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Love Pays No Indemnity

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In his dreams, Bilbo wasn’t alone.

He was sitting at a table, face to face with… someone. Or something; he couldn’t see, or couldn’t seem to look, like some force turned his eyes to the side.

“I can give you revenge,” a voice sang to him, all soft, poisonous tones wrapped over ragged edges, like honey dribbling down sharp glass. “You were hurt, I’m on your side, I can make you hurt never again.”

“I would like a seed cake better,” Bilbo said, his tongue barely turning in his mouth. “There is nothing that a good seed cake can’t, if not make better, then at least put into a perspective.” And the voice was quiet.

Bilbo didn’t remember his dream when he woke up; he never did.

***

One of the universal truths was that things do not remain the same. Nothing remains in the state in which it is begun and that change is one of the few constant things, the things that remain the same, is irony appreciated by far too few.

The elves and the men had their own chords, their own melodies, their own places in the great scheme of things, but it was all corrupted by Melkor. Everything was corrupted by Melkor except for the Last Melody that will not be revealed before the Dagor Dagorath is over and all has ended so it can begin again, but some parts of the creation were corrupted more than the others. Again it is a great irony that hobbits escaped the worst by being unimportant in the eyes and ears of the mighty. No potential was there to rise into great crescendo, only harmonies too dull and asinine to bother twisting much when the humans had the most volume among the Second Born, the falls and the lifts that created drama.

The hobbits were to be not quite the opposite of change, for that is stagnation, but constant, dependable, enduring. No matter the mad whirl of events around them, there will always be certain hobbitness to the hobbits. They don’t change their innermost nature easily. Originally they were meant to off-set and compliment the mutability of humans, but while this truth changed, the basic tendency of hobbits being hobbits didn’t. There is comfort in this that many of the Wise can barely understand, yet still yearn for the company of these little people.

Hobbits are very hard to corrupt, not because they are inherently good, though they most often are good people as well. They are so very hard because corruption is by definition becoming less, becoming worse, loosing what had before been inherent.

***

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Then the hobbit left on an adventure with a wizard and thirteen dwarves, which was a very non-hobbitlike thing to do. He got taken a hostage by terrible trolls and saved a king’s life, he became a web-cutter, the stinging fly that killed the spiders that tried to sting him and eat him, he was chosen for the lucky number and lucky he indeed was to live to return to his peaceful home in the peaceful Shire after riddling a dragon.

He returned with a chest of gold and a golden ring in his pocket. And then he left again.

At that point Bilbo didn’t have any reputation left to salvage in the Shire and when he got the urge to go on an adventure – oh dear, madness was clearly infectious and he had spent entirely too much time with dwarves – he didn’t see why he shouldn’t. Only, maybe instead of an adventure he should try and have a walking holiday outside the Shire; yes, that sounded like a properly nice thing to do.

It is an important point that there is a big difference between an adventure and a walking holiday. An adventure is an uncomfortable thing where one risks trolls, orcs and wargs, skinchangers with less than perfect control over their other form, giant spiders, ambiguously hostile, hostage-taking wood elves, dragons, gold madness and wars of all things. Walking holiday, on the other hand, is a person peacefully wandering for fun and sleeping outside, carrying ample rations and most importantly not getting besieged by any of the aforementioned calamities.

Of course Bilbo knew that outside the shire there would be no guarantees of never getting attacked by anything more dangerous than a swan defending her nest – and a nesting swan could easily break bones – or always finding a tavern, but really, if things got really bad, he had his ring.

“You will protect me, won’t you?” he asked one afternoon as he sat out in his garden, watching his prize tomatoes grow and growing strangely sick of remaining there. The ring almost appeared to hum with agreement and dealing with a magical artefact, Bilbo couldn’t be entirely certain the ring wasn’t capable of agreeing with him.

It really was a thing of beauty. It was a simple band of gold with no jewel or engraving like those he had seen in the treasure pile of Erebor or adorning the hands of elves, but it seemed to him that this was because the ring didn’t need any such fripperies to stand out. It was just so… perfect.

In Bilbo’s case the tookishness of his blood had for the longest time manifested as interest in reading rather than an adventurous spirit. The Library of the Great Smials was of course pitifully small when compared to the great libraries of Rivendell and Erebor; no doubt Mirkwood and Gondor’s libraries also by far outstripped it, though he hadn’t seen either. But there were some originally elvish books now translated into Westron that some of the particularly adventurous Tooks had brought back to the Shire with them and among those was a copy of the work of an elf named Erestor on geometry.

No-one has ever seen a perfect circle, for all that is drawn and built is drawn and built with the imperfect hands of the Children of Ilúvatar. True circle can only exist as a mathematical concept.

