No, this was a wizard who was their sort of folk, more of a gentlehobbit than a wizard; why, he even looked exactly like a hobbit, from his modest height - even for a hobbit - to the unruly curls on his head, his equally modest if ageless features, his slowly prospering belly, to his bared and furry feet. Even his name was Hobbitish: "Bilbo" - and although he took no family surname, he was known to be quite fond of the Baggins clan, probably for their solid respectability of character, though, that being said, the wizard Bilbo was generally known to be generous and kindly to all the Shirefolk.
Still, despite having a reputation for stocking a good larder, respectability and gentleness, when the other wizard came striding up to Bag End, in his travel-worn clothes and his bent gray-blue hat, tattered wispy beard tugged by the breeze, the Shirefolk watched, turned, and whispered knowledgeably to themselves. Wizard business, the word spread, slow and self-importantly. Another wizard has come to talk to our wizard, about the ways of the world and its kings.
They would be far more right about that than they knew.
As to Bilbo himself, he had settled quite comfortably in the beechwood bench behind his gate, shaping smoke rings into butterflies to amuse himself and keep his hand in, and the reappearance of the other wizard was, he had to admit, rather unwelcome.
"Gandalf," he sighed, and indeed it was Gandalf the Grey who had come up the road to Bag End; Gandalf the wandering wizard, whose business was schemes and the subtle reworking of the other races. "What are you doing here?"
Gandalf glanced at him keenly, and one of the smoke butterflies fluttered into a smoke bird, and turned blue and pink before it dissipated. "Dear me! So Saruman spoke true. One of the Maiar, retired, smoking away the rest of his days?"
"Well," Bilbo shrugged, breathing out another smoke ring, "The Enemy has been defeated for many a year. Besides, I'm quite fond of this land, and the land is fond of me."
Gandalf nodded slowly, for he could indeed see that; any visitor could, even those without a touch of magic. To step past the Water into the Shire was to come into a sense of peace, of a warm and gentle harmony; its fields and forests lush with colour and life, a pocket of quiet perfection sealed away from the rest of the world and its cares.
"It can survive without you for a time," Gandalf decided, leaning on his walking stick. "I have some business that I can't quite fully attend to, and-"
"Ask Radagast," Bilbo interrupted. "Maybe his land can survive without him for a time."
"You know full well what Radagast's Green Wood sits as a buffer to," Gandalf scowled, and he had an impressive scowl that bristled with whiskers and with age, one that had cowed Men and Elves and Dwarves alike. Bilbo, however, merely arched an eyebrow, and Gandalf added, with a snort, "Besides, he isn't suitable for this particular venture. I need someone versed in subtlety."
"Well, you won't find that person here," Bilbo got to his feet, his brow beetling into a frown of his own, as he ambled up the steps to his door. "Good day! And take your business-mongering to Bree, thank you. I'll not be best pleased if you sneak off any unsuspecting gentlefolk from hereabouts onto one of your mad adventures."
So decided, Bilbo let himself into Bag End and shut his door, stamping off to make himself some tea, still rather annoyed at the presumptuousness of it all, which was why he could be quite forgiven for failing to notice the small spark of magic that was inscribed onto his front door. Gandalf himself, after all, was an old hand in subtlety.
After a cup of tea, Bilbo was called out to the homesteads to attend to a group of sickly children who had been refusing to eat, and what with diagnosing the problem (sylverberries from Rushock Bog) and instructing the parents on proper treatment, Bilbo had forgotten about the entire unpleasant business in the morning. He did his rounds, checking on the Old Gaffer, who'd caught a cold, and having tea with the Brandybucks before taking a comfortable stroll back home to immerse himself in his books before preparing his dinner.
This sense of peace was rather rudely shattered at dinner, when he was abruptly invaded by an inexplicable stream of noisy and uninvited dwarves, who, it had to be said, were lucky that Bilbo was so bewildered by their presence and so settled by his long and gentle existence in the Shire that any thought of finding his staff and chasing out the intruders quite slipped his mind.
