Everything was finally prepared for the journey.
Balin walked through the corridors of the palace, his mind going over the mental checklist of things they needed to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Satisfied that they had everything, he approached the door to Thorin’s study to tell the king as much. Before he could knock, however, the sound of raised voices drew his attention and he paused with his hand raised in the air, rethinking his previous plan. Instead of knocking, he lowered his hand and leaned a little closer to the door to find out what was going on.
“I will not allow this!” The voice of Thorin’s sister was sharp as a knife, the agitation in her voice audible even through the solid oak wood of the door.
“I have already made my decision,” Thorin said in a tone that bore no argument. While this tactic might frighten lesser dwarves into compliance, it had never worked on Dís and her response came a second later, equally fierce.
“It’s madness! This whole quest is a folly. Why go now, after all these years, when our kingdom here is finally peaceful and prosperous?”
“Erebor is our birthright. I wish to claim it back.”
Ah, thought Balin, they were discussing Thorin’s quest again. Thorin had been obsessed with the thought of reclaiming Erebor ever since he had returned from his trip to the northern Misty Mountains in early February. Dís had been supportive of him at first, helping him with planning, but once she had learnt that he planned to take with him both Fíli and Kíli, she had started trying to talk him out of it.
She had been trying to change Thorin’s mind for weeks now, pointing out the weak spots in his plan (such as the fact that they had no idea how to kill the dragon), but so far her attempts had been unsuccessful. The only thing greater than Thorin’s stubbornness was his pride and her disapproval only made him more determined to succeed in his endeavour. Even now, at the eve of their departure, she was still trying to dissuade him, but Thorin’s mind was already set in stone and nothing she could say would move him.
“Must you take both my sons with you?” A hint of pleading entered her voice and Balin couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her. The young princes had been excited about the adventure for weeks now, prancing around the palace, completely oblivious to the worry their participation in the quest was causing to their mother. “Why are you willing to risk both your heirs on this fool’s errand?”
“Fíli and Kíli both want to go with me,” was Thorin’s answer.
“Of course they want to go with you,” she said, exasperated. “They both adore you. They would follow you into the very fires of Mordor, if you asked them. That does not mean you have to take them both with you.”
“Both of them are of age,” Thorin pointed out.
“Barely,” Dís said. “They are far too young for something like this.”
“I was younger than they are when I fought Azog at the gates of Khazad-dûm.”
“You might have been, but that still doesn’t make this right. The road is dangerous and there is no guarantee they will come back. Do you want them to end up like Frérin? Slain before they celebrate their first hundred years?” Her voice was rising, the urgency in it now unmistakeable. “I have already lost my grandfather, my father, a brother and my husband. Do you want me to lose my sons, too?”
Balin closed his eyes. Dís must have been running out of arguments to be willing to bring up Frérin. Their long-lost brother had always been a sore point for the siblings – even more so for Thorin, who had been the one to watch him die before the gates of Khazad- dûm.
Thorin’s response was too low to hear, but the voice of his sister was clear enough.
“If either of them dies, I will never forgive you.”
Balin barely had time to step away from the door before it flew open and Dís stormed out. Before the door slammed shut behind her, Balin got a glimpse of Thorin standing by the window, his back-ramrod straight with tension. When she spotted Balin, Dís stopped mid-stride, faltering. She looked away and took a few seconds to visibly compose herself and rein in her temper before she turned to him. Her attempt was mostly successful, because when she spoke, her tone was almost civil.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” she told Balin.
“It is me who should apologise for spying on you,” Balin said. “I happened to pass by and your raised voices drew my attention. It was not my intention to eavesdrop.”
She waved away his apology with a careless hand.
“You’ve been forced to listen to our arguments for more than a hundred and fifty years now, Balin. This one is no different.”
Balin glanced at the door. “I see that Thorin remains as stubborn as ever about the quest.”
“I have tried to make him see reason, but he is blinded by visions of gold and glory and refuses to listen.” She turned pleading eyes on him. “Is there any chance you could convince him to turn back?”