This made sense to Bilbo; of course even the best pair of compasses wasn’t perfect and even though elven hands were very steady…

“I could almost think that you are the, the geometrical perfection made into a ring and that’s why you are so irresistible. It’s almost like you break minds a little because they can’t comprehend something that is tangible and perfect both,” he told the ring, and maybe it was only his imagination, but for a moment the gold felt warmer against his skin and also startled, somehow. I don’t like you just for that, though, don’t go on thinking I’m shallow or anything! We have gone through a lot together and you helped me help my friends and this means a lot to me. You could be secretly a square pretending to be a ring and I would still love you for that.”

They had all lived in the end. It had been a bit of a touch and go with Thorin, Fili and Kili, but thanks to first Thranduil and Gandalf, who had arrived infuriatingly late. At least he appeared to have had a good reason for this and they had pulled through. Things between him and Thorin had still been… awkward, though. Not because either truly hold the other’s actions against him. Thorin freely admitted that the gold sickness had claimed him and that his conduct towards the destroyed Laketown had been abominable and Bilbo could objectively admit that the most important heirloom of the House of Durin had surely been terribly important to Thorin for reasons beyond its monetary value and it hadn’t been Thorin’s fault the thing had turned out to be madness-inducing.

Still, things had been said that could be apologized for and forgiven, but not unsaid. Things had been done that could have left Bilbo dead and while he had forgiven his friend, he had also been very happy to return to the Shire.

“I should probably go and visit Erebor at the end of this journey since the roads are safer now. Friends shouldn’t feel so awkward in each other’s’ presence; I’m just not quite ready to go yet.” And the ring almost-hummed again, like it wanted to tell Bilbo that he had all the time in the world.

What decided it in the end was an afternoon visit from his Hobbiton relatives. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins hadn’t deigned to come, no, and this was no grief; Bilbo had invited her only because if he had cut her in front of half the Hobbiton social circles, he would have heard of it in his own funeral. But Lobelia could decide not to come and she had exercised this right much to his pleasure. Every person who arrived sincerely liked him and only wanted his best. It was just that their opinion of his best was, well…

He had decided to host a dinner party because he had never realized how truly big the Bag End was, until now, when he was there alone. It was nowhere near the scale of the Great Smials where he had often visited his Took relatives, of course, but that was a huge communal family dwelling with literally hundreds of hobbits, family members and servants, coming and going at all times. For a single-family hole Bag End was remarkably large and remarkably empty. He had just gotten used to Fíli and Kíli fooling around, Glóin singing his family’s praises, Nori subtly annoying Dwalin, Bofur’s off-colour jokes and Bombur’s booming laughter, the rare angular phrase of Khuzdul from Bifur and Thorin’s almost as rare and almost as angular comments in the common tongue. Óin had always been asking loudly what everyone had just said – and Bilbo was sure that at least half the time the old man was just messing with them, as he certainly didn’t have any difficulty to hear commands in battle situations – Dori fussing and Ori protesting, Balin telling tales and everyone laughing (except Thorin) and singing and just generally making such a ridiculous amount of noise that Azog had probably followed them without needing to track them.

In comparison the Bag End had been empty and quiet. He hadn’t expected bawdy songs from his relatives, but… what had he expected, anyway?

His cousins Odo Proudfoot and Falco Chubb-Baggins were both there with their wives, his aunt Belba in her fine laces and starched, white, tight collar that Bilbo always thought had to be terribly uncomfortable, old Polo Baggins had come with his children Posco and Prisca. Posco had taken Gilly Brownlock with him and Prisca very clearly hadn’t taken Wilibald Bolger, but his presence could be felt in the dinner table all the same. Ancient Tanta Baggins nee Hornblower had come with her children and her granddaughter Dora was giving advice to any who would graciously take it. Young Drogo hadn’t brought Primula Brandubuck with him even though she haunted the table as much as Wilibald Bolger did and Dudo had arrived without a lady friend as well, but Bilbo rather thought that a matter of preference. Then there were the Goodbody cousins and Hildigrim Took’s children who had been visiting Polo and who had arrived as well. It was in hindsight much too many well-meaning relatives to deal with at once.

Not that Bilbo hadn’t tried his best. He had spread out the best linen table cloth he had and he had even gone to the trouble of picking and arranging rather good-looking floral arrangement. Bifur would probably have eaten it, he had thought as he put it on the table and felt wretched for a very short moment. He had prepared stuffed tomatoes, mushroom soup, roasted rutabagas with sage-mushroom gravy and herbed dumplings. He had even gone all the way out for the dessert and baked an eight-layered cake filled with honey and jams and several baskets full of tiny muffins.

