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Boon Companions

Chapter Text

Bilbo didn't notice the pattern at once. The first few nights away from his comfortable hobbit-hole, he was so sore and miserable from sitting on pony-back for more hours than he had ever imagined anyone would wish to - or any pony would tolerate - that he would hardly have noticed if the dwarves slept upside-down hanging from the ceiling like bats. They did not, of course; they slept like ordinary folk, in ordinary hobbit beds four to a room, save for Gandalf who had to request a special room at each inn and Thorin who always had a room to himself.

The first night away from Bag End was spent at the Floating Log in Frogmorton, where the ale suffered by comparison to the taps at the Green Dragon. Bilbo had not had occasion to use a bed at the Green Dragon - at least, not since he was a tween and Bungo had locked him out of Bag End for being insufferably curious and stubborn about something-or-other - but he was quite certain the Dragon's beds did not feel like sleeping on top of an actual scaly dragon back; whereas the beds at the Floating Log were nearly as lumpy and hard as their namesake. This, of course, was before Bilbo had got any acquaintance with the fine art of sleeping upon the ground, or worked the aches from all his muscles that were unused to riding nearly all of the daylight hours.

The second night, in Whitfurrows, Bilbo was even more exhausted. He scarcely tasted the food or ale and never thought about the comfort of the bed except to note that it wasn't moving when he tumbled into it and fell at once to sleep, to be wakened by Bofur what seemed mere minutes later in the pale dawn-light with hardly a minute to gulp down tea and scones before being hoisted into that hated saddle once again.

By the evening of the third day he noticed that his legs weren't quite as sore and his eyelids not quite so heavy. And in the inn (an above-ground building like a house, which overlooked the Brandywine Bridge and had an entire selection of big-person rooms to offer Gandalf), he did note that Thorin tapped Dori upon the shoulder and the two of them went off together before everyone else had retired. But Bilbo thought nothing of it, and when he blinked awake in the middle of the night to hear two of his companions making merry in one bed, he simply grumbled to himself and pulled the covers above his ears.

The fourth night they did sleep upon the ground, in a hollow between the road and the borders of the Old Forest. There were strange noises from the Forest, and Gandalf had advised them not to venture under its boughs but to collect their firewood from the north side of the road, and old Balin kept watch. Everyone slept in their clothes, even Thorin in his mail, and there was no merry-making during the night. Yet Bilbo still found the dwarves remarkably loud, with their snoring and grunting and the whispers and chuckles from Fili and Kili who were always sharing jokes with one another.

The fifth night they came to the Prancing Pony in Bree. And though Bilbo had slept poorly upon his scant bedroll the night before, he found he was quite alert enough to appreciate what the Pony had to offer. There was good food in abundance, an ale that might give the Green Dragon a touch, a fiddler of reasonable skill who nodded when a few of the dwarves brought out instruments of their own to join in, and beds that - as Bilbo now appreciated - were infinitely more comfortable than sleeping upon a log, a dragon, a pony, or the ground.

This time it was Oin whose shoulder Thorin squeezed as he left the table. And Oin gave a sharp nod, finished his ale in a long gulp, and followed the dwarf-prince. Bilbo glanced around at the others, who were mostly occupied with Bofur's amusing story of attempting to work for a time as a sheep-herder, except that all his sheep had perished of one misfortune after another until at last a helpful farmer informed him that the last two sheep remaining were actually a pair of goats that belonged to the fellow a mile further up the valley, who was on his way to accuse Bofur of goat-stealing. Everyone roared with laughter at Bofur's ineptitude, but some had stories of their own failures at un-dwarf-like tasks. No one paid heed to or commented upon the looks between Thorin and Oin. After a moment Bilbo realised that it only made sense; there were four of them apiece sharing three different rooms, and Gandalf over on the other side of the inn where the ceilings were higher and the beds longer - so naturally there would be two left over, and one person would need to go in with Thorin each time they stayed at an inn.

Bilbo was weaving a bit as he tried to find his way through the maze of hallways - and stairs, with which he had little practice even sober - to the room he was to share with Ori and Fili and Kili. As he paused beside a closed door to catch his breath and bearing, he heard a voice within - Oin's.

"Ah, Thorin," rasped the dwarf, "You've a way with your hands like no one else." And then he groaned deeply, finishing with a whine of desperation.

Bilbo's face heated, and he sprang up away from the wall he'd been half-leaning against. He hurried down the hall and chose a bed in the first room he found with dwarf-packs inside, never minding if it was where he was supposed to sleep. And when, unsleeping, he heard Fili and Kili and Ori murmuring and chuckling and making the bed-straps creak, he realised at last that all the dwarves participated in this custom, very likely every night.

Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut and wished he could squeeze his ears shut as well, but it was long before he could get to sleep, and his groin ached with a sensation very different from saddle-sores.

They spent the day in Bree, and Bilbo went with Bofur to replenish some of their supplies. After some discussion during the night they camped near the Old Forest, he had been given the role of cook for their company. This was congenial enough as he enjoyed cooking, and he liked feeling not entirely useless. But he was now realizing that the role entailed something more like quartermaster to a small army - and the old half-remembered saying about armies marching on their stomachs was beginning to make more sense. He asked how many nights they would be camping until the next inn (Bofur hemmed uncertainly and chewed the inside of his cheek, but said to plan for two weeks), then took a hobbit's appetite and multiplied that by fifteen - or perhaps it should be twenty, including Bombur. That would mean enough supplies that they would be leading laden ponies instead of riding them. When he rattled off his conclusions to Bofur, the dwarf insisted that they wouldn't eat nearly so much on the road as they did at inns - even Bombur. Bilbo, reflecting that he would rather prefer to eat just as much every day since it was already quite a bit less than his customary six meals, reluctantly reduced his numbers. And of course all the food must be of the sort that would keep well for weeks even in a saddle-pack, perhaps with rain seeping through the seams of the leather. Bilbo was only a little consoled by the claim that Kili and Ori would keep them supplied with rabbits or other small game as needed.

The dwarves already had better gear than most of what was sold in the Bree marketplace - Bofur particularly sneered at the knives and short swords the blacksmith had on offer, and was inclined to go into great detail about the inferiority of the metal and its shaping. Gloin and Nori meanwhile were seeing to repairs of some leather straps and getting two of the ponies re-shod. Dori caught Bilbo by the arm and drew him to a shop that sold some quite nice candlesticks and lanterns, but Dori only wanted Bilbo to look at the little tinderboxes they had, with an inner chamber to carry hot embers, clever rain-proofing, and a small flint-striker that fastened neatly to the back - and all of it small enough to fit in a coat-pocket, much less a leather pack. Bilbo, who had left his own much larger flint-striker on the mantel at home, haggled only a little over the price of the tinderbox. But he did look longingly at the nicest, tallest candlesticks and inquired about the cost to ship them to Hobbiton before he concluded that it simply would not do.

That night Thorin and Gandalf ate dinner at a smaller table in the corner of the Prancing Pony's taproom and held some sort of heated argument in whispers. Bilbo fretted that they were disagreeing about the inclusion of the burglar again, but from what little he could hear he gathered it was something to do with the road they were to take, and perhaps related to Bofur's uncertainty about how much food they should carry - but none of the dwarves would tell him any more about the dilemma. Eventually Thorin, face thunderous, rose from the table. He scowled at the company of dwarves (and one hobbit) at the longer table, and gave a nod to Balin, who gravely returned it. As soon as Thorin's back was turned, Balin's solemn look turned to a beam of delight, and he followed quickly after.

Bilbo watched them go in puzzlement. He didn't pretend to understand the tastes of dwarves, but surely Balin was a bit . . . old? Or perhaps something different was to happen tonight? If it was what Bilbo thought - what he had so clearly heard in Oin's voice last night - would not the other dwarves be making jokes about it, or perhaps placing bets on who would be chosen? Everyone remained quiet about the matter, not even exchanging knowing looks. But there had been that joyous smile from Balin, and his eagerness to join Thorin.

Bilbo went the long way around the hall to bed, not passing Thorin's door and certainly not stretching his ears for what was assuredly none of his business.

Chapter Text

After Bree they had to camp in the wild most nights and set a watch. Thorin assigned the watch duty, never to Bilbo and never to himself. But though he was never officially on guard, the dwarf-prince slept as lightly as a cat and reacted as swiftly to any hint of trouble. Three nights from Bree, they paid a farmer - one of the big folk - to let them stay in his spacious barn. It seemed the farm had seen better times in the past, for most of the stalls were empty. Gandalf claimed a spot near the door, but Thorin took the most spacious stall with the deepest pile of hay. He set Gloin to watch but tapped Dwalin on the shoulder before retiring.

Within a short time, there was no question in Bilbo's mind as to what was happening in the next stall over, as Dwalin's voice carried and he was not the least bit shy. Bilbo shifted this way and that on his pile of hay, trying to get comfortable or at least to find a position where he might pretend to be asleep. But from other rustlings and gasps he realised that no-one else was pretending, anyway.

With a sigh Bilbo got up, stepped cautiously over the restless forms of his companions, and went outside to join Gloin on watch. The gruff dwarf gave him a knowing smirk. "Too noisy for you in there?"

"Oh! Er, I just . . . needed a breath of fresh air." After a moment, Bilbo realised that might be a worse insult than admitting to the noise, and he groped for some way to rephrase himself.

But Gloin only smiled more fully. "Well, bedjoys make boon companions," he said with the air of one repeating an old maxim. In his lap he was polishing small semi-precious stones with a soft cloth, a habit for most of the dwarves whenever they had a quiet moment.

Bilbo blinked.

"I fear our good Bilbo is accustomed to doing such things rather differently, in the Shire," said a deep voice from nearby. Bilbo turned to find Gandalf reclining against a fence-pole, wrapped in his cloak and nursing his long pipe.

"Yes, well, I . . . of course, hobbits do - do that sort of thing, you know, just, er . . . rather differently, I suppose," he stammered, aware that he had merely repeated what Gandalf had said.

Gloin looked up with interest. "How's that?" he asked.

"Well, I, er . . ." Bilbo maundered, having no idea how to say what he was thinking without giving insult.

Gandalf stepped into the gap. "What you must understand, Gloin," he said in amused tones, "is that hobbits make little fauntlings a good deal more easily and frequently than dwarves make little dwarrows. In fact, hobbit babes may come along when neither of the parents intends or expects it."

Gloin's brows flew up. "Surely they must realise . . ."

"Ah, but you see, it requires no act of will for hobbits as it does with elves - only the physical act. To be sure, they are always aware of the possibility when a gentlehobbit and his lady . . . share bedjoys, as you would say. But it is only ever a possibility and never a certainty."

Gloin snorted. "I should think they would be glad of the little ones."

Before Bilbo could do more than open his mouth in indignation, Gandalf was speaking again. "Oh they are! Hobbits put great store by their children and make sure they are well cared for, every one. But that takes planning, you see - especially when a family might grow to twelve siblings or more."

Gloin's eyes widened and the stone he was polishing slipped with a clink to join the others in his lap. "Ah, pull the other one, Master Gandalf," he said with suspicion.

"It's quite true. I was well acquainted with Bilbo's grandfather Took, who had twelve living children - and quite noisy the Smials were at times. Bilbo's mother was the eighth - or was she the ninth?"

"Eighth," said Bilbo crossly.

Gloin shook his head. "Where are all his brothers then, that ought to be filling up that great hole he lives in?"

Bilbo swallowed. "That was a cause of much grief to my parents," was all he said, but he was thinking of the family book tucked away in his study, which listed names and dates for his birth and his two little sisters who had been born dead, and after that just dates for the next three, and then nothing. But he remembered his mother's illnesses when he was tiny, and the times he had been sent to stay with relatives so that she could 'rest.'

"The same grief, my dear Bilbo, has been shared by many a dwarvish couple. Many joinings are wholly infertile, and because of this they have not the hobbits' custom of marrying two young folk to each other before they have lain together. Indeed, they wait until after conception before marriage is even discussed, and young dwarf ladies are encouraged to share bedjoys as widely as they may, to find a fellow who might be father to their babes."

Bilbo mulled this over and asked cautiously, "But then . . . if they share their favours so widely, how can they be certain who the father is?" It would have been a dreadful insult to imply such a thing to a hobbit, even hypothetically, but the wizard and dwarf accepted the question quite calmly.

"They know as soon as conception occurs, or perhaps one day later." Gandalf turned to Gloin and added, "Hobbits, like humans, cannot be sure that a child is coming until some weeks or even a month or two have passed."

"Ah." Gloin nodded comprehension.

Gandalf went on, "Because of all this, you see, hobbits have quite different standards of behavior for their young folk. In order to make sure that all the little ones are cared for, hobbit lasses and lads are not permitted to lie with one another before marriage, and in fact at certain ages are not even permitted to speak to each other in private for fear they might get up to something."

"Wait." Gloin pondered these words and then turned to Bilbo. "How do you learn the ways of pleasure then, if you're not to lie together before marriage?"

Again Bilbo opened his mouth only to have Gandalf answer again. "There's the secret, Gloin." He leaned forward and winked conspiratorially. "Hobbit lads are not permitted to lie with lasses, but they may share their favours with other lads."

"And do the lasses lie with each other, as well?"

For some reason, both of them turned this time to look at Bilbo. He cleared his throat uneasily. "Well, so it's rumoured. Sometimes the boys would plot to spy on the girls and see just how they did it. But we never did catch them at it." Instead, they had been the ones caught. He had a vivid memory of his aunt Mirabella beating him and his cousin Rory and a few others right out of Brandy Hall with a broom and a deal of shouting.

Gloin grunted and bent over his gemstones once more. "At least you have some experience of what matters, then. Good."

Gandalf chuckled. "So the hobbit lads and lasses play their separate courting games while they are young, in their teens and twenties. But once they come of age they are expected to settle down, build a home, and look for a spouse - before any children are conceived. A grown gentlehobbit sharing bedjoys with another of his sex, or with a hobbit-lady he was not married to, would face extreme disapproval from all his relatives and acquaintances. He might find himself shunned entirely if the deeds became widely known, or if a child was conceived outside of marriage."

"Ah!" said Gloin with dawning understanding. "So that's why Mr. Baggins has been going about with such a frown on his brow, as if he wonders what we are about!"

Bilbo sputtered. "I'm sure I wouldn't presume to judge."

"And so you shouldn't, my dear fellow," said Gandalf, turning his attention to the hobbit. "Dwarves have a very different set of customs, for quite sound reasons. Aside from the rarity of children in their society, less than a third of those born are dwarf maids. Many of them will never bear children at all, but they are expected to try with any suitable dwarf who presents himself. They will not consider marriage unless a child is already on the way - or, in very rare cases, for political alliances among dwarves of the highest rank; but that seldom turns out well."

Bilbo blinked. "Is Thorin married, then?"

Gloin shook his head. "No, but it has been discussed - especially since he has heirs already, his sister's children. It wouldn't matter then if he had none of his own. But the only candidate put forward was . . . unsuitable."

Bilbo waited for more detail about this, but Gloin had gone into some frowning reverie that he supposed must be as private as his own family memories.

Gandalf tapped the ashes from his pipe. "And this, Bilbo, is the reason why you find dwarves so eager to share bedjoys with each other. In the - most common - absence of children, the sharing of pleasure helps to build bonds within a community and cement loyalty to a leader. Unmarried dwarvish kings and princes will share a bed with prominent subjects in turn to affirm fealty. In large and thriving dwarf kingdoms this will be a scheduled event, heralded with great anticipation by the dwarf or family that is about to be honoured by the king's attentions."

Bilbo's jaw dropped. "And that's why Thorin chooses a different member of the party each night?"

"Each night that is safe, aye," said Gloin.

Reflecting on it, Bilbo could see that it was a considerable honour for the chosen dwarf - he recalled Balin's delighted grin when Thorin indicated him that night at dinner - but it did not sound as much fun for Thorin himself. What if he got tired, or merely wished to share with the same person night after night instead of changing partners all the time? Strangely, it made him think of the poor downtrodden lasses who occasionally worked for a season or two at some of the seedier taverns around the borders of the Shire (not the Green Dragon, of course) before they were driven away by the glowering and gossips of the goodwives.

Such people were not mentioned in polite conversation, and Bilbo was certain there would never be a good time to suggest any sort of comparison between a dwarvish king and an out-farthing slattern. So he searched hastily for another topic. "So . . . there's nothing considered wrong about two dwarf-men sharing with each other?"

Gloin snorted. "Naturally not, when our women are so scarce. There are only four out of the thirteen of us, so the rest must find what enjoyment they may!"

Bilbo blinked and then laughed nervously. "For a moment I thought you meant that there were four dwarvish women in our company."

"Aye," said Gloin.

"It . . . but . . ." Bilbo gaped.

Gloin lifted an eyebrow at him. "Is it the beards? The big folk have trouble with the idea of women growing beards."

Bilbo gulped. "Well, er, hobbits . . . we none of us grow beards at all. So it seems only fair that all of you should grow them."

Gandalf nodded sagely. "Elves as well go beardless. Only humans consider a beard to be a sign of masculinity." He stroked his own flowing chin-locks.

Bilbo regarded the wizard doubtfully. "You're not a regular sort of man, though, are you? You don't age like one."

Gandalf blinked innocently. "I do look like one, though."

Flustered, Bilbo decided to set that aside and return to the issue of dwarf women. "But who are the women in our company? Beards aside, none of the group have, er, the shape . . ." He gestured rather lewdly.

"Well, not with traveling clothes on, that's true," Gloin said.

"And wasn't everyone introduced as someone's brother or nephew or uncle? And everyone calls everyone else 'he,'" said Bilbo, growing more indignant as he contemplated the deception that had been visited on him.

"Ah, well, that's just language," Gloin said dismissively. "Some things in Khuzdul don't cross over well into the westron tongue. We use one pronoun for children, of either sex. And another for adults who've not had children. It's only for dwarves who've become parents that we make a distinction between men and women."

"I believe the tradition also goes back to the days when dwarves first started seeking occasional work among men and elves," Gandalf mused. "They found that referring to all dwarves as male, in the Common tongue, invited fewer problems."

"But who are the women in the company?" Bilbo demanded again.

"As to that, you'll have to ask them," Gloin said. "If you can't tell, it would be rude for me to reveal it."

Bilbo boggled at the idea of asking someone that he'd shared an inn room, or barn stall, or patch of ground with whether he was actually female. "That's . . . how can . . . " He shook himself. "All right, then. Gloin, are you a - a female?"

"I?" The dwarf chuckled richly, and for an appalled moment Bilbo thought he had spoken an affirmative. "No, no, I'm a husband and father. That's why I don't share along with the others, you see - we take marriage quite seriously."

"Oh." Bilbo thought back in confusion, trying to remember if Gloin had been the recipient of Thorin's favour. "Well, er . . . congratulations. I'm sure you have a very fine family."

Gloin's chest puffed. "My Gimli is a likely lad - about fifteen years younger than Kili, he is, and a dab hand with an axe. He was sore vexed with me that I judged him too young to come on this quest. But he'd been injured in a scuffle with some goblins a few months past, and I didn't want him in danger again so soon."

"Very sensible," Bilbo said faintly. This entire conversation had been very strange and he wasn't at all sure what to think of the new things he had learned.

"It's a fascinating topic," said Gandalf as if he knew exactly what Bilbo was thinking. "The differing customs of hobbits and dwarves, men and elves, and the reasons for those differences. Yet these races are all people of the Light who honor the Valar each in their way, and that sets them apart from the foul races that serve the dark and thrive on misery and despair."

Bilbo blinked, feeling as if the world around him had suddenly expanded. It was indeed interesting to learn so much about dwarves that he had never known before, yet he felt a bit queer to think that Gandalf observed the Shire-folk with the same analytical eye. When the old wizard had lectured on the courtesies due to guests, was that because he really considered such behaviour right and proper, or had he been having a jest at Bilbo's expense all along?

Head spinning, he took his leave of the two and padded gingerly back into the barn, relieved to find all quiet except for the manifold sleeping noises of a troop of dwarves. As he tried to put all the strange talk from his mind and settle himself for sleep, he found that in some way he felt oddly lighter, as if the expansion of his horizons and the contemplation of other customs eased the burden of expectations placed on him as a genteel Shire-hobbit. It seemed there were other choices and other ways to make a life after all.

Chapter Text

Over the next week, Bilbo found that at last this was turning into the sort of adventure he'd dreamt of as a lad. It was still quite uncomfortable to sleep on hard ground with rocks and tree roots, or to ride all day in the rain, yet the rigours of travel no longer exhausted him so much as merely annoyed him. Meanwhile, he had more attention to spare for the remarkable lands they were travelling through, so wild and untamed and unlike the soft Shire that he had always known. And he had more fascinating conversations with Gandalf and several of the dwarves, learning more about his companions and the history of their race. He told them a bit about hobbits as well, but it still made him uneasy when Gandalf stepped in to correct Bilbo's retelling of family history.

He also rather enjoyed the challenge of cooking for the company in primitive conditions, though he rarely got much thanks for it other than belches and empty bowls to clean. Bombur at least was always willing to help cook, so long as cooking also involved tasting. And Bofur had a way of lending a hand just when it was needed most, all the while telling the most outrageous stories about far-off lands and the odd foods eaten there.

"So, this, er, food you were speaking of," Bilbo said slowly one night. "Breeze?"

"Brizi," Bofur corrected, ladling rabbit stew swiftly into three bowls balanced on his arm. "From beyond the Sea of Rhun. Wonderful stuff for traveling - keeps forever while it's dry and hard, scarcely takes up any space in your pack. Then you boil some in water for a while, and they're soft and filling!"

"And . . . what do they taste like?" Bilbo asked, passing out full bowls and handing Bofur some more empty ones.

"Well . . . a bit like boiled noodles or barley, I suppose." Bofur shrugged. "Looks like little white maggots, though. Put me off the first time I tried it."

Bilbo made a face.

"No, no, it's really good! Fills out a stew nicely, keeps hunger at bay. Bombur will back me up, won't you, brother? It's a shame we cooked up the last of it before coming to the Shire. But there might be some to be had as we go further east."

Bilbo settled next to the talkative dwarf as they ate. He had found that Bofur and Fili and Kili were always the most forthcoming of the dwarves, although he was never entirely sure if they were being honest with him or having a joke - with Bofur it was often both at once. Dori and Ori and Balin were all amiable in a more general fashion. Dwalin and Nori and to a lesser extent Gloin were rather standoffish and Bilbo wasn't certain if they actually liked him. Bombur spoke very little but seemed friendly; Oin was cheerful enough but couldn't hear Bilbo unless he shouted quite loudly; and Bifur he could not understand at all (he wasn't certain whether Bifur's words were dwarvish or simple nonsense, but he supposed he ought to be impressed that Bifur could speak at all with an axe embedded in his forehead).

Thorin, of course, appeared to disapprove of Bilbo, but he also disapproved of Gandalf and seemingly half the rest of the company. Bilbo wondered sometimes if it had anything to do with what he had learned about the custom of a king bestowing bed favours upon his subjects - that was certain to make a person rather tetchy at times. But likely the glowers and dark moods were all part and parcel of being a king in exile. Perhaps Thorin would cheer up once he got his mountain back.

So, after consideration, Bilbo had decided to start his campaign by talking to Bofur. "I have a question for you," he said in a low voice, not wanting to display his ignorance to all the company.

The dwarf, dipping a bit of hard bread into his stew, made an interrogative noise.

"Gloin said, er . . . he said that there are several women in this company. Dwarf women."

"Technically not, by our accounting, since they've not married or borne babes. But I know what you mean."

"Right. Well, he also said that if I couldn't tell, it would be rude for him to tell me who is, er - female, you know."

"True enough." Bofur gnawed on a corner of the bread.

"But, you see . . . how am I to know? I've been, er, thinking, and - and looking at everyone, and I can't see it." He had tried to find a way to discuss the topic, but it didn't seem right to point out that all the dwarves had the same barrel-shaped chests - except for Bombur, whose barrel shape was more around the belly region. "Should I be looking for short beards? Or small noses? Or a particular style of braids?"

Bofur muffled a crow of laughter with his bread. Several dwarves nearer the fire glanced their way.

"Because if it's short beards or small noses, that would suggest that, well, that Fili and Kili are female."

"Mmm," said Bofur encouragingly.

"And also you . . . and Thorin."

Bofur let his empty bowl fall to the ground as he rolled aside, laughing uproariously. He clutched the last of the bread safely to his chest, though.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you find me very foolish," said Bilbo with resignation, picking up the bowl and carrying it back toward the fire where a pot of water was warming for cleanup.

"What's that all about, then?" Dwalin demanded, jerking his head toward Bofur's continued laughter.

"I fell for one of his ridiculous stories, that's all," Bilbo grumbled, hoping that Bofur wouldn't contradict him outright.

Bofur did come to help with the washing-up after a few minutes, and he ducked his head close to Bilbo to murmur, "I'm not female."

"Yes, so I gathered," Bilbo returned levelly, keeping his eyes on his work.

"And I'll give you something for free: neither is Thorin." Bofur winked and spun with a sudden shout to catch two bowls that came flying toward them from the darkness.

This left Bilbo still wondering about Fili and Kili, but evidently he would have to ask them himself.

As for his other question, he considered it and eventually decided that he could not possibly ask a dwarf; therefore there was only one member of the company he could ask. He waited until the next afternoon when the wizard dropped to the back of the group to light his pipe, allowing the smoke to drift away from the rest of the company. Bilbo, for whom the scent of Old Toby was neither unpleasant nor distracting, pulled his own pony back next to Gandalf.

"About what we were discussing the other night . . ." he began with determination.

"Which conversation was that?" Gandalf asked innocently. "The one about the difference between high elves and wood elves?"

"No," said Bilbo, although several questions did simmer in his mind regarding the habits of elves, which had always been a particular topic of fascination for him. "The one about the customs of dwarves . . . er, in bed."

"Ah, yes, that one." Gandalf's eyes twinkled as he puffed at the pipe.

Bilbo cleared his throat. "You, er, you seem to know a great deal about etiquette among different races."

"Hmm."

"And Gloin agreed with you that dwarves see nothing wrong in two males - adult males - sharing . . . bedjoys."

"Mm, quite."

"So I was wondering, would it be considered, er, inappropriate for a dwarf to take pleasure with a hobbit? Hypothetically speaking, of course."

"Of course, of course." Gandalf appeared to consider the question for a long minute, chewing on his pipe-stem. "Well, I should say that Shirefolk would likely frown upon such behavior. They can be quite set in their ways, you know."

Bilbo glowered, or tried to - he was well aware that he hadn't Thorin's skill in that particular art. "Yes, I do know. But would dwarves think it wrong?"

"Oh no, I shouldn't think so. Nor would elves. At least, wood elves would have no objection. As for high elves, well . . . the Eldar can in some ways be as hidebound as your average Bracegirdle."

Bilbo was almost diverted by this comparison, but he clung to the thread of conversation. "Well, but how does one, er, request - or offer - to share bedjoys with another?"

"My dear Bilbo! What you ask me is quite beyond my own experience, but well within yours."

He sputtered. "But I've never -"

"Certainly you have!"

"Not with dwarves!" Not, in fact, with anyone he hadn't known since childhood.

"It's the same everywhere. First find someone who is willing to smile at you, and then simply ask him. Or her. It's not so very complicated."

"Well, I . . . but . . ." Bilbo could hardly picture it. "Is there any special phrase or, or gesture that one would use?" He was, in fact, nearly as concerned that someone might ask him and he could give offence by not recognizing the request, as he was considering making such an offer himself.

"It is not a secret language. Be plain about it. 'Dori,' you would say, or 'Balin,' or 'Bofur, would you care to share my bedroll to-night?'"

"Very flattering, master wizard!" Bofur called merrily over his shoulder. "But I think I should prefer to wait until we've a large and comfortable bed at our disposal!"

Bilbo's faced burned desperately as all the dwarves laughed, or asked what the joke was, or tried to explain it to someone who hadn't heard. Gandalf seemed as amused as all the others. Only Bilbo, who had not been directly involved in the joke, felt humiliated by it. And doubtless at the head of their column Thorin was frowning with disapproval.

Bilbo never did see his bed-roll that night, but instead spent a good deal of time trussed up in a troll-sack with the awareness that all the dwarves had got into this mess from trying to save him. After the trolls had turned to stone and the matter was sorted, Kili whispered an apology for getting Bilbo into trouble and Fili said he'd done well to stall for time. But Thorin only glowered as he recovered the sword he had cast aside for Bilbo's sake. Even Bofur was too disgruntled, patting his face for burns from the fire, to spare an encouraging word.

While half the dwarves were searching for a troll-cave, the rest (including Bilbo) were gathering the ponies together. None of the dwarves were limping or wounded beyond scratches, yet Bilbo, who had not been in the fight except to try to run away from it, felt as if he'd been run through a meat-grinder after marinating in troll-mucus. His elbow throbbed where it had struck a rock one of the times he was thrown to the ground, and his toes had been pinched when the trolls first hoisted him into the air, and his knuckles were barked and bloody. He kept quiet about his pains, though, and tried to step quickly despite the lack of breakfast.

He did get a couple of hours of rest later in the day while Gandalf consulted with his brother-wizard, but it wasn't enough. And then they were under attack, and the ponies were gone again; he could only hope most of them had run off rather than get eaten, but he wasn't sure that even Gandalf's horse would be able to outrun those dreadful wargs.

This was not at all the sort of adventure that Bilbo had hoped for, but he was learning nonetheless. He learned to keep his feet under him and his little sword in front of him, and to stay in the middle of the company of dwarves. Most of all, he learned that when a wizard yells at you to run, you had better do so, and in the right direction, too!

Chapter Text

Rivendell was a delight to every sense. When they first arrived, Bilbo was so worn out that he hadn't the energy to eat more than three delicious potato pasties before stumbling off to bed. The dwarves had been given space in a long, airy room with little arched alcoves that could be closed off for privacy and a large bathing area nearby, but Bilbo only made a cursory wash of his face and feet before he claimed the first empty bed he found. It was wondrously soft, piled with warm blankets, and the pillow had a sweet, grassy smell.

By morning he wondered if the pillow or blankets held some virtue of enchantment, for he felt quite healed of all the bruises he had taken from the trolls and the pursuit by orcs, and he was ready to explore. Elves had fascinated Bilbo for years, and he had been known to reverse his direction when he went out on his long walks, just so that he could keep company with an elf for a short distance and ask questions. They did pass through the Shire on occasion, but they never took rooms at the Green Dragon or shared ale and stories with the hobbits, as travelling dwarves sometimes did.

This was how Bilbo had come to hear stories of Rivendell, but he had never imagined that he might come here himself, or that the place would be so exceedingly congenial. He wondered if all the open windows and balconies became chill in the wintertime, but at the height of summer it was impossible to imagine anything lovelier than the sweet breezes that twined through the halls carrying scent of flowers and music of water. During the mid-day meal Bilbo listened eagerly to the discussion at the high table of the origins of the swords they had taken from the troll-hoard. He didn't care if his little blade had no name, it was still a letter-opener from Gondolin, and that was a great wonder to him.

He turned to the others at the lower table where he sat in a surprisingly comfortable chair. "I asked Lord Elrond's steward Lindir if any hobbits had ever been here before, and do you know what he told me?"

Dori tilted his head in polite query.

"He said, not in the five hundred years since he has been steward. Can you imagine?" Bilbo shook his head wonderingly. "Once, I was permitted to see the Yellowskin of the Tooks. Not to touch it or to read it, just to watch as it was taken out of its wrappings and checked for mould and then given new oiled wrappings to preserve it. I have read copies of it, of course."

All the dwarves looked blank. "What's this Yellowskin, then?" asked Ori from further down the table.

"The oldest book in the Shire," said Bilbo reverently. "The oldest record of hobbits anywhere. Bits of it go back eight hundred years. But not as far back as the memories of some of the people I met today. Don't you see? We read about history in musty books; they remember it. They lived through it!"

Balin tilted his head thoughtfully. "Well, that's rather the same as Gandalf, isn't it? He's been about since some of our oldest records."

Bilbo opened his mouth to reply that it was different, then stopped. It was true; Gandalf had come wandering through the Shire when the Old Took was just a fauntling. Bilbo knew this, but he hardly thought of Gandalf that way. One was always aware that the old wizard was wise, and temperamental and sometimes dangerous, but the scope of all that slipped out of Bilbo's mind whenever he stopped thinking about it, as if the old man's ratty cloak and battered hat concealed him from the thoughts of friends as well as the eyes of enemies.

Lord Elrond, on the other hand, seemed to bear his ancient wisdom on his brow and in his eyes, and even Gandalf deferred to the elf-lord in some ways. Bilbo was still trying to work out which of the legends concerning Elrond were true - was he really the son of a star and a sea-bird? But regardless of legend, the elf-lord was clearly very learned. Bilbo tagged along when Thorin and Balin went to speak to the wise ones later in the day, and was rewarded with the sight of secret moon-runes upon Thorin's old map.

Afterward, Bilbo returned to the long room to find half the party of dwarves there stripped down to their woollens, with their clothing and gear laid out to be cleaned or hanging near the fire to dry.

"Did the steward not tell you?" Bilbo asked in surprise. "He said we might give our things to the elves to be cleaned." Not only cleaned but mended, as he had discovered when his own clothes were returned this morning.

"We don't trust elves," Dwalin growled. He was crouched by the fire, roasting a bit of meat. Many of the dwarves had complained that there was none to be had at mealtimes. Bilbo himself was weary of the taste of rabbit and glad for the variety of breads and cheeses and fruits at Lord Elrond's tables. He wondered who had gone out hunting today.

"Well, if there is any dwarven soap that could have removed the smell of troll from my coat, I wish you would share it with me," said Bilbo, sniffing his shoulder delicately. It was perhaps not entirely free of the memory of the stench, but if it was bearable to wear he presumed that it would not offend everyone around him.

"We prefer to see to our own gear," said Fili in a low voice, examining a notch on the edge of one of his swords, probably from trying to cut troll-hide.

"It seems to me the elves have shown us nothing but courtesy," Bilbo said mildly. He knew, as everyone did, of the long mistrust between elves and dwarves, but he could see no reason for it here, today.

"Don't let Thorin hear you talking like that," Dwalin returned. "He'd have your contract out and torn to shreds in the blink of an eye if he thought you were on the elves' side."

"But aren't we all on the same side? They killed the orcs and wargs, and they've given us beds and food."

"Just wait. You'll see." That was Gloin, looking as dark and foreboding as Dwalin.

"Why do you all hate the elves so much, anyway?" Bilbo asked. "Why does Thorin?"

"Did you not hear Balin's tale the other night?" Ori said excitedly. "The elf-king Thranduil refused his aid when Thror and his people fled from Erebor."

"Er, yes, but I'm not entirely sure I understood. What should the elf-king have done? He arrived some time after the dragon, when everyone was already fleeing, isn't that right?"

"He could have rendered us aid," said Dwalin darkly. "He had an army."

"Well, so did the dwarves, er, before. And the dragon squashed them, right? Should Thranduil have led his own army to be slaughtered?"

"We were cast from our home with no more than the clothing on our backs," Gloin pointed out.

"Ah, so the elf-king should have offered you refuge," Bilbo comprehended. But he looked about the room at the scattered clothes and roasting meat, and wondered if the dwarves would have accepted a place with the elf-king any better than they liked Rivendell.

Ori glanced at Dwalin and Gloin who had witnessed the events before adding shyly, "Many of our people were wounded or burned, and died in the days that followed. The elves have much healing lore but they didn't share any of it with us."

"Oh. I see." That was rather a serious point. Bilbo wrinkled his brow, thinking of Lord Elrond's patience in the face of rudeness from Thorin. Perhaps this Thranduil was swifter to anger, but even so he might have offered succour to the wounded.

"There was Azanulbizar, as well," said Balin, who had arrived in time to hear part of the discussion. "The Dwimmerdale - another elven realm, greater than Thranduil's - lies scarcely a day's travel from Nanduhirion, the east-gate of Moria. Three days our battle waged, but the forest remained still and silent."

Bilbo had nothing to say to that, not knowing all the circumstances, but it certainly sounded bad. "Well . . . this elven refuge, at least, seems quite welcoming to folk of all races. Do not dwarves visit here very rarely? And yet they had beds and chairs and tables in our size all ready to be used."

"No meat, though," said Gloin, tearing off a strip of rabbit with his teeth.

"And though I may be the first hobbit to come here, there are humans also," Bilbo went on. "Quite a lot of them. And they have children with them. Well, one child, at least. I don't know how to judge men's ages, but he's hardly taller than I." Bilbo laughed, realising that this might serve to lighten the mood in the room. "He asked if I was a dwarvish woman. Because I don't have a beard, you see."

Fili lifted his head. "And what did you say?"

"I explained that I'm not a dwarf at all, but a hobbit, and we wear our beards on our feet." Bilbo waggled one of his in demonstration. "He looked down at my feet very gravely, then asked how big I shall be when I grow up, for all the world as if I were a puppy with outsized paws!"

"You know," said Bofur, who was sprawled in a chair with one leg over the side of it, "among dwarves we have a saying that the size of the feet is related to the size of certain other body parts."

Gloin barked a laugh. "In that case it's hardly a wonder hobbits have children by the litter!"

Bilbo, flustered, was trying to come up with a retort, but Balin just slapped Bofur on the shoulder. "It isn't feet, laddie, it's noses," he said, laying a finger alongside his own prominent feature.

"And Bofur's is no bigger than a thimble!" Dwalin exclaimed, amid much laughter.

Bofur took it in good humour. "Bilbo was wondering much the same thing about dwarf noses, weren't you, Master Baggins?"

"Oh, well, I . . ."

"Would you care to find out?" Bofur asked.

Bilbo froze. "You mean - here? Now?"

The others laughed even more riotously, but Bofur stood and took Bilbo by the shoulder, turning him about. "Here, no. Now, assuredly. Come, I've found a nice private spot down this way." And he linked his arm in Bilbo's and conducted him along the hallway.

The private spot was a grassy corner between two buildings, with a tree overhanging it and no windows looking down nearby. The moonlight through the leaves drew a more transient sort of rune upon the ground. Bofur released Bilbo's arm and threw himself on the grass, lounging back and eyeing Bilbo speculatively. "First. Do you want this? I rather thought you did."

Bilbo gulped. "I . . . well - yes. I think. It's been a while since I did anything of the sort, though."

Bofur nodded. "Slowly, then, and if there's anything you don't like you only need to say so." But despite this, he had already shrugged off his leather jerkin and was unlacing his woollen undershirt. "Come on then, let's see what you've got!"

Sharing pleasure with Bofur turned out to be an exercise in bemusement and discovery as much as passion. He let Bilbo examine his beard at length, though Bilbo did not dare to loosen any of the beads or braids; he had seen the dwarves tending their beards with great care each morning, and knew that there was some complex etiquette surrounding the matter of letting someone touch one's beard.

Bofur, for his part, stroked Bilbo's cheeks briefly but shook his head over it. "Puts me in mind of a wee dwarrow, or a new mother. I only hope it won't put me off the business entirely." From the evidence of his distended trews, it wasn't putting him off at all.

For the most part, their bodies were similar except for the patterns of hair. Bilbo was relieved to find that dwarves - at least, this particular male dwarf - had nothing that hobbits did not, only in differing abundance. Bofur's chest and back were thickly furred, but where Bilbo had a thatch beneath each arm Bofur's were smooth. Bilbo made the dwarf laugh by offering to groom his chest with the little foot-brush he carried tucked in his pack.

Bofur seemed pleased enough with what he found when he opened Bilbo's trews. The dwarf's tail-tree was twice as broad as Bilbo's, but not as long.

Bilbo palmed it thoughtfully, looking up for Bofur's reaction. "What do you call it?" he asked.

"Mmm?" The dwarf's eyes, which had slitted in enjoyment, snapped open. "Do you name yours, then? You tell me."

"Not a name. I meant - what words do your people use for them? We have many - cockerel, ploughshare, tail-tree . . ."

Bofur looked down. "You call it a tree? Perhaps you have had too many doings with the elves, at that!"

"What would you call it, then?" Bilbo challenged, giving his hand a twist. "A mountain, a rock?"

In retaliation, Bofur reached out, below Bilbo's cockerel, and gave a firm squeeze. "These are the rocks. This . . ." he trailed upward, "- is a hammer, or sometimes an ingot."

Bilbo brought his other hand up to stroke elsewhere, exploring the texture of areas with more and less fur. After a while he extended the explorations with his lips, which took Bofur aback momentarily. But then the dwarf tried the same, and Bilbo chuckled at the brush of braids over his own skin.

"What's this from?" Bofur asked, laying a finger on the purple bruise at the back of Bilbo's arm.

"One of those trolls threw me onto a rock," Bilbo said.

"And it hasn't healed yet?"

He shrugged. "It doesn't hurt any longer, but I expect it will be weeks changing colour until it's back to normal."

"You should let me salve it for you," said Bofur, touching his lips to the bruise tenderly and glancing up at Bilbo for his reaction.

"Are all your bruises healed then, from the trolls and the wargs and scrambling about through rocks and such?"

"Don't think I got any bruises." Bofur lifted his arms and looked down at himself.

"Dwarves must have skin of stone and bones like iron, then," said Bilbo admiringly. "I felt as if I'd been battered to pieces by the time we got out of those sacks."

"That doesn't make sense," said Bofur.

"What, that I took hurt from being hurled about by a troll?"

"No, the bit about stone and iron. It ought to be the other way around, with bones of stone and skin of iron. You see," he went on, tracing a blunt finger down Bilbo's smooth chest, "Metal is alive, it flows and breathes and reacts. Stone is more rigid, less giving." Here he arrived at Bilbo's cockerel and gave it a pull, making Bilbo gasp and arch his head back.

They continued with the leisurely exploration until both grew more urgent. Bilbo showed Bofur some tricks with lip and tongue that he had not forgotten, but that were new to the dwarf; Bofur had a way of teasing Bilbo to fever-pitch with touches from his beard. When they were finished, Bilbo had to laugh at the memory of the embarrassing noises he had made.

"Is that good or bad?" Bofur asked bemusedly, one hand warm and calming on Bilbo's back.

"Oh, definitely good. I'm not laughing at you, you know, just . . ." Bilbo waved expansively. "It's quite absurd, isn't it, this pleasure business? Letting the desires of our bodies rule over any sensible thought."

"I think it's very sensible," said Bofur, pulling him down for a cuddle and nuzzling against his shoulder.

"You also think that nearly everything is funny," Bilbo pointed out.

"Well, that's true." Bofur laughed, and then, as if finding that it felt good, laughed again - and Bilbo joined him.

Chapter Text

Bilbo hadn't expected to have much opportunity to speak to Gandalf while they were in Rivendell, assuming that the wizard would be closeted with Lord Elrond and other important people every day. And so it was, except for the moment one lingering evening when Bilbo caught the scent of pipe-smoke and followed it to find Gandalf seated upon a bench, overlooking one of the streams of water that flowed and burbled everywhere.

Bilbo gestured to the bench, and Gandalf nodded, pulling his cloak nearer to make room. So Bilbo sat with his heels drumming the air, and looked out over the little stream to a gathering of elves who were doing some sort of dance in a tree-shaded courtyard below. Strains of music and laughter wafted up to them on the still twilight air.

"Right, then," Bilbo said after a few minutes of silence. "The ones with the dark hair are high elves, and the ones with yellow hair are woodland elves, is that right?"

Gandalf coughed. "No, not necessarily. Appearance is usually down to their specific family lineage. You will find it easier to distinguish elven races by behaviour or, once you have the eye for it, by clothing."

