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when the last road ends

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PROLOGUE

            The hobbit's sword was still, and his free hand hung loose at his side as he stared and learnt of how exactly corpses could fall, from up on the peak of Ravenhill.

            The sky held hope, and sweeping avian shapes behind the clouds were growing nearer, but he could not see them. His ring glinted atop his finger in the red winter sun, but he could only stand, invisible, and listen to the sound of blades parting flesh and the cries of the warriors.

            In the old days, when adventures had consisted of sitting around hearths and telling fantastical tales, or curling in armchairs absorbed in legends recorded in his many books, he had thought of elves as deathless. He had thought of dwarves as tough as stone and impervious to weapons, and of men as warsome and fearless. He knew better now. He had seen dwarves cut down like saplings, and men lying in pools of red and black blood. There was an elvish corpse at his side, fair face distorted, lovely auburn hair askew from a broken helm, a red tongue hanging from an open mouth.

            I would give anything for it to end, he thought in misery, Sting slipping from his hand, hanging only by his fingertips, and all Tookishness in him shrank and shriveled. I care not for all of Smaug's wretched treasure, or the light of the Arkenstone—I would give it all to be away from such a bad end. I would give—from the corner of his eye, his ring glinted once more—I would give this ring to be away from here, for them all to live, for peace to come—

            And politely, almost obediently, his lovely golden ring, which had for so long dwelt with Gollum under the Misty Mountains, slipped quietly off his finger and landed heavily in his waistcoat pocket, just as the first eagle swept down from the clouds. The hobbit's heart leapt, and his mouth opened to cry "The Eagles! The Eagles! The Eagles are—"

            Yet before he uttered his last, hopeful shout, a goblin mace met the back of his now-visible neck, and his spine cracked, and his neck was broken, and the body fell on the peak of Ravenhill without a sound as the battle roared on, the cries of eagles filling the valley. He would never see the road homeward again.

            The ring had obeyed and betrayed its gentlest bearer, and the battle took no notice.

 

I - IN RECOVERY

            Gandalf kept counting.

            "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—"

            In the huge arms of a tremendous black bear, number thirteen was borne, and indeed, the King under the Mountain was more fragile than Gandalf ever remembered him. His body was laid on a cot in a tent of healing in the dwarves' camp as the sun of the morning after the battle rose. Immediately, the wizard leapt to his feet, wincing as his left arm swung uselessly in its sling, but before a hand could be laid on Thorin Oakenshield, the King jolted awake, groping for his missing axe. "Where—" he began to splutter, a gallery of Khuzdul curses on the tip of his tongue.

            "Lie still!" Gandalf commanded, the creases in his forehead deepening as he forced the King back down. Fíli, who had been at his unconscious brother's bedside, rushed to kneel at his uncle's. "The battle has been won, miraculously, and somehow your idiocy managed to survive, along with most of your companions."

            "Bolg is dead, Thorin—" Fíli said weakly, overwhelmed, attempting to smile. "Beorn slew him, and Dáin saved Kíli and I after we tried to rescue you—"

            "Do not accuse me of idiocy, Gandalf," Thorin managed to huff, breathing very heavily as Óin, accompanied by two young dwarves of the Iron Hills bedecked with bandages and ointment, hastened from the other side of the long tent. Here the Company laid, some members more grievously wounded than others. Blinking as his eyes grew adjusted to the grey light of morning, the King managed to get a better sense of his surroundings. This particular tent had been used in the old days, before Smaug had laid waste to the Mountain—it seemed that some of the more mundane storage units within Erebor had not been touched by the dragon, for this tent was as pristine (if not dusty) as in Thorin's memory. White canvas, with trimmings of pale blue, to mark it specifically as one for the wounded, and wide enough to house over twenty dwarf-sized cots, also from within the Mountain. It seemed, now, to hold the purpose of housing and healing all members of the Company alone, as the only unfamiliar faces in the tent were of Óin's assistants. Cool light filtered through the open flaps and into the tent, diffusing the pungent smell of dwarvish blood mixed with the smell of surgical spirits.

