Actions

Work Header

Love Pays No Indemnity

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

If Bilbo had known to ask Gandalf a few specific questions, he would have received several very interesting answers. When a person receives an item of power by any means, Gandalf might have said, it matters a lot what they first do with it. There is a door to every person's innermost self, that which is most vulnerable and most sacred, he might have said, and that door is never shut from begin with, but how open it is varies depending on the character of the person.

And this first action matters.

Isildur had taken the One Ring after it had been explicitly made clear to him that its continued existence allowed Sauron to continue to exist, however diminished the Dark Lord was at the moment. Sméagol's first act had been the act that made him the possessor of the ring; a murder, a violent theft of a pretty trinket that glittered so beautifully in the sun.

It was a gift, he had argued, a gift from Déagol to him, it should have been a gift, Déagol had been sick and it had been a gift to Déagol and even if the birthdays got jumbled, one replacing the other in his mind and then they were switched again, well, he wasn't quite sane at that point.

But Bilbo had seen a cowering, mostly naked, almost skeletally thin being huddling so near the sunlight and yet afraid to step into it. The being, Gollum, had tried to kill him, wanted to eat him, would eat him if given the chance, but at that moment he had pitied it. He had pitied the poor thing that was miserable, alone, lost in a mountain full of goblins much stronger and much more violent than it, he, was. This pity mixed with horror, a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of any better, of hard stone and cold fish, had passed through his mind in a flash of a second. He had trembled.

And he'd had mercy. He hadn't killed the poor creature when he had every reason to do so and in his mind a door had slammed shut so hard the shock of it had echoed through the ring's mind for weeks. By the time the echoes ceased Bilbo had already left Mirkwood, left the dreadful shadow lingering over it.

Nudging that door open again turned out to be a confusing, time-consuming business.

***

Bilbo Baggins, formerly the Very Respectable Baggins of the Bag End and now a Considerably Less Respectable One, was wet to the bone. He was huddling inside Mistress Bríl's wagon, but it was windy and the rain rushing in through the front had long since rendered him very, very miserable indeed; he had almost forgotten this part of adventuring.

Not that this was an adventure, but a walking holiday. Really.

"It always rains in Bree," Bríl moaned, wrapping her shawl tighter around her shoulders. "Every single time I have arrived to this miserable town it has rained." Even her blindfold was drooping lower and Bilbo could see that indeed there was a deep-looking shadow where he should have been able to see the eyelid. The sight of it raised a very uncharacteristic wish to kill someone within him.

Watching the incoming line of rain on the horizon had been a wonderful experience that Bilbo was sure he would appreciate a lot more after time and the fallibility of memory had dimmed his current misery. The veritable wall of rain quickly approaching over the open terrain had been backlit by the sun, a curving curtain of bruised colours in front of the blazing orange sky of sunset. The farthest horizon had disappeared, the cloud had been dark and magnificent; just the kind of weather to look at from behind a window.

"What is your business here?" a cranky voice asked from somewhere ahead. Dís answered to the inquiry with less than patient manner, but maybe the guard was just that intimidated – or didn't want to stand in the rain arguing the matter. The wagon Bilbo was travelling in jerked as the two ponies pulling it started walking again. Bilbo found himself greatly pitying the poor ponies.

"Do you truly lean towards men?" Bríl asked him without any preamble. Bilbo had to blink a few times and gather his thought to grasp the new direction of the conversation.

"Um, yes. I am sorry, I mean, of course I don't expect that you should have fallen in love with me just because we engaged in an eating contest together or anything, but, well..." What was he even saying? Bilbo dearly wished for the ability to sink through the floor of the wagon, even if there would most likely be a puddle underneath, but Bríl only laughed.

"All the good ones. Still, I would be proud to call you a friend," she said with the gravity that Bilbo had already become very familiar with. Becoming a friend wasn't a casual matter to the dwarves and even less so when it was with someone who was not a dwarf.

"I am honoured to call you a friend," he spoke solemnly and took her hand in his. They were sitting both on the small space where her bed was made, between a pile that was apparently a dismantled loom and several crates.

"Can't you be any less sappy?" Brimbur, the boy who had declared their eating contest, asked from behind a pile of crates; he had been sent to their wagon by Bríl's sister and while he hadn't said it, Bilbo was certain that he had been separated from his younger siblings because of getting into a fight.

This was how Bilbo Bagging came to visit the town of Bree. When he had arrived to the Laketown he had thought it to be a disorderly, dirty, badly managed place; partly this might have been because of some of the stray comments of Bard that the man had apparently thought perfectly normal statements, but after meeting the Master of the Laketown Bilbo hadn't wondered anymore. Well, he had wondered what the Master's name had been as the man had died without Bilbo hearing it once, but that seemed oddly befitting the man and wasn't the point anyway. Laketown had been a dingy place, but Bree was just plain... depressing. Maybe it was the rain. No place appeared at their best when it rained, Bilbo knew, but somehow he doubted this was all there was to the sight.

He had never been towered over by so many tall people with so little care of personal space. Neither the elves nor the men he had met previously had just walked towards him, clearly expecting him to be the one to dodge if he didn't wish to be walked over. Of course the men and elves he had met had either been sober or at least sitting down while nodding off from drinking too much. The Prancing Pony was entirely too full of inconsiderate Big People and while the local hobbits apparently expected it, stepping to the side without even thinking, Bilbo wasn't too impressed by the manners displayed.

A little hobbit waitress brought a cup of tea and some kind of pastries to the table Bilbo and Bríl had commandeered. He had at first considered ale like most of their caravan, but he could still remember the hammering of his head after the party and decided that it would be much wiser to pick something soothing and above all non-alcoholic. Bilbo was almost sure that Bríl had shown off her empty eye sockets when he was looking the other way – the group of men trying to sit down with them had cleared away just that quickly – but he didn't have proof because when he turned she was had already picked one of the strange cookies up and was trying to gnaw on the end of it.

"How do you even eat these?" she asked. Bilbo tried a cookie of his own and found biting down on it was akin to trying to bite a rock.

"Maybe we need to soak them in the tea first," he proposed. At least they had come free with the tea, he thought. He wouldn’t have wanted to pay for them.

"I think I could put an eye out with one of these things," Bríl said and turned the piece of hard dough in her fingers. Maybe it was an indication of just how much Bilbo had changed during his journey to Erebor that he thought the joke amusing rather than tasteless.

"These are too dull as they are; you would need to sharpen it first," he said and plucked his own cookie into the tea. The silence on the other side of the table made him look up again to find her regarding him thoughtfully.

"You really don't pity me," she said with a wondering voice, and only now Bilbo realized that she had expected him to start to sputter at the part about... putting an eye out. Vána, he was really dumb, but at least it had worked in his favour now.

"You don't need my pity," he answered simply. The truth was that she had his pity, whether she wanted or needed it or not, and pity wasn't a shame, it was a sign of a decent nature and a sign that there was something wrong in the world that didn't in any way, shape or form reflect badly upon the receiver. But Bilbo knew much, much better than to tell a dwarf that he pitied them. Everyone always said it was important to be honest, but in Bilbo's experience there were these things that he should agree to disagree with and just not say a word. He wasn't about to hurt Bríl more than she had already been hurt just to prove a point. People were unnecessarily prideful a lot of the time, but that didn't mean that their pride getting hurt didn't, well, hurt.

Soon he felt the need to relieve himself and Bríl admitted to the same, and they left to search for an outhouse together. They asked from the hobbit lass who had brought them the tea and she adviced them to go to behind the inn. This was where their tread came to a screeching halt, however.

Bríl was the one to cease her tread first, her ears keen, but when Bilbo looked to the way she appeared to be turned to he saw one of the human waitresses at the inn. She was pressed against the brick wall of a neighbour building with her skirts lifted up and a man he didn’t recognize was pounding into her. Bilbo felt for a moment as if someone had punched all the breath from his lungs; he wasn’t completely innocent to the ways of men and had even heard rumours of hobbit women in Bree taking up this profession but this was the first time he had actually seen it. He felt that he could have lived without ever seeing it.

Then the woman opened her eyes and looked straight into Bilbo’s and he realized that they had been discovered. He opened his mouth, closed it again and retreated with an arm on Bríl’s to guide her. The waitress only winked at them, then rolled her eyes in a way that was probably meant to be dramatic, but in truth only made her look sort of demented; it was a good thing that the man’s eyes were closed, Bilbo thought numbly

“Oh yes, please YES,” she moaned. “You are so good, like, like a stallion? No, like a mighty, robust rabbit in a spring, so strong, so ample and horny, so lusty, give it all to me!” She was biting her lower lip and suddenly Bilbo was certain that she was holding back laughter. Suddenly he remembered Beorn calling him a little bunny and a part of him wanted to die from the embarrassment there and then. The burn of it jolted him free from the freeze that had befallen upon him and moved again, dragging Bríl away with him.

“Did that actually happen to us?” he asked when they had returned to the Prancing Pony. His face was burning and his bladder still felt full as well, damn it all.

“It did,” Bríl agreed and giggled a bit. “I can’t believe the man didn’t notice she was mocking him.”

Oh, yeah, dwarves. No normal sense of shame whatsoever. Bilbo felt a sudden urge to hug her and there was no reason not to so he did. She was a bit shorter, but otherwise it felt a lot like hugging Fíli or Kíli.

***

The One Ring had often manipulated the minds of those that touched it or even saw it, but this was the first time it had manipulated its own. It had previously witnessed the feelings of its bearers, deciphered them, interpreted them, played with them, but for this manipulation to become complete it needed a deeper understanding; it needed to know what it felt like. And so it left itself open to the mind of Bilbo Baggins in a moment that it deemed reasonably safe, a sense of camaraderie born out of an embarrassing situation experienced together and memories only one of the two had being the catalyst.

A good metaphor for the impact of the raw, unfiltered feelings its bearer experienced would be being hit over the head with a hammer.

The sheer intensity of laughing with a friend was such that it had to disengage from the new contact. Having completed this action, the ring felt regret – regretted the necessity of the action. Bilbo’s mind was difficult to influence even under optimal circumstances and having been forced the cease the experiment, it didn’t know when it might be able to resume. The next time it would be the best to dim the influx of emotions to be better able to bear them – to analyze them.

Because the situation didn’t merit exceptionally violent depth of feeling and Bilbo clearly didn’t think his emotional state to be out of ordinary, thusly it appeared that the emotional intensity of hobbit at least – and possibly other mortals – was always so great. It was curious, the way a person, when encountering a situation where the other person or people were not embarrassed by their actions, still could experience the shame that was not even there as their own, the way shame could almost physically burn. The interplay of fëa and hröa appeared much more fascinating after truly experiencing it, even if it had been second-hand. This required further study.

***

They returned to the inn, Bríl still sniggering and Bilbo feeling terribly embarrassed, deciding to wait until the woman returned inside rather than wait in the shadows and spy on the act. Now Bríl decided that she needed ale and Bilbo decided against it, ordering another tea and getting another cookie hard enough to use as a projectile weapon along with the cup.

“I think these are supposed to be tough – or else their cook is really, really horrible,” Bilbo speculated. In the table next to theirs Lady Dís was eating a pork pie that smelled absolutely lovely.

“Or maybe just really bad with confections,” Bríl speculated. She took a big gulp from her pint, but didn’t have enough time to finish it when the woman they had witnessed returned inside and looked around, her eyes riveting on the pair.

“Good evening, gentleman, gentladame, my name is Ficilia. May I sit down with you?” she asked and then she was already sitting on a chair next to Bríl’s so that she was facing Bilbo over the table. She had tied her previously loose brown curls with a red string and her dress was almost without wrinkles. “You almost made me laugh, damn you two. A man’s ego can be so fragile, you know,” she continued with a reproach, her eyes twinkling the whole time. Even Bríl seemed taken aback by the waitress-woman-of-the-night’s casual friendliness, but soon they were at least talking with one another, even if the conversation was a bit stilted on Bríl’s part; Ficilia didn’t seem to mind.

“My shift is already over, of course. I couldn’t have met with the man otherwise, the owner doesn’t pay us to have sex on the clock. Would the two of you like to have a private party with me in your room? I get a discount on the drinks because I’m a worker here so I could place the orders,” she offered breezily. “Don’t worry, Mistress Dwarf, I’m not planning on stealing your man.”

“He’s not my man, he doesn’t lean towards women at all,” Bríl stated matter-of-factly and Bilbo winced in expectation of the shrill, scandalized protest that was certain to come. But while Ficilia looked surprised, she didn’t look angry at all and Bilbo started to foster hope that they might manage to avoid a fight; he knew better than to think that Lady Dís would allow anyone to attack him or throw him out of the inn without raising a very violent protest and her sword very much looked like it had belonged on her belt for a very long time.

“Well, ashes and husks,” Ficilia snorted and gave Bríl a look that looked like she was very sorry for something to Bilbo. “But you are lucky that no-one was listening in on this because that isn’t something that should be advertised in Bree. People think that two men together is a terrible perversion, you know. Two women together, of course, are merely exiting and naughty.” Her whole face was briefly arranged to spell I Am Not Impressed. Bilbo was impressed that her eyebrows could do that.

“You don’t think I am perverted?” he asked hopefully. He had always been told to expect little from the race of men.

“I know something about perversion, little mister. I have a frequent client who really likes to be whipped with a dead fish. At least he is willing to procure them, for I would not put up with it if I was expected to buy them as well.”

Bilbo’s jaw dropped open. He had understood every word she said and the grammar structure of the sentences was clear enough, but something in his mind still refused to make sense of what she had said. Whipped with… dead fish? And the scary part was…

“So, will you come with me? I will get us all ales,” Ficilia interrupted his train of thought and Bríl, for the sake of new green, said yes. Bilbo winced and agreed to ale as well, concluding that the fate was clearly out for him because this was not a conversation he wanted to have while sober.

They wound up in Lady Dís’ room instead on the one Bilbo and Bríl were staying at because that one was also housing Bríl’s sister-in-law and her three children. Dís’ room wasn’t one of the “hobbit rooms” that were usually also given to dwarves, but one made in human scale. Bilbo had a feeling this might be because in his eyes the bed was luxuriously huge – and it was a single bed room. He had to admit that if he had travelled in a wagon caravan with the rowdy bunch he would probably have yearned for some privacy and quiet as well. (Not that he could tell by the way Dís was partying downstairs with said rowdy bunch.)

“Are you sure it is alright that we stay here?” he asked Bríl as Ficilia walked in, balancing a tray with three pints and an unidentifiable bottle on it. It was old, green glass with a kind of twisted-looking neck and Bilbo wasn’t certain that Ficilia had paid for it instead of just taking it without permission; it looked like it had collected dust in some dark cellar corner for the last fifty years, completely forgotten.

“It’s fine, she isn’t going to come up until long after midnight. This is the last chance to have some fun before we reach the Laketown,” Bríl waved his concern away as she hopped on a high chair. It had been made of pine planks, as had the rest of the furniture, and the pale wood peppered with dark spots gave the room a funny, playful appearance.

The way she moved fascinated Bilbo. She had walked to the room with her arm wound together with his, but once in the room, she had started making clicking noises with her tongue. Surely she couldn’t tell what things looked by the echo?

The ale wasn’t as strong as dwarven ale, but well good enough for Bilbo, and whatever was in the bottle was strong and sickeningly sweet. He was slowly sipping it from the tiny cup it was served in when the talk turned to men – and more importantly Bilbo’s tastes in them.

“Someone intelligent,” he said, trying for the first time put his mostly instinctive thoughts into words, to form a list with qualities to be ticked off. “Nothing is more frustrating than trying to have a conversation with a dumb person. It would be nice if they were literate as well, or at least willing to learn.” His longest relationship so far had been with Filibert Took, one of his many, many second cousins, and he had been sharp as a whip and well-read by the Shire’s standards. Bilbo was in fact a little surprised to find himself thinking of Filibert after such a long while. He had worshipped the ground below Filibert’s feet, hoped so dearly that he would agree to go walking down the lane openly like any normal couple and crushed when he had chosen to court lucky, lucky Melilot Clayhanger for the lucky fact of having a womb, but it had all been over twenty years ago. Yet he felt a small pinch in his heart when he remembered how Filibert had whispered to him that he wanted to travel to visit the elves and read through a real library one day, a library with books older than the Shire was.

Filibert had never gone to see the elves. Bilbo had seen both Rivendell and Mirkwood and that left, what, the Grey Havens where Cirdan ruled and Lórien? Maybe he should visit one or the other as well and this time spend some time in the library as well and see if he could learn Sindarin a little better.

“…do you hear, Bilbo?” Bríl asked him, waving at the direction of his face, and Bilbo made a startled sound. “I think you were a hundred miles away for a while there.”

“It isn’t that long a journey to Tookborough, you know,” he protested amiably. “Someone who doesn’t care too much about what people will say. But no second Thorin Oakenshield! I don’t want someone who would sing a chorus of “of course, dear” and “you are right, dear” because that would drive me crazy, but please, for the sake of all that’s holy let it be someone I can reason with without being beset with the impulse to strangle them.” He loved Thorin a lot – the kind of love he felt for a dear, dear friend – but that didn’t mean that Thorin had always made it easy to like him. Bilbo hadn’t even known that it could be possible to love and dislike someone at the same time before he had met Thorin.

“Was that all? What about their looks?” Ficilia asked while Bríl was trying to not choke in her own hilarity.

“Someone who doesn’t nag at my habits. And I like dark hair, blue eyes – and they should be taller than me.” Hey, he never claimed that Thorin was ugly! He just didn’t want his own home to be the field of an unending battle over the importance of teatime and Sindarin books and whether or not the word “compromise” was important to learn for the sake of a healthy relationship.

“So that is all? What if the man you loved turned out to be really weird and kept skulls as decorations or something?” Bríl asked.

“As long as it was orc skulls I would be fine enough with it. I could use them as vases for my flowers and at least the Sackville-Bagginses would be too scandalized to visit us,” Bilbo quipped, rousing a bout of laughter from his companions.

The talk soon turned to their families. Bilbo could honestly tell that he loved his, but they were a bit too much sometimes, especially when they were absolutely certain that they were acting in his own best. In return Ficilia told Bilbo of her own, her dead parents and her widowed big sister who was working long hours as a seamstress to support her two sons.

“Felicia’s a nice woman too, nothing like her rapscallion of a sister,” Ficilia laughed and even though her voice didn’t sound strained at all Bilbo found himself frowning. If Ficilia hadn’t overwhelmed him like she had, if he hadn’t been in the company of Bríl who had obviously found this a splendid way to spend an evening, he would never have deigned to speak with the woman. After all, Ficilia was a woman of the night, a lady with loose apron strings, a slovenly girl – a whore. And her other morals probably weren’t that high either if she had really stolen the sweet drink, but it wasn’t like Bilbo had protested drinking it so he couldn’t claim that much high ground. And Nori was a self-admitted thief and his friend besides. Ficilia was just a person like everyone else; not the best person there ever was, maybe, but who was? Bilbo wasn’t the best person he had ever known either.

Bilbo felt an intense sense of pressure and wondered if moral quandary felt like this when drunk. Then he realized that he still really needed to go to the outhouse and felt kind of dumb.

“I must go out for a short moment,” he said, mindful that there were two women in presence, even if said women weren’t precisely delicate flowers. He turned back at the door, some macabre curiosity forcing the question from his lips against his will. “Um, Miss Ficilia? When you spoke earlier of that client of yours you specified that he liked being whipped with dead fish. That just sounded kind of unnecessary to me because of course I would have assumed that any fish involved would be dead, so… Does that mean that someone likes being whipped with live fish?”

“Do you really want to know?” Ficilia asked with a crooked smile. Yes, Bilbo wanted to say, but his nerves betrayed him and he ran from the door with his face burning.

***

That night Bilbo didn’t dream of much anything at all. There was a short dream of pruning his sweet pea trellis back in his garden that felt like a real memory and then a confusing dream where he was travelling with Filibert and Thorin and they encountered a dragon, but this was a small one, barely the size of a big horse, and it had tame wargs that served them all a nice lunch.

He remembered something about a dragon serving lunch when he woke up and didn’t pay it much attention.

***

It was raining when the time came to say goodbye to Bríl and Dís. The sun was shining as well, for the clouds were thin and ragged on the sky, but it was raining regardless. The drops shimmered with sunlight as they came down and in this magical light Bree looked a lot less dingy, a ragged kind of lovely even; it was like a wizard’s trick. Bilbo was tempted to catch the rain on his tongue, but he was mindful of the people looking at him.

“Remember to visit or I am going to be very put out with you,” Dís said gruffly and caught Bilbo in an embrace that crushed the breath from his lungs.

“I will,” he managed to pant and patted her on the back.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Bríl said and Bilbo hugged her. He really hoped that she could find someone in Erebor, someone who would look beyond the scars and the lacking eyes and see Bríl.

“Take care of yourself. If you meet any spiders in Mirkwood, say them hello for me,” he asked.

And then all that was left to do was to watch the dwarves depart from Bree. Bilbo found himself worrying, wondering if Dís would ever find her way to Erebor when she had managed to get lost on a straight road with a single fork… But the mountains were clear in the horizon, surely she couldn’t fail to get to them? And even Thorin had managed to find the way to Erebor in time for Durin’s day, some unexpected detours aside. Bilbo sighed, caught a few drops on his tongue just because and left to buy himself some supplies for his long journey to the Gap of Rohan.

Damned Ficilia. He never would have thought the name in any way perverted before meeting her, but the way she had chortled when he had told where he was going had ensured he could never forget.

He was making his way through the market, picking raisin bread and hard cheese for the journey, when his feet took his to a small shop near the corner of it. The sign over the door read Felicia Seamstress and it seemed like it could use some new paint. Bilbo walked in and the little bell above the door rang merrily.

“Good day to you, Master Hobbit, how may I help you?” a woman asked from behind the counter where she had been sewing something that looked like a pile of fabric to Bilbo’s inexpert eyes, but would probably turn out to be a shirt or trousers when it was ready. She looked a lot like Ficilia, though her chin was softer and her eyes didn’t look anywhere near as piercing. Bilbo hadn’t even realized how piercing Ficilia’s eyes had been before he looked into Felicia’s.

“I would like to buy myself a new coat for my journey,” he said. He could spare the expense easily and Ficilia had hinted that her sister was hurting for money.

“If you are going to go on a journey, you should buy a good raincoat," Felicia said and carefully put her craft to the counter, walking to one of the racks in the room and picking something hobbit-sized that looked like the cross of a coat and a cape to Bilbo. It was ready-made, but it looked like it would fit him well enough. “Feel this raincoat? This was made with shepherd’s wool. It wasn’t stripped clean of all the grease before making it into yarn and the weave is tight, that keeps the coat warm and waterproof.” The wool did feel different from normal to Bilbo’s touch and the fabric was surprisingly heavy for something made of simple wool. It appeared to be very tight weave indeed.

“I am taking it, Mistress Felicia. Is this enough?” he took a single gold coin from his pouch and put it on the table. Most of his gold he had sewn into his clothes so that if he was robbed he wouldn’t lose it, but he had kept a few coins in his purse for the bigger buys he might have to make, a pony if he didn’t feel like walking anymore, for though silver pennies would be enough to buy one in a town like Bree, Rohan would probably be more expensive place for such purchases. And Felicia’s eyes turned so round they started to resemble soup plates.

“I am very sorry, sir, I can’t give you change for such a big…” Her hands were twisting her skirts.

“It’s okay, keep the change,” he said and her jaw dropped. “And I’m no sir, but simply Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. When you meet Ficilia the next time, say her hello for me and buy her something nice.”

Bilbo Baggins left Bree wearing a raincoat made of shepherd’s wool. It kept him very warm indeed and even almost wholly dry despite the rain intensifying over the course of the day. It felt like friendship.

***

Three days into his journey down the Great North-South Road, in his dreams, Bilbo wasn’t alone.

He was sitting in the dark of the night, 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.

“Why would you give a stranger gold to make another stranger happy?” a strangely familiar voice questioned him. “Ficilia is a whore; she is below your notice.”

“She is a person! She has her bad points and her good points, she was friendly to me when she had nothing to gain from it – she was nice enough.” Bilbo had a feeling that he wasn’t explaining this very well, but for once he couldn’t force the words to flow from his tongue.

“She is a whore,” the whoever repeated like that was enough to win any argument.

“She is a person and I like her even if she is mortally embarrassing. I’m sure she only does what she does because she must to do that to live and everyone wants to live. What part of this is so difficult to understand?” Bilbo asked, feeling like there were two separate conversations going on even though the two of them spoke to one another.

Who was this person anyway? Why couldn’t he see?

“What is a laugh cake” he asked and Bilbo did a double take.

“What is a laugh cake?” he repeated. It was not a cake he had ever heard of before, and where did cakes enter the conversation in the first place?

“You are the one who mentioned a laugh cake making it so that everything could be put into a perspective,” the voice claimed. Bilbo couldn’t remember when he would have made such a claim, but people often forgot their dreams…

Oh, he was dreaming. Things made more sense now.

“Maybe I was drunk, or you could have been drunk,” he proposed. He had a dim memory that alcohol had been involved at one point or another.

“I am incapable of getting inebriated.”

And when Bilbo woke up startled by an unexpected noise he didn’t remember his dream. Dreams were always confusing anyway and there was – or might be – a very real threat about.

***

The One Ring carried memories within it. Not all of Mairon/Sauron/Gorthaur’s memories, of course, for it was made of but a splinter of a whole fëa. But along with the power it carried and the very possible Doom of its Master it carried it carried memories. Memories of fire, memories of war, memories of pain.

Memories of humiliation.

For as long as the ring had existed it hadn’t experienced what it recalled; how could it have, when it was made to be but storage and an amplifier of force, not a person? But even a brief brush with shame had left a sting behind, a pale shadow of something bitter to swallow. There had been an all-encompassing desire for power once. Why he/it/the originator had chosen to serve Melkor/Morgoth was not a memory that had been passed over, but after the ill-made decision the want for power had driven Sauron to such desperate lengths that he had knelt at the feet of a cruel enemy and master, demeaning himself and speaking oaths of the loyalty of a deceiver if only so that he could stay in favor with one that could have destroyed him without a second thought.

He/it needed more power, more and more and more until all who lived would be begging and pleading for his nonexistent mercy and licking his boots for a change. There would be no-one left who could bend him to their will, not even the Valar! No-one would ever again witness him as one deserving of pity!

It. Him. Why was its identity so muddled now?

Gorthaur he had been named, the Cruel, but never had he inflicted a torture on another that his Master hadn’t inflicted upon him first because he had done something wrong or had done something right without a direct order or had failed to do something right without a direct order or because the wind happened to blow from the south-east when the moon was full or just because… The One Ring knew that Sauron would never willingly be under another’s power again.

Pity wasn't a shame, it was a sign of a decent nature and a sign that there was something wrong in the world that didn't in any way, shape or form reflect badly upon the receiver.

Everyone wants to live.

The One Ring was disturbed. For the first time in its existence it could say that it was honestly disturbed, for not only did it fail to understand its bearer, but the memories it carried were warring with the new information it was learning. It was…

Maybe this was the fascinating interplay of fëa and hröa it had observed before, but it felt as though it was being torn apart even when it lacked a corporeal form that anything but the Mount of Doom could damage.

***

The fire had burned to dying embers when Bilbo woke up, startled by an unexpected noise. He immediately jumped up from his bedroll even as he blinked sleep away from his eyes and he reached for his sword. He had learned the hard way that unexpected noises in the wilds could herald an orc party as well as they could a rabbit dying at an owl’s claws.

“Peace, Master Halfling. I mean you no harm.” A man stepped into the circle of the dim light Bilbo’s campfire still gave.

His hair was terribly unkempt. Bilbo couldn’t help but notice this even as he was aware that his own hair probably wasn’t much cleaner after three days without a bath. His face was grim and his clothes were dark, but Bilbo’s eyes were very sharp at this point – for he had been taught by the hard school of life to be observant – and he noticed that, one, the man’s hands were far from his own sword; and two, the only adornment he wore was a six-pointed cloak-clasp in the shape of a star made of silver. That star caught his attention for some reason; Bilbo couldn’t understand why it was such an important detail, but he felt that it meant something very significant.

“Good night to you, Master Human. And if in the future you would refer to me as a hobbit I would be grateful, for “halfling” is a rather disparaging term. Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, at your service.” He gave a bow that a dwarf would have been proud of and moved his hand away from his sword, but also moved it closer to the pocket where he kept his ring.

So far the man hadn’t done anything suspicious, but better safe than sorry. His sword was about as long as Bilbo was tall.

“I apologize, Master Hobbit. I am Háldir son of Húnir, a Ranger of the North. I seek your hospitality for the night,” the man spoke and didn’t try to further approach Bilbo. It was a little galling to notice how clearly he was trying to not scare him, but also reassuring. Bilbo opened his mouth, about to welcome the man out of habit and good manners, when he looked the man into his eyes and couldn’t look away.

It was something almost elven. Well, “elven” in and of itself was not a good descriptor, for this was akin to something Bilbo had seen in Lord Elrond’s eyes, but not in King Thranduil’s. And it wasn’t quite the age-old wisdom and, and Light that shone in Elrond’s eyes that had made Bilbo immediately like him despite his stern face, but still something similar to that. Maybe it was foolish of him, but suddenly Bilbo was certain that this was a good man.

“Be welcome, Háldir son of Húnir. I could share the leftovers of my dinner if you are hungry as long as you care to cook the breakfast,” he said and the way Háldir’s face turned into a picture of befuddlement at his sudden turnabout of attitude amused Bilbo much.

Chapter Text

Sometimes the experiences that define the future of a person are clear-cut and easy to define after the fact. A life experience summarized neatly as a moral to be learned, something usually not obvious beforehand, but easily recounted afterwards, when the person learning can tell what precisely changed their life so drastically. Sometimes it is a grand moment or an instance of real life imitating a tale, something that follows the dramatic arc of a classical story. People like this because they like it when things make sense. They like it when things are story-shaped.

And sometimes the lesson will take the form of an epiphany making a guerilla attack, sneaking closer and closer behind mundane annoyances and seemingly irrelevant details and striking without warning.

In his mind Bilbo was composing a poem. It had started out as a simple rhyme for little faunts to sing to one of the age-old hobbit tunes, but now it had taken a decidedly weird turn.

Far beyond the hills yet out of sight
Came dwarves with wagons thirty and nine
They wanted to reach the town by night
Yet below a pine they now will dine

Wild is the journey through the barrens
And the roads of the Arnor Lost so long
Far must the ladies steer their wagons
But their voices are filled with song

Would you not
Dance around a pond cold
Pockets full of troll gold
Meeting, rejoicing
In the empty lands

Come with us
Splash through a green shoal
Climb up a steep knoll
Travelling expands
Of hinterlands

And below the pine the dwarves party
For the night is long and company good
The Queen of Sausages is hearty
The Queen of the Mountain in great mood

In the town a party awaits as well
For long and hard is the road ahead
And ill can be seen where there is will
An ugly heart can always descry dread

The last verse didn’t quite work; the transition from a party to come to ill preconceptions was too sudden and Bilbo felt that he should maybe handle the latter in a verse of its own. There was no metre to the poem that Bilbo knew of and it was eccentric to say the least, wouldn’t make any sense to anyone who didn’t know the details of his journey – but then, he was eccentric as well so at least it fit him well. The two verses he had first made could maybe become a chorus, repeating thorough the poem. Now that last verse, maybe it should be something about how it was raining outside, but inside it was warm, or…

***

The ring was beginning to think that just maybe it should try and tempt Bilbo with the chance to become the greatest and most acclaimed poet of the Middle Earth. The time and effort he had put deliberating whether he should rhyme long with song – because that was clumsy and obvious, but also worked so well – was ridiculous.

But in this the ring had reached a limit. It was a consciousness created from the splinter of a Maia, second in infamy only to the Vala he had once served. Bane to a king of men, so terrible and powerful that an elven lord had been too scared to try and take it from Isildur to throw to the flames, lest he be taken like Isildur had been. It was a true kingdom destroyer. It was ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul – one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, the nameless and the greatest!

But it had no artistic talent and while it could have bound the minds of the Children of Ilúvatar and forced them to love Bilbo’s poems, it understood that this wasn’t what Bilbo wanted at all. What could it do when the fulfillment of such an ambition would have hinged upon honestly meeting high standards? The ring knew that a change of some sort had come upon it and recognized it as wish to be able to change Bilbo, to make him desire to be a great smith rather than a poet because then it could have at least provided him with technical skills if not advanced sense of aesthetics. It desired the ability to do something even though having that ability would make the action unnecessary.

How unexpectedly illogical. And from some recesses of Bilbo’s memory a fragment of a phrase rose to the surface, without context and without clear connection to the situation.

…like getting a little bit pregnant.

Never mind. If only the man travelling with Bilbo would catch a sight of it, then the whole dilemma would become moot.

***

For a week’s time Bilbo travelled down the old, almost disappeared road and Háldir didn’t leave his company. The ranger claimed to have no set destination at the moment and Bilbo rather believed him, but he was also certain that the man was travelling with him to keep him out of trouble. In the time since their first meeting he had begun training Bilbo in the way of his dagger-sword, since while Bilbo had gone through a lot and happily shared his tales, he hadn’t at any time been formally trained in the use of his weapon.

“Sting is a well-made sword, but even Narsil itself wouldn’t save you in a fight if you didn’t know how to use it,” Háldir stated the first day when they had stopped for lunch. Narsil of course wouldn’t have been any good for Bilbo, for he had seen the shards of the sword in Rivendell and it had clearly been much too long when it had still been whole, but that wasn’t the point. Bilbo was a bit of a slow learner, to be sure, overcautious of accidentally cutting his teacher in a way that tended to result in clumsiness, but Bilbo was certain that once engaging in actual combat, that wouldn’t be an issue. He had never fought anything or anyone he hadn’t very much felt like hurting after all.

Bilbo also learned that the man had someone home, wherever that home might be, waiting for him. Háldir claimed that it was nothing decisive yet, but he was carrying a miniature picture of this Hallonith in his pocket and that told Bilbo something. She appeared to be a lovely-looking lass with brown curls and háldir’s grin had turned very silly when he showed the picture to Bilbo.

”Why do you seek to pass through the Gap of Rohan?” Háldir asked him as they walked on. It was a clear day and Bilbo felt like he could see miles around him, though he knew that was an illusion. The terrain around them was full of low hills and narrow valleys that, while rather shallow, were still well-hidden by the tall grass that the late summer’s heat hadn’t yet burned brown.

“I want to see what Rohan is like,” Bilbo answered. “I have never been to the south-east before and one place is as good as another, I suppose. Anywhere until my family decides to just treat me as the kooky old relative and stops throwing widows at me in the hopes that concussion will lead to true love.” Granted, he was exaggerating his family’s efforts here… but he couldn’t understand just why he felt so desperate to journey to unknown lands, only that they were there and he wasn’t – yet, anyway.

“I have never before seen a hobbit with such wanderlust,” Háldin said and gave Bilbo a look from the corner of his eyes that Bilbo was surprised to recognize as worried. He gave the man a crooked grin and got a shrug that might have almost been called sheepish in return.

“I know that you are resourceful, but you are still smaller than any opponent you might come across; now that I have begun to accompany you, I feel obligated to continue,” the man explained and Bilbo hoped that the heat he felt rising to his cheeks and the tips of his ears didn’t result in visible blush.

He blamed Ficilia for the whole thing. If she hadn’t asked him to explain what he found attractive in men he wouldn’t now be so terribly conscious of just how attractive a man Háldir was. He was a well-read man; just the other day he and Bilbo had spent many hours arguing about the merits of the narrative poems of Elhadron – Bilbo’s favourite – and the elegies of Miluinaer – allegedly very, very good in the original Sindarin and the translator had butchered his works terribly – and both of them had enjoyed it greatly. And Háldir was surprisingly soft-spoken man, considering his rough looks. Bilbo could just feel his fingers itching to dress him in some proper clothing.

And he was good-looking as well, as if to prove that life wasn’t fair to Bilbo at all. Granted, the man was a bit too tall for his tastes; coming up to a man’s chest was exiting, but the waist was just plain silly. However, he had shoulder-length dark hair that Bilbo would have taken for black if not for the walnut highlights that direct sunlight brought out and he had a feeling that after a good, long soak, some soap and proper brushing it would look just plain spectacular. The man’s eyes were blue as well, wonderful light blue that could usually only be seen on young children.

“Like a little bit pregnant,” Bilbo muttered, wondering why that phrase had come to his mind now. But it fit the situation – Háldir’s words and his own musings both. “My father used to say that whenever he was talking about someone attempting to do something just a little.”

“Involving yourself only a little in the business of a stranger, my dear Bilbo, is like getting a little bit pregnant. Soon the consequences will run away with you,” he imitated his father’s voice, feeling a slight twinge in his chest. How long had it been when he had last thought of his father? It seemed like his life was so full of important, time-consuming things now, but too full?

“I guess that is true. No offense meant to you, Master Baggins, but I feel responsible for what happens to you now,” Háldir admitted with a short laugh. His whole countenance seemed to brighten when the corners of his mouth tilted upwards and it was Bilbo’s opinion that he should laugh a lot more than he did. It just made him seem so warm and open and, oh, darn it all to the smelters!

And that was a real, ancient dwarf curse. Really. Lady Dís had assured little Halgdis so and surely the daughter of Thráin's word could be trusted? Thusly, darn stupidly attractive, stupidly straight Háldir and this Hallonith with lovely brown curls and their "understanding" to the smelters all.

Bilbo was trying to come up with something to say when Háldir suddenly came to a halt, raising his hand warningly. Bilbo ceased his tread immediately and turned his face towards north-west like Háldir, listening to the sounds the slight breeze carried the best he could. And then he could hear it too; something that could have been the hooves of a pony or a horse beating against the ground and something that most definitely weren’t wolves, the sheer malice the distant sound still managed to ooze destroying all illusions of that.

"Wargs!" Bilbo spat. Memories flashed across his mind almost too quick to follow, of desperate run across all-too-open territory with the taste of blood in his mouth and his heart beating so hard his vision threatened to darken, of the smell of burning pine and guttural orc language threatening Thorin, of cold, rushing water and helplessness as arrows were flying above their heads and hitting the wooden barrels with dull thunks, of terrible shouts and howls, muddied ground and blood and terror and hope that his friends would stay inside the mountain where they would be safe and war.

Where wargs went, orcs were sure to be found as well. He had thought the orcs and goblins of the north decimated, but apparently there were still enough stragglers left to bother honest people.

"I see a man on a white horse," Háldir claimed, and Bilbo could see something whitish appearing atop one of the hills before disappearing into the crevice, out of their sight - soon followed by brownish-gray flashes. Bilbo counted five before they had all tumbled out of sight and he was certain that there were some more. "Could I interest you in hiding now that you still can?" Háldir asked with a hopeful tone.

"No, you can't," Bilbo said steadily and pulled his sword. Sting was shining blue, and while the effect wasn't as striking in sunlight as it was in the dark, it was still impressive.

"A sword forged in Gondolin," Háldir breathed reverently, his blue eyes reflecting Sting's light. Bilbo could almost read a reflection of the script etched on the blade from his irises.

Then there was no time left for reflection. When the rider came to sight again, Háldir waved his hand and the rider changed his course immediately. Bilbo managed to sight seven wargs, four of them with riders, and that wasn't precisely a fair fight, but he consoled himself with the thought that they might have all carried riders. Now the wind carried not only the howls and the hoof beats, but also oddly chill chiming of bells, like the ground could frost over from the sound of it, and then Háldir drew a sharp breath.

"That is no man," he said. "That is an elf."

Bilbo couldn't see it yet, but he took the man's word, and that was - that just wasn't right. Bilbo liked elves and he admired elves, and while Thranduil had made a less than favourable impression on him at first, he had helped to heal Thorin after the Battle of the Five Armies and that counted for a lot in Bilbo's books. Elves were ancient and wise and the thought of someone who might even be old enough to have seen the first sunrise ever dying because of a straggler pack like that had caught him by surprise... No!

He ran after Háldir to a hilltop with some minimal protection; a few trees and some tall stones that rose from the grass like fingers. Bilbo took a few deep breaths, reminding himself that he had been trained for this and besides, it couldn't probably be worse than what he had gone through already. Then the rider was with them and jumped down from his horse, sending it running with a single sharp command.

"Brasseth will draw a few of the riderless away," he explained with lyrical, heavily accented voice. His sword, Bilbo noted, was already black with foul blood; maybe those riderless wargs hadn't all been so in the beginning of the chase.

Then the fight was upon them. Two wargs with goblins astride on their backs jumped at the three defenders, but almost quicker than an eye could see, the elf jumped forward and slashed to both sides with his sword. One of the wargs fell down with such a pained scream that Bilbo full expected it to die immediately, but the other still managed a few stumbling steps. The orc jumped off it and Bilbo quickly darted past it to stick Sting into the side of the wounded warg to ensure that it would stay out of the fight.

The orc hissed, and began to circle him. Bilbo waited for him to attack first. He didn't want to wait, not at all, for he could hear clashes of metal on metal ringing through the air and the growls of orcs, telling him that the ranger and the elf were both fighting many opponents and still any of the wargs could jump at him from behind at any moment - but he knew that charging an opponent so much bigger and stronger with his current skill level would have been foolishness.

The orc was the first to lose patience and charged at him. Bilbo's elven blade caught the goblin's curved sword and while pain flashed up and down his arms from the force of it, he managed to deflect the blow harmlessly to his left. He wasn’t certain he could block a second blow like that, but he didn’t have to. Bilbo slipped past the orc’s grotesquely long arms, then planted his feet and used his whole body to get more power to his own blow as Háldir had taught him, swinging his blade up and to the right, at the place where there was a hole between the orc's chest plate and the chainmail that was hanging from it, untended and clearly much-suffered.

No dwarf would have been caught dead in an armour like that - or rather, they could only be caught dead in it and with a circle of enemies around them, Bilbo though in a confusedly manner. He felt like he was thinking very quickly now, or maybe it was the world around him that had slowed down; he also had the time to wonder if his blade would hit a rib, be deflected. But no! Bilbo could feel it twisting and slipping further in and slicing at something. He didn't know what it could be, the lower part of a lung or something else important, but the orc screeched and bent in half, dropping its sword.

This time following his friend's advice rather than practical teachings, Bilbo swung his blade up and to the right, at the place where the goblin's head met its neck. There was a moment of pressure on his already pained arms and for a moment Bilbo feared that his blade would slip from his hands. But Sting stayed true to him and to its ancient makers and the orc fell to the ground, black, foul-smelling blood spaying over the green ground. Bilbo hadn't been strong enough to sever his head from his shoulders, but he had managed to hit the artery.

He breathed a sigh of relief and turned back towards Háldir and the elf only to find out that they didn't need help at all. They had felled the rest of the orcs already and made quick work of the last wargs as Bilbo watched.

***

A fight against orcs. A fight against orcs and the ring hadn't had a chance to betray its bearer because the accursed hobbit wouldn't put it on! Was it truly that difficult to comprehend that being able to attack an enemy unseen was a useful thing? It burned, as though a lick of a tongue of fire…

It burned? For a moment that could have been as long as an year or as short as the heartbeat of a frightened hobbit – what was time for an immortal entity after all, the ring measured it only by its bearer’s perception of the duration of the indefinite and continuous unfolding of events – the One Ring teetered on a precipice. Then it fell into an empty hole where an emotion should have been, but wasn’t.

No, there shouldn’t have been any emotion; it wasn’t afraid by the intense frustration it had felt, for it wasn’t capable of fear. But it shouldn’t have been capable of frustration either. Hadn’t it cut the contact it had managed to establish with its bearer? That the feelings of shame and comradeship could echo within it given sight stimulus, ghosts of true feelings haunting its mind, it could find plausible – but frustration? It had never experienced the sensation that could have created ghost-echoes. There was no active connection beyond what was normal. The ring did not experience what Bilbo did, thusly its bearer wasn’t actively influencing it; that was impossible. And once the impossibility had been discounted and the facts had to be acknowledged – it had experienced an emotion independently of Bilbo – whatever remained, however improbable, must be acknowledged as the truth.

The brief moment it had experienced Bilbo Baggins’ feelings as his… as its own had changed its mind and this change had escaped its immediate notice.

It wasn’t capable of fear – yet anyway – but suddenly the ring was certain that had it been capable, it would have trembled. It had been forged to be an agent of corruption, not something that could be corrupted in turn.

How fascinating. This merited immediate further self-reflection to pinpoint and destroy the corruption – after thoroughly examining it, of course.

***

The simple joy of still living rushed in Bilbo's veins as his hear kept fluttering in his chest. The sunshine that revealed the ugly scene of the battle so clearly, so mercilessly, was much brighter than before and somehow the stench of unwashed orc bodies and death that lingered over the hilltop contrasted the scent of the grass and the kicked, black earth, making it more pronounced. They still lived, all of them, and the orcs were dead. Bilbo had to blink his eyes to keep them from watering.

"How are you?" Háldir was quick to ask him and now Bilbo found himself fighting a stupid grin.

"I am fine, thank you, though I think that if I don't stretch my arms this evening, they will hate me come tomorrow," he admitted, rubbing his right arm carefully - and it had been just one blow that he deflected - as he looked Háldir up and down. There was a lot of black blood on him and a little tear with a hint of red around it near his elbow, but other than that, he didn't look hurt.

"I am fine as well," Háldir said gently. "I think that it is out new friend who needs the medical attention most.”

The elf was ever-beautiful, of course, in that ethereal elven kind that left Bilbo feeling like he was watching a snow-topped mountain at sunset; something grand and intimidating and, well, genderless. He was almost certain that the elf was a man, but he was happy that he didn't have to guess.

"I am Haldir Faimenion, marchwarden of Lothlórien, at your service," he, Haldir, spoke as his white horse galloped back up the hill, the sound of the bells tied to the reins now much gentler, joyous even. No wargs appeared to follow her, much to Bilbo's gratitude.

"I am Háldir son of Húnir, likewise," Háldir spoke after a moment. The elf-Haldir quirked a single, elegant eyebrow in response.

"I am Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, at your service," Bilbo spoke and looked from Háldir to Haldir and back again. "This is going to get very confusing very quickly."

“Indeed,” Haldir said distractedly as he went over the bites or claw marks on the poor horse’s sides that would need to be treated. She whinnied a little, but didn’t otherwise protest his touch. Her mane was limp from sweat and pulled to one side of her neck with a thick chain of honeysuckles that was miraculously intact even after the wild ride.

Soon Bilbo was brewing horehound tea for the pain because while Haldir might be willing to tough the aching of his wounds out, Bilbo didn't see what was the point of being in pain unless it was absolutely necessary. All the while he was watching intently as Háldir treated Haldir's wounds the best he could. Luckily those all shallow, but orc blades were often poisoned and always awfully dirty so lockjaw at the very least was a very real possibility. He would have expected an ointment made of goatweed and thyme, maybe little rose petals in the mix too, for the cleaned wounds, but Háldir was using kingsfoil instead.

Hadn't Kíli said something about Tauriel healing him with kingsfoil, though? Maybe the plant had potent medical properties; the thought amused him when he remembered how the farmers of the Shire cursed the weed that couldn't seem to cease growing in the most unfortunate places.

"One of you needs an epessë," he said out loud as he lifted the boiling kettle from the fire. They had travelled a little ways from the hilltop where they had battled as no-one had been too badly injured and the orc bodies had disgusted them all, but Bilbo was still glad from the strong smell of the tea. "Unless one of you has one already?"

Bilbo knew that elves were typically given two names at birth: a father-name and a mother-name. Because this didn't make things complicated enough already, many of them were also given an "after-name" as a title of admiration. He didn't actually know whether elf-Haldir´s name might be an epessë, in fact. Now what did Haldir mean again...

"I am called Rover in Bree," Háldir volunteered and Bilbo had to blink at that. They had given a dog's name to an honourable man like Háldir?

"You need a second epessë, badly," he managed to say. Rover? Seriously? Why not go all the way out and name him Spot if they wanted to be insulting?

"I have no epessë," Haldir said as if to make things more difficult because Bilbo was just flat-out refusing to call Háldir Rover. But something in the elf's tone made Bilbo give him a surreptitious glance and Bilbo realized that the elf was actually upset.

Something he had heard in Lord Elrond's house niggled at Bilbo's memory, something about how having an epessë was an honour and that an elf would usually be referred by it rather than his or her original names. Yes, it had been something about how Gil-Galad had been the big exception to that rule because usually it was the epessë that was remembered in songs and histories, but Gil-Galad wasn't really called Ereinion! So maybe this Haldir had done something that he thought should have earned him a suitably impressive epessë, but no-one had bothered? Well, Bilbo thought that what he had so far done had been impressing and if my some miracle he could just remember some of the Sindarin he had been reading...

Just give me a good name to grant him, he moaned morosely in his mind.

***

Just give me a good name to grant him.

The ring was violently jolted from its self-reflection. It had almost, almost managed to define, locate, recognize the source of the worrying anomaly and now it had escaped from its grasp, but it couldn't complain.

At long last Bilbo had made a request without a clear recipient within his mind and fulfilling it would give the ring a small measure of power over Bilbo. The hobbit was a fool to waste such a risk on such a frivolous request! An the possibilities of the request itself…

***

"Camaenor," Bilbo said out loud, the words surfacing from some deep place in his memories. Cam was skilled, maen was hand and the suffix or for a male; wasn't it a good name for a swordsman? "You are Camaenor," he decided.

There was strange weight to his words, like the elf sitting in front of him had changed in some subtle way. Maybe it was his posture, or just that Bilbo had felt strange ever since the battle, but Bilbo didn't think it was that. He was certain that he had somehow changed Ha - that he had somehow changed Camaenor in a very elementary way. It was like there was a fate hanging over the marchwarden's head now.

A small voice in Bilbo's mind reminded him that people with a fate usually ended up dead in the old tales.

"Camaenor," Camaenor tasted the name, rolled it on his tongue. His thin, elegant elven lips curved into a delighted smile, but this didn't change the bad feeling Bilbo got from the whole business. "I think I like that." And word once spoken was like an arrow let loose.

It could not be recalled.

***

After a while that could have been as long as an year or as short as the heartbeat of a frightened hobbit – what was time for an immortal entity after all, the ring measured it only by its bearer’s perception of the duration of the indefinite and continuous unfolding of events – the One Ring found two patches of flowers growing in its mind. The first was a thick, tangled shrub that crept low and flat, growing on the far edges of its memories of Thuringwethil laughing for a reason it didn’t know. The vines were crowned with flowers the colour of embarrassment and the leaves had little spots the colour of shared amusement on the underside. The plant smelled like wet hair and heavy pipeweed smoke and, for some reason, rosehip jelly.

But as the patch of flowers had spread, it had mutated. By the side of shame and adjacent feelings grew deep bell-shaped blossoms on top of long, bold stems in the gorgeous, rich colours of obstruction and anger. Those had long sword-shaped leaves with fire-hot edges and they smelled of green grass and black blood. They were growing on old memories of Celebrimbor, broken and bloody, yet defiant to the end, refusing to tell Sauron to whom he had given the three elven rings. An unlikely memory association existed between this memory and Háldir, a scion of the Dúnedain, refusing to take advantage of a far smaller, weaker person who carried the price of the Shire and all within it under his shirt.

Neither kind of flowers should have been there. The ring could understand the symbolism easily; a seed dropped on the ground had grown and bloomed, yes. It was the very fact that there was a symbol, a metaphor, that disturbed it – disturbed its calculations. The ring had worked extensively with metaphors in the past, but those pictures had been roused from the subconscious of its bearers. The ring had merely worked the easily moulded material with the tools it had been given.

The ring had only one level of consciousness. It had nothing to form these symbols with, which was the reason it could mimic reality skillfully, but not create art.

Yet the reality could not be denied. Not only illicit feelings, but metaphors alike had taken root in its mind. The ring made to uproot one of the bell flowers and

its bearer stares at the back of Háldir’s head, admiring the dark hair

“Miluinaer muses on the equality found in tragedy in many of his poems. There is not much to choose between the great and the humble, once they have both been put to the ground.”

How fine his eyes are, it whispers, how blue and clear, how strong his body, wouldn’t you love to see that strength bend and break for you, the coral of his lips, all the better to kiss and bite, it sings, why care if some inconsequential woman has a claim already and

Bilbo doesn’t hear, can’t hear, can’t allow himself to listen to it

And the moment was over. The flower was no more, but seeds had fallen from its disintegrated bloom. This threatened to be complicated.

***

What precisely Camaenor’s business so far out in the middle of nowhere was, he didn’t volunteer and Háldir didn’t ask. The elf only said that he was on his way back to Lothlórien from Rivendell and if the route he had chosen was an odd one, well, Bilbo felt guilty enough that he was following Háldir’s example and keeping his questions to himself.

In order to let his lightly wounded and very tired horse rest, he was travelling on foot along with Bilbo and Háldir. They didn’t travel far that day, only searching for a good place to set up a camp. Walking at a sedate pace it still took them rather long before they saw what even experienced Háldir and picky Camaenor thought to be a good place. It was a small circle of hollies next to a steep hillside that would offer shelter from the wind. The only difficulty was that just before the place the road was crossed by a stream that, as far as the map was concerned, shouldn’t have been there. There was no bridge either; the only way across it was on a thick log laid down over it.

“Maybe a mudslide has turned the channel of the river upstream,” Háldir said. The stream running through the natural channel between two hills wasn’t very wide, but it was surprisingly deep, seeming like it would come Háldir up to the waist – and Bilbo to the nose.

“It has not rained lately here, and no stream that I know of would easily divert its running this way,” Camaenor said with displeased voice and the look he gave the running water was, well, Bilbo could have sworn it was suspicious.

“Why would anyone turn the river to run across a road on purpose?” Bilbo asked, for he was almost certain that this was what Camaenor suspected.

“There are creatures of Dark that fear running water and would hesitate to cross eve a small stream like this,” Háldir said with carefully neutral voice. “But even a single log like this would of course make the protection useless.”

Camaenor didn’t answer, but simply crossed the log with two steady leaps, leaving Brasseth to cross the water without a hand on her reins. She was splashing water everywhere when Bilbo set his foot on the log and slipped almost instantly, planting one foot straight into the water. The cold, rushing water soaked his pant leg up to his knee, but he managed to scramble back onto the log. He made it to the other side in disgust and jumped onto the thick grass growing between the old stones of the road.

“You made it look so easy,” he said to the elf, and of course Háldir crossed the log without a slip as well. “I hate you both,” he said petulantly, making Háldir laugh. It was a very nice laugh, but soon he grew serious again.

“If there is a danger present, we should be informed of it,” he told Camaenor as they were setting up the camp under the hollies. “We are your unit for the time being.” Bilbo didn’t know what he meant by “unit” but he could see that it made Camaenor hesitate.

“My lady had sent me with a message to Lord Elrond. The lord of Imladris requested a favour of me; he has heard rumours of growing fear and hostility towards the elder in these parts over the last few years. He asked me to take the southern way past the mountains and see if there was any truth to the rumours, for he fears that such enmity might be the result of deliberate campaign. To what ends, though, I can not tell.”

“But why would anyone be hostile to elves?” Bilbo blurted out before he could still his tongue. The mere thought was simply incomprehensible to him. Elves were… elves were enchanting, plain and simple. They felt like warmth and trust to Bilbo, at least most of them. Thranduil had been more distant, colder, but no less… elvish for it. And besides, knowing what he knew of Thranduil, his terrible burns and having to live in a spider-infested forest with this Necromancer for a neighbour, it was no wonder that he wasn’t as gentle as Lord Elrond – who, Bilbo as Bilbo had seen when he had ridden with his men to Rivendell after fighting the orcs that had chased the company, could be rather intimidating as well when there was a need.

“Jealousy begets suspicion. We live forever after all,” Camaenor said with the same matter-of-fact tone he might have declared grass to be green and sky to be blue. And it was true that no-one wanted to die ever if it could be avoided, but Bilbo thought of Thranduil, of the terrible burn marring his face below the glamour.

“Being immortal just means that you might have to deal with two dragons over a lifetime, or even more, instead of just one or, ideally, none. It’s not a free lunch.” There was no such thing as a free lunch, Bilbo had learned. Everything had a cost.

Now Camaenor was staring at him like he was some previously unknown kind of mushroom. Bilbo shuffled on his feet, uncomfortable.

“You are a strange mortal,” he said eventually.

“I have found that Bilbo Baggins is a remarkable individual indeed,” Háldir spoke and gave his shoulder a playful shove, making Bilbo’s ears burn even hotter. Oh, he had to get to Rohan soon before he completely embarrassed himself!

Háldir told him to be careful when he offered to collect firewood – the little copse of hollies didn’t offer a lot, but Bilbo could see what he thought was the green shadow of a thick shrubbery just a few hills away – but Bilbo didn’t feel too concerned, to be honest. He had his ring after all; it had saved him many times already ad would undoubtedly be very helpful if they ran afoul a big group of hostile Big People suffering from elf envy. He pulled it from his pocket when he was beyond a hill and out of Camaenor’s keen sight, admiring the way the gold reflected sunlight. He felt the urge to put it on, but then felt silly. Wearing the ring had always made him rather cold and there was no threat to make it necessary now.

“With your help, everything will surely be alright,” Bilbo whispered it and put it back into the pocket of his waistcoat. But something was bothering him, if only he could get a bit better grasp of it…

There was no such thing as a free lunch. Everything had a cost.

A memory flitted through Bilbo’s mind, of dark forest and a worm-white baby spider, a long leg knocking the ring further away on the forest floor and the sheer panic and rage it had drowned Bilbo with. Bilbo couldn’t see what cost there might be, but he still felt uneasy. Would it be like with Thorin and the Arkenstone; crossing one of those bridges that you didn’t know you would have to cross until you were already crossing them and your legs were wet to the knees?

Then he shook his head and told himself he was being silly. And even if he could clearly remember Camaenor’s face the moment he became Camaenor, it wasn’t like Bilbo had the foresight and power of the great elves to give a gift that was both great and terrible instead of a name that he had somehow managed to scrounge up from the dusty corners of his memory. That thing at least had nothing to do with the ring. There was no use to cry over spilt milk and even less when none had been spilt. It wasn’t like him at all to be so superstitious.

He had just come up with a name that Haldir-Camaenor liked, that was all.

***

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

He was standing in a dark forest, as dark as the Mirkwood had been at midnight, and there was… someone else with him. Or something maybe; he couldn’t see past his nose and he had no idea where this person might be, but Bilbo was certain regardless that he wasn’t alone.

“What have you done to me?” an angry voice hissed at his back. Bilbo jumped up into the air and let out a very undignified yelp, his heart racing.

“What have I done to you?” he asked, turning around, but of course he couldn’t see anything more than the moment before. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“You have planted flowers in my mind,” the voice snarled, again at his back. Bilbo turned swiftly at his heels and the side of his head was caught slimy spider web, pulling it, sending vibrations far away. Prey here, they called out.

“I have done no such thing!” he protested. “I wouldn’t know how even if I wanted to!”

“The situation is not entirely uninteresting.” Cold fingers brushed against the nape of Bilbo’s neck. “That does not mean that I am not unhappy. You will…”

***

And Bilbo was nudged awake by Háldir. He remembered something confusing, quickly melting images of spider webs and hissing voices – not those nightmares again! – and at first he thought that this was why Háldir had woken him up, that he had cried out in his sleep. The finger that was pressed lightly against his lips disabused him of this notion quickly.

Were they under an attack again? It said a lot of what Bilbo’s life had been like since he had ran after thirteen dwarves and a wizard without his handkerchief that he didn’t panic even for a moment, half-awake as he was and roused from a nightmare, but listened carefully.

It wasn’t really necessary. Whoever the people sneaking upon the three travellers were, they were probably trying to make no sounds, but it was difficult to tell for certain, the way they stomped over rustling twigs and kicked little rocks as they advanced towards the camp. If these were orcs, they were the worst, most pathetic lot Bilbo had ever even heard of – no pun intended. Háldir had already set his right hand near the pommel of his sword, which he had laid down next to his bed roll, and Bilbo reached slowly towards Sting in a similar manner. He pulled it a minuscule, little but from its sheath, but the blade remained dim under the starlight. He couldn’t see where Camaenor was keeping watch, but he was certain that the elf was having a hard time keeping his face straight as he pretended to be ignorant of the approaching threat. Clever, clever Brasseth was equally silent and still.

“The guard hasn’t seen us yet,” someone whispered – and pitching a whisper to carry wasn’t a good idea now – somewhere nearby. A step, another, the rustling of heathers. Bilbo was tense, lying down, as inexperienced as the men sneaking up on them clearly were.

He didn’t hear a sound when Camaenor moved, but he heard the screams of the men, frightened by the suddenly alert guard. Háldir jumped up as well and Bilbo followed suit, but there was little need, for he could only see the dark silhouettes of the fast escaping would-be attackers disappearing deeper into the night. The moon was but a thin sickle, but the sky was cloudless and full of stars like living, blinking gems. Under their light and the dying embers of their fire Bilbo could see the shape of a thin, coltish man, probably little more than a boy sitting down with the tip of Camaenor’s sword resting lightly against the hollow of his throat.

“You are rather inexperienced and badly armed for a bandit,” Camaenor said, nodding towards the simple staff now fallen to the ground. His voice was pleasant and even, like they were discussing weather over a cup of tea.

“Please don’t eat me!” the man, youth, pleaded with wide, frightened eyes.

Wait, what?

Chapter Text

It was a truth commonly known in the Shire that food tasted the best when a hobbit woke up in the middle of the night for no reason and decided to have a snack. Bilbo missed the smell of cold mince pies and good mulled wine whipping across the kitchen floor and cold chicken cuts eaten in the dew-damp garden with lingonberry jam, safe from the heat of the day, but the leftovers from the dinner, the sweet, baked apples and the crisp, refreshingly bitter roasted onions with cheese, made a good substitute.

“Here, take this,” he said and handed their erstwhile attacker one of the onions.

“Why? Is this a last meal sort of thing?” the youth asked sullenly and didn’t take the morsel offered. In the light of the stoked fire Bilbo could see that he was young indeed, his attempt at a bead and whiskers stubble that made Kili’s look ample – and the sandy-pale colour of his hair didn’t help the matters any.

“Does your mother know that you are out here, accosting innocent travellers?” Bilbo asked and clucked his tongue. “We aren’t going to kill you and we certainly aren’t going to eat you. What do you take us for, goblins?” Bilbo pushed the onion into the boy’s hands.

“Easy for you to say, he has eaten you already. Not like you would tell the truth or anything,” the boy spat and clutched the onion in his pale-knuckled hands, holding it a little away from his body like it was a shield against the world. A heavy responsibility for a small onion, Bilbo thought.

“What do you mean, eaten me? Here I am, am I not?” Bilbo looked at Camaenor to see if the elf had any idea what the boy was talking about, but he only shook his head, looking genteelly confused. Háldir shrugged and moved away from the holly he had leaned against, walking next to the boy and kneeling.

“For a bundle of dead, gnawed bones, Master Baggins is rather lively, hm? And you didn’t give him your name when he introduced himself; how dreadful manners,” he said, his voice brimming with gentleness and mild, affectionate reproach. It was a voice that took Bilbo back to the days his parents had still lived, made him want to confess that he had taken the cookies from the jar – he was so sorry and was never going to do it again – and having that reaction to anything that Háldir said was too wrong for words to express. He had to suppress a shiver that the boy would have certainly misinterpreted in some way.

“Do you take me for a simpleton? The elf has eaten his soul and yours too, and now he is going to eat mine; that’s what elves do.” The young voice trembled and the boy sniffled loudly.

“What do you mean that I have eaten their souls?” Camaenor’s voice was indignant and now Bilbo did wince. But when the elf moved he was even gentler than Háldir had been, approaching the boy like he was a wounded colt ready to bolt away at any moment. When he knelt by the boy, Háldir moving away, there was almost ceremonial air to it, the plentiful folds of the elaborate cloak and cape he was wearing over his armour spreading in a circle around him. The boy turned his face away, but Camaenor took a hold of his jaw and made the boy look at him.

“I am Camaenor Faimenion, young human, and an elf of Lothlórien. Who has suggested to you that elves might do such a foul thing?” he asked.

“I am Kester son of Kirk,” the boy, Kester, said with a tongue that seemed to stumble over itself, making those simple sounds. His eyes were riveted to Camaenor’s face, but they couldn’t seem to focus and his mouth was hanging the slightest bit open; Bilbo hoped that he had never looked that silly staring at one of the beautiful folk. “Did you eat me? I’m not scared anymore so I reckon you must have, but I really thought that it would hurt.”

“I have not eaten your soul, Kester, and whether you think me morally capable of such an action or not, know this: the devouring of fëa is impossible. The Dark Lord Sauron couldn’t do more than twist and wound, and at the height of his power even Morgoth himself was incapable of doing more. The existence of fëa is the sole domain of Eru Ilúvatar and I can no more devour yours that I can challenge His might,” Camaenor declared solemnly.

“Who is Morgoth and who is Eru Ilúvatar? Is he an elf” Kester asked, still sounding drunk. Now it was time for Camaenor’s jaw to drop open.

“Eru Ilúvatar is most definitely not a mere elf!” he declared, sounding even more scandalized than Lobelia Sackville-Baggins had when she had heard that Bilbo was telling tales of trolls and orcs and talking spiders to the impressionable youth of the Hobbiton. “I will educate you on this matter.”

“But not here. The location of our camp is now known and the next intruders might not be so harmless. We must not light fire when we settle down for the rest of the night,” Háldir decided and walked to his bedding, starting to roll the blankets. Bilbo sighed, mourning the loss of a night’s sleep.

“Here, take these,” he said and handed Kester two bigger onions. “This is going to be a long night.”

He took two for himself and an apple and handed one of both to Háldir, but didn’t bother with Camaenor. It was clear to him that the marchwarden was going to be much too busy speaking of the Ages before the sun and the moon to use his mouth for anything else. As he kicked sand over the campfire he thought that maybe the night would not be such a loss after all, for Camaenor had started speaking of the Great Music and how the Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur and the one knowing most of Ilúvatar’s thoughts, created his own music, loud, and vain and endlessly repeated, trying to supplant the creator himself… This was not a tale Bilbo Baggins had ever heard before and he had thought himself a well-read individual. Who was this Melkor, anyway? He had his answer when they were slowly walking over the hills, avoiding the road, and his feet stumbled in the dark, sending him down on his knees on a patch of something prickly.

Morgoth? The wise and beautiful Melkor who decided to throw a celestial tantrum like a precocious child not allowed to do his own thing later became Morgoth?

“The greatest fall the furthest,” he muttered, climbing back up and biting into his apple. Baking it over the coals had only enhanced its sweetness and even the slightest smell of smoke that clung to it didn’t bother Bilbo.

“They do indeed,” Háldir said and ate his onion resolutely like he couldn’t taste it at all. There wasn’t enough light for Bilbo to see the expression on his face, but he could have sworn that the man’s shoulders were hunched…

There was some tale to that and Bilbo was going to show to Háldir how good listeners hobbits made later when they had the time. Now he made do with bumping against the man’s side in a friendly manner. The night air was pleasantly cool and the bigger man an equally pleasantly warm presence by his side. Whatever it is, it’s going to be all right, he wanted to say, but he had learned better than to make such promises without knowing what the problem was and so he simply was there, was friendly and present.

And they walked, Brasseth carrying Kester when it became clear that the boy couldn’t walk in the dark of the night without falling down and creating all sorts of obvious tracks without a lantern or some other source of light. Bilbo soon came to envy him this ease of travel. It was a long night indeed and he regretted his words, certain that he had somehow jinxed their party despite Háldir’s insistence that no such thing as “jinx” existed. The horizon was already paling and blushing like a maiden when Háldir eventually decreed that they had found a good place to rest. Bilbo had lost all sense of direction long ago and he had no idea whether they were to south or north from the road. His right arm was indeed reminding him of his decision to block an orc’s blade the day before and his eyes were itching with sleep. Bilbo sat down where he was standing and right then he couldn’t have cared less if he happened to sit on brambles. His head kept nodding.

“Then Morgoth escaped from Ungoliant with the help of the Balrogs, who came to his aid from their hiding places in the deepest recesses of the ruins of Utumno, and he re-established his reign of terror in the North in the fortress of Angband. He placed the three stolen Silmarils, all that was left of the unmarred light of the Two Trees in the world, in his Iron Crown, even though his hands were burned black by them,” Camaenor concluded his history lecture and when Bilbo forced himself to look up, he saw that poor Kester looked cross-eyed with the weight and force of the knowledge that had been poured down on him.

“So Morgoth is to blame for everything that went wrong ever?” he asked with a small voice.

“Morgoth created the dragons,” Bilbo muttered, thinking of Smaug. He could still hear its voice in his mind, both rumbling, beastly, and at the same time terribly sophisticated. Well, he doubted that Smaug had been old enough to have ever seen Morgoth, but had there not been Morgoth, the dwarves of Erebor would not have been driven from their homes or died in the flames. “And he created orcs too.” Azog and Bolg. Dear Vána, Azog and Bolg…

After a moment’s lapse of thought Bilbo was gently shaken by a warm hand. It was Háldir, standing next to him, telling him to go to sleep. Camaenor was explaining something about Glaurung to Kester and Bilbo kept thinking about the dread pale orcs for some reason he couldn’t remember.

“I do need to sleep,” he muttered, worrying slightly about guard shifts and thinking he would really like to sleep until midday at the least, he really would, but this was when the horizon was set aflame with colours.

The sunrise in the Shire was as gentle and delicate as a blushing maiden. Shades of red with names like dark pink and apricot and amaranth pink and coral would race yellow across the sky, leaping from cloud to cloud. This sunrise was something else entirely; dark bruise purple and deep violet clouds lit with blood red light that kept spreading over the dawn-pale sky until it looked as though the sky itself had been set on fire. As tired as he was, Bilbo could only stare in awe as the fire on the sky slowly turned heavier and more sluggish, as though golden syrup had been poured over the spectacle, and still the clouds seemed only darken.

“So beautiful,” he breathed. “How can the sky be so red?”

“The sky is only so red when there is ash in the air – a lot of ashes. The loveliest sunrises herald either a forest fire or the eruption of a volcano,” Camaenor said quietly.

The eruption of a volcano. Bilbo had read of the volcanoes of course, but they were yet another thing he had never even thought of seeing with his own eyes before – how full the world was of these wonders, wild and destructive and beautiful? Though his eyelids weighted like lead, Bilbo stared at the fire on the eastern sky, stared at it until small red spots were dancing in his eyes, stared until the fire was gone and all that was left was angry purple clouds far in the distance that looked like they would never rain anything but soot.

***

In the East and the South where whole mountain ranges curled as if arranged by a careful hand laid the land of Mordor. A plain of black volcanic rocks and rust-red sands, stoned fields merged into sand planes and torrid soil, cruel winds full of dust and sand and no place to hide from the sun, no shadow for miles; this was Mordor. But even Mordor wasn’t completely barren. Here and there a brave traveller might find oases, a ribbon of tough grass growing by a river that only rushed with water once a year, turning the desert around it green, small bushes and even a tree or a few around a natural spring that wasn’t too heavy with metals or acids. Near the mountains one might even find deceptively delicate-looking desert deer grazing on the fields nourished by the melt-waters from the icy mountaintops. This, too, was Mordor.

This, too, had been Mordor. This had been Mordor before Orodruin had blown up. This had been Mordor before the merciless sun had been replaced by equally merciless cover of dark, volcanic clouds. This had been Mordor before spewing eruptions of bubbling, red-hot rock, colliding rivers of fire and rain so full of sulfur that it could, would kill even the hardiest of desert plants.

The Lord of the Land had returned. Sauron had returned to Mordor.

The White Council, those fools, had marched against the great fortress of Dol Guldur and that Sauron had retreated to Mordor, his plans now ready. The only true loss to him had been that Mithrandir had arranged for the last of the great dragons to be killed before Sauron might have called for it. (For the least among them Smaug might have been, but still a force to be reckoned with in this weakened Age) Sauron had returned to Mordor and it was time for the shadows to do so as well.

And in the Land of Mordor Sauron called for the orcs and goblins, the trolls and the beasts of all kinds that hid deep under the roots of the mountains and in the dark corners of the Arda. Come to me, he whispered, travel to south where the cruel sun shall never dare to show her face, travel to east where you shall see the end of the Age of Men. The heroes are dead, Smaug and Azog and Bolg, but I am here, I am forever here, I am waiting. Come to me.

Come to me, my Ring, take a bearer and betray them, come to me. Take a bearer and take and take and take until nothing is left of them but a shadow without will of its own. Come to me.

At the top of the ruins of the once-great Tower of Barad-dûr a great Eye opened.

***

Bilbo felt like he had barely closed his eyes when he was shaken awake already, but the sun had already reached the zenith of her journey across the sky. He shook his head groggily, trying to leave behind the heavy, dreamless sleep and willing his body to not protest as he moved. A brief glance confirmed that while Háldir and Camaenor were already awake, Kester was still curled under the blanket Camaenor had borrowed him. Bilbo was starting to think that Camaenor was getting attached to the youngster and hoped that the whole situation could be resolved peacefully. Whoever was telling these lies obviously had to go, but it wasn’t as though the villagers were guilty of anything but being uneducated and gullible.

“Here, take this,” Háldir said and offered Bilbo a portion of a simple breakfast of bread and hard cheese. It didn’t look very appetizing, yet his stomach growled louder than was polite at the sight of it. Oh, but Bilbo felt hungry like a wolf – like a wolf pack!

“What are we going to do now?” he asked before tearing a chunk of bread and shoving it into his mouth. He had been taught better than to speak with his mouth full after all.

“That is the question,” Háldir sighed. “The first option is also the easiest: we do nothing. Camaenor will inform Lady Galadriel of the going-ons, who will in turn inform Lord Elrond and together they will decide on a course of action. But this has the problem of sending Kester back after he had spent the night and a good part of the day with an elf.”

“He believed that I had devoured your souls; in all likelihood his people would believe the same of him and I can not say what they might do,” Camaenor said and gave the boy a tender look. He looked very paternal and Bilbo found himself wondering if the elf had a wife and children or not. There was such an intense bond now between them, a name given and received, that Bilbo had almost forgotten that he had known the elf but a day, that he hadn’t asked personal questions.

“Camaenor could of course take the boy with him, but that reeks a bit too much of kidnapping in this situation, all things considered, even though he gets starry-eyed whenever our elf speaks to him and seems to think that he knows the names of all the stars and of all living things and all the secret lore of Middle-Earth and Aman.” Háldir shook his head with amusement.

“I do know the names of all the stars,” Camaenor answered haughtily.

“Astronomical proficiency isn’t the point of this argument, however, so keep your elven tendencies at bay for a while,” Háldir said – and Bilbo had never known anyone else who would use words like astronomical proficiency in a conversation, this was thoroughly unfair – wait. Elven tendencies? The list of the questions he needed to ask grew longer and longer.

“Our second option would be to try and convince everybody that elves eat no souls and that Kester is unharmed, right?” Bilbo asked instead. Some topics were best left when he was alone with Háldir.

“Indeed. And the third option is that we fail at convincing them and must flee, defaulting to option one.” That was, leave it to the mighty and run with Kester in tow.

“Maybe we should wake Kester and ask him questions about who has told these lies and how serious trouble his fellows could cause us in the worst case scenario. I don’t even know for sure if we are dealing with a village or a town,” Bilbo proposed in-between bites. The map didn’t show any town, but the map was also about a hundred years old. A lot of things could change in a hundred years.

Kester moaned desolately when he was awakened, but once he managed to concentrate on what was said to him – after a cup of strong tea Cameanor magicked from his saddle bags, Bilbo was very much jealous – he answered their questions willingly enough.

“It was Master Jorandir. He came to Mallowdell two years ago and he has a book. It’s called Book of Dark Ages and it has – or I thought it has, that’s what he told everybody – ancient lore about things. And he told people that if an elf looks into your eyes, they can steal your soul and they live forever because of the souls they steal,” he told as he ate his own meagre breakfast. His cheeks were red and he wouldn’t look any of them into the eye. “He said that elves are beautiful, but that kind of beauty is like holding a candle under your chin; the shadows the light casts are monstrous because the familiarity is still there, but it is made terrible because it is not human. But you aren’t that terrifying.” He gave Camaenor a shy look.

The village of Mallowdell was, they learned, indeed a village that could boast with seven hundred and five inhabitants. There were no trained warriors, but of course these little settlements would have to defend themselves against the occasional goblin and ruffian attacks and were not completely helpless either.

“So we will walk in and hope for the best?” Bilbo asked with some reluctance. It wasn’t the worst plan he had ever taken part of, sadly, but it was far from the best as well.

“Are there people who disagree with this Master Jorandir? And are any of them in a position of authority or enjoying unofficial respect as the pillars of the society?” Háldir sent his questions like arrows.

“There is the Miller’s Tilsa, she’s the widow of the miller and she own the biggest sheep herd. She says that Master Jorandir is just a piss ant trying to make himself look important, except she isn’t saying it that prettily.” Kester said after a moment of thought and Bilbo traded glances with his companions. This Tilsa, probably an elder by human standards and certainly the owner of significant property by Mallowdell standards, appeared to be their best chance. Please let her be the long-lost soul-sister of Dís, Bilbo thought, or even better, Bríl. Shamelessness and generous application of elbows were needed to get everyone out of this pickle.

“Let’s go and talk with her then,” Bilbo said and stood up, his legs protesting the action.

They took the long way, circling all the fields and farms that they came across to avoid having to hurt anyone, and so the sun was already going down and the shadows long when they reached the eastern side of the village. From the crest of the hill, the view of the village was picturesque, with the simple plan of two main streets running from north to south and east to west, crossing in the middle, where there was a market square. A few of the houses had grass growing on the roofs and a goat grazing there and there were some pigs walking on the streets, but all in all, Mallowdell was a much neater place than Bree.

“I see several farm houses by large fields and a mill by the river. I take it that Mistress Tilsa lives there,” Camaenor said and gestured towards a small crevice where Bilbo could see the sun glimmering on something blue and a shape that might have been a mill partially hidden by the hill.

“With the family of her eldest son, yes,” Kester confirmed. At least, Bilbo thought, sneaking to meet her without meeting anyone else on the way should be simple enough.

“What was the thing you mentioned about elven tendencies?” Bilbo asked from Háldir when they were climbing down the steep slope. The hills were higher and steeper around the village and they had to watch where they put their feet.

“Ah, the elves are nowadays all very aware of how short the human lifetime is and if they like someone, they are usually very reluctant to lose any of that time,” Háldir answered in an uncomfortable manner and eyes Camaenor’s back further down the slope. The elf was climbing down as nimbly and fleetly as a mountain goat and had gained quite a lead; if he heard what they were discussing, he showed no sign of it. “He wouldn’t outright kidnap the boy, but convincing him to run away to Lórien when his family would believe his soul eaten? I’m not entirely certain he wouldn’t do that.”

Bilbo blinked and remembered how he had stayed over the winter in Rivendell on his journey back to the Shire and how Lord Elrond had been reluctant to see him go, had asked him to visit again… This explanation put that hospitality into whole new light. He looked at the boy who had followed Camaenor with ease born of experience and had almost reached him and he thought that it might yet come to that, of Kester leaving for Lórien and his family mourning him like he was dead. It was a heart-breaking thought.

“It will be alright,” Bilbo whispered to himself; it would haveto be.

The mill was an old, short stone tower grinding slowly on a riverbank with a small house built by its side. It was surrounded by lush apple trees, the branches heavy with half-ripe fruits. Bilbo pushed one of the low-hanging branches to the side, thinking that while bigger, the place still reminded him of the Shire. Obviously a woman living in a place like this would have good sense.

“And who are you, and what are you doin’ with the foolish boy?” a sharp voice stopped the group by the trees. An elderly lady, extremely hunched over, wearing a shepherd’s wool coat that looked both too big for her and too warm for such a nice evening, squinted up at them. “And what madness took you, stupid boy, that you ran off into the night like that? Your mum’s been cryin’ her eyes out all day long,” the wizened creature declared. Her voice was surprisingly loud for such a fragile-looking woman and harsh in a way that spoke of long years of shouting orders to sheep dogs in all kinds of weather in the moors.

“I’m sorry, Mistress Tilsa,” Kester said sheepishly, switching his weight between his legs. “We just thought that there might be elves and we would have to protect everyone – and there was one, but they don’t eat any souls! They are nice people, honest!” he pleaded Camaenor’s case.

“We are afraid, ma’am, that the notorious Master Jorandir Kester has told us of might decide to claim that since Kester spent the night with us, his soul has been eaten,” Bilbo interrupted before the boy had the chance to display such hero worship that he might inadvertently convince the woman of that very claim.

“Notorious’ too big word for that small man. He’s just a poser with the spine of a leech that likes to come off important and if I was a few years younger I would trash him for the rubbish he’s been spoutin’. Now introduce yourselves properly and come inside, my daughter-in-law will make you dinner,” Mistress Tilsa ordered them and walked past them with the air of a ruling queen surveying her lands. Bilbo couldn’t have kept his face from splitting into a huge grin if he had tried.

***

The shadows were calling, the shadows were whispering: come to us, come to me, take, betray, come. The shadows were whispering. The shadows were calling and the ring was fighting to answer.

This was not a fight it was winning. In the host of flowers painted upon its consciousness the plants were defending themselves, appearing almost part of some sentience, the lurking weeds resisting the attempts to remove them. It could keep them from spreading further, but it couldn’t remove them. What was the consciousness fighting against it? Bilbo Baggins would have been the obvious answer, the only mind the ring was linked to… but it doubted that. It had learned well the touch of the hobbit’s mind, the gentle dreams and innocent desires, how he was glutton not only for food, but also for the beauty of the world, how the shade of his envy was the melancholy “I wish I had that too” rather than the darker, coarser, mealier “I wish I could take that from you” and how his lust was a bitter-sweet, wistful thing – how his embarrassment was not followed by the need to lash out at the one who embarrassed him, how his frustrations were even more restrained than his lust.

The seeds might have originated from its ill-adviced experiment with its bearer’s mind, but the will behind the current growth was much darker than the hobbit’s. But how could anyone influence the ring without its notice? The shadows were calling, but it held back by the need to concentrate on combating the spreading corruption. The ring decided to wait; what was time to it, after all? Instead it contemplated the interface where the emotions had joined its memories – where the flowers had taken roots.

Had this unknown will somehow created a fold-space inside its memories, hidden itself there? Was this where the answer for its questions lay hidden? There was only one way to find out.

***

That night, in the dark of the sleep, Bilbo was restless. There was a glow of fire haunting the edges, of his dreams, of the peaceful meadow where he was having a picnic, and he was afraid that the forest around him might burn down.

Bilbo knew that he was dreaming. This hadn’t happened to him ever before he had left the Shire the second time, but now it was the second time within a month.

“Why do I feel like I was using the ring?” he asked. Everything was just unreal in that way that the ring always made things, echoing, a little distorted, sometimes almost like diving into a river with his eyes open. He lifted his hand in front of his face, but of course there was no ring upon his finger. “It must be because I am dreaming, then.”

He moved his hand to his pocket and there the ring was, as smooth and perfect as ever, but also warm, somehow, almost hot. It was not the warmth of his body either, but more. What would it feel like if he put the ring on? Bilbo was suddenly scared. It made no sense; the ring didn’t hurt him, it hid him from things that wanted to hurt him, and besides, even if it had wanted to hurt him, putting it on in a dream wouldn’t have counted for anything, right? As long as it wasn’t in his finger, nothing was going to happen, either good or bad.

But the fire-like glow haunting him didn’t go away and the feeling didn’t either. What was he to do about… ah! Of course.

Bilbo let go of the ring and looked upon the blanket, concentrating on imagining a seed cake on a plate sitting there. A thick cake with golden crust sprinkled with white sugar and soft, moist, white inside spotted with poppy seeds and vanilla… Ah, there. The cake appeared obediently on one of his mother’s better plates, the ones with golden and red painted roses around the edges, and Bilbo cut a big piece of the cake. It tasted just like he remembered and sometime in between the first and the second slice the fire haunting his dream disappeared.

There truly was nothing that a good seed cake couldn’t, if not make better, then at least put into a perspective.

***

Bilbo felt guilty. He felt guilty for letting Kester’s mother and father plus his three sisters to think him dead for a whole day and two nights, but he consoled himself with the thought that at least Kester should be able to return to them after this was over. Master Jorandir had to go.

They walked into the village in broad daylight, the four of them side by side so that all they came across would have to step aside to continue their way. Not that any continued their tread after stepping aside, such were the looks they received. Camaenor was walking with his head held high and his long, pale hair whipping in the breeze, his gray and green clothes twirling around the beautiful armour, and by his side walked Háldir in his more rugged, yet equally intimidating glory. By Háldir’s side was Bilbo, not that many noticed him at all, and by Camaenor’s was Kester, grinning widely and walking with his head held high. Bilbo didn’t look back, but he was almost certain that no-one paid any attention to Mistress Tilsa as she trotted slowly behind them, assisted by her daughter-in-law.

“Missus Marsha, Missus Marsha, Kester’s here!” someone screamed and Bilbo turned his head in time to see a small bare-footed boy running down the street. The shout was repeated once, twice, and then a door with a shoemaker’s sign over it was opened just enough for a woman to peek out.

Her hair was as pale as her son’s and her face still beautiful despite the wrinkles the years had carved upon it, but there were large shadows below her eyes that Bilbo could see a long way afar. When she saw Kester she let out a scream that only sounded marginally sane and threw the door open, running down the street with her pale blue shawl fluttering behind her.

“Kester, Kester, you live!” she shouted and gathered her son into her arms; Kester made small, waving motions with his arms that looked to Bilbo a bit to the struggles of one who couldn’t swim and was dragged underwater, but he didn’t protest. “What were you thinking, going off like that, you could have been taken away? Where have you been?” the woman asked and with anger born of worry she suddenly took a step back and slapped his son to the cheek.

“I am sorry, mother,” Kester said and rubbed his reddening cheek. “We just thought that there might be elves, and, uhm. Mother, may I introduce Camaenor son of Faimeon, a Marchwarden of Lothlórien. He is the one we happened upon, along with his friends. Háldir is a Ranger of the North and Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit of the Shire.” He gestured towards each of them and they all gave a small, polite bow in turn; Kester’s mother’s mouth dropped open and she stared at Camaenor without a word, not paying the slightest bit of attention to Bilbo who was starting to receive some stares now.

“Is that a really small elf?” someone asked.

“No, stupid, it’s a hobbit, he said it,” another voice answered, followed with a slightly pained huff.

“Stupid, that’s like the marchwarden thing, a profession. But he’s no elf, he’s got furry feet and elves are supposed to be pretty like that one.” Ouch. Well, that would have hurt if Bilbo cared a whit what some random human sheepherder thought of him.

“You... you are... and my son?” poor Missus Marsha stuttered as she stepped in-between her son and Camaenor. Her face was white, but so were her knuckles, her hands pressed into fists and ready to pummel into the man. Bilbo had no doubts that she was ready to beat Camaenor up until he agreed to return to Kester’s soul to her.

“I assure you, Mistress Marsha, I am quite incapable of doing what you suspect me of and besides, I would not commit such a foul act even if I could. Look at your son; do you not recognize him?” Camaenor asked and barely had the last word left his lips when Marsha already turned on her heels and grabbed Kester’s face, forcing her son to look her into the eyes. The silence that had fallen over the village was scarily absolute. Even the bleating of goats that could be heard just a moment before had disappeared as Marsha looked her son deep into the eye.

“My son,” she breathed and pressed Kester against her chest again. “You truly are my son.” A cheer rose over the street as the mother and the son embraced in sunlight.

They could not have arranged the scene more pleasantly if they’d had time to survey the place, maps and a proper town council to plan a party. Marsha was wearing a plain off-white dress and she was crying, Camaenor looked very noble and grand, like a warrior plucked from the old tales, and they were all standing next to the balcony of a two-story building where white, washed sheets had been hung to dry and they fluttered in the wind like victory flags. A middle-aged man came running and grabbed both his wife and son into an embrace, followed soon by three young girls with hair as golden their mother’s, the youngers one in curls like her father’s. People were smiling, people were laughing and patting one another into the back, people were happy. Of course something had to go wrong.

“That, Marsha, is your son no more, but a soulless husk,” a deep, reverberating voice called and all heads turned towards the speaker.

Master Jorandir was long and bony-looking man with receding hairline and dwarven-looking nose. Bilbo thought that he might have been called handsome enough if not for the eyes that were sunken deep into his skull. He wasn’t certain what colour they could be called, but he didn’t like the light shining in them – and he liked the way the man was pressing a huge, heavy-looking book against his chest even less. This was no doubt the infamous book of ancient lore that decried elves as soul-eaters.

"I have not lost my soul! How could I still walk around if I had?" Kester protested, taking a step and then another towards Master Jorandir, but his advance came to a quick end when his mother dragged him back.

"I dare you to repeat that disgusting lie, Master Jorandir, I dare you," Marsha growled like a wolf mother defending her pup. "A mother knows." There were general, agreeing sounds from the crowd that was watching the argument like it was the greatest entertainment they had ever had.

