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In Town for the Wedding

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When Bilbo Baggins sent wedding invitations to every single member of his extended family, he didn’t expect any of them to actually come. At most, he thought he would receive a wedding present or two along with a large number of very polite responses explaining that it would not be possible to attend. After all, it was nearly a six month round trip from the Shire to Erebor, and most of his family had never even been to Bree. Beyond that, though he had quietly left off the bit about Thorin being a king, there was no hiding the fact that he intended to marry a dwarf. Even if he’d dodged the prospect of total disrepute by becoming a notable purveyor of fine mushrooms when he settled outside the Shire, there was no way to make marrying someone other than a hobbit respectable.

It was a sacrifice he was quite happy to make, really. After all, it wasn’t as though his parents were alive, or he had any close relations. Indeed, Bofur and Balin felt more like kin than most of his cousins ever had. If there was some small part of his heart that wished for family to dance with at his wedding, it was only the same part that occasionally missed the sunset over the rolling hills of the Shire. Bilbo had given that up for the privilege of watching the sunrise from a mountaintop, and he did not regret doing so. He could never regret anything that made Thorin smile as he did when Bilbo agreed to marry him.

Alongside Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo was quite glad to live by dwarvish customs. A proud member of the Culinary Guild, he spent his mornings cooking breakfast for his future husband, his days growing mushrooms while educating his apprentice, and his evenings feasting, singing, and dancing with his dwarvish friends. He was also a diplomat who spent a great deal of time smoothing foreign relations between the King Under the Mountain and neighboring rulers. As if all that wasn’t trouble enough, he even served on the Council of Lords. That was the dullest of duties. From Bilbo’s perspective, it mostly involved daydreaming while dwarves droned on about civic improvements and then just voting whichever way his friend Balin did.

Even on the days when Thorin came to sit in on the council, those meetings could not be saved. Though at least then Bilbo had something nice to look at while he imagined talking about his plans for the wedding cake, or anything other than the minutia of laying a new aqueduct to increase water flow to the residential part of Erebor. Pretending to take notes, the hobbit began sketching out a recipe for a nicely colorful wedding cake. Of course he would need to speak with Bombur—one couldn’t bake one’s own wedding cake—just to hint politely at shimmering sugar sprinkles that would catch lamplight like little stars. Gloin put a hand over the hobbit’s pen, silently indicating that this bit about sewage was important and required genuine attention.

Bilbo supposed it was important. Therefore, it was quite wrong of him to be so pleased when Kili rushed into the meeting with a broad grin, interrupting Balin mid sentence. “Thorin! You have to come to the Throne Room at once. Foreign visitors to Erebor! Petitioning for entry! Dwalin’s leading them down the quarry path, so there’s time.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “And the King must rush to greet such petitioners?”

“Yes!” Kili said eagerly. “For they are lofty visitors indeed, and already have kin among the Lords of Erebor.”

At once the king’s expression changed and he smiled a rare, true smile. Among the members of Thorin’s Company in the Council of Lords, this was by far the most subdued reaction.

Leaping to his feet, Bofur exclaimed, “It’s about time!”

“Come on then,” Gloin cried, and Bifur growled a joyful agreement in Khuzdul.

“But we must greet them properly,” Dori said urgently. “I do hope Bombur has a good lunch on for the King’s Table today.” Which was very strange, as Bilbo was usually the only member of the Council of Lords who paid any attention at all to the important matter of lunch.

Even so, Kili seemed to think Dori was right to be worried. “Fili ran to find him. Bombur will come up with something in time. I hope.”

Banging his ceremonial hammer quickly, Balin adjourned the meeting. “As I’m sure we all want to make haste to meet the new arrivals.”

It seemed that this was very much the case, for everyone immediately rose and rushed from the room, straightening their clothing and, in Kili’s case, quickly adding a few extra braids to their hair so that they could look their best.

“Whoever can it be?” Bilbo asked Thorin when he caught up to the king. “None of you made such a fuss when Lord Dain visited from the Iron Hills last month, and surely he is the most august visitor you could expect.”

“Can you not guess, my clever burglar?” Thorin asked in return, straightening the crown of mithril flowers that Bilbo wore as a symbol of their courtship.

“Well, I thought I knew all of your close relations,” Bilbo said, trying to think as they hurried along to the throne room. “Is it some other branch of the Longbeard clan? Oh! Are they up for the wedding? They are a bit early, but I suppose if they have come all the way from Lune, it is better to be a few weeks early than delayed on the road and missing it entirely!”

Smiling very fondly, Thorin said, “And indeed, who but a Longbeard could be related to a Lord of Erebor?”

Bilbo frowned at him, feeling a bit of a snit coming on. “I do not pretend to be an expert on your genealogy. Why will you not tell me what everyone else seems to know?”

“Because I can hardly believe that you have not yet guessed, my quick witted hobbit.” Thorin dropped a kiss to Bilbo’s lips: clearly an avoidance tactic. Unfortunately, it was one that worked. As they entered the throne room Bilbo was obliged to be respectful, since Thorin was doing his kinging. One ought not steal a king’s crown and hold it ransom for explanations in front of his subjects. They might not understand the playful intent of such a gesture.

Indeed, there was quite a crowd of dwarves all gathered around waiting when Thorin took his throne. Fili and Dis were already seated beside it in their usual places, and Bilbo soon saw all the members of the Company except for Dwalin and Bombur arrayed on the dias. Once again, he wondered who could possibly merit such a display, but he stood patiently next to Balin and Bofur, waiting to see.

He could not have been more astonished by the little party of seven that Dwalin led into the throne room if they had been riding on dragonback.

One of them stepped forward. He was an ordinary looking fellow, though his light green waistcoat had brightly polished brass buttons and his jacket was a very respectable brown tweed that matched his dark, curly hair nicely. Bowing in the dwarvish fashion, he said, “Drogo Baggins, son of Fosco Baggins, at your service, your majesty.”

“Welcome to Erebor, Master Baggins,” Thorin said, very warmly indeed.

“Thank you, sire. My kinfolk and I would like permission to stay in your city for a month or so. Our cousin is a resident here and will soon be married. I hope that’s reason enough. We were told that visitors aren’t always welcome Under the Mountain for so long.”

“Permission is granted for all of you to stay as long as you please,” the king said at once. “The journey from the Shire is full of peril, and it is good of you to come so far for the wedding. But tell me now the names of your kinfolk that I may greet them as well.”

“Of course,” Drogo said. With the impeccable manners of a Baggins, he turned to the eldest first. Bilbo wondered that Drogo, a Baggins among Tooks and Brandybucks, was speaking for the group. Looking at the awed, glassy eyes of the rest of the party as they stared at the dwarven architecture and splendid finery of Thorin’s court, however, he thought he understood. “My cousin Aldagrim Took, son of Hildigrim Took and Rosa Baggins, his wife Aconite Took née Boffin, and their youngest daughter, Esmeralda.” Aldagrim managed a deep bow while Aconite and Esmerelda ducked together in little courtsies without taking their wide eyes off of Thorin. “Then my wife, Primula Baggins, née Brandybuck, and her cousins Saradoc Brandybuck, and—”

Bilbo could not contain himself for a moment longer. “Mac!” he cried, rushing over to the little group of hobbits and hugging his cousin. “And Prim Baggins, is it now? Why, as of your last letter you had not yet married! Congratulations,” he added, shaking Drogo’s hand heartily.

“Oh, hello Bilbo,” Drogo said, much less formally. “Thank you very much. It is a relief to see you. I had no idea how we would find you once we finished all of this introduction business and that big fellow stopped leading us about. Strider abandoned us in Dale, you know, and we never did catch up with Garag’s caravan.”

“Well, I don’t know any Strider, but Dwalin would never have done so before you were in my keeping, Drogo.” Bilbo could not seem to stop grinning. “He is a very good friend of mine!”

“Is he, now?” Merimac Brandybuck looked quite impressed.

“Why does he have pictures on his head?” Esmeralda whispered, casting her eyes curiously toward the large dwarf. “Does he have to ink them on every morning?”

“But you must be over twenty now,” Bilbo said, “and you’ve come all this way. Is this truly the first time you’ve seen a tattoo?”

“Some Big Folk have them.” Aconite blinked to clear her eyes and turned to her daughter. “They put the ink into their skin with needles and then it does not wash away. Painful business, or so I’ve heard. But I suppose the point is to show that they can withstand the pain.”

“Can I get one while we’re here?” the lass asked.

“Absolutely not,” her father said firmly.

“Just so everyone knows,” Saradoc said slowly, “There are still about a hundred dwarves staring at us right now.”

Bilbo laughed and looked about, seeing that this was true. However, the dwarves were all smiling fondly at the hobbits. “Well cousin,” he said, “I suppose they have never seen anyone as handsome as you!”

“And I suppose they’ve never met as big a liar as you, Bilbo,” Mac shot back automatically. This garnered an appreciative laugh from the watching dwarves, especially the members of the company arrayed on the dias. Even Thorin looked very warmly at Mac. Though perhaps a hobbit unfamiliar with the king’s expressions was not able to read the hint of a smile, for Mac ducked a bit behind Bilbo, trying to get out of the king’s line of sight.

Drogo cleared his throat and shot Bilbo a look suggesting he was behaving in a manner that did not do service to the Baggins name and that a hobbit over fifty really ought to know better. Turning to back to Thorin, he bowed once more. “I beg your pardon, your kingship. Please forgive us. Though it is no excuse for our rudeness, we have not seen our cousin in a long time.”

“Think nothing of it,” Thorin said regally. “There is no blessing in the halls of my kingdom greater than to meet with kin after long absence, and to find family unlooked for.”

“Well said,” Aldagrim cried. “Do not be such a Baggins, Drogo!”

“Perhaps if you could be less Tookish for all of five minutes, I would not need to be constantly apologizing on your behalf,” Drogo said snidely.

“But you must all be starving!” Bilbo realized. “It is no wonder if you are in a bad mood, for it is a full hour’s walk from Dale. You will have missed elevenses.”

“Well.” Aconite coughed politely. “Perhaps an early luncheon would not do us any harm.”

“Will you join us, My King?”

The dwarven king smiled indulgently at his hobbit. “Some of us must yet return to the Council, My Lord. In your absence, perhaps we shall simply allow Balin to record two votes.”

“That suits me just fine!” Bilbo laughed, but he heard his relations gasp. Oh dear. He had also left the bit about his being a lord off of the wedding invitations. Well, that was three things for them to get used to, then. Thorin being a king, Bilbo being a lord, and Thorin’s ridiculous sense of humor. Hopefully after a time they might find him charming. In the meanwhile, Bilbo felt a bit like Gandalf, herding his fellow hobbits off toward lunch like an unruly flock of goats. While the members of the company who served on the Council of Lords reluctantly remained to do their duty in the ruling of Erebor, those who did not have other occupation, including Dis and the two princes, fell in behind the group of hobbits as though they were simply heading in the same direction.

