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Beneath the Mountains Music Woke

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The first time that Thorin Oakenshield laid eyes on Bilbo Baggins, he had been more than a little unconvinced by what he saw.

Having spent much time in the settlements of men during his time as a King-In-Exile, Thorin had never had cause to travel far enough west to encounter hobbits before. On his way to meet the assembled company and acquire their final member, the journey through the Shire – along pristine brooks and past quaint round doors of many colours built into the sides of grassy hills – had left him with a vague sense of resentment instead of an appreciation for its beauty.  It had burned like bile at the back of his throat: here was a land untouched by war, a land that had seemed to exist in such a state of perfect peace that its inhabitants likely couldn’t even remember the last time there had been a call to arms.

It made Thorin hate them, a little bit, even though there was no real reason for it. Made him angry for the lives that his own people, scattered across the vast world and struggling for mere survival, had not been able to lead for so many years.

Finding out that the burglar Gandalf had promised them was nothing but a fussy, useless creature without even a hint of a beard hadn’t helped matters at all. His first impression upon entering the hobbit hole had been how profoundly delicate their so-called burglar was: so much smaller and slighter than dwarves tended to come, clad in expensive-looking linen and surrounded by trifles. His skin was clean and pale, and his hair curled softly around pointed, elf-like ears that made something uncomfortable twist in the bottom of Thorin’s belly.

The realization that Bilbo was a scant fifty years of age had been like another slap in the face, and Thorin had taken the information as proof that the halfling would be of no more use on their quest than a toddling child. Each and every one of the dwarves in his company had proven their worth in one way or another: Bilbo, on the other hand, promised to be nothing but a nuisance.

In many ways, Thorin’s entire life had been defined by his mistakes; they had shaped him like the smith shapes hot iron, fashioning him into the man he was and the king he could not yet truly be. The loss of his kingdom, allowing his grandfather and father to be killed, failing to provide strong leadership for his people in exile – all were emblems of failure that stood out like black marks in his own personal history. 

It was quite possible, however, that underestimating Bilbo Baggins had been the greatest mistake of them all.

 

--

 

On the third day after the flight from the goblin kingdom and Azog, the company made camp after a long day of walking in a small clearing surrounded by fresh-smelling pine trees. Having lost most of their supplies – first with the loss of the ponies, and then with the chaos they had only narrowly escaped on the backs of the eagles – the past few nights had been pointedly less comfortable than the first leg of their journey.

Although Nori had been dispatched to ‘acquire’ what supplies he could from a nearby village of men two days ago (without any gold in his pockets, and the less Thorin knew about that the better), the few meagre bedrolls, cloaks, cooking supplies, and rations he had returned with were nowhere near enough to last them to Erebor. As a result, company’s progress had been somewhat slowed by the need to scavenge and hunt for food along the way.

Night was just falling by the time Thorin returned with Dwalin from a foraging expedition, and the two of them slipped through the trees to rejoin their friends just as the sun was falling behind the trees. It had been a good forage, Thorin thought: not just because both of their packs were stuffed to the brim with mushrooms and tubers to add to their slowly-growing supplies, but also because of the rare opportunity to spend time with his friend. Although Dwalin had been one of his closest friends – practically a brother – for many years, Thorin’s responsibilities as leader as well as the sheer number of their party had made it difficult for the two of them to spend any time together.

Just like the old days, Dwalin had said roguishly earlier that day, elbowing his friend and king with little regard to his title as usual. Thorin had rolled his eyes at the time, but it had indeed been a welcome interlude.

Upon their return it was clear that Dori and Oin had done well in gathering firewood, and the blaze in the centre of camp was great enough to almost make up for the lack of real bedding. The warmth of the fire’s glow illuminated the pleasure on their companions’ faces at their return. At the edge of the clearing, Thorin could see Gandalf sitting with his back against a tree trunk, grey cloak wrapped around his body and his hat pulled over his face. Either sleeping or pretending to sleep; it was impossible to tell from such a distance. A pot of Bombur’s stew sat untouched and simmering on the fire, and Thorin pushed down a twinge of discomfort at the realization that everyone had been waiting for his return before eating.

