand.
"Good, that's good," Belladonna murmured.
But there was worry in Bungo's eyes and neither Belladonna nor Bilbo was blind to it. They'd all expected for the markets to stay open at least until Yule, and the roads to stay clear at least as long – and they'd all closed, long before. The meals in Bag End had been getting leaner already; Bungo was already introducing rationing to their dinner table. It did not bode well.
A week later, the wolves came down from the Bindbole Woods, and attacked a family making its way from Hobbiton to Michel Delving where they'd hoped to find more food after their own stores ran dry. Belladonna read the missive delivered by yet another confused looking Bounder before looking up.
"Bilbo," she said quietly. "Go get your gear. You're coming with me tonight."
Bilbo was twenty one. Young by the standards of any occupation, never mind that of an Underhill. He knew that and for all that he'd been eagerly waiting for the time to join his mother in the field, he'd always known he had more years to go yet, before he grew skilled enough. He knew that. His father knew that. His mother most of all knew it.
Not one of them said much, while Bilbo started putting his things together, donning the knife belt to hold his throwing knives, adding a number of poisoned darts to it. While he was readying his bow and quiver, his mother came forth with a sword in a scabbard – a slender blade, somewhat thick at the base, near the rings of the hilt that arched over the hilt in a knucklebow. The double edged blade tapered towards the tip, though, forming a needle like point like that of a rapier. It was made to fit a hobbit's hand and height – for a man it would've been nothing but a large dagger.
"I bought it a couple of years ago, once I could judge how tall you would get. It was meant to be a gift, for when you were initiated. Do you know what they call this sort of rapier?" Belladonna asked, with an amused tilt to her lips.
"It's a bilbo," her son smiled, taking the sword by the scabbard and then fitting his right hand around the hilt, slowly drawing the slender, sharp blade.
"That it is," Belladonna smiled.
She herself used a rapier not much different. An Underhill swordsmanship wasn't fencing nor was it meant to be the sort that engaged another swordsman. No, theirs was the style of quick stabs and slashes, intended for quick kills – an Underhill always stabbed in the back if they could, and if not then they aimed for the unprotected areas between armoured plates. And for that they needed quick and slender blades, designed for thrusting rather than swinging.
But seeing that most other races preferred heavier weapons – falchions, scimitars and such by the goblins, broad swords and long swords with the men – a pure rapier was not ideal, being too slender and easily broken by a heavier sword. Should an Underhill be caught in the act, a normal rapier was a very flimsy defence. So they needed something with enough sharpness for a perfect, cutting thrust – but enough strength at the base to take the brunt of another blade. And so the bilbo sword had become the preferred weapon of an Underhill.
"By luck I was named after the most common poison in an Underhill's arsenal," Belladonna said with a chuckle. "So I thought to continue the tradition with you."
Bilbo smiled, and strapped his namesake to his waist.
Bungo watched them from the doorway of the secret room where they kept their Underhill gear. There was a look of bittersweet pride and concern on his face. "Take care," he said with a quiver in his voice. "Just… take care."
"We will, my love," Belladonna murmured and kissed him. Bilbo hugged his father tightly and then, wearing the same accursed leather socks his mother donned to fight the frost, followed Belladonna out the secret back door and into the frozen woods.
Belladonna sniffed the air and then pulled her coat's hood up and down over her face. "Come," she said. "Let's hunt."
Bilbo pulled his hood up as well and with a bow in hand and fingers itching to draw a handful of arrows, he followed his mother into the snowy woods.
They'd practiced this all his life. Silent running was as natural to the both of them as breathing was to others. Bilbo was used to following his mother's lead too – it had been a part of their games when he had been a child, and training when he'd gotten older for it. Hunting and tracking they'd done plenty – trailing after the animals of the nearby forests for practice. All of it was familiar – except, perhaps, for the snow, but they'd done winter training too.
But this time, it was real, and so Bilbo's heart pounded with excitement he'd rarely felt during training – excitement and fear.
They found a camp no more than four miles north of Hobbiton, where four goblins were tearing into the leg of a lamb no doubt plundered from one of the nearby farms. Unseen in the snowy bank, he and his mother examined the camp before them with hand signs communicating that they ought to check the area, to make sure the four were all that there was. They circled around the camp in scissoring motions before gathering behind a snowy bank, out of sight.
"Ready?" Belladonna asked with a shift in hand sign, her eyes never leaving the fur coated goblins that were examining their plunder as they ate, celebrating their good fortune.
Bilbo breathed in and out and nodded.
They readied their arrows, took aim and both send no less than four arrows into the air near simultaneously. The wait as the arrows arched over the dark air and toward the goblins was the tensest moment Bilbo had ever experienced – but his mother had taught him well, and his own practice proved worth the years it had taken. Each arrow found its mark – each goblin died with two arrows in him.
It was a strange feeling, his first kill. It didn't settle as easily as he had thought it would. Belladonna gave him a moment to adjust to it while she swiftly collected the arrows, and yet he didn't. He was not yet an initiated Underhill, no, but he was closer to his future life as the Shire's silent blade, than he'd been before letting those arrows fly. It was a surprisingly uneasy feeling, even after all the preparation, to take a life.
But this was not the time to either mourn or celebrate what he'd done. There was work to be done.
"Now what?" Bilbo asked quietly, as they coated the arrows again, and let them rejoin their fellows in their quivers.
"We continue on," Belladonna answered. "To where the attack happened."
It was the wolves they were looking for – they were the reason why Belladonna had felt that Bilbo would be needed. Unlike goblins that stopped and celebrated and boasted their plunder, the wolves would not stop, they would not still – and therefore they'd be harder to kill. One Underhill could do it, but only with difficulty. Two would have an easier time of it.
On their way to the attack site, they found another, slightly larger camp of goblins – and they neutralised it as well, collecting their arrows silently and moving on.
"It'll be hell in the summer, when the bodies will be discovered," Belladonna murmured while recoating her arrows. "Most of the time there are so few that they're easily hidden, but this many… the countryside will be littered with dead goblins, come spring."
"People will think that they were killed by the winter and by starvation," Bilbo commented.
"Yes. But it will still be hell," Belladonna said, and moved on.
They came upon the scene where the hobbit family had been attacked and killed so late in the night that it was starting to be early instead. The snow was still bloody and disturbed in the stillness of the late night, and looking at the scraps of torn clothes and forsaken bundles of precious possessions, Bilbo felt uneasy, even ill. He'd been raised to death, to murder, to slaughter. But to know that the blood, the bits of torn flesh on the snow, were of hobbits…
"This, my lad, is why we exist. To prevent this," Belladonna said grimly, as she examined the tracks. She breathed in and out and scowled. "At least a dozen wolves," she estimated. "Maybe more. Enough that they… ate here and left nothing behind. Not even bones."
Bilbo swallowed and then steeled himself. "Where to, then?" he asked, shifting his fingers on the bow grip, to keep it warm and flexible.
They headed north, into the woods, Bilbo following his mother silently as they tracked the wolves into the Bindbole Woods – which was where most of their wintertime guests spent their days.
"Fell things detest the light, goblins and these unnatural wolves both," Belladonna said grimly. "In wintertime the light is dim and does not hurt them as much, but they still prefer the shadow. It is growing light now, so they will be looking for shelter. We must find them before they find a place to hide."
So they moved fast, following the tracks while keeping a keen eye and ear on their surroundings, to make sure that the hunter would not become the hunted. The cold was biting at them every step, turning their cheeks red and sore, and nibbling at their toes even through the leather socks they wore. By the time they reached the Bindbole Woods, Bilbo's fingers were numbing and his toes stung – and that was when his mother ushered him into the trees.
"We're getting closer, and the wolves are not something we wish to meet on equal grounds," she said, and so they climbed high and then began making their way through the woods on the thin branches, jumping and climbing and swinging from tree to tree. With every precarious leap from branch to branch, Bilbo silently thanked his mother for all those games they'd played through his life, without which this would've been much harder.
And there they were – huge, colossal beasts, the Fell wolves that roamed the mountains and hills of the northern lands. They were even bigger than Bilbo had assumed, bigger than bears, and uglier too. Not at all like the natural wolves of the Downs. These wolves were heavy at the shoulders and their faces were short, and they lacked all the grace of natural wolves – instead they were heavy and clumsy and too large to be real. All too monstrous to be in any way natural.
Belladonna had misjudged – there was not a dozen of them, but more, twenty at least. They were fighting over the carcass of some poor deer they had caught in the forest, snapping and snarling at each other, while the two hobbits snuck closer on the tree branches.
"We haven't much time. They might sense us," Belladonna gestured. "I will take the ones left of this tree. You take the right ones. We must be quick, Bilbo."
With that conveyed, she took five arrows from her quiver, quietly setting one of them on the arrow rest and aiming. Bilbo quickly did the same, taking four arrows, his current maximum, all the while easing the quiver front so that he could as quickly as possible draw more. They'd both have to do it, the one thing an Underhill should not, and it made him uneasy to know that it was unavoidable.
Once this winter is over, he swore he'd train to hold more arrows, much more, as many as he could. Maybe he'd even try and master the method of holding arrows in both hands, left and right, so that once he was through the ones in his drawing arm, he could quickly replenish without reaching for the quiver. Four… were not enough.
He took aim, marked his targets and glanced at his mother. Belladonna nodded and they fired.
His first arrow caught the nearest warg on the neck, the second met its target on the chest, the third caught a flank – the fourth missed. Bilbo didn't take the time to check how his mother was doing, but quickly grabbed another handful of arrows, even as the wargs snapped to attention, seeking the enemy, finding them in the tree. A split second later, the nearest was already at the tree’s root, snarling and barking up, pushing and pounding at the tree, trying to tip it over.
Bilbo shot it in the eye, and then another wolf was there, climbing over its dead fellow, jumping up, jaws snapping terrifyingly close to the branch where Bilbo sat. Bilbo caught it in the throat and aimed as it fell at another and then another, bringing the number of wargs he'd killed from three to seven. He took another bunch of arrows and aimed, but there was nothing to shoot at, the wolf he'd missed had run off.
He could hear it in the distance, howling.
"Bollocks!" Belladonna cursed. "It'll call its fellows here! And goblins beside!"
"I'm sorry, Mum, I missed," Bilbo gasped.
"Never mind that now. Move, boy, move! We must put distance between this place, and those who will come investigate!"
They hoisted their bows on their back and then dashed off the tree they'd sat in, jumping from branch to branch, skipping over branches as fast as they could, swinging by tree trunks. They'd made a good way away, but the one wolf Bilbo had missed was on their heels – for a while. It went down with one of Belladonna's throwing knives in its snout, and she cursed deep and heavily after throwing it – because she could not fetch it.
They managed to clear the area, and hid on the branches of an old oak as in the distance other wolves howled. They could also hear the shouting of goblins, the clang and bang of their shields and swords.
"Did we get away?" Bilbo whispered, nervous.
Belladonna listened for a tense moment, eyes shut. "Yes," she murmured quietly, glancing at him and frowning. "How many arrows do you have? And knives and darts?"
He had nineteen arrows left, four knives and a dozen darts. "We will need to go through my spares, fill your arsenal a bit," Belladonna said. "But for now it will have to do. Come," she said, and turned – to where they'd come from.
"Mum?" Bilbo asked, confused. They'd just gotten away, and now she was heading back?
She gave him a look. "We came here to do a job, Bilbo. We're not leaving it half finished," she said and then smiled. "It's quite the commotion there. If we cannot get at our prey at night when they sleep, then we go at them when they're distracted. And these ones are very distracted. Let's cull their troops a bit."
Bilbo swallowed, and followed.
It turned out that it was not an unusual tactic for her – to cause a fuss, run away, and then return when her prey thought her gone. It was, terrifyingly enough, a somewhat effective tactic too. While her pursuers dashed every which way trying to find her, she picked them off one by one, whittling them down until none remained.
"I guess this is why we're the only Underhills in Hobbiton?" Bilbo asked, shocked.
They managed to collect their arrows and knives mostly, while his mother explained why the tactics they used were so effective. "Simple fact of the matter is, no one ever expects it," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "No one expects these sorts of tactics in battle, least of all goblins, who are used to fighting enemies such as elves and men. And elves and men, well. Even when fighting goblins, they do not shoot in the back and they tend to announce themselves by battle cries and such. And, of course, no one expects to find a fight in the Shire."
She smiled. "And in lands where it is known that there are no elves about, people simply stop expecting arrows to rain from above in any case. Goblins simply do not bother to look up here. And so they are fairly easy pickings for us. And that is how we like to keep it," Belladonna said. "So when we go out to kill, we kill all. We do not leave anyone behind to tell the tale. We collect our arrows and our knives and our darts and erase the evidence. We let our prey simply… disappear. And let the lands outside ours spread the rumours of spirits and ancient magics, of mythical, dangerous forests with ensnaring trees and monstrous animals."
"That's what they think?" Bilbo asked with surprise.
She chuckled. "Outside the Shire, most people believe that all our forests are like the OldForest past Buckland," she said. "It's quite handy, for us."
When they returned to Bag End, they were tired and worn but satisfied. Bilbo's arm and fingers were burning with the use of the bow – he'd gone without for a while, since the winter had come, and the lack of use was now rearing its head in the most unpleasant way. So it was a delight to find that Bungo had readied hot water and food for their return, and with relief he ushered them to the table to eat, and then by the fireplace, to warm up.
"How did it go?" he asked, while washing their feet and salving Bilbo's newly blistering fingers.
"Not badly at all," Belladonna said, smiling tiredly at Bilbo. "I think I shall bring him with me more often. The BindboleForest is getting… very crowded."
There was sadness in her eyes too, and it was mirrored in Bungo's eyes. They both had wished to wait before Bilbo would have to kill. And now, in the peace and protection of Bag End, Bilbo rather wished he could've too.
His hands were shaking. It was such an easy thing, to draw an arrow and let it fly. Such an easy thing, to shoot so many of them. How many had he killed, that night? Several goblins and wolves both. And yes, they were only goblins and wargs, only Fell things, unnatural and corrupted and truly, so much better off dead. And by killing them, he'd assured they could not kill or raid hobbits or their lands. And yet…
Belladonna took his shaking hands and lifted them up, kissing his palms. "You did well, Bilbo," she assured him. "You did very well. That family, whose death we avenged tonight, will not be finding company on the other side of life, not by the doing of those hands that took their lives. And it's thanks to you."
Bilbo swallowed and nodded, lowering his eyes. He'd killed. He'd protected the Shire and Hobbiton. He'd done his duty.
"Once this winter is over, I will see you properly initiated," Belladonna added, squeezing his hands. "And recognized for what you are. A true Underhill of the Shire."
"Thank you," Bilbo murmured. "I'll… I'll do my best from here on out. I won't miss again."
She smiled and hugged him – and Bungo hugged them both with all the desperation of one who had to wait at home.
By the time the year changed, Bilbo had lost count of his kills and stopped bothering to count altogether. He and his mother went out almost every night. Many a Bounder had died, either to the cold or the hunger or to the goblins and wolves, and the Shirriffs were nowhere near skilled enough to truly defend Hobbiton. So the Underhills of the Baggins family did their part in not only neutralising the danger, but patrolling the area. On some nights they saw no one, and fired no arrow. Those were the rare nights.
Then January came and what had been an already terribly cold winter grew only worse. Travel became not merely difficult and dangerous, but impossible. The hobbits of Hobbiton were all but imprisoned in their smials and holes, burning through the last of their firewood and coal in order to fight the cold. Dwindling food supplies wore ever thinner.
The only good thing that came with January was the fact that as the weather grew worse, it did not only grow worse for the hobbits, but for the goblins as well. They grew fewer and eventually stopped coming almost entirely. The wolves too became warier of the cold and if they found a warm hole to hide in, they stayed in it on the colder days, of which there were many.
Even in Bag End stores were running low. The Baggins family moved their beddings and blankets into the kitchen, and stopped heating the sitting room and the other rooms almost entirely in order to preserve firewood – instead, they slept by the oven, which took less wood and still kept them warm. Firewood wasn't the only thing they were running low on, however.
"I will eat smaller meals," Bungo said as they examined the icy cold pantry. "You two need your energy. I can do with less, seeing that I don't exercise as much."
Belladonna looked as if she would like to argue, but she couldn't. He was right – and what else could they do? There was no game in the woods anymore, the goblins and wargs had killed all that there was to be killed. And no one else had any more than they did – everyone's stores were running out.
"A couple more months, three at most, and we'll be through this," Bungo said comfortingly, hugging his wife and son. "We can make it."
Their meals were very lean though. They were long since out of meat and there was not much of the other things left, not enough for anything near like a full meal, never mind the sort of feasts they had enjoyed in the summer. Had any visitors arrived, they wouldn't have much to spare for hospitality – which is just as well that travel was near impossible.
But they were already in January, and day by day they were closer to spring. Days were slowly getting longer and lighter, and so there were fewer Fell things creeping in the frozen woods. That gave them hope, them and their neighbours and the few rare hobbits they sometimes saw out and about when it was not quite so cruelly cold. They were almost through.
They were almost through.
And then, weakened by the lack of proper meals and long period of near inactivity indoors, Bungo grew ill.
Yeah, this is very much a pre-quest fic. Gandalf and Thorin and the others? Pretty much no-show until the veeeeery end, if even then. Sorry.
Some minor casual Bilbo x OC(s) in this chapter.
Bilbo prepared the meal slowly. It was simple and crude and lacked much taste – mere porridge and a piece of dry bread, no cheese, no butter, and no sugar. Maybe if he had some spices, something to improve the taste, maybe then… but there was not much left now.
With a sigh, he set the bowl and cup of water onto a tray and then carried it to the corner of the kitchen where Belladonna sat, huddled. "Mum," he said, crouching down beside her. "Please. Please eat something."
She didn't react in any way, merely kept on staring at nothing – staring at where Bungo's mattress had lain, a week or so ago before Bilbo had carried it out of the kitchen, out of sight so that it would stop reminding them. Only it had not worked for her, and now she wouldn't eat. Wouldn't react.
"Mum please," he begged. "Just a few bites. The taste isn't much, but it's warm and it is filling, please, please just a few bites."
Nothing. The porridge grew cold as he begged her to eat, to react, to do something. He even tried taking some of it in a spoon and feeding her, but she would not open her mouth, would not part her lips, not even when he tried to use force. It was like she was made of stone. She would not move.
Eventually Bilbo gave up – like he had all the other previous meal times that last few days. Sighing, he sat beside her, and took the bowl in hand, to eat it himself. The situation was not so good that he could throw food away, after all. It hurt him somewhere deep to eat the food that he'd made for her – the food that would've kept her alive, if only she would've eaten it. But she wouldn't.
Life had fled Belladonna Baggins, in pursuit of her lost husband – and her body was only playing catch up now, withering slowly away.
"Dad once said that we hobbits have elven blood in us," he commented to her, as he slowly emptied the bowl of cold porridge. "Some, not much – enough for a life longer than that of a man. In some of us it supposedly presents itself stronger. Fallowhides were closest to the elven descent, that's what Dad thought. So some of us, from that side, inherit some of the traits."
She said nothing and he sighed. "Elves sometimes fade away when their beloved do," he murmured, glancing at her. "They love so strongly that they give away part of their soul. And when their beloved dies that part of them dies too, and they cannot live without it. I wonder… if that's what’s happening to you."
He knew he would lose her, the way he'd lost his father. It was obvious and though it hurt so much to witness it, he'd almost made his peace with it. The waiting was the worst of it. It had been bad with his father, as he'd withered away in fever and delirium, coughing his last breath out until there was no air to cough, and it was bad with her. But he'd almost accepted it now. It hurt, hurt to know that he wasn't enough, that she wouldn't stay for him, but… he'd accepted it.
The Fell Winter was claiming lives left and right.
He looked up as a knock rattled against the kitchen window, and swiftly stood. It was a messenger bird, which could again fly as February had given into March and the air had stopped being so crushingly cold. With a nod of thanks, Bilbo unwound the message and sent the bird back to its home, opening the missive quickly.
Tracks of goblins had been seen in the fields east of Hobbiton, the Bounders suspected at least a dozen.
"Time to get to work, then," He murmured and closed the window. He spent a moment stoking the fire into a brighter burn, and then wrapped his mother in a couple of blankets just to be sure she wouldn't freeze if the fire burned low – she wouldn't relight it, after all. Then, once he was sure he'd done all he could for her, he left the kitchen and headed to the hidden room, where their Underhill gear waited, ready for action.
With her out of action, his gear had doubled, near tripled – he carried all the arrows his quiver could carry, almost forty now. He'd started taking her knife belt with him as well as his own, which brought his throwing knives up to fifteen. He had more than a dozen throwing darts. Easily more than enough for any Underhill. One thing he didn't take was her sword, or her bracer. Those, he knew, were not his to touch. Not yet.
Silently he packed his gear, donned his snow socks and then pulled on his mother's winter coat, tucking the hood up and down over his face. Then he headed out, to alone perform the duty she no longer had the spirit to carry out.
When he came back, with thirteen new deaths to his account, life had finally escaped Belladonna Baggins.
Bungo and Belladonna lay in the cold cellar, wrapped in blankets, through the rest of the winter, and Bilbo kept on performing his mother's duties as the Underhill of Hobbiton. It wasn't until the snows began to melt and people started to travel, that he hung the mourning colours and send word to Tuckborough and to the Thain.
"My condolences, lad," the old man Gamgee said, when met while Bilbo was clearing the garden of the melting snow, and Gamgee was heading out. "They were good people, both of them. We'll all be less for the lack of them."
Bilbo nodded and mustered up a smile. "Some have lost more," he said. "And I lived, myself. That's something."
"Aye, it is," Gamgee nodded with a sigh and peered at the still snow covered Hobbiton. "It's been an accursed winter all around. And spring will be bad too – it will take time for the frost to thaw and then there will be floods. It will be a while before things are back to normal." Then he glanced at Bilbo. "Have you enough to manage? I hear they've arranged food to be delivered from the south."
It was too little, too late. Bilbo shook his head. "I can manage now," he said grimly. With only one mouth to feed now, Bag End’s stores would hold. It wouldn't be fulfilling, his meals had all been more or less degraded to bland porridge and water with only a few vegetables left to bolster the meals. But he'd live. "Let them share the food for those with greater need. Our… my pantry will hold, until summer."
The old man Gamgee looked at him sympathetically. "Let me know if you need any help with your garden once it melts, lad," he said. "My door's always open for you."
"Thank you," Bilbo nodded.
He made the arrangements for Bungo's and Belladonna's funerals later that week, what arrangements could be made at the time. It was still too snowy and cold to open the ground properly, but once it thawed, the funeral would be held properly. "Have you a place to keep the departed?" the priest asked kindly. "I would welcome them to rest here for a while, only our morgue is all full."
And it was, to the point of overflowing. Bungo was not the only hobbit to die of hunger and Belladonna not the only one to wither away the way she had. On top of that, there were those that had been claimed by the cold or by bad food – and many more that had been taken by the goblins and wargs.
"I have them in the cold cellar," Bilbo answered. "They can rest there a while longer."
A few days later, a message came from the Thain, with his commiseration and condolences. Gerontius Took plead his leave from the funeral – Tuckborough would be busy with near two hundred of them, come thaw – but he assured he was sending someone in his stead, to stand in for Belladonna's family. The Bagginses said pretty much the same, aside from those who lived in Hobbiton. Too many had died in too many places.
A week later old Master Longbottom, his mother's teacher, knocked on Bad End’s door. He was a very old hobbit in his nineties now, with a shock of white curls on his head and with his posture drawn crooked with time – but there was a sharpness to his eyes, a keenness there that age had yet to touch.
"I'm send by the Thain," he said and nodded his head. "Mungo Longbottom, at your service, lad."
"Bilbo Baggins, at yours," Bilbo said, and they shook, the old hobbit's hand gnarly and thin but strong. "I'm sorry, I don't have much to offer in the way of hospitality, but… please, come in."
"Never you mind that, lad. I brought my own food with me, so I wouldn't tax your stores," Longbottom said as he came inside, casting a glance around the cold entrance hall. "Have you no fire here?"
"Only in the kitchen, I'm afraid. Firewood is rather scarce right now, and no one likes to brave the woods and the goblins, to cut some down, not yet anyway," Bilbo said and showed the old hobbit into the warmth of the kitchen, offering him a seat. "I don't have food to offer, but I can fix you a cup of tea. It'll be thin, I'm afraid, but you can still call it tea," he offered.
"That'd be kind of you, lad, thank you," the old Longbottom said, and accepted the weak imitation of proper tea with good grace. "So, she didn't pass in a fight, this much I know," he finally said. "Not my student, not in her life."
"No. She faded, after illness took my Dad," Bilbo sighed, and quickly summarised how they'd passed away. "Later I figured out that Dad had been going skipping more than meals, that often he'd pretended to eat when he instead was putting food aside – for us," he said. "The stores were lower than we knew, but he wouldn't tell, probably to try and keep our good spirits up. And he must've felt that… our service to Hobbiton was more important, than his strength."
"And it was too, during the winter," the old hobbit said, but not harshly. "The Underhill family in Oatbarton all perished before December was over, and we've yet to hear a proper word of what happened further north, or in Dwaling. We know there are still our people in Needlehole and Nobottle, but almost all the Bounders in Northfarthing passed away early on, and with them our eyes and ears. In the end, only you and the three Underhills that live in Brockenbores stood in the way of the goblins and Three Farthing Stone and all that's below."
The old hobbit sighed. "The Underhills of Oatbarton are a hell of a thing to lose," he added grimly. "They were the strongest family of Underhills we had, biggest too – five of them! They and the family in Needlehole have been our greatest defence against the north. We'll have to find a new family to replace them, and quickly too. Who knows what next winter will be like."
Bilbo nodded quietly, eyeing his tea. "What about me?" he asked. "It's a selfish thing to ask, but…"
"You've been working with your mother this winter, yes? And you took over her duties after she grew incapable," the old hobbit said thoughtfully. "I'll need to have a look at how you do in the field, but I think it goes without saying that I came here to properly initiate you. You're very young but you've been trained from birth and that goes a long way. And we don't have the luxury of being picky, not right now."
Master Longbottom eyed him thoughtfully. "Have you tried your mother's bracer on? We don't have a smithy at hand to fix a new one."
"I'm… fine using hers, even if the fit is not perfect. But no, I haven't tried it," Bilbo admitted. "I didn't… it's still on her arm."
The old hobbit nodded and stood. "I'll fetch it then. Where is she?"
The bracer of an Underhill was a strange thing. They made them still as they had, for as long as there had been Underhills in the Shire – the design was still true to the old Dúnedain designs, everything from the decorative carvings to the design of the buckles. Belladonna's bracer was brass and leather, with the design of the Underhill along the length of the long plate – a tree on a mound, done in red and black.
Master Longbottom fitted it with easy, experienced movements around Bilbo's left arm. "Hold out your fingers straight," he said and then, with a clever press of his finger, triggered the blade. It snapped out with a sharp snick, from the base of Bilbo's wrist and past his palm and fingers, little less than inch past the outermost fingertip.