“Bilbo,” Prim began, clearly looking for a neutral subject, “Wherever did you get those lovely flowers? They absolutely shine in all this beautiful lamplight.”

“Thorin made them for me as a sort of dwarvish proposal present,” Bilbo reported proudly. “He’s quite handy, you know. They are made of metal and colorful stones, so they will not wilt.”

“Really?” Merrimac reached out to poke a finger at the braided heather in Bilbo’s crown. “Well, I’ll be! I would have sworn it was real!”

Suddenly, Drogo shrieked in alarm and clapped both of his hands to Bilbo’s head. Immediately Dwalin was there with both axes out. Drogo Baggins ignored the massive dwarf, shouting, “Cover Esmeralda's eyes! Quickly! Bilbo, how could you?”

Bilbo could only stare at his cousin in bemusement. No one covered Esmeralda’s eyes. Beside Nori, a pretty dwarrowdam that Bilbo didn’t recognize burst out laughing.

“How could I what?”

“There are children present,” Drogo hissed.

“She’s a tweenager, Drogo,” Aconite said primly. “I have already spoken to my daughter about tiger lilies, not that it is any concern of yours.”

“A tiger lily?” Mac and Saradoc moved around Bilbo to flank Drogo, who kicked them both away when they tried to peer beneath his hands pruriently.

“It is not only a tiger lily!” Drogo really did look very distressed that a Baggins should fall as far as Bilbo had, wearing such a thing in public. The laughing dwarrowdam next to Nori looked like she was about to be sick, having fallen against the spymaster in a true fit of hysterics. Bilbo’s friend and fellow thief seemed most amused by this as well, and the hobbit realized belatedly that some dwarf must have been tasked with studying the flower language for Thorin to be able to construct the crown in the first place.

“It’s not?” Prim asked.

“I’m afraid it is not,” Bilbo agreed gravely. “But you must understand, most dwarves don’t actually know about bees and flowers. Only Thorin and I really know what it means.” And that friend of Nori’s over there, he added silently, hoping that the hobbits continued to ignore the crowd of dwarves.

“A bee!” Prim’s eyes widened in surprise. Then she pushed Drogo’s hands out of the way. “But how could he make a bee stay?” Putting her head close to Bilbo’s, she peered into the flower, prodding it with a finger. “Remarkable! It is made of gold or something, but it looks quite real. Why, I can even count the hairs on its little legs. Your dwarf clearly went to a lot of trouble to make his intentions plain, Bilbo.”

“Prim!” Drogo looked entirely betrayed. “Bilbo Baggins, how could you even think of wearing such a thing in public?! You are a Baggins of Bag End.”

“He just told us,” Aldagrim said staunchly. “Dwarves don’t know about tiger lilies. Doesn’t surprise me, really. Haven’t seen a single green or growing thing since we entered the mountain.”

“After all, it is not as though you have never given me a tiger lily, Drogo,” Prim said slyly.

Blushing a furious red, Drogo said, “That was private.”

“And so is this.” Mac smiled triumphantly. “If the dwarves don’t know what it means, then the only person around to be shocked is you, Baggins.”

Sniffing, Drogo straightened his waistcoat. “I suppose that if I am the only one willing to maintain a standard of decency and good breeding, I shall have to suffer your lack of manners in silence.”

Feeling rather sympathetic to a Baggins who had been on the road with Tooks and Brandybucks for several months only to be assaulted by the dwarven idea of decorum, Bilbo took his cousin by the arm. “Perhaps there is some consolation I can offer for the blow, cousin. Welcome to the great feasting hall of Erebor!”

It was only noon, so the hall wasn’t full the way it would be at dinner. Indeed there were only a few dwarves helping themselves to the sideboard and eating cheerfully at the tables. Most of the populace tended to skip lunch or stop only for quick sandwiches while working, so the meal at the King’s Table tended to be for travellers and families. The former kept odd hours and might need refreshment, while the latter simply had more mouths to feed. Dwarflings didn’t require the vast amounts of provender that hobbit children needed to grow, but refugee parents in a city just getting back on its feet couldn’t afford to pass up free meals.

Prim smiled at the little children tucking into meat and potatoes or racing over to the sideboard for more bread and butter. “It isn’t a party. Whose food is this?”

“The king’s, you might say,” Bilbo informed her proudly. “He pays for it all out of the treasury, anyway. But in the end it is free for anyone to take. No one ever goes hungry in Erebor.”

“Hmm.” Saradoc looked very thoughtful. “That is kind of him. I suppose there’s a purpose to having a king after all. We figured he’d be more like the Mayor of Michel Delving, someone to make speeches at the Free Fair and whatnot, but Strider said he can boss people around and they have to do what he says.”

“Yes.” Aconite put a little extra meat onto her daughter’s plate, though Esmeralda pulled a face and took several rolls, which she clearly preferred. “That sounded a bit odd to us, folks not making up their own minds. But I suppose it is rather like the Thain in Tuckborough, only his smial happens to be an entire mountain.”

“He keeps a nice enough table,” Mac said, clearly trying to take what he saw as Bilbo’s side in some ongoing argument.

Drogo snorted. “No one could deny that it is kind of him to feed so very many people,” he said, damning with faint praise as he put a great deal of salt and pepper on his potatoes. “Do you ever dine alone, Bilbo?”

Feeling blood rush to his face, Bilbo said, “As a matter of fact, I don’t. Dwarves take fewer meals than hobbits, but that only means that I have breakfast with some and second breakfast with others. I do cook for myself and my friends, of course. If you’d be willing to wait, we could go to my apartments and I’d fix us something.”

“This is a fine luncheon,” Aldagrim said firmly. “I like the bread. Got a bit of a tang to it. Some local yeast, I take it?”

“Indeed!” Bombur came up, huffing a little. Behind him, Lea was directing a small group of apprentices as they wheeled in large soup tureens and set them carefully on the sideboard along with platters of trout in brown sauce. “You might say we reclaimed the recipe when we reclaimed the Mountain, for it is only possible to make bread like this here in Erebor.”

“Well that is lovely,” Prim said, smiling warmly.

Mac jostled Bilbo’s shoulder. “He’s very handsome,” he murmured with a knowing grin.

Bilbo blinked. “He’s also married,” he hissed back censoriously. Then, louder, he made a few introductions. “Master Bombur of the Culinary Guild, these are my cousins: Prim and Drogo; Mac and Saradoc; then Aldi, Aconite, and Esmeralda. You lot, this is Bombur, a good friend and truly excellent cook.”

“What’s a guild?” Esmeralda asked.

Before Bilbo could answer, Prim and Saradoc both froze, sniffing the air. Their heads turned slowly toward the soup tureens.

“Excuse me a moment,” Prim said, rising very casually and sidling over to the sideboard.

“Think I’ll go for a second helping myself,” Saradoc agreed, picking up his heavily loaded plate and following her.

By this time the other hobbits had caught the scent as well. Drogo watched his bold wife ladle out a bowl of stew. “I suppose the soup course is meant for some special party,” he said hopefully. “That king or those dwarves over there all in crowns.”

Bilbo laughed. “No, it is free for the taking. Made from a recipe of my own devising, you know, though I cannot take credit for boiling up this batch. Mushroom Stew with Black Trilbies.”

“Oh, well, if you insist. I had best try some,” Drogo said demurely. Then he rushed over to the tureen with the subtle quickness of a well bred hobbit who nevertheless had no intention of missing the course.

Naturally, the soup was a phenomenal hit with Bilbo’s family and all of them went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. Being hobbits, they ate slowly while conversing politely. The nature of guilds was explained, introductions to the rest of Thorin’s company were made, and trips to the side board continued until the soup tureens were completely dry and the platters of trout in mushroom sauce perfectly clean. In the end, the dwarves stared at Bilbo’s kin with open amazement.

“Where do you put it all?” Ori asked, clearly unable to stop himself.

Prim winked at him. “In a pocket for later, of course!”

Everyone laughed at this old saw, but no one laughed more than Bilbo. Being around hobbits who made such tired jokes was a true delight. “If one of you would only give me some unwanted advice on growing my tomatoes, I should be the happiest person in Erebor!” he exclaimed, drunk on good humor and fellowship.

“Do you grow tomatoes?” Drogo asked with such perfect, Baggins-ish politeness that Bilbo had to hug him. This naturally surprised the prim fellow, but his effusive wife grinned expansively and threw her arms around both of them.

“Dearest Bilbo,” she said kindly, “If we had known you were lonely, we would have come much sooner.”

Of course, this was exactly the wrong thing to say. All of the dwarves took great umbrage, and Dwalin in particular looked like he might challenge Prim to some sort of duel for daring to speak such a blatant falsehood. Bilbo merely grinned again.

“Clever as you are, my dear cousin, you have missed the mark,” he said. “For I shall never be lonely while I have Thorin and all of my friends. Only, it has been quite a while since I have been among my own kind. I had not realized how nostalgic your terrible jokes would make me feel.”

Prim blushed at this, but Drogo frowned. “Speaking of this Thorin fellow, Bilbo, when do you think we might meet him?”

Blinking, Bilbo hesitated. “Well, you shall have a proper chance to talk with him at supper, of course, once he’s finished with the Council of Lords, but you have already met him. He’s the king. Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain, and probably a few other titles I’m forgetting besides, but that’s quite enough to be going on with. I’m sure it’s fine for you to just call him Thorin.”

“The king.” Drogo’s expression was quite unreadable.

“The King!” Prim grinned with delight. “I did notice that the names were the same, but I thought it must be like Fosco for dwarves or something.” Turning to Bombur she explained. “You cannot throw a stone in Hobbiton without hitting a Fosco.”

“The king?” Mac repeated thoughtfully. “Well, I must admit I didn’t get a good look at him at all. I was distracted by that shiny rock on the back of his big chair. Still, he was rather frightening with the booming voice and everything. Wasn’t he a bit—er—I suppose he has a lovely personality. When he’s not being king.”

“I say!” Bilbo put his hands flat on the table in front of him, leaning forward until he was almost standing up. “Thorin’s exceedingly handsome! You can’t go saying you didn’t get a good look at a person and then throw around lovely personalities like that.”

“Not in front of the fellow’s intended, at any rate.” Saradoc grinned.

“No,” Aconite put in quickly, “I did get a good look at him. Bilbo’s quite right; he is rather handsome. Perhaps not classically, like our new friend Master Bombur here, but very dramatic features. Stoorish, I’d call him. Which isn’t very surprising in a dwarf, but attractively so.”

