“Oh, this is not good, not good at all,” Bilbo clutched at the branch as the tree shuddered under him with each leaping impact of the wargs. At the ridgeline he spied a company of orcs, headed by a massive pale creature that was missing half its arm.
“Azog,” Bilbo thought he heard Thorin snarl. “It cannot be!”
Bilbo gulped and clutched at Sting. They had no way down, except to fall off the cliff. What were they going to do?
“Thorin, son of Thrain!” Azog’s roar silenced the yips and howls of the wargs and orcs. Azog leaned forward, taking in an exaggerated sniff. “How well do I remember this stench!”
“Why you –,” Dwalin’s snarl was cut off as the branch he was clutching bent at an alarming angle.
“Now that I have you where I want you,” Azog’s cruel smile revealed a mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth. “Thorin, son of Thrain! In your blood I will revel! In your skin I will sink my teeth!”
“You will feel the bite of my blade before your beastly maw ever touches my flesh!” Thorin roared back.
And that, for some reason, made all the orcs cheer, lifting up their weapons and whooping loud into the night.
“Then by your own word you accept my suit! Bolg! Yazneg! Bring me my book!”
“I will defend - wait. What?”
Bilbo had to blink a few times as the orcs rushed around, throwing packs open and tossing goods and what looked like pots and pans to the forest floor. With a cringing bow, one of the called-upon orcs brought forth a large, leather tome and presented it to Azog, who still sat astride his white warg.
“I wrote this for you, Thorin, son of Thrain! When you first sliced open my flesh and spilled my blood upon the ground! Hear me all, maggots, for my glory knows no bounds! Flesh, though you have taken from me! Blood, though you have spilled! I will carve my name into your skin and eat your eyes as appetizers! You will know none but me as your flesh withers on the bone! Thorin! Son of Thrain! Hear me!”
“HEAR ME!” The orcs chimed in chorus.
“Oh, dear,” Bilbo whimpered.
“Now we sing to you, Thorin, son of Thrain! A war chant that has made many piss themselves for the joy of it!”
Bilbo had to stuff a hand into his mouth to stop his giggle. Someone in the next tree over was not as able to hide their high, nervous laugh.
“Through heaps of corpses tall!”
“Through rotting flesh I trod!”
“Branding bleeding flesh, swearing on your name!”
“I will have you kneel to me, Thorin, son of Thrain!”
“And have your mouth put to use on my flesh!”
“TO USE! TO USE!”
“No. No, no, no,” Bilbo sheathed Sting in a hurry and stuffed his fingers in his ears, humming when fingers alone were not able to block out the orc’s increasingly…descriptive song. Others were not so lucky. Bofur had pulled his hat down at the flaps, eyes screwed shut as his mouth moved, perhaps singing to himself in order to drown out – Bilbo stopped humming.
…Annnnnnnnd back to humming. How long Bilbo sat in the tree, he did not know. Long enough, however, to see Thorin go brilliant red, then white, only to settle on a cross between horrified and sickened, his sword clutched in both hands in a grip that began to shake after a while. The other dwarves around Bilbo did their best not to listen – but poor Ori lost what little contents were in his stomach at –
“I shall pick the maggots off your flesh as your wounds fester!”
“I will chew them to paste to feed you by hand!”
“FEED YOU BY HAND!”
Bilbo was quite happy that his stomach was empty at that particular verse.
On and on it went; song followed poem followed long declaration of prowess in battle. Azog spent the better part of an hour describing how he had searched the fields of Azanulbizar for his rotting arm and had made Thorin a necklace from the bones.
“A symbol for you to wear, Thorin, son of Thrain! When we are mated in the den of my kin!”
Bilbo saw Dwalin choke on air.
“I will breed you in front of my son, Bolg, so he may know his lowly status when you whelp my spawn!”
Oh. Dear. Bilbo covered his face with his hands. That was not a mental image one needed, no, not at all.
“Speak, Thorin, son of Thrain! How does my intended respond!”
