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The Seedling

Chapter Text

After the battles, betrayals, and long days of healing and rebuilding, it seemed a miracle to stand upon the ramparts of Erebor with Bilbo Baggins. A miracle and a tragedy, for Thorin knew in his heart that this would be the last time he saw her. As her tawny curls blew in the winter wind, he tried to memorize every line of her face, every twitch of her nose. A store of memory to keep him sane when she was gone.

“Will you not consider waiting until the spring? The Misty Mountains will be easier to traverse then, and many dwarves will go to Ered Luin to bring their families home to Erebor. You shall have Bombur, Gloin, and likely my nephews for company as well.” Stay, he did not say. Stay with me. Do not go home to your comfortable hobbit hole, your garden, and your books. Choose the mountains. Choose the adventure. Choose me.

Bilbo did not look at Thorin. Her eyes were focused on the snowy mountainside, and the horizon. “I cannot delay,” she said softly.

There seemed nothing more to say. Thorin would not weep or beg. If this was to be the last goodbye, he would have her remember him honorably. Not a heartbroken dwarf, but a proud king. Someone who had once been worthy of her love.

“Thorin.” Her little fingers graced the stone wall before her, melting some of the ice and making tracks in the snow. Soon, the wind would blow, the snow would shift, and there would be no trace of the hobbit’s hand on the mountainside. “How much do you remember? Of the words we spoke while you were—ill?”

“All,” he said. “I remember all that I said and did to you. No apology can heal the rift between us, but time might. In time, you might see that I am well again. The gold does not hold me any longer. I would prove as much to you and regain your good opinion before you go home.” Think well of me, he did not beg. Imagine me a hero, as you once did, and love me. Only love me, and stay, and make your home at my side. I ask no more than that, and you shall be a Queen.

“Then, you remember my acorn?” Drawing the little nut from her pocket, she raised it in the palm of her hand. Cold sunlight glinted on the smooth surface like topaz.

Thorin remembered. He remembered finding her with the seed in the halls of Erebor. In his madness, he imagined she concealed something from him, but it was only an acorn from Beorn’s garden. Beorn’s garden held other, fonder memories for them both. Unfortunately, that moment in Erebor was not the gentle meeting of desire witnessed by tall oaks and bumbling honeybees. Bilbo spoke of seeds, children, and a future full of growing things which she doubted could thrive in the desolation of the dragon. In his sanity, Thorin now recognized her attempts to recall him from the depths of his greed. In his madness, it seemed to him that she wanted something other than gold.

He remembered. Oh, he remembered. He remembered kissing her in the middle of a sentence, stopping her voice with his lips. He remembered tracing the curve of her bodice with hands. He remembered how soft and supple hobbits were, so unlike the stone-hard flesh of dwarves. Even in the depths of his madness, a word from her would have stopped him. Instead, she said, “Thorin, this is serious.” She would have continued to speak, save that he found the place on her neck which made her groan deeply. “Fine,” she acquiesced. “Don’t stop. Please don’t stop. But we must talk after.”

They did not speak after. Yet another of Thorin’s broken promises. It was no wonder that she did not want him now. No dam would make a husband out of a dwarf who would behave in such a forward manner. Especially if he then refused to hear her counsel. The true mystery was why she had allowed him such favors at all. Perhaps her quick mind imagined that a reminder of the love they once shared could save him from his madness.

Perhaps, if it had been so, he would deserve her.

“So you see, I must plant my Acorn in the springtime.” Bilbo’s voice came from very far away. She stood at the peak of the mountain, even as Thorin was buried among Erebor’s roots. “That cannot wait, and thus I cannot. I must be home by spring.”

“Of course.” If Thorin’s voice was anything better than a harsh whisper, only decades of politics allowed him to manage it.

“Of course!” Bilbo laughed, though it was a little forced to Thorin’s ear. Her eyes seemed locked on the setting sun, already at home in the kindly west. “After all, I was always going to return to the Shire at the end of my adventure. That is where my family lives, and that is where I belong. The only way the story could conclude otherwise would be if I somehow found myself a husband, and I am too much the spinster to believe that plausible.”

“Indeed.” Thorin shut his eyes briefly, allowing himself a single moment of weakness. “What worthy husband could be found for one such as you?”

But she did not say his name. She did not take his hand. She did not propose to marry him. In the end, she no longer loved him, and that was no fault of hers. After a time, they returned to the mountain for a farewell feast. In the morning, she left.

Rebuilding Erebor, especially repairing relations with Dale and finding resources to feed a mountain without stores through a long, harsh winter, required all of the king’s focus. To make matters worse, Kili, the troublesome lad, eloped with an elf from Mirkwood and nearly caused another war. Only by renouncing his claim to the line of succession was the youth able to calm the situation. Thorin did not have time to pine for Bilbo, or spend his days staring at the western sky wondering if they would ever meet again. His love was gone, but the mountain was reclaimed. Personal happiness was not something he had ever expected, and the loss of it could not be called important. He had his companions, his nephews, and his kingdom. In truth, he was blessed beyond any right of hope or expectation.

Even so, when spring came and the ice began to melt, he called for the strongest of the ravens. Goräc was larger than any other bird in Erebor, and prouder still. She agreed to carry a letter from the king to distant lands, studying the map carefully before clacking her beak and departing. Four days later, he received a reply.

“Dearest Thorin,” Bilbo wrote. Long hours spent drafting and correcting his polite missive were rewarded by that salutation alone. Dearest, she called him. Of course, it was merely a colloquialism. He was the dearest — and only — Thorin of her acquaintances. There was no deeper meaning. Yet she could not hate him very much to open a letter in such a way. Time already began to soften her heart. Perhaps after a few years of correspondence she might consent to see him again someday. Nothing seemed impossible, if she called him dearest.

“Words cannot convey how surprised and pleased I was to find a raven of Erebor knocking at my kitchen window as I went to make tea. It is wonderful to hear from you and to know that all is well beneath the mountain, despite the fact that you now only have one heir. Dare I ask you to pass along my congratulations to Kili? I know his choice differs from the one you would make in his place, but I wish him every happiness with his new bride.

“Please do keep me apprised of our former companions, especially those who travel to Ered Luin to fetch their families. Naturally, I want to hear what everyone is up to. However, perhaps they should not stop off in the Shire to see me this time through. It will add nearly three weeks to their journey, and the truth is that I am only just getting my house in order.

“You will never believe it, but while I was away I was declared dead! As though half of Hobbiton did not see me leave with you. When I arrived home, it was in the middle of an auction. All of my belongings were being sold off, and a pair of my most dreadful relatives were about to take possession of Bag End. I have had a wickedly difficult time reclaiming all of my furniture. Moreover, I am quite certain that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins—who expected to be living in my smial—remains in possession of my best silver spoons. Being a dwarf, you will wonder why I do not simply take Sting around to her house and get them back. Suffice it to say, things are done rather differently in the Shire.

“My reputation is in absolute shambles after taking off with a bunch of dwarves and coming home with my souvenirs. The treasure helps a little, but far less than you would probably think. Still, I received an invitation to visit my mother’s family in Tuckborough. Although the Tooks are by no means respectable, dining at the table of the Thain will increase my stock somewhat. And it will be very nice to have a little rest while someone else cooks. I do not mind telling you that putting my house in order has been a great deal of work, and I seem to be exhausted five minutes after I wake up in the morning. A bunch of dwarves descending might not improve matters, delighted as I would be to see them in the normal way of things. And, of course, they would see my Acorn if they came.

“Thank you for asking about her. I did not know if you would care. Yes, I have planted her, and yes, she grows very well indeed. It was touch and go for a moment, for she is extremely large. I suppose oaks will always seem so in Hobbiton. Fortunately, I survived the journey home, and I could not be more pleased with the fruits of my adventure. Acorn is the most precious little sprout ever to grace the earth. Anyone who suggests I might be biased may keep their opinions to themselves, with my thanks.

“This raven of yours seems very strong, so I have dared to add a second sheet to this letter. It is a drawing of mine. Not very good, for I am not very practiced at the art, but it is a skill that I would like to develop now that I have a little time. In any case, I hope you like it. Thank you again for writing. I miss all of my friends in Erebor and think of you fondly, although I am glad to be home.”

It was a good letter, despite the fact that the signature was not as promising as the salutation. Being only “Sincerely,” it was not anything that offered love or service. Still, Thorin read the whole letter a second time, and a third, before turning to the second page to see her drawing.

Bilbo was correct. The drawing was technically proficient, but only just. Thorin suspected a master of the art would have much to teach her about sketching. The subject was strange as well: a baby swaddled in a blanket. Perhaps it was only an easy study to make, for the blanket could be expressed in a few lines with a little shading. Even so, it was the work of Bilbo’s hand. It was a gift of craft offered over a great distance. Thorin secreted both the drawing and the letter away to cherish. Such a response was promising. Placing his hope in perseverance, which always served him well, Thorin wrote her again the following month, and every month thereafter.

One day, with luck and care, they would see each other again. On that day, perhaps she would think well of him.

Chapter Text

This year, Acorn’s birthday was going to be different. She was ten years old and determined to have a party with real friends, not just the Gamgees. The Gamgee family was very nice, of course, but Hamfast was a tweenager. He was not a proper friend for a ten year old, just a gardener who looked after her sometimes. Though she had a present for him, a pair of mittens crocheted painstakingly over several cold winter weeks, she was not eager to give it. Acorn wanted the kind of birthday party where all the presents had to be bought at the market because there were simply too many guests.

Telling her mother this was likely to result in a funny story, a very depressing party indeed, and then Mum eating all of the cheese in the pantry when she thought Acorn wouldn’t see. Most of the time, Mum didn’t seem to care a bit about Acorn’s lack of friends. After all, her own birthday parties had few guests and she almost never had anyone she was fond of over for tea. It was always Aunt Lobelia or someone else who would say mean things the whole time until Mum was so sad that nothing but a raven-letter could cheer her up. Only Acorn couldn’t talk about that, because she wasn’t supposed to know that Mum was ever sad.

Clearly, the direct approach wouldn’t work. So Acorn devised a strategy.

“Mum, can Cousin Asphodel come to my birthday party this year? I’ve figured out how to make an asphodel silk flower, and I should like to give her a bouquet of them, all wrapped up in a blue ribbon.” Approaching Mum when she was cooking was always best, for the smell of the fresh asparagus put her in a lovely mood. In fact, Acorn’s own mouth began to water as she watched the fish sizzle in the pan.

“How sweet!” Mum opened the oven and the warmth of baking bread filled the cozy kitchen. “Why don’t you set the table for lunch and we can talk about it?”

Quick as she was able, Acorn had plates, forks, knives, cups, and napkins in their proper places at the kitchen table. Once this was accomplished, her mother gave a final, expert twist of a lemon over Acorn’s plate, and the lass was allowed to eat. The fish was so flaky it practically dissolved in her mouth. The asparagus was crisp and just a little tart, exactly as she liked it. As always, there was enough bread and butter for even a growing hobbit to sate her hunger. Mum baked the best bread in the whole Shire.

Eventually, Acorn looked up to see her mother smiling indulgently. “So, a silk flower made to look like asphodel, eh? That is very clever! Was it challenging?”

“Not really.” Shrugging, Acorn helped herself to another piece of bread and a little butter. “It’s just the same as an ordinary cloth flower, only I used a bit of wire to make the petals stand up the way they should. Fitting so many blossoms on the stalk was fun, because the new ones kept pushing the old ones aside, and I had to adjust all of them every time.”

“My crafty daughter,” Mum said. Her smile was so proud that Acorn felt her time stitching the false asphodel well spent, even if the rest of the plan failed.

“Can I give it to Asphodel for my birthday? I mean, after I make enough of them for a bouquet?”

“Absolutely! Your birthday is still a month away, so you have plenty of time to make as many presents as you like. Only, I am not sure Asphodel’s parents will want to come all the way to Hobbiton for your birthday party. The trip from Buckland is several days, and the roads are very muddy in springtime. It is a more difficult proposition than meeting her in Tuckborough at harvest time. Perhaps we can send her the present with the Bounders.”

“Oh.” Acorn tried her best not to let her disappointment show. Cousin Asphodel was the closest thing she had to a real friend, because she did not seem to forget Acorn the second she was out of sight. Even though Asphodel lived in Buckland with the rest of the Brandybucks, they often sent letters back and forth with the Bounders. Most fauntlings Acorn’s age could barely write their own names and thus did not make terribly good correspondents. And of course, all those who lived nearby hated her.

“I’m sorry, sweet pea.”

“Can we ask? There’s no harm in asking, is there? After all, we went to Great Smials for Yule, and that was during the winter when the roads were all snowy.”

For a moment, Mum frowned, her face scrunching up unhappily. Then, something changed. Her mouth twitched up into a grin and her eyes sparked with mischief. “No harm in asking, but we won’t get a yes, my dear girl. And so we shall ask a different question! The joy of giving a gift is seeing your friend’s face when she receives it. So you have to see Asphodel on your birthday to give her your present.”

“I do?” Acorn’s heart swelled up hopefully.

“Of course you do! You are going to be ten years old, you know, and that is exactly the right age for an adventure.”

“An adventure?”

“Indeed! After all, you have never crossed the Brandywine, have you? We have only met the Brandybucks in Tuckborough, and when they come to Hobbiton. That is hardly fair. So we shall have to visit them.”

“Yes!” Leaping from her chair, Acorn threw her arms around her mother. “Oh, yes please! I want to spend my birthday in Buckland with all of my Brandybuck cousins.” For the Brandybuck fauntlings were much like the Tooks, in that they always let Acorn play their games and never avoided or bullied her the way the faunts of Hobbiton did.

“And so that is what we will do,” her mother said, squeezing her gently.

“But isn’t it rude?” As her toes touched the floor once more, Acorn’s thoughts settled a little. If you were rude, no one would want to be your friend. She could not risk losing her only friend through discourtesy. “If we go visiting on my birthday, won’t they feel obligated to throw me a party? I do not want to make anyone feel obligated. Feeling obligated is the worst.” Obligation, after all, was why Mum always had Aunt Lobelia to tea.

“Asking the Brandybucks to throw you a birthday party would be very rude indeed,” Mum said slowly. With a gentle hand, she tugged one of Acorn’s black curls until it was straight, letting it bounce back to normal. “I suppose nine is old enough to realize that, and so I hope nine is old enough to understand me when I say I shan’t ask. I shall make them offer.”

“Isn’t that worse?”

“Not at all!” Mum grinned. “I am going to write my aunt, informing her about my intention to throw you a proper Buckland birthday party. We will be staying at the Golden Perch, of course, so as not to inconvenience them. The Golden Perch is well known for having the best beer in Southfarthing, and my plan will be to rent out the whole inn. Once I express my desire to hire all the best chefs in the Shire and buy every barrel the Perch will sell, she will write back. She will have to write back, for I will be asking her advice on the menu. However, she will want to help with more than planning the food. In fact, I suspect she will be most insistent. If Bag End is too small for your party, we simply must have it at Brandy Hall, she will say.”

“Isn’t that lying?”

“Not precisely.” Mum stood up, taking Acorn by both hands and spinning around as though they were dancing. “For if she does not invite us, we will have our party at the Golden Perch after all. That is close enough for Asphodel to come, which is what matters most. One way or another, my little Acorn, you are going to have a party of special magnificence.”

Over the next month, Mum was consumed with planning Acorn’s birthday party. Every day there was something new to do. Once Great Aunt Mirabella insisted on holding the party at Brandy Hall, just as Mum said she would, invitations needed to be printed, menus needed to be developed, and gifts needed to be found.

“You do not mind me buying a few of the presents, do you my love?” Mum asked as cards came in from all of the Tooks saying they did not mind traveling to Buckland for a party in the least. “You can still make gifts for all of your special friends, of course, but I think there will be too many guests now to be particular.”

“I don’t mind,” Acorn said. Then, she was so pleased with her mother that she raced off to her craft room to start working on a beaded hair pin. Mum would get no fewer than six presents for Acorn’s birthday, but Acorn simply couldn’t decide what was best.

Indeed, it seemed like all of Acorn’s dreams for her birthday party were coming true. Nothing she asked for was too much or too expensive. Mum even wrote to her friend Gandalf, the firework wizard.

“Though we mustn’t get our hopes up about that,” she said cautiously. “He will come if he is able, but he might not get my letter in time. It isn’t as though he has any sort of steady address. Oh! If only I’d started planning earlier.”

That lament was repeated frequently as Mum scribbled away on menus and bemoaned the fact that many of Acorn’s favorite foods would be too far out of season in spring, and could not be had for love or money. Acorn tried to tell her that she didn’t mind what they ate so long as there was a lot of it, and also a cake, but Mum was half mad with excitement. It was going to snow food and rain drink at Acorn’s party. They were going to have the very best of everything. And of course there would be cake, whatever kind Acorn liked best. In the end, Acorn chose carrot cake and left her mother to the planning.

Letting her mother plan alone was a wonderful decision. The fauntling quickly realized that Mum intended to go far beyond Acorn’s expectations with several surprises. By peeking at a contract on her mother’s writing table, Acorn discovered that Wild Juniper, the best musicians in all the Shire, were going to play at her party. Listening at keyholes when Mum was taking tea with Farmer Holman, Acorn learned that there was not only going to be carrot cake, but ice cream served as well. Mum needed a vast amount of milk to provide such a rare treat to so many guests, and Farmer Holman was happy to oblige. Following Mum to the market, Acorn saw her buying yards and yards of beautiful silk from Harad. Clearly, Acorn and Mum were both getting new party dresses.

Unfortunately, not every secret the young spy uncovered was a nice one. In fact, eavesdropping on Mum and Aunt Lobelia from the hedges proved to be a mistake. Listening to their conversation, Acorn learned a truth that she was much happier not knowing.

“Such a spectacle of yourself,” Aunt Lobelia was saying. Her teacup was poised perfectly in one hand, and her elbow made an exact right angle to the table. Mum said Aunt Lobelia could get away with being hurtful because her manners were always perfect, but Acorn didn’t entirely understand what that meant.

“Well,” Mum said cheerfully, “I am not making one in Hobbiton, so perhaps you will forgive me just this once. If you have changed your mind about refusing the invitation, I would be happy to send you a second one.”

“I most certainly have not changed my mind. I can hardly believe that you are putting so much effort into celebrating your ignominy!”

“It is Acorn’s birthday.” Mum’s voice took on a firm quality. If Acorn liked Aunt Lobelia, she would have warned her to tread carefully. When Mum’s voice sounded like that, it was best to do as she said, and maybe clean your room or make her a present for good measure.

“And is that something to celebrate?” There was a gentle clink as Aunt Lobelia added more sugar to her tea. Acorn wondered what she could possibly mean. Everyone celebrated birthdays. There was nothing hobbits liked more than a good party, even in spring when some things were harder to come by.

“The day that I received a treasure beyond worth or price? I should say so.”

“Please.” Aunt Lobelia sniffed. “You might be able to get away with that sort of pride if you’d married some fool the minute you got back. I know Odo Proudfoot offered.”

“I would not marry Odo Proudfoot if he was the last hobbit in the Shire. He picks his toes at the table!”

“Well, it is far too late for that, anyway. You did not marry, and so the halfling is fatherless.”

For a moment, there was absolute silence. Acorn heard only the wind and the repetitive snip of Ham’s shears clipping the grass on the other side of the garden.

“After all these years, you say it to my face,” Mum said. “I am almost impressed. Though I wonder what you mean by halfling.”

“It is perfectly obvious to everyone that your daughter is no hobbit. I have seen her feet.”

Acorn looked down at her toes. Curled in the new spring grass, they looked normal enough to her. But they weren’t. In fact, they were quite different from ordinary feet, for they were much too small. Sometimes she even bruised them on rocks when she was running, and that never happened to anyone else. Tenderfoot, the Hobbiton fauntlings called her, though she knocked them down when they did. More often, they simply called her fatherless and left her alone. The idea that those two failings could be connected was extraordinary.

“She is my daughter, and a Baggins of Bag End. That is hobbit enough for anyone worth knowing. I am terribly sorry that I shall not be able to visit you in your lovely little house on Bagshot Row until after the party. We will be quite busy you know.”

Acorn did not listen to the rest of the conversation. It was all polite, hurtful nothings, anyway. Aunt Lobelia wanted a proper hobbit hole like Bag End more than anything, and hated living in a house. Unfortunately, if she wanted to live in Hobbiton, she didn’t have a choice. Smials did not go vacant very often, and building a new one would take more money than Aunt Lobelia had. Yet somehow she was still more respectable than Mum, even though Mum had lots of money and the best smial in the Shire. Adults were strange, and Acorn didn’t understand why Aunt Lobelia came around for tea so often. She was only ever mean to Mum.

Still, when Aunt Lobelia sneered and called Mum a word so rude that Mum dropped her teacup in surprise, Acorn couldn't pretend not to hear. Screaming, she leapt through the open window. Knocking a vase from the sill was unavoidable, but Acorn didn’t care. She wanted to knock Aunt Lobelia’s teeth from her head. Nothing else mattered. Alas, Mum caught her around the waist, stopping her before she got to Aunt Lobelia.

“Acorn Belladonna Baggins! What are you doing?”

“I’ll kill her,” Acorn howled, wriggling in her mother’s grasp. “How dare you say that about my mother?”

“Oh, love, Lobelia’s opinions aren’t worth two pins. Fighting her is certainly a waste of your time.” Mum hugged Acorn close. As though that would calm her down, and make her forget what Lobelia said.

“Little savage!” Aunt Lobelia stared at Acorn, her beady eyes wide with shock. “She honestly means to attack me!”

Mum didn’t answer Aunt Lobelia at all, just continued to speak directly to the squirming Acorn. “See? Your feelings cannot possibly be hurt when you know that isn’t true. Most days you are quite civilized.”

“Mum!”

“Now go to your room.” Mums voice was like a brick wall. Instantly, Acorn stopped struggling. Baring her teeth at Aunt Lobelia as she passed, Acorn left the parlor obediently.

“I cannot believe you tolerate such behavior!” Aunt Lobelia’s voice was so shrill that Acorn had to stop and listen in the hall. Abandoning Mum felt more wrong than disobeying. “Eavesdropping! Attacking a guest!”

“Do you know, Lobelia,” Mum said in an easy way, as though they were only just sitting down to tea, not fighting, “I have often been grateful for how much you hate me. When most of Hobbiton would not look at me or speak to me, you would come to judge, scold, and steal my spoons. There have been many days when you were the only adult for miles willing to say two words to me, unkind as they were. Yet, I find that I prefer silence to hearing you insult my daughter. My person is one thing, for I have made my own choices, but my daughter is blameless.”

“Your daughter is no hobbit! She has no place in Hobbiton. I have always said that you should take her away to Tuckborough or Buckland where they are more tolerant of such things.”

“Yes.” The bricks were in Mum’s voice again, and Acorn almost felt sorry for Aunt Lobelia. “You have always wanted me to move away and sell Bag End. I’m sure you would be most surprised when no eligible purchase except your own came, though of course you would be pleased to offer me far less than my home is worth.”

“That is a lie!”

“It is not. I do have a few friends, you know. Imagine how surprised I was to learn that my cozy little hobbit hole had been cursed by all of the evil things I encountered on my adventure.”

“And you think I started those rumors?”

“I know you did. What’s more, I have known for years, and I don’t care. Acorn and I are here to stay. Her tenth birthday party in Buckland is going to be a nine days wonder. Everyone in the Shire will be talking about it, and everyone who declined the invitation is going to rethink whether or not the moral high ground was worth missing the merriment. And the next time I throw a party in my own home, I think I will have more visitors.”

Squawking and dithering, Aunt Lobelia was shown to the door. Meanwhile, Acorn scampered to her room and quickly pretended that she hadn’t been listening to the latter half of the conversation. Only, she was still so mad about what she’d heard that she tore the book she was pretending to read open, causing an explosion of paper.

“Oh dear!” Mum stood in the doorway to Acorn’s room, looking at the fluttering pages. “Whatever did The Lost Tales of Numenor do to you?”

“Sorry,” Acorn mumbled as the last sheet floated to the floor, settling.

“Better books than people,” Mum said, gathering Acorn into her arms and seating them both on the bed. “That is something to remember, when your temper gets the best of you. If you must hurt something, well, things can be replaced. But you must never hurt someone who is not trying to hurt you.”

“Aunt Lobelia was hurting you! She called you a — a bad word.”

Mum’s hand slid down Acorn’s back, rubbing slow, soothing circles. “She called me a whore. That is only a word. Not even a true word. Do you know what a whore is?”

“An insult,” Acorn said sullenly.

Mum laughed. “True enough. However, that particular insult means a woman who will lie with a man for money. It is not a practice among hobbits, only Big Folk, so it is doubly insulting to a hobbitess. Because you are saying she will do something only Big Folk do.”

“She should not insult you.”

“No, she should not.” Mum sighed and returned to rubbing Acorn’s back. “However, we cannot control what other people do, only our reaction. In this case, laughing at Lobelia is always the best option. For I know that I have never done anything of the kind. In point of fact, I have never needed money enough to work at all, let alone do something so distasteful.”

Slumping forward, Acorn kicked her feet against the bed and put her head in her mother’s lap. “You did not laugh. You dropped your teacup.”

“Yes.” Mum stroked Acorn’s curls, combing them out gently with her fingers. “It surprised me that she would be so crude. I could certainly have handled the matter better, but that is no excuse for you, my little savage. If someone hurts us with words, we may shout back at them, but we must not hurt them physically. Unless we are quite certain that they will try to hurt us. Now, if an orc comes at you with a sword, you may certainly fight him. However, until your aunt tries to strike you with that deadly umbrella of hers, I ask you to refrain from punching her in the mouth.”

Acorn giggled, reluctantly imagining Aunt Lobelia facing off against an orc with her big, black umbrella. “All right.”

Breathing slowly, Acorn felt the warm sun on her face and the plaits her mother began to weave in her hair. Eventually, she asked, “Was what she said about me true?”

“You are no savage, my daughter.” Mum’s hands didn’t slow or hesitate in their braiding. “Though you could stand to brush your feet a bit more when you have been in the garden.”

“Mum. Am I a halfling?”

“Halfling is just a rude name for hobbits, you know. The Big Folk call us that because we are half their height, though in truth we are not half of anything.”

“Am I half of something, though? Was my father a hobbit?”

“You do not have a father. If you did, I would not have to plan your party alone.”

Acorn sat up, studying her mother’s face, even though her braid wasn’t finished. “Everyone has a father,” she said certainly. “I have seen Farmer Holman’s goats, and Farmer Mungo’s pigs, and a rooster in a hen house.”

Mum looked down at the torn book, still lying in the middle of Acorn’s bedroom floor. “We will have to fix that. Replace the cover. Have I ever shown you how to bind a book?”

“Mum! Who was my father?”

When she turned back to face Acorn, Mum’s eyes flashed strangely. It took the fauntling a moment to realize that there were tears beading at the corners of her mother’s eyes. Then, the hobbitess blinked, and they were gone.

“I will not tell you,” Mum said steadily. “Perhaps one day, when you are an adult, if you need to know, but likely never. It does not matter. He could not be a father to you, and so he is not one.”

“I have a right to know who I am! What I am!” Acorn was on her feet once more, breathing hard, as though she would fight her mother.

“Yes,” Mum said evenly. “You do. You are half a dwarf. That is why your feet are smaller than other hobbits. If you wish to wear boots, I will have some made up for you. You needn’t fear rivaling the Bullroarer for height, for dwarves are only a bit taller than most hobbits, but one day you will be much stronger than everyone else around you. That is why you must learn to control your temper. Also, though you are half a hobbit, it may be that you grow a beard one day. I do not know.”

Tripping back over to her mother’s side, Acorn sank down onto her bed once more. “I do not want to wear boots,” she said, staring at the loose pages that covered her floor.

“Then you needn’t. It has been years since you’ve scraped your toes on a rock. I suspect most dwarves have feet hardy enough to go without shoes in a soft land like the Shire, and you are still my daughter. Your toes are tougher than most.” Mum put a warm hand on Acorn’s shoulder.

“I do not want to grow a beard,” Acorn said.

“What will happen is what will happen, but you can always shave it. Many of the Stoor line shave their mutton chops. I imagine it is no more difficult or painful than a haircut.” Shifting slightly, Mum went back to work on Acorn’s braid.

“I am half a dwarf,” Acorn said.

“You are a Baggins of Bag End,” Mum said gently. “That is hobbit enough for anyone.”

“Okay.” Acorn put one hand on her mother’s skirt and the other on her bedspread, clinging to both tightly. “Will you tell me about dwarves? About the dwarves you traveled with?”

“Any time you like.” Mum’s voice was as warm as sunlight. “Far away to the east, beyond rivers and forests, on the other side of the Misty Mountains, there is a single, solitary peak. Some call it the Lonely Mountain, but to the dwarves who live there, it is known as Erebor.”

Listening to her mother’s stories, Acorn thought about dwarves, adventures, and differences. She was not like any other hobbit in the Shire, but, then, neither was Mum. Perhaps they would never entirely fit in with the rest of Hobbiton, but that didn’t mean standing out was bad. Mum was a hero who killed spiders, and Acorn would grow up to be strong one day. They were the Baggins Family of Bag End, and she was going to have real friends at her birthday party this year. In truth, there was nothing to worry about.

Chapter Text

Acorn’s party was a massive success, just as Bilbo planned it. The weather was a perfectly balmy day for spring, with a bright sun and no chance of rain, so the party began with lunch out on the sprawling lawn around Brandy Hall.

All of the fauntlings were so pleased with their birthday presents of new toy swords and shields that they made the birthday girl their captain. For the first time in her short life, Acorn was the center of attention. She took to it immediately. Commanding the mock battles made her the very picture of her father. All she needed to do was shout a dwarvish battle cry, though of course she didn’t know any. Bilbo was most impressed, however, that she kept Asphodel firmly at her side as a trusted lieutenant. Quiet, bookish Asphodel was not much use with her little wooden sword, but she seemed equally thrilled to be at the heart of the play for the first time. Both girls glowed with happiness.

Presents for the adults also went over well. Sparing no expense meant that Acorn did not give a single mathom. Moreover, Bilbo knew her family. All of the gifts had at least the pretense of thoughtfulness. Books for some, tea for others, and spices for the best cooks. As the hostess, Aunt Mirabella was happy to receive several fine bottles of the Old Wynyards. That inspired a little envy, though only a little. Everyone understood that a hostess deserved something special. The pile of presents Bilbo’s daughter bestowed upon her mother was more unusual, but Bilbo could not bring herself to care.

Acorn was one of those rare fauntlings who could sit still long enough to craft something of worth, and Bilbo knew she must have worked very hard on the presents she made herself. There was a little compass, carefully pieced together out of an old jar lid and beautifully painted with trees and mountains. According to Acorn, this was so Bilbo would not get lost if she went on another adventure. A neatly embroidered handkerchief showed Bilbo’s monogram accompanied by a charming little acorn. Dried lavender filled a little sachet embroidered with the flowers, to scent Bilbo’s clothes sweetly. A broach made with mother of pearl and carefully twisted wire had clearly been crafted to match the mithril shirt that mesmerized Acorn whenever she saw it. And, of course, there was a beaded bracelet strung with little acorns. Bilbo received one of those for Acorn’s birthday every year. It was a family tradition of sorts. The bracelet was good for a snack and good looking, as Acorn liked to say.

Best of all was a lovely hairpin decorated with beads to look like a cornflower. Bilbo could hardly believe that her own daughter made such a beautiful thing, and she praised it excessively. Perhaps too excessively, for Acorn blushed in embarrassment and raced off to play with the other fauntlings.

Occasionally an adult would wander away from the perfectly roasted suckling pigs and finely grilled vegetables to play the villain and unite all the children into a single army. Primula Brandybuck, only thirty-one and so rather questionably an adult, made an excellent pirate captain. Bilbo herself took a turn as a mighty dragon set to burn them all alive. More often, however, the fauntlings took breaks from their play to fill their bellies. Young hobbits needed vast amounts of provender to grow, and they did not stint themselves when it came to feasting. Indeed, the daily meals blended into one as the food on the tables changed but no one ever really stopped eating.

As dusk fell and lanterns were lit, Acorn’s favorite band of musicians opened the dancing with a lively reel. Nothing that Bilbo’s daughter wanted for her birthday was too much. In fact, Bilbo was even wearing her silver-steel shirt underneath a light jacket because her daughter loved the shine of the mithril so. This despite the fact that it was hopelessly unfashionable and quite undermined Bilbo’s secondary intention of making a good social showing.

Clothing aside, Bilbo knew everything was perfect. Those who weren’t dancing were filling in the corners of their stomachs with cake and whatever other tidbits they liked best. Everyone had good wine or excellent beer, except for the children who had fizzy apple cider or ice cream sodas. No one whispered in corners or sneered at any part of the entertainment.

Mindful of impressions, Bilbo did not recite a poem in honor of Acorn’s birthday. Instead, she simply thanked everyone for coming. Aunt Mirabella added a few more words, but not many. Then, the speeches were closed by young Primula Brandybuck, who hopped up on a table. “Happy birthday to Acorn,” she cried, glass in hand, “and fie on anyone too stuffy to celebrate with her!” The party was perfect, and every hobbit present was wonderfully happy.

Then the screaming started.

Bilbo saw a blaze of fire at the doors to Brandy Hall. At first, she thought one of the cooks must have knocked over a grill somewhere. After all, no one but a cook or two would be inside the hall, since there was no rain and no reason to go in. Then she saw Big People surrounding the hobbit gathering with arrows and black swords. There was fire at the entrance of Brandy Hall specifically to block it.

Seizing a big butcher’s knife from the table, she saw Adalgrim Took take up the dangerously sharp carving fork. They exchanged a nod. Then Bilbo went to find her daughter.

A snarling orc lifted Hugo Boffin from the ground by his neck. Bilbo had no time to wonder at orcs and Big Folk working together. Charging at the evil thing, she drove her knife into its back, stabbing it over and over until it was down. Hugo stood up, staring at her with wide, frightened eyes, and tried to say thank you. Bilbo didn’t have time to hear it. Across the grassy lawn, Acorn screamed.

One of the men in dark armor had Asphodel Brandybuck by the leg, holding her up like a snared coney, laughing as she screamed and swung her little fists at him. Attacking him with her little wooden sword, Acorn was caught as well, lifted by her right arm to kick futilely at her captor. Which meant both of the man’s hands were occupied when Bilbo leapt at him, cutting his throat with her sharp knife.

“Mum!” Acorn threw her arms around Bilbo’s waist and buried her tear streaked face in her skirts. Asphodel did the same, sobbing in relief.

“Quickly girls,” Bilbo said. “We have to get away from here. Hold hands and follow me.”

Acorn and Asphodel were good girls, and they immediately did as Bilbo asked. Taking hold of her daughter with the hand that was not occupied by a knife, Bilbo lead the girls away from the chaos as quickly as she could. Before they made it a hundred steps, something hard struck Bilbo in the center of her chest, and she gasped for air. Looking down, she saw an arrow stuck in the cloth of her jacket. Two more arrows hit her stomach, and she couldn’t breathe. Then, something hit her head and the whole world went dark.

When Bilbo woke, she was in a bed. “Acorn?” she called, but no one answered. From the ugly vase on the nightstand, she inferred that this was her guest room at Brandy Hall, but usually Acorn slept in the little cot by the fire. The cot was empty. Bilbo had a soft bandage on her head, and she was still dressed for the party, except for her jacket. Her torn jacket was draped over a chair, leaving Bilbo in her mithril shirt and skirts.

Getting out of bed, Bilbo rummaged through her luggage and found Sting. Strapping the sword to her belt, she did not draw it. Obviously Big People and orcs did not put her to bed. Acorn might only be getting some breakfast in the kitchen. Waving a sword about without all of the facts would not help the situation.

When she made her way to the vast underground hall for which Brandy Hall was named, Bilbo saw that the situation was very bad indeed. Injured hobbits sat all around the room, sipping soup, rebandaging bloody wounds, and tending to babies.

“Acorn?” Bilbo called again. She did not see her daughter, but this time she received an answer.

Aunt Mirabella stood up from where she was changing the bandages of a shuddering, feverish hobbit with a gut wound. At once, she bustled over to her niece. “Bilbo! I’m so glad to see you up and about. How do you feel?”

“Just fine, all things considered. My head aches a bit, but I am not dizzy or confused. Have you seen Acorn?”

“Watch my finger,” Mirabella instructed, moving her hand left, right, up, and down in a slow cross. Obediently, Bilbo followed the motion with her eyes.

“I really am fine, Auntie. Just worried about Acorn. Do you know where she is?”

Lowering her hand and meeting Bilbo’s eyes steadily, Mirabella said, “Taken.”

“What?”

“The Big People had wagons. More like cages on wheels, really. After killing anyone who fought too much, and most of the older folk, they rounded up everyone who wasn’t very badly wounded and took them away. Luckily, I managed to hide with little Berry. I hate to think what they would have done with the infants, one way or the other.”

“And you’re sure they took Acorn?” The comfortably elegant arches of Brandy Hall were some of the most spacious in the Shire, yet Bilbo felt suddenly claustrophobic. It was an entirely alien feeling for a hobbit, but she was trapped. The smial’s walls pressed in on her as narrow goblin tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains never had. She could not breathe.

“I saw her.” Sandy Biffin, the proprietor or the Golden Perch, had a blanket covering her body and a long, deep cut that ran down the side of her face. She looked very pale, and she was sweating. “After you fell, she was taken with Asphodel into one of the wagons. She fought, but the Man overpowered her. Still, she didn’t look hurt.”

“Okay,” Bilbo said, though it was the furthest thing from the truth. “If they are traveling with unwilling hobbits and big wagons, they cannot go quickly. Who follows?”

Sandy and Mirabella shared a look.

“What do you mean?” asked Mirabella.

“The rescue party!” Tightening her sword belt, Bilbo double checked her purse and began packing food from the table into a little satchel. “How far behind them am I? What direction did they go?”

“There is no rescue party,” Mirabella said.

“What?!”

Stretching her arms wide, Aunt Mirabella forced Bilbo to look around the room at the injured and infirm. Other than Bilbo, Mirabella seemed to be the only able bodied adult in Brandy Hall, and she was an old hobbit with white hair and aching joints. “Who could go? All of Buckland has been taken! The Tooks? Most of them are in those cages as well, since they were at the party. It will be days before anyone can come from Hobbiton or beyond, and who will that be? I do not think Odo Proudfoot shall ride forth heroically with a sword in hand.”

It was true. The most adventurous hobbits in the Shire were the ones brave enough to attend the party of a disreputable social outcast. Therefore, almost anyone likely to ride to the rescue was dead, injured, or imprisoned. But Bilbo had to believe that folk would help. When a neighbor was truly in need, no hobbit would turn their back. Unfortunately, crossing the Brandywine, gathering a posse, and outfitting peaceable gardeners with ponies and weapons would take time.

“And isn’t that convenient.” Red Sandyman lurched up from his seat at the table. His left arm now ended just above the elbow in a bloody bandage. There was also a bandage over half of his face. Bilbo hoped he still had an eye. Though they were not precisely friends, Red accepting her invitation had been a bit of a coup for Bilbo. As a miller, he was not well liked, but he was respected. “Wasn’t it easy for them to pick us off when so many folk were out of doors, on the unprotected side of the Brandywine, drinking beer at your party, Bilbo Baggins?”

“You hush, Red Sandyman!” Hugo Boffin cried. He could not stand as Red did, because one of his legs was missing. “Bilbo Baggins saved my life last night, and killed at least one of those blighters. Now her daughter has been taken. How dare you suggest that she had anything to do with the attack?”

“Besides,” Aunt Mirabella said, “her head was bleeding so much when I found her yesterday morning, I thought she might not wake at all. She was unconscious for a full day, and might have died.”

“Well, someone is to blame!” Red cried.

“Me.” Sandy Biffin coughed. Crimson blood stained her white, lacy handkerchief. “And you. And half the Shire. We’ve all been talking about this party for a month. I know I’ve had Big Folk for customers down at the Perch this month, some of them strangers. I’m sure the same is true for every other inn and tavern around these parts.”

“It’s true,” Hugo said. “If those horrible Big People wanted to capture some of us, then they couldn’t choose a better time than when we would be outside together on this side of the Brandywine. They planned it well, coming up through the Old Forest, blocking the doors to Brandy Hall, and catching us unaware.” Hugo’s eyes were unfocused. He wasn’t speaking to Red or to Bilbo when he repeated himself. “They planned it well. They got what they wanted, and we’ve got bodies to bury.”

“In any case, the blame lies with the men who attacked us, and not with Bilbo,” Sandy Biffin concluded.

“We do not have time for blame,” Aunt Mirabella interrupted, when it looked like Red might say something further. “Bilbo is right. We need to send for help. Wood Hall is closest, and from there they can get word to Bywater, Hobbiton, Frogmorton, and everywhere else. I am sorry that there is no one to go after those wicked beasts now, for I hate to think of what will happen to our kinfolk in their keeping, but someone to limp along to Buckleberry Ferry and summon the Bounders is probably the best we can manage.”

“Then I will go alone,” Bilbo said. “I’ll leave markers to show which way our quarry goes so the rest of you can follow. Slow them up, if I can. Steal away a few of our folk whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

Instantly, Mirabella Brandybuck’s arms were wrapped tightly around her niece. “Oh, Bilbo. Your mother would be so proud. No matter what anyone says, it’s a good thing that you went on your adventure. For now, when it really matters, you will know what to do.”

“My adventure!” Dashing away from her aunt, Bilbo quickly found pen and paper, scribbling furiously.

“Perhaps her head injury is more serious than we thought,” Sandy Biffin said softly.

Scoffing, Bilbo folded up the letter and handed it to Mirabella. “When you send for help, can you make sure this gets to my gardener, please? Ravens come to Bag End sometimes to bring mail from my dwarven friends. He’s seen me send letters with them often enough that he should be able to get this to the next bird that comes. I don’t know if Erebor will be able to help us. It is so very far away. But my friends are well traveled. They might at least be able to send us some information about these fellows we’re up against.”

“It doesn’t hurt to try,” Mirabella agreed, taking the letter.

“Now I must be off!”

Bilbo would have left without further ado, but she was persuaded to saddle a fast pony while her aunt Mirabella put together a better pack for her. The wagon tracks going from Brandy Hall into the Old Forest were deep and easy to follow. So Bilbo followed them at a gallop, with no thought for anything except Acorn’s safety.

Chapter Text

Thorin stared at Bilbo’s letter without unfolding it. It was too short. Half a torn piece of paper. Bilbo’s letters were always two, sometimes three pages. Three pages was the absolute most a raven could carry such a long distance, but sometimes she simply had to include a drawing and writing in a cramped hand across the front and the back of a single page was insufficient to express everything she wanted to say. The fact that she wanted to say so little to him — half a torn page — did not bode well.

Mentioning Grisha’s proposal was a mistake.

The last time Thorin pressed his luck and asked for more than Bilbo was willing to give, she hadn’t responded to his next three letters. Though surely simply mentioning the fact that he’d been proposed to by another dam — a proposal he rejected — was less offensive than asking her to leave the Shire and visit Erebor. It had to be. She’d written. Only half a page. A torn, discourteous page, but an answer nonetheless.

Thorin blamed Dis. Asking for his sister’s advice was always a mistake. She was the one who convinced him to rephrase his futile attempt to make Bilbo jealous from the relatively neutral mention of an unwanted proposal.

Grisha, daughter of Drosha, offered to marry me for a crown of rubies, had been all he initially intended to say, buried among more interesting accounts of their shared friends. His final draft continued. Of the many proposals I have received over the years, it was by far the simplest. Fili thought I should consider that a merit, though of course I refused her right away. I still hope to marry the one I love someday.

That last line, the oblique mention of his love for Bilbo, was entirely Dis’s fault. He would never have dared express such a sentiment — nor made such an overt request for a proposal — without her insistence that ten years of letters was encouragement enough.

The more Thorin thought about his relationship with Bilbo, the more letters they exchanged, the more he became convinced that there was something he could say to win her back to his side. There was a time in Beorn’s garden when he’d been convinced that she was only waiting for the perfect, romantic moment to propose marriage. Even when she bade him farewell before leaving Erebor, he believed there was something he could have said on the battlements to convince her to stay. Hidden in her mind, there was a reassurance he could offer, or a promise he could make, that would touch her heart. For she wrote often, and she clearly missed his company.

Unfortunately, that hope was what sent him to Dis for help in the first place. That hope persuaded him that openly speaking of the many proposals he received each year since the retaking of Erebor would make Bilbo realize she had something of value within her grasp. Such an unseemly expression was unbecoming for any dwarf, but a king certainly should have been above it. To openly seek a wife was highly improper. Why, he might as well have outright proposed marriage himself!

Of course, there was always the small chance that Bilbo would like such a display. His boldness was a quality she found attractive. Perhaps the letter was so short and on such poor stationary because it contained a stricture that he must not entertain any other suitors, for she was on her way to Erebor and intended to marry him the moment she arrived. This was not very likely, but the chance of it gave Thorin the courage he needed to open the letter.

The message was not what he expected.

“Dear Thorin,

“Please help me. I need you. The Shire was attacked last night. Hobbits were killed. Acorn was taken. They have my daughter. Please, you must help me. I am going after them alone. Everyone else here in Buckland is too injured to travel. I might be as well, only the mithril shirt you gave me stopped several arrows. Thank you for that. Our attackers were Big Folk and a few large orcs. They wore black armor and carried black swords. Iron, probably. The orc I killed had some sort of white paint on his forehead. I do not know who they were, but they put our people into big cages drawn on wheels by tall horses. If you have any idea of who might do such a thing, especially any idea of where they might go, please send a raven to find me. I am a full day behind them. I do not know what they will do to Acorn. I do not know what they have already done to my daughter. If I could cut them off at a pass somewhere—”

“Sorry. I digress. Please send me any information you might have. Your ravens are so clever, hopefully one can find me on the road if they start at Brandy Hall. You might also send word to Ered Luin, if any of my friends are there. A party of hobbits may join me, if my Aunt can raise the rest of the Shire, but that will take a while. A few speedy dwarves would certainly be welcome to accompany them. Of course, I’d give my right arm to have you or Dwalin close enough to come. I am not yet sure what I shall do when I catch up to these kidnappers. Still, I once stole thirteen dwarves from the dungeons of Mirkwood. I will think of a way to steal a hundred hobbits from a few wagons.”

“That said, I need help. Acorn is my treasure, my joy, and my heart. I cannot lose her, Thorin. Please send a message to Rivendell asking Lord Elrond for help on my behalf. I know it will be days before you get this letter, and days more before a raven flies all the way from Erebor to Rivendell, but that will still be faster than a hobbit could make the trip. The elves will help. Someone will help. I will get my daughter back.”

There was no closing of the letter, just Bilbo’s name scrawled at the bottom like an afterthought. Thorin stared at her familiar signature. Some time later, he remembered to breathe. After which he shoved everything on his desk to the floor, smashed his writing lamp, hurled a vase against the wall, and kicked his stone chair repeatedly until it cracked.

At last he knew. The words he could have — should have — spoken on the battlements of Erebor ten years ago to make Bilbo ask for his hand in marriage. They were simplicity itself. The knowledge brought him no joy.

“The proudest accomplishment of my life has been helping Fili and Kili grow to adulthood,” he should have said. “But I would welcome the chance to do so with a child of my own.”

That was all. That's what she needed to hear. Worst of all, she’d said as much. While he was gold sick and unwilling to listen, she spoke of children. Of wanting to raise a child with him. She asked if a king could have such a child. She asked if he would desire such a thing. Thorin was a fool.

Tearing open his desk drawer, he pulled out all of Bilbo’s carefully filed letters. Every single letter mentioned either the growth of her Acorn — and he should have known a gardener would not continue referring to a sapling as a seed — or a young hobbit of indefinite relation. Time and again, she wrote of the daughter that might have been his.

A daughter! Bilbo’s ability to sketch improved over the years spanned by the letters. While the baby depicted in the earliest handful of sketches might have been any hobbit, the child in all the most recent pictures was clearly the same lass. A little girl who scowled over a sewing sampler, smiled with a flower in hand, and threw her head back when she laughed, at least according to Bilbo’s pictures. It was hard to tell in pen and ink, but her curls seemed to be darker than Bilbo’s. Thorin wondered what color her eyes were. He wondered if she liked music. He wondered what her favorite food was. Then, he realized he knew.

Flipping to a recent letter, he found the relevant passage. “A lass in my family was ill a few days ago. She seems better now, but she has no appetite. You can imagine how strange this is for a fauntling! Fortunately, my mother, may her rest be peaceful, saved the day. Her recipe for potato soup with leeks and cream could tempt even the most reluctant diner. So I have been making it six meals a day for the poor dear, but the tired little smile she gives me every time is worth the effort.”

In another letter, Bilbo wrote of music. “There is a fauntling under the hill who adores dancing more than anything else in the world. I have often wished she might hear your dwarven songs sometime, done proper justice by dwarven voices, instead of my poor imitations.” If only Thorin had understood! He would have sent troops of musicians to the Shire to play for the lass. Not to woo Bilbo, but because she who might have been his daughter deserved to dance dwarven reels.

But doing so would have touched Bilbo’s heart. Just as his failures to ask after Acorn in his letters angered the mother. He was not surprised that she referred to the child obliquely, despite speaking of her often. Being discreet about the fact that Thorin gave of himself before honorable marriage was typical of Bilbo’s kind heart. As natural for Bilbo as expecting Thorin to care about the child anyway.

Thorin found the letter from five years earlier, the one that finally responded to his third letter of apology after an unknown insult. He’d read it a hundred times. Now, at last, he understood it. “Thank you for asking after Acorn,” Bilbo wrote. “She is up to my waist now, and grows taller every day. One day, I think she will be the tallest sapling in Hobbiton, but that is not so unusual when one remembers that she is an oak. As for your apology, I accept it. Provided you never again invite me alone to stand beside you at such an occasion. I wish you joy at the Durin’s Day celebrations. Since they are only a month away at this point, I haven’t the time to travel to Erebor, even if you amended it. Instead, let us say no more about it, and put the whole, messy affair in the past.”

Recalling the bold declaration that only her presence at his side could make the Durin’s Day festivities worth the planning, and that she alone could make him happy, Thorin was filled with shame. How many insults had he given her over the years? How many opportunities to win her affection had he failed to grasp by misunderstanding the nature of what kept Bilbo in the Shire? If he invited her to bring her daughter, would she have come?

He was a fool. Worse, that idiocy did not cost him only Bilbo’s heart. It cost him a daughter. It cost Acorn her freedom. She would have been safe in Erebor. She should have been safe in Erebor. That she was now captured by murderers and taken from her mother’s side into unknown danger was entirely Thorin’s fault. If he had only asked Bilbo to grant him the duties of fatherhood all those years ago, he could have kept his daughter safe.

Not his daughter. The hobbit lass who might have been his daughter, if he was less of an idiot.

Thorin wanted a drink. He wanted to visit the treasury and stare at the gold until reason left him and he did not ache so with guilt and missed chances. He did neither of those things. Snatching up Bilbo’s most recent letter, he sent for his closest advisors.

It took nearly half an hour for the Company to assemble with Dis in the War Room. This was an unacceptable delay. Thorin had maps of the Shire and the surrounding area open on the map table within five minutes. The only way he managed to refrain from drinking after that was rereading Bilbo’s letter. Then he read it again. And again. A daughter. Bilbo had a daughter.

“My king?” Balin’s voice was a whisper on the wind. Thorin looked up from his letter. All of his most trusted council stood silently arrayed around the War Room. All eyes were on him.

“How many soldiers can we field at once, and how soon can they be provisioned? The march will be long, but time is of the essence.”

“Are pirates bothering Ered Luin again?” It was clear that Dwalin hoped rather than believed this to be the case. He could see the map of Bilbo’s homeland on the table.

“No. The Shire has been attacked. Bilbo calls for aid.”

“And aid will be sent.” Dis’s voice was even, as though she sought to calm a wayward war boar. “Is the army of Erebor marching over mountains, through Mirkwood, and braving hostile territory the best way to get it to her? Surely it would be better to ask our allies in the Blue Mountains to go to the aid of the Shire, and to reward their efforts with Ereborian gold.”

“That must be done as well,” Thorin said. It was a good idea. Word would be sent to every dwarven kingdom and colony. Any dwarf that aided Bilbo would be richly rewarded. “But Bilbo Baggins quests alone, and we must join her as quickly as we may.”

“Thorin.” The gentle quality of Dis’s voice was suddenly intolerable.

“No!” he bellowed. “Do you not understand? She is alone in the wilderness hunting men and orcs twice her size, with only that little knife of hers for a weapon!”

“Alone?” Dori stepped forward, his eyes wide, and his mouth shaped into a tight frown. “Were there no hobbits to fight at her side?”

“She was here.” Thorin pointed to Buckland on the map. “On the outskirts between the big river and the forest. The attack was sudden enough that all hobbits in the area were either slain, badly injured, or taken by these slavers. I gather she was injured as well, for she writes that she is a full day behind her quarry.”

“Can hobbits not come from these other settlements to aid her?” Gloin peered over the map, pointing to the villages closest to Buckland. “I recall that the most populous was Bilbo’s town, here. Surely there are many hobbits there.”

“And they have those patrolmen,” Bofur added, “the ones with the sticks. Can’t they help?”

“Bounders,” Thorin said. “Yes. It is Bilbo’s hope that many hobbits will follow after her, but she did not wait for reinforcements.”

“Captured or killed?” Balin asked.

“What?” As Thorin stared at his most trusted advisor, his vision blurred strangely. Balin looked like a distant cloud, until he resolved once more into the form of a dwarf.

“Acorn.” Balin knew. What’s more, it was clear from his sympathetic, open expression that he believed Thorin knew. That Thorin had always known. Balin was the only dwarf other than Dis to see some of Bilbo’s letters. “We need to know if we are seeking rescue or revenge, as we make our plans.”

“Rescue.” Thorin could say nothing else. He did not believe Bilbo would have spoken aloud of the child to Balin when she spoke of Acorn to no one else. That Balin could understand the nature of Bilbo’s acorn from a few pages when Thorin failed to comprehend her for ten years of correspondence chaffed. It also did not matter.

“Who is Acorn?” Fili asked, looking from Thorin to Balin.

“Bilbo’s daughter,” Thorin said.

“Bilbo has a daughter?” Dis glared at her brother with narrow eyes. “You should have told me that!”

“You should have told all of us,” Kili cried. “We would have sent gifts!”

“Did she marry?” Dwalin’s eyes were soft and sympathetic. Of course it did not occur to him that the child might have been Thorin’s.

“Acorn.” Balin stressed the name and stomped on his brother’s foot subtly. “She is about ten years old now.”

Immediately the War Room broke into excited speculation, but it was Bofur who caught Thorin’s attention. “That is why you did not want us to visit her in the Shire! You did not want us to know!”

“It was Bilbo’s choice,” Thorin said. This was even true, though a simple reassurance from Thorin that he did not care if their most trusted companions knew of her child would have likely changed her mind.

“To protect your honor!” Thorin had never seen Bofur so upset before. The dwarf was a toymaker and a natural comedian. Though valliant, he was not given to righteous outrage.

“Yes,” Thorin said, without raising his voice. He deserved every scolding he received and more, after failing to be worthy of the greatest honor a dwarf could hope to earn.

Abruptly, Bofur’s posturing collapsed like a deflated bellows. “My apologies, my king. I know Bilbo well enough to know that’s exactly what she did.”

“But.” Kili’s face wrinkled with effortful thought. “If Bilbo had your child, why did she leave Erebor in the first place?”

“Not my child.” Thorin felt his throat close around the words, but it had to be said. Mahal gave him the chance at that treasure, but Bilbo found him unworthy of it.

“What do you mean? If this Acorn is ten years old, then she has to be yours. We all know what you and Bilbo were getting up to ten years ago. You weren’t particularly subtle about it.”

Fili cuffed his brother hard on the back of the head. “Despite the fact that this child is obviously not yours, uncle, my fool of a brother has a point. I understand that things were — not ideal — after the Battle of Five Armies, but did she not consider staying?”

Even the most solitary dwarrowdams generally gave a dwarf the chance to meet a child before definitively deciding he was unworthy of the honor of paternity. Bilbo would have done the same. If Thorin had been smart enough to welcome the opportunity.

“She did,” he said. “I misunderstood her at the time. It does not matter. All that matters now is her quest and the child.”

For a moment it seemed that Fili or someone else would argue further. That they would curse Thorin for stupidity the way he deserved to be cursed. Instead, Dwalin said, “Five hundred.”

Tilting his head to one side, Thorin looked at his old friend.

“I can have five hundred soldiers ready to march by tomorrow morning. If we’re crossing the Misty Mountains, I don’t want to take anyone but experienced campaigners. This isn’t a fight on our doorstep for a lad to prove himself, and a young dwarf with clay behind his ears will get other soldiers killed if he slips and starts a rock slide. A battalion of our best, on the other hand, will be able to travel almost as quickly as the Company alone.”

Nodding, Thorin turned to Gloin, asking about finance and supply. These were the dwarves who once crossed half the world to face a dragon with him. It should not be surprising that they would do the same once more to help Bilbo. Yet there was no promise of vast treasure this time — and indeed they were all so rich from the first adventure that such a promise would not tempt them — nor was there much glory to be found in fighting slavers who would prey on the soft lands of the Shire. Only two lives. A child who might have been of the Line of Durin, and a hobbit who could have been wife to their king, in a different life.

Such loyalty did not fail to humble Thorin Oakenshield, undeserving as he was.

Chapter Text

Acorn could not stop crying. She wanted her mum. Asphodel was crying, too, but her aunt Primula was holding her, and stroking her hair. All Acorn had to hold was the iron bars of the wagon. They were sturdy and cold beneath her hands, but they were not comforting. Everyone else huddled with their families, but Acorn had no family. Not anymore. Mum was it, and Mum was dead.

Peering out into the darkness behind the wagon, Acorn saw the looming shadows of the Old Forest, and the skittering shape of the orcs running behind the cages. Sometimes, she imagined she would see her mother there as well, riding on a white pony like a figure out of legend, Sting unsheathed and glowing blue in one hand. Mum was a hero. Mum would save her.

Mum was so still and bloody on the dark grass.

“Anything worth seeing back there?” The middle aged hobbit who stood next to her, putting his own hands on the bars, looked a bit older than mum and quite frightening. His waistcoat was covered in blood. Acorn didn’t think it was his own. He stood too straight to be injured, though his left cheek was starting to bruise.

Sniffing, Acorn wiped her eyes. “The orcs run in back. The men ride in front,” she said, because it seemed important.

The hobbit nodded gravely, and Acorn realized that she knew him. He was one of her Took cousins, though she didn’t remember his name. “It might mean less than you think,” he said. “Horses are afraid of orcs. That is why you hear stories about orcs riding on wolves. However, I don’t imagine wolves can pull big carts like this.”

“Oh.” She’d hoped it would be helpful. She’d hoped this hobbit could make the men and the orcs fight each other the way Mum made the trolls argue about the best way to eat dwarves.

“There might be something to what you say, though,” the hobbit said quickly. “Bad people do bicker and squabble. No orc would give two pins for the life of another, and especially not for the life of a Big Person. So at the very least we have that.”

Acorn couldn’t say anything around the lump in her throat. Instead, she squeezed the bars so tightly that they creaked.

“Oh, my dear girl,” the Took said. “I am going to hug you now unless you tell me not to.”

As she did not object, he gathered her into his arms, letting her sob into his shirtsleeve. After a time, he offered her his handkerchief as well.

“What a terrible ending to one’s birthday,” he observed, patting her back in a poor imitation of Mum’s soothing touch.

“I don’t care about my birthday,” Acorn sobbed. “It was stupid to want a party! I should have stayed home with Mum and our gardener. Then none of this would have happened!”

“Hush,” the hobbit said, squeezing her to his chest in a gentle, comforting way. “Hush, it isn’t your fault, poppet.” He was very kind, but she couldn’t stop crying, and she had to use the handkerchief again.

Eventually, Acorn had to ask. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

“I am with my family! Don’t you recognize me? I am your mother’s cousin on two sides, you know. For my mother was Rosa Baggins, who was a cousin to your mother’s father, and my father was Hildigrim Took, who was brother to your grandmother Belladonna. Adalgrim Took, at your service.” Pulling a goofy, deferential face, he gave a little half bow, though they were both sitting, and he was still holding her.