At this pronouncement, Fili and Kili laughed. Elbowing Bombur in the ribs, they swooned over him, fluttering their eyelashes, and praised how classically handsome he was. Grateful that Bofur was still with the Council of Lords, not present to make a production of mocking his brother, Bilbo ignored the princely antics and focused on his family.

“If he is the king, will marrying him make you a queen?” Esmeralda asked, with the deceptive innocence of a tweenager.

“I should say not!” Pausing, Bilbo turned to Dis, who was laughing quietly at him from the other end of the table. “It won’t, will it?”

“It will make you my brother’s husband,” Dis said, still smirking. “A formal title will be a separate affair, to be discussed at length among the Council of Lords. I believe the current favorite is Lord Consort, but Lord High Master Burglar has several proponents. As does His Grace the Lord of Mushrooms. If you would prefer to be called Queen, I am quite certain your opinion would be taken into account.”

This ridiculous suggestion garnered a good laugh from the Brandybucks and Tooks at the table, but Drogo’s eyes narrowed. Bilbo might have called the expression on the hobbit’s face calculating, had the fellow not been his cousin. “Very impressive,” Drogo said. “All these jools and titles.” But the Hobbiton accent he put on the word jewels gave Bilbo to understand he meant quite the opposite.

*

Though he was not the most diplomatic dwarf in Erebor, Thorin was predisposed to like his future family. Overall, his opinion of hobbits in general, and the Baggins family in particular, was a very positive one. He found their penchant for home and hearth charming, their manners endearing, and their awe at the great works of Erebor flattering. That they were most impressed by Bilbo’s Mushroom Mine was to be expected, and thus did not offend his sensibilities. Some dwarves might find the constant stream of polite chatter irritating, but love moderated many annoyances, and Thorin found he enjoyed the sound.

Merimac was obviously a great friend of Bilbo’s. Accompanied by his brother Saradoc and their cousin Primula, they told many stories of the Master Burglar’s misspent youth. Aldagrim Took and his wife Aconite had a few of these as well. Of course, in front of their daughter they focused more on delighting Bilbo with current gossip about shared acquaintances. That the hobbits all cared a great deal about Bilbo was evident by the journey they had undertaken, so unlike anything Shire Folk were accustomed to. That he loved them each in turn was beyond obvious from the way he never seemed to stop smiling when in their company. Yet that joy could not be perfect while hobbits and dwarves held themselves apart, forcing the burglar to bridge the gap alone. Making Bilbo happy was, naturally, all important to Thorin.

And so the King Under the Mountain tried his best to prove himself affable, affluent, authoritative, and accomplished, as anyone would desire a proposed addition to their family to be. Yet, no matter what he did, he could not seem to impress Drogo Baggins.

Upon the occasion of a wedding, it was not inappropriate for a dwarf seeking entrance into a new family to make small offerings of wealth to demonstrate his ability to contribute to the common welfare. Such presentations were not bribes, no matter what Dis said, and Bilbo seemed pleased by them. Apparently, the giving and receiving of presents was a popular feature of hobbit weddings, and he thought Thorin was attempting to preserve this tradition after a dwarvish fashion. The king did not dissuade his future husband from that belief.

Having learned his lesson over many attempts to give Bilbo gifts, Thorin paid close attention to the personalities of his new family members before deciding upon his offerings. Bilbo’s old friend Mac was easiest. A barrel of the finest spirits found in Erebor went a long way toward impressing the merry fellow. He opened it at once and Thorin shared a drink with his new family. Meanwhile, the older, more stable Aldagrim Took was delighted to receive a fine golden tea set and a quantity of what Dori assured Thorin was excellent tea.

To Aconite Took, the king gave a more traditionally dwarvish present, an amethyst brooch, crafted to look exactly like the flowers for which she was named. She squeaked in delight to receive it, but the sound barely paralleled the paroxysms of joy when her daughter opened a much larger gift box. For Esmeralda, Thorin smithed a golden circlet of emeralds and a necklace of the same. These he made in the dwarven style for the adventurous young Took, and she thrilled to wear them, hugging him and calling him uncle immediately.

Saradoc Brandybuck also received gold and emeralds, crafted into a sturdy locket that matched the style of Esmeralda’s jewelry. If that locket contained a likeness, Thorin did not speak of it. Nor did Saradoc. A dwarf who was to be married could recognize love light when he saw it in another’s eyes, though he respected the hobbit’s privacy. Still, when young Saradoc closed the locket, he said, “Thank you, Thorin,” with a sincerity that warmed the dwarf to the bone.

A jewel for Primula was more difficult to find. At first, nothing seemed suitable. As he came to understand her nature, however, he gifted her with a shield. Mithril was light enough for a hobbit to lift, and he made it small enough for her to wield easily. Though the Baggins family had no crest, he emblazoned the hexagon with a cross pattern of oak leaves, acorns, sweet william, geraniums, ivy, and lilies of the valley. Bilbo consulted on the meanings of these flowers happily, and agreed all were quite suitable for a gift to a new cousin. So many jewels on a shield was hardly practical for use in battle, but Thorin hoped that she would understand the meaning behind the gift.

When the hobbitess removed the silk wrappings from the little shield, it was clear that she did. The usually expressive Primula examined every detail of the gift in a close, quiet, almost dwarvish way. Then she leapt upon Thorin, squeezing him tightly, and promising tearfully that they would look after one another, always. It was a swearing of honest loyalty, and Thorin felt nearly ingratiated into Bilbo’s family.

Unfortunately, the singular holdout seemed to be the most important member of the little clan. Given Bilbo’s stubborn insistence that hobbits were all equal and had no hierarchies, Thorin still did not understand how precedence was accorded between families. However, the way Bilbo constantly declared himself a Baggins of Bag End when he puffed up importantly instead of, say, a Lord of Erebor, was rather telling. Beyond that, the other hobbits deferred to Drogo and Bilbo with a suspicious consistency. Their manners allowed Thorin to infer that such deference was simply due to a Baggins. Thus, it was Drogo’s approval that needed to be secured for the wedding to go forward seamlessly.

And it was Drogo’s approval that Thorin could not seem to win.

Worst of all, Drogo Baggins was not even openly disapproving. When Thorin gave him a coat of silk and furs, the hobbit admired its soft texture, rich colors, beautiful embroidery, and fine cloth. Then he sneezed once and never wore it. When Thorin gave him a diamond ring, enchanted with the strongest spells of protection that the Masters of Erebor could manage, Drogo wondered at the magic and praised the gift excessively. But the hobbit did not put it on his finger. The whole process reminded Thorin uncomfortably of the failed courting gifts he’d tried to give Bilbo.

Fortunately, this time around, the most valuable ally he had ever known was helping him. Swallowing his pride, Thorin simply asked Bilbo how best to impress Drogo.

“There’s nothing at all wrong with your gifts.” Tugging at the dwarf’s collar, he brushed imaginary lint away from his shoulders. Straightening Thorin’s apparel was second nature to Bilbo when he was worried. While they spoke, he seemed to do it with an absent minded consistency. The king had never been as polished or put together before taking up with a hobbit. “That coat was absolutely perfect for him. He told us himself that he got colder than the others over the course of their journey, and practically asked for one in the dwarven style.”

“He does not like me.” This was not a painful observation. Well did Thorin know that he was not as charismatic as Bilbo. He was not charming or endearing. To one who also did not care about kingship, triumphs at arms, or wealth, it made sense that he would be unlikable.

“It has nothing to do with liking.” Bilbo hesitated, then sighed unhappily. “He’s a Baggins. He doesn’t approve of you.”

“Why not?” Thorin didn’t mean to sound petulant, but he was no longer a homeless dwarf with only the strength of his arms to prove his worth. He was Thorin Oakenshield, but he was also King Under the Mountain. Surely that was enough recompense for any flaws in his character. “Does he know of the madness in my bloodline? Children are not a concern, but if he fears I will hurt you again—I would not blame him for that. I fear it also.”

Bilbo’s pert little nostrils flared with anger. “Do not be ridiculous. You will never hurt me, and you already overcame that horrible dragon sickness. If anything like that should happen again, I will be more prepared for it a second time around, and we will deal with it together.”

Feeling the creases in his brow smooth away, Thorin did not bother to contain a small smile. “Do you have a plan for that eventuality, my love?”

“Of course I do,” the hobbit said. Though he still looked annoyed by the topic, Bilbo tipped up on his toes to press a kiss to Thorin’s beard. “Anyway, that is a matter for another time—hopefully never—and of course Drogo doesn’t know a thing about it. No dwarf would speak of it, and I rather glossed over the whole Arkenstone debacle when I told them the story of the Battle of Five Armies.”

“Oh?”

“Well, I glossed over the whole grabbing me by the neck and trying to toss me from the battlements bit.” Self loathing filled Thorin’s heart, as it did every time that awful act came to his mind. Yet the direct manner of Bilbo’s speech eased Thorin’s roiling gut as nothing else could have. It had happened; it would never happen again. Bilbo would make certain of that. The hobbit continued without seeming to notice Thorin’s guilt-ridden brooding.

“But I did not bother to hide that I stole the symbol of kingship from you or that you sent me to stand with the elves in the battle because I sided with them in the initial dispute. Believe it or not, that made them think rather well of our relationship. It shows that we can fight and forgive, something to be desired in a married couple.”

“Indeed.” Pressing a gentle kiss to the hobbit’s lips, Thorin allowed the last of his unhappiness to give way before the surge of warmth that always accompanied thought of their upcoming nuptials. “There is much to be desired in our union.”

“Oh! I agree entirely.” Bilbo’s eyes widened in a gratifying way, but Thorin was not quite ready to forego the subject at hand.

“Why then does your cousin withhold his blessing?”

“I don’t know.” Bilbo ran his clever fingers through Thorin’s hair. “I truly don’t. I’m afraid it might simply be that you are a dwarf. Though I cannot imagine why he came all this way if that is the case. Esmeralda and Aldi felt that old Took itch for adventure, and of course Saradoc and Mac came because, well, you’ve seen how Saradoc looks at Esmeralda. But Prim tells me Drogo was the one who organized the whole journey, found a guide, and insisted on coming. I cannot reconcile his doing all of that only to be such a stick-in-the-mud now.”

“You can think of no demonstration of wealth that might soften his heart toward me?”

“Not a present, no,” Bilbo said thoughtfully. “He’s a Baggins. You won’t win him over with mathoms.”

“How then?”

“Well, he shall have to get to know the real you. It might only be all of this king business getting in the way. I’m sure that if he saw you as I do, as the Company does, he would be delighted to have you in the family. You know, I can’t make him give you a proper chance, but I can make him come to a private tea. Tomorrow. You without a crown, and he without anyone but Prim to distract him.”