Bilbo did, however, manage irritation when a final wave of tumbling dwarves revealed Gandalf behind it all, looking rather pleased with himself. "Gandalf. I should have known."
"Should you now," Gandalf removed his hat, hanging it up, even as the other dwarves blithely tipped hoods and weapons into Bilbo's arms, raising boisterous shouts as they scurried off to help their kinsfolk raid Bilbo's poor besieged pantry. Annoyed, Bilbo dumped the gear against the wall, wiping off his hands, and fixed Gandalf with a stern glare.
"I've told you that I'm not interested in getting involved with your schemes," he hissed. "Get these dwarves out of my home!"
"They've come a long way, and they're hungry," Gandalf replied blithely, ducking his head under an archway.
"How is that my problem, exactly? And… you! Put those back! Those chairs were handcrafted for me by the Old Took, and they're older than you are… you! Don't touch those plates! Oh, confusticate the lot of you!"
Hungry dwarves, it seemed, would not be deterred by even the irritation of one of the Maiar, howsoever retired, and the larder was quite empty by the time Bilbo gave up trying to harass his unwanted visitors into some semblance of civilised behaviour. Settling down in a corner with a pint and his pipe, Bilbo decided to just ignore the mob in his poor home; after all, it was the nature of Gandalf and his schemes to wander about, and the dwarves seemed unlikely to be set up to linger more than the night.
His irritation had started to fade after the pint, and he ended up amusing the three youngest dwarves - barely out of childhood, as far as he could tell, by the way dwarves measured it - by smoking up rings in the shape of colourful and curling beasts. Bilbo had always been rather fond of younglings in whatever shape or form, and he was growing mellow enough at this point not to notice the way Gandalf smiled to himself from the other corner as he waited for the last and most important dwarf to arrive.
"The fourteenth member of your Company," Gandalf supplied blandly. "Bilbo."
"You told me that the last member would be another wizard," Thorin retorted accusingly, "Not a green grocer."
"Oh, but he's a wizard, uncle," Kíli burst out, even as Bilbo switched his glower from Gandalf to Thorin.
"He makes the most amazing smoke rings," Fíli added enthusiastically, and clapped Ori on the shoulder. "Ori saw it too!"
Faced with the brunt of Thorin's stare, Ori shuffled quickly and shyly behind Fíli, dropping his eyes, and Gandalf sighed explosively when Thorin growled, "I should hope that he has more tricks up his sleeve than shaping smoke rings."
"Is this about the dragon in Erebor?" Bilbo hissed at Gandalf, when Thorin had swept off towards the dining room, arrogant as you please.
"Not entirely," Gandalf replied, with a look of such innocent surprise at his question that Bilbo found himself following Gandalf into the dining room rather than storming outside to fetch his staff. He'd just remembered where he'd left it, after all, hidden in its temporary role as a supporting stilt for the tomato plants, out of sight from curious Hobbit children and their sticky hands.
It turned out to be entirely about the blasted dragon in Erebor, damn Gandalf and his schemes, but despite himself Bilbo found himself rather caught up in the mystery of it all, the budding promise of a great and winding story that was struggling to play itself out, what with maps of secret doors and keys and the romance of the dwarves' grim promise. Bilbo did love his books, but most of all, he loved stories, and as such, he sat smoking in his kitchen long after even Gandalf had put up his feet on the coffee table to rest.
He glanced up at an approaching tread, and frowned when Thorin settled himself down in the chair opposite him, leaning one gauntleted arm over the cherrywood. Thorin was dressed richly, in furs and beautifully crafted mail armour of dwarven make, befitting his imperious manner and his airs, and Bilbo supposed that he was slightly impressed by Thorin Oakenshield, as rude as the dwarven king was. He did look quite the sort for a good story.
"I apologize for my words at your door," Thorin began, and although his manner wasn't earnest Bilbo supposed that he did sound sincere. "They were ill spoken, and I will offer you no excuses for them."