Bilbo had seen it before on his mother's arm – usually in action. It was a final resort weapon for an Underhill these days, but an extremely effective one – once he'd seen Belladonna leap down from a tree to the shoulders of a goblin, this very blade out, sinking it with all the weight of her body into the goblin's neck. It had been a beautiful instant kill.
Most Underhills rarely if ever used it – bows and throwing knives and darts were preferred and after them swords. However, the bracer and the hidden blade were the only weapon an Underhill always carried with them wherever they went. A hobbit could not carry a bow and quiver or a sword openly without alarm after all, but the bracer could easily be hidden in a sleeve. So they had become the symbol of an Underhill – it, and its side effect.
It was something to see it on his own arm.
"Do you know how the mechanism works?" Master Longbottom asked, while releasing the small winch and winding it down, making the blade slowly retract back into the bracer.
"There is a release you press with your middle finger, to release the spring, that pushes the blade out and into the groove where it stays steady, so that the blade may be used without fear of it retracting under pressure," Bilbo recited from memory.
"Yes. The problem with that is the fact that your fourth finger tends to get in the way of the blade," Master Longbottom said, and went to take the bracer off. "And you know what that means."
Bilbo nodded. That was the initiation of an Underhill – and that was how Underhills knew each other. By the missing fourth finger. "I wished that once I would be initiated… that Mum would be the one to do it," he murmured, once the bracer was off, and rubbed the finger that he'd soon lose.
"She wished the same. But such is life, we don't always get a choice in these matters," Master Longbottom said and patted his shoulder before examining the bracer. "It's a little short on you, but the fit is about right. Do you know how to do the maintenance? Let's go over it just in case. This is not a weapon you want to neglect, after all."
Later that day, Bilbo took his mother's Master out through the hidden back entrance, and together they headed past Overhill to the Bindbole Woods. There were no goblin or warg sightings that night – nor had there been in a week or so. The weather was turning wet and miserable, and the melting snow was too difficult to traverse for even the Fell things to bother with.
"They're retreating back north anyway. The days are too long now for their liking," Master Longbottom said. "But there will be others this summer. People further south will look to us, they will see us weakened, and they will seek to take advantage of it."
The testing began very familiarly – with Bilbo on the tree branches. While Master Longbottom aimed rocks and pebbles at him, he ducked and weaved, swung and spun on the branches to avoid contact. The old hobbit was very clever with his throws, forcing Bilbo to his arms and sometimes to hang and swing by the bend of his knees.
"Well, you certainly inherited your mother's agility," the old hobbit nodded once he was satisfied. "Next, we shall do a bit of archery. Show me how many arrows you can get in the air.”
Bilbo's maximum was five now, the same as his mother's had been – but before the fifth landed, he would've already replenished his hand. "I intend to train to hold more," Bilbo admitted after firing all forty of his quiver's arrows. "There were many times last winter when it would've came in handy."
"There always are – and it's never a bad thing, to increase your ability if you can," the old Master nodded. "Next knives and then darts."
Where it came to accuracy, Bilbo was better with darts than he was with knives, but with knives he could get more range than his mother had gotten. The problem was, at his maximum range he missed every one throw in five and that was hardly optimal.
"Best to work with the range where you can hit five times out of five," Master Longbottom said, after bit of knife and dart throwing. Then he pulled out his own sword – a rapier slightly more slender than Bilbo's own. They spend a moment wiping their swords clean of their respective poisons as well as they could – but still the rules were to avoid actual damage, just in case. Then they fought – and for all that he was getting on in years, the Mastery of long years of activity shone in Master Longbottom's every movement, as they fenced in the Bindbole Woods. It grated a bit to be beaten so soundly by someone so old and bowed, but Bilbo lost every match with as much grace as he could muster.
"Hm. Well, it's just as well we're not meant to fence with our prey," the old Master hummed after knocking Bilbo off his feet a fourth time. "Your mother wasn't precisely a master either, but we don't need to be. And I think that about covers what we need to cover here. Now I wish to see your poisons."
Normally, the old master would've watched Bilbo mix and blend his own poisons, but the time being what it was there was no way of doing that. Instead he looked over the poisons Bilbo had made, and they talked about Bilbo's recipes late into the night. Most of Bilbo's methods were derived from Belladonna's recipes, but there were a couple that Bilbo had been dabbling in that were wholly his own – namely a pure knock-out drug, and a drug that caused severe shakes.
"There are few things so terrifying as losing control of your own body," Bilbo said thoughtfully when asked to explain. "I know we must sometimes interrogate, and I do have my own torture blend and my mother's blend besides. But I think sometimes it wouldn't hurt to have others intended for interrogation, rather than the pain drug."
"Very good," Longbottom said, nodding. "Just take care not to make it too strong – it will make a poor interrogation indeed if your quarry bites his own tongue off by accident."
With that, the testing was more or less finished. Master Longbottom asked about what he'd done in the field, how he'd handled the bodies, inquiring for a few detailed accounts of battles Bilbo had been in, but that was more a matter of informal interest, rather than it being part of the testing. Most Underhills didn't actually have field experience when they were initiated, not like Bilbo did.
"I guess that is about that, then," Master Longbottom said. "I've no doubt you will make an exemplary Underhill – a son of Belladonna Took couldn't do anything less, I don't think. Now, we don't have formal vows and we don't have rites – we are not so pompous as to bother with ceremonies. All we require of our members is that they defend the Shire by any means at their disposal, without hesitation and without mercy. And I already know you to be capable of that."
"Thank you, Master Longbottom," Bilbo said, nodding.
The old hobbit nodded and then turned to his backpack, taking out a small leather bag – inside, there was a surgical blade, gruesomely efficient looking cutters, and some ointments. "No time like the present, is there?" the old hobbit asked with a crooked smile. "Are you ready?"
Bilbo swallowed, staring at the tools. This was it. He'd always known it would happen, it had always been ahead of him – and closer the older he'd gotten. And now it was here. His initiation. It was a little less ceremonious and definitely less happy than he'd thought it would be – and his mother wasn't there to do the cut, his father wasn't there to witness it. That made everything hollow. And yet… here it was.
"Can I do it myself?" he asked quietly.
The old hobbit eyed him seriously and then nodded. "If you'd like," he said.
Under the old hobbit's watchful eye, Bilbo prepared for the cut, cleaning the tools and then his hand, to prevent infections. Then, with a wooden spoon handle to bite into, Bilbo cut into the skin the skin of his left hand's fourth finger, pulling it back to reveal the flesh and bone – and then he took the cutters and simply snapped the bone as near to the joint as he could.
It hurt – of course it hurt, it was the worst pain he'd ever felt, it radiated like fire down his arm and instantly drenched him in the sweat of agony. But it was also a pain he was prepared for, so panting and gasping and crying with it, he cleaned the cut as well as he could, and then pulled the peeled off skin over it, to help with the healing. Master Longbottom watched with a serious expression, and when Bilbo's right hand grew too sweaty and clumsy with shaking, he took the task of bandaging the cut.
"Well done," the old hobbit simply said while Bilbo gasped at the feel of it, trying not to sob. "Well done indeed, Mister Underhill."
Master Longbottom then pulled out a bottle of crystal clear liquid, and let Bilbo drink himself into a pained, bleary stupor.
Master Longbottom stayed long enough to see the snows melt and Bungo and Belladonna buried. It was a sombre and quick ceremony – one of dozens to be performed that week, and everyone was too exhausted to spend too long at it. The couple of Bag End was simply laid to rest with a few solemn words, and then the priest had to move on, to bury the next one. It was cold and cruel and not what his parents deserved – but at the same time, it was a very Underhill sort of way to be laid to rest.
They were, after all, a pragmatic sort of people.
Then Bilbo was left alone in a smial that was suddenly too big and too empty, with an aching left hand and a bracer heavy on his arm. He spent the first few days in a hollow stupor, and likely would've stayed that way much longer, had the snow not melted from his garden completely, and so given him something to do.
"Whatever happened to your hand, Master Baggins?" old man Gamgee asked, when he came to help.
"I cut myself in the kitchen," Bilbo admitted with a sheepish smile.
It was strange, getting on without his parents. A lot of his neighbours thought he was altogether too young to do it in any case – only twenty one, barely more than a child! Once the snows melted and even the floods passed, and people had the time to think on such things, the complaints began. Mainly from the side of the Sackville-Bagginses who found him altogether too young and irresponsible for the responsibility of such a big and comfortable smial.
"Why, such a young and inexperienced hobbit ought to have a guardian, not such… freedom to do as he will," they said. "He'll grow all crooked and wrong. Why look at his hand! Not so many months alone and he's already blundering this badly!"
The Sackville-Bagginses actually put forth an appeal to gain guardianship over their young Baggins cousin, for Bilbo's own good they said, to make sure that he'll have the right guidance and discipline in his unruly tweens. And if they so happened to gain control of Bag End and Bilbo's inheritance while they were at it, well.
Thankfully the Thain put an end to it, when he arrived later that summer to pay his respects to his deceased daughter and her husband. Gerontius Took was a generally jolly sort of hobbit, with a generous belly and jowls and a smile and joke ready at hand. Bilbo had met him a handful of times when he'd been much younger, mostly at birthday parties and such, but it was a whole new experience to meet his grandfather in the capacity of an Underhill.
"It's an unfortunate thing, most unfortunate. Belladonna was such a lively hobbit too, but… well, when she felt, she always felt with all she had. When she threw herself at something, she always did so with all she had," Gerontius sighed, as they stood over the graves of Bungo and Belladonna. "It was like that with being an Underhill and it was like that with love. She never held anything back, our Belladonna."
"No, she didn't," Bilbo agreed quietly.
"The loss of your father is no less unfortunate, mind you. Bungo did a lot of good for the Underhills, I hear – his studies and theories brought a lot into light, knowledge we've lost," the Thain sighed. "An Underhill scholar – the only one of his kind, really. In him your mother chose her husband well, very well indeed. Such a damned pity, to lose both of them like that, and so early into their respective careers too."
Bilbo said nothing to that.
"But I hear she taught you well. Old Master Longbottom certainly seems to think so," Old Took added, looking at Bilbo. "I'm prepared to take his word on it – he's been managing the business of the Underhills almost as long as I've been Thain, and he's never done anything but an excellent job of it. But do you feel you can pick up your mother's slack? Can you manage Hobbiton on your own?"
Bilbo took a breath and considered it. "The winter was difficult," he admitted. "I wouldn't have managed that alone, I'll admit it. Should another winter like the last come, well… I wouldn't place bets on myself. But in normal conditions it shouldn't be a problem. Hobbiton is far enough from the borders that we don't get much strange traffic here."
"Yes, in normal conditions," Gerontius hummed, rubbing at his chin. "In normal conditions I expect Master Longbottom would feel the need to send someone here to aid you, but we don't have the manpower right now. Those we can spare we must send to the borders. And it will take at least five years if not more before any new apprentice grows talented enough to manage field work. Hmm…"
The old Thain was quiet for a moment, considering the two graves. "For now there is no helping it. Hobbiton will be in your charge."
The Thain kicked about Hobbiton for a week or so, and then pronounced his grandson well fit to manage his own business, shutting up the Sackville-Bagginses and their ilk for a while. He also hired the Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes, a notary firm of Hobbiton, to mind Bilbo's legal matters, just in case. "It wouldn't do to have the Underhill of Hobbiton so hindered," he commented idly.
And then Bilbo was left to manage his business, as Master Baggins of Bag End – and as Mister Underhill of Hobbiton.
The first year as Master of Bag End was not easy. Bilbo's age and the death of his parents protected him some against the disproval of his neighbours when he failed to entertain or behave the way a proper hobbit ought to behave, or when he did something when he ought to have done it differently. His garden was a mess that year and it took him a while before he got into the swing of keeping the smial as tidy as it ought to be, and when it came to stocking his pantry he made many a mistake that ended with him throwing perfectly good food away, after it spoiled due to poor storage.
But he managed. Underhills were rather well paid, it turned out, and once he became official, he got a lot of back pay for his deeds during the Fell Winter – that covered for a lot of the mistakes he made in keeping his house. The Gamgee family grew very dear to him, and though even the old man Gamgee couldn't do much to save his garden from the mess Bilbo made of it that summer, they managed to keep him from completely ruining it – and Missus Gamgee was a great help around Bag End’s kitchen every now and then, and she taught him much of what his mother and father had thought they'd have more time to teach. Mainly cooking and food preparation and such.
"You're very good with herbs," she commented while talking him through the making of this roast and that pastry and this sort of pie.
"Mum liked to work with herbs," Bilbo shrugged. A lot of his herbal knowledge was more or less useless in the kitchen, though – not unless he wanted to poison whoever sat at his table. So he definitely appreciated all her efforts.
The winter following the Fell Winter was, thankfully, not as bad. It was short and wet and brisk, and not nearly dark enough for such hoards of goblins to venture south as they had the previous winter. Still, it was a busy time for Bilbo – there was still a shortage of Underhills up north and the Bounders had yet to replenish their ranks, so some goblins did creep southward. What kept Bilbo busy most, though, were the men.
The Fell Winter had drained the stores of almost everyone on the northern side of Eriador – including those lands east of Bree, not to mention Bree itself. So now some unseemly individuals from those lands were trickling westward, in search of whatever they could find among the soft hobbits that they thought to be easy pickings.
Bilbo killed his first man that winter – a rough individual with a scraggly beard and a poor grasp of personal hygiene, who had been reported creeping around Hobbiton. Some might've given him the benefit of the doubt, seeing that he had not done anything but camp in the forest and occasionally filch an apple from an orchard.
But Bilbo was an Underhill and Underhills did not believe in the benefit of the doubt. Nor did they wait for their quarry to actually do harm before retaliation. A man with good intentions would've used roads anyhow, and he would've approached the hobbits of Hobbiton openly instead of creeping around.
That man was the first, but not the last. That winter Bilbo killed more men than he did goblins. Some of them were individual vagabonds who'd probably wandered the lands of men all summer and when air had grown colder had looked on the Shire with the idea that it would be an easier land to manage in. There were also bands of robbers, quite a number of them, who raided the countryside and occasionally killed now precious farm animals to roast on camp fires. Once Bilbo did not catch them in time, and a young hobbit lass paid the price for his tardiness.
Thankfully the second summer after the Fell Winter was easier for everyone. Harvest was bountiful not only in the Shire, but also in the lands of men, and there was sunlight aplenty to discourage the fell things that crept in from the north. That summer Bilbo's garden did a little better too, with the Gamgees watching over it closely – all of them carefully steered away from the corner where Bilbo grew his belladonnas and oleanders and monkshoods and such.
Another good thing about being so young was the fact that at twenty four, he was still too young to be considered a good prospect for marriage. Oh, some talked about it, how the Master of Bag End obviously needed a proper wife and all that – and there were plenty of girls about who would've very much liked to become the Missus Baggins of Bag End. Bag End was a cushy sort of smial to live in, they all felt, and though Bilbo was young and all too lean to be precisely appealing, he was decent enough a hobbit. But thankfully, Bilbo was too young for it to be considered proper.
Bilbo had his romps in the hay, as it was – sometimes even with those who saw themselves as future mistresses of Bag End. One of the things his mother and father had been very clear of, was that being an Underhill was not the same thing as being underhill. He was still a living and breathing hobbit and as such, he should live and breathe and enjoy life, as much as any hobbit should. His duties did not and should not hinder his enjoyment of life. So he enjoyed life – but he definitely did not look to marriage, or to love. Not after seeing how it had worn his mother so thin, so quickly, so brutally.
"What a bore you are," a lovely Goodchild girl – Roseline by name – commented when Bilbo sketched out his utter lack of interest for any sort of romance to her, while they lay on the floor of Bag End’s sitting room.
"A bore?" Bilbo asked with surprise.
"A horrible bore," she agreed, giving him a level look. "You're not in the least adventurous – and you're definitely no sort of adventure yourself. You'll have a good time with anyone who bothers to show interest, but then you show them the door and that's it. A bore."
"Huh," Bilbo answered, staring at the ceiling.
"A few more years and you'll stop entertaining anyone in the bedchamber at all," she predicted. "You'll see. You're the worst sort of bachelor. Oh, you'll play around for a couple more years while you can without consequences, but the moment you reach maturity, it'll all come to an end."
Bilbo considered it. "You don't think I'll marry?" he asked. Sure, he didn't want to right now, he was only in his mid-twenties, all too young for such things. A wife? Children? He wasn't sure how he'd handle it. Right now he preferred not to even think on it. But not ever?
"You're entirely too stiff for it, I imagine."
How that was the reputation Bilbo had gained, he wasn't sure. Apparently the people of Hobbiton considered him, while altogether too young, a very proper sort of hobbit. All duty and timing and doing things in their right order and time and such. Still a bit young and inexperienced, making all sorts of beginner mistakes, but trying very hard. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, they expected, would be the very model of a right sort of hobbit, when he reached maturity.
It was strange and somehow a bit sad, considering all the things he'd done with his mother, all the stories his father had shared, to be considered boring and rigid at the end of it. But it was a good cover for an Underhill. He was becoming the kind of hobbit others would least expect to be doing something unusual in the dark.
So it was the reputation he cultivated, for better or for worse.
Mentions and aftermath of past torture and captivity and such.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bilbo leaned ever so carefully forward, balancing precariously on a tree branch. There was a band of goblins below him, about two dozen of them – altogether too many for this time of the spring, this south in the Shire. Two dozen ugly, big goblins – nothing like the thin ragtag ones they usually get in the Shire. No, these were huge, thick with muscle, bigger than men easily, and while most goblins that ventured into the Shire barely had rags on them, some of these goblins wore armour.
They had a camp in the Bindbole Forest and were currently roasting what looked like bits and pieces of three or four goats, no doubt stolen from one of the northern farms, all the while growling and arguing amongst each other in a tongue Bilbo didn't understand, but could instantly name. Everyone could – the guttural, snarling sounds of black speech were easy to identify.
This was no usual band of goblins, that was easy enough to see – even without seeing what they dragged with them.
Movement catching the corner of his right eye, Bilbo glanced up without moving his head and risking making a sound. There was someone else moving in the trees, another hobbit – another Underhill, silently swinging from branch to branch to get into position. On Bilbo's left, a good forty feet from him and about fifteen higher, another Underhill had already found a good spot and was silently drawing arrows from their quiver.
The Underhill on Bilbo's right glanced at him and made a minute hand sign before drawing arrows, five of them all at once, and putting one of them on the string. Bilbo glanced at the one on his left and got a nod. With a nod of his own, he drew his own arrows, six of them.
Silently, all three of them took aim – and fired.
Three arrows, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, were in the air, all at once, and all of them found their marks in goblin throats and at the joints of their shoulder where the skin was thinner. Bilbo, fastest of all three Underhills, quickly drew another six arrows, and fired them, the others joining him a split second later. The goblins barely had the time to realise what had happened to a good half of their numbers, when more arrows rained down on them. Seventeen, eighteen, twenty, twenty three, twenty five. The last arrows hit those few goblins that were still moving after the first arrows had found their mark – among them the big one in the lead, which stumbled over and into the fire with one arrow in his throat, and another in his eye.
Bilbo drew another quick handful and waited, as did the two other Underhills. The sudden quiet after the snarling and growling of the goblins died out made for eerie listening, but in it Bilbo could hear the distant sounds of night birds and relaxed.
The fourth and fifth Underhill had caught the furthermost guards and the scouts respectively.
The deed was done.
Quickly putting his arrows back in his quiver, Bilbo made three quick hand signs to the other Underhills. "Stay in trees, stay out of sight, keep arrow on rest and aimed." Once he got his confirmation from them, he hoisted his bow unto the clasp on his back, drew his rapier and then swung down from the tree and to the ground.
The camp wasn't entirely dead. As Bilbo made his way through it, silently making sure of the goblins’ deaths by quick stabs of his poison gleaming sword, Bilbo kept his eyes mostly on the other side of the camp. There, chained to each other and to the trees, huddled a number of creatures, who were the reason as to why there were five Underhills tending to a single band of goblins. Reason why a number of Underhills had been stalking the said band of goblins for the better part of a week, waiting for the rest of the five to join them.
The kills had to be as near instantaneous as they could make them, to ensure the safety of the captives.
There were about ten of them. They were probably dwarves – it was a bit hard to say. They were all so dirty, their hair and beards so overgrown and untidy that they looked like mobile stacks of mouldy hay, really. They now sat huddled together and the few that had the strength to even look up, did so silently through their messes of hair, barely acknowledging that they even saw Bilbo standing among the dead goblins.
The situation was an unprecedented one for the Underhills of the Shire. Yes, occasionally they did rescue a hobbit from whatever ruffians they had to deal with, but that was it. One hobbit was easy to deal with and, if need be, easy to make forget. Dwarves were a whole different kettle of fish. And these ones looked not only like they'd been through some harsh times, but like those harsh times had lasted for years and years for them.
So long, that what little of them Bilbo could see past their beards and hair, was bony and dirty and their eyes were weary and hollow.
After making sure that the big goblin who'd led the goblin pack was dead, Bilbo cautiously approached the dwarves, his sword held down but at the ready, in case he needed it. The Underhills in this undertaking would prefer to… help the dwarves if they could. That was why they had become Underhills in the first place, to prevent these sorts of things from happening in the Shire. But dwarves were still dwarves, and if he needed to, he'd put each and every one of them out of their misery without hesitation.
"Is there a leader amongst you?" Bilbo asked, standing in front of them and waiting. When they did nothing, he shifted a bit closer and held his sword in the light. "Is there a leader amongst you?" he repeated. "Speak now or forever remain silent."
"Aye," a tired croak sounded from among the worn, harried looking dwarves, and there was a rattling of chains as one of the dwarves pushed wearily to his feet. He had hints of what might've been the remains of a tunic hanging ragged and torn down to his bony knees, and a mess of matted hair that covered all of his upper body. He looked no better off than the rest, if not much worse. "If there'd be a leader, it'd be me. What kind of elf are you?"
"I'm a hobbit, and you're in hobbit lands," Bilbo said.
"You shoot like an elf," the dwarf said, and then nearly bowed over to cough, his voice fading into a whisper.
Bilbo listened to it for a moment, before releasing the clasp around the neck of his water skin, and holding it out. "Water, nothing else," he promised the suspicious looking dwarves, and then threw it into the leader's waiting, crooked and thin hands.
"My thanks," the dwarf croaked and then drank. First a sip, to test if it truly was water. Then a single mouthful which he held in his mouth, closing his eyes and moving it noisily from cheek to cheek before swallowing. After letting a sigh of relief, the dwarf handed the water skin to the nearest dwarf at his feet, who took it eagerly. Soon the skin was passing hands and everyone took a small, grateful swallow.
"How long have you been captive?" Bilbo asked, taking in not only the signs of wear and tear and obvious torture they'd gone through – but age. There are a few dwarves with old braids in their beards and hair, which had grown out of their form, leaving lax hair a long way between root and braid.
"Long and longer," the dwarf in the lead said, his voice still rough and low but less dry. "What is the year now?"
"I do not know dwarven calendars, but it's the year thirteen and twenty by the Shire reckoning," Bilbo said. "And the year two thousand nine hundred and twenty of the Third Age under the Sun."
That made some of the dwarves start and look up – and judging by the sound of his tone, one of them murmured a curse.
"Then… then it had been a long time," the dwarf in the lead murmured, his hands squeezing into fists. "A very, very long time."
"W-what will you do to us?" one of the dwarves asked in a surprisingly high voice, looking at Bilbo with mingled hope and fear, both of them old and worn.
"That depends," Bilbo answered, looking over them. "We kill in defence of our land. I'm not yet sure if you are what I ought to be defending my land from. If you mean us harm, then I will kill you. If you don't, then I will help you."
"There's not much strength in us to do anyone any harm, even if we willed it," the dwarf in the lead said, with a thin hope of a wry smile.
Bilbo hummed. "The will alone is enough," he assured calmly, and that wiped the thin smile clean off.
The dwarves looked up at him and then at their leader wearily. "We will you no harm, Master Hobbit," the dwarf in the lead finally assured him. "Nor your lands. Many a land these… creatures have dragged us through over the years. Yours is the one that offered any hope of salvation to us. You have our gratitude and our debt and you will only have our good will."
Bilbo considered that and then with a swift motion put his rapier in its sheath. "Good," he said. "Which one of the goblins holds the keys to your chain?"
"None of them," the leader sighed and held the shackles up. They had no locks. "They were put on us still hot from the forge and beaten to shape, beaten shut. There is no key."
Bilbo frowned at the shackles. "Well," he said with some dismay. "We'll have to figure out how to break them, then."
The Underhills made a camp for the dwarves in the Bindbole Woods, with Bilbo being the only Underhill to talk to the dwarves, being the senior among the five of them. They got the dwarves fed and Bilbo did what he could to whatever wounds they had – which wasn't much. Most of their hurts were old and already healed – in most of their cases, badly. Broken bones had healed crooked, cuts had closed and scarred tight, ugly, and painful. For those he got a numbing salve, but that was the most of what he could do.
The dwarf in the lead was named Frerin. The others were his kin, or near as – and by the sound of what little the dwarf would share, there had been many more of them in the start.
"There was a battle, many, many years ago," Frerin told Bilbo, while slowly making his way through the bowl of quickly made porridge that Bilbo had fixed for the dwarves. "We lost, obviously, and those who didn't die due to their wounds on the battlefield were captured. I do not know how many of us were in the beginning. Many, perhaps as much as two hundred. But as the years wore on…" He looked over his ragged people and sighed. "Now this is all that remains."
"Why did they keep you?" Bilbo asked, refilling the bowl of another dwarf.
"To work, at first. They hoped to gain dwarven craftsmanship along with dwarven prisoners," Frerin said, shaking his head. "Refusal killed most of us in the beginning. And once the orcs understood that we would not work for them, they kept us for their amusement. For sport – and if need be, for bargaining against our kin."
"Hm," Frerin nodded and looked at the other dwarves. "Our women are very precious to us. No dwarf would attack an orc, not when that orc's sword was at a dwarrowdam's throat."
Bilbo only barely managed to swallow the astonished query that threatened to break loose, as he looked at the other dwarves with surprise. They all had a lot of hair and plenty of beard, and at first he could not see it. But yes, their eyes, something about what little he could see of their cheekbones, there was something that could perhaps be called feminine about it. And, now that he thought about it, Frerin was the only one with a deep voice among them.
"And you?" he asked, frowning.
"I'm kin to some dwarven lords," the dwarf said tiredly. "Or was, depending on if they still live."
Bilbo considered the band of weary dwarves, and perhaps for the first time in his life felt sympathy for a creature other than a hobbit. The lands outside the Shire weren't kind, Underhills knew than better than anyone in Hobbiton. To see the proof of it like this…
"Eat," he said. "There is plenty and more can be made besides."
"My thanks," Frerin murmured, and took the wooden spoon in a somewhat shaking hand. His fingers, judging by the looks of them, had been broken many, many times – so many times, that his grip was weak, and the spoon nearly fell. Bilbo said nothing about it, though, and instead looked up as a young Underhill – one of the recently initiated apprentices who lived in Oatbarton now – came forward.
"It's arranged," the lass said and then moved back, keeping her white hood tightly down, and her hand at her sword and knives.
"What is?" Frerin asked.