Though Thorin did not share Bilbo’s faith in his charisma, he trusted that the hobbit was correct. The ways of hobbits remained strange to him, but this did not seem unusual at all. Wealth was fleeting, and kingship might be also. Erebor had been taken from the dwarves once. Though Thorin would give his life to keep it, he might yet fail again. It was only logical for Drogo to desire that Bilbo’s husband be more than merely a king.

Kissing Bilbo on his forehead, just below the blossoms of his crown, Thorin proclaimed it a good plan. Then he spent several hours reassuring himself of their mutual affection. In truth, it did not matter what Drogo Baggins or anyone else thought. What Mahal joined as One could not be separated. A wedding only established which families the couple would belong to after their union.

Well did Thorin know that Bilbo gave up a great deal to remain in Erebor. Not least, Bag End, the hobbit’s comfortable home, valued by the little fellow above all other things. Bag End and the Shire, to which Bilbo would never again return for more than a visit, not as long as his husband was King Under the Mountain. If it was in his power, Thorin would ensure that Bilbo kept as much of his family as possible.

*

Tea was a disaster, of course. Part of Bilbo had known that it would be. Conspiring with Prim to leave Drogo and Thorin to their own devices while he taught her the secret ingredient to his gooseberry tarts and discussed the best choices for wedding cakes was easy. Getting those two to hold anything but a stilted conversation was not. Thorin was not given to speaking when he had nothing to say, and Drogo was not used to getting honest, dwarven replies to polite nothings.

From the moment Drogo said, “How are you this fine day?” and Thorin answered with, “Determined,” Bilbo knew the venture was quite doomed.

Unfortunately, Thorin was determined indeed. Halfway through their conversation, he told Drogo a truly appalling story about a time when, as a blacksmith in a village of Men, he had gone a full week without food or sleep to earn coin enough for the materials to make Fili his first blade. When asked how old his heir had been at the time, Thorin proudly announced that the knife had been produced just in time for the first anniversary of Fili’s birth.

Unable to maintain the pretense of not listening, Bilbo interrupted the conversation with roasted mushroom sandwiches and warm tarts from the oven. He did not like to think of all the time Thorin had spent homeless and hungry, that such a story might be a point of pride.

Obviously, the tale did not achieve its objective. Bilbo was surprised to realize that Thorin thought it might, given what he knew about hobbits. Drogo was astounded that anyone would neglect their own health to such an extent and horrified by the idea of giving sharp objects to babies. With the social adeptness of a Baggins, he thereafter avoided being alone with Thorin for any reason. He even went so far as to suggest privately to Bilbo that the king might not be entirely safe. At that, Bilbo almost washed his hands of his cousin. Kind as it was for him to cross half the world for Bilbo’s wedding, he didn’t have to be such a Baggins about it.

For better or worse, Thorin remained determined. Promising him that Bilbo would marry him no matter what anyone else though did not seem to reassure the dwarf.

“If I cannot win the respect of a single hobbit, I have no business ruling a mountain.” Thorin huffed, flaring his nostrils, and generally looking like a boar about to charge anyone unwary enough to disturb him. “Would he be influenced by popular opinion, do you think? A more public showing of talent?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“An exhibition in the Opera Hall. There is a small one planned a few days hence, but arranging for it to be more of a spectacle would be easy enough. Indeed, though it is not usual for royalty to join in such displays, it is hardly unheard of. Kili and Tauriel are already planning to take part.”

“Oh!” Bilbo darted forward and kissed Thorin quickly. “What a wonderful idea! It will not be like you are showing off for Drogo if it was already scheduled, and I am sure my family would be delighted to see proper dwarvish entertainment while they are here in Erebor.”

“You think so?” Thorin’s smile was slow but genuine.

“Of course I do!” After all, it was Thorin’s singing that had first planted the seed of love in Bilbo’s heart. A concert was just the thing to impress the visiting hobbits. “Once Drogo sees how talented you are, he’ll come around. Not that I care what he thinks.”

With the single minded focus he brought to bear on everything he did, Thorin strode away at once to make whatever arrangements were needed for him to join in the exhibition. So that was Bilbo’s fault just as much as the disastrous tea. More discussion was clearly necessary, and the hobbit should have gotten involved in the planning. Unfortunately, he didn’t even find out that the intended entertainment was not a musical concert until later that afternoon while talking to Tauriel.

“Your future husband has invited me to face him in the royal lists,” she said cheerfully, accepting a deftly poured cup of tea from Primula. The hobbits all adored taking tea with Tauriel, mostly because she always took the smallest slice of Baggins Black Bread and had better manners than the dwarves. “Honored as I am, I must ask. You do not think he means to kill me, do you?”

“Kill you?” Drogo looked quite alarmed. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I jest, Mister Baggins. Your cousin knows that the enmity between the King and I is long past. In fact, I am pleased that there is to be a royal list at all. Kili and I were only going to compete as archers. Many dwarves would withdraw from the tournament rather than face a member of the royal family with even a blunted blade. So unless there is enough interest from the Lords of Erebor to form a separate list, we must refrain from the contests of arms. Fortunately, the recent increase in prizes means we will have ample competition.”

“Are you talking about the exhibition?” Taking a dignified sip of his tea, Bilbo carefully returned cup in his right hand to the saucer in his left without the slightest clink.

“Yes.” Tauriel cocked her head to one side. “I was under the impression that Thorin had your blessing to compete.”

“I thought that was a concert,” Primula said, confusion showing on her face. “Didn’t you say he was planning to play the harp?”

A teacup lifted to the lips did much to mask a hobbit’s discomfort. “I must have misunderstood. We haven’t had much chance to talk lately, given how busy I’ve been with you lot.”

“So what is meant by a contest of arms?” Drogo put his plate down entirely, though there was still half a slice of Baggins Black Bread on it. “You will be fighting?”

Sliding forward on his seat, Bilbo moved to pour more tea for himself and anyone else that wanted their cup warmed.

“I will,” Tauriel said. “As will many of Bilbo’s friends. For the royal list, Thorin has offered a necklace from the treasury that once belonged to Durin the Second, forged in the first age of this world. It is beyond priceless, and a great heirloom of their house. Our house, I should say. Nearly everyone who is eligible has entered the tournament.”

“Nearly everyone?” Bilbo asked, setting down the pot heavily and abandoning his cup on the table in dismay.

“Balin is too busy with governance to join the fray. Though I overheard him confiding to his brother that at his age he only wishes to fight if some threat comes to the mountain.”

“Well that is sensible, at least,” Drogo said.

Mac leaned forward. “Can anyone join the rest of the fighting?”

“Of course,” Tauriel said. “Those who wish to compete may sign up even on the morning of the competition. Will you join us in the archery? I noticed that you carry a bow.”

“Oh!” Mac looked surprised. “I had not considered that. I might, if it is only target shooting. But I was thinking of Strider.”

“Strider?” Bilbo was pathetically grateful for a conversational topic that let him avoid meeting Drogo’s eyes.

“He was our guide on the trip here,” Aconite said. “One of those Big Folk rangers. Very handy fellow to have with you in the wild.”

“Oh, yes. I believe you mentioned him before. Did he not come all the way to Erebor with you?”

Surprisingly, the answer to this polite inquiry came from Tauriel, not one of the hobbits. “No. He remained in Dale with my brother. Or rather, he and my brother went to hunt were-worms with a company of dwarves and men from Erebor and Dale.”

“Were-worms?!” Bilbo was understandably shocked to hear about more of those giant, tunneling creatures in the area. They had been rather alarming during the battle, though the dumb beasts had done less damage than the fearsome trolls or malicious orcs.

“Only hatchlings,” Tauriel said reassuringly. “Apparently one of those killed in the Battle of Five Armies left behind a clutch of eggs. Still, they were discovered by a hunter from Dale who lost a foot for his trouble. Bard and Thorin agreed that they should be exterminated before growing to even more dangerous size.”

“Of course.” Bilbo felt rather faint, and darted a nervous glance to his relations to see how this talk of lost limbs was sitting with the hobbits.

“Well, if anyone can take care of the blighters, Strider can,” Aldagrim said forcefully. “Do you know, I think he must have killed at least two goblins on the way here.”

“Two whole goblins?” Tauriel looked mildly amused.

“We do not know that for certain,” Drogo said repressively. “He only slipped off into the dark. He might have frightened them off.”

“I am quite certain there was fighting,” Prim said. “I swear I heard swords and grunting.”

“Anyway,” Mac said, clearly heading off an argument that had been repeated several times, “he has wonderful woodcraft. Why, if one of us so much as mentioned wanting a rabbit for the stew pot, he’d have one snared in two ticks.”

“A useful fellow in the wild,” Bilbo agreed, thinking of his own long, hungry days wandering through the dark of Mirkwood.

“There is something to be said for taking the safest road, instead of the quickest.” Tauriel seemed to read Bilbo’s expression easily. “Yet I might suggest that your journey was made easier by the recent triumphs in Dol Goldur and here in Erebor. Without the Necromancer lurking in the Greenwood, that passage must have been much easier than Bilbo found it.”

“Oh yes.” Drogo took up the teapot and refreshed Bilbo’s cup first, then Tauriel’s, Prim’s, and his own. “I did not know Legolas was your brother, but he was very helpful as well. Those woods of yours are quite expansive, and I am certain we would have made terrible time going through them without his help.”

“They reminded me of the Old Forest in Buckland,” Mac said. “Although the trees were less alive, it still had that close, dangerous feeling.”

“Less alive?” Genuine curiosity blossomed over Tauriel’s usual polite mien.

“The trees of the Old Forest move about sometimes,” Saradoc informed her. “We have to burn them back occasionally or they will attack the unwary.”

“Oh.” The young elf bowed her head sadly. “That is a shame. I am certain they only mean to defend their homes. Is there any chance that a shadow lies upon them, as it was in the Greenwood? Perhaps the Wise might aid you in the cleansing of it so that you might live together in peace.”

“I do not know about shadows.” Mac fidgeted with his teacup, twisting it noisily against his saucer. “The Old Forest certainly isn’t anything like Bilbo described Mirkwood being, er, the Greenwood. When we were traveling through, even with good old Legolas, I think I felt an echo of it. A general sort of malice against all that was living.”

“Yes,” Prim agreed. “There were no squirrels but those awful black ones, and no deer but those magical white ones. It was like nothing ordinary could live there.”

“Not true.” Esmeralda piped up, her mouth full of quick bread, as any tweenager’s would be at tea time. “Legolas showed me a robin, and Strider found those sweet little fox kits. They both said that the animals were coming back to the forest.”

“Did they?” Tauriel smiled softly. “I am glad it was so, and that you encountered no giant spiders on your own journey.”

“No, nothing dangerous,” Mac said. “And there’s certainly nothing like those spiders in our Old Forest back home. The trees aren’t dangerous to squirrels or deer, just hobbits who carry axes for firewood.”

“I see.”

