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After the Dust Settles

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30 November, T.A. 2491 

 

The cluster of white healing tents stood as a stark contrast to the miserable, grimy conditions of the surrounding army camp. Inside, the tents were kept clean, warm and blessedly quiet, which provided a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Cots draped in luxurious fur skins were tucked near the walls of the tents to keep the injured comfortable during their recovery or at the very least, comfortable in their last moments on Middle-Earth.

Thorin had long since become accustomed to the sight of the inside of a healing tent; he paid no attention to his surrounding or to the pungent smell of mixed medicinal herbs that was permanently in the air. Instead, he found himself perpetually drawn to the small figure lying prone in the cot. Ever so gently, he reached over to cradle the Hobbit’s left hand in his own scarred ones.  

“You would be glad to know that Erebor’s recovery is going well,” he spoke softly as he shifted in his wooden seat from beside the bed. The chair gave a soft creak that seemed too loud in the thick silence of the dimly lit tent. “We are still recovering all those who have fallen in the fields and in the mountain. They would be given a proper burial and we are making plans to erect a monument in their honour.” Thorin’s gaze fell to the hand that he was grasping and he repeatedly traced his finger along the calluses on the Hobbit’s palm, an action that was repeated so often that it had long become automatic.

“Our negotiations between the Men and Elves were successful. One twelfth of the treasure was awarded to the dragonslayer and his men as compensation. Bard of Esgaroth had agreed to use a part of that sum to pay the Elves and for the reparation of Dale.” Thorin grimaced at the thought of Thranduil but he was much too weary to drag up any of his old anger to surface. Not now, not while he was in front of the creature who had paid so much for the tentative peace between his people and his neighbours. He shifted again, trying to find a position that would put less strain on his aching ribs, but to no avail. Wooden chairs were particularly unforgiving to those who have been sitting for a long while, let alone if the sitter was still recovering from previous injuries.   

“It seems that your bravery has done the impossible and sparked a truce between us and the Elves, fragile as it may be.” At this, the Dwarf king smiled wryly. Who would have thought that a soft Hobbit would have so much sway over the two most powerful figures in this region? His gentle eyes rove over the slack expression on the Hafling’s face, at his head that was wrapped in thick layers of gauze, and at the tufts of russet curls poking out from the spaces between the bandages.

Bilbo Baggins did not respond. He had remained deeply unconscious for the past seven days.

Thorin Oakenshield tried not to let his heart break.

Clearing his throat, he temporarily let go of Bilbo to reach inside his furred overcoat in search of the item he had stashed close to his body. The Dwarf continued in a hoarse whisper, “Take this knowing that I owe you a great debt, one that I cannot even begin to pay back.” He carefully pulled out the heart of the mountain and placed it in the Hobbit’s palm. Gently, Thorin curled his strong hand over Bilbo’s smaller one, muffling the bright glow of the Arkenstone between their grip. Without letting go of the Hobbit, he guided Bilbo’s hand over to his chest above the covers, so that the clutched stone can rest easily near the Hafling’s heart.

“May the gods protect you and guide you safely back to us.” And to me.

Satisfied, Thorin extracted himself from Bilbo’s side and head for the tent’s exit. He would let Bilbo have his rest for now. Afterall, he would be back tomorrow. 

 

 


 

23 November, T.A. 2491 

 

The battle ground was a cacophony of screams and clashing sounds from metal striking heavily against metal. The cloying stench of blood was inescapable especially when trapped between the throngs of fighting elves against the never ending waves of Goblins, Orcs and Wargs. Disoriented by the madness around him, Bilbo did not realize that he was unwittingly pushed into the valley until it was too late.

The Hobbit cursed vehemently under his breath at his luck. He could not possibly be in a location that was any worse. Elves, Dwarves, and Men all mingled together, locked in the most intense battles against the goblin army and Bilbo frantically ducked and weaved around them to save his own skin. He may be dressed in mithril chain and a leather helm, but he was hardly a fighter! Aside from the basic swings and blocks that Thorin had taught him, he knew close to nothing about sword handling, let alone fighting effectively with one. He was certainly not well-practiced enough to be a serious threat in a face-to-face combat. Thankfully, the combined power of his magic ring and his fortunately small stature have protected him from decapitation thus far, although he had to duck a few times when an Orc unknowingly swung his mace too close to Bilbo’s head for comfort.     

