Kili was woken by his brother; Fili was woken by Thorin; Thorin had been woken by Dis – and Dis had been awake already, sitting alone on the porch smoking her pipe, thinking about the sinking crescent moon, tomorrow's chores and her dead husband. She saw them coming, angry men with their lamps, their kitchen knives and their rumours – the cursed dwarves, it was all the fault of the cursed dwarves who lived up the valley.
She told her half-dressed brother to take her sons and run while she tried to talk the mob down. She was a woman, and she made good chains for their wives. She knew all their names. They’d stop for her. They'd listen to her.
It was the last time she and Thorin spoke to each other.
The house was a single level with a slope-roofed attic where the children slept on pallets. Thorin woke Fili and went to the window while the boys were pulling their boots on. Dis stood in the yard with her pipe still in hand. He couldn't hear what she was saying. Her shadow was long in the light of their lamps, like a widow's train, like a princess in mourning.
They shot an arrow through her throat while he looked away. He turned back and she had dropped her pipe, holding her hand to the shaft. It had cut deep into her, through the voice that sung with Thorin on long journeys, through the breath that he'd listened to in every state of dignity and exhaustion, in tranquil sleep or in labour with children or heaving with grief. They put an arrow through it all and cut it short.
Thorin's own breath died as he watched her sit down clumsily on the grass, still holding her throat. He heard Fili ask, "What's the matter?" and he had to turn away.
"Forget your bags, forget it! Leave that, Kili, just go downstairs, hurry!"
He grabbed Kili’s coat and followed them down as the first burning brand was thrown through the window. The sound of the shattering glass was like a scream. It lit the curtains up as it passed through, and the rug where the torch had landed began to smoke.
“Where’s Ma?” Kili wailed, cowering away from the flame. He had never liked fire, as if the memory of the burning mountain had been passed down to him in his blood.
Thorin pushed his coat into his hands. “Your mother is dead.”
There was no time for anything kinder. There came a crash as the second brand went through the attic window. Thorin seized the axe and shield that hung above the hearth and led them to the back door, jerking his head towards Fili.
“Where is she?” Fili asked, his face white, his hands fumbling to draw back the bolt. “Who’s out there?”
Fili threw the door open and Thorin burst out into the night, putting the axe in the chest of the man waiting outside to catch them. He wrenched the blade up with a wet crunch as the man fell back, gasping, and the second one stumbled away with a cry. He had an old sword in his hand, but he was no warrior. Thorin was still standing halfway down the steps and with one swing he took the head off the second man’s shoulders.
“Move! Move! The stable!”
To the credit of them or their breeding, his nephews didn’t freeze. They ran for the shabby lean-to where their single pony sheltered. She had been woken by the sound of men and the smell of smoke and was pressing against her gate. Fili vaulted over the fence to grab her saddle from the back of the shed while Kili struggled with the tortured dwarven knot on the gate. Thorin shoved him out of the way and split the knot with a sweep of the axe. Fili had thrown the saddle onto the pony’s back and somehow got the buckle closed in the next moment.
“Get on,” Thorin barked, looking over his shoulder at the burning house.
“But her bridle—”
“Give it to me,” Thorin gripped the pony’s mane to keep her from bolting. The white of her eyes flashed in the darkness.
Kili climbed the fence and swung his leg over her back. He held out his hand to haul his brother up in front of him. Fili was still dressed in his nightgown, and Kili had only one arm in his coat. As gently as he could Thorin tugged the poor beast out into the yard, turning her towards the thin path that led into the forest.
“What about you?” Fili asked, hugging his brother’s arms as they wrapped around his waist. His wide eyes glinted gold against the fire. “Thorin?”
“I’ll slow them down,” Thorin growled, trying to fasten the bridle on the unhappy pony. “Run as fast and far as you can – hide yourselves – hide your names, and my name too,” he looked up at them. Fili had forgotten to take the day’s braids out again, and they hung tangled and loose around his ears. Kili was trying to wipe his eyes on his brother’s shirt to hide his tears. Thorin wished he’d had more years with them, when only yesterday he’d declared Kili’s swordsmanship a disaster, when Fili still didn’t see that once upon a time kingship had been more about diplomacy than winning battles. But then again, if he’d had a few more years they might not have done what their uncle told them, they might have stood fast and raised axes beside him to avenge their mother, and that was not how he wanted their end.
“Don’t forget your lessons,” he said, and stepped away, slapping the pony’s flank as hard as he could.
“Thorin! Thorin!” Kili’s voice hung in the air beneath the thud of the pony’s hooves. Thorin wrapped his hands around the axe and shield and turned back towards the burning house.
Since Azanulbizar, whispers had followed him of the cursed line of Thror. When they had thrown his sister down in the street and cut her beard it had been too much, and he and Dis had left Ered Luin for good. The Stonefoot nomads they met didn’t shy away when they learned their story. For a while they felt safe, with Dis in love, with the two babes that came tumbling and tugging on love’s heels, but as the days turned sour, the blame for all bad luck was placed on their doorstep. It was like an animal that hunted them as far as they ran. The nomads had named them witches, and worse – called Dis a temptress and the boys Thorin’s bastards, even though any fool could see their father in Kili’s eyes and Fili’s hair. And then they had murdered Vili, their own kinsman, when he tried to defend his wife’s honour. The family had fled yet again, and this time Thorin had truly believed that staying far from all dwarves and living only near humans would be enough. For more than a decade it had – but then the doctor’s wife had three stillbirths in as many years, each monstrously deformed, and somehow the story of the curse had spread, and swelled, and finally broken.
Perhaps the taunts were true. Perhaps their blood carried ill fortune with it. Perhaps his grandfather really had, in his youth, made a pact with some evil force in return for the wealth of Erebor.
Perhaps it was finally time for the curse to claim him. But by Durin, he would meet it head-on. The dogs would not see him run.
As he emerged from behind the house, the shouting crowd hushed for a moment. There were two dozen men and boys, including the doctor, who stood at the front of the mob with his collar open and a torch in his hand. Dis lay where she had fallen. There was no twitch of lingering life. Thorin couldn’t see the archer in the crowd.
He flexed his fingers around the handle of the axe.
“You want to kill dwarves?” he roared, striding towards them. “You think dwarves die easy?”
The arrow thudded into his shield, hard enough to send a shock down his arm, but his pace didn’t falter. He was upon them before they could loose a second one. If he could have, he would have killed every one of them in his sister’s name, but he was just one dwarf and the blind rage of the mob made them strong.
Above them, the fire continued to spread.
Bilba Baggins lived at Bag End, but then again, it would be as accurate to say that Bag End lived around Bilba Baggins. She had been born there in the spare room on a Tuesday, and had lived her entire forty years of life in and out of its halls. Since her parents had passed she was quite alone there, with few visitors and fewer friends, but the Baggins family had always been well-respected and Bilba's solid and reliable presence was considered a good omen that the world was precisely as it should be. Bilba herself was very content, alone in her warm warren at the top of the hill, and she expected to stay content and alone for as long as she lived, which she hoped would be quite a long time.
This morning she sat in her garden smoking a long pipe that reached almost down to her hairy toes, when an old man in a long, grey robe came up the path and stood at the gate watching her.
She took her pipe from her mouth and nodded at him. “Good morning.”
They had a conversation, the particulars of which you have probably heard before, and the longer it went on the less Bilba liked this man. He had a very forward manner, and she could tell he was thinking many things he wasn’t saying. That might have been good manners in any other situation but on this day it struck her as very suspicious, even when she learned his name – Gandalf the wandering wizard, whom she remembered from her childhood.
“Hmmf,” the man said at last. “Yes, I think you have forgotten your Tookishness quite convincingly, Bilba Baggins, or hidden it away very deep. But nonetheless, somebody must lend a hand, and I think you’re one of the few who won’t crumble at the sight of them.”
“At the sight of who?” Bilba asked.
“All in good time,” Gandalf answered.
“Look here,” Bilba jumped up. Her pipe had gone out completely, and she waved it at Gandalf. “Since you're now bringing my mother into it... well! If won’t say what you mean I think I’m rather done with you. Good morning!”
With that she stomped up the path and went inside, shutting the door behind her.
That very evening, with a light rain pattering on the window, Bilba sat down to an early tea when the doorbell rung. She frowned to herself, her knife and fork raised, and then put them down and went to see who it was. She did not know who to expect, but that didn't worry her, since nothing unexpected usually happened in those parts.
She opened the door to find too young people on the door. She thought people, because it took her a moment to realise they were dwarves, as they were both beardless and dressed quite plainly. In fact, under a too-large cloak, one of them appeared to be clad in a filthy nightgown tucked into his breeches. Their hair was long and neatly braided, however, and they were far too stocky to be human children, so their dwarvishness soon became clear to her.
“Um,” Bilba looked from their earnest faces to their muddy boots. “Good evening.”
“Hello,” said the golden-haired one, who was slightly taller. “My name is Dwalin, and this is my brother Balin. At your service,” and they both bowed in perfect synchronicity. Bilba shook herself as they straightened up.
“Er,” after a moment, the younger Balin cocked his head. “He said there’d be food?”
“Yes. Of course. Where are my manners?” Bilba stammered, stepping back from the threshold and ushering them inside. It was raining out there, after all. As she looked out into the night for any more odd visitors, a shadow hurried off the wet road and took the shape of a tall man sheltering beneath his pointed hat.
