The Hobbits of the Shire had nice, respectable dæmons, thank you very much. Rabbits, and the occasional chicken, were the norm, and they were very satisfied with that. Sure, the Tooks might produce the occasional weasel, or, goodness gracious, a badger! But the Tooks had always been odd, and this was just confirmation of it. After all, they associated with the wizard Gandalf, and his strange moth dæmon, so strangeness was bound to follow them.
There was talk when Belladonna Took and her ferret became quite taken with Bungo Baggins, whose dæmon was of course a respectable rabbit. The Tooks had money but a shortage of respectability, while the Bagginses were not terribly affluent but had respectability coming out of their ears, so some supposed the match was “encouraged” by their families. After all, how could people with two such incompatible dæmons coexist peacefully, let alone love each other?
The couple ignored this, and in due time welcomed a son into the world, who they named Bilbo. He seemed blessed with his father’s good sense and his mother’s adventurousness, just the right balance of Took and Baggins. But, as he grew older, tongues began to wag. When his dæmon settled, what would it settle on? Was he more a Baggins than a Took, people began to wonder? That was the preferred way of things, of course, but what if the opposite was true?
Myrtle of course wasn’t telling. Bilbo could tell that she knew, but it was no use trying to force it out of her. Myrtle was just as stubborn as Bilbo, because of course she was, and there was no getting anything out of her if she wasn’t willing to tell.
They all should have known Myrtle would be a badger.
Belladonna was so proud, if a little troubled for her son’s sake, and Bungo assured him that whatever people said, badgers were respectable dæmons, but from that day onward, Bilbo was never comfortable in the Shire. He was treated as though everyone expected him to run off at any moment, seized by some Tookish whim. As if badgers weren’t the grumpy homebodies of the animal kingdom.
When Bilbo lost his parents, that was exactly what he became, and the tongues of the Hobbiton gossips began to wag less frequently. It was true that a badger was not a rabbit, but then neither was a ferret, and Belladonna had been an admirable hobbit wife and mother. Her son need not be too strange, just because his dæmon was larger and had sharper claws. And in truth, Bilbo did become less strange than they had expected, leaving his mother’s old stories about other worlds where they belonged: the playroom. Never again did anyone hear Bilbo Baggins talk about trying to find elves (who no one had ever seen), or dwarves, or dragons, or any of the other odd things his mother had told him about. He settled in, becoming boring and respectable, or at least that was how he thought of it. There was a part of him still that believed his mother really had been on those adventures, but what good did thinking about it do? He was a Baggins of Bag End, and whatever adventures his mother might have had, well, they had nothing to do with him!
But then of course Gandalf came knocking, and respectability didn’t seem to matter much anymore. Myrtle had been saying so for years, but it didn’t mean quite so much coming from another part of yourself.
Thorin Oakenshield did not believe in coincidences or chance meetings. He never had, but a wizard appearing now, when Erebor was threatened by strange wraiths? There was nothing coincidental about it. They needed help, and a wizard seemed like just the one to provide it. Especially the way that the wizard had simply appeared, stepping through a strange hole in the air. Gandalf had appeared from time to time, but it was generally in a more conventional way (at least, Thorin had never seen him walk through a portal before). No, this meeting was absolutely intentional, and he intended to get all he could from it.
“I do not need to tell you that Erebor is in very grave danger,” Gandalf said without preamble, closing the hole behind him with a deft pinch of the fingers. Thorin caught of glimpse of green grass behind him, and wondered what kind of magic Gandalf commanded. Calling him a wizard was surely not a meaningless title, and there was no grass that green anywhere near Erebor. Not anymore.
“No, I have surmised that, which is why I was investigating,” Thorin replied testily. “Do you know what these creatures are? How they can be killed?” His dæmon, a mountain lion, watched Gandalf unblinkingly.
“I am afraid that no one yet knows what they are,” Gandalf admitted apologetically. “But they seem to be sensitive to blades forged in Gondolin.”
The name meant nothing to Thorin, but he didn’t question how Gandalf knew this. “Gondolin?”
“The lost kingdom of the high Elves,” Gandalf supplied unhelpfully.