"The wood elves are sillier, and the high elves more solemn?"

"That is one way of putting it, yes, but I trust you will not use such descriptions in our host's presence."

Bilbo nodded. "He is certainly very solemn, and around him at meals the music is always wistful and sad and the words are elvish."

Gandalf chuckled. "The old high songs are mostly in Quenya, but those are for great occasions. Sindarin suffices for a great deal of elvish poetry and song."

"But the wood elves sing in the common tongue, or use nonsense words." At least, Bilbo was fairly certain that tra la la lally could not have deep meaning in any ancient language.

Gandalf didn't answer, but sucked upon his pipe.

Bilbo pulled his feet up on the bench and hugged one knee, curling the other before him. "Gandalf?"

"Mmm."

"You told me, the wood elves will take pleasure with anyone who is willing, since they never have children without choosing to do so." In fact, Bilbo rather thought that two of them were seeing to business up in the boughs of a tree not far away. Or perhaps it was merely the preliminaries, but in any case they seemed to have little concern for privacy.

"True enough."

"But the high elves choose one love, and remain faithful for thousands of years, even if they are parted."

"Indeed, Lord Elrond's own lady Celebrian departed across the Sea nearly five hundred years ago, but he honours her still and waits to see her once again."

"And the high elves are the ones who have traveled to the Uttermost West, and saw the light of the Trees and spoke with the Valar, and then returned."

"That is true for a few of the Eldar, but most that you will meet here in Middle-Earth are merely their descendants. Even Lord Elrond has not been to that distant shore."

"They still have that . . . air about them. Of great things far away, seen or remembered."

"Oh yes, elves do have magnificent airs," Gandalf said with a twinkle.

"But my point is, if the wood elves share their favours widely as dwarves do, but the high elves wait centuries to bond with one person - does that mean it is more noble to wait? More . . . holy?"

Gandalf's brows went up. "My dear Bilbo, you have been thinking deep thoughts."

"Well, it's . . . been troubling me." After lying with Bofur, Bilbo had not been able to escape thinking of what some in Hobbiton might have had to say about the matter. He could almost hear the sour-faced gossips muttering, 'No better than animals in a barnyard.' Normally he would not let such talk (or thoughts of talk) trouble him, but then he had begun to wonder if the different behaviours of the great folk who had seen the West provided a compass for morality - one that Bilbo was contravening by participating in the dwarves' customs.

"Is a wave, Bilbo, more or less exalted than the tide?"

Bilbo blinked. "I didn't understand that at all." He had seen waves upon rivers and lakes, but tides were something from his uncles' stories.

"Well, then. Which is better, a day or a year?"

Bilbo was still baffled. "A year is longer. I don't know that I would say it's better. It depends what you're using the time for."

"Precisely," said Gandalf, as if he had made his point.

Bilbo shook his head. "Still not following."

"It's a matter of scale, really. High elves think on the ages of history and the long slow arc of change. Wood elves think of what new wonders they might discover each day. Neither is wrong. They are all immortal folk, but every one of us must live a day at a time. Those who have fewer days - behind or before - cherish them all the more for that."

Bilbo pondered. "You mean, it's all very well for short-lived mortals, or younger elves, to be frivolous and wanton, but ancient people think greater thoughts?"

"No, no, that isn't what I - well, yes, you do have a piece of it. It is not about right or wrong, Bilbo. It would be wrong to take pleasure in the sufferings of others, but so long as all parties are willing there can be no evil in the joys of the bedchamber. Whether it is done often or rarely, with many partners or one, is a matter of custom rather than morality. It comes down to this question: what do you wish to make of your life? What pattern will you set, for yourself and for others?"

Bilbo rested his chin on his knee and thought about that. He didn't care to think of himself as a role model for young fauntlings - it was too much like the scolds his father had given him when he thought Bilbo was too 'wild.' But he was old enough to understand the idea of setting an example for himself, a start to be getting on with. That was well enough as far as it went. But if he didn't know where this adventure of his was going to lead, how was he to know what sort of pattern he was building, either by signing a burglar's contract or by taking pleasure with hairy, suspicious dwarves?

"But you don't, do you?" Bilbo asked, greatly daring. "Share pleasures with anyone?"

Gandalf did not take it ill but merely looked off into the waning westward light. "To do so would not serve my purpose here. I, too, am creating a pattern, and it is very large and slow in taking form."

It didn't entirely answer Bilbo's question, but he had exercised more than enough temerity for today; he was not going to ask if Gandalf had a missing love somewhere, or if whatever it was that kept him from aging like a man also caused other physical differences as well. He didn't ask, but he wondered.

Gandalf tapped out his pipe and stood, laying a hand on Bilbo's shoulder. "Do not forget to take joy in each day, dear Bilbo, whatever form that joy may take. It will give you a store of strength to bear you up in dark times." As he turned away, he was muttering, "I fear that dark times are coming, for all of us."

Bilbo remained a while watching the elves move and sing in the dim light, then he started back to the main hall. As he went, a figure moving through the pillared shadows caught his eye; for a moment he thought it was Gandalf, except that Gandalf had already gone off in the other direction. This was another old man with a cloak and a staff, but everything about him was neater and smoother than Gandalf. He was robed in white with shimmering glyphs at the hem, and his long silvery hair nearly glowed in the dimness. All about him was luminously pale except for his black-clawed walking staff and his sharp dark eyes, that passed over Bilbo without remarking him, as if he were a servant or person of no importance.

Bilbo stepped aside, feeling very small, and held still until the old man had passed by, and then he went to rejoin the dwarves.

Chapter Text

Thorin had claimed the largest alcove - a proper chamber, really - at the end of the long hall. It had two doors of pale wood wrought with vines and leaves, each filling half the archway that led to the chamber. And it had the largest bed.

Bilbo had taken note of which companion Thorin chose each night, but like the dwarves he made no comment upon it. It seemed that the dwarf-prince was working his way through the company, for he tapped Nori the first night, then Ori (who tried to conceal his excitement but kept bursting into a broad grin the following day), then Gloin. This last gave Bilbo pause, for he had supposed that Gloin, being married, would not participate in the custom. But all that drifted through the closed door and breezy windows was a murmur of low conversation, so perhaps they were merely discussing the future path of their Quest.

Bilbo himself had a similar encounter; the same night that he had lain with Bofur, after they had retired to their separate beds, he was startled from sleep by someone creeping under his covers. It was not Bofur but his cousin, who muttered incomprehensibly as he urged Bilbo to turn on his side. Bilbo took alarm, not at all certain that he could clearly communicate his preferences (or refusals), and not wanting to start an embarrassing argument that must waken most of the company. But it seemed Bifur only wanted a cuddle; once he had got Bilbo arranged as he wanted, he turned his back and squirmed into Bilbo's arms. As wild as the scarred dwarf appeared, his hair was clean and sweet-smelling with elven herbs that Bilbo recognised from his own baths. Bifur was large, and warm, and the slow rise and fall of his chest lulled Bilbo back to sleep faster than he would have thought possible. In the morning, he woke to find himself alone, and if any dwarf had been witness to the interlude they made no remark upon it.

Bilbo was led to conclude that dwarvish 'bedjoys' were apparently not only about carnal acts, but included a broader range of comforts. He found this very encouraging, thinking that it would be easier for him to join the custom in such a way. He didn't expect to be included in the royal tradition, though.

The night after his conversation with Gandalf, Bilbo was sitting near the brazier in the corner and staring into its flames, deep in thought, when a gravelly bark of "Baggins!" made him look up.

Thorin was standing before the doors of his chamber, glowering impartially at all the dwarf faces that had snapped up to stare at him. One by one they turned back to their tasks or games or conversations, and Thorin brought his gaze back to Bilbo, jerking his head sharply before he turned and strode into the end room.

Bilbo followed quickly, supposing that Thorin wished to ask him something concerning . . . well, he could not imagine what the prince might wish to say to him, but he was certain there could be no other purpose to the summons. But there was Thorin next the bed, his fur-trimmed cloak and silver belt already hanging on the post and his gauntlets set aside, Orcrist and other weapons propped against the wall in their scabbards. Pulling off his embroidered leather jerkin to reveal the steel-scaled mail beneath, he scowled at Bilbo and strode quickly past him to pull the doors closed.

They were shut in Thorin's bedchamber, together, alone.

Bilbo's mouth went dry. "Er. Is there anything I can do for you, Thorin?"

"You may share my bed this night." Thorin looked as if he were trying to chew a piece of hard gristle. "It is your right, as a member of our company."

"Oh! Er, that's a very great honour. I'm most . . ." Not flattered, as that would imply insincerity. "Honoured," Bilbo finished weakly.

"I understand you have shared with others of the company, since we have been here."

"Well - yes," Bilbo said, though to make it plural was a stretch.

Thorin nodded sharply and began to work the complex frogs down the side of his mail shirt. "I will not be mounted, bound, or marked. Anything else you wish is acceptable."

Bilbo gaped, never having considered doing any of those things to the dwarf-prince - although now it was mentioned, he had a sudden impulse to place a love-bite just below Thorin's ear, where his silver-bound braid hung down. He stammered incoherently. "Oh! I . . . er . . . that is - there's really no need. I shouldn't wish to impose, in any way."

Thorin pulled the mail from his shoulders. Underneath was a fine tunic woven of dark blue silk, stained under the arms, but freshly cleaned. Bilbo wondered if Thorin had availed himself of the services of the elves, or given the task to one of the dwarf company.

Thorin spoke through gritted teeth. "It is, of course, your right to refuse the privilege which has been offered. I had not supposed it would be unwelcome to you, though."

Bilbo's eyes widened. "I - no - that is . . . I thought, I had understood, that you do not share, er, pleasures with all who join you in your chamber. I'm sorry if I was mistaken in that. I didn't mean to, to . . ."

"Fili and Kili are my near kin, and Gloin is married. I do not lie with them, but they have still the right to my private attention and to sleep by my side if they wish." Thorin's gaze pinned Bilbo. "I will not speak of what I do here with any other, just as I will not speak of you to them." He bent to unlace his boots.

"Well." Bilbo swallowed. "I should be very honoured by your attention and, er, bed-space as well. You needn't offer any more."

Thorin straightened, his boots half-laced and his eyes narrowed in annoyance. "I would not have considered Bofur's charms superior to my own."

"What?"

"Most who come here are eager to avail themselves of the opportunity."

"It's not that!" Bilbo was getting even more flustered, his face growing hot. "I - you . . . that is, of course I am - anyone would be! - interested. I only wished to say that there's no obligation."

Thorin's iron-capped boots fell to the floor with a thump! thump! "And now you imply that I would shirk my royal duties."

"What? No!"

"I assure you, burglar, I am quite capable of carrying out the requirements of my rank. I am two hundred years old, not yet in my dotage."

"No, no! It's - I mean . . ." Bilbo scrubbed his hands over his face and tried to calm himself. One deep breath, then another. "This is all going wrong. I don't know all your customs, and I don't wish to give offence."

Thorin stood before him in silken undertunic, trews, and stocking feet, still every inch as magnificent and kingly as he had appeared driving his sword into a troll's flank. "Custom," he said slowly, "states that we will do nothing improper if family obligations intervene; they do not. That aside, you may cry off if you are ill or wounded or incapable. Anything else implies that you find me unappealing."

"Of course not! Your charms are -" Bilbo waved a hand between them "- obviously much, much greater than my own. I just thought that you might . . . is there no way for you to cry off, if you wish?"

The angry lines about Thorin's eyes had eased a little, but he was still taut as a bowstring. "I might have chosen not to call you here."

"Oh." Bilbo had supposed that Thorin was following some strict schedule of the quest members, and that any deviation would be noted as an anomaly. But if the order was more flexible and driven by choice, he could see why Thorin would be insulted that Bilbo was refusing him. "I see. I had thought . . . well, in that case, I am very honoured. Truly. And . . . I do find you - quite - appealing."

Thorin nodded shortly. "Well, then." He gestured to the bed.

Bilbo, his heart thrumming nervously, pulled off his own coat and hung it on the opposite bed-post. There followed the belt from which hung his little elvish sword, and then his waistcoat, the brass buttons shining from a recent polish. Now he was in shirt and trews, like Thorin. He quickly wiped his feet upon the thick-woven carpet and climbed onto the bed.

Thorin followed, sitting with one arm braced as his eyes raked over Bilbo's form. He raised a knuckle delicately to Bilbo's cheek, but like Bofur he seemed more disturbed than drawn by its smoothness. Bilbo stretched up for a kiss and found that the prince's beard was prickly, but being short it didn't get in the way so much as Bofur's mustache had. Thorin went still at the kiss, though, and regarded Bilbo in frowning speculation when he pulled back.

"Why do you keep your beard clipped?" Bilbo asked, wondering who tended it for him. Slowly he drew his palm along Thorin's jaw and then traced a thumb down one of the long dark braids that hung before his ear. The rest of Thorin's hair was undressed save for its own veins of silver amid the black, flowing luxuriantly over his shoulders.

"I cut it short when we were exiled," said Thorin, his voice soft but still grim. "I will not claim the attributes of a king, or even an adult, until we have reclaimed what is ours."

"Ah." Bilbo considered the dwarf-prince's manner and dress and all the manifold ways in which he clearly did claim the attributes of a king, but he knew it would be unwise to point that out. "Whatever the significance, the look of it is . . . very appealing." He leaned in for another kiss, and this time Thorin's lips slowly parted and moved against his own. Bilbo wondered if perhaps dwarves did not normally kiss each other, as Bofur had also seemed bemused by the contact.

Thorin brought a hand up behind Bilbo's head, fingers clenching into his hair. His other hand plucked at the strap of Bilbo's braces, easing it down over his shoulder. In turn, Bilbo began to unlace the silken tunic, brushing his fingers over the skin and hair revealed behind it. In short order, they were both reclining unclothed upon the bed.

Thorin was more broadly built and heavily muscled than Bofur, but with the same sleek pelt over his torso and legs. Bilbo was fascinated by Thorin's feet, which he bared entirely -Bofur had kept on his hat and stockings. Bilbo spent some minutes petting Thorin's unexpectly dainty arches and toes, discovering that his soles were heavily callused in some places and soft in others - and evidently ticklish, as he jerked away with an exclamation.

"Sorry," Bilbo gulped out quickly. "It's just interesting that there's this one spot where dwarves have less hair than hobbits, that's all."

Thorin merely grunted, but did glance down curiously at Bilbo's feet. He curled his toes uncertainly, hoping they were clean enough.

Thorin's ingot was generously endowed, and Bilbo was happy to pay it due homage with his hands and lips. The dwarf reciprocated, his hard hands somehow managing to be both gentle and knowing. They sped along swiftly to their inevitable conclusions. Bilbo sighed with his cheek upon Thorin's furred thigh and restrained his customary impulse towards mirth, which had so startled Bofur. It wouldn't do to offend the dwarf-prince - again - although he did rather wish it hadn't ended so quickly.

But Thorin, it seemed, was not done. He pressed Bilbo down into the feather-bed and embarked on a far more thorough exploration. This did include an examination of Bilbo's feet, which were not at all ticklish on the soles; but broad fingers brushing as lightly as a spring breeze over the curled hair made Bilbo gasp with rekindling warmth. He hadn't taken a second go since he was a tween, and then his companions had thought he was showing off his prowess. Thorin, four times Bilbo's age, seemed to think nothing of it.

The dwarf kissed a path back up Bilbo's frame, his touches growing more insistent. Bilbo had demurred from deeper intimacies with Bofur, claiming that the rigours of travel and adjusting to Elvish food would result in an undesirable effect. But they had been here for several days now and Bilbo's digestion was quite settled, and he had bathed every evening. The other reason he had refused Bofur, his own shyness, seemed to have no place here in Thorin's bed with the prince's gaze penetrating more deeply than any physical act could.

They started with Bilbo astride and Thorin pressing up into his fundament from beneath, strong hands clasped about Bilbo's ribs to balance him. It had been some years since he had tried this, and he felt queerly breathless as he strove to adjust to the stretching. Thorin was patient but implacable, unyielding - and once Bilbo had begun to move more freely, the dwarf rolled them both over and commenced to claim Bilbo from above, seeming to fill and possess every corner of him as he panted and nearly sobbed with growing urgency. There was no need to free a hand as the thick hair on Thorin's belly rubbed delightfully along Bilbo's cockerel with every move. When they achieved release at last, Bilbo's unrestrained cries were matched by a deeper voice calling out in an ancient tongue.

Afterward, Thorin rolled aside without a word, but he gathered Bilbo close and held him warmly as they both drifted, heat and passion dissipating into the air around them with each calming breath. Moonlight reflecting off some rippling fountain outside the window drew glyphs of light upon the ceiling, and Bilbo watched the shifting patterns in distant amazement as he tried to reconcile what he thought of himself - a mostly-respectable hobbit of the Shire who had been drawn into an adventure far beyond his ken - with the daring and sensuous creature who had writhed and groaned in Thorin's arms only minutes before.

Gentlehobbit, burden, burglar, sword-wielder . . . and now wanton. What am I?

Chapter Text

He woke when Thorin sprang from the bed in a single move. Bilbo had heard nothing, but he blearily noted that the dwarf-prince was only reaching for his tunic and not for a weapon. The moon was low now, shining directly through the window and throwing Thorin's pale skin and dark hair into stark relief, before he covered them with the blue silk.

Thorin opened one of the half-arched doors. "Well?" he growled.

Balin's voice came through the opening; he must have knocked or called through the door. "Gandalf sent a message with one of the elves. They're meeting now, just as he warned us."

"Is everyone ready?" was Thorin's only response.

Ready for what? Bilbo wondered.

Balin answered, "We need stores of food, but we can be ready to go within the hour."

"Get them up, then. Here, give me your candle." Thorin caught up a lantern and lit it with Balin's flame, then closed the door and stalked back to the bed, retrieving and laying out all the clothes he had cast aside.

Bilbo emerged cautiously from under the quilted coverlet. "Go where?" he asked timidly, seeing Thorin had become the stern leader once again.

"We must leave this place, before we overstay our welcome. You know where the kitchens are? Help gather provisions and distribute them to everyone. Make sure your pack is ready."

Bilbo searched the shadows on his side of the bed for his own discarded shirt. "I didn't know that our welcome was being stretched," he tried.

"Then you haven't been paying attention." Buckling on his silver belt, Thorin strode to the doors and flung them open. "Fili, to me!" And then he was in the long hall, consulting with others of the company, while Bilbo scrambled to make himself decent.

As he was buttoning his waistcoat, Bilbo heard Dwalin's carrying tones: ". . . not be much of a burglar, but it seems he's good for something at least!" Several dwarves laughed in response, so that Bilbo could not clearly hear if there was any reply from Thorin.

His face burned as he slung the little sword about him and shrugged into his coat. Thorin had promised not to speak of what they did together, but apparently the other dwarves had no such compunction. Bilbo paused for a few seconds by the door, then strode out into the hall with his chin high to attend to his pack.

Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, and Fili were all clustered about a lamp near the window, consulting over a map. None of the others paid heed to Bilbo as he passed. But when he buckled the flap of his leather pack over his bedroll and straightened to shrug it on, Bofur was suddenly beside him. "Good night?" he murmured with a cheeky grin.

"I slept quite soundly, thank you," said Bilbo stiffly. "Though I wouldn't object to a few more hours."

Bofur's grin faded and he studied Bilbo's face closely for a moment before clapping him on the shoulder. "Good. Let's go find the kitchens, then."

They were crossing the bridge out of the elven refuge as quietly as a troup of iron-shod dwarves may tramp, when Fili and Kili shouldered up on either side of Bilbo.

"Awful, isn't it?" said Kili. "Having to leave before dawn like this, I mean."

"I hardly had a wink last night," Fili averred.

"That's right. A dreadful howling noise kept me awake. I was afraid it might be the wargs coming back." Kili smirked at Bilbo.

"Yes, yes, very funny," said Bilbo, beginning to suspect that every dwarf in the company would wish to tease him about last night. "It could never be a match for Dwalin's caterwauling."

"Perhaps not," said Fili, "but we don't usually hear Thorin joining in the noise-making."

Bilbo's steps faltered for a moment as he realised that was true, and his ears recalled the uncommon sound of Thorin's hoarse cries. He cleared his throat and hurried to keep pace again.

"Very true, brother," said Kili. "What do you suppose could have brought that out?"

They both looked curiously at Bilbo.

He reached deep into his memory for his very best impression of his grandmother, the redoubtable Adamanta Took. "I'm quite certain it would be beneath my dignity to speculate."

They both laughed, and Fili slapped Bilbo's back almost hard enough to propel him off the bridge.

"Tell me," said Bilbo quickly, anxious to change the subject, "why did we have to leave in such haste?"

Kili rolled his eyes. "Members of the Council of the Wise came to consult with Gandalf and Lord Elrond. Thorin is sure they're going to try to prevent the quest from moving forward."

"Gandalf must have thought so too," Fili pointed out, "or he wouldn't have arranged to warn us."

"But what business is it of theirs?" asked Bilbo. "Why should they care what we do in a faraway place?"

"I expect they care what the dragon does," said Fili.

"If the dragon is still there," said Kili. "He's not been seen in over a hundred years."

"But if he is there, some folk fear we might rouse him from sleep."

"And if he's not there," Kili retorted, "Anyone might walk in and take our treasure."

"I thought the door was sealed?" Bilbo asked in confusion.

"Regardless. The treasure is ours," said Kili.

"The mountain is ours," Fili added.

"And we're going to take them back, never mind what a lot of stuffy elders have to say about it."

Bilbo remembered the man who had swept past him in the corridor at Rivendell and made him feel so small and insignificant. "But we're leaving without Gandalf," he pointed out. "What if we need him, to . . . to find our path, or deal with more trolls, or something of that sort?"

"Oh, he'll catch up to us in the mountains," Kili said confidently. But Fili glanced at his brother with a slight frown between his brows, looking less certain.

It was a long day of walking, nearly all of it uphill as they ascended into the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Bilbo, who really was accustomed to frequent walking tours about the Shire and who had toughened up quite a bit over several weeks on the road, found the walking pleasant enough. He was certainly grateful not to be sitting on a jouncing pony after Thorin's attentions the night before. The dwarves, whose heavy boots were more suited for battle or for having heavy pieces of metal dropped upon them, found the going quite a bit rougher. Thorin, always in front, set a challenging pace, and the other dwarves groaned to keep up with him.

Nevertheless, as Bilbo had guessed, most of them did find an opportunity to make some irreverent comment or other about the previous night. Even Bifur muttered something indecipherable while blinking furiously, as if he were attempting to wink but could not manage it.

"Oh, not you, too!" Bilbo groaned.

Bifur grinned broadly and bumped his shoulder against Bilbo's, not quite hard enough to knock him off balance, then slowed to let Bilbo draw ahead of him.

Although the midsummer sun lightened the sky soon after they left, it was long before it overtopped the nearby mountains to shine upon the party directly. The weather quickly warmed, and Thorin soon called a halt in a meadow full of wildflowers cut through by a burbling freshet.

"A short rest only," the dwarf-prince commanded. "No camp, no cooking."

Fortunately, they had plenty of elven waybread to go around. But as Bilbo pulled out one of the flat loaves from his pack, he realised that he could not recall whether they had distributed any of the waybread to Thorin. Perhaps Bofur had seen to it . . . or perhaps Thorin would need to share with someone else. Standing from the patch of pleasant shade he had found, Bilbo looked about for the dwarf-prince.

He was sitting on a rock at the edge of the meadow with his head bent over a map spread upon his knee. But as Bilbo drew closer, he realised that Thorin's eyes were closed, and his shoulders were slightly bowed, moving with each breath he took. Lines of exhaustion had sprung up on his brow, and Bilbo had the sudden impossible urge to kiss them away. He cleared his throat.

"Would you care for some waybread? I have extra in my pack."

Thorin's head snapped up and around, eyes flashing. "I'll see to my own repast; I don't care for elvish fare."

"All right. Shall I fill your waterskin while you're reading the map, then?"

Thorin stood, folding the map with sharp movements. "I've been travelling these lands since long before you were born. I need no help from a soft Halfling."

Bilbo's jaw tightened. "Right, then. I'll just go . . . crochet a doily." And he left the dwarf-prince to his brooding.

By the time they stopped for the night, even Bilbo was feeling the strain of the uphill climb. He was also regretting Gandalf's absence, since there had been no absorbing conversation about the customs of different races to divert his mind from Thorin's rebuff. But over a dinner of potato bannocks, he struck up a conversation with Dori about the different patterns of braids in dwarf beards and hair, and he was soon caught up in the information, to the point that he borrowed paper and ink from Ori to write it all down.

The braids and plaits and twists of hair, it transpired, could have a whole host of meanings - they might signify family lineage, kingdom of origin or kingdom of residence, skills mastered, battles fought, children sired.

"Not children borne?" Bilbo asked.

Dori shrugged. "A dwarf woman's beard falls out a few months before the babe is born. In fact, it's customary to shave the beard earlier as a way to announce the pregnancy. Afterward, many mothers choose to remain clean-shaven, as the beard might come back thin or patchy. But not all - I think Gloin's wife has been trying to match him for chin-hair, and it keeps him on his mettle!"

Bilbo glanced over to the other fire where Gloin sat with a number of the older dwarves - many of whom had longer beards, as well.

Dori continued, "Mind, we don't have to wear braids if we don't want to. Most of us choose what we wish to commemorate. If Thorin thought to mark all his deeds and honours, he wouldn't have a loose hair on his head. Instead he wears only the braids of an heir of Durin. Fili has the same, but also others for gemcraft and smithing."

Fili helpfully pointed at the various decorations Dori described.

"Why does Kili wear no braids?" Bilbo asked.

"As to that, you'd have to ask him," said Dori politely.

"Well, isn't it obvious?" Bofur put in. "He's getting ready to infiltrate the elven kingdom in disguise - once he learns to walk upon stilts and sing like a babbling brook!"

Everyone chortled at this image, but once they quieted Kili turned to Bilbo. "I'm younger and not the heir. Anyway, I don't want to be judged for how or where I was born. I'll start braiding when I have some great deed to boast of."

Fili elbowed him with a crooked grin. "I don't think there's a braid design for slaying a dragon."

"If there were, he'd still have to spend twenty years growing the locks for it!" Bofur claimed.

"Fifty years," Balin corrected, leaning in their direction from the group about the other fire. "Of course, some of us are already amply supplied for anything we wish to declare." He stroked his long, forked - unbraided - beard while others chimed in with their own views.

It was all in good fun but Bilbo began to realise, partway through the next day, that something was wrong in their company.

He was hurrying to catch up with the others after stepping aside briefly in the woods to see to personal business, when he came upon Dori leaning against a rock, quite out of breath. Bilbo paused, taking in the dwarf's flushed face.

"Here," he said quickly, offering his own pouch of water. "The day's quite warm, isn't it?"

Dori nodded and accepted the water gratefully. "That'll change," he gasped, "as we get higher."

"I expect I'll wish then that I'd brought heavier clothes," Bilbo admitted cheerfully. "But for now, while we're climbing, I'm glad I don't have iron shoes and five layers of leather and half a smithy in my pack."

Dori chuckled weakly, handing him back his water pouch. They started up the path again more slowly.

A thought came to Bilbo as he considered Dori's genteel kindness and patience. "Dori," he dared, "I don't know when we might have a chance, but . . . the next time our party is camped in safety and comfort, would you care to share my bedroll?"

Dori's cheeks flared a little redder. "Oh! Well, that's most flattering, Master Baggins. I'm afraid it might not be quite proper, though."

Bilbo blinked. "I'm sorry, I didn't know there could be any objection." Surely someone would have mentioned if Dori were married?

"Well, it's just that . . . at my age, you know, I'm hardly likely to get a child, but I must keep the chance in mind as I choose bed-companions."

It took a moment to sink in. "Oh. Oh! I do beg your pardon, I had no idea."

Dori frowned. "I thought Gloin had told you?"

"Only that some of our party are women, not which ones."

"Oh." Dori gave a smile that was not - quite - sly. "Very proper of him, I'm sure."

"Well." Bilbo cleared his throat uneasily. "If you ever you should need a plainer kind of companionship, or . . . well, I don't suppose you would want me touching your hair, as I haven't the least idea how to work braids - but, that is, I beg you will think of me if you have need of any service."

"Very gracious of you, Master Baggins, very gracious," Dori puffed.

"Might I carry one of your bags, perhaps?" Bilbo offered, seeing the dwarf was flagging again.

Dori gave him a doubtful look. "You're not saying that only because you've discovered I'm female, are you? Men - and elves - have these absurd notions of women being weaker."

"Not at all, not at all!" Bilbo declared. "I'm sure that all our company - save me - have shoes not made for walking, and quite heavy packs. But I can only think of one dwarf who is not too stiff-necked to entertain an offer of help."

Dori chuckled ruefully. "Very well, then, I shall accept. This bag has been bumping my hip most awkwardly." He - for Bilbo was certain he ought to honour the custom and continue to think of all the dwarves as 'he' regardless of what he might learn about their sex - unslung one fat bag from his shoulder and settled the strap across Bilbo's.

Bilbo gave a bit of a stagger; it was easily twice as heavy as his own better-balanced pack. But he smiled gamely. "I beg you will make free of my name, as well; there can be no need for formality in our group."

"Thank you - Bilbo."

"Burglar!" came a bellow at the same moment.

Bilbo looked up to see Thorin atop an outcropping some way before them, waving his arm broadly. "Come along!" His voice echoed from the hillsides. "You're slowing the company!"

Bilbo made a short gesture of acknowledgment and bent his head to attack the trail with renewed vigour.

"Sorry," Dori puffed beside him. "I'll tell Thorin -"

"No need, no need," said Bilbo, though his teeth were clenched. "I'm sure Thorin will come around soon enough."

Thorin did not come around. He was full of glowers and short words, at least in his dealings with Bilbo. The hobbit carried on placidly, but inside a spark was fanned, and he was not so very far from the end of his own patience with Thorin. He wondered if the dwarf-prince was treating him thus out of shame for what they had done - except that it could not have been so very different from Thorin's custom with the other dwarves, could it? Perhaps he had been unfortunate enough to overhear some of the jests made at Bilbo's expense (for Bilbo could not imagine that any of the company would be bold enough to chaff Thorin directly).

Worse, a number of the others took Thorin's treatment of the hobbit as their cue to do the same, ordering him about curtly and seizing on every stumble or error. That night when Bilbo passed out bowls of roast venison over brizi (for the elves had had some of the white grains in store, though they pronounced it more like 'vrisi') he heard many sour words about maggots and meal-worms.

"Don't mind them," said Bofur, when Bilbo finally had a moment to sit down. "Bombur and I will be glad to take the leftovers."

Bilbo nodded, but kept his eyes on the food, not wanting to show his friends that the discourtesies were bothering him.

His friends . . . at once Bilbo realised what it was that had seemed so odd about their camp these two nights. They had two fires, which had not been their habit in the milder woodlands west of Rivendell, but he had thought this merely a sensible response to the chill mountain nights. What was significant was the way that the dwarves were divided between the two fires. Thorin and Dwalin, Nori and Bombur, Oin and Gloin, were always at one fire, separated from Bilbo. Fili and Kili, Bifur and Bofur and Dori sat near Bilbo and shared cheerful tales with him. Ori passed between the camps without prejudice, for he always had some question about the day's travel that he wished to record in his journal. And Balin attempted to encourage conversation between the separate groups, though he was rarely successful.

The party of dwarves was dividing into factions, and the conflict between Thorin and Bilbo, if not the direct cause, was somewhere near the root of the matter. Realising what was happening, Bilbo renewed his determination to swallow his pride and mend the rift in any way possible. He tried to be especially polite to Thorin when collecting his bowl and inquiring if he wished any more to eat, but Thorin merely grunted in reply. Noting the hooded gazes directed at him from around the fire, Bilbo smiled quickly and retreated. Perhaps it would be better to try his diplomacy by the sunlight.

The next day, as it happened, was grey with drifting mist, but Bilbo managed to place himself next to Dwalin nevertheless. "I wonder," he panted as he lengthened stride to match the muscular dwarf, "if you would be willing to show me how best to care for my, er, sword. I mean to say, does it need some sort of special stone to sharpen it?"

"Ask Bofur," Dwalin growled.

Bilbo bit his lip. "Ah, yes, I understand Bofur is a skilled metalsmith." He glanced about to see who was nearby. "But there aren't many in the company who use swords, especially one so short. Who should I ask to show me a pass or two?" His eyes flickered up to Thorin, at the head of the company as ever.

"Keep the blade between you and your enemies," Gloin said from behind him. "Stick them and not yourself." Then he fell silent; evidently that was all the advice he intended to offer.

"Oh. Well. Thank you," said Bilbo politely, though he heard someone snigger.

"In truth, laddie," said Balin's kindly voice, "you couldn't do better than to ask Fili. He's made a special study of many weapon styles, and all that learning is fresh in his mind. We old scarred battle-dogs remember how to fight well enough, but not how to learn fighting."

Bilbo nodded and started to thank Balin more genuinely, but just then Thorin called out, "Keep close, everyone! You don't want to get lost in this fog!"

And then they were traveling into steep rocky terrain, and it began to rain, and then to thunder. And what followed was quite the worst night of Bilbo's adventure yet.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was glad the dwarves were all looking at the distant mountain, for he had begun to feel shaky again, now that all danger was passed. His eyes had stung when Thorin embraced him. Now his head was throbbing abominably and his knees wobbled queerly.

Kili was smiling at him, but the smile faded and he turned to murmur something to his brother.

"What are we to do now?" Balin asked at last. "We have lost our packs and provisions."

There was a chorus as everyone spoke up with lists of what they had lost or managed to retain or snatch up again in their flight: most had got their weapons back, but apparently little else.

Gandalf scowled down at the river below them. "There is a place I know," he said slowly, "where we might find refuge. It is not far . . ."

"It had better be closer than 'not far,'" Fili put in. "Some of us are wounded."

Thorin turned to scowl at his nephew.

"Kili has a warg-bite on his arm," Fili supplied.

Kili grabbed his arm close. "I'm fine, it's no-" he started, only to fall silent as he was kicked by his brother.

"And the burglar is leaving bloody footprints," Fili finished.

Everyone looked down at the rock they stood upon, and at Bilbo's feet. Bilbo lifted them one at a time to look at the soles, and when he saw the great gash on the left one he staggered and had to be caught by Dori.

"Ho! Watch yourself!" said Dwalin, coming up on Bilbo's other side and taking his elbow. "That looks bad."

"I've no idea how that happened," Bilbo said woozily, looking down at the blood. "Perhaps it was when I hit my head."

Dwalin groped through Bilbo's hair and he yelped, pulling away. Dwalin held up his fingers with blood on them.

"Very well," said Thorin gravely. "We must camp, and nearby. Is there a safer place than this exposed spot?"

"And how are we to get down from here?" Kili asked.

"Steps in the rock, over here," Gloin called, pointing downward.

"We're on an island in the river," Ori added excitedly.

"We will look for a defensible spot futher down," Thorin declared.

Gloin started down the steep stairs, his axe held before him in case of any surprises (and perhaps a little bit for balance). One by one the other dwarves followed, but before Bilbo could take a step he found himself being hoisted into the air. He cried out and flailed his arms.

"Hold still now, Mr. Baggins," Dwalin growled. "You wouldn't want me to drop you."

"I can walk!" Bilbo protested.

"Not on that foot, not 'til it's been seen to." Dwalin shifted Bilbo in his arms and eventually folded the hobbit over his shoulder. It wasn't too uncomfortable since the dwarf's shoulders were broad and padded with furry pauldrons, but a few of Bilbo's bruised ribs twinged.

"More wonder it hasn't happened before," said Dori, following behind them, "with you walking everywhere bare-toed."

Bilbo stopped struggling and settled for frowning up and sidewise at Dori. "It's a terrible insult to call a hobbit a soft-foot, you know."

Dori just shook his head doubtfully. "Perhaps someone would have leather to make shoes for you."

Dwalin snorted, his hands tightening around Bilbo's ankles. "With these great platters? You'd need leather enough to saddle two ponies. I doubt even Gandalf's boots would fit him."

Bilbo had thought Dwalin must be thawing towards him, to be so solicitous, but now he wondered if it was only an excuse for further mockery. Before he could decide how to respond, however, there was a call from ahead and below that he could not quite make out.

"Seems they've found a campsite," Dwalin translated when Bilbo asked. A minute later he was lowering the hobbit to sit upon a fat log.

At the base of the great crag of rock which thrust upward from the river, rushing water had hollowed out a broad smooth depression in the rock. It was not a cave, but the rock did overhang it and cupped around on both sides, the better to keep them safe and conceal any firelight from seeking eyes. Even better, a deal of debris had been cast up by the current during some spring flood, and had since dried into excellent firewood.

"This will do nicely," Balin pronounced. "Assuming, of course, that it isn't raining to the north. We don't want any floods while we're asleep."

"The north was clear when we came in on eagle-back," Fili said.

The dwarves quickly set about clearing room for everyone to sit and sorting the wood into a proper fire. "Who still has flint or tinder?" Nori called, and Kili replied, "Gandalf doesn't need flint to start a fire." Indeed, the wizard pointed his staff, and the stacked wood burst into a merry flame.

Oin and Bombur were the last to descend from the height, moving slowly. Bilbo realised they were carrying something between them. "Look what the eagles brought for us!" Oin shouted, and several others hurried to help lower a deer carcass to the rock. The animal had been decapitated, and from the neatness of the cut Bilbo could imagine how sharp was the beak that had done it. He shivered.

"Well, I suppose tithing is only fair," commented Bofur as he examined the severed neck.

Without orders from Thorin (who was sitting at the back of the hollow with his eyes shut), the dwarves organized themselves into groups to gather water, butcher the deer, and cook the meat along with any other food that anyone had managed to hold onto.

Oin had kept hold of one of his bags, which included store of bandages and salves. He went first to tend to Thorin, who protested and tried to twist his head away as Oin was examining the damage to his face.

"Whatever you're saying, laddie, I can't hear you," said Oin. "The goblins destroyed my ear-trumpet, so you'll just have to bear with me. It looks like you've not rattled your skull too badly, and you won't be the first dwarf with a bent nose. Now sit back and let me have a look at those ribs."

The steel-scale mail that Thorin wore had kept his flesh from being pierced by sharp warg teeth, but underneath his shirt a dark bruise was spreading across most of his torso, visible even under thick curling hair.

Oin muttered darkly as he felt Thorin's ribs, but he was content to salve the area liberally and bind it with tight bandages. He handed Thorin back his silk undershirt and leather jerkin, but told him sternly to leave off the mail for a few days.

Next, the old dwarf turned to Bilbo. His fingers were gentle as they probed the gash on the back of Bilbo's head, but the touch made stars swim across Bilbo's vision nonetheless. Oin sent Fili to the river several times for more bowls of water to wash the blood away, and looked soberly into Bilbo's eyes and had him turn his neck this way and that, and eventually pronounced that Bilbo's skull would heal on its own but he had best have the softest pillow he could find for a few nights.

Next, he sat in front of Bilbo and lifted the lacerated foot into his lap. He peered down at it and said, "There's something still in here. A splinter of wood?"

"A splinter!" Bilbo protested. "A splinter would never drive so deep!"

"We must get it out," Oin pronounced.

"Bofur," said Thorin, who had been watching the procedure closely.

Bofur and Bifur between them produced an alarming array of tools from their pockets, ranging from small sharp knives to hoof-picks for ponies to tongs and pliers in several different sizes. Oin selected the smallest pliers and bade Kili hold a torch nearby while he dug into the wound. Bilbo bit his lip and tilted his head back so he wouldn't have to look, but that only made him dizzy again. He felt hard hands clasp each of his and bore down gratefully without even knowing who had reached out to him.

When Oin at last sat up with a satisfied grunt, Bilbo opened his eyes to find that Thorin was holding one of his hands and Bifur the other. He smiled at them shyly and peeled his grip free, breathing slowly to clear his head.

Bofur was studying the bloody fragment clasped in Oin's pliers. "That's no splinter," he said. "That's metal." He held out his hand and Oin let the scrap fall, bending again to sluice water over Bilbo's freshly bleeding wound.

While Oin was cleaning the gash and examining it again, Bofur was doing much the same with the piece of metal. After a minute he concluded, "This is from a goblin blade. How did you come to be stabbed in the foot by a goblin?"

"Without even knowing it?" Kili added.

"It must have been when I fell," Bilbo said. Seeing faces turned toward him in curiosity, he explained, "I slipped away to the back, as Nori said, but then I tried to follow along behind and see where the goblins were taking you. I don't know what I could have done," he added ruefully, "but I was trying to be stealthy and burglarious. But one of the goblins must have heard me, or smelt me, and turned back. I tried to keep my sword between us, as Gloin told me, but it moved so fast. I kept backing away, and then I fell right off the platform, and the goblin fell too."

He lifted his hand to his head, probing at the edges of the sore spot. "It seemed like a long fall but I couldn't see - there were no torches, and I dropped my sword. And then I hit my head. When I woke up, I found I had landed on a pile of mushrooms, that broke my fall. The goblin was nearby. I could hear it breathing, but it didn't move. I think its back was broken."

"That might have been your back," said Thorin darkly.

"Might have been anyone's back," said Bofur. "We fell too," he added.

Bilbo was diverted, wanting to know what had happened to the dwarves, but Oin interrupted. He had finished cleaning and salving and bandaging Bilbo's foot and ordered him not to walk on it until it was well scabbed over.

"How did you find the way out?" Kili asked Bilbo.

"A creature came along . . ." Bilbo said slowly, not certain how to describe it.

"What sort of animal lives at the bottom of the goblin caves?" Ori asked.

"Not an animal. He had hands, and he could speak. But he wasn't a goblin, either. I've never seen a person like him. He hardly ever stood upright, but he could have been no taller than I. But he was assuredly not a hobbit, or a dwarf. He was skin and bones. He dragged the goblin away and . . . killed it. Smashed its head with a rock, all the while singing about how dreadful it is to eat goblin meat."

Everyone was listening in rapt silence, except for Oin who had moved on to examining Kili's warg bite.

"I found my sword and . . ." Bilbo hesitated. "I followed along. But the creature heard me and came creeping after me. At first he seemed mostly curious - he kept talking to himself, you see, asking what sort of creature I am."

"What did he call himself?" Balin asked.

Bilbo blinked. "He called himself 'Precious.' At least, I think he was talking to himself. It was all very confusing." He had an idea what else the creature might have called 'Precious,' but why would he have been speaking to a ring?

"He doesn't sound much like a 'Precious' to me," Bofur put in.

"No. Not at all. He kept making this noise in the back of his throat -" Bilbo tried to imitate the gulping, coughing sound. "So I thought of him as Gollum."

"You spoke to this creature?" Gandalf demanded.

"Well, it was better than letting him eat me!" Bilbo said. "I was trying to keep him occupied. He said he liked games - and then later he said he hated games. But anyway, I suggested a game of riddles, and if I won he was to show me the way out."

"And if you lost?" Fili asked.

"He would eat me whole. Or so he said." Bilbo smiled up wanly at the company. "But I'm fairly certain he would have needed to cut me into small pieces first."

Bofur made a noise of protest.

"It was just like the trolls debating how to cook us, really. A nice familiar situation, I thought! So I did the same thing and just tried to keep him talking."

"Who won the riddle game?" Balin asked.