“No, I am afraid not,” Balin replied. “I have talked to him several times, but his mind is set. He is determined to reclaim Erebor and nothing I or anyone else says can sway him.
Dís gave him a weary look.
“I suppose that I can’t talk you out of joining them, either.”
Balin shook his head with a rueful smile.
“Someone sensible should go with them, to help keep those crazy dwarves in line. I am afraid Thorin won’t be of much use in that department and my brother has always been quick to support Thorin in endeavours like this, so I won’t get much help from him, either.”
Dís stepped closer, lowering her voice.
“Will you look after Fíli and Kíli for me?”
Balin laid a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently once before letting go.
“To the best of my ability. They can be a handful even on their good days.”
That drew a small smile from her.
“Yes, they are a pair of rascals. I have no idea who they get it from.”
“Don’t you?” Balin raised an eyebrow. By mutual silent agreement they started walking down the hall, leaving Thorin to his brooding. “I distinctly remember a young dwarven princess who liked to spend her days running away from her caretakers to join her brothers at the archery range. She refused to wear dresses and insisted on carrying a sword and always threw a tantrum when her brothers got to ride out on a patrol while she was forced to stay in the hall and study poetry.”
“I have always hated poetry. Besides, my dear brothers always used the patrols as an opportunity to catch wild mice and spiders and smuggle them into my room, just to hear me scream when those critters jumped at me in the dark.”
“Need I remind you of the time you hid a frog in Thorin’s bed?” Balin asked.
“That was only once!” Dís informed him, her smile growing wider at the memory. “But the month of lessons on manners had been completely worth it to hear Thorin scream like a little girl.”
Balin gave her a fond smile.
“Have you ever told Fíli and Kíli about that?”
“No, I don’t think I have,” she said. “I didn’t want to give them any more inspiration for their mischief. Mahal knows they get into enough trouble as it is.”
“You should go to them,” Balin said softly. “They may be adults now, but they are still young enough for a good story. What do you know, maybe they will use it as an inspiration for their journey.”
“Put a frog in Thorin’s bedroll?” She chuckled and Balin was happy to see that most of her anger and bad mood had dissipated. “They are just daring enough to pull that off. My, Thorin has no idea what he signed up for when he agreed to take them with him. Maybe they will irritate him enough that he will send them back.”
“I would not be surprised if he did,” Balin agreed with a chuckle of his own. “I will look after your boys,” he promised her when they reached the door to her quarters. Seeing that the corridor was empty, she drew him close for a brief hug. When she pulled back, her smile was fond.
“You have always been a good friend to us, Balin. Thank you for that.”
He returned the smile.
“It was never a hardship.”
“Have a safe journey,” she wished him before she walked into her room, the door falling shut behind her.
“Let us hope we will,” Balin muttered, going back to his room to finish packing.
Even though the sun shone pleasantly during the day and the countryside around them was lush with the oncoming spring, the nights were still cold and Balin could feel the chill from the ground seeping into his bones, leaving his limbs stiff and heavy in the morning. All the sleeping on the ground wasn’t doing his back any favours, either, and more than once he caught himself watching the youngsters, a little envious of their carefree manner.
He had been like them, once, way back before the dragon had driven his kin out of the mountain and the endless wandering had worn them down to the bone, leaving only weariness behind. They had eventually found a new home in the Blue Mountains, but it wasn’t quite the same. Balin didn’t miss as much those grand halls and gold-plated furniture as he missed the sense of belonging.
He missed home.
Still, his sentimentality didn’t prevent him from seeing things rationally. Thorin’s Halls in the Blue Mountains might not be as grand and glamorous as those of Erebor had been, but they were comfortable and their people prospered well enough. All in all, he would have been content to spend the rest of his life there. Why they needed to trek for hundreds of miles only to get eaten by the dragon was beyond Balin’s understanding. Why now, after all these years?