“Gandalf,” Bilba sighed. “I should have known.”
“And a lovely evening it is, too. I see our friends are just in time,” Gandalf smiled at her and he strode inside without so much as a by-your-leave.
“Our friends,” Bilba echoed faintly, watching Gandalf sweeping through towards her kitchen. There were muddy footprints all over her rug, and two cloaks hanging on her wall, dripping all over the floor. Gandalf’s hat had joined them, though it was remarkably dry. She shut the door tight, shook her head and hurried to follow them.
Dwalin was sitting at the kitchen table in front of her dinner. Balin was hanging off the doorframe, looking into the hall to cry, “Oh, look at this place! It’s like the stories of Ered Luin!”
“Balin,” his brother said sharply. “Sit down.”
“Sorry!” the younger dwarf looked over at Bilba, and gave a little bob like a bird trying to bow. He sat down at the end of the table, drumming his fingers on the wood, and then jumped up again. “Do you want me to come and help?”
“Pardon?” Bilba asked.
“With the food, Bilba, my dear,” Gandalf said, folding his hands in front of his waist. “Come along, I’ll carry the barrel if you have any ginger beer.”
“I can carry the barrel fine on my own, thank you,” Bilba said firmly, and then wished she hadn’t, because it was an unopened cask from over the water and she’d been saving it for a special occasion.
In the end half her pantry was pillaged for the meal. Bilba told herself it was only politeness to keep offering food until they couldn't eat another bite, for guests are guests no matter how much mud they trek inside, but it wasn’t just that – there was a hollow set to young Balin’s cheeks, and shadows under his eyes that Bilba did not like the look of. Gandalf did most of the talking as they ate, telling stories of elves and ancient journeys of dwarves long gone. Bilba listened as rapt as the two brothers, for she loved stories of places far away, and Gandalf wove his tales well. The old wizard kept talking even once the food was eaten, the table cleared and the tea stewed and poured and drunk. Bilba was so captivated she did not notice the dwarves were missing until they had been away for some time.
She raised her chin from her hands and gave a short cry. “Oh! Have they gone? They didn’t even say goodbye.”
“They’re in the parlour, my dear,” Gandalf chuckled. “They’ve done the dishes and put everything away.”
Indeed, now that she listened, she could hear the dwarves’ low voices in the next room.
“Well,” Bilba settled down again. “I suppose I should offer them a pipe before they leave.”
Gandalf’s bushy eyebrows contracted as he leaned forward. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Miss Baggins.”
Bilba raised her head sharply, catching his intentions before he could voice them. “No,” she lifted her index finger to Gandalf’s face. “No. I’ve no idea why you decided to invite yourself and your friends in for the evening, Gandalf, and I don’t mean any disrespect on the evening itself, but my home is not some crossroads inn with its doors always open.”
“Bilba, I have nowhere else to put them,” Gandalf cut her short in a low voice. “Those aren’t their real names, you know. Dwalin and Balin. I’m sure of it.”
Bilba’s mouth dropped open and she glanced nervously through the arch into the parlour. “What do you mean?” she hissed. “What are their names, then?”
“I don’t know,” Gandalf whispered. “I don’t know where they came from.”
“Gandalf, for heavens’ sake!” Bilba gaped at him. “They might be… criminals! Cutthroats!”
“I have seen no evidence to suggest that whatsoever,” Gandalf jabbed his pipe at her and then settled down again. “I found them living in the ruins of Deadman’s Dike north of Bree, with nothing but their clothes and a single knife. They were starving; they had even eaten their pony. They said only that their family had been murdered, and even that took a while to get out of them. Some terrible history stalks their footsteps, Bilba, and haunts their thoughts. They are quite afraid of other dwarves, and men too – they would not even think of going near Bree when I tried to take them there.”
“Afraid of dwarves?” Bilba leaned in, her eyes widening. “Why?”
“There’s no war between the tribes right now, not to my knowledge,” Gandalf shook his head. “This is something smaller and crueler, I think. They must have kin somewhere, and I intend to find out, but I cannot go far or fast with those two dragging on my sleeves and refusing to even speak of the idea,” Gandalf let out a long breath and put his large hand over both of Bilba’s, folded on the table. “My good Baggins, they are too young to be motherless.”
Bilba wasn’t sure if he said this as a comment on the tragedy, or if he meant it quite practically, like puppies that still needed nursing. Either way, she did not like the sound of it.
“I am not their mother, Gandalf!” she snapped, pulling her hands away.
“I know that,” the wizard said quickly. “But just for a few days, would you…?”
Bilba leaned back, digging one hand into her curls. She glanced again into the parlour. The hearth was burning merrily, and she could see two shadows spilling across the floor. She looked up into Gandalf’s kindly, old eyes. “Very well,” she grumbled. “But only a few days.”
The next morning she awoke in her own bed with the sound of the rain still hemming in Bag End. She sat up with the horrible feeling that she’d forgotten something, but dismissed it until she was dressed and washing her face. Then she heard voices outside in the hall. For a moment she was quite alarmed, but then she remembered her guests. She took a breath and opened her door.
“Good morning,” she said with as much cheer as good manners required. The two dwarves froze where they had been scurrying past. She could see from their faces that it was not a good morning after all, and she asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Gandalf isn’t here,” Balin mumbled. He had no braids in his dark hair this morning, and it trailed around his face like the mane of a wild animal.
Bilba raised her hands. “I expect he has some pressing wizard business to attend. He’s left you here for a few days, at least.”
“Has he?” Dwalin glanced at his brother. She could see this was news to both of them, and neither looked any happier than she was about the arrangement. She was already beginning to regret falling for Gandalf’s story of woe. She didn’t really want to think about what the wizard might be up to, or what lies she might have believed, so she decided to change the topic of conversation. She glanced the two dwarves up and down. “Did you sleep in those clothes?”
Dwalin winced. “Uh, not exactly. But we haven’t any others, if that’s what you mean.”
“I see,” Bilba did not really want to think about that either, but she beckoned. “Come along, then. I expect something of my father’s will fit. To borrow, mind you. And you’re both to spend a good while getting acquainted with the soap and tub first, if you will.”
They followed her diligently into the guest room, which had been her bedroom as a child but was now mostly storage. She picked them out two rough shirts, trousers and two blue coats, one hemmed in yellow and one in grey, that looked as dwarvish as her father’s wardrobe had ever stretched. They muttered their thanks, and Bilba saw from their wide eyes that they had actually been struck quite speechless by the clothes, which they were fingering and holding to the grey light that the clouds let through the window. She left them to have their bath before their breakfast, and (feeling a little more generous than she had when she’d woken up) even tried to take their orders. This turned out to be a mistake, as the two dwarves could not decide what they wanted until Bilba had listed all the options twice, and even then they insisted they only needed a little toast and honey. This was hardly breakfast at all in Bilba’s view.
“No wonder they’re starving,” she said to herself as she urged the coals to life. “Perhaps they’ve never had a proper meal in their lives. Motherless indeed! I don’t think Gandalf knows the half of it!”
The dwarves emerged from the bathroom with clean, pink cheeks, their chests straining inside their hobbit-shaped clothes and their hair tied back into a thick braid each.
“Hmm,” Bilba folded down Dwalin’s collar. “A bit snug, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dwalin smiled. It seemed to Bilba the first real smile she’d seen out of him, and she liked it immensely. “My brother’s coat’s even worse, and he’ll probably have grown out of it by dinner-time!”
Bilba gave a shudder and stepped back. “Do you mean to tell me you’re still growing?” she gaped at Balin. They were both already as tall as her, and much broader in the shoulders than any hobbit. She had thought that when Gandalf had said ‘young’, he had merely meant youthful.
“Oh, yes,” Dwalin frowned, glancing at his brother. “Only a few more years for me, but Mama says this little poplar is going to be taller than—” he cut himself short, his mouth moving soundlessly for a moment. Balin balled his fist and chewed on his knuckle, not meeting Bilba’s eye.
“I’m sure a mother knows these things,” Bilba said cautiously. “Well, come and have your breakfast if you can fit any more into those shirts.”
As they followed her through into the kitchen, she heard Balin hiss to his big brother, “Do you mean that’s as big as she’s ever going to be?”
It was a very strange morning indeed, and more than a little frustrating for Bilba. The dwarves swung between quiet and careful in their speech to loud and chattering as they forgot their troubles and wanted to share some joke or memory. She began to see what she had missed the night before, when Gandalf had dominated the party; that they really were only children, and not as patient and shy as the children she usually let into her house (which were only the best-behaved offspring among her many cousins.) There were times Bilba could not get a word in edgeways, and then suddenly the dwarves seemed to remember she was there and they would go quiet and ask her politely for more toast or about her thoughts on the matter of this or that. They asked her permission before they did anything in fact. It was rather tiring to be the centre of attention every time one of them wanted to leave the room or open a window to see if the rain had stopped.
By the afternoon Bilba was exhausted and couldn’t stand another moment with her guests. She left them in the library, with strict instructions not to bend any spines or fold down a single page, took a large hat and a basket and hurried off down the hill on the pretense of needing milk and vegetables. She spent the rest of the afternoon walking her favourite trail through the nearby farms. The sun had come out now and the air was full of bees and the good smells of spring. Without meaning to, she began to plan out the best walks she could suggest to the dwarves, the most beautiful spots to visit along the river and where to climb to get a view of the sunset. She told herself it was just so she could get them out of the house as often as possible until Gandalf came back.