            Sighing, the King allowed his head to fall back onto his pillow, and returned his focus to Gandalf's face, looming above him, like a disapproving moon. "I am no more of an idiot than my two sister-sons—"

            "Who probably prevented from any further harm from coming to you, King under the Mountain," grumbled Gandalf before Fíli's face fell. It was sheer miracle that Thorin's impudence and idiotic pride had not been the death of him, and perhaps his living would cause more problems than his death would have—but it was not the place of a wizard to wish death upon those who still possess some good in them, no matter how buried it was under blinding stupidity. From Gandalf's last stand on the top of the hill, he had seen from afar two familiar blue hoods streaking towards their uncle as the king fell under Bolg's mace. He glanced at Fíli, then back at Thorin, and then shook his head. "Now shut your mouth, my Lord, before more blood leaks from it."

            Sighing heavily, the wizard stepped back as Óin and his assistants removed Thorin's armor to tend to the King's wounds. Scanning the wounded dwarf in disapproval, Gandalf frowned, new wrinkles forming amongst old ones. Quite a few spears had pierced Thorin's flesh, an ugly red stain anointed his crown, and there was pus oozing from the arrow wound in his shoulder. But if the wizard knew anything of dwarves, he knew of their tremendous, staunch stubbornness, and if Thorin was stubborn enough to live, he would be stubborn enough to heal quite quickly.

            "We're all fine, Thorin," Fíli insisted, as if he was trying to persuade himself as much as he was trying to persuade his uncle, one hand absentmindedly going to the bandage on his forehead. It hid a rather spectacular gash he had acquired in the defense of his uncle. His other hand began to tick off numbers—he clearly intended to tell Thorin the state of every member of the Company. "Well, not really fine, but we're all alive, so I suppose that counts. Kíli very nearly got a stab wound to the heart—"

            "Kíli what—"

            "—but another goblin struck his helm before the stroke fell, so it only hit his side; he was running a fever and is asleep now, but Óin says he’ll be alright…"

            "Been complaining about the gruel we've been trying to force down his stubborn prat of a throat—" muttered Óin distractedly as he applied ointment to a poultice and handed it to another healer to pat down upon Thorin's wounds. Thorin relaxed in his cot—his sister-sons had come out of this whole, after all. He had set out with the sinking knowledge that they would likely never see their mother again, but perhaps Dís could forgive a few battle scars.

            "One, two, three..." counted Gandalf again from the corner. Thorin glanced at the wizard apprehensively, and then made a very unkingly noise as a healer applied copious amounts of surgical spirit to the gash in his chest.

            "No one could hurt Bombur, he's too fat—" Fíli went on, undeterred and somewhat frantic. "Balin is on the cot over there; he was stuck with a poison arrow, but Óin got the poison out before it festered—I think the old warrior's asleep—"

            "I am not asleep, Master Fíli," came Balin's patient but very weary voice from his cot. "I am merely resting in between my shifts of tending to the others—my apologies, Thorin."

            "S-Sorry, Balin... Dwalin has a new war trophy, a very ugly wound around the eye, but I suppose he's pleased about that. Gloin’s special pocket frames were cracked, but an arrow ricocheted off of them so they probably saved his life. Nori nearly got his hand chopped off by a poisoned blade, but he just got a nasty gash. He’s just complaining that he won’t be able to nick anything with his right hand for a while. Bofur broke a leg and lost three toes, somehow, and a lot of blood—but he's just glad it wasn't a finger, he can still play clarinet—Bifur went berserk during the battle, did you see him?"

            "I—" Before Thorin had a chance to respond in between intervals of the healers poking at his gashes, Fíli went on, barely stopping to take a breath.