"Apology accepted," Bilbo said graciously, because it had been obvious enough that Thorin had had heavier matters bearing on his mind, what with the rejection of most of his kindred and the knowledge that he was quite likely leading his own kin - among them his heirs - into suicide. "And I wish you and the others all the best."
"You are not coming with us?"
"I've made that quite clear, haven't I?" At Thorin's frown, Bilbo added, with a sigh, "Look. I've been retired here in the Shire for a very long time. I'm not sure what manner of wizard you're looking for, but you're probably best off trying to persuade Gandalf to stay with your party; he's more of the… adventuring type of wizard. I'm more of the um, homely kind, interested in good food and books, not really mountains and dragons."
"You're a healer," Thorin blithely ignored him, "And I presume that like Gandalf, you're able to walk softly in dark places?"
"Well," Bilbo muttered, "I'm rather out of practice on the latter, and besides, I'm not interested in coming on adventures. They're nasty things that make you late for tea, and I have duties here."
"My grandfather kept a library in Erebor," Thorin continued. "Gandalf tells me that you love books. The library we have is vast, with books from the days of Durin himself, older, enough to fill your home five times over and more."
"I've heard of it," Bilbo admitted reluctantly. Dwarves often collected knowledge the way they hoarded treasure; with taste and care. "But surely it burned when the dragon came."
"The room was built to be fireproof, and locked high in the mountain, constructed to be sealed against the elements and time itself. I am sure that it would have survived. It is yours, along with a share of the treasure, if you would come with us."
"And how on earth am I meant to transport all those books?"
"You are welcome to stay in Erebor, should we retake it," Thorin pointed out, "Or you could use your fourteenth share of the treasure to take the books back here. Build yourself a tower to rival Orthanc."
"That would be ridiculous," Bilbo said, a little aghast at the very idea, and was surprised when Thorin smiled at his statement, as though amused. Slightly irritated, he was about to mutter a polite rejection anyway, as tempting as the thought of all those books was, and found himself saying, instead, "A hall full of books, you say."
"Balin has also seen it. Ask him."
Bilbo puffed at his pipe, mainly to keep his mouth busy, before he said anything else that he would have cause to regret. He could feel inevitability tugging at him, and he didn't like it one bit. He would have no practical way of storing the books over in the Shire, nor very much time at all to devote to their study.
"No, I'm still afraid that I'm going to have to dec-"
Thorin had reached over, to press his roughened fingers over Bilbo's wrist, warm and callused, the heavy ring of his House catching the last glimmers of warmth from the fireplace. "And a great debt I would owe you, wizard, from myself and my House. We treat our debts seriously."
Bilbo was about to mention that this particular incentive was the least interesting of all, and was simply searching for a kindly way to break it to Thorin, but under the intensity of the dwarf's stare, and the weight of history that he could feel, gathering momentum behind him, Bilbo found himself stumbling.
"Um, er, this is still rather sudden," Bilbo hedged awkwardly. "I can't just up and leave overnight. I have to pack, and I'm going to have to leave someone with instructions, especially about the Gaffer's cold and, and Sarah Gamwich's expecting, and-"
"Pack tonight," Thorin withdrew his hand, and Bilbo sagged, letting out a breath that he hadn't realized that he had been holding. "Write a list. Dwalin will deliver it to whoever you like, and catch up with us."
Annoyingly enough, Bilbo found himself nodding slowly, and Thorin pushed himself away from the table, seemingly satisfied. It was only shortly afterwards, when Bilbo had located a pack from the deep recesses of his storeroom, that reason crept back into his mind, and he sighed. "Oh, bother! Why did I ever agree to go?"
He knew exactly why, at least, deep within him. Thorin was a most dangerous dwarf, even for a dispossessed king. Perhaps it was Gandalf who had fallen in with the dwarven king's plans, and not the other way around as Bilbo had originally assumed.