“But you are Esmeralda’s father,” Acorn realized. Then, suddenly, great fear stole over her like a cloud covering the moon. “Where is Esmeralda?”

“In one of the other wagons,” Adalgrim said. Looking up at him, Acorn saw that his eyes were a rich brown, like new clay. “She is well. I was up at the front before, and I saw her and my lad Paladin. They’ll be all right. They’re a bit older than you, after all, and can look after one another.”

“Oh.” Acorn did not know what to say. She did not believe that any of them would be all right. Captured by orcs was not alright. On the other side of the cage, Asphodel was crying again. Primula Brandybuck rocked her back and forth, singing a lullaby. A few other hobbits joined in the gentle song, but most stared blankly off into the dark trees of the Old Forest.

“You are surrounded by family, Acorn,” Adalgrim said. “Even if we have not visited you as often as we should have. Isn’t Asphodel your particular friend? And your cousin Primula played with you a great deal at your birthday party, for she is essentially a great big fauntling herself.”

Asphodel gave a watery smile and Primula huffed a little laugh. “It was a wonderful party, Acorn,” Primula said. “I am so glad that you chose to have it in Buckland.”

Primula was very pretty, almost as pretty as Mum, but her nice party dress was torn at the hem and covered in blood. In the pale moonlight, everyone looked frightening and strange. “I wanted to have it with all of my Brandybuck cousins, because my Baggins cousins never play with me ever at all. But Mum said you would not come to Hobbiton so early in the springtime. But that was stupid. If we had the party on the other side of the river, no one would have been in Buckland at all and we would be safe.”

Primula frowned. “I don’t know. These Big Folk might have attacked the party wherever it happened, and it’s true that most people don’t like to travel far from home in the spring.”

One of the cousins Acorn didn’t know grumbled. “Dratted birds will eat all the seedlings before we make it back.”

“Oh!” Acorn said. “That is why Hamfast could not come to my party once we decided to have it in Buckland. The Gamgees could not leave their gardening for a whole week in springtime.”

“If that’s the largest of our troubles after tonight,” Adalgrim said, “I’ll count us lucky, Merrimac.”

“What are the bad men going to do to us?” Asphodel asked. Her bottom lip trembled, and tears filled her eyes again.

“We’ll be alright,” Primula said. She squeezed Asphodel to her, smoothing her hair gently. “Though it might take us a little while to make our way home.” Primula looked up at the stars peeking through the forest canopy. “I’m glad I have Drogo his ring back.”

“Who is Drogo?” Acorn was cold and afraid. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw her mother lying still on the grass. Finding out that Primula was engaged and called it off was much more interesting. At least it didn’t hurt to think about.

“Drogo Baggins,” Primula smiled at Acorn, but the shadows on her face made her look strange and unhappy. “He’s a closer cousin to you than I am. Do you know him?”

Acorn frowned. “No. My Baggins cousins do not like me. Only Aunt Lobelia ever comes to tea or has us to her house.”

Primula snorted and looked back up at the stars. “And that is why I gave him back his ring.”

“Because he does not like me?” Acorn was confused. Primula was nice, but they didn’t know each other very well. Before Acorn’s birthday party, they only saw each other at harvest time and sometimes during the summer in Tuckborough.

“Because he is a stuffy stick-in-the-mud who wouldn’t come to a party in Buckland even if it meant seeing me.” Acorn understood. She wouldn’t want to marry someone who didn’t like parties either.

“You should definitely marry someone who likes birthday parties,” Acorn said. “Birthday parties are the best. There’s always cake, and you get a present, and most times there’s dancing.”

“That is very good advice, Cousin,” Primula said. “You are as smart as your mother, aren’t you?”

“No one is as smart as Mum.” Acorn’s stomach clenched tightly. She was going to be sick. Her own lip started to tremble like Asphodel’s. Blinking, she saw her mother lying still on the grass. So very still.

“Now then, Acorn Baggins, as we are all cousins, I should like you to do me a favor,” Adalgrim Took said.

“Okay.” Glancing back at the loping orcs, Acorn knew she was ready. This time, she would fight. She wouldn’t let Adalgrim, Asphodel, and Primula be hurt like Mum. If they could get the cage open, they could escape.

“I know that everything is very frightening right now, but it has been a long day and a longer night. Can you close your eyes for a few minutes? I regret that I do not have a jacket to offer you — I seem to have left mine at the party — but if you stay here in my lap, we can stave off the cold a bit.”

“Sleep?” Acorn stared at him in shock. “I am not going to sleep! We have to fight! Escape!”

Adalgrim’s mouth broke into a surprised grin. Then he pressed his lips together, forcing it away. “You are just as much a Took as your mother, aren’t you, Acorn Baggins? Ten years old and ready to ride into battle. But your mother would know that a fighter must choose the best time. Orcs are weakest when the sun is high. Sleep through the night so that we can be at our best when the right moment comes.”

“My mother is dead.” Once again, tears burned at the corners of Acorn’s eyes, but she tried to blink them away. Adalgrim gripped her shoulder very tightly before moving his hand to the center of her back and patting her gently once more.

“Are you sure?” There was gravel in his voice, as though the thought of Mum’s death made him want to cry as well.

Acorn thought about what she had seen. “The man who grabbed Asphodel and me hit her with a club. She was very still, and there was blood on her face. He looked down at her and cursed. I think if she’d been alive, he would have taken her.”

“Perhaps.” Adalgrim took a slow, shaky breath. “But I think it’s just as likely he couldn’t carry her. After all, he was already carrying two hobbits. A third might have been too much for him.”

“Oh! Then you think she was only knocked out? Like in the Battle of Five Armies?”

“Why, certainly. And she’s probably the better for it. Since now she is free and back home, not captured like we are.”

“Then she will come to rescue us!”

A break in the canopy of the forest allowed moonlight to shine down into their cage, reflecting off Adalgrim’s teeth, making his smile glow white in the darkness. “I’m sure she will. But you must be ready to go when she catches up with us. That means resting now.”

Nodding, Acorn slid down a bit more, resting her head on Adalgrim’s leg. “Do you know, she once stole thirteen dwarves out of an inescapable dungeon?”

“I’ve heard her stories, yes.” Adalgrim’s voice was soft, and he gave Acorn’s back a gentle pat. “Just you close your eyes and think about your mother’s adventures. If anyone can keep you safe, little one, it is your mother.”

The cart beneath them bounced and rattled uncomfortably. Wooden splinters poked at Acorn through her dress where she was not on Adalgrim’s lap. Cold wind whispered through the trees, and the dark forest seemed to whisper back. Once in a while, an orc would shriek with maniacal laughter as they gibbered in their strange language. Acorn thought about her mother, sneaking through the stone halls of the Elven King’s impermeable palace, creeping under Goblin Town, and stealing from a dragon. Acorn could be brave like her mother. When she was not so very tired.

Eventually, she slept.

Chapter Text

Bilbo cursed the Old Forest, but it was a waste of breath. The Old Forest was already cursed. Although it was not as dark and close as Mirkwood with its strange, disorienting mist, the trees themselves were more hostile. Fortunately, the cart tracks Bilbo followed were deep, and she did not need to trust to the path. In fact, at first she made very good time. Buttercup, the fastest pony in Buckland according to Aunt Mirabella, was happy to run down the center of the wide tracks.

Unfortunately, the trees loomed high on either side of those tracks, and eventually they tried to trip Bilbo up. Just as Buttercup curved around a little hill, the pair came upon a sprightly young rowan growing right in the middle of the cart track. Obviously, it could not have been there the day before when the cart passed this way. Apparently there was much truth to the legends that the trees of the Old Forest moved.

Buttercup, brave pony though he was, balked as they almost ran into the tree. After that, he needed to be led by his bridle, and would not go within two feet of the rowan tree. The forest seemed to radiate some malice that the beast could feel.

Though she chafed at the necessity, Bilbo walked in front of Buttercup as the trees around them creaked, whispered, and moved more quickly than trees ought to move. While the Old Forest might hide or change a walking path, the trees could not mimic the deep grooves of heavy, iron cartwheels. So Bilbo did not lose her way, but she could not go as quickly as she liked. Moreover, eager as she might be to ignore her own needs, Buttercup could not be expected to run again without water and the occasional nosebag.

The sun was high in the sky, piercing through the oppressive canopy in little shafts and dappling the hard dirt under Bilbo’s feet, when the hobbit heard the whispered rush of a little river. Learned as she was in the geography of the Shire, Bilbo knew it would be the Withywindle, if she could find it. Judging fresh water to be worth the risk of leaving their path, she led Buttercup away from the tracks.

As she went, Bilbo dropped coins on the ground in regular intervals, counting her steps carefully. The underbrush was thick, but the silver pennies sparkled. She also kept a close eye on her compass. Even if the trees moved, she should be able to find her way back to the tracks.

Of course, her brilliant plan failed to account for the river.

The Withywindle was calm, but ancient, deep, and set in its course. It wound between the trees of the Old Forest, and they did not dare try to sway or change it. Slow and clear if flowed. There was a little duckweed close to the banks, greenery that mirrored the arboreal verdance.

Buttercup put his front hooves into the weeds, dipping his head to drink thirstily. Bilbo refilled her water skins, drinking a great deal herself, and then sat on the soft, grassy bank, allowing Buttercup ten minutes to rest and graze. Close to her hand there was a smooth, white stone. It was perfect for skipping. Acorn would have loved it. Bilbo’s daughter could skip a rock all the way across the Brandywine, if it were as smooth as the Withywindle. Sighing, Bilbo stood up and flicked the rock across the water. She was not as skillful as her daughter. The stone bounced four times along the surface, then sank into the middle of the river. Blue ripples spread from where it sank, reflecting the midday sky above.

Spreading, the ripples seemed to grow into waves. The waves grew bigger, swelling into an impossibly tall tower of water. Duckweed formed a crown and beard, shaping a face in the water, while algae gave form to the monstrous thing’s eyes. Bilbo froze, her heart pounding, but Buttercup did not seem bothered, continuing to drink from the water.

“Who comes wandering, on my banks a-slinking?” The river’s voice was like thunder, booming and echoing around the rocks and trees. “You are not my daughter’s husband. You should not be drinking.”

Searching her memories frantically, Bilbo recalled the stories Farmer Maggot told about a little man who lived in the Old Forest. Tom Something-Or-Other was married to the River Daughter. She’d always liked the stories, because they were so lyrical. It occurred to her now that perhaps that was simply the mode of speech used by such ancient creatures.

“No harm is meant, Lord,” she said, “It’s just the Barrel Rider. She will no more disturb the River than a water-strider.”

“Horse and hobbit drank,” the monster said, “the River did awaken. Usually a gift is given, when so much water’s taken.”

At once, Bilbo took the pin from her hair. She was not fool enough to cheat such a powerful spirit. “Crafted by my daughter’s hands, blue beads and gold wire: take now this perfect flower, more precious than a sapphire!”

The water directly in front of Bilbo began to swell, stretching out from the bank like a grasping hand. She placed the cornflower hairpin, a birthday gift from Acorn, possibly the last gift she would ever receive from her daughter, gently into the water.

“No miser is the hobbit, to give her possession of most value.” The monster seemed to grow even larger, looking like the king of the whole forest. “Through the forest travel, with the River’s blessing shall you.”

“Humble is the hobbit,” Bilbo said, “though she drank with caprice. Grateful to the River Lord, she will go in peace.”

Bowing deeply, the hobbit tugged at Buttercup’s bridle. The river let her leave.

Following her trail of coins, picking up silver pennies one by one, she found the deep wagon wheel tracks. Once she did, she was able to breathe again, feeling like a rabbit who just barely beat a fox back to her warren. Mounting Buttercup, she whipped his reins, and raced along the trail, desperate to escape the oppressive forest.

Buttercup was as fast and willing as Aunt Mirabelle promised. Once he was fed and watered, the pony raced along the cart tracks, chasing after the slavers as though his own daughter needed rescue.

Emerging from the eaves of the Old Forest, Bilbo looked out over the rolling hills, springy green grass, and the orange, shining Withywindle winding off and away through the Barrow Downs. Looking back, Bilbo could see the gleaming line of the Brandywine, and the green Shire beyond. That was of no interest. Scanning the eastern horizon, she searched for any sign of wagons or a convoy. Was it a trick of sunset and shadow? Did she see a small line of wagons far off in the distance, headed south?

It seemed to Bilbo that she could close the gap with her quarry if she crossed the downs in a straight line, instead of curving and following the tracks exactly. However, before she trotting off with Buttercup to do just that, she took a lead from the standing stones that crowned some of the barrows. Finding as many large, flat rocks as she could, she built a cairn. It was nearly a head taller than she was, and any hobbit emerging from the forest ought to see it. Still, for good measure, she used a few smaller rocks to spell out “Bilbo Baggins went East” at the base of the little tower.

The grass was springy and passing between the barrows was easy enough. In the dying light, she risked a gallop, getting everything she could out of Buttercup by way of speed. Exhausting the pony was a calculated move, for she did not have much time.

When true night fell, and the pale light of the distant stars was swallowed by the thick fog surrounding the downs, Bilbo decided she could not risk losing her way. Past experience on the road taught her that she would not close a thirty-six hour head start on the first day, no matter how much she wanted to. Besides, the last thing she needed was for Buttercup to step in a snake hole and break a leg.

So Bilbo stopped and made camp, there among the low hills of the barrows. It was not a comfortable place to sleep. In the dark, the standing stones atop the mounds looked like jagged teeth biting at the moon. The fog was cold and damp, stealing through her cloak and wetting her clothes. Still, she was not there for pleasure or comfort. This was no walking holiday. Indeed, she did not even make a fire, so her quarry would not look back and see pursuit. Eating a meal of cold chicken, she closed her eyes and tried to sleep a little. She did not want to catch orcs in the dark. Noon would be much better, when they were at their weakest.

Unfortunately, the dark caught her. Sometime after midnight, Bilbo opened her eyes with a snap to see a dark figure like a shadow against the stars. Where its face should have been, there were two eyes, lit from within by a pale, greenish light. A hand stretched down toward her, and though it moved as if underwater, she could not dodge away from it.

Words came from the fell shape. It seemed to be chanting an incantation, though its voice was unnatural. The sound rose and fell impossibly, sometimes the shriek of a cold wind in the mountains, sometimes a low grumble from deep within the earth. Stars were consumed by darkness, and all of life was buried upon a tomb of icy gold in the shadow’s song. Frozen with fear as she was, Bilbo realized that the shade must be a barrow-wight. One of the dead lords from an old, forgotten kingdom. Then, as if that thought was a croquet ball, knocking another toward the post, she realized something else. If the wight took her to his tomb beneath the earth, there would be no one to rescue Acorn.

In a flash, Sting was unsheathed and buried deep within the center mass of the formless shape.

Hissing, the wight wrapped one hand around the blade, holding it still. Its chant grew ever louder, thundering in Bilbo’s ears with the rushing of her own pulse. Struggling with all of her strength, the hobbit could not pull her weapon free to strike again. Worse, the song of the barrow-wight seemed to sap Bilbo’s energy. Her limbs felt ever weaker. She needed help, but there was no help for her in these lands. No help, but the land itself.

“Ho!” she cried. “Long dead Barrow-wight, you should not be here! For I have the River’s leave, across these lands to wander!”

The wight laughed: an awful, rattling cough. One of its shadowy hands continued to grip Sting, but the other reached out for Bilbo once more. “Withywindle is not warm. His shine is only sunlight. Come now into your tomb, you new and lovely wight!”

“Light is not the only power, though it seem so to the dark. You are thin mist born on air, and to the river you must hark!”

Leaning ever closer, the wight’s cold hand closed around Bilbo’s arm. The smell of mist, sulfur, and long dead things wafted from its gaping mouth. There were teeth within that mouth, jagged and terrible like the standing stones upon the mounds.

Suddenly, the foul creature jerked backward, releasing Bilbo and her sword all at once. The hobbit stumbled, quickly righting herself and lifting Sting to guard against another attack. A raindrop hit her face like a tear. The barrow-wight snarled, taking a half step toward Bilbo. Then, rain began to fall in earnest, knocking all of the mist out of the air. Thunder rolled across the downs. Lightning flashed like a sword through the sky. The wight vanished between one blink and the next.

Gasping for air, Bilbo collapsed to the ground, trembling with fear and murmuring her thanks over and over again to the River Lord of the Withywindle. The rain soaked through all of her clothing, turning the grassy earth beneath her to soggy mud. She’d never been more grateful for rain in all her life.

Eventually, she felt a light tug on her scalp. Buttercup was nibbling her hair. The presence of the wight made him bolt, but, valiant steed that he was, he’d returned to his rider once the danger passed. Bilbo looked up at him. He nuzzled her face.

“You’re a good boy, Buttercup,” Bilbo said. “I don’t think you want to stay here for the rest of the night, though!”

The pony seemed to agree, allowing himself to be saddled and led by his bridle through the rest of the downs. Carefully as Bilbo wanted to go, fear sped her feet. Within the space of an hour, the pair made their way from the barrows to the flat meadow beyond. Rain continued to pour steadily from the sky, and in such a flat place, lightning seemed more of a danger than a gift. Unfortunately, the only shelter nearby would be one of the barrows, and Bilbo was not a fool.

The smartest thing to do would be to try to build a fire, huddle close to Buttercup under every blanket they had, and wait for morning. Far in the distance, to the south-east, she saw that someone else had done so. The last time she’d snuck up on a fire in the rain, eleven years before, the camp belonged to trolls. Hopefully this time it would be orcs. Kidnappers. Evil men. They deserved far worse than being turned to stone.

Bilbo could not sit idle while that fire blazed in the distance. Despite the risks of fox dens and badger burrows, she started across the meadow in the dark, with only the occasional spark of lightning to see by. She needed no light, except the fire that guided her way. As a hobbit, she could feel the ground beneath her feet well enough, and she was able to save Buttercup from burdock and thistles by walking into them first.

Distance in such a flat place was deceptive. By the time Bilbo drew close enough to hear voices and see shadows moving in front of the campfire, the cloudy sky was growing gray instead of black, signalling the approaching dawn.

Tying Buttercup to a bundle of cornflowers was good sense. Uprooting them would be easy for him, but the gesture was sufficient to let him know he was supposed to stay unless danger presented. The well trained pony began to graze some nearby clover, more tolerant of the continuing rain than Bilbo herself.

Slipping her invisibility ring onto her finger, Bilbo crept closer to the fire to see what she could see.

The men camped around the fire were not the ones she sought. Bilbo knew it at once, and her heart broke with the realization. They were Big People, but they had no black armor, only leather jerkins. Their swords were bright steel, not dark iron. All told, they were much better equipped for travel than Bilbo. Their camp was comprised of comfortable lean-tos made of brush, bedding made of warm cloaks, and breakfast made of porridge and slowly roasting rabbit. In other circumstances, Bilbo would have crept away, giving the men a wide berth, to continue on her quest. Fifteen Big People was trouble that she did not need. Even so, she hesitated.

Most of them were very badly hurt. One fellow lay groaning on a bed of packs, a friend hovering over him anxiously, washing a handkerchief over and over in the falling rain and using it to cool his brow. They needed help. If Bilbo stopped, perhaps she could give it, but that would delay her own progress. Still, if the fire did not belong to her quarry, then she had no way to find them in the dark. The rain would wash away the deep tracks of the wagons. She would not find those either. Lost. Acorn was lost. Bilbo could not delay.

One of the injured men cursed in sudden pain as he tried to shift a clearly broken leg.

“I will set that for you in a moment, Halbarad,” said the man who was tending to his fevered friend. “If someone can tend to Arasil while I do so?”

Sighing, Bilbo took off her ring. There did not appear to be another man among them well enough to aid the poor fellow.

Before she could approach the fire and introduce herself, however, another person with long golden hair strode into the camp. The rain did not seem to bother him at all. Behind him, Buttercup trotted happily along, eagerly trading his allegiance to the Shire for the promise of warmth.

“I have found sign of our pursuit, Strider,” the elf said, “But it is not as we feared.”

The healer looked up from his pale friend, glancing at the pony and taking a moment to wipe rainwater from his own brow. “That saddle is Shire-made. A hobbit?”

“I believe so,” the elf said. “Few tracks can be seen in rain such as this, but I would wager I saw sign of hobbit feet.”

“Riding to the rescue of their kin, no doubt,” Strider murmured. Then, very loudly, he said, “Let the pony go. Hobbits of the Shire have nothing to fear from the Rangers of the North, but they may hesitate to approach us. They may not realize that those who captured their kin were the ones who wounded us so.”

“I will release the pony back onto the plain,” the elf said, also very loudly. “Though a hobbit who wished to warm himself by the fire and shelter from the rain would be very welcome in our camp. We are no friends of those who attacked the Shire.”

Rolling her eyes, Bilbo stepped into the circle of firelight. “Thank you for the kind invitation, Prince Legolas. Master Strider, I am Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and I should be very happy to do what I can for Mister Arasil while you see to Mister Halbarad’s leg.”

Strider had the good grace to look a bit surprised by Bilbo’s sudden appearance, though Legolas only bowed gracefully.

“Mistress Baggins,” the prince said. “It is an honor to see you again. Strider, Bilbo is an Elf Friend, both in the Greenwood and in Rivendell.”

“Then the honor is mine as well,” Strider said graciously. “Yet in times of need, one may hope to be forgiven for abandoning manners. If you can take over for me here, keeping poor Arasil as comfortable as possible, I will certainly accept your offer of aid.”

“Happily,” Bilbo said, crossing the camp to take the handkerchief from Strider at once. “Hello, Mister Arasil. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” The man nodded at her, or perhaps only trembled with his fever.

For a while, there was no more talk, except Halbarad’s cursing as Strider tended his leg. Then Legolas said, “Are you in pursuit of the slavers, Mistress Baggins?”

“Of course I am,” she answered absently, not looking up from Arasil. “What else would I be doing out here in this weather?”

“Their numbers are many,” Legolas warned. “We set upon them at dusk, thinking to free their captives, but they counter ambushed us, and the results are as you see.”

“I am not going to attack them head on like some sort of dwarf,” Bilbo said sensibly. “I shall simply sabotage them, slow them so that the folk who will be following from Hobbiton can catch us up, and steal away a few members of my family at a time.”

“We cannot allow that.” Perhaps Halbarad’s voice was so firm because of pain from his injury. Perhaps he did not mean to be appallingly rude. Whatever his intention, Bilbo was incensed.

Leaping to her feet, she cast back her cloak letting the mithril armor shine in the firelight. One hand on the sword at her side and the other outstretched toward Halbarad, she cried, “Let me? I am the Burglar of Erebor, the Lucky Number, the Riddle Winner, and the Barrel Rider! I am She Who Walks Unseen! You may try to stand between me and my daughter if you like, but you shall find this hobbit has a Sting!”

Rocking backward, Halbarad mumbled that he intended no offense, and all the other rangers stared at Bilbo in amazement. Rain fell on Bilbo’s face. Thunder rolled in the distance.

Arasil made a little noise. At once, the hobbit dropped back to his side. “Oh dear,” she said. “I am very sorry, Mister Arasil. I have been neglecting you!”

He made the noise again. Bilbo realized that it was a laugh. “I have lived to see Halbarad set down by a hobbitess,” he said. “After such a sight, I could die happily.”

“You are not going to die at all,” she scolded, wiping his brow.

“Indeed he is not,” Strider said, looking tremendously relieved. “His fever is breaking.” Lowering a medicine bowl to the man’s lips, he bade his friend drink, and gently took the handkerchief back from Bilbo.

When it seemed that all of their patients were stable, Bilbo set about wringing out her soaked clothing and drying off by the fire. Gratefully accepting some of the hot porridge and roasted rabbit, she broke her fast comfortably under a lean-to. The men all had to lie down or hunch to remain out of the rain in their little shelters, but Bilbo was small enough to sit easily.

Over breakfast, she asked for what information the men could give her about their shared enemy.

“We set upon them at dusk last night,” Legolas said, “and I take the blame for that myself. I counted thirty men standing guard and a small number of orcs following the wagons carrying the hobbits. With arrows and ambush, we thought that the sixteen of us could win the day. Yet they were more prepared than I believed, for there were twice again as many orcs hiding in the tall grass. As the sun set, they overpowered us, and the men rode away with their prize while some of the orcs gave their lives to hold us here. After that, we could not follow without abandoning those of our number who were too badly injured to continue.”

Bilbo assumed that “we” referred to Strider and Legolas, as everyone else was clearly too badly injured to continue. “You say some of the orcs gave their lives. Then you have thinned their numbers a little?”

“Yes. The count of the dead is more easily given than the count of those who remain. We burned the bodies of twenty three orcs and five men. More among their number will be injured, and hopefully that will slow them somewhat.”

“Yet you fought them at sunset, and it is now dawn. I am still fifteen hours behind, though I travel light and they are burdened.” Bilbo watched the light filling the eastern sky, but there was still too much rain to see far.

“There is good news,” Strider said, “if any news can be called good at a time such as this. They took off down the Greenway, and it does not seem to be their intent to deviate from the road. So your path will be straight, at least as far as Tharbad.”

“That is something.” Bilbo wanted to smile at him, but she was not sure of her success. Instead, she bent low, and picked up a stone. Moving to the edge of the camp, she found a few more, and began building another cairn.

“There is something more, if you will accept it,” Legolas said after a while. “I will travel with you. Though I am unhorsed, as our company walked to patrol these lands. I can run fleetly at need, and should not slow you overmuch.”

Bilbo wanted to leap at the offer. In the Battle of Five Armies, no warrior felled more orcs than Legolas son of Thranduil. Even so, speed was of the essence. Taking a moment to think, she wrote “Bilbo Baggins took this road” in little white rocks at the base of her cairn.

“You are quite sure about that?” she asked. “Obviously, Buttercup and I cannot go at a gallop for long, but I intend to trot swiftly enough to close some distance.”

Legolas smiled. “Matters would be different if you rode a stallion from the Greenwood, but I can keep pace with your pony over long distances, if not in a sprint. Fear not.”

“As can I,” Strider said, his face grim.

Legolas turned to the man with wide eyes. “Surely your place is with your people, seeing them safely to Rivendell where you can rest and recover.”

When he bowed his head, the ranger’s hood covered his face in shadow so that Bilbo could not read his expression. “It is the duty of our people to protect these lands. If a hundred and seven hobbits can be stolen from the Shire, then our blood has failed. Unless I may spend my own to win them back.”

“Now, now,” Bilbo said, “The only blood that ought to be shed belongs to those awful kidnappers. If you are to come with me, I’ll thank you to remember as much.”

Arasil laughed again. He was sitting up in his sickbed and looked much stronger. Whatever else this Strider was capable of, he seemed to be a fine healer. “A prince, my chief, and a halfling, yet it is the hobbit who leads your company?”

“And who else?” Bilbo sniffed. “It is my daughter we are rescuing. Are the two of you ready to go? I will not tarry long.”

Strider looked out from underneath his shadowy hood, quirking a brow, the corner of his mouth twitching up in a hint of a smile. “I pray you will tarry long enough for me to change the bandage about your skull.”

“Oh!” Bilbo put her hand up to the cotton. It was sopping with rainwater like a sponge, despite her hooded cloak. “I suppose if it does not take too much time,” she said, not wanting to admit that she had quite forgotten about the wound.

Strider’s hands were gentle with her hair where it tangled in the bandage, and he used a poultice which would speed healing and prevent infection. Looking up at him while he worked, Bilbo noticed that his eyes were gray as the rain soaked sky. For a moment, they put her in mind of bluer eyes, like cloudless summer, and a fuller, darker beard than the rough, unshaven man sported. She wished her friends were on the road with her, but wishing was a waste of time.

Other than that short delay, Legolas and Strider were both very obliging. Soon Bilbo was trotting down the Greenway headed east with two unexpected companions loping along beside her.

Chapter Text

Thorin kept his traveling armor well maintained, but he oiled it again anyway. The last time it saw real use was during the Battle of Five armies. A king could not go out on patrol as Dwalin might, hunting orcs and dark creatures that dared come too near the Lonely Mountain. Instead, too often, he wore ceremonial plate mail. The image of a king in the mind of many dwarves was not equalled by Thorin’s person. He fought with an elvish sword, instead of a dwarven ax. He wore scale mail crafted by his own hand, instead of plate made by an ancient master. He was unmarried, and jeopardized the line of Durin.

As if summoned by Thorin’s guilt, Fili entered the room. The sitting room was technically part of the king’s private chambers, but Thorin’s nephews only ever knocked before entering his bedroom. It was good that Fili did not knock before entering now. It meant he was here to speak with his kin, not his king.

“Are you coming to dinner, uncle? You know it is good luck to start a long journey with a feast. All of the Company will be joining us in the Sapphire Dining Room, along with Dwalin’s ten best lieutenants. The soldiers and their families are feasting in the Great Hall.”

Thorin shook his head. “You will all be better able to make merry without me,” he said. “I shall come down later to give the soldiers a speech, and join the singing with our Company.”

“As you wish,” Fili said. Then, he surprised his uncle by crossing the room and taking Thorin’s shoulder, leaning down until their foreheads touched. Setting his armor aside, Thorin returned the gesture. “I’ll have someone bring a tray up. You won’t get to Bilbo any quicker by marching on an empty stomach.”

Thorin nodded, but he did not meet his nephew’s eyes. Fili clasped his shoulder one more time in farewell before turning to go. Just as he reached the door, Thorin found his courage.

“Nephew. We should talk.”

Fili’s brown eyes were tremendously sympathetic when he looked back at Thorin. “Believe me when I say I would like nothing better, but I do not believe it is time for that, yet.”

“Fili. This is not easy. If you behaved as I have done, many would call for you to be disinherited. Just as it was when Kili married that elf. Indeed, you may be approached by interested parties suggesting that you come into your kingship sooner rather than later.”

“Uncle.” Fili perched on the arm of the couch opposite Thorin. “Allow me to save you this worry. If, in the course of events, you and Bilbo should happen to reconcile, and by some miracle have a child, then I will be happy to relinquish my place as your heir.”

“Absolutely not!” Thorin closed a fist around his polishing rag, feeling the oil seep through his fingers. “You have been dutiful, loyal, and steadfast. I will take nothing from you that ought to be yours by right. Not as a result of my own dereliction and iniquity.”

“Uncle,” Fili said gently, “If I have been a dutiful heir, it is because I love you. Erebor is the dream of my childhood, of your stories and Mother’s. I will do the best I can, if the kingship comes to me, but I do not want it. I have never wanted it. Indeed, before Kili’s less-than-political marriage, I often imagined a day when I might step aside in his favor.”

“What?” It would not be possible to overstate Thorin’s surprise at this declaration. All his life, Fili had been groomed to lead their people. That he should not desire the duty was strange, for he never once complained of it.

“A king must put duty to his people above all things.” Fili shrugged, as though this did not bother him. “I could not choose the quest over my brother when Kili was wounded in Lake Town. I could never have taken the Arkenstone from you as Bilbo did.”

“Loyalty is not a fault,” Thorin said.

“Devotion can be. In a king.” Fili looked down at his hands. “When the choice comes to do what is right for Erebor or to protect a single person that I love, I will not choose our people. I would not want to. Yet I know that a king cannot act so. I dread the day when I must be more than a prince who protects his family.”

“Such choices are never black and white. Even now, we prepare to march a batallion across half the world on the word of a single hobbit. Do you think that is me choosing what is best for Erebor?”

“I do,” Fili said surprisingly. “Orcs and men working together to kidnap so many free people? If the news did not come from Bilbo, you would not go yourself, but you would send aid. We must know who dares such a thing, for it is a sign of some dark force growing strong. And that could mean danger for Erebor.”

Thorin narrowed his eyes at his nephew. “Perhaps you are too kind to those you love.”

Fili laughed. “Perhaps I am, and perhaps I only want their number to grow. Even if she is not to be my cousin, I look forward to meeting Bilbo’s daughter. A daughter on the first try! Bilbo is a lucky hobbitess.”

Feeling his mouth twitch in a reluctant smile, Thorin said, “She likes music.”

“Bilbo’s daughter would!” Fili laughed again. “I am half convinced the hobbit only came with us on our adventure because she liked our singing.”

“I am entirely convinced of it,” Thorin said. “She told me as much.”

“Then you must bring your harp on this adventure,” Fili advised, “to serenade them both when you meet. And you must keep your promise to come down later, so that our own folk may benefit from your voice before marching out in the morning.”

Thorin pushed his nephew off the arm of the sofa. Laughing, Fili rolled away and bounced toward the door. As he left, the king considered his words. In the ten years since Erebor’s reclamation, Fili was the only member of his family to encourage him to consider some of the many marriage proposals he received. At the time, it seemed to Thorin that Fili only wanted the king to find what happiness he could in Bilbo’s absence. Now, he wondered if there had been some selfish motivation in his heir’s advice. Or, as selfish as loyal Fili was capable of being, which by dwarven standards was not at all.

Not that it mattered, unless Bilbo could be persuaded to love him. Thorin would never again receive a proposal of marriage from a respectable dwarrowdam. Once rumors about why they marched to rescue hobbits made the rounds, no one would ever propose to him again, despite the temptations of being a queen. No dam would consider a husband who’d lain with another.

As it happened, he was wrong about that. In fact, he received a proposal of marriage the very same night.

The speech he gave to his feasting soldiers was not his best. Thorin tried to speak of Bilbo, of the debt owed to her by all the dwarves of Erebor, and of an unknown enemy best dragged into the light. Unfortunately, no speech could express Bilbo’s value, and he had no right to suggest that the line of Durin was endangered. Still, the ale was flowing, and Thorin possessed some little skill at rhetoric. The assembled dwarves cheered. When Thorin was offered a golden tankard, he drank with them.

Before he finished his beer, Balin appeared at his elbow, trying to usher him from the room. Thorin was confused by this breach of etiquette. He would not insult the soldiers he marched with by refusing to drink in their company.

Then, he saw the fight break out. It was not much of a fight. A big, broad dwarf with a great deal of ale in her beard punched the dwarf beside her so hard that he fell and did not get up. Clambering up onto the table, one foot crushing the remains of a roasted duck, she pointed a finger at the king.

“I will marry you, Thorin Oakenshield,” she declared. Then she tripped a little and stepped in the bread basket. “For a sharp ax, and a suit of armor, and, um, a golden tankard. And a better walking stick for my old mum, because I’m worried about her falling while we’re gone. Also, some gold. Probably.”

Several dwarves laughed in shock at this inelegant proposal, but Thorin was touched. Bowing deeply, he answered the soldier as courteously as he would a noble princess. “I am honored by your proposal, Dia Broadback, and I thank you. Indeed, the challenges you set before me are unequal to the esteem in which I hold you, for your value to me is beyond price. Yet, unworthy as I am of your offer, I do not think to marry at this time.”

“Alright,” she said, not seeming overly disappointed, and clambered down from the table, aided by her fellows. In the respectful quiet of the hall, all could hear what she said next, though she no longer proclaimed it like a war cry. “An’ that’s lucky, ‘cause I don’t want to be a queen. But he’s my king, an’ I love him, an’ any dam would be lucky to have such a dwarf. I’ll knock the teeth out of anyone who says otherwise.”

Laughter echoed from the ceiling arches at this coarse speech, and a rousing chorus of one of the more embarrassingly complimentary odes to Thorin’s rule broke out. After a few verses of that, Thorin was more than willing to let Balin usher him off to the Sapphire Dining Room and his officers.

“That could have gone worse,” Balin said, grinning.

“Indeed,” Thorin agreed. “I believe Fia the Old is a master in the guild of silversmiths. Arrange for a member of that guild to check on her regularly while we are away.”

“Yes, sire.” Balin nodded in a way that indicated he already planned to take care of the matter, but approved of Thorin thinking of it.

“And a walking stick,” he added. “If it can be done subtly and not traced back to me.”

“Of course.” Balin very kindly did not laugh at him.

Thorin did not sleep that night. Instead, he studied Bilbo’s letters closely. There were over a hundred of them. Ten years worth of correspondence, and almost every page spoke of Acorn. Thorin would not take the letters on the road. He could not risk losing them. Instead, he copied passages that might later be useful into a small diary that could be carried in a pack. Acorn’s eyes were blue. Acorn preferred chicken eggs to quail. Acorn could run more swiftly than other hobbits her age. Acorn liked to work with her hands and could sew, knit, crochet, and bead very well for one so young.

Thorin included a few silks and jeweled beads in his pack. It would not do to meet the lass without a gift.

This was not the preparation of a warrior king before a long march. He should have slept or seen to provisioning his troops. Unfortunately, that would have been utterly impossible, so perhaps it is best that he spent the time productively.

In the morning, three of his ravens returned. It was too soon to hear from Rivendell, Gondor, the Shire, or most of the dwarven strongholds, but he was pleased with the news the birds brought. Dain would come from the Iron Hills to support Dis in Thorin’s absence. Bard’s preparations were all in readiness, though the price would be slightly more than Thorin’s initial estimate. Even Thranduil was not going to add to Thorin’s problems. Apparently Kili’s wife offered some intercession on Thorin’s behalf. The dwarves had permission to take the Old Forest Road through Mirkwood, though spies would be sent to guard them and ensure that they did not deviate from the path or venture into Thranduil’s kingdom. Thranduil seemed to consider Tauriel an adequate chaperone to ensure that the dwarves truly marched for Bilbo’s welfare and not to expand an empire.

It was the best he could hope for. Kili would have insisted the elf come along anyway.

Shortly after dawn, a small army marched forth from Erebor, following Thorin Oakenshield. They went to aid the Shire. They went to aid Bilbo Baggins, who once saved the life of their king three times over. They went to battle orcs and other foul things, because they were dwarves, and dwarves did not bow before shadows or fear the dark. If there were whispers of another reason, they were quashed as soon as they arose. The dwarves loved their king, and they were happy to follow him.

They were happier still when they passed through Dale and came to the near shore of the Long Lake. Arrayed there they saw all the barges, fishing boats, and merchant crafts of the men who lived in the area. There were thirty five boats in all, enough for the soldiers and their supplies to ride very comfortably, not only across the Long Lake, but for leagues down the River Running. To march for half a day and then rest for two on fast boats that covered distance during the night as well as the day seemed very clever to the soldiers. They were most pleased with their leadership for thinking of such a plan.

Only the war goats did not enjoy the boats. The fierce animals were not meant to be cooped up for days on end, and they started butting heads by the afternoon of the first day. Forcibly separating two billies, Bombur slipped in a pile of scat and nearly wound up in the water. Without Bofur’s quick thinking, there might have been a stampede. The miner hooked his mattock around one of the goat’s horns and wrestled it to the ground, away from his brother. Bombur, covered in scat, rolled to his feet and faced off against the other goat, knocking his own head into it so hard that it slumped down dazed. After that, the goats settled, acknowledging the dwarves as the strongest members of their herd.

The goats were still very happy to be off the boats, though the soldiers were less than pleased with their march through Mirkwood. The Old Forest Road was broad and straight, but it still passed under looming, shadowy trees. Night was still blacker than coal and full of strange noises. The elves did not attack, but they were haughty as they made their watchful presence known repeatedly. Still, there was wood enough for bright campfires to chase away the dark, and provisions enough to eat well after a long day’s march. Spurred on by their dislike of the place, the dwarves made excellent time.

After three and a half days of marching, the dwarves emerged from the dark forest into the bright sunlight. It was there, staring across the Anduin to the Misty Mountains, that Thorin received the raven that he most anxiously awaited.

Chapter Text

Acorn woke in the rattling wagon. The sun was high in the sky. She blinked slowly to clear the sleep from her eyes. Adalgrim Took was still there, resting a hand on her shoulder, but he was not asleep. She smiled tentatively at him, and he returned the expression.

“Any chance of breakfast?” she asked, stomach gurgling.

“Not so far,” her kinsman said. “I should certainly wake you up if there was. I remember what it’s like to be a growing hobbit.”

Acorn frowned unhappily. “I thought Mum would be here by now.”

“I’m sure she’ll come soon,” Adalgrim said. But she did not. As the time for breakfast came and went, and second breakfast was similarly unobserved, all of the hobbits began to grumble. Indeed, they forgot their fear for the sake of cursing at the cruel men who refused to feed them. Unfortunately, their captors seemed impervious to their complaints.

When elevenses came around and the sun was so high that the trees no longer shaded them fully, the orcs started hissing at the men. Then, they would run no further, but hid from the light under the wagons and in the biggest trees. Reluctantly the men stopped the wagons and set up a camp for themselves. They ate roasted meat and bread, still ignoring the hungry hobbits. Some of them threw bones at the prisoners, and the hobbits threw them back angrily. Hobbits were not by nature wasteful, but they’d only missed three meals, and no one wanted to eat garbage.

This show of pride amused the men, and they came around then with buckets of water and boiled oats. Acorn would not call it oatmeal. Oatmeal had cream, fresh berries, and sugar. These were boiled oats. Worse than this lack of embellishment, was that the prisoners were not given dishes or cutlery. Instead, everyone was allowed to take a handful of the slop and eat it from their fingers. It was utterly disgusting, and if Acorn were less hungry, she could not have done it. As it was, she licked every trace of grain or liquid from her fingers, then looked around for more.

No more seemed to be forthcoming. She wondered if perhaps she would have gnawed a bone, had she been lucky enough to catch one.

Adalgrim led Acorn by the hand over to Asphodel and Primula. “Just you stay here with your cousins, all right?”

Nodding, Acorn took Asphodel’s hand in her own. She didn’t know what was about to happen, but it clearly wasn’t anything good.

Then Adalgrim went back to the bars closest to the cage door. “Oy,” he called, and a few of the men lounging around their fire looked up.

“It would be wise to let us rest, little rabbit,” one of the men said. Folding his unnaturally long legs under him and standing up, he strode over to the side of the cage with a strange kind of grace. “We can be cruel when we are tired.”

“Be as cruel as you like to me,” Adalgrim said, “I expect nothing else. But the fauntlings and tweenagers need more food, or they will grow ill before we get wherever you are taking us.”

The man waved a hand dismissively. “No one ever died from eating one meal a day. You halflings are too soft.”

“A fauntling might.” Adalgrim’s knuckles were white where they gripped the bars. “Our people value food because we need it. If you want us to arrive at our destination strong and ready to work, the young ones at least must have a little more to eat.”

Lips curling into a cruel sneer, the man said, “Is that what you imagine, little farmer? That we are taking you off to till a field somewhere? Weak, soft folk like you would make poor slaves. No, you are for the chopping block.”

Asphodel squeaked in alarm. Primula pulled both girls to her chest quickly. Acorn was quite happy to go, clinging to her cousin’s skirts and trembling with fear.

“If you wanted to eat us,” Adalgrim said calmly, “you would do well to finish us on sweet corn and carrots, not starve away our fat.”

Loud and sudden, the man’s laugh was incongruously bright in the shadowy Old Forest. “Well said, little farmer. Though our companions may indeed eat any who take ill on the journey,” he said, gesturing to the orcs hiding in the darkest places around the camp. “I do not think I would like the taste of halfling. No, we are bringing you to our Master for his experiments. He will pay well for any halfling that arrives still breathing. The rest of your condition does not matter much.”

Acorn forced her hands to stop shaking. That was better than being eaten, surely.

“Experiments?” Adalgrim’s voice was even and conversational, as though they were discussing the weather, not chopping blocks.

“Our Master is a great wizard who seeks to change the fundamental nature of the world. He will cross orcs and men to make fighters as fierce as my comrades who do not fear the sunlight. Perhaps he will give them other things as well: halfling feet that do not need boots, dwarven stamina, elvish eyes.”

“I do not understand how even a wizard could do such a thing,” Adalgrim said. To Acorn’s shock, he sounded almost impressed by the prospect.

“Do you not?” The man’s smile grew and Acorn saw that he was missing two of his teeth. It gave his mouth an uneven, predatory look. “Yet our Master has heard rumor that your kind already cross. Hobbits in the village of Bree have born children with men. Another in Hobbiton has given birth to a dwarfling. And, of course, there are the Tooks, who have elvish blood, though it is distant and many generations removed.”

“Real halflings,” Acorn whispered. Then, she spoke up. “If you had a halfling, a real halfling, to — to take apart, would you let everyone else go?”

Knocking the cage bars hard with the flat of his sword, the man forced Adalgrim to stumble backward. Peering into the cage, he looked straight at Acorn. His eyes were a cold blue, like the rushing Brandywine, and just as deadly as that fearsome river.

“Do I have a halfling?” he asked. “My Master would pay very well for that.”

“Would you let everyone else go?” Acorn repeated, her voice high and tremulous, not steady and brave as she would like.

When the man smiled with a closed mouth, he did not look quite as terrible. “Aren’t you an interesting little lass?” he said. “And clever, too, to look for your chance. My name is Bill. What’s yours?”

“Acorn Baggins,” she said, more boldly.

“Don’t tell him anything,” Primula Brandybuck hissed.

“Now Acorn, don’t you listen to that old shrew. I’ve heard a lot of boring things about hobbits. That you’ll flee rather than fight, and that you’ll huddle together instead of looking to your own needs. But you seem brighter than that, Acorn. I’ll tell you what. If you can point out the true halfling to me, and offer me some proof, I’ll let you go. You’ll have to walk home alone through this rotten old forest, but I wager you’re smart enough to make it.”

Acorn knew that he wouldn’t let her go once she admitted to being the halfling, but this still seemed like an opportunity. “Will you let Asphodel go?”

“What?” Cocking his head to the side, Bill furrowed his brow in confusion.

“Instead of me. Will you let my friend Asphodel go? She’s much faster and cleverer than I am, and she’d have a better chance of making it through the forest.”

“Oh.” The man’s face relaxed as he sighed, looking almost disappointed. “How dull. A hero.”

“A hero?” Acorn asked in confusion.

“You’re the halfling, little Acorn, and don’t try to deny it. I can see now that your feet are different than your friend’s. Your ears are rounder as well. Still, I’ll be well paid for you. What are you half of?”

“Let Asphodel go, and I will tell you.” Asphodel’s hand was clutching Acorn’s so tightly that she could not feel her fingers.

“No. You’ll tell me or I’ll horsewhip this one until he bleeds.” Bill gestured at Adalgrim without looking away from Acorn, as though the threat of violence did not bother him at all.

“Dwarf!” Acorn shouted quickly. “My father was a dwarf.”

“Good.” Bill smiled, showing his terrible teeth again. “That just about makes up for you being so boring.” He tossed her a small, hard loaf of bread, and she caught it reflexively. “Eat up. The Master will want you to survive at least one round of his experiments.”

Acorn couldn’t move, just stood shaking and staring at Bill until he was lounging by the campfire once again, well away from the cages. Then she thrust the bread at Asphodel and rushed over to Adalgrim.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry!”

“Hush.” Gathering her in his arms, Adalgrim pet her hair. “It’s not your fault, and our new friend Bill didn’t do anything to hurt me.”

“He’s not my friend,” Acorn gasped.

“No,” Adalgrim murmured. “No, he is not.”

Eventually, Acorn calmed down, and Adalgrim led her back over to where Asphodel and Primula sat. Asphodel broke the bread into four pieces and each of the fauntlings in the cage had some. When Acorn offered a piece to Adalgrim, the adult hobbits said they were not hungry. That seemed unlikely, but Acorn was too ravenous to argue. The bread was much better than the oats, though it wanted butter badly and was not warm.

Then, there was nothing else to do but sit while the men slept. Acorn was not tired enough to nap. As the trees creaked around them, she thought every moment would be the one when her mother came riding up at the head of an army to rescue her. But her mother did not come, and the Old Forest loomed, shifting around their camp.

The shriek of an orc rent the air. At once, the men woke up, leapt to their feet, and had their weapons at the ready. Acorn looked about hopefully for her mother, but it was only a tree root. It wrapped tightly around the orc’s foot while he slept and was crushing his leg, slowly dragging him down into the earth. The trees of the Old Forest did not seem to like orcs much. If the stories were true, they did not like anyone, really. Hacking at the root with black axes and swords, the orcs freed their comrade, but he could not run on his injured leg.

“Kill him,” one of the men grunted, but Bill didn’t. Instead, the orc was set atop one of the cages. Acorn was glad it wasn’t hers. Watching the orcs run behind the wagons was bad enough. Listening to one cling and shift along the iron roof of the cage every time the wagon rattled would be horrible.

Bill’s scowl was fiercer than his smile. Turning back to the campfire, he said, “The sun is low enough. It will set before we make it out of this cursed forest.”

Then he did everything Mum always taught Acorn not to do with a campfire. One by one, he lifted the burning logs and hurled them into the underbrush, kicking ashes everywhere and starting little fires as he went. The trees creaked and loomed, but the little fires crackled in the greenery behind the wagons as the men whipped their horses into a trot.

Acorn’s wagon was the first of the four this time, so she could see how the men were able to travel so easily through the Old Forest. Two riders rode well in advance of the wagons with a long scythe stretched between their horses. This cleared much of the underbrush, which was trampled by other riders before the wagons got to it.

Occasionally, there would be a tree growing right in the middle of the path. When that happened, a third rider would point a big iron staff at it. There would be a flash of light and the tree would move out of the way. It was very strange, for the trees seemed to move of their own accord, like naughty cats sprayed with water, but they were trees. They did not leap or hiss like cats. Instead, the earth shifted in a wave of roots that made Acorn dizzy to watch, and the tree would be growing beside the path instead of astride it.

The rider with the iron staff did not seem to be a wizard, even though he was clearly doing magic. For one thing, he did not have a beard. Mum said wizards always had beards. For another thing, he seemed to take orders from Bill. Acorn could not imagine Mister Gandalf taking orders from anyone. Even in the stories about Thorin’s Company, Gandalf was more of a helpful companion than a subject of the king.

Acorn was glad when they reached the edge of the forest just as the sun was setting. Though it meant she was further from home than ever, the trees frightened her. Seeing the stars again was comforting, though she had to press her face between the iron bars to get a good view.

“Do you think it’s one of the blue wizards?”

“I’m sorry, dear heart, what?” Adalgrim smiled at her, but there were new wrinkles around his eyes.

“Mum says there are five wizards in the world. There’s Mister Gandalf, who wears gray. He is a friend of my mother’s and would have done fireworks at my birthday party if the letter got to him in time.”

“Yes,” Adalgrim said. “I remember Gandalf. He did fireworks for the Old Took’s birthday parties for years. Bilbo and I were children then. I was surprised to hear he was involved in Bilbo’s adventure. I’d have thought he’d retire, given his age.”

“What were his fireworks like?” Acorn asked, because it was one of her favorite stories.

“I expect your mother has done them better justice than I ever could.” Adalgrim leaned back against the iron bars. “Bilbo always could turn a phrase. And anyway, you were telling me about wizards, weren’t you? The blue wizards are bad?”

“I don’t know.” Acorn frowned, trying to remember all of Mum’s stories about wizards. “The brown wizard is named Radagast, and he rides in a sledge pulled by rabbits. It’s the fastest sledge in all the world, because he loves the animals so much that they take care of him in turn. Then there’s the white wizard, who is named Saruman. He is the boss of Gandalf, and so cannot be bad. But I don’t remember anything about the blue wizards. I’m sorry. I was hoping you might.”

Closing his eyes, Adalgrim angled his head so that his temple was pressed against the bars. It made his hair stick up in a funny way. “My apologies, little Acorn. Your Uncle Ada was never a scholar like your mother. I’d recognize old Gandalf if I saw him again, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t know wizards from elves from fairy folk.”

“Do you have a headache, Uncle?”

“I’m just a bit tired.” He opened his eyes to smile at Acorn. “It is night time, after all. Why don’t you tell me another story about your mother’s adventures?”

Talking about Mum made Acorn feel a lot better about being a prisoner. Surely Mum would come soon to rescue her. So she told Adalgrim, Primula, and Asphodel all about the time Mum rescued the dwarves from a much more frightening prison than a wagon where you could see the sky. Asphodel laughed at the best bits, which was nice. It felt like forever since anyone except wicked Mister Bill laughed about anything.

Yawning, Acorn put her head on Uncle Adalgrim’s leg again. Cousin Primula took a turn, telling a story about her sweetheart in Hobbiton. He was a Baggins, and they’d fought something fierce about Acorn’s birthday party. Now, she was glad he’d had another obligation. He didn’t have Bilbo’s experience adventuring, but he would likely be coming along with her all the same. Closing her eyes, Acorn imagined a whole army of hobbits, following behind the wagons to show the Big Folk who was boss. When she opened her eyes again, the sun was rising.

In the open, grassy country of rolling hills and meadow flowers, the orcs would not move during the day at all. Once again, the men reluctantly stopped the wagons to make camp. This time, Acorn was given a drink of water and a little loaf of bread while the horses were being unhitched. None of the other hobbits received anything. She was more ashamed of the loaf than she was of her small feet or lack of a father. As soon as she got it, she broke it into pieces and gave some to everyone who would take it. Asphodel and the two other fauntlings in the wagon eagerly snapped up their share, but all the adult hobbits said they weren’t hungry.

Now, Acorn knew that was a lie. At noon when the men on watch brought around their boiled oats, all of the hobbits greedily scooped up as much as they could and licked their hands clean. Unhappily, she couldn’t trick Uncle Ada or anyone else into taking the extra food the men gave her. And it wasn’t like a few pieces of bread were enough to keep her stomach from rumbling constantly. Most of the time, it seemed empty to the point of pain, and she could not refuse the little extra she received, even though it set her apart from the other hobbits. At least she could share the bread with the other fauntlings. Bill scowled at her for doing it, but he didn’t stop her or threaten anyone.

Just before sunset, the men began hitching the horses back to the wagons, kicking some of the orcs awake to help break down the camp. The orcs snarled, and most of them remained hidden, but a few did come out to help make ready. Bill ordered one of them to bring a bucket of water over to Acorn. The smell of the hobbits cramped together in their cage for two days on end was bad, but it was nothing compared to the smell of the orc’s breath. Its eyes were red, and the green tint of its skin seemed unnatural. Sickly. Acorn wondered if it was sick. If an orc was like a disease, killing all who came in contact with it, or at least changing them forever.

Slowly, with shaking hands, she took the ladle from the bucket and drank, though the smell of the orc was so overpowering that she could hardly swallow.

Suddenly, water splashed in her face and all over her party dress. Looking down in surprise, she saw that the orc was lying at an odd angle, half underneath the wagon, with an arrow protruding from its chest.

All around the camp, confusion reigned. Men and orcs screamed, falling like pincushions full of arrows. New men appeared. Big Folk clad in leather, bearing bright swords, rushed to attack the orcs. Cheering, the hobbits tried to help their rescuers. Adalgrim threw his pocket watch at one of the bad men, striking him in the head and distracting him while one of the new Big People cut him down.

Bill shouted for the wagons to go, and they did. Lurching away from their would be rescuers, Acorn searched frantically for her mother, calling out to her. Surely, if there was going to be a rescue, Mum would be at the head of it. Yet as the battle raged and the wagons raced away, Acorn saw no signs of a hobbit in the fighting.

The rescuers did not catch up with the wagons. None of the orcs who stayed behind to fight did either. The hobbits couldn’t agree on who the other Big People were or why they should risk so much for Shire Folk, but their captors seemed to agree that it had been very bad luck. Angry and cruel, the men took out their frustration on their captives. None of the hobbits were given food or water the next day. When Adalgrim tried to speak to Bill through the bars, the man whipped him with a riding crop and did not stop until the other hobbits pulled their kinsman away and shielded him with their bodies.

Mum didn’t come.

She didn’t come the next day, or the day after that either, when the men finally went back to feeding the hobbits sometimes and giving Acorn a little extra. She didn’t come as the wagons bounced along the old, broken road. She didn’t come when they reached an enormous river, wider than the Brandywine, with a terrifying, broken stone bridge. There was no way the men could expect the heavy wagons to cross such a thing, but it was clear that they did. Acorn was sure that the horses would trip on one of the many cracks, that the wagon would fall through one of the great big gaps, and that all of the hobbits would drown, trapped within an inescapable cage.

Acorn Baggins was ten years old, frightened, and she wanted her mother.

Chapter Text

The troublesome thing about riding was that one could not push a pony past his limits. Bilbo might want to gallop night and day to catch up with her daughter, but if she pushed Buttercup that way, she would not have a pony for long. So she trotted along the road by day, stopped for water whenever a little stream presented itself, and made camp when it was too dark to continue. Despite this, she covered ground far more quickly than she ever had with Thorin’s Company, except when they flew with the eagles.

Surprisingly, Legolas and Strider were not boasting when they claimed they could keep up at such a pace. They ran on either side of her without flagging, and never once asked for a stop. That said, whenever Bilbo did pause to water Buttercup, Strider threw himself on the ground and drank as eagerly as the pony. Before he did so, however, Legolas would drink. This was not deference to the elf’s princely station. Legolas had the ability to test the quality of the water for the rest of them. Indeed, the prince would keep watch while the others rested and drank their fill, only taking a little more water just before they started running again.

The pair made for interesting travel companions. They were not merry like dwarves. Joking with Legolas seemed inconceivable. Indeed, what could Bilbo tease an elf about? What fun could be had by a grim, tired man who spent all day running at the speed of a trotting pony? Though she took great care building her stone cairns for the hobbits that would follow, Bilbo would risk no fire at night, to be easily spotted by their quarry. So there were no songs or stories. Watches were taken in turns, two sleeping while one remained alert to possible dangers. Food came from their packs. Usually, Bilbo shared hers with them, for it was nicer stuff than the dried jerky and nuts they seemed to subsist on.

Yet, cheerful or not, the elf and the man were companions, and having them comforted Bilbo. Especially at those rare times when the Greenway rose upon a hill, and Legolas could see far into the distance with his elf eyes. For he said that every day they closed the distance between them and the caged wagons.

Finally, after several days of this pursuit, Legolas stopped abruptly in the middle of the afternoon. “We should not go over the next rise.”

“Whatever do you mean!” Bilbo tried to look stern and disapproving instead of alarmed and upset by this pronouncement. “This morning you said we would likely catch up to Acorn by nightfall.”

“Yes,” Legolas said. “But these men are not fools. They post watches around their camps during the day. One of them stands upon a pile of white stones that may once have been a tower. If his vision is as good as Strider’s, he will see us by the light of day from that vantage.”

“The watchtower of Tharbad,” Strider said.

“Tharbad.” Bilbo frowned, wrinkling her nose. “I know the name from my maps. Isn’t it a ruin? No one lives there now.”

“No.” Strider gazed at the offending hill as though he could see through it. “No one lives there now. Tharbad! Tharbad! Great trade city of Gondor and Arnor in their youth. Once it was the meeting place of East and West where all commerce and ideas could be exchanged. Deep the Numenoreans dug the river Greyflood, that they might sail ships from the sea all the way to Tharbad. The university at Tharbad drew scholars from every corner of the world for that cultural exchange, and every language ever spoken could be heard there. But it is gone. It is gone. There is nothing there now but piles of stone.”

In the ordinary course of events, Bilbo would have liked to hear a great deal more about the place. It sounded fascinating. After so many days of traveling together, she was surprised to learn that Strider was a historian. Unfortunately, there was not time for a history lesson.

“If the river is so wide, why are they here? I understand they do not want to take the Last Bridge up near Rivendell, but surely there is a better place to ford than an old sea port.”

“There is a bridge,” Legolas said. “One I would not fear to cross on foot, nor even with your pony, taking care. However, to bring heavy iron wagons across it seems a folly.”

“Then this is our chance!” Bilbo’s hands bounced with readiness and she could not hold them still. “We will make it even more of a folly by sabotaging the bridge. They shall have to cross elsewhere! We can buy more time for our friends that follow.”

Legolas and Strider exchanged a glance.

“That bridge has stood for thousands of years,” Strider said mildly. “How do you propose we sabotage what a mighty river could not?”

“I don’t know yet.” Rolling her eyes at this practicality, Bilbo said, “I must get a closer look. You two wait here with Buttercup and I shall scout it out.”

“Well do I know that hobbits are stealthy, and you more than most Master Burglar.” Legolas paused as if trying to figure out how to speak further without causing offense, then clearly decided that hard truths deserved to be spoken. “They will see you. The land approaching the ruins is too flat. Watchers will note movement in the grass that goes against the wind. Their vantage is too good, and they do not watch the road alone. Even you cannot sneak past this camp.”

Bilbo grinned. “I think you’ll find, Master Legolas, that I can sneak past anyone. Tell you what. You’re much more likely to spot me than a human. Why don’t you creep up to the hilltop, and if you see any sign of my passing, whistle like a turtle dove. I’ll skip right back if I hear you. Alright?”

