When Bilbo woke, the world around him was jumbled and uncertain. The first time he opened his eyes the pain was enough to split him in two. For a long dizzy moment he thought he would pass out again—it would be so easy, easier than breathing, to sink back into the soft, comfortable darkness.
No. He wouldn't go quietly. His Tookish half, contrary and reckless as ever, was still hot with the violence of battle, and he had a dim notion that there was something he needed to do: something important. He clung to consciousness, heart beating stubbornly in his bruised, aching chest. Everything hurt.
Little by little, he took stock of his situation. Grey clouds hung low in the sky, and the little daylight that remained was fading fast. It was eerily silent; he could hear nothing but the wind, which blew small flurries of ice and snow down from the heights, tugging at his matted hair and stinging his face and hands. The Lonely Mountain loomed above him like a specter, but he could only see the utmost peak. He was trapped in a wasteland of rocky slopes, with the dead scattered around in heaps of rent flesh and broken bones.
He staggered to his feet. He'd watched elves and dwarves alike torn apart in the battle, the bodies hewn where they lay, but no trace of them remained. The only corpses he saw were goblins, their mounts broken underneath them or dead nearby. One of the Wargs had been hewn down only a few feet away from him: entrails torn out and trailing, its eyes glassy and its mouth open in a frozen snarl. Bilbo glanced at it only briefly as he scanned the battlefield for more familiar figures. There were none.
Had any of his friends or allies survived the battle? Perhaps he was the only one left. He remembered how the goblins had swarmed the mountain and the slopes, thousands upon thousands of them, overwhelming the dwarves of the Iron Hills and breaking through the ranks of Thranduil's personal guard. It was there that Bilbo had decided to make his last stand. He must have been knocked unconscious soon after. The last thing he remembered was watching in horror as a young warrior in full armor, his face pale and desperate, threw himself in front of the king to shield him from a fatal blow. Surely Thranduil and the rest had been killed, and Bilbo left for dead in the carnage. But where were the bodies?
He shivered and drew the remains of his cloak more securely around himself. Presently he decided that he would make for the mountain, and he began to walk, legs almost giving out underneath him. He'd last seen Thorin and the rest of the Company fighting at the walls, and the goblins would have made a triumph of Thorin's body near the place where he'd fallen. If Bilbo was going to die in this miserable place, he would die near his king. It was the least he owed him, after stealing the Arkenstone and handing it over to their enemies, no less a betrayal because he'd had the best of intentions. Thorin had been right at the beginning. It would have been better for all of them if he had never left the Shire.
He'd thought he would rather be hated by Thorin than mourn him. He'd thought that if only he could stop the battle, everything would turn out all right in the end, even if Thorin never spoke to him again. The elves and men would leave, satisfied with a modest portion of the treasure, and Thorin would be King Under the Mountain. Bilbo would go back to the Shire, lonely but not grieving, secure in the knowledge that the dwarves had regained their home at last.
But he'd gotten it wrong, as usual. The elves and men had been the least of their worries—Azog's hordes had slaughtered them all alike. And now Bilbo was alone on the battlefield, too tired to despair. He trudged on, one foot in front of the other, in as straight a line as the rough landscape would allow.
He had no sense of time, but eventually he realized that the snow was falling harder, and that the wind had dropped an octave. There was something else, too—something beneath the wind. A voice? He strained his ears, trying to make it out more clearly.
"Bilbo!" The call was faint, almost swept away by the gathering storm. "Bilbo!"
Hope leaped suddenly in his chest. He stumbled towards the sound. "I'm here!" he shouted. "Over here!"
There was no response. Nothing. But someone had been calling his name, he was certain of it, and he looked around wildly as he hurried forward.
A familiar shape loomed suddenly out of the gathering dark. Bilbo stopped dead in his tracks.
The dwarf looked terrible. His normally ruddy face was waxen, his arm and left side swathed with bandages, and a deep gash across his forehead had turned his face into a mess of dirt and crusted blood. He was alive, though, and none of the rest mattered compared to that. Bilbo reached out to embrace him, but Bofur stared ahead, unseeing.
"Bilbo? Damn and blast, hobbit, where are you?"
"I'm right here!" Bilbo cried. Why couldn't he see him? They were only a few paces apart. What could possibly—
The Ring, of course.
He didn't remember putting it on, but there it was, gleaming dully, untouched by any dirt or blood. He yanked it off his finger. So that was why he'd been abandoned on the battlefield!
"I'm here," said Bilbo, shoving the contemptible thing into his pocket.
Bofur leapt backwards and stared as if he was seeing a ghost.
"By Aulë, it is you," he said, and swept Bilbo up into a tight embrace. "I thought I was going mad. We'd taken you for dead, but we couldn't find your body. Balin sent me out to search one last time."
Bilbo could hardly breathe, and not just because Bofur was holding him far too tightly. It was too much, all of it. He had resigned himself to a lonely, friendless death, either on the battlefield or in the wilderness beyond. A comforting embrace, a familiar voice—could it be possible that such things still existed,? But after a long moment Bofur pulled away, and Bilbo's mind began to catch up with him.
"Sent out—so some of the others survived. What happened? Where's Thorin? Did—"
"We carried the day," Bofur said. He didn't sound triumphant. "The rest can wait. Can you walk?"
Bilbo nodded. "I was headed toward the mountain when you found me."
"Good. I don't have the strength to carry you, and it might already be too late."
"Too late for what? What's going on?"
But the dwarf said nothing more. He just grabbed him by the arm and set off. Bilbo stumbled along. It was all he could do to keep up, much less demand answers to his questions. Every breath was a struggle.
They were still boxed in by uneven ground, picking a path through the bodies and wreckage, but it was clear that they were headed towards the mountain. As they drew close, the first signs of life began to appear: there were voices in the distance, carried by the wind along with plumes of black smoke, and though night had fallen, Bilbo could see an eerie red glow in the distance. Acrid, sickly smoke burned his nostrils.
Then they were standing atop the last of the rocky slopes, the mountain entirely visible at last. Spread out before them were the scorched plains where the fiercest fighting had taken place, and where the victorious armies now camped.
It was an eerie, forbidding sight. Here and there funeral pyres burned red and roaring, columns of black smoke glowing with sparks and mingling with the falling snow. There were smaller fires, too, and hundreds of torches. There was light enough for Bilbo's sharp eyes to make out the standards flying over the battlefield. Thranduil, Dain, Thorin, the men of Esgaroth—all four banners flew high.
They started down the hillside towards the encampment. Bofur was half-dragging him now, his uninjured hand wrapped around Bilbo's arm tightly enough to bruise. There was Balin, striding up to meet them. His armor was gouged and black with soot, and face was grim, but when he spoke he sounded relieved, not angry. "You've found him," he said.
"Is there time?" Bofur asked.
"Yes. But hurry."
They pressed on. Faces passed in a blur, elves and dwarves and men alike. He thought he recognized some of them, but the torchlight made everything look strange and savage. Above the clamor of voices there was the crackling of the fires and the howl of the storm.
Bilbo could see their destination now. It was a hastily-erected pavilion, standing a little apart from the rest of the encampment, near the charred and ruined gates that led into the mountain. There were guards standing at the entrance: dwarves of the Iron Hills. A few of them were openly weeping.
"Please," Bilbo said, a terrible suspicion forming in his mind. "Please. What's going on?"
Bofur didn't meet his eyes.
"The battle was won," he said as they stepped inside. "But Thorin is dying."