Bilbo was five years old and his mother was waking him up in the middle of the night, her hands on his shoulders.
“Bilbo,” she whispered. Her voice was rough and scratchy. “Bilbo, my love. We must get up.”
Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut, turning his face into the pillow and trying to pull the coverlet tighter. “No.”
“Bilbo, twig, we must get up. Just for a moment, my love, we're very sleepy aren't we.”
She kissed his ear and tickled his foot and while he squirmed helplessly she turned back the coverlet and pulled him sitting by the wrists. Her hands, soft and sweetly scented with the oil that she used, rubbed his cheeks and straightened his nightshirt and pushed back the tangled mop his hair always somehow got itself into while he slept.
“My Bilbo,” his mother murmured, and she picked him up so that he was resting his head against her shoulder. Her arms were more than tight around him until he mewed in protest. Lily of the valley, a flower familiar to him since he'd been in swaddling, filled his nose and lulled him half back to sleep.
They went from his nursery out into the hall, away from the snug warmth of his bed, his mother almost tiptoeing. Bilbo closed his eyes against his mother's hair and put his arms around her neck, though they did not quite reach all the way. He was very tired. Uncle Hildigrim and Aunt Rosa had been visiting the day before, Cousin Adalgrim with them, and Bilbo's mother had let him stay up late as a treat. It seemed to Bilbo that he'd been tucked in only minutes ago, and he was put out to have to get up again.
When his mother carried him into the drawing room, Bilbo was closer to being asleep than being awake, in that soft place between waking and dreaming that he sometimes fell into when the afternoon went a little too long. The fire was low and the room cold and dark. He heard his father's low voice, the scrape of a chair as it was moved, and then he heard, dimly and as if from far away, a voice he'd never heard or imagined before in his life.
“Is it him, then?”
A voice like thunder in a bottle, too big and too loud. Bilbo sighed into his mother's neck.
“Yes,” said his mother's voice. It was severe, harder than any tone he'd ever heard her use before. “My son. You see he's still a babe.”
“We do,” said another voice. It was quieter than the first one, and less booming, but only as a storm in the distance was quieter and less booming than a storm overhead.
“We'll see his arm,” said the first voice. Thunder and rocks, thought Bilbo, big, big rocks falling against each other. The angry sound a tree stump’s roots made when the ox finally pulled it out.
There was a shuffling. It's all right, twig, his father whispered, and then Bilbo's left arm was moved from his mother's neck and chilled as the sleeve of his nightshirt was rolled to his elbow.
“You see?” His mother's was loud in Bilbo's ear. “There is nothing there.”
For a few long, long breaths, there was nothing. Bilbo began to breathe more deeply, was almost gone away into the safer dark when he heard the second voice say, almost gently, “The lad's ear.”
Under Bilbo's ear, his mother's heart began to thump. His father was very still beside them. Bilbo's arm rested against his side, the sleeve still rolled.
“Don't think to deceive us,” said the thunder in a bottle, and now this voice was growling, growling like a pack of dogs. Metal clinked, and something heavy moved.
“Don't you see,” said Bilbo's mother, the words trembling as she spoke them. “Don't you see, how it will be for him? For you? Don't you see that it would be more of a kindness to the both of you to make your own ways? Not every heart's flowering need be fulfilled.”
Bilbo's stomach moved uncomfortably, and he pulled slightly back from sleep. Even if this was a dream, he did not want his mother upset. “Mummy,” he mumbled, and her arms pressed around him.
“I have made my way,” said the growling dogs; the terrible voice was somehow heavier than it had just been, as if someone had thrown more stones into it. “I have worn his name on my skin for a hundred years, and then three-and-twenty more. I have waited for him for thrice longer than all the years of your life. You speak of kindness, but I see you standing there with your own heart's lode beside you. Woman, you will not deny me mine.”
The growling stopped, and then there was a silence that brought Bilbo more awake even with exhaustion tugging at him. If this was a dream, it was an awful one. Everyone sounded so unhappy, even the growling dogs. Bilbo usually dreamed of magic and fireworks and Elves and sometimes cakes that he couldn't finish no matter how much he ate. This dream was not like any of those.
Bilbo felt his mother touch his left ear.
Shhhh, she hushed him, and Bilbo hushed because everything was all right after all. His mother was always peeking behind his ear, tickling him and laughing with him as she did, though that was lately less and less. Only the night before, when she'd been putting him to bed late, she'd looked again behind his ear, except that time she hadn't smiled or tickled him at all, but only put her lips together and turned away.
Now her fingers brushed away his hair and tenderly bent forward his ear.
Then Bilbo dreamed that a bear stooped over him.
He had never seen a bear for himself, but his mother had drawn him pictures and told him stories. Big, gusty things, Bilbo, lumbering through the woods. They look very slow, until they decide to be fast. And the noise they make, ooongh! She'd put up her hands like claws and grrred at him until he toppled over giggling. But don't you worry, my love, bears do not eat little hobbits. Bears live on honey and cream, and live in the deep woods. They will not bother you if you do not bother them.