Neither Strider nor Legolas looked pleased by this compromise, but they both nodded. Pleased with herself, Bilbo ducked into the tall grass and slipped on her ring. As always, the invisible world was strange and cold. Legolas glowed like starlight, and Strider looked somehow taller and even more serious. Allowing the discomfort to give wings to her feet, Bilbo jogged down the hill and off toward the ruins.

Since she was a hobbit, she could not jog the whole way. It took her almost an hour to reach the camp. Ruins were a polite name for the former city. Other than the bridge and the watchtower, most of the stone foundations were covered over in grass. Few structures remained, and those were barely recognizable as man-made. Perhaps she would have been more impressed by them in other circumstances, but the hobbit had no eyes for history.

Bilbo was much too busy watching out for orcs, men, and the prisoners in the wagons. Sneaking past all of them, even while invisible, would require great care. The important thing was not to get distracted and step on something loud before she made her way to the bridge. The bridge was vital. Sabotaging the bridge was how she could slow the convoy and get help. And it did not matter at all.

Acorn was crying. Nothing else mattered.

Adalgrim Took had an arm about her shoulders, trying to comfort her, but Acorn was still crying. Throwing caution to the wind, Bilbo rushed over to her daughter.

“We’re going to die,” Acorn sobbed. “We’re going to fall in the water and drown in this cage.”

“No, my little seedling,” Bilbo said quickly, popping off her ring. “No one is going to die.”

Adalgrim whipped his head around, staring at Bilbo as though she were a ghost. Acorn, however, leapt to her feet, shouting with joy. “Mum! Mum, you came!”

Instantly, Bilbo tried to hush her, but the damage was done. All around her men were up and shouting. She could not put her ring on again with so many people watching.

“One of them is loose!”

“If one was loose, they’d all be loose. She must have followed us.”

“It doesn’t matter who she is! Grab her!”

“Wake the orcs! The cursed sun is low enough wake the orcs!”

“Hitch the wagons! Damn everything! If one has followed there’s sure to be more of the blighters. Catch her if you can, but we need to move!”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. Mindful of her daughters presence, she did not curse as she dodged away from grasping hands and drew Sting. “Well, some of these fellows may have to die if they do not see sense,” she told her daughter, skipping past a man and stabbing him in the leg. “And I may need to make a tactical retreat just now,” she added, diving behind a barrel as another man hit it with a club hard enough to splinter the wood. “But I’ll be back,” she promised. “You be brave now, Acorn.”

“I will,” Acorn shouted, laughing through her tears as Bilbo knocked one of the men down with a particularly well aimed kick to his nether regions.

Despite the show of confidence for her daughter, Bilbo was rather uncertain about her situation. She was not a fighter. Going invisible with so many eyes on her — and so many enemies surrounding her — would be counterproductive. Someone would see the ring, and she would lose her best advantage. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough advantages to be choosy. Dashing around the camp knocking things over and causing chaos was a clever start, but sooner or later one of the orcs would come at her with a sword instead of a club, and then she’d be in real trouble.

Indeed, mere moments after the thought occurred to her, one of the fallen men grabbed her ankle, tripping her up. Kicking him squarely in the face, she freed herself from his grasp. Only to look up and see an orc looming over her with a terrible black sword.

Then an arrow sprouted from its throat.

As the orc fell gurgling, Bilbo struggled to her feet, scrambling away from the others who’d closed on her while she was prone. Around the camp, others fell to the keen elven archer.

“Get those wagons moving!” Someone shouted. “I told you there’d be more.”

“Where are they shooting from?” Another man cried. “Shoot back!”

The fellow on the watchtower loosed an arrow of his own and made to call down to his fellows, but he was stopped by an arrow through his heart that sent him toppling to the ground. Bilbo had no time to admire Legolas’s skill. Just as she feared, the wagons did indeed begin to move, making for the bridge with all of their captives. Not only did the burglar neglect her duty of sabotaging the bridge, she’d failed to steal a single prisoner away.

Now, Acorn was in a heavy wagon, racing across an old stone bridge over the widest river Bilbo had ever seen. Indeed, it was nearly as wide across as Long Lake from certain perspectives, and the bridge did not look sturdy. If they had to cross, they ought to go slowly and carefully. Instead, the men whipped their horses into a gallop, barely dodging around huge holes, knocking large pieces of stonework into the water below.

Bilbo gave chase.

Running in a straight line made it easier for the wicked men to close in around her and head her off, but some of them fell to arrows. Bilbo didn’t care. Her bare feet slapped against the cold stone of the bridge as the wagons sped further and further away. A bearded man grabbed her by the arm and she cut his hand off with Sting, kicking him into the river below as he bellowed in pain. Several other men and orcs fell into the water, bleeding or dead, and did not resurface.

In the end, that might have been the greatest mistake of all. It was probably the blood which summoned the monster.

From the muddy bottom of the river, a strange leviathan arose, hissing with terrible fury. Though it was not quite as big as Smaug, nor winged, its green armor reminded Bilbo greatly of the dragon. She froze. Staring at it in horror was all she could do. The beast’s snout was nearly twice the length of the rest of its head, with rows upon rows of sharp, jagged teeth, and it snapped up one of the men on horseback, swallowing down the stallion as well as the man in a single gulp. Then, it turned upon the wagons.

Screaming in defiance, Bilbo rushed at the thing. Hacking against its scales with Sting did not affect the monster at all. Bilbo could not even get its attention as its mighty jaws lunged toward one of the wagons full of hobbits. Suddenly it did rear back, hissing again. An elvish arrow sprouted from one enormous eye. Then, Strider was there. Stabbing at the leviathan with his own blade, he angled for the softer, whiter scales of its throat. He did not wound the thing seriously, but the ranger managed to make a few shallow cuts along the underside of its jaw.

While this did not hurt the monster — indeed, it became abundantly clear that neither the slavers nor their pursuers could slay the monster by any means they currently possessed — it did get the beast’s attention. Instead of snapping at the wagon, the leviathan snapped at Strider. Rolling nimbly out of the way, the ranger slammed his sword against the beast’s nose. The monster clearly did not enjoy the sensation, and lifted its short, clawed forelegs onto the bridge. Apparently, it wanted to mount the structure for a better shot at Strider. However, between the pudge of its belly and the short stumps of its webbed foreclaws, the ungainly beast slipped as it scrambled, utterly failing to climb up.

Instead, it pulled the bridge down.

Ancient stone crumbled and collapsed into the water. Screaming, the beast sank beneath the surface as enormous support beams fell and broke across its back. Strong arms caught Bilbo around the waist, and she did not fight against them. All she could do was stare as the bridge fell into the river around the monster. She was not looking at the bridge or the monster. She was watching the four iron wagons speed away in the fading light. Up the opposite bank, they followed the Old South Road through Dunland.

There was still fighting to be done when Strider set her down safely away from the river bank and the collapsed bridge, but Bilbo had no heart for it. Around her swords clashed and arrows whizzed, but she did not move. Her best chance to rescue her daughter was gone. The bridge was gone. A monster lurked within the water. She could not follow.

Eventually the sounds of battle ceased and Strider came to sit beside her. A few minutes later, Legolas sat on her left. Strider began cleaning his sword. Legolas unstrung his bow.

“I shall have to fletch new arrows,” the elf said. “Too many of my shafts are unsalvageable. Indeed, I’ve lost many a head in the water today, and those I shan’t get back.”

“We shall get nothing back,” Bilbo said. Air tasted like ash in her mouth. The last rays of the sun died, but the moon did not rise. All was darkness and despair. “All is lost.”

“It is hard to see the way forward at night.” Strider’s voice was calm, as though he were the veteran of a hundred battles instead of a young ranger on his first adventure. “Hope remains. None of the wagons went into the water.”

“But the bridge did!” Leaping to her feet, Bilbo leveled an accusatory finger at him. “You should not have taunted the creature so! You should have waited until we crossed!”

Before Strider could make any answer to this surprising speech, Bilbo swayed and fell. Someone caught her, and she heard Strider say, “Legolas, she is injured!” before the world went dark.

Acorn called across a barren wasteland. The desolation of Smaug stretched out around Bilbo empty of all life or warmth. Only Acorn’s voice echoed everywhere. Every breath of wind carried her despair, and Bilbo ran, crawled, climbed, cutting herself on the stone. She could not find her daughter. She could not find her daughter. She could not find her daughter.

Sweating and feverish, Bilbo sat up. Her bedroll was tangled around her. A fire crackled merrily nearby, though the sun was high in the sky.

“Easy now,” Strider said. “The wound upon your arm was poisoned. Fortunately, athelas grows in this place, as it does in all places where the men of Gondor used to dwell. My meager leechcraft was sufficient to heal you.”

“How long?” Bilbo croaked.

Strider passed her a water skin. “Two days.”

Drinking, the hobbit blinked tears from her eyes. “Then our quest is done.”

“No.” Strider’s face was sympathetic as he handed Bilbo a bowl full of warm soup from the fire. “That is the fever talking. Eat and regain your strength. Legolas and I have not been idle while you slept.”

Accepting the bowl, Bilbo went through the motions of drinking her broth. She did not taste it. She did not see what hope could be found. Even if Strider and Legolas had a way to fly across the river like eagles, they were two days behind Acorn. Much could happen in two days, and it would take far too long to close such a distance. Staring into the fire, Bilbo felt she was still in the desolation which haunted her dreams. Acorn was beyond her reach.

A black shape descended from the sky, landing between Bilbo and the fire, cackling a little to get her attention. She stared at it.

“You’re a bold lady,” Strider said, a hint of humor in his voice. “Have you come to beg, pretty bird? You’ll find most travellers are more likely to put you in the stew pot than give you something out if it in these parts.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bilbo cried, throwing her bowl aside and diving for the letter. “We shall see you fed, Goräc, of course we shall! How clever you were to find me so far from the Shire!”

The stately raven preened and allowed Bilbo to access the letter pouch on her leg in an elegant manner. Tearing it open, Bilbo found what she most needed: hope.

“Dearest Bilbo,

“I come. Balancing the need for swift travel with my own desire to bring overwhelming force to bear upon one who would attack your peaceful people in this fashion, I come to you with a battalion of Erebor’s finest warriors. Though our number is little more than five hundred, every dwarf is a seasoned soldier. We could crush an army of orcs numbering in the thousands without difficulty. If you have reason to believe that your enemies may have a stronghold to besiege or numbers in excess of five thousand fighters, please send word. A supplementary force is mustering, though they cannot make the haste I wish to. I leave at once without them.

“I pray that you are well. I know you cannot be so while separated from your daughter, but beyond that you make mention of injuries sustained. I am bringing you a helm. The frequency with which you are struck upon the head is unacceptable. Foolish as it might be, I am also bringing my harp. If I am to meet your daughter at long last, I would like her to hear some dwarven music.

“Know that my thoughts are with you both, and that I will be by your side as soon as I am able. To that end, any information you have uncovered about the direction of your enemies would be welcome. At this time, my intention is to cross the Misty Mountains at Redhorn Pass. It is the most direct route to the Shire. However, if you veer north or south, my plans should change accordingly. I do not think your foes will dare too near Rivendell. But, if you suspect their goal is Gondor or Harad, it may make more sense for my soldiers to march through the Gap of Rohan, or not to cross the mountains at all. Sadly, none of my advisors recognized your description. In our experience, orcs do not ally with men or take so many prisoners. The men we know of who take slaves tend to take their own kind, and are far off in Nurn for the most part.”

“All of my advisors send their love, and bring their sword arms to your aid. When next we meet, the Company shall be reunited. Only my sister Dis remains behind while I marched to your aid. Someone must rule Erebor in my absence, so she reluctantly stays in the mountain. No member of the Company would hear a suggestion that they should do the same. Your friends may not be with you, but we are coming.

“Forgive me if these words are not new to your eye. I am sending three ravens to Brandy Hall, one for each direction of your likely travel. It is my hope that at least one of them will find you. Though I would cherish a letter as I cherish all of your letters, I understand you may not have writing utensils on your quest. Indeed, you may not even have a handkerchief. Send the raven back to me with word that you are well, and she will be able to give me your location. That, and some opportunity to be of use to you or your daughter, is all that I ask.

“Until then I remain, as ever, your loving servant, Thorin Oakenshield”

Chapter Text

Sitting upon the banks of the Anduin with the red sun low over the Misty Mountains, Thorin Oakenshield opened his letter. Around him, orders were given for an early camp. Someone spoke of marching at dawn. Cooking fires were lit. Tents were pitched. Yet Thorin had no attention to spare. Word from Bilbo was far more important than anything else could be.

“Beloved Thorin,

“Thank you. A thousand times, thank you. To know that you are coming gives me great hope. Though you are far away, and there are many perils on the road, thinking of you allows me to have courage. Just feeling that we are together in this, that we both seek to save Acorn, lightens my despairing heart.

“And I was despairing. I had her within reach here in Tharbad, and I lost her. Oh, Thorin! I was such a fool. I lost my wits the moment I saw her, revealed myself, and made quite a muddle of things. Please do not worry about it overmuch, but I was poisoned by a nasty cut, the bridge was destroyed, and those ruffians had Acorn on the wrong side of it. Now they apparently have a two day head start down the North-South Road.

“Fortunately, I am not alone. I have met some friends, and useful ones at that. You will recall Prince Legolas of Mirkwood, though perhaps not fondly. My other companion is a ranger named Strider. He is taciturn and thoughtful for a Big Person. Reminds me rather a lot of you, in fact. Or maybe Bard. Anyway, I think you would get along well. He also happens to be an extremely skilled healer, and he patched me up nicely after my most recent drubbing. Still, it is to Legolas that the greater share of my gratitude must go.

“While I was lying abed like the most useless mother ever to fail her daughter so spectacularly, my friend Legolas was hard at work. You will never believe it, but in the span of two days he has made a new bridge! It is only ropes and wooden slats, but it is sturdy enough for me to cross easily with my pony. We do not need it to stand for thousands of years like the stones of Gondor and Arnor, only long enough for the hobbits who follow me to cross as well.

“I am leaving markers for Shirefolk to follow as I go, but it gladdens my heart to know that you are out there somewhere, and that you will meet me. We will save her, Thorin. Together. There is no other ending to this adventure.

“In light of that, I shall repeat that the monsters who took Acorn are headed south east down the North-South Road, two days out from Tharbad. It may be wiser for you to make for the Gap of Rohan instead of taking Redhorn Pass. I do not have a map with me, but Strider says that those high passes can be particularly treacherous during springtime. If I see any sign that our foes turn northward, I shall send word with the raven that comes to me next.

“Write back. Tell me you are closer now. You cannot comprehend the comfort that simply seeing your handwriting brings me. Acorn did not look well. Her captors are not feeding her enough. She was weeping before she saw me. As I write this, that was two days ago. Her conditions will not have improved. We must hurry.

“Please give my love to all of our friends, and thank them for coming so readily to my daughter’s aid. Especially Dwalin. Perhaps he will laugh to hear it, but the poisoned wound I took was on my left arm, which I must now wear in a sling. I said that I would give my right arm to have you both at my side, and I am quite happy with this compromise.

“Until we meet again, I remain your grateful friend, Bilbo Baggins

Upon finishing the letter, Thorin almost ordered the camp to be struck. There was an hour of daylight left to march with. Yet his dwarves were tired after the hard push through Mirkwood, and a month of forced marches would not bring them to Bilbo in fighting fitness. Resting now was wise. Resting was the right thing to do.

Acorn was not well.

Instead of making a scene, Thorin read his letter again. Beloved, Bilbo called him. Of course, she made it plain that this was out of gratitude. Gratitude which he did not deserve. Even if there was no possibility of Acorn being of the line of Durin, Thorin would still be obligated to march to her rescue. He owed Bilbo far too much to ignore her in her time of need.

Yet the fact remained that Bilbo was grateful. She found comfort in his approach. She would be happy to see him. Thinking of such things while the child was in danger was the height of foolishness. But Thorin’s heart had always been given to romantic imaginings. His reach always exceeded his grasp. The fact that they would meet again after ten years of separation, that Bilbo was guaranteed to be pleased with him, warmed him as nothing else could. Perhaps, if he saved Acorn in a particularly heroic fashion, Bilbo would recognize that he was worthy of fatherhood.

Not her heart. Not right away. Just fatherhood.

The hobbits would not wish to come to Erebor, of course. Dis could stand regent for a while longer as Thorin guarded their return to the Shire. Along the way, he would teach Acorn to protect herself. He would teach her to play the dwarven harp. He would teach her the basics of smithing. She would delight in such learning, as Bilbo’s letters made clear she enjoyed new skills from any quarter. While she would prefer the lessons to the teacher at first, over time, she would be pleased to have a father. Little legs cover ground slowly, and by the time they reached the Shire it would be autumn. It would only make sense for Thorin to winter at Bag End. Over the course of that winter, he would prove useful around their home. So useful that Bilbo would decide upon him as a husband.

And there his fantasy must end. If Fili did not want the crown, Thorin could not abdicate in good conscience to live in the Shire. Yet imagining little Acorn wishing to go anywhere but home after such trials as she now faced was impossible.

No matter what happened, no matter how beloved he became, Bilbo was not going to propose marriage. That was a fact Thorin needed to remember when they met. Even if, by some great luck, Bilbo gave him the rights of fatherhood, he would at best be a welcome visitor on rare occasions. At least he could provide Acorn with the wealth and education that a daughter of the line of Durin deserved. But he should not hope to earn either hobbit’s affection. That hope was lost ten years ago.

And yet.

Thorin read the salutation of Bilbo’s letter again. Beloved, she called him. Beloved.

“What word from Bilbo?” Balin was close beside Thorin on the riverbank. Looking around, Thorin saw that it was now full dark and only moonlight lit his page. Also, the Company was arrayed at a respectful distance, waiting for news. “Have we a better direction of travel than southwest?”

“Yes,” Thorin said. “Due south. She writes that they take the old North-South Road out of Tharbad. We make for the Gap of Rohan until we hear differently.”

Balin nodded. “Any other news, my king?”

“The child was alive two days ago. Bilbo caught sight of her during a failed rescue attempt.”

At once, the Company began to celebrate, crying out joyfully, slapping each other’s backs, and laughing in relief. Thorin hated to spoil the mood, but he would not lie to his trusted companions.

“She sends greetings to you in particular,” he told Dwalin. The big dwarf looked immensely pleased, grinning as he rarely did.

“Surely you mean my brother? Or Bofur?” Dwalin shook his head. “Not that I doubt your word, my king, but the Burglar and I are not particular friends.”

“No.” Thorin took a deep breath. “But in her first letter she wrote to me that she would give her right arm to have you or I at her side, and now she has temporarily lost the use of her left. She considers it fate and a fair trade that we are on the way.”

For a moment, all was silence save the rushing river.

“Strike the camp,” Dwalin bellowed. “We’re moving out!”

“Belay that,” Thorin shouted. Then, in as reasonable a tone as he could muster, he said, “We cannot march through the night every night for two weeks. And that is how long it will take us to traverse the three hundred miles to the Gap of Rohan.”

“It will take us one week if we march through the nights.” Dwalin had a stubborn set to his jaw, but he knew he was being childish. Veterans or not, the soldiers would no longer be an army at the end of such a march.

“A night’s rest will do us all good,” Balin said sensibly, dismissing the others. Reluctantly, they went to find bedrolls and gossip. Balin was always the most reasonable of Thorin’s advisors. Then he held out his hand for Bilbo’s letter.

Thorin scowled at him.

“I will not read it if there is some private message, but you must sleep this night, my king. You have learned that Bilbo and the child are both as well as can be expected. Rereading that letter until dawn breaks and you can send a reply will do no one any good.”

Thrusting the letter into his hands, Thorin continued to scowl. “There is no private message. Read it if you think there is some information I may have missed.”

Nodding, Balin turned to go. Facing the mountains made what Thorin had to say next easier.

“I often miss information in Bilbo’s letters, fool that I am. She is too clever for me.”

“Now, Thorin,” Balin said, in a fatherly way, “I am sure that she did not have time to craft her usual wordplay while on the road. In any case, I shall return the letter to you in the morning, and you can brood on it all day tomorrow while riding with the calvary.”

“Balin. I did not know.”

“What didn’t you know, Thorin?”

“The child. Acorn. She showed me a real acorn, Balin. I thought it was a plant, not a metaphor! How was I to understand when my only thoughts were of gold?”

“Thorin.” Balin’s voice was stern. The king had not the courage to look at his oldest advisor’s face. “I have seen some of those letters. I had no idea Bilbo was pregnant before leaving our company, but any one of them made it perfectly clear that she was discreetly informing you of a child’s welfare. I grant that the veil was sufficient to keep the letters from shaming you if they were made public somehow, but only because dwarves do not understand the hobbit fascination with plants.”

“Yes.” Snow always capped the Misty Mountains. It was good that the dwarves need not summit them to reach Acorn. Even if that meant the child was not moving toward him, but away. “I was willfully blind. The child means Bilbo and I will never be together. She wants to raise Acorn in the Shire, and I cannot leave the mountain I fought so hard to win.”

Part of Thorin wanted Balin to deny this truth. For once in his long career as an advisor, the old dwarf might tell a pleasant lie. Instead, he sighed. “Fili is almost ready for the crown. Certainly more ready than he would have been ten years ago, and Erebor is more stable. Dis and I can advise him well. If, in the joy of recovering her daughter, Bilbo asks you to accompany them home, perhaps you could oblige. After all that you have done for our people, you have earned a little happiness.”

“Perhaps,” Thorin said, though the words choked him. He would not betray Fili’s confidence. His nephew might yet come to the throne, and it would do no one any good for Balin to know he did not want the responsibility.

“Sleep.” Balin clapped a hand on the king’s shoulder. “It has been days since you closed your eyes for more than a few minutes. Things will look better in the morning.”

In the morning, things looked much worse.

Kili rushed into Thorin’s tent at dawn to wake him. An elven fleet was moored in the river, having snuck up upon their position in the night. Despite not hearing the expected screams of murder or ambush, Thorin raced to the river side to see for himself. There were, in fact, nearly fifty boats all along the river. Each one was a sprightly elven craft of golden wood, shaped like swans which danced upon the water. For all their size, and they seemed unusually large for elven river boats, each vessel carried only a single elf, who steered it from the back with a long oar.

Thorin cursed. After Mirkwood, he hoped to be done with elves. Only a solitary member of Thranduil’s kingdom followed them from that forest. There was no getting rid of the red-haired one, of course. Not since she tricked Kili into a quick marriage mere days after the Battle of Five Armies. Still, spy or not, Tauriel might be grudgingly accepted into their Company. Thorin reluctantly allowed Thranduil’s right to an interest in Bilbo’s welfare after allowing the dwarven army safe passage through his forest. Beyond that, however, Thorin recognized nothing about these strange elves.

“Get the Mirkwood elf,” he ordered.

“Do you mean Tauriel?” Kili asked. “My wife?”

“I’m aware that she has a name. Get her.”

Marching over to the river bank, Thorin felt Balin, Dwalin, Gloin, and Fili fall in around him to serve as honor guard.

“Ho!” he called to the elf in the largest, most ornate boat. “Who comes upon our camp like a thief in the night?”

“I am Haldir,” the elf said calmly, pressing a fist to his chest in greeting. “Of the Galadhrim. I bring the greetings of my lady to Thorin Oakenshield.”

“And who is your lady, that I would care to receive her greetings?” Elves never could say anything plainly.

“Their lady is Galadriel,” Tauriel said, appearing at Fili’s side with Kili. “Lady of Lorien, also called the Lady of the Golden Wood, daughter of Finarfin, wife of Celeborn. She is the oldest, wisest, and most powerful elf yet living on this side of the sea.”

Thorin snorted. Apparently there was some good in an elf stealing his nephew’s heart and purloining him out of the line of succession. At least one of them could speak in a way dwarves might appreciate.

“Then I greet the Lady Galadriel in turn. Tell her she need not fear our army, though we march past her lands. We will remain on this side of the river as we pass Lothlorien. We seek no battle with elves on this journey, but go to the aid of a friend. Allow us to pass in peace as the Greenwood has done, and we will bring no danger to your forest.”

Haldir bowed his head. “Well do we understand your peaceful intentions. It is not in fear of conflict that my lady bade us come, but in sympathy to your cause. Surely you can see that our boats are empty. We are here to bear your army down the Anduin with the swiftness of the Galadhrim.”

“They think we are fools,” Dwalin growled. “Once we are on board, they have some plan to scuttle the boats. Our soldiers cannot swim the Anduin in full armor.”

“Best not to risk it,” Balin agreed. “Many stories are told about the Lady of the Golden Wood.”

“She is of the Noldor,” Tauriel said, opaquely as any other elf. “She would not use boats as a weapon for murder or treachery. She would not dare.”

Turning back to the elf Haldir, Thorin said, “What proof of your good intent can you offer?”

Haldir raised a dark brow toward his golden hair. “Only these words from my lady, though I do not understand their meaning. ‘Tell Thorin Oakenshield that you can bring his army over a hundred miles in the space of a single day along the rapids of the Anduin, if he will meet with me for a single hour. And do so. If he refuses, tell him there is only a week remaining until the acorn reaches its destination. Once it does, it will cease to grow.’”

“What does that mean?” Orcrist flashed in the light of dawn, and Thorin felt the strength of the army at his back. “She is involved in this plot! Tell me where this destination she speaks of lies, before I rip your tongue from your mouth, elf!”

“I know not,” Haldir said calmly, as though he could not see the battalion of dwarves brandishing weapons. “My lady has a gift of foresight matched only by her daughter’s husband, Lord Elrond. It is not my place to try to understand her visions.”

“Peace, O King,” Tauriel said. “The Lady of Lorien would not ally with orcs under any circumstances. I swear upon my honor that she is in no way involved in this plot.”

“And what is your honor worth, thief of nephews?” Thorin grumbled, but he sheathed his sword.

“Thorin.” Balin’s face was grim and he spoke in Khuzdul, so the elves would not understand. “I do not like that they seek to off balance you by threatening danger.”

“Her prediction is too specific,” Dwalin agreed in the same language. “If she read some sign or portent as Oin does, it would be more vague. To have such a time table is impossible with visions. Her intelligence does not come from magic, but from knowledge of our enemy.”

“That is clear,” Thorin said. “But I do not think it is knowledge that this Haldir shares.” Turning back to the elf, he spoke aloud in Westron once more. “It can be done? All the way to Lorien in the span of a single day? That is well over a hundred miles. Almost five days march for us.”

“It can be done.” Haldir lifted his chin with unseemly elvish pride. “In springtime, the rapids of the Anduin are at their swiftest, and our lady knows more about water than any elf living on this side of the sea. She extends her influence even this far to bring you closer to your goal.”

Nodding once, Thorin gave the order for his soldiers to board the boats.

It was a less comfortable trip for the dwarves than the barges down the Celduin. For one thing, the River Running was not as swift as the Anduin, and seemed to have fewer rocks appearing out of nowhere that needed to be dodged in the space of seconds. For another, the watercraft of the Galadhrim were smaller than the barges and fishing boats of Esgaroth. Dwarves riding like baggage needed to remain sitting all day. There was no room to swing an ax, take a meal, or wrestle with a friend. All they could do was sit and eat rations. Irritatingly, the war goats seemed more comfortable. The traitorous creatures liked to be near the elves steering the boats. In contrast, sharing a boat with such a pilot was a recipe for dwarven discomfort unlike any other.

Still, they were dwarves. They endured.

As promised, when the sun sank low over the Misty Mountains and all the sky was painted in crimson and gold, the speeding boats came to dock under the golden boughs of Lothlorien. Thorin grudgingly acknowledged that it was quite pretty. Golden leaves carpeted the floor of the forest, not at all rotten despite the many months since autumn, while bright golden flowers bloomed with new green buds on all of the trees. Bilbo would have liked the sight.

Tauriel, who rode in Haldir’s boat with most of Thorin’s Company, seemed to lose the ability to breathe. Overwhelmed by beauty, she stood staring at the trees for long minutes before bursting spontaneously into song. As Kili went to her side, Thorin fixed his gaze on Haldir.

“You have kept your end of the bargain, and I shall keep mine. Where is your lady that I might give her an hour of my time when it is such a dear resource?”

Haldir was well mannered for an elf. Instead of making some answer to this insult, he bowed and led Thorin into the forest. When other elves moved to bar Dwalin and Balin from following him, Thorin nodded that they should remain behind. He feared no elven stronghold. Nor did he believe that the Lady of the Golden Wood had the power to bewitch him while Bilbo needed his help. He passed that test once, ten years before, when he overcame the lure of gold to battle at the gates of Erebor.

Given the time saved by traveling upon the river, Thorin did not resent that the paths Haldir led him on were long and winding. The golden forest floor was pleasant to walk upon. The leaves rustled less beneath his boots than he would have expected. Indeed, they felt as soft as a proper carpet. There was no sound at all from Haldir’s footfalls. Even the air of the forest seemed unexpectedly still, and every trill of a lark was notable in the otherworldly quiet. Eventually, they came to a long stair, and ascended into the treetops.

No cavernous castles for the elves of Lothlorien; their dwellings could not have been more different from the dungeons of King Thranduil. The buildings of this strange elven city seemed to grow out of the trees themselves, more massive than one would think even such mighty trees could support. As twilight fell, lanterns floated through the city like little white stars. Thorin knew just enough elvish to understand that they called their realm Dream Flower. This name was not wholly inappropriate. Indeed, walking into the forest was like walking into a dream.

Haldir did not lead Thorin to a throne room or receiving chamber as expected. Instead, the dwarven king found himself in a lady’s bower. Sitting up in bed was an elf dressed in white silk. Piled high around her were sumptuous pillows, delicately embroidered in ivory and cream. Her long golden hair was braided with pearls and white flowers, but her skin was paler than even the linens. Standing at the bedside was an elf all in gray, clearly waiting at her pleasure, but there were no guards save Haldir, who bowed and excused himself.

“You are ill,” Thorin observed.

“Not ill.” The elf’s voice was melodious and soft. Thorin heard the echo of it in his mind as well as his ears. “Only weak,” she said, and he did not believe a word of it. Power radiated from the bed as surely as light radiated from the sun. “I overextended myself during the cleansing of Dol Guldur some years ago, and my recovery has been slow.”

Thorin hesitated. The past did not matter—could not matter—in the face of Acorn’s peril. And yet. “Gandalf told me that my father fell there. At Dol Guldur.”

Golden hair cascaded over the pillows like sunrise over a snow covered mountain as she nodded. “Before I joined the fight,” she admitted. “As Gandalf explored the ruin to spring the trap. He could tell you more of your father’s valor than I, but I believe that Thrain, son of Thror, died well: on his feet, defying his enemies to the last.”

Pretty words, but they did not matter. The witch wanted something, and Thorin needed to uncover her motives, not bandy conversation about times long past.

“Please sit and refresh yourself.” She gestured to a table upon which many fruits of the forest were arrayed with dainty tidbits. Wine was there, and tea also. Thorin took water and sat without drinking it.

“You have done me a great service this day,” the king said. “I will repay the debt, only speak it. I do not have time to discuss past histories, as your spies have apparently informed you.”

“You will find time to keep a civil tongue when you speak to my lady,” the elf in gray snapped.

Not a servant or a doctor, then. And not fond of dwarves.

“My love, will you not excuse us as I requested?” Her hand went to his in the lightest touch imaginable. Movement did not seem to cause her pain, and she still possessed that grace which made elves seem so strange when compared to more earthy races.

“I will not,” Lord Celeborn said, though his face smoothed and no longer pinched together like he tasted something sour.

Instead of sighing, Galadriel smiled at him. That, more than anything, made Thorin understand how she’d been ruling this land since long before his grandfather took the crown in Erebor. She turned the smile on Thorin, but as a dwarf he was immune to elven airs. “I beg you to forgive my husband. My weakness from the aforementioned battle causes him to dote upon me.”

“And your weakness from the workings of this day.” The elf glared at Thorin again.

“My power is my own, to spend as I choose.” Gesturing with two fingers, she sent him to the table where he poured tea for her and brought it to the bedside. It was an unsubtle, queenly display. Thorin drank some water to hide his smile. He wondered if Bilbo would be such a wife, bossing him about with a wave of her hand. Doubtful. To Bilbo, using three words to say something that might take twenty smacked of poor manners.

“Once again,” Thorin said, “I thank you for your efforts on my behalf. I will pay the debt. Name your price.”

The Lady Galadriel smiled, and it was the same smile she’d given her husband when he refused to leave her alone with an armed dwarf. Thorin wanted to laugh, having such a smile turned on him. Usually the ladies of his acquaintance were more open about their exasperation.

“I would speak with you first, Thorin Oakenshield, that you understand my request fully.”

Thorin squared his shoulders. “We are speaking.”

She looked at him. He relented. Drinking more of his water, Thorin took a wafer thin pastry as well. It melted on his tongue like honey. Bilbo would have liked it, but she would have wanted thirty of the things to “fill in the corners” as she called it.

“What would you speak of, O Lady?” Thorin asked, as politely as he could manage.

“Have you ever wondered why Lord Mahal created the dwarves?” How like an elf, to delve into ancient history and philosophy as a prelude to their own selfishness.

“I do not need to wonder. I know. Mahal created my people to share his love of craft. He wanted to teach his discoveries to folk who could understand and appreciate them.” Thinking he saw her angle toward the present day, Thorin tried to hurry the conversation along. “He wanted to be a father.”

“Yet dwarves were never a part of Eru’s plan. Never a part of the original music.” Her voice was gentle. It was clear she did not mean to ignite his rage by stating simple fact.

“Yes,” Thorin growled. “Our maker begged and groveled for our lives. Pride is less important than life. Is that your lesson, elf?”

“I am not trying to teach you a lesson, King Thorin. We are speaking of the Valar.” She looked so tired, supported by pillows instead of her own strength, but she reminded him of a willow tree. Doubled over, swaying in the slightest breeze, but growing that way purposefully. Bent, but unbowed. “Have you ever wondered why Eru spared the dwarves?”

“Our maker obeyed.” Thorin stared at his water glass, feeling his lips curl in anger. “He would have destroyed us. Eru blessed his obedience.”

“Lord Mahal’s obedience is how Eru knew his heart was pure of any selfish motivation or discordance with the music. Lord Mahal did not make the dwarves out of a desire for personal glory or worship as foul Morgoth made his vile creatures. But knowing the dwarves were not dragons and allowing them to grow in the world are two very different things.”

Galadriel’s eyes were blue. A lucky color. Yet they were ageless—as were all elven eyes—and saw things Thorin could not understand. “Why do you think Eru spared the dwarves, Lady?”

“I think they brought him joy.”

Thorin stared at her. He must have misheard. No elf would ever suggest that Eru Iluvatar took pleasure in the existence of dwarves. To the firstborn, dwarves would always be the Naugrim, the stunted people, the unwanted. Mahal alone created them, and Mahal alone cared for them among the Valar.

“Have you ever found a diamond in a coal mine, Thorin Oakenshield?”

“My luck has not been that good. Nor has my life been quiet enough to enjoy much time mining,” Thorin said. Then, unbidden, Bilbo came to his thoughts. A soft little hobbit who looked so much like a grocer, yet fought ferociously to save his life when he lay beyond all hope. Her beauty had been little when first they met, for she was beardless and attired herself strangely. Once he knew her well, however. She was not a diamond. Diamonds were commonplace, and she was a jewel beyond compare. “Yet I understand your meaning. I have found things of tremendous value where such worth was unlooked for.”

“Imagine how it would be if you built the coal mine yourself. Filled it with coal. Knew every piece of coal, having held each in your hands in turn. How would you feel to go back years later, mining for the coal, and find that time had transformed some of your coal unexpectedly into diamonds?”

“It would depend on how much coal I needed from the mine,” Thorin said warily. To flatter him so, the elf must want a great favor indeed.

Galadriel laughed. “Practical are dwarves, and wise,” she said. “Certainly it is possible. To find a diamond and yet wish for coal to feed your forge. That is one path. But I think delight is a more common reaction. Delight, and perhaps a wish to see if there might yet be another diamond in the mine.”

“I do not understand you,” Thorin said. “Speak plainly.”

“This middle earth in which we dwell faces a time of great change. This is the end of an age, Thorin Oakenshield. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the air. I feel it even in the earth beneath my feet. The third age is coming to a close.”

“If you say that it is so.” Thorin nodded once. “Dwarves count time differently than elves.”

“Indeed. I have long felt that the ages of the world passed as the seasons. In the springtime of my youth I came from Valinor, amidst floods, and storms, and deadly mistakes. Yet the blossoms of that age were beautiful, and I walked in wonder through the world. Summer saw the birth of my daughter, and Autumn saw her pass away.”

“Next would be the winter of the world.” Thorin did not know how he felt about such things. Elves may count time differently from dwarves, but their people did have a gift of foresight.

“Long have I believed it would be so. It seemed to me that the fourth age must be the age of men, and all the great kingdoms of the elves would wither in that time. My lot would be to diminish, to take a ship from the Gray Havens to the Undying Lands, leaving behind these shores and my love forever more. And what ship would bear me hence? A gray ship. Full of ghosts.”

“After winter spring comes again,” Thorin said. “Stores can be built against such times of scarcity. People can survive.”

Galadriel smiled. Though she was ageless as a mountain, she looked young and mischievous for a moment. “Thorin. I was wrong.”

The dwarf felt his brow lift involuntarily. Never before had an elf said those words so plainly in his hearing.

“What would I know of the seasons of this world?” she asked. “I have seen but three ages. Am I wise? Or did my own grief cloud my judgment? Did Lothlorien diminish because all wonder has passed from this world and all the greatest works have already been accomplished? Or did it fade because its ruler could not bear to let it grow?”

“Lady?”

“We have forgotten, we who call ourselves the Wise, why we came to this land. It is in this land that new things can grow and be created. It is in this land that our craft can be practiced without perfection, without comparing it to that which the Valar make so effortlessly. It is in this land that there can be mistakes, and dragons, and pain, and pearls. So it is that in this land, coal can turn to diamonds. So it is in this land, an Acorn can sprout unexpectedly.”

Thorin looked at her, suddenly wary once more. He owed her a debt, but no debt of his could pass to the child. The child was not his.

“Mithrandir remembers. Gandalf. My apologies. Gandalf remembers. That is why he sent a hobbit with you on your quest. Because the world was dark, the dragon was large, and he has always been able to spot diamonds among coal.”

Thorin inclined his head a fraction of an inch.

“He delights in them. The hobbit-folk. They are still new. We did not see them in the first ages of the world. Elves are slow to admit ignorance, but we do not know where they come from. If they were the creation of one of the Valar, if Eru planned them as a third race, there is no mention of it in our songs or stories. Is that not curious?”

Grunting an affirmative did not seem too much of a commitment.

“Of late, Gandalf is not the only wizard curious about hobbits. There is another. Saruman, the head of the White Council, takes interest in them now. He has heard that they can breed with other races easily, and that has made him curious.”

“They are not beasts of burden,” Thorin snapped. “They have children. They do not breed.”

Galadriel inclined her head. “Of course. And this is not truly new. Elves and men have had children together in the past. It is rare, but it is possible. Yet it is new to Saruman, for hobbits are new. But perhaps that might have been overlooked, without the Acorn.”

“She is a child.”

“Yes. All children are new, and beautiful, and full of promise. When I look to her future, I see things I could never have predicted. Not only the retaking of Khazad-dûm, but a kingdom of living crystal tended by the dwarves, and splendors unimagined by past generations. Hobbits traveling the world, not in desperation but in joy. The ent-wives are returned to the ents, but the love that tempted them away remains, and much is different and new. Giants. Skin changers who grow to become Mûmakil, stampeding across a vast plain. Novel things, far beyond my ken.”

“That is too much burden for the shoulders of a hobbit lass. I will not let you pin your future upon her.”

Galadriel smiled again. Thorin was learning to recognize the shrewdness behind her eyes. “It is not her burden, and the quests will not all be hers. Let us say instead that when she leaves Isengard, hers will be the footsteps that start an avalanche through the present, changing the future I used to see to the one that is now to come.”

“You may say what you like.” Thorin folded his arms across his chest. “If her captors make it to Isengard, they will take her no further. My army will stop them in Rohan.”

“Yes.” Galadriel’s face was grave. “Her captors will bring her no further than Isengard. For Isengard is the stronghold of Saruman. As I said, Saruman is curious about hobbits. So he ordered men and orcs under his command to bring some from the Shire, that he may experiment upon them.”

Dropping his hands to his knees, Thorin leaned forward. That was not a riddle or philosophy. “Saruman is the one behind the attack on the Shire? Saruman is the name of my enemy? You know this to be true? Your spies have told you their destination?”

“I know this for a fact.” The lady’s eyes drifted to the water pitcher next to Thorin. “He was once great, you know. A wizard from the Undying Lands, come to protect middle earth from evil forces we could not face alone. Sent by the Valar to serve in their place. Even more than Gandalf, his truest weapon is his voice, for he was among those who sang the world into being.”

Thorin’s lips curled dangerously. “You would ask for mercy on his behalf?”

“No.” Galadriel still did not look at him. “At the center of Isengard is the tower of Orthanc. Any hobbit who enters that tower will not leave it alive unless Saruman is dead. If you cannot stop them from bringing the hobbits into Orthanc, there will be no other way. Do not underestimate him! Do not listen to him speak! Gandalf has been his captive in that tower for a long year.”

“Gandalf is captured as well?” Thorin sat back, surprised. Gandalf always seemed untouched by trial. Wearied by the world, perhaps. Not untouched by time. But capable of defeating trolls, the Great Goblin, and other enemies that daunted even Thorin.

“Yes. Gandalf went there in good faith. Saruman, the head of his order, had questions. Gandalf’s answers were insufficient. It seems that only by foul experimentation will he find his answers, but Gandalf would never allow that. So they are at an impasse, and Gandalf is imprisoned. If your fight at Isengard brings you into Orthanc, freeing Gandalf will save many lives.”

“Is that what you would have of me? I should free Gandalf?” Thorin was more than willing to repay his debt to the elf in such a way. Gandalf was an old nuisance, but he was also a friend and ally. Thorin might not have marched to free him at the head of an army, but if he happened to be in the area, he would gladly aid the wizard.

“No.” Galadriel continued to look to the water, and did not meet Thorin’s eyes. “I have sped you here on the Anduin, and in the morning I will speed you further. I do this because the test which is to come is not for us, but for those whose greatness exceeds our own like the sun exceeds the stars. It is not my place to interfere with these matters, only to witness them and to play my part. You must reach Isengard. Saruman must try to take the child. There is no stopping that. Perhaps it has been inevitable since the moment she was born. Yet if I could have a wish. If I could be granted a boon.”

Suddenly, her head snapped around, and Thorin saw that there were tears unshed within her eyes. “Do not make Gandalf be the one to do it. He will. Of course he will. To protect the Shire he will do the necessary, for he loves their innocence and delights in their simplicity. To save Bilbo Baggins, who he counts a dear friend, he will do anything. And yet.”

The elf blinked, and suddenly seemed stronger. Her tears were gone. “You and I cannot know of the love between wizards, who existed together harmoniously long before the beginning of time. The closest thing, I think, would be an older brother. An older brother one has always admired, who has done great wrong. Gandalf will kill Saruman. In such a battle there will be no other choice. Yet the sin of that. Kinslaying. No matter the reason. No matter how irredeemable. No matter how far Saruman has fallen. It will torture Gandalf until the end of time. To allow it will weigh on him, but to do it himself will destroy him. Save him that. If you owe me a debt, spare Gandalf that pain.”

Thorin Oakenshield looked upon the Lady Galadriel and saw, at last, that she was beautiful. Mercy and compassion are always beautiful. Even in the form of an elf.

Chapter Text

After the monster in the scary river, Acorn knew that she should be more afraid than ever. So many of the orcs and men keeping the hobbits captive were dead. Bill didn’t feed anyone for two days, and he scowled at Acorn with a special ferocity every time he looked at the wagons. She wasn’t, though. She wasn’t afraid.

“Mum is coming,” she whispered to Asphodel.

“I saw.” Asphodel frowned, her brown eyes darting nervously toward Bill at his campfire as she pressed her face closer to Acorn’s. “You don’t think the dragon ate her, do you?”

“I’m sure Bilbo is fine,” Uncle Adalgrim said. “She’s an old hand at dragons, you know.”

“After Smaug, Mum probably just killed that old river dragon and made a bridge out of his bones,” Acorn agreed excitedly. Flopping back to rest her head against Uncle Adalgrim’s lap, she craned her neck to peer at the stars between the bars of their cage. “That’s probably what’s taking her so long. Making the bridge. That was a big river, you know, and the bridge fell down. But Mum’ll skip right across it, don’t you worry. She’ll be here just as quick as she can. And she’ll make us some bread. Mum makes the best bread. Have you ever had my mum’s bread, Asphodel?”

“No.” Asphodel frowned thoughtfully. “I think I had some fruit cake she made at Yule. It was very nice.”

“It’s not the same,” Acorn said. Closing her eyes she could almost smell the kitchen at Bag End instead of the filth of unwashed hobbits. “Fruit cake is special. Mum’s bread is just good. Every single day, it’s warm and light and crusty and perfect. You know?”

Uncle Adalgrim’s stomach rumbled right in Acorn’s ear. She laughed. “When Mum rescues us, you can all come to Bag End for tea. Mum will make potato soup, too. Mum makes the best potato soup. And when you have only a little soup left in your bowl, you can use your bread to soak it up, and it’s not bad manners as long as you don’t make a mess.”

A violent crash sounded as something heavy hit the iron bars of their cage, ringing like an awful bell and shaking them all. The hobbits leapt to their feet, gathering the fauntlings and huddling together at the center of the wagon, well away from the bars.

“No talking,” Bill said, flipping the iron sword in his hand cruelly.

The hobbits nodded obediently. No one said anything. Bill’s temper seemed to get worse every day.

“Hungry?” he asked, his eyes falling on Acorn as his face twisted into a scowl. She nodded, but didn’t speak.

Throwing one of the hard loaves of bread at Acorn, he ordered her to eat. Pleased with her luck, she started breaking the bread into pieces for the fauntlings to share.

“No!” Bill’s sword slammed against the bars of the cage again, rattling the entire wagon. Acorn felt the hobbits around her trembling. “You eat.” He pointed the sharp sword through the bars so that it was dangerously close to cutting Acorn. “Just you.”

Lifting her chin, Acorn glared at him. If she was a dragon, she’d burn him to a crisp and then eat him up. He’d make a nice supper for a dragon. Ripping the little loaf in half, she thrust part of it at Asphodel. She felt her friend take it, but then she heard the crusty bread fall to the rough wooden floor of the wagon. Someone kicked it, and she saw it go skittering over to Bill. Finally, she looked away from him for long enough to see Asphodel clutching Prim’s skirts and blinking away tears. Acorn whirled back to Bill.

“What will you do now, little hero? They’re too smart to join your rebellion. They know you won’t be the one I hurt if I get upset.” Bill’s smile reminded Acorn of Aunt Lobelia. He wasn’t happy. It wasn’t a polite smile. He just liked being mean because it made him feel better about his own troubles if someone else had it worse.

Shrieking in frustration, Acorn threw the rest of the bread at his smug face. He laughed. “Much good may it do you. Enjoy your hunger pangs!”

Once he left them alone, every single adult in the wagon took turns scolding Acorn quietly for being willful. Starting with Uncle Adalgrim and Cousin Primula, who both made Acorn promise not to waste any more food. Yes, they agreed it was a shame that she could not share it with her friends, but she must endure her discomfort and eat all the same. At least that was more understandable than all the other variations on the theme of not upsetting Mister Bill.

However, even those were not as difficult to deal with as Asphodel’s tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, clutching Acorn close and crying quietly. “I’m sorry. I’m not brave like you. I want to go home. I just want to go home.”

Acorn didn’t know what to do. She hugged Asphodel back and wished that she was a dragon, or a wizard, or a dwarf, or a burglar, or anyone strong enough to make things better for her friend. She wished Asphodel was the special one, and that she could just be a normal fauntling who didn’t have to worry about being singled out.

The next day the cauldron of boiled oats was back, and everyone was pathetically grateful for it. When Bill threw a wrinkly apple at Acorn, he didn’t seem bothered by her sharing it with Asphodel and the other fauntlings. He seemed to decide that the broken bridge and the big river dragon would be enough to keep Mum away. As days rolled by and the stinking cage rolled along, Acorn wondered if he might be right. She could see a line of mountains growing on the horizon, and though they were beautiful, Acorn did not think her mother would want her to pass them.

One morning, Acorn blinked her eyes against a bright sunrise, surprised that the wagon still bounced and rattled behind the team of horses. They were in the open, and usually the orcs would insist on stopping. She saw now that they had. One of the men on horseback was behind the running orcs, whipping them with a long rope, forcing them to continue.

“Did something happen?” the fauntling asked Uncle Adalgrim blearily.

“Not a rescue, I’m afraid.” He pointed out along the front of the wagon, over the horses and to the left where a great black tower of stone rose from behind a wall of teeth. “I believe we are in sight of our destination.”

As the cage rattled, the tower grew, and Acorn pressed ever closer to her uncle. This was it. This was when Mum would come to rescue her. But the wall loomed over the wagon as they passed through a gate, and they were almost to the tower.

Suddenly, there came a great roar, like thunder. Not Mum’s voice, but a deeper, louder voice echoed by a hundred others.

“Du Bekar!” said the first.

“Baruk Khazâd!” answered the thunder. “Khazâd-ai-mênu!”

The earth beneath the wagon shook as armored warriors stampeded all around the hobbits, but from deep pits near the black tower, an answering army of orcs spewed forth. Steel clashed against iron and battle cries sounded from every corner.

Huddling together at the center of their cage, the hobbits were trying to make sense of their surroundings when a figure popped up at the rear of the wagon. He was a dwarf with reddish-brown hair and a face like a six-pointed star. His beard was elaborately braided in three points, and his carefully arranged coiffure made the other three points. Acorn blinked at him.

“All right in there, hobbits?” His smile was wide and friendly.

“No,” Acorn said, obviously.

If anything, this rudeness made the dwarf’s grin grow. “Better come on out, then,” he said, taking a set of tools from his jacket pocket.

“We’ve tried the lock when the men weren’t looking,” Uncle Adalgrim said. “It’s very complicated.”

“Of course it is,” the dwarf said, taking out something that looked like a hammer and chisel. “Beginners mistake, going for a lock in a prison. Strongest part of the door, usually. The hinges on the other hand.” With four quick taps, the dwarf knocked the heads off the pins holding the hinges in place. Pulling them out, he stepped deftly out of the way and let the door fall right off the cage.

“Quit showing off,” a dwarf with elaborately braided silver hair said behind him, beheading an orc as it came too close. “Find out if Bilbo’s bairn is in there and move on to the next. We have to get the little dear behind the shield wall right away.”

The star-headed dwarf rolled his eyes at his compatriot before bowing to the hobbits. “Nori, at your service. Here to rescue any and all captured Shire-folk, I assure you, but doing so at the request of my old friend Bilbo Baggins. Does she happen to be an acquaintance of anyone in this wagon?” His brown eyes twinkled, and he looked right at Acorn.

Suddenly, she knew what to do. “That is Acorn’s mum,” she exclaimed, pointing to Asphodel.

Nori blinked, then turned to face Asphodel. “You’re Acorn Baggins?” he asked. “We mean you no harm. We’ve come to rescue you specific-like. We’re the ones whose homeland your mother stole back from a dragon, if she told you about that at all.”

Asphodel’s mouth opened and closed, but she didn’t say anything.

“Right you are,” Nori said. “I’ve got her here, Dori.” Stepping into the cage, he lifted Asphodel away from an unprotesting Primula and handed her to the other dwarf.

Taking her in his arms very gently, Dori cooed over Asphodel like she was a baby bird. “Oh! You look exactly like your mother, don’t you? Poor, poor dear. We’ll just get you behind the shield wall and away from all these nasty orcs. Safe as mountains, we’ll be.” One of those nasty orcs rushed him, and Dori spun his sword with one hand, beheading it without even looking. “You’re so light!” he exclaimed. “These terrible folk haven’t been feeding you properly. I’m sure I have a sweet in my pocket for such a brave little girl.”

Then he trotted away through the battle to where Acorn saw a line of dwarves with shields as big as they were. Orcs that tried attacking that cluster seemed to fall like autumn leaves against the side of a smial. Acorn could see why they called it a wall.

“The rest of you should scamper off along that way as well, quick as you can,” Nori instructed. Most of the hobbits obeyed instantly. Long confinement and little food meant they stumbled often as they ran, but they dodged around the fighting orcs and dwarves, and raced to safety.

Uncle Adalgrim took a big iron sword from one of the fallen orcs, though he seemed to have trouble lifting it. Turning to Nori, he said, “My children are in that cage.”

“Then we’ll get them out next,” Nori said, nodding. “Your names, Master Hobbit?”

Uncle Ada looked down at Acorn, apparently surprised that she hadn’t run for the shield wall with the others. “Adalgrim Took,” he said slowly, looking from Acorn to the cage with his children.

“I’m a Baggins, too,” Acorn said quickly. “But I want to help.”

Nori stuck his arm out, plucking a small dwarven ax from the air just before it struck Uncle Ada. Glaring over his shoulder, he seemed to be personally offended by the fact that a dwarf could miss their target so badly. Then he looked down at Acorn.

“Well,” he said, “As long as Acorn Baggins is off safe with Dori, there’s no harm in you sticking with me, Baggins the Smaller.” His eyes were twinkling again, and he winked at her. “It’s sure to be much more interesting.” Handing her the little throwing ax, he led the way over to the next wagon and set about freeing the imprisoned hobbits.

Esmeralda and Paladin were the first out, embracing their father and weeping joyfully. Uncle Adalgrim hugged his children for long minutes, though Esmeralda was a tweenager and Paladin was almost as old as Primula Brandybuck, practically an adult. Acorn wished her own mum would be in one of the wagons, to give her a hug right away just like that. Of course, she knew that was a very silly wish, as her mum was free somewhere and probably being heroic. Still, aunts and uncles weren’t the same as mums.

Uncle Ada sent his children running toward the shield wall with the other hobbits, but he stayed with Nori to guard him as he freed the next wagon full of prisoners. Acorn stayed too, gripping her little ax tightly and watching for danger.

Coughing was a strange thing to do on the battlefield. Acorn looked at Uncle Ada, whose eyes were wide. He took two steps forward, then fell to his knees, slumping over on the ground. A knife was sticking out of his back. Behind him, Bill was crouched low, grinning ferally.

Acorn screamed.

Launching herself forward, she hit Bill with the ax. She hit him in the arm. She hit him in the chest. She hit him in the shoulder. She hit him in the neck. She hit him in his awful, unbearable smile. She hit him again, and again, and again, and again. She hit him until they were both on the ground, and she looked up to see a big orc looming over her with a terrible iron greatsword. Then it was the orc’s turn to slump and fall to one side.

The dwarf standing over her was even taller than the orc had been. Sunlight glinted on the axes in each of his hands. Tattoos decorated his bare head, but he wore no helmet. His armor was bright, but there was less of it, so he moved more quickly than the other dwarves in the battle. Looking down at her, he did not smile as Nori had. Instead, he raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll be Acorn Baggins, then,” he said. It was not a question. “Dwalin, at your service.”

“Uncle Ada!” Acorn cried. “They’ve hurt my Uncle Ada.” Rushing to his side, she shook him by the shoulder to wake him up. His eyes rolled open, but closed again at once.

“Leave the knife in,” the big dwarf said, “and stay down next to him. Let me know if he stops breathing. Nori! When you’re done dicking around with those doors, get a healer and be quick about it.”

Dropping the final iron cage door to the ground with a great clang, Nori nodded once and ran away. He wasn’t smiling anymore. Clinging to Adalgrim, Acorn didn’t know what to do. More and more orcs seemed to spew forth from the pits at the base of the tower, filling the big courtyard, crashing against the stone walls and the dwarves alike.

Dwalin stood over her, spinning his axes. And he fought them off.

Nothing in the Shire was ever really scary, but crossing the Brandywine had been close. Even with Mum by her side, Acorn looked down at the rushing water underneath the bridge, and thought that she would really rather go home and forget about her birthday party. Mum only smiled, and pointed to a big boulder in the middle of the stream. The water rushed around it, pushing with all the power of the river, but the boulder didn’t move. The boulder didn’t move, just like the bridge didn’t move, and it was safe enough for them to cross.

Watching Dwalin fight was like looking at that boulder. Orcs pressed around him in waves, but he was immovable. Nothing would get past him to Acorn. Nothing at all.

For the first time since her birthday, in the middle of a battlefield, Acorn Baggins was safe.

Chapter Text

Nightly letters from Thorin helped Bilbo immeasurably with the stress of the road and her missing daughter. Every morning he wrote, and every evening a raven arrived with news. Elves from the mythical land of Lothlorien were speeding them down the Anduin. Riding in the boats reminded Fili too much of their experience with the barrels, and he was ill. Lady Galadriel was apparently very wise, and nearly as pretty as Bilbo.

This base flattery the hobbit kept to herself. However, the rest of the letters she shared with Strider and Legolas. It grieved them to know that Saruman was their enemy, and more so to hear that Gandalf was captured. Had such intelligence come from any source but Lady Galadriel, Bilbo’s companions would likely have refused to believe it.

“That one such as Saruman could fall!” Legolas lamented. “From the Undying Lands and beyond he came. He has looked upon the Snow White Lady, and it was to her, to Elbereth Gilthoniel, that he swore allegiance above all others.”

“Others have broken oaths, and to higher powers even than the Kindler of Stars,” Strider said. “The temptations of power are difficult to resist.”

Folding Thorin’s letter carefully and putting it into her pocket, Bilbo sniffed. “Much as I respect Lady Varda, of course, I fail to see how she has anything to do with any of this. The Valar will not help us. We must help ourselves.”

“The Valar sent the wizards to help us,” Strider said. His face was inscrutable.

“Much good that has done us.” Both of Bilbo’s companions looked unhappy with such a declaration, but she was not at all inclined to rescind it.

Despite the despair that came with knowing a mighty force for good had fallen to wicked, selfish ways, this intelligence also aided their quest. With a destination, the hunters did not need to keep to the road or follow directly behind their quarry. Instead, they were able to cut across Dunland and make straight for Isengard.

There was an old saying in the Shire: “Short cuts make long delays.” Leaving the road and traveling across the sprawling meadows of Dunland was a risk. Indeed, the angle of their shortcut seemed to make directly for the Misty Mountains, instead of the Gap of Rohan. If Bilbo’s own experience in Mirkwood taught her anything, it was that sticking to the path was always safest. Fortunately, she did not care at all about her own safety. A prince of Mirkwood trusted Strider to lead, and so Bilbo was content to follow. Racing down goat paths, galloping over short, even stretches, and clambering up little hills, the three hunters made excellent time. A two day head start turned to nothing, and Bilbo sent raven after raven back and forth with Thorin to plan accordingly.

The walls of Isengard were tall and thick, though nothing compared to the great tower of Orthanc that loomed over the old fort. From his histories, Strider knew much about the gates and the defenses, though this was to be his first time visiting the place. Their approach in the darkness was over rough, stony ground, creeping between the end of the Misty Mountains and the walls of Isengard. Obviously Buttercup could not accompany them, and had to wait in the best grazing patch that could be found for him. Bilbo’s stomach groaned when she watched him eat, but there was no time for breakfast of her own. She ate the acorns from her bracelet, each one more nourishing than a king’s feast. This time tomorrow, she promised herself, Acorn will be free to make another.

Leaving the pony and their packs meant slow going for Bilbo, but it was well worth the trouble. A narrow, unimpressive archway, facing the mountains instead of the road or the river, made a door in the wall precisely where Strider predicted. It was guarded, but given that the sunrise crested pink and gold behind the great black tower, framed by the White Mountains in the distance, only men were on duty. Those men were just beginning their day, and certainly not expecting an attack.

Even the most alert guard would be hard pressed to anticipate an arrow sprouting from between his eyes as Legolas loosed two shafts in quick succession. Bilbo was not even fast enough to tell which of the two Legolas shot first, for they seemed to fall at exactly the same moment.