"I feel uprooted," Bilbo retorted sourly, as much as Dwalin had been as good as his word and had brought back a written reply from the Gamgees, haphazardly spelled, assuring Bilbo that his thick sheaf of detailed instructions would be followed to the letter. The Gamgees could be relied on, if at least to try. "You do realize that I'm of little actual help to this Company on this particular quest. I've no experience at all with dragonslaying, or whatever they're expecting me to be able to do."
"Oh, I think you have a lot more to offer than you think, old friend," Gandalf retorted, amused. "Besides, you're a healer, and the road ahead's grown dangerous over the years."
"I'm not Elrond," Bilbo muttered, and lowered his voice further. "My magic's long been sunk into this land, Gandalf. I've been diminished. We all have been. The price of existing in this world weighs on all of us. And so it should. Our work here is finished. We linger with no purpose here but to fade."
"I wouldn't call it that," Gandalf, however, glanced past Thorin, at the head of the Company, to the forests beyond. "I think there's more for us to do yet. The way home is still shut."
"That's an optimistic view of things," Bilbo grumbled, though he felt his spirits lift a little, grudgingly. "By the way, did you clear this with Saruman?"
Gandalf eyed him with that selfsame innocent surprise, and when Bilbo tilted his head, Gandalf made a huffing sound, tipping down the edge of his broad-brimmed hat. "Well. He can't possibly spare the time to approve every single-"
"So you haven't. Are you getting me into trouble?"
"You can't be in more trouble than you already are," Gandalf pointed out dryly, "You and Radagast. The last I saw of Saruman, he was caught up in one of his… well. He has strong opinions."
"Of what constitutes 'Conduct Unbecoming of the Maiar'?"
Gandalf huffed again, though he smiled this time, wry and curling under his whiskery face, having been himself the subject of Saruman's 'strong opinions' from time to time. "Precisely."
"If you plan to pass through Rivendell with that map, he will find out," Bilbo pointed out soberly. That was a good thought, in a way, if Saruman put an end to all this silliness in Rivendell. Unless things had changed dramatically since Bilbo had last passed that way, the journey from the Shire to Rivendell should be fairly peaceful, and it would be a nice ride there and back.
"Perhaps," Gandalf noted, all untroubled, which indicated that the other wizard had already thought this through, likely in depth. Gandalf had always liked to be clever. It tended to be awfully inconvenient at the best of times, especially where his fellow Maiar were concerned.
Bilbo was still mulling this over when they set up camp on a broad ledge against a cliff, looking out over a darkened forest, and as he smoked his pipe beside the fire, he found himself again besieged by princes.
Fíli and Kíli elbowed each other for a moment as they settled beside him, then Kíli asked, excitedly, "So you're as old as Gandalf, Master Bilbo?"
Bilbo glanced over at Gandalf, who was seated further away, on the edges of the camp, smoking his own pipe, and who gave no indication of listening in, but probably was. "He is older than I am, but time is immaterial to the Maiar. Wizards," Bilbo elaborated, when the princes looked a little blank.
"Why does he look like a Man, while you took bobbit form?"
"Hobbit," Fíli hissed, correcting his brother, and looking up over at Thorin, seated on the other side of the camp on a rock and watching the horizon, also seemingly oblivious to the conversation.
"Ah, well," Bilbo said, a little self-importantly, "Form is also immaterial to the Maiar. I'm rather fond of hobbits. As a whole, they're gentle, peaceful creatures, content with simple things. If the world was more like them, I should think that it would harbor less suffering."
There was a derisive snort from Thorin's direction that made both young princes glance up quickly, but when Thorin made no further comment, Bilbo puffed at his pipe, a trifle put out. After all, Thorin was the one who had pushed him to come along, despite Bilbo's protests, and rudeness was quite uncalled for. A harsh yowling cry from the dark made him swallow the snide comment that was welling within him, though, and he frowned. "What was that?" It had sounded far too much like-
"Orc," Fíli supplied helpfully.