The next few days were a world of change for Bilba. Hobbits are never sparing eaters, and she had an appetite to match the best of them, but the growing dwarves seemed to consume everything she could throw at them. They insisted on helping out by cooking wherever possible, breakfast, lunch, tea and everything in between. The trouble was that their cooking skills would not measure up to even the laziest hobbit-husband, so most of the time Bilba ended up standing over them telling them what to do, and everything took twice as long as if she’d done it herself. The brothers also made a valiant attempt to be helpful at every opportunity, taking it upon themselves to repair the stone wall at the bottom of Bilba’s garden, repaint her door while she was out and fix several loose handles on her pots and utensils. They even disappeared one afternoon and turned up carrying three plump rabbits from the local woods. Bilba tried not to tear her hair out as she explained that those woods belonged to old Isumbras Took and his wife, and poaching was a seriously impolite way to greet your neighbours.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” she said quickly, patting Balin’s arms when he hung his head with a sniff. “I’ll pay them back sometime. And these will make a delicious dinner, they will.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it,” she explained the next day, when she came home to find all the silverware in the house had been polished. “It’s that this is my house and I take pride in maintaining it all on my own. I look forward to fixing it up and keeping it shining. I just don’t like other people looking after me!”
“We’re sorry,” Dwalin mumbled, looking at his feet.
“We’re really sorry,” Balin nodded.
Bilba sighed and pinched her nose. “You aren’t my servants, lads,” she said, with a little more patience. “You’re my guests. You mustn’t try and pay your board, alright?”
For a full fortnight this went on, and despite Bilba’s prompting, the dwarves barely left Bag End. This meant Bilba spent as much time as possible away from it, even though she could tell rumours about her guests were already spreading. On the fifteen day since they had arrived, she was walking home along the main road when the waiter from the Green Dragon came puffing up the road behind her, calling for her.
“Miss Baggins! Wait – Miss Baggins!”
Bilba turned and leaned on that Heathertoes’ fence until he had caught up with her.
“I’ve been trying to catch you for a couple of days, love,” he gasped, holding out something white and triangular like a napkin. “This came with a spice shipment from Bree.”
Bilba took the paper from his fingers and unfolded it, squinting at the spidery letters which crawled across it. They were unfamiliar, but the name printed at the bottom was not. It was from Gandalf.
“Thank you, sir,” she nodded, hoping he took the hint and left her to examine it in peace. Thankfully, he did, and in the fading afternoon light, she read the letter with a racing heart. It was dated three days earlier.
Miss Bilba, it said. I know you expected me before now, and for that I apologise. I hope your guests are not causing you too much trouble, because I cannot relieve you of them yet. I believe I have found the town where their parents died, but no one there would answer my questions nor even acknowledge more than the inkling that a family of dwarves used to live up the valley. Furthermore, none of the dwarves I have spoken to on my search say any of their kin went missing or were murdered these past months. It is as if they are a bitter secret to all who knew them. I will keep searching, but other business has diverted my attention for now. However, there is a trade caravan of dwarves returning to the Blue Mountains via the East-West road this May and they will stop in Bree sometime between the twelfth and the sixteenth. If our young ones are under assumed names, I see no reason they cannot join the caravan and go to Ered Luin. The dwarves there would welcome any children who needed aid, I am sure of it. If you will help them, you would certainly have my gratitude, and no doubt theirs as well. Yours in friendship, Gandalf.
The letter was signed with a rune after the name. Bilba read it over twice, then folded it up and pressed it between her hands.
“Bother and break it all,” she cursed, resisting the urge to screw up the letter and hurl it into the Heathertoes’ blackberries. She did not know how Gandalf expected her to convince the boys to join a party of strange dwarves, but she knew it would not be easy. Even the mention of their own kind set the brothers on edge and made them nervous for hours.
She returned to Bag End slowly, stopping once to read through Gandalf’s letter again. Balin was outside for once, sitting on the grassy roof of Bag End peeling apples in a bowl. He waved at Bilba with his wide, warm smile, and she raised her hand in return as she came through the gate. The seed of an idea was already sending out roots in her mind, and she had the strong suspicion that Gandalf had meant to plant it, with his ‘our young ones’.
At dinner, she watched Dwalin mimicking the way she held her knife and fork, and then pretending that he wasn’t when she looked over at him. Balin’s apples had been transformed into a rather splendid, heavy cake filled with stewed fruit for dessert, from which he gave the first slice to Bilba.
“This is wonderful,” she said, after two bites. “It’s not from my recipe books, is it?”
“Our mother would make it, when there was money for sugar,” Balin's eyes crinkled as he smiled, sitting down with a plate of his own.
Bilba ate the rest of her cake in silence. When she was done she put her fork down in the centre of her plate and entwined her fingers on the table. Dwalin had already finished his piece and was cutting himself a second.
“I want to ask you both something,” Bilba said, and at once she had two pairs of eyes staring at her and two pairs of hands folded and frozen on the edge of the table. Bilba sighed. “It’s alright. I just want to know. What are your real names?”
Balin let out a little gasp and ducked his head, his dark fringe hanging over his eyes. Dwalin didn’t blink, but his hands gripped each other a little tighter. After a long silence, he said, “Fili. My name is Fili.”
He looked at his brother. Neither of them spoke for a moment, but Fili gave a tiny nod. Balin raised his eyes to meet Bilba’s. “Kili,” he whispered.
“Fili and Gili,” Bilba repeated.
“No, Kili,” Fili gave a snort, his smile returning. “Kee, like the thing for a door.”
“Oh, yes, yes,” Bilba waved her hand. “Not a bad name. I think I had a grand-aunt named Killian, you know,” Fili sniggered at that, and Kili gave a small smile at last. “But for goodness’ sake, why would you hide it?”
The smiles disappeared as quick as smoke up a chimney. Kili sunk behind his fringe again. Bilba pushed her plate aside, laying her hands flat on the table. “I’m not going to go running around shouting it to the hills,” she said firmly. “Whatever happened, I will keep your secret and I won’t think any less of you. But there must be more to your mother than good cake. I want to know who she was. I want to know why you’re afraid of other dwarves. I need to know.”
“She was a princess,” said Fili suddenly.
His brother tugged at his sleeve. “Fili, we mustn’t…”
“Someone should know!” Fili cried, turning towards him. He grabbed his brother’s hand and squeezed it. “It shouldn’t be a secret. Everyone should know what those swine did to them,” he looked up at Bilba. “And I don’t want Bilba to suffer because of us.”
“I only suffer your cooking,” Bilba said at once, and at the look in his eye, she winced. “I’m sorry. Tell me.”
Fili took a shuddering breath. “My mother’s family is cursed. They say it was our great-grandfather’s fault, because of his greed and madness. They lost everything, and were driven out by the dwarves before I was born. Our mother married a nomad of the Kidhuzaz, a branch of the Stonefoots far to the east, and we were raised among them, with her brother. But there was a famine, and the Kidhuzaz blamed us. Our father defended us and some of the young men came in the night and killed him, and then told everyone our uncle had done it. No one believed them, but the nomads cast us out after that. I remember it. Kili remembers it,” he looked at his brother, their hands both clutching together so tight now their knuckles were white. Fili cleared his throat and went on. “We travelled around the top of the Misty Mountains and came back into the Westward lands, but my mother and uncle knew dwarves weren’t safe. We lived among humans after that. We worked hard, even Kili and I helped, running a forge in a village. But we couldn't avoid other dwarves passing through on occasion. In the end, one of them recognised my uncle and told the village about the curse. They said bad things would come, and they did – children born dead, cows going dry, floods in the fields. The villagers must have decided it was too much,” he voice was a rasp now. “They burned down our house. Killed Mama. This time we didn’t even see it coming. Uncle made us run away, and he stayed to face the mob. Maybe he thought...” Fili looked down at his hands, “Maybe he thought the curse would die with him.”
It took all Bilba’s strength to keep her hands flat, to not cover her mouth or turn away. She looked at Kili and found his dark eyes gazing at her. He whispered, “I don’t want you to get hurt too, Bilba. I don’t want the curse to get you.”
“It won’t,” Bilba said sharply. She reached across and laid her hand on his wrist, just below where Fili’s hand clung tight. “There are no curses in the Shire, my boy, except what I mutter when I drop fresh eggs, yes? And Bag End will stand solid and secure long after I have gone grey and bitter.”
Kili nodded, but his face was grim.
"There's more to tell," Bilba said heavily. "I received a letter from Gandalf today. I don't think we will see him any time soon, but he's asked me to help you travel to the Blue Mountains and find a home there. A moment, listen for a moment," Bilba raised her hands quickly as both brothers began to protest. "My not insubstantial gut tells me it would be better for you among your own kind. I would not like to think how oddly a hobbit child raised among dwarves might turn out! But I give you another choice despite that, because I would still hope the dwarves would never turn away a lost hobbit. You may stay here with me, at Bag End, if that is preferable."
There; it was said and done. She couldn't back at now. Nor could she hang her offer with warnings and limitations – it would not do for the boys to feel constantly in her debt, never more than guests at her whim to be thrown out at the first disagreement. It had to be all or nothing.