He couldn’t help but notice the halfling, either. The glow of the fire danced over the smooth lines of his face, and his curls seemed to catch the light in a way that made his face appear haloed in the darkness. Caught up in conversation with Bofur and Gloin and with Bifur making animated gestures beside him, Bilbo did not raise his head as Thorin approached. A cloak that was not his own – possibly Bofur’s – was draped over his shoulders to keep out the chill of the night.

“Many thanks for your assistance, my friend,” Thorin said to Dwalin, wrenching his eyes away and reaching out to grip his friend firmly by the shoulder to show his gratitude. Smirking, Dwalin clapped him on the shoulder – the force of which made the still-healing wound in Thorin’s arm sear wickedly with pain. He clenched his teeth, determined not to flinch or gasp. Thankfully, Dwalin didn’t seem to notice as he grabbed both of their bags and headed to store them away from the night. Once the pain in his arm had eased down to a gentle throbbing, Thorin himself headed toward the camp fire.

Earlier in the day Thorin had dispatched Kili and Fili to find meat for dinner, and he was pleased to note that the two of them had returned with enough hares to render tonight’s stew a hearty fare indeed: the smell of richly herbed meat and potatoes was enough to make his stomach growl. Bombur was already dishing up his portion, instinctively serving him first, and Thorin moved forward to grab the bowl and murmur his thanks as the rest of the dwarves crowded around to receive their own.

He sent Ori off with a bowl for Gandalf – doubtless the wizard would be unimpressed if his portion were sacrificed to Bombur’s voracious appetite – and then settled himself down on a somewhat removed patch of grass to eat, comfortable in the knowledge that everyone in the company knew him well enough to let him have his privacy for the moment. He sat and took his first mouthful as the comforting laughter and chatter of his companions washed over him, the sound of it mixed with the gentle hooting of waking owls in the trees around them.

The clearing itself had been chosen because of the clear, shallow stream that edged along its western border, which Gandalf had assured them was almost certainly connected to Anduin, the Great River of Wildland. The proximity of the stream promised that they were still headed in the right direction: after crossing the Great River they would reach the forest of Mirkwood, and after they emerged from that long and darkened road the Lonely Mountain would very nearly be within their reach.

There was a great distance left to travel, and Thorin could only hope that Bilbo was right in saying the worst was now behind them. But the fact that they were so very close – the fact that everyone under his care had made it this far unharmed – was enough to give him heart.

Such closeness to their goal, however, did not change the fact that ever since being rescued by him from death at the hands of Azog the Defiler, Thorin’s outlook on Bilbo Baggins had undergone a rather profound shift.

Thorin frowned into his bowl of stew, chewing thoughtfully on a tougher piece of meat as he did so.  It was... strange, this change of heart. The realization that he had so badly misjudged Bilbo Baggins had come over him all at once and brutally quick, crashing down upon his head as waves crash against the cliff face during a storm. It shamed him to even think it, but he had spent the past three days utterly at a loss at how his outlook on the halfling had undergone such great change in so short a time.

Although he had tried his best to treat Bilbo with warmth and respect in the days following their escape from the enemy, the realization that his feelings were perhaps more laden than simple gratitude had left Thorin feeling uneasy and uncertain. Bilbo had done him the greatest service of them all, and Thorin had been nothing but dismissive of him since the beginning of their journey. It made him powerfully ill at ease, this debt between them. There was only so much that could be done to remedy former ills, and Thorin knew perhaps better than anyone that nothing can truly change the past.

That memory – of Bilbo physically hurling his tiny body into the orc who threatened him, the heat of the spreading flames hot against his face and the screams of his dwarven companions as they clung for their lives ringing in his ears – was the last thing that Thorin could remember before he had lost his grip on awareness and had been dragged into blackness.