"This far out of the shadow of the mountains?"
"They ambush travellers with their wargs," Kíli added, grinning when Bilbo blinked at him. "Tear anything they find to pieces and eat the unsuspecting alive-"
"You think that an orc attack is amusing?" Thorin cut in harshly then, his scowl thunderous even as his nephews straightened up sharply at his tone, and he strode across the camp, his hands behind his back, up to the furthest spur, to glower out into the dark, ignoring their murmured apologies.
"Thorin has more cause than most to hate the orcs," Balin was the one to break the frozen silence, and when he did, it was with a rich and desperate tale, one of war and of a Naming-deed. It was a dark story to tell, with the cry of the orc still echoing softly past, and Bilbo shivered, taking another puff of his pipe, watching the fire. Trouble, he felt, was coming quickly.
Mail made an awful amount of noise, even if its wearers were trying to be quiet, though, and he puffed out a blue butterfly that dove straight for the studiously silent shadows in the corridor winding away to his right, and heard Ori let out a soft squeak.
There was a lesson to be learned here, Bilbo felt, as the younglings showed themselves; Kíli first, brash as ever, trailing his ever-present brother, and Ori bringing up the rear, the only one who seemed shamefaced about the disturbance. Innocence was one of the few qualities unfettered by race, howsoever tempered by time and circumstance.
"Gandalf was called to a meeting," Kíli announced first, "He told us to make preparations."
"Of course he did." Saruman had to be here, and if he was, it was quite possible that the Lady was here, as well. There was a hushed stillness to Rivendell, a dreamlike muting to its laughter and song. "Is it time yet?"
"Soon." Fíli admitted, even as Kíli prompted, as unsubtly as ever, his patience for small talk clearly exhausted, "The elves have different names for you and Gandalf."
"So they do." Bilbo conceded, amused, even as Kíli earned a quick elbow from his brother. "They have names for all of the wizards, usually literal ones. Gandalf is 'Mithrandir' - the 'Grey Pilgrim'. They call me 'Amarvellon', or 'Earth-friend'."
"And why's that, sir?" Ori piped up, admittedly while still safely behind both princelings.
"We were all sent here with a purpose," was as far as Bilbo was willing to say, and took to distracting the younglings with a few tricks of smoke and sleight of hand instead, easy routines that he'd used before to keep hordes of hobbit children occupied and out from underfoot during festivals.
He nearly missed Thorin's approach, until Kíli and Fíli scrambled to their feet abruptly, looking slightly abashed when their uncle walked into the soft circle of lamp light. "We leave now," Thorin stated briskly, and judging by the growing colour in Fíli's cheeks, Bilbo guessed that the princelings had been sent to fetch him, and had promptly been distracted by their own curiosity.
"I wanted to finish my pipe," Bilbo intervened, and even as Thorin arched an eyebrow at him, Ori shot him a grateful look, especially when Thorin seemed to accept the explanation, waving the younglings away.
"They are not children any longer," Thorin told him gruffly, once the princelings were out of sight, his tone stern. "You should not encourage them."
"Children or not, they are too young for your quest," Bilbo retorted, even as he put out his pipe, tapped out the weed and put it away. "You should not have brought them."
"They are old enough to make their own choices."
"Old enough to remember the dragon?" Bilbo challenged.
"That is none of your concern."
"I don't appreciate your tone, Master Oakenshield," Bilbo noted mildly, as he fell into step beside Thorin, "Particularly since you pushed me to come along."
Thorin glowered at him, but Bilbo had been glowered at by Saruman before and more, and as he merely smiled back, it was the dwarven king who finally jerked his stare away. "I know a little Sindarin, from before the dragon came. The elves named you and Gandalf 'Elf-friends'."
"They can be rather pleasant folk." Bilbo had made the acquaintance of the Master of Rivendell, the last that he had chanced this way, and he supposed that the impression had stuck.
"So I have reason to believe that you wizards have motives beyond what I originally expected."