“Maybe Legolas could come and talk to them,” young Esmeralda suggested, savoring the last crust of her Baggins Black Bread. “Strider says that elves taught trees to speak a long time ago. Maybe he could tell the Old Forest to leave hobbits alone.”

Tauriel laughed. “It is not quite as simple as that,” she said, noticing Esmeralda's empty plate and passing the tray of cakes over to her. “Though your Strider knows our history well.”

Given such an opening, pressing the elf for a little of that history was perfectly natural. After that, keeping the conversation on forests, trees, and long journeys was simply a matter of the subtle maneuvering which came naturally to a Baggins of Bag End. No one mentioned fighting, tournaments, or bloody exhibitions again, though such things were never far from Bilbo’s mind.

*

Bilbo was displeased. This was not an inference, or the product of Thorin’s naturally melancholic mind. The hobbit marched right up to his betrothed, poked him in the chest, and said, “I am most displeased with you, Thorin Oakenshield.”

Apparently, Thorin’s beloved had been under the impression that the king intended to sing in some sort of concert, not demonstrate his martial skill. This made no sense at all, because Thorin’s musical talent was negligible, and he was certainly not a master of that craft. Expressing this sentiment to Bilbo was a mistake. Suggesting that hobbit mores and values lacked the honor and glory of dwarven traditions was a bigger one. Thorin’s bed was very cold on the nights leading up to the tournament. Worse, his breakfasts were not flavored with the black mushrooms which Bilbo preferred above all other foodstuffs. Of course, his palate almost welcomed the change. The mushrooms were nice, but he did not need to eat them every day.

He was not quite stupid enough to say that to Bilbo.

Indeed, the hobbit’s displeasure was so obvious that Thorin very nearly withdrew from the tournament and damned the consequences. From Bilbo’s reaction, it was clear that the tournament would not impress Thorin’s future relatives. Moreover, anything that Bilbo was so firmly against was bound to have unfortunate consequences. The clever fellow had a way of seeing angles which Thorin could not.

Sadly, withdrawing was not an option. After offering a prize that once belonged to a Durin, Thorin must be seen defending it. That Fili and Kili would fight for the necklace mattered little now that Legolas Greenleaf was also entered in the royal lists. If the heirloom went to Mirkwood after Thorin withdrew his own name from the fight, the political ramifications would be innumerable. And of course, Bilbo was unreasonable about that as well.

Thorin was very nearly granted an escape from his own folly when Legolas insisted that his companion, a human with the lofty name of Strider, be allowed to compete in the royal list as well.

“He is the adopted son of Elrond of Rivendell,” the elf proclaimed superciliously. “He has as much of a right to battle the Lords of Erebor as I do.”

“He is not dwarvish royalty,” Thorin growled. “You do not have the right to enter the lists because you are an elvish princeling, but because you are my nephew’s brother.”

“If he is not given the respect due to one of royal blood, I will withdraw.”

“Then withdraw!” Thorin felt a great hope kindle within his breast. If the elf withdrew then the king could as well. It did not matter much if Tauriel won, for she would not take the heirloom from the mountain.

“Legolas,” the man said, “I do not mind crossing swords with the common folk. You are kind to defend me thus, but I should be just as pleased to fight in the other list. Indeed, if I do not have to fight you, I shall have a better chance of winning.”

As reasonable as this suggestion was, Thorin could tell by the stubborn set of the elf’s jaw that he would win. Legolas would withdraw, the king would follow suit gracefully, and Bilbo would no longer be such a distressing mix of anxious and angry. All might have been well if Bilbo himself had not spoken up.

“Compromise,” he suggested. “It would be better for Strider to win the prize than Legolas, wouldn’t it?”

“I am not going to take Legolas’s spot.” Strider looked offended by the suggestion, and Thorin felt a grudging respect for him.

“Of course not,” the hobbit said soothingly. “I am only suggesting that the tournament should be arranged so that all of the tall people face one another first. Tauriel is as likely as either of you to win that, but in any case, only one of you three would go on to fight the others. It is not much different than only allowing Legolas in the tournament, really.”

Privately, Thorin thought that it would be exactly like allowing only Legolas in the tournament to the exclusion of Tauriel. He had seen the Prince of Mirkwood during the Battle of Five Armies, and the warrior was fell indeed. Unfortunately, the elf inclined his head slightly. “Acceptable.”

Grinning, Strider said, “If Legolas’s honor is satisfied, then mine will be as well.”

Given Bilbo’s humor, Thorin could not afford to be the one to make the final objection. So he was forced to allow a man of no noble house a place on the royal lists. It did not seem to be of any great import, since Legolas would quickly knock Strider out of the running. Unfortunately, the king did not account for the great disadvantage the elves would have in dwarvish tournament fighting.

The tournament was arranged in the traditional fashion, with contests of strength and skill all building up to the final competitions. First came the display of strength, when dwarves of renown physicality hefted large weights. All the hobbits laughed when Dia Broadback hefted an immense anvil which none of her opponents could budge, and then invited the second most powerful of her competitors to sit upon it as well. Always a good sport, the well coiffed Dori obliged, hopping up gracefully. His small, dignified form perched on the anvil raised over her wild riot of curls made an amusing tableaux, and his willing nature was a credit to the Company.

After strength were displays of skill. Thorin felt a twinge of familial pride when young Gimli, Gloin’s son, won the ax throwing competition despite his tender years. This satisfaction was nothing compared to the way the hobbits crowed and preened when Merrimac Brandybuck took fourth place in the archery competition.

His trophy was gold, of course, but it was a meager icon, just a tiny archer cast earlier in the week for the tournament. Yet the way all of the hobbits inspected and cooed over it like brooding pigeons gave Thorin a small measure of hope. Clearly, victory was something to be admired, even by the peace loving people of his future family. This was a very good thing, for the final event of the tournament was the fighting.

Since it was peacetime, the dwarves battled with blunted weapons and scored hits by knocking an opponent to the ground for a full count of three or outside of the designated ring. It was the most logical way to judge a fight without forcing participants to seriously injure their opponents. It also had the surprising side benefit of inconveniencing the elvish fighters.

Tall elves, who were accustomed to flipping and dodging to keep out of reach of their opponents, found the fighting circles small indeed. Tauriel and Legolas were obviously hindered by the limitation. Perhaps especially so since they opened the fighting against each other and did not have time to consider strategy. When Tauriel flipped over Legolas’s head to dodge a particularly swift slash from one of his knives, she seemed surprised at the sudden cry of despair from the crowd. She was not the favorite of the tournament, but her victory was certainly preferred over the Mirkwood prince. Only when Balin declared Legolas the winner of the first match did she look down at her feet and see that she stood outside the circle.

Regrettably, it seemed that such a short match did not give Legolas time enough to grow accustomed to the constraints. Worse yet, he had indeed been telling the truth about Strider’s rearing among elves. The ranger was familiar enough with the prince’s fighting style to focus on tripping him up where he would land rather than squaring off against him. It showed admirable strategic thinking. Thorin hated him.

A minor compromise became a major concern when Strider threw his dagger just underneath Legolas’s left foot as the elf whirled about the ring like a dervish. Instantly the elf turned his stumble into a back handspring. In a true battle, he would have landed facing his opponent, able to continue. Unfortunately, he was outside of the tournament ring. Laughing as he realized this, Legolas bowed deeply to Strider and joyfully accepted his defeat. The king could not be as pleased by this show of sportsmanship. No matter what Bilbo thought, the worst possible outcome of the tournament would be for a man of no nobility to win Durin’s necklace. Yet the man moved on to the rest of the tournament, and Thorin could do nothing about it. He had his own fighting to worry about.

Once entered in the tournament, Thorin had to at least try to win. If the hobbits were unimpressed by him fighting in the lists, their opinion could hardly be improved by his losing the first bout. Besides, Thorin rather suspected Bilbo was overly concerned. After all, when Merrimac Brandybuck took fourth in the archery behind Tauriel, Kili, and Durg Keen-eye, the hobbits lauded him.

How much better would it be for Thorin to defeat the greatest warriors of Erebor within their sight?

Yet his kin were not the type to give him precedence because of his title or his desire to make a good showing for new family. In the first match, Gloin gave him a nasty knock across the brow. Despite using a blunted ax, Thorin’s cousin still managed to give him a deep cut. Though the king triumphed, the cut kept bleeding into his eye during his subsequent fights, putting him at a disadvantage.

This, at least, softened Bilbo’s heart toward him somewhat. The hobbit came down to the side of the arena with salve and bandages to tend the king alongside Oin. Such a display of kindness, sadly, did not mean Thorin was forgiven.

“Well,” the little fellow blustered, “I hope you are happy. You’ve fought and won, and now you are all over bloody.”

“I am always happy to have you at my side.”

Sighing, Bilbo pressed a gentle kiss to Thorin’s bruised, now bandaged forehead. “That is easily arranged. Drop your name from the rest of the tournament. You have made your point, so come sit with my family to watch the final matches.”

Thorin’s back went stiff. To withdraw halfway through a tournament, to see the other fighters and then decide not to face them, was to admit cowardice. Still, that mattered less than the disposition of the prize. “When there is no chance of one who does not share Durin’s blood winning Durin’s trophy, I will withdraw,” he promised, hoping to appease Bilbo.

The hobbit narrowed his eyes, then nodded slowly. “I didn’t realize. It’s a problem?”

Thorin looked across the arena floor to where Strider faced Kili. Nearly twice the prince’s height, the ranger fought with deadly efficiency. The fact that his strategy against a dwarven opponent was markedly different from the way he fought elves clouded Thorin’s heart with foreboding. Sure enough, feigning weakness, Strider lured Kili into pressing forward with his full strength. Then, just as the young prince wholly committed to a powerful attack, Strider dropped to the ground. Rolling backward, he brought both of his feet up, connecting with Kili’s stomach. Using the dwarf’s momentum against him, Strider lifted him from the ground and hurled him out of the ring with a mighty kick. Then he completed his roll, landing on his feet just inside the circle of combat. Victorious.

“He will not defeat me,” Thorin said. The statement was not hubris, only fact. Strider was strong for a human and clever enough to see what needed to be done to win a fight. He was also inexperienced. In twenty years the young man might be ready to face Thorin on equal footing, but it was not so now.

“Okay.” Bilbo pressed a kiss to Thorin’s beard. “Good luck. I know how seriously your people take the heirlooms of your house.”

Surprised, Thorin looked down at his husband-to-be. The little hobbit’s eyes shone bright with faith. For the first time, it seemed Bilbo supported his victory in the tournament. Catching the hobbit around the waist, Thorin kissed him with all the longing built up over the endless days of Bilbo’s displeasure. When released, the hobbit blinked a few times, patted Thorin’s shoulder vaguely, then walked into the low wall that surrounded the arena floor. A different dwarf might have laughed as Bilbo shook himself and scurried back to his family, but Thorin was desperately grateful for the certainty of his love’s affections.