Ducking behind a few rocks, out of sight of Legolas and Strider, Bilbo slipped on her ring. Then she crept through the doorway and into Isengard. Their assault was perfectly timed. Across the wide, open courtyard, littered with pits, forges, guard houses, and lazing soldiers, she saw the first of the wagons pull through the main gate. It was too far away for her to make out the faces of the hobbits caged within, but she could see that they were exhausted and underfed. In the strangeness of the invisible world, some of them seemed to be on the verge of death, though there was no reason that being invisible should let her see such a thing. Bilbo started to run. The plan was for her to try to sneak over and free her fellow hobbits, helping them to escape while the dwarves and Big Folk fought.

The real plan was to free Acorn. Everything else was secondary.

“What is the meaning of this?” An unnaturally loud voice boomed across the courtyard, and Bilbo stopped running to look. At the base of the tower was a wizard dressed in white, with long white hair and a flowing beard. “All of this fighting is dangerous,” he said. Magic somehow amplified his words so that all could hear them. “Talking would be much better.”

It was the most reasonable thing Bilbo had ever heard. She was already standing right in front of the tower. Taking off the ring just made sense.

Instantly, Saruman’s eyes were on her. “You must be Bilbo Baggins,” he said.

Bilbo nodded. Her own tongue was too thick and clumsy to speak with such an august and important personage.

“Gandalf has told me much about you. I am not surprised to see you dressed in mithril as befits the consort of a dwarven king, but tell me how it is that you appear out of thin air?” Tilting his head made Saruman look thoughtful and wise. Bilbo thought she should probably give him her ring. He would know all about magic and things, being a wizard.

Her hand clenched in her pocket, and the ring stayed in her palm where it belonged.

“Hmm.” Saruman’s eyes were dark, like the stones of Orthanc, and Bilbo trembled a little. Defying him was dangerous. He was dangerous! She needed to get away. Suddenly, his face smoothed out into a welcoming expression and his eyes twinkled with humor. “My apologies, Miss Baggins. All of this rough housing has set me on edge. Why don’t you come inside with me? We can have tea like civilized folk and find a way to settle this without violence. Your old friend Gandalf is visiting me just now, and I am sure he would like to speak with you.”

That was wonderful news. Between the three of them, Bilbo had no doubt whatsoever that this whole matter could be sorted quickly. Skipping forward, she followed the wizard eagerly into the tower. Behind her, there was a great roar. For a moment, she thought she heard Thorin’s voice; but when she turned to look, the enormous black doors slammed shut.

Slamming doors were a bit odd. Especially doors that seemed to slam themselves. Bilbo looked around the room. There was only one chair. More of a throne than a seat where one would take tea. Otherwise, the room was cavernous and sparsely decorated. Empty, really, and full of echoes instead of furniture. Gandalf was there, but he was hanging from the ceiling in an iron cage that did not look at all comfortable. His eyes were shut.

Bilbo opened her mouth to say hello and see if he was all right. Then she closed it again. Everything she could think to say sounded trite and foolish in front of Saruman.

The great white wizard sat upon his throne, gesturing for Bilbo to come stand near him.

“Now,” he said. “I do not like to repeat myself, Miss Baggins. Tell me how you came to be so perfectly invisible.”

Again, Bilbo felt a great desire to give him her ring. To prove that she could be a good and useful friend, even to a wizard. Yet something in her heart whispered that the ring was too precious to give up for any reason. She’d never even shown the beautiful treasure to her own daughter. Why would she give it to a perfect stranger? It was hers. She won it from Gollum fair and square.

As she struggled with her conflicted heart, a great voice boomed out in the vast chamber. “Bilbo Baggins, Wake Up!” Blinking, she saw grey shadows stretching out around Gandalf, darkening the room. Saruman’s robes no longer seemed to glow like gossamer. Suddenly, Bilbo wondered why she was alone in the stronghold of her enemy. Going into Orthanc alone was not part of the plan.

Staggering backward, Bilbo drew her sword, leveling it at Saruman. “Free Gandalf at once,” she said, “Or I shall be forced to take action.”

The white wizard’s laugh was an unpleasant, booming echo in the vast chamber. “You did not do her any favors, old friend,” he said. “She will answer my questions one way or another.” His staff twitched, and Sting flew from Bilbo’s grasp as if pulled away by an invisible hand.

“Please,” Gandalf said. His voice was no longer a mighty declaration. In fact, he looked older and more weary than ever. Even after the Battle of Five Armies, Gandalf had not seemed so careworn. “Saruman, you are better than this. There is no need to torture an innocent hobbit.”

“Innocent?” Saruman waved his hand and Sting came to him. Plucking it out of the air like a flower petal, the wizard inspected the blade. “Next you will tell me that this is an innocent dagger, forged in Gondolin to be perfectly harmless. But I recognize these enchantments. They are not what made you invisible, little hobbit.”

“My sword is not harmless, and neither am I,” Bilbo said. “But it does not follow that you and I must harm each other. I say again: let Gandalf go. Free all of your captives. We need not fight.”

Saruman’s lip curled. “I grow weary of this.” Twisting his fingers in the air, the wizard used his magic to yank Bilbo’s mithril shirt away from her. Catching on her cloak, it choked her as it broke the mother of pearl brooch which fastened the garment around her neck. Acorn’s gift fell to the stone floor and shattered. The mithril shirt caught Bilbo’s hair and wrenched her arms painfully as it jerked over to Saruman on his throne.

BIlbo did not waste time shrieking about the audacity of removing a lady’s clothing without her permission. It was quite clear that Saruman did not consider the hobbit’s feelings consequential enough to merit an exchange of words, let alone civility. Instead, she sidled toward Gandalf’s hanging cage, thinking to free her friend.

“None of that.” Saruman did not look up from his inspection of her mithril shirt, but he raised his staff. Suddenly, Bilbo was paralyzed. Her wrists and ankles felt like they were caught in a vice, and though she struggled, she could not break free. The invisible bonds lifted her from the floor, tugging painfully on her limbs.

Behind her there was a great booming sound that shook the room, and then another. When Saruman cast a slightly irritated eye toward the door, Bilbo realized that it was not some magic spell of his.

“That will be Thorin,” Bilbo said, with more confidence than she felt. “The might of Erebor is on your doorstep, wizard.”

“Yes, yes.” Saruman turned back to the mithril in his hands. “The sire of your bastard halfling, I know. Gandalf told me over a year ago. I suppose I’ll have a look at him as well, when I am done with you. I doubt I’ll find any beneficial properties in his blood, however. Dwarves are notoriously infertile, and the line of Durin has never been an exception to that rule.”

Saruman did something to Bilbo’s armor that made it glow briefly, but when the white light vanished, he looked even more annoyed.

“I am so very sorry, Bilbo,” Gandalf said quietly. “The existence of your child was such a wonder to me that I could not keep her a secret, and I should have.”

Bilbo could move just enough to turn her neck and look at her oldest friend, slumped against the cold iron bars of his cage. Almost against her will, a corner of her mouth twitched upward. “Yes, I can see this is all going splendidly for you, Gandalf.”

Returning the smile, Gandalf looked as though he would say something more when Saruman cast the armor across the room with a clatter.

“There is no virtue in that trash,” the white wizard snarled, “except the properties of the metal. Stop wasting my time, hobbit, and tell me how you came to be invisible!”

Trembling before power was nothing to be embarrassed about. Bilbo wanted to hide, as she once hid from Smaug. She wanted to fight, as she once fought spiders twice her size. She wanted to run, as she once fled through the goblin tunnels. Unfortunately, she could do none of those things. Instead, she smiled.

“Why don’t we make a game of it? Riddles, perhaps. If I win, you let us go. If you win, I’ll tell you anything you like.”

Saruman hissed, snapping his fingers. At once, Bilbo’s clothes tore. All of her buttons fell to the floor, bouncing and scattering along the stone. Losing them caused her overshirt to hang open in a rather mortifying fashion, for her undershirt was not nearly as modest as it might have been. Worse, her belt buckle also tore away, dropping to the floor with the leather of her belt coiling in straps around it. Happily, her trousers only slipped down a little, and not off entirely. It was still highly inappropriate and rather emphasized how completely powerless she was to do anything. If she couldn’t keep her clothing together, how could she protect what was truly valuable? The booming knock at the door continued rhythmically, and for a moment, that gave Bilbo hope. Then all hope was lost.

As her trousers slipped dangerously down her waist, the ring fell out of her pocket and landed heavily on the floor.

It did not bounce like her buttons.

Staring at the beautiful, golden weight of it lying on the black stone of the floor, Bilbo cried out. “That is mine! My own! You cannot take it from me!”

“Ah.” Saruman rose from his throne and walked over to Bilbo with slow, measured steps. His eyes did not leave the ring. “Interesting.” Bending over, the wizard picked up the ring between his thumb and forefinger, examining it.

“Give it back,” Bilbo howled. “I won it. Fair and square! It’s mine!”

Without sparing a glance toward Bilbo, the wizard slipped the ring onto his finger. However, it did not turn him invisible. Rather than vanishing, Saruman seemed to grow more solid and less ephemeral. The ring on his hand glowed gold, and then red, as writing appeared across the usually pristine surface.

“Saruman,” Gandalf said, “See the danger you are in! That is the ring of Sauron. You cannot wield it!”

“Can I not?” Saruman laughed. Dark shadows grew at the corners of the room, swirling and shifting as they billowed toward him and rushed beneath his pristine white robes. Born up by these shadows, the wizard grew impossibly tall, and the ring on his finger grew as well, until Bilbo could only have worn it as a bracelet. “Let us see.”

With a casual manner, Saruman waved a hand, and the door to Orthanc flew open just as another rhythmic nock was about to sound. In charged a dozen dwarves, the foremost six carrying a battering ram, many of whom were very well known to Bilbo. At the front of the battering ram, Gloin roared, leading a charge straight at Saruman. Fili and Kili were just behind him with Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur on the other side. Behind the enormous battering ram, Thorin led the other dwarves in the charge. Orcrist glowed blue in his hands, already covered in orc blood.

Smiling, Saruman clenched his hand into a fist. All of the dwarves went flying, slamming backward into the walls of the tower. The battering ram flipped over in the air, pinning Gloin and Bombur under its massive weight as they dropped to the floor.

Thorin was the first on his feet. “Du Bekar!” he cried, and charged Saruman again. He did not make it very far. Fortunately, Orcrist was before him like a lance, so it struck the invisible wall first. White light flashed and shadows gathered around the tip of his sword. Thorin tightened his grip on the hilt of the mighty blade, and planted his feet firmly, pushing into the magical barrier with all of his strength. All around the room, the other dwarves took up their weapons and began striking at the barrier as well. More of the bright, white light flashed, but they didn’t seem to make any progress, other than discovering that the magic wall made a complete circle around Gandalf, Saruman, and Bilbo.

Bifur and Bofur worked together to get the battering ram off of Bombur and Gloin, then the four of them turned the massive thing on the wall of light and shadow. This time the rhythmic, slamming sound was accompanied by crackling sparks.

Turning to Gandalf casually, Saruman seemed wholly unconcerned by this attack. “I would say that I can, in fact, wield this ring.”

“Please, old friend.” Gandalf’s gnarled hands clutched the bars of his cage so tightly that his knuckles were white. “There is still time to stop this.”

“There is less time than you think,” Saruman said. When he drew a line in the air with a single finger, Bilbo felt a sharp pain in her arm. Blood began to flow from her, not dripping to the floor, but in a floating stream across the room, collecting in strange, iron bowl next to the wizard’s throne. Leaning forward, Saruman inspected the floating, red rivulet as he had Bilbo’s other possessions. “I grow weary of your moral grandstanding,” he told Gandalf. “If you will not see the wisdom of my choices, then I will not continue to extend my hospitality.”

“I have had better hospitality from goblins,” Gandalf said, clearly trying to get Saruman’s attention away from Bilbo. “This is foolishness. What can you hope to gain by bleeding a hobbit dry? Either you forget everything we know about learning and scholarship, or you have gone mad.”

It didn’t work. Saruman curled his fingers and hundreds of other cuts sliced all over Bilbo’s body. Screaming in agony seemed the only possible response. So Bilbo did, though it made Thorin roar and throw himself bodily at the magical wall, hacking aimlessly with Orcrist.

“I will gain an army.” Saruman was wholly unaffected by Bilbo’s screams or the dwarven cries of outrage. He dipped a finger into the river of Bilbo’s blood streaming from all of her many wounds into the iron bowl. The pain in her body was so great that Bilbo seemed to float above it, watching in wonder as the small bowl did not overflow. Instead, it seemed to drink her blood thirstily, like a vampire from the oldest tales.

“Wizards do not need armies,” Gandalf said.

“That has always been your failing,” Saruman snapped. “Gandalf the Grey, content to sit back and whisper in the ears of those with power. This world has fallen to disorder and chaos because we allow it. No more. I, at least, will take action. I will build a new race. A strong race. Conquerors. With my leadership, they will tame this land and make it worthy.”

“Creating something new is a grand dream.” Gandalf’s voice was so quiet that Bilbo could barely hear it. Some absent part of her understood that this was in part because her own screaming was so loud. “You needn’t destroy others to do it.”

“I must understand how she was able to bear the child of a dwarf.” Saruman’s frown was a small, academic one. He stroked his beard. Then Bilbo’s stomach exploded outward and she saw her own tripes floating there with all of that blood. She could not understand how she was alive, with so many of her insides on the outside. The wizard peered at her entrails, then made a displeased noise. “Hopefully I will learn more from the dissection of the child.”

Bilbo fell to the floor like a discarded ragdoll. Stone was cool against her temple. All around, she could see the flashing lights of the dwarves attacking the barrier. Gandalf’s voice echoed strangely as he scolded Saruman. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

They were talking about Acorn.

Crawling made her muscles scream. Looking at the contents of her own stomach stretched across the floor made Bilbo want to vomit. Every flash of light and pulse of sound made Bilbo’s head pound with pain. But Sting wasn’t far. Only a few more feet. Gandalf had Saruman’s attention, and Bilbo could make it to her sword. Inch by inch, she pulled herself along until her hand closed around the familiar hilt. Then, inch by inch, she crawled toward Saruman. He was shouting, but she could not understand his words. The whole world was spinning. The flashing white lights seemed to fill her eyes with stars.

“Elbereth,” Bilbo whispered, plunging her blade deep into Saruman’s heel.

Screaming in pain, the wizard’s long hair whipped wildly through the air as he turned to face the hobbit. Lips curling into a snarl, he lifted one hand. Lightning crackled at his fingertips, and Bilbo could see the ring, glowing like flame behind that.

Stars, Bilbo thought. The ring shattered into a thousand little stars. Drifting up toward the ceiling like embers from a campfire, Bilbo watched the shards of the ring gather into the hands of a woman made of starlight. Then, the woman was gone, the ring was gone, and the lightning was still gathering in Saruman’s hand. He didn’t seem to notice.

He also didn’t seem to notice when his head rolled off his shoulders and bounced away. His body shriveled as it fell, white robes dissolving into black smoke until all trace of Saruman the White was gone from the world. Orcrist shone against the black stone of the ceiling, and Bilbo’s eyes trailed along the blade until she saw Thorin. At once, he was kneeling next to her, his hands scrambling over her stomach, trying to put her insides back where they belonged.

“Acorn?” she managed to ask.

“Safe,” he promised.

So Bilbo Baggins was able to let go, and after that she knew no more.

Chapter Text

Freeing Gandalf was vital, though Thorin was so mad with panic and grief that he almost failed to order it. Fili and Kili ran for Oin while Bofur simply sat on the stone floor beside Thorin and began to mourn openly. The king had no heart to scold him for it. Bilbo was not dead. Not yet. But no one could live through such a wound.

Clinging to her, Thorin tried to hold her bleeding wounds closed with the force of his clumsy, useless hands. Another hand, much larger and knotted with age, reached down over Thorin’s shoulder and passed across Bilbo’s face. Her bleeding stopped.

At that, Thorin began to weep in earnest. He had been on enough battlefields in his time to know what the absence of bleeding meant.

“Bring her,” Gandalf ordered. “Quickly. I am not a healer, and Saruman’s power has leached too deeply into the stones for healing or growth to take place within this tower. I can hold her still, but only for a little while.”

Looking up wildly, Thorin saw that Gandalf was leaning all his weight against his staff. Even so, the old man lead the dwarves swiftly from the tower. Cradling his precious cargo, Thorin raced after the wizard, careful not to jar Bilbo any more than necessary. At the door to Orthanc, Thorin was almost surprised to see that the battle still waged in force. The dwarves were winning, of course. In daylight the orcs were weak, and Saruman’s men were cowards. Many orcs lay dead, and only a few dwarves seemed injured. In other circumstances, Thorin would have been pleased to join the fray once more. With Bilbo in his arms, however, he felt a great trepidation about crossing the courtyard to the field beyond where healers would be plying their craft.

“Enough!” Gandalf’s voice echoed from the very stones of Orthanc, booming out across Isengard like thunder. When he spoke, the daylight seemed brighter, flashing on his hand like a red jewel, and every single orc still fighting caught on fire. They shrieked and tried to flee, only to be cut down immediately by dwarves who knew better than to hesitate or question such an advantage. Those few men who remained fighting in Saruman’s service immediately threw down their weapons and surrendered.

So the path was clear for Thorin to follow Gandalf through Isengard and out beyond the wall to the white tents of the healers. Many dwarves stopped to look upon their king, witnessing the bloody creature in his arms and the tears upon his face. Just as he reached the wall, Oin and his nephews met him with a stretcher, but he did not surrender the hobbit to them. He did not let her go until he placed her upon one of the clean cots in the white healing tent. Even then, he could not leave her side as the healers pressed around them. His hand needed to hold the wound on her left cheek closed.

As Balin pulled him away out of the tent, Thorin fought and cursed. It felt good to fight and curse. Thorin needed to kill something, and he wished that Gandalf had not handled the orcs so readily with his magic. He wished Saruman yet lived so that Thorin could behead him again. He wished that something, anything could be done to save Bilbo.

Eventually, when Thorin finally gave Balin his word that he would not disturb the healers at their work, he was allowed to sit just outside of the tent flap, listening to the gruesome sounds within. Tauriel and the ranger Strider appeared some time after that, lead by Gandalf. Both of them were allowed entry, and soon Thorin heard elvish chanting. He did not care what they did, as long as Bilbo lived.

Gandalf sat beside him.

From some pocket in his robes, the old wizard produced a pipe. “Do you mind?” he asked, cleaning it carefully. “I seem to be a little light.”

Thorin handed over his own pouch of pipeweed. Before leaving Erebor, that pouch was carefully filled with leaf imported from the Shire at great expense. He smoked it in the mountain to remember Bilbo’s scent, but he smoked none this journey. Instead he carried it faithfully, waiting. In case Bilbo should like a taste of home after her hardships. She would never smoke it now. Thorin would never sit beside her to share a pipe ever again.

“Ah, Old Toby.” Gandalf took a slow drag, savoring the taste. “Very nice. I thank you, King Under the Mountain.”

Thorin did not look at him. Inside the tent there was an awful, scraping sound. Thorin did not know what it could be, but he knew that it could not be pleasant or good. “I will not apologize,” he said.

“If she survives, I doubt she’ll ask you to.” The smoke from Gandalf’s pipe shaped into a grey ship that sailed off into the clouds. Thorin thought of his conversation with the Lady of the Golden Wood.

“Not Bilbo. Her, I shall give a thousand apologies. As many as she can stand to hear. For my neglect. For my distance. For my failure to keep her safe. But I shall not apologize to you.”

“To my knowledge,” Gandalf said, “You owe me no apology.”

“I agree. He murdered Bilbo, and would have slaughtered all the hobbits just as cruelly. Saruman had to die.” Thorin flinched as someone within the healing tent cried out in pain.

“Yes.” Gandalf’s voice was like wind in a desert. “There was no redemption for Saruman after today.”

For a time, Thorin listened to the elvish chanting. The sound was almost musical. “Galadriel said he was your brother.”

Although Thorin did not turn his eyes from the rolling plains of Rohan, he felt Gandalf turn to look at him sharply. Then the wizard sat back, blowing another smoke figure. This one bloomed into a mighty tree. As it drifted off to the horizon, one by one, it shed its leaves, and they blew away in the wind.

“Thank you.” The smile in Gandalf’s voice was obvious enough, whether or not Thorin turned to look. “For refusing to apologize. Saruman needed to be stopped. He would not listen to reason.”

Thorin thought about smoke on the wind and stars that shone at noon. “The lady seemed to think his passing would cause you pain.”

Gandalf was quiet for a time, and the smoke from his pipe was formless. Or perhaps it was intended to be a billowing cloud, but if so, the meaning of such a metaphor was beyond Thorin. “He was great once,” the wizard said. “Far, far greater than I. Precocious, clever, truly brilliant in a way that I never was. It pained me indeed, when he fell. However, I have had almost a year in his prison to grow used to that disappointment.”

Thorin smiled, but another noise from the healing tent stole it from his face.

“It surprises me,” Gandalf said, “that you would choose to come by way of the Golden Wood.”

“I would not refuse such help.” Thorin heard another scream. The voice was too deep to be Bilbo’s. That was not as comforting as it should have been. “Galadriel saved us days of travel. My failure would have been complete without her. I even thought I saw her today. For a moment, when Bilbo stabbed Saruman, I thought I saw her light in the dark tower.”

“That was not the Lady Galadriel.” Gandalf blew another figure out of smoke, this one a constellation Thorin knew well. The crown of seven stars was visible in the western sky throughout every season of the year.

Looking away from the form was impossible, even as it dissipated slowly in the bright light of day. “The Valar do not intercede in the events of Middle Earth,” Thorin said. His voice sounded thin to his own ears, and he felt breathless. What did he see in the tower of Orthanc? “Even our Maker does not act directly, only sends us signs and portents to guide our steps.”

“In the past it was so,” Gandalf agreed. “And you needn’t fear Lord Mahal coming to Erebor and sitting upon your throne.”

“I would welcome such an honor!” The racing drum of Thorin’s heart pounded in his ears. To think that he should meet his maker while living and walking the earth! More than wizards, the Valar were capable of great miracles. It would not be beyond their power to heal a single hobbit. It would not be beyond their power to heal everyone wounded on the battlefield today.

“They will not walk these shores again as they once did,” Gandalf said, “but I think they will not hold entirely separate either. We can expect rare miracles, when we catch their interest.”

“How do I do that?” the dwarf demanded.

Gandalf’s eyes twinkled. “In your case, Thorin, I imagine simply by being yourself.”

“Speak plainly!” Thorin could not seem to breathe deeply enough to force a proper air of command into his voice. Even so, he tried. “It is not too late, if we can make them intercede for us. We have not yet failed Bilbo completely.”

The smile left Gandalf’s eyes, but he looked far too calm for the precipice upon which they sat outside of the healing tent. “Thorin. Whether Bilbo lives or dies, you know that you did not fail her today. You will not fail her at all, so long as you take the last words you spoke as a vow.”

Suddenly struck by the powerful urge to be elsewhere, Thorin stood. “You will excuse me,” he said. Gandalf did.

The king walked through the camp like a dwarf in a dream. All around him, soldiers carried out the important work of burning the bodies of orcs, cleaning up the battlefield, setting up a proper camp instead of a bivouac, confining the wicked men where they could not make trouble, and seeing to the needs of the freed hobbits.

It was this last that interested Thorin the most.

The freed hobbits spread out on the grass just beyond the walls of Isengard. They sat in a very orderly fashion on whatever blankets or cloaks could be found on short notice, and they ate. With emaciated faces and swollen bellies, it was clear that the hobbits were starving. Even so, the Shire Folk did not grasp for food as others might have. Instead, they shared politely, and ate in the measured, mannerly fashion that reminded Thorin so much of Bilbo. The only difference between this meal and a picnic was the lack of conversation. All of the hobbits were wholly focused on their food.

All except one.

Bilbo’s daughter was easy to spot. She was eating just as eagerly as the rest of the hobbits, but she was also telling a story. Bilbo always loved a good story. The girl’s audience was another fauntling lass with golden brown hair and a hobbitess who looked to be about the age of majority, whatever that might be for hobbits. Her story was not what Bilbo would have called polite dinner conversation, but none of the adults nearby scolded her for it.

“And then Mister Dwalin hit the one eared orc in the arm with Grasper, pinning its sword arm to its side. After that, he sliced it across its belly with Keeper. Like rawr!” The child gestured violently with half an apple before putting the whole thing in her mouth and taking a big drink of water. “So the one eared orc was dead. But there was a really big orc with an ax coming at him from behind! Mister Dwalin didn’t even look. He spun around in a circle, chopping the really big orc’s head off with Keeper, and squaring off against an orc with a spiked helmet who was charging him from the front.”

Dwalin appeared at Thorin’s side. “She doesn’t know the name of a single technique, but she’s halfway through the battle. She hasn’t been wrong about a killing blow yet.”

The girl gratefully accepted a bowl of hot stew ladled out by Bombur, blowing on it carefully. While she waited for it to cool, she described the gruesome evisceration of the spiked-helmet-wearing orc cheerfully.

“She is uninjured?”

Dwalin nodded. “I had one of Oin’s apprentices check her over to be sure. She’s in good shape. Slightly less malnourished than the other children, but needs feeding up. A lot of it.”

Tearing his eyes away from the little hobbit lass, Thorin looked at his friend. “Because you protected her. In the battle.”

After over a century of familiarity, Thorin knew that the slight furrow on the bridge of Dwalin’s nose was an expression of serious concern. When he tilted his head minutely away from the hobbits, Thorin followed willingly. Once they were a few steps away, Dwalin said, “I wasn’t the only one. An uncle of hers got a bad wound, and she took it hard. Oin got to him quick. He didn’t die on the field, at least, but there’s still no word.”

That was bad news. First her mother, now a beloved uncle. Or perhaps, from Acorn’s perspective, it would be the other way around. Unbidden, the Battle of Azanulbizar rose in Thorin’s memory. His grandfather’s death, Frerin’s death, and his father’s loss in a single day had been more grief than he could bear. It shamed him, that Acorn should know such a day while still so very young.

“Mister Dwalin?”

Looking down in surprise, Thorin saw that Acorn was standing beside him, unbidden. Dwalin raised an eyebrow at the girl.

“Are you going away?” she asked, taking the warrior’s burly hand in her small one. “Can I go with you? I brought you a strawberry.” The lass held up a tiny red fruit as though it were made of gold.

“You eat it.” Dwalin smiled softly at the little girl. “I am not going anywhere.”

Acorn popped the berry into her own mouth with no further urging. “Good! Are you hungry? There’s soup and bread and water and fruit and even beer. Paladin Took has already had a whole pint of beer, you know, but he is a tweenager. I may not have any beer until I am twenty, Mum says, but I have had some. For when we went to Great Smials at Yule, Aunt Aconite gave me a sip of hers. I did not like it very much. Tea is better. Mister Dori says we shall all have tea very soon, but he has to kill his brother first. He is not really going to kill his brother, is he?”

“No.” Dwalin’s smile grew into a grin. “Mister Nori is in a little bit of trouble for not telling Dori you were lying before, but Dori will not kill him.”

“Oh!” Acorn frowned. “He should not be in trouble because I lied. And neither should I, really. Asphodel was quite afraid, you know. It was very improper for you all to want to protect me specifically when I would rather help, and Asphodel would rather be protected.”

“Lying is always dishonorable,” Thorin said. “No matter the reason.”

Acorn scowled up at him. “That’s stupid. We were all in cages and there were orcs with big swords. Who cares about telling lies at a time like that?”

Oh. Her eyes were blue. The weight of a raindrop could have felled Thorin Oakenshield in that moment, when he noticed how blue her eyes were. Bilbo had lovely eyes, but they were not that particular shade of blue.

“Miss Acorn Baggins,” Dwalin said, giving a formal half bow that his brother repeatedly begged him to show in court to no avail. “Please allow me to present King Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, undisputed ruler of Erebor, and an old friend of your mother’s.”

Acorn’s eyes widened and the expression on her little face turned from annoyance to awe as she stared up at him. “Are you really?” she asked.

Thorin nodded gravely. He could not speak. Did she know? Did she know who he was to her? Did she know why her eyes were Durin Blue?

“Can I see it?” Her voice was eager, and she bounced up and down on her little toes, nearly vibrating with excitement.

Unfortunately, Thorin had no idea what she was asking for. “See what?”

“The Oakenshield,” she said, tugging Dwalin’s hand back and forth as she looked about Thorin’s bloody armor, peeking around him as though she suspected it was hidden behind his back. “The oaken branch that you used to defend yourself during the Battle of Aniseed-bizarre when you fought the Pale Orc for the first time and chopped off his arm!”

Oh. That. Yet another failure to explain to she-who-might-have-been-his-daughter. Once again, Thorin was at a loss for words. Mercifully, Dwalin saved him. “Azanulbizar,” he corrected sternly. “Call it the Battle for Khazad-Dum, if you cannot say it properly. And you are forgetting your mother’s stories. The Oakenshield was lost when Thorin faced the Pale Orc the second time on the side of the Misty Mountains.”

“Right!” Squeezing Dwalin’s hand, the girl bounced up and down, still staring at Thorin as though she wanted to memorize every detail of his armor. “But then the third time you met, the Pale Orc stabbed you, and you stabbed him right back with Orcrist, the Goblin Cleaver! Do you have that still? Can I see it? Does it really look just like Sting only bigger?”

Grateful for a request he could fulfil, Thorin drew Orcrist forth from its sheath and showed it to the eager child. For all her enthusiasm, she reached out only a single finger to touch the flat of the blade carefully. “I almost wish that all those nasty orcs were not dead,” she said softly. “I would have liked to see it glow.”

“I cannot say I hope another opportunity arises,” Thorin told her gravely, “but if we are attacked again, I will be at your side. I promised your mother I would keep you safe.”

For a moment, the excitement returned to her eyes and her cheeks lifted in a bright smile, but then she scowled again. “Only until Mum gets here, though, right? She’ll probably come before any more orcs do, and she’ll be worse than Mister Dori about me staying away from the fighting.”

Again, Thorin was at a loss for words. This time, Dwalin was still and silent at his side. Both of them knew well that there was no good way to speak of tragedy to a child.

“Your mother is here, Acorn Baggins,” Thorin said eventually.

When she raised an eyebrow and tilted her head forward to look up at him from under her lashes, it did not matter that her eyes were a brilliant blue or her hair was as dark as raven feathers. Acorn was the very picture of her mother, and the expression was one that Bilbo gave to someone who was being a bit of an idiot.

“Mum is on the way, Mister Oakenshield, but she isn’t here yet.” The little girl patted his hand gently. “Come have some lunch. We can wait for her together.”

“Acorn Baggins.” Thorin knelt on the ground so that his eyes were level with hers. “Do you truly believe that your mother was not involved in the battle to free you?”

Those wide eyes glanced up at Dwalin. When she turned her small face back to Thorin, her brow was twisted with worry. “Where’s Mum?”

“In the tents of the healers. Lo, Acorn Baggins, I tell you that she faced the Wizard Saruman alone in single combat. Though his magic was terrible and his wrath fearsome, your mother was the only one clever enough to get close to him before he cast a powerful shield around himself. He injured her greatly, as my best warriors and I tried to force through the spell to no avail. Then, your mother struck! Biting at his heel with her trusty Sting, she distracted and weakened him, disrupting his magic. So it was that she destroyed her enemy, and smote the ruin of he who took you from her side.”

Slowly nodding, the child said, “Okay.” Then her grip tightened in his hand. “Let's go see her. Now, please.”

“We cannot,” Thorin said. “The healers must have space to work.”

To say that Thorin was unprepared for what happened next would be like saying that Smaug’s attack on Erebor was a slight inconvenience. Screwing her little face up, the child began to scream. Tears streaming from her eyes, she struck at him with her tiny fists, likely hurting her knuckles on his armor though he could barely feel her punches. “Bring me my Mum!” she demanded. “I want my Mum!”

Thorin and Dwalin both stared at her. Dumbfounded and powerless. After what seemed like a century, a young hobbitess came to their rescue. Gathering Acorn in her arms, she murmured soothing words and stroked the little girl’s dark, dirty curls.

“What’s all this?” the hobbitess asked.

Acorn hiccuped, fighting against her tears to speak. “I want Mum.”

Thorin’s heart broke.

“Now, now.” The hobbitess rubbed Acorn’s back with gentle hands. “Where did my brave Acorn, go? Where’s the lass who kept her Uncle Adalgrim safe during that big battle? Your mother will be here just as soon as she can. Remember, she has to get past that River Dragon somehow, and the bridge was broken. That’s sure to set her back, for she’ll have to find another. A boat would be too dangerous, with a dragon like that.”

“She’s already here,” Acorn wailed, breaking out into new tears. “They are keeping her from me!”

Sharp brown eyes looked up at Thorin. He cleared his throat. “Bilbo Baggins is with our finest healers. She was badly injured in the battle. We do not know.” He could not say it. “We do not know.”

“Oh.” Great sorrow came over the hobbitess’s expression, but it cleared away and was replaced by admirable determination. “Well, I am quite sure she will be fine, Acorn. After all, she’s the Mad Baggins. This is hardly her first adventure. I’m sure she’s been hurt more seriously than this in the past, and come out right as raspberries.”

Dwalin opened his mouth, as if to contradict this by saying that the most serious injury Bilbo ever took on their adventure was a strike upon the head that let her sleep through their biggest battle. Fortunately, a stern look from the hobbitess silenced him.

“I want to see her,” Acorn said. Her voice was high and plaintive. Thorin could probably arrange for a visit. Of course, he was barred from the tent himself, but with Dwalin’s aid that stricture could be rendered meaningless.

“Absolutely not,” the hobbitess said. “You will distract the healers and they will not be able to make her well. Besides, you are all filthy. You will not cheer her up that way. Once we’ve eaten a bit more, we’ll wash up a little and see if we can’t manage to clean your clothes as well. Then, if the healers say it is all right, and only if the healers say it is all right, you may visit your mother for five minutes. We must let her rest, or she will not get better.”

Amazingly, this scolding worked, and the child calmed. When she began wiping her eyes on the dirty sleeves of her dress, Thorin offered the girl a handkerchief. It was dove white and embroidered. He carried it, like the pipeweed, for Bilbo. Certainly, her daughter could make good use of it.

After cleaning her face and clearing her nose, Acorn tried to return the soft cloth. “Keep it,” Thorin said. As he did not promise to give her all that he possessed, this was a reasonable sentiment. Dwalin still jostled him with a shoulder in a comforting fashion.

“Thank you for telling me about my Mum, Mister King.” The girl still did not sound well. Of course she could not be well while Bilbo’s life was yet in danger. Even so, Thorin groped for something he might say or do to ease her pain.

Before he could come up with anything, the hobbitess had the child by the hand, leading her back to the little picnic.

Surprisingly, it was Dwalin who stopped them. “Your name?” he requested. It was not an impolite question, though Thorin had a fuzzy idea about hobbit propriety that suggested matters might be different in the Shire. In either case, the young lady answered.

“Primula Brandybuck.”

Thorin could not help asking. “You are kin to Bilbo?”

“Yes.” The hobbit’s smile was small, but she answered the question. “My mother Mirabella was the younger sister of Bilbo’s mother.” The smile disappeared entirely. “If she survived the attack, she is the last of the Old Took’s adventurous daughters.”

“She did survive,” Thorin said, “although I can give you no recent news.”

An easterly breeze shook the long grass of Rohan like rough water. The hobbits would have to shelter within the walls of Isengard, if not Orthanc itself. Traveling light meant the dwarves bivouacked, and what tents they had were barely large enough to shelter the work of the healers.

“I have heard much of the magic of dwarves, but how is it possible for you to know something like that?” The lass’s voice was soft and full of awe. As though Thorin were some sort of elf.

He scowled. “It is not magic. All my news from the Shire has a single source. Bilbo wrote me. When she asked for help, she said her Aunt Mirabella would be raising an army in the Shire.”

“Bilbo wrote to you?” Primula looked surprised. As though hobbits were not constantly writing letters to one another. As though Thorin’s correspondence with Bilbo was something strange or improper simply because Bilbo did not want to marry him.

“Yes.” Acorn’s voice was a little chirp once more, no longer full of tears or wrath. “Ravens bring us letters from Erebor every month. It used to be on the fifth day of the month, but then we had Lithe, and Mid-Year’s Day, and Overlithe, and everything. So after that it was on the first day of the month, which was very nice. But then we had Yule, and now they are on practically the last day of the month, and we have to wait a very long time to get them. Mum says they come every thirty days, and it is only the calendar that changes. I don’t know. It feels like a longer wait, now.”

“Every month?” One of Primula’s eyebrows lifted toward her hair. Thorin felt his own face flush red, like a child found playing with his mother’s tools. “Like clockwork?”

Thorin was King Under the Mountain, and could write letters whenever he wished. “Well, Acorn Baggins, if you enjoy my letters so much and do not care for the wait, I shall write your mother twice as often. Provided she is willing to allow it.”

“Oh!” The sunlight sparkled on Acorn’s smile like a diamond. “Yes, please! I love to hear stories about Erebor, and Mum always reads me part of the letter, if not the whole thing.” Turning to her cousin, she added, “Do you know they have a statue of my mum there? Right in the middle of the marketplace. It is stone, carved to look just like her, though a bit taller so that folks can see it.”

“Do they?” Primula did not look at the child. Instead, she met Thorin’s eyes like a challenge. “Someone must have missed Bilbo an awful lot, to build such a likeness of her.”

Thorin refused to back down. He would not be intimidated by a weaponless hobbit, no matter how much she resembled Bilbo. Unfortunately, he could not think of anything to say that was neither challenge nor insult.

“We all miss Bilbo,” Dwalin said. “Every day. She is our Master Burglar. Without her, we would not have our home.”

As the hobbit’s face turned to Dwalin before drifting back toward Thorin, it softened a great deal. Her mouth twisted down at the corners, just a little, and Thorin wondered if she was anticipating missing Bilbo a great deal in the future. Unless the healers could work a miracle, Thorin would have no letters and Primula would have no cousin.

“Yes,” she said. “I have heard Bilbo’s stories. We all have. It is a pleasure to meet you at last, and see that you are just as noble as she said, Mister Oak. I suppose a king who faced so much danger to reclaim a mountain for his people could not leave it simply to visit the Shire.”

“No.” Thorin forced himself not to look at the child standing innocently beside Primula. “The distance between the Lonely Mountain and the Shire is great.”

“Then it is a good thing you and Bilbo are both such adventurers.” Taking Acorn firmly by the hand, Primula returned to the picnic and resumed eating at once. So Thorin was not fleeing her when he walked away as well, leaving Dwalin to guard Bilbo’s daughter alone.

A king had many duties. While the orcish bodies were burnt so that they could not poison the land, the bodies of the fallen men must be buried according to the customs of their people. Water from the river Isen was fresh and plentiful. However, even in late spring it was cold and too swift for bathing. So bathtubs were found, or crafted from old barrels. Proper fires were built, to warm the camp and cook. Water was heated to wash everyone clean of the filth of Saruman’s malevolence. Sheltering in the tower or the orc pits was out of the question, but there were barracks within Isengard for men. These were easy enough to clear for the hobbits. Thorin needed to oversee everything, to minimize hardship and the risk of sickness.

Fortunately, as the sun set in the kindly west, the wind changed. Blowing up from the south, it hinted at a warm summer, keeping the towering ice of the Misty Mountains at bay.

Chapter Text

Usually, Acorn did not much like to bathe, unless Mum would play with her or sing while she did. After a whole month of going without, however, she was extremely happy to take her turn in a big tub full of warm water. The enormous wooden barrel had once been a keg of beer. It still smelled a little like yeast, but the water was lovely and clear enough to drink. Because so many folk needed baths, Acorn and Asphodel shared the beer-tub in a big room with three other tubs, one of which was the other half of their beer keg. Primula was in that one, but most of the other ladies were Brandybucks that Acorn didn’t know well.

Still, once she scrubbed all over with the lavender soap and washed her hair, she couldn’t resist. She splashed Asphodel in the face. Just a little. Asphodel stared at her in shock. Then she giggled, and splashed Acorn back. The ensuing battle was fierce, if full of laughter, and managed to make quite a mess. Acorn even won. For Asphodel’s surrender was swift and unconditional when Acorn tackled her under the water. At that, the game ended, and Primula insisted that the girls get out of the water and put on some of the clean clothing loaned to the cause by various dwarves.

Primula looked very dashing in leather breeches and a bright red shirt just a shade too large for her. She was tall for a hobbit, and the clothes clearly belonged to one of the smaller dwarves. Not everyone was so lucky. Most of the hobbits swam in their dwarven outfits, which did not suit them in the slightest. The fauntlings in particular could not even make a pretense at pants or underthings. Asphodel and Acorn both wore shirts the length of dresses, belted around their waists with twine and cuffed several times over so that they could use their hands.

Before they could go far in these outfits, Dori caught them as they exited the bathroom. “Miss Acorn, aren’t you looking well after your bath! Miss Asphodel. Miss Brandybuck.”

“Thank you Mister Dori,” Acorn said, forming a polite chorus with Asphodel.

Asphodel went a little red in her cheeks. “I’m sorry again about lying to you, Mister Dori,” she said. “It’s nice to see you.”

“Oh, poppet,” Dori said, “You didn’t lie to me at all. Not like this naughty one here.” He smiled at Acorn. “Just like her mother, she is. And probably twice as much trouble! I see that the sartorial provisions of Dwalin’s army meet my expectations exactly.”

“What?” Acorn wondered if he was speaking dwarven. She would like to learn some dwarven.

“Sartorial means clothing,” Primula said.

“Oh.” That was disappointing. The mention of Dwalin and the army had been rather promising.

“Not you, Miss Brandybuck. I must say, your choices suit you very well. With your coloring, I should have thought scarlet daring, but you make a lovely picture. The girls, on the other hand.” Dori clucked his tongue disapprovingly.

Asphodel was redder than before. “We did our best,” she whispered.

Suddenly, Acorn was furious. They had done their best. It was hardly Asphodel’s fault that her dress was dirty after a month of not being allowed to wear anything else.

“Of course you did, little one!” Dori gathered Asphodel into a comforting hug at once. “It’s certainly not your fault that we didn’t pack anything suitable. Fortunately, in your case, I think we can do a bit better than this. If you lovely ladies will come with me?”

Mollified, Acorn trailed behind Dori and Asphodel to a different guard house. The doors were man-sized, and creaked ominously when they opened. Acorn took Primula’s hand. So that she knew Acorn was there to protect her, in case she was scared. The sun was setting, and the shadows cast by the tables and chairs were much longer than the patches of orange light. The wooden stairs were not as noisy as the door, but they were rough and splintered under Acorn’s feet. Nothing like properly maintained steps at all.

“Where is Mister Dwalin?” Acorn asked, keeping her voice as even as possible.

Dori stopped ascending the stairs. Turning, he looked at Acorn. In the shadows, his silver hair seemed gray, and his braided beard made his friendly face long and strange. “Master Dwalin was in need of a wash himself, so I promised to look after you while he was busy. If you want me to get him now, though, I will. He was quite serious about being fetched if you felt desirous of his company.”

At once, Acorn felt guilty. Mister Dwalin fought more orcs than anyone in the battle. He certainly deserved a nice hot bath, if he wanted one. She wasn’t afraid, or anything. She was brave like her mother. “No, it’s alright,” she said quickly. “I was just asking.”

Dori continued to look at her for a while, and Acorn felt her cheeks heating up under his gaze. However, after a moment, he smiled in what Acorn was coming to think of as his usual, cheerful way. “Bit dark in here, isn’t it? Ori, be a dear and light the lanterns, will you?”

Almost immediately, a cheerful, flickering lamp light came spilling down the stairwell to greet them. As they reached the top of the steps, Acorn saw that the room they were entering was really very nice, despite being sized for big people. Three huge beds lined the walls, with wardrobes, a writing desk, an enormous mirror, and various other comfortable, homey bits and bobs taking up the rest of the space. Nori was lounging on one of the beds, sharpening a knife. He winked at Acorn. Another dwarf, who must be Ori, was perched at the writing desk, smiling.

“These seem to have been some sort of officers quarters,” Dori said. “My brothers and I have claimed one of the beds, which should sleep us very comfortably. Dwalin and his brother Balin will be in the other tonight. We’d be happy to give the three of you the third, if you don’t mind sharing.”

“Not at all,” Primula said. “I’m sure even this floor is more comfortable than that dratted cart, but a bed would be Valinor itself.”

Acorn agreed. Tugging Asphodel’s arm, she raced across the room and dove head first onto one of the beds. It smelled of clean linen, and was even softer than she could have hoped. After bouncing a little on the cozy mattress, she looked up beseechingly at her friend. Asphodel smiled shyly and sat down beside her.

“Sorry, Mister Dori.” Asphodel’s voice was very quiet, and her face was all red again. “Acorn’s just excited. Please don’t be mad.”

Dori sniffed. “A little exuberance is natural, given your circumstances. In fact, the two of you may play as much as you care to, once you’re dressed properly.”

Once again, Acorn felt the thrill of anger as Asphodel blushed. It wasn’t their fault that they didn’t have proper clothes. However, she clenched her fist in the blankets. Better things than people, as her mother would say. “I am sorry that we do not meet your standards, Mister Dori.”

Ori and Nori both laughed aloud.

“Oh!” Ori put a wool covered fist in his mouth to muffle his laughter. “She is exactly like Bilbo!”

Ignoring them both, Dori bustled over to a chest in a corner. Now that Acorn was paying attention to it, she saw that it was decorated in beautiful dwarven designs, not the plain finish of the rest of the room. “Now, Miss Acorn,” Dori said. “Perhaps you’re aware that we’re old friends of your mother.”

“Yes, I know,” Acorn said. “She told me you’re the strongest dwarf ever, and that you always carried her when you had to run. Because hobbits aren’t as fast as dwarves.”

Dori smiled, but didn’t look up from the trunk. “I would never dare suggest that your mother’s stories were anything less than true, but she’s kinder than I deserve.”

“Mum is going to be okay, you know.” Dori did stop his work for a moment at that, so Acorn repeated herself. “Mum can do anything. You don’t have to worry.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Dori said, still not looking at Acorn. “So it’s best that we help you be as presentable as possible. Among dwarves, we have a custom. When a child is born to a close friend or family member, we give gifts to celebrate the occasion.”

“Hobbits do that, too,” Acorn told him helpfully. “I gave Asphodel silk flowers for my birthday this year, and I gave my mum a compass, a hair pin, a brooch, a bracelet, a handkerchief, and a sachet.”

“Ah, but among dwarves, it is the children who receive the presents,” Nori said, waving the knife he was sharpening. “Naturally, Dori being Dori, the minute he found out we were going to meet Bilbo’s daughter, he insisted on carrying presents across half the world.”

“Here we are!” Dori stood, holding up the most beautiful dress Acorn had ever seen. The bodice was as green as fresh spinach, embroidered with light green leaves and a delicate scattering of tiny gold beads. Looking at it was like spotting a golden raspberry bush in late summer, hints of treasure peeking out from beautiful foliage. Flowing from that bodice was a river of gold silk. A full skirt that looked as though it would twirl like a spinning top. “I suspect I’ll need to hem up the skirt a bit, but this should do nicely.”

“Thank you, Mister Dori. It’s beautiful.” Acorn’s voice was low and reverent as she accepted the lovely dress. However, she could not keep herself from squealing when she turned and pressed it against Asphodel’s shoulders. “You’re going to look like a fairy princess!”

Asphodel did not so much squeal as squeak, scooting backward on the big bed. “It’s for you, Acorn,” she said. “Mister Dori made it for you, on account of your mum.”

“So it is mine to do with as I please.” Acorn cocked her head to one side, trying to figure out if Asphodel was so red because she was embarrassed, or if she really didn’t want the dress. “And I think you should wear it, if you like it.”

Ori threw a small bag at Nori, which clinked when it was caught.

“What is that?” Primula asked.

“Nothing,” Ori said quickly.

Tucking the pouch into his belt, Nori shrugged. “Just a little wager, Miss Brandybuck. I told my brothers that Acorn would give the first dress to her friend.”

Dori smiled at Asphodel. “And unlike Ori, I believed him. Gold suits your coloring perfectly, and the green will bring out the hazel in your eyes nicely. I’ve a trunk full of clothing for Miss Acorn, but she’s generous enough to want you sorted first. Go on behind the changing screen, and let’s test the fit.”

Mum took Acorn with her when she visited the tailor in Hobbiton sometimes, and she was always adjusting the seams on Acorns dresses. Sometimes Acorn would put on a dress that fit just fine the week before, only to find the hem risen nearly to her knees. Sprouting like a sapling, Mum called it. So she recognized the motions when Dori asked Asphodel to stand on a chair as he pinned up the hem. Soon, instead of nearly touching the fauntling’s toes, the skirt line hovered respectably around her mid-calf. Despite her familiarity with the process, however, Acorn was astounded by the speed. It barely took Dori five minutes to adjust the fit of the dress, and half of that was Asphodel changing.

Dwarven crafts really were incredible things.

“Your turn, Miss Acorn,” Dori said.

Hopping to her feet eagerly, Acorn stepped forward. Only to sit back down abruptly when she saw the dress Dori intended for her. It was far more elaborate than Asphodel’s, and not in the hobbit style at all. Light blue silk made a sort of under dress, draped with heavy blue velvet in a cozy sort of cloak. The bodice that joined the two dresses together was covered in beautiful beads that made up seven diamonds, each diamond bringing different colors to the pattern. The sleeves of the silk under-dress and the edges of the velvet over-dress had a silver pattern of square spirals. Reaching out a single finger, Acorn traced one of the spirals, feeling the smooth, cool thread of the embroidery. It was some sort of metal.

She couldn’t say a word.

“It’s very fanciful, Master Dori,” Primula said, “but it’s a bit much for a child. Any chance you have something simple in that magic trunk of yours?”

Before Dori could answer, Acorn shouted, “No!” Then her face grew very hot. Shouting was rude. She would not make friends with the dwarves by shouting at them. “Sorry! I’m sorry.” Looking at Primula, she tried to make her eyes as wide and pleading as they would go. “Please, may I? I’ll be ever so careful. I won’t lose a single bead, I swear. Oh, please, Cousin Primula.”

Primula blinked. “Do you like this dress, Acorn?”

Acorn’s eyes drifted back to the shimmering beads. “It’s as pretty as Mum’s shirt,” she said, dazzled by the shine.

Asphodel coughed. “Do you mean that silver shirt your mother wore for your birthday?”

“Yeah.” Acorn touched one of the beads gently.

“Do you hear that, Dori? Pretty as mithril, she says.” Nori was laughing, but Acorn didn’t care. She looked back to Cousin Primula, hoping that she’d change her mind.

“Oh hush,” Dori said. “It’s hardly mithril. Just silver thread and a few lesser gemstones. Nothing that can’t be replaced or mended easily enough. Don’t you worry, Miss Brandybuck. Dwarves may have fewer children than hobbits on the whole, but I spent years clothing these two ne’er-do-wells. I’m not about to embroider the Arkenstone into a dress for a ten year old.”

“Well.” Primula looked at Asphodel in her pretty dress before turning back to Acorn. “Of course you may wear it if you like it, Acorn. Only say thank you to Master Dori.”

Shrieking with delight, Acorn threw her arms around Dori, hugging him fiercely. “Thank you, Mister Dori! Thank you so much!”

“Think nothing of it, poppet. It’s only a trifle.” Patting her hair twice, Dori put the dress in her hands and shooed her behind the changing screen. “Just you put it on and we’ll see about the fit. Even the best clothes can look poor if they aren’t properly fitted.”

Silk brushed over her skin like summer wind, and the velvet settled on her shoulders like the warm weight of her mother’s hand. Not only was it the most beautiful dress she’d ever worn, it was also the coziest. When Dori declared it a proper fit, Acorn looked at herself in the mirror.

She wasn’t pretty. Her feet were small. Her ears were strange. Her nose was too big. Acorn knew she wasn’t pretty. But wearing this dress, she could probably trick an awful lot of people. The beads glimmered in the lamplight like little stars. Gemstones, Dori called them. Acorn’s dress was covered in treasure.

She loved them all. Little yellow jewels were as bright as lemons. Green stones shone like the sun through new leaves. The red ones were brilliant. Exactly the color of Mum’s prize winning tomatoes. But the blues! There were so many blues, and all of them different. Some were clear and light, like the pool in Bywater at midsummer, when the water was perfectly still. Some were solid and dark, like the petals of a cornflower, or light, like forget-me-nots. Still others were just clear enough to see into, though they were so dark it was like staring into the sky right after sunset.

And the pattern! Acorn counted it out. Seven light blue, fourteen dark blue, five green, one clear. Seven light blue, fourteen dark blue, five yellow, one clear. Seven light blue, fourteen dark blue, five red, one clear. Acorn counted them over and over again, mesmerized and memorizing the pattern. It was so perfect and even, she could hardly believe Dori made it. Every bead was exactly where it should be, exactly the right size, in exactly the right place, to make the pattern work as a whole.

“Very nice,” Nori said, “but you’re missing something.”

“No.” Acorn was absolutely positive that the pattern wasn’t missing anything. “It’s perfect. There should be a word for it. When something is so even and equal and perfect. Mum would know.”

“Symmetrical.” Ori’s face was very serious. All three dwarves were watching Acorn, though Nori had a little smile teasing the corners of his mouth. Primula was plaiting Asphodel’s hair, and neither of them seemed to mind. “Symmetry is the word for similar parts mirroring each other or rotated in some way. Like having one eye on each side of your face. Dwarves tend to prefer such patterns, unlike elvish designs which flow or hobbit designs which favor simplicity.”

“Symmetry,” Acorn said, tasting the word on her tongue. It felt right. The pattern was perfectly symmetrical.

“Yes, well.” Nori bent forward. “I know my brother’s work too well to suggest you’re missing a bead, Baggins the Smaller, but every good outfit needs accessories.” With quick hands, he fastened a belt around her waist.

While slightly heavy, it was a nice enough belt. Looping around the silk in a comfortable way, it still allowed her velvet overdress to billow like a lovely cape. The silver buckle was very pretty, and decorated with the same square spirals that bordered the fabric of her dress. However, it wasn’t the neat buckle which gave the accessory its weight. Hanging near her left hand was a little ax, carefully sheathed in black leather that matched the belt exactly. Unsnapping the sheath was a little complicated. She would never do it by accident. With measured purpose, though, she soon had the familiar weight of the ax in her hands.

“Here now!” Primula stood up, leaving Asphodel’s hair half braided. “That looks sharp, Acorn. Be careful.”

It was sharp. That much, Acorn knew very well. It was also clean, and far shinier than it had been the last time she held it. Nevertheless, she recognized it immediately. “This is the ax I used to kill Bill.”

Primula squeaked. “You killed that man Bill?”

“Did you mention that in your story?” Asphodel whispered. Her eyes were wide, and she was staring at the ax, not Acorn.

Acorn looked up at Nori. “Doesn’t it belong to a dwarf?”

Winking, Nori said, “Good thing I’m a thief and your mother’s a burglar, then.”

Cuffing him on the back of the head, Dori made his objection to such larceny known immediately. “If you have truly given Bilbo’s daughter stolen goods, Nori, I’ll have Dwalin clap you in irons.”

“Relax.” Rubbing his head in an exaggerated way, Nori rocked back on his bootheels. “It wasn’t hard to track down the owner and pay them for it. I wanted the provenance anyhow. That, my dear, is a throwing ax from the Iron Hills. Nothing particularly valuable or fancy for your first real weapon, but I think you’ll find that the most valuable weapon in any situation is the one you can lay hands on in a pinch.”

Acorn looked down at her own eyes, mirrored in the brightly polished blade of the ax. “Thank you, Mister Nori,” she said. Then she carefully snapped it back into the sheath, keeping it safely at her side.

“You’re very welcome, Baggins the Smaller.” Tussling her hair, Nori gave her another wink.

Ori turned his head, looking toward the stairs. His mouth was turned down at the corners, and Acorn though he looked sad.

“Are you okay, Mister Ori?”

“All my life, it’s been this way,” he said. “Dori is the perfect dwarf, Nori is charming, and I have to live up to both of them.”

Walking over to him tentatively, Acorn put her arms around his middle and gave him a hug. “It’s okay, Mister Ori. You don’t have to give me a present. Two is a lot of presents for one day! Just invite me to your birthday party, please, and you can give me a present then, if you like.” Angling for a birthday invitation was a bit rude, but Ori probably wouldn’t mind. All of the dwarves were so kind.

Ori’s mouth broke into a thin, lopsided smile that slowly revealed his teeth. “Well, I’ll invite you to my birthday party now if you like, though it won’t be until the middle of summer. However, I think I must also give you a present today.”

As Acorn released him, he patted her shoulder. “You gave me symmetry,” she said, thinking hard. “That is a very good present, because Mum likes it when I use big words. She’s going to be so surprised that I know one she didn’t have to teach me!”

Mist seemed to fill Ori’s eyes, making them soft and bright. Suddenly, he lunged down, gathering Acorn into a much more enthusiastic embrace than the one she’d given him. “Acorn Baggins, I will teach you every word I know.” Ori squeezed her tightly, then set her back down onto the floor. “But let us start with this.”

The leather bound book was big, but not heavy or thick. The title embossed on the cover was gold. Acorn touched it, feeling the cool, smooth texture. “Tales of Durin the Deathless,” she read aloud. Opening the book to peak inside, she was amazed to discover that it was so big because the pages were covered in pictures. Pictures drawn with colored ink, so perfectly that they looked real.

“Durin looked deep into the Mirrormere, and saw a crown of stars appear,” Acorn read. In the picture, the yellow sun was high in a bright blue sky. A dwarf with silver eyes looked at his own reflection in a lake, but the reflection showed the night sky. Hovering over the dwarf’s head in the reflected image was the crown of seven stars that Mum liked to point out sometimes after sunset.

“Wow,” Asphodel whispered, pressing against Acorn’s shoulder so that she could see the book.

Primula touched a corner of the paper. “It is not paint.” Her voice was just as hushed as Asphodel’s. “However did you get so many colors?”

“Inks,” Ori said. “I’m pleased you like it. I thought you might appreciate a dwarven story or two, since our histories are not often shared with outsiders. I didn’t realize you would not have seen a picture book before.”

Shaking her head, Acorn managed to tear her eyes away from the beautiful illustration. “Some of Mum’s books have pictures, but they are always black and white. Only paintings have colors, like this, though. Even they are not like this. Not this bright.”

“Ah, well.” Ori’s cheeks were bright red, and his smile was very pleased. “Dwarves have easy access to mineral pigments. I cannot even take credit for mixing the inks myself, just making a few little sketches. Still, I’m pleased you like it.”

“I do like it. Thank you Mister Ori! I can’t wait to show it to Mum.” Closing the book, Acorn hugged it to her chest. Looking up at Primula, she asked, “May we go now?”

Primula frowned. Before she could answer, two more dwarves appeared, charging up the staircase, laughing. One had golden braids and golden armor, shining like the sun. The other had dark hair and silver armor, little beads in his short hair sparkling like stars. As soon as they saw Acorn, standing in the middle of the room, clutching her book, the pair stopped. Stopped running. Stopped laughing. They stared at Acorn.

Dori stepped forward. “My lords,” he said, executing a precise little bow. “Please allow me to present Acorn Baggins, daughter of Bilbo Baggins, of Bag End in the Shire.”

The pair bowed in perfect unison, never looking away from Acorn. “Fili,” said the golden one.

“And Kili,” continued the starlit one.

“At your service,” they chorused.

Primula took the book from Acorn so that she could greet them properly. Contrary by nature, Acorn did not. Instead of curtseying, she tried to mirror their dwarven bows. “Acorn Baggins, at your service,” she said. Then she squinted up at the mismatched pair. “Are you really brothers? You do not look very much alike.”

Fili laughed, loud and long.

“My mother says we are, and as the younger I am forced to accept it.” Kili’s chuckle was warm and endearing. “You do not look much like our Bilbo, and yet I do not think your bold manners come from the stones in the streets.”

Raising her chin was a natural response to such a silly suggestion. “Mum says I am her little savage and my manners need practice.”

“Well I say you are charming!” Fili grinned. “Bold questions are perfectly appropriate among dwarves.”

“And as you are among dwarves, receiving gifts long overdue, my brother and I hoped we might add to your collection!” Kili knelt before her, offering a small wooden box. “It is not much,” he warned. “For we had little warning that we would meet you before leaving the mountain. There was time enough for this, however. It is crafted by my own hand.”