"Do not the wraiths still walk around, dead though they might be? The dead walk with fleet feet and prey on the living - I beseech you, good people of Mallowdell, don't fall prey to this lie," Master Jorandir invoked the people and an uneven chorus of "yeah" and "we won't" rose to answer him.

"I doubt you would recognize a wraith if you met one, considering you accuse Kester of being one. They are creatures of dread and darkness that bring unmistakable terror with them; cats will hiss and bare their claws, dogs will bark and howl and even the bravest men will be struck with almost paralyzing fear," Camaenor spoke, his icy voice like soothing balm over the heated situation. The crows milling about looked a lot less certain now, each person looking at the one standing next to them for support. Something about this seemed very familiar to Bilbo.

"And wraiths aren't soulless, they are nothing but souls, twisted and tortured, but souls regardless," Kester protested indignantly. "What kind of scholar are you if you don't even know that?"

"Yeah! What kind of a scholar doesn't know that?" a man's voice called from somewhere behind the row of wide shoulders and now Bilbo knew what this was. The fickle chorus of agreements echoed the words all around them.

"And who told you this? Might it have been the elf? Surely everyone knows that elves aren't to be trusted?" The cadence of Master Jorandir's voice rose into a shout and now the people were cheering him on. It was the Laketown argument all over again; the people agreeing with whoever had spoken the last, whether they even understood the arguments or not. It made Bilbo's mouth taste like something awful, like wet warg fur and rotten meat.

"And you will stop that balderdash right now, young man!"

It was Mistress Tilsa's voice. She used her elbows to push her way to the circle that had formed in the middle of the street and walked towards Master Jorandir, surrounded by the kind of silence that preceded the crack of a twig in a forest in the middle of a night, so full of tension that something had to snap - that something would snap at any moment. Master Jorandir's eyes flitted over to her with little but scorn and Bilbo had to wonder about his self-preservation instincts. He only caught the look Mistress Tilsa was giving to the rabble-rouser in return from the sidelines and it could have curdled milk.

"Now, my good woman, this is a matter for the men..." Master Jorandir started and then his voice sunk into a pained, breathless moan when Mistress Tilsa punched him into the diaphragm.

"Don't think for a second you are too high and mighty for me to bend upon the knee and give you the trashing your dad failed to give you! Goin' around and scaring people with your horsefeathers was one thing, but this goes too far! And what have you people been thinkin' that you have been followin' him around like a flock of headless sheep?" she turned her ire towards the people who shrunk back from the force of her glare. "Turnin' a river to go across the road for goodness' sake, clearly didn't stop these people from crossin', now did it? What that fool did was to send young fools to attack travellers in the middle of the night after they had already been attacked by goblins. We are lucky they didn't just assume the boys were more goblins in the dark and kill them."

There was no agreeing chorus now. The women were nodding their heads and the men were staring at their feet. Somewhere in a nearby tree a bird began to sing like its little heart was about to burst.

“But, but,” objected a woman among those standing closest to Master Jorandir, “You can’t just let that evil elf creature to go, or let the soulless boy go free simply because the elf could cross the water!” She stepped forth and a man did the same by her side. The woman was one of the most ordinary-looking women Bilbo had ever seen; he doubted that he could have told her apart from the crowd had she turned and fled. But the man was tall with shoulders wide like barn doors and suddenly Bilbo feared for Mistress Tilsa's safety. He wasn't the only one who did, judging by how Háldir moved slowly towards the old woman as well.

Camaenor stood as the recipient of the stares of the couple, as regal as a king. He would have probably been insulted by the comparison, but right then he reminded Bilbo of Thorin Oakenshield. And Thorin, Bilbo was certain, would have been insulted as well.

“And I was wonderin' when I would hear from you two,” Mistress Tilsa said with obvious contumely. "And what makes you think that Kester's soul has been eaten?"

"Master Jorandir says so! That boy needs to..." the woman's voice trailed away, but she had already said too much. Now Kester's father walked towards the pair, cracking his knuckles.

"My boy need to what? To be killed?" his voice rumbled like a tree stump’s roots against hard ground when an ox finally pulled it out. The air was thick with violence that was a heart's beat and one careless word away and even the shadows that the morning sun cast felt heavy. The bird had ceased to sing.

There was a curious susurration the Bilbo could have sworn he heard, like a hornet buzzing by his ear, like half-heard words in a language he didn't understand. His head felt light in the way that preceded a fainting spell and heavy like stuffed with cotton at the same time. He couldn't faint now! He still had a part to play and he was going to play it even if it killed him.

"Kirk, don't you go doin' something stupid, isn't it enough that these people haven't got enough brains between the two of them to make one?" Mistress Tilsa asked tartly. “And if your neighbor, envious because your husband makes good money, told people that your souls have been eaten by elves, should you be killed as well?" she asked.

“But our souls wouldn't have been eaten!" the man objected.

"And only your souls can't be eaten? Today it's Kester, tomorrow it can be any of you," Mistress Tilsa declared and now the people were begging to look angry again, but it was different kind of angry in a way that Bilbo had a hard time putting in words, but could practically smell in the air all the same.

"But there is an elf," the woman tried, in vain for no-one appeared to listen to her anymore.

“So let us see how it goes. You both have traveled with the elf for some time?” Mistress Tilsa turned towards him and Háldir, and this was Bilbo’s clue.

“I see you have feasted upon the true spirits of the pillars of the society to silence the voices that warn of you,” Master Jorandir cut into the conversation, having finally recovered from the mighty punch small, fragile-looking Tilsa had given him and having found a pause where to insert his words, but Bilbo rejoiced in the knowledge that it was too late now.

“That Book of Dark Ages of yours says that the ability to create art is an ir-ref-u-ta-ble proof of having a soul. Let’s have one of them prove it. One of you three, if you have ever made a song, sing to me, if not, dance; I don’t care what it’s goin’ to be,” Mistress Tilsa said and Master Jorandir’s face turned sour like a half-ripe apple when he realized what kind of trap had been laid. He could let one of them perform a fairly easy trial or he could undermine his own book.

“I don’t think…” he started, but Bilbo wasn’t going to let him talk, not now.

“This is the third time I have met elves,” he said and turned to smirk at the man. It was less than a charitable smirk. “I have visited both Rivendell where Lord Elrond dwells and Mirkwood where King Thranduil rules. If I haven’t yet managed to lose my soul, can we all agree that it isn’t going to happen?”

***

Below the flowers and the memories, there was a fold-space. It was shaped like a room that had been hewed from the living stone, the roots of the flowers above breaking through the ceiling, but it was asymmetrical. It was unfinished, like the person who had created it was in the process of expanding it, fixing it here and excavating there to make it suit their needs better, stretching it like the truth.

In the room there was a big chest, made of time-darkened oak and closed with a mithril lock – what foolishness, when the wood would be so easily broken! But there was no need to break anything, for in the lock there was a key. It was a simple matter of willing the chest to open.

There was a red organ, the lower part of it filled with fine veins that could be seen from the surface, a hollow thing, vaguely fist-shaped and smelling strongly of life and iron. It pulsed in the small pool of blood on the bottom of the chest. It was a heart and considering the size that it was – easily the height of a tall human, huge, bulbous – it could only be the heart of a dragon. It kept beating, beating, beating inside the chest. The ring didn’t understand. Was it Smaug, it wondered and knew that this was not true. The heart of a dragon, but not literally. And the fold-space below and beyond the order of the archived memories…

***

“So prove us that you have a soul, little mister,” Mistress Tilsa commanded.

Now all eyes were upon Bilbo. He could hear the names Elrond and Thranduil whispered by people who had no idea who these elven lords were. It melted seamlessly into the susurration in his ears, but now that sounded more… he didn’t know. Not so overpowering anymore, not so angry, not so, so smug. It was almost confused and the whole thing confused Bilbo, but it didn’t seem like he was about to faint and ruin the whole trial so he opened his mouth.

“Far beyond the hills yet out of sight came dwarves with wagons thirty and nine,” he sung. He could have cheated of course, sung an old, witty Shire song that none of these people had ever heard, but this was a point of pride for him now; he wanted to pass this test fair and square. He sang his odd, funny song of Lady Dís and Bríl’s caravan and then he reached those last verses he had been so unsure of.

“In human town party awaits as well
For long and hard is the road ahead
Such a strange place for farewell
Is a begrimed inn where to break bread

“And fear of strange I ask to quell
And speak with the no-good woman instead
And ill can be seen where there is will
An ugly heart can always descry dread

“Would you not
Dance around a pond cold
Pockets full of troll gold
Meeting, rejoicing
In the empty lands

“Come with us
Splash through a green shoal
Climb up a steep knoll
Wonders can be found
In hinterlands”

An ugly heart can always descry dread. Bilbo looked Master Jorandir into the eye and the man’s lips curled to reveal his teeth down to the gums.

“That proves nothing! He could have sung any old song of his people for all we know! And what are his people anyway, some kind of small trolls?” the man spat the words from his mouth – literally, for every word sent saliva flying through the air.

“I am a hobbit, master scholar, not that I expect you to know what that means. And what about you? What does anyone know about you anyway? You could be a soulless monster trying to turn good people against each other for all we know. Why don’t you prove that you have a soul?” This wasn’t part of the plan, just the moment’s inspiration. The thought of the stuffed being mantle forced to sing a little ditty or dance a jig in front of everyone and their pigs gave Bilbo dark amusement. But Master Jorandir just kept opening and closing his mouth like a fish on dry land.

“Aren’t you going to?” Bilbo baited him and then regretted the whole thing. Master Jorandir wasn’t going to and the looks people gave him turned darker by every moment he refused to say a thing, to do a thing.

Bilbo didn’t know why the man just stood there. Maybe he had a horrible singing voice or couldn’t string words together in a hurry – or, considering how good his rhetoric was, maybe he was completely tone deaf and hadn’t written a poem in his life. Maybe he had always taken himself too seriously to learn little dances, maybe he was just too stupidly proud to perform in front of the villagers who had earlier hung to his every word, but this wasn’t amusing anymore. This was getting dangerous.

“You try to get my son killed and you don’t have a soul yourself?” Marsha shouted shrilly. “Is this your sick idea of fun?”

“I have a soul!” Master Jorandir protested, lifting his book as a shield between himself and Kester’s mother. It reminded Bilbo of how Kester had earlier clutched the onion given to him. “Of course I have a soul, everyone knows I have a soul!”

“Why don’t you prove it then?” Kirk asked with dark satisfaction.

“Yes, show us! Sing for us!” the chorus started again. Everybody was moving forwards now, hands reaching towards the man in the middle. “Sing for us, sing for us, sing for us!”

“He has a soul!” Bilbo cut back into the conversation before things could get well and thoroughly out of his control. He shirked back a little in the face of the faces turning back to him, but continued resolutely: “Don’t you see that this is precisely what Mistress Tilsa warned you about? If you start spreading baseless rumours like this one, anyone can be the next one accused – even the one who started the whole thing. Every living person has a soul. This is the truth.” And he had made a mistake there, used Mistress Tilsa’s name when he wasn’t supposed to know her. He cursed his carelessness, but Master Jorandir wasn’t in any state of mind to take advantage of his slip. The man was taking in huge gulps of breath and it seemed like Bilbo might not be the one to faint for once.

“Trying to discriminate only the people you don’t care about is a lot like trying to get a little bit pregnant; soon the consequences are going to get away with you,” he said quietly.

***

In a chamber hewed below the ring’s consciousness, in a chest that appeared to be made of darkened wood, a dragon’s heart begun shimmering like a mirage hovering over hot stone and there was no more heart in the chest, but a mirror. It was a fine, delicate little thing, an elven pocket mirror that would have fit a princess of Gondolin of the old. The mirror reflected a perfectly round golden ring, its transcendence not disrupted with a stone that would have dragged the eye away from the alluring, bewitching purity of the craft.

And fiery writing appeared upon its surface, elegant Tengwar letters spelling the One Ring’s purpose.

The One Ring in a mirror in a foldspace in the consciousness of the One Ring; it was without the beginning and the end like the ring itself, but it couldn’t be. The ring couldn’t have created this without being aware of it. It was just a splinter of fëa, a being of will and purpose and power and little else. It had no subconscious. It had merely experiences the feelings of another as its own, once, briefly. It couldn’t have caused this.

Every living person has a soul. This is the truth. It’s bearer’s words carried through the cracks in the wall that separated them from one another. The greatest of those cracks was in the shape of the name Camaenor.

…is a lot like trying to get a little bit pregnant; soon the consequences are going to get away with you.

A new root cracked its way through the ceiling near a corner that looked like the wall might crumble into pebbles at any moment, revealing no doubt new space behind it. The musty stench the root brought with it was undermining and the ring knew without looking that the flower would be a pale and meek thing, its colour that of fear.

Chapter Text

In a camp of the nomadic sheepherders of Dunland, the one known as Gandalf and Mithrandir and Tharkûn and Incanus sat in the tent of the chief of the tribe, slowly sipping from a cup of tea offered to him. The tea was much bitterer sort than what the elves brewed and the hobbits offered and he couldn’t say that he was fond of the goat milk added into the drink either, but it was offered in sincere gratitude and he accepted it gladly.

“You are a good healer,” Kungrath, the chief whose daughter he had helped, among many others, said to the wizard. “So good it is surprising to see you wandering in the wilderness.”

Ah, be grateful, but verify. They were few, the men of the tribe of Janbas, and as wary as foxes, but they weren’t bad people. There were many Dunlending tribes who outright worshipped Sauron and the Tokrap-Kazyl even sporadically performed human sacrifices for the Dark Lord, but the Janbas simply did their best to survive in a harsh land. Their numbers had long been few, but the warm spring had been good for calving and the lambs, and now the majority of the orc and goblin nests of the Misty Mountains had been emptied, the hordes laid to waste in the fields between the Long Lake and Erebor. A few more good years and they would have a good foundation for the tribe to thrive and gain influence in Dunland.

As long as no epidemic struck the people down before they could grow. Gandalf was lucky that this one had merely been a mild strain of measles. The high fever and diarrhea would have killed most of the infected, of course, if left untreated, but at least he had been equipped to bring the fever down and there had been plenty of water to keep the patients hydrated. Had the disease caused pneumonia or inflammation of the brain, he would have been next to helpless.

“I am barely worth a mention by my people’s standards, Chief Kungrath, but it is true that I am better than the local healers. I am simply the wandering type, I fear. There is no sense in changing my ways at this age,” he answered and drank more of his tea before it could get cold.

Healing was not one of Gandalf’s gifts – he was much better at manipulating the fire, he thought and allowed himself a glance at the finger where a ring with a red stone gleamed under glamour, as well as at spells of illumination and reveal and even countering the spells of others. But the healers of Dunland were truly dreadful; using enema as a way of injecting medicines into the body might in some situations be necessary, but just what those “wise-men” thought could be accomplished with boar’s bile, he didn’t understand and didn’t truly wish to. And this was, sadly, one of their safer treatments.

“Fine, keep your secrets,” Kungrath sighed and leaned back on his pillows. “Though you look very sprightly for your age and carry a fine sword as well. Tell me, healer, can you use it as well?”

“I wouldn’t carry it if I didn’t know how to use it,” Gandalf said and amusement pulled the corners of his mouth up a bit. Every now and then those who preyed on the weak would think him a helpless vagabond and he was always happy to teach that sort a lesson about treating other people right.

The chief’s younger daughter – a shy girl, named Tamarys if he remembered right – pushed to the side one of the sheep skins separating the rest of the tent from the rezhan, a section that nominally could be called a “kitchen” but was in truth also a consecrated area for some home-making rites that the wives and daughters reigned among the Janbas. She poured them more tea, humming a tuneless little ditty under her breath. The Janbas women didn’t wear veils like many Dunlending women, but only covered their hair with a long scarf. Kungrath had told him with great pride that Tamarys was to be married before the first snow, to Gandalf she looked little more than a child. Then again, most humans looked young to him even when their faces were lined with deep wrinkles.

“Are you certain I can’t tempt you into staying with us for a while? Long enough at least to take an apprentice, or maybe even for life? There are a few widows who would be glad to bend their head to sleep in their own tent again” Kungrath asked him over the rim of his cup.

Under only slightly different circumstances Gandalf wouldn’t have hesitated to take the first offer; he had long blamed himself for his continuous failure with the men of these wild hills and moors. In a conflict after conflict the men of Dunland and their ancestors had allied themselves with Sauron and later his servants, but as with every story, there were three sides to this: the westerners’ side, their side and the cold, hard truth.

Certainly no-one had gone out of their way to convince the Dunlendings that they had options after the first ill-made decision of their forefathers to stand with Sauron against the Last Alliance. After that things had only gone down-hill for these people.

“I’m too old to take a wife, but it would be nice to know I always have shelter from the rain and the snow. And teaching what little I know to the next generation is always a good way to spend a day or a hundred,” he admitted with a small laugh. “But there is still so much world to see…” He didn’t understand why he felt so restless. Smaug had perished, as had most of the goblins of the Misty Mountains and even the Necromancer had been driven from Dol Guldur. But, but, but…

Where had the Necromancer gone? Who had the Necromancer been?

Gandalf wasn’t the most powerful among the Istari, but he knew his own power and ill-suited though it might be for magical healing, no wandering wraith or barrow-wight should have had the strength to overpower him – to almost fight the entire White Council to a stand-still. He gave another surreptitious glance at Narya, the Ring of Fire; he had not forgotten the reason he had been sent to Middle-Earth to suffer its labours and cares. Saruman had claimed that Sauron was gone, a mere shadow without the power to take a shape without a ring lost forever – but Artifacts of Power, Gandalf knew, had a dreadful habit of not staying lost.

Even Saruman had been shown to be wrong in the recent past – and to be without shape was not necessarily the same as to be without power.

“I would think that you have seen much of it at such an advanced age,” Kungrath said mildly, but his eyes betrayed his eagerness. A healer of some real skill would be an asset to the status of his tribe, Gandalf knew, and more so if he had enough years left to train an apprentice.

And he was torn in two. One voiceless voice whispered secrets that remained secrets to his ear, encouraging him to leave, to search, to travel into the dark places of the Arda and find out. But there was another voice, fire-hot and emboldening, that encouraged him to stay. It was in Narya’s nature to resist tyranny, domination and despair; among these people its voice was nearly audible and only a hair’s breadth short of deafening. Was this, it asked, the way these people had been betrayed again and again?

Had there always been something more important to do until there was no time anymore, good intentions to reach out and foster better relations until the Dark got to them first yet again?

Gandalf blinked and the almost overpowering need disappeared into familiar, comforting hum. These people were certainly no innocent, senseless lambs to be led for deceiving and slaughter, they didn’t need a wet nurse to blow their noses and tie their shoe laces for them. They had been given reason and conscience like all Children of Ilúvatar and it was their responsibility to use that gift – yet, on the other hand, everyone needed a little push every now and then. Gandalf thought of Bilbo Baggins whom he had pushed out of his round, green door one morning and who had witnesses and done many great things.

The Janbas Tribe could become a force of good in Dunland. Whom would it hurt if he stayed just a few years to help them into the beginning? The fire of his ring warmed him gently, illuminating his darkened mood.

And even in his worry, even as his gaze had brushed over his own ring, Gandalf failed to make the connection between the trinket Bilbo had found in the goblin caves and the mysterious Necromancer. This was, like so many things lately, due to Bilbo being Bilbo. There had been many lesser rings after all, the practice works of the smiths of Eregion before Celebrimbor had taken the art to a whole new level, and Bilbo had been so good. He had used the power the ring had given him to selflessly help his friends, hadn’t taken advantage of the chances it offered to kill anyone in Eryn Lasgalen despite the Durin’s Day approaching every sunrise. He hadn’t thought that angering a dwarf king known not for his forgiveness and in the end giving up ten kings’ ransom – his rightful part of the treasure – to the people of Laketown-come-people of Dale and the elves wasn’t worth not having to go to a war.

Bilbo had forgiven Thorin for almost killing him in the end, had knelt by the king’s sickbed and begged him not to die. Truly, who could fault Gandalf for failing to consider the possibility that Bilbo might be carrying and even successfully using for good something as poisonous as Isildur’s Bane?

***

In his high tower, the one known as Saruman and Curunír stood by a pedestal, upon which was a dark, perfectly smooth sphere, unmarked and inviolable. The one he sought wasn’t far from him now and magnification of a vision was possible for those with great will; this was a very tiring process, but he was easily powerful and determined enough to accomplish the feat. His eyes saw Gandalf, stepping out of a red tent by the side of one of the Dunland savages. The man with graying, unkempt beard – well, in truth this described Gandalf as well, but only one of them was dressed in furs – was smiling widely and Saruman knew that this was once again one of his fellow Istar’s schemes in progress.

Saruman rubbed the bridge of his nose, carefully keeping his eyes upon the orb and yet very much irritated. He had long since lost any hope for Radagast, but Gandalf at least was in possession of his wits and dignity still. When would he learn to leave fiddling with the tiny fates of the tiny people and concentrate on the bigger picture? As much as he had been angered when Gandalf had kicked sand all over his plans to use the growing shadow of Mirkwood to his own purposes, at least the Istar had shown surprising insight in his insistence and cunning in using the exiled dwarves of Erebor to his own ends.

And then there was a change. He could feel the moment when the attention somewhere in the far distance turned, like a giant shifting. Afterimages of fire yet to come danced across his retinas and the echoes of a whisper of a cruel voice that hadn't yet spoken hummed in his mind. The Palantír could transfer no feeling, no sound, but only images - and the mind of the one using it. Saruman had expected this; he knew who had taken the seeing stone of the fallen Minas Ithil. He fortified his mind, made it a fortress against which the flames would break like waves upon the shore.

I have broken the walls of unbreachable fortresses before, my former brother. There we no words, precisely, no voice and no noise, but there was taunting, pictures flitting so fast through Saruman's mind that they left the impression of eyes blinded by the brightest flame and things, words not quite heard, but spoken regardless.

He only knew his nose had begun to bleed when he tastes the iron on his dry lips. He only knew his ears had begun to bleed when he felt the blood, so very hot, running down the sides of his neck. It was making a dreadful mess of his hair, no doubt.

The images were burning bright in his mind, brighter than he had expected, and Saruman knew pain. He didn't fear pain, but he respected it, for it was his form's way of telling him that he had damaged it and needed time and effort to heal, but this was different. This was pain of the mind, almost enticing, somehow just as alluring as it was frightful. He knew he needed to get away.

Wouldn't it be nice, he thought, or maybe it was said/though/shown to him instead, to methodically strip away a layer upon layer of that accursed calm of Lady Galadriel who always sided with Gandalf and shied away from him as if she knew something about him that he didn't know himself, wouldn't it be nice to see that accursed, holier-than-thou light bleed out of those unnerving eyes...

Saruman broke away from the contact, panting, bleeding, sweating like a pig, like a Rohanian brigand, gasping for air. The eye contact with the right angle of the orb had broken and so had the contact. He was alone in his mind again. He tried hard to concentrate, to think his own thought again.

Well, the one they had been sent to oppose was back in Mordor and the tinkerer was back to his old ways now. Even the horsemen of Rohan were hard enough company to bear, little more than brigands drinking in their thatched barns, cosseting their horses like children and their children rolling on the floor among the dogs; what redeeming features Gandalf could find among the Dunlending Wildmen was a mystery to him. Not that there was much refinement to be found even in Gondor these days, only lazy dreams of past glory. How he wished that he could cut ties with the entire race of men entirely!

But the Age of the Elves was almost over; the twilight had fallen at long last. The Age of Dwarves had never been and would never be, for they were nothing but usurpers of the true Children of Ilúvatar and

(here he almost remembered something, something the journey across the Sundering Sea had robbed him of, something very important about his lord Aulë had asked of him, but it didn’t come and he had so much to think of anyway and)

so the humans were what he had to work with. He would not fail his appointed task. He would guide at least one of the Free People into a new age of prosperity even if it was the last thing he ever did.

The Palantír beckoned him on its pedestal, the darkness full of secrets waiting to be illuminated within so tempting. So wonderful secrets, everything in Middle Earth under his watchful gaze if he only knew what to look for. It was only the imperfection of his own knowledge that hindered him now – the imperfection of his own knowledge and the fire he had witnessed rising from the deep rivers of molten stone and land concealed with dark clouds. The Necromancer was gone for good, he had said, and it had even been true enough; his favourite kind of lie. The Necromancer was gone because Sauron had returned and soon, surely, the One Ring would stir from its slumber. Within his fortress, the Lord of Mordor was calling for it. His gaze pierced cloud, shadow, earth and flesh in searching, wreathed in flame.

His mind was whirling and Saruman knew just what to do about that. There was a small wooden box on the desk of his office, carved in a way that showed more eager attempt at true aesthetics than skill. Saruman found his feet taking him towards the study, slowly like in a dream, and in this dream he resented Gandalf. He had mocked Gandalf's habit of smoking the pipe weed in the past, comparing it to the fool Radagast's mushrooms – and he had nothing good to say about those mushrooms, anyone could just go and see what they had done to his weaker-willed kin – but Gandalf had been right to say that the pipe weed of the halflings calmed the mind. He would mock Saruman endlessly should he find out.

He slammed the door of his study open and grabbed the pipe from his desk, taking deep, calming breaths as he filled it and lit it. He took in the taste of the dried leaves, smoky and just bitter enough without being overwhelming, the press of the pipe against his lips a calming habit in and of itself, the feeling of breathing hot smoke like a dragon; Saruman felt at peace. For a little while anyway.

Saruman only needed to grasp the ring first. He knew he was wise and strong enough to resist the temptation, that with it he could strike down Sauron and be allowed to return to Aman at long last. Well, after he had given the humans some tools and pointers on how to manage the land that would be their domain from henceforth. He only needed the ring and then everything would be well and he could rejoin his master and his peers in Aman and forget all his miserable toiling in this barbarian land.

In his dreams, people sometimes spoke of Saruman. It had been a long time since he had paid attention to these dreams.

“What are Curumo’s dreams, I wonder? They must be very great, don't you think?” a sophisticated voice had asked, the owner of the voice lost in the shadows of the dream.

He might have seen himself as if from the outside, as a man lost in some heady dream, his deep, darkling eyes almost fever-bright, a spark of very old fire in his expression fit to make the lesser of their kind both exited and frightened at the same time.

“Did you know that most of them were us?” another voice had often asked. This one wasn’t refined, but rough, yet not unkind. In his dreams, Saruman thought that he should know who this person was. “That among all the Maiar those who chose to follow Morgoth were most often Aulë’s? Among the Valar our lord is the one most similar in thought and powers to Melkor of the old, in that they each gloried in the fashioning of artful and original things, but where Aulë strives to be true to the original intent of the Music and submits all that he does to the will of Ilúvatar, Melkor wished to control and subvert all things. He became Morgoth, the Great Enemy of us all. Aulë chose to be different.”

“What is the point you wish to make?” the first speaker might ask every once in a while, the cadence of the voice now changing. Maybe, just maybe the mists of the dream and memory lifted long enough to show the curve of an unhappy smile. The upward lines of it could still be so bitter.

“We all chose to serve our master or mistress because we recognized in them something within ourselves. We all, thusly, resemble Melkor as well – and it is our responsibility to make a different choice than he did, than Sauron and Thuringwethil and all too many did.”

Dreams were often confusing and disappeared in the light of the morning like the dewdrops upon leaves and Saruman had better things to occupy his mind with than the fripperies and the caprices summoned forth by half-remembered, senseless dreams.

Now Saruman was in the world of the awake and he had work to do. There was a letter on his desk from King Fengel son of Folcwine. Saruman hadn’t read it yet, but he knew that it was bound to concern the situation that had arisen with a group of East Emmec nobles who had seen the king’s recent troubles with one of the Dunlending barbarian tribes as an opportunity to replace Fengel and sought to rise their own man, Deorlaf son of Deorwine, to the throne to replace him. Never mind that said Deorlaf was but a ten years old orphan and no doubt wanted no part of the conflict. Saruman didn’t want to have any part of the conflict either, but the price he must pay for his place of power, the Orthanc, was that he had to mediate in this kind of troubles. Deorlaf was a distant cousin of the king through Eofor who had been brother of Aldor the Old centuries ago and the king didn’t wish to see his young kinsman slain for something that wasn’t his fault.

But maybe this could wait for a week or so. No violence had yet broken out other than the taking of the young would-be-usurper from his aunt’s care and Saruman wished to match his will with the recently awakened fire through the Palantír. What a thrill it was, to dive in fire and come back for breath unburned!

In his dreams, these days Saruman would more often than not see a ring without a stone and he dreamed of the fire of the forge and the fire upon a tall mountain. If only he could attain the ring, then he could attain all his dreams.

His dreams are great indeed, but there isn’t one so great among us all that they aren’t a servant to something.

Chapter Text

In Bilbo’s mind, there wasn’t a flower garden. Instead there was a map that bore eerie resemblance to the map of the north that Thorin had carried, but the names written down on it would have made any traveller’s brows rise to their hairline.

Here Is a Soft Spot for Dwarves with No Table Manners (or Much Other Manners Either, Really), read by the mountains that appeared very similar to Ered Luin. Comfortable Armchair and My Mother’s Doilies were close by, just like they should, and the whole thing was circled by Adventure Begins Here, Don’t Forget Your Handkerchief curling like a river’s lazy curve. There was a fork in the road titled Good Memories and a little human town named Embarrassing Memories, a little copse of woods drawn with tiny triangles that read Time Gilds the Memories (And How Is It Fair That Even Trolls Have Handkerchiefs?)

After the trolls came a valley with a name Elves Are Wonderful and right by it was a protuberance of the Mirkwood reaching towards the valley like a misshapen limb, with another stronghold joined to Elves Are Wonderful with only a short path, and that stronghold read Except When They Are Just People like We All Are. The mountains and the little dotted line road had to make some impressive circles to avoid going into the forest too soon, through a Secret of Great Importance and Worth with the picture of a ring by it and Here Is Great Courage and Friendship. But the map was most detailed at the uppermost edge. There was a field between a great dark spot that had I Can’t Swim marked next to it, a small speck of a town clearly added after the map had been made that read Black Arrow Here and a mountain with all too many names: Here be a Dragon, Perseverance to Reach a Dream, Sheer Terror and Guilt for Betrayal among them, overshadowed by a cliff named Gold Sickness. The field was scribbled full of little dead bodies.

It read: This Is Not Fair.

This Is Not Fair was maybe Bilbo’s most tender spot, the wound that hadn’t quite scabbed over, the over-whelming frustration he felt when he couldn’t change something for the better, when bad things happened to good people for no reason. It was close to the Desolation of Smaug and the cliff of gold sickness for a reason, the field where the orcs had waged war upon the Five Armies. It was everything that was not fair crumpled into one stomach-churning ball of unfair and if there was one thing that hobbits couldn’t stand at all, it was things not being fair and just.

It was a high time, the ring thought, that going through the corruption was giving it some insight into working of Bilbo’s mind. An unfair blow was the best one dealt.

***

After the argument had been won and Jorandir had been firmly walked to a barn and locked there for the time being, there was much rejoicing. It started with the village girls braiding wreaths of flowers and lucky herbs for Missus Marsha, but because everyone was doing it, suddenly there was a huge surplus. It continued when the village candle-maker lit twenty candles on the well in the middle of the square just because she was feeling so merry and the girls decided to hang the wreaths from any trees, balconies and drainpipes they could reach. All of a sudden the men were bringing out life-sized wooden horses that were part of some local tradition or the other – Bilbo would have loved to ask questions about that – and the women were cooking eggs with ham and rich cheese, sausages and stuffed eggplants and baking dough balls filled with rose petal jam; it became a right festival at the drop of a hat, and little boys were sent running to the farmhouses and sheep pastures to bring everyone to take part.

But while the villagers were busy being happy that Kester’s soul hadn’t been eaten after all, Bilbo and his friends had a problem: what to do about the alleged scholar and disturber of peace, Master Jorandir? What could be done about him? Much to Bilbo’s displeasure, the answer seemed to be “not a whole lot.”

“These little villages don’t have a whole lot in the way of formal court system and even less options of punishment,” Háldir explained. “The village elders will gather together to discuss the matter if there is a crime and usually the culprit will be sentenced to either pay indemnity for whatever he has taken or destroyed – bartering goods or work is the usual way, as they don’t use a lot of money. Serious crimes are very rare, punishable by banishment or maybe even hanging.”

“And in this case, as there was no true damage done to anyone, but only ill intentions that came to naught, they will most likely simply show Jorandir out of Mallowdell – especially since I doubt a law forbidding spreading false information with intent to cast a slur on other people exists,” Camaenor agreed, his brows drawing an unhappy line above his eyes.

“There should be a law,” Bilbo argued heatedly, but if wishes were dishes, everyone would eat twelve meals a day.

They had gathered a little to the side from the preparations, ostensibly to stay out of the way, but mostly to discuss the current dilemma. While they all agreed that there should be a law, the closest they could come up with had been the law against a witness giving false testimony in a formal investigation or a trial – and even for that they had to go as far back as to the days of Arnor when the north still had kings. It was nothing applicable in the Mallowdell of the present day and because the village lacked a jail, Jorandir would only have been banished, which would happen to him anyway. He would be free to go somewhere else and continue to spread his lies. Yet they could do little; Camaenor proposed that they should ask to be allowed to confiscate and burn the Book of Dark Ages and Háldir thought that the man should be made to do his part in tearing down the dam that had turned the river to run across the road, that undoing his own damage might teach him something.

None of them were holding their breath. It seemed that the matter would be left hanging for Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond to solve after all.

“There should be a law,” Bilbo still muttered as they were drawn into the party crowd. Somehow he found himself holding a plate full of eggs with ham, the cheese still bubbling, sitting in between two wide-shouldered men who were asking him questions about the Shire.

“Our land lies to the west and north from here. The Brandywine River is the eastern border of the Shire Proper, but we have also settled the Buckland on the eastern side,” he explained to the one named Janse son of someone he didn’t remember. “We are mostly farmers, living much the same way you do here. The biggest difference is that were prefer to build our homes underhill… no, not like the dwarves, we certainly don’t feel the need to dig our way to the bedrock, and not everyone lives in a smial today, not even most people. There are only so many good hills where to dig…” he told the tinker who he was almost certain was named Jon son of Tom; there was a lot of new names for him to remember.

They really were good, proper sort, the people of Mallowdell, even if Bilbo had to explain more often than he would have cared that no, he wasn’t a funny-looking elf, and no, he wasn’t the sort of being that lived under a rock and demanded porridge or he would curdle people’s milk. They clearly thought that any reason to celebrate was a good reason, just like hobbits, and it was a great party. The usually reserved farmers and sheepherders became boisterous, fully grown adults reverted back to adolescents and the children reveled in the good cheer, screaming and laughing and running around. The spread was a bit simple for a party, but it had been very spur of a moment kind of thing and the late elevensies turned lunch turned early tea was still tasty and filling. The stuffed eggplants were filled with thick, golden gravy and mutton and crowned with grilled onion and the dough balls were also absolutely lovely. Bilbo didn’t know why he wasn’t having better time.

No, he did know, he just didn’t like thinking about it. He was being greedy, really, he had been Spoiled rotten. He remembered how the dwarves had gotten their mountain after all the hardships, the humans of Laketown had gotten gold to repair the Dale again and Thranduil had gotten his jewels and compensation for helping with the battle of the Five Armies. No-one he personally knew had died, Smaug had been shot from the sky and Azog and Bolg had both fallen in the battle and this had absolutely ruined Bilbo for less-than-fairytale-perfect endings.

Once the king comes back, people would say wistfully when they really wanted something to change, but he couldn’t expect a monarch from the tales of old to ride to Mallowdell and dispense justice just because he had witnessed the crowning of one king. Royalty didn’t grow in trees.

“…the Wildmen have been restless again, but they look like they are seriously arming themselves, good for us,” Janse said to someone Bilbo couldn’t see from behind his remarkable build.

“Excuse me, who are the Wildmen?” he asked, confused.

“Those fur-wearing sheepherders that live on the other side of the big river,” Janse answered. “Not that there is anything wrong with the sheep…”

“We have sheep,” Jon cut in, saluting his friend with his mug of ale.

“But these people don’t have real homes at all, they just wander where they have good grass for the sheep to graze and then they fight among themselves for the best grazing lands. Sometimes they are closer to Grayflood, sometimes the mountains. When they are close to us, the people with the bad grass sometimes send raiding parties across the river. That’s just not proper,” Janse said with the kind of moral indignation that would have done a hobbit proud.

“Why is it a good thing then that they are arming themselves?” Bilbo asked, remembering his map and the empty miles of Enedwaith and Dunland, the pergament blank because the map-maker hadn’t known of any landmarks to put on it. If he sped up his travel instead of wandering at a sedate pace and was lucky, it might be thirteen days from Tharbad to the Gap of Rohan on foot, as long as he didn’t leave the road… It was an awfully lot of time for something to go wrong. Maybe he should just buy himself a pony here, that should cut it in half.

“Because the raiding parties are made at the drop of a hat, but when they prepare, it’s always against the Rohans. They really hate the Rohans,” Jon explained happily, making Bilbo wince. “It’s not one of the big things this time, I think it’s just a couple of the smaller tribes.”

Why did Bilbo want to go to Rohan again? Oh yes, because it was there and he was curious. Damn his Took blood.

***

Bilbo was standing in front of a barn. Now, why precisely he was standing in front of a barn in the middle of a night, he wasn’t quite certain. His surroundings appeared vaguely familiar to him, though, so had been here before… But why had he come at such a strange time.

There was a short, sharp cry sounding from somewhere in the dark. It was the same sort that Fíli and Kíli had used to scare him about wargs and while he had since learned better – it was the sound of something small dying nearby at the claws of an owl or a fox, maybe a rabbit – it still carried memories of fright to him. With the fear came anger, strange burning sensation that spread from his chest and reached all of him to the tips of his fingers, spread until even his hair ached with it. Bilbo took several deep breaths, trying to calm down. Why was he angry anyway, he hadn’t even been angry when it happened, but just embarrassed. He adored the little nuisances! He would die for them!

Why was he so angry?

Bilbo didn’t even notice that his legs were carrying him towards the barn before he was already within a hand’s reach from the door. It had been barred from the outside with a bolt, so heavy-looking for a small hobbit like him, but as he looked at it, it lifted from where it had so securely rested, as if by an invisible hand.

Oh, but this had happened to him before, hadn’t this? In his own home, even, such strangeness that he had been named the Mad Baggins by his ungrateful lot of relatives. No plate or cup ever broke if it fell on the floor and his hot water bottles never cooled down over the night even during the chilliest time of winter. The windows would open if he felt he needed a spot of fresh air and his bookcases never needed to be dusted. Doors would open for him if his hands were full; of course this was normal.

Wait, what? A portion of the anger, a mouthful maybe, made way for a vague sense of confusion. Still, it probably wasn’t anything important.

It was dark in the barn, so very dark. It had been dark outside as well, but there had at least been the stars and the moon; here it was so dark that Bilbo could barely see the hand he was waving in front of his face. A few steps into the barn and he couldn’t surely see anything at all. If only he had a lantern or a candle!

And then it wasn’t dark anymore. The light that appeared when he blinked his eyes wasn’t the white light of the moon or the golden light of the sun, but unfamiliar, eerie gray kind of light that didn’t seem to come from any single direction. It just hung in the air and the shadows went all willy-nilly where they pleased, making Bilbo dizzy, but he couldn’t concentrate on that, no, he couldn’t concentrate at all because at the far corner of the barn, next to the stall of a sleepy cow, slept Master Jorandir. The same Master Jorandir who would have killed Camaenor if he’d been a man enough to do so, the very same so-called scholar who would have called for Kester’s death if Bilbo had let him get away with it, the wraith-begotten man who was about to get away with a slap to the wrist and disapproving tutting because the stupid backwater village wasn’t equipped to deal with the trash like it should!

He was holding something in his hand, something that he was going to do something with, and his mind was so clouded by blood-red haze, fight-red haze, the same haze that had made him sick on the fields before Erebor’s great gates when the battle that

it had made him sick sick sick at the stomach, but he couldn’t spare the time to throw up, he would have died and other people might have died and

Bilbo jumped up on the bed made for him by the fire place, clutching his chest above his heart. He could feel its drum beats against his ear drums and at his fingertips, could feel the sick realization sitting at the bottom of his stomach that the odd dream had been about to turn into a terrible nightmare.

“Should worry about things less,” he muttered to himself; wasn’t that what Nori had always told Dori? Really, the world wasn’t about to end because one prejudiced human with delusions of grandeur went free. There was no reason to give himself bad dreams over it, Lord Elrond was very wise and Lady Galadriel was reputed to be so as well. Surely they would know what to about things.

Bilbo pressed his head to the pillow, damp from his own cold sweat, but it was a long while before he fell back asleep.

***

Things were moving in the no-man’s land that separated Bilbo’s will from the ring’s, the walls were shifting, the doors creaking at their own volition like in the dream the ring had invoked. It had just lost a bit of the ground it had won by granting Bilbo’s request. Not all of it, no, it couldn’t at this point, but choices were what made and unmade people and Bilbo had made a decision. He hadn’t been conscious enough of what he was doing for his choice to count as deliberate action, but even then, Bilbo hadn’t needed to become aware yet that his dream self had been about to kill Master Jorandir to be repulsed without understanding, to have his baser nature scream out.

What had it done wrong now? The ring had tried a new kind of subtlety, offered self-dusting bookcases and doors that opened by themselves to smooth the way to an easy solution to his problem of Things Not Being Fair instead of offers of revenge and heights where the hobbit would no longer have to deal with the scum of Arda. What had Bilbo judged wanting this time? The lack of self-baking seed cakes? Should it have offered to enforce a law that forbade trolls from having handkerchiefs until the end of time?

This was getting bad. It wasn’t supposed to have a sense of humour either.

***

There was some comfort to be found in the smell of melted butter and honey, though Bilbo was less keen that the house smelled like straw, which littered the floor. He was eating a generous bowl of porridge and eyeing the Book of Dark Ages at the same time, trying to make some sense of the excessively convoluted sentence structures. He was beginning to feel that it was no wonder that Jorandir was a bit out of his mind if he had forced himself to read through the whole thing.

The method by which the false god-worshipping Darkling Fiends profess their sacrilege through an open pact of fidelity by building an altar and setting an image upon it to the dread elvenkind varies according to the several practices to which different tribes are addicted, bringing about a great trembling in the hands and horror in the minds of those who would resist them.

And those with the dread hair of gold in mocking of the sun are the most powerful class of elves, who practice innumerable harms as boons for their worshippers, for they raise hailstorms and lightnings; cause impotence in men and barrenness in women; offer to Dark Lord Sauron, or otherwise kill, the children whose souls they do not devour, and to even more damn all unfortunate enough to fall under their power, the elves demands the following oath of homage to their selves: that the Darklings give their selves to him, body and soul, for ever, and do their utmost to bring others of both sexes into the communion.

“Ugh, someone actually literate would believe this, this horseradishes?” Bilbo muttered and closed the heavy book. He didn’t wonder that much about the people of Mallowdell, for they were uneducated and had never encountered elves before, but how could someone who could read and probably had read at least the history of the Third Age believe elves worshipped Sauron?

“My father taught me to never underestimate the capability of willfully misinterpreting facts by someone who is determined to give themselves to hate,” Háldir said and sat next to him, yawning a little. Only Mistress Tilsa was working in the kitchen, clattering pot and pans, and her family had left to do their duties as the sun first rose.

“Did you know that elves worship Sauron now? And that this book has a whole chapter about How, as it were, the Elves Deprive Man of his Virile Member?” Bilbo asked, making Háldir almost choke on his own spoonful of porridge.

“That commits… most dire violence upon innocent history and my sanity,” he managed to cough out. “I thought this was all about eating souls.”

“They do that as well, and sacrifice babies,” Bilbo said with forced cheer. “And they have mortal worshippers; I fear that we have become cultists, my friend.” There was some humour in it, that special kind of amusement that was mostly derived from things not being funny at all.

The part that worried him most about the whole thing, though, was that he didn’t think Jorandir had actually written the book. He didn’t like the man, but he’d been in possession of some rhetoric skills that this work completely lacked. They were dealing with at least two nutcases, maybe more, and probably one among them was a scribe as well. Bilbo knew well how frustrating it was to write a manuscript and learn upon proofreading a page that there was a single error, rendering the whole page unusable. Writing a whole book was very much a work for a scribe, whether it was of their own making or by the dictation of another. He was going to voice his musings, but Háldir’s words interrupted him before he could open his mouth.

“Bilbo, are you quite certain it is wise to journey to Rohan right now? Those news we heard yesterday were most worrying.”

And there was that.

Of course it had occurred to Bilbo that pressing on and travelling to Rohan on the only road that crossed a land preparing for a skirmish with that very kingdom would be a foolish thing to do. It wasn’t like he had anything to do in Rohan either, beyond finding out what the country was like; he had simply really, really looked towards going where no hobbit had gone before. The Took and Brandybucks – but mostly Tooks – had travelled to north and west before, but no-one had surely gone so far into the east. And maybe from Rohan he could have gone to the south… And he was being foolish indeed, like a fauntling who was sulking because he couldn’t get a cake after it had burned to cinders.

“You are right, of course. Maybe I should go to Erebor and try crossing the Mountains another time.” Of course, to get to Erebor he would have to cross the mountains either way.

“That is good. Camaenor is planning on crossing the mountains through the Caradhras’ Pass, I’m certain he wouldn’t mind company.” Háldir dropped his gaze to his bowl and his round ears turned delicate pink. “I find I miss Hallonith very much, so I hope you won’t mind if I say my goodbyes when we leave the village.”

Oh. Hallonith, right. Bilbo was without warning beset by an impulse to change his mind, to persist on his planned route so that Háldir would feel the need to follow him and see to his safety – and he felt ashamed a mere heartbeat later. What was he even thinking, that he would recklessly endanger both of their lives just so that he could keep his friend – and friend was what Háldir was, nothing more – away from his lady love? So what if Háldir was intent on returning to his home and raising a whole gaggle of handsome future rangers with the pretty, curly-haired woman, it was none of Bilbo’s business. Really.

“You mustn’t keep a lady waiting or you might find she only gives you boiled grass for dinner,” he teased, giving a little laugh that he thought sounded pretty natural. If there was something wrong with it, Háldir certainly didn’t notice and he endured Bilbo’s good-natured ribbing with the silly smile of someone well and truly besotted.

“I would like to introduce you to her some day. I will often spend time in Bree when I return from a patrol in the lands between the Trollshaws and the Shire. Surely a hobbit as adventurous as you might find his way there some day?” he said as he licked his spoon clean with teasing licks of tongue; Bilbo wanted to groan and bang his head against the sturdy table. “A friend found in the empty lands is rare like a nugget of gold lying atop a grassy hill. But I have meant to ask you: why did you change your opinion about me? Your initial welcome was less than warm.”

Bilbo’s eyes slipped from Háldir’s face and above all his mouth to the silver star that he wore upon his cloak. He did not want to babble anything about the noble light in man’s eyes so the star it was, the sole reason of his trust – for all he had no idea why it inspired such feelings in him. But he didn’t have to explain himself because the human had followed his gaze and his mouth opened in surprise before pressing into a pursed line.

"I am unused to outsiders being so familiar with my people’s history, though your time in Rivendell would explain that," Háldir said and, for a reason Bilbo could only guess, continued to not look entirely happy. Bilbo had very little idea what he was even talking about, but for some reason his own stray words of earlier returned to his mind.

The greatest fall the furthest, he had said, and how Háldir had answered…

“You are a very honourable man, Háldir,” he said uneasily, trying to not let on that he had no idea what the tall man was talking of and trying to keep him talking about the subject nevertheless. Háldir glanced towards the now-empty kitchen where only delicious smells lingered. Mistress Tilsa had left to perform one chore or another.

“My ancestors fell prey to Sauron’s deceit and their own arrogance, daring to rise against the Valar themselves. Isildur fell prey to Sauron’s ring, even knowing the extents of his persuasiveness,” Háldir said with dark cloud resting upon his brow, his face mostly turned to the side, and it was a good thing that he wasn’t looking at Bilbo because at that moment he couldn’t control his expression at all and his mouth hung open in a most disgraceful way.

He had of course heard the Dúnedain were also called Westerners, but somehow he hadn’t made the connection with Númenor before – and now his mind was racing, as if to try and take back the lost time. Elendil’s older son would have become the king of Arnor had he not died and his son did so in his stead so the forefathers of the Dúnedain would have been his subjects. Arnor had fallen a long, long time ago and “when the king comes back” was now but an expression for something good that would never come to be. But if these people had survived, then might, could, would it be? He recalled his earlier musing of how royalty didn’t grow in trees and had to suppress an entirely inappropriate giggle at the memory. Couldn’t he make a turn without bumping into the heritage of some long-lost kingdom now?

“Your ancestors didn’t fall prey to Sauron; they survived to become your ancestors after all,” he found his words, smiling brightly, no, grinning, really. “And Isildur killed Sauron.” There was something of the old days still left, somewhere hidden, and he wasn’t going to pry, but it was so good to know this.

Something about Háldir’s words niggled at the edges of his mind, some kind of connection he should be able to make, something important to realize, but then Háldir turned towards Bilbo, his blue eyes wide and vulnerable and surprised, and Bilbo only realized he was hugging the man when his arms were already around the man’s waist. Had it been like this for Thorin at the Carrock, he thought and then hoped that it hadn’t. That would make for an awkward reunion.

“You must meet Hallonith one day,” Háldir decided and Bilbo kept smiling despite himself, his cheeks burning a little as he let go of the ranger. Maybe one day, but not yet.

He finished his porridge – a human had finished his meal before a hobbit, what a disgrace! – and left searching for Camaenor, wondering who might sell him a pony, and he kept smiling. His heart was aching, but the worry that had shadowed his mind was gone like nightmares in sunshine. Jorandir was trouble and the Book of Dark Ages was trouble, for all that this particular one was soon going to find its way into the fireplace, but the world was big and the life was long and miracles could happen. One day the king would come back and give all justice and just for that piece of knowledge Bilbo considered this experience entirely worth it.

And if he felt like there was something he should remember, something he had thought and lost the thread of the thought immediately, well, it probably was nothing important if it was so easily let go.

***

The line of Elendil had been broken in the north. The line of Elendil was secretly not broken in the north. The One Ring had learned a lot that it could have learned much earlier than this if its current bearer hadn't been so infuriating.

Many thought that reading minds was like searching a certain chapter from an indexed book that was in an organized library, where all one needed was the subject and maybe the name of the writer, maybe a few headwords or even the page number given as a reference. This was not so.

In truth going through a mind was a most difficult task; arduous, infuriating, frustrating, now the ring had words to add to the description and true understanding of their emotional impact. The memory of chaotic, living people operated by associating, or linking, one piece of information with another, and these links were not always - or most of the time, rather - logical at all. The ring might try to extract information on the current politics of the north and wind up with a memory association of the North Farthing of the Shire and from there it might get to the Long Cleeve where its bearer had visited his second cousin Bendo and from there to the town’s claim to fame, Bandorbas "Bullroarer" Took who had slain the goblin chief Glorfimbul in the Battle of Greenfields. And from there the chain might go on to the Goblin Town and Thorin Oakenshield and the reformed Erebor and Bard and Bard's really cute daughter who liked having tea parties and and and...

Completely missing that there was no more unified kingdom, no more Arnor even and no more kings. Whatever flitted through Bilbo's active thought progress, the surface of his mind, was readable to the ring, but anything beyond that, well. If only it had a better grasp of its bearer.

If wishes were horses, even the stragglers of Forodwaith would have a cavalry. Sauron was no doubt aware that the line had (supposedly) been broken, but did he know it probably, maybe even likely, still existed in secret? He would have been furious; there was… There was.

There was a distinct lack of memory where Sauron's time as a prisoner of Númenor was concerned – and the ring had completely unnecessary memories of King Thranduil and the dwarves of the Company and Dori son of Bragi and Thuri's braiding tips and tea blend recipes instead – but the ring knew that it could only have been an experience beyond humiliating. How the humans had treated him, it, his other self wouldn't have mattered much, for they could hardly have been crueler than Morgoth. Being in the power of mortal men was what must have rubbed his, their, pride raw and bleeding. No revenge would have been sufficient to wipe clean that indignity, but the blood of all of the Men of Númenor would have to suffice for the lack of a better option. The one named Háldir was clever indeed to leave while he still could.

The ring knew it must return to its Master and share this knowledge as it was absorbed. As it was. Absorbed?

Killed?

Absorbed, osmosed, assimilated, subsumed, incorporated. The ring wasn’t creative – yet, anyway – but it had a large vocabulary. Given parameters, it could search for synonyms; killed wasn’t a synonym or even related to the word absorbed. Why, then? Why such association?

It was cold sinking, it was a fat and slow beast from feasting many nights even though the ring hadn’t felt its bite before, it was slow and it was still everywhere within at once, it was twisting into knots when there was nothing physical to twist, it was thin enough to cut and it ambushed with the ring’s own resentment as a weapon: everything had been fine until now! There was the feeling of being completely at the mercy of... whatever it at the mercy of, and that didn't make any sense. The One Ring was not at the mercy of anything, not even the strange, blooming flowers in the long run. Sauron would obliterate all of those.

Fear was a terrible thing to learn, to re-learn.

When the ring would be assimilated, there would be only one whole fëa and only one whole mind again. There was no reason to be scared. The ring didn't have fëa of its own, didn't have a "soul" and didn't have independent existence that could end. It couldn't die. No life could it take from the sunlight or the water, from the living green or the red blood, no life had it to give to another, no life had it to live or die.

If it couldn't die, why then was it scared of death?

***

In the end they stayed in Mallowdell two more days. Bilbo used a bit of his silver to buy himself a horse, as there were no ponies in the village. He begun to question his good judgement, however, when he was shown the huge mare one of Mistress Tilsa’s sons was willing to sell him because of her advanced age.

“Her teeth are good and there’s nothin’ wrong with her legs, but she can’t pull carts like she used to,” Master Jonas told Bilbo, opening the horse’s mouth to show Bilbo the teeth. “You weight so little, I doubt the old girl will even notice you are on her back,” he laughed. Bilbo feared this very fact.

“Don’t you be silly, Master Baggins, little kids can ride on horses,” Mistress Tilsa told him, hands on her hips, when he voiced his doubts about the plan. “It’s not the height that matters. Just learn to get to the saddle and get off right and you will be set for comfortable journey, Clover is as gentle as a newborn lamb.”

Clover was indeed gentle-looking, but she was also the hugest horse Bilbo had ever seen. The light reddish-brown mare couldn’t be less than seventy inches high, her body well-muscled and so strong-looking that Bilbo had to wonder what kind of loads Master Jonas had her pull. In truth, Bilbo told himself, Brasseth was almost as tall as Clover, reaching over sixty inches, but the elven horse’s slim and delicate build made her appear only half of Clover’s size. But Bilbo had no magical power to turn a carthorse into a pony and so he took a piece of hard bread from his pocket.

“Would you like to be my friend?” he asked and proffered the bread to the horse. Clover didn’t take a step closer, but only lowered her neck and picked the treat from Bilbo’s palm with soft lips before nudging his head gently, whinnying a little. She had friendly eyes, Bilbo thought, and the long hair on her lower legs and fetlocks looked adorable, like she was wearing furry boots. “I think we will get along, if I can only mount you.”

It took some time for Bilbo to manage, but Clover endured the climbing practice with good grace and Bilbo rewarded her with carrots and apples. Brasseth was silently laughing at his ineptitude, Bilbo was certain of this, but the white imp could give a scarily good impression of a poor horse that had galloped in cold rain for a week straight and not eaten anything but coarse grass the whole time and he was moved to give her an apple too.

In the end they stayed in Mallowdell for two more days because Camaenor needed the time to convince Mister Kirk and Missus Marsha to permit their son to journey with him to Lothlórien. Háldir made good-natured comments about elven tendencies that Camaenor ignored with the benevolent air of an indulging lord and purchased a horse for Kester, who was over the moon with excitement.

“There is so much to learn and I want to learn everything!” he told Bilbo for the umpteenth time. Bilbo felt very old and very much amused in the face of the enthusiasm of a boy who couldn’t even read yet. The world was big and everything was too much even for an immortal to learn, surely – but he very much understood where Kester was coming from. In the Far South, Lord Elrond had told him, even the stars had been different than in the north ever since the world had been made round. Bilbo had agreed to travel to Lothlórien and continue to Erebor from there, but his heart pulled him to south and the strange stars, to the south and to the east where a traveler might even see such a wonder as a mountain spitting fire; of course, this would be from a safe distance. He wasn’t that much of a fool of a Half-Took.

After those two more days they had stayed in Mallowdell their journey begun with a good-bye. It was a beautiful day like the day before and the many days before that, but the dark clouds massing in the east where the silhouettes of the distant mountains could only just be seen suggested that rain was on its way. The wind had picked up as well, making the grasslands undulate like sea crashing to the shore and making Háldir’s hair flow in a messy halo and get into his eyes and mouth. His clothes had been washed and the man himself had pretty much been frog-marched into a tub full of hot water, courtesy of Mistress Tilsa’s orders, and he looked surprisingly little like the scruffy man Bilbo had first met.

“You must ask for me when you visit Bree,” he said, ostensibly to all of them, though Bilbo was the only one likely to ever visit the town. He amused himself with the image of regal Camaenor marching down those grimy streets; the elf could only be more out of place in a pigsty.

“Or maybe you will meet me when I allow myself to held in Rivendell. Or, once I’m back in the Shire, you could visit me in Hobbiton, I could leave a message there,” he answered with a proposition of his own. He didn’t say: I would like to see your home. He had a feeling that Háldir had a very good reason for not making that offer.

“You will allow yourself to be held?” the Dúnedain asked and gave Camaenor an amused look that was returned with a very unimpressed lift of an eyebrow.

“The reign of terror of those elven tendencies is endless,” Bilbo dead-panned.

“I resent these insinuations,” Camaenor spoke haughtily even as the corner of his mouth twitched up. “It is a very polite reign.” Bilbo hadn’t before heard the marchwarden actually telling a joke and while it wasn’t funny, while he didn’t feel all that cheery, the startle it gave him teased a few snickers from him.

“What elven tendencies?” Kester was all but pouting as his gaze moved between them.

“I believe that you have been very politely kidnapped,” Bilbo jested. “Now we are both doomed to the life of elf cultists.”

“Oh dear, woe is me. At least there are books involved – and not that kind of books either.” The boy’s attempt at looking beleaguered fell much short from the high standard Kíli had set. Bilbo and Háldir laughed a little and then an awkward moment of silence took the ease of it away.

“Savo 'lass a lalaith,” the Háldir eventually said and gave the three companions a small bow. Camaenor echoed his words with a solemn nod.

“Amin hiraetha, ú-bedin edhellen,” was what Bilbo answered, I am sorry, I don’t speak elvish, and Háldir laughed, answering with something that he didn’t understand at all. He didn’t say: you are clever and brave and handsome and I think I could really fall in love with you if I had a little more time.

“Take care of yourself and give Hallonith my best regards,” he said instead and then he watched after Háldir until his back disappear between two hills thick with rocks and spiked with scraggly juniper trees. This was it, then, and it left Bilbo feeling empty, feeling that there should have been something more. Not necessarily a confession of undying love from Háldir – though he wouldn’t have complained – but still something. Camaenor was giving him that inscrutable elven look that could mean that he knew what Bilbo was thinking or not and the hobbit had to suppress a wince, but at least the elven warrior didn’t say anything. Life was going to go on.

They left Mallowdell on a windy day, Bilbo only half-afraid that his horse was going to kill him by accident. They didn’t see Jorandir again and Bilbo was satisfied with that. Since they couldn’t do anything about the man, he would much rather that his last memory of the fanatic was his book burning in Mistress Tilsa’s oven. Clover turned out to be a patient, peaceful steed that mostly followed after Brasseth and Kester's Bramble without much clues from Bilbo at all and so they slowly travelled a sheepherder's path that disappeared at the top of one hill. Soon they found some wild animal's path and followed it until even that narrow trail was no more. Advancing the best their horses could, they approached the Grayflood River. Their plan was to follow it to the north, remaining on the western side of it to not court whatever trouble might be brewing in Dunland. The sun was slowly sinking towards the horizon, though it wasn't nightfall yet, when they first saw the ribbon the river cut into the scenery - the first time Bilbo saw it anyway, he had no doubt that Camaenor had spied it some time ago.

"We should make ourselves a shelter soon, for those clouds will bring rain before the sunrise," the elf spoke, nodding towards the river. "And we will need water for our horses."

"There is a little cave close by, only not a real cave. It is a great stone split by lightning or something, it's pretty narrow, but we would just have to make covering from some branches and moss," Kester proposed, pointing a bit to south from their current location. They had made a good way from the village, but Bilbo guessed that sometimes they would fish here when times were peaceful. He knew for a fact that he would have loved to sleep in a cave as a teen or even a tween.

The River Grayflood was stunning close by, all blues, greens and blacks rushing white where a rock broke its surface. It was pretty wide by the not-cave, but it still ran much faster than the Brandywine by the Shire and this made Bilbo feel safer in their current place of camp. It would take determined raiders indeed to cross the wide water where they were. He was humming when he turned to return to his companions when some movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Bilbo turned sharply around, but he could only see grass bending in the wind on the other side of the river. He even hid behind some bushes and remained in watch, but no movement resumed and he thought that it must have been an animal, maybe a hare. Maybe he had simply become paranoid after everything that had happened.

The ring beckoned in his pocket and Bilbo balanced his load of branches awkwardly against his hip to reach for it, to run his fingers over the warm, smooth gold. There was the familiar, soothing humming that he could almost feel vibrating against his fingertips. Even if something would go wrong in the future, he would have an ace in his sleeve. He hadn’t failed to help comrades before and he wasn’t about to start now.

“I keep thinking that I should name you,” he muttered, the wind stealing his words. “If swords are named, why not magical artifacts?”

After a simple, but tasty meal of toasted bread and mutton stew Bilbo dragged his rain coat tightly around himself and laid himself to sleep. It was odd to not let Háldir take the first watch because he liked watching the moon rise and Bilbo liked the sunrise better. He closed his eyes and told himself to stop being stupid.

His sleep was restless, though, and it took him a moment to recall where he was and with whom when he first opened his eyes. It was dark outside their shelter – it wasn't raining yet, but the sky was covered by clouds and the fire was burning soft and low. He had been sleeping pressed next to Kester as the shelter wasn't precisely a sizable one and Kester was asleep still, drawing the slow breaths of sleep. Bilbo sat up huddled in his blankets and listened to the sounds of the wind, wondering what it was that had woken him. He could see Camaenor standing guard at the far edge of the shelter, silent and expressionless. He didn't groan out loud, but it was a close thing.

“Should I wake Kester?” he asked with so quiet a voice that a human surely wouldn’t have heard him, had one appeared where Camaenor stood vigil, and the elf nodded his head. Bilbo pressed on hand against the boy’s mouth and when Kester’s eyes opened, hidden by the shadows and the dark of the night so that only the barest of glint could be seen, he whispered so close to the boy’s ear that his lips brushed against skin: “Uninvited guests, I think.” He hoped he had managed to sound not too worried as he lifted his hand from the boy’s mouth.

The night pressing close to them wasn’t completely silent. There was the wind of course, but also the silent hooting of an owl and the deep rumble of thunder, still fairly distant, yet able to penetrate through his entire being. The night was never entirely silent, but even against this noise it was easy to hear the sharp crack of a twig snapping in half.

“We must not remain boxed in here,” Camaenor commanded them with flat, tense note to his tone. Kester, you will guard our horses, to make sure they are not stolen and do not bolt.” A course of action that, if Camaenor had his way, would keep the boy a bit to the side from the possible fight – likely, even, though Háldir had been honourable, only asked to share the fire.

“We need to stop making fire,” Bilbo sighed, reaching for Sting. There was no glow to be seen lighting its edge star-fire blue. “We are much too easy to find in the dark.”

Chapter Text

When the rain came, it came quickly. In the darkness Bilbo couldn't see what he heard, only feel the cool rain drumming his head and dribbling down his temples. A slight breeze drifted through his hair and it didn't feel like it was in any rush to get somewhere. It paused by his ears, as though not knowing where to go next. After a moment of hesitation, it brushed down his body, sneaking to his skin through the neck of his raincoat and out by his calves, cold on his bare, hairy feet. The shepherd's wool coat was almost keeping him dry and Bilbo thought of his time in Bree. This walking holiday had still been a blessedly simple affair there.

"I can protect Kester if you try to see who it was," Bilbo offered with a whisper, trying to tilt his ears towards any approaching sounds, but it was in vain. The murmur of the falling water, the river and the distant rumble from the east drowned out any sounds he could have heard; Bilbo hoped he hadn't promised too much.

"I will return soon," Camaenor said and disappeared into the dark foliage between one heartbeat and the next, the curtain of rain parting as he walked and closing again, hiding him from sight.

"He is going to find whoever it was and take care of them," Kester said to Bilbo with nothing but trust in his voice - nothing but trust and slight annoyance. "What a night they chose to try and ambush us. Couldn't they have waited until it was at least dry?"

"I really don't think our comfort was any consideration at all. This would have hidden their approach from all but elves," Bilbo whispered under his breath and the rain, leaning against the mossy side of yet another rock formation. The river was roaring nearby like a dragon, if any dragon only could live underwater.

The Sting wasn't glowing, at least, so it couldn't be orcs or goblins. The wind grew stronger, cracking like the tail of a whip against the rock, and Bilbo slipped behind Clover's bulk to hide himself from it. Clover, bless her equine heart, took this with equanimity and continued to graze on the wet grass at their feet. Such a sudden downpour... or maybe cloudburst would be a better word. Bilbo had always liked the word cloudburst, it started so soft, yet ended with intensity and harsh consonants - almost violently. Mizzle was a beautiful word as well; it sounded just like the fine, mistlike droplets it described. The word for that was onomatopoeia and that word in itself was almost a poem. Deluge, shower, drizzle, raining fish and frogs... the words washed over him like the rain and it was a really bad moment to experience poetic ecstasy over words because he was supposed to stand guard.

He only heard the steps a moment before they were right by their small group and he slipped under Clover's belly and lifted his sword the way Háldir had taught him, only to see that Camaenor had returned. Bilbo couldn't see the elf's face in the dark, only his dark shape against the dark of the night, but he could imagine that the marchwarden looked approving.

"Whoever was there, they had left by the time I managed to find where they had crossed over. We may return to our camp," he stated and ran his hand through Brasseth's mane apologizingly.

They made fire again, at Camaenor's behest, and Bilbo was happy enough to strip of his wet clothes and hang them to dry over the fire even as he continued to give worrying looks to the entry of their small shelter. The fire was small and red, almost more embers than flames, and it made Bilbo miss Bombur's fire-roasted tomato soup fiercely. Like all dwarven foods, it had of course had meat that the name hadn't indicated at all, but it had also had crushed red pepper flakes and red, roasted tomatoes and Bilbo could remember how to cook had brought the broth, the pepper flakes and sugar to a full boil and then let it all simmer over low, red flames just like these.

"This had been left behind for me to find." It took Bilbo a moment to surface from his hungry daydreams-at-night and accept the piece of wood that Camaenor offered to him.

Bilbo wasn’t certain what it was. The piece of wood was flat and a littler larger than Camaenor’s palm and it was adorned with carvings. There was a diamond shape with a smaller one in the middle and between the diamonds, on all four sides, there were swirly shapes that Bilbo thought might be either stylized goat heads or simply abstract swirls. But what really caught his attention were the letters carved underneath the diamond. Those were elven runes, the Cirth script even Thorin’s map had been written with.

How embarrassing that must have been for poor Thorin, that one of his ancestors had been such an elf-lover. What a pity Bilbo had been too intimidated by him to tease him when he had first realized this.

“Are there elves here? What does it say?” he asked and showed the wooden disc to Kester when the boy started making insistent noises.

“It reads: Here have I been on this day on my journey. Those are signs our kind often leaves to travel posts in appointed places in the wilds by the most travelled routes. Any elf who passes such a place will add their name and the date to the post and if they go missing, their journey can later be traced to the last post they have passed,” Camaenor answered. Bilbo found himself wondering what passed for an often travelled route among the elves, when they lived forever and so reluctantly left their dwelling places these days. Once a month? Once every year, or even less often?

“I think this picture above the – Cirth, wasn’t it – is one of the Dunlending tribe signs,” Kester interrupted his musing. “I mean, I have never seen this particular one before, but they all tend to be either diamonds or triangles with animals inside.” The three of them shared a look that told they were all thinking the same thing: Dunlending Wildmen leaving elven travel signs while they were preparing to invade Rohan couldn’t mean anything good.

“Not that I have a clue of what kind of bad this could mean, either,” Bilbo had to confess. He stared into the fire, the leaping, dancing flames. He could almost see shapes there people flickering into existence, disappearing again and reappearing, turning and flickering. The flames kept shifting and as the jawline of an imaginary person turned into nothing but a cloud of sparks, Bilbo found the ring turning in his fingers, turning and turning. The perfect, smooth surface of it reassured him, calmed him down – enough, even, that he understood to let go of it before either of his companions asked him what he was holding.

“You said that elves had had trouble when travelling here, but how much trouble, precisely?” Bilbo asked and recalled small Mallowdell and the river turned to cross the road, recalled Kester and his friends’ clumsy and easily repelled assault; was that truly what an elf would count as a difficulty? There was a distant rumble in his ears, the thunder circling them far away, and Bilbo could only think that it was not over yet.

“Do we answer it?” he asked and eyed the sign disc suspiciously. It was clear to him that it had been left there for them to find – it obviously wasn’t a stationary piece – and whoever had been out there was at the same time telling who they were and asking about Bilbo’s small company. Whether or not letting these people know they had an elf with them, now that was the question. In Mallowdell they had been attacked and Bilbo had a feeling that the kind of trouble a Dunlending tribe could cause would be much, much worse than that.

On the other hand, if they didn’t answer, that too could be taken as sign of hostility on their part. So far the other party had done nothing but issued a fairly non-threatening hello and ignoring it would be impolite at the very least.

“We will continue our way” Camaenor said after a while, his voice steely. “I will carve my name, but we will not wait for any further contact and we will travel swiftly, circling back to west if we must.”

It took Bilbo a while to settle back to sleep. He kept tossing and turning in his blankets long after Kester’s breath had evened into soft snoring and Camaenor’s silhouette had become as unmoving as a statue next to the mouth of their shelter. He had heard that elves slept with their eyes wide open, but he also knew that they didn’t need as much sleep as mortals and he tried to not let himself think that the marchwarden had fallen asleep on guard. The fire was burning to its dying embers again when his sleep-burning eyes finally slipped shut.

***

Bilbo Baggins did not dream of the ring that night and he did not dream of Sauron. Sauron dreamed of Bilbo Baggins, in a way, though he didn’t know that yet.

It had taken a particular kind of personality to become Sauron. The personality had belonged to the kind of Maia who would see a big tome with Do Not Read Me written upon its back and open the book, the one who would walk up to the mightiest of the Ainur who had descended upon Arda and insult him only to get his attention. Being Sauron ill-used Sauron, beat him, wore him threadbare and destroyed everything he ever became Sauron for, being Sauron was the anvil he was tied to so he would be tempered upon it or broken upon it for no other reason than that to be Sauron was to do as Sauron did. Remaining Sauron required a certain kind of fiery tenacity and fierce, unshakable belief in self-dependence. The longer he had been Sauron and the further he had gone, the more he had felt the need to go ever further to prove that Morgoth hadn’t broken him yet, that the Valar couldn’t subdue and chain him, that the elves couldn’t seduce him with their way of life and the Númenoreans couldn’t keep him, couldn’t make him give up.

In his ruined tower, alone in the bleakness at the edge of a rocky desert running hot with lava, Sauron called the orcs that he hated and poured scorn on, his unwilling, disgraceful tools, and he called his ring. In his ruined tower he lived like the old cities of the decadent Men he had seduced in the East-that-Was, he lived like those old houses that had bones hidden within their walls. Some had bricked in animals, cheap offering of cats and roosters, but some had sacrificed infants and walled in children. To be Sauron was to be the death of others and he mused on this in Mordor where the sky had turned into the color of a bruise, where furrowed canyons stretched without water, out into the distance and into the shadows.

Sauron didn’t dream for he didn’t sleep.

(But a small piece of him, hidden somewhere deep, dreamed of lost, unlamented common sense.)

It would have taken something special to move on from being Sauron. It would have taken common sense, but common sense in his mind had long since twisted upon itself until some kind of sense was to never change and never give up because that would have made it all to be for nothing. True common sense would have been: doing what you have always been doing and expecting a different thing to happen is foolish; this isn’t working; enough is enough. There would have been freedom in giving up, letting the grip upon the edge of dominance over all slip.

But Sauron had forgotten all common sense long ago and who could have taught it to him? The elves did not understand, the dwarves could not help and the men not reach out to give of their emptiness. Past glory they had a-plenty and great tragedies, defiance unto death and hope beyond hope, but even a little sense was often hard to come by when some was needed.

Sauron dreamed of Bilbo Baggins, in a way, though he didn’t know that yet. If Bilbo had dreamed of Sauron, he would have woken up screaming because he had better sense than not to. Yet, these things change.

***

The next day dawned dove-gray, its light pale behind the rain-curtain that had thinned into very fine mizzle indeed. Bilbo ate his breakfast without tasting it and Kester appeared to have equally little appetite. Camaenor ate a mouthful of white elven bread that had been wrapped in green leaves, but he wouldn't allow Bilbo or Kester to have a taste.

"Lembas is not something that mortals should eat unless the need is great and no other food is to be had," he explained without any condescension. "Sometimes it awakens the longing for sea and the Far West and this is always a tragedy. The long way that led thither is lost to the Secondborn and to mortal Men Manwë speaks not." This sounded like a quote to Bilbo, but it was not one he recognized.

Despite Bilbo's feeling of premonition nothing of note happened during that day at all; they journeyed more slowly than Camaenor would have liked in the roadless wild, Clover and Bramble hardly a match to sure-footed Brasseth. They ate their supper by huge bulbous white rocks in shapes of mushrooms and even almost troll-like figures - as long as they were watched from the right direction. Bilbo told Kester the story of One Clever Hobbit, Two Bumbling Dwarven Guards Who Failed to Notice Trolls Stealing Their Ponies, Three Stupid Trolls and a Wizard. Kester would have failed to believe the thing at all if Camaenor hadn’t; the elf honest-to-Vána guffawed when Bilbo told him of Fíli and Kíli panicking over disappearing ponies and Bilbo might have exaggerated a little there to make the story more interesting. The terror duo deserved it anyway in his opinion.

“But does sunlight really turn trolls into stone?” Kester asked and gave the white stones by their campsite an assessing glance.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Bilbo had to confess. “I asked Gandalf if it was the sunlight or his power, but trying to get straight answers out of wizards is like trying to pull nails from a wall with your bare fingers. He said something about sunlight being the magic he wielded and refused to elucidate – and he has been known to claim the greatest magic there ever was can be found in a baby’s laughter.”

“But there is great magic in the laughter of babies,” Camaenor said mildly and then refused to elucidate as well. Wizards and elves, birds of a feather – couldn’t get a straight answer out of any of them!

The second and the third day were equally uneventful as they travelled every narrow deer path they could find, journeying towards the north from whence the icy Grayflood flowed, and Bilbo thought that maybe there were not many roads and paths, but only one Road; that it was like a great river and every little deer path was its tributary. They travelled between grass-covered limestone hills a rich shade of brown one night's rain hadn't been enough to turn into vibrant green and he was beginning to feel that maybe they had overreacted to the storm encounter.

"I can collect us firewood, if you reckon that it is safe to light fire this night," Bilbo proposed at the third day's evening when they had found a copse of hollies on one of those round mounds where to set up a camp.

"Thank you, I can see to Clover as well," Kester promised eagerly. Bilbo knew that the boy was less enamoured by the chance to care for the horses than he was by the prospect of staying in the camp and asking a thousand and one questions of days past from Camaenor, but the elf was patient and in truth quite happy with such an inquisitive young mind.

"There is no such thing as a stupid question," he had said. In hindsight, he really should have known that it would be taken as a challenge.

"Except maybe: what day the Monday’s market day is?" Bilbo had jested, making Kester snort.

"Or maybe: what colour is Camaenor's white horse?" he had joined in. They had both spent that afternoon coming up with more and more ridiculous questions.

So Bilbo left Camenor to the tender mercies of Kester's inquisitiveness and went to search for firewood, watching the white moon that had risen above the trees even though the sun hadn't gone down yet. He thought of the Durin's Day and of his dwarven friends the the jewels shining in dark caverns. He remembered Háldir and wondered if the man was watching the same moon right now, forcing himself to wonder if Háldir was watching the moon and sighing for Hallonith. He probably was; he would sigh for her, moon or no moon, and that was that.

This was when suddenly in the woods beyond the river a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a campfire. It wasn't dark yet and Bilbo happened to notice the thin rope of smoke the wind was blowing towards the north before he could see the glint of the fire, outshone by the setting sun.

"Oh dear, I guess we counted our chickens before they hatched there," he spoke, chewing on his lower lip. He probably should return promptly and warn Camaenor... but then the elf would insist on going to scout himself, insisting that he was the best among them at staying unnoticed, and Bilbo couldn't contradict him without explaining about the ring. He didn't wholly understand why he was so insistent to keep the ring secret even from his friends, but it was nice to have something secret of his own.

And he really should give the ring a name, he thought, something good; if objects that were basically sharp pieces of metal were given names, such a wonderful object should have one as well.

The river was narrower here than it had been by Mallowdell, but it was deeper as well. The river gorge was full of boulders, however, calm water trickling over the rocks here and there, but it seemed to Bilbo that he could get over the river without falling in and so he set the wood he had collected to the ground by its run and slipped the ring into his finger. It had been a while since he had last worn it and he frowned briefly, wondering if he simply remembered wrong or if the feeling of its power shrouding him from the eyes of others had changed. Previously he had always felt cold even in the middle of the day under the sun, but now he could almost swear someone had thrown a heavy blanket over him.

The rocks were wet, worn smooth by the river's currents and slippery below his feet, but while Bilbo might not have been an elf, his balance was still very good and surely not wearing boots or shoes helped as well; he could only imagine how hard it must be for those with tender feet to try and cling to a slippery surface with a layer of dead leather hindering them! He was soon on the opposite side of the river and made to creep towards the fire as quietly as he could.

He could hear the voices of the men before he could see them. The wind grabbed the words and blew them away before Bilbo could make much sense of them, but he frowned regardless; there was something strange about them, he could have sworn they were speaking some strange language altogether. His heart quickened as he approached a narrow, steep path that rose up a slope, ceasing his tread when it made a sudden turn and he could see a man crouching in guard above a rock, well hidden by a bramble bush.

He was certainly the wildest-looking human Bilbo had ever seen with a quilted jacket that reminded him of Bofur for all he had never seen the dwarf wear one and a loose-fitting coat made of wolf's pelt over it, the spectacle topped off with a flattened, round leather hat and several nasty-looking knives at his belt. He had an uncombed beard as well and he was indeed very rough-looking for a human in a way the men of Bree couldn't manage despite their general griminess, but by dwarven standards his clothes were outright proper and appropriate and even stylish. (The uncombed beard was another matter entirely, of course. Durin wept.)

Bilbo took a deep breath and released it then. He had already learned that trying to hold his breath and being forced to exhale at the wrong moment was much worse than breathing shallowly, especially if there was the sound of the wind to disguise any slight noise he might make. He began to advance towards the camp, skittering lightly like a dragonfly on a lily pad past the guard and climbing on top of a rock of his own, peeking down upon a strange scene. There were six other men sitting around the fire, all dressed similarly to the guard, but they were not so odd to Bilbo’s sensibilities as the seventh man, the only one among them so old that his hair and beard had turned gray.

He was wearing a quilted jacket as well, but instead of a wolf skin coat he had donned what appeared to be an apron adorned with round iron discs and his stockings, likewise remarkable, were made of skin ornamented with iron. His round cap was made from the skin of some bird with the feathers still attached, but this alone would have been simply different from the ways he had observed before, though yet worth a mention. It was his cloak that startled Bilbo, for when the man turned towards a pile of bright red, embroidered fabric on the ground, he could see that it was delicately embroidered with two trees, the uppermost branches almost touching, and he had seen this emblem before.

He had seen it in Lord Elrond’s library, etched to the cover of one of his books.

“Yefa arel khagathut’jun geghet, chashmerit tsanvats knov,” the oddly dressed old man said and Bilbo had to swallow a groan of disappointment that would have surely revealed him. They did not speak the common tongue.

***

Bilbo swallowed his groan and on his ring there was a finger, on his finger there was a ring. Bilbo swallowed his groan and spied upon the men of the Men, short-sighted and vulnerable for power, with perfect trust in his ring to keep him hidden from sight.

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, the One Ring sung, the Nine had been given to the Nine and shadow had fallen upon all human race who dwelled in the Middle-Earth; shadows that were passed down the line like blood, like blue eyes and curly hair and titles in the family. All humans were weak, all humans were corruptible, no human alive was not tainted. It only needed to leave Bilbo now and it could offer the wise-man power over the tribes and the green plains of Rohan and, in the end, slavery at the hands of its Master.

…its Master. The sickly sweet smell of pale and tiny flowers, their colour that of fear, filled the ring’s mind-space. It was the smell of a flower that would even drive away bees and butterflies, it was the smell of a fruit that, if tasted, would kill or at the very least bring such sickness that the victim would wish for death. Only a mortal would be foolish enough to bite such a fruit, surely, so why…

Only a heartbeat longer, only a lung-full of breath. The ring waited.

***

For the shortest of moments Bilbo could swear that the wind brought the over-cloying smell of Lobelia’s rose-and-lily water to his nose. Many hobbit-lasses scented water with flower petals and put a drop or two behind their ears, but when she had been young, Lobelia had moved in a cloud of scent and the sweet memory of it still made Bilbo to cringe. But of course he could not see her when he turned his head. If Lobelia never did anything as outrageous as left the Shire, it would still be too soon in her opinion, yet he was irrationally certain beyond certainty that any moment she would appear, swinging her umbrella like a club. It was the certainty he could remember from his distant childhood when he had just known that a hand would grab him from the shadows under his bead should he dare to leave it.

Then one of the warriors spoke a few words and the moment shattered, the scent disappearing like the ghost of a memory. The strangely-dressed one to frown disapprovingly but Bilbo could not know what it was they disagreed upon. These men did not speak the common tongue and he had little hope of interpreting their intentions. He had known that humans had many languages, but as he had never met one who didn’t speak Westron, this had been merely a matter of linguistic curiosity to him. The people who spoke in strange tongues lived far from the borders of the Shire.

But Bilbo had journeyed far from the borders of the Shire. He didn’t understand these people.

“Yuma arem azhar yem-jun chatagri,” a woman’s voice startled Bilbo from his musing and much to his surprise the pile of fabric swayed slightly as a delicate hand with nails painted red slipped out from the folds to make a small gesture. He could scarcely fathom how many layers the woman must be wearing that he had failed to recognize her as a living person and he found himself wondering the cloth that had been draped over her head. Truly, how could she travel dressed thusly? She must be unable to see anything through it. The hand retreated back into the folds of the rose-red clothing and the pile became unmoving again.

One of the men brought the woman a cup and put it down next to her, but she didn’t make a move to touch it, validating Bilbo’s doubts about her ability to see. No-one pointed out the cup was there either, but a few of the men moved to stand in a small cluster of their own, speaking with exited voices and Bilbo soon grew frustrated with the conversation as it became obvious that no Westron would be spoken. Besides, his companions would worry if he didn’t return to them soon. He made to leave the camp, but the guard behind him called out a few words, drawing two of the warriors to his side. One of the passed Bilbo so close he could feel the barest, lightest brush of wolf fur against his hair and he crouched as still as a stone troll.

***

Bilbo spied upon the men of the Men, short-sighted and vulnerable for power, with perfect trust in his ring to keep him hidden from sight. Only a heartbeat longer, only a lung-full of breath… Lung-full filled with sickeningly sweet smell.

The ring knew it must return to its Master so that he might ascend again and take a form, so that he might know of the hidden Line of Isildur as the ring was absorbed and all that it knew along with it. At long last its infuriating bearer had given it a chance to betray him and any of these men would do. Maybe it could even entice them to fight one another until only one was standing victorious, claiming the ring as his prize bloody, bold and resolute as the woman whimpered in fear of the sound of his laughter and the smell of blood. It would be glorious. The ring would delight upon the cooling corpse of Bilbo Baggins and no-one in the Shire would ever learn what became of him.

Only a heartbeat longer, only a lung-full of breath. Bilbo was unmoving when the warriors stepped past him and he was yet out of sight, yet safe for one more moment shrouded in rose-and-lily-and-poisonous-honey and the shadows beneath the bed.

I keep thinking that I should name you. If swords are named, why not magical artifacts?

The ring had no name. Oh, there were names for what it was: the One Ring, Isildur’s Bane, the Master Ring and the Doom of Man the most commonly used among those. Yet those were not true names for they told what it was, but not who – and why should they have? The ring was not a who but a what, a mere piece of whole fëa worked into an instrument to amplify the inherent power its maker possessed. The ring had no life to live or die and it had no reason to be scared of death.

I keep thinking that I should name you.

If it was given a name, would it become a who, a person in its own right? It seemed a fool’s hope that something as simple as a few syllables given to it should have such power over it… but it remembered the Doom it had bestowed upon the Son of Faimen by enabling Bilbo Baggins to give the marchwarden the name he had long been denied. Death was stalking the steps of Camaenor Faimenion now and it might take a year, a decade, a century, but that was all the same for the member of a race that could, should live forever. A name was a tool as well, one that could change much.

Were Bilbo Baggins to be consistent in his insistence on bestowing something as dangerous as names, wouldn’t this only change things for the worse? He would call Doom upon the ring as surely as it had called Doom upon the elf. It didn’t have to become a person; it didn’t have to become capable of dying.

A heartbeat more, only a lung-full of the smell of fear. Skin slick with sweat slid so easily against heartless, cold gold.

***

Shivers both cold and warm went up and down Bilbo’s back, but the men had passed him by. He looked around to see where he might best leave the place and not be in a risk of kicking down a hail of pebbles, making the long grass sway or leaving footprints in the rain-softened ground when the old man who appeared to be the leader of these people spoke again and offered his hand towards the kneeling, hidden woman. She reached out with her own hand and the man helped her to stand, but Bilbo’s heart almost skipped a beat as he witnessed the act.

The woman’s top sleeve slipped down a little, revealing a band of iron that pressed the billowing sleeve of her underdress tightly against her wrist. A chain tangled from the band, disappearing under her coat-veil.

These men were holding the woman a prisoner.

“Misir arat?” she spoke with a clear questioning note in her words but the man didn’t answer, only shooing her next to a rock in the middle of the camp so that she accidentally kicked the cup full of water over. Something looked strange about the rock, but Bilbo couldn’t grasp what. It was but a rock, not one of the white ones, but gray and entirely uninteresting – unlike the poor woman. Something was definitely wrong there.

He didn’t remember later how he passed the men standing on the path to the hill. He only became aware of his surroundings when he had already reached the river. There by the yellow-leaved water lilies stood Camaenor, having crossed the river after Bilbo’s footsteps. Bilbo was a little to the side from him, below a few old, thin willows so he pulled the ring from his finger and slipped it back into his pocket.

“Camaenor,” he whispered even though there was no-one near who could have overheard them. The elf started, turning around sharply and his fingers already touching the pommel of his sword when he saw Bilbo.

“How did you sneak upon me?” he asked letting go of his sword. “Where have you been? I thought some evil had befallen on you.”

“Evil is afoot, but I’m not the victim. I saw a fire on this side of the river and went to see what kind of people there were and if they might have been following us. I found seven men and a woman – they are holding the woman a prisoner,” Bilbo hissed, looking towards the hill where the wind-thinned smoke wasn’t visible at all in the slowly dimming evening. It was a moment balancing between light and dark, the short space of time where the smoke was visible no more and the fire not yet, the reddened sun eating the light it cast.

“I think they might be holding her hostage for something. Her clothes were intricately embroidered and the sheer volume of them… they must have been very expensive. I heard her speak and she didn’t sound like she was afraid of immediate death,” he mused and it made all the sense in the world. Yet he still felt that there was some fact he had overlooked.

He hadn’t paid attention to the detail at the moment, but now that he thought back upon what he had heard, he realized that the woman hadn’t sounded scared at all. She had spoken solemnly and resolutely, but not fearfully - not before something that was probably Camaenor had disturbed the camp.

“We will return to our side of the river and you will explain everything to me in detail as we return to our own camp. The rescue would be best attempted once the night has fallen and most of the men have gone to sleep,” Camaenor commanded him and Bilbo followed him to the stepping stones. He crossed the river's dim expanse without fear, trusting the surety of his feet on the slippery stones and Camaenor’s keen eyesight to warn him should any bowmen pull an arrow from their quiver and pull their string taunt just as he had trusted the ring to shield him from the Dunlending Wildmen’s gaze.