There was a general jolt of panic from the dwarves. Dwalin was growling in Khuzdul. Bofur was making frantic gestures at Bifur, who was also growling in Khuzdul, as well as almost falling off his branch when the frantic hand signals grew to a fever pitch.
And then Thorin threw out something that sent the orcs into a real tizzy. “I would rather slit my own throat and defile the halls of my ancestors than lay with an abomination such as you!”
Azog roared, tome thrown to the side. The white warg snarled, snapping at air. Orcs howled and weapons were grasped and brandished. Things were looking quite grim. Bilbo saw Gandalf slap a hand over his face and shake his staff at a defiant Thorin, son of Thrain.
Clearly, the situation called for some tact. And deflection. And perhaps quite of bit of out and out lying.
“What he means is that he is already spoken for!” Bilbo’s shout cut through the rising cries of the orcs. “Azog the Defiler! If you wish to court Thorin, son of Thrain, then you must defeat me in a battle of my choosing!”
“YOU DARE!” Azog’s warg bucked, teeth flashing and spittle spraying.
“Yes, I do, thank you very much!”
“What are you doing?” He thought he heard Nori squeak. “Are you mad?”
“I am Bilbo, son of Bungo of the line of Baggins!” He planted his feet on the tree branch and tried not to look at the other dwarves. At all. “I challenge you, in the tradition of my ancestors, who once roamed the lands between here and the far reaches of the East!”
“I WILL BREAK YOU OPEN AND SCRAPE YOUR INSIDES RAW!”
“Yes, well, be that as it may, Azog, son of…whomever you’re the descendent of. Do you accept, or be stained with the humiliation of running from my challenge?”
“I WILL NEVER RUN FROM SUCH A PUNY CREATURE AS YOU!”
“Then you accept,” Bilbo tilted his chin up a fraction.
“I DO. WE WILL SETTLE THIS IN BATTLE!”
“No, we shan’t. As you dare to challenge me, it is MY right to name the terms of our duel.”
“Or do you concede like the worm you are?”
“I WILL BEAT YOU AT WHATEVER CHALLENGE YOU DARE THROW AT ME!”
“Fine, then.” Bilbo hopped off the branch before fear could glue his feet to the tree. “I challenge you, Azog, to a nice game of chess.”
The orcs stared. The dwarves stared. Bilbo set his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes at the whole lot of them.
“Unless you’re scared, then?”
“I do not understand this move.”
“It’s a knight,” Bilbo brushed a piece of imaginary lint from his knee and tried not to wrinkle his nose at the stench of orc. Azog’s body odor was…intense when one got close enough to smell it. “It can only move in one particular shape. I showed you at the start of the game.”
“You cheat.” There was a rumble of growls from beyond Azog.
Bilbo peeled his teeth back in a snarl that he’d seen Azog use to send the other orcs scurrying. “You dare impinge my honor, worm?”
“This is no challenge! One must win a suit with a contest of arms!”
“This is a challenge. Of strategy,” Bilbo sniffed and then regretted it. “Of intellect, but then I imagine a worm like you wouldn’t know the word if it hit you over the head with a mace inscribed with the meaning.”
“Why you –”
Bilbo whipped out Sting and leveled it at Azog’s nose. “I could have killed you at any point while explaining – quite thoroughly and without any prompting, for I should have just let you bumble on through the match though it wouldn’t have been very sporting – but I did not and as such you will allow me the courtesy of being civil for an hour while we settle this.”
There was a raucous uproar from the orcs milling behind Azog. The dwarves – still in their trees by Bilbo’s firm command (and, he was betting, a bit of Gandalf’s magic) muttered amongst themselves in Khuzdul. Bilbo didn’t take his eyes off Azog, noting with some not-quite-hysterical part of his mind that the Pale Orc’s mouth twitched a bit at Bilbo’s threat.