Taking the box, Acorn studied it for a moment. Even the box was very beautiful. Dark wood carved in the same square spirals that bordered her dress, with a neat star etched in the center. Within the box, on a cushion of red satin, was a silver bracelet. Although she did not understand how the knowledge came to her, Acorn knew at once that it was not ordinary silver. This was mithril, like her mother’s armor. The links were thin, deceptively delicate, and so bright that the chain seemed like a dozen mirrors looped together. Dangling opposite the clasp was a single decoration. A small acorn made of smooth amber and some sort of brown metal.

“This is not so much a present as the promise of one,” Kili said. Taking the bracelet from the box, he fastened it around Acorn’s wrist. “Dwarves call these charm bracelets. If you look closely, you will see the protective runes etched into the chain. We believe they become more powerful when they are personal to the wearer. So we attach little charms for the things we like, the crafts we do, and the hopes we cherish. Only you and I do not know one another very well just yet. So here is an Acorn for Bilbo’s Acorn, but when I know more about you, I will make more charms. Charms enough to fill this chain and more. That is my promise, if you will accept it.”

“Oh!” Acorn threw her arms about his neck and hugged him tightly. He smelled of soap, leather, and steel. Just as a prince should. “Thank you very much, Prince Kili. I would like to get to know you, and be friends.”

“Then friends we will be.” Pulling back, he pressed his forehead to hers gently. It was a warm, if unfamiliar gesture, and Acorn found that she liked the prince a great deal.

Fili knelt down as well, and Kili turned a little so that they were three points of a triangle. “I have a present as well,” he said, “though it is an heirloom, and I did not craft it myself.” The oak box in his hands was larger and the carvings more intricate than his brother’s. As Acorn accepted it, Kili stood and stepped away, leaving her with Fili.

It was a crown. Not a crown of flowers, but a circlet of gold decorated with square blue jewels. The smooth, cool weight of it felt right in her hands. Gold was very beautiful. There was not much of it in the Shire, except in Mum’s treasure chest, so Acorn rarely had a chance to play with any. Smelling it was a treat. Holding it was a joy.

“Thank you, Prince Fili,” she murmured, rolling the little circlet in her hands.

“You know, this was made for my grandfather’s sister, when she was just your age.” Fili smiled. “My mother wore it as well, when she was a little girl like you. Kili and I think of Bilbo as family, so I wanted you to have this: a gift from our family.”

“Thank you, Fili,” Acorn said, and Fili’s smile grew. Taking the circlet from her hands gently, he placed it upon her head, arranging her hair a little. He was not as good with her hair as Mum was, but he did not pull like some people might.

“Acorn.” Asphodel’s head was tilted meaningfully to one side, and her eyes were narrow. Unfortunately, Acorn did not understand her meaning. She had said thank you, and Fili did not seem to want her to use an honorific.

“Prince Fili?” Acorn tried, not sure where her breech in manners lay.

Huffing, Asphodel twisted her hands together. Then she came over to whisper in Acorn’s ear. Fili obligingly stood up, his braided mustache twitching with amusement. “You cannot wear two pieces of jewelry at once, Acorn,” Asphodel hissed.

“Oh!” Acorn’s hands flew at once to the crown on her head. “Of course you must wear the crown, if you like it! Then we may both have something nice.”

With wide eyes, Asphodel backed away, holding up her hands as though Acorn was going to hit her. “No thank you,” she said, very quickly.

Acorn didn’t understand. Primula laughed.

“You may borrow my bracelet,” Acorn suggested slowly. It wasn’t that she liked it better, of course. Or that she would refuse to give Asphodel the larger half of a tea cake, if it came to that. Only, the acorn charm was so clearly meant for her. But she would be happy to give it to Asphodel if Asphodel was jealous of it.

“Asphodel does not need to wear any jewelry at all,” Primula said firmly. Rather than being upset by this pronouncement, Asphodel looked tremendously relieved. “It is not appropriate for a fauntling of her age to do so, and if the idea makes her uncomfortable then you should respect that, Acorn. However, Asphodel, Acorn may wear as many pretty things as she likes. Bilbo would not object, and it is no one else’s business how Acorn dresses.”

“Do I look silly?” Acorn asked.

Asphodel’s face twisted. Clearly, she did not like to say, but she thought the answer was yes. Though all the dwarves chorused things about how pretty Acorn was, she could not look away from her friend. She felt strange, awkward, like the often forgotten cousin who bruised her feet on rocks that everyone else could race across.

“You look dwarvish.” Kili’s voice was softer than the others, but somehow he drew Acorn’s attention like the first star to appear in the night sky.

“I am.” The moment Acorn spoke, the rest of the room went absolutely silent. All of the dwarves had blank faces, even Kili. “I am half a dwarf,” Acorn said. “That is why the bad wizard wanted to do experiments on me.”

“Oh?” Fili’s lips barely twitched as he spoke. He was looking at Acorn, but he was very still. “Who is your father?”

Acorn squinted at him. “Mum won’t say. Do you know? She must have met him during the Adventure.”

When Fili’s eyes tightened a bit at the corners, Acorn was struck by a very strange thought. What if Fili was her father? At once, she realized how silly that was. Mum always described Fili and Kili as basically tweenagers, though Fili seemed a bit older than that to Acorn. Still, he was probably not her father. If he was, he did not admit it.

“That is a story for your mother to tell.” Fili smiled, but it looked a little forced.

Acorn studied his face carefully. “I think he is probably dead,” she guessed. “That is why he could not come to the Shire and marry my Mum. He died and she is too sad to talk about it.”

Fili’s face didn’t change. Instead, Primula spoke up. “Acorn Baggins! It is very rude to gossip about your own mother. Who your father is doesn’t matter. The important thing is that he was a dwarf, and now you are meeting dwarves for the first time. It’s perfectly natural that you should be curious about dwarven things.”

At once, the whole room seemed to relax. Even Asphodel was smiling. “I forgot. That you are half a dwarf,” she said. “Of course you must dress like one if you care to. I think it suits you.”

Taking both of her friend’s hands, Acorn bounced on her toes. “Not half so well as that dress suits you! You are practically a princess.”

“Speaking of dwarvish clothing and accessories,” Dori said, “I do have one more thing. I did not know if they would be wanted or not.” From the trunk on the floor, he pulled a pair of boots.

There was nothing inherently offensive about the boots. They were dark blue leather, lined with fur. They looked warm and comfortable. Just the thing to coddle tender feet. Acorn did not punch Dori. Dori was very nice, and he must have made the boots before ever seeing her feet. Likely, he didn’t mean anything by it. Acorn took a deep breath. Then she took another, deeper breath.

“Thank you, Mister Dori,” Asphodel said. “You are so very kind. But Acorn does not need boots. Hobbit feet are just as good, and easier to clean. At least, that’s what my mother always says.”

“Of course.” The boots disappeared immediately, but it was a long time before Acorn could do anything but squeeze Asphodel’s hands gratefully.

Chapter Text

Bilbo heard fighting. Not the clash of swords, but shouted words. A pillow was soft beneath her head, not a pack or a balled up cloak. She could smell clean linen. There was a battle, and before that the road. Now there was a pillow and an argument. Slowly, she blinked her eyes open. Blurry shapes resolved into three people.

“You do her no good hovering here.” Legolas’s voice was musical, elven voices always were, but he sounded rather annoyed to Bilbo’s befuddled ears. He was also the easiest to recognize, with his long golden hair.

“I remind you, elf, that you are here on my sufferance. Not I on yours.” Oh. That was Thorin. His voice was an angry growl, but it was definitely him. It had been so long since the last time Bilbo heard him speak. Battle cries hardly counted. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them away.

“Peace, Legolas.” Strider’s voice was even and reasonable. “Thorin has not interfered with our work. Perhaps it is you who needs to see the sky once more.”

Opening her mouth, Bilbo tried to concur with this assessment, but she could not speak. Her lips were so dry that merely parting them pained her, and the air passing through her throat would not even form a whisper. Distantly, she became aware that her body ached as well.

Fortunately, Legolas did not require her counsel. Bowing his head to Strider, he left the tent without another word to Thorin. “I will send Tauriel to aid you,” he murmured as he went. “That you need not be alone in such company.” White canvas closed silently behind him. The tent was large, and there were beds other than Bilbo’s, but she saw no one except Strider and Thorin.

Thorin’s lip curled as he shouted, “I would welcome my niece’s company over yours!” As if by habit, his eyes flicked over to Bilbo. Whatever the king intended to say next died in his throat. Turning immediately, he crossed the space between them in five quick steps. Almost before she had time to register how wide his eyes were, his hand was brushing against her cheek.

“Bilbo.”

No one ever said her name quite like Thorin. She rather hoped he would say it again, but first she needed to hear something else. “Acorn?” she asked. Her own voice was a barely audible whisper. Fortunately, Thorin understood.

The grin that broke across his face was like the crest of a great wave, washing away all of Bilbo’s fears in a single sweep. “Safe,” he said at once. “Acorn is well. All of the hobbits who were taken live, though some are injured badly, and many remain weak from their long suffering. It is not so with Acorn. She has her mother’s strength. Though she seems to have twice your own prodigious appetite. I do not think I have seen her go more than five minutes together without eating, save when she is asleep.”

Relieved, Bilbo let her eyes drift shut.

Far away, Thorin called her name. “Bilbo, Bilbo. Stay with me!”

Struggling to open her eyes was worth the trouble, to see his face again. Tauriel was standing over her bed, as was Strider, but Thorin stood behind them both. Handsome was as handsome did, of course, but the way his long, dark hair framed his face helped. He smiled when their eyes met, but it was a small, tight thing, mostly hidden by his beard. Reaching out a hand to him was the most natural thing in the world. At once, Thorin was there. Both of his hands wrapped around hers and the chanting stopped.

“How do you feel?” someone other than Thorin asked.

Blinking up at Strider, Bilbo whispered, “Thirsty.”

Thorin’s laugh was loud and out of place. During their adventure, Bilbo recalled him laughing little. When he did, it tended to be a low chuckle, not such a boisterous, hysterical sound.

Strider and Tauriel consulted in Sindarin, as though Bilbo could not understand them perfectly well. They seemed to think a drink might do her more harm than good. Abruptly, Bilbo remembered her stomach being yanked out of her body by Saruman’s evil magic. Looking down revealed nothing but the sheet covering her. She wondered if she still had a body at all.

Strider held a canteen to her lips, allowing a few sips of water. It cooled her throat, and eased her parched tongue. Resting her head back on the pillow, Bilbo closed her eyes. Just for a moment.

When she blinked them open again, Legolas was there instead of Tauriel. Thorin wasn’t glaring at him. Both of them smiled at her inquiry about Acorn, though once again Thorin merely said that she was safe and eating. “Can I see her?” Bilbo asked, but her eyes closed before she received an answer.

The next time she woke, Thorin and Oin were alone. No big people towered over her bed at all. “You have excellent timing,” Thorin said. “The elf just went to get some needful herb. You need not suffer his company this time around.”

“Hush,” Bilbo said. “Legolas is a friend.”

Both dwarves snorted, but neither argued. Instead, Oin made her drink a vile potion. It tasted like apple vinegar with castor oil and some terribly bitter herb mixed in. Gagging, Bilbo downed it.

“I won’t deny their help was useful at first,” Oin grumbled. “Doubt I could have spackled you back together myself. But they forget you’re not an elf. You can’t subsist on music and starlight and elven spells. You need proper medicine as well.”

Bilbo eyed the potion vial warily. Hopefully that was dose enough to satisfy the dwarf. However, he had a point. Something about the concoction made her feel alert. Not better. Her stomach ached. Her skin throbbed. Her tongue tasted like an oil slick. “May I please have some water to wash it down?” she asked.

“Eh?” Oin put his ear horn in. “What about a crown? I’m sure Thorin has one to spare.”

“Water,” Thorin said loudly, lifting Bilbo’s neck with one hand and pressing a glass to her lips gently. Part of Bilbo wondered hazily where the glass came from. There had been a canteen before, she was quite sure. It didn’t matter. The water was cool and soothing. She drank greedily.

“Oh, aye,” Oin said. “Even the elves agree you must have water to live, now. Stupid of them to deny it at first. If your bowels couldn’t hold water, ill humors would have killed you on the first day.”

“The first day?” Bilbo blinked. “How many days have I been here?”

Thorin frowned. “Nearly four. We would move you somewhere more comfortable, but Gandalf continues to believe you will heal best outside the walls of Isengard. Not all of the Orcish filth can be burned away easily, and some of Saruman’s malice lingers. Since you were injured by evil magic, he says that the air of that place may yet do you some harm.”

“I am comfortable enough,” Bilbo lied. “But how is Acorn?”

“Well,” Thorin said. “She is safe and eating nine or ten meals a day with the rest of the hobbits. If Isengard did not have stores to feed the men in Saruman’s service, I do not know how we would manage. Even so, the foraging parties are busy.”

It was Bilbo’s turn to frown. “She is not worried about me? Has she been to see me while I slept?”

Thorin hesitated. “She has attempted to sneak away from her guards and gain entry here six times so far. Unsuccessfully. Dwalin assigned himself to her guard, and he takes the duty seriously.”

Chuckling made Bilbo’s abdomen explode with pain. As Oin pulled back the linens to check her bandages, Bilbo saw her own body. Some attempt to preserve her modesty with underthings had been made, but she wore little. Indeed, she did not need to wear much, for the vast majority of her body was covered in cotton bandages. Gasping with pain and shock, Bilbo said nothing until the sheet once again hid her from sight.

“Strider does not think there will be many scars,” Thorin said. “Elven stitching is very fine, and though there are many, Saruman’s cuts were thin.”

“Is that why you have not let Acorn see me?” Raising a hand to her own cheek, Bilbo felt the bandages there. “Do you think she will be frightened?”

“No,” Thorin said. “It is only that healers do not like others underfoot as they go about their business.”

Bilbo did her best to scowl at him. She was not sure how successful it was with all of the bandages on her face. “You are not a healer,” she said.

“Ah, but I have an army at my back when I demand entry,” Thorin said. “And that has only helped me of late. During your initial surgeries, even I was exiled. Your Strider does remind me of Bard. He has a strong will to accompany his faithful heart. Though he managed the great feat of prying me from your side, that is not what impresses me about his character. He did not leave you once for the first three days. Not until he was certain that you would live did he take his own rest.”

Bilbo felt her eyes growing heavy. “He’s a good sort, Strider. A historian, did you know?”

Thorin took her hand in his, smiling. “You mentioned it in a letter.”

“Anyway, you should put that army of yours to use.” Bilbo’s jaw cracked with the force of her yawn.

“It is ever at your service,” Thorin said. “As am I.”

“Let me see my daughter,” Bilbo said.

But she fell asleep before hearing his answer.

For the first time since falling in battle, Bilbo dreamed. At home, in Bag End, she mixed flour and eggs together. Her dutiful hobbit husband was in the garden, tending the roses. Acorn laughed, racing over the hill on light feet. Bilbo baked. She was making dinner for her family. A proper family, well respected and happy. Safe. But something was very wrong, and she did not know what it was.

Thorin’s voice broke through her dream. “Moria is the name given by the elves after darkness drove the dwarves away. It is a name that means darkness in their tongue. They call it a mine as well, but look at this picture. Does that look like a simple mine to you?”

“No,” Acorn said. “It is a city.”

“Exactly. The first and greatest kingdom of Durin’s Folk. That is why we named it Khazad-dûm. Do you know what Khazad means in Khuzdul?”

“Dwarf!” Acorn said.

“Very good. What about dûm?” The smile in Thorin’s voice was readily apparent, so Bilbo opened her eyes to see it. He was sitting in a chair near her cot in the healing tent. Acorn was seated on his lap, holding a large book in her hands. The child was studying the pages before her, but Thorin only had eyes for his daughter. They were everything Bilbo wanted, in a perfect tableaux.

“I don’t know. City?” Acorn guessed.

“Not quite,” Thorin said. “The closest translation to Westron would be something like mansion, though I think perhaps hobbits might come closer than most to understanding. If there were a word for a smial that held many families.”

“Well,” Acorn said, “There is Great Smials in Tuckborough. Loads of people live there.”

Thorin brushed a curly lock away from Acorn’s eyes. “So a dwarrowdelf is like Great Smials, where your Thain rules. Only instead of a hill, it is a mountain. Instead of a Thain, there is a king. And instead of the Took family, there are more dwarves than could fit in all of Hobbiton.”

“Perhaps one day, when you are all grown up, you may visit one,” Bilbo said.

Instantly, two sets of identical blue eyes turned to her. Acorn leapt off Thorin’s lap joyfully, tossing her book carelessly away. If not for the king’s quick reflexes, the tome might have been in some danger. Fortunately, Thorin caught it as Acorn flung her arms across Bilbo’s bed, embracing her mother. Bilbo did her best to hide the pain this caused her. She certainly did not cry out. However, she must not have entirely contained her flinch, for Acorn pulled away immediately.

“Sorry Mum!” Acorn clasped her hands together. “Mister Strider said that I could visit so long as I did not bother you or touch your injuries, and sat quietly until you woke on your own. Did I hurt you? Were King Thorin and I too noisy?”

“You are just right.” Reaching out, Bilbo took her daughter’s hand gently with her own.

Acorn smiled, and Bilbo had to stretch her other hand out to brush one of those rosy cheeks.

“You’re my little girl.” To her great shame, Bilbo’s eyes filled with tears. Overwhelming relief flooded through her as she blinked them away. “You’re not hurt? You’re getting enough to eat?”

“Yes, Mum.” Acorn looked alarmed. “Please don’t cry. Mister Bombur always gives me the first plate, and as many helpings as I want of everything. I am not hurt at all. No one except you is hurt anymore, though Uncle Adalgrim should not walk very much or carry anything. But Paladin is helping him everywhere. Esmeralda calls him Walking Stick, but I think it is kind of him to stay so close to his father. When you are well enough to be awake sometimes and want things, I shall fetch them for you and take good care of you.” Acorn brightened. “Do you want anything right now? Can I bring you something?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said, “but you must come closer, so that I can whisper it in your ear.”

Obligingly, Acorn bounced over to the bed, leaning forward so that her ear hovered over Bilbo’s lips. Instead of a secret, though, Bilbo quickly ducked her head to kiss her daughter’s cheek. Laughing with delight, the girl rocked back on her heels. “Mum!”

“You cannot blame me,” Bilbo said. “I am very hurt, and I have not kissed my daughter in a month.”

Acorn wiped her cheek with comical exaggeration, but her eyes were sparkling with laughter. “You are being very silly, Mum. You will embarrass King Thorin.”

“King Thorin cannot be embarrassed by me,” Bilbo lied, carefully not looking at the dwarf. “I am only a hobbit, after all.”

“You are a hero,” Thorin said. “And it gladdens my heart to see you reunited with your daughter.”

“Mine, too.” Bilbo’s eyes were misting over once more, and she took Acorn’s hand again. “Oh, my dear girl. I was so worried about you.”

“I’m okay,” Acorn said. “I was brave and strong. Just like you. And I had Mister Dwalin with me in the battle. You should have brought Mister Dwalin to fight the wizard. If you had, no one could have hurt you. Mister Dwalin would just chop them right in the head with an ax.”

Bilbo chuckled a little, careful of her aching belly. “So he would have, but I am glad he was with you, not I. If one of us must be injured, I much prefer it to be me.”

Acorn frowned. “I’m real tough. I would be okay.”

Bilbo tugged one of her curls straight. “You’d go mad in a day, if all you could do is lie down and read.”

“Oh!” Acorn’s eyes widened. “Well, that is true. You always like to sit at your desk reading and writing all the time, and I would rather play. But Mum! You don’t have any books! You can share mine. Mister Ori made it for me. It is all about Durin who was the father of the dwarves of the Longbeard clan, which is King Thorin, and Prince Kili, and Prince Fili, and Mister Dwalin, of course, but not Mister Bofur or Mister Bombur.”

Seeing that her daughter was quite ready to detail what she knew of the various lineages of the dwarves in true hobbit fashion, Bilbo interrupted. “I am somewhat familiar with Durin the Deathless and his relation to my friends, but do show me this book, my love. If it can capture your attention, it must be well written indeed.”

The book wasn’t simply well written. It was incredible. Each page was full of color and beauty, bringing tales of Durin to life with amazing illustrations. Bilbo drifted off to sleep before seeing more than two of them.

When Bilbo woke again, Acorn was not there. Which was good, despite the little pang her absence gave the mother. What was better was that Strider said Bilbo should be allowed to eat something if she cared to try, and Thorin was standing by with a bowl of soup. After the first spoonful, Bilbo paused.

“Too much?” Thorin asked. “Too hot?”

“This is my mother’s soup,” Bilbo said. “Potato soup with leeks and cream.”

Thorin’s cheeks were suspiciously red beneath his beard. “Ah. One of the other Tooks had the recipe. It was surmised that your mother might have shared the secret with other members of her family. Indeed, according to one of your cousins, your mother had it from her own mother.”

“Yes.” Bilbo smiled. “She did.”

“Well.” Thorin looked down at the bowl in his hands. “I hope Bombur and his assistants were able to do the recipe justice.”

“It’s perfect,” Bilbo said, enjoying another spoonful. “It was kind of Bombur to think to inquire.”

Thorin frowned. “You know it was I who did so. No other knew of Acorn’s preference for the dish.”

“Yes,” Bilbo said. “I am teasing you.”

Instead of annoying him, this declaration made Thorin grin. The fierce light that came into his eyes startled Bilbo before the king schooled his expression into one of cautious pleasure. “Good,” he said. “It is too long since last you teased me.”

Bilbo ate a little more soup. It was very good, and the warmth of it in her mouth seemed to remind her stomach that the time between meals should never be counted in days. “I haven’t said it yet, have I?”

“Said what?”

“Thank you.” Bilbo looked up, meeting Thorin’s eyes. That color never faded from her memory. She had a daily reminder, after all. “Thank you, Thorin. Thank you for bringing an army across half the world on the strength of a single letter that I barely remember writing. Thank you for saving Acorn. Thank you for saving my life. I would never have gotten her back without you.”

Thorin looked away. “You needn’t thank me, Bilbo. Once, you did the same for us, although you had no army. Dwarves do not forget a debt. Any help we gave was only a repayment. Indeed, it is hardly a sufficient one. Many point out that we also rescued Gandalf and prevented the rise of an enemy who might have threatened all the world in time. Saving your daughter was practically incidental.”

Studying his face, Bilbo considered the words “your daughter” very carefully. Then she pasted on a smile and turned back to the soup. “Most folk would simply say ‘You’re welcome,’ and leave it at that,” she said.

“A King of Erebor is not most folk,” Thorin said. That was true enough, and Bilbo could hardly be upset that ten years did not change such a simple fact. She thought about young Kili, abandoning his right to the throne to marry for love, but she could not resent Thorin for the differences between him and his nephew. After all, his sense of duty and stubborn honor were as much a part of him as the blue in his eyes. She loved him knowing that the first part of his heart would always belong to his people, and to Erebor. No, Bilbo should not be hurt by the truth. Not once Thorin proved so valiantly that he would be there when she truly needed him, despite everything.

“I suppose I can overlook that,” she said. “Particularly since I needed a king, just now.”

He was silent until she met his eyes once more. “I am at your service, Bilbo Baggins,” he said. “Never doubt it.”

Managing another smile for that was not very difficult. “I don’t.” Just eating was exhausting enough. Bilbo did not have the energy for very much conversation. Sleep was a blessing, while one healed from a deep wound. Whether that wound was one suffered in a battle, or in a severance made ten years ago did not seem to matter.

Waking to Acorn’s face was always a pleasure. Even when that face was far too close to Bilbo’s own. Acorn pressed a quick kiss to the bandage on Bilbo’s cheek, then danced backward giggling. “I told you she was awake,” the girl said.

“I am now,” Bilbo murmured, but she smiled at her daughter.

Thorin frowned. “My apologies Bilbo. You need your rest. I will not bring the child while you sleep again.”

“Aw, no!” Turning her little face up to Thorin, Acorn put on a pout that Bilbo knew very well. “Please, King Thorin. I did not wake Mum. I only saw her eyes moving. It is not my fault.”

The solid dwarf, immovable as any mountain, visibly wavered. Bilbo took pity on him.

“Whether I was waking up on my own or not, I am very used to waking up to this. It is nice to have a little normalcy back. Though my charming daughter shall have to find someone else to fix her breakfast today, for I am unequal to the task.”

“You are being silly, Mum! It is second breakfast. I have already had my first. But guess what! You may have yours, and a proper one. Mister Strider says that since the soup was okay, you may have porridge. Not nasty boiled oats like the bad men made us eat. Real porridge. And when I told him honey was your favorite, he said that would be very good for you. But Mister Bombur did not have any honey, because hobbits are bottomless pits that food falls into and is never seen again. But then Mistress Tauriel said that honey was easy enough to come by in late spring. And do you know what? She took me with her! And we found a beehive. I spotted it. Mister Dwalin got a sting. But only one, and he said it didn’t hurt. But that was after he said a bad word, so maybe it did hurt. I did not get a sting at all, because Mistress Tauriel sang to the bees. After that, they were very nice to us, and Mistress Tauriel showed me how to take the honey out without hurting their nest.”

“All of that for me?” Bilbo grinned at her daughter. “It sounds like quite a quest.”

“It was! A good adventure, not a nasty, uncomfortable one like before. And now we shall both have porridge with honey. Me for second breakfast, and you for first.”

“What a wonderful plan,” Bilbo said. Grateful for Thorin’s subtle assistance and well placed pillows, the hobbit managed to sit up, accepting her bowl of porridge. Thorin drew Acorn’s chair nearer to the bed, so that the two hobbits could share a meal. “No porridge for you?”

Thorin coughed. “I would not wish to intrude on a family meal.”

Before this barb could wound Bilbo’s heart too deeply, Acorn piped up, blowing on her own porridge to cool it. “That is very silly,” she said. “Mum loves guests, even Aunt Lobelia. Anyway, it is your tent, and Mister Bombur made the porridge. He is not our family.”

“Now, Acorn,” Bilbo said. “It is rude to call other people silly. Perhaps Thorin is not hungry. Dwarves can do justice to a good meal, but they are not hungry as often as hobbits are. We may issue an invitation, but if King Thorin refuses it, we must accept that refusal and not press him unduly.”

Acorn nodded seriously. “Will you please sit down and have some porridge with us, King Thorin?” she asked, very prettily. “Mister Dwalin and I went on a quest to get it, and I think it is fit for a king.”

Thorin looked to Bilbo who grinned. A dwarf would have to be made of stone indeed to refuse an offer like that. The king bowed. “I am honored to partake of such a meal.”

Drawing a chair closer to the bed himself, he dished out a third bowl of porridge with honey. Savoring it carefully, he joined Bilbo in proclaiming it the finest porridge in all the land. Bilbo took time to savor her company as well. It might be the only meal they ever ate, the three of them alone together, but it was a family meal. One she dreamed of often, but never believed would come to pass. If they were a strange family, if it must never be known they were a family, that did not make them less of one. Thorin crossed rivers and dared dark forests for Acorn, just as Bilbo did. It mattered not what anyone else saw or thought. Such a family was a treasure.

“I must make a confession, Acorn,” Bilbo said. “I hope you will forgive me.”

“I forgive you, Mum,” Acorn said absently. Tongue caught between her teeth, she was scraping the dregs of porridge from the serving bowl, determined to get every last taste of honey.

“You have not heard what I did wrong,” Bilbo said.

“Well it cannot be very bad.” Giving up on her spoon, Acorn used her fingers to clean the bowl. Bilbo did not have the heart to scold her for the breech in manners. “You never do anything very bad.”

“I have lost both of the pins you gave me for your birthday,” Bilbo said. “The hairpin went into the Withywindle, and the pin for my cloak was broken by Saruman. I know you worked very hard on them.”

Acorn looked up from the porridge pot. “It’s not your fault, Mum. Uncle Ada said it was not my fault for having a birthday. It was only the wizard’s fault. And Bill. And they are both dead. Anyway, I will make you another present. A much nicer one. For rescuing me.”

Thorin cleared his throat. “To that end, I ask you to remind me to give you the gift I brought from Erebor. It is neither as thoughtful as Ori’s or as impressive as Bofur’s many toys, but there are some few beads that you may wish to use in your crafting.”

Acorn looked at Thorin with wide eyes. “You brought me a present too, King Thorin?”

“Of course. I have been remiss in failing to give it to you before now.” Thorin frowned. “I would not have you think that the friendship between your mother and I is less than that shared by the rest of the Company.”

It is more, Bilbo wanted to say, at least for her own part. Of course she didn’t. Instead she said, “Dwarven books and dwarven toys. Now that I am thinking of it properly, dwarven clothes as well. That is a very fine dress, my dear. Was it a present, too?”

“Yes!” Bouncing to her feet, Acorn twirled around, letting her pink silk skirt spin out like a cloud of sugar. With blue trim and gold thread, the dress was unmistakably dwarven in style, but Bilbo noticed there were still no boots on her tiny feet. “Mister Dori has a whole chest of dresses, just for me. Though I am sharing them with Asphodel. Esmeralda Took was very jealous, but she cannot fit any of them. She is too big. I said I would share with the other faunts my size, but Cousin Primula says I should not. Sharing with Asphodel is okay because she is my special friend, but if I give all my nice clothing away it might hurt Mister Dori’s feelings.” Acorn scowled. “Cousin Primula says a lot of things.”

“Oh?” Bilbo knew her daughter well enough to know that a shade of encouragement was all she needed to get the whole story. She also knew that if Primula Brandybuck had said a single cruel word to Acorn, Bilbo was going to do something very rash the moment she could stand. She had not crossed rivers full of monsters to stand by while a simple hobbit hurt her daughter.

“She says now that we know all of the orcs and bad men are gone or locked up, I may not wear my ax on my belt anymore. And that I must choose only two pieces of jewelry to wear every day, I may not wear it all at once even though lots of dwarves gave me very nice presents that they should like to see me wear. And that I must always tell her where I am going, even if I am with Mister Dwalin who can protect me from anything in the whole world. And Mum! Mister Dwalin will not even teach me to fight with an ax unless she says that it is okay, and she won’t! She turned very white and said I am too young. Now Mister Dwalin treats me like a baby. I’m not a baby. I’m a fauntling. And anyway, I am a Baggins of Bag End. She cannot tell me what to do.”

Bilbo studied her daughter for a moment. “So,” she said. “To clarify: the things Primula tells you to do mostly involve not playing with sharp objects, not loading yourself down with so many presents you can’t walk, and not wandering off without telling anyone where you’re going. She is not, in fact, unreasonable or strict.”

Acorn frowned, seeming to sense her precarious position. “But Mum, I was not playing with my ax. I know it is dangerous. Mister Nori made me a proper sheath and he says it cannot come out by accident. There are snaps!”

Bilbo nodded slowly. “It is possible that Primula does not know how responsible you can be with the breadknife at home, or how much care you take with your pruning shears. She may be treating you as she would any fauntling, and that is not entirely fair. So, you must listen to her about picking up after yourself, not playing with all of your toys at once, bedtimes, telling her which adult you are wandering off with when you wander off, and how many vegetables to eat before you have dessert.”

“Mum!”

Bilbo raised a hand. “If you do, you may bring your ax the next time you come to see me, and I will decide whether or not it is safe to wear.”

Lowering her head in a truly impressive sulk, Acorn said, “Alright, Mum.”

“And you must do one more thing for me.” Bilbo rested her head back on her pillow. The tension flowing out of her body left her exhausted.

“Okay.” As if she sensed her mother’s pain, Acorn was suddenly eager to please. That was a useful way to end a sulk. Some of Acorn’s sulks were legendary enough to last for days. If only Bilbo didn’t need to be half gutted to manage the trick.

“You must thank her for looking after you.”

Bilbo was now well used to waking with Acorn and Thorin in the tent, healers politely absent. Clearly, her healers were very wise. She needed to see her daughter, not drink horrible potions while being poked and prodded. Seeing Acorn seated next to Thorin, curiously inspecting the golden harp in his lap, did more for Bilbo’s welfare than a thousand potions ever could.

“Are you going to play something for us?” she asked.

“As the lady wishes,” Thorin said. He began to strum his fingers across the strings, filling the tent with soft music.

Acorn bounced over to her mother to say hello. She gave Bilbo toast, tea, and a boiled egg: the most substantial meal the recovering hobbit had yet been allowed. It tasted delicious. It was also clearly a ploy to put Bilbo in a good mood.

Like all mothers, Bilbo took great delight in teaching her daughter patience under the guise of pretending not to be able to read through her clumsy attempts at manipulation. Instead of asking to see the ax as soon as she finished eating, Bilbo pulled her daughter onto the cot alongside her, and watched Thorin play. Once he had their undivided attention, he plucked out a very complex instrumental. It was enough to make Acorn stop squirming and stare at him in fascination.

“The dwarves who play around the fires at night do not play anything like that,” Acorn whispered when he finished. “I have never heard anyone play anything like that.”

Thorin smiled. “The music of an army camp serves to help soldiers relax by dancing, weeping, or singing along. However, a true student of the harp may learn to appreciate more complicated exercises.”

“Do you take requests?” Bilbo asked.

The small smile that played about Thorin’s face made him look soft. Gentle. Bilbo knew him well enough to know that it was not an illusion, though she doubted many people outside of their tent would believe as much. “As I have said, Bilbo Baggins, I am entirely at your service.”

Acorn sighed very loudly and snuggled into her mother’s side.

“Will you play that first song? I should like Acorn to hear it properly, just once, and my voice has never been able to do it justice.”

The smile vanished. Thorin’s nod was grave. His fingers struck the chord. “Far over the Misty Mountains cold,” he sang. He sang of dungeons deep, caverns old, and the pale, enchanted gold. During the second verse, Acorn joined in. Her high, clear voice a perfect counterpoint to Thorin’s deep baritone. She knew the song as a lullaby, from the long nights when Bilbo sang it to a restless baby in a big, empty smial.

Giving in to temptation, Bilbo joined her voice with theirs. A small family chorus finding a harmony. Of course, one cannot sing truly well lying on one’s back. Especially not when one is only just recovering from terrible wounds. No one listening to their song would be particularly impressed by anyone but Thorin. But being part of it, being together, even briefly, eased an old ache in Bilbo’s heart.

“Mum?” Acorn’s eyes were wide, and she looked up at Bilbo with an expression that made the hobbit want to move the world to please her. “May we go to Erebor?”

“What?” Bilbo did not roll out of bed and fall on the floor as she jerked away from her daughter, but only because the sudden movement pained her belly and forced her to freeze. Looking to Thorin was no help. He reacted just as badly to the surprising request. Face contorting strangely, he tried to master his expression and hide the fierce light Bilbo could see burning in his eyes.

“Everyone is talking about how we must go home soon. Most of the planting was done before my birthday, but there will be over a month’s worth of weeds. No one will have kept the sparrows away or fed the livestock, at least not in Buckland. Farmer Holman says he expects his goats will have eaten all of the roses in his garden and then some. So now that everyone has had a rest, they want to go home. Except I don’t want to go home. I want to go to Erebor. May we? We haven’t got a goat to worry about.”

“Not a goat,” Bilbo said slowly, struggling to think of a reasonable excuse. “But we have got your Aunt Lobelia. If we’re away from the Shire for too long, she shall try to have me declared dead again so that she can take Bag End.”

Sitting up, Acorn shrugged. “We can send raven letters to Cousin Primula, so that she knows we are alive. She will keep Aunt Lobelia out.”

“Why do you want to go to Erebor?” Bilbo asked.

“Because I want to see it!” Acorn looked down and away. There it was. She was hiding something. Bilbo nearly fainted in relief. If Acorn had a motivation other than simply wanting to see the mountain where Thorin was king, then it was possible Bilbo might make her happy without miring Thorin’s bastard daughter in a strange political landscape.

“I want to see the Long Lake and the Lonely Mountain,” Acorn said. “I want to see the rivers of gold running through the rocks. I want to see the Arkenstone, Mum. And I want a proper adventure. Not being carted like a crate of melons to market. That was a bad adventure. I want a good one. We should go and find a treasure and climb a mountain before we go home.”

“Alright, my love.” Bilbo heard Thorin’s quick intake of breath, but she didn’t give him a chance to interject with whatever reason he might come up with to keep Acorn away from his mountain. “Perhaps one day we will do all of that. But right now, I am in no shape for an adventure. So why don’t you tell me what you really want, and we’ll see if we can make that happen instead?”

Acorn blinked down at her mother, then scrambled off the bed. “What are you talking about, Mum? I want to go to Erebor. I told you. I mean, I asked you. Please, Mum, please.”

Bilbo sighed. “Acorn, my brilliant, beautiful daughter, may I be honest with you?”

“Yes, Mum.” Acorn fidgeted with her hands. It was clear that she already knew the answer to her request could never be yes.

“I am tired,” Bilbo said, “and in slightly more pain than I have been letting on. Which I think might make me a little slow thinking. Usually, I’d be able to suss out what you want and find a way to give it to you. Like with your birthday party. Only my foggy mind simply isn’t up to the task right now.”

“My birthday party?” Acorn narrowed her eyes in a contemplative squint. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you said that you wanted Asphodel to come to Bag End for your birthday, but you really wanted a big party with a lot of guests, didn’t you?”

“You knew?” Acorn’s eyes went wide and her little face was a portrait of surprise.

“I’m your mother.” Bilbo waved a hand absently. “It is my job to know.” Meeting her daughter’s eyes, Bilbo tried to look as pathetic as she felt. “Can you help me do my job, Acorn? Just this once?”

Acorn worried her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’m sorry for lying, Mum. I wasn’t really lying. I mean, I do want to see Erebor. But. Also. It would be nice to go where Mister Dwalin is going. He really will teach me to fight with my ax if you say it is okay. I know that he will.”

“Well,” Bilbo said, “It sounds like Mister Dwalin should be part of this conversation, then. Why don’t you run and fetch him?”

“Really?” Acorn’s grin was bright and immediate. Without saying goodbye, she dashed out of the tent, racing to find Dwalin.

Once she was gone, Bilbo dared to look at Thorin. “Do you think Dwalin would accompany us back to the Shire for a month or two?”

“Yes.” Thorin’s voice was clipped short, and he was not looking at Bilbo. At his sides, both of his hands were clenched into fists so tight his knuckles were turning white.

“It’s alright,” Bilbo said. “Perhaps it is even convenient that I am hurt. It makes sense for me to go home to convalesce.”

“Will you come when you are well?” Thorin’s eyes were locked on his golden harp, where it lay discarded on the wooden chair.

“What?” Bilbo could hardly believe that Thorin would ask such a question. After staying away for ten years, he could not think that she meant to importune him in such a dramatic fashion.

“There are apple trees now. In the place that was once the desolation. Oaks and walnuts, too, though they have not reached the fullness of their growth as quickly as the fruit trees did. Kili’s wife has busied herself bringing life to the dragon’s desolation. As I have busied myself in Erebor. The halls are no longer crumbling and empty. It is a proper dwarrowdelf, a true city, and all the rooms are filled with golden light. You would—the place is much improved. You may find it more to your taste than when last you visited.”

Bilbo blinked. She did not know how to answer such a speech. “Thorin?”

“Of course you must see your people home. Dwalin will take a company to escort you back to the Shire. He will remain to guard you during your convalescence. You and your daughter will be protected no matter what. I ask only that you consider. When he returns to Erebor, consider that the two of you might accompany him. Just for a little while. To see that the mountain has changed.”

“Or we could come with you now, and I could convalesce in Erebor,” Bilbo said. That got his attention. At once, his eyes were locked on hers. The fire within them could burn her alive. It had done so before.

“A possibility.” Thorin’s voice was perfectly steady, but his hands were still clenched at his sides. “If there is anything I can do to increase the likelihood of that outcome, please do not hesitate to speak.”

“Thorin.” Closing her eyes Bilbo let her head fall back to the pillow. “Can you not help me now as Acorn did? I am unequal to bandying words at the moment. Can we speak plainly? Do you want Acorn and I to come to Erebor? Would we be safe there?”

“As safe as mountains,” Thorin said. The fire was in his voice now, though she could not see his eyes. “Safer. My army numbers nearly twenty thousand in the mountain, and Erebor’s ancient defences are rebuilt. No wizard—no nation—could harm either of you there.”

Bilbo opened one eye to glare at him. “You know that is not what I mean, Thorin. I am asking you if there is any danger in me bringing my daughter to the place where you are king.”

Since she was glaring at him, Bilbo saw the way Thorin’s face fell. His mouth dropped open, his eyes turned back to his harp, and his shoulders slumped, as though they could not bear a sudden weight. This shift in demeanor lasted only a moment. Almost before Bilbo had time to register the change, Thorin’s back was straight, his eyes were on her, and his chin lifted high, as befit a king.

“There is no danger,” Thorin said. “Among dwarves, we have a saying: ‘A dwarf has a pleasant evening; a dam has a child.’ All children have mothers. A dwarf only has a father if their mother declares one. Until you name Acorn’s father, she has none. She has no duties save those she chooses for herself, and no dwarf has any obligation to her greater than friendship. No honorable dwarf will speculate about her paternity. As your family is not involved greatly in dwarven politics, neither will she be, unless you name a father who might embroil her in such.”

“I see.” In point of fact, Bilbo did not entirely see. For one thing, her eyes were closed against the light in the tent. For another, her whole body ached like a bruise. Still, she trusted Thorin’s judgment. If he said no one would try to use Acorn to undermine Fili or Thorin during a short visit, she had to believe that would be so. And yet. “Thorin, she was wearing a crown today.”

“A circlet only,” Thorin said quickly. “Fili gave it to her, not I. Circlets are a common adornment for lasses of noble houses. As a member of the Company, your house is elevated to that status. So your daughter would be more than entitled to one. Bombur’s eldest daughter wears one daily, and they are not even of the Longbeard clan.”

Bilbo managed to squint at him. “You really want us to come to Erebor?”

“I do.” At last, Thorin’s voice was steady and sure. “I would have your daughter walk the Halls of Erebor, which her mother reclaimed from Smaug. I would have her hear a true master play the dwarven harp. I would have her witness the forges hard at work during the day, when each hammer rings like a bell, playing a different sort of dwarven music. My greatest desire is for the two of you to look upon the home that you reclaimed for my people, that you might see it in its glory instead of the shadow cast upon it by the dragon.”

Before Bilbo could respond, Acorn came running into the tent, dragging Dwalin by the hand. “Mum, Mum, I have him. You did not fall asleep yet, did you?”

Dwalin smiled down at the little girl holding his hand. For the large dwarf, resisting her enthusiastic tugging would have been the easiest thing in the world. The look on his face also suggested it would be impossible.

“Bilbo.” He nodded to her, not letting go of Acorn’s tiny hand. “It’s good to see you well.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Dwalin. Indeed, perhaps more so than you know. I have heard that you are taking good care of my little seedling while I am stuck in this tent. Thank you.”

Dwalin hid a smile in his beard, looking down at Acorn. She was looking up at him with shining eyes. In the ordinary course of events, Bilbo would not want her daughter to see a battle until the age of fifty, if ever. However, if she had to see one, Bilbo was happy that Acorn found a hero as well. “She’s a good lass,” he said.

“I’m glad you think so, for I am about to impose further on our friendship.”

Dwalin straightened up, looking at Bilbo seriously. Clearly he expected the imposition. It was equally obvious that he would not say no. Suddenly, Bilbo was very glad that she was not asking him to come to the Shire and leave his own life behind for months on end.

“My daughter and I will be traveling back to Erebor with you, and—”

“We are?” Acorn’s delighted shriek was high enough to break glass. It was certainly piercing enough to shatter Bilbo’s eardrums while her head ached so. That the girl threw herself across Bilbo, squeezing her wounded torso, did not help much. Fortunately, Dwalin scooped her up and spun her around before setting her down gently. Acorn’s happy giggles soothed Bilbo’s pain more than any medicine could. “Oh, thank you Mum. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Now Acorn,” Bilbo said when she could manage the breath for it. “You had something you wanted to ask Mister Dwalin, since we will all be travelling together.”

“Oh, yes!” Acorn blushed, touching her toes together and looking up at Dwalin from underneath her lashes shyly. “Mister Dwalin, will you please teach me how to fight with an ax like you do? Mum says I may learn if I want.”

For a moment, Dwalin looked utterly besotted, then he hid it with a gruff grunt. “Alright. If you work hard.”

“I will,” Acorn said. “I promise.”

“Why the ax? It is an unusual weapon for a hobbit. Your mother favors the sword.” Thorin’s voice was gruff and made Bilbo feel very strange. Unquestionably, he was to thank for saving Acorn’s life. That did not mean he could tell her what to do. That did not mean he was suddenly able to play the father, even if they were going to Erebor. Especially since he did not want Bilbo to tell anyone that he truly was Acorn’s father.

Acorn did not seem to hear the criticism in his voice. Squaring her shoulders, she looked up at him steadily. “Mum is a big hero who always runs to the rescue, but I want to fight the way Mister Dwalin fights. If bad guys come to the Shire again, I want to be able to stand between them and my family. It won’t matter how many there are. None of them will get past me, because I’ll be real tough. Just like Mister Dwalin.” Her eyes darted to Bilbo at the end of this speech, perhaps to check if she’d caused some offense, but Acorn’s mother was too proud to say anything.

“If that is what you want,” Dwalin said, “I won’t go easy on you.”

“You don’t need to go easy on me,” Acorn said. “I’m real tough! I told you so, and I am.”

Dwalin smiled, but Thorin wasn’t done. “Few save dwarves fight in such a manner,” he said, and Bilbo understood what he was really asking. She couldn’t blame him. If they were going to Erebor, he needed to know if Acorn would keep her parentage a secret. Bilbo could promise to hold her own tongue, but a ten year old was another matter.

“That is alright,” Acorn said. “I am half a dwarf.”

Dwalin put a hand on Thorin’s shoulder, perhaps warning him off. Thorin continued anyway. “As I know your mother to be a hobbit, that would make your father the dwarf. Who is he?”

Acorn scowled. “Mum won’t say.” Then she smiled suddenly. “Perhaps she will tell you if you ask, since you are a king. You should ask Mum!”

Thorin turned to Bilbo, his face grave. “Bilbo, will you tell me who Acorn’s father is?”

Although she understood the importance of keeping their secret, it seemed cruel of him to be so direct. Nevertheless, Bilbo answered. “I will not.”

Thorin nodded somberly.

“Now go away all of you,” Bilbo said. “I’m very tired.”

The dwarves obeyed instantly. Dwalin was out of the tent flap before Bilbo stopped talking. But Acorn ducked forward, pressing a kiss to Bilbo’s cheek before leaving. “I love you, Mum. Sweet dreams.”

“I love you, too, Seedling,” Bilbo said. Unfortunately, her dreams were not sweet, for it was a long time before she slept at all. The pain in her body was too great. If there was another pain plaguing her as well, it was old and unimportant.

Chapter Text

Thorin didn’t understand hobbits. For all that they seemed to be a polite and deferential people, some of them were unusually cruel. Many made oblique references to the fact that he’d dishonored himself before marriage, and many more made pointed remarks about the fact that Bilbo did not wish to wed him. Even Primula Brandybuck, who was very friendly with most dwarves of the Company and encouraged Acorn to explore her dwarven nature where it did not involve sharp objects, was quite cold with Thorin.

There was a certain injustice to this. After all, Thorin led the army that crossed many miles of difficult terrain to rescue these hobbits in particular. Asking for their friendship in return did not seem unreasonable. Even so, when he stood next to Primula to watch Acorn practicing forms under Dwalin’s strict tutelage, the hobbitess did not say hello, only returned his cordial greeting with a brief nod.

It did not matter. The privilege of watching Acorn learn was worth any social discomfort. She wanted to learn the ax. Bilbo’s daughter wished to learn dwarven ways. Bilbo’s daughter would walk the halls of Erebor and read the ancient runes writ there upon the stones. Even if Thorin never had a child, the existence of Bilbo’s daughter was a miracle.

Primula winced as Acorn dropped the wooden practice ax on her foot. Practice weapons were weighty, and the child was clearly hurt, but she insisted the lesson continue. After inspecting the bruise on her foot, Dwalin agreed. Thorin’s heart swelled with pride. Bilbo’s daughter was indeed as hardy as she claimed. Though boots might not be out of place on those small, dwarven feet.

“Usually you would be in the healer’s tent, this time of day,” Primula observed. Her voice was flat and uninterested.

“Bilbo desired privacy,” Thorin said. “She is healing well, and no longer sleeps so deeply. Having company disturbs her rest.”

“I see.” Primula shuddered again as Acorn smacked her wooden ax hard against her hand. It was a mistake commonly made by the overzealous attempting that particular form for the first time, but the pain did not slow the fauntling’s practice. “Some of us hoped there might be a wedding before we all part ways, but that does not seem likely now.”

“No.” Thorin’s mouth was dry. “Not very likely.”

“I do not know how things are among dwarves,” Primula said, “but among hobbits, it is considered good manners to marry before a child is born.”

Meeting her eyes was too much. Thorin looked back to where Acorn stood, determinedly mirroring Dwalin’s movements. “It is the same with us.”

“Well, Mister Oak, we also say better late than never. You aren’t such a bad sort. I’m very grateful that you came to rescue us, of course. If there was a wedding before we all parted ways, I think everyone would feel much better about Bilbo and Acorn going off to Erebor with you.” Primula’s voice was firm. As though she could order Thorin to make Bilbo fall in love with him somehow. He wondered why she did not speak to Bilbo in such a fashion. Perhaps she might scold her cousin into proposing. Though Thorin would not want that. Not really. Of course he only wanted Bilbo to propose marriage when she was quite certain she desired it.

And he knew why Primula was not speaking to her cousin about this. “Bilbo still cannot stand unaided.”

Primula waved a hand. Clearly this excuse was insufficient to her sense of propriety. “Then she can be married from her bed. Gandalf the Wizard can preside, and that will be official enough for anyone.”

The image made Thorin smile. However much he preferred the thought of a bride who could walk at his side in the traditional manner, he would marry Bilbo any way that she would have him. Unfortunately, it was not his decision to make. “I do not think there will be a wedding before we part ways,” he repeated.

“And I do not think there will be a wedding in Erebor either!” Primula’s face was red and her eyes flashed with anger. Thorin could bear many things, but he did not need a second hobbitess to break his heart. No matter how scandalized she was by his impropriety.

“Do you think I do not know my own dishonor?” he bellowed. Had she failed to flinch away, he might have issued a challenge. She did cower, however, so he knew it was badly done. Acorn dropped her practice ax to stare at him, her little face a complicated mix of startled and angry. Thorin stormed away before he could frighten anyone else.

Atop Orthanc was a flat roof surrounded by four pointed pillars. It was a good place to stand to watch the sunset. Thorin would not journey to the kindly west. Neither would Bilbo. That, at least, was a mercy.

Balin found him there as darkness fell and the stars began to kindle in the great void of the sky.

“Well, at least you cannot bite the heads off any hobbits up here. Acorn was quite ready to battle you in defense of her cousin, you know.”

Thorin snorted and watched the last remnants of sunlight sink into the Shire.

“I know Primula was speaking to you of marriage,” Balin said.

Thorin turned his head slightly toward his advisor. “It is of no consequence.”

“Is it?” Balin came over to the edge where Thorin stood, though he did not lean against the pillar as Thorin did. “When rumor of her words spread through the camp, Bifur and Bofur had to sit on Dia Broadback to keep her from challenging Primula in defence your honor. I had to sit on my brother. I am not sure who sat on your nephews, but I know someone must have, or there would not be peace now.”

Thorin’s mouth twitched briefly into a smile, before he looked back toward the horizon. “You are kind to defend me, but she spoke only the truth. And her prediction of the future.”

“The future?” Balin sat. Normally dwarves would not sit in the presence of a standing king, but Balin’s bones were old. He earned every honor Thorin could offer him a hundred times over. Sitting at the edge of a great precipice hardly counted as such.

“She thinks if Bilbo does not marry me now, when I have proved myself a willing defender of her folk, we will never wed.”

“I see.” Balin took out his pipe without making any further comment.

“Erebor is not what it was. The Lonely Mountain is a ruin no longer, and where desolation lay the land is now fruitful. Bilbo will be impressed by our efforts. She will approve of them.”

“You do not look to Erebor now.” Balin puffed on his pipe mildly, gazing off toward Rohan in a neutral way.

“No,” Thorin said. “Primula Brandybuck is right. Unless Bilbo proposes in a fit of passion, I cannot imagine her settling anywhere but her Shire. And I am still tied to the mountain. She will come, but she will not stay. I was a romantic fool to ever imagine otherwise. I will not make the same mistake again.”

Balin blew a little smoke ring to float over their camp and off in whatever direction the wind decided to take it. “I never told you—I thought it would only add to your heartbreak—but Bilbo spoke to me once of marriage.”

“You?” Thorin stared at his old friend. He was shocked. Betrayed. Furious.

“Yes,” Balin said peaceably. “Right before we entered Mirkwood. She asked me if a king could marry anyone other than a princess. Very casually, you understand.”

“Oh.” Thorin felt his face burning and turned to face the wind. Just before they entered Mirkwood would have been just after the time he spent with her in Beorn’s garden. So she did think of marriage then. Of course she did. Bilbo was a gentle hobbitess. She would not importune the honor of a dwarf without at least considering marriage. “What did you tell her?”

“I told her that a king who reclaimed his homeland from a dragon did not need to worry about politics, and could marry anyone he pleased,” Balin said. “That is still true. Your soldiers—our people—follow you and no other, Thorin Oakenshield. A single indiscretion when we were all facing death is nothing compared to the rest of your reign. Your honor remains intact.”

“I do not care about my honor,” Thorin said, surprised to realize that this was true. “I do not regret giving myself to Bilbo.” When Balin did not drop his pipe in shock at this declaration, Thorin dared to continue. “I would do it again, if it would make her reconsider.”

Balin snorted. “I do not think you need resort to that extreme. Her cousin cannot know her mind any more than we do. Even Bilbo may not know her own intentions. Which, as you say, might change once she sees Erebor.”

Thorin said nothing. Balin was unmarried. He didn’t understand the real temptation of such activities. It was easy for a smith to be happy with bronze, if he never once worked a piece of gold. In all honesty, Thorin would lie with Bilbo again any time she desired him. Even Balin’s forgiving morality could not bear that truth, however.

Standing up, Balin put a comforting hand on Thorin’s shoulder. “The hobbits down there are all Tooks and Brandybucks. The bravest of their kind. Any one of them would have been more suitable to serve as burglar for our company than a Baggins of Bag End. What’s more, if you asked any one of them ten years ago, they would have told you Bilbo Baggins was the least likely hobbit in the Shire to leave it. They can no more tell you what she will do now than they could have then. Not even the honorable Miss Primula Brandybuck.”

Giving Thorin’s shoulder a final squeeze, Balin left the king alone with his thoughts.

The following morning, Bilbo allowed Thorin to sit with her for a time in the healer’s tent, serenading her with romantic nothings. Though she drifted in and out of sleep while he played, she still asked remarkably insightful questions about some of the songs. It was strange to think that their frame of reference was so different. She did not even know that sapphires in someone’s eyes meant they were wise. Nor that jasper in a dwarf’s blood was considered the height of passion. Still, it was clear she liked his music, and Thorin considered that a point in his favor for their courtship.

So when Kili burst into the tent, interrupting, Thorin was not inclined to be gracious.

“Is this the courtesy my nephew shows to the wounded?” he asked censoriously.

“This is the haste with which a prince tells his king that an army approaches,” Kili said. That changed the complexion of the matter significantly.

Thorin set his harp aside. “Their force?”

“Ravens have not yet reported back, but Tauriel spotted their approach and numbers them at over two thousand. They are a ragtag bunch, and do not march in formation, which makes counting difficult.”

“She is to be commended for spotting them first,” Thorin said.

Kili’s grin was so bright and sudden that Thorin nearly withdrew the compliment. “That is kind of you to say, Uncle. I will tell her of your commendation.”

“Does Tauriel know what sort they are? Orcs, goblins, or wicked men?” Bilbo was pulling her mithril shirt on over her bandaged body, as though she intended to join in a battle while she could hardly stand.

Kili’s smile turned a little mischievous. “Oh, none of those,” he said, winking at Bilbo. “It’s an army of hobbits.”

Bilbo paused in her dressing to stare at Kili. “I knew they would come,” she whispered, but the surprise on her face told a different tale.

“Troublemaker.” Thorin pushed Kili’s head, tousling his hair with one hand. “You might have said it was a peaceful army.”

Skipping away from this censure, Kili laughed. “They are not peaceful. Tauriel says all of them carry arms, and many wear leather armor, though one would not recognize it as such upon first glance.”

“Hunting clothes,” Bilbo said. “It’s not an unknown hobby in the Shire.”

“The most common weapon is the bow,” Kili continued, “but they have an interesting calvary on pony-back, and more than a few boar spears.”

“Wild pigs can be quite dangerous, you know,” Bilbo said. “Sometimes a young piglet runs off to forage in the forest and grows into a real terror.”

“Indeed,” Thorin said. “My cousin Dain rides a boar to war. I understand that farmers must occasionally be fighters. It does not surprise me at all to see your kinfolk coming to your rescue. We will array with honor to greet them.”

“It surprises me,” Bilbo murmured, but she was the more eager than anyone to see the approaching army.

Nothing would have pleased Thorin more than to carry the hobbit in his arms, but Bilbo would not hear of it. A solution that would salve her dignity while keeping her from opening any wounds needed to be found quickly. Thorin would have cursed Kili for being so flippant with his news, but in truth he had no desire to keep Bilbo in the dark. She deserved to see the army that answered her summons and followed her trail.

Cobbling together a makeshift palanquin was no trouble at all for Bofur. The tinker simply added a platform to the bottom of a sturdy, comfortable chair. As the chair came from barracks designed for tall men, it was large enough that a hobbit couldn’t slip out of it even if she fell asleep. With four handles affixed to the base of the platform, Bilbo could be carried in honor to the place where the army assembled with the rescued prisoners to await the arrival of the hobbits.

Indeed, the biggest difficulty came not from Bilbo or those who bore her with the honor and ceremony she deserved, but from the approaching army. A single rider with a white flag came forth, racing ahead of the others. By rights, Thorin ought to have Kili ride out to meet him and arrange for peaceful greetings. Yet he could not bear for Bilbo to miss any part of this exchange. She deserved to witness all, and she might want the story for her memoirs.

So the palanquin bearers marched forward, at a much slower pace than the hobbit rider. A small entourage tagged along as well, because hobbits had no sense of ceremony. Acorn even insisted on riding on Dwalin’s shoulders. To his credit, the warrior tried to refuse to keep his hands free in case battle did approach. The compromise wound up with Acorn riding on only Dwalin’s left shoulder, so that he could use his right arm if any fighting needed to be done. As this pleased both the child and her mother, making them of a height to easily converse, Thorin did not intervene. Certainly it was best that Dwalin should already have Acorn in his hands if trouble occurred. Dwalin would protect Bilbo’s daughter with his life.

The hobbit rider stopped his pony and dismounted. Holding his white flag aloft, he approached the small party around the makeshift palanquin. “Good morning, Bilbo,” he said, staring up at her. “Nice, er, throne.”

Bilbo laughed, then clutched at her side in pain as she always seemed to when she laughed too freely. “Good morning, Drogo,” she said. “Thank you kindly, but it is not a throne. In truth, my health took rather an unfortunate turn during the battle. My friends are carrying me because I cannot walk.”

 

“Well, I am very sorry to hear that!” The hobbit was dark of hair, with blue eyes and soft cheeks. Attractive by the standards of the Shire, Thorin thought, and a little too concerned with Bilbo’s health. “Miss Acorn is well, though?”

“I am very well, thank you,” Acorn said in her high, friendly voice. “You are my cousin, aren’t you? Mister Drogo Baggins. You did not come to my birthday party.”

“No I did not.” The young hobbit looked up at Acorn with sad, serious eyes. “It is the greatest regret of my life that I did not cross the river and attend your party, Miss Acorn. For if all of us dared the Brandywine to celebrate with you, perhaps we would have been too many, and no one would have been taken.”

“Oh, it is no good talking that way, Drogo,” Bilbo said. “All in all, we have been very lucky. My dwarven friends from Erebor came down to lend a hand. Allow me to introduce King Thorin Oakenshield. This is his army here. With their help, we were able to defeat the wizard that used to live in this tower and set everyone free.”

Drogo bowed to Thorin and offered him service, but when he lifted his head once more, he only had eyes for Bilbo. “And, er, is everyone free, then?”

“Of course,” Bilbo said. “You cannot think I would stop after only freeing my own daughter, can you?”