Balin didn’t know for sure, but he strongly suspected that it had been the wizard who had put things in motion – a few choice words during a chance meeting in Bree had been all that was needed to renew Thorin’s lifelong desire to getting his ancestral home back. Many times since then, Balin had wondered just how random their meeting had really been.
He had heard of Gandalf the Grey before – a wandering wizard with a talent for fireworks and meddling in other people’s affairs. Gandalf had been very eager to support Thorin’s quest and Balin couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Wizards generally didn’t seem to be interested in gold, or any sort of wealth, really. What did he gain by helping them restore the ancient dwarven kingdom? Did he want to get rid of the dragon? If so, why didn’t he just kill the worm himself? Surely he didn’t expect that thirteen dwarfs would be able to succeed where an army had not?
For only thirteen they were so far. From all the inhabitants of Blue Mountains, only twelve dwarves had answered Thorin’s call. Together they formed a ragtag band of craftsmen, tradesmen and warriors. The latter ones were far too few in Balin’s opinion and were either too old to hold a blade or far too young. Balin could only hope that Thorin would be able to rally some support at the meeting with other dwarven representatives, otherwise their quest was sure to end in a complete disaster.
There was no way they could take the mountain and get rid of the dragon with only thirteen people and Thorin had to know it, yet he insisted on going on the quest. Thorin was stubborn by nature but he was rarely careless. In all the years Balin had known him, Thorin had never pulled a foolish stunt like this. Thrór had been the one to attempt to reclaim Moria, but Thorin had always been more realistic about his chances, not willing to risk the fate of his people to chase idle dreams.
What had changed? Balin wondered. What had made Thorin blind to danger and reckless to the point of foolishness? Was it the wizard’s doing? It had to be. Balin couldn’t guess how much of this stubbornness was Thorin’s own and how much had been caused by the wizard’s words, but it worried him a little. He could understand the desire to fulfil a lifelong dream, but taking one’s own kin and heirs on a quest that had very little chance of success was just plain irresponsible.
Fíli and Kíli had been eager to go from the first moment they had heard about the quest, but Balin couldn’t blame them for that. They were still young and idealistic, having grown up sheltered in their comfortable home in the Blue Mountains. To them the dragon seemed like a faraway dream – an exotic tale told to little dwarflings as a bedside story by their mothers. Young Ori, too, had been excited about the prospect of having an adventure, viewing the whole enterprise as a fun trip to the wilderness.
While the other members of the company had been a bit more realistic about the risks awaiting them, Balin still doubted that they fully realized what an enormous obstacle the dragon presented. There were very few among them who had actually lived through the dragon’s rampage – him, Thorin, Óin and Dori. The others had been either too young to fully comprehend what was happening or they hadn’t been born yet, so Balin didn’t blame them for not taking the dragon threat seriously, either.
Since Thorin had to stay behind in the Blue Mountains to attend the Council and Dwalin had gone ahead to scout the road, Balin had been appointed to lead the Company in Thorin’s absence. To say he was less than enthusiastic about his new responsibility would be an understatement.
It had been years since he had last babysat Fíli and Kíli and to his chagrin he now found that getting older had done nothing to lessen their propensity for getting into trouble. After the third time he had to calm down a near hysterical Ori, because a snake had mysteriously found its way into his bedroll, Balin had half a mind to turn his pony around and tell Thorin in no uncertain terms just what he thought about this whole foolhardy business.
Thank Mahal they were almost at their destination in the Shire, and Dwalin would be joining them soon. His younger brother had always been good at keeping the Durin boys in line.
He was drawn from by his thoughts by Kíli’s excited exclamation. The young dwarf had spotted the shop sign of the pub where they planned to spend the night and was now trying to beat his brother in a race towards the building. Balin just shook his head at their antics and followed with his pony at a much slower pace.
They were still tending to their ponies when a tall figure of an old man emerged from the house, looking decidedly out of place in a land where everything was hobbit-sized. He spread his arms in welcome when he saw them, his smile hidden in his grey beard.