"There's a smallholding not far from here, used to be a farm, but now only a couple of the buildings remain. It's used by the Bounders and Rangers as a way house these days," Bilbo said. "It has a smithy that we hope is still functional. We've arranged it to be empty for the next week or so, while you rest and recover and we, hopefully, can break your chains."
Frerin relaxed a minute amount at that. "It would be… appreciated," he said tiredly.
Bilbo nodded. "Take your time with the food," he said, peering up at the tree tops, where the sky was clearing and the day was dawning. "It is only hour or so on foot and soon we will have better light to move in."
"Master Underhill," the lass from Oatbarton said. "My fellows and I should return to our stations."
Bilbo nodded and turned to the dwarves. "Do you know if there are more goblins coming this way? Why did they choose to take this way anyway?"
"They wished to avoid the ranger roads because, due to us, they were forced to move slower," Frerin said, rubbing a hand over his mouth and beard, which he'd gotten messy. "There were others, but they were intending to take the northern roads."
"Where were they coming from? And where were they going?" Bilbo asked, leaning in as did the Underhill at his side.
Frerin answered what he could, naming an orc lair north of the Shire, stationed there in the hopes of attacking those elves who took the northern roads on their way to the GreyShores, and to harass and thin the numbers of the rangers. The Dwarves were brought to north Eriador a good ten years earlier, when the orcs were planning on attacking Ered Luin and the dwarves living in the Blue Mountains – to play their part as bargaining chips and arrow shields. For reasons Frerin couldn't name, they'd been called back.
"They were intending to take us back to Moria, I imagine," the dwarf said. "Which is where we spent our first decades of imprisonment.”
Bilbo swallowed and nodded. The talk of decades was… stomach turning. "Well, perhaps you can join your kind in the Blue Mountains once you've recovered," he said and turned to the other Underhills, who'd been listening and who were now muttering amongst themselves, planning routes to take on their way back to their own stations and homes.
"I'll take word to the northern ranger station," the Oatbarton Underhill said. "You'll inform the Master?"
"Better for someone else to send the message – it might be a couple of days before I can return home," Bilbo said under his breath, glancing at the dwarves. They would need at least a few days, and for the duration of those days he could not leave them alone.
"I'll do it," the Underhill from Brockenbores said. "I can do it on my way home."
Bilbo nodded and looked at the other Underhills. It was an unusual gathering, for their type, especially considering their ages. All of them were young, none of them in their maturity yet – Bilbo, at thirty, was actually the oldest of the lot, not to mention senior in field experience. But all of them were skilled, dedicated and fully initiated – even if the Brockenbores Underhill still had his left hand bandaged after his initiation.
He dearly hoped it would be a while before another gathering of such nature would be needed.
"Go," he said, and without a word the other Underhills simply seemed to vanish into the shadows of the early morning, a couple of them disappearing into the trees, the rest of them into the bushes.
"So," Frerin said, looking after them. "What are you, some sort of Hobbit rangers?"
"Yes," Bilbo answered with an easy smile. "We're the Bounders. We watch the Shire's borders and when goblins cross over to our lands, we take care of them."
"Very well you took care of them too," one of the dwarf women said. "I've never even seen an Elf take orcs down like that. Not a sound!"
Bilbo smiled. "Elves, I hear, feel it necessary to announce their presence before a fight. We," he motioned after his fellow Underhills, "prefer to end it before it becomes a fight."
"That doesn't sound very honourable," someone muttered.
"No. But it was very effective," Frerin commented, giving Bilbo a look of consideration past his messy hair.
Bilbo shrugged. "And goblins are not a very honourable lot, I've found," he said, "So I don't feel the need to offer my honour either."
"Orcs," Frerin said. "What you… well, not-fought, were Gundabad orcs."
Bilbo smiled at that. "Orcs, then," he said – though he'd keep on calling them goblins anyway. Goblin was a less threatening name for a less intimidating creature, and thus if he slipped, he'd scare fewer hobbits. "Eat," he said, motioning at the cooking pot. "And take seconds as you like. It's all for you."
Frerin and the dwarf women nodded their thanks, and Bilbo moved away, to surreptitiously check the site of the goblin camp. The other Underhills had taken care of the bodies, stripping them of their armour and anything that would not rot and burying them in shallow graves for the forest to consume – there was next to no sign there anymore that a fight had ever happened.
The new generation of Underhills had been taught well, he mused, kicking the now cold coals of the fire around and muddling the site a little further, before returning to the dwarves.
It took almost the entirety of the first day to work the shackles loose from dwarven wrists and ankles. Frerin and the dwarf women worked the abandoned farm's half ruined smithy all day, working to not only build the fire, but fix the forge to bring the heat high enough. It was late in the evening before they managed it, and the first dwarf woman's shackles were first heated and then rapidly cooled to weaken them until they could be shattered.
They none of them got through the business of breaking the shackles without burns, but the dwarven understanding over forging and metals proved its worth when the final shackles were shattered, and Frerin too was freed of them. Bilbo treated them as well as he could, first with a paste made of potatoes and then by bandaging them with honey poultice.
"I imagine you all want some rest now," Bilbo said. "But there are good enough washing rooms in the farmhouse. I've carried the water and heated some for you, if you wish to make use of it."
"Thank you, Master Underhill," one of the dwarf women said, sounding truly glad. "It'd be greatly appreciated."
The other dwarf women seemed to agree – all nine of them headed off to wash at their leisure, while Bilbo sat with Frerin in the farm's rundown kitchen, fixing all of them a meal of vegetables and potatoes and what dry meat he'd managed to find in the farm's cold storage.
"I've heard of hobbit hospitality," Frerin commented, watching him work the stove. "But truth be told, I never believed it. I'm still not sure I believe it."
Bilbo smiled. "We're a simple people of simple pleasures and hospitality is one of those simple pleasures we enjoy. And we prefer to repay kindness and goodness with the like," he said, glancing over his shoulder. "But should it comfort you, I'm here mainly to make sure you don't cause the locals any trouble."
"And to take care of us if we do, the way you took care of the orcs?" Frerin asked shrewdly and smiled. "Aye, I can see it. You keep your bow and sword very close to hand."
Bilbo hummed in agreement. "I've never killed a dwarf before, mind you, and I'd prefer not to start now. Your folk tend to be moral enough, and the few that pass through the Shire are usually craftsmen and merchants, trying to ply their craft and make an honest living, which we can respect," he said.
"It's good to hear we have such a reputation, here," Frerin said, rubbing his hands together idly. "Do you know… much about the dwarves in the Blue Mountains?"
"I don't know much," Bilbo admitted. "They tend to keep to their selves, and their politics and general situation is theirs alone. But if there have been battles or misfortunes, I have never heard of them."
Frerin nodded quietly and ran a hand over his face. "I don't suppose you know who leads them, these days?"
Bilbo shook his head apologetically.
"It's just as well, I suppose," Frerin said, looking away.
When the women came back from their wash, they had all trimmed their beard and hair, taking out the matted tangles as well as they could, and braiding what they could. The trimming was crude and messy, the kitchen knives they'd used not really intended for such a task, but they were definitely neater than they had been. Now the fact that they were women was a little more visible, with the hair out of their eyes and their cheeks and brows clean.
With the lack of long hair and beard to hide it, though, the state of their clothing came obvious as well. Most they had were torn, time worn tunics that only optimistically could still be called cloth at all. Bilbo eyed them thoughtfully.
"There might be some clothing in the storage rooms," he offered cautiously. "I do not know about the make or the fit, or how clean they will be, but…"
"But it will probably be in a better state of repair than what we have?" one of the dwarven women asked wryly. "Where is the storage?"
Bilbo motioned them the way of the storage room, while Frerin looked after them. "Well," the lone dwarf male muttered and pushed to his feet. "I suppose I too ought to wash and tidy up as much as I can."
Bilbo looked him over, at his weak hands and the sad state of his hair and beard – no doubt the women had had an easier time of it, because they had each other to help. Frerin, though, was alone. On top of that, Frerin moved awkwardly, with a limp caused by a badly heeled knee or ankle, it was hard to tell which. "If you need a hand," the hobbit said cautiously. "The food is almost done," he added, motioning at the broth on the stove.
Frerin glanced at him and then shook his head. "I'll manage, and once I'm done I can get one of the women to cut my beard. That'll be enough."
Half of the dwarven women fell asleep nearly on their food, lulled into a peaceful sense of security by their bath and new-ish clothing and the warmth of the farmhouse kitchen. Bilbo couldn't help the pity he felt for them, for their gratitude for the moth eaten hand-me-downs left in the farmhouse and for the pleasure they got from the thin blankets and dusty pillows he'd spread for their beds for the night. He made sure not to show it, of course, but he felt it deeply.
Frerin in the end didn't get his beard or hair cut – all the women were asleep by the time he managed to get out of the bathroom – but he didn't seem to mind. Bilbo was a little surprised to find that under all the dirt and filth Frerin's hair and beard were both light, like burnished gold in fact. The lack of dirt revealed other things too, though. Scars more numerous than he'd originally realised.
"You're worse off than the rest," Bilbo commented, while Frerin went through the storage room, trying to find a shirt that fit.
The dwarf said nothing, pulling on a moth eaten dress shirt and a coat that had tears at the elbows and lapels, but which fit him well enough. "I tried to do what I could to protect my kin," he then said. "Take whatever pain and hurt I could for them."
He'd taken a lot too, judging by the looks of it. He had scars all over him, old cuts and burns, and it was obvious that his fingers had been broken in torture, and not in accidents. They'd all healed badly too – three in his left hand barely moved, two in his right did not straighten. It made the buttoning of his shirt tortuously slow and clumsy.
Frerin saw Bilbo staring at his hands and smiled wryly. "Hands of a jewel smith, once upon a time," he commented, holding them up. The right one shook constantly, as if recently struck. The pathways of the senses in that hand were damaged, probably. "Such is the hospitality of orcs," the dwarf snorted.
"You're…" Bilbo hesitated, biting his lip. "Considering all you must've gone through, your spirits are… very high." He wasn't sure he could've been, in Frerin's position. No, he knew he couldn't have.
"The world doesn't get better by crying or raging at it," Frerin said and finished buttoning his shirt slowly.
They retired to the kitchen, and Bilbo got Frerin a bowl of food, watching silently how the dwarf struggled to hold a spoon in his shaking hand. Bilbo didn't offer to help, though – only pushed a cloth nearer to Frerin, so that he could wipe the mess he was making off by himself.
"Once your people are rested and ready to travel, I'll see about contacting the rangers of the north," Bilbo said as Frerin ate. "They occasionally travel to the Blue Mountains, to trade and exchange news. They can take you there."
"We don't have the money to pay for it," Frerin said quietly.
"I'll pay for it," Bilbo told him. The dwarf gave him a frown and Bilbo shook his head. "We get head money for the goblins we kill, so it's not a strain on my funds," he assured.
Frerin considered him silently for a moment, something shrewd in his eyes before he nodded. "I can't offer to pay you back," he said then. "I can only take your hospitality and give my thanks alone in return."
Bilbo smiled. Thanks weren't something he often got. Not in his line of work. "That's enough," he promised.
Frerin finished his dinner, and he too soon began nodding slightly. Bilbo took his bowl and then stepped to the dwarf's side. "Come, I've made beds," he said. "Well, I've spread blankets to make the floor softer, and there are pillows."
"There is warmth. That alone is a luxury we've not had in a long while," Frerin murmured, and let himself be helped to his feet. "What is your name, Master Underhill?" the dwarf asked as Bilbo guided him where the rest of his kin slept. "Hobbits have two names, one for individual and the other for family, yes?"
"It's Bilbo," the hobbit said. "Bilbo Baggins, actually," he added, against his better sense.
Frerin considered him and then nodded. "Thank you, Bilbo Baggins," he said, his low voice breaking ever so slightly. "Thank you so very much."
Bilbo smiled. "You're very welcome, Frerin."
He left the dwarves sleeping in the living room of the farmhouse, kindling the fire in the fireplace to keep all of them warm and cosy, before heading to the kitchen to tidy up. Once he was done there he headed up and to the roof of the farmhouse, to check and coat his arrows in a new layer of poison, and keep watch over his dwarven charges.
It was really something else, to get thanks for what he did.
Frerin and the dwarven women slept most of the next day away, sleeping the sleep of people who hadn't gotten the pleasure of undisturbed, safe rest in all too long. After the first night, they put up a sort of watch schedule and at least a couple of them were awake at any given time, and so Bilbo – who took his sleep carefully and with one eye open – grew to know all of them by name.
There was Seri daughter of Fári who was the youngest, and had been a healer and herbalist and brought to the battle they'd lost as a field medic. Then there was Frán daughter of Fróra, who had been a swordswoman and part of Frerin's command – she'd lost her husband, brother, father and uncle in the battle. Mimá, daughter of Khíma, she boasted being the best axe thrower of her age. Lén daughter of Lín, she'd been an archer, and she was the one who'd commented on Bilbo's elven-style archery. Ria daughter of Sia, oldest of them, also part of Frerin's old command, his second in command in fact. Dírn daughter of Séirn, Ríra's cousin, a weapons smith who preferred axes. Inár, daughter of Nói, she'd been the wife of one of captains, a swordswoman of some skill herself. And the sisters Gira and Nira, daughters of Sira, who had not been warriors at all, but part of the supply line, caught by the orcs while trying to help the wounded from the field.
Whatever they'd been before, they were no warriors. While the others weren't as badly broken as Frerin, they were all thin and haggard and bruised and a lot of them had old breaks and tears that had badly healed. Mimá would never throw an axe again, having lost her throwing arm. Frán was blind in one eye, and a blow to the head had caused her sense of balance to falter since. And so it went, a long tally of injuries, some of them more crippling than others.
Such, as Frerin said, was the hospitality of orcs.
A few days of rest and steady meals were nowhere near enough to heal any of them, but they gained whatever strength they could, getting some colour to their cheeks and taking every opportunity they could to have a warm wash. Bilbo all but emptied the way house's pantry to feed the dwarves, but he had every intention to replenish the cold cellar once he had the chance, so he didn't much worry. The dwarves definitely needed every morsel, and he wouldn't distain them from eating – nor would any hobbit.
The third day Bilbo left the dwarves alone long enough to catch a travelling hobbit on a road from Brockenbores to Bywater, to ask him to deliver a message to the Bounders to be passed onto the rangers. Two days later, a couple of human Rangers arrived at the abandoned farmhouse, and Bilbo met them at the front, to explain the situation while the dwarves remained nervously inside.
"I'll be happy to pay for their passage," he finished the explanation.
"What an unusual request from a hobbit," the man commented, patting the side of his horse's head as he considered Bilbo with a critical eye, catching his left hand. "Especially from an Underhill such as yourself. It's not your way of dealing with trouble, not as I know it."
"We Underhills perform a service intended to protect," Bilbo answered, shaking his head and tucking his four fingered hand behind his back. "Our ways may seem… unbecoming to some, but it doesn't make us monsters."
"Hm. Well, I suppose things are changing even here in the Shire, aren't they?" the ranger said thoughtfully, turning his eyes to the house. "Ten of them, hm?"
"Last survivors of what they explained were quite a number of unfortunate captives," Bilbo agreed. "Will you take them to the Blue Mountains?"
"It's a bit out of the way for us, but we can take them to the ranger station, where they can get help from a ranger headed that way," the man said and looked at Bilbo. "If you are truly willing to fund their return home, better give those funds to them."
"I suppose it is," Bilbo agreed. "You have my thanks. And, uh…" he scratched his cheek awkwardly. "They're under the impression it was hobbit Bounders who helped them. I would appreciate it if you… let them continue believing that."
The ranger smiled dryly and shook his head. "I've been a ranger longer than you can imagine, young Underhill. I know how your lot works," he said. "I'll keep your secrets, never fear."
Bilbo introduced Frerin to the rangers and vice versa, mediating their discussion and making sure that the dwarves would be well taken care of, that they'd have enough money to get themselves food should they need to buy it, and funds to hire a ranger to guide them all the way to the Blue Mountains.
"I cannot thank you enough," Frerin said, accepting Bilbo's purse.
"Then stop, take your leave and take care of yourself and your people," Bilbo said as kindly as he could without seeming offensively charitable. "That is all I ask."
"Then that I'll give you, Bilbo Baggins," Frerin murmured, closing his crooked fingers around the purse. He smiled wryly. "To Ered Luin I go, then. Although… I cannot imagine how my arrival will be accepted," he muttered, and looked at the other dwarves. "They'll welcome the rest with open arms, given what they are, but me? A dwarf so broken, unfit to work, unfit to fight…"
"You've been fit enough to save nine of your people," Bilbo commented quietly. "Nine lives, Frerin, nine dwarrowdams. That is something."
"Aye, it is," the blond dwarf murmured, but he didn't seem too sure. Still he smiled. "Well, I suppose I'll figure something out. I'll make myself a court jester if I cannot think of anything else, and entertain dwarves far and wide with my tales of dead orcs. I have many such tales ready at hand nowadays – most of them made up in my wistful dreams, perhaps, but they would be entertaining nonetheless, I should think."
"I've no doubt," Bilbo agreed and then hesitated. He couldn't but like this rough, unfortunate dwarf. Frerin had a soul to him that Bilbo had never seen in a hobbit or even in a man. So broken, so bruised, so cut down by life and more misfortune than any one being should endure… and with an uncertain future ahead of him. And yet he was smiling. Making jokes.
It was oddly enthralling, like a beacon of bright light in the shade. Bilbo could hardly look away from him and the longer he looked at Frerin's smile, the more miraculous its simple existence seemed – and the more enthralled he became by it.
"If… if it should come to pass that you can find no place for yourself," Bilbo said slowly. "And you find yourself in need of a place to stay, come to Hobbiton. I live in Over the Hill, at Bag End. My door will be open for you."
Frerin gave him a surprised look. "Truly?" he asked and then smiled. "You're a kind one, Bilbo Baggins. Take care lest I take advantage of your invitation."
"You'd be welcome to do so," Bilbo assured him.
They said their good byes, and Bilbo bid the other dwarves farewell, and then watched the rangers lead them away, wishing them good luck, good journey and all the good will on earth. Then, shaking his head at his own foolishness, he turned and headed back into the farmhouse, to clean and tidy up, making note of what it needed and what they'd spent during their stay, so that he could replenish its stores.
The likelihood that he'd ever meet Frerin again was minute as best, non-existent at worst. But he'd be remembering him, Bilbo knew. Frerin the unfortunate, who smiled in the face of it. Bilbo would be thinking of him a lot.
The romance between Bilbo and Frerin is going to be disgustingly flowery and will take over the entire story. Just a fair warning.
Bilbo was fletching some arrows by the fire place when a knock echoed through Bag End – a heavy, resounding knock that sounded a little like someone was kicking against his door rather than knocking. Freezing mid-motion, Bilbo paused to wait – and sure enough there was another heavy knock, too heavy for a hobbit hand.
Quickly putting the arrow shafts and the fletching into the box where they would be out of sight in case of respectable visitors, Bilbo swiftly stood from the floor where he'd been working and then grabbed his evening robe, pulling it on as he went to get the door.
It was a man, a ranger dressed in a leather vest and cloak with the hood pulled up. "Begging your pardon for disturbing your evening, Mister Underhill," the man said. "I've a message here for you."
Bilbo blinked with surprise and something like dismay – for as long as he'd been an Underhill he'd managed to keep Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and Mister Underhill of Hobbiton separate. How on earth did this man know him to be an Underhill, and obviously even without seeing his hand? And where to find him too!
Still he accepted the letter the man was handing him, glancing out onto the path to make sure there was no one about to see – but thankfully it was too late for nosy, gossipy neighbours. There was however a great big horse, idly gnawing at the mint planted in Bilbo's front garden. "Where is it from?"
"Your Green Dragon Inn," the ranger answered, withdrawing a little. "I aim to head back north before it grows too dark to travel, make camp in the Bindbole Woods or, if I can make it, at the farm. It’s a ways away, so if you need me to take a message back…"
Bilbo frowned at the man, and then quickly tore the letter open, spreading it out and stepping back to see it in the light of the ceiling light.
To Underhill Bilbo Baggins of Bag End.
It was not my intention to bother you this soon, if ever, but should your invitation still be open, I'd be most glad to take it. I could not make the journey westward. With some negotiating with the rangers, we managed to split the funds you so kindly gave us so that the dwarrowdams could continue their way to the Blue Mountains – and I could come back south and to your fair Hobbiton. It seems I require a few months healing, before I can take on such a journey. I cannot ask of you to endure my company for so long, but a few nights would already do me good, if you can spare them.
I write to you from the Green Dragon Inn. I have the coin for a night here should it be necessary.
Either way, you have my most sincere gratitude.
Bilbo blinked and looked up. "Frerin never did write this," he said, thinking of the Dwarf's hand. The writing was altogether too smooth and steady.
"He spoke it, I wrote it," the ranger admitted, arching his eyebrows. "You're in luck that it came upon me to deliver him back to the Shire, Mister Underhill. Some other rangers would not keep your secrets – some rangers would not hesitate to take advantage. You made an odd judgement in revealing him your name – and location too."
Bilbo sighed and nodded. "I've been making too many good decisions, one bad had to be slipped in there eventually," he mused and folded the letter before looking the ranger over. "But you will keep what you learned to yourself?"
"I will," the ranger said. "I know the Underhill history and their purpose and while some might not agree with your methods, they are very effective, none can deny that. And I know a thing or two about keeping your life and your purpose separate. Besides," the ranger smiled. "One day it might come in handy, to know such a safe place as your smial."
"You find an Underhill's home to be safe?" Bilbo asked with a surprise.
"An Underhill who went out of his way to see strange dwarves sorted out right? Who watched over them while they were at their weakest, fed and watered them, who funded them out of his own pocket, when a quick arrow to the neck would've been a faster way of dealing with them?" the ranger asked with an arched eyebrow. "An Underhill who after doing all that is now opening his smial to an obvious security risk in the form of yet another dwarf? One who is obviously oblivious to your true nature, and yet you still intend to welcome him? Yes. Yes I do find your home to be a safe place."
Bilbo shook his head at that, but couldn't help but smile. "Fine then. Do you have provisions for your journey? I've enough to spare to fill your saddlebags and see you off well."
"I'm kitted well enough," the ranger said with a smile. "But if you've cheese to spare, I wouldn't mind it."
Bilbo nodded and fetched him a quarter of cheese from his larder, packing it carefully in cloth before handing it over. "I would have your name, ranger, in case of the dark day when you need your safe place," he requested.
"Arathorn son of Arador," the ranger said while packing the cheese away. He smiled. "Take care, Mister Underhill of Hobbiton – and see your dwarf properly informed of what he should and should not speak of."
"I will," Bilbo said, and Arathorn took to his horse. With a brisk nod of goodbye, the ranger turned his mount and then urged it on, and northwards. Bilbo looked after him for a moment before taking a breath and stepping back inside, to clothe himself properly.
He had a dwarf to fetch.
In was, thankfully, a relatively quiet evening at the Green Dragon Inn when Bilbo got there. It was not yet harvest season and the middle of the week besides, so people didn't yet have as much to celebrate. There were the usual customers though – old man Bolger who'd been drinking his life away ever since the death of his wife, the Rumble bachelor who ventured every night in search of company, and the Diggle youth, who for a couple of years now had been trying to chat up the barmaid.
Frerin was there too, sitting by the counter, eating a late meal of bread, ham and cheese. He was wearing a new travel cloak over his shoulders and had a rough burlap sack sitting at his feet, and even with his beard and hair trimmed somewhat he was still unkempt enough to make his homelessness obvious. He was talking amiably with the old man Bolger, or listening to Bolger anyway while the old man slurred his way through one of his old stories about his wife and the family he had never had.
Bilbo glanced at the Chubb who currently managed the Inn and who even now was standing behind the counter, watching their dwarven guest warily, before making his way to the counter. "Frerin," he said, to catch the dwarf's attention.
Frerin jerked and glanced back at him, smile coming to his face. "Master Baggins," he said, sounding happy and relieved both. "You make good time! Do you know my new friend, Mister Bolger here? He's been telling me many a good tale about your fair Hobbiton."
Bilbo smiled with relief, thankful that Frerin hadn't called him Underhill here. "I know Mister Bolger," he said and glanced at the old man. "How are you, Griffo? Your back still bothering you?"
"The back is what it is, Master Baggins," the old man said with a slight slur to his words. "And I'm as well as I can be, thank you for asking. You know Frerin here, Master Baggins?"
"We're acquainted, yes," Bilbo said, pulling a chair and sitting beside Frerin. "So what stories of Hobbiton have you been sharing?"
He chatted with the old Bolger while Frerin ate slowly, all the while casting side eyed glances at the dwarf. Frerin was smiling and paying attention to the stories they exchanged, but his exhaustion was obvious for anyone with eyes. What colour he'd gained at the farmhouse was all but gone and there were shadows under his eyes. What travel he'd done since Bilbo had last seen him had obviously not agreed with him.
"Well, it's getting late," Bilbo said once Frerin had finished his food. He stood up and caught Chubb's eye. With his left hand, the missing finger in plain sight, he placed a couple of coins on the table. The Green Dragon's manager's eyebrows shot up but he nodded ever so slightly, taking the coin. "Time for sensible hobbits to head to their beds, I think."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Bolger said – and ordered himself another pint with apparently no intention of getting up. "Good night, Master Baggins."
"Good night, Griffo," Bilbo said and looked at Frerin who stood up slowly, pushing himself up. Bilbo waited to see if he needed help, but Frerin managed, pushing himself away from the counter.
"Thanks for the late meal, Master Chubb," Frerin said to the hobbit behind the counter. "It was right kind of you to bother this late."
"Think nothing of it," the manager said, glancing at Bilbo and then smiling. "Good night, Master Frerin."
With that, Bilbo led Frerin out of the Inn, keeping to the dwarf's limping pace and staying at his side, to be sure to be in catching range should Frerin's footing falter. "You paid the manager for something," Frerin commented after a few steps. He lifted a single golden eyebrow at Bilbo. "For his patience in serving a dwarf?"
"For his silence and discretion," Bilbo shrugged. If he hadn't, Frerin's name and state and the fact that the Master of Bag End had come to fetch him would've been all over Hobbiton before dawn next day, and it would grow into gossip of a horrid affair and all sort of scandalous things before noon. But with a few coins an Underhill could buy the manager's service where that went. Chubb would now put a spin on the rumours once they would rise and paint Frerin and Bilbo in the most sympathetic of lights. Hopefully it would be enough to keep it from becoming a far reaching scandal.
"I hope I've not caused you trouble. The ranger said that I should not call you Underhill, that there are secret reasons – that you should not have told me your name and home," Frerin commented.
"I should not have," Bilbo admitted, not entirely sure why he had. "But it's done and not much we can do to change it – and no, you've not caused me trouble. I offered my hospitality and that offer still stands," he added and gave the dwarf a smile. "You are welcome here, Frerin. Don't doubt it."
The dwarf eyed him a moment and then relaxed. "That's heartening to hear," he murmured.
They made their way up to Over the Hill in easy silence, the journey slow and wincing with Frerin growing slower still as they went uphill, but Bilbo waited patiently for him and tried not to make his sympathy too obvious or cutting.