The dwarves looked at each other. Kili's face was almost grey with fear, and Fili's mouth had turned down severely. He glanced at Bilba and asked cautiously, "For how long?"
Bilba shrugged. "How long do dwarves live?"
Kili made a small noise in the back of his throat and leapt up, hurrying around the table and throwing his arms around Bilba's neck before she could even brace herself, nearly bowling her right over. "Thank you," he sobbed, and before she had recovered from that, Fili had wrapped them both up as well, nearly crushing the breath out of the poor hobbit. They clung to her as tight as drowning men to a sturdy branch. Bilba had not been held so tight since she was a child herself, and she had forgotten warmth of another body entwined with hers.
"Alright, alright," Bilba grumbled. "Don't you even want to talk it over with each other?"
"We don't need to," Fili peeled himself off and straddled the bench beside her. "We've been talking about it all week. We just didn't have any idea how to ask you."
"Hmph. Of course you have," Bilba rolled her eyes.
It would be nice to think that among the inhabitants of the Shire, Bilba gained an extra note of reverence for taking in the lost dwarves, but that would be very optimistic thinking indeed. Her reputation suffered not a little damage, though most of her good friends and cousins put it down to some queer mothering instinct coming over her. 'Such a thing happens to unmarried women quite often,' they said. 'We never really expected Bilba to be different. We just thought it would be a small dog instead of dwarves.' Bilba got sick of trying to refute this nonsense and simply had to bear it with her chin up.
She had plenty to occupy her. The long, easy days of being a wealthy, lonesome hobbit were gone. Bag End was now full of noise, and often mess, and regularly empty of food. The spare room off the front hall became the dwarves’ permanent abode, and though they kept it generally tidy when Bilba reminded them to, it always smelled rather earthy and unclean. The brothers soon grew too large to wear anything that had fitted Bungo Baggins even in his later, more rotund years, and Bilba organised several visits from the best tailor in the Shire to equip her charges with full wardrobes. She might have lost her reputation as a sensible woman, but she was not going to be known as a bad dresser. Their boots could not be replaced, but the dwarves began to go barefoot like hobbits, venturing further and further from Bag End as they slowly explored their new home. They were usually back for dinner, though, and took their fair share of the cooking, at which they were slowly improving.
It was not always good manners and easy living. They bickered with each other very often, fighting over food or some perceived insult as brothers were wont to do. Bilba tried not to scold them. She wasn’t anybody’s mother, after all. But she felt compelled to steer them away from their dwarvish stubbornness and quick tempers.
“Be kind to an old woman,” she sighed, after their wrestling in the hall had knocked over a hat stand, popped three buttons on Fili’s vest and left scuffs all over the skirting. She’d retired to the parlour to massage the headache out of her temples. “I’m worried you’ll hurt each other.”
“You’re not old,” Kili countered. “You’re young enough to be our sister.”
“I’m old at heart,” Bilba complained. “And don’t cheek me!”
As time went by, Bilba found that soon she could not remember what it had been like to live quietly and alone. Sometimes she had the house to herself, and could sit and read without hearing the earth-shuddering thump of dwarves running up and down her halls or the bray of Kili's laughter from outside in the garden – but she found herself restless on those days, ears pricking up at the slightest squeak of the gate. She planned rigorous lessons in etiquette, agriculture and genealogy for her wards – all things they would have learned by now if they were young hobbit lads. They absorbed the lessons with few complaints, but Bilba could tell they had little interest in understanding the seasons and finding the perfect gifts for in-laws. In turn they wanted to teach Bilba their own skills, mostly in smithing and weapons handling, though Bilba refused outright to buy real weapons for them.
"I'm not having great bloody swords in the house," she snapped, her hands on her hips. "It's dangerous and it's unbecoming! That's the last time, Fili, don't ask me again!"
But she didn't mind them practicing with sticks in the garden, and sometimes she tied up her skirts and joined them when the neighbours weren't watching. It was rather difficult to keep up, now both of them were taller than her and at least twice her weight – Kili was shooting up just like a poplar, as his mother had predicted. Even when Bilba managed to strike a fair blow or disarm them, they would simply hollar a war-cry in their own language, pick her up and throw her over their shoulder with one arm while she shrieked through her laughter and swore she'd never feed them again if they didn't put her down.
The dwarves would celebrate any little thing, and soon Bilba could not help but join them. The three of them were often the last in the pub or dancing outside on warm summer nights. They held dinner parties in Bag End and carried on long after their guests had gone home in exhaustion. Bilba taught them to smoke and how to pick Old Toby from the lesser cultivations. They taught her dwarf games of strategy with stones and boards, and a few words of the old language.
“Do you still speak it?” she asked one evening. She had been reading to them from one of her favourite texts, but an argument about the translation had turned to discussion of Khuzdul. “Dwarves in general, I mean. Or is it just ceremonial?”
The brothers shrugged at each other. Kili said, “Mama used to swear in it. I don’t know if she spoke it well.”
“She must have,” Fili said with a frown. “When we lived with the Kidhuzaz, everyone used to speak to babies in it. I remember never understanding what they were saying to you.”
“It was probably just lullabies,” Kili said skeptically.
“They still had to pick names, though,” Fili insisted. He turned to Bilba. “Dwarves have a common name, and a secret one that they don’t tell anyone.”
“Hoarding everything, as usual,” Bilba raised her eyebrows.
Kili laughed. “Bilba! You can’t give something like that away lightly. It’s supposed to be the ultimate bond, between warriors who fight beside each other, or true lovers,” he raised his eyebrows. “I’ll tell you mine.”
“You’re shameless,” she shook her head.
“I will,” he said, his voice suddenly losing all trace of mirth. “If you’ll accept it.”
Bilba sat up a little straighter. “I’m not sure… well, it’s not like hobbits have something in return.”
The room seemed suddenly too warm, and the book too heavy on her lap. Fili said quietly, “It’s not a trade. It’s something you give.”
Bilba wrung her hands in her lap. “Give it, then.”
They both told her their true names that night, though afterwards she could never remember who went first. She tried to repeat them, but her khuzdul pronunciation was terrible, and they had to go through it several times before she got it right, by which time the laughter had returned and Bilba didn’t feel as if she’d suddenly been handed something incredibly fragile, and so heavy she felt it in her heart for days.
It had been ten years since they had first arrived on her doorstep. She did not know where the days had gone, nor how she had survived them, nor how she had ever lived without them. Fili's beard was as thick and golden as his hair these days, and Kili's chin was starting to get scratchy when Bilba kissed him on the cheek. She could never forget that they weren't hobbits, not even in spirit, but she no longer minded the stares when she took them down to the market, nor the questions her cousins pressed on her about whether any hobbit would see her as marriageable with the menagerie that following her around. That life had never been for her anyway. This life, no matter how unexpected, was quite satisfactory. She had her health, her wealth, and her boys on which to spend it. She didn't want to change a thing about it.
But change, it seemed, did not ask for permission.
Thorin stared at the key in his hand, raising it to the light of the dusty lamp that hung above their heads. The noise of the pub faded in his ears as he stared at it, as if all the world had begun to revolve around that little drop of metal. Gandalf puttered a little on his pipe and finally broke into his thoughts. "Do you recognise it, Mr Dwarf?"
"Like the back of my hand," Thorin raised his eyes to Gandalf''s face. "This pommel is of the Erebor style, and the stamp on the shaft, here, represents the heir of Durin. The runes are the usual warning to thieves, but the wording is more typical of the Erebor aristocracy. This key looks like one of the many carried by my grandfather, in his personal possession. I have not seen one since Smaug destroyed the mountain."
The old man tilted his head a little. "Gracious. That is rather more than I dared to hope for. A key to the mountain! Goodness!" he repeated, his frowning to himself.
Thorin shook his head. “I do not think it will be much good to you, Wizard, as all the doors these keys opened are far beyond reach. How did you come by it?"
There was no disappointment in Gandalf's face. In fact, the old man's brows were rising and the wrinkles stretched around his eyes in a smile. "You are a survivor of Erebor, then?" he asked, and when Thorin nodded reluctantly he pressed on. "You are not meaning to tell me that your grandfather was the heir of Durin?"
Thorin closed his hand around the key, since Gandalf had made no move to take it back. "Yes, but it has brought me no joy. I would ask you not to spread it around, either. I have kept my ancestry well hidden for many years, Mr Wizard," he dipped his head. "Now will you tell me where you got it?"
"I will, and more," Gandalf reached into his robe and drew out a yellowed, scruffy parchment, which he unfolded on the greasy pub table after a quick glance left and right. "If you will tell me your real name, Mr Ginnar."
Thorin shook his head. "Don't ask me for that."
"What harm is there? Surely it will be easy enough for me to find out with what I now know," Gandalf soothed. He smoothed out the parchment beneath his hands. "I'm trusting you with this – assuage an old man's curiosity."
Thorin sighed, leaning forward to look at the map. He had seen many like it, long ago, though usually more detailed. It was a rough approximation of the Lonely Mountain. Dark memories flooded his thoughts as he traced the slopes of his distant childhood, but there was good tucked away in there, too. He could no longer remember his mother's face, but he knew that she used to smile more before the mountain fell. And his mind suddenly supplied an image of his brother and sister as young children dressed in fine silks, laughing as if to summon him back in time.