"Oh . . . we went back and forth a few times. He was quite clever, really - I wouldn't have thought . . . well. Then I couldn't think of another real riddle, so I just asked him to guess what I had in my pockets. He couldn't get it in three guesses, so I said I had won. But he said it was cheating, since it wasn't a proper riddle. He came at me, and I ran." Bilbo swallowed. "I squeezed through a tiny crack - popped all the buttons off my waistcoat - and I fell down on the other side. When he came through he missed me in the dark and went right past me. I supposed he must be heading for the way out, so I followed. We were almost at the exit when all of you came running past from a cross-passage. Gollum saw you and crouched down. So I ran, and I jumped right over his head, and I got out of the mountain just behind you. I suppose he didn't like the sunlight, for he never followed."

"Back to his goblin dinner, I expect," Bofur said.

Bilbo smiled weakly. "Just so. But what happened to all of you? And how did Gandalf find us?"

That was a long involved story, told mostly by Ori, but it seemed that everyone had seen some different detail and had to describe their own view of the fight with and escape from the goblins. Much excited description was lavished on the details of Gandalf's arrival and, later, their wild ride on a broken walkway down and down through the levels of the caves.

"And then Bofur, like an idiot, said the fall hadn't been so bad -" Kili said, his newly-bandaged arm clasped against his chest.

"- So of course that was when the Great Goblin came down on top of the lot of us," Fili finished with a glare at Bofur.

"I expect that's how Thorin's ribs were broken. He was in the middle of that mess." Balin turned a level gaze on his king. "And may I just say: challenging Azog to single combat with broken ribs is perhaps not the wisest thing you've ever done."

Thorin, reclining against the rock wall not far from Bilbo, gave his old friend a dark look. "Not broken, merely cracked - until that warg took hold of me, at least."

"Single combat?" Ori asked. "Wargs? When was this?" His hands twitched as if he wanted to set quill to paper, but all his materials and writings on the journey thus far had been lost in the goblin caves.

"I thought Azog died at Azanulbizar," Dori said. "Was there another by the same name?"

"You must have missed it since you were trying not to fall," Nori told them.

"Tell us about the single combat," Ori demanded.

"No, most of us saw that bit," said Kili. "I want to know how Gandalf found us - that was a surprise to everyone. Did you know we were in trouble?"

The simple story of escaping from goblins turned into a complicated mess of tales moving backwards and forwards in time, like worms squirming in a bucket. Gandalf started his part of the explanation back at Rivendell, and although Bilbo tried to follow along he found his eyelids growing heavy. He lifted his nodding head when Azog's arrival was described. Thorin's smouldering rage at the discovery that the pale orc still lived was nearly as strong in the retelling as it had been when they were all trapped at the edge of the cliff. Bilbo was concerned that someone would make his own actions out to be more heroic than they had been, so he tried to stay awake to correct any misapprehensions. But everyone seemed to be arguing about their confusion regarding the eagles - some eagles had tossed orcs and wargs off the cliff, but other eagles had dropped dwarves in a similar fashion only to have them safely caught a short distance below. Ori wondered if any of the eagles had snatched up Azog, but Dwalin, the last to be lifted away, said it was not so. And then Bilbo lost the thread of the story entirely as he slipped into an exhausted doze.

He woke slowly and reluctantly, finding that he was sore all over. But at least he wasn't cold. He was propped against the rock wall with Thorin a solid bulk on his right side and Bifur snuggled close on his left (he had been drooling on Bifur's shoulder), and the fire was just crackling up over some fresh branches added by Dwalin. The rest of the dwarves were snoring all about the hollow, and Gandalf was nowhere to be seen.

The firelight must have reflected from Bilbo's open eyes, for Dwalin turned to him. "All right, burglar?"

Bilbo grimaced. "I need to get up and see to some business," he said, his voice rasping. Dwalin helped him climb to his feet and hobble over to the edge of the rock where it fell away to the river below, held him steady while he attended to his needs, and then supported him back to the fireside.

"Here," said the dwarf, handing him a bowl of water. "There's plenty of venison, too, if you've an appetite."

Bilbo nodded and was handed a long stick with roast meat skewered upon it. "You're being very kind," he observed.

Dwalin grunted, head bent over his axe as he swept a stone along the edge of the blade.

"Is it because Thorin said he was wrong about me?"

"It's because he was wrong, and so was I. Thorin's not the only one who owes you an apology."

"You weren't wrong. I don't really belong in a group like this."

Dwalin looked up, eyes gleaming in the firelight. "Balin and I, Oin and Gloin - we were at Erebor. We were at Azanulbizar. The others don't know what it was like. We swore to protect our king - King Thror - and we failed. Thorin avenged him, and then we swore to protect our prince. And last night, we would have failed again . . . except for you. I was trapped in those accursed branches. I knew I would be too late to aid him. But you were there at the right moment, and you held them off long enough, and you made all the difference."

"I killed one warg and one orc," Bilbo said, his stomach turning so that he had to lower the meat away from his face. "Not a very impressive tally." Yet a part of him was saying that was quite enough, and he had never had to kill any enemies at all in fifty years in peaceful Hobbiton.

"The list will get longer," Dwalin assured him. "But if you do nothing else on this quest, you earned your fourteenth share last night."

Bilbo covered his flusterment by sipping from the water bowl.

"Come, let's see your wee sword, then."

Bilbo fumbled for the blade that still hung at his side after all that had happened.

Dwalin pointed disapprovingly. "Shouldn't let orc blood dry on your blade. Here, I'll show you how to clean it."

Chapter Text

When the sun rose again they set off for the refuge Gandalf had described; he had gone out the previous night to scout the way and reported that all was well, and it should be an easy enough walk even for the wounded.

Dori and Gloin had put their heads together and fashioned a sort of shoe for Bilbo out of scraps of leather. It was little more than a sandal, and the straps needed to be readjusted several times before it would stay put, but at least Bilbo could limp along under his own power. But when they stopped at mid-day for rest and water and a few bites of the last waybread anyone had held onto, Oin examined Bilbo's foot and announced that he should not walk on it for the rest of the day.

Dori, Nori, Bifur, Bofur, Gloin, and Dwalin took it in turns to carry Bilbo pig-a-back like a little fauntling. Dori claimed it was no trouble since Bilbo weighed 'less than half a smithy' and therefore he was no heavier than the packs they had lost. But nevertheless Bilbo felt quite embarrassed about the whole business. He tried at first to keep up a cheerful chatter while he was being carried, but that only really worked with Bofur. The others were either too dour or too breathless to respond.

Ori filled in the gap by demanding that Bilbo tell the story again of his escape from the goblins and meeting with Gollum, in greater detail. This included a full account of the riddles they had exchanged. Bilbo was interested to see if the dwarves would think it odd that the creature Gollum had known the same sort of riddles that he did, but instead the afternoon slipped into dwarves challenging Bilbo with riddles.

Bofur was first. "Oy, Bilbo! Here's a fellow has an eye without a head, while his brother has a head with not a single eye."

Bilbo, perched on Gloin's back, craned his head about to glower at Bofur. "A needle and a pin."

"Ho! He's good at this, right enough, lads!" Bofur crowed.

Dori spoke up next.

"What do we love more than life,
fear more than death or mortal strife,
what have the poor that the rich require,
and all contented folk desire,
that misers spend and spendthrifts save,
and all folk carry to the grave?"

Bilbo sighed. "I believe that one stumped me when I first heard it, but I was only twelve at the time. Nothing."

"What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" Nori tried.

"A hobbit," Bilbo returned sourly.

"No, a dwarf!"

"Well, it might be any of us that crawl about as babes, then walk upon two feet, and have the sense to use a cane when we grow old."

Then Thorin's voice came rolling over them unexpectedly from where he strode next to Gandalf at the head of the party.

"I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers
from the seas and streams.
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
in their noonday dreams.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail
and whiten the green plains under,
and then again I dissolve them in rain
and laugh as I pass in thunder."

That one made Bilbo pause in admiration of the poetry of it, and try to commit it to memory. But after all it did have many clues, so he soon called back "A cloud."

Everyone waited politely in case Thorin wished to ask another, but when there had been silence for a minute, Dwalin spoke up.

"Stiff it hangs beneath my belt,
it longs to fill the hole it fits well.
Strong and stout, it swivels about."
[See note at the end]

Bilbo's face heated. "Well," he coughed. "Erm . . ." He wasn't quite certain how to put it in mixed company.

"It's a key!" Dwalin bellowed. "Swivels in the lock, y'see. Did you think it was something else?"

"Oh! I . . . very clever," Bilbo returned faintly.

"Dwalin wins!" Bofur declared. "Good thing old Gollum didn't try something like that on you, eh?"

"Euch!" said Bilbo. "I should never wish to think of - that sort of thing - in connection with Gollum at all."

By the time they reached Beorn's hall, Bilbo's arms were aching from hours of clasping dwarf-shoulders, much as his legs had ached on the first days of their journey. He sat gratefully upon a bench of rough-hewn wood while Gandalf negotiated their welcome with the skin-changers. Soon he was watching in amazement as what seemed an endless stream of animal-people moved to and fro preparing a feast for them all. Where Beorn appeared to be a man, albeit a very large one, and - according to Gandalf - generally only changed into his bear form at night, his friends (family? servants?) shifted fluidly between two-legged and four-legged shapes depending on whether they wished to move swiftly or to handle something. Beorn was the only one with a wild animal for his alternate form; the others were dogs, horses, and even a pig or two.

"I have never heard of skin-changers at all," Bilbo said to Gandalf when their host left them to enjoy their dinner.

Gandalf looked down from his taller chair at the end of the table. "I'm sure there are many things beneath the Sun that you have never heard of, Bilbo."

Bilbo sighed. He had missed Gandalf when they left Rivendell, but he had not particularly been thinking of the way the old wizard made him feel like a little child.

"The halfling is right," said Thorin, who sat across the table and had looked rather grim at being asked to sit at Gandalf's right hand rather than the other way around. "If they are so rare that even travelling dwarves have not encountered them before, how came there to be so many in this one place?"

"That is a dark tale," said Gandalf, and glanced up as several of their servers came back into the hall. "I shall tell it later. For now, enjoy your feasting - you have all earned it!"

Later they sat upon the porch as the sun descended behind the mountains. Gandalf was the only one with any pipe-weed left (indeed, he may have been the only one who still had a pipe), but a few of the party placed themselves strategically downwind of him to enjoy the scent as the wizard began his tale.

"The skin-changers were cursed by an enchanter years ago. The same enchanter who has lately taken up residence in Dol Guldur, of whom my brother Radagast brought word."

Bilbo frowned. "Didn't he say that was . . . a necromancer?" Then he blushed, for he had known as much from eavesdropping on a conversation not meant for his ears.

But Gandalf merely nodded. "The very same. But at that time we knew little of him. Radagast first heard rumour from the animals of the Greenwood, who had taken fright and refused to venture to a certain part of the forest. When Radagast went there to discover what was the matter, he came upon a party of the men who dwell further down this river valley. Their numbers are few, but they are bold and self-reliant. They were seeking some of their kinsfolk, they said, who had been taken prisoner into the Greenwood along with cattle and mounts.

"Radagast persuaded some small birds, that were friends of his, to fly ahead of them, and these brought back news of a dreadful abomination. The enchanter, through foul craft, had been mingling the men and animals until they could not be told apart. Many of them went mad and destroyed themselves, or refused to eat, or fought with others until they died of many wounds. But some endured and learned to control their transformations.

"The latest creature the enchanter had made was a blend of a bear and a great tall man. Perhaps he thought to use it to terrify anyone who would gainsay him, or perhaps he thought to set it against others of his creation that tried to defy him. He did not expect the bear-man to retain the power of thought and speech, and use that to urge all the other animal-people to rise up at once against the enchanter.

"When Radagast and the men of the valley arrived, the animal-people had just driven the enchanter from the cave where he had been executing his terrible schemes, and he had fled southward, deeper into the forest."

"So they escaped safely?" Ori asked.

"Alas, the tale is sadder still. For the valley-men rejected the abominations that the enchanter had created, and tried to kill them or drive them away. All Radagast's protests went unheard. So instead he helped Beorn and the other skin-changers to escape from those who had been their kin. He concealed them in the forest for a while as they learned to live with their new forms, and when they desired a home of their own he helped them to build this place."

"And that's why Beorn gave us refuge?" Bilbo asked. "Because you are Radagast's brother-wizard?"

"Yes, in large part, but also I did render him a small service myself, a few years ago. And as you have seen, Beorn despises the orcs and goblins of the mountains, so your own dispute with them was reason enough for him to wish to help you."

"Why did you and Radagast and the others of your order not stop this enchanter then and there?" Thorin demanded darkly.

Gandalf sighed and lowered his pipe. "Why, indeed? In the first place, we had conflicting news as to how thoroughly the enchanter had been routed. He might have perished of his injuries or retreated to some distant land. But on balance, the leader of my order judged that it was not our concern to meddle with."

"And now the enchanter has grown more powerful and dangerous?" Bilbo asked.

"Just so. All of you will wish to keep your path well to the northern end of Mirkwood - for that is what the Greenwood has become." Gandalf shook his head gravely. "We may have to deal with this necromancer sooner rather than later. I fear that more is at work here than the ambitions of a single sorcerer; there is a dark power moving through the world, gaining strength."

The last light of sunset had faded, and the evening held an edge of chill in the air flowing down from the mountains. Bilbo shivered.

"But that is not a concern for your party, not at this time," Gandalf concluded. "Take your rest here, let your hurts be eased, and make what plans you may for the next part of your journey."

Beorn's hall was spacious, but it had not beds for fifteen guests. Thorin and Gandalf were to take rooms, while the rest of them bedded down in the great hall before the hearth. They were laying out pallets that the skin-changers had brought to them when Thorin, passing through the hall, called out, "Balin."

Bilbo did not look up from where he knelt smoothing the lumps from his pallet, but he approved the choice. If Thorin must keep up appearances by selecting someone to share his bed, surely his oldest friend would be understanding and cautious of his wounds.

But the elderly dwarf stood and said so that all could hear, "I yield my place . . . to Mr. Baggins."

Bilbo twisted about and looked up incredulously. He was not far from Balin, and so he could hear when Thorin stalked up to him and growled, "You do not dictate my choices."

"A suggestion only," said Balin, uncowed by Thorin's annoyance. "Oin did say he should have a soft pillow if it could be managed."

Thorin's gaze shifted to Bilbo, whose mouth was moving uncertainly as he tried to think what he might say that would not insult Thorin before all the company.

"Come along then," was all Thorin said, and then he left the hall. Bilbo, perforce, followed him, hobbling on his one leather sandal.

The room Thorin had been given was dim, lit only by a brace of candles that scarcely threw light as far as the timbered ceiling above. The bed was enormous, piled with furs, and might have held half their party by itself.

"Come, into bed," said Thorin as soon as Bilbo had limped into the room.

Uneasily, he took off his coat and hung it near the door where he saw Thorin had propped most of his weapons, along with the mail that Oin had told him to leave off for the present. His ruined waistcoat flapped open as he turned toward the bed.

"Take your clothes off," Thorin urged. "There can be no need for shyness, surely?"

Bilbo cleared his throat. "Er, you did say I might cry off without shame, if I'm ill or wounded?"

Thorin scoffed. "Oh, for Durin's sake! You cannot think I would harass you for favours tonight?"

Bilbo blinked at him.

"I see you did think that. Well, if hobbits care to take pleasure with cracked skulls and broken ribs, I can assure you that dwarves do not. Come, wanton, I thought only to spread salve on your bruises, if you will return the kindness."

So Bilbo pulled off his shirt and perched wincing upon the furs while Thorin traced his hurts with shining fingers. And then he carefully unwound the strapping that Oin had put about Thorin's chest, and gingerly brushed his own hands through dwarven curls to the darkened skin beneath. Thorin made no sound of protest but kept his eyes shut until Bilbo was finished.

"Shall I bandage it again?" Bilbo offered.

"Leave them off for now and let me breathe," said Thorin, though his breath was hitching as he shifted on the bed. "Come and take comfort with me."

Bilbo hesitated.

"To sleep only, my burglar."

So Bilbo blew out the candles and tucked himself against Thorin's less-broken side. Resting his aching head on the pillow, he breathed in the scent of dwarf: something like leather and hot metal, with a bit of pine and mysterious smoky herbs mixed through it.

"Dwalin was right," Thorin said softly in the darkness.

"When?" asked Bilbo, remembering the riddle of the key.

"Last night."

It took Bilbo a moment to realise what he meant, then he thought: of course Thorin would wake, when anyone near him was stirring.

"You have earned your place in this company, and more."

"You told me already," Bilbo protested. "I don't need to hear it again."

"Then hear this: I owe you a debt, Bilbo Baggins. And when my kingdom is restored, you shall be richly rewarded."

Bilbo stared into the darkness long after Thorin's breathing had settled into the slow rhythms of sleep.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo woke in the morning, to his surprise he discovered that Thorin was still asleep. Bilbo had nestled closer during the night so that his head was pillowed upon Thorin's arm, with nothing touching his sore crown save the air; and indeed, the ache in his skull did not have the same piercing throb as it had the day before, and when he turned his head the room did not continue to spin extravagantly. But he guessed that long hours in one position would have stiffened Thorin's hurts, so he tried gingerly to pull away.

There were no windows in the room, but daylight and fresh air and birdsong seeped through the open eaves. There was light enough for Bilbo to see clearly the moment when Thorin's eyes fluttered open and fixed on his own.

"Good morning," he said. Recalling Gandalf's lecture upon the phrase, he had to stifle a laugh.

Thorin blinked, gaze darting about the room as all his muscles tensed, then settled. "Yes. I suppose it is." He frowned at Bilbo from a few inches away. "How do you feel?"

"Better, I think. My head is not so sore, and I hope I may be allowed to stand on my own feet today." Bilbo sat up and watched as Thorin eased himself back more cautiously to half-recline against the pillows. "And . . . yourself?"

"I am well."

"Dwarf bruises really do heal quickly. Your nose is nearly its proper colour again already - and entirely its proper shape. Not at all like Balin's." Bilbo realised at once that he was babbling, and also that he had laid a daring finger alongside Thorin's nose. He started to draw it back, but found it stroking down the dwarf's jaw instead.

And then Thorin turned his head a little and captured the finger lightly between his teeth. His eyes never left Bilbo's as lips and tongue gentled the contact.

Bilbo trembled. He recalled his suspicion that dwarves did not use their mouths in love-play as hobbits would, but Thorin seemed to have grasped the principle as thoroughly as he had captured Bilbo's finger. Soon he lifted a hand to catch Bilbo's and shifted his attentions to another finger, then a third.

Bilbo's traitorous cockerel was, as ever at dawn, raising his head ready to crow. "Are you certain you are well enough?" Seeing Thorin's eyes narrow, he hastened to add: "I should not wish to earn a scold from Oin, since he cannot hear my protestations."

"Leave Oin to me," Thorin rumbled, rolling to his side and pulling Bilbo down before him. "I'll dance no jigs today, but a slow courtly dance will serve as well."

They danced with hands and lips and tongues until the hammer smote and the cockerel crowed. Strangely, Bilbo found that instead of an inclination to laughter, his eyes began to prickle once more as they had upon the pinnacle of rock.

"I'm glad you are well," he breathed thickly, tracing the marks of strife upon Thorin's face. "I'm glad the orc did not take you."

A light of fury rekindled in Thorin's eyes. "Azog," he spat. "It is I who shall have his head, in the end. I swear it."

Bilbo blinked and swallowed the lump in his throat, recalled to his place. He was merely an accessory on this important quest, at best a footnote in dwarvish history. "Yes. I'm sure you will."

Thorin did not leap from the bed in a single move, but strength of purpose was back in every sinew as he rose and set about dressing. Bilbo saw the dwarf-prince move the tattered green waistcoat aside to reach something beneath it, and he hurried to snatch it away as he remembered: the ring was still in his pocket!

"Thank you, I'll take that," he said quickly, patting at the green cloth until he found the little round lump. "Er . . . sorry, I didn't mean to leave it lying about."

"It is no matter," said Thorin, though he had frowned for a moment at Bilbo's tone. "Take what rest you need; I must speak with the others."

But Bilbo found that he was more hungry than weary, so he followed Thorin out to the main hall in hopes of breakfast. The long table was laid with plates of honey-cakes, and fresh berries, and cream to go with them.

When everyone had eaten, they all began to take up tasks of tending their weapons or repairing their gear or in some cases trying to remake it entirely. Beorn's hall had no store of leather for them, but there was a heavy canvas cloth that might be used to make bags or bedrolls.

Two skin-changers in the form of sleek brown dogs came trotting to Bilbo and laid something at his feet: a pair of broad simple shoes made of that same canvas, with thick soles of woven grass painstakingly stitched between two layers. One of the dogs sat back and panted to watch Bilbo's reaction, while the other started to rise onto two legs, looked at her brother (friend?) and sank down again.

Bilbo despised the shoes the moment he saw them, and more so when he fastened them about his feet and felt his toes trapped in a canvas prison. He felt as if he should have to limp on both feet at once if he tried to walk with them. But he smiled and thanked the skin-changers warmly and praised their skill in constructing the shoes. Indeed, he would have had little idea how to make such things himself, nor would any hobbit that he knew.

The dogs both leapt up and wagged their tails at him; one barked, and the other stood upright with her head changing into that of a brown-haired young woman and said with difficulty, "Very well-come," before blurring back to dog-shape again and dashing off with her compatriot.

Bilbo hobbled out to the veranda where he found Kili fashioning replacements for his arrows, some with his own arrowheads that he had recovered, but a few with heads from goblin or even elven arrows that he had picked up. The goblin arrowheads made him mutter disparagingly, but the elven ones he merely studied in silence.

Nori also was whittling some small pieces of wood, but Bilbo could not see what he was making. They shared a bench companionably enough until Ori came out beaming with his arms laden with paper. "Look what I found! They say they don't want it; it was given them by a traveller they aided." He pulled one of the benches around to serve him as a writing-desk and began to array his materials upon it.

"Do they keep no chronicles of their own?" Bilbo asked.

Ori shrugged. "I'm more concerned with re-writing ours. I shall have to start over from the beginning of the journey again. But first I want to put down the story of the goblins, and the orcs and wargs."

Bilbo felt his own writing-hand twitch in sympathy. Seeing that there were quills and ink to spare, he pulled a sheet of the heavy parchment toward him and began without preamble to set down the tale that Gandalf had told them of the skin-changers and their origin. He was thinking of the two young dog-shifters who had brought him his shoes. Gandalf had said the incident with the enchanter was many years ago, had he not? And Beorn and most of the skin-changers were mature grizzled folk, but here were these two creatures of an indeterminate young age. If the skin-changers were raising young ones, they must be building a future for themselves here in the valley by the river. And if they had a future they should keep tally of their past, or so it seemed to Bilbo.

But when he had nearly finished with his account, vague though it was with no names aside from Beorn's and Radagast's, he glanced across at Ori's writing to find the dwarf was working in another script entirely, and presumably another language as well. Then Bilbo began to doubt that the skin-changers would approve his choice of plain hobbit-writing for their first chronicle - if any of them knew how to read at all - and he set it aside with a sigh. Perhaps they would appreciate his gift and in far future years it would be cherished like the Yellowskin . . . or perhaps they would merely use it for kindling.

Ori began to ask questions about Azog, and to Bilbo's consternation they were mostly directed at him.

"Ask Kili, he was there also!"

"You were closer, and you faced Azog directly," Kili said, shaking his head wonderingly.

So Bilbo tried to describe the dreadful hook that Azog bore in place of his left hand, and the enormous orc's blue eyes rimmed in pink, and the huge white warg that he rode upon.

Ori scribbled it all down dutifully along with what details Kili could add. Then a moment later he was shuffling back through his pages to one that had already dried. "Kili, Nori, can you remember that song the Great Goblin was chanting, just before Gandalf showed up?"

They pieced together their memories of the song with an odd sort of relish - it was a terrible poem about shattering bones and wringing necks. Nori and Ori remembered most of the words, but Kili was best at reproducing the tune and (the others said) the voice of the Great Goblin. Bilbo trailed off into thought as he listened.

"Oy." Kili gave him a thump on the knee with his fist. "You're not worried for us, are you? It's just like you said - same as the trolls, and that Gollum thing that wanted to eat you."

"Except," Ori mused, "The Great Goblin was nearly big enough to eat one of us whole. Must have been part troll himself, I think."

Nori shook his head. "Three bites, at least."

"Don't you think it's odd," Bilbo said hesitantly, "that a goblin should sing songs that are not so very different from our own music? With rhyme, and meter, and a recognizable tune? Why, some elf music is more unearthly, and mannish poems often have an odd sort of shape. But you could dance to the Great Goblin's torture song." He recalled the morning's 'dance' and felt his face grow warm.

But Kili scoffed. "He was just copying what he'd heard of the ways of better folk. Goblins steal - weapons, gear, food, lives. Not surprising they'd steal customs and music, too."

"But there's more to it than just the goblins," said Bilbo, feeling that he was groping around the edges of a much larger question. "Look at Gollum, and the riddles he knew. Or the trolls caring enough about cooking methods to forget the sun was coming up. Or the skin-changers."

"I've not heard any poetry from them at all," Ori said.

"They are good cooks, though," said Nori, stuffing a bit of leftover honey-cake into his mouth.

"That's just it," Bilbo said. "They scarcely speak at all, except for Beorn. Yet they are a wholesome kindly folk who are aiding us. But the trolls and goblins and even Gollum had language and - and culture, and they were still dreadful. How can you tell which is good or bad?"

"If they want to eat us, they're bad," Kili concluded simply.

Ori nodded. "And if they feed us, they're good."

Bilbo scowled at them. "The elves of Rivendell fed us, but you didn't trust them, because of what some other elves had done."

Kili looked away, and Ori scratched his neck uncertainly.

"I think what you are asking," Gandalf said suddenly from behind them, "is, 'What is evil?'"

Bilbo blinked, feeling the large thing that he had been mapping out come suddenly clear. "Yes, that's it."

Gandalf came to sit on the bench beside Bilbo, stretching his legs in front of him. "And the answer is, you know evil in your own heart. You know it when it is before you. The orcs and goblins were shaped by a terrible dark power which spread its stain across the world long ago. It is the echo of that power that your sword reacts to, when it glows blue."

Bilbo glanced down. "It didn't glow for Gollum," he said, remembering the goblin-light suddenly extinguished.

"Then perhaps," said Gandalf consideringly, "the creature is not entirely evil."

Bilbo looked up at the wizard, remembering the moment when he had leveled his sword at Gollum's neck, but seeing the distress on his face could not strike. "Would he be capable of redemption, like the skin-changers who defied the sorcerer?"

Gandalf's brows shot up. "That is quite another matter. They were simple folk - wholesome, as you said - who had a terrible curse laid upon them, but they had enough goodness and strength of heart to resist."

"But not to break the curse entirely."

"No; that would require great power and many years of study. Far longer than Beorn or any of his contemporaries are likely to live. And to what purpose, when they may make a good life for themselves here, helping many and harming none?"

"They're becoming a new race, aren't they?" Bilbo asked, his fingers framing the little chronicle he had penned. "Like the hobbits of the Shire, there will be the skin-changers of the river valley."

Gandalf's eyes twinkled. "Perhaps."

"What of Gollum, then? Could he change, for the better?"

"It depends how thoroughly he has been altered already by the darkness he has lived with. If you cannot even recognize what sort of person he once was . . ." Gandalf shook his head doubtfully. "Then it seems unlikely. But not wholly impossible. Goblins and orcs are incapable of change or growth, for they were created out of evil and will always return to it. Trolls and wargs, however, were once natural creatures which were warped so long ago the event has passed out of memory - yet I recall that Radagast once raised a warg from a pup, refusing to believe it would turn against him. And in the end it sacrificed its own life to save him from attack."

"You mean wargs aren't evil?" Ori responded sceptically.

"They are too loyal to their orc masters - yet is not loyalty, itself, a virtue?" Gandalf nodded to Bilbo. "So you see, the question of 'What is evil?' is a simple one. But the question of 'What good things might be turned to evil ends, or evil things made good once again?' is far more complex. That is the study of many lifetimes."

Bilbo was silent a long while, thinking on all this.

At last Kili gave a sigh and rose to his feet. "It all sounds too deep for me. Tell me where to plant an arrow and I will do it; knowing good folk from bad is a king's job. I see my brother and Bofur have finished the little forge they were trying to fashion, and now they're all covered in soot. I'll ask if they can reshape some of these arrowheads for me."

Nori stood also. "Here," he said with a nod to Bilbo, and passed him a handful of small wooden objects: buttons, that he had fashioned and smoothed while they were talking. "Oin has needle and thread so you can repair your waistcoat."

"Thank you," said Bilbo in bewilderment.

Nori winked at him and departed.

"Am I supposed to write all of that down?" Ori asked. "About trolls and orcs and goblins and so forth?"

Gandalf did not reply; he was studying Bilbo's little chronicle.

"I didn't even think about what kind of writing they might wish me to use," Bilbo confessed.

"It is well enough," said Gandalf. "In fact, it is very well. You are right - the Beornings may be a new race taking a foothold in the world. Most fitting that a hobbit, one of the younger races of this age, should show them how to go on. I'll just make a few changes to this and then give it to Beorn, shall I?"

Bilbo assented, yet he was struck by the irony that he might be a mere footnote in dwarvish history, but he looked to be a founder of skin-changer history. This adventure of his had rather larger implications than he had ever supposed it would.

Chapter Text

After a noon meal which left Bilbo pleasantly full, Gandalf and most of the dwarves went their separate ways. Bilbo could not go far with his foot still bandaged. Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, and Gloin were in the corner where some light streamed in, consulting over a map and measuring distances with scissored fingers. But when Bilbo headed in that direction, the low-voiced discussion changed tone and he realised they were speaking in the dwarvish tongue. It seemed they didn't want him to be part of the conversation, so he drifted casually away.

Oin and Bombur were still talking at table - or rather, Oin was talking and Bombur was eating and occasionally nodding. Bilbo asked for needle and thread (he had to mime the act of sewing and finally show the dwarf his torn waistcoat and the wooden buttons) and Oin was happy enough to retrieve them from his pack; then Bilbo went out on the veranda to have enough light for mending.

He had got one of the oblong wooden buttons fastened to the green fabric when his fingers brushed across the lump in the pocket. Glancing about to make sure no one was nearby, Bilbo pulled the ring out and beheld it for the first time in daylight. It was cool and heavy in his palm, plain gold with no blemish upon it anywhere. Large enough to slip onto his finger easily yet small enough to remain snug; it might have been made for him.

He considered briefly the idea of showing it to Gandalf, but he could imagine what the wizard would have to say about a powerful magical object in the hands of a mere hobbit - likely he would never see the thing again. And in any case, he didn't need anyone to tell him what the ring could do; he had already found out.

He didn't wish the dwarves to know about it, either, thinking of the ring divided into fourteen pieces. No, better to keep its existence to himself for now. It did occur to him that he might slip the ring on and find out what the dwarves were saying about that map. It would even be good practice in stealth. But then he heard an iron-shod boot moving toward the veranda and quickly tucked the ring away, taking up his needle once more.

He was just biting the thread from the last button when there was a burst of raucous song and Fili and Kili, Bofur and Bifur, Dori and Nori and Ori came back into the hall. Bilbo had supposed they were working over the improvised forge, but they were all clean and, in fact, most of them were wet or had wet hair.

Nori patted at his disordered hair, which looked as wild as it had when the eagles dropped them on the carrock. "I'd make you redo my braids," he was saying, "but Dori's better at it anyway."

"Serves you right," Fili retorted. "I lost one of my good silver aiglets in that river."

"That was because you scorched your braid half to ash!"

"Which I wouldn't have done if you weren't distracting me while I was working."

Bofur stepped between the two of them, draping his arms over their shoulders. "All in good fun, lads! At least we've washed off the grime, and had a nice swim into the bargain. Can't ask for better than that on a lovely summer's day!"

"Now you see why I don't fuss with braids," Kili said aside to Bilbo, squeezing water from the ends of his own hair. "They've been going on about that since we got out of the water."

Bilbo smiled uncertainly. "You washed in the river? Weren't you afraid someone might get swept away?" It was a fate much threatened by hobbit mothers to their children who wished to play in water, even in the small streams of the Shire which couldn't hold a candle to the great river flowing past the bottom of Beorn's holding.

"Oh, we can all swim, so long as we're not weighted down by mail or gear," Kili threw out casually.

"Ori could use a bit more practice," said Dori with a gentle smile, though he appeared to be quite dry himself.

"Ever seen a badger crossing a stream?" Bofur asked. "That's how cousin Bifur looks when he swims."

Bifur growled something threatening and tackled Bofur.

Bilbo smiled to listen to the overlapping din of the dwarves; it reminded him of the unexpected party at Bag End all those weeks ago. He had not been a part of the merriment then, merely a confused and frustrated onlooker.

The smile faded from his face as he wondered if he was truly a part of the group now. Not that he would have wanted to go in a river, even if his foot were entirely well. But he might have liked to be there and see them at their games and laugh with them. It almost felt like the moment when he had heard Thorin assuming the worst of him, before he took off the ring. Thorin had since apologized and called back the words; but it wasn't only because of words that Bilbo had been prepared to leave the company. Too often he was sure that he really did not belong among them.

But he had assuredly come too far to turn back now, so he put aside his sense of grievance. After all, the dwarves had not precisely chosen to leave him out of their day's revels. He sat with them at dinner and shared their stories and laughter and felt included well enough.

Ori brought up the morning's discussion, and Gandalf's mention of a warg that had been raised from a pup. Everyone at this end of the table scoffed disbelievingly, but the words 'Gandalf said' were a powerful talisman.

"I'm still confused about the business of songs and poetry," said Bilbo. "What do you make of the Great Goblin singing a tune that anyone could dance to?"

"I wouldn't care to dance to talk of battered bones and wrung necks," Gloin muttered.

It didn't seem so different to Bilbo from the horrid song the dwarves had made about smashing all his Westfarthing crockery, but he said, "No, the words aren't the point, except for the fact they rhymed and made sense. How could a Goblin make something like that?"

"Kili said they were just copying better folk," Ori reminded him.

There was widespread agreement with this. "After all," said Bofur, nudging Bilbo with his shoulder, "they do say orcs have no navels. I expect that's true for goblins as well."

"What does that mean?" said Bilbo, but he was drowned out in a chorus of "Who says?" and "Is that true?"

Ori was saying, "The Great Goblin did have a navel, I saw it!"

"That was just a scar," Kili told him. "He was all over lumps and bumps."

"But what does it mean if they don't have navels?" Bilbo pressed.

"Means they have no mothers," Bofur returned.

Bilbo blinked. "Then how -?"

"Me dad used to say orcs were hatched out of a mud-hole, instead of born like proper folk. They can't create anything new, just make poor copies like they are themselves. Don't know if it's the same for goblins, though."

There followed much discussion of navels, mothers, and creativity among both orcs and goblins. Bilbo was once again appealed to as a reference for how Azog looked, but he had not seen much past the teeth of the huge white warg and Azog's own hook waving about. The orc he had killed had an armoured belly, so he couldn't answer that either.

Then there was a lull in the conversation and Bilbo, taking breath to say something, realised that Thorin had stood from his seat next to Gandalf at the head. Bilbo took a sip of his cider as an excuse not to speak or to look up the table.

Thorin's boots rang down the length of the table and paused behind Bilbo.

Bilbo began to turn, smiling.

"Bofur," said Thorin softly, and moved on.

Glances were exchanged around the table, but Bilbo didn't know what any of them meant.

Bofur cleared his throat. "Well. Wish me luck, lads!" He swung his legs over the bench and followed Thorin.

Several of the dwarves frowned, and Bilbo thought this was because Bofur had made reference to something that normally went unmentioned. Or were they frowning over the choice Thorin had made?

Talk continued about the table for a while, breaking into smaller conversations, but eventually people drifted away to collect the rolled-up pallets from the end of the room and lay them out around the firepit. Bilbo set one out for himself, rolled his coat into a log for a pillow, patted the pocket of his waistcoat before tucking it under the edge of the pallet along with his sword and neckcloth, and lay down with a sigh.

He knew that Thorin needed to keep all the members of the party satisfied as one of his royal duties. But was it coincidence that tonight, Thorin had chosen the only other dwarf that Bilbo already had an agreement with? Bilbo glanced around the hall for Bifur but couldn't distinguish his form in the low light. Anyway, he wanted more than simple company tonight, particularly once the rustles and sighs and moans began, and then Dwalin's voice rising above all. Bilbo grumbled and put his head under his coat instead.

"Pssst! Bilbo!"

He pulled his head free and looked up. Ori was crouching nearby.

"D'you want to share my bedroll?"

Bilbo blinked. He supposed he'd been getting along well enough with Ori since the beginning, but he hadn't felt any particular connection with the young dwarf. Then again, perhaps this was the best way to forge such connections.

"All right," he agreed.

It was a mistake. Ori was kind and friendly, but he was also clumsy and not widely experienced and apparently unaware of his own dwarvish strength. After a while Bilbo left Ori snoring, pulled on his shirt and trews, and stumbled sore and frustrated back to his own pallet. He sat down, then winced and curled on his side.

He was in the midst of a confused dream about sleeping on a lumpen and prickly haystack, knowing that he would be late getting home and his father would be annoyed with him and perhaps there wouldn't be any dinner, yet still he couldn't seem to get up from the haystack - when something tickled his ear. He swiped at it with a clumsy hand, but it came back.

"Leave off, Hom," he groaned. "You've worn me out already."

"Hom?" said an amused voice. "Who's this?"

Bilbo cracked an eye open. Kili was bent over him, which probably meant the braid tickling his ear was from Fili behind. "What do you want?" he grumbled.

"To know who Hom is," came Fili's voice, confirming his guess.

"A friend of mine from years ago," said Bilbo crossly, rolling to his back so he could see them both. "Married now, with a babe in arms." This although he was twelve years younger than Bilbo - and hadn't Bungo had a few words to say about a gentle-hobbit nearly of age dallying with a farmer's son not yet in his tweens! Bilbo sighed at the memory of those rows.

"Sounds like a happy fellow, then," said Fili.

"But you don't seem quite so happy," Kili pointed out.

"I'm not," Bilbo grumbled, tugging at his coat-pillow. "I've just been wakened most rudely, when I had hardly got to sleep."

"We thought you might be unhappy about something else, didn't we, Kili?"

Bilbo tensed, thinking of Bofur with Thorin.

But Kili chuckled. "That's right. A little bird told us you went with Ori tonight."

Fili shook his head sadly. "You should have asked us first. Ori's a sweet lad, but -"

"New boots give blisters," Kili said.

"There it is. Still needs a bit of breaking in, doesn't he?"

And a deal more weapon oil, Bilbo thought. "If you know all that, you should know that I'd prefer to be left alone just now."

"Oh no, little burglar, what you need now is consolation," said Kili with a broad grin.

"And we know just the thing," Fili added. "Come on, we've set our bedrolls in the corner, and we have some salves to ease you."

Bilbo closed his eyes and pressed his head determinedly back against his coat, but two strong hands caught him by the shoulders and lifted him right out of bed. He pushed them away and said he would walk on his own two feet, but they kept him bracketed as if fearful he would run away.

Fili and Kili always set their bedrolls next to each other, and in this case they had piled two grass-stuffed pallets one atop the other, which made them much softer for Bilbo's still-tender ribs, elbows, knees, and other parts. He sank onto the pile with a small sigh. They also had a voluminous cloak for a blanket to make up for being so far from the fire. They spread this over Bilbo before squirming under it with him, one on either side.

Soon he felt a hand groping at the laces of his trews and he caught it away, turning to look at Fili in surprise.

"Salves," said the fair dwarf with his eyes crinkled in amusement. He nodded to the little pot Kili was holding.

"Er," said Bilbo. "I thought . . ." He had thought it wouldn't be proper, and now he was confused.

"Don't worry," said Kili, setting the pot of salve on Bilbo's chest and wriggling close. "Nothing to fear from us, no hammers or ploughshares here."

"Just . . . what would a hobbit call it? Rich fields to plough?"

They were both watching him intently in the dim light. Bilbo shook his head in bewilderment. "Yes, I know, but I thought -"

"You know?" said Kili in dismay.

"Who told you? Not Gloin, or Bofur. Was it Ori?"

Bilbo blinked at them. "No, it was Thorin."

They both gaped. "He wouldn't," said Fili certainly, and Kili nodded agreement.

"He said he did not lie with you because you're near kin. But you lie with each other and no one thinks it improper. Then Dori said it wouldn't be right for . . . him to lie with me because of the chance of getting a babe. So I realised there must be such a chance between either of you and Thorin, but not with each other."

Fili looked across at his 'brother.' "Seems our burglar is quite clever."

"Told you," said Kili. "He thinks too much. We can help you with that," he assured Bilbo.

"Right. Don't think - just enjoy." Fili's hand was back at Bilbo's laces again.

Bilbo squirmed. "But . . . wouldn't it be thought wrong?"

"Not so long as we do nothing to risk a babe," Kili told him.

"But . . ." There were two hands now, one working his laces and another warming him through the cloth, and Bilbo was indeed finding it hard to think. He was remembering a cousin of his who had been forced to marry a lass in haste after spending a few hours with her in private, even though they both swore that nothing untoward had taken place and Bilbo thought they were telling the truth. But he couldn't think how to frame such a question so that dwarves would understand it. Perhaps they were simply more accustomed to taking each other at their word, or perhaps Fili and Kili were accounted to stand as chaperones for each other. Bilbo thought of Fili wearing a cap with knitting in his lap and watching suspiciously as someone offered flowers to Kili, and the image made him laugh even as he was gasping at their touches. "I - wait! I haven't, er, not with a lass before."

Kili grinned wickedly, but Fili's smile was slower and slyer. "Then it's past time for someone to show you what's what."

What followed was rather confusing for Bilbo, but he did discover that female dwarves have hair on their chests just as on their chins, and he learned about finding the jewel in its hidden setting, and what to do with it once found. Both dwarves were quite taken with the hobbit custom of mouth-play, and practised kisses enthusiastically upon each other as well as with Bilbo.

In the end they both seemed to get what they needed, from each other if not from Bilbo. For his part, he fell asleep between the two of them with his little hurts soothed, feeling quite warm and cherished, and had no more dreams about uncomfortable haystacks.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke when someone kicked the pallet they were sharing, and he blinked up to see Thorin's silhouette moving away from them. The corner that Fili and Kili had chosen was not on the way from Thorin's guest room to anywhere else, so it must have been deliberate.

Fili was alert at once, rising and dressing within seconds. Kili had somehow got the entire cloak wrapped around himself and grumbled, trying to nestle deeper into the pallet until Fili gave it another kick.

Bilbo found his shirt rucked up about his armpits and scrambled about looking for his trews. The light that came in under the eaves and through the ceiling's smoke-hole was still dim and grey, but as he headed toward the fire-pit Bilbo realised this was not because the hour was very early. Rain was dripping down into the ashes, the occasional ember sizzling resentfully, and a soft rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.

Retrieving the rest of his clothes from beneath his own cold pallet and checking his pockets, Bilbo shivered at the thought of commencing the next stage of their journey in such weather. But over breakfast Thorin, having consulted with Beorn and Gandalf, announced that they would have one day further to repair or replace gear and gather provisions before setting out again.

Bofur did not appear until nearly all the food was gone. He was picking mournfully over the crumbs left on several plates when Bilbo asked, "Did you sleep well?"

Bofur smiled sweetly, using a broken bit of scone to mop up some honey and cream. "Of course, I always do. And you?"

"Well enough," said Bilbo mildly into his cider cup, wondering if anyone might have any tea left. "Once I got settled, that is."