He had little enough to be grateful for otherwise, given that his next fight was against Dwalin.

Since childhood, Thorin and Dwalin had always been evenly matched. Nor was the great warrior likely to give way to his king. He certainly never gave way to his playmate. Two blunted axes, exactly the weight of Grasper and Keeper, hammered away at Thorin’s shield arm. The Oakenshield was the only true weapon allowed in the tournament. Recovered by enterprising travelers from where it lay on the side of the Misty Mountains, the return of the oaken branch humbled Thorin. It was his name, his lesson, and his burden. Dwalin attacked it because he knew how much doing so would irritate Thorin.

In truth, Dwalin was as much of an annoying younger sibling as Dis, for all that they were only cousins.

Thorin overextended his shield arm. Of course he did. It was the only way to stop Dwalin chipping away at his prized possession. Naturally, Dwalin took that opportunity to strike inside of Thorin’s guard. Instead of going for Thorin’s armored torso, however, the skilled fighter struck Thorin’s forearm, just above his vambrace. Probably this was meant to be a quick rap. Another annoying smack meant to nettle Thorin into acting without thinking. Anticipating that Thorin would overextend more than he had, Dwalin struck hard. Unfortunately, that meant it was not a tap. It was a blow.

Pain exploded across Thorin’s arm like blasting powder in a closed shaft. Roaring with rage, the dwarven king lashed out. The red haze of battle filled his eyes, and he no longer saw a friend in the tournament ring with him. Striking with sword, then shield, then his own skull, Thorin drove his opponent to the ground, unconscious. All around him, the crowd filling the arena screamed their approval. Dimly, he heard them chanting his name. Looking down, he saw his best friend.

Suddenly mindful of appearances, Thorin did not dive to the ground. Instead, he lowered himself in a kingly fashion to make sure that Dwalin was breathing. He was. Despite the approval of the crowd, Thorin knew it was badly done. In hindsight, he remembered the way Dwalin’s stormy eyes widened when Thorin cried out in pain. The loyal soldier barely lifted his axes to defend against the king’s fury. Solemnly, Thorin followed the healers as they bore his friend from the arena.

Unfortunately, this allowed Oin the opportunity to fuss over him while the others worked on Dwalin.

“Your arm is broken,” the elderly healer said.

“If you can splint it so that I can hide the injury behind my shield, do so,” the king ordered. “Otherwise, wrap it tightly and I will endure.”

“You cannot mean to continue!” Bilbo cried, appearing out of nowhere.

“He cannot withdraw.” Dwalin sat up abruptly and shrugged off the fussing healers.

Ignoring Bilbo and Oin, Thorin went to his side and pressed their foreheads together gently. “My friend.”

“The apology is mine to make,” Dwalin said. “Stupid of me to strike to wound instead of knocking you down when I had the chance.”

Thorin snorted. “As if you could.”

“You can beat the ranger,” Dwalin said confidently. “Even one handed.”

“I’ll have to.” Thorin smirked. “Since you’ve been knocked out of the tournament.”

“The first knock out of the day.” Dwalin groaned. “The princes will never let me live it down.”

“A curse on the bloodthirsty manners of dwarves!” Pressing his lips together tightly, Bilbo looked ready to murder them both right there in the sickroom. “For a moment, I thought Thorin had killed you! Obviously you must stop all this foolishness at once.”

Thorin winced as Oin splinted his arm and wrapped it tightly.

“He has offered up an heirloom of Durin the Second,” Dwalin told Bilbo evenly. “If it is taken by that Man of the North, his reign will be cursed in truth. His people will lose faith.”

The little hobbit sputtered. “Even though he already won back all the rest of the treasure?”

“Even so,” Dwalin said.

Thorin tested the weight of his shield. It pained him, but not intolerably so. Hopefully the ranger would not notice the loss of flexibility which came from having the thing strapped to his arm.

“Why ever did you let him join the list, then?”

Thorin checked the rest of his armor. It was undamaged, but tightening the pauldron on the shoulder of his shield arm helped him bear the weight better.

“Though I am not privy to the council of my king in this case,” Dwalin mocked, “I’d guess that you were mad at him, and you asked.”

Bilbo’s little face crumpled in dismay.

“Enough!” Thorin said sharply. “It is done. I will defeat him. The ranger will not win the heirloom.”

Although it was clear that Bilbo neither accepted nor believed this, he followed Thorin back to the side of the arena. The ranger was preparing for his second to last bout, facing off against Fili. With the subtle quickness Thorin had come to trust over the course of their many adventures, Bilbo bobbed across the floor of the arena.

“Lord Baggins,” Balin chided him. “We are about to begin the match.”

“Yes, yes.” Bilbo waved him away as though all of Erebor did not look on in anticipation. “Only Fili’s arm-armor isn’t straight. Wouldn’t do for him to get hurt. I’ll only be a moment.”

Tightening Fili’s perfectly straight vambrace, the little hobbit said something too quietly for Thorin to hear over the general noise of the crowded arena. The prince’s eyes widened. Then a look came across his face. One that Thorin recognized more from a mirror than the cheerful countenance of his heir: fierce determination. Bilbo skipped back across the arena to Thorin’s side.

“What did you say to him?” the king asked as the fighters clashed together in a furious exchange.

“Oh, I doubt it would interest you.” Bilbo winced as Strider caught a lucky blow against Fili’s leg, then cringed as Fili struck Strider hard across the back. It did not matter who was winning, hobbits did not enjoy seeing people hurt.

“Did you tell him I am injured?” Thorin demanded.

“Of course not.” Bilbo snorted, eyes still fixed on the fighters. “Fili believes you could beat anyone on this field with both arms tied behind your back. You’re his hero.”

Gratifying as this was, Thorin took even more pleasure seeing the way his nephew fought. The dwarf gave no ground. While the ranger found openings in his guard, and Fili took some serious blows, the prince stepped only forward. He did not attack with Kili’s reckless abandon, but he also did not allow Strider space to sidestep or dodge. Inch by inch, he forced the ranger backward with an inexorable march.

Inevitably, Strider took that final step, and his foot landed outside of the ring. Balin’s proclamation of a winner was lost in the joyful roar of the onlookers, shouting the name of their prince. That he should defeat the man who dared to challenge royalty successfully in the tournament made them cheer. That Fili should triumph in such a perfectly dwarven way won their hearts.

For a man of no nobility, Strider was a graceful loser. Though he did not laugh as Legolas had, he smiled and took Fili’s arm in the fashion of men. “Now I know what it truly is to fight a dwarf!” he said, and Thorin was once again struck by how young he seemed.

When the crowed calmed, Balin announced that the final fight between Thorin and Fili would decide the winner of the tournament.

“That will not be necessary,” Bilbo said, very loudly. “Thorin’s arm is broken, and I am sure he doesn’t mind taking second to his nephew.”

Balin’s eyes twinkled indulgently at the hobbit. Obviously, he had been aware of Thorin’s injury, though the polite fiction of no one telling him allowed the king to remain in the list as Strider came worryingly close to winning the necklace. Now, the lie was no longer necessary. Oin came out and reported the injury officially, so Fili’s victory was complete. Thorin and Strider stood beside Balin as the heirloom was ceremoniously awarded to the prince.

“What did you say to him?” Strider murmured to Bilbo. “He fought me differently than his previous opponents.”

“I am sure that is of no interest to anyone,” Bilbo said firmly.

Lifting the necklace of Durin the Second high into the air, Fili basked in the adoration of the crowd for a few minutes. Then, bouncing confidently to the side of the arena, he vaulted over the low wall and found the pretty young dam seated in the second row. Kneeling before her, he offered the necklace as a gift. Even at a distance, Thorin could see her blush as she bent to accept both the heirloom and a kiss.

“Well,” he said. “She will have to marry him now. She cannot do otherwise if she’s going to wear an heirloom of Durin himself.”

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Lea was always going to marry him. I have never seen a more besotted lass in all my life, and only Fili ever doubts it.”

“And yet they have not chosen an auspicious date.”

“I think she’s quite reasonable to insist on achieving her Mastery in the Guild before thinking about the wedding. After all, you lot make it plain that marrying into your family means helping with all that dull governance. She will not have time to perfect her meringues if she has to worry about aqueducts and the like.”

Strider laughed. “Happy am I, that my defeat has cleared the path for young love.” Then he looked slightly melancholy, as though, perhaps, he was not entirely happy in love himself.

Thorin did not have time to give thought to the romantic disposition of the ranger. Suddenly, Bilbo turned to him, taking him firmly by his uninjured hand. What followed was a whirlwind of hobbit efficiency. Bustling him off to the healers, insisting he get a proper cast, Bilbo refused to be denied. Once the painstaking plastering was completed and Thorin’s left arm was an unwieldy wad of hard bandages, the little hobbit chattered until the king found himself back in his rooms, bathed, fed, and drinking a hot cup of bitter, pain killing tea.

“It is too early for bed.” Weakly, the king protested, but Bilbo was implacable.

“You’re hurt.”

Wisely, Thorin drank his tea and lay down for a time. Being back in Bilbo’s good graces was worth the inconvenience.

*

Bilbo was not avoiding his family. That would be ridiculous. Thorin was wounded. Naturally, Bilbo needed to look after him. If that had the side effect of him spending hours in the chambers of healing, it wasn’t Bilbo’s fault. Of course he had to feed Thorin and put him to bed after a serious injury. They were going to be married. Putting Thorin to bed when hurt was an expected part of such an arrangement. If that meant Bilbo was in Thorin’s rooms instead of his own should anyone come looking, well, it wasn’t as if they were doing anything untoward.

The hobbit sighed. One wall of Thorin’s sitting room was covered in a beautiful mosaic, crafted by the king himself. Bilbo’s own image featured centrally, holding the Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain, as Bilbo himself held Thorin’s heart. No matter what, that would not change. No matter what, Bilbo would always have Thorin. He simply wasn’t sure that even young Esmeralda would eat cake at his wedding after that dreadful display, let alone dance.

He’d seen their faces when Thorin was hurt. When Thorin lashed out at Dwalin with real anger, the hobbits hadn’t been shocked. They’d been appalled. Bilbo had seen the battle rage that overtook Thorin before. It had been the only thing standing between Bilbo’s person and certain death on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, without that context, he could understand why his family would be frightened by such violence. He rather imagined the next conversation he had with Drogo would involve a polite excuse for not attending the actual wedding. Perhaps a convenient cold.

Or it could be worse. Perhaps he would come. Perhaps they all would come, but refuse to speak in the dwarven fashion during the ceremony. Refuse to dance. Refuse even the smallest bite of cake. Such rudeness was too much for a Baggins to even contemplate, but in the face of dwarves, Bilbo could imagine Drogo resorting to extremes. If they felt even half of the disapproval Drogo must, the Tooks and Brandybucks would go along with him.