"I could not make the journey," Frerin admitted once Bag End was finally in sight. "I slowed the others down and could not bear horse riding. Without a sword at my throat and arrow aimed at my back, it's not as easy to force myself to move fast, I've found," he added with a small laugh.
"No, I don't imagine you would," Bilbo murmured.
"Had I stayed with the others, it would've taken all of us the better part of half a year to make it to the hold of the dwarrows in Ered Luin," Frerin added. "We would not have made it there before the first snows, if at all before the valleys got snowed in. So I thought it better the others go ahead, and I follow once I am better fit to travel."
Bilbo nodded. "Well, for as long as you need, you are welcome here," he said, and meant it too. "Come, it's this one," he added, and motioned at the front garden of his smial. He opened the green round door of his home, and let the dwarf in with a slight bow. "Welcome to Bag End, Master Frerin. It's a hole in the ground, but it's mine and you're welcome to it."
Frerin cracked a smile at that. "Hole in the ground he calls it," he murmured, looking around the entrance hall. "I've seen holes in the ground. And this, Master Baggins, is a very grand sort of hole indeed."
"Kind of you to say so," Bilbo said, taking Frerin's sack and cloak and setting them aside. Then he looked at the travel worn, exhausted dwarf from top to toe. "A bath, perhaps?" he offered. "And in the mean while I can ready a bed for you."
"So long as it is no trouble," Frerin said with a smile. "I'd be most grateful."
Bilbo showed him into the bathroom, and quickly ran the bath. "The boiler's not on I'm afraid, but I've a fire in the stove. I'll heat water for you in a kettle. I'll be just a moment," he said, and left the dwarf to undress while he went to fetch the hot water. It took a bit longer than a moment, but soon he had a kettle full of boiling water – not enough to make the bath hot, sadly, but enough to make it lukewarm at least.
Frerin had undressed while he boiled the water, and Bilbo looked on watchfully as the dwarf rubbed at his right thigh. There was an ugly scar, running from the hip down to the knee, thick and red and obviously damning – the cause of his limp.
"Axe to the hip, that ran along the side," Frerin said, seeing him look. "Seri managed to keep it from killing me, but some of the muscles… and the knee was knocked about besides. It's still weak. Carries me well enough for short distances, but don't ask me to run," he shrugged with a faint smile.
Bilbo swallowed, not sure what to say – anything he could come up with seemed like a meaningless platitude or well-meaning insult and none of it would change anything. "Your bath," he said instead. "I can heat another kettleful, if you need it." Tomorrow, he promised himself, he'd fire up the boiler first thing, and let Frerin have a proper long soak in a hot bath. It would probably do nothing but good to the leg, and whatever else bothered him.
"It'll do well enough," Frerin promised and then eyed the high side of the tub with a wry look. "I could perhaps use a hand."
Bilbo ended up not only helping the dwarf into the water, but he also ended up washing his hair and beard once Frerin dropped the soap a fourth time, his hands too shaky and weak to hold it. Frerin grumbled under his breath at first, but leaned into it, letting Bilbo rub the bubbles into his hair. The sigh he let out when Bilbo massaged his scalp and stiff neck was pure relief.
"Dwarven hair is very thick," Bilbo noted. "And all of you keep it long. Is it because the difficulty of cutting it?"
"Partially maybe. Mostly because it keeps us warm in cold tunnels," Frerin murmured sleepily. "It's like eternal winter under the surface, so it is an advantage."
"Hmm," Bilbo hummed, a little surprised. He'd always though it a bit weird, why a warrior-like race such as the dwarves would allow such a weakness. Long hair made such an easy handhold for any enemy, after all. But then, dwarves were miners and smiths first, warriors second, weren't they? And tunnel dwellers before all of that.
After helping Frerin rinse his hair, Bilbo left the dwarf to wash the rest of himself while he headed to ready the guest room, taking out some fresh linens for the bed and throwing the window open for a moment to air the room. Outside, it was already night, and the air was cold and brisk.
"I don't know what I'm doing," he murmured at the moon that peaked past the branches of the apple tree that grew on the road. "Welcoming a dwarf into my smial…"
He was an Underhill. Frerin already knew too much, enough to make his life very difficult with a mere slip. Of course the Underhill brotherhood was more or less informal, and they hadn't exactly been sworn into secrecy or anything of the sort. But certain appearances had to be kept, and Bilbo had grown fond of the reputation of the stuffy and stiff Baggins of Bag End, boring and not a bit adventurous. That boring Baggins, now housing a dwarf in his home…
It wouldn't matter how much he paid Chubb of the Green Dragon, this was going to be the nine day's wonder and no mistake.
And yet for the life of him he could not think a single good reason as why he shouldn't help Frerin. And for all the risks and difficulties this would no doubt cause… he was rather looking forward to it.
Shaking his head, Bilbo closed the guest room window and then went to his own room, to rummage through his closet for something that might fit Frerin. The dwarf was taller than him by a head's worth, easily, but he was thinner than Bilbo, so some of his shirts would fit him – they'd even be loose. All of Bilbo's trousers were of hobbit make, of course, and so reached only slightly below the knee, but they'd be better than nothing.
With a stack of clothing with him, Bilbo went to knock at the bathroom door. "Frerin?" he asked. "Are you done? I've some clean clothing for you that might fit."
"I'm just about finished," the dwarf answered and then coughed. "Not entirely sure about getting up though. Your bathtub has high sides, Master Baggins."
Bilbo smiled and opened the door. Frerin grinned at him sheepishly as Bilbo moved to his side, to help him out of the tub. "There you go," Bilbo said, once the dwarf was on his feet beside the tub, and quickly reached for a towel. It was testament to Frerin's tiredness that he only gave Bilbo a grateful look when the hobbit went about towelling him dry, spending some time squeezing as much water as he could out of the dwarf's hair and beard.
Frerin looked at him with a faint smile, as Bilbo reached for another towel to finish drying his hair. "Hobbit hospitality with hobbit kindness and hobbit gentleness. This Middle Earth would be a much different place, if there were more people like you in it," he commented sleepily.
Bilbo glanced at his deep blue eyes and shook his head. "If there were more people like me in Middle Earth, Master Dwarf, then on the whole there would be far fewer people in it," he commented.
After he'd gotten Frerin into the ill-fitting clothing, Bilbo helped him into the guest room, and to stretch himself on the bed. Frerin let out a slow, shuddering sigh at the feel of it, sinking into the mattress with a look of wonder on his face, and Bilbo couldn't help but wonder how long it had been for the dwarf, since he'd last slept in a bed.
"I'm still not sure I believe this," Frerin murmured quietly, his eyes low lidded, already drifting off. "I'm still not sure I am not dreaming this. Maybe I've been knocked on the head and these are my last dreams. Such strange, sweet dreams that they are…"
With that he fell asleep. Bilbo looked over him a moment before sighing and pulling a duvet over him and quietly retreating from the room.
Frerin was stiff and sore the next morning, far too used to hard ground to bear the softness of a mattress so suddenly. "Still, it was an experience I would not soon exchange for what I'm used to," Frerin said with a grin as he rubbed at his shoulder. "It was like falling asleep on a cloud, side effects aside."
"Well, I'm glad you rested at least somewhat well," Bilbo said, while placing a plate in front of him.
"What is this?" Frerin asked, looking at the two bread rolls on his plate.
"That, sir, is stuffed bread," Bilbo said, sitting down across from Frerin and lifting the top off his bread, to reveal the insides. "Eggs, ham, some veggies, mashed potatoes… a bit of this and that. Give it a taste."
"I've never heard of such a thing," Frerin murmured and carefully took the first bread roll. He bit into it cautiously and his eyes shot up. "Oh, it's good," he said, looking at it. "Very good. Very handy too. Wherever did you get such an idea?"
Bilbo shrugged, smiling as he bit into his own stuffed bread roll. "It's a common leftover recipe," he explained. He'd figured it would be easier for Frerin to eat, rather than something he'd need to use cutlery for, too, but he wouldn't say that aloud, and risk insulting his guest. "I can make more, if you want seconds."
Frerin nodded and bit into his bread. He looked at Bilbo thoughtfully as he ate. "I suppose we ought to talk," he then said. "About compensation and such."
"Compensation for what?" Bilbo asked, surprised.
The hobbit blinked at that. "My hospitality was freely offered and is freely given," he then said. "And that is that. I don't ask anything for it."
"I slept in your guestroom, I'm eating your food – my being here is not free for you," Frerin commented. "Surely you want to be paid for your troubles."
"I don't," Bilbo assured him. "I'm not a poor hobbit; I can spare the expenses for this and much more. As it is, to be asked payment for simple hospitality, well. It would be rude. It is not the way of hobbits."
The dwarf arched an eyebrow at that. "So you're like elves in that respect?" he asked curiously.
"I suppose," Bilbo said thoughtfully. "We're not so wealthy maybe and we do use money, but for us hospitality is never a matter of… of trade. Rather, it is a natural part of life. It is simply expected – if you can afford to give it, of course."
"And no one ever asks anything in return?" Frerin asked slowly.
"Well. Some might, if they're feeling spiteful. I don't," Bilbo said, looking at the dwarf thoughtfully. "But should it ease your mind, then consider your company payment enough," he said and when Frerin gave him a blankly disbelieving look, Bilbo motioned around the house. "It is a quiet smial I live in. Companionship and amiable conversation… would be most welcome."
"Well, that I have plenty of," Frerin said with a smile. "But I hope you don't mind if I still look into paying you back somehow. It might take me a while, but one day I hope to return what I've gained."
"Let the one day come as it might, then. There is no rush," Bilbo said with a faint smile of his own and a shake of his head. He got it right, with Frerin. Cheerful and shockingly casual he might be even with his sad history, and yet there was dwarven pride in him too.
They ate their bread and Frerin did not ask for seconds so Bilbo cleared their plates and then fixed them some tea, getting some of the scones and biscuits he'd made the previous weekend from the pantry. Frerin accepted them with surprise and delight, and though he was obviously not one to usually drink tea, he accepted his cup too.
"So," the dwarf said. "If you don't mind, what is the business with you being an Underhill but a Baggins too, and why is it secret? Or have you already told me too much and I should mind my own business?"
"I have told you too much," Bilbo answered thoughtfully, considering him. "And I should not have told you my name. Did you tell the dwarrowdams?"
"I told them your name, but not where you lived," Frerin admitted apologetically. "We came to the conclusion that Master Underhill must be a title of some sort."
Bilbo hummed at that and then nodded. "Well, I suppose the damage is already done," he said. "Underhill is a title, yes, given to a special sort of… watchmen of the Shire," he then said. "Secret watchmen, I should say. We are not, actually, Bounders as I told you – but we often use Bounders as cover for our work, whenever people see us ply our… craft."
"That craft being… the hunting of orcs?" Frerin asked thoughtfully.
"And any other unpleasant and troublesome people that might come to the Shire, yes," Bilbo agreed, resting his cheek on his hand. "The Shire is not rich by the way of metals of jewels, but it is wealthy in its own way, in the way of food. And we are a small and soft sort of people. Easy pickings for someone stronger looking for an easy land to inhabit. And the Shire would've already been invaded long ago if we Underhills did not do what we do."
"Ah," Frerin said in realisation. "So that's why you were hunting the orcs. Not because of what they did, but what they might do. Again like elves."
Bilbo nodded, smiling faintly. "It's not a respectable sort of service we offer, but it is a necessary one for the Shire's safety," he said. "And only effective so long as people outside do not know that we exist."
"The rangers knew," the dwarf commented.
"They do. A number of actual Bounders are in the know as well. That is how we Underhills know when and where we're needed. They track movement around the Shire's borders," Bilbo shrugged. "They're our ears and eyes out there. And when troublesome folk cross over into the Shire, they let us know."
"And then you take care of it," Frerin mused and nodded. "And because you're unknown, no one knows to expect you, and so everyone who comes here with ill intentions doesn't anticipate much resistance from the locals, making them easy targets. That is rather ingenious. Are all Underhills as skilled as you?"
Bilbo's eyebrows lifted slightly at that. "As skilled as me?"
"I saw you in the trees," Frerin said. "When you killed the orcs. You shoot like an elf and you move like one too, if not even better. On top of that you carried with you an arsenal of hidden weapons and I've no doubt you know how to use them too. And you move silently when you don't intentionally go out of your way to make noise. You've had training, lifelong training, to make you so lethal."
Bilbo blinked with some surprise. "Ah. Well," he said thoughtfully. "All of those things are expected of an Underhill. If we cannot manage them, then we're not fit for our work," he said. "I am not the best out there, nor am I the worst."
"Incredible," Frerin murmured, shaking his head. "And impressive too."
Bilbo smiled and sipped his tea. "You've training too. You must've, to have a command in war," he said. "Though if the memory is too painful, then feel free to ignore my nosiness."
"No, you answered my question, I might as well return the favour," Frerin said, scratching at the roots of his still somewhat messy blond beard. "I was trained, yes. In many things, fighting and leading among them. I, ah…" he grinned sheepishly. "Well, you might not believe it, looking at me now but I was the grandson of a king, once upon a time."
"You're a prince?" Bilbo asked mildly.
"Of a kingdom that I suppose is no more," Frerin said. "Of Erebor that we lost, long ago. Ah, it doesn't matter anymore. I was rather young when we lost Erebor and with it our right to call ourselves royalty. I was still trained to remember what I was, to fight and to lead – largely by my brother who was not really all that much older than me, but infinitely more mature regardless of his age. He taught me to wield swords and axes and even a bow if need be, though not with your efficiency. And he taught me to lead dwarrows in battle."
Bilbo nodded slowly, not sure how he believed all of it, but Frerin spoke without boast, only with the calm, casual confidence of truth. "And the battle in which you were captured?"
"We were homeless back then, my kin and I," Frerin said thoughtfully. "So my grandfather turned to look upon holdings long lost by dwarves. We thought we could claim a lost dwarven kingdom and make it our home – Khazad-dûm, what men call Moria. Our kind used to live in it, my ancestors carved the stone of the Misty Mountains and it was a rich sort of place. But it was lost… long ago, much like we lost Erebor, to our greed."
There was a distant look in Frerin's eyes for a moment and Bilbo swallowed his questions until the dwarf shook his head. "Our grandfather was desperate, and so we marched on the gates of Moria, to reclaim it from the orcs that hade infested it. We… failed," he said with a grim smile. "I saw many of my friends and relatives, people I had survived the loss of Erebor with, fall. I fell too, and when I woke, I was one of two hundred captured, inside the very kingdom we had tried to claim. A prisoner in those great vaulted halls…"
Frerin snorted softly. "So I suppose whatever training I got was not quite enough," he said with a smile. "Though even if I had had your archery skills back then, I doubt it would've been enough. We were outnumbered and still overconfident and badly led for all that my brother tried to instil order and control into the chaos of that battle. Our grandfather was many things, but a genius general he was not. And my father was… too easily led where my grandfather would lead."
"Were they captured too?" Bilbo asked quietly.
"That I don't know," Frerin admitted, staring at his tea cup. "But I never saw them in Moria, or wherever else we were taken. I don't know if they survived the battle either. Grandfather did not – I saw him beheaded. I do not know how my father and brother fared."
They were quiet for a moment, Bilbo digesting what he'd learned. He wasn't sure how much of it he believed but… there was an echo of truth in it, in the way Frerin spoke it, with the understated grief of many years passed in pain and torment and ignorance. "I'm sorry," he finally offered. "Such things don't happen here, I cannot even imagine it, but I am still sorry it happened to you."
Frerin looked up and smiled. "I'm alive. I'm saved, I'm free. And I can take comfort in the fact that nine dwarrowdams survived," he said and shrugged one shoulder. "It's not much, perhaps. But it's a sort of richness too."
Bilbo agreed with a silent nod and bit into his scone, trying and failing to imagine what it must be like, what it must've been like – what it had to be now, for Frerin, with all that behind him. He swallowed and said nothing about it. "When you went to the ranger station, were you seen to by anyone?" he asked. "I mean your injuries."
"My injuries are old and already healed. Not much a healer can do about them," Frerin said, shaking his head.
"So that's a no?" Bilbo asked and nodded, finishing his tea and standing up. "I'll call the doctor, then, and we'll see if there's anything we can do about them."
Frerin looked up at him and for a moment Bilbo thought he'd argue against him. But in the end the dwarf smiled. "Thank you, Master Hobbit," he said. "Even if there is nothing to be done, I… appreciate it."
"Bilbo," the hobbit said, smiling. "Bilbo I think will do just fine."
It was the way of hobbit physicians to visit the homes of their patients more often than not, so the doctor wasn't too surprised to be called to Bag End. Especially considering that he, along with the Master of the Green Dragon, were the only non-Underhills in Hobbiton who knew about Underhills – and about Bilbo's occupation.
He was a bit surprised to find his patient not a hobbit at all, but instead a tired, world weary dwarf who shook his hand with a friendly, if somewhat awkward smile.
Doctor Goodchild looked between Bilbo and Frerin and then, when Bilbo meaningfully tapped at the fourth knuckle of his left hand, he simply nodded. "Well then, let's have a look," the doctor said. "Off with the clothing."
Frerin didn't even blink at that, merely struggled out of his borrowed clothing in Bilbo's sitting room, stripping down to the skin. Bilbo mused he must've gone through enough humiliation in his life that such things simply didn't have the power to faze him anymore, not like they would've fazed a proper hobbit. Even Bilbo himself would've hesitated, in company.
The doctor paid it, or Bilbo's presence, no mind and simply began his examination, checking the old scars and cuts and breaks, before doing the usual check-up of nodes and humours, checking for reflexes and such. Then he spent some time examining Frerin's injured right thigh, testing the scar and the muscle, bending the knee and the ankle this way and that, prodding and poking at the hip where the scar began. The hands took almost as long, as the doctor carefully tested and catalogued their damage and mobility, rubbing and prodding at Frerin's forearms, having him clench and unclench his fingers as well as he could.
"Well," the doctor finally said. "There's not much to be done about most of it. The fifth and fourth fingers of your left hand are a loss – the tendons have been cut, nothing we can do about that," he said, rubbing at the back of Frerin's left hand. "The middle one still seems to have some response left, with time and patience you might train it to work again, but it has to be done slowly and carefully – the tendon's nearly been severed too. On your left hand, you've got mallet fractures. The tendons are broken off the bones, which makes the fingers curl."
"Can it be fixed?" Bilbo asked, even as he served the doctor some tea and snacks as was the custom.
"That depends. The injury looks to be old, but we can try," the doctor said, biting into a scone and scowling in concentration. "Dwarves heal differently from hobbits, so there might be something that we can do. I'll be splinting the fingers in any case and there's some medicine I'll be prescribing, which might help."
"Thank you, doctor," Frerin said and then glanced down at his hands. "And… the shaking?"
"That I can't say much about yet. It might be caused by injury, or your malnourishment and muscle atrophy," the doctor said thoughtfully. "At a guess… do you sleep on your right side?"
"Yes, mostly," Frerin said, blinking.
"Then it's possible that you are pressing down on the pathways of your senses in your sleep, which puts a strain on your hand and causes the tremors," the doctor said. "You could try sleeping on your back or on the other side, see if it does anything. But aside from that I cannot say much until you're in better health."
"I will try to sleep on my back, then," Frerin said thoughtfully. "And the leg?"
"That's tricky business. The injury runs deep, nearly to the bone," Doctor Goodchild said, running a hand over the scar. "And the damage to the muscles is very severe. The long malnutrition and lack of exercise don't help. Still, you've some support and strength left and it doesn't seem that any tendons or nerves were irreversibly damaged. So there is a chance that with proper exercise and treatment, you might increase the mobility. However," he added quickly. "I doubt very much you can get the leg back to the way it was. You will always have your limp, Master Dwarf. But with treatment we might lessen it."
There were other injuries the doctor went over – scars that pained the dwarf, which the doctor assigned treatments for. Frerin also had some injury to his back when he'd been hit more than fifty years ago, which made it difficult for the dwarf to stand perfectly straight. For that, Doctor Goodchild assigned a movement regime, same as for the leg – that, and a series of massages that would loosen the muscles.
"It's hard to say how bad the damage is, not before you gain some strength and muscle. A lot of your disability is due to the fact that your muscles are so atrophied," the doctor said. "Are you staying in Hobbiton for long? If you are, then I'll be able to tell you more in three or four months, once you have your strength back."
"I don't know how long I'll be staying," Frerin admitted, glancing up at Bilbo.
"As long as you want to, Frerin," Bilbo promised, resting a hand on Frerin's shoulder.
The doctor looked between them and nodded briskly. "Well then, Master Baggins. I'll fix the medicines and salves for you to use today. You can pick them up tomorrow morning. In the meanwhile, feed your dwarf properly," he said and stood up, looking at Frerin. "Go out for walks if you can manage it, and if not then walk around the smial at least a little every day. If you can manage it, any sort of muscle exercise is good – but only in moderation. Don't push your limits."
"I won't. Thank you, doctor," Frerin said with some relief. "Thank you very much."
"Yes, thank you Doctor Goodchild," Bilbo added after squeezing Frerin's shoulder and then showed the doctor to the door.
"That dwarf has been through a lot," the doctor commented. "Torture, among other things. A lot of those injuries… aren't battle injuries, or accidental. Most of them were caused for the sake of the scars they left. Others for the crippling effect."
"Yes," Bilbo said simply, and didn't elaborate.
Doctor Goodchild frowned slightly, considering the Bag End hall. "Keep a close eye on him," he said. "If he's been through what I think he's been through, then gods only know the effect it has had on his mind. He might seem well off, but such hurts linger in the mind sometimes even worse than on the body."
"I'll keep it in mind, thank you," Bilbo said and bid his goodbyes to the doctor, promising to come and fetch the medicine next morning.
"Well," Frerin said when Bilbo returned to his side. "It seems I'm not about to die."
"No you're not," Bilbo agreed with a smile, while picking up Frerin's clothing from the table where he'd left them and offering them to the dwarf. "You'll have a long life yet ahead of you."
Frerin accepted the clothing and eyed them, before looking at his right hand, trying to flex the fingers. The crooked fingers twitched slightly, but would not unbend, would not stop shaking. "Do you reckon I can ever use a sword again? Or a hammer?"
"I don't know," Bilbo said honestly. "Time will tell, I suppose. And you are welcome to stay here until it does."
The next day Bilbo got Frerin his medicine – and consequently, got all but mobbed by curious hobbits on his way in and out of the village. Relatives and friends of the family and people he'd never had much cause to talk to or particularly like, well wishers and gossipers and all the nosy busybodies who felt like no business was true business unless they had their say about it.
"A dwarf, Master Baggins?!" seemed to be the core of all their inquiries, all of them too numerous for him to keep track. It was spoken with varying levels of curiosity and outrage, with hushed excitement and horror and everything in between.
"Yes, a dwarf," Bilbo said. "An amiable sort of fellow I met during a business venture and to whom I extended my hospitality to – and who now has accepted my invitation."
It was hard to put a boring spin to something like a dwarf in Hobbiton but Bilbo had by now years of practice in being just that, boring and dull. He painted the meeting with Frerin in all the greyest and most dull tones, lying through his teeth the whole time, working the crowd more with a monotonous tone of voice than with the words themselves.
It was hard even for the nosiest of hobbits to remain excited about gossip when it was delivered with all the excitement one would give for a bit of banking or a matter of the law.
"How long will he be staying then?" Otho Sackville-Baggins demanded.
"As long as he wants to," Bilbo answered calmly. "Now excuse me, I've a breakfast to fix."
Frerin was still asleep in the guest room when Bilbo made it back, which was just as well. By the time he woke up. Bilbo had some egg and bacon sandwiches fixed up, and was idly going through the labels Doctor Goodchild had written on the bottles and small jars he'd brought with him. Most of them were salves to be rubbed on varying injuries – this for an old painful scar, that for a burn, the third for the leg, a fourth for the left hand and this for the right to be rubbed in a massage, and so on. There were two orally taken medicines. Painkillers for bad days, to be stirred in tea. Another for muscle cramps, if Frerin got them. And something that would help relaxing the muscles and tendons, but which ought to be only taken before bed.
"Good morning, Bilbo. Any of that for me?" Frerin asked when he finally limped out of the guest room, looking a little less worn and tired this morning.
"Quite a bit of it is for you," Bilbo said, standing and pulling Frerin a chair before going to fetch the sandwiches from the oven where he'd put them to stay warm. "Would you like tea, or a glass of milk?"
"Milk would probably do me better," Frerin said, sinking into his seat. Bilbo set the plate in front of him and then fetched a bottle of milk from the cool larder, pouring Frerin a large glass before sitting down again.
Frerin was eyeing the sandwiches. "You know, you don't need to make finger food on my account," the dwarf commented idly. "I can manage a spoon or a fork, if I have to."
"It's no trouble," Bilbo assured him. "And there are fewer dishes to be washed afterwards, which is just as well. Look, here's the medicine Doctor Goodchild prepared for you," he added, pushing the containers closer to the dwarf. "After breakfast you might wish to try some, if your injuries bother you."
Frerin hummed and examined the labels as he ate. "I think I might," he said thoughtfully, lingering on the jar for aching scars. "I… would appreciate your help in it. I've scars on my back I can't quite reach."
"Of course," Bilbo smiled, and bit into his own sandwich.
After breakfast, they settled in the sitting room where Frerin stripped off the night clothes Bilbo had lent him, and Bilbo went about cleaning and treating the old scars. The ones on Frerin's back were the very epitome of unkindness – they're long and thin and ugly, puckered and badly healed. And caused not by a blade or a burning iron, but by what Bilbo had to assume had been a whip.
Bilbo's fingers shook ever so slightly as he spread some of the cool ointment along the long scars, and very resolutely he made no comment on them. And yet he felt what might be the beginning of anger and outrage on Frerin's behalf – and something like righteousness. For the first time since he'd become an Underhill, Bilbo considered vengeance.
He swallowed it, and finished his job on Frerin's back. "Anything else that bothers you?" Bilbo asked.
"If you don't mind, we might as well finish the job now that it's started, and try the other ones," Frerin answered, rolling his shoulders and making his shoulder blades rotate under the scarred skin. Bilbo stared at them with surprised fascination, at the hint of long muscles that showed beneath the scarred skin. "That feels better," Frerin said, glancing over his shoulder. "Your doctor fixes good medicine."
"That he does," Bilbo said, his mouth oddly dry all of a sudden, and looked away, to the other jars.
He took care of the rest of Frerin's scars, massaging the cooling ointment into them before switching to another jar. He tended to the long scar on Frerin's right thigh, trying not to react to the way Frerin hissed out a relieved breath when the salve took effect. After that he massaged the dwarf's hands, one at a time, with their respective salves.
"Does it help?" he asked, running his thumb over the severed tendons of the left hand.
"Mmm," Frerin answered, staring at him. "Hard to say. I suppose they feel a little less like lumps of meat. Am I putting you off, Bilbo Baggins?"
Bilbo jerked his head up. "What?" he asked.
"You've gone a little stiff," the dwarf commented with a smile that had a hint of disquiet in it.