A man in front of him staggered and fell face first into the ground when a well-aimed arrow found its way into his neck. Horrified, Bilbo watched as the felled warrior futilely clawed at the protruding arrow shaft; his actions quickly becoming more and more sluggish as the seconds pass by. When the man finally stilled completely, the Hobbit knew that the warrior was no more. Numbly, Bilbo noticed that the black scorched earth beneath the body was rapidly becoming slick with blood and the Hobbit thought to himself that this was as close to hell as any place he has ever visited.

It took every ounce of strength in his body to keep him from being frozen, but somehow, he had managed to keep moving. Tightening his hold over Sting, Bilbo could feel his heart pounding rapidly in his chest as a renewed sense of pure, unadulterated fear coursed through his body. He knew that he was desperately lost and that he needed to find a safe place to hide, immediately. Looking around quickly, he spotted the cliffs of the Southern spur looming above the fighting crowd, atop which the Elvenking and the Elven archers were firing volleys of arrows at their foes. If he could just make his way back up those cliffs, he would be safe or at the very least, he could protect himself by burrowing inside the nooks and crevasses at the base of those stone walls. The sooner he escaped the death trap in the valley, the better chance he had of surviving.

Just as he was about to gather his courage to make a mad dash for safety, a loud thundering roar sounded from above, startling the Hobbit and all those around him to look up. To his horror and to the dismay of his allies, a fresh wave of Orcs had appeared to join the battle and they were so numerous that from a distance, they looked like a menacing swarm of swirling black mass. They had descended along the northern ridges of the mountain, recklessly streaming down to rain fresh hell on the armies below. The Elves and Men, whose spirits were high just moments ago from their quick work against their foes, were quickly surrounded and all hopes for victory evaporated in an instance. Thranduil and his group of archers tried valiantly to defend their position but they were slowly losing ground to the onslaught of attacks. With the Southern spur being overrun by the advancing Goblin cavalry, Bilbo’s plans for safety were dashed to pieces and his heart sank at the foreboding thought.  

 

It was in the darkest moment, in the midst of a losing battle that hope came in the form of Thorin Oakenshield. 

 


 

05 November, T.A. 2491

 

Never in a million years could Bilbo have guessed that at some point in his admittedly sedated life, he would get to see the sun set over the Lonely Mountain. And yet there he was, somewhere in the northern wing of the fortress, on a set of sturdy balconies constructed from the dark stones that were mined from the mountain itself. Centuries of exposure to the mountain winds had worn away the stones’ polished surface and decorative carvings, leaving them barren and smooth. Once upon a time, these balconies would have been filled with Dwarven archers who kept constant vigilance over the dangers beyond the fortress’ gates. Now, the area was deserted and silent.  

Not that Bilbo had minded the quiet, of course. He rather enjoyed this rare moment of peacefulness away from the rambunctious group of Dwarves. Never mind that he had discovered this area completely by accident after being dragged off to go exploring by Fíli and Kíli …and subsequently abandoned when they forgot about him. 

“Well then, it looks like the brothers are missing out,” Bilbo huffed out loud. “Just look at this place!”

The balconies gave the Hobbit a fantastic view of the wild lands from the mountain’s northern ridges. Judging from the wildly growing vegetation and the lack of scorched marks, this area has been spared from the devastation of Smaug’s dragon fire. The same cannot be said for the ruined southern portions of Erebor that still bore the scars of the dragon’s attack from decades before. Below the mountain, the Hafling could see the never-ending expand of rolling hills and grasslands.

Bilbo could understand why the Dwarves have come to fiercely love their home when surrounded by the majestic beauty of Erebor.

“There you are, Master Baggins!”

Bilbo turned to grin at Thorin as the Dwarf strode out to meet him. “Hello there! Don’t mind me! I’m just enjoying the view.”

The King under the Mountain gave him a small smile and hummed in response. He rested his hands on the stone railings and gazed out with a look of utter serenity. It was an expression that Bilbo had never seen the king wear, and it caught him so surprised that the Hobbit could only continue to stare on, mesmerized. Frankly, it was amazing how different the Dwarf looked when he wasn’t sporting his habitual grimaces or frowns. With all the tension and anger drained away, Thorin looked remarkably younger and more approachable.

Under the blazing sky, the Dwarf’s profile was highlighted, accentuating his aquiline nose, his brow bone, and square jaw.  Bilbo viciously silenced the part of his mind that repeatedly pointed out that Thorin Oakenshield made quite the regal handsome figure.