“Welcome, my dear dwarves,” the wizard said. “You are right on time. Put away your ponies and your baggage, and have a pint. The beer in this pub is particularly good. There’s no need to rent any rooms here, however, because I have managed to find you dinner and accommodation at a house of an old friend of mine.”
The dwarves quickly took care of their ponies and filed inside, ignoring the mistrustful glances the locals threw their way. The Shirefolk always had a tendency to look at the travellers with displeasure, even though there was always plenty of folk passing through these lands, and most of those travellers were merchants willing to spend a coin for a good pint of ale. Balin would be baffled by it, if he didn’t remember Thrór’s dislike of trading with the elves, despite the enormous profit it had brought him. Some things, Balin thought, were universal. Dislike of strangers being one of them.
It was sometime after sunset when Gandalf bade them to rise and ushered them outside.
“We should go now, while there is still some light left. It has been years since I last walked through these lands and I would hate to get lost in the dark. I left a note for Thorin with the barkeeper, so he should be able to find us easily when he arrives. Now come with me, it is not very far.”
They let the wizard lead them over fields and through several settlements, the hedges around the narrow path often forcing them to walk in a single file. The dusk set in as they walked and lights begun to appear in the small round windows of the hobbit-holes, the hobbits inside sitting down for dinner. They passed through a small copse of trees and as they turned a corner, they saw a hill rising up from the countryside before them. Gandalf pointed towards a green door at the top of the hill, looking very pleased with himself.
“There lives our host. We should probably split into pairs before we come in, so that we do not overwhelm him. I am afraid that he was not expecting quite so many visitors tonight.”
Nori’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Does this friend even know we’re coming?”
Gandalf coughed a little.
“He is a very hospitable fellow. He likes having visitors.”
“So he has no idea.” Nori breathed. “This should be interesting.”
“If he throws us all out, you’re buying us dinner.” Glóin warned Gandalf.
“I am sure it will all go well,” Gandalf tried to placate them. “Bilbo is too proud of his manners to refuse you hospitality. His mother Belladonna wouldn’t have hesitated to slam the door in your face, but Bilbo is too soft spoken for that.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Bofur. “Who is he, anyway? You haven’t told us anything about him.”
“Bilbo’s grandfather was the Old Took, a most remarkable hobbit who ruled over most of the Shire for nearly a hundred years. Bilbo himself is a traveller and a scholar. He is also a great cook and very fond of food, which is part of the reason why we are going to visit him tonight. His pantry holds enough food to feed half the Shire.”
That piqued their interest. They had been on the road for more than a week now and the idea of a feast was very tempting. Gandalf continued. “I have chosen Mr Baggins as the fourteenth member of our company, but he is proving to be rather reluctant to join our quest. I am hoping that you lot can help me convince him.”
“And you hope to accomplish that by having thirteen dwarves barge inside his hobbit hole and eat him out of his house and home?” Balin raised a single sceptical eyebrow.
Gandalf started to look a bit uncomfortable with all the questions.
“Bilbo will come around, you’ll see. Now look! I think that’s Dwalin over there.”
They all looked in the direction he was pointing and indeed, they could see Dwalin’s unmistakeable silhouette striding up the hill. They watched in suspense as Dwalin knocked on the door. From the distance, it was impossible to see the hobbit inside, but after a moment of negotiation, Dwalin walked inside and the door closed behind him. Gandalf’s smile turned smug.
“What did I tell you? Now Balin, you should go next, before your brother frightens poor Master Baggins to death. It has been a few years since Bilbo last dealt with dwarves and he might feel a little overwhelmed. We will be right behind you.”
Balin started to climb the hill, no longer wondering about Thorin’s sudden decision to go on a quest. The wizard was awfully persuasive. Thorin had never stood a chance.
Neither did any of them, Balin thought as the green door came closer. They could only hope that the wizard knew what he was doing.
Still, Balin’s sympathy didn’t prevent him from sitting back and watching in amusement as the hobbit’s irritation grew with each new dwarf until he looked like an angry teakettle, sputtering and puffing in the hallway while the dwarfs happily raided his pantry, paying him no mind.