"Well?" Gandalf asked. "May I not call you by name, as a friend?"
Thorin looked up at him. "Thorin. Son of Thrain. My grandfather was king of Erebor. I am the last of his descendants."
The wizard sat back, his mouth a flat line but his eyes sympathetic. "This is remarkable."
"I ask a third time, how did you come by the key?" Thorin demanded.
"Hmm, yes," Gandalf puffed smoke out the corner of his mouth. "I am sorry to tell you that, though it seems it is not news to you, your father died soon after giving me this key and map, oh, a good twenty years ago now. I found him in the dungeons of Dol Guldor, but he was... badly injured, with little sense left. He did not even remember his own name, only the importance of the map, and that it must be passed on to his son. And here at last, it has been," he waved his pipe at the table. "It is yours; take it, take it please, and I wish it was of more use to you."
"Thank you," Thorin replied. He couldn't think what else to say. The news that his father had been alive so recently was yet another stone in his heart, and he did not like to consider how he had died. But these trinkets were a curiosity, nothing more.
"You know, I have been thinking," said Gandalf quietly, "I mean, just thinking, mind you. You've clearly had a bad time of it all," he glanced at the empty sleeve pinned to Thorin's right shoulder and gave him a commiserating smile, "but have you ever thought about returning to the mountain?"
That was how it began, in that smoky tavern in Bree. The two of them talked for hours that night about Erebor, all that had been lost, and what strength it would take to steal it back. Thorin was dour and gloomy about the idea at first, but as they went on his mood changed and became more and more animated. In the warm room, with tankards piling up around them, it seemed almost within their grasp – to slay the dragon, reclaim the gold, restore Erebor to its former glory and repopulate the kingdom.
"But—” Thorin turned his face away, balling his fist. "Who would follow me? My very name is enough to drive dwarves to murder and men to savagery," he waved his hand at the place where his arm should have been. "My family is dead and I am a ruined shadow."
"You must still have friends, even if you cannot reach them right now. Is there no one you could turn to?”
Thorin shrugged. "When my sister and I left Ered Luin, my cousins Balin and Dwalin helped us go safely. We told them to deny any friendship with us, but they swore they would support us if we returned. But that was years ago. I don't even know if they're still alive. Are you alright, Wizard?"
Gandalf seemed to have choked on his pipe and was thumping himself on the chest. He croaked, "Nothing, nothing, but – Dwalin and Balin, you say? But this was – not so long ago? They were very young, I expect?"
Thorin frowned. "No, Balin was older than me, and his brother was my junior by a few years. They were both born in Erebor."
"Did either have sons?"
"For all I know, they've had dozens since I saw them," Thorin leaned forward. "What has brought this on?"
Gandalf shook his head. "Another old mystery I was trying to solve. I met two dwarves just North of here, some – hmm, ten years back, I think – very young, with not so much as a coin between them, who called themselves Dwalin and Balin. I never found out where they had come from."
Instantly, Thorin's mind made the connection and the truth plunged through him like a sword, turning his throat dry and setting his heart racing. He could not believe it, could not even dare to believe it, so wonderful was the idea. But he kept his face stony, trying to look disinterested. Part of it was self-defense, for if he was mistaken or worse, if they were dead, he thought it would destroy him completely. Besides that, he still did not completely trust Gandalf, and though he'd been willing to share his secrets about his own life – an unremarkable life, with little left to preserve – the possibility that he still had nephews to protect was far more precious. He must not give their identities away unless it was absolutely necessary.
"I suppose it's possible they are children or grandchildren of the dwarves I knew," he said slowly. "Though how they’d have ended up so far from home, I've no idea. Do you know what happened to them?"
"More or less," Gandalf said. There was a cautious note in his tone. He could tell Thorin was more invested in his words than he was letting on. "They wouldn't go near other dwarves for some reason, so I took them west of here, to the Shire – I've not kept in touch, but last I heard they were still living among the hobbits there."
"Among the hobbits?"
"Yes, halflings, a beardless race with few faults to—”
"Yes, I live in Bree, I know what a hobbit is," Thorin said testily. "But the Shire seems a strange choice for any dwarf."
Gandalf shrugged. "I think it's a very pleasant place myself,” he watched Thorin’s face for a moment, and when he got no further explanation he leaned over the map again. “Now, about this secret door…”
The barmaid was stacking the chairs on the tables around them, and Thorin's attention was far away from old maps and distant mountains. He left Gandalf outside the pub and hurried back to the hat shop that was now his home. He lived and slept in a tiny room little larger than a cupboard above the workshop, and spent his days repairing felt brims and structuring bonnets. It was paid work, and he was glad for it, no matter the indignity of his life these days. For a one-armed smith was no smith at all. He could not shoe a horse nor shape a blade, but his remaining hand was still agile and his eyes good at judging measurements at a glance. The hatter and his wife could have hired anyone to do the drudgework, but they had kept Thorin on because he was quick and thorough and he never complained. Or rather, they had kept Ginnar on – that was the name he had gone by since the night of the fire. And so Ginnar lived above a shop and made hats for humans and watched the hatter's four daughters grow and marry one by one, and Ginnar tried to do the one thing Thorin had sworn he would never do, and that was forget.
It had been ten years since the curse had finally broken him. He still woke drenched in sweat some nights, his lost arm aching, his ears full of the sound of glass shattering under a burning brand. Sometimes he dreamed that his nephews were trapped in the fire, screaming, sometimes he dreamed that the house was a mountain, and sometimes he dreamed that Dis had died in his arms no matter how he tried to warn her, don't go out! Stay close, we can still get away! Over and over he relived it, trying to protect her with his own body, but arrows went through him like he was smoke and she died again and again, and he was torn apart by the mob like a rabbit caught by wild wolves.
He had not been torn apart, of course, or at least not completely. He had merely been beaten until he could not breathe, could not see for the blood in his eyes, could not figure out what was sky and what was earth. Dwarf bones were hard to break, but the mob had managed it, shattering his right arm so badly that darkness pulsed in front of his vision and he no longer remembered even his own name. And then they had stopped, by some miracle. Someone had held them back. It was the doctor, the same man whose wife had supposedly suffered because of the curse, and the one who had roused the crowd in the first place. Thorin lay senseless, unable to move, and the doctor kept asking him, where were they? The two young dwarves, the children, where were they? The need to protect his nephews ignited the last of Thorin's strength, and he managed through his split lip and strangled throat to tell the doctor they had been trapped in the house and were overcome by the smoke. He saw in the light of the torches and the raging inferno of his home that the man's face was drawn and shocked.
The humans moved him, dragging him across the ground. He expected to be thrown alive onto the fire, but instead he was hauled up and carried away, in agony but unable to pass out or escape. He swung in and out of understanding, waiting to meet his fate, expecting some new cruelty at any moment. But when he next gathered his thoughts he found himself in a warm room, with sunlight through closed shutters and blankets covering his bare chest.
The doctor had saved him from the mob. He told Thorin, in a faint and frightened voice, that he had not meant for the dwarves to die, he had only meant to drive them out of the town. With the cold clarity of hindsight he regretted the deaths of Thorin's sister, and of the children. Thorin neither wanted nor believed his apologies, but he knew his heart was only beating because of this coward. He lay silent and accepted the doctor's ministrations.
The arm was too broken to be set. Fragments of bone had ruptured through his flesh, and the elbow was so crushed it was not even clear he had ever had an elbow. Soon the wound festered despite all attempts to save it, and fever began to send molten steel into Thorin's veins. It was worse than anything that had come before, a red gas made of crushed glass that filled his lungs and body and left him unable to move and desperate to claw it out. Part of him wanted to die. Part of him, the stronger part, needed to live. He had to find his nephews, make sure they were safe. It was this piece of him that had followed his father to Azanulbizar all those years ago and dragged a bitter victory from the orcs' hands. It was this inner strength that had calculated the risk of death over the surety of cowardice and fled the Blue Mountains holding his sister’s hand. It had carried two starving children out of the east after Dis was widowed, keeping them all alive day by day until they came to green woods and roads again. This piece of Thorin refused to die no matter what punishments life brought.
The doctor amputated the arm. The fever broke. He felt his grandfather’s curse retreat, licking its wounds, waiting for another chance to strike.
The rest of the village was increasingly hostile towards the household while Thorin remained there, recovering slowly. He suspected that many were ashamed of what they had done, and hid their shame by heaping blame on the survivor of their crime. So as soon as he was able to walk more than a few steps, he packed a bag with all the food and supplies he could find. Even that was a trial, unbalanced by the missing weight of his arm, clumsy with his non-dominant hand. He crept out of the house while the doctor slept. He considered killing the man – a life for Dis, and not even a worthy life, not for the greatest woman Thorin had ever known – but there had been too much death already. He vanished into the night and did not speak his own name aloud from that day forth.
But he could not find Fili and Kili. He searched every town nearby, asking after rumours and hints, and walked the roads he thought they might have taken seeking signs of two homeless children. For months he searched, following vain leads and false clues, his own supplies dwindling to nothing and his health going with them. His absent arm still hurt – he could feel it like a ghost, feel the pain in a missing hand, sometimes even feel the cool wind on his skin and the flex of fingers that no longer existed. Everything had to be relearned, from eating a meal to riding a pony, even dressing himself. He forced himself to adapt, to weather the agonizing frustration as his shoelaces slipped through his clumsy left hand again and again. He had to find his nephews. He could still remember their faces on that last night, the fear in their eyes, Kili's voice calling his name. They had to be somewhere.