The others had told him later that after he lost consciousness, Bilbo had fought with no regard for his own personal safety; that he had acted out of bravery that would have put any dwarf to shame. The memory of their praise – and of the relief on Bilbo’s face when he realized that he was indeed alive – made Thorin shiver in a way that was not entirely due to the cold night air.

It didn’t help, either, that Thorin had always felt some... discomfort at Bilbo’s physical appearance since their very first meeting in Bag End. The bareness of his face, the rich colours and elegant cuts of his clothing – all of it had made Thorin’s stomach twist in a way that only added to his rancour. The details of Bilbo’s appearance had nagged at him and bothered him since the very beginning. Before, he had believed that his discomfort had been merely in response to Bilbo’s unsuitability for their quest.

Now, however, it seemed that his reaction had perhaps originated from somewhat less... honourable intents.

For so long, Thorin’s only purpose  – the one golden goal that he had directed his entire life toward – had been to vanquish Smaug and recapture Erebor, to provide a home for his people and avenge his family. It had been all he had thought about and dreamt about and worked toward for years, and out of the blue his heart had decided to make room for something else. For someone else. It felt selfish to dwell upon the halfling in such a way, but he could not seem to help himself: no matter what he did, Thorin continued to feel a profound pull towards him that seemed to strengthen every day.

As though summoned by his thoughts, the unmistakable sound of Bilbo’s happy laughter reached his ears from across the camp. Thorin looked up sharply, unthinkingly searching out the cause of that laughter with such fervency that he made his spoon clatter loudly in his bowl.

Even from far away, Thorin was immediately able to spot Bilbo sitting by the fire with a dwarf on either side of him. Bifur had apparently wandered off, but Bofur was in the middle of some kind of grand story that had both Gloin and Bilbo practically clutching their sides with mirth. Bofur’s gestures were grandiose and overplayed, and as Thorin watched he grabbed both flaps of his hat and made an exaggerated choking noise that made Bilbo have to quickly cover his mouth to keep from spitting stew everywhere. While Bilbo was distracted, Bofur’s storyteller facade slipped for a moment; even from a distance, Thorin could make out the small, fond smile that tugged at his lips.

Something ugly and awful clenched at Thorin’s chest, and before he fully realized what he was doing he had pushed himself to his feet and was striding purposefully across the camp. Droplets of broth splashed over the sides of his bowl in his haste, but Thorin – too singularly focused and brimming with sudden, crippling irritation – barely even noticed.

“I require the halfling’s presence,” Thorin announced gruffly as soon as he stood in front of the three of them, and the laughter cut off abruptly. Bofur stared up at him with wide eyes, still clutching the sides of his hat, and Gloin looked so ashamed that Thorin felt a momentary twinge of guilt. Bilbo stared up at him in utter confusion, eyes darting around as though he thought Thorin had made some kind of mistake.

“You do?” Bilbo asked, sounding uncertain. Around them, a few of the dwarves seemed to be attempting to steal glances at them without being noticed.

“Of course, Thorin,” said Gloin after a moment, giving Bilbo a meaningful look and a sharp nudge with his elbow. Bilbo did not move to stand, however: he appeared to be rather at a loss of what to do. After a few uncertain moments, Bofur and Gloin began to stand and leave instead. Thorin thought he might have seen Bilbo shoot Bofur a helpless look out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t be quite sure.

Feeling somewhat unreasonably pleased with himself, Thorin lowered himself to the ground to sit next to him. Bilbo opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it again and shot Thorin a sideways look. It was rather sweet, Thorin thought, the way Bilbo acted when he didn’t quite know what to say. Thorin felt something longing twist in the base of his stomach, and he quickly schooled away the beginnings of the smile that was forming at the corners of his mouth. Bofur’s cloak was still draped over Bilbo’s shoulders, and for an insane moment Thorin actually considered yanking it off and replacing it with his own. He dismissed the urge, however, focusing instead on the way the bright flames leapt and danced in front of them.