“That kingdom is only a legend,” Thorin argued. A favorite bedtime story actually, though his mother had never known the name of the legendary kingdom. If only he could tell her now. “They say it lies in another world, which is as good as saying that it does not exist.”
“It does lie in another world,” Gandalf agreed easily. “But that does not make it inaccessible. There are many worlds, Thorin Oakenshield, and they are all connected, if you know what you are looking for.”
Thorin set his jaw irritably, Mingalaz circling the wizard slowly. Neither of them had ever been very patient, and Gandalf needed to get to the point already. Given that he had seen the wizard come out of some kind of portal, the idea that there were other worlds did not seem so unreasonable, and it certainly wasn’t unreasonable enough to put aside the matter at hand for. “Can you help me?” he asked finally, reaching out a hand to recall Mingalaz. She came unwillingly, with a very unfeline snort.
“I can,” Gandalf replied with a nod. “But there is something I require, in exchange for my help. Something I believe you are more than capable of doing.”
“Of course there’s a catch,” Mingalaz muttered, quieting when Thorin scratched behind her ears.
“What do you need?” Thorin asked, suspecting that he was going to regret it.
Gandalf smiled. “This threat to your world concerns all worlds,” he said seriously. “If the wraiths spread to other worlds, it won’t be long before everything anyone has ever known is destroyed. They have been kept at bay so far by the skill of your steel-forgers, but they won’t be frustrated forever. If you want my help, you must promise to use it to find a solution that protects all worlds from the wraiths. You cannot simply seal them in another world.” Gandalf had a firmness to his tone that Thorin had never heard before. He knew this was not negotiable. It was so much less than he had expected the wizard to ask for, and at the same time, so much more.
“Why come to me then, if it concerns all worlds?” Thorin wondered finally. “Dwarves are not known for grand quests or philanthropic ventures. The weight of one world on my shoulders is more than enough.”
“Because you saw the wraiths kill your grandfather, your father, and your brother,” Gandalf replied, not unkindly. Thorin wondered how Gandalf knew. Frerin and Shathinh’s death had been quite recent, and was the reason why he had set out to investigate where the wraiths were coming from. “I do not think you like the idea of letting them roam free in another world, free to murder families as they have here.”
“You are right,” Thorin admitted heavily. “I do not.” He did not add that if he left the wraiths free, they might find a way back to Erebor. They both knew that.
“And that is why I believe you are the dwarf for this quest,” Gandalf said simply. “You have lost much, and are willing to lose more, if it means that others will lose less.”
“Others have lost as much,” Mingalaz replied haughtily.
“Others would not consider my offer, as Thorin is now doing,” Gandalf pointed out lightly.
There was nothing he could really say to that. “I suppose I have no choice, to protect my people,” Thorin said with a sigh.
“There is always a choice, and you have chosen not to do nothing,” Gandalf told him. He paused. “Well then, you cannot embark on a quest to save the worlds alone,” he declared, decidedly more cheerful, as if they were discussing a lunch outing.
“He is not alone,” Mingalaz hissed, stepping in front of Thorin protectively. “Just because the grey wanderer wanders alone-” She was interrupted by a small, white moth landing on her nose. If it had a voice, Thorin could not hear it, but the way Mingalaz stiffened suggested some kind of communication. She had been wrong about Gandalf not having a dæmon. That was unsettling. She could usually feel things like that.
“I believe you should gather some warriors, those who you can trust,” Gandalf suggested, ignoring the dæmons. “You will need someone who can see the connections between the worlds, but I believe you may leave that to me.”
Thorin chafed at Gandalf’s assured manner, but there really was no choice. His people’s home was threatened, and he had only Gandalf’s word to go on. To save his world, he would walk into the jaws of death itself. What was looking for the lost world of the elves in comparison?
“Another world? Really now Gandalf, there is only so much that I can be expected to believe,” Bilbo huffed, fully prepared to retreat into the safety of Bag End. This was not the sort of conversation a respectable hobbit had on his doorstep. “I have heard you out, out of respect for your longstanding connection to my family, but really!”
“Is it so hard to believe? I showed your mother another world once, and I am certain she would have mentioned it to you.” Gandalf almost seemed hurt by the idea that she hadn’t.