But they had evaporated like the morning dew. Perhaps they had been killed by bandits on the road. Perhaps they'd gone into the forest and run out of water, walking in circles until they lay down and never awoke. He didn't know. He would never know.
The day he finally stopped searching, the piece of strength that had carried Thorin through all his trials finally died, flickering out quietly like a candle at the end of its wick. He found himself in Bree, but no smithy wanted him and he avoided other dwarves at all costs. He considered ending his own life, but it seemed a waste, when those he loved were now preserved only in his memory. None of them had had a proper burial. Not his nephews, nor his sister. Not his missing father or defiled grandfather or even the body of his brother, who had been burned in the mass graves of Azanulbizar. Thorin would live for them, and protect those memories until his time came to join them.
Somehow he crossed paths with the hatter, who was desperate for an assistant to keep up with demand. Thorin took the work without hesitation, relearning with his left hand all the strength and delicacy he'd had in his right. He built himself a desk with clamps and vices to hold his work still, like mechanical fingers. He spoke little, which made him popular with the hatter's daughters, and he became their listener and secret-keeper, sitting at the back of the shop and bearing their chatter with only the occasional nod of agreement. Sometimes they asked him questions about who he had been, how he had lost his arm, but he told them only that there had been a war, and everyone he knew was dead now. Eventually they stopped asking, and he heard them tell customers, “That’s our dwarf. He doesn’t talk. He makes wonderful hats, though.” He became Ginnar completely.
His kin might yet live. He might not be the last of his grandfather’s line. The curse might have spared them, or perhaps could not touch them at all. He had never even let himself imagine such a possibility, let alone nurtured it.
That very night, he took his few belongings and left the hat shop. Bitty, the youngest daughter and the only one not yet married, caught him as he crossed the threshold. She held a candle up to see him, standing in her nightgown at the bottom of the stairs.
“Ginnar?” she asked. “Where are you going?”
Thorin didn’t have an answer, but she had always been kind to him, so he bowed to her and said, “Wherever it is, I may not return. Thank your parents for me.”
Then he left once again, as he’d left the Lonely Mountain, and Ered Luin, and the East plains, and the burning house. But for once he was not driven by fear and death. Whatever lay ahead, it would be better than what he had left behind.
It was a warm and cloudless afternoon when Thorin walked into Hobbiton. He had slept rough since leaving Bree and had not spoken to anyone on the road, but as soon as he entered the village there was no opportunity for silence. The streets were busy with hobbits setting up lanterns and streamers for a night market, all of them calling to each other as they hurried back and forth, arms laden with bundles of goods, tools and wreaths of just-opening hydrangeas and evening primroses. Many of them stared at him as he passed, some with more than a little suspicion, but others greeted him warmly. They evidently thought he was here for the market and were keen to get on side with a customer. No doubt dwarves were known around these parts for their riches.
Thorin slipped into the largest tavern he could find as soon as possible, partly just to get away from the crowds. At the bar he thought about ordering a drink to blend in, but in truth he had only a few coins and didn't want to waste them, especially since he'd been eating increasingly stale bread since Bree. Instead he loomed over the regulars sitting on their stools and glared at the barkeep until he got his attention.
"Good evening, Mr Dwarf, welcome to the Green Dragon," the keep said a little nervously, glancing at the old sword at Thorin’s belt. Thorin had kept the right side of his cloak closed in order to hide his missing arm. "What can I get you?"
"I'm looking for some friends of mine," Thorin rumbled. "Or directions, if you don't know of them."
"No dwarves in town tonight, sir, not to my ken," the hobbit said apologetically. "And I send barrels to all the inns nearby. I'm sure I'd've heard if there were dwarves."
Thorin's gut clenched, his appetite disappearing. "Are you sure? Do none live in these parts at all? Have you never heard the names Dwalin and Balin?"
In an instant, the barkeep’s face lit up. "Oh! You mean those lads! Oh yes, they live just up the hill, I know them very well."
Thorin had to swallow until he could speak. "Where could I find them?"
"Up at Bag End, I expect."
"And what is that?" he said through gritted teeth.
"Hmm, well, everyone knows Bag End," the barkeep began, and then seeing Thorin scowl he cleared his throat and pointed. "Take the main street straight out of Hobbiton with the river on the left, only then you cross the Lily Bridge, take a right and go down the south fork when you see the goat pen. It's quicker to cut through the farms there, but that'll be harder for you, I expect, so yes, North it is. Then you just follow the road through the woods, over the mounds and into the greenway and at the split, go up, not down. And then keep going until you reach the fine hole at the top of the hill. Beautiful spot with views of the whole area, you can't miss it."
Thorin stared at him. "I don't suppose you could show me all that on a map?"
The barkeep shrugged apologetically. "I don't keep maps in my back pocket, do I, sir? And I've got customers to serve now, I'm afraid. Best of luck to you."
It took Thorin the rest of the afternoon to find the hill the barman had talked about. He had been walking all day and his legs were starting to ache as he started up the road. The light was just starting to burnish from blue to orange as he crested the rise. He had no idea what passed for a 'fine hole' in these parts – nothing looked like the grand mansions of dwarves, with their massive portals and skilled displays of masonry. The only house up here seemed to be the one with a simple, round door and a bountiful garden. Thorin opened the tiny gate, went up the path and after a long pause, raised his fist to knock.
A few moments later he heard a voice approaching the far side of the door. "It's unlocked, you dimwits. Are you playing silly buggers? Because I was damned comfortable and you've made me get up—”
The door opened. The hobbit woman's mouth snapped shut. She stared at Thorin, and he at her. She was a good head shorter than him, all her edges rounded from face to hips, and her skirt and vest were bright yellow and grey-green. Her gaze whipped across him and she tilted her head, her tongue flicking at the corner of her mouth.
"Good evening. Are you alright?"
Thorin shook himself and gave a short bow. He felt caught off guard by the directness of the hobbit's gaze, and the wrinkle that had appeared between her brows. "My name is," he almost revealed himself, but the habit of the last ten years was too ingrained, "Ginnar. I'm looking for a pair of dwarves named Dwalin and Balin. I heard they were living at Bag End, but I may not be at the right door.”
“Yes, yes, you have the right door," the hobbit straightened her shoulders. She opened her mouth but was silent for a moment, looking him over again. "I'm afraid there's no dwarves here. They left months ago."
Thorin's heart thudded against his ribs. No. He had seemed so close. "Where did they go?"
"Off to the Blue Mountains, I think," she propped her hand on her hip. "I'm not their keeper. Why are you looking for them? Perhaps I can help?"
A great, cold weight seemed to settle on Thorin. He felt suddenly sure that he had come here for nothing, that he had grasped at a slim chance because the prize had seemed too wonderful not to be true. Surely fate was not so cruel as to raise his hopes and then crush them deep into the earth. "No, I don't think so," he said. "They may not even be the ones I'm looking for."
The hobbit pursed her lips, but the wrinkles around her eyes softened. "You look like you need a sit-down and a cup of tea, Mr Ginnar. Come inside, come on."
His instinct was to turn away, but he was dizzy from his loss, as if it was as fresh as the day his nephews disappeared. He followed the hobbit into the hall. She insisted on taking his cloak, her eyes flicking over the pinned sleeve when it was revealed, but she said nothing. Before he knew it he was sitting in a cozy kitchen at a slightly-too-small table with the hobbit bustling about with a pot of water and stoking up the fire.
"So," she straightened up, clapping the dust off her hands, and holding her left one out for him to shake. "I should have said, I'm Bilba, the current Baggins of Bag End. Where do you hail from, then?"
"Bree," Thorin grunted, shaking her small hand roughly. She gripped his tight in return, her eyes narrowing a little.
"Mmm," she fetched two teacups and set them on the table, and then a plate of shortbread, fresh pears and a pot of sugar. "Help yourself, please."
Thorin didn't need telling twice. His stomach was grumbling loudly just looking at the food. He took a piece of shortbread, wincing when he realised how filthy his hand was, and ate the whole thing in one bite. It was delicious; he hadn't had shortbread this good for years – not since Dis had been alive, in fact. He chewed slowly, beginning to frown. "Is there nutmeg in these? And maple oil?"
"You have a good nose,” the hobbit said, a little too cheerily.
"It's a very… dwarvish recipe."
She laughed. "Well, I suppose those boys made their mark around here. Um, let me check the tea," she got up and made a great fuss of checking the pot, which was clearly not boiling yet. As she stood up, Thorin saw her glance very quickly out the window. Her back straightened and her eyes went a little wide. "Will you excuse me? My neighbour's at the door. He's, uh, he's got a bee in his bonnet about, well, boring stuff really. I'll be back in a moment."
Curiosity tugged away the haze of grief from Thorin's mind. Something odd was going on here. He twisted in his seat to watch the hobbit scurry off through the parlour, then got up and pressed close to the glass to see what was going on out the window, but the curve of the hill obscured his view of the front door and the path. He could hear the hobbit woman talking to someone in the front hall in a low voice, but he couldn't make out the words until he leaned through the parlour doorway and caught a whisper.
"…well find him and waylay him before he gets back! I'll play host. Don't fuss, I can handle myself. Go! Shoo!"