The silence stretched on between them, unbroken and increasingly uncomfortable. It occurred to Thorin rather belatedly that he should probably attempt to say something; he had been the one demand Bilbo’s attention in the first place, after all. He cleared his throat, glancing down at Bilbo beside him.

“... are you enjoying your meal?” he asked, then mentally winced at the triviality of the question. Bilbo blinked at him.

“Yes, I – um. Well, yes. Yes I am,” said Bilbo, the words haltering and awkward. He looked down into his hands and stared pointedly at the small amount of broth left in the bowl. “It’s very... stew-like.”

The moment of stilted silence that followed was thankfully broken by a loud exclamation in Khuzdul from the other side of the camp. Both of them turned at the sound: it was Bifur, who was calling for a song to liven up the evening. When Dwalin roguishly called back that some of them had had a hard day’s work, Bifur responded by making some rather vulgar accusations about Dwalin’s parentage. Everyone laughed, and before long the rest of the camp had broken into The Ballad of Belegost, a very old and very lively song about companionship between soldiers and overcoming seemingly-insurmountable odds.

Hearing his companions’ voices raised in that particular song was enough to bring a smile to Thorin’s face, and he turned to share his contentment with Bilbo. When he turned around, however, Thorin was caught off guard to see that Bilbo’s expression was rumpled in mild confusion. He seemed to be enjoying the song, but the look on his face gave no indication that he understood the words being spoken at all.

Of course he doesn’t understand Khudzul, thought Thorin, mentally slapping himself in the face for his own idiocy. Of course he doesn’t, why would he? Briefly, he wondered why such an obvious conclusion had caught him so off guard. Bilbo was a hobbit of the Shire: he had no reason to know the secret language of the dwarves. He had simply been so thoroughly accepted into their group that it seemed as though he should somehow instinctively know this aspect of their culture as well.

The lack of comprehension on Bilbo’s face made Thorin feel slightly ill at ease; he wanted to make it go away. Wanted to bring him in so that he could share in this moment as well.

“It is a song about Belegost, a dwarven city of the First Age,” Thorin explained, feeling a small shiver of pleasure when Bilbo’s eyes turned to him in interest. “The dwarves of Belegost were some of the finest smiths in all the world. The song is in reference to an attempted siege of the city during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears; it speaks of the staunchness of heart of the women who forged charms for the soldiers they loved, and of the siege that was withstood through immense bravery. It has long been a beloved song of my people.”

“What happened to them?” Bilbo asked, turning his head to one side and leaning in closer. Thorin felt a pang in his chest. He shrugged.

“They died,” he said simply, and Bilbo bit his lip and glanced toward the ground. “They weathered the siege and won the battle, but they died all the same when the War of Wrath came. Some escaped to Khazad-dûm, but most did not. Belegost does not exist anymore.” Just like Erebor, said an awful voice in his head, but he shoved that thought away before it could take root.   

Bilbo nodded thoughtfully, taking another mouthful of stew. He directed his gaze over Thorin’s shoulder to where their companions were singing heartily, chanting the chorus louder and louder with each recitation. There was something quietly melancholy about his demeanor, and Thorin couldn’t seem to stop his gaze from lingering; over the relaxed curve of Bilbo’s back, the way his eyebrows tugged together. The lines of his mouth, lips pressed together in thought.

“It’s been such a long time since the Shire has seen war,” said Bilbo. After a moment, he laughed. “We’re not made for it, really. We’re all... round bellies and parties and needing our afternoon tea,” he said, shooting Thorin a look at the self-deprecating words. “And our pocket handkerchiefs, of course. We’re not really the stuff of songs, I don’t think. Not really.”

There’s more to you than meets the eye, Thorin almost wanted to say, but he caught himself just in time. He shifted somewhat uneasily instead, the direction of his thoughts making him feel agitated.

“Actually,” Bilbo commented after a moment, not seeming to notice Thorin’s discomfort. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Bifur say anything in the common tongue. Does he just not know it, or does it have to do with his... erm.” He gestured clumsily to his own forehead, miming the orcish axe that was permanently lodged in Bifur’s head. Thorin nodded, both amused and relieved at the change in conversation.