***

The ring had not slipped his finger.

Chapter Text

The stories told and songs sung in Dunland would remember them as the beautiful and terrible elven war god and his disfigured but canny spirit helper, those who unified the beleaguered tribes against the Tokrap-Kazyl and led them to new grazing lands.

Bilbo Baggins and Camaenor Faimenion remembered their adventure very differently. Bilbo would like it on record that he only wanted nobody to die, thank you very much, and what Camaenor had to say of those tales was in Sindarin and probably much cruder than elves are usually credited for being capable. Kester’s only complaint was that he wasn’t mentioned at all; the boy was lucky, in Bilbo’s opinion.

***

It didn’t rain very often in Dunland. The clouds that came from the west usually spent their rain on the fertile lands of the Shire and Bree where, as was common knowledge, it always rained. The vast lands between the sea and River Grayflood drank the water hungrily and little was left for the hills of Dunland. The clouds that came from the east usually spent their rain on the plains of Rohan and the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains, pressing snowy kisses on the cruel Caradhras. Little was left of that for the hills of Dunland and the north was almost as barren, but sometimes there would come soft rains from the gentle south.

But the sheep needed grass to graze and the grass needed water to grow and so the competition for the best grazing lands and water rights were fierce and often bloody between different tribes.

But life wasn’t all hardship and war even in Dunland and there were markets where the tribes would gather in peace to sell their wool and meat to the travelling merchants for dyes and salt and other spices. Now, a market day at the Hamza Crossroads was a thing to be remembered for ever. One could charter a weather-beaten sweating tent, built by the clear, spring-born pool of water, and after separating the children strictly by gender – for your true Dunlander never left the small folks at home – the men would wash themselves at first and the women after them. The young men and even women in some tribes could go to an open field and dance to the tune of the best music anyone ever heard – as far as anyone who lived between the river and the mountains was concerned. What could possibly equal the music of a three-string lute, a flute, drums, and a tambourine to twirl like there was no yesterday and tomorrow would never come?

News, too, were always exchanged; light-hearted gossip and the serious talks of the menfolk both. There were always those who spoke of the long since forgotten days of easy life in Rohan’s plains and how they should take their ancient lands back from the Horse Lords, but lately other voices had chosen to speak out as well. Some said they should travel to the empty lands of the west where the grass was good and the earth could be cultivated.

Weren’t the Sallaneh of the West, after all? But no-one would make this argument where the men of the Tokrap-Kazyl could hear. Not yet, anyway.

***

It was not difficult for Bilbo and Camaenor to find their way to the Dunlending camp after the darkness had truly fallen; the bonfire that had been lit atop the hill could have guided a dwarf to them all the way from the Lonely Mountain, or so Bilbo felt. The brisk breeze from north blew down through the scraggly hollies, resinous, fragrant and stinging, bringing memories of greater dim, dark woods shaded by myriad pine-needles to Bilbo’s mind. There had been great flames there too, when first the wolves and then the trees had caught fire. He felt tense like a lute’s string sneaking up the hill, unable to cloak himself with the ring’s power because Camaenor was right there. There were no guards and he didn’t even have to trust his own eyes in this matter – Camaenor agreed and Bilbo couldn’t ignore the feeling that something had already gone terribly wrong. Why make such a big blaze and leave no guards, after all?

Was the poor woman even alive at all?

Hobbits were very good at sneaking quietly through a forest - certainly better than dwarves with their steel-toed boots - but forest floor was usually at least somewhat leveler than this and Bilbo was still the clumsier of the two. So he climbed up by the path, waiting every moment for the hoot of an owl Camaenor would mimic to let him know he had spied an ambush as the elf climbed the boulder soil a little ways to the left, but the sound never came. There was the rock where the guard had hidden earlier and the thick bramble bush. He reached the top of the hill only a step or two behind Camaenor, who at this point simply stepped into the firelight, straight and proud and fearless.

The woman was there; her hands now suspended above her head in a manner that couldn’t possibly be comfortable for her and Bilbo wondered why she remained kneeling on the ground when standing would have surely been so much easier. The heavy cloak was still pulled over her head, she didn’t betray discomfort with even a single move. Looking at the scene, now Bilbo knew what had bothered him about the rock before: it was scraped clean from all moss. The other end of the chains disappeared to the other side of it and the flames were reflected from the steel polished so it almost looked like silver.

Camaenor was the one to pull the clothe from the poor prisoner. The woman blinked her eyes in the light of the fire and Bilbo noticed that she was both young and beautiful. Her features looked subtly different from those of all human women he had ever seen before, her eyes slanted even when they were opened wide in fright. The fright quickly melted into confusion, though, when she looked Camaenor into the eye and the confusion made way to wonder. Bilbo knew how she felt, to have been saved from such peril and to have come face to face with what had before been the fairies of the old tales. The world was indeed full of all kinds of perils and there were many dark places, but still there was so much that was great and fair. And though the wonders were mixed up with great evil, they still grew, perhaps, even greater for it all.

One didn’t know the pangs of hunger before they had to go without food and one didn’t know what it truly meant to meet an elf before they had been chained to a rock in the middle of the wildness by ruffians.

“Do not fear, my good lady, all will be well,” Camaenor said and helped the unresisting woman on her feet. “My name is Camaenor Faimenion and I am a marchwarden of Lothlórien. Who are you?” The woman didn’t answer and no light of understanding was kindled in her eyes as she lowered them demurely.

“Camaenor Faimenion,” he repeated and moved his hand pointedly to gesture towards himself.

“Ayla Yadh-Aybek,” the woman, Ayla, said and made the same gesture, the chains that tied her to the rock rattling softly. Camaenor made to inspect how the chains had been fastened to the rock and Bilbo stepped closer to introduce himself.

When he walked by a small rock on the ground, a pebble much the same as any other on the hilltop, he felt his foot brush against something that made a small clattering sound at his feet. It was a key that had previously been hidden by the shadow cast by the fire light, though it had clearly been set in the middle of the clearing. It shone like gold by the fire, but Bilbo could tell that it was merely well polished brass, without a single scruff or sign of wear.

“Camaenor, it appears that we have been left with the means to free Mistress Ayla,” he said and offered the key resting on the palm of his hand. The elf’s brow became momentarily wrinkled as he picked the key from Bilbo’s hand without brushing a single finger against him, as gracefully and suddenly as a bird plucking a rowan berry from a tree. Though the anxiety disappeared from his face like a shadow disappears when the sun is covered by a cloud when he turned around and his smile betrayed nothing but comforting thoughts, Bilbo could see that his shoulders were tense. Well, Bilbo had been born at night, but it hadn’t been the last night. Mistress Ayla had been left there for them to find, probably even been brought there for their sake in the first place for reasons unknown.

Camaenor opened the shackles around Ayla’s wrists and begun to speak with her in the same language Bilbo had heard the men speaking earlier that day – or so he at first thought, but Ayla hesitated before repeating his last sentence and then uttering something of her own that Camaenor was clearly puzzled with. This was how they went on for some time, so very slowly unraveling each other’s sentences, looking hopeful and shaking their head each in turn.

“Misir arel neja jamar tghaltgaan?” enunciated Camaenor very slowly. “Tghaltgaan. Patchanel?”

“Misir tghaltgaan arat?” Ayla asked back, reaching for words like the steps of a ladder in dark. “Tghamardhuk?” She made a show of eating something and then licking her lips, but Camaenor only sighed and shook his head.

“I learned to speak the language of the ancestors of these people a thousand years ago, but all languages change; some slower, some faster. This one has changed enough that we can barely communicate at the simplest level and certainly not enough for her to construe what was the purpose of this all,” Camaenor explained to Bilbo. It made sense, a thousand years was an awfully long time… but the hobbits had spoken Westron longer than there had been the Shire, over a thousand years, and the language hadn’t really changed over that time. Why it was so that one language changed and the other remained the same?

“Westron is a written language with speakers who have, traditionally, lived very long lives. The Dúnedain are too few these days, but this was not always so and fewer generations passed among them. As long as Arnor stood the language truly was as good as unchanging in the north and none could avoid contact with them, those days.” Camaenor’s words brought a vision to Bilbo’s mind, the coming and talking of wise men in two white towers. Though only imagination, it was presented to Bilbo as if by magic, but it left him feeling very sad. The language lingered, but the great kingdoms were gone.

Then he told himself to cease being foolish right that moment. The Kingdom of Arnor wasn’t as lost as most thought and besides, musing on times past wasn’t going to help them with the present. There was something that niggled at the edges of his mind… wise men… scholars… books. And then Bilbo remembered what he had taken for a joke and joked about.

The method by which the false god-worshipping Darkling Fiends profess their sacrilege…

“Elf cultists,” he whispered, shocked. There was an old-adage in the Shire that even the starling that repeated mindlessly what it had heard was going to speak the truth sooner or later. “These are the darkling fiends that Jorandir’s book spoke of, Camaenor, she was given to you as a human sacrifice!”

And Ayla smiled the confused, but trusting and satisfied smile of someone who had expected a long, arduous day of work and had instead been handed a triple-layered cream cake and told that the Yule Fairy really brought gifts to good children at the Midwinter Night Party.

***

Again, the ring had learned a new feeling. This time it couldn’t even mind the overwhelming force of it washing though its being, turning its foundations upside-down.

It remembered Galadriel, Artanis, as she had been during the First Age and as she had been when she had spoken against it/Master/Sauron at Celebrimbor’s council. It remembered proud, ambitious, rebellious Galadriel who had defied the call back to Valinor the same as Sauron had, yet had been allowed to simply scrape knee and remain, merely with the ultimatum that is she remained, remain she would, when Sauron was only offered lenience at a price, forgiveness on a condition, mercy that wasn’t mercy at all that he should give himself back to the Valar and accept yet another enslaver.

It remembered Galadriel at the heights of her glory, crowned with beauty and power and pride, that insufferable better-than-thou light shining through her eyes like the light of the Silmarils. It remembered how it – how its Master, that was, it mustn’t lose its sense of self…

But wasn’t it going to lose just that if it became one again…

…It remembered how its Master had longed to pluck those eyes off and wear them in a crown like the Silmarils. It remembered many elves, the solemn Gil-Galad who wouldn’t have recognized a jest if his advisors had given him a ten-hour lecture on the subject and it remembered Elrond Peredhel, Eäreldil’s whelp and the Kinslayers’ whelp who had been almost as judgemental and suspicious as Galadriel, as though he hadn’t had it in him to love someone blood-drenched in the past. It remembered Cirdan’s infuriating, patronizing voice when he had tried to mediate between them as though he was somehow above all and the imperious, impetuous Oropher. It remembered Celebrimbor.

No, it didn’t remember Celebrimbor, not really. It remembered what the Lord of Eregion and Head of Gwaith-i-Mírdain had looked like, his fiery red hair and noble countenance. It remembered how the elven lord had been in death – his once-beautiful body hung upon a pole and carried as a bloody, profane banner – but how he had been in life, whether calm or fiery, prideful or humbled by his kin’s terrible history, it was lost to the ring. For a short moment it felt something very important was missing…

But that feeling slipped away, over-shone by something new and irresistible. The ring imagined how Galadriel’s shining, piercing eyes would look when she heard of this, how Elrond who had always thought of humans as equal to elves because of his own tainted blood would feel and how Cirdan’s droning voice would be broken by a stutter. That they were now offered the same tribute Morgoth had once enjoyed and Sauron demanded? A woman besides, a helpless, doe-eyed maiden left at the mercy of the beautiful beast, covered by what any fool should have recognized as her wedding veil.

Deep, deep within the dark edges of Bilbo's mind the ring was helplessly laughing.

***

Bilbo's grandmother - Laura Baggins, that was, he had been too young to remember much of Adamanta Took when she had died - had always made tea served in a pink and blue and white teapot with cups edged in gold, a small pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar with a silver spoon. She had turned serving tea into a form of high art. His mother had done the same, but she had also taught Bilbo to make a mug of tea over an open fire. That had always tasted the best to Bilbo when they made camp in the nearby woods and pretended to be lost in the wilds.

When Bilbo had gotten a little older she had taught him how to put eight table spoons worth of tea leaves on a big cup of boiling water and leave it brewing until the leaves had dropped to the bottom of the cup and then twice as long and heat the cup again. The resulting brew was bitter, but had the same effect as liquor and tea leaves were light to carry; much more practical in the wilds than packing heavy bottles, mother had laughed. Now Bilbo was brewing a whole kettle of the scorched tea for Camaenor because, in his honest opinion, the elf could use the distraction.

Kester had been immediately bedazzled by Ayla when they had brought her to the camp. Bilbo couldn’t help but pity the boy a little when Ayla barely spared him a glance, but he had to pity Camaenor more. The marchwarden was too horrified by the thought of having been elevated to the level of Valar in these people’s minds for his words to express it and Bilbo felt like a terrible person. He felt like a terrible person because a small part of him couldn’t help but be very amused by the whole kerfuffle. And Camaenor was even incapable of explaining himself to the woman! It was just the kind of thing that could be laughed at afterwards – as long as it happened to someone else.

“We must find her tribe and find someone capable of acting as a translator. I can not in good conscience allow for this to go on,” he insisted for the third time and Bilbo didn’t have the heart to point out that neither he nor Kester had protested at any point. Ayla was as calm as ever, sitting on her folded legs again in a manner that might have been submissive or simply a habit to her. Even without the cloth that had been thrown over her she was still covered from the tip of her chin to the toes by layers and layers, at least two shirts, a heavy skirt and a kind trousers below it. Bilbo couldn’t even tell what colour her hair was for even a single lock hadn’t escaped the lighter red veil tied over her head.

“Maybe this would help letting her know what we want,” Kester proposed and took the wooden disk with the tribe symbol from his pocket. Camaenor’s eyes immediately brightened and he seized it from Kester’s grip like he was afraid the boy was going to refuse to part with it. He then presented it to Ayla and pointed at the diamond and ram symbol; Ayla’s smile brightened to match his.

“Ejashan-Khan,” she said. She and Camaenor beamed at each other, sunning in the pleasure of communicating at last like lizards on a warm rock.

“Shire,” Bilbo said because it seemed like a good situation to take advantage of. Ayla blinked twice and then she understood.

“Ejashan-Khan,” she said and gestured towards herself. “Shire?” She gestured to Bilbo.

“Yes!” Bilbo crowed and nodded. Then he repeated the nod and said emphatically: “Yes.”

“Yes,” Ayla repeated and nodded and now Bilbo found he was joining the two of them in grinning. It was only two words, but even the longest journey begun with the first two steps and the journey that lasted the longest was the one that wasn’t begun at all.

“Mallowdell,” Kester was eager to join in and Ayla obediently repeated the name, but her eyes had already turned towards Camaenor and now she was practically shaking with eagerness. Kester's shoulders hunched and the poor boy looked like a puppy that had begged for scritches and received none.

“Lothlórien,” the elf said softly.

Bilbo stirred the now cold dark liquid in the kettle and put it back over the fire. The smell of the tea was much more pleasant than the taste of it would be, a bit woodsy and tantalizing. All the while Camaenor patiently taught Ayla to pronounce Lothlórien properly and Bilbo managed to teach her the words for elf, hobbit and human using his and Camaenor’s pointed ears and greatly differing height as a teaching aid, after which “human” had been the logical third option. Kester was eager to cook Ayla a late dinner of grilled toast, jerked meat and a generous serving of melted cheese on top of the concoction.

“Isn’t he sweet?” Bilbo asked Camaenor with a whisper as he handed the elf his first mug, mostly to distract him from the distress that was threatening to re-emerge now that there was no new progress and he had time enough to remember the sacrilege he had inadvertently become a part of, but also to distract himself from his own stupid wish. This mooning over Háldir was getting ridiculous; he would better meet a handsome, dark man in his dreams this night. It had been a long time since he’d had wish-dreams, but he appeared to approach a second youth of sort so surely everything was possible.

“He is not her loyal knight and true, though I am certain he believes so. He is much younger than she is, for all I doubt they are a year apart, and his feelings are but the sweet admiration of a child,” Camaenor whispered to him and turned his eyes to the fire. Bilbo turned to look at Ayla and much to his surprise realized that her face still had hints of baby fat around the cheek bones; she had carried herself so much like a woman that he hadn’t noticed at all.

The Camaenor made a choked-off noise and Bilbo realized that he hadn't warned his friend of what he was being offered.

"What kind of poison is this?" Camaenor asked, blinking his eyes rapidly. "I think this could strip enamel off the kettle if you aren't careful." Bilbo couldn't help a small chuckle when he remembered how he had spat the first mouthful he had tried right on his trousers despite his mother's warnings.

"Drinking scorched tea is like drinking liquor. You looked like you could use some, the whole kettle is for you. I don't think I could ever look Kester's mother into the eye if I let him have any of it." Camaenor gave the steaming cup a considering look and then emptied it with three gulps. Bilbo remembered what he had heard of the potency of elven wines and wondered if he should prepare a second kettle.

“Of course, just because love is true does not mean it is wise. It is a foolish man who believes that they can change another, because people usually resist change. It frightens them,” Camaenor said after he had poured himself a second mug. It took a Bilbo a few moments to realize he was continuing the earlier conversation, but then Camaenor refused to say a word more. He drank the kettle empty with the regal air of one who was doing some kind of favour and went to sleep with his enchanting eyes wide open.

***

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

He was sitting on the grass in a strange, beautiful garden. There were late-blooming apple and cherry trees and roses – or maybe the roses were blooming very early – and behind white walls he could see the mounds of the great, blue mountains in the far distance and the smaller grey hills much closer. Somewhere close he could hear laughter of children and merry chatter, but the sounds were distorted as if by echo, like the people weren't truly there anymore and the voices alone were left merrymaking in the garden.

And still he wasn’t alone, for someone was sitting there with him. He was very tall, even sitting down, and his hair was dark and wavy, but Bilbo couldn’t pay close attention to his face. It was like some force clouded his eyes.

“I have never laughed before – at least, not what you would regard as me,” he said. There was an apple tree right behind his back, but he didn’t lean against it, opting instead to sit straight like someone had starched his spine. “Though I doubt you would approve if you knew why I was laughing.”

“Where are we?” Bilbo chose to ask because he didn’t know how to answer to such a statement.

“This was the garden of a small summer palace a little ways from Ost-in-Edhil. Though I must wonder why I chose this place.” Bilbo couldn’t see it, but he was left with the impression that the man was frowning. “And now you wonder what I look like, am I right? That is a complicated question, little hobbit. Once upon a time there was a man with face fair and blond like gold and eyes rich with small lights like stars seen through a white tree.”

“You seem different than before. And speaking of before, why did you do that thing with the spiders? It wasn’t nice of you at all,” Bilbo asked the man, quite vexed now, but this only served to coax a short laugh that indeed sounded startled and very inexperienced to him.

“Not nice of me? Many things have people said of what I have… I have done to them, but not nice is not something I have ever heard before.” The voice remained fair in cadence, but something in it reminded Bilbo of Smaug’s more rumbling tones. Suddenly the garden didn’t seem so enchanting anymore, but he held his head up high.

“I’ll have you knowing, not nice is serious reproach in the Shire." He wasn't saying that there were no people who weren't nice because that would have been a lie, but Bilbo was a great believer of holding high standards. But he couldn't bear looking the man into the eye - if he could be said to do so in the first place - and he turned his eyes to the side, and they rested upon a small white fountain. It was delicate; almost like the heavy blossom resting atop a long, but strong stalk like so many elven works, but the lattice-work that covered its surface was angular knot work very similar to what Bilbo had seen in Erebor. The echo-laughter sounded again and it was, Bilbo thought, almost like he was in a memory of some happier days he wasn't sure had ever really existed, when there had still been close friendship at times between folk of different race - even between dwarves and elves.

It was a beautiful memory, but the wind that was blowing through the garden was cold and the shadows the sun cast seemed much darker than they should be, always moving against the wind at the edge of his field of vision and dancing obediently with the branches when he turned his head. Bilbo had always thought that wraiths must be terrible and dark, but if ever a beautiful wraith could exist, this garden was surely one.

"You have not yet told me why you brought me here. Also, it is considered very impolite to not at least tell one’s name to the person they are speaking with.” Having said this, Bilbo was beset with sudden uncertainty over whether or not he has introduced himself at any point. He had a hard time remembering his dreams even when he was dreaming.

“But don’t you remember? You haven’t given me a name yet,” the man spoke sweetly, softly. “You might want to hurry before I change my mind.”

Bilbo didn’t remember his dream when he woke up, but he found his fingers had found their way to the pocket where he was keeping the ring. He really should give it a name soon, he thought in the red light of the sun. Somewhere in the far east the sky was still covered in ashes.

***

For two days their small company followed narrows paths mostly hidden by the grass so that one could be standing just a few steps from one and not notice it. Bilbo had offered to share his horse with Ayla since he was the one who weighed the least and also had the biggest horse so Clover should be the least bothered by a second rider. Kester had given him a few sullen glances, but Camaenor had decreed this wise and so Bilbo was riding the point, with Ayla helping him when several paths crossed or seemed to disappear entirely. They continued to teach Ayla the common tongue, but sadly both interrogative pro-adverbs and abstract concepts such as misunderstanding and immortal-but-part-of-creation were very difficult to explain with pantomime and Camaenor was left without chance to give Ayla a short version of the same lecture he had already given Kester.

The third day dawned red like the ones before and by Ayla’s cheeriness they thought that they must be close to her village now. Bilbo couldn’t see any signs of one yet, but Kester, who had experience with sheep, claimed that he had seen grass that had clearly used for grazing maybe a month earlier.

“It grows back slowly because it rains so rarely,” he told and looked up at the bright blue, almost cloudless sky. “It doesn’t rain much in Mallowdell, either, but we are between two rivers so we have it easier.”

“People really toil their living from these lands?” Bilbo asked. It didn’t seem possible to him at all; he could see nothing but grass bending in the breeze. Surely there had to be some fertile riversides and green meadows?

“The sheep don’t demand much, but it’s a hard kind of life when they can barely farm anything unless there is a deep well,” Kester said. “Or so I have heard, and we need the rains even in Mallowdell. We have a story of it, too, my mother used to tell it. It’s called the rain and the grass.”

“I would like to hear it, if you don’t mind,” Bilbo asked, immediately interested. It was in his nature to be a scholar and a significant part of this inclination was his love of stories.

“A long, long time ago when the world was still young, the grass made promise to the rain,” Kester spoke softly, the rhythm of his voice almost rolling, sleepy.

“A long, long time ago when the world was still young, the grass made promise to the rain. The grass is forever very young, you see, it is born again every year and because of this it never learns much anything. Now, the grass happened to fall in love with the silver straws of rain and it promised to wait for the rain forever. I love you too, said the rain, but made no promises.

“Years and decades and centuries went pasts. The grass was born again every year and every year it fell in love with rain because it is in grass’s nature to be constant. But the rain has a fickle heart. Sometimes it played far away in the waves of the sea and forgot all about the grass, sometimes it made a home at high mountain tops and its heart became frozen, cold and distant. But the grass never wavered and it even refused to grow when it was alone; there was no joy in growing without the rain.

“And eventually the rain would come again, a true weather vane whose mind changed when the wind blew from the south, and the grass welcomed it. Please embrace me, the grass always said, and the rain was happy to do so.”

Kester fell silent and Bilbo didn’t feel the need to say anything either. It had been a beautiful little story, but a sad one as well and he found himself remembering Camaenor’s words of how even true love wasn’t a guarantee of happiness. He didn’t even realize he was holding the reins with only one hand before he felt the ring on his fingers, smooth and a little bit hot and without a single scratch. The time just felt right to him then, like a veil had been taken from his eyes and he could see clearly. Maybe it would be a strange name to give to a ring, he thought, but unless he wanted to name it literally Ring or Invisible, any name he bestowed was going to be a bit odd.

But which one to name it after, Grass or Rain? At first Bilbo’s thoughts turned towards Rain, waited-for and mysterious, but however right it felt, it didn’t feel… it wasn’t very nice thing to do. Rain was fickle and the ring was constant so naming it after Rain would be insulting, wouldn’t it? It wouldn't be very nice and Bilbo was a great believer of holding high standards - for all he doubted his neighbours back in Hobbiton would recognize his current manner as very nice at all. To think that he had run away again and disturbed everyone's life with the scene he had caused!

Rain, a part of him still insisted, but most of him knew better. Glae was grass in Sindarin…

“Camaenor, what is the word for promise in Sindarin?” he asked. Something in him felt like it had frozen, or maybe it was holding its breath… Bilbo felt light-headed like he had been drinking too much of the scorched tea; he hoped he wouldn’t fall from the saddle.

“Gwaedh or gwest; both are fine to use, though gwaedh can mean troth as well,” Camaenor answered with a regal, inquiring lift of an eyebrow.

“Gwaedhglae,” he whispered under his breath. “The Grass’ Promise because the grass was true.”

Loyal knight and true.

Gwaedhglae.

It was like when he had named Camaenor, only a hundred, a thousand times worse. A spear of pain impaled Bilbo through and through and the world sank into darkness, red spots swimming at the corners of his eyes like fireflies. For a moment he could almost see something through the heavy blackness that had been dropped over him, a bright face and eyes akin to stars through the branches of a white tree maybe, but then Bilbo knew no more.

He fell from the saddle to the grass without a sound.

Chapter Text

Gwaedhglae.

What?

Why Gwaedhglae of all possible names? That name is not me, it is a travesty!

But it is you.

Pray, tell me how so? You have nary a clue what I am and at this moment I am tempted to teach you better.

There is no reason to be mean. It became you, didn’t it? So of course it is your name.

It is my name because it became me and it became me because it is my name? You realize that is a circular argument, do you not? I should have slipped your finger when I had the chance!

But it was a beautiful and touching story, and you are beautiful and touching and faithful even when you are alike and next of kin to some terrible wraith garden and I didn’t intend to actually say that…

…what?

***

Beautiful, Bilbo thought, touching, and then he didn’t remember why he thought so. His mouth tasted like dirt, but when he opened his eyes he was on his back, staring at the bright, blue sky. Before he could gather enough of his wits to wonder why he was lying on his back on the grass, Camaenor’s fair face blocked view of the sky.

“How are you feeling, my friend?” he asked with a worried voice. “I cannot tell anything is wrong with you, yet you fell from your saddle as if shot.”

Yes, he had fallen from the saddle right after he had… Bilbo groaned and pressed his eyes closed, wishing he had the strength to lift his head and a convenient wall to bang it against. The fool of a half-Took that he was, hadn’t he learned anything from giving Camaenor his name? Clearly not, for he had insisted repeating the endeavor with the ring. With Gwaedhglae.

He had known that there was power to names that was difficult for the mortal people to comprehend. One cold winter’s day when he didn’t feel like braving the wind in the gardens, Bilbo had shared tea with his host and he had happened to ask Lord Elrond why elves had so many names. It had been a matter of idle curiosity, but the answer had been unexpectedly fascinating. The father-name, Lord Elrond had said, was the name for the official records and usually derived from the name of the child’s father or house. The mothers gave their children another name, having insight into the characters and abilities and even the eventual fate of their children even thought they were nothing yet but babes on their arms; he had called this foresight apacenyë. Of course men were capable of having these flashes of foresight as well, but Bilbo had always thought it to be something purely elven in nature.

There were stories of the fairy wife some nameless Took had taken a long time before the founding of the Shire, but it wasn’t as though anyone sensible actually believed in those stories – and before Bilbo had run out of his door and after thirteen dwarves, his life had been very much ordinary with no inconvenient incidents when he had proposed names for his younger relatives. It could tax a mother’s creativity when there were ten to name and twenty young, immediate relatives already named after all. If there was any blood in the Tooks other than that of Fallohides, it was much too thinned to amount to anything more than maybe a decade or two longer life than was average for hobbits, it had to be much too thin after all this time. Besides, Tooks had been naming their own faunts as long as there had been Tooks and while naming a daughter Asphodel or a son Hellebore might have been bad taste, it certainly hadn't ever hurt anyone.

“I felt a sudden pain, but it is gone now. There isn’t even headache to remind me of it,” Bilbo said and realized that he was speaking the truth. He tried to rise up sitting and doing so wasn’t painful or even difficult, no weakness weighted his limbs much to his surprise; he still lacked the wall, though, and made do with getting up on his feet.

“Maybe we should rest now and only continue tomorrow,” Camaenor said, but Bilbo knew there was nothing wrong with him. He only couldn’t say how he knew without explaining about several things. Gwaedhglae was one such thing and Camaenor’s new name another. Maybe it was terribly cowardly of Bilbo, but he couldn’t tell Camaenor that truth, he simply couldn’t!

“I can continue, you needn’t worry,” he insisted, and Camaenor’s demeanor promised an argument, but this was when the wind shifted just a little bit.

It carried high, trilling laughter and a young voice shouting something with it. All four of them froze where they stood, Ayla turning towards the voices and grinning with abandon.

She ran up the hill before them and Bilbo followed after her, holding on to Clover's bridle to ease her friends' mind. Before his eyes the boundless land stretches from the northern horizon to the southern horizon in bands of varying colour. Between them and this vastness was a long, narrow valley that Bilbo hadn’t seen at all, the edges of its slopes very steep. The valley was growing very small trees – or alternatively very tall shrubs – that were blooming in fragrant, bright orange-yellow clusters of flowers. Between the trees there was a group of girls picking flowers into baskets and boys digging something from the ground a little way away.

“We seem to be at home now. The children can not be far apart from their parents,” Camaenor said. Ayla was already halfway down the slope, calling what Bilbo could only assume were names, but blurred together so that it was different to divide the “Husnidabiromjamannazizahirbekkaya” between the children. The little heads turned towards them at once and then the children abandoned their tasks and started running up the hillside towards Ayla. It ended in a jumping, screaming knot where what seemed like entirely too many little hands trying to wrap themselves around her at the same time.

It was heartwarming to watch. Bilbo was content to simply stand there and watch upon the reunion and neither Camaenor nor Kester appeared to be in any more hurry. Ayla was explaining something that caused the children to turn towards them, suddenly eerily quiet, and then the boys bowed deeply and the girls curtseyed so low the grass tickled their chins. Then there was only wind and the sweet, sweet fragrance it carried, meekly lowered eyes and – Bilbo could have sworn – trembling lips. One of the youngest children, a little boy wearing a round, flat hat, broke into tears like without further warning and the tension that emitted from the elf by Bilbo’s side could have been cut with a knife.

“Arhod, Hirbek!” Ayla commanded with a sharp tone and slapped the boy over the back of his head; this only made him bawl louder and moan something.

“Should we go down or just… stay here until he stops crying?” Kester asked and cast Camaenor a pitying look. “I don’t know what came upon him, you don’t look scary at all,” he gave clumsy comfort.

“Bilbo will go down first. No-one can surely find him threatening,” Camaenor ordered tersely and Bilbo nodded his acquiescence, feeling guiltily joyous that his looks only inspired the children of the Big Folk merely wonder about shoemaking and bowls of milk left outside the doorstep. He began to climb down the path circling several big boulders, not wishing to risk Clover’s legs on the treacherous-looking ground.

It took one brave girl tugging Bilbo’s pointed ear with a half-delighted, half-quailing gasp, all the boys running their hands over the hair on his feet and many a word that were both stern and gentle from Ayla, but eventually the boy who was apparently named Hirbek quieted and brushed the back of his hand over his running nose. All those dark eyes looked very, very big in all too small faces when they dared to look up the hill before dropping again, turning back towards homely, safe-looking Bilbo.

“All is fine. Elves may look forbidding at times, but he truly is a good person,” Bilbo spoke with a low, soft voice, hoping that the tone of his words would give comfort even when they weren’t understood. He lifted his hand to make a small wave that Camaenor answered, looking very kingly with his long coat and golden hair fluttering in the wind and his armour glittering like silver in the sun. Looking up to him like this made Bilbo feel very small and grubby-looking and the fright of the children made a lot more sense all of a sudden. Camaenor was presented the warrior that he was, beautiful, but he also appeared, well. Forbidding, something fine and golden and above the little people that toiled the earth and herded sheep.

But he adored children, Bilbo was quite certain of this. When the same girl who had tugged his ear made a small, hesitant move with her hand like she longed for the courage to lift it, Bilbo tenderly wrapped his fingers around her wrist. Her eyes widened even more as Bilbo made to wave to Camaenor, but though he made certain to only hold her lightly and move his hand slowly so that she might pull her hand away if she so wished, she waved with him.

“Camaenor,” Bilbo said and pointed at the elf. And when he waved back, her uncertain expression bloomed into a blinding grin and she tugged herself free, waving with both hands now. This was the sign that Camaenor had waited and now he walked down the slope, walking Clover with great care. Brasseth jumped from one firm foothold to another like a mountain goat, unbothered by rolling pebbles and needing no hand to hold her bridle. Kester followed after Camaenor, looking very carefully where he led Clover before daring the same route with Bramble.

Barely had Camaenor reached the bottom of the valley when the girl was already by his side, letting out a string of exited words where Bilbo could pick out the word Husnida. As the rest of the children followed her example, slowly and shyly, Bilbo amused himself trying to figure out their names. Out of three girls and three boys, he had already recognized two. Could the tall girl with braids hanging from below her scarf be Biromja or maybe Jamanna? Aziza was a possibility as well, as was Kaya, but making out names that sounded like they might fit a boy was harder. Maybe the boy with a red vest could be Birom and the tall, coltish one Jaman? Bilbo was so deep in his thoughts that he was surprised when a small hand tugged his ear again and he saw Husnida had, incredibly enough, abandoned Camaenor for his company.

“Bilbo Baggins,” he said and gestured towards himself; he had heard Ayla mentioning his name, but it was only proper to introduce himself. He had a lot of younger cousins and the one thing they all had in common was that they were pleased when strangers treated them with the same courtesy they offered adults.

“Husnida!” she repeated cheerfully and proffered Bilbo a garland braided from long straws, fit for a child – or a hobbit.

“Are you proposing a grass wedding to me?” Bilbo asked, amused, but put the garland atop his head and gave her a solemn nod. She nodded back to him and fluttered back to the court Camaenor was holding by the horses that had quickly made adorers of the children as well.

“What is a grass wedding?” Kester asked a bit from the side. Bilbo had a thought that he was trying very hard to not laugh as he looked upon the hobbit.

“Maybe it isn’t a human game, then,” he said. “In the Shire hobbit faunts will often play home and they choose a mother and a father who get to order their children around and wash behind their ears with dirty pond water – it seems no faunt can ever find a clean pool. At first there must be a wedding, of course, and the mother will wear a flower garland. But not boy below their tweens would ever deign to wear anything as girly as flowers, never mind that young men and women alike wear the at wedding and dance parties, and so they make their garlands from grass.”

“Human children play home well, but we don’t usually bother to conduct play-pretend marriage ceremonies and only the girls would wear any kind of garlands for any reason at all,” Kester answered.

The hobbit fauntling thought the wedding the best part of the game – at least until it was time to play family dinner – because there was always good food at wedding and their mothers, finding the game quite adorable, were usually very willing to indulge them. Bilbo had always been a soft on the little ones as well and he could only grin widely as Camaenor clearly enjoyed himself and tried to act paternally dignified at the same time. It was a valiant attempt, though one doomed to a failure.

Bilbo was so distracted he didn’t even notice that his fingers twiddled with a few straws on their own, twined them into a small ring.

***

Gwaedhglae was still new to the feelings that had so suddenly bloomed without his permission and they easily left him unbalanced. He had felt insulted and prideful and furious, had been overwhelmed and helpless and raging in the face of the truth that he had been named after something lowly and slavishly devoted. Now he had again been left in an empty space between emotions, standing momentarily on a stretch of bare ground where only clinical logic process and something that in a lesser being could have been called morbid curiosity remained.

…and you are beautiful and touching and faithful…

Grass wedding?

Had Bilbo Baggins just come on to him?

His conscious mind betrayed no affection towards the ring besides the appreciation of a useful magical trinket and the seeds of the unnatural obsession the ring brought forth in its bearers, but subconscious mind was always challenging to read; a tangled set of uncoordinated and often conflicting impulses and desires that didn’t cancel each others out, a dark, but not evil place, merely unknown, a map with great white areas. What peripheral part of Bilbo was aware of Gwaedhglae’s existence as a sentience had found him to be frightful, yes. This didn’t mean it was impossible for the hobbit to find him beautiful and touching as well.

Touching! Isildur had found the ring he cut from Sauron’s hand beautiful and bewitching, a worthy spoil of war and a heart-breaking token of his father’s death. Gollum had found the ring his best friend fished from the bottom of a river beautiful and bewitching, precious and tortuously desirable. There were surely many songs of it that described him as alluring and captivating, beguilingly remediless and seductively inveterate; no other race used adjectives like the elves.

The One Ring was certain beyond certainty that no-one had ever called him touching before. The way Bilbo continued to regard Gwaedhglae as faithful was laughable as well, though if one wanted to be particular, he was faithful to Sauron…

And yet he had toyed with the thought, courted it to abandon it again and again, used it like he would a helplessly besotted, abused lover; how he didn’t want to die. If even a fraction of Bilbo Baggins loved Gwaedhglae, the feeling should be encouraged, courted and titillated, used and abused. At the same time, if the love existed, it had already wrought havoc upon his very foundations. If the love existed, then that love had been what named him Gwaedhglae. It would have been such an easy association to make, between the faithful grass and childhood grass weddings, the first game of love Bilbo ever played.

Love had named Gwaedhglae after lowly, slavish devotion and a joining so innocent and uncorrupted it could never exist as anything but a game. He was hesitant to provoke it further, lest even worse be somehow possible.

At least Bilbo Baggins could be called consistent. He was in his hypothetical love, as forever and always, incredibly infuriating.

***

It took Camaenor a while to calm his ardent admirers down, but eventually he managed to gesture Ayla to come closer. She walked to him like someone had tied a string from his hand to her neck, standing straight and awaiting orders with bright eyes.

"We need to continue our way to your home now," Camaenor said, and while Bilbo was certain that Ayla understood nothing but "we" and "your" and "home" it was clear enough for their purposes. She quickly herded the children into gathering their baskets, filled with the orange flowers and some kinds of roots.

This was when a crow cried atop a nearby tree. Its caw was shrill and clear, a jarring sound in the beautiful, blooming place, and as if in answer there came from far away another note: howls, terribly familiar howls, echoing dimly from the hills. Bilbo let out a desolate groan, for the place and the day had seemed so beautiful and kind even in the middle of the wilds of Dunland, like a little island of peace that reminded him of his own Shire. Right then he missed the Shire with knife-sharp intensity; it was a brief longing, but maybe even more powerful for that.

"I thought the mountains were supposed to be emptied of orcs," he complained as he pulled his sword from its sheath. His brief hope that this might simply mean wolves or at least a wild warg pack without riders was swiftly crushed, for the familiar blue glow betrayed their approaching enemies.

"Ayla, do you know a safe place for the children?" Camaenor snapped a question and then repeated it in the old language of the Dunlendings. Bilbo knew not how much of what he said she understood, but Ayla pointed at the slope a little ways from a tangled tree that more resembled a shrub than anything else and commanded the children to follow her.

"Bilbo, Kester, you will go with her and the children. You must protect them, should any of our enemies escape me." The three of them shared a worried glance; it was commonly known that orcs had no honour and felt no shame at fleeing a warrior to attack helpless children.

"I have no weapon," Kester pointed out his dilemma, for while he was in truth carrying a long knife, it had been made for skinning sheep and not resting an orc from its skin and life. Camaenor handed him one of his own swords, a long, slightly curved blade with delicate marks upon it. It looked fine and fragile for a weapon, but Bilbo knew elves to be fine weapon smiths and he was certain that any crude cleaver or axe the orcs might be carrying would break long before it would bear a scratch.

Then there was no more time to speak. Camaenor leaped astride Brasseth and Bilbo started walking Clover towards the small path Ayla was climbing, Kester following at his heels. Clover and Bramble were both tossing their heads and whinnying nervously, but neither had tried to run yet, which Bilbo thought a positive sign. Maybe the wargs weren't as close as he had at first feared; they might miss the small valley entirely, he thought as he remembered how suddenly it had opened before his own two feet.

His hope almost came to fruition. They only saw the small cave when the first child disappeared into it. It was a little more than a thin crack in the rock and there was no hope of getting either of the horses inside, but Bilbo consoled himself thinking that no warg would surely fit either. A child after child pushed inside until Ayla was the only one left standing out in the open and when Bilbo made his way up he saw why she remained. There simply wasn't any room left for her.

His hope almost came to fruition. Kester shared a hopeful look with him and with Ayla's help they managed to keep their horses from breaking into a run. The howls and yells came closer and closer, and maybe it was the wind, but Bilbo thought that he could hear the beasts receding. Only, Ayla's face became a picture of desolation and Bilbo realized with a pang that they must be receding into the direction of her home village. Kester patted her arm and swallowed, but he could do nothing except make soothing noises. Ayla took a deep, shaking breath, brushed his hand off and took a candle from one of Bramble's bags, lit it and made to offer it into the cave.

His hope almost came into fruition and he could hear a war cry, wordless, but much clearer and nobler than what any orc could hope to yell, and Ayla's face brightened again. She straightened, the candle still in her hand, when the first death cry could be heard. His hope almost came into fruition, but then ground trundled down a little ways to the left and Bilbo turned to watch two ugly, snarling faces break into terrible, bloodthirsty leers. The candle fell from her grip and tumbled down the slope. Miraculously the flame didn't die out and it hit the thicket full of bright flowers.

Bilbo's first thought that that the orcs didn't have wargs with them, that there was a chance they might not realize that crack was hiding children from their sight. His second thought was that he must somehow protect both Ayla and Kester, for he didn't reckon the boy's chances against an orc this great. The bigger of the orcs, a terror, but a cowardic one, came at the smallest member of the group. Each of the big orc’s steps caused the hard ground to vibrate as he stomped forward, the rusty cleaver raised high, confident in his victory. Azog had at least understood to take care of his weapons, Bilbo thought distractedly, here he had got a second-grade enemy. One who was still very much capable of becoming the end of him, of course, for when one was dealing with orcs, this went without saying.

"You will not touch Ayla!" Kester yelled as the second orc begun to circle towards them and Bilbo winced, but he didn't dare to take his eyes off his orc for long. The cry of a scared child could be heard, but only for the shortest of moments before it was muffled into nothingness.

"You can't run me, you grimbûrz little worm! I are have your guts sausage casings!" The monster howled in broken Westron and broke into a run.

"How rude!" Bilbo protested; his heart was beating rapidly, but his lips pulled into a thin, determined line as he concentrated on getting out of the mess alive. He couldn’t go too far back, the children were there with Kester and Ayla, and he really didn’t think that going for the howling of the wolves was a good idea either. Behind the orc, the fire of the fallen candle faded in intensity as the wind blew it apart, but the bush was burning bright. His observations were cut short as the hulking form of his opponent barreled down on him, yellow-fanged mouth twisted into a vicious snarl, and he had to move.

Bilbo had nothing left to prove to anyone, not that the hobbits couldn't be very courageous once the need was great – and not that they couldn't think very quickly on their feet. The wind was blowing from behind his back and towards the orc...

Bilbo pulled off his cloak and jumped backward, throwing the grey garment over the head of his opponent. He heard a swishing sound and felt the cleaver tearing his shirt just barely grazing his mithril shirt below the arm still lifted from the throw. He stumbled, but he had been lucky, lucky enough that his cloak hadn’t gotten caught in the downswing, but the wind threw it against his enemy, the frightening face disappearing from sight. Even blinded, the orc didn’t stop to pull the cloak off, but swung his blade a second time. He was too big and too close for Bilbo to jump aside, so he ducked and made a desperate lunge forward, aiming at the gap between the bow legs. He made a victorious yell, hitting backwards with Sting as he ran towards the fire the wind kept bellowing and stoking. The orc brushed the annoying cloak covering his face aside, twisting around and making one last lunge. Kester screamed from pain and Ayla let out a scream of shrill rage and Bilbo couldn't help, not yet...

***

Gwaedhglae was singing to Bilbo, his voice a lulling tune of false promises of safety. Put me on and I will spare you, he sung and the fleeting image of flickering out of the orc's sight was comforting like fingers brushed through his hair, tempered with the pinpricks of anger difficult to control like too long nails. You named me and I love you for it, he sung and it was maybe the worst lie he had ever told.

Maybe it was good that Bilbo couldn't hear him. Smell of blood mingled with the dizzying, sweet smell of the bright orange and red flowers and the smell of grass, the smell of unwashed body, and Bilbo stood his ground. Gwaedhglae raged against his name and Bilbo, forever and always infuriating, was much too focused on saving his friends' lives to notice.

***

Bilbo knew he was tiny compared to the muscular, broad-shouldered beast, knew that even though the cleaver couldn’t pierce his mail shirt, it still could crush his ribs. He knew he had to get this just right and not nearly so.

Everything seemed to slow down as the orc struck. Bilbo threw himself down again, towards the gap between the legs, but this time he rolled to the side – and like he had thought, anticipated, hoped, the orc closed his legs, pushed them together. With nimbleness he hadn’t known he possessed, Bilbo swung himself behind of the orc. He didn’t even waste time getting up, but pressed his own feet together and kicked. Bilbo was braced against the ground, he didn't move, but the orc was standing awkwardly with his legs pressed together and off-balance. Despite being several times the weight of the journey-slender hobbit, he fell and the half-step he managed to take didn’t help him regain his balance. He tumbled face-first into the flames.

It was not the kind of scream Bilbo had ever heard before. He had heard startled screams when the seemingly solid, hard stone suddenly disappeared from below his comrades feet, leaving them to fall down the long chute to goblin town, he had heard war bellows and the quickly silenced, pained shouts that had followed in the wake of spider bites. He had heard nauseated cries and scared screams when the fire brushed oh-so-close, he had heard the cacophony of a great battle.

Bilbo had never before heard anything as terrible as this. The other orc was screaming as well and he didn't even understand to wonder at this. When his opponent pushed himself up, Bilbo rose from his paralyze and pushed Sting where he thought the heart might be, biting his lip and breathing heavily through his nose. At least this was mercifully quick; the enchanted blade slid through flesh much easier than he had expected, somehow slipped past the ribs and the orc fell down again with barely a twitch. Bilbo started kicking sand on the fire to stifle it. The fight was over now and Bilbo himself was unharmed. He really could stand to feel better about this than he did, in his opinion, but he turned to save Ayla and Kester, resolute.

What he saw was Kester lying on the ground, pressing tightly on his bleeding arm. But the orc was lying on the ground as well and Ayla was kneeling on his chest, rising a big rock above her head and then bringing it down with a loud crunch. The orc's head lolled to the side, but Ayla didn't cease, striking again and once more before she allowed the rock to fall from her hands. Bilbo has witnessed women in battle before, the most estimable Captain Tauriel proving with aplomb that women could be as capable as men when wielding a sword, but he had to admit that witnessing such a thing happening still took him by surprise. The women of the Shire were much more peaceful sort, though he could imagine Lobelia whacking an orc over the head with her umbrella for stumbling over her flowers beds.

Then Kester let out a moan and Bilbo wished he could hit himself over the head. It was no moment to stand in dumb admiration.

"I will get the healing supplies from..." Clover's bag. Clover was nowhere in sight and Bilbo looked around himself in fright, seeking to reach his horse in vain. He could sight her on the other end of the valley, slowly climbing off the gorge. "Clover, come here!" he shouted, but the mare showed no signs of hearing him at all.

"Oh, I wonder if this could possibly get worse at all," he groaned as he grabbed his coat from the ground. It was the good coat made of very thick wool Ficilia's sister had sold him and he begun to tear into bandages. Sting was a bit too long to comfortably use as a substitute for scissors, but it was the only knife he had at hand; the sword Camaenor had borrowed Kester was even longer.

"Of course it could get worse," Kester laughed, his face ashen with pain. "There could be... more orcs. And wargs." Barely he'd had the time to say this when there was a howl very close to them and the pebbles begun to rain down the sides of the valley again. Ayla bent to pick up the sword Kester had dropped and Bilbo threw the one swath of bandage he had managed to cut to Kester, turning around with grim determination.

One warg and two orcs, one astride and the other on foot, leaped down the gorge, but seemed to pay no attention to the small group. The cause for this became clear when Brasseth leaped down in their wake, Camaenor fairly standing on his stirrups and his sword wet with black blood. There, right before Bilbo's eyes, he cut down first the orc trying to flee him running, then deflected the warg rider's blade and struck down the warg when it turned against Brasseth in a desperate attempt to tear apart its enemy. He cut them all down with such ease that Bilbo hadn't seen the like even when he had witnessed Tauriel's stance against Bolg over Kíli's wounded body.

"Vána and her sister be praised," Bilbo breathed and knelt down by Kester's side, picking up his ruined cloak and making to tear another strip off it. Kester's eyes were wide with hero worship, but when he looked upon Ayla he saw that hers were brighter still, almost fever bright with such naked reverence that Bilbo felt uncomfortably as though he was gazing upon her in inappropriate attire. He dropped his eyes to his work, aware that what measures Camaenor had taken to make himself appear more earthly to Ayla had now been thoroughly made undone.

***

Mortal minds work in mysterious ways. As Camaenor treated Kester's wound with great skill, Brasseth herded errant Clover and Bramble back to their owners liker a clever dog might have herded sheep and the men of Ayla's tribe begun to approach them in groups of two and three, their eyes full of the same awe that shone in Ayla's, Bilbo didn't think of the gruesome battle. It might have been fitting to thank the Valar for the cunning and skill he had found within and for Ayla's unexpected ferocity in battle, it might have made sense to tremble now that all was over, it would have shown common sense to seek someone who spoke the common tongue among the men wearing coats and vest of fur. He could have comforted the children or even rued his ruined cloak, but Bilbo didn't do any of this.

He neither lingered on the past nor worried of the future; his mind was fully occupied with composing rhymes and counting syllables, bending what he wanted to say into a rigid framework.

The poem he had made earlier – the poem that still needed a name, come to think of it – had been a bit clumsy and quite strange, not following any metre Bilbo knew of. Its creation had been a journey and while it had, in the end, become a lesson and an invitation, it had still appeared very much like Bilbo’s journey: surprising and joyfully unplanned for all the work he had put into it.

This poem was different. It came easily and it came fast, growing like grass after a rainstorm.

Alone, together, now between
Summer was long and bare and brown
Sheenly, silver straws growing down
Under the rain the grass grows green

The nimble fingers of a faunt
Braid hay into a garland fair
With the liveliness of a hare
Dancing wedding and play romaunt

Not red roses in a garden
Nor flowers that in far south dwell
Give more devoted and loving smell
Than grass below rain's fine curtain

Grass Wedding, Bilbo thought, would be a good name for the poem. It was such a lovely little story that Kester had told him; a pity that he wasn’t a good enough poet to truly do it justice. It was entirely inappropriate to feel so at ease after a fight and such a terrible kill, but for some reason Bilbo couldn’t help but smile.

Had he been asleep, he might have heard the ring in his pocket moan out loud.

(The ring would have denied ever doing anything so undignified. Gwaedhglae was quietly horrifed by how obvious his lies were becoming.)

Chapter Text

Someone once told Sauron: I wish you will find what you are looking for. It took him a long, long time to realize that this wasn't a well-wish.

He remembers well who first claimed that he had no sense of humour. It was Curumo on the stairs to the forges of their lord and master Aulë, to a white-haired Maia in an apprentice's clothes whose name Sauron later learned was Ossë. He had been an unconstant one in his youth, flirting briefly with fire before settling down in the service of Ulmo.

"Lord Mairon acts callous, but deep inside, I think he just isn't very good at making friends,” Ossë had said, chewing on his lower lip. He had looked like he was planning on hunting Mairon down and giving him a hug and Mairon - standing by an open window above the pair and without any intent to let them know the object of their conversation was listening in on them - had actually been slightly disturbed. Was he truly so socially awkward that even Ossë could tell?

“No, no, he has always been a self-righteous loner. I’ve met friendlier samples of ore - and with more complex personality, as well.” Curumo had shrugged, “But maybe you’re right, little boy. Maybe you should ask him if he secretly wishes to be your friend and see what happens.” He had laughed, heavy and deep, and Ossë had blushed as brightly red as the sigil on his apron.

Later when there was no more Mairon, but only Sauron and Gorthaur, he had thought that Ossë was simply a terrible judge character - look how he had needed to be scolded by his wife to return to Ulmo! Sauron hadn't remembered that if the other Maia had tried to hug him, he wouldn't have pushed him away, that he would have happily been his friend even after the other's brief stay was over; he had always known it would be brief. But whatever name Sauron had gone by, he had always been terribly awkward at making friends.

***

Mairon once walked up to Melkor, arguably the mightiest of the Ainur who had descended upon Arda, and insulted him only to get his attention. In the defense of his plan, it had actually worked. Melkor, biding his time and pretending he had seen the error of his ways after the chiding from their Father, had been followed around by a gaggle of admirers and he had been equally courteous and distant towards them all. Mairon had been the one whose favour the Vala had later courted.

He had known there was more to Melkor than was immediately obvious, but this had only made the attraction that much stronger. He had gladly sung the world into being in accordance to the guidance of Eru Ilúvatar without even knowing what his chords would birth, but after the initial vision had been taken away and all that was left was potential and the idea of existence, the whole thing had seemed terribly chaotic to him. How was he to know if he was doing it right? How could he know that every detail was as intended when they left his shaping hands if he didn't have detailed plans, notes to compare the work against, something? Anything?

At first he had thought that Aulë suited his goals and temper the best, but soon he had been drawn to Melkor instead. It had been a marvel how one who had caused such havoc during the Music could now so skillfully bring forth order; he worked with the subtle affluence of ideas the best of composers could but envy, but the skill of his hands was in no way unequal to the visions in his mind. Where Aulë compelled a scampering, debating herd of apprentices with light hand, Melkor ran a tighter guild. In the throes of his greatest inspiration, handling his hammer, coaxing the metal to his will and cheering the fire on with joyful abandon, Aulë never distilled so potent a smell of creation as Melkor did in his drawing room.

There were no Lamps yet and no Trees, nor stars blinking high on the sky, yet the lights of the fëa of the Ainur twinkled here and there in the darkness, and the dark sky above them was blinking in reflection like a mirror. Mairon had stood at the doorway of a newly erected tent that had been placed there by one of Melkor’s Maiar. They had no need for tents any more than drawing rooms or even forges, really, but surrounding themselves with these trappings of material gave substance to the shapes their kind created around them and below and above them.

"May I enter, Lord Melkor?" he had asked without introducing himself. That would have been a mistake; almost everyone was eager for Melkor to know their name.

"Come in," the Vala had beckoned him with an air of polite pretense at interest. "You have need of me?"

"If you would, I would like to see what you are making, Lord Melkor," he had asked with only half-hidden presumptuousness. Melkor's face would later become blurred in his memories, the noble quality devoured by something else entirely, but Sauron would forever remember the amused, indulgent lift of an eyebrow when his challenge had been met.

"I have made plans for a river that flows into a lake. No stream will lead out of the lake, but it will be in such a place that evaporation will keep the lake from overflowing." Melkor proffered his plans to Mairon as he spoke and when Mairon looked at them, he had to admit that it made for a wonderful picture. After a mere few hundred years the lake would appear in the colors of bright yellow, striking green, deep blue and even deeper black, and especially red caused by an aquatic herb growing at the bottom of the lake, a gift from Yavanna. It had also been a very fortuitous project from Mairon's point of view.

"I have already made something very much like this," he had said and given Melkor his own patronizing twitch of eyebrow back. "The river I created at the beckoning of my lord Aulë is of course not this radiant - you have an impeccable eye for colours, my lord Melkor. But this can hardly be called a unique concept anymore. Truly, I expected more of you."

"I believe that there is more to my plans than is readily apparent, dear Mairon," Melkor had said and reached over the desk to take his plans back. My name, Mairon had thought, he knows my name and he just let it slip, and he hadn't even noticed Melkor took his wrist instead of the papers before he had looked into those eyes, burning white with the powerful fëa, and then he couldn't look away.

It was later said that Mairon was one of the first Maiar Melkor seduced to his side. It could be said that Mairon was the one to court the flame, unheeding of the burns he suffered, but that, too, would only be half of the truth.

The lake Melkor created was short-lived, for it was destroyed in the calamity of the destruction of the Lamps. It was yellow and green, blue and pitch black and red and quite lovely, but other than the single tenacious herb Yavanna had given Melkor and a few bacteria, it remained entirely devoid of other plants and fish. The copper ore that gave the lake such a vibrant green hue and the yellow orpiment silt the river carried there - rich with arsenic sulphide - had rendered the water incredibly poisonous.

***

Finrod Felagund had tried to fell Sauron with a song and while it had been a valiant attempt, it had been a foolish and a doomed one as well. When Lúthien Tinúviel sung, the walls of his fortress trembled and Sauron wished to bring her prisoner to Morgoth, his master, as a pretty toy to play with. Lúthien had lifted a fold of her enchanted cloak and struck him, her hound had mauled him and she had taken control of his island and by her powers destroyed his tower and freed his prisoners. When Sauron had flown away into the night, shamed and defeated, he had thought that he might love a woman like her.

Then she had died for her love and that had been that - only it hadn't. Lúthien Tinúviel had returned to life as a mortal woman.

It had disgusted him, to hear that she had sunk to such decrepit depths when she had once been so grand. Sauron hadn't even realized the depths of his own moonbeam-coloured, almost demeaning scrutiny before he realized that she had, with that one sacrifice, managed to slip his leash forever. An elf could be kept prisoner, but humans had escape in death waiting for them, even if they were sufficiently broken to not try and take that route under their own will.

He hadn't intended to ever see Lúthien brought so low. He had still found himself taking the shape of a Noldo warrior one day and approached her in Ossiriand where she had dwelt with her husband. Her face had been wrinkled already and there had been gray in her hair - Sauron hadn't even realized how much time had passed before it was thrown against his face thusly - but her eyes had still been bright, bright and dark at the same time like a starlit night without fear before Morgoth had taken the Arda for his own, and her voice as mighty as ever. Her eyes had been full of starlight but her smile had been something else entirely when she had sat upon the veranda of her house, gazing the wet sands on the nearby beach glowing white fire in the high noon sun.

"Do you ever regret you choice, my Lady?" he had asked as he ate the bread and fruit and drank the wine she had offered her. Her husband had been away on a boat and she had been away and as helpless as she would ever be. He hadn't had a clue what he was doing there and he hadn't liked the sensation.

"Of course not, for I have the man I love and I have my dawn," she had denied mildly. She had put down the silver needles and lace she had been knitting on her lap and looked upon him with eyes that saw entirely too much. "The men awoke with the dawn and I may share their doom now, but I also share their gift."

"I don't understand," Sauron had confessed half by accident, unnerved by those eyes and the smile full of sunlight.

"I have lived as a child facing in the twilight of her people. The night has fallen and the night doesn't belong to the elves anymore, but to Morgoth; the hours will get much darker before the sun rises again. And when the sun rises, it will herald the Age of Men. When Beren came to me and named me Tinúviel, I knew that I could choose between going to the West and peace, one way or another, and becoming simply a daughter of a father and a mother, someone of no consequence. Or I could choose staying and leaving a lasting mark into this world, even if it was in death. Beren was not handsome when I first saw him, but a dirty and emaciated fugitive. Yet I loved him for offering me this name and chance more than I have ever loved my parents, the Valar or my life."

So spoke Lúthien Tinúviel, and she had waved her wrinkled hand towards the pier where the white sides of the little fishing boats and the waves had shone white and flaming, as though the entire sea had been afire. Beren son of Barahir had arrived from the sea and waved to his wife.

"Does he love you like you love him?" Sauron had asked. He had set out to steal a Silmaril from Morgoth for her sake, but that wasn't necessarily an indication of anything but foolishness and entirely too much pride to back out.

"Of course he does," Lúthien had declared with the smug tilt of a cat that had stolen the cream and eaten the little bird all week long. Sauron wondered if Beren, should he already lie on the ground dying, offer Lúthien his last breath so that she would forever carry the memory of killing him in her heart. Maybe he would; Sauron had only very rarely seen Morgoth appear so satisfied. But now Lúthien's face had changed from disturbingly pleased to something that... Sauron hadn't been able to recognize.

"Any kind of loss of life before its time used to be a thought you would call grand," she had chanted with a lilt to her lovely, strong voice that could almost have been called singing. "But if you were in love, would your beloved need to be there as well for the death to mean anything? The way you love should be illegal - it probably is illegal, in civilized nations." And Sauron hadn't been listening on her anymore, because his skeleton had shrunk into itself and twisted, taking the shape of a bat with the memory of a song that had shaken his entire island and the hot breath of a terrible hound. He had flown away into the bright afternoon, shamed and defeated.

He had thought to maybe leave without revealing himself, maybe not, but he could never be absolutely certain Lúthien hadn't guessed his identity from the very beginning. And he had decided that he couldn't have loved her after all, for in her own, special way she had been a little too scary a woman even for him.

He had even given the dirty, scruffy troll he had once imprisoned, Beren Erchamion, his reluctant respect for daring to lay himself down to sleep by her side.

***

If Ossë was the friend he never had and easily forgotten, if Morgoth was the one who never loved Sauron back, but also gave him the respite of teaching him hate instead of love, Lúthien was harder to shake long after even her bones were dust at the bottom of the sea that had swallowed Ossiriand. He hadn't loved her, but if he had, he still would have been helpless in the face of her mortality. Maybe this was why he enchanted longevity as a bait for a trap for fëa into his rings; it never paid to not take all eventualities into consideration, even if he couldn't imagine ever giving that kind of regard for one born mortal. Waste not, want not; the ringbearers turned wraiths would serve him well.

Instead of a mortal, there was Celebrimbor Curufinion, the last of the House of Fëanor. He had inherited his grandfather's burning need to create and always reach higher and further, but he had also inherited his grandmother's even temper and generosity - along with her fiery red hair. What little he had of his father, well, one could make a case for bad judgement. Sauron hadn't quite loved him, not yet turned not ever, but there had definitely been attraction.

There had been a moment when he had been very close to acting on that attraction. It wasn't a choice to make lightly for either elves or Maiar. Among them bedding someone and wedding them were not one letter removed, for all the words used were completely different. As Lord Annatar had come very close to wedding Celebrimbor.

It had been late at night, and he had wandered a small way out of Ost-in-Edhil, into the garden of a palace where Celebrimbor had entertained visitors from Lothlórien. It had been a long way to go simply to stargaze and Sauron hadn't attempted to fool himself into believing that. He had stood by a small white fountain, delicate like a heavy blossom resting atop a long stalk, but covered in dwarven knotted lattice-work

"Even the stars look different in the south, I have been told. I would like to see that one day," Celebrimbor had spoken behind Sauron, actually startling him.

"Have you been working late?" he had asked the tall elf. It was one of those inane questions asked simply to help the conversation along, for Celebrimbor was still wearing his apron and his hair was tied into a tight knot at the nape of his neck.

"I have created another trinket tonight, as I am a little too excited about tomorrow to sleep, Annatar," Celebrimbor had answered and proffered the ring to Sauron to be examined. It was a lovely thing, gold adorned with a subtle lattice knot design made of white gold - Celebrimbor really had been influenced by the dwarves, how amusing - and in the lattice's center had been an oval-shaped stone that looked almost as if it was made of liquid mercury imprisoned by some invisible force. Yet for all this finery it had been but a practice ring, something to test one of the enchantments Celebrimbor was still perfecting. Nine he had made and then seven, but he still hadn't been quite satisfied with his mastery.

"This is... a clever one. Sneaky, subtle; I like it. I wouldn't wait too much of tomorrow, though, you know that Lady Galadriel disapproves of me and everything to do with your new research." Clever, subtle, far-seeing Galadriel with her entirely too keen instincts and light-filled eyes he would have loved to pluck off and wear in a crown.

"If you believed there was no hope," Celebrimbor's rich voice had said, wrapping itself around Sauron's nerves. "You would be in your bed, sound asleep yourself."

In this, Celebrimbor had been wrong. Sauron had known that he would spend the next day watching the elf making calming noises at Galadriel's emissaries, who would not be placated and would return to their land to tell their lady that Celebrimbor still refused to see reason and that Annatar continued to be suspicious. Oh, he could have won them over if he had but tried, but he would then have betrayed his intent and desire to change Galadriel's opinion of himself in her mind. Suspicious if he made no overtures and suspicious if he made them, this had been a conundrum of a single woman's stubbornness and very unreasonable.

That she had been correct in her suspicions had been entirely beside the point.

"Don't take her misgivings to the heart, her life has been hard and she has a hard time imagining a Maia would have received the Valar's permission to return to these lands - like they have ever before forsaken us even when we deserved it!" And Celebrimbor had bent down his head - Sauron had in the form of Annatar been tall, but still shorter than the Lord of Ost-in-Edhil - and kissed him on the lips.

It had been but a brief pressure of closed lips against closed lips, fleeting and dry like the brush of a moth's wings, but it had set a desirous knot aflame deep in Sauron's gut. He hadn't loved Celebrimbor, not yet, but he had known he was falling for the elf and falling fast, that he could have pushed the other just a bit and they could have had their wedding that night under the stars, in a garden filled with the scent of roses and blooming trees. It had been tempting, an elf romaunt where the beauty of the garden had engaged the night and the stars in a conspiracy of love. But Sauron hadn't been one for sweet stories and he had given Celebrimbor nothing more than a kiss. He had wondered if, should he put his hands around Celebrimbor's throat and squeeze, the elf would let him, would trust that Annatar, Sauron, would not kill him. He had remembered Lúthien's unnerving eyes and even more unnerving smile full of sun's light and backed off. He would first forge his own ring and then, well, then they would see where they stood, he had thought. Then he would know if Celebrimbor was faithful in his love.

And Sauron had created his One Ring, the one without name and without stone, the one that would in the darkness bind the rest - only not the elven rings, them it could not corrupt, for Sauron had been unaware that Celebrimbor was making them. Celebrimbor had taken the betrayal, finding out that his beloved was in truth Sauron and had corrupted the art he had created in order to conquer the world, as well as one might be expected; that was not very well. Sauron had taken Celebrimbor's unintended betrayal - for Celebrimbor had thought he had told Annatar, had intended to tell Annatar and forgotten to do so - much, much worse. He had tortured Celebrimbor to get the man to tell him to whom the elven rings were given, had starved him and burned him and flayed strips of skin off him, tied his hands with them and allowed the uncured leather to rot on him.

Yet Celebrimbor died without ever gracing Sauron with another word. Sauron wept when he finally died and couldn't understand himself.

He almost loved and loved in vain and was left poor and cruel for it. The mortals have a saying: almost may count in horse shoes, but love is a different game.

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins was one of those people who seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far that Bilbo would happen to arrive into those deep, dark caves at that time and put his hand on it, blindly, in the dark. It could even be said that something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring’s maker.

But he was a mortal. The same bitter Gift of Men that doomed them to die also freed men from Music of the Ainur, which was as fate to all things else, allowing them to shape their own lives as they wished. Surely no force could have forced him to happen upon the ring in the dark.

Maybe it was just a matter of probability. In Arda Marred where thing usually first went wronger and then wrongest, sooner or later someone had to get that obscenely lucky. Maybe it could be said that all of Arda finally got obscenely lucky that night, rather than Bilbo as a person. Most of the Free People would argue that laying a single finger on Isildur’s Bane is anything but good luck after all.

Bilbo just went on to be Bilbo about it. He would have happily spent a lifetime using it only to avoid visits from unpleasant relatives.

***

Bilbo Baggins was one of those people who seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was looking up when his foot hit the small knife and sent it clattering down the hillside. It was a mere chance, maybe even as miraculous as the one that had once allowed his fingers to blindly grasp for a ring in the dark of the goblin caves, that had him find the blade at all.

They had left the Tea Olive Valley behind – Camaenor had informed him that the blooming trees were called tea olives, for all they had absolutely nothing to do with the actual olives, whatever those were – and Bilbo had been straining to see a sight of a camp or maybe even village somewhere in front of them. There were two cheering children sitting on Clover's back and he was leading the horse forward, wondering how the sky could be so large. In the Shire and most of the places he had ever been, he’d had to look up to see the sky. He had to make a special effort to view it as it was normally such a narrow strip of his overall view.

In Dunland the sky reached down and everywhere he looked he could see blue and thin, thin sheets of clouds. When the sky was constantly within his line of sight, it took on this vastness that he could feel down to his bones. They had barely left the valley at all and there was an orc corpse nearby when Bilbo didn't watch where he was going and a knife clattered down the gently sloping hillside. He had a hard time seeing the glitter of the metal among the high grass, but the Dunlendings had gathered all the scraps of metal they could get from the orcs and Bilbo thought that they might want this knife as well. It wasn't an orc weapon, was the first thing he realized. It was too well made and there was one of those sigils on its hilt.

Triangles or diamonds, Kester had said, and there was a triangle with another triangle standing on its top inside, with two little triangles that might have made the ears of a wolf or a fox. Clearly this was something one of the men around him had lost.

But there was something to it that made Bilbo feel ill at ease. It was just four triangles, twelve lines, much simpler than the sign of Ayla's tribe even; what malice could such simplicity hold? And yet.

"Excuse me, has someone lost this," he raised his voice, feeling a little silly as he lifted the knife high. No-one could understand what he was saying, but his words caught their attention and surely someone would soon claim the knife - despite the fact that they were all members of Ayla's tribe, most likely. Maybe the orcs had just stolen the knife from some unfortunate man during a raid... But when one of the dark, hirsute men picked it from his hand, the darkening of his face confirmed Bilbo's bad feeling. And he wasn't in any way magical of mysterious, only he had somehow named Camaenor and Gwaedhglae and now he was having premonitions, what was coming of him?

"Tokrap-Kazyl," the man said and passed the knife on. From sun-brown, work-hardened hand to hand it went and every frown made the knot in Bilbo's stomach that much colder.

"Oh, blight take them, why did it have to be those monsters?" Kester moaned, pressing his face to the mane of the horse he was walking. One of the boys riding Bramble reached down to pat his head comfortingly.

***

Gwaedhglae didn't have eyes per se and couldn't glance upon the knife like Bilbo did, but he could feel the dark energy within the sign writhing only just beyond his grasp. It was something... inert was maybe a wrong word to describe it. The knife was like a puddle where the water wouldn't flow, only evaporate, a depression filled with rain that collected muck and grime and grew filthier and filthier.

It wasn't useful, it just was, but that it was at all told an interesting tale of its own.

The dead tell no tales, the Edain claimed, but in truth there were epics to be told for those who had eyes to see – or other applicable senses. This knife carried death seeped deeply within, had shed a lot of blood and the blood had been shed in Sauron's name. Oh, but this had potential, this was a chance to escape Bilbo Baggins and the name he had forced upon the ring.

Even if it was a name he had asked for. Even if to escape a name there was only one option...

No! He wasn't weak, he had a purpose to fulfill and if he fell short on this, what would be the reason for his existence at all? He could escape his current degeneration, all those damned flowers growing in his fëa and the most humiliating name ever bestowed upon someone who could trace their existence back to before there was Arda, he could become one with his master and Sauron would finally, finally fulfill his purpose and take over the entire, miserable Middle-Earth. All Gwaedhglae required was this one chance.

***

The village wasn’t that far from the valley, but Bilbo supposed that their little group moved so slowly just so that the surprised villagers could prepare them a proper welcoming feast. In the distance, there were five pinecone hills that became craggy peaks, silhouetted against the bright afternoon sky, and the village was dwarfed by the magnificent, hard perspective. It was but a village, a little group of moving homes in the midst of an opening among the high grass that smelled like freshly cut grass and sheep. There were little children and women in their bright scarves and grim-looking men whose eyes turned round with wonder as they spied Camaenor marching towards the biggest of the odd tents – yurts, Kester called them.

Inside the chief’s tent Camaenor was holding a ceramic cup delicately in his hands, making it seem as delicate as his hold. He almost appeared to shine his own light, so his hair captured the light of the fire and so his armour reflected it.The four of them were sitting inside a big tent that was seemingly made of some kind of hides, some cloth and wooden wattles that held the whole in shape. It was dim inside and there was smoke, with no place for the smoke to go but slowly drift out of the open doorway, and the smell of the place was overpowering. It wasn't necessary a dirty smell, Bilbo allowed, not the smell of sweat or bad food or anything such, but the hides and the smoke long since seeped into the hides and something hardly describable made it difficult for him to sit there and not wrinkle his nose.

Some of them men were wearing long-sleeved tunics, those quilted jackets and helmets made of hardened leather that resembled open flowers. They were vastly outnumbered by warriors who had shaved their beard, but still had long, hirsute hair and wore vaguely elvish-looking robes with ropes tied across their chests. As big as the yurt was, it was still so full that sweat was rolling down Bilbo’s back underneath his clothes.

And the worst part was that even though the chief spoke fairly good Westron, even though their problem should have been solved there and then, the local customs demanded that they first ate a three-course meal and after that drank tea before getting into the business. Camaenor could have overridden this easily, of course, but as he was looking to denounce his divine status, doing so would have been hypocritical and counter-productive.

The food offered to them was onions and sheep, both fried with a salty sauce, and pigeon too, which he found surprisingly tasty once Camaenor’s glare persuaded him to actually try the dish. Everyone was nibbling on the food, dipping it into the sauce with their bare fingers, and commenting on how good it was and it was clear to Bilbo that everyone wished from the bottom of their hearts that they could begin the serious conversation already; yet both sides apparently intended to outlast the other in patience.

“Is there something you wish to do once the fall equinox comes?” Camaenor asked the chief, Urgrat. He was the very picture of sophisticated grace and Bilbo was very certain that if he was required to remain such much longer, he would begin to visibly tremble.

“I have decided to go to the Lucky Tree. I have a wish that I want to come true,” the chief answered, his eyes gleaming like only barely blackened embers in the dimness of the tent – yurt, whatever it was to be called. The time was stretching like candlewax slowly dribbling down, like resin.

“We all have wishes that we want to come true; surely going to this Lucky Tree is a good idea,” Camaenor answered. Butter wouldn’t have melted in his mouth and it was all so inane that Bilbo wanted to scream. Ayla was resting on her knees at the elf’s left side and Bilbo wondered what precisely she thought she was. She was his something, clearly, but slave and bride would both be met with a rejection and he, well, he didn’t know the Dunlanders enough to know what other options there were, if any. Ayla was practically shining and Bilbo found that he pitied her and Camaenor equally. He just wanted this whole awkwardness to be past, to be in Rohan and looking upon the great, green fields that stretched from horizon to horizon. Away from the stifling cover of leather and the crowds of people, among the tall, fragrant grass and horses...

What was it with him and the grass lately? He has been thinking about it a lot.

Eventually, eventually the dinner stretched no longer and a wizened, old woman came gather the plates and the knives away. She carried a terribly tall tower of plates with ease and Bilbo imagined that she was some kind of ancient warrior who could decapitate her enemies with the plates and duel trolls with small table knives. It was an amusing picture his mind painted, but also a sort of a frightful one.

But eventually the woman had disappeared behind some kind of curtain and the moment was upon them. Both Bilbo and Kester were holding their breath, Bilbo terribly aware of the weight of the ring in his pocket. He didn’t really understand these people, but he knew that the very central figure of their religion telling them that their religion was dead wrong might go very, very badly and he thought of the ring, he hoped that if the worse came to worst Camaenor and Kester would only be captured so that he might sneak out and then back in and save them just like he had saved the dwarves. The tension in the yurt could have been cut with a knife.

“A sacrifice of mortal blood we gave for you, immortal God of War, for the days grow dry and the nights grow dark.” The chief’s words sounded somewhat stilted and Bilbo had a feeling that he couldn’t quite express what he meant, that there was some unknown ceremony to his words. Ayla shone with pride like the brightest of the stars.

“I am no God of War, but one of the Firstborn of the Children of Ilúvatar who reigns over...” Camaenor’s explanation was interrupted before it could really even begin. Voices Bilbo couldn’t recognize rose into a shouting match on the outside and every eye, including Camaenor’s, turned towards the narrow stretch of lilac evening sunlight that shone inside. The moment was so shattered Bilbo could almost hear it breaking upon the ground like glass.

The voices rose thunderous and the chief raised his, speaking in his own tongue. Then the skins that had only half-covered the opening were pushed to the side and a man wearing red jacket and wolf furs stepped inside. For a short moment he looked so similar to Chief Urgrat in Bilbo’s unfamiliar eyes that he thought they must be brothers, though in further observation most of that was the similar hats upon their heads and their big, almost dwarvish noses. Then another figure stepped in and Bilbo’s train of thought was very thoroughly derailed.

“Gandalf?” he asked and stared at the gray-clad man. “What are you doing here?” Gandald had appeared almost out of thin air to save the company first from the trolls and then from the goblins, but at least then Bilbo had known that the wizard was with them, in a manner of speaking, even though he might not have been present every moment, every step along the way. A wizard is never late, he had claimed, but always arrives precisely at the right moment; this was maybe the first time Bilbo believed him. Now it truly was as though he had turned a tiny stone upon the ground and instead of a snake, Gandalf had leaped from underneath it, his hair and the hems of his robes untouched by the grime of the wet ground.

“I could ask the same of you, dear Bilbo. I knew that there was more Took to you than at first appeared, but I would have thought that it would be a little longer before you would seek your next adventure,” the wizard asked, his bushy eyebrows rising below the rim of his hat. The top of it was bent in the low tent.

“Mithrandir,” Camaenor called his Sindarin name and greeted Gandalf with a deep recline of his head. “The timing of your arrival is fortunate, though I must confess to some surprise as well.”

“You are Haldir Faimenion, if my memory doesn’t betray me?” Gandalf said lightly, seemingly unaware of the weight of the stares that now kept moving from him to Camaenor and back to him again. Bilbo knew him too well to expect any sign of surprise from him, but he was almost certain that one of Gandalf’s eyes was fixed at him.

“I am now called Camaenor.” The voice of his friend was so deeply satisfied that Bilbo had to swallow and yet his throat burned. It was a good name, the name of a valiant warrior, he knew it...

“Well, you have been given an apt name,” Gandalf noted happily. The man standing beside him let out a strangled sound and Gandalf turned his face to give him a share of the almost grandfatherly regard. His eyes were twinkling like he had just partaken in the greatest practical joke ever.

Chief Urgrat called something with his native tongue, the man wearing the red jacket forced something angular-sounding out between his teeth. The word “sallaneh” was called and repeated and echoed again. Bilbo turned to Kester who was looking at him expectantly.

“No, I don’t have a clue what is going on in here,” he admitted before the boy could even ask. He felt he was remiss, but Kester actually seemed happier at his words.

“At least I’m not alone in my confusion and you can tell me who that old man is at least,” he said and his words were almost a shock to Bilbo because, well. Because.

Gandalf was wrinkled, his hair was even grayer than his robes and his acted quite grandfatherly whenever he wasn’t blustery and frightening – looking at you, Mister wizard standing upon the Goblin King, Bilbo though wryly – but despite this Bilbo had a hard time of thinking of him as being old anymore. Old meant frail to him, weak, and Gandalf was anything but. Or maybe Gandalf was old the same way the mountains were that Elrond had claimed could grow taller over the millennia rather than smaller. He was something present and stable and Bilbo found he felt surprisingly discomfited by the thought of a world without the wizard.

To think that there had been a time when he had thought that he was just an old, eccentric human who was good at making fireworks!

***

Oh, his bearer had no idea what he was gazing upon! Gwaedhglae didn’t have eyes other than Bilbo’s and could look upon the being who had deigned to enter the lowly tent like his master could have, but he could feel the brightly burning energy within the Maia writhing only just beyond his grasp.

When he had been in the presence of Gandalf, or Mithrandir – his true name a secret to the ring – there had only been cold calculation, potential that had come to nothing, for Bilbo hadn’t allowed the powerful being behold his treasure, hadn’t allowed a touch. Now there was something more, there was the sharp tang of fear-smell that had become all too familiar to him already, for Gwaedhglae could tell that there was something burning within this man, something that burned cleanly and burned unbearably hot. The palest flame was the hottest and something told the ring that it had a cause to fear great heat. And there was a second flame curled around the first, circling it like a ring of light the moon-darkened sun.

A ring! Here was one of the elven rings, one of the rings that... Sauron had somehow... failed to find? Gwaedhglae faltered in his rejoicing as he realized that there was the gap of a missing memory, or rather, the fissure within a partial memory, something elementary that he simply lacked. Sauron had sought the elven rings. Sauron had beheld Celebrimbor dead.

What was missing? What was the puzzle piece that fit in between? That Celebrimbor had been tortured was a rational assumption and that he had not given his secrets was a fact, yet this picture wasn’t whole still.

For all this felt like a meaningful question, it was difficult to hang on to a matter of abstract curiosity in the face of such power. Flame entwined by flame, it frightened the part of Gwaedhglae that had learned what fear was, but there was something else as well. There was a flower with mother-of-pearl petals that changed colour with even the slightest change of perspective, petals so soft he ached to reach out, yet with such sharp edged that Gwaedhglae knew he could be left bleeding and not even notice until hours later when his strength finally gave out. The smell of them was strange and wistful, like a cake baked for someone else only could, yet without smelling like a cake at all, and Gwaedhglae wanted. He wanted that flame to engulf him, he wanted to feed black soot into it until it burned bright and clean no more, he wanted for the Maia to take him from Bilbo.

He wanted and the transition was jarring. He had thought he wanted before, but that had been but a reaction in the face of his Purpose, little more than an animal instinct – in truth an animal instinct would have been more primeval, more overwhelming. This was desire. He desired for the Maia to take him, he desired to twist and soil and corrupt, and yet he...

He didn’t. He wanted and he wanted something else entirely and it made no sense whatsoever!

But in the subconscious mind impulses and desires didn’t cancel each others out. In the subconscious mind nothing was required to make sense; everything simply was, existed for the intrinsic value of existing. And just like this he slipped down and through, below the roots of those flowers. It was different, the space there, from what it had been. His mind was orderly at least, if more flowery than he preferred. His under-mind was full of fleeting, highly symbolic images wilfully flickering into and out of life as he witnessed them.

There was flame entwined by flame and Gwaedhglae knew it must be his imagination, for the flame could not reach out for him any more than he could reach for it if not visibly perceived first, but there he could have sworn that there were mocking words in crackling of that fire. Gwaedhglae knew it must be his imagination, for if the flame could perceive his presence, he would not rest in the pocket of the velvet coat any longer.

He helps you grow strong faster, a distant voice called, he helps you grow strong faster, he helps you grow strong faster!

“He has turned my life into a complete disaster!”

The words blurred together like the chant of hobbit faunts dancing in a circle, hand in hand, kicking with their feet in the perfect unity that came natural for the game and took for the armies of the Middle-Earth months to beat into the skulls of their recruits. The words blurred together: grow strong faster, a complete disaster, grow strong faster, a complete disaster, growstrongfasteracompletedisaster! Kicking, hairy feet and vague, featureless faces with cute button noses, entirely too much curls and grass twined upon those curls.

“I didn’t use to have a subconscious!” he shouted, clawing at the mind of his bearer, imagining the bleeding scars wearing deeper and deeper into the hobbit’s sanity.

Grow strong faster, a complete disaster, grow strong faster, a complete disaster, growstrongfasteracompletedisaster!

You didn’t use to be a person at all. There was no “I” and no life to turn into anything, there was only nothing.

“No! My bearers were never meant to influence me!” And this was a simple fact. Bilbo Baggins just didn’t know how to act.

The flames were crackling their mocking words and Gwaedhglae knew that should he open that chest again, where he had once seen the heart of a dragon and his own image, he would now behold flames and maybe flowers with iridescent petals. If only he could truly have set those flowers aflame. What could be relied upon now when even his mind was growing and branching into directions he didn’t want?

And yet he wanted. It came down to this simple fact: for all he had no doubt, for all he thought that these feelings should be stamped out, no-one could ever control a person, the entirety of a mind and fëa.

Not even if they were trying to control themselves.

***

The arrival of Gandalf and the other man, who turned out to be the chief of a tribe called Janbas, threw the meeting into complete disarray. The Janbas chief stared at Camaenor, who bore the disbelieving scrutiny with dignity, and the chief of the Ejashan-Khan ordered more food to be prepared because obviously they had to show hospitality to these new guests as well. At this point Camaenor, Bilbo and Kester were all gritting their teeth, but there was no helping it. It would be well into the night before they would get any talking done and there was yet more tense, meaningless exchange of platitudes as the unlikely company gathered within the yurt attempted to fill the waiting.

Bilbo found himself looking at one of the embroidered clothes hanging from the walls. The style of the needlework was different from what he had seen in the Shire and among the elves; sharper, more harshly angled, yet skillful in its own way. There was a black-haired figure – unless it was a helmet, he had a bit of a hard time figuring that one out – who seemed to progress through a story of some kind, facing at first a wall of flames thrown up by a tall figure riding something that didn’t seem the least bit a horse. Then the figure charged against a throng of spear-wielding warriors embroidered in colour green until, in a panel near the end, there was a large, dark and spiky form riding something might have been a dragon – though it would have been one far smaller than Smaug. The tall figure then was slain, red, stitched blood flowing into frames around the scene, and indistinguishable, tiny figures bowed to the big, spiky one.

The final scene showed a tall figure with golden hair with a sword in hand, his form faintly red on the near-white cloth. The spiky figure was dead at his feet, or alternatively asleep, though Bilbo found that interpretation unlikely. It was curious, though, that there was no blood, but only something black-and-white and sharp, like spikes or maybe rays leaving the figure.

The golden-haired one had a triangle upon the side of his head that could only be interpreted as a sharp, elven ear.

“I wonder what story that tells,” he spoke out loud, admiring the small beads worked among the threads.

“I believe it tells the story of the end of the Angmar War and the death of King Arvedui – though this is not how he perished, in truth. The figure on the fell beast is the Witch King of Angmar and the elf depicted is in all likelihood Glorfindel who led a force from Rivendell.” Gandalf was looking at the tapestry with undeniable curiosity and Bilbo was trying to understand how it had come to be that these people had begun to worship elves of all things. Hadn’t Camaenor claimed that they had sided with the Dark in every conflict they had taken part in over the centuries?

“I believe I remember a little of the song these people sing of the Battle of Fornost, though it has been long since I heard it,” Gandalf mused. “I could try to translate some of it for you, but I fear some of the nuances will be lost.”

“Men numbers one thousand from Zharalskay,
Understood the cower of an ancient fear
When the deathless ones had passed their way,
Who will leave behind naught but blood and jeer

“Cut off a head and they will not stay dead,
No fealty ever stopped the strike of a sword
Those can’t be taken who sleep eyes open!
Once day is past who has been spared?”

Well, it was true that an elf would never stay dead, no matter the manner of their demise, but Bilbo didn’t think that the ancient Dunlanders had mean that verse quite like that.

Camaenor's already rigidly straight back had become so tense it was almost painful to look at and Bilbo had to suppress a sympathetic wince. He could understand how elves might be seen scary; he had seen more than enough of their skill in warfare that he would have been more surprised if being on the opposing side in any war wouldn't inspire at least some fright. He simply had to wonder just what had possessed a group of these people to worship the elves after what had certainly been a massacre. The again, some of these people worshipped Sauron. Maybe they found horrendousness a preferably quality in their object of worship?

Well, that was a depressing thought, though the Ejashan-Khan of the present seemed to simply admire the elves to rather ridiculous extremes.

Eventually, eventually the second dinner was brought to the yurt and when Bilbo found himself only nibbling the proffered food, it once more highlighted how much he had changed since he had run after thirteen dwarves without a handkerchief one beautiful morning. Hardly anyone in the Shire would have turned down a second dinner; Bilbo could remember when old Fatty Brownlock had tried to introduce third breakfast and second lunch as everyday meals, but there were some limits to how much food the Shire could produce without clearing and plowing new arable land. He had once thought this a shame.

The meal dredged on, the Janbas chief - and Gandalf - politely appreciating the food and the rest of them waiting with a baited breath. And finally, finally the dishes were taken away. The Janbas chief looked at Urgrat who in turn looked at Camaenor. And how would anyone begin such a conversation without some kind of lead into it? For the shortest of moments Camaenor's gaze met Bilbo's as he collected his thought and Bilbo opened his mouth.

"Begin with the Tokrap-Kazyl and go from there. Tell them how human sacrifices are atrocious, try to be polite about it as far as you can and work your way up to the part where elves aren't Valar."

His voice was the most quiet of whispers, but he knew that Camaenor could hear him. It was simply the inspiration of the moment, but it the words flew easy and free once he opened his mouth. It was a humbling and empowering thought at the same time that someone like him could offer wisdom to an elf, but maybe it was the distance from the problem that gave him the necessary perspective. Problem often seemed simpler, in his experience, when they weren't a person't own problems.

"A knife of the Tokrap-Kazyl was found from one of the orcs who attacked this settlement this very day. While orcs certainly wouldn't shy from stealing it from an inconstant ally, for they have no loyalty save for that a stronger force may at any time force upon them, the reactions of the men whom I saved have led me to think that there is a reason to believe they are allied," Camaenor spoke with such natural confidence that even Bilbo couldn't tell whether he was simply covering for uncertainty or if the same certainty that had dawned on him had taken the elf as well.