The spread got many admiring sighs and earned Bilbo praises and soon they were all amiably gossiping about this, that and the other neighbour – all in good taste, of course, and politely between bites. But then the conversation turned to the people present.

“True, she seems like a nice enough lass,” Fosco agreed amiably. “But she is from Buckland and you can never be sure of what that lot gets in their heads. They even swim and sail with those flimsy boats when there is no need. Nothing good can come from that.”

“Well, mind you don’t go talking about Buckland folk and their odd ways without ever trying them,” Rosamunda Took said, reaching towards the tomatoes filled with thin slices of honeyed ham and steamed vegetables for seconds. “Like it or not, different people like different things.” There was a sympathetic look in her eyes when she surreptitiously glanced at Bilbo and he knew that she was trying to remind everyone that he was nowadays called the Mad Baggins without saying it out loud.

“At least she has been visiting her Boffin cousins a lot lately,” Old Polo sighed, giving Fosco a sympathetic look. Apparently there was something he had against the Bolger lad and Bilbo didn’t even want to know. “She may yet turn out all right.”

“I would thank you if you didn’t speak of Primula as though I wasn’t here,” Drogo said stiffly. Bilbo thought that he might need to do something outrageous soon like go to the Rivendell to meet elves to take heat off the poor couple.

“But what about our dear host, good Cousin Bilbo? Could you please hand the morel soup bowl here, grandmother? Thank you very much.” Dora didn’t say anything further as her eyes crossed from bliss as she took seconds of Bilbo’s famous morel soup, but the ways the females in presence – except for Rosamunda who continued to look pitying – eyed him made him wish to slip the ring in his finger and disappear.

“Didn’t poor, dear Marigold just cease to wear the black ribbon, Fosco dear?” Ruby Baggins asked and gave her husband a nudge. “To think it has been a whole year already.”

“It was such a tragedy to be widowed at such young age,” he spoke in a rehearsed manner, but Ruby didn’t appear to find it unsatisfying if the gleam in her eyes was anything to go by.

“Oh, the Midsummer celebrations are so soon,” Gilly Brownlock whispered dreamily, toying with a honey curl as she continued to give Posco such sweet looks from under her ample lashes that turned the lad’s face bright tomato red. In any other situation Bilbo’s heart would have melted from the sight of it, but now dread kept closing in like an iron band tightening around his heart.

“Didn’t you use to be sweet on Marigold when you were young, Bilbo?” Grandmother Tanta asked with that special manner of hers that promised unspecified unplesantries in the future if the person addressed dared to disagree with him, and. Oh dear.

Bilbo wasn’t certain if one kiss under the Party Tree when he was eighteen could count as “being sweet” but that wasn’t the point, it was that they were trying to marry him off! He was certain it was an entirely well-meant scheme to help him settle back and give him some respectability back, as well as wedded bliss and someone to keep him from running off again. And it wasn’t that he had anything against marriage as an institution; many people he greatly liked and respected were or had been married. It was just that marriage wasn’t something for him.

Marriage wasn’t something for two men. Young lads could fool around at it was looked upon as youthful foolishness they would later give up to marry and have children like everyone did. Everyone knew this was how these matters went. And sometimes there were married men, good friends who seemed oddly closer to each other than to their wives, and their wives appeared to be exceptionally dear friends as well, but that wasn’t spoken of. All but harridans like Lobelia and her henpecked husband Otho Sackville-Baggins respected that other people’s married lives were a private matter. This was something that could happen and usually these marriages even yielded a child or two for everyone to dote upon. But this kind of deceptiveness hadn’t ever seemed like worth it to Bilbo; if he couldn’t marry the man he loved openly, he wasn’t going to marry at all.

And if his relatives were trying to marry him off to a woman he really needed to run away on that walking holiday. Rivendell might not be far enough for his purposes.

***

It would be a mistake to treat the One Ring as a person. It could solve problems in limited realms, gathers facts about the world through its bearer’s mind, weight and consider various possible actions and predict which action will be most successful based on its previous experiences. It had the capacity to learn, to change, but it was above all alien consciousness, a splinter mind of a greater whole, austere and bare of everything unnecessary like feelings; it wasn’t a person.

Not yet anyway.

The One Ring wasn’t quite baffled with its new bearer because bafflement is a feeling, but it had never encountered a mind like this before and it suffered a lack of point of reference. No-one was incorruptible when subjected to a great enough compulsion over a long enough time, but if one was willing to anthropomorphize the ring, it could be said to be surprised by how genuinely little evil this being’s soul harboured. Its task would have been so much easier had it been able to ensnare of the greedy, susceptible dwarves as its bearer, but its own nature had worked against it and Bilbo Bagging of the Bag End had kept it hidden from their eyes.