“Aye,” said Thorin. “He received that wound when we attempted to take back Moria for our people, and he hasn’t been able to speak the common tongue ever since. It’s a miracle he survived at all, really. Our healers had taken him for dead at first.”

 “Oh, yes, definitely,” Bilbo agreed, sounding both apologetic and overly enthusiastic at once. He winced –  then took another hasty mouthful of stew, all the while looking at Thorin expectantly.

They ate together in silence for a little while, the only sound the loud crackle of the fire in front of them and the voices of the dwarves, who had moved onto a quieter song about love and betrayal and vengeance.  After a few minutes, Thorin relented. Bilbo was clearly still anxious about why Thorin had demanded his presence, and he was not sure how much of his behaviour could be explained in an acceptable fashion. As much honesty as possible, he decided, was likely the best choice in this situation.

 “I am sorry, Bilbo,” he said quietly after a long while, using the hobbit’s first name aloud for what felt like the first time. “I did not mean to coerce you into speaking with me.” He paused. “I have... merely been dwelling on the manner in which I have treated you in the past, and such thoughts made me desire to seek your presence. I wish to make amends for the things I have said to you so that we may one day become true brothers in arms.”

Beside him, Bilbo wrinkled his nose. “Thorin, no, you don’t... you don’t have to apologize. I told you, I would have doubted me too.” He shrugged. “There are things I also wish I could take back, or do differently. But... it’s fine. We’re fine.” He grinned, turning to Thorin and bending his whole body forward in a solemn bow. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service,” he said half-jokingly, a smile playing along his lips.

Genuine happiness seemed to burst in his chest at the playful gesture, and Thorin reached out and clapped Bilbo on the arm to show his thanks. Grinning, Bilbo did the same to him in response –  and pain burst through Thorin’s arm, shooting from forearm to his shoulder. He inhaled sharply and jerked his arm away, seeking to conceal the reaction – but Bilbo’s entire demeanour had already switched from playful to highly concerned.

“Thorin?” Bilbo asked urgently, his voice rising in worry. He looked suspiciously at the offending arm, and Thorin cursed internally. “Thorin, what is it? What’s wrong?”

 “It’s nothing,” said Thorin stiffly, frustrated with himself. He rubbed the wound concealed by the leather sleeves of his jerkin. “It’s merely the after-effects of one of the warg bites I received before we managed to escape Azog. It will heal, I assure you.”

“Let me look at it,” Bilbo ordered, and Thorin felt his eyebrows rise up in surprise. Bilbo didn’t seem to notice, however: he was already working at removing Thorin’s left bracer. He shook his head when Thorin attempted to gently pull away, latching onto his hand with a strength Thorin hadn’t been entirely aware that he possessed. “I know a thing or two about healing, I promise. Let me look at it.” He paused, seeming to realize for the first time who, exactly he was talking to. He looked up and gave Thorin a beseeching look. “Please.”

There was a pause – before, finally, Thorin conceded with a nod. He dutifully unclasped the fur-lined cloak at his throat, allowing it to fall to the ground behind them. Bilbo gave his hand a gentle squeeze before pulling off his bracer, and Thorin rolled up the sleeve of his leather jerkin. Then slowly, carefully, Bilbo reached forward and unwound the makeshift bandage on his arm – made from the torn cloth of an undershirt since their supplies had been so few – so that the wound was revealed to the air.

The sound of Bilbo’s gasp was such that Thorin did not need to look him in the face to know his reaction. He forced himself not to squirm under the attention as Bilbo’s fingers ever-so-gently traced the edges of the deep gauges. The leather of his jerkin had kept out the worst of the damage, but warg teeth were sharp and their jaws strong. Thorin had washed off the worst of the blood and bandaged himself one-handed, but had mostly chosen to keep the wound hidden and let time do its work. The bite was only slightly puffy and pink around the edges, and he had faith that his dwarvish constitution would prevent a full infection.