Bofur stiffened to alertness. "Settled where? Who with?"

"Are you going to tell me about your night?"

Bofur frowned and it looked as if his mouth was about to shape words, but nothing came out.

"I didn't think so." Bilbo chuckled and rose from the table.

He spent the morning with Bombur and the two young dog-shifters fashioning bags and packs out of canvas. Bilbo tried to engage the two youths in conversation but they seemed very shy. So he amused them by telling the story of their capture by trolls, and then an edited version of the riddles in the dark with Gollum. The children liked the riddles and the girl went so far as to change her head to human form several times in order to guess at the answers, so Bilbo added more riddles to engage them (but not the one Dwalin had told).

As it happened, Dwalin sat next to Bilbo at the noon meal. "One more night of peace before we set out again," he commented when the food was nearly gone and folk were beginning to move away.

Bilbo's mouth was full so he merely nodded, but he did think it rather odd; Dwalin was not one for casual conversation.

"So how about it then?"

Bilbo swallowed. "Hmm?"

"Are you promised already? I wanted to get my bid in early."

"Sorry - promised?"

"For tonight. Will you be sharing with someone?"

"Oh! I, er . . ." Bilbo's eyes darted frantically around the room. "I'm a bit . . . worn out from, er - that is, I thought perhaps I'd best just sleep for one night." He grimaced a little, realising he would have to stand by that statement even if someone else offered, someone less large and muscular and alarming.

Dwalin scowled, though perhaps it was merely his normal expression. "Right, then. I'll trouble you no further." His departure shook the length of the bench, and Bilbo had to catch at the table to steady himself.

He sighed to think that Dwalin would now return to shunning him once again, and perhaps the other older dwarves would match him. At least this time it would be for something that Bilbo had actually done. And indeed, he feared he had been somewhat rude to refuse; it was just that, after the pains he had suffered with Ori last night, he didn't feel prepared to deal with someone even larger and stronger.

Bofur leaned in on Bilbo's other side. "No need to fear old Dwalin," he said confidentially. "He's a bit of soft coal."

"I have no idea what that means," Bilbo said. Surely Dwalin could not be female?

"Means he's harmless as a newborn kit. Wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Unless the fly threatened Thorin," Bilbo said dryly.

Bofur laughed and slapped the table. "Oh, aye, very protective, that's our Dwalin. But really, you needn't worry. He's looking for a miner."

"A minor what?"

Bofur puffed in frustration, making his mustache jump. "He wants you to do the mining."

Bilbo considered that one. "I've . . . never mined anything in my life," he pointed out.

"No, no! He wants your wee tree." Despite being seated at table, Bofur managed a lewd thrust of his hips.

"I did gather that much."

Kili at last took mercy and leaned across the table to hiss at Bilbo, "He wants you to give it to him."

"Oh? Oh!"

Bofur made a clarifying gesture with two fingers of one hand into the opposite fist, which made Bilbo's face heat.

"Yes, yes, I see. But, er . . ." Bilbo looked around to see who was in earshot. "It's too late, isn't it? I've already refused."

"Go after him," Kili urged. "He's just there in the door, trying to set the rain on fire with his glare. Tell him you misunderstood. We'll back you up, won't we, Bofur?"

Bilbo gulped. "No need! I'll . . . take it up with him myself." He shuddered to think what might happen if Bofur's irreverence fell afoul of Dwalin's dour humour.

He stood and tugged at his neckcloth to straighten it, then headed for the door to the veranda where Dwalin was indeed leaning and staring out at the dwindling rain. "Er, Dwalin . . ."

The dwarf grunted.

"I do beg your pardon. I'm afraid I was under a misapprehension. That is, I misunderstood, er . . . what you were offering. That's been cleared up now."

"Has it." Dwalin shot a look over Bilbo's shoulder at the table. He hoped Bofur and Kili were not looking this way, or worse, trying to encourage him by gesture.

"Yes. It has." Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, Bilbo continued in a slightly squeaky voice. "I should be honoured to accept your offer, if - that is, if it's still . . . on offer."

"And if it isn't?"

He bowed slightly. "Then I deeply regret the misunderstanding, and I hope it won't come between us, and perhaps we may take up another opportunity in the future."

Dwalin snorted. "Always so prim and proper, you Shire folk."

"Well. I hope I'm not entirely rude, but of course a few misunderstandings are inevitable, between people of different cultures."

"See me after dinner, then, and we'll find out what Shire 'culture' is all about," Dwalin sneered, and then strode dismissively out into the rain.

Bilbo, feeling very much on his mettle, started thinking of what he might do to impress Dwalin. And if it turned out that Bofur and Kili had been having a joke on him, he would have to plot some appropriate form of revenge.

Not long after their noonmeal, the rain stopped and a wavery sun tried to peep through. Bilbo, perforce wearing the canvas shoes he'd been given, stepped out to view the very fine gardens that surrounded the wooden hall, source of the honey they had been consuming in great quantities. There he found the two dog-shifters along with some other youngsters who seemed part pony or horse, playing with some kind of stitched ball. They switched cleverly between hands, paws, or hooves depending on whether they wished to catch, throw, or kick the ball. Bilbo watched them, charmed and wondering if he should ask to join in, but he wasn't certain of the rules.

Then the youngest pony-boy threw up his head in alarm. Both the dog-shifters, boy and girl, moved to flank the others as they retreated with a small thunder of hooves. Bilbo bent to recover the ball they had discarded, but the children were already gone.

"Here's our burglar!" Kili crowed as he and Fili rounded a flowered bush.

"We were thinking," Fili said, "perhaps you'd like us to show you how to handle your weapon."

Bilbo blinked suspiciously at the two of them. After Bofur's oblique words at the table, everything sounded like some sly hint at more intimate activities. But Fili wore only his normal half-frowning smile, and Kili's perpetual smirk was not especially wide, so Bilbo said cautiously, "Yes. I'd like that."

"Right, then. Sword out, and we'll see how it suits you." Fili looked Bilbo up and down, then adjusted his grip and advised him to set his feet further apart. "That's a good length for you - it will be very quick in a fight."

"Stab and run, that's the style for you," Kili put in.

Bilbo glanced over at him to see if this was an insult.

"Unless you want to wear mail and a shield, that's right," Fili confirmed. "This sword is best suited for short thrusts. Quick and clean. No, see, you're turning your wrist as you extend your arm - that's wasted motion. Keep it straight and you'll move faster." He demonstrated several jabs with his own sword and Bilbo tried to copy the motions as well as he could without a burly dwarf body.

Then Kili joined in to help demonstrate how to block a blow with the sword. "Keep the blade angled across the width of your body, like this, and move your arm, not the blade, to change the position if you must." This part actually came a little more easily for Bilbo, who found he had been using some of the same principles instinctively in his brief fight with the goblin.

He mentioned this and both dwarves took the matter very seriously, asking how the goblin had moved and how Bilbo had responded. Although the incident seemed vividly etched upon his memory, he could hardly piece together any of the details they asked for.

"So, it sounds like that fight - your part of it anyway - was mostly block-block-block." Fili made several swift attacks against Kili, who blocked each one at a different angle while retreating across the grass. Then they both began to move more slowly as Fili's explanation continued. "What you want is to get into a rhythm more like this: you block, then you disengage - and during the disengage you might be able to slice your opponent, since your blade keeps such a nice edge to it. After the disengage you have a moment to try to get in a thrust, but you have to keep your eyes on his blade - and then you need to be ready to block again." Slowly and then more quickly, the two dwarves made several passes back and forth following the pattern that Fili had described.

"Now you try, Bilbo" said Fili, and Kili stepped aside while Bilbo lifted his little elvish blade. "I'll come at you slowly. Give me a high block, blade in front of your face - that's right - now, see where my arm is, vulnerable to a slice when you disengage - and now you have just a moment to try to get your point in at me, now block to your right - there you go. Twist and step back when you disengage, then try to come in . . . no, hold." Fili held up his free hand, frowning.

"He's got no footwork at all," Kili observed.

"You need to move your feet, Bilbo."

Bilbo craned his head about and then, not seeing any of the skin-shifters about, quickly sat down to tear off the hated canvas shoes. "That'll be better now," he said, and greatly daring, darted in with his sword at Fili's unprotected side.

Unflustered, Fili blocked and dodged simultaneously. "Good, now you need to defend on your left - look for a chance to get inside my guard when you disengage . . . and now the high block again."

They practiced the pattern for a while, both dwarves offering suggestions on how Bilbo should angle his body or move forward and back with his feet.

"Remember, real fights won't follow any simple pattern," said Fili effortlessly while Bilbo panted to block his cuts or stab past his guard. "But this is good practice when you're just starting out."

"You need to learn the motions in your body, not just your head," Kili added.

"Right," Bilbo puffed, and retreated from the next sequence. "No, er - hold." He caught his breath and swiped his neckcloth across his forehead.

"You're doing well," Kili encouraged from where he had sprawled on the grass to watch. "You already survived your first fight with that goblin."

"And a warg, and an orc," Bilbo added. He still remembered the crunch of his sword going into the warg's skull at odd moments, or the smell of the orc's black blood fountaining beneath his hands.

"Yes, we did see your heroic moment," Kili teased.

Fili lowered himself to sit beside his brother, though he did not seem weary and looked ready to leap up at a moment's notice and fight another dozen foes. Bilbo gratefully dropped down nearby.

Fili leaned forward intently. "Now here's the key. You took that orc by surprise - that's always a good tactic. You got inside his guard before he even knew you were coming. Everyone you fight is likely to have a longer reach than you have. We dwarves know what that's like -" Fili threw a wry grin at his brother. "But you're even smaller. So you have to make the most out of surprise and speed."

"And any dirty tricks you can think of," Kili added.

"What I want to know," said Bilbo thoughtfully, "is, how do you learn all the complicated things you do together? I don't mean just you two. I remember in the fight with the trolls . . . Dwalin stopped in the middle of swinging his axe, and instead he held the haft of it out flat. And Thorin came from nowhere and stepped up on the axe, and Dwalin more or less threw him at a troll's head. How do you learn that? How do you know . . ."

"It's something that comes in time," Kili assured him. "You start to realise you know where everyone is, and what they're likely to do next."

Bilbo shook his head. "But, how? Even those tricks you played with the dishes - catching them without looking. I could never do something like that."

"It comes with traveling together, and fighting together . . . and sharing bedjoys," said Fili solemnly.

"That's how the sharing custom came about, and why we follow it - not just because it's fun," Kili added.

Fili went on, "It's especially important in a company like this, heading into danger. We need that connection with each other."

Bilbo's heart sank. "I don't think bedjoys work that way for hobbits. Not that I, er, don't appreciate your custom; it's fun, as you said, and I'm getting to know everyone better - I mean . . ." He brushed a hand over his warm face, hoping they would think the flush was merely from exertion.

Fili's gaze flickered past Bilbo's shoulder, and he heard Bofur call "Ho, Bilbo!" behind him. He turned, his hand coming up of its own accord -

- and caught the little cloth ball Bofur had thrown at his head.

Kili's perpetual smirk widened. "You were saying?"

Chapter Text

Bilbo was sitting on a bench overlooking the gardens, wishing for his lost pipe, when the dog-girl came trotting up to him. He curled his bare feet out of sight and groped for the ball he had recovered, holding it out to her.

She rose to two feet, paws shifting to hands, and removed something rolled in cloth from her mouth. Then her head became human briefly and she said, "Story?" before her jaw lengthened again into a muzzle. Most of her body remained human-ish and she sat on the bench beside him, though she did need to adjust her seat to free her long brush-tail.

"Oh," said Bilbo, carefully not looking as various animal or human parts were incompletely concealed by the very simple linen shift the girl wore. "Er, what sort of story would you like to hear? I think I told you all my best ones this morning." He had also, during the morning's telling, overcome the temptation to speak very slowly as if the shifters could not understand him; from their responses he had quickly learned that their comprehension of human speech was much sharper than might be guessed from their difficulty in speaking. He thought that perhaps it was easier for them to change their bodies and hands than to change their heads, and thus speech was difficult.

The girl unrolled the cloth, and folded inside it was the little chronicle that Bilbo had penned the day before. "Tell shtory," she slurred, one dirty finger hovering over the letters on the page.

"Oh! This is the tale that Gandalf told us about how you - your people - came to live here in this place. I'm sure you must have heard it before from your, er, kin." He didn't want to make assumptions about what sort of family arrangements the skin-changers had made. "I might not have got all of it right, at any rate."

A frown of frustration rippled across the fine fur of her face, disappearing a moment later into pale skin. "Tell words," she insisted, holding out the paper.

So Bilbo began to read the story just as he had set it down. After a short while he realised that she was intent on following the words on the page, so he ran his finger under each line of writing as he read. He was horribly conscious that this was a dark tale that he would not normally tell to a child, but surely the girl must know the essentials of it already?

She seemed unperturbed by the sadness of the tale and focused instead on the writing. "How?" she asked. "How paper tell?"

He pointed. "Each letter represents a sound. Each group of letters makes one word. This word here is 'north.'" When he glanced up, the girl's brother was sitting in dog form on his other side, watching just as intently, and one of the shyer pony-children was peering around the corner.

"Here, let me show you." He found a stub of a stick, and mud was plentiful enough after the rain, so he was soon sitting on the ground amid a growing circle of animal-children, writing in the dirt. "This is your - er . . . this is Beorn's name." He sounded it out one letter at a time. "Now, what's your name? In the human style?" He had a sudden dread that he might have to find spellings for some variant of 'woof,' but the girl changed her head and said shyly, "Tula."

"What a lovely name; it sounds like one of the flowers in this magnificent garden. Now, the first sound in your name is a T, that would be the letter tinco. Then the U sound is represented by a mark over the tinco like this . . ." He quickly realised that teaching them all the shifting rules of the Tengwar would be impossible, so he fell back on the simplified system used by hobbits. Soon he was teaching them the Tooks' ridiculous song for remembering their alphabet:

"Arvedui's black cats don't eat fresh goat.
Have I jolly kittens licking my nice old pots?
Queen Ruthiel sewed tassels under Vindon's waistcoat."
[See note at end of chapter]

He didn't imagine that the children would learn to read and write in a few hours, and only thought to teach them the basic principles. But they were all remarkably eager to learn, and soon each one had his or her own stick and patch of mud, demanding that he spell their names, and even with animal heads they were humming the tune to the alphabet song. And this was how the nearly unthinkable came to pass, that a hobbit was late for dinner.

When Bilbo came hurrying into the hall with his hands hastily washed and his backside still muddy, the only seat was up near the head of the table next to Balin. He squeezed in between Balin and Bifur (who said something with emphatic fist-jerking gestures), nodding apologetically to everyone who wasn't absorbed in their own meal. "I'm terribly sorry. I've had such a busy afternoon, I hardly noticed the time." He served himself a plateful of stewed greens which the dwarves had scarcely touched.

"Aye, Fili has been telling us about your sword practice," said Balin with a nod across the table at the younger dwarf.

Bilbo quickly smiled at Fili and told Balin, "Yes, and I have to thank you for your suggestion. You were quite right; Fili explained everything very clearly. I'm afraid I'm rather slow to learn the moves, but he and Kili were most patient."

"Oh, you're not that bad," said Kili from a few seats down, spraying crumbs. "Quick on your feet, just like Gandalf said."

"And lucky," Fili pronounced. "You proved that with the goblins. Even more useful than skill, is luck."

Thorin's scowl was deepening as he glanced from his nephews to Bilbo and back, one hand toying unconsciously with a bread roll.

Bilbo chuckled and shook his head. "I might be able to hold my own against an elderly Bolger or Boffin, but I wouldn't place money on it."

Fili frowned. "Practice, that's what you need. You can switch off cooking with Bombur and get in a good bout from time to time -"

Thorin's breadroll thumped to the table. "Mr. Baggins has a role in this company, and it is not as a hero or warrior."

Gandalf rolled his eyes down worriedly toward Thorin.

"True," said Balin peaceably, "but we all need to know how to work with our weapons. We were every one of us grateful for Bilbo's sword, not three days since."

Thorin glanced away as everyone nodded solemnly, but he still seemed annoyed about something. Bilbo addressed himself to his food, hoping that someone would bring up a topic that did not involve him. When no one did, he turned to Gandalf to ask something about the skin-changers. Thus Bilbo happened to be looking in the right spot at the right moment to see a tiny red flame spark to life on Gandalf's hand.

For a moment he thought it was a ring on Gandalf's finger, but that was absurd, for he had seen the wizard's unadorned hands many times wrapped about a pipe or tankard or sword-haft. It was only the fact that magical rings were somewhat on Bilbo's mind of late that made him think of it. More likely it was indeed a flame, for Gandalf had many such tricks as he had shown with the pine-cones. But strangely, Gandalf himself seemed rather surprised by the sudden spark, and dropped his dinner-knife to clasp his other hand quickly over the small glow.

"Well!" said Gandalf heartily. "Another lovely dinner, but now I have some business I must see to, if you will excuse me." He pushed back his tall chair and strode swiftly from the hall.

Thorin watched the wizard leave thoughtfully, but a moment later he turned to his nephew. "Fili, a word," he said, and with a jerk of his head led the younger dwarf toward the veranda.

This seemed to be a general signal for everyone to leave the table, and Bilbo only just had time to snatch up a last honeycake before some of the older skin-changers began to clear the dinner away. He was left standing near the fire-pit and twisting his head about, from the door that Gandalf had disappeared through, to Thorin addressing Fili in low tones on the veranda, to the shifters - he had wondered before where they were all eating and sleeping, with their hall taken over by dwarves, but after he had seen so much of the children his curiosity on the point was even sharper.

But all this was driven from Bilbo's mind by a strong hand catching his elbow. "Come along, I know where we can go."

Dwalin pulled Bilbo over to a door on the opposite side of the hall from where Thorin slept. The room was the mirror of Thorin's, with a similar enormous bed taking up most of the space. No lamp was lit, but the glow of the sunset touched the eaves and gave the room a soft warm look. From a hook on the wall hung a battered leather satchel and an ancient elven sword as long as Bilbo was tall.

Bilbo's eyes widened. "That's - Glamdring. This is Gandalf's room! We can't . . . in Gandalf's bed?!"

Dwalin's eyes gleamed. "What's the matter, laddie, scared of an old man?"

Bilbo craned his head back around the edge of the door and hissed, "An old man, no. A powerful wizard capable of flattening hundreds of goblins with a single spell? Stars, yes!"

Dwalin pulled Bilbo into the room by his shoulder and closed the door firmly, then threw himself across the bed as casually as he had taken over Bilbo's own kitchen. "He's gone off on one of his sorties - he'll not be back for hours. Enough time for us to do as we please, and what the wizard doesn't know won't harm us."

Bilbo shook his head, partly in admiration of Dwalin's daring and partly in dismay. "Everyone in that hall is going to know what we're up to," he said, stabbing a finger at the door. "They always know what you're up to!"

"Ah, but this time they'll just have to guess," said Dwalin with relish. "I can be discreet when I've reason for it. Come on, then. Gear off." He started divesting himself of his own mail and weapons, a process even lengthier than Thorin's disrobing.

Bilbo gulped. "I haven't had a chance to - that is, I meant to ask someone for . . ."

Dwalin pulled out a metal flask with a narrow stoppered spout, such as the dwarves used for lantern oil. He thumped it down on the frame of the bed and bent to the clasps of his boots. "That'll do nicely."

With a sigh of resignation, Bilbo pulled off his own coat and started unbuttoning his waistcoat. The heel of his hand pressed against the lump in his waistcoat pocket and he thought longingly of slipping the ring on his finger and escaping this madness entirely. But after all, he had accepted Dwalin's offer and had made his plans. He only hoped that Bofur and Kili had not been having a joke at his expense.

Dwalin bared his teeth in anticipation when Bilbo joined him on the bed, feeling even more naked in that he didn't have a fraction as much hair as a dwarf. "You must get cold, of a night," Dwalin speculated, as if the same thing had occurred to him. "Or do you grow thicker hair in the winter?" He tickled his fingers over the sparse curls that lined Bilbo's chest.

"What? I'm not a dog!" Bilbo protested, and had to pull his thoughts forcibly away from the questions about the skin-changers that had niggled at his mind for days: how those youngsters had come into the world, and whether their parents were both dogs or both horses or sometimes mixed with each other (or with a large bear). And he certainly was not curious about the young ones' physical maturity; Hom Cotton's early blossoming aside, Bilbo took no prurient interest in children.

"Not such a small fellow after all, either," Dwalin continued, moving his hand downward.

Bilbo caught the hand away, recalling that he had needed to take a very firm line with Hom from time to time as well. "Not so quickly," he admonished. "I want a good look, too."

Dwalin spread his arms with a smirk to let Bilbo gaze his fill. Bilbo pressed the big dwarf's shoulders back and crouched over him, palms skimming down the corded muscles of his arms.

"Now, what you must realise," Bilbo said, letting his voice go low and soothing as if Dwalin were a beast in need of gentling, "is that there can be advantages to having less hair." He moved his hands to the corridor of bare skin that all the dwarves seemed to have along their flanks, letting his thumbs stir just the margins of the thick black curls that arrowed down Dwalin's chest. "I think it might be because of your beards that dwarves have missed out on some of the joys that plain skin can offer."

Bilbo bent his head to rub his smooth cheeks across Dwalin's stout ingot, making the dwarf gasp. Then, glancing upward to see the reaction, Bilbo took the ingot into his mouth and went to work in earnest.

Dwalin soon forgot his intention of remaining discreet, and all the dwarves in the hall surely knew, in a broad sense at least, what was happening in Gandalf's guest room. Later, when the lamp oil came into play, they must all have known who else was involved, as well. Fortunately, Bilbo was too breathless to indulge his habit of laughter when all was done, and Dwalin was rather out of voice as well.

Initially Bilbo sprawled panting across Dwalin's broad back, fingers carding idly through the smooth hair. Then Dwalin heaved himself over to lie face up, tucking Bilbo in against his side where he could contemplate the curliness of dwarven chest hair as opposed to back hair.

"I don't imagine I'll be cold at night so long as there are dwarves to share my bedroll," Bilbo mused softly. "Just another good reason for sharing, I suppose - there do seem to be a great many of them."

"It feels good," Dwalin rumbled beneath his ear. "Why should you need any reason beyond that?"

Bilbo, thinking of all the social strictures in the Shire to limit casual liaisons, and of Gandalf's explanation that such customs did not apply in dwarvish culture, said nothing. He was no longer especially troubled by thoughts of what Hobbiton's sourpusses might have to say about the matter, but on occasion when he saw Thorin's scowls he wondered if all this was more trouble than it was worth. But then he remembered catching a ball he didn't even know Bofur had thrown, and he wondered if he would now have such a reflexive connection with Dwalin, perhaps the most fearsome warrior in the company. Or even with Thorin? Bilbo sighed wistfully.

Dwalin's arm curled up around Bilbo's shoulders, and one blunt finger brushed along the edge of his jaw, toward the corner of his lips.

"What you did with your mouth . . ." Dwalin said slowly.

"We used to call it 'lighting the pipe' back in the Shire," Bilbo said, helpfully making sucking and puffing motions with his lips.

"I've heard rumours about that sort of thing, but never tried it - or had it done to me, before." Dwalin sounded a little doubtful.

"It can be quite enjoyable for both parties, I promise you," said Bilbo, his lips curving a little smugly. "You know we hobbits always want more to eat."

"Bofur talked about it."

"About hobbit appetites?"

"No, what you - your mouth."

Bilbo froze, moderately appalled. "When was this?"

"Oh, we were all working that forge for hours, yesterday and today once the rain stopped."

"And . . . you were all talking about me, about my - bed practices?"

"We talked of many things - the weather, the journey, the goblins and orcs. Your courage facing Azog." Dwalin's arm tightened around Bilbo. "And also your other wee tricks."

Bilbo gaped into the darkness. "I don't know what to say."

"I expect that's why Thorin tapped Bofur last night. Wanted to compare notes, most likely."

"Well. I . . . hmmph. If it was my mouth that Ori was interested in, he might have said so, instead of . . ." Bilbo coughed and shifted his hips uneasily in memory.

"Gloin said his wife had done that a time or two, when they were new-married."

"Good to know someone else's sexual habits came into the conversation as well," Bilbo snipped.

"Perhaps you're right and it's easier done without a beard," Dwalin reflected.

More likely, Bilbo suspected, a dwarf woman who had just experienced the rigours of the birthing-bed for the first time was not eager to try it again so soon. Then he reflected on that idea a little more closely. "Hobbits stoke the pipe for - well, there are many reasons. It is enjoyable, after all. But also a good way to avoid getting an unwanted babe, or having too many too close together. But there are no unwanted babes among dwarves, are there?"

"Certainly not." Dwalin sounded offended at the mere suggestion. "Thorin will likely go with Dori tonight, in case there's the least chance."

Because he could not lie with Fili or Kili, of course. "Who is -" Bilbo started to ask, then stopped himself. "Wouldn't it be rather inconvenient, though, if Dori or . . . anyone were to get a babe while we are on this quest?"

"Pregnant dwarves are the fiercest of warriors," Dwalin said, and Bilbo could hear his appreciative grin without looking for it. "As well, the entire company would come together and fight as one, if we had an expectant mother in our midst."

Bilbo blinked, trying to imagine one of the over-inflated goodwives that he often saw in the Hobbiton market as a fierce warrior. They often became quite shrewish, or so he had always understood. But then he thought of his own mother and her quiet disappointments, and felt a little guilty.

Something caught his ear then, and Bilbo pulled Dwalin's hand away so that he could turn his head to listen. A rumbling voice floated through the open eaves along with the last of the twilight.

"Hsst. Is that Gandalf?" Bilbo asked, sitting up on the bed.

"Is he coming back already?" said Dwalin, sounding curious rather than alarmed.

"I think he's talking to someone," said Bilbo slowly. But the music of the words was strange to his ears. Why would Gandalf be speaking to someone in Elvish, here in the middle of the Wild with no one about except dwarves and skin-changers? "He's getting nearer. We'd better clear out."

Dwalin took twice as long to get his gear on in the near-darkness as he had to disrobe, and Bilbo was twitching with anxiety by the time they pushed the door open and stepped out into the hall. But it turned out they had no need for stealth, for everyone was up and talking all at once by the fire-pit. Thorin was there, in his silk shirt and trews with only Orcrist slung over his shoulder, and Dori was next to him with no jacket, but otherwise neat as a pin.

And Gandalf was leaning on his staff, explaining that he was about to leave the party because he had received some urgent message. It was only later that Bilbo thought it over and realised there was no messenger, nor anyone at all with whom Gandalf might have been speaking Elvish.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke warm at first light with strong arms around him. A strand of parti-colored hair across his face told him who was pressed against his back. Hearing dwarves stirring and coughing about the hall, Bilbo tapped Bifur on the wrist, and the arm over his ribs retreated.

They were all getting ready with various pieces of new gear to put in their new packs and bags. The small forge and stone anvils Fili and Bofur had put together were not suited to make full-sized weapons, but they had been hard at work repairing damaged weapons, making more arrowheads for Kili and an ear-trumpet for Oin, and beating out replacements for the pots and cups and bowls the party had lost in the goblin caves.

Most of the skin-changers were ranged about the margins of the hall to witness their last breakfast here, and in place of Gandalf at the head of the table, Beorn was sitting in the tall chair. It seemed to make the dwarves somewhat uncomfortable as most of them ate in silence, but Bilbo looked about until he saw Tula and her brother Ivo. Pointing to his canvas-shod feet, he grinned and winked at the children.

Beorn was telling Thorin about the route they must take through Mirkwood - not on the best-traveled road, apparently, but a lesser track further to the north that should be less dangerous. Even so, as Bilbo listened to Beorn's account of the perils in the forest and what precautions they must take, he was starting to think that 'less dangerous' was not at all the same as 'safe,' and in fact might be very different indeed.

Soon enough the meal was finished. Bilbo murmured his thanks to the shifters who came to clear the table, but glancing up to the head he saw that Thorin was in conference with Beorn and assumed that he should leave them to their discussion. Instead he looked about for Tula and Ivo.

Tula came trotting up to him in dog-form. She did not change, perhaps because she was not wearing her shift, or else because she was too shy with so many of the dwarves around. But she nudged Bilbo's hand and dropped a cloth-wrapped piece of parchment into his grasp.

"But - I meant for you to keep this, as a record for your people," Bilbo said, unfolding the cloth. Inside was not the chronicle he had written, but another paper. In varying shaky hands amid many blotches of ink were the names of the children he had taught yesterday, beginning with Tula's name and Ivo's. And at the bottom was a row of uneven letters reading 'Thangc yu.'

He traced his fingers down the row of names, his eyes prickling. "This is . . ." He had to stop and clear his throat. "I will treasure this."

She wagged her tail and put her paws on his shoulders to lick his cheek swiftly, and then she was gone.

There was a bellow of something like laughter and Bilbo looked to where Beorn and Thorin were standing, now near the door that led from the hall. Beorn was pushing a small pouch away into Thorin's grasp and saying, "No, no, I've told you, there's no need of that. It's all settled." And the enormous man slapped Thorin on the back so hard that he was nearly knocked down.

Bilbo jumped in startlement, remembering Thorin's ribs that could not be more than half-healed by now. He could not tell if the stiffness with which Thorin made a half-bow and then exited the hall came from pain or from offended pride. Either way, he judged it wisest not to ask questions, but hurried to grab up his new pack and follow the others.

They left Beorn's wooden hall, sprawling gardens, and tended fields, and made their way
north up the river valley. As soon as they were out of sight of the hall, Bilbo pulled the shoes from his feet, but he did tuck them into his pack instead of casting them away. It was an easy walk on mostly level ground, and everyone was in high spirits. Only Thorin remained silent and thoughtful at the head of the company, not joining in the laughter and jokes and songs but not trying to stifle them either.

They camped that night beside a smaller stream that ran down to join the great river. Kili shot a creature that looked something like a very large hedgehog with far longer spikes rising from its back and tail. "A quill-pig!" he said, lifting the corpse gingerly by a forepaw. "That's lucky. You need mailed gauntlets to skin them, but the meat is tender."

"They don't have to run away from everything like rabbits do, so they've got more fat on them," Fili explained.

"I have no idea how to cook that," Bilbo said weakly.

"No fear, Bombur knows what to do with it. And you can get in a bit of sword practice that way, as well."

They spent a little time reviewing the same pattern Fili had showed Bilbo previously, but they also wanted to discuss what Bilbo might do facing an enemy with different weapons. Dwalin's axes and Bofur's mattock both came into play as Fili explained that Bilbo couldn't block blows from such heavy weapons, but he could dodge them.

"The heavier the weapon, the slower," said Fili.

"And deadlier," Dwalin growled.

"And that means you need to watch how the weapon moves, time your thrusts in between their swings -"

"And get out of the way before it comes down," Dwalin finished.

Both axe and mattock scarred the grass deeply, and Bilbo's heart was racing with more than mere exertion as he thought of the effect such blows might have on his own flesh if he failed to dodge swiftly enough.

Fortunately, they were called to dinner before any mishaps could occur. Bilbo reached into his pack for some of the sweet bread the skin-changers had wrapped for them, but Balin told him to put it back. "The bread will keep longer than meat, so fill up on stew now and save the bread for later. We'll have little chance for anything in the forest but what we bring in with us, or so Beorn said."

Bilbo did help with carrying their mismatched collection of plates and pots down to the stream to wash. When he came back up to the camp, Thorin glanced at him and called out, "Bilbo."

Bilbo dropped the plates, startled to hear his given name on Thorin's lips. He immediately thought of one thing Thorin might have chosen him for, but rejected the idea at once. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a safe place.

"Take first watch. Wake Balin at midnight."

"Oh. Yes, all right." Bilbo wasn't certain if he ought to be annoyed - the dwarves usually were, whenever they were chosen for watch duty - or proud that Thorin actually trusted him so far. He'd never been allowed to keep watch before.

Once everyone had bedded down, Bilbo took up a spot away from the fire so that the glare would not blind his eyes. There was no moon, and only a few wisps of cloud drifting between the silent stars. Bilbo sat for a while on a rock near the stream, then walked a few times around their camp, trying to practice his skills at stealth. At least he was able to walk more silently than thirteen dwarves could sleep, but that was hardly a remarkable accomplishment.

Or twelve dwarves, he realised as he glanced toward the camp. A shadow sat by the flames, pushing an unburnt log toward the center.

Bilbo stepped closer, moving cautiously around the lumps of blanket on the ground but also wary of Thorin's mood. He paused where he had set down his own pack and pulled out some herbs he had taken from Beorn's garden. They would make a soothing tea, and give him something to keep his hands busy and an excuse to approach the fire. He bent to pick up the little kettle of stream-water that had been sitting at the edge of the coals to stay warm. The water went into a beaten tin cup along with the shredded herbs, and Bilbo set it down to steep, glancing sidewise at Thorin.

The dwarf-prince was toying with something in his hand, turning it in the firelight so that it gleamed golden. Thorin's head turned fractionally, and he flipped the object to the side. Bilbo snapped it out of the air and then stood holding the coin in bewilderment.

"Pretty, isn't is?" was all Thorin said.

Bilbo took the last couple of steps to sit on the log next to the dwarf. He studied the coin in the firelight: it had the heaviness and chime of pure gold, stamped on one side with an image of crossed axes above a mountain and on the other side with something complex that he could not make out in the shifting light. There was writing as well, dwarvish runes that he could not read.

The coin was warm from Thorin's hand, and yet somehow it felt dead. It did not have that expectant sense of waiting that Bilbo got from his little golden ring.

"Some men kill for those," Thorin said. "Men, elves . . . they say that dwarves do as well, though I have seen more die for the lack of it."

Bilbo looked at the gleaming metal. "It is pretty, yes. But I don't know that it would tempt me to -" Do anything that I wouldn't normally do, he was about to say, but then he was struck by the thought that nearly everything he had done in the last month was something he wouldn't normally do. "To dishonour, or evil deeds," he finished uncertainly.

"Have you heard those stories? About the greedy, cheating dwarves who will never give up on a debt, or a grudge? Did they make you pause in signing our contract?"

Bilbo looked over at him, but Thorin's profile seemed merely thoughtful, not particularly angry. "It seemed like the sort of story folk will tell about anyone foreign, anyone they don't know or understand. I never dealt with dwarves very much in Hobbiton, but those I met were always scrupulously fair and polite." He grimaced. "Well, usually polite. Any rudeness I put down to misunderstandings, but some took it more to heart." He held the coin out to Thorin.

The dwarf's eyes flickered up to meet Bilbo's briefly before he took the coin back and turned it again in thick fingers. "It's true, there is a sickness of greed that strikes some dwarves. It is too easy for us to love precious metals and gems above treasures which live and breathe. My own grandfather . . ." Thorin trailed off, rubbing at his brow. "I have never felt the pull of it, myself. I have striven always to pay any debt as promptly as I would want one paid to me. Yet Beorn rejected my gold. What did you give them?"

"What?" said Bilbo in surprise.

"Three nights they housed and fed us, gave us provisions and gear. And when I offered gold in payment, Beorn said the debt was already paid - by Gandalf firstly, by Bofur, and by you. Gandalf told us little of his part, but I gather it was some time ago. I questioned Bofur and he said he'd given naught but one bag of nails, fashioned from scraps after he was done with the rest of his metalwork."

Bilbo blinked. "Well, they do have a great deal of wooden furniture, and I think they were planning to raise another building behind the main hall. I suppose nails might be particularly useful to them."

"What did you give that would pay for our keep?" Thorin asked.

"Nothing. At least, nothing of particular value. I . . . wrote a short chronicle of the story Gandalf had told us, Radagast and the enchanter and all that. And I started teaching the children to read, but I had scarcely time to show them more than their letters."

Thorin frowned. "They had children?"

"Oh yes, nearly a dozen that I met. Some others were too shy to come out where I could see them."

"Treasures that live and breathe. Perhaps that was it, then, and Beorn values learning above gold." Thorin shook his head slowly. "I do not want the gold of Erebor merely to own it. It is for the sake of my people that I would reclaim our treasures. Too long we have laboured in exile and want, as beggars at doors or begrudged guests at table."

Bilbo swallowed, remembering the night dwarves had come to Bag End.

"For the safety and prosperity of my people, that is why I would have gold. Not merely to hoard it." He looked down once more at the coin. "But perhaps, when I have it, I may fall prey to that same excess of greed. It is in the line of Durin - in all of the dwarvish royal lines. Perhaps I have simply never had enough gold to care about it so much."

"I think I know what you mean," Bilbo said. "Just listening to your songs, of hidden treasure and distant mountains . . . it made me think what it would be like if my back storerooms were full of shining, beautiful things."

Thorin's head turned. "Is that why you left your comfortable hole to come with us, waving that contract?"

Bilbo shrugged. "Perhaps a little. And also because I just couldn't stand the thought of another visit from my aunt Belba, trying to set me up with some young Chubb or Bolger or Bracegirdle. Lovely lasses, all of them, but I swear you could hold a candle by one ear and blow it out through the other."

Thorin was startled into a sudden laugh, and a thrill went down Bilbo's spine at the rich sound of it. "Clearly they should have brought you a more venturesome maid, one with shield and axe and hearty appetites."

Bilbo was much struck by the image of any young hobbit-lass so accoutered (in addition to her prim and decorous frock, of course). On the heels of that thought came the idea that just such a visit had occurred when Fili and Kili had arrived at his door.

Then there was a new sound that scraped across Bilbo's ears with a very different effect than Thorin's laugh. It was a distant high shriek but it seem to set every hair on his body to quivering in fear. He was on his feet in an instant, and so was Thorin, barking "Wake up!" to stir all the dwarves from slumber.

The cry came again, from the north and west, and Bilbo took an involuntary step back before realising he had almost gone into the fire. He had sat before the flames too long and now his eyes could hardly penetrate the darkness, but he saw a star wink out and then return a moment later . . . and another, and another. His mouth too dry to speak, he pointed at the dark shapes sailing above the line of the river.

"Smother the fire!" Gloin hissed, but Thorin said, "Hold!"

They all watched as the shapes glided by, their path undeviating. Half a dozen in number or more, they had not the form of eagles, but seemed more like some dense congregation of smoke; the brightest stars were dimmed but not extinguished when the darkness crossed in front of them. As the nebulous forms passed away downriver, one last cry made Bilbo crouch as if a stone had been thrown at his head. He saw others flinch as well from the corner of his eye.

"What was that?" Bilbo breathed, trembling, with his sword in one hand and the other clutching at the fabric of his waistcoat. Everyone was on their feet now, staring upward, most with weapons at the ready.

"Spirits of evil, flying down from Gundabad . . . or Angmar," said Oin.

"Heading south," Fili observed. "Isn't that the way Gandalf was going?"

"I hope he may be ready for whatever it is," said Balin fervently.

"Spirits are a wizard's rightful foe, no part of our concern," said Thorin, but he turned in a wary circle with Orcrist held at guard, watching the sky.

Someone gave an alarmed cry, and everyone turned in that direction to find Ori bent over Bifur, who was curled shaking upon the ground. "I can't rouse him!" the young dwarf said anxiously.

Dwalin sheathed his axes and hurried to the stricken dwarf's side. "He needs warmth. You lot, build up the fire. Balin!" The two of them, with practised motions, hauled Bifur up by his arms and brought him near the fire. They settled on someone's blanket with a cloak hastily wrapped about Bifur, Dwalin and Balin pressing close to him on either side.

Oin retrieved a bundle of herbs from his pack and burnt a leaf of it in the fire, holding it beneath Bifur's nose until he began to twitch and struggle to get away from the smell.

"What's wrong with him?" Bilbo asked anxiously.

Dwalin rolled his eyes. "You may have noticed the bit of metal in his forehead?"

"Of course, but -"

"He is troubled by evil memories," Balin said softly, one hand rubbing up and down Bifur's back. "Give him a foe to fight and you will find him unmatched, but such dark phantoms as passed overhead just now . . ." He shook his head forebodingly.

Bilbo recalled his little tin cup of tea, now thoroughly steeped, and retrieved it from the edge of the coals, shifting it quickly from one hand to the other to keep from burning his fingers. "This is chamomile and a bit of mint, picked fresh from Beorn's gardens. Will it help?"

Oin sniffed at the tea, tasted it, and nodded. Balin took charge of the tin cup, untroubled by the heat of it, and held it to Bifur's lips.

"It's not just the axe wound," said Gloin quietly, leaning upon his own weapon a short distance away. He glanced at Bifur and then at Thorin, still watching the sky alertly, and jerked his head to indicate that Bilbo should come closer. Keeping his voice low, he explained: "Bifur was with us at Azanulbizar. He was just a lad then - too young, really - but ferocious in the fight withal. He was in the front line that charged with Thorin and Dain right to the gate of Nanduhirion, driving the orcs in retreat. And they saw . . . something, inside the mountain. They won't speak of it; Thorin said once that he had seen Durin's Bane, and would tell no more. Bifur came back from the gate with his face grey under the orc-blood, and then, on the threshold of victory, he was shaken enough to drop his guard." Gloin passed an uneasy hand across his eyes. "We counted him among the dead, but as the bodies were about to burn he began to move and moan, so we bore him away and tended him as well as we might. All his near kin were lost that day; only his youngest cousins escaped the battle. And that wound troubles him, to be sure, but there is more than that. I know not how much he remembers, but I think some echo of what he saw - of Durin's Bane - haunts him still."

Bilbo had a dozen questions, but he feared to interrupt the flow of words.

"Balin has spoken from time to time of going back to Moria - perhaps after we reclaim Erebor, if we are successful. We too are of the house of Durin, if not in the royal line, and we would have our birthright. But I remember the look on Bifur's face that day, and in Thorin's eyes when anyone asks. I would not return to Moria unless whatever lies within may be routed first."

Thorin returned from making a broad circle, with Fili and Kili, about their camp. "Nothing stirs," he reported. "The darkness has passed. We should all take what rest we can. Dwalin?"

The bald dwarf nodded, Bifur beginning to slump against his shoulder. "Balin and I will keep watch."

Bilbo found his little bedroll and curled up with his eyes upon the three who huddled close to the fire. It was long before he slept.

Chapter Text

Bilbo had meant to find a few moments to speak with Bofur privately, but no easy opportunity had come up on their first day out of Beorn's house. On the second day, Bofur was hovering around his cousin, trying to cheer Bifur up with an endless flow of stories and jokes. Bilbo couldn't begrudge that, and Bofur was always willing to bring Bilbo in on any joke, but it wasn't the quiet conversation he had been hoping to have.

He ended up slipping to the rear of their company as he thought carefully about his own concerns.

"Don't fall behind," said Balin, not unkindly. "These lands look safe, but there were those phantoms last night. And I told Dwalin that I heard some great beast sniffing about not far from the camp, but he didn't credit my ears."

Bilbo blinked and picked up his pace, bringing the rest of the company within earshot. Then it occurred to him that perhaps he could ask Balin the questions he had been saving for Bofur.

"I wonder if you might be able to clarify something for me," he said cautiously, glancing toward Oin just ahead. "Something about . . . dwarvish culture."

"I could certainly try, laddie. What puzzles you?"

"I was wondering, when is it proper or improper to speak about, erm . . . bedjoys?"

Balin's eyebrows went up, but he seemed less perturbed by the subject than Bilbo was himself. "I suppose it might be improper to bring up the subject in the midst of battle, or before small children. I can't think of any other time, though. We dwarves tend to be quite frank about such matters."