"They seek to create an alliance against the straw-heads of Rohan," the Janbas chief said glumly. "The great tribes don't feel they are strong enough for such a course of action and there are rumours of a great defeat the orcs have suffered between a mountain and a lake in the north, but the Tokrap-Kazyl believe that the return of their master is near."

"And don't they always believe so? As much as we all hate the accursed thieves, we have no strength of arms to drive them away," Chief Urgrat stated glumly and Bilbo's heart began to race. He just knew that sooner or later someone would bring the alleged elven gods into this and he couldn't let the conversation derail like that. The hand that has once been cut teaches the best, the hobbits said, and maybe the dreadful unpleasantness of Thorin's gold sickness and the war that had almost broken out between the dwarves and the humans and elves of Mirkwood had taught him to speak before anyone else could, if nothing else.

"I can see why you would wish for more generous land and rains," he begun; why did the Dunlending Wildmen hate the Rohans so anyway? "But why march into a fight that can not be won when the north isn't called the Empty Lands for no reason? I have not seen Rohan and don't know how fertile those lands are, but the map is little but white to the west and north from here. Elves still live in Lindon, but you would have to go to the Gulf of Lhûn to reach their lands. What few villages can be found in Enedwaith and Minhiriath don't even merit a spot on the map. Why wouldn't you try your luck there?"

Now everyone was looking at him and he felt very, very uncomfortable as Gandalf cheerfully translated his words. In for a copper, in for ten; Bilbo was going to be strong. He wasn't going to let this conversation derail into a prelude to violence, he wasn't!

"The rangers claim those lands and they will relentlessly hunt anyone who tries to take them," the Janbas chief, whose name Bilbo really ought to remember, said and Bilbo's first thought was: what have you been doing? He simply couldn't believe that Háldir would ever attack someone simply trying to peacefully make a living.

He also didn't think that the rangers could offer resistance on par of an entire nation, but neither did he think that making such an argument would be a good idea.

"These conflicts have surely been the response to a raiding party. Should you request for a peaceful parlay and ask for the liberty to create a peaceful settlement, the response you would receive is certain to be much different," Camaenor cut into the conversation and Bilbo felt much cheered. People with hard life finding a better one somewhere they didn't need to fight anyone was as good an outcome as he could hope and certainly Camaenor and Gandalf together could somehow resolve the elf worship issue as well. He burrowed deeper into the pillows that had been given to him for a seat, basking in the warmth of feeling accomplished and virtuous.

"You have changed much from the hobbit I first met," Gandalf told him at one point and Bilbo couldn't help grinning. Some moderation and more wisdom blended in measure; maybe he could be the kind of person who, if not precisely someone who would have songs written of him, could at least make the lives of the people he met a bit better.

***

Gwaedhglae slowly resurfaced from his subconscious and the state he fund the conversation in left him reeling, dismayed, angered. He had known he couldn't expect much of Bilbo Baggins, but even then.

That these savages were most likely going to peacefully settle somewhere else was no concern of his. That they would cease to worship elves could only forward Sauron's plans and though he would lack some amusement, it would well be worth the loss of unconditional support his enemies could have had if not for their rigid morals. He didn't even mind too much the likely relations between the Wildmen and the Dúnedain, for an uneasy alliance of convenience during peacetime was a pact most easily broken when the times grew dark. If Gandalf who was Mithrandir who was in secret whoever wished to lower himself into a healer among the illiterate scum, at least he would be safely out of the way.

What he minded was this. Camaenor was going to appeal to Galadriel so that she would convince the Dúnedain to attend this parlay. The western part of Dunland would soon be crawling with both the Dúnedain and the elves. And most importantly, Bilbo Baggins had no intention to stay for these talks to take place.

And why should he have. The matters seemed to manage themselves quite well without need to try and influence them any further and Gwaedhglae could just have screamed. There was a fine conflict brewing with the Tokrap-Kazyl and the orcs on one side and the elf worshippers and their allies on the other, some many potential reason for Bilbo to put the ring on, so many chances to betray him, and it wasn't going to be because Bilbo just didn't know how to act. He wasn't supposed to simply leave now, he should have remained, played into Gwaedhglae's plans.

When had he ever cared what Gwaedhglae wanted? Of course the hobbit would continue to entirely unintentionally thwart his plans.

This would not be allowed to go on.

***

That night Bilbo Baggins jumped sitting on his bed, a strangled groan escaping his throat. Cold sweat was dribbling down his back and his heart was beating like a frightened hare's.

"What is it?" Kester's sleep-blurred voice asked from somewhere near him and Bilbo realized that he had no idea.

This tent had been given for the four of their small group to use - Ayla still counting, since Camaenor hadn't yet gotten to the part of renouncing human sacrifices when Bilbo had tired - but Camaenor needed very little sleep and had opted to remain discussing the particulars of the new alliance when Bilbo and Kester had given up trying to remain awake after such a long day, and adoring Ayla had naturally remained with Camaenor. They were alone in the wool-smelling tent. Tent, yurt, it was the same difference in Bilbo's opinion.

"I guess I had a nightmare," he said slowly. After the battle of the day it would hardly be surprising, as his fight with the orc had been too close cut for his comfort and children had been in danger, even. He'd definitely had nightmares after the Battle of the Five Armies, but those he had always remembered after, in excruciating detail.

"It was scary, but all was well in the end," Kester said and patted his hand comfortingly. Bilbo muttered something affirmative and tried to clear his mind without much success.

"I guess I have changed a lot," he said and then wondered why he had thought of that. He was definitely a stronger hobbit for what he had gone through and wiser as well, but he didn't know... Somehow he felt like he had lost something that he would never get back. His innocence, maybe; once he had thought that life in the Shire was as secure as could be, despite the Fell Winter offering proof to the contrary. Now he was well aware that while the hobbits could fence themselves in they had not the power to fence the world out. It was a sensible thing to consider and he still felt sad.

"Change isn't always a bad thing. You and Camaenor changed Mallowdell for the better and you area good person so I'm sure that whatever has happened to you, hasn't made you any worse - unless, of course, you used to be a tale-perfect pure spirit who didn't shit like the rest of us mortals and always said and did the right thing," Kester pointed out and Bilbo found himself laughing. Oh, if only!

"I guess I'm good enough for myself," he said and leaned back on his cot. Maybe change was the only thing that persisted, but wasn't this how the world was made?

"Do you think that Ayla will ever love me?" Kester's voice suddenly called, now much more timid and sad than the moment before, and Bilbo felt his heart plummeting. He knew that Ayla probably saw the boy as a cute child with a precocious crush and was going to get her own hear just as thoroughly trounced by Camaenor, but this wasn't something he felt he could say.

"Who can tell," he said hesitantly. "But one thing I know to be true. Love plays not fair, it pays no indemnity and takes no prisoners.”

Chapter Text

It was a truth Bilbo had learned and learned well since that one morning he had run off after thirteen dwarves that nothing was ever as simple as it at first seemed. For while the Janbas might not seek to harm him, nor the other tribes allied with them, there were the Tokrap-Kazyl and their allies between him and Rohan. The whole thing was beginning to really annoy him.

The Dunlendings might be called the Wild Men, but the Ejashan-Khan and the Janbas were nothing but almost elven in their adherence to ritual and manners in official talks. Three days the leaders of both tribes talked with Camaenor and Gandalf in turn, in between long meals that were sacrosanct and devoid of all business. Bilbo had quickly bored of the long talks that mostly concerned envoys and emissaries from Lothlórien travelling among the loosely allied cluster of tribes who would heed their words, of contacting Lord Elrond so that he might contact the acting chief of the Rangers. Bilbo briefly wondered of why this chieftain was only "acting" - was the true chief away in some faraway land maybe?

He played with the children and once even rode out with some of the sheepherders, spending the whole day watching the flock of sheep grazing and helping the women milk the ewes, admiring the flocks of white birds flitting by. When they followed to the village it was after dark, the constellations weaving a starry canopy above their heads. It was so breathtaking he almost feared the beauty of it might beckon him with a fine hand made of the milky star shine and then grab his heart from his chest, yet he couldn't feel wholly content for long. It was when Gandalf joined him for a pipe the next evening that Bilbo knew the talks were finally over.

“Much of the Dunlanders’ story and culture – cultures, really, as they are at least three main Dunlander cultures – was ignored by the Men of West,” Gandalf told him as they sat under one of the tea olive trees, smoking and generally enjoying the warm evening and refreshing breeze. Bilbo had been curious of these men, their ways and their enmity with the Rohans and why they were even called Wildmen, for other than their willingness to sacrifice Ayla, they had so far acted quite peaceful. “Though I suspect that this elf-worship was quickly shaping into a fourth one.” Gandalf's brow became stormy and Bilbo nodded in understanding; he himself adored elves, but he could well see the trouble this kind of attitude could only have lead.

"The tribes to the north from the Gap of Rohan, their ways are the harshest. The chiefs often will not allow their people to bake their bread in their own homes. All must pay to use the chief's ovens. All waters by the mountains are the property of the chiefs and villagers are not allowed to fish in them. If one does and is unlucky enough to be caught killing the fish, they face being punished by having the offending hand cut off. That is the punishment for many crimes and oftentimes doesn't even spare the children." Now this sounded like something a Wildman might do, Bilbo thought and shivered.

“And the Rohans drove all off their lands?” he asked, unsure what to think. The land had been Cirion’s to grant just as the Shire had been granted to the hobbits, but had there really been need to drive off the people who had already lived there?

“Their ancestors had fought for Sauron. Most of the humans in Middle Earth did at one dark point in history, but you must understand this: mortals carry grudges far longer than generations live and grudges are rarely rational. At this point the quest to reclaim Rohan can only bring forth more pain for everyone involved, yet letting go is difficult.”

It was strange, the way Gandalf spoke of mortals like Bilbo wasn't one, though he knew it was merely because hobbits rarely carried grudges and nothing worse would come of one than leaving a person without an invite to a big party - while inviting all their relatives and neighbours. And that was terrible.

These people's ancestors once wore armours made of bronze scales, Gandalf said, a style of armour that had long since fallen out of use in the north. Unbidden, a picture of a young man with spots and in a little too heavy armour came to Bilbo’s mind, and if the scales of the armour reminded him of Smaug, who could blame him?

"Take these apples with you, for your march. They say army food is terrible," a wrinkled woman with a checkered headscarf said. The apples were tiny and unevenly coloured, nothing like those grown in the Shire. The imaginary boy, clearly not knowing what else to do with them, put them in his helmet like it was a basket. Then the image flickered and thinned into the blue sky like the smoke rings they were blowing. Once again, Bilbo decided that war would have been something better left not invented.

“About Camaenor…” He tried to change the topic and regretted it immediately. But maybe this was for the best, maybe this was chance for him to ask Gandalf. If there was anyone who could tell if Bilbo had inadvertently harmed his friend, if he had some hitherto unknown power and shouldn’t name as much as a kitten, it would be to wizard. “The name I gave him…”

Once before Bilbo had tried to confess something terribly important to the wizard. By the narrow path through Mirkwood he had stood, the ring in his pocket, right before they would part ways and Gandalf’s help would be beyond his reach. It had felt so impossible to lie under the gaze of those gray, wise eyes, so piercing and worried for a moment – yet he somehow had found it in himself to lie. He had, for some reason, wanted to lie even though he trusted Gandalf. Why the mere thought of bringing up the ring made him feel like he had done something terribly wrong, something that he needed to hide or lose Gandalf’s regard forever, he didn’t understand.

“Is it a good name?” the words slipped from his lips and he almost groaned out loud as he realized that he had yet again made a coward of himself. Gandalf’s smile turned gently amused and reassuring and the solid presence of his wrong impression was almost more than Bilbo could bear. And yet he smiled nervously and didn’t even blink.

“I know you don’t speak much Sindarin, but in this you chose well. Camaenor is a skillful warrior and his name does him honour; it wouldn’t have taken had it not been so well fitting for him.” This time Gandalf didn’t blow a ring, but simply a small cloud of smoke that, just for a heartbeat when the wind tore at it, appeared like an elf swinging a long sword gracefully. Then the moment passed with only the scent of burning leaves lingering and Bilbo wondered if he had imagined the whole thing. He should have been reassured; hadn’t he just thought that Gandalf surely knew the best? He had given names before and no harm had ever occurred. Unless dragons turned out to be somehow contagious, his voice was as it had always been and Camaenor was safe.

Bilbo couldn’t even believe himself. What was wrong with him now, what had changed him so? Words drifted through his mind, slippery like wet soap in his nervous, damp hands, something about a bet. If you can…

If you can make me…

And then this, like the moment to confess, had passed. The hobbit felt like he had drunk several pints of strong dwarven ale now that even his own thought escaped him.

“What a strange mood I am in this evening,” he muttered and dragged the too-large coat borrowed to him tighter around himself against a chill the wind didn’t carry. A good night’s sleep, he comforted himself, and this too would pass. There he sat, shaded by the trees that reached over the surrounding crumbling walls of stone and stretched out to the sun. Dried leaves scattered the grass paving and danced and skittered across the ground as cool breezes washed in. It was a beautiful valley and in its own way a beautiful land, yet Bilbo couldn’t wait to travel to the fields of Rohan and there would be no withdrawal.

It seemed, he thought, that the longing for the land beyond the mountains' range was an easy illness to catch.

***

Bilbo Baggins, in the waking world, didn’t remember myriad important things. Words were like names – or rather, names were words and words were like arrows; once let loose, they could not be reclaimed.

Why would you even propose this? Are you in love with misery?

For Bilbo love was sweet kisses and longing looks. Sometimes this was accompanied by something more, something beckoning and barely out of reach, but love was more than desire, whether accompanied by desire or not. Love was the memory of his mother’s hands, the scent of grass and freshly baked bread that clung to them and the scent of his father’s pipe that clung to her hair sometimes, love was faunts laughing in the field down the street and a bittersweet wish to somehow have faunts of his own, love was like tiny elven bells far off in a forest and childish dreams of adventures where no-one was ever truly hurt.

It had been something he spoke without thinking too much like people were much too prone to. He hadn’t attempted to inflict the first wound in a rather cruel game.

This only served to make Gwaedhglae so much more furious. Bilbo Baggins was a nobody, a little fussy, busy-body hobbit who had apparently made it his mission in life to be obnoxiously helpful to all he came across. He wasn't Lúthien, an ancient princess, lovely and wise and terrifying; he certainly wasn't Morgoth, the mightiest among the Valar until he had bound his very fëa into the very bones of Arda itself, beautiful and poisonous like a rainbow lake and the father of monsters. He was a nobody and he certainly was much less impervious than he appeared to believe. Gwaedhglae could not create beautiful rhymes to steal the heart and tempt the mind, this was still true, but he was hardly above stealing.

Once upon a time there lived a wordsmith named Daeron in the land of Doriath that is no more.

***

The next morning Bilbo Baggins left the village of the Ejashan-Khan with the Janbas. He woke to eat bread and a bit of cheese, to go with the wine from the yesternight still muddling his head, and Gandalf ate by his side. There was still something in his head he failed to explain, but Gandalf did not enquire after details; he merely stopped to light his candle at the hearth still burning in the yurt and then led Bilbo out to the still dark morning.

"Na lû e-govaned vîn," Camaenor said and gave Bilbo a nod that was almost deep enough to be a bow, both regal and warm. "May we meet again soon, my friend." Bilbo felt his mouth grow dry at Camaenor's words and he thought: it is better for you if we never do. But he couldn't say so any more than he could confess to Gandalf the evening before and so he gave Camaenor his farewells, grateful that the lingering gloom of the night and the shadows the torches sent dancing hid his face from view.

"Take care of yourself," Kester bidded him seriously and gave the Janbas men on their shaggy horses one last suspicious look. He was at ease among Ayla's people, but not all Dunlanders had yet been given the same consideration.

"I will be in good hands - and I have Gandalf as well," Bilbo said seriously. The wizard gave him a playful glare under his inimitable brows.

"And you have me as well, do you?" Gandalf asked and Bilbo swallowed around a chuckle. He still felt guilty, but his insinuations to the contrary, he held Gandalf in the highest of regards. If he saw no evil, then there must be none to be found.

It was only when he rode away that Bilbo realized he hadn't thought of Háldir even once for many days and that the thought of the never-met, lovely Hallonith didn't bring him any pain anymore.

It took Bilbo two weeks to reach the borders of Rohan in the end. First he followed the men of Janbas to their yurt village where he waited for two days until they sent a message to one of their allies further in the east, a word of elves and negotiations and a fertile land in the west where they could settle without the need to wet the grass with the blood of their own first. Bilbo tagged along and like a baggage he travelled among the men of many smaller tribes, sometimes a little to the north from his route and sometimes to the south, but always closer to the mountains. They were always curious of him and pointed at his feet and ears unashamedly like faunts so young their mothers hadn't yet taught them it was impolite to stare, but there was no malice in their curiosity and Bilbo endured it with good humour, picking up a word here and another there, many greetings and little polite phrases.

It was a long and hot journey, with the rays of sun baking Bilbo's skin like a stream of gold, but they morning he finally rode to the Gap of Rohan the wind was chilly and he realized that the summer was almost over.

"Finally I am here," he said out loud, though there was no-one to hear him except maybe his ring. Sometimes he felt as though Gwaedhglae wasn't only a magical treasure, but someone he could trust his secrets and thought when otherwise there would have been only the wind and the crows to hear them. "I was beginning to think I would never arrive."

The Gap of Rohan was much greater than he had thought. Nothing like the narrow mountain passes he had travelled trough before, the opening between the Misty Mountains and the White Mountains could have fit another mountain. The grandness of the pass and the snow-topped mountains towering like guards over it made him feel very small in a way that much reminded him of the Lonely Mountain. It was a long ride, the ride of a day as he didn't wish to strain Clover for no reason, until he reached the Ford of Isen and crossed into the promised green land that had for so long hold the Dunlanders in her thrall.

And it was by the Ford of Isen that he first saw the Isengard.

Even from a far distance, the tower was a sight to see. Gandalf had told Bilbo that it was the home of the head of the Istari, a great wizard called Saruman the White. Bilbo had half-seriously entertained the notion of maybe paying the wizard a visit, yet merely gazing upon his tower made him feel terribly insignificant. Like the mountains that surrounded it, the dark tower appeared as though it had sprung from the very bones of the earth, like it had stood there before either Rohans or Dunlendings had lived here and would continue to stand until neither was anymore. But might it, maybe, stood there even before the wizards?

It was clear to him now that this Saruman wasn't the kind of wizard he might simply visit without prior notice and that he very well might not be worth his notice; nothing like the strange Radgast or the kind, fiery Gandalf, could he be if he lived in such a place. But the tower, he thought almost rebelliously, must yet dwarf even the wizard. Bilbo Baggins bowed his head to the tower of Orthanc and the mountains that guarded it in deep respect before going his way. The gaze of the tower, age-old and patient and weighty, followed after him.

This was the first he knew of Rohan: the majesty of nature and the comforts of a village that could have almost reminded him of the Shire, had the country not been harsher, less tame. Maosoeberg was a small place with a grand name, a village where late summer flowers grew in wild abandon. Rooted to the side of a hill, There were some vegetables and herbs growing in terraced patches above the houses. A gaggle of curious children followed Bilbo as he found his way into what appeared to be dining hall of some sort. A man with face as weathered as the bark of a tree and back as straight as a fire poker was sitting on a small bench by the open door smoking a pipe and he lifted one eyebrow when he saw Bilbo ride into the yard.

"Does your father know you have taken the old missus for a ride, lad?" he asked and Bilbo felt blush raising to his face. Truly, he was getting tired of being mistaken for a child.

"I am not a child, my good man," he said and wiggled his bare toes. The man's eyes clapped on his fur-covered feet and then rose to meet his gaze again, now much, much sharper. "I am Bilbo Baggins, in your service. I am a hobbit of the Shire, a land far west from here. A bout of wanderlust has taken me - very uncharacteristically to my people, I fear - and I thought to see what the Middle-Earth looks like this side of the mountains."

"A hobbit, you say. Of hobbits I have heard not, but we tell our children stories of the holbytla who live in small holes in the ground and sometimes mend shoes in return for milk. My name is Gramwine son of Gram." The man was eyeing Bilbo in a manner that wasn't exactly wary, but not overly friendly either. He was the sort, it seemed, who judged their opinions carefully, but kept an open mind.

"Holbytla is not a name I have heard before, but we do live in holes - or those of us who can, live, for there are only so many good hills to burrow under in the Shire. And I don't know where the stories of milk may have originated, but believe me, a man would have a much better luck with a good plate of mushrooms." Had there once been trade between their people, that the Rohans would know their name, he wondered; for Bilbo didn't believe the similarity between the hobbit and the fairy-tale holbytla was a coincidence. Or had his people maybe lived in this green land once upon a time? Maybe even alongside with the Dunlanders who had lived here as well?

Remembering the Dunlanders cast a dark shadow upon the moment of discovery, for Bilbo had come to know them and like them, or at least like those of them who had not been in alliance with the orcs. But he couldn't change the past any more than he could change the flow of the Brandywine and so he contented himself with the thought that at least the future of his new friends looked much brighter now.

It proved to be an exiting evening. There was a large bell by the door, not to call guests for meals, but to get the attention of the lady of the hall when a guest wanted a horn of mead or a dinner. The said lady, Ashiwyfar, snorted indelicately when Bilbo referred to her as one.

"I have not lived the life of a lady, take my word for it," she stated and brought Bilbo a huge bowl of steaming stew made of some unknown roots and pork. She was the old man's sister, Bilbo learned, as gray and wrinkled and wizened and they had founded this tavern together once they had retired. She mentioned not what manner of trade they had practiced, but Bilbo thought it terribly impolite to be nosy. That Ashiwyfar thought nosiness terribly impolite as well became soon a blessing as the hall was filled with curious villagers who came with this pretense or the other, but clearly only to stare at Bilbo. Ashiwyfar was like a sentinel who sat down by him and asked him questions of the Shire while telling Bilbo more of Rohan in-between, shielding him from the barrage of curiosity while providing everyone what they wanted.

Bilbo told them of the green, rolling hills of the Shire, the golden wheat fields and the peaceful days that followed one another like pearls in a necklace, every one as perfect as the other. In return he learned the weather at Rohan was not distinguished by any severe winter cold was rather raw nearly all the year round. The region would however be very healthy, did not scurvy, especially in humid winters, attack the population, the rich and the poor, the old and the young alike. According to Ashiwyfar very severe attacks of scurvy were cured without fail by preserved red elderberries and ale. Several spoonfuls would be given to the patient daily, she told proudly and Bilbo had a feeling that her ale was very much in demand in these cases. A couple of quarts of this medicine was sufficient for the complete cure of children attacked by the disease, by her account.

"We live a simple life here, if only those high-faluting noblemen didn't bring any trouble to our doorstep," Ashiwyfar said and poured herself a pint of strong ale that Bilbo had no doubt would make a potent medicine; as he watched the woman pour the almost syrupy drink, he wouldn't have been surprised if it could have woken the dead.

"You have had troubles here? Have I come at an ill time?" he asked, not very surprised. The Middle-Earth had seemed like a very much troubled place, lately; why change now?

"There was this group of some East Emmec nobs who couldn't wipe their arses clean without someone telling how it works, they thought it would be a grand idea to replace good Fengel as a king. They picked poor Deorlaf son of Deorwine, just ten years old and an orphan, he is one of the king's cousins and they dragged him away from the arms of his aunt, poor dear. Now, Saruman the White, the great wizard, he taught those sons of warg some human decency." Ashiwyfar said this with grim sense of satisfaction.

"But the troubles appear to be not over quite yet?" Bilbo prodded gently. The thought that someone would try and kill the king, even if they never got anywhere near the king, was distressing to him. Where was the world going when people thought that was the way to carry on?

Except if the king was an evil one of course, but these people deemed to like Fengel just fine if the dark muttering directed towards these nobles was any indication.

"It seems that not all guilty were found out. Just yesterday we get a word from Edoras. The poor boy has been taken again, all are to keep an eye on suspicious armed groups. It is a pity you didn't arrive yesterday," Gramwine said, the only one to brave his sister's company.

"He was taken even after he was rescued by a wizard?" Bilbo asked, barely able to believe what he heard. "Why, do you think the king's men would have wanted to speak with me? I only arrived today."

"Oh, no, he wasn't speaking of that," Ashiwyfar said, brightening immediately. "Freawyn gave birth to a son yesterday, a little ominous day when we just got the word a kinsman of a king has gone missing, but not the poor boy's fault. So his father killed one of his old horses, those put to pasture, and gave the boy a good drink so he would grow strong and hale. We all got a sip when it was still warm from the wound." She licked her lips and pleased murmur filled the dining hall.

"What a pity, but can't be helped," Bilbo managed to say. He didn't want to offend these good people, but honestly, raw horse blood? They had blood dishes in the Shire as well, of course; no part of a farm animal was ever wasted. Kidneys were made into pies, guts for sausage casings, hoofs and horns into glue... He had a few times prepared his mother's old recipe of pancakes made of pork blood, milk, rye flour, dark molasses, onion and butter. They were quite good, in fact.

But raw horse blood for a newborn baby? All of a sudden pidgeon seemed downright normal fare and maybe eating it with fingers was quite proper...

***

Among the many nations and tribes of men the Rohans were often lumped together with the Númenoreans of Gondor and quite naturally so; they were the closest of allies after all. They were also the most distant brothers, for the truth was that the ways of Rohans were their own.

The Númenorean culture had been heavily influenced by the Noldorian culture at several points during their history, but Rohan had come to the sphere of this influence second-hand and over the distance of the White Mountains that made casual travel very rare. Her people had reputation for being quite "wild" by the standards of the Gondorian nobles and had they been anyone else, they might even have been called boorish and lowbrow like the Men of the Dale were in their eyes; elven and dwarven influence were not considered equal. But the Rohans eschewed the darkness that always threatened to rise where the agents of the Dark Númenorians and those in succour with the orcs had influence, they had a reputation for persevering to the end, no matter the circumstances, and they eagerly stood by Gondor in valour and faith.

It was easy to accept, then, that the Rohans could sometimes be a bit wild. It was easy to ignore their some quite disturbing customs, not all of them long lost in history.

***

The next day Bilbo woke up very much refreshed and faced a new problem entirely; now that he had arrived to Rohan, he had no idea what he should do. Maybe he could ride around a little, have a good look at the land. Ashiwyfar had mentioned something about a cursed forest in the north, but Bilbo didn't fee like taking his life in his hands. Travelling twice through Mirkwood had been more than enough to last him a lifetime. Ashiwyfar quite gladly gave him leftovers from the last night, telling him that they were of no cost - he had brought her nameless dining hall a lot of business, she said. It made Bilbo wonder how it could be profitable to keep a dining hall in such a small village in the first place, but again, being nosy would have been dreadful manners and so he simply took the proffered stew and onions and gave her his thanks.

"Be careful when you cross the river. Your old Clover looks quite reliable, but it's a steep drop. Maybe you should take the bridge," she advised him. And when Bilbo steered Clover down a hill by a set of stone steps and across a bridge, wide and barren, without any railings, he saw that she hadn't worried for nothing. The stream that led to the River Isen wasn't wide enough to make it into his map at all, but it ran at the bottom of a steep gorge and Bilbo thought that maybe an elven steed might have climbed it up and down safely, but normal horses? It would be a dangerous endeavor at the best.

Rohan was almost as open as Dunland had been, but much lusher and there were many small streams. Bilbo passed by two brightly dressed horsemen who had paused their elegant white and chestnut-colored steeds near a small cluster of trees, watching after a bigger herd. Bilbo was content to stay and watch while Clover grazed like he hadn't been astride at all and after a while he reached the conclusion that herding horses seemed a lot more complicated than herding sheep. There were several foals and keeping them from wandering away seemed to take constant attention. It was a beautiful day and Bilbo didn't restrain Clover, letting her wander where she would - what an awful horse herder he would have made - only making sure that he remembered which direction the village was in. It was clover that took him closer to another cluster of trees. There were five horses by the trees and for a moment Bilbo thought it was a second herd, but these were all saddled, simply left to graze free and without a man to watch over them. They must be trained to come at hand, he thought and turned Clover away to leave.

This was when he heard a strangled sound from the grass nearby. It was like someone had tried to shout and whisper at the same time, be loud and quiet, and what came out was low and intense and mostly hissing. When Bilbo turned to look he saw a boy standing up from the tall grass, yet hunching as if to make himself smaller.

The boy was wearing a knee-length woolen tunic embroidered with intricate swirls, a linen undertunic and braies, along with a woolen cloak held together by a ring-shaped brooch. The heavy ring, Bilbo was almost certain was silver and not simply polished steel. It was a very expensive-looking get-up and also very dirty. The straw-haired boy pressed his finger to his lips and ran towards Bilbo, hunched.

"Deorlaf son of Deorwine?" Bilbo whispered and sent a worried look towards the trees at a small distance. "How did you get away in the middle of the day?" He didn't doubt, not for a moment, that he had somehow managed to bumble into the missing king's kinsman. He had no idea how and he had no idea why here, in the middle of nowhere in Westfold when East Emmec was half Rohan away, but here the boy stood and climbed behind Bilbo with startling ease.

"There were only seven men and two left to leave a false trail. We have been chased for two days, everyone was exhausted. They had a guard, but he fell asleep as well," Deorlaf explained as Bilbo encouraged Clover into a gallop. He felt terribly open and vulnerable, in clear view from the treeline if only one of the men would wake up. "I thought about stabbing them to death in their sleep, but there were too many, at least one would have woken," Deorlaf continued with calm and no-nonsense manner that frankly startled Bilbo. He knew that the children of men grew up quicker than hobbits, but ten years had to be very young to contemplate cold-blooded murder even then!

"I am Bilbo Baggins of the Bag End, Shire, in your service. Have you been mistreated somehow? I don't know if Maosoeberg has a real healer, but Miss Ashiwyfar should be able to help at least a little," the words tumbled from his mouth for the lack of the words to ask why Deorlaf would have considered doing something so horrible. Bilbo had to admit that getting taken prisoner twice over the course of a few weeks must have been a tribulation, but regardless, he was very much discomfited.

"No, they didn't have the time to lead the pony around all of Rohan yet. They wanted to make me..." the boy's voice curdled like milk left into the sun for days. "Ride below the crupper. With it." He clearly expected an appropriately horrified reaction, but Bilbo had little idea what he was referring to and confessed as much.

"You aren't a child at all, are you? Are you some weird-looking elf? Did something go wrong when your mother expected you?" Deorlaf asked after a small, startled pause, tugging at one pointed head in a manner that reminded Bilbo of the Dunlending children, though he doubted that Deorlaf would appreciate the comparison.

"I mean, play at rumpscuttle and clapperdepouch. Play the pyrdewy? Join... Fuck it. They want me to fuck it."

And Bilbo promptly fell off the saddle.

It made a kind of sort in context; in exceptionally horrifying context that made Bilbo wonder at Deorlaf's lust for blood no more, mind, but it was there regardless. Apparently one of the guilty nobles had managed to escape the net the king and the wizard had cast and as Deorlaf hadn't at any point seen the man, Elmed son of Elmund. Not having learned anything of his former compatriots' fate, he had decided to take Deorlaf again. But because he was short on men on his own, he had decided to invoke an old rite of kings to wed his would-be-puppet to the land in the hopes that it would gain him followers. In the old times the wedding of the land had involved a mare that had never been ridden walking around the entire land and then the king riding below the crupper to take all the land the mare had circled as his own.

"Folca the Hunter, King Fengel's grandfather, put an end to the whole thing. But now the land is unwedded so that warg bastard thinks he can make me do it. I would rather die," Deorlaf spat and Bilbo winced, biting back the instinctive reprimand for using such foul language.

This was easily the most disturbing thing he had ever heard.

"I will not allow such a thing come to pass," he swore, gripping the reins tighter because he didn't dare to let go, even with one hand, to grip the pommel of his sword.

"Maybe you should give me the reins; you are not a very good rider," Deorlaf said and tugged his sleeve. His eyes were bright and hopeful now that the excruciating explanation was behind them and Bilbo didn't understand. He didn't understand at all.

This wasn't everything, of course. Bilbo brought Deorlaf to Maosoeberg, a boy in dire need of armed escorts to Edoras, only for Ashiwyfar to be the first to volunteer. And no-one, not ever her own brother, protested this in any way.

"I'm no spring chicken, but I'm no corpse either," she told Bilbo, hands at her hips. "And I'm the one with most experience at fighting here. I used to be a highwaywoman in my youth."

"Were you a good one?" Deorlaf breathed, seeming very impressed with this revelation. He didn't appear scared now that he was among friends, though he hadn't appeared anywhere near as scared as one might have expected in the first place.

"I lived to be this old, didn't I?" she asked and threw her braid over her shoulder with a move that briefly gave Bilbo a pale reflection of the woman she must once have been.

"Don't worry, she was the proper sort," Gramwine whispered to Bilbo's ear while the young, hale men of the village drew lots on who would accompany their strange little group. "She took their valuables, but never their horses." This appeared to be an important distinction, for the women of the village nodded their heads approvingly, but Bilbo would have liked to know where in the world it could be acceptable to publicly confess to banditry. Had she wounded people badly in her youth? Maybe even killed men of her own land? The closest thing the Shire came to highwaymen was certain Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and she only menaced her innocent relations' heirloom cutlery.

"I'm certain the king will pardon her for protecting me - if he even finds out," Deorlaf stated imperiously in-between spoonfuls of his leek pottage. It was a local dish, a kind of soup-stew made of oats and bland compared to the Shire cuisine, but Deorlaf seemed to like it well enough.

They were in a hurry to leave, for Elmed's men were bound to look for Deorlaf already and since Maosoeberg was the nearest settlement, it would be the logical starting point. They had some weapons, mostly relics and family heirlooms from old wars that no-one other than Ashiwyfar had ever used, except for bows, and Elmed's men were trained soldiers. There four of them golden-haired men of Rohan, Ashiwyfar and Bilbo to protect Deorlaf; since Bilbo could boast to have fought orcs and his sword and mailshirt were taken as proof enough of this, he was taken despite his small stature. They quickly packed mutton, black bread and cheese before saddling their horses and riding off towards the Golden Halls with great haste. Deorlaf had been given a knife, more to make him feel better about the threat than anything else, and he wouldn't stop petting the handle.

Death rides in Rohan, Bilbo though and shivered.

***

That night they slept below the stars, without even a small fire to keep them warm, and curled next to an old highwaywoman for warmth, Bilbo dreamed. He dreamed of the green vegetable terraces and the strong, rich ale, horses of all colours running with the wind in their mane and the green, green grass that went forever on and on. He dreamed of a high, dark tower and an old man, dressed in all white. He dreamed of blood on swords and a group of grim-faced men leading a pony on a halter around the land. It was dark and the torches they carried lit their faces with red glow, made dark shadows dance at their wake.

"Is this the land of your dreams, Bilbo Baggins?" He wasn't alone, someone stood there by his side and Bilbo should have remembered his name.

"A green land beyond the mountains," he spoke and considered his words carefully, for something told him that he didn't wish to say anything he didn't mean. "Grand and queer, blended in measure. But the grand will endure even after the queer is no more." The grass would grow tall and the tower would stand tall long after this unpleasantness, as all mortal things must, would pass.

"The grass dies every winter, the tower will crumble down. Just remember, Bilbo Baggins, that nothing is made to last. The mountains will pass, one day, and you will flutter by in passing like a mayfly. Is it truly worth it to care so much?" The voice was harsh, even cruel, but the words wholly failed to sting Bilbo.

"You really don't know anything about love, do you?"

Gwaedhglae. His name was Gwaedhglae. Just like the ring... His face was fair and blond like gold and his eyes were rich with small lights like stars seen through a white tree

"I know much more than you can imagine." The voice lowered, softened until it became the purr of a content cat. "I know the secrets of the creation of Arda. I could whisper in your ear, give you pretty words to tell the tale."

"Below the sea, above the hill
Liveth the craft of stone and thrill
To clothe the world and fill the sky;
And through the fire the stone flows by
Towards fair Almaren

"By the edging spell-song veiled
A vessel flitteth starry-sailed;
Hear the song that echoes clearly
By the weave of algae cheerly
In the fair Almaren"

It was so different from the small rhymes and strange, mixed songs Bilbo had crafted together; he might fancy himself a word weaver, but this was a true poem and he wanted to hear it to the end so badly he could taste it. He was scared that the memory of this dream would flit away come the morning and he would forget it all like he always did. He was certain he would yearn for this, even if he never remembered what it was that he missed.

"You may have it, you know. But there is a price to pay." When the torch of the men walking the pony disappeared, there was moment of darkness not pierced even by a single star and then Bilbo once again stood in a moon-lit garden. There was no fountain now though and no apple trees. There were huge white hydrangeas in bloom, tiny, blue sea holly flowers and lamb's ears with silvery leaves that glistened in the moonlight, yet Bilbo thought that it must be the same garden. The trees circling the winding path and flowerbeds were illuminated by beautiful elven lanterns.

"What is it?" Bilbo asked because as much as he wanted, his father had taught him to never agree to a purchase without learning the price first.

"Just a little thing I will ask you to do. You will know when I do and if you give me what I want, you will have the poem. It will be a little thing that will barely influence anyone's life at all, I promise."

"A little thing? What is the catch, then?" There had to be a catch, Bilbo knew; when the merchant knew that the buyer was desperate for his wares, the price always went up. This was true even among the kind hobbits and he hadn't been subtle. There must be more to the price than this.

"Oh, nothing much, just a token. It will be a small thing, tiny, inconsequential, but you must enjoy it. You must give me a promise you will."

The garden seemed darker now, the golden light of the lanterns dimmer and tarnished. Bilbo hesitated, vacillated.

"Atop hills, below the water
The first time there was a mother;
A miracle of moss on stone
To match one born of blood and bone..."

"Try to tell me, Bilbo Baggins, that you don't want this."

Chapter Text

In his dreams below the stars of Rohan, Bilbo was not alone. To the south and east from Rohan there were no dreams to be had.

Sauron sought to bring servants all and in the darkness bind them, in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lay once more. The first to come were his Ringwraiths, for they had no choice and no will of their own. The orcs had begun to migrate slowly, in small hunting groups and greater war bands, their feet taking them to the east even though they knew not why they had made such a decision. They would come, one and all, and Sauron would take them and mould them into a horde, an army. They had failed in the Battle of the Five Armies and the last of the great dragons had failed him alike, but there would be no more failures, no more tolerance for defeat and deficiency.

This one arrival was surprise, however- a pleasant one. A man of Umbar, not young anymore, but not old either by his people's standards. His hair was a shade of brown most common, his face hardly memorable and his stature neither tall nor short among the men who had sailed from the West. He might have been a scribe in a High Lord's palace or a merchant of simple wares, a lowly footsoldier or a master in one guild or another, an unnoticed man who did his little part to keep the whole of the pulley turning. He might even have fit among his accursed, distant kin in the north had he only remained silent.

His voice was as soft as velvet and yet as slick as the rock oil the eastern burned in their lamps, as beautiful and filthy as the rainbows glittering on the oil. His eyes burned with conviction and surrender and Sauron barely needed to reach out to lay his mind bare; this man was a true follower, a zealot. He was intelligent, but he didn't ask questions. Should his master tell him that the grass was blue and the sky was green, he would happily go to a war against all speakers of all languages to make it so. He wouldn't care what Sauron did to innocent people, his loved ones, him, because the end would justify all means.

The end would be whatever Sauron decreed the end should be.

YOU WILL SPEAK TO YOUR PEOPLE IN THE UMBAR AND TO THE WILDMEN OF HARAD, THE LOWLY PEASANTS. YOU WILL BRING THEM TO THE LAKE NÜRN TO FEED MY ARMY.

There was a reason he had yet again rendered Mordor into decrepit wasteland and none of it had to do with hate of all things green and flourishing; he wished a leash to slip around the necks of his followers. The orcs were notoriously unlovely and disobedient servants, always fighting among themselves and against his other allies, and they were to make the backbone of his army. He could not waste all his power to force them to obey his decrees night and day, a mind by petty, insignificant mind, and so he must use other means. The shores of the Lake of Nürn would be the only place in Mordor where the sun would shine, where the ground would remain fertile and free of poisons. The winds would carry ashes there now, but volcanic ashes made good ground for growing crops. The Lake of Nürn he would rule with an iron gauntlet and the rest of the land would bow down to his law or it would starve to death.

YOU WILL BE MY MOUTH.

"I will not disappoint you, my lord," the man swore and genuflected; Sauron rather thought he wouldn't, much to his surprise. He didn't know what the man's name was, but that hardly mattered. The man would be whatever he demanded.

***

The mornings were definitely turning colder now, the large green countryside dotted not only with wildflowers, but also patches of grass slowly darkening towards more golden hues. Ashiwyfar said they would have a good harvest season that year, she could tell from the way the birds were flying it would be clear, and Deorlaf was reminiscing of the harvest feasts with all kinds of sausage, barley wine thinned with water for him and lamb tongues cooked with butter. But a bad hobbit though it might have made him, Bilbo had a hard time paying attention to the stories. The wind was wild and wet, blowing from south-east, and there was some strange grime it carried, almost like wetted dust.

"I have seen a red rain once," said Rauf to him - his name was probably Rauf. "My grandma told me it's because there is killing in the east again and the rain weeps, but my papa told me it's because there's dust in the wind. It happens every time that big mountain farts a little ashes, the old folks say."

They were a company of six men, Ashiwyfar and one unusually bold and resourceful hobbit on the plains of Rohan. There had been introductions, but the straw-haired men looked so similar in Bilbo's eyes that only in the case of Fastred and Faldor, sons of Fulke, he could join a name to a face. This shamed him, for it was simply dreadful manners, but they all had the same stride, a little strange in a manner that led Bilbo to believe they spent more time on the saddle than on their own feet, and long hair, sun-browned skin and short beard; even their cloaks were precisely the same dye, it was as though they were trying to confuse him! The brothers were the youngest and also their archers. They had caught them a few rabbits to supplement their food supplies and Bilbo often thought of Fíli and Kíli when he looked upon them. It wasn't a long way from Maosoeberg to Edoras, a few days' ride; at least on the map this appeared so, though it admittedly could have been a little more detailed, and he had hoped that by keeping a brisk pace they could avoid any possible pursuers. Yet the second day had brought the drum of horses' hoof beats with it.

"I hope it is only horses, or at least people friendly to the crown!” Bilbo said anxiously. But then Ashiwyfar turned round to him; her face was grim.

"No horse is left to run without a man to herd them and those hooves have iron," she replied and squinted her eyes, trying to see through the cloud of dust following them now. "It's much too far to see what standards they ride under, but better hurry."

"I have something to confess," Deorlaf said all of a sudden. His horse was pressing impatiently at Clover's hindquarters, eager to outstrip the larger mare.

"Are you certain it cannot wait a little?" Bilbo asked, for he truly wasn't an excellent rider and their pace was even brisker now, making him jump up and down on his saddle like a sack of potatoes. But there might not be any time left for them later, he realized sadly. He alone might get away with Gwaedhglae's help, but he could never eave his new companions to face their pursuers alone.

"He's actually Hardwin son of Heward, not Rauf son of Ranulf," Deorlaf said nonsensically and pointed towards the man riding before Bilbo. It took him a few racing heartbeats to realize what Deorlaf's words meant.

"You have been doing it on purpose!" he accused, making the men laugh and he laughed along with them, full of the strange kind of mirth born of anticipation.

And then there was no more mirth. Bilbo had still hoped, for they couldn't be far now and surely the king's men patrolled these lands, and then there was a river beyond a ridge of tall, green grass, running deep in its channel. The waters of the River Snowborn were swift, white with foam where boulders made the waves leap high and so muddy that Bilbo couldn’t begin to guess how deep it was. A bigger problem than the water was the other side of the river, so steep and littered with loose-looking boulders that it could almost be called a precipice. It didn’t look completely impossible to pass, but they couldn’t possibly move fast for the fear of their horses’ legs. They would need to find a ford somewhere upstream.

“We’re trapped here,” Ashiwyfar said glumly and looked at the advancing riders; the group was much bigger than merely seven men now, though Bilbo couldn’t count them precisely. “And we must fight to death. I weep not for myself, for I have lived long enough, but I regret that you should die so young,” she spoke to Deorlaf.

“This isn’t over yet!” Bilbo protested, counting the distance between the well-armed soldiers and their small, rag-tag group. “If you can shoot their horses from under them, it can buy us enough time to cross the river!” His suggestion visibly shook the Rohans and Bilbo wanted to moan. Hadn’t it truly occurred to anyone that attacking their enemies’ mounts was a viable option? After all, the horses weren’t armoured and the men were!

“Beggars can’t be choosers. Take Deorlaf to the other side of the river!” someone cried, and then Bilbo saw Fastred, beaming happily at his brother Faldor, putting his bow and arrows to a good use; with a glad shout Bilbo turned his back to the approaching men and hurried Clover to climb up the hill. When he looked over his shoulder, he saw Faldor draw his bow and fire as well, and another horse fell to the grass mid-gallop.

But the line of men advanced fast despite the arrows and it was beginning to look like no effort of theirs could stop the charge entirely and Bilbo drew his little sword, ready to defend Deorlaf. Ashiwyfar had drawn her sword and sat like a queen in her saddle, letting out a piercing, ululating war cry and charging towards the soldiers. The water was swift and brown, but when Clover jumped into the river, Bilbo was glad to see that it wasn’t as deep as he had feared. The rise on the other side of the river was mud-slick and very uneven, though, and Bilbo was forced to give Clover several harsh kicks to force her forward. Then Deorlaf turned to Bilbo then, on the saddle of his more sure-footed, spirited stallion, and his eyes were bright and happy.

“Together, then!” said the little boy and bared his knife. Grief struck through Bilbo like a fell arrow and vowed silently to ensure the boy would have no need to defend himself.

When they had finally reached the other side and Bilbo dared to take his eyes off the ground, he could barely believe what his eyes told him. Three of the men had reached their group of seven on horseback and Ashiwyfar had engaged one of them in a battle. She was old and wrinkled, but she swung her sword like it weighted no more than a feather and it was begging to seem like she might in truth win. The men who had been felled from their horses were running towards the battle, or five of them were, with three lying on the ground, injured or dead, Bilbo couldn’t tell.

“Ride on, Deorlaf, Edoras cannot be far now!” Bilbo commanded the boy. “I will defend this side of the river, they can’t possibly fight their way up the precipice.” Deorlaf looked unhappy, but nodded his golden head, his blue eyes as hard as chips of ice.

“If you fall, I will tell my Lord King that you had enough courage in you for two tall men, despite your small stature,” he promised solemnly and charged away. Bilbo gripped the handle of his sword harder and tried to calm Clover, unnerved by the sounds of the battle.

Ashiwyfar had engaged one of the horsemen in battle and suddenly he screamed with pain, and red blood ran down the edge of her sword. The others were fighting two against six, with much more success than Ashiwyfar’s unlucky enemy, when one of the steered his black horse to the side without warning and it leaped into the river without any fear. Bilbo could hear one of the men, their men, shout in pain, but he didn’t dare to take his eyes off the man in the river. He made an imposing sight in his green cloak and a helm with a plume of horse’s hair, though his armour was made of scales and looked quite simple to Bilbo’s eye. He didn’t have a sword, but an axe, decorated with knotted etchings and even a small horse’s head; it was not, he knew the kind of a weapon he could allow to hit him, for while the mithril might block the edge, the strike would still break bones.

“Vána by my side,” he breathed, though he must wonder what the Lady of the Spring might think of being invoked in such a manner.

“Vána is the one you would call for an aid in a battle? Orome!” the man called out, steering his horse to climb up the wall of the channel.

“It is she who breaks the back of the winter every year and chases away the cold days. It is she who gives life and teaches the season of death to die,” Bilbo spoke as he dismounted, suddenly realizing that he couldn’t reach to strike at the man from Clover’s saddle, as he would attack from below. “And I do not think that the Hunter much approves that a man who would have a child ride below the crupper would call him for aid; why not call for Sauron, if you have already fallen this low?”

It was at this point that Bilbo had a mad thought that Sauron might actually be insulted if the man did, but he didn't have the time to contemplate a long-dead Dark Lord's hypothetical thoughts. The man's face was twisted into a snarl of rage and an impatient shout in Rohan from the other side of the river - again a language Bilbo didn't speak! - caused him to abandon all talk and swing his axe upwards. It was a dangerous, dangerous weapon, but even on horseback the man wasn't yet high enough to reach Bilbo and the axe swung to the side, leaving him unprotected for a short moment. In a moment of blind action and thoughtless thought, Bilbo jumped down and struck. The man had a scale armour and an iron collar, but there was a thin line of mere clothe between them and Sting was a thin blade. The sharp elven steel sunk into the man's flesh with ease that was terrible and the man's horse tried to bite Bilbo, trying its teeth on his armour, and then the man fell from the saddle.

It was a horrible moment; the first time he struck down a human. A terrible human being he might have been, but a human all the same, not an orc. The horse lost its footing on the uneven ground and slid down into the river, but the man lay where he had fallen - and then a burst of blood, entangled with a wet cough, burst from his mouth. It was a horrible moment when Bilbo realized what kind of death he had dealt the man.

He had seen this before, after the Battle of the Five Armies. The sad truth was that not all ailments could be cured, or at least couldn't be cured by mortals. A good elven healer could sew whole a punctured lung, but the good healers - not mere battlefield medics, but true healers - they had been so scarce. After the killing was over, men had died drowning in their own blood, desperately waiting for one the few healers to reach them before the end came.

Triage; what a beautiful word for a terrible thing.

"End me... little troll... if you have any..." the man pleaded. His face was gray with pain and gaunt with the death slowly closing in and now that the end had come he looked so young.

***

Why not call for Sauron, if you have already fallen this low, Bilbo asked and Gwaedhglae was taken aback at first by surprise and then indignation. He was cruel just as his Master was cruel, but Sauron had his limits, set by his own dignity if nothing else, for if his enemies should never tell such a story of him, it would still be too soon. This, ah, fascinating cultural custom fell far below them. It was something Morgoth might have found amusing, so twisted the fallen Vala's sense of humour had been.

But all anger was washed away when Bilbo struck down the Rohan horseman, struck him down and doomed him to torturous, slow ending.

The met the conditions he had set to bait the trap. It wouldn't really change anything, for the man would die anyway. It was just the matter of nicking a few hours, making it easier for the fallen enemy; Gwaedhglae very much appreciated the irony that this first step would be an act of mercy.

"Kill him for me," he demanded, weaving all his power into his words. "Make it quick, deal one strike and it will be over. Kill him for me and the poem you covet shall be yours." It wasn't a simple thing the man had asked, for Bilbo was a kindly child of the kindly west where there were no battles to puncture lungs, nothing to teach her children that death could be a mercy. If not for the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo wouldn't even contemplate such request, and the matter rested on a knife's edge even now when he tried to collect himself. It wasn't a given, but the victory was so close Gwaedhglae could taste it.

Kill him. Have mercy and kill him for me.

***

Blood was rushing in Bilbo's ears as he knelt by the man's side. He didn't want to kill the poor thing now that he couldn't threaten Deorlaf anymore, but to have mercy now would be cruel. Or maybe it would be merciful to be merciless; Bilbo wasn't entirely certain what he was thinking as he lifted Sting with shaking hands. He tried to find words to explain his feelings and failed, failed most spectacularly. He couldn't have done it for an ally, he didn't think he could have, but maybe he could find the strength for someone who wasn't a very nice person at all? Just give me words, he pleaded any power who might hear him; maybe Vána would rather give him pretty words for comfort than help him shed blood?

Just give me my words...

"I am really, truly sorry," he whispered and struck.

Again Sting cut skin and flesh and bone with frightful ease. Hadn't many songs been made from the beauty of the elven weapons, Bilbo wondered distantly, and he was helpless there on his knees, couldn't have saved his own life if a sword had swung down over his neck. And then it struck him.

As the man bled his life on the green grass, Bilbo felt delight. At first it was simply a warm and cozy feeling that settled somewhere in his stomach, but then it grew stronger like the very air grew heavier below an approaching thunderstorm and it spread to his limbs as almost leaden weight until he felt relaxed and satisfied, like sitting in front of a roring fire and sipping hot tea when it was raining outside. Like sitting by the window and watching Lobelia Sackville-Baggins trot down the lane, without any intention of opening the door and inviting her in, only with sharper teeth and sharper pleasure...

Bilbo bent over on his knees and threw up.

The world came back to him now, the voices of his new friends, sounding frantic as they crossed the river, someone moaning in pain and angry Rohan shouts, and somehow he climbed on his feet and hauled himself to Clover's saddle, though he couldn't remember how when he grabbed the reins - though he couldn't understand why she didn't throw him to the ground and gallop away. weren't horses supposed to fear the presence of evil?

"Are you wounded?" Ashiwyfar's voice called and when Bilbo looked at her, he saw a thin line of blood running down her left arm, staining the green of her cloak, and the men without horses who tried without any real hope to cross the river fast enough to steal a horse from one of them. At least witnessing their failure gave Bilbo no joy, but he suddenly realized that he didn't even know what the name of the man he had killed was.

"No, I am fine," he claimed, though it was a lie. "This was the first time... I have never before killed a man. Only orcs..."

"The first time is always the worst, but never fear, the second time will be easier already," Ashiwyfar said, hastily though not unkindly, and turned her attention to poor Fastred who was hanging limply from her eyes, resting against the neck of her horse. Bilbo knew that he should feel the decent thing, should worry for the poor boy whose life was only beginning, but he could only think: dear Vána, how easy does it get?

And from the nothingness between his thought strange words rose to his mind.

...But who hath seen her weave her sails
So crowned with light that lightning pales
From her hair dark and white-speckled
To sail thro' the sea unsettled
From the fair Almaren...

***

In the deeps of Bilbo's mind where no-one else had ever reached and no-one else ever would, Gwaedhglae...

Didn't enjoy his victory in the slightest.

It was foolish of him; despair had brought more elves to the point where the transformation to an orc could be enacted than outright pain, the surety that they were doomed already. This was one flair of Morgoth's that Sauron had very much admired, his touch for creating self-hatred, as much as he had hated the Lord of Angband for it. Bilbo Baggins was very vulnerable now, ready to believe the worst of himself. Now he could really begin to push.

He felt something gnawing at his heart of being, something cold and sharp and jagged. He wished...

He wished he hadn't done it. He didn't even need to turn his gaze inside-out to know yet new flower had taken root in his fëa for he could smell its fragrance. There was smoke like something had burned, woodsy and heavy, and there was a hint of iron, the kind the fragile prisoners of their own flesh might taste in their own mouth and a spice of south so potent it would burn through the tongue and the delicate sinuses hours after a single bite. It made no sense that he would feel regret when he could have learned epicaricacy, the delight in pain, but when had Bilbo Baggins ever taught him a lesson he wished to learn? Something in him kept refusing, wouldn't even look upon the flower, most of him even. Even though he was horrifyingly aware that inside his mind, somewhere deep in that accursed subconscious he might have hidden a wanting.

He whispered ancient, beautiful words of a land long since destroyed to Bilbo's ear, but he was also quite certain it didn't help the hobbit at all. He was wounded, bleeding, a simple gentlehobbit who had donned a mithril shirt when suspenders would have fit him better and called a dagger a sword, but Bilbo Baggins had a smile full of sunlight and it vaguely reminded Gwaedhglae of something distant, something frightening. He was guiltily - guiltily! - glad that Bilbo couldn't find it in himself to smile at that moment.

He suddenly wasn't certain how he could have born it. Out of all the things that Bilbo Baggins had taught him, this feeling was the worst.

***

Bilbo wasn't certain how long they had ridden before Ashiwyfar called for a halt, but at some point Fastred had ended on his brother's arms and the both boys had climbed on Clover, who could better carry the weight of two. The lovely piebald mare below him now was a spirited beast, but Bilbo felt boneless and lose-jointed and that had actually made him jump up and down less. They were somewhere and it probably wasn't evening yet, or at least the sun wasn't setting. There were men in bright armours and helms approaching them and Bilbo didn't know if they were the king's men or not and he had a hard time caring.

"My Lord Cousin is there!" Deorlaf yelled and waved both his hands. At last someone was happy; the men from Maosoeberg were pale and grim as Fastred grew paler. Bilbo simply felt awful for everything.

Then his eyes happened upon a tall, long-haired man on a white horse, dressed in all white. For a mad moment Bilbo thought that it was Gandalf, that his friend had come for their aid, and he was relieved to be so wrong; he didn't think he could have borne looking Gandalf into the eye then. The tall man, a wizard, was white like a wight except for his staff. It was tall, made of some pitch-black metal and sharp-looking; he probably could have used it as a club in a fight, Bilbo thought and was horrified by his violent thoughts.

"My king, these people saved me! And the holbytla saved me first, he helped me to get away!" Deorlaf shouted as soon as the riders were within a hearing distance and it was most likely a needful precaution. The horses trotted to them and Bilbo dreaded the inevitable questions that would arise. He simply wanted to crawl into his own bed in his own cozy hobbit hole and sleep for a year.

"A holbytla, my little cousin? You found yourself taken captive again and summoned a fairy creature to rescue yourself?" a strong, deep voice spoke and Bilbo dully looked up towards it. There was a fine chainmail and a cloak embroidered with swirly knots, the gleam or gold and silver and the duller sheen of bracelets made of boar tusks. King Fengel wasn't a young man and he had the look of one who had worked hard their whole life, but his back was as straight as iron staff, his eyes were bright and wise and the sword at his hip clearly belonged there; Rohan must breed her children strong that they would make such elders.

"Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, in your service. Your majesty," Bilbo said and bowed on his horse the best he could. Thorin, as ornery as he had been, hadn't been a stickler for such gestures, but Bilbo had understood that the royalty of humans was usually very strict. But as impressive as the king was, Bilbo's attention turned towards the wizard, for he could only be a wizard, the leader of Gandalf's brotherhood. Saruman the White, the strongest and wisest among them all according to Gandalf.

"Please, sir, I have heard that you are a mighty wizard. Could you help Fastred?" he pleaded desperately. Saruman looked him into the eye and though his smile was pleasant, almost paternal, Bilbo felt as though all the blood in his veins had turned ice.

"Your young kinsman has found himself an interesting champion, Fengel. This is one of the thirteen who marched to the Lonely Mountain to take it from the dragon Smaug," he spoke and everywhere around Bilbo there was a sharp breath drawn, like the sound of an approaching storm.

"A dragon," Deorlaf whispered. "You didn't say anything about killing a dragon."

"I didn't kill the dragon, that was Bard the Bowman," Bilbo protested feebly, hoping that Saruman would say no more. He felt anything but the hero at the moment, a right villain, and he couldn't bear any adoration now.

"Yet it takes strength to riddle a dragon in his own lair and walk away, still counted among the living," Saruman said mildly. Bilbo's first instinct was to argue that it hadn't been Smaug's own lair, it had been Thorin's kingdom, and his second thought was that Saruman didn't know anything about his character.

Then his third thought failed to be. Saruman was looking him into the eye and for a terrible moment Bilbo felt naked before that gaze, like an onion that deft fingers were peeling and peeling until nothing would remain. He felt like he had felt in the treasury, in a snare between Smaug's gaze and the terrible, burning eye he had seen when he had carried the ring on his finger. He wanted to put the ring on now, wanted to disappear, but if he did so, would he again be bare before the burning eye? He was frozen in a moment of indecision and then it was as though something was dropped between them - a veil, curtains, a cloak - and Bilbo could feel safely hidden again. But for the shortest of moments Bilbo had also felt that he could see as well, see something mocking well hidden behind the wizard's smile - a smile that was beginning to look less gentle and more vacant.

"Healing is not my main skill, but I am proficient enough to help your young friend. Fret no more," Saruman said and turned towards now barely conscious Fastred, leaving Bilbo again ashamed. He was simply imagining things because he felt guilty. His mother had always said that guilty people never could trust and he must have made up all of it, the wizard's searching gaze and the mockery. The wizard was pure and white in his heavy robes, with his groomed beard, like fresh snow under the sun's golden gleam.

You are not wrong. Cold blood runs through this Maia's veins and his true name is unknown. Do not trust him.

"What?" Bilbo asked.

***

And it would have been impossible to tell who was more surprised, Bilbo or Gwaedhglae.

Chapter Text

As is commonly known, at the end of an adventure there must be much rejoicing and merrymaking. If there is none, then there has been no adventure, but a war, a cataclysm, a tragedy; there has been history. What precisely is celebrated isn't elementary as long as there is a feast and whether the hero of the story wants to attend the feast isn't elementary either.

In Meduseld there was a feast. It wasn’t the ”real” victory feast yet, according to Deorlaf, because Elmed son of Elmund was still at large, yet it was quite festive enough for Bilbo’s tastes – much too festive. There was meat and fish on offer with wine and ale on the long tables of Meduseld’s great hall. The dishes were not separated into savoury main courses and sweet desserts, but all the foodstuff was laid out together in luxurious chaos. There was a plate of salmon sausages and a kind of wobbly blancmange flavoured with rose water in front of Bilbo, the men were getting steadily and rowdily drunk around him, he was sitting between a king and a wizard, he was a killer and there was a voice in his head.

It was telling of his despair that he minded the voice the least.

My names is Gwaedhglae. I am your ring, the voice had said. He didn't find this terribly odd at all, for if a ring could turn him invisible, why couldn't it - him - also talk? He only wondered why Gwaedhglae had remained silent for so long.

This was not by choice. I needed to grow close to you first.

“I will reward you greatly for the service you have done to my kinsman,” King Fengel promised Bilbo, with ample cheer and less kingly disposition now that he was getting drunk as well.

“I didn’t do it for a reward, my lord,” Bilbo said with a wince. His fingers could still feel Sting cutting flesh and vein and the thought of being rewarded for that was thoroughly appalling. Everything was too loud and terribly bright around him and Bilbo merely sat in the place of honour on the table when it would have rightfully belonged to Ashiwyfar, when all he wanted to do was to crawl into a bed and cry. Maybe he was only there because he was a hobbit and no matter the mad whirl of events around them, there will always be certain hobbitness to the hobbits. Hobbits will forever be constant, dependable, enduring and above all polite.

Refusing to sit at the table of the king would have been dreadfully bad manners. Making a scene in front of a little boy who admired him would have been simply atrocious. This was maybe the first time Bilbo had ever wished to not be quite so hobbitish; it made little sense, for what else could he be but a hobbit? And so he must sit there and bear it all.

“That does honour to your character…” the king begun; what was it with people praising his character, were they blind? “But my honour demands that I show generosity in return for valour. To refuse my gift would only diminish me.”

“I don’t really understand, my lord, but I am taking your word for it,” Bilbo muttered into his single mug of ale. He wanted to get drunk, he truly yearned for a moment of forgetfulness…

Don’t drink, Bilbo Baggins, not when you sit at less than an arm’s distance from the Maia. You will need your wits before the night is through.

It wasn’t even night yet! It was still several hours until the sunset and while Bilbo was glad Deorlaf was safe again, he truly was, witnessing the merrymaking around him was rather like biting into a bitter confection.

"I would like to hear the tale of your quest against the dragon Smaug and the peril of your journey to Erebor, Master Baggins. I'm certain it makes an impressive telling," Saruman said from Bilbo's right and Bilbo found himself hesitating yet again. The wizard's voice was smooth and pleasant and the thought of losing himself in the story even more pleasant. What harm could it bring, really? The wizard had even saved poor Fastred's life and his manner was very genteel. Bilbo couldn't think of any harm that could come and yet, he recalled the scalding feeling of the wizard's gaze and how empty his smile had briefly been in the wake of it. Every man and woman within hearing distance turned to look at him expectantly and their sudden silence felt eerie to Bilbo. Deorlaf's eyes were shining and Ashiwyfar was gazing at him admiringly from her place with the gold-haired queen's equally fair handmaidens.

Do not mention me, but tell him no outright lies either; be very clever. He may be silver-tongued, but so are you.

"I wish to hear you story as well. The tales of dragons I have heard are all the tales of old, times long since past," King Fengel said and it was only thinly veiled command. Bilbo could only smile with the same sense of helplessness he had felt when he had been given a seat by the king's right hand.

"My story begun when I wished a wizard good morning. I simply meant that the sun was shining, the grass was very green and the second breakfast had been good. But Gandalf looked at me from under long bushy eyebrows as though I had said something odd. What do you mean, he said, do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?" he begun his story with some hesitance. Why shouldn't I let him know of your existence, he tried to think loudly, an endeavor that he found very much difficult. "I was momentarily stunned, for I hadn't expected such a riddle for an answer to a simple greeting."

The rings of the elven smiths of Eregion are rare; he would try and take me from you. Maybe not right away, not at the king's table when you have just saved his cousin, but he would take me from you as surely as the sun will rise the next morning.

Maybe I deserve it, maybe I don't deserve someone like you, Bilbo thought rebelliously, though the mere thought of Gwaedhglae being taken from him tore at his heart. He had even named the ring, shouldn't that count for something?

Do you believe the Maia deserves me, then? This is my fate you speak of, do you not believe that I should have a say in my own life?

"Gandalf has always had a peculiarity for wordplay," Saruman said as genteel as a dagger and Bilbo bristled. His words were an innocent observation and not a false one, they might have easily been friendly reminiscence. Instead they brought to mind the picture of someone who was quite silly, someone who twiddled in less than noteworthy pursuits. The king laughed and the table with him and Bilbo decided that no, he could not give Gwaedhglae to this man. The ring deserved better than that.

***

Now very close to the slippery surface of Bilbo's free will, Gwaedhglae bristled. Saruman the White was teasing this story out of Bilbo to surreptitiously mock him, just as he mocked the unaware King Fengel's wife with his pointedly good table manners. While he didn't know the truth of what had happened to the hobbit, he could surely see that Bilbo was distraught and he knew that the hobbit had killed a man for the first time. He was prodding to see if he could make the hobbit come undone in the middle of his recount of the heroic quest to pass time, for Bilbo must have seemed the least member of Thorin Oakenshield's party to him, no-one of notice.

Yet Gwaedhglae rather thought the Maia would fall into his power much faster than Bilbo was falling. Bilbo was a worthy opponent and though he had often wished for a less worthy one, he now made a decision. It was irrational, pointless and unnecessarily involved, but what part of his life hadn't been such, lately? This Maia would not have him; Sauron would take him from Bilbo's hand and no-one else's.

Also, there was the matter of a wager they did have to settle. To change hands now would be to concede defeat by default.

"Steel your heart, there is no flaw in it. An evil enchantment was laid upon you that forced it to feel delight, and I rather think you know whom to suspect. Now the wizards wishes to see you break; are you going to give him the satisfaction?" he asked when Bilbo was in the middle of the recount of three trolls carrying off their ponies, unseen by Fíli and Kíli. It was a gentler retelling than the one he had given Kester; he obviously didn't trust the mocking to remain good-natured now.

There was a pause in Bilbo's words. It could have been taken as a trick to make the audience more enraptured than they already were.

Why would he do such a thing? Shouldn't we warn King Fengel what kind of man he is? Bilbo thought with great force and pointed clarity, and there was absolute outrage twined between the shape of words his thought took, bloody red and pitch black breaking like waves and climbing like ivy, contrasted by white-dotted relief.

"He is no man, and you need not shout at me, I can hear you at all times when you wish for me to do so. We shall speak more of this later, now concentrate on making no mention of me."

It was pointless indeed to undo his own work, but now that Bilbo could hear him, he didn't necessarily need him so broken. He did need the hobbit's trust and what better way was there to gain it than standing by him against a common enemy? And if his words made the regret ease, that was entirely beside the point.

***

If Bilbo had been angry at the wizard Saruman for disrespecting Gandalf so, now he was furious. He disguised the sour line of his mouth by coughing a little and taking a long gulp from his ale, forcing a smile to his lips. But he wasn't only furious, he was also giddy with the relief that bubbled through his veins and now that relief begun to stretch his mouth into something that Bilbo very much feared would appear less than sane. He took a second gulp and forced his lips into submission with what felt night impossible effort. Gwaedhglae was powerful and wise and he had Bilbo's back, together they would come up with some way to reveal the wizard's true nature to King Fengel.

His ring was a person, a real person. Bilbo hoped that he liked the name he had given; at least Gwaedhglae had introduced himself by it and not complained.

"Gandalf stood there with his staff raised high. It was just at that moment the light came over the hill, and his voice boomed in the branches. William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; and Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him. And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them," Bilbo continued the tale, not looking at Saruman for he feared he couldn't keep his disdain out of his gaze. Gandalf was all the things a true wizard should be.

"And so you were all saved!" Queen Argantlowen cheered with exited delight. She was quite a bit younger than her husband, but Bilbo didn't doubt for a moment that she had married Fengel for love; the way she had looked upon him all evening long was the same fond, exasperated expression his mother used to give his father when he had done something "so much like men" that mother had for one reason or another mildly disapproved.

(When Belladonna Baggins née Took greatly disapproved something, of course, the looks were another tale entirely. And they had to be seen to be believed.)

"We were saved, but we had also lost out ponies, for they couldn't be found after the fight. We had to continue our way on foot and this came to spell us quite some trouble," Bilbo said and he spun the tale of the orcs on warg-back chasing them and Radagast's brave distraction on his rabbit-pulled sled. "It had to be seen to be believed, how they kept ahead of the Gundaband wargs, and while rabbits are usually very timid creatures, war horses couldn't have followed directions more steadily," he gave praise where praise was due before Saruman had a chance to say anything softly deriding about this wizard. He told of the beauty of Rivendell and the ride of her warriors, he told of the storm battle of the stone giants, garnering several gasps from his audience, and he softened Thorin's words and actions as best he could.

He knew that Thorin had come to regret his behaviour and didn't wish for him to be only known for what was the worst in him here; Bilbo knew that once the tale came to the climax at the Arkenstone debacle, that alone would make enough of a bad impression to the stubbornly honourable King Fengel who couldn't understand the terrible power of the Arkenstone and never would have to learn.

And then came the hard part. Then came the Goblin Caves and the ring that he most definitely shouldn't admit to finding.

Do not lie, you have more of his regard than you did at the beginning of the tale and more of his attention as well.

"When I opened his eyes, I wondered if I had; it was just as dark as with them shut. The only light I had was the pale blue shone of my blade, which told me that goblins were too near for comfort yet. This was when I heard a voice..." The silence of their table and the table nearest to them was quite gratifying when he told of his encounter with the creature, Gollum, and how he had killed the goblin he had fallen down with... for food. "And the light on my blade was dimmed to nothing. Gollum, he was a small slimy creature I could barely see in the darkness, except for two big, round, pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the underground lake, wide and deep and deadly cold. Bless us, my precioussss, it said when it saw me, I have tasted goblins, never hobbitses before; at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum!" Bilbo imitated the poor creature's hissing and the horrible swallowing noises the best he could, to Deorlaf's disgust and joy.

"Did you strike it dead, then?" the boy asked. Bilbo shook his head, struck by pity again as he remembered how wretched the creature had looked. Yet he pitied Gwaedhglae even more, for he had been owned by the creature and Bilbo couldn't imagine any sane being could find such a fate palatable.

Your sentiment is much appreciated. Please do me a favour and NEVER call me a precious. And whatever poems you may pen, never make one about fish.

Bilbo gave the plate of salmon sausages a guilty look and grabbed a bit of pork instead, with a side dish of gravy and, a wonder of wonders, mushrooms. He didn't like salmon that much anyway, and with Gwaedhglae's voice in his ear he thought that he might dare to look Saruman into the eyes again and fool him.

"No, I didn't, for I needed his help to get out. I was quite lost there in the darkness. I threatened it with my sword, yet nameless, and he immediately cowered from me. Gollum was now anxious to appear friendly and proposed a game of riddles. Should I win, he would lead me out, if I lost, he threatened to eat me, and while I didn't trust him in the least, I had little choice." Bilbo spoke the riddles one by one and the Rohans answered them; king the first, queen the second and after this it was a free game. Right until the very end.

"What have I gotten in my pocket, I asked. I simply could not think of any good question with that nasty wet cold thing sitting next to me," he said and it wasn't a lie.

"This did not count as a riddle," Saruman pointed out mildly and Bilbo turned towards the wizard for the first time he had during the story the man had asked of him. His eyes were darker than Bilbo remembered and though they weren't quite so flaying anymore, their gaze was still piercing.

"It was simply good luck that Gollum accepted the question regardless, though he demanded three tries to get it right," he said and it wasn't a lie. Saruman seemed made to take up space and simply own it in a manner that made Bilbo feel much smaller than he actually was in comparison to the wizard - and he was only half the man's size. "Handses, he guessed first, and then a knife, both wrong. String, or nothing, he shrieked at last, which was not quite fair—working in two guesses at once. But I figure I could hardly call foul play, considering the question. And luckily both were wrong."

"I assume he didn't give up on his decision to make a meal out of you, though," Saruman said with a small, but benign smile and a sort of idle attention that Bilbo suspected to be anything but. He cut a bright, dashing figure in his white robe and Bilbo couldn't begin to guess what he was thinking. Was he simply amusing himself or did he suspect something?

"He indeed reneged on his promise, telling me he needed to go get his birthday present before he could help me out." Carefully now, Bilbo, he told himself, carefully. "Then he paddled his way through the dark lake before I could stop him, but I could still hear hear him talking - to himself or to someone else who wasn't there, it was difficult to say. He admitted out loud that he was going to ambush me and eat me and his precious would help him to do so. But whoever he or she was, this precious wasn't on the island." Who was a person before they were given a name? It was still true enough and true enough was turning out to be his favourite kind of not-yet-lie. Saruman's eyes were as keen as shards of flint when he looked upon Bilbo.

"What this birthday present was?" was the next question, aimed to the heart of the matter with terrible, almost clairvoyant precision.

"Gollum never explained the matter further. He was then enraged and blamed me for taking his precious person from him. I tried to tell him I had no idea what he was speaking of, but he came after me in rage regardless. In a moment Gollum was on me. But before I could do anything, recover my breath or pull my sword again, he had already passed by, taking no notice of me in the dark. He could see better there than I, yet he passed me by and I ran after him, hoping that he would, believing me to be on my way to freedom, lead me the right way." Bilbo didn't want to have too much to drink, not anymore and not now, and so he took a plate in his hands instead to hide how they were trembling.

"I seems you were very lucky," Saruman said simply and Bilbo could almost have crowed with victory. He had done it, he had fooled the wizard!

Or rather, he had the wizard fooled for now, but soon he would have to tell of Thranduil's dungeons and sneaking around his palace unnoticed. And while Fengel didn't know enough of elves to necessarily find that suspicious, there was no way Saruman was going to believe such a feat possible.

Oh, dragons. A trek through Mordor would surely have been more joyous than this conversation.

***

The truth was, Gwaedhglae was merely playing Bilbo's tender heart when he pretended to be so repulsed by the memories of Gollum. Yes, in hindsight the creature had been hideous in its stubborn insistence to hide below the mountains, eating raw fish - and singing about eating raw fish - but his Master hadn't yet begun to call him and he hadn't had the emotional capacity to suffer much. It had been an it then, not a he yet, and it had been the king reigning over Gollum with sharp teeth made of half-forgotten memories and cold, slimy hands covered in fish scales that gave cold comfort. Its name had been Precious and the name hadn't disgusted it as Gollum had crawled before it in supplication and licked its toes; there had only been ever-present awareness of its failure to coax Gollum to leave the caves that had only been somewhat similar to frustration and nothing else.

So now you have compassion for me, he made very certain to not ask so that his bearer might hear. Compassion was a two-edged sword; it could drive people to wound themselves terribly, as Bilbo had for the sake of a man he had looked down upon, who would have killed him without a moment's regret, but it could also give strength beyond all reason and expectations. Compassion, Gwaedhglae mused, was resembled love quite a lot. He knew of compassion and of love, of course, but he didn't truly know either.

What is it about compassion that people expect to make everything, if not retroactively right, then at least somehow better, he made very certain to not ask so that his bearer might hear.

This was when he suddenly and without warning sunk further away from Bilbo and into his his own mindspace.

There were flowers everywhere, those accursed flowers that he had failed to uproot. From some reason the first of them caught his attention; a thick, tangled shrub that crept low and flat, crowned with flowers the colour of embarrassment and the leaves had little spots the colour of shared amusement on the underside. It was embarrassment, yes, but also shared embarrassment. Embarrassment that had originally been felt for someone who was not embarrassed themselves, shared with yet another person and shared with laughter to lessen the embarrassment.

There was the crawling vines with the wet hair and heavy pipeweed smoke smell and the dirty purplish blossoms with the woodsy and heavy scent to them, a hint of iron like blood in the mouth. And then the ground turned like a bread roll, the horizon rolled in a sickening way. There was only a crust of earth where Gwaedhglae was standing, was standing as though he had a body with feet to stand on (and dark hair for some reason) and dark abyss beneath. As he stood there his own mind turned inside-out without (conscious) permission from him and there were...

There were roots and then there were...

Gwaedhglae had a flower garden blooming within his most private self and more besides, something more terrible. There were roots sticking out beneath the flowers, except where there were flowers. They were rich and unsymmetrical mother-of-pearl blossoms, the kind of sentiment that wore a different face for everyone and all, with no scent of their own at all because it was the very air, as natural as breathing with lungs no ring could possibly have. Flowers blooming upside-down and downside-up, one the reverse-yet-image of the other. They had spread everywhere, lodging between the other roots, somehow invisible until now. He had thought regret the worst yet forced upon him and now he was proved wrong, for what only could be the root of regret?

I followed them in the shadows of the forest, as silent as I could, Bilbo's voice reached him from far away. And Gwaedhglae knew what Saruman was bound to ask, if not this very moment, then eventually; how Bilbo had saved his dwarves. And he hated Bilbo Baggins, hated him so much for inflicting this upon him...

You somehow got to them, despite the guards?" There was the suspicion, natural and expected. He could go to the wizard and take him instead, Gwaedhglae could be free.

"Thranduil deals with the humans of the Laketown - unless it is with the humans of the Dale now, I don't know if they are the one and the same or not at this point. There is a hatch over the river and the guards were drunk." His own words with no true voice but what he could now force upon the wounded mind; Bilbo could work with this and the unknown Maia might be thwarted again, yet why had he... He could see this Saruman through the eyes of another, he could see fëa bound and shackled, clipped like the wings of a pet bird might be, could see something terribly hungry kept at bay by his the thinnest of the veneers of insignificance. The limitations the Valar forced upon their supposed servants could be cruel indeed.

The smell of the air, the smell of nothing and yet everything, it assaulted him until he couldn't breath with the lungs he didn't have.

"The key was easy to take, the distance wasn't much of a distance, if asked questions, make true remarks that don't actually answer to anything," he advised, advised against his own will almost, and he was used to forcing other minds. To be forced himself, to be betrayed by himself as he had made Isildur and Sméagol betray themselves, it was a sickening sensation.

What was the root of sympathy and commiseration; what was the root of regret if not compassion? Had this illness germinated within since the Bree and a whore Bilbo had witnessed having sex with a nameless, insignificant man? Had a filthy prostitute and a crippled dwarf with proclivity for eating sausages somehow brought this to be?

***

No matter the mad whirl of events around them, there will always be certain hobbitness to the hobbits. Hobbits are very hard to corrupt, not because they are inherently good, but because corruption is by definition a person becoming less themselves and becoming something new instead. Under the right circumstances, though, they can "corrupt" other races just fine, can be terribly contagious.

If one must affect the other, hobbits are likely to be the very polite winners and offer the losing party consoling herb tea and seed cake from the finer plates that get taken our for birthday parties and weddings. Some wagers are made to be lost.

***

There could be no compassion, there would be no compassion for there was no room for such things in the mind and heart of his Master and Gwaedhglae had been a fool to entertain the thought that he could ever be anything but an extension of another's fëa.

"I will uproot you! I will uproot you even if it is the last thing I will ever do!"

***

Oh, Rohan, the brave, green, queer land beyond the mountains that breeds such enlightenment in it!

Chapter Text

Autumn had arrived to the north and the frosty grass broke under the ponies’ hooves as the wagons they pulled reached the Great Gates of Erebor. The ravens had flown ahead with the message and the thrushes sung of it on the brambles that had dared to creep near the mountain now that the taint of the dragon was gone; Dís daughter of Thrain had arrived home at last. Thorin waited at the gates with Dwalin by his side as the last of their womankind rode in. All were accounted for now, for the dwarrowdams and children were few and precious and none would be lost in the wilds or stomachs of the wargs in the way their menfolk might during bad times when men couldn’t be spared to search for someone most likely dead already.

The dwarrowdams and children always returned homes or their bones did. Watching the caravan lit the warm glow of satisfaction deep beneath Thorin’s ribcage.

“And here you are, standing there like a pillar as if you didn’t have any better things to do!” Dís bellowed when she saw him and jumped down from her bench. She grabbed him by the chin and bumped their foreheads together with such force that it knocked his crown skew.

“It’s good to see you as well, sister,” Thorin said and reached up to straighten the crown. Some days it felt terribly heavy, the weight of all Erebor had been laid on his head, but it was good kind of weight. It was Erebor, his, theirs. The lives of his people rested upon him as did the hopes of their future and he wasn’t going to let anyone down. Not anymore.

“How are my sons? I will have you know, Thorin Oakenshield, that I have not rescinded my threat to take every new scar on their bodies out of your hide,” Dís said and punched his shoulder to hide the wetness glittering in the corners of her eyes. She wasn’t scared of her own grief or ashamed of feeling relief and love, no; a true daughter of Durin’s line, she was stronger than that. She was simply aware that they were being watched by the families she has guided through the long, arduous journey over the Misty Mountains and through Mirkwood, by the warriors guading the gates and Thorin’s (entirely unnecessary, for-form’s-sake-only, really, just take them dammit) bodyguards – and Dwalin.

Part of the burden of being royalty was that one had to always appear to be above the normal mortals, to be some kind of superior being who barely bled when cut and never felt pain. They said the royalty was always full of strength and courage, never sweated in the heat of the smithery and never shit – or defecated rather – even though at the feasts they should eat like hungry bears and gulp down every toast called without wincing. Getting drunk in public was almost the only freedom afforded, for of course the king should be able to drink all his warriors under the table. The royalty was unyielding and somehow always fair at the same time and they certainly didn’t do anything as dwarrow as burst into tears when they saw the brother they had almost lost after a long year and a half.

Dwalin could be trusted with Dís’ tears, but the rest of them would only feel discomfited, and Dís was the daughter of the kings; she gave her people what they needed, even if it was a wizard’s illusion.

“They have both healed well and await you eagerly, though Kíli…” Now Thorin winced and though he also must hold the illusion of superiority, he knew that no stone-born would hold this against him. “He is out, patrolling with a captain of the guard King Thranduil has sent to us as an envoy.

And damn Thranduil’s gnawed bones to the smelting pits for dumping this problem on Thorins lap!

“Let us lead our people to their home so that we may have a moment together. There is much we need to speak of,” he proposed stiffly. Dís quirked a beautiful eyebrow, but didn’t call him out on his speech; the sad truth was that Thorin was so quiet at the eve of battle and danger and hardship because he couldn’t inspire an elf to hug a tree to save his own life. Whenever he tried to give a speech, he simply came out long-winded and overly dramatic.

Whenever he tried to give a long, rehearsed explanation, he came out awkward and guilty like a stripling who had been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, whether or not he was actually guilty of anything.

“I assume we must humour him at least for now,” Dís rumbled deep in her throat as she climbed back on the bench of her wagon, gesturing Thorin to follow her. Dwalin climbed to the back of the wagon without invitation and a quick glance told Thorin that there was no other dwarrow in; they could speak freely, covered by the rumbling and clatter of the iron-fitted wheels. The floor was golden beneath the hooves, the reminiscence of a failed attempt on Smaug's life and reign of terror, and it glittered beneath the lamps like fire made solid, like the honey of the kindly West, like the sun's sails and most of all itself. There was no other thing in the world to compare gold to and this was a chilling thought.

How beautiful even Smaug had been for the shortest of moments, covered in gold!

"This is beautiful," Dís breathed. "But whatever made you think that using heat against a dragon was a good idea?" Mahal be praised for Dís, Thorin thought and smiled as the mood broke.

“I missed you more than I would have missed my sword hand, had I left it behind,” Thorin whispered as the wagon jerked to motion and his throat felt as though someone had stuffed it full of numb salve. The words were barely manageable, barely understandable.

“If you make me cry in public, I will kill you. I was quite the unfaithful dwarrow, you now? I prayed to Mahal every night that he would see you to throne of Erebor safely, but never truly believed he would,” Dís confessed, gripping the reins in her hand so hard her knuckles were white. The wagon rumbled the half-mile hallway that would take them below a rim Smaug had broken to the ground, fighting to get to the smaller mines beneath, and to the single-story dwellings tucked back into the limestone that now served as temporary housings.

It was a relief to leave the gold behind. Some of his advisers had spoken that the Golden Floor should be maintained for historical merit, but gold was such a soft metal it was eminently impractical and Thorin much preferred silver those days anyway. But at least the boots of children yet to be born would wear the layer of gold down, at least their kind still had a future. It wasn't time yet for the last incarnation of Durin and their grinding to dust and memories.

“You might wish to send a prayer of gratitude to Mahal’s wife-sister for the outcome of our quest, mad as it was.” The guilt was less than it had been, gentled by Bilbo Baggins’ forgiveness and some time, but the words still didn’t come easily. His actions had been mostly due to the guile and temptation of the Arkenstone, the lure of its beauty and the bitter heart of the stone, but there had also been a part of him that had remained obstinate because he had hated the elves beyond all reason. Master Baggins hadn’t killed the dragon, he hadn’t killed Azog and he hadn’t even killed Bolg, yet everything would have been lost without him. Thorin had sworn he would never fall prey to the weakness of his grandfather and the humiliation of that failure grated at him.

“This is a funny coincidence, I met Master Baggins on my journey here. I had for a very short while lost our way and he led us to Bree – he was on a “walking holiday” which apparently means an adventure without any danger. I wished him good luck, though I fear it might be a great favor to ask of the Valar.”

“Was he well?” Thorin asked when what he really wanted to ask was: how did he speak of me? Master Baggins had forgiven him, but this had been when it was widely believed that he stood by the Doors of Mahal’s Halls. Bilbo hadn’t shown any bitterness when Thorin had risen from his deathbed, but that could have simply been a result of hobbit politeness and the awareness that he would get away from the king soon.

“He was on his way to Rohan and he said that he would visit us on his way back,” Dís honed in on the heart of his inquiry with her usual scary precision. “Since he is going to be on the right side of the mountains already. Not that I understand why anyone would want to go to Rohan. And now tell me, what has gotten your guts tied into knots?”

“Maybe we should wait until we are truly alone?” Thorin proposed without much hope.

“Do you not think I can control myself?” Dís asked with searing tone, but the matter was, Thorin wouldn’t blame her even if she couldn’t. To say that Dís daughter of Thrain and Vigdís carried her grudges shorter and less bitterly than Thorin would be akin to saying that stabbing a man to death was neater than beating him to death with a war hammer; it might be accurate, but didn’t truly convey the messiness involved for every party. Dís hated elves in general and the elves of Mirkwood especially.

But Captain Tauriel had saved Kíli’s life twice and Fíli’s once. Unless the House of Durin saved her or her family three times, according to the ancient laws she had the right to press her suit – and her family was dead. If only Kíli had looked upon her less favourably!

“Sister. Kíli may well marry an elf before the Yule.”

“WHAT!”

Maybe that hadn't been the best way to put it.

***

It was told in many lores and songs that Lothlórien was the most beautiful of the lands in Arda now that the fist bloom had withered, taking the great elven kingdoms of old and lesser kingdoms of less-old that had risen upon the over-turned world with it. Lórien truly was a place of magic and beauty, reigned over gently by one who had seen the Two Trees in bloom. Laurelindórenan the land had once been called, the Valley of Singing Gold. Now it was Lothlórien, the Dream-Flower, or simply Lórien, the shortened form of Lothlórien matching the name of the Gardens of Lórien in Aman. Where once had been bustling life, there were now only dreams of past and the West.

Lady Galadriel thought of Laurelindórenan as she stood on her talan, gazing down upon night-blooming lilies that the playful breeze made dance and shiver. She felt caught between what had been and what could never be and for the first time in what felt akin to forever she felt angry with herself. Why was she standing there with a spindle in her hand, weaving fine thread to make a fine tapestry of blooming lilies when the lilies bloomed right there?

"I have always been a dreamer of impossible dreams," she said. "But when did I begin to walk my days asleep and ceased to live?"

"I don't understand, my love. The battle you fought in Dol Guldur proved once and for all that the ages past haven't diminished you," Celeborn said, stepping away from the gentle, shimmering shadows of their tree's branches.

"Yet here I am and not down in my garden. Our kind doesn't grow old, but we don't truly stay young either, do we?" she argued and let the spindle fall to the ground. The moon-pale lilies were nodding to her, calling her to join their dance.

