On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins left the Shire, with every intention of retracing his footsteps from 60 years ago across Middle Earth. He felt lighter than he had in a long time, the weight of the Ring no longer pushing him down. There were times when he wondered how the Ring came to have so much control over him, but he never thought about that for too long. The road of his life, much like the road he was on now, went on and on, and though sometimes he might look back with regret, there were always good things waiting further along the road somewhere. Frodo was proof of that.
Not that he had always been able to take such a philosophic approach to things. He was wearing the mithril shirt from Thorin for the first time in decades, finally able to look at it without too much pain. It had been given in a moment of lucidity, and love, he reminded himself. Whatever had come after, Thorin had loved him at that moment. Even 60 years later, it was a cheering thought, and he whistled a tune absently.
Further down the road, someone whistled back the same tune.
Bilbo stopped in his tracks, reaching in his pocket for the Ring. Which of course was not there. Blast. Instead, he studied the distant figures, trying to make out who would be whistling to him in the dead of night.
There were three of them, shorter than Men and broader than Hobbits, so they must be Dwarves he supposed, his trepidation fading. He had only told Gandalf of his plans to leave, but it was entirely possible that Gandalf had sent word to Erebor.
Except that one of the dwarves stopped whistling, and started to sing the words instead. His voice, deep and rich, though made deeper and rougher by age, was utterly unmistakable.
Perhaps I was not so well-preserved after all, Bilbo thought. Perhaps I am not really on the road, but fell down in a ditch somewhere, and I am walking to the afterlife now.
Because there was no mistaking the voice, and face now that he came into view, of Thorin Oakenshield, though sixty more years lay upon his brow. Even through the tears blurring his eyes, Bilbo could see that Thorin’s dark mane, once streaked with silver, had now gone to silver entirely, and the thin lines on his face had thickened and multiplied. His beard, once short and shot through with grey, was long and braided now, and Bilbo did not know how it could be, but Thorin was not dead.
It took him a moment to realize that the dwarves behind him were Fili and Kili, fully men now, though behind their full beards still lay that youthful twinkle in the eyes. Their faces brightened at the sight of him, but Thorin’s did not. He sang still, his eyes distant, until Bilbo barreled into them, unable to contain himself any longer.
“If I have died, it is just as well, if I get to see you again,” he said through tears, making no attempt to find his pocket handkerchief.
“Died? Mr. Boggins, there’s no one dead here!” Kili declared all of this with the air of great offense, as if the idea that he could die was utterly preposterous. But then, it wasn’t really. Bilbo had seen the bodies, hadn’t he?
“Now Kili, I know it has been 60 years, but I hope that is not long enough for you to forget firstly that my name is Baggins, and secondly that you are to call me Bilbo!” Once it was out of his mouth, he realized how ridiculous it sounded. He was getting caught up in their pace like he always had, but he couldn’t let Kili put him off from the matter at hand. “And all three of you are dead, so I must be too.”
Fili put out a hand. “Do I feel dead?”
Bilbo took the offered hand. Fili’s hand was rougher than it had been 60 years ago, but it was as warm as he remembered, and he could feel Fili’s heartbeat. This brought him up short. “No, you do not. But you must be, because if the three of you were alive, you would not have let me think otherwise for more than half a century.”
The younger dwarves turned to Thorin now, who fidgeted under Bilbo’s accusation. “No one knew if we would live or die,” he admitted, not meeting Bilbo’s gaze. “So I spoke to Dain. He said that as long as I lived, I was King Under the Mountain, and so I decided that I had to die.”
Bilbo made a pained sound at this. “But you always wanted to be king,” he observed, but Thorin shook his head.
“No, what I wanted was to do my duty to my people, and give them back the home that they lost,” Thorin corrected. “I did that, but if the way I behaved… if they way I treated you was any indication, Erebor would prosper more under a different king. For Fili and Kili it was less certain, but they were both too young for the burden of kingship. We were declared dead, though our tombs lie empty.”
Bilbo was not surprised to discover that he was weeping softly. To think that after spending almost his entire life in exile, Thorin should choose to exile himself again. “But where did you go?” And why did you not come to me? he longed to ask, but did not.
“Many places,” Thorin replied. “Some far to the east, where the other dwarf clans reside. Some to the south, to the great kingdoms of Men. And some less distant places,” and here he looked a little embarrassed, “like the woods of Lothlorien.”
Bilbo put his hands on his hips. “I might have believed you, but the real Thorin Oakenshield would never visit Elves of his own free will,” he said matter-of-factly, but in truth, he was starting to believe him.
“We insisted,” Fili began, only to be cut off by Kili.
“We couldn’t just go all over and skip our neighbors,” Kili argued.
Thorin silenced them both with a look. “The lady of the golden wood is more empathetic to our kind than others,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. “Long ago, when Khazad-dum was strong, her people respected our skill and love of craft.”
“How many decades did he need before he believed that?” Bilbo asked Fili and Kili, and a laugh was had at Thorin’s expense. But all of this avoided the real question, which could not be put off forever.
“Thorin,” Bilbo began again, meeting those familiar eyes instead of looking at the dirt. “Why are you here now, and why did you not come before?”
Finally, Thorin did not shy away from the question. “I was ashamed,” he said simply. “I may have been a figurative prisoner of my madness, but you were a literal one. Despite having no right to your forgiveness, I demanded it anyway. For many years, I could not even allow the idea of facing you. Better that I should be dead and redeemed, than alive and worthless.”
“Never Thorin, never!” Bilbo cried. “Never better dead than alive!”
“Nevertheless, that is how I felt,” Thorin continued, waving off his objections. “When my shame subsided somewhat, I was certain that you must have married, and had children, and I could not now intrude in your domesticity. And then one day, I realized that 50 years had passed in this way, and you must be dead.” There was so much sadness and resignation in his voice that Bilbo couldn’t help but hug Thorin tightly, like Thorin had clung to him so long ago.
“Did you never see Gandalf during your wanderings? He could have set you right.” Though privately Bilbo thought the wily old wizard would not have, just to be difficult.
“Gandalf is the reason I am here now,” Thorin admitted wryly. “He told me that you were celebrating your 111th birthday by sneaking out of the Shire, and I realized that I had wasted all that time for nothing. You were alive and clearly well if you were planning to leave the Shire, and still more adventurous than the rest of your kind. Even if you had not forgiven me, I could have spent the last 60 years earning your forgiveness. Instead, I moped.”
“Well, in all that time, you must have had a few more adventures of your own,” Bilbo observed. “And I’ve got a few more decades in me, if I’m any judge. Can’t let Old Took hold that record forever. So why don’t you tell me a tale or two, and I’ll see if I can find it in my heart to forgive you?”
A few sharp-eyed residents of the Shire were certain in the days that followed that they saw Mad Old Bilbo Baggins on the road with three dwarves, the same tune carrying in the air. At times they would hear Bilbo singing, and at times one of the dwarves, but the words were always the same: The road goes ever on and on...
And so it would, until the end of his days.