Bilbo pursed his lips. “She may have mentioned it, but when I was a child! No more than a story meant to help me fall asleep.” Myrtle made an assenting sound, burrowing deeper into Bilbo’s lap.
“But what if it wasn’t?” Gandalf pressed. “What if it was real, and now one of those worlds needs your help?”
“A pretty enough tale, I’ll grant you,” Myrtle grumbled. “But the only world that needs hobbits is this one.”
Gandalf was not discouraged. “Haven’t you always wondered if you were meant for more? Myrtle is hardly what your neighbors consider a ‘normal’ dæmon. Doesn’t that suggest that maybe the Shire is not the world you were meant to be in?”
It was a seductive thought, made the more powerful by how often he had wished it were true. It had been a weak idea before, with the idea of other worlds no more than a fairy story. But now!
“What does this other world need me for?” he asked, relenting just a little.
“I think they can explain it better than I,” Gandalf replied with a mysterious twinkle in his eyes.
He could always come back, Bilbo told himself as Gandalf whisked him off, leaving his home behind. The wily wizard hadn’t even given him time to pack! Moments later, when Gandalf threw him into the Water (as they called Hobbiton’s river), he began to doubt that. Hobbits were poor swimmers. Maybe this other world that needed his help was the realm of the dead!
The current was not strong, or at least it should not have been, but Bilbo felt a tug on his bond with Myrtle. She couldn’t be that far away from him, could she? Feeling the pull deeper into the river, Bilbo swam down, deeper than any hobbit should reasonably want to go, following his wayward dæmon. He saw nothing but murky water, and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he wasn’t swimming down, but up, and soon he was floating in a calm lake, gazing at utterly unfamiliar scenery. Gandalf was nowhere to be seen, which was not the least bit comforting. Myrtle was paddling for dear life, and feeling the pull of their bond, he followed her to shore.
Where the Shire was a green world, full of life and flowers, this place clearly was not. It had to be another world. A brief jaunt in the Water could not take him to such a brown, desolated place. No living thing grew on the ground, though at least he thought he saw fish in the lake. A mountain rose in the distance, stark and proud against the grey sky, and Bilbo knew that was his destination.
Myrtle shook herself off irritably. “How many supposedly drowned hobbits have found their way here instead?” she wondered, frowning. “Though we might be dead anyway.”
“You know that’s nonsense Myrtle,” Bilbo scolded, though his heart wasn’t in it. There were shadows flitting about the landscape that he really did not like. It wasn’t natural. He was about to comment on it when pain shot through his heart, and he saw Myrtle being pinned down by a mountain lion.
“What an uncivilized place,” Myrtle gasped, wiggling futilely in an attempt to get her claws out. “First we pop out in a lake, then we’re attacked by giant beasts…”
“I am no mere beast,” the mountain lion replied haughtily, baring her fangs. “And you are trespassing.”
Bilbo recovered enough presence of mind to find the person to whom this dæmon belonged, and knew when he found a pair of sky blue eyes, cold as ice chips, staring back at him (the clear match to his dæmon) that he had found the man in question. Taller than Bilbo, though not too much taller, heavily built, and with a stern jaw, Bilbo knew suddenly that he was looking at a dwarf.
“You never should have listened to Gandalf,” Myrtle moaned, and suddenly the newcomer and his dæmon both stiffened.
“You know of Gandalf?” the dwarf asked, the suspicion fading slowly from his expression.
“He told me there was a world that needed my help, threw me in the river, and we ended up here,” Bilbo choked out, holding his chest. “I thought he came with us, but I guess he didn’t. His dæmon probably can’t get wet, being a moth and all.”
The mountain lion relaxed her hold on Myrtle, and the badger took the opportunity to scurry back over to Bilbo, who held her protectively. This definitely wasn’t how you greeted people in the Shire, but, as the lack of greenery reminded him, they were not in the Shire anymore. Something had happened to this world, to make its inhabitants act so.
“Gandalf told us to expect someone from another world,” the dwarf said, and maybe Bilbo imagined it, but he sounded a little apologetic. “But things have not been well here, and we are wary of outsiders. You are not hurt?” He approached Bilbo cautiously, extending a hand, which after a moment’s hesitation, Bilbo accepted, letting the stranger pull him to his feet.