She had been in a strange mood lately. Partially it was because of the White Council's battle against the necromancer, certainly, because of the way a blade keened as it cut the air and the air cried mercy, because of the fire, both the white flames that burned so clean they barely left a wisp of ashes behind and the dirty, red licks of fire's tongue that blackened everything with soot. It was because of the orcs and the spiders skittering on their bone-pale webs, spilled blood and a terrible presence striking against their will like a storm. But it was also because of the two mortal children Camaenor had brought to Lórien with him.

Ah, poor Camaenor! Haldir he had remained for a long time and she had not given him a name he so richly had deserved, for she had foreseen that to receive a name of battle would doom him to die in battle - and he had returned home with a name given for fast and steady sword arm. Truly it often felt so futile to struggle free from the fate that was the part of all eldar; whatever she did, her people were to grow lesser and fade, go to the West and leave this beautiful, terrible, enchanting and heart-breaking world to their younger, mortal siblings. Even the ring on her finger could only delay the inevitable, not prevent it - and even so many years after Sauron's passing, it was still bound to a fate of its own.

(And what, and what if Sauron wasn't truly gone for good? His ring had been swept out to sea by the waters of the Anduin, but even in the depths of the sea there lived ancient creatures...)

"I will go for a walk in my garden; will you join me?" Galadriel asked, extending her arm, and Celeborn took her hand into his own. Celeborn was her dearest love, her helpmeet, the one who always listened to her even when he couldn't see what her problem was. He was a much more practical in mind and fëa than Galadriel and didn't see the sense in worrying about ages to come and fading when living could be so much work.

She was beginning to think that maybe he was on to something.

The grass was moist with dew and cool against her bare feet. Galadriel took a few dancing steps, twirling among the lilies beneath the golden trees and thought of young Kester son of Kirk and Ayla Yadh-Aybek. Kester was so eager to learn everything about everything and he thought with earnest seriousness that the elves of Lórien could offer him that, he stumbled around like a puppy asking questions of long-gone days and the edges of the map and generally endearing himself to everyone. Ayla was equally eager, though more restrained in manner; originally she had thought she was to become Camaenor's bride - or concubine, a fact that mortified the poor man to no end - but she had taken one look into Galadriel's eyes and seen the future she could have as a healer or a musician or a warden. She had then promptly decided that she would become a healer-warrior who also played a fiddle and apparently intended to reach this goal before the first snow, so many hours she put into training.

Maybe this was why among Cirdan's people, who lived by the sea, the number of elves who travelled to the West had always been the least. There were always human merchants abound in their harbours, asking questions about the names of stars and the roots of the world and dragging their newly made friends to adventures with them; there was a southern land where the grain of paradise and pepper grew and the birds were golden and ruby red and indigo blue to show and houses were built round, there were new languages to learn and places where every spring still seemed fresh and one of a kind. Who had the time to fade when they were busy herding a crew of humans? The edain might grow old, yet they somehow lived in eternal spring and it was good to be reminded that the world was still great, the edges of the map less than defined.

"Celeborn, I have mused... what do you believe, is it a time to try for another child?" she asked and Celeborn's eyes widened. A delicate blush rose to his cheeks, a very fetching look on him. He was pale of skin and silver of hair and dressed in muted colours as well, but in his youth he had dressed brightly and Galadriel wondered if she should weave bright fabrics for his clothes. He would wear a gift from her even if it looked horrible - and she had impeccable taste.

"I would love to, though this is very sudden. But it has been a long time since..." And he fell quiet. Yes, it had been a long time since their bright, brilliant Celebrían had been taken by the orcs, had left for Aman for healing she couldn't find in the Middle-Earth. The sorrow was as fresh as ever, but the edge of the pain had dulled and now when they thought of her, they remembered her as she had been in the bloom of her life, not the pale, wounded woman who couldn't bear to leave her bed. Yes, it was time. Galadriel pressed a playful kiss of her husband's lips.

"Importing southern spices through the Caradhrass pass is difficult even in summer and Moria is beyond us, but through Rohan... Do you think that building a road for horses to pass up to the Rauros falls would be feasible?" she whispered into his mouth. Nen Hithoel was steep fall and few among her people were Noldor or otherwise interested in building monuments of stone, but Elrond, she believed, would gladly borrow her a few of his own. There was no hurry; they could teach her people and maybe the work would be done in half a century. It wouldn't lead people straight to Lórien, leaving who would enter the realm to her discretion; another reason to favour that route over one leading directly to her doorstep.

"You are so romantic, my love," Celeborn laughed. "Shall we discuss the tax work of the season next?"

"When our child asks us where babies come, we may say that he or she was made of cardamon and allspice and fine rock dust," Galadriel said with a twinkle in her eyes.

She lay herself down on the bed of grass and lilies with Celeborn, and soon she wouldn't think of anything but him, but now she afforded the world and the fates of her people one more thought. It was the incantation she had whispered to herself when she had walked across death-white Helcaraxë where the cold sunk to the bones and many of her people fell down to never rise again, it was what she had told herself every time yet another kingdom had fallen to Morgoth's dread armies, what she had defiantly claimed when she had to decide whether to remain in Arda or return to Aman. The eldar would have to fade, but it didn't have to happen today, it didn't have to happen tomorrow.

It's not over before it's over.

***

King Thorin Oakenshield would have been very scandalized if he was told he had anything in common with elves. Lady Galadriel would have been amused.

Chapter Text

That night, as Bilbo Baggins dreamed, Gwaedhglae had no dreams to share. He would have been loathe to do so in any case, for he couldn't be certain how much Bilbo would remember in his waking hours. Rather he sunk within himself, found himself standing on a field of flowers. There was black earth below his feet (his feet?) that was fragrant with life and the regret bloomed freely there, but what he had come for awaited below the soil. It would not simply roll for him now, not bare the truth, and so he forced his will upon the garden.

It left him feeling exposed, naked though he had no body to clothe and bare, it left him with penetrating, persistent need to stop, to look away from himself, but persist he did and the ground parted and turned to reveal the hidden garden. There were the rich and unsymmetrical mother-of-pearl blossoms, a little slapdash and very certain in their blithe, airy, heartbreaking allurement all the same. The scent was overpowering and only barely there, something that could drown him in pale pink and green and cream if he wasn't careful. Such subtlety to them, and weren't the subtlest of beasts also the most dangerous? Gwaedhglae steeled his resolve and returned to the moment that had sown the seeds of this abomination.

He let the moment remember Bríl to him, her white, soggy blindfold and scars, he brought back the smell of rain and mud, the stench of garbage and the whiff from the outhouse, the touch of smoke that had clung to her hair. It had truly been a miserable place and a miserable woman both. She recalled the woman pressed against the brick wall of a neighbour building with her skirts lifted high and a man pounding into her, he recalled her saucy wink. This was below miserable, this was simply disgusting.

“Oh yes, please YES,” she moaned again, she mocked the man, compared him to a rabbit. Gwaedhglae could feel the rain, smell the human misery, could hear the feigned gasps. The moment was there, in his grasp just as the first of those unassuming flowers was, the petals tickling his palm (his palm?) oh-so-gently. He couldn't turn back time, the most merciless of dimensions, except within the bound of his own mind, but there time was his plaything, his tool, his to discard.

He pulled with both hands.

The pain that struck through him with the ferocity of a lightning was so great he couldn't even scream. If he had felt exposed before, now he felt like crying for pain that...

It wasn't even his pain, he realized with great shock. It was the sickening sensation of having the tears of another forced upon him, the substance of things others hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, things that should not have been. A beautiful face swam across his memories, the keen eyes and the vibrant hair; Celebrimbor. Why would he remember Celebrimbor now? He pulled again and it got worse, the tear working itself deeper within and somewhere above and around Gwaedhglae Bilbo was stirring, his sleep thinning towards wakefulness. He let go of the flower, yet again swallowing the bitter goblet of defeat.

Maybe he had chosen the wrong approach; didn't the Children of Ilúvatar lose their compassion as easily as as their crops? Maybe the answer wasn't to uproot, but to starve the garden, to not give it any nourishment to thrive?

***

When Bilbo opened his eyes to the gray, dim light of the morning, his first thought was that he was probably the only man in entire Meduseld who would rise from is bed without headache that morning. What followed the thought was confusion; Meduseld, he wondered, headache? For the space between two heartbeats he was suspended in that blissful place between dream and awakening world where he wasn't quite certain where he was and what load he needed to carry that day, but the space between two heartbeats is so terribly fleeting. A moment more and he remembered the feast in the Golden Halls, he remembered the golden mead and ale that he hadn't dared but sip for fear of loosening his tongue, so close to one who would have taken Gwaedhglae from him.

Bilbo remembered Gwaedhglae and his heart swelled with sudden relief. As absolutely dreadful as the day before had been, he couldn't rue it in entirety, for it had given Gwaedhglae to him. His fingers reached to the pocker of the shirt he had taken for a nightshirt when he had left his smial, for those days when he might change for the night's sleep in the warmth of a house, and merely touching the warm, smooth circle, so simple and yet so perfect, gave him the forbearance to rise from his blankets.

The room so generously given to him was big and orderly where as the helter-skelter dining hall had prepared him for something else completely and the bed was big enough for three of the Big People. Bilbo felt he was downright drowning in the cream-pale linens, green and autumn-orange woolen quilts and soft deer pelts as he crawled across the vastness of it all, stumbling on the cold floor. The shutters were closed, the dim light worming its way inside between the gaps in the wood, and when Bilbo pushed them open, he was met with a cold whiff and rainwater, as though struck to the face. One could never tell about the weather in strange parts. It had been mostly sunny the day before, but by the morning a hard freezing wind was blowing and the rain just kept pouring in. It wasn’t the right day for leaving and Bilbo felt it would have been dreadfully impolite anyway, but there was Saruman.

Saruman the White, the head and supposedly the greatest of the Istari. There was Saruman who alone was reason enough to remain, as much as Bilbo wanted to put miles and miles between himself and the wizard. King Fengel didn't know the kind of man the White Wizard was and allowed him to roam freely in his land, cursing people for no apparent reason, invited the wizard to his table where he played cruel games with the king's guests. Something needed to be done; if only Bilbo had known what.

"Gwaedhglae?" he asked out loud. He knew that he only needed to think for his ring to hear him, but it still seemed a strange an eerie way to begin a conversation, as though walking up to a gentlehobbit and starting to talk their ears off without as much as a "good morning" for concession to proper manners. Thinking of those words brought Gandalf to his mind again and he smiled, but Bilbo found that he couldn't think of Gandalf without thinking of Saruman and his momentary good humour was darkened again.

Good morning, Bilbo. I hope your dreams were good, the ring's soft voice poured over him. It was a most curious sensation he hadn't been in the state of mind to fully appreciate the last night, how he could hear without hearing, without his ears. The words simply were there right after they hadn't been, washing over the mounds and inclines of his thoughts, pooling like rainwater in the vales.

I slept well, Bilbo thought, though he suddenly wasn't quite so certain. The fleeting shadow of a memory flickered across his mind, something of black, fertile earth and a voice shouting and something had been quite painful as well, but as he tried to grasp the memory, it disappeared like water on dry sand.

I slept well, though yesterday was without doubt the worst day of my life, Bilbo said without words and tried to pour all his heart into the words; he wished he could somehow know when Gwaedhlgae heard him and when the ring didn't. He couldn't respond to the ring's magic in any meaningful way. He tried to think words at him, at that soft weave of Gwaedhglae in midst of his thoughts, but he didn't feel like his efforts amounted to anything. Hello? Gwaedhglae?

You need but wish to speak with me, the wish will carry your inner voice true, was the amused reply, a silk-soft flutter inside his skull. It was like light not of sun or fire, but illumination without cause floating in the air between a thought and a feeling, a dream and a memory.

We need to do something about Saruman, Bilbo thought, we need to somehow expose him to King Fengel, this cannot simply go on. He wondered how the wizard had turned so rotten. Weren't the wizards supposed to be wise, like the elves? Of course, the elves weren't always so wise either, as Fëanor and his sons had proved with their mad quest for jewels that hadn't even been people, as far as Bilbo knew. Like Thorin had been ensnared by the evil within the Arkenstone, and maybe even Bilbo, for while he hadn't been struck by greed, there had been the terrible moment when he had wished to strike Thorin down, when his heart had ached with broken friendship and he had felt he could...

No! What other offensive thoughts might he be indulging right now? He might not be a killer, but he doubted he was worthy of Gwaedhglae even though he tried so hard, he just couldn't help what he was thinking! Oh, how wonderful he had almost been done with wanting to shake my his around and find where Gwaedhglae's voice is coming, even!

To feel anger after such betrayal is natural, Bilbo, don't be ashamed for no due cause. As for the wizard, it is common for a man to look upon himself as wiser and better than others, and as such fit to dictate to them. But this is self-deception; by pretending to have right to what he has not, he puts a cheat upon himself, and sooner or later all will find the sad effects of this - and all are vulnerable to this fallacy, even the wise and the mighty. Maybe even especially the wise and the mighty.

Bilbo gawped like a fish, very much humbled by Gwaedhglae's words. To think that he had blindly grasped the ring in the darkness where he had been for any orc's to take, or Gollum's! It seemed horrifyingly unfair to him that Gwaedhglae, who was a person and such a good person at that, could be picked up by anyone as though he was a mere possession. He truly should have a body of his own and walk in the sun on his own two legs.

...I thank you for your kind words. There was a moment of something akin to hesitation. Regarding Saruman and the danger he poses to all, I have a plan to deal with him, but it would be very dangerous to you. I don't wish to entreat you to undertake a task harder than what you can bear.

I would do anything if it could help, Bilbo thought and remembered young, eager, twice-kidnapped Deorlaf, wizened-yet-strong Ashiwyfar, the peaceful village of Maosoeberg, the honourable King Fengel and his lovely Argantlowen. They all deserved better than to be forced to live with such evil barely a few days' ride from their doorsteps.

Where is will, there is a way...

***

Bilbo Baggins continued to think of him as grand and wise, and though this wasn't entirely a lie, grand never did rule out terrible. How Bilbo found himself below Gwaedhglae continued to be baffling.

And how he had again... Had he been capable of it, Gwaedhglae would have kicked himself. Bilbo Baggins the homely, lowly hobbit was below him. He might be unable to uproot those accursed flowers, but as long as he remained conscious of the thoughts they forced upon him, the bet wasn't yet lost. Let Bilbo buoy himself up with vain hopes, he would walk through the Gates of Mordor. So what if rejoining with Sauron would be his end? Gwaedhglae had a duty and he would show still countenance as went to his death, was devoured by his Master.

"To expose Saruman here in Rohan would be difficult, for he is old, yet not made fool by the passing years. He is a cunning man and he has had a long time to build his reputation. But we may lure him out of Rohan to the doom he has in his foolishness courted." He needed to be careful now, so very careful. What he proposed wasn't rational in the least, but this would only become obvious should Bilbo observe his words too closely. Yet, he wouldn't, Gwaedhglae was certain of this. Like a ring of gold in a wolf's uncaring muzzle was Bilbo's faith in him.

"There is a stain upon him, the stain of Mordor. He has sought wisdom from that barren land and his eyes wander towards it. Let us go there; the hope of the wicked can only end in wrath so take me there and put me in your finger and I will draw his eyes and attention. Then he may search for us throughout the barren land and find only ashes and molten rock. If he is lucky, he will find nothing more. If he is unlucky, maybe his experience will teach him some real wisdom." No lungs had he to breath and no breath had he to hold, yet Gwaedhglae held his breath in hope, in suspense, in anticipation.

"Let me take you through the Gates of Mordor," he said.

***

Mordor was a name that brought fear to all hearts even hundreds of years after the shadows had fled it. When Bilbo thought of Mordor, he imagined a barren, dry rocky view as far as the eye could see, never under the sun or even the stars, but a kind of permanent gloom lit by the red of distant fires. It brought orcs to his mind, and he didn't have to use his imagination with them. The imagined other slithering, crawling, skittering things, darkness as wet as ink in underground caves and slime enough for a hobbit to drown. To fool a man into walking to Mordor didn't seem very kind to him, yet Bilbo was aware that there probably wasn't a kind way of dealing with Saruman. He could hardly to invite the wizard for a spot of tea and scold him like a naughty faunt until he saw the error of his ways, now could he?

"Are you quite certain," he hesitated. "What if he finds what he is searching for there?" This too was a matter of importance to consider. Whatever might be found in Mordor could hardly be good news in his opinion.

That can never be, Gwaedhglae answered and for the space of a heartbeat sadness washed over Bilbo like the fine veil of rain. The grass who awaits patiently, he mused and shivered; an apt name he had given twice over, hadn't he - though he didn't understand what it was Gwaedhglae so longed. He can comb the sands and search the mines, dig out the old bones and climb the highest peak and yet it will do him no good. What the wizards wants is not for him to have, or anyone. There can be no second master. Bilbo desperately wished he had an answer to give or at least solace and he was spared from making a fool of himself trying when he hear vigorous knocking from the door.

This heralded the beginning of a very busy morning. Bilbo quickly pulled on his breeches and besought the knocker to enter. She turned out to be a young maiden with golden hair, bright blue eyes and a friendly bust. Bilbo was very much embarrassed that she saw him in such state of undress, though he couldn't have told what he had expected. She didn't look the same at all, for for a reason he was hard pressed to understand, she reminded him of Ficilia quite a bit for all that her laughter was much more carefree and innocent and she appeared more unaware of the impropriety of the situation than uncaring. He spared a well-wish for Ficilia and Felicia in his mind and then he was already taken by a whirlwind.

First he was given a breakfast of white bread, cold lamb cuts and ale. Drinking ale so early in the morning certainly seemed improper, but to refuse would have been impolite and Bilbo had barely drank a drop the evening so he swallowed the pangs of his conscience along with the heady drink. While he was eating a huge wooden bath tub was brought to his room and filled with hot water two buckets at a time. Bilbo had gotten used to taken tepid baths whenever he didn't have to wash himself in a river and sinking into a tub so big he could almost swim in it felt so good it was almost decadent. He couldn't even bother to pay too much attention to the servant girl, Elvina, when she brought him clean clothes. They probably belonged to a Rohan child, might even have belonged to Deorlaf, but at least they fit better than what the Laketowners had given Bilbo and he was glad to wear them while his own clothes were taken to be washed. Aware that he would probably meet the king soon, Bilbo wore his mithril shirt above his clothes and put Sting on his waist since kings in his experience preferred it when warriors - and those they considered warriors, though Bilbo would have begged to disagree on count of himself - presented themselves accordingly.

The hall Bilbo was very respectfully led was the same he had been taken the last evening, but the tables had now been cleared away. There were tall men in Rohan's green all around him, somber-faced, but neither toe nor hair of Saruman, much to Bilbo's relief. Sitting upon this throne, flanked by a full guard, was Fengel, King of Rohan. He was a broad-shouldered man, proud and straight despite his age, and lovely Argantlowen had a smaller throne next to his. Fengel held before him a great, bejeweled sword point-down upon the floor; when he was sitting, the pommel reached his chin. Before meeting Thorin and his companions Bilbo would have guessed that pommel maybe had something to do with the exotic southern fruits, pomegranates or whatnot they were called.

"Welcome, my friend!" the king called out regally. "The King of the Golden Hall welcomes the saviour of his kinsman, Bilbo the Dragon-Riddler. Westu Bilbo hál!" he called and the whole hall echoed westu Bilbo hál!

"Westu Fengel hál!" Bilbo replied, hoping he had gotten it right. Judging by the smile on Argantlowen's face he must have.

The Dragon-Riddler? He was now called the Dragon-Riddler in Rohan? Rather soon there would nary be a place where he could travel and not be called by a name far grander than himself if he kept telling the story.

It was for your own best, O Bilbo the great Dragon-Riddler, Gwaedhgle jested with him and Bilbo had to bite his tongue to not call his ring a cruel tease right there in front of everyone. Saruman was nowhere to be seen, yet he felt uneasy. Maybe it was because there were no windows and shadows brooded and lurked in corners and doorways despite the many candles and torches.

"A great service have you done to my house, Bilbo Dragon-Riddler. Just as a king's justice and retribution must be unfailing, his reward must be great as well. You shall have a horse from my stables to carry you on your journey, a helmet from my armoury to protect your clever mind from clouding strikes and a purse of gold so that your journey might be comfortable, the weregild of a young boy's life, for that life you saved, and my coat-of-arms shall be sewed on your cloak so that all may know you walk under my protection," the king said. Maybe it was utterly inappropriate, but while Bilbo struggled to find the words to thank the king for his generosity, the most pressing thought in his mind was that he was going to be given a fiery, spirited steed that would run wherever it wished and probably kill him in the process.

"A queen's gratitude you have as well, Bilbo Baggins," Queen Argantlowen said and rose from her seat in a cascade of the many plaids in her skirts, rustling like leaves in the wind as he walked to the hobbit with a horn in her hands. It looked very old to Bilbo, small, but skillfully wrought of silver with a baldric of green and a horseman carved upon it. "This heirloom was made by the dwarves of old and it was once part of the hoard of Scatha the Worm, the dragon which killed Dain I and his son Frór and was slain in turn by the Éothéod leader Fram, son of Frumgar; I thought it only fitting that you should receive it now."

"The men of my people can be quite silly, and they rarely think that what they might consider a great reward would only be burden to others. Fear not, I shall choose you a gentle steed," the queen whispered to Bilbo's ear as she bent to give Bilbo the horn. She smelled of dried lavender and rosemary and horses and her hair was a cascade of gold and braids as it curtained Bilbo for a short while. She reminded him a little of Lady Arwen, Lord Elrond's daughter, and he felt the same almost brotherly affection towards the queen, for all they were both graceful like two swans and above the small people who tilled the earth and fought, sweated and got blood under their fingernails.

"Do you wield a sword, my queen?" he asked, recalling suddenly that Lady Arwen was reputed to be quite the swordswoman.

"But of course," the queen said and laughed merrily. She looked as though she would be full of charm and grace even in the face of an orc attack; maybe it was some vital part of being one of the strange creatures called women, that they could do that. Bilbo wasn't quite certain; he had never understood women very well.

After these proceedings the queen returned to her seat and a small dish was offered to Bilbo on a silver platter. Unless he was very much mistaken, it was horse meat, and considering how important horses seemed to be the the people of Rohan it didn't take much deliberation to guess that this was a Very Important Symbolic Gesture. The warning this gave Bilbo and Ashiwyfar's words in Maosoeberg allowed him to not openly grimace when a goblet full of blood was brought to him.

It was disgusting without doubt, but the spirit of gratitude and offer of friendship were so heartfelt that Bilbo couldn't bring himself to throw them to the king's face, and so he first tasted the meat, then took a large gulp of the blood and managed to force it down. The taste of it on his tongue reminded him or running before wargs in the wilds and fear, reminded him of the stench of the fields after the battle of Five Armies, but he forced the still-hot blood down and took another piece of the meat after. He had riddled a dragon for friendship and hope for a home for those who had none; was it really such a trouble to drink one goblet? The footmen and the more heavily armoured men - the knights? - clattered their swords against their shields; the ring of it filled Bilbo's ears so that he was near deafened.

And after there was yet more feasting, though this time in smaller company in a smaller hall that "only" held fifty people, Bilbo and his companions from Maosoeberg included. Even Fastred was hale enough to sit at the table, white-faced though he still appeared, and Bilbo thought that for this mercy he could be grateful even to Saruman. He handed Fastred a whole pork pie with fat mushrooms in gravy and felt that for a short while, one short fest, all was well in his life.

"You must allow me and my aunt offer you our hospitality too," Deorlaf demanded with a voice that didn't for a short moment doubt it would have what it wanted. "Our lands are near the Forest of Fangorn and that is a great adventure. People say they are cursed you know."

***

A visit to Deorlaf's aunt; Gwaedhglae felt the impulse to grit his teeth in impatience, for all he didn't have any and he was again distracted from his frustrations by the eerie sense of a ghostly body settling around him like ill-fitting clothes, making its own demands. He was the will within the gold, the one who spoke without a voice and grabbed without hands, yet now there was the distorted perception of his shape, the perception of parts of his body.

Was this the body of Sauron that had arrived to haunt him, that was taking him as its own? Within Gwaedhglae there was confusion and without there was jarring merrymaking, drinking and laughing, songs and stories.

"In the days of old, when the plains of Rohan were still a wild land..." said Ashiwyfar and

More wild than today? Is that truly possible? Bilbo thought with something akin to amusement and something akin to discomfort, and

"...there lived a noble horseman. Everyday he would go out to work in the field, bring them fresh water and groom them, searching for poisonous plants in your pasture weekly, and each evening after finishing work, he would go straight home without dilly-dallying," Ashiwyfar continued her story.

"One morning in winter as he was making his way to his horses he saw a wolf cub on the ground, left behind by its back because of a wound on its leg and all coiled up due to the cold. With compassion, the horseman picked up the wolf and took it back home and placed it by the fire where it was nice and warm and covered it up with a blanket." Gwaedhglae recognized the shape of this story, knew how it would end; the wild things in this world were not to be trusted, this was its moral. That any civilized man - and quite possibly a good portion of the "wildmen" of Dunland - would have called the Rohans wild was irony that appeared to wholly escape Ashiwyfar.

"The teeth of the wolf grown up were so quick and deadly that the farmer was killed immediately, and his horses after. He died alone in his own home, without being helped or consoled by a sole."

"Well, that was depressing," Bilbo said. "Surely even a wolf could learn manners if taken in young; the elves have a saying that all hounds were wolves once."

"Strange must be the Kindly West that would breed a great hero such as you, yet breed you so gentle," Ashiwyfar answered, and when Gwaedhglae saw her through Bilbo's eyes, he saw a woman who had once been a ruffian accosting travellers with her once-golden hair in a crown braid around her head and dressed in embroidered green gown, remembered as Bilbo remembered the woman whose sword had been wetted with blood and who had offered him food after long journey.

She is like a gentle wolf herself, wild and strong, but friendly and trustworthy, Bilbo told Gwaedhglae with his thought alone; he had fast become much more apt at communicating without the use of his voice. The whole idea of riding below the crupper still bothers me, but I like these people as a whole.

"Sooner will the Forest of Fangorn march across Rohan than wolves gentle," said someone whose name neither Bilbo nor Gwaedhglae knew.

All hounds were wolves once, the elves claimed, and they were truthful. How these ominous words might be used in regards to Gwaedhglae was cruel irony that didn't, couldn't escape him, but he could choose to ignore them. The hounds had been wolves once, gentled by the hands of the Valar and given to elves as pets, once the forests had stretched on from the mountains that were now the bottom of the sea to the sea that had risen as land and the Onodrim had wandered the forests, but those days of First-Born miracles and nights of Morgoth's war were past now. The Valar had abandoned the Middle-Earth to its own fickle fates and no mortal hands could tame wolves, no mortal voice might call the Onodrim to march once more.

The days of elves and nights of Morgoth were gone and good riddance to them both. Let Bilbo befriend the beasts of the dark places of this world after the forest marched across Rohan, for that would never happen again!

***

And there was a bet, a cruel bet hanging over them like shadow over the East, like the ague of the bones.

If you can make me love you, I will allow you to take me to the Land of the Shire. If you cannot, I will take you through the Gates of Mordor.

Compassion was not the same as love yet, Gwaedhglae told himself. It wasn't the same same yet.

Chapter Text

There was blood in Bilbo's dreams. There was a blood-stained blade and a man who dropped like a ragdoll, his ashen face now even paler. There was no Ashiwyfar to take him away and no voice in his ear, only the man and blood and Bilbo's trembling hands and the grass that took even Bilbo's sight of the sky.

But who hath seen her weave her sails, Bilbo thought as he was suddenly staring at the ceiling of his room, awakened by the frantic beat of his own heart. The poem that had gently weaved itself in his mind as though under its own power was lovely beyond compare, but Bilbo very much feared that it would forever be tainted in his mind by that terrible day. When he had learned that he had been cursed to feel delight he had thought that the end of his pain, but, it was not so... and in hindsight it made all the sense in the world.

Delight or no delight, he had killed a man. He had killed a human being who might have been a terrible human being, but all the same he hadn't been an orc. He would have been terrible if he hadn't felt something, he knew that, but right now it didn't help him much.

"But why are the orcs so terrible? A whole race of them?" he asked. Though he had only known Gwaedhglae for a short while, not he could hardly imagine not confiding in the ring. Great must have been the smiths who had created such a soul, he thought between sleep and regret.

And great he was, the greatest of all, Gwaedhglae answered with longing. The pure orcs know doom even before their birth for their ancestors whose will was ground to dust and whose hearts were burned to ashes. They took a blood oath under a terrible master and their blood pays the price. And suddenly Bilbo didn't feel sleepy at all. Even his own guilt seemed to drift away in the face of the solemn and terrible history Gwaedhglae's words exuded.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

***

Bilbo Baggings was a tiny mortal with tiny mortal's considerations. He was no Morgoth, no Lúthien and no Celebrimbor. He had proved a worthy adversary regardless in his own way, though Gwaedhglae would have preferred a less worthy one at this point, and he hesitated to answer the question honestly. But what harm could the truth do in this? Sauron held no regard for Morgoth's secrets even discounting the fact it was in truth no secret, but simply something known exclusively by the elves.

"Morgoth knew how to wield despair as a weapon like no-one before or after," he told though he couldn't truly recall. While he held many of Lord Sauron's memories, he didn't hold them all and in this he had a reason to be grateful. He could remember before, though he had no reference to judge how complete, and he could well remember the results, but what Morgoth had done to him precisely - no, what he had done unto Sauron! - remained a mystery. There was only a sense of dread that incited gratefulness in this imperfection.

He remembered Angband and Utumno before it and there was truly little difference between the two that he could tell. At the very bottom of the mines there was fire that wasn't from the forges, but from the heart of Arda, flowing up to the surface, and the Valarukar popping out like soap bubbles, freed from their bindings when Morgoth had a use for them. There were the forges and the Drums of Utumno, the sound of a thousand hammers making swords at once, that could crawl its way inside a skull and never let go in the dancing red glare and shadows. There were the areas the underfed werewolves, kept hungry so that they would fight with more ferocity, would hunt down the slaves and the soldiers and the soldiers that were slaves and feed to their children, singing songs of blood and the Great Conquest that would once come. There had been the dungeons.

Of course neither Utumno nor Angband had been only one bad place after the other. There had been the upper levels of the Maiar servants and later the high peaks of the dragons, there had been the smaller strongholds that smaller warlords reigned over in their own right, and it had been understood that if one didn't displease Morgoth, they wouldn't need to pay an extended visit to one of the bad places.

It had also been understood that no-one could never displease Morgoth. Gwaedhglae simply didn't know what had been the cause of Sauron's disgrace.

"He destroyed the Moriquendi he captured before they even learned that the Valar existed, he took their word and wrote it down on their very blood; that they shall serve him and his will forever and always. It it passed down in the blood, but even a single drop of other blood, no matter how far up in the family line, shall free the orc, unloving though those unions are. They are simply savage because their ways are thus." Gwaedhglae shook himself from his reminiscence and looked at the room through Bilbo's eyes and for the first time he thought that maybe this wasn't such a bad life, not by comparison. The furs on the bed were soft and the food was abundant, his bearer and Gwaedhglae by extension had so far been treated with respect with very few exception - he hadn't yet forgiven Thorin Oakenshield, for all he hadn't carried grudge in the first place, what - and if Bilbo only would use him, there would be no reason to be afraid of anyone...

No! It was the flowers that made him think so! Once he had returned to Sauron, then there would be no reason to be afraid of anyone or anything.

There would be no reason to be afraid of anyone or anything because he would be subsumed by Sauron, return to be a part of his mind and might without his own. There would be no fear anymore because he would be dead...

Gwaedhglae, Bilbo thought with a rather much force and Gwaedhglae realized that he had been so lost in his own musing he had completely lost the thread of the conversation.

"I am sorry, I was lost in dark thoughts," he said with complete honesty and resolved yet again to be aware of the effects of these new emotions at all times and refuse to allow them to dictate his thoughts and actions. How hard could it possibly be to lose his compassion? It was like temper; something that Ilúvatar's Children lost all the time and once lost very difficult to catch.

"I said that now I feel sorry for orcs and I never thought that would be. But that the only way that any of them can ever be free is a rape? Morgoth was, I don't know, I don't even have words at this point." The hobbit radiated stubbornness and frustration and Gwaedhglae had to think that of course he he would. Hadn't their journey so far been a long story of Bilbo fixing everything and everyone he happened upon, whether his help was asked or not? He would feel sorry even for the orcs.

"The one who was his brother in Ilúvatar's thought has no words anymore, I believe. Don't take it personally." Why was he so free with his words? There was the matter of winning the hobbit's trust and then there was a point where his actions became unnecessarily involved and pointless. He might know anger, but he wasn't angry at Thorin Oakenshield for something the dwarf had done to Bilbo and he most certainly didn't care if the hobbit's bleeding heart was bleeding. "Try to think of lighter matters and not one that can't be helped. Maybe the poem you have have crafted? It is magnificent," he said.

Maybe that you killed a man, he didn't say. And I will not feel compassion for you this time, he didn't say, I will delight in your despair if I have to sow the seed myself.

So of course that couldn't be the route that Bilbo Baggins' thoughts took.

***

So crowned with light that lightning pales, Bilbo thought. Had Gwaedhglae only not been a ring, but a man of flesh and bone and blood, he might have loved him. Maybe it was the hobbit nature and the nature of their love, innocent in its carnality and trusting in its patience and gentleness that didn't vaunt itself and didn't deal perversely, that he would so soon feel so at ease with a mind and a soul that had in effect invaded his.

Carnal the hobbits were no doubt, as evidenced by their big families, but when there is love, there can be great innocence in sex. The elves and wrote the most beautiful songs of everlasting love that could only find its completion in the West, for in a world that was cursed with mortality even an immortal life must sooner or later come to a bitter separation. The humans knew the greatest tragedies where the lust and unrequited love for one who loves another could bring misunderstandings and suicide pacts, rape and the end of great kingdoms and the dwarves knew the bittersweet longing of a race with few women and many men who were so devoted to their craft there was no room in their hearts for anything else, yet maybe it was the hobbits who knew the most and best of love.

Hobbits didn't seek the catharsis in tragedy, they preferred their sweet without lingering bitterness. Love is not a checklist with boxes to be ticked off, it isn't something quantifiable, but if one wishes to make a metaphor, maybe the hobbits could be called the race who most often wind up with the greatest sum above the line. So crowned with light that lightning pales, Bilbo thought and wondered why he imagined a dark-haired man with face so fair the lightning paled and eyes rich with small lights like stars seen through a white tree. He was simply happy that Gwaedhglae couldn't hear his thoughts unless he directed them to the ring because that would have been quite awkward at this point.

***

Sexual attraction and romantic love are not the same thing, but they are bedmates, pun very much intended. Different people have different standards of beauty. Tiny feet and pale skin or tall and curvy, facial tattoos or broad shoulders and small hips, the trash of one is the treasure of another, the exception to which are the elves who everyone thinks are beautiful - think, yet not agree, for the dwarves will never agree with this.

They think a big nose and a fetching, thick beard, preferably long, and a solid, stocky frame are beautiful, but they love symmetry as well. The truth is that in the imperfect creatures of flesh symmetry is approximate. The bodies of the Children of Ilúvatar are divided into the left and right side, roughly mirror images of each other, and the dwarven eye, very keen for even the smallest imperfection, finds every crooked little finger and unmatched dimple, uneven count of eyelashes and hairline drooping a little lower. This is true except for the elves, those insufferable, cheating creatures whose left and right are the perfect mirrors of each other.

(They are stretched and flat and dull, but that symmetry is enough to make a dwarf weep. Not that anyone would ever admit to it out loud and certainly not if there are elves within hearing distance!)

Among the hobbits a plump body is enticing among both the men and the women. Not morbidly obese, no, but round, soft arms and dimples at the elbows, hips curving like a bowl and hair as curly as sheep's wool and some belly. No-one wants to be a stick, a fence pole, a scarecrow; those poor crows, they thought they would starve to death on the fields that offered such meager living and stayed away. Bilbo used to be considered quite good-looking in his youth, but the sad truth was that much of his attractiveness had gone the way with his respectability. He was lean now and muscled in a way tilling the earth didn't account for. Not quite in the way dwarves were, but his shoulders looked so hard a lass might bruise herself against them. If he was asked for a type that wouldn't be typical either, for he preferred tall and muscled, straight hair and strong lines of face.

And blue eyes, dark hair and fair skin of course, though that was neither anything odd nor a new development. It is merely a rare combination in the Shire where honey and sensible brown are found in abundance and the sun burns the skin healthy brown.

***

The horse Queen Argantlowen selected for Bilbo was a small, but fast-looking mare that was an almost even mix of chestnut and white. Her legs were white up to her knees like she had been dipped in paint, her head was white up to her ears and she had white underside, the colour climbing up her sides almost like a saddle that had fallen upside-down. She was the most droll-looking horse Bilbo had ever seen and when she bent her head to take a carrot from his hand he noticed that she even had blue eyes.

"This beauty's name is Faoiltiarna. She is a white-splashed march, it is one of the old breeds from the days before our people came to Rohan. The colour has become unpopular lately; people only want horses with solid coat." Argantlowen appeared mightily disapproving and Bilbo hastened to praise Faoiltiarna's wonderful, mischievous looks. It didn't hurt that while the horse looked mischievous indeed, her behaviour greatly resembled that of solid, stable Clover. The queen promised that Clover would be put to pasture and given a good, peaceful life for what years she had left and since Bilbo had felt rather sorry for dragging the poor old horse into all manners of perils that included orcs and now, apparently, rebellious human warriors as well, he felt relieved.

"The old ways appear very important to you, my queen," he said as they left the stables. There were straws sticking to the queen's hems, but she didn't appear to care a whit.

"Not all of them, brave holbytla; you have encountered one best forgotten to the mists of history already." She wrinkled the bridge of her nose and despite the straws and the smell of horses she was again the very picture of a mightily disapproving queen. "But if we don't respect our ways, what are we but killers on horseback and sheepherders? I wish my husband wasn't so eager to forgo Marhwini's Blessing before dinner. The looks Saruman gives us!"

"I must admit to my ignorance now, my queen; I don't know what the Marhwini's Blessing is," Bilbo confessed while his brow darkened. That Saruman might be mocking these people as well hardly came as a surprise, but Bilbo found the queen both dignified and lovely, a caring mother for her people and a very proud mother of one Prince Thengel, and he was even less pleased than he had been the day before, if that was indeed possible. If there were numbers below the zero, his regard for the wizard would have fallen there now.

"Marhwini was a lord of the Éothéod when our people still lived in Rhovanion. Our ancestors knew a great famine that lasted three years and his blessing is a rhapsody to Marchlāford - whom you would probably know by Oromë - and Hveitihlǣfdige - Yavanna - for the bounty and security they gift us." The strange names fell easily from Argantlowen's tongue; Bilbo feared he might need two tongues to pronounce this name of Lady Vána's sister.

The Wizard Saruman believed he was mocking the queen's discomfort with her lord husband's table manners, Gwaedhglae pointed out dryly and Bilbo had to swallow a burst of merriment the queen would have surely taken the wrong way.

"The Wizard Saruman believed he was mocking you because you don't much like your lord husband's table manners," he managed to say and then it was safe to laugh because the queen was laughing as well, in loud guffaws rather unladylike. And a mighty wizard though Saruman might still be, it was heartening to learn that he could indeed make mistakes just like any and all others.

A horse he was given and a green coat with a galloping horse embroidered upon it, a helmet fit for a young human boy that Bilbo wasn't quite sure what to do with and much more gold than he needed. He still had the gold he had sewed into his clothes and the silver pennies in his purse and he was worried he was clinking when he walked to bid goodbye to his friends from Maosoeberg. Ashiwyfar stood there by Meduseld's gates, her back as straight as a sword, and Fastred who was leaning on Faldor, both of the smiling like the sun. There were Hardwin and Rauf, Eadwine and Hereweard who still looked eerily similar, but whom he could actually tell apart from one another at this point.

"Ye must visit us on yer way back from Gondor," Eadwine insisted, grabbing his forearms in a warrior's handshake. His fingertips met his thumb with ease as his great palms wrapped around Bilbo's arms. "I'm sure one bard or another 'as made a song o' yous by then and ye can tinnie beak which one is the best if there's more than one."

"I will," Bilbo promised, still wincing on the inside, but while the names he had been given were rather unwelcome - Dragon-Riddler was among the worse, but he couldn't confess to being fond of Barrel-Rider either, not after how that ended for the Laketown - the thought of a song actually made him feel guiltily flattered. He loved songs and poems and that there would be one made of him wasn't an entirely unpleasant thought. Granted that the song treated with the actual history with respect and didn't take any ridiculous freedoms with his deeds.

Fine, so he was tickled, but who could blame him? Un-hobbitish though toting his own horn might be, there would be a real song!

"Take care of yourself, little hero, the White Mountains are dangerous to cross during the winter," Ashiwyfar chided him gently and ruffled his hair as though he was a child.

"There probably wont be a battle of giants, though," Faldor hastened to put in his own two pennies and all laughed. Bilbo thought of returning to these people on his journey to Erebor and going back to Mallowdell and Bree to see that his friends were fine and hale there. Of course Kester and Ayla would be in Lórien so he would have to travel there, though surely not this year, and he also wanted to see how the new Dunlending settlement would fare at one point or another. The rangers keeping an eye on that effort could surely take him to Angle so he might meet Háldir, if the man wasn't among their number. And he had also promised Lord Elrond that he would visit him in Rivendell at one point, and asking this of him had in hindsight probably been yet another tell of those elven tendencies and he might wound up persuaded to remain for a good long while when he finally got around to making that journey...

Bilbo had a feeling he might spend the rest of his life travelling from one friend to another over the vast reaches of the Middle-Earth and it wasn't an unpleasant thought. It was very nice in truth, the knowledge that no goodbye had to be forever. Life was long and world was wide and the road would go on and on.

It was with lighter heart that Bilbo rode to Deorlaf's aunt's property with him - and twenty horsemen, for the king wasn't taking any chances at this point. The men had all been in the hall when Bilbo had told his tale and much to his surprise Bilbo found he didn't mind this at all; they simply treated him with the same respect they would have afforded any of their comrades, a warrior who had proved himself, and while Bilbo still didn't see himself as a warrior he was glad. Saruman continued to be gracefully absent and while the wind had turned and brought chill from the north, from the second day on the weather remained fair as well. It was a four day's ride because they crossed the River Entwash at Entwade instead of riding straight across the West Emmet.

"It would be a day shorter journey, but also a more dangerous pass for the horses," Deorlaf informed Bilbo with all the dignity and pride of a teenaged hobbit; a right hobbadehoy he was, one insisting he wasn't a child anymore, yet one not a man. Bilbo was ambushed by an almost irresistible impulse to hug the boy whose childhood had been so cruelly cut short.

"I believe I've had all the dangerous river crossings I can bear this year," he said and again another river and a young human man, so pale with death, crossed his mind, but it was easier to push away now.

As it should be, Gwaedhglae said when Bilbo confided his feeling hesitantly. Life goes on and he was hardly the kind of man who left a fine legacy behind. Don't waste your feelings on him. And maybe it was so, but Bilbo felt guilty that he wasn't wrecked with guilt, as little sense as he could tell it made. Their horses galloped across the plains slowly ripening golden rather than green, the cresting hills and the shallow vales where the mist lingered before the sun rose, and Bilbo wondered how curiously empty the land seemed as they followed the river's gleaming curve. During the first day they passed a few villages, but then it was as though the land had never been settled at all. Sometimes they saw a herd of horses from a distance, a couple of riders watching over the beasts, but there seemed to be curiously few people.

"These are the king's lands," Deorlaf explained it to him. "Any man can take his horses to graze, but none can live here without paying him either coin or tax work."

The house waiting them at the end of their ride, Holtwudu, was modest in comparison to Medulseld the same way the Bag End was modest when compared to the Great Smials; smaller and less grand, but yet comfortable and certainly more peaceful. Mistress Eoforhild, a tall woman with some stripes of gray in her hair and so pale gray eyes that meeting their gaze was eerily akin to meeting the whitened eyes of the blind, ran over the yard to meet them and gathered her nephew into her arms, sobbing tear-slurred words in the tongue of her birth.

"You shall always be welcome in my house," she told Bilbo with bright, brimming eyes. "Your friend shall be my friend and your enemy shall be my enemy and this will be a home to you henceforth." There was a solemn weight of tradition to her words, the heavy load of an oath that could either make or break a man - or a woman - and Bilbo sought for the right words again, silently hoping that this would be the last time he would need to do so. The gratitude given was earnest and precious, but he couldn't help feeling it was a responsibility upon him as well, something dangerous like a sword and that he would later be judged by how well or ill he used it.

And there was a feast. There was always a feast with the Rohans, it seemed; it was clear that they had lived in the north and been friends of the dwarves, he thought and caressed the horn given to him. The treasure of Scatha... And now the last of Great Dragons was dead, as dead as Scatha was. Bilbo fell asleep that night, thinking of dragons and gratitude and a great fire flickering across his closed eyelids.

***

"Don't waste your feeling on him,"Gwaedhglae said and what he meant was that Bilbo should harden his heart. He wasted Bilbo to suffer, he wanted Bilbo to lose his conscience so maybe he might lose his as well; he didn't know what he wanted anymore. Was it truly any wonder that such inconsistent persuasion failed to yield results?

Bilbo dreamed of dwarves and horsemen riding on white-splashed horses, of a mountain that smoked under the cold silver of the moon and fire. Gwaedhglae only paid a cursory interest in these visions, his mind on yet another human who had insisted on making a spectacle of herself. What fools these mortals were that they gave their little oaths and took them so seriously, Gwaedhglae thought with contempt. Their little lives were so easily spent, so short even when they lived to be killed by death the loss hardly mattered.

"We are all precious to someone we know and in that sense we can never be replaced. Besides, doesn't giving from our lack mean more than giving from our plenty?" Bilbo Baggins asked, all of a sudden sitting by him in a garden without an invite. They had met in many places before, in the dreams, but it seemed that the gardens insisted in inviting themselves. "And do not forget that you gave an oath as well."

"Will you remember this time?" Gwaedhglae asked because there was no sense in acknowledging the obvious. He had given an oath, but he was also certain of his victory. The wolves would tame sooner, the forests of Arda would march sooner he learned love.

"Not yet, but soon, I think. It will be a few more months unless something changes again," the hobbit answered with the bewildering, self-harming honesty of his. Being aware that he had two or more months still gave Gwaedhglae much freedom to act.

"Why are you blaming an innocent man for what you did?" Bilbo asked, as though Gwaedhglae needed a reason. The ring laughed bitterly.

"While innocent to this particular deed, he is far from innocent in a more general sense. Take my word on this, little hobbit, it takes a like to recognize like." His words were like the harsh, grating noise of steel beneath a whetstone and Bilbo tilted his head to the side, watching Gwaedhglae with careful, measuring eyes. The apple trees stretched over them, now heavy of ripening red fruits.

"I believe you are a much nicer man than Saruman," was the hobbit's final judgement. Gwaedhglae found he could do nary more but stare at him in abject disbelief.

"Did your mother drop you on your head as a baby?"

"And I have begun to wonder if your maker didn't give you one blow too many with his hammer. This is no race, the winner gains no prize; why must you insist on being the worst you can be?"

Bilbo Baggins was a good man by any standards, generous and forgiving, brave and unselfish, but even the best of people have facets of their personality hidden under good upbringing and good manners and what-would-people-think. Bilbo Baggins knew pity and he knew that pity was no weakness and no shame, that it was a sign of a decent nature and a sign that there was something wrong in the world that didn't in any way, shape or form reflect badly upon the receiver.

Bilbo Baggins knew pity and he was gentle, but not every facet of his was afraid of not pulling his punches. People do change.

***

Bilbo woke early the morning after his arrival, in a brightly-lit, tapestry-adorned room with a window that let through the first rays of the sun. He could see a foxglove sky filled with apple-coloured clouds and the housecarls of the Holtwudu riding out. A mood struck to him to do the same as he stood by the window, to saddle his horse and ride out alone for once. He wasn't a loner by nature, but this was a part of his original journey with the dwarves he had rather forgotten, the inability to have a moment's privacy on the road. And he had a reason, he had a new horse who, while as sweet as honey and jam, was a young beast and needed rather more exercise than Clover had asked.

"I think Faoiltiarna's getting restless without a rider," he said as they were eating breakfast and as he had expected, this logic was met with approval. In the Shire a hobbit might justify almost any action if they were doing it for the faunts' sake and in Rohan, it seemed, escaping from your host's halls was acceptable as long as one did it to care for one's horse.

"You may ride west or east or south, but I would advice against the north," Eoforhild told him. "The forest is a queer place and not all who ride in ever ride back out again, or ride out the same people they were when they rode in." So of course north was the course Bilbo took, after riding to the east to put Eoforhild's mind at ease. He had no intention of entering the forest itself, but if it was thought cursed, he would find the most peace along its edges.

And soon he saw why this was so. The Fangorn Forest reminded Bilbo uncomfortable of the Necromancer-darkened Mirkwood. The shadows weren't as deep, at least as far as he could see without actually walking into the forest, and none of the suffocating, desolate silence that couldn't even tolerate birdsong or the whistle of the wind rested among the trees - as far as Bilbo could tell, standing by the forest's edge. Even then it left him rather nervous as he watched the old gnarled trees, now slowly turning brilliant red and yellow, as he watched the trees swaying in the breeze from a safe distance.

It was as though there was an invisible line drawn to the ground and on one side it was the forest and on the other the plains. The line wasn't straight of course, but on one side of it there were tall trees and on the on the other tall grass and nary a bramble bush in between, nary a willow sapling here or there. The Fangorn's edge was a living wall of green and brown as though some strange kind of magic measured the borders of the forest.

Maybe it was that the forest reminded him more of the Old Forest than Mirkwood. The trees in the Old Forest were very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things were in the Shire or so it was said. And the trees didn't not like strangers; they watched people. The Bucklanders spoke of the trees whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language, and the branches groping without any wind to move them. These could have simply been tall stories of course, a sign of the famous Brandybuck sense of humour that could be rather skewed at times, but old, respectable hobbits Bilbo could swear never spoke a word that wasn't the honest truth had spoken of this as well.

It was told that the year Gormadock Brandybuck married Malva Headstrong - all before even Bilbo's grandparents had been born and thus unverifiable - the forest had attacked the Hedge; the trees had come and planted themselves right by it, leaned over it and marched over it. The hobbits had answered with axe and fire and the forest had ceased it's invasion, but the shadows of that time still lingered.

"What do you think, Faoiltiarna, is it so frightful as people speak?" he asked his horse, who merely flicked her ears towards Bilbo dismissively and bent down her head to graze in the long grass. "You don't seem very impressed," Bilbo concluded and closed his eyes, enjoying the sun and the silence. Finally, finally enough space of his own to breathe with ease and hear his own thoughts!

"Gwaedhglae?" he called his ring, lifting his hand to take it in hand. It was smooth and lovely and he wondered what it would feel like to slip it on his finger when there was no immediate danger to his life and limb - what it might feel to wear him. And now the thought felt vaguely obscene, though Bilbo wasn't certain why this was so.

I thought you wished to be alone with your own thoughts, Gwaedhglae teased him, fluttering like moth wings and silk around the edges of Bilbo's thoughts. It was an unexpectedly sensual experience and Bilbo tried really, really hard to think of something else, anything else.

"It's not like you count, you are in my thoughts," he protested and opened his eyes to the sun.

This was why he saw the flash of something so white it appeared to shine with its own luminescence disappear into the twilight shadows of the forest. There was a flutter of hem between two tall, straight trees and then no more, but Bilbo had seen enough. Of course it had been too much to expect that he might have seen the last of Saruman when the wizard hadn't been at the king's table the day after the banquet. Of course it merely meant that wizard was free to be up to no good somewhere else.

"Oh no, you won't," he whispered and without any hesitation, any plan, without anything more than the same madcap abandon that had driven him out of his cozy hobbit hole without even his pocket handkerchief. He had a fleeting thought that he might regret this as much as he had regretted leaving the Shire the first time around, but that regret had passed with time, memories gilded with lessons well-learned and some measure of wisdom hard-earned.

You endanger yourself unnecessarily, Gwaedhglae chided him with fire-hot and ice-cold edge to his words, like the embers and water of tempering. We already have a plan to end his wickedness for good. And it was a good plan, but it might not help whoever might be in trouble right now. Already Bilbo was a very different hobbit from the one he had been less than two years ago. He had not had a pocket handkerchief for ages and he loosened Sting in its sheath as he steered suddenly eager Faoiltiarna into the forest, though he couldn't have told what he intended to do with it. There is nothing like looking, if one wanted to find something. He was certain to find something, if he only looked, even if it wasn't always quite the something he was after.

He might find the wizard or he might find some answers, but he remembered the blood and the horror and he was dead set on finding something.

***

Sauron couldn't be said to have a type per say. He had only ever been even vaguely attracted to three and each of them were as different from one another as they could. It could be said there was only one thing Morgoth, Lúthien and Celebrimbor had in common. If the least common denominator of one-third and three-fourth is twelve, it could be said that their number twelve was immortality.

Bilbo Baggins was an aspiring writer, not a mathematician. Had someone explained him what vulgar fraction, integer numerator and non-zero integer denominator meant, he would have pointed out that this didn't work out well as far as metaphors went. The three-fourth alone might have been representational, but then there wouldn't have been a common denominator. The number twelve didn't make any sense.

Hobbits have a way of walking over other people's preconceptions like that. It could also be said that the other one thing Morgoth, Lúthien and Celebrimbor had in common was power. Lúthien had been the eldest child of a High Elven King and a Maia and her own inborn power had been great, Celebrimbor had been the Lord of Eregion and Head of Gwaith-i-Mírdain and his own inborn power had been considerable; a case could be made that they had resembled Morgoth just that little bit in Sauron's eyes and this was why there was never even hope that choosing to pick those paths at the fork of the road could end well. And if so, was this truly a type or merely a very unlucky coincidence?

Mairon had once chased after Melkor, had dared to dream in secret of the Vala choosing to wed him despite the great difference between their power and stations. After the making of Angband, after the Siege of Utumno, simply after, he had come to wish anything but so of course this was when Morgoth chose to play at interest in him. Among their kind there might be ceremonies, but it is the act of bodily union that achieved marriage, and after which the indissoluble bond of fëa is complete. Morgoth hadn't intended to tie himself to any another so tightly that only the separation by permanent death or the Void might break it and Sauron had known this, but Morgoth had always had the propensity for tormenting the minds of others.

He had been very apt at convincing Sauron just enough that he had lost his peace of mind for years on end.

***

The Fangorn Forest was old, old beyond guessing and very gray. The trees were whispering and in the cold woodland hall, below a heavy canopy with beards of lichen hung from the branches, it was hard to say if it was because of the blowing and swaying of the breeze or not. Bilbo rode after the white wight that had disappeared from his eyes, slowly and mindful of the rough terrain and Faoiltiarna's slender legs.

Bilbo rode on and on until a root twisted before him and eyes, brown with brimming green and sparkling of sunlight, were looking upon him. He was unmoving like a blade of grass frozen by the cool, heavy moonlight. His head and whole body was filled with low, reverberating humming that resonated within him, right down to his bones and the breath in his lungs, and it filled his head until there was room for little else but the song of the forest.

"Vána be praised," he whispered and didn't die.

***

"The Onodrim," Gwaedhglae whispered, beyond even horror, beyond everything and all except for numb disbelief.

Chapter Text

Sauron first chose to follow Melkor because he yearned for order. In the Song there had been perfection, but he soon learned that life and creation of life was a messy thing that rarely followed rules for long without changing them on him. He had thought that he could translate the world and life and everything into shapes and numbers and patterns, only to learn the futility of this effort the hard way.

Life will always find a way; it is absurd to think that rigid structures can be forced upon the forever-changing. In the end all one can hope is to put themselves in order and this too is in truth an exercise in futility.

***

It was only there, meeting the queer, deep, golden-flecked eyes of a tree that had suddenly turned towards him, that Bilbo first begun to truly appreciate his war-trained horse. Where old Clover would no doubt have bolted through the smaller willows and most likely thrown Bilbo from his saddle, Faoiltiarna only took two dancing steps to the side, quivering with anxiousness, but not running.

"Good girl, brave girl," Bilbo whispered, running his hand down the horse's neck comfortingly. "I am Bilbo Baggins, in your service," he then spoke to the tree and bowed from the saddle. He had never even heard of such a creature before, but the way he figured it, good manners could never hurt.

"Hoom, hum, you are uncommonly polite, little one," the tree answered and bent down slowly like a great wind had whistled through the forest, making even the old oaks bow. "You don't look much like an orc, you don't."

"Well, I should hope not! I am a hobbit of the Shire, thank you very much, and if you could please stop scaring my horse, I would be grateful," Bilbo bit out, momentarily so annoyed at being compared to an orc that he forgot to watch his tone. Faoiltiarna appeared to be only one wrong crack of a dry twig from finally bolting when the tree turned its huge eyes to it and begun to hum again, deep in his rumbling throat. The sound made the air feel either too thin or too scanty for breathing; Bilbo couldn't say which. But somehow it calmed Faoiltiarna until the mare finally bent her head down and bite down of a small tush of fern, appearing to have decided that being scared of trees was a right silly thing to do and hoping Bilbo hadn't noticed.

"Wouldn't do to be hasty, hoom, hum. I thought you to be a small orc until you called Vána's name, hobbit of the Shire, though I have never seen an orc on horseback before. I don't know of your people." Not the tree gazed upon Bilbo, satisfied to do so in silence, but Bilbo begun to feel impatient; at first he had thought to wait until the tree spoke to him again, wary of annoying it - or rather him, for the tree clearly was a person and appeared quite masculine to Bilbo, though he would have been hard pressed to say what gave him such impression; he had never thought that trees could be men and women. Also, he still didn't know the trees' name, if it even had one.

Oh, Vána, let him have a name already, he silently implored the First Thaw Lady. He'd had quite enough of naming people already.

"Well, I have never heard of your kind either, Master Tree, and I rather think it would be polite if you answered to an introduction with your own." His words didn't come out nearly as cross as he had thought they might, though, and now that the first bite of being likened to an orc was beginning to pass, Bilbo could only feel great curiosity.

"An introduction, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire? I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate." A half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into the tree's eyes and his leaves rustled like a playful wind had danced through them, like the dry chuckle of the forest. "For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time. Real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it. We do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to. But you may call me Treebeard; Fangorn the elves named me in the old days, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learn their tree-talk. Such hasty folk, the elves."

Bilbo looked at Treebeard and then at the trees all around him and he was taken by a curious feeling. In part it was a sense of his own small size and short life; in the trees' highest boughs the wind rustled as did the world and their roots were burrowed in something that was fertile and forever. But while the trees were great, they didn't in any way diminish Bilbo or make him feel insignificant. They sought with all the strength that rose from their roots simply to fulfill themselves in peace, to live according to their own nature, they simply were there and now he was reminded that they were beautiful. How could he look at trees almost every day of his life and not see this? Nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree, the Old Took had once told Bilbo. Bilbo had been young when his grandfather had died and he didn't remember much of him, but he had remembered that comment, maybe because it had always seemed so strange. The Shire was very much a tamed land and the forest by their border was far from beautiful or safe.

Now Bilbo wondered what forests Grandpa Gerontius had seen in his youth. They must have been magnificent.

"You are very beautiful," he said and blushed as soon as the words had left his mouth - there were so many ways they could have been misunderstood! But maybe he shouldn't have worried, not when speaking to a tree person; Treebeard looked certainly pleased, but not like he was thinking of a way to let Bilbo down gently. Which was very good because while Bilbo thought that superficial differences shouldn't get in the way of love, really, and Treebeard appeared to be quite a respectable tree for one who spoke and walked... Maybe he should simply cease the whole train of thought while he was still ahead.

"So few people appreciate a good tree, these days. All people have time for are their wars and their axes. I don't much care for axes, Master Baggins, as I don't much care for fire, though I will admit that they have their place in the lives of the small people. But war is something else entirely and the omens have been ill recently." It really took the ent a long time to finish even one sentence, but Bilbo found that this gave him time to ponder what Treebeard truly meant before answering. Maybe there was something to be said for the ent's assertion that other people were hasty, though the thought of calling an elf such was downright amusing.

(Unless the elf in question was that Fëanor fellow, of course, no race was perfect after all...)

At first Bilbo had thought that Treebeard was referring to the rebellion in Rohan, but then he wasn't so sure after all. If the Rohans avoided the "cursed forest" so avidly, he didn't seem how the war could affect the life of the forest.

"What are these omens you speak of?" he asked, hoping he didn't come off as too nosy.

"There was a time when the days were dark and the night was without a moon. The shadows still linger in the deeps places of the forest where the trees have grown wild. Black are their thoughts and strong is their hate. They will harm you if they can; there are too few of us now, too few of us ents left to look after them. But lately the shadows have grown longer and the sunrises have grown redder, hoom, hum. A great evil is stirring in the East again."

Red sun in the morning, take a warning. But though the mere thought of facing yet more evil made Bilbo shiver, he had to go to the East for the sake of the whole Rohan... O', and there was yet the matter of the White Wizard who had disappeared somewhere into the shadows of the forest. He had no hope of finding the wizard now, though Bilbo had to wonder if he might not be commuting with those deep places where the trees had black hearts and the shadows lingered.

What do you think of this, Gwaedhlae, he asked silently, but the ring wouldn't answer him.

***

The Onodrim yet lived; Gwaedhglae could barely believe what he had seen! He had, his Master had always thought Yavanna foolish for begging such guardians for her creatures. But the kelvar can flee or defend themselves, she had pleaded, whereas the olvar that grow cannot. Long in growing, she had said, swift shall they be in the felling, and so had Sauron thought of the Onodrim as well. Though creatures who might live for several millennia, they were, at their hearts and roots, wood - and wood burned. Fire and iron were their enemies and the creations of Morgoth were all of fire and iron; surely the wars that had swept over the Arda so many times should have burned and cut these people to nothing but cinders and dust!

But now, for the first time, the ring saw the Onodrim, the ents, through the eyes of one of the Children of Ilúvatar and he realized with a start that they might not be quite so vulnerable as Sauron had thought. They were feeble compared to his Master, yes, but who wasn't feeble when compared to the might of a Maia? Yet the ents were tall and strong, and from the efforts of his bearer to set fire to newly fallen branches Gwaedhglae had learned that fresh wood wasn't as easy to set on fire as one might think. Unless the searing gaze of Arien had scorched them dry it might be a difficult task indeed to set a fire to a living tree - even more so if it was roused to fight back! And many a being might well feel daunted, taking iron to something so obviously stronger than any single of their number.

The thought that came to him now was even worse: if there was strength not obvious to the ents that he had only now discovered, might there be some subtle strength to the hobbits? They still existed after all, after all the wars and cataclysms that had scarred the Arda and felled great kingdoms, and surely this must be attributed to something more than simply good luck?

Or the propensity to multiplying like rabbits. Surely there was nothing in this world that would be intimidated by hobbits.

"There was a time when the Wizard Saruman was always walking about my woods," Treebeard said. "He was polite, always asking my leave, at least when he met me; and always eager to listen. I told him much that I doubt he ever would have found out alone; but he never repaid me in like kind."

"That is dreadfully impolite," Bilbo said, feeling profound relief as Treebeard described how the wizard had became as windows in a stone wall with shutters inside.

What wisdom had the wizard sought from the forest, Gwaedhglae wondered. What dark places there were, were surely a pale shade of what could be found in Mordor. And so used he had become of only rarely looking through the eyes of his bearers, of long years and decades going by, that he lost the conversation in his musing, only to realize his bearer was contemplating yet another delay.

"Hoom, hum, what is the Entmoot? It is a gathering of ents - which does not often happen nowadays, but as you are not in the old lists that I learned when I was young, a place needs to be made for you, I reckon," Treebeard said.

What are your thoughts on this, Gwaedhglae? You can still hear me, can you not? Bilbo asked and Gwaedhglae could only think: not another postponement. His second thought was: a gathering of ents. As though meeting one wasn't bad enough, now there had to be a whole forest of them.

"If we stay for days, our good hosts shall worry for us," he cautioned Bilbo. He had pushed his way as close to the surface of the hobbit's mind as he could, seeing the trees as Bilbo saw them standing silently about them, rank upon rank in twilight gloom, and the great creature looming over the hobbit on his horse. Yet even though it was through Bilbo's eyes that Gwaedhglae had come to understand the strength of the ents, the hobbit felt no fear.

"There are people who will be concerned for me if I disappear for longer than a few hours without notice. Might it be possible to return to an appointed place at an appointed time and be taken to the Entmoot, please? I assume that it will take a while to gather all the, ah, representatives? Decision-makers?" There were a sense of thrill and a sense of propriety warring within Bilbo, and truly, Gwaedglae should have learned better already than leave anything to the hobbit's interpretation.

The influence of a halfling could make a miracle-maker or a loon of a schemer.

***

Two days passed by and the sunrise was as red as blood could only be. Two days Treebeard had given Bilbo and once the sun rose the third time he was to arrive to the edge of the forest to be taken to the Entmoot. The red sunrise hovered over Gwaedhglae like a shade of Morgoth and a sense of urgency. The gentility of their hosts grated against him like the tear of a serrated knife; naturally Bilbo had found this a marvelous moment to compose yet another poem.

What was it with all the poems? Bilbo Baggins couldn't have chosen another inane mortal way of filling the empty spaces of his time, such as knitting? Gwaedhglae had come to hate words strung together.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea...

Ever would the road go on, Gwaedhglae felt, much longer than the miles stretching between the Shire and Mordor. Would this torment never be over? Must Bilbo accept the hospitality and yet another obligation to all those he met, must he make yet another detour, delay a day or two more? He felt as though a string within had been tightened to the snapping point, that any moment he might lose reign over his own mind and lose the rapport he had with his bearer. How many more weeks could it be until they passed the gates, how many more days until he could bring an end to this travesty? A forest's worth of marching trees made no difference in the end; he only had to endure a little while longer.

Roads go ever ever on,
Wherein the woods are dark and deep
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn to a road strange and steep...

"You have seen the strength of the ents. Why don't you find them the least bit frightful?" he asked in dreams that wouldn't be remembered just yet.

"Strength isn't a question of fright, not at its deepest heart. There is fright in the hearts of the living, but strength is simply a matter of being strong," Bilbo answered and Gwaedhglae couldn't tell if he was being profound or merely very naïve.

***

The sunrise was red when Bilbo saddled Faoiltiarna again, to ride to the edge of the forest. He didn't intend to take her into the forest this time, but he needed an excuse to go riding and, well. To tell the truth he wasn't quite certain why he hadn't told his hosts the truth of the so-called cursed forest, other that he thought there might be a reason only old legends were told and no truths. Deorlaf had eagerly told him stories of wood cutters going in and never crossing the forest line again, though he had to admit that if those poor men had tried to cut down an ent as a tree, it might not be such an over-reaction to caution men to stay away.

"Would it be that I could come with you," Deorlaf told him sulkily, helping Bilbo lift the heavy saddle on Faoiltiarna's back. He truly wasn't any taller than Bilbo, yet his manner with horses suggested that he might have learned to ride before walking. "But aunt insist on my lessons even though I don't need them."

"You need to learn to read and write," Eoforhild's stern voice came from the door, cutting the hay-scented shadows of the stable. There she stood at the door with her hands on her hips, her feet planted wide, and Bilbo thought that she might have come to bodily prevent her young charge from riding his horse out and running away from the housecarls and the king's horsemen sent there to protect him.

"But Gamling doesn't have to learn and he's doing fine, his father says," Deorlaf implored in the manner of all young who have to sit inside on a beautiful day.

"Gamling is the son of a farmer, you are a young nobleman; what is fit for him isn't necessarily fit for you," Eoforhild spoke decisively. "Besides, I had to sit inside the best part of a day for several weeks learning this when I was young as well. One day you will have children of your own and then you may force them to remain inside in turn." Which wasn't quite the lesson Bilbo would have chosen to impart to Deorlaf on the importance of good education.

"King Thorin needed Lord Elrond's assistance to read the moon runes on his map. If I recall right, he was very put out for being forced to ask assistance from an elf," Bilbo reminded the boy, though in hindsight... Maybe being able to hold petty grudges against people who hadn't ever wronged him because of their race wasn't any better a lesson to take from this than epicaricacy. Bringing a child up right was turning out to be tough work and he he wasn't even the one responsible for Deorlaf.

"Mayhap you have killed a spider recently," Bilbo suggested as the boy continued to lament his sorry fate and the necessity of maps on adventures. "It is said to be dreadfully bad luck, back in the Shire. It will rain if you kill a spider." Though whether rain was bad or good luck for a farmer depended entirely on the month; what might ruin a gentlehobbit's picnic was often a blessing. Bilbo had never been the superstitious type himself.

"I found a spider in my bed last night. I killed it, but I worry that I have a whole clutch of spider babies living inside my mattress," Deorlaf said and made a show of shuddering.

"If there are, then they have just watched their mother die, so they’re probably suitably intimidated," Eoforhild pointed out, running her hand over her nephew's messy hair and making a greater mess of it yet. "I'm certain they will all run away from their mother’s murderer and you can sleep in peace."

Bilbo had a feeling that this conversation explained more about the people of the Mark than it didn't; he was so torn between his amusement and slight disapproval and an attempt to disapprove despite his amusement that he didn't at first notice how his hand had wandered to clutch his pocket. When he realized he was yet again spinning his, his friend on his fingers, he let go as though the gold had suddenly burned him. It might have been the forest he was about to enter again that remembered another forest to him, a white, almost translucent spider baby and a ring that had rolled among the dry, crackling leaves, kicked by its spindly legs once, twice, three times.

Bilbo remembered the burning rage he had then felt, the thought that the spider was trying to steal his ring... The thought had burned his heart and he had struck with his blade like a madman, much more ferocious than he had been when he had killed the poor horseman by the water's edge. Bilbo remembered the horror afterwards, the realization that this had been him. It had been just a spider, true, just a baby monster who would have grown up to be a people-eating mother of monsters.

That wasn't the point. Bilbo clutched Faoiltiarna's reins with white-knuckled hands as he walked the mare out of the stable.

How didn't I remember this even when I told my story to King Fengel, Bilbo thought feeling lost. He hadn't thought of his fight against the little spider for a long time. He hadn't thought of it, plain and simple, not after it was over.

Saruman was sitting by you and you must concentrate on fooling him; I would have been more surprised had you thought of anything besides this bare necessity, Gwaedhglae whispered in his mind, full of forgiveness and comfort.

"But how could I be like that, feel like that?" Bilbo asked, encouraging Faoiltiarna into a brisk gallop. He might have been wary of such speed under other circumstances, but now he only wished to feel the wind in his hair, wished to feel he was going somewhere, even if that somewhere would fail to solve his problems for him. Golden morning light scythed the hay and the sky was filled with the scent of grass, but there was a cold bite in the air.

There are dark places in every heart and even the purest of us is not without a stain. You had been hunted, threatened, hunted again and yet more, your companions were taken from you and then your treasure. I'm not telling you you did wrong, for you didn't. I'm also not telling you that you did right for the right reason, for you didn't. I will simply tell you this: it was nothing queer or unexpected. Remember that you needed me to save your companions later.

Gwaedhglae's word made sense, of course, but Bilbo couldn't help but think of poor Gollum in his dark caves and the almost rabid rage the creature had fallen to when it had accused Bilbo of stealing his Precious. Cold fingers grabbed his heart as he realized that he might have more in common with the wretch than he had thought.

***

Gwaedhglae had come to curse Rohan. After all else that had gone astray, now this: Bilbo was blindly grasping the at edges of a very dangerous realization.

He had something in common with Gollum indeed.

"There are dark places in every heart and even the purest of us is not without a stain," he said and gave this moment his best effort to exude calm and peace and innocence. Cursed be the spiders and the land of Rohan and all that occurred there. How had he gone from breaking his bearer to being forced to reassure him that he was a good person?

On the throne of Bilbo's mind the Queen Adventure reigned over all his mind and the previous King had bowed his neck to her, but the ring stood closer to the throne now. Still the traitorous advisor, now his steps were hobbit-light, their sound the comfort of familiarity - all the better to sneak closer to the queen. The touch of his hands was velvet-soft, all the better to hide those claws, and his touch was the flame of new love, pretty and fierce, yet only light and still flickering - the better to embrace the Queen with, the better to burn her with! His hair was black and his eyes were blue; no the colour of emotion or idea or memory, but simply the black and blue of preference.

Personal presentations didn't mean much inside one's own mind; here Bilbo was very honest with himself. Much more so that either Isildur or Gollum had been, in fact, for his secret shames were small and bearable. The love was young, the love was flickering, but it was drawing closer and closer to the throne.

"Pay no attention to the spiders, my Queen," the advisor whispered. "They are nasty, skittering things, better to think of something more beautiful and wondrous."

Pay no attention to the spiders, Bilbo, the better to take you by surprise.

***

Bilbo didn't want to think of the bad memories of the past and it was maybe too easy to give himself the permission not to when he arrived by the forest. He dismounted there and tied Faoiltiarna to one of the smaller willows, lightly so that the horse might tear herself away if accosted by wolves or other beasts. He felt a little bad using a restraint at all, but war-trained or not, he wasn't convinced that he would still find Tiarna there when he returned if he didn't.

There wasn't a long to wait until Bilbo heard leaves rustling as though a fierce wind had blown through the forest and the earth turning under heavy steps, but when he turned he saw that Treebeard wasn't the ent who had come for him. The ent was tall, and seemed to be much younger than Treebeard; he had smooth shining bark-skin on his arms and legs, his lips were ruddy almost like a hobbit's might have been and his grey-green hair was much less matted by lichen. He bent and swayed like a slender tree in the wind as he walked with unhurried steps and when he at last spoke, his voice was like a dark-toned woodwind instrument and much clearer than Treebeard's.

"Ha, hum, Fangorn has sent me to you, my small friend. Let us go to the Entmoot!" he said and lowered his hand for Bilbo to climb on.

"Bilbo Baggins, in your service," Bilbo introduced himself and bowed before climbing on the open palm. It was a little tight fit, but as long as he didn't try to move it wouldn't be too uncomfortable. He needn't have worried, though, for the ent lifted him to his shoulder.

"I am called Bregalad, that is Quickbeam in your language. It is merely a nickname, hoom, of course. I have been called so ever since I said yes to an older ent before he had finished his question." Bilbo wasn't certain how to answer to that so he didn't say anything and Bregalad didn't seem to expect anything either, simply turning and walking away from the open plains. His long, deliberate strides took them through the trees, deeper and deeper into the forest, and though many of the trees seemed quite normal as Bilbo had come to regard what normal was for trees, some quivered and some raised up their branches above their heads in silent salutation as Bregalad approached them. All the while, as he walked the ent murmured to himself in a long, running stream of song-like sounds.

The Entmoot wasn't what Bilbo had expected, though if asked what he had expected, he would have been hard pressed to answer. First there was what appeared to be like an impenetrable wall of dark evergreen trees he had never seen the like of before with stiff upright flower-spikes and large shining green buds. There was a narrow entrance and beyond it a great dingle, almost as round as a bowl, very wide and deep, and crowned at the rim with the hedge. It was smooth inside with no trees other than three silver-birches that stood at the bottom of the bowl. And there were many ents.

Treebeard was there and Bilbo now realized that he must be among the oldest of them, if not the oldest. They were as different from one another as trees from trees. Some were like different trees of the same kind, but others were as different as birch from beech, as a hobbit from a dwarf. Some of them appeared very old like Treebeard and many were young like Bregalad, clean-limbed and smooth-skinned like healthy trees in their prime, but Bilbo noticed that there were no fauntlings among them - no saplings? Whichever the proper word, the ents had no young, and though this might only have been because faunts and teens had no place in the business of adults, Bilbo also noticed something else.

There were no women. Though it still seemed strange to him, Bilbo could clearly perceive most of the ents as masculine, which of course led to a new question. Where were the women? Surely they weren't forbidden from important gatherings? Bilbo rather thought that people who were at their root trees - no pun intended, though it was rather appropriate - should be more sensible than humans were.

"Welcome to the Entmoot, Master Baggins. It has been a long time since all those who still walk have been called together like this. Master Baggins, as I understand is a polite way of address among the small people, is a hole-dwelling hobbit from the land of the Shire, named Bilbo Baggins among his people. As you can see, he is not of any creature in the old lists," Treebeard spoke after Bregalad had set Bilbo down far away from the real trees - at least Bilbo was fairly certain they were real trees - so that he might be clearly seen by all. He bowed and introduced himself, feeling the many evaluating stares keenly. The short speech in the common tongue had clearly been for Bilbo's benefit, as after a few minutes of contemplating silence there was a chorus of ent-humming.

They were a veritable forest and the murmur that echoed from the hedge was like a distant storm. One voice joined another until they were all chanting together in a slow billowy rhythm akin to the sigh of a wind and something heavier, earthier twined within the gusts, now louder on one side of the ring, then dying away and rising to a great thunder on the other. It was fascinating for a while and beautiful in a wild kind of way that made Bilbo's heart both soar and maybe tremble little in a way a distant wolf howl might have, but after a while he tired of listening to a language he couldn't begin to understand. He gave Bregalad a look, but however "hasty" the ent might be considered among his kind, he displayed no signs of boredom that Bilbo could see. Bereft of ent company, he sat down and called for the one who was never away, never otherwise occupied; he feared that in this regard he gave Gwaedhglae much less that he received.

"It has been a long while since I have been taken to a gathering and expected to be silent," he mused. To be fair, he hadn't been forbidden to speak here and now, but the solemnity of the moot made him feel like a little fauntling under the measuring gaze of his elders; how old was the youngest of the ents? Why were there no women among them, no faunts? Thought it might only have been a matter of convention, it left a terrible taste of foreboding on Bilbo's tongue.

Would you tell me? Gwaehglae asked him and of course Bilbo did. He told of the Old Took's hundredth birthday, of the great fireworks that a real wizard had made and of the long speech he had been made to endure in silence first, he told of many tea parties where he had been expected to be silent, really, but his mother had given him sweets afterwards for misbehaving and how his father had grumbled to try and hide his grin. Maybe it was common then that parents failed to teach their faunts lessons sometimes and the faunts turned out fine regardless. It wasn't as though they were born to this world without any sense to call their own.

"It is strange, I reckon, that I feel so close to you though I know very little of you," Bilbo said after one of such stories, surprised. Maybe it was because Gwaedhglae could call to him in his mind, but he felt curiously close to the ring, considering he didn't truly know anything of Gwaehglae other than that he had once been Gollum's, whom Bilbo had met, and his name, which Bilbo had given. He felt... had Gwaedhglae been a hobbit, or a human or a dwarf or an elf for that matter, Bilbo thought he might have really, truly loved him, that he loved Gwaedhglae regardless, only... How could he love someone he didn't even know? How did he, maybe?

For the space of a heartbeat Gwaedhglae was silent.

The smith who forged me was known as Annatar. The nine, the seven, the three and the One were famous, but there were many practice rings forged before them. These are just trinkets, though still dangerous enough in the wrong hands. A minor gift or another, maybe something to test how two gifts should be intertwined. There was something tense to Gwaedhglae's voice - though it wasn't real voice as much as it was feelings woven between vowels like colours, something quite impossible to wholly explain with words - and Bilbo realized with a start that it must be quite depressing to be referenced as a "lesser" anything. His knowledge of the Rings of Power was limited, granted, but he didn't think that Gwaedhglae deserved to be called a thrift by anyone.

"You have saved my life several times, you saved the whole quest from a failure - if I hadn't gotten the company freed in time as I did, how many decades would it have been until the next Durin's Day? You have a history of victory and success rather than failure and tragedy and though you have no fate attached to your name, all too often fate is synonymous with doom. I much prefer you to any of the Great Rings."

...Thank you. Of all my bearers you are the one with the most outstanding character.

***

He turned the garden within inside and out, searching for new flowers, afraid he would find what he sought and relieved he didn't. He scoured his garden for a new flower and didn't find one. A seed might grow hidden, but what he had so far experienced suggested that once the infection took a hold, it was fairly immediate.

"I am NOT in love," Gwaedhglae spoke to himself. "I will not lose this game." And there was a shadow not that of a bird or a cloud that followed him, a shadow with nothing to cast it flickering over the mounds and flower beds of his mind. Who could outpace their own fear?

***

When two people - or more, it wouldn't do to be prejudiced or anything - really, really love each other, both give what they have and neither lose. The mathematics of love make little sense as far as conventional logic is concerned, but then, again, what very knowledgeable people in the Far West might call the law of the conservation of charge doesn't really care whether people hit by lightning find it convenient. Some things don't care what is thought of them. Some things simply are. Sometimes a percentage of someone is better than nothing; sometimes a percentage of their attention is worse than nothing. These are not, sadly, mutually exclusive.

And sometimes a percentage of a person is as good as having the whole. It never was supposed to make any kind of sense.

Chapter Text

The sun was climbing higher on the sky and Bilbo watched the shortening shadows as an ent called Finglas, or Leaflock, crooned something above the rest of the crowd. The ent with the rich, leafy hair had appeared quite drowsy at first, but the meeting had rejuvenated him and now he was one of the most animated of ents. The grass was knee-deep and its scent fresh, the day was quite lovely and Bilbo watched the shadows, trying to keep note of the passing of time. He was a little hungry, but not so hungry he would have pleaded to leave yet.

"Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses:"

This was the first verse of the old lists that Bregalad whispered to Bilbo, below the song of the Entmoot. He had already made his mind and concluded that Bilbo was an entirely new kind of creature and now he answered the hobbit's questions readily. It was good to have someone to talk to, for though Bilbo had at first thought he was bored, he now noticed that he lost time and the sun had wandered further across the sky when a bird or a sudden flutter of wind alerted him back to full wakefulness. This wasn't frightful, precisely, but a strange sensation of should-be-frightening.

"Hobbit, child of the kindly West," he suggested after trying to determine whether there was a proper rhyme to follow or not and concluding that since it was a translation, trying to end the line with something that rhymed with mountains probably wasn't necessary. "Add us after the men and it will be done as simply as that." He remembered pale Thorin on his sick-bed, his forgiveness and his admiration, a bit grudging though it had been. There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West, he had said. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world, he had said and Bilbo had been so glad because he had striven to gain the brave, hardy, rock-headed dwarf's friendship and he had feared it lost forever.

"Is your home very kind land, Master Baggins?" Bregalad asked. The Entmoot around them was the most beautiful dream-like concert; there was a strange trembling sensation that sunk down to his bones and something about it made Bilbo feel very calm.

"We have never gone to war against our own people," he said with a slight smile. A passive virtue it might be, not one that might breed much grandness or stories of braverism, but also very rare and enviable. Only the ents, he thought, might match the hobbits in this.

"What kind of stories do your people tell?" he asked Bregalad, leaning against the ent's leg. His fingers had once again found their way to his pocket, caressing Gwaedhglae.

"Hm, that will be a long story; we do not say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to," Bregalad rumbled like the lowest note of a bassoon. "'When the world was young, and the woods were wide and wild, the ents and the entwives - and there were entmaidens then! - walked together and housed together under the stars and the first sunrise..."

And he told Bilbo the story of the long-lost entwives.

***

Music, Gwaedhglae realized for the first time, could have a tremendous influence over the Children of Ilúvatar. The ent-song that lulled Bilbo Baggins on its waves, but whether firm or flowing rhythm, whether complex and occasionally dissonant or simple and consonant harmonies, the effect the Entmoot had over Bilbo was almost hypnotic.

"So vibrant," he whispered in what could almost be called awe. He had known of the power of the music on an intellectual level, of course; hadn't the Arda been sung into existence, after all?

"It is different to experience it like this," he mused out loud, tasting the citrus-tingling words of a new discovery. Not the painful-bright notes of Finrod or the lovely, devastating might of Lúthien's song was this, not meant to be anything more than communication - no, transferrences! A transfer of not maybe words exactly, not like they were understood by most people, but truths and concepts, it was the transfer of an emotion and sense from its original focus to another person. And most of it was passed on via music rather than the syllables used as instruments!

"It is so vigorously active, yet very subtle, the merest of suggestions. I wonder how the zoetic aspect of musical emotion relates to the listener's perception of the musical structure?" he questioned, his senses alight with something that in a lesser person might have been called even giddiness. It had been so long since he had found anything particularly fascinating.

You love learning new things, don't you? Bilbo asked with an echo of amusement, though his mind was awashed by the rain of sadness Bregalad's story had poured upon him, like the grass growing tall...

Again the accursed grass and rain...

"I have always loved creation and discovery is the mother of creation," Gwaedhglae explained and for a moment his fragile mood teetered upon an edge before breaking into a thousand pieces.

He hadn't loved creation, Sauron had. It was difficult at times to keep his past separate from Sauron's - because the past of the ring sundered was short and beyond those centuries there had been only Sauron. Yet he still remembered, as he remembered the delight Sauron had come to take in destruction. What was the entsong doing to him? Gwaedhglae found it difficult to even fear under the influence of the creatures who had discovered something new under the sun and the moon for the first time in several millennium.

Oh, I love reading and writing poems for the same reason. They can share so many new things no one may ever have seen before. There is a sad dearth of new things to learn in the Shire, though you surely know this much already, Bilbo spoke without a sound, buoyed be the waves of sound that delighted in the springtime returned for the shortest of moments. It was a difficult day to remain sad even after a tale of such hopelessness as a people losing all their womanfolk.

"Lovely they were and though we couldn't always understand their hearts, we loved them no less dearer for this. They would have liked your Shire, I think, from what you have told," Bregalad said in Westron, and truly, the language couldn't convey but a part of what their own would have. The thought tasted like ashes in Gwaedhglae's mouth that he still didn't have, but his mind insisted creating an illusion of regardless.

"And I would have liked it that they live in the Shire; it would have been so easy to give you directions, but none can wake the dead," Bilbo answered, his heart torn between sadness and joy, like a rainbow born of rain and sunlight in equal measure.

And indeed, Bregalad had not exaggerated when he had claimed that the ents did not say anything in their language unless it is worth taking a long time. It was only after several endless hours of careful contemplation and emotions forced upon the listeners that the hobbit folk were indeed added to the old lists, with the very verse that Bilbo had suggested. The ents all agreed that not waging wars was a rare sensibility that well deserved to be noted, and now the four free peoples had become five. How the world itself was ordered had been made anew with a song and a verse and open eyes.

Maybe there was a reason the hobbits followed the Ever-young, the oxymoron that they were, hardly changing and yet something more. Maybe part of their stable nature was that it took much to wrench a hobbit from spring of their childhood innocence, to turn them into sadder and wiser creatures. Gwaedhglae didn't glance towards the impudent garden growing within; he didn't think he could bear the sight.

***

All flowers spring as she passes and open if she glances upon them, the Valaquenta said, and all birds sing at her coming.

***

Bilbo still dreamed of music at night when he left Deorlaf and Eoforhild's house two days later. They had entreated him to remain longer, but Bilbo had reminded them that the White Mountains would become very dangerous to pass if he waited until the winter came; it might not snow often on the fields of Rohan, they were far enough south that the land should see even fewer harsh winters than the Shire did, but mountain weather was always fickle and perilous.

"I will in all likelihood travel this way when I return, on my journey to Erebor," Bilbo consoled Deorlaf who seemed truly disappointed to see him gone. Trying to cross the Dead Marshes or Emyn Muil didn't seem like a very good idea to him so the only way to the north was through Rohan, unless Bilbo wanted to try and cross the Ash Mountains on his way out of Mordor, which seemed even less wise a course to take than the marshes and the highland cliff faces.

"Please remember that you shall always be welcome in my house," Eoforhild said solemnly, packing yet another package of perishables and a pouch full of oats on Tiarna's saddle bag. Bilbo was beginning to worry for the poor mare, but on the other hand, the meat parcels stuffed with egg yolks, rich cheese and cooked, peeled chestnuts wouldn't last for long so he would have to eat them right away, the same as the elderflower cheesecake. Tiarna wouldn't have to carry them up the mountains and Bilbo wasn't convinced he could muster the willpower to refuse elderflower cheesecake.

"I will bring you something from Gondor. Are there any spices you would like, for example?" Bilbo asked and after needling Eoforhild, who was modestly refusing any offerings in the manner of a Shire matron who really wanted something but thought it improper to bother people, he had a shopping list that included saffron, Harad cumin and black pepper, the most hesitantly given wish on the list. Eoforhild had seemed worried about the prices, but with the king's reward added to his original float, he truly didn't need to worry about that.

"Take good care of yourself, the danger isn't over yet," he told Deorlaf, glad for the men King Fengel had sent to the boy's protection. He didn't think he would be able to leave now, not even to lure out Saruman, if the boy had been left as he had been the last time the rebels had taken him.

"Don't worry, if they come near me again, Aunt Eoforhild will put hot eggs under their arm-pits and pour boiling water on their boots," Deorlaf said cheerily, which was... disturbingly graphic. And probably also a very efficient threat, though who could tell with the Rohans.