The hobbit didn’t yearn for riches, only for comfortable living and there was enough in the Shire that even the poorest could live in relative comfort – and Bilbo wasn’t poor. The best and worst he could manage for any living person was the lazy kind of resentment he reserved for his cousin-by-marriage and trying to fan those flames into violent impulses would be almost impossible. He wasn’t a lustful man, living truly chastely as a bachelor, his biggest dream at the moment was to write a book and he had never once in his life taken pleasure in standing higher on the social ladder of the Shire than the most. He didn’t even want to force the entire Shire to bow down on his vision of what the perfect country should be like, to let him take a lover in peace, but merely vaguely wished that the world would be a more understanding place. He valued food and cheer and song above and while these dreams were simple to the point of being pathetic, they were also very hard to twist.

But finally the ring had found a way. Bilbo Baggins still wished to travel and see lands where no hobbit had visited since the settling of the Shire. There was a thirst of knowledge he didn’t recognize yet, a driving force that would steer his steps to south and east. Besides, he very much wished to avoid his relatives’ machinations despite his lack of resentment.

The ring understood causality, the chain of action-reaction, and it could apply this to emotions, but it had never before had to seriously contend with love directed towards a living person. What did it matter if those machinations were done out of love? What was it about “love” that seemingly made everything if not out-right acceptable, then at least tolerable?

It knew of love, of course. It had memories, memories of the justification Sméagol-Gollum whispered to itself, deep in the caves, made-up recollection spun from denial and obsession before even those were buried, forgotten.

If I ever was dying of sickness, really dying and no hope about it, I'd want you to kill me. That way you could remember me forever and I would want to give it to you. Maybe it could be my birthday too.

The ring knows obsession, but it only knows of love. Love was a two-edged sword; it could drive people to terrible, foolish excesses, but it could also fetter, give restraint, give strength beyond all reason and expectations. Love had great worth in the measure of the Children of Ilúvatar, it was something to beg for and fight for, to have and to hold and to hoard. It could be possessive and dark, it could be selfless and giving and it all attempts at categorizing. It made no sense.

The One Ring couldn’t hate, but if it had the capacity, it would have hated when things made no sense. If only Bilbo hadn’t felt the obligation (annoyance/fondness/forbearance/panic/loyalty/LOVE) to hold back when it sang to him of a world where he wouldn’t have to run away from his own house because a marriage offer was put on the table, if only he hadn’t held back so much he couldn’t hear at all.

Bringing this charade to an end would have been a lot easier had its Master still resided in the Mirkwood. The Ring wasn’t at the moment in any way connected to its master – it would have returned to His possession a long time before this had it been able to tell where it was – and so it would have to tempt Bilbo into walking across the undoubtedly hostile Plains of Gorgoroth and to venture into the Barad-dûr. Mere curiosity wouldn’t be a motivator enough to accomplish this.

“I could almost think that you are the, the geometrical perfection made into a ring and that’s why you are so irresistible. It’s almost like you break minds a little because they can’t comprehend something that is tangible and perfect both,” its bearer had said, admiring it in his hand, and the Ring hadn’t ever dealt with such insight combined with such lack of power. Its allure had nothing to do with its dimensions, but it was a perfect circle and this was the first time any of its bearers had realized this.

Then again, two people probably didn’t make a good representative sample and its two previous bearers had been a grief-maddened, power-hungry man with little mental capacity to spare and that – thing. Sméagol-Gollum had been illiterate from the start and wouldn’t have recognized the concept of geometric equations if one had developed an anthropomorphic personification and greeted it. What the Ring had made of it in its attempts to force it to move out of the mountain it had hidden itself within… maybe it should be more careful with its new bearer.

“You could be secretly a square pretending to be a ring and I would still love you for that,” Bilbo Baggins had said to it in earnest seriousness and the Ring chose to advance carefully. If it caused the man to develop an obsession on the concept friendship due to an unfortunate association like Gollum had developed one with its delusion of a precious gift from a beloved friend, there was a chance that this being would become too damaged to be of use as well.

***

The most important thing to understand about hobbits is that the greatest of the great that they can accomplice is not because they are inherently good, but because they are inherently hobbits. What happens when an almost irresistible force meet an almost unmovable object?

Some are, of course, move unmovable than others even in their change.

***

In a two or three hundred years when all those who had taken part were dead – except for the elves, who were not going to die as long as nothing cataclysmic happened – what would they remember of Bilbo? Perhaps his name would linger tagged to the end of the Company, he who was accepted for his lucky number, probably a very controversial character and dwarven scholars would argue about his motives for stealing the Arkenstone and had he been in the right or wrong to do so.