Of course he’d look peaceful, everything turned out for the better, Bilbo thought in an effort to stop thinking about Thorin and his blasted handsomeness. The dragon was dead and the Dwarves have completed what they’ve set out to do by reclaiming Erebor. The company had worked on fortifying the main gate and at the pace they were going, they could soon move on to doing other things that will rapidly return the fortress to its former glory. At the moment, the only pressing matter in Thorin’s mind was to find the Arkenstone from the treasure horde and to deal with the elves and men. The latter situation would be dealt with once Dáin Ironfoot’s army arrived. Victory was pretty much in his grasp and Bilbo could see why Thorin could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Bilbo also ignored the stab of guilt at keeping the Arkenstone away from Thorin. He had become alarmingly good at dodging unpleasant things that he did not want to handle.

“And what do you think of the view, Master Hobbit?”  

The Hafling shook his head lightly to shake out of his reverie. “Oh, uhm. It’s beautiful! This is the most north I’ve been and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Bilbo stammered, still a bit flustered from the thoughts he had circling in his head. Then, realizing the banality of his answer and feeling a bit embarrassed by it, he hastily continued, “But of course, you’d know this already. It’s not like I’ve set foot outside of the Shire until this adventure.”

Thorin’s lips quirked at Bilbo’s rambling and his soft blue eyes turned to look at the Hobbit. “If you think this is beautiful, you would have loved the view from the south of the mountain.” His gaze flickered briefly beyond the balcony, lost in memory. “Before Smaug had charred the land, the valley outside of the main gate was always in full bloom. Men from Dale would often visit the valley to collect flowers, either to be used for decorations during festivals or to be woven into circlets as gifts for their intended.”

“I think this is the first time I’ve heard anyone speak about Dale at great lengths. How was it like?” Bilbo asked timidly with a shy smile on his face. Although their relationship had come a long way from the beginning of the quest, Bilbo did not like to impose upon the private memories of others if he could help it. His scholarly side, however, was more than eager to learn about this once great city and it was that that had made him bold enough to ask. 

Fortunately, Thorin did not seem to mind the question. “Bright, noisy, and compact,” he said automatically. At the Hafling’s expectant look, the Dwarf paused to dredge up old memories of the city before he could elaborate further. “It was a rich city that had prospered from trade for many centuries, especially between men and Dwarves. The streets were peaceful, the people were well fed, and for the most part, the citizens had little to worry about. Overall, it was a happy, sunny place.” Again he stopped, trying to see what else he could remember.

“I have visited the city less than I would like,” Thorin ruefully admitted, “most of the times I visited tend to be for short, diplomatic missions.”

“Oh.” Bilbo was disappointed but it couldn’t be helped. Thorin had his royal duties to consider over taking leisurely strolls through neighbouring kingdoms. “Wait, you said ‘most’ of the visits were for diplomatic reasons. What about those that weren’t?”

Thorin grinned, suddenly remembering a story from long ago. He had never told it to anyone and those who knew the event had long since forgotten it in the face of the multiple tragedies that followed Smaug’s destruction. The enthusiastic response he had gotten from Bilbo made him willing to share though.

“When I was young, much younger than Kili or Ori, I wanted to know what the world was like beyond the walls of Erebor.”

He continued more bashfully, “I had decided to set out on what would be a grand adventure, and I had chosen to venture into Dale on my own.”

Bilbo listened in rapt attention. What are the odds that anyone has heard Thorin Oakenshield share one of his childhood stories? The Hobbit thought, feeling chuffed. 

“One night, I snuck out from the fortress with two days’ worth of supplies and a pony. I headed south and rode through the night. By morning, I was exhausted and in pain from being on horseback for so long.” The Dwarven king chuckled quietly at that memory. If it wasn’t for the fact that he had to endure an excruciatingly long ride back to Erebor, he would have been more than happy to end his adventuring then and there.   

“I decided to press forward on my trip and I managed to arrive just in time to see the city wake up. Vendors of different races from different corners of Middle-Earth were rapidly setting up shop along the streets. They were selling many exotic items that I did not recognize.”

“And so, I grew curious. For the rest of the day, I made a pest of myself, asking all manners of questions to satiate my curiosity. That was until I found myself forcefully dragged away by a soldier.”

“He was assigned to keep the peace and he thought I was planning to rob the merchants. Apparently, I intimidated them.”

That startled a bark of laughter from Bilbo. The image of a young Thorin, with his iconic angry scowl and furrowed brows, being hauled away by the scruff of his coat after he had terrorized the merchants for answers was too much. “So what happened next? Did you get away?” The Hobbit was openly grinning at Thorin’s misfortune but the Dwarf could not find it in himself to mind.

