The journey back to the Lonely Mountain was long and exhausting. Rain had been pounding the ground for several days now, making the footpaths and wooded roads quite difficult to traverse even on ponyback. Bilbo had toppled over several times this morning, his bum covered in mud. The wet, itchy feeling had begun to irritate him more and more as the day progressed, but Bilbo refused to slow down or stop when they were so close to their goal. It'd been well over a year since he'd seen the Lonely Mountain and the tired hobbit was going to arrive there by nightfall, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
"Uncle," said a small voice next to him, "I'm cold."
Bilbo looked up at the pony beside him, hands automatically reaching out for the small hobbit that sat atop Molly. "We're not too far now, my boy. Only a few miles east and we'll be in the warm halls of Erebor." He patted the young boy on the back. "Come here, darling, lil' bit of carrying will warm you up. Tuck your hands into my collar, yes, that's it. Golly, you're about froze up!"
Frodo buried his tiny face into Bilbo's neck, soft curls dripping with water despite the hood pulled overtop of them. They were all by themselves now, the other part of their travel group having already headed off to Lake-town. Bilbo wasn't too concerned about a few miles journey alone, mostly because the areas directly around Erebor and Dale were now well-protected by both dwarven and human patrols. The roads had been empty due to the terrible weather, but a number of small farms were now present along the stretch, which had been restored in the eighteen or so months since Bilbo had left for the Shire.
"We'll be giving the dwarves quite the surprise, my boy," said Bilbo, tucking the small child into his own thicker cloak. "They've probably figured I'd not be coming back at this point. Long journey, this has been."
"I just wanna bed," mumbled Frodo. He hadn't been very fond of sleeping on the ground, the poor little hobbit. "Nice and warm, like back home."
"You'll have that and more," assured Bilbo. "I have a feeling that the dwarves will make quite the fuss over you."
Bilbo chuckled, amused by his nephew's simple, child-like desires. The poor boy had had a rough last couple of months, what with his parents' deaths, having to live with the Brandybucks, and now traveling hundreds of miles to a strange dwarvish city that had just recently been restored. Frodo had every right to be a bit tetchy and demanding, as any small child would be in his situation. They'd been moving at a pretty fast clip with nearly all of their travel groups, anxious to leave the dangerous and uncharted regions that led to the eastern reaches of Middle-Earth. The Quest to Erebor three years prior had been rough, but Bilbo would be the first hobbit to admit that traveling with a small child amplified all of those problems ten-fold. Even a sweet-tempered faunt like Frodo could only take so much in a single day's travel before petulance started to set in. Bilbo would be very, very glad to have a warm, safe place to sleep, too.
"We should be close enough to…" Bilbo paused to squint through the rain. "Ah ha! There it is, my dear Frodo! The mist makes it quite difficult to see, but there it is, just as high and strong as I remember. The Lonely Mountain."
Frodo shifted in his uncle's arms, big blue eyes widening when he finally caught his first glimpse of the majesty that was Erebor. Bilbo couldn't stop the huge smile that crossed his face, chuckling in delight after placing a quick kiss on his nephew's downy-soft head. They'd finally made it.
"Welcome to Erebor, Frodo. Your new home."
The little hobbit didn't turn around even when Bilbo started to walk again. He'd always been a quiet child, from what Primula's friends had told him, but Bilbo was a little surprised that Frodo's reaction had been this sedate. He may have been quiet, but Frodo was also very curious, as Bilbo had learned from the red mushroom incident last month. Frodo usually had a small comment for any—
"It's really big," stated Frodo. "'Specially for dwarves. I thought they weren't too much bigger than us? Does anything else live there? Are those statues?"
Bilbo let out a hardy laugh at his nephew's questions. It looked like he'd taken the boy's curiosity for granted yet again. "Well, some of them are pretty big, but not as tall as those men in our last travel party. Or the elves. Now, Dwalin is quite large compared to…"
The older hobbit explained everything age-appropriate he knew about dwarves as they continued to walk towards the grand city, Molly trailing right beside them with their cart of essentials from the Shire. Bilbo had tried to pack as light as possible for their long journey, but there were just some things he couldn't leave behind, no matter how much it caused their travel speed to lag. He wanted Frodo to inherit these heirlooms one day, and wasn't willing to compromise on the matter.
"See those statues," said Bilbo as they started downwards along the River Running. "Those are of great dwarven warriors from the earliest days of Erebor. The left statue used to have a face, but then, well, dragons and battles don't tend to be kind to historical treasures."
"How'd they build it?"
Bilbo blew hot air on his nephew's frigid fingers. "Dwarves are the best engineers in all of Arda, my boy. When I left last spring, Thorin and Dáin had decided that repairing either statue would have to wait until the gates and interior were finished, so perhaps you'll be able to see the statues' future repairs for yourself."
"Wow," gasped Frodo when they finally arrived at the mountain city's front gates, his small arms tightening around Bilbo's neck. "It's huge."
"That it is, my boy," said Bilbo. "And this will be your—"
Looking to their right side, Bilbo was surprised to see a familiar tri-lobed bouffant of red-brown hair. He'd recognize that absurd hairstyle anywhere.
He wasted no time in walking over to the trickster dwarf, smiling wide when Nori gave him a strong pat on the back. Nori immediately signaled for the dwarven gate guards to come down and assist him, taking Molly by the reins and leading her into the enormous fortress and out of the pouring rain. It was only after the hobbits were safe inside the giant entrance hall that Nori started to speak with him.
"Our hobbit burglar has finally returned," grinned Nori. "You see, I told the other Company members that you'd be back. Long journey from the Shire to here, as they should remember."
"That's a bit of an understatement," sighed Bilbo. "I've literally spent the last year on the road, with only three weeks in the Shire. I don't think I've touched a single doily in as many months, either."