Once Bilbo the Intrepid Scholar would have thought this to be all that mattered; the historical facts, the writings that endured long after the people they told of were dead and dust in their graves. But now he wasn’t so sure anymore.

After giving his maps a close look and some thought Bilbo had chosen to take the southern road from Hobbiton that would take him through Sarn Ford and later join with the Greenway, becoming the Great North-South Road of the Arnor of old and maybe travel as far as through the Gap of Rohan. The land beyond the mountains looked beckoning on the old, yellow paper, inviting. Surely no hobbit had travelled that far since the settling of the Shire.

This time Bilbo took time to settle his affairs in the Shire and let people know where he was going to avoid a second return to the auction of his own smial. The Sackville-Bagginses complained that he should just let them have the Bag End if he didn’t thrive there and Grandmother Tanta kept making clucking noises at him, but Bilbo kept his head. The Gamgees could look after his house when he was gone and hopefully when he returned everyone would have decided that he was a hopeless case and would let him be that eccentric old relative in peace.

The journey from Hobbiton to Sarn Ford was sunny. Bilbo didn’t hurry, travelling at his own pace and resting whenever he felt tired, eating long lunches under the gentle midsummer sun. Not very big lunches, mind, because he was aware that food would be scarce again after he left the Shire and it was best to get used to smaller portions now, but there was a trick to fooling himself he had eaten more than he had by eating slowly that he had learned travelling with the dwarves. The Shire was beautiful as always, full of green, rolling hills, vineyards with half-ripe berries swelling in the sun, honey farms where mysterious bee keepers worked with thick veils covering them from head to toe so that a lad couldn’t be told apart from a lass and fig trees ripening their green figs. The Shire’s was a plentiful, gentle kind of beauty.

But Bilbo had learned to appreciate another sort of beauty as well and once he crossed the waters of the Sarn Ford his heart felt lighter as though it was filled with bubbles and feathers and the slightest of breezes could lift it up into the air. There were a lot of small streams between the Brandywine River and the Fork of the Road, full of vividly coloured pools of often almost still water which are punctuated by busy waterfalls not taller than Bilbo was. Here and there bare ridges of stone rose from the thick, tangled thickets and coarse grass like white bones of some ancient dragons. With a spring to his step and a half-formed melody in his ears, Bilbo started putting words together as he marched on.

“Hmm-mm, ring a round a pond cold, pockets full of troll gold, travelling, travelling to southern lands,” he tasted the words on his tongue, rolling them, trying them. A merry rhyme to sing for little faunts, very good. “Splash through a green shoal, climb up a steep knoll, hmm-mm, expands, expands of hinterlands.”

This was when several wagons appeared from behind a curve of the road, previously hidden by a thick copse of willows and a small hill. The wagons were driven by various dwarves in bright red, blue, yellow and green clothes that… were probably dresses. Bilbo had never before seen a dwarf woman except in the miniature paintings Glóin had carried of his wife, but these were apparently a whole caravan of them. Bilbo stepped politely to the side of the road to allow them to drive past him, wondering if they were maybe a group of merchants on their way to the Shire. A few of those had passed through the lands of hobbits in his memory, though he couldn’t remember ever seeing women.

Then again, prior to his own journey he would have assumed that beard equaled a man so that alone was no guarantee. Many of the women driving the wagons and peeking from them were wearing a mail shirt over their colourful clothes and a weapon on their waist as well so that might have contributed to the confusion as well. Bilbo waved to them politely when an imperious voice called out.

“HALT, everyone!” The slowly moving line of wagons and carts pulled by ponies and oxen came to an immediate halt and a figure climbed down from one of them.

Bilbo’s jaw dropped a little; his first thought was that this was Thorin. The second was that no, he wasn’t – she wasn’t – but damn if looking at her wasn’t disorienting. The woman dressed in dark blue and shining steel was very tall and very regal. Her face wasn’t what Bilbo´s mother used to call conventionally beautiful, but it was striking, demanded attention, drew the eyes like a tailor’s magnet drew stray pins from under tables and coaches. Her hair was black and adorned with fine, thin four-strand braids and her beard was short, but thick and strangely fitted her better than a bare chin would have.

“How long a way is it from here to Bree? Will we make it over the course of this day?” she asked Bilbo without bothering to give her name.