            "No? Well, he was very fearsome, and has a maul from a warg to prove it—Ori ended up the worst out of most of us—he broke all his ribs, I think one of the larger orcs trampled him, and got an arrow to his leg to boot—Dori's going mad over it—he's far tougher than he looks, but I don't believe he'll be able to do much for a few months, aside from writing and drawing—but he won't be too upset over that—see, everyone is—"

            "Fine," grunted Thorin, wincing as he attempted to swat away one of the healers and push himself upright. (He had faced orcs equipped with blades and halberds, and now he must battle healers armed with rosewood and ointment.) "Take a deep breath, Fíli—your nerves are probably still buzzing. That was your first battle, after all—" He stretched out one arm gingerly to pat Fíli's shoulder as the young dwarf-prince reddened and shrank in embarrassment.

            "I just wanted you to know that we're—"

            "I understand, Fíli—" Indeed, as Thorin strained his neck to scan the length of the tent, there did not seem to be anyone absent. He could spot Kíli's curled-up form a few cots away, Dorí fussing over preparations of warm draughts for his brothers. The tent was abuzz with familiar voices, some more hushed than others. It seemed that the Company had escaped from the battle intact, somehow. But the wizard had said most of his companions, and unless Gandalf's eyes were growing dim— "Gandalf! You said 'most'—who is missing?"

            The wizard was not paying attention to the talk between the royals—he had wandered to the opening of the tent, eyes fixed upon the desolation of the battlefield, searching for a worn burgundy travel coat, or the distinctive shine of mithril mail, or the glow of Sting, or a mop of curly brown hair. A footfall of the hobbit Gandalf had played babysitter to for the past adventure—a telltale sign of their infamous burglar.

            He would find one, in time. And it would not soothe his worries.

            "Where in Arda is our lucky number?"

§-§

            Kíli awoke at a howl that pierced the grey of the afternoon. It froze the air, and then shattered it, leaving splinters in the ears of all, and it was filled with anguish and beastly fury. Sitting bolt upright, the young Prince grasped wildly for an arrow, to find that instead of a quiver, he leaned upon a pillow, and instead of his bow, he had grasped a flask of water and had emptied it on his own bandages. His vision still blurry, he searched for the visage of his brother, for the landscape of the battle he had fallen in. "What is—who—where—"

            But he was ignored, and the entirety of the dwarvish camp was peering from the flaps of their tents, out to the source of the dreadful cry, out to the lolloping shape of a great black bear, silhouette stark against the grey of the sky. As it neared, many more heads emerged from their tents. Many more eyes fixed on what it held in its paws. Of the many, Thorin Oakenshield rose very slowly, very gingerly from his cot, one arm around his abdomen, and parted the canvas of the tent to see Gandalf. And Gandalf was paler than Thorin ever remembered him.

            The wizard hurried out to meet the shape of the bear. It seemed to be cradling something tiny and fragile in its huge arms—something tiny and fragile, bearing an elvish blade—

            A muffled cry arose from outside the tent, and Fíli made his way to his brother's side, face white and mouth quivering.

            "Kíli, stay inside—"

            "What—what was that?" Kíli whispered feverishly, grasping his brother's arm. Fíli looked over his shoulder, then took his brother's hand, shaking his head.

            "Stay inside and look away."

§-§

            "Beorn," the wizard had murmured, and the huge man standing with crossed arms at the other side of the tent had stridden over to him. Though the battle had ended, the skin-changer remained at the side of the mountain, at least until he could see every last goblin killed and its corpse desecrated, or at least put to good use. Beorn had been watching the movements over the grey of the battlefield, standing guard over the foolish dwarves he had befriended months before.

            "How's His Majesty?" Beorn had said, his usual growl hushed as he bent slightly to be face-to-face with the wizard.

            "Somehow alive," Gandalf had muttered, eyes never wavering from the battlefield. "But that is not who I'm worried for. Do you remember the scent of our burglar?"

            "Of course. Smells almost exactly like a fat rabbit." Beorn had glanced inside the tent, and then stood up to peer over the tents around the campsite, where many a dwarf sat licking wounds. "Has he still not popped up, then?"