“Just startled,” Bilbo admitted. Given the state of the world, he supposed he could overlook a bit of jumpiness from its inhabitants. “Oh, where are my manners? I’m Bilbo Baggins, and this is Myrtle,” he said, lifting Myrtle as he named her. She clung to him even tighter, forcing Bilbo to try and ignore the digging of her claws.
More dwarves had started appearing, standing behind the dwarf with the mountain lion curiously. They, along with the dwarf he had been talking to, looked surprised by something Bilbo had said, but it was hard to say what. It had been a perfectly ordinary greeting by Shire standards.
“Thorin, son of Thráin,” the dwarf replied finally, exchanging a look with his dæmon.
“And your dæmon?” Bilbo prompted. It was very rude in the Shire not to introduce your dæmon as well, but the startled expression on Thorin’s face suggested that things were not the same here.
Still, Thorin started to answer, “Min-mmph-” before his dæmon stepped on his foot rather hard.
“It is considered very forward to ask for the name of a dwarf’s dæmon,” Gandalf said, appearing suddenly at Bilbo’s side. “They believe that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them, so the names of their dæmons are secret.”
“But what am I to call their dæmons then?” Bilbo asked in confusion, startled by the gasp that came from the dwarves at this new statement, which was apparently another outrage. How useless his good manners were here!
“It is also very forward to address someone’s dæmon,” Thorin supplied, his cheeks tinged faintly red.
“Well that’s strange!” Bilbo declared. “In the Shire, it’s rude not to. It’s like talking to someone and ignoring their companions.” Which he was doing. Bilbo felt his cheeks warm. “Since you only gave me the first syllable, I suppose for politeness’ sake, I will have to call your dæmon Minty.”
Thorin spluttered, “Minty” looked appalled, and one of the dwarves behind Thorin guffawed in a most unbecoming way. “Minty?!” this other dwarf choked out between bouts of laughter, stopping only when his own dæmon lost the ensuing scuffle, the wolf pinned under the irritable mountain lion.
“And that,” Thorin said, with a sharp look at the rather rough-looking dwarf attached to the wolf dæmon, “is Dwalin and Daisy.”
“It’s, er, nice to meet you,” Bilbo said, not certain he was audible over the shouting from the dwarf and wolf dæmon pair. “I didn’t realize you had daisies here.”
Playful dæmon roughhousing ceased immediately. “Once,” Thorin said grimly. “Before the wraiths stood here, and killed them with their vile touch.”
“Wraiths?” Myrtle squeaked. Bilbo echoed the sentiment. Whatever wraiths were, he had not signed up for them. Or for being thrown in a river, for that matter. Or being attacked by mountain lions. Though really, what had he signed up for? What had he thought adventure would be like?
Thorin and Dwalin exchanged a look. “You haven’t told him,” Thorin said to Gandalf accusingly, and Gandalf had the gall to look completely innocent.
“I thought it might mean more if he saw for himself, and heard it from you directly,” Gandalf replied breezily. “Bilbo’s world is very green and peaceful, and in such a place, it can be easy to forget that bad things can happen at all, and easy to disbelieve the truth when it is told.”
Bilbo looked around at this barren world, and thought he might understand. It had been so easy to think of other worlds and adventure from the comforts of \his parlor. Now, standing in a world attacked by mysterious beings called ‘wraiths,’ it was less easy to think that an adventure was something he wanted.
“Why am I here?” he asked finally, looking back and forth between Gandalf and the dwarves. “What is wrong with this world, and what can I possibly do to fix it?”
“For the first, you are here to help,” Gandalf said simply. “For the third, well, that remains to be seen. But as for your second question, why don’t we go inside, and Thorin will explain it to you, as well as he is able?”
Threatening as it looked on the outside, inside the mountain was hardly a place Bilbo wanted to go, but Thorin and Gandalf were both watching him expectantly, and no matter how far declined a world is, there must be dry clothes somewhere, so Bilbo let himself be led into the mountain. Myrtle made a disapproving sound, but then she rarely approved of anything. Bilbo ignored her, and he especially ignored the way Minty’s sharp eyes followed him, even when Thorin’s back was turned.