“Bree? I am sorry, ma’am, but this road takes you to the Shire. You must have taken a wrong turn somewhere,” Bilbo said, wondering how she possibly could have taken a wrong turn when there was only one fork of the road with two possible paths. “Bad sense of direction is a family trait, isn’t it?” This caused the woman’s shoulders to tighten and her back to straighten even further and her mouth thinned in an alarming way. Many of the women Bilbo could see were reaching for their waist or back in a way that was probably supposed to be stealthy.

“What do you presume to know of my family, Master Hobbit,” she barked, and oh. She even said “hobbit” in that exact same way Thorin used to before Azog and briefly after the Arkenstone incident.

“I guess I just assumed you are somehow related to Thorin son of Thráin, ma’am, you look a lot like him. I as Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, at your service; I travelled in your relative’s company.” He gave her a respectful bow and was rewarded with a throaty, un-ladylike laugh.

“Master Baggins, well, if the world isn’t as small as that handkerchief you used to whine about if my brother’s letter was accurate. I am Dís daughter of Thráin, at your and your family’s service.” She gave Bilbo an imperious nod and her companies immediately relaxed. Little heads started to peek out of the wagons as well, chattering to each others in that guttural, angular language Bilbo had previously only heard from Bifur’s mouth if the classical “Baruk Khazâd, Khazâd ai-mênu” didn’t count.

“I didn’t whine, ma’am, it was a legitimate concern,” Bilbo said with as straight as face as he could and Dís laughed again. It was a pity, he thought, that Thorin didn’t laugh more.

The dwarven caravan on their way to Erebor set up a camp there and then and Dís invited Bilbo to dine with her. He learned that she had gone to a south-eastern settlement to collect the dwarrowdams left behind to protect their homes when their husbands had marched to the Battle of the Five Armies and now they were all on their way to their old home. Dís in turn learned that Bilbo wasn’t making his way to Erebor, but to Rohan just because it was there and he wanted to see what the land looked like.

“I have been there before. A lot of grass and horses,” Dís said, not sounding particularly impressed. “Will you help us to reach Bree before you continue on your journey, Master Baggins?” she then asked with a cheerful tone that told Bilbo she clearly expected the interrogative tagged to the beginning of the sentence to be only a polite formality. A part of Bilbo was well and truly annoyed and wanted to point out that Bree was to the opposite direction of his way and besides, he hadn’t signed in as her local guide.

But she was a sister of the friend Bilbo fully intended to make up with – one day when he felt ready – and it wasn’t as if he was on a schedule. The Gap of Rohan wouldn’t disappear with the moonlight if he got there a day or a few later.

“Of course, ma’am,” he said and told himself it wasn’t a bad thing at all. He had missed the rowdy company of dwarves, hadn’t he? Well, here was a whole bunch of them as if delivered by some strange magic.

And the dwarrodams, as they informed Bilbo was the proper way to call them, proceeded to prove that they were indeed just as good at rowdy as their male counterparts. The afternoon slowly turned into a starry evening and the women kept dragging huge branches of willow into high piles that would make bonfires rather than merely fires. The night started relatively slowly, but as the children kept nodding off and falling asleep wherever they happened to sit down, the stories got raunchier – if the laughter was anything to go by, Bilbo didn’t understand and wasn’t about to ask for a translation – and a barrel of ale was rolled out of one cart, followed by another a bit later.

“Here, take this,” Dís commanded and handed Bilbo a huge mug that had to be the size of a pint. “You have never tasted anything like dwarven ale. That watered-down wine the elves drink is nothing in comparison!” Bilbo knew that the wine was only watered down when offered to guests because it was so ridiculously strong, but he kept this to himself and took a mouthful from his mug. It was really, really good.

After that the night became a blur of events. There was a dwarrowdam with fiery red hair tied in four thick braids, dainty little moustache and terribly scarred face. She was wearing a white blindfold over her eyes and Bilbo was pretty sure that she didn’t have eyes under it. There was a huge bowl of sausages between them and she was doing these little twists with her face; up and down, up and down, Bilbo and sausages, Bilbo and sausages. Could she see or not?

“You are very good at being disturbing,” Bilbo said, and he never would have said that if he hadn’t been so drunk, but she just laughed. Her name was either Prill or Brill, but he didn’t remember which.

“I know, I’m doing it on purpose,” she said with low, melodic voice. Her voice was as beautiful as her face was scarred. “I bet I can eat more sausages than you!” Her laughter was as beautiful as her voice.

“A competition!” one of the older boys who had been allowed to stay awake and even take a little sip of ale crowed. “Auntie Bríl and Master Baggins are having an eating contest, someone count the sausages!” The sausages were counted and then one was removed so that the end count was twenty-nine and there could be no tie.

“I am the winner of the Great Pork Chops Eating Contest of Hobbiton three years in a row, minus last year because I ran away with Dís’ brother,” Bilbo bragged.