“No,” Thorin shook his head, still bemused at the memory. He had made a complete scene in the middle of the market square by struggling against the soldier’s grip and hollering loudly as we was forcefully led away. “I was saved by the Dwarven guards who were sent by my father to search for me. They had arrived in time to escort me out of trouble.” The look of horror on that soldier’s face as he realized that he had manhandled an Erebor prince was spectacular.

 “Well then,” Bilbo said with a cheeky grin, “at least now I see where Fíli and Kíli had gotten their mischievous sides from! You were just as bad as they are when you were young!”

The face that Thorin made from being compared to his nephews was what one would expect to see from someone cruelly tricked into biting a lemon; his face was contorted into a disgusted grimace and his eyes were wide, looking so thoroughly appalled, offended and betrayed. It was absolutely priceless. It would take a great man not to react.

Unfortunately for the Dwarf, Bilbo Baggins was most definitely not that person and the Hobbit burst uproariously into laughter.

Thorin was not impressed.

“I was nothing like Fíli and Kíli,” he mumbled sullenly under his breath. Bilbo only laughed harder.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” The Hobbit wiped the tears streaming down his face. He struggled valiantly to compose himself before he offended the king but every now and then, he would remember that face and by Eru, it would set him off again.

Thorin resolutely turned away from Bilbo to stare stubbornly off the balcony, but the Hafling could see that his lips had that same small quirk from before.  

They shared a moment of comfortable silence, interrupted only by the stray chuckles that the Hobbit could not contain. Bilbo could not remember the last time he had a good laugh like that and he felt a warm rush of affection towards the Dwarf.

“Thank you for sharing this with me,” Bilbo said, still grinning widely and eyes shining. “I can see how much Erebor means to you, given all the memories that you must have of this place.” Thorin hummed in agreement to his words.  

The Hobbit moved to put his arms on the railing, then pushed himself up on tip toes. The sun had just about disappeared into the horizon and the sky was rapidly darkening, but Bilbo wanted to take one last look before it got too dark to see anything. From the distance, he spotted a small flock of thrushes flying by and the Hafling was reminded of Thror’s map, of the moon runes, and all the trouble they’ve been through to get to this mountain fortress. However, to have befriended and aided this cast of odd Dwarves made everything worth it in the end.

“I am glad that you have found your home again,” Bilbo said softly but sincerely. Underneath that gruff exterior and Dwarven pride, Thorin Oakenshield was loyal, good, and caring. He was someone who had worked hard and suffered much but despite it all, he had persevered admirably. “You deserve a place that would make you happy.”

And because he couldn’t help himself, he turned to Thorin with a mischievous, teasing smirk on his lips. “Maybe later on when everything has settled, you can tell me more adventures that you went on in your wayward youth. I’m sure you were the shining example of decorum.” 

Thorin turned to look at Bilbo with wide eyes, mouth opening and closing a few times but no words came out. Then unexpectedly, his eyes crinkled in mirth and he let loose a deep boisterous laugh that warmed the Hobbit’s heart. The Dwarven king grabbed the Hobbit by the shoulders in a gentle hold and whispered a heartfelt Thank You, too breathless to say anything else.

Surprised by this turn of events, all the Hafling could do at the moment was stand still. Thorin was smiling at him tenderly, watching him as if he was someone precious…as if he was the most beautiful thing the Dwarf had ever laid eyes on, and Bilbo realized that he did not mind, not one bit. In fact, he would gladly spend the rest of his life on that balcony as long as the Dwarf continued to hold him and look at him like that. 

 …

Oh.

 


 

25 November, T.A. 2491 

  

Broken right wrist, minor cuts and bruises along the arms, torso, and face, large cut above the brow…

“Thorin, it is time for the healers to check on your bandages.”

And a severe injury to the side of the head, likely caused by a blow from a striking object...

“Thorin, please. You’ve been sitting here for the past two days. At least take an hour to tend to your own wounds. We can even ask Óin to prepare a fresh batch of his salves, if you like.”

Our apologies, your Majesty, but we’re doing all that we can to slow the bleeding and the swelling.

We won’t know the extent of his head injury until he wakes.

Balin sighed when it became apparent that his pleading was left unanswered. He looked helplessly at his despondent king. Whatever thoughts that have captured Thorin’s attention have kept him firmly in their grasp, leaving the brooding Dwarf to sit quietly for days beside their injured Hobbit in the healing tent.

Among Thorin’s company, those who were well enough to venture out of their beds had all tried to lure their stubborn King out of that blasted chair. Despite all the cajoling (Nori and Ori), insulting (Bifur, in a slew of guttural Khuzdul and violent hand gestures), bribing with food (Bombur), and threats made to bodily remove him away (Dwalin and Dori), none of the Dwarves were successful. And so, the task of talking sense into Thorin finally fell to Balin, who was just released from the healers’ clutches after being deemed healthy enough to move around. He was fortunate enough to have only suffered a leg injury.