"No, you're not putting me off," Bilbo said and swallowed. "It merely… it makes me sad and angry on your behalf, to see these," he said, looking down to the scars that, when they had been fresh, had severed the tendons and rendered the hands crippled. "I… feel rather like venturing out in search for goblins that haven't even crossed over to the Shire," he admitted uneasily. It wasn't all he felt, no. But what else he felt, he wasn't entirely sure.
Only, the sight of Frerin sitting there, on his armchair, shirtless and without trousers, made his tongue feel very dry and clumsy.
Frerin's expression cleared and his smile widened. "If you'd found those responsible and put arrows in their throats too, I wouldn't mind it," he said. "But perhaps it would be better if you didn't. It's a long way to Moria, from here, and not entirely worth the trip."
Doctor Goodchild had given him instructions for the sort of muscle exercises Frerin should try, and a number of stretches for the bad leg that would do it good. After Bilbo was done with the salves, he helped Frerin with the exercises, most of which involved nothing more taxing than repeating a certain kind of movement, lifting an arm this way and that, holding it out so, pulling it in, and holding it out again, and so on. The leg stretches Frerin had to do lying down, so they moved to the couch and while Frerin went about trying to complete the set, Bilbo was at his side, helping as much as he could.
"Such little movements and already they tire me," the dwarf muttered as Bilbo pushed at his foot, trying to help him bend the scarred knee. "This is going to take a while."
It would – the exercise regime would take months, and the doctor suggested that Frerin get used to the idea that he would have to do some of them for the rest of his life to maintain his mobility. Bilbo said nothing about it, trying to look away from Frerin's foot, small and hairless as it was.
If an undressed Frerin on his armchair was bad, the sight of him lying on his couch, a mess of golden hair spilling everywhere, was downright distracting.
While Frerin's existence in Bag End caused all sorts of fuss outside the smial, inside it Bilbo and Frerin fell into a sort of pattern of easy co-existence that took Bilbo entirely by surprise.
Of course, his welcome had been without reservation and he genuinely did not mind having Frerin around. But after the first couple of days of awkwardness, he found himself at ease with it in a way that he hadn't expected to be. Frerin was simply very easy to be around – the bouts of furious righteousness the sight of his scars caused aside. The dwarf was quick with a smile and grin, and their conversation, while somewhat stilted on Bilbo's part, was always very uncomplicated and pleasant. It had something to do with Frerin's brightness and carelessness.
If Frerin had been casually positive before, even at his weakest, he only grew more so as the days went on, and he got some colour to his cheeks. Bilbo found with some surprise that Frerin could relax even more, and once he did, he was quick with a funny tale or a joke of things before Moria – tales of Erebor and in the exile since and the mischief he'd gotten into there, playing tricks on his entirely too serious brother and sister who, according to him, had been all too grim and severe for anyone's good.
"You have a sister?" Bilbo asked.
"Dís. She was younger than I, when we lost Erebor – I don't think she remembered much of it, and the life on the road was all she knew," Frerin admitted. "Our elder brother all but raised her by himself, with Grandfather and Father so busy trying to make right by us. She grew very wary because of it, very stern. Thorin's seriousness rubbed off on her all too well."
Bilbo got the feeling that Frerin, out of sheer need to counterbalance his family's solemnity, had gone on messing about as much as he could – trying to cheer them up, make life feel less grim for them. "Someone had to," Frerin said when he made the observation. He smiled at the memory. "I literally used to pull her braids, just to make her shout at me. And I used to prod and bother Thorin at every campsite until I managed to get a song out of him – never an easy task, after Erebor."
Sometimes – but only rarely – Frerin spoke of the orcs of Moria, and the dwarves imprisoned there. The tales never spoke of the horrors he must've been though, only of the odd moments of amusement. They were all painted in shadow and pain and the amusement was a cutting vicious sort, but Bilbo never begrudged him for it. Something about the tales of orcs crushed under falling pillars because they foolishly had thought to remove them, or falling off ledges because they were too busy snarling at the dwarves to look at where they were going, well. They seemed to ease Frerin a bit. And Bilbo had to admit, there was something very satisfying about tales of orcs dying due to their own stupidity.
But mostly Frerin spoke of other things.
And sometimes… sometimes he sang. Dwarvish songs, when they weren't uproarious to the point of ridiculousness, were sombre and deep – much like Bilbo imagined their mines and underground homes must've been. Frerin's voice was still somewhat dry and likely to break at inopportune moments, but he didn't let that hold him back. When Frerin felt like singing, Frerin simply sang – and when he did, Bilbo could hear the echo of the grand, low bass he once had been and could very well imagine the echo of Frerin's voice in the grand halls of Erebor.
It was at Frerin's cheerful nagging that Bilbo himself sang for the first time in many years. He hadn't had much cause to sing since the death of his parents, but Frerin, when he got something into his head, was very persuasive. "I've sang for you," the dwarf wheedled. "The least you can do is returning the favour."
So, in return for the song of the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo sang him the Walking Song, his voice almost as rusty as Frerin's and cracking by the time he was done – and he'd quite forgotten some of the lyrics and had to replace them along the way, though he doubt Frerin could tell.
"Quite the pair of singers we make," Frerin commented at the end of it, while Bilbo gurgled water to get rid of the itch in his throat. But of course once Bilbo had sang for him once, he had to sing more – and so it somehow turned into a settled way to end the night, to sing by the fireplace whatever songs they could remember, their voices growing a little steadier as they went on.
It was… surprisingly nice. It was the sort of companionship that Bilbo hadn't had since his mother had faded away. He wasn't quite sure what to do with it, what to do with Frerin. Half of the time all he could do was stare at the dwarf as he went over some tale of his youth, quite bewitched by the easy smile and the shine of the dwarf's eyes, the way his hair gleamed in the fire light.
So, days stretched into a week and then two. By that time the rumours about the dwarf in Bag End hadn't quite died down, and the day when Frerin asked if Bilbo would show him around Hobbiton, there were still plenty of curious eyes to look on – and many a whispered word, passed from ear to ear in the cover of a palm not quite big enough to hide the wagging of tongues.
By that point, Bilbo was quite beyond caring what people thought of him, concerning Frerin. And Frerin, well…
It was impossible for even the most suspicious of hobbits to dislike Frerin. The dwarf, now that he had his strength back, was a shameless flatterer and did not shirk from using his silver tongue in worming his way into everyone's good graces. And he'd been listening to Bilbo closely enough to know just how to flatter a disgruntled hobbit.
"What a fine land you have here, I'm quite fortunate in getting to enjoy it," he'd say and, "The food here is no doubt the best I've had in a century and more. The way you hobbits grow your vegetables is quite extraordinary," and, "I've never enjoyed such fine hospitality, you hobbits know how to properly treat guests," and, "oh those turnips were from your field? Why they were the best I've ever had," and "your corn is quite the richest I've ever tasted," and, "you make the ale Bilbo buys? It's the finest I've had in my long life."
Bilbo walked at his side, watching on as Frerin made his way into everyone's good graces with open smiles and easy compliments, winning over even Otho Sackville-Baggins by congratulating him on the good fortune he had in managing to catch the eye of Lobelia Bracegirdle – and vice versa.
"I think you somehow made them even more besotted with each other than they already were," Bilbo murmured with some dismay, the Sackville-Bagginses not being anywhere near his favourite cousins.
"This Middle Earth could do with more love," Frerin commented idly, watching two of the most unpleasant of hobbits turn to each other with stars in their eyes.
Of course, one venture out did nothing to quell the rumours about Frerin, but it went a long way in turning them from the outraged whispers of scandalous dwarves into something… not quite nice, but a little less vile. Some hobbits of Hobbiton even decided that they did not mind the cheerful, scarred dwarf – that they might even grow to like him, if he was always so agreeable.
Bilbo had no doubt they would. Frerin was very likeable. He made everything seem simply… better, by just being around – and how he managed that with his horrible history, Bilbo had no idea. If anything, that made it all the more effective. But the longer Frerin was around, the better everything somehow seemed. Bag End seemed to have gained colour and light just from Frerin's presence, and outside the sun seemed brighter, the wind warmer and the plant life greener, just for the pleasure of having Frerin there to enjoy it.
And Bilbo, seeing it all up close, was utterly helpless in resisting the pull of Frerin's charm.
It was the third week, when Bilbo was called to work for the first time since Frerin had been there. A messenger bird brought the missive late in the evening, bearing the account of about half a dozen men seen east of Hobbiton – they had already stolen from Frogmorton, killed at least two dogs, and beaten a Bounder that had tried to face them.
"What is it?" Frerin asked, seeing Bilbo's expression.
"Work," Bilbo said, reading the descriptions of the men closely and then holding the paper in the light of a candle, to burn it. He then looked at Frerin, not sure how to handle this. "I, ah. Well. You know something of my occupation."
Frerin's eyebrows arched a little. "I do," he said. "A little, though you've been hesitant in sharing so I have not pried. But work, for you, entails the deaths of… intruders. Or so I've come to understand."
"Well. Yes, that's quite right," Bilbo agreed, rubbing at his neck. Why was this awkward all of a sudden? Frerin knew what he did; he'd seen it first-hand. And it wasn't as if Bilbo was hesitant in leaving Frerin alone in Bag End, he'd done it before. But somehow, for the last weeks, he'd been more Bilbo Baggins than he'd been an Underhill, and the sudden return of, well, reality somehow made him uncomfortable.
"Are you… likely to be in danger?" Frerin asked with a slight frown.
"No, not usually. That time with your kin and the orcs was an unusual occurrence," Bilbo said thoughtfully. "Normally we're not seen, when we go about our business, and I doubt I will be tonight either."
Frerin looked at him and Bilbo looked back, somehow at a loss for words. He cleared his throat. "I should prepare," he said.
"Can I see?" Frerin asked eagerly.
Three weeks ago, Bilbo would've said no right away. Now, well. Now he was quite unable to say no to Frerin when the matter was something so simple and harmless. So, Bilbo took him through the hidden door, and into the ready room – and if he got a bit of pleasure in Frerin's surprised intake of breath, well, Frerin needed not know.
"I thought I had seen all of Bag End by now, and yet I had no notion there was such a room here," Frerin murmured, staring at the wall where weapons and the other tools of the Underhill's trade had been hung.
"It is hidden for a reason," Bilbo shrugged, while easing out of his evening robe and sleep wear, and into something sturdier. Trousers made of stiff, hardy cloth, a shirt with somewhat slimmer sleeves than hobbits usually preferred. As he did, Frerin saw and stared at the bracer on Bilbo's left arm, his eyes slightly wide.
"I hadn't noticed you wearing such a thing," the dwarf commented and tilted his golden head to the side curiously. "Why only one?"
Bilbo glanced at him and then lifted his left arm. As Frerin watched, he pressed the trigger on the bracer with his middle finger and promptly the hidden blade sprung out, between his third and fifth finger, and through the gap of the missing fourth finger.
"The mark of an Underhill," Bilbo explained while Frerin moved forward in interest, to examine the bracer and the blade. "I never go without it, and only undress it for bed."
"How very clever," Frerin murmured, turning Bilbo's hand and examining the trigger in fascination. "A hidden blade. There's a spring system, yes? Ah, here," he said, perking up slightly as he wound the winch, and wound the blade back in. "This is excellent craftsmanship. And all Underhills have one?"
"All of them, yes," Bilbo said and held his fingers out, displaying the gap. "If you ever see a hobbit without a fourth finger on their left hand, then you know them to be of my Brotherhood."
"And it is always the left hand?" Frerin asked.
"Well, there is a lass in Tookbank, left handed, so the finger missing is on her right hand, but she as far as I know is the only one," Bilbo said, shrugging and then turning to pick up his brigandine from the wall, donning it with adjusted motions, pulling the straps at the sides tight. Frerin watched intently, as Bilbo checked his knife belt and then laid all of his weapons out along the table, numerous knives and darts and a few throwing needles though he didn't use them often.
"You always carry such an arsenal?" the dwarf asked curiously, stepping closer to examine the knives. They weren't quite a set – there were a few pairs among them, but most of them were mismatched, some thicker, some longer, some heavier or lighter. All of them Bilbo knew like the backs of his hands, everything from their range of motion and the damage they would do on impact.
"Always," Bilbo nodded, reaching for a large phial full of dark, murky green liquid. "As much as I can carry without weighing myself down."
"What are you doing?" Frerin asked, sounding puzzled as Bilbo took a brush and one of the darts, and began to coat the point.
Bilbo glanced at him. "Poisoning them," he said, watching the dwarf's expression closely.
"You… poison your weapons," Frerin said, frowning.
"Yes, always," Bilbo agreed quietly.
The dwarf said nothing for a moment, struggling with the notion of poisoned weapons while Bilbo coated the dart needles, and then moved onto the knives. Then Bilbo took his quiver and checked each arrow, coating the sleek arrow heads in the poison as well.
"So," Frerin said quietly, watching him. "Not quite a watchman after all. More an… assassin."
Bilbo nodded, not looking at him. Frerin was broken by life and casual about it now, but at the bottom of it all, he still bore the honour of a dwarf in him, as hidden as it was in his easy way of going about. And assassination was unseemly business, for big folk. If Frerin found Bilbo's work objectionable, well… it wouldn't be a surprise.
"Do you find it distasteful?" the hobbit asked quietly, while rearranging the arrows back into their quiver. Did Frerin find him distasteful?
Frerin said nothing for a moment. "It is something dwarrows do not do. As it is, I've only ever known of one race of beings that do such thing, and that's orcs," he said, looking at Bilbo with an unreadable expression. "It is dishonourable."
"Hobbits aren't an honourable lot," Bilbo said, reciting what his father had told him many times. "We're a practical one."
"Yes, I think I see that," Frerin said quietly. "Who are you… who is your target, tonight? Orcs?"
Bilbo smiled at him. "Would that ease your mind?" he asked. "To know that such tactics are used on those who used them first?"
Frerin nodded, swallowing thickly. "Yes, it would."
"Then it won't, to know that it's men," Bilbo answered. "Half a dozen of them, who stole from the farms of another village further east, killed animals and hurt a Bounder who aimed to turn them away."
"But they haven't killed anyone?" Frerin asked.
Bilbo looked at him levelly. "If it is up to us, we don't give them the chance," he said. "We take care of them before they do irreparable damage. That is what the Underhills are for. That is what I am for, that is my purpose. If they come to the Shire with ill intentions, then we give them ill and nothing else."
Frerin met his eyes with a slight frown on his face. Bilbo stared back, not giving an inch. "They know our lands are protected when they come here," he said, "They know that people with ill intentions simply disappear in the woods of the Shire. We cultivate the rumours, we spread them, give them life – have travellers take them with them when they pass through. If a man takes the road and deals with the people here fairly, then he is safe and we do not bother him. But if he hides in the woods and roams the countryside, thieving and robbing, then…"
"Considering all I know of hobbits, that seems… very merciless," Frerin said, but his posture wasn't quite so stiff.
"A few of us must be merciless, so that the rest can be merciful," Bilbo said, shrugging his shoulders. "The Shire is a peaceful place. And peace, well. Peace has its price."
"Ah," the dwarf said and nodded. "I understand."
Bilbo relaxed a bit too, and continued making his gear ready. Frerin remained quiet and thoughtful while Bilbo wrapped his knife belt on his waist and readied the quiver before turning to a hook on the wall, where his coat hung.
His grandfather had had the coat made in celebration of Bilbo's fifth year as an Underhill. It was a clever design, carefully made to look like dark red velvet, when in fact it was dyed suede, and quite hardy and stiff. At the neck it had a white cloth that could easily be mistaken for a neck cloth – but which could be pulled up, and into a hood. And, of course, the entire coat was lined with straps and hidden pockets, all of which found use in carrying Bilbo's poisons and darts and extra knives and other useful things an Underhill might need on the field.
Frerin watched him as Bilbo strapped his rapier to his left side, and his quiver to his right. With one last check up of his gear, Bilbo took his bow and turned to face the dwarf.
"Well?" he asked. "What do you think of me now, Frerin?"
"Do you know, the cultivation of land is an uneasy business for a dwarf," Frerin said thoughtfully, making the Underhill blink with confusion. "Plants are changeable. We're used to rocks being rocks, metals being metals. We're straightforward beings and we're used to things being… simple. But plants…" he shook his head. "Plants are fragile and they change and in the mean time they creep into the cracks on mountainsides and loosen the rock – all the while making loose earth on the other side as solid as stone. And they're deceptive. The weakest, most unassuming plants have been the death of many a dwarf who knew nothing of their poisons. Berries mistaken for something safe can deliver a death more merciless than any blade. A beautiful flower given to a dwarrowdam can be her undoing, when she goes to sniff it."
Frerin smiled faintly. "People who can make plants grow make us uneasy, because we're not good with plants, we cannot easily tell which is safe and which isn't," he admitted. "And so the Shire has made me troubled, the cunning of the people when it comes to things that grow has made me a little ill at ease. But I think… I think I understand the Shire a little better, knowing what you are."
"You do?" Bilbo asked, a little confused.
The dwarf nodded. "You are the deceptive flower in the garden of the Shire," he said with a smile.
Bilbo swallowed a little at that, at the look Frerin was giving him. The dwarf certainly had a way with words. "Well. Thank you, I suppose," he said awkwardly, resting his left hand on the hilt of his rapier. "I should go. I have work to do."
"How long will it take you, do you know?" Frerin asked, as they stepped out of the ready room and into the hall where Bilbo hid the door once more.
"I should be back before morrow," Bilbo said.
"I will see you then," the dwarf said, looking at him still with that strange look in his eyes. Like dark fire, shadowy and bright and secretive all at once. "Take care, Mister Underhill."
Something changed after that night, though Bilbo couldn't quite put a finger on what.
On the outside, everything looked the same. Frerin was moving a little easier and so taking more trips outside, to meet the people of the Shire who were fast becoming besotted with the dwarf's easy manner. In the meanwhile, he was also moving easier in Bag End, and was now insisting on helping Bilbo with whatever chores he could, sweeping and carrying firewood and occasionally helping Bilbo even in the kitchen, by carefully peeling vegetables and chopping them.
"You don't need to," Bilbo assured him.
"It helps, doing something with my fingers," the dwarf said and held out his right hand. "See?" It shook quite a bit less than it used to.
Frerin's limp was easing a bit too. Though he still walked with an uneven gait and always would, it was less pronounced now and less pained. Bilbo was glad to see it – and that his attempts in feeding the dwarf as much as he could were having an effect. Frerin was still a bony, starved looking thing, but not quite as much as he used to be. He definitely had more colour in his cheeks – Bilbo admired it often, the way it made his dark blue eyes gleam.
The hobbits of Hobbiton seemed to agree, congratulating Bilbo on his success there and then offering him discounts on their good foods, so that he could keep up the good work. By that time, Frerin had stopped being that dwarf that lives in Bag End and was just Frerin now – and if anyone asked, he was Frerin the dwarf of Hobbiton, and that was that.
Sure there were a few who did not like it – some who thought it improper to have a dwarf around. Bilbo heard rumours that circulated out of Hobbiton and back in, grown in the telling and swollen by the journey they'd taken. In the neighbouring villages they had heard of Frerin, and considered him the most scandalous thing, a ruffian to be sure, just the worst sort of the lot – despite never having met him. Master Baggins of Bag End they considered obviously mad, for having taken such an individual in. Whatever was he thinking?
Bilbo was thinking, more often than not, how the sunlight made the individual strands of Frerin's hair glow like spun gold, and how there was midnight in the dark blue of Frerin's eyes, and how both of them seemed to glow all the brighter when Frerin smiled. He thought of poetry the way he hadn't thought of it since his father had died – the way he used to, when he'd been young and they'd written songs to amuse themselves and Belladonna. He thought of the pure, raw strength of Frerin's spirit, unbreakable even by the worst of hardships and he wanted to write more than one song for it.
He thought of how Frerin waited through the night when Mister Underhill of Hobbiton was called, how he kept the fire going and how there was always a kettle on the stove and how, when Bilbo came back, Frerin made him tea. It was always a bit too strong, a bit too dark – Frerin added the leaves with too liberal a hand – but it was always welcome, and made sweeter by the merit of the one who made it.
"You stare," Frerin commented, one cool autumn night while they were sitting by the fire, enjoying pastries and mulled wine. They were on the second bottle and the first had proven a tad stronger than advertised.
"Do I?" Bilbo asked and didn't look away, because his heart was light and his thoughts were pleasantly soft and the firelight hit Frerin's cheek just so, lighting it with gold and making his beard gleam and if only Bilbo had the ability to paint…
"You do," the dwarf commented, looking at him with a faint smile. "All the time, regardless of whether you're caught in the act or not. You're almost shameless, Bilbo, which I understand for a hobbit is an improper sort of thing to be."
"I'm already the epitome of improper," Bilbo commented, leaning his cheek on his fingers, and letting his eyes wander on Frerin's face. He was still a wild thing to look at, with his sharp features and generous mane of hair that flowed over his shoulders in waves and curls. Some hobbits likened him to a lion, regardless of the fact that none of them had ever seen such a creature. But if a lion looked like Frerin, then it must be a lovely creature too.
Frerin smiled, a secretive, pleased sort of smile that Bilbo hadn't seen on his lips before – but which looked quite nice there. The dwarf looked away, at the fire and sipped his wine, still smiling. "I've been here some time now," he commented.
"A while, yes," Bilbo agreed. He'd quite lost track – it felt like Frerin had always been there, and yet like no time at all. It had been at least two months now, though, perhaps more. It had been summer when Frerin had come, and it was turning to autumn now.
"I… intended to stay only for as long as it took for me to gain enough strength to travel," Frerin said.
That cut through the pleasant haze like a knife and Bilbo's head jerked up a little. Frerin looked at him and quickly Bilbo tried to smother the sudden stab of chill at his core, too late to not make it plainly obvious. "Yes," Bilbo said, trying not to choke on the word. "That… was your plan originally, wasn't it? And… you've gained your strength now."
"Well, some of it," Frerin agreed, looking at him. "But the strength to travel – that I've had for a while now. I walk as well as I'm ever likely to. I might even manage riding now," he added, rubbing at his thigh through the trousers Bilbo had had tailored for him, which at dwarf length reached his ankles.
Bilbo swallowed and looked away. "I see," he said, and rubbed a hand quickly over his mouth, swallowing again. His throat felt as if someone had wrapped a noose around it and was now fastening it, strangling him. "Should I see if I can find you a –"
"Only," Frerin interrupted him. "Only, I find myself reluctant to leave."
When Bilbo looked at him, the dwarf was looking at him steadily and then quickly away. "I have been asking around… well. You have a smithy in Hobbiton, except Master Burges is getting old and can only work a few hours a day, and has no apprentice to take over. I might never recover the precision I once hand, not with these hands," he said, looking at them, still scarred and still crippled, but getting stronger and steadier by the day. "But in Hobbiton there is no call for jewellery or gem cutting anyway. I might yet manage the forging of tools and fences and candlesticks and whatnot. If nothing else, I ought to be able to beat a dented pot in to proper shape."
Bilbo stared at him in wonder and Frerin grinned at him.
"If you'd have me," the dwarf said. "I would… it would make me very happy."
"Frerin," Bilbo said faintly and then couldn't continue because that sounded like…
"I've not much to offer – nothing, to be honest, but my company and all the troubles I bring," Frerin said with a smile. "But when you stare at me so, it would take a blind man to not know you're interested. You watch me like a hawk, Bilbo, and I've never felt so hunted."
Bilbo opened his mouth, had to take a breath and even then when he spoke his words shook. "Just because I am interested, it doesn't mean… Frerin, you're always welcome here. Regardless of what I might desire," he added. "If you want to stay here, then yes, of course, you can for as long as you live. But you don't need to offer me such things merely because you know I desire them."
"You say it like I don't desire you right back," Frerin said, watching him with that dark fire in his eyes.
"Oh," Bilbo murmured, his eyes going a little wide.
"You have all the allure of honey, Bilbo, and all the sting of a wasp," Frerin murmured, his eyes going low lidded. "You're sweet and strong and deadly and the mixture is so strange that I've been dying for a taste. And who knows, it might kill me. But what a way to go."
"Oh don't say that," Bilbo murmured, even as he stood, his knees a little shaky, his steps slightly unsteady as he approached the dwarf. Frerin watched him as he came and stayed still as Bilbo touched his face, trailing his fingertips down the golden strands of hair, his thumbs resting on the hollows of Frerin's cheeks. "You are far too lovely to speak such grim nonsense."
"Lovely," Frerin repeated, a light in his eyes and disbelieving mirth on his lips.
Bilbo said nothing, too bewitched by the pleasure of touching. So long he'd been staring at Frerin, never daring to touch. Oh, he'd touched plenty, but always clinically or in a rare moment of comfort when speech and thoughts between them had turned too bleak. Never for the sake of exploration – and never had he given himself the luxury of touching Frerin's hair, not after that first night when he'd washed it.
"Lovely," Bilbo whispered.
Frerin chuckled at him, his hand coming to rest at Bilbo's elbow, the other trailing slightly shaking fingers along the front of Bilbo's evening robe. "Well, kiss me already," he said, his voice low and rumbling beneath Bilbo fingers. "The night wears on."
Bilbo did – and the night wore on regardless.
Bilbo's and Frerin's courtship was long and quiet, never reaching the world outside Bag End. Mainly it was because Bilbo was still, technically, not in his maturity – the year they met he only turned thirty one. While tweens had their dalliances and romps, it was considered improper among hobbits to start anything truly serious before one turned at least thirty three – nothing official could be signed before that time. And considering that Frerin was about a hundred and forty years older than Bilbo, well.
"I did not realise hobbit lifespan was like that of a man," Frerin mused while Bilbo explained this to him.
"Well, it's not quite so short, but yes. It's only half of yours if that, I believe." Bilbo said, looking at him studiously. "Does it bother you? That should our lives be peaceful and kind, I'll most likely die before you?"
Frerin shook his head and smiled, turning to him. "I'm already in my middle years," he said. "I've another eighty years at most, so it won't be so long. In any case, if I have a mere year of courtship with you, it would still be enough. Not that I would mind a thousand years of marriage, but…" he shrugged, reaching out and running his fingers over the side of Bilbo's face, tugging ever so gently at the curling strands there. "I've learned to appreciate whatever happiness I get, short or not."
"Are you calling me short, Master Dwarf?" Bilbo asked mildly.
"You're absolutely minuscule," Frerin grinned and then reached out to kiss Bilbo's twitching lips.
Bilbo's age and occupation and the need to remain at least somewhat proper and boring were some of the reasons as to why they didn't spread the good news to all and sundry right away. Another was the fact that though Frerin was an open sort of fellow, he was still a dwarf – and dwarves had quiet, private affairs, official or not. The only way to know that a dwarf was in any sort of relationship was once a family had been established and the right beads were woven into the dwarf's hair or beard.
"Of course, we gossip as much as any race, and these things tend to spread. But we keep our affections to our private chambers more often than not," Frerin admitted. "Love is a treasure and we have the habit of hoarding our treasures."
"We hobbits tend to celebrate every little thing. The start of a courtship, the end of it, the start of an engagement, and the end of that – all these things tend to require at least a bit of a party, or a gathering at least," Bilbo said. "And marriages tend to draw the entire village together to celebrate. Normally, I would at least have a small gathering of friends and family, to inform them that we are courting. But as it is…"
The only one he informed was the Thain, really, and that in a letter. Just a brisk and brief explanation of who Frerin was and how they had met and a simple declaration that they intended to see what came of it – if the courtship goes well, they'd become engaged most likely on Bilbo's thirty third birthday.