"No, no, I mean . . ." Bilbo wiped at his brow, wondering when the day had got so warm. "No one speaks about - each evening, when Thorin makes his choice, no one comments on it. And Thorin assured me he wouldn't speak of such things to anyone else. But Bofur . . . that is, I understand that Bofur told quite a few people about, er - my habits."

"Ah!" Balin smiled knowingly. "So it isn't the topic itself that troubles you, it's the idea of being talked of behind your back?"

"It's not just that, not just Bofur, it's - after we left Rivendell, everyone wanted to make some comment or joke. But no comments beforehand, or where Thorin could hear. I'm just - I'm confused . . . what if I cause offence by talking about someone else's, er, bed habits when I shouldn't? Or refusing to talk when I should be willing?"

"I see." Balin considered. "I suppose some part of the difference you've noted is just different people. Bofur talks more than Thorin about everything and anything under the sun."

"That's true." Bilbo sighed and shifted his pack.

"But part of it is indeed a difference of customs, among dwarves from different places. Most dwarves, you'll find, do speak freely about such things, and make jokes as well. To speak about the habits of one who isn't present - I'd say it isn't entirely polite, but it would be thought no worse than discussing another's skill with weapons, or mining or smithing or even cooking."

Bilbo frowned over that. He wasn't sanguine at the thought of dwarves discussing his poor swordsmanship, but it did not give him quite the same feeling of moths fluttering about his stomach as when he thought of someone describing the way he used his mouth. He tried to imagine what it would be like to worry about the one no more than the other. "All right," he said slowly.

"But Thorin . . . well, Thorin is not every dwarf."

"Indeed not."

"What he suffered and witnessed in his youth, the friends and family he lost, the burden of leadership to a people in exile - these things changed Thorin. There's an old saying that fits him." Balin spoke a phrase in the dwarvish tongue that had a rhythm and rhyme almost like poetry, but of course that did not help Bilbo to understand it. He waited patiently for a translation. "I suppose you might say, Thorin was tempered too hot and quenched too cold."

It took Bilbo a moment to recall the other meaning of 'temper.' "This is some allegory of metal-working?"

"Yes, a metal treated in such fashion will become very hard. It will keep an excellent edge, yet be very brittle and prone to breaking."

Bilbo frowned. "So with this saying, you would compare Thorin to a flawed metal?"

"Not flawed, laddie! It means the fault was in the process, in the shaping rather than in the metal itself. A weaker dwarf would have broken long ago, but Thorin merely became harder."

"Harder." Bilbo supposed he could accept that well enough. "But what does this have to do with - with bedjoys and discretion?"

"Thorin never took well to jokes and teasing, but the burdens placed on his shoulders at too young an age made him even more serious. He came to the belief that loose talk about such matters, comparing one to another, would only lead people to resentment or jealousy."

Bilbo straightened. "Ah! That's more like what we hobbits hold true."

"Aye, I've heard something of the sort from Men as well. But we dwarves don't usually feel such jealousy; we're well accustomed to sharing, and we know it makes our people stronger when all have ties to each other. So Thorin's position on this matter is considered . . . well, a bit odd." Balin smiled ruefully. "But we try to honor it nonetheless, at least where he is directly concerned."

Bilbo rubbed his brow.

"You'll find that those of us who've spent more time traveling or working with Thorin have taken on his habit of silence more thoroughly. But some of the others - well, I expect Bofur had scarcely spoken to Thorin at all before we started this quest. But you needn't take fear, laddie, Bofur's tongue was not so loose as all that. He spoke of bed habits in general terms, with just a few hints about your own tricks." Balin leaned toward Bilbo with a wink. "No doubt that's what made my brother so curious. And from the sound of it, his curiosity was well satisfied."

Bilbo coughed and used his neck-cloth to blot at his face once more. "Yes. Well . . . I wasn't angry at Bofur. That is, such a thing would have been considered a bit rude back in the Shire but I was certain it was merely a matter of cultural differences. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I became about what dwarves would consider to be excessive tongue-wagging or not. I'm certain to make some mistakes, I realise that, but I should like to keep it to a minimum if I can." He stopped himself from babbling on further.

Balin patted his shoulder - quite gently, Bilbo was relieved to note, in comparison with the back-slaps and shoulder-bumps he'd received from other dwarves. "We all tread carefully with Thorin, for we none of us wish to displease him. But you'll find the rest of us a forgiving lot once any misunderstanding is made clear. And even with Thorin, I'm certain one of your fine hobbit-style apologies will soften him if you should misstep. Don't carve yourself down to splinters trying to fit in a socket too small for you."

Bilbo coughed again. Did everything the dwarves said have to sound like some erotic reference? But he thanked Balin kindly for his patience in explaining, and let the old dwarf chivvy him along until they were walking close behind the rest of the party.

The talk with Balin had answered most of Bilbo's questions, but not quite all. His next chance came when they camped in a copse of fir trees sheltered by a ridge within sight of the looming forest; they would enter its vaulted passage the next day. Bilbo had helped Bombur in butchering a deer and chopping some of Beorn's fine vegetables for a stew - it would be rather an odd mix of a meal, since they were to use everything that would spoil quickly or that weighed a pack more than it filled the stomach. So their stew had tomatoes and squash and mushrooms but also onions and celery and broccoli, and after dinner they were to finish the last of the strawberries that Bombur had carried tenderly in the top of his pack. The carrots and potatoes, bread and honey, nuts and lentils were saved for later, and some of the venison was to be smoked - though Bilbo had his doubts about the efficacy of the procedure without a proper smoke-house.

Once everything was chopped and thrown into the pot (not nearly so large or nice as the one that had been carried off by a frightened pony west of Rivendell), Bombur gave Bilbo a nudge and pointed him toward Fili and Kili, who were settling in at the edge of the camp. Bombur reached for the hilt of Bilbo's little sword and he pulled away in affronted surprise, only to see Bombur smile at his quick reaction. Then the fat dwarf made shooing motions to indicate that Bilbo should leave the rest of the dinner preparations to him.

Bilbo headed toward his stern teachers, wondering if today he would be subjected to a lesson on dodging arrows, or trying to get inside the reach of Bifur's wicked glaive. But as he neared the two female brothers, Thorin was approaching from the other direction. "Fili, Kili, with me," he said. "We must scout the path into the forest while there is still light, to make certain it is the right one." Then he looked at the array of weapons Fili had just set out to be oiled or sharpened. "Very well then, Kili and Dwalin."

Fili raised an eyebrow at his brother, who merely smirked in return and shipped his bow over one shoulder. Bilbo nodded politely to Thorin and Kili as they passed and settled on the grass beside Fili. He picked up a whetstone and glanced inquiringly at the young dwarf; Fili handed him a knife that Bilbo suspected he considered somewhat expendable. Nevertheless he checked the edge for dents or burrs and began to sweep the stone along it, firmly telling himself that this was not another erotic allegory.

He had considered how to phrase his question but hadn't quite come up with a plan, so he began obliquely. "Balin told me that, er, that Thorin's reticence on the subject of bedjoys is an exception more than a rule."

He glanced up in time to catch Fili giving him a doubtful look, as if expecting Bilbo to ask him to violate Thorin's confidence. "He's my uncle," was all Fili said.

"Yes, of course! I wasn't asking . . . hmm." Bilbo decided to try another approach. "In the Shire, you know, we do much of our pleasure-sharing when we're young, in our twenties or a bit older."

Fili blinked. "That would be considered childhood among dwarves."

"Yet full adulthood among Men, or so I'm given to understand. For us it is the earliest stage of adulthood - a hobbit of that age is full-grown but still a bit reckless. Impetuous, you know."

"Hmm, yes, the fabled impetuousness of hobbits."

Bilbo glanced up again to catch Fili's smile. "The fact that such behavior is unusual for hobbits just makes it more a matter for scandals and scolds."

Fili's thoughtful frown returned.

"It's a time in a hobbit's life when we're just learning how to get on, you see. Forming friendships - or breaking them, if we are foolish or the friendship is unsuited. There's always a great deal of drama, you understand. 'I thought you were going with me, but yesterday you dallied with Rory!' and so on."

"Rory?" Fili raised an eyebrow. "What of Hom?"

Bilbo coughed. "Yes, well - that was earlier. My point is, that when we come of age in our thirties we're expected to settle down and be more responsible and stop . . . breaking hearts. Or friendships."

"Is Hom still your friend?"

"Certainly. He lives not far from Bag End." Bilbo bent his head over the knife-blade to hide his expression.

"Does his wife know you used to dally with him?"

Bilbo sat sharply upright. "I should think not!" A moment later, he realised that he had sounded precisely like his father.

"That's very sad."

Bilbo gathered himself. "What? Is it not the same among dwarves? Gloin keeps to himself because he is married, does he not?"

"Aye, but his wife knows his former bed-partners well. She's had Balin and Dwalin and Dori to visit many a time."

Bilbo blinked at that. "Dori, too? It doesn't cause problems?"

"Not at all. Would you have problems if Hom's wife knew?"

"I assume she would not welcome my company or my custom."

"And what of Rory? Is he still your friend?"

"He's my cousin."

"And married, as well?"

"Oh yes, with a son already. He's heir to Brandy Hall so he must behave respectably. I would do nothing to cause him shame."

Fili put down the sword he'd been working on and selected another. "That is sad. So you're alone, then?"

"I - no, that is . . . this is not what I wanted to talk about." Bilbo set the knife back in Fili's array of weapons.

"Oh? What did you want to talk about?"

"I was trying to say - we hobbits, we go through that wild period in our youth and we learn what it means to make certain mistakes, and how to repair the rifts that we cause. I'm certain I've made mistakes in this company, but have I . . . caused rifts?"

Fili stopped scraping his blade and looked at Bilbo. "I don't know what you mean."

Bilbo puffed his breath out. "The other day, after we . . . Thorin was wroth with you. Was I the cause?"

Fili's usual half-frown turned into a scowl worthy of his uncle. "He does not trust us to tend to our own honour, that is all."

Bilbo winced. That did sound as though they had clashed over him. "I hope I did nothing - er, that is . . ."

"If my word does not suffice, Kili's corroboration should be enough. But our uncle would lecture us on proper behaviour and restraint."

Bilbo's fists clenched tightly on his thighs, thinking of his cousin whose word had not been sufficient. "In the Shire, such a question of honour would demand an offer of marriage."

Fili stared. "And that would repair the dishonour?"

"It would patch it, at least." Bilbo swallowed, his mouth dry. "Should I be offering?"

Fili merely blinked for a moment, then began to laugh.

Bilbo was at once relieved and embarrassed. He glanced over to the other dwarves to see who was staring. "I'm sorry, I've never, er . . . asked such a thing. I can't marry you and Kili both." He paused. "Can I?"

Fili laughed all the harder. "Bilbo, you dolt!" He slung an arm around Bilbo's shoulders to soften the insult, but Bilbo remained stiff. "Marriage with you is exactly what Thorin doesn't want for us. He dreads the thought of beardless half-hobbits in the royal line of Durin!"

Bilbo gulped. "Is that even possible?"

"Who knows?" Fili was still gasping with laughter. "But we've been warned to have a care, since hobbits breed like rabbits."

Despite his growing relief, Bilbo glared at this. "You do realise that I'm very nearly the only one in the company with no siblings?" He wasn't certain about Bifur, but after Gloin's tale the other night he didn't wish to ask an insensitive question.

"Yes yes, you're quite right, we should not expect all hobbits to wear the same braids. Oh, but you don't have braids, or beards to put them in!" Fili was laughing hard enough now to lean half his weight on Bilbo.

Bilbo pushed him off, none too gently since that seemed to be the norm among dwarves. "Well, if marriage won't serve, do let me know if there is anything else I can do to mend your quarrel with Thorin."

"Don't worry about it," Fili gasped, flopping back onto the grass. "He'll calm down eventually."

"If you can tear yourself away from rolling in the dirt, shall we try a few passes?" said Bilbo, standing and drawing his little sword. "Dinner will be ready soon."

Fili stilled, eyes going wide. A moment later he was on his feet. "Ware attackers!" he cried. "To arms!"

Everyone around the camp sat up and stared disbelievingly. Fili was scooping up all his weapons in haste, while Bilbo stared in bewilderment at the blue glow of his sword.

Chapter Text

"Close ranks!" Fili shouted, pushing Bilbo toward the other dwarves. "Thorin!" he bellowed in the direction of the forest. "Kili!"

Bilbo knew the moment that the others saw his sword shining and realised what it meant. They stood and drew weapons and formed a loose half-circle with their backs to the fire. The trees and the ridge that curved to their north offered some protection, but would hamper them as much as their attackers - especially if their enemy took the high ground.

"I don't see anything," Nori reported.

"Oh, they're out there," said Bofur, glancing at Bilbo's sword.

"Gloin - ready torches!" Fili snapped. "Everybody up the hill! Stay together!"

Belatedly, Bilbo realised that several of their strongest fighters had gone scouting and this might pose a problem for all of them. Bombur refused to leave their stew-pot, so Bofur helped him to wrestle it up the hill and set it next to a sheltering boulder. Oin and Nori and Ori grabbed as many packs as they could and heaped those nearby, as well.

"The sword is getting brighter," Bilbo announced nervously, then wondered if it was merely the deeper shadow of the trees. He was standing between Dori and Bifur, trying to remember everything Fili had been teaching him. He held the sword in one hand while the other groped at his waistcoat pocket.

"I hear them." Balin was looking further north, away from their camp. Soon they could all hear it: a stamping of many feet and panting of wet breath, like the slavering of large animals.

"Thorin and the others are unwarned," said Dori uneasily.

"Orcrist glows also," said Gloin, "though not so brightly as the hobbit's blade."

Then the enemy came over a rise in the land. Orcs, a great many of them. The front rank rode wargs, but there were many more on foot behind them. Bilbo sucked in his breath nervously. He wasn't certain if there were more orcs than the last time, but then half of them had been lost in the trees. Now he had to stand and watch them coming. His fist clenched about his pocket.

"I make it two hundred," said Gloin shortly. "Too big for a mere raiding party."

Too big for us! Bilbo thought, and from the way the company stirred he guessed that others were thinking the same thing.

"I don't see a white one," Ori quavered, and Bilbo realised he was right; Azog was not there. Was this a different group than the ones that had attacked them in the mountains? Or was this only a part of the force? Had an eagle perhaps dropped Azog from the mountain when none of the party were there to witness it?

"No archers," Balin added.

"Well, that's something," breathed Fili, at the front of their group. He threw another look to the east, and Bilbo knew he was regretting the absence of their own archer, in addition to simple fear for his kin.

They saw the moment when the orcs spied their campfire and the torches on the ridge above. The warg-riders leapt forward to circle around. The slope of the ridge was easier on the south side, where their camp lay amid the trees; many of the dwarves turned to face in that direction, guessing that was how the orcs would come up. But first, it seemed, they meant to encircle the company entirely.

Balin turned to Ori. "You have your spikes, lad?"

Ori nodded, holding up one of the nasty barbed caltrops that Bofur had fashioned for him when simple stones proved ineffective against thick hides and skulls.

"That one is their leader, with the red crest on his helm. Watch for a chance to get him, if you can."

Ori gulped and set the spiky ball to his sling.

Now the mounted orcs had circled around to the south, and the ones on foot were filing in to back them up. The bedrolls and gear left behind in the camp were being rifled. Bilbo was nearly panting with anxiety now. He did not see how they could get out of this; there were too many orcs. Might Gandalf come to save them at the last minute? Or was he taken up in dealing with the phantoms that flew by night?

"Use torches on the wargs; try to set their fur alight." Gloin lit hastily-made torches and passed them out. Fili declined so that he could hold two swords. Bilbo, perforce, had to let go of his waistcoat to grasp the one offered to him.

Then the wargs were leaping up the slope toward them. Fili opened the throat of the foremost in a great gout of blood, and Bifur stepped forward to spit another as casually as a farmer forking hay. Bilbo shoved his torch at the warg attacking Dori and managed to get it between the creature's jaws, but the flame was quenched immediately and the warg turned upon Bilbo. He dropped the dead torch and slashed instead at its legs, forgetting everything Fili had told him about quick thrusts. To his surprise he made solid contact with one clawed foot and his blade cleaved nearly through it. The warg fell yowling, and its rider tumbled forward almost on top of Bilbo.

He had been scrambling backwards without realising it and now he was well out of the line of the dwarf defense. On every side of him were meaty thunks and cries of anger or pain; no one had a moment to spare for Bilbo. The orc whose mount he had felled was stalking toward him with a toothy grin, its skin and leather armour and sparse hair all blackened and oily.

Bilbo shot his free hand into his pocket and the ring jumped onto his finger as if it belonged there. The world took on the sharp-edged grey glow that he remembered, and he saw the orc freeze in surprise, head turning this way and that as it looked for him. He bounded forward - Kili would have approved of the way he moved his feet - and stabbed the orc in the belly.

It didn't fall at once, but grabbed him by the arm and tried to pull him closer before he could free his blade. It was groping for his head, teeth bared in a dreadful grimace. Bilbo tried to pull away, but the orc followed him -

- until they both tumbled down the rocky north slope of the ridge.

The orc ended up on top of Bilbo, unmoving now. He could hear the sounds of battle continuing above him, but could not move or catch his breath. He wondered if his ribs were broken, or his back - but no, he could still move his feet. He pushed weakly at the body atop him but could not get leverage to shift it. With difficulty he managed to squirm just enough to get his face clear of the horrible stench of orc blood.

There were new shouts, off to the side. Was that Dwalin's bellow? He and Thorin made a fearsome pair in battle and Kili's bow was swift, yet Bilbo shuddered to think of the three of them coming unawares on such a large party of orcs. And then he heard something else; a dreadful roar from some enraged creature, far louder than the yelps of wargs. Where the roaring went there were cries of fear and dismay that did not seem to be from dwarf voices. And then commanding shouts that Bilbo did not recognize, and the sound of many feet running away.

For a while the same sounds continued, getting fewer and fainter over the minutes. Bilbo hoped that the orcs were running away and the dwarves were dispatching wounded enemies left behind, but he could not be certain. He tried once more to push at the dead weight on his chest. Was that Balin's voice? Then he heard a clear shout: "Fili! Where did they come from?"

Bilbo sagged in relief. Thorin sounded as hale and dour as ever. He could not hear all of Fili's reply, only "Down from the north . . ." and " . . . Phantoms last night."

"You've done well." Thorin's voice was almost too low for Bilbo to hear.

"We would have been lost if . . ." Bilbo missed the next bit. Were they descending the other side of the ridge, back toward the camp?

Thorin's next words were clear enough. "Is anyone sore hurt? Balin?"

"Only a scratch," Balin replied more faintly.

"Where's Bilbo?" That was Bofur, followed by several others: "Hobbit!" "Bilbo?" "Ho, Bilbo! Where are you?"

"I'm here!" he called, but he could not take a full breath and his voice was barely a squeak.

"Sweet stone, could they have carried him off?" came Dwalin's growl.

"If they did, they'll not keep him alive for long," said Dori darkly.

"We have to go after him!" Kili declared.

"We've scant hope of catching them," Gloin said, equally grim. "Far less of taking him back from them."

"But we can't just let -" Several voices were speaking at once now.

"Be certain he is missing before we commit ourselves," Thorin overrode them firmly. "Search the area first."

Bilbo pushed at the weight on his sore ribs until he could inhale properly. "I'm down here!" he cried, as loud as he might. "Help!"

"Quiet! I heard something!" Balin snapped.

"Down here!" Bilbo repeated, more weakly, but this time they were listening.

"Where?" "Down -" "It came from over there." A scramble of footsteps down the rock. "Here's his sword!"

As the voices came closer Bilbo realised that the world was still grey about him, and he struggled to bring his hands together so that he might remove the ring. It was no good; his right arm was firmly pinned under the orc's weight. At last he raised his left hand to his mouth and pulled the ring free with his teeth, tucking it under his tongue.

"I'm here!" he called again, a little muffled. The ring whispered against his teeth.

And then Bofur's worried face was peering at him upside down. "Found him!" he cried with relief. "Here under this great - ungh! - hulking -"

The orc was heaved away at last, and Bofur and Dwalin together stared down at him. Bilbo gasped as deeply as he might with his mouth closed, trying to smile at the same time.

"All right, laddie?" Dwalin demanded, bending close.

Bilbo tried to roll over to spit the ring into his palm.

"No no, don't move yet!" Bofur urged.

"I'm all right," Bilbo gasped, closing his fist in relief. "I think. Just bruises." He got to hands and knees and found two arms ready to help him to his feet. "Knocked the breath out of me," he gasped, breathing hard and leaning on Dwalin's steady bulk as he fumbled for his pocket.

Fili was watching in concern, holding Bilbo's little sword. He bent and wiped the blood off on the orc's leather armour, then handed the blade to Bilbo. When Bilbo's hand proved too shaky, Fili helped him sheathe it.

Then Kili caught him and hugged him close. "That's our burglar!" he cried, fist thumping Bilbo's back - fortunately, not too hard. "He always slips clear of the worst scrapes!"

Bilbo pulled free of the embrace with a weak smile. Catching his breath, he looked up to find Thorin's gaze sweeping over him. He waited for the prince's verdict.

"You're covered in orc blood," was all Thorin said.

It was true, Bilbo realised, looking down at himself. His poor mistreated coat and waistcoat were soaked through with black gore.

"Come on, everyone!" Thorin declared. "You've a few minutes to reclaim what gear you can, eat some food, and -" He glanced at Bilbo. "Clean up. Then we break camp."

"What?" "But the sun is gone, it'll be full night soon!"

"Orcs travel by night. That may not be the only company heading down the river valley. We'll rest just inside the forest, along the path, with no fire to betray our presence. Move smartly, now!"

Bofur helped Bilbo stumble back to the remains of their camp where Oin was tending to several minor hurts. When they passed near Thorin, Bilbo felt another hand touch his shoulder briefly, but the dwarf-prince said nothing. Most of the others were collecting gear or checking the slain orcs for anything useful - or perhaps for clues about where they had come from, Bilbo supposed.

Bofur handed him a plate of stew. "Bombur guarded that pot like a mother warg with her pups," he said, looking over to where his brother was mourning the smashed remains of the strawberries. "Fortunately, it's none the worse for the bit of orc blood that got in!"

Bilbo eyed the food sceptically, but he was so hungry that he decided to hope that Bofur was only joking. "What happened?" he asked between bites. "With the battle? I heard . . . I'm not certain what I heard."

"Ah, we took down most of the wargs, but the orcs were too many for us. Then Thorin and Dwalin and Kili attacked their rear by surprise. Beautiful pincers movement - or it would have been, if they weren't outnumbered sixty to one."

"I got their leader right in the eye!" Ori broke in excitedly, twisting away from Oin who was tending an ugly gash on his forehead. "That slowed them down a bit, too."

"But it would all have been for naught," said Dwalin, leaning on his axe, "if that bear hadn't come along."

Bilbo almost forgot to chew. "Bear?"

"Imagine a pyramid," said Bofur, "with three wargs on the bottom, and two wargs standing on their shoulders, and another warg on top of that, and an orc riding on top. That's how big this bear was."

Bilbo imagined that no wargs would ever tolerate such an arrangement, but he accepted the description. "That was the roaring noise?"

"Oh, aye, he flattened half a dozen with just his clamour. Then he laid about him with mighty claws, and orcs went flying every direction. He soon set them to rout."

"They were after other prey," said Balin wisely, tugging at the fresh bandage on his arm. "Less than a dozen dwarves made a bit of amusement for them on their journey, but add a few more dwarves, and then a giant bear - they might still have taken us but they didn't want to pay the price."

"We claimed nine wargs and nearly two dozen orcs, even so," said Gloin with satisfaction, wiping a cloth over his axe. "And the bear brought down more."

"But what happened to the bear?" Bilbo asked.

"Chased them away downriver. They won't stop running for a week."

Bilbo suspected that the bear would grow even fiercer if the orcs ventured anywhere near Beorn's hall. Nonetheless, he shivered at the thought of orcs anywhere near the shifter-children. "I hope Beorn's folk are ready for them."

"I hope Gandalf is ready for them!" said Ori fervently.

Bilbo's eyes widened. "You're right. All these dark forces heading south - it must have to do with the message that called Gandalf away, mustn't it?"

Balin tilted his head thoughtfully. "If they were merely heading back to Moria, they should have been going down the west bank of the river. Instead they were here on the east side, and thought something else was more important than revenge on Thorin . . . I'd say it likely does involve Gandalf, somehow."

"Do you think he'll be all right?"

"The wizard can guard himself," said Thorin. "Or if he can't, thirteen dwarves and one hobbit wouldn't make much difference. Is everyone ready to move?"

The dwarves all started to scramble about, claiming they needed just a few more minutes. Bilbo hurried down to the little stream where they had been drawing water. Taking off his coat and waistcoat, he tried to rinse away the orc blood in the chilly current, only to realise that his shirt and trews were stained as well.

"Come on then," said Bofur, stepping up beside him on the bank with a string of water-pouches slung over his shoulder to be filled. "Might as well put your whole self in and get clean." He picked Bilbo up bodily as if preparing to throw him in the stream.

Bilbo flailed. "No! No! I can't swim."

Bofur swung him down to the ground. "You don't need to swim, the water will hardly come to your knees!"

Bilbo was shaking nearly as much as he had when the orc was pulled off him, one hand clutched convulsively around Bofur's scarf. "Hobbits and water don't mix," he said tremulously. "Most hobbits, anyway. Or this hobbit at least. I fell out of a boat on the Brandywine River as a child, and I've been terrified of water ever since."

Bofur looked at him with concern. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you a fright. You choose, then: I can go in the stream with you and keep you from being swept away in this fearsome current, or you can strip to your skin and I'll help you wash everything."

Bilbo laughed shakily. "I'll strip. If we're not to have a fire, I shall need some friends with dry clothes later tonight." As a precaution, he set his little sword out bare on the bank of the stream where they could see its warning if any foes approached.

They moved their camp under the eaves of the forest, where there was almost no light and things rustled in the undergrowth until Bilbo began to wonder if a band of snarling orcs might be safer than whatever dwelt in the forest. His clothes were damp through and still not free of stains, but he stayed warm sandwiched between Bofur and Bifur, until at length weariness closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Mirkwood was unutterably dreary. When Bilbo told stories about it later, he described the brown dimness of mid-day in which he could only just make out the dwarf in front of him, or the pitch blackness of night when he could make out nothing at all. He told of the lack of edible food and the enormous moths that swarmed the only campfire they attempted. He told of the gleaming eyes that came and went in the darkness, and the constant rustling of small creatures, and the way he could not help imagining that the sound was actually some large creature creeping ever nearer and nearer, all night long.

Some of the other details he did not tell: how they slept in a pile every night, and Thorin doggedly tried to be even-handed in choosing who would lie nearest him. How they tried for a while to keep hold of one another while walking, and finally just brought out a knotted rope that everyone could hold to as needed, with enough space between them to keep from tripping on someone's heels. They took the lead in turns because it was exhausting to strain their eyes to penetrate the dimness, but when Thorin was not first in the line he would be immediately behind the leader. Bilbo, whose eyes were quite sharp and who also learned to feel the turnings of the path with his unshod feet, often took longer turns in the lead than the dwarves did.

They also - especially Bofur, Ori, and Bilbo - took it in turns to tell the others amusing stories to keep their spirits up. For Bofur these often took the form of descriptions of his failures at various jobs. "I helped Bifur out in his toy shop for a while," he would say, "but Bombur was more help than I was. They had to keep sending me off because I would just play with the toys instead of selling them." Or "When I was, oh, forty or fifty and my beard was just coming in, I apprenticed with a stone-cutter in Tharbad. Shaping and dressing stone for masonry was well enough and there was plenty such work, but then the mayor of Tharbad commissioned a stone sculpture of himself. He had airs and ambitions, you see - wanted folk to call him 'Lord Mayor,' and was always boasting how the town had grown while he was in office, without bothering about whether it grew better. Well, the master stone carver would normally do all the fine work and only have the apprentices do rougher jobs of trimming away unwanted stone. And our master was quite skilled when he set hand to chisel - except, he was a bit too fond of his ale-jug."

"Nothing wrong with a fondness for ale," Gloin remarked.

"Oh, aye, once the job is done. But there we were, the night before the statue was to be unveiled, with the face only half finished, and the master carver draped over his tool bench snoring and belching. So we apprentices - there were three of us - tried to take up the task. And a fine job we were making of it if I do say so myself."

"Until . . . ?" said Dori expectantly.

"Well, it was only a bit of an overstrike with the chisel. Hardly anything to notice. The mayor of Tharbad didn't really need two halves of his nose anyway, did he?"

Everyone laughed. Bilbo noted that Bofur hadn't mentioned which apprentice made the mistake, and wondered if he had covered for one of his fellows - or perhaps the other way around.

"So we mixed up a bit of cement slurry in the right colour and patched the nose back together. It looked fine, I tell you! But the cement didn't have time to cure properly overnight. So the next day, there's the statue out in the square and the cloth coming off it, and the mayor standing in front of the statue to make his speech, and as he's speaking the nose is slowly sliding down the statue's face . . ."

Several of the dwarves - notably Dwalin and Nori - were laughing quite merrily at this. But Bilbo, in the lead pulling on the first knot of the rope, thought it was rather sad that Bofur had tried his hand at so many different jobs doomed to failure before at last finding a place in the mines and forges of the Blue Mountains. Perhaps if the master stone-carver had been more attentive to his apprentices, Bofur would have learned the job better. He wondered, also, whether the stone-carver or any of the apprentices had been dwarves; he had always thought that Tharbad was a city of Men.

At Bilbo's shoulder on the opposite side of the rope, Thorin too remained silent and grave. A short while later, Balin came forward to take the lead and it was Bilbo's turn for storytelling.

For some reason, the dwarves seemed quite fascinated by Bilbo's stories of all the small details of life in the Shire. The endless personal dramas of life in the Great Smials of the Tooks were especially popular; Bilbo told several tales of how the legions of relatives would expend great energy in trying to keep the Thain from learning some secret - an indiscretion of one of his children, perhaps, or a dispute between two cousins cooking in the same kitchen - only to find, in the end, that the Thain knew all about the business and had been watching their antics in amusement the whole time.

If the dwarves did not take as deep an interest in family trees as many hobbits did, they were at least amenable to hearing about how Bilbo was connected to the people whose stories he told. "Now, my mother was the eighth of twelve children of the Thain of the Tooks. She had nine brothers and two sisters."

This brought various sounds of astonishment from the dwarves.

"Her older brother Hildifons - older than my mother, you understand, but not the eldest and therefore not the heir - had no particular expectations aside from the name and reputation of the Tooks."

Ori spoke up. "I thought you said the Tooks had a questionable reputation?"

"Yes, they do, and these days my uncle Hildifons is a part of that. But I'll be getting to that. Now, he was not the heir so he wasn't expecting to get a smial or farm to himself, unless of course he married a farmer's daughter who had no brothers."

Now it was Bofur's turn to interrupt. "But didn't you say all the family lived together in a great rambling hole with room for everyone?"

"Yes, yes. Uncle Hildifons could stay in the Great Smials, and he would always have a place at table and work to do, anything that would benefit the family. But he wanted to try making his own way in the world. So he and my mother's youngest brother Isengar went off -"

"You have an uncle named Isengard?" Dwalin demanded.

"No, it's -"

"Isn't that the name of a place?" asked Ori.

"Aye, some dozens of leagues south and east of Tharbad," said Bofur. "Said to be a great tower there overlooking the mountains and plains."

"My uncle's name," said Bilbo firmly, "is Isengar. No D at the end. Though I admit, it is possible my grandfather got the name from a map. I think he was running out of ideas by that time."

"Small wonder!" Dori exclaimed.

"In any case, my uncles Hildifons and Isengar went off traveling together. Years later Isengar came back alone."

"Oh no," said Bofur. "What happened to his brother?"

"Well, Uncle Garry always said that Hildifons was well and wasn't coming home because he'd got married. To a human woman, I suppose - from the stories he told, they spent much of their time working and traveling with humans."

"Is that common, for hobbits to marry outside their own kind?" Thorin asked.

"No, not at all. That's likely why Hildifons didn't think he could bring his bride home to the Shire. But there is the occasional story, here and there. My mother used to tell me of an old legend that one of the Tooks long ago took a fairy wife."

"A fairy? What's that?" asked Bofur.

"You mean an elf?" Ori suggested.

Bilbo recalled asking the same question of his mother when she told the story. "If - and I do mean if - there was any truth in the tale, I suppose it must have been an elf. But time warped that story out of all recognition. Supposedly, the fairy-wife had wings, until she gave them up to get married." Later when he learned more of elves, Bilbo had wondered if the 'wings' had begun as a reference to some elf-maid's forsaken immortality.

Thorin spoke up again: "And did the Took who married this . . . fairy have children who looked like elves?"

"Some who tell that tale like to claim it's the reason the Tooks are just a bit taller and more slender than most hobbits, as well as more, erm - adventurous. But I never thought there was much merit in that." With the hand not holding the rope, Bilbo scratched at his face. "At least, I never thought so until I came on an adventure myself."

"Even though your uncles both went adventuring?" Bofur asked.

"Yes, and that brings me back to my story. I must admit, I did spend many hours listening to Uncle Garry tell about his adventures - but then so did many another hobbit-child, most of whom grew up to be perfectly respectable. Ahem - that is . . . Hildifons and Isengar actually went to sea!"

The reactions from the dwarves sounded more like alarm than admiration, but a few did seem impressed by this.

"I thought you said hobbits and water don't mix?" said Bofur suspiciously.

"Most hobbits," Bilbo corrected. "It's just one more thing considered peculiar about old Garry, that he would tell such tales of the sea. He would talk of climbing up the, er, masts to the lookout post and staring all the way to the edge of the world. And of course there was always plenty of fresh air and salty breezes." Bilbo, who had never been near the sea and was not entirely certain that it was possible, as his uncle claimed, to smell salt, unthinkingly took a deep breath of the stifling, musty forest air. "But some of his stories were quite frightening, like the ones about storms at sea."

He went on, racking his brain for details from those long-ago visits in the Great Smials (Uncle Garry never having been invited to Bag End). One thing that had always been so wonderful about his uncle's stories was the great number of exotic words he used: davits and capstans, cabins and topmasts. But Bilbo wasn't at all certain that he could use such words correctly in his own rendering of the story. Again, Garry had always scrupulously started every story by listing off the direction of wind and the direction they were sailing in; at one time Bilbo had almost started to comprehend how the wind could blow this way and yet the ship would travel that way, but now all of that was lost in his memory. So he kept to the parts of the stories that he could remember, like the description of the sea as a great heaving animal trying to throw the ship off its back, and the floods of water that would wash across the deck if the ship came into a wave the wrong way. Bilbo also added in the sounds from the ship being battered and bent by the wind and waves; although they might not have the least breath of fresh air here under the trees, all of the party could easily imagine the sound of wood creaking and groaning.

The next day, Kili prompted Bilbo to resume one of his tales. "You never finished the story of the great gardening war of Hobbiton."

"Yes I did," said Bilbo in puzzlement. "Didn't I?"

"But whatever happened to all the Cothands and Green Men?"

"Greenhands and Cotmans. Will Cotman's son Bill married Holman Greenhand's daughter Rose, and after that they worked their gardens together and the rest of the family left off wrangling about it. Bill and Rose named their firstborn son Holman, after his grandfather Greenhand, but for a short-name they called him Hom."

Fili, just in front of Bilbo, stiffened alertly. "So, this would be Hom . . . Cotman?"

"They eased the name to Cotton, but yes. Hom Cotton. When he grew up folk called him 'Long Hom' because he was quite tall."

"That would be all of four feet, then?" said Dwalin from further forward.

Several of the dwarves chuckled, but Dori put in indignantly, "Four feet is a perfectly respectable height!"

Bilbo pulled himself up to his full three feet and ten inches and declared, "Indeed it is!"

"Are you certain that Hom's nickname was due to his height?" Fili asked in a casual tone. "It wasn't because he was long in . . . some other way?"

More chuckling at this, but when Bilbo said shortly, "Yes, I'm quite certain," the laughter became more widespread.

There followed some loose talk of the ideal dimensions for hammers and ploughshares, and the advantages of breadth as compared to length, and everyone's opinions were starting to overlap everyone else's, when Thorin, in the lead, put a stop to the talk by commanding: "Let us keep our thoughts on what lies before our feet, rather than what hangs below our belts."

Everyone fell silent, chastised or respectful, until Dwalin said from just behind Thorin, "You mean, our keys?"

There was a scuffling sound, and the rope went slack. Bilbo's hand tightened upon the rope in alarm when he realised that Thorin was actually grappling with Dwalin and might be really angry, but a moment later Dwalin shrieked like a child caught after a chase round a lilac bush. It was such an un-Dwalin-like sound that Bilbo simply stood and gaped in amazement, but around him the other dwarves were beginning to chuckle again.

After a moment the rope pulled taut once more and Thorin said, a bit out of breath: "That was well-deserved."

"Yes, Thorin," said Dwalin meekly, falling into position. And they all set off again.

When it grew too dark to walk any further that day, they all sat down on the path and ate a handful of nuts. If anyone still had any bread left, they didn't admit to it; Bilbo certainly had none, but when his honey was gone he had wrapped his nuts in the honey-cloth, so now they were sweet and sticky. It only made him feel the more hungry, though, to sit with his stomach cramping and the taste of honey on his lips.

As they were sorting themselves into groups for sleep, Thorin called Bilbo to him. He groped his way past dwarves of varying heights and hardnesses until his fingers found Thorin's fur-lined cloak, then squeezed in between Thorin and Balin.

"Good evening!" he chirped nervously.

"How do you know?" asked Balin.

"Well . . . at least it isn't raining."

"True enough."

"Have you any concerns you wish to share with me, Mr. Baggins?" said Thorin formally.

Bilbo hesitated, wondering why Thorin had stopped using his given name. Was it only the awkwardness of their situation, all clinging to one another in the darkness yet pretending it was an ordinary night? "Only the same trials we are all facing. I should be very happy for more food and water, and some sunlight and fresh air."

"Does the darkness trouble you?"

"Why, yes. Doesn't everyone feel the same?"

Thorin waited a moment as if expecting Balin to give an opinion, but eventually said, "We prefer decent torchlight to deep darkness, but we are well accustomed to living underground for long periods."

"Oh. Hobbits live underground also, but we do get out into the sun most days, and our holes have as many windows as can be fit in. We rather like to be surrounded by growing things." Bilbo hesitated as the trees whispered and creaked above them. "At least, we like wholesome sorts of growing things, that are not very much larger than we are."

"And this is why gardening was important enough among hobbits to start a war?"

Bilbo chuckled. "It was hardly a war as dwarves would reckon it. Merely a dispute between two families lasting a generation or so."

"About how to tend gardens."

"Not only about methods. Also about who had the right to tend which gardens, and to be paid quite a decent wage for that work. It's not just about pretty things, but also about making a living and supporting a family."

He felt Thorin nod next to him. "We dwarves well understand the desire to be paid for work well done. But this gardening dispute was resolved by a marriage?"

"Oh yes. That's always a good way to get folk looking forward to the world their children will live in, instead of backward to past hurts and offences."

"Not always." Thorin was silent a moment. "When I was young, I was almost contracted in marriage. He came with a great entourage from the Blacklocks of the Orocarni, far to the east even from Erebor."

"He?" Bilbo faltered. "You were to be married to . . . a male?"

"No, to a female who had not yet borne children. If he had, she would have been married already."

"Oh yes, of course. I do beg your pardon for my confusion." But Bilbo couldn't resist asking, "If you had got married, would he have become a she, even without children?"

"Yes, for courtesy. But some mothers were grumbling about it even before the event, and I suspect there might have been an insulting mistake here and there."

Bilbo could well imagine the sharp words directed at a stranger coming from outside to claim Erebor's prince, even if the alliance was considered advantageous in other ways.

"It was Balin who discovered their plot," said Thorin quietly.

Balin stirred, proving that he had indeed been listening. "It wasn't marriage they truly wanted, but the ring of the line of Durin."

Bilbo tensed. "A ring?"

Thorin explained, "Long ago, all seven of the dwarven royal families had a ring, but most were lost one by one. My grandfather had one of three that remained."

"What did these rings do?"

"Supposedly, it helped a king to accumulate greater wealth. Grandfather never told me the secret of it; he left that duty to my father. But we did not find the ring on his body at Azanulbizar. Either it was taken, or he gave it to my father - but he also disappeared."

Bilbo curled his arm protectively about his middle. "Where exactly was this battle?"

Balin spoke up. "At the east entrance to the great realm of Moria, beneath the tallest peaks of the Misty Mountains."

Thorin added: "Many leagues south of the place where we crossed the mountains."

But still in the same mountain range where Gollum and all those goblins resided. Bilbo swallowed nervously. "Was the ring very beautiful to look at? Is that why sh- he wanted it?"

"No, the Blacklocks wanted the power of it, and the gold it could bring. The ring could only be seen when my grandfather wished it to be so; I saw it but once. Golden and square-cut, with runes carved upon it and a gem that . . . was no colour and all colours at once."

"It sounds rather like the Arkenstone," Balin reflected.

It did not sound at all like Bilbo's ring, and he relaxed at last.

"Smaller than the Arkenstone, but yes - they both had a certain something, a way of drawing the eye. My grandfather was wise to keep the ring unseen for the most part, I think."

Bilbo wished he could do the same with his own ring - but then again, he could. Both he and the ring were invisible when he wore it. Perhaps the dwarf ring, too, was visible when not being worn. Bilbo drifted in the darkness, thinking of airy halls full of beautiful things, and how nice it was to be surrounded by friends who valued him and did not care if he was Tookish or 'wild' or wished to dally with others long after the age when he should have settled down. Next to that, a growling belly did not seem so great a hardship.

But as the days of gloom blended one into the other, it became quite hard to think of more cheery stories to tell. On one particularly warm and stuffy day, Bilbo found himself telling the dwarves of the Fell Winter when he was a child. All of Hobbiton had run out of firewood, so Bungo and Belladonna had wrapped Bilbo in the warmest clothes they could find and set off for Tuckborough instead, a perilous and frosty journey. When they later heard the stories of wolves crossing the frozen Brandywine River and the fear that had gripped most of Buckland for long weeks, they were grateful to be in the crowded Smials with so many about them.

"Aye, that was a fierce cold winter," Balin recalled, "but not so bad for us in the Blue Mountains. It's good to be well underground when the killing winds are blowing. Now the Long Winter, that was less cold but more hardship. Two chill winters in a row with the shortest, greyest summer in between - many folk called it the year without a summer. Nearly two hundred years ago, that was."

"I remember that," said Thorin. "Harvests failed, and all the gold in Erebor could not buy enough food for everyone to eat."

"Why, this is gloomy talk!" said Bofur with forced cheer. "I expect the gold in Erebor will be quite enough for fourteen of us. What's everyone going to do with their share? I know my brother plans to hire folk - dwarves or men or elves, he doesn't care - to follow him about carrying a chair and table and a five-course meal, ready to serve any time."

Further back in the line, Bombur muttered something derogatory to his brother, but Bilbo could not quite make it out as everyone chimed in with their own plans for spending or saving their portion of the treasure. The next day, when Bombur fell into an unrousable sleep from the enchanted stream and wouldn't so much as twitch at Oin's foul-smelling burnt herbs, Bofur was fierce in insisting he mustn't be left behind.

"No one will be left behind," Thorin said firmly, but his expression was growing drawn and grim.