“Did you bandage this yourself?” Bilbo asked quietly, and shot him a glare when Thorin nodded. “Why didn’t you talk to Oin? He has salves for such hurts, you know that.”

Thorin shrugged, feeling somewhat defensive. “I have treated many a battlefield wound, Master Baggins. I very much doubt that such a scratch will cause me any discomfort after a week or so.”

“A scratch,” said Bilbo disbelievingly, shaking his head – before pushing himself onto his feet. Thorin blinked in surprise. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?” he asked, but Bilbo was already darting across the camp to where their makeshift packs were piled. It was only a few moments before he returned: in his right hand he held a small bowl, and in the left a fistful of long, pale-stemmed flowers.

“Rogun’s Bloom,” Bilbo explained off-handedly, already plunking himself onto the ground down next to Thorin again. He plucked a rock from the ground, brushed off the dirt, and began to use it to determinedly crush the flower stems in the bowl. “It’ll stop the wound from festering, and should also help it to heal without scarring. I saw some a few days ago and pocketed it just in case.” He huffed in annoyance, sending Thorin a nasty look. “Had I known that you had such untreated wounds, I would’ve done this days ago.”

“How do you know this?” asked Thorin in surprise, staring down at Bilbo’s steady hands as he ground the stems into a smooth paste. The wound in his arm throbbed. “Did you train as a healer in the Shire?”

“Goodness, no,” Bilbo snorted mildly, wiping the excess paste off the stone before dropping it easily back onto the ground. “But my old gardener – Hamfast Gamgee, wonderful man, greener thumb than you can imagine – used to spend hours explaining what every herb and plant in our front garden could do, and in my younger years I found nothing more fascinating. I simply happened to remember this plant’s uses.” He reached into the bowl with three fingers and scooped out the pale green salve, reaching forward to apply it to Thorin’s arm before the king could protest.

Thorin hissed in a breath when the salve touched his skin, but not in pain: it was surprisingly cool to the touch, but felt quite pleasant as Bilbo smoothed it gently into the wound. He stopped fighting it, finally relaxing into Bilbo’s touch with a sigh that he hoped his companion didn’t notice. It felt... nice, to be cared for like this. Bilbo’s fingers were soft and uncalloused against the roughness of his own arm; overwhelming and perfect in a way Thorin did not wish to question.

The softness of Bilbo’s hands – affluent hands, pampered hands, hands that spoke of a life of leisure and comfort – made another thought jerk Thorin out of his reverie, and he looked up sharply just as Bilbo seemed to be finishing up.

“There,” Bilbo announced, sounding satisfied. “That should help. I’ll try to find some more so that you can apply it yourself for the next few days. Honestly, I can’t believe you didn’t –”

“You know how to avoid scarring, Master Baggins,” Thorin cut in unsteadily, jerking a hand out to grab Bilbo by the wrist. His wrist was small, so small; delicate and pale, and Thorin could wrap his hand around it with no challenge at all. Bilbo tensed, glancing down at his wrist and back up at Thorin again. “But do you know how to avoid receiving such wounds yourself, or how to give them to others? Have you received any training at all with that letter-opener of yours?”

Bilbo stiffened, wrenching his wrist out of Thorin’s grasp. “I saved your life without any such knowledge,” said Bilbo intensely. “I’m not –”

“And I would like you to remain alive to do so again,” Thorin snapped, feeling hot, ugly anger rising within him. Not at Bilbo -- not really -- but it came flooding out nonetheless. “How do you propose you will protect yourself should you be attacked while on your own – herbs and salves? Stalling for time again? It was a miracle that you made it out of the goblin caves alive. There are many enemies for which you are no match, Master Baggins, and you must come to accept that.”