Nori laughed at the inside-joke, clearly still remembering how fussy Bilbo had been when they first arrived in his hobbit-hole. "Well, I don't think you'll have any luck finding those frilly things here, but…Ah! And who's this little fella?"
"This," said Bilbo, hefting Frodo up higher on his hip, "Is my nephew, Frodo. He will be under my care for the remainder of his youth. Frodo, this is one of the dwarves in the Company I was telling you about. His name's Nori. Say hello."
Frodo peeked out from where he'd been hiding in the crook of Bilbo's neck, small hands still shoved deep in his uncle's collar. "Hello."
Nori held out a hand, patiently waiting for the little hobbit to shake it. Once Frodo built up enough courage to grab the much larger hand, Nori gave a deep bow. "Very well-met, young hobbit. My name is Nori. At your service."
His nephew gave a shy smile. "He has funny hair."
"Dwarves are a very funny bunch," agreed Bilbo. "They'll eat you all out of house and home, and then they'll sing and dance and toss the dishes around as they clean up. All very strange business."
Nori slapped him hard on the back. "Your uncle's correct, little one. We're a mighty funny bunch, us dwarves, but I think you'll grow to like us. And we've a pretty good track record with hobbits, after all."
"I'm the only hobbit you know," corrected Bilbo. "Not a very impressive record, if you ask me."
Nori looked scandalized. "I'm friends with young Mister Frodo here, and he's the finest hobbit of them all. I think that's a pretty impressive track record, considering what a fine young hobbit this boy is."
Bilbo gave his former companion a thankful smile. He'd been worried that Frodo would not take too well to the dwarves because of their gruff brashness, but it seemed he had been very wrong about them yet again. Nori's joking manner had relaxed his nephew a great deal, Frodo's anxious posture now loose in his uncle's arms. The little boy didn't seem frightened at all, big eyes surveying the entire hall with a Tookish curiosity of troubling proportions. He even gave a small hand wave to a particularly boisterous group of miners as they walked by them.
"Are Dáin and his people still here?"
Nori shrugged his shoulders and said, "Most have returned to the Iron Hills. Dáin visited last month to iron out some treaties with Thorin and Bard, but he took at least half of his host back with him."
"And how many have stayed?"
"I'd say about two hundred, give or take." Nori flipped a throwing knife over his head and between his hands, winking at Frodo in that crafty manner of his. "The majority of them come from families that once lived in the Lonely Mountain. Before good ol' Smaug decided to come flying in."
"Can I see the mines?" Frodo suddenly asked. "Or the great hall?"
"In due time, little one," assured Nori. "But I think there's some other people that you and your uncle need to meet with first. Like the King."
Frodo's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "We get to meet the King? A real king? Like in the fairytales?"
Smiling down at his nephew, Bilbo said, "Yes, we do, Frodo. A real king."
"Wow," murmured the little boy in awe, "When?"
Nori grinned at the now-bouncy child. "Well, I'm pretty sure the gate guards have already sent word to Thorin, so it shouldn't be too—"
The hobbit barely had time to brace himself before two pairs of arms lifted him up and off the ground, voices cheering and shouting as they jostled Bilbo from side to side in their excitement. Frodo just clutched at his uncle's neck, startled by the craziness that was dwarvish greeting customs. Thankfully, Nori didn't waste any time in removing either of his fellows from their hug-assault, smacking both of them on the head with his giant mace and then scolding them for frightening a small child.
"What was that for?!" whined Kíli. He'd let go of Bilbo to clutch at the new lump atop his pretty head. "It's Bilbo! He loves it when we tackle him. And what're you talking about? All the children are up on the third floor this time of day."
"In case neither of you two idiots have noticed," said Nori, "Bilbo's arms are a bit full at the moment."
Both nursing an aching head, Fíli and Kíli turned around to stare at the hobbit that they'd missed so dearly over the past year or two. It took a few seconds for either of them to realize that Bilbo was holding a small child—a young hobbit!—in his arms. It was Fíli who reacted first…
"It's a hobbit babe!"
"Well, he's actually a few years past the babe stage," corrected Bilbo. "Frodo, this is Fíli and Kíli. They're the King's nephews. And very silly fellows. Boys, this here is my own nephew, Frodo." He forced the young hobbit to stop squeezing his throat. "Say hello to the silly dwarves, Frodo."
The dwarf brothers were practically bouncing in their boots while they waited for the young hobbit to acknowledge them. Apparently, the idea of meeting a hobbit child in person was very exciting. It took about a minute, but Frodo eventually decided to emerge from his hiding place in Bilbo's neck and say, "Hello."
"And I'm Kíli…" Both dwarves gave a deep bow. "At your service."
That last part seemed to greatly amuse Frodo, who fully emerged from his uncle's neck and started to look around the big chamber again. The little boy stared at the pair of dwarves, blue eyes unblinking as he dissected them.
Frodo pointed at Kíli. "You don't look like a dwarf."
The brown-haired prince just stared at the faunt while his brother and Nori cackled in astonishment. "Excuse me?"
"Your nose is kinda small. And you just don't look like the others," Frodo replied, his hands gesturing to the room around him. "Less hairy. Do you gotta sword? Or a battle hammer? Isn't that what dwarves use, Uncle Bilbo?"
"Sometimes, Frodo, but Kíli here is more an archer than anything. Wargs and orcs don't stand a chance against him." The young dwarf was smiling now, chest puffing with pride from the compliments. "But you can see their weapons later. For now, it'd be best if we got into some dry clothes."
The brothers gestured for Bilbo to follow them, but not before ordering several of the other dwarves to take care of Molly and move their possessions to a room in the royal wing of the castle.
"Right this way, my hobbit-y friends. Dry clothes and good food awaits."