By then, none of them had much energy left even for listening to stories, much less telling them. When they had no food left but lentils, yet they could not spare water to soak them much less to cook them, and some tried eating them raw only to groan away the day with terrible gut cramps, no one made jokes. When the food was entirely gone and the water almost gone, they walked in silence except for the panting of the four tasked with carrying Bombur.

After his first attempt, Bilbo did not have to help carry Bombur because he was too much shorter than the dwarves and he unbalanced everything. But he did take packs and weapons from whoever had carrying duty, and even with the packs empty of food he found his extra burdens to be quite enough.

Then at last Bombur awoke, and remembered nothing of what had transpired so far in their journey, making Bofur even more worried for him. Bifur said nothing that Bilbo could comprehend, but he was always close to his cousins and encouraging Bombur to keep moving despite his growing weakness. Oin muttered darkly about what it meant to lose memory and what might have caused it, and everyone was made miserable listening to Bombur's descriptions of his dreams of magnificent feasts.

And then they saw the torch-light through the trees.

Chapter Text

"Elves," Thorin growled as they peered through the trees at the source of the light.

Bilbo gaped at the elf-king at the head of the table with his crown of leaves. He seemed even grander than Lord Elrond, although somehow less wise, yet Bilbo could not have said just how. He was solemn enough, watching with only a slight curve to his lips as other elves drank and sang and danced around him.

"They have a lot of food," said Ori wistfully. "Meat, even!"

There had been no meat at Rivendell and Bilbo supposed this must be yet another difference between high elves and wood elves. He wondered if it had some moral significance, but at this point it would have taken a great deal more than mere morality to make him forego meat.

"Shall we ask them for help?" Bofur asked.

"We are not beggars," said Thorin darkly.

Bilbo glanced sideways at the dwarf-prince. Begging sounded quite promising to him just at the moment.

"Nor is Thranduil known for open-handedness with dwarves," Balin added.

"But we're starving," Bilbo murmured. "And sick, some of us. Surely they would not refuse to help us?"

"They did not help when we left Erebor, why would they help when we are returning?" Dwalin rumbled.

"They might feed us, but they would try to keep us from our quest as well," Thorin judged. His eyes were fixed on the elf-king as if he might burn the very air between them.

"Do we attack, then?" said Dori doubtfully.

Nori gave his brother a shove. "There's too many of them, and they have weapons under those pretty feasting clothes. Someone will have to sneak in and steal food for us."

There was a pause, and slowly Bilbo realised that all eyes were on him. "Oh," he said. "Right." He supposed he would be able to do the job well enough, with his ring. And he wouldn't feel guilty in the least about the theft, since the dwarves were after all starving. But he didn't want everyone to see him popping in and out of invisibility. "Fine, I'll do it. But you'd better all back off through the trees a bit. They might hear you whispering if you stay so close."

Kili frowned. "But what if they catch you? You'll need us there to back you up."

Bilbo gave him a sour look. "These people are not likely to want to eat me, are they? In fact, since I'm not a dwarf, they might not even be terribly rude to me. If I'm caught, just . . . give me some time to talk my way out of it."

Thorin's eyes, dark in the oblique torchlight, assessed Bilbo somberly. "Do as he says," he commanded, and the company began to retreat.

Bilbo took a good long look at the feast arrayed in the clearing ahead. He checked his sword and took a deep breath. Glancing back at the dwarves, he gave them a wave and a smile, then he stepped forward. As soon as a thick tree stood between Bilbo and the dwarves, he slipped on his ring.

When he reached the circle of torches that marked the edge of the clearing, he circled carefully around the group who were laughing and dancing. They were distracted by their own movement and noise, but there was too much risk of bumping into someone unless he spent long minutes studying the pattern of their dance. Instead he crept behind the swaying musicians to reach the nearest corner of one of the banquet tables.

And then he realised that he had a problem. What would happen to the food when he picked it up? Would it become invisible at once, or would it seem to float in the air unsupported? Bilbo's sword was invisible when he held it while wearing the ring - he knew this because both Gollum and the orc at the forest-edge had failed to see it. But did it matter if he was holding the item at the moment he put the ring on? Perhaps he should have told the dwarves about his ring so that they could figure out exactly what worked and what didn't.

Regardless, he supposed he dared not let any elf see the food either disappear or float through the air. He watched them over the edge of the table, conversing with each other - mostly in an elvish tongue that he supposed must be Sindarin, but occasionally in the common tongue. Bilbo was on the far side of the table from most of them, but that just meant they were facing toward him. So he crept toward the food that was furthest from any of the diners and waited for some distraction. Soon there was a burst of laughter from among the dancers, and many heads turned to see what was the cause. And when the elves turned back, they didn't notice that several small pies had disappeared from the shadowy far edge of the table.

Bilbo ducked under the table with his prizes and ate one then and there, finding it full of savoury meats and herbs. After all, he had to keep up his strength to do the job properly, and mustn't be distracted by his own hunger. But he slipped the other two pies into his pocket (he didn't suppose the hungry dwarves would care if they were a bit linty), hoping that would ensure they were invisible. Then he waited for another opportunity, in which he grabbed some small bread-cakes that looked like scones or muffins. With his pockets nearly full, he took the chance of slipping free a haunch of meat that had not even been carved yet. He tucked that behind the lapel of his coat just in case, and then carefully negotiated his way under the length of the table, behind the musicians again, and out of the circle.

He almost forgot to take his ring off before returning to the dwarves. It was odd to go back to the starkness of orange firelight and deep black everywhere else, for he could see in the dark more easily while wearing the ring.

He was greeted as a hero when he joined the party again, and then he was glad he had made them move further away from the feast, for Ori and Bofur in particular seemed to have trouble keeping their voices down.

"I'm sorry I didn't get more," said Bilbo, handing a meat-pie to Bombur and scones all around (Dwalin had snatched the roast haunch as soon as Bilbo brought it out, and was now sharing it with Thorin and Balin). "This was all that would fit in my pockets."

"Why did you have to put it in your pockets?" asked Fili, splitting a scone and giving the larger half to Kili.

"I . . . needed my hands free, for balance and creeping. Not very stealthy if I topple over and drop everything I'm carrying!"

The laughs this brought were muffled by full mouths.

"I'll go back," Bilbo said at once. "Give me an empty pack, so I can carry more."

Nori caught his arm before he could leave. "Bilbo, listen - you're good at going unheard and unseen." Something about the way he said that made Bilbo wonder if Nori had noticed him appearing or disappearing, but he didn't say as much. "But remember, elves have very sharp noses. And we're none of us too sweet-smelling after days in the forest."

"And the orc blood," Bilbo recalled, brushing at his abused coat.

"Exactly. So take care to stay upwind, as well as keeping to shadows."

Bilbo opened his mouth.

"Watch the torches - they'll tell you which way the breeze is going."

Bilbo nodded. "Thanks. I'll be careful."

Nori patted his shoulder, and Bilbo crept back to the elf ring.

There were more dancers and fewer feasters now, making it easier to take the food but harder to creep into the circle. He saw one of the musicians curl up her nose as he passed and knew that Nori was right. He would have to keep further away from everyone on the way out.

The burgling was better the second time around. Bilbo even managed to get some full plates of sliced meat and eggs and cheese - since the platters were wooden, he trusted they wouldn't make noise as he moved. Crawling back under the table with his knees bumping into the bulging pack, Bilbo froze when he saw that his escape route was blocked. An elf with dark auburn hair carrying a bow over his shoulder was talking to another with fair hair and a half-coronet on his head.

"Have you heard anything odd?" said the fair one. "Or . . . smelt anything?"

Bilbo shrank back a little further.

"The forest is full of strange noises and smells these days," said the dark-haired guard, and Bilbo realised she was female. "It grows darker every year."

"Yes, but . . ." The fair one glanced around, his gaze passing a few feet above Bilbo's head. "I feel something is wrong. As if we are being watched."

Bilbo quickly closed his eyes and tried to be very small and quiet.

"Are the rumours from the south making you jumpy, Legolas?" said the female guard.

The other sighed and said, "It may be so. Keep a sharp eye, nevertheless."

Bilbo squinted his eyes open to see the soft boots of the fair elf - Legolas - moving away toward the dancers. He stayed where he was until the female moved away as well, and then he scurried between the torches and circled back towards his friends.

The dwarves had moved closer, back to the little clump of bush where they had first spied on the elves. Bilbo nearly walked right into Balin and had to back away behind a tree to take off his ring and appear to them properly.

"What took you so long?" Bofur hissed, accepting the bag full of food but keeping his eyes on Bilbo. "We thought you'd been caught!"

"It takes longer to steal more food," Bilbo said, snatching an egg with dwarven directness as the plate was pulled from the bag.

"I don't suppose you brought anything to drink?" said Dori wistfully.

Bilbo winced. "I couldn't see a way to carry it. There were no empty flasks or goblets standing about. I'll take a water-jug with me next time." But he frowned as he thought of the crowds of elves near the wine-casks. It would not be easy. "I did get some grapes, though - try those."

"Here are the culprits!" cried a ringing voice.

Half the dwarves leapt up and readied weapons. Bilbo ducked back between two trees and slipped on his ring.

The dark-haired guard and the fair Legolas were standing over the company with torches held high. And behind them, tall and wrathful, was the elf-king Thranduil.

"What do you mean by disturbing our feasting and stealing our food!" Thranduil demanded.

Bilbo blinked rapidly as the sweet smoke of the torches stung his eyes. He felt very weary all of a sudden, and put his hand against the bole of the nearest tree to keep himself steady.

"We thank you," said Thorin through gritted teeth, "for your generosity to a party of starving travelers."

"Thorin Thrain's son," said the elf-king thoughtfully.

And then Bilbo's knees gave out, and a black curtain dropped over the world.

 

He woke alone. In the sharp grey world he saw when he was invisible, sunlight was filtering through the leaves, more open in this part of the wood than in the thickest western portions where they had all strained their eyes. Here he could see plainly that there were no elves or dwarves around him, and the clearing where the elves had been dancing was bare of torches, tables, food, or people. Only packed earth remained.

It seemed that the elf-king had worked some enchantment of sleep on all of them, and the dwarves must have been captured. Bilbo, wearing his ring and tucked between two trees, had not been taken, but he was left behind in the forest alone.

"Well, I'm free," he said to himself, scratching his head. "And at least I had a bit to eat last night. But I'm still hungry, and now I'm lost!" Apparently, slipping away and going unnoticed wasn't always such a useful thing after all.

He got to his feet, feeling as though he'd just had a pleasant night's sleep, but still a little foggy in the head. And then he heard an odd sound that combined slithering and hissing and clacking. He turned his head to see something even more viscerally terrifying than wargs or orcs or a legion of goblins descending upon them with grasping hands: there were several enormous spiders moving through the wood, as tall as Bilbo himself, with too many legs and far too many eyes and bristling spikes on their legs and coarse hair all over their bodies. Bilbo only just restrained himself from making an exclamation of disgust that might have caught the spiders' attention.

And then he looked more closely at what the spiders were swarming over: a long, narrow object wrapped all about with sticky webbing. At one end Bilbo could see a heavy metal-toed boot sticking out, and at the other end a fragment of scarf - Ori's, he thought. Despite those clues, it took him entirely too long to realise that the thing completely encased in those webs must be Ori himself!

Bilbo pulled out his sword and started nerving himself up to charge the terrible creatures, just as he had followed the goblins and swung at Azog and stood in a line on the ridge with wargs leaping toward them. But then he looked about him again, and saw that there were other marks of things being dragged away. The elves had not captured all of the dwarves - instead, the spiders had taken some of them.

Swallowing hard, Bilbo crept closer to the creatures. They didn't seem to be doing anything to Ori just at the moment aside from pulling him through the wood. Perhaps Bilbo ought to wait, and follow along behind them, and find where other dwarves might have been taken. But could Ori even breathe inside that dreadful cocoon?

Bilbo had an awful feeling that he was about to make the wrong decision, but he could only deal with what was before him right now: he couldn't leave Ori to be hauled and mauled about by the most terrifying abominations he'd ever seen. He ran forward and stabbed the rearmost spider directly in some orifice whose function he did not want to know.

The creature made a high-pitched shriek almost like that of the phantoms that had flown down the river valley, and fell back with its legs twitching. Bilbo stabbed it again. Now the other spiders were coming towards the fallen one, and Bilbo retreated for a moment. One of the spiders paused facing in Bilbo's direction, and he slashed with his sword directly into the gleaming black cluster of faceted eyes. Black and green ichor spurted out, and there was more spidery shrieking. The two remaining spiders abandoned Ori on the forest floor and ran off in the same direction they had been heading in.

What followed was a very difficult day for Bilbo. He had begun to have a little more confidence in himself in tight situations; several times now he had made good decisions and come through safely. But when he took the time to cut the webbing off of Ori and found his friend alive but very groggy, drugged by spider venom and scarcely able to walk, Bilbo had to start making decisions for others beside himself. In some ways that was even more terrifying than facing down a deadly foe. When he was in danger he might live or he might die, but he was responsible only for himself. When his friends were in danger and only Bilbo could help them, there were far too many ways he might come to regret any decision that he made.

Somehow he got Ori staggering along in the direction the spiders had gone. Other dwarves had apparently been dragged through the forest litter already, and the trail was easy enough to follow. He found a nest at the base of a tree with Fili and Dwalin webbed inside it, then around the other side of the same tree were Kili and Nori. In between freeing dwarves from cocoons, Bilbo had to stab a great many spiders, try to draw them off through the trees and then disappear so that he could double back to the dwarves again, and shout repeatedly at his friends to stay awake and stay together.

Another problem was that some of the cocoons they opened proved to hold other things: two dead deer, a great many rabbits and squirrels (Bilbo learned to avoid the smaller cocoons), a clump of something black and very rotten, and once an elf that Bilbo wasn't certain was dead, but they couldn't rouse him. Bilbo pulled the elf's body as far from the spider nest as he could, but the time came when he had to choose between living dwarves and a possibly-dead elf. He gathered his friends together and led them to the next spider nest.

If not for the scraps of stolen food he had eaten last night, Bilbo might not have made it through the day. The battle went on for hours, until Bilbo was exhausted from running and hacking, and hoarse from yelling at the dwarves to get them moving. Bombur could not walk without assistance from his brother; Bifur and Dori were not much better off.

And then Dwalin said, "Where is Thorin?"

"I don't know!" Bilbo cried, almost in tears.

"We have to go back," Dwalin insisted, leaning on his axe as if it were a cane and wobbling back the way they had come, back toward the spiders.

"No!" Bilbo shouted. "I checked every nest I could find, every cocoon. He wasn't there!"

"Elves?" Gloin said, apparently able to manage only the one word.

"I think they must have taken him prisoner. Look out, here they come again!" Bilbo herded the dwarves into a circle again with the weakest ones in the center and the more capable ones facing outward, and then the spiders came swarming through the trees.

Bilbo wasn't sure if any of the dwarves saw him popping in and out of visibility to enrage the spiders; if they did, they might have thought it was their imagination or the effects of the spider venom. But as it happened, Bilbo was invisible and trying to lure the spiders away when a horn sounded and arrows whistled through the air. A dozen spiders dropped at once and the others faded hissing into the trees.

When Bilbo hurried back to where he had left the dwarves, he found them surrounded by elves with bows and fierce expressions. The fair-haired elf from the feast appeared to be in charge, but he spoke to his fellows only in Sindarin so Bilbo couldn't understand what they said. Soon enough the exhausted dwarves were being led or carried through the forest, away from the spider nests.

Bilbo followed behind, but his conscience pricked him until he pushed into the middle of the group of disoriented dwarves and called out, "We found a dead elf! We freed him from the spiderwebs!" And then he ducked down and crawled out of the press again.

Legolas' head whipped around. "Who said that? Where is the elf you found?"

All the dwarves looked remarkably stupid, which they could do quite well even when they weren't sick and starved and exhausted. Legolas snapped out several commands to his group, and let the dwarves sit a while on the ground while a few hunters went back to the spider nests. They came back with the maybe-dead body slung over someone's shoulder, and then started chivvying the dwarves through the trees again with renewed urgency.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was surprised to learn that the elves of Mirkwood lived in a great cave, for elves were associated in his mind with trees and stars and open spaces. But he vaguely remembered a legend of a long-ago elven king who lived in a cave in the center of an enchanted forest. Then he wondered if Thranduil might be that very same king. He knew that he could not judge an elf's age merely by appearance. But there was something aside from mere vigour that made him think Thranduil was not so old as Elrond - or perhaps that was merely the difference between high elves and wood elves once again.

The caves of the elves, fortunately, were not at all like the goblin passages beneath the Misty Mountains, nor even much like what the dwarves had told Bilbo of majestic Erebor or their newer dwellings in the Blue Mountains. The halls were wide and smooth-floored, with designs carved upon the walls so that they hardly seemed to be made of stone, but more like warm wood or some richly-textured cloth. The larger passages had openings in the roof that let in sunlight and fresh air, though Bilbo puzzled over how they could keep rain out. And even where the way was lit by lamps, by some craft of the elves these had a brighter, whiter light than torches, so that it seemed as if they were still walking in daylight if not direct sun.

Thranduil's audience hall was a wide chamber with stone pillars carved to look like trees, that sprouted up from the floor and intertwined carven branches across the ceiling. It was here that the dwarves were brought, and Bilbo followed. Some half of the elves who had taken them prisoner accompanied the group to the hall; others had peeled off to various tasks, including the two who carried the body recovered from the spiders.

Once they reached the gates of the elven halls, Legolas had gone ahead of the slow-moving assembly, and now he was standing before a great carved throne where Thranduil sat, making his report in the elvish tongue.

The archers and spear-wielders pushed the dwarves to the center of the great hall and stepped back a few paces, melting into the tree-pillars as easily as they would disappear into a true forest. Bilbo tucked himself into a corner where he hoped he would not be trampled upon, but where he could see and hear clearly enough.

Bombur had collapsed partway through the long walk to reach these halls, and had to be carried by Bofur and Oin and some of the elves. Ori and Nori were supporting Dori between them, and Balin and Gloin were leaning upon each other. Bifur had walked under his own power but sank to the floor as soon as the group came to a stop; Dwalin looked as if only his pride kept him from doing the same. Only Fili and Kili seemed relatively alert; Bilbo could see them glancing about the room at the positions of the guards and the exits.

"Why were you trespassing upon my lands and disturbing my people's revelries?" Thranduil's voice was not loud, yet it filled the hall to the corners.

Silence from the dwarves, save for some laboured breathing and one piteous groan that Bilbo thought was Bombur.

Thranduil stood and stepped down from the dais that held his throne. "The path that you followed was created and maintained by my people. Who gave you permission to use that path?"

Silence.

The king circled the group of dwarves at a prudent distance. "You," he said imperiously, pointing at Kili. "Why have you come here?"

Bilbo bit his lip. How had the elf-king guessed that Kili was the least likely to hold his tongue?

"We were brought here by your guards," Kili said sullenly, then sidled away from his brother.

"Why were you in the forest at all?"

"Travelling."

"Whither? To what end?"

"The other side of the forest." Kili stopped sidestepping as someone on his other side - probably Balin - kicked him in turn.

"And what will you there?"

Kili lowered his head and remained silent.

"What can a dozen dwarves hope to accomplish in these lands?"

No one spoke.

"Come," said Thranduil, less sternly. "It is not hard to guess that your destination lies to the north and east."

"The Iron Hills?" said Ori, and yelped as Dori swatted him.

Thranduil surveyed the dwarves, his eyes glittering like chips of ice. "Our guests are weary," he said to the room at large. "So weary they cannot remember how to speak. Let us relieve them of their burdens."

The elf guards stepped forward, and within moments most of the dwarves had lost what packs or weapons they had managed to hold on to despite the spiders and the enchanted sleep. The one who tried to take Dwalin's axe, though, pulled away with a hiss and a bloody arm.

A voice rose above the beginnings of angry dwarf growls. "Shall we put the fat one out of his misery, my lord?" The auburn-haired guard was crouched beside Bombur with a long knife held to his throat.

"No, don't!" Bofur cried, and emptied his pockets with a clatter.

One by one everyone handed over their remaining weapons and tools. Then, at further prompting, those with armour removed it.

"Find our guests comfortable lodgings," said the king. "Unless they have changed their minds and wish to speak?"

The dwarves stared at the floor stubbornly.

"Very well. See it done, Tauriel."

The auburn-haired woman caught Bofur and Nori by the arms, pushing them towards some of the guards to whom she snapped out a command in Sindarin.

"No, wait, he's my brother!" Bofur cried, reaching back toward Bombur.

"I'll stay with him, laddie," Oin assured him, and turned to glare at the king. "We need medicine, and wholesome food to eat, unless you want murder on your conscience."

Thranduil stepped forward to loom over Oin. "Do not presume to judge the state of my conscience . . . dwarf." Then he stalked back to his throne and sat watching as the rest of the dwarves were hauled away in pairs.

Dwalin and Ori were next, despite the protests of their own brothers. Fili caught hold of Kili and wouldn't let him go, and for one reason or another the guard-leader Tauriel did not try to separate them. Balin and Dori staggered off together, leaving Bombur insensate with Oin crouched next to him, and Bifur also motionless with Gloin by his side. When some of the guards had returned from their initial escort duties, they helped to carry Bombur and Bifur away.

Bilbo was torn between following the dwarves to find out where they were kept, or staying to hear what the king might say after they were gone. Perhaps the dwarves were being locked in separate places, so that following one pair wouldn't help him to know where the others went. Then again, perhaps the elf-king's schemes would all be explained in Sindarin and Bilbo would have wasted an opportunity by staying.

In the end, he was decided by the sheer number of people tramping about the place. Two dwarves, conscious or otherwise, with four elf-guards made a group large enough to fill a hallway without leaving room for the stealthiest burglar to slip by. So Bilbo stayed in his corner sheltered by a tree-pillar and waited to see what the king would do next.

At first, he thought that his decision was proved wrong. Legolas and Tauriel and several other elves were sorting through the pile of dwarvish gear, speaking with each other in their own tongue. Thranduil sat upon his throne looking bored, while in the smaller carved chair to his right a beautiful elf-lady with black hair murmured to him. She too wore a coronet worked to look like leaves (or perhaps it was made from actual leaves - Bilbo could not tell without getting closer), not so elaborate as Thranduil's but more so than the one Legolas had worn at the feast the previous night. Bilbo wondered if she were Thranduil's wife or daughter. It was hard to guess since he could not tell anything about their ages, and he reflected that dwarf maids who looked like dwarf men were not the strangest characteristic to be found among other races.

Then Legolas rose with an exclamation, and Bilbo saw with sinking heart that he had Ori's sheaf of papers in hand. Ori had written the full story of their quest so far, although he had not been able to write much in the dimness of Mirkwood. Some of his writings were in dwarvish runes but some were in the Tengwar which the elves would surely recognize. And there were drawings, too. Bilbo remembered an excellent sketch of the dragon flying above the mountain, but he thought that was in Ori's first volume which was lost in the goblin caves. The drawing of Gandalf smoking was in these papers, though, and so was a sketch of Bilbo himself. At the very least the elves would be able to see who else had some involvement in this quest, even if they could not be certain of all the roles. And if any of the elves could read dwarvish, all hope of secrecy was lost.

Legolas and Thranduil and the lady in the second throne pored over the writings and drawings, pointing things out to each other and discussing them in low tones. Then Thranduil produced another piece of paper that made Bilbo catch in his breath. It was Thorin's map!

It was the first sign that Thorin had indeed been captured by the elves, although the more pessimistic Baggins side of Bilbo reminded him that it was possible the king had merely rifled Thorin's belongings and still left him lying in the forest. He gave that part of himself a stern reminder that Thranduil had not mentioned Thorin at all while he was interrogating the dwarves, and that likely meant that Thranduil knew very well where Thorin was. At least, Bilbo sincerely hoped so.

Thranduil brought out Thorin's key as well, and Bilbo found himself glowering at the king as fiercely as any of the dwarves had done. What right did this elf have to the few legacies Thorin had managed to hold onto? Bilbo watched intently as the three elves on the dais discussed book, map, and key.

Eventually Legolas tucked all three into his own jerkin and turned to the rest of the elf guards with swift orders. They gathered up all the dwarvish gear and carried it away. Bilbo, still seething a little but remembering the need for caution, followed them.

They carried the dwarves' belongings to a chamber not far from the audience hall. Several of the elves were apparently making disparaging comments about the smell of the dwarven armour, which did not warm Bilbo's heart toward them at all. The clothes and armour were piled on one side of the room, empty packs and water jugs set on a corner table, and tools and weapons laid out upon a longer table in the center of the room.

Bilbo could not fail to notice that there was other armour waiting there already: Thorin's steel-scale mail, and his fur-lined cape and broidered leather jerkin. The table was too high for Bilbo to get a good look from across the room, but he recognized the hilt of Orcrist, and he thought Thorin's dwarvish weapons were there as well.

Tauriel laid a hand upon Orcrist's hilt, her solemn expression deepening to a frown. "How comes a dwarf to be carrying an ancient elvish blade?"

Legolas let an armful of other weapons fall to the table. "It is rather suspicious. Some of the drawings in the journal look like they may be of Imladris. Perhaps the dwarves stopped there as well and showed the same respect for property as they did at our feast last night."

Bilbo fumed silently where he stood just inside the door of the room. There could be no comparison between theft of plentiful food by the starving and stealing an honoured relic from a generous host!

Tauriel's eyebrows quirked doubtfully. "You think such bumblers capable of stealing from Lord Elrond, and him unknowing?"

"Perhaps he found out after they were gone," Legolas suggested.

"We should send him word, or a messenger with the blade itself."

"Doubtless my father will see to it," said Legolas. Bilbo noted what he had suspected: Legolas must be Thranduil's son. They certainly looked enough alike, although Legolas had darker eyes. Like the lady upon the second throne - his mother?

"Until then," the elf-prince continued, "we must keep this precious blade safe. I can think of only one way." With a twitch of a smile, he slung the belt about his own hips. Though he was nearly two feet taller than Thorin, he had to tighten the belt a few notches to fit him.

"I must return," said Legolas when he had the sword settled at his hip. "I wish you joy of sorting all this mess." He waved at the dwarvish gear strewn about the room.

"Not I," Tauriel laughed. "There are others for that job." She started giving instructions to the other elves in Sindarin. Apparently she and Legolas had the habit of speaking the common tongue just between the two of them, but Bilbo did not have time to puzzle over it, for Legolas was striding toward the door and he had to shrink out of the way.

This brought another decision about where to go. Bilbo glanced over his friends' belongings, but he could not carry thirteen dwarves' worth of gear and still hope to remain stealthy - not to mention that the elves would likely notice it had all gone missing. At least he knew where most of it was being kept, so he followed Legolas who was carrying the most important items.

Legolas headed back toward the audience hall, but partway there he stopped and turned.

Bilbo froze. He was certain his feet had not made the least scuff upon the floor. Had he been breathing too loudly?

Legolas scanned the hall, frowning, then pulled Ori's papers from his vest and sniffed at them. With a small exclamation of disgust he went on his way again.

Bilbo dropped back further, recalling Nori's advice from last night. When he was in the same room with a dozen dwarves, or with a pile of their clothing, the elves did not notice his scent. But if they could detect him so easily in any other place, how would he be able to creep about the place and figure out any method of escape?

He bit his lip, wishing that he might do something more expressive like stamping in frustration or swearing. It was entirely absurd from the start of it to think that a simple hobbit of the Shire would be able to help a dozen dwarves (more than a dozen, he hoped) escape from mighty elf-lords and their swift arrows. Why had he ever come along on this adventure, anyway?

And then he heard Thorin's bellow and forgot his doubts.

Chapter Text

Thorin was in the audience hall striving with a great crowd of elves. Bilbo could see only glimpses of him between the intervening tall forms. He was clad in his blue undershirt and trews, and if Bilbo had once thought him quite regal in so little, now he seemed impossibly small and vulnerable. Even his feet were bare, which Bilbo found disturbing - they were so soft and delicate.

Thorin did not appear to feel that he was delicate at all, as he hauled the elves about the room. Bilbo was still not certain if Thorin had been put under the enchanted sleep like the rest of them, but he clearly had not been bitten by a spider, nor did he seem to be troubled by any injuries. Then again, Bilbo recalled that Thorin had charged Azog with ribs already broken, or at the least cracked, so perhaps he should not leap to conclusions.

A grey braided rope hobbled Thorin's ankles together so that he could not run, but did not stop him from planting his bare feet like the roots of a mountain. Another rope was about his arms, holding them behind his back at the elbows and extending from there like a dog's leash. Thorin was using this leash and the elves that caught hold of it as weapons, swinging them around and knocking them into other elves who tried to catch him. And all the while he was roaring insults at Thranduil who sat watching narrow-eyed from his throne.

Bilbo was alarmed by the scene, and his agitated breathing would no doubt have been heard if the hall weren't already so noisy. He was aware enough to realise, however, that the elves were only trying to restrain Thorin and not to hurt him. He was also aware, as none of the elves seemed to be, that Thorin's rage was more than half anguish, and it was almost physically painful to witness. If Thorin had known Bilbo was present and spoken one word of command, he would have pulled out his little sword and started menacing elves with it, regardless of how that was likely to end.

Bilbo could make out only a few of the things that Thorin was yelling, but one of them was definitely "Left them to die in the forest!" which likely explained his anger and misery.

Someone got another length of rope around Thorin's neck. At first he merely used it as another tool to haul more elves off balance, but as it pulled tighter he slowed, and then sank to his knees, breathing harshly. Bilbo's fist was clenched upon his sword-hilt hard enough to hurt.

Some of the elf-guards - there were six, in addition to Legolas and Tauriel who had come running at the uproar - backed away, but two remained holding on to the ropes attached to Thorin's neck and arms, and another had a sort of bill-hook with which he had apparently tried to catch the rope around Thorin's ankles to trip him. Legolas retreated to stand near the throne his perhaps-mother sat upon.

Thranduil stood and walked toward Thorin, who did not even come up to his waist when kneeling. "This news distresses you?" he said mildly, as if continuing a civil conversation.

Thorin's eyes flashed under hooded brows, his breath rasping.

Thranduil raised a hand, and the guard who held the rope about Thorin's neck slackened it.

Thorin coughed and twisted his head within the noose. "I knew," he said in his most furious measured tones, "that elves care naught for anyone but themselves and their accursed trees, but I had not thought you so cruel as to strike starving travellers helpless and then leave them at the mercy of whatever roams that forest."

"Would you have me send scouts after them? You have only to say the word."

Thorin spat, but Thranduil was already stepping away so smoothly that it didn't even appear to be a reaction to the insult. "A night and a day already they have lain there. You waited too long to offer me this bargain, Thranduil."

"Too long? I think not. It is not such a dangerous part of the forest, overlooking our feasting grounds."

Bilbo saw Legolas twitch a little at these words, but no one gainsaid the king.

"We might, perhaps, be able to find one or two dwarves still wandering about. How many were in your party? Ten, was it?"

Thorin ducked his head and coughed again. Bilbo thought it was to cover some reaction.

"They're not your kin, are they? I didn't think you had any kin left. Only friends, then?"

"They are good people who don't deserve to be left to starve."

"Then tell me your purpose, and I will send someone to retrieve your friends."

Thorin said nothing.

"Come, I am sure you must have an exciting story to tell of your journey here. Share only a little, and I shall be merciful to your people. Tell me of your dealings with Mithrandir."

Bilbo recognised the name as one Lord Elrond had used, but he thought Thorin's confusion was genuine when he said, "Who?"

"The Grey Pilgrim."

There was a pause, and even Bilbo could hear the shift to dissembling in Thorin's voice. "The old wizard? He hasn't come to the Blue Mountains in decades."

"Do not lie to me, Thorin Oakenshield," the king hissed, "or it will not go well with you, or with your friends."

Thorin stared up at the tall figure looming above him. "I spoke no lie."

Thranduil extended a hand backward to Legolas, who passed him the map and key. "You were heading to Erebor, were you not? You would risk waking the dragon and endangering all who dwell in these lands?"

"Those are keepsakes of my lost homeland - a legacy of my family," Thorin growled.

"Only a keepsake?" Thranduil unfolded the map. "And yet, there is a hand drawn, pointing to a door on the western face of the mountain. And here is a key. Perhaps it matches this door? Come, now, what say these runes?"

"They say you should go fuck yourself on an orc-spear!" Thorin surged to his feet and lunged.

The elf holding the neck-rope pulled on it sharply, and the one with the bill-hook caught his hobbles. He staggered and subsided again.

"Very well," said Thranduil, casually turning his back on Thorin to return to his throne. "If he doesn't want to talk, take him back to the hive."

The elf-guards moved cautiously toward Thorin again.

"It is a shame," Thranduil said mildly, sitting primly and looking off to one side. "Your people could be safe and well-fed, if you would only be honest with me."

Thorin planted his feet, and the elf tugging on his arm-rope nearly stumbled. "What surety will you give me, that you will aid them if I speak to you?"

Thranduil's lips crimped. "Surety? You will simply have to trust me."

"As my grandfather trusted you to honour your treaties with him?"

Thranduil's eyes narrowed, and the two kings battled with gazes across half the length of the hall.

Thorin shook his head. "Durin's children place no trust in the honour of elves." He glanced back over his shoulder and jerked his head, pulling the rope and causing an elf to stagger. Then, with great dignity, he led his little entourage of guards out of the hall.

There was no agony of decision-making this time. Bilbo followed Thorin.

The guards were not gentle in propelling Thorin along the halls. They had to shove quite hard to throw a dwarf off balance, but when one of them did, the hobbles sent Thorin into the wall. Another guard smacked his arm to start him moving again.

Thorin remained propped against the wall a moment, his eyes moving from one elf to another as if noting their faces for future retribution. Tauriel said something flatly to the other guards and pulled on Thorin's shoulder to bring him upright. He shrugged her off and started walking again, and the elves left off their harassment.

The halls became narrower as they passed through the warren of caves, and Bilbo grew nervous. There was still enough room for three elves to walk abreast, surely enough - but if two were walking abreast and did not know they were about to pass an invisible third person, they might very well bump into him. He had to stay far enough back from the group that he would have time to react if any of the guards turned around, or if they crossed paths with someone going in the opposite direction.

Then they came to a large door of heavy wood bound in wrought iron with a great iron lock, and Bilbo had to rush to get through that door right behind the guards, before it closed. On the other side was a large room with six walls. The door they had come in was in one wall, and each of the other walls had a similar thick wooden door. Weapons, armour, shields and bows hung upon the walls. At a table in the center of the room three elves were gathered about something that looked like a game of dice or bones, but they stood and watched as Thorin was brought in.

Tauriel accepted a large ring of keys from one of the folk by the table, and gestured to two other guards to bring Thorin behind her to the door directly opposite the entrance. Once again Bilbo had to dodge and scurry around the remaining guards who filled the room to slip through the door before it closed.

The hall beyond went straight for a short distance - only a few paces for the elves, although more for Bilbo - and then turned at an angle. Where it turned there was a metal grille that formed the door to a prison cell. Tauriel unlocked this, and the two guards pushed Thorin through.

"Hold," said Tauriel. She stood a moment looking at Thorin silently. Bilbo could not see what passed between them, but Thorin turned about and allowed her to remove the rope from his neck and unbind his arms. When she knelt to remove the hobble the two waiting guards tensed and held their truncheons ready, but Thorin stood motionless until the rope was gone, then turned around to watch as the barred door swung shut to be locked by Tauriel.

There was barely enough room for Bilbo to flatten himself behind the large wooden door as the elves exited back to their guard room. That door slammed and Bilbo heard the key turn in the lock, then there was no further noise from the room beyond. Timidly, he crept down the hall toward Thorin's cell, and beyond it. After its kink, the hallway continued another few elf-paces and ended in a second grilled door. When Bilbo looked through that door he saw nothing beyond, so he returned to Thorin's door instead.

The cell was bare but not vile. It was six-sided like the guard room so that there was no corner which was not visible from the door, but the spaces to either side had some privacy from the end of the hall. On one side was a lidded ceramic chamberpot, and against the far wall was a pallet of moderate thickness that was more than large enough for a dwarf to stretch out upon. There were even a pillow and coarse blanket, which actually looked rather attractive to Bilbo after weeks of travel. The only light came from a torch in the hall, but dim lighting and cool stone walls were no hardship for a dwarf.

Thorin was standing at the foot of the pallet, only visible when Bilbo came right up to the grille. He had one arm propped against the wall and his head bowed upon that arm.

Bilbo swallowed. "Psst! Thorin!"

The dwarf's head snapped around. He took a step toward the door, frowning, then shook his head and turned back to the pallet.

"Thorin, it's me, Bilbo!"

This time Thorin came right up to the door. "Halfling?" he murmured uncertainly.

"Yes, it's me. The others are all right - they've all been captured, except for me."

Thorin came close to the grille and tried to look sideways, along the bend of the hall toward the empty second cell. "Where are you?"

That was when Bilbo realised that he was still wearing his ring. He had become so used to it, and to the grey appearance of the world while he was wearing it, that he had quite forgotten he was trying to keep it a secret from the dwarves. That effort was doomed now, if there was even any chance after the spiders.

"I'm invisible." Bilbo glanced back along the hall. The door was solid, and he would surely hear if it was unlocked with enough time to put the ring back on. So he pulled it off his finger, blinking in the dim torchlight.

Thorin started back with a half-muffled exclamation. "How did you do that?"

"Got a magic ring." Bilbo smiled weakly and held it up a moment for Thorin to see, then tucked it into his pocket.

Thorin gaped at him, and then laughed out loud. The sound was more pained and less free than that night at the camp by the river, but Bilbo was glad to hear it nonetheless. "So that was why Gandalf was so certain you would make a good burglar! He might have told us!"

Bilbo blinked. His first instinct was to explain that no, Gandalf didn't know about the ring, but really Thorin's version of the story made much more sense than 'I found it lying at the bottom of a goblin-cave.' He shifted uneasily. "Well . . . yes, I prefer to keep quiet about it."

"I should imagine so. Did Gandalf give it you?"

"He . . . it was a birthday present . . . to my grandfather Took, who was a friend of Gandalf's," said Bilbo, remembering the actual gift, silver cuff-clasps that only came undone when ordered. "And then it came down to me." Bilbo kept his face still, because this part of the story didn't work so well; the Old Took had had nearly thirty grandchildren, and the ones who actually bore the Took name had received the greater part of the inheritance. The silver cuff-clasps were passed down to the next Thain, and Bilbo's portion through his mother was only money - a respectable amount, but nothing remarkable.

"So that was how you stole all that food from under the elves' noses," Thorin mused. "But how did you come to be spotted by the trolls?"

"Oh, well, that was early in our journey. I wasn't expecting trouble, so I, er, left the ring in my pack. But I learned better after that." Bilbo rocked on his feet, pleased with this explanation.

"And a good thing too, or you could never have slipped away from those goblins."

Bilbo frowned at having his own accomplishment misattributed.

Thorin caught at the bars in the door. "Did you say everyone is all right?"

"Yes, they're . . . not well, precisely. Bombur is quite sick. But all safe and whole, and somewhere hereabouts. They were caught by spiders . . ." As Bilbo told the story, he felt weary just remembering it all. His arms and legs ached from running and stabbing. And more running and crouching since he had come to the elf-halls.

Thorin was clearly delighted to hear that the party were all alive and out of danger, but once his initial relief had passed he became solemn again. "With all of us captive, there is little hope of continuing our quest before Durin's day comes. Perhaps I should accede to Thranduil's demands." He rubbed his face wearily. "He is not likely to send us on our way with a pat on the back, whatever I may tell him."

Bilbo blinked. "But . . . we're not all captive. I'm still free. I thought . . ."

Thorin frowned. "What did you think?"

"Well, that you would want me to arrange an escape. For all of us."

Thorin reached through the bars to touch Bilbo's hand, and he unconsciously returned the clasp. "Do you think that will be possible?"

Bilbo gave a little laugh. "Honestly? I have no idea. We only just got here, and the place is huge. I'll have to learn my way about, and find out where the others are being kept." He supposed the other doors leading off from the guard room would be a good place to start looking, but of course he would have to wait until those doors were opened by elves. Perhaps it would be possible at mealtimes. "I can try, anyway. It will help if you can share some food with me - they have been feeding you, haven't they?"

Thorin laughed again, a little more easily this time. "Yes, they have - two meals so far today, and likely another soon. I do seem to recall something in your contract stating that we would provide for you."

"Just so," said Bilbo with a small grin.

"What's mine is yours, dear burglar. As for escaping . . . I seem to have lost track of the date."

Bilbo counted on his fingers. "I don't think it can be much past the tenth of Wedmath. Or the twelfth, maybe."

Thorin raised an eyebrow.

"In the Shire reckoning, that is." Bilbo knew nothing of dwarven calendars, and had only studied elven ones for amusement, so that he could scarcely remember any detail now. "Less than a month and a half since midsummer. I think."

"In that case," Thorin considered, "you can have a month to find a method of escape. Less than that would be preferable, of course."

"Of course," Bilbo said weakly. A month seemed a very long time to be sneaking around cadging food and trying not to bump into elves, but also a very short time to arrange the escape of thirteen dwarves from under the same elves' very noses.

"If you can't come up with anything in that time, I'll give Thranduil whatever he wants."

Bilbo reflected that it would probably take far longer than one month for Thorin and Thranduil to come to any sort of understanding. Likely he could steal every spoon one at a time from the elves' kitchens before such an eventuality came to pass.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo heard a key turning in the lock at the end of the hall, he started up from the floor where he had settled outside of Thorin's cell. Slipping his ring on, he darted to the end of the hall and stopped near the empty cell. He watched as an elf came to Thorin's cell, passed a plate of food through the bars, emptied Thorin's chamberpot (which Bilbo had been glad to learn would also pass through the bars so that he might use it), and departed without saying a word or glancing to the dark end of the hall. Once the door was locked again, Bilbo ventured forth. and pulled off his ring.

"Here," said Thorin, passing the plate back through to Bilbo. It had chunks of meat which looked like pheasant, unseasoned and dry but cooked thoroughly enough, with a roll of bread perhaps one or two days old. Plain fare for a prisoner, but filling enough.

Bilbo took two bits of meat and ripped the bread roll in half, then tried to pass the plate through again.

"Eat it all," Thorin commanded.

Bilbo blinked at him.

"I've had two meals today while you had none. And I did not spend the day stabbing spiders and running through the forest."

Bilbo swallowed the meat he had been chewing. "I haven't been wrestling with elves, though."

Thorin's eyes narrowed. "You would question my decision?"

"No, of course not!" Bilbo looked down at the plate. His stomach would certainly be happier if he ate the whole thing. "I . . . well . . . thank you." He sat on the floor with the plate across his knees and took another piece of meat.

Thorin's glower shifted to a smug gleam. "Here. You'll need water as well."

Bilbo accepted the wooden cup but drank only half. "There's a fountain by the front gate - it's already splashing so I was able to drink my fill and no one noticed." He tore off another piece of the bread.

"You will need to learn your way around these caves, and soon," Thorin reflected.

Bilbo nodded between bites. "I'll need to find a place to take a bath. The elves can smell me. It's not a problem when I'm standing right next to a dwarf - er, no offence intended."

Thorin snorted. "I'm certain we are each as charming as the next." He considered a moment. "Look to the south."

"Hmm?" Bilbo said around a mouthful of pheasant.

"If I read these caves aright, there will be hot springs somewhere at the southern end of the complex. The elves will likely have bathing pools there."

"Oh. And which way is south?"

Thorin sighed. "From Thranduil's throne hall, I was taken out by the northern passage. The guard room and cells are north and east from there. Start from the throne hall and look for another passage on the opposite side."