 And all at once, the idea of Bilbo being hurt – of Bilbo dying, heavens forbid it – struck a chord of terror so utterly profound within him that Thorin could barely speak. He could practically see it in his mind’s eye: Bilbo caught unawares away from the party, being easily overpowered by man or orc or elf. Everything that could possibly happen to him flashed before Thorin’s eyes and it hurt, it hurt deep inside, and he needed to keep Bilbo safe. Needed to lock him up where nobody could see, where nobody could hurt him; tucked away and taken care of like treasure, he was treasure, he needed to be kept safe and protected and his, Bilbo was his

Thorin wrenched himself violently out of that strain of thought, breathing deeply in an attempt to calm himself down. He glanced up, horrified, only to realize that Bilbo did not seem to have noticed the turmoil inside his head. Instead, the hobbit was sitting with his back uncomfortably straight and his lips pressed together, staring at something off in the distance behind him. His thumb and index finger were tucked into the pocket of his soft yellow vest, a wrinkle of hurt between his eyebrows.

“I’m not entirely helpless,” Bilbo insisted – before deflating, the tension and hurt seeming to ease out of his body as he sagged and nodded. He slid his fingers from his pocket and clasped his hands together, giving Thorin a cowed look. There was a stiffness to the way he held himself that Thorin did not remember being there before. “But... you’re right, of course. I should learn to fight better. It would... make me more useful that way.”

Relaxing somewhat, Thorin nodded. “It would,” he said definitively, because he was right to suggest that Bilbo learn to better protect himself. Even if his motivations for the suggestion were somewhat more overwhelming than they should have been, he was right.

He quickly ran through the members of the party in an attempt to select an appropriate tutor: not all of the dwarves were fighters, and few of those trained in the ways of the sword would make good teachers for such basic technique. Dwalin was too harsh and unforgiving, Balin’s long years of experience would likely make him a better advanced instructor, and Dori was often too occupied with looking out for his brothers to provide comprehensive enough instruction.

His nephews, however, had gone through the steps of learning basic swordsmanship only a few decades ago, which meant that it should all still be fresh in their minds. They were approachable and kind, and both of them possessed a soft spot for the Bilbo that would make them eager to help him. Providing them with such a task would give them a productive outlet for their youthful energy, too, as well as reinforcing the basics of swordsmanship for themselves. Plus, Thorin thought guiltily, he could trust the two of them to keep an eye out for Bilbo without asking too many questions.

“In the morning, I shall instruct Kili and Fili to educate you in the ways of the sword for at least an hour each day,” said Thorin firmly, and Bilbo nodded in acceptance. “I want you to be able to protect yourself – and others of our party – if you are called upon to do so. They should make for good and fair instructors.”

“Yes, Thorin,” Bilbo murmured, obedient and pacified, and Thorin could not quite understand the prickling of unease he felt at the response. He had got what he wanted: Bilbo would learn how to properly wield his sword, and his nephews would be able to protect him when Thorin wasn’t around to do so. Still, though, something unpleasant that Thorin could not fully identify was persistently twisting along the edges of his mind. He felt strangely empty.

“I owe you my thanks for the healing,” Thorin blurted, and Bilbo nodded absently.

“You don’t need to thank me for that,” said Bilbo, and there was some emotion in his voice that Thorin could not identify. He gave Thorin a strange look before grabbing the bowls that had previously held the salve and his stew before rising to his feet. “I should retire now, I think.” He laughed softly. “I have to be well-rested if I’m to be training tomorrow.”

“Of course,” said Thorin, then called out as Bilbo turned to walk away: “Good night, Master Baggins.”

Bilbo paused in his steps, turning to give Thorin a soft smile over his shoulder. “Good night,” he said, mumbling something that might have been my king or might have been nothing at allbefore turning to quickly walk toward his pack and bedroll.

Instead of watching him go, Thorin forced himself to turn and stare into the fire. The other dwarves had stopped their singing long ago, and he did not want to turn around to see if any of them were still awake. He felt strangely numb, as though his skin had turned to stone.

It took him a long time to fall asleep that night, gazing steadfastly into the bright heat until the only sounds around him were the gentle snores of his companions and the persistent crackle of the flames.