The returning answer could be summarised with a somewhat exasperated, "You're definitely your mother's son." But his grandfather didn't seem to mind, so that was that.
"How do hobbits show that they're married?" Frerin asked curiously, when the subject came up. "Or engaged? I haven't seen much jewellery on anyone here. They do not use rings like men."
"We don't," Bilbo shrugged. "The notion is that the ceremony itself is enough, and once it is over and done with the couple is plainly married. And if people are confused about a hobbit's marriage status, then they're simply expected to ask and get an answer according to the truth."
The dwarf considered that for a moment. "Well. You are a practical lot," he said. "We wear certain beads in our hair or beard. Some are to identify our heritage and clan, or our craft, and of course there are beads for family. A married couple will wear at least two, usually in their beards or hair at the side of their faces, where it is easily visible – to signify that they're a family of two. And if they have children, then they wear additional bead for each child. There are also those who wear smaller beads for decoration – the symbolic ones tend to be large and obvious."
"Well. That's easily identifiable, I imagine… hm," Bilbo hummed, eyeing Frerin. Frerin had no beads either in his beard or hair – of course not. The orcs must've taken them. "Should you be wearing beads?"
Frerin smiled faintly and shook his head. "I don't know what's become of my family," he said. "So I wouldn't dare to wear the beads of the house of Durin, even if I had any to wear. And what masteries I once had, what craftsmanship I was expert at, well. I'm not anymore. But…" he eyed Bilbo. "I wouldn't mind wearing beads for you."
Bilbo smiled at him, running a hand over the hair at the side of Frerin's face. "You'd look wonderful no doubt," he said.
"I know it's not the hobbit’s way, but would you wear beads for me?" Frerin asked, but without a demand or censure in his eyes. "You would have to grow out your hair, at least a little."
The hobbit thought on it. "Is there an alternative?" he asked, frowning a little. "I would not mind it, but… I don't want to grow out my hair. It might be a disadvantage in the field," he said.
"Dwarves wear their hair long, and it does not bother them. The same with the elves and even quite a number of men," Frerin commented with a smile. "You would look lovely with long hair."
"By hobbit standards, I would look ridiculous," Bilbo answered with a laugh. "No, I'm sorry. I'm no dwarf, nor elf – nor man for that matter. Short hair is easier for me – it does not get in my way. And that is how I intend to keep it. Might I wear your beads on a necklace?"
"Well," Frerin said thoughtfully, eyeing him. "That would be one way, but… if you wore my beads, I would very much like them to be easily visible," he trailed off in thought. His eyes grew low lidded and he licked his lips. "How do hobbits feel about piercing their earlobes?"
Bilbo blinked at that and looked at him in astonishment. Then, as Frerin trailed one finger over the edge of Bilbo's earlobe, down from the pointed tip along the lower edge and to the base, he flushed bright red.
Hobbits, as a rule, did not damage their ears in any way if they could avoid it – very much in the same way as they did not cut the hair off their feet. It was not precisely sacred or a taboo, but it was the mark of a good and proper hobbit, how nice his ears were, how well the hair grew on his feet. The very notion of intentionally putting holes in his earlobes was… well. It was rather scandalous.
"You'd like me to damage myself irreversibly for you?" Bilbo asked, a little choked, trying not to squirm.
"Well. When you put it that way," Frerin sighed disappointedly, but with a smile as he traced the edge of Bilbo's ear. "Pity. It would look very fine though, beads in your beautiful ears."
Bilbo's throat worked dryly for a moment and Frerin, damn him, kept touching his ear. After a moment of trying to control himself, Bilbo gave up and pounced on the laughing dwarf.
It wasn't without its complications. Frerin was very good at shrugging off his own difficulties and disabilities, but as Bilbo got closer, they became a little more obvious. The biggest problem, it turned out, was when it came to sleeping.
Frerin had, for a hundred and twenty years and more, slept in a constant state of fear – justified fear. Bilbo had no doubt that in his captivity he'd been hurt many times when he was asleep and too vulnerable to defend himself. Now Frerin slept curled tight, unconsciously protecting his vulnerable belly even in the safety of Bag End. And any touch in that time, even the slightest of a brush against his back, prompted a violent protective reflex.
The first time Bilbo got a black eye from trying to wake Frerin from a nightmare, they decided in a sort of dismayed unison that they'd better just sleep in separate beds. That day Bilbo dismantled the large bed in the master bedroom, and took the smaller single beds from the guest rooms, arranging them on each side of the room. It was perhaps not as nice as sleeping curled together as hobbit lovers would've, but there was still comfort and companionship in it – and as it was, Bilbo wasn't entirely used to sleeping with someone at his side, so it worked well enough for both of them.
There were many nightmares, though, even with half a room's space between them. Frerin was a quiet, muffled sort of sleeper and never made a sound easily – another thing he'd grown to be in captivity, when any sort of noise might attract the attention of his capturers. But when Frerin had nightmares – which he did most nights – it was obvious. He would clench his entire body tightly as he shook, his breathing growing erratic. Too deep into the nightmare, and he would start drawing hitched breaths, not altogether unlike sobs.
"I do not know why they persist," Frerin admitted, rubbing at his face one night, when a nightmare had woken them both. "I never had nightmares in Moria, or elsewhere while I was a prisoner – I usually dreamt of Erebor and my family, and they were peaceful dreams. But after… It's like my mind can't let go."
"Well… you were a prisoner for a long time," Bilbo murmured. Long and longer – longer than a hobbit's lifetime. It made him ill to think of it. Of course there would be side-effects. "And you were released rather suddenly. Perhaps your mind hasn't quite… gotten over it."
Doctor Goodchild had said that there would be mental issues to such an ordeal. Remembering that, Bilbo approached the doctor cautiously – quite behind Frerin's back, actually – about the matter.
"They call it warrior's fatigue, the big folk and elves," the doctor said. "Mostly because it tends to happen to warriors, but really, any sort of horrible event will do. When something shakes the mind badly enough, it goes... a little out of alignment, shall we say. Some of the event lingers as the warrior's fatigue. Nightmares are a usual side effect. Sometimes the victim gets stuck in their own horrible memories. They can be dangerous when that happens, confused about where they are, and they might violently defend themselves."
There was a long litany of potential might happens that came with warrior's fatigue – sleeplessness, erratic behaviour, listlessness, numbness of emotion and thought process and so on. Mostly the doctor was concerned about the possible violence. Men were known to go into berserk rages when they were stuck in their memories, hurting their closest and dearest in their confused state.
Frerin was not so badly off as that. He had nightmares and there were times Bilbo thought he might be remembering things he rather would've not. The only time he was violent was when he was woken up by physical touch – then he would try and protect himself, usually with a swung fist. But still… the fatigue wasn't an easy thing. And it explained why, even after months in the Shire, Frerin still looked so exhausted.
"Will he ever be cured?" Bilbo asked.
"Some are," the doctor said. "Some remain afflicted for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives. I do not know how it is with dwarves – we have no writing of dwarves with warrior's fatigue – so it is hard to say what will come of our good Frerin. For now, time and patience and kindness might be all we can give him."
Time and patience and kindness. Bilbo would and did give him all of that, but the patience was hard to manage when Frerin sobbed in his sleep across the room. It was impossible for Bilbo to ignore that. He himself was a light sleeper, made so by the necessity of his occupation and the fact that sometimes a hunt for intruders could last for a while and necessitate resting in the field. It only took the slightest irregularity in Frerin's breathing and he'd be wide awake and reaching for the dagger he always had under his pillow. And then he'd stare in anxious grief at Frerin, whom he did not dare to touch and risk injury by his violent reaction.
It took a while to figure out how to deal with it. Bilbo tried calling and shouting at Frerin to wake him up, but that led to a miserable sort of night where neither of them could sleep for the backslash of Frerin's panicked reaction. He tried to use a proxy to wake Frerin up – but throwing a pillow at the dwarf was not a good thing to do. He tried speaking to ease his mind, and that didn't work either – Frerin was too used to the chaotic noises of mines and orcs to be stirred by speech alone.
The trick, he eventually found, was singing. Specifically, singing dwarven songs taught to him by Frerin. Perhaps they prompted happier memories, or perhaps in his sleeping mind Frerin thought the singer to be one of the dwarves captured in the Battle of Azanulbizar, who was now watching over Frerin as he slept and so he needed not be afraid. Whatever it was, when Bilbo sang to him of the mountains and great halls and the mines beneath Erebor, Frerin's nightmares would ease.
The best song to sing, Bilbo soon discovered, was the Song of Durin, so long as he did not sing the last part of the song, where it withered into the darkness that had claimed Durin's Halls in Khazad-dûm. Usually Frerin slept easier before he got to that part though.
Their first winter together was quiet and peaceful, but for the few times Bilbo ventured out to do his duty to the Shire. Bilbo did not much like the winter – the Fell Winter lingered still somewhere in his heart, and he was always wary of snow and how it brought sickness with it. Frerin, though, welcomed it and enjoyed it greatly, despite how it must've made his scars ache.
"There is one thing I've always wanted to do in the snow that I've never gotten the chance to do," Frerin admitted with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Snow in Erebor was always too rough, the weather too cold and since then, well, I didn't have the time for it, when we were on the road. But now…"
As Bilbo watched on with some amusement, Frerin gathered together the children of Hobbiton – an easy task for him, as the children adored the cheerful dwarf who told them stories of battles and distant lands. Then, much to the disapproval of all the adults about, Frerin started a snowball fight.
It was a magnificent fight. There were factions who built forts and barriers, strategizing attacks on each other in the field beneath the party tree, with Frerin urging all the sides on and getting more snowballs in the face than anyone else, being clumsier and too big to easily hide. As the fight went on, older children joined in – and then the tweens, who at first organised their own faction that turned out stronger and faster than everyone else – and which then got soundly trounced when everyone else ganged up on them.
Bilbo stood back and watched, enjoying Frerin's uproarious laughter as it echoed over the field, and the sight of the dwarf trying so hard to sneak up on others to shove some snow down their coats, always to fail thanks to the tromping of his big boots. It was a pleasure, seeing the dwarf enjoying life so.
At least it was, up until the point when old man Gamgee distracted Bilbo and Frerin took this as an opportunity to nail him with a snowball.
"Ha!" Frerin shouted, pumping the air with his fist, while around him the kids stood in still attention, waiting for Bilbo to react. So far it had been only children and tweens – at thirty one, Bilbo would be the oldest, aside from Frerin, to be hit. And Frerin, of course, just laughed. "Take that, you boring old coot!"
"Excuse me?" Bilbo asked, snow dripping down his cheek.
There was an unholy light in the dwarf's eyes. "You heard me," he said, with all the challenge in the world in his wide grin.
Bilbo narrowed his eyes. He'd sat back mainly because that was how Bilbo Baggins of the Shire was – he didn't participate in anything considered fun or exciting. Even with Frerin there, his reputation as that horrible bore from Bag End hadn't changed. But with Frerin looking at him like that…
The Underhill waited for the dwarf's face to fall in disappointment, before grabbing a handful of snow, fashioning it into a ball lightning fast, and then nailing Frerin on the forehead. Then, as his lover blinked with surprise, Bilbo dashed forward and grabbed another handful of snow, and shoved it down the back of Frerin's coat.
There was a moment of astonished silence, before the children around them burst into laughter and cheers and Frerin, with a grumble, took Bilbo by the back of his coat and dunked him in the snow bank. And then the fight was free for all, and those adults without a sense of humour were forced to run away from snowballs that now flew without discrimination at everybody.
A surprising number of them joined in, though. Old man Gamgee was a viciously good shot at long distances, and of all people Lobelia Bracegirdle was an absolutely devious fighter. She would pretend to look elsewhere and then she would quickly catch those trying to sneak up on her – and apparently those keen gossiper's eyes were good in a fight too, for no one caught her without being caught themselves.
It was a wholly unhobbitlike evening, and ended up with all of them wet and exhausted. By dinner time, when mothers began calling their children in, Bilbo had snow down his underpants and Frerin was wincing ever so slightly as he walked, and his hands shook more than before.
"Well that was fun. Wasn't it?" Frerin asked, his eyes shining despite the pain.
"Yes, very fun. Very silly too," Bilbo said, and looked at him standing there, blond hair dripping with icy cold water, face flushed by the excitement and the cold. "Hot bath before dinner, I think," he decided.
"It would be most appreciated, yes," Frerin grinned and together they made their way to Over the Hill, and down Bagshot Road and into Bag End, where Bilbo filled the tub while Frerin struggled out of his now wet clothes, hanging them to dry. Then, with Bilbo's assisting hand at his elbow, the dwarf carefully eased himself into the tub, letting out a relieved sigh at the hot water's embrace as he rubbed a hand along the scarred thigh.
"That does the trick," he murmured, shifting in the tub and relaxing with a content hum.
"You take your time. I'll start dinner," Bilbo said with a smile, turning to leave when a hand caught him by the wrist.
Frerin looked at him with eyebrows arched. "We can have a late dinner," the dwarf said, pulling at him. "Join me."
Bilbo hesitated only about as long as it took for Frerin to draw him in for a kiss, and then he had to get out of his clothes fast, or risk getting them even more wet in the bath.
It was a very good night. And the winter, it turned out, would be full of nights very much like it.
Bilbo visited Frerin at the forge almost every day, since he got the job.
The dwarf's work had started slowly there, and the first couple of months Frerin had mostly spent by re-familiarising himself with the tools and the work, with Master Burges watching on carefully. Bilbo watched too, as Frerin clumsily handled a hammer on the anvil, trying to find a spot for it in his hand where it would not slip. Though Frerin's fingers on his right hand were still crooked, they did not have strength and would straighten out under pressure, and so they did not actually grip anything, never mind something as heavy as a hammer, and that caused troubles.
"Three functioning fingers are almost enough to grip it," Frerin, examining his right hand. "But I don't get the right precision, when the other fingers just give in. It's not the down stroke that's the trouble, it's when I lift the hammer – it shifts in my hand more than I like. I need better leverage to hold it where I want it."
That winter, Frerin began a personal project, working on it on and off at the forge between actual smithy work. Bilbo gladly financed it, giving Frerin the money he needed to buy the iron and the brass and then the Underhill watched with something akin to awe, as it slowly took shape under Frerin's slightly faltering, but well experienced hand.
It was a system of springs and metal wires, wrapped in what almost looked like a gauntlet. Except the gauntlet only covered the back of the hand and the two outermost fingers of the right hand. Once finished, it had a beautifully made outer layer of brass plates which Frerin had tried very hard to polish and make nice. But it was the function that was the most beautiful aspect of it.
The springs cleverly hidden in the fingers of the device would aim to straighten the fingers out – but the wires would, depending on their length, force the fingers in a certain level of curl which Frerin could control by a winch system very much like that in Bilbo's bracer. While the device did not give Frerin back the full function of his hand, he did get his grip back.
As the winter wore on, Frerin made another device like it for his other hand, and as Bilbo and Master Burges watched, his craftsmanship eased and grew steadier, taking less effort on Frerin's part.
"Dwarves," the old hobbit smith muttered, begrudgingly impressed. "The things they make."
"Hmm. It is very clever, isn't it?" Bilbo said, trying to not sound as hopelessly smitten as he felt. While he could be considered by some to be good with his hands, he was in no way a craftsman of any sort – he couldn't simply approach a problem and create a solution like Frerin did. The only things he could make with some level of skill were arrows – and that wasn't exactly something one could boast about. Unless one was a hunter anyway.
With his hands a little steadier, Frerin took over most of Master Burges' work in the smithy. He did indeed beat dented pots into shape, and fixed those that had developed holes. He made horse shoes for the few ponies in Hobbiton, and crafted a gate for the Cotton family's newly fixed fence. He made candlesticks and started a whole new fashion of chandeliers with a decisively sharp, dwarven design to them. And sometimes, when he had time off, he even tried his hand in jewellery making. He also made a brace system for his poor leg, which still sometimes gave away under his weight when he grew tired – with it, he could take longer walks without fearing embarrassing himself.
He made his first proper dwarven beads for midwinter celebration.
"They're merely decorative," Frerin said when Bilbo examined them. They were small iron beads – not symbolic ones in any way – with only the barest hint of dwarven design to them. He had made a few of them hinged, with little teeth on the inside – clever little clasps, to seal braids with.
"It's a bit vain at this point, I guess, but I was hoping you could help me braid them in?" Frerin said hopefully and laughed a bit. "If not for any other reason than to help me keep my hair out of the way at the forge. I've almost set myself on fire twice already. I'd do it myself, but… well. It's a bit too nimble a task for my fingers."
"I'd love to help you, but I know nothing of braiding," Bilbo said with an apologetic laugh, handing the beads back. Before Frerin could look disappointed though, he added, "Give me a couple of days. I'll talk with Missus Gamgee – she braids her hair, she ought to be able to teach me."
A very amused Missus Gamgee indeed could teach him – and did so on the hair of old man Gamgee, who endured the treatment with a great deal of grumbling. While Bilbo got nowhere near the easy nimbleness of Missus Gamgee's work, he did get the gist of it pretty quickly, and could manage the standard three part braid easily enough.
"With time, you will get faster and better. Like all things, all it needs is practice," Missus Gamgee offered and then gave him a very knowing look. "I suppose you will be braiding Master Frerin's hair for long enough to get quite skilled at it. And what hair he has too – a few years and you'll be more skilled than I, no doubt."
It was the first time Bilbo blushed about Frerin. But then, if anyone would make such a guess it would be one of the Gamgee's – they were over at Bag End for tea usually no less than thrice a month, after all.
"You're keeping it quiet, I suppose? Never fear, we won't be spreading any gossip," Missus Gamgee assured him briskly. "But I'll have you know, that no matter what anyone will say to you about it later on… it's doing you good, Master Baggins. You smile more than you have since dear Mistress Belladonna faded away. And you are doing worlds of good for Master Frerin."
"I hope so," Bilbo murmured and smiled. "Thank you."
That night, Bilbo brushed Frerin's hair as they sat by the fire in the living room, taking almost an obscenely long time with the task while Frerin endured the treatment with an indulgent smile. Frerin had very long hair, it having never been cut in his captivity – though he'd been forced to cut out the matted, tangled parts of it. Regardless, it was now the sort of length that had some of the lasses in Hobbiton absolutely furious with jealousy – when it was straightened out from its natural curl, it almost reached Frerin's thighs.
Bilbo had to admit that he was a tad obsessed with it. And Frerin's beard, though not even nearly as long, was almost as great a source of distraction for him, being the same beautiful colour.
"Sometimes I wonder if you only love me for my hair," Frerin commented. "How is it that you like my hair long, but won't grow yours out?"
"The fact that it looks glorious on you doesn't mean it wouldn't look ridiculous on me," Bilbo murmured, greedily sinking his fingers into the dwarf's hair. "How would you like your braids, then?"
It took a couple hours of experimentation, but in the end Bilbo managed to braid the hair in a way that satisfied his own sudden perfectionist streak. He brushed back the hair from above Frerin's forehead and braided it back in three braids about as thick as his fingers, leaving them trailing down on top of the rest of the hair, three beads and a clasp in each braid. Then he made two more braids, one at each side of Frerin's face, two beads and a clasp in each braid, which went around his ears and so kept the hair out of his face completely.
"How hot and bothered are you right now?" Frerin asked amusedly once Bilbo was done and openly admiring his handiwork.
"Very," Bilbo admitted without bothering to even pretend shame. "Should I do something with your beard?"
Frerin hummed, watching him with low lidded eyes. "At this point you can do whatever you like with it," he said and trailed a hand over it, down the sides of his mouth. "I used to have two braids here that ran down and joined at the bottom of my chin. And then I had two short ones here," he trailed two fingers down from near his ear lobes, at the bend of the jaw bone. "But I had a much shorter beard then."
His fingers twitching, Bilbo shifted forward and gently, very gently, settled to sit astride in Frerin's lap. With Frerin staring at him with heat and desire in his eyes, Bilbo braided his beard slowly and carefully, just as Frerin had described it. He braided down the gold moustache and then trailed down the sides of Frerin's crookedly smiling mouth, joining both braids and the hair of his chin to one thick braid that hung down from the tip of his chin to rest at the hollow of his throat, almost too big for the clasp to hold it. Then two more braids at each side of his throat that reached down to Frerin's collarbones and rested there, weighed down by the clasps and beads.
Once done, Bilbo had to actually catch his breath a little.
"Sometimes, I feel almost selfish, being here," Frerin commented, watching him with open admiration. "Sometimes I feel guilty that you should chain yourself to a cripple like me, to a scarred, ugly ruin of a dwarf. Sometimes – a lot of the time – I feel like a freeloader, hardly contributing in any way, only taking space in our home –"
"Oh, shut up," Bilbo breathed and pinned him against the backrest of the couch. "Try and leave me and I will hunt you down," he murmured, nuzzling against Frerin's cheek, against the braid. "There is no place on this Middle Earth where you could hide that I couldn't find you."
Frerin laughed at that, his hands coming to trail up and down along Bilbo's tense back. "And then you suddenly become like this, and you look at me like that," he murmured with a contented rumble in his voice. "And I feel precious beyond all recognition. Your affections leave very little space for my doubts."
"Hm. Then there is still some space for doubt left?" Bilbo asked, shifting a little, trailing his nose along the braids. "Let me take care of that for you…"
They celebrated their anniversary – or the anniversary of the day when Bilbo had hunted down a band of orcs and freed Frerin and his dwarrowdams – quietly and privately in Bag End.
Bilbo gave Frerin a small quantity of gold he had ordered in secret from the Blue Mountains, for Frerin to melt down and work into whatever he chose to work it into. It had cost him more than half a year's hard work as an Underhill – gold was very precious in the west, where there were no such rich seams as the ones Erebor had been blessed with – but he paid it gladly and without hesitation, and the delight on Frerin's face made it very worth it.
And Frerin – Frerin made him a sword. Or, more specifically, a sword disguised as a walking stick.
"I made one for myself, see?" the dwarf said when Bilbo went to object.
And Frerin had indeed made two of them. For Bilbo, he'd made the cane of walnut, with not a crooked handle but a knob at the end of it, a wooden sphere that fitted Bilbo's palm perfectly. The blade itself was one of steel as pure and clear as Frerin could make it. It was very cleverly hidden in the cane, the seam between the sword handle and the cane sheath invisible.
"There's a bit of iron inside the knob, to counterbalance the blade. Sword smithing isn't really a speciality of mine, but I think I made it well enough," Frerin said with a smile. "I thought you could use another hidden weapon, aside from the bracer. Just in case."
Frerin's own cane had no blade in it, actually. Instead, it was a cleverly disguised horseman's pick, with a shaft of the same walnut as the one Bilbo's cane had been made of. Somehow, by some clever combination of carving and painting, Frerin had managed to make the metallic hammer head not only look exactly like the wood of the shaft, but he'd managed to make it look like it was just a strangely designed crooked handle, rather than a hammer head.
"It fits me better than a sword, now," Frerin said with a shrug. "I don't think I can manage precision. But give me a year or two at the forge, and I can manage blunt strength again."
"I don't doubt it," Bilbo murmured, having great appreciation for the things the work at the forge was doing to Frerin's arms and shoulders, not to mention his chest. "You're not very likely to need a war hammer in Hobbiton, but… I'll feel better knowing you have one," he admitted. And that Frerin had disguised it as a cane pleased him more than anything – because Frerin needed a cane, and if it took disguising a weapon into a walking stick to get him to use one, well.
"Still," Bilbo said, watching the dwarf thoughtfully. "If you'd like… I could help you with your swordsmanship. I'm no fencer, mind you, I'm not any sort of swordsman really, but I have some skill. Enough to be a sparring partner anyway."
Frerin arched his eyebrows at that. "Would that be possible in Hobbiton?"
"Not in Hobbiton, no – we'd make a spectacle of ourselves here, no doubt. But in the Bindbole Woods, certainly, that's where I trained with my mother, when I was young," Bilbo said. "And the sitting room is large enough for basic work, though I would prefer we used practice swords that wouldn't make too much noise."
"Well… hm. I didn't even think to bother with it, but… I do have the gloves now," Frerin murmured, looking at his right hand, which even now wore the brass and iron glove that lend him its artificial grip. He looked almost surprised to find it there. "I… could try my hand at swordsmanship again."
"Yes, you could. If you’d like to," Bilbo smiled, while taking his new cane and pulling the sword out to admire it again. "Mind you, I don't have any practice swords here; we would need to make them."
"Well, that can be my next project then," Frerin said, still looking surprised. He turned to the hobbit. "Bilbo?"
"You… will marry me, right?" he asked. "I know we're only courting and will have to wait another year at least, but… it is decided already, isn't it?"
Bilbo blinked at him with some surprise and then smiled somewhat confusedly. "Well… yes, I suppose it is," he said. "On my part there is no doubt anyway – you know how completely besotted by you I am. Or, do you… have doubts?"
"No, no, no doubts," Frerin assured him and shifted closer, to press a kiss on the corner of Bilbo's lips, almost apologetic. "Just making sure, is all. Never mind me, love."
"I'll mind you as long as I can," Bilbo murmured, turning his head and kissing him fully, wrapping one arm around Frerin's shoulders, to tangle his fingers in his hair. "You were the one to ask, remember? And I think I made my answer perfectly clear. How is it you are having such fears now?"
Frerin smiled, leaning his forehead against Bilbo's. "No fears, none at all. Just quite a bit of impatience and a mountain's worth of selfishness," he assured, running his fingers gently down Bilbo's lips. "I love you very much, Bilbo Baggins, and I don't think I will be satisfied until I see my beads on you."
"In my ears, perhaps?" Bilbo smiled, closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of his lover against him. "I've been thinking about that, actually. And, well. In Hobbiton no one would know their meaning. I could wear your beads anywhere I liked and no one would know they meant we were married. "
Frerin was quiet for a moment. "So… you mean it is stupid to wear them, since they have no significance here?" he asked slowly. "And you won't?"
"No, you silly dwarf," Bilbo answered with a fond laugh. "I mean that I could wear them now, and no one would say a thing about it because they simply wouldn't know what they meant," he smiled and opened his eyes. "Make our beads, Frerin. Only, I demand we get married in the hobbitish way, once it's proper."
Frerin stared at him for a moment with wide eyes and then he grinned, took Bilbo's face between his gloved hands, and kissed him deeply and powerfully, almost hard enough to bruise. He was still grinning when he pulled back. "So I can pierce your ears, then?" he asked, his voice low. "It will look so very lovely, Bilbo. It will drive me to distraction every time I see you."
Bilbo breathed out slowly and then laughed. "Yes, yes, fine," he said. It wasn't like he hadn't been thinking about that since Frerin had commented on it the first time. That, and how Frerin would touch his ears, maybe kiss them, once they'd be adorned by the marriage beads. It had been a very distracting thought.
"I love you," Frerin murmured against Bilbo's lips. "Like I feared I never would love anyone. I love you desperately and finally and with all of my soul and without you, I wouldn't be whole."