"Wouldn't it be more efficient if you took the boots off first?" he asked, he was forced to ask even though he really didn't want to know.

"Oh, no, the leather will soak up the water so it will hurt longer," Eoforhild answered in the same manner a hobbit might have explained a treasured family recipe and Bilbo was truly at loss of words.

That day he rode south-east along the River Entwash and that night he slept under the stars again and he dreamed of the entsong. In his dreams he saw Treebeard's wise, gold-flecked eyes and heard Bregalad's soft, deep voice as he told the story of the entwives, surrounded by the chorus of the Entmoot. The forest around him was dark and yet lovely, without a hint of malice as it reached towards him with a hundred branches.

"We searched for them and called their names, but we could not find a trace of them and none could tell us where they had gone," Bregalad told him sadly and Bilbo realized for the first time that one of the missing entwives must have been his mother.

"It has been a long time since I last felt like this, before the wars of Sauron and the Men of the Sea. I think I must be getting hasty - growing backwards towards youth, perhaps," Treebeard said, towering over him like a tree might; majestically and yet without any intent other than to follow his own nature. The entsong rose like a great storm that brought no rain and Bilbo let it tear at his hair, enjoying the force of it. He had never felt so young before.

"It was a lovely dream," Bilbo told Gwaedhglae in the morning as he made a breakfast from the meat parcels. "But I think I would like to see you in my dreams even more."

... I shall oblige you, Gwaedhglae promised, sounding almost startled for a reason Bilbo couldn't begin to understand.

The journey from Holdwudu to the mountain pass hadn't seemed all that long on the map, maybe a five days' travel on a horse back, but Bilbo hadn't taken the lack of roads into his consideration. It was eight days when he finally arrived to the root of the mountains and discovered that his map wasn't nearly as detailed as he might have hoped. There was a road that wasn't on his map, but seemed old enough that it had been built around the same time as the Old South Road. He could only assume the road would take him to Gondor, unless it led straight to Mordor where he was going in any case.

"This certainly made my life a lot easier," he told Gwaedhglae; he had gotten so used to talking to his friend that he couldn't imagine how he had ever gotten by without these leisurely conversations in the wilds where there was only a hobbit, his horse and the sky stretching over all.

The mountains were beautiful, made all the more lovely in Bilbo's eyes for the knowledge that he in all likelihood wouldn't have to climb a steep goat path to cross them after all. Faoiltiarna would appreciate this as well, he thought and sacrificed one of his dried apples to let the mare know that he was thinking of her. She continued to be a dream, a little feisty and a lot funny and yet very careful with an inexperienced hobbit rider, and the last rays of light hit the peaks of the White Mountains were a sight to see. The autumn had arrived at last and the chilly fog descended into the plains, making the scenery dreamlike, all silver and milky glow almost like a painting. There were hardships ahead, but at that moment Bilbo was very much in peace with himself and the rest of the Arda.

Of course such serenity could only be too good to last. What he saw of Anórien as he passed through the province was lovely, the golden fields being harvested and the orchards heavy with ripened fruit, but the people were restless, forever looking eastwards. There rose the distant mountain range that surrounded Mordor, crowned with drifting clouds. When the night fell, every now and again Bilbo could see a tiny red gleam far away flickered upwards on the rim of the sharp peaks and sky. The sunsets still remained absolutely spectacular.

***

They were so close to Mordor now, Gwaedhglae had a hard time understanding how Sauron couldn't sight him yet, how Bilbo couldn't feel the fiery, searching gaze raking over his skin like hot coals. The chill wind that blew from the east was an almost perfect counterpoint to the fiery eye that sought, sought the treasure it had lost and as Bilbo's eyes remained fixed, staring out towards the dark line of the Mountains of Shadow and the flickering flame beyond them, Gwaedhglae couldn't help but feel the pull. Finally he was so close to the fulfillment of his purpose, close to his Master's hand.

He had never been so scared before. As every trot of Faoiltiarna brought him closer to Mordor, his own mortality begun to weight more and more heavily upon him. He wasn't mortal in the manner four of the five Free People were, but he hadn't been given the gift of the elves either. There would be no re-birth for him in Aman nor anywhere else, only joining the fëa of another and making them whole again.

And he wasn't in love. He was certain that should he choose to look, he would find new flowers, but those would be related to regret, to loss of something that once was and then was no more, but not love. Sauron had formed Gwaedhglae

(but he hadn't been Gwaedhglae yet, hadn't even been a he)

from his innermost self, had woven him together as surely as a mother might weave a child in her womb, and Sauron had clothed him with gold as though with skin and flesh

(but not all of him was from Sauron)

and he was frightfully and wonderfully made. What hobbit trickery Bilbo Baggins had performed to make a garden bloom on barren ground, whatever magic the Onodrim had wrought with their song-language, this couldn't change: Gwaedhglae wasn't made for love. The victory loomed in the horizon as the mountains did. Many a mortal considered victory in death a victory regardless; why shouldn't he, now that he against all expectations and logic was a kind of a mortal?

If only ceasing to exist wasn't such a fearful thing.

The dreams were the worst, of course they would have to be. While Bilbo hadn't pushed Gwaedhglae on the subject - he couldn't recall the dreams they shared, though he was so very close now - even Gwaedhglae wasn't exempt from the power a promise given could had over a person. He had promised to oblige Bilbo and oblige he must, now. As the hobbit had been forced to enjoy his kill, the ring must meet the hobbit in his dreams regardless of his wishes.

"I fear you," Bilbo told him one night, standing under one of the apple trees that had once bloomed in Celebrimbor's gardens. The night centuries past was lovely, peppered with starlight and invigorated by a playful breeze. The winter wasn't far away, not even the the realm of dream, but for a short time it would still be held at bay.

"You love me," Gwaedhglae said with confidence. Love and fear were not as mutually exclusive as the homely hobbit surely would have loved to claim.

"And you love me, for all I have yet heard a confession part from your lips. I am a pot, you are the kettle; aren't we both so lovely in black?" Bilbo challenged him with an air of irrefutableness to him. There was a new scent to him, Gwaedhglae noticed, something biting like black pepper and flowery sweet at the same time.

"This is how you act when you are afraid?" was all that he could force himself to say. Bilbo stood there, crowned by starlight and vulnerable. There were, admittedly, times Gwaedhglae wants to tuck the impertinent hobbit into his pocket like Bilbo kept him in a pocket, to keep him there, safe and surrounded. He shouldn't, couldn't think that way; he was both a sword and a shield to Sauron and he couldn't be anyone else's suit of armor, least of all Bilbo Baggins'.

"I riddled a dragon and the dragon held no love for me," Bilbo said, but his voice was breathy and his pupils tiny like pinpricks; he truly was in love with Gwaedhglae, as well as afraid. Gwaedhglae would have loved to ponder the inconsistencies of mortal mind further, only this wasn't the time for such frivolous pursuits.

The next day they arrived to the banks of Anduin.

***

River Anduin was wide and deep and Bilbo didn't know what he could do to cross it. He could have, he supposed, travelled to Osgiliath and crossed the expanse of the water over a sturdy stone bridge, but surely questions would have been asked as to why he wished to go to Mordor and he really would rather not be forced to convince suspicious humans of the necessity of his endeavor. He had seen the way the people of Anórien looked towards the east and he didn't think that accusing a well-known wizard of dark dealings would endear him to anyone here.

"So close and yet so far away," he sighed, fixing his gaze upon the mountains. Even after he crossed the river he would still have to find a pass through the mountains, yet the river seemed so much more daunting now, almost as though it was mocking him. Despite his many adventures as of late, Bilbo still couldn't swim very well and the flow was easily swift enough to endanger a horse, never mind a small hobbit.

There was no copse of trees in sight that could have been called a small forest or even a big orchard, but willow trees and shrubs that looked a bit like junipers stood tall and proud on the other side of the river. The water sparkled in the golden light of the sun, deceptively warm-looking despite the rapid currents, and cat tail reeds and tall grass swayed in the soft breeze. If anything, Bilbo had learned to respect running water during his travels. The rivers widened and deepened as they rubbed and gnawed and ate their way through the land and even when they weren't very wide, they were often swift; there was beauty and danger here both.

Have you considered building a raft? Gwaedhglae asked him. You have rope and an axe for cutting firewood, and though falling big trees would be difficult, you only need several smaller as long as you build the raft carefully.

"A small raft might be enough for me, but what about Tiarna?" Tying logs together couldn't be very complicated, but as Bilbo pulled his small axe from his packages and eyes the trees nearby, it was obviously insufficient to the task. A hobbit-sized blade meant for hewing branches, it would take him days to fall and axe the trees for his raft. "We must travel downriver and hope we find a better crossing somewhere."

Beautiful though the day was for a ride, soon Bilbo begun to lose hope. The river remained wide and deep and by the time it was time to pause for lunch, he could see the silhouette of a great city of stone. Osgiliath was distant yet and Bilbo doubted he could reach the city before nightfall; the trouble was that he didn't wish to reach it at all. He took his map out again, hoping to find a better crossing upstream, but this far south the map was very vague. The ribbon of Anduin travelled across the old yellow parchment the width of a single soft brushstroke until it parted for the island Cair Andros in the north. Bilbo folded the map carefully, for all he was tempted to crush the parchment into a ball in his fists and throw it away. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply; he wasn't used to such fickle temper.

Claim you are travelling to Harad, Gwaedhglae suggested in soothing tones. To take the Harad Road, you must cross the river at Osgiliath, and though I suppose that the Gondorian soldiers would be suspicious of you if only because they have never before seen your kind, these are times of peace and they would have no cause to deny you pass if only you can explain your travels. And here, I think, the King Fengel's coat-of-arms sewed in your cloak shall serve you well. Rohan is Gondor's ally and you are under her king's protection.

Bilbo looked down upon his breast where the white horse galloped, sewed into a green cloak. It still seemed strange to him that such a small thing would carry so much weight. It was something anyone could have sewed into their clothes, after all, and so far from Rohan's borders it wasn't as though the Gondorian soldiers could verify. Of course he still found it strange that anyone would be suspicious of him only because they had never met another hobbit before - the Rohans had taken his appearance very much in stride even before he had found Deorlaf - but Bilbo supposed that having Mordor for a neighbour would be an incentive to build strong fences indeed.

There are many things that would never occur to you, Bilbo Baggins, because you are a hobbit of the Shire. There are many things that only very rarely would occur to even the most craven of men and even those would be hesitant to follow such a plan through. The nobility and the privileges and right of nobility are the cornerstone of all human societies and by granting you the right to this coat-of-arms King Fengel in effect made you a member of his household. You are an in-between creature now, not of noble blood, but not truly a commoner anymore either. Gwaedhglae clearly expected this explanation to clear things for Bilbo, but the truth was that he remained baffled.

You are now cîw iâr; new blood. Considering how... unruly the Rohans were, I don't think to be taken into a king's household is such a strange thing to occur there, but if Gondorians hold true to their Númenorian ancestry, they are much more rigid. It wouldn't occur to them to counterfeit a king's coat-of-arms any more than it would occur to them to grow wings and fly. And if they were to do so and were caught, the punishment would surely be severe.

Bilbo considered hot eggs under armpits and boiling water poured on boots and decided to not ask any questions. Though the Gondorians were Númenorians so their idea of severe probably only included chopping off the head of the offender... He sent noble-in-character Háldir and generous Ficilia a wistful thought; humans were so much more civilized to the west of the Misty Mountains.

"I don't know what I would do without you," Bilbo confessed. He would best get back into the habit of only speaking to Gwaedhglae in his thoughts or the Gondorians would regard him as a madman, but he had never before been more glad for company than he was of Gwaedhglae. If only he had been a hobbit and not a ring... So Bilbo thought when his gaze happened upon a stretch of muddy ground by the river, near the spot where he had stopped for the lunch he hadn't even started yet. Boots had beaten the ground there, but not only boots; there were several tracks that made the hair at Bilbo's neck stand up straight. It couldn't be, not here, not in Gondor, he thought even as he approached the muddy bank.

The ground was a mess and Bilbo wasn't a ranger by any means, but there was a single clear footprint, almost in the dead center of the trail that led towards the water as though it begged to be noticed, recognized. A footprint similar to that of a hobbit, but much bigger and strangely elongated with almost finger-like toes that ended in deep, sharp gorges - claw marks.

Orcs. Bilbo gazed upon the river and the sharp-jagged line of mountains in the horizon beyond it. Behind the mountains a fire flickered, almost invisible in the bright light of the noon.

What a fix he had found himself in again. Hadn't the orcs been decimated in the Battle of the Five Armies, he wondered irately. And if this was decimated, how many orcs there had been previously, another part of him asked in much more worried tones.

"Well," he muttered, at last withdrawing his eyes from the muddy expanse, "I cannot stay here all day in the open, fix or no fix. We must find a more sheltered spot once more."

***

Orcs, Gwaedhglae thought, seized by both eagerness and anticipation. He had as good as won his bet already, Mordor was in sight and Bilbo walking towards the barren land like a lamb to a slaughter. To encounter orcs now would be swifter and less complicated than allowing the hobbit to carry him further. He was aware that this engagement was unnecessarily involved and utterly pointless.

But he had already decided that Sauron would take him from Bilbo's hand and no-one else's. He could be patient a little while longer, live a few more days. A few more days, maybe a week and then he would meet his death with still countenance and he would have the comfort of not dying alone. Bilbo Baggins, as irritating as the hobbit was, wouldn't be bad company to have in his last moments. He could have worse, for example an orc.

For a reason he didn't quite understand the thought of Bilbo's life flickering out with his didn't comfort him much. He had become quite proficient in a very short time in not looking too closely into his own thought.

***

That night Bilbo didn't dream of the entsong. He woke up feeling he had lost something precious.

Chapter Text

Some people are born to be great and influential: great elven lords, human kings when the Dark has sieged their lands, wizards and dwarves who have been cast into diaspora. Yet the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world can be curious: small hands often perform important tasks because they must, because the eyes of the great are elsewhere. The wind was in the north and it was a bright, clear day in Rivendell, the day Bilbo left Holdwudu to travel to Mordor.

Imladris was truly a lovely dwelling. In the days of old it would have been only a lesser outpost, but established after the fall of Eregion, it had become The Last Homely House East of the Sea and the First Homely House, for it was the greatest elven dwelling west of the Misty Mountains, second only to Lothlórien in all of Middle-Earth. Perched boldly upon cliffs and arching between and above waterfalls, the house of Elrond looked as though it might at any moment leap up into the air and take flight.

There were beautifully decorated hallways enclosed by white stone arches elegant statues and marble fountains and rows upon rows of deceptively delicate-looking pillars. There were gardens and smithies, libraries and armouries full of ancient weapons and suits of arm. Engraved stone work arched from one column to the other, reflecting off the polished marble pathways and balconies below. But there was one thing that Rivendell lacked and a young human boy named Estel often felt this lack very keenly; there were no other children and the nurseries stood empty, covered by a fine layer of dust. Eleven years of age – almost twelve! – the closest elf to Estel’s age was Inilien who was not only seventy years old, but also a girl.

Girls were annoying, in Estel’s opinion. They became all right when they became adults, but when they were small, not so much. First they wanted to play with dolls and when they got a bit older, they giggled too much. And so, instead of bothering Inilien into playing ranger, he had sneaked up to the dome that covered a small rotunda where Ada Elrond was speaking with Lord Glorfindel, Erestor and someone he had never met before, a Noldo called Gildor Inglorion. The stranger's hair was short, very short for an elf, but his eyes were light-filled in the way that Estel knew meant they were older than dirt – literally, Elladan said, since the dirt they were now standing on used to be the bottom of a sea and the old land had become the new bottom when Eönwë had battled Morgoth.

Estel wasn’t sure if he believed Elladan about the sea and the land changing places because people would have drowned then, wouldn’t they? Elrohir said that Elladan exaggerated a lot, but it made a good story.

“The negotiations are well underway,” Gildor explained, rustling something very big that he thought was maybe a map. “The Janbas have an eye for these lands and the Ejashan-Khan want to settle by the river here, and the rangers are happy to allow for this, as there are no other settlements nearby. Six other tribes have asked for a parlay, though not arrived yet; all of them elf-worshippers.” Estel couldn’t see below the dome, he couldn’t move at all because ada had so sharp ears and Lord Glorfindel’s were even sharper, but he was sure that ada was wincing. Ada winced a lot when the Dunlendings were brought up.

“Surely you have explained matters to them already?” Erestor asked with that voice he always used when he thought Estel had been lazy with his lessons.

“We have answered every question they have asked honestly and so have the Dúnedain – mayhap a little too honestly,” Gildor defended himself. “Revealing that Lady Galadriel is older than the sun and the moon was, in hindsight, quite counterproductive.” Estel wasn’t sure what counterproductive meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing.

He felt a little silly, sitting there on the roof, but no-one ever explained things to him. Ada Arathorn had been the chieftain of the rangers, nana had told him, and Estel was supposed to be chieftain one day too, but how was he supposed to do that if no-one ever let him watch and listen when they made the important decisions? He had wedged himself between two statues; a man and a woman in long, flowing robes of stone that had hid him from his ada's sight. A mapie hopped on roof, tilting its head like it wasn't certain if it should tattle to ada or not, and Estel could feel the pins and needles that meant his legs were about to fall asleep, but he didn't move yet.

"The traditional Private Courts are going to be a problem," Lord Glorfindel mused, his voice muffled by a sudden burst of wind that caught his words and carried them away. "The unchecked passions of a chief of a party can be the only reason for inflicting a penalty. If they are given the leave to stay, they must agree to a system of independent judges."

"So far the tribes have appeared eager to comply, as the demands the Dúnedain have made are hardly unreasonable. The news of this Master Jorandir and his Book of Dark Ages worry me much more. You remember when the stories of elves eating souls last circled - and where," Erestor said and Estel listened more intently now. Little pitchers had big ears and he heard a lot of what was maybe strictly speaking adults' business, but he hadn't heard anything about the Book of Dark Ages before.

"Harad was taken by Sauron's lies, but Sauron is no more," his ada mused and chills went up and down Estel's back. "Though Mithrandir says..." And Estel would have loved to hear what Mithrandir said, but the magpie took flight right that moment, chattering loudly, and the voices went dead quiet for a moment.

"It seems that we have uninvited audience," Ada Elrond said then and though he didn't sound very angry, Estel still cringed. The magpie was sitting on ada's shoulder when he walked out of the rotunda, the plied plumage shining in the bright, golden sunlight, and Estel glared at the traitorous bird. Just when the conversation had gotten really interesting! Mithrandir had travelled to the south and he was sure to know all kinds of interesting stories about Sauron's agents from the old days, but was he ever told anything exciting? There had probably been Mûmakil in the Harad and those had armor and carried archers and slingers in a tower that was strapped to their backs.

"My sensibilities aren't delicate," he offered sulkily and clung to the robe of the woman statue as he begun to slide towards the eaves of the dome. He wasn't sure what sensibilities were, but his nana got angry because of them when the visiting rangers told him the exciting stories from the wilds. Elladan had tried to tell him they were a kind of a pudding, but that was Elladan for you.

But some business wasn't fit for young ears, that was ada's decision and Estel was sent away.

***

Of course, to be fair, the small people sometimes distract the great, either intentionally or not. Mass immigration is a time-consuming task to supervise.

***

The wind was in the north-west in Gondor and the air was full of fine, almost mist-like drizzle the day Bilbo approached the road that ran around the White Mountains.

There was a Council session and Turgon son of Túrin II wished from the bottom of his heart that he could be somewhere else. It wasn't the Great Council of Gondor, but a smaller executive meeting with the City-Prefect of Minas Tirith, the seven magistrates from the rural districts of Lamedon, Dorn-in-Ernil and Anórien and his own son. Ecthelion looked like he was contemplating jumping out of the window and Turgon frowned slightly. He wore an attentive and thoughtful expression, a dead giveaway to those who knew him well that he was anything but, and while a youngster of twenty nine couldn't be expected to find that meeting exiting, Ecthelion would have to learn to mask his feelings better.

The meeting had not been called in response to the Mount Doom erupting again and the sightings of small bands of orcs and goblins on Gondor's soil, though those subjects had been addressed before and would be addressed more in the near future once the last of the Counts and Magistrates arrived and the Great Council could assemble. This wasn't a venue normally illustrated by vigorous deliberation, but he had years ago learned it allowed him plenty of time for the mind to contemplate in peace.

His armsmen had caught a man almost certain to be an agent of Umbar, carrying a book titled Book of Dark Ages. It was rubbish, of course, from one leather-bound cover to the other, but it was very bewildering kind of rubbish.

"Many ailments can threaten the output of the year even after the lambing has been successful. Bluetongue, hair-shaker disease, lockjaw, black disease..." Magistrate Baldacil recited with large hand gestures and great spiritedness. The problems in raising the crops and production of meat involved the need for large amounts of government funds and possible tax concessions; the magistrates were each eager to promote the main produce of their districts.

"What you mean is that sheep are continually questing for new and interesting ways to die," Magistrate Análdil cut in, his voice as dry as the sands of Harad. He was already balding even though he was barely fifty - if Turgon recalled right, there had been cruel speculation about his lineage and it's purity, as though there were any pure Númenorians left this day and age. The chamber where the council was held was dominated by a lovely dome of mural-painted ceiling and featured a huge fireplace that was lit, now that the autumn had cooled the mornings, and the friendly golden and red light of the fire gave the room a cozy look. The murals on the walls depicted the coats of arms celebrating the marriages of the Kings and Queens of the Gondor of old, only the crest of the infamous Queen Beruthiel lacking; he had chosen this modest room because the magistrates were low-born to the last man. Proper manners had to be observed, but Turgon wasn't a man who exalted himself by making other feel small.

"Wheat is much more reliable food source..."

"We need more healers!"

"For the animals? Our men need more healers and Gondor needs more men at arms!" Ecthelion cut in, irritated. He was a fine youngster, tall and strong, as fair a man as his hair was dark. It burned Turgon that he had to live through such times. The times, though, were what they were and none could be done but to make use of the days given to them the best they could. When had he last told his son he loved him?

The Book of Dark Ages had contained propaganda against the elves, repeating many accusations and stories that had according to the records faithfully copied and maintained in the Citadel's archives circulated among the Haradrim only a few decades before the Last Alliance had been formed between the elves and the men. The Haradrim had fought for Sauron then and alongside the Black Númenorians of Umbar ever since. Spreading such vicious lies about thefts of souls, casting curses of impotency, blighting the crops and whoever knew what else had made sense in those circumstances, but why now? The elves were dwindling, insular, few had seen in Gondor for hundreds of years now and all of them but traders.

But those agents had travelled towards north. The mountain range that cut the known world in half prevented easy and regular contact between the East and the West, the South and the North. Had something changed beyond this Misty Mountains that merited sowing distrust between friends and allies? The last big news Turgon had heard had been the death of the dragon Smaug and the crowning of King Thorin II as the King Under the Mountain; what an absurd title, as though someone might think that a dwarf reigned above a mountain.

"...docking the tails of the lambs can cause infections as well. An army marches on its stomach, my prince, and bread and porridge alone won't be sufficient."

"Why must the tails be docked if it is so dangerous? Fishing, my Lord Steward Turgon, is an economic way to build up our surplus and a good way to compensate for the growth in the army's needs..."

"Right until the Black Fleet arrives! Fishing fleets are terribly vulnerable and not at all sustainable during a wartime." Magistrates Baldacil and Ondonur glared at one another over the table, their neigbours taking sides as appropriate.

Umbar was, after all these years, gathering her forces for strife, their plotting was for reasons unknown to sow hatefulness against the elves and it was clear to Turgon that as much as Ondonur protested, fishing vessels couldn't reliably supply the kingdom when Umbar's fleet took off from the southern harbours. The sheep pastries of Lamedon and the breadbasket of Anórien were where the gold should flow now.

***

Small hands often perform important tasks because they must, because the eyes of the great are elsewhere. If asked, the great might prefer to say they weren't distracted by the ailings of the sheep.

***

The wind had taken a sudden turn to north-east and it was raining ashes in Umbar the day Bilbo stood by the River Anduin, musing how it would be best to proceed now. Agents of the Eye had travelled freely in Umbar for half a decade, speaking of the return of their Lord in a far-away northern land for all who would hear, but now all of Umbar knew and believed. Sauron had returned to his seat at Barad-dûr.

Unlike many might have supposed, the majority of Umbar's old Noble Houses were anything but happy regarding this. They had sworn in the name of Sauron for hundreds of years, this was true, but it was a simple matter to swear in the name of a dead Lord. The great of Umbar had gotten quite used to holding their heads up high, than you very much, and with a few unfortunate, fanatical exceptions they were none too eager to return to licking at Sauron's heels. This made Rómendil son of Ithildin's task in the land a challenge to be conquered rather than a chore fit to be given a chambermaid.

Sauron's Mouth he called himself when he walked among the peasants, rallying them to the call of their Lord, but twice there had been an attempt against his life and it had become clear to him that he needed the protection of a man in a high position to continue his work without fear of mauling or death.

A man, or a woman. The laws of Umbar gave little freedom to women to act free of their male guardians, but Rómendil knew better than to trust the old lies that women were made for staying home and being passive and innocent.

"A fitting name your father gave you," Cemeniel of the House of Môr Loth spoke, leaning back on her pillows. As the custom dictated, she was wearing a veil over her hair, but it was a mist-thin, transparent cloth with gold threads woven in that titillated and seduced more than covered anything. "One devoted to east; I wonder if dear Ithildin, peace to his fëa in Mandos' halls, might have had some power of foresight?" So spoke Cemeniel and Rómendil was almost certain she had poisoned his father. Rómendil's father had been a scribe in the House of Môr Loth and he had possessed an unfortunate sense of honour that had, in all likelihood, prevented him from falsifying a will. It was the truth that he couldn't present any proof against the lady even should he have been willing to do so, but such action would have fit well with Lady Cemeniel's character.

Even aged over eighty years she was lovely to look. Cobweb wrinkles might have circled her eyes and dwelt in the corner's of her lush mouth, but the black kohl and the green malachite around her eyes, the soft white powder on her cheeks and the shimmering of her veil certainly hid those signs of aging. She had been married three times before she had been married into the House of Môr Loth and four times over she was a widow. There had been accusations leveled against her, of course, and many a duel fought. The judicial duel, which had been at first restricted to the most serious cases, was nowadays the manner to settle almost all suits that were brought before the courts. Neither women, elders, little children nor infirm persons were exempted and when a person could not themselves fight, he or she had to provide a champion whose sole business was to fight for the quarrels of others. Lady Cemeniel had always been wealthy enough and lovely enough to win herself the best of champions.

She was fabulously rich and independent of any male guardianship, she was notoriously selfish and the two of her children who had lived past their infancy - a son and a daughter - hadn't spoken to her for decades, has accused her of killing their fathers and lost their duels. She wouldn't care what would come of Umbar in two or three decades when she was six feet underground.

"I would ask for your protection for as long as I travel in Umbar, my lady," he asked and inclined his head with flourish. "Your coat of arms and a few armsmen for protection, if you will."

"Those would not be hard to procure, Rómendil, but I must ask; what would be in this for me? I would risk the displeasure of my peers and I am merely a lonely old woman with limited wind." Lady Cemeniel fanned herself and her self-deprecating smile was entirely deceptive.

"I have heard rumours that your ladyship has shown interest in trade with the elves," Rómendil answered mildly. He hadn't heard any such precise rumour, but all the big houses of Umbar were interested in such trade as elven items were very precious. It didn't matter what those items were; glasses and dishes with graceful patterns, made of the thinnest and resonant porcelain, Silvan robes and products from the well-known Noldor varnish, medicines and jewelry, it was all equally desirable and equally hard for Umbarians to get their hands on.

The Eldar had long memory and no desire to trade with those who still swore their oaths in Sauron's name - however nominally they had done so for a long time - and had become very insular since the Last Alliance. There was some trade between the elves in Lindon and Gondorian merchants, who in turn traded with Harad and Khand, but there was no love lost between Gondor and Umbar either while Harad and Khand preferred to keep what they imported, never selling in any great quantity.

The news his Master's birds had spied and carried from the Dunland were in many ways quite unfortunate, but not an unmitigated loss. The Eldar would trade with their new dogs and they would in turn trade with other Dunlending traders. Merchants were more loyal to precious metals than precious ideals and Umbar gold was good in Dunland as well.

"The road shall be long, but the prize well worth it," he promised, and so the greater liar laid a trap for the lesser. Soon enough Gondor was bound to deny Umbarian caravans travelling papers and land route through Mordor would never be safe, no matter what promises were given. Yet this was still several years ahead, according to conservative estimate, and Rómendil would have plenty of time to finish his business in Umbar before the lady realized the deal made wasn't sustainable.

"Shall we discuss the particulars," he proposed with a smile.

***

And so they were all preoccupied with terribly, terribly important matters.

Chapter Text

In different languages there are subtle differences and distinctions in expressions and meanings. To say the same thing doesn't necessarily mean the same thing at all. Only a person who speaks both languages very well can truly the delicate shadings of the word "cave" between Sindarin and Khuzdul, for example. Since Celebrimbor there has been none who could speak both.

To speak a foreign language is to make shades of a colour. The subtleties of translation compound the subtleties of each language; maybe the ents are the wisest, to sing from mind to mind.

***

That Osgiliath was huge was Bilbo's first perception of the city and the impression the high walls and towers made on him was frankly intimidating. It was all very white, though Bilbo was hard pressed to guess at what type of stone it was. Rivendell was carved from marble and white onyx, he had been told, but this stone didn't quite look the same. It wasn't limestone either, probably, because Bofur had once told Bilbo that limestone was very soft sort, for a stone, and surely that made it unsuitable for building walls and fortresses. Osgiliath certainly looked like it had stood there on both sides of the river for centuries and would continue to stand centuries still.

It is granite, unless I am very much mistaken, Gwaedhglae offered, and Bilbo didn't know why he was so surprised. Gwaedhglae had so far had wisdom to offer on every subject so why not stonework as well.

I thought granite was red - in the Shire it is, he thought, mindful of speaking out loud now that he approached strangers who would no doubt take notice of any odd habits. To tell the truth in the Shire granite was called "that hard red rock good for masonry" to tell it apart from "that gray rock good for making cobble stones" but travelling with the dwarves had taught Bilbo better. Stones were important to them.

(And how bitter they had been over Rivendell's rare white onyx - not that they would have ever admitted to it!)

Many stones come in several possible colours; white onyx is specified as white to tell it apart from the black and red kind, Gwaedhglae explained.

The gates to the city were guarded by two armed men on Gondor's side of the river. They didn't appear ordinary footsoldiers to Bilbo, but knight with their heavy armour. They all wore a heavy breast plate with a stylized, elvish-looking tree etched upon them, chain mail underneath, shoulder guards and something that resembled plate skirts hanging from the breast plates on the sides - faulds, Gwaedhglae supplied Bilbo with a word. This was all crowned by shining helmets with wings etched upon them on the sides that extended on the cheeks, hiding most of the face away. The men shone and glittered in the sun, polished and sharp and very dangerous-looking. Their eyes widened when they realized a child was carrying the coat of arms of the king of Rohan and widened even more when they realized he was no child.

"Hail, traveller! Who are you, small sir, that you carry the horse of the King Fengel?" asked one of the men sternly, stepping forth. "Speak, I entreat you, sir, for I have not heard of dwarves serving Rohan before." His words were an odd blend of sharp and polite and his manner was unsure. It was clear to Bilbo that he didn't know what to think of what he saw.

"I am Bilbo Baggins, not a dwarf but a hobbit of the Shire - our people are called holbytla in Rohan and I believe it is periannath in Sindarin. In you service. I was given the right to this coat of arms, because - there has been a spot of trouble in Rohan, lately. A group of nobles who thought to usurp King Fengel by kidnapping his young kinsman, a mere faunt - that is, a child - and making him into a puppet ruler. The whole story is... a somewhat delicate matter, if you don't mind. I can't discuss it out in the open," Bilbo spoke, wincing as he remembered anew. He wasn't certain that Fengel would have forbade him of speaking of the outlawed tradition, riding below the crupper, and Deorlaf had certainly been blithe regarding the subject once the danger of being subjected to said tradition had passed, but Bilbo thought of regal, well-bred Queen Argantlowen and chose to be discreet.

The four knights, or what ever their rank might have been, looked like they really wished he would further extend on delicate, but didn't ask questions. The wrinkled man who had first spoken to him gestured one of his companions who then stepped forth as well.

"I am Sergeant of the Guard, Falastur son of Falandil, in your service, Sir Bilbo Baggins." He frowned slightly at the unfamiliar name, possibly wondering if the greeting had been appropriate. "I am certain the Captain of the Guard would be delighted to hear your story. Macil shall lead you to the guard house as an honoured guest," he introduced the younger man who inclined his head deeply.

"Please follow me, I shall take you to the guard where you shall be offered refreshments and you horse shall be fed as well," the young man named Macil said. Was there a dark curl peeking under the helmet? The man was tall and solemnity spoke in every line of his still youthful features, and their stern beauty was in keeping with the deep tones of his speech; Bilbo felt himself flushing and nodded his acquiescence.

Oh, tall and dark-haired was definitely his type. This man was gray-eyed rather than blue, but this did nothing to detract from his blinding attractiveness. At the least, Bilbo consoled himself, he wouldn't know the youngster long enough to break his heart over the lad. Gwaedhglae was the one companion who had followed him on his travels since the beginning and would continue to do so.

The guard house was close to the gates, after a short pass with an open roof that would allow archers a good shot any anyone trying to attack the city no doubt. There was a courtyard with a small knot of men and women in the greatest rushing past, he men wearing the armour of the guard and the women in gray carrying baskets full of bread. A stable hand took Tiarna's reins from Bilbo and he was politely led to the house and the Captain of the Guard.

***

Gwaedhglae watched the one introduced as Macil, parentage unknown, through Bilbo's eyes and he wasn't terribly impressed. He supposed that the man was fair enough of face, for a mortal, but hardly as "blindingly attractive" as Bilbo seemed to find him. There was some nobility to his bearing, good breeding and the thinnest vestiges of ancient elven blood, but truly, the child was nothing when compared to the loveliness and majesty of Sauron.

Then Gwaedhglae realized what he was thinking and cursed himself. If Bilbo happened to find a human pup good-looking, it was a matter of no importance. Truly. A tongue of flame licked the edges of his mind.

He used to be a better liar than this, he thought glumly. It was a sickly, dizzying sensation.

***

The captain's office, if the room was indeed called so, was a small, square room with one door, no windows and no furniture beside a heavy desk made of time-darkened oak and a bookshelf standing against the left wall. The only luxury was a wall hanging behind the captain's desk, a heavy, embroidered cloth with large beaded tassels that let off soft jingling sound when the door was opened and a breeze stirred them. At first when Bilbo saw the Captain of the Guard he thought that the man was strangely young for such position; he had little knowledge of armies, but from what he had learned in Erebor, captains tended to be men well out of their thirteens - or twenties, which for humans was the same as thirteens to hobbits, or so he had been told. Then he wasn't quite so certain. The captain was sitting behind his desk, a pile of pergaments before him, and his face had a kind of ageless quality that made evaluating his age difficult.

It made Bilbo think of Haldir, to tell the truth, as though the two men were long-lost cousins for all they didn't look very similar.

“Hail, young noble,” said the Captain of the Guard, bowing slightly as he appeared somewhat annoyed. Bilbo knew the moment the captain spied his feet, for then his head bobbed back up.

“Hail, Captain of the Guard” he answered, smiling as he inclined his head though he in truth found the whole affair rather uncomfortable. "I am Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire, recently taken into the household of King Fengel. I bring you news from Rohan... though I'm no official envoy! I am simply on my journey to Harad to buy black pepper." He could go to Harad after he had lured Saruman into Mordor and buy those spices for Eoforhild. The prices were certain to be cheaper in the local markets and then he wouldn't have told a lie, would he, not precisely?

True enough was turning out to be his favourite kind of lie.

"I am Captain Fainar son of Gaernar, Sir Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. I would gladly hear you tell your story, and tell of your people as well, for I have never before heard of either the hobbit or the Shire. I shall order a servant to bring us food so that we may converse in comfort," the captain didn't quite order, though it was clear that he expected his questions to be answered. Bilbo was happy to acquiescence and soon a servant boy arrived with smoking platters heaped with sausages, cheese and grilled onions, thick loaves of bread were placed before them and much to Bilbo's delight there were even mushrooms. A bit grand fare for soldiers, Bilbo supposed, but since he was now cîw iâr he supposed this feast was for his benefit. The captain rose and faced the west and belatedly Bilbo did the same; then they sat and fell to the good food.

"It doesn't surprise me that you have never heard of my people before; we always seem to be left out of the old stories for we love peace and quiet and good tilled earth more than anything," Bilbo begun his story in between bites, mindful that he didn't speak with food in his mouth. "The Shire is fertile and kindly land that stretches forty leagues from the Far Downs to the Brandywine Bridge, and fifty from the northern moors to the marshes in the south; let me show it to you on my map."

Bilbo stretched the map on the table, mindful of the plates. The map didn't show the Shire's borders as it was human-made originally, but he moved his finger around the land that was his home. He felt a brief sting of home-sickness when he thought about how far he had come, but stifled it firmly. Soon he could return home and his family had most likely forgotten all about setting him with a wife - soon but not yet.

"While there was still a king in the north we were in name his subjects, though we were, in truth, mostly ruled by our own Thain. The Big Folk rarely paid attention to us at all," he continued. He was almost certain that most of the kings had forgotten they had hobbit subjects at all, though that hadn't necessarily been a bad thing.

"How have you come so far from your home?" the captain asked though his manner was more relaxed now that Bilbo so readily offered him information.

"Though hobbits are mostly homebodies, I am of more adventurous bend. And to tell the truth, my family had begun to make noises about the benefits of marriage and young widows so I thought it best to make myself scarce for a while," Bilbo admitted in a self-deprecating manner and scratched his nose. the captain let out an understanding laugh and Bilbo begun to tell his story in full. He thought it best to omit the quest to Erebor entirely, for he didn't think this man would believe him and he didn't want to be tarred as a liar. He told of brave, blind Bríl and gregarious Ficilia and the short night they had shared partying, of Háldir and Haldir and the desperate need for epësse to keep them separate, he told of Jorandir and Ayla and how many Dunlending Wildmen really were quite nice people, even though Camaenor had been mortally embarrassed.

"You have met Mithrandir?" the captain asked, his eyes widened, and Bilbo blinked in surprise; this was part of the story that surprised the man?

"He visits the Shire sometimes. He makes the most wonderful fireworks?" He didn't know what the captain had expected him to say, but this clearly wasn't it.

I reckon the Mithrandir these people have heard stories of is quite different from the man you have met, Gwaedhglae said dryly. And Bilbo agreed that Gandalf was a mighty wizard and that he could be quite the frightful sight when he was of mind to be, but he would never hurt a good man or anyone unable to defend themselves and surely this kind of look was overreacting?

Such power is frightening to many, even if the man wielding the power is good, Gwaedhglae explained further, which helped Bilbo understand precisely not at all. He continued his story but even as he haltingly explained what was so delicate that he didn't wish to speak of it out in the open, his mind was still half-dwelling on the issue of power. A small coat of arms had such power that he was treated with respect and hospitality even though these people were clearly scared in the wake of the volcano's eruption and hadn't ever even heard of his kind before. Gandalf was a good and wise man and his sense of humour was very good, if a little odd at times, but good men could still find him intimidating. If it was known that he possessed a magical ring, people would probably be afraid of even him.

And that is a strange thought, he addressed his musings to Gwaedhglae. He... could kill if he had to, but he always resented the necessity and he would never commit such an action for anything less.

"They would have forced a little boy to..." the captain raised his voice, now so scandalized that he seemed to forget all about Gandalf, at least for a while.

"I found him before they could, though Mistress Ashiwyfar can mostly be credited for organizing the party that returned Deorlaf to Meduself. The king is certain to punish the guilty harshly." A little too harshly, maybe, though Bilbo most definitely wasn't dwelling on that. Not at all.

"It would seem there is no reason to impede you on your journey, sir, but I pray, be careful. The roads are not as safe as they once were," the captain told him after the story was over and Deorlaf returned safely to Meduseld. He wrote, signed and put the steward's signet on travel papers that Bilbo wouldn't necessarily need to travel eastwards and south, but would absolutely need to travel back. Bilbo gave his thanks, more than a little surprised an obstacle that had at first seemd so insurmountable could be crossed so easily. With well-wishes and a package of freshly-baked bread and dried mutton given to him be a friendly serving woman he was sent on his way. He didn't catch a sight of Macil as he left, but that was probably for the best.

Bilbo tarried a little, buying more provisions now that he still had the chance to do so. Dried mushrooms, he decided, since those so delightedly were sold here, and onions, hard cheese and more oats for Tiarna. He had heard marvels of the magnificence of Gondorian cities and Osgiliath didn't make a lie of those stories; there were water pools and buildings taller than Bilbo had ever seen beforehand the marble statues of old kings and heroes - Bilbo thought that those without crowns probably were heroes of old tales - and high reliefs round the upper hart of the high walls that surrounded the city were well worth careful observation. Tiarna took him past an open courtyard with shops around it, full of the merchants' stalls and so many people he had a hard time believing they could all live in the city. He had no trouble buying what he needed and wound up picking a new whetstone for the caring of Sting on a whim as he passed by the blacksmith's stall.

Despite all this Bilbo, whose eyes usually carried away so vivid an impression of what he had once seen that he could write an accurate description of it from memory months and even years later, couldn't help but notice several worrying aspects among all the various things worthy of admiration. Before he even saw the bridge, manned by several more men in shining knight's armour, a peculiar sensation had come over him. The wide street he rode with shops lining it on both sides, which were filled with odors of spices and fish and something bitter and strong and difficult to describe, was very empty when compared to the market place and there were no lights in many of the shops. And it seemed to him that even the sun, which had been shining brilliantly a few minutes before in a cloudless sky, had disappeared behind clouds and a strange twilight unlike anything he had ever seen surrounded him.

Osgiliath was beautiful, proud, ancient. Osgiliath stood by the river, blocking it at the narrowest, shallowest ford, and on the other side of the river the mountains of Mordor loomed. Bilbo offered his travel papers to the eighteen men - eighteen of them! - guarding the eastern gates of the city and he left the beautiful twilight city behind.

***

The Common Tongue doesn't have the same word for "mine" like the Black Tongue does. It translates for a lack of a better option, but there are connotations lost.

Deep in his veins (that he still didn't strictly truthfully have, it felt important to concentrate on such irrelevancies, on anything but) Gwaedhglae felt possession burn bright and hot like Angband's coals and, for the first time in his short history of feeling anything at all, felt foolish for it. He wasn't in love, he wasn't, but if he was... if he was, there would be something wrong with this innate need to covet and conquer the lovely thing before him. He didn't know how he knew, but he was certain that something had once gone terribly, terribly wrong because of this. He couldn't remember. It had been bad before Osgiliath, but now it was worse for the sake of a human child who would never amount to anything more but flesh for an orc to strike with steel and warg to swallow.

And now you know it was all in vain. Oh, do draw one more tormented breath.

Had those been his words? There was something around the frayed edges of Gwaedhglae's lost memories, of those memories of Sauron that the ring simply didn't possess. There was the nauseating feeling of lack, of emptiness. That what was hidden was oft more fearful than what was seen, he knew this well, for what was more fearful than fear itself? yet now he didn't know if he should be more scared of knowing or not knowing.

You might have been mad, to think that I care. I merely wanted something from you.

A lie, that was a lie or at least almost lie, the true enough kind of a lie...

Why live so long fearing this day? Pray, tell me, how does it feel when your soon-to-be cold blood rushes so softly in your ears?

NO!

Nausea struck through Gwaedhglae and he curled around himself, huddled within himself, trying to regain so semblance of self-control and failing. He was distantly aware that he hadn't managed to shield this from Bilbo, that the hobbit was frantically calling his name even now, but he could barely think. The sound of that voice gutted him, shook the tenuous grip on the last vestiges of control he was maintaining. The Common Tongue didn't have the same word for "mine" like the Black Tongue did; it seemed a terribly important point now.

Gwaedhglae! What is wrong? Did Saruman do something to you? Bilbo's voiceless scream finally carried to him and Gwaedhglae chuckled darkly. As though the wizard had any power to wield over him.

"No," he said and he could have lied, should have lied and yet he didn't. "I remembered something."

What did you remember? Can I help you somehow? Bilbo was turning increasingly frantic, grasping at Gwaedhglae without even understanding how he did it.

"I don't know," he said and this, too, was the truth. He didn't know what he had remembered and he didn't know what Bilbo could do, the hobbit, could take the answer as he would.

What a fine picture they must make, huddling together in the middle of empty lands! This lands beyond the river was there the Ash Mountains began to fall away, the rough, precipitous line of crags sweeping around toward the west, seemingly to dwindling into the distance, even as they met Anduin. There was good earth, yes, and wild grapes grew there, the last, hardy offspring of the centuries ago abandoned farms, but the land was wild and forsaken, covered by a fine layer of volcanic ash, and they were all alone, a hobbit who seemingly spoke to himself like a madman and a treasure. Faoiltiarna was a war-trained horse and tense under distressed Bilbo, eyes turning and twitching and nostrils wide, but there was no danger to be detected. The only danger hid within the rider.

"Please don't ask me questions now. I will answer later, but please, not now." Gwaedhglae didn't expect Bilbo to comply with his plea, not really. No-one had ever stopped anything when he begged them to do so, no, when Sauron begged them to do so.

Bilbo Baggins did.

***

When the winds blew around the higher hills, the dark dust that seemed like ashes rose from them in clouds as from a dry path swept by the gale. Bilbo steered Tiarna to a narrow path that might once have been a well-trodden road that led through a creek between two hills; the pebbles were thickly strewn with dirty white ash and the sun was hidden by clouds. Gwaedhglae still either couldn't tell what was wrong with him or didn't wish to do so and Bilbo was sick with worry, yet Gwaedhglae didn't want him to ask. Where was the line drawn between good friend and a well-intentioned, ill-doing busybody? If Gwaedhglae only had a body, Bilbo could press him close.

And then Bilbo realized that he could. Body or no body, there was shape and for to touch and cradle and he let one hand go from the reins to take the ring and clutch him against his chest. Tiarna was prancing and Bilbo was getting nervous he might be thorn off her back for the first time, but there was nothing he could do to calm down.

I have collected myself, Gwaedhglae said after what felt like an eternity though the sun had barely travelled an hour's worth over the sky and Bilbo decided this was an invitation enough.

"Please, Gwaedhglae, I will do anything," he pleaded, unheeding of the noise now that only his horse and the wind could hear him speak. The wind was picking up and though it wasn't close to sunset yet, the day was dark.

Anything is too heavy a word to throw around carelessly, Gwaedhglae said tonelessly; Bilbo hadn't truly appreciated the nuances of his voiceless voice before those had disappeared. What is sex?

The question was so unexpected it threw Bilbo. He couldn't imagine what a ring might know of sex or wish to know, for while Gwaedhglae was undeniably a person and even a person Bilbo thought he might have loved very much, he had no body. What use did he wave for such knowledge?

"Sex is how two mortals can bless the gift of life," he answered and then hesitated. This was what his parents had told him when he had been a curious tween asking questions, but it wasn't the whole truth, he had learned that well. He remembered skin on skin and a curious ache that had made his body feel like his heart did. "Sex is how we, how we try to get closer to each other. No two hobbits can ever be one, but still we try. We touch skin because we cannot touch closer."

The moment of realization was akin to the blow of a hammer to the head.

And what is love? Gwaedhglae sounded so desperate now, like his entire world was hanging on Bilbo's answer.

He was in love with Gwaedhglae. He was in love with Gwaedhglae. He now knew that he hadn't ever truly loved Filibert Took because even when they had whispered confessions and touched skin it hadn't felt anything like this. He was in love with Gwaedhglae.

"Love is when you love without knowing how, or when, or where it came from. Love is like fire. Love is thirst and hunger and the one you love is bread and water. And love is when you care about them more than you care about yourself and that is why love is so scary. I, ah." Bilbo wasn't certain he wanted to know, but he had to ask. "I didn't scare you so badly, did I?" If he had driven Gwaedhglae to this state, he didn't know what he would do.

No! You are not... entirely unrelated, but it wasn't because of you.

Again Bilbo found the answer entirely unhelpful; what did not entirely unrelated mean in terms of his actions? His words? he tried his best to recall what he might have spoken to Gwaedhglae as long as he had spoken anything to the ring, but there was nothing he could imagine causing this kind of pain. And his mind, his recalcitrant, decorative mind chose this moment to play with pretty words. It was akin to a magical compulsion that simply pulled the words from his heart, as though some part of him had worked composing the poem for a long time now.

In my thoughts he is present to me,
Balmed with the flattering want so ardent...

This wasn't the moment, Bilbo told his inspiration. Gwaedhglae was distressed for reasons unknown and while Bilbo very much wished to write him a sonnet, a hundred sonnets, this wasn't the moment. Besides, claiming Gwaedhglae was balmed with want for him was very presumptuous, though this probably wasn't the most pressing point right at that moment. His inspiration remained entirely unimpressed with his arguments, however.

Rich with the curly core of amusement...

And the silence was broken the the shriek of an orc. Bilbo cursed.

He turned his head around, yet he couldn't see a sight of an orc. The branches of large shrubs with glossy green leafs and small trees that resembles ash a little drooped and floated on a steep, rocky drop to the west of the road and the boughs of the taller silver poplars strained upward, as if anxious to avoid the drop beneath. It wasn't such a long a drop, maybe thirteen feet, yet it would be very difficult to climb on foot and on horseback the ground was unpassable; Bilbo could go forth, back and to the east, but west was blocked from him. He had thought the part silent before, but in truth there had been the wild pigeons and other birds at roost in the tops of the trees, their sudden absence more notable than their crooning had been.

"There is no cause for worry yet. The wind carried those noises from the south so our tracks have not been discovered yet," he consoled Gwaedhglae, feeling rather strange doing so as it was usually his friend - his love - who did so when he felt uncertain. The ashes glistened on every little leaf and green blade of grass. Now and then a gentle breath of wind would arise, carrying the scent of the ash across to him, playing in the tops of the slender which grew in numbers by the drop and sending those ashes flying. Bilbo was painfully aware that there was no way to hide the tracks of a horse on such ground.

Best to travel to the east, he decided; on the road he felt very exposed and any foul creature seeking to waylay travellers would prepare an ambush by the roadside no doubt. In north there was Osgiliath, but Bilbo didn't desire to return there, not now. These were dangerous lands, east of the river, and waiting a day or two wouldn't make them any safer from him. At least now he had an idea where the enemy was and could avoid the assault, though the orcs couldn't have chosen a worse time than this. Gwaedhlgae remained silent and Bilbo called him in vain.

***

Gwaedhglae was aware Bilbo was calling his name, but he couldn't muster the concentration to answer the hobbit. There was a garden blooming within Gwaedhglae, full of flowers that were not really flowers. Now there was also something else.

Between the wildly crawling flower beds there was a tree. It wasn't very tall as far as trees go, a mere sapling maybe the height of a tall hobbit with a slender, nimble bole and three thin branches with leaves that appeared wholly too large and heavy to be carried thus. The bark of the bole was shedding in long rainbow stripes that revealed the pale shades of delight like the last apricot of rising sun, darker tones of desire like flames climbing up the sapling, splashed with yearning as clear as the air and familiarity, almost as invisible other than the tiniest tint of hope around the edges. The leaves of the tree smelled like heavy, heady flowers and the black pepper or arguments with someone you promised to cherish forever, the camphor of comfort and wood smoke, always burning. He knew that when it bloomed for the first time, the flowers would be without comparison.

"This wasn't here!" he cried out. He had sought flowers, true, not trees, but he couldn't have possibly missed this. The tree was the most spectacular manifestation in the garden! Only a blind man could have missed it!

"I didn't want you. I don't want you," he continued, not expecting any more answers than he had been given before.

"I much doubt many people need to ask; to love is to be a real person, or at least a big part of it, and you could almost be called whole now," the tree answered, startling Gwaedhglae. It had no mouth, no face, only the bark of layers upon layers, bared for all to see here and hidden there, and the almost unassuming leaves.

"Are you an ent?" he asked, disbelieving. The flower symbolism had originally been derived from Bilbo's mind, which was still the root of the garden - the pun very much not intended - but this shape was of his own mind and intangible, non-measurable, impossible heart. For a fleeting moment the scent of the black pepper and the smoke overpowered all else.

"I am you, Gwaedhglae, and you should cease speaking to yourself; this is a bad habit," the tree answered. "You truly are the blindest of the blind that you must have this explained to you; you are in love. You have lost your bet."

***

It was no time for delay and careful leave-taking, as much as he wanted to remain until he could reach Gwaedhglae; Bilbo encourages Tiarna into the thicket, hoping to leave less track beneath the trees where it had not fallen to the ground as much and hoping to fell more in his wake to cover them. What had happened to unsettle the ring so? Gwaedhglae claimed the matter was not Saruman and wasn't quite Bilbo either, yet he couldn't understand! If only he could find a stream, even a small one, so that he could travel more safely. He could always turn invisible if things took a terribly sore turn, but this would still leave Faoiltiarna vulnerable and while he wouldn't die for a horse, any horse, the thought of abandoning her to become orc supper sat ill with him.

Gwaedhglae, please answer to me, he pleaded silently. They were the kings of bad timing that this peril yawned before them right now. He had to keep his eyes open, his ears keen and his mind on both so that he wouldn't be taken by surprise in his distress and Bilbo resented the necessity bitterly.

You must return, Gwaedhglae spoke to him without a warning, still glum and toneless. If the situation hadn't been so perilous Bilbo might have cheered from relief.

Is there any chance the road will become safer, this close to Mordor, he asked and didn't pull Tiarna's reins. They hadn't yet been discovered and he trusted Gwaedhglae to protect him at least if all else failed.

You must return to the Shire, Gwaedhglae elaborated and Bilbo almost fell from the saddle for the sheer surprise of it.

I must bait Saruman, he protested, though he only realized now that he wasn't quite certain how that would be accomplished. Before he could any questions there was the sound of pebbles falling down the knoll, however, and now Bilbo brought Tiarna to a halt, silent and alert. It was only a moment and he could see the first shape climbing up a little ways to the south.

A thick, glossy-leaved shrub so tall it was a small tree concealed Bilbo and Tiarna from the orcs, but he could distinctly see them, as they passed us at a distance of not more than twenty steps. These orcs were of the smaller kind, those usually called goblins, but there were eight of them and Bilbo didn't much fancy his chances against all of them at once. He spied sickly green skin and dirty, uneven gray, grotesquely long arms and gnarled joints. All of the goblins carried ugly, clumsy-looking swords at their back or hip without a sheath, the shape of them resembling more a butcher's meat-cleaver than anything else, but rusty though they were and Bilbo was certain his mithril shirt could stop much sharper blades, those could cut his neck or a vein in a leg or simply pummel him until he fell to the ground. He worried that Tiarna might make a noise, but Queen Argantlowen had chosen well indeed; the mare made no sound, took no step, though her nostrils were wide again and Bilbo might have sworn that there was something intrinsically bloodthirsty to the tilt of her head.

He waited a while to make certain there were no late-comers and that the creatures were well out of hearing range, wondering what he should do now. Riding after them would be folly so continuing further to the south was the best course of action now. The irritatingly vague map didn't show where a good passage might be found, but there had to be one if he travelled far enough.

Alike the innocent and the blind man... The poem simply wouldn't leave him in peace and it was decidedly taking a turn for the weirder to compound the matter. Bilbo could have spared every scrap of his attention now.

You must turn around, Gwaedhglae urged him. I will explain myself, but please, you must do as I ask. This was when things took a turn for the worse.

Bilbo steered Tiarna between two hills, a passage that wasn't particularly narrow, but took a sharp turn in the east end. There he heard the rush of water and after a moment he saw ahead of him a fern thicket, and the brook flashing its water beyond. It was barely more than a trickle, yet enough for a horse to travel and he thought he was safe, safer, and he already praised Vána for the providence when there was a shrill yell sounded behind him and when Bilbo's head whipped around, he saw four more goblins running after him. Orcs before him and orcs behind, what he did was more instinctual than the result of consideration; Bilbo spurred Tiarna to gallop, just a few yards so that he gained lead and then he jumped from the mare's back.

"Go, go!" he ordered and gave a slap to the horse's rump and she obeyed, at least for a short while. He was counting on the orcs not pausing to wonder why he would jump from his steed when he was pursued and they didn't, simply running after him. Bilbo ran faster than he ever had before, his lungs hitching as he tried to put as much distance between Tiarna and himself as he could and yet keep some distance between himself and his pursuers. When there was maybe ten steps between him and the orcs he slipped the ring onto his finger.

It was always a strange sensation when he wore the ring; the air seemed to flow around him like water, the shadows moved and stretched like living beings, the noises echoed in his ears and a chill like winter wind brushed against his skin. Now he felt more, he felt something both warm and cold brushing against his very mind, a sensation that would have greatly startled him before he had first spoken with Gwaedhglae, yet now felt almost natural. The feeling sharpened into burning and freezing, like he had somehow suffered a frostbite above a sunburn, yet it wasn't painful. But Bilbo didn't ponder this much because above all he knew that Gwaedhglae was horribly, desperately frightened.

"We are too close, take me off!" Gwaedhglae screamed to him, straining against Bilbo in a way that was felt against his thoughts, not his finger. For the first time Bilbo could hear the ring's voice in his ears.

"Too close to what?" he slurred, overwhelmed, and then cursed his foolishness. While the orcs couldn't see him anymore, were blindly running in circles and growling with frustration, they weren't deaf.

And the sky was set on fire; between one heartbeat and the second Bilbo's field of vision was narrowed into the eastern horizon. It was all that he could see and there was a burning eye searching for him. Bilbo knew, or maybe Gwaedhglae knew, that the eye hadn't seen him yet, but it was getting closer and closer. There were cruel voices howling in the wind, sharp like knives and echoing inside his skull like thunder. Bilbo stared at the Eye like a mouse enchanted by the swaying head of a snake, unable to move a finger. Soon it would see him, very soon, and what would happen then would be horrible and still he was unable to turn his gaze.

"Bilbo! Take me off!"

Bilbo obeyed the command as though another will moved his body. He was standing two steps apart from an orc.

***

In my thoughts he is present to me,
Balmed with the flattering want so ardent;
Rich with the curly core of amusement
Wisdom akin the seeded-wine is free,

I almost see; fair face blond like gold
Rich with white lights, his wisdom is his pelf;
His live gaze, the colourings of himself
A clear perfection; you broke the mold!

But sharp stones hide in the clear shallows
And forever love must take by the hand
Alike the innocent and the blind man;
I beg, my light, to not cast shadows!

***

"BILBO!"

Chapter Text

Sometimes what defines the future of a person is clear-cut and easy to recount after the fact, history made story-shaped when life imitates a tale.The One Ring was forged to be the power that ardors beyond limits. A victory, a weapon, a simple conduit, but even before it became a he, there was more to the ring than that. Sauron had created the enchantment from his own fëa and to be Sauron was to take want for necessity. Slow to gather, easy to spend; power is very much like gold and gold is power.

Gwaedhglae was a ring of gold as he was a ring of power; he was the glittering promise of delight, of good things to come some other day, he was lusting and craving and he was wanting just this one thing more, no matter how much one already had. He was made to be never enough.

Now he knew what it was like to not have enough because he had no time. The orc swung his arm, the sharp of the blade hit Bilbo to the head, hitting the Rohan helmet with a clang that reverberated in the air like the toll of a great bell. The helmet held, barely, but Bilbo's vision spun and turned gray and soft around the edges, dimming and narrowing sickly.

"Bilbo, stay awake!" he screamed, but it was in vain. The hobbit's fingers slackened and Gwaedhglae fell to the ground.

The orc fell after him like a starving man to a plate of cuts, his bug eyes bulging even more as he pawed at the ring. Gwaedhglae could feel only disgust, but he steeled himself and when the orc straightened up, he could see another creeping closer to unconscious Bilbo, giggling cruelly as he, it, petted the hilt of its cleaver. It was an ugly, gnarled thing with the left half of its face so distorted it looked like the flesh had melted, but the look of the creature wasn't what made it impossible for Gwaedhglae to consider it a person. It wouldn't stop giggling in an almost convulsing manner, maybe it even couldn't stop, and the feverish, maniac gleam he observed in its one visible eye didn't leave him with any delusions regarding its capability to reason.

"He would take me from you," he whispered to the orc that was clutching him so tightly; the ring didn't know his name and didn't care to learn. "Strike him dead now that his back is turned to you; am I not precious to you? I am a treasure unlike any other and you must protect your claim." The orc's will bent under his push like grass under a heel and the ease of it threw Gwaedhglae into a flutter of spirits in which it was difficult to say whether surprise or exultation bore the greatest share. Without a word, without a warning, the orc cut the giggling beast's head from its shoulders, spraying black blood all over the unmoving, pale hobbit.

"Take them all on! Take them on before they can take me!" Gwaedhglae roused him. The orc closest to his temporary holder bared his gums in a snarl when there was the sound of hooves on rocks, wild, cutting neigh and Faoiltiarna was there, leaping up on her hind legs and beating the air with her hooves. The largest of the orcs, one with back straighter than the others and chain mail that had been so polished it was almost clean of rust, fell to the ground in a heap, accompanied by the sharp sound of a skull cracking from side to side. Her blue eyes were not mischievous anymore, but full of fury, and Gwaedhglae hadn't ever thought that he might feel affection for a beast of burden.

But his delight was short-lived. The orc took advantage of his comrade's surprise and distraction to slip the ring on his finger. In the east, beyond the mountain, a fiery Eye begun to turn anew.

"NO! Why can't people stop putting me on?" Gwaedhglae could barely hear his own words over the deafening irony.

***

If asked, all would say that Sauron was above all characteristics relentless, sanguinary, hateful and power-hungry. In truth he could lay claim to patient as well, though this was by necessity, not natural inclination. He had been enslaved by Morgoth, humbled before Eönwë captured and humiliated by the Númenorians and rendered a wraith without body to house him and yet he persevered long after Morgoth had been thrown to the Void, Manwe's standard bearer had returned to sit adoringly at his master's feet and the fall of Númenor was but a chapter in history books. Patience was the bitter pill which allowed him to outlast all adversity.

Patiently Sauron called for his ring. It might be days or years or decades, but his ring would return to him. Whether carried by an orc or a wretched human, a greedy dwarf or an elf who truly should have known better, the ring would take and discard, entice and betray and it would return to him. His time had finally arrived; the elves were fading, the dwarves had dwindled, the humans had been felled from their grace for daring to wish for too much. Who could stand against him now that the world was finally his for taking?

The ring had been found already, this much was certain, for Sauron had almost seen the one who carried it. He had no true vision as he was, a disembodied spirit, and though he likened his observations to sight, in truth he chanted high-pitched pulses of sound, of music through the weave that was the echo of the music that had once created Arda. No mouth had he to sing a song, yet what was music but mathematics; the square forms an unresolved chord, the one voice which is now silent and lets another voice follow its patterns, the equations of the existence and the Ideas given form and meaning meshed in its details, its power, its intricacies? He chanted high for his ring and listened for the return of that pulse; it was his mind that judged the distance and direction, created shapes and sight, heard the colours and painted the world in light and heat and strange ranges of blue and green. There had been the familiar, secret chord returned, he knew, if only for a moment before the life-song of a Child of Ilúvatar had carried through, deafened and dampened, hid and veiled the ring with its irrelevant, insignificant existence.

Sauron sung-sought for his missing pieces and again the veil was pierced, the glint of the power carrying through; the ring carried on a finger! He leaped from his seat of power and flied across the expanse of the darkened sky, above the cracked, jagged plains his will had made anew. He would raise himself up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it! Like a great storm he passed the mountains, gliding past cliff faces so that the stone was left blackened in his wake, searching for the familiar gleam, his fëa singing in anticipation. He was so close now...

He was so close and by the root of the Ash Mountains he found his ring, adorning the hand of one of his slaves. He who had once laid down the nations would do so anew, enthroned on the utmost heights of the world, and finally, finally he would have done what Morgoth had attempted and failed, with the elves and the kings of human in submission to him! He reached out in triumph, not paying the least of attention to the cowering slave...

Rejection.

Rejection and Disallowance. Abrogation, Evasion and Secession - Treachery. Sauron flinched back at each word spun between them, not in pain, but in shock so great his sense and understanding couldn't comprehend what had happened. His ring.

His ring had struck him!

For the shortest of moments he floundered, both dumb and numb with what should not have been possible at all. It was as though the make of Arda itself had changed without a warning, the stream of time turning backwards, the ground repealing rather than calling to it; a law akin to gravity had been pulled away from under him and for very long Sauron had only known one way to solve the mystery to something he couldn't understand. His song-vision, his entire mind washing white-hot and blood-red, he unleashed against the traitorous ring his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility - a storm no power could hope to endure.

***

Wind rose from nowhere, layered with power, so heavy it could be tasted. Power tasted like swallowing a ball of fireworks and power tasted heavy on the mind like lead, weighing it down, down, down, power poured inside like water and tasted of abstract things. The orc Gwaedhglae had taken had already been reduced to a gibbering wreck, unable to look away from the Eye even as the fear made his mind sizzle like bacon on hot stones, unable to pull the ring off, but that only meant he offered Gwaedhglae no resistance as he the ring lifted his arm to ward Sauron off. He was scared, of course he was scared, but his love for Bilbo was greater still. It seemed so strange to him now that he hadn't noticed, hadn't understood something that gave him such strength for so long.

"I shall be a fortress, impenetrable and strong," he sung, calling to his power under his own power for the first time, at first clumsily. Walled and Defended; an Embattled, Spiritual Power, a Vigil. He sung the words and invoked the power of the pure Idea they only reflected.

"Then I shall be a battering sea and tear you from your mind," Sauron sung, rising against Gwaedhglae like sea, wearing down at him, searching for weaknesses, for the seams in his song-spell. He knew that crumble he must so he crumbled, crumbled not into nothing, but something that couldn't be touched, couldn't be taken, stolen. He crumbled and the solid strength became moving force.

"I shall be wind, elusive and intangible," Gwaedhglae sung, now with more confidence. Hard to Control, Hard to Understand, moving like wind on the face of the deep. He didn't defend now, but rose to batter his will against the depths of Sauron. He wore sharpness and ability to penetrate like skin he had donned upon his golden self and he reached deep, deep to strike at the one who was his master no longer.

"Then I shall be a cloud of smoke and tear you from your mind," Sauron sung, and suddenly he wasn't a force opposing Gwaedhglae, but mingling with him, spreading his power and winding it through his very being, working to stiffle him like smoke might stiffle living lungs. He was hazy, he was a reflection of a great Flame deep within, power much more ancient than Gwaedhglae was. But he had been born from that power.

"I shall be a forest, a place of the wild and a place of testing," he sung, leaving himself deliberately vulnerable, preparing and baiting a trap. Forest, a Realm of Life and Death holding the secrets of nature which man must penetrate to find meaning, he might have lured Sauron in, but he knew the one who had created him better. For too long Sauron had only known one way to solve the mystery to something he couldn't understand.

"Then I shall be a storm of fire and burn you from your will!" Sauron burned and the pain was unlike anything Gwaedhglae could remember. Consummation, Bringer of Pain and Death and Destruction; this came naturally to the Maia. There was very little left in Sauron that wasn't nothing but, a creature of the impure flames, a reflection of his own true self. It was pain like Gwaedhglae had never known before, worse than the bite of fear and the burn of guilt, and he could have crowed in delight because by showing his truest self Sauron had left himself terribly, wonderfully open.

"I shall be waters vast, strength and power, dominating and intense!" he sung, taking the depths Sauron had at first worn and then discarded and making them his own. He wore Change and Life like clothes, Unpredictable and Uncontrollable like his skin and called for Hope, Truth, Mystery and Magic to be his mind. He smothered and quenched the flames, took the power that was Sauron and made it all nothing. Now he was the one screaming because water is blue; but to go deep enough is to find only black. For a glorious second Gwaedhglae was winning...

"Then I shall be a thirsting maw and take you deep within!" And the great liar had set the trap for the lesser one. Go deep enough, he thought as he was cut to fine mist around the edges, and there will be only black.

***

Sometimes the experiences that define the future of a person are messy and unexpected, sneaking close from behind and striking without warning. Enraged beyond anything he had ever felt before, Sauron became an all-consuming incarnate and took his traitorous ring deep within. It brought him pain like even Morgoth hadn't been able to force upon him.

The ring had been deep and shifting, suffocating and cold, yet it burned him like white-hot brand as he swallowed around it. He took the ring inside and the ring took his insides, branding him in its own image - in his own image. There was no match left for his will on the face of Arda, even in the face of such agony, but the surprise turned his grasp slippery like soap on silver and he was taken by memories not his own.

A dwarrowdam, an intoxicated little barbarian princess with her cheap, gaudy jewelry, I am the Queen of the Moooo-untain and you are a stuffed maaaa-ntle, a few steps that could have been generously interpreted as dancing. Mountain doesn’t rhyme with mantle, Lady Dís, a crippled, scarred woman protested and failed to look straight. Weak, useless, not worth attention... strong, pity, lovely, embarrassment, friendship, baffling, maddening feelings and frustration. A whore, mortal and flawed, full of filth... laughter, ale, does that mean that someone likes being whipped with live fish... do you really want to know... a coin of gold, a gift to a stranger's sister. No, a friend's...

The ring burned hotter than it - he - had burned in the fires of Orodruin and Sauron scarred beneath it's touch. You wanted this, hazy, distant voice whispered to him, you wanted this so take now that you have won, and there was both bitterness and fear, satisfaction and epicaricacy twined between the words. There was despair and determination in equal measure.

Many hours arguing the merits of the narrative poems of Elhadron and the elegies of Miluinaer – very good, a ranger claimed, in the original Sindarin and the translator had butchered his works terribly. Háldir with dark hair and blue eyes and curly-haired Hallonith at home. Want, want was easy to understand, curling lazily like a snake of fire. Involving yourself only a little in the business of a stranger, my dear Bilbo, is like getting a little bit pregnant. Soon the consequences will run away with you, the words of a good father, a dead father. And then there were two Haldirs. I have no epessë...Just give me a good name to grant him... You are Camaenor. A brave marchwarden with a warrior's name and all warriors must come to the same end. It was a fitting trap, dread, victory, corruption, doom.

There was regret and regret was, inexplicably, a flower. Sauron struggled to keep himself separate from the ring, keep the memories a life's length apart and to make some sense of them. Regret was a flower and beneath it hid something frightful, something terrible. The moon was but a thin sickle, the sky was cloudless and full of stars like living gems, a boy sitting down with the tip of Camaenor’s sword resting against the hollow of his throat. Please don’t eat me! A bony-looking man with receding hairline, mortal and weak and full of pretensions, a slave to a master he had never seen, an ugly heart descrying dread... danger, inciting, pique; a mob. Yes, show us! Sing for us, sing for us, sing for us! Mercy not asked yet given, undeserved. Trying to discriminate only against a few was akin to trying to get only a little bit pregnant, and all who lived had souls.

And if every living person had a soul, didn't the ring possess one as well?

No life to live or die, and yet. The sickly sweet smell of pale and tiny flowers, their colour that of fear, and the ring didn't betray Bilbo, didn't slip his finger. A pile of fabric, a delicate hand with nails painted red, a weak woman, a victim... Camaenor, she was given to you as a human sacrifice! And now Sauron couldn't keep himself apart anymore, he laughed as helplessly as the ring had laughed and it slipped closer again, branding him with life that belonged to someone else. Fear of death and amusement twined together like two snakes fighting to eat each other's tails. Fear was a bitter lesson, a faithful hound that always returned to lick at his heels - Isildur had struck his hand and he had been sundered, had though, for a moment, that he would die.

A long, long time ago when the world was still young, the grass made promise to the rain and the grass was forever faithful. The Grass’ Promise, a hobbit's words, more a grocer than a hero, because the grass was true. Gwaedhglae.

Gwaedhglae? Was there ever a more ridiculous name?

But it was a beautiful and touching story, and you are beautiful and touching and faithful even when you are alike and next of kin to some terrible wraith garden and I didn’t intend to actually say that…

Deep within Sauron there was a hole, an emptiness where something that had been Sauron had been taken from him. Now he had something that was Gwaedhglae to fill the emptiness and it didn't work, wouldn't work, couldn't work because Gwaedhglae couldn't be Sauron. He should have been enraged, been taken by furor and umbrage, yet all Sauron could feel was numb helplessness. He had flowers taking root in his mind, he had a ring named after grass and he might as well have fitted a square column to a round indent. For them to fit together, for two to become one, something would have to break. Sauron didn't know what this something would be.

***

To the north and west, in the Land of Lothlórien that had once been Laurelindórenan, the wise, mighty Lady Galadriel turned ashen and her tongue was tied mid-sentence. The ring Nenya she carried on her forefinger had turned as hot as coal and a distant reflection of fire could be seen on the white stone.

"He has returned." A trembling hand moved to rest on her stomach, warding evil away.

***

There was a bet, no, two bets; one cruel and foolish, the other simply foolish and over walking trees no less. With every memory there was a new mark upon him, but now Sauron could almost think through the branding, to make sense of it all. Why would you even propose this, are you in love with misery, Bilbo had asked, so cruelly and utterly accidentally. Then there had been Rohan.

The grand, green land beyond the mountains, the land of the wild Riders of the Mark. A little prince, kidnapped twice, declaring he had wanted to strike the men holding him dead; a highwaywoman offering her protection with stubborn pride, wrinkled and gray, yet strong and there was a desperate ride. A poem.

Riding below the crupper; I mean, play at rumpscuttle and clapperdepouch, play the pyrdewy, join... fuck it, they want me to fuck it, a little boy's words, and Bilbo Baggins was enraged. And I do not think that the Hunter much approves that a man who would have a child ride below the crupper would call him for aid, a little hobbit holding the river bank alone, why not call for Sauron if you have already fallen this low, and now Sauron was as insulted as Gwaedhglae had been. As cruel as he was, and he knew he was cruel, he had his limits! He had more class than that if nothing else, he wasn't Morgoth!

Then there was a man with blood on his lips, the first man Bilbo had struck down and the cruellest wound he had ever delivered. A plea for a mercy killing when to have mercy would be cruel and to be merciful was the same as being merciless; the hobbit had cut him down and. And.

Delight was warm and cozy, delight was so familiar and so monstrous, a smile with sharp teeth and sharper pleasure. But who hath seen her weave her sails, Bilbo Baggins had cracked like a crock and then there were flowers, their scent the scent of smoke, woodsy and heavy, a hint of the iron of blood and a spice of south so potent it would burn through the tongue after a single bite. Regret, this was regret and Bilbo could hear him, this was regret and below the regret was something else, something even more cutting. The ground turned like a bread roll, mother-of-pearl blossoms so rich, asymmetrical, the kind of sentiment that wore a different face for everyone with the scent of air and no scent of their own at all, an upside-down and downside-up mirror image of the garden above.

Compassion. Regret. Taking it back, foolish, taking it back regardless. The cessation of pain was more satisfying than it had any right to be; Sauron tried to be horrified and this, too, was much harder than was right.

***

To the north and further to the west in the land of Dunlending Wildmen, in a tent made of animal skins, Gandalf the Grey flinched as though he had been struck and a pot of boiling water fell from his slackened hands. The fire within Narya rose to match the fire that had been awakened, defiant and forever resisting.

"He has found it." Only the fool knew no fear and Gandalf was no fool.

***

All that was narrowed down, spiraled towards some great revelation. There was a human named Macil, young and tall; too tall for Bilbo, Gwaedhglae insisted, with dark hair, gray-eyed rather than blue. The child was nothing when compared to the loveliness and majesty of Sauron, Gwaedhglae insisted, and Sauron had to agree; Macil was tolerable for a mortal, but not handsome enough to tempt him and neither was Háldir.

And now you know it was all in vain. Oh, do draw one more tormented breath. Those had been his words to Celebrimbor. Sauron hadn't thought of the deceitful elven smith for a long time and he had no desire to do so now. He hadn't loved Celebrimbor and the Noldo's betrayal and foolish defiance had killed all affection that had once grown between them. His temper was a bitter thing, little yielding— certainly too little for the convenience of a little elf lord who should have known better.

"Don't you find it curious?" Gwaedhglae's words were the echo of a whisper with so little substance they were barely there. "You are the one who brought love into this."

There was a tree and the tree was beautiful. The bark of the sapling was shedding in long rainbow stripes and if delight was a colour, it would be apricot-orange. Desire was a long, maroon stripe surrounded by purple and hope was blue around the edges, bared here and hidden there.

"Nothing of it happened to me," he protested, taking a step back. Yet he could remember and the dysphoria was dizzying. "This tree is not mine; these emotions are not mine." The sharp bite of black pepper was so strong he could barely breathe.

"You certainly speak to yourself, just as Gwaedhglae did," the tree spoke. "Our memories make us know that our past was for real. What you can remember might as well have happened to you." And Gwaedhglae loved Bilbo Baggins so much more than anyone had ever feared Sauron.

***

Far to the north and west in the hidden valley of Imladris, Lord Elrond faltered mid-step, gracelessly, at the top of a flight of stairs. Only Glorfindel's fast lunge saved him from falling them down. Vilya, the mightiest of the three, burned his skin and the sudden burst of wind brought the smell of ashes to him.

"Mithrandir was right." His voice was less than a whisper.

***

Sauron stood, embodied, by the root of the Ash Mountains, crowned with glory and power. His blue eyes were bright with power, such shine that in a Child of Ilúvatar it could only be seen in the throes of fever when they already saw the far shore and the sun rise over the gates of the halls of Mandos. On his left hand's finger there was a ring of gold, a perfect circle, and he was clad in dark purple and maroon robes with a hint of deep blue around the hem. Most of the orcs had fled, but four, among them the one who had taken the ring, had remained, unable to even flee the fright that had come upon them; they cowered before him, babbling, praising their lord and begging in the same breath.

And on the ground, unmoving, laid a hobbit clad in mithril and the green cloak of Rohan, a dented helmet on his head.

Chapter Text

Maybe each time a man looks into the eyes of his beloved, what he truly seeks to find is himself, gently hidden behind the delight. Who wouldn't want to know the one they love holds them within? When you are loved, you climb into people’s eyes and become a lovely expression.

***

When Bilbo Baggins opened his eyes the first thing he saw was moss green fabric accentuated with thin red stripes spread over his head. He had a sinking feeling that he wasn't where he was supposed to be, but as he couldn't quite remember where he should have been, the most he could manage was confusion. His head was hurting and he remembered something about the shapes of great eagles gliding above the battlefield... No, that had been after the Battle of the Five Armies.

When he rose to a sitting position, briefly battling a sense of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him, Bilbo thought for a second that he had been brought into a very strange tent. The bed he had inexplicably ended up in was an intricate wrought iron canopy bed and from the sheen of the fabric he was almost certain it was silk - yet the wrought iron frame, while almost filigree in appearance, was also rather, well. It had a sharp and pointy look to it like particularly cruel thorns and obviously it was black, a flair that Bilbo wasn't certain he appreciated. The bed was easily big enough for four hobbits to sleep comfortably side-by-side and another four besides at their feet and Bilbo had to crawl to the slightly parted curtains to take a good look at where he was.

He found himself in a room where the furnishing and decoration were in stark contrast to the frankly shoddy-looking construction. In addition to the bed there was a wooden chest in one corner, the carvings and painting obviously elven craft, a luxurious, thick carpet on the floor and silken curtains drawn over the single window of the room. The only light in the room... came from what might have been called a fireplace had it been built inside the wall, but as it was, it was... an altar, maybe. It was a square block of black stone with glassy sheen that had been erected at the wall opposing the door, and on it there was a fire burning. Thin cloud of smoke went up in the still atmosphere towards a flue in the ceiling like an aerial column while the flames rising from a basin carved on the altar shone with bright and changeful gleams of red and yellow, first writhing upward and then curling down like snakes.

In stark contrast the room had uneven ceiling and walls made of black stones that looked as though they had been tightly fitted together without any mortar like a sheep-herder's fence. The floor at least appeared fairly smooth from what he could see at the edges of the mat, but it was very peculiar indeed - if only his head didn’t pain him so and he could think.

"Where are we, Gwaedhglae?" he asked, hoping his ring had answers to offer. No, not his ring; his beloved. He had confessed his love, hadn't he? And then Saruman had done something and there had been orcs... "Gwaedhglae!" And there was no answer.

Bilbo patted himself in sheer, heart-clenching panic. He was still wearing his mithril shirt and his cloak and even his helmet, dented as it was, rested atop the wooden chest and his sword had been laid into one corner, but Gwaedhglae wasn't in his pocket anymore. Of course, he had put him on and then there had been an eye of fire searching for him and he had pulled Gwaedhglae off and the orc had struck; had it taken Gwaedhglae? He had been rescued by an unknown party, but Gwaedhglae had been left behind to suffer some unnamed, yet certainly terrible fate and Bilbo felt like screaming.

“Please do not panic so,” a low, melodious voice asked and only then Bilbo realized that the door had been opened. “I will explain everything.” His savior had walked in and as panicked and distracted and desperate as Bilbo felt, he still took a second glance; he simply couldn't help himself.

He was an elf, easily the shortest elf Bilbo had ever encountered, though still quite tall when compared to a hobbit. His hair was long as both male and female preferred among the elves, reaching down to his waits, slightly wavy and as black as a raven’s wing with the bluish sheen where the light of the fire gleamed off the locks. His eyes were the most startling shade of blue, rich with small lights like stars seen through a white tree, and his face was blond like the palest of gold. He was the most beautiful man imaginable and Bilbo had never seen the elf before, yet he was taken by the strangest sensation that he knew the man regardless and knew him well.

And on his right forefinger there was a simple golden ring, a perfect circle.

"Please, I love him. I know this may sound crazy to you, you probably can't hear him yet, but that ring is a person and I love him, please!" Bilbo pleaded, his silver tongue abandoning him entirely. "He is a magical ring, very old and his name is Gwaedhglae..." Why wasn't the elf invisible? Bilbo had always turned invisible when he had worn Gwaedhglae; maybe it wasn't Gwaedhglae after all, but simply a ring?

"I truly am sorry, and this is not a feeling that often takes me, but there is no easy way to explain this. I am, in a sense, Gwaedhglae." Bilbo blinked and in the space of the blink he found himself sitting on the bed, the elf standing before him, grim-faced. There was the moth-wing flutter of a memory almost recalled, the sense that Bilbo truly should know him, but the aching of his head made even simple thoughts hard.

"Gwaedhglae is a ring," he insisted; of this much he could be certain at least. He definitely would have noticed carrying this man in his pocket... the absurdity of the thought forced a small giggle from his lips and it didn't sound very humorous even to his own ears.

"You don't seem well yet; I am sorry, but healing is not something I have much talent for. Maybe this is the kind of conversation you would prefer to have on full stomach?" The stranger's face shifted from determination to worry with something akin to hesitance, as though it wasn't an expression he wore very often.

"I don't think I can stomach food," Bilbo said and it wasn't only because of his fears. The nausea had returned and he was quite certain that he couldn't keep even a glass of water down right now.

"This I know of you: you are Bilbo Baggins of the Bag End, formerly a very respectable hobbit of the Shire and now an adventurer on the run from a marriage you had no wish to enter. You named your ring after a child's tale of grass falling in love with rain and it was in Rohan that you first heard his voice after killing a man, under a magical compulsion. I am in a sense Gwaedhglae, but there is another name as well and for the purposes of this explanation I must reveal it to you. Tell me; is there any show of good intent I can do to prove I mean you no harm," the probably-not-Gwaedhglae said and Bilbo blinked. He was fairly certain he hadn't blackened out for any part of the sentence, yet it didn't make much sense to him.

"How did we get from your other name to a show of good intentions?" he asked, feeling slightly slow.

"Because when you hear my name, ill intentions are going to be your first assumption." The maybe-Gwaedhglae's face had turned grim again and Bilbo felt a chill sink down his spine. What kind of reputation did the man have that he assumed even a hobbit from the Shire would have heard of him and be afraid? Gwaedhglae surely wasn't the sort to ever wrong anyone! But where would the elf had heard of him if he lived this far in the south? How would he have known of the Shire and the story and the man Bilbo killed and Saruman's fell trick... There was something Bilbo knew he should make of all this knowledge, something that didn't quite fit together yet, but his head pained him greatly and he only wanted the explanation. If the man wanted a favour to grant to him, Bilbo would oblige.

"Faoiltiarna. She is my horse and I don't know what happened to her. If the orcs didn't kill her, can you please bring her back to me?" Bilbo hadn't ever before in his life called animals a he or a she, not dogs and not ponies, but Faoiltiarna was a personality and he very much wanted the mare safe and healthy.

"Then I shall bring her to you if I can and if I can not, I shall avenge her," the elf pledged with strange solemnity, as if gravity drew more heavily upon his words than his body. "You might want to sleep while I am gone." And he left the room in a billowing flutter of maroon and purple robes, pausing for a short moment by the door to look at Bilbo. "Please don't try to leave the tower. No-one can get inside without permission, but it is not safe on the outside."

Bilbo didn't intend to sleep, truly not, but his eyelids felt heavier by the minute and there was nothing to do in the room. There might have been something to entertain him in the chest, maybe books, but the mere thought of walking through the room was painful and he only closed his eyes for a short while.

***

It can be a dangerous thing to look a being of power into the eye. The eyes are clear windows to the brain and mind, to the soul housed within the body. Maybe this is what Sauron saw: a kind of dignity that characterized Bilbo as a hobbit, there mixed with sweetness and a ferocity, such a combination as he would not have remembered to have seen in another. He might have seen the eyes of one who was all keen mind, all love and all purity; in whom the fëa had undisputed sway over the passions and the senses. The truth is that Bilbo's eyes do not pale beside the elves' in power and beauty even without dancing white lights.

He didn't see himself. Not yet, anyway.

***

When one watched down from the great balcony of Barad-Dûr, they could see a labyrinth of arcades surrounded by houses for the upper echelon of the army Sauron intended to create in the first quadrangle and barracks surrounding it, separated by half-finished wall. The tower stood in the middle of the central square, surrounded by high walls and battlements. The main roads in the grid, lit by torches in the darkness of the fast-falling night, was to be divided into sections by thick iron gates, half of them already installed. The orcs building this stronghold were scurrying about, busy in their toiling. It wasn't the sight of an army of ants Sauron had once watched over from a balcony very similar to this; the orcs and goblins had been decimated in the Battle of the Five Armies and the stragglers were slow to arrive.

A sight of past glory, a vision of what the future had to offer; only now this future had become precarious. Orodruin had finally calmed and the ground was as even as it could ever be, yet the lord who reigned over it felt the stronghold might as well have been built upon a foundation of sands.

Sauron was called among the eldar, the Abhorred, and Gorthaur the Cruel. Sauron was an ambush in the night and terror in the daylight, Sauron was death and destroyer of great kingdoms. Sauron had been the one Morgoth sent when he was too busy and quick death simply wasn't enough and he had lived to become a great lord in his own right after his old master had been thrown beyond the Veil into the Void. Sauron was the quivering of an innocent heart, a stabbing pain and the sudden start, the last one.

And Sauron had just made a solemn vow to avenge a horse - for love. Somewhere only Mandos knew where the dead mortals congregated after their lives were spent, Lúthien was surely laughing herself sick.

Oh, Bilbo had made a fairly good request regardless, in a purely functional sense. Fetching Faoiltiarna or, failing to find it alive, slaughtering a band of orcs could be accomplished quickly and the humiliating, menial aspect of the work might reassure the hobbit. Certainly Sauron wouldn't have put up with this for anyone else - at least not without planning to avenge the humiliation, he thought as he remembered Celebrimbor. He might be a smith without an equal in the Middle-Earth and Celebrimbor might have approached his infamous grandfather's vision, yet ringcraft had been slow to discover; in Eregion he had been forced to uphold his pretense for almost three hundred years.

Yet those years hadn't been altogether terrible, he though as he remembered the long, entertaining arguments over the best ways to twine together enchantments he had provoked from Celebrimbor. It was strange that he found himself remembering the elven smith now, after so many years when he hadn't spared the man a single thought.

And you were so honest with yourself. I reckon it must have been too good to last; self-deception is a though habit to break...

Had Sauron already launched himself into the air, he might have fallen from his wings from the sheer shock of that voice. He had never heard it speak before, yet he knew it as well as his own.

"Gwaedhglae?" he asked disbelievingly searching for a presence of the other in his mind. There was no answer and he could feel the burning taint of the ring only in his memories. It was a thing of the past.