His face was in his mother's shoulder, beneath her hand, but he felt the bear behind him all the same, a big, gusty thing. The bear was so big that even its shadow was heavy. But his mother had not told Bilbo that a bear would be so warm, as warm as being near a fire. He could hear the bear breathing, could hear the clatter of claws as it lowered its head. There was a smell like a handful of halfpennies.
“Yes.” The bear said that, it must have, and that was what that voice was like, actually, not a pack of dogs but a great bear. “Yes.”
Bilbo's mothers finger left his ear, and then her hand was flat on the back of his head, holding him so tightly with her hands and arms that he could barely breathe.
More clattering, then, like a fork against the plate. Cloth brushed against skin.
Some enormous heat moved close.
Bilbo opened his dreaming eyes.
From below his mother's chin, he looked down, over his arm, and saw a vast paw.
Black, this paw, but with polished tips; the claws. His head could have easily fit into horrible grasp. Yet the strangest thing about it was not the paw itself, but what was above. The bear had pushed its fur up as if it were a sleeve, and what was left was black-haired skin.
Still it must be the bear's arm, for it was too big to be any man's. Immense, thicker around than even his father's stout walking stick. It swelled with muscle going up, but then disappeared under its dark coat.
There was something green on the arm. It had petals, and roots, and even blossoms. Little and pretty, it winked up at him from that dark-haired, brownish skin.
There is a flower growing from the bear's arm. Bilbo could not take his eyes off of it. Forgetting himself, and unafraid because he was never scared in dreams, he reached for the flower and his hand touched, just for an instant, the bear's unfurred arm.
The bear's arm flinched.
A gasp next to his ear, and then his mother's arm came up and pushed his face into her neck and folded in his arm. Bilbo did not mind, for he was too shocked and pleased with himself. He'd touched a bear! Even if this was a dream, he'd touched a bear!
Was his mother trembling?
There was a grunt, and then the warmth and the largeness moved away.
“Still a babe,” the bear grumbled.
More moving then, and clanking steps. The bear had ponderous claws.
“Hear me,” growled the bear's voice. “Here is my claim. The name he bears is mine, and the name I bear is his. Yet I see that he is still a babe, and there are years remaining between us. So I leave him to you, his mother and father, until he should attain maturity. During that time, I am at your service. Should you have need, you have but to send for me, Dwalin son of Fundin, or my brother, Balin son of Fundin, and one of us will make good on my promise. As a sign of my claim and my pledge, I leave him this token, by which he will know my name and my line.”
A dull and heavy rattling, ten times a spoon dropped on the table. Bilbo's mother was trembling, and Bilbo's glee was snuffed with worry and confusion. He'd never felt such shaking in his mother before.
“This is not right,” said his father's voice. Only not, at the same time, because his father's voice was never so faint, never so unsure. “This is...not right.”
“Aye,” said the bear, “I know how your kind has little use for mine.”
Wood squeaked against wood, and then that other voice, the gentler one, spoke. “Let it be, brother. Goodman, Goodwife, the case is that my brother's heartlode and your son's heartflower are what they are. We understand that you are distressed, but hope that time will relieve you of your worries. We sons of Durin are as much in the habit of looking outside our own race as you are, but we cannot command the stone. This is unknown country for us as well. But since we are to be kinsmen, let us part as such.
If there was more, Bilbo did not hear it, for that was when his mother turned quick on her heel and rushed out of the drawing room. Bilbo lifted his head in surprise, but by then she had run back into the nursery and his own little door was slamming behind him. The starlight that gleamed through his curtains was very dim. From somewhere else in the hobbit hole, another door opened.
His mother was pacing his toy-strewn floor in the shadows, breathing loudly, one hand on the back of his head and the other on his back. He tried to reach for her face, whispering into as much of her ear as he could get, “Mummy?”
Abruptly she stopped, in the middle of his nursery, and she was almost wobbling. Bilbo was alarmed and now really awake and he put his face to hers, hugging her neck. “Mummy? Mummy, why are you crying?”
She gasped. “Mummy isn't crying, twig. Mummy is catching her breath.”
Bilbo didn't believe her. He wished with all his heart that he could say something right then to make her laugh, or sigh, or anything but cry. “Mummy, you were right.”
She turned her face to him. Her eyes, dark and wet, seemed somehow confused. “Right? About what?”
Bilbo smiled for her, his hands in her loose hair. “The bear, Mummy. He didn't eat me.”
A hush, a breathless tick while she looked at him, her eyes staring dazed into his, and then her whole face broke to pieces all at once. Her eyes rumpled, her mouth scrunched, and his mother's brave, beautiful face was suddenly full of lines and tears, like a shattered dish.
His mother's legs collapsed from under her and she crumpled over him.
Bilbo's mouth hung open. His eyes were wide. He was wrapped in his mother's arms, covered over by her, and she was moaning unspeakably as she rocked him. Her hair fell over his face and his open mouth was leaving a damp spot on her shoulder and he was being gripped so tightly, clutched into her, as if his mother wanted to squeeze him even smaller than he was. The dream and the bear were completely submerged in this new fright.
“Mummy,” he whispered. Feebly. “Mummy.”
He whispered to her over and over and over, while she wept into his hair.