"Hmm," Bilbo answered. A year and Frerin's silver tongue still could undo him. "I'm not as eloquent as you. But I do love you too. Never doubt it.
When the invitations went out for the wedding of Bilbo Baggins Esquire and Frerin the Blacksmith, it was the talk of every dinner and tea table. In Hobbiton, no one was much surprised. Poor Master Baggins wasn't exactly subtle about his admiration for the dwarf, after all, and Frerin, well. He was well liked and had had tentative offers from more adventurous lasses, all of whom he'd gently turned down, claiming previous understanding. Hobbiton had had a good two years to get used to the idea, so really, only the more prudish and humourless had anything to complain about.
Outside Hobbiton, however, it was a scandal of great and slightly overblown proportions. A gentlehobbit like Bilbo Baggins – and of such good breeding too – throwing his lot with a dwarf? A mere dwarven smith no less – and a male to boot! He must be mad or ensnared by some sort of dwarven trickery – or maybe he's been bought off by the dwarf's crafts! Surely there must be something afoot. And a male hobbit marrying a male dwarf too – what a useless match, there wouldn't even be any children to inherit whatever mess of a house they'd have!
"It isn't proper, is it?" they asked. "And what is a dwarf doing in the Shire anyhow?"
Outside Hobbiton everyone had their bit to say about the upcoming wedding – not much of it very positive or kind. Those who had gotten invitations – and it was an outrageously small number of invitations that had gone out of Hobbiton, just a few to favourite aunts and uncles and cousins from the Took and Baggins families – toted theirs around the market places and taverns, happily claiming how they'd be able to see the dwarf in question and get to the bottom of the whole thing.
One of the few people who found the whole thing not in the least surprising was the Took Thain, who just shook his head with amusement and said nothing much.
In Hobbiton, half of the village joined in on the wedding preparations. It was more on account of Master Frerin than Master Baggins, however. Master Baggins was a stuffy, stiff sort of person – he didn't have too many friends in Hobbiton, outside the Gamgees. Sure, he dealt fairly and was always helpful, never closed his door to anyone and always welcomed guests. He was toeing the line of being a little too proper, and it unnerved some. But Master Frerin everybody adored. The people of Hobbiton dealt more with him since he'd become the smith, and he was well liked for his cheerful nature and easy laugh, his stories and jokes and steady friendship.
Though, since Master Frerin had entered Master Baggins' life, Master Baggins had slowly become a little less proper. Why, less than a year after Master Frerin had moved to Hobbiton and to live in Bag End, Master Frerin had somehow gotten the stiff bore of Bag End to do the most scandalous thing! One day, without any warning, Bilbo Baggins pierced his earlobes! Like a Man would've! Nowadays, Bilbo Baggins walked around with thick bands of gold on each earlobe, near the middle of the bottom edge, always clearly visible.
"And they're not even very shiny. Can't be real gold, with a patina like that," Lobelia Bracegirdle murmured to one of the wedding guests that had come early in order to catch the gossip.
It hadn't gone unnoticed that Master Frerin had a very similar sort of gold on him – only, his was in the beads on his hair, on the braids hanging at each side of his face. The secretive meaning of the beads and the earrings had had many wondering ever since their appearances, and common consensus was that it must be a dwarven custom and they most likely signified a promise, like engagement. But since no one knew for sure, no one could feel very outraged about it, even if Bilbo Baggins had not been yet thirty two when he started wearing them.
The wedding celebrations were put together under the party tree – as they always were. Tents were pitched up, and Master Baggins hired half of the widows and spinsters in Hobbiton to make and mind the food – leaving the married and unmarried free to celebrate. The little faunts that loved Master Frerin the most were put in charge of decoration, and so the field was filled with flowers and paper lanterns. It was not exactly an overly large sort of party – all in all it was very humble, with most of the funds obviously going towards the wedding gifts and food, and even those were not overly fancy judging by the sound of it.
It was still the most anticipated event of the year in Hobbiton.
"I still say they ought to be giving us gifts and not the other way around," Frerin muttered as Bilbo went through the wedding gifts, making sure that everything was properly named and tagged and that there'd be plenty of extra ones to spare for those who arrived unannounced or with new beaus or uninvited plus ones or twos or threes.
"And whatever would we do with hundreds of useless mathoms and trinkets?" Bilbo asked with amusement. "We have everything we need in Bag End, don't we? In any case this is a good way to get rid of the mathoms I've had hanging around for years."
"It just seems… unnatural. I've almost gotten used to your birthday parties – but weddings too?" Frerin sighed. "I thought the whole point of having a wedding was that people could give gifts to you, not the other way around. You are a backwards sort of people when it comes to possessions."
"No, the point of a wedding is to marry someone," Bilbo said and glanced at him, letting his eyes trail up and down. "I for one am very satisfied with the one possession I'm getting. I don't think I could get anything better."
"Well, that I know," Frerin grinned and reached to grab him by the sleeve and haul him in and away from the presents. "Not that you haven't already gotten me long ago."
"Mmm yes. But no more lasses throwing out their backs in desperate attempts to display their bosoms at you. That I like," Bilbo grinned, turning his head and nuzzling against the braids of Frerin's beard.
"No more tutting aunts telling you how Bag End oh so obviously is in terrible need of the feminine touch," Frerin agreed, arms coming around Bilbo as he murmured against the hobbit's temple. "No more whispers about you settling down with a proper lass."
Bilbo smiled, closing his eyes and leaning his weight ever so slightly against his husband to be. "They'll still mutter about children," he commented.
"Well, unless they have a magic potion in their sleeves, there's not much anyone can do about that," Frerin laughed, kissing his cheek. "How many Underhills are coming to the wedding?"
"Only Master Longbottom is coming as a guest – but there will be one other coming with him, who will be on duty in case something happens," Bilbo answered. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm giving Master a copy of those new bracer designs you made as our wedding present to him."
"It's fine. I made them for you Underhills, after all. You firstly, of course, but your brotherhood in general as well," Frerin said, kissing Bilbo's ear and the thick family bead there with a smile. "Husband. My soon to be husband," he murmured happily.
"You sap," Bilbo answered with a fond smile, and for a moment they stayed there, swaying slightly against each other.
Of course when the actual wedding day dawned, it rained cats and dogs.
Despite two years of courtship – and more than one year of being a family and wearing the dwarven beads in his ears – Bilbo couldn't help but be nervous. The wedding was already a little bit ruined by the weather, there was a lot of discontent from the guests, and more than twenty uninvited people had shown up just to criticise the union of a hobbit and a dwarf. And poor Frerin obviously had an ache in his thigh thanks to the rain, and the fact that there was thunder rumbling in the distance didn't help anything.
"Oh, stop fretting," the dwarf said, while Bilbo asked him whether he wanted the pain relieving tea a fourth time. "It's barely an ache and I already had a cup. What has you so nervous? Everything's a done deal, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, but…" Bilbo sighed, tugging anxiously at the bead on his left ear. It was rather a done deal. They were already married in the dwarven way – or as married as they could be without ever having a dwarven priest bless the union, or any dwarves there to witness it. They both wanted this; there was no question about either of them getting second thoughts at this point. And yet… "I… I suppose I wanted everything to be nice," Bilbo muttered, staring sadly at the rain outside his window.
They hadn't really thought to pitch more pavilions in the party field – only the tables had pavilions. Underneath the party tree, where they'd be saying their wows like all the hobbits of Hobbiton did, there was no shelter from the rain, aside from what the tree branches would offer.
"We're going to be drenched," Bilbo sighed. "What a fine way to get married."
"It'll be memorable, if nothing else," Frerin said with a grin and took his hand, prying his fingers off the golden bead. "It could be hailing ice blocks the size of your head and it would still be perfect. Now, how do I look?"
Frerin looked, of course, beautiful. They had had a dwarven styled coat tailored for him, made of dark leather which had broad, angular designs along it and a hem that reached his knees – and a fur lined collar that only enhanced his lion-like appearance. It looked very striking on him. Underneath the coat, he had a more hobbitish waistcoat and dress shirt, and a pale gold neck cloth with bronze needlework. He also had new, freshly polished boots that Bilbo had to order from Bree, which went splendidly with the coat. All of it only enhanced the striking beauty of his hair, which Missus Gamgee had spent the whole morning braiding, Bilbo being too busy with the arrangements to do it himself.
It only made Bilbo sadder about the fact that they'd have to go into the rain, now. It would utterly ruin how nice Frerin looked.
He himself was in proper hobbitish attire for a marriage. As an autumn child, Bilbo always favoured the shades of brown, red and gold in his attire, but a wedding was more a spring thing, regardless that theirs was held in autumn. So his waistcoat was green with golden embroidery, and his trousers matched it. Compared to how nice Frerin looked, Bilbo went frankly very humble, even once he pulled on his own, dark red satin coat.
Frerin smiled at him knowingly and kissed him gently. Outside, the cleric had started ringing the bell, the call to start. "Time to go," the dwarf said. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," Bilbo sighed, and kissed him before stepping back. He held Frerin's hand in his and together they walked to the door, Bilbo utterly dreading the mess the rain would make of them in no time flat.
Only, it didn't, because outside his round green door, there were a handful of hobbits waiting for them. Bilbo's aunts from his father's side both stood there, Belba Bolger and Linda Proudfoot, along with his mother's sister, Donnamira Boffin and of course dear Missus Gamgee. And all of them had with them umbrellas, which they quickly held up to keep the water from raining down on them.
"Since your mother and father aren't here, we figured someone ought to see you married properly," Belba said with a smile, reaching to kiss Bilbo's cheek.
"You look lovely, nephew," Donnamira added. "Your mother would be proud."
"Thank you, Aunties" Bilbo answered, a little awkward. He'd never been that close to either of his mother's or his father's family, outside from his interactions with the Old Took.
"My thanks as well, ladies," Frerin said to them, taking each by their free hand and kissing the back of them, making the hobbit women all titter with amusement.
"Oh, he's a charmer and no mistake," Linda almost cackled.
"Well then, come on," Missus Gamgee said with a smile. "Let's see you two get hitched."
Under the umbrellas they were holding, Bilbo and Frerin managed to get to the party field without getting completely soaked. The guests there were all huddled in the pavilions around the tables, carefully keeping away from the rain, some of them elbow deep in the food and drink – but that was the way of hobbits, so Bilbo didn't begrudge them. The band he'd hired to play though were making music merrily in their own secure pavilion without paying any heed to the otherwise gloomy and distracted atmosphere, so that was fine.
"Eyy, there's our happy couple!" one of the hobbits shouted, Denwise Diggle who, judging by the sound of him, had all but camped himself by the beer barrel. "It's miserable weather, eh, so can we keep this short and get on with it?"
There were murmurs of agreement, some of them louder than others.
Bilbo glanced at Frerin who smiled and shrugged. "Quick or slow, you'll be my husband by the end of it, so either is fine with me," the dwarf murmured quietly to him.
"Then let's make like hobbits and be practical," Bilbo agreed and raised his voice. "Thank you all for coming. Since the weather is being such a… delight, we'll make this quick then, and let you get back to your eating and socialising," he said. "Father Goodbody, if you would…"
The cleric finished his pint quickly and stood up, brushing some pastry crumbs off his cassock before hurrying under the party tree. Bilbo shared a smile with Frerin and then they followed, Bilbo's aunts and Missus Gamgee at their side, keeping the water off them.
All in all, it was indeed a very hobbitish ceremony.
"On this most… pleasant autumn day," the cleric started, making the crowd of spectators titter. "We've all come together to witness the joining of these two fine gentlemen in a union of love and harmony and peace such as that of family can provide. Marriage is like a garden, like a field, like a flower, that requires dedication and care and commitment, and here, under Yavanna's protection, we shall now witness the plantation of the orchard of your commitment."
The cleric turned his eyes to Bilbo. "Bilbo Baggins, you intend to pledge yourself to this man at your side. What is your oath to him?"
Bilbo looked up to the party tree – the oldest, most precious tree in all of Hobbiton – and breathed in and out, squeezing Frerin's hand in his gently.
"My oath is to love Frerin as his husband, to care for him and to protect him until my dying breath, to aid him in all his endeavours, to make him glad and joyous, to share my happiness with him and my sorrows," he said. "My oath is my life and all that comes with it, and my oath is to give and to share and to partake in what he gives me. He is my One, and I will have no other."
The cleric arched his eyebrows at that – it wasn't the traditional vow, but then again Frerin wasn't exactly a hobbit lass – and Bilbo wasn't exactly a normal hobbit husband either.
"Frerin, son of Thráin," the cleric said, turning to the dwarf who was staring at Bilbo softly. "You intend to pledge yourself to this man at your side. What is your oath to him?"
"My oath is to love Bilbo as his husband," Frerin stared, swallowing. "To care for him and to protect him until my dying breath, to appreciate him and rejoice with him, to support him in any way I can, to make him happy and glad, to share with him my happiness and my sorrows. My oath is my life and all that comes with it and my oath is to give and to share and to partake in what he gives me. He is my One, and I will have no other."
"In faith and in trust, I believe your oaths and pronounce you now married," the cleric said with a somewhat bemused smile. "May Yavanna bless you, may your garden bloom and your home be a happy one."
Bilbo relaxed a little at that and while the hobbits cheered in their pavilions, Frerin turned to face him, tilted his chin up gently, and kissed him. Even with the cheering and laughing and the rising thunder above and the drumming of droplets against the umbrellas, all Bilbo could hear was Frerin's soft, pleased rumble and everything was absolutely perfect.
It wasn't a very long wedding party all told – the rain had turned into a proper thunderstorm very quickly and the partying hobbits barely had the time to eat their fill of the food and receive their wedding gifts before the wind started blowing the rain sideways and right through the pavilions. It wasn't even evening yet when they all called it quits, and they'd all retreated to their smials, including the by then thoroughly soaked Bilbo and Frerin, who'd left the help Bilbo had hired with the arduous task of taking down the pavilions before the wind would blow them away.
"Well, that's a wedding to remember, if nothing else," Frerin laughed once they were finally inside, both of them dripping wet and miserably cold. "How many weddings get a thunderstorm for a wedding guest?"
"I wouldn't have minded mine without it," Bilbo answered, struggling out of his wet coat and then reaching to help Frerin out of his. The leather had offered better protection than Bilbo's satin, but the fur collar was thoroughly soggy with water and dripping all over the place. "With this sort of luck, we'll both end up getting sick."
"Hot bath then, husband?" Frerin asked, smiling friendly at him as he quickly pushed the coat off his shoulders.
"Hot bath, yes, husband, and then bed," Bilbo answered with a grin, and took him by the waistcoat and dragged him to the bathroom.
The next morning, Master Longbottom and the Old Took came over for a late Elevensies, to congratulate Bilbo properly.
"Thank you," Bilbo said with a slight smile while serving them both some tea. "It was not exactly the nicest wedding weather but, I have to say, it'll make this memorable."
"It rained by the bucketfuls on your parents’ wedding day too," the Old Took commented. "Might be a tradition building, there."
"Not much of a tradition, I'll say. Thank you," Master Longbottom said, accepting the plate of scones Frerin offered him before turning back to Bilbo "And of course … you won't be having any children to pass it on, will you?"
Bilbo frowned a little at the tone in the old hobbit's voice. "Well… obviously not. Not by blood anyway," Bilbo said with a frown and sat beside Frerin. "Cutting to the chase then – is that why you're here? Because I won't be having children, no one to inherit?"
"Well. It is not exactly an issue, but seeing that we're both here at this time, we thought we might bring it up," his grandfather said. "There's no beating around the bush, Bilbo, my lad. Unless someone with a better head for management comes along, it is likely you'll be the next Master of the Underhill Brotherhood."
Frerin's eyebrows shot up at that but he said nothing while Bilbo merely blinked slowly, not giving his thoughts away.
"I'm getting old," Master Longbottom admitted. "I can't do much field work anymore, and my memory isn't what it used to be. And things are changing – our borders aren't as quiet as they used to be. We get more traffic. You should know."
"I do," Bilbo admitted. Ever since the Fell Winter, every year there'd been more and more uninvited folk inside the Shire. Bilbo went out every week these days, sometimes twice a week – and he lived in Hobbiton, nowhere near the borders. Even with the northern borders reinforced by the newest generation of Underhills…
"The world outside the Shire is slowly growing more unsettled," Master Longbottom said, stirring his tea with a dark look about his face. "I've ran the numbers – we get more intruders every year now than we've gotten since the very first years of record keeping. Twice more now than we did less than thirty years ago. And not just goblins or wolves either – orcs and wargs. Last year an Underhill took the route through the Barrow Downs. They reported Wights."
"Wights," Bilbo repeated slowly, a chill running down his spine. "They actually saw them?"
"Yes," the old master nodded, sighing heavily and leaning back. "Dark things are moving. Fell things. And if my estimation of the escalation is anywhere close to being correct, well… we will need more than we now have, to protect ourselves. The number of Underhills needs to be doubled, if not tripled, within the next fifty years. And that, my boy, isn't the work for an old hobbit."
"You are in a good position, Bilbo, being in Hobbiton," the Thain said. "You're very nearly smack between all the Farthings, and definitely closer to Buckland than Master Longbottom is in Tuckborough. This is a much better position to manage the Underhills from. And if you can find a good lieutenant to put in Buckland –”
"Lieutenant?" Frerin asked sharply.
"Is it really that bad?" Bilbo asked, surprised.
"Not yet, but if it keeps up like this… it will be sooner or later," the old Longbottom Master said darkly. "If you take the position, you'll get access to all the information that I have. Maybe with younger eyes you can find some good news in them that I've missed, but I doubt it. It is getting bad – and Underhills prepare for the worst. Which is what we are doing here, now."
Bilbo let out a breath and leaned back in his seat. The Master of the Underhills. That… would be a very arduous job indeed. Especially if his first task would be doubling the number of Underhills across the Shire. He would need to take a student too – and probably soon. If not for any other reason than to take over his duties in Hobbiton so that he could take the duties of the Master of the Underhills – it would be a nearly full time job after all.
"Let's say I decline," Bilbo said slowly. "Who would be your next choice?"
The Thain and the Master of the Underhills shared a look. "Edda Fairbairn from Waymeet," Old Took said slowly.
"Who is almost eighty," Master Longbottom sighed and folded his arms. "And thus not far off from retirement either. She has more experience than you but… considering everything, someone younger would be better. Someone adaptable. Also," he added, turning to Frerin. "It doesn't hurt that your taste in husbands is as good as your mother's."
"Excuse me?" Frerin asked, blinking in surprise.
"Bilbo's father was the first and only scholar of the Underhills – he uncovered a lot of information and knowledge we've lost about the Underhills, history and such, which has been invaluable in making our training more efficient, among other things," Master Longbottom said. "And you," he said, motioning at Frerin's hands, both of them gloved with brass and mechanics. "As a wedding gift, you designed us a better bracer. That is a very good start."
Frerin looked almost abashed by that. "All I did was turn the trigger mechanism over to the back side," he said. "It wasn't that difficult."
"It would be for a hobbit. We're not so mechanically inclined – the bracers we use have remained unchanged for as long as we've been using them, and they were designed long ago by the Dúnedain, not by us. The reason they remained unchanged is not because we were comfortable with the old techniques – we did not change the designs simply because we did not know how. And honestly speaking, we didn't even think to try."
"It's true," Bilbo commented with an amused smile directed at a half embarrassed, half pleased looking Frerin. "I didn't think it was possible before you showed me the designs. And you made me a hidden sword too."
"He did?" Master Longbottom asked interestedly.
"Yes. It's in my walking stick – his walking stick is actually a war hammer," Bilbo agreed without bothering to try and hide his pride, reaching for the walking stick which he nowadays carried with him everywhere. While the Master of the Underhills and the Old Took watched, he pulled the slender rapier blade out, showing it to them. "See? Isn't it wonderfully clever?"
Frerin all but preened at that.
"Hmm… I know a lot of Underhills who wouldn't mind something like this," Master Longbottom said, taking the sword and testing the weight. "Myself included. This is wonderfully clever."
"I guess hidden blades aren't that known among hobbits then?" Frerin asked.
"We're not a very war minded people. All our weapons knowledge is inheritance from the times of the Arthedain," Master Longbottom shrugged, handing the blade back to Bilbo and looking at Frerin curiously. "But you've actually seen war, haven't you, Master Frerin."
"Unfortunately never from the winner's side," Frerin admitted. "But yes. I was the commander of a number of warriors, in the Battle of Azanulbizar. Bilbo, I imagine, reported to you about it."
"He did," Master Longbottom agreed. "But we knew of it before that. That's where you were captured, wasn't it?"
"Does it matter?" Bilbo asked sharply, not really comfortable with them questioning Frerin on such an uncomfortable bit of history.
"It does when it means that he has more experience than we do on matters like these – experience which would be dearly valuable, should the worst come to pass," the Master said and shook his head. "Truth be told, Bilbo, you're not just our first choice, you're our best and only choice. And Master Frerin is a large part of that. As cruel as it sounds, in him you have resources no other hobbit in the Shire has. That, and the fact that you're yet young enough to grow into the duties…"
There was a moment of silence as the Old Took and the Master of the Underhills stared at Bilbo and Frerin hopefully. Bilbo glanced at his somewhat bemused looking husband and then sighed. "Well, this is a fine way to start a marriage," he muttered. "With doom and gloom hanging over our heads. Frerin," he sighed, turning to his husband. "What say you to this?"
"I stand by my oaths," the dwarf smiled, taking his hand in his and rubbing his thumb along the back of Bilbo's hand. "Anything you do, I'll support you."
Bilbo looked at him closely, watching his expression. Then he nodded, and turned to his elders. "I'll do it."
So the biggest change in their lives was, in the end, not the marriage but Bilbo's new duties. While he was not made the Master of the Underhills immediately, his training for it began as soon as Master Longbottom could transport the necessary books over – which, considering that their transportation had to be done in secret, took some time.
"Over a thousand years of Underhill knowledge, huh," Frerin commented once all of it was finally brought, hidden in barrels and boxes marked to be full of quite other things, over the course of several months. In the end, the books and scrolls took over an entire guest room and spilled into the hall too. "I don't think the secret room is quite enough to hide this. We need another."
"No, that won't be enough either," Bilbo sighed, running a hand over his face. Master Longbottom had delivered his future projections first and foremost, and they didn't paint a pretty picture. As the Master of the Underhills, Bilbo would need quite a bit more than just a secret library. "Thank gods my father prepared for this."
"Hm?" Frerin asked.
Bilbo smiled wryly. "Bag End was designed in a way that allows another level to be dug under it. And that's what I'm going to need – and possibly more."
"Well then," Frerin said and grinned. "It's been a while since I've dug anything. This ought to be interesting."
"I, uh… intended to hire builders for it," Bilbo said with a surprised blink.
"Oh, my dear sweet husband, you married a dwarf," Frerin laughed. "And I might've been a jewel smith and gem cutter – but I'm still a dwarf. Digging holes is what we do."
While Bilbo watched with something akin to befuddled relief, Frerin snatched the project of expanding Bag End from him, and then threw himself into it with great enthusiasm. It took Frerin only a couple of days of sketching to figure out the best and safest way of expanding the smial; and not just that, but how to add several secret tunnels in and out of the new, secret level of Bag End.
"This is a bit bigger than I meant," Bilbo commented, leaning over Frerin where he sat, at Bilbo's writing desk with a whole lot of designs and maps spread out before him. "About… three times bigger, actually."
"You own the entire hill, don't you?" Frerin asked, spreading out a map of the surrounding area. He pointed at the road leading to Bag End. "Everything past the end of Bagshot Row is your land, meaning… well, pretty much the entire hill is yours, correct? Your father bought it and even named it, didn't he?"
"Well… yes, he did," Bilbo said slowly. His father had named the hill, which had been known only as the Hobbiton Hill before Bag End had been built. It had been renamed Under the Hill, much to the amusement of his mother. "That doesn't mean that all of it specifically needs to be dug out, though," Bilbo said.
"Why do anything in halves? Besides," Frerin added, looking at the plans. "If it ever comes down to it… it will be a good place to hide the people of Hobbiton. Actually, I might want to add a second underground level, now that I think about it."
Bilbo frowned at that. He… hadn't thought that far ahead. All he wanted was a place, a secret place, where he could store the Underhill knowledge, maybe start a small armoury, and if need be train new Underhills. But Frerin… Frerin had a whole different world view when it came to troubles of the future. "Do you think it will be needed?" Bilbo asked quietly, idly rubbing a hand across Frerin's shoulders.
"I think it is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and then not have it," Frerin said with a sad smile and leaned back to look at him. "I've come to love this place. I can't protect it like you do, but if I could do this… I would like to do it."
Bilbo smiled at that and bent down to kiss him. "That's quite the undertaking though," he commented. "Especially if you add two levels."
"Yes, it will be," Frerin mused and frowned. "About those builders you mentioned before…"
Bilbo didn't hire any builders in the end. He got a better idea before he could.
"Well," Master Longbottom said, a few months later when he visited Bag End again, delivering the final bits of precious Underhill knowledge to Bilbo's hands. "I knew things would be changing, they always do when leadership changes hands, but you certainly have been busy, haven't you?"
"Well. Yes, I suppose," Bilbo mused, drumming the grip of his walking stick with his fingers. "I hope I haven't overstepped?"
"No, no. This is a bit more than I thought, but… this is precisely what we need, I think," the old Underhill said.
Every other week, Bag End had guests. Hobbiton had come to call them the Bag End Socials. While no one in Hobbiton could make heads or tails of how the guests were selected for the Bag End Socials, inside Bag End mostly everyone knew. Older and newer Underhills from far and wide came to spend a bit of time in Bag End, getting to know their soon to be Master and to meet potential new Underhills – most of whom never knew that the Master of Bag End had such designs for them. Some of them were chosen by the older Underhills, some were deemed unsuitable.
The ones that were picked stayed in Bag End with their masters for a week, sometimes two, to learn about what they'd been picked for, and what that entailed. And, consequentially, to help Frerin and Bilbo in the building of the secret levels of Bag End.
In the mean while Hobbiton merely thought that now that Master Bilbo Baggins of Bag End had settled into married life, he simply started being a whole lot more sociable. It was understood that now that Frerin was his husband, the great influence the dwarf was having on the stuffy Baggins must've increased by tenfold and good thing too.
Nothing more pleasant for a community than a friendly, sociable new couple, after all. And the fact that the married couple at Bag End were quite wealthy, well. That didn't hurt.
"How very sneaky of you," Master Longbottom said, with amusement and approval in his voice, as Bilbo showed him around the slowly developing underground levels. They were rough still, but Frerin had a very keen sense of design even when it came to building, and they could already see what would go where.
"Well. Its primary purpose is to serve as the headquarters for the Underhill brotherhood," Bilbo said modestly. "So new and old Underhills ought to come to know it. And since they have a hand in building it, they have an easy and natural trust in it – and knowing that they always have a place to fall back to ought to build confidence."
"Like I said, very sneaky," the old Master said, smiling. "It is very big, however. A little more and it will be bigger than Took Hall."