“We shall play, puny creature,” Azog’s growl silenced the agitated orcs. “And then I shall rip your spine from your body and crack open the bones to eat the marrow.”
Bilbo sniffed and again regretted the action. “Don’t you know marrow is best when roasted? Honestly, eating it raw? Why, my grandmother Pansy Baggins had the best recipe for a nice roasted marrow soup. And you want to eat it raw,” he shook his head. “Barbaric.”
There was another stir amongst the orcs. Azog’s pale eyes narrowed. “We play, halfing.”
“I’m a hobbit, thank you very much. And since you’re white, you move first. Obviously.”
In the end, Bilbo supposed there wouldn’t be many stories told of his Great and Terrible Chess Battle with Azog the Defiler. Which was a shame, because Bilbo was simply smashing at chess and Azog, while being intelligent…for an orc, did not have the long cherished tradition of the game that hobbit folk did. Why, Bilbo had spent many a long winter’s night in the Great Smials of his Took cousins playing games before the roaring fires. Azog never had a chance.
But then again, neither did Bilbo have a chance to really trounce the twit into the ground, for the great eagles came before he could wipe the board clean of Azog’s pieces and force him into surrendering. By then, though, the orcs had become quite upset and raucous and more than once Bilbo had been afraid that one of the more unruly ones would take a swing at his unprotected back. Azog’s growing frustration with the game did not help matters. In the end, Bilbo had to smack the Pale Orc’s king off the board with his queen as one of the giant eagles swept Bilbo away in its talons. Bilbo could only stare as Azog roared at him from the ground, shaking a fist at their retreating backs.
Then, later, when they were all deposited atop the Carrock, Bilbo turned to face the consequences of his actions.
“What were you doing?”
“Ah,” he stuttered, even as Thorin swung free of the Company’s well-meaning hands.
“You could have been killed!”
Bilbo felt his stomach drop. “Be that as it may…”
“Did I not say that you would be a burden? That you would not survive in the wild. That you had no place amongst us.”
Bilbo tried to hide his flinch, he really did. “I…”
“I have never been so wrong, in all my life.”
The following hug was perhaps more surprising than anything else that had happened the last few hours. Bilbo clung to Thorin, not quite sure what to say or do, in the face of such an abrupt change in the dwarven prince. Still, it was nice to be appreciated for once, instead of seen as a burden on their company.
Later, much, much later, after the mess with the Arkenstone and the Company’s raging gold fever, Bilbo stood upon the field of battle, Sting bared and bloody, body aching and bruised from wave upon wave of orcs that kept sweeping through the ranks of elf and men. He was too far away to see how his friends – and they would always be his friends – were doing. All he could do was hope and pray they were still alive as Bilbo did his best to fight against the monstrous army that had swept down on them all.
Then, to his horror, a familiar figure charged across the battlefield, Azog’s pale warg sending soldiers sprawling. “No,” Bilbo gasped out and did some charging of his own. For no matter how Thorin felt about him now, no matter how the Company might despise his presence, Bilbo was not about to let any of them die on the blade of such a terrible chess player.
“Thorin, son of Thrain!” Bilbo heard Azog’s shout as clear as if the monster had said it right next to his ear. Bilbo never would remember how he dashed through the chaotic battle, Sting barred and biting when he found his way forward closed. Swords swung over his head, men and elf fell on either side of him. None of it stopped his frantic charge, getting there just in time as Azog’s lieutenants reared up over the injured Fili and Kili.
“Oh, no you did not,” Bilbo spat out and rushed forward. A great bit of ducking and swinging and a rather lucky shot to one warg’s nose got the orcs trampled on the ground beneath their vicious steeds. By then Fili and Kili had managed to get to their feet and help Bilbo dispatch the pair with enthusiasm.
“Bilbo!” Kili was the one to pick him up in a giant hug. “We thought you gone! Gandalf should have taken you to safety! Uncle said – ”
“I am quite aware of what Thorin said, thank you Kili,” Bilbo wiggled to be put down. “LOOK OUT!”