"How do you keep track of all that?"

"I'm a dwarf. But I would have thought that hobbits, being accustomed to living underground, would have the same skill."

Bilbo shook his head. "Hobbit holes have windows, which usually face south so that we can check by the sun. I've never been in deep caves before coming on this journey." He contemplated the empty plate, deciding it would not be rude in dwarven company but would be undignified to lick the last crumbs from its surface. "I suppose you'd better keep this inside there."

"No, the guard will pick it up before the next meal."

Bilbo set the plate in the hall where it could have been dropped by Thorin, then looked back and forth along the corridor. "I can sleep down at the end, there. When the elves come next - I suppose it will be in the morning? - I shall have to leave immediately behind them."

"Do you want my pillow?"

"No, I'm sure that would look odd to the elves. It would probably stay visible. Oh, wait." Bilbo stood and slipped his ring onto his finger. "Hand me something - the plate or the cup. Then tell me if it becomes invisible when I take it."

Thorin extended the wooden cup through the bars, watching with interest. "It disappeared. Not when you first grasped it, but when you lifted it from my hand."

Bilbo pressed the cup back into Thorin's fingers.

"That looks so very odd. The cup did not appear as soon as I touched it, but only when you let go."

Bilbo considered that and then pulled out his sword. "You can't see this, can you?"

"No, but I can hear it."

"Oh, dear, I never cleaned the spider blood from it." Bilbo brushed at the stains with his sleeve, then sheathed the dirty blade and shrugged out of his coat. "Can you see my coat?"

"No."

Bilbo dropped it.

"Now I see it."

Bilbo picked up the coat, bundled it into a roll, and lay down upon it without releasing it; Thorin could not see the coat. But if Bilbo sat up the coat appeared, and if he lay upon it while it was visible it remained so.

"Something that I touch does not become invisible unless I pick it up completely."

"And something that you set down does not become visible until you release it completely."

"Rather a tricky detail, but certainly better to know it than not." Bilbo considered the chances that he might roll away from his pillow while asleep, against the unpleasantness of sleeping without even an improvised pillow.

Thorin grimaced. "This is too dangerous - there are too many chances for you to be caught."

"Then I'll be in the same situation you are in. The elves won't eat me, or murder me."

Thorin shook his head. "They sleep but little. You will find it hard to creep about undetected, even in the middle of the night."

"But Gandalf was right when he said hobbits are quick and light on our feet. Even if an elf thinks someone might be there, he will likely reach right over my head. And I have the ring, and now I know more about how it works." Bilbo nodded firmly. "I do think this might work out. I'm ready to give it a try, in any case." He toyed with his ring, glancing to the end of the hall. "I should take my leave of you now, since there will be no chance when the elves come in."

Thorin inclined his head regally. "I shall forgive the rudeness . . . this time."

Bilbo smiled and gave him a small wave before putting the ring on once more. As he was settling himself with his coat-pillow on the stone floor, he heard Thorin bid him, "Sleep well, burglar. But sleep lightly."

Bilbo's mind was racing and he thought that he would get little sleep, though he was exhausted and the stone floor was no less comfortable than other places he had slept of late. But somewhere in the middle of making lists of things he must find, things he must obtain, and things he must do, he dropped off.

He woke when the hall door opened, and fortunately he remembered to keep hold of his coat as he got up. The hall torch had gone out sometime in the night, and the elf-guard was relighting it before he picked up the plate and cup left outside Thorin's door and stepped out again. Bilbo, who had expected something more, was stuck within the hall again. But he hadn't heard the lock turn so he thought the guard would be coming back soon, and he positioned himself by the door after a glance toward Thorin's cell; the dwarf-prince was sitting on the edge of his pallet and peering along the corridor. Bilbo pulled off his ring quickly, waved at Thorin, and put it back on again as the door swung open a second time. The guard was carrying a plate and cup now, but Bilbo didn't take the time to look as he crept through to the guard-room before the heavy wooden door could swing shut.

There were three elves in the guard-room, wearing what Bilbo now suspected was a fairly standard uniform. Two of them were talking near the exit door, and Tauriel sat at the table frowning over some pieces of paper that Bilbo could not see because the table's surface was too high for him. He could, however, make out a tall ewer and a large platter waiting upon the table, with fruit and bread similar to what had just been delivered to Thorin.

He looked about the room for a corner to hide in, but every wall had a door in it and he wasn't sure where anybody might be going next. So he scurried into the only sensible place, underneath the table. It seemed quite spacious and he could easily walk with no more crouching than Gandalf required at Bag-End. But he reminded himself firmly that elves have long legs and he would have to be very careful if anyone else sat down. For now, it was easy enough to avoid the one pair of legs. He crouched and watch the door to Thorin's hallway.

After a minute the guard returned, closing and locking the hall door, then picked up a candle and went to the next door to the right of Thorin's. Bilbo checked the positions of the other elves, then hurried through the door after the guard. On the other side he found a very similar-looking hallway with a bend in it and a barred door.

The guard relit the corridor torch from the candle he carried, then went to the door of the cell to demand the plates and cups from last night's dinner. These, Bilbo saw, were handed through by Bofur.

"I want to know about my brother," said Bofur. "How's he doing?"

The guard just laughed and retreated back up the hall. Apparently there was, once again, no one in the second cell.

As soon as the guard stepped out, without relocking the door, Bilbo pulled off his ring and hurried down the hall. "Bofur!" he hissed.

"What - what're you doing 'ere?" Bofur demanded in astonishment.

Bilbo backed partway past the bend of the hall so that he would still be able to speak to Bofur, but not visible from the door. "I have a magic ring that makes me invisible," he said in a low voice.

Nori appeared next to Bofur and gave him a punch on the shoulder. "Told you I saw him disappear, didn't I?"

"But how did you -" Bofur began.

Bilbo interrupted him heartlessly. "There's no time to explain now. I'm trying to find a way out, but first I have to find out where everybody is. Thorin is here. He -" He broke off as he heard the door creak and quickly put on his ring.

The guard delivered plates of food and cups of water to Nori and Bofur, then Bilbo had to hurry after him to get back to the guard room again. He was getting good at ducking through doorways while an elf was also passing through; it did help that he was so much smaller and could easily pass underneath the arm that was either pushing the door open or pulling it closed.

The next door to the right of Nori and Bofur's hall proved to hold Fili and Kili, once again in the first cell with no one in the second. This time he was more ready to deliver a few quick words during the brief interval while the guard was readying the plates of food. "I have a magic ring that makes me invisible. No time to explain. Thorin is here, safe. Don't tell Thranduil anything. I can't stay - I'm exploring - I'll come back later." And then he had to pop the ring on again.

That went smoothly enough, but back in the guard room Bilbo realised that the next door around the room was the exit door. The platter of food was empty - apparently the breakfast delivery was finished, but he'd not even found half the dwarves yet. Were all eight of the others kept in the two remaining halls, or was there another block of cells somewhere?

The guard who had been delivering the food said something to Tauriel in Sindarin, and she replied in the same language with a wave at a lidded bucket. The guard said something that was clearly a complaint, and Tauriel raised an eyebrow as she tapped the papers before her. A schedule of chores, perhaps? Or a list of who had won or lost at their dicing game the previous night? With a grumble, the guard picked up the bucket and trudged, to Bilbo's happiness, to the first door to the right of the exit hall.

Emptying chamberpots only required one trip by the guard into each hall, so Bilbo did not have a chance to speak to the dwarves unless he wished to be locked into the hall until the next mealtime. He would do that eventually, but for now his first task was to learn where everything and everyone was.

The first hall had Oin and Bombur in the first cell - Bombur was lying on the pallet, and Oin made a demand for medicine that sounded to Bilbo as if it had been made before. The guard ignored him. The second cell in the same hall held Gloin and Bifur; here, again, Bifur was lying on the pallet, but Bilbo did see him move and Gloin did not look terribly worried. Then it was time to scurry up the hall again. Fortunately, the elf held the bucket well away from his body, which also necessitated opening the door wide. Bilbo popped out of the hall and under the table, waiting for the next door to be opened.

The second hall held Ori and Dwalin in the first cell, Balin and Dori in the second. Satisfied that he had found all the dwarves, Bilbo went under the table and waited while the guard worked his way through all the cells, his bucket getting heavier. At last it was time for the guard to carry the bucket away, amid many complaints about the unpleasantness of the task to which the other guards responded with jeers and laughter. Bilbo suspected this would be an excellent opportunity for him to move through the rest of the elven halls without elves being surprised by any odor they might detect, so he followed.

Although he did not have a dwarf's skill at reading stone or telling directions underground, Bilbo had no difficulty remembering paths through winding halls; though larger, this cave system was no more labyrinthine than the Great Smials or Brandy Hall, both of which Bilbo had explored extensively in his childhood. He followed the guard to a water-closet where the smelly bucket was emptied into a hole with a splash, and then began cautiously to make his own explorations. He found his way back to the audience hall, and to the room where the dwarves' belongings had been placed.

This room was empty of people, and Bilbo felt safe spending a little time looking over all the items left there, though he kept his ring on since anyone might come through the doorless archway at any time. He didn't dare reclaim anything that might be noticed, but he did pocket a few of the nicer beard-aiglets, angry that even such a small piece of dignity had been stolen from his friends. Ori's journal was still missing, as were the map and key; one of the tasks on the list Bilbo had been compiling mentally was to find out where those were being kept. But in Ori's satchel he did find some blank scraps of paper and a bit of charcoal that would be useful for passing messages.

He still had a great deal to do, but he was starting to get the hang of creeping about invisibly (and he had begun to wonder whether Gollum had walked upright more often before he acquired the magic ring). He only had the very beginnings of a plan, but at least the first part was working out, piece by piece.

And then he heard noise in the corridor and saw Fili and Kili being urged toward the audience hall by a group of guards. With a little mental groan of worry, Bilbo followed after.

Chapter Text

Fili and Kili were brought to the audience hall unbound, but there were six elven guards ranged around them, in addition to the honour guards that stood about the hall itself with bows at the ready. Thranduil was alone upon his throne this time, with neither the queen nor Legolas present. Bilbo bit his lip, hoping the lack of moderating influence did not mean the king would be intemperate.

"You two," said the king slowly. "You seem very young, for a quest so perilous."

Fili's face might have been carved from stone. Kili glanced at his brother and then stared at the floor.

"I would not think you could be more than, perhaps, seventy years old?" Thranduil looked as if he expected admiration for his ability to estimate the ages of mortals, but the two dwarves remained expressionless. "Unscarred, untried in battle . . ."

Kili stirred, but Fili leaned into him a little and both kept silent.

Thranduil stood gracefully, all in one motion, and approached the two. He waved at the guards to back off a few paces and they did so, looking doubtful.

Fili glanced around quickly, as if estimating their chances at making a break for it. He must have decided they were not good, for he stood in place and only moved his head back a little as Thranduil raised a hand almost to his face.

"These braids signify an heir of the house of Durin, do they not?" said Thranduil, not quite touching. "I never heard that Thorin Oakenshield had married or sired children."

Fili didn't react except for his common slight frown, but that apparently was enough.

"But he did not, did he? You must be a . . . cousin? Or nephew?" Thranduil leaned close and Bilbo could only see what he breathed into Fili's ear, not hear it. "Or niece?"

Fili stiffened. Kili hadn't heard Thranduil but looked over nervously at his brother's reaction.

"And this one. Even younger, and braidless. Yet I can see you two are very close. Brothers? Or something else?"

Kili was about to burst out with something, Bilbo could see it. But to his surprise, it was Fili who erupted, "What have you done with Thorin?"

Thranduil stepped back, brows rising and lips crimped. "What makes you think I have done anything with him?"

"You were talking to him, right before we all fell asleep. And he wasn't taken by the spiders."

"Was he not?"

"Where is he?" Fili took half a step forward, and now it was Kili restraining his brother. "Tell us the truth!" Fili roared.

"But that is a courtesy you have not granted to me."

Fili was growling dwarvish insults, which only seemed to amuse Thranduil as he turned his back on the pair and waved to the guards to take them away.

Bilbo followed behind the group, with Fili struggling all the way and Kili looking confused but doing the same anyway. As soon as the brothers were in their cell and the solid door of the guard room swung closed, Kili turned to his brother. "What was that?"

"What was what?" asked Fili mildly. His belligerence had disappeared with the guards, and now his eyes had an amused crinkle.

"Thorin is safe, Bilbo said so!"

Bilbo gave the door one last glance and pulled off his ring. "Yes, Bilbo said so! What were you doing?"

"Bilbo!" Kili exclaimed happily.

"Told you we didn't imagine it," Fili said with a grin.

"So then why were you asking about Thorin?" Kili demanded.

"Because Thranduil doesn't know that we know about Thorin. And we want to keep it that way."

Kili's eyebrows went up. "Ah. Clever, that!"

"No, it's not!" Bilbo hissed. "You were to say nothing to Thranduil at all!"

"He was going to keep provoking us until we said something, you know that," said Fili patiently.

"Wait - you were there, Bilbo?" Kili asked.

"Of course he was, you dolt, he was invisible."

Kili shoved his brother.

"You need to be careful what you say to Thranduil," Bilbo pressed, still angry at them. "He's very clever. And tricky. And he can tell when you're lying."

"That's why I planned ahead of time for something to say in case he just kept pushing us. This way, instead of arguing with him about a topic he chose, we ended the conversation by pretending to be angry about Thorin, and Thranduil still thinks we don't know he's safe."

Bilbo let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. "All right, I admit that was well done. It would have been worse to let him provoke you. But be careful! Thranduil is . . . I don't know how old he is. Thousands of years, probably."

"What, and that means he's smarter than we are?" Kili retorted.

Bilbo gritted his teeth. "He's more experienced. He's seen everything. He knows all the tricks, all the lies -"

"He knows how to tell if a dwarf is female," Fili put in worriedly.

Kili's head whipped around. "What?"

"He whispered it in my ear. He knows, Kili."

"Both of us?"

"I'm not sure. Me, at least. I think he was about to say something about you when I interrupted him."

"What's he going to do about it?"

Bilbo had been worrying about the same thing, but seeing the alarm on their faces he wanted to reassure them. "He's not an evil person, I don't think. Just . . ."

"Lying, scheming, conniving, and manipulating?" Fili suggested.

"Well, yes. I don't think he'll hurt you."

"He doesn't want to know about the quest just so he can help us with it, though," Kili said.

"No, that's true."

"So we delay," Fili concluded. "We play dumb -"

"You stay mum!" Bilbo corrected. "Even if you lie to him, if he knows you're lying he can guess at the real truth."

Both dwarves nodded solemnly.

"So you're going to find a way to get us out of here?" Kili asked.

"Yes, well . . . that's the plan, anyway. Right now I'm still learning my way around. I haven't any real ideas yet."

Their expressions drooped.

"It's going to take some time. Thorin said I might have a month, and then he will try to strike a deal."

"No!" "He can't do that!" they protested.

"If we're to reach the mountain by Durin's day . . ." Bilbo shook his head doubtfully. "For now, you'll have to be patient. Eat up, get your strength back. Are you over the effects of the spider bites?"

"I think so," said Fili.

Kili screwed his face up.

"What is it?" Fili said. "Are you still sick?"

"Not sick. Just a bit dizzy. It will pass."

Bilbo nodded. "I'm sure it will. I'll check on the others. Probably some got worse bites or got bitten more than once - and Bombur was already sick beforehand."

"Is he doing all right?"

Bilbo winced. "I'm not sure. I only had time for a glimpse. He wasn't moving, but I'm sure he wasn't dead or in serious trouble, or Oin would have been making a great deal more noise about it. Oh, and that reminds me -" He pulled the paper and charcoal from his pocket. "I want to write some notes to the others, something small I can toss into their cell if I only have a moment and can't afford to make any noise. But if the notes should be found . . . well, I thought it might help if they're written in dwarvish lettering and language. Can you do that?"

"Of course," said Fili. "But won't the elves be able to read it anyway?"

"Apparently not. They couldn't read the runes on the map."

"Those are ancient. None of us could understand them, either," Kili put in.

"They couldn't read Ori's journal, either. You can use the same script, can't you?"

Fili nodded.

"And everyone will be able to read that?"

Fili nodded again, but Kili looked doubtful. "Balin's lenses," he said. "The goblins destroyed them."

"Balin is sharing a cell with Dori."

"That's all right, then, Dori can read the note."

Fili took the paper and charcoal through the bars. "What should I write? It has to have everything important, but it should be short. For one thing, there isn't much paper. And you need how many copies?"

Bilbo counted on his fingers. "Four. At least. Maybe another one for Bofur and Nori, I only had a few seconds to speak to them earlier."

"Right." Fili straightened out the scraps of paper and tore the largest piece into two, then began writing. "Thorin is here and well," he recited.

"Bilbo has a magic ring that makes him invisible!" Kili said with relish.

"Yes, yes, give me a moment . . ." Fili started making his runes smaller.

"Trying to arrange escape, may need few weeks. Tell elf-king nothing," Bilbo suggested, keeping his words brief although he didn't know if that would be any help in the dwarven tongue.

"'Tell lying elves nothing,' got it. What else?"

"Bilbo will visit soon?" Bilbo added.

"Better put in something about destroying the note," said Kili. "Ooh, we can tell them to eat it!"

Fili snorted. "I bet Ori would do it. Nori too, most likely."

"Tell them to tear it up small and put it in the chamberpot," said Bilbo in exasperation.

"This is getting a bit long," Fili commented, squeezing in the last runes at the bottom of the page.

They heard the key in the door lock.

"Give it to me!" Bilbo hissed. "No no, all the paper, and the charcoal, I'll copy the message!" He barely got his ring on in time before an elf guard entered the hall and demanded the breakfast plates from Fili and Kili. Bilbo slipped out behind her to the guard room. This time, only one other elf was present in the guard room, fletching arrows at the table and looking bored.

When the female guard took a mid-day meal in to Nori and Bofur, Bilbo followed. He ended up having to stay with the two of them for the rest of the afternoon because he only had the one note ready and needed that to copy for the others. But at least it meant that he was able to share some of their meal of cheese and bread - a relief, since he hadn't managed to filch any breakfast and he didn't like to think what would happen if his stomach started to growl with an elf standing within a few feet.

Bilbo's days continued for a while in similar pattern. The regular delivery of meals provided his best chance to visit other dwarf cells and toss in a message, or to slip out entirely and explore. But the routine did not always go smoothly; once he got stuck crouching under the table in the guard-room with his muscles cramping for several hours. Being locked in the cell blocks with the dwarves was far more comfortable, especially at night, for he feared to sleep anywhere that he might be heard snoring without the louder sounds of sleeping dwarves to cover the noise. The dwarves learnt to put up a clamour each morning to be certain that Bilbo awakened with the guard's arrival, and they were all willing to share food with him - even Bombur, which caused Oin to look deeply concerned.

Bombur had been carried out on a litter the second morning after their capture, and Bilbo had followed. The elves took him to an airy, sweet-smelling chamber that was apparently intended for healing, for there was a still-room adjacent with many herbs and tisanes, some that Bilbo recognised and others he had never seen or smelt before. The queen herself - her attendants called her Miriel, but Bilbo was not certain if that was a name or a title - waited upon Bombur, spreading a sparkling salve over the ugly spider-bite on his chin and feeding him cordials and tisanes. Creeping cautiously about the room, Bilbo found an alcove with another sick-bed, and upon it slept the elf he had found in the spider cocoons. He was pale, but clearly breathing, and looked far better than he had when Bilbo first cut him free. Bilbo hoped this meant that the queen's treatment would be helpful to Bombur as well, and indeed Oin relaxed considerably when Bombur was brought back to the cell and requested some food.

Each day one or more dwarves would be led out to be questioned by the king; Thorin was taken most days, with an honour guard of at least six for himself alone, but the others were usually taken in pairs. When Bilbo watched the interrogations, he found the dwarves playing mute and Thranduil becoming increasingly frustrated by his lack of progress, but occasionally Thorin or Fili or Nori would toss the king a few hints that made him think he was getting to them. It was all pretence, though, for Bilbo took care to inform the dwarves of the truth behind the king's latest lies whenever he could.

One time Bofur and Nori returned from their audience bound about with ropes, and Bofur had a bruise darkening his cheek. The two of them were put into separate cells, although it was on the same hallway so they could still converse though they couldn't see each other. When Bilbo anxiously asked what had happened, the two dwarves were happy to give him a tale of how they had convinced Thranduil that they were arguing amongst themselves, and no doubt with a little more pressure one or the other of them could be persuaded to turn on his companions. This made Bilbo very nervous, but it did induce Thranduil to concentrate on individual questioning of those two for several days while leaving the others alone, even Thorin. Nori was apparently able to lie with such a straight face that even Thranduil could not detect it, and Bofur would piffle on about inconsequentials unrelated to what the king really wanted to discover.

All of the doors to the dwarf-cells were kept closed whenever meals were being delivered or when prisoners were led in or out. But between meals, one door was frequently left open so that the guards might hear the prisoners inside. Never two doors; the dwarves kept in different halls were supposed to have no communications with each other, though of course the elves did not know about Bilbo.

The first few days door left open led to the first hall, holding the cells with Oin and Bombur, Gloin and Bifur. Bilbo gathered that the guards had been told to monitor the sickest of the dwarves. After both Bombur and Bifur had received treatment from the queen, the guards began leaving the door to Fili and Kili's cell block open instead. This lasted for a few days, and then it was the door leading to Dwalin and Ori, Balin and Dori. After Nori and Bofur staged their argument, the guards left their door open and listened to the two hurling occasional insults and sulks at each other. Thorin's hall was never left open.

The open hallways were both easier and more difficult for Bilbo; it meant he could creep in and out without waiting for a guard to pass through, but he couldn't actually speak to the dwarves without being overheard. He did get good at tossing his little notes carefully into a corner the guards wouldn't easily see, and the dwarves developed a habit of singing raucous songs when their hall was left open, both to annoy the guards and to cover any sounds made by Bilbo or anyone who might want to whisper to him.

Bilbo had learned one reason for the custom of the open doors which he did not share with anyone. On the third day, he slipped out during the mid-day meal delivery to seek out the hot springs and get himself a bath. He hoped that it would be less busy during the day when the elves were occupied with other tasks, but of course many of the corridors leading there had elves coming and going that Bilbo had to avoid.

The baths were in a grotto, partly open to the sky. The hot springs steamed at the back of the cave and cascaded downward in a series of pools, combining with river water that flowed in through a separate opening so that the higher pools were scalding hot and lower ones were more tepid. A variety of soft mosses and ferns grew throughout the grotto, granting privacy for some of the pools. Bilbo had heard that such springs often had an unpleasant smell, like rotten eggs; this water did not smell quite like a simple river, but the hot metallic steam was not displeasing.

Bilbo stood in the entryway longer than was safe, his head tilted back to watch the open sky and feel the breeze upon his face. Aside from the day when he had battled spiders and then scrambled behind the dwarves and their elven guards to come to these caves, he had hardly seen the sky in some weeks.

At length he stirred and realised that he was standing in a dangerous spot. Fortunately he had been right; the middle of a warm late-summer day was not when the elves would come to seek the heat of the baths. Bilbo had the place to himself, at least for now.

He found the most private pool with the hottest temperature that he could bear, thinking this would get the stains and smells out most reliably. He had filched some of the elves' soap - thick liquid that they kept in pots like honey and used on body, clothes, and hair alike.

Bilbo started with his sword, washing away the last of the dreadful ichor that he had not been able to rub off with simple cloth. "I should take better care of you," he muttered to the little blade. "You have a name now, after all - did I tell you? Your name is Sting." It had come to him during the spider fight, when he had neither breath nor safety to tell anyone but himself. He remembered the meal in Rivendell and wondered what Balin would think of the name.

When the sword was clean he dried it upon his coat and re-sheathed it. He was still alone. Taking a deep breath for courage, he unbuckled the sword and set it aside under a fern. Then he emptied his pockets one by one. Finally, fearfully, he pulled off his ring.

He had almost forgotten what it was like to see the world plain, with bright colors and dark shadows. He blinked at the sunlight angling in through the opening above the grotto and the blueness of the sky above, and the brilliant green of the plants all about him. It seemed unutterably beautiful, as if something had been returned to him that he had not known was missing. A tension inside of him uncoiled slowly.

He set the ring next to his other things, in a hollow where it would not roll, but within his reach from the edge of the pool, and then slipped into the water fully clothed. There was a ledge to hold him - probably an elf could sit upon it comfortably with head above water, but Bilbo had to stand and still the water came well above his waist. If he stepped off the ledge the water would likely be above his head, but fortunately there was no current to pull at him.

He had never really tried to wash body and clothes at the same time, and it seemed he was doing everything backwards. He soaped his coat and then took it off to scrub it the more thoroughly. It was quite threadbare, especially at the elbows and cuffs, with tears in odd places where he had encountered sharp rocks or branches or perhaps tips of weapons. He could not even recall where each hole had come from, which he thought meant that he had had entirely enough of adventuring in the last few months - or at least his coat had.

At length he wrung out the coat and set it aside upon the moss, then worked upon the rest of his clothing until he had got right down to his skin. The elves were quite right about the way Bilbo smelled, and he was delighted to let that all wash away into the metal-scented water to replace it with the soft perfume of the soap. He suspected that his hair would be three shades lighter, once it dried.

But he did not have time to soak all the aches from his abused muscles, for now elvish voices were floating in from the entrance. Bilbo gasped and snatched up his ring, then realised it did him little good to be invisible and naked. Frantically he pulled on his trews and coat, stuffing all the little bits of paper and stubs of charcoal and beard-aiglets and sharpening-stones and pieces of stolen waybread back into his pockets. He had scarcelyly time to pick up his shirt and waistcoat and sheathed sword and creep back into a corner under a large fern when the owners of the voices came within sight.

Chapter Text

". . . Into a permanent hunch," Prince Legolas was saying, "from spending hours trying to decipher that ragged journal." He came into sight and Bilbo nearly squeaked in surprise, for Legolas was as naked as a newborn babe, and nearly, although not entirely, as hairless.

Tauriel the guard-captain followed him, also clad in nothing but air. "At least you have a window," she gibed good-naturedly. "I'm beginning to feel like a mushroom, spending every day in that armoury room. I'm more accustomed to going out every day for sparring drills, or hunting or patrolling."

The two of them were a study in contrasts. Legolas' skin was as pale as silver and his hair like spun gold flowing down his back. The sleek patch at his groin was just as fine and lay flat against his skin, unlike the curlier body hair of hobbits or dwarves. It made his endowment, even in a quiescent state, look all the larger.

Bilbo had not had as much opportunity to study the female form among hobbits or dwarves, but he was getting quite an eyeful of the female elf as she reached up to bind her hair at her nape. Her skin was creamier than the prince's and unmarred, seeming almost poreless. A few locks of russet hair escaped the binding to cascade down her back, framing the muscles which flexed along the valley of her spine as she bent to step down into the water. The flare of her hips and the pearly globes behind them, more generous than Legolas' muscular buttocks, captured and held Bilbo's gaze like a dragon's eye until they slipped beneath the surface.

They were not using the same hot pool that he had just left, but they were only one level below it, directly within his sight. He kept trying to hold his breath, only to realise that would lead to gasping sooner or later. Remembering that Legolas seemed to sense when he was being watched, Bilbo tried to avert his gaze but found that nearly as impossible as not breathing.

Legolas settled upon a ledge with his head tilted back against the moss. "I've petitioned my father to take a company out and drive those spiders back. I can scarce believe they took Thaluin so near to our feasting ground. But Adar says he can't spare the guards for it."

Tauriel shook her head, more strands of hair escaping to tickle her white shoulders. "I can hardly find enough people for all of the regular guard duties as well as keeping a squad ready to escort prisoners at any times. And some of the chores involved in keeping prisoners are only fit for punishment duty." She wrinkled her nose. "Those dwarves smell terrible."

Legolas laughed. "I know! The odour is spreading everywhere in the palace halls."

Bilbo scowled at the two of them. Had they considered permitting the dwarves to bathe?

"I would bring them here," Tauriel said as if in response to Bilbo's thought, "but this . . . cave?"

"Grotto," Legolas suggested.

"This grotto has too many exits and entrances to guard easily. The dwarves might even be small enough to get through the river passages."

"We would find some very wet and unhappy dwarves washed up at the river-gate, in that case," said Legolas. "If they survived."

"They might try it, regardless. They've not been cooperating with your father."

"Yes, he tells me of it daily," said Legolas, his dark brows quirking doubtfully. "He has a different set of misdirections for each pair of dwarves, to try to persuade them they should speak to him. He went into great detail about how he had matched each pair."

Tauriel sighed. "He has asked me several times if we might secure some of them in other places. He thinks they are communicating with each other too much."

Bilbo gulped, trying to attend to their words rather than their entrancing appearance.

"If he wants them to escape, assuredly we could put them elsewhere. This palace was not built for a prison," Legolas said. "But I think Adar will stop asking for that - he has worked out his scheme for persuading them based upon the groups as they are separated now."

Tauriel turned her head toward the prince and smiled. "And here I was hoping that he had let us put the two pretty ones together for our own enjoyment. We left the door to their hall open, but they would only sit and stare at us. Nothing to hear from them."

Bilbo silently applauded Fili's and Kili's discretion.

"Are none of the others taking advantage of our luxurious accommodations?" Legolas stretched sensuously into the water, slipping an arm about Tauriel's shoulders as he moved closer.

Tauriel giggled musically. "A couple of the ugliest ones. The one with the bald head and the little scribe who looks as if his face was squeezed between two sliding planks? Those two make a racket near every night. Half the guard company have been placing bets on when and how often."

Bilbo bit his lip. His immediate reaction was that Ori and Dwalin were a well-suited pair, but they should not be making displays for the elves. After a moment's thought, however, he suspected that they - or at the least Dwalin - were doing it purposely to distract or annoy the guards. They probably hadn't realised it was actually a source of entertainment.

Legolas pulled Tauriel around in the water to face him; Bilbo supposed she must be straddling his lap, and his face heated at the thought of what might be happening below the water's surface. "And have you managed to see any of what they get up to?"

Tauriel smiled at him a little smugly as her hands traced downward. "Only glimpses. They seem to do it in the usual ways, with the usual parts. Only a great deal more hair."

Legolas tilted his head back with a gasp. "So, those two are both male?"

Tauriel stilled. "What? Of course they are."

"Adar says there are several females among the dwarves, but he wouldn't tell me which ones. Apparently all of them grow beards and address each other as male. But not all of them are."

"Oh, now this we can bet upon!" Tauriel said with relish. "Everyone will place money on the pretty ones, though. If I can figure out another that is less obvious . . ." Her eyes narrowed in thought.

"Have you noticed that Thorin Oakenshield's beard is close-cropped?" Legolas murmured, his own hands sliding down Tauriel's back. "I wondered about that. And he is not uncomely, for a dwarf. Can you imagine, the noble heir of Durin and hero of many battles, a female?"

Bilbo was fuming in outrage, not least because their speculations mirrored his own when he had first learnt that some of the company were female. But he had not taken such a salacious glee in the thought; he had tried to be respectful of their customs rather than mocking them.

Before they could slander Thorin further, there was a jovial call from the entrance and another elf came in, also unclad. He had jet-black hair flowing over skin a shade more golden than either of the others, and his face was like one of the elegant statues at the entrance to Rivendell. He was one that Bilbo had seen several times in the extensive palace kitchens or bringing the platters of food for the prisoners; he always had a cheerful quip for the guards under his peculiar edged smile, but Bilbo had noted that the guards often grimaced rather than laughing.

Legolas, facing toward Bilbo, closed his eyes a moment as if seeking patience. But Tauriel moved away from him and called a greeting to the newcomer, who stepped willingly into the pool beside her and across from Legolas. As he turned, Bilbo glimpsed a texture of scars upon his lower back and thighs, as if he had been burnt or mangled in some dreadful accident.

With a sigh, Legolas said, "We have been speaking Westron, Galion. Tauriel wishes the practice, but father has ordered the guards to use Sindarin wherever the prisoners may hear."

Dark-haired Galion turned toward Tauriel. "Surely, my jewel of the woodland, you are already fluent enough?"

Bilbo had not noticed any accent or awkwardness from Tauriel, but he realised this explained why she and Legolas so often spoke in the common tongue.

Tauriel smiled without the forced strain that Legolas showed. "I need to pick up on anything I might overhear from the prisoners. With more practice comes more ease." She tipped her head ruefully. "So far, I have heard little except rude songs, sung out of tune."

Bilbo blinked. Most of the dwarves had seemed tuneful enough to him. But he had to admit that Oin had trouble making his otherwise fine voice meld with anyone else. And Fili and Kili did better with rhythmic chants than complex melodies.

"Rude songs?" Galion repeated. "The Tauriel I know would never object to such things."

"They are not merely lewd, but rather . . ." Tauriel coughed, and Bilbo noted in surprise that her ears were turning pink. He did not think it was entirely from the heat of the spring.

"Let's hear one, then!" Galion insisted.

Legolas made an impatient movement, but Tauriel turned to smile at him and bring him in on the joke. Then she began, very tunefully indeed, to sing one of Bofur's favourites:

"A wizard's staff has a knob on the end
And you may think it's tragic
That no matter how strong or thick or long
All he does with it is magic!"
[See note at end of chapter]

Galion burst out laughing.

Legolas looked rather scandalised. "That's not rude, it's blasphemous!" he sputtered.

Tauriel raised a brow inquiringly, and Galion said a word in Sindarin that made her nod understanding. She continued, "One of the dwarves sings that song every day. Yesterday the king was asking a pair of the prisoners about Mithrandir, and it was all I could do not to break into the chorus."

"I should like to see Thranduil's face if you did!" Galion exclaimed.

Bilbo felt rather the same, and wondered if he ought to suggest the tactic to Bofur. On balance, however, he thought the song might provoke the king rather too much.

Awkwardly, Legolas turned the topic. "How does your brother? He is recovering?"

Galion sobered. "Still weak and dizzy, but improving slowly. He still cannot remember how he was taken. He says he stepped away from the feast, heard an odd noise and sought the source . . . and then nothing."

"It's fortunate we found Thaluin when we did," Tauriel said. "The queen said he was nearly gone."

A shudder went down Galion's spine, and his voice became artificially bright. "But enough of such grim matters. What was it you were saying when I arrived, about Thorin Oakenshield?"

Tauriel laughed and said, before Legolas could stop her, "We were wondering if Thorin might be female. Apparently some of the dwarves are, but we do not know which ones."

Galion was in profile to Bilbo, but he did not like the half of the smile that spread over the elf's face. "Have you not been watching them, night as well as day?"

"Not every moment," Tauriel said.

"Not upon their chamberpots?"

"Of course not!" Legolas objected.

Galion shrugged. "Bring them to the baths, then."

"We spoke of that," said Tauriel. "Too much opportunity for escape."

"Ah. Try this: tell them you must take their clothes to be laundered."

"They are already in naught but their underthings!" Tauriel returned, laughing.

"Precisely. Then you will know."

"Unless their hair covers all," Legolas put in.

"You might put a few drops of aduvor in their food. Then you may learn what you will and they'll care not a whit."

"That's disgusting!" said Legolas.

Tauriel squeezed Legolas' shoulder, at an angle that perhaps Galion could not see. "Suppose the great Thorin Oakenshield is indeed female," she said, her voice taking on a low purr. "And you find this out with no need for a sleeping draught. What then?"

"I would ask the bearded dwarf princess," said Galion, leaning close to her, "what is it worth to her, to keep this a secret?"

"I am the last of my line, the heir of the house of Durin," said Tauriel, her light voice sounding not at all like Thorin's - and yet the words sent a thrill through Bilbo of anxiety mixed with something else. "The honour of my house depends upon the secret."

"If you have kept this secret so long, comely dwarf maiden, you must have known nothing of the pleasures of the flesh." Galion's hands were moving beneath the water, and Tauriel gasped.

"There have been none who appealed to me," she breathed. "I prefer tall partners, like you and your . . . companion." She glanced over her shoulder at Legolas.

The expression on Legolas' face held as many conflicting emotions as Bilbo felt, yet he stepped forward in answer to her gaze and trailed his fingers down the nape of her neck.

"What will you take, noble elf," said Tauriel tremulously, "in return for your promise of silence?"

Galion moved forward, lifting her in the water and pressing skin to skin. "Perhaps it is not what I will take, Princess Oakenshield," he murmured, "but what I will give." His hips jerked, and Tauriel's chest leapt, her head falling backward.

"Oh!" she moaned. "And your companion here? What is his price?"

Bilbo could not see Galion's face from where he hid, but Legolas looked wary and uncertain.

"I think he may find another path to pleasure," Galion said at last.

"Oh!" cried Tauriel. "Anything. Anything, my captors, if you will only keep my secret."

Legolas glanced about the grotto, and his eyes fell upon the little pot of soap that Bilbo had left sitting upon the moss, scarcely a foot away from his knee. In a moment the fair elf had leapt to the upper level of pools to fetch the soap. Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut, not daring to move or breathe, but acutely conscious of the ache in his groin. The gasps and moans from Galion and Tauriel continued unabated.

When Bilbo slitted his eyes open once more, Legolas was moving in behind Tauriel, his hands working under the water. Just the motion of his elbow seemed unbearably erotic to Bilbo, who was striving not to add his own frustrated moans to the mix of noises.

The other two paused in their motions while Legolas seated himself, and then a more complex rhythm began, Tauriel's voice rising and falling wordlessly even as her body heaved between the two of them. Their hair streamed together, silver-gold and russet and black.

With most of the activity happening below the water's surface, it was not more explicit than the antics Bilbo had listened to more than once upon his journey. He even recalled that he had overheard Ori making merry with both Fili and Kili at once, not so different from what he himself had done. Yet he felt a deep sense of shame to be here spying upon this act and the pretence behind it, and even more so to be excited by what he saw and heard. Among hobbits such a grouping would have been wanton and shameful indeed, and even the dwarves frowned upon two men with one woman, lest any issue should have uncertain parentage.

The elves, clearly, had no such inhibitions, and Tauriel in her role of Princess Thorin led the others to ever greater heights of excitement. Then there came a moment when she fell silent, and Bilbo's eyes flew to her face in apprehension. Her head was flung back and her eyes closed, and an expression of such transport was stealing across her features that it was almost painful to watch. She broke the brief silence with a great shout, and the water in the pool sloshed mightily as Galion and Legolas followed her over the brink of pleasure.

There was a fourth who spent himself in the same span of moments, though only on his own hand and with teeth clenched against any escape of sound. Bilbo lay panting as quietly as he might, hoping they were all too distracted to notice.

Galion was the first to speak. "Now, that is a fine way to spend an afternoon," he said with satisfaction. "Yet I must return to my tasks if I don't want the cooks bellowing at me." He bent and kissed Tauriel upon her lips before pulling away with a small sound of displeasure. "Oh, and if you ever find out which of the dwarves are female . . . be sure to tell me, will you?"

There was silence as Galion leapt to the edge of the pool and departed with a merry wave.

"Promise me," said Legolas in a low voice, "that you will not let him alone with any of the prisoners."

Tauriel snorted with an almost dwarven indelicacy and smacked him upon the shoulder. "Calm yourself. They will come to no harm or dishonour upon my watch."

"I don't know how you can tolerate that," Legolas said darkly.

"What, the attentions of two strong and comely men at the same time?" she asked languidly.

"The pretence. Humouring such base and cruel urges."

Tauriel shrugged. "It is the only way Galion can enjoy pleasure. There is no harm in it."

"In forcing himself upon the unwilling, through coercion or threat? There is assuredly harm in that!"

"But none in merely thinking or talking about it. He would not truly do any such thing."

"I hope you are right, but I'm not so certain."

Tauriel sighed. "I was there, Legolas, when they brought him back from the mountains. Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn laboured over his healing for weeks. What those orcs did to him . . . it is a wonder he has not faded, or gone entirely insane."

Bilbo thought of the scars he had glimpsed upon Galion's back and frowned. He did not want to feel sympathy with the annoying elf.

"I'm not certain he is entirely sane, either," said Legolas doubtfully. "It is not normal for an elf to enjoy such thoughts - not natural to desire a partner unwilling."

Tauriel laughed. "Oh, this partner was not at all displeased, I assure you."

Legolas looked doubtful. "Well for you, but my afternoon break has been less relaxing than I hoped."

"Shall we retire to your rooms, then? I could massage your poor shoulders before you go back to studying that journal once more."

"That sounds . . . agreeable." Legolas gave only half a smile with his lips, but his eyes warmed upon her face.

Tauriel squeezed water from her hair that had fallen from its binding. The two of them climbed from the pool and retreated toward the passage they had entered by. "The writing is still giving you difficulty then?"

Bilbo stretched stiff and wobbly legs before he crept out from beneath the fern, taking a moment to dip his sticky hand in the water. He removed his coat and quickly pulled on shirt and waistcoat to go beneath it. His clothes and hair were still damp but not dripping.

Did he dare follow the two elves to find where Ori's papers were being kept? Perhaps Legolas had the map and key in the same place. Bilbo decided he must take the chance, so he padded along a cautious distance behind the elven couple. They had paused in the entrance chamber to dry themselves upon soft towels and don their clothing.

Legolas was still speaking of the journal. ". . . Some is in the Tengwar, but not in any language that I know, and I am not even certain which sounds the letters represent. Other sections are in Daeron's runes. I have been trying to work from the labels upon the drawings, but I am not certain even of those. There is a picture of Thorin, but does the caption say 'the mighty Thorin Oakenshield' or 'this is our annoying leader?'"

Tauriel chuckled. "Perhaps it says, 'this is our beautiful princess?'"

They both laughed while Bilbo stood in a corner glaring at them.

"My father has suggested, ever so patiently, that he might summon my brother back to help with the translation." Legolas sounded frustrated, picking up his boots and heading barefoot toward the exit. "That would take months. Does he have such little faith in me, to think I would take so long at the task?"

Tauriel said something soothing which Bilbo could not make out. He followed them at a distance, his damp footprints blending with their own upon the inlaid floor, through halls that he had not traveled before. Open doors showed comfortable-looking rooms with elegant furniture and flowing draperies. Many of the rooms had sunlight streaming in through windows cut in the hillside, just as if the palace were an oversized hobbit hole. Trees stirred outside in the breezes with birds singing in their branches. At length Legolas and Tauriel passed into one of these chambers and closed the door behind them. There was no lock upon the door, as with many of the rooms in Rivendell; evidently elves trusted each other to respect privacy. Bilbo marked the location of the room carefully in his mind and then crept slowly back to the dwarves' prison hall. He had a great deal to think about.

When dinner was delivered, Bilbo followed the guard into Thorin's hall and spent the evening talking strategy with a robust, deep-voiced, unbowed dwarf prince.

Chapter Text

A few days later, Bilbo shared breakfast with Gloin and Bifur. When he was able to take this meal with the dwarves he often ate quite well, for they did not like the light fruits and fermented creams that the elves usually served in the mornings. It was a shame, thought Bilbo with peach juice running down his chin, for the fruit was so abundant at this time of year that even the prisoners received sweet and tender portions. Or perhaps it was the elves' way of mocking dwarven tastes - if so, the insult was too subtle for the dwarves and was very much to Bilbo's advantage.

"All right," he said to Gloin once he had swallowed. "So the idea is, Thranduil is trying to deceive each group of dwarves in a different way, and each of you must react to him in such a way that he thinks he is making progress in persuading you - but very slow progress. So, what does Thranduil ask you or tell you in particular?"