Thorin rushed to sit down again when he heard her shut the door and come trotting back through. He stuffed another shortbread in his mouth as she returned.
"So, Mr Ginnar, how do you know Dwalin and Balin?" she said firmly, setting out a teapot and filling it with boiling water. She kept her eyes on him almost the whole time, but didn't spill a drop. What in Durin's name was she hiding from him?
He took the teacup she slid across to him without breaking eye contact. She'd even made sure the handle was on the left. He took a small sip. "They're distant cousins of mine," he replied. "Who was it you said was at the door?"
"A neighbour," the hobbit woman wrapped both hands around her own teacup, but didn't yet drink. Thorin considered the taste in case of poison and decided she hadn't had enough warning to arrange that. She tapped her little finger on the porcelain. "How did you find out they live— used to live here?"
"Through a mutual friend," Thorin said. "And how did you come to know them?"
"They turned up on my doorstep one day," the hobbit shrugged, leaning her elbows on the table. "What exactly do you want from them, Mr Ginnar? They haven't any money, if that's what it is."
"I'm not after money," Thorin shot back at once.
"Then what?" the hobbit snapped.
"They're here, aren't they?" his hand clenched around the delicate teacup. He couldn't keep a growl from his throat. Back and forth, up and down, tossed from one disappointment to the next. He couldn't take it anymore. "Tell me where to find them, woman. This is not a social visit."
"Tell me what you want from them," the hobbit glared.
Thorin could hear the blood beating in his ears. He could reach across the table and grab the wretched creature by the throat, shake her with one hand, but he knew what it was to be outweighed and unarmed and he wouldn't disgrace himself by sinking to that level. Yet he didn't trust her. No one had offered Thorin's family sanctuary for a very long time, and he couldn't imagine this wriggling weasel had anything to protect but her own interests.
Somewhere nearby, a door slammed. Not the front door – it must be a back entrance closer to them. The hobbit shot to her feet, and Thorin jumped up to match her. From out in the hall a voice called, "Biiil-ba! Guess what I bought at the market!"
"Oh, bother it all," the hobbit hissed, and lunged for the door. Thorin bolted after her, getting his feet tangled in the low bench. He burst through the doorway to find the hobbit standing between him and a figure at the other end of the hall.
It was a young dwarf, his dark hair tied back from his face, dressed in a deep, blue suit like one of the hobbits in town. Even his feet were bare, and a basket of potted plants hung from his elbow. His eyes were brown, the same brown as his nomad father, the dark eyes that had enchanted Dis from the moment she saw them. But his face was sharpened with adulthood, shadowed by the first glimpse of a beard, his expression turning as blank as fresh-hewn stone as he saw Thorin.
The basket slid off his arm and crashed onto the carpet, spilling pots of black soil across the hall.
Behind him, a second dwarf sprinted inside, his fists raised. He saw Bilba first, barking to her, "He got past me, I'm sorry…!" but his words trailed off as he saw the visitor. He lowered his hands, his mouth hanging open.
"Thorin," he whispered.
Thorin surged towards them, his arm outstretched, and Kili fell into his embrace, balling his fists in Thorin's coat. Thorin swayed where he stood, pressing his nose into Kili's hair, reaching past him to grab Fili and pull him in too, his fingers tangling in rough, blonde locks to bump their heads together over Kili's shoulder. He couldn't speak, he couldn't even say their names. They were so tall, and heavy too – Kili was leaning against him so hard his knees almost buckled. It was like being assaulted by a pair of large, adolescent dogs. He couldn’t comprehend it, the sight of them grown and healthy, the smell of their hair, their voices ripened and yet still recognisable. They were so real.
"We thought you were dead!" Kili wailed, his voice muffled by Thorin's shoulder. "Where have you been? Where have you been?"
Thorin's voice returned with a croak. "Dead until now," he whispered. "Lost without you."
He could feel hot tears on his face. For a long time they just stayed like that, crushed together with the smell of the spilled soil filling the air.
Bilba stood against the wall, finally lowering her hand from her mouth. He was their uncle Thorin, the one they had always spoken of with the quiet reverence of children towards a hero. You’ve butchered this one very nicely, haven’t you? she thought to herself. She’d been sure the grim-eyed, threadbare dwarf, standing on her doorstep with a battered sword at his belt, was some dangerous character out of the boys’ past, come to hunt down the last of their lineage. She couldn’t have got it so right and yet more wrong.
As she watched, Fili broke away, turning to where Bilba was trying to sink into the wall. She clasped her hands tight over her belly.
"Bilba, why did you tell me to hide?" he demanded. "This is our uncle!"
"Well, I didn't know that, did I?" Bilba said in a thin voice. "I thought your whole family was dead, and he gave me a different name, and… and look at him, dodgy fellow with one arm and scars all over! Oh, blast it, I didn't mean... I'm sorry," she wrung her hands, trying to meet Thorin's eye.
“Your arm,” Kili patted the old dwarf’s shoulder like he thought it was a joke. “What happened to your arm?”
“Never mind that, another time,” Thorin growled, “I bet I can still best you in any contest.” He grabbed Kili around the neck and kissed his forehead with a laugh. Bilba felt herself flinch forward. Did he need to be so rough? Really.
“Look at you!” Thorin was grinning broadly now. He reached out to cup Fili’s chin. “Just look at you! I never thought I would see your beards come in! You’ve been here all this time?” he glanced over his shoulder at Bilba, and she didn’t miss the note of scorn in his voice. “In this quiet place?”
The brothers looked at one another and Fili nodded. “Bilba took us in. She had no reason to, but we couldn’t have found a better home,” he squeezed his eyes closed and stammered, “I mean, a home as good as we used to have.”
Thorin turned towards Bilba at last. She swallowed. Somehow, knowing his true identity only made him more dangerous. The stories she'd heard of Thorin had been an epic mythology from a child’s perspective, full of half-remembered adventures patched up with otherworldly triumphs attributed by two proud nephews. Assassins and madmen she could have faced, with Fili and Kili behind her. But Thorin was a legend come to life, and she was the one on the outside, the hobbit among dwarves, the surrogate among true family.
“It seems I have much to thank you for,” Thorin said, his voice warm and low.
Bilba did her best to return his smile. “I think, maybe, we should all sit down and start again, don’t you?”
That might as well have been the last time she had spoken that evening. There was no stopping the chatter after that, as Fili and Kili made up for ten years of lost talk with their uncle. Thorin himself said little of his life since they’d been parted, only confirming that his arm had been injured on the night their mother died. Otherwise he seemed content to sit staring at them, shaking his head as Kili described his idea to boat through the fields and into a raging river during the bad flood a few years back, smiling as Fili listed all the kings of the Longbeards right back to Durin the Deathless to prove he hadn't forgotten his history, and his eyes widening when they finally told him the state Gandalf found them in after they fled the mob. Bilba sat on the edge and watched as if through a window into a stranger's house. At one point she left to clean up the potted herbs that Kili had spilled in the hall. No one seemed to have noticed she was gone.
Fili had promised to make dinner, but that was obviously out of the question now, so Bilba put together the meat pie he'd planned and by the time the stars were out, the smell of roast pastry and beef was filling the halls of Bag End. She called the dwarves in and they came, still babbling, and barely stopped long enough to swallow. Bilba grimaced as Kili put his elbows on the table and talked with his mouth full. It had taken her about four years to break him of his bad table manners, and Thorin had undone all that in an hour.
She told herself to stop being such a fusspot. Of course they were excited, of course they were distracted. She wouldn't want to take this joy away from them, not for all the good manners in the world. She was been foolishly jealous like a hobbit lass being ignored in favour of a new baby brother. And when she looked at Thorin properly, Bilba noticed that he was eating with decidedly more delicacy than his nephews. He wasn't being a bad influence – they were just excited.
In fact, now that she was looking at him, the boys seemed a lot more excited than Thorin. An hour ago he had been smiling and trying to surreptitiously wipe the tears from the corner of his eyes, but now his mood seemed to have soured. Bilba had given him the largest piece of meat pie, because he looked like he needed it, but he pushed it away before it was even half finished. His mouth was turning into a deeper scowl the more time passed, and he kept massaging his truncated shoulder with a stony expression.
"Is it alright, Mr Thorin?" Bilba spoke up, managing to slip into a pause in the conversation. "Your arm, I mean."
"It's fine," Thorin said brusquely.
"It's ghost pains, yes?" Bilba soothed. Finally, she felt like she could be of some use. "Some old hobbits lose limbs to illness, you know, and they often swear they can still feel the limb is there. I've heard a cold poultice on the back of the neck—"
"I am not an old hobbit!" Thorin growled. "And I do not need your old wives' tales, Mrs Baggins."
Bilba straightened up slowly. Fili and Kili had gone completely silently and were glancing between them. She said evenly, "Whatever you need, then. And it's Miss, if you don't mind."
"We don't need anything more, thank you," Thorin said. "In fact, I would like to speak to my nephews in private. If you would."
Bilba took a deep breath and forced herself to smile. "Of course," she said, getting up and taking her plate with her. "I feel like an early night anyway. Don't stay up too late, you two," she said as she passed Fili, patting him on the shoulder. She meant it as a joke – she'd never dictated their sleeping habits, except when they interrupted her own slumber with knife-throwing contests outside her window at six in the morning. But Thorin did not take it as such, his scowl growing even deeper when Kili tugged Bilba’s skirt as she rounded the table, making her lean in so he could kiss her on the cheek.