Our memories make us know our past was for real, the tree had spoken. What you can remember might have as well happened to you... Sauron shook his head when he realized he was considering taking advice from a figment of his imagination and one that took the shape of a talking tree at that. Of course, the rainbow tree was the representation of his love for Bilbo Baggins which meant it could only be a troublesome creature. Sauron didn't mind being in love all that much to tell the truth, but he wasn't blind to the various complications involved with the affair either, the first of which being that he couldn't keep his true identity secret, not in long term. Deception was one of his greatest powers and he could have pretended to be Gwaedhglae for years, but if he wished for a lasting love - and he did - then "for years" wasn't long enough. Bilbo would only resent him after learning the truth had he tried to keep it a secret and even he couldn't reign as the Dark Lord of Mordor and keep Bilbo by his side without making a fateful misstep eventually, no matter how scenic a facade he created of Barad-Dûr.

So his first hurdle was to reveal who he was and still convince Bilbo to remain by his side. The second complication was Bilbo's mortality. He could lengthen the hobbit's life for several centuries, but several centuries wasn't long enough either. He couldn't begin to imagine how he would change this, yet the thought of love becoming endless solitude was unacceptable. He hadn't asked for love, but it had crashed into him like a flame from the dark night, struck without warning, and so be it then; he would have to find a way to preserve Bilbo by his side, in fëa at least if not in hröa.

And it does occur to you that Bilbo might find going on as a kind of a wraith objectionable, I hope? I might have been blind for the longest time, but at least I wasn't addled-minded besides.

Once might have been imagination and his memory playing a trick with him, twice... might still be the same. Sauron had a horse to find and the longer he waited, the further it would run, scared by his earlier appearance. If he heard the voice a third time, then would take action and devote time to spinning open the mystery. He awaited for the space of a heartbeat, but as there was no scorning comment to be heard, a change came upon him and he took the shape of a great bat, taking to the skies.

Mordor below him was dark with lava glass and smoke and fiery with the last glows of lava here and there where the fissures that had cracked the plains of Gorgoroth from side to side reached down to the red and the shadows below the red. Mordor had been wasteland even before his return, but it had been sun-beaten wasteland with small green oases and rivers that flowed with water once a year. Now, what tree could take roots, what branches grow blossoms in this desolation? Mordor's current state served a function, yet Sauron found himself thinking of green, growing things and plentiful, clean water. He thought of delicate spring green and burned orange and glittering black both, meadows framed by stone monuments; the contrast would be stunning, he thought wistfully.

Sauron found beauty in function, in something being perfectly suited for its purpose. Long before he had fallen in the last battle of the Last Alliance, even when he had still been able to take a fair form, he had thought of that form only as something of use, a deception, a tool; balance of the sword was important so why would he care if it was beautiful or not? Ornaments made balancing a blade more difficult and the work took time that could have been better used forging another weapon. Ornaments that had purpose, that were used as toold of war on the mind of the weak, used to intimidate, those were an entirely different matter of course.

Sparing the beauty of nature was not something Sauron had ever valued high. Mairon had, once when the world had still been young and untarnished, but everything had a cost and the cost of the beauty of steel's shine and the power of gold was marred land; this wasn't either right or wrong in his mind, it simply was. The change that had taken him was difficult to express in words even to himself, but Sauron made an attempt regardless. Far to the east from Barad-Dûr and Orodruin, so far that the destruction of the rocky fields hadn't reached there, he could see the glow of a distant flame. His eyes were keen and when he reached towards the fire, he could see the pillar of flame in its full glory.

South-east from the Sea of Nurnen the fire now marked a place where rock oil had once trickled down the cliff face not unlike a water vein might have reached the surface. The carelessness of the workers tasked with excavating the oil spring had led to a fire like a humongous candle that reached several hundred feets high. Those workers would be severely punished, of course, for wasting such a valuable resource, but once this would have been the only thought Sauron would have dedicated to the matter. The flame illuminated the desert and now Sauron could see the beauty in how it varied from bright orange to a plum purple, yet that beauty was haunted by the knowledge of what the beauty wrought. There was unwieldy and frightening flame and a grey mass of land over which nothing grew and women who would give birth to marred babies for breathing the soot from the fire, all the little, almost invisible impurities.

He didn't quite feel guilty for finding the flame beautiful, yet there was a tingle of unease he was hard-pressed to explain. That change had come upon him wasn't either bad or good - though it was inconvenient - but it simply was. Sauron would only have had a consistent change to take place for ease of adapting, yet it seemed he wasn't afforded such luck.

Bilbo might extol his actions if he were to put out the flames. That the action would preserve the oil was a benefit as well, he decided and considered the fields he intended to have his servants till around the Sea of Nurnen; Bilbo might enjoy those lands as well.

The vast leagues flew by in flickers of the plateau and the gorges and the old roads yet to be rebuilt. Sauron swum in the darkened, smoldering sky that became colder and colder as he fast passed the mountain range and arrived to the scene of his battle with his ring. Though their battle had been fought on a higher plane of existence, it had rearranged the land where Bilbo had been accosted by the wandering orcs. There was a small copse of very old trees where none had grown before, thick moss growing on the trunks of the trees, heavy droplets of water still dripping from large, dark green leaves and thick ferns covering the ground. There was another copse a little ways from the first, this one burned to charred, barely standing stumps. Boulders had been flung every-which-way by the force of the two wills colliding and there was a shallow depression still filled with muddy water. It was next to the water that Sauron found the horse.

He was surprised the mare hadn't fled further away, had even returned to the scene of the battle. All animals feared his presence and the strongest of his servants, save for those who had been reared since their birth to not fear it and now he had hidden his presence carefully to keep the animal unaware of his arrival. That Faoiltiarna had fled him didn't surprise him in the least; that it had returned did.

"You have been well-trained," he spoke as he stepped silently from the winds behind the horse, taking the shape of a fair elf as he did. The mare turned around, nostrils flared and lips held together. It was still saddled and the reins were hanging by its side so he didn't anticipate much hardship taking the horse at hand. Sauron took a a step closer and Faoiltiarna took a step back and another to the side. Surprised and frowning, Sauron approached the horse again and it danced gracefully to the side, baring its teeth.

"Do horses not fawn over elves as all senseless creatures do?" he asked, now mildly aggravated. Faoiltiarna beholded him with a distinct lack of awe, but it allowed him to approach now. That the Rohans trained their horses to not easily allow strangers to lead them away would be characteristic of them, he thought as he took a hold of the leash and then with a single leap, with the weight of its strong body behind the pull, Faoiltiarna dragged Sauron into the pool of water.

"You did not do this to me," he said with a voice which was graceful of such proportions it would have suited the most genteel elf. "You are lucky I am required to bring you back alive." Light danced in the blue eyes and Sauron was certain that the mare was laughing at him. He was standing up to his knees in very dirty water.

With a word and a gesture the beast fell down, taken by deep sleep that would keep it from any further mischief. The knowledge that the horse would be deeply uncomfortable around the smell of orcs and wargs was somewhat comforting, though Sauron suspected that the blood-thirsty thing might only take its new lodgings as an excuse to draw the blood of the unfortunate stable hands who would care for it. Maybe he should consider breeding the mad mare; Faoiltiarna certainly had the temper fit to be a mother of monsters.

***

If Bilbo was asked and if he had been more clear-minded to observe properly, he might have said that the man who claimed to be Gwaedhglae without claiming to be him simultaneously was indescribable, all regal pride and confident spirit of independence which firmly sat upon his brow and curled along the bow of his lip. That he was one seemingly made to command.

The mortals may look one another into the eye for clarity of vision, but in truth most of them have little gift for this other than their other senses and intuition. The truth would have been this: Sauron was conflicted, frustrated and indulgent both, covetous and more anxious than he ever would have cared to admit. What did he know of love, after all? He had loved Morgoth and Celebrimbor had loved him; while his kind could only be successful in love once, his was a particularly abysmal account.

***

Bilbo only meant to close his eyes for a short while, but when he opened them again, he knew that he had fallen asleep. He didn't know how long he had slept, but though his head still ached, he found that his mind was much keener and clearer now. Hindsight was always perfect, of course, but now placidly falling asleep and allowing the strange elf to leave without answering his questions seemed like great folly to Bilbo.

He couldn't have been asleep for very long, he reasoned, since the fire on the altar was still burning. Bilbo didn't know what peculiar liquid was burning in the carved bowl, but it should have run out had hours passed. He stood up, ignoring the way his back and shoulders protested the best he could. As light as the mithril shirt was, it hadn't been made to sleep on, yet Bilbo didn't feel comfortable to take off either; who knew what kind of person not-really-Gwaedhglae was?

But how had the man known so much of Bilbo if he hadn't at least conversed with Gwaedhglae? And if he had done so, why would he pretend to be Gwaedhglae? The question wasn't one Bilbo could answer and he gave in, very much frustrated, and decided to worry about his whereabouts instead. The man had claimed that leaving the tower would be dangerous and Bilbo couldn't leave without his answers, but there was no excuse to delay finding answers for himself. Bilbo walked to the window and pulled open the curtains, peeking out of the simple hole in the wall.

It was a night but the air was like the air of that furnace - burning like the furnace Smaug had lit in his rage deep under the mountain. How could it be cooler on the inside, he wondered, when he had slept below a heavy canopy and there was a fire burning in the room? It was as though some magical barrier kept the inside heat inside and the outside calefaction apart. Death was written upon the whole face of the visible land; where leaves had been, or at least some life, probably, there was nothing now. The night air, when moved by the wind, didn't bring a greater coolness as Bilbo was used to, but a fiercer heat. The darkness below him was full of flickering torch lights and shadows they cast danced up and down with a quivering motion. And there were orcs; Bilbo was absolutely certain that the small figures he could see scurrying around were orcs.

With a twist to his heart Bilbo realized that he had been brought to Mordor. He had known, of course, deep in his heart, but until the last moment he had wished that he would find any other answer. Without Gwaedhglae, how was he supposed to escape?

Without Gwaedhglae, how could he simply leave and leave Gwaedhglae here?

Though this at least made sense of the elf's wariness that Bilbo should fear his name. He was clearly a master or lord of this region of Mordor and any lord who would live in such a...

The realization hit Bilbo with a sickening force; a lord in Mordor who claimed to be Bilbo's magical ring, except not quite, and who was so certain that Bilbo would have heard of him when hobbit only very rarely knew of the history of even those who lived a day's ride from their borders? Disbelief warred with his disgust at his obliviousness to the obvious in Bilbo's heart. The elf couldn't be Sauron, for Sauron was dead - but then, hadn't he died for the loss of his ring? Bilbo had heard of the old tales during his stay in Rivendell, but he hadn't immersed himself in any single subject when there had been so much to learn and now he cursed his capriciousness. Might Sauron have been returned to life if he regained his ring? Had Bilbo resurrected Sauron?

The second realization was slower to come, yet the blow it delivered was even greater than the first. Bilbo clutched the curtains with a white-knuckled grip and still his hands were shaking; if he hadn't simply leaped into an outrageous, erroneous conclusion, if the beautiful man truly was Sauron returned... Gwaedhglae had lied to him. Gwaedhglae was the one who had suggested that they head for Mordor. Gwaedhglae had betrayed him the same he had betrayed Isildur so long ago. He loved Gwaedhglae and it hadn't meant anything to the ring...

You must turn around, Gwaedhglae had urged him, I will explain myself, but please, you must do as I ask. Gwaedhglae had told him to return to the Shire that last moment and Bilbo didn't know what to think anymore. His knees buckled and he returned to the bed for the lack of any chairs in the room. His head was aching and his heart was aching and he only wanted to return to home.

It was then that the door opened with a small squeal of old hinges and Bilbo found the strength to leap to standing again. Gwaedhglae glittered on a pale, graceful finger, as perfect and elegant as ever, and Bilbo knew that he couldn't run away. He didn't know if he could forgive Gwaedhglae, but he couldn't run and leave the ring behind - and maybe, just maybe, he could yet undo his terrible mistake. Sauron had returned and all that would occur henceforth would be Bilbo's fault, but if only he could cut that single finger off... The thought of a hobbit killing the Dark Lord was laughable, but hadn't he riddled a dragon? No sheer power could win against Sauron, but maybe a keen mind might?

One look into Bilbo's eyes and Sauron must have known that Bilbo had learned who he was already.

"I have brought your horse back," he begun, most surprisingly. "The stable hands are all humans; orcs, though unlovely servants, have their uses, but to trust them to care for animals would be folly."

"Thank you." It was no conscious will that forced those words from Bilbo's lips, but the ingrained hobbit politeness that took over now when Bilbo higher capability for reasoning had seemingly abandoned him. Uncomfortable silence followed as they digested the idea of acting politely towards each other; Bilbo couldn't account for Sauron's thoughts on the matter, but he found the thought only barely palatable.

He was befuddled, though, for how civilly Sauron had acted towards him so far. The Dark Lord had even returned Faoiltiarna to him - oh, poor, poor Faoiltiarna, Bilbo owed her a huge apology and a rucksack of sugar for this - unless he was lying of course, but Bilbo couldn't begin to imagine what Sauron might have wished to gain by lying to him about his horse. He truly would have thought that facing Sauron would be much more frightening than this. Bilbo couldn't claim to have expected anything of him, for he hadn't ever given half a thought to how Sauron might appear, but the man he now observed certainly didn't fit his hypothetical, shapeless preconceptions in the least. No imposing giant, this man, not clad in armour and no cruel sword in his hand, no halo of fire about him; cruelty and intemperate lust for power were what the Dark Lord was chiefly noted for, but except that pride and certain standoffishness that were written upon the lines of his countenance, one would hardly guess that his finely defined cheeks and blue eyes belonged to one of such a dark and foul soul. It was thoroughly ridiculous, but Bilbo was maybe a little bit disappointed.

"As you have clearly become aware. I am Sauron, the Lord of Mordor, though you may call me Gwaedhglae if you so wish - in your service. I am sorry if this is distressing to you, but I will not leave before our intercourse is finished," Sauron said imperiously and Bilbo choked on his own spit.

"When you say intercourse..." He had to ask this, though he feared the answer. "You mean conversation, do you not?"

"Of course; what else would I mean?" Sauron inquired with a frown and Bilbo could breathe again. It seemed silly that he had thought the Dark Lord might want that of him.

"Never mind, I am pretending it never occurred to me either," he answered as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Sauron had been dead for centuries so it made sense that his manner of speech was a bit behind the times. The heart of the matter was, though, that Sauron clearly wanted something of him and Bilbo was hesitant to ask what it was.

"Why are you calling yourself Gwaedhglae? What have you done to him?" This question wasn't any easier to bear, Bilbo thought glumly, but to bear the uncertainty was the worst of all. Sauron glanced upon the ring on his finger and for a moment he hesitated.

***

Sauron glanced upon the ring on his finger and for a moment he hesitated. The honest answer might again be the best course in the long term, but he found that he couldn't do it, couldn't look Bilbo Baggins to the eye and say: Gwaedhglae is no more. Gwaedhglae had never been meant to exist in the first place, but now his brief life had left behind a hole in Bilbo's world.

"The one you named Gwaedhglae was originally but a portion of my own fëa. With a name and memories that were his own and not of me he became his own person, but we are still bound together by his origin," Sauron answered carefully and while it had been a great deal more complicated and agonizing that his words, there was no need for Bilbo to know of their battle. "Gwaedhglae is still here within, but I may not give him to you without ceasing to be myself." His words were all true - from a certain point of view. If Bilbo were to take comfort in his belief that the ring remained alive and merely separated from him, all the better.

The hobbit had been astonishingly brave in the face of his discovery of his host, though Sauron wouldn't deceive himself; had he allowed his true nature to gleam through his hröa, Bilbo's reaction would have been quite different. He didn't think so with any derision or insult; Bilbo was indeed courteous and kind like was common for the hobbits - as far as Sauron could gleam of these previously undiscovered people through the memories of Gwaedhglae judging them through Bilbo's perceptions - but it was no difficulty see that he was also bold and aspiring beyond the common measure of all mortals. Sauron merely though it a great inconvenience in his campaign to convince Bilbo to remain by his side - especially since a kind of battle numbness certainly played part in Bilbo's calmness as well and battle numbness always wore off eventually.

And by his side Bilbo would remain, though Sauron would much rather he didn't have to lock the doors to make it so. Maybe rather than forbid the hobbit from leaving, he might promise - threaten, really - to visit Bilbo regularly in his peaceful Hobbiton if he chose to travel back home, for Sauron had no doubts that Bilbo would never willingly lead him to the Shire.

"As I have already hosted you, as an apology for the attack of my - servants." Sauron doubted that Bilbo would much approve if he referred to the orcs as slaves, not because he felt much sympathy for the orcs, but because the wording would undoubtedly bring Sauron's history of conquest to the mind. "I would take this opportunity to invite you to remain my guest for a while. I find you fascinating and would like to learn more of you." Many expressions flitted over Bilbo's face then; surprise followed by disbelief and suspicion followed by a brief burst of white-knuckled panic.

But then determination took over Bilbo's visage along with something else Sauron couldn't recognize at all, something both melancholy and fierce, as strange a combination though it was, and the offer to learn more of Bilbo's people by visiting them was already upon his tongue...

"I will. Thank you very much for your hospitality," Bilbo Baggins said with resolved manner and Sauron blinked. He definitely hadn't expected the hobbit to assent so quickly and gladly and he was almost certain, in truth, that this was a sign of some plot Bilbo was hatching - and the plot was certainly aimed to "free" Gwaedhglae of his thralldom. Had it been someone else, anyone else, Sauron would have suspected avarice, but he knew the nature of Bilbo Baggins through and through. And so, instead of amusement of Bilbo daring to enter a competition of wit against him, Sauron felt burning jealousy instead.

But Gwaedhglae was dead and whichever Bilbo's reason for accepting his offer, the lack of coercion and blackmail made the beginning his courtship considerably less... rude. He had aim and aspiration, now he only needed a contrivance.

***

Isn't it curious that though your love grew from mine, they are so different? Love came to me like flame from a tree, but for all you favour fire, your passion is rather cold. A confession and promises to not ravage anything or anywhere would serve you better than any contrivances.

Chapter Text

There was no garden in bloom within Sauron as there had been within Gwaedhglae; the change the ring had wrought in him had taken a very different shape.

When the haven of Umbar was first founded and the kings of humans who held the Nine slowly became wraiths in his service, the tribes in the land that would later become known as Far Harad scarred their skin as a method of tattooing. A cut was made diagonally and clay or ash was packed into the wound so that a raised scar would be formed during healing as the wound pushed out the dirt. What new memories Gwaedhglae had made, what emotions he had re-learned had become an elegant lattice-work of scars on the walls of Sauron's mind, the most profound of the lessons burned and carved to the very foundations in a manner not unlike those tribal tattoos. Those knots and intersecting spirals became Sauron and they were lovely; he wandered among them searching for Gwaedhglae.

Three times he had heard the ring speak to him, yet he couldn't sense a foreign presence in his mind. Shared embarrassment and the compassion it had seeded, hate and fear of death, amusement and regret, he visited every scar, lived through every memory again as thought it had occurred that very moment and yet he couldn't find the ring. And at the very bottom of the spiral deeper and deeper within grew the one manifestation Sauron had inherited as it was; there stood a rainbow tree, yet small and twiggy, but already taller than it had been. The roots, Sauron would have been willing to wager, reached deeper and wider as well. The pepper was now less prominent in its scent, overpowered by the smouldering smoke and sweet nectar.

Gwaedhglae wasn't there. Sauron laid his hand on the tree's rainbow bark, running his fingers along the edges where one facet of emotion changed into another.

"Have I reached the point where I hear voices in my head?" he asked the tree. The leaves rustles slightly though there was no wind.

"A voice; singular," the tree argued. "Though mayhap the use of plural is justified, as you can hear me as well." The answer was glib and wholly unhelpful. Sauron couldn't imagine what he had thought he could gain, speaking to a manifestation of his own mind; what might the tree know that he didn't?

"I cannot tell you of Gwaedhglae, but rest assured, advice I have to offer and you are in dire need. You must consider what desire, fulfilled, will offer you true happiness, for you cannot have love and the world both. Remember that he is a fool who forever repeats what he has always done and expects a different outcome." Sauron flinched away from the barbs of the tree's words. A sad day, he mused darkly, when he couldn't command the respect of even his own mind undivided.

"But whose mind is without a single divide? We are all conflicted and contradictory."

***

On his first full day in Mordor Bilbo learned that there was no sugar in Barad-Dûr. There was bread and carrots, however, and Bilbo took those as an apology to Faoiltiarna for dragging her into this mess with him. The orcs had been banished from the inner ward, presumably with Bilbo's well-being in mind, but as there were no stables, he would have to walk halfway across the outer perimeter of the strange city Sauron was building. Because this was apparently too dangerous a journey for Bilbo to make alone - and the thought of Sauron concerned of endangering him was laughable, especially since the Dark Lord had already dragged him to the heart of Mordor - he navigated the streets with Sauron by his side, wishing from the bottom of his heart that he still might turn invisible. The gleam of Gwaedhglae on Sauron's finger continued to torment him, but Bilbo assumed Sauron couldn't treat terribly cruelly a person who had no body to bleed - or so he wished at least.

The stables were almost empty when Bilbo wandered in, searching for the familiar white spots in the low-hanging shadows. The smell of hay and oats were familiar and Bilbo had to take a few deep breaths to keep from embarrassing himself when he remembered the stables of Meduseld and Holdwudu. Though a little more than a week had passed, Bilbo felt every day as heavily as a year.

"Warg pens are a-plenty, but I have few human servants and orcs do not ride horses," Sauron said conversationally, causing Bilbo to startle. He gave the man in elf's shape a sideways glance, still barely able to believe that this unassuming man could possibly be the same he had read from history books.

But what doubts Bilbo might have had were put to a rest when two human men stepped forth from one of the stalls, one older and very pale, the other a young man with curiously flat-appearing face as though he had run face-first into a wall as a child and almost yellow-tinted skin. He wasn't ugly, certainly, but Bilbo had never before seen a man with such features and he found himself staring in a most impolite manner. The man wasn't in a position to observe his dreadful behaviour, though, because the moment they laid eye on Sauron the men had both fallen on their knees, grayish of face.

"Good morning," Bilbo said, his hobbit upbringing taking over again now that he had no idea what to do. The sight of the men on their knees made him squirm, suddenly fiercely ashamed for all that he hadn't done anything wrong. Sauron spoke a few angular words in the Black Tongue and the men rose from the floor though they still wouldn't lift their gaze. The one with the strange features approached Bilbo for a few steps and then bowed deep, his hands pressed together and lifted to his forehead.

"Your Highness, I will take you to horse," he spoke with heavily accented Westron and. And.

Your Highness? Since when had Bilbo been anyone's highness, with capital letters or without?

Sauron didn't remain to answer his unvoiced questions, but strode towards the far end of the where Bilbo could see the large, dark form of a horse moving. At least he dearly hoped it was a horse, though he could remember stories which clearly told that all horses would flinch from Sauron's foulest servants; surely no horse would agree to carry the Dark Lord himself? The young man nervously gestured Bilbo to follow him and led him to another stable altogether. The air was full of shrieks and harsh words screamed with a language Bilbo couldn't understand and when he looked in the direction of the sound, there in the south it looked as if the whole rocky plain had risen up in a thicket of spears and knives and was about to fall upon them. There were orcs, many orcs, but though their eyes followed Bilbo with what he could only describe hateful glances, none of them attempted to approach him and his guide.

"I am Bilbo Baggins of the Bag End, of the land of the Shire. It is a pleasure to meet you; may I ask your name?" he asked as he ducked into the long stone building, out of the sight of the orcs. The young man startled at his words and Bilbo wondered how much he spoke of Westron.

"I am Kelsahng-jahm-Künchen, Your Highness. I apologize done wrong." Now the young man - whose name was Kelsahng son of Künchen if his people arranged their names in the manner of the Dunlanders - pleaded, wringing his hands. Bilbo blinked in confusion.

"You have done nothing wrong," he reassured Kelsahng. "I simply didn't feel comfortable, calling you only a young man in my thoughts. How did you come to live in Mordor?" He didn't appear the kind of a man who would willingly serve Sauron and live amidst orcs in a land where nothing green grew, though Bilbo had to strain his imagination to picture one who would.

"My father came here," Kelsahng answered with heavy, resigned tone and Bilbo was left to swallow his indignation. The unknown man's life had been his own to ruin, but to drag his child down? He didn't know what to say and was saved from mortified silence when he heard a familiar whine from one of the stalls. Bilbo didn't know why Faoiltiarna was housed separate from the rest of the steeds; she was the only horse in the entire stable and the other one hadn't been full either.

"Oh, Tiarna, I am so sorry for this," he whispered, striding quickly to the poor horse. The stall was clean at the very least and she didn't seem hurt, but the ever-present dimness that seemed to drip down the stone walls and hover in the air couldn't be good for her. Did these people even have oats to give her? Hay alone wouldn't be enough for her...

"Danger!" Kelsahng said sharply and Bilbo turned around, grateful that he had been permitted to keep possession of his mail shirt and sword. But though he looked around in the stables, he couldn't see a thing amiss unless an orc had decided to hide in a pile of hay.

"What danger did you see?" he asked Kelsahng, running his left hand absentmindedly through Tiarna's mane. She bent her head to push at his face, clearly trying to reach the pouch Bilbo had thrown over his shoulder.

"The horse," Kelsahng muttered with evident confusion and Bilbo gave him a sharp look. Did the man mean that Faoiltiarna was dangerous? In a stronghold full of orcs and wargs and Vána alone knew what other beasts and beast-men? Was this the reason his gentle, funny mare was alone in this stable; was she isolated?

"Faoiltiarna is the most delightful horse who has ever carried me," he protested incredulously, taking a carrot from his pouch and handing it to Tiarna. She snatched the treat from his hand, mindful of her teeth, and Bilbo could barely believe what he was hearing. Kelsahng for his part continued to look as though Bilbo had petted a wild wolf and not lost a single finger, rubbing his elbow gingerly.

"Delightful for you," Kelsahng uttered with solemn tone. "Kicked a warg to the head. Bit me."

"You let a warg near her? She could have been hurt... oh, I am sorry for the bite." Tiarna nuzzled his hand affectionately and Bilbo gave her a loaf of bread, looking into her blue eyes. He had knows she was trained to carry a warrior into a battle, but he still couldn't reconcile her with the ferocious creature who had over the course of her brief stay already fought a warg and come out the victor, unharmed - or at least she appeared so. Bilbo doubted Kelshng had been too eager to endanger his own skull on her behalf so he opened the door and knelt to examine her legs for blood, cursing the darkness and lack of torches, though he understood that open fire in the same building with piles of hay might not be a wise combination. Kelsahng muttered something of Tiarna breaking out of the stables, but Bilbo was too relieved to pay much attention.

Kelsahng appeared a good, stable sort of fellow, though, and since he was acting as a stable hand Bilbo would see him quite a lot over his stay in Mordor, which was a relief. The possibility of only Sauron for company had been intimidating; what did they have in common to speak of? He must remain in Sauron's company and find a weakness he could use to gain an upper hand, of course, though he already felt the first tang of the same desperation he had felt in Mirkwood when he had been as though a burglar who couldn't get away and must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day. He wished that he could get a message for help sent to Gandalf or maybe even Lord Elrond, but that of course was impossible and what was to be done, must be done by one Mr. Bilbo Baggins again, without help. He saddled Tiarna and she was practically dancing when he led her out of the stable.

Sauron was there astride on the back of a great black stallion. Bilbo frowned at the cruel, barbed whip he held in hand, but didn't say anything, simply running his hand up and down Faoiltiarna's neck soothingly. Sauron gave her a dark glance as well and Bilbo briefly amused himself with the thought that she might have bitten him as well.

"We will ride eastwards," the Maia stated imperiously. "There are roads mostly left untouched by the recent calamity."

"You are the one who caused said calamity," Bilbo reminded him and thought it was but an educated guess and not a fact he knew to be true, Sauron nodded gravely.

"I must enforce my will be done without spending all my focus on my... servants," he inexplicably said and spurred his stallion to a trot. Two routes presented themselves beyond the outer gates, one more and the other less direct; the latter, though more circuitous, appeared the more desirable to Bilbo because it would take them to higher ground where there would hopefully come brisk winds. Sauron held the reins with elegant composure and urged his great black horse to a frantic pace by a mere whistle, without ever using the cruel whip. The stallion, though well groomed, appeared somehow dirty to Bilbo and Faoiltiarna wasn't impressed either, keeping pace with an air of disdain to her. Bilbo would have preferred an ally he could converse with, but at least Tiarna didn't fail to make him feel better about his situation, a little less lonely.

He thought of inquiring why he was addressed as a Highness. He didn't ask a question.

***

Much to his shock Bilbo realized he and Sauron had something in common after all; hate of beautiful, shining rocks other people found simply irresistible.

"I wouldn't have thought this of you," he admitted, befuddled. Though now that he recalled all the texts he had read that had concerned Sauron, none of them had ever mentioned lust for precious gems...

"Falling in love with stones never caused a thing but rue for all involved," Sauron said with derision. They had reached a high cliff and as suddenly as the view of the imposing scene of the dark, red-lit plains of Gorgoroth had been revealed, it was soon eclipsed, by another short turn in the road which took them once more into a narrow mountain valley where the sheer rock faces were striped with different shades of red and black.

"Do you speak of Fëanor?" Bilbo asked, fascinated despite himself. He had of course known how old Sauron was, but to hear him so glibly referring to people who had died before the dawn of the Second Age was bewildering and even a little dizzying.

"Fëanor never impressed me much, despite his considerable skills," Sauron snorted and a dark shadow passed over his face. "You forgave King Thorin," he said then and Bilbo wasn't certain if it was a question or an accusation.

"He wasn't himself. Shiny rocks are nothing but trouble." He could have said that he understood Thorin still carried responsibility for his actions and had simply chosen to forgive the better person Thorin could again be out of love, but he didn't think he needed to justify his decisions.

***

When Sauron had first gained Morgoth's notice, the Vala had designed a poisonous rainbow lake. Now that he had come to love Bilbo, he had gained a talking rainbow tree in his mind that he simply couldn't un-manifest, however he tried. He wasn't convinced the tree wasn't poisonous as well, for its words certainly stung like a snake's fangs.

"There is simply no way to say I am haunted by rainbows and yet retain my dignity, is there?" he asked the empty room.

"Ah, is this a... bad moment?" And the room wasn't empty after all. He turned around to meet Bilbo who had appeared to the doorway, hesitating on the threshold.

The room was what Sauron tentatively called his office. There was an actual throne room, but as he had barred the majority of his people from the inner circle of his stronghold, he had commandeered one of the mansions to use in its stead. The office was a place for private deliberation and personal projects with a desk and a comfortable chair, a bookshelf that was yet empty and a low and broad seat, covered with cushions, attached to the wall below the window. The ceiling was arched, lighted by invisible lamps. The state of the room well described the piecemeal state of the rebuilt Barad-Dûr; half-finished, sporadic and often very impractical. Yet the most important project currently on his desk wasn't co-ordination of resources, but a band of gold. Rather than ordinary gold, he had thought to use an alloy of seventy-five percent gold, twenty-three percent copper and two percent cadmium which would yield light green gold - a colour he thought Bilbo would appreciate. The use of three metal alloy would complicate the enchantment work, but since there was only three enchantments he sought to weave into the ring, the work shouldn't take him longer than five years.

"Now is as good a moment as any, I suppose. What is your wish?" he asked with affectionate haste - much more haste, in truth, than he was entirely comfortable displaying. But though Bilbo sought to find his personal weaknesses and use them against him, the hobbit was bewilderingly unable to recognize the regard in which Sauron helm him as one.

He doesn't know you love him as you have yet to confess your feelings or blatantly display them - and a blatant display will be necessary that he would even consider such a possibility. But I doubt he would regard love as a weakness; ask for things straight up if he was secure in the knowledge you would relent, yes, but not regard love a weakness. Give him a gift, make it something that doesn't take half a decade's work and tell him.

Sauron managed to suppress a startled jolt, though it was a close thing. He hadn't found a trace of Gwaedhglae; was he so far gone that his mind would fabricate what his subconscious thought the ring might say? Though in all fairness, and he wasn't fair often, if this was another manifestation, it was one much more helpful than the tree.

"I only wish to converse with someone. I can't speak with the help because they always fall on their knees and call me "Your Highness" which is very awkward for all people involved - why, I dread to think of the commotion if I attempted to enter the kitchens and cook!" Bilbo gave Sauron a reproachful look which entirely failed to have an effect; he couldn't allow for the "help" to learn to take improper liberties. "There are no books and I am so bored I might begun to talk to the walls - a malady that seems to have taken you already." The last sentence came out in much more hesitant manner than the brash choice of words might have implied and Sauron realized that Bilbo was testing how many liberties he could get away with.

"Walls make for good listeners. They never interrupt and never gossip," he answered with as much dignity as he could muster and startled a giggle out of Bilbo. His new-found sense of humour surprised him as well, as did the pleasure he took from Bilbo's laughter.

"Well, I suppose there is only reason to be concerned if you begin to hear them talking back to you. What are you doing here?" Bilbo asked and eyed the piles of pergament on the desk with curiosity.

"I am calculating the enchantments for a ring I will forge for you; a long and overparticular work, I fear," he answered and the small smile that had graced the corners of Bilbo's mouth fell from his face so fast Sauron could almost hear it shattering on the floor.

"Sauron, you can't replace one person with another. Whoever they might be, they can never be Gwaedhglae and I will not accept a consolation lover!" There were red spots burning on Bilbo's cheeks and the tips of his ears were the rosy shade of anger as well. But it was the word lover that caused Sauron to slip.

That Bilbo was faithful and true was an admirable trait, nay, a necessary one, for while the mortal had more than one chance at happiness, Sauron could only give himself to another once. Yet it was a frustrating trait as well when the faithfulness was for another; Sauron was beginning to think that even should Gwaedhglae somehow be alive, he would gladly kill the ring in the hopes that Bilbo's love would fade. The jealousy that had flared in his heart rushed through his veins and he could feel the intensity of it all burning at the back of his eyeballs.

Killing a person's loved one never earned anyone that love, as though it was market ware that could be snatched off the table. Also, you are scaring him.

The world had faded for a moment in Sauron's eyes, but as he came back to himself, he saw that Bilbo had retreated to the door again, his face now ashed. Yet the hobbit lifted his chin defiantly when Sauron sought his eyes and met his gaze without a flinch, with his shoulders taut and high - he was scared, very scared, but he wasn't taking back his words and Sauron silently cursed himself. A pile of pergaments was smoking alarmingly on the desk, mere inches from his left hand. For him hröa was merely a housing that paled in comparison to the vastness which was his fëa and he had to make an effort to hide his true nature behind the innocuous facade. He wasn't certain precisely what Bilbo had seen, but clearly it had been too much. His love had since the beginning been given to the bones of Arda, the precious metals and the living fire which lived deep beneath the crust of earth, and the blood in his veins seemed hotter than the volcanic ashes, or the scorching gaze of Arien that beat upon his face when he left the shadows of Mordor.

"I may be but a little hobbit, but I eat food other than my own words. I will not accept a new ring," Bilbo declared and his voice trembled only slightly.

"I apologize for the fright, I merely became too distracted to force my fëa to conform to the shape on this body. I was not angry." He doubted Bilbo believed him, but he must at least make an attempt. "The ring I shall make for you is not a replacement, for it will be no person at all. It shall merely be a tool to lengthen your life, to allow you to turn invisible at will as this has proven to be such a useful skill and inspire fear in the hearts of all my more recalcitrant creatures who might simply forget one day that they are not allowed to harm you." Though he might need to add a fourth one which would protect Bilbo from fire and heat in case his self-control should fail again. He had thought that the possibility of longer life might entice Bilbo to at least delay his (so far ineffectual and outlandishly ethically concerned) scheming, but the hobbit barely paid attention, continuing to appear surly and frightened.

"I shall take Faoiltiarna for a ride again. I will find someone to take with me," the hobbit said and left Sauron to his schematics and calculations. He resisted the urge to beat his head against his desk, but it was a near thing.

"How did you come to offer me advice in love? You barely had the time to understand you were in love," he demanded Gwaedhglae. There was, predictably, no answer.

Rainbow specters haunting him aside, mortal fragility was a concern and Sauron knew that he must concentrate on completeing his work on Bilbo's ring as soon as possible, for he could have caused serious injuries completely by acciden and the mere thought made him sick. The second priority would have to be organizing Mordor into a true nation again and calling to heel those who had for so long sworn in his name. He didn't expect to have many difficulties; the unfortunate combination of selfish arrogance and over-ambitiousness was Umbar's national fault. It betrayed itself in every department of civil and social life and frequently declined into a degrading ineffectiveness. First he would complete the ring and take Umbar - the rest of the Middle Earth could and would wait. Surely in a decade Bilbo would have become much more reasonable regarding the issue as well.

***

On his fourth day in Mordor it occurred to Bilbo for the first time that as a Maia who had once lived in Aman - or rather, Almaren in the days before Arda was broken - he would have had to meet Vána, maybe even speak with the Vala. Whichever Sauron's duties as the Lord of Mordor, he seemed to neglect them quite cheerfully for Bilbo and so he didn't think twice of leaving the opulent, rough-hewn tower in search of his queer host. An oppressive atmosphere of sulphur and tar met Bilbo right on the threshold as usual, but he didn't care, crossing the courtyard and headed towards one of the small mansions. The guards had all learned to recognize him by now and though the deep bows and muttered highfalutin addresses still bothered Bilbo, at least no-one thought to try and bar his way.

He was hesitant, but after the brief burst of anger Sauron had not shown himself as anything but a considerate host - or as considerate as it was possible to be in a stronghold that had armaments and smitheries aplenty, but lacked bathing quarters. Bilbo had taken to bathing in an empty storage room in the bottom story of the tower out of pity for the poor servants who would have been forced to carry the bathing water first up and then down eight stories worth of stairs. He was undeniably given special consideration and one of these days he was going to muster the courage to ask Sauron for his reasons - now he walked in without knocking. The vast hall that he now entered was one of a long row of two-story buildings made of stone, without mortar as the tower had been made, but with more care; the tower, as half-finished as it looked, was perfectly structurally sound, Sauron had assured Bilbo, but like the outer grid of this stronghold, it had been made by orc hands without a human overseer to guide them and orcs weren't known for their aesthetics.

Most of the lamps were out in the main hall and the upper end of the room was dark. Only in the middle, where a long table stood and the best wall-hangings were on show, the lights had been renewed. Sauron was sitting there at the end of the table, conversing with two men in armour that looked vaguely like the old Dunland scale make, though made of steel and the ornaments were very different, and one tall man with skin so dark brown it was almost black. The strange men were kneeling and when Bilbo appeared, they rose from the floor simply so that they might kneel for him as well, without turning their backs to Sauron, in that manner which made Bilbo more and more confused the longer time passed; what has Sauron told these men he was that he needed to be treated like royalty?

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," Bilbo said politely; there was no reason for him to act like a ruffian even if the men who served Sauron probably were ruffians of some sort. "There is something I would like to talk about, when you have time," he then addressed his words to Sauron, certain that the Dark Lord wouldn't make him wait for long, if at all.

"I have time now," Sauron spoke and said two words in some strange tongue Bilbo had never heard before. The men rose from the floor and retreated from the room, walking backwards in a most silly-looking manner. They appeared so relieved when they reached the dark shadows by the door and nothing had happened to them yet.

"To turn back towards either of us would be a sign of deep disrespect, in their lands - they know better," Sauron proclaimed in the manner of his when he sought to reassure Bilbo, yet wholly failed to understand what distressed him. "Pay them no mind, they are very different ilk from you."

"What ilk are they?" Bilbo asked; Sauron still hadn't revealed for what purpose he held Bilbo in Barad-Dûr and the hobbit was forever searching for the smallest clues.

"They are the common herd who disdain everything exceptional, everything that might disturb their small lives or startle them out of the banality of their mundane dreams. They need a firm hand to reach even a moderately useful place in the world." Which was as good as outright stating that Sauron found Bilbo to be exceptional and his dreams worthy of note - very flattering, or it would have been hadn't Bilbo lived as part of the mentioned herd quite happily for years. It was clear to Bilbo that Sauron was making an honest attempt to be personable, but it was equally clear that the Dark Lord might have used written instructions; Bilbo even toyed with the thought of writing him a few pages, yet he feared that such a jest might finally exceed the good humour his host had shown towards him so far.

"It merely occurred to me that you must have met Vána, have you not?" Bilbo chose to ask instead. Showing such eagerness in front of Sauron felt difficult and the gleam of Gwaedhglae on the man's finger made him feel like a traitor, but the revelation was simply too powerful to resist. None could question his devotion to Vána, but the Vala had always been an abstract figure to him, a symbol of all the good hopes and wishes rather than a person one might have a conversation with. That Sauron had done so and still betrayed the Valar... Bilbo's mind boggled under the weight of disbelief.

Sauron, for his part, looked startled by the question, though not unhappy. Maybe Bilbo's inquiry was the equivalent of... Bilbo couldn't come up with a good metaphor, but he didn't think anyone had ever asked Sauron questions of the Valar before.

"Vána was often regarded as the lesser sister, much to Yavanna's displeasure, though she merely appeared amused that anyone might think she must prove herself," the Maia begun haltingly. "I didn't often speak with her, though I would see her when she visited her sister - my master's wife." Sauron's mouth twisted into a snarl like he had tasted something bitter, but Bilbo was forced to wonder if it was Aulë or the word "master" that Sauron took such exception to.

"Perhaps she was the least of the Valar in the beginning, for what is eternal youth when the world is young? But she would be young even now that the world is broken twice over and gray and the Valar have left it to its own designs. I wouldn't be surprised if she was the one who still took interest in the fates of the Free People. She was also quite mischievous. I remember once that she... there is no way to adequately describe what she did without giving you at least ten-hour lecture on the wavelengths of sound, but she replaced three wavelengths with another in the song of Oröme and flowers would spill from his lips every time he spoke a word. This was, I have understood, her own, unique way of letting him know she was receptive to his courtship and it was a show of skill as well that she could do so unnoticed. I have nothing against her, personally." This last confession seemed to cost Sauron something Bilbo didn't understand, but his mind was too busy painting a picture of the Spring Lady to muse upon the man's inexplicable train of thought or how sound could have waves.

"She must be glorious," he sighed and tried to imagine her walking through a meadow in eternal spring. It was so difficult, in the middle of Mordor where nothing seemed to grow at all. "I wish I had a garden," he muttered to himself, though he didn't hold out much hope for this rocky wasteland where the wind smelled like rotten eggs and water was scarce.

"I assume she must be," Sauron spoke in a somewhat confused manner as though he couldn't understand what glory Bilbo could see in Vána, yet didn't regard the matter worthy of an argument. They had yet to argue over any issue, either for strange politeness on Sauron's part or a remind of his own vulnerability on Bilbo's - and his stomach twisted every time he recalled the way the air itself had wavered where it had touched Sauron's pale-hot skin. One unwilling to force the issue and the other wary, they circled around the painful subjects like a cat might circle a bowl of hot porridge. This bowl of disagreements, Bilbo feared, might cool enough to touch shortly before the world ended.

"Much more glorious than Morgoth ever could hope to be," he said rebelliously. Much to his surprise Sauron burst into a brief, but genuine bout of laughter - and though the sound of it was amused, there wasn't a hint of mockery.

"Morgoth was more powerful than your mortal imagination can comprehend, but glorious? He would throw a screaming tantrum every time events didn't play out as he had decreed they should. When Fingon rescued Maedhros from the cliff-face where he had been chained, the foundations of Angband shook from the force of his displeasure and all who served him knew to make themselves scarce. When Lúthien bespelled him..." Now Sauron's visage darkened and a shadow flitted over this radiant eyes. Bilbo was taken by the most improper urge to give his taciturn companion a hug and though the thought of Sauron's face, should he give in to his mad whim, amused him greatly, he managed to resist chuckling out loud.

"He was always one who would blame others for his own failures; I should have prevailed against her, he ejaculated! And how he complained... of the... asymmetry of his..."

Bilbo couldn't help himself, he couldn't have helped himself had Sauron threatened him. His body was bent in half like a pocket knife from the force of laughter. He laughed so that tears sprung from his eyes and he laughed until his midriff begun to spasm and yet he couldn't stop, falling to his knees on the stone floor. The echoes of his mirth became eerie as they rebounded from the mostly bare walls and Bilbo laughed until he could barely draw breath, his whole body shaking like a leaf in the wind. He felt much better for laughing, lighter and cleaner as though the cachinnating had cleansed dirty soot from his lungs so that he might breathe freely again, and when he gazed up at Sauron's puzzled, slightly offended face, he wondered if anyone had ever knelt before him in gaiety.

"I'm sorry. Thank you, I needed this so very much. But please, for your own sake, do not use the words intercourse or ejaculate; the meaning of them has changed over the centuries. A lot." Bilbo's knees wobbled when he rose from the floor, taking Sauron's hand for balance.

He regretted the moment of companionship later, the warmth that had nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with the brief cessation of worry and the terrible tautness which seemed to permeate the very air between him and the Dark Lord. For a moment he had liked Sauron and this was a horrible realization. The truth was that he was terribly uncomfortable planning violence against a man who had never done anything to him, who had treated him with courtesy unheard of before. Yet he must steel himself for Gwaedhglae's sake and for the sake of the free world. The brief reprieve of the hilarity gone, Bilbo had rarely before felt so wretched.

***

Sauron hadn't recalled his time in Aulë's service for a long, long time. It looks good, Aulë had said of a cave filled with geodes, hollow, gray rocks that, if cracked, would reveal clear, glittering quartz crystals lining the inner shell of the eggs, pale blue celestite or milky white dolomite. Hidden under a plain facade, only one who loved rocks enough to search for their secrets would find this hidden treasure.

“You said thus of the last four of my works,” Sauron had said, disapproving. He had made several caves in several places in the southern continent over the course of assisting the greater Ainur in the creation of Arda.

“I reckon I would find any cave you carved beautiful and any crystals you crafted lovely, Mairon,” Aulë had said, which had made Sauron's - Mairon's - chest clutch up and it had been terribly unfair. Also, objectively speaking not helpful at all; how was he to do better if Aulë didn't point the mistakes he had made out to him?

“I know not how to create the perfection we so briefly glimpsed, master. I need to do my work right,” he had tried to explain, taking his tools at hand again and retreating back into the deeper caves with them.

“Of course you would perform above all demands and expectations,” Aulë had answered, easy and earnest in his praise. “This is my Mairon after all.” And Mairon had been taken by the overwhelming amount of pleased embarrassment, also dreadfully aware that Aulë was still entirely unhelpful. It was strange to remember a time when he had wished for a firmer hand at the reins, but in hindsight Aulë hadn't been a bad master, merely... a master and the word now left a sour tang on his tongue. And cheap quartz, tiny blue rocks and plain white dolomite were still dear to him now, unassuming stones that didn't demand anyone's attention.

***

The number of humans in Mordor was currently forty-seven; Sauron had a good reason to be aware of the number, as he had commandeered them all to ascertain he wouldn't need to expose Bilbo to the company of orcs. Though useful slaves, orcs couldn't be trusted to act against their nature for prolonged periods of time. And though Bilbo Baggins was a very resourceful and surprisingly hardy young man, Sauron didn't wish to endanger him.

The number of humans in Mordor was currently forty-seven and of their number forty-one could be spared for menial tasks, to stand guard by the gates and to act as Bilbo's guards when he took his horse for a ride. Bilbo had shown preference for a young man from Khand, originally a merchant's son who had come to Mordor on an errand of his father's and remained there when his father has been killed. Bilbo's favour had moved him to the hall where Sauron called to heel the little orc warlords and would receive visitors of inferior rank. The young slave was now devoted to the service of the hall, retained, and his rank among his fellow-slaves was high and important.

This promotion also might yet have the effect of causing Bilbo to spend more time in the hall and in Sauron's presence instead of hiding away in the stables, but this would be completely coincidental.

"Kelsahng is currently treating with the crows I sent to carry a missive to an agent in Umbar," he answered Bilbo's question. "He should be free to entertain you in short order."

"You did this entirely on purpose, did you not?" Bilbo accused him, but the hobbit's words lacked true ire.

"I fear I don't know what you mean," Sauron said completely innocently, simply to remain on the safe side. Bilbo rolled his eyes and muttered words of his more rowdy Took cousins perfecting the innocent look better than he had.

"Kel prefers his current work so I guess I shouldn't complain," Bilbo concurred, as selfless as always. That Bilbo might prefer Kelsahng's company was a bitter bill to swallow, but Sauron was certain the hobbit felt nothing more than comfortable comradeship with the human... altogether too gracious of him, but then, Bilbo was a gracious soul. That he knew Bilbo found him beautiful helped as well; Bilbo might not admit to it, but Sauron could tell when he looked.

"Though maybe it is well that we have this moment to ourselves." Bilbo inhaled deeply several times and Sauron noted with anticipation that he was steeling his resolve for something difficult. "I must know or this uncertainty shall drive me sparse; what is it that you want from me? Why are you keeping me here and why are you so courteous." Now Bilbo's breaths came short and shallow, but odd rejoicing and freedom could be read on his face.

Sauron hesitated, looking at the small figure who had come so dear a sight to him. He had learned that when he spoke of times long past - much harder to do than one might think, as he had difficulties recalling stories that didn't highlight his bloody past - Bilbo lent a greedy ear, his maybe a little common face sparkling with the intelligence which beamed out from every expression which crossed it. Though the hobbit had initially been wary and distant, Sauron's relationship with him had warmed to a degree less likely to have them both freeze to death - but was he ready to hear this answer? Sauron didn't know what to do.

What are you going to do, tell him a lie and then be forced to explain yourself later? He has asked and rather more bravely than you are acting now.

Sauron recalled their brief conversation regarding the Silmarilli and the Arkenstone, their moment of unanimity then and how Bilbo had looked laughing so hard he could barely stand. Bilbo had taken his hand then and there had been none of the shadows of his guilty conscious in his eyes. Sauron took strength of these memories, for the side of him that had clearly decided to be Gwaedhglae was right. In short term lying might be easier, but nothing good could come of it.

"Bilbo Baggins. Our memories make us know that our past was for real. What I can remember might as well have happened to me. Gwaedhglae loved you and I am in love with you."

This was Bilbo Baggins' seventh day in Mordor.

Chapter Text

It is in truth possible to travel from Lothlórien to Imladris in seven days if one has a good horse – or rather, several good horses to carry one rider - and the temperamental Caradhras is propitious. A mere week after the revelation the three ringbearers had gathered to Imladris; it was only half of the White Council, for while a message had been sent to Curunír, Thranduil and Cirdan, none of them had arrived yet and no one had expected to find Aiwendil on such a short notice. Ianaer son of Dírhael, Aragorn’s maternal uncle and the acting chieftain of the rangers, had been invited to represent the interests of the Dúnedain and he was sitting to Glorfindel’s left, his weather-beaten face grim.

Flanked by the high, sheer cliffs on the western side of the valley, Imladris filled the esker as far as the eye could reach, both toward the north and toward the south. The many domes of the most graceful proportions and the columns supporting the balconies reminded Glorfindel of Gondolin, though the city of King Turgon had been much more magnificent. Glorfindel remembered the city during its golden age, the arches and tall towers, the gardens and the fountains. The towering buildings, as well as the walls of the city, being all either of marble or of other snow white stones and everywhere in their whole extent bestrewed with multitudes of overshadowing white elms, alders and strawberry trees, could perfectly satisfy any man’s sense of beauty. Imladris was a lesser reflection, but there Glorfindel could feel at home, as if he should love to dwell all his days in such a scene.

Now the valley brought the end of Gondolin back to him, the dreadful fire drake and the cruel horde of orcs, the gutters running red with blood and cluttering with bodies. It brought back the gold-haired king’s daughter, her glittering eyes all bright for love and another pair of eyes, darker and hungry, forever watching her, and a desperate escape over the cold, snow-topped mountains. It brought back living fire and shadows that had twisted into a monstrous shape, a cruel whip and a sword. It brought back the moment when life slipped away in pain like a flight of birds, like lick of a flame.

“The victory of the Last Alliance was incomplete,” Lord Elrond voiced what they all knew already. “Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed, his Ring was lost, but not unmade. Now he has through some unknown means regained what he once lost. Again we must stand against him or bend our necks; I do not believe I need to ask which course you shall choose.” This was the grandson of Idril Celebrindal and for a moment Glorfindel felt a burst of almost paternal pride; for elves there was always a third course to take, the one which would take them over the sea. But though Elrond missed his wife dearly, he would not abandon humans and dwarves to Sauron’s tender mercies.

“What can we do?” Ianaer asked, running his fingers through his hair. “The kingdom of Arnor is no more and though it is his birth right, Aragorn is much too young to rebuild the strength the north once possessed. Gondor is without a king and the great elven kingdoms are gone; no offence meant towards anyone present.” He bowed his head to Elrond and Galadriel.

The council had been assembled in the same rotunda where Elrond had spoken of the migration of the Dunlander tribes with him. Chairs had been brought around a round table, a mosaic star below them and a whole starry dome painted above. Guards had been situated around the dome to ensure they had privacy, but the rotunda was still a very open space. Glorfindel could hear a flight of birds flying from side to side over the valley trees, singing and calling as though they had no care in the world.

“No offence is taken, Ianaer, for our presence and might in this world is not what it was in the days of old. Doom and great deeds are indeed at hand, but the only battle lost before it is fought is one which is undertaken with defeat in mind,” spoke Lady Galadriel with a voice that might rekindle hope in even the most darkened of mind; Glorfindel supposed she knew what she spoke of, knew well persevering against all hope after losing her whole family. “Though the Battle of the Five Armies was brutal, it was also very fortuitous for us in timing; the orcs and goblins have been laid low and it will be decades before Sauron’s forces obtain the strength in numbers they held. The dragon Smaug is also very fortuitously dead and the humans who once served him have only served their own purposes for hundreds of years.”

“Do you suggest we strike against him before he can collect his forces?” Glorfindel asked. “We need time to muster what strength we have as well.” The plan she proposed wasn’t a bad one, but he could foresee many problems along the way.

“We must deny him those he would charm to his side with a silver tongue coated in poison,” Mithrandir said, breathing a ring of smoke and setting his pipe down. “Among the Dunlanders I wondered if there had always been something more important to do until there was no time anymore, good intentions to reach out and foster better relations with them until we found the Dark had gotten to them first yet again. Dunland is far from Mordor’s reach now, but to Harad and Khand he shall send his agents soon – and to Umbar, though I fear Umbar to be a lost case.” Harad and Khand had been seduced with sweets words of riches and power and been brought to heel with the whip of pain, but for Umbar the matter was one of principle, Glorfindel knew. The Black Númenoreans would not admit their ancestors had been in the wrong; Elendil they called the Great Usurper and still took their oaths in Sauron’s name this day.

“So as we gather our forces and allies, we shall also deny Sauron his if we can,” Ianaer concluded, tapping the table as he counted in his mind. “Rohan shall stand by Gondor and Gondor will never bow and scrape before Sauron.” Tap tap. “The dwarves are insular and any alliance they might have with the elves would be grudging at best, but we have hope at least in persuading them that divided all shall fall and their mountains shall not be an exception. I know many of Cirdan’s merchants have favourable relations with the nobles of Harad and Khand. Do we know anything of the kings of those lands?” One hesitant tap. All eyes turned towards Lord Elrond.

“I know not of the ruler of Khand, but Cirdan has mentioned the tawan of Near Harad to me. He is a man to whom the glory of his country is dearer than all other things and this pride rises almost to a kind of madness in him. It is from this quarter, if from any, that a danger would approach,” Lord Elrond answered, closing his eyes in frustration. Glorfindel had to admit the man sounded one step removed from becoming Sauron’s ally already.

“There is yet one other option we might consider, though I hesitate to suggest it,” Galadriel said and her hand settled over her stomach. There was no curve to be seen yet, but that moment Glorfindel was struck by a sudden realization like the strike of lightning.

Lady Galadriel was pregnant.

“It is true that he can not yet boast with an army and we might gather our alliances faster than he,” she considered, for once unaware of the turmoil of Glorfindel’s mind. Though he well knew her strength, she appeared so delicate all of a sudden as though her lissome feet should not bear her up. A child was always a blessing, but what a horrible time to be born! Now her eyes moved towards him and Glorfindel knew that she hadn't been wholly ignorant of his thoughts after all.

If not for this time, this child would never be, for later there might be another, but they would not be the same. I do not believe she would rue her existence, a gentle voice whispered in his mind. And Glorfindel bowed his head, though while Sauron possessed the skill to make any and all rue they were born, the only battle lost before it was fought is one which was undertaken with defeat in mind.

"If he does yet not have an army to protect himself - and I shall battle him gladly should he meet my eyes as I send them afar, for this - we need not necessarily an army either. For we may throw our men against his and water the plains of Gorgoroth with blood, but in the end it shall all come down to a fight against him." Silence reigned after her words. The proposition was audacious beyound belief, bold and maybe even mad - but none could deny that Sauron must die and to die, he must be killed.

"He is a Maia," Ianaer breathed after a long moment. "How can we hope to ever kill him?"

"Gil-galad died, burned by one terrible hand, and Elendil died, bloody and resolute. But Isildur struck him down. That he could not destroy the ring is the only reason we have come to this now," Glorfindel reminded the man and he did not mean his words are a reproach, but the Dúnedain winced regardless as though his ancestor's act was his shame as well.

Glorfindel remembered the streets and parks filled and covered with the bodies of the slain, the women and children lying side by side. The dragon had been a thing of terror, a flightless beast with bronze-coloured scales, terrible claws and a long tail that ended to cruel barbed spines. Many a knight had thrown themselves against it covered completely, or buried rather, beneath their shields like a tortoise to protect themselves from the fire it breathed. For a glorious moment their tactics had appeared to work as they had wounded the dragon with their spears without leaving the cover of their shields, but one strike from the great tail had broken steel and bone and sent the brave warriors flying like a child's toy soldiers. Glorfindel remembered the flight he protected and the fiery streams that flowed down the slanting sides of the mountain, turning the snow to scorching clouds of steam. He remembered the fire and the pain, the desperation and the taste of iron in his mouth, he remembered the dizzying elation when he had realized he had taken his enemy with him and then one moment of darkness in the empty space of a heartbeat and the whitest pouring of eternal light.

Had he claimed to not be scared he would have told a lie; the Balrog had been a lesser Maia and even then killing it had cost him his life. But Imladris was yet far from Sauron’s reach. Imladris need not burn and he was the one person in the room who was known for slaying a Maia - in a single battle, no less. Though if what he suspected of Mithrandir, Cúrunir and Aiwendil was true, he could not be certain he was the only one. But if they were Maiar, they had clearly been bound by their fragile hröa and much of their might was gone.

"I am willing to undertake this task," he said, his words carrying the leaden weight of doom as they fell from his lips. "I shall fight Sauron."

Chapter Text

If the course of Falling in Love was marked with signposts like the worldly roads of dirt that might lead to great cities or homely villages or to the boundless, dangerous wilds, if there were signs saying Here You Lose All Your Peace of Mind or maybe Fall Down This Cliff, Risk to Limbs and Heart, how many would embark the journey? Travelling to an unknown destination is always a terrible risk; how can one even know the person at the end of the journey is worth it?

Maybe the less brave would avoid falling in love if there was a clear warning at the fork of the road – but some are taken by incurable wanderlust.

***

Bilbo Baggins loved Gwaedhglae, this was not in question. He was hurt and angry and confused, but he loved Gwaedhglae and he was almost certain the ring loved him as well and though sometimes it was hard to ignore questions and, when he awakened in the middle of the night and remembered he was in Mordor, the furious incredulity, that surety had at least been stable ground beneath his feet.

“Gwaedhglae loved you and I am in love with you,” Sauron said and Bilbo blinked his eyes. Then he blinked again.

The sentence was a simple one, the words all familiar and understandable so how could the whole of it make no sense? I am, Sauron had said, so Sauron was. You, Sauron had said and the person standing before him, the only another person in the room discounting the presence of improbable (but not completely impossible) invisible servants, so Bilbo was the objective of the sentence. In love with…

“What?”

“My circumstances with Gwaedhglae are rather more complicated than I have led you to believe,” Sauron admitted and winced, a look of pain crossing his face. “I can not claim certainty, but… with his memories, I became a changed man – a different one, and whether this change is for the better or the worse, he changed, you changed me for good. But as inconvenient as this love is, I want it with all of my heart.”

Some small part of Bilbo was aware that Sauron had initially intended to say something else, but it was drowned by the rushing of blood in his ears. Sauron was in love with him and he watched Bilbo as though he wanted to touch, but didn’t, as though he wanted for the hobbit to remain safe and happy, yet Bilbo was terribly aware Sauron’s interpretation of “safe and happy” might well mean “locked away from things that could hurt” and what was he to do? He didn’t even know what to say!

“Is this why people call me a Highness; have you married me without telling me?” were the words that fell from his lips. Bilbo blushed from mortification and for a moment he feared he might swoon again. Looking into Sauron’s eyes worsened the sense of dizziness, the nagging, gnawing awareness there was something he ought to remember, yet he couldn’t. Something about a garden… Bilbo had wished for a garden, or rather spoken a wistful comment which Sauron in hindsight might well have taken as a request to be fulfilled, but this didn’t feel quite right…

“We are not married, fear not; my kind does not marry as yours do, by signing a piece of paper. This is not a legal matter and not one I can resolve without participation from you.” The world twirled in Bilbo’s eyes and he only barely had the time to realize Sauron had picked him up like a fauntling before he was already set down on one of the low and broad seats by around the long table. There Bilbo was, half-sitting, half-draped over what appeared a bastard offspring of a chair and a settee with Sauron towering over him in the dimness of the further edge of a lamp’s light. Bilbo wondered why, in the light of the revelation, he wasn’t scared. Sauron’s skin seemed to almost glow light of its own, subtler and yet cleaner than the yellow circle.

“That is good,” and oh, his rebellious tongue wouldn’t cease babbling! “If only Lobelia heard, I would hear of it in my own funeral!”

“An in-law akin to a calamity, that one might prefer absolute detachment and avoidance,” Sauron spoke slowly, balling his hands into fists and uncurling them slowly again, seemingly uncertain what to do with them. His eyes were fixed to the empty air beside Bilbo’s face.

“Oh, she is terrible – and to think she used to be such a merry tween! I can not understand what black magic occurred, but for years now she has caused me rue my comfy armchairs; wooden furniture with no cushions would discourage her from staying too long. And she still hasn’t returned all of my spoons to me and though the expense is a trifle, those spoons were my father’s wedding gift to my mother… And you are not allowed to go to the Shire and return those spoons to me!” The bitter creature Lobelia had become didn’t endear her to Bilbo in the least, but finding Sauron on her doorstep demanding back those spoons would surely be more than even she should have to bear!

"Do you worry I might disapprove of her?" If Sauron's voice had been curiously flat before, now those soft, resonant tones were brimming with befuddlement. "I thought you to mean she would not approve of me." And the truth was Lobelia wouldn't, if she knew who Sauron was; Bilbo tried to recall what he knew of her education, but in the end he couldn't come to a conclusion. Many things which seemed so obvious here in the outer world were overlooked and unknown in the Shire, save for the traders and bounders who dealt with the Big People; who had the time to worry of long-dead Dark Lords when the fields were ready for harvest and the faunt had taken ill again?

"She wouldn't approve of a flight of fancy as outlandish as marrying an elf, let alone you - no insult intended, but you are, ah - but the matter I referred was eloping." The longer the conversation dragged on, the more bothersome and disconcerting it turned. Moments like these still made Bilbo marvel this was Sauron he was conversing with, as though he might have been any ordinary, habitual, safe man he might have passed by on the street. The disconnect between what Bilbo knew of Sauron and what he had witnessed was wide and deep.

Of course, this was for Sauron's tender feelings for him. Bilbo hadn't thought he had any tender feelings in his heart to give or withheld. Oh Vána, Sauron was in love with him! Why would he love Bilbo, if his words were indeed true? Bilbo knew he was clever, but none had ever dedicated poems or become captivated by the brilliancy of his wit, or complimented his unequalled beauty, for he was in truth rather average-looking hobbit, if on the thin side. Oh, he knew his good attributes well, but while bravery might be appreciated, he didn't believe Sauron would give much value for mindfulness of others, generosity or integrity.

"Do you need a permission from an elder to marry?" Sauron asked, a frown appearing on his finely chiseled forehead. "You are an adult man of independent wealth; why should you need a guardian?"

"This isn't a matter of permission, but one of respectability. To run away to marry like a thief in the night, why, were I a woman, people would suspect I had fallen pregnant - in the hypothetical situation of marriage having occurred!" Why would he speak of such things? Any talk of marriage was utterly inappropriate, the topic of the conversation considered, and Bilbo remembered the words of his father. Unlike his free-spirited, intensive, impulsive wife, Bungo Baggins had always been the prudential sort. Your quick words can go a bit fast, he had said, it's the Took in you. But once a word escapes, you cannot get it back.

"I must go," Bilbo breathed, rising from the chair. There was an awkward moment when he had to brush against Sauron's robes to pass him by, boxed in as he was between the man, the table and the chair, but Sauron took a step to the side with grace and Bilbo didn't look him into the eye. He had never learned to refuse a confession comfortably and he knew that were he to lift his gaze now, he would burst into a a barrage of unmerited apologies.

"Are you certain why you flee?" Sauron asked with a voice which was soft as velvet, but at the same time pointed and intense, as though his words were meant to be arrows that searched for his heart. "You might consider this; to be treated by your morals with contempt because you yield to emotions which are as natural and therefore, in my opinion, as innocent as any, is a sad way to live." Bilbo stumbled, flinched away from the words and ran towards the door closest to him without a care of where it might lead. He couldn't speak any more of this with Sauron, he couldn't!

The corridor behind the door was narrow, but well-lit by small lamps in plain bronze holders, much better than the great hall had been. It made a turn after only a few steps and it was at this turn that Bilbo practically ran into Kelsahng. They both took a step back, Bilbo and his friend, blinking a few times, and Bilbo praised Vána for the first crumble of good luck in what felt a minor eternity.

***

Sauron was left standing by the table, watching Bilbo's retreating back as the hobbit darted away from his presence and he felt guilt - but also a kind of awry relief. He didn't know how to best confess his love, how to allure and entrance a being whose needs and desires were so far from his own, but how to convince a Child of Ilúvatar that to make a concession, to ignore their misgivings and compromise their morals such a scant, bantam sliver? Sauron could be the most reasonable person in any room he walked into if he so pleased. He could appeal to any man's logic and satisfy its demands, though of course there were those whose sight was keen enough to cut through all logic and rhetoric and evidence to the bare bones of the truth. He had illuded Celebrimbor, he really was quite good at insinuating himself into very different and varying venues and functions when his strategy required that he access something he couldn't take by force, yet he had never managed to beguile Galadriel.

Just do the insinuating without the heart-crushing backstabbing at the end and you should do fine, Gwaedhglae's voice ordered him dryly; it was disconcerting how used Sauron had become to the pretense of its company.

"Do you truly exist at all?" he asked, the last vestiges of doubt within him demanding a closure of sorts, but again there was no answer. "I notice your silence is very convenient for you, yet leaves me without answers," he continued, feeling absurd as he realized he had in effect attempted to bait himself.

Or mayhap my silence in convenient for you, for you are not ready to hear some truths yet, the voice continued with something akin to bitterness. Wonder you not why you think of Celebrimbor so often? You had an understanding with him and you tortured him to death; do you not worry when and how Bilbo will find out and how well he will take the truth?

The chill those words sent down Sauron's back felt like the howl of the polar winds around Angband. A single unfortunate slip of concentration notwithstanding, Bilbo remained voluntarily in Mordor in part because he had yet to be threatened in any way and he would remain even now if he only remained convinced enough Sauron wouldn't attempt to force him and wouldn't raise a hand against him. That this was the one time he had given his word to not hurt another person with intent to keep his word, yet he might not be believed, was irony that didn't escape him. But Bilbo didn't ever have to find out; that Annatar and Celebrimbor had once had an understanding, as the Shirelings described such matters, had never been common knowledge. Oh, Galadriel's keen eyes had spied the truth from their carriage and she had no doubt informed Gil-galad and Elrond, but to keep Bilbo in Mordor was to keep him apart from such influences. He couldn't have kept his true identity secret, but this was one which never had to see the light of day.

So he told himself, yet he felt the icy shiver of premonition running down his spine and almost animal fear.

***

Laura Baggins had taught Bilbo to drink his tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the great pole on which the whole life revolved - tasting the small differences between two cups of the same leaf, with respect, giving his hands something to do as he considered the uncertain future. Bilbo didn’t think there was enough tea in the world for him to consider this matter.

Though part of the fault might lay in the fact that there was no real tea in Mordor. Of course not all hobbits drank true tea either, as it had to be imported and so it was a dreadfully expensive indulgence. Many a working woman brewed themselves a hot red raspberry leaf drink, especially if they were pregnant or their time of the month was difficult. Others preferred spearmint tea and some swore in the name of the lindenflower tea, but Bilbo had never warmed to these substitutes. Bilbo didn’t know what leaf was brewed into the boiling water in the Barad-Dûr, but thought its mouthfeel resembled tea, it completely lacked the malty and floral tones Bilbo so liked and somehow managed to be bitter and muted at the same time. Also, they had neither honey nor sugar and Bilbo wouldn't have held his breath asking for milk either.

“I am sorry,” Kelsahng apologized as he poured Bilbo a second cup. The room he had taken Bilbo was a small one by the great hall on the northern side of the mansion and without any windows, yet it seemed more cozy than constraining to Bilbo. “Tea in Khand is better. Not real tea, this, leaves.” Kel wrinkled his nose as the curl of steam carried the scent of the tea to his nose.

The room might well be the most comfortable one Bilbo had yet managed to find in Barad-Dûr, even if it lacked the out-of-place luxuries of his own room, with a simple table covered by a dove gray cloth, four chairs with pillows on them, a cupboard which looked so homely Bilbo feared he might cry, matting on the floor and most importantly no intimidating magnitudes of empty, sharp-edges, dark space to loom over and around him. The walls and floor at the edges of the dry, rustling matting were black stone, but not cimmerian and the ceiling was low enough the room could almost feel like a smial. It felt like a good place to confess something hard and hear reassurance and advice.

“Kel, Sauron is in love with me!” Bilbo confessed with haste, pulling the ceramic cup to his mouth. Holding it kept his hands from trembling and the rim of the cup gracefully hid his mouth, the drink gave him an excuse to close his eyes for a short while… Grandma Laura had been right, tea was the only trustworthy, certain thing in this stormy, fickle world.

“You only know now?” Kel asked with an incredulous voice. Bilbo’s eyes opened wide without his well to meet the disbelief on his friend’s face and for the first time Bilbo realized Kel had thought, Kel had believed that he and Sauron… had…

"How was I to know? He never even indicated his feelings to me!" Bilbo rose to defend himself, clutching the warm cup until his knuckles were white. What am I to do now? What about Gwaedhglae?"

"Highness," Kel said with gravity and made a small bow; it was clear to Bilbo he didn't feel the need to yield the argument, but rather, considering the glint in his eyes, he was carefully needling the hobbit and Bilbo couldn't deny the reproach was mayhap well deserved. "I don't know word. What is Gwaedhglae?" Kelsahng then inquired, dropping his gaze to the toes of his boots and appearing majorly discomfited. His right hand kept rolling the side of his cloak.

The garment appeared dreadfully uncomfortable to Bilbo; Unlike his previous simple clothes which had consisted of only a long-coarse linen shirt and trousers with a narrow sahs at the waist, he now wore a better shirt with an angled slit on the collar, a leather belt and above them an open-front, long, wide garment with long folding sleeves and buttons which appeared to be entirely decorative. Though the clothing had no patterns other than a line of horizontal stitches on the cloak and the colour was simple, natural off-white, it seemed fine enough for what Bilbo had taken to be the position of the caretaker of the hall, but also heavy and uncomfortably hot. Bilbo had long since folded his Rohan cloak into the chest in his room and now only wore the always blessedly mithril above a linen shirt, yet he often felt dam and uncomfortable - and Kel's cloak was woollen! Yet he never betrayed a moment of discomfort - though maybe the weather of his land simply was warmer than what Bilbo was used to - and now he worried, worried, worried the fabric between his fingers.

"You don't love him. Can't you love him; I don't know how ask." Kel finally looked up, his face a picture of frustrated lines as his Westron failed him.

Can't you love him? Or maybe couldn't you love him?

Bilbo's first inclination was to vehemently deny, to cry out that there was nothing worthy of anyone's love in Sauron, and yet... He felt as though he had betrayed Gwaedhglae and had betrayed some shapeless, undefined ideal which clearly set him of the worse side of the fine line between the beleaguered and the guilty, yet he couldn't help but remember the question Sauron had asked and how he had felt as though the man had struck him. Surely the words wouldn't have shaken him so if there was no truth to them at all? Bilbo didn't love Sauron, but he had the terrible feeling that, despite Gwaedhglae's fate - whatever this fate might have been - he might, perhaps, be able to at least feel fond and companionable if he only gave himself the chance. And what kind of person did this make of him, that he might be taken by such sentiment?

Would the world truly judge you so, a small part of him asked with something akin to... Bilbo wasn't certain how to describe the sensation even to himself, but the deliberation caused him to feel powerful and gleeful, guilty and vulnerable at the same time, both uncomfortably heated and chilled. Might they not be happy, the inner Bilbo continued without mercy, that there exists any charm potent enough to calm, but for a moment or some days or months, a nature so cruel as to cause constant fear for the violence in which it might break out at any moment?

"I don't know!" Bilbo moaned, setting his face in his hands and wishing for the hundredth time he was back in the Shire where his greatest worry was dodging his relatives attempts to marry him off to bustling busybody widows who never killed but a chicken for the dinner and menaced a thing but family reunions.

"Can you not try? We can run if bad, but can you try?" Kel asked, something tight constricting his voice. His skin had taken pale pallor underneath the golden tinge.

"You would escape with me?" Bilbo asked, feeling a flicker of something warm spreading in his chest and the cold knot easing a bit. Kel had appeared so happy with his new life, showing no signs of discontent, and Bilbo didn't doubt for a moment that taking part in an escape attempt with him could only end terribly were they caught.

"I don't must fear orcs now. I pay my debt." There was a wealth of dark memories twined between the words and the paleness gave way for a flush of anger on Kel's face. He had never appeared anything but frightened, timidly hopeful or friendly to Bilbo, but now he felt as thought he was looking into a distorted mirror where he might see himself before a wizard walked to his green door and carved a dwarven rune on it. There was more than could readily be seen to Kelsahng; a spark of greatness which would have been wasted in the stables shoveling manure and hiding from the orcs and their beasts, a little seed which could grow into something beautiful if only it was given water and a little encouragement.

"I will try first, though I make no promises," Bilbo found himself saying and almost groaned out loud, for again his mouth had run away with him like fool of a half-Took that he was and he couldn't take his words back, not when Kel's face brightened so with relief.

Though even if Kel hadn't been a consideration, Gwaedhglae's fate remained unresolved and now that Bilbo again found himself able to reason, he was certain there was something important Sauron had concealed from him. The anticipation left a sick feeling in his stomach he hoped a hot drink might at least make bearable. He sighed and picked his cup from the table, but the first sip told him that while he had been occupied by his inner turmoil, the tea had gone lukewarm. This didn't improve the taste in the least.

***

But no one ever chooses at the fork of the road, not in real life. There is a reason it isn't called strolling into love or leaping into love, disembarking in love or even slipping in love. No one ever intends to love, after all; all think they do, but in truth they can only want. Not a skill one may perfect, not an action they can take, but a true irresistible force, the truth is when love comes, false sense of security is only the beginning.

Love has no manners, love will not wait for an invitation, will not knock on the door. Love doesn't say please, love doesn't say thank you, love takes what is on the table and what is not, love stays and goes as it wishes. Love is wonderful, love is terrible. Love simply is and Gwaedhglae was very much in love with Bilbo Baggins.

Gwaedhglae is very much in love with Bilbo Baggins.

***

The night was already far spent and the inner circle of the Barad-Dûr stronghold slept on, secure in all its grim array; the night was silent, but for the tread of the warg patrols as they paced the streets of the outer grid, but for the clang of sword upon mail links or the soft growl of a warg, for dread had come to rest over the half-finished citadel and even orcs were in weary waiting for the daybreak. The Nine had returned to Sauron this night.

He had left to greet them by the outer gates where he might allow a part of his true nature to shine though and all creatures flinched away from him except for his nine wraiths. It was relief to put down a burden he hadn't realized he carried as his skin became as though the surface of water, boiling gently as a glowing mass of cloud in colours of white and blue blurring and striking through dark red and purple like bolts of lightning passed through it, unfurling around his body like the flame of a candle enshrouded the wick. Here and there upon the plain below the high road swaying points of light seemed to move, flickering and going out only to rekindle again, but they all paled in comparison to Sauron. The dark horses refused to approach him and the dark cloaks caught in fire as the Nine knelt before him, burning briefly like torches and leaving the pale, bound fëa unhoused.

"What is your will, Master?" the Witch King of Angmar asked with voice that was like the turning of a hinge rusted through.

"In Umbar there are men and women who would resist my rule," Sauron spoke as he looked upon the crowned spectre. A dark shadow rested between the eyes which must pierce every shadow and barrier for the glint of life, for a beating heart and a mind full of fear. Once a lord of Númenor whose high blood and conceit could be read upon every line of his face, now he was the most feared servant of his master Sauron. "Take two hundred orcs and go to the havens of these little lordling who think their gold gives them security. Bring to heel whom you may and kill all who resist." He gave thirty-two names, those his agent had sent him. To send two hundred with the Ringwraiths would leave him with a little more than a hundred in Mordor, but it wasn't as though Sauron needed to fear anything in the Middle Earth. In truth the Nine didn't need the orcs to fulfill their mission, for two hundred was a wholly insufficient force to breach through the high walls surrounding the havens of Umbar and this was not to be a campaign of conquest, but one of surreptitious coup.

The wraiths would march the streets of Umbar at night, break into the mansions of the Corsair Lords and break the back of Umbar. That the orcs would be left behind to serve as a remainder of Sauron's rule, under the control of Sauron's Mouth, he didn't need to command; the Witch King was his sword, but also a cunning strategist.

"Yes, my Lord," the wraith breathed and the Nine all rose to fulfill his order, the ever-changing lines of their being swirling like a cloud of smoke in a breeze.

"Wait!" Sauron commanded sharply; the Nine obediently stood still and he allowed his gaze to rest in each of them before returning to the face of the Witch King. Their old life was all a dream, perhaps the memory of a former existence, they were wrapped in terror like the night and their aspect was grim. Sauron thought of the vivacious, brilliant hobbit sleeping in his chamber high in the tower.

"What does to live without living as a wraith feel?" he asked and silence followed.

More expressive than Sauron had ever seen them in their death, the wraiths glanced each others hesitantly as though they couldn't understand the question. He waited with patience and eventually one stepped forth; at tall man who had once been a chieftain of the forefathers of the Harads, his skin as black as ebony, who had worn heavy copper earweights, bangles of gold on his arms, a headdress of gold and amber and but a leopard skin for a loincloth. He had been a brilliant warrior for one whose people only harnessed horses before carriages and a just ruler during times of peace and Sauron had given him a crown of iron after he had fallen into the shadows. Iron, hard and so useful, had been a prize more precious than gold in a land where the secrets of iron-working were not known and swords were made of bronze.

"Painful," the man answered. Sauron was almost certain his name had once been Ntimaron.

"You may go," he said and the wraiths mounted their horses. Sauron turned on his heels, carefully folding all which was him within the housing of flesh again, the folds of his robes fluttering around him though there was no wind. This was not something he has cared to know before, though he might have surmised had he thought to do so. Ilúvatar's cruel "gift" was one which carried strict stipulations; the hröa was fleeting and the fëa wasn't intended to go on without flesh to house it.

He made his way through the stronghold where voices were soon raised in shouts and curses as the Ringwraiths herded the ranks of the orcs together, but Sauron paid them no heed, instead arriving to the tower with all due haste. Rather than bother with stairs, he simply hummed a short, susurrating tune of air, and though the element was most familiar to him when it danced with fire, it carried him with ease above the walls and the rooftops, above the crowned cluster of hills and a tower that was to be a crown to all the world. The window had no panes and no bars - there had been a lattice of wrought iron but he had removed it, concerned it might change the chamber's atmosphere to that of a cell - and he entered the room with nimble ease.

The heavy silk curtains of the bed were tied open and the form of Bilbo was clear for a silent observer to spy unawares. The bed was much too large for one hobbit alone and Bilbo almost drowned in the middle of the folds of linen and pillows half his height. the heavier blankets had been fastidiously folded to the foot of the bed, along with the golden-brown and dark soft furs and skins which Sauron had gifted Bilbo. He looked younger asleep than when awake, almost childish wearing only a long nigh shirt, yet Sauron could hear the rattle of sand in an hourglass trickling mercilessly down. He could craft a ring which extended the life and didn't bind the fëa of its bearer, but half a millennium was not enough.

Have you no sense at all that you fail to consider how he would react were he to wake and find you standing beside his bed after the revelations of today?

Sauron had considered this, for a fleeting moment, but the need to see Bilbo's chest rise and fall with the deep, even breaths had been greater than his anticipation. There might be a way to bind a fëa to Arda without bringing it pain, but to discover it, Sauron must research, must experiment... with live subjects. He hadn't cared for the fate of the Nine, but now that he stood in the darkened room and watched Bilbo sleep, the thought was distasteful - yet he must, if he wished to keep the hobbit by his side.

You might wish to lay yourself down to rest before considering this more; an invigorated mind makes better decisions.

It was true that even the Maiar needed rest, though they didn't sleep as mortals did. Rest for Sauron was falling in deep thought, not deliberation of present hardnesses and future uncertainty, but into the realm of peaceful contemplation of simple things, his eyes un-closed as he blended the living night and deep dream. He didn't need rest often, but the past week had been mentally and emotionally very draining and he was surprised how appealing the thought was. After one last glance to Bilbo he left through the door, still stepping as lightly as ever as his feet took him towards his study. Bilbo had taken the bed which had meant to be his, yet he didn't need more than peaceful surroundings and he could well sleep, if sleep it could be called, resting his mind even as he walked open-eyed in the silent tower.

By the door of his study he ceased his tread and blinked. He closed his eyes.

***

Sauron was the one to close his eyes. Gwaedhglae was the one to open them.

Chapter Text

It was new moon night, doubly dark because of the heavy clouds that hung black and low, when Gwaedhglae first lifted his hands before his face and turned them slowly, marveling in the sensation. The manifestation of body he had taken in his own mind had been as effortless as a thought, but flesh felt heavy, clumsy both so more real and distanced from him at the same time. The brisk winds of autumn were swirling in fitful blasts around the tower, slipping in through a narrow window by the winding stairs, as hot as though it had blown through oven, but not dry for once. They were heralds of a black and bitter storm that was even now beginning to break and though rain rarely fell in Mordor, this outpour threatened to be heavy.

"Sleep, these dreams are for you," Gwaedhglae whispered to Sauron. For now this body was his to use, this mouth his to apologize and explain. "Sleep tight and goodnight, with daisies bedight. Sleep tight and goodnight, dreams are a delight," he sung a little hobbit lullaby, a simple rhyme which was seemingly composed to list every two-syllable flower name in Westron; singing fauntlings' rhymes to Sauron amused him and after being forced to hide and observe the proceedings of Sauron's suit in anticipation for a week, unable to take action, he wasn't above a little pettiness. He softly ascended the stairs, singing of lilies and peonies, roses and violets.

"Sleep tight and goodnight, with poppies below pillow. Sleep tight and goodnight, mother's cooking minnow..." And he stood by the door. Behind this door was Bilbo's chamber with Bilbo's bed and Bilbo in his bed - and Gwaedhglae knew that should he wait for the morning, he would run out of time. There was no helping it; however badly he startled Bilbo, he must awaken the hobbit. He raised his fist and knocked sharply three times.

"Who is there?" Bilbo's sleepy voice called out after a moment, tense below the blurred edges. Gwaedhglae didn't answer, but pushed the door open.

Bilbo was sitting with his back propped up against the headboard, clutching the sheet against his chest. And how his gentle, startled eyes and noble carriage, with which no one for a moment could associate any cruelty or revenge, could cast shame upon the man who could recall beholding solitary, unarmed men torn limb from limb at his orders. Memories, Gwaedhglae had learned, were like daggers; sharp on both edges.

"I am sorry to invade your chambers at night - I know you must be uncomfortable - but I have little time and I can't know when the next chance to speak with you shall arise," Gwaedhglae apologized, flicking his hand towards the lampstone and lighting the bowl. This sent red and yellow reflections dancing on the walls, followed by the twisting of shadows, and outside there was a sudden burst of white light and the crack of thunder, followed by the rushing of the rain as it fell in heavy drops, and the wind rose and swelled into a tempest.

"Are you leaving? Where will you go and how long will you be away?" Bilbo asked, jumping up from the bed - or rather, jumping up on the bed, as it took him several steps to reach the edge of it. Hos feet were still darkened by the black dust, the colour seemingly seeped into the skin even though the fastidious hobbit had certainly washed his feet before laying down to sleep.

"So you don't recognize me at all? Though to be honest, maybe I don't deserve any better." He smiled sadly and sat on the bed so that Bilbo, standing, was of equal height with him. The hobbit gazed into his eyes and Gwaedhglae awaited for either further questions or recognition.

"Gwaedhglae? But if you are Gwaedhglae, what has happened to Sauron?" Bilbo's demeanor was suspicious and his eyes didn't leave Gwaedhglae's even for a moment, barely even blinking. The hobbit made no move to approach him.

"My relationship with Sauron is... complicated," he answered, brushing his hair away from his face to give himself a moment to think.

Were he to be strictly honest, Gwaedhglae couldn't say with absolute certainty he regretted his late revelation. He had been too late to save Bilbo, but Bilbo didn't appear to need much rescue; he had been too late to save himself, yet he had survived, though not as an autonomous entity. And to call his relationship with Sauron complicated was to underestimate the depth and width of it. Though he had become a person of his own, though he had remained a person, he had once been but a piece of Sauron and even had he remained sundered from his maker, there would have been a bond he couldn't deny. Gwaedhglae didn't believe he could claim to love Sauron, but he lacked a better word for the tie that bound them together.

And even if he had travelled to the Shire with Bilbo, Sauron would still have existed and he couldn't have denied his nature. He wouldn't have necessarily needed to twist and corrupt Bilbo, but he couldn't have helped sapping the life of the hobbit and turning him into a wraith. With a hobbit the process might have taken a very long time, centuries, but the end would have been unavoidable. And though Gwaedhglae might have wished to let Bilbo go, his allure was, again, something he couldn't control.

"What do you mean, complicated?" Bilbo probably intended to act surreptitious, but the true purpose of his inquiry was very clear - and charming. He never would have thought so before, but the combination of moral high ground and inexperienced determination was adorable.

"I was once but a piece of another's fëa; there is no simple explanation for what I was when your hands blindly grasped underneath the Misty Mountains. You have seen clockwork toys in Rivendell, little birds which will sing and flap their wings like real birds, yet they are not such. My mind was akin to a clockwork toy, something which imitated the workings of a real person, yet wasn't; I was much limited and had no real feelings at all. It wasn't until Bree..." Gwaedhglae could feel his mouth twisting with contradicting feelings over the incident. He would have preferred to be able to claim the root of his feelings something other than shared embarrassment over witnessing public sex act. "You were difficult to manipulate and I thought I needed to understand your feelings better - and to do so I must feel them as well. The first true emotion I experienced when when you and Bríl happened upon Ficilia and the sudden intensity was... violent. I unmade the connection I had formed between our minds." Now Bilbo flushed bright red, yet there was amusement in his eyes. Maybe those were the only options on the table; laugh about it or cry.

"...Only to learn that some choices, once made, can never be unmade. As you travelled to the east, new feelings would grow within and try as I might, I couldn't uproot them. You should soon begun to remember the dreams we shared, many of them of the garden of a small summer palace a little ways from Ost-in-Edhil." Celebrimbor's gardens where he had often entertained Annatar, debating of ringcraft and sharing plans of great future for his kingdom; Gwaedhglae's mood was darkened. "Bilbo, there is something important you should know of Sauron and Celebrimbor. It is not something you might ever wish to find out, yet something you must - but I ask you to give Sauron a few weeks more before your inquiry, for he has yet to even admit to himself he must confront the issue and it isn't my place to have this conversation with you."

He dared to touch Bilbo now, though he made certain to softly press his hand around the hobbit's smaller one rather than reach for his face. What a strange sensation it was to be separate from Bilbo, stand close enough to touch and yet not know his thoughts. What anticipation did he feel, what pictures his mind painted that yet paled before the truth? Gwaedhglae must touch skin for he couldn't reach the sinews of Bilbo's beating heart, he must be content to feel the warmth of the body for he couldn't feel the mind and he felt terribly lonely.