His luck was failing him here though. Balin couldn’t say he had more success at achieving what his friends could not.

However, the wise Dwarf also knew that sometimes, words became meaningless in the face of grief.

Resigned that he would not be getting through to his king by talking, at least for the moment, he silently hobbled over to Thorin’s side to place a comforting hand on the Dwarf’s stiff shoulder. Thorin, who normally carried himself with an air of dignity, whose proud, imposing figure demanded the respect and attention of those around him, crumbled beneath Balin’s kind gesture. His back stooped low as if Balin’s hand had carried the weight of the world.

Sighing again, Balin leaned over to the small table beside Thorin to fish out the mug of cooling, medicinal tea among the platter of food, bottles of salves, and rolls of fresh bandages. Their friends had probably gone through the trouble to keep the table well stocked in hopes that Thorin could at least reach over and tend to himself, seeing as he was too stubborn to leave his chair. He carefully placed the mug in the Dwarven king’s hand before stealing a glance at Bilbo’s prone and injured form.

Buried in blankets on a cot far too large for any halfling and covered in all manners of salves and bandages, Bilbo looked heart-breakingly fragile. Balin had become so used to seeing their burglar as a spirited and witty individual, that this unnatural stillness in his friend greatly perturbed him. Although he was breathing easily enough, Bilbo’s face was pallid and gaunt. He was peppered in cuts; the most severe one located at the top of his right brow and the old Dwarf was certain that this angry, jagged wound would scar. The Hobbit was also wearing a cast over his right hand, though his left was thankfully spared from any damage. By far, the most alarming injury lay beneath the thick layers of newly wrapped bandages around his head. Spots of pink had already made their way through the gauze.

“He could die thinking that I still hated him.”

Pardon my honesty, your Grace, but we’re uncertain if he would recover.

Clearing his throat lightly as if he had not heard the hollowness in Thorin’s voice, Balin asked, “And if he were to wake right now, what would you say?”

At that, the king straightened and looked up at Balin. For the first time that evening, some of his old spark has returned in his eyes. “I would take back every harsh words and deeds I have spoken at the Gates,” he answered with renewed ferocity and conviction. “I would tell him that what I said could not have been farther from the truth.”

He paused to draw in a harsh breath, unsure of what he wanted to add when he had so much floating around his head, so much to choose from. He was visibly more subdued when he said, “I would also tell him that it would be an honour to have him back with me. If he was still willing to have me, that is.”

Ah, well that confirms it, Balin thought to himself, satisfied by that revelation while trying not to show his amusement through his expression. He had long suspected that the king and the Hafling shared a much deeper bond than those of friendship, despite what was said at the Gates. If only this came at a happier time.

All the strength that Thorin had gathered moments ago had fled him with that last confession and the Dwarf sagged back into his chair. “I’m not sure if these words would do any good anymore,” he spoke with resignation hanging over him.  

Alright, Balin thought grimly. The scant traces of good humour left him only to be replaced by a slow, burning anger. This has gone on for long enough.

“You act as if our dear Bilbo has passed on already,” the old Dwarf said indignantly, feeling insulted for the poor Hobbit, “when he is lying beside you, continuing to draw in breath as we speak!”

“We have constantly underestimated him during our journey but time and time again, has he not shown his strength?” Balin continued and by the gods, he will get what he has to say through Thorin’s thick skull! “He has faced the pale Orc and his servants, the giant spiders of Mirkwood, the countless Goblins and Wargs,” he listed with great flourish, “The dragon!  In the face of all these adversaries, he has lived and has grown stronger since. Did his accomplishments mean so little to you that you have already dismissed them from your thoughts?”

He reached over to give his friend a small shake by the shoulders as he gentled his tone. “Let us honour him instead by not repeating this mistake. As long as his heart beats, we can be assured that Bilbo is fighting to get back to us.”

Thorin swallowed heavily and for a few precious seconds, he could not respond. Finally, he gave a wordless little nod. Balin relaxed his grip and allowed a small tendril of hope to curl into his heart.

“Good,” he nodded back. “But when Bilbo wakes up, he will need his friend whole and hale, as well as Erebor and its people. They too need their king healthy.”

“Come. Let us tend to your wounds.” As Balin turned away from the chair to fetch more bandages, he saw Thorin, out of the corner of his eyes, taking a tentative sip from his mug.