"There will be another level below this one," Bilbo said with a faint smile. "Frerin wants to get the support structures properly laid out before he starts digging it, however. It’s slow going – Frerin still has his work at the smithy after all, and that takes most of his time. But he can usually leave the rest of us with good enough instructions to keep at it without him here. At this rate, we’ll start building the next level next spring."
The old Underhill Master blinked at that and turned to look at him. "Alright," he said slowly. "Bigger than Took Hall then. Why?"
Bilbo shrugged. "We weren't thinking nearly big enough, before," he admitted. "Frerin pointed it out to me. We're thinking only in countermeasures – adding more Underhills, trying to secure our borders. But say we can't. Say the Shire is invaded. Then what? What do we do?"
"So… this is…?" The old hobbit motioned at the construction work around them.
"A fortress I suppose. Or at least a hideout," Bilbo sighed. "Primarily it will be used by the Underhills, for meetings and occasionally training too, as well as storing knowledge and whatnot. But in the meanwhile I will also make stores, food, and water too I suppose. I originally planned to make an armoury for the Underhills alone, but…"
"Huh," the old Underhill said, sounding a little astonished. "So, we were preparing for a grim future. You're preparing for war and invasion."
"Sort of a side effect of loving a man who went through a war and then spent over a hundred years paying the price for not preparing properly," Bilbo murmured. "This is Frerin's project, not mine. He is building it with the intention of being able to fit at least every woman and child of Hobbiton inside if need be. Gods willing, we will never need to use it. But if we do… well. It's better to have it than not."
The old Master shook his head, still looking amazed. "Well, I'll be satisfied leaving this job to you, then," he murmured. "You certainly seem to have a good handle on it."
"Frerin has a better one, it turns out. You know, it's not just me who's going to be leading the Underhills," Bilbo commented idly. "You kind of get a two for one deal here, it turns out."
The old Underhill smiled at that. "I was counting on it."
Bilbo leaned back a little, smothering the urge to smile, while across the sitting room table young Drogo Baggins stared at him in determination, a tray of tea sitting on the table between them.
"Don't even try to deny it," the young hobbit, not yet even a tween really, said accusingly. "I've been watching, and I've been keeping track. There are all sorts of strange things happening at Bag End. You have things brought over – construction things – but you've not really expanded the smial at all. And I saw you once through the window – you were fencing with Master Frerin in the living room! And I heard you once, talking about things like borders and goblins! You might have the rest of Hobbiton fooled, cousin, but not me!"
Bilbo ran a hand over his mouth, trying desperately not to chuckle under the young hobbit's severe gaze. Drogo had been following him and Frerin for a while now, trying to remain unseen, trying to figure out the mystery of Bag End that no one else even know existed. It had been rather… adorable, really.
"And?" he asked finally, reaching for his teacup and taking it in hand. "Say all sorts of weird things are happening, cousin. Then what?"
"T-then what?" the boy asked and blinked, a little unsure. "Well then I'll know for sure!" he snapped.
"Mm-hmm," Bilbo agreed. "I thought you already knew."
"Well I do know – but then you know that I do know and you can't be fooling me anymore!" Drogo said and took his own cup with finality. "And I'll get to the bottom of the whole thing, mark my words!"
"And flaunt your knowledge at the market?" Bilbo asked idly. "You'll be quite the hero, uncovering all this funny business that no one knew a thing about."
"Well," the boy hesitated. "Well, I wouldn't go that far. I mean, what you do in Bag End is quite your own private thing. I'm sure it's no one's business… "
"Except yours," the older hobbit added, amused.
Drogo bristled at that and for a moment longer tried to hold the image of a fully grown hobbit. Then, somewhat predictably, he faded back into the somewhat excitable young boy he really was. "Come on, Cousin Bilbo! You and Master Frerin are doing something interesting here, aren't you? And nobody even knows about it! You can tell me, can't you?"
"Can I?" Bilbo asked, smiling.
"Come oonnn, cousin!" Drogo pleaded. "I won't tell anyone, I swear!"
Bilbo chuckled and said nothing to that.
"Well, what do you think?" Frerin asked proudly, as they walked around in the finished underground levels of Bag End – each one of them far larger than the actual smial above them.
It had taken almost five years to finish them, slow going as it had been – slowed by both the need to keep it a secret and the fact that Frerin's eye for detail was ruthless. Moving about twenty thousand cubic feet of earth without anyone noticing was no small thing, especially when it had to be put somewhere too. Bilbo had ended up selling it to various farmers who had aimed to expand or level out their fields – with most of Hobbiton being under the impression that he'd bought it from outside the village and was making a profit from selling it.
After the excess dirt, the next hardest thing to manage was the fact that Frerin demanded doing the supports and foundations in stone, rather than wood. "We want it to last, yes? Wood rots. It won't last," had been his argument, and eventually Bilbo had bended to it. Some of the support still had to be done in wood – there were no proper quarries in the Shire and ordering all of it from abroad would've cost entirely too much – but the majority of the support was indeed done in stone.
The final result had a distinctively dwarven cast to it – it had a bit more angles and corners than a hobbit smial would've, and the rooms were square rather than round. There were also a few dwarven designs Frerin had put in, unable to help himself – all the support pillars, of which there were many, were carved throughout with sharp, angular designs and symbols. They were very fine looking, even if they lacked the soft, comfortable roundness of hobbit designs.
Still, the floors and the ceilings and the walls were largely done in soft, comfortable wood. There were several stoves throughout the underground levels, which could keep it warm through the coldest of winters. And, of course, there were about a dozen cool storage rooms, for the food stores Bilbo had already started accumulating in the form of cold stored grain and such, which in their barrels could last for decades.
"It is very well done," Bilbo said with a proud nod. It was a tad larger and more open than he would've perhaps liked – dwarves, it turned out, favoured open spaces to cramped, comfortable nooks. A man would've had no trouble walking through the hidden levels, so high Frerin had designed them. But that was just as well – it would do well as a training space for Underhills. In fact, it already was.
"Now we just need furniture to fill the place up," Bilbo added, considering the rooms and corridors, calculating in his head how many people could be fit in. Half a thousand hobbits, easily. And should half a thousand ever feel the necessity of staying there, they would need places to sleep in, tables to eat at.
Frerin grinned, throwing an arm around Bilbo. "One thing at a time," he said, bringing two fingers beneath Bilbo's chin to tilt his face up. "And right now I want to celebrate my work well done…"
"You're kidding me," Drogo said, looking at the hallway which was completely covered in logs. "Not touching the ground at all?"
"Not at all," Bilbo agreed, smiling and leaning his shoulder against the doorway to the kitchen, watching his young apprentice across the hall. "If you can do it, then you can have supper."
"You're kidding me," Drogo said again, looking between him and the logs on the floor. Bag End didn't have particularly short hallways, after all – and Bilbo hadn't chosen exactly thick logs either. "A-and you can do it?" the young hobbit asked, looking up with disbelief.
"I could do it by the time I was three," Bilbo grinned and turned to head to the kitchen, to finish his meal preparations. "Get to it, my boy. Your supper gets cold."
A moment later, the sound of Drogo crashing to the floor echoed throughout Bag End – followed by Frerin's badly smothered laughter.
"It's just that since great aunt Begonia died, the smial in Michel Delving goes to me – and it would work very well for us, you see," the young Underhill explained almost desperately to Bilbo, wringing her hands. "Me and Monty, we want to have lots of kids, and there'd be so much more space there – it's such a nice smial. And if I don't go, then it goes to my younger sister and she wants none of it, so she'd just sell it and it'd be such a pity because it's the family smial, see, it was built by my great great grandpa and –"
"Peace, Lilimun, peace!" Bilbo said with a laugh, holding his hands up. "I understand, I do, I swear. But you do understand that you're the only Underhill in Green Hill Country, don't you? And Michel Delving already has three Underhill families. Whole families – five Underhills in total, and seven apprentices."
"Yes, sir, which is why, well…" the young Underhill sighed and slumped down. "I suppose I ought not to move…"
Bilbo looked her over. She was one of the newest generations of Underhills – made official by him, actually. He'd cut off her finger himself. She was very good and showing great promise of becoming great – she had that same wicked sense of tactics that his mother had had, and Bilbo had felt no fear in leaving the whole of Green Hill County to her. And she'd done a great job, in the two years she'd been the Underhill of Pincup.
But… there were other things to be considered than what sort of Underhill she was and where she was needed.
"How long can you wait before the ownership of your great aunt's smial goes to your sister?" Bilbo asked, reaching for the record book where he kept track of all the Underhills – all of it written in a secret, half nonsensical, short hand he'd designed for the task.
"Two more months – then she can file for property neglect and declare it for herself," Lilimun said, looking up hopefully.
"Hm. It's not much time, but… We'll see. I might be able to persuade some other Underhill to take over for you in Pincup. And if nothing else, Green Hill County is beautiful land. I know some Underhills who wouldn't mind spending a holiday or a couple there," Bilbo said and smiled at her as she almost jumped off her seat and punched the air.
Drogo, after initial difficulties, proved a very promising student. He was serious and diligent, and had a lot of Bilbo's own father in him, which made the lad a very smart student indeed. He learned the tactics and the poisons and the lore easily and without difficulty – and once he grasped the theory of it, even the physical exercises weren't that hard for him.
"He'll make a fine Underhill, once he's properly trained," Bilbo mused to Frerin while the both of them watched Bilbo's apprentice turn a tree stump into a pin cushion. "It's almost a pity I couldn't catch him sooner. Even five years earlier and we'd be a long way with him."
"Five years earlier and we were busy with other things," Frerin mused, leaning against his shoulder, watching Drogo. There was a strange, distant look in his eyes and he sighed. "I wonder what kind of an Underhill a dwarf would make."
Bilbo smothered a snort. "Uh. A somewhat clumsy one?" he offered.
"We can be graceful," Frerin answered with a mock frown. "And we can be quiet too. Quiet as a mouse. And Dwarves are natural sprinters so whatever we can't sneak up on, we can easily run down."
"Yes, sure, of course," Bilbo answered with a laugh and kissed his furry cheek. "Quiet as a mouse as you stomp everywhere in your big boots. Very stealthy."
"Oh, go hang from a tree," Frerin grumbled.
The first time he and Frerin travelled out of Hobbiton together was to attend Gerontius Took's funeral. Something like half of the entire Shire was in attendance and Bilbo, being family, was seated in the fourth row with Frerin while the cleric went through the brief ceremonies. Though they started out solemn and sorrowful, that was most definitely not the way they ended up. Old Took had liked his parties after all, and wouldn't have wanted his funeral to be a grim affair.
"That was Dad," Isengrim, the new Took Thain, commented later on, in a short but mostly cheerful speech. "Always looking for the bright and pleasant things in life."
Bilbo couldn't find the whole affair all too bright or enjoyable though. While his and the Old Took's relationship had always been more or less businesslike – the Underhills were all that remained of the old Hobbit Armies, really, and the Thain was their foremost leader in the end – Gerontius had been… more or less all that remained of his mother and father. And since Bilbo had become the Master of the Underhills, he'd dealt with the old hobbit more and more and to have that suddenly taken away…
"I'm sorry," Frerin murmured. "I know he was dear to you."
"Well… not as such. But he was a constant in my life," Bilbo said. After he'd lost his parents – and before Frerin – the Old Took and Master Longbottom had been the only constants in his life, and the only things he could rely on. He'd never needed them like that, but he'd always known that if he did, if he ever got into trouble, if he needed a place to go, that place would be the Took Hall. Now… now it wouldn't be.
Master Longbottom wouldn't be long in Middle Earth either – the old Underhill had been confined to bed for the better part of the last year, some old injury having taken the mobility of his legs from him. Bilbo hadn't seen him since and knew he wouldn't until it was time to bury the old Underhill as well. And so the old generation would be gone. Bilbo, the new Master of the Underhills, would serve the new Thain, and the Old Took and old Master Underhill would fade into history and into memory.
He'd known it would happen, of course. It was an oddly hollow, choking feeling, to actually experience.
Frerin smiled and squeezed his hand. "You'll be fine," he promised. "I'm here. We'll be fine."
"Yes. We will be," Bilbo agreed, squeezing back.
Later, he introduced himself to the Thain. Of course, he had met Isengrim Took before – he was Bilbo's uncle after all, and had been preparing for the tasks of the Thain for many years – they knew each other well. But it was a different thing, to meet as the Thain and as an Underhill. It was… a little bit colder.
"My father trusted you to do your job, and I will do the same," Isengrim said. "The protection of the Shire is in your hands, Master of the Underhill Brotherhood. Go, and do your job."
Bilbo looked down on his most recent kills, four of them, running a hand over his mouth. They had robbed the ranger way stations and ransacked a farm house – a lad was going to lose an eye, because of them, and a young lass had been… well. It hadn't been pretty. He was going to have words with the Underhill from Needlehole about that, no mistake – the robbers had come from that way, after all, which meant the Underhill had missed them.
"Shit," Bilbo murmured, in a rare bit of swearing and bowed his head. It had been necessary – it was the duty of an Underhill and the fact that he was the Master of the Underhills now didn't make him any less an Underhill. Hobbiton was still in his charge, and until Drogo grew talented enough to take over for him in the field, it would remain in his charge. And as such, he had to protect it.
He just… hadn't thought he'd end up protecting it from dwarves.
Taking a deep breath, Bilbo crouched down and began rummaging through their pockets for valuables and everything else that the earth wouldn't take, taking out hidden knifes and stacking up their crude weapons. He sliced their braids and took their beads, wincing a little at each slice, and gathered all of the beads into a pouch, tying it to his waist. Then he went about disposing the bodies, burying them in the forest for it to consume.
Once he was done, he gathered the weapons, bundling them up in a cloak one of the dwarves had been wearing and then turned home. He'd add them to the spare armoury, to join with the lot of orcish and mannish weapons, to be used if worse came to worst. And then…
Then he'd have to explain himself to Frerin.
And that, Bilbo was well aware, wouldn't go well.
"He's still mad at you, huh?" Drogo asked, wincing as Frerin left the smial, banging the door so hard that the support beams rattled.
"He's mad at pretty much everything right now," Bilbo sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "Never you mind that now, lad. Show me your new poison."
The thing about living in a family where one member was an assassin was that they couldn't have a proper fight, him and Frerin. Due to the simple lethality of his skills, Bilbo could never, ever use them against his husband – and Frerin knew that, so he never started anything physical either. But the problem with that, though? Dwarves tended to handle their disagreements with a nice bout of sparring, or fisticuffs if they couldn't manage weapons. A fight of words and arguments simply wasn't the dwarven way.
So the difficulty, which had begun with four dead dwarf robbers and then exploded out of proportions due to sheer frustration… it just mounted. Mounted in anger and aggravation and it unearthed issues that they usually could swallow and smother, but which now burst to the surface.
"I am so Mahal damned tired of you coddling me!" Frerin had roared at him at the end of it, the dead dwarves all but forgotten and every other issue fresh and bruised on the surface. "You act as if I'm an invalid all the time – yes, Bilbo, yes I know. The dwarrows were robbers. They hurt hobbits. I know. And I know what Underhills do. I get it and I don't care. I don't care that they died, or that you killed them. That's not the issue here! You don't think I haven't seen a dwarf killed, that I haven't killed them myself? Our race is greedy and brutal when we lose control. I've seen it. I don't care – but that you tiptoe around the subject as if it would break me…!"
And that was the heart of it, really.
"If we could just fight it out, it would be much better," Bilbo murmured after he and Drogo had gone over the poisons, all the while Bilbo was horribly distracted. "That's what dwarves do. They bruise each other until the anger is satisfied. But we can't because…" because he would beat Frerin inside half a minute and that would just make it worse.
"You should try hatemaking," Drogo suggested – and then blushed to the roots of his hair with an aghast look on his face. "Wait, no, I didn't say that!"
"Hatemaking?" Bilbo asked slowly, arching his eyebrow.
"Um… Can we just pretend I didn't say anything?" Drogo asked desperately, inching away. "And, uh, and I'll just leave, yeah? I think it's about time I head for dinner anyway, and mum, she worries and –"
Bilbo grabbed him by the elbow. "Hatemaking?" he asked again, both eyebrows up now. "Tell me, or I'll have you hanging from the beams for the rest of the day."
"Gah," Drogo said, wincing. "Well, uh. It's just something I heard – it's nothing really, just a stupid thing they do in Buck – ouch," he winced harder when Bilbo squeezed his elbow, digging his fingers into the nerve. "Son of a – it's a thing they do in Buckland, because, you know, Brandybucks, they're a weird lot and they can get off on all sorts of weird things and – uh, anyway, when a lad and lass get angry at each other, they sort of… take it out on each other. While they're, you know… in bed and stuff. So they call it hatemaking because, um…."
Bilbo watched his apprentice squirm in dismay and embarrassment for a moment and then released him, watching Drogo skitter away hurriedly. "Hatemaking," he murmured and snorted. "Hmmm."
"Oh god you're considering it – can I go, please, please, Master Underhill, may I be excused, right now, and possibly never ever come back?" Drogo asked, looking utterly terrified.
Bilbo considered him and snorted. "I'll see you in… two days. For dinner."
"Aright, yes, of course. Two days, dinner. Bye, Master," Drogo said hurriedly and all but vanished.
Later, it turned out that hatemaking was absolutely wonderful and if Bilbo and Frerin hadn't both ended up aching and bruised afterwards, they probably would've taken it as an incentive to try and fight more often.
Drogo had a lot of friends in Buckland, and visited it often during the summer time – which Bilbo didn't mind, even if it interfered with the lad's training. It gave him and Frerin some blessed peace and quiet – or as much as it could be had, when one was a busy smith and the other was the master of a busy brotherhood. As it was, Bilbo had a more secretive reason to not minding Drogo's forays to Buckland.
"Of course there are Underhills in Buckland, and many more Bounders than there are elsewhere in the Shire," Bilbo mused out loud to Frerin. "But I've yet to select my lieutenant and…"
"I thought you meant for Drogo to take over your fieldwork in Hobbiton?" Frerin said, arching an eyebrow.
"Well. There's not that much field work left to be had in Hobbiton, really – not with the borders being reinforced," Bilbo shrugged. There were more Underhills now than there had been since the very founding days of their Brotherhood – which then had been solely a Brotherhood, too. Nowadays, female hobbits made a larger number of Underhills – something about the female mind made them simply better suited for the job, somehow. That, and the fact that most could easily cover their work by simply pretending to be at home, as proper wives and mothers ought to.
"The more Underhills we have at the borders, the less traffic will reach inward," Bilbo added. "If my plans pan out, I'll be soon surprised to see any unseemly traffic in these parts at all."
"Hm, true enough," Frerin mused. "So, your plan for the lad is to, what… hope he finds a lass in Buckland?" he grinned. "Judging by the sound of it, he's found many."
"He's a tween. Tweens have their romps," Bilbo laughed. "But I think it will soon be that only a Buckland lass will do for the lad. Drogo does well to pretend he's proper, but he's a fiery one – he'll need a fiery one to manage him."
Much to both their amusement, Drogo found his fiery one very soon – or, to be more apt, the fiery one found him. And she did not just find him, but she followed him, very nearly stalked him, eavesdropped on him and, eventually, followed a poor distraught Drogo all the way from Buckland to Hobbiton, and right to Bilbo's and Frerin's doorstep.
"My apologies for my sudden visit, I do hope I've not put you in any trouble, but I would very much like to stay for a while if it was at all possible," she said to Bilbo with the sweetest and sharpest smile on her face, curtsying beautifully. "I can of course help with housework and I'm a decent cook and won't be a bother at all, I promise, Master Underhill."
"No bother at all, huh?" Bilbo asked, trying very hard to smother a smile.
Her eyes twinkled. "You won't even notice I'm here, I swear!"
"Please, Master, get her gone!" Drogo begged, very nearly crying with desperation. That might've had something to do with the fact that the lass' nails were digging into his wrist, though.
"Oh no, I won't. Not on your life," Bilbo answered and grinned at the lass while Frerin toppled over, roaring with laughter.
A very little lass she was too. Her name was Primula Brandybuck, daughter of the Master of Buckland of course, and the very image of pre-tween determination as she stood there, in all of her twelve years and barely two and a half feet, her eyes set on Drogo like daggers.
It took Bilbo four months of furious letter exchanging and two visits to Buckland to secure young Primula as his second apprentice. Gorbadoc Brandybuck was not happy to see one of his children be taught the ways of the Underhills, never mind a lass so young – it was mostly his wife, Bilbo's Aunt Mirabella, who talked the Master of Buckland over. That and the fact that whenever they managed to take Primula home and to Buckland, she promptly ran away to Hobbiton the first chance she got.
Drogo hated her at first. She was younger than he had been when Bilbo had begun training him, and so had an easier time of it, her youth making her limber in body and mind in a way he hadn't quite been anymore. She took to the sword like a master and soon beat Drogo in every spar. And she beat him in archery with ease – though Drogo could hold more arrows. The one thing Drogo beat her at was throwing knives, which he lorded over her mercilessly until she had enough of it, and began lacing his knife handles with itching powder.
"This might not have been such a good idea," Bilbo mused, watching over them as they wrestled on the sitting room floor, Drogo with Primula's fingers up his nose, Primula with her hair pulled into knots.
"Speaking of which, time to head to the forge," Frerin said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Have fun with the kids, dear!"
"Traitor! Get back here!" Bilbo shouted after him. "I hate you!"
"No you don't!"
Bilbo felt absolute vindictive pleasure the day when Frerin chose his first apprentice, and the young Sandyman lad turned out to be an outrageous ladies man whose many girlfriends began hanging around the smithy like flies over a carcass.
"Thank you," Arathorn said tiredly, while Bilbo offered him a proper, man sized goblet of freshly heated wine. The ranger drank half of it in a single gulp and shuddered powerfully while Frerin not so casually added a couple more logs into the dining room oven. "Ah, that hits the spot," the man murmured.
"It's miserable weather to be riding in," Bilbo commented idly while pouring himself and Frerin glasses of wine as well. Outside, it was pouring sleet and ice, that year’s winter having never decided whether to be cold or wet and having then settled on being both at the same time.
"Yes, I noted that, thank you," Arathorn answered somewhat snappily before sighing. "Sorry, it's a miserable sort of week. We've been hunting a band of orcs across the North Downs – they made a little nest in the mountains without us noticing it. Not until they began bothering people anyway."
"Bad?" Frerin asked, sitting down and taking his glass.
"There was a little village, just a little east of the ruins of Fornost," Arathorn said, with a hollow look in his eyes. "Nice people, just started to get good yield from the land. We even did a little bit of trading with them, and they always welcomed us to sleep in their barns when we needed it. There's… no village there anymore, though."
"Ah," Frerin murmured, looking down.
"What brings you down to Hobbiton, though? It's a long way from the North Downs," Bilbo commented.
Arathorn looked sharply down and to his hand, where he bore a new, bright ring. Then he sighed. "I've become the Chieftain of the Rangers," he admitted. "My father was killed two moons ago – hill trolls captured him, and… well." He shook his head and looked up at Bilbo. "I'm on my way to Rivendell, to inform Lord Elrond what's happened, and to… well, I have other business there as well. I thought it proper to inform you while I was at it, Master of the Underhills."
"I see," Bilbo said and nodded. "My condolences for your father," he said. He'd never met Arador, but he knew he'd been a good Chieftain; all the rangers he'd ever met had spoken highly of the man. "And congratulations, Chieftain of the Dúnedain."
Arathorn jerked a bit, his head snapping up. There was a haunted look on his face for a moment, before he nodded. "Thank you."
"You're not travelling alone, are you?" Bilbo asked then, frowning – because unlike the Master of the Underhills, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain was a little harder to replace, if one happened to be waylaid on the road. In the Shire, Arathorn would be fine, no doubt about it – but outside it…
Arathorn smiled. "I'll be meeting a party of rangers in Bree. No need to worry, Master Underhill."
Arathorn didn't stay long – either as a guest in Bag End, or as the Chieftain of the Dúnedain.
Bit by bit the world was getting darker, but Bilbo fought it off in his way and Frerin in his, and in Bag End happiness and bright light persisted. Fifteen years after Bilbo had taken Drogo as his student, Frerin made the lad his bracers, one for each arm. Thanks to Frerin's new designs, most Underhills used two now, but tradition was still tradition and even if Bilbo wouldn't have minded getting rid of it, Drogo insisted.
"Let some things stay as they are – we still need a symbol of our conviction and a way to recognize each other," Drogo commented. "You're the only Underhill who knows every other Underhill, after all."
So, while Frerin distracted the ever curious Primula, Bilbo took Drogo to the hidden levels below where, with some small ceremony and plenty of hard, clear alcohol, Bilbo cut the lad's fourth finger from his left hand, and so announced Drogo an official Underhill.
"Now your training is finished – the rest you'll have to manage on your own. You're my first student, Drogo," Bilbo said to him, taking the lad's face between his hands. "I will have others and I will be proud of them all, but you're my first. And you have done very well, and I am very proud indeed to call you my student."
"Thank you master," Drogo whispered, clutching his bandaged hand.
Drogo stayed in Bag End for a while longer – up until Bilbo was forced to pronounce himself beaten and thus done with Primula’s training too, in fact. She broke all the old records as the quickest trained Underhill – she was barely older than Bilbo had been when he'd been initiated, nowhere near to being a mature adult yet, but so very skilled.
"Just as well. A few more years and those two would've killed me," Bilbo mused, after Primula's initiation.
"You say that now. Just wait until they move out," Frerin said, smiling. "You'll miss them like you can't imagine."
And Bilbo did miss them, so very much. They moved out that summer to Buckland, where Drogo made a smial and settled down to wait until he could make Primula his wife – and where, subsequently, he became the first Lieutenant of the Underhills in hundreds of years. Primula returned to Buckland Hall, its undisputedly most wild and strange occupant. She became one of the first hobbits in years to venture into the OldForest that very same year, much to everyone's – especially Drogo's – horror.
For a while Bag End seemed very big and very lonely indeed – but Frerin was nothing if not a good distraction.
"You know," Frerin mused, as they sat by the fire and Bilbo, now luxuriating in their solitude, indulged himself in brushing and fixing his husband's hair. "One day those two are going to have kids. And they're going to raise the said kids. And probably train them to be Underhills too."
"Most likely yes," Bilbo laughed. "Any child of theirs will be a menace, and no mistake."
"I wonder if their kids could be considered, in some way, our grandchildren," Frerin mused, leaning into his hands. "Grand-apprentices. Hmm."
Bilbo was quiet for a moment, brushing his hands through his husband's golden hair slowly. "Does it bother you, that we can't have children?" he asked quietly.
"It doesn't bother me exactly. I just… I wouldn't mind," Frerin admitted, sipping his wine. "It won't be long until I turn two hundred. It's a grand old age for any dwarf, but for one without children or grandchildren… it's a sad one."
Bilbo sighed and wrapped his arms around his husband's shoulder. "Would that I could, I'd grand you a full dozen sons and as many daughters to match," he murmured, kissing Frerin's neck.
"Now, that would be something. A weird sort of something," Frerin laughed and leaned to kiss him. "Nah, never mind me. I'm an old sappy dwarf, dreaming of would be's."
"Yes, you are," Bilbo murmured, smiling. "And there's no other way I'd rather have you."
And that's the end of it.