Gloin snorted. "He's as dainty and precious as an old grandmother. Always asks after Bifur and Bombur, and Oin's joint pains and my scars. Oin pretends to be more deaf than he is, so the filthy elf usually talks to me."

"Right." Bilbo wished he could write down all these details, but paper was hard to come by and any writing that he could understand himself, the elves could also read. So he avoided the risk of dropping a reminder note where it might be found simply by not keeping notes. Instead, he had lists upon lists in his head of things to do and learn and tell the dwarves. "So, you play up Oin's deafness and Bombur's and Bifur's sickness. That sounds promising. But what is he trying to persuade you of - what thoughts does he try to plant in your mind, do you think?"

Gloin grunted, stroking his beard. "He does talk quite a bit about how old we are and how many battles we've seen. I think he wants us to admit the quest is folly, or at least folly for us."

"Got it!" Bilbo smiled. "So you string him along by talking about old days - old battles and wounds and how tired you were when the battle was over. That sort of thing."

Gloin scowled. "It usually comes down to how we had no aid from the elves, during the battle or after."

Bifur came up to the cell door and pushed his plate through, still mostly full of fruit. "Eat this," he said.

Bilbo accepted the plate. "Yes, thank you, Bifur. Now, I . . ." He froze.

Bifur was looking directly at Bilbo through the bars, meeting his gaze and smiling. "Eat, friend," he repeated.

Bilbo's gaze flicked to Gloin in astonishment.

"He's started doing that since they took him away alone in the morning and brought him back in the afternoon."

"Yes, I know, they took him to the queen's healing hall and she attended him herself. She said he had many spider bites and they could tend those, but she could do little about the older injuries. Bifur . . ." Bilbo set the plate down on the floor and stood so that he could worm his arms through the bars and half-embrace the dwarf.

Bifur lowered his head against the bars so that Bilbo could touch it with his own curls, though he took care not to pull the axe head against the metal.

"Aye, elf healing is near miraculous," said Gloin with a derisive edge. "If only they would see fit to share it with us when we truly need it, instead of at their convenience."

Bilbo recalled what they had told him about the great elven realm that lay near to the gate of Moria, and how many of the survivors of Azanulbizar might have fared better if the elves had aided them. It was like a splash of cold water. Even Queen Miriel had said that more might have been done when Bifur's injury was fresh. Bilbo patted the dwarf's elbows and pulled back to his own side of the bars, taking up the breakfast plate once more to conceal his reaction.

"So," Bilbo resumed, popping blackberries into his mouth, "Thranduil is trying to persuade you four that you're too old or sick for the quest and might as well give it up."

"What of the others?" said Gloin suspiciously.

"Eh?"

"You said he tells some different lie to each group. What does he tell the others?"

"Oh. Well, he tries to persuade Balin and Dwalin that their duty to protect Thorin means they should keep him from going after the dragon."

Balin was quite good at playing along with this because he could always convey a sense of deep concern. Dwalin, on the other hand, tended to overreact to any mention of danger to Thorin, as if Thranduil were making threats against his prince.

Bilbo continued, "I think Thranduil has something else planned for Ori, but for now he just drops occasional comments to him and lets him stew."

"That's all right, Dwalin will keep the lad calm," Gloin said.

'Calm' was not the word Bilbo would have chosen, but Ori and Dwalin did seem to be keeping one another occupied quite nicely when they were not standing in the audience hall.

"For Fili and Kili, Thranduil just tries to provoke them into telling more about the quest. He talks a lot about how young and inexperienced they are to make them angry."

This had been easy enough to work with once they had found the pattern: Thranduil would imply that the young dwarves had not seen battle, hoping that they would describe some of their adventures so far. Instead one or the other would react as if it was Thorin's battle-prowess that had been insulted, or they would argue with each other about who was responsible for a particular kill - usually from a simple hunting venture or some event before they had joined the quest. The battle with the trolls had come up, but Fili had carefully failed to mention that they had encountered the creatures far south of their usual haunts. Now Thranduil seemed to think their path to get here had involved a jaunt through the Ettenmoors. Bilbo wasn't certain how that misinformation could be of any use, but it felt like a victory just to get a deception over on the crafty elf-king.

"Thranduil usually talks to Nori and Bofur separately. He tries to tell them they don't fit in with the rest of the company, nobody trusts them so they shouldn't trust us, and so on. They've been playing up to that. In fact, I think they rather enjoy it."

"And Thorin? What does the lying elf-scum tell him?"

Bilbo winced. The lie to Thorin was cruelest of all, if Bilbo had not been there to tell him the truth. "He says that some of the company were rescued from the forest, but he won't say which ones, and the number keeps changing - eight, ten, maybe less, maybe more." Thorin's tactic was simply to make himself hoarse screaming insults and demands to see his people. "I think he's rather surprised that Thorin hasn't made any concessions just to be allowed to speak to the rest of you, but he puts it down to dwarvish stubbornness."

"Ha! Good for Thorin!" Gloin approved, and Bifur clapped his hands.

"Yes, but he can't keep it up forever," Bilbo said. "We shall have to figure something out, or Thranduil will become suspicious. If he finds out that I am here, or just that messages are passing among you lot, he could make life a great deal more difficult for all of us."

Gloin nodded. "So we don't know what we know. We're just tired old warriors looking for a place to rest."

"Just so," said Bilbo. He set the empty plate on the floor by the cell door with the first one and quickly reviewed his list of things to do. Find out if the map and key were kept in Legolas' chambers. Learn more about the schedule and workings of the river-gate which he had found just the day before. Try to steal some cordial from the queen's healing supplies for Bombur, who was still not eating enough to please Oin.

"Oh, I've just remembered something!" Bilbo sorted through his pockets for his stub of charcoal and one of the ever-dwindling scraps of paper. "Will you write a note to Oin for me? I need to know about an elven sleeping draught called aduvor. How does it look or taste or smell, how to recognise it when it's mixed into food, that sort of thing. All of you will need to be on the lookout for this. There . . . might be a plot afoot. I'm not certain of all the details." The truth was, he didn't want to tell all the details, but he was determined to find a way to protect the dwarves.

Gloin wrote a few words on the paper scrap. Bilbo could make himself heard by Oin, but he didn't like to shout even with the door closed, knowing how sharp elf-ears could be. Sometimes Bilbo spoke to Bombur and had him talk to Oin in the mixture of signs and words that Bifur also used, but Bombur grew impatient if the message was too complex and claimed that they didn't have signs for everything. And Bombur was still sleeping a great deal of the time, and irascible if wakened.

So Bilbo carried the note to Oin and listened carefully as the old dwarf described a thick reddish syrup, sickly sweet to the taste with just a bit of sour, that could be mixed into a sweet drink or even added to some fruits without altering the flavour excessively. Bilbo gulped and reflected that perhaps it was just as well the dwarves didn't enjoy their fruit breakfasts.

Breakfast done, Bilbo followed the sullen guard out with the slops buckets and then headed for the river-gate to study it. The gate was only open while someone was holding a lever. Perhaps Bilbo could hold it open while the dwarves swam out, and then he himself could escape invisibly through the front gate. But he was not certain where the river went from here, except that the river-gate was on the back side of the palace as compared to the front gate, and he recalled that the trees and hills were thick about the entrance to the caves so that it would not be easy to go around instead of through. How would Bilbo meet up with the dwarves again afterward? And would the river be safe for the them to swim in? And, of course, the biggest question - how was he to get the dwarves to the river-gate in the first place without any elves noticing?

He felt like he had a few pieces of a puzzle, but nothing to join them together. Sometimes he wasn't even certain if the pieces belonged to the same puzzle. Pondering the possibilities, Bilbo crept through the halls to the queen's healing-room to look for cordial.

He was only just able to slip the bottle through the door of Oin and Bombur's cell while the guard was down at the end giving plates of luncheon to Gloin and Bifur. Then Bilbo had to scamper to get out of the hall behind the guard and ready to slip into a different one. He wanted to spend the afternoon with Nori and Bofur, who had been questioned once again this morning.

Nori, alone in the first cell on the hall, assured Bilbo that everything had gone well, and that he and Thranduil were quickly becoming dear friends. Bilbo regarded him disbelievingly.

"'S true," Bofur called from the cell at the end. "If it were just himself, Nori could have charmed his way out of this place days ago."

"No need to rush," said Nori. "Swiftest built is easiest broken."

"Well," said Bilbo, trying to figure out how it would change the puzzle he was assembling if Nori were permitted to leave separately. "Yes. No hurry, there."

"Here, Bilbo, I've had an idea," said Nori. "Can you get hold of some candlewax? A good big lump of it?"

"I suppose so," he said. Most of the palace was lit by lamps whose workings he did not quite understand, except for the prison area which had torches. But he had seen tall candles in some of the side chambers.

"Right, here's my idea. You get some wax and keep it in a pocket close to your skin so it's nice and warm and soft. Then, if you can get hold of the guard-captain's key, just for a few moments, you press it hard into the wax so it leaves an impression. After that you put the wax in your coat-pocket where it's cooler, right? You can return the guard's key so he'll think nothing is wrong when he checks it - if you're quick and clever you can even press it while the key is hanging from the guard's belt. Then you bring me the wax impression, and my whittling knife, and some strong, fine-grained wood -"

"Yes, yes, very good," said Bilbo, seeing where this was going. "Except that there's a great bunch of keys on a ring. Over a dozen of them. A different one for each door, I think."

"Oh." Nori rocked back a bit, frowning.

"But never mind that for now. There's something I need to warn you about, both of you," Bilbo said urgently, stepping to where he could see both dwarves although he had to turn his head from one to the other. "I told you about, er, that elf from the kitchens who was asking odd questions."

"Aye," said Bofur, leaning against his door expectantly.

"He might try to slip a draught into someone's food to make them fall asleep, and then, er . . . do something to them. So you all need to be wary. Oin says the draught this fellow was talking about is reddish and sweet-tasting, but it has a bit of a sour aftertaste. So if you get any food or drink that seems the wrong colour or flavour, stop eating it."

"A sleeping draught, eh?" said Nori thoughtfully.

"That's what he was talking about, anyway. I don't know what else he might try. I do know the guard captain was trying to discourage his ideas, and of course he made out that it was all some sort of joke."

"This sleeping draught," Nori continued. "Does it work on elves too?"

Bilbo blinked. "I presume so, or else why would they have it about?"

"Elves drink wine, but they don't get drunk," Bofur supplied.

"They do get drunk, it just takes a lot of liquor to do it," said Nori.

Bilbo could not imagine how one would persuade an elf to drink a great quantity of distilled spirits, or why one would want to. It sounded like a waste of fine drink.

"So it might take more for an elf, but I expect the draught would still put them under," Nori mused, almost to himself. "Can you get hold of some of this stuff, Bilbo?"

"Yes. I saw some on a shelf when I was raiding the queen's stores for cordial for Bombur. But what good will it do? I can hardly put every elf in the palace to sleep. There's bound to be someone who doesn't drink or eat, and that person will notice everyone else falling asleep and get suspicious."

"Just get some of it and keep it handy," Nori advised. "You never know when an opportunity might come along."

"All right," said Bilbo doubtfully. "I only hope the queen doesn't notice things going missing from her stores."

"What was this cordial for?" Bofur demanded. "I thought Bombur was doing better."

Bilbo headed down toward the end of the hall to speak with Bofur more easily. "He says he feels well enough and he does get up for a while each day, but he still sleeps a great deal and doesn't have much appetite. He looks much better than a few days ago, though. Oh! And Bifur is better, also. He was speaking to me. In the common tongue, I mean. At least a little."

Bofur stared. "Well, bless me!"

"I think the queen did something for him, though she said it wasn't much. But he seems more . . . focused. And in good spirits."

"That is good news," Bofur breathed with a smile, which faltered. "I don't like Bombur not eating, though."

"No, neither does Oin." Bilbo hesitated. "You've seemed . . . especially worried about Bombur, ever since the enchanted stream. Is there anything particularly wrong with him?"

Bofur sighed and glanced down the hall; Nori was not visible at his door. Dropping his voice low, Bofur answered, "It goes back to when we were children. I was only thirty and had no more than a bit of fuzz on my upper lip. Bombur was even younger, no beard at all. Bifur tried to take care of us, but he had trouble finding work. And he would get terrible headaches that lasted for days, when he could hardly get out of bed."

Bilbo nodded; he could well imagine how hard it had been, and his heart ached for all of them.

"We were in a city of men, away down south by the coast. Bombur and I did some odd jobs to earn coin when we could. But we didn't know all the customs of men. Didn't know that there were some parts of the town where it was dangerous to walk alone, especially for a young person. Bombur was attacked by ruffians, and . . . badly hurt."

Bilbo swallowed, his throat gone dry.

"Afterward, Bifur went for the fellows who'd done it. And of course it was Bifur who was blamed; he was locked up for a month, then we all got thrown out of the town. But anyway, that was when Bombur started to get fat."

Bilbo blinked. "I'm sorry, I don't see the connection."

"Well, Bifur found out . . . some of the men who took Bombur, they claimed they picked on him because he looked like a man-child. Like a girl, they said. Small and beardless and too pretty for a dwarf. So you see, in a way, Bombur made sure no one would think he was pretty again."

Bilbo had always assumed that Bombur was fat simply because he liked to eat a great deal. Which he did, seemingly, but Bilbo had never considered that there might be more to it. "That's . . . that must have been terrible."

"Aye." Bofur sighed. "Anyway, Bombur's over it, mostly, but he still gets shy and worries sometimes, in crowds. Friends aren't a problem, but strangers . . . and that's why it was so awful for him, waking up and not remembering anything since the quest began. Half the party are strangers to him all over again, and it's hard for him to believe Oin or Dori when they tell him they've become friends."

"And then the elves separated him from you and Bifur."

"Exactly. I'm sure Oin is doing a fine job caring for him - better than I could, even - but it can't be easy for Bombur. I just wish I could see him or speak to him."

Bilbo patted Bofur's hand where it rested on the bars of the door. "Would you like me to take him a message? From you? You don't have to tell me what it says. He'll recognise your writing, won't he?"

Bofur smiled. "Ah, Bombur and me've never been much for clerking. We can read and figure, but we'd as soon use books for kindling. Ha! I saw that look on your face. Ori looked nearly the same when I made a joke about burning the books at Rivendell."

"Well." Bilbo huffed, knowing that Bofur was merely teasing him but unable to be anything less than appalled at the idea of burning books. "If you wish me to give him a message, I should be happy to do so."

"Just tell him I'm here and well, and we're to be out of here soon, and he should listen to Oin and eat his dinner."

Bilbo laughed, then he had to slip his ring on as he heard a key in the hall door.

Later, lying with his head pillowed upon his coat at the end of Fili's and Kili's corridor, Bilbo thought about the different ways that people reacted to pain. Thorin had become grim and hard and brittle in response to all that he had seen. Bombur had become enormously fat. And Galion the annoying elf could only take pleasure by pretending to cause distress. Bilbo wondered how he himself would have reacted to any such tragedy, and could only imagine that he would curl into a ball and hide.

Hiding seemed to be what he was best at, these days.

Chapter Text

Another week went by, while Bilbo learned more about the caves and the river-gate and the guard routines. Despite the occasional pleasantries of shared meals with his friends, he was beginning to grow weary of creeping about in a shadow-world and sleeping on stone floors and being forever alert. He felt as if he'd not had a proper night's sleep in an age. He found himself getting careless on occasion and not worrying much if he should be caught.

But he wasn't caught, and by the end of the week he finally found a chance to complete the most difficult item on his list: he went into Legolas' chambers to get the map and key. Previously, every time he had tried he had either found Legolas in the room bent over his writing-desk making notes over Ori's journal, or else Legolas had been absent and the writing-desk empty. Bilbo had known that Legolas carried the documents with him some of the time, but at last it came time for the Highday dinner (at least, Bilbo presumed these weekly feasts occurred on Highday, from his limited knowledge of elven customs and calendars). Bilbo had witnessed the feast once and on other weeks had only seen the preparations before he joined the dwarves for the evening; but he did recall that Legolas had worn fine robes with an elegant cut that would not leave room for carrying documents.

So he waited in the hallway outside of Legolas' chambers until the young elf-prince left in his feast-day garb, and then he crept inside and went straight to the writing-desk.

It was locked.

Bilbo was tempted to dance about the room cursing, or beat his head upon the desk to break it open. He even drew Sting and prepared to pry off the lock or perhaps the hinges of the desk. But if he did that, the elves would know at once that there was a thief about. There could be no possibility anyone would imagine that the documents had been accidentally misplaced or that the wrong person had picked them up by mistake, if the wrong person took the trouble of destroying the desk to get them. Not that there was much chance of the documents' absence going unnoticed in any case, but Bilbo had hoped there might be a period of some confusion after he took them, during which he might be able to arrange . . . something. It was the weakest part of his puzzle-plan, and he did not wish to make it weaker by being rash. Some of Nori's advice must have seeped into Bilbo's thoughts over the weeks.

So instead of hacking the desk to pieces, he tried what he supposed Nori would have done: he tried to pick the lock. In his pockets he carried a small whittling knife and also several braid-clasps, some of which had pins upon them. The knife was too large to fit into the lock, and two of the pins were too short, but one pin (Bilbo thought it was one of Gloin's) was long enough to reach well inside. He crouched for a while, poking about in the lock and quite unsure what he was supposed to be feeling or moving inside of it. The lock declined to open for mere poking.

Apparently Bilbo spent longer at the task than he had guessed, for he heard sounds in the hall from the elves returning after the feast. The first few sets of voices and feet passed by, but then Legolas's voice became audible as he apparently paused just outside, speaking to someone.

". . . At least fifty. More, for a preference," his voice came muffled through the door. "Bows and spears, of course, but we'll need knives also to cut those webs. We'd better have some of Emel's anti-venom, as well."

Bilbo looked frantically about the room, trying to guess where Legolas would go when he entered. It was a single large chamber, but partitions of carved wood marked off several areas. It would not be safe under the writing desk if someone sat down to write, and the sitting area was entirely too inviting for after-dinner relaxation.

Tauriel's voice answered Legolas, but Bilbo could make out few of the words. "Your father . . . no interrogations tomorrow . . . spare enough of the guards for you to . . ."

Bilbo was heading for the sleeping area, thinking that no self-respecting elf would go to bed at this early hour, when it occurred to him that Legolas might wish to use the bed for something other than sleep. He froze as the door began to open, then darted into an enclosed area with clothes hanging from hooks or folded upon shelves, rather like a closet or dressing-room. Legolas did not have so very many clothes, for a prince, but there were quite enough garments for Bilbo to hide among, so long as he did not sneeze from the delicately-scented fabrics tickling his nose.

And of course Legolas marched directly into the sleeping area, removed a pendant from about his neck and a small silvery key from one pocket, placed these upon the table by the head of the bed, and carried his lamp to the dressing room. He was speaking over his shoulder, though no one else was within Bilbo's line of sight. "Very well, then, we shall leave at first light."

"Do the spiders sleep during the day?" That was still Tauriel, sounding somewhere near the edge of the sleeping area. Bilbo hoped no one else was accompanying Legolas.

"I don't know," said the prince, pushing clothes aside as Bilbo shrank back. "They are unnatural creatures; there can be no knowing what their habits might be."

"In that case, would you mind waiting until after breakfast to set out? I don't want the prisoners to notice any break in the routine."

Legolas pulled a loose tunic down directly in front of Bilbo. "Won't they notice at mid-day, regardless?"

"The longer they go without realising there is hardly anyone left to guard them, the more peaceful my day shall be."

Legolas tossed his chosen clothes upon the bed and started undoing the frogs of his fine robes. "What, do you suspect them of plotting an escape?"

"I don't see how that could be possible, but they do like to make trouble. You know how they've been frustrating your father. If there are to be only two of us for most of the day tomorrow, I don't want to be run ragged fetching medicines for the sick or carrying messages to the king from that clever crafty one. If they sense something is up, they'll be demanding attention all day."

"The dwarf prisoners are running the elf guards ragged? Surely this is not the proper order of things." Legolas shrugged out of his fine over-robe and then tugged a silken shirt over his head.

Bilbo, seeing his opportunity, darted forward while Legolas was distracted and snatched the little silver key from the bedside table. Then he crouched low in the corner between table and wall, waiting.

"Let us just say that I wish I might go on the spider hunt with you," said Tauriel regretfully. She must have been watching Legolas disrobing, for she had not noticed the disappearance of the key.

Legolas was pulling on the light tunic over his leggings and under-shirt. He carried the robes back to the dressing-room to hang up, set the silk shirt aside to be cleaned, retrieved the pendant from his bedside - and frowned.

"Is it agreed then?" Tauriel pressed. "You will leave after breakfast?"

"Yes, I . . ." Legolas looked about the sleeping area, brow furrowed. "Yes, that will suit well enough. There will be enough of the day left to finish the job and set the spiders in retreat. We'd best go speak to the others about the change in plan, though."

"So I thought." Tauriel stood back from the opening in the partition, inviting Legolas to accompany her.

He took one last look around and then followed, shaking his head in puzzlement.

When they were gone, Bilbo took several deep breaths and crept out cautiously. His hand was trembling so that at first he could not fit the key into the lock of the writing-desk; he thought that it must be the wrong key and all his clever boldness was for naught. Then at last the key slipped in and turned, and Bilbo nearly wept to see that the ancient map and heavy dwarven key and Ori's journal were all safe inside. He reclaimed them, though the journal was large enough to be awkward under his coat.

Relocking the desk, he braced the little silver key hard on the edge of the desk and bent it, checking to be sure that it would not fit in the lock again. Then he hurried back to the sleeping area and tucked the key under one leg of the bedside stand, as if it had fallen and been damaged by accident. It was not a very believable ruse, but he hoped it would at least be enough to prevent Legolas from checking on the documents in the morning.

He was beginning to see the puzzle coming together. If all went well, by the time Legolas returned from the spider hunt and found the documents gone, it would be too late. Tomorrow would be Bilbo's chance, if only he could make all the different pieces fit. Unfortunately, he had missed the dinner delivery which was his last chance of the day to get inside the prison cells; he would not be able to warn the dwarves that escape was imminent until the opportunity actually came. He could only hope they were ready.

He slept, fitfully, just outside of the slops closet in the corridor leading to the prison cells. It was the least likely place for any elves to linger, yet still Bilbo was terrified lest someone should pass by while he was snoring. So he stayed sitting up against the wall and jerked awake whenever his head began to nod. It was a long and uncomfortable night.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke when the breakfast-platter was delivered to the guard-room. Fortunately the food was carried by two elves, giving him enough time to get through the door. Unfortunately, one of the two was Galion, and Bilbo frowned suspiciously at the platter of fruit for a moment before someone else came in the door behind him and he had to duck beneath the table.

Soon there were a great many elves milling about the guard-room. Bilbo waited fearfully for Legolas to come in and announce that someone had stolen the dwarven documents, therefore all the prisoners must be questioned; but this didn't happen. Some of the elves were removing weapons that hung upon the wall and testing them for readiness, others were simply standing and talking. Someone actually kicked Bilbo under the table, but pulled his feet back toward himself with an apology across the table which no one answered. Two of the guards began to speak in the Westron tongue and Tauriel stopped them with a short phrase that included the word 'Sindarin.' There had been nothing in the brief words that Bilbo did not already know.

Galion lingered in the crowd, saying something about the breakfast that had been delivered for guards and prisoners alike. This, and Galion's excessively cheerful smile, made Bilbo feel quite uneasy until he realised that the second guard who would be staying with Tauriel for the day was the one he had freed from the spider nests. This was Galion's brother - was the name Thalion? Thaluin? In any case, it perhaps explained Galion's nervous energy, as he patted the pale elf repeatedly on the shoulder. Nevertheless, Bilbo wished that he had notes ready to throw into each of the dwarf cells telling them not to eat their breakfasts.

He also wished he had some safe food for himself, for he had only been able to filch a few crusts from the end of last night's feast. It reassured him only a little when he saw one of the guards slipping bits of fruit from the platter, and Tauriel scolding him. He tried to watch that guard for any ill effects, but got kicked once again and had to shrink back under the table.

With the extra people in the room Bilbo didn't see an opportunity to slip into any of the cell blocks while breakfast was delivered. Tauriel hurried most of the guards away in the course of this process, and Bilbo might have slipped through a cell door when the chamberpots were emptied after breakfast, but he didn't want to risk being stuck for hours. Instead, he waited in the guard room until everyone had departed except Tauriel and Thaluin.

Carefully and slowly, he drew the little bottle of sleeping draught from his inside pocket. The stopper was recalcitrant and he wrestled with it under the table, imagining the glass slipping from his fingers and skittering loudly across the floor. Perhaps he should have done this bit while the room was crowded and noisy.

He finally got the stopper out under the cover of a conversation above him. Then he crept out from under the table and circled around to the jug of cider that stood by Tauriel's elbow. He had tasted a half-empty glass of this cider in the kitchen a few days past; it was powerful and sweet, tangy enough to cover the aftertaste of the sleeping draught, perfect for Bilbo's purposes. The problem was getting the draught into the jug, and how much of it to use.

Oin had said that three drops of aduvor would be enough to put a dwarf to sleep. Recalling what Nori had said about the amount of alcohol required to make an elf drunk, Bilbo thought it might need more. And of course he had to add enough so that the elves would feel the effects even if they didn't drink the entire jug.

But then, would the dose be dangerous if they did in fact drink it all? Bilbo had no particular ill-will for Tauriel or Thaluin - in fact he worried that the latter was still weak from spider-poison, and this might set back his recovery. But he needed, quite desperately, to incapacitate them both. So he waited with the phial growing slippery in his hand until Tauriel stood and crossed to the same side of the table as Thaluin in order to point something out to him on the paper she had been drawing upon. Bilbo could not see it clearly since the table-top was right at his eye level, but the paper was not important; the cider was. He reached up and tipped half the contents of the phial into the jug. Neither of the two elves reacted to the soft sounds of clink and trickle.

Bilbo backed away from the table and waited, heart in his mouth. Both guards still had some cider in their cups, which they sipped upon occasion, and they were in no particular hurry to refill from the jug. They were still arguing about the picture or map, and getting rather emphatic about it. Then Thaluin stood to reach across the table for a pen to make his own point upon the paper, but he knocked the pen to the floor. When he bent for it he stumbled over a chair and then fell, measuring his length upon the floor.

Tauriel began to laugh so hard that she sat down upon the hard stone floor. In between spasms of mirth she would frown briefly, and once she said "Thaluin?" in a worried tone, but eventually she too slumped to lie upon the stone, still chuckling occasionally.

Bilbo stared. Had they poured out cider from the jug after he doctored it, and he had somehow failed to notice? That was all he could imagine, but the uncertainty made him hesitate for several minutes before he approached Tauriel at last. She was curled half on her side, with the key ring at her belt trapped underneath her body. Tentatively he touched her shoulder, and then prodded it. She murmured but did not wake. Swallowing hard, Bilbo pushed her to her back. She giggled. He circled around her body to get at her belt more easily.

And then the guard-room door swung open.

Bilbo scrambled away from Tauriel, his heart sinking. This had been their best and only chance, ruined because he had been too slow!

But the elf at the door was no guard; instead, it was Galion, and he smiled crookedly at the bodies upon the floor without surprise. He raised no alarm, but let the heavy door swing shut behind him.

Galion knelt beside Thaluin a moment and patted his cheeks. "Did I not tell you the cider was powerful, brother? You should have heeded my words better, and then we might both have some enjoyment. Alas, I shall have to entertain myself, it seems." Standing, he strode to Tauriel's side and removed the ring of keys from her belt.

Bilbo cowered away as Galion stood and surveyed the walls of the room, humming a cheery tune under his breath. "I see Legolas has claimed the best of the bows," he said conversationally, pulling down a short-bow and testing the string with his finger. He plucked a few arrows from a quiver and then took down something else that Bilbo could not see clearly. And then he opened the door to the third corridor - Thorin's hall.

Sick and terrified, unsure what was happening or what he should do about it, Bilbo slipped into the hall behind the elf.

Thorin must have been sitting or lying upon his pallet, out of sight from the hall, but he came to the barred door of his cell at the sound of Galion's approach.

"Time for another audience with the king," said Galion, and tossed the thing Bilbo had not been able to see through the bars. To his horror he saw that it was a pair of chained shackles, made not at all elegant by sweeping elven design and decorative carvings. They looked like twisted metal roots hoping to trap some unwary passerby.

One of Nori's ideas which Bilbo had rejected had been that he should equip himself with some sort of cosh. He had suggested reclaiming one of Bofur's hammers and wrapping the head with cloth to keep it quiet. He'd even told Bilbo how hard to hit in order to incapacitate without killing: hard enough to knock a dent in a pumpkin, he'd said, without smashing it entirely.

Thorin glanced down at the shackles without touching them and back up at Galion. "You are not one of my usual escort," he said slowly, suspicious but not alarmed.

"This is a special audience," said Galion easily.

Bilbo had rejected Nori's advice about the hammer because he feared it might fall from his belt or pocket and betray his presence. And because leaving a trail of unconscious elves behind him would also betray him. Now he wished quite desperately that he had taken one of the hammers, or perhaps a weapon from the wall of the guard room.

"Normally I have more guards, and simple bindings of rope or none at all."

"Since it is only myself today, I shall need a stronger assurance," said Galion. "Put that on, please."

Bilbo had no hammer or mace or cosh. He had only Sting, and he was too short to strike the elf's head with the pommel of the sword. For a moment he thought wildly of holding it by the leather sheath and swinging the quillon against Galion's skull, but he doubted he would have the control to do it properly.

Thorin stirred the shackles with his toe. "And if I refuse?"

Galion unshipped the bow from his shoulder. "I'm afraid I shall have to insist," he said, nocking an arrow slowly to the string.

Bilbo drew his little sword, not completely silently. Galion glanced back over his shoulder but apparently concluded the sound came from the guard room.

Thorin's eyes flicked past Galion for a moment, then hooded as the elf faced him once more. "I don't think your king would approve of such treatment of his prisoner. I don't think you're here under orders at all. That isn't even a guard uniform, is it?"

Heart thumping in his chest, Bilbo leveled Sting at Galion's back. He could kill the elf with one thrust; Fili had even told him where to aim on a taller opponent. But as disturbed as he was by Galion's actions, he didn't like the idea that Bilbo Baggins, invisible and ignoble, would be the one to finish the job that orcs had left undone.

"Does it matter who sent me, considering that I have an arrow pointed at your heart?" said Galion softly.

Thorin's voice was deadly calm. "Whatever you want from me, you won't get it if I'm dead."

Galion made a frustrated noise. "I should have gone for the young ones, your kin. I wager if I threatened one, the other would fall in line." He shook his head. "Instead I chose you. Which shall it be, shoulder or leg?" He pulled the bowstring back, his aim shifting.

Bilbo slipped Sting in under Galion's elbow and cut the bowstring; it snapped with a twang and the arrow tumbled harmlessly into the rock wall.

Galion cursed and clutched at his hand where the snapping string had grazed it. He was bent over in pain, just low enough for Bilbo to bring his blade's pommel onto Galion's crown.

With another cry, Galion lurched to one knee but did not fall. Thorin reached through the bars and grabbed the elf by the arms, pulling him hard against the door. "Hit him again!" he shouted.

Bilbo struck again, at the back of Galion's head, thinking of denting a pumpkin. The elf slumped against the bars, sinking down toward the floor as Thorin eased his hold.

Bilbo was shaking, but after a moment he remembered to get the ring of keys from Galion's belt.

"He's out," said Thorin shortly. "You can show yourself."

Gulping, Bilbo tried to pull off his ring, fumbling with keys and sword and not enough hands and long elf-legs trying to trip him up. Finally he sheathed the sword, got the ring into his pocket, and started trying keys in Thorin's lock.

"Was he the one you warned us against?" said Thorin, watching the procedure closely. "Were you expecting this?"

"No. Not this, exactly. That is, I knew there would be fewer guards about today. I was planning to try an escape, but I didn't have a chance to warn you. And then he . . . beat me to it."

"Escape today? You have a plan?"

"Yes! A sort of a plan, at any rate. Although, this wasn't part of it." Bilbo shifted as he sorted through the keys and stepped upon Thorin's half-empty plate just outside the door. "Oh, no. You didn't eat that fruit, did you?"

"Some time ago. It tasted plain enough."

"And the cider?"

"There was no cider - just water, neither sweet nor sour."

Bilbo shook his head doubtfully. "I suppose if there were a draught it would have taken effect already. The guards toppled right over." He tried the last key without success and started going through the entire bunch again more carefully.

"I expect he wanted me awake for his . . . enjoyment. Did you know about this? Is that why you were so alarmed a few weeks ago?"

"I didn't know. Just that something wasn't right, about . . . him. But the guards were supposed to keep an eye on him - except then he drugged them, even before I could." The third key worked and Bilbo swung the door open. A part of him wanted to fling himself into Thorin's arms but he held back uncertainly.

Businesslike, Thorin hauled Galion by the wrists into the cell. He looped the ornate shackles through a metal ring attached to the wall and fastened them one by one about the elf's wrists. Then, to Bilbo's alarm, he began to unfasten Galion's breeches.

"What are you doing?" Bilbo gasped. Thorin could not think to steal clothes from the elves; everything would be too long and too slender. Did he mean to leave Galion naked as a humiliation?

"I saw the look in his eyes," Thorin growled. "Not right, you say? He had plans for me. He had plans for Fili and Kili. He would have dishonoured us." He had pulled out Galion's own belt knife and looked prepared to do something dreadful with it.

"He's not right because he was tortured by orcs!" Bilbo protested. "It wasn't his fault."

Thorin looked up, his eyes dark and his teeth bared.

"He hasn't hurt you, or Fili or Kili. He's going to be blamed for letting all the dwarves escape. He'll be the one dishonoured. Won't that be punishment enough?"

"I shall not ask Thranduil to see to my rightful vengeance," Thorin snarled. But he tucked the knife into his own pocket, looked around the cell a moment, then turned Galion's head and yanked a leather tie from his hair. This he proceeded to bind snugly around the elf's nether parts.

"What will that do?" Bilbo squeaked nervously.

"Nothing permanent, so long as he is found by the dinner hour. But he will not soon forget this day, nor what consequences his foul plans brought down upon him."

Bilbo swallowed. "We should get going," he said weakly. "I don't know how long the guards will stay unconscious."

Thorin followed Bilbo out of the cell and helped him remember which key would lock it. Then there was a period of rushing about, letting dwarves out of cells and putting Tauriel and Thaluin into them (in separate halls so they could not communicate, of course). No one aside from the two guards had been drugged, and Bilbo was reassured enough to take a few bites of neglected fruit while all the dwarves were greeting each other gladly. He gave Thorin the map and ancient key, Ori his journal papers, and set out the small paraphernalia of beard-aiglets and pocket knives and ear cuffs upon the table for the others to sort through. He locked all the cells and hall doors behind them and held onto the ring of keys.

Everyone wanted to ask Bilbo about his plan, but he insisted there wasn't time and they must simply trust him. Last night had been a feast night; from what he understood of the river-gate schedule, there should be a number of empty barrels waiting to be sent away downriver, but that was usually done before mid-day. They must hurry if they were to reach the gate before it was too late. So Bilbo crept along each hallway invisibly to make sure it was empty, before signalling the dwarves to follow him.

When they found out they were to be packed into barrels, many of the dwarves objected. "It's only until you get out through the gate," Bilbo tried to insist. "When you get to open water you can push off the tops of the barrels and swim free."

"Nigh a month we've been locked up, and now we're to be packed into crates like so much meat and sent bobbing away down the water?" Dwalin snarled.

"The only other way out is the front gate, and it's guarded," Bilbo pointed out. "Do you mean to fight your way out in your underwear, wielding pocket-knives and hair-pins?"

"Well, why didn't you steal back our gear for us, if you're such a clever burglar?" Dori demanded.

"It's kept too close to the king's audience hall! That part of the palace is too crowded, it's not safe!"

"You might have tried!" put in Gloin. "That was my best axe the elves took from me!"

Bilbo threw up his hands. "Fine! I'll put you all back in your cells and you can just wait another month while I steal back your clothes and armour and weapons, one piece at a time. Maybe I can steal Orcrist right off the elf-prince's belt!"

"Enough!" Thorin barked. "The halfling is right. Do as he says. No more arguing."

Grumbling, they all complied, and not before time. Bilbo had just got the last barrel-lid fastened down and was heading for the lever that controlled the trap-door to drop the barrels into the water - which was right next to the crank that would hold the portcullis of the river-gate open - when he heard elvish voices approaching along the corridor.

He slipped on his ring, but dithered uncertainly about where he should go. They hadn't discussed how he was to find the dwarves again if he went out a different way, and he was still fearful of getting lost. Perhaps he should have put himself into one of the barrels - was it too late now?

At the last moment, before the laughing elves could release all the barrels into the water, Bilbo caught hold of one of the empty ones and clung to it for dear life as the floor dropped out from under him.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke from a dream of being soundly kissed to sky and trees swinging about him and a number of voices calling his name. A great weight pressed upon his chest. He heaved . . . and spat up a quantity of water directly into Thorin Oakenshield's face.

Before he could say anything in apology, his chest was heaving again. Hands flipped him over and thumped his back, and he spewed water repeatedly onto a grassy riverbank. Eventually his breaths and coughs had more air than water in them, and he tried to get out the words "I'm sorry!" but it was long before he had enough control to stop coughing.

Thorin, when Bilbo finally got a look at him, was frowning deeply but did not appear angry. He was soaking wet. So was everyone else. Bilbo shook his head and tried to look around at all the company. Was everyone there? They were all moving and he couldn't keep count. They were all in their undergarments, as well. Of course - the elves had taken their clothes.

"What happened?" he croaked out, when he was at last able to rise up from hands and knees to a sitting position, with the help of arms about his shoulders.

Everyone was milling about talking to one another, but Thorin waved them back. "Do you not remember?"

Bilbo shook his head. "I . . . I . . . we were escaping, from the elves. But how did we get here?"

It was Fili holding his shoulders. "We didn't have time to make a plan for you before the guards showed up, and then we were all stuck in barrels and couldn't see."

"You must have followed us into the water," said Kili's voice from just behind Bilbo.

"When we popped the tops off the barrels I heard you splashing about and grabbed your hand," Bofur put in. "You were holding onto my barrel for a time. I told you to take off your ring but you wouldn't let go long enough."

Bilbo gasped, which started him coughing again. "Ring!" he choked out between spasms. "Where -"

Thorin held out his hand, with the ring upon the palm. "You are fortunate that Balin saw the ripples in the water where you were floating, else we'd never have found you. Use this with care, burglar."

Bilbo's hands were too weak and shaky to snatch the ring rudely from Thorin's hand, but he tucked it into his pocket as quickly as he was able. "I don't remember . . . any of that," he said, his voice rasping. "Floating?"

"Aye, we hit some rough water and you were pulled away from my barrel," said Bofur. "Then when the river smoothed out again no one could find you, at first."

Fili's arm tightened. "When we pulled you from the water and got the ring off, you looked dead."

"You weren't breathing," Kili added.

Bilbo stared up at them, and at the circle of nodding heads beyond. "Not breathing? That means -" He coughed. "That means I was dead!"

Thorin put a hand on his arm, speaking gravely. "Oin said that your spirit had not yet flown, and we might remind it how to live if we shared our own breath with you."

Bilbo touched his lips, recalling the brief dream of being kissed before the need to cough had subsumed everything else.

"And it worked!" said Kili joyfully. "Oin and Fili shared breath with you, and then when it was Thorin's turn -"

"I'm sorry!" Bilbo blurted. "I didn't mean to spit in your face!"

Thorin's eyes crinkled. "I shall mark it upon your balance sheet. I think it is still heavily weighted in your favour. We are all in your debt, Mr. Baggins."

There were murmurs of agreement from all sides.

"We could never have escaped from those elves without you!" Bofur declared.

"Ey! Speak for yourself!" Nori snapped, but since he was standing with one arm around each of his brothers he failed to look entirely annoyed.

Bilbo was still struggling with everything - the lingering embarrassment about Thorin, the confusion because he couldn't remember anything since the elf-caves, the horror of learning that he had been dead, or very nearly so. In all the stories of people slain on battlefields or miraculously preserved from terrible illness, if the breath was absent the life was gone also. He clutched one fist at his chest, feeling the air go in and out, though he was still tempted to cough every time he thought about it.

Thorin was barking orders, now, and everyone was starting to move about. Bilbo tried to pull his feet under him, but strong arms caught him up instead. "Not you, you're to rest," said Dwalin's voice firmly in his ear. He was carried a little way from the flowing water and deposited upon a rock. "Sit here in the sun and warm yourself."

And it was sunny; Bilbo blinked about him at the open sky and soft breezes stirring the trees on either side of the river. He tried to judge the angle of the sun. "What hour is it? How long were we . . . I cannot remember . . ."

"Just past noon, I think," said Bofur, escorting his brother toward Bilbo's patch of sunlight. "We were in the water an hour or so. We've come a few miles from the elf-caves, but not far enough. Here, Bombur, you sit with Bilbo and tell him how to get on with a hole in his memory."

Bombur settled upon the rock next to Bilbo and patted his arm, but offered no advice on getting his memory back.

It was Bifur who offered advice instead. "Coat off," he said firmly, holding his hand out.

Bilbo blinked up at him.

"It's true!" Bofur gasped. "You can speak, cousin!"

Bifur just looked annoyed. "Coat," he repeated.

"Ah, he's right, Bilbo. You'll dry faster if you take your outer things off. Come on, then."

Bilbo struggled out of his wet coat and waistcoat, though he clenched his ring tightly in one fist. Bifur took the garments and checked the pockets, tossing away a quantity of sodden waybread but handing Bilbo an apple he had nabbed from the kitchens. That had been the previous night but it seemed an age ago now.

Bilbo chewed upon the apple thoughtfully as people bustled around him, feeling a little better for something in his belly. He offered half of it to Bombur, who shook his head shortly.

Eventually Bilbo started to pay attention to the industry among the dwarves, and what he saw alarmed him. They had pulled the empty barrels from the river and taken some of the more-damaged ones apart. Others they lashed together with vines pulled from the forest. They were making a boat or raft of intact barrels with planks of wood laid over the top.

"What -" Bilbo gulped. "What are they doing? We're not going back in the river, are we?"

Bofur gave him a sympathetic look. "It's the fastest road out of here. The elves will be after us soon enough, and we can't go far or fast with no shoes."

"And the river goes north," Bombur murmured shyly.

"Aye, riding the river to Lake Town is the most sensible thing. But don't worry, Bilbo, we won't let you fall in the water again."

Indeed, Bilbo was given an honoured spot in the center of the barrel-raft next to Thorin, while other dwarves took it in turns to paddle with a couple of barrel-slats for oars. The raft was carried along by the current, but the paddlers worked to keep it in the center of the channel and fend off any rocks. Still, Bilbo clutched white-knuckled at the vines of the raft whenever the current grew swift and rough.

They floated down the river all day and part of the night, until the moon set and it became too dark to see any potential hazards looming ahead. Even Bilbo had to admit it was an easy way to travel swiftly, and it did seem they had outpaced any elven pursuit. But they spent a long cool night on the riverbank with no fire and no dinner. Despite the open air and the jubilation of being free from imprisonment, Bilbo found that sleeping in a dwarf-pile with a growling belly reminded him rather too much of their journey through Mirkwood.

By dawn they were back upon the raft again. The river was growing wider and smoother now, and except for a few patches of riffling over shoals they enjoyed a restful ride until, some time past noon, the sparse trees opened up and they saw the Long Lake ahead of them, with the Lonely Mountain keeping sentinel at the far end.