“I’m terribly sorry, Bilbo.” Drogo twisted his hands together. “That is not what I meant at all. I am making a real muddle of this, and after the Thain trusted me to ride out at as a messenger, too! But then you were there sitting on a throne and I quite lost my train of thought. You are my dear cousin, Bilbo Baggins, and I deeply admire what you did, tracking those villains and setting up cairns for us to follow. I hope in future that you and I shall be much closer.”

Thorin could not contain a low growl.

Drogo continued babbling, as though he did not notice how embarrassing this blatant display of regard for Bilbo was. “Only, Bilbo, please tell me if you rescued everyone. I mean, well, everyone. For it has been over a month, and I cannot bear to wait any longer.”

Primula Brandybuck stepped out from behind the palanquin.

Staring at her, Drogo froze. He seemed to tremble with the effort of staying still, reminding Thorin greatly of a rabbit spotting a predator, hoping not to be seen. Slowly, Primula closed the distance between them. Drogo smiled tremulously. “Sorry I’m late,” he whispered. “You look well.”

Stretching out a hand, Primula said, “Give me your grandmother’s ring, Drogo Baggins. I know you have it in your pocket.”

Fumbling in the breast pocket of his waistcoat, the hobbit quickly retrieved a small silver band, adorned with a few garnets. To Thorin’s dwarven eye, it was not particularly valuable, but the hobbitess slipped it onto her finger with great ceremony. Then she gathered the still trembling hobbit into her arms, clutching him as tightly as he clung to her. “I am going to marry you the minute we get back to the Shire, Drogo. In fact, I’ll marry you right now, if my mother is somewhere in that army at your back.”

The young Baggins made no answer to this, only repeated her name, “Prim,” over and over again as he embraced her, pressing small, swift kisses to her hair.

“She was not going to marry him, you know,” Acorn whispered loudly to her mother. “Because he does not like birthday parties.”

“Well, when one falls in love, little things like attending a birthday party do not matter so much,” Bilbo said softly. “And it was good of him to come all this way.”

Few eyes other than Acorn’s remained dry at this display. Dwalin teared up, ever the romantic, and Bilbo lent him her handkerchief. Her own eyes misted, but she did not need it as much as the big warrior did. Even Thorin’s heart was touched by the simplicity of Primula’s proposal.

Of course, hobbits were simple folk. Even so, in the Shire he was willing to bet that a hobbitess of Primula’s obvious qualities would command proposal gifts of much greater value. When her favored suitor rode to her rescue at the head of an army, she made an exception and offered her hand in marriage for an instantly affordable present because she desired him so intensely. It was exactly what she suggested ought to happen between Bilbo and Thorin. Thorin could not call her a hypocrite. All Thorin could do was accept that he was not such a favorable suitor in Bilbo’s eyes as Drogo Baggins was to Primula Brandybuck.

This was no surprise. Thorin knew well that winning Bilbo would be no simple matter. Yet he was not a stranger to the impossible. Once, with her help, he won back a mountain from a dragon, orcs, and all manner of foul creatures. Perhaps in this, she would help him again. Perhaps this time, Bilbo would consent to be won.

At least he was finally rid of Legolas. The elf and Strider, the ranger, parted with Bilbo to escort the hobbit army home. So, all told, there was hope for the future.

Chapter Text

Acorn was excited to go to Erebor. To see the Lonely Mountain and have a proper adventure at last was the fondest wish of her heart. And she knew, of course, that Asphodel would not come along. Asphodel wanted to go home, just like all the other hobbits. It was no great loss. Acorn always went months and months without seeing Asphodel. They were friends because they wrote each other letters, just like Mum and King Thorin. Since King Thorin would let Acorn send Asphodel as many letters as she liked with the ravens, parting was not a problem.

Anyhow, Acorn would not have cried so much if Asphodel had not started crying first. She was not a baby. Even though all of the dwarves probably thought that she was, since she was riding in Mum’s special carriage, coddled by pillows even though she had no injuries. Sniffing, the lass used her handkerchief and lay her head down next to her mother’s hand. Just in case Mum woke up and felt like petting her hair. The journey to Erebor looked long and bleak as it stretched out in front of that carriage, comfortable as it might be.

The thick velvet curtain at the back of the carriage drew open and a line of bright sunlight cut across the soft bedding, narrowly missing Mum’s face. She didn’t stir, but Acorn looked up. A big, floppy hat poked through the gap, followed by a great twirling mustache. Then a hand stretched out, placing a little doll in the center of the light spot. The little doll was made of painted porcelain, with great wooly beard, and real fur over his shoulders and his tin armor.

“Hello,” Bofur said, making his voice gruff and short like Mister Dwalin’s. “I am looking for a fight! Does anyone in here want to fight?”

Stifling a giggle so she would not wake her mother, Acorn reached into the pocket of her dress for her own little doll. It looked just like Mum, with her mithril shirt and a little Sting on her belt that would fit in her hand. Though Bofur gave the little doll to her a week ago, Acorn had yet to play with it. Asphodel always liked to be the Mum doll when they played, and Acorn would be the King Thorin doll. The dolls gave each other flowers and kissed, while the orc dolls stayed in Dori’s trunk no matter how often Acorn suggested getting them out. When Asphodel insisted on returning the doll that looked just like Mum, Acorn knew for sure that they would not see each other again for a very long time.

“Mister Dwalin,” Acorn said, making her voice high and girly so that Bofur would know it was the doll speaking. “I’m so glad you are here! I know where there are some baddies to fight, and they have King Thorin prisoner!”

Bofur grinned. Then he frowned, making his voice sound like Dwalin’s again. “That’s terrible! We must rescue the King at once. Lead the way, Master Burglar!”

“It is Miss, if you please,” Acorn’s doll said primly.

Laughing a little, Bofur made Dwalin’s voice sound gruff and embarrassed. “Oh, well, forgive me. Among dwarves, Master just means you are very good at something. You know we all called you Master Burglar during our adventure. It does not mean we think you are a lad.”

“Oh! I did not know that,” Acorn said. Then her doll said, “Of course you must call me the same thing you called me while we were all on our adventure together, Mister Dwalin. I’m sorry.”

“Well, enough about names,” Bofur’s doll said. “We have to rescue my king! I cannot be forsworn in my oath to the throne!”

So Acorn scrambled over the soft pillows of her mother’s carriage and bounced out the back end into Mister Bofur’s arms. The goats pulling the carriage walked at a very steady pace. Once her feet were on the ground, Acorn could easily keep up. Blinking her eyes in the bright sunlight, she looked around for her target. Other than Mum’s special wagon, there were no carts or wagons in the supply train that followed the marching lines of dwarves. Indeed, most of the dwarves wore their armor and carried packs filled with all of the things they would need. Still, the battle goats were expected to work whether or not there was any fighting. Most of them did not have riders, and instead were piled high with food, rolled up tents, spare arms, and other things a marching army might need.

“We have to find Mister Dori’s trunk,” Acorn’s doll announced.

Together, Acorn and Bofur darted around the baggage train, inspecting the things each goat carried and searching for Dori’s ornate trunk. Occasionally, Bofur’s doll spotted something that could not possibly be the trunk they were looking for. “I’ve found it,” he cried in Dwalin’s voice.

“That is not Mister Dori’s trunk,” Acorn’s doll scolded him. “That is a shield.”

“Well surely this must be it! Look, it is all boxy.” The doll stood proudly on a wooden crate full of apples. Acorn giggled. The goat carrying the crate snorted and continued plodding along in line with all the rest.

“No,” Acorn said in the high pitched voice of her Mum-doll, “That is not where King Thorin is imprisoned at all. However, we should have a snack to keep up our strength.” So the dolls pretended to take bites from apples just as big as they were, and Bofur kindly fished an apple out of the crate so that Acorn could have one as well. Then the search continued.

“The orc prison where they have King Thorin is very dark and horrible,” Acorn’s doll told Bofur’s. “The bars are cold iron, and all the floor is full of broken glass so your feet get cut up when you walk on it.”

“Sounds like he needs his boots,” Bofur’s doll said in Dwalin’s gruff voice. “We shall have to bring him some.”

“No, it will even cut through boots. Only sturdy hobbit feet are up to the challenge. So you must let me go in alone. I will burgle the king to safety, then we can all fight the orcs together.”

“Right!” The Dwalin doll nodded vigorously. Bofur took one of the little axes from his back and put it into his hand. “I love fighting orcs!”

Acorn’s giggles were interrupted by her own cry of delight. “There!”

Dori’s trunk was dark red wood fastened with shining gold. The patterns carved along the surface were painted yellow and orange. Spotting it was easy among the bundles of rolled up canvas piled high on the goat’s back. Unfortunately, much of the cloth was piled on top of the trunk. Acorn didn’t see how they could get it open without unpacking everything.

“Oi, Dori!” Bofur called the fastidious little dwarf over from where he was walking with his brothers.

Obligingly, Dori came over to walk beside the goat with them. It was a rather slow pace, but the dwarves seemed to be able to match step perfectly. They didn’t have to skip ahead and fall back the way Acorn did.

“Be a good fellow and help us get some toys out of your trunk then, eh?” Bofur asked.

This was not the most polite phrasing he could have used. Perhaps that was why Dori frowned and said, “Not right now. We’ll stop for the noon meal in an hour. That would be a fine time to do a little unpacking. There’s no need to stop the entire baggage train for a toy when I can see you have two very fine dolls to play with right now.”

“But Mister Dori,” Acorn said, “King Thorin is being held prisoner by the orcs! We cannot leave him in there. They are not feeding him any food. Not even boiled oats! And the floor is all over glass. Please help us rescue him.”

Dori looked down at Acorn. His gray eyes were very soft. “Ah, well. If it’s to be a daring rescue, I suppose that’s what we’re here for.” He whistled once, sharply.

Nori bounced over, followed quickly by Ori. Dori didn’t say anything or explain, just nodded to his trunk. That seemed to be information enough for his brothers. Ori boosted Nori onto the very back of the goat. The goat didn’t seem to mind, but it was a precarious position, even for the dexterous dwarf. Nori balanced on the bouncing rump, however, and pulled the ropes holding the luggage in place apart. Dori then took the trunk, which was a little larger than the dwarf himself, and pulled it down.

“Hold this a tick,” he said, handing it to Bofur. Bofur staggered a little with the sudden weight and had to stop walking. Opening the lid, Dori reached into the trunk and pulled out the little leather bag that held the rest of Acorn’s dolls. “Just these for now?” he asked, holding it up. “We really oughtn’t do this again until everyone stops at lunchtime.”

Acorn could see why. Since Bofur was not walking while he held the trunk open, the other goats carrying baggage balked or were led around him by dwarves who frowned a bit at the hold up. While the army was walking, everyone needed to walk at the same pace, or it caused a problem. Quickly, she opened the bag and found the King Thorin doll.

“You’ve saved me!” she cried in a high-pitched doll voice. “Thank you Mister Dori!” Then she gave him a hug and a kiss, because he was so kind.

Dori’s cheeks went a bit red as he took the trunk back from Bofur. Acorn thought it was probably very heavy indeed. Fortunately, because he was so strong, Dori was able to walk quickly and catch up with the goat where his brothers were still holding up the rest of the baggage. It was the work of a minute for the three of them to slip the trunk back in and arrange the ropes so that it all looked exactly as it had before.

Still bouncing up and down on the rump of the goat, Nori winked at Acorn before flipping through the air and landing with a flourish. The little hobbit nearly dropped her bag of dolls as she clapped her hands together, applauding this feat.

“No kiss for me?” Nori asked. “I’m the one who did all of the work.”

Acorn rushed over and gave him a quick peck on his cheek, which he obligingly leaned down to present her with. Then she gave Ori a hug for good measure, since he’d been very helpful, too. “And you may all play with me and Mister Bofur if you like. Though two of you will have to be orcs.”

“Sadly, we may not,” Dori said firmly. “Nori is in charge of the scouting parties for the army, and he has to go make sure we have a safe place to eat lunch when the time comes. Ori cannot play dolls right now either, for he is the King’s scribe, and has duties to attend to. And I am in charge of this whole baggage train at the moment. Although I caused the discord, I must make sure everything is straightened out and kept in good order.”

“Alright,” Acorn said. “Thank you for your help. I hope we can play together sometime soon.”

Acorn was very happy to just play with Bofur. Unfortunately, since they had to play while they walked, they could not set up very many of the orcs or fight them properly. Acorn had King Thorin in one hand and Mum in the other. Since Bofur’s hands were bigger, he was able to hold three of the orcs in one while the Dwalin doll in his other hand fought them. Even so, Acorn thought it would be much more fun to set them all up on the ground. She had six orc dolls, and they were all different. It would be nice to be able to play with them properly.

“We need someone else to play,” Bofur said. “No two ways about it. Fortunately, when you’re looking about for someone with nothing to do, you can’t find better than royalty!”

Acorn didn’t quite understand what Bofur meant by this, until he called out to Kili. The prince was, indeed, walking near Tauriel. Though elves and dwarves generally did not like each other very much, the two were not shouting or arguing. Just waking together very nicely, holding hands.

“What?” Kili shouted back, not coming over.

“Come be king!” Bofur yelled.

Kili pressed a hand to his heart dramatically. “My worst nightmare!” he said, staggering over. “Don’t you know I married this one so it would never come to pass?”

Tauriel flicked his ear. “I thought you married me for my cooking.”

Kili laughed joyfully, though Acorn did not understand the joke. Marrying a good cook seemed perfectly reasonable to her. “Show me this king,” the prince demanded.

“He has a real sword,” Acorn said, holding up the doll so that Kili could see how wonderful it was. “And a crown. Or if you really do not like him, you may be my mum. She has a sword, too. Or the orcs. There are six of them. They have lots of weapons, and some of them have helms that you can swap around.”

“I am spoilt for choice,” Kili said. “So, like a proper dwarf, I shall allow the lady to choose. If my wife may be allowed to join the game?”

“Oh, yes please!” Acorn said. Though she was half a dwarf, Acorn did like elves. At least Tauriel and Legolas, who were the only elves she knew. They were less aggressively affectionate than her new dwarven friends, but they were very kind.

“I shall be these three orcs,” Tauriel said, taking the one with the spiked helmet, the one with the black shield, and the one with the crossbow out of the bag.

“Then I shall be orcs as well, to match my wife,” Kili declared, taking the other three from Bofur.

“And we are going to fight you,” Acorn declared, waving both King Thorin and her mum.

“Yeah!” Bofur said in his Dwalin voice.

“First,” Kili said, leaning low so that his face was very close to Acorn’s, “you will have to catch us.” Then he sprinted away, waving the orc dolls in the air. Tauriel ran next to him with her own dolls prominently displayed.

Acorn and Bofur gave chase. Sometimes Mum, Dwalin, and King Thorin chased the orcs. Sometimes the orcs chased Acorn and Bofur. Whenever they caught up with one another, there was a great battle full of clashing swords, dramatic deaths, and great feats of bravery. But the battles did not last as long as the chasing.

Chasing was very fun, for there were many goats to dodge and weave around. The trick was to always watch where you were going and not get in the way of the animals. Even better, whenever Acorn caught either Tauriel or Kili, they lifted her in the air and spun her around. Bofur seemed to decide that this was an intrinsic part of the game, and the Dwalin doll decided to chase the Mum doll for reasons that Acorn didn’t entirely understand. Since it meant another person to get spins from, Acorn chose not to question his logic.

After a time, a loud horn sounded at the head of the marching dwarves, and everyone stopped walking, even the goats. That meant it was time to put toys away, wash hands, and go help Mum.

When they found her, Mum was already sitting up at the edge of her wagon, one arm around King Thorin to steady her. The king did not look very happy about her getting up to walk, but there was a campfire nearby with a chair just for her. Oin said it was not good for Mum to be always in bed. Taking a few steps now and then would help her get her strength back, not hurt her. Though it did seem to hurt her. For she walked very slowly and sometimes grimaced a bit, leaning heavily against the king at her side.

“I can help you, Mum!” Acorn raced over to her side, taking her other hand very gently. Mum smiled down at Acorn and squeezed their clasped hands.

Getting her settled in her chair was a lot of work, but Acorn was up to the task. First, she helped Mum sit down. Then she helped King Thorin and Fili pull the folding table around so that Mum could reach it easily. After that, she fetched soup, fresh bread, fruit, and tea one at a time, setting the table just as she would in Bag End.

King Thorin, Fili, and Kili all sat at the table with Mum and Acorn. It was not a very large table, so Bofur and Tauriel had to eat with Bombur, Oin, and the other members of the Company around the fire. Acorn would have changed places with one of them, for she did not need to eat at a table. She was not wounded. But Mum said that Acorn needed to practice her manners more not less now that they would be among dwarves all the time. Then she reminded Acorn to put her napkin in her lap instead of leaving it next to her plate to gather dust.

Once lunch was served and proper manners were observed, Acorn told Mum all about the daring rescue of the dolls. Everyone agreed that it was a fine way to spend the morning, though Fili frowned at his brother.

“You should know, Acorn, that I am much better at tag than my younger brother,” he declared. “Next time you play, I would like the chance to prove it.”

Kili scoffed, but Acorn was very happy to entertain the notion. “Why, we can play again after lunch,” she declared magnanimously.

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “I believe you have another engagement when your lunch is finished, Miss Baggins.”

Acorn blinked at him. They were miles and miles away from the Shire. Even if they weren’t, Acorn never had any engagements. No one ever wanted to make plans with her or invite her to parties. Her mother was unusual and her father was nonexistent. That made her an undesirable playfellow.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Are you done with your lunch?” Thorin asked.

Acorn finished the crust of her bread, drained her water, and folded her napkin. Then she turned to her mother. “May I please be excused from the table?”

Mum smiled. “You may, but what is your engagement?”

“I still don’t know!” Acorn stood up and looked at King Thorin expectantly. Instead of saying anything helpful, he just nodded. He wasn’t looking at Acorn. His eyes fixed on a point over her shoulder. Acorn spun around.

Dwalin was behind her, twirling a wooden ax casually, he stopped and extended the handle toward Acorn. She cheered.

“Mister Dwalin! Hooray! Will we have a lesson now? I did not think we could while everyone was marching!”

“There’s a little time for lessons when we’re stopped: the noon break and at night when we make camp. Unless you want to rest like everyone else.” Dwalin raised an eyebrow at Acorn.

“I don’t need to rest,” she said instantly. “I have had my lunch. Have you had your lunch?” It was only polite to ask, even though she remembered him sitting with Gloin, Oin, and Bifur near the cooking fire.

“I have,” he said gravely. That seemed to be enough politeness. He led her a little distance away from the table so they wouldn’t bump into anyone, and they started working.

There was something very relaxing about practicing with the wooden ax. Now that Acorn knew all of the positions, moving through them with Dwalin was like dancing without music. They stepped, spun, bowed, posed, and shifted just as one would on a dancing lawn. It did not feel like fighting. Indeed, when they came to the end of the lesson, Mum clapped her hands together in applause.

“Oh,” she said. “That was lovely! You’re very good already, my little seedling.”

Looking up at Dwalin for confirmation, Acorn saw him smile. Then he raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t go getting overconfident. You’re fine for a beginner. You’ve a long way to go before you start sparring, though.”

“What’s sparring?” It sounded like chopping wood. Acorn could think of better uses for an ax than that.

“Practice fighting,” Fili said. “And I happen to disagree with Dwalin there. Defend yourself!”

As one, Fili and Kili leapt up from the table, chasing after Acorn. She dodged and ran away, but of course they caught her very quickly, tickling her until she could not breathe for laughing.

It was a wonderful way to spend a morning. It was a wonderful way to spend a trip. Every day there were lessons, games, and as many meals as Acorn could eat. Whenever she was tired, she just curled up in Mum’s special wagon for a snuggle and a nap. Whenever she was thirsty, she had tea, cider, and water available for the asking. Truly, she never was hungry. She was barely ever even peckish, which was very unusual for a fauntling. Every dwarf she met seemed to keep a pocket full of snacks, just for Acorn.

All in all, the trip to Erebor was a much better adventure than the trip to Isengard.

Chapter Text

Bilbo spent most of the journey to Erebor sleeping in a wagon that was basically one big cushion drawn by goats. Oh, there were a few exceptions. She managed to toddle out for the occasional meal. At night while the dwarves made music, Bilbo sat up to listen as Acorn danced. Sometimes she even found the stamina to stay awake long enough to watch her daughter play during the day.

When the army marched past Lothlorien, one of the great wonders of the world, she managed a bit better. Some kindly elves ferried Bilbo, Thorin, and a few others across the river so that they might sit under the golden eaves of that beautiful forest. Exhausted from sitting up for that short jaunt, Bilbo spent most of the time with her head in Thorin’s lap, looking up at the flowering trees. Acorn enjoyed the forest more. Shrieking with laughter, she chased Fili, Kili, and Tauriel through the trees while Dwalin looked on. Even surrounded by such beauty, Bilbo dozed off. Waking, she found her daughter plaiting little white star-flowers into her hair. They were lovely, though Bilbo did not know their name.

“Elanor,” Gandalf told her when they parted ways. “They grow only here, in the Valley of the Singing Gold, yet it is to be hoped they will flower ever more.” The wizard had his own healing to do, and Lothlorien seemed like the perfect place for him to rest.

Yet Bilbo’s road went on and on, easy as it was. She had plenty of time to rest and heal with thirteen devoted babysitters for Acorn. In fact, strange as it was after her long social exile in Hobbiton, the Baggins family was in high demand. Thorin in particular was attentive enough to make Bilbo ache.

There were certain practicalities which Bilbo was in no shape to handle for herself. Tauriel was of immeasurable assistance in these matters. Surprisingly, so was Thorin. From the very first, he was happy to help her walk, wash, dress, and do any number of other unpleasant, mundane things. He did not approach them with any embarrassment, and any suggestion she made that a king had more important things to attend to was immediately dismissed.

“I have come for you, Bilbo Baggins,” he said. “I would have to be a fool indeed to fail you now that the battle is won.”

Hearing such a thing was too much for a hobbit’s weak heart. She knew he would not propose. He told her plainly that he could not be a father to Acorn. They would never, ever marry. Even so, her traitorous heart hoped. Perhaps, for a little while, they might be together again.

It certainly seemed possible during the dark nights in Mirkwood when he lay at the entrance to the wagon, keeping Acorn and Bilbo at his back. Of course he only did it because he was worried about the elves. It wasn’t even necessary. The forest was much less oppressive than the last time Bilbo ventured through it. Yet, maybe because it wasn’t necessary, Bilbo couldn’t help but think that her family was all sleeping together under a single roof. That it was a covered wagon hardly made a difference when she could hear the soft sounds of the two people she loved best so near in the night.

As Erebor drew nigh, Bilbo’s health improved. By the time they crossed Long Lake and entered Dale, she was able to walk under her own power to greet Bard. The king of Dale waited for them with great ceremony. All the Big Folk lined the cobblestone streets throwing flowers and cheering the victorious return of the dwarves. The army of Dale, which was standing in reserve in case Thorin needed greater strength than his quick marching battalion, officially stood down with an impressive show of spinning their swords about. When the trumpets and speeches finished, Bard shook Bilbo’s hand, taking her aside to tell her how worried he’d been.

“Indeed,” he said, “Part of me wanted to travel as one of your friends despite my duty to my own people, though a single archer can do little to sway the course of a battle if five hundred dwarves prove insufficient.”

“You are much more than a single archer, King Bard,” Bilbo said. “So I am very glad that you did not come to fetch me. Someone had to keep an eye on things around here while Thorin dashed off to be heroic.”

As if in reward for saying something nice about him, Thorin put his arm around Bilbo’s waist. For support, probably, as she grew tired after standing so long. Bilbo leaned into his body. For support, and because she could not resist the temptation.

Bard smiled. “And you must be Acorn.” Turning to the fauntling, he offered her his hand as well.

Shaking the offered hand in a perfectly adult manner, the little girl said, “Did you really kill a dragon?”

Bilbo sighed. They would have to work on “How do you do?”

“I did,” Bard said gravely. “I will not tell you these lands are safe, for all lands have their perils, but any who would harm you will have to pass me as well as the dwarves.”

Acorn’s eyes were wide as she stared up at him. “We saw a river dragon on the way to Isengard. It was very scary. Even Mum and Mister Strider couldn’t fight it.”

Bard nodded. “Dragons are very frightening things, and it is not good to be overconfident. However, you must always remember that evil can be defeated. Smaug would have killed my children, if I did not kill him first. Obviously your mother found some way around the dragon she faced in the wild, or you would not be here now. Parents protect our children.”

“Because you’re heroes,” Acorn said, smiling confidently.

Biting his lip to hide a smile, Bard turned back to Bilbo. “Sigrid’s eldest is a few years younger than Acorn, but by my judgment they seem to be about the same age. With your permission?”

Although she was not sure what she was giving permission for, Bilbo nodded. At once, Sigrid came forward. Bilbo hardly recognized her. Bard’s eldest daughter had been a lovely young woman, but ten years was a long stretch in the lives of Big Folk. Now she was a beautiful matron. Her long hair seemed a few shades darker than before, braided up neatly with jeweled pins. As befit a princess, her dress was of the finest silk, emphasizing her ample bodice while still maintaining her modesty. At her side was a young girl who did seem to equal Acorn in age, though she was a few inches taller, and a very small boy just toddling about it what looked to be his first waistcoat.

“It is an honor to see you again, Master Burglar,” Sigrid said, curtseying deeply. “Allow me to present my daughter, Astrid, and my son, Bart.”

Astrid mirrored her mother’s curtsey with perfect grace, and the baby smiled, babbling up at them all.

“Hello,” Acorn said stepping up to Astrid very directly. “I am Acorn Baggins of Bag End. You may play with my mum doll if you would like. I do not have a King Bard doll yet, but I am sure that Mister Bofur will make me one if I ask. And a dragon, too.”

Astrid blinked. “How do you do?” she stammered.

Frowning, Acorn sketched a quick bow. “Very well thank you,” she said perfunctorily. “How do you do?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulled the little Bilbo doll and the little Thorin from her pockets. “See, my mum has a mithril shirt and Sting, so she is the best one. But you can also be King Thorin if you like. His beard is very nice and he has Orcrist to fight with. Or if you do not like to play fighting games, they can play smials, too. Only if you do like to play fighting games, I have lots and lots of orcs. Mister Bofur is holding them for me just now, but he would give them to us if I asked.”

Poor Astrid seemed very taken aback by this forceful introduction. She looked to her her mother for support, and Sigrid gave her an encouraging nod. Slowly, the girl took a doll from her own pocket. It wore a long leather coat like the one Bard used to, though Bilbo thought it might be a lass from the braid in its hair.

“This is my doll, Eska,” Astrid mumbled, looking nervously at Acorn. “She is a fisherman. One time, she caught an eel so long that it wrapped around her boat and broke it into splinters, so she had to swim all the way to the shore from open water.”

“That’s terrifying!” Acorn sounded delighted. In the high pitched voice she used for her dolls, she added, “I cannot swim at all, Miss Eska, but I have to fight a river dragon. Will you help us?”

Astrid smiled. “I will help you,” she said, in an adorably gruff voice that she clearly thought was an octave lower than it actually was. “I’m the best fisherman in the whole world. I can catch anything. Even a dragon.”

So the two girls dashed off to play, perching their dolls on flowers and window sills with Dwalin and Bofur hovering protectively just behind.

“We cannot tarry long in Dale,” Thorin told Bard. “Our own people expect us home soon, and my soldiers have been long afield. They wish for home and hearth once more.”

“Of course,” Bard said, “But I pray you will all at least join me for a drink and a small repast.”

“Half an hour,” Bilbo requested, letting her head fall to Thorin’s shoulder as she watched her daughter play. “It’s good for Acorn to have a friend her own age.”

“There are children in the mountain,” Thorin grumbled quietly, but he accepted Bard’s offer cordially enough.

Catching up with the news in Dale was very pleasant. Almost as pleasant as the flowering trees, beautifully restored buildings, and charming bells which rang out on the hour. Thorin was right. The lands around Erebor were much improved since Bilbo’s last visit.

Where there was once desolation, there were wildflowers, blooming with the height of summer. Trees grew in little orchards, with light patches of forest off in the distance, though Bilbo could tell they were very young. Acorn’s age, really, and that thought was strangely pleasant. More and more, returning to the mountain felt like coming home. A much better homecoming than staggering back to Bag End with a broken heart and and a swollen belly, really.

Acorn clearly agreed. She was in awe of absolutely everything. When the massive gates swung open to welcome the returning army with drums and horns ringing out in celebration, Acorn danced for joy. The fauntling could not stare long enough at the dwarven architecture, and Bilbo had to nudge her daughter more than once to keep her walking. The golden light that filled the halls was soft and lovely, not the dark gleam of treasure, but something warm and pure that mesmerized even the hobbit.

The Hall of Kings, Bilbo remembered. Indeed, she would have recognized the golden floor anywhere, though it was as smooth as polished glass. There were changes, of course. The stonework on the ancient kings was restored, and Thror was there among them. Immortalized in stone, not gold, he looked as regal as all the rest. Perhaps it was not what Thorin’s grandfather wanted in his madness, but Bilbo suspected it was what Thorin wanted for himself. Stone was nobler, to the hobbit’s eye, and more dwarvish. Beyond that, bright tapestries covered the walls instead of the old moth-eaten stuff, and open balcony doors filled the room with fresh air and afternoon sunlight.

At the head of the room was a small dais. Standing upon it with a small honor guard was Lord Dain of the Iron Hills and a dwarrowdam so like Thorin, she could only be Dis.

“Hail, the returning heroes,” Dis said. On cue, drums rolled around the room and trumpets sounded a great fanfare.

“Hail, the returning king,” Dain cried. An even more elaborate theme rung out from the corners of the room.

Thorin grinned, then quickly suppressed it. Leaving Bilbo’s side, he stepped up onto the Dais in a dignified manner. Greeting his sister and his cousin with those shocking dwarven headbuts, he said something quietly to each of them. Then, he turned to face the army and made a little speech about how grateful he was for their support, how good it was that Saruman had been defeated before he could bring his darkness to Erebor’s doors, and how noble the dwarves were to fight in defense of people not their own.

The army of dwarves cheered each and every pause in Thorin’s speech, but that was nothing compared to their cheers when Dis said, “The feast is laid in the Great Hall and your families await you. Go now, and celebrate as you deserve!”

The army marched away singing, but the Company remained, so Bilbo and Acorn did as well.

“Bilbo Baggins!” Bouncing down from the dais, Dain gathered Bilbo in a rough embrace. “Ach, it is good to see you again. Ten years is far too long. I hear you’ve had a jolly fight of it lately. If Thorin would have waited a few days, the Iron Hills would have joined the march to your aid, make no mistake.”

Bilbo’s eyes slid away from the burly, red bearded lord to find Thorin speaking quietly with his sister. She didn’t bother to hide the smile that spread across her face. “Oh, I wouldn’t fault him for making haste,” she said. “But I thank you for the thought. It is good to see you again, Lord Dain.”

“Aw, stuff that Lord business, or I’ll call you Master Burglar to retaliate.”

Laughing, Bilbo agreed. “Alright then, Dain. I take it you kept Erebor standing in Thorin’s absence.”

“Aye, aye, and happy enough to do it, I was, but I’ll be heading home soon, make no mistake. This place is too grand for me. I miss my quiet Iron Hills, where a dwarf can groom his own boar in peace without folks fluttering about saying such things are beneath the Line of Durin. As though Thorin didn’t shoe every horse in Rohan during the exile. But enough about my troubles. Is it true you have a bairn?”

Taking her daughter by the hand, Bilbo introduced the child to Dain. “Dain, this is Acorn Baggins of Bag End.”

At once the big dwarf dropped to his knees, offering his hand to the fauntling in the Shire fashion. Acorn shook hands politely, and actually remembered to say “How do you do?” this time.

“Better for meeting such a darling lass,” Dain said, then grinned up at Bilbo. “A daughter on the first try! You’re a lucky one, Bilbo Baggins, and no mistake.”

Bilbo flushed, wild with embarrassment. She could hardly believe that Thorin would have shared such intimate information, even with a close cousin. That the two of them had, well, tried twice ought to have been a private matter. Of course, evidence that such a thing took place was telling Lord Dain all about her fighting lessons with Dwalin. Even so, Bilbo thought Thorin was above such juvenile bragging.

At once, the king was at her side, taking her arm very gently. “You are unwell,” he murmured so that only she could hear.

“I’m fine,” Bilbo said firmly. It did not matter. He was a king. Naturally he would not make a conquest of a hobbit spinster without sharing the story with his close friends. One had adventures to tell the stories, after all. Although it was slightly galling to realize that she’d been keeping him a secret for ten years while he’d been bandying her name about.

“I did suggest you take the carriage from Dale,” Thorin pointed out.

“I am perfectly capable of walking, thank you very much.” Bilbo’s voice was too harsh. Acorn looked up at her with wide eyes, leaving her conversation with Lord Dain in the middle of a sentence to take her mother’s hand.

“Well I am very tired,” the fauntling lied. “May we have a nap please, Mum?”

This was such a sacrifice on her daughter’s part, for clearly Acorn longed to explore every part of Erebor at once, that Bilbo’s heart soared. Bending down, Bilbo planted a firm kiss on her forehead. “If you are tired, my manipulative little dear, I suppose we can at least find a place to sit for a minute.”

“We can do a little better than that,” Dis said, stepping forward. “Guest chambers await you and your daughter, if you would like to refresh yourselves before joining the feasting.”

For some reason, this suggestion put a worried look on Thorin’s face. In her current mood, that suited Bilbo just fine. “Thank you kindly,” she said, abandoning Thorin’s arm for his sister’s. “I apologize for not introducing myself properly. Bilbo Baggins, at your service, and my daughter Acorn. You must be Thorin’s sister Dis. I have heard so much about you over the years, I already feel we are quite acquainted.”

“I feel just the same,” Dis said. Her smile was so bright that if Bilbo did not know Fili, Kili, and Dain, she never would have believed this dwarf could be related to Thorin. It seemed that the grave king was the exception, rather than the rule in his family. “In fact, I am so happy to meet you at last, that I think we must skip over all of the titles and pleasantries and simply be friends. You must think of me as family, and come to me for anything you need.”

“Dis,” Thorin growled, clearly upset at the reference to a familial connection.

Which of course made Bilbo wholly inclined to accept the forward offer. “Only if you promise to do the same, Sister,” she said cheerfully.

Thorin shut up for the rest of the walk to the guest room, but he continued to trail along while the rest of the Company wandered off to join the feasting.

The door to the guest room was green. Unlike the other doors they passed which were sometimes pointed out as the apartments of Bilbo’s various friends, the door to the guest room was round. It was carved of stone with elaborate runes, but it was round and green nonetheless. Bilbo turned the knob.

There were not very many pegs for visitors’ cloaks by the door. Bilbo assumed that this was because there was no weather inside of a mountain and one did not need to wear a coat to go visiting. Instead of her mother’s glory box there was a dwarven chest set with jewels. There were no doilies, and the throws were all woven blankets with dwarven patterns. Other than that, however.

“Mum! It is our sitting room,” Acorn cried, skipping about and inspecting all of the furniture and the fireplace. Bilbo was sure that if she took a ruler and measured everything, the layout of the room would be exactly identical to the sitting room at Bag End, from the curved eaves to the amount of stuffing in the arm chair. She stared. The dwarves had only visited her home once. It seemed impossible that any of them could have remembered the layout so precisely.

Bursting with curiosity, Acorn dashed out of the room. “It is our kitchen, too!” she called. “Only the window is not a window, I don’t think. It’s more beautiful than our window, though. It’s all colored glass with a picture of a bird and some flowers. Come and see!”

Slowly, half dazed, Bilbo made her way to the kitchen. As Acorn said, everything from the stove to the sink to the little table was exactly as things were at home in Bag End. If the ironwork was a little more elaborate, that was only to be expected. Light shone through a stained glass window over the sink, exactly where the window in Bilbo’s kitchen happened to be.

“That cannot be sunlight,” she said, for they were deep within the mountain and hobbits had a good sense of direction underground.

“Only a lamp,” Thorin said gruffly. “There is a switch on the wall to shade it if the light is bothersome for any reason.”

“Bothersome!” Bilbo laughed, feeling tears in the corners of her eyes. “Thorin, this is incredible! How did you ever manage it?”

Looking down, as though he did not wish to meet her eyes, the king said, “There are no guest rooms within your chambers. And only one pantry.”

“Well that hardly matters,” Bilbo said. “All of my friends who might visit seem to have rooms of their own just down the hall.” She could not seem to stop smiling. All around her there was proof that Thorin wanted her near. That he thought of her beyond the occasional letter.

Acorn finished her careful inspection of all of the kitchen cabinets, stole an apple from the bowl on the counter, and dashed away. Dis trailed after her indulgently, but Bilbo caught Thorin by the hand. He stayed with her in the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” Bilbo asked. “I thought you wanted us here.”

“I do,” he said. Wide, earnest eyes met hers as he took her other hand. “More than anything. It is only that these rooms are unfinished. I have not—your presence would never be unwelcome, but that you should come so suddenly, that I would not have time to make some final adjustments to things here, was unexpected. I beg you to forgive my neglect.”

Bilbo laughed again, though she could see that he was serious. Thorin was always far too serious. “I can find it in my heart to forgive you for the added decorations. Dwarven flourishes are a bit extravagant by Shire standards, but as you have resisted the impulse to cover everything in gold and gemstones, I believe I will adjust.” Arching up on her toes, the hobbit pressed a kiss to the dwarf’s beard.

She would have caught his lips, except he turned away at the last minute. Of course he did. There were a thousand reasons why kissing was a bad idea. Just because Bilbo couldn’t think of any at the moment didn’t mean those reasons disappeared.

“Mum!” Acorn’s voice was bright and excited. “Come see my room! My bed is carved with acorns, just for me!”

Entwining her fingers with Thorin’s, Bilbo pulled him along to see Acorn’s room. When they stopped in the doorway, though, she suddenly understood his hesitance. And his apology.

Shoved in a corner there was a bed, carved with acorns and oak leaves as promised, with soft blankets and several pillows. Along the surrounding walls there were shelves decorated with a few knicknacks, though Bilbo knew they would soon fill up with Acorn’s toys and projects. In the other corner there was a wardrobe, just barely fit between bookshelves. Wedging the furniture in this way was necessary because the best portion of the room was given over to a large desk.

Acorn sat on a stool with a sort of a corkscrew that lifted her up and down as she spun around. When she spun far to the left, her hands could reach the desk. When she spun far to the right, her toes could touch the floor. Dis watched the child indulgently as she tested the little chair.

Bilbo dropped Thorin’s hand. It burned. He always burned like dragonfire, yet somehow she always forgot the pain.

“Look, Mum,” Acorn said, pulling out several clever drawers from the desk. “I can keep all of my beads in here and work on my projects!”

“You cannot bead there, seedling,” Bilbo said, as calmly as she could. “That is a writing desk.”

Acorn frowned. “I know I must practice my writing,” she said. “I do not want to be an illiterate Biffin, but surely sometimes I may bead. I have all of the pretty beads King Thorin gave me, which you would not let me play with while we were travelling, even though I would have been very careful and not lost them. But now we are not travelling. And I am going to make you a new hairpin since you did lose the hairpin that I gave you for my birthday. Please, Mum?”

Taking her daughter by the shoulders, Bilbo bent down to kiss her forehead. “Of course you must work on all of your projects, dearest. You know how much I love your creations. Only you will find working at this desk difficult. It is slanted to make writing easy, but your beads will roll off right into your lap.”

The whole room was designed for writing. From the copious bookshelves to the massive shelves to the little cubby holes for maps and scrolls, this was a place for a grown hobbit to write. Not a child’s bedroom. Every inch of the beautiful guest apartment was designed to welcome Bilbo. No place was intended for Acorn.

Acorn inspected the ridge along the base of the writing desk. “I could probably still work on my beads here if I am careful,” she said. “But may I also use the sitting room please. I promise to pick up after myself every time and not make a mess like a pig sty.”

“Of course you may.” Bilbo smiled at her daughter. “Just remember we are guests here, so it is extra important to pick up after yourself.”

Nodding, Acorn bounced off the stool and went over to Dis. “Thank you very much for having us to stay. I like my room lots. And I do like writing. I practice every day, and not just because my mum makes me. I do not want to be an illiterate Biffin.”

“You are very welcome here, Acorn Baggins,” Dis said.

Bilbo appreciated the lie.

Chapter Text

Bilbo would not forgive Thorin for failing to craft a proper room for Acorn. As she should not. He had a brief window to prove worthy of fatherhood, and he could not manage even the most miniscule portion of that duty. A father who could not offer his child a home was no father at all.

Bilbo came to the feasts and dances. She smiled when he offered Acorn tours of the many sights of Erebor. She even seemed to enjoy these activities. Yet she did not take his hand again. Whenever the hobbit tired she would take the arm of Bofur, or Fili, or Dis, or anyone else who was not Thorin. A kind observer might suggest she was preserving the illusion of his honor by not embracing him publicly. Thorin knew better. After seeing the hastily converted study which Acorn was expected to sleep in, Bilbo did not grant Thorin the slightest touch.

It was right to refuse her offered kiss when he knew she was about to be disappointed.

He should have kissed her anyway. He would not get another chance.

Dis had little patience with his moping.

“You weakened that foundation yourself,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Ignoring a mistake does not erase it from your past.”

“Leave me,” Thorin commanded. His sister ignored him.

“Yes. You shamed yourself and the line of Durin by giving of yourself before marriage. It is a ridiculous, old fashioned custom. After all, I was not shamed by conceiving Fili before marrying his father.”

Thorin blinked at Dis. Of course such a thing was no shame for a dam, yet it was still somewhat surprising. After all, it was not particularly kind to the dwarf involved.

She shrugged. “Vili was not nobly born like you. Things are different for dwarves with less of a lineage to protect, and he knew I was his one love.”

Thorin looked away, studying the ancient map of Erebor on his wall. “Your relationship was different in other ways, as well.”

Snorting, Dis said. “Of course, all is forgiven if a dwarf manages to marry before the child is born. Believe me, brother, if anyone else impugned your honor in such a way, I’d force her to marry you at sword point. However, if the accounts I have heard of the Battle of Five Armies are correct, Bilbo’s departure is perhaps not entirely astounding.”

“You need not remind me of my failures,” Thorin snarled.

“Oh, I know that,” she said. “You do very well recounting them on your own. Even so, I feel I must state the primary one, as you keep making it. Acorn exists.” Very slowly, as though speaking with an idiot, she added, “Children are important to their mothers.”

“I can have you horsewhipped,” Thorin said, wishing it were so.

“Truly, you are the leader our grandfather always predicted you would be.”

“Our grandfather was mad.”

“A weakness of our line. If you can face that, you can face this. You cannot plaster over your mistakes. That is how you wind up with a nursery that ought to be a study. You can only accept them and move on.”

The lethargy left Thorin at once. He was on his feet before deciding to stand. “You cannot mean such a thing. I will never love another. Bilbo is all to me.”

“Obviously,” Dis said. “I am not talking about Bilbo. I am talking about Acorn. Do you want a relationship with the child?”

Slumping back down into his chair, Thorin gave the only answer he could. “That is not for me to decide.”

“Tailings,” she said. “Fatherhood is not for you to decide. Bofur is not her father. Dwalin is not her father. Both of them seem very close to the girl.”

“It makes Bilbo nervous when I attempt to bond. At times, I thought it pleased her, but now I think she only fears that I will try to take the child for my own.”

For a moment, a sharp breath was all the answer Dis gave. The line of Durin would never behave so dishonorably. Sadly, the abhorrent crime of a father laying claim to a child not willingly shared by a mother was well known in the Blue Mountains. Children were so rare, and so precious.

“Only action will prove that you are above such a thing,” Dis said firmly. “Forget Bilbo, if you can, and answer me.”

“Yes,” Thorin said. “I wish to know the child. I would wish to know her were she any child of my Company. She’s a bright, willful lass. One day she may be great. She certainly has the makings of a warrior, according to Dwalin, and you know he is not given to flattery.”

“Then focus on that. You cannot win Bilbo. If gifts and gold could win your hobbit, she would never have left in the first place. If she was the flighty sort to fall for a dramatic gesture, you would have returned from your daring rescue with a wife. Honestly, that she considers you only on your own merits is greatly to her credit. She would make a fine queen, but that is not for you to decide. She will decide, as is proper, in her own time.”

“I am not good at sitting idle,” Thorin said.

Dis laughed for an excessively long time at that. “Are you not?” she asked finally. “I must have been confusing you with some other King Under the Mountain.”

“I can have you exiled,” he threatened.

“Fili would overthrow you in a heartbeat. If you are going to start a civil war, focus on your illegitimate child. At least that would have a certain air of romance.”

“And you do not think it will offend Bilbo? Could showing an interest in the child at so late a date make her depart Erebor entirely to be rid of me? My pursuit of her has already been overt and unseemly.”

Dis gave him the look she saved for Thorin at his stupidest and pewter cutlery. “No,” she said.

Of course Thorin knew she was right. Forgetting Bilbo and focusing on the child who did not yet hate him was the correct course. Acorn seemed to like him. Indeed, the lass was eager to like every dwarf she met. Already she enjoyed his music, his attention, and his stories about Erebor. However, spending time with her was more difficult than Dis believed. Bilbo did not like to leave the child alone with Thorin.

One would not notice at first. The burglar was as subtle as she was polite. It took Thorin days of touring and feasting to realize that the hobbit consistently intercepted any attempt the child made to touch him. Somehow this sudden comprehension hurt even more than Bilbo’s own reluctance to take his arm.

If the intricate dance of the great forges amazed Acorn, Thorin’s own private forge interested her even more. The fauntling dashed about the room inspecting every piece of equipment, questions bubbling out of her like molten ore from a smelting vat. Bilbo made no move to restrain this curiosity and watched her daughter fondly. It was only when the girl skipped back to the adults that the hobbit took Acorn’s hand. The child stayed next to Bilbo instead of reaching for Thorin, but she still addressed him as boldly as anything.

“Will you teach me to forge something please, King Thorin?”

Delighted, Thorin proclaimed it would be his honor.

“Another time, perhaps,” Bilbo said. “We are promised to Gloin’s family for lunch in half an hour.”

“But Mum,” Acorn protested, “I want to work in the forge. Mister Balin says that dwarves like to forge things because Mahal, the father of all dwarves, makes our hearts in a forge and part of us remembers it.”

Bilbo looked torn, so Thorin intervened. “If you are promised,” he said gravely, “you must keep your word.”

Acorn frowned.

“Or would you rather go without lunch today?” Bilbo asked lightly.

“Well no,” Acorn said. “We must have some lunch. We have not had anything at all since elevenses. Can we come back after lunch?”

While Acorn had the lucky blue eyes of Durin’s line, she was most assuredly her mother’s daughter. The child needed meals on a hobbit’s schedule and was still far too thin from being so long without them.

“We shall see,” Bilbo said. “King Thorin is very busy with matters of state. It may be that someone else will have to teach you, but I’m sure we can find a willing dwarf. As you say, all of them seem to know a bit about the topic.”

“Alright,” the child said agreeably. Neither hobbit seemed to notice how this cut Thorin to the quick, though Bilbo was so very good at hiding her malice behind a polite smile. “Thank you for showing us your forge, King Thorin. I had a very nice time.” Then she skipped away without waiting for an answer.

Resisting the urge to offer Bilbo his arm, Thorin clasped his hands behind his back and walked beside her in the child’s wake. “This afternoon?” he asked.

“We’ll find someone else to give her a lesson.” Bilbo’s smile was tight, and she kept her eyes on Acorn’s back. “Fili is rather good, I believe.”

Thorin bowed his head. Fili was among the best goldsmiths in Erebor, a much more honorable trade than a blacksmith like Thorin. Even so. “Would you entertain a counteroffer?” he asked. Dwarven politics did not have much room for compromise, but as a king he was very skilled at bargaining.

Bilbo looked at him without turning her head. So she would hear him, at least.

“Fili will be the one to escort Acorn from your chambers to the forges and home again. He will remain for the duration of the lesson to ensure that I do not retain custody of the child as you fear. I will teach Acorn the basics of the craft, but you will not see me. Neither today nor tomorrow will you suffer my presence.”

Bilbo stopped walking and met his eyes. “Let me see if I understand,” she said. Her face was blank, and he could not gauge how much the proposition interested her. “You want to be the one to teach Acorn, and in exchange for this privilege you are offering me your absence?”

Suddenly Thorin was the one who could not look upon Bilbo’s face. “I know that you have greatly desired it of late,” he admitted. With a voice that was scarcely more than a whisper, he added, “I will offer three days. In addition to the remainder of today. If you will allow me to see the child at times when she is in the custody of others.”

When Bilbo finally answered, her tone was high and a little hoarse. “Alright,” she said.

So three days without the annoyance of his constant pursuit was enough to tempt her into a concession. That was very valuable information. They continued walking. Thorin forcibly restrained himself from offering Bilbo his arm again and destroying the tentative peace.

“I don’t understand you at all!” Bilbo stopped walking and threw her hands in the air. “What makes you think I would want any of that? It’s entirely ludicrous.”

Before Thorin could press his case, perhaps by offering a fourth day when Bilbo could be free of him, they were interrupted. Acorn was back with them, having turned around and closed her lead with impressive speed.

“Mum?” The child reached for her mother’s hand and Bilbo gave it at once. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, seedling.” Bilbo’s shoulders collapsed, the angry fire in her eyes extinguished by the presence of her daughter. “All is well. Better than well. Thorin and I have just agreed that he will give you your lesson in blacksmithing this afternoon. I shall bring you back to his forge in two hours?”

The question was not intended for Acorn, so Thorin nodded, a little surprised that Bilbo would agree to encounter him again when he offered a reprieve.

“Oh, good,” Acorn said, peering up at her mother through squinted eyes.

“Yes,” Bilbo said testily. “It is very good indeed. I shall see you then, Thorin.” Then she tugged on Acorn’s hand and began moving very quickly, clearly intent on leaving the king behind.

Thorin did not follow. There was no reason to escort the pair through the safe halls of Erebor. Anyway, Gloin’s chambers were not far. “Until then,” he murmured.

Bilbo probably heard him. The king certainly heard her grumbling under her breath as she walked away. “That dwarf,” she muttered. “As if I was afraid to face him or something.”

He was a fool not to realize she would interpret his offer as implied cowardice. If Bilbo truly did not want to see him, she could manage it easily by slamming doors in his face or simply avoiding him. So that was another failure where Bilbo was concerned. However, the conversation could be considered a qualified success in other ways. Acorn would learn the basics of smithing from Thorin. She would also likely hear a litany of Thorin’s faults from her mother before so doing, but the king would be allowed to give a lesson.

It was better than nothing.

In fact, it was much better. If Bilbo was stiff and cold when she left Acorn with Thorin, the child was the embodiment of enthusiasm. She clearly wanted to get to work right away, but was happy to put on an apron and listen seriously to a lecture on safety.

“I will be very careful,” she promised, smiling up at him.

“Good.” Thorin returned the smile, tying his own apron strings. As he was naturally gifted with the firetouch, Thorin did not need the added protection, but when working with children the example given often taught more than the words said.

“What will we make?” Acorn asked.

“I thought to leave that choice to you,” he said. “Within reason.”

“A present for Mum,” she declared at once. “I have not made her any presents in a real long time. It’s unfair. Everyone gives me lots of presents.”

“Very well. What sort of present?”

“Horseshoes!” the fauntling declared.

Thorin blinked. “The horseshoe is a fine piece to begin your study with. It is simple and useful. A good farrier can always find work. But your mother has no mount.” At once Thorin added, “So I shall gift her one to accompany your own present, of course.”

Acorn’s giggle was a delightful noise. “Not horseshoes for wearing, silly. Horseshoes for throwing. Mum always wins at horseshoes, and if she had a set, we could play with all of our friends. We have lots of friends in Erebor to play with, you know.”

“Ah.” Thorin was familiar with the game in a general sort of way. It was popular enough in the villages of men where Thorin used to find work. Old horseshoes were thrown at a peg in the ground. The goal was to strike the peg in such a way that the shoe did not bounce off, but remained hooked. “So we are to make a set. A fine way to practice the craft. I believe six is the usual number?”

“Yes,” Acorn said. “Each person has to throw three on their turn. If you only have three, then you have to walk back and forth all the time. Hamfast’s Gaffer used to only have three, so we always had to walk so much when we played, which is very slow. But then Mum found him three more. Only she did not really find them, she bought them for him at the market, but that is a secret.”

“Very well,” Thorin said. “Your mother will begin with a set of six. So you and I will begin with a steel bar.”

First he showed her how to heat the iron in the forge, how to cool both ends in the bucket, and bend the hot center of the bar around the horn of the anvil. Then he demonstrated the best way to hammer the shoe into shape on the anvil, reheating it to make grooves, and using the hardy hole to punch space for the nails. “One for each of the seven fathers of the dwarves,” he told her.

“But we are not going to nail it to anything,” she objected.

“Nevertheless,” Thorin said, “It is bad luck to make a shoe in any other way. And it would fly differently without the holes.”

Nodding her acceptance, she took the cool, completed shoe in her little hands. It was the size Thorin would use on a small pony, of the sort the Company rode on their journey from the Shire to the Misty Mountains. It seemed just right for a hobbit to play games with.

Acorn grinned and selected a steel bar of her own to begin working with.

Thorin guided her hands carefully as she made the second shoe. On the third shoe, he helped her with the tongs as she heated the iron, and in punching the holes, which caused sparks and flares in the hot metal. When she made the fourth shoe, he only needed to aid her with the hole punch. The fifth shoe was crafted under his watchful eye, but without his assistance. Finally, he left her alone to make the sixth shoe, moving to a different part of the forge to make two steel pegs, one topped with a perfect sphere and the other topped with steel shaped like a faceted gem.

The sixth shoe was the most perfect, of course. Acorn really was a quick learner. Thorin was reluctant to end the lesson, but the hour was late and he could hear the fauntling’s stomach rumble.

“Very well done indeed,” the dwarf said, placing all of the shoes in a wooden box with the two pegs. “May I be permitted to carry the set?”

Acorn giggled again. “You are a king,” she said. “You can do anything you want.”

“If only that were so.” Thorin sighed. “A king is more bound by the rule of law and society than anyone. A king’s first duty must always be to the people, not her own will.” Then he shook himself. That was not a lesson Bilbo’s daughter needed. “In either case, we must go,” he said. “Your mother will be missing you.”

“I wonder what we will be having for supper,” Acorn said, skipping ahead. “Maybe she has made some bread for us. Mum bakes the best bread in the whole world. Or maybe we will be having some fish from the lake. Mum always puts lemon on her fish, and that is very nice, but sometimes I like my fish with salt and pepper. What is your favorite food, King Thorin? Mine is cake. Or if I cannot choose a sweet, potato soup.”

Thorin agreed that potato soup was good and filling, though like most dwarves he was partial to a fine roast.

Roast, it just so happened, was what Bilbo brought steaming from the oven moments after welcoming her daughter to their chambers.

“Oh!” Acorn said. “That is King Thorin’s favorite, you know!”

“Well then he will have to stay for dinner,” Bilbo said. “Now go wash up. Your hands and face are filthy.”

There were three places set at the table. Thorin did not understand the hobbit. He was sure that she wished for him to cease his constant pursuit of her affection.

“If you are going to stay for dinner, you had best wash your hands as well,” she said, depositing the roast on the table and pulling other warm dishes from the stovetop.

Thorin obeyed. He was not foolish enough to neglect such an invitation.

Chapter Text

Acorn loved Erebor. All of the ceilings were so tall that she had to look up and up and up to see the sculptures there. And there were always sculptures or interesting carvings or beautiful tiles everywhere she looked. The streets were wonderfully smooth under her feet, and she only sometimes stubbed her toes on the stone furniture. Most of all she liked the people.

Every dwarf she met was different, of course. Acorn would not call them kind as a rule. Dwalin, for instance, was often very mean. He made her run for hours and hours before they could play with their axes, and sometimes they didn’t do any of the fun positions at all. But sometimes when she dreamed about Bill or the orcs, she needed to check on him to make sure that he was alright. So she would walk with Mum down the little corridor that lead to his apartments, and he would always be awake, though sometimes in his nightshirt. Then they would drink tea or warm milk with cinnamon from his golden cups, and Acorn would fall back to sleep with her head on Dwalin’s lap and Mum’s voice in her ears.

Perhaps Dwalin was kind, just not always nice. But most of the dwarves were nice, kind, friendly, and every other good thing besides. Dwarves she did not even know would bow to her in the street, call her Miss Baggins, and wink whenever she caught their eye. It was so very different from the Hobbiton shopkeepers who pretended not to see her.

And there were friends.

At first, Acorn thought that Astrid in Dale was special. She was not a Took, a Brandybuck, or an adult, but she still wanted to play dolls with Acorn. Upon arriving in Erebor, however, Acorn quickly learned that there were lots of children who wanted to play with her. At the feast on the very first night, there was a special dance floor just for children. They welcomed Acorn into their number joyfully, teaching her the dances and the words to the songs.

One boy with a round face and ruddy red hair stepped on her toes during a lively part of the music. Given the great clunky weights that dwarflings wore, Acorn felt she could be forgiven for wincing a bit. Such a small reaction surely didn’t warrant the lad in question stopping, staring at her feet, and then proclaiming loudly, “You need boots!”

Acorn knew how to answer boys who said that sort of thing. She punched him in the mouth.

The dwarfling did not fall down the way a Hobbiton fauntling would, nor run away to tell his mother. Instead, he put a hand on his cheek, feeling for a bruise. “Do you want to fight?” he asked, tilting his head to one side. The question was curious, not threatening.

Since she was still angry about the insult, not to mention hurt from where he stepped on her foot, Acorn said, “You bet I do,” and launched herself at him.

The boy was very good at fighting, but he hadn’t been taking lessons with Dwalin. Acorn was faster and knew more about where to strike. For every blow he managed to land on her, she got in two good hits. Given that, she ought to have knocked him down quickly. Unfortunately, he was much stronger than she was, and each of his strikes was likely worth two of hers.

All the other children gathered in a ring around them, shouting helpful advice.

“Hit him in the eye,” someone yelled. “He can’t hit you if he’s blinded.”

“Pull her hair,” another child called. “She hasn’t got it braided!”

“Break it up,” a deeper, louder voice bellowed. Strong arms wrapped around Acorn’s waist, pulling her away from the fight. She saw that Bofur was holding her. Bombur, who was the one to shout, had her opponent similarly restrained. Unlike Acorn, the lad didn’t struggle at all, and seemed content to stop fighting. She wondered if that counted as a win. She would certainly like to fight some more.

“Acorn Belladonna Baggins!” Mum snatched her away from Bofur and set her on the ground, staring down at her, hard. “What do you think you’re doing? Fighting at a party! Explain. Now.”

“A son of mine,” Bombur howled. “Attacking a guest of Erebor! Attacking a wee little hobbit lass! That’s the way you prove your worth, eh? That’s the honor you bring to my house?”

“She attacked me,” the boy said plaintively. So he was the type to whine to his father after all.

“He said I needed boots!” Acorn told her mother, because two could play that game.

Bilbo sighed. “I am sorry, Bombur. I suspect the fault does lie squarely in our corner on this one. Acorn has always been very sensitive about her feet.” Turning to the boy, she added kindly, “Hobbits do not need shoes. Hobbit feet are as tough as dwarven heads. We may be a little bit different, but we’re each strong in our own ways, okay?”

The boy was going to tattle. Acorn could see it in his eyes when he looked down at her small, hairless toes. He was going to insist that Acorn did need shoes because her feet were hurt when someone stepped on them. Worse yet, Mum would probably make Acorn wear them if she knew that Acorn stubbed her toes sometimes on the furniture.

“I said it made her dress look silly, too,” the boy lied. “That without boots she looked like she’d forgotten to get dressed before leaving home.”

“These are the manners I have given to my son, shaming my fathers?” Bombur said mournfully. “That he should greet a guest with an insult instead of his name?”

The boy stepped up to Acorn, meeting her eyes squarely. “I am Guntur, son of Bombur, and I’m very sorry for insulting your feet. I did not know they were a hobbit’s pride.”

Acorn took his hand and shook it in the Shire fashion. “Acorn, daughter of Bilbo, at your service, and I’m sorry, too. I should not have hit you.” She kissed his cheek where a purple bruise was just starting to show. “Friends?”

He grinned. “Friends.”