“And I am the Queen of the Sausages,” Bríl declared. “I rule with a sausage as my scepter, you can’t win.” And the contest was on.

The sausages were good, very good. There were tiny white and red peppers mixed with the meat the burst into flashes of oh-so-hot at every bite and the divine sausage-maker, whoever she or he had been, hadn’t been a miser with garlic either. Little drops of grease were running down the corners and Bilbo’s mouth and his fingertips became slippery. He begun to feel really hot as well, but if he had paused to take off his waist coat, Bríl would have gained lead on him.

“Five, six!” the dwarrowdams were counting around them. “Eight, ten!

“And sixteen! Bríl reigns supreme again,” Dís called finally, and indeed, Bríl had won him by two whole sausages.

“I bow before your macni-magnifcat, never mind, greatness,” Bilbo said and bowed where he was sitting while the blindfolded woman whooped and did a small victory dance, falling down on her bottom very quickly as her foot slipped on the dewy grass.

Sometime later, though it was difficult to say how much time, Dís dragged Bilbo a bit to the side. She was giving him the best Evil Durin Stare that Bilbo had ever seen and considering some of the looks Thorin had given him that was really impressive. Her eyes were like sharp steel iced over.

“What do you think of Bríl?” she asked without preamble. “Is she pretty to you?” Maybe it was because of the plans Bilbo’s relatives had hatched to get him married just a week earlier, but Bilbo immediately understood where she was coming from.

“No, but she doesn’t have to be, I mean, being pretty is better than not being pretty, but she is fun. But I, uh, like men.” In Shire he never would have been that forward and in the company of humans he wouldn’t have said that at all because they really didn’t take these things well. Usually he would have, well, not said it even to a dwarf because he didn’t know what their take on the subject was – though it would have explained something about Nori always bothering Dwalin at least if it was some strange form of flirting. But Dís’ eyebrows were communicating I am seconds away from castrating you, you may beg now really effectively and Bilbo’s mouth just ran away with him.

“Well, damn, and I thought I was good at telling,” Dís mused with a surprising sedate voice. “Did you mean it when you said that she doesn’t have to be pretty?”

“Yes, I mean, everybody likes good looks, but I know a lot of handsome lads who are complete donkey’s behinds. Bríl is nice. And she is the Queen of the Sausages and if I played with her feelings she would probably decat-decapitate me with a plate or something,” Bilbo said.

Sometime even later when Bilbo was already feeling pretty tired and wanted to find his pack and bedroll somewhere, idly wondering how the kids were sleeping in the middle of the ruckus, he sighted Dís climbing up one of the stone ridges rising from the grass and moss. The stars above it twinkles gently, appearing at first only white little pinpricks of light, but then turning blue and golden, red and silver in his eyes. He gazed up in wonder for a short moment until he remembered that Dís was climbing the rock ridge and ass-backwards drunk.

“Hey, come down from there!” he shouted in mild panic, afraid she would fall and break her neck or at least a leg.

“And there is singing and dancing, hmm, and ale and mince pies all night long,” Dis was singing as she stood up on the top, spreading her arms for balance. “Come drink with me so it will be all right, if I can’t sing when I’m drunk, making ballyhoo all the night.”

“Come down, please! Is anyone sober enough to climb up there after her?” Bilbo looked around desperately, but only few of the faces around him actually looked worried. Bríl was one of them and pretty sober-looking actually, but she couldn’t climb; just his luck.

“You can’t make me!” Dís hollered with all the might of her impressive lungs. “If Bríl’s the Queen of the Saus-sages, then I’m the Queen of the Mountain! I am the Queen of the Moooo-untain and you are a stuffed maaaa-ntle!” she sung and made a few steps that could have been generously interpreted as dancing.

“Mountain doesn’t rhyme with mantle, Lady Dís,” Bríl protested and looked almost straight at the hopping woman. This was when Bilbo begun to laugh. He had to wrap his arms around his stomach and still he bent in half, guffawing with tears in his eyes because Dís looked so much like Thorin and… Oh, Vána be praised, Thorin!

And just like that Bilbo knew that it would be all right. When his steps eventually took him to Erebor he would go to see Thorin and he would make it as private as he could because he had some good hobbit sense left in his head. And with the clarity the old tales told of elven premonition he knew that he would look Thorin into the eye and helplessly burst into laughter again. At first Thorin would be confused, then he would get offended until Bilbo explained. Afterwards he would he would be gleeful to hold something over his sister’s head so that he wouldn’t even realize right away that Bilbo had laughed because he had imagined him dancing drunkenly atop a rock face in a dress.