            "I'm afraid not, and I have a grave feeling in my bones that—“ No, he would not consider that option. That option is impossible. “Well—would you sniff him out for me? His smell should be quite distinctive amongst the rancor of goblins, and he was last heard atop Ravenhill with the Elvenking and me. He bears a ring of invisibility—yes, that is why he has not been found yet. He should be quite alright."

            Beorn had stretched to his fullest height, and towered over the grey wizard. "I am not a bloodhound, Gandalf, but I will find him." And then he was a bear, hulking and dark and twenty feet tall, and he had moved like night on a winter's eve, quickly weaving through the mounds of corpses.

            He had found the hobbit under one, and he had let out a roar.

§-§

            At the foot of the Lonely Mountain, Beorn cradled the corpse of Bilbo Baggins with surprising gentleness, as if the hobbit was no more than a sleeping infant. With utmost care, the hobbit's body was laid in Gandalf's free arm, and the wizard's throat tightened as he lowered him softly to the ground, cupping the back of his head as it rolled back at a horrible angle. His hand came away bloody and entangled in hair.

            A collective cry of the hobbit's name came from the opening of the tent as most of the conscious members of the Company ran to Gandalf, leaning haphazardly on each other’s shoulders, loping heedless of their wounds. There were many cries of “Bilbo’s back!” or “Someone fetch water, quick!”, but the most pervasive question was echoed amongst the battle-worn dwarves: “Why isn’t he moving?”

            Breaking free of Fíli’s arms, Kíli lunged to Gandalf's side, his brother close behind. Balin arrived first, staggering slightly from his still-aching arrow wound. “Stay back, lads! Don’t crowd them!” he cried hoarsely, above their frantic murmurings.

            They did not need Balin's warning. And as soon as they saw the hobbit's form, curled up like a dead rabbit, neck snapped and spine hunched, they froze, half in shock and half in disgust. They had all seen bodies before, but the hobbit’s spine must have been frailer than dwarvish bones, and his blood even redder.

            Thorin came last, and he only caught sight of the hobbit limp in Gandalf's arms before he stumbled back and caught himself upon the tent canvas.

            Tremulously, the wizard pushed back the curly hair caught in the blood dried upon the hobbit's forehead, and before anyone else could utter a word, Gandalf uttered something ancient and desperate and unintelligible, and it was surely a spell. The Company held their breath, and the wizard's fingers glowed gold, yet there was no change in the body. Still Bilbo hung, like a broken doll, in the one good arm of the wizard, eyes glazed and open and staring intently up at the sky, cracked lips caught somewhere in a triumphant shout. With a lurch in his stomach, Gandalf thought of how easily death must have had come to the hobbit—snapping his neck must have been as easy as snapping a match in two—

            With a shudder, he looked up at the circle of horrified dwarves around him. "What are you all standing there for, fools?!" he barked suddenly, and they all shivered. "Fetch a stretcher, one of you useless dwarves—fetch it quick!"

            They parted like a sea of frightened animals.

            Bilbo was laid atop a stretcher far too large for him, and Beorn, a man once more, carried the stretcher inside a green-canvassed tent for Bilbo alone, erected at Gandalf's bidding. Outside stood the Company, and they stood still, faces petrified and eyes wide, and they could not believe, somehow, that the hobbit they had mocked for his weakness so long ago was really truly dead. They could not weep, not until Balin sank to his knees, his hands knotting in his beard. The rest of the Company stared at him, and then their eyes were moist.

            Inside Bilbo’s tent, Beorn's face was set with fury—he never took the deaths of defenseless creatures well—and yet Gandalf only looked older and a great deal hollower as he arranged Bilbo's limbs, folding his scarf to prop up the hobbit's head. He had refused help from Óin or the other healers. He alone would touch the corpse—he alone had brought the hobbit on the quest, and he would be alone in cleaning the body.

            Yet he was not alone in his thoughts.

            This is wrong. This was not meant to happen. This should not be.