As she stepped through the doorway, she heard Thorin mutter, "First line of business is where to find lodgings as soon as possible."
Bilba turned back, her plate in one had and mug in the other. "I beg your pardon?"
Thorin was suddenly very keen to look anywhere except at Bilba's face. She took a step back into the kitchen. "You’re welcome to sleep here as long as you want.”
Still he didn’t answer, as if he thought she was nothing but an irritating fly around the food.
Bilba puffed up here chest. “What exactly is wrong with my house, Mr Thorin, that you won't… lower yourself to sleep here?"
"There is nothing wrong with your house, obviously," Thorin snapped back. "I merely meant we will need to find somewhere when we leave tomorrow."
Three pairs of eyes were suddenly on his face. Fili voiced all their thoughts, "Tomorrow? What do you mean, why are you leaving tomorrow?"
Thorin looked at his nephews one after the other. "Well, I've found you now. You can come away with me at last."
There was absolute silence for a long moment. Bilba ended it. "No. That's absurd. You can't just saunter in here after ten years of absence and uproot them tomorrow. Who do you think you are?"
"How dare you!" Thorin snarled. "I assure you, if I had even the barest hint before now I would have been here long ago!"
"Well you weren't here," Bilba could feel her face turning red and her heart beginning to race. If it hadn't been an extremely rude way to treat guests, she would have hurled her mug right at Thorin's nose. "I was. If you think so little of me and my home, maybe you should start offering something more substantial than your haughty airs.”
“Bilba!” Fili cried, his features twisting into an ugly glower.
A low rumble started deep in Thorin’s throat. He stood up from the table, his single hand splayed on the wood. “Fili, Kili, go and pack your things,” he said. “We’re leaving now.”
Thorin stood with his eyes locked on Bilba’s face until Fili got to his feet. Bilba’s mouth dropped open, but she didn’t know what to say. She looked at Kili, who was glancing between her and his brother. Thorin turned and walked out, and Fili grabbed a fistful of Kili’s sleeve, tugging him to his feet.
“Fili, we can’t—” Kili looked at Bilba once again, but Fili refused to look at her. He caught his brother’s eye and held it until Kili shuffled through the doorway ahead of him.
“No,” Bilba realised this was actually happening. She dropped her plate and mug back on the table and scurried after them. “Fili! Stop!”
He didn’t even turn around until she grabbed his elbow. Fili twitched out of her hand, shaking his head. “He’s our king, Bilba.”
“Will you – just – you can’t honestly—” Bilba found herself standing in the hallway, with Thorin pulling his cloak on over his missing arm. “Kili, sweetheart, you don’t have to do this tonight.”
Thorin snarled and stepped between her and his nephews, looming over her like a landslide. “They are not children. Hold your tongue and let them do as they will.”
“Oh, their will, yes!” Bilba threw her arm towards where Fili was coming out of his room with the two leather packs she’d bought them just last year, for when they went walking for days at a time. “You think that's what they're doing?”
“They are not your pets, you odious little harridan,” Thorin snarled. “You’ve done enough, trying to turn them into hobbits,” Thorin pointed at Kili in the doorway, his head bent and his fringe falling over his face as he folded clothes and roughly shoved them into his pack. “Dressing them like dolls, indulging them, letting them get fat and lazy in this smoke-addled hole. Spoiling them!”
Bilba took a step backwards. She felt as if she’d been struck, but by an invisible hand she hadn’t been able to brace against. She found herself wringing her hands like an old biddy, and forced herself to put her arms by her side. She could find no words that could possibly match the poison in his voice, and neither Fili nor Kili said anything in her defence. Fili was staring at the back of his uncle’s head, his expression ambiguous, and Kili kept his head low, his hands shaking as he tightened the buckles on his pack.
Thorin shook his head at her and turned away, beckoning his nephews with a sweep of his hand.
“No,” Bilba said, and was embarrassed by how weak her voice sounded. Her brow wrinkled. Her hands balled into fists. Her lips peeled back from her teeth. “No.”
She stomped past Thorin to the front door, where her walking stick leaned upright in a rack by the corner. Bilba snatched it up, her hand automatically gripping it like the play-swords she’d practised with the boys so many times. She stood in front of the brass doorknob, her feet set into a rock-steady stance. Thorin turned to stare her.
“They are grown dwarves,” Bilba said sharply, “The only way they're leaving here is by their own choice.”
Thorin shot her a disparaging sneer. “Get out of the way.”
“Make me,” Bilba snapped, her body angled sideways with the walking stick at the ready.
Thorin stepped forward, reaching for her with his one arm. Bilba struck as swift as a snake, cracking him across the knuckles and wrist with all the strength she could muster. She felt a mixed thrill of pleasure and terror as he cried out and jerked backwards. Kili gasped and lunged forward, but was grabbed by his brother and hauled back into the doorway.
Thorin hissed through his teeth, threw back his cloak and wrapped his fingers around the handle of the sword at his belt. He drew it out smoothly, looking very practised even with the imbalance of his single arm. Bilba swallowed, and then lowered her head and switched the walking stick into her left hand to match him. She’d always felt stronger with that hand, would even have written with it if her tutors in childhood had given her a chance.
“Move aside,” Thorin said.
Bilba shook her head. Almost at once, Thorin lunged. He wasn’t aiming for her, but he tried to catch the walking stick with the flat of his blade and twist it out of her grasp. Bilba turned the sweep aside, half lucky and half with instinct bred from Fili’s lessons. Thorin growled, brought his sword around and gave a much less graceless hack at the stick, and she easily shifted her feet and again swept his blade away, using his own momentum to send the sword swinging wide to drag him off balance. He wasn’t nearly as good with his remaining hand as he’d first seemed, and couldn’t compensate for the extra weight. Bilba leapt forward and jabbed the walking stick hard into his chest, right against the breastbone. The whole fight had taken only a few seconds.
Thorin froze. His sword hung to the side. Breathing hard, Bilba tilted her head. “They’ve spoiled me too, Mr Dwarf.”
She became aware that she was easily within reach now, threatening him with nothing more than a blunt piece of wood. He could have sliced her in half without blinking and her little stick would have done nothing to block it. He looked down the length of the walking stick until he met her eyes. He huffed out a breath. Something like a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he raised his arm and dropped his sword. Bilba barely managed to wince at the thought of the blade chipping her smooth floors. She stepped back, lowering the walking stick to rest the tip at her feet.
“Forgive me,” Thorin rumbled. “It is far too long since anyone has shown loyalty to those I love.”
“Forgiven and forgotten,” Bilba said at once, though that wasn’t quite true and she was sure they both knew it. “Now can we talk about this like civilised people?”
“Do you have a bed spare, Miss Baggins?” he replied, but his tone was genuine this time. “Civilised conversations between dwarves tends to take several days.”
“I don’t have anything made up, but there’s clean linen in the closet,” Bilba tossed her walking stick back into the rack by the door and smoothed down her skirt. “Fili can show you.”
Thorin shot her a last, unreadable look but allowed himself to be led off down the corridor to the second bedroom. As soon as they were out of sight, Bilba leaned against the wall, pressing her hand to her chest to letting out a long breath. She felt almost as if she was going to be sick, and her head was spinning. The sight of that sword – beat her and break her, but she never wanted to be facing the business end of a sword again, not as long as she lived.
There was a rush of movement from the corner of her eye and she found herself hauled up off the floor with Kili’s arms wrapped around her stomach and hips, his face half pressed into his bosom.
“Oof! Oh, now you’re all cuddly, when your blasted uncle isn’t here to see,” she grizzled, draping her arm around his shoulders.
He arched his neck back to look up at her. “It all happened so fast. And Fili said he wouldn’t hurt you.”
“I didn't know that,” she pointed out.
He gazed up her with his big brown eyes. “I’m sorry, Bilba, we should have told him to wait. But give him a chance. He’s amazing, he is, the things he’s done, the things he’s seen—”
“Alright, yes, I believe you,” Bilba rested her chin on the top of his head. To think she might never have had a moment like this again – they might really have walked out that door, to who-knew-where, to dangers beyond anything she could imagine, never to return, or to come home changed and dwarven. Her heartbeat was settling, and she was starting to feel that the fear and the sword had been worth it after all, in defence of her boys. “Put me down, quick, they’re coming back.”
With a chuckle Kili set her back on her feet, and she made a show of punching his arm as Thorin and Fili came around the hallway. That was how Tough Dwarf Men were supposed to treat each other, wasn’t that right?
“You have a beautiful home, Miss Baggins,” Thorin nodded at her. “I apologise that I did not see it earlier.”
Apologising for not appreciating her furnishings seemed quite on a different scale from apologising for drawing a sword on her. However, she wasn’t about to start another argument tonight. She glanced at Fili, but he seemed to be examining the coat rack, a faint flush in his cheeks. She wondered if he'd expected the sword, and how sure he'd really been that Thorin wouldn't hurt her. Surely he wouldn't really have left without a struggle - surely he'd have talked Thorin into coming back once his uncle had calmed down. Surely.
It was a conversation for another night. She sighed, “You had other things on your mind, I’m sure. And on that note,” she scrubbed her hands down her face, “I rather think I’m ready for bed.”