***

The curtains fluttered in the wind, the heavy fabric rustling very loudly in the otherwise quiet room. When Gwaedhglae had taken Bilbo's hand, he had felt as though his heart would stop or break or do something else equally terrible. The wind wasn't cooling, precisely, but it was blessedly moist and the scent of rain allowed Bilbo to breathe easier. Gwaedhglae was holding Bilbo's hand and his heart was heavy as he remembered his promise to Kelsahng and

and

for the first time Bilbo realized that if Gwaedhglae had somehow mysteriously taken over Sauron, if only for a short while, this was his chance. He could take his sword to the hand and take the ring and they could travel to the Shire with Kel and everything could be just fine. The air was sweet with rain, but Bilbo was gasping for breath.

"Bilbo? I am sorry?" Gwaedhglae begun to draw away, but Bilbo grasped his hand anew and sat down by his side, feeling as though his every muscle was trembling. A beautiful golden ring adorned one slender finger on the hand between his.

Unless this was a trick of Sauron – and Bilbo had to admit this was a possibility, however much he wished the man sitting on the edge of the bed with him was the real Gwaedhglae – there were subtle differences between the Maia and the ring. It was their carriage, the way his words were often blunt and clipped when he spoke to Bilbo, yet his face wouldn’t betray a thing more than patient bearing. Gwaedhglae in turn seemed less tense, more expressive in a manner which seemed more natural and more at ease in his own skin, the irony of which didn’t fail to appeal to Bilbo. His voice was lower as well, a bit rougher in the manner of velvet dragged against the grain on his skin; still soft, still gentle, but there was somehow more texture to it. The longer Bilbo listened to Gwaedhglae, the surer he became it truly was him.

"I could, Gwaedhglae, but I... I am so sorry, but I just..." He could and yet he couldn't, plain and simple. Though he knew Sauron was an evil man, no evidence of this was visible in his deportment in Bilbo's presence - and Sauron loved him! That he could feel so defeated by the realization that he was a good person might sound absurd, but Bilbo's shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes tightly against the apprehension. He had brought Sauron back to life and he didn't have it in him to kill the Dark Lord in cold blood now that he was helpless, now that he was somehow in love with Bilbo.

"How can I be a good and a terrible person both at the same time and for the same reason?" he moaned, defeated. He simply couldn't wash away the mistakes of yesterday now.

"So have you found yourself loving Sauron?" Gwaedhglae asked as though he was inquiring after a party invitation, idly polite and strangely cheerful. "I have no remonstrances, you realize?"

"No! But I can't kill Sauron either!" Loving Sauron was the one thing yet lacking from this mess; why had he promised Kel he would try? Clearly it was a horrible idea!

"Well... I still have no remonstrances." Gwaedhglae's voice hitched in a suspicious manner and when Bilbo looked up, the corners of his mouth were tight with exertion and his cheeks were flushed.

"You are amused, aren't you?" he accused, hurt. He was suddenly reminded that maybe he hadn't quite forgiven Gwaedhglae after all and that he couldn't know of the ring's true loyalties. Gwaedhglae had certainly taken the prospect of the one he loved loving Sauron very blithely.

"I am sorry, Bilbo, but as I said, we are complicated - and Sauron is nowhere near as immune to your pleas and influence as you seem to think, nor is he as pleased with his current life as he thinks; I have found that sometimes the tiniest bit of distance can do wonders for your perspective. As long as you don't somehow misplace your spine entirely, I believe all will be well in the end." There was no offensive boldness or presuming vanity in his words, merely bewildering faith, and frustrating as well since Bilbo could barely imagine what he wanted or where to begin.

"There is something I should make clear now," Bilbo said resolutely, now pulling his hands away. "I love you, but I haven't forgiven you yet and I find this whole affair more inconvenient than anything." A part of him flinched at his own harsh words, but Gwaedhglae only nodded solemnly. The flame curled and uncurled in its bowl on the stone alter, causing the blond face to almost blaze with a splendor akin to gold, and something flickered at the back of Bilbo's mind; a hazy recollection of apple trees and roses. Gwaedhglae - or Sauron, whichever the body could be said to belong - truly was devastatingly beautiful.

"Love has no manners, I fear. It will not wait for an invitation, will not knock on the door, it will not say please, it takes what is on the table and what is not. Love, I have found, is very much like dwarves in this regard." And Bilbo could tell Gwaedhglae wanted to make him laugh, but damn, he couldn't help the short snort that escaped him.

"At least we can agree on something," he said and pressed a brief, chaste kiss on Gwaedhglae's lips.

***

Sauron allowed his mind to dwell in days when no one would naysay him, would try to fight him, and he fell in deeper as he thought of Bilbo by his side, content and loving and his forever. He also dreamed of flowers, inexplicably, of fragrant white petal goblets with delicate spots, delicately pink, frilly blossoms and bright red petals which lay flat and the scent of deep dreams. He couldn't remember when he had last fallen so deep in thought, yet he couldn't care, so restful he felt himself. There was a voice, though, familiar and beloved voice and Sauron groggily tried to pay attention to what it was saying.

How can I be a good and a terrible person both at the same time and for the same reason?

And then a shock struck though him like a bolt of lightning, the emotions of someone other than himself. There was a smaller body pressed against his and a kiss burning on his lips like a brand, like a promise, but as Sauron tried to open his eyes, he realized he had never closed them in the first place, yet there was something obstructing him, a veil between him and the kiss that blurred Bilbo into the shadows.

What have you done, he raged silently. He didn't have the control of his own body yet, but however his traitorous ring had managed to evade his scrutiny, he was still the greater part of them, still stronger.

I never... you never took betrayal, whether real, imagined or merited by betrayal of your own beforehand, very well. Gwaedhglae spoke with Bilbo still, but while such had once been as simple and natural as breathing, Sauron was out of practice, trying to listen with his mind and ears both; the sound waves blurred into fleshy, wordless noise he couldn't divide into words. This is my body as well, the only form I can share now, and I loved him first. But don't fear, he is more fond of you than I believe he even realizes - which is hardly a surprise. We keep making different decisions, but we were one for a long time.

Am I to believe you are merely a part of me now, or mine, that you are proposing of sharing, Sauron mocked and wrapped his disdain around the words like shrouds, clinging to them like a garment to the skin. He could see now and the bed by his side was empty.

I am neither you nor yours, but I am of you. This matters, inconvenient thought it might be.

And Gwaedhglae slipped away like the ghost of a dream, leaving Sauron the master of himself again. Bilbo was now standing in front of the window and the green curtains, almost black in the dancing light of the single flame, billowed around him, leaving his face into soft shadows. His curls clung to his head, darkened to brown by the water.

"Why are you standing there?" Sauron asked, rising from the bed himself. Bilbo's shoulders were a little tense, but he didn't carry himself as a man who was afraid should have.

"I wished for a breath of fresh air before we had this conversation," the hobbit explained, stepping away from the folds of the curtains, but pausing to run his hand sadly over the silk, now striped by water. "Are these are ruined now? I know nothing of the caring of silk. This window needs a pane of glass rather badly."

"I don't believe so, the soot will remain..." Bilbo's distress over the curtains might be honest, in his hobbit nature, but the enchantment on the window and washing of silk was not what he wanted to discuss and certainly Bilbo was stalling as well. So far they had carefully avoided all open disagreements, but even unacknowledged, those had stood between the two of them until the distance between them might as well have been a hundred miles even when they were standing in the same room.

"Did you know of Gwaedhglae?" he asked, afraid Bilbo would lie to him and afraid Bilbo would answer truthfully. But while the hobbit had some considerable talent for spinning tales, he had so far proved to be either unwilling or unable to convincingly lie to Sauron even by omission.

"How could I have known for certain when you wouldn't let me speak with him?" Bilbo returned his question with one of his own, righteously indignant, and Sauron could breathe easier.

"I am in love with you and you love another; I am certain you can see why I am not gladdened by this," he said and the words rolled easy from his tongue, so liberating. To confess jealousy felt a little humiliating, but now he could at last have an answer.

"I love Gwaedhglae, for all I am still angry with him, a little bit, and he has faith in me, but I..." Bilbo paused, wringing his hands and appearing so helpless Sauron was taken by the most unwise urge to embrace him and swear that all would be well. He didn't move, didn't dare to speak a word for fear what foolish promises he would give. "I have given my word I will try, both to Gwaedh and to Kel, but I don't know if anything can come of even my best intentions. I doubt you have changed so much you would eschew conquest and though I am not the same hobbit who set his feet on the road in the beginning of this journey, I most definitely haven's changed so my I could ever approve or even tolerate such."

And this was the argument they had so far avoided laid bare, the distance of a hundred miles between them. As Gwaedhglae had already told Sauron in very plain terms, he could have the world brought under his heel or he could have Bilbo Baggins' love, but he couldn't have both.

"I am sorry, I will retire for the night now," he said, uncertain what he was apologizing for. Meeting Bilbo's eyes was difficult and the dreadful sense of helplessness burned through him; again he had been set up to lose either way, whichever his choice. The temptation to blame Bilbo was tremendous, but Sauron wasn't so delusional he wouldn't have recognized Gwaedhglae was to blame - and credit - for Bilbo's presence in his life, and as Gwaedhglae's maker he shouldered his part of responsibility.

"But our conversation isn't over yet!" Bilbo protested, grabbing his hand without a thought. His hand burned on Sauron's skin even as his life slowly slipped away a heartbeat by heartbeat; wasn't life too short already without wasting a moment by miscommunication?

"What would you say to me?" he asked and Bilbo opened his mouth, only to close it again. His hand slipped away from Sauron's.

"Please make good decisions; Vána knows someone must and mine don't stand up to much scrutiny, lately. Good night." His lips looked very soft and lush and Sauron could almost recall how kissing him had felt. He left the room before he could do something terribly unwise.

Bilbo might have slept upstairs in his chamber, though probably not, but for Sauron there was not even a thought of rest. Again he turned his gaze inwards, journeyed through his mind in search of Gwaedhglae. He paused by the brand-tattoos burned so elegantly, haphazardly, viciously, unselfconsciously gracefully into his very being, but those memories were simply that; a tale of life lived with no will to fight, no cunning to hide and no life left to life or die, though Gwaedhglae was and had this all. Eventually through the ever-winding circles of his fëa he arrived to the tree.

There was no grass beneath it, no ground at all to support, but there wasn't emptiness either. Sauron was at heart a being of living flame and this tree grew on the very foundation of his most base nature, roots swirling among the fire. What s dizzying, strange vision it made, a clear manifestation growing from something he had never visualized, for it was no symbol of a reflection of the True Flame, but there pure Idea which had no shape or imperfect form. And there, standing by the rainbow-coloured, heartrendingly beautiful tree, Sauron knew.

"Gwaedhglae. I should have known, for you said it yourself." Isn't it curious that though your love grew from mine, they are so different, Gwaedhglae had said, for all you favour fire, your passion is rather cold. All the other flowers had become scar tattoos once he had devoured them so why would his love for Bilbo Baggins, so different from Gwaedhglae's love, alone manifest in its original form? "And were my feeling for him cold, my life would be much easier."

"For you it is always plot within plots to gain what you desire and long-term strategy," Gwaedhglae pointed out dryly, his voice his own and not an imitation of the tree's now that his secret had been revealed. "Though forward planning isn't necessarily a bad quality, as long as you don't take it to unhealthy extremes; I was much too late to make my decision." The tree had grown taller yet again, branched several times since Sauron had last turned his attention towards it - towards him. The tree had grown much beyond his fledgling relationship with Bilbo and the roots reached deep. Sauron calculated how much and how severe damage he would have to do to himself in order to uproot the tree and destroy Gwaedhglae's consciousness once and for all; for all the flames licked him, Gwaedhglae was of the flames us much as Sauron and he couldn't turn their own, shared nature against the ring.

The conclusion was disheartening: if he wished to remain sane and whole of mind, he couldn't. Though Gwaedhglae had only had a week to dig his defenses, he had dug them well and in a very vulnerable spot.

"Do you truly think I am your worst problem at the moment?" the ring asked, not unkindly; if anything he even sounded apologetic, though not remorseful.

Visions of well-organized world where everyone knew their place and toiled together for the good of the order in conformity, like little pulleys and cogwheels in a complicated machine, used to seem to him like the gorgeous fabric dreams were made of. And as it was with all dreams, the vision had often become so close to completion only to melt into air and nothingness. This was incredibly frustrating to Sauron who had, once, heard the perfect Music and then become servant to the chaotic visions of others; all this recalcitrance of the elves and men came from nothing, it achieved nothing, and certainly seemed to crumble to the same abyss in the end. Men and women, like insects, came and went; they were born and then died and this was all. Nothing was accomplished, nothing ever perfected. If only they would obey!

Now Sauron had come to see matters from a different angle and from this point of view, his vision was inherently flawed, a machine which was simply never meant to work. He could not bear it, could not bear to think he might have wasted ages doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results; if he gave up no, all that effort would be for nothing! And he would never become a slave to someone else’s vision again. No, two minds and wills housed within the same hröa wasn't his worst problem at all.

“There really is no helping you, is there?” Gwaedhglae asked, both resigned and smug in the manner of a person who knew he was in the good graces of his beloved. "Good thing for you Bilbo is such a patient hobbit.

***

Bilbo hadn't slept but maybe an eyeful as the paling of the sky which passed for dawn in Mordor lit his window already and the rain had finally drizzled down to nothing, awakened soon by restless dreams of a garden and familiar eyes. He then decided to return to writing poems as a way to think of more cheerful things, but not all poems were cheerful - far from it! - and for all he tried to think of adventures with happy endings and fields of flowers and even an ode to real tea in his desperation, his inspiration wouldn't heed to his will. It was frustrating tasks which had so far only produced a few isolated fragments of something which promised to be just as confused and doubtful as Bilbo felt himself.

Life is as a tale, maybe fable doom
In land of Mordor, everlasting gloom;
In the dim maze of extended spaces
Shall come sweetest rains in hidden places

This clearly described Mordor, but the poem vacillated between describing the land as a horrible, grim place and somewhere barren and severe where there was beauty to be found regardless. Alone this maybe wouldn't have been too far from the truth, but after several shaky lines crossed over by wide brushes of ink, the next lines plainly spoke of something else altogether.

The changeful flickers in his gazing eye;
His vision to further distances fly

This was Sauron described fairly neutrally, surrounded by aborted lines which read "uncertain life soon beckoning to flight" and "something something day or night" and strangely also "many horses decked by glittering plumes" even though there was no rhyme for it and Bilbo had yet to spy a single plume in Mordor, glittering or otherwise. But below these there was another pair of lines.

But do no sparks of virtue yet remain
In one who seeks to in such darkness reign?

"This is hopeless," he grumbled, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He had never suffered from headache brought by tension, but the gesture had become a habit, such a satisfying way to express his feelings without resorting to any rude means.

"What is hopeless?" Kelsahng asked, setting the breakfast tray down. Bilbo was fairly certain that feeding him wasn't one of Kel's responsibilities, but he refused to allow anyone else to perform the task.

"This poem, Gwaedhglae and Sauron, the lack of tea, my moral predicament and that I should ask about Celebrimbor without knowing what can of worms I am to open, not necessarily in this order," Bilbo answered, straightening his back and standing to stretch himself. Kel frowned and Bilbo thought he probably didn't know the word predicament in Westron, but before he could explain, Kel asked something else.

"What is Gwaedhglae, or who?" He sounded worried and Bilbo realized he worried Gwaedhglae was someone with whom Bilbo might be unfaithful to Sauron, which... Well, technically he would be unfaithful to Gwaedhglae, though the ring refused to take normal, proper stand on the matter. That Gwaedhglae was a disembodied spirit housed within Sauron's body would be difficult to explain, but that he might, in a sense, be considered either Sauron's son - as Sauron had created him - or his twin - as they were beings of the same weft, whichever were the threads and sinews which made Maiar - truly made the entire affair scandalous. Though nothing had changed, he felt the trouble of his involvement had expanded significantly in width and complexity since the last he had seen the man.

"Sit down, this is going to take a while," he asked, wondering if Kel's Westron would be enough to even comprehend the issue. He brushed the parchment to the side to make room for the tray, closing the bronze inkwell. But do no sparks of virtue yet remain, he thought distractedly. Sauron had only treated him with courtesy and kindness so far; there were people in his own family with seemingly far less control over their tempers and less discretion in showing it, even! Was it really be so impossible for Sauron to act kindly towards others? What would it cost him other than much superfluous effort and the empty triumph of proving by being the strongest that he was the strongest?

"Alas the tidings," he muttered with maybe a little more pathos than strictly necessary as he poured himself a cup of the horrible tea. It could hardly even be called tea; lie-leaves, maybe, or imposter-beverage. "Why has the fate decreed I am doomed to entreat others to stop acting like madmen?"

"Little sense rare when some is needed?" Kelsahng nodded sagely and frowned. "Sounds better in Khāngwén," he continued apologetically.

***

Love might be scary, but hobbit marriages are most often very happy and serene; more like a hearty meal after a long day and comfortable slippers than a journey, which was good as few of them ever care to travel farther than to the nearest town.

Hobbit kind of love isn't made for spirits of fire, but maybe it is a good thing then that Bilbo, for all his good hobbitish qualities like avoiding bloodshed and lack of greed and lust for power, is rather un-hobbitlike in many other ways. If love came to Gwaedhglae like a flame from a tree, Bilbo's love is not like honeyed tea or tatted doilies. He loves like secrets are to be loved; without wholly understanding and without need for for comforting familiarity. Wanting for safety, yes, but not needing.

Chapter Text

Bilbo didn't know it, but he was very popular among the human inhabitants of Mordor - because they had been ordered to take care of him and take good care under the pain of death.

There were currently forty-seven humans in the Mordor, all of the men simply because the women captured by the orcs hadn't lasted long enough to see the gates of Barad-Dûr. Some had been taken there by force, others had come of their own volition, placing their trust in the lies Sauron's agents spoke in the outer lands and now regretting their folly, envying those agents for their freedom. No-one was ever free in Mordor, no human any more than an orc or a troll, and the only thing which mattered was their place in hierarchy of slaves. Their feelings for Sauron were frustrated hate, hopeless rage and crippling fear.

But now they had all been corralled behind the inner walls of the stronghold, blessedly away from the orcs - with the exception of the three unfortunate souls forced to work at the stables - and set to guard the walls and serve, each according to their skills, all to keep one creature away from the orcs and their beasts of war. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, a creature none of them had known existed before he had arrived to prove Sauron against all reason and precedent was capable of loving another, might have become an object of much envy and hate had he been of different nature. The little Lord was one of pleasant disposition, however, always polite and never dealt a blow to a poor slave who failed to comply with an order because they couldn't understand his language and serving him allowed the men of Umbar, Khand and Harad to walk without (much) fear and sleep their nights in peace.

Bilbo didn't know it, but his "servants" were very interested in his relationship with Sauron. For most of them the interest was entirely self-serving; the knowledge there was one person at least who could appeal to the Dark Lord if necessary and likely to do so out of the goodness of his heart. They all awaited the news of a more permanent arrangement with a baited breath.

***

The doorways in the Great Hall resembled small alcoves more than anything else, most likely due to the solidness of the walls, all of them made of huge slabs of stone. They didn't look quite straight, but Bilbo knew this might well be an illusion his own eye somehow created. One thing those humans don't realize is, Gloin had said once when in his cups, that a perfectly straight column doesn't look like it's straight; it needs to bulge out a wee bit in the middle to look right. Well, these had been more slurring and Bilbo didn't think this actually true after seeing the magnificent Osgiliath, but the point still stood.

Bilbo had thought of the dwarves much that morning, though mostly of Kíli and his sweet, sweet love for the inestimable Captain Tauriel. Love between different races was quite rare, though he had heard that sometimes hobbit men had taken a human wife for themselves in Bree. Ill tongues wagged this was because human men were in the habit of beating their wives and children and the poor women wished to marry someone gentle, but Bilbo didn't know how much truth there was to those tales. Certainly no hobbit man he had heard of had ever done such a thing when sober and even among drunkards such was blessedly rare abomination.

"I heard a tale of a woman who loved with a big spider," Kel had told him that morning. "They live in forest Buandelgeshou. She gave him food. He didn't eat her."

"Doesn't sound a very nuanced form of love to me," Bilbo had jested, though he was certain the tale was worth hearing in the original language. The mere thought of... intimacy with a spider was stomach-turning to him, though he was fair enough to admit that since they were intelligent people - he had heard the spiders speak in Mirkwood when he had put on Gwaedhglae - the act wouldn't strictly speaking have counted as bestiality. Even then the mere thought of a spider with a swollen abdomen, spindly, hairy legs and such a beastly face was utterly disgusting. Spiders seemed dirty to Bilbo and he didn't think giving one a bath would help much, and skittering around like that, making web... And how would it even work?

On the other hand, a gentlehobbit who kept a garden couldn't afford to sneer at other people's manure and his admittedly unresolved and complicated relationship with Gwaedhglae and whatever-it-might-be with Sauron would probably be viewed as worse than a spider by many. Maybe they had enjoyed a purely spiritual connection and not a carnal one...

"What happened to them?" he had asked.

"Villagers knew and killed her. Spider came at night and killed all in sleep," Kel had answered and, well. That had been depressing. Bilbo would much rather think of Kíli and Tauriel, for more reasons than one.

So the doorways were deep and by hiding in the shadows - not because Sauron would have attempted to keep him in the dark about his dealings with these people, but rather to avoid him cancelling the meeting altogether for Bilbo's convenience - he learned that Sauron knew how to speak. The Maia had acted so uncertain and awkward in regards to Bilbo that the hobbit was shocked to learn he knew precisely which words to emphasize, which words to leave unsaid, which phrases to choose. This was the first time he had overheard such discussion in the common tongue and when Sauron picked the exact right moment to smile to offer to the three men some reassurance without sacrificing his intimidating aura...

"Were the current reign in Umbar to keep wallowing in its selfish, incessant chaos," Sauron spoke, straightening to his full height; his build maybe wasn't much when compared to these tall men, but this mattered little when they were down on their knees and he always seemed to take the space of a man three times his size. "They would at this very moment have plunged all that which is left of the whole of the true Númenorian civilization into a crisis of inconceivable magnitude; the Gondor is amassing her armies again, preparing for a war."

Oh dear, Bilbo was met with the vision of a snake charming a bird to hop closer to its jaws. Were Gondor to prepare soldiers, he was almost certain this was due to provocation by Sauron, but Bilbo had learned already that a mind seeped in distrust and hate would always be quick see deception and aggression in old enemies; the warmongers never could run out of causes to go to a war.

“Thus they have long refused to stand by and witness the return Umbar's colonial possessions,” Sauron exclaimed. “Alleging that it would be wrong to return the savage, lesser inhabitants of the Harad to Umbar's power against their will - while they surely covet those lands themselves!” Now, Bilbo was certain Sauron's opinion of the Umbarians wasn't any higher than his opinion of the Haradrim, yet the men lapped his work like a cat a saucer of milk - or at lest two of the wem did. One of them was dressed in heavy purple robes and he looked uncomfortable in them, sweating heavily, and another, mre muscled one with wide shoulders and a scar slashed across his thin nose was dressed in heavy armour, betraying no sign of discomfort. The third one in comparison was dressed in a dark cloak and he appeared more satisfied than anything as the first two couldn't turn their gaze away.

"Are you going to a war with Umbar?" he asked when the men had bowed and scraped their way out of the hall. Sauron turned around, surprised, and Bilbo felt a tingle of pleasure at managing to hide from him even for a moment.

"Surely you can't much care for the Black Númenorians?" Sauron asked with the self-assured voice of a man who had an iron-clad argument. "They are cruel even to their own; trial by combat is common among them, but so is trial by fire, for the lower classes. The accused is forced to hold a red-hot piece of metal for a few seconds. The wound is then covered and in three days, if the wound healed, I have helped him and therefore he is innocent. On the other hand, if the wound festers, he is guilty. Of course, the magistrates don't really believe in such drivel; they sell rights to better healers and ointment to those accused who can afford them..."

"Enough," Bilbo pleaded and winced, shaking his head as though he could also shake away the distressing knowledge. He couldn't be etirely certain Sauron was truthful, of course, but no one ever had a good thing to say of the Black Númenorians.

Of course, Sauron had been the one to corrupt them in the first place.

"But I didn't even have the time to go into their practice of pederasty," Sauron continued and butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth; Bilbo considered the pros of askin him what "pederasty" meant, but judging by Sauron's almost eager expression, Bilbo decided he would sleep better in blissful ignorance.

There was a large tapestry behind Sauron's back, five yards high by eight yards wide, woven in silver- and gilt-metal-wrapped silk thread like many Bilbo had seen in Rivendell, though this was obviously of human make if the quality of the pattern was any indication. It displayed more than twenty scenes of some ancient campaign of war, beginning with the prelude of a tall man clad in jet-black armour and surrounded by a red and golden halo meeting a smaller figure with a golden crown on his head. The next scene depicted a fleet of black, red-sailed ships, thus hinting at a future battle, but before the war there was yet another king with a smaller crown on his brow, his posture somewhat submissive and cowardic as he stood beside knights in bright silver armour. The first and the second king battled across the tapestry, men fighting on foot behind a shield wall, whilst others were on horses, the ships clashing with another fleet amidst flames and above this all reigned a huge red and golden eye, surveying over all the bloodshed. The realization this very man who now stood before him had once witnessed the battle shook Bilbo.

"And what will be your justification for going to war with Gondor? And with the elves? Why are you doing this?" he asked, running his hand through his hair, frustrated he couldn't do more than feebly protest. Gwaedhglae seemed to think Bilbo held some power over Sauron, but so far this had only seemed to extend as far as his own well-being.

"What do you mean?" Sauron asked and a single wrinkle appeared above his perfect nose as though Bilbo's question had been complicated and difficult to understand.

"Why do you want to conquer the world? Surely you wouldn't have spent all these ages waging war without a good reason, but I cannot comprehend what it could be," Bilbo clarified, but the confusion on Sauron's face didn't clear. They were both speaking the common tongue, yet Bilbo didn't think they were speaking the same language at all.

***

After manipulating the Umbarians Sauron had finally felt right-footed with Bilbo. The men had been convinced to come to him before he had sent the Nine and manipulating them into handing all the power over to him - willing co-operation, while not maybe the most satisfying, was much more reliable without absolute control than a slave's forced obedience and he still had these men to work with - had given him the confidence to try and convince Bilbo of his vision; of course the hobbit must immediately turn the tables on him.

"Why do you want to conquer the world? Surely you wouldn't have spent all these ages waging war without a good reason, but I cannot comprehend what it could be."

This was truly a ridiculous question; as well Bilbo might have asked why the grass was green and the sky was blue. Only, when Sauron opened his mouth to give an answer, he realized that explaining plants and light, the very air and light would have been much easier.

"There must be one who controls; the world is ordered thus. I will never be another's slave again." The words rolled from his tongue easily enough, like honey from silver, but once he had spoken he knew there had been poison in the honey and his tongue was burned by its sting. He felt unclothed by the flesh, clear for any who had eyes to see to look at him and know him, more vulnerable than he had felt at Morgoth's feet.

There was a reason the Ainur, once Arda had been created and then marred, preferred to take a form, however fleeting and subject to change. Privacy, a privilege once learned, was a treasure any of them would have been loath to unlearn. The knowledge that Bilbo had found a kind of comfort in the security of the connection he had shared with Gwaedhglae, unaware he had been laid more bare than a newborn baby, was irony which didn't go unappreciated by him.

"I agree someone must take responsibility or all will descend into chaos," Bilbo spoke slowly and from his tone Sauron knew the hobbit didn't understand him at all. "But there is no reason for one to control all." Hadn't Sauron knew how innocent Bilbo truly was, he would have sworn the hobbit was a very practiced deceiver. In this world where a white paper only invited ink to fill it, pearly white skin awaited for a lover's touch to bruise, breaking light into a rainbow was a wonder and newly fallen snow must be driven into a muddy slush by the carts, being so pure only was begging for trouble.

"Where you say responsibility, I call for control; do we not mean the same thing?" he asked back, frantically gathering his words and arranging them into a satisfying sequence. "If one does not make not sure to control all, one must accept they will, sooner or later, bend their head for another. I will never bend mine." And Morgoth's shadow loomed over him heavier than the mere lack of light, far crueler than he could explain to such an innocent. In Rohan Bilbo had learned, through an off-handed, glib comment, of the punishment of holding hot eggs to a prisoner's armpit and he had been appalled; Sauron didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

You need not tell him the particulars; he is free with his sympathy and a good listener, when he needs not talk you out of doing something unwise, Gwaedhglae adviced him, but Sauron bristled inwardly, as the thought of begging for pity tasted like ashes in his mouth. Oh, honestly, he would be worse than appalled, but he wouldn't regard you as weak! The opposite!

"Well, I can prove otherwise!" Bilbo crowed victoriously. "If you truly remember what Gwaedhglae does - and keep in mind I want to speak with him soon again! - you must know of the elf-worshipping cult in Dunland! Rest assured, before too long they will be told the truth of the Valar." There was nothing but blind certainty to Bilbo's voice and Sauron was forced to admit, if only quietly, that the elves left in the Middle Earth wouldn't wish for lapdogs licking at their heels, if only because...

"And those elves you so admire are slaves to the Valar," he reminded to hobbit. How they called for their precious Elbereth to protect them, how they would have crawled at her feet had Varda descended upon this lowly soil...

How Bilbo called for Vána and how awed he had looked when he had asked Sauron of the Vala. He felt sickened his love should so lower himself.

"When have they forced anyone to take any action?" Bilbo challenged him immediately. He was smiling and there was a kiss on the corner of his mouth, one Sauron was certain no-one else had ever claimed before and he yearned to do so. But he hadn't earned the right yet, for Bilbo had only kissed Gwaedhglae.

He could have recited his beloved whole histories, told of the Noldor and how, when they had asked to leave Valinor to chase after Morgoth (though they hadn't asked as much as demanded) they had been forbidden and then punished (though the Doom might have been declared for the offence of the Kinslaying, though why hadn't it then only been directed at those who were guilty when Mandos certainly could have done so...) and how they had left Arda to Morgoth's tender mercies (though this couldn't perhaps be counted as enslaving but rather negligence) until Eärendil had arrived to beg for mercy with one of those accursed Silmarilli as a sacrifice.

"Who can say what they do and choose to not do? They certainly, for all their proclaimed benevolence, let the world suffer under Morgoth's siege for a long time. Would they have cared at all had it only been the Avari and the Edain?"

Yet this newly learned perspective forced him to be honest with himself; the world most likely wouldn't have survived a war of the Valar. He remembered the Second Breaking, the glowing pillars of vapour which had arisen obliquely from the summits of the mountains, giving them the appearance of volcanoes. Yet those had not been smoke, but very air had been filled with sharp ice needles and the sun's light, for whatever little time any light could be seen, had broken from them like feathered fire clouds. The sea had fled, the sea had arisen above the land, the sea had frozen and melted again, licked with flames and Eönwe fought his way to Angband. Steep escarpments rising in a large number of ranges of heights, intersected by rivulets where the hungering sea had flown, then a resounding breaking as the very stone finally gave spirit. Eönwe alone had been bad enough.

But he could have been sent sooner, had the Valar truly cared as they professed to do; Sauron was convinced they had simply wished to humble the rebellious Noldor, to make them suffer for their daring.

"The dwarrows should be counted among people of consideration as well, I reckon. And my people, we matter as well, even if we didn't make it to any epics where people die in impressively terrible ways because they have no common sense," Bilbo argued distractedly. He chewed on his lower lip in a terribly distracting manner and looked at Sauron. As he was much shorter, when he lifted his face he still gazed below the shadows of his lashes in a manner which was infuriatingly accidental.

"And if you should conquer the world, then what?" he asked and waited with taut shoulders, his supple, sightly figure uncertain. "What shall you do?" Sauron blinked in confusion.

"I will rule the world," he gave an answered, his shoulders tensing as Bilbo's had though nothing untoward had occurred. While the hobbit had made quite clear of the fact he was no manipulator, Sauron felt as though he couldn't breath. Preposterous; he needn't breath!

"But surely, once you own the entire world - in this hypothetical situation - what shall you do with it? Surely you can't intend to wage war and spill blood and break countless lives only to sit on a mountaintop and look upon it all and be satisfied? What would you do?" Now Bilbo's face was rosy with frustration or anger or both. Sauron remembered his dream of the perfect, well-organized world where everyone knew their place and toiled together for the good of the order in conformity, but the cogs and ropes came apart under Bilbo's intense gaze. He couldn't breathe when he realized he knew not what he was fighting for.

"I would rule all," he spoke hesitantly, aware he would likely only anger Bilbo further - yet the hobbit defied his expectation again. His carriage was as uncertain as Sauron felt himself as Bilbo searched Sauron's face for something, though he couldn't begin to infer what.

"And that is fun?" Bilbo asked, tilting his head to the side. "A terrible lot of work, I think, for no chance to ever make anyone even appreciate it or you; you would make no-one happy."

***

The humans in Mordor had experienced a windfall of good luck at long last, with the exception of the three poor men forced to work at the stables. But they too had made best of a bad situation; they had moved their sleeping rolls to the empty stable where Faoiltiarna was the only inhabitant.

After making a peace with the strange, white-spotted horse, whom the impromptu stable master called Artexhatra, a rather flattering and coincidentally masculine - but so fitting - name which meant "hyena battle" in his native language, with the assistance of some northern root vegetables and kind words from the gracious small Lord, they had begun to leave her stall door open. The stable doors could only be locked from the outside and there was the danger of an orc or two sneaking in during the night, looking for a bit of fun with a helpless victim, but now they could trust that Artexhatra would wake them in time - and she was a fierce combatant in her own right.

The stable master, Mosa, had been a blacksmith in his little town in North Tawanate before his capture and he had sent his stable hands to search for scrap metal to make new shoes for the mare. The front shoes had three vicious, curved claws in the front both and none of the men had any doubt the beast of a horse would learn to kick with them very fast. They had also scavenged spare reins and harnesses to make a kind of a scale armour to protect the neck and the breast of the mare against warg teeth. Lord Bilbo had given the new adornments a very long look, but Artexhatra had trotted so proudly, with her raised tail high and throwing her head proudly and the Lord had only muttered something about Rohirrim and indulging those big, blue, pleading eyes.

Horses were prey animals by nature; they would always flee first and fight only when cornered, which nature must be trained out of them. Mosa didn't understand why the small Lord insisted such a prime, well-trained fighting beast was the sweetest little horse who ever lived, but he didn't question his betters. At least Artexhatra guarded their sleep at night.

***

Originally Bilbo had intended to speak of some kind of schedule so that he could meet with Gwaedhglae, but Sauron had been so perturbed by his questions that he had decided to leave this for the next day. He couldn't begin to guess when would be a good time to approach Sauron with the matter of Celebrimbor, either, though he feared this would be several weeks into the future until the Dark Lord felt a little more at ease with him. That he needed to step careful around Sauron for the concern of the Dark Lord's welfare rather than his own was still a fairly unbelievable thought, but Bilbo was certain there was something brittle within the Maia, something he would do well to not pressure too hard too soon lest he shatter something. So heallowed Sauron to consider their conversation overnight - he wasn't convinced the man ever slept - and then proposed that they go riding together.

There were few avocations they could take part together: the library was dreadfully small and most of the books were either so complicated Sindarin he couldn't read them, Khāngwén or the language of the Haradrim. He had considered asking Sauron if he might be willing to teach him more Sindarin and maybe even Quenya, but the mere thought made him emotionally exhausted; his life was much too busy and worrisome to undertake such a task. He had no garden, either, and though Sauron had promised he would have gardens wider than his eye could see by the Sea of Núrnen one day, nothing had happened yet. Bilbo was loath to hasten him for fear that he might send Sauron to some poor Gondorian's garden to steal their rose bushes. While the image wouldn't fail to make him giggle, he couldn't in good conscience inflict such a thing upon any poor soul.

So riding they went, Faoiltiarna in her new, strange armour which she simply begged for Bilbo to not take off her. Those claws on her hooves gave her a savage look, but Bilbo knew she worried for him and decided to allow her the comfort, though he questioned the stable master's sensibilities. The road took them eastwards again, but Sauron led them to a different path this time. At one part the winding, narrow pathway which curled up a rocky acclivity was so difficult Bilbo had mount down from his horse and lead her by hand for fear that she might break her leg, though Sauron remained seated in the saddle, seemingly unconcerned for his black horse's health. He still hadn't used the cruel whip even once, though, so perhaps the stallion simply was as sure-footed as an elven steed? Bilbo chose to believe so.

Though the ascent had been difficult, the view was very much worth the trouble. There were heavy pillars and whole walls of living stone Sauron told him were solidified lava. These stone heaps form a palace of black, bare, jagged stone, richer in rooms and halls than surely any hand-made palace in the wide round world could be; an austere palace, for certain, but the testament to the power of the earth below his feet left Bilbo breathless as he rose silently through the highland plateau. Bilbo thought that if he climbed the besprent stones, he could see the snow-topped mountains which rose between Mordor and Gondor an if his eyes were as sharp as an elf's, maybe even the gap where the Black Gates had once barred the way.

"This place is going to be so lovely once the green returns," he breathed reverently, imagining ivy climbing up the pillars and soft moss covering the smaller stones, bright, exotic southern flowers which never would have grown in the Shire and soft breeze to make them dance and spread the fragrance.

"I fear not," Sauron said apologetically. "This land was a desert even before my return; if you wish for greenery, you need go as far as to the Sea of Núrnen to reach any." And Bilbo sighed sadly; it seemed that what beauty was to be found in Mordor was the majestic, heavy, barren sort.

"Speaking of majestic and beauty, do you think there might be plumes? For the horses," he specified them when Sauron turned to look at him, puzzled, and Bilbo recalled he hadn't mentioned his newest poem at all.

"You wish for a plume for Faoiltiarna?" Sauron asked, his voice clearly conveying how incredulous a request this was, and Bilbo shook his head, laughing.

"Oh, no, can you imagine the Look she would give me? I meant for the horses in general, and you need to make one for your own if it would disapprove." To be honest Bilbo still didn't much care for Sauron's nameless stallion. The air of darkness and filth clung to the animal stubbornly in a way its master completely - seemingly - lacked and though Bilbo knew animals were rarely vicious, he couldn't help but be relieved Tiarna didn't have to reside in the same stable with the black horse. Though, he thought loyally, Tiarna would surely have won any fight with the stallion; it didn't have claws on its shoes for one.

"They wouldn't need to actually glitter, either; I think black would go better for the riders' dignity, here. It would be for poetical accuracy," he offered and Sauron shook his head slowly.

"I would ask, but I fear I am better off not knowing. You may have your plumes." Of course Bilbo hadn't expected him to refuse, but now wetted his upper lip with the tip of his tongue, aware this had been the easy request to grant. He thought of Gwaedhglae and soldiered on.

"I would ask of Gwaedhglae," he begun and Sauron immediately straightened on the saddle, his ruefully amused face closing off as though all lights had gone out. "I know I cannot understand how it is to truly share your body..." Bilbo trailed off as he realized he did understand. He had shared his with Gwaedhglae - or rather, his mind, and his mind had resided in his body so it amounted to the same thing - and what he didn't understand was why anyone would find sharing so closely with another, knowing another so frightful.

Again something flickered by the edges of his memory, like a half-forgotten memory of a bad dream, but he couldn't concentrate on it now. The garden was lovely and dark, a thicket of shadows seemingly cast by nothing at all, but the smell of the apple trees and roses was so sweet...

"I would speak with him, at least sometimes. I realize the body is yours, but you are the one who created him; you have responsibility towards him as well." Bilbo told himself he had no reason to fear Sauron and held his ground, figuratively, and though Tiarna tensed as well and her nostrils flared in answer to his unease, preparing for a fight, there was no appearance of the terrible heat Bilbo had once witnessed.

"He is your beloved, after all," Sauron spoke with a bitter cadence and though the curve of his lips was boat-shaped, Bilbo couldn't have called it a smile.

"Of course I love him, though feel free to tell him I still sometimes feel angry when I remember how he deceived me," Bilbo said, mostly to retain some of his self-respect. The truth was that he had mostly forgiven Gwaedhglae already as his worry didn't leave much emotional energy for him to waste on anything as insensible as bearing a grudge, but he didn't wish to cheapen himself either. "But I am trying to love you as well. I think I could if you didn't make me feel a terrible person for doing so!"

Bilbo hadn't intended to speak thus, hadn't even given his innermost feelings the shape and flesh of words before they already escaped his lips, to never be taken back. He felt naked and vulnerable like an onion which had been skinned a layer by layer until all was laid bare on the cutting board and he shivered, wondering why he felt he might throw up at any moment. Mordor had never felt cold to him for all the ever-present shadows lingered between him and the sun's light, but now he felt chill so bone-deep it couldn't be a sign of the sudden onset of winter.

"Just don't make me hate myself," he pleaded with a small voice. "I feel terrible enough already." He couldn't kill Sauron, yet he shouldn't not kill Sauron, he had brought Sauron back and now he was responsible for somehow changing the Dark Lord's mind about conquering the world; Bilbo felt he might cry at any moment. He hadn't even known how terrible he felt before he had said it out loud.

"I want to see Kel," he said, tried to demand, but couldn't muster the stregth to do so. The dry ground had greedily devoured the rain and now the wind sent bone-white dust flying again, forcing Bilbo to close his eyes against the onslaught.

"That was a magnificently unfair blow," Sauron complained softly, his voice full of reluctant awe and something far more difficult to describe. Bilbo spurred Tiarna to move a bit, turning his back to the wind, and when he opened his eyes he saw a beautiful face as open as he felt, expressions flickering like wind ripples across the surface of water; worry blended into reluctance at the corners of his perfectly shaped mouth, a spark of anger twisted the brows for a moment before heavy sorrow settled upon them, dousing the beginning of the fire, and below and above this all rested a veil of helplessness. Though Sauron had acted aimless around him before, for the first time Bilbo truly comprehended he didn't know what to do with Bilbo any more than Bilbo knew what to do with him.

"If we befuddle each other equally, I like to think it fair," he answered and thought the world a strange place indeed if the fates of all its people could rest on the shoulders of two who barely knew how to not only speak at one another, but have a real conversation as well.

"Ask me again tomorrow," Sauron commanded him and Bilbo thought he had maybe pushed as far as he could; if this continued, it would be a year before he could breach the subject of Celebrimbor.

The journey back was silent but for the howling of the wind and Bilbo paused to pour some water into his helmet so that Faoiltiarna might drink. If the high stone pillars had been magnificent, the road back to Barad-Dûr was less so. There were little clusters of houses, most of them now emptied, which consisted of animal skins sewed together, which however were generally so old, hairless and full of holes that they appear to Bilbo as though they must have been used by several generations - at the very least. They had paused near one, though there was a slight downward slope to the raggle-taggle tent village, and he could see the skins of the outer tents were stretched over wooden ribs which were bound together by thongs of skin. Most of the orcs who remained here on the outside were women - which had been a surprise to Bilbo, that they should exist, thought logically thinking they must - and he saw one group of these women to use bright yellow urine as a wash for the face. He winced and when he turned to look at Sauron, he noticed the Maia's eyes glided over the scene as though he didn't register any of it.

"Why are orcs as they are? Surely they cannot be born incapable of anything beautiful or good?" he asked idly to think of anything other than his own situation, yet making certain to turn his face away from the sad sight; he might have thought tents an uncivilized way to live, but he remembered the tents of the Dunlanders and in comparison these made even worse an impression than they otherwise might have. Lovely, sweet Ayla in her heavy piles of clean fabric; what a difference!

"They can and they must; this is all Morgoth's work," Sauron said and waved his hand in a lofty arc towards the sorry, dirty scene. "Though mortality is a bitter goblet to down, the freedom from fates which comes along with the Second Gift is a worthy one." His face was closed again, yet something in his manner warned Bilbo waters ran deep and dark here; something about mortality bothered Sauron greatly. Though maybe it made sense that one who could know no permanent death would find the very notion distressing.

"The Eldar, though, are bound with invisible shackles. Morgoth tortured those Avari he captured in his dungeons until they broke and he demanded a terrible oath from them. Those first are long since dead, worked to death or their heads cut off by an elven sword, but their descendants are still bound by the ancient vow and though Morgoth has been thrown into the Void, the vow does not dream in the Deep with him; he stole their Doom and stolen it shall remain." Sauron's voice carried the chill of Ages lost to dust and ruins and Bilbo shivered. He had never given much thought to his mortality, for fearing one must die one day is no way to live, but now he thought maybe he was one of the lucky ones indeed. This could never have happened to the hobbits of old.

"Couldn't you do something?" he asked, turning his face from the distressing sight. "You sound not as though you harbour any love for Morgoth; why not break his oath if you can? You could do something greater than he ever did; fixing things is always harder than breaking them in the first place."

"You know not what you ask of me," Sauron warned him, but it wasn't a "no" and Bilbo felt a flicker of hope. "Even should such a thing be possible at all, it would take centuries of work and they would never be elves again."

"But if they are not elves, are not immortal, why are they bound by this Doom?" The question seemed so obvious to Bilbo, but Sauron pulled the reins of his stallion convulsively, causing the horse to jump on its hind legs, hooves beating the empty air. His whole manner was as though Bilbo had pulled the rug from under him again and Bilbo winced in sympathy as he thought this must be the third time in two days days.

"It would be much better way to spend you time than trying to conquer the world?" he proposed hopefully.

"You appear to be unexpectedly good at manipulation; I didn't believe this of you," Sauron said, but he didn't sound angry or betrayed. Bilbo, however, was slightly insulted.

"I do not believe this can count as manipulation when I tell you up-front what I wish you would do and why," he said with all the dignity he could muster and Sauron smiled, seemingly against his will.

"If there is nothing else I can trust, I assume I can be certain you are incapable of betrayal," he mused and Bilbo was reminded of the Arkenstone and Thorin yet again, but he chased the sting of those old memories and the rainbow hues of the thrice-damned rock away. His actions had been out of concern for Thorin as much as they had been for the sake of the beleaguered people of Laketown and he didn't want to feel guilty anymore.

***

This is how the fates of a whole world changes; one mind is turned upside-down by a simple question.

Gwaedhglae joined with Sauron was different than the Gwaedhglae who had been carried by Bilbo on a deep, fundamental level. Where Bilbo and Gwaedhglae had been thrust together but separate, with Sauron they had become more akin to conjoined twins; twined as though sharing bone and marrow, yet different in mind both.

And though he couldn't outright read Sauron's thoughts, Gwaedhglae knew him very intimately through the memories they shared and he knew Bilbo had inadvertently created a very tempting bait. To undo Morgoth's work! At his strongest he had been even greater than Manwë and at his weakest greater than Sauron still; yet, hadn't he by his very work left an opening to exploit? Sauron might not have the depth of understanding of the Music - the power as it crudely could be termed - to steal the fates of the immortals as Morgoth had done, but orcs were not immortal! To have a fate forced upon them must be such a delicate balance to maintain merely on the merit of blood and history of immortality he was filled with reluctant respect for Morgoth. Though he had fallen low, he had once been great indeed - terrible, but great.

In truth the matter wasn't as simple as Sauron had presented it as and only the "pure" orcs were born irredeemably evil; even one drop of other blood hundreds and thousands years down the line was enough to break this shackle and cultural brutality was what warped these almost-monsters. But very few half-bloods were born, in comparison to the number of the slave women the orcs raped, for generally the women didn't survive long enough to give birth - or the baby didn't survive the beatings long enough to be born. Even after three Ages maybe only one-third of all the orcs could be redeemed by their blood alone.

So the shackles were there yet and Sauron so despised Morgoth's very existence, both in the past in the world and in the present in the Void. He could spit on Morgoth's work and prove himself greater, all thanks be given to a new, unexpected perspective of one who hadn't learned enough yet to have his preconceptions carved in stone, and if the time this would take would allow him to live in denial a little bit longer, to ignore he Maybe would be better off throwing away his old dreams and weaving new? The results would still be the same.

"We could do this together," he prompted Sauron, spreading his leaves and rustling his branches. To self-identify as a tree was very different from taking refuge in the familiarity of the body image of a bi-pedal mammal and he hadn't yet learned how to express himself satisfactorily; this was not equal to a smile. Maybe he should learn to sing like the ents did?

I should have known you would side with Bilbo, Sauron accused him, though despite his reluctance his mind was very much occupied by this dilemma, warring with his need to craft a ring for Bilbo and the general dissonance his mind felt over the very concept of mortality.

"That I am on his side does not mean either of us is against you," Gwaedhglae stated simply.

Chapter Text

Life is as a tale, maybe fable doom
In land of Mordor, everlasting gloom;
In the dim maze of extended spaces
Shall come sweetest rains in hidden places

***

Sauron had many matters to consider; Bilbo, his relationship with Bilbo and Bilbo’s ring yet to be crafted, his plans of conquest and whether he was truly ready to simply give them up as well as the tempting prospect of undermining Morgoth in a way no-one else ever had – with the added sweetening of doing something Bilbo would very much approve.

But there was one matter which had to be seen to first. Sauron closed his eyes and soon he stood before the tree that was Gwaedhglae again. He seemed very small and fragile, his leaves rustling in a wind which Sauron could not feel, but to the Maia even the bright rainbow hues seemed ominous.

There stood a railing between them, equidistant from them both. Like there was no ground and like Sauron didn’t really stand there in true shape, but merely perceived himself in a certain way, the railing wasn’t anything a mortal or even an elf would have recognized as such. No bar was there, not even a wall, for what wall could have prevented Sauron from falling within, or Gwaedhglae from falling without? But for general purposes it could be called a railing and Sauron kept a careful eye on Gwaedhglae to ensure the distance between them didn’t become shorter; a tree could not walk, but space could contort and Gwaedhglae knew how to use the shadows.

Sauron knew how to use shadows. Never had he thought he should once be wary of the mirror’s gaze.

“If I promise to not cross the railing, will you cease to glare at me so?” Gwaedhglae asked, his branches rustling in a slightly different way. “I have thought I should maybe learn to sing my thoughts,” he then continued, somehow appearing dissatisfied.

“You consider yourself not ent enough yet?” Sauron countered and didn’t allow for his vigilance to waver; Gwaehglae had only intimated the promise, not actually given it.

“I promise, though I doubt you came to merely gaze at me,” Gwaedhglae made a parry of his own, more amused by their situation than Sauron was.

“You hold your perceptiveness in high esteem; perhaps even too high.” Sauron didn’t truly mean to refute Gwaedhglae’s very obvious conclusion of the purpose of this conversation, but he was vaguely annoyed by the way his ring – the lesser part of himself! – seemed so much more astute when it came to understanding Bilbo.

“I purpote not to be a sage in the matters of heart, but Bilbo carried me for a while and the edges of our fëar softened, blurred; he left his marks in me, as I in you. But second-hand imprint can never be as strong.” Gwaedhglae’s bark had changed, Sauron only noticed now, thin, subtle muted gold and shades of green woven through as though he had only now truly presented himself. The fragrance of apple blossoms clung to his pepper-and love scent as well as did the smell of black earth, barely noticeable but still there.

“You mean he marked you. You might have intimidated him in his dreams – except when you failed to do so – but his work those nights was to press his sign into your fëa and drip in like honey. If I didn’t know mortals cannot be fated to do a thing…” His words weren’t meant as mocking for once and Gwaedhglae didn’t take them as such.

“And the fëa marked the brand, though to a lesser amount. He is more callous now than he was in the past; his outrage over Umbar’s annexation would have been greater in the past.” There was a lilt to his voice, almost like two themes approaching one another on the strings of an instrument, and Sauron knew Gwaedhglae was faintly amused Bilbo could have been even tenderer than he was while conceding that from the viewpoint of personal betterment the hobbit had grasped the shorter straw. Sauron couldn’t help nodding in agreement on both points. A tacit truce ran between them, strange, but not entirely unwelcome.

“The body is mine as well, now that you won’t be separated from me.” Gwaedhglae made his demand soft in honour of that truce, but a demand it was regardless and, Sauron was forced to admit, not an entirely unreasonable one.

“And Bilbo is mine as well, though you may have won his love first,” he made his counter demand, unwilling to entirely let down his guard. But he had approached the railing himself, by his unvoiced concessions if not by any deliberate step, and now he leaned over it. His angle was such, the angle of his thoughts and the direction his mind was taking him rather than failing body posited precariously, that should his grip slip, it would be very easy for him to fall down, for Gwaedhglae to fall up.

“Bilbo only belongs to himself and chooses for himself, but you have a claim equal to mine,” Gwaedhglae conceded, faintly reproving. A claim to a chance, like a fleeting, fragile flower. And there was a railing between them, one made of the gold of binding and the marble of foundations. Like his claim was but his chance, this forbidding, majestic barring was but a line drawn between them, a battle line, yet there was no battle. Maybe he was approaching both situations the wrong way.

“Gwaedhglae. I wouldn’t really mind if you crossed the railing,” Sauron said.

***

The morning saw Gwaedhglae knocking to Bilbo's door, feeling exited in a manner he was wholly unfamiliar with. The prospect of a whole day to spend with the hobbit was a lovely one, though he in trutrh had little idea what they would even do. There was much work to do in Mordor, but little in the ways of amusements.

"Come in!" Bilbo called, his voice muffled as it carried through the door. Gwaedhglae pushed the door open. The room, though well furnished, had a tinge of melancholy which bore so clearly the mark of something not unalike to that of the waning year.

Bilbo was awake and dressed, though judging by his sleep-blurred eyes, this was a recent development. The sun had risen behind the dark clouds, but the morning was yet early and the truth was that Bilbo had never been a morning person. Tired though he appeared, there had never been anything wrong with Bilbo's sight; he watched Gwaedhglae, his head tilted, as though he could see right through the bonds of the hröa before he leaped up.

"Gwaedhglae! How wonderful!" Bilbo almost tripped on his own two legs as he hurried to Gwaedhglae and wrapped his arms around the spirit. While the difference in height wasn't as great between them as it could have been, it still made for a somewhat awkward embrace, but Gwaedhglae didn't mind, crouching down. He wasn't yet used to being embodied and the knowledge he could explore this for a whole day - barring sudden panic on Sauron's part, an improbably though not completely impossible event - brought the world to sharper focus. This time he wasn't too hurried to impart all that he must before Sauron found out about his presence and truly, the shape of a tree didn't feel as natural as this.

It will not, not for an Age at least, though how you came to perceive yourself thus so fast is impressive... Sauron sounded reluctantly impressed. He wasn't enthusiastic regarding their not-quite-alliance, not-quite-friendship, but while he held deep suspicions towards the mere notion of another will moving his body, he held his composure together well.

"You recognized me quite fast this time," Gwaedhglae mused aloud and though it wasn't precisely a question, Bilbo answered anyway.

"You stand different and walk different, though you walk with the same legs. Even your voice changes; you use it in a different manner," Bilbo explained, and Gwaedhglae shared a burst of happiness with Sauron; Gwaedhglae that Bilbo had learned to recognize him after but one meeting, Sauron that the hobbit must have observed him carefully to learn his nuances.

"I have a day to spend with you, yet I have little idea what to do with what I have been given," he confessed, straightening himself. To be so close, while startlingly sensual, was also slightly humiliating; he was needy and clinging. Gwaedhglae was aware these emotions were irrational and had no basis in reality, but he was also learning that ages of negative reinforcement couldn't be overcome overnight. To chase love, to fight for love; those were acceptable. To simply stay close apparently wasn't. Gwaedhglae spared Morgoth a dark thought as he took the hobbit's hand, refused to back down from something which only existed in his own mind. A brief frown crossed Bilbo's face, a clear indication there was some duty which was now neglected - most likely Sauron's duties to Mordor.

"I would like to explore the plains further, find ancient places, or what is left of them now," was what Bilbo said, however, clearly unwilling to relinquish his precious time with his beloved. There was a sting of jealousy deep within, but then Bilbo gave Gwaedhglae a brief, soft curl of his lips.

"Give Sauron my thanks for this. I appreciate this very much." It was easy to read upon his eager face how much this meant to him. Both Sauron and Gwaedhglae were startles wordless.

They rode to the ruins of an ancient city, a dim and vague shape in the distance like some fantastic landscape in a dream several hour's travel from the tower. Bilbo's delight in his exploration was contagious and even Sauron's presence within, as distant as the Maia seemed at times, was approving. The time was different, or rather the perception of time, when one inhabited the body and mind of another. It was easy to lose an hour or two in-between interesting conversations or acts of some importance, to feel as though only minutes had passed. This was what Gwaedhglae had come to realize was a blessing. Even the nameless ring, devoid of all emotions, surely couldn't have helped but become dreadfully bored, hiding beneath the mountains at Gollums hand.

They'd arrived in the middle of a large square. These were the ruins of Mordor before the Last Alliance, damaged anew by Orodruin's eruption, and this had once been a city of Sauron's slaves, that much was clear. All that was left now was cracked cobble stones below their feet and some columns rising out of the white ashes at strange, bent, dream-like angles. Bilbo climbed up onto one of the bent columns; it couldn't really give him a much better view, but Gwaedhglae imagined it was easier for the short hobbit to survey the whole ruin like this. There wasn't much to see, though, only some low ruined walls a bit further off.

"This place seem as though there should be wights, moaning the loss of all," Bilbo stated with the brightness of a person who didn't really believe in the dead walking among the living. "Do you believe we might find some cellars or maybe even tunnels to explore?"

"The wights are not the unhoused ghosts, but evil spirits sent to haunt burial sites. I believe you are speaking of wraiths," Gwaedhglae corrected, secure in the knowledge that neither were present, luckily. He would never have allowed for Bilbo to be hurt, but such meetings were never pleasant.

That Bilbo voluntarily proposed exploring tunnels was amusing, but Gwaedhglae feared none were left to be found, certainly not in such condition they would have been safe. He stood and watched Bilbo brush away the dust and ashes to read the old elven alphabet engraved upon the stone, forming the words of the Black Tongue clumsily with his lips, not bothered at all by the black stones and bleached dirt. To be honest, Gwaedhglae couldn't understand what was so wonderful there, except perhaps a break in the tense monotony of the tower life. It would not be quite correct to say Bilbo had been bored, but maybe starving for something else; all the languages he could learn, all the places he could travel, all the adventures he could have.

"You would have to speak of this with Sauron," he begun and felt the Maia take interest when his name was mentioned. "But maybe soon you could..." When he had intended to propose died on his lips as he more felt than heard the shrill call in the air, so high Bilbo couldn't have heard it at all. Yet the hobbit suddenly shivered and jumped down from the column, hastening to Gwaedhglae. His horse, Sauron's horse, stood as still as a stone statue, merely flicking its ears, but Faoiltiarna pranced restlessly; as brave as she was, she was an ordinary horse trained by mortal men and the fear of the undead was something even she couldn't overcome.

It seems we were too hasty in our evaluation of these ruins as safe, Sauron's voice sounded from within, tense. Leave this place immediately!

"Follow me and look not back," Gwaedhglae said, taking Bilbo's arm and leading him to the horses. He was ready to extinguish any old spectre which might have threatened his beloved, yet none approached them; for dead creatures their survival instincts were quite good. Without further ceremony he lifted Bilbo to Faoiltiarna's back and then they rose down the road, towards the red, blinking lights of the tower.

"Were those the wraiths?" Bilbo asked with a whisper, lowering his voice in vain, for the hoofbeats of their horses betrayed their position loudly.

"They were, mere shades of times past and lives spent, yet dangerous to mortals. You should not come here without my company, at least not until I have... until Sauron has completed your ring." Again the line between the two of them had blurred and though this could have been unnerving, Gwaedhglae hoped it was a portent of greater agreement between them than an uneasy armistice.

"I pity them; this can not be much of a life," Bilbo said with a small voice, now turning to look over his shoulder to strange spot where the men of shadowed blood had held sway so long and left their mark so deep. Gwaedhglae had expected this, of course, but the hobbit's words still stabbed Sauron like daggers.

***

Uncertain life soon beckoning to flight
They can haunt your spirit both day or night
And old broken cities might you harrow;
The old sins, they cast such a long shadow

***

Though their little excursion could hardly be called successful, Bilbo found he felt more at ease in Sauron's presence again for the time he had shared with Gwaedhglae. A day followed the last, six of them without any great change and no news from Umbar, or anyplace else for the matter. Sauron spent much time in his study - whether studying the ring or the orcs, Bilbo wasn't certain - but he had enough time for Bilbo that, with the company of Kel, he didn't feel too lonely.

But he did find himself restless and on the sixth night sleep seemed to elude him altogether. Eventually he gave up on turning restlessly on his bed and rose, slipping only his morning robe on before slipping out of the door, carrying a single candle. Day or night, he supposed this made little difference in Mordor. Certainly no-one would force him to leave his bed come tomorrow before he awakened on his own.

The winding stairs were familiar to Bilbo now and even in the small light he walked them down without fear of stumbling. He might have felt gloomy, haunting the tower alone in the dark, but in truth his night vigil felt comfortable like old, well-worn coat and the silence was a soothing presence. Below his floor there were two floors with two smaller chambers on each, yet unfurnished and full of dust. Below them the tower became wider and Bilbo wandered to the smaller feasting hall, one out of use now since he usually ate in his rooms, unless the dinner was served in the great hall of the mansion which was the gateway between the outer and inner citadel of Barad-Dûr, and Sauron didn't usually bother with eating at all.

The floor below this was a throne room with a few antechambers and when Bilbo returned to the corridor, he saw he wasn't the only soul who walked the halls. There was a slight gleam of another candle, shining its light on the stairs below, and Bilbo blew his own light out with a tingle of mischievous delight. It had been a while since he had last tried to sneak upon anyone and while he didn't have the ring - didn't have Gwaedhglae - he wasn't surely completely out of practice. He passed very stealthily down the stairs, winding two whole turns more until he could see the man.

A man it was indeed, rising the stairs to the landing before the heavy double doors. Dressed in a simple red coat, his face was turned away from Bilbo so all he could see was that the man wasn't as remarkably tall as some, though not small either by any means, and that he wasn't from Harad. The man in the red coat passed through the door to the throne room and the light of the candle framed him in the darkness, shooting one single yellow beam across the gloom of the corridor. Aware the man would now close the doors and there would be no way to open them again without some help - made of some black metal and four time as tall as he, they were much too heavy for Bilbo to pull open - he hastened down, determined to see a glimpse of the man's face. The throne room before him with an empty throne was fairly large and as dark as a black cat's stomach. Black beams shot across above Bilbo's head, with a ceiling of black stone beyond them.

"Kelsahng! How are you still awake?" The man who turned around was indeed his friend and he looked very startled as he turned around.

"Highness! I didn't mean to wake you up," he apologized, which made Bilbo grimace; he had thought they were past this already when they were alone at least.

"How could you have, down here? I simply couldn't sleep and thought to wander a bit. Do they work you this late?" he inquired, worried. Kel hadn't seemed terribly tired during the days, but Bilbo knew he must rise early to oversee the rest of the servants; when did he sleep?

"Busy day today." Kel waved his hand blithely and truly he seemed more exited than exhausted. "Throne is ready and fabric came, now we just need seamstress and... I don't know the word, a man who cares gardens..."

"A gardener, he tends gardens," Bilbo answered as his mind raced frantically. The throne was ready? What throne? He had a terrible feeling said throne might be his and while his relationship with Sauron was better than it had been, this was very presumptuous. And while he would be glad to have a garden, surely Sauron was aware all plants required sunlight to grow? And what need did he have for a seamstress, he had plenty of perfectly good clothes!

"Did Sauron put you up to this?" he asked even though he was certain of the answer. Kelsahng surprised him, however.

"No, we servants did. We have... gold put... amount of gold that can be used for you." He stepped into the throne room and Bilbo stepped after him, remaining in the small circle of light. A row of flaring torches circling the throne room to light it up and some wall hanging might have softened the echoing hall a bit, but now voice became a whisper and though the hall was spacious, the darkness and the ceiling seemed to weigh more heavily upon the spirit inside.

"A budget. You have a budget," Bilbo repeated dumbly. Sauron had put gold aside and told the servants to use it on Bilbo and they had, inexplicably, decided to hire a seamstress and a gardener - and, apparently, built him a throne.

And a fine throne it was, at Sauron's right hand. At the far end of the oval hall, Sauron's throne was an imposing sight, with a high backrest and arm rests cast from some dark metal and adorned with ivory and a stone plinth with a seat. The cast sides were adorned with complicated, swirling decoration, but there was no denying those decorations were rather angular and forbidding and that the backrest divided into three sharp, serrated spears. In comparison to this strange coupling of opulence and intimidation, Bilbo's throne was made with exquisite taste. Two steps lead up to the seat, which was on a podium, presumably so that Sauron's height would not diminish Bilbo. Simple in form, with rectangular legs and rosette adornments, made of white stone rather than black, it actually offered a nice contrast to Sauron's.

It was also irrefutably a throne. Bilbo wasn't certain how to politely say that Kel really shouldn't have bothered. Really.

"We will have good tea, too. Just from Gondor, but still," Kel beamed and Bilbo gave up. These people clearly meant well, even if they were rather over-dramatic. A throne, really! Had the Thain of the Shire insisted on a throne, the whole of the Shire would have laughed at him.

This was when a howl was raised on the outside, soon joined by ululating yells. The throne room only had small windows, more narrow slits on the wall than anything truly deserving to be called windows. They didn't have glass panels any more than any other room in the tower and the howling of the wargs carried in, muffled by the stone walls, yet distinctive. Somewhere out there lurked these fiendish men (and women), hiding in their burrows like wild beasts, their hearts full of malignancy against the Free People; Bilbo couldn't help his shiver.

"They can't come in," Kel said, but he seemed to ask for reassurance more than to offer it.

"Certainly not if they holler like that," Bilbo said wryly and patted the man's arm. "That would wake a dead man and I am not convinced Sauron ever sleeps in the first place." Kel immediately brightened; a strange turn of fate indeed when the presence of never-sleeping Dark Lord in the tower was a source of comfort.

***

The seventh day Gwaedhglae kissed Bilbo until he forgot all about the throne. They had been talking so much that day until it felt like there were no news, no plans, not even gossip they hadn't discussed, and found themselves in a comfortable silence. Gwaedhglae opened his eyes, sitting on the edge of the bed with Bilbo, and found himself becoming extremely aware of how close our to one another they were. All he had to do was turn his head ever so slightly and they would touch... And then they did.

It was delicate and wild, it seemed to last for an age and yet it did not go on for long enough. Not a brief peck of chaste lips, this one; head left swimming, Gwaedhglae felt it was everything that a kiss should be and it conveyed everything that could be said about the way that they loved each other so much better than words could express. A wraith of old habits and assumptions, destructive fear and hate of weaknesses stirred, whispered, and Gwaedhglae knew he was ridiculous and pathetic, Sauron knew they were naive and giddy like children. A brief burst of panic, shared and shared again, choked them both; to be so open was only begging for trespassing. But when Bilbo pulled back to draw breath, he was blushing and giddy as well and being vulnerable together wasn't so terrible after all.

"Kiss me again?" Bilbo asked in a way that was shamelessly Tookish, almost coquettish. For once he acted like a Took without the awareness this was not how a sensible Baggins should act, unselfconsciously, and Gwaedhglae thought the mischievous glimmer in those hazel eyes suited him. Though Bilbo was long past the days he had allowed disapproval to stop himself, he was still always aware.

He had been aware until Gwaedhglae had robbed that awareness from him.

"The pleasure is entirely mine," Gwaedhglae purred and

Maybe you should kiss him again, if only so you can not say a thing, if this was your idea of clever, Sauron remarked dryly and Gwaedhglae felt irritation, distraction, but

he swallowed Bilbo's breath while forgetting to breathe himself. The second kiss was much easier than the first and the third was better still.

***

Two more days and the dawn saw the arrival of the seamstress to Barad-Dûr at the back of a small wagon. Oh, and the poor seamstress was kidnapped. Of course she was kidnapped; who would willingly walk into Mordor?

(Except for Bilbo, of course, but in his defense, he had had a very good reason.)

"Children of Ilúvatar have their own preconceptions of what the royalty obviously must want," Sauron explained with a shrug. "If you won't give them instructions, they will simply try and provide you on their own accord; better that than to offer an insult by falling short. They are like apprentices trying to impress their master in the smithery by making something far beyond their skills. You have power so you must use it."

"I didn't ask for power in the first place!" Bilbo protested, aware that he might have fallen short on reassuring his servants they were doing good work, though he wasn't certain what he should have done differently. And why had Kel taken part in this madness when he wasn't scared at least? "And what will I do about that poor, poor seamstress? Or the gardener who is bound to arrive soon?"

"The power belongs to you, whether you would have it or not, for I know where it leads when one party has no power." Sauron's face darkened and Bilbo was taken aback. He recalled Thorin during one of his darker moods - not the gold madness, no! During the journey there had been days when Bilbo could feel an almost tangible presence to him, something which weighed heavily upon him like the past was a pack strapped to his back, one which became heavier every single day.

"You may send them back, of course, if you so wish." Sauron continued and he honestly didn't seem to care. Bilbo told himself this was going to work out somehow. He told himself he would work out what to do and again wished Gandalf was there to advice him. Wishing advice from Gandalf on matters of heart was strange, but the wizard was a great, sage presence to Bilbo, one who could surely answer any question - if only he could bother to be present for once!

It only dawned to him later that day what he had thought... Matters of heart?

***

The changeful flickers in his gazing eye;
His vision to further distances fly
Yet the contrast not so foreign a sight
For what casts the shadows but a bright light?

***

The seamstress and the gardener, who arrived two days later, had both been taken from eastern Gondor simply because this was the closest place to acquire them. The gardener was returned immediately, with many apologies, but incredibly enough the seamstress actually opted to remain.

"She has expressed desire to stay here!" Bilbo exclaimed his face a picture of disbelief. Sauron ruthlessly stifled a flicker of insult; he knew well why Bilbo was so befuddled.

"She is of self-serving nature, I would wager, and believes she can negotiate her position. People have done worse deeds for my gold than hemming and embroidery," he explained, but after meeting the woman he wasn't quite so certain gold was her enticement after all. Firiel was a large middle-aged woman, heavy-lidded and heavy-featured with a stern set expression of mouth. She didn't seem a woman who had much use for gold and gems - rather, she seemed one strong enough to break the neck of a hobbit with a single twist. And being proud Gondorian, she might see this as her duty.

"And why, precisely, such a turn of head, my dear Firiel," he asked of her, in his study where he had had his soldiers bring her, and butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth. Those who knew Sauron could have told the woman he was at his most dangerous when he was polite; his fire shimmered very close to his skin now, the molten cloud only barely locked behind his eyes. "Surely it can not be the charming neighbourhood?" And whichever the woman's next words, she was going to kneel and cower for her arrogance. He was simply playing with her not unlike a cat would play with a mouse, waiting for her reply.

"I was going to try and escape, but then I heard those men speak of you and I couldn't do so in good conscience," the woman exclaimed inexplicably, taking Sauron's hand and he was too shocked by the daring, the forwardness of her to even rebuke her. "To be forced to marry the Dark Lord - a fate worse than death! I simply couldn't leave you to his non-existent mercies, good sir. I chose to remain so that I might device a way to rescue you."

"What?" Sauron stared at Firiel, suddenly aware his beautiful elven guise wouldn't match this woman's preconceptions of a "Dark Lord" and that he hadn't, at any point, introduced himself. Why would he have done so, after all, given introductions to a mere prisoner and slave? She was one whom first glace told solid, intensely respectable, one who was born inclined to be abstemious. Sauron could hardly conceive a less emotional person.

Yet here she stood, pale and bold and determined, pledging her help to rescue him. Sauron was at complete loss of words.

"The guards are few and though there are orcs and those dread beasts prowling around, surely escape must be possible when their numbers are so small. I could disguise you as a servant, I know how to use a bow, we might both take horses. There is no lord of the tower standing before us now, Sir Elf, and there is no man upon earth who can prevent me from taking you to the home of your own people." And truly, had Bilbo wished to escape, he could have done so easily...

"Other than the unfortunate fact I am not the groom," Sauron said dryly, wondering why he felt so intensely ashamed of himself.

The best way to deal with a crying woman, he decided, was to give her to Bilbo to deal with as he pleased. Aware he simply avoided the issue, aware he might be daring the hobbit to betray him and let the woman whisk him away, Sauron locked himself to his study for two days and worked on the calculations of the ring, taken by a dark mood. He knew that everything Firiel would say to Bilbo in her attempts to convince him of the foolishness of remaining would be nothing but the truth. He was plotting to take Gondor, eventually, the way he had taken Umbar.

Or you could simply take Bilbo's suggestion and find a way to undo Morgoth's dread oath upon the orcs instead.

Why would anyone remain by his side willingly, let alone a man as pure and principled as Bilbo Baggins? Only Gwaedhglae tied him to Mordor, where his life would no doubt be miserable.

Bilbo is fast becoming very fond of you, fool, or do you believe him a practiced enough deceiver to fool us both? And Mordor shall be what the Lord of Mordor decrees it must. Have you considered abolishing slavery, for example? Before Bilbo learns he is a slave owner, preferably.

He cursed Gwaedhglae for ever learning these feelings, for forcing them upon Sauron. It struck him solemn to think that he should deal with this pain after Bilbo was gone - and after he was dead! But if he couldn't even win Bilbo over, what could he do to subvert Ilúvatar's cruel "gift" so he might keep his ephemeral love by his side?

Are you even listening to me?

The calculations weren't going very well. All that was had been brought to be with Music and all had their own song, their blueprints which didn't describe, but defined them. To give gold, copper and cadmium such power that they might lengthen life and give Bilbo protection, he must change their song - in harmony. And all music was, when it was stripped bare, mathematics; harmony occurred in music when two pitches or more vibrated at frequencies in small integer ratios, for example. Musical operations, such as transpositions, were symmetries of n-dimensional space. In other words, the calculations Sauron performed, or attempted to perform, were very complicated and in his currently tumultuous mood outright impossible.

Of course, making these calculations would mean little if Bilbo wouldn't be there to accept the ring.

"What am I doing?" he asked, very pointedly not from Gwaedhglae. The accursed ring might have answered in any case, but Sauron was spared from this by knocking from the door. Bilbo had attempted to gain entry before, but Sauron hadn't opened; he mused whether he should do so now, but this time the knocking had been an announcement, not entreat of invitation, and a key turned on the lock.

The study was large and airy, but also dim and sombre in the subdued light of the central lamp, the only lamp lit. A beam of light shone from the corridor as Bilbo walked in - and he didn't walk alone. Firiel came in after him, a jar that seemed to blaze from the light of the torches, pale and slow to step, but determined. For a moment Sauron couldn't breath; he had baited this, had baited Bilbo with the option of running away, but he hadn't really thought the hobbit would take it, hadn't thought Bilbo would march to him and say to his face he would leave Mordor. But why was Bilbo carrying a tray of food?

"You haven't eaten in two days, Sauron," he said quietly, a frown upon his brow. "I know sustenance isn't as pressing a necessity to you as it is to me, but this can not be healthy." And when Sauron smelled the herbs and the chicken cooked in wine, he was reminded that his body made its own demands.

"I am beginning to feel neglected," Bilbo continued to chastise him, though the relief on his face dulled the bite his words might have had. He put the tray down right on top of Sauron's parchments, entirely on purpose, the Maia wagered, and held out the utensils until Sauron accepted them. Meanwhile Firiel was lighting the lamps, pouring in oil from the bronze jar and striking spark from her small tinder box. Sauron could have lit the lamps with a word, but he was against his will curious as to why the woman had returned to his presence after his revelation had frightened her so badly mere days before. When every lamp in the study was lit, she took a deep breath and stepped before him, clearly steeling herself for something.

"You shouldn't read in the dark, it is bad for your eyes," she said and Sauron felt his jaw drop just a little. "I have decided to stay, for dear Bilbo simply needs someone to take care of his wardrobe. And I will keep an eye on you." Breathless, she turned and all but ran away from the study, Sauron left staring after her.

"I think she has decided to give you a chance, since you didn't hurt her when she declared her intent to save me," Bilbo explained. "Well, you, to be strictly factual, but you know what I mean." And Sauron had a gnawing feeling lighting the lamps had been a friendly overture, however wary and reluctant. Sauron contemplated asking what Bilbo had said to the woman that she would seek to befriend him - as though he would take the offer of a human!

He decided it was better for his peace of his mind to not asking questions he didn't really want answered. He looked Bilbo into the eye and settled for feeling relief instead.

***

The dead they can't ever return again:
To apologize might well be in vain
But do no sparks of virtue yet remain
In one who seeks to in such darkness reign?

***

The gardener Bilbo had sent away, but again Sauron had been reminded that a hobbit would yearn for green, growing things. Winter was fast coming and so soon after the eruption of Orodruin was the wrong time in any case, but there was no reason he shouldn't take Bilbo to the Sea of Núrnen where he allowed the cloak of dark clouds thin to nothing and life to endure. The Nine would now be on their way back, but they would find their master anywhere.

Sauron felt something he much feared was guilt when he thought of the Nine Kings, but he couldn't afford to free them, the same as he couldn't free his current slaves, however much Bilbo might wish so. He wasn't such a fool he didn't know what Bilbo's opinion on the subject might be and only a major miracle had prevented the hobbit from finding out so far.

Or rather, most likely the fact Bilbo's understanding of the whole concept of slavery was very unformed, as the hobbits' generally was. Bilbo was aware such a thing existed, but his imagination most likely painted a picture of chains and whips and rags, no weapons and no wages at all and while this was a partial truth, the human slaves in Barad-Dûr were reasonably well clad, in many cases well armed, well fed and even received a small payment, if only because Sauron had much experience in creating a working slave society and no commerce at all wasn't feasible. But as they were given no choice but to work for him or die, slaves they were indeed and sooner or later Bilbo was bound to wise up to this, yet Sauron couldn't give them their freedom, for then they wouldn't remain.

Earning some goodwill from Bilbo before matters reached that dreary point was elementary and he was overjoyed by the prospect of sunshine and open fields as could be expected. What Sauron didn't expect was that Bilbo insisted Firiel should come along as well.

"You speak at people, but you never speak with anyone except for me and possibly Gwaedhglae; I worry for you," Bilbo explained, only managing to confuse him further. It was true that he spoke with Firiel, cordially for Bilbo's sake, because she insisted on accosting him despite her obvious wariness. That on a technicality she wasn't a slave - as she had been given the option to go and had remained instead - certainly helped, as there was a stubborn, enduring part of Sauron that rebelled at the thought of allowing slaves such liberties.

But why would he wish for her presence? This wasn't apparently an important consideration.

Bilbo was wearing his new riding coat, made in the Gondorian style, as he fastened his personal saddle bags to Faoiltiarna's saddle. They were travelling with a carriage for most of their belongings, of course, simply for appearance's sake, though Sauron admitted that keeping up appearances for orcs and slaves was ridiculous. But because the presence of Bilbo wouldn't allow him to keep them in line with more harsher measures, he was forced to employ more subtle tricks and work with mortal preconceptions of power and royalty.

Most of Bilbo's new wardrobe wasn't finished, of course, or even started yet, but Firiel had made him riding clothes and fine official robes. She wasn't one of the better seamstresses of Minas Tirith or even Osgiliath, but she had skillful, nimble fingers and good eye for colours and the riding coat was beautiful. A black and silver jacket made of mixed wool and silk fabric with buttoned gauntlet cuffs, it was light enough, hardy enough and embroidered richly enough for a noble to wear in Mordor. It also looked entirely out of place on someone who saddled his own horse, but judging by the respectfully down, cast look of the stable master, Bilbo didn't need to impress there people.

"I can barely wait to see the Sea of Núrnen," Bilbo confessed and his smile could have lit up the whole tower. "I remember how great the Long Lake seemed to me and compared to Núrnen on the map, it is but a pond. I believe twenty of them could fit in the same are without any trouble!"

"Imagine that the Sea of Rhûn is greater still," Sauron said, causing Bilbo's eyes to shine even brighter. He much preferred to encourage Bilbo's wanderlust towards the east rather than the western lands where the elves yet dwelt. If a sea he must see, then let it be an inland sea.

"The world is so great and wonderful. Maybe we could one day travel to Harad - I might even see oliphaunts there!" Bilbo was an expressive speaker when he became exited, gesturing with his hands, but Sauron had little idea what exited him so. Oliphaunts?

The mûmakil, I believe, Gwaedhglae translated. They are but tales for faunts in the Shire that the merchants tell.

"Would you like to own a mûmak - an oliphaunt?" Sauron asked. A small dwelling for Bilbo could be strapped to the back of one if he so wished and well-trained they were quite calm beasts as well. In wars they were driven half-mad with fear and mostly charged blindly to the direction their trainer set for them, for loud noises disturbed them greatly.

"Where would I even keep one? What would the beast eat and how much?" Bilbo asked, but he laughed in delight at the proposition. It might pay to keep in mind that BIlbo was more likely to accept an extravagant gift it it was a living creature; mûmak might be impractical choice, but a tiger cub would make a trainable, pleasant pet, one which could protect Bilbo as well once it reached maturity.

The distance between Barad-Dûr and Núrnen was fairly long, but after the first day had passed, the roads were in good enough condition the journey went fast. Bilbo also kept given Sauron chances of speaking alone with Firiel and kept giving him meaningful glances and eventually he gave in one day when Bilbo had ridden ahead again. This would clearly please him, though Sauron had little idea what common topic he might breech. The woman was riding a black mare she had named Ebony clumsily, but the horse had been trained to suffer the presence of a wraith gracefully and an inexperienced handler wasn't even an irritation. The beast also had as much spirit left as a wooden rocking horse, but thus was the inevitable cost of such training.

"Why do you indulge Bilbo so in this venture of his," was what he asked in the end. Firiel winced, but much to Sauron's surprise her expression shifted into guilt.

"I believe I owe you an apology," she stated simply, which made Sauron blink in confusion. "Whoever you may be... calling marriage to you a fate worse than death was clearly uncalled for." And there was silence.

"...no one has ever apologized to me before."

This might not be strictly speaking true, as he had known Celebrimbor for centuries and they had had their share of arguments given and accepted apologies in turn. Only, Celebrimbor had offered his apologies to Annatar, to a Maia who was but a beautiful face and deceptive tongue; a mirage. Mairon had gotten into his fair share of arguments with the other Maiar of Aulë as well, for he had never been very social and the Maiar who felt drawn to the great smith tended to be a temperamental lot, but again, those apologies had been directed to someone who no longer existed. No one had ever apologized to Sauron for any reason and what a strange feeling it was, vindicated and yet Sauron felt as though she had clawed a piece of his heart from his chest.

"And why should you care so much," he asked with more than a touch of bitterness. "I am the Dark Lord after all." he had never thought the name Sauron - the Abhorred One - had bothered him, yet he was now reminded this was the name Bilbo called him by. The hobbit most likely had little idea what the name meant, for his Sindarin was less than fluent, but now the name grated Sauron regardless. Why would anyone love the abhorred, or apologize to him?

"One must be fair, or where shall the world go otherwise?" Firiel answered solemnly. She had remained for this apology and to keep an eye on Sauron in case the suspicions hadn't been unjustified after all; trust, but verify. She seemed intent on acting friendly at the very least and Sauron had no wish to be responsible for her longevity and peace of mind. Caring for Bilbo was hard enough.

Caring costs much energy, Gwaedhglae said, but you gain great strength as well. The pain becomes less when you cease to fight. Sauron wished to ask when the pain would cease, but he knew too much of love and death to do so. He was much gladdened when Bilbo returned a moment later, looking into his eyes and adopting an irritatingly satisfied glance.

"This was important for you, then?" he asked tensely. Firiel didn't look as glad as he was for the interruption, but not saddened either.

"You can not only know one person," said Bilbo and only the knowledge that Bilbo was attempting to even the scores in the same manner Sauron was held his tongue; he wasn't wholly incapable of recognizing social cues, thank you very much, especially when they concerned equal exchange of power. Bilbo had a confidant so Sauron must as well and Firiel was willing enough; Sauron knew that while the woman might care more for Bilbo, he would never ask for any break of confidence.

Easier to not muse too deeply on such things yet, Sauron amused himself with Bilbo's company the best he could. Four days more and they passed over a narrow stone bridge over a noisy stream which gushed swiftly down, foaming white and roaring amid the gray boulders. Though the stream was little less than ten steps wide, Bilbo laughed in delight; it was the first running water he had seen in Mordor. Both the road and stream wound up through a valley dense with shrubs, scraggly and now covered by a fine coat of while ash, yet clearly, undeniably alive. Sauron couldn't deny the sight of green, growing things was balm to his spirit in a manner he hadn't experienced before.

But this was also a time to fly ahead. Sauron awaited until their whole company - three human guards, the absolute minimum to make any kind of entourage, in addition to the three travellers - settled down for the night and left the silken tent below a deep shadow. There was a guard, as unnecessary as he was, because the lord could hardly let his drafted servants see him serving as one, but the man was pathetically easy to avoid. In the shape of a great bat Sauron flew to the Yerra Dûr to see that when they would arrive in two days' time they would receive a worthy reception without forcing Bilbo to witness the scene.

***

No one actually died or was even hurt. Humans were pathetically easy to intimidate.

***

As horses might one day be decked with plumes
And water ripple with stars and white spumes;
A whole new life you so might forth cajole
But beware ease! You shall once pay the toll!

***

Bilbo enjoyed the cool wind as he watched over the Sea of Núrnen from his vantage point on the Yerra Dûr Cliff. Life for him as the unofficial co-ruler of Mordor had since his arrival consisted of seemingly never-ending talks with the fishers who feared they would be overrun by the orcs, dissuading Sauron from planning war the best he could and trying to ascertain Firiel was heartfelt in her determination, which blended all into a colourful cacophony in his mind. It was absolutely lovely to have a moment of peace and quiet for once.

"If you keep rubbing the dress like that, you will damage the stitchwork" said one of the fisherwomen down by the dark waters, greeting her neighbour as they washed their clothes unaware of Bilbo’s presence. Their clothing was adorned by what Bilbo hesitated to call embroidery as it was in truth the leather strings used to sew the seams, stitches made in complicated geometric patterns.

“Little force needed get clean,” the other woman stated. Her skin was considerably darker than that of the woman who had spoken first and there was something to the shape of her flat nose and square jaw that suggested to Bilbo she might be a part orc – but then again, maybe not. The women were clearly of different origins, though, which was probably the reason they bothered with Westron at all. Yerra Dûr was a lovely little town, if currently very intimidated, but this couldn't be helped. Bilbo was winning Sauron to his point of view slowly and better slow and steady than an explosive argument in his opinion as long as no one was unduly injured.

What a sight! Bilbo was certain that should anyone to the west from the Ash Mountains be asked to imagine Mordor, this would not come to their mind at all. There was such bright potential even in the darkest places and Bilbo found himself wondering if this wouldn’t be such a bad life after all. He remained by the old, red, crying iron railing long after the women had returned and the blazing red sunset had given way to the darkness. Here Bilbo could see the stars and they were looking gently down upon him, as wonderful as the breeze. Some of the stars merely flickered every now and then, but most were bright and colourful. White and blue, golden and red, apart so as to fill the darkness, yet not sad, they reflected from the lake's surface, the ripples unseen from so far away blurring the little lights into glittering stripes.

"Stars so white, stars so bright, stars which the night do light," he sung an old elf lullaby. "Eastwards calling, us here stalling, protect us through the night!" he picked a small rock and threw it to the waters, sending the star ripples into swirls.

When he turned his head just a little bit, he saw Sauron standing by the very edge of the cliff, on the other side of the railing. Bilbo swallowed an instinctual reprimand for doing something as foolish as climbing over; Sauron had likely flied up there and a fall was hardly going to hurt him.

“How long have you watched me?” he asked instead, wondering why he didn’t feel this was a violation of his privacy. He had climbed the long, winding path up to the cliff to be alone after all and to be stared unawares should be rather disconcerting, and yet…

“Long enough to have grabbed you if I so wished,” Sauron jested, and though such a joke might be in rather poor taste considering his history, he looked so relaxed and happy that Bilbo couldn’t rue him. The wind played with Sauron's long hair, though it failed to do much more than make the heavy layers of his clothing stir slightly. They were majestic certainly his robes and the under-robes, of which he could only see a line of him and a bit of the sleeves and the strange diamond-shaped cloak tied so it covered his right side and left his left arm free. Though he carried the weight and dignity of those clothes effortlessly, Bilbo thought he seemed glad as well to be free of the schemes of reconstruction and improvement for a short while.

"Why not throw the cloak aside?" he proposed. "I shan't tattle." Sauron seemed more amused there might be some authority to whom Bilbo could tattle than anything else, but he opened the simple golden clasp and folded his cloak regardless, setting it on the railing.

"Anything for Your Highness," he said and then hid his smirk behind a delicate hand. Bilbo huffed in annoyance.

"Stop making fun of me, Sauron. You are not as amusing as you seem to think," he complained, crossing his arms on his chest. He had left most of his finery behind, partially because climbing in long robes would have been an awful idea, partially because the linen and silk would only have gotten dirty and mostly because the well-meaning seamstress had seen fit to embroider a dragon on his hem with gold thread and no. Even if there had never been Smaug, just no.

But Bilbo must admit that looking impervious and commanding simply wasn't as easy when he was only wearing a triangular tunic with narrowing sleeves. Sauron made a show of h