One way or another, Drogo would give Bilbo a final chance to explain and make excuses. A Baggins could hardly do less. Although he wasn’t looking forward to that talk, Bilbo wasn’t exactly hiding in Thorin’s rooms. After all, it would be the first place anyone would look for him.

So it wasn’t really a surprise when a very polite knock came at the door. Too polite for any dwarf. Bilbo answered. He could not do otherwise. Sure enough, Drogo was standing there with his hands clasped courteously behind his back.

“Good evening, Drogo,” Bilbo said, because there was nothing else he could say. “Please come in.”

“Thank you kindly,” Drogo said. His mouth was set in a dour line and his brass buttons were polished to their brightest shine. However, he stepped into Thorin sitting room willingly, accepting both a chair and a cup of tea when they were offered.

Once it was established that Thorin was resting comfortably, that the other hobbits had missed Bilbo at dinner, and that Bilbo himself was perfectly well, Drogo came around to the point.

“I’ve spoken to Strider, and he’s willing to head out whenever we like. I was hoping matters here could be wrapped up in the next few days and we might go home a bit earlier than planned.”

Bilbo’s breath caught in his chest. “The wedding is in a week.” That none of them would stay for it, despite having traveled across half the world, was scarcely to be believed. Drogo was one thing, but Bilbo hoped Mac might still be persuaded to have a little cake.

“Ah.” Drogo’s hand tightened on his teacup. “Yes, well, I was rather hoping you might want to postpone the wedding for a bit and come home with us.”

“Postpone?”

“Yes. Just postpone. If you want to come back, we’ll all come right back with you. We can turn around two days after reaching the Shire, if that’s what you think best. Only I hope that before you do anything you can’t undo with this dwarf Thorin, you’ll put your toes in your own garden one last time.”

“I have a garden. Here. In the mountain. You fainted when you saw it.”

“Yes.” Drogo met Bilbo’s eyes steadily. “Over an acre of Black Trilbies, and they’re all beautiful. The lights in this place shine like magic, and the golden dance floor is a smooth as glass. I understand. I truly do. But it’s time to come home now. Feel the sun on your face, the earth between your toes, and smell ripe tomatoes. This place is incredible, a fairy story come to life, but you can’t live in fairyland, Bilbo. Not forever.”

“It isn’t fairyland, Drogo. This is Erebor, and I am not leaving just because you don’t approve of Thorin!”

“Why wouldn’t I approve of Thorin?” Drogo put his teacup down, but he didn’t raise his voice. “He’s as tall and handsome as any fairy prince. He spins you crowns of jeweled flowers and fiercely battles wicked monsters. He’s absolutely perfect in every way.”

Bilbo growled. “You can leave whenever you like, Drogo Baggins. No one is stopping you. But I’ll be married a week from today, and nothing in the world will stop that either. I promise.”

“Bilbo,” Drogo said, very gently, “Do you honestly think you’re in love?”

“Of course I am!” Leaping to his feet, Bilbo gestured wildly at the mural on the wall. “Do you see this? Thorin made it himself. Stone by stone, he made it. See me, right there in the middle of everything? Why, I am practically the focus of the whole thing! Do you know what he has me holding there? The Arkenstone! The heart of the mountain! Even before I agreed to court him, he crafted a picture of me holding his heart right in the middle of his sitting room for all to see. He loves me! I don’t care if you understand it or not, Drogo Baggins.”

“Maybe he does.” Drogo sat placidly in his chair, not even blinking at Bilbo’s antics. “I know very little about dwarves. But I don’t think you love him, Bilbo.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course Thorin has my heart! He has had it from practically the hour I met him.”

“No, Bilbo. He’s captured your imagination. Dragons, mountains, gold, and adventures: all the things you dreamed about as a lad, he promised you. And now he is the king of this magical place where you can have Black Trilbies in six meals a day. It is enough to turn any head and bewitch any tongue, but it isn’t love, Bilbo. It’s just a good story. It’s the story you love, not Thorin. You don’t love being a lord or spending your days in council meetings. You don’t love that he spends all day ruling and no time at home. Or perhaps you do. Perhaps that comes as a relief, because it is easier to imagine love in his absence. After all, I don’t think Thorin can be loved, really. He’s not that sort of person.”

Had Drogo not drawn that final conclusion, Bilbo would have argued until the sun came up. Part of Bilbo did want his family to understand and approve of his match. However, such considerations were barely a candle flame against the ice storm that chilled Bilbo’s blood and froze his heart entirely against his cousin. Thorin was the most lovable person in all of Middle Earth, and Bilbo refused to hear otherwise from a round little hobbit who had never known real hardship a day in his life.

“Unless your next words are an apology and a retraction, we can have nothing else to say to each other, Drogo Baggins.”

Drogo bowed his head unhappily. “I have one thing to say. You’re making a mistake, cousin.”

“Allow me to show you the door,” Bilbo said coldly. And he did so at once, shutting it firmly behind his cousin. For a long moment he stood, holding the handle, shaking with fury. Then he looked up and saw Thorin at the entrance to his bedroom.

Every once in a great while, Bilbo Baggins was completely speechless.

“You do love me,” Thorin said. “On that point I no longer doubt.” But he did not smile.

“Of course I love you,” Bilbo cried, throwing his hands in the air. “Drogo is a blind, stuffy fool, too wrapped up in his ideas of what the world ought to be like to see it. I cannot believe that thrice-cursed rotten egg had the gall to come all this way and ask me to abandon you. Only a week before we’re to be married as well. The nerve! I should sooner expect such cheek from a Sackville-Baggins, except even they wouldn’t dare.”

“He is a Baggins.”

“Yes! Exactly! A more Baggins-ish Baggins than I ever was, the blighter.”

“Of all your relations, he is the most like you in manner, looks, and bearing. Indeed, your opinions coincide with his far more often than they do with the other hobbits that made the journey, except with regard to my person and my gifts.”

“Well,” Bilbo paused. “Perhaps we have a bit in common, both of us growing up in Hobbiton and everything. But you know my mother was a Took. And Mac has always been much more of a friend to me than any of my other cousins. Anyway, what does it matter?”

“He does not think a Baggins will be happy in Erebor.” Thorin’s voice was strangely grave.

Bilbo wanted to laugh at such a pronouncement, and he would have, but something about the look on Thorin’s face made him pause. “I am happy in Erebor,” the hobbit said seriously. “I am the happiest that I have ever been in all my life.”

“Yes,” Thorin said. “For now.” Without even giving Bilbo time to splutter invectives or formulate a response, the king swept away grandly, too fast for the hobbit to follow.

*

Thorin wanted to go to the treasury. He needed to go to the treasury. Walking among the gold there would reassure him as nothing else could that Erebor was secure, the future was safe, and that there was good cause for Bilbo to remain with him. His heart ached for the solace offered by the gold, and so he strode purposefully away from it. Leaving his city, he went out to breathe the fresh air of the mountainside.

Selfish he might be, but he was not a fool.

Fate had another trial in store for him, however. For he was not alone in the little public garden that surrounded the tiny sprout which had once been Bilbo’s acorn and would, Mahal and his lady willing, one day be a mighty oak. Sitting on a bench with a pipe in hand was Drogo Baggins. Briefly, Thorin considered challenging him. It would be just as helpful as wandering among treasure muttering to himself, but it would certainly salve his feelings temporarily to trounce the little fellow.

Instead, the dwarf felt the stone of the mountain beneath his feet and strode over. “May I join you?” he asked politely.

“It’s your mountain.” The hobbit waved his pipe permissively.

Sitting next to the little fellow, Thorin took his own pipe from his pocket and began to clean it. Without looking up, he spoke. “It matters little so far from the Shire, but I must ask. By the customs of your own people, could you forbid Bilbo to wed?”

The hobbit beside him on the bench stilled for a moment, then he laughed, as clear and joyless as the sky visible from a caved-in mineshaft. “Me? By the customs of our people, I could not forbid Bilbo Baggins of Bag End the shirt off my back if he asked for it. I assume you heard something of our discussion. However, if you’ve a mind to fight or punish me for speaking mine you ought to know Bilbo already has. I’m out a living, now.”

“Your living?”

“Bilbo has been kind enough to ask me to look after his affairs while he was away.” Drogo sighed. “A Baggins I might be, but my father had little enough and less than that to leave his younger children. Still, with Bilbo’s help, Prim and I were able to marry and keep a nice little house in Hobbiton. I suppose we will have to go to her people in Buckland, now. Living with my father in law will be a challenge, but at least he keeps a good table.”

Polishing his pipe carefully, Thorin did not know if this was cause for hope or despair. “Will you not apologize, then? Bilbo’s nature is a forgiving one, when he is in the right.”

Drogo snorted. “And leave him to you? Not likely. No. I don’t know what can be done to make him see, but I’m not giving up. Begging your pardon, of course, Your Majesty, but I owe Bilbo too much to quit.”

It was Thorin’s turn to sigh. “You are so convinced I cannot make him happy. But I have. He has been happy with me. Think not that I would keep him by my side for only my own pleasure! Nor that I would fail to send him home with you if that was where his heart truly lay.”

“Of course he thinks he’s happy right now. Your Erebor is a magical place, and you, Your Majesty, are a storybook come to life. It’s a beautiful dream, meaning no offense, but Bilbo will wake up one day wanting tomatoes and cheese instead of trilbies and gold. Better he should realize it before the wedding than after.” Puffing on his pipe, Drogo blew an emphatic ring of smoke in the direction of Bilbo’s sprouting oak.

Absently, Thorin sent a little ring whizzing through the center of the large one, racking his brain for any argument that might sway the young hobbit. It did not matter, truly. He was not strong enough to refuse to marry Bilbo if Bilbo would stay. Yet Drogo’s opinion of their future happiness or lack thereof carried much weight with Thorin, because he was so similar to Bilbo, so serious, and so impossible to impress.

“Well! I never!”

Looking up from his pipe, Thorin saw the little hobbit staring at him in slack-jawed amazement.

“Do it again!”

Thorin did not understand his meaning until Drogo blew another ring of smoke and gestured emphatically to it with his own pipe.

“Go on!”

Shrugging, Thorin sent another small smoke ring through the center of the larger one. Bilbo had always been amazed by the trick as well, but there was no magic to it. Only a century and a half of long practice with a pipe.

“Half a pint says you can’t do it twice in a row,” Drogo said.

Blinking, Thorin did three rings in a row, and then four. “You should sit with Gandalf sometime,” he suggested. “The wizard can make shapes beyond the skill of mortals: sailing ships, running stags, and the like.”

“Magic.” Drogo waved his pipe dismissively. “Yours are better.”