So it was that Acorn and Guntur became fast friends indeed. Anytime she was not practicing with Dwalin or working in the forge with King Thorin, she was playing with Guntur. He liked to make projects, too. Although she needed to teach him how to sew and crochet, he was very good at beading and painting already. He also had lots and lots of toys because Bofur was his uncle, and Bofur made the best toys. Many days were spent building towers and fortifications out of Gunter’s blocks, waging great wars between orcs and dwarven soldiers which paused for teatime and only ended at dinner.

Everything was more fun when Guntur came along.

Mum liked the horseshoes Acorn made with King Thorin so much that she brought them to Dale the very next time they went to visit. Because Acorn asked nicely and Guntur did all of his figuring lessons correctly first thing in the morning, he was invited to accompany them.

Guntur was terrible at horseshoes. He always threw the shoe much too far or several paces too short, squinting the entire time. Astrid was much better. She tended to score about the same as Acorn, so they both did their best to help Guntur and show him how to aim. Meanwhile, King Bard and Mum were both ringers. Neither of them missed the peg once, and finally they had to call their own game a draw to break for lunch.

It was a lovely meal, made much more fun by Astrid’s little brother Bart. He was so small that he could only eat porridge, applesauce, and other soft foods. He made quite a mess of it, and needed help. Astrid’s mother, Sigrid, said that since Acorn had the nicest manners of any child she’d ever met, Acorn could help the baby. So in addition to eating herself, Acorn fed the baby with his spoon and made funny faces at him. Bart made faces back, even sticking out his tongue just as Acorn did. Acorn liked him very much, even if he was messy.

After lunch, Acorn, Guntur, and Astrid were allowed to go play outside. The summer sun was high and the streets of Dale were bustling with busy merchants, but the trio decided that fields and flowers were more interesting. Guntur could not name a single blossom, but he was very good at weaving necklaces and crowns once Acorn and Astrid taught him how. They found a patch of wild strawberries, which was very lucky, and ate so many they did not need to go home for tea at all.

Flopping on the ground, sated and sleepy in the sunlight, Acorn said, “We shall all always be friends, forever, won’t we? Even when I must go back to the Shire?”

“Through all the perils of this world and into the halls of our fathers,” Guntur said stoutly.

“Exactly,” Astrid agreed. “Look at your mother and my grandfather,” she added. “They have not seen each other in ever so long, but they are still friends.”

“Good,” Acorn said. “It is nice having friends. When I am grown up, I am going to be an adventurer, so I shall travel back and forth between Erebor and the Shire twice a year. We will not need to go such a very long time without seeing each other.”

Astrid laughed. “Well, I am going to be a fisherman when I grow up,” she said. “I will take my boat all the way down the River Running and you may ride in it to get to Erebor more quickly.”

Acorn shuddered with delight. “Of course I will,” she said. “When I am big, I will not be at all afraid to ride on a boat. I shall be very brave. What are you going to be when you grow up, Guntur?”

“A scribe,” he said. He did not sound very happy about it.

“That sounds fun,” Acorn said diplomatically. “Mister Ori is a scribe, and he makes those lovely picture books.”

“I will not make picture books,” Guntur said. “I will keep accounts and make money while other people do all of the interesting things.”

“Okay,” Acorn said slowly. “Why do you want to do that?”

“I don’t.” Guntur’s eyes were closed and his face was scrunched up. He was not looking up at the clouds with them at all. Then he sighed. “I do, of course I do. I’m the first in my family with a chance at a proper apprenticeship, you know. Something dignified. My older siblings were not afforded the same opportunities I have now. That is why Bondur is a miner, Brissa is an apprentice cook, and Dara is apprenticed to a weaver. They did not have a proper education like I am getting now that our family is a noble one.”

“But that is only what people say you must do,” Acorn said reasonably. “That is like my Aunt Lobelia telling me all the time that I must get married when I grow up and not follow my mother’s example. It is very silly to listen to people like that. What do you want to do? Would you like to be a weaver? You are very good at crochet for only learning a few days ago.”

Guntur opened his eyes and smiled at Acorn. “What would you like me to do? Go on adventures with you?”

“Oh, yes please!” Acorn said. “The three of us can go on adventures together. Er, we do not have to take Astrid’s boat every time, do we?”

Astrid laughed and sat up. “Not today, for pirates have stolen it away!”

“Well, we must get it back then,” Guntur said, bouncing to his feet.

“Follow me,” Acorn cried, plucking a daisy to use as a weapon. Together, the three of them raced through the meadow, fighting invisible pirates and championing the cause of justice.

That night, Acorn gingerly treated a small scrape on her heel from when she’d been a bit overzealous about racing over some rough rocks. Mum asked her if she was alright, and of course Acorn was. Hobbits did not cut their feet. Only, sometimes Acorn did.

“Astrid and Guntur both wear boots,” Acorn told her mother while they were having a little supper before getting ready for bed.

“Indeed they do. Very fashionable in this part of the world,” Mum said sagely, piling a few more green beans onto Acorn’s plate.

Acorn did not like green beans as much as other things, but she must have vegetables because they were good for her. “Have you ever tried to wear boots?”

Mum smiled. “Do you promise to keep a secret?”

“Of course!”

“I tried once. I think I am too old to learn the trick of it, though. They were so heavy! I kept tripping over my own feet and falling down. I’m just not clever enough to manage it.”

“You are clever enough for anything,” Acorn objected. “And it cannot be as hard as you say. All of the dwarves and Big Folk do it.”

“Hah!” Mum tossed her head back and raised her glass to Acorn. “I dare you to try it. If you can manage to wear boots for one week without falling on your face, you and Guntur may have a sleepover. You can stay up as late as you like playing games, and we shall have deserts with every meal.”

“You’ll regret that!” Acorn crowed. “I can do anything for a week, easy, and we shall have ice cream as well as cake! We have not had ice cream at all since my birthday.”

They shook on the bargain, and it was not until the next morning when Acorn’s poor tender foot was coddled in leather and soft fur that the fauntiling wondered how successful she’d really been at hiding the injury from her mother.

Boots were wonderful. They did take some getting used to, but once Acorn became accustomed to the weight, her feet were not so cold all the time. She never banged her toes or scraped her heels when she was wearing them. And since Mum was the only person in Erebor who did not wear shoes, it was not strange for Acorn to do so.

Indeed, all of the dwarves complimented her boots a great deal. Balin said dressing in the style of the land she was visiting was most sagacious and that Acorn would make a great diplomat one day. The fauntling did not know what sagacious meant, but she liked sage on chicken, so she was well pleased by the compliment. Dwalin said it was smart for her to start getting used to armor and protective clothing. When they had their fighting lesson, he had her wear some leather guards on her arms and legs so that she could feel the weight and how it restricted her movement.

By far the dwarf who was most overjoyed at the prospect of Acorn wearing boots was Dori. The tailor immediately produced dozens of little boots in different colors and styles to match all of her dresses, exclaiming over how sweet she looked in all of them. Acorn had to admit, some of the boots were just as nice as the beautiful dresses, and they hid her small, ugly feet very well.

In other words, Acorn handily won the bet. Which meant that she and Guntur had a wonderful visit where they could play all day and no one had to do any lessons. After tag, cards, and blocks, they sat quietly making friendship bracelets out of beads. Then Guntur said very quietly, “This is what I like to do.”

Acorn grinned at him. “I like playing with you, too!”

“No.” The little dwarfling frowned down at his beadwork, slipping the needle back and changing the pattern by a few beads before continuing. “I do like playing with you. You’re my best friend. But I mean this. Making pretty things. If I could do anything, I would want to be a jeweler.”

“Then you must be a jeweler,” Acorn said excitedly. “We can open a shop together. I will talk to the customers, you can do the figuring, and we can both make the jewelry. I bet King Thorin would give us a storefront in the Great Marketplace, since our parents were part of his Company.”

“Sure,” Guntur said. So they finished their bracelets and got out all the other things Acorn had made so far with the jewels King Thorin gave her. Guntur appraised them carefully and made up a price list. Then Mum agreed to come out of the kitchen after putting the casserole in the oven. She was their first customer, and haggled a great deal, but finally bought up most of their inventory. It was an excellent game, and Guntur was staying for dinner after, which was even better.

They had ice cream for dessert. Guntur had never eaten ice cream before, and he loved it. In fact, he had three sundaes all by himself, which was just fine. Storing ice cream was impossible, so they had to eat it all up before it turned to soup. Acorn and Mum each had two.

All three of them played cards together after that, which was more fun than anything. Mum knew all the best card games, but she did not always win. Guntur, in particular, was very good a figuring in his head. When a game involved deciding whether or not to draw a card for a better hand, he had a lot to say about chances and odds. Acorn didn’t really believe him, because if it was some kind of dwarf magic, she should be able to do it too, but she couldn’t argue with the results. He won those games far more often than not.

After a while, Mum left the children alone to play snap peas, a game of her own invention, so that she could set up a cot in Acorn’s bedroom for Guntur to sleep in.

“You said we would not have a bedtime,” Acorn complained, when Mum said the cot was ready.

“And indeed you shall not,” Mum said. “You met your challenge, and we had a deal. However, the bed is there for whenever you decide you would like to hear some stories.”

That was very different. Acorn always wanted to hear Mum’s stories, and she could tell by her mother’s smile that she had a very good one in mind. Guntur yawned.

“I would not mind a bedtime story,” he said. So they put on their night shirts and washed up for bed. Then Mum told them the tale of the invention of golf, which was an excellent story, full of beheadings and one of Acorn’s ancestors on the Took side. Guntur loved it, and Acorn was surprised by bits she had not heard before.

“Would you like another story?” Mum asked when the first was finished.

Guntur yawned again. Acorn could not help doing the same. “Perhaps we shall close our eyes for just a minute,” the fauntling suggested.

“Alright.” Mum kissed Acorn on her forehead. “You two feel free to talk as much as you like. After all, there is no bedtime tonight.”

“I’m too sleepy to talk,” Guntur said. Before he fell asleep, however, he looked shyly up at Acorn’s mother. “You will not tell my father, will you?” he asked quietly. “About me playing store?”

Mum looked thoughtful and a little sad. Then she said, “No. Not unless you want me to.”

“Why can’t your father know about you playing store?” she whispered to Guntur in the dark.

The only answer she received was a soft snore. It had been a wonderful day, but a long one. Deciding to ask again in the morning, she closed her own eyes and went to sleep.

Of course, Acorn had to go and ruin everything by dreaming about that horrible Bill. Even on the best days, he would turn up in her nightmares with his awful gap-toothed smile and his cruel iron sword. Fortunately, Mum’s face soon replaced his, shaking Acorn awake as she struggled and fought the terrible man.

Acorn looked at the cot. Guntur was still asleep, though his brow was furrowed and a little frown creased the corners of his mouth. Silently, she raised her arms, and her mother carried her out into the sitting room.

“Would you like to go see Mister Dwalin?” Mum asked. “I am sure we would not disturb him. You know he is always happy to see you, at any time.”

“No.” Acorn wiped her tears away with her mother’s handkerchief. “We cannot leave Guntur.”

“He is fast asleep, and will be just fine if we take our leave for a little while.”

“I don’t want to,” the fauntling said stubbornly. Her mother’s arms tightened around her and they both stared at the low fire in the grate. Instead of talking about her dream, Acorn broke the silence by asking Mum why Guntur could not grow up and be a jeweler if he liked.

Stroking Acorn’s hair gently, Mum said, “The sad truth of growing up is that we cannot always do exactly as we please. Guntur could certainly be a jeweler if he chose, and I am sure Bombur would arrange for an apprenticeship if that is what his son wanted. However, Guntur knows that what would make his father happiest is if he became a great scholar and took a position in court. Now that their family has money and respectability, Bombur wants to know that it will last in future generations. He wants to feel like he has built something.”

“Isn’t being a jeweler respectable?” Acorn asked. “All of the dwarves seem to like jewelry very much. They certainly wear a lot of it.”

“All hobbits love flowers,” Mum said. “Is being a gardener respectable?”

“Oh.” Acorn looked up at the beautifully curved stonework of their ceiling. “I think it is respectable,” she said stoutly. “Hamfast is the nicest tweenager in Hobbiton.”

“I quite agree,” Mum said, kissing Acorn soundly on the forehead. “Try not to worry about Guntur’s future. You are both very young, and it is far away.”

“Mum?” Acorn asked, letting her eyelids drift shut. “What do you want me to be when I grow up?”

“Ah.” Mum’s voice was very soft. “From you, Acorn Baggins, I want the most difficult thing of all. I desire. No. I expect, for you to be happy. Not everyone manages it, you know.”

Acorn laughed. “I love you, Mum,” she said, never opening her eyes.

“As I love you, my dear little sprout, now rest a minute.”

And so she did.

Only, since Guntur was her friend, Acorn did worry about him. Every morning while she was having lots of fun learning how to fight with Dwalin, he was stuck at a writing desk doing sums and copying out questions about history. It was not even fun history about battles, dragons, and ancient kingdoms. Instead, it was the dull sort of history with lots of stuff about people getting married and having second cousins and that sort of thing. Acorn thought only hobbits cared that much about genealogy, but apparently dwarves cared even more, at least when it came to noble folks.

When Acorn thought he did it because he was interested in that sort of thing, like Mum was, she was happy enough not to have to do it with him. However, now that she knew he did not like it any more than she did, Acorn felt in her heart that she must find a way to rescue her friend. Since Mum did not seem inclined to interfere, she needed someone else to help. At once, the perfect person presented himself, right on time for their usual lesson.

“King Thorin,” Acorn asked, taking his hand and smiling up at him as sweetly as she could, “Can my friend Guntur please come to our lesson today? I am sure that he would like to learn how to use a forge as well. After all, he is a dwarf through and through, not only half of one, like me.”

King Thorin frowned, then looked over to Mum. Mum shrugged her shoulders. Grinning at him, she folded her arms over her chest.

“Very well,” King Thorin said. “If that is your wish. Guntur is son of Bombur, and there is no reason for me to treat the child of one member of my Company any differently than the other.”

That meant it was Acorn’s turn to grin. Running down the corridor, she knocked eagerly on the door to Guntur’s home. His mother, Gris, answered the door holding baby Grifur, smiling warmly.

“Hello there, Acorn. We do not usually see you quite this early. Guntur cannot come out to play just yet. He is still working on his lessons.”

“But he must,” Acorn said triumphantly. “King Thorin says so.”

“I do not,” Thorin said, appearing behind her. Acorn looked up at him, feeling quite betrayed, and he amended his words. “It would be helpful for Acorn’s lesson in the forge today if we had another pair of hands. Acorn suggested her friend, but if Guntur is unavailable, I am certain a different assistant can be found.”

Gris bowed. “Of course, your majesty. My son would be honored to aid you in any way he can.” Then she bowed a few more times and rushed away, practically throwing Guntur at them while admonishing him to be on his very best behavior.

Because Acorn knew her friend well, Guntur was not upset by missing his writing practice. Even better, he was positively thrilled to be helping the king with something important. Because Guntur was a stick-in-the-mud who didn’t know what was good for him, he stepped on her foot when she asked King Thorin if they could make some jewelry. Guntur knew that it hurt when people stepped on Acorn’s feet, even through her new boots. She pushed him hard. He scowled.

“I see you are the best of friends, indeed,” King Thorin said.

“My apologies, Your Majesty,” Guntur said immediately, bowing low. “I am here to assist you with the lesson you had planned for Acorn. Not to make jewelry.”

King Thorin looked at Guntur for a very long time. Acorn tried to wave behind his back and indicate that they really ought to make some jewelry or the whole plan would fail, but he didn’t look at her, only Guntur.

“Rise, son of Bombur,” King Thorin said. “I give you leave to address me by name, and we are, indeed, making jewelry today. Acorn has not worked with gold before. Have you?”

Guntur’s eyes were impossibly wide as he looked up at Thorin. “No,” he whispered.

“Very well. Fear not. First, we work in wax, and there is plenty of it to err with.”

Thorin sat them both down at the workbench and showed them how to sculpt the warm, malleable wax with etching tools. It was fun, but not much like blacksmithing. Still, instead of grumbling, Guntur focused on his little sculpture like it was a matter of life and death. Shrugging, Acorn made an acorn. She liked them, and it was fun to draw all the little squares on its cap. When she made a little loop at the top of the cap so that she could hang it like a pendant, King Thorin helped her to make it even enough to support the weight and balance it nicely.

King Thorin did not help Guntur at all, except to point occasionally at some part of the brooch he was carving. Whenever he did, Guntur would smash up that part of his wax and start over, but he didn’t seem angry about it. It took him twice as long to make his brooch as Acorn spent on her bead, but that was alright. King Thorin gave her a snack and showed her how to mix up the plaster for the mold they would make.

By the time Acorn finished her second snack, Guntur was ready. So they covered their wax figures with the plaster and waited for it to set. Once the plaster set, heating it just a little bit melted the wax inside, and they opened little holes in the bottom to let it all pour out. Acorn dribbled hers into a little candle and Guntur made a mountain out of his. King Thorin smiled at them both and put the molds into his special oven to dry them out.

While they were waiting for the molds to bake, King Thorin showed them how to make chain links by wrapping gold wire in tight circles around a rod. Then he ran a hot torch down the rod, cutting the wire into links that could be pinched closed with a little pair of pliers. Guntur liked this just as much as Acorn did, for it was very like beading, even though his brooch would not need a chain.

Soon enough, the molds were ready, and they melted some gold in King Thorin’s crucible and poured it into their molds very carefully. Guntur’s was bigger than Acorn’s, so it took much longer to cool. She was delighted with her acorn and immediately went back to making links enough to hang it on a necklace.

Guntur was less pleased with his brooch. It looked fine to Acorn, until he pointed out the little place at the bottom where the pattern of interweaving squares was off just a bit.

“So what will you do?” King Thorin asked.

Wordlessly, Guntur put his gold brooch back into the crucible to melt. Then he turned to Thorin. “May I please have some more wax?”

King Thorin smiled at Guntur, and helped him get set up to carve more wax. It was different from the way he smiled at Acorn, stronger somehow. He clearly approved very much of Guntur starting over. Acorn inspected her own little gold charm. It was not quite as pretty as the one on her wrist which Kili made.

“Should I start over too?” she asked King Thorin.

Taking her acorn, he inspected it closely. “Why would you?” he asked neutrally. “What would you change?”

“I don’t know,” Acorn said. “The stem could be straighter, probably. The one Kili gave me is nicer.” She lifted up her bracelet to show him.

King Thorin laughed kindly. “Ah, well if your work is not at the same level as a master silversmith who has studied the craft for four times the number of years you have lived so far, naturally you must scrap it and give up right away.”

Rolling her eyes, Acorn took her charm back. Looking at it carefully, she asked the only question that mattered. “Do you think Mum will like it?”

“Oh.” King Thorin’s smile was as warm as the summer sun. Bending down, he pressed his forehead gently to hers. “She will love it, Acorn.”

So Acorn made her chain while Guntur made a second brooch. While he was plastering, Guntur hummed a little to himself. Since she knew the song, Acorn hummed along. King Thorin sang the chorus: “So we toss that out, and we try it again. If dwarves are doing it, we’re doing it right.”

It was a good song.

By the time Acorn finished affixing the clasp to her necklace, Guntur’s brooch was cool. He liked it much better than the first, and kept staring at it, tracing the pattern with his fingertips.

“A gift for your mother?” King Thorin asked.

Guntur flushed and looked up at King Thorin as though he’d been caught doing something naughty. “Oh. Um. Can I? My father will pay you for the gold.”

King Thorin waved a hand regally. “Gold is only another stone until it is worked into something of value. We would all be wise to remember as much.”

“Thank you,” Guntur said, staring at the brooch again. Then he repeated himself twice.

“Come,” King Thorin said to them both. “We must walk Guntur home. It is time for dinner.”

King Thorin’s private forge was not very far from Guntur’s apartment. Both were in the special part of the mountain where only the Company and the Royalty were allowed to be. So perhaps it was not unusual that Guntur did not say anything the whole way, since it was a very short walk.

However, the way King Thorin burst through the door once Guntur’s younger brother opened it for him was very unusual.

“Bombur,” he called. “I hope you have a good table lain. It is a day of celebration!”

“My table is always good,” Bombur said, coming from the kitchen to greet King Thorin. “But if you are sitting at it, my King, we’ll use the better plates. Dara, go tell your mother. What is the occasion?”

“Lo!” Thorin said, “Your son has found his calling.”

Sweeping forward, Bombur lifted Guntur into the air, swinging him around. “My boy has a craft? At so young an age! Guntur! My prodigy! My Erebor born son! What is it? You have been in the forge. Are you a blacksmith like the king? A weapon smith? Tell me the song of your heart, my lad, and we will sing it together.”

Trembling a little, Guntur drew the brooch from his pocket and offered it up to his father.

“Goldsmith, I think,” King Thorin said.

“A goldsmith!” Bombur began to weep and laugh at the same time. “Of course you are. That is why Mahal waited to give you to us until Erebor was retaken. There was precious little gold in the Blue Mountains, I tell you that. Oh, my Erebor boy, my Guntur, a goldsmith. Thorin, you must stay to celebrate. Bondur, open that whisky my brother gave us. For that matter, Brissa, run and fetch your uncle. Your brother has heard his calling!”

It was a wonderful party. Bombur always had a nice, big supper with his family, but he pulled a few more things out of his larder and turned it into a feast. Everyone hugged and kissed Guntur until he blushed and wiped at his cheeks furiously, smiling all the while. After dinner, Bofur started up on his flute and other folks found instruments so there was music as they cleaned up. Guntur and Acorn didn’t have to help at all, so they danced and sang along.

Baby Grifur danced, too. He did not know how to clap his hands, but Acorn taught him, and he was very funny. She liked the way he wiggled and gurgled in time with the music. But mostly she danced with Guntur and the older children.

By the time the dancing ended, Acorn’s feet felt very wobbly, so King Thorin picked her up to carry her home. His shoulder made an excellent pillow.

Chapter Text

“What time do you call this?” Bilbo Baggins put her hands on her hips. She was determined to be annoyed. This was made rather difficult by the adorable sight of her sleepy daughter snuggling up against Thorin’s beard, half veiled by his long hair.

“Very late. My apologies,” Thorin said. “I should have sent word, and we certainly should have departed sooner. In truth, I had not the heart to tear her away from the celebrations.”

“We had a party for Guntur,” Acorn said, not lifting her head from Thorin’s shoulder. “He is going to be a jeweler after all, and his dad was very happy about it.”

“Well, that is lovely, and I am pleased on his behalf.” Bilbo tried not to smile. “But you still must let me know when you are not coming home for supper, seedling. I was worried about you.”

“I’m sorry, Mum.” Acorn blinked slowly, those bright blue eyes mirrored so precisely by the dwarf who held her in his arms. In truth, though Bilbo was annoyed, she had not feared for her daughter’s safety in Thorin’s company. After all, there was no one in the world that Bilbo trusted more.

“I accept your apology,” Bilbo said. “Now go wash up. It’s so far past your bedtime, it’s practically breakfast.”

Smiling under half-lidded eyes, Acorn clambered down from Thorin’s arms and wandered vaguely toward the bathroom. Then she stopped abruptly and darted back to the dwarf. Reaching up, she gave him a hug and a firm kiss on his bearded cheek.

“Thank you for fixing everything, King Thorin. I love you. Good night.”

Any irritation Bilbo still felt was driven away by the sound of those scampering little feet when Acorn bounced off to the bathroom obediently. Turning to Thorin with a smile, Bilbo was astounded to see tears in his eyes.

“I have her love,” he whispered, staring down the hall as though he could see through the closed bathroom door. Then he blinked and looked at Bilbo. “I know I do not deserve it.”

Something in Bilbo broke. Perhaps it was her heart. Perhaps it was only her self control. Stepping forward, she put a hand on his jaw and drew him down into a gentle kiss. This time, he allowed their lips to brush. When he looked down at her, there was a question in his eyes.

Bilbo shrugged. “Just in case you were wondering whether or not you had the set.”

At once Thorin’s arms were around her waist, pulling her into a deeper, more commanding kiss. Clinging to him, Bilbo licked her way into his mouth like the burglar she was, and found herself conquered in turn. Somehow, her back wound up against the sitting room sofa, and Thorin lifted her with his knee between her thighs so that she could sit upon it and meet his lips more conveniently. He tried to draw his leg back after, but she wrapped herself around him more thoroughly, groaning in protest. In answer, he rocked his thigh against her, swallowing her whimpers with his kiss.

There was a quiet sound of running water from the bathroom.

Jerking away from Thorin, Bilbo rolled backward down the couch to escape. Bouncing to her feet, Bilbo held her hands up, gesturing for him to remain on the other side of the furniture. He was so handsome. His blue eyes were wide with surprise. His soft mouth was red from her kisses. Surely one more kiss would be—

“Stay,” Bilbo said. “I have to—” She gestured wildly toward the bathroom. “But don’t you go anywhere. We can—talk. Just let me. Okay.” Spinning around, she strode out of the sitting room. Tripping over her own feet might be undignified, but it was certainly better than letting Thorin have his way with her on the back of a sofa.

Acorn was clean and in her nightshirt, just getting into bed, when Bilbo finally stumbled to the door off her daughter’s bedroom. The little girl smiled sleepily up at her mother. “I do not need a bedtime story today, Mum.”

“Alright seedling. What about a kiss, then?” Acorn acquiesced to this, and then squirmed a little against her pillow, closing her eyes. She was asleep before Bilbo said, “Goodnight.”

It was not cowardice to spend a few minutes in Acorn’s room trying to catch her breath. Bilbo’s body was hot and aching for Thorin’s touch in an all too familiar way. Unfortunately, there was too much at stake to risk giving in to that urge. Thorin was very clear that he couldn’t marry a hobbit or be a father to a halfling child. Which meant giving in to their base nature would be nothing but a scandal. Whether or not Bilbo was better than that, Acorn didn’t deserve that kind of stigma in Erebor. She already suffered enough in Hobbiton.

Returning to the sitting room, Bilbo found Thorin exactly where she’d left him, though he was now standing with his hands folded behind his back looking regal and well put together. She wondered how he managed that. Although she did not check, she was quite certain that her own hair currently looked a mess.

“Right,” she said. “Good. Thank you for waiting.”

Thorin smiled very fondly. Bilbo’s knees almost gave out entirely. “Your daughter deserves your full attention. She is asleep now?”

“Yes.” Bilbo felt suddenly that this fact was too much like permission for them to get back to it. “Because it is very late,” she added quickly. “And you have been drinking. So we should say goodnight. We can talk in the morning, if you’d like.”

Thorin stepped in close and put a gentle hand on Bilbo’s cheek. It was a handsome invitation. “I do not want to say goodnight.”

If that was the case, there was nothing for it. Bilbo kissed him. Then she kissed him again and again and only came to her senses when they arrived at her bedroom door.

“I usually sleep with the door open,” she said, staring at it. “Otherwise, I cannot hear if Acorn has a nightmare.”

Thorin nodded, looking dizzy and more than half drunk. She had not noticed how unfocused his eyes were earlier. Likely, she was taking terrible advantage of him. “I can be quiet,” he swore. “Just as quiet as a hobbit, only let me.” This seemed to be a request to kiss her neck, for that was what he proceeded to do until Bilbo moaned loudly enough to startle herself back to the subject at hand.

“Of course we must close the door,” she said, pulling away from him to do just that. “Only do not let me fall asleep without opening it again, alright?”

Thorin nodded silently, and Bilbo realized that she was now completely alone with him in her bedroom.

That warranted another dozen kisses at least.

Indeed, Thorin seemed greatly desirous to kiss every single part of Bilbo’s body, beginning with all of her scars. At first this seemed very intriguing, then perhaps a bit unsanitary, and then Bilbo seized his hair to hold him in place, cursing, begging, and demanding that he continue. He did. When she could take no more, Bilbo rolled him onto his back, straddled his legs, and rode him at a gallop until they both collapsed in a sweat soaked heap.

Bilbo woke with a start, blearily aware that she’d forgotten something important. Then she relaxed back against Thorin’s chest. The door was open slightly, letting the light from the hall mingle with the soft silver light of the false window’s night setting. Linen sheets covered her bare body, and she could feel that Thorin had on his smallclothes.

“Thank you,” she said softly. She knew he was awake, because he started stroking her hair as soon as she settled back against him. “For opening the door,” she added, in case he thought she meant something else.

“Perhaps I might keep watch,” he murmured. “You should sleep as deeply as you care to. I will wake you if there is any sound of unhappiness from Acorn’s room.”

Laughing a little, Bilbo felt her eyes drift shut. “That won’t be necessary. If she does have a bad dream, she won’t be quiet about it. My boisterous little oak doesn’t do anything quietly.”

Thorin continued to stroke Bilbo’s hair, but something was different. After a moment, she realized he wasn’t breathing. Bilbo lifted her head to look at him. In the dim light from the hall, his eyes were stars peeking out of heavy shadows.

“I will leave if you ask me to,” he said softly.

Bilbo laughed quietly. It was impossible to be annoyed with him when both of his hands were on her sides, as if he intended to keep holding her until she definitively asked him to stop. “Whyever do you persist in thinking that I do not want you near? I assure you, I did not come all the way to Erebor because I wanted space.”

Sitting up, he caught her mouth in a sweet kiss. “Forgive me if I am a fool,” he said softly. “Joy has never been my lot in life, and part of me thinks even now you will disappear like mountain snow in springtime.”

“But no one wants snow to stay in springtime.” Bilbo giggled. “We shall have to work on your metaphors, O King, if we are to make a romantic out of you.”

Thorin kissed her again, very thoroughly, until Bilbo entirely forgot what they were talking about and moved to straddle his knee. It would not have occurred to her before to be fond of a fellow’s knees, but Thorin’s were a wonder.

“Teach me, then,” he said, and she looked at him in puzzlement. “Tell me of your other lovers. How do I compare?”

Once again, Bilbo laughed aloud. She did not know how long it had been since the last time she felt so light and happy. “Well, you are by far the tallest,” she said. “And certainly the only king. The beard tickles a bit, but I rather enjoy that.”

It was Thorin’s turn to laugh and tackle Bilbo down to the mattress. “You are too clever by half, Master Burglar. You know that is not what I meant.”

“Well, how do I compare to your other lovers?” Bilbo asked. At first, she meant it as a jest, but as soon as the words were out the hobbit desperately wanted to know. A king probably had all sorts of ladies. Courtesans, princesses, and the like certainly flocked to Thorin’s bed. Of course they did. No one would say no to Thorin. A spinster from the Shire, even a burglar with an illegitimate child, probably did not rank very highly among that number. Likely, only their friendship recommended Bilbo at all.

Thorin pulled away. Suddenly, Bilbo was very cold, missing the heat of his body and the sheet which went with him to the foot of the bed, where he sat in the darkness. “I understand why you ask,” he said slowly. “Indeed, you of all people. But I have had no other lovers. For me, there is only you.”

Scrambling up, Bilbo slammed her hand on the wall panel which altered the shade over the lamp cleverly disguised as a window. Golden light suddenly filled the room, making them both blink, but she had to see his face. “Really?” she asked, her voice choking out past the emotion stopping her throat.

Thorin actually blushed, his skin warm and red beneath the curtain of his hair and beard. “I always hoped that the one I truly loved would return to Erebor someday.”

This time, Bilbo’s laugh had a slightly hysterical quality. “I would have. Any time. I have always been yours for the asking. All you needed to do was—” Bilbo looked at the half open door. Oh. Getting out of bed, she walked slowly over to it and closed it.

“Bilbo.” Thorin looked absolutely dismayed. “You must know that the proudest accomplishment of my life has been helping Fili and Kili grow to adulthood, but I would welcome the chance to do so with a child of my own.”

Bilbo blinked at him. The tension which bound her like a bowstring snapped, and she chuckled a little. Sitting next to him with a sigh, she asked, “Did your sister tell you to say that?”

“No.” Thorin looked offended. “Of course not.” After a minute, he added, “I may have considered once or twice how best to phrase my feelings on this matter. Some small amount of practice might have taken place.”

He was adorable. Of course they would stay, if he wanted them. Fili and Kili were a fine testament to Thorin’s ability to be a father in all but name. Acorn would have a father, and Bilbo would have a husband, and no one but the three of them would ever know. The only cost would be to Bilbo’s pride. That was a bargain, indeed.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Bilbo asked.

Just like that, they were touching again. One of Thorin’s hands buried itself in her hair as the other shifted her waist so that he could study Bilbo’s face with searching, hungry eyes. “You love me?” he asked.

“I do,” Bilbo said. “Since the very first time I heard you sing. I believe I told you as much in Beorn’s garden, long ago.”

Kissing her slowly, Thorin pressed Bilbo down against the soft mattress. “Once,” he agreed between kissed. “But not since.”

Bilbo giggled a little as he found a ticklish spot on her neck. Then abruptly stopped giggling as he bit her gently there. “Oh,” she said, and repeated that a few more times before she found her train of thought. “Well, you still haven’t told me at all. Not in so many words.”

Thorin stopped sucking at her neck, which was so contrary to Bilbo’s desires that she grunted and tried to pull him back down by his hair. He laughed. A low sound that made his chest vibrate against hers.

“I love you.” His lips brushed against hers as he spoke, but it was not quite a kiss. “Only you.” His body shifted and Bilbo spread her legs eagerly. She wondered vaguely when his smallclothes disappeared and how. “With the heart of a dwarf.” He pressed forward slowly and her body accommodated him easily. “A jealous, possessive thing.” All was still wet and ready from their earlier bout, but he was so very big. “One that does not like to lose.” Bilbo’s breath came in quick pants. She was full. So full. And still he gave her more.

“This time,” he said. “I am going to keep you.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo loved him. Yes, she left after the Battle of Five Armies, but her heart remained in Thorin’s keeping. Bilbo loved him. And Acorn loved him. Granted, only as a teacher thus far, but soon, very soon, Bilbo would grant him the honor of fatherhood. Thorin was the happiest he’d ever been in life. Happier than he ever thought he could be while working as a starving blacksmith in the villages of men, desperate to keep Dis and her children fed.

So it was really very cruel of Dis to try to spoil his happiness with her foul mood.

First, she was appallingly rude during Thorin’s meeting with the head of the Merchant Guild, insulting both of them and basically bullying the poor dwarf out of the room. Then she did the same to Balin and Fili, threatening Fili with the blunt of her ax and cursing Balin for a negligent dotard.

“Did you want a private audience, dear sister?” Thorin asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

“I do not want anything less.” Dis scowled. “But I am damn well going to have one. In your chambers. Where we can’t be overheard.”

Trust Dis to assume that whatever she wanted to vent about was more important than matters of state. Even so, Thorin followed her from the private audience hall to his genuinely private chambers. His mood was too good to deny her anything, even when she was being such a vein of slate.

As soon as the door was shut, Dis began to pace about the room. Thorin took a seat, trusting her to speak in her own time.

“That hobbit came to me today,” she said finally. “Curse her.”

Thorin felt his spine straighten. Insulting Balin and Fili to their faces was one thing. Insulting Bilbo behind her back was quite another. “I assume you are speaking of my One Love, the burglar to whom we owe the reclamation of our homeland. If that is the case, I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue.”

“Forget my tongue! Worry about hers,” Dis said. “The reclamation of Erebor is the only reason I did not behead her at once when she refused an honorable duel.”

“A duel?” Thorin’s hand found Orcrist at his side. These days he only wore the blade ceremonially at court, but it was there nonetheless. The greatest risk of a bastard child was civil war. Before seeing Dis in such a state, Thorin would have called that no risk at all. His family had been through too much to turn on each other. But he knew well the temptation of the throne which bore the Arkenstone. Perhaps Dis wanted it for her son enough to take it from a niece that was not yet hers. “If you intend to duel my burglar, you will fight me first, sister.”

“Don’t I know it.” Scowling, Dis continued to pace back and forth. “In any case, as I said, she refused to fight. Coward. Thief. Dishonorable wench.”

“Enough,” Thorin bellowed, leaping to his feet. “What geas are you under that you speak in such a way? For my sister would never behave so crudely.”

Dis didn’t look at him, just kept pacing back and forth. “No spell,” she said. “No enchantment. Just the blasted hobbit. Do you know what she asked me for?”

“Unless it was Fili’s head, I cannot imagine anything that would vex you so,” Thorin said.

Dis stopped walking and stared at Thorin wordlessly for a moment. Then she started to pace once more.

“Is it Fili? Or another? I do not believe Bilbo has that sort of violence in her, Dis. You must have misunderstood. What exactly did she say?”

“She asked me for carrot seeds.”

This was so incongruous with Dis’s mood that Thorin didn’t understand the words at first. Then his heart leapt. “She wishes to start a garden. Did you show her the terraces on the southern slope just beyond the Hall of Kings? I have not made them known to her already because it seemed wrong to tempt her with work while she was recovering, but the ground there is ready. Surely there are things she can plant even this late in the summer. Do carrots grow quickly?”

“Fool!” Dis cried. “Curse you along with the hobbit, and may all the hair on her toes fall out. She wishes the opposite.”

“What do you mean?” Thorin demanded. “Speak plainly. You say she asked for seeds. If you do not wish to fetch and carry for her like a common servant, I am sure someone can find them in Dale.”

“She did not want ordinary carrot seeds,” Dis said. “She wants something called a wild carrot. A bird’s nest carrot. She gave it a few other names, as well. The witch will find someone who has what she needs, I am quite sure.”

“Why do you care whether or not she gets seeds?” Thorin growled. “My love has a right to a garden in this mountain. My mountain.”

“Thorin, she is not planting anything.” Dis whirled to face him, her eyes tight with pain. “The seeds are some sort of hobbit preventative.”

“Preventing what?”

“Pregnancy.”

Thorin sat down.

“So you understand my anger,” Dis said. “If the hobbit has not taken my unmarried, virgin brother to bed again, then she is taking someone else, and keeping it a secret. I cannot decide which is more dishonorable.”

“You do not understand,” Thorin said, though his voice lacked strength. “She loves me. We are going to be married.”

“Has she asked for marriage?”

“Not yet.” Thorin swallowed. “But she will. I have not proven myself sufficiently, nor made proper amends for what happened between us before, but I will. She is going to proclaim me Acorn’s father. She is going to stay in Erebor. We are going to be married.”

“Thorin.” Dis fell into a chair opposite him, no longer buoyed by her anger. “You are not a babe in the hills. You know better. A dam will say many things to get a dwarf between her legs. That’s just how we are. But a true lady would never take advantage of a well born dwarf like you. Mahal. I almost wish she were rolling Bofur or someone. At least then you’d be angry, too. Instead of refusing to believe me when I tell you that the hobbit is planning to return to the Shire with your heart again, but not a second child. She does not even think enough of you to allow the slimmest chance of one.”

“You are wrong,” Thorin said. “We are going to be married.” But he did not believe it.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Acorn forgot that Erebor was only a place she was visiting. Every day was full of so much to do and so many friends that the fauntling felt she was exactly where she belonged. The morning was always ax practice with Dwalin before smith lessons with King Thorin.

Lately, during fighting lessons, Dwalin’s brother stopped by toward the end. Balin knew a bit about fighting, too, and he would play with them while telling Acorn interesting things about dwarven history and their secret language. He even wanted to teach Acorn how to read and write in Khuzdul. While Acorn did not love to read and write as much as other people might, the fact that the language was a secret from most people highly recommended it. Acorn loved secrets.

Mum’s friends were always stopping by to spend time with Acorn. Kili and Tauriel took her hunting with bows and arrows. Acorn got a pheasant on only her third try and Mum cooked it up for supper. After that, the charm bracelet Acorn wore had an arrow and a little bird to dangle alongside the acorn, the ax, and the anvil. Kili’s brother Fili took Acorn on adventures, too. He showed her the secret door that would only open from the outside on Durin’s Day, and they climbed down all the stairs together while he told her stories.

Most of all, Acorn felt at home with Guntur’s family. Once, when the older children were out at their apprenticeships, Bombur asked Acorn and Guntur to watch the baby while he made dinner. Little Grifur was as good as grapes. Acorn played drums with his baby rattles, and Guntur juggled blocks to entertain him. Then the two of them built a block tower. Grifur knocked it over, giggling when it crashed. Naturally, Guntur and Acorn made a game of it, building tower after tower for the baby to knock over. When Bombur came to fetch them, he said they were the most helpful children in all of Erebor.

“It was fun,” Acorn said. “I would like to have a little brother.”

“Take Grifur,” Guntur said. “He smells like a sewer when he poops in his nappy.”

“Enough from you,” Bombur scolded. “Go set the table.”

So they both scampered off to do the chore, and Acorn did not feel like a guest at all.

Unfortunately, Acorn was a guest under the mountain. Being reminded that her time in Erebor was limited hurt. That it should be King Thorin to do so in the forge—one of her very favorite places—added a bitter twist to the news.

“Today,” he said, “I will teach you how to make an ax blade. You are young yet. Too young for weapon-smithing by any measure. Unlike our other projects, I expect this will take you many years to truly master. However, it may be our most important lesson. When you return to the Shire, you will no longer have ready access to dwarf-made steel. I would have you learn the basics before you leave.”

Acorn looked up at him. The light from the forge fire made his eyes look bright, almost like there were tears in them. “I do not want to leave Erebor,” she said. Certainly there were tears in her own eyes.

Kneeling down, Thorin took her by her shoulders. “Acorn Baggins, you are always welcome in this mountain. I do not say it will be soon. Only that the day will come, likely not until autumn begins, when you and your mother will go home. We must prepare for it. There are many secrets I would impart to you, and I do not know if I will have another chance.”

Acorn wiped her eyes. She liked the idea of learning dwarven secrets, but it was already nearly midsummer. Autumn was not far away. Autumn was only Mum’s birthday. Before even. That was much too soon to leave all of her friends.

Although she tried to focus on King Thorin’s lesson, Acorn did not do a very good job. The dwarf didn’t mind. He was always very patient with her. When they finished their work for the day, he hugged her, pressing their foreheads together, and promised that he would do everything in his power to ensure that her stay in Erebor was as long as possible.

The minute she was home, Acorn cornered her mother to interrogate her. “Are we going back to the Shire?”

Mum put down the dough she was kneading and wiped her floury hands on her apron. “Would you like to?”

“No!” Acorn looked around the kitchen, so exactly like the one in Bag End except in all the ways it was just a little bit dwarvish. “I want to stay here. I like it here.”

“Well then.” Mum smiled. “There is no rush. We may stay in Erebor as long as we like.”

Tackling her mother, Acorn hugged her hard around her waist. “Oh good. King Thorin said we would probably leave after your birthday.”

Mum went still. “Did he? Not before?” Her voice sounded strange.

Acorn looked up nervously. “Don’t you want to spend your birthday in Erebor?”

Mum smiled again, but it looked wrong. Her eyes were too wide. Her teeth were too white. “We cannot risk your little toes freezing in the snow,” she said. “If we are going to go home, we ought to be sure we can make the trip before winter. So we shall have to depart when the leaves start changing color, alright? That still gives us several weeks here with all of our friends.”

“No! That is not alright. That is all wrong! I want to stay here!”

“I know, seedling, I know.” Mum tried to gather Acorn into a hug, but the fauntling ducked away.

“You don’t know! You don’t know anything!” Spinning around, Acorn left their cozy hobbit hole and slammed the door behind her. “I hate the Shire! If you are going there, you can go alone!”

Dwalin wasn’t in his home. That didn’t matter. Acorn kept looking. Striding through the halls of Erebor, which she knew as well as any roads in the Shire, she scowled at all the friendly dwarves and searched everywhere he was likely to be. Unfortunately, he also wasn’t in their practice room, the armory, the marketplace, or the pub that Acorn found near the marketplace.

The pub near the Great Marketplace wasn’t anything like the Green Dragon. Acorn only knew it was a pub because all the dwarves in it had mugs of ale and there was a surly proprietor behind a counter with the barrels. That was where the similarities ended. This pub was very dark. All of the dwarves had weapons, and most of them looked at Acorn when she opened the door. None of them winked. These were not friendly dwarves. For the first time, Acorn realized that not all dwarves were necessarily friendly, and that Erebor was much bigger than it seemed when she was with her mother.

Suddenly, Nori appeared. His bright grin made his eyes twinkle like stars to match his hair. “Hello there, Baggins the Smaller,” he said. “Have you lost your way? I always thought hobbits were as good as dwarves in the tunnels and deep places of the world.”

Acorn stood up straight. “I know where I am, Mister Nori. I just don’t know exactly where I’m going.”

“Well, how about a guide then?” He offered her his arm gallantly.

“Thank you kindly,” she said. Looping her hands around the crook of his elbow, she let him lead her away from the dark pub. “I am looking for Mister Dwalin.”

“Ah, you won’t find him in The Goat’s Hoof, lass. He prefers The Crystal Spear for a friendly drink when the mood takes him, but it doesn’t take him often in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, I suspect he’s in Court just now with the other toffs.”

“Okay.”

A handkerchief appeared in Nori’s other hand. Accepting with gratitude, Acorn used it to clean up her face while they walked through streets she vaguely remembered from King Thorin’s tours. As they walked, she noticed that the flagstones beneath her boots got even smoother. The floor was a glassy expanse of perfectly polished marble. It was much nicer to walk on than the gravel and dirt paths of the Shire. Everything about Erebor was nice. Even the dark, scary pub, now that Acorn was well away from it.

Eventually the pair came to a big door with lots of carvings and two heavily armed dwarves standing in front of it. Nori smiled at them, and they stepped aside. The door opened. At once, Acorn recognized the king’s throne room. When Thorin brought them on a tour to look at the Arkenstone it was empty. Now it was quite the opposite.

King Thorin was seated on his throne wearing a terrific crown shaped like raven’s wings, the Arkenstone glowing just above his head. Fili was sitting at his right and Dis was at his left. All around them were lots of dwarves dressed in fine clothing. King Thorin wasn’t looking at any of them. He was looking right at Acorn. He lifted his hand and all conversation stopped. Everyone else turned to look at Acorn as well, and she felt unconscionably shy.

Nori coughed. “Sorry, Your Majesty.” He bowed. “I thought we could slip in quiet-like. Just want to borrow Dwalin.”

Nodding regally, King Thorin made a gesture to Dwalin. At once, the big dwarf was in front of Acorn, leading her and Nori from the room.

Remembering her manners, Acorn waved at the king. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m sorry, too.”

Although the king nodded again, he did not smile. Acorn felt very bad for interrupting important business just to talk to Dwalin. At least Dwalin didn’t seem to mind. Before they were even out of the room, he scooped her up in his arms and asked her what was wrong.

Since her business was important, too, Acorn didn’t hesitate. “Can I live with you?” she asked. “I don’t want to go back to the Shire with Mum.”

As the doors closed behind them, Acorn heard someone say, “Ah, so this is how civil wars start.”

She blinked at Dwalin. “Are you having a war? That is very important! You should go help King Thorin. I will talk to you after.”

“No one is starting a war,” Dwalin said, frowning. “Did you have a fight with your Mum?”

Nori sidled away, but Acorn didn’t mind. If Dwalin couldn’t help her, she doubted Nori would. Dori might, but even though he was very nice, Nori didn’t seem like the type to care for a fauntling.

“We are not fighting,” Acorn said. “She is going back to the Shire, but I don’t want to. I want to live here in Erebor.”

Dwalin shifted Acorn’s weight a little. She thought about telling him that she could walk on her own, but his beard was very soft even if the shoulder pauldrons of his ceremonial armor weren’t. She slumped against him, tired from all of her searching.

“When you return to the Shire with your mother,” Dwalin said softly, “you will not miss me.”

“Yes, I will.” Acorn’s eyes filled with tears again. “I will miss all of my friends. Especially you, and Guntur, and King Thorin.”

“You will not miss me,” Dwalin said, more forcefully, “because I will go west when you do. You have not yet learned all that I have to teach, Acorn Baggins. Our lessons will continue.”

While she put Nori’s handkerchief to good use, Acorn could not seem to stop crying or clinging to Dwalin like a big baby. When they reached home, Mum was not there, and Acorn started sobbing. She knew her mother would not leave to go back to the Shire without her, but the tears came anyway. Calming down only became possible when Dwalin found the cookie jar and made them both some tea. They shared the cookies, emptying the jar by the time Mum came home.

“Acorn Belladonna Baggins! You know you must tell me where you will be when you leave this smial. I have been been through half the mountain looking for you! Nori says he found you in that awful, disreputable Goat’s Hoof! I hope you enjoyed raiding my cookie jar, because those are the last sweets you’ll be having for a good long time.”

Nori was behind Mum, staring at her as though he’d never heard a lecture before in his life. Slowly, he backed out of the hobbit hole, going off about whatever business Acorn interrupted him at. In contrast, Dwalin stepped forward, putting himself between Acorn and her mother.

“Now, Bilbo,” he said. “Give her a break. It’s a lot to spring on her, that you’ll be leaving so soon.”

“I didn’t spring it on her, she sprang it on me!” Mum stopped yelling. She stopped doing everything and stood very still. If Acorn didn’t know better, she’d say Mum looked lost, but Mum never got lost.

“What do you mean by that?” Dwalin asked.

“Nothing.” Mum straightened up and looked Dwalin right in the eye. Although he was much taller, she suddenly seemed to take up more space than he did. “How I raise my daughter is no business of yours, Dwalin son of Fundin. You can see yourself out, thank you very much.”

For a moment, Acorn didn’t know what would happen. She hoped Mum would not hurt Dwalin very much if he tried to fight her. Then, Dwalin gave both hobbits a short nod and left them alone.

Mum sat down on the sofa next to Acorn. “Are you ready to talk in a reasonable way?” she asked. “Or shall we continue shouting?”

“Dwalin says he will come with us, when we go back to the Shire,” Acorn said.

“Oh.” Mum looked at the door. “Perhaps I should not have been so short with him. That is a kind offer.”

“I do not want to go back to the Shire at all,” Acorn said. “I want to stay in Erebor.”

Mum sighed. “Our family is in the Shire, Acorn. That is where we belong. Besides, if we do not overstay our welcome, perhaps King Thorin will ask us back in a year or two. Then you and I shall have lots of adventures, always traveling back and forth between the Shire and the mountain. Won’t that be fun?”

Considering it that way did make leaving seem like less of a tragedy.

“For now, put it out of your mind.” Mum pressed a kiss to Acorn’s forehead. “Our departure will be weeks away.”

This was good advice. Mum’s advice was always very good advice. Unfortunately, Acorn couldn’t follow it. As soon as she was alone with Guntur building a block city, she started to dwell on it again. It seemed to Acorn that they might at least stay in Erebor until her next birthday. If they always had to be traveling back and forth, it made sense to her to spend one birthday in the Shire and the next birthday in Erebor. After all, traveling so far took a very long time.

Perhaps Acorn complained a little too much. For Guntur sounded annoyed when he said, “Well, your mother could always marry King Thorin. Then you would stay in Erebor all the time.”

Acorn stared at him. It was the best idea she’d ever heard. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it herself.

“Sorry,” Guntur said. “I know we’re not supposed to talk about it. Only he was very good to help me tell my parents about my craft. He’s such a good king.”

“Whatever do you mean?” Acorn cried. “Of course we must talk about it. Guntur, you’re brilliant! That would solve everything.”

“Oh.” Guntur blinked. “I mean. Yes, of course it would.”

“It really would! Obviously Mum cannot marry any old dwarf, for they would be just as likely to come to the Shire with us as not. Especially since Mister Dwalin plans to come already. But King Thorin cannot leave the mountain to be always traveling back and forth. He has responsibilities. So we would have to stay here.”

Biting his lip, Guntur looked at their block tower. “Right.”

“The only trouble is, I don’t know if King Thorin would want to marry Mum. I mean, Mum is the best, but don’t kings usually marry princesses? Fancy ladies? That sort of thing?”

Guntur stared at Acorn in an unflattering way. As though she’d said something truly stupid.

“What?”

“King Thorin wants to marry your mother. My Amad talks about it all the time, though Adad always tells her it’s impolite. You wouldn’t exist if King Thorin did not want to marry your mother. Amad says he’s your father. Though of course she is not supposed to. No one is allowed to talk about it. It’s rude.”

It was Acorn’s turn to stare. Guntur’s eyes were earnest. Acorn didn’t think he was teasing. Which meant the dwarf who was Acorn’s father was King Thorin. Her father was not dead, or imprisoned, or on a secret quest. She just didn’t have one. And the reason she didn’t have a father was that Thorin didn’t want her. Only he must, a bit, because he did come to rescue her when she needed help. And he liked to spend time with her in the forge. He just didn’t like her enough to be her father all the time.

But that would change when he married Mum. So Acorn would forgive him for everything else.

“Okay,” she said. “I know what we have to do.”

In the Shire, it was common practice for a courting couple to have a private meal together in a smial while other folks were home. Acorn had been around for dozens of these occasions over the many holidays she spent in Tuckborough. Great Smials had a small dining room set aside expressly for the purpose. As a rule, family members were only allowed to help a little bit with the preparation of the meal. This was easy enough, because Mum always cooked the best dinners without any help at all, and she was happy to give Acorn permission to invite a friend over.

At first, Thorin did not want to come. When Acorn fibbed a bit and said it was all Mum’s idea, though, he agreed very quickly. That was rather promising. If he liked Mum so much, he would definitely propose right away, once he had the opportunity. Sadly, Mum’s surprise to find that Acorn’s friend was Thorin instead of Guntur belied this ruse immediately. Fortunately, both Mum and Thorin were too polite to talk about it. Acorn set the table with Thorin’s help, and they all sat down.

Then came the tricky part. Everything smelled so good. There was fresh bread, roast pork, cinnamon applesauce, mashed potatoes, candied carrots, cold milk, and hot tea. There was going to be a pie for desert. Even so, Acorn steeled herself. She knew what she had to do.

“Mum, may I please be excused from the table?”

Mum frowned. “You have not touched your supper.”

“I’m not hungry,” Acorn lied. “I think I might be getting sick. May I please go have a nap instead.”

If anything, Mum looked angry instead of sympathetic, but she gave permission for Acorn to go lie down in her room. At least Thorin seemed worried about Acorn’s health. Which made her rather hopeful about the prospect of him becoming her father.

Their Erebor smial was nothing like Bag End. One could not hear anything through a door that was properly shut, so Acorn left hers open a crack and listened. Because of this, she heard Thorin very clearly when he said, “I shall send for Oin at once. She must be ill indeed. I have never seen her refuse food before, and such a meal as you have here prepared would tempt an ascetic.”

Mum sighed. “Really, Thorin. You’ve known her for months now. You ought to be able to tell when Acorn is lying.”

“Lying? Acorn would never do such a dishonorable thing.”

The fauntling felt a guilty twinge in her stomach, which immediately rumbled at the warm smell of the fresh bread.

“Of course she would,” Mum said. “She’s my daughter. I ought to know.”

“Then you must discipline her,” Thorin said.

“I am,” Mum said. Which didn’t make any sense at all until she added, “Oh my! This might just be the best batch of bread I’ve ever made. And this sweet cream butter melts so easily. There’s nothing like a good, summer cream for butter you can really taste”

For a moment, everything was silent in the other room. Acorn’s mouth watered desperately, but she held firm. Any minute now, Mum and Thorin would start talking about courting. Then Thorin would propose, and they could all live in Erebor as one big, happy family. Acorn could probably even come out to have pie with them.

“I will not be party to this farce,” Thorin said.

“Thorin, wait.” Mum’s voice was almost too quiet for Acorn to hear. “Her intentions are good. She must have noticed, well. Anyway. All she wants is for the two of us to spend some time together. Is that such a terrible crime?”

Thorin didn’t say anything, though Acorn strained her ears to hear. She wished she could see if he was standing up or still sitting at the table, but Mum would definitely know if Acorn opened the door to her room more than a little crack. Their hobbit hole in Erebor wasn’t a sprawling smial like Bag End. Even if the door didn’t creak at all, Mum would likely see the changing shadows in the hallway.

Just as Acorn decided to risk it, Thorin spoke.

“It pleased me greatly to believe that you invited me to share a meal, Bilbo. Knowing now that I have been deceived and am unwelcome, I beg you will excuse me.”

“Oh! You ridiculous dwarf! Acorn didn’t tell me her plan, and I was surprised to see you. That doesn’t make you unwelcome. Stay. Please.”

“I am not the one who is leaving.” Thorin’s voice was so quiet that Acorn could barely hear it at all.

For a long time, she didn’t hear anything else. Cautiously, she counted to a hundred in her head, but she didn’t hear so much as the clink of a glass. Slowly, she opened the door to her room. Nothing happened. Creeping down the hallway, Acorn peeked around the corner to spy on the dinner table. Mum was sitting very still, staring at her plate. No one else was in the room at all.

“Come have a seat and eat your dinner.” Mum looked up and smiled directly at Acorn, as though she knew exactly where she was the whole time.

“Where is Thorin?” Acorn asked.

Mum tilted her head to the side. “King Thorin was called away. I suspect he might have found a way to delay his urgent business, if the person who asked him to dinner had not rudely abandoned him.”

“Oh.” Acorn’s mouth went dry. She felt very naughty all of a sudden.

“You’ll apologize to him tomorrow,” Mum said. It wasn’t a question.

Acorn nodded. They did not have very much conversation over dinner. Mum was upset. Likely because Acorn invited a guest over and then was rude. It wasn’t until bedtime that Acorn realized Mum might also be upset with Thorin for leaving. The fauntling took that into consideration for the next part of her plan.

Flowers were an integral part of any Shire courtship. So Acorn went to get some.

Convincing Fili, Kili, and Tauriel to bring Acorn somewhere she could pick flowers was the easiest thing in the world. There were beautiful meadows all around the mountainside. Kili and Tauriel had dozens of ideas for which one would suit Acorn’s purpose best at this time of year. In fact, Tauriel was a tremendous help. She always knew where the most perfect blossoms would be. Probably by using her elf magic.

Fili and Kili were less helpful. Fili couldn’t tell a violet from a daisy. Although Kili was a bit better than that, likely since he spent so much time with Tauriel, he didn’t seem to be able to tell the good flowers from the bad. He chose sweet william that was covered in aphids when there was a perfectly nice patch elsewhere. If given the option of a dry, half dead flower or an unopened bud, he always picked the one that was about to lose all of its petals instead of the one that would happily bloom in a vase.

Still, they were very nice to come. Acorn made flower crowns for everyone, and let Fili and Kili chase her through the meadow like the tickle-monsters they were. Spending time with Fili and Kili was always fun. Once Thorin came to his senses and married Mum, they would make excellent cousins. So it was a good thing that Tauriel was able to help Acorn put together the perfect bouquet.

Then came the hard part. Acorn needed to find a way to make Thorin deliver them. Mum would never believe they came from him otherwise. She looked up at Fili. “Will you help me, please?”

“Of course!” Fili’s smile was kind and his chest puffed up proudly. Then he turned to Tauriel. “Only if it’s another flower you need, I’ll let the expert lead. I did not do so well with those purple ones you wanted.”

Acorn giggled. Imagine mistaking thistles for hyacinth! “No,” she said. “I think this posy is as perfect as we can make it. Now I just need to make King Thorin give it to Mum. Mum says you and your brother are ever so clever about jokes and things. Can you help me?”

“It is a joke?” Fili looked down at the collected wildflowers, all tied together with a special red ribbon. “You find the prospect of my king giving your mother a gift funny?”

Feeling her face go red, Acorn stared at the flowers in her hands. She didn’t know what to say.

Suddenly, Kili’s face popped into view behind the flowers. He was squatting down so that they would be the same height. “Is it a joke, Acorn?” he asked kindly. “We do want to help. We just need to know what we’re doing.”

Acorn looked around. They were quite alone in the field of wildflowers. Only the warm afternoon sun and a few darting swallows were about to witness what was said. “Can you keep a secret?” she whispered.

“Aye,” Kili nodded. “Dwarves are great for secrets. I swear upon my dark-name never to reveal what is said here under sky or stone. Go on. Tell me.”

Acorn pulled him close so that she could whisper in his ear. “I am going to stay in Erebor.”

Kili’s eyes went wide and he smiled like it was the best news in the whole world. “That is a very good secret, Miss Baggins. Thank you for telling me.” Then he pressed his forehead to hers and gave her a kiss on the cheek as well.

“So will you help?”

“Aye.” Kili tucked one of Acorn’s curls behind her ear. “Though you must tell me how.”

Fili snorted. “I, too, give my word of honor. Never will I reveal under sky or stone that which is here revealed to me. What is our purpose?”