"Oh, for…" Bilbo stopped walking, sticking his hands into his pockets. "That's it. I have had quite enough of dwarven royalty and their ridiculous suspicions. I am staying here, in Rivendell, and I wish you the best of luck."
Instead of storming off, as Bilbo thought, Thorin frowned at him, turning around. "I did not ask you to leave."
"Not in so many words!"
"I was merely stating an opinion-"
"Well, you can state them again, away from here. Away from me," Bilbo retorted, about to draw his pipe out from his pouch, only to squeak as Thorin stalked over and planted a palm against the small of his back, propelling him forward. "Thorin!"
"We have to leave now."
"And so you shall… would you stop… is this a kidnapping? Are you seriously kidnapping me? I ought to-" Bilbo's next squeak was muffled against the rub and bristle of Thorin's beard, as he was just as abruptly pushed up against a wall and kissed, of all things. Utterly shocked by the sudden further invasion of personal space, Bilbo froze up; Thorin kissed with a blindingly unsubtle presumption that was both intensely annoying and incredibly exhilarating at the same time, taking his mouth in a blithe and confident conquest.
When he drew away, Bilbo sputtered, outraged, stunned, but Thorin clapped a hand over his mouth, glancing down an adjoining corridor, where Bilbo was just in time to see the edges of an elvish robe whisk out of sight. He relaxed, suddenly understanding. A cover, then. Quick thinking by Thorin.
And rather unnecessary, at that. Bilbo had no intention of continuing on the madcap adventure any further, especially since he was hardly appreciated. About to tell Thorin as much, when the dwarven king dropped his hand, Bilbo hesitated as he caught the faint flush to Thorin's skin, the heat in his imperious eyes that quickly shuttered away.
"We are late," Thorin stated brusquely, and Bilbo found himself keeping step as Thorin started to hurry down the corridor, glancing here and there to check for oncoming elves.
As he followed the Company up the steep passage out of the Valley, leaning on his staff, Bilbo considered the distinct and unwelcome possibility that Gandalf's blasted adventure had long stripped him of any form of respectability, leaving complete insanity in its wake.
Bilbo could only hope that this quest - and the infernal king at the centre of it - wouldn't be the end of him. Wargs and goblins and more lay ahead, with the dragon at the end of it all, and this particular story, in Bilbo's opinion, would prove complicated enough even without a dwarven king's presumptuous airs.
When he lingered just at the corner of the pathway before it edged out of sight of Rivendell, however, Bilbo nearly jumped when he felt a now familiar palm press over the small of his back. "I don't need to be pushed along," Bilbo noted quickly, in case Thorin had any further ideas.
"I know," Thorin replied, sounding a little hesitant, and startled, Bilbo glanced over, concerned.
Thorin, however, was steadily glowering at Rivendell, as though willing the Last Homely House to spontaneously combust, and after a long, awkward moment, Bilbo noted, dryly, "Apology accepted. Yet again."
The hunch of Thorin's shoulders seemed to relax lightly, though the dwarf still had the gall to mutter, "I said nothing of the sort."
Dwarves and their confounded stubbornness! Bilbo opened his mouth, about to withdraw his acceptance, when Thorin admitted, almost as flatly, "But I was about to."
"Ah," Bilbo blinked owlishly. "Er. Good."
Thorin waited, as Bilbo started to grow uncomfortable; Thorin's palm at his back seemed to burn with warmth, even through the layers of his clothes, in the silver-bright distant sound of rushing water through the climbing sun, and eventually, it was Thorin who prompted, gruffly, "You were falling behind."
"Oh. Oh!" Bilbo shook himself out of his stupor, embarrassed, and started briskly up the path, Thorin's hand dropping away as he kept pace behind him. Bilbo told himself that he didn't miss it, even as he smiled to himself and took in a slow breath, watching the world wind vast and eternal into the horizon before him. Perhaps adventures and dwarven kings weren't all too bad, after all.