There was no time for apologies as the next wave of orcs were upon them. Bilbo cut and stabbed and slashed and generally did his best to stand his ground near the young dwarves – only to find his mouth going dry and his heart stuttering in his chest when he looked over to see Thorin battling Azog – and clearly losing. If ever there was a moment for an absolute pin, Bilbo decided this was it. He left the boys behind, dashing over downed enemies and allies alike, even as in the distance he could hear something that sounded rather like a bear’s roar echoing across the field of battle. Bilbo had to get to Thorin. Their last words to each other simply could not be ones of hatred and betrayal. Bilbo would not accept it. Never in a million years.
Zugzwang. Bilbo had no clear options, no good maneuvers. He charged forward, Sting raised, ducking under Azog’s arm as the orc prepared another mighty downward swing against Thorin’s golden shield. Bilbo met the blow instead, the Pale Orc’s sword meeting Sting with a shriek of sound that hurt Bilbo’s ears. They were blasted apart by the very force of it, Bilbo crashing into Thorin’s chest while Azog reeled backwards, eyes wide and mouth gaping open.
“You,” Azog shouted.
“A delight and pleasure, I’m sure,” Bilbo managed to get out between gasps of air. “Still terrible at chess?”
“Bilbo, get back,” Thorin’s rasp made Bilbo wince. A strong hand curled around his waist.
“Your nephews are injured, Thorin. You’re a bloody mess. I told you this would end badly,” Bilbo couldn’t help but point out. “But no, you were too bloody stubborn to hear me out.”
“I – Bilbo…”
“So get back,” Bilbo didn’t like the faint feeling starting in his fingers and working his way up his left arm. The world was tilting on its axis, as well, though he could do little about that at the moment. All of his attention was focused on Azog’s pale eyes and the terrible sneer that had twisted over the orc’s face.
“Bilbo,” the hand at his hip flexed.
“Take your hands off of the Halfing, Thorin, son of Thrain,” Azog snarled, his wicked weapon leveled at them. “For I have found you wanting in a mate. I will take the little ferret, instead.”
“Ferret!” Dizziness and strange, creeping numbness forgotten, Bilbo stood up straight on the field of battle. “You dare to call me a ferret, you great overgrown rotting pile of maggots?”
Azog’s shouted bark of laughter startled everyone around them, dwarf, man and elf alike who had stopped to stare at the tableau. “I will have you, Hafling, for my own! Mighty you have proven yourself to be, in mind and in battle! You will bear my line and whelp my cubs in the dens of my ancestors!”
“Oh, no he will not,” Thorin, son of Thrain snarled, right before Bilbo found himself pushed behind a solid wall of dwarven muscle. The resulting battle would inspire epic poems and tales spun by bards for centuries to come – how Thorin, son of Thrain, King Under the Mountain, won the hand of his Consort by right of combat in the shadow of Erebor’s Battle of Five Armies.
Bilbo would claim, until his last breath, even during the disastrous second Quest to destroy his rather pretty ring, that he'd had more right to defend his honor than Thorin. After all, who had been the one to outsmart Azog the first time? Thorin, however, would simply smile each time and press a kiss to Bilbo’s temple. None of the Company ever did tell Bilbo how he had fallen unconscious during Thorin and Azog’s battle, nor how it had taken Beorn’s appearance to startle Azog enough that Thorin got the fatal blow to the orc’s neck. Nor did they tell Bilbo how both Gandalf and Thranduil and a hastily called-for Elrond had worked for days over his body, finding the One Ring of Sauron in his possession and fearing the worst. Bilbo had been spared all that, only knowing that when he came to, the dwarves in the healers’ tent were already calling him Consort Baggins and that both Fili and Kili had terribly smug expressions on their faces, every time he saw them.
But, he supposed, many, many, many years later, standing arm-in-arm with Thorin on a ship to the lands of the West, that despite one terrible misunderstanding, it had all worked out in the end.