Thorin coughed. Turning to this new hope like a wisp of fresh air in a suffocating rock pile, he said, “Bilbo gets regular deliveries of leaf from the South Farthing of your Shire. He will never have cause to miss the material comforts of your homeland, for the trade in mushrooms keeps him well supplied. Perhaps that fact has not been brought to your attention before now. Do you not think such things will be enough to provide for his happiness?”

Looking at Thorin with eyes full of pity, Drogo said, “No. I don’t.” Then he took a little puff from his pipe. “Bilbo says you play the harp.”

Thorin snorted and looked out over the little garden and the road to Dale beyond. “Very ill,” he admitted. “I have neither natural talent nor the time to pursue a third mastery. If you think I could make him happy with an hour of music every evening—” Thorin paused.

Laughing, Drogo finished the thought for him. “You have something better than music to offer? I did see that bawdy lily in his crown, you know. Also, I happen to be married myself. But you must know that Bilbo writes songs.”

Thorin did not blush. If his face was red, it was only the summer wind. He felt no personal embarrassment about his relationship with Bilbo, and certainly not about the fact that he pleased his hobbit well in some aspects. “Yes. I know. Often he has me play or sing a draft many times as he tweaks it to his satisfaction.”

“I’ll bet. Bit of a perfectionist, our Bilbo, though you wouldn’t think it.”

“Why not?” Thorin was willing to accept Drogo as a judge of his own suitability to make a hobbit of the Baggins line happy, but not of any flaw in Bilbo’s person. “He is a craftsman. Soon he shall have a second mastery in the Guild of Scribes. It is natural that he should take care in the crafting of his poetry.”

“And you, er, like his poetry, do you?”

Recognizing this for the trap it was immediately, Thorin tempered his response. “His descriptions of my person and our quest are often more flattering than true, but generally, yes. He is a fine poet. Obviously.”

Drogo looked sideways at Thorin. “Obviously.”

Thorin bristled. “Then he is not considered a master of the art among your own people?”

“Oh, he’s good enough as these things go. It’s always a risk asking him to speak, though. For every three funny ones he gives you, you’ll have to suffer through something long about history or flowers.”

Thorin found himself on his feet. “You cannot be serious! To speak of suffering through Bilbo’s poetry like an unpleasant chore when he has the cleverest tongue in all of Arda. If that is your feeling, then perhaps he is better off with me!”

“Perhaps he is.” Drogo grinned, and for a moment, Thorin didn’t understand his words at all. “Hello, Bilbo.”

Behind Thorin, Bilbo sniffed. “Drogo. I was looking for my husband-to-be. I see you have been upsetting him further. He and I will be going now. Good day.”

“Now, now,” Drogo said peaceably. “Your Thorin and I were just discussing poetry. An honest disagreement, I promise. Nothing to worry about.”

Something about these simple words seemed to transform Bilbo’s face from cool reserve to effusive joy. “Poetry? Without me? Well, I shan’t forgive that.” Taking Thorin’s arm, he sat on the bench next to Drogo and pulled the dwarf down beside him. “Any particular poet?”

“The least popular writer in Hobbiton.”

Taking this clear insult as a joke, Bilbo laughed, patting Thorin’s arm in a soothing way. “Oh, that fellow! I thought some of his comic works caught your fancy on occasion.”

“Sure, but your Thorin likes his longer stuff.”

Looking at Thorin very fondly, Bilbo said, “Well, there’s no accounting for taste.”

“Suppose not,” Drogo said. “After all, Prim has been known to make me go boating. Fun, she calls it.”

“Dangerous stuff,” Bilbo observed mildly, “messing about with boats on the river.”

“Yeah.” Puffing on his pipe, Drogo’s attention appeared to be rather fixed on the little seedling that would one day be Bilbo’s oak tree. “If I ever come up with a way to get out of it, I’ll write. Maybe you can use it to keep our Thorin from messing about with bloody swords and things.”

The little hands on Thorin’s arm tightened, squeezing him with all of the small hobbit’s strength, but Bilbo’s voice was very calm when he said, “Please do.”

For a long while, it was quiet in the garden. Though Thorin did not understand the polite colloquialisms of the hobbits, he suspected that Drogo had given his blessing. Happy as he was to have it, he would have been happier still to know it came from something other than the hobbit’s over enthusiastic appreciation for pipe weed and a good smoke ring.

Fortunately, Drogo eventually spoke again. “I owe you an apology, Mister Oakenshield. Perhaps you cannot understand, but I’m unaccustomed to thinking of Kings as people. After all, you take tea like it’s some sort of fortress you’re besieging and instead of a few nice flowers you plied us with mathoms the moment we met. I didn’t think you smoked a pipe, or helped Bilbo with his music, or did anything personal at all, really. Just great romantic things like slaying dragons and forging jewels.”

“‘Twas Bard that slew the dragon,” Thorin said, for that particular point still rankled a little, “but I do understand your apology.”

Despite the differences in language and custom, both hobbits looked unhappy. Understanding was not acceptance in either culture. Bilbo tightened his grip on the king’s arm once more. “Thorin.”

Unmoved, the dwarf continued. “Among my people, we have a custom of amending wrongs. When an insult is only sleight, we say ‘think nothing of it,’ and the matter ends. However, when harm is done, amends must be offered.”

“All right.” Drogo shrugged. “How do I go about doing that, then?”

“For my own custom, weddings are a matter of a few words exchanged: a joining of families by promises made. I understand Aldagrim Took will be speaking for your family.”

A cough so gentle that it might only have been the breeze passing Thorin’s ear sounded from Bilbo. “It really must be Aldi who speaks, my love.”

“It wouldn’t be right for me to put myself forward,” Drogo quickly agreed.

“I would not ask you to,” Thorin said gravely. “I begin to fathom your precedence and customs, and it is for the sake of those which your behavior requires amending. In my own part, I expected to prove myself to a new family, even as Bilbo has proven his worth time and again to the people of Erebor. It is the anxiety you have caused Bilbo that I would see redressed.”

“Anxiety?”

“Though I do not entirely comprehend the significance, Bilbo has feared from almost the moment of your arrival that you would attend our wedding and eat no cake.”

Turning to Thorin with surprise, Bilbo said, “However did you know?” As though Bombur would fail to mention the fifteen different times Bilbo had changed his request for the flavor of the wedding cake within the space of two weeks.

Leaping up from the bench to face his cousin directly, Drogo swore, “I would never! Bilbo! Perhaps a touch of cold would have kept me from attending, but you have to believe me. I would never do that to you!”

“Oh!” Bilbo took Drogo’s hand until he sat once more, looking tremendously relieved. “Well, of course I never thought for a moment that you might. You know our Thorin is given to dramatics.”

Confident in his understanding of the scope of the custom, if not it’s significance, Thorin nodded. “The matter between us will be settled, Drogo Baggins, when you have eaten of the wedding cake. That is the amending which I require of you.”

Laughing, the two hobbits exchanged a look. It seemed to the dwarf that Bilbo’s fond gaze admitted that yes, Thorin was always like this. The quirk of Drogo’s eyebrow appeared to say well, you’re the one who’s marrying him. However, perhaps it was not so. Thorin did not need a perfect understanding of hobbits or their mannerisms. It was enough, it was more than enough, that Bilbo was truly happy at last.

*

The marriage of Bilbo Baggins to Thorin Oakenshield was later said to be the most auspicious wedding ever to take place Under the Mountain, so full of laughter, color, and music it was. In large part, this was due to the small party of visiting hobbits from the Shire, who came to welcome Thorin Oakenshield into their family, even as Bilbo Baggins was welcomed into the line of Durin. While the golden Hall of Kings was dressed in colorful silks and every attending dwarf wore their brightest gemstones, the hobbits brought with them the ephemeral hues of nature so rarely found beneath the earth.

Following the customs of their own people, they gifted the couple with garlands and wreaths of flowers in such quantity and color that the hall seemed a carefully cultivated garden when they finished. Moreover, unto each and every guest, be they from Dale, Erebor, or Mirkwood, the hobbits gave a floral crown. So it was that all present became part of the garden, and the newly joined families looked out upon a riot of color unmatched by any other wedding before or since.

Music of hobbits, men, and even elves united with the usual dwarven melody, so that all the people joined hands and hearts in joyous dance. Notable bards from among the elves of Mirkwood wrote ballads telling the epic love story between burglar and king. Famed minstrels from Dale played lively tunes composed in honor of the pair. Peerless dwarves of Erebor sang with hearts full of love for their ruler. Even so, no music was more cheerful than that of the hobbits. For their dances seemed made for light hearts, and their traditional reels buoyed the heels of all the celebrants.

As for laughter, no one who has spent any time with happy hobbits need doubt that they laughed twice as much as other attendees, and were the cause of much glee in turn. Whether or not they were aware of the blessing such joy bestowed in the eyes of Mahal, they offered it up as easily as they offered the gifts of their hands in the form of the floral art crafted for the wedding. Indeed, by the fashion of the hobbits, the giving of gifts was a blessing of equal import.

In all ways save this one, the wedding followed dwarven custom. Lord Bilbo Baggins was unwilling to forgo the tradition of gift giving practiced by his people, as he said that a marriage begun without generosity would find only parsimonious contentment. The giving of flower crowns to guests by his family on his behalf largely fulfilled this requirement, but he gave additional presents throughout the day to all of his closest companions and family. A list of these is recorded elsewhere, but the most lavish was this: Bag End. To his cousins Primula and Drogo Baggins, he gave the comfortable home where he had once lived in the kindly west. For his new home was Erebor, and Bilbo Baggins was not the miserly type which clings to valuable things that could be of more use to others. Upon witnessing the casual, friendly presentation of this gift during a rare quiet moment, the generally reserved Aldagrim Took burst into tears and declared that the marriage would last a hundred years without a day of unhappiness. Thus it can be concluded that the worth of the present was great indeed, but the blessing commensurate.

Even more than gifts, hobbits place great importance upon the cake at a wedding. Customarily, every guest taking a piece of cake offers up a blessing of sweetness in their eating. Therefore Master Bombur of the Culinary Guild created a towering confection, shaped like the mountain of Erebor covered over in the blossoms of springtime. It was so large that six dwarves were needed to bear it into the hall, and Lord Bilbo Baggins wept with joy to look upon it. Indeed, the flavor of the cake was such that after a small obligatory slice, most guests went on to enjoy a second helping. In this way, perhaps the hobbit blessings exceeded even the auspicious colors they brought to the dwarven wedding.

It is also said that no one blessed the marriage more than Drogo son of Fosco, in that he alone ate over twelve slices of the cake. Likely this is apocryphal, however, for it is doubtful that even a hobbit could consume quite that much confectionery.

-From the records of Master Ori, Scribe to the King Under the Mountain, 2944