Balin privately thought it was a miracle that Bilbo hadn’t thrown Thorin out as soon as he’d seen him, so angry he had been at that point. Thorin had only been saved by his overly imperious manner and the hobbit’s shock at the king’s rudeness. If it had been Ori at the door, Balin thought, he would have ended up spending the night in the hobbit’s front garden.
It had been amusing to see the hobbit’s well-bred manners go to war with his temper. Bilbo Baggins obviously fancied himself to be a true hobbit gentleman, with old money and great respectability, but from the way he hadn’t hesitated to chew out the wizard, it was clear that under all that polished exterior lurked a temper to rival Thorin’s own.
Despite his feigned disinterest in their quest, the halfling had nearly fallen over his own feet in his eagerness to take a peek at the map of Erebor and Balin had no doubt that come morning his curious nature would win over his overinflated sense of propriety and prompt him to join their quest.
Thorin had doubted him, declaring the whole business in the Shire a waste of time, so when the hobbit finally showed up the next morning, Balin felt no small amount of satisfaction when Thorin reached for his coin purse, handing it to Balin with a glare.
Thorin’s mood didn’t improve much over the next few days. Balin didn’t know if it was the failed meeting at Ered Luin or the dragon that weighted on his mind, but the dark haired dwarf kept frowning as he rode in the front by himself. Gandalf’s attempts at conversation only got him glares so the wizard opted to ride with the hobbit instead, chattering about weather and Bilbo’s numerous relatives.
Mr Baggins himself turned out to be a pleasant fellow, if a little timid. Once his irritation with the dwarves had passed, he turned back to the polite gentlehobbit he was and looked rather intimidated by the company. The dwarves paid very little attention to him. After the initial excitement of the hobbit’s arrival had worn off, most of the dwarves started ignoring his presence, their conversations turning towards mining and gold. Balin on the other hand was more than happy to draw the halfling into a chat, curious about their new companion.
Sometimes it seemed to Balin that Thorin was bothered by the hobbit’s presence, looking slightly uncomfortable whenever the halfling ventured near, but Balin chalked it up to his irritation with the wizard’s meddling and soon stopped paying attention to it. The hobbit kept his distance from the king, preferring to ride near the back of the group. The discovery of missing handkerchiefs and the realisation that he was expected to ride a pony all the way to Erebor soon put Bilbo in a grumpy mood and for the next few days he rode by himself, frowning and probably making a mental list of all the things he had forgotten at home.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy the comforts of having a pint of beer and nice lodgings for the night,” Thorin said. “It will be a long time before we can sleep with a roof over our heads. There is little hospitality to be found in the wilderness.”
The dwarves dismounted and quickly filed into the pub, led by the aroma of roasting meat. Mr Baggins looked at them uncertainly for a moment before he separated from their group, making a beeline for the party of halflings sitting in the corner, who welcomed him with enthusiasm. Balin found himself pulled to the side by Thorin, whose keen eyes were watching the halfling with suspicion.
“Balin, keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn’t betray our quest.” Thorin didn’t wait for a response – he just clapped him on the shoulder and walked away to discipline his unruly group, which had taken up an entire table and was making a great deal of racket.
With a small sigh, Balin went after him, choosing a seat nearest the group of hobbits. So far, they only seemed to have exchanged the standard greetings and discussed the weather. Balin cut himself a nice slice of meat from the roast on the table and settled comfortably into his chair to listen.
“We haven’t seen you in years, Master Baggins!” one is the local hobbits exclaimed. “You used to pass through here every year, but now you haven’t visited for ages. Did you get tired of travelling?”
Balin turned his head a bit to be able to see the halfling’s expression. The Hobbit was looking into his pint of ale, his face clouded.
“Travelling was a pastime of my youth, Mr Underhill. Now I have a business to run and there’s little time for such frivolity.”
“You took the business over from your father?” the hobbit called Mr Underhill leaned forward in curiosity.