It would be all right. They could be friends again – more importantly, friends in the same geographical location.

Once Bilbo had wondered what they would write of him in Khuzdul that no-one outsider was ever allowed to learn, for only the written facts would endure. But now he thought that maybe friendship also endured, kindness that was passed down the line like a flower chain. He had agreed to help Dis and Dis had thrown him a nice party in return and maybe Dis would be nice to someone else in turn because she felt good and he knew he was going to visit Thorin one of these days and that would make Thorin and the Company happier if no-one else. And if the king unbent enough to be happy, well, that would surely made at least some people’s jobs easier.

Friendship also endured. And now Bilbo was forever going to have the picture of almost-Thorin dancing atop a rock face singing about how she was the Queen of the Mountain, and really? Some things were cheap, like sleeping under the stars even when the stars were hidden by a heavy layer of clouds and it was raining cats and dogs. Some things cost a lot of time and effort, like trying to keep a certain bull-headed dwarf king and a certain equally bull-headed elf king from strangling each other over the negotiation table. Some things, like abandoning all that it meant to be a respectable Baggins of the Bag End and chasing after thirteen dwarves and a wizard without even a handkerchief to his name, were entirely worth it.

And then there were things that were well and truly priceless.

***

That night, in his dreams, Bilbo wasn’t alone.

He was sitting by a fire, across the fire facing… someone. Or something; he couldn’t see, or couldn’t seem to look, like some force turned his eyes to the side.

“You have forgiven,” a strangely familiar voice stated. “Why did you forgive?”

“I forgave a long time ago; I only now started feeling comfortable.” There was pressure building behind Bilbo’s eyes that threatened to bloom into a terrible headache.

“You feel comfortable because Thorin’s sister made you laugh?” was the following question. The ache increased, like some tiny dwarf was hammering his skull with a tiny hammer from the inside.

“There is nothing that a good laugh cake can’t, if not make better, then at least put into a perspective. And I got a precious memory.”

When Bilbo woke up his head ached so fiercely that just moving a single muscle above his collarbones sent white-hot daggers of pain down his neck and spine. He had clearly drank too much the night before, but he also a feeling that he’d had a restless night, nightmares, but when he tried to remember it all melted away in the morning sun like the thinnest film of ice over a pond. All that was left was a strange feeling and few fleeting impressions.

“I'm not like you,” someone said softly. “You don’t know me.”

“You are not like anyone, but you don't appear contagious.”

Laughter.

***

The ring wasn’t capable of self-denial and thee truth was clear: its understanding of its bearer’s mind was abysmal. It could not understand Bilbo Baggins at all and it experienced an intense need to change this that, had it been just a bit differently-tones, would have been hate of not understanding things; even more so when its capacity to coax and coerce its bearer to journey across Gorgoroth hinged upon understanding how his mind worked.

Maybe it had gotten too complacent in its place as the center of its bearers’ world. When Isildur son of Elendil had carried it, The One Ring had reigned as a king on its throne in his mind. In the world of Isildur’s dreams it had been a terrible monarch with nails as sharp as needles, one eye the murky gray of grief and the other blood-shot, watery green of I-should-know-better, its voice so sweet and its touch so painful. It had been so good Isildur had wanted to die in its arms. In the end, it had been an easy desire to fulfill. The king reigning over Gollum had had sharp teeth made of half-forgotten memories and cold, slimy hands covered in fish scales that gave cold comfort. Its name had been Precious then and Gollum had crawled before it in supplication and licked its toes – but had still refused to leave the dark caves.

The ring was not the king in Bilbo’s mind. In fact there was currently a civil war fought in the dark recesses of his mind between losing King Seedcake and ascending Queen Adventure and the ring had been demoted to the position of the treacherous advisor.

It didn’t understand feeling because it didn’t have any and so lacked the ability to put itself into the position of another. It could mimic to elicit desire and fear, shame and hate, but it acted upon rules it had learned without understanding. Like it had driven Gollum into inventing memories of Déagol, it had driven Isildur into tormenting himself with made-up memories the king had well known to be false and yet craved, of Elendil cutting him with a knife below the collar bone where the scar would be hidden by the clothes, of telling Isildur that he had done it so that his son would forever be marked by him because he loved Isildur. The ring had combined the desire of acceptance and approval with shame and need to be punished masterfully.

It couldn’t do the same to Bilbo. It didn’t understand why.

But the ring was not beat yet; it resolved to understand what it was that made Bilbo Baggins Bilbo Baggins even if that was the last thing either of them ever did. Even if it had to learn what attribute of love fettered and what made a memory without the contrast of tragedy precious.