Acorn looked at Tauriel, who winked.

“I do not have a dark-name,” the elf said. “But I will not tell your secret.”

“Well.” Looking at her flowers again, Acorn felt her cheeks grow very hot. “I think that King Thorin and my mum should get married.”

Kili fell down. Squatting for a long time did make you wobbly, but Acorn did not think her idea was so surprising as all that. After all, Guntur was the one to think of it first. Either way, there was only one thing to do. Dropping the flowers, Acorn tackled Kili and tickled him while he was down. He laughed. Rolling to his feet, he danced away from her attack.

Catching Acorn from behind, Fili scooped her up by the armpits, pulling her away from Kili. Then the prince twirled the fauntling in the air and perched her on his hip, holding her close. Tauriel picked up the fallen flowers.

“Married, eh?” Fili’s eyes were bright blue, and his face was so close to Acorn’s that one of the braids of his mustache brushed against her cheek when he spoke.

“Don’t say it’s none of my business.” Acorn put a hand on Fili’s mane, for balance, and because she liked the feel of his coarse hair between her fingers. “It’s the only way Mum will let us stay in Erebor.”

Fili tilted his neck to press their foreheads together. “Fear not.” He looked at the bouquet in Tauriel’s hands. “If Thorin gives your mother those flowers, you believe she will—it might lead to marriage?”

“Of course,” Acorn said. “We found plenty of wild roses.”

Fili laughed. “Of course. Tell us your plan, Miss Baggins. You will find us eager accomplices.”

The plan worked perfectly, up to a point.

Fili made some excuse and brought Thorin to the Hall of Kings with its beautiful golden floor, fresh air, amazing statues, and brilliant tapestries. It was the ideal spot. In a well organized coincidence, Acorn and Kili dashed by, on a very important mission to go somewhere else. Giving Thorin the flowers, Acorn begged him to pass them along to her mother if he could, as she was in a hurry. Then they dashed away before he could reply.

Tauriel timed her own part of the plan excellently, walking by on the balcony with Mum, discussing something elvish and romantic. Between Fili and Tauriel, it was arranged for Mum and Thorin to meet in one of the massive stone archways that separated the Hall of Kings from the beautiful balcony. Somehow, Fili and Tauriel slipped away to join Kili and Acorn in their hiding spot.

Acorn could not hear what was said, but Thorin did hand Mum the flowers very gallantly. Mum smiled to accept them, and even kissed Thorin on the cheek.

“I am sorry,” Tauriel said, because her elf ears let her overhear the distant conversation. “They do not speak of marriage.”

“A kiss is something, though,” Kili said hopefully.

“It’s a good start,” Acorn agreed. “Much better than dinner.”

Even so, she felt a little wary. Food didn’t work, and flowers were only mildly effective, so the fauntling would have to pin all of her hopes on the final part of a courtship: dancing.

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins wasn’t an idiot. In fact, she dared to think that she knew her daughter as well as one person could know another. She knew exactly what the girl was angling for when the child arranged private dinners, pretentious bouquets, and profligate parties. In truth, if Bilbo could think of a way to fulfill the wish, she would. If for no other reason than to spare Ori the expense of the elaborate birthday that Acorn convinced him to throw. And because what Acorn wanted was the dearest wish of Bilbo’s own heart.

Thorin would make an excellent husband and father.

But it was no use. Ten years ago, when she left Erebor the first time, Bilbo swore that she would never ask Thorin to choose her over the throne he fought so hard to win. The line of Durin did not need a second Kili, running away to marry for love. Thorin must be King Under the Mountain, and so he could not marry Bilbo.

Bilbo wondered if it was time to sit Acorn down and explain that to her in so many words. Only the thought of doing so broke her heart. Acorn was ten years old. She ought to believe in fairytales and heroes for a little while longer. All around them, dwarven feet stomped rhythmically on a golden floor. The sound of music filled the room to the vaulted ceiling and wafted outside on the summer breeze. Erebor was a magical place, and Acorn ought to enjoy it for as long as she could.

So Bilbo took the cowards way out, and let her ten year old daughter feed her drinks.

“Where did dwarves even get applejack?” Holding out her golden tankard, she allowed Acorn to tipple a little bit more of the deep amber liquid into her cider.

“I told Mister Nori it was your favorite so he found some for us to have at the party.” Acorn’s smile was bright and innocent.

“It is not my favorite,” Bilbo said. “It is a terrible vice that I will pay dearly for. And you should not be pouring drinks for your old mother. Go enjoy the party.”

“This is a nice song,” Acorn said, without a hint of mischief in her voice. “Maybe I will go dance. You should come with me and ask Thorin for a dance.”

A better mother would have scolded her daughter. A better mother would have let the girl know that everything was hopeless. Since she was rather useless, Bilbo took the bottle of applejack from the fauntling, downing the remainder. Acorn cheered delightedly, and Bilbo tripped off to claim Thorin for another dance.

“My Burglar is drunk,” Thorin said, but he smiled and took her hand. The dance was quick and lively as dwarven dances always were. Bilbo definitely tripped over his boots a time or two. She didn’t mind. Every time she tripped, their bodies pressed closer. Thorin always supported her when she really needed him.

“This shirt makes you unfairly handsome,” Bilbo said, since they were saying obvious things.

When Thorin laughed, he threw his head back. Bilbo could see all of his teeth. Thirty white horses on a red hill. Dancing was nice. Swirling through applejack scented air, Bilbo’s worries pranced away like wild ponies. Things were always easiest with Thorin when she didn’t concern herself about the future. Even so.

“Acorn thinks we should get married.”

Clearly, stating it so plainly was too much of an affront. Thorin stopped laughing. He stopped dancing. The party spun around them, but Thorin’s face was still and serious. “And what do you think?”

Bilbo laughed. A pleasant cushion of alcohol wrapped around her, just as warm as Thorin’s arms. “I think three hearts will be broken when my daughter and I return to the Shire, and that is a tragedy.”

“You are smiling too much to be thinking about tragedy.” Thorin was smiling too. He brushed a lock of Bilbo’s hair out of her face. “Perhaps my clever burglar has a solution?”

Giggling, Bilbo took Thorin by the hand and lead him from the dance floor. It wasn’t a solution. Even deep in her cups, Bilbo knew that. All she had was an argument. A small, romantic hope that good cheer and family could be weighed against gold and power without being found wanting.

Just outside the Hall of Kings there was a small linen closet. A small linen closet by dwarven standards being as large as the biggest pantry in Bag End. There wasn’t anywhere to sit, but there were shelves piled high with tablecloths, tapestries, and banners as well as the general accoutrements necessary to clean such things when the ones in the Hall of Kings needed to be changed. Bilbo pressed Thorin against the wall with a kiss, though she had to go up on her tiptoes to reach him.

“Let’s give this one last try,” she said.

Thorin’s eyes went wide and his hands tightened on her waist. “Bilbo.”

It wasn’t fair. She knew it wasn’t fair. But if he felt even half of what Bilbo felt when they were together, surely she must tempt him a little. They could be so happy together. Fili could be king. Or someone else. Anyone else. Erebor had a hero for ten years. Surely Bilbo now deserved a husband. At the very least, she and Acorn might stay with him. Spinster though she was, Bilbo was positive that she could make an excellent mistress with a bit more practice.

“Let me.” She kissed his neck, then arched up to bite his earlobe, whispering sweet nothings. “In the Shire we have a saying, ‘What’s good for the doe is good for the buck.’ Do dwarves have a saying like that?”

“No.” Thorin’s voice was always thrilling. Bilbo helped him get out of his beautiful blue shirt and divested him of his kingly raiment. The soft down that covered his chest was not as full as his beard, but she enjoyed running her fingers over and through it, feeling the hard planes of dwarven stone beneath. “Perhaps, ‘Two smiths may use the same anvil.’ I’m not sure—”

Bilbo’s kisses found their way down to his nipple, which she caught between her teeth, running her tongue across the peak. Coincidentally, at just that moment, Thorin stopped talking and drew in a sharp, shaking breath. Bilbo grinned.

“I like that,” she said. “I do not think it means precisely the same thing, but I like it very much.”

Dropping to her knees, she tugged at the laces of Thorin’s breeches until they dropped around his knees, freeing his cock. Bilbo wrapped a hand around the base confidently. As a reward, it gave her an eager little twitch, a bit of fluid already leaking from the tip. Bilbo’s smile grew into a grin as she looked up to meet Thorin’s eyes. His mouth was open, but he didn’t seem to be breathing. Sticking out her tongue, Bilbo lapped up the little bead.

With a great crash, the shelf behind Thorin broke, linens tumbling to the floor. Thorin’s right hand was full of crumbled stone, and he looked down at Bilbo with a shocked expression. “Sorry.” He looked at the pile of broken shelving and cloth, then back to Bilbo. “I didn’t mean—”

Bilbo couldn’t contain her laughter, slumping against him happily. It wasn’t every day that a dwarf got so excited he shattered stone with his fists. Sighing, Bilbo came to her senses, her forehead pressed against the juncture of Thorin’s thigh, his cock brushing against her cheek. Then she took a deep breath, enjoying the warm musk of his body. Rocking back to sit on her heels, she looked up at him again.

“Shall I continue?” she asked.

“Please,” he said. “Please, Bilbo, anything you want. Anything at all.”

So she took him wholly into her mouth. It took her a little while to figure out how much was a good mouthful to suck on, and what movement pleased him best. Keeping a hand firmly wrapped about him was key was well, for Thorin was never one to sit idle. Still, he enjoyed her labor greatly, the promise of anything she wanted growing more specific. He promised her gold, jewels, power, even the stars themselves, before devolving into the dwarvish tongue she did not understand. Bilbo was rather proud of that. When she put her other hand around his rocks, she could even make him whimper.

Soon enough, he cried out for her, and she drank him down. There was a burning ache between her own thighs, desperate for his fingers, or even just her own, but Bilbo managed to stand up. She had a plan, after all.

Thorin looked like the survivor of some bizarre disaster, slouched against a pile of linens and broken shelving with his beautiful clothes strewn about haphazardly, breeches wrapped around his knees. When he glanced up at her, dazed and overwhelmed, Bilbo felt like a giant or a dragon, capable of anything at all. She laughed.

“So that is something to think about then,” she said, staggering back toward the door. “If we improve that much every time, a year from now we might be quite something.”

Right on the other side of the door, there was a small group of dwarves standing about nervously. Bilbo laughed again. She was a wanton, a slut, and a slattern, but she did not care at all. She loved Thorin. Acorn loved Thorin. If he was going to choose a kingdom over a marriage, Bilbo was going to at least make him think about what he would be giving up.

Closing the door behind her so that no one got an eyeful of anything they shouldn’t she said, “He’s going to need a minute,” and wandered off.

Somehow, Bilbo made it home to bed. The next morning she woke up with a headache that could fell a wild boar. Acorn was staring at her from inches away.

Burrowing under her blankets, Bilbo covered her head with a pillow. “We are under a mountain,” she moaned. “Why is it so bright?”

“I turned on the light,” Acorn said. “It is time for elevenses. I had bread and cheese and apples for breakfast. Then Dwalin and I had bacon and eggs for second breakfast after our practice. But he had to go, and I must not light the stove unless there is an adult present. May I light the stove please, Mum? I do not want cold chicken for elevenses. It will make a much nicer soup.”

Peering out from under the pillow, Bilbo looked at her daughter, haloed in the bright light. All fauntlings had insatiable appetites. It had nothing to do with the child’s month of captivity. The hobbit got out of bed.

“The soup will be lunch. That’s a big chicken, and we’ll have to wait a little while for it to boil down to stock,” Bilbo said. “Let’s have blueberry pancakes for elevenses.”

Acorn lept into the air, shouting joyfully. “Blueberry pancakes are my favorite!”

Wincing at the noise, Bilbo pulled on her dressing gown and made her way out to the kitchen. She was an old hand at pancakes, and had a stack of them in front of Acorn by the time the child set the table. With a tall glass of milk and a few fried sausages, one could almost call it a respectable meal. Lunch would be better, Bilbo promised herself. Ignoring the pounding in her head, she cleaned the leftover chicken and plopped it in her stock pot.

Not her stock pot. The only thing that was really Bilbo’s underneath the mountain was Acorn, and the child had a mind of her own. Dealing with the aftermath of inebriation meant dealing with all of it. Bilbo couldn’t believe she’d put Thorin in such a compromising position, thinking it a seduction. If anything, being caught out in a closet was a brilliant argument for not taking a mistress. How Bilbo managed to get a reputation for cleverness among the dwarves was an absolute mystery.

“Your mother is in desperate need of a bath,” Bilbo told her daughter. “Do you think you can manage to subsist on the fruit bowl and the cheese board for an hour or so? There are scones in the bread box to tide you over if things become truly bleak.”

Acorn giggled. “Yes, Mum. May I work on my beads in the sitting room? I will not make a mess, but it’s easier there than working at my desk.”

Bilbo considered suggesting that Acorn work on some writing at that writing desk, but she did not have the wherewithal for that particular battle. Instead, she gave permission and meandered down the hall to the bathroom. She left the door slightly ajar in case her daughter needed anything. A mother must always be on call, if a child had no father to pick up the slack.

Erebor’s plumbing was even better than Bag End’s. Bilbo filled the big copper tub with piping hot water and slipped into it. Soaping up was quite secondary to giving her head a good long soak, but the light, floral scent of the bubbles soothed her queasy stomach. For a time, Bilbo drifted. Letting her body float and her mind wander soothed her pounding head. When she began to recall the mortification of the previous night, however, she sat up and started scrubbing her hair.

Once her ears were out of the water, Bilbo heard voices. Acorn was talking to someone. The voice belonged to a lady, which narrowed down the possibilities by quite a bit.

“Mum is in the bath,” Acorn said cheerfully to her visitor. “She had too much birthday party last night. Mister Dwalin says she’s catted, but I don’t think so. I didn’t see any cats at all last night. Mum would have told me if there were cats, because she knows that I like to pet them.”

“Well, we shall have to find you a kitten, then. I think one of the mousers in the stables had a litter a few weeks ago,” the dam said in a warm, kind voice. “I am not at all surprised to learn your mother overindulged,” she added, more coldly.

It was Dis, Thorin’s sister. Her opinion of Bilbo was very low since she’d learned that the hobbit’s morals had not been improved by motherhood. Bilbo didn’t blame her. Dis had been very welcoming when she thought Bilbo made a single slip during a life or death adventure. Knowing that Bilbo was a truly loose hobbitess who would fall any time Thorin offered to trip her was something quite different. A princess was quite right not to associate with such a person. Especially since it seemed to be politically inconvenient for Thorin to have a mistress, even if he wanted one.

“Is overindulging bad?” Acorn asked.

Dis hesitated. While she might be happy to kill Bilbo to keep her from publicly embarrassing Thorin, she wouldn’t badmouth a parent to their child. Dwarves were always so honorable. Bilbo’s heart melted a little even as her head throbbed.

“Drinking too much sometimes encourages adults to make bad decisions. That’s something I’d like to speak to your mother about. I understand you will only be in Erebor for a few more weeks. I was hoping that I could convince your mother to be a little more circumspect during that time.”

“Oh.” Bilbo could hear Acorn’s frown, even from another room. “I mean, I know that. Sort of. I thought it would be a good thing. Mum danced with King Thorin six times. Anytime two people dance together more than three times, there’s always a wedding.”

“A wedding?” Dis’s voice was sharp enough to cut bone. Bilbo took a deep breath, preparing to get out of the tub.

“Yeah,” Acorn said shyly. “Can you keep a secret?”

“I would be honored by your trust,” Dis said. Since she no longer sounded like she wanted to eviscerate someone, Bilbo continued to hide in the bath.

“I think Mum should marry King Thorin. Then we could live in Erebor all the time. I mean, until I am big and can go on my own adventures.”

Closing her eyes, Bilbo hoped that Dis would be gentle in breaking the news. It was a coward’s way out, but the hobbit ached all over. Even when she was well, she could not bear to be the one to say it.

“That sounds lovely,” Dis said. “All of us would be very happy if you could live in Erebor, Acorn.” Bilbo almost laughed aloud. Thorin wanted a mistress, and Dis would take a bastard niece, but neither of them enjoyed the embarrassment that both brought to the line of Durin.

“Do you think it worked?” Acorn asked eagerly. “They did dance together six times. I counted!”

Dis sighed. “I’m sorry, Acorn. My brother would have told me this morning if they were engaged after the occurences last night. It is not so.”

Squeezing her eyes shut as tightly as she could, Bilbo tried not to hear what was said next, but she did not duck her head under the water to truly block out the sound.

“Okay. Time for plan number four then!” Acorn’s voice was undaunted by her failures. She was such a tenacious little thing. Like a dog with a bone. Or Thorin with a goal in sight.

“Plan number four?” Dis asked.

“Jealousy! When Dahlia Took kissed Tunny Biffin in the market during the Free Faire, she was engaged to Bingo Proudfoot the very next day. Mum said it was because Bingo realized that he couldn’t tell Dahlia who she could and could not kiss unless they were married. My friend Asphodel said Dahlia realized her own heart when she kissed Tunny, and knew she never wanted to kiss anyone else. Either way it worked! I mean, Mum also said that only a Took would do something like that, but Mum is half a Took. Do you think we can have her kiss Mister Dwalin?”

“Dwalin would object,” Dis said firmly. “You should know that dwarves are not as demonstrative as hobbits. It would not be appropriate for your mother to kiss anyone in public.”

“Is that true?” Acorn sounded genuinely confused. “Guntur’s parents kiss all the time. Guntur says it is gross, but I don’t mind. They seem to like it. I think they would spend all day every day kissing if they could. That means they’re in love.”

“Married folk may kiss,” Dis said. “Where there is love there is no shame. However, as your mother is not married, it would be highly inappropriate for her to kiss anyone. Especially in public.”

“Well, could King Thorin kiss someone?”

Bilbo nearly choked in the bath as her chest seized. Of all the things she could not bear to see, that would certainly break her heart. Fortunately, Dis had a little mercy in her character.

“It is even less appropriate for a king to kiss someone in public than it would be for your mother,” the dwarf said. “Nevertheless, I will consider your plan and determine what improvements can be made.”

“I guess.” Acorn sounded glum. “King Thorin always says that a king has to obey all the rules the most, because the law is what makes a king a king. But maybe just one time? Because he should marry Mum. That’s a rule, too.”

“He speaks to you of such things?”

Bilbo couldn’t identify the emotion in Dis’s voice, only that it was dangerous. Perhaps it wasn’t propriety that the princess cared about, so much as keeping Acorn well away from the throne. If that was the case, maybe the bastard niece wasn’t as welcome as Dis’s overt kindness implied.

At once, the hobbit was out of the tub, dry enough not to drip, and cinching her housecoat tightly around her waist. Padding into the sitting room, she made a show of combing her wet hair.

“I thought I heard voices out here,” she said. “Good morning, Lady Dis.”

“Good afternoon,” Dis said coldly. “The hour just struck twelve.”

“Ah.” Bilbo gave the friendliest smile she could muster. “I stand corrected. Well, a visit from you is always a pleasure, no matter the hour. Will you be staying to lunch? I’m afraid it will be a quick bread to go with our soup. As my mother always said, ‘you can’t force dough to rise,’ and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t start a batch this morning.”

“No,” Dis said. Looking down at Acorn, she added, “Thank you for the invitation. I come to extend one of my own. Your presence is requested during high court this afternoon. There will be discussion of a commemorative medal for all soldiers who fought in the Isengard Campaign, and Thorin would like your opinion.”

“Oh.” Bilbo straightened her spine. That was not the dressing down she deserved for her unseemly behavior during Ori’s birthday party. A way to properly express her gratitude to all those who helped Bilbo in her time of need was exactly what she wanted before she left Erebor for good. “Of course I shall attend. Just let me find someone to entertain Acorn while I am busy.”

Dis waved a hand. “Court convenes in an hour. You have time enough.” Then she bent down and pressed her forehead gently to Acorn’s. “It is always a joy to be with you, little one,” she said softly. “Mayhap we can go together to see the kittens tomorrow.”

Bilbo was not imagining the love in the dam’s eyes when she looked at Acorn. Whatever Dis felt about wanton hobbits, she was no danger to her brother’s child. Bilbo nearly sighed in relief.

“Yes, please.” Acorn grinned. Bouncing up on her toes, she pressed a kiss to the princess’s bearded cheek. “Thank you for coming.”

“Thank you for having me.” Warmth filled Dis’s voice when she spoke to Acorn. Which made a stark contrast to the scant nod she offered Bilbo as she left their hobbit hole.

High Court in Erebor was formal in a way that a hobbit from the Shire could hardly comprehend. Thorin sat in state with the Arkenstone shining over his throne like a watchful star. Dis, Fili, and Kili all had seats next to him, and members of the Company were allowed to stand alongside these in a very particular order that Bilbo couldn’t quite grasp. Part of it had to do with the line of Durin, for Balin and Dwalin stood closest, but there was more to it than that. For one thing, she stood next to Balin and she had no dwarven lineage at all. For another, Bifur stood closer than Oin, though further than Gloin.

Whatever the metric, all of the dwarves seemed to know it implicitly. They also had a great many rules about who should speak, when, and how much they could say. Fortunately, so long as Bilbo didn’t interrupt anyone else, she seemed to be allowed to talk as much as she liked, just as Balin was.

Together, they got the matter of the commemorative medals sorted out very quickly. After reviewing a few designs, Bilbo voted with the others to choose the one that depicted Orthanc crowned by an acorn, stamped with two crossed axes. It was the simplest of the images, but she liked that. Naturally, the treasury of Erebor would pay for the medals, and Gloin had a bit to say about the allocation of funds. Then there was the matter of an awarding ceremony. Bilbo agreed that Acorn would like to be present for that, and would take great joy in handing out at least some of the medals personally. Overall, it was an excellent plan.

Once that business was concluded, Bilbo stood politely and observed the rest of the court. She was meant to be advising, as Bofur did when some miners petitioned Thorin to open a new shaft along a promising vein of gold, but mostly she just listened.

After about an hour of scheduled business, Thorin said, “I will now hear my people.”

A young fabric merchant stepped forward to complain about the smell of a fish stall near his in the marketplace, which apparently drove his own customers away. Thorin arranged for his stall to be granted a different location. Then a grizzled old warrior of a dwarf approached the throne, telling a long, rambling story about a battle that Bilbo couldn’t quite follow. However, she was very impressed by the patient attention that Thorin paid. At the end of the story, Thorin turned to Dori, who stepped forward to offer the old man an apprenticeship as a clothier. The fellow nearly collapsed with gratitude.

“He’s been a smith,” Balin murmured quietly to Bilbo. “But the ringing hammers bring the battle back. It can be so. Yet it is always hard for an older dwarf to leave their craft and start a new trade. It’s likely he’s been looking for some time with no luck. He’ll enjoy the quiet of Dori’s shop.”

It seemed that no concern was too small for Thorin’s attention, and while his judgments did not always please all parties, they were always just and helpful to Bilbo’s ear.

Then, the most elaborately decorated dwarf Bilbo had ever seen approached the dais. Her hair was decked in diamonds which shimmered like a thousand stars. Her beard was braided with rubies as red as her hair, gleaming in the light of the Arkenstone. The gemstones paled in comparison to her jewelry, though. Golden bangles covered her arm from wrist to elbow, chiming like bells whenever she gestured. Necklaces adorned her throat at such lengths and with such emblems that Bilbo quite lost track of them all. When the lady bowed low, the longest of these brushed the marble floor of the throne room.

“My king.” When she spoke it was a melody, full of intent. Bilbo found her fascinating.

“Grisha.” For some reason, Thorin sounded wary. Bilbo wondered if perhaps the dwarf was a powerful merchant, or a diplomat from some other kingdom.

“Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King of Erebor,” the dwarf said formally, “I will marry you.”

Bilbo squeaked.

“For a mithril mirror which reflects light brighter than the sun; a golden carriage drawn by six snow white goats; a crown of rubies, each as large as my left eye; an emerald pendant, with a stone at least the size of my fist; a diamond arm band, in a mithril setting; a bathing room made entirely of solid gold,” she continued on. Demanding item after item, as though marrying Thorin was not the greatest privilege anyone could hope to aspire to. What did she need with a golden toilet, anyway? It was a ludicrous, insulting display.

Bilbo bit her tongue until it bled.

Whatever political power the obviously wealthy dwarf possessed, Thorin let her go on for five solid minutes with her insane requests. Then he thanked her. Bilbo’s palm itched for the weight of Sting. At least he did not actually offer her his hand in marriage.

“Thank you Grisha, daughter of Drosha,” Thorin said majestically. “That you think so highly of my wealth and ability flatters me beyond words. Even so, I do not think it is my fate to marry. You would be better served by another husband.”

So that was that. Though Bilbo didn’t fail to notice the weighty look Grisha gave Dis before sweeping out of the room. When everyone save the Company departed, Balin asked if anyone had anything private to say before court adjourned. As it happened, Bilbo did. Although it would certainly have been wiser to wait until she was entirely alone with Dis, the hobbit couldn’t contain herself for a moment longer.

“You arranged that,” she said, leveling an accusatory finger at Thorin’s sister. “You arranged for that gaudy, inappropriate spectacle. Don’t deny it!”

Dis raised an eyebrow. “Why would I deny it? Thorin deserves a proper wife. Given that the indiscretions of my younger son led to him having only one heir, it is right that I should help him find one.”

“A proper wife?” Bilbo spluttered, her voice rising in both volume and pitch. “You cannot think that ruby-decked Grisha person would make him a proper wife. Did you hear that horrible shopping list she gave him? You could not have missed it! A solid gold toilet! As though her bottom is so pristine she needs a throne even in the bathing room. I call that snobbery, and an insult. Not romance!”

“Peace, Bilbo.” Thorin rose from his throne and placed a gentle hand on her arm. “I will not marry. But you should not blame Dis or Grisha for this. They mend my reputation. As you know, I am not a desirable husband. By asking a high bride price in front of my court, Grisha made a show of faith in my wealth and power, if not my person.”

Bilbo stared at him. That was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard, and she regularly took tea with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. “Not a desirable husband? There isn’t a lass in this mountain who wouldn’t marry you at the drop of a hat. Whatever are you talking about, you ridiculous dwarf?”

Thorin laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Do you consider yourself of that number?”

“You know I’d marry you for two pins!” Bilbo froze. The look on Thorin’s face was one of absolute shock. That was hardly his fault. Bilbo couldn’t believe she’d said it aloud, either. It was every bit as appalling as Grisha’s inappropriate display. She was suddenly deeply aware of their friends, crowded around Thorin’s throne, standing absolutely still, like statues made of living stone.

“If you will excuse me,” she said, as politely as she could manage, before walking slowly across the long hall, exiting the throne room. There was not even the sound of breathing behind her.

Chapter Text

For a long time, Thorin stared at the closed door to his throne room. He did not remember. He did not remember Bilbo proposing to him. But there was no question. The pain in her voice when she said he knew her bride price was too raw to be anything but the truth of her heart. Such a trifling request! Two pins from the vast treasure hoard of Erebor. Perhaps less. If the proposal he could not remember came earlier.

It was clear that pins meant something to hobbits. Acorn made two pins for her mother on her birthday. What was a pin, except a way to bind separate things together? Yes, Thorin could see the romance of such a proposal. Had she murmured it to him in Beorn’s garden while he was distracted? He could still recall the taste of honey from her lips, but he did not remember all of her words during those stolen moments. Did she offer then? Would she have taken Thorin Oakenshield for a cloak-pin made of steel and a hairpin worked from wood and leather? Surely he could not fail to notice such a romantic proposal.

It must have been while he was mad. He thought he recalled his abhorrent behavior so clearly. Bilbo spoke of children and seeds. She did not mention pins. Thorin kissed her without an invitation. To reassure her that he was hers for the asking, but she did not ask. She welcomed him, but she did not ask. He was sure she did not ask, but perhaps she did. Was he so far gone that he mistook her proposal of marriage for just another cry of pleasure?

No. He was certain that he recalled every moment of those two occasions with perfect clarity. The proposal must have come at a different time. While they were drunk at the Master’s table in Laketown. While he lay wounded on the battlefield after Azog’s defeat. Could it have been on the Carrock? Not then. Someone else would have noticed. When? When had she proposed? How had he been such a fool as to miss it, while leaving her so positive that he knew her bride price and refused to pay it.

She asked so little. She was worth so much. He could set the Arkenstone itself upon a pin for her hair, and it would still not come close to her value.

“Well,” Kili said, breaking the absolute silence of the throne room. “There we all were feeling sorry for you for all these years.” An uncomfortable laugh tittered from his throat.

“You refused her proposal?” Fili’s voice was low and dangerous. “She has a child to offer in return!”

“Is she lying?” Dis sounded bewildered. Like she couldn’t reconcile Bilbo’s words with the truth of Thorin’s longing. Thorin understood.

“Bilbo is not a liar,” he said firmly, finally looking away from the door to address his Company. “It must have been on Ravenhill, when I was lost to battle lust. She would not understand that a dwarf does not always comprehend all that he sees and hears at such moments.”

“Bilbo’s not an idiot either.” Bofur’s face was still as stone. His eyes were hard as flint. “She wouldn’t be too prideful to repeat the question. Not if Grisha, daughter of Drosha, wasn’t. Not while raising a child alone for the last ten years, hiding from her friends to protect your reputation.”

“She did.” Thorin closed his eyes. His life would forever be haunted by the mistakes of his past. “She asked if I remembered all that transpired between us while I was mad. I told her I did. It is not her pride that caused us to separate.”

“Right! Well then, it’s all easily sorted.” Balin’s voice was incongruously cheerful. Thorin wondered if he had somehow entered his dotage without anyone noticing. Perhaps the weight of Thorin’s stupidity finally broke the older dwarf’s mind. When the king looked at his advisor, the dwarf’s eyes were sparkling like sapphires. “I’m happy enough to give you two pins, if you need them, lad.”

Thorin blinked. Then he abandoned his throne and raced to the treasury.

Although much of Erebor’s gold now circulated, paying soldiers, rebuilding Dale, and reestablishing a once great kingdom was not cheap, after all, the treasury was still vast. The comfort it offered Thorin was still dangerous. He ignored the gold entirely, going to the cataloged displays of crafted pieces. Despite the dedication of the scholars and scribes, Thorin had much searching to do. The works were arranged by era and artisan, when it was known, and not conveniently piled into pins or things that might suit Bilbo’s taste.

Whenever he found a pin, either a brooch or a hair-clasp, he found a dozen problems with it. Bilbo would not want pearls, she hated the water. Bilbo deserved better than garnets. Bilbo specifically mentioned a dislike for the rubies Grisha wore. Bilbo would find a large piece of gold gaudy and unwieldy.

Mithril was better. The rarity made it almost valuable enough to suit, and Bilbo liked it. There was a hairpin Thorin’s mother used to wear made of mithril and set with sapphires. It was not as elaborate as a courtship gift ought to be, but Bilbo would like it. The same could not be said for any of the other treasures.

Despairing, Thorin took a few of the most passable emeralds from the treasury and went to his forge. There was not time to craft a masterwork such as Bilbo deserved. If he had a hundred years, he could not craft a gift sufficient to make up for all of his failures. Accepting this, Thorin did the best he could with gold and emeralds to make a cloak pin which evoked oak leaves and acorns. It was trash. Ugly, poorly made garbage which aped the style Bilbo favored without artistry or elegance. Thorin threw it at his forge fire.

Balin caught the pin. Thorin blinked. He had not heard his advisor enter the forge.

“Bilbo has waited long enough for this,” the old dwarf said. “I do not think she cares about perfection.”

“She deserves it!” Thorin growled.

Balin held up a hand. Thorin sighed, and took the pin back.

“Perhaps you should not give it to her,” Balin said.

Thorin scowled, but he did not argue. It was true. Bilbo deserved better.

Balin leaned against the workbench, looking away from Thorin, staring into the fire. “Until you can forgive yourself for trying to kill her, and for everything else that came between you for so many years, you cannot be the husband Bilbo deserves. You have always been like this, thinking there must be a grand gesture to fix the past. The past cannot be fixed, Thorin. It can only be. If you won’t move forward, let her go. Such a tumultuous relationship would bring happiness to no one, least of all the child.”

Thorin looked down at the pin in his hand. He tried to see it through eyes unclouded by the guilt of a gift ten years overdue. Even so, it looked wrong. “There is hope, Balin,” he said quietly. “There is always hope. This time, I will get it right.”

Balin smiled. “You know Bilbo better than I. Do you think she asked you for gold and emeralds, Thorin? Because I think she would take the iron pin of a blacksmith in a heartbeat. The Company feasts in the Sapphire Dining Hall tonight. Dis feels the need to make amends with Bilbo. The hobbits will be there.”

Thorin said nothing as Balin turned and walked to the door. In fact, the forge was silent for long minutes after the older dwarf left. Then, the sound of a hammer rang out once more.

The king washed, but he did not dress with special care for dinner. Normally he would outfit himself formally if Dis made plans in the Sapphire Dining Hall. Such occasions were special to her, and Thorin enjoyed finery as much as the next dwarf. Instead of his best, Thorin wore the blue shirt from the day before. Bilbo complimented it, and she was not free with opinions about his clothing. If it was nice enough for Ori’s birthday, it was nice enough for a formal dinner.

Bilbo was not, of course, seated next to him at table. Even forgiving Fili was upset with Thorin, so Bilbo and Acorn were many places away, surrounded Bofur and Bombur’s family. The conversation there seemed to be cheerful and warm. In contrast, Thorin’s family were stilted and formal with him. Fili commented stiffly about the quality of the food. Kili joked humorlessly about Thorin’s tardiness. Dis even sniped at his clothes, threatening to hire a dresser for him if he could not manage himself.

Thorin barely heard them. The weight of the box in his pocket drew all of his focus.

Eventually, the food was eaten. Thorin did not know what the food was, but some of it had been on his plate, and then it was gone. So he must have eaten. When the singing started, and the children got up to dance with Bofur and the more playful adults, Thorin rose from his own seat. He could feel the eyes of his company on him, though they hid their curiosity by continuing their music and merrymaking. Then, he stood before Bilbo.

She was laughing. Eyes sparkling in the golden light of the hall, Bilbo slapped Bombur’s arm playfully and turned to Thorin. “Talk some sense into this fool,” she commanded Thorin.

“Gladly,” the king said. “Whatever Bilbo told you is right,” he informed Bombur, who laughed and turned back to his wife.

“Thank you.” Bilbo’s smile was so very soft. Even when he did not believe she wanted him, Thorin had always been able to see the love in her eyes.

“I recognized long ago that it was always best to trust in your plans and accede to your wishes.” Thorin drew the box from his pocket. “To that end, here.”

Bilbo opened the box. “Oh! Why thank you,” she said. “This is lovely.” The mithril hairpin with its sapphires was the first in her hand.

“It belonged to my mother,” Thorin said hopefully.

“Then I will wear it with pride!” Bilbo immediately set the box and the other pin aside to twist her hair deftly up and bind it with the clasp. Turning her head, she asked, “How does it look?”

“Almost worthy of your beauty,” Thorin said.

Blushing, the hobbit looked down a the box, drawing forth the second pin. “Now this, I call useful,” she said, sounding genuinely satisfied with the plain steel brooch. It was a simple, braided pattern that Thorin could stamp in his sleep, but it had his maker’s mark and a few acorns worked into the design. “Exactly what I needed, you know. A proper cloak pin for everyday wear. This won’t break under a little hardship. Thank you, Thorin, truly.”

“Then, they are suitable?” Thorin’s tongue felt thick in his mouth.

Bilbo cocked her head to the side and looked up at him. “How do you mean?”

“The two pins,” Thorin said. “Are they what you wanted? Do you accept them?”

Bilbo blinked. Her mouth opened, as if to answer, but it closed again. She looked away, then back to Thorin. Once again, her mouth opened and closed, twisting at the corners. Then she said, “You idiot!” and burst into tears.

So it was all for naught. Either the pins were incorrect, or his response to her proposal came too late. She would not have him. Thorin turned away. If she did not want him for a husband, she likely did not want his comfort either. Surprisingly strong hands caught his arm.

“I will,” Bilbo said, through her tears. Then she started sobbing again.

“You are weeping,” Thorin said stupidly. “You did not weep when Acorn was recovered, nor when we thought Fili lost on Ravenhill. You never weep.”

“That.” She hiccuped. “Such an idiot.” She buried her face in her handkerchief. “You too,” he thought he heard her say.

Suddenly, Acorn was there at Bilbo’s elbow. “What’s wrong, Mum?” Her little face was twisted with concern.

“Nothing,” Bilbo said, but this was belied by her obviously failed attempts to master herself and she returned to sobbing into her handkerchief.

Thorin stepped forward. “I gave your mother two pins to demonstrate her worth to me,” he said. He did not add that he believed they might now be engaged to marry. Bilbo’s reaction was still too perplexing. While he was debating whether or not gathering the crying hobbit into his own arms would be equally presumptuous, Thorin nearly missed the equally confusing reaction of the child.

Fortunately, long years on the battlefield had honed his reflexes too finely for that. Orcrist was in his hand instinctively, still half sheathed, but Acorn’s little ax clashed harmlessly against the partially exposed blade.

The child’s small face should have been cute or funny, twisted into a snarl as it was. Her growl was that of a kitten, though her claw was somewhat sharper. Even so, there was no mistaking that look. She was enraged. Not angry. Berserk.

The flurry of blows which came at Thorin then were well trained and far more powerful than a child of her years should have been capable of. It was a gift of the line of Durin, to find such strength in anger, though not one Thorin would have chosen for the girl if it had been his lot to choose. He was pressed to defend himself without hurting her, but it would be far too easy to cut her down. Fighting from a place of anger instead of skill was always dangerous.

He considered letting her cut him down. As Bilbo’s closest family, Acorn had the right to kill a suitor she found unworthy of her mother. If she did so before Bilbo declared Thorin to be the child’s father, it was not even patricide. At once, Thorin dismissed the idea. Despite the strange new sadness he was causing Bilbo, his death would serve no purpose. He had too much to do to die today.

“Acorn Belladonna Baggins!” Bilbo’s voice was sharper than Orcrist. “You stop that this instant.”

Thorin saw that Bilbo was no longer crying. He also saw the rage leave Acorn’s eyes even as she continued to strike at him with more precision and less strength.

“I won’t!” A clever feint at Thorin’s knee turned into an earnest strike to his loins. Clearly the girl learned much from Dwalin. “I’ll kill him.” Three quick blows came straight at Thorin’s middle, but he blocked each in turn. “He has ruined everything!” Holding the ax in both hands like a hammer, she swung down to pin his foot to the floor, but Thorin danced away. “I was going to have a little brother!”

Bilbo’s laugh was high and clear, with no sign of her previous sorrow. “Not much chance of that if you kill your father before we’re even married.”

Thorin missed the next block and lost part of one of his braids as he just barely dodged the blow. Acorn’s father. In Bilbo’s own words. It was not quite a declaration, but it was close enough for a legal argument. A legal argument that Thorin would never need to make. Married, Bilbo said. As though it was a foregone conclusion. She even spoke of another child.

“You aren’t getting married,” Acorn said, still scowling and swinging her little ax at Thorin. “He says you’re only worth two pins.”

“So come see the pins,” Bilbo said, turning her head a little to show the mithril to Acorn. “I have one in my hair already.”

Reluctantly, the child darted a look at her mother. Then she frowned. Although she did not put away her ax, she did not strike at Thorin again. “That is very pretty,” she admitted sulkily. Turning back to Thorin, she demanded to know more. “Are you getting married? Did you propose?”

“Among dwarves,” Bilbo said, “I believe it is the lasses who propose, not the lads.”

Thorin froze. For a moment, he could not even comprehend the words.

“Lasses?” Acorn looked deeply confused. As though the idea of a lady proposing was as foreign to her as Khuzdul. Perhaps even stranger to her ear, for she had some context for the dwarven language in her mother’s stories. “Really?”

“Your father and I had a bit of a misunderstanding about that,” Bilbo said. “But I proposed this afternoon, and he’s accepted. It’s really a rather charming custom, if I have the right of it. A lass tells the fellow she likes that she’ll marry him if he does such-and-such, and then he proves how much he likes her by doing it. Or not, I suppose.”

“Oh.” Acorn snapped her little ax back on her belt. Then she frowned again. “Two pins, though?”

“What do they mean?” Thorin’s voice was hoarse in his own ears. “Pins. What do they signify to hobbits?”

“Well, nothing,” Acorn said. “You can get a hundred pins for a penny. They’re not worth anything, really. So saying you’ll do something for two pins is saying you’ll do it for free. The pin in Mum’s hair is nice enough, though,” she admitted. “You’re really getting married?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at Thorin, as though he might try to change his mind.

“Yes,” he declared, forcing his voice to be steady and firm. Then he looked to Bilbo for confirmation.

“Oh, you ridiculous dwarf,” she cried. “I’ll marry you right now, if you like, and call it ten years overdue. Yes. We are really getting married.”

Mercurial as the mountain wind, Acorn leapt into the air cheering. “Hooray! We shall stay in Erebor forever!” Then she threw her arms around Thorin’s neck and pressed a kiss to his beard. “I knew you would do the right thing, Father.”

The word echoed in his ears. It was almost more incredible than the fact that Bilbo would be his wife. “My daughter,” he said, claiming her right back. He missed the first ten years of her growth, but she was still small enough to hold. She still fit so perfectly in his arms. He brushed a lock of dark hair away from her blue eyes, and he was finally allowed to think it. She had his hair color, his eyes, indeed, most of his features. She was his. “My daughter,” he repeated.

A hand touched Thorin’s arm, and he looked down to see Bilbo at his side. “Our daughter,” he corrected, grinning at her. “All that I have is yours,” he told the child. Words he would have said at their first meeting, if it had been possible. “The treasures and secrets of my ancestors, the work of my hands, and the love of my heart. My daughter.”

“It’s best to mitigate expectations,” the hobbit murmured. Then she told the child, “We may not stay in Erebor. Thorin and I are definitely getting married, but we’ll have to have a long talk about where we live.”

Thorin’s arms tightened around his daughter, who in turn blinked down at her mother.

“I want to live in Erebor,” Acorn said definitely. The firm quality of the child’s voice settled the matter in Thorin’s heart, but Bilbo’s home was the Shire. Thorin would not dismiss that either. “That is the whole point of you marrying Father! He cannot leave Erebor, because he’s a king with responsibilities! If we have to go back to the Shire anyway, you might as well marry Mister Dwalin.”

Thorin clung to the child in his arms. “I will abdicate, if you ask it of me,” he told Bilbo seriously. In that moment, he knew it was true. If Bilbo wished to raise her daughter in the Shire, he would go there and be a king no longer. For the chance of marrying Bilbo, Thorin would not give her the Arkenstone. Instead, he would give it up, and everything that it represented. Erebor was stable enough to manage the transition.

“If I ask it?” Bilbo narrowed her eyes. “Thorin Oakenshield, if you’re about to tell me that you don’t need to abdicate to marry someone other than a dwarven princess, I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

“Why would I need to abdicate?” Thorin asked. “Balin told you I would not need to choose a wife for politics if we reclaimed Erebor. That has not changed. In any case, you have given me a daughter. A daughter! No one could question the right of such a queen.”

Bilbo frowned. “Right. So if something happens to Fili, Kili will be king? I have wholly misunderstood the politics in your letters all these years?”

“Well, no,” Thorin said, relaxing a little. “But Tauriel is an elf beholden to a kingdom with which we were recently at war. Not a hobbit who faced a dragon for the reclamation of Erebor. And Acorn is not a half-elf.” Thorin looked to his daughter again. His hand traced the smooth curve of her cheek and she smiled. She was perfect. “Acorn is the heir to all that is mine. One day, she will be a mighty queen.”

Acorn’s eyes went wide. “I will?”

“If you desire it,” Thorin said. “Even if I should abdicate, you cannot remove yourself from the line of succession until the age of forty. Fili would rule as your regent until you are old enough to decide whether or not you want the duty. It is a great responsibility.”

The fauntling’s face shifted into a familiar, calculating expression. “So you have to stay here, then, right? We have to live in Erebor. You cannot abandon your responsibility.”

“That is for your mother to say.” Thorin smiled helplessly at Bilbo. “Now that we are to be married, I am hers to command.”

Throwing her hands in the air, Bilbo appeared overwrought with emotion. “Fine,” she cried. “Apparently there is no reason why we should not all stay in Erebor and live happily ever after!”

“Indeed there is not.” Shifting Acorn’s weight to one arm, Thorin wrapped the other around Bilbo’s waist, pulling her close. Despite her words, she came willingly, and arched her neck to meet his lips in a chaste kiss. Around them, the Company exploded into cheers.

Chapter Text

Downing a troll should be a good thing. Even when he was young and strong, trolls were always a problem. Now that he was an old dwarf, part of him crowed to manage it. It would have been a fine death, putting his ax through the thing’s neck and being stabbed in his own turn. Unfortunately, the miserable pile of rocks didn’t stab him, it keeled over on top of him. Like the gray beard he was, Dwalin had been too slow to get out of the way.

So he was pinned under the pile of dead stone that was a giant cave troll as its master stalked toward him.

Either his name or rank was Banat. Dwalin knew just enough of the dark tongue to understand that the orcs acknowledged the beast’s orders more than once with a, “Yes, Banat.” Perhaps Banat was a type of creature, for the dwarf had never seen his like. The thing reminded him of a cat on two legs, covered in red fur, with arms to reach and hands to grab.

Seven feet tall, the dandy managed another foot at least with the spiraling horn that adorned his helmet. All of his armor had the sort of useless spikes that were as much a danger to the wearer as an opponent. Dwalin hoped the bastard would trip and impale himself. Unfortunately, his luck wasn’t that good. The creature’s tail was a whip with a scorpion sting that brushed against Dwalin’s beard, then lashed out quickly, cutting him deeply.

The son of Fundin didn’t cry out in pain. He wouldn’t give the asshole the satisfaction.

“Erebor is a softer target than we thought.” The beast smiled, showing rows of pointed teeth. “If an old gray-beard and a few soldiers are the best rescue party your queen can spare, my lords will have no trouble overthrowing her.”

“Rescued him, didn’t we?” Dwalin knew better than to answer. Cats played with their prey, and Banat wasn’t an exception. The more the dwarf talked, the longer he’d be tortured, but the thing’s words cut more deeply than it could know.

The queen’s closest advisors told her to send someone else. Anyone else. A small raiding party could track down the bandits responsible for waylaying the caravan and rescue Erebor’s finest goldsmith easily. It was a good idea. Everyone agreed on that. Only, no one but Dwalin thought he should lead it. He was old. They hesitated to say it to his face, but he was. He hadn’t been out on a real mission for over a year. He was enjoying a partial retirement, but he couldn’t rest on his laurels if the queen needed him.

Seeing the queen’s expression when she found out about the bandit attack, Dwalin knew he had to go himself. Perhaps it was pride. Maybe it was an even more dangerous emotion. Dwalin had to be the one to see the rescue through. Someone else might get it wrong. Dwalin was the most experienced warrior in Erebor. He was also a proud idiot, and soon to be a dead one. At least Bombur’s son was safe.

Snarling, the monster whipped him again. The weight of the troll on his chest crushed Dwalin to the hard ground, even as he struggled to get a hand free or lift the stupid thing enough to squirm out from underneath it.

“Luck!” The cat-thing howled with anger. “My orcs will find your soldiers, gray-beard, and you will pay for killing my troll. You will pay dearly!”

Dwalin kept his mouth shut. The bandits weren’t as disorganized as bandits usually were. They also weren’t bandits. Bandits were a few strong men out for gold. The ones who captured Guntur were the vanguard of an army, and this thing was a captain. Bandits didn’t have trolls working for them, nor a hundred orcs to do their bidding.

Well, this one didn’t have a troll anymore, either. He would be no real danger to the might of Erebor. The soldiers who took Guntur to safety on Dwalin’s orders would report the danger to the queen. The army would be deployed. Dwalin would be avenged.

Hopefully everyone would think he died killing the troll. The queen would be ashamed to know they slit his throat while he was on his back.

Baring his jagged, needle teeth, Banat whipped his tail around once more. Dwalin could see the long, sharp barb glinting in the sunlight. He could only hope that death would come quickly.

Another blade hurtled through the air, spinning head over handle. It was nothing special, but Dwalin recognized it instantly. A throwing ax from the Iron Hills. Dwalin knew it as well as his own knuckle dusters. It sliced through the monster’s tail, severing the bladed tip from the rest of the whip-like appendage.

Rearing back, the creature howled in pain. The stub of its tail lashed back and forth, bleeding profusely. That was all the opening she needed.

The queen landed with a flip, spinning her big, two handed ax with a flourish before striking out at the monster’s throat. She was always a show off. Came by it from her mother, most likely. Bilbo always appreciated a little flair. Dwalin certainly never taught Acorn to waste time spin-kicking when she could simply knee a fellow in the rocks.

He did teach her the feint she made toward the monster’s side which let her twist her ax to cut off his vambraces. One the armor was gone, his right wrist followed. That seemed enough to incapacitate the bestial captain. It certainly disarmed him, as his main sword was still clutched in the hand which now lay bleeding on the dirt not too far from Dwalin. The monster fell to his knees, clutching the stump of his arm, begging for mercy.

Acorn was too smart to fall for that. After all, on his knees, the monster was still taller than her, and just as armored. Unfortunately, she was also too much of a hobbit to behead the creature while it begged. Instead, she waited until the poison dart was flying at her face to deflect it with her ax, giving her opponent a free shot at hamstringing her with a boot dagger. She did behead him then, but it was sloppy work. Dwalin didn’t hesitate to tell her so.

“Ought to have cut him down from the start,” he grumbled. “Letting him get two free shots in on you like that. Your father would be ashamed.”

“Maybe,” Acorn said. Coming over to Dwalin, she used an abandoned spear to start levering the troll corpse off of him. “Mum would say the only thing that matters is surviving, and making sure my friends do, too.”

“Hobbits,” Dwalin growled, struggling to his feet and ignoring the hand his queen offered to help him up. “You’re Queen Under the Mountain now. You’re supposed to be safely under the mountain. It’s not your place to go fighting bandits.”

For a moment she bit her lip guiltily, but it soon passed. The grin she gave him was bright and unrepentant. “I’ll say where my place is, thank you very much. After all, I am Queen. Don’t worry. I told Cousin Fili that I intended to follow you.”

Dwalin raised an eyebrow at his former student. “And he approved of that, did he?”

“No, I expect he’ll be a bit peeved when he finds the letter.”

“Irresponsible. Why did your father think it was a good idea to let a fifty-year-old take the crown?”

“Fifty is a very respectable age for hobbits, I’ll have you know,” Acorn said. Her eyes twinkled mischievously. “And my mother isn’t getting any younger. It made sense for them to retire.”

“Acorn.” Dwalin stopped walking and looked her square in the eye. “You aren’t a princess anymore. The kingdom can’t afford to risk you on anything less than pitched battle.”

“Dwalin.” All humor left her face. For a moment, the grizzled old warrior could swear he was looking at her father, her expression was so uncharacteristically serious. “It was Guntur.”

He sighed, turning his feet back toward home. “We’d better catch up. Make sure he gets away clean. More than a few orcs are chasing him.”

“Can you run?” Acorn looked supremely skeptical. Dwalin didn’t blame her. His bad hip made running torture these days. It had been years since the last time he ran a lap around a training field and being crushed by a troll didn’t help matters. Still, it was only pain.

“Can you keep up?” Dwalin took off at a steady pace, which Acorn matched easily. They passed under trees and over hills, the uneven ground of the mountainside sending jolts of lightning through Dwalin’s side. He ignored it, letting the repetitive drum beat of their footfalls drive him on. Despite her relatively small stature, Acorn would be twice as fast without him. Fortunately, she was smart and stayed by his side. At least she knew her duty well enough to not race after a contingent of orcs alone.

In fact, when they finally caught up with the orcs it was not far from the Gates of Erebor. The stupid creatures unwisely chased Dwalin’s scouts too far, only to be met by the well trained mountain guard. Peering out over the pitched battle with a weathered eye, Dwalin saw Guntur safe behind the line of guards. Between Dwalin’s scouts and the well armored dwarves of the guard, the orcs were even outnumbered. There was no need to worry for either the civilian or the mountain. The only concern now was the future, and what this force represented.

A surprise attack from behind would keep the dark creatures from fleeing, allowing the mess to be cleaned up here without any messengers escaping back to whatever generals intended to trouble Erebor in the future. Perhaps such a devastating loss would make them reconsider a second incursion. The only problem was, Dwalin could not order his queen to remain behind in safety while he entered the fray alone.

“I suppose this does not count as a pitched battle,” Acorn said. When she looked at Dwalin out of the corner of her eye, he could see her considering whether or not he would obey an order to remain in safety while she sallied forth alone. After all, he was a wounded old graybeard who needed to be protected.

Dwalin snorted. “Your orders, my queen?”

Acorn grinned. Sunlight gleamed along the edge of her battleax. “Du Bekar!” she cried. Together they charged forward, decimating the orcish contingent from behind while the guards in front held their line. Not a single dark creature escaped the crushing pincer of Erebor that day.

Chapter Text

Thorin grumbled as he wandered about the elegantly appointed Rivendell rooms. He was rearranging their luggage, of course, because he could not bear admitting that elves might have done an adequate job unpacking for him. Bilbo smiled. Her husband grumbled more than she might have guessed before they were married. Long ago, she asked him to always tell her his feelings, pleasant or not, and so he always did. Bilbo appreciated it. Even when his feelings were a gentle disparagement of something that she enjoyed.

“Singing and singing,” he groused, straightening his combs to such a fine degree that one would need a ruler to measure it. “Song after song, the whole day through, and not a single danceable tune. Were they even different tunes? The characters of their ballads change, but their melody never does.”

Pinning her hair up with her favorite clasp of mithril and sapphires, Bilbo interrupted him. “There is no need to go back to the Hall of Fire tonight,” she said. “It was a long journey, and an early bed will do you good.”

The hope on his face almost made her laugh, before he scowled. “You are still dressing,” he accused. “You will go without me.”

“In fact, I will,” Bilbo said, for this was not at all the betrayal that his expression implied.

“We are meant to spend time together,” Thorin said. “Now that the yoke of duty is lifted from our shoulders, there is no need for us to part.”

“Need or not, there is reason.” Bilbo laughed, softening her words with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You do not like the music, but I wish to enjoy myself.”

“I like good music,” the former king grumbled, leaning into her touch.

Bilbo laughed again. “I will never understand why this place discomfits you so. I adore it. In another life, I think I could have spent all my days here very happily. Indeed, in this life I am thinking about extending our stay for a full month.”

The light scowl fell from Thorin’s face, turning it into the completely expressionless mien that Bilbo thought of as his negotiation posture. “Oh? You would wait so long to meet our third grandchild? Truly, you have told me that hobbits value girl children less than the boys, but I did not think it would extend so far as this. And after Thrain wrote that he intended to name her for your mother.”

Bilbo stopped laughing and shoved her husband’s shoulder instead of clasping it. At the press of her hand, his stone face broke into a smug grin.

“I thought not,” he said. Leaning forward, he caught her lips in a sweet kiss. It did not remain sweet for long. Instead, Thorin pulled his wife close, one hand toying with her hair and massaging the sides of her neck, the other on the small of her back, pressing their bodies together. The dwarven fire within Thorin burned hotter than ever now that his attention was no longer divided between his kingdom and his family.

Age was not quite as kind to Bilbo. Her spirit was always willing, but her old body was something else. “In the morning,” she said, gasping for breath. The heat was almost too much to resist, and her blood thundered with desire, but she was not a tween. She knew better. “There will be time enough for sport in the morning, when my back does not ache from a long month of traveling. I am not as young as I used to be, you know.”

At once, Thorin relented. He did not release Bilbo from his embrace, but his hands shifted. The one on her neck slid down to her upper back so that he was no longer teasing the spot just below her ear that always made her ache for him. The one on her lower back moved reluctantly away from her bottom.

Bilbo sighed with regret. A little sporting would have been nice, no matter what price she paid for it later.

“You are in pain,” Thorin said. His voice was an accusation, even as his breath brushed softly over her lips like another kiss. “You were in pain yesterday as well. That is why you insisted on keeping afternoon tea even though you ate nothing.”

“The rest did us all good,” the hobbit said. “Bifur and Bofur are hardly spring chickens either, though I suppose Legolas and Gimli could continue on happily all the way to the Shire without food or sleep. Anyway, we made it here by nightfall, which was our only real goal.”

Growling, Thorin did step away from Bilbo then. “I will get a healer. A house full of elves ought to be able to spare one.”

Catching his arm, Bilbo said, “No need. Lord Elrond himself helped me through the worst of it this afternoon, and I have a little salve to use just before bed tonight. I ought to be right as raspberries come morning.”

Thorin’s scowl deepened. “You told an elf, but not your husband.”

“My husband would make a fuss,” Bilbo said reasonably. “Just as he is doing now. If I confide the slightest ache to you, my love, you start looking as though my age is an orc you wish to slay. Which is ridiculous. Your own beard is quite silver these days, and I am going to beat the Old Took in years.”

“I am not making a fuss,” Thorin said, but he did not smile. Instead, he went to the vanity, sat down, and began dressing his own hair with the usual jewels. “But I am bringing my own harp to the Hall of Fire. If we must listen to their endless droning, they can tolerate at least one decent song.”

Going to him, Bilbo draped her arms around his shoulders and pressed a gentle kiss to his bearded cheek. “I am sure you will delight them all,” she said. “Certainly, I like nothing better than my husband’s singing.”

At that, Thorin finally smiled. Turning, he pressed the gentle curl of his lips against Bilbo’s chastely. “With your permission, I will try the tune we are composing to honor Belladonna. It does not matter what elves think of it, so they make a fine test audience.”

Laughing, Bilbo dropped her forehead to rest on Thorin’s shoulder. “Indeed, whyever would we want to offer our best in the Hall of Fire. We must save that for the Shire.”

“We must indeed,” the dwarf said seriously. “Belladonna deserves nothing less, though she will not remember our arrival. Our first granddaughter, Bilbo! A daughter on the third try is very lucky, you know. Our son has done well.”

Bilbo did her best to refrain from laughing again. “It seems to me that dwarves always think daughters lucky, no matter when they are born.”

Acknowledging the truth of this, Thorin went back to fixing his silver hair into proper braids. “Daughters are as rare as diamonds, and far more precious.”

“Well, don’t you go telling that to the boys. Bandy and Tea are so sweet with each other. You’ll spoil it if you make them jealous of the new baby.”

“My wisest advisor. You must make me a list of these reminders so they do not slip from my aging mind.” Thorin took Bilbo’s hand in his, raising it to his lips. “Do you think the gifts we bring from Erebor will placate them?”

“Just remember that the greatest gift we have to give is our time, and pay attention to the boys as well as the baby. I remember what you were like when Thrain was a newborn. You wouldn’t put him down for a minute. Barely even let me hold him.”

Thorin laughed. “It was easier then, wasn’t it? I could hold him in my arms and seat Acorn at my right hand.” His voice took on a serious tone. “You did not have to endure the pain of long journeys to see them both.”

“There’s another item for your list,” Bilbo said cheerfully. “Don’t you go picking a fight with your son about settling in the Shire, Thorin Oakenshield. We’re still getting over the last one. Lily is a farmer. She wasn’t going to leave the land that’s been in her family for six generations. They had to settle in the Shire. In any case, we’ll have a lovely, long stay. I want to see Belladonna’s first steps, tell Bandy all of our stories, and watch Tea working on those pictures of his.”

“Yes.” Thorin’s mouth twisted in a dubious expression. “It is good for Acorn to have some space as she settles into her crown. Her advisors will be less likely to appeal to me and undermine her decisions.”

“And yet, you would not be ten feet away from her ever again if you could have your will,” Bilbo said.

“I would be within arms reach of all my family, if I could manage it,” Thorin admitted. “But that is my burden which I will not force upon any of you. Save only asking that you allow me to escort you to the Hall of Fire where we might listen once again to the music of the elves.”

Bilbo smiled. “We are going to make plenty of music on our own tomorrow morning, my love. Just you wait.”

“Bilbo Baggins,” Thorin said gravely, “My wife, I am yours to command. For you, I would wait until the breaking of the world.”

“Well, I am the one who is waiting for you, just now. I assure you that your braids look very kingly. May we go?”

And so, hand in hand, they went forth together.