“My father passed away fifteen years ago,” Mr Baggins told him. “I haven’t left the Shire since. I didn’t want to leave my mother alone in the house.”
“And how is dear Belladonna?”
“Mother passed away as well, a few years ago,” Bilbo said softly.
That prompted a flood of expressions of sympathy from his drinking companions and a new order of beer, which brought on a lengthy discussion about various relatives, both alive and dead. Balin was just starting to doze off when a question brought him back on alert.
“What made you set out again? And with a party of dwarves at that?”
Mr Baggins shot a quick look at his travelling companions before he averted his eyes again.
“I have some business in the east. These dwarves have kindly allowed me to go with them. The roads are dangerous these days, so it is much better to travel in a group.”
His lie didn’t sound very convincing to Balin’s ears, but the hobbits seemed to believe it, nodding in understanding.
“Are you visiting the elves again?”
Mr Baggins inclined his head with a smile.
“Yes, I hope to stop by Rivendell, if I have the opportunity.”
The conversation turned towards the various travellers passing through Bree and the goings-on in the Shire and Thorin’s group was completely forgotten. It seemed the halflings had little interest in the affairs of dwarves, preferring to discuss last year’s harvest and the quality of soil in the East Farthing. No further mention of Thorin’s company was made and Balin turned his full attention back towards his dinner.
Several hours later, when the conversation lulled and most of the local patrons had left, Mr Baggins removed himself into a corner with an oil lamp and a stack of parchments and sat down to write what looked like the complete history of the Shire.
Thorin’s company paid no attention to him. They were still eating and drinking and several dwarves had pulled their instruments from their bags and started playing a merry tune. And through all that, Mr Baggins wrote furiously, frowning at his papers.
It was nearly midnight when he packed his things away and made his way towards Gandalf, whispering something in his ear. The wizard nodded sagely, a small amused smile playing at the corners of his lips. With a few whispered words, he pointed the halfling towards Balin.
Balin watched the hobbit approach, hesitation in his every step.
“Master Balin, may I have a moment of your time?”
Thorin threw him a sharp look, but Balin just shook his head and followed Bilbo into the corner, curious about his request. The Hobbit fidgeted a bit before he scooped up several parchments and offered them to Balin.
“I do not mean for this to look so suspicious, but this is a private matter for me and I did not want to discuss it in front of the whole company. Gandalf told me that you are knowledgeable about legal matters. If it is not too much trouble, would you be willing to look over the papers I have put together? I have written a will and a few other instructions and need someone to verify them.”
Balin took out his monocle and sat down to read. The further he read, the higher his eyebrows climbed, for it appeared that Master Baggins had quite a fortune to his name. He gave the halfling a smile when he finished and reached for a quill, putting his signature under the hobbit’s.
“Is everything in order?” Mr Baggins still looked a little nervous, clutching a tankard in his hands like a shield.
“Yes, Master Baggins, everything is in order. You are quite good at writing these documents.”
The halfling ducked his head, his cheeks heating up at the praise.
“I write a lot of business letters.”
Balin handed the parchments back.
“You still need one more signature for the will to be valid.”
“Oh, that is no problem. Gandalf can sign it. Thank you for your service, Master Balin.” With a small bow, he turned and carried his papers to the wizard.
Balin had barely reached the main table when he was accosted by Thorin, who dragged him away from the group in a gesture of impatience.
“What did the halfling want to discuss with you?”
“He needed advice concerning some legal matters.” Since it was apparent that his cryptic answer hadn’t satisfied Thorin, Balin continued. “He wrote a will and wanted me to verify it.”
“A will? What did it say?”
“That is confidential. I have no right to reveal anything to you.” Before Thorin got huffy, Balin leaned in, lowering his voice. “However, I can assure you that whatever reason Master Baggins has for joining our quest, it certainly isn’t money.”
“Then why would he come with us?” Thorin seemed puzzled.
“I have no idea, my friend, but I am looking forward to finding out.” With a friendly pat on his forearm, Balin left Thorin to brood in the